Interview with the Featured Readers for ALL BUT TRUE on September 15: Kelly Simmons and Paul Elwork talk with Doug Gordon

To open the 2012-2013 season of All But True: The Musehouse Fiction Series, two talented writers will share their recent novels that focus on family secrets. Kelly Simmons will read from The Bird House (Washington Square Press, 2011) and Paul Elwork from The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Berkley, 2012). In advance of the Musehouse reading, they agreed to an email interview with Doug Gordon, the host of the series. Here is a transcript:

Doug: Kelly and Paul, we’ve billed your joint reading as “a night of family secrets,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to a theme shared by your novels. In Paul’s book, 13-year-old twins Emily and Michael play at being spiritualists, convincing neighbors that they can summon the dead. It starts as a game, but this is just after World War I, and the dead carry painful memories that the children don’t know about. Eventually, too, secrets about their own family start to emerge.

In Kelly’s novel, septuagenarian Ann Biddle begins to focus on her past because of her granddaughter’s school assignment–a family history. In the process of satisfying the child’s curiosity, both old secrets and new come to light, including love affairs and a tragic death.

So what impelled you to make family secrets the hidden core of a novel–and to conceive a plot in which children instigate the revelations?

Kelly: My book was partly inspired by an actual school assignment my daughter’s class did in 4th grade. It involved interviewing grandparents and finding common hobbies, interests, etc., that thread through the generations. After ascertaining that the only commonalities in our family involved riding horses, I had the idea that this assignment could really blow up in the hands of a forthcoming grandparent and a curious child–what if they were a family of drunks? Or criminals or cheats?

Children have always been obsessed with secrets because so much of the adult world remains hidden from them. Even in an era of reality television and confessional blogs and way too much non-news passing as news, there is much of the world that is not available to children. When they catch glimpses of the adult world, whether it’s on the Internet, or whispered behind closed doors, they don’t understand it. So it’s still a mystery to them. And adult readers want to protect young characters from this world, just as they would in real life. My whole novel hinges on the tension of the reader fearing that the grandmother will tell the granddaughter too much.

Paul: I chose children as my main characters because the Fox sisters–the real-life inspiration for my novel–were children when they started deceiving people about contacting the dead. The idea of children leading adults to belief, rather than the other way around, fascinated me. And I knew I wanted to make a distinction between how the children and adults would come to believe in the game–how the kids would be naturally quicker to believe it, but the adults would need it more. The role of secrets and regrets grew out of these other dynamics, even though at the outset I don’t think I realized what a role they would play in the story. As things went along, the haunted past took on a central importance, as did the notion of children uncovering things adults had tried to hide even from themselves.

Doug: I’m realizing now that both books explore several different layers of buried past. The top layer is what the adults remember well and make a conscious decision not to talk about. But down further, there’s more painful stuff that they themselves have tried to forget. And of course it’s the revelation of those deeper secrets that helps build the climax. Near the end of her tale, Ann Biddle says about the “heavy burden” of secrets: “the longer you held them, the larger they grew, the more people they entangled.” For the reader, that’s the pleasure and intrigue of these stories, seeing how the people tangle themselves up and then try to find their way out.

To delve into the past, you both use time shifts, but in different ways. The Bird House blends diary entries from the present with old ones from the 1960s. The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead has occasional chapters that jump back 40 to 50 years. Can you describe how you decided on, or discovered, the best technique to use–the how, why, and when to shift to a different time?

Kelly: In The Bird House, the diaries from 40 years ago are essential to inform the reader, because the present-day voice of Ann, tinged with dementia, is unreliable. We don’t know if she is remembering the events, her guilt, her culpability, accurately. So there are two perspectives offered from the same person, and they are sometimes different, and sometimes precisely alike.

Paul: When I started the novel, I interwove the time shifts as regular chapters and ended up cutting much of that stuff out for the first version of the story, published as The Tea House. When Amy Einhorn picked up the book for re-release in an expanded edition, I brought the family backstory back in–rewritten from the earlier cut stuff, because in between the characters and story had grown and changed. When I put a lot of backstory sections back in, it felt like they should occur as interlude chapters, sort of outside of real time in the story sense. The rest of the novel is written so close to Emily’s consciousness, experienced through her senses and feelings, but these chapters could travel back to her family’s past and allow the reader a dramatic view of things she would never truly see unfold, no matter what she uncovered. For the timing of the shifts, I sort of followed my nose to pace the revelations for the reader and try to interweave these direct views of the past with the pieces Emily is putting together. It took some moving around of things before I was happy with the arrangement, for sure.

