Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Circuitous Tale of a (finally) Successful Book (Part 2)


[Readers: This is a continuation of a post I started last week in which I tell the tale of how a short story collection was finally accepted by a publisher, something like twelve or thirteen years after it was begun.]

The hardest part of the writing life is not the writing itself.  Not that the writing is easy.  It certainly isn't, but it's also uniquely entertaining and deeply nourishing.  Writing really is its own reward--which is why so many people are called to do it, even in our supposedly post-literate society--even if it's not done perfectly well, but especially when it is done perfectly well.  No, the hardest part of the writing life is not the writing but all the infernal roadblocks between what you've written and the audience it might move.  The hardest part is knowing that what you've produced is solid, very solid, as solid as you are capable of making writing be, and yet you still hear a seeming unending series of "no"s from publishers, editors, and agents.  To be honest, often times, those "no"s end up being terrifically helpful.  They force you back to a project and make you reexamine a project, and as a result you realize weaknesses you just didn't see the first time around.  Now having seen them, you can properly address them.  Reexamining your work and making it better is almost always a valuable expenditure of time.  But then there are the occasions when you've already spent so much time on a project, months or years or even decades, when you've already reexamined it a hundred or a thousand times over, when you finally say to yourself: No, this is how the manuscript must be; this is how it should be published.

I reached that point with the manuscript of Island Fog a year ago.  An earlier version of the book (see my last post) I had circulated among small presses and entered into contests, all to no avail.  But now I knew why.  That earlier book was never the real book. This one was.  It had a lot going for it: Its stride spanned four different centuries of Nantucket history, realistically (I think) evoking those different periods; it had engaging dramas; and it contained some of the best writing I've ever produced, including my favorite piece of fiction I've ever written, the novella that is the title story of the collection.  That story is set on 21st century Nantucket and is introduced as a realistic story with a realistic setting, but it quickly spins into something else, something I won't call magical--because it isn't--but is certainly mysterious and probably indebted to John Fowles's spectacularly disorienting novel The Magus Its smoke and mirrors effects, its purposeful air of mystery, its thoroughly confused young protagonist, its borderline inexplicable and never exactly explained developments might remind one of Fowles's 1966 masterwork.  An editor at a magazine I once submitted it to wondered if the story was science fiction, which at the time astounded me because at no point during the creative process did I have science fiction in mind.  I guess she took literally a comment the narrator makes that the protagonist Doug had entered a kind of alternative Nantucket entirely cut off from the other, more familiar Nantucket he once knew, even more cut off from the familiar world of his college life and his family.  No, it's not sci-fi; it's just weird.

While still trying (and succeeding) to publish individual pieces of the collection, and reading from the stories at two different international writing conferences, I also tried to find a home for the book as a whole.  I got very serious at the last AWP, circulating among the tables rented by various small presses, describing the book and inquiring about their submission policies.  I also consulted some extremely helpful databases, the most helpful being the Poets & Writers database of small and alternative presses.  In that way, I educated myself on the small presses that publish fiction in this country, and I began to sort out which ones might be good fits for my book.  I submitted to several included in the P and W database as well as to a few that I learned about at AWP.   It's a great feeling to place your manuscript directly into the hands of someone who can make a decision about it, independent of an agent.  One frustration for the literary fiction writer, however, when dealing with small presses is that they tend to emphasize poetry and academic nonfiction, because these genres are largely ignored by mainstream publishers.  "You fiction writers always get those huge deals from the New York presses," I've had said to me by small press editors on several different occasions.  Huge deals?  Who are you talking about?  Most fiction writers are lucky if a person at a NYC press actually reads a single page of his book much less offers him a "huge deal."  No, the truth is that for many literary fiction writers the small press is just as much the inevitable fit as for poets and critics.  Because as with poetry and criticism, that's where the best, most daring work gets done.

I received many positive comments about the collection from various presses.  I got very very close with one, but finally they wanted the stories to be linked even more they are, linked in the manner of a novel-in-stories, which my book isn't and can't be.  With palpable regret they declined taking on the manuscript, but they did encourage me to try again another time with another book.  (I probably will.)  The positive responses I was getting told me I was on to something, that this new version of Island Fog was holding its own, bearing weight, if you will.  I just needed to keep trying.  One of the presses I tried at was Dialogos/Lavender Ink, run by Bill Lavender, a man I'd met two or three times at readings and at AWP, but no one I could say I actually knew.  I followed the same protocol everyone else must who submits to his press and I hoped for the best.

And then it happened.  Bill sent me a tidy little email one morning in late September, about six months after I'd submitted, inquiring if the book was still available.  Because his press was considering publishing it.  I responded immediately: Yes, it is still available; thank you for your interest.  Another month or two went by as I busied myself with all the usual activities of my writing and teaching and family life and tried not to wonder too much what Dialogos/Lavender Ink was thinking.  Finally, in mid-November I shot an email to Bill asking him if the press was still interested in my book.  I didn't expect an immediate reply.  And I had several errands to run just then. As it turned out, I didn't check back on my email until the next day.  When I did check I saw that Bill had replied within an hour of my emailing him.  His reply: Yes, we want it.  And in a followup message he had sent me a contractual agreement.  Just like that, early on a Saturday morning, sitting on my living room couch, the wait was over.  Island Fog the book was no longer an idea but an actuality--not a potential project anymore but a real one with an established publisher.

Afterword: At the moment I am seriously editing each of the stories in the collection.  (Bill needs the final version by February.)  This is crucial and very satisfying work.  You have no idea how good it feels just to worry about the writing itself and not selling the writing.  Of course, all that other kind of work awaits me when I put my next book on the market. : )

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Circuitous Tale of a (Finally) Successful Book, Part 1


I've mentioned here and there on this blog that I've created a collection of stories--half historical in nature--all set on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.  I received the wonderful news not long ago that the book has been accepted for publication by Dialogos/Lavender Ink, a press run by the legendary poet and novelist Bill Lavender, who worked for so long for the University of New Orleans press.  (Yes, that's him in the picture.) As a general rule I hesitate to say that everything happens when it's supposed to--because that's kind of like saying everything happens according to God's will (which is a lie)--but in the case of Island Fog being accepted for publication, I have to say that I am glad it's happening now rather than, say, five years ago.  And thus begins my tale of how this collection came to be.  I'm going to break it into two parts, because the tale will take some time.

