Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Gratitude and Writing

So, a very long time ago I started telling stories. Then one day, I decided "I'm going to be a writer!" (Having no idea what that actually meant) I went on to high school and wrote some poems that got me into college, where I wrote some short stories that landed me a daring career as a waitress and bartender, where I listened to other people's stories and eventually decided to go back to grad school, where I wrote a novel for my master's thesis, but fell in love with teaching, so I became a teacher and then, one day, two and a half years ago I decided, "okay, now I'm not just going to be a writer. I'm going to be an author" and I started writing the book that was signed last year and published today, yes today: A Tree Born Crooked. 

And that's how it happened. 

And it couldn't have happened without so many people along the way who not only supported me and encouraged me, but who never let failure be an option. Who would not ever let me even consider the idea that I would not achieve my dreams. From my best friends whom I've known and for the past 15 years to the authors I've just met only this summer, from professors to punk rockers, students to co-workers, all those that I have loved, both alive and looking down right now- you have all lent me a tremendous strength that I am extremely grateful for.  

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. 

(And yes, today I am a total cheeseball. And I'm okay with that...I can be cool again tomorrow...)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Storytelling at its finest: An Interview with Schuler Benson, author of The Poor Man's Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide

As if this week couldn’t get any better, today I bring you an interview with Schuler Benson, author of The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide. This collection of short stories will disturb you, startle you, possibly even shatter you. It will unsettle you and it will renew your faith in the short story genre. Benson is a risk-taker and his prose pushes boundaries while inspiring awe. This collection is not for the faint of heart- but it IS for any fan of savage beauty and masterful storytelling.

Steph Post: Since your stories seem to do the same, I’d like to dive right in. You write very graphically about some pretty disturbing situations- kids growing up in a meth lab, marital abuse, death, violence, more death and so on. With your descriptive style and attention to detail (usually the kind most people overlook) you take, what I’d call “everyday horror” to a whole new level. What spurs you to populate your stories with these unsettling scenes, settings and characters?

Schuler Benson: It's an interesting distinction to make, or try to make, between "everyday horror" and just "the everyday." I've been to some wonderful places, made connections with wonderful people, and I have a lot to be thankful for. Having said that, I've done some pretty awful shit and been in some pretty bleak places with some shady folks. Those are the places where I think I learned the most about others, and about who I am. And who I'm not. A lot of what I've read, seen in movies, or heard elsewhere and enjoyed kinda works the same way. I think some of the uglier parts of these stories are equal parts dark corner and mirror. The dark corners make for interesting scenarios to plumb, and the mirrors keep things honest.

SP: I’m a sucker for well written dialogue and you are a master of it. In writing dialect you use words such as “whatchu,” “arrite” and “lemme,” which effortlessly convey the characters’ voices. What is your process for crafting dialect words? How important is it to you that you get the dialect correct?

SB: Man, thank you so much. I love listening to people. I’ve been a mimic my whole life, and I guess that’s worked its way into how I tell stories. I try my best to get the way people talk down on paper in a way that looks and feels natural enough that it’s not impossible to read for people who aren’t accustomed to that kind of speech. Not everyone’s gonna get it though, and honestly, alienating a few people is a risk I’ll take if even one person reads it and thinks, “man, I can really hear this stuff.” It can be polarizing, but that makes it all the more rewarding when it works. Plus, in work I’ve read by established writers, when the dialect really works, it makes for such a fun read. Seeing it done well by others has been, and continues to be, a big inspiration for me.

SP: There are so many well-written stories in this collection of twelve, but without a doubt “A Hindershot of Calion” is my favorite. This is the story that really sparked for me- the dialogue is spot-on and the apathy and tenderness of the characters rings completely true without a hint of artifice. So, I have to know the story behind the story; how did “Hindershot” start out and how did it become the gem that it is?

SB: I’m so glad you liked it. And I’m a little surprised by the love that story’s gotten, because it’s definitely the oddball in the collection, and when I was writing it, I honestly never expected it to see the light of day. In the spring of 2013, I’d just had my first story accepted for publication. I was excited, couldn’t wait to tell my family. I was going to be back in my hometown in mid-May. I didn’t get down there very often, and I was hoping the story’d be published before I got there so my folks could read it, but it wasn’t slated for publication until later in the summer. Before I took that trip, I sat down at my computer with the express intention of writing something my grandparents would like, specifically my grandfather, the real Denny. Just to have something to give them, you know? I wrote that story in, like, an evening, and between then and when it eventually debuted, it changed very little. The story’s fictional, and it contains a fictionalized version of Denny, but a lot of the places are real, and some of the themes deal a lot with the relationship he and I had. I brought it to him, and my Gran read it to him and he loved it. Later that summer, on a whim, I submitted it to Alternating Current for the Go Read Your Lunch series, and when it was accepted, I was floored. It’s a cool story, but it’s also a little bit Mayberry, and I didn’t expect it’d be the kind of thing anyone would go for. Can’t tell you how happy I am now to have been wrong then.

SP: Especially nowadays, publishing a collection of short stories is no easy feat. How did you first connect with Alternating Current Press and what was it like working with them?

SB: After that first story came out on Hobart, Leah from Alternating Current and I connected on Twitter. We had a lot of similar interests, and she mentioned Go Read Your Lunch, which I checked out. I loved the idea of a blog that premiered original material in that format, and the handful of past GRYL stories I read were all just killer. For the hell of it, I think last July, I submitted “Hindershot” to AC for Go Read Your Lunch, and I genuinely never expected to hear anything back. But I did, and that story is what got me the offer to do the collection. Alternating Current has been incredible to me. Leah’s been in this business for a long time, and it shows. She and her people have truly worked tirelessly on this book, as well as everything else they undertake, including promoting other authors and now organizing book tours. I’m really new to all this. I’m grateful to have so much knowledge and elbow-grease in my corner.