Kelly: Oh my god, arranging chapters and weaving back and forth was very very hard for me with my novel, too. It’s really a little game of chess.

Paul: Yes, it’s like chess using trial and error–intricate and subtle but without rules.

Kelly: Yes, all the strategy of chess but lots of mulligans!

Doug: Hah, one of the great pleasures of writing–if you mess up you get to throw it all out and start over! Well, I was impressed with the skill of the time shifts in both books, and it’s good that trial and error plays a part, I think, rather than strategy alone. If you try to impose a theory of how the book ought to work, it might kill spontaneity. You get a novel that feels like a fleshed-out outline rather than an organic, living story, and there are too many of those around.

In that vein, since your characters do seem so much like real, unpredictable people, did they ever surprise you, taking the story where you didn’t know it was going to go?

Paul: I definitely agree about too much planning. Planning and strategy are fine things, provided a writer doesn’t get in the way when great stuff emerges in the process of writing–that stuff up from the unconscious, the sweet stuff that feels like real inspiration.

I love it when characters do things I hadn’t planned for before sitting down to write. It’s happened a lot over the years–again, I think the really great moments are in these unexpected turns–and one time comes to mind for The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead. I sat down planning to write a scene where the story’s central character, Emily Stewart, imagines that she meets the ghost of her great-aunt Regina, who died in an accident on the estate at sixteen. Emily doesn’t believe she sees Regina–she indulges in the ghostly idea of it. Anyway, I knew I was going to do that, but I didn’t know that Emily would imagine that Regina stepped into her and then go into her twin brother Michael’s room to frighten him awake. The result is one of the most important scenes in the early part of the book, and when I wrote it, it felt like Emily’s idea.

Kelly: I know some writers say, “Oh the characters took over and I let them do what they wanted!” as if the author is just a medium channeling the dead, but for me it’s a more specific process. It’s like putting the characters into therapy–figuring out what really makes them tick and what they could do that would be in their best or worst interests–and then choosing what works best for the premise of the book.

Characters drive my plots, but my premises create the characters. Kind of. I think. Oh I don’t know. Really. I know so little!

Paul: Oh, I plan–I make lots of notes and rough outlines and all of that. Sometimes the doodles in my notebook are of things from a story–does that count? I just think all of that planning is in a way theoretical and when the writing is cooking, all bets are off, or should be. Things just come out of that process, and I can’t shake the feeling of watching theoretical things take place on the ground, even though, of course, it’s all in my head. They’re coming to take me away, ha ha, hee hee…

I like the therapy notion. Maybe we just have our own personal metaphors for the same idea? Who the hell knows? We can try to be as intellectual as we like, but there’s so much about the whole thing that is mysterious.

Doug: Hmm, if I were a character, I’m not sure I’d want my therapist choosing my actions. The therapist knows too much! Seriously, though, that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Give the character full rein to express his or her neuroses, but reserve to yourself the right of picking the best neurosis to pursue in this particular novel.

There’s another similarity in your books that I’ve been wondering about. In this era when social class seems increasingly prominent in American discourse–that is, in our worries about what’s happening to our society–it’s interesting that both of your novels deal with people who are well to do, or used to be. In The Bird House, Ann Biddle, true to her aristocratic name, is a Main Line matriarch who lives in a house full of antiques. Though her father ran off with most of the funds, Ann still belongs to a tennis club and keeps her family photos in leather-bound albums embossed with the family crest. In The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead, the twins live at Ravenwood, a gated estate on the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, and the household includes a long-time family servant. Now, the protagonists in both novels are likeable and down-to-earth–there’s nothing snooty about them–but I’m curious about what drew you to these families of old-time wealth and privilege. Did it seem that such families would have more skeletons in the closet than the rest of us? Or more unusual skeletons?

Kelly: It’s not that wealthy people have more skeletons, but that they have a greater tendency to keep up appearances–and pretend that everything is hunky-dory.

