Friday, March 23, 2018

Book Bites: Shuly Xochitl Cawood, author of The Going and the Goodbye

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Today, I'm lucky enough to have Shuly Xochitl Cawood, author of the brilliant, if at times heartbreaking, memoir The Going and the Goodbye stop by. Cawood's work challenges the notion of a typical memoir and brings both a quietness and a weight to every page as she explores small towns, road trips, love and loss and what it means to, ultimately, let go.

"In this lovely memoir the narrator, although strongly rooted in a particular place, is always on the move into the unknown....The lyrical, fluid style immediately invites the reader along for the ride. I read this with great pleasure!" --Bobbie Ann Mason
Which character in the memoir gave you the most trouble?

I think the character I found most difficult was myself. I think it’s easier to see other people and to recognize their qualities, both good and bad. But it took me a lot longer to see myself with more objectivity in experiences that had happened and to understand what I had done wrong and why, and to view myself via the lens through which other people might have seen me. That took me years.

Were they any parts of your memoir that were edited out, but which you miss terribly?

I originally planned on including a chapter which told the story of the relationship that finally moved me from being terrified of getting my heart broken post-divorce to discovering my former courageous self. I worked on that chapter for a long time, including during my MFA program, and it went through multiple versions. In the end, when I finally completed the manuscript and started sending it to publishers, that chapter didn’t make the cut. Parts of the original chapter did, but not the bulk of it. Still, I never gave up on that story. After the book got published, I picked up the story/chapter again and worked on it a lot more, over and over, until finally I felt like I had gotten it where I wanted it to be. It is now a stand-alone essay that will be a part of the prose and poetry chapbook I have forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. I’m excited about having the story in there because it not only ties in with the theme of the chapbook, but it makes that chapbook have a connection to my memoir as well.

How do you handle writer’s block?

I switch genres. This past fall, I was focused on writing short stories, and then I got stuck in December—so stuck that I couldn’t seem to write or even edit my fiction, so I switched to poetry. Well, first I allowed myself a hiatus, which maybe some writers think you should never do, but I do take them, and they help me. When I was done with the hiatus from writing, which lasted several weeks and through the holidays, I still felt stuck, so I started writing poetry again. The poetry was terrible, but I was just allowing myself to write whatever weird thing came into my mind and let it take me where it wanted. Frankly, I was just relieved to be writing again, so I didn’t sweat the quality. After a couple of weeks, better poetry emerged. Sometimes it just takes time and patience.

In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

This idea of defining success has been something I had to think about before I published my book, and after. Part of success for me was, first and foremost, publishing a book. That’s been my goal for decades, though I didn’t know what type of book—in high school I would have predicted it would be a novel, and in in college I would have told you my first book would be a collection of poems. Even ten or fifteen years ago I did not imagine my first book would be a memoir. Still, I have known throughout the years that in this lifetime I wanted to publish at least one book. Once I started working on the memoir and finalizing it, I realized success for the book (and for me) wasn’t just publishing it, and it wasn’t finding an agent or selling the memoir to one of the big New York publishers. Success meant publishing a body of work that I was proud to have created, that was some of the best writing I could produce at this stage of my writing career, and finding a publisher who really believed in the book and would be a partner with me on it. That drove all my decisions about publishers and the press I ultimately chose. 

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t have just one! The best three pieces of advice I got were:

1) That if I was going to write nonfiction, I should start a blog. The blog helped me take something small that had happened in my life that day or that week and to try and write about it in a way that was compelling to readers. The blog definitely upped my storytelling skills.

2) That after I completed a draft of writing, I should go back and consider what I didn’t say and didn’t reveal in the pages. Often that is the real heart of the story.

3) And the most important: To never give up. Rejections will come—I aim for over a hundred a year—but tenacity wins.


Book Bites: Tabitha Blankenbiller, author of Eats of Eden

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Ever heard of a "foodoir"? I hadn't either until I encountered Tabitha Blankenbiller's fun and fantastic Eats of Eden, a collection of essays using food as a gateway to explore everything from feminism to fashion to the literary establishment. Raise a glass and enjoy the interview!

“Lush, rich and delicious, these essays are as tasty as the recipes she delivers: Blankenbiller dishes not only fun but depth and honesty. She shows us that literature is not meant to fly above taste but delve into it. What a satisfying read.” —Rene Denfeld

Are there any writers you’re jealous of?
Oh god, all of them. I guess I don’t feel as if I legitimately am one, so all the others I see I think, oof, if only I could be a real writer, too. I wish I had a tenth of the fierce work ethic and critical prowess of Laura Bogart. Brandon Taylor’s aching eye for detail—he sees words and the world with an elegance way outside of my stratosphere. Kendra Fortmeyer’s imagination and shape-shifting—she can inhabit another mind like no one else. Jill Talbot’s poetry and forms, constantly pushing against what we think an essay is supposed to be. What writing is supposed to be. Rene Denfeld’s radical compassion and ability to completely remake a heart in the span of one novel. Sharon Harrigan’s masterful editing eye and her architectural precision she brings to her work. Elizabeth Ellen’s way of writing about relationships, and how I will be raving about her essay “A Review of By the Sea, Or, How to Be An Artist and Female, i.e. How to Be Unlikable, Or, How to (Not) Pander” until the day I die. Samantha Irby is just the queen.

