Archive for January, 2009


Long Week, No Posts… Until Now, Of Course…. On Book World, George Mason University, The N.C. Writers Network, Public/Private & More

January 30, 2009

What a week.

In the midst of many doom-and-gloom predictions, the Washington Post made an announcement this week about dropping Book World as an independent section and redistributing book coverage throughout the paper. (Book World‘s own blog, “Short Stack,” has already featured two pieces related to the reorganization: one by Rachel Hartigan Shea and another by Alan Cooperman. And as usual, one of the best commentaries on the news comes from Sarah Weinman.)

At George Mason University, the first full week of classes (and first week of grading) brought some small turmoil my way: A snow day that didn’t quite reach my own classes; mistakes on my syllabus (student: “Um, Professor Taylor, none of the readings are in our book” — a revised edition) and then revisions to try to tidy those mistakes; several students who can’t stop texting in class; and then both one dry-erase marker and a back-up marker that both ran out of ink mid-lesson.

And on a more personal note: Honeymoon planning took some twists and turns, but seems to be working out. Ireland, here we come!

Now, back to business.


logowThe North Carolina Writers’ Network has recently announced a couple of new projects/programs. This past week, the organization launched “Writing the New South,” a program “offering its members a platform to record and share their experiences and interpretations of living in North Carolina as North Carolina changes dramatically.” Also on the horizon: On Sunday evening, February 15, the Network is hosting “Talking at the Table: Food Writing in the New South,” a panel discussion featuring John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed, Bill Smith, Debbie Moose, and other food writers talking about their work. Refreshments will, of course, be served — how could they not?! — and proceeds from the ticket sales ($50 per person) go toward the Network.

With regard to the Writers’ Network: This coming Monday’s interview on this site is with NCWN executive director Ed Southern. Don’t miss it!

Also on the schedule in the immediate week: 

  • Carl Hiaasen visits Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Monday, February 2, at 7:30 p.m. with his new kids book, Scat. There will be a ticketed signing line, and a book purchase is required to get a ticket. (Get there early.)
  • The Royal Bean Coffee House on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh (across from Meredith College) hosts an Open Mic Night on Thursday, February 5, beginning at 7 p.m. To sign-up, contact Maureen Sherbondy at (if you plan on reading). The event is cosponsored by Main Street Rag Publishing Company.

In And Around D.C.

I’m teaching a creative nonfiction course this semester at George Mason, and a couple of events I’m encouraging in this area are tangentially related to that.

First up, The Writer’s Center welcomes Philip Lopate — essayist, memoirist, novelist, poet, even film critic — to its 32nd birthday celebration on Saturday night, January 31, at 7:30 p.m. I’m teaching one of Lopate’s essays in my class next week, and I’m pleased to be seeing him in person on Saturday. Tickets are still available — $25 a person — if anyone still wants to join in. I’ll hope to report on it here afterwards.


Satomi Shirai, "cleaning," c-print, 2008. Borrowed from the Arlington Arts Center website without permission but with a nice link.

Next: Tara and I went last night to a preview of the Arlington Arts Center‘s new show, “Public/Private” — and I would highly recommend it. I actually found myself thinking of creative nonfiction as we examined some of the artwork: photographer Satomi Shirai’s seemingly intimate but intricately staged glimpses into her private life; Anissa Mack’s “My Sister’s Diary,” which posts excerpts from that diary on a kiosk of the Arts Center’s front lawn; Mandy Burrow’s altar pieces constructed from ordinary people’s personal belongings; and a couple of Philadelphia artists who’ve created a news network, “Everyone That We Know News,” that broadcasts everyday events in a TV newscast format: what someone had for dessert, who has a new girlfriend, etc. etc. These pieces and others offer some interesting and provocative insights into that wall between the public and the private and the way that today’s world (and particularly today’s technologies, perhaps) are increasingly breaking that wall down. (Coincidentally enough, our reception last night was “private” and the opening tonight (Friday, January 30) is “public.” Stop by if you get the chance. The show runs through April 4.)