SP: The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide is not only filled to the brim with stark, startling prose, it’s illustrated! When it first came in the mail and I started flipping through it, I was taken by the illustrations and the design of the book. I mentioned to you before that your book is like mixtape made with love. (After finishing it, I still believe this- though it’s sort of like that mixtape you find in the back of your closet that was made by the one person in your life who ripped your heart out and stomped on it and you don’t want to listen to it, but you do anyway while you sit on the floor and sob.) How personal is this collection to you? How much of a hand did you have in directing the design of the book, the artwork and the arrangement of the stories?

SB: That’s awesome. The mixtape vibe is exactly what I wanted. In my mind, this thing’s not so much a collection of stories as it is kinda an ode to my love for the album. All the stories are personal, I guess. Like songs. I mean, some are at more of a remove than others, but spending time in those worlds with those people binds them to you. I think that’s true for any writer, and I don’t know if it’ll ever not be true for me. I’m lucky to say that I had virtually total creative freedom with the design of the book, and that’s yet another testament to how awesome working with Alternating Current is. I mentioned some things about the art to Leah at the beginning, and she was very accommodating and enthusiastic. I bounced a few of the illustration ideas off a couple friends of mine, both of whom are, coincidentally, amazing artists. The section pieces were done by Patrick Traylor, a guy I’ve known most my life. We grew up together, and he lives in the Phoenix area now. The jacket pieces and individual story art was all hand-drawn by a dude named Ryan Murray. He’s a Houston-based artist. He and I have known each other and been friends for over a decade, and it’s one of the most interesting relationships I have, because he and I have never met in person. We never even spoke on the phone until we went into the planning stages of this project late last summer. The work these guys did stands so beautifully on its own, and I am honored to have it included as part of something with my name on it. I arranged the stories and sections the way I would’ve sequenced them if they were songs on a record. I think everyone involved is happy with the final product, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Phenomenal experience. If I never write or publish another story, I’ll be happy to have this.

SP: I could go on all day about the stunning craft of your collection, but instead, I’m going to switch it up a bit.  Let’s do flash favorites (first thing that pops into your head). So, favorite…

Airport to be stranded in: If I had to be stranded, I guess any airport’s pretty much the same.

Liquor to drink straight: I’ve been sober since December 2008, but if you asked me this question in
November of 2008, I would’ve said “whatever’s free.”

Place to stay up all night: If I’m up all night, I’m miserable. J Doesn’t matter where. Man, I’m boring.

Author you’ve read in the last six months: Like pretty much everyone else who’s read him, Eric Shonkwiler. Above All Men is so good, and his short fiction hits so hard. The guy is truly built to write.

Non-domestic animal: I’ve got a weird obsession with the thylacine. I have a picture of a pile of them in my kitchen.

Class you took in college: I took this “Bible As Literature” course at the University of Arkansas, and it was a blast. A professor named Robert Madison taught it. He was one of my favorites.

Person to take on a road trip: My fiancĂ©e, Celeste. We’ve been from Arkansas to Colorado to the Carolinas together. I’m not much of a roadtripper, but she is. Makes the distance more fun. And our dog, Ellen Ripley. If we’re going somewhere, she’s going, too… but she ain’t happy about it.

Word: fidbin-a-snake-idda-bitcha (Where I come from, this is one word.)

By the way, where I come from, this is one word as well.... Thanks so much to Schuler Benson for taking the time to stop by. Don't foget to pick up your copy of A Poor Man's Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide and, as always- read, review, repeat. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

"The Strong Pull of Home" a review of A Tree Born Crooked at Revolution John Magazine

A new review of A Tree Born Crooked just came in! Not only was this review written by Sheldon Lee Compton- someone I admire and consider a kindred spirit- it gives you a true reader response to my novel. Please take check it out and stay to read all of the other fine reviews, interviews and original works up on Revolution John.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Catching Up with Christine Gabriel, Author of Crimson Forest

Last month, I got the chance to sit down with Christine Gabriel, author of Crimson Forest, right before her book was set to release. Now that Christine's book has been out for a month, I wanted to check in to see how things were going and get her candid advice for being a new author. Here's what she had to say.....

Steph Post: Do you think there is a difference between being a writer and being a published author?

Christine Gabriel: Well, I still feel the same.  I'm not used to getting so much attention so that might be a little different, but other than that I think everything is the same :)

SP: Do you think your outlook on writing has changed at all now that you are a published author?

CG: One thing I've learned is that getting published is quite a process.  When people look at it from the outside, it looks so darn easy.  Let me let you in on a little secret...it's not easy ;) There's sub edits, more edits, cover art, and so much more.  Now that I know how much work goes into publishing a book, I have so much more respect (not that I didn't before, but holy crap batman!).

SP: What was the most stressful part of the publishing process or experience for you? How did you handle the stress?

CG: I come from a very small town and was very quiet and shy, so needless to say all this attention is very different.  That is probably the hardest thing for me to deal with right now.  I'm not used to all the compliments and people that want to get to know little ol' me.  It's quite humbling and will take some time getting used to.  The only thing I find stressful about it, is that I feel terrible when I can't reply to the hundreds of messages I receive daily as I want to connect with all my readers on a personal level.  That does stress me out a tad :)  I promise, I will get to all the messages!!

SP: What sort of feedback have you gotten from readers of Crimson Forest?

CG: I've gotten amazing feedback from the readers of Crimson Forest.  So far, my favorite was from a message that came in a day ago that simply said, "Guess who my daughter and I are dressing up as for Halloween?!"  That made me smile from ear to ear.