I started several of the stories in Island Fog perhaps twelve or thirteen years ago--during a trip I made with my family to Nantucket.  As is my wont, I was up before everyone else each day, trying to get a little writing done along with downing some come-alive coffee.  I hadn't planned on writing about Nantucket before I went, but ideas for stories just started coming to me.  In fact, I had so many story ideas--and was so afraid I might lose them--that I did something I've never done before: I started a brand new story each day of that vacation, writing as far into a story as I could before the family awoke and then leaving that story behind to begin a new story the next day.  In this fashion I laid down the tracks for the stories that now make up the second half of my present book.  But I hardly thought of them as a book back then.  They were just stories I wanted to nail in place in order to get back to later.  And I did, struggling mightily to read my atrocious handwriting, which turns from ordinary small/bad to illegible during the fury of engaged composing.

Eventually, I finished every one of those stories and in the years that followed I edited them mercilessly, revised a few significantly, and kept sending them out to various magazines.  A few were accepted and were long ago published (but not the title story, one of my favorites, which is one of the many reasons I'm so happy the book will appear).  A story about a plumber who hears some painful facts about his wife's death during a breakfast at a diner was published in 2005 in the now defunct Dana Literary Society Online Journal; a story about a couple struggling through the emotional fallout of several failed pregnancies was published in the journal Oasis, also in 2005; a story about a ghost tour leader haunted by his former male lover was accepted by Seattle Review and, after a wait of numerous years, finally appeared in 2009. 

It wasn't too long after the Nantucket stories began to be accepted by journals that it occurred to me I had a neat little set that could form a solid portion of a story collection.  Not enough pages to make a whole collection, but perhaps a half.  So I gathered together some non-Nanucket stories I thought worked all right together and combined them with the Nantucket stories to make a book I called--tah-dah!--Island Fog.  To the non-Nantucket stories I added the section header "Off-Island"--using stories that I thought had an enhanced sense of place--and the Nantucket stories were given the section header "On-Island."  Very clever, I thought.  The headers, and the organizational strategy they highlighted, would make this disparate group of fictions seem to belong together.  Well, in truth they didn't.   At least not enough to convince me or any of the many contests and small presses I submitted the book to.  Not knowing what to do, deciding the collection was a misft, I finally put it aside.  I didn't do anything with it for a long time except to occasionally submit one of the Nantucket pieces to a seemingly appropriate journal.

Well, what should happen except that I returned to Nantucket in 2011--for the first time in several years--having more or less finished my Van Gogh novel, having started this blog, and suddenly having historical fiction on the brain.  Lots of new ideas for Nantucket stories came to me, except this time all of them were historical in nature.  Like the first time, I started as many of the stories as I could while I was on the island, but I think I only managed to get three underway.  Later I drafted a fourth and, still later, a fifth. Certain characters I just could not get out of my head.  I had to write them: a retired whale ship captain who long ago was stranded at sea and forced into cannibalism (inspired, I know, by the real life story of George Pollard, commander of the Essex); a whaling widow who feels the first inklings of lesbianism; an African-American schoolteacher walking through some mid-island streets on a foggy afternoon, early in the twentieth century; a self-satisfied twelve year old, the son of a sheep farmer, who has befriended a half-Indian boy early in the nineteenth century.  I fleshed out these characters' stories, having a ball with them, and at some point--I can't remember when-- it occurred to me: I've got a new Island Fog book now.  The real Island Fog.

Next post: The process of getting done, getting it out, and getting it accepted.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Echols visit affects


[Hey Creating Van Gogh readers.  Like last week, I am dual posting this entry on Creating Van Gogh and my new blog Payperazzi.  That's because the post continues, and concludes, a string of posts I started last summer on CVG regarding Damien Echols and his visit to UCA.  In the future, I'll restrict this blog to what you would expect to hear about: historical fiction.  Payperazzi, meanwhile, will continue to embrace subjects related to the writing life generally and the teaching of creative writing.]

In my lifetime I've been to scores, maybe even hundreds, of writer events: readings and craft lectures and question-and-answer sessions and presentations of all sorts.  To be frank, not all of these events prove to be worth the time and effort.  Sometimes the writers are dull; sometimes they are distracted; sometimes they are borderline jerky.  Other times, of course, the writers are on point, engaged, animated, excellent.  Attending those events proves to be quite a valuable investment.   But--again, just to be frank--I can't really claim that even the most excellent of writer events is actually life-changing.  Not for me; not for the writer; not for the audience.  Until now.  Having attended and participated in a two-hour long Q & A last Monday featuring Damien Echols and about fifty UCA Writing students, and then, later that evening, helping to moderate his public appearance at the Reynolds Performance Hall, I can tell you that lives were most certainly changed by Echols's visit, especially his own.

When Echols was released from death row in August, 2011 he and his wife Lorri Davis immediately left Arkansas, crossing the river into Memphis where they spent a night in a hotel celebrating with friends.  The next morning they boarded a private plane for Seattle, where they passed a weekend and then traveled to New York, moving into an apartment that a friend graciously lent to them.  There they lived for a year until problems with the building forced all its occupants out; then Echols and Davis moved to eastern Massachusetts, where they still live.  Not once during this two year period did Echols consider returning to his home state, even for a brief visit.  He was all but certain he never wanted to return.  And who can blame him.  As his puts it now, because it's literally true, "the state of Arkansas tried to murder me." (For a crime, I remind everyone, he did not commit.)  During his visit to our campus he admitted that not until just a couple months ago was he sure that he'd actually be able to go through with his agreed upon gig as artist-in-residence at UCA.

I am so glad he did.  He talked eloquently and graphically about the brutal beatings he endured in prison, especially early in his tenure, when no one was paying much attention to him and his case.  Guards beat him so badly he pissed blood.  Except for the fact that another prisoner mentioned the beatings to a Roman Catholic deacon in the habit of visiting the prison, and the fact that this deacon warned the prison authorities he would squeal to the public if the beatings did not stop, Echols would have died there.  Already on death row, awaiting execution, his life held no value for anyone at the prison except to serve as a punching bag.   He also talked eloquently about the challenge of keeping up a literary life behind bars: denied access to pen and paper except for gifts given to him from those on the outside; having to writing lying in bed--a concrete slab with a wafer thin pad stretched across it--because of the absence of any chairs; forced by guards to write only with the narrow ink-filled plastic tube on the inside of a pen because they removed the pen's hard outer shell; wrapping the tube with wadded toilet paper to give himself a firmer grip on it.  Of course these were not the only challenges.   He talked of others: the fact that prison lights are almost never extinguished; the facts of rats and crickets and mosquitoes as one's constant companions; the fact of almost unending screams, requiring him to keep a small tv on constantly as white noise; the lack of basic nutrition and medical care; the absence of physical contact with other people and the world at large.  Echols related that one visitor to his cell told him that conditions there did not even meet the basic requirements of the Geneva Convention for housing prisoners of war.

