Monday, September 29, 2014

A necessary week


Starting today and running through Saturday, October 4, UCA's College of Fine Arts and Communication (CFAC) will present a series of events  meant to recognize and celebrate LGBT culture.  You may or may not realize that October is designated as National Diversity Awareness Month; and on my campus we have an Office of Diversity and Community which each year around this time plans a few events to recognize LGBT culture and history.  This year CFAC just decided to up the ante.  It started with the Writing Department deciding to invite to campus two authors, Bernard Cooper (pictured left) and Jericho Brown (pictured immediately below), who happen to be gay men.  From there we took the idea to CFAC--which foots the bill for all artists in residence--to bring Brown and Cooper to campus during the same week and create an LGBT weeklong festival.

And from there everything fell into place.  I mentioned some of the events in my post last week.  In addition to readings by Cooper and Brown, there will be a talk given by John Schenk and Robert Loyd (pictured below), warriors in the cause of gay marriage in Arkansas and founders of the Conway Pride Parade; a lecture by Dr. Raymond Frontain on the Arkansas-born writer Peter McGehee; a weeklong exhibition of a segment of the AIDS Memorial Quilt; a miniature film festival featuring the LGBT documentaries Paris is Burning (1990) and The New Black (2013); a reading presented by PRISM, our LGBTQA student organization; and a reading presented by Sibling Rivalry Press, a publishing house located just outside Little Rock that does so much to promote gay and lesbian writers.  Click here for a detailed schedule of festival events sponsored by UCA's College of Fine Arts and Communication.

Of course a festival, any festival, especially a new one, needs promoting.  And some of the reactions have been curious if not disheartening.  Don't get me wrong.  There are plenty of students, and not just our LGBT students, who are happy for this festival, students who feel it's more than overdue.  Others see it as no big deal, a "So what?" But at the same time, I'm surprised at the extent to which the local media regards the idea of an LGBT festival as something radical, advant-garde, even dangerous.  It is?  I guess I'm naive--and I guess I'm not from around here--but that reaction strikes me as a little drastic.  After all, the idea of celebrating LGBT history during National Diversity Awareness Month has been around for years.  Neither UCA nor the CFAC invented it.  But to listen to local reactions, you'd think the president of my university woke up one morning and just decided to "give" LGBT people a month.  (I can guarantee you that he had nothing to do with it.)  Literally within hours of a press release going out from CFAC about the festival, I was called by a Little Rock television station.  They wanted to come to campus, film me, film our students, and discuss this "controversy."  Days later a second Little Rock television came to campus to do the same.  The resulting story they broadcast was fine, but I was both shocked and amused to hear the comments of one older gentleman they found who declared he could not support UCA's funding "public acts of unchastity."  Unchastity?  These are poetry and fiction readings; lectures by community organizers and professors of English literature.  This is a quilt!  Where exactly does the unchastity come in?  From his biased brain and its inherited stereotypes; that's where.

And since I've been promoting the festival and talking to others about it, I've heard equally disheartening stories: a student worker afraid to install posters around campus advertising the festival for fear she will be labeled as gay; an email from an angry local citizen who insists that LGBT people don't deserve a history month "any more than black people do"; anecdotes about how, even now, even in the second decade of the twenty-first century, gay, lesbian, and trans teenagers are chased away from churches, illegally discriminated against in the regional school systems, expelled from their homes by their parents and left to live on the streets.  Parents who have somehow convinced 
themselves--who are allowed to convince themselves by their own toxic support systems--that they are acting righteously.  Righteously?  I'm a parent, and I can't imagine more inhumane, unnatural, and ungodly behavior than to toss my child into the streets and all that awaits him there.  I can't imagine a greater violation of the parental bond or of simple human decency.  Both for my wife and I--and I think for most parents--such behavior is literally unthinkable.  That it still goes on in Arkansas and elsewhere is even more unthinkable.  Thus the need, apprently, for this festival at UCA.  And another.  And another.  And another.  Until our collective humanity can overhwelm the madness.