If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing with all of your free time?

Restoring my childhood dollhouse, making gaudy fascinators and brooches for suckers on Etsy, photoshopping my cats into memes, cosplay.

I think I picked the right creative outlet.

Have you ever given up on a writing project?

So many! And not just books that get shoved in the drawer, either. I’ve pitched essays that sounded so good in my marketing-speak sentences, then could not come together no matter what angle I came at them from. I believe you shouldn’t give up too quickly on an idea—sometimes you need to have a few false starts and get that “throat-clearing” out of the way before an essay comes together. Other times you didn’t have a full essay, you had a thought. Or a scene. Or a funny memory. Or you got out the full of it in the pitch letter. I hate that! One time in particular I got a yes from a big venue I so desperately wanted to net, but the article absolutely did not work, plus I couldn’t get any decent sources to speak with me. It’s frustrating, but not as frustrating as dragging something out that doesn’t want to exist.

In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

Keeping “success” in perspective is an unending struggle. There are days I feel as though the universe is validating my choice to be a writer and my MFA kid dreams are coming true, and the other 95% of the days I feel anywhere from vaguely okay with what I’m doing on down to calling my mom from between bookshelves at Powell’s and crying because I’ve wasted my life on something that’s never going to make me happy (not to be specific or anything).

When I am very seriously questioning whether I have made the right decision to work at this, to really commit to building a writing life with whatever resources of time and energy and finances that I can scrape up, I go back to what I wrote in one of my notebooks during grad school: “I want to be part of the conversation.” At that point, I had never submitted to a single journal. Every possible accomplishment was a new one. I dreamed of being invited to participate in a panel, to sit behind a convention center banquet table with a microphone and a glass of water while a sparsely populated crowd listened to me and my peers talked about bookish things. I thought, if I could have an essay published somewhere, anywhere, I’d be happy forever.

Eight years later those goals have changed (hahahaha happy forever….), but I think this is what success is to me—it’s engaging. It’s building relationships with other writers, and with readers. It’s becoming better at what you do, a constant conversation with yourself.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. It was one of the first books I read for my MFA, and completely toppled what I thought a memoir was capable of being. What an essay could be. The longing and the fears and the love and the mess of coming of age as a woman that she braids in a way that comes off the page so effortlessly, but could only be accomplished by an absolute virtuoso. I’m so glad I picked it up when I was still putty, where its influence could be the stars I’ll forever reach toward.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Book Bites: Patricia Abbot, author of I Bring Sorrow

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Today, I bring you an interview with Patricia Abbot, whose short story collection, I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression, just recently hit shelves. Enjoy!

“A sparkling collection from Edgar-finalist Abbott...This brilliant collection is sure to boost the author’s reputation as a gifted storyteller.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

What drew you into the genre you write in?

Although a lot of the fiction I read would not be categorized as crime fiction, I am drawn to writing it because there is an immediate and compelling focus to the story: a crime of some sort, a grievance, a loss, some issue to be addressed. My first dozen or so published stories did not feature a crime per say but many were about marginalized people. Certainly many of my favorite books dealt with victimization, or feelings of desire unmet. My characters are often dissatisfied with their lot in life and how they address that dissatisfaction becomes the story.

How important is the setting in your collection?

The setting is very important to me. In both of my novels, the story reflects the city they take place in. Philadelphia of the 1950s-1980s (Concrete Angel) is very specific to me. One chapter, in particular, recalls the grand dames of department stores in the 1960s: Lit Brothers, Strawbridges, John Wanamakers and Gimbels. Going downtown to shop in those stores necessitated white gloves and high heels- even for a teenager. Shopping was an event. In Shot in Detroit, I tried to capture Detroit at its worst moment without being patronizing or callous. But all of my short stories treat place as an important part of the narrative, too. I would say after character, setting is the most important element for me. How to capture Tuscon, or Pacific Beach, CA or Portland, Maine without overdoing it is great fun for me.

What single book has been most influential to you as a writer?

The Great Gatsby can be read multiple times without losing its freshness. The book I read at 20 is different than the one I read last year. Each time, it reveals new insights on how to create character, place, plot in a very short novel. Every character in The Great Gatsby is dissatisfied. Unmet desire overwhelms all of them.

Did your collection have an alternate title?

It’s original title was Flight Tales. That made sense because in nearly every story someone is running from something: a woman from her bi-polar mother, an elderly woman from the Detroit that has changed, a man from his harridan of a wife. However, that title had no poetry to it. So I began to look for another way to express the theme. I Bring Sorrow is from an aria Maria Callas sang called “La Mamma Morta” (They killed my mother) from the opera Andrea Chenier by Umberto Giodana. It was beautifully used in the movie Philadelphia, bringing everyone to tears.

Do you have a set routine as a writer?