The students and the evening audience at the Reynolds were spellbound and immensely supportive.  At the Reynolds, Echols received standing ovations both at the begininng and end of his talk.  Reading the reaction papers my students wrote in the days following I could tell how deeply affected they'd been.  This was not just mere appreciation for a celebrated visting writer who said some smart things.  This was respect and even awe for a man who lived through hell and survived, even flourished, as an artist.  I think it's safe to say that none of the students in attendance felt they wasted their time; and none of them will soon forget Echols's visit.  I know I won't.  But even more gratifying was an e-mail I received on Wednesday from David Jauss, a writer and teacher who lives in Little Rock and who for years has been an adamant agitator on the behalf of the West Memphis Three.  That's David on the right.  (I learned on Monday night that David was the one who transcribed the thousands of pages of Damien's journal writing that Lorri managed to smuggle out of prison for him.)  David and a few other advocates had dinner in Little Rock with Damien and Lorri last Tuesday night.  David told me that at the dinner Damien repeatedly mentioned how moved he'd been by his reception at UCA, how glad he was that he'd decided to come.  Echoing something he said to the Reynolds audience on Monday night,  Damien told the dinner group that he would remember the visit for the rest of his life.  That alone made me feel fantastic, assured me that we'd done a good job hosting and interviewing him.  But then David said something even more important: Damien and Lorri now want to make regular visits to Arkansas.  It is difficult to overstate what a profound psychological shift that is for Damien Echols and what an important step it can be for his healing, for his resurrection as a whole person, and for the cause--ongoing--of legally exonerating the West Memphis Three.  As David said to end his email, "And that's all thanks to UCA."  Well, it's thanks to a lot of people: to everyone who came and listened and asked and applauded.  But it's also proof that sometimes literary events can matter as much as life itself.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Damien Echols live!


[This entry is being dual posted on Creating Van Gogh and my other blog, Payperazzi.  While the subeject of a visiting writer to my campus fits the themes of Payperazzi better, I began posting about Damien Echols's visit to UCA on CVG last summer.  So I figured I should continue that string.}

After months of working out the logistics--dates, times, locations, content--and months of media attention, public questioning, public support, pockets of alarm and even broader acclaim, Damien Echols's appearance on the campus of University of Central Arkansas is finally happening tonight.  For making this all come to pass, many thanks are owed to Dean Terry Wright and Associate Dean Gayle Seymour of the College of Fine Arts and Communication; also to Associate Professor of Writing Francie Bolter--who has spent innumerable hours ironing out the many nagging details of Echols's vist.  Thanks goes too to University president Tom Courtway and Provost Steve Runge for supporting this important artist-in-residence event, and to the UCA Police Department, which has taken security concerns very seriously.  Very very seriously indeed.  Let me just say that the University of Central Arkansas is lucky to have such a superbly trained and thoroughly professional force on its campus.  (Other locations in this state are not so fortunate.)   The greatest thanks of all, however, goes to Mr. Echols himself: first for surviving the ordeal of being falsely accused, absurdly convicted, and made to sit on death row for eighteen years, for surviving that and being able to tell his story as compellingly as he does in his memoir Life After Death; and of course for being willing to return to his home state for this very special visit to my campus.

A couple months ago I mentioned on this blog (follow this link to the post) that Echols's looming visit to UCA had resulted in some fervent, hateful, spitting emails from certain elements of the Arkansas public to certain people at my university.  Reading those emails one could sense the mania, the literally hysterical blindness that led to the conviction of the West Memphis Three in the first place.  After all, their conviction came about despite the fact that there was no physical evidence against them; none at all.  And several of the key "eyewitnesses" against the Three, including the most damning ones, have long since admitted that the accounts they gave in court were complete fabrications set up by the West Memphis police either through coercion or bribery.  The paper thin case against the Three was--from the start--nothing but a cage of lies and panic, and, when you get right down to it, an inexplicable fixation by authorites to "get" Damien Echols.  So much so that when seven years ago DNA tests were finally conducted on hairs found on the bodies of the victims, and those tests proved that none of the Three were involved--and in fact proved that a stepfather to one of the boys was involved, a man with a history of violence toward children--the authorities in West Memphis did not feel compelled to reopen the case.  They preferred to let Damien Echols rot on Death Row.  To say the least, the vendetta was personal.

I'm happy to report now that those early angry e-mails to UCA have turned into a tidal wave of support.  So many  people have taken me aside, or emailed me, or e-mailed Dr. Bolter, to say how proud they are that UCA invited Mr. Echols, and how happy they are to see him free and thriving.  The UCA Police report nothing but supportive phone calls to their office.  Meanwhile, our students, most of whom have at least heard of the West Memphis Three case, are eager and curious to hear from a man who had to endure what he did and who still managed to keep on writing.  Writing quite brilliantly, in fact.  In terms of what a person has to fight through to keep flourising as an artist there's only one case that I can think of that tops Echols's, and that's the case of Christy Brown, the Irishman born with cerebral palsy in the 1930s and who from simple determination and the ability to control one part of his body--his left foot--made a career for himself as a novelist, poet, painter, and memoirist.  (He had to type, write, and draw exclusively with that foot, a feat brilliantly mimicked by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1989 film My Left Foot.)  And this issue is crucial, because as all of us in the Department of Writing have been saying since we first thought of bringing Mr. Echols here, we aren't interested in rehashing the 1993 Robin Hood Hills murders or the subsequent police investigation.  Those subjects have been rehashed to death.  Instead, we are eager to meet a living man and listen to him talk about writing: about what writing can mean for a person and how a person manages to keep doing it despite the most oppressive of conditions.  We are eager too to meet his wife Lorri Davis, she who meant so much to Mr. Echols while he was in prison and obviously means so much to him now, who arguably saved him, and without question is responsible for bringing the lion's share of his writing out into the world.  We have Lorri Davis to thank for keeping that writing alive for the rest of us to cherish.  If this seems like a perfectly innocuous, completely understandable reason to want to bring a visting writer to campus--well, it is.  But if we have to employ UCA police as armed security personnel both inside and outside site where Mr. Echols will speak, we will. Because Echols has something to say, and after years of enduring brutal oppression and unthinkable prejudice, he darn well has a right to say it.  I for one am looking forward to tonight.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Genre or prison?


