It’s one of the oldest idioms in the book world, time-tested and subtly instructive: Don’t take things purely at face value, it says; don’t be ruled by your prejudices; look past first impressions and give second chances. It is perhaps least useful when applied to its literal context.Read More
by Stefan Lopez
So, your manuscript has been selected for publication. You’ve done it! You sold your book! At first, this might seem like the most difficult part of the process. In reality, though, acquisition is only the beginning of a much longer—often time more arduous—path to publication.
At any press, preparing a manuscript for publication and getting in front of prospective readers takes a lot of effort on behalf of both the author and the publisher. From submissions to acquisition, development to release—a year-long process, at least—is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor. So, what should a debut author expect from their publication experience? I sat down with Stillhouse Press director of media & marketing, Meghan McNamara to find out.
“There are writers who just want to put their heads down and write, and leave everything else to others, and we just don’t live in a world where that’s possible,” McNamara says, especially as it relates to small press publishing.
“Since we only publish two to three books a year, we have more of a chance to work closely with the author and really refine their work.”
Perhaps the first thing to know about small press publishing is that it’s not uncommon for members of the press to take on multiple roles, especially when they are first starting out. Unlike the big houses—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster—who have a whole host of people dedicated to the many different tasks involved in publication, small presses rely on the resources of a few dedicated individuals.
“My roles have changed so much over time, from book promotion to distribution and wholesale orders, and running the website. It’s kind of a mix of all things administrative and promotional,” McNamara says. For the first year, she said, “during the off season, Marcos [Martínez] and I were often the only ones in the building.”
Though there are positives and negatives to this, the small team size often leads to a greater intimacy with a project, as everyone has a hand in developing and promoting it. What small presses might lack in reach and manpower, the staff makes up for in time and care.
“Our press has more of a craft focus,” she says. “Since we only publish two to three books a year, we have more of a chance to work closely with the author and really refine their work.”
Central to the development and promotional process is the galley (also known as an ARC, or advanced reading copy)—essentially the first draft of the final book.
“First you have the manuscript that goes through the editorial process. Once everyone—author and editors—has signed off on it, we send that draft to the printer and it becomes the galley.”
Just like McNamara herself, the galley serves several functions. On the editorial side, it is the last chance for edits to be made, both internally and externally. Editorial interns use it to make their final edits, scanning for grammar or content inconsistencies that might have been missed in the final manuscript edit.
On the marketing and media side of things, the galley also functions as a first glimpse for prospective media, including advance interviewers and reviewers. Media responses both generate buzz for the book and give the publisher a sense of what a general audience response might be.
Galley covers were once a plain and simple endeavor—often plain brown and printed with the title and author’s name—though small presses like Stillhouse now use the galley as a debut cover run of sorts.
“When Stillhouse was first starting out, someone once told me that it takes a person upwards of three times to see a book before they are intrigued enough to buy it,” McNamara says. “It just made sense we should take advantage of this brand opportunity.”
Thus, the galley cover is, in many ways, the perfect opportunity to start conveying the book’s brand.
“Personal appeal is almost always the best way to find support for your book.”
The author is also on the front lines of promotion. Though this networking might seem daunting to many authors, it’s an integral part of the success of a small press title. Through public readings and interviews, author profiles and social media interaction, an author becomes the face of their book. Behind the scenes, they network with fellow literary contacts and acquaintances to shore up support. If there are blurbs — as the industry folk call a book’s cover quotes — they often come from writers or editors the author has worked with or has reached out to personally.
“A personal appeal is almost always the best way to find support for your book,” McNamara says.
And the support cuts both ways, she adds, noting that the books which find the most support are those written by authors who interact with and advocate for their literary peers.
“People want to engage with you if you’re interesting and active, but if you just start a Twitter account to only promote your book, you won’t get a great following.”
While they wear very different hats within the realm of Stillhouse, McNamara’s advice certainly mirrors that of fellow founding editor, Marcos Martínez.
“It’s important to build a community of readers,” Martínez told me during an interview a few months prior. “People will support you if you support them.”
In other words: the best way to become a successful writer is to develop a community.
“Every author has a following, even if it’s just friends of the writer or people who casually follow their work online,” he says.
The world of small press publishing is exactly that: small. Support others so that when it’s your turn, they will support you.
“The world of small press publishing is exactly that: small. Support others so that when it’s your turn, they will support you.”
Stefan Lopez has an internship with Stillhouse Press,
a Bachelor’s Degree in English from
George Mason University,
and a head full of empty.
by Sarah Luria
Anita Felicelli’s debut short story collection, Love Songs for a Lost Continent hit shelves Oct. 1, 2018, marking the third short story collection from Stillhouse Press and Felicelli’s first foray into full-length adult fiction (she is also the author of the young adult novel Spark Off You, a collection of poetry, and a children’s book). Recently, I spoke with her about how she constructed this wild narrative — replete with elements of the fantastic and recurring characters — and where she draws her inspiration from.
SARAH LURIA: You chose to feature some characters in several different stories throughout this collection, creating a powerful connective tissue that runs throughout the collection. Did you plan for the characters to reappear and change when you set out to write this book, or did that come later? What effect do you think this has on the overall narrative?
ANITA FELICELLI: I didn't have a plan for characters to reappear and change because I wrote a number of these short stories over a period of years without knowing whether they would coalesce into a collection. Every once in a while, I'd realize I wanted to write about a character that had already appeared in another story. For example, “The Logic of Someday” was a story I wrote much earlier than some of the other stories. The protagonist of that story saw her boyfriend's mother, Maisie, in a very specific, negative light. But a few years later, I had questions about Maisie. Until I imagined myself into her life and perspective, I don't think I'd fully thought through how years of poverty might harden a person. That imagining led to “The Art of Losing.” And later I realized that a minor reference in Wild Things was actually to Susannah's son, Jude. I hope that looking at the same characters from different perspectives and at different times allows the collection to feel kaleidoscopic, intuitive, and surprising. I didn't want to create the linear experience that you get from many novels in stories like “A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” as enjoyable as I've found such experiences. Rather, I wanted the collection to have an echo of the pleasurable wildness that I often feel in real life, encountering someone from our past who exercises his or her agency, and turns out to be completely differently than what we might have expected.
“I hope that looking at the same characters from different perspectives and at different times allows the collection to feel kaleidoscopic, intuitive, and surprising.”
SL: Obviously, as an author, you draw inspiration from your own life experiences, but are any of these stories loosely autobiographical, or inspired by actual events?
AF: None of the stories can be described as loosely autobiographical. However, many grew out of an autobiographical seed or actual events I heard about that sparked my imagination. It will probably sound like a weird coincidence, but I've known more than one mother of a son like Drew in “The Logic of Someday” and “The Art of Losing” and what it's like to parent a child with severe ADHD and conduct disorder who deals drugs. Although I'm a mother now, I've also experienced infertility like the narrator in “Rampion.” I've done many, many different kinds of day jobs, including criminal defense work and writing for a hedge fund, and my close encounters in these lines of work color the plots of “The Logic of Someday,” “Once Upon the Great Red Island,” and “Swans and Other Lies.’”
SL: Many of these characters oscillate between extremely hopeful and extremely cynical world-views. What was it like to move back and forth from the darker moments in this collection, and those which feel more uplifting?
AF: I think the radical shifts you notice follow my own train of thought, and my own experience of the world as a place of infinite variety and range—somehow both absurdly wonderful and deeply horrible at the same time.