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LAST CHANCE FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!!  Since I've started the Goodreads Giveaway contest for my short story collection Island Fog, over 430 people have signed up for it.  I'm thrilled.  Well, we are almost at the end of the giveaway.  Wednesday, October 1 will be the very last day to enter.  On Thursday October 2, the contest will be over, and Goodreads will tell me who won.  You can always purchase the book (see late-breaking news below), but why not enter the giveaway contest while you still have the chance?  Just click on this link.  Good luck!!  

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THE BOOK IS OUT!!!  Just found out from my publisher, Lavender Ink, that 
Island Fog is now available for purchase in paperback on Amazon.  You can also order it through Lavender Ink's website,  If you're a fan of e-readers, don't fret.  A Kindle version is forthcoming in a few weeks.   For readers in the UK, it should be available very soon on

Monday, September 22, 2014

Suspense builds!


In an odd conflation of life events, jury duty on the federal court in Little Rock, Arkansas beckons just as my book's big release is set to become a reality.  As I write this, it's Sunday, September 21, and in a few hours I make a call to a Little Rock number to find out if I must show up for duty on Monday morning.  If so, let's hope it's a quick and easy case! In the meantime, I eagerly anticipate Island Fog becoming available to order on Amazon any day now.  The official release date is, and has been, October 1, but my publisher Lavender Ink will likely make it available this week to satisfy demands for early ordering.  (In any case, one can already order the book through the Lavender Ink website.)  To top it all off, in the week of September 28-October 4 my university hosts two major visiting authors as well as a host of other speakers as we launch our first ever festivities in honor of National Diversity Awareness Month.  I am one of the co-organizers--and thus co-administrators--of the festivities.  Talk about a lot on your plate!  It's all good, but it's all huge too.

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Pre-release reviews and other online activity seem to pop up every day or so.  At the end of last week I was notified of a review on the Oh My Bookness blog as well as the publication of a short "Books by the Bed" segment I was kindly asked by writer Cheryl Olsen to submit to the website We Wanted To Be Writers.  (The idea is to talk about what books are next to your bed or just were or will be shortly.)  She has also kindly agreed to review my book in the next couple of weeks.  Thank you so much, Cheryl.

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Forgive another obnoxious reminder--maybe my last one!--that a Goodreads giveaway contest for Island Fog is still ongoing.  The end of the contest is imminent, however.  You only have until the last day of the month to enter.  Click this link for a chance to win one of three giveaway copies.

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I can't know what jury service will look like or how long it will last, but I hope to write you next week with more details about UCA's weeklong festival in honor of National Diversity Awareness month.  The bad news is that both the idea of a Diversity Awareness month and our on-campus activites are long overdue.   The good news is that we have a fantastic lineup planned.  This lineup includes world-class creative talents like fiction and nonfiction writer Bernard Cooper (The Bill from My FatherGuess AgainTruth Serum) and poet Jericho Brown (The New TestamentPlease); also, the exhibition of a segment of the AIDS Memorial Quilt; a lecture on the origin and turbulent history of Conway, Arkansas's Pride Parade; artifacts from and a lecture on the late gay novelist Peter McGehee and his dark comedies of manners; the screening of two landmark documentaries about LGBT culture: Paris is Burning (1990) and The New Black (2013); a first ever reading put on by members our campus's LGBT organization, Prism; and a reading organized by Sibling Rivalry Press, a renowned and deeply respected publisher--located right here in central Arkansas, by the way--of many gay and lesbian writers.  If you're in the area the week of September 28-Oct 4, check it out!  If you're just interested in finding out more, contact Dr. Gayle Seymour ( or Joshua Miller ( in the office of the Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication, University of Central Arkansas.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The fictional fine line


For my historical fiction workshop class last Wednesday,  the group read T.C. Boyle's novella Wild Child (from the 2010 collection Wild Child and other Stories) based on the famous true life case of the "Wild Boy of Aveyron." To summarize the true life case in brief: In 1800, in France, a boy was found living feral in the woods, naked.  No one knew for certain when he went in or for how long he'd lived there, but based on earlier reported sightings authorities estimated that he had lived for seven years or more in that environment, alone.  The boy seemed to have no knowledge of any language and did not react to any sounds.  It was assumed at first that he was a deaf-mute.  When it was discovered that he could in fact hear, a determined young doctor named Icard tried to civilize him, the hardest work of which was to try to teach him to understand and even speak the French language.  Icard also chose the name Victor for the boy.  After years of fantastic effort, Icard had to give up his experiment.  Victor simply was not progressing in his language acquisition, and in some ways he seemed to be regressing.  He was henceforth allowed to live out his life in the home of Madame Guérin--Icard's housekeeper--serving as Guérin's houseboy.  Victor did not cause the woman any undue trouble, but neither did he seem terribly happy.  To say the least, the attempt to turn the "savage" into a civilized man was deemed by all to have been a terrible failure.

