I’ve recently fallen in love with the New York-based nonprofit indie press, Archipelago Books. I love their satisfyingly minimalist book designs. I especially love their mission to publish beautiful translations of classic and contemporary world literature. This includes literature written originally in Arabic, Spanish, Norwegian, Dutch, Tamil, Russian, Slovenian, Greek, and more. According to the press’s website, “less than three percent of new literature published in the United States originates outside the Anglosphere.” This is why Archipelago’s work is so important—to find illuminating international writers that American readers might not otherwise encounter.
So far, I’ve only read Love by Hanne Ørstavik (winner of the PEN Translation Prize and a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature), which was hauntingly outstanding. Now, I can’t wait to go back and read the entire Archipelago catalogue.
Can you name all 14 Archipelago Books titles featured in these slivers?
Last Friday, our publishing class had the great opportunity to Skype with Jynne Dilling Martin of Riverhead Books. We chatted all about the history of Riverhead, the changes that social media has made for the industry, and tips on how to break into the NYC publishing scene.
One thing that particularly stuck with me from Jynne’s talk was how the design team at Riverhead strives to craft a unique “visual identity” for each title. Essentially, this means that if you eliminated the text from each cover, you’d still be able to identify the books based on the graphics alone.(Remember this Buzzfeed quiz on classic book covers?)
So in order to test this, I created a fun collaged scavenger hunt, in which I have tucked 18 of Riverhead’s stunning book covers inside. Some are more subtle than others. Can you find them all? Leave your guesses in the comments below!
I’m already two months into the second year of my MFA! My program at VCFA definitely is an unconventional model and people often ask me to explain my course schedule over and over again. (Crash course: 5 craft modules per semester, each module lasting 3 weeks and taught by a rotation of core and visiting faculty; 2 semester-long classes involving writing workshops). I’ve been thinking about how to craft a post about the classes I’m taking this semester, and realized that the books we’ve been reading for each class should do the talking for me!
Craft Module 2 – Poetry and What’s at Stake: Through the incredible collections of poems by Carolyn Forché, Kaveh Akbar, and Chen Chen, along with excerpts of books by Solmaz Sharif, Ocean Vuong, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, our class (led by Rita Banerjee) discussed urgency, conflict, and stake-raising turns in both formal and experimental poems.
Craft Module 3 – Making Fiction True: Adding Texture and Meaning: This course seems to be the school’s response to the kinds of stories my class wants to tell. The majority of us fiction writers have magical/paranormal/speculative elements creeping into our stories in large and small ways. Lesley Arimah uses the lens of speculative fiction to teach us how to sell improbable situations by crafting “the narrative ecosystem” with authenticity and layers of complexity. We’re studying Man v. Nature, The Golem & the Jinni, and Exit West to explore three types of speculative fiction: “our world, but different,” “our world, much changed,” and “the brand new world.”
Novel Writing Thesis Seminar: In this semester-long class, we crazies who are attempting to write a novel for our thesis (or at least 100 pages of it) submit chunks regularly to be workshopped. Along with reading each other’s works, we are also studying the unique structures of award-winning novels. So far, we have read The Underground Railroad (a very tightly structured novel) and A Visit from the Goon Squad (a novel structured in “interconnected stories”). There’s nothing like reading two brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning books in a row to make you rethink everything you’re doing….
Critical Essay (not pictured): This class does not require any reading, as its purpose is for us thesis-writing crazies to craft a book proposal draft that could potentially become what we submit to agents/editors with our manuscript and query letter. Until then, this class helps us envision our thesis and think through our motivations, our scope, our market, our audience, and the trajectory of the stories we want to tell.
That’s all for now, but there’s more to come, more blog posts to write, more classes to attend, more books to read. Which is great, because you know I can’t resist a good “books spread across the floor” picture.
The day has finally come—one I’ve been anticipating for quite a while now. I read The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld last fall and loved it so much, I reached out to Denfeld for an interview. Little did I know that an excerpt of that interview would become the exclusive back matter for the paperback copy of the book!