SL: Several of your stories, like “Deception” and “Rampion” ring with a sort of mythical, adult retelling of a childhood fantasy story. What fantasy stories were most influential to you as a child, and did any of them serve as inspiration for the stories in this book? How did you come to embrace the magical or fantastic in your writing?
AF: I was a voracious reader of fantasy and magical stories as a child—it's cool you picked up on that. I loved Madeleine L'Engle's time series: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Other early favorites were The Chronicles of Narnia, the Andrew Lang fairytale books, Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books that toggled between realistic stories about make-believe and full-on fantasy, Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, and the Amar Chitra Katha comic books that retold Hindu epics and myths. “Rampion” is a retelling of Rapunzel from the witch's point of view. “Deception,” about a young woman who marries a tiger, is partly based on a folktale similar to Beauty and the Beast that appears in multiple regions of India in different forms. “Once Upon the Great Red Island” is partly based on Malagasy folklore.
I'd written in a barebones minimalist style about subtly strange events or characters as far back as high school. A lot of the American writers I was reading back then were influenced by Raymond Carver and John Cheever and so I thought you had to carve the writing down for it to be “good.” As an English major, I'd focused on British literature, however—Shakespearean plays, Tristam Shandy, Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss, Vanity Fair, Bleak House, and Sense and Sensibility. I always assumed that was the kind of fully realized fiction weighted towards the real, but playing with form or coincidence, that I might one day write. I came to embrace the fantastic again after becoming a recluse due to a devastating, disabling event in my late twenties. I didn't think I would ever recover from what had happened to me. Outside of my day job, I barely interacted with other humans, and instead for almost six years, I spent my free time hanging out with my two corgis and reading from the read-lists that my now-spouse Steven emailed to me from afar. These were lists populated with authors like Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina O'Campo, Victor Pelevin, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Bohumil Hrabal. I later discovered Helen Oyeyemi's and Kelly Link's fiction. Reading these masterful magic realist authors from all over the world made me realize that writing further into the realm of the fantastic didn't have to satisfy an escapist impulse, but was more like digging into a deeper reality.
“Reading these masterful magic realist authors from all over the world made me realize that writing further into the realm of the fantastic didn't have to satisfy an escapist impulse, but was more like digging into a deeper reality.”
SL: Your stories offer many different characters, with varying points of view. What kind of audience do you think this collection might most appeal to?
AF: My hope is to appeal to open-minded readers who genuinely value pluralism and the full possibilities of the imagination. Hopefully that doesn't sound ridiculous.
SL: One of my favorite lines from this book is: “Something about the hungry way he was looking at her from under his long lashes made her feel like he was drinking her down.” You write passion so well. What advice do you have for aspiring writer looking to write compelling, realistic romance stories/scenes?
AF: I try to come at passion a little slant. Whenever something is erotic, I find that there are a lot of other complicating feelings there, too. Often those are feelings that might challenge a cohesive sense of self. So, I try to reveal vulnerability or humor or even the slightly dangerous feeling of an erotic encounter rather than present a conventional wine-and-roses romance. When I do hit more in the wine-and-roses register, I try to subvert that energy through later plot points.
SL: Your last book, Sparks Off You, was a YA novel—obviously quite different from this collection in both tone and structure. What were some of the major differences in language, story development, and character that you see between writing YA and adult fiction?
AF: There's a quote by Madeleine L'Engle: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” I'd originally planned Sparks Off You to be an adult novel about teenage characters, in the vein of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden or J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, but many drafts later I realized it was YA-like, possibly because I was 24 when I first believed I'd completed it, and my teenage years weren't very far behind me. The prose in Sparks was poetic, sometimes purple, but over the years, I trained that out of my prose voice because I came to believe it distracted from the story. My dear college roommate is a commercial YA author, and I think the bigger difference between our approaches is not the YA-adult audience divide, but that she is very focused on story and plot, and I'm focused on language.
As for character, although there are gigantic differences between my life and the artist protagonist in Sparks (my mother is alive, for instance), I gave that protagonist my personality and perceptions. In contrast, I've never written a character in adult literary fiction who is consciously based on me. The older I get, the more I believe that other people are much more interesting than I am.
SL: Lastly, your book deals a lot with the tangled relationship between identity and the lives we live. Looking back on yourself as an early writer, what writing advice might you give to a younger Anita Felicelli?
AF: Oh, this is a difficult one. I was just at my parent's house and stumbled across a middle school literary magazine for which I served as fiction editor, and read three of my poems in it. I was an extremely sensitive teenager with a dark mind, but the one thing that got me through adolescence was that I had been absolutely certain from the age of five that I could be a fiction writer as an adult. So, I wouldn't want to disrupt that huge, early confidence in my identity as a writer. I think it would have shocked me to know how long and how hard I would work as a fiction writer over the next decades. I didn't understand that a creative path is much, much harder to achieve anything in than a law job or corporate job is, perhaps especially for people of color who have an unusual perception of the mainstream culture and are actively trying to make a space for their perceptions that doesn't exist already. One story I wrote in a college workshop, “Wild Things” didn't find a home in the '90s, but a few years ago, a revised version found a home with a journal that didn't even exist when I'd written the first draft. So, I think my advice to young Anita Mohan would be to hold onto that confidence in your work—believing that your fiction is important when nobody else does is what allows you to persist through the weird looks, the lack of interest, and the pitying or discouraging remarks from those who are on more straightforward paths. I was raised in a home where external validation was very important. I used to feel really deflated by rejection letters even if they were handwritten and included praise and it would take me a little while to recover and steel myself up to submit again in spite of my cocky, outsize belief in myself... I'd advise Anita Mohan to place less value on external validation and submit more frequently. With very frequent rejection, a thicker skin naturally grows and your odds of being accepted increase.
“With very frequent rejection, a thicker skin naturally grows and your odds of being accepted increase.”
Sarah Luria is a sophomore at George Mason University. She is majoring in English, with concentrations in Linguistics and Writing and Rhetoric. She likes to write screenplays and the occasional poem, and is most inspired by writers like David Foster Wallace, E.E. Cummings, and Anne Sexton. Hoping to pursue a career in book editing, she is inspired by an editor's ability to shape a book into something amazing.
by Sean van der Heijden
Anne Panning is the author of a bold and brilliant memoir out today from Stillhouse Press. Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss dives deep into the sudden loss of her mother, becoming a moving portrait of loss, love, and what it means to be a family. I sat down with Anne to talk about her writing process, what dragonflies mean to her, and more.
SEAN VAN DER HEIJDEN: There are so many signs throughout the book that seem to be from your mother. It built a wonderful tension between the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” and this terrible tragedy that is difficult to fit into that mantra. I would love to hear your thoughts on this duality. Which side do you tend to lean towards now? How did the loss of your mother challenge your belief that there is a reason behind everything?
ANNE PANNING: I am, at heart, a hardcore realist. I’m normally quite skeptical and leery of anything that cannot be proven. But grief has softened me a lot, made me open to things far beyond me, and for that I’m glad. When I found an old-fashioned sewing book right in the middle of the sidewalk after my mom died, I knew it was a sign. And after things like that kept happening, I began to accept these signs as gifts. I think they happen a lot right after someone dies. They’ve slowed down over the years, but they still happen for me randomly. This past year on Mother’s Day, a book my mom had given me fell right off the shelf in front of me. How could that not be a sign? The other parts of the memoir, though—the medical parts—are where I kept to hard facts and science, so I like to think there’s a balance there.
SV: It’s common for memoirs to not use dialogue as much as novels. The same is true here, and yet your dialogue is so realistic that it puts us right in the scene with you. When and how did you decide to use dialogue over prose?