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Matthew Vollmer on Crafting Short Stories

January 25, 2009

PrintMatthew Vollmer’s short fiction has appeared in a wide range of notable journals, including The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Epoch, Tin House and others, and his work has twice been short-listed for the Best American Short Stories series in addition to being nominated numerous times for the Pushcart Prize. This month, his debut collection, Future Missionaries of America, hits bookstores, and it’s a truly beautiful book, showing a clear mastery of style and offering up a memorable cast of characters in uniquely compelling situations. A waiter at the Old Faithful Inn mourns his best friend, who didn’t pull through his coma, and desires that best friend’s girlfriend, waiting in her dorm room for him. A young woman lies to a fellow worker, an ex-Marine, about being a lesbian and then slowly finds herself falling for him while her relationship with her own boyfriend crumbles. A down-on-his-luck gambler watch his skateboarding son try a maneuver never before attempted in competition: the 720 Upside-Down Cake. And in the title story, a young goth girl and the teenaged son of a evangelical pastor find their plans — and their passions — conflicting and colliding in ways that may change both their lives. 

unknownVollmer earned a B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina, an M.A. in English from North Carolina State University, and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He now lives with his wife, Kelly Pender, and their son, Elijah, in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he teaches in the English Department at Virginia Tech.

On the eve of his new book’s publication, Vollmer talks about his own short stories and the crafting of short fiction in general.

Art Taylor: You earned degrees from two strong writing programs: North Carolina State University and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. What, specifically, did you learn about writing or about yourself as a writer from each of these programs?

Matthew Vollmer: The teachers I had at N.C. State were really encouraging and the workshops were definitely beneficial in the ways that good workshops usually are: you get your work read, readers say what worked and what didn’t then you decide who to listen to, if anyone. That said, the best experience I had as a student happened outside of workshop. I was taking an independent study in Contemporary American Lit with a professor named Nick Halpern. During that Fall Break, I took a trip to New York. It was Halpern’s idea that my assignment for that week, in addition to finishing Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me by Richard Farina, should be to record as many observations of NYC as possible. So I did. Upon my return, I read this little travelogue aloud to Halpern in his office. He laughed a lot (a good sign) then told me to turn it into a story. So I did. I came back the next week. Read it aloud. Again he laughed, again he was really encouraging. Told me to write another story the next week. Again I did this. For the remaining eight weeks of the semester, I wrote a story a week, brought it in, and read it to him. It was an amazing experience, one that taught me that I could, under pressure, produce quite a bit of work that was halfway decent. Also, I was impressing a teacher who I had tremendous respect for and wanted badly to impress. (The first time I’d shown him one of my stories — a tale about an ex-punter living in Lincoln, Nebraska — he was like, this is okay, but there are probably 400 people in this country who could write the exact same story. Write the story that nobody but you can write. That was a great wake up call and challenge for me.)

The Workshop at Iowa was much much different. I mean, it’s like this little factory where a bunch of writers go to toil for two years. It happens so fast and you’re working so hard while you’re there, then it’s over, time’s up, and they’ve got a whole new batch of writers to replace you. I guess that might not explain how it’s different than a lot of programs out there. The main difference, and the reason I compare it to a “factory,” is the size: approximately 100 writers at any given time.

I’ll note several things about Iowa:

A. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, and despite playing host to frigid winters and swelteringly humid summers, Iowa City has all the amenities of a great college town: bookstores, coffee shops, diners, a co-op grocery, great local dive bars.

B. Authors — famous, semifamous, young, old, middling, great — are constantly making appearances. Who’s coming this week? Oh, it’s W. S. Merwin. John Ashberry. George Saunders. Jane Smiley. Whoever. Big names. Small names. Whatever. The names — and authors — just kept coming. It’s like there’s this gravitational field that yanks passing writers into town. Which makes you feel like you’re living at the center of something important.

