Saturday, February 26, 2011
IT ONLY TAKES ONE MISTAKE. After one mistake in a manuscript, they can reject you. Definitely if it happens in the first sentence, foooghetabouit. That’s what we think when we’re reading through your short stories. We’re looking for just that one mistake and then we’re ready to move on. Well, not really “Us,” because, at Our Stories, we read every page in order to give you honest feedback. However, I mean “Us” as a literary community. Rather “Us” as the collective editors out there in the free world. I’m letting you behind the curtain and I want you to pay attention.
It takes one huge mistake somewhere on the first couple of pages. Some sort of confusing line, or a word order issue. An unclear sentence or two that leaves us scratching our heads. You can’t get away with too many of them then the ball game is over. Maybe your character’s dialogue seemed too dramatic, too confusing. Or your story goes nowhere in the first three pages and that editor is thinking about the other one hundred and fifty two stories they have to read before they go to bed tonight. Maybe because you decided to do a flashback inside of your flashback. Or you used flashback at all. I certainly can't stand flashback.
Maybe you get rejected because the font looks extremely childish. Because you decided to use a cover letter in front of your story. READ and FOLLOW the submission rules! Maybe your bio is near the beginning of the story and they can tell you're trying to overcompensate. Maybe you don't know how to use a break, or you use too many breaks. Some editors would reject you because all of your paragraphs and spacing are not aligned. That you have no pattern as to where your paragraphs end and how wide the margins are. You put things oddly. Your grammar is a mess. The writing was rushed WW and the sentences were too long and you said and too many times and you don't have a clue that you are using run-on sentences and your audience just needs a chance to rest. Phew. You’re using quotes for dialogue. You're not using quotes for dialogue and prefer italics. Listen up! You're not using italics for dialogue you're too old-school and underline instead.
Because you know nothing of poetry. Because you're too poetic. Some would reject you because your first lines sound stock, too simple. Or that you're trying to overplay your hand at language as opposed to tell us something straight ahead. Some would reject you because you dropped too many shock and awe bombs on the first page and forgot about the art of language. Some would reject you because you wrote something sexist, homophobic, racist and well, maybe you should've been rejected for that if it had no point whatsoever. Some would reject you because you had too many points you were trying to make. Some would reject you because you never got to the point.
Some would reject you because you decided to take Chekov's gun out too early, or that you decided that that the gun was really a bazooka tube. Or because the gun came out too early and it never went off. The ending isn’t dramatic enough, where is the gun?
Some would reject you because they think you're culturally ignorant. Because you are culturally ignorant. Because they have no idea what your aesthetic is all about. Because they haven't read anything from Latin authors or African American authors or Asian authors and the just don't know. They haven't figured out that all literature has to be workshopped from the aesthetic that it comes from. Because you're PoMo. Because they are too PoMo.
Maybe they read the New Yorker too much or not enough. Maybe they stopped reading the Atlantic and never looked back.
Because you're not writing about terrorists. Because you are writing about terrorists. Cuz' your grammar sucks, see? Because your writing is too informal. Some would reject you just because they thought your name reminded them of an ex, a mortal enemy, a bad character on TV, or maybe the doctor that treated their VD.
Some would shoot you the old email stock bullshit, trite rejection email because they had a bad day themselves, after they received some same old email stock bullshit, trite rejection email.. They only publish their friends. Some would reject you because, you know what, because they decided, just cause. Some would reject you because they don't really know literature or how the short story is supposed to work and they haven't a clue. Some would reject you because they were behind on their reading and needed to catch up. They read too fast. They read too slowly. Someone spilled coffee all over your story and they couldn't read it so, rather than ask you for another copy, they decide they probably should reject you. Some would reject to feel better about themselves. Some would reject you because your address was New York City and that scares them. Some would reject you because your address was in Wichita, Kansas and that scares them. Or maybe because you are too Southern, too northeastern, too California new-agey and that editor doesn’t get it. Or because you're too Cormac McCarthy. Because you're too Eugene McCarthy. Maybe you're too gay, too straight, too damn conservative, too damn liberal, 2 many emoticons :-) OMG WTF IDK TRU DAT.
