Fifth week round-up

Fifth week round-up highlights posts in the last few months:

May’s roundup

History and Humanity in Summary

A Different Sense of Place: Where a Story Begins and Ends

I Want Every Poem to Change My Life. No Pressure

Blogs You Should Be Reading

Winging It

Down the Rabbit Hole: Growing Strangeness in The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club

The Snow Child

Barry Hannah’s Monstrous American Hero

“Words that burn”: Honesty in Denise Duhamel’s Blowout

June’s round-up:

Writing Tips to Get You Through the Summer Doldrums

Diamond Mining

Biblical Allusion in Flannery O’Conner’s The Violent Bear It Away

Just Breathe

July’s round-up:

Lines That Linger

Repetition in Tanya Olson’s “Notes from Jonah’s Lecture Series”

The Threat of Violence

Werewolves and the War on Terror: A Literary Snob on Betrayal

Literary Magazine Highlight-Glimmer Train, Slice

Literary Magazine Highlight-Glimmer Train, Slice

Support for literary magazines is crucial. Here is a short sampling of some of the literary magazines I’m familiar with:

Glimmer Train is a literary magazine that publishes quarterly. The magazine publishes strictly short stories and each issue is approximately 200 pages. Each issue comes with a bookmark to mark your place in the event you have to put it down before you’ve finished reading. The covers are colorful and each story includes a childhood picture of the author, with a personal comment from the author about the picture’s importance–an aspect of the magazine I really enjoy reading.

In addition to their magazine, they also publish a quarterly newsletter Writers Ask, a great little resource for both serious writers and readers of literary fiction. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten this, but I just signed up for a new subscription, and I plan on keeping each issue in a binder.

Glimmer Train also has a free bulletin. A sample is here and if you want to sign up for it, scroll to the bottom of the home page. This bulletin is well-worth reading–it contains essays from established authors, news on the latest contests, and other informative information. It’s always free, so there’s no reason not to sign up for this valuable resource. From the last issue: Allison Amend’s letter to her younger writing self.

Here is information on regular submissions or contests. Glimmer Train pays both contest winners and those chosen for publication in their magazine.

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Slice is a literary magazine based in Brooklyn, New York. Slice publishes poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. It is a paying magazine, and is published twice a year. Their next reading period is June 1-August 1; guidelines are here. Issues are well-put together–in content and in physical appearance. Each issue is substantial–this magazine just feels good in your hands. My favorites are the author interviews and the fiction, but I find myself reading each issue cover to cover.

The Slice and Dice section contains an interview of author Eric Larson (The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin); a weekly podcastEncounters in Publishing-short essays on the publishing world, (check out the sidebar for Encounters in a Bookstore); and information on their conference and New York City events.

Those are just some of my favorites. Feel free to add your favorite literary magazine in the comments section.

Werewolves and the War on Terror: A Literary Snob on Betrayal

by Matthew McEver

We are seeing a revival or reclamation of the fantastic in literary fiction. Writers like Aimee Bender and Karen Russell are being praised for combining “the weird” with psychological realism and dry humor. At one time I would have felt fairly confident offering an Amazonian endorsement, saying, “If you liked Bender and Russell, you might also like Benjamin Percy.” But after reading his latest novel, Red Moon, I’m more inclined to say, “If you like Stephen King …”

Percy is a graduate of Brown University and received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University. His debut short story collection, The Language of Elk (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2006), featured stories with outlandish premises—a man falls in love with a bearded lady, a husband is obsessed with tracking down Sasquatch, a father excavates a mummified body and stores it in his home—yet for all the quirkiness, Percy dealt with human longings in these stories. His follow up short story collection, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) was compelling, naturalistic. Here, Percy pushed characters to their emotional limits as they dealt with fathers in Iraq, bear attacks, and a nuclear accident. His first novel, The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2011), about three generations of males on a weekend hunting trip, reads like a tribute to Dickey’s Deliverance. These works could be described as realistic, literary fiction.

Red Moon is another matter. It is Percy’s entry into literary horror. He deals with werewolves in this novel, but not in the Lon Chaney Jr. sense. Lycans, as they are called, are people infected with an animal-bourne pathogen along the lines of Mad Cow Disease, enabling people to take on a wolf-like form at will. Lycans have suffered persecution for centuries and, currently, they cannot serve in law enforcement or medicine and they are federally mandated to take a controversial drug that keeps transformation at bay with side effects.