From what I knew about Victor of Aveyron, and from what my students could tell, Boyle seemed to be sticking very closely to the known facts of the case.  Many of them also described the tone of the narration to be distant, clinical, impassionate, observing rather than participating.  (Perhaps this is what led one of them to call Boyle's style "stodgy.")  What Boyle appeared to be doing with the story was taking the facts of the case and lining them up inside a fluid, readable narrative.  I use italics on appeared because neither I nor my students knew enough about Boyle's intentions or his method of working to speak conclusively.  I had tried to find an interview with Boyle or an article about him in which he discussed the novella and his research in detail, but I wasn't successful.  The way the discussion was going I wished I had tried a little harder.   One student wondered aloud what made the novella fiction since Boyle's apparent modus operandi could describe a great deal of narrative nonfiction, including some very celebrated examples of such.  I have to admit the question stumped me.  I was completely unprepared for it.  (I'm much more ready to respond to those who attack a work of historical fiction for playing too loosely with the facts.  Fiction writers are rarely if ever questioned for being too faithful to the historical record.)  I said that since it was published in a collection of fiction I just accepted it as such, which is true but not a terribly convincing argument.  And I offered my apology for not finding out what Boyle himself had to say.  A pretty meager response.

Later, after I'd had time to think about it, I realized there were aspects of the book I could and should have pointed to in order to nudge it, in my students' minds, clearly to the side of fiction.  First, despite the complaints about the distant and clinical narration, the novel isn't written in third person objective; Boyle doesn't narrate, not completely, from the stance of the neutral historian.  Instead,  he shows the perspectives of a variety of the book's characters, most importantly, Icard, Madame Guérin, and Victor himself, especially in one especially fraught scene when Victor flees from Icard's control to find himself lost and and at a loss on the streets of Paris.  Given how shut out from Victor's mind the people around him felt, this scene certainly represents a leap of the imagination for the author.  A leap based partly on the facts of the case, of course, but even more on Boyle's intuition.  And too,while the novella's narrator demonstrates more powerful control over what we know and find out and believe and interpret than is typically the case with contemporary fiction--in which scene is primary--it's not like Wild Child is without scenes or without dialogue.  As I frequently say to people who like to discuss research vs imagination as if they are strict writerly dichotomies,  just because you know Mr. Brown had a conversation with Mrs. Smith at French restaurant in New York in 1931, and you even know the subject of their conversation, there is little to no chance you know what the actual words were that they used in that conversation.  And even if somehow you know the actual words, you don't know what the sky looked like outside the window; or what oddities marked the appearnce of the passersby; you don't know the state of the tablecloth on their table or how dingy was the lighting; you don't know who was sitting at the tables nearby and whether their conversation might have made it hard for Mr. Brown and Mrs. Smith to concentrate; you don't know if Mr. Brown and Mrs. Smith's conversation became a distraction for them.  These are just a fraction of the possible details that could potentially make up a scene in story, and they are details that the historical fiction writer must often create with his or her imagination.  Yes, that's right.  Must.  Those details are certainly evident in Boyle's story, even as he also relates a tremendous amount of factual information about the Wild Boy's behavior, the other principals and their backgrounds, and the philosophical debates of the time that made Victor such a crucial test case.

Meanwhile, a strict writer of narrative nonfiction would forbid himself or herself from risking such a liberal assertion of the the imagination.  I remember once hearing a radio interview with Sebastian Junger in which he claimed that every single detail in The Perfect Storm, even conversations between the principals, was derived through research, whether that meant through reading or by talking with knowledgeable people, including the families and friends of the men who died in the storm.  Junger refused to allow himself to speculate about how a person involved might have felt or might have thought or might have perceived something.  If he could not derive a detail convincingly from research, even if that detail might have made his narrative more vivid,  he left it out.   Clearly, this is not the way of the fiction writer.  And I think it's safe to say it wasn't Boyle's way in writing Wild Child.  Perhaps he came as close to the fiction/creative nonfiction line as any writer of historical fiction dares, but I'm not willing to write him off as not being among us.  He is T.C. Boyle, after all.  Don't you want him in your corner?