They don't accept anything longer than 6000 words. They don't accept anything over 1000. Too brief. Jealously. You’ve already published too much. Dark. Too much light. You blew the opening, you have no ending. The ending is too dramatic: get rid of the guns. Too much like Carver. Too drunk. Too much like Eggers wants to be. Too much like Eggers should be. You're not Jhumba Lahiri.
Because you take yourself too seriously. You need to lighten up in your writing. It’s repetitive and high-minded and it thinks it can actually make a difference. Because your grammar sucks. Too ambitious don't set it in Greece, set the story in New Jersey! You think you can make a difference. Idealistic. Because your writing is too informal. Too repetitive. Because you are some sort of arrogant, cocky jerkface editor at some no name literary journal with bizarre editorial policies and some sort of high minded, holier than though attitude that thinks everyone should sing koom-by-ahhh my lord and get along crap fest.
It’s a wild world out there in English letters and they do all this. We reject people for some of these reasons but the thing is--we have to tell you what we were thinking when we read your manuscript. Honest to God, that's what we do. Sure, I'd say others journals read your work, at least till they find that one mistake, the first mistake and then they have their reason. Once they find the reason to reject you, well, your manuscript goes in the recycling bin and then they mail you back your SASE. They don't have to tell you any thing at all. That's the way it works for everyone else. Not us.
Our Stories literary journal has been giving personalized feedback to every short story we’ve received for five years. Every last one. That’s a lot of stories. We’ve made a lot of friends. We’d like you to tell your friends about us. We like people. We like stories. We read every page and go through your entire story so you know what we thought. You should try us if you never have. We just gave you about a hundred reasons why you should—it might be worth it. We don’t claim to always be right when we send a rejection notice to someone, but at least you know why we came to our decision. Heck—maybe, just maybe after all the money that we took out in loans to study this stuff in MFA programs and the years of working on this literary journal—we might be able to help. There may just be some thread of feedback that may help, if not with the next draft, maybe the next story you work on.
Don’t buy into the literary panzi scheme: Learn to Receive. We have abilities for your needs.
I’ll be on the blog or find me, I mean “Us,” on Facebook. Include links to these here.
Alexis E Santí
editor in chief and founder
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Full interview from
Alexis E Santi being interviewed by Cara Hoffman
for the So Much Pretty Blog
Cara Hoffman's novel, So Much Pretty, Simon and Schuster is being released March 15th, 2011 in retail locations everywhere. Find more about Cara and her work here at her website here: www.carahoffman.com.
Alexis E Santí is the editor in chief at Our Stories and founder. Our Stories is a unique literary journal as they review every short story that is received during their contest or free submission periods. He has been published as a writer and essayist in numerous locations and his work has been translated into Spanish and Romanian. He has been the editor of four print anthologies of the Best of Our Stories and recipient of numerous fellowships and accolades. You can find more about him at www.alexissanti.com
CH -- As a small press publisher what do you think about the Vida study that's revealed the sexist publishing practices of magazines?
AS -- You know, this sort of flew across my radar a few weeks back when this was all going down and I really didn’t pay it much mind. And, I should say, I can only respond as to the part of the study that I actually know something about which is the literary and the magazines referred to: The Paris Review, The New Yorker and the Tin House and such. I didn’t pay it that much mind not because it didn’t mean anything to me, hell no, or that as a male that I’d not realized the unspoken privilege of being in this gender, as it has ingrained in me that I should take my power for granted or something. Uhh. No again. I’m a humanist and that title includes being a male feminist. The issue to me, of perhaps much more circumstance, is that this isn’t just a simple male/female issue. To look at this from a binary perspective would be a mistake, people. As a Cuban man with a funny name, I am distinctly aware that when my manuscripts are passed around literary journals (and I don’t submit to the big boys and expect my work to get anywhere but more on that later) there the possibility (however small) that embedded in the subconscious of the person that is reading my name on the top of the page that they may have an instinctual moment of interpretation and foreshadowing of what is to follow in prose after scanning my name.