AP: I think my background and training as a fiction writer has made me especially fond of dialogue. Dialogue makes things clip along in a dynamic way that straight narration cannot. Also, so much of being Minnesotan involves not really saying what you want to say but hoping other people will understand anyway, so dialogue is particularly compelling to me when I write scenes set in Minnesota. It’s all about intensely nuanced, subtle subtext. Also, I consider dialogue as part of setting in that it helps give readers the true flavor of a place.
SV: There is a lot of wry humor in here. For example: the “skeptical” rooster that you find and put on display. How did you choose to balance the humor with some of the more serious topics in the book?
AP: I’m so glad you said that because one of my main goals when writing this memoir was to plunge into a lot of the dark humor my family is prone to. So many grief memoirs I read after my mom died were wonderful and beautiful but never hit on the dark underside of humor that rides beneath most tragedy. My family is funny. They’re quirky, sarcastic, no-bullshit people who can find the weird humor in almost anything. The grave-digging scene was something I worried might be too dark, but I included it because it really illustrates how our family faces hardship.
SV: I was fascinated by the format of your book. It seems both a collection of essays and a continuous memoir at the same time. Each chapter could stand wonderfully on its own, and yet together they weave a beautiful tapestry of everything that you and your family went through. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you formatted and structured everything.
AP: Putting this book together, structurally, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a writer. I can’t tell you how many times I spread the sections all over the floor of my study, trying to find patterns that made sense while also creating suspense and tension about my mom’s health issues. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you have to give readers a reason to turn pages or they’ll simply stop reading. In the book, you know right away that my mom died, but what I tried to do was pull readers along to find out how she died, how everything went so wrong so many times over. Eventually I started to see three strands of a braid emerging: 1) my mom’s health issues and eventual death; 2) the many surprising things I learned about my mom after she died via her mementoes, letters, and journals; and 3) my own life and landscape as a parent negotiating my way through grief, from afar. At first I had the sections numbered, like chapters, but during final revisions, I gave each section/chapter a title, which I think makes it feel, as you said, like both an essay collection and a memoir.
SV: A lot of the imagery here is based in the past—photos, letters, memories, etc. While this is common after a loss, often so many flashbacks are difficult to pull off in literature. How did you choose to balance the past and the present?
AP: I think grief, in and of itself, is one big giant flashback. All the things you miss, all the memories of the good and bad times, the way the person laughed or teased or talked. In this book, though, a big part of the story was discovering who my mother really was, not just as a parent, but as a young woman, a student, a daughter, a friend, a newlywed. I felt like all the boxes of memorabilia she left behind became a puzzle that I tried to piece together. There are admittedly pieces missing, and I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to pick up the phone and ask her questions while I was writing this book. That’s part of what I love about creative nonfiction: the opportunity to imagine into the past, present and future by using “maybe,” “I wonder,” or “perhaps.”
"Most of a dragonfly’s life is spent as an underwater nymph, small and drab, hidden from all the beauty above water. That hit me hard. I suppose if you really break it down, dragonflies symbolize the fleeting nature of our lives, how temporary yet beautiful our time is here on earth."
SV: Dragonflies are obviously an important symbol in your book. Could you speak a little bit more about how you started associating them with your mother? What other importance do they hold to you?
AP: Years ago, when my Aunt Sandy died, my mom’s sister, there were a lot of dragonfly connections surrounding her death. It became part of our collective family story, and so when my mom died, the same thing began happening. I ended up doing voluminous research on dragonflies, to help me contextualize this symbol in the book. One of the most surprising things I learned is that when you see a dragonfly in all its full, colorful, splendid glory, it’s at the very end of its life cycle and facing death within a week or two. Most of a dragonfly’s life is spent as an underwater nymph, small and drab, hidden from all the beauty above water. That hit me hard. I suppose if you really break it down, dragonflies symbolize the fleeting nature of our lives, how temporary yet beautiful our time is here on earth.
SV: The subtitle of your memoir is “On Distance and Loss.” Could you expand more on how the physical and emotional distance between you and your mother evolved following her passing?
AP: As soon as I graduated from high school at age seventeen, I left my hometown and never lived there again. After that, I moved to places not just far away, but sometimes oceans and continents away: The Philippines, Vietnam, Hawaii. I had never traveled as a child, and felt I had so much time to make up for. But after a while, I started to understand there was a great cost to that kind of distance. I missed a lot of important, key moments in my family’s lives. I became a separate entity from them, a satellite orbiting around them but not with them. Now that I’m a parent, I can see how hard this must’ve been for my mom. She was a homebody who was happiest when we were all around. I always figured I’d have more time to spend with her later, trips I might squeeze in when I wasn’t so busy, when the kids were older, when things were calmer. It’s painful to think that I was living all the way in Vietnam during the months right before her death—all that time lost that I could’ve spent with her, if only I had known.
SV: On a similar note, what would you say to people who are experiencing a similar loss to that of your own?
AP: Know that people, even people who love you dearly, will forget about your loss pretty quickly. It’s just the nature of life, especially for those who haven’t lost someone near and dear to them. Try not to be hurt by this, even though it can feel lonely. I think people are a little afraid of someone who’s experienced great loss. They want to support you but they really don’t know what to do or say. Grief, therefore, becomes a private affair. Let yourself suffer and cry and do as little as possible for as long as you need. After my mom died, there were days when I would lie rolled up in the quilt she made me for my wedding and just stare out the window for hours.
SV: Location plays an important role in your book, aside from just separating you from a lot of your family. You’ve spent a lot of time in both the Midwest and Upstate New York. How have these locations shaped you as a person and a writer?
AP: I’ve always considered Minnesota my true home. Even though I haven’t lived there for decades, Minnesota lives in me on an emotional, visceral level—the buttery light, the creamy hotdishes and pan-fried sunfish, the utter no-nonsense quality of the people. There’s a humility and kindness to the Midwest I haven’t found elsewhere. Even though I’ve lived in Upstate New York for twenty-one years, it still doesn’t hit me on a deep-down writing level very often. I think that’s always going to be Minnesota for me.
SV: A lot of your chapters, including the very first one, end in mini cliffhangers of sorts. In just one line, you can take such a sharp turn and startle with your subtle, emotional impact. A lot of writers find ending chapters and books to be the most difficult part. How do more impactful endings factor into your book and your writing process? How did you decide on what would be the last lines?
AP: I think part of that “mini cliffhanger” technique you mentioned comes from writing a lot of flash nonfiction for magazines like Brevity and River Teeth, which are both in the 750-word range. I love the challenge of that much compression and story in so little space. I think writing in flash form helped me write endings that are short and concise but that in a larger manuscript can serve as springboards to the next section while still providing closure to the previous one.
"My hope is that after reading my book, people might become more cautious about trying new ‘amazing’ medical procedures right after they come on the market. Wait. Research. Proceed slowly. Get second opinions."
SV: Your memoir raises awareness of the dangers of the surgery that your mother went through. Do you know if it is still being performed today? What else would you like people to know about it?
AP: Shortly after my mom’s death, the mesh product used in her surgery was taken off the market. At this point, there are class-action lawsuits popping up all over the place about it. One of the things I learned during this whole, horrible ordeal was that medical devices don’t have the same stringent, long-term testing requirements that medications do. There are loopholes for getting a product fast-tracked with little to no studies done. If I let myself think about this too much, I still get very angry, so I try to let it go. My hope is that after reading my book, people might become more cautious about trying new “amazing” medical procedures right after they come on the market. Wait. Research. Proceed slowly. Get second opinions.