I love that it's been deemed better than Twilight (which is a book I enjoyed) and The Hunger Games. I mean really?! Those are amazing and to be compared to being as good if not better than those. Yeah...it's very surreal.

SP: Are there upcoming promotions for Crimson Forest readers should be aware of?

CG: There may or may not be (hint hint) a surprise free download day ;)  Keep your eyes out, it may...or may not...happen :)

SP: Crimson Forest is only the first book of a series. How is the writing going for Crimson Moon? What can readers expect from this next installment?

CG: It's almost done!  I will let you in on a little secret.  I really enjoyed writing Crimson Forest, but Crimson Moon in my opinion is pretty darn amazing (Yeah, I kinda like it, can you tell?).

In Crimson Forest, there was quite a bit of character development that took place in the beginning, so in Crimson Moon I was able to jump right into the action.  You'll find that you may love, or be very angry with me in some of the chapters.  It might just be a little bit of an emotional roller coaster depending on which characters are your favorites.

SP:What advice can you give to new authors to help keep them sane?

CG: Have lots of patience, junk food, and caffeinated products on hand!!  Don't get discouraged!! Have faith in you and your work.  Never let someone tell you that you'll never be good enough because you are (someone told me that and I made sure to thank them in my acknowledgements - haha, no I didn't actually put their name, but they'll know who they are if they decide to stalk me mwhaha).

See, how can you not love this girl? Don't forget to pick up your copy of Crimson Forest today and be on the look out for Crimson Moon.

A Tree Born Crooked on Goodreads

Don't forget to add A Tree Born Crooked to your Goodreads "to-read" list! (And then hopefully your "read" list) It's out in 9 DAYS, folks!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

10 Days Left to Pre-Order A Tree Born Crooked

Don't forget- you can now pre-order the Kindle version of A Tree Born Crooked. Don't worry, the print version will be out at the same time- September 30th. Thanks for the support and for spreading the word!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hard-edged and Haunting: A conversation with Tom Bouman, author of Dry Bones in the Valley

Today I bring you an interview with Tom Bouman, author of Dry Bones in the Valley, a recently released mystery/thriller set in rural Pennsylvania. Bouman’s novel is edgy, but stoic, fast-paced, but riddled with haunting images and characters. This book is for all readers, but today’s interview is really for the writers out there. There’s a lot to learn here….

Steph Post: Dry Bones in the Valley has the perfect combination of thrilling mystery and moments of lyrical brilliance. The balance between the two is what drives the narrative forward and captivates the reader so fully. I’d like to start with the mystery, though. There were so many well developed twists and turns in your novel; I didn’t see the ending coming at all. When you began writing Dry Bones in the Valley did you know who the killer would be? Is there a process you have for mapping out such a complex storyline?

Tom Bouman: Aw, thanks. I didn’t know right away who the killer would be, but relatively early in the process I knew I had to change lenses, so to speak, to make the story a different shape and size. Then everything fell into place. And I did map the novel out, both in terms of creating an outline and establishing a raison d’etre for each scene, and in terms of drawing an actual map of the area in which the story took place. That helped.

SP: In the midst of the intrigue there are beautiful flashes of reflection and insight on the part of the narrator, Henry Farrell. One of my favorite lines in the novel is when Henry considers explaining to Alan Stiobhard that “the only things worth fighting over were things you couldn’t have or couldn’t help. Everyone comes to know that at some point in his life. Some people know it all their lives. And I’ll bet that those who knows, but don’t know they know, make the killers of this world.” That line really hit home with me and made me pause in the story, just as I felt Henry was doing in that moment. How did you come up with this concept and how true do you think it is?

TB: Oh, I think it is true, but you have to keep swinging anyway. The book very purposefully pits ordinary individuals against forces that are probably immovable; to give up against these forces would be a form of early death. I think it’s also true in more a more positive sense, that it is healthy to recognize that sometimes the only way to experience what matters most in life is to stop trying to control it. Lastly, in that exchange, Alan Stiobhard poses the question, “When did you ever fight someone who didn’t matter to you?” Personally, I have come to understand I shouldn’t argue with fools and strangers, but do sometimes need to duke it out with those I’m closest to.

SP: In addition to these bouts of insight, there are startling, lyrical descriptions that contrast sharply with the raw realism of the story. At one point, Henry “slipped into a dream of an upside-down tree in a river” and later, “listened to the wind murmuring again, this time sounding like my mother’s voice, and conjuring vividly my threadbare clothes snapping on a line. I could feel the rough wood of clothespins in my hands.” It is this exact contrast of poetry with stark prose, beautiful images with the rough reality of a small town crime case, that gives Dry Bones in the Valley such a unique and compelling voice. Did you set out with intention of creating such a contrast or is this something that happens naturally in your writing?

TB: I had no ideas about creating a contrast. I just wanted to create an inner life for Henry that would be consistent with his understanding and his approach to the world. At times I had to remind myself to include the darker elements you mention. I remember at one point I was writing a scene were Henry was sitting on a tree stump, gazing at the stars and thinking about life. And I decided, “No. Too much of this. There needs to be an ATV chase here.”

SP: Though some readers made have found it repellent or strange, I especially appreciated some of your unabashed descriptions of life sunk into the mire of rural poverty. For example, at one point Henry describes the intricacies of making squirrel pie. He ends the recipe with, “You can substitute rabbit, grouse, any other small game, but a squirrel or two won’t be missed. I’ve had porcupine.” There is a certain humor in this line, but the earnestness in Henry’s delivery takes away any sense of a gimmick. How important to you was it to portray these characters honestly and accurately?

