December Staff Picks: Historical Cooking, Cartoons, and Fantasy Fiction!

Carolyn Janecek

These winter holidays it feels particularly hard to lift one’s spirits during a global pandemic while the sun continues setting sooner each evening in the Northern Hemisphere. My primary source of serotonin has become the delightful Cartoon Network series called Summer Camp Island. It follows two best friends, Oscar and Hedgehog, who quickly realize they won’t be attending a normal summer camp off the shore of New Jersey—they’ve arrived at a magical one. The camp counselors are teen witches, pajamas can talk, monsters write dissertations, and the time-space continuum is very unstable. The ten-minute episodes follow low-stakes scenarios that still deliver satisfying character development throughout each season. There’s a tender gentleness to the show, focusing on friendship, overcoming bullying, controlling parents, and the anxieties of leaving home for the first time.

Evan Sheldon

This month I read Yōko Ogawa’s Revenge. It has eleven interlinked short stories, all dark and all strange. The different connections between these seemingly unrelated events are also odd—a roomful of kiwis, a pouch made to hold a functioning human heart, carrots growing in the shape of human hands. It is an interesting book, part of what propels you onward is wondering what tidbit will appear in the next story, what oddity will impact another character, and looking forward to discovering the different lines in this web. Individually, the stories are eerie and will linger in your mind, but taken together they become something more, maybe a comment of how little we see, how what we do impacts people we will never know. It’s definitely worth a read and probably a reread or two, particularly if you are intrigued by someone purchasing a strawberry shortcake for a child who has died years earlier.

Suzie Bartholomew

I’ve always been a huge fan of history. Give me a good documentary on anything before the Titanic and I’m happy. I’m also a fan of cooking shows. So imagine my delight when I discovered Tasting History with Max Miller on YouTube, where history and cooking get thrown together. Miller’s YouTube channel focuses on recreating historical recipes. He doesn’t just go through the recipe; he goes through the history of the dish itself. From Ancient Rome’s Garum to an early version of Pumpkin Pie from 1670 to bread from Pompeii, this guy makes food that not only intrigues my historical side but makes me want to get in my kitchen and cook.

Max Miller

Thomas Chisholm

I finally watched Game of Thrones last month. I already knew about the books at the time of the series announcement, but told myself I’d wait until they were all published to start reading. I resolved to watch the show after I read the books. I realized A Song of Ice and Fire will probably never see completion around the time season three or four of Game of Thrones aired. I also have no self-control when it comes to binging shows; I end up watching TV for the better part of a month, which makes me depressed. So I just never got around to Game of Thrones. Until I wiped out on my bicycle, underwent shoulder surgery, and then spent two bed-ridden weeks in a painkiller haze. It was kind of the perfect thing to take my mind off of everything. It did a great job of keeping me glued to my bed too. But wow, what an awful ending. It really makes it hard to go back and want to re-watch old episodes when you know it all adds up to this giant pile of shit. I also recommend Lindsay Ellis’s two Game of Thrones hot-take videos too.

Game of Thrones rekindled my love for the fantasy genre though. I recently watched Legend (directors cut) for the first time, which seems like a misunderstood gem. I’m re-watching The Lord of the Rings (extended edition, duh) right now. I’ve had the extended editions for years, but am just now watching all the making-of documentaries and they are just so wonderful. I’m really glad it took me this long to get to them, it’s almost like watching the movies for the first time all over again. I’ve also started reading The Mists of Avalon, which is a real treat. I can’t believe I slept on it this long!

An Interview with Lev Grossman

Dani Hedlund: Okay, most cliché question on the planet: Lev, where did the inspiration for your new book, The Silver Arrow, come from?

Lev Grossman: I never know where it comes from until people ask me and I’m standing in front of an audience and suddenly it hits me. I think this book started with T. S. Elliot and Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat. There is an incredible description of the railway car that Skimbleshanks takes. It has this little basin and this little fan and you sort of snuggle down in your little nest. That gave rise to this image of a young girl on a train moving through a nighttime landscape. She’s looking out the window in this plush sleeper car that she’s in, and there’s no one else on the train. 

What was it like transitioning from your very serious novels and sex-drenched magicians to a children’s book?

It wasn’t as big a deal as you would think because when I wrote The Magicians I could actually still remember what it was like to be in my twenties, to be single, and drinking all the time. My life has moved farther away from that world. And now I spend a lot of my time—especially in quarantine—being a dad and using that dad voice. So this is much closer to my world now than The Magicians is, and it feels very natural. I tell stories to my children. I was ready to write a book for kids.

I found it interesting that this voice interjects to teach the kids valuable things. What was it like to balance the plot with these miniature lessons?

The lessons that children need to learn turn out to be the lessons that adults need to learn. It’s not any different. We just spend our whole lives learning these particular lessons about being responsible and having empathy and things like that. You want to write the book that you wish you’d read as a child. And you always remember the bits in the books where the author imparted the parental wisdom because those parts sucked. You didn’t feel it or absorb it because it was so boring. So even though I wanted stuff like that to be in this book, I tried to incorporate it in such a way that maybe readers would feel beyond just hearing my voice and feeling like I was teaching a lesson. Nobody likes lessons, but you can’t get around them.

I’ve got to ask: did you just know everything about nearly-extinct animals, or was this a lot of research?

I did do a lot of research about animals, and about trains, once I had zeroed in on certain animals that were part of the dramatis personae. The internet is not always a great place to be, but it was great for really granular information about animals.

Was there equally good information about trains?

I don’t know how current a member of the steamer train community you are on the internet, but there is always someone who knows ten times as much about steam trains as you. They didn’t have computers back then, so they had to nerd out on something and they nerded out on steam trains. It’s unbelievable how complex those things are—they’re really magnificent.

There is a conservation aspect to this book. Where did that come from? Where did the image of this young girl looking out at this plush land from the train move into this other angle?

The short answer is, I couldn’t get around it. I definitely didn’t set out to write some sort of ecological, political screed. But I was picturing this girl on the train, and where the train is going. Several months later, I saw the train going through a forest and I saw the light up ahead—it was all very Narnian. The train reached a station in the middle of the forest and there were animals waiting for it. And what do the animals say? What do they talk about? And it’s not Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. The animals, they have very complicated feelings. It’s not like, “the humans have come to save the day, hooray, at last they’re here.” The humans have been destroying the world. And now the animals have the chance to actually talk to the humans and they have a lot to say about what’s going on. I was trying to imagine that conversation. What else would they talk about? It’s the elephant in the room and sooner or later it’s got to come out.

The section where the animals have something to say about that was miraculous. It could have been preachy and self-righteous, and instead, it felt really empowering.

There was a lot of feeling that went into the message. I still, to this day, cannot read it aloud. I can’t read parts of it out loud because I get too emotional.

That section felt so human, so honest in a way that we don’t see anymore. I’m really impressed with how you pulled it off.

I was writing it while trying to imagine someone reading it who doesn’t believe climate change is real, someone who is offended and angered by the suggestion that it’s real. There are millions of people who feel that way and I know I lost them when I started with pulling a polar bear out of the water. They already know that this book is coming, so they’ve stopped reading. But just on the off chance that one of them was still reading, I tried to write it in such a way that maybe they wouldn’t hurl the book across the room.

My COO was in marine conservation before she came to us, and she’s really invested in whether the next book is going to be underwater. Is it?

It’s definitely going to have underwater bits. I can’t leave the trains behind, but I promised a submarine and a submarine I will deliver.

Did you have any idea that this was going to be more than one book when you started?

I didn’t even have the idea that it was going to be one book. I’ve never started writing a novel without the feeling that I was a complete idiot doing something completely stupid. You guys were among the first to read the chapter of The Silver Arrow when it was in the magazine—it was very early on and I hadn’t even sold it to a publisher. I wasn’t sure that it was going to be a book; I wasn’t thinking about sequels at all. When Little Brown bought it, they actually suggested a series deal. But I sold it as one book. Yet now I feel like it could have a sequel. Writing sequels has to be because I can’t stop myself, not because I committed to it.

Do you feel more comfortable jumping into this universe than the universe of The Magicians? Are you going to be committed to this for a similar amount of time?

The two universes feel so different. In The Magicians there were a lot of “proxy me’s” in that universe. I felt like I had one foot in it. I actually don’t have any feet in The Silver Arrow universe. There’s not really a version of me in it. So my relationship with it feels different, though I don’t love it any less.

It’s interesting to me that you feel a stronger emotional connection reading out loud the book that you have not put yourself in.

Yeah. I think it’s probably because my children are in it. You really love your kids all the way, no matter what your feelings about yourself are. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to love those characters—because I’m not in it.

Do you feel a different relationship with your writing now that you have kidsthis other form of legacy?

I spent a lot of time as a failed writer. I think I have still spent more time as a failed writer than as a successful writer. And it wasn’t until I had children—what I imagined would be the end of my writing career—that I really began to connect with what I was writing and get something onto the page that felt authentic. Having children completely saved my writing career, because before I had them, I hadn’t really found my voice.

That’s really interesting. Why do you think they’re connected?

I was one of those people who kept a lot of emotions bottled up inside. A lot of emotions come out when you have a child. You think about your own childhood, what you were like, and you think of your parents much more because you are a parent now. You just start connecting with stuff that was frozen inside you. Writing is good for that, and having children is also very good for that. There were a lot of emotions I had been avoiding. When they came out, they got onto the page and made my writing feel more honest and deeper. People liked it more. I liked it more.

How are you balancing writing all of these books with every other thing you do? Like raising a family, writing screenplays, and not going to Comic-Cons. Are you still spinning many plates?

It’s awkward and ungraceful. This is my first book in a long time. The final Magicians book was published in 2014 and that was my last book before this. I had a lot of slow-rolling projects that were going on and on, in parallel, and now they are all coming to a head at the same time. In the middle-grade world, if you do a series, you’re really supposed to do one per year, and there’s no way I’m going to get anywhere near that. Because I have a movie coming out and I owe a young adult novel, and then I can work on the next Silver Arrow book. It’s not a graceful balancing act.

Well, what are you most excited about that’s coming out in the next couple of years?

The movie will be amazing, not because it’s an amazing movie, but because I actually wrote a movie! I can’t believe it. Then I have this book I’ve been working on for six years, which I’m very ready to have out there. It would be lovely to have another adult novel out there. I’m also working on a TV pilot. It’s a long shot that it will ever get made, but if it does happen it will be really cool. It’s like a space opera, and it would be really fun to do that.

I wish I could send this interview transcript back twenty years to show you what your life would look like.

