Winchester Writers' Festival:
All Sorts of 'Swimming Lessons'

This blog is mainly for the attendees of my Short Story Market panel on June 17 at the Winchester Writers Festival, but first, a few highlights of a weekend filled with great writing and great advice about writing.

The inspiring, inventive keynote address from poet Lemn Sissay included this sentence, which I am going to remember every time I feel this way, and that will be often: For those who think writing isn't hard, or isn't work, remember this, Sissay said: "Every day you face the idea that you’re crap, that you might be crap that day." How many people do that?



Claire Fuller read several beautiful passages
from her new novel, Swimming Lessons. Her work ethic is a model for us all: she has written her third novel, and sold it, already, before Swimming Lessons is even in paperback. One way she tries to keep swimming through the first draft: she tries, each day, to move the story forward. That was also on my mind this morning as I faced down my own new novel.

And the panel on independent publishers, headed by Debbie Taylor, author and editor of Mslexia, was an inspiration for those of us who are trying to write the kind of poetry and prose they are working so hard to publish. A great tactic from the editors of Structo: anyone who submits to their magazine must send in a photo of a recent copy of any literary magazine they have purchased.

So, for the Short Story Market panel, here are links to the books and authors I mentioned (with apologies to Lemn Sissay for using bullet points). Thanks for attending, and do stay in touch!

By the way, I'm linking where possible to hive.co.uk for any book sales. It's a site run by independent booksellers, and you can link your account to your favorite independent, and they get a credit for each sales.

UK resources on Short Story Market:

The Mslexia guide to Indie Presses 2016-27 - congrats to Mslexia for selling all copies at the festival.

The other option: the 2017 Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, also helpful for journalistic freelancing, for those of you who might want to try your hand at book reviewing.

US resources on Short Story Market

Poets and Writers Magazine has a helpful and extensive Web site.

The email listserv, "Creative Writing Opportunities," primarily in the USA -- I believe you can sign up by emailing Allison Joseph, the founder, at crwropps@aol.com.

Highlighted Writers

The writers whose thoughts on revising I included from my own book, Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between, were:

Mary Kay Zuravleff, Charles Baxter, John Dalton, Richard Bausch and Joyce Carol Oates. I also mentioned Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, although I have sadly not had the privilege of interviewing her.

Here's the Francine Prose book that I recommended is Reading Like a Writer. And here's the quote from it about dialogue, that helped me realize I needed to ditch a scene in my novel-in-progress:

“…dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext than it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it. One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once.”

Finally, the Youtube channel for "Writers in Conversation," which includes videos of writers from the reading series that I hold at the University of Southampton, where I teach. You can listen to Tessa Hadley talk about creating characters, for instance.

How the Past Haunts Us:
Gail Godwin's 'Grief Cottage'

Ghosts haunt Gail Godwin’s new novel, “Grief Cottage.” Some are actual ghosts, such as the confederate soldier who sometimes shows up on the South Carolina beach where the story mainly takes place.

But Marcus, the novel’s 11-year-old narrator, visits the abandoned Grief Cottage, he sees a different ghost: the teen-age boy who was its last resident. The boy’s parents drowned in Hurricane Hazel in 1954, and he was never found.

Godwin may flirt with the magical, but she deals firmly with the realism of depression and loss. It’s those less physical, more haunting ghosts that this, her fourteenth novel, is really about.
 
My full review ran in The Washington Post.

The Quotidian Billie Holiday

It’s easy for the rest of us to forget that famous people — actors, athletes, presidents or, in this case, an iconic jazz singer — are just people who happen to be famous.

“Jerry Dantzic: Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill,” a sleek coffee table book of photographs, many never seen before, is a reminder that between the fame and the infamy, normal life happens. 

As I write in my article for The Washington Post, Holiday is pictured walking into the club before a performance; putting on her makeup in front of a dressing room mirror; being licked on the cheek by her Chihuahua; holding her blond-haired godson in her arms; or leaning over a pan in her friend’s kitchen (left).

It's quotidian, as well as quintessential, Billie Holiday.


Dantzic was on assignment for Decca Records, most likely to shoot the cover of Decca's "The Blues Are Brewin' " album, for which, according to the log copied in the book, he earned $25.75.

About 100 of the nearly 400 other photographs taken during that shoot have been collected in this book by his son, Grayson Dantzic, who hadn't even known his father had photographed Holiday.

“What he needed to say, he said in the photos,” Dantzic said.

Richard Russo: Still a Working Class Kind of Guy

Though Richard Russo's new story collection, Trajectory, features a college professor and a screenwriter - both of which he's been - the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist still feels more like the working class characters of his novels.  Maybe this is why: 

Author Richard Russo (Elena Seibert)
"My father and I one summer built an exit ramp off the New York State Thruway into Albany, for years after we could never get off that exit without looking at each other and saying, “You know, that was one long, hot, brutal summer of 12-hour days.” Every time we’d drive it, we’d think, “We built that,” he said in my Washington Post article this week, prompted by the publication of his newest book, Trajectory.