TB: It was of the utmost importance to me that certain of these rural characters retained their outsider viewpoints without losing intelligence or kindness, or devolving into familiar types or grotesques. You know what I wish I could do? Make squirrel pie. That impresses me. I don’t think you can portray anyone successfully without a concerted effort to empathize and understand. In my case, I don’t know many people as violent or desperate as the characters in my book. But I do know people who have no interest in what mainstream culture offers, and who are more attuned to the natural world than I could ever hope to be.

SP: In addition to Henry’s thoughts on human nature and rural America, we are privy to his views on a very current, hot topic: drilling and fracking for oil and natural gas. This is the first novel I’ve read that uses this issue to develop a character and educate readers. Were you deliberately making a statement by including this issue?

TB: I hope I haven’t written a polemic, especially since I am divided on the issue myself. But I do have serious concerns. This natural gas boom exposes some alarming shortcomings in our culture and our government’s relationship with the corporate and industrial realm. But it also shores up some things we value very highly, and preserves large tracts of countryside at the same time as it interferes with them. In some ways, the novel cannot escape being an expression of my worry that we don’t understand the long-term consequences of the process yet, and that we are not equipped to handle potentially major short term problems. Fracking is something that once you do, you can’t take back, for good or ill.

SP: Finally, this novel is so many things: an intricate mystery, a poignant and powerful examination of rural American life, an intense study of a surprising character, a book filled to the brim with literary grace. What do you hope that readers will find in Dry Bones in the Valley? What do you hope they will take away from it?

TB: You are very kind, Steph. What if I said I hope readers see all the good things you see in it? At very least, when I was writing this book, I wanted it to be the kind of novel where people talked about the characters and what happened, and completely forgot about me, and other external layers. Essentially, I hope that when people read this book, I am not in the room with them. 

Now that you know the author, get to know the novel. Pick up your copy of Dry Bones in the Valley today and as always, read, enjoy, review. 

A Tree Born Crooked

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Brutality at its Best: An Interview with Brutal Youth author Anthony Breznican

If there is ever a book to burn itself into your mind, Anthony Breznican’s Brutal Youth is it. The story of St. Michael’s- a Catholic school falling to pieces in every sense of the word- and the students and teachers roaming, prowling, at times cowering in its hallways will seduce you, startle you and ultimately burrow its way into your psyche. There’s a reason Stephen King calls Brutal Youth “an unputdownable tour-de-force:” because it’s true. I devoured this book in a matter of days and was thrilled and honored to be able to interview Breznican, a stunning new author I am proud to add to my idol list. Please enjoy our conversation and then go buy and read the book. Seriously. Brutal Youth will rock your world.   

Steph Post: I usually read books only from the perspective of a reader and writer, but in reading Brutal Youth I also found myself responding to the story as a high school teacher. This added lens helped me to understand- from an adult point of view- the trials Stein, Davidek, Lorelei and the other teenage students faced. One of the central themes to the story is the division and complete lack of mutual understanding between children (mainly teenagers) and adults. In the beginning of the story, Lorelei frankly admits that “adults never wanted to hear about the heartaches of children. They tended to doubt there was any such thing.” As the characters mature throughout the story, the acceptance of this becomes even more blatant. After a particularly traumatic experience, “Davidek didn’t need his parents to understand anymore” and that chasm between the generations widens. As a teacher, I often find myself in the “twilight zone” between teenager and adult, student and parent, and I can’t tell you how many times I have heard these exact sentiments from my own students. Why was it important to you to emphasis this disparity and, more importantly, how teenagers feel about it?

Anthony Breznican: You’ve picked out two lines that are the crux of the whole story. Kids that age are just becoming adults, just learning how to deal with extremely intense situations: love, heartbreak, betrayal, cruelty, injustice. They don’t know what to do, they’re clumsy with the tools necessary to manage these things. Plus, everything feels amped up and very serious – and sometimes it IS serious. Meanwhile, adults can be more jaded – and frankly, busy and distracted with their own lives –minimizing or dismissing the tribulations of kids. “Oh, just don’t hang out with those boys who are teasing you and beating you up …” I’ve read some criticism of the book in which readers say, “Surely some adult would step in and stop this …” And that’s fine, except the news is full of stories about kids who thought the same thing.

Kids that age are just becoming adults, just learning how to deal with extremely intense
 situations: love, heartbreak, betrayal, cruelty, injustice. 

In Brutal Youth, some adults DO try to step in a stop the worst behavior … when they see it. And that’s what I remember about growing up: you were safe as long as someone was watching, but sometimes you’re on your own. Some of the adults in the story are clearly twisted in their own hang-ups and malice, but others like Mr. Zimmer and Sister Maria are trying to do the right thing by compromising – which is how adults often deal with things. We try to make it a little better if we can’t fix it.

I wanted to emphasize the disparity not just between parents and kids, and teachers and students, but the disparity from one person to the next. If it’s not our problem … who cares? It’s easy to be self-absorbed and turn away. Then WE are the ones in trouble, and wonder why no one is there to help. This novel pulled up a lot of painful memories for me – but not of being picked on myself, though that certainly happened. The ones that hurt are the times when I remember someone else being tormented, and I did nothing because I was just grateful it wasn’t me in the crosshairs.
Throughout Brutal Youth, the main kids are constantly trying to get help and guidance from the teachers, parents, and upperclassmen they hope they can trust. But they are often stymied or ignored – or simply have no one that they CAN trust. Davidek’s mother doesn’t listen to him when he tells her about the violent scene during the open house, she shrugs off his worries about the clip-on tie, she ignores him when he begs her to take him to his missing friend’s house … And in the end, she lets him down so often that he stops needing and wanting her help. He has a chance to tell her everything, and decides he doesn’t need to anymore. He has managed without her, and figured out how to use those tools himself. But the consequence of that is there’s no love between them, and to me that’s heartbreaking.

