Archive for March, 2009

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Reading A Timely New Essay By William Zinsser (Amidst A March Madness of Magazines)

March 21, 2009

For whatever fluke of timing, I received nearly a half-dozen magazines in my mailbox (and email inbox) over the last couple of days. Good stuff in each of them, worth sharing here. 

The latest issue of North Carolina’s Metro Magazine (under whose aegis I write this blog) features a cover story on Durham, N.C. — really a set of several articles, including Diane Lea’s look at the city’s architectural past, present and future and a great write-up by Morton Neal on “America’s Foodiest Town.” (The latter made me hungry.)

Mystery Scene, to which I contribute regularly, has offered up a great new issue too, featuring a cover story on S.J. Rozan, a look back at Gregory McDonald’s famous Fletch series, an article by Charles and Caroline Todd about their new book A Matter of Justice (also see my own interview here), and Jon L. Breen’s reviews of some new scholarly books, include The Annotated Dracula (and that’s just hitting the articles I’ve read so far!). The issue also includes, I should add, my own quick look at Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple. (Note: As I’m writing this, Mystery Scene‘s website has not been updated with the new issue; I’ll provide links later as they become available.)

On the subject of mysteries: The Strand arrived on the same day, and I was interested to see “New Story by Mark Twain” on the cover: “The Undertaker’s Tale,” from the collection Who Is Mark Twain? (Mark Twain seems to be producing a lot of new work lately; threats of a blizzard (that never materialized) unfortunately forced several of us to miss the Olney Theatre’s production of Twain’s recently discovered play Is He Dead?)

I also received an email this week from Stop Smiling magazine, pitching their annual “20 Interviews” issue. The big sell was the last interview conducted with Roberto Bolaño (not available online, unfortunately, and I haven’t seen the full issue yet); what is available online here includes interviews with Ry Cooder and Junot Díaz, among others.

Finally — and especially timely given where we are on my syllabus at this point in the semester — the Yale Alumni Magazine brought an essay by William Zinsser, legendary writing teacher and author of the book On Writing Well. In one of my own classes this week, I’ll be teaching Joseph Mitchell’s “The Old House At Home,” and in another, I’ll be in the thick of one-on-one conferences with my students, trying to tell them what they did right and where they still need to put in more effort on their big research essays, so it was coincidental to see Mitchell discussed in the following excerpt from Zinsser’s essay, and given Zinsser’s reflections on teaching writing, I’m doubly prepped now to get my own hands dirty in those conferences:

toc_zinsser1Every week I assigned a paper in one of the forms that nonfiction commonly takes: the interview, the technical or scientific or medical article, the business article, the sports article, the humor piece, the critical review, writing about a place. I would explain the pitfalls and special requirements of the genre, often reading one of my own pieces to demonstrate how I had tried to solve the problem, or reading passages by writers I admired who had brought distinction to a particular form: Alan Moorehead, Joan Didion, V. S. Pritchett, Norman Mailer, Garry Wills ’61PhD, Virgil Thomson. I wanted my students to know that nonfiction has an honorable literature — they were entering the land of H. L. Mencken and George Orwell and Joseph Mitchell.

Mitchell had been the most influential journalist for nonfiction writers of my generation. His long New Yorker articles about the New York waterfront were gems of reporting and humanity; the “ordinary” people he wrote about were never patronized or judged. But he had perversely allowed his books to go out of print, and the students in my class had never heard of him until I brought in some passages to read….

When I first taught my course I assumed that I would achieve most of my teaching with my didactic little talk explaining the form that the students had been assigned next. I sent them forth to do a travel piece or a sports piece or an interview in full confidence that they would apply all the hard-won principles I had so lucidly imparted. But when their papers came back, only about 20 percent of those principles had made it onto the page; pitfalls I had specifically warned against were repeatedly fallen into. The moral was clear: crafts don’t get learned by listening. If you want to be an auto mechanic you take an engine apart and reassemble it, and the teacher points out that you have put the carburetor in wrong. I would need to get my hands dirty making sure every carburetor was properly installed.

The full essay, “First, use plain English,” is well worth the read — for writing teachers, for writers, or for anyone. 

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Amanda Lamb Tracks A Murderess in N.C. & George Witte Considers Deniability in D.C.