C. There are around 50 fiction writers and 50 poets there at all times. Lots of strong writers, lots of good conversations about writing, lots of support and camaraderie. That’s the best thing about Iowa. The sheer numbers. It’s like, if you can’t find at least a handful of fellow writers to love and admire, you’re not trying.

D. Although faculty didn’t play as big a role as I expected, they were awesome in workshop and seminars. Oddly enough, Jim McPherson was the only permanent faculty member whose class I took and it was one of the best; lots of people have said this before, but he’s like some sort of Jedi in workshop. He says very little, but when he does talk, it’s on the money. I also took classes from visiting faculty, like Elizabeth McCracken, Charles D’Ambrosio and Chris Offutt. All of whom were great.

The weird thing for me is that I’ve done very little with what I produced at Iowa; only a couple stories I wrote there ended up in the collection. And the novel I was working on for the majority of the time I ended up putting away. But — and I guess this is sort of the point — I left feeling like I knew more about what I wanted to do and what kind of writer I was. I also knew that, by that time, I never wanted to step foot in a writing workshop again — unless I was the teacher. You just get to that point where, though you appreciate the suggestions, it begins to transform into this really toxic interference, which can seem almost paralyzing at times.

While individual stories in Future Missionaries of America cover a wide range of characters and plots, many of the stories share a common focus on love and are suffused with a sense of longing and of loneliness. What drew you to this combination of emotional elements?

Loneliness. I’ve heard this a time or two to describe these stories and it never really occurred to me before to think of them in that way, although upon reflection I do see it. I feel like any explanation on my part is going to feel artificial here, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that maybe it has something to do with my formative years, growing up in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina, being a part of a religious movement that defined itself as “not of this world,” attending a boarding school in rural Georgia. Like most humans, I experienced a lot of desires and longings, and though I wouldn’t necessarily have ever described myself as truly lonely, I did feel for many years that I was, thanks to my religion, different, not of the world, not meant to be a part of the world. And yet, that’s exactly what I wanted: to feel like I could make connections with anyone.

When I sit down to write something new, I usually begin with character — usually one who’s dealing with a strange problem, impulse, or desire: man wants to talk to wife but she’s dead, girl pretends to be a lesbian to get attention of ex-Marine, girl wants guy to love him but his religion won’t permit it, widow returns to family vacation home to find her son there with an older man. Then I just try to write the kind of thing I’d like to read. It’s pretty basic. Make something that sounds real, isn’t boring, and generates some linguistic energy. I’ve read and continue to read so many stories that seem like they want you, as a reader, to think them exquisitely written but end up seeming dead on the page (too predictable, too “literary,” not risky enough, etc.).

As for the collection as a whole, it’s gone through so many different permutations. The collection in 2002 looks nothing like the one now (thankfully). There were stories I’d published that I didn’t include because looking back on them, they didn’t seem that great. And then there were others that never got published and most of those were even worse. So it’s changed a lot. And I worried for a long time about a theme. The stories didn’t take place in one location. They weren’t linked in any way, except by the fact that I was the writer. Then I got to a place where I just had a bunch that I liked and felt like they belonged together. So I sent it out.

You talk about the starting point for several of these stories — and those set-ups are great — but it’s  the endings that ultimately impress me the most, both their lyricism and poignance and the fact that they don’t always settle things, that they sometimes end at a point where things might just be beginning in some way. A couple of craft questions from all this. First: Which is the more challenging to you as a writer: starting a story or finishing one?

Finishing one. Hands down. I could start a dozen — maybe three dozen — stories in one day if I tried. But finishing those, following through, developing the characters, getting the voices right, nailing the scenes, figuring out what goes where or if it even belongs — that stuff can and actually has taken years. Often, a story has to sit with me for a while. I need to start it, work on it, put it away, come back to it. Then, actually finishing one? Man. It happens, for me, like ten percent of the time.