The writer in me struggles with this and feels harmed by the nature of preconceptions in what is expected of our included and excluded group identities. My name is the first piece of prose in my manuscript, to deny that is to deny who I am and everything I have ever written. The editor in me despises all biases that pre-exist and believes, as he believes in a God, that a manuscript must be taken at its value without interest in the writer, who they are, what they represent and why wrote it.
Yet, to me, this is all bigger than that and what is truly brilliant about the study is not simply the shocking and disgusting numbers of inequity but the subtext at play that needs exploring. Some of the articles I read responding to the study, I don’t know they seemed, well funny. They were SHOCKED! Simply, shocked and appalled to find that there was a bias! Come on, Slate? Who are we kidding? The articles make it sound as if this is an editor’s decision alone or that this goes to the root of sexism. I think yes and no and here’s why: It goes to the root of what is wrong with the process of selecting and supporting new material from fresh writers inside of a mass media culture that is ever-increasingly reluctant to take any chances as they do not know how they will “sell”.
The idea that the literary marketplace is flat and that your dreams are easily attainable is a myth. The work of writers breaking into the business of print writing is bifurcated to the nth degree and the study pointed out that: the gig is up.
The gig that I am referring to is the fact that the system of our literary marketplace is badly bent towards supporting those already have the connections to get into their pages. Note that I said bent, I didn’t say that the system is broken. If it is bent, it’s my hope it can be bent back. And if it is bent that means it’s still functional though it could damn well be fixed or its gonna break.
There are readers for literary journals and there are editors. The readers are the grunts working to read everything possible, for some journals thousands and thousands of manuscripts. They’ve got too many manuscripts on their hands, they’re overworked and understaffed. Every once in a while they find a gem and pass it on. That’s all they can do, send it up the chain of command. Now the editors, there is always a bug in their ear, an agent who wants their writer to get into their pages. They cultivate relationships with writers (surprised?) and they ask for stories. They do read and read extensively as manuscripts are circulated through every chain. We all know this and we know it well.
But to get into the New Yorker it takes more than a reader, you need the editor or you need at least a few successful novels so that they know who you are and to do that you’ve got to be damn good and you’re going to need an agent. They’re in the business of selling mags and the numbers are damn hard. We live in a time where the writing community is getting bigger and bigger with every generation of MFA grads (whose numbers keep increasing) and the population of literary fathers and mothers are writing more and more by living longer and longer, then you’ve got this economic force that is ever-present as the decline of revenue from advertising, blah blah blah. There is a silver lining though: the online literary magazines their talented staffs are producing some amazing work and that is allowing an unfiltered mass of talent into the world. Thank goodness we got that going for us.
Full disclosure: we at Our Stories published Cara’s short story story “Waking” in the spring of 2007.
Now logically, to that end we must question: are there dozens of female writers, agented female writers that are not getting their manuscript into the hands of editors? Sure there are because the system of exclusion that works here is set up to perpetuate what came before, not challenge itself to do something new. In the same way that Latinos, Asians and African Americans have been asked to write to their identities—women have been told to write to there own identities. Publishing is a reflection of the inequities of society, as it is what the culture of the world tells about itself—history is not only written by the victors, it is written by those deemed as reflecting the power structure. So on this point, to me, the story of JT LeRoy and how Laura Albert wrote as a man and fooled the industry is much more instructive than James Frey and how he fooled himself into thinking he was a writer. Whether it’s the editor never culling fresh writing without connections or it is they’re not taking the call of particular agents I wish I knew. In the end, it’s the entire system that I find alienating not just a single aspect of it.
Now I haven’t touched on the rest of the study, namely the lack of book reviews of female writers and without going too far back into it—I’d just say again that in this system as we’ve laid it out as such: where connections trumps everything and many industry types are scared of the unknown that the cycle perpetuates itself. Now, the hope in my opinion as to what you are witnessing today, is the reconfiguring of an entire institution and believe you me, publishing will be radically different during the rise of this generation and I damn well can’t wait.