And … I find the wealthy Main Line sensibility fascinating because I’m not from there… :-)

Paul: I agree with Kelly about it being not so much more skeletons as more desire to cover things up … although the twins’ mother in my novel is tired of hiding from her own past and far beyond worrying much what the neighbors think. For me, it had more to do with the inspiration for my story’s location, the Glen Foerd estate on the outskirts of northeast Philadelphia. There is a garden house there that was converted to a playhouse and called the tea house. I lifted this little house whole from Glen Foerd and dropped it on my fictional Ravenwood estate. I knew I wanted the twins in my book to perform their first spirit-knocking sessions in this space, separate from the adults and in a world of play. I also really liked the potential isolation of a riverside estate like Glen Foerd, how I could make it an almost forgotten place with relatively few characters, even with neighbors taken into consideration.

Doug: Yes, Ravenwood does seem a world of its own, and the twins’ story has an almost fairy-tale quality sometimes. To me, in fact, both books have a kind of archetypal feel, even though they have plenty of well-observed details to anchor them in time and place. I think that’s a tribute to the quality of the writing–the sense that these stories rise from the reader’s own unconscious.

Thanks, Kelly and Paul, for taking the time to answer these questions. I’m looking forward to the readings and further discussion on September 15.

 

Kelly Simmons and Paul Elwork will read, sign, and discuss their novels on Saturday, September 15, at Musehouse, 7:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. For more on these authors, see their websites, http://www.bykellysimmons.com/ and http://www.paulelwork.com/.

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The Musehouse Interview: Susan Gregory Thomas

Melpomine, the Muse of Tragedy, and Thalia, the Muse of Comedy, had some questions for Musehouse Instructor Susan Gregory Thomas…

IS THIS YOUR FIRST INTERACTION WITH A MUSE?

It is. I’m generally not called on by muses. I am often called on by collections agencies.

WHAT IS YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH MUSEHOUSE?

I’m as recent an addition to MuseHouse as I am to Chestnut Hill. I lived in New York for almost a quarter of a century, and as a writer, chief breadwinner, and mother of three, the place finally broke my back. Luckily, I was saved by Chestnut Hill and Musehouse, and I’ve been happily ensconced in both for a few months now.

I was asked by Musehouse’s fabulous director, Kathy, to teach a course on finishing your novel. If I know nothing else useful, I do know how to finish stuff. For someone who became a working writer at 22, when I worked at The Washington Post–and was told, straight-up, that if I didn’t have that 30-inch news story in in 30 minutes, I’d be fired–I have outlines and deadlines running like hemoglobin in my blood. At the same time, I understand what a tough gig writing is. Gawd.

I love teaching this class and am delighted to have been asked to continue through the summer. I don’t know how I got so lucky.

WHAT ARE YOU READING THESE DAYS?

I just re-read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s collection of short stories, Gimpel the Fool, which I love like Marc Chagall’s paintings or Thornton Wilder. They open such small, complete windows into shtetl life, with their interlocking portraits of the funny, clever, poignant townspeople who live and die there. At the same time, there’s a wondrous magic and transcendance that I find positively saving.

I also just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Crazy-faceted brilliance. My Lord.

WHAT ARE YOU WRITING?

Working on a TV series; a new memoir; my potty-mouthed blog; right now, I should be writing a piece for The Wall Street Journal that’s due on Tuesday.

ARE THERE ANY WORKS OF CREATIVE NONFICTION BY OTHER AUTHORS THAT HAVE HAD A PARTICULAR INFLUENCE ON YOU?

Anything by John Updike. Sir Philip Sidney. David Sedaris. Montaigne. Jonathan Franzen’s nonfiction. Susanna Kaysen’s memoir ripped a hole in me when I read it in my early 20s.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT WRITING NONFICTION?

I like that I can make a living at it, mostly because writing is the only thing I’ve ever done for a living, and I’ve had to support myself since I was 19. To wit: You can sell a book based on a proposal, rather than having to write the whole book first. You can always write for magazines and newspapers and get paid in a reasonable amount of time. I know this sounds uninspired and crass, but I’m a mom, and I have three sparkly schmushkies who depend on me.

Recently, a really big (and really excellent genius) movie star with whom I’m working on a TV series that’s loosely based on my life asked me what my “artistic vision” for the project was. I blurted: “Whatever yours is–I just need to eat.” She laughed because it was kind of funny, and I kind of meant it to be. But I also actually meant it.

DESCRIBE YOUR DREAM STUDIO.

Oh, I can’t let myself think about that because I might get sad. I’ve written about everywhere. I think having started out writing for newspapers–having to plop down on a street corner to write and file a story–forced me to block out my immediate landscape and focus on getting the job done.