Well, focusing on that ten percent then: What gives you a sense of satisfaction in the final paragraphs of a short story — both as a writer, bringing one of your own stories to a close, and as a reader of other authors’ works?

Like most people, I enjoy a sense of stuff having happened and then the character reaching a point where transformation has occurred, or might. I like not knowing how a plotline is going to end and then watching it end and feeling both satisfied and wishing I could keep reading. I like surprises. The inexplicable. I realize that I tend to like (and write) endings that are, for better or worse, rhapsodic. It could be seen as a sort of a weakness, I guess. Again, for me, it’s about the kind of energy and momentum generated by language and that energy somehow finding a way to wind down in a way that’s satisfying.

I think of that Cheever story “The Sorrows of Gin” that’s narrated, for the first ninety percent, in third person from the perspective of a young girl, who, at the end, goes to a train station to run away. And then suddenly in the last paragraph we get the father’s perspective, this guy who’s basically one of the main reasons that she’s leaving (he’s a raging alcoholic who fires a maid for  supposedly stealing his gin, when in fact his daughter has been dumping it out), who has this amazing quasi-epiphany about, well, shoot. I’m just gonna have to type out that paragraph to make my point:

“It was dark by the time Mr. Lawton got down to the station. He saw his daughter through the station window. The girl sitting on the bench, the rich names on her paper suitcase, touched him as it was in her power to touch him only when she seemed helpless or when she was very sick. Someone had walked over his grave! He shivered with longing, he felt his skin coarsen as when, driving home late and alone, a shower of leaves on the wind crossed the beam of his headlights, liberating him for a second at the most from the literal symbols of his life — the buttonless shirts, the vouchers and bank statements, the order blanks, and the empty glasses. He seemed to listen — God knows for what. Commands, drums, the crackle of signal fires, the music of the glockenspiel — how sweet it sounds on the Alpine air — singing from a tavern in the pass, the honking of wild swans; he seemed to smell the salt air in the churches of Venice. Then, as it was with the leaves, the power of her figure to trouble him was ended; his gooseflesh vanished. He was himself. Oh, why should she want to run away? Travel — and who knew better than a man who spent three days of every fortnight on the road — was a world of overheated plane cabins and repetitious magazines, where even the coffee, even the champagne, tasted of plastics. How could he teach her that home sweet home was the best place of all?”

I don’t think you can read that — whether you’ve read what comes before or not — and not be like: wow. There’s so much happening there. The prose itself is so elegant and elaborate and lyrical and surprising; there’s so many twists and turns, and despite how random the details seem at first, in the end they all feel necessary (even the glockenspiel) in building to this particular crescendo. The paragraph reveals a great deal about the father, and though it deepens our sense of his world, and thus his daughter’s world, it certainly doesn’t resolve anything. In fact, it sort of creates a new problem, which in its own way feels revelatory: a father realizes that he must try to teach his daughter that “home sweet home” is best, while we as the readers are not only thinking, well, THAT’S never going to happen, but also, wow, that rings really true, because we all live in these illusory worlds and have good intentions and dream about false legacies. And for Cheever to take this amazing turn at the end of a story and at the same time bring all of this stuff up in a way that takes your breath away — that’s really something.

Finally, and inevitably, I guess: I know that writing short stories can’t entirely be considered a “warm-up” for writing a novel (a mistake that’s too common to writing programs, in my opinion), but is there a novel in the works? If so, what are the new challenges you’re facing with a longer work, and how are you drawing on your fine skills as a short story writer to address those new challenges?