[Hey, everyone.  As a way of calling attention to my new blog Payperazzi, I'm double-posting this entry, which I wrote with the other blog in mind and is also posted there.  You can expect that most every week, once a week, I'll be posting to Payperazzi thoughts on writing, teaching, and teaching writing.]

Writer Cathy Day put up a great blog post last week in which she, with some help from Dinty Moore, discussed the reasons why getting a MA in creative writing (as opposed to a MFA)  is not a waste of time or money.   One benefit: The MA program allows young writers a few more years to decide which writing genre defines them.  Having made that decision, these writers are now prepared to apply to MFA programs, which all require you to focus on a single genre and to name that genre on your application.  Cathy is absolutely right that MFA programs typically do require this sort of specialization, but I think it's a fair to ask whether they should.   It's long been noted that the habit of defining writers by single genres is an American mindset, one not imitated by readers and writers in other countries.  It's not uncommon in Britain or Ireland, for example, for an author to write novels, short stories, radio plays, film scripts, and poetry over the course of a career--and maybe at the same time!  In America such a writer is regarded as a curious, almost inexplicable, exception to rule; and the writer might even meet suspicion from the literary policemen of our culture, as if one can't possibly be serious about writing the Great American Novel if one also likes to dabble in sestinas.  It's sort of the capitalistic model applied to a writing career: Do one thing; do it over and over and over again; anything other use of your time represents sinful inefficiency.   Henry Ford built a lot of cars this way.

The problem is, acting as a writer is not the same as being a cog in a manufacturing assembly line.  Practice at one genre inevitably helps one with various aspects of another genre.  What better way for a fiction writer to enhance her dialogue that to write plays?  What better way to for the same writer to practice precision and economy in her descriptions that to write poetry? But even these equations, while true, seem incomplete because they suggest that the only reason a person writes in one genre is to serve the needs of that person's "real" genre.  It's the Henry Ford model all over again, just stated differently.  The fact is that every writer, and I mean every single one, no matter how young or old, has a lot inside of him or her that is begging to be chewed over, imagined, elucidated, and articulated.  These may be subjects of great private and emotional importance or they might be exterior and intellectual or even political concerns.  And to take on one of these different subjects aptly the writer will probably need at one point to embrace another genre than the one he's best known for.   But when the writer does take on the subject, he'll immdiately feel an artistic rush of feeling that makes him say, This is exactly what I need to be writing right at this moment.  And finally what the writer recognizes at the end of the day is growth, both as a person and an artist.

This subject of genre flexibility, as you may have guessed, is one of special concern to me.  Through high school and college I wrote both poetry and fiction.  In graduate school I also discovered that I really liked composing plays.  I focused on poetry for my MFA degree but fiction for my Ph.D dissertation.   During my tenure at UCA, I've taught almost every genre we teach in the creative writing program, and I've published in them all.  Just this past week, I proofread galleys of  a long personal essay on marathon running that I'm publishing in 1966; I proofread galleys of a one-act play that I'm publishing in Foliate Oak; I finished a crown of sonnets that I started in my Wednesday night Topics in Creative Writing class; and I edited a couple short stories that I've written this semester to prepare them to submit to journals. I find it difficult to qualify any of these activities as wasteful or a distraction from what I'm "supposed" to be doing.   I'm supposed to be doing all of them.

At UCA's MFA program we are unique in NOT insisting that our students stick to a single genre.  Admittedly, this is a virtue forced upon us by the fact that we are a new program with relatively few faculty.  The only way to make sure our students get the number of classes they need is for them to take many of the same classes together; this means they are often "forced" to take classes in genres outside of the ones by which they originally defined themselves.  But we're discovering that our students our benefiting in profound and unexpected ways from this arrangement.  Two students who came to the program thinking of themselves as poets--and still very much are--wrote novels in my Novel Writing Workshop class that they now want to revise and use as their theses.  One of these students, having caught the bug, started a second novel almost as soon as she finished the first for me last spring.  Another student who was admitted to the program on the strength of her nonfiction has found that she is growing as a science fiction and fantasy writer, even while she continues to write nonfiction.  Yet another student, a talented and committed young poet, just had his first publication the other day: a piece of nonfiction.  And I know the whole group had their eyes opened last spring by the poetry workshop they took with Terry Wright, our resident master lyricist and current dean.  In a more conventional program, our students would have been denied these formative experiences.  And it's not just that they are growing in other genres, they are growing as writers period.  Including the genre they "specialize" in.

The problem with enforcing genre prisons isn't just that they hamper budding young writers, however.  In my opinion, all writers should see themselves as young writers their whole career; they should welcome each new project as a new challenge; indeed, they should seek out new challenges, even if that means going outside of genre.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Moving on over---to a new blog!


Hey everyone.  Thought I should formally notify Creating Van Gogh aficionados that my long-anticipated (at least in my own brain) new blog is finally up and running.  Just two posts at present, but those will build I'm sure.  After much back and forth I named the new blog Payperazzi.  My first thought, "Paperazzi," was a name already taken, so I used "pay" instead.  Cute, huh?  Wasn't sure about that, but then I realized that perhaps it's indeed appropriate.  First off, most writing isn't done on paper anymore.   That's a simple fact.   So why would I want to sound like a dinosaur that eats trees and asks others to?  More to the point, the idea behind the new blog is that it enables me to speak more frequently and more directly to issues, opinions, myths, and outcomes associated with teaching writing in higher education.  In other words, as a literal writing professional I get "pay"d to teach writing--and being a teacher of writing gives me a certain vantage point on, and entry point into,  discussions of what's right and wrong in the writing life of the nation these days, and the writing life of the nation's students these days.  I'm sure you've heard such discussions yourself; perhaps you've contributed to them; and perhaps, like me, you're sick of them!  But there's so much arrogant misinformation passing as wisdom these days that I feel obliged to speak up, speak out, share stories, and shed some light.  Hopefully, that's what Payperazzi will accomplish.  So move on over (follow this link to the new blog) and stay tuned.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

World News worthy!


Last week for this household featured one of those curious episodes when you stumble into the attention of the wider world and use up three seconds of your mythical fifteen minutes of fame.  Here's how it happened: On the day that it was announced that a painting uncovered in 1991 in someone's attic in Norway had been declared an authentic Van Gogh by the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, I received an email from a man who works at World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer.  I almost just breezed right by it--assuming it was another one of those mass emails I get from various (mostly left wing) organizations--until I realized the subject line said something about my blog.  So I opened the message only to find out that World News Tonight wanted to use a photo that I'd posted on my blog for their story on the Van Gogh painting.  What??