SP: Another reoccurring theme in the novel is a sense of generational inevitability. Everyone seems to believe that it is, in the musings of Sister Maria, “our turn.” The upperclassmen feel that they are entitled to haze the freshmen because they experienced the same when they were freshmen. Likewise, the parents and teachers feel that it is acceptable because they too were tormented as freshmen at St. Michael’s. A senior, Hannah Kraut, points out that the tradition seems to have only one rule, “You can’t hurt anyone who can hurt you back.” While many novels focus on the theme of karma or revenge, you acknowledge a more devious reasoning for hurting people. How did this theme come about and why is it so central to Brutal Youth?

AB: Human beings love to dump their pain on each other. We think that will free us from it, when really it just makes more. I’m fascinated by this dark side of our natures. A boy is treated cruelly by his father, beaten and berated. He grows up angry and afraid, and vows to be different with his own kids. Does he break the cycle, or does he turn out even worse and perpetuate it? We see a lot of examples of both, so I wanted to explore the difference. What factors make a boy go from someone who runs out into danger to save a total stranger to wanting to be the kid on the roof unleashing the hurt? Obviously, pain is a part of that. But then why are some abused people so gentle, so opposite their upbringing?

My theory is that we all experience brutality and suffering, but those who are lucky enough to experience some measure of kindness and generosity are steered back on a path of decency and empathy. I don’t know if I believe in karma – sometimes bad things happen to bad people, but more often I see the ruthless benefiting and thriving. They’re willing to do things that decent people won’t. Decent people sacrifice, and the nature of sacrifice is loss. In Brutal Youth, the surprises come when vulnerable characters get a little power. Do they immediately use it to help someone else? Or do they use it to protect themselves? If there’s a theme in the novel, it’s the message that doing the right thing comes with a cost – but I believe it’s worth paying.

In Brutal Youth, the surprises come when vulnerable characters get a little power. Do they immediately use it to help someone else? Or do they use it to protect themselves?

There are characters in the novel who do very bad things, and seem to get away with it – may even appear to thrive. But I wouldn’t want to be them. I’d rather be one of the people who fought the good fight, even if they lost. When someone fights for you, that’s great. But when someone loses for you … you never forget that. It makes you want to be better, to have earned that sacrifice.

There’s a reason the book begins with saints being shoved off the roof. Saints always suffer the worst. That’s what makes them saints.

SP: Clearly one of the more prominent issues in Brutal Youth is what Sister Maria calls “sanctioned bullying.” This stems from the sense of entitlement mentioned above and is presented graphically and mercilessly throughout the novel. This topic is obviously an extremely relevant issue, especially with the development of cyber-bullying, and I’ve never seen it exposed as brutally as I have in the pages of your novel. What inspired you to write a novel that essentially centers on acts of bullying? Were you trying to send a message or construct a social commentary?

AB: Believe it or not, I wasn’t trying to write an anti-bullying message. I think it’s important to teach those lessons to kids, but a part of me thinks that if you’re old enough to read an R-rated book like Brutal Youth, you should be old enough to know better than to be a thug. I wanted to write a war story – a tale of foxhole friendships, and the people who stick by you in the worst of times (and yeah, the ones who abandon you, too.) But if this story makes a reader think twice about how he or she treats others, I think that’s wonderful. It’s very easy to be casually cruel – sometimes without even knowing it.

The commentary I was interested in was simply exploring how far we will go in an environment of fear – especially as a group. Mob mentality takes over, and suddenly people are doing things that no individual person would do alone. Human beings are capable of great kindness and warmth, but we can also work ourselves up like a pack of jackals. The fuel for this sort of thing is fear. We do whatever we can to avoid being at the bottom of the pile.

The commentary I was interested in was simply 
exploring how far we will go in an environment of fear – especially as a group.

In this story, the school has financial problems, it’s literally crumbling from the inside out, the priest is in a desperate situation and is putting pressure on the principal, she’s pressuring the teachers, the teachers are cracking down on the students, and the students are angry and afraid and eager to foist that unhappiness on anyone they can find who can’t push it back on them. It’s a strange situation, but it happens. Whole countries go mad sometimes with rage and fear. In Ferguson right now, we see an entire city tearing itself apart because the police themselves are behaving in a reckless and out-of-control fashion. Then the protestors lash back, and it all boils over into chaos. It’s very difficult to stop one of these chain reactions, and I wanted to explore the small mercies that play out in the midst of such a storm.

In that way, Brutal Youth is definitely anti-bullying. It says that there’s enough heartache in the world, we should be careful not to create more. Instead of anti-bullying, I hope it comes off as pro-empathy. 

SP: There were so many lines in Brutal Youth that struck me to the core, but one that I have to bring up is part of an exchange between St. Michael’s principal, Sister Maria, and Father Mercedes. In describing Hannah Kraut, one of the most disturbed and disturbing students at the school, Mercedes remarks that she is “Just one more wreck of a student.” Colin “Clink” Vickler and Noah Stein (among many other students) are also written off, condemned to a fate of lost souls. For me, it was this theme- the complacency of giving up on students- that hit the hardest.  Were there any themes, or scenes, that you found difficult to include or write because of how they affected you? Did you ever find yourself as disgusted or frustrated with your characters as you knew your readers would be?