Having said that, I’d be happy not to have to work at the dining room table surrounded by the breakfast dishes, our skittish dog, and the parrot who has never learned to say anything but who screeches interminably. I’ve developed situational ADD.

IF YOU COULD HAVE LUNCH WITH ANY WRITER WHO YOU HAVEN’T MET YET, WHO WOULD IT BE?

Jennifer Egan.

IF YOU WON THE LOTTERY, WHICH ORGANIZATION OR CAUSE WOULD GET THE LOOT? OTHER THAN MUSEHOUSE, OF COURSE.

Honestly, I’d have to use a lot of the booty to get out of debt and to sock away money for college as initial measures. After that, there are several organizations devoted to protecting girls and young women from sex trafficking to whom I’d give the rest of it. But I might first buy myself a machete and go medieval on the hell-bound scum who exploit those precious people.

WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO ON YOUR IPOD?

Sad again: I don’t have an iPod. But on my laptop, I’ve been listening to Avi Buffalo, Mumford and Sons, and the Silver Jews.

LAST QUESTION –DESCRIBE MUSEHOUSE IN THREE WORDS:

Maternal. Patient. Smart.

Susan Gregory Thomas currently teaches Finishing Your Novel: A Complete Manuscript in Six Weeks at Musehouse. 

 

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Musehouse Interview with Storyteller Hillary Rea

In anticipation of Musehouse’s Storytelling Spectacular, an event featuring Philly’s best tale-spinners including host Hillary Rea, Musehouse asked Hillary some questions about the link between literature and storytelling performance and what memoir writers can learn from the best storytellers. 

To start with, what is ‘Storytelling’? What got you started in this? Would you say this is a narrative bridge connecting literature to performance art? 

I think it’s fair to say that storytelling is as old as time. It’s always been an art form of some sort. Luckily, there has been a huge movement for performative storytelling in the last eight years or so that allows people to take true events from their life and spin them into entertainment. Even within this new movement there are many different styles and forms.

What are the benefits of this for you, or any of the storytellers? What is the pay-off?

I enjoy sifting through my memories, things in my childhood that really stand out for better or for worse. It’s nice to reflect on those situations and the feelings that went along with them and reevaluate or reinterpret them for a story. I focus on the humor in life but it often stems from moments that I thought were tragic at the time.

Was there ever a time when you were too nervous to speak/work in front of an audience? Is this a fear that all authors or storytellers of any kind need to get over?

I actually developed a serious case of stage fright while at NYU studying Musical Theatre. It paralyzed my pursuit of a career in voice and acting. I started to overcome this while in Japan teaching English for a year because I was forced to be in the spotlight at all times and sometimes even sing on command! Once I came back to America I worked for a theater and had to give a curtain speech for a play every night for 2 months and I got used to being on stage. Shortly after that I started doing comedy and hardly get nervous at all. I think it would be great for everyone to overcome stage fright or other anxieties that go along with creative work and performance. But it’s something tons of artists struggle with.

I see that there are competitions for this held throughout the city. What are they like? Who judges the stories, and by what criteria are they judged? You have your own competition you run as well… when is it held?

The Story Slams run by First Person Arts are great! I definitely credit FPA for launching into storytelling full force. They are twice a month and 10 storytellers compete by telling 5 minute stories on a theme. The stories are judged by a panel of pre-selected judges as well as the audience. There’s more info at firstpersonarts.org. I host two shows but they aren’t competitions. One is curated around a theme that changes monthly (Tell Me A Story) and the other is similar to “two truths and a lie” (Fibber). The next Fibber is Monday June 4th at 9pm and the next TMAS is June 20th at 7pm. More info is on my website: hillaryrea.com

These events are full of energy and enthusiasm, and seem like just plain fun. Is there a kind of special connection that forms between the storyteller and the audience? Is this engagement the biggest goal? How involved in the performance do they usually become? That is to say, how attentive and invested do they become in the storyteller’s words?

The audience is a huge part of a storytelling show. As a performer you want to connect to the audience and you also want to adapt the way you “spin” your story based on the audience reaction. There is definitely an unspoken dialogue that happens.

There are definitely several connections between a successfully performed ‘story’, and a successfully written story or memoir.  What are some examples of what makes a successful story? What pointers could memoirists and fiction writers take away from this? In terms of narrative torque? Development of voice? Anything else?

My words of wisdom: develop your own personal style and voice. Be true to your story, be open with your audience, and have fun!