The painting in question, completed in the summer of 1888, was of the landscape surrounding Montmajour Abbey.  Montmajour was an abandoned monastery in Van Gogh's time but is now a museum and popular tourist site.   It sits atop a sizeable hill a few miles from Arles, in southern France.  It was one of Van Gogh's favorite places to go to look for views of the landscape around the city, especially in the summer of 1888, the events of which take up a sizeable portion of my novel Days on Fire.   When I first traveled to Arles it was one of the sites I made a special point of visiting, and I've gone back several times since just to enjoy the quiet and the majesty of the old stone and, most of all, the splendid views.  (The abbey nowadays also features regular art exhibits.)  My wife Stephanie came with me when I went last July and she took several photographs, both inside and outside the abbey.  I reported our visit on this blog while we were in France and uploaded a couple of the photos.  World News Tonight found the photos and wanted to use one in particular (that's it above).  They wanted to show viewers what the countryside that Van Gogh painted actually looks like.   (Of course, while still rural that countryside today can't and doesn't look exactly the same as in the 1880s.  And, besides, the stretch of landscape captured in my wife's photo isn't identical to what Van Gogh painted.  But was I going to point this out to World News Tonight?)  The really ironic thing is that of all the masterful photographs Stephanie took during our European trip, she was least thrilled about the photos she took outside at Montmajour and for a simple reason: The sun was so bright she couldn't even see the screen that tells you what you are photographing!  Essentially, she was shooting blind.

But blind must have been pretty good, because World News Tonight wanted to use her photograph.  It made for an excited stir at the office early in the afternoon.   Funny though, we forgot to watch the show later.  I got busy making dinner, and she was working on the computer, and we completely missed it.  (Perhaps factoring in a bit was my skepticism.  I know that news programs prepare a lot more news than they actually show.)  However, on my email that evening was another message from the World News Tonight employee.  He had sent it right before they went on the air and advised me that they were still planning on using the photograph; the story, he said, would run at the end of the first block of news.  We couldn't access that night's episode online until the following evening, but sure enough there it was: the picture my wife had taken at Montmajour Abbey two months earlier, fillng the whole screen, with her name superimposed at the left hand corner.  When I excitedly informed my 13 year old son about his mother's accomplishment, he was typically unimpressed.  "God, Dad," he said, "that is such a typical middle-class thing to get excited about."  "Hey," I shot back, "you think it's so fantastic that the guys who make those gamer videos you watch have 80 or 100 thousand fans.  World News Tonight is watched by millions of people."  That gave him pause, but he even so he declined to watch the clip.  (You know how it is, the toughest audience for the prophet is his home country.)

But if any Friends Of Stephanie care to check out the clip, follow this link to last Monday's full episode of World New Tonight with Diane Sawyer.  The story about the Van Gogh painting appears toward the end of the first batch of news.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Visiting writer reactions


Last year, a faculty member in my department had an intriguing idea: to invite to campus Damien Echols, a man who has recently published a memoir but who is better known for being one of the "West Memphis Three."  You may or may not have heard of the West Memphis Three, but know that for several years they were a serious cause célèbre, not only in my home state of Arkansas but in other parts of the country.  A documentary about the the three, West of Memphis, was released last winter, only one of several movies that have been made about them, with more to follow.  Here in a nutshell is their story:  Twenty years ago, three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas were brutually murdered, their bodies tied together and mutilated.  Three teenagers--who later became known as the West Memphis Three--were quickly arrested, tried, and convicted of the crime.   Damien Echols, supposedly the ringleader of the Three, was sentenced to death.  The other two teenagers--Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin--were given sentences of life imprisonment.  It's impossible in this space to go through all the various legal battles that were fought over the next two decades, the reservations that were raised about the evidence and how it was gathered; new forensic evidence revealed in 2007 that suggested the presence of other, yet-to-be-identified individuals at the crime scene on the night of the murder; the outcries the case raised inside and outside the state, both from supporters and critics of the Three; and the number of articles and books written as a result.  But it's safe to say that nearly twenty years after the initial guilty verdict significant questions remain about how the case was handled, with a burgeoning consensus opinion that the Three were wrongly convicted.

While the Three never received the retrial that they wanted, sentiment in favor of their innocence ran so strongly that two years ago they were allowed the option of entering an Alford plea, a complicated legal manuever that ultimately permitted them to leave jail as free men without being officially exonerated; that is, without the state of Arkansas having to admit they never should have been locked up in the first place.  (Instead it was determined that the time they had already served in prison satisifed their sentences.)

Fast forward to 2013, and Damien Echols is not only an ex-convict but the author of the recently released (and critically acclaimed) Life after Death, the story of his life before, during, and after his imprisonment.  Given the power of his story, and his obvious notoriety, it occurred to one UCA Writing faculty member last fall that Echols would be a natural to fill a visiting writer slot for 2013-14.  While this was not my idea, I did support it.  Every year at UCA we invite artists of all stripes and backgrounds to visit campus, to read from their work, and to share thoughts on their craft with students and members of the public.  To say the least, over the years we've entertained visiting artists of wildly divergent ages, socio-economic backgrounds, politics, religious beliefs, aesthetic tastes, and creative histories.   Allowing our students access to a range of voices wider than those of our regular, continuing faculty is a critical part of their writing education--and their university education, period.   And given that Echols, with the permission of the state of Arkansas, is now a free man, there certainly was no legal hindrance on our part from inviting him or on his part from accepting the invitation.

So now we are letting it be known that Echols is coming to UCA this semester, and the reaction we've gotten has surprised and disheartened me.  While many on campus and in the central Arkansas area are glad and excited for his visit, and are eagerly planning on attending his public event, we are also receiving livid emails from individuals who believe Echols should never be allowed to speak anywhere ever again.  It has been suggested in some of these emails that he will unduly influence the impressionable minds of our students, leading them astray.  Some of these emails have been so disturbing that the dean's office has had to make arrangements for security to be present at Echols' events.  (I should add here that to their credit UCA administrators have rejected out of hand any notion that Echols' visit should be canceled, which is what the email screamers are telling us to do.) Needless to say, arranging for enhanced security is not our normal protocol for entertaining visiting writers.  And it never should have to be.  The point of a college campus is to promote academic growth, intellectual curiosity, and artistic maturity. None of those outcomes can be attained if one reacts to new ideas and unusual speakers with fear, hatred, or simple noise.   That is classically the wrong approach to take.  Instead, all of us, myself included, need to trust that in a marketplace of competing words and ideas, the truth will win out.  Arguably, the truth sufficiently won out in the West Memphis Three case to convince the state of Arkansas that it made more sense to let the Three go then to keep them in prison.  Are there those who believe the state made a wrong decision in letting the Three out? Absolutely.  And they have stated their arguments with considerable passion.  I expect and hope they will continue to do so, while at the same time I hope they will respect the right--even the duty--of a university to bring speakers of diverse public interest and artistic accomplishment to campus.  Part of me is worried about the hornet's nest of anger we've stirred up by inviting Damien Echols to campus, but another part of me says that this means we've done exactly the right thing.  Education doesn't happen without some controversy and without lots of unpleasant truth telling.  I know that my colleagues in the Department of Writing--down to the last woman and man--are concerned more than anything with mentoring the young minds entrusted to our care.  I can only hope we are allowed to continue pursuing that mission, rather than be shouted down by a few who, so far at least, seem to lack faith in the marketplace of ideas.