It had been a long time since I had a book come out, and I forgot how intense the highs and lows are. I’d forgotten how sensitive I can be to criticism. Then I remembered I used to feel like that all the time. But I don’t think, hopefully, I’ll ever have to go back to that.

Whenever I feel bad about criticism, I go back to my favorite books on GoodReads. People leave the most horrible reviews. Then I just think, maybe this isn’t about me.

When I get a one-star review, I look at the one-star reviews for Mrs. Dalloway, possibly the greatest novel ever written, and I’m proud to get one-star reviews alongside it.

Seven Adaptations That are Better Than the Book!

Listen, I know what you’re thinking: How could anyone possibly think a film or TV adaption is better than the book? It feels criminal to think it, let alone write it. Yet, despite being “Team Book” ninety-eight percent of the time, I can’t help but acknowledge the instances when adaptions have elevated the written material in a way that wasn’t attempted or attainable in the book. You might hate to admit it’s true, but I have some examples in mind that I think might woo you over. Fair warning, there are some spoilers ahead. I can’t very well convince anyone of my stance without some contextual evidence, right?

I’ve heard all the arguments. From “No adaptation can do it justice,” to “Why adapt the book if you aren’t going to stick to the ending?” to “Well, so and so was supposed to die and now that they didn’t it totally messes up the trajectory of the book.” And generally, I fall into those categories. It’s rare for me to come away from an adaptation believing it was better than the author’s original vision. But it does happen. Don’t @ me about it, okay.

The Haunting of Hill House

Probably my best go to example of a TV adaptation that soared beyond its pages, The Haunting of Hill House barely counts as an adaptation if you compare the book to the series. Unlike Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, the Netflix series centers around a family long haunted from their stay in Hill House mansion and the tension and drama that unfolds between the family years later. Except for a few character names and the house itself, the show and book are foreign to one another. If you’re a book purist, it’s easy to understand why you might hate the show. However, this is an example of an adaptation that takes the essence of the book and transforms it into an arguably more sinister, multidimensional story than Jackson might have ever thought to explore.

True Blood

At the time of True Blood’s release on HBO, vampires were the thing in Hollywood. And, as can happen, vampires overtook everything from movies to shows, to books, to style choices courtesy of Hot Topic. I feel a little bad knocking the multibook series for being lackluster. The Southern Vampire Mysteries isn’t bad. It’s much more rounded and complex than a lot of things that flooded the market during the vampire era. But, there were some significant changes made to the series that elevated the show for the better, including keeping a major character in the show alive when he died in Chapter Three of the first book. There’s also something so over the top about the adaptation that makes the series pale in comparison. You can read about someone being soaked in blood over and over, but there’s something about watching it happen that never gets old.

Sharp Objects

I could understand if there’s a bit of pushback on this pick. Of all my picks, the Sharp Objects adaptation aligns with the book most closely. I decided to include the adaptation for similar reasons to True Blood. While the Gillian Flynn book was dark and twisted in all the best ways, there’s something undeniably sinister about the miniseries that doesn’t translate on paper. In addition to the cinematic elements of the show that somehow made girls rolling around their small Missouri town on skates ominous and foreboding, there were some intentional changes to the storytelling that introduced tension to the story sooner than in the book. One of the most significant changes was the ending of the show, which I thought left more space for interpreting what might happen after the credits rolled. I saw quite a bit of disdain for this choice, but I think open ended stories—especially messed up stories—are the better storytelling choice.

The Silence of the Lambs

I remember first watching this film at a sleepover and coming away feeling unnerved and having “It puts the lotion on its skin” on repeat in my dreams for weeks. When I learned that the film was based on a book, I was eager to dive in and get a deeper look into Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling. Was their relationship different than in the show? Did Clarice really get hit with you know what? And how obvious was it that Hannibal was lying to the FBI about Buffalo Bill’s location? Unlike some of the other adaptations in this list, the movie followed the book pretty closely. So, if they’re so close to one another, is the movie really better? Obviously, I’m arguing yes but for good reason. Largely, we have Anthony Hopkins to thank for the adaption surpassing the book. His interpretation of Lector is insidious and creepier than the book could capture. But as a whole, the book felt dry and lacked apprehension. It felt very methodical, which for a fictitious true crime book was a logical tonal choice. However, after seeing the film there’s no denying that the book lacked flair. The movie takes the book and amplifies the tension and a sense of urgency to create an Oscar-winning psychological thriller.

Fight Club

I’ll be the first to say, I think Fight Club is not Chuck Palahniuk’s best work. I’m biased towards some of his other lesser known but still respected stories like Invisible Monster, Lullaby, and Choke. Perhaps that has influenced my opinions on the film adaptation being better than the original, but I do have some thoughts to back it up—personal opinion aside. The biggest reason I believe the adaptation fairs better than the book is because it manages to make Tyler’s motivations and ideologies more tangible for viewers. While it’s evident Tyler is nuts in either form, the film accomplishes his transition from complex, misunderstood “nice” guy to the bad guy with another personality that just so happens to start a toxic masculinity cult. Another adaptation in which the ending differs from the book, Tyler ends up in a mental asylum in the film where he gets axed in the book. Normally, I’m all for the protagonist dying in the end. There’s something about an author risking it all and killing the main source of that story that I respect. However, Tyler is such an unlikeable character in the end that dying felt like too good of an ending for him. David Fincher’s choice to lock him up and let him replay things over and over again fit better with Palahniuk’s later writing style, while also giving the viewers the sense that Tyler is finally facing some consequences for being a crappy white guy.

Hidden Figures

This one feels a bit unfair since the book has a historical basis, unlike the other books on this list. The story is inspiring and highlights the incredible women that NASA has a lot to be thankful for, but the adaptation takes the women featured in the book and gives their stories the extra oomph they needed for readers to really connect with their struggles and journey. It’s not the book’s fault that it’s a bit on the dry side—I mean it is partly about NASA-level math—but the movie tackles the significant moments in all three women’s lives while also giving their story the flourish the book couldn’t capture. Largely, there’s a difference in style expectations that makes most historical book adaptations seem bland and one-dimensional compared to their silver screen counterpart.

Jurassic Park

If you’ve read Jurassic Park, I feel there’s not a whole lot of explanation needed to argue the case for the film adaptation being better than the book. Though the book is fictional, it sure reads like a dull, dry, scientific journal explaining the science behind how this park and its resurrected dinosaurs are possible. “Mr. DNA” tackles all that science in a consumable, five-minute segment in the movie, allowing for the real fun and tension of the story to unfold. While I understand the author logic being detailed and validating their version of reality, it makes the book really uninteresting for the first third. It took me several goes at the book to finish it; I have never heard of a single person who has struggled to finish the film version of Jurassic Park. There’s something about actually seeing realistic dinosaurs go after kids and strangers that doesn’t render as well on the page.

November Staff Picks: Horror movies, Horror Podcasts, and Mortician Influencers!

Kaitlin Lounsberry

I’m mostly a true-crime podcast listener, but in the last few months, I’ve stumbled away from ghastly murders and the 50th coverage of Ted Bundy’s infamy to paranormal, cryptoid-centered podcasts. Mostly, I’ve spent those months devouring Astonishing Legends and revisiting my favorite episodes in the last few weeks. I first discovered this podcast while going down a Mothman rabbit hole (yes you read that correctly) and got hooked after finishing their Black-Eyed Kids series. Astonishing Legends is heavy on the research and sound quality, presenting first-hand experiences and expert research leaving listeners with the choice of what they do or don’t believe.

Another recent podcast discovery that I find myself itching to listen to even when it’s dark and I know better is, aptly named, Scared to Death. This true horror podcast features two scary true stories told by comedian, Dan Cummins, to his wife, Laura. Episodes are simultaneously horrifying and funny thanks to Laura’s well-timed commentary saying exactly what we’re all thinking, Get the F*** Out.

Another podcast of similar, true horror tellings minus the comedic relief, is Let’s Not Meet. The name speaks volumes to the unnerving tonality of the 30-minute episodes that feature submitted stories of happenstances that you wish wouldn’t be true. From a woman living in the walls to people being followed for miles by unknown cars to discovering someone standing outside your window staring at you in the dark, this podcast is not for the faint of heart and makes me triple check my locks before I sleep most nights. Give these bad boys a listen if you’re like me and wish to terrify yourself throughout October or have a weird obsession with cryptoids. (But really, why aren’t more people talking about the Mothman.)

Lauren Lopez

Once I read The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen in less than two nights, I knew I was in for something special. Lauren Shippen has created a world of Atypicals, people who have supernatural abilities, and found a way to completely immerse the audience in their world. The Bright Sessions is the main podcast that follows Joan Bright a therapist for Atypicals and a few of her more frequent patients. The Infinite Noise and A Neon Darkness are Bright Sessions novels that follow some of the events in the podcast, but take a closer look at specific patients and their lives. A Neon Darkness, the most recent book explores an Atypical whose ability is not cut and dry. His ability is complicated, manipulative, and overall potentially dangerous. Shippen explores what it’s like to have a desire and how getting what you think you want is not always the solution. She explores the story of a complex character, one who you’re not sure you like or hate from one moment to the next. She also further pushes us into the world of Atypicals and what it’s like to find a family when you weren’t sure you had a place in the world to begin with.

Eileen Silverthorn

I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube lately and one of my favorite channels, especially for spooky season, has been Caitlin Doughty‘s (also known as Ask A Mortician). Caitlin is a mortician that has authored three books for the morbidly curious: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, From Here to Eternity, and Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? All of her books look at death practices around the world as well as how we can advocate for ourselves and loved ones in a (surprisingly toxic) funeral industry. Her YouTube channel is perfect for the spooky season because she answers the dark and gross questions about death, decomposition, and tragedy that folks are dying to ask (pun totally intended). She even does historical documentary-esque breakdowns of mysterious murders or mass death events. One of my favorite series of hers is “Iconic Corpse,” where she looks at the life, death, and preservation of famous dead bodies (like Vladimir Lenin or Lady Dai). Definitely recommend for morbidly curious peeps like myself!

Caitlin Doughty, Ask A Mortician

Thomas Chisholm

I spent October becoming one of those horror-movie guys. Before last month, I had a sparse knowledge of the genre. But now I’m a huge fan. I spent most of the summer slowly compiling a list of horror films I’d never seen. What I realized, is that my favorite movies were the 80s films with great practical effects that could balance the scares with the comedy. My three favorite discoveries were: The Blob (1988), The Return of the Living Dead, and An American Werewolf in London.