The Storytelling Spectacular hosted by Hillary Rea will be held at Musehouse on Saturday, June 2 at 7 pm. For more information, visit http://www.musehousecenter.com. 

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All But True Featured Readers 
Liz Moore and Marc Schuster talk with Doug Gordon

The May 19 installment of All But True: The Musehouse Fiction Series will feature two excellent writers who have both just issued their second novels. In today’s literary market, a second novel is often harder to publish than a first, unless the first happens to have sold a million copies. But these two authors, Liz Moore and Marc Schuster, are talented enough to skip past that potential roadblock. Liz’s new novel is called Heft (W. W. Norton); Marc’s is The Grievers (The Permanent Press). In advance of the Musehouse reading, Liz and Marc graciously agreed to do a brief email interview with Doug Gordon, the host of the series.

Doug: Although these two novels are very different in tone, I’m seeing lots of similarities. For instance, both focus on self-destructive misfits. In Heft, sad Arthur Opp gorges himself until he weighs between 500 and 600 pounds and can scarcely move. The other protagonist, 18-year-old Kel, goes on a crazy spree after his family breaks down and ends up getting himself arrested. In The Grievers, narrator Charley Schwartz is the kind of smart-ass who continually alienates people. In one critical episode, when he’s supposed to draft a letter inviting people to a memorial service at his old prep school, Charley composes a bunch of mock versions insulting the school’s alumni director. After finally writing a serious version, by “mistake” he sends the director a sarcastic one instead.

What amazes me, after reading these two books, is that you’ve made me so fond of these characters. I’d be happy to have dinner with any of them—though with Arthur I’d have to be prepared for large portions and with Charley I’d want a stiff drink first. How do you approach making such difficult characters likeable? Is there a technique to it?

Marc: For me, the most important thing is to give the disagreeable character something relatively noble to accomplish. Even though he’s probably doing it for his own selfish reasons, what Charley ultimately wants to do in The Grievers is memorialize his friend Billy. Along similar lines, Charley is also painfully aware of how frequently and how far he fell short when it came to being a friend to Billy, so he’s also on a journey toward recognizing the aspects of his personality that make him so hard to live with for so many people. In addition to his self-awareness, I think the other characters in the novel also do different things to make Charley more sympathetic. The friends who have their lives together are good at letting Charley know that he’s being a jerk when it’s appropriate, and the friends whose lives are hotter messes than Charley’s make him look good by comparison.

What really matters, though, is that all of these factors allow Charley to grow and mature—if only incrementally—as the novel progresses. If he didn’t change at all over the course of the novel, I think he’d be a lot less sympathetic.

Oh, and the fact that he has a really horrible job probably wins him a few pity points from some readers.

Liz: Generally when I think of people who are hard to like, those who come to mind first are (A) those who are unkind, or (B) those who have a great deal of power and use it for ill. Neither description fits either Arthur or Kel. I’d say they’re both kind. I’d also say that although they have specific powers (Arthur the power of inherited wealth; Kel the power of popularity, athleticism, and good looks), in other ways they are utterly lowly (Arthur because of his fatness and shyness, both of which make him a pariah; Kel because of his poorness and lack of a functional family). I suppose that being an “underdog” in some way ultimately redeems each character.

Doug: Yes, these characters definitely have strong redemptive qualities that become apparent very early in the novels. Maybe, too, it helps that other characters like them: Charley still has friends and a (very patient) wife, and Arthur is treated respectfully and kindly by the young maid, Yolanda, one of his few visitors in the past two decades.

Does it make a difference as well that you both wrote the narratives in the first person? That technique can be tricky, I know, but in these cases I wonder if the first-person approach helps the reader see the real individual beneath the oddities.

Marc: First-person definitely allows for a high degree of introspection and interiority, but I worry sometimes that I use it as a crutch. The temptation is always there to go into a character’s head and talk about things like guilt and regret. The narrator can do something petty or spiteful, and immediately you can have her turning to the reader with an apology. The real challenge, though, is conveying that kind of information without getting too interior. Ultimately, being in the narrator’s head is a bit like a hostage situation. As a reader, you’re more or less stuck with the character, so it’s only natural to experience a degree of Stockholm syndrome.

Liz: I wrote my first novel entirely in the third person and began Heft in the third person, too, alternating close-third voices from the limited perspectives of Arthur, Kel, and Charlene, in turn. It became apparent fairly early in the process that third person wasn’t working for the novel, but I persisted because I didn’t know what else to do. But after completing nearly a full draft, Arthur’s first-person voice came to me, and then Kel’s, and I knew then that I would have to rewrite the novel, but also that it would be a better book.