AB: In that scene, Father Mercedes is lamenting another lost student, but it’s an act. He wants more wreckage because he’s desperate to close the school for his own selfish reasons. So he’s pretending to care about the downtrodden, when really he’s the one responsible for the environment that creates their pain and suffering. A lot of politicians and CEOs are the same way, crying crocodile tears over catastrophes of their own making.

Probably the hardest scene to write was one in which a character attempts suicide, because I’ve known people who have taken their own lives, or attempted to. And I’ve grappled with depression and anxiety, and felt that pull myself. It’s terrifying. There’s a song by Elvis Costello called “Favourite Hour,” which gives the book its title. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, and has a line that goes, “Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth…” There’s another lyric that goes, “Put out my eyes so I may never spy…” I find that so haunting: essentially, “hurt me so that I don’t hurt anyone else.”

“Now there’s a tragic waste of brutal youth…”

That was a difficult scene to put on paper, and I think it’s no accident that I followed it with my absolute favorite scene from the novel, and one I hope is darkly comic: the elderly nun who has to vandalize a bathroom at the school to cover up the reason for the suicidal boy’s absence. I loved making this prim and proper woman have to ruminate about what kind of profane graffiti she should spray-paint on the wall. I hope that scene offers a little relief and makes people laugh.

I knew readers would be disgusted or frustrated with all of the characters at one point or another. That was deliberate. I didn’t want clear heroes and villains, although it’s clear some of them fall on different ends of the spectrum. At times, I wanted the reader to be very unhappy with our heroes, and maybe even angry at them for the choices they make. In other instances, I wanted the villains of the story to surprise the reader with little revelations about their past, about the humanity within them – even if it was buried deep.

The nasty guidance counselor, Ms. Bromine, for instance, is a monster, but she did everything she was told to in her life, she followed orders, she obeyed the rules … and that led her to a very unhappy and angry place. Even Father Mercedes, who is based on a real priest who was caught stealing money from the church that oversaw my high school, makes me feel a bit of sympathy – and he is perhaps the most unapologetic character in the story. Still, I tried to show the utter loneliness and self-hatred that would motivate someone like him. He’s already in hell, and his only way out is to keep digging.

At the end of the book, there are two upperclassmen who have been total bastards – and of all the villains in the story, they’re the ones who truly get a comeuppance. My wife was recently re-reading the book and said, “Right before you bring the hammer down, you make me feel sorry for them.” I did that by flashing forward to a little of what their futures held, and flashing back to what their odd, dysfunctional friendship meant to each of them. It denies the reader the pleasure of their suffering, but that was the point.

I want you to see the dirty spots on the wings of the angels; and I want you to feel a little sympathy for the devils.

SP: By the end of the novel, every single character has had their dark side exposed. I can’t think of any character who in some way doesn’t hurt or betray another person in the story. Even Mr. Zimmer fails someone in the end. No one is pure, no one is a hero. Your characters are so complex, so authentic because of their flaws, and so I have to ask- do you have a favorite character from Brutal Youth?

AB: I love all the characters, but my favorite is probably Lorelei. That surprises people because she’s far from the most likable of the bunch. I love this poor girl, who is trapped in a very abusive and hostile home, and sees her life at school as her only hope at happiness. So, she tries too hard. This is what I do – I come on too strong, and step on my own dreams. She makes some bad decisions, partly because abused people often feel they don’t deserve any happiness that comes their way. They find a way to undermine it, even if they never admit this to themselves. They can’t admit it, because they never want to believe it.

I want you to see the dirty spots on the wings of the angels; and I want you to feel a little sympathy for the devils.

Lorelei is beautiful in this way, at least to me. She’s one of the few characters who gets exactly what she wants, and it’s not what she wants at all. At that point, there’s no going back. She makes everyone like her, but she doesn’t like herself very much by that point. There’s a story about Abraham Lincoln looking through pardon requests for deserters during the Civil War. This was a crime punishable by death, and many of them came with letters from supporters begging the president to show mercy. One request had no letters, and Lincoln was told the man was disliked, and had no friends. “Then I will be his friend,” Lincoln said, and approved the pardon.

That’s how I feel about Lorelei.

As for Mr. Zimmer, yes, we see that he fails someone in the end, but … in his defense, it’s more of a misunderstanding than a deliberate act of neglect on his part. We’re seeing things from an omniscient view, but we don’t see anything like that in real life. There are always other factors at work that we can’t even fathom, and many friendships and loves have disintegrated due to simple misunderstanding. I’ve already mentioned how influential Elvis Costello is to me, and he has another song called “Accidents Will Happen” that goes: “It’s the damage that we do, and never know / It’s the words that we don’t say that scare me so …” Mr. Zimmer and Hannah were good for each other, but the machinery of their relationship was always a mess. He wanted a surrogate father/daughter thing, and she was so hungry for companionship and trust that she perceived something romantic between them. They loved each other, for sure, but they were both too lost and broken for a relationship to endure. If they trusted each other more, or understood each other better, they would have had a conversation that fixed everything.

  There are always other factors at work that we can’t even  fathom, and many friendships and loves 
have disintegrated due to simple misunderstanding.

Instead, I think of them as being like Romeo and Juliet, and in the end I hope I give the reader a tiny bit of that same star-crossed, tragic irony. If Shakespeare’s crazy kids had just been a little less impetuous, they might still be alive. (Well, not anymore, obviously.)

So, although I work very hard to make the reader see the flaws in all of these characters, I hope it makes them empathize instead of hate them. A funny thing I’ve noticed is that readers I expect to love Brutal Youth, those with a bit of edge and darkness to them, sometimes don’t. They get angry at the characters, they judge them, and get pissed off if justice isn’t meted out. Meanwhile, readers who are very sweet and sensitive – people I would expect to recoil from the sharp teeth of this story – write these astoundingly beautiful assessments of it. I think if you have a more forgiving, generous nature, you forgive these characters. You feel for them. You understand them.