The Child Finder is a suspenseful, empathic, and heartfelt exploration into the terrifying depths of the human soul. And the book cover alone is a masterpiece with its fairy-lit, sea green snow. I can’t recommend this book—all of Rene Denfeld’s work—enough.
Gah…in my move back to Vermont, I’ve really fallen down on the blog job. So here I am, attempting to redeem myself with a mostly photo essay (with some words, too).
You know you’re back in Montpeculiar when the trees warn you they are for panda purposes only:
Last Wednesday, I went to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which was a delightfully magical film about the life of Fred Rogers. It encapsulated an era so dearly. When the credits started, we as a collective theater not-so-furtively wiped our soggy eyes and stepped back out into the mundane Main Street dusk. It was so bizarre to leave that theater and go on with our lives, partly in that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood has never had a reboot, has never been overtly commercialized, has never transformed into a pop culture consumerist ploy. It is so wholesomely what it was for the time that it had: a dedicated space and time for the sole purpose of engaging, encouraging, educating, and loving children. Please do go out and see this film, if you have a chance! (Of course, writing this post did jog my memory to the time I found this mug for sale at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.)
On the writing front: I’ve been on a bit of a flash fiction writing stint, thanks to the photo prompts provided by Midwestern Gothic. (I was a finalist for their 2015 Flash Fiction Prize here with this photo below!)
I find that flash fiction and photos pair so naturally together, because a photo in its essence is a bound moment in time. Yes, in that moment, the future and past seep in, stored in the collective memory and experience of that place and its people. But there’s a border cropping the photo to its size, just as flash fiction word limits (e.g. 500 words) imparts a border on the told story. Which details are seen and which details are just outside of the border are decisions that have to be made by the keen eye of the writer—almost as if we are writing our story with the disciplined filter of a camera lens.
This weekend, a few of us from the cohort are heading down to a rural New Hampshire camp for a two-day homemade writing retreat. At least writing is the goal…but the mountains, the lakes, the trails are always calling.
I first readThe Bell Jar back in high school (let’s face it, because Rory Gilmore read it), but I don’t think I was really ready to read it at that time. I recently picked up the book again, this time buying my own beloved blue and pink copy from Bear Pond Books.
This book swallowed me like a whale and down there in the deep, dark belly, I did not want to come out. I spent most of the last three days hula-hooping on the porch or riding the stationary bike reading Miss Sylvia, oblivious to the clock running its minute hand endlessly. I won’t even tell you the number of coffee cups I let grow cold.
Unsurprisingly, I love this book! And I think this was the most perfectly timed reading of this book I could possibly have managed.
It’s true I’m a Libra who frequently has difficulty making decisions. It’s true I also have so many interests, I often want to do all the jobs at once. This is exemplified in Plath’s analogy of the fig tree, where each fig represents a different choice or path in Esther Greenwood’s life, such as a husband and children, a career as a poet, an Olympic crew champion, a prestigious professorship, a renowned magazine editor, etc. With such an array of decisions, she is afraid she will end up choosing nothing, and what a waste of good fruit that would be. She says:
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and grow black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet (77).
After next year’s graduation, I’ll find myself standing at the crux of my own forked paths, just like Esther. I, too, have many visions—many figs—of myself and my future. I, too, can see myself pursuing similar paths as Esther, although substituting tap dance for Olympic crew. However, one thing marks a stark difference. I am not a woman growing up in the 50s. I have been taught and mentored by women of the 21st century who manage to juggle all their figs in the air without dropping them, without blotting the ground with seedy pulp. Sure, these women have also mastered the art of stopping time: freezing certain figs mid-air to allow other figs to be caught first. But nevertheless, the figs remain intact. I have some great models in my life who have proved that in today’s world, a woman can sit in the tree and gorge herself not on one fig alone, but on all the figs she can reach. But first, she must make the initial climb into the tree. That’s the first step.