CH-- What are the stats for men and women being published in OS?
AS-- First, a word about Our Stories. Our Stories is a literary journal (www.ourstories.us) that publishes short stories, interviews with authors and essays where I go on like I have already blabbing about something. I created the journal because as a grad student at Mason, I believed that the literary journal system was flawed. I still do, obviously. It made little sense to me that after I got out of my creative writing workshop, I’d walk down the hall to work with one of our journals. While there I’d be handed a stack of 30 manuscripts and a bunch of little tare sheet that all said, “Thank you for submitting to us, we regret we could not take this manuscript.” It seemed diametrically opposed to the process of the creative writing workshop itself; where you always give feedback. What happens as a reader is that when you need to cook through manuscripts you’re always looking for flaws and only flaws with your tare sheet ready. So when the mistake is found, well, that’s it. That’s your shot. They slip you a tare sheet and put your story in the recycling bin. Now what I mentioned before, about that stuff about the subconscious mind, well here’s where perhaps the whole readers and editors aren’t taking women writers may have traction. That the unconscious mind has set about to elide a percentage of stories that do rise to the point of becoming reviewed because they believe the name doesn’t match the prose. Is it possible? Why not? But friends, they’re then ignoring a whole lot of us.
What I want to know at what percentage to do big name journals take unsolicited manuscripts. 2%, 5% can we hope for 10%? I’m going to suggest something radical—what if in one year these magazines whose revenues are dropping every year—what if they decided to take 95% of unsolicited manuscripts? What if they told you what you did wrong. What if they really worked at cultivating new artists? What would happen?
At Our Stories we believe that every short story should be reviewed and that the writer should receive something in return for their work and their submission fee. Otherwise, I personally believe the literary journal is running an intellectual ponzi scheme taking a bunch of money, giving a chunk to a “winner” and the rest to their bank account. We give customized reviews of every page of a manuscript and try to show the writer that someone saw what they were working on. We send back a marked up manuscript with the hope that they’ll revise it. It is my hope that me and my amazing staff do not let our unconscious rule us as the last thing we’re interested in is gender, especially when we relish in giving feedback on entire manuscripts, not simply give a yes or no.
To get to your question though: At Our Stories for the past five years we published 45 men and 38 women as of this last contest period, I just sent out my acceptances not an hour ago and my hope is that’s our number. That’s 54% male to 46% female, though it has been a long time since I studied math, someone check. We’re not 50-50 or tipped in the other way (I was sort of hoping we would’ve) but we’re a lot closer than most. As far as interviews, we’re not doing as well. I’ve published ten interviews with men: Richard Bausch, Paul Cody, George Saunders, TC Boyle, Junot Diaz, Steve Almond, Matthew Sharpe, Adam Haslett, Alan Cheuse and Stuart Dybek. For women, to date only four: Ana Menendez, Stacey Richter, Karen E Bender and Dorothy Allison. This is something that I constantly on my mind, evening out this inequity and querying authors out there to interview.
CH -- Do more men submit than women?
AS-- That’s a really good question but unfortunately, short of counting every name in my system and guessing whether they’re male or female, I can’t answer that. This points to a pretty big problem in the literary world our: data. Or, as was beaten into my head doing my MSW at Washington University; data means research. Research means sciences. Which usually means for poets that there’s a pastiche poem calling them. No, seriously bad joke. However, without research it’s an uphill battle fighting for funds as we can only measure success in qualitative methods. We need to find a way to measure the success and the impact that our art has on our culture. Call me a heretic, I double dog dare you.
The literary community is notoriously poor at such endeavors and I don’t know of any MFAers out there that get down with crunching numbers—yet there should be. The Vida report–if it is anything–is an example of something that is sorely lacking: research and the data makes a frightening case.