For me, writing in the first person allowed me to bring a sense of immediacy and urgency to each character that I felt prevented from doing when I was trying to write about them at arm’s length, so to speak.

But now I feel incapable of returning to third person! I actually miss it, but I sort of can’t remember how to do it. For now I’m not fighting with myself about it; I’m writing my current project in the first person, also. And maybe I’ll have an epiphany again and rewrite the whole thing in the third. That seems to be the pattern so far…

Doug: Huh, stuck in the first person—aren’t we all! I get a bit claustrophobic sometimes from being confined in my own head. But you both like your own characters, however flawed they may be—your affection for these people shines through—and that helps the reader believe that these minds are worth dwelling in. And certainly you both use language in a way that keeps the reader involved. Though your styles are very different, I’d characterize them equally as sensitive, skilled, and literary without any hint of pretension or flashiness. How did you go about developing a style that felt right for you—and was it different for this novel than for other fiction you’ve done?

Marc: Thanks for the kind words! For me, discovering a style has been a matter of writing continuously until I had a voice that felt natural and not like an affectation. Early on, back when I thought I might like to be a writer, I’d try to adopt the styles of writers I admired. The result was hundreds of pages of bad ersatz Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, and anyone else I happened to be reading at the time. Eventually, though, the affectations started falling away, and what was left was my own voice and style, which remains fairly constant from one project to the next. Since I wrote The Grievers over the course of six or seven years, some of the early drafts were plagued with other people’s voices. I was reading a lot of Tim O’Brien when I started working on the first draft, and it shows, as I do a really terrible Tim O’Brien impression. But as I was writing The Grievers, I was also working on a number of other projects that taught me how to be myself: short stories, my first novel, a couple of nonfiction books. So it was really a matter of sitting down in front of my computer on a regular basis and typing until the words on the screen felt more like my own than someone else’s.

Liz: Yes, this novel was quite different in its voices than any other fiction I’d written. Maybe that’s why it took so long for both voices to come to me. Arthur’s voice has generated the most—controversy, I guess I’ll say, in that when people criticize the book they often say they didn’t think his use of ampersands and abbreviations (“O” and “tho,” sometimes) was professorial enough. In other words, they didn’t believe that he’d use them. But to me they felt exactly right—whereas I imagine most first-person voices to be spoken aloud by the character, I imagined Arthur to be so isolated that I couldn’t even picture him speaking. His voice was always a “written” voice, to me, and so I gave him the ampersands and the abbreviations because I pictured him jotting down his thoughts by hand in a journal, furiously, at the end of each day. Once I had that image in my head, the writing came much more easily. Kel’s voice is adolescent—he speaks without the use of many commas, which was my way of trying to imitate quick, breathless teenage speech. A sort of embarrassed mumbling.

Doug: Those quirks of Arthur’s didn’t bother me a bit; they were front and center from the start, and if you didn’t accept that an ex-professor would write that way, you could stop reading immediately—which I obviously didn’t. Arthur’s a peculiar guy & O his odd diction fits him! And Marc, as for Tim O’Brien, I don’t think you’ll be accused of imitating him unless you take to appearing at public events in a baseball cap. Your style is very much your own.

One final question: I guess I’d characterize the endings of both novels as hopeful yet open. Or cautiously optimistic, something like that. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with these characters, but we feel they’ve worked out some of their problems and are poised to make a good start on the rest of their lives. Though this kind of ending is what we expect from many contemporary novels, I know it’s really hard to achieve. Actions are wrapped up but not tied off; the characters are situated but not anchored. Did you find it hard to reach such a conclusion, one that felt true to the novel, or did you know when you began where the tale would end up?

Marc: I knew basically where the novel would end, though the specifics eluded me until the final draft. The problem wasn’t so much a matter of knowing where to end the story in terms of the plot. Since much of the novel is about Charley’s efforts to put together a memorial service for his friend, the narrative had to end with the memorial service. The real question, though, was how Charley would behave at the service and whether he’d experience any kind of epiphany or just keep on being his old angry, misguided self. As someone who was personally rooting for Charley, I really hoped it would be the former, but given the massive hole I dug him into, giving the novel a provisionally positive ending—and doing it realistically—was, as you suggest, a little challenging.