The Blob remake from 1988 was my favorite find, truly a lost gem. I now see the high point of 1980s horror remakes as a trinity: John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), and Chuck Russel’s The Blob (1988). Russel is also the director of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Worries, my favorite Freddy movie, and another October 2020 discovery! The Blob is like The Thing if it was a teen movie. It’s a well-written script and the body-horror is mind-blowing. It’s just an incredibly entertaining movie that got a bad rap for having a cynical plot and injecting humor into a famed cult classic.

I learned about The Return of the Living Dead from my favorite YouTube channel, RedLetterMedia, in their Re:View of the movie. The movie is loosely connected to Night of the Living Dead—a producer from that film retained the rights to the name (hence George A. Romero’s subsequent film titles Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, ect.). It’s an incredible campy romp, where a group of punks has to survive a mob of zombies. The visual effects are spectacular, and one character is actually nude throughout the entire movie. It’s also where the brain-eating zombies trope originated. Watch out for the tar-man!

An American Werewolf in London is just an objectively good movie, genre aside. It’s the only good werewolf movie I know of. It has its comedic moments and top-notch practical effects. It received a ton of praise upon release and did well at the box office. I include it here because it seems a bit forgotten about.

An Interview with April Dávila

Evan Sheldon: What inspired you to write 142 Ostriches, also, why ostriches? Were you influenced by your academic work?

April Dávila: It all ties together, I was an undergraduate at Scrips College in Claremont, Southern California. I was an ecology major to start and ended up in marine ecology. While studying ecology, I started going out to the desert with friends, and we would have parties at night. I fell in love with the desert—that was where this whole thing started. When I decided to write a story, I knew I wanted to set in the desert.  

I was writing stories loosely based on my mom’s experiences growing up on a dairy farm. It started as my mom’s story, but over years of editing, all the factual stuff was replaced by fiction. There’s only one line that still remains in the book that’s actually true to life. It’s when the grandma shows up at the doorstep, and says, “You’re doing a terrible job, I’m taking the girl to live with me on the ranch.” That’s what my great-grandfather said to my grandmother. That detail kicked off this dramatic unfolding of my mom’s young life. She was thirteen years old and she spent her formative years out on the ranch with her uncles who were pretty abusive. She had so many stories of family and strife.  

Those were the stories I was writing, but I wanted this set in the desert. I called my mom and asked if there was any chance there’d be a dairy farm in the desert—absolutely not, that didn’t make any sense at all. 

I began researching and found an ostrich ranch called the OK Corral Ostrich Farm. I called to set up a tour, and the minute I got there I knew it was the best setting for a family in conflict. The birds themselves are walking contradictions: they’re graceful and beautiful but also scary with that giant claw. They can gut a man in one kick. They have these beautiful big super-model eyelashes yet rough scaly skin. Everything about them spoke to contradiction, and my story is about the contradiction of loving your family and hating them at the same time.

142 Ostriches almost has a southern gothic feel: there are family secrets, there’s darkness. Was this your plan from the beginning?

I always envisioned the family as an obstacle for Tallulah, my main character. What I didn’t understand until I got into it was how much it would be about the family coming together or not. I always saw my mother’s uncles as bad guys. In the first draft, Tallulah only had uncles. As I rewrote it, the story became more and more female: grandpa became grandma, Uncle Chris became Aunt Christine, the mother character took on a much larger role. I think instead of just one-dimensional villains, like, here’s my bad guy and they’re bad, finding some sympathy for them, gave a greater depth of character and made the story more interesting. As that rewriting happened, the story became much more about family. 

What came easy to you while writing? What did you struggle with or grow into as you worked through these drafts? 

The feedback I got, from my agent and editors, was that my dialogue was good. This was surprising, when I was in grad school I had teachers tell me that my dialogue was bad. I got so worried about my dialogue being bad that I put a lot of effort into listening to how people actually talk, especially my family. I’m proud that I was able to bring some deep attention to the dialogue and improve how characters talk to each other.  

People use language differently. In the book, Tallulah’s boyfriend never calls her Tallulah; he always calls her Lu. It’s the little things like that. You start to notice that people have these habits, these ways, of talking with each other that are worth paying attention to. 

One thing I’ve always had a knack for is writing location. Maybe it speaks to my training as an ecologist way back when, so it’s important for me to know  the details of an environment: the weather, the sounds, the smells, how all of your senses can be engaged in a setting. I’ve been thinking about the time of year even more. When I’m struggling with a scene, I’ll look at the calendar and pick a date. Okay, it’s April 18th, in this part of the world—they’ve just celebrated this holiday. I’ll even look up the weather from April 18th of that year. Not that I’m going to need all those details, but it helps me see the specifics of that environment. Oddly, picking a date on the calendar helps me narrow down the actual time and space and write to the specifics of it.  

How long did it take to write and revise?  

I finished the first draft in 2010. I was so proud of myself and sure I was done.  On the advice of a professor of mine, I put it in a drawer and worked on something else. I wrote a short story, came back to it, re-read it, and—because I read a lot, as writers should—I read it and was like, that’s not a novel.

So, I wrote it again. I didn’t have an outline. It was part of my master’s program—I just had to write a novel—so I started writing and I had no idea what I was doing and I didn’t know what I wanted the story to be. Every time I went back to page one and rewrote it, it would go in a different direction. Then I’d put it in a drawer for a while, sure I was done.

I did this over and over, about fourteen times in ten years while working full time and having two babies. It wasn’t until I was close—I’d learned a lot about writing, I had written the story, I’d learned a lot about the characters—that I had this sense that something wasn’t there.  

I was at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in October 2016 and heard a presenter talk about the three arcs of the story. We all know about the character arcs and the emotional arcs. He lectured on the author’s arc, and what it is you’re trying to say. My author’s arc, the thing I wanted to say, was that we have to face these things in our lives that are difficult. In my book, the mother character is an example of someone who is continuously running away from her problems, and Tallulah has been raised to do the same. Her big moment is pulling her head out of the sand!  

I had this moment sitting in the audience. I’ve been writing this book for eight years about a woman who needs to pull her head out of the sand, set on an ostrich farm! I almost stood up saying, “I’ve got it!” I ran home, and when I rewrote it that time with that in mind, everything fell into place. After fourteen drafts of not knowing what the hell I was doing, I finally realized what I was trying to say.

Would you talk about some of the publication process? Finding an agent, querying, any of those things that might be helpful for our readers. 

It might be worth adding that I blog about all this in great detail. I just wrote a blog post sharing my query letter, summary, and everything I sent to my agent. If people are curious, they can check it out on my website, it’s all there.  

As I was going through the process of writing, thinking of someday going to query an agent, whenever I read a book that I thought was a good match I would look up the agent. I had a list of agents I thought would be a good fit. At the top of the list was an agent who had visited one of my classes when I was in grad school, his name’s Joel Gotler. He represented one of my professor’s books. It had been ten years since he came into my class when I finally queried him. I said, “You probably don’t remember me, but you said when my book was ready, I could send it to you, so here are the first three pages.” He got back to me later that day and asked for the full, and on Thursday offered to represent me. I was giddy, I didn’t know what to do with myself.  

The process from there turned into rejection after rejection. He loved it, we worked on it and got it ready to go, and editor after editor passed on it. Six months, probably forty-something rejections. I asked him, “Should I rewrite? Did I miss the mark on something?” One editor said, “love the characters, but not the story;” another loved the story but not the characters. The feedback was so contradictory that his gut said it just needed to find the editor who loved it. 

And then it did! We found him in John Scognamiglio at Kensington. I did very few edits with him, just one pass in terms of line edits and story, and then of course lots of copyediting. It did take a year and a half because they wanted it to be a spring book. There’s a whole thing about farm books being spring books. 

They bought the book in July of 2018, but they already had their spring 2019 lineup so they pushed it to 2020. Which would have been fine if the pandemic had not . . . [laughs]. It’s been a little rough, trying to launch a book in the spring of 2020. I think people are starting to get back into reading, but right around the time my book came out was when people could not focus on anything but the pandemic. Such is life. 

Any other agent or querying advice you’d like to offer? 

The thing that gets overlooked the most is the synopsis. People should write a synopsis after their first draft is done. You learn so much. I tried to write a synopsis when I first realized I didn’t know what my book was. I needed an outline but it was too late to outline. I found that the middle chunk was, and then she goes here! And then she goes there. Writing it in that format really highlighted for me that this was just her driving in circles. That really helped me clean up the prose and find the meat of the story. Writers groan and moan when you talk about the synopsis, but I have come to love the synopsis as a tool for figuring out the story. And of course, when you come to the point of needing one for agents and querying, then you have it.

You’ve been a resident of the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. What did that experience do for you as a writer? Do you have any recommendations for readers who might be interested in residencies? 

In a word, go. A friend of mine recommended Dorland because she had gone. It’s kind of off the radar. There are a lot of big residencies that get a lot of attention and probably a gazillion applications. Dorland is a place that is not just writers, there are painters and musicians too. The artists I met there have inspired me. When I think of real artists, they may not be working full time in their art—most of them have day jobs—but they’re so passionate about the work they’re doing that it just sucks you in. All of the sudden, you’re more passionate about the work you’re doing, and then you all go back to your cabins and work furiously. Especially having two kids and doing a lot of other things in my home life, being able to set aside a week where I tell everyone, I’m not answering my phone, I’m not answering emails, I’m going to be working on my novel—it is the most productive time I’ve ever had. It’s how I got through the last draft of my first book.  

I went again this last January and pushed through the first draft of my new book. What I’ve found when I’m on residency is that I can write for twelve hours a day. It’s totally unsustainable in terms of lifestyle; I microwave burritos all day, I don’t exercise any more than it takes for me to walk to the bathroom and back. It’s not a healthy lifestyle. But for one week a year? I get so much work done, it’s amazing. It’s such a beautiful place. It’s out in the desert, but it’s up on a hilltop, and you can see these sprawling hills and hot air balloons that go up in the morning.

You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart. Did writing short fiction help your development as a writer, or did you come to that later on? Do you still write short fiction? 

It’s funny, I’ve always said I’m not a short story writer. Then I got nominated for the Pushcart by this journal that published a bit of flash fiction I wrote. When I took a step back, I realized I do write short fiction! I’m just usually so obsessed with whatever novel I’m writing that the short fiction feels like a one-off. I don’t write a lot of it. I’m a big believer in not waiting for inspiration. When I’m writing my novel, I sit down every day and work on it. It’s work. I don’t write because I’m inspired. That said, I do wait for inspiration to strike when I write short fiction. If it turns into something worthwhile, I’ll have my husband read it because he’s really good at critical questions. He’s a filmmaker, so a creative in his own right. If he reads it and finds it interesting, I’ll do another edit or two and see if I can find a home for it. Because I only do it when inspired, I write maybe a short story a year, hardly at all. 