Monday, August 26, 2013

HIstorical fiction from Franklin and Fennelly


Popular southern novelist Tom Franklin has entered the domain of historical fiction before, first with his bestselling Hell at the Breech (2003) and then again (sort of) with his lurid, black-comic, historical fantasy Smonk (2007). So it's not surprising to find myself using this space to review another historical novel with his signature attached to it, namely The Tilted World, scheduled for release in September.   What's different this time is that Franklin isn't the author but the co-author, the other co-author being none other than his energetic and ambidextrous wife Beth Ann Fennelly, she of well-deserved poetry and nonfiction fame (and current director of the esteemed MFA program at the University of Mississippi).  It's hard to know what made Fennelly want to jump into fictional waters or Franklin to move aside so gracefully to allow her a place in the pool, but readers will be glad for their mutual cooperation.  The historical setting for The Tilted World is the Great Flood of 1927—an event, the authors note in their engaging afterword, that not only displaced thousands of southerners and came with a political fallout similar to that which followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but which permanently altered the social and political landscape of America.  An event as titanic as that one certainly deserves a fictional retelling, but what proves more relevant to, and interesting in, the novel is another aspect of 1920s American history: prohibition.   After all, the America Franklin and Fennelly depict is an America very late into the peculiar experiment, an America in which revenuers can easily be bribed or otherwise made to disappear, where the revenuers themselves when off duty enjoy illegal whiskey as much as anyone, where things have gotten so bad Herbert Hoover has to create a special task force of select, honest revenuers, because so many in the service are uselessly corrupt.  In such an America move our two protagonists: Ted Ingersoll, a former army sharpshooter and one of those honest revenue agents, and Dixie Clay, a young wife of a Mississippi bootlegger who, only after she marries and realizes exactly how her husband makes his money, discovers she is quite the natural at making moonshine herself. 

What brings the two protagonists together is a child--orphaned due to a violent raid on a bootlegger--that Ingersoll needs to find a foster home for, and the fact that Dixie has recently suffered through a series of dispiriting miscarriages.   Indeed, Dixie is quite glad that Ingersoll found his way through the woods to her home, so glad she puts aside her natural suspicions.  And not surprisingly, Ingersoll takes a shining to the pretty, freckled, whip smart young woman.  There are a few roadblocks to romance though.  First of all, Dixie is married.  Second, she's a bootlegger.  Third, a historic flood is about to release itself upon the American South.  And fourth, her cad of a husband Clay is, unknown to Dixie, conspiring to commit a severe act of sabotage against their hometown and just at the worst possible moment.  Will love prevail?  Well, maybe so.  

Cagily focusing The Tilted World on two equally significant protagonists—one male, one female—the two different writers develop the novel on separate tracks for most of its length, permanently bringing together the protagonists only about three quarters of the way through.  (And fittingly with a powerhouse, nearly perfect scene that features a medical emergency with the child and some brilliantly calm parental nerves.)  It’s impossible not to imagine Franklin acting as the writer of Ingersoll or to imagine anyone but Fennelly as the originator of Dixie, who discovers her true role in life after Ingersoll gives her the orphan to raise as her own.  Throughout, Fennelly portrays Dixie’s struggles to align who she is with what she is allowed to do.  Not merely a pretty, innocent woman done wrong, Dixie is a proud craftsman, a woman given the unusual job of running the still because of her bootlegger husband’s frequent sales trips.  She proves not just capable at making tasty moonshine but superb at it, so good her husband insists she sacrifice quality for quantity so that he can better keep up with demand and turn an even better profit.  Dixie refuses to submit to this violation and comes up with a better plan: she increases the quality even more, so that her customers will be willing to pay many times what they would for ordinary liquor and in the process earn her husband the enhanced profit he seeks.  This sly strategy to both maintain her self-respect and pacify her husband fails in the end.  But then again everything is destined to fail in the light of the unprecedented natural disaster released upon Mississippi.  

Franklin’s Ingersoll, meanwhile, is a loveable, quietly heroic galoot.  While he’s a well-crafted and credible hero, what fascinates the reader in his chapters is less Ingersoll himself than the world of revenuers, those men trying to carry out a strange job against impossible odds, cultual lethargy, and their own growing distaste for the hypocrisy of it all.  In the Ingersoll chapters, Franklin’s taste for the lurid, the off-color, and the folkloric rise to the fore, engendering the fine entertainment we have come to expect from him. 

Eventually, of course, the two separate tracks of the novel merge, and half the delight of the book from that point on is guessing which scenes and what lines and which character impulses one of the authors suggested to the other.  It is a credit to them both that the latter chapters, when Dixie and Ingersoll are bound together, are as seamless and engaging as any in the book.

The Tilted World is a well-told, commercially viable literary novel set in the time of a notable historical event.  It’s no knock to the novel to say that one can easily imagine a movie coming from it.  It is that tight of a creation.  Of course, as with any book there are flaws.  One could wish for an even stronger emphasis on the flood itself and the resulting geo-political damage, or for a further exploration of the history of enforcement of the Volstead Act—but it’s a novel not an academic treatise.  One could wish that the inevitable pairing of Dixie and Ingersoll seem a bit less inevitable and the sex scene between them a little less ludicrous and a lot less telegraphed; one could wish for a few more characters who seemed less like types we’ve seen in southern fiction before.  On the other hand, when two writers of very different styles and sensibilities work together it is always a risk that they will cancel each other out, that what makes each most idiosyncratic, even masterful, will be sacrificed in the name of compromise, with the result being a muddled mess of competent but finally uninteresting writing.   It’s safe to say that that did not happen to Fennelly and Franklin in The Tilted World.  Rather than blunting each other’s strengths they seemed to have enhanced them.  In fact, it seems as if it’s the poet Fennelly who discovers and probes and solidifies the heart of the book, while it’s the fiction writer Franklin who keeps the story humming along at a steady pace.  That’s a delicate dance few writing couples, to say nothing of writing married couples, can pull off.  It’s a pleasure worth the price of admission to see Fennelly and Franklin make it work.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A new blog future