In her introduction to the paperback novel, Frances McCullough reveres Plath’s ability to write about mental illness in such vivid and rational prose, especially during a time where such issues were not entirely socially acceptable to talk about. While Plath led me by the hand into the world of the asylum—a world which seemed like a very sterile alien world to me—Esther’s behaviors under the gaze of doctors and psychiatrists were not completely foreign. I know well the pleasure of telling people “what I wanted to, and that I could control the picture [people have] of me by hiding this and revealing that.” I know the anxiety that comes with attempting to walk across The Bridge of Perfection. At any moment, you could fall up or down – floating stagnant in a gravity-less air or plunging into a teal and coral earth pool. Without wings, without fins, without goggles to help eyes see, falling and failing really can be terrifying. Esther Greenwood understands that terrifically, which is the real beauty of art –how we can connect so intimately with people we’ve only met through words.
Even though the book grapples with grave topics, Plath’s voice can be hilarious. Her dry humor sweeps in just when you are feeling low and creates tender moments of levity. The word “Ha!” even makes a few appearances in my green-inked marginalia. These are just a few of the reasons why The Bell Jar earned a permanent spot on my list of most favorite books.
On the topic of falling and failing and releasing perfection’s hold, I’ve found this video from Granta very inspiring. I will surely return to Mohsin Hamid’s words again and again to remind me that writing (or attempting to write) can happen in a myriad of ways, and who’s really to say that your writing process is wrong, as long as you are attempting to make progress on something.
This advice also came to me at a brilliant time, as tomorrow, I’m off to Kenyon College for a weeklong fiction workshop, led by Ghassan Abou-Zeinnedine. Photos and stories and creative tidbits will be shared here on the blog when I get back!
The mysterious thesis (which I will not divulge too much about yet as it is still in its infancy) is taking over my mind! I can tell you that it is a historical/psychological novel which takes place in post-war Japan. More to come!
To keep on schedule between now until next May when the thesis is due, I’ve drafted up a timeline for myself because visuals help me keep myself accountable for my work. For the last few months of this semester, my goal is to just read everything. Everything I can get my hands on! Novels on similar topics, historical and nonfiction first-hand narratives from survivors of the atom bomb, non-subject related books whose structure I want to study, etc. For our thesis, we technically only need to turn in the first 100 pages of a “novel in progress.” But if you know me well, I always have to finish what I start. I have to see the project through and I always LOVE to make things more difficult for myself! Ha! So I’m planning on having a first draft of a full-length novel by the time I leave VCFA. It’s all very exciting and … well mostly exciting.
Speaking of process, I’m very music-oriented when I write. So I’ve crafted a sort of “novel soundtrack” for this book. Every time I sit down to write a part of it or think through the book, I get into the mind of the book by playing the same songs from the playlist on a continuous loop. Songs include: “For Rose” by Parov Stelar, “Exurgency” by Zoe Keating, “Rubric” by Philip Glass, “Meditation on Mount Fuji” from the Deep Sleep Relaxation cd, “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Recomposed: Winter 1” by Max Richter, and of course, The Beatles.
I’m interested to hear what other writers’ processes are when they are at the beginning of a project.
Even though I am in full reading mode, I’m lucky in that reading often puts me in a writing mode. So there is much writing occurring, too!
This is my current reading pile. All are in various stages of partial progress or haven’t even started yet. Mostly Japanese authors and tales because of my thesis, with Melissa Febos tucked in there for fun and because she is visiting our class next week! This is just the tip of the iceberg of the books that I am reading for my thesis research. Stay tuned for more!
Number9Dream byDavid Mitchell. I am such a fan of Mitchell’s stories, having previously read Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, and Slade House. This particular novel, based in Japan, is action-filled with a cat-and-mouse chase, all the while balancing the surreal dreamworld with the historical pang of the war; a mixture I hope to successfully create in my own book. I haven’t started Mitchell’s novel yet, but am very much looking forward to it.
Children of Hiroshima compiled by Dr. Arata Osada. Is that Cammie weeping in her room again? If so, it’s because she is reading this book, which consists of 105 first-hand accounts about the events of August 6, 1945, written by children who experienced and survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It is horrific, brain-staining, and should be a mandatory read for people of all ages.