So, you started out with novels and dabble in short form? 

I feel like there’s this big myth in grad school where you write a few stories, then you get published in The Paris Review. There’s this path, and then once you’ve done that you can write a novel. I call total bullshit on that. When did that even get started? They’re such different beasts. The fact that you’re good at short stories does not mean you can write a novel and vice versa. I had a friend in grad school who wrote the most beautiful short stories—bring-you-to-tears short stories. Could not write anything more than twenty pages. There was something about the way he wrote that didn’t sustain for longer work. I definitely think of myself as a novelist, not a short story writer, but I do like to play sometimes. 

What are you currently working on? 

I’m almost done! It’s right here on my desk. It’s the story I wanted to write as a first novel but knew I didn’t have the chops to do it. This is the story that started percolating in my head when I first had the idea that I wanted to be a writer. I tackled it as my second book. I’m so glad I waited because it has been challenging, and everything I learned writing my first book has helped in this one. It’s much more epic; it spans three hundred years. I have characters who are born in 1776 and find themselves under a spell wherein they don’t age until they choose to have a baby. They age along with the United States and have all these adventures. There’s always this question of, would we want to give this up for children? Why do people have children? What is the benefit? What are the tradeoffs? I basically took the metaphor of the immortality of youth and made it real. 

Do you have anything else you want to share? 

As I was writing this novel, whenever I learned that I was misstepping in some way I would write a blog post about it. I have a ton of blog posts about things I learned along the way, everything from clichés, to what makes a scene, to writing setting, writing emotion, writing sensation. If any readers are still curious, that’s all on the blog. 

October Staff Picks (Intern Edition): Gay Country Musicians, Anime, and Y.A. Novels

Cassandra Perez

I used to hate country music on principle, and then Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour came out. But even then I stuck to the female side of the genre, finding their music more entrancing than their male counterparts whose scratchy, same-sounding vocals and pick-up driving exploits often feel like a cheese grater to the brain. And then I discovered Orville Peck: a gay, masked alt-country singer with a voice as deep as the night and lyrics steeped in the solitary cynicism of the Old West. In simple terms: every sad girl’s dream. These past few weeks, I’ve been obsessed with his new EP Show Pony, the follow-up to his 2019 debut. Hearty and wistful, the six-track album has everything: homoerotic desire and heartbreak, a standout Shania Twain feature, and a soulful cover of “Fancy” that gives Reba McEntire a run for her money (I have a feeling someone’s going to try and take me to task for that last one, and I invite them to try). My personal favorite from the EP is “Summertime,” a bittersweet power ballad about good times past—something that feels all too familiar as we sit in our houses dreaming about when we can go outside again. In a genre that loves its conventions, lone rangers like Orville Peck are a breath of fresh air.

Show Pony by Orville Peck

Aoife Lynch

Arden is what I go to when I need a pick-me-up. It’s a wonderfully goofy story podcast, following radio journalist Bea Casely and private detective Brenda Bentley on their quest to solve cold cases for a radio show. The podcast is both a gripping murder mystery and a playful, silly parody of true crime audio journalism. On top of that, each season is a modern re-telling of a Shakespeare play (season one is Romeo and Juliet and season two is Hamlet). The characters are wonderful–Brenda Bentley is the most joyfully chaotic character I’ve ever come across in a podcast, and there’s Mulder and Scully-esque chemistry and banter between Brenda and Bea. At the same time, Arden asks difficult questions about the painful repercussions that true crime journalism can have on people’s lives. The show’s second season has just reached its mid-season finale (!!!!), and I can’t wait for the second half of the season!

Carissa Villagomez

After listening to “Can I Stay” by The Downstairs Room, I’ve been impatiently waiting for their EP to be released. It will be their debut work, but I’m already haunted by the lyricism. The song contains such a unique extended metaphor that always makes me pause.

I also recently finished And the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando. This heartbreaking YA debut novel features fifteen-year-old Nathan Bryant searching for answers after the loss of his older brother Al. Loneliness and loss were made sharper as the narrative flowed between vignettes written by Al, the experiences of Nathan and the thoughts of their shared friend Megan. I appreciated how nuanced Jawando’s representation of grief was, as well as how the voices/perspectives of each character were so distinct.

Amber Sullivan

Life is weird and the world is on fire, so sometimes I need brazen attempts to make me understand what it feels like to be motivated. I love anime for this, especially Black Clover. Black Clover follows Asta, a boy born without magic in a world where everyone has magic, on his quest to be the Wizard King. His tagline is (always anime-yelled) “My magic is never giving up!” which is super cheesy, but his real magic is rallying the people around him. It takes 25-30 episodes to get past the cheesy stuff, but then it digs into the real struggles. Unlike some anime where the side characters remain essentially the same but maybe gain a new power move, every character in Black Clover matures through personal trials. We see familial abuse, class, gender, and race disparities, anxiety, overconfidence, and all kinds of pitfalls people face from the lenses of different characters as they face their challenges and grow fundamentally as people. Honestly, I was watching an episode of Black Clover when I decided to apply for the Brink internship. Every character works so hard to better themselves physically and mentally that it inspired me to do the same.

Miki Schumacher

One album I always find myself going back to around this time of year is Soft Sounds from Another Planet by Japanese Breakfast. The whole mood of the album fits the season of summer coming to a close. Michelle Zauner’s voice carries the listener over synth-pop and bass waves, and the product is something almost ethereal. Many of the songs on the album address themes like love and distance; “This House” questions the truth of a romantic relationship that is based on convenience, and “Machinist” is a futuristic song that explores the attraction a woman feels toward a machine. “Till Death” is one of my favorites off of the album, where lyrics like “extol your sacrifice with fine caviars and aspics” float with the sound of ocean waves. I can imagine myself sitting on a nostalgic park bench while listening to this on repeat. If you find yourself drawn to Zauner’s words, you can also check out her creative nonfiction, “Crying in H Mart,” which explores similar themes of familial love and separation. I recommend Soft Sounds from Another Planet for the next time you want to take a small step into a distant world.

Resistance Writers: An Interview with Autumn Brown

As societies around the world dip their toes in authoritarianism, we’d like to elevate authors of speculative fiction who imagine alternatives or help us demand the impossible futures of our dreams. In the Resistance Writers interview series, we’ll hear from a handful of writers from the 2015 anthology, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. Each writer elaborates on sources of inspiration and how activism informs their work. Our hope is to provide a source of guidance for aspiring writers of visionary fiction.

Thomas Chisholm (TC)

What was your inspiration for “Small and Bright?” I believe it’s the first chapter in a novel you’re developing—how far along is that project? Was the novel in development before you agreed to participate in the Octavia’s Brood anthology or did that work inspire the novel?

Autumn Brown (AB)

I never set out to write science fiction. This story first came to me in 2010, and it really inhabited me. I felt that the story was insisting on being written, particularly my protagonist Orion. I never felt like she was a character I created, more like she is a real person, whose story needs to be told, and she chose me as the channel. To be honest, when the story first came to me, I tried to ignore it and resist it for several months, but it wouldn’t let me go. She wouldn’t let me go. So, I began writing, and truly I did not know what I was doing. I had never written anything with this kind of narrative scope.

It was months later that I was invited to submit a short story to Octavia’s Brood, and I decided to submit the first chapter of my novel. I had to adjust the chapter significantly in order for it to work as a short story, and it was still several years between when I submitted the chapter as a story and when the anthology was ultimately published in 2015. But I feel, especially now (ten years since I began writing “Small and Bright” and five years since Octavia’s Brood was published), that the publication of Octavia’s Brood, and the reception of the anthology, helped me believe more deeply in myself as a writer. I always believed in the story, but I think the way it was received and continues to be received by readers helped me believe in my ability to write it.

And I’m still writing it. I finished a draft manuscript in 2019, and then I went through a major life transition that required me to set the work aside and really protect it from the chaos and pain and trauma of my actual life. So, I only just picked it back up recently, and I am revising it. As a working mom, it’s really tough to find time to work on a long, complex project like this, so I really have to carve it out for myself. It’s like stealing time, in a way. But right now, I am feeling confident that the final manuscript will be ready by the end of 2020. And hopefully, I’ll find a publisher willing to take a risk on what is, honestly, a pretty experimental narrative, even for a work of science fiction.

TC

What kind of impact have you seen Octavia’s Brood make since its publication in 2015? What role do you see visionary fiction playing in today’s political climate?

AB

I still receive messages from readers at least once a month expressing the impact of this anthology on their lives and political work. It seems that the influence of Brood’s vision has only grown as global political circumstances have become decidedly more apocalyptic. This makes sense to me; the anthology was published while Obama was president, and only a year later we had the election of Trump. And with it the revelation that the insidious white supremacist underbelly of our political and economic systems had never actually gone anywhere.

Even as a student and teacher of the history of white supremacy, I was shocked and numbed by the 2016 election. But looking back I think we can all see that the signs were there, at every step of the way, pointing to this as the bleak outcome, the culmination of a hundred-years-long political project underpinned by the ideology of violence and subjugation. That’s why visionary fiction is so important. As we Brooders say in our visionary fiction writing workshops, we are in an imagination battle. In that battle, we must both examine the underlying assumptions and beliefs of our current landscape, and we must be vigilant in producing and reproducing a different vision, a different set of assumptions and values, that culminate in a different outcome. I think the cultural work of visionary fiction is more critical now than ever because the current conditions are grim and terrifying. There’s no question about that and we have to be pragmatic about that. But it is from within that pragmatism that we must acknowledge this truth: it has always been through art and cultural work that societies transmit themselves, claim or reclaim traditions, and express a yearning for something that cannot yet be seen. And it is when it is darkest that we most need to believe in that which we cannot see.

TC

In the current climate in the United States, I see a lot of people (myself included) criticizing the powers that be, while taking little or no direct action. How did you find your voice, and your place within activist circles/movements? How have those experiences shaped your writing? What guidance might you give to aspiring artists/activists? 

AB

Armchair activism arises in a climate where people lack a sense of agency over the conditions of their lives. I think it’s really important to remember that the political system we have, which is rooted in white supremacy, rooted in subjugation, is designed to elicit those exact feelings in us. When you don’t believe in your own power to change the world, it is much easier to have opinions about what is happening than to take responsibility for what is happening. Easier to distance yourself from the ultimate impact of what is happening. And oh how delicious it is to feel like a victim of our circumstances instead of a driver of our lives. I don’t think we are honest with ourselves, sometimes, about how much more we would prefer to be powerless than to take responsibility for changing these conditions. That’s why activism is really a rigorous practice. It’s a spiritual practice and requires spiritual rigor, and a willingness to, as Mary Hooks says, “be transformed in the service of the work.” That change is an embodied change and it really ain’t a game.