(Pictured on right: Boyle, in our corner.)

Monday, September 1, 2014

At long last--the historical fiction class


[This post is being dual-posted on my other blog, Payperazzi.   For weekly reflections on writing, teaching writing, publishing, and the writing life, check out Payperazzi.]

For years at UCA we've talked about it: running a workshop class solely devoted to historical fiction.  There seemed to be a pressing need.  After all, as I've written about repeatedly on my other blog Creating Van Gogh, historical fiction is enjoying an especially fruitful time right now: as popular as it's ever been in terms of mass market sales, while at the same time its writers routinely win or make the short lists for prestigious prizes like the Man Booker, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Award.  Most importantly, the students want to try the form out.  They want to focus on it.  They want to study it.  So really it's about time.  And, yes, now it's happening, and I'm honored to be the instructor allowed to teach it.  The crop of students in the class--a nice mix of graduate students and undergrads--are all genuinely interested in the form and eager to throw themselves into at least one, if not three different, past times in order to write a story or stories.  (I've given them the option of writing three separate fictions or one longer one.)  One of the undergrads is a history major.  Another is a business major/writing minor with an interest in the form that dates back several years, when I first had him in workshop.  Then he was writing about medieval Japan; now he's interested in Joan of Arc.  One of the graduate students is working on an historical novel for her MFA thesis; another wants to explore family stories from out of Kansas.  They're excited.  I'm excited.

Because the course was created under our Topics in Creative Writing rubric, for now it's a one-time shot.  Let's hope the class succeeds, which means the students like what they read and, more crucially, what they write.  And because it's a brand new course, it's an utter experiment, as any brand new course is--making it, from the teacher's standpoint, both thrilling and anxious at the same time.  I'm giving the students quite a mixed bag of work to do: required readings in historical fiction (including two longish novels), presentations on articles about historical fiction as a craft, the original fictions that they compose, in-class journal writings and reflections, peer group meetings, and, later in the semester, full class workshops.  It will be a full room of fifteen people and, as is usually the case with any workshop course, trying to figure how to balance all the different elements within the time alloted will be the biggest test.

I got the ball rolling last Wednesday with a short presentation on some of the issues surrounding the form.  First of all: What is historical fiction anyway?  Opinions definitely vary.  (Does historical fantasy count?  What about alternative histories?)  And: What are the "rules" of writing it? Here opinions vary even more widely.  I was hardly trying to lay down the rules myself but instead trying to suggest some of the areas of most sensitive and commited disagreement.  For instance, when employing an actual person out of history in your story, can you make things up that you know never happened?  When setting the story in a much earlier period is the writer required to describe in detail the physical setting of that period?  How closely should you--or even can you--try to mimick the way people spoke in the time period?  And what if the language they would have spoken is medieval French or Turkish or Russian, and you're writing in English for an English language audience?  How do you approximate one language through the other?  I do have my own measured opinions on these questions.  Opinions I'll certainly share with the students.  But I'm hoping and expecting that as the students write their own fictions and research what others have to say about the form, they'll uncover lots of different opinions about such questions as well as plenty of questions that I haven't yet brought before them.  It seems true, in the end, that what the governing rules are for historical fiction is something that each writer of historical fiction has to decide for himself or herself, just as the governing rules of any novel have to be determined by that novel itself.  So in the end what rules my students choose for themselves will likely be as varied as the projects they are working on.  But we're only at the beginning now; the ending is quite far off indeed.  I'm excited and anxious to see how this ride goes.

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Giveaway reminder:  Just another reminder that through Goodreads I'm running a giveaway promotion (on three continents!) for Island Fog, my forthcoming book of linked short stories.  The book is half historical fictions, one of which my class is reading for this coming Wednesday.   Let's hope they like it!  And if you haven't yet, let's hope you sign up for the giveaway.  Just follow this link.  The promotion ends on Oct. 1, which is the official release date for the book.