Like Shelley and Stoker in their times, Percy uses the idea of werewolves living among us in order to tap into the cultural unease of the day. The anxieties channeled here relate directly to the war on terror and the fear of Muslims. The novel even begins with the radical wing of this persecuted minority orchestrating a grand act of domestic terrorism. The primary point-of-view characters are two young adult survivors, Patrick and Claire. Patrick is the lone survivor of the lycan terrorist attack, and Claire is on the run after a government-sanctioned military strike on her lycan community in retaliation for the terrorist episode. It also turns out that the leader of free world, who campaigned on a theme of getting tough on lycans, is now infected.

No question, Percy has a strong narrative voice. The prose is lyrical, the descriptions of setting and action vivid. In other words, he has a knack for world-building. Yet some readers will find Red Moon trying. Moments of emotional impact in the lives of characters in Red Moon are often summarized. We are often led away from pivotal scenes as though cutting to black for a commercial break, then dropped into another scene, another subplot, and then we return to the original scene for the summation.

If you enjoyed the character-driven fiction of Percy’s previous work, be aware that Red Moon is driven more by premise—and action scenes. Also, the pacing of the novel is almost frantic at times, exacerbated by the use of present tense. As a technique, present tense creates a sense of urgency, but 530 pages of present tense feels like a screenplay. Coincidentally, Percy is currently writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of The Wilding. Perhaps film adaptations of novels are Percy’s goal. Perhaps my lackadaisical attitude toward Red Moon is tied to mourning what appears to be a literary author’s move into commercial fiction. More pointedly, it seems as though Percy is moving toward writing stories meant for the big screen. (Reportedly his next novel is a post-apocalyptic take on the Lewis and Clark passage). I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge an author for such a move, but I will miss the emotional arcs and character depth in less grandiose stories about bear attacks and bearded ladies.

Percy, Benjamin. Red Moon. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013.

The Threat of Violence

Of the stories in The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor I’ve read I most enjoyed (not surprisingly) “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and this was in part due to the way O’Connor handles the violence in the piece. The threat of violence is ubiquitous in the story, but no actual violence happens on the page.

Violence is a complex thing in life and even more so in fiction. While it can happen randomly in reality, it must serve a purpose in any story. There are many different ways to use violence within fiction depending on the kind of feeling the writer is trying to create. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has a murderer as one of the primary characters (The Misfit). He is capable of, and has done, terrible things. The way O’Connor presents this is telling of what sort of story is to come. She could have shown a vivid description of his crimes, perhaps in a police report or through word of mouth, but instead she only mentions that violence happened and skips any gruesome details.

“…And you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it,” (117).

O’Connor alludes to the atrocities The Misfit has committed, but she doesn’t show them to the reader (this happens again on page 122 when they discuss The Misfit with Red Sammy). By not providing the reader with details it forces them to furnish the story with whatever particular crimes they find to be the most terrible. Withholding the details of the violence also increases the tension (in the same way a Hitchcock film is more suspenseful than any gruesome movie in the theaters today). The threat of violence has to feel as large and omnipresent as possible for the scene where the family encounters The Misfit. Five of the seventeen pages in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” pass between the reader’s suspicion of The Misfit appearing and any actual killing taking place, and O’Connor makes them tense and suspenseful by withholding any physical depictions of violence earlier in the story.

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time, and it is an excellent story to study to look at how violence can be used effectively without being gruesome or graphic. Something novice and veteran writers alike would do well to keep in mind.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

P.S. Good horror/thriller stories withhold scenes in a similar manner. Few creatures or men are as menacing as those your imagination defines for you.

Repetition in Tanya Olson’s “Notes from Jonah’s Lecture Series”

The story of Jonah and the Whale is one of those Bible stories deemed acceptable for children. It’s rated G for general audiences, or maybe for God for beginners. I can remember being fascinated with the idea of living in a giant sea creature for three days, and, I’ll admit, I more often than not thought about Pinocchio and Geppetto lighting that fire and being sneezed out Monstro’s mouth. The fairy tale ending happens when the blue fairy shows up and turns Pinocchio into a real boy. Happy, happy.