Maybe some of us would rather point fingers at how everyone else is doing it wrong, and that’s a place. That is a place, for sure, and I’ve been there. But only because I wasn’t willing to look at myself, and my own individualism. The ways I had internalized the values of white supremacy, in order to survive it. We’ve all done that, and we all have to undo it, from within, to be of use, and to be of service.

And we have to be unafraid of making mistakes because that’s how we learn. I always tell folks that there’s absolutely no shame in admitting that you are wrong and that you don’t know. It’s only after being socialized and, really, ground down inside of white supremacy, that we believe we can only succeed by constantly projecting our rightness. But you look historically at our most important political leaders and thought leaders, the ones who were able to advance the most visionary goals, and you pretty consistently see humility and an orientation to service, a willingness to be moved, a willingness to take risks, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.

And you see an orientation to the collective. I was lucky to have been introduced to activism through collective and consensus-based work from my earliest experiences as a student organizer; that meant I was required to confront my desire to individuate head on. And I still want to be a star most of the time, and I think a lot of us do. It’s natural to want to be the center of your own life, the hero of your own story. The difference is that now I am honest with myself and others about it, and then I can work with it, see where it’s healthy and where it’s not. I can look at my own patterns and say, okay, how is this actually about me, and then how am I trying to make it about me? There’s a difference. And it takes rigor to know the difference.

TC

What kinds of fiction and which particular authors have shaped your thinking? When writing fiction, what comes first: the concepts and ideals you want to explore, or the characters? Do you write with a political goal in mind?

AB

I am a hardcore science fiction reader. I absolutely love the presence of science in the work, I’m a real sucker for that, so I love books like Neuromancer and Idoru by William Gibson. And also, I love work that drops you into the middle of the world and forces you to find your way via context and character, without a ton of exposition. Writers like Sofia Samatar, Kim Stanley Robinson, and China Miéville . . . I can just disappear for days inside their work. And then there are the visionaries who are intentionally working with power and oppression in their work, but who know how to do it without skirting on the heartbreak and heroism that is at the heart of what the reader is longing for. I want to be taken on a journey! So that’s where writers like N. K. Jemisin and Octavia E. Butler, and their masterpieces of world-building and imagination and real character work, inspire me and thrill me and I mourn the end of the story.

In my own work, as I shared regarding “Small and Bright,” I often feel more like I am channeling than creating. I do a lot of archetype work with my characters and I actually interview them when I am writing; and more often than not, I do know the entire arc of the narrative before I put pen to paper, and I am trusting the characters in the story to teach me how to tell their story. Phrasing is important to me, and experimentation with phrasing and the way the text itself sits on the page to be read is something I am exploring more and more. I prefer to drop the reader in the world and let them find their way and signpost without a ton of exposition, but I’m relatively early in my career as a fiction writer, so I’m still learning how to do that well.

My politics show up in my writing where I challenge myself about ideology in the writing process itself, both in the way I am writing my characters and in the way I understand what it is they actually want, what motivates them. For instance, in “Small and Bright,” as Orion’s character has unfolded over time, it’s been important to me to steer clear of typical tropes for heroines. Often, and especially in science fiction, the heroine doesn’t know her true power or purpose until another character or group of characters, usually men, help her to see it. Usually, her journey is about learning to believe in herself; in a way, it’s about her self-actualization, vis-à-vis the gaze of others. That pattern is satisfying for the reader and it makes a good story, and certainly, I love to read those kinds of stories, but it’s not a pattern I wanted to reproduce in my book. I am asking the question: can the reader fall in love with a character whose arc is not about self-actualization, and where the gaze through which the reader sees and understands her is her own? What if the story is actually about her grief? What if the most important action is internal? I still want the reader to root for her, but for different reasons.

TC

From your facilitation work, I can tell consensus building is important to you. How did that organizational method come to resonate so deeply with you?

AB

I was lucky to be introduced to consensus and trained in consensus while I was studying abroad as a twenty-year-old. It fundamentally changed me and changed how I understand my role in political work. In a way, my discovery of consensus and my discovery that I am an especially gifted facilitator gave me a role and a purpose in social justice and movement work. I believe I am of best use in supporting organizers and social movements through this skill set because the work of consensus is about helping people find the most visionary path forward together; it’s a path that they can only find together, and not separately. Consensus makes more possible, in part because it requires us to be rigorous about our ideas, and it requires us to orient collectively towards the best idea, rather than the smartest person.

Consensus is how we survive; I really believe that. It forces us to acknowledge our inherent interdependence.

TC

You and your sister adrienne maree brown have hosted a podcast, How to Survive the End of the World since 2017. The first half of season four premiered earlier this year. Was the “Apocalypse Survival” miniseries inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic? How did it differ from previous end of the world themes? What’s in the store for the rest of season four?

AB

The apocalypse survival miniseries had been in the works for months prior to the pandemic. It was something that we had wanted to do from pretty early in the life of the podcast; and when adrienne went on sabbatical in 2020, it felt like the perfect timing, in part because this subject area is of special interest to me.

So we had put a lot of thought and planning into the way the series would unfold, and we were about to launch it when the pandemic hit the US. So, while the series wasn’t inspired by the pandemic, the pandemic shaped the series in every way. Every conversation I had with every guest was happening in the context of a live, global crisis that touched everyone and every aspect of human life, so it wasn’t theoretical at all. We were, for instance, talking about the skill of squatting and creating livable homes out of abandoned spaces, in a context where people were losing jobs and getting evicted from their homes, and in a context where safety inside the pandemic requires safe, livable, private spaces.

My producer Zak and I felt a high level of responsibility for the content, and the speed of production given how urgent the conditions were, so we also released the miniseries weekly, which isn’t the typical speed for our show. It was one of the most grueling projects I have ever worked on, and I feel so deeply proud of what we accomplished.

We are on break now but we are about to head into the second half of season four. adrienne is back from her sabbatical, and we are going to spend the rest of the season in deep conversation with one another, with just a few interviews uplifting some of the most important ideas we believe can lead us through the difficulty that is coming. So it’s really going to feel like a return to the intimacy and magic of our very first season.

TC

What else are you currently working on, politically and/or creatively? 

AB

Staying alive! Haha.

In addition to my science fiction writing, I am working on a memoir and an album.

In my political work, I am trying to translate the work on whiteness and white supremacy that I’ve done over the last decade plus, into a body of work that can be transmitted to a new generation of facilitators. I’m trying to be the best partner and lover I can be to my beloved. And I’m preparing for another season of distance learning with my three brilliant, resilient children, so I’m trying to be an excellent mom. Which is really just about staying present and paying attention.

I’m trying not to plan too far ahead, and just stay nimble. I think we all need to be preparing for the chaos and uncertainty that lies ahead and preparing ourselves to shape that chaos into the future we want.

F(r)iction #16 Cover

Meet Our Fall 2020 Interns!

If you’ve ever met one of our wonderful F(r)iction staffers, you’ll quickly learn that almost every one of them was once an intern in our Publishing Internship Program.

This program is run by our parent nonprofit organization, Brink Literacy Project. While our publishing internships are a great way to get a crash course in the literary industry, they can often provide a path to what can become a long and rewarding professional relationship. For more information, please visit the internship page on the Brink website.

Aoife Lynch 

What is your favorite place to read?  

I love to read outside in the city, especially when it’s chilly. I bundle up in a big coat and scarf and sit outside on a park bench for as long as I can bear, usually with a flask of tea. Reading outside, anything can happen. A bird might arrive and want some of my lunch, or some kid might race past and jump into a pile of leaves, or I might catch a few minutes of rare sunshine on a gray day. All my best conversations with strangers happen during my bench reading time—talking to a gardener about the Virginia Woolf books we’ve read and the ones we’ve given up on, or chatting to a tourist about the best bookshops in the city. I love it all, especially the occasional curious look, and the inevitable “is it any good?” that follows. 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

How could anyone resist opening a mysterious door in the side of a mountain? When I open the door, there’s a passageway cut deep into the stone. Naturally I’m curious, so I take a couple of steps inside. It’s dark, and pleasantly cool, and it smells earthy in a nice way.  

The door closes behind me. I’m left in total darkness. I’m momentarily terrified—I hate the dark. But the door is right behind me, and I’ve only walked in a couple of steps, so I turn around and push it open. Simple as that, I’m back on the mountain path—a little shaken, and a little dazzled by the sudden sunlight, but no harm done. 

It’s only when I’ve been home for a few hours that I realize something has changed. Things in this world are different. Strange. Mysterious. Unnatural . . . And I love it! Cups of tea don’t go cold no matter how long you leave them, and tea from the teapot is never too weak. I’ve entered paradise, probably. 

Also, there are no odd socks. 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

I don’t drink coffee, but I love tea. My favorite beverage ritual is sharing a pot of tea with people I love. Always Irish Breakfast tea, loose leaf if there’s any in the house. The best kind is tea on a Saturday or Sunday morning at breakfast time. I take down the nicest mugs from the cupboard. We make the pot of tea (heat the pot first, then four spoons of loose leaf, then the water, and then the tea cozy to keep it warm), we wait for it to draw, and as soon as it’s finished, we make another pot. 

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language? 
  
My favorite English word is murmuration, meaning a flock of starlings. I like it because it’s a rare word, and because it feels nice in my mouth, and because “flock of starlings” doesn’t do justice to the strangeness of watching a murmuration making waves and patterns across the sky when the light is fading in the evening (they usually happen right before dusk). It’s a wonderful word too because murmurations are so visually spectacular, but they also have a strange auditory dimension. It’s a rushing, ebbing sound of lots of wings and birdsong, a sort of fluctuating murmuring. 

I also love the phrase “ruaille buaille”, which is an Irish phrase that’s been adopted into the English that’s spoken in Ireland. It means, a fun sort of commotion. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

I’m choosing Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom as my album. It’s got sad songs and strange songs and songs to dance to, and it’s two hours long which is a definite plus if I’m indefinitely stranded on a deserted island. She’s also a wonderful lyricist, so it would almost be like having a second book with me.  