It was one reason he felt Trump won last November: work such as building roads isn't respected enough anymore, he said.

Politics seems to loom large in so many people's minds right now that some of my long interview him that was actually about writing had to be cut.  So here are three questions that I'll share here instead.

What prompted the four long stories that make up Trajectory?

To me the link in all of these stories is each of these characters is trying to figure out why each of their lives turned out the way they did. They each have a sense, as I do with my own life, that if I got to live my life 99 more times, that the life I’m living now would not be repeated again. It’s not the way that it must have turned out, it’s just the way that it did turn out. And these characters are all scratching their heads and saying, “I got here how? Because I had something different in mind.” 

Each story also has someone lurking in the background who is ill, or has a disability, which feels like the story’s secret center.

A lot of my characters in my earlier novels are a decade or two decades older than I was at the time of my writing, and in some ways I’m trying to imagine a future -- or guard against it. In “Empire Falls,” I was trying to write about the most unimaginably horrifying thing that I could, which would have been putting one of my own children in danger in some way.  It’s almost as an amulet against something like that actually happening. Maybe now at this point, at 67, no longer a young writer, maybe these are stories about mortality, or stories about coming to terms with mortality, and that’s explains all the illness.

I particularly like the ending to “Horseman.” I do too. I don’t mean this to sound egotistical. I’ve always found that the best of my stories, especially if I haven’t read them in a while, I can get lost in them. If the characters feel real to you as a reader, that means as while that for a while they have taken over your life, that you believe in them as much as you believe in your external reality, and so you read about this character and she breaks your heart. That’s the why I felt when I re-read Horseman. It doesn’t get any better than that for storytelling.

A 'Manifesto' From Gillian Anderson, aka Scully

First, for British readers, a newsflash:  Gillian Anderson will not be the next Dr. Who.

Asked about stories that the next Doctor needs to be a woman, which named her as a strong contender, she said: "That is not correct.  It may need to be a woman," she added, "but it's not going to this woman, I'm afraid."

Now, more about my Washington Post interview with the actor who has gone from playing the hard-nosed special agent Dana Scully on the “X-Files” to roles as varied as Blanche DuBois for a production of “A Street Car Named Desire” at London’s National Theatre, and Miss Havisham in a BBC mini-series of “Great Expectations.”

And she keeps surprising her fans.  Her recent round of interviews is to promote a New Age-y book called “We: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere,” which you wouldn't think Scully would even read, let alone Anderson write.
Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois

But despite high-profile roles playing strong, complicated women on stage and screen, the 48-year-old mother of three says that she’s at times felt fragile. 

“There have been here were maybe two or three points in my life where I have felt like the decisions that I was making weren’t good,” she said in a phone interview from London. “In a way I was my own worst enemy.”

So she and British journalist Jennifer Nadel teamed up to write We: A Manifesto.

Read my full interview with them from the Washington Post.

Rebecca Solnit on 'Mansplaining'

Rebecca Solnit is sometimes thanked — and sometimes blamed — for the word “mansplain.” Solnit’s 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me” helped give birth to the term, which has been canonized by the Oxford online dictionary, been translated into multiple languages and inspired countless memes.

In her new book, “The Mother of All Questions,” Solnit continues her incisive commentary on the ways women are silenced and other kinds of repression. In my phone interview with her for The Washington Post, she talked about the evolution of mansplaining and how all of us can learn to be heard.

Photo credit: © Adrian Mendoza
Here's also a question about writing, which didn't make the Post story.

You’re also a writer who uses language quite precisely, whose goal in part is “to describe nuances and shades of meaning.”  Is this a frustrating time for you?
There’s no golden age. It feels like in a legendary time people were more thoughtful. But human folly and glibness has been everywhere. We had McCarthyism when my parents were young, we had Father Coughlin when they were children, who was a right-wing anti-Semitic demagogue. There’s always been people peddling simplistic solutions and people accepting truisms that don’t describe reality. Just to call things by their true name is really powerful, to have lies called lies. Truth and accuracy are things we really need as operating procedures as we go forward.

Listening in a Post-Brexit (Post-Election) World.

"Scoundrel Time" is a new journal founded in wake of Trump's election.

In the words of editor Paula Whyman: "Today there are forces trying their hardest to divide us. In the face of that, art in its many forms can give voice to our concerns, hopes, fears, anxieties—and joys."


I was pleased to be asked to submit a piece about my experience as an American in the UK, post-Brexit, post-Trump


Photo credit: Paul Edwards
Do check out the journal, too!