March 20, 2009

Among the more literary events in the Triangle area of North Carolina this weekend is an appearance by septuagenarian novelist Paule Marshall, touring with her new book Triangular Road, a memoir that Jonathan Yardley at the Washington Post said “reveals a strong gift for self-scrutiny made all the more revealing by quiet humor and what appears to be complete honesty.” Marshall was at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books last night and comes to Durham’s Regulator Bookshop tonight, Friday, March 20, at 7 p.m.

deadly-doseOn Monday, March 23, at 7 p.m., WRAL-TV reporter Amanda Lamb visits the Cary Barnes & Noble to discuss her latest book, Deadly Dose: The Untold Story of a Homicide Investigator’s Crusade for Truth and Justice, an account of one of North Carolina’s more notorious murder cases: the arsenic poisoning of Eric Miller by his wife Ann. I reviewed the book for Metro last summer, and while I thought the perspective was slightly limiting (the story relies almost exclusively on Raleigh homicide detective Chris Morgan’s account of the investigation), the book succeeds in taking us behind-the-scenes and into the day-by-day of tedious (and often fruitless) police work. 

Then, looking ahead to next Thursday evening, March 26, don’t miss short story writer Matthew Vollmer, author of Future Missionaries of America, at Quail Ridge Books. Vollmer was interviewed on Art & Literature a couple of months back when this debut collection was released, and I’m glad to see him making his way to the Triangle now.

For a full calendar of events for the Triangle and Eastern North Carolina, check out the MetroBooks Calendar at right.

In and Around D.C.

As usual, the D.C. area schedule is overflowing with author events over the coming week, including Michael Chabon at George Washington University on Monday, March 23, and Laura Lippman with her latest, Life Sentences, at Politics and Prose on Tuesday, March 24. (Please note: Mark Athitakis, at American Fiction Notes, maintains a comprehensive literary calendar for the D.C. area at his site, much like my MetroBooks Calendar. I turn to Athitakis’ calendar regularly and would urge readers here to do so too.) 

35168469One event that I’m definitely going to make is an appearance by George Witte, editor in chief at St. Martin’s Press and author of two volumes of poetry, most recently this year’s Deniability. Witte comes to George Mason University’s campus on Monday, March 23, to read from his recent work and talking about editing for a major publishing house; the talk begins at 5 p.m. in Research I, Room 163. (For those who can’t make it to Mason Monday afternoon, Witte and fellow poet Sue Ellen Thompson will also be appearing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda the day before: Sunday, March 22, at 2 p.m.)

I also just got notice that a new poetry journal, Rooms Outlast Us, is hosting a launch party for their first issue. The event takes place at Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington on Sunday, March 22, beginning at 7 p.m. Featured readers include Eric Pankey, Wade Fletcher, and Mel Nichols — each of whom I’m pleased to call a friend. Check it out!

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Ten Questions for Tara Laskowski

March 18, 2009
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Animals Everywhere: Tara Laskowski, 2009 Kathy Fish Fellow, joins her cats in celebrating the publication of "The Hamster."

Back in January, Tara Laskowski was named the Kathy Fish Fellow at SmokeLong Quarterly — a program honoring authors who’ve demonstrated consistent excellence in flash fiction. With its March 18, 2009 issue, SmokeLong publishes “The Hamster,” the first of four short stories by Tara that the journal will present over the coming year. In honor of the occasion, I conducted a quick interview with Tara, a fine writer and, not incidentally, my fiancée (for full disclosure of any bias you might detect below). 

Art Taylor: You’ve already been interviewed twice now in conjunction with SmokeLong Quarterly’s publication of your first story as this year’s Kathy Fish Fellow (including an interview about the story itself here). Is it tough to be suddenly thrust into the spotlight as an authority of some kind on flash fiction? 

Tara Laskowski: I don’t know if ‘tough’ is the right word, but it’s been kind of weird. I don’t consider myself an authority on much of anything by any means (although I do know a song that recites all 50 states in alphabetical order; this comes in very handy during trivia games). I certainly love flash fiction, but I don’t read any author regularly. I like to read random flashes online or in other pubs. I think it’s a really great length for a story. I’m all about the moment, really. I’m thrilled that they picked me as their Fellow, and it’s been really great so far. I’m hoping to come out of the year with a bunch of stories (maybe a book??!!), some new friends and a better grasp on the form in general.

How do you get started on a new story: with an image or an idea or maybe with the full plot laid out in your mind?  

Hmm… totally depends, I guess. Sometimes it’s a story that someone else tells me that sparks something. Sometimes it’s a character’s voice. I’m more of a planner with longer pieces — I like to plot out a short story or a novel in detail in my head before I write anything — but with flashes I’ve found sometimes it’s best to just take that image, or voice, or whatever it is, and go exploring. Sometimes that exploring results in beautiful, lush places and sometimes I end up in an alley in a dumpster filled with cat litter.