Let me take this a step farther though, to prove my point about writing and data. There was this book written a little while back called “When Elephants Teach” by D.G Myers. The book was kind of a big deal when it was published. He said the following that rocked a lot of people:
“Estimates peg the professional success rate for graduates in creative writing at about one percent (as compared with 90 percent for graduates in medical school),... (Myers, 1996, pg. 2).
That's what he wrote. The guy is no slouch, he must be right, no? Professor at Texas A&M with a PhD from Northwestern. And his book was (and still sorta is) the book on MFA programs in the United States and the professional writer being in the classroom.
There are two startling things about that quote. The first thing that jumps out you is he seems to be saying that success is measured only with being published. You know this because as he goes on to say:
"A glance…to literary magazines or anthologies…confirms the widely
shared impression that for an entire generation of American writers a
tour of duty in a graduate writers’ workshop followed by a life of teaching
creative writing has been the stand in training and common experience of
its time." (Myers, 2996, pg. 2)
When I did research on this a few years ago for a paper I wrote on the subject I contacted the man himself because something didn't add up. When pressed on where he got his data, he responded:
“John Barth (in the reference preceding), if I remember. The figures are nothing but thumb-rules. Someone, perhaps you, needs to be a careful study of the programs' "success rate." And I should say that "success" is defined as getting a university job teaching CW.” (D.G. Myers, personal communication, October 31st 2008.)
So first off, he stated later in a conversation with me that the success of being a writer is to be in the classroom. Why he gets to define success for all writers is beyond me. Here’s the second troubling part of Myers’ passage, and I had to go and spend all of $3.99 to figure it out by going into the New York Times achieves: there’s no source behind any of the data, what he lists as data doesn’t exist.
So, I did research, I’ve looked at the specific quote he is referring to by John I’ve pulled the archives of the NYTimes. Take a look yourself at what that Myers cites for his research here. The bottom line is the 1% quote is 100% fiction, no pun intended and no thumb rule about it. It’s just a shock stat that has been passed around.
However, it has been taken as fact. I’ve read it in various prestigious journals where there are academics that have dittoed this stat, raising it above their heads as gospel. When I contacted them they feigned ignorance and suggested that I should “undertake a study” as well. The fact that intellectuals have repeated this quotation, without so much as verifying it makes me pretty bummed out. I have sat on the research for a year and those I contacted have not redacted or cited their error or thanked me for pointing it out.
What does it tell you thought? To do a MFA, might just not be so bad after all. I mean, I heard it often when I was in graduate school. A sort of foreboding conclusion that I was wasting my time with getting an MFA and that I was doomed. 1% DOOMED! 1% never going to make it?!
This fascination exists, with the continued desire to denigrate the MFA as of late in other articles, because there exists a cult of scholars, employed at universities (with PhD’s mind you) that use shoddy arguments and poor academic work to make half baked statements as to why PhDs and PhDs alone should be teaching at the university level.
Anyhoot, nuff about that, right? We’re talking gender data.
There are two companies who designed competing submission managers that could track such data for literary journals: Submission Manager, designed by Devin Emke, of One Story past and CLMP contract and Michael FitzGerald of the SubMishMash company. Both of them are gems of human beings who with some urging would, I’m sure take a lead on this. Devin could and should add male/female fields in these systems so we can drill down and have a more robust conversation. I am less familiar with SubMishMash but our system Submission Manager has no field of the sort.
CH -- Say something smart about gender. You took women's studies no?
AS -- I am a humanist and that title includes being a male feminist. I believe that there is no hierarchy of oppression. The only way to change this system is by changing ourselves and breaking this cycle.
Thanks for the opportunity.