Abandon Me: Memoirsby Melissa Febos. I’m about halfway through Febos’ collection of personal essays and can go, oh maybe one page, before I’m scribbling down another quote in my notebook. Her writing is bold and passionate, her words ripping straight through the paper, right through my skin. The themes she explores in this book are surprisingly helpful to understanding one of my thesis’ characters particularly. She put into words—beautiful and frightening truths—that “the nature of want…is to crush.” She goes on to describe her desire for her beloved’s body as “wanting to unzip my body and pull her into it, or crawl into hers.” Along similar lines, Febos describes how she “could hurt the person [she] least wanted to.” If you haven’t picked this book up yet, do so immediately. It is something to savor, like dark chocolate dipped into hot coffee.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. Everyone is recommending me read this, and honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet at this point in my life! One thing I know is that I will probably blast The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” on high while reading.
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve read this one before and am already a quarter into my second read. I’m definitely picking up on things I hadn’t noticed before. The dialogue is the most interesting element in that the characters seem to be saying nothing of significance at all to each other, and in that, they are really saying so much. Other times, two people are in a conversation but are not responding to each other. Instead, they carry on with their own monologues, which is still a type of communication—usually one displaying dysfunction or anger. I’m also excited to read An Artist of the Floating World, too.
The ampersand is technically a bookend, but I like to place its infinite curves on top of my book pile every once in a while to remind myself that there is always more. More to read, more to write. The book pile is endless. There will always be an AND, never an END.
I am spending my days drinking tea and writing a few vignettes because the novel seems to want to follow that very short chapter format. I’m editing two short stories from workshop, and am gearing up for April Poetry Month. For the past 3 years, I have written 30 poems in 30 days each time April rolls around. Each collection of 30 poems becomes a time capsule of that month of my life. I can remember exactly what occurred on each day to influence my daily poems. This year will be no different.
(If you are interested in participating in April’s National Poetry Month, but don’t want to write poems, consider signing up for Poem-a-Day,which is a daily digital poetry series which distributes a poem each day into your inbox!)
Snow 2.0. Yes, there is still snow, and my feet are slightly bored of the constant snugness of boots. The trees are laced in snow doilies, which is beautiful, but I would very much like some greenery and sun. At least some dogwoods and tulips and fluttering fauna would be nurturing for the soul.
The good news is that we are off on spring break for a whole week, which is a much-earned and much-welcomed break. On Wednesday, I leave for AWP (Association of Writers and Publishers) – the biggest writerly conference in America – where I will be representing Hunger Mountain and working the booth at the book fair. This event has been a bucket list item of mine for many years, and now it’s actually happening! This year, the conference is in sunny Tampa, and I’m not sure I even remember how to dress for warm weather. There are about 200 panels which will be coinciding with the book fair, and I am a little daunted by the schedule! So far, I’ve only looked at Thursday’s schedule and already have added 20 panels to my “Favorites” list! Eek!
Until Wednesday, I am editing a draft of a new short story, applying for a few summer residencies and conferences, and want to start a new art project with my little doodle buddy, but I’m not sure what form the project will take. Tarot cards? A series of graphic quotes? A flip book? Suggestions are welcome.
If you are not familiar with my little buddy, allow me to introduce him!
A few years ago, I found myself doodling in a notebook one day and the result of the doodling was this guy: a dapper sort, always dressed in a cardigan and neatly knotted scarf, with a spinning top for a head. He’s followed me throughout the years, trotting through notebook page margins, decorating my walls, organizing his scarf drawer within his bedroom of my brain. My buddy exists in variations: sometimes the wind is especially strong and whips his head around and around, tugging on his scarf. Sometimes, he taps into his natural roots and sprouts antler-like branches from his head. Sometimes, he hangs upside down, preferring to see the world from a new perspective. He is a comfort to me, I guess you could say. That he doesn’t have a face doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, it is soothing that he doesn’t have to worry about expressions and vanity and judgments and outward-appearing emotions.
He is strange and wonderful and slightly evasive, and a creature I really want to bring more fully into this world. So again, suggestions for a new art project are welcomed!
Also in new developments, I will be posting frequently on Twitter a new photo series, which will document the books I am reading outside of class. Here is the first of the Reading Bench Series:
Because everyone should have a familiar reading bench (when they are not hula hooping and reading, of course!) Stay tuned for more in the series soon!
So, lots of art and editing in a bomb cyclone wonderland, and impatiently anticipating AWP and spring!