I am writing a novel. I wrote one before my son was born — it was a tale that took place in the mountains where I grew up, during the hunt for a fugitive — but it never got taken. I’m glad it didn’t now (way too many autobiographical details in there!) but at the time it was a crushing defeat. Even after the novel had been rejected by a few dozen houses, I kept revising it. Finally, I sort of let it drift away. A couple years later, I tried to write another novel about a rogue demon who, both for kicks and to feel closer to God, inhabits the bodies of kids at a Christian boarding school, and I may end up returning to that material at some point, but right now I’m about 40K words into a novel that’s been really fun to work on and that I think may even see the light of day. It’s about a young woman whose life has been derailed, in part because of her relationship with a soldier with whom she ends up having a child. The soldier goes to war, while she works in a dental office and takes care of her son — a very difficult baby — and waits for the soldier to return. During this time, she ends up meeting a charismatic shaman who tells her she’s lost her “power animal.” The resulting story centers on the young  woman, her baby, the shaman, the shaman’s ex-wife, and her husband-to-be — who returns from combat a changed man.

The main difference between short stories and novels is — and you won’t believe the genius of this — that short stories are short and novels are long. So I tend to think of it like I’m just working on a really long story. Or series of stories. And my goal is to keep stuff happening. Give the main character plenty to do and/or overcome or respond to. To me, a person in a strange and uncomfortable and even desperate situation generates a lot of potential energy, so I just keep on finding ways to make life hard for them. Because for most people, I think, that’s how life is.

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Tara Laskowski Wins 2009 Kathy Fish Fellowship at SmokeLong Quarterly

January 22, 2009

tarahappyTara Laskowski, featured frequently on this site (if too often only incidentally), was named the Kathy Fish Fellow at SmokeLong Quarterly earlier this week. The Fellowship honors authors who’ve demonstrated consistent excellence in flash fiction and champions new works by these writers. As the third Kathy Fish Fellow, Tara will become a “writer in residence” at SmokeLong for 2009, working closely with the editors on continuing to develop her flash fiction and publishing a new story in each of their 2009 issues.

For a sample of her short fiction, check out her story “They,” published at Pindeldyboz. Also look for an interview on this site when the first of her stories appears in SmokeLong. And congratulations to Tara in the meantime! 

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McIntyre’s Books & N.C. Poetry Society

January 21, 2009
M. Scott Douglass

M. Scott Douglass

Top on this week’s list of events in the Triangle area of North Carolina is a reading by poets from the N.C. Poetry Society — part of a year-long series hosted by McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village. Jonathan K. Rice, editor of the Iodine Poetry Journal and author most recently of the 2006 collection Ukulele and Other Poems, and M. Scott Douglass, head of Main Street Rag Publishing Company and author of numerous poetry collections including Auditioning for Heaven, will read selections of their work on Thursday evening, January 22, at 7 p.m.

Also of note on this week’s schedule: McSweeney’s contributor Paul Maliszewski discusses his new book, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders, on Friday, January 23, at 7 p.m. at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop.

Northern Virginia, D.C., and Maryland

Several events are of note in the D.C. metropolitan area this week. 

First up, Jayne Anne Phillips arrives in the area in the wake of great reviews for her new novel Lark & Termite. She’ll be at Politics and Prose  in D.C. on Friday, January 23, at 7 p.m.

Then on Sunday afternoon, January 25, at 2 p.m., the Writer’s Center in Bethesda kicks off its week-long 32nd birthday celebration with a reading by two alums of the Center’s programs: Alex MacLennan and James Matthews.

And Monday evening brings George Pelecanos to the Central Branch of the Arlington Public Library to discuss his new book, The Turnaround. That reading begins at 7 p.m.

Also that night, Leonard Downie Jr. discusses his new political thriller, The Rules of the Game, at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose. Downie, of course, is the former executive editor of the Post. If only he were still at the helm of the paper, perhaps we could ask him more about this. (Likely, someone will ask anyway.)