 In The Elephants Teach Myers quotes John Barth stating, “Together they’ve probably turned out 75,000 official ‘writers’.” John Barth says. (4) endnote. This corresponding endnote reads: New York Times (January 8th, 1984). The article referenced is “Fertile Time for Creative Writing: More College Courses Every Year” (Chruchman , 1984) of the aforementioned date, by Deborah Chruchman, quoting Barth states: “There are 237 writing program like this around the country,” he said, doing quick quantum hops to produce the writer’s version of math anxiety. “Together they’ve probably turned out 75,000 official ‘writers.’” In the article there is no mention of the 1% quote that he seems to be attributing to Barth. The other references in endnote 4 is the Digest of Education Statistics,1991 table 233, p. 243 is accurate to show 592 Bachelor’s, 511 Master’s Degrees and 4 Ph.Ds). The final bit of endnote 4 states: For the number of creative writing programs see D. W. Fenza and Beth Jarock, eds., AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, 6th ed. (Paradise, Calif.: Dust Books, 1992). All three citations have no mention of 1% success rate of graduates of the MFA.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Writers use different techniques to shift action from one time to another, one place to another or from one character to another. The most obvious are chapter breaks in novels or the major breaks between paragraphs in short stories. The reader is ready for a shift.
A common time shift is simply starting the following paragraph: “The next morning, Jude was rudely awakened by Rita.”
One of the more subtle time shifts I’ve read is in Joan Shaw’s “The Victim.”
“A Judy Collins record was playing downstairs. It was a new record she had just bought and she was playing it over and over again. She had heard the screams over the fiddle and guitar section in the ‘Fishermen Song,’ but supposed them to be the screams of children, playing in the park. No, they were leaving the park, chasing her under the trees, laughing and screaming, having fun, chasing her all the way home. It had happened every day for a long time.” And without a break the paragraph goes on to describe her childhood.
Shaw continues to use the technique throughout the story.
Has anyone seen other interesting ways to shift action?
Georgia State Rep. Bobby Franklin has proposed a bill that would take the word “victim” out of cases involving rape, stalking, domestic violence and obscene telephone contact with a child, and replace it with the word “accuser.”
Franklin’s bill comes on the heels of an attempt to redefine the word rape itself in the H.R. 3, No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Bill which was proposed by Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey earlier this month. The attempt failed of course, but the overall strategy by the state to employ inaccurate language in the cause of creating inaccurate perceptions, and aiding in violent actions is doing just fine.
As Orwell wrote, “Freedom is the freedom to say that 2+2=4. All else shall follow.”
That’s not a freedom any of us should be taking lightly today.
Rather than getting sucked into debates with propagandists, it’s important to stay on top of the accurate use of language, especially in political and economic use. I truly believe, that all else will follow from this.
Here again is George Orwell, one of my favorite authors of all time from his seminal 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Nothing could express my thoughts and feelings on these issues impacting women more accurately.
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”
“Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.”
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Imagine that the characters that you have created in your head appear in front of you. They look and dress as you described and imagined. Their tone and gestures are pitch perfect. When they switch to another character, they change posture, they change facial expressions and they speak differently.
Last weekend four of my short stories were read by professional actors in
One of my stories is about a female assassin named Miriam Ivanna Allen. The actress who played her walked in. She had dark hair, was pencil thin, wore a black shirt, stove-pipe black slacks, and three inch stilettos. And she was able to be hard edged or purr, as the story demanded.
I’ve done some readings of my stories in the past. This experience gave me a whole new dimension about what it takes to do it effectively. Some lessons:
- Don’t hurry, read slowly, especially at the beginning
- If there is more than one character in the story, set up the second one carefully: pause, change posture, change tone of voice
- Spend time rehearsing the delivery
- Incorporate gestures into the reading
- The ideal set-up is a stool and stand for the pages
- Keep voice volume up, especially at the end of the sentence
- It helps if the story has a first person POV
The reading was part of the New Short Fiction Series at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery. A different author is featured each month.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
When I was in high school I worked at the public library. There was a special section of shelves reserved for the books that were new to the library’s collection. It was located directly in front of the entrance in hopes of catching the eyes of a patron looking for a new read. In 2008, the year that I graduated from high school, there was a particular book on the new shelf that I remember. Its cover popped with a Warhol style. In color tones of sunset likeness, there was the drawn face of a woman seen at a sideways angle, as though she were laying down. The entire face could not be seen, only part of her nose and, most predominantly, her mouth. Crimson and parted were her lips in an expression of happiness, satisfaction. The title of the book was Dangerous Laughter. This was my first encounter with the work of Steven Millhauser.