For my book, I’m tentatively choosing Paul Muldoon’s Selected Poems. I’ll need something that’ll keep me occupied, and I find his poetry equally frustrating and rewarding. There are short poems and long poems which will give me a bit of variety depending what I’m in the mood for, and his poetry is great to read aloud. It’s also playful, and I think I’ll need some levity settling into my island existence! 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

The shallowness of many of the efforts to build a more diverse industry. It’s not enough to hire BIPOC in entry-level roles. Especially within the major publishing houses, it’s an industry internally dominated by a white middle class, which caters for a white middle class readership. Grand statements about the need for more diversity and the power of literature to build bridges and enable compassion mean nothing without proactive, anti-racist, systematic change at all levels of the industry. A literary industry that remains built around white middle class tastes can never hope to be truly diverse. 

Cassandra Perez

What is your favorite place to read?   

In a comfy chair next to a large window, optimally when it’s raining (which happens very often in Florida).  

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

I absolutely open the door because I distrust winding, wooded paths on principle. It leads to somewhere flat and open, like the beach. And wow! There’s already a lounge chair, umbrella, and book laid out for me.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

Typically cold, sometimes hot, always Cuban. I take it with honey, cinnamon, and some sort of non-dairy creamer (my go-to is Silk’s Original Soy Creamer).  

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

My favorite English word is ergo because it sounds funny and has the ability to elevate the tone of a sentence with minimal effort—a lot of power for such a small word when you think about it. My favorite word (technically, phrase) in Spanish is ¡Ay bendito! because it’s multifaceted; you can use it to express happiness, sadness, or (my personal favorite) annoyance just by the tone you say it with.   

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

The Essential Dolly Parton (which is probably cheating) because I can’t imagine a world without Dolly Parton, and The Count of Monte Cristo because it’s my mom’s favorite book and I never understood why. I’ll definitely have time to figure it out.  

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

Positive steps have been made recently, but I’d like to see a sustained effort to diversify the people who make up the literary industry, which in turn paves the way for more books about and by members of marginalized communities to reach our bookshelves.  

Miki Schumacher

What is your favorite place to read?    

I love reading in bed, especially with the lazy afternoon sun filtering through the blinds. I usually put in some earbuds to muffle any outside noise because I get distracted by sounds easily. There are so many piles around my room of books I’ve started but have yet to finish. It’s the perfect environment for both reading and napping—two things that I think go hand in hand!   

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead?  

This would be so exciting! The mountain path is quite mossy, and the door is almost imperceptible. The only indication that it could be a door is the white mushroom handle. I carefully twist the handle and push, only to realize that it’s actually a pull door. After my second try, I wipe the moisture off on my pants and enter into a dark cavern. My eyes slowly adjust to the darkness, and I feel something small bump into my leg. Then, I feel something else jump onto my shoulder. I turn my head and discover a frog sitting there with a tiny hat. It jumps off as I yell in surprise, and I take a closer look at the ground. The cave has thousands of frogs! I back away slowly and close the door, giving them their privacy. Little do I know that another has hitched a ride on the side of my pants . . .  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.     

I’m not a fan of coffee, but I drink tea with almost every meal! One of my favorite drinks is mixing half a cup of cold oolong tea with half a cup of coconut milk. This usually helps get me through my afternoon slump. 

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?    

My favorite English word right now is ephemeral. I love how the consonant sounds are broken up in this word; it feels like the vowels are drawn out and the word can be sustained. This seems a bit ironic, considering the word is used to describe things that last for only a short time.  

My favorite word in Japanese is 木漏れ日, or komorebi. This refers to how the sunlight shines through the leaves of a tree and speckles the ground with light. I think about it when I’m out for a walk through the forest and see the small circles of light dancing on the ground as the leaves sway in the wind. It’s a very peaceful feeling for me to think of this word, and I’m reminded of good memories and left with a sense of nostalgia. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

This is such a hard question! For the album, I’d have to choose Mitski’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek purely for the song “First Love / Late Spring.” I could listen to this on repeat forever. This album pulls on so many different emotions for me, and her lyrics feel like the best kind of punch. 

For my book, I would have a copy of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I recently finished this novel, and I find myself going back over and over again to different sections. This book keeps calling back to me, and I love discovering something new each time I read! I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in fractured narratives. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

For the literary industry to truly serve its audience, the institution of publishing needs to be able to support editors with diverse backgrounds. Publishing continues to fail to represent what society looks like—this is especially true with children’s literature. If I could change anything, I would create more opportunities for people to write their stories, and I would make the editing world more accessible as well.  

Amber Sullivan

What is your favorite place to read?   

My favorite place to read is outside in a comfortable deck chair during crisp hours—early morning, late night—with a nearby table to hold my tea.  

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

Before I open it, I roll an insight check to look for runes or other markings, like maybe claw marks. I’m opening the door regardless; I just like to check for clues. 

Behind the door is a staircase that leads down, deep beneath the mountain. Two torches light the entrance, but the path descend far beyond their reach. The air is damp and warmer than I expected. Something rumbles from the depths. The torches cannot be removed from their posts, so I continue down into darkness.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

I drink my coffee black, but I’m really a tea person. I love a good pu’er, but I always end up steeping the tea too long because I forget about it while interneting in the morning.  

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

Instead of my favorite word, I want to share my favorite quote about words: 

“Change. Change. Change. Change… Change. Change. Chaaaange. When you say words a lot, they don’t mean anything. Or maybe they don’t mean anything anyway, and we just think they do.” 

– Delirium of The Endless, The Sandman  

But If I had to pick a word, it would be whangdoodle because it’s really great. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

As delightful as a deserted island sounds right now, I’m assuming I didn’t plan for this to happen. 

Book: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin. Why? Because it’s the book I’m currently reading, and I forgot to bring my Forager’s Harvest on this doomed vacation.  

Album: Rhythm of Youth by Men Without Hats. Why? So that I can tell which strangers are safe because if they don’t dance, well, they’re no friends of mine.  

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

That the medium of comix is not analyzed or appreciated from a literary standpoint. Graphic novels and comics are becoming more valued but are still largely marketed to children or niche fan bases. I think incorporating comix into school curricula at all reading levels is an excellent way to bring the literary value of comix forward.  

Carissa Villagomez

What is your favorite place to read?   

I like to read anywhere that is quiet and isolated, which often means I read in my room late at night. I love to immerse myself in a book, so the experience is always better when I have the adequate time to really savor what I am reading. 

You’re walking up the side of a mountain along a winding, wooded path. You look to your left and discover, by chance, a door in the side of the mountain. Do you open it, and if so, where does it lead? 

I open the door! Excitement, challenges, new worlds all await, and I am not letting my chance to indulge in my own transformative bookish adventure get away from me. I approach the door, my mind buzzing with all the possibilities. Door in the side of a mountain automatically makes me think of dwarven kingdoms made up of spiraling stone and fantastical caverns where beasts with hearts of gold lie in wait. I grip the carved wooden handle, blood abuzz with opportunity as the world shifts beneath my feet. I take a deep breath and open the door to be greeted by the sight of infinite darkness. I frown and lean slightly forward. The darkness bends for a moment and then golden light particles snap into existence, multiplying and racing outward to coalesce into four dazzling pathways of stars. Each road extends out into the darkness and leads to a window. The first window to the left peers into a world densely populated by verdant green trees. Elaborate houses are built into their branches and families of hybrid humanoid bird creatures bustle about inside warmly light rooms. A creature that looks like a mix between an elk and a zebra quietly munches on grass and gives me a look as if to say, “What are you waiting for?” The second window looks out into a cloudy sky where a clan of navy eyed figures ride lightning strikes to deliver medical supplies to airships. One of the figures looks up at me and quirks an eyebrow. In the third window, I stare into the back of my own head as I watch myself authoritatively gesticulate to a person made of smoke. A tendril of vapor forms into a hand that waves me forward. In the fourth window lies a world made of fractured glass that hums, each shard holding an alternative reality for all the choices I have made. I briefly look over my shoulder back to the mountain path, then face forward once again. I smile and leap into the dark. 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.    

I don’t drink coffee or have any particularly interesting liquid ritual. I’m quite content drinking a nice glass of water while I ponder my severe lack of beverage ingenuity. 

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

It’s difficult to think of just one word as my favorite. Perhaps encapsulate because it always has my back when I need a word that really captures everything and nothing at the same time. Solivagant holds a special place in my heart as well, as wandering alone is compatible with my consuming introspection but, more importantly, it also suggests a freedom and quiet self-assuredness I yearn for.  

As for other languages, I would have to say either the lovely cognate interactuar in Spanish because using it has made me sound more competent in certain situations or the Yaghan word mamihlapinatapai because it perfectly encapsulates (ha!) an interesting moment of nonverbal communication.  

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

If I knew that there was a possibility of me being alone on a deserted island before embarking on the journey that landed me there, then I would prepare by carefully combining all the pages from favorite and currently unread-but-owned books into one giant, spiral bound volume. I know that’s skirting the question, but it’s an impossible one to answer. I’ll concede at least one title that I would include in said creation, which would have to be . . . The Last Uncharted Sky by Curtis Craddock because it is so fantastical that I would surely forget about being on the island in the first place.   

The album would be Where I Go When I Am Sleeping by Casey because listening to it while completely deserted would allow me to more thoroughly reflect from all the anxiety induced by the machinations and troubles of society. Prompted by the band’s unique lyrics and my detached surroundings, I would reconsider all the experiences I have never had, the nature of self-perception, and all the overlooked nuances of human interaction with a different perspective. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be?  

The literary industry has multiple areas in which it needs to be improved. If I could change it, I would make it more responsive to change and more active in challenging its past traditions of exclusivity. Publishing often seems as if it is one step behind the flow of events as major companies are often slow to respond. Literature not only responds but can also anticipate and initiate new actions/discussions to get them into more mainstream consciousness. I would want to make the entire industry more energized, empathetic, and respectful of all voices. This vision also includes addressing the often-overlooked aspect of mental health in the industry, so that those in the industry are more active in publishing more nuanced portrayals of mental health. 

September Staff Picks: French Rap, Queer Historical Fiction, and Superheroes

Chase Bailey

The past few weeks I’ve been big into French rap, especially an album—Amina—by Lomepal. I’d already been a fan of another one of his albums but decided to try out this one out. I ended up listening to the album on repeat (again and again and again and . . .) while working on a puzzle (re: waiting for a COVID-19 test). There’s a story of a quarantine puzzle scandal for another time, but just know that I spent hours that turned into days listening to this same album.

However, those hours I spent subconsciously soaking in those words did make me realize I was getting better at picking out certain words and lyrics. It was a feel-good moment of “Now see, that minor wasn’t for nothing,” and it gave me a little jolt of renewed interest in studying French post-college.

My favorite on the album, by far, is “Flash” (it’s very calming to me), but some other honorable mentions are “Trop beau” (instrumental version!), “Montfermeil,” “200,” and “Ma Cousin” (live acoustic version!!!––important!).