SV: Last one! Stillhouse is honored to add your memoir to our collection of intimate, daring books by fantastic authors! What made you go with a small, independent press?
AP: All my books have been published by small presses, and I couldn’t be happier about that. Being published by a small press is like gaining a lifelong friendship. I love the intimate, personal way I’m treated, and how small presses welcome writers’ input at every step of the process. In the short time I’ve worked with Stillhouse Press, I’ve gotten to know a wonderful web of writers, editors, artists and students who have made me feel welcome and valued. Also, small presses champion all their books because their lists aren’t so overwhelmingly long; they also keep your books in print long after any commercial press would. Because they aren’t driven and pressured by the need to make huge corporate profits, they often take on books that don’t fall easily in the mainstream, whether it be content or form. For me, it’s absolutely been the way to go.
Sean van der Heijden is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, where he focuses on short stories and is currently working on a novel.
When he’s not reading or writing, he likes to watch movies, travel to as many places as possible, and obsessively stop to take photos of nature.
by Kim Bartenfelder
Fifty years, before the advent of the twenty-four hour news cycle and social media, before we had anything remotely reminiscent of modern media, we had books. Literature was the most direct way to inform the public and draw attention to the environmental concerns of our time. But as modern media has continued to grow and morph into a behemoth of instant gratification, it’s really contemporary writers like Barbara Kingsolver, who have worked to shift the focus back to the details.
Whether in-person or in her writing, Kingsolver uses her mastery of her own understanding of the world around her—specifically her home of Appalachia—to inform the public about what she sees as the pressing environmental concerns of our time. Kingsolver’s writing recalls one of the pivotal moments for the environment and literature: the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962, which helped launch an environmental movement around pesticide use and allowed the public a deeper glimpse at the environmental stakes associated with the use of DDT, setting the tone for literature to function as an informed advocate for the public.
Like Carson, Kingsolver’s admiration for the natural world is ever-present in her writing, from the imagery of Appalachia’s bountiful forests to the unforgiving mountainous terrain, to utilizing details about animal and plant diversity to create balance between poetic justice and scientific fact.
Whether in-person or in her writing, Kingsolver uses her mastery of her own understanding of the world around her—specifically her home of Appalachia—to inform the public about what she sees as the pressing environmental concerns of our time.
To do this, she draws inspiration from her predecessors, namely David Thoreau. “[His] gifts as a writer, [have] transcended his contributions to natural science. [He] dismissed the notion that poetry and science are incompatible, and captured for his readers the simple wonder we hastily leave behind in the age of reason,” she notes in her 1995 collection of short essays, “Hide Tide in Tucson” (HarperCollins, 1995).
Kingsolver channels this same energy in her fiction, from her earlier works like “Prodigal Summer," released in 2000, to her more contemporary “Flight Behavior” (Harper, 2012). To inspire readers who are passionate, who have a desire to become passionate, or are native to Appalachia, Kingsolver uses fictional stories to emphasize the true nature of how the environment functions in a world of human influence (and sometimes destruction).
In her “Prodigal Summer,” a novel told in three short narratives, the focus is on the environment as a safe haven. In the first story, her character Deanna initially finds peace in the solitude nature of the forest, which enables her to conduct research for the government while allowing her to reflect. The three stories intertwine through their connection of the characters’ love for the environment and their love for others. And yet, despite nature’s natural comfort, its isolation also serves as a realistic fear for her characters. In the second story, the narrator Lusa struggles with her identity in the context of her new environment: “Now she felt like a frontier mail-order bride, hardly past her wedding and already wondering how she could have left her city and beloved career for the narrow place a rural county holds open for a farmer’s wife.”
Kingsolver’s novel, “Flight Behavior,” examines a more critical side to the environment. After carrying on an affair with a younger man, the main character Dellarobia, wanders into a field behind her house and notices it is covered with monarch butterflies, too many to count. The culprit for this phenomenon is global warming and climate change, which has disrupted the monarch’s traditional migration patterns, leaving them in grave danger of dying off come winter in Appalachia — a stark, dually-faceted warning about the nature of human behavior.
Rather, while lyric in its approach — and an absolute joy to read — Kingsolver’s writing is also a call to action.
But while Kingsolver often utilizes the power of fiction as a platform to call out the injustices humans have enacted on the planet, the consequences of the events in her books are hardly fictional. Rather, while lyric in its approach — and an absolute joy to read — Kingsolver’s writing is also a call to action. She has reinvigorated the function of literature in our modern context, pushing readers to look past their electronic screens and uncover the real news, the real talk, the real beauty, and the real power they have to change and control the human influences on the environment. In this way, she not only serves as the catalyst for environmental change in literature, but she is enlightening readers and future writers to continue to champion nature.
Kim Bartenfelder is an undergraduate student at
George Mason University seeking a degree in English.
English spans more than written word but rather
generations, history, moral lessons, and two sense.
Kim's two sense is that all literature is good literature.
The ones that leave the biggest impression are the ones
that match your vibe.
by Stefan Lopez
What does Stillhouse Press look for in a manuscript? What’s the common thread running through space age romance, paternal combustion, plantation poetry, and disability care reform?
“We want something unpredictable, bringing a new experience to the table.”
In celebration of four productive years of publishing, we’re releasing a series of interviews with members of Stillhouse Press, from submissions and acquisition, from cover design to release, all to shine a light on the publication process.
Aryelle Young is Stillhouse Press’ current submissions editor, and one of the first to have a say about what gets published. She works with all the submissions, assigning them to teams of readers, reading through reader reviews, going back to the manuscripts themselves, and sending promising pieces up the editorial ladder.
Marcos L. Martínez is the next link in the manuscript chain. An alumnus of George Mason University’s MFA Creative Writing program, Martínez is one of the founding members of Stillhouse Press, and serves as the acquisitions editor.
Choosing a manuscript is a daunting task. Even small publishers get a sizeable amount of submissions. “We had contest submissions open for a couple hours, and we got five manuscripts in that time alone. I haven’t been here that long but I’d guess that we get well over a hundred manuscripts a year,” says Young.
It’s an especially formidable number, when considering that Stillhouse publishes an average of two titles annually. The judging process must therefore be thorough.
“A lot of what I’m doing right now is outreach at things like conferences and readings, to keep an eye on authors we are interested in. I also work with our other editors on manuscripts that we think have potential,” Martínez says of his role.
Each manuscript sees multiple rounds of vetting from teams of volunteer readers—largely sources from George Mason’s MFA , BFA, and English programs—who read the manuscripts on a deadline, give each one an individual score, and then discuss the assigned manuscripts together, comparing reactions.
For prose, Stillhouse asks its readers to look for the classic staples of good writing, such as dynamic characters, interesting subject matter, and powerful language. The factor they most heavily weigh is the author’s competence and voice: “We look for strength of writing and a good clear voice,” Young says. “A few mistakes aren’t a big deal as long as we can see a writer’s vision coming through in the manuscript.”
“Strong voice can mean a variety of things,” says Martínez. “Think of it as having a distinct personality and a unique sense of writing. A narrative that’s distinct or unique, or a unique type of storytelling, like hybrid works.”
He uses Mark Polanzak’s POP! as an example: “What really fascinated us was that it was a memoir that included moments that were obviously fiction. The opening was really eye-catching. Polanzak’s father disappears in a literal puff of smoke.”
As for Poetry, Stillhouse wants something that can’t be easily fit into a simple stylistic label.