When I first started interning for Our Stories the main focus was on the interview being conducted with Millhauser. I was given the task of helping to formulate some of the questions that were being asked of Steven Millhauser in our interview with a Master series. When I step back and look at the entire process now I cannot help but feel that I was in the best position. The pressure of being in contact with him directly was non-existent, however I had the opportunity to ask questions that I was genuinely interested in. That being said I didn’t know where to begin. What sort of questions do you ask an accomplished writer like Millhauser, who has been through the rigmarole of interviews many times already and more than likely answered the same questions more than once? What's more, he is a private man who is generally loathe to even entertain participating in an interview to begin with—and we got him!
I know one thing to be true; Millhauser’s stories were not only great, but unique in the same way that the stories of Ray Bradbury are. They all had the quality of allowing you to be aware of many things but not everything. There was always that notion of uncertainty, as if you were sitting in a darkened movie theater, the movie theater in your home town that you frequented some Friday nights, but when you look around the lightly dimmed darkness you realize that you are the only one there.
I decided to gear my questions less towards the “How do you do what you do?” and rather more towards the, “Why do you do what you do?”. I already knew the effect of Millhauser’s work, how it made me feel. It was more important to me that I try to better understand the core of Millhauser’s work, the themes, symbolism, character development and how all of these things, when put together in Millhauser’s way, are distinctly profound.
After the questions were tightened up and the interview was conducted, I was sent the responses. It was interesting for me, as I mentioned before, to be distantly engaged in conversation with a writer whose work I had read. He did not know who I was but yet he was answering questions that came from me. This wasn’t at all impersonal, however. If anything it only made me more aware of the language that writers use to speak to one another, no matter what their personal style or mode. It is more than a language even. It’s an understanding that writers everywhere possess, though they may not fully know it. It is this understanding that adds light to the darkened theater and projects itself on the stark screen just enough to ensure a kind of familiarity.
Monday, February 7, 2011
I first met Annia Ciezadlo in the 90s when we were working for a small newspaper in western New York. She was an overwhelmingly articulate young woman; a brilliant, deeply funny, dumpster-diving DIYer who taught me how to can peppers and make jam, who read Orwell books and Julie Doucet comics, and who knew what it was to live hand to mouth. She quickly became one of my best friends.
It’s well over a decade later, and Ciezadlo has had a distinguished career as a war correspondent, covering Middle Eastern war and politics for newspapers and magazines like The Nation and The New Republic. Her new book Day of Honey: a Memoir of Food, Love, and War, has just been published by Free Press. Today, Dwight Garner of the New York Times called it among “the most intimate and valuable [books] to have come out of the Iraq war.” Ciezadlo may be the only war correspondent in history to have her work described as “mouthwatering” or to be lauded by the editor of Saveur.
I have been lucky enough to have read Day of Honey from some of its earliest incarnations. Over the years, I have had various conversations about politics with the author, often while she is cooking. Here is one.
Q. One of the questions that seems to keep popping up about Day of Honey is: why would someone with your background choose to write a memoir about food?
Ancient feminist proverb: The personal is political. Western depictions of the Middle East tend to focus on politics. Ideology defines everything—the people are secondary. Or worse, they become objects the writer uses in order to prove a particular point. And that’s why I chose to write about food: it’s harder to be an abstraction when your mouth is full of rice. When it comes to the Middle East, and especially the Arab world, simply depicting people as human beings is the most political thing you can do.
Q. So did you conceive of your work as overtly political when you were writing it?
I don’t think there’s a difference between writing about food and writing about war or politics. Food is inherently political: Who makes it? Who buys it? Who eats it, and who doesn’t, and why? All of these are deeply political questions. Follow them and they lead you to power, economics, inequality, and even war. So you could say that I’m still writing about politics. But in a more concrete form than before.