I started Creating Van Gogh with the idea of thinking through and expounding on various issues I was confronting in my attempt to write a compelling, credible historical novel: What were the "rules"?  How   do I handle this research thing?  What exactly is the proper function of the imagination in historical fiction, and is its function any different than for any other kind of fiction?  What do I do with contrasting historical "facts"?  What am I allowed to do when borrowing work that my character, in real life, created?  These are only a few of the many questions I've considered in my four years of doing this blog, and I've gotten some useful answers from my readers.  Of course, there are plenty of questions I probably should have considered but didn't.  And along the way, as various professional and personal events have unfolded in my life, I've written about other issues not strictly related to historical fiction: some crazy administrative developments at my university, for instance, and how the public conception of a writing professor rarely corresponds with the real nature of the job.  I've written about a Novel Writing Workshop I teach; what I've learned; how I might do it better.  I've written about four different AWP conferences and the UK's Great Writing conference; I've written about Toad Suck Review, the journal I help edit; I've written about the connections between running and writing.  I've recommended books; I've reported on some of my publications.  In short, Creating Van Gogh today is less about historical fiction, or about my Van Gogh novel, than it is about the state of imaginative writing generally and the art of teaching imaginative writing.  Yes, that's right, I'm guilty of making another writing and teaching blog.

That being the case, I've decided to create a new blog this fall that in its very conception is broader than the my original conception for Creating Van Gogh and thus fairly allows me to discuss any relevant issue or development or fantastic idea I've heard about in regards to the literary life and the unique nuturing of literary lives that takes place in university settings.  As I said, I've been kind of doing this already, and so it's probably time for the blog itself to match the identity of the content.  I haven't finalized a name yet.  I'm toying with a few possibilities, Letteratti being the one I like the most right now.  When a name is finalized, you'll be the first to know.  Meanwhile, after a few more entries, Creating Van Gogh will go into suspended animation.  It won't quite end; that is, I certainly can see myself putting up the occasional post, especially for any updates regarding my book.  But for the most part it will be in a state of rest.   I began the blog while I was in the throes of finalizing a draft of my novel.  Now that the novel has been published, it seems like a good time to let it nap.

                                                                *    *    *

Other publishing updates: It's been an unusually active summer for me in terms of placing my work, both long and short.  Traditionally, literary journals go into suspension during the summmer months, but as more and more journals go online, it's not unusual anymore to find journals that read and publish all year round; and sometimes this means a dizzyingly fast turnaround between acceptance and publication.  One online journal thankfully caught me by phone the day before I was to leave on an extended trip to Europe.  A trip in which I had NO phone service and limited internet access.  Whew!  They informed me of the acceptance and said they needed a recent photo of me, which I proceeded to pose for and my wife proceeded to take.  I emailed it to them that afternoon and within a week my story, and the picture, was up on their web site.  

In any case, here's a countdown of my publications/acceptances this summer, with links to the works provided where possible.  In May, an excerpt from Days on Fire appeared in Versal, the great English-language journal published in Amsterdam.  In July, I was the featured contributor on the journal's blog.  You can check out my answers to their rather creative questions here.  Also this summer, I published (in a somewhat trimmed down state) my quirky story "Homeroom" (written as a series of high school homeroom announcements) in theNewerYork Press's Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature (EEEL); I published the longish story "Home Visit" in Gemini; and I published the memoir essay "A Minute Inside the Ocean Cafe, July 1980" in Squalorly.   Meanwhile, my half-personal/half-journalistic essay on marathon running, "Thirteen More Miles," is soon to appear in the journal 1966, a magazine conceived with the fantastic idea of focusing on research-driven narrative nonfiction.  (The link takes you to the journal but not to my essay--I promise it will be there soon.)  Finally, as I reported in my post of last week, I placed my historical short (long) story "On Cherry Street" in Pembroke.  The story should appear this fall.

And, the best news of all is that Days on Fire is out and available on Amazon and Barnes &, capping a summer that has been quite the whirlwind for me--in more ways than one.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Another long wait pays off


Well, it's been a summer of results after long waits.  Of course, it's well known that patience is a virtue, and I like to think that's true, but there's no life like the writing life to test the maxim.  And test it and test it and test it again.  I once had to wait four years between a story being accepted and finally appearing in a journal.  The journal was a long-established one with a great reputation, but it had a backlog of accepted works and was undergoing a series of staff and format changes.  Things there seemed mighty chaotic.  Many months after accepting the story they told me I'd have cut its length by 50% or just withdraw it.  50%?  If I hadn't been so happy to have the story accepted by this journal, I would have pulled it immediately.  I mean, 50%?  I wondered if after a cut of 50% it would even be the same story anymore.   But I buckled down, found the necessary solutions, trimmed my story, and sent it back to them.  All done, I figured.  Any day now I should see it appear, albeit in reduced form.  It was then they told me it might take a while longer for the story to appear, given the structural changes they were enacting at the magazine.  Was I willing to wait?  Sure, I replied, I can wait a bit longer.  I just didn't realize that would mean three years.  But just as I was about to give up on the esteemed journal, the story indeed was published.

Admittedly, the waits don't always work out.  I once had a different story accepted by a small press (no longer in business) that published a series of really intriguing, thematic anthologies.  The story was a peculiar, idiosyncratic magic realist piece I'd written in grad school--a story I really loved but had had a hard time placing, so I was more than gratified by the acceptance.  The publisher sent me a publishing agreement to sign, which I dutifully filled out and fired back to them.  The book, I was told, would take about a year to appear. Well, a year later I'd heard nothing, so I called the press at the phone number listed on the papers they sent me.  They picked up right away.  What's going on with that anthology, I asked.  The woman I spoke with had an immediate answer: "Next year."  Okay, another year's wait.  I didn't like it, but I could handle it.  The following year, again having heard nothing more from the press, I called again.  This time I got the head editor on the phone.  Straight off, he apologized for the delay.  Then he informed me that he'd had trouble lining up the necessary financing to publish the book--apparently other volumes he'd created were in similar straits--but he expected within the year the book would finally appear.   "I love putting these anthologies together," he said.  "The problem is finding the money to actually print them."