SP: Finally, despite (or perhaps because of) all of the heartache, the rawness, and the ruthlessness, I had a hard time putting Brutal Youth down. It kept me up at night- just one more chapter, one more page- and occupied my thoughts throughout the day. I found myself at one point watching a group of students in the hallway and thinking about Davidek, Stein and Lorelei. This is the sort of story that burrows deep into a reader and is difficult to shake off. What do you hope readers will take away from Brutal Youth?

AB: I love hearing that it’s hard to put down because, in addition to all these highfalutin ideas I wanted it to be an exciting story, full of peril and emotion. Some people have called it a horror story, albeit one without any supernatural element. I suppose that’s right. It’s meant to be harrowing and keep you on the edge.

       I think if you have a more forgiving, generous
      nature, you forgive these characters. 

All I hope readers take away from Brutal Youth is a feeling that their time was well spent, that the story was compelling, and the characters were interesting. It has a tragic element, but I don’t want people to read it and think the world is an ugly place. I want them to read it and know that, as over-the-top as it may seem, people can be staggeringly cruel to one another. We often minimize that, or shrug it off as uncommon, because we don’t want to believe it. But when we acknowledge it, when we see it, that’s what stops it. I don’t want them to think human beings are horrible; I want them to think about how much better we can be, if we try. 

Thank you so much to Anthony Breznican for a true conversation. I hope that you found his words as enlightening and insightful as I did. Now, get moving. Buy the book. Read it. Share it. Write a review. Trust me, once you start reading, you are not going to be able to stop.....

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"A Flavor-filled Thriller"- The Hollow and the Plow on A Tree Born Crooked

This must certainly be my week as I had another raving advance review of A Tree Born Crooked come in. Check out the review by The Hollow and the Plow and then stay to read the reviews of works by other fantastic authors. There's a lot to love at this site. :)

Monday, September 8, 2014

A "Raw and Sublime Ride"

Check out this incredible review of A Tree Born Crooked. In all honesty, I think I was blushing (and if you know me, you know this is pretty rare...). I hope all readers feel as taken by my novel as advance reader April Bradley does.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Thousand Ways to Write about Love and War: an interview with Nayomi Munaweera, author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Nayomi Munaweera, debut author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors, pulls no punches with a lyrical grace that gently, but fiercely, sweeps readers off their feet. Her chronicle of the Sri Lankan Civil War, told through the eyes of women warriors, survivors, and refugees is a startling record of brutal accuracy and intimate damage. At the same time, it is an ode to the vitality of a near mythical place and a love letter to the glimmer of hope and possibility inside of all fighters- whether the battleground is a war-torn country or a grief-stricken heart. Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a novel of love and war, written with a poet’s sensibility, and I was honored to be able to speak with Munaweera about craft, about ideology and about the long journey it took to bring such a powerful book to the literary stage.  

Steph Post: I’d like to start with the monumental, yet obvious, comparison. Publisher’s Weekly noted that Island of a Thousand Mirrors is worthy of being on a shelf with the works of Michael Ondaatje (one of my favorite writers of all time, by the way) and I couldn’t agree more. Aside from the novel’s setting in Sri Lanka, there are similarities in your use of storytelling patterns and lyrical language. These lines, near the end of the novel, particularly reminded me of Ondaatje- “We are again as we were, a perfectly balanced triangle. The three of us. My sister, her love and I.” Has Ondaatje been an influence on your writing and if so, in what ways? Who else do you believe has had an impact on your writing style?

Nayomi Munaweera: I am honored and thrilled that people are making a comparison between my work and his. He is one of those rare writers who does everything with grace- memoir, poetry and fiction. I don’t have pretensions to be anywhere near his scope, but I am deeply influenced by the poetics of his prose, the invoking of moments, his obsession with words. He is a very careful writer and one I’m honored to claim as a sort of literary father-figure. When I first read Running in the Family, it was a revelation. I was starved for Sri Lankan fiction and there was little else at that time, but here was a master of the craft writing about our island, about families like mine. It was one of the first times I realized our stories too were worthy of being told. I didn’t start writing until years later but it was a moment of huge impact. Other influences are Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Arundhati Roy, Lionel Shriver, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Milan Kundera, Vladimir Nabakov.

SP: In light of the Ondaatje comparison, your novel clearly stands on its own and is the epitome of the powerfully feminine novel. I think that both men and women will relate to and appreciate Island of a Thousand Mirrors, but it’s dedication to all of the complexities of different female characters is notable. Was it your intention to delve so deeply into the female psyche?

NM: I’ve heard my novel called unapologetically-female character centered and I think that’s true. We’ve had centuries of writing dominated by men and male characters and I see no problem with challenging those tropes. I think of Sylvia Plath who when writing a job application listed herself as “mother, housewife” and not “poet, writer.” Even she with all her powerful talent didn’t feel like she could claim the position of writer. That was only a few decades ago and I think women writers need to challenge that. We are talented. We are here to stay. Our voices and stories matter just as much as men’s. Writers like Lionel Shriver, Alissa Nutting and Clare Messud are writing fantastic, dark female characters and I think men should be interested in these characters and read about them as much as women read about male characters.

SP: You write about the savagery of civil war and love side-by-side. While the graphic descriptions of the atrocities committed by both sides during the war were difficult to read, I was also deeply moved by your descriptions of characters falling in and out of love. When you described recovering from heartbreak as “scar tissue” I felt the immediate sense that I was in the hands of a writer who really understood the difficult emotions she was writing about it. How important do you think it is to understand exactly what your character is feeling as you write? Do you think that your readers are going to sense this connection and respond to it?