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Dallas Hudgens On Second Novels

January 20, 2009

hudgens_0158_2In Dallas Hudgens’ first novel, Drive Like Hell, 16-year-old Luke Fulmer gets his license, steals the neighbor’s car, and almost immediately runs into trouble with the law — leading his mother to send him off to live with his older brother, an ex-con. In the summer that follows, Luke is led into the world of stock-car racing, drugs, theft, and more, and the book earned Hudgens a round of accolades, perhaps the most interesting of which came from Kirkus (in a starred review): “Hudgens’s first is so much fun that it’s easy to forget how difficult it is to portray decent people acting like morons with an artfulness sufficient to transform it into boneheaded genius.” 

season-of-geneFor his second novel, Season of Gene, Hudgens turned to baseball — and specifically the world of thirtysomething men playing for the Whip Spa Yankees, named for the car-detailing business owned by Joe Rice, the book’s narrator. When his friend and fellow player Gene suffers a heart attack sliding into home, Joe discovers that Gene has been harboring a secret: a bat once used by Babe Ruth and now worth millions. Upping the ante? The mob is after the bat to, and they’re willing to go through Joe to get it. On its release, Season of Gene became a Book Sense notable, with the recommendation that the novel “has more action than a Hollywood blockbuster and more heart than a bloodhound. A super book.”

While many aspiring writers are struggling with their first books — thinking “If I can just get this one finished and published, I’ll be on my way” — Hudgens recently reflected on the process of writing and marketing a second novel. 

Did publishing a first novel open the way to future contracts or were there different, unanticipated struggles with selling that second manuscript?

I felt like there might be a window of opportunity after the first book, but I also had a feeling the window might not stay open for very long. I didn’t want my publisher to forget about me, so I worked hard to finish the second book in a reasonable amount of time. I knew there was no guarantee my publisher would be interested in the second book. But my editor was very supportive. When I realized the second novel was going to be published, I felt just as happy as when my first book was published.

Did you explicitly try to do something different with the second book in terms of content or structure or style? Or conversely — in this world of branding and marketing — how do you think the second book fit with the first in terms of consistency of style or theme, construction or concerns?

I know that plot and structure are a weakness in my writing, so I tried to work on those things with the second novel. Looking at the finished book, I have to admit that plot and structure are still weaknesses of mine. But I hopefully made a little progress. In terms of similarities between the two books, I think they both have main characters who are sometimes generous and heroic and sometimes stupid and selfish. The characters were also similar in that they had felt powerless to save or help people they cared about. I didn’t do this consciously. So, I guess it was a theme that I didn’t quite get out of my system in the first book.

As with Drive Like Hell, some fine reviews have come in for Season of Gene. What steps did you take to avoid the sophomore slump? 

I had been writing and re-writing the first novel for about five years, so I was excited about having a chance to work with new characters and a new story. But I also had plenty of doubts. I didn’t know if I was capable of writing another novel. I’d never really felt like I knew what I was doing when I was writing the first novel. My process with the first one had been to simply write a scene, try to think of what might happen next, and then write the following scene. I didn’t change that approach too much with the second novel. 

I also tried to keep in mind something my agent told me: “Just have fun.” That advice helped a lot. It gave me the feeling that it was okay to simply write a story that kept me entertained as I worked on it. So, I wrote the kind of story I felt drawn to at the moment.

Did you see a difference in the marketing of the second book versus the first?The publisher taking a great interest in Season of Gene perhaps, now that you have a proven track record?

I think my publisher showed a lot of support simply by publishing the second book. I was also grateful that they released my first book in paperback just before the second book was released.

I had begun to understand that I had a responsibility to work harder in terms of telling people about the book, so I also worked with an independent publicist. She set up readings and appearances: sitting on a panel at a book festival, reading with another writer at a bar. She helped a lot and never placed me in a situation where I felt uncomfortable.

Finally, an inevitable question: Are you working on a third novel now? 

I’ve been working on short stories for the past year. Going back to my experience with the second novel, the stories are what I’ve felt drawn to write. So, I’ve followed that. I really enjoy reading short stories, too. So, this has also given me an opportunity to read a lot of short stories and learn from other writers.

— Interviewed by Art Taylor

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