This, I suppose, is where having a good team of first readers and editors came in handy. I wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of seven or eight different endings, each coming incrementally closer to the final version. Each time I shared a new ending with an outside reader, I got a little more feedback that helped me achieve the tone I was going for. I don’t think I could have done it alone. I lack the objectivity.

Liz: I had an image of a final scene in mind for most of the writing of the book, but not much of an idea of how I would get to that scene. The “getting to that scene” part of the writing took a very long time, of course. And then when I got there I found that I didn’t want to write it, and that to include it would have been a disservice to the book—it would have told the reader something that I don’t think he or she needed to be told. So I ended the book just before the final scene I’d imagined for so long, and I think it was right to do that. I wanted the reader to become active in the final moment—to have the experience of imagining what comes next.

Doug: I think that’s true of both novels—at the end we’re on the edge of our seats as readers, expecting, hoping, and the expectations aren’t 100 percent realized but we’re satisfied anyway, because we know Charley and Arthur and Kel have taken significant steps already and are about to try the next big step.

Thanks, Marc and Liz, for these insights into your work. I enjoyed both books very much, and I’m sure we’ll have a lively discussion on May 19.

Liz Moore and Marc Schuster will read, sign, and discuss their new novels on Saturday, May 19, at Musehouse, 7:00 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. More information here. Join the Facebook event invite here.  For more on these authors, see their websites, http://www.lizmoore.net/ and http://www.marcschuster.com/.

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Musehouse Presents: Participants’ Work from Advanced Poetry Workshop

The Advanced Poetry Workshop is facilitated by Musehouse Founder and Director Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno. The next Advanced Poetry Course starts Tuesday, April 24 and runs for six weeks. Registration information here or call 267-331-9552. 

Out Here We Is

the center, the yellow line, dashed in the dark, Doors in the 8-track, hissing, Jon, hissing at you. Listen, Jon, Lisa’s turned Christian, wishing in that shady corner. Crack the door, let a little light out.

She’s right out here, Jon, sitting on the stoop, shoulders round, young virgin pouting in the porch light. Kiss her, Jon, kiss the gloss of her beeswaxed lips, cracked at the corners where the beeswax missed.

Licked like business, like an e-z-wider, lit like a poem, Jon, in your three-ring binder, lit like a line whose words you smoked, left in your locker like that book I loaned you. Lost, Jon, right where you left it.

The combination, Jon—the numbers on the knob? Folded in a note, shoved through the slot. Lisa has Jesus licked, sitting in the shade, k-i-s-s-i-n. Geez, Jon, deep shit, door’s shut, light’s out, here we is, waning on the sideways eight.

 -Susan Fleshman

Susan Fleshman writes both poetry and nonfiction. She is currently working on a poetry manuscript based on a box of photographs from the   1920s-40s that she found in an antique store.


Shock Therapy 

Dad is looking into a ball of water

held in a hat.

Again and again and again

He will fill this star spangled blue cap

with ice cube cold creek water,

in the middle of July,

Pennsylvania and

Life.

Again and again and again

he will crash this cap

to his hot head

I’m a new man

to himself

Or

I’m a new man now

to someone listening.

-Siobhan Lyons

Siobhan Lyons is a former 12th grade English teacher and a current candidate for an MFA in Writing.

Reservoir

The neighbors bring apple cake and sugar cookies.

The children play and toddle through the house.

Ron is losing his faith, and I don’t know where faith comes from.

I mail my letters on the corner and keep on going to the reservoir

where I sit and watch children below

run from house to house, their pink and blue jackets blurring in dusk.

-Donna Wolf-Palacio

 Donna Wolf-Palacio’s recent book of poetry, What I Don’t Know, was published by Finishing Line Press.  She received an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. 

Oh When the Saints

(after the death of my Father)

I stand outside the sanctuary’s door in a crack of light.  Anxious chords blanket my windpipe. Always you calling mother: “Say, Ellie!”  As if you warned us of the most ferocious of hungers.

Vessel in an ice-jerked sea of this season of melting water and fingers as chicken bones and melancholy.  The press of lap hands, bulky houses of women with unwrapped hope: tasty.

My father’s saints meet at his funeral and ask each other: “why are we here”?  St. Matthew meets St. David meets St. Luke meets St Gregory meets St. John Baptist de la Salle meets St. Francis de Sales.

The offerings are top notch: cheese and onion pudding, chard and saffron tart; creamy asparagus timbale, whole baked eggplants, rhubarb fool; and almond pine-nut tart.  We will work!