NM: I think that if you’re really authentic about the feelings (especially those in the body) meaning you feel them yourself and write from that place readers most probably will respond. This is a heavy tale. I’ve had readers tell me they cried reading parts of it and I say those are probably the parts that had me crying as I wrote them. Writing is a transfer of emotion right? You want to make people feel things. As Kafka said, “A book is an ax to break the frozen sea within us.” So to get to that raw vulnerable place, I do think the writer has to go there first. I had to go to some dark places in the psyche, in history (through research) to write this book and I think the reader feels that.

SP: Going back to war and love occupying the same space on the pages of Island of Thousand Mirrors, what do you believe the connection is between these two concepts, both physically and ideologically?      

NM: I was writing about a civil war between two ethnicities that have lived on the same small island (about the size of Rhode Island) for centuries. So even as there is enmity and hatred there is also intimacy and desire and yes-love. For example, in Sri Lanka, Tamils and Sinhalese may be enemies, and they may continue that enmity here in America as immigrants. But also, even in diaspora, no one is going to know you like another Sri Lankan. They might hate your politics, they might support the opposing side, “back home” but they eat the same food, they are subject to the same racism from the larger culture. They also live in a country where no one knows what or where Sri Lanka is so there is deep intimacy in the shared memory and love of “home” whether it is acknowledged or not. I wanted to show this in the book- that there is both war and also deep, deep love.

SP: There is a lot going on in this novel, and many characters, yet the plot pattern is cyclical so that the reader never feels lost within the story. Phrases and images such as “To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light” and later, “the lagoon reflects sunlight like the shards of a thousand broken bottles” are intentional, but not pretentiously, reoccurring. How did you plan for the structure of this novel? Was water always going to be a grounding point for the reader or is this something that developed as you were writing?

NM: In writing about an island, the sea is inevitable. It’s the inescapable boundary- that makes us what we are as a people. Yet I didn’t really think of it as a theme while writing the book. I had no idea there was so much sea in the book! When it came out in India, I was invited to the Jaipur Lit Festival and found myself on a panel called, “Writing the Sea” and I thought- oh my god- of course. It took me by surprise. But I’m also obsessed by really good writing about the ocean, because it represents the boundless variety of life, the unknown, the darkness of the uncovered psyche. Moby Dick of course, which is so incredibly, unbelievably modern, and also Life of Pi. I also love ocean documentaries! Anything with octopi makes me happy- they’re so fascinating and brilliant. So all of this water-love clearly seeped or flooded its way into the book.

SP: While Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a novel, it reads like the memoirs of two families and the accuracy of the descriptions of the land, lifestyles and events is precise to the point that I had to remind myself that you were not actually writing about yourself. How did you prepare to write this novel? What events in your own life led you to write about women experiencing the Sri Lankan Civil War?

NM: Very little of the book is memoir. I left Sri Lanka at the age of three with my family. We moved to Nigeria and then in 1984, there was a military coup in Nigeria and we moved to California. So I didn’t live through the war. My extended family did and we would get these breathless phone calls from them in the middle of the night- like in the book. My family would go back to Sri Lanka for about a month every year so I did see the reports on TV, the checkpoints on the roads, etc. There are family stories in the novel, bits I picked up, a lot of research into the Tigers. When I was writing the Tigers were a shadowy force. They all wore cyanide capsules around their necks so if they were caught, they committed suicide. Hence not much was known about them. But somehow after the book came out, the war was over and we got to know much more about the Tigers, it seemed I got a lot right.

SP: This is your first novel, but the craftsmanship and artistry apparent in the prose makes it appear that Island of a Thousand Mirrors was written by a seasoned literary powerhouse. What previous literary endeavors have you undertaken?

NM: Ha ha ha! Bless your heart. I have nothing else published except a non-fiction introduction essay to the Write to Reconcile Anthology (which you should look up and buy because it’s an amazing reconciliation program in Sri Lanka). In 2001 I dropped out of a PhD program in Literature to write this book. I was supposed to be writing a Dissertation but all that came was this book so I dropped out and wrote it while working various jobs. I tried to find an American publisher but no one wanted it. So I started writing a second book. Island was published initially in Sri Lanka in 2012. It will be released in America in Sept 2014, more than a decade after I embarked on this wild and crazy trip. I’m currently working on a third novel which will be published as my second. So I seem unable to write anything but novels. I do think that the years of studying literature-up to the PhD and before that a childhood and adolescence spent devouring books was the real education needed to do this work. 

SP: I can honestly see Island of a Thousand Mirrors taking off like wildfire in the literary world. What are your hopes for the reception of this novel? What do you want readers to take away from your words?

NM: Your lips to God’s ear- as they say! As for hopes-I really don’t know. This is my first-born and of course I wish for it to catch on fire and do further mad, marvelous things but I’m still quite astounded by the fact that after such a long journey my book found it’s way into print. When I quit my PhD program I really was jumping into the unknown. Immigrant kids are not supposed to do these things. They are supposed to be practical and become doctors, engineers, dentists. My family was very upset. I worked some pretty crappy jobs and was dirt poor for years so that I would have time to write. When the novel sold in America and I could finally breath a sigh of relief and go to the dentist after years of not- that seemed huge! I’m hugely, immensely grateful for all that has already happened.

Readers- just keep reading! It really is one of the great and wondrous pleasures of life and you are the reason we get to do this amazing and possibly important work. 

Island of a Thousand Mirrors debuted this week. Thanks so much to Nayomi Munaweera for sharing her thoughts and for writing such a brilliant novel!