When the writing is going well, I write off and on all day. I am a pantser, so getting up and mopping a floor or taking a walk is part of the process for me. My unconscious needs time to catch up with my conscious mind. Lately, the switching between shorts and novels has been difficult. My head has not been in the right place to allow characters and incidents to take hold. Hopefully I am behind that.


Friday, March 2, 2018

La Casita Grande Interview

Many thanks to La Casita Grande for hosting this wonderful interview. They asked some tough questions about class issues, genre and how Florida crime writing stands out from the pack. Take a look.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Lightwood is a Kindle Monthly Book Deal

Today is the first day of March and that means.... Lightwood is on sale! Lightwood has been accepted as part of Amazon's Kindle Monthly Book Deal program, which means it's only $1.99 for the month of March. If you've been thinking about reading Lightwood, but haven't gotten around to it yet, here's your chance!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Anthony Award Nominations 2018!

It's that time of year! The Anthony Award ballots are out and Bouchercon alums and attendees are now scrambling to put together their crime fiction nominations. To make things easier, I've compiled a list of eligible novels, stories and collections. This is by no means an exhaustive list- I'd say that Jay Stringer over at Do Some Damage has the most comprehensive list going at the moment- but rather these are the titles that have been somewhere on my radar over the past year. Happy nominating, happy voting and most importantly, happy reading!

Best Novel:
Lightwood by Steph Post (hey, it's eligible....)
Burning Bright by Nick Petrie
Knuckledragger by Rusty Barnes
Wonder Valley by Ivy Pochoda
Another Man's Ground by Claire Booth
American Static by Tom Pitts
The Savage by Frank Bill
Crime Song by David Swinson
The Late Show by Michael Connelly
A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner
The Weight of This Word by David Joy
The Force by Don Winslow
Unsub by Meg Gardiner
Heaven's Crooked Finger by Hank Early
Dangerous to Know by Renee Patrick

Best First Novel:
Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano
Ragged by Chris Irvin
Dark Chapter by Winnie M. Li
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
The Dry by Jane Harper
Swiss Vendetta by Tracee de Hahn
Daughters of Bad Men by Laura Oles
Adrift by Micki Browning
If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Best Paperback Original:
Cold War Canoe Club by Jeffery Hess
Accidental Outlaws by Matthew Phillips
Blacky Jaguar Against the Cool Clux Cult by Angel Colon
A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps by Nick Kolakowski
Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck
What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt
The Blade This Time by Jon Bassoff
Hardway by Hector Acosta
Outside the Wire by Patricia Smiley
The Day I Died by Lori Rader Day
The Art of Murder by Casey Doran
The Rebellion's Last Traitor by Nik Korpon
A Fatal Collection by Mary Ellen Hughes
No Way Home by Annette Dashofy

Best Short Story:
"25 Minutes to Go" by S.W. Lauden
"A Necessary Ingredient" by Art Taylor
"I Know They're in There" by Travis Richardson
"Man in Black" by Terri Lynn Coop
"How You Did It" by Eric Beetner
"Missouri Waltz" by Sarah M. Chen
"Millions of Hungry Mouths" by Paul J. Garth
"Tuesday" by Erin Mitchell
"Crazy Cat Lady" by Barb Goffman
"Missing Person" by Rick Helms
"A Woman's Place" by Josh Pachter
"The Trial of Madame Pelletier" by Susanna Calkins
"Let it Burn" by Robert Mangeot
"The Explorer" by Maurissa Guibord
"My Side of the Matter" by Hilary Davidson
"Straight Fire" by Danny Gardner
"The Hug" by Rob Hart
"Rose of My Heart" by Nik Korpon
"Deadbeat" by Thomas Pluck
"Money for Nothing" by Holly West

Best Critical/Non-Fiction Book:
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
American Fire by Monica Hesse
The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Best Anthology:
Killing Malmon edited by Kate and Dan Malmon
Hard Sentences edited by David James Keaton
Just to Watch Them Die edited by Joe Clifford
The Obama Inheritance edited by Gary Phillips
Crime Survivors edited by Pam Stack

Best Online Content:
Unlawful Acts
Writer Types
BOLO Books
The Rap Sheet
Writer's Bone
The Thrill Begins
The Reading Room

Bill Crider Award for Best Novel in a Continuing Series:
Dangerous Ends by Alex Segura
Blind to Sin by Dave White
The Devil's Muse by Bill Loehfelm
Blood Truth by Matt Coyle
A Conspiracy of Ravens by Terrence McCauley
Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin
Blessed Are the Peacekeepers by Kristi Belcamino
The Woman from Prague by Rob Hart
Blood Truth by Matt Coyle
Path into Darkness by Lisa Alber
A Palette for Murder by Sybil Johnson
Hellhound on my Tail by J.D. Rhodes

Monday, February 19, 2018

Over at BULL: Men's Fiction

So many thanks to BULL: Men's Fiction magazine for running an excerpt of Walk in the Fire and conducting and posting a killer interview with me (about everything from poison, to split-personalities, to pacing as breathing and why I write about fire).