“We’re looking for something that pushes the envelope, not just transcendentalism or romanticism or love poetry," Young says. At the same time, it can’t be completely divorced from developments in the wider world of poetry. Quite the opposite: “We want something that’s part of the contemporary conversation.”
“Our most recent poetry publication, [Carmen Gillespie's] The Ghosts of Monticello was actually submitted in our nonfiction contest,” says Martínez.
Once Aryelle and her team find a prospective manuscript, it is then opened up for discussion by all of Stillhouse’s editors.
“Generally, we all get together at a big table. We talk about what we think are the manuscript’s pros and cons. Does it fit our vision? What kind of marketability does it have? What are some of the challenges does it present? The decision to publish has always been unanimous,” says Young.
Even after the unanimous vote is received, the process is not over. A proposal is sent to board members.
"If they give the okay, we talk to the author and see if they’re willing to work with us."
It’s a complex process, which takes plenty of time and effort, and according to Martínez, “in the best circumstances, the timeframe from submission to acquisition takes six to 12 months. From acquisition to publishing it takes, at the very least, a year.”
So what should prospective authors aim for?
Aside from writing well, don’t put too much in the cover letter. “It isn’t a make or break factor.” Young says, “The shorter and more concise it is, the more likely it’ll make an impact. Don’t take the mystery out of reading your manuscript. We want it to grab us as we read, not have it laid out before we even start.“
Martínez suggests expanding your efforts outside of your writing. “It’s really important for authors to engage with their community, and find a base with other authors and peers… Often we write in isolation, and that’s an important process, but you need to build a network of people already interested in your work.”
In the end, they both suggest patience and perseverance. “The publishing process normally takes a long time. Just because you didn’t get a response, or got rejected, doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is bad. Keep writing, and keep submitting.”
"Keep writing, and keep submitting."
Stefan Lopez has an internship with Stillhouse Press,
a Bachelor’s Degree in English from George Mason University,
and a head full of empty.
By Meghan McNamara
Last night I read a whole book in one sitting. It took me 45 minutes. When I was done, I couldn’t stop thinking about the family—the father’s cruelty towards his children, the mother’s complicity, how little resolution I was left with in the end. I thought about the author, and how the dedication suggested that at least some of this book is based on his life, on the death of his own sibling, perhaps.
Lex Williford’s novella-in-flash, "Superman on the Roof" (Rose Metal Press, 2017), is a single narrative, told in ten self-contained stories, nearly every chapter the same line repeated—“after our kid brother Jesse died”—and another memory. Related from the perspective of the eldest sibling, Travis, "Superman on the Roof" is a captivating glimpse into one family’s loss of their youngest member, Jesse, from a rare blood disease.
Amidst the backdrop of 1960s Texas, the language is stoic, and at times stilted, the tenor decidedly southern gothic. Travis describes his brother’s body in technical detail—“spotted with yellow-blue bruises on his chicken-bone knees and elbows and shins, his belly white and round and thumping hard as a honeydew melon”—a kind of affection seeping between the lines: “Hearing him laugh, Maddie and Nate and I joined him, still warm from our beds,” he says. “Maddie punching us hard whenever we bumped or splashed him, three rowdy kids and one sick kid all crowded into a three-tubed vinyl pool from FedMart.”
Unsentimental and poignant in the same stroke, Williford explores the wicked side of grief, how poverty colors loss, and the way death needles its way into the human identity, forever reshaping the lives it influences. The characters are evocative, their collective loss the provocateur for their own cruelty, towards one another and themselves. “It was only right and fair that my father should turn against me,” Travis says. “And all I could do—my father’s eldest son, the one who’d killed his youngest—was to stand silent over the years as my mother and father’s grief and rage twisted itself like tanged thorns into switches, belts and boards.”
Less linear, but no less ambitious, Alex McElroy’s "Daddy Issues" (The Cupboard Pamphlet, Vol. 30, 2017) is a five-story collection that distorts the boundaries of voice, character, and form. The first story, “The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart,” is conveyed exactly as the name suggests—in flowchart form—a brilliant vehicle by which, in the space of just 16 pages, the narrator covers the accidental death of his son at his brother’s careless hand, his long concealed infidelity, and the guilt that weaves its way through both these truths.
Akin to Jennifer Egan’s chapter in PowerPoint (featured in her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Visit from the Goon Squad"), the flowchart allows for—and in many ways creates—levity, permitting readers to navigate the complex landscape of a father’s mourning and still come out the other end laughing at the dark comedy contained within it.
McElroy’s stories vary in both form and approach, veering towards the downright experimental, as is the case with the title story in the book. Told through a series of choppy, vignette-like paragraphs, “Daddy Issues” serves as a sort of thesis for the collection, reflecting on the relationships between fathers and their children, on the intricacies and sometimes the banalities of being a parent, and also just of life.
“Anthony Henson’s son screamed in the night. He did not know how to raise his son by himself—but to whom, he wondered at night, lying in bed beside his son and massaging his neck and chest, to whom should he apologize?” reads one paragraph.
“Jorge Menendez sprays poison on rocks for nine hours every day,” reads another.
A week later, and several pages into my next enterprise, I am still considering these strangle little graphs, still reflecting on what I should think McElroy is attempting to convey.
I’d be remiss to discuss tiny books without the context of their modern origins: the poetry chapbook. Bryan Borland’s latest collection, "Tourist" (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018) is easily one of the most timely I’ve read in recent months.
Penned during the book tour for his second full-length poetry collection, "DIG" (Stillhouse Press, 2016), "Tourist" is a haunting snapshot in time, and Borland, the cultural observer. Capturing both urban and rural portraits of the United States during the 2016 election cycle, the poetry in this collection is largely inspired by his experiences on the road, and his need to write so palpable; it’s as though the words can’t leave him fast enough.
Borland wrote “Indiana” after his reading was moved off campus for promoting “gay poetry.” Breathtakingly spare, yet ripe with the painful irony of too little progress, the source text for this erasure is one of Borland’s own, “Flawed Families in Biblical Times,” which first appeared in his collection, "My Life As Adam" (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010). It was one of the poems he selected to read that evening.
His contemporary poetry—as it has in the past, for his relationships—examines the United States’ flagrant intolerance, largely embodied by the likes of candidate Donald Trump and the “Make America Great Again” movement, and explores the fragility of human life. “Chelsea Bomb,” the poem Borland wrote after the a pressure cooker bomb exploded in a New York City dumpster just blocks from him, is one of the most chilling in the collection, the final lines an evocative reminder of the very real, very tangible fears of our time.
you will worry
through the night
even when I call you
from a speeding car
you know I’m safe
you are full of fear
my backpack is full of books
— excerpted from "Chelsea Bomb," Tourist
Taken together, these three small books comprise fewer pages than most full-length prose titles. They are spare in their language, yet dynamic in their undertaking. They steal my breath and my heart. They are only a small slice of the beauty contained in the world of modern literature, and yet, in the landscape of economy—which, in the era of instant gratification, we seem so often to be moving deeper into—they demand so little and give so much in return. Do your brain a favor and pick up a tiny book. I promise, you won’t only finish it—you’ll be rushing back for more.
Meghan McNamara a graduate of George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA program. She serves as the Director of Media and Communications for Stillhouse Press.