I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention High Highs to Low Lows by Lolo Zouaï and Nuova Genesi by GAIA as two language-inspired albums I’ve recently etched into my eardrums.

If you have recommendations for me, tweet me (@ChaseBailey1). I will NOT engage in Spotify/Apple Music discourse, but I will graciously and thankfully accept links to either platform.

Carolyn Janecek

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg is a magnificent queering of historical fiction, right down to the harmony between form, content, and characters. The author’s use of footnotes? Divine. Confessions of the Fox make up the fictional memoirs of Jack Sheppard, famed thief and jailbreaker of eighteenth-century London. Dr. Voth is the professor who discovers the lost memoirs and transcribes them. In the footnotes, we begin with just the historical context, move into cheeky remarks, and eventually piece together Dr. Voth’s own struggles in love, academia, his resolution to protect Jack Sheppard’s story, and his connection to Jack as a trans man. Jack’s journey through indentured servitude, falling in love, transitioning . . . made it so difficult to put the book down.

I also have to mention Bess, who is so much more than just a love interest of Jack’s. She is a survivor, a sex worker, a philosopher, and an activist who dreams of reclaiming her indigenous way of life in the midst of Britain’s colonization. Rosenberg encourages his readers to interrogate what authenticity means, what it means to respect a manuscript, and a person’s life behind it. Maybe no story remains completely unaltered, but sometimes, that could be for the best.

Emily Brill-Holland

I am so behind the ball on this one, but I’m loving The Umbrella Academy. Based on the comic series of the same name, written by Gerard Way the lead singer and lyricist of My Chemical Romance. I slept hard on this Netflix series and am slowly working through it. I’m on Season 2 now! (I can’t Google it to give you any further information because I will not cope if I accidentally read a spoiler; I’m already struggling with the angst and tension and not spoiling it for myself). Basically, it combines orphans, superpowers, and a dead dad who both raised the adopted siblings yet also broke them at the same time. Oh, and the apocalypse. You know—those pesky little things.

Thomas Chisholm

I’ve been listening to the new Brockhampton mixtape, Technical Difficulties. At the end of April, the boys started a series of weekly live streams. They ended up releasing nine new songs, which make up the mixtape, as well as previewing a huge swath of unreleased material that will presumably make up the band’s (imminent) sixth studio album. The material released here was made mostly on the fly while the group was under a self-induced quarantine. It’s real rough around the edges, yet it’s the most fun-sounding music the boys have put out since the Saturation days. I have to shout out Matt Champion for upping his game on these new songs. He stole most of the tracks he’s featured on. My favorite songs are probably “Downside” and “Chain On/Hold Me” featuring JPEGmafia. There are samples on some of these songs that aren’t cleared, so don’t expect to see any of them on Spotify.

I’ve also been stuck on the Navy Blue album Àdá Irin from earlier this year. I checked him out because of his features on the last two Earl Sweatshirt projects. If you were a fan of Earl’s 2018 album, Some Rap Songs, than you’ll likely love Àdá Irin too. It features a similar jazzy aesthetic with chopped up samples and a healthy aversion to hooks. The sLUms collective and Navy Blue actually developed this sound that Earl’s record popularized. Àdá Irin features a lot of horns, which really gives the album its own sound. My favorite song is either “Ode2MyLove” or “To Give Praise!” for the aforementioned horns.

Jaclyn Morken

Roseanne A. Brown’s incredible debut, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, is right at the top of my “recommended” list. It’s everything I want from a YA fantasy and then some. In the great city of Ziran, on the eve of a massive festival, we find Malik and Karina. The former is an Eshran refugee risking everything to find work in a city that hates and oppresses his people. The latter is the rebellious princess, stubbornly dreaming of escaping the city walls, but still reeling from a trauma that destroyed her family years before.

Ancient magic, political intrigue, gladiator fights, meddling spirits, deadly pacts—this book has it all. But what really drew me in were these two main characters prepared to give everything to save the people they love. This book does not shy from the debilitating consequences of trauma, prejudice, and widespread injustice, and its central conflicts are so effectively layered and woven together. And at the heart of this novel are characters who feel so real, who draw on their own strengths to struggle through the obstacles—both internal and external—before them. “Abraa! Abraa! Come and gather—a story is about to begin!” I mean, how could I not love a book that opens like that?

A Captivating Tapestry of Family: A Review of The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman

Published May 3, 2019 by Press 53

From parents to parenting, mischievous youth to playful old age, Julie Zuckerman picks out and points at well-chosen moments in the life of Jeremiah Gerstler: a boy-turned-man growing up in the mid-1900s. Juxtaposing Jeremiah’s highs and lows, Zuckerman creates a rich tapestry of life, from family careers to the messy throes of loss and love. Through each story, Zuckerman is aware of her readers—she does not punch the point home with a heavy or high hand. She lets things stay complicated, gives details as you need them, and allows you to put them together at your own pace.

Despite its title, The Book of Jeremiah is by no means a religious book. Rather, religion is a layer in each of the characters’ lives. For Jeremiah, being Jewish is a simple, distant fact of life. It is more of an obstacle—in his career and public life, as he enters adulthood at the height of the second world war—than a fixture in his daily routine. For his mother Rikki, a first-generation immigrant with a young family, religion is community. It’s her rituals and routines—from Yom Kippur to the dishes she cooks each night. But it’s also the constant undercurrent of guilt that colors her life, especially when things go wrong. When her child has misbehaved or when a dish burns she believes she’s being punished. Her religion hovers in the pressure to be the “right kind” of good in her roles as a neighbor, wife, and mother. That feeling of always being watched and judged is ever-present in the pages that follow her.

For Hannah, Jeremiah’s daughter, a third-generation immigrant a few degrees removed from a traditional Jewish upbringing, religion is “family gatherings, chicken soup, and chopped liver on Manischewiz crackers.” It’s the smell of her grandmother’s kitchen. Though Judaism is a fact of her life, it is more of an afterthought than an overwhelming presence. Yet Hannah is able to find meaning in her tenuous religious ties when she confronts them.

As a non-religious reader, following these varied experiences across characters and time periods made Zuckerman’s stories fascinating and accessible. And it’s not all sugar and honey.

The Book of Jeremiah moves through a patchwork of experiences, settings, conflicts, and critical moments in Jeremiah’s life. We see him bend and crack, and sometimes break. In “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm,” Zuckerman reveals a touching story about a mother learning to see the charm and brilliance in her son’s mischievous behavior. In a text that is, at times, steeped in religious guilt, Zuckerman takes us through the thinking behind a mother choosing to hit her child—while maintaining, somehow, our empathy (but not forgiveness) towards her. In “Three Strikes,” our gut wrenches along with Lenny’s as he realizes, so early in life, just how serious the consequences of his actions can be.

“Gerstler’s Triumphant Return”is perhaps the most emotional and satisfying story in this collection. Zuckerman conflates Jeremiah’s insatiable need for external validation with his desire for heroism. In one of the most heroic acts of the book, he sacrifices one (external validation from an authority) for the other (creating a lasting, meaningful moment). It causes him some consternation, but Jeremiah reconciles his conflicting emotions to protest on behalf of his daughter. And while he gives something up in front of his old colleagues—his political stance, professional dignity (in their eyes), and rational sense (also in their eyes), things that to him are exceptionally important—he gains something else he’s been searching for his whole life. Something the reader has been aware of since he was still a twelve-year-old boy in the first story: “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm.” He surprises and impresses his daughter, someone whose opinion is important to him, and becomes the hero he always believed he would in one simple gesture.

In the end, Jeremiah learns he doesn’t have to be an important, dignified government employee, or a spy in the second world war, to be a hero. Reading “Gerstler’s Triumphant Return” is a reminder that, though this is a series of short stories, the book is a comprehensive, singular story too. Interconnected to a point, each story informs the others in a complicated web that debut author Zuckerman has cracked. If there is a climax in this collection, it is here.

With critical, insightful observations on themes like parenting, religion, and aging—“If the Frisbee player portended things to come, Jeremiah would soon become unseen, an obstacle in some younger person’s way” (124)—Zuckerman reveals her strengths as a writer. The Book of Jeremiah is complex, nuanced, and complementary, a truly triumphant first step for Zuckerman’s burgeoning career.

Not the Sum of Its Parts: A Review of The Baudelaire Fractal by Lisa Robertson

Published January 21, 2020 by Coach House Books

I love the publisher Coach House Books. Their quirky tomes fill my shelves and always make me think about things in a different way. So when I noticed The Baudelaire Fractal was publishing, I knew I had to read it. (I may have actually waited for the ARC on the porch a couple of times…) The Baudelaire Fractal is acclaimed poet Lisa Robertson’s much-anticipated debut novel, published on January 21st, 2020.

As expected, I’m not quite sure what to think. I’ve been trying to come up with cohesive thoughts for this review, yet I sort of think that the point of this book is its uncertainty. It can mean something a little bit different for everyone, as I think all great poetry does.

Poet Hazel Brown wakes up one day in a strange hotel room and realizes that she has written the complete works of Baudelaire. The character isn’t sure why or how, but she knows it like she knows the back of her hand—she has authored these words.

True to Coach House style, this book introduces readers to a new kind of literary depth and challenge. A fractal is “any of various extremely irregular curves or shapes for which any suitably chosen part is similar in shape to a given larger or smaller part when magnified or reduced to the same size” (Merriam-Webster). In other words, a fractal is a small piece of something that effectively represents a larger whole. So, it’s aptly named: written in fractal-like poetic prose, the form of the book itself mimics Baudelaire’s works. Even the cover is disorienting, confusing, and beautiful. Robertson’s form meets its function flawlessly; this book looks exactly like it feels.

So, when a work is confusing, how are readers guided through it? Robertson’s book does a beautiful job of using imagery to help a reader situate themselves in a specific time period and place. This was very helpful since, when I started reading, I had expected a more clear-cut narrative. Clothing imagery in particular was plentiful throughout the book; the protagonist consistently references fashion as a way to span various time periods, which really helped me place myself in the story. In true Baudelairean style, however, the book is ethereal, written in a slightly disorienting way. Just when I thought I could place myself in a specific time period, or a specific location, what I thought I knew slipped through my fingers.

Part memoir, part literary fiction, and part magical realism, this book feels like a genre in and of itself. Its content and form both transcend time. Whether the narrative focuses around Baudelaire, around Hazel, or around the works they both explore, the same themes emerge again and again; I wasn’t left with a feeling of closure or understanding.  Though this would ordinarily frustrate me, this book can’t end with a feeling of closure. Paradoxically, that would go against the very nature of the fractal itself—if there was one, overarching sense of finality, the individual pieces of the story, or fractals, would not be able to stand on their own and represent the themes of the whole.