Q. Were you reacting to any of the trends of the past two decades—dick lit, chick lit, hip lit, et cetera?
I like to play with genres. I was reacting to a couple of literary stereotypes: men are encouraged to write about war and politics and public life. Women are encouraged to write about family and food and personal life. Look at which books get profiled on The Daily Show, and which ones end up on Oprah, and you’ll see what I mean. I wanted to play with those expectations by combining the overwhelmingly femininized genre of the culinary memoir with the more traditionally masculine genre of the war/travel/adventure book.
Q. So in that sense it was more about the social and literary expectations focusing on gender?
Yeah, because most culinary memoirs these days are by women. They tend to center on subjects like romance, career advancement, and personal relationships. We’re taught to be ashamed of writing about these things, because they’re not “serious” topics like war and peace. But in fact they’re what make up the fabric of our lives. Most war memoirs, by contrast, are by men. They tend to focus on soldiers, adventure, and physical danger. But it doesn’t make sense: Men have personal relationships, and feelings, and women fight and die in wars. I wanted to write a book that reminded people that the larger politics—of war and peace, and sectarian hatred, and US foreign policy—are inescapably bound together with the supposedly “smaller” details of our everyday lives.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Some of the most wonderful moments happen in the stories that explore the hearts of youths. The second story in the collection, "Where the Spiders Sleep," gives a child's point of view in an abusive household. The anguish and confusion are tangible, and details and settings are haunting, as are the recollections of a narrator in "Pieta," also from a difficult home, who in retelling events around her father's murder explains the wonder of her life after her mother, coming into money, leaves the abusive father: "My senses blossomed as if they'd been brought out of the basement into the light, and I had wonderful dreams." Another story, "Bella," also conveys the p.o.v. of a youngster, where the bruises on peaches (the delicious secrets of the imperfect) echo the nature of a store owner, named Bella, as well as the nature of what her kind of store meant to towns in the first place.
Stories about adult frustration and redemption are likewise moving. There's a guy who's just been robbed in San Francisco who's unsettled enough to wreck a party and a relationship in the opening story, "Robbery." Surreal moments of passersby laughing while the first-person narrator's being held up are vivid, as are the scenes depicting other kinds of ways the character's been robbed. There's an artist in "Where He Went Under" who witnesses a man drown just beyond where he was painting--and the story details how that death births his artistic method. "Rain Forest Crunch" is a wonderful story about a young man with a lot of hang ups. I mean, how can you argue with the opening lines? "He is young and has many opinions. Everything sucks..." Yet our central character finds intimacy, and through that reflects, and undergoes change. "Spice" is another story that shows a character's adjusting to a relationship with understanding and love. In a sort of honeymoon trip to New York, paid for by an uncle, a husband realizes he has more in common with the beer-drinking sports fans in a local bar than the more "cultured" people his wife can also befriend. "Unclean Spirits"--wow! The best exorcism in fiction!
The later stories in the collection mostly deal with older or elderly characters. An old woman in "Pie" staves off neighbors with an obsolete rifle make so that cherries on a wind-blown tree (blocking a lane of the road) can ripen. A son holds the hand of his dying mother in the poetic "Speaking in Code." And the story "The Estate Sale" is an extremely moving story about a reverend after suffering strokes, whose belongings are being sold around him, because he needs to live in a retirement home. This work is a vivid and heart-wrenching story about confession, redemption, and bravery in the face of growing old and changing. Language and details recreate the sometimes confused viewpoints of the reverend, and who couldn't cheer for an old guy with enough conviction to stab a jerk's hand with a pen? Go, Reverend! The collection's final story, "Light," is likewise heart-wrenching. We get the perspectives of an assisted living nurse and caretaker who may have developed lupus from the stress of her job, and we get an elderly woman who, though she's losing control in certain ways, entertains vivid images filled with detail, such as the final lines:
Highly recommended, and Richard may be the main reason I recommend any member of our writing community looking for a good MFA program to consider Wichita State's.