By Michelle Webber
When students want to enter the publishing industry after college, most of them picture themselves as editors. The leap is a logical one: those of us who pursue a BFA or MFA in writing spend so much time inside the manuscript that we forget the work must reach readers to achieve its true value. Many consider marketing and advertising the antithesis of artistic creation, that marketing’s only goal is to make money for the publisher, and that this process ignores the art of the book itself. But for Stillhouse Press, this notion couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our marketing process begins only after we have first read the book in its entirety. We believe that to build an effective promotional strategy, there are several things we must know about the book that are best discovered by stepping into the shoes of the reader. The most important component of marketing is audience. So we ask:What is its genre? What kind of person would enjoy this book? To whom will it appeal? What other books does it remind us of? Another crucial element is the book’s unique appeal. What about this book is different from others in its genre? What is its greatest strength? If I had to pitch this book to someone in less than 60 seconds, what would I tell them about it? Answering these questions allows us to approach our promotional plan as readers and book lovers as well as marketing professionals.
Once we’ve read the book, our next step is to coordinate our timeline with Editorial. As soon as we acquire a book, we work backwards from the date of publication to plan deadlines, the first of which is the printing of Advance Review Copies (ARCs, or galleys). Publishers send ARCs to a number of contacts, including review outlets, trade publications, and potential blurbers (other authors who will read the manuscript and offer up a quote) to arrange media coverage and cultivate buzz. Each market has its own lead window (an industry term for the minimum amount of time before publication that an outlet will consider a book for review or coverage). At Stillhouse, we aim to prepare and begin shipping galleys four to six months in advance of publication.
After we’ve formed our timeline and the editorial team for the book has begun their developmental edits, we schedule a meeting with the author to talk about their publishing and writing contacts, their list of potential blurbers, and the use and development of their social media platforms. We also discuss any upcoming publications, plans to submit new writing, and career or occupation changes so that we can leverage every advantage and increase an author's visibility. Every author brings something new to the conversation and every book is different, so we refine and tailor our marketing strategy accordingly.
Over the next several months, the marketing team works closely with the author and managing editor to build an exhaustive list of contacts for media and reviews. Each list is pulled from a central database that we continually update with new markets and publication staff changes. Once every contact, email address, and mailing address has been vetted and approved, we begin querying. This is largely the same process that authors go through when querying agents and publishing houses, only in reverse.
As soon as galleys are printed, proofed, finalized, and shipped to us, we begin sending packages to media. In this package, we include an ARC and relevant publication data. We prefer to include all publication info in the form of a postcard, rather than the industry standard press release, which is often discarded, unread. We strive to ensure that the concept driving the artwork and marketing materials is consistent between the galley and the product. This process often continues on a rolling basis until the month of publication.
Once we begin to receive notifications of coverage from some of the outlets that read the book and want to feature it either in a review or in an interview with the author, the marketing team coordinates timelines with the market and the author, and adds items to our roster for social media.
While cultivating media coverage is one of our most important responsibilities, there are several more obscure components of our department that are just as essential to the success of the press. Our Social Media Editor is responsible for writing and scheduling weekly posts on Facebook and Twitter that not only increase awareness of our titles, but that also participate in a dialogue of literary citizenship. Successful media campaigns aren’t paved with purchase-centric posts. The most effective strategy is to participate in relevant conversations, share the successes of your friends in the publishing industry, and comment on recent events. The best way to maintain a strong follower base is to engage the target audience’s community.
The marketing team also plans book tours and promotional events, both in the local area and across the country. Some of our events are recurring each year, including readings at Fall for the Book, AWP, and other literary conferences. If the event is local, the marketing team services and coordinates logistics.
Marketing is perhaps the most collaborative process at Stillhouse Press. Members of our team work closely with authors, managing editors, stakeholders, and industry professionals to ensure that our titles not only sell but that they also reach readers who value them. By taking into consideration the strengths and audience of the work, the network and media presence of our authors, and the literary climate into which each project is released, we are able to construct a plan that pleases all parties. Marketing, then, isn’t just about making money for the press. It’s about making happy authors, too.
Michelle Webber has worked as a reader, an Editorial Assistant, and Social Media Editor for Stillhouse Press and currently serves as the Director of Marketing and Communications. She is working on a science fiction novel and will graduate with a BFA in Fiction from George Mason University in the spring of 2017.
By Justin Lafreniere
What an editor should do is often the subject of debate and disagreement. It is a role that changes based on era, economics, the size of the press, or the individual personality of the author or the editor. Editing requires teamwork and cooperation, but what makes an editor talented, successful, or effective for an author? There isn’t a single right way to be an editor, but developing an editorial identity takes time and opportunity, both of which we strive to provide at Stillhouse Press.
Once the author has signed his or her contract, our Editor-in-Chief selects an editorial team for the book, choosing experienced staff who would best fit the project. Each team is made up of two or three Editorial Assistants and a Managing Editor. Usually, Managing Editors are in their second or third year of the MFA program and have worked as Editorial Assistants on other books. It is not uncommon for staff members to speak up for projects they are interested in developing when they encounter them as readers. As a teaching press, we encourage staff members to work on projects that excite them and have found that the editor/author relationship progresses smoothest when both parties are passionate about the project.
The Editorial Assistants (usually MFA or BFA candidates) assist the Managing Editor in performing two or three editorial passes on each manuscript. The first is for developmental improvements and to alleviate points of confusion, the second for organization and structure, and the third for line-level concerns. This process varies from editor to editor as manuscripts come to us at various levels of publication readiness, and some require more work than others. All of these comments are sent to the Managing Editor, who filters through them, adds remarks, and passes the suggestions along to the author.
At Stillhouse Press, we believe that a successful editorial relationship hinges on two things: editorial identity and respect for the author and his or her project. An editor must come to a book not as a writer, but as a collaborator with the author. Every writer is an editor in some capacity, but becoming a Managing Editor means abandoning personal stylistic quips and writing biases and embracing the author’s voice and project. MFA students, who are still smack-dab in the middle of their program and their most intensive workshop experience, have the added challenge of recognizing the influence of the pervasive workshop mentality. When editing in workshops, writers provide feedback and give authors suggestions for revision, but these suggestions are given in a theoretical mode.
Editing in a publishing house does not have that nicety. Sometimes things must be done. But other times, things that an author composes must be left to stand on their own. People wearing that double-hat of MFA student and editor must be aware of which is dominant when they discuss their editorial projects. Workshops are prescriptive. It’s the subtext to the name: a manuscript is only brought to a workshop if it needs fixing. Editorial relationships are not like that. So much more must be going right for it to come into an editor’s hands. Even if it isn’t a book that an editor finds exciting, he or she must be able to look at it from the perspective of the imagined reader, not from the standpoint of a fellow writer or even as a craft-oriented MFA student. Editorial relationships that are the strongest are built on a positive notion: “This is already good.”
Respecting the author and the project may seem like a no-brainer, but this fundamental component of the editor/author relationship has the most far-reaching consequences of all. One of the most difficult things as an editor is knowing when and how to suggest large changes to a manuscript: the presence of a character, the deletion or rearrangement of scenes, or large-scale structural or organizational changes. This is where respecting the project comes into play. Our memoir POP! was experimental, and in any experimental work, there are going to be conversations on structure. But that book knew what it wanted to be from the outset; it was just a matter of making sure each chapter or section lined up with that vision. When we discussed our first round of comments with Mark Polanzak, we learned that acquisition editors from other houses had resisted the book’s hybrid identity, which is what we loved most about it. At Stillhouse, we have many conversations with our authors to discover their vision for their work before we even begin the editorial process to get a sense of the project from the author’s perspective. We strive to present the best versions of their stories, to help them become the best books they can be, and the only way to do that is with respect for authorial vision.