We will feast first!

After, take a rusty tea for warmth. There, there, dead of night lasts too long.  The kitten following us to bed with dreaming vertebrae and tail tucked over buckets of sardines, mackerel, and grouper for sale.  Take the flesh and line the room with illuminated bones as calligraphic warnings.  No wonder I’m afraid!

At the service the Rabbi recalled that Michelangelo Buonarroti was said to have four souls.  Three saints working for him: Barbara, Luke (twice) and David.  “He is still alive in his architecture, paintings, sculpture, and poetry.”  Oh how the wind whipped through the funeral canopy then.

The text is produced from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  How loud did he orchestrate to be heard.  Passion is placed in the sepulcher and now with his body supine, protectors slip from the room having finished with all manners and with Father.

-Julia Blumenreich

Julia Blumenreich is a poet and educator . Her book, Reforesting, is an homage to her late husband Gil Ott and a collaboration with visual artist Wendy Osterweil. 


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Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

We share this poem in memory of Adrienne Rich, American poet, feminist, and essayist, who passed away on Tuesday, March 27th. She was 82.

Rest in peace Adrienne.

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve
Adrienne Rich 

Saw you walking barefoot
taking a long look
at the new moon's eyelid

later spread
sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair
asleep but not oblivious
of the unslept unsleeping
elsewhere

Tonight I think
no poetry
will serve

Syntax of rendition:

verb pilots the plane
adverb modifies action

verb force-feeds noun
submerges the subject
noun is choking
verb    disgraced    goes on doing

now diagram the sentence
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Read to Write by Musehouse Instructor Grant Clauser

Read to Write

When I was a college student, my first creative writing teacher told the class that there were two kinds of writers: those who wanted to write and those who wanted to have written. He may not have been the first person to say that, but it’s still one of his many sayings that resonates with me now, 25 years later.

The reason, you see, is because I want to be both—the task, the craft of writing is even more of a thrill for me now than it was then. Maybe that’s because I know a little bit more of what I’m doing now, but also because I have a much deeper well to draw from than I did when I was in my 20s. At the same time, I also enjoy the work I’ve done—finishing it, sharing it, making it part of the conversation and community. That’s a privilege for which I’m very grateful.

But I’d like to take my old teacher’s advice a step further. I like to think that there are writers who want to read and writers who like to be read. Again—strive to be both. You see, the problem I run into sometimes with newer writers is that they put much more energy into writing than they put into reading. (The same goes for listening at poetry readings—it amazes me how often I notice people show up just for the open reading period and don’t pay attention to the main reader.) Writing isn’t the kind of talent that just improves on its own the more you do it, like, say, running. You get better at running simply by running more (I may be wrong about the running thing, since I’m pretty miserable at that.) For writers to grow they need to be gluttonous and aggressive readers—and they need to love doing it. Writers need to dig though the works they love to discover what makes them taste good—unwrapping the poems as they digest them (see, I’m a lot better at the eating metaphors than the running ones). Part of every class session I lead at Musehouse is a reading of great poems, or at least poems I think are great, so I can share some of the passion I have for them, but to also look for the elements that make those poems work, to study their craft and ingredients.

I sometimes run into writers who say they don’t read other poetry because they don’t want to be influenced by others. I have little tolerance for that point of view.

So then, what to read? You’re in luck because in some ways poetry is thriving today. There are more literary journals, both online and off, then ever before, so start there. Literary journals are the fuses that keep our literary communities lit up. Reading groups, workshops, lectures, friendships are all things that grow out of and are supported by literary journals. Locally, we’re lucky enough to have access to several strong publications, and those pubs are also very active in the local community. Supporting those publications is one of the easiest ways you discover new writers.

Anyway—that was a long way of saying—read to write and write to be read–another saying of my old teacher. I should write all those down before I forget them.

—Grant Clauser, www.poetcore.com

Grant Clauser holds an MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University where he was the 1993 Richard Devine Fellow. He is a magazine and web editor and has taught writing at area colleges. His poems have appeared in various journals including The Literary Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Heartland Review, and others. He was selected by Robert Bly to be the 2010 Montgomery County Poet Laureate. Through the MCPL program, he started a monthly workshop, the Montco Workshop in Lansdale.

Grant’s next Beginning and Intermediate Poetry Writing at Musehouse begins April 23. Registration information at http://www.musehousecenter.com or call 267-331-9552.    

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