Well, speaking of cats…. Do you find that having cats helps or hurts your writing process?

It’s difficult to write with a big fat cat sprawled across your arms or your keyboard. Sometimes Stanlee tries to help out, though, by inserting a 888888888888888UUUUJOJ)*&# right in the middle of a scene where it’s totally needed!

Who have you found to be the best reader of your work? And as a follow-up, how exactly have I helped you to develop your craft?

Brandon Wicks, a member of Tara's writing group, created the artwork for "The Hamster."

Brandon Wicks, a member of Tara's writing group, created the artwork for "The Hamster."

Hahahahaha…. You’re funny. Seriously, though, you and the people I’ve met in my MFA program at George Mason University have been by far the best help with my work. I value all of those opinions and appreciate all the hard work and thought my writing friends put into reading my work and each other’s work. It’s a great support network, I think, and I hope it continues for a long time.

 What’s your biggest procrastination tool when you don’t feel like writing? 

Anything and everything! The bathroom always seems really dirty when I don’t want to write. 

What are your goals for the year ahead in terms of developing your flash fiction?

I’m hoping to write a lot. Quantity and quality, hopefully. And try experimenting a little, I guess. I’m hoping to have fun!

Anything else big on your agenda for this year? 

Nope. Nothing at all.

No, really, I heard you’re getting married. How’s the planning going for that?

Oh right, that. It’s going and going and going. I’m hoping to get lots of story fodder off that. (Oh, and a lifetime partner, best friend, soulmate, yadda yadda.)

Finally, one more craft question: In addition to concentrating on short fiction, you’ve also recently completed a draft of your novel. You mentioned earlier some difference in your approach to longer and shorter works. What else have you found are the particular pleasures and problems of working in each form?

After plodding through almost five years of working nearly only on my book, flash fiction is like eating bon bons and sipping bourbon. It’s fun because I can switch gears and jump into different people’s heads and situations more often. Although, working on a novel has its advantages, too. You become friends with your characters, think about them constantly, dream about them, worry about them. It’s like a novel is a long-term relationship and flash fiction is more about speed dating. So I’m having tons of affairs right now, and it’s fabulous.

Um…. I know I said “finally, one more question” a moment ago, but…. Since you were just talking about your upcoming wedding — and to a guy who’s so handsome, intelligent, upstanding and (to borrow your phrase) “yadda yadda” —  don’t you think it would be a little suggestive to end this interview with you saying, “I’m having tons of affairs right now, and it’s fabulous”?

Yes, I thought of that. I also thought how many of my stories are about failing relationships and bad marriages. Luckily, I don’t always go by the mantra, “Write what you know.”

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Ron Charles’ NBCC Awards Speech

March 17, 2009

Ron Charles, a gifted book critic and one of my editors at the Washington Post Book World, recently won the 2008 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle, an award that was announced earlier this year but presented formally at an awards ceremony on March 12. Charles’ acceptance speech is a marvel — not just laugh-out-loud funny but also provocative and persuasive and indicative of the passion for books that his reviews regularly display. I wasn’t at the ceremony and was slow to see the clip below after the fact, but I’m eager to share it now.

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Raleigh’s Roast Grill on the Travel Channel

March 17, 2009

Another quick — and entirely unliterary — post here.

roast-grillAs a few close friends know, one of my favorite foods is the chili dog. For many years, I made a regular Saturday trek to my favorite hot dog spot, The Roast Grill in Raleigh, for a couple (or three, or four, or once even five) dogs with mustard and chili. I even have a Roast Grill t-shirt  and a hat and (no lie) an original watercolor drawing of the restaurant on our kitchen wall. (My brother commissioned it for a Christmas present one year; you can see it at left.) And I have to stress that I’m far from the only ardent fan; one day at lunch, we ended up chatting to former N.C. governor Jim Hunt, who took the stool just beside us. Simply put, no one can make a hot dog like the Roast Grill’s owner, George Poniros.

On Wednesday, March 18, at 10 p.m., The Travel Channel show Man V. Food visits Raleigh and takes on the hot dog challenge at the Roast Grill, attempting to eat 17 hot dogs to top the record. (I don’t think host Adam Richman will have much trouble meeting this challenge; in fact, I always secretly thought I could do it, if I really tried.)

Set your DVRs — and grill up a couple of dogs yourself to get into the spirit.

Postscript

For anyone who missed it, Richman did indeed meet the challenge: 17 dogs! (And they looked really, really good.) Poniros was a great host and a winning screen personality. They should give him his own show!

And Another Postscript

Apparently, Richman’s victory was short-lived, with the previous record-holder coming back down to take back the title.

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