 I appreciated his honesty, but I had to wonder why his press continued to advertise for submissions to new anthologies when he couldn't bring out the books he'd already created.  Something there was structurally dysfunctional.  It was about this time that I explained the situation to a new colleague at work.  He asked the name of the press.  When I told him, he smiled.   "You're going to have to wait even longer," he said.  Apparently, a book of poems by a friend of his had won a contest sponsored by this press.  After waiting several years for his book to be published, my colleague's friend just gave up and starting submittng the book to other presses, one of which did eventually publish it.  I wondered aloud about how the first press--the one I was dealing with--felt about that.  "Oh," he said, "they didn't mind.  They actually suggested he do that, if he didn't feel like waiting anymore."  At this point, I'd given pretty much given up hope of "my" anthology ever appearing in print, but I allowed the press another six months to a year before I contacted them one more time.  Again, I got the head editor on the phone.  When I reminded him who I was and mentioned the name of the anthology he'd promised to publish, the man just sighed: a huge, hopeless, defeated, guilty rush of air.  This time there was no talk of next year.  The most hopeful thing he could say was, "I'd still love to publish that book someday."  At that point, I officially gave up on the anthology.   And no, it was never published.

This summer has been a bit brighter as far as waits go.   As I reported in last week's post, my Van Gogh novel, Days on Fire, so many years in the making and shaping, is finally out and available via several means, including, Amazon UK, and Barnes and   And, as a terrific followup to that news, I got a email last week from Jessica Pitchford, the editor at Pembroke, a literary magazine headquartered at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke.  Pembroke is a journal I've been trying to break into for years.  Almost as soon as I began submitting stories to national magazines, I was submitting to Pembroke.  Year after year, I sent them pieces that I was pretty sure would work, and should work; and while I came close, I was always turned down.  Well, for this submission I sent Jessica a story called, "On Cherry Street," a historical fiction that is part of my story-collection-in progress, Island Fog, every story of which is set on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.  "On Cherry Street" is one of my favorite stories in the whole book.  Perhaps my absolute favorite.  I've read portions of it twice at conferences--most recently at the Great Writing Conference in London in June--and it always generates interest.  Where can I find the story?  I want to read all of it.  I want to know how it ends!  Problem is, it's that particularly tough literary sell: a long short story.   (It's over thirty pages.)  Its length alone limits the number of journals I can send the story to, and then there's the simple fact that it may or may not fit the "tone" of a given journal, even one that takes long stories.  Well, just last week, I found out that Jessica had accepted "On Cherry Street" for Pembroke.  She liked it so much she was moving other pieces around and changing their sizes in order to make room for it.  Wonderful!  So I've killed two birds with one stone: I've placed a story that I really love and have dearly wanted, for its own sake, to see in print; and I've finally made it into Pembroke!  After how many years now . . .

Monday, July 29, 2013

Days on Fire is PUBLISHED!!


In my last post, I wrote about meeting with the directors of Elan Sud and discussing a possible French-language edition of my Van Gogh novel.  Well, how fitting that with this post I can finally announce the publication of the original English language version of the book.  That's right, Days on Fire is finally out and available!  The book can be purchased through Amazon. com here; also through Barnes & here; and through here.  It can also be special ordered by your favorite neighborhood bookstore through Ingram Distributors.  Finally, for readers in the UK, the book is available through  Click here for that link.

This sure has been a long time coming.  I started this blog, after all,  back in 2009.  Along the way, various readers have been asking me, "Why can't I buy a copy of your book?"  Well, the simple and most truthful reason is that all good things take time, and I think it took a fair amount of time for the book to finally take the shape it needed to be.  But here it is.  If you decide to get it, I hope it is the pleasure for you to read that it always was for me to write--even despite how long it took!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Enjoy the unexpected


Last week, I had one of the more unique experiences of my writing life: meeting with the directors of Elan Sud, a boutique French publisher, at their cozy headquarters on a quiet side street in Orange. The interview was arranged by the woman who owns the house we were renting in Rapheles-les-Arles, an avid book reader and the friend of an author who publishes with this press.  It was a wonderful experience talking with Madame Corinne Neidegger and her partner Monsieur Dominique Lin. Madame Neidegger understands spoken English but speaks little herself; Dominque speaks and understands English, yet it is, of course, very far from being a first language for him; I understand spoken French somewhat, but I don’t speak it well at all.  So for over an hour we engaged in a fascinating triangulated conversation.  Madame Neidegger asked me questions in French, and I answered them mostly in English, with interpretations and amplifications provided by Dominique, a working writer himself--I bought one of his novels (Toca Leon!) during my visit--with long experience in the publishing industry, as has Madame Neidegger.  In fact, Madame Neidegger once worked for Actes-Sud, one of the largest publishers in all of France and a company headquartered in Arles.

A passion for well-written, well-edited books is what encouraged them to start Elan Sud.  Like many niche presses, it is a labor of love and one that tries to address important needs left behind by mainstream publishers.  For Elan Sud, this means publishing, among other things, graphic novels, novels by young first time writers (through a labor intensive, multi-stage submissions and drafting process), and publishing fiction set in atypical settings, like Cuba.  We spent a good deal of time discussing my Van Gogh novel, but also many minutes reviewing the state of publishing in France.  What was striking was how similar their complaints were to complaints made about publishing in the United States; e.g., a few massive houses buying up many smaller presses, a lack of courage and originality in what they publish, too many examples of patently bad books—with little evidence of editorial oversight—being not only allowed into the market but turning into bestsellers.  The subject of Fifty Shades of Gray came up.  (Yes, the book has been published in France too.)  I told them what I tell everyone: I hear that it’s pretty badly written.  Dominique was beside himself.  “Of course, of course, it’s badly written. That’s what everyone says.  And I don’t understand.  When somebody  tells me this food smells terrible and tries to give it to me, I will not eat it.  But if someone says , this book is terrible, people want to read it!” 

They are both lovely, dedicated, and shrewd people, with wonderful senses of humor and an abiding interest in publishing provocative work.  Here I thought I was driving to Orange from Arles just to drop off a copy of my novel, and I found myself invited in, given a place to sit, offered coffee, and engaging in a chat that lasted seventy minutes long and covered everything from my own life history to the history of my book to the characteristic of my book to the characteristics of their press to the state of “the book” to the practical challenges of literary translation.  We even talked over their philosophy on book covers.  I’ve never had a more engaging if nerve-wracking hour, an hour I could never have imagined for myself years ago when I first started my book.  One I could have never imagined for myself when I first thought of visiting France.  Sometimes, it’s simply amazing where a project can take you.  In this case, I really mean where.