My point is that the lesson in Jonah’s adventure is often lost on children. Why focus on not following directions, being punished for it, and then following directions, when one can imagine a ceiling made of a huge rib cage? Sporting real donkey’s ears because you just ate a ton of candy on Pleasure Island? Living on a raft inside the belly of a whale? In Tanya Olson’s poem “Notes from Jonah’s Lecture Series” from her book Boyishly, the reader is challenged to abandon the Disneyfication of her vision of being inside (if, indeed, she didn’t, like me, quite get the lesson and went with the cartoon version). The reader is further challenged to abandon the biblical lesson, focusing instead on the concept of being trapped inside a giant mammal as a metaphor.

Olson accomplishes this with the use of repetition. Each stanza in the poem begins with a line that includes the phrase “inside the whale.” Stanza one reads: “Inside the whale, it is as if / you have always been inside a whale, / as if there is only inside the whale. / It is as if there was before the whale / and now. And in now / you will always be inside a whale” (19). Most people have experienced the feeling of being stuck, unable to to move or change. “(Q-What is / the hardest angle for identifying whales? / A-From inside the whale” (19). While inside the whale, while inside the problem or situation, it is often impossible to identify what  the problem or situation really is.

The repetition of “inside the whale” and “the whale” throughout the poem lend a rhythm that encourages the meditation Olson calls for. Stanza four reads: “When inside the whale, it is best to be / inside the whale. Do what you are inside / the whale to do. Of course, you may use / only what was with you when thrown / overboard. No one packs to go inside the whale” (19, 20). This bit of humor furthers the metaphor. No one can prepare for all of the problems or “whales” they encounter. There is often nothing a person can do to avoid being “thrown overboard.”

What one can do, however, is “meditate and practice journeys / to outside the whale” (20). Olson offers the reader a method for overcoming adversity. Imagine yourself being spit out, she writes. “Consider the feel / of baleen brushing against skin / and the way his rough tongue reopens / your atrophied, unremembered eyes” (20).

Olson’s use of repetition to rework this ancient tale gives it new life. There is no mention of divine intervention here, no blue fairy transformation, only the concentration of the individual mind on post-whale existence. After all, “Your mind is of  greater capacity / than the whale’s mind, but again, / a whale will do what a whale will do” (19). 

Olson, Tanya. Boyishly. Portland: YesYes Books, 2013.

Contributor News-Gabrielle Brant Freeman

Contributor Gabrielle Brant Freeman has her poem “Paranormal” up at Mixitini Matrix.

Here’s a snippet of what Gabby had to say about her poem’s collaborative effort: “This poem is from a series of ongoing Facebook poems. The basics are I post a prompt, FB friends post their immediate responses, and 24 hours later, I take the responses and turn them into a first draft of a poem.” 

You can read the rest of her statement at the end of her poem.

Lines that Linger

by Yolande Clark-Jackson

I recently gave my thirteen-year-old son a copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  It was on his summer reading list. The book is narrated by Death and there are three sentences in the narration that my son was compelled to write down and memorize.  Death says, “In war young men think they are running toward other young men. They are not.  They are running at me. “

Now there are many great lines and scenes in that book, but these are the lines my son wanted to keep.  It impresses me that good writing has the ability to get people to copy whole lines and paragraphs down and memorize them. I love that language can do this. Now, I don’t have the ability to memorize most of my favorite lines from the best books I’ve read, but I do write them down.  They are in pages of letters, old journals, or blog posts.  I, too, am unable to leave some lines behind. I want to reflect on them and share them with others long after I’ve left the pages of the book.

What are the characteristics of these lines that linger, and how does one write them? I think one answer is: If they speak to a universal truth.  If they ring true universally to the human experience but reveal truth in a way that is fresh or unexpected. Another answer is: If the words defy what is commonly accepted.  These are things that make the reader take pause to reflect or re-read.

 After reading, “On Morality” by Joan Didion, I contemplated the idea of morality in a way I had not done before. She writes “good” or “moral” was a “monstrous perversion to which any human idea can come.” It aligns with the popular saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”’ We can shape “moral” into anything we choose, including a stone to murder a woman who is accused of adultery.

In Comfort, Ann Hood writes, “Time doesn’t heal”, which is the opposite of the popular quote, “Time heals all wounds.” And knowing that there are some traumas that people do not recover from, the reader understands why Hood challenges it. Her words stayed with me because they were true for me as well.

My son doesn’t know why those three sentences in Zusak’s book stopped him, but I do. He found the truth in them; a truth he didn’t expect to find but knew he wanted to keep.