Fans of historical fiction, poetic prose, and literary fiction will enjoy this thought-provoking novel, but if you are looking for a simple beach read, maybe leave this book on the shelf. Robertson’s style is beautiful and disorienting, often (intentionally) unclear. If you are looking for a challenge, and some captivating imagery, I would definitely recommend it.

Truth from Blasphemy: An Interview with Sarah Sousa

Church of Needles is an astounding collection of poetry that recollects the Civil War, childbirth, the uncertainty of motherhood, and a re-imagining of the relationship we have with the world around us. At the heart of this collection is a desire for unity and meaning in the world, despite an inherent lack of connection.

NOTE: This interview was recorded by phone, so any errors should be attributed to a less-than-reliable connection. Enjoy!

What first inspired you to write poetry, and later a book of poetry?

church-of-needles-full-cover-email-copy

I don’t know originally why I started writing poetry; I know I started fairly young. I read a lot of Emily Dickinson and I loved the power of her voice and the power she achieved through poetry, and I think I always wanted to achieve that power. It’s kind of a quiet power but it was definitely evident.

Now I am inspired by all things history: vintage photos, diaries, letters, and extinction. What inspired me to write the book? I think it’s a culmination for every poet. I had a lot of collected poems but nothing that came together so I went to start my Master’s degree in writing at Bennington College where the goal of the program was to write the book.

You’ll see different subject matters throughout that book because of how long it took to put it together. For example, in 2007 I found an antique diary that I used to inspire an entire section of the book.

Can you describe the process of putting this book together?

Church of Needles was my first collection, so it was different from putting together the second, which is coming out this fall. The experience of putting this first one together was a little bit haphazard. Many of the poems were written during the MFA program at Bennington, though some predated that.

It also did undergo several transformations during the 4 ½ years after I graduated, submitting to contests and different publishers. I tried to tighten it, cut and added parts I never thought I would—it is kind of a challenge to put a book together because you want your strongest poems in there but they have to hang together and create a larger story.

It was in this process of editing that some of the themes of motherhood, mortality, and spirituality/religion emerged. I’m not a religious person, but I do address God and that…issue. Also, the book became very tied to landscape. I was living in Maine when I wrote most of the poems and was in Maine most of my adult life, though I grew up in Massachusetts. But I was always on a New England landscape. When I was living in Maine, I had farm animals, and lived in a small cabin (without electricity at one point), so it was very costal land, very hard-scrabble and sort of like it was for most of its history.

The historic poems about the diarist and other poems about figures from the 1800s also deal with the hardships of the land, and those ended up kind of meshing with more contemporary poems in the book.

What do you try to achieve with your poetry? What makes good poetry?

You know when you’re writing it what you feel is right. Some poets call it the heat in writing and you go towards that. You figure out when you’re writing what’s working. So I think for me identifying truth, some nugget of truth in things—you know when something is ringing true, and that you’re getting deeper than just surface descriptions of something, of an event, or a feeling. You’re hitting the truth-nerve, if there is such a thing. And a lot of that comes out without your cooperation, sometimes. You just sit down and get into it and things will kind of pop out at you. I think that’s what I go for.

That also goes for when I’m reading. I enjoy playing with language, I enjoy leaps in poetry, and when you’re not quite sure what’s coming next—when it’s not following a straight line. It’s hard to put your finger on, but you know when you can see it.

What are some of these “truth nuggets” that you find yourself uncovering in this collection?

I think “The Art of Flying” would be the best example. The last lines in that poem: “that earth is a myth created by birds that would kill for a rest”. I didn’t work for that. I was working on a poem and then that kind of popped in and I knew it was perfect for the end. It has a sort of torque, you know? It’s like, birds creating the death of these humans who want to fly but needing the earth to land on because they don’t want to keep flying all the time. There are deeper things there, but there was just something that I knew was truthful in that.

Another example: there’s a newer poem that I’ve been working on for the next collection about women stitching. And on the surface it’s them stitching quilts and exchanging certain stitch techniques like the fan-wheel stitch, or the lover’s knot—but there’s kind of an undercurrent in it of women stitching each other from injury (actual physical injury or metaphysical). And in the last line I say “they make beautiful scars.” I had been thinking and reading about genital mutilation, which happens a lot in other countries, and learned that other women performed it. I felt really conflicted because I was working on this poem at the time and I was trying to get across this idea that women are healers but they can also be destroyers and injurers at the same time. And so how truthful would I be if I don’t acknowledge both sides? And so I left it alone and ignored it for a little while and then that last line just came to me and it was perfect because it gets at that idea that the act of stitching something creates a scar—it both heals and mutilates at the same time.

Is this poem going to be in the next book? Will we get to read it soon?

No, that won’t be in the next book. That was kind of a one-off, but I did include it in a chapbook manuscript that I sent out a few times. They’re very women- and girl-centric poems.

Right now it is floating around in the prize circuit. I’ve sent it out to a few publishers but so far, nothing. I have a problem with chapbooks because I always want to make more out of them! And I may go on to make it something bigger.

Back to your current book: it has been described as being “absent of god,” even though there is a tone that calls for unity and meaning. And you even described one of your major themes being spirituality, even though you aren’t religious. Could you speak more about that?

I didn’t really grow up religiously. I mean I was a Sunday school teacher for a little while but… I think the reason why God is absent in a lot of the poems is that that’s how I experienced God. You know, a yearning for someone to be on the other side to offer a little help, yet no one seems to be there. In prayer I always felt like I was being thrown back on myself—like it was kind of a cruel joke. So that’s something that I definitely felt and came out in the poems, this sense of reaching and trying to find that connection and not really finding it.

And yet, I feel like I’m kind of a mystical type of “believer.” I definitely believe in mysteries but I don’t think I want them all solved. I think I like that there’s a mystery in there and I like to poke at it.

I think of Emily Dickenson when I think of my own “belief” because she was taught at a religious school and was surrounded by people who were accepting faith and she couldn’t. She made some comment about how she would like to believe, but she just can’t. And I think that I am the same way—I can’t just accept something and go with it, I always have to question and question.

So poetry is very spiritual for me because I can poke and question but it’s not something that I have to accept and understand. But it feels spiritual because I can just write and write and things come to my mind and I just don’t know where they came from, and so I feel like it’s a kind of connection.

Sometimes I feel that we’re all talking the same language—religion, spirituality, artists and our process.

I think many people would agree that the act of writing or creating art is a kind of reaching for connection.

Definitely! And it’s really all artists I think. It’s all just finding that truth and making connections. And you know I think it’s connecting with your viewer or your reader that’s hard about writing.

To speak more technically about your writing, how do you find yourself structuring and pacing your poems? Many novice writers set out to write about a certain thing or an idea and get stuck on surface level or not fleshing out their thoughts enough. So what would you be your advice to new writers on how to create good poetry?

I totally know that feeling. New writers (all writers, really) have something to say and they want to get that across but a good writer is willing to be open to the process and allow things to change as you write. So while you’re writing and re-writing and editing, you find new meaning and end up going deeper than your first thought.

So my advice to aspiring poets would be: keep writing, keep experimenting with your voice and your style. Find out what your strengths are. Sometimes what people might tell you is a weakness you find is something that is peculiar to you and you can capitalize on that. You should read a lot of poetry—both classics and contemporary. And also, just be creative when you write! People in other mediums still play with their work and I think that especially because poetry has such a reputation for being stiff that you need to be playful with your work. Writers, especially new writers, get intimidated thinking that poetry is very serious business, and that can kill the whole creative process.

People also tend to hate revision—think it’s an evil, creatively destructive monster—but really it is important and can be just as creative a process as the first draft. I myself have come to really love revision. At a certain point, everyone knows their strong and weak spots and you just have to accept those in order to revise and improve.

I had to learn that during my undergraduate years. I got a poem back with red ink all over it, saying, “fix this” or “make this better,” and I honestly didn’t know what that meant or what to do. So be willing to both accept advice but also not accept advice. Once you reach a certain level of writing it becomes someone else’s opinion about your work that may not be necessary. You have to learn what you think is relevant advice about the poem and not take what you don’t think is relevant. When you’re in a workshop class with ten different people who all want to change one little thing you can’t take all their advice because then it wouldn’t be your poem anymore.

In TBL’s last quarterly issue, we republished three of your poems from this collection, “The Art of Flying,” “Scrying,” and “Lullaby.” Since they all seem to have such a personal feel, could you tell us more about them?

The most “from life” piece in that group is “Lullaby.” It was pretty much about the birth of my first son and how a mother can be more than just the nurturer, but also someone who could be dangerous. A lot of power rests in her hands.

“Art of Flying” I’ve already talked a little about. “Scrying” was interesting because it was kind of a mix of real and historic things. Part of it is based on where I live now and the barn that is on our property. The barn has lots of writing inside from the early 1800s, so they have things written about how many bushels were picked one year and of course the kids would write down their names and the dates and such. So I used that, I put character’s names from the antique diary and put their names on the wall for the poem. I think I took a lot of poetic license with that one. But that poem was generally about my obsession with history. It reflects the sad fact that history is more than I’ll ever understand, so I added voices and characters and half-truths that brought me closer to the real truth of all this leftover history.

At TBL we talk a lot about book publishing and story publishing, but what is it like to get poetry published? How does someone go about publishing a book of poetry?

Well, from when I first put the book together (right before I got my master’s degree) it took about four and a half years before Red Mountain Press picked it up. And before they did I sent it to dozens and dozens of contests I didn’t even keep track of. It’s such a heartbreaking process because it takes so long. This book was especially difficult because it went on to become a finalist for a number of pretty prestigious book prizes, but never won. You send it out in September and no one even gets back to you until March. So you end up sending it out everywhere you can think of and when it comes back and you get close…

I remember at least half a dozen times just crying when I get the rejection letter back saying how close I had come and just thinking, this is never going to happen. On top of that, I’m 41 and I’m just now publishing a book. To me that’s really late, because I’ve been writing all my life, since I was really young and writing seriously since I was in my early twenties.

I think what helps me the most (and I’m about to talk about first books on a panel at the Berkshire Women’s Writer’s Festival in March) was moving on to a different project. It was wonderful–it just took all my attention away from the rejection and allowed me to move on from those heartbreaking years of coming close but never making it. It also allowed me to grow, because after those four and a half years of editing and submitting I learned how to put a book together. The project I moved on to while I was submitting Church of Needles actually got picked up really quickly—in fact in about three and a half months of submitting instead of years.