There is no right way to edit, but there are certainly wrong ways. Stillhouse strives to build a constructive relationship with our authors and their projects, one where the author is always free to reject or resist our suggestions. Our team structure allows for multiple voices and points of view on what’s working or not working in a manuscript, which ultimately means a more thorough reader’s perspective. Our Managing Editors distill that information and keep an open dialogue with authors from first read to final draft. We’ve found in many instances that authors and editors continue to stay in touch even after the journey has finished and the book is in print. There's no better indicator of a successful working relationship than that.
Justin Lafreniere is the Prose Editor at Stillhouse Press and worked as the Assistant Managing Editor for POP! (Mark Polanzak, March 2016) and the Managing Editor for Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely: Stories (Matthew Fogarty, September 2016). He graduated with an MFA in fiction from George Mason University in 2016, where he also served as the Fiction Editor for So to Speak, GMU's feminist literary journal. His work has appeared in Charlotte Viewpoint, The Western Online, and Frostwriting.
This week on Moonshine Murmurs, we interview Alexandria, VA-based poet, Sass Brown. A D.C. native and a former George Mason University professor, Brown is avidly involved in the local literary community and the author of USA-1000, a book of poetry that won the 2014 Crab Orchard Series Poetry Award. Now she is currently at work on her next manuscript, but she took some time to talk with us about USA-1000 and her experiences as a poet in the nation’s capitol.
In your interview with Southern Illinois University Press (SIUP), you talked about the challenge of submitting USA-1000 to contests for seventeen years before it was accepted for publication. How did you approach the submission process, and do you have any advice for other writers?
Sass Brown: I sent USA-1000 everywhere in the beginning. Eventually, I realized that some places consistently chose my manuscript as a finalist, while others never responded with a positive note. It sounds obvious now, but the best strategy is to keep sending to the presses that like your work and publish writing like yours. In order to do that, you have to be familiar with their aesthetics, which requires a lot of homework.
A few other things I learned from the submission process: if a press' website doesn't look professional, the press may not be professional either. I learned this the hard way, when my book was accepted twice for publication prior to SIUP, but the editors didn't follow through. And if you're getting good feedback, don't be afraid to keep sending the same manuscript to the same competitions. I was worried that my book would get stale, but the final judge is different every year. Ironically, after all those years of submitting my manuscript everywhere, my book won another publication competition just three weeks after it was accepted by SIUP! Sometimes it just takes tenacity and a little bit of luck.
How did USA-1000 evolve over the years from when you first started submitting it to contests to when it was published?
SB: I probably removed and replaced about a dozen poems in the manuscript, but the rest remained essentially the same. The main difference is in the order; instead of grouping poems chronologically or strictly by theme, eventually I ordered the manuscript instinctually. I looked at the last line of each poem and let it guide me to the first line of the next. I also put what I considered to be some of my strongest poems first.
I was surprised by how much I learned from the editing process once the manuscript had been accepted. I reworked passages in a few poems, but mainly I tightened the language. Having to read it over so many times, I noticed connections between poems that either were unconscious or I had forgotten. The editing process taught me so much about what I was trying to say.
MM: You’ve discussed the themes of USA-1000, which included consumerism, longing for connection, and the difference between image and reality, in previous interviews. Do you feel that you've said all you have to say about those subjects, or are you still coming back to them in your poetry today?
SB: I'm not as focused on the longing for connection anymore, now that I'm married... or rather, many of the new poems are about negotiating the intimacy of marriage. I don't think I ever will have completely exhausted the themes in USA-1000; I have to keep writing about my obsessions because passion makes for heartfelt poetry.
But the way I approach the subject matter today is different. My new manuscript is darker. I have been struggling with chronic illness for the past five years, and it has changed the direction of my writing. Now I am researching and writing about my experience, as well as medical oddities, experimental medicine, perfectionism, and the strange otherness of the body— especially the aging, decaying, or sick body—and the risky things we do to keep it well and beautiful.
My favorite poems are those with a complicated tone, one that shuttles back and forth between humor and tragedy. One of my friends said that the experience of reading my poems is like having been slipped a mickey; they appear harmless and amusing on the surface, but by the end, they are deeply unsettling.
You've worked as a professor of creative writing and composition at several universities, including George Mason. How has your experience teaching affected your writing, and vice versa?
SB: From my days as a counselor at UVA's Young Writers' Workshop, teaching reminded me to pay close attention to detail, to see how poems ticked on a micro level. Often, I brought in other artistic mediums (film, visual art, music, and advertising) as prompts, since I draw much of my inspiration from popular culture. I really miss teaching because it allowed me to share my favorite writing. Unfortunately, I found that I spent so much time commenting on student work that I neglected my own. It can be difficult to silence my internal teacher, editor, and proofreader when writing a first draft, but it's absolutely necessary.
Are you currently writing full time, or do you have a separate job as well?
SB: I work at the Arts Club of Washington as their award administrator of the Marfield Prize, the national award for nonfiction arts writing. It's the ideal job for a writer—part-time, so there's plenty of time to work on my next book, and a great opportunity to interact with artists in different genres. What could be better than reading books and promoting the arts for a living? We just announced this year's winner, Michael Riedel, for his book Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway. I’ve been planning his upcoming visit to D.C., including a school visit and an interview with Washington Post drama critic Peter Marks on May 18.
You’ve spent a lot of your life living and working in and around D.C. When people not from the around here think of D.C., they probably don’t think of a thriving literary community. What has your experience working and writing in the D.C. area been like?
SB: I moved back to the D.C. area after receiving my MFA from Indiana University. I worked as a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at what was then Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, VA for one semester, and then I moved back to my hometown of Alexandria.
Growing up I had a misconception that the D.C. area was a cultural wasteland, but I was completely wrong. This is a great place to be a writer; the only drawback is that our area is so spread out that some events require a car. Some of my favorite places to hear readings are the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Library of Congress. Split This Rock just hosted an incredible line-up of speakers at their biannual festival devoted to social justice poetry. And with all of the universities in the area, you can attend a different writing event every night of the week.
Sass Brown will give a reading at Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD on May 12th at 7 p.m. She will also read at the Beatley Central Library in Alexandria on May 25th at 7 p.m. More information can be found on her website, http://www.sassbrown.com.
by Alex Walsh
I’m not saying that cover design for a novel is easy, but there is certainly an extra level of difficulty when it comes to creating a cover for a collection of short stories. Matthew Fogarty's Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely, which will be published by Stillhouse Press in September, contains such a variety of vivid, weird, and beautifully unique stories that to simply represent one story on the cover would have an injustice to the collection as a whole. While a drawing of a mermaid and a robot may give you some sense of what lies within, it does not fully illustrate the incredible range of Fogarty’s work. What about dinosaurs in space? What about Bigfoot working as a temp? What about zombies and cowboys, and a man who accidentally hangs himself on a copper wire? What about André the Giant?
With Maybe Mermaids & Robots are Lonely , my goal was to capture the whole of the collection, without giving away what it's really about. I wanted to allude to the presence of mythology and science fiction mixed with stories of great depth and realism, to greet the reader by saying, “In the pages of this book, you are going to see a lot of strange things and meet many interesting characters along the way. Come on in.”
Early in the editing process, conversations with Matt led me in the direction of creating a tattoo-like cover—something bold with vivid color, heavy in meaning and closely associated with memory. From there, I made a few sketches and designs that never came to fruition. Some were gritty, some were too complex, and some were overly cartoonish, but the real sticking point was that none captured the presence of nostalgia in the book. That was until we landed on the idea of the temporary tattoo, something people associate with childhood. Temporary tattoos represent a time in life when we’re most likely to drift into a world of make-believe, when we can erase our mistakes and are allowed countless "do-overs." But temporary tattoos are also associated with the weighty notion of the permanent tattoo, a very real and deeply meaningful adult concept. To us, this seemed to align perfectly with the tone of the book.
I then looked at how temporary tattoos come packaged: each fit tightly together on a single sheet of paper. It seemed like a viable way to feature all (or most) of the Maybe Mermaids characters on the cover, each placed closely against the others to make an almost-solid, almost-patterned image. Matthew and I selected 18 characters and objects from the stories, and I drew out each one. In order to keep things simple, all were inked with very little detail. This allowed the images to blanket the entire area of the cover without distracting from the title and secondary text. Then I selected bright, eye-catching colors, which I felt embodied the richness and energy of the book, and the cover became what it is today.
In a single glance, the reader may pick out a mermaid, a guitar, the Pope’s hat, a dog, a yeti, or an astronaut. They may ask questions about these creatures: What is a jet and an old Plymouth doing together on book? Who is this robot? What's Elvis got to do with anything? Each image comes together as part of one large tableau that suggests a new world filled with adventure and mystery, but also feels familiar.
Alex Walsh is a book designer for Stillhouse Press and Copy Editor for Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art. He is also a student at GMU, where he is seeking his MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction.
By Suzy Rigdon
Compelling writing is about tension, Leslie Pietrzyk told graduate students from George Mason's MFA program during her Visiting Writers workshop in early February. Invoking the hallmarks of Alfred Hitchcock, Pietrzyk gave the example of film: if the audience sees a group of people on a train and then it explodes, we are surprised, Pietrzyk said. However, if we watch a group of men playing cards on the train and beneath their seat, visible only to the audience, the bomb counts down the seconds, we are hooked, our hearts racing.
Pietrzyk knows tension. Her fascinating collection This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) revolves around a single theme: in each of the stories, a woman’s young husband dies unexpectedly. From the very start, we know the direction each story will take; yet we read all sixteen stories, waiting for each discovery, anxious to see how the widow(s) will react. With each new tale, we grieve or laugh or shout alongside her.
If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.
For Pietrzyk's craft workshop, I chose to work on a piece that had already earned a handful of rejections from literary magazines. Turns out the problem was pretty straightforward: I had pulled a punch in my story, springing a revelation on readers just as it had been sprung on me during the writing process. But readers don't like to be surprised, Pietrzyk said. They feel duped, tricked, like in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis' character finally discovers he was dead the whole time. It’s better to give more information to the reader up front, rather than surprise them later. If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.
In Pietrzyk's story “I am the Widow," the title sets up the tension well. Widow is a strong word—evocative. Even before we start reading, we feel we know this woman. We become settled in our expectations, so even as the widow mentally (and seemingly irrationally) lashes out at the friends and family during her husband’s funeral, at the mementos they drop into his coffin, we stay with her. Her pain and anger makes us hurt, too.
Pietrzyk is a master of her craft. She tells stories in the second person, transforms narrative into lists and indices of foods, a quiz, and even a 40-page craft lecture told from twelve different perspectives. She builds stories from the point of tension. As she explained during her craft seminar, tension has to come somewhere between the external story (i.e. the plot and action), and the internal story (the emotional life and motivations of characters that ultimately create conflict). Even when writing in the most unconventional of ways, Pietrzyk succeeds at this.
At her reading, Pietrzyk told a crowded room of writers and readers that her self-challenge while writing This Angel on My Chest. was to feature at least one hard truth about herself as a woman, a writer, a wife or a widow in each of her stories. She considered releasing the book without giving readers the truth of her inspiration, but ultimately decided she needed to. Although she hopes readers don’t get wrapped up in looking for the factual truth in her stories, this knowledge creates a different type of tension.
Good analysis and good writing both stem from the same place: asking questions. How do you begin to revise a story you’ve spent weeks on, one that has already been rejected a few times? Think about the tension, Pietrzyk recommends. What kind of story do you want this to be? What do you want the reader to care about? Everything needs to lead toward something, she said. And in This Angel on My Chest—as in all of her writing—everything does.
Suzy Rigdon is the author of Into the Night (Spencer Hill Press, 2014), and has also been published in The Albion Review and Word of Mouth Literary Magazine. She is a second year MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she is the Marketing Director for the Fall for the Book literary festival. To find out more, visit her website at suzannerigdonauthor.com or follow her on Twitter @SuzyRigdon.
By Mark Polanzak, author of Stillhouse Press' first memoir, POP!
If you've seen Sam Raimi’s comedy-horror film Drag Me to Hell, you'll understand my writing and grieving process pretty well. The main character, Christine, finds herself cursed and goes to a medium for help. The medium channels the dark spirit haunting her into a goat in order to slaughter it and rid Christine of the curse. There are parallels between Raimi’s film and my father’s death, and subsequently my writing about it years later. But although there is a proper process for channeling spirits, there isn’t a prescribed path for grieving. And instead of a goat, there’s my first book, POP!.
As a bereaved seventeen-year-old, I didn’t want to go through the grieving process. Not because I didn’t want to admit that I had lost my dad—though that was in there—but because it seemed really, really difficult and complicated. I didn’t want to cross the Rubicon that separates blissful teenage naivety and experienced young adulthood. I was having enough trouble learning the mitosis cycle and how cosine waves worked; I would surely botch the task of grief. But of course you can’t refuse to grieve. It’s autonomic.
One important thing I learned about grief is that there is no standard process. You can’t do it wrong. The order of grief operations we’ve all heard about—denial, anger, acceptance, and stuff—isn’t real. The person who conceived of it flat out made it up. But I didn’t know this between the ages of 17 and 21, which messed me up. I thought there was a right way to grieve, and so my sadness and sacredness and confusion and anxiety—all coming at me out of order and without warning—were compounded by a sense of self-castigation that I wasn’t doing it right, wasn’t being serious and dedicated enough to the process of grieving. I had no control over any of it. It owned me.
The process of writing my very personal, if-not-exactly-memoir, POP! mirrors my discoveries along the path of grief. After two years of writing fabulist, fantastical, magically realist, and absurdist short stories in my MFA program at the University of Arizona, I thought it was time to write a magical, fantastical novel. It seemed really, really hard, but I did it anyway. I began a book (it was about a stick figure). And pretty quickly, I hit an enormous problem in the story (big shock—the character was flat). I abandoned it after a year. I concluded that I was not ready to write a book, not there yet. So, I stopped trying.
I thought that there was a certain way a book was supposed to look sound, arc, unfold, and there was a way a writer wrote a book—through diligence every single day, working through scenes, developing characters, constructing plot and making the setting just so—I knew I couldn’t be working on a book when I began, at first haphazardly, writing what would become POP!. I wrote unlinked vignettes in a notebook, wrote a scene four different ways, drew characters and then redrew them, stuck them where they didn’t belong, and never gave a thought to the elements that I believed all real books needed.
But that’s just it: there is no proper way to write a book. These vignettes, fragments, character morphs, and all the rest eventually presented themselves as parts of a single organism that was steadily growing together. The pieces I had simply thought of as good practice for a big project began to come together, to brush up against one another, until one day there was a whole. The ending scene reached back and connected to the beginning. I had done it without really knowing it. I had written a book.
The book is about my father’s death, its many meanings and effects on me as a son and a writer, and on my mom and my brother. Yet I was never sad while writing it; I was in the medium’s trance. I was excited and energized to be writing something personal, something that broke the rules of how I felt I was supposed to write. I am sad now when I read sections of POP!. I channeled my grief into the book. It no longer possesses me. I can kill the goat or keep it.