Saturday, December 19, 2015

Rift- Part Two- An Interview with Robert Vaughan

Yesterday I brought you an interview with Kathy Fish, one half of the writing duo which recently released the knockout flash fiction collection Rift. Today, I give you part two: my conversation with Robert Vaughan. Here we're talking poetic tendencies, structure as a vessel and what's Not on the page. In other words, a craft-heavy interview: my favorite kind. Enjoy!

Steph Post: Rift contains stories by both yourself and author Kathy Fish. The stories alternate, but are not author-attributed throughout the text. Would you consider Rift to be more of a collaboration or a dual-collection?

Robert Vaughan: The stylistic choices you reference, such as stories alternating, and the lack of author-attribution on each story page, were collaborative choices made by Kathy and me, as well as our publisher, Bud Smith at Unknown Press. The individual stories were all either Kathy’s or my own. In other words, we didn’t co-author stories, but we did place careful editing on each other’s work. I think I’d describe this experience as a collaboration encompassed in a dual-collection.

SP: More so in your work than in Kathy's, I felt the poetry genre creeping forth. Pieces such as "If You Have to Have an Isim" and "Keep It Curt" definitely read more like poetry than prose to me. Genre is always a tricky issue and something I am always curious about. Is there much of a stark line between flash fiction and poetry? Can the genres be interlinked or interchangeable?

RV: I think flash fiction and prose poetry are unlikely sisters. These comparisons have been flushed fully in the fantastic Rose Metal Press Guides (both genres). I love to blur the boundaries of any genre, color way outside the lines, and in first drafts barely consider what it might be. I do think, therefore, it’s possible to link or exchange one for the other. Certainly there are more current fiction writers that “borrow” from the world of poetry (techniques) than ever before. And organically I have a deep affinity with hybrid writing, somewhere among the shadows, bridging worlds, tossing out rules.

SP: In your story "The Rooms We Rented," your emphasis on experimenting with structure is clearly evident. In this case, you break the story up by place and perspective, though in other cases you create fragmented structure in other ways. Does the structure of a piece ever overshadow its story? Can the structure determine or even be the story?

RV: These are profound, deep questions! I love that you mentioned experimentation, a device I yearn to employ (with nods to mentors like Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Tomas Transtromer, etc.) I think of structure as the best container in which a story, or words, can come forth, and be held. In this way it informs the reader, and in some cases, it might be more of the story than I am aware. Often this is more addressed in re-writes and edits than a first draft.

SP: I've always found flash fiction a delight to teach. For students, its size is manageable and therefor gives them the time and space to close read and analyze. It also does a great job of not scaring student-readers away (which in high school seems to be most of the battle). In your experience, is flash fiction more accessible to readers than, say, a traditional length short story?

RV: For the reasons you mention, I also love to use flash fiction as teaching tools and reading examples. I think more traditional short story form has the same potential (e.g., stories like James Joyce’s “The Dead” or Janet Frame’s “The Lagoon”). One of the driving forces of flash fiction is that delicate use of ‘white space,’ or what is left off the page. When used effectively, this tool gives a reader of any age more permission, use of their imagination, and hopefully a connection to the story.

SP: Rift is broken up into sections titled "Fault," "Tremor," "Breach" and "Cataclysm" which gives meaning to the title of the collection. Where did the geology motif come from? Was this something you and Kathy came up with together?

RV: The title, Rift, came to us early in the writing stages. Once Kathy and I exchanged our first manuscripts in Denver (July, 2015) we chatted about the possibility of sections. Originally, we toyed with four seasons, and keeping in mind the RIFT title, a word from nature or how a season might be indicated by that. Then we noticed that our pieces had different pacing, or tempo, and how there was an overall progression threaded through- so later on (September?) we used the Thesaurus and went to work! As a final touch, Kathy then had the terrific idea (she referenced Shipping News by Annie Proulx in which each chapter had a different knot pictured and the definition of each knot) to include the actual definitions of our four section’s (Fault, Tremor, Breach and Cataclysm) title page.

SP: And finally, as always, I'm looking for recommendations and to pass on the love. So... who and what should I be reading right now?

RV: I’m currently reading Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser. Just finished People Like You by Margaret Malone (highly recommended short stories). Enjoyed The Best Small Fictions 2015 by Tara Masih and Robert Owen Butler (editors). I’m a member of Goodreads, and always try to review every book I read. Also, I’ll post a year-end reading list at my blog:, which I’ve done since 2009. Thanks for the very deep questions, and your lovely support of RIFT, and indie authors, Stephanie!

Thank you, Robert! And now, dear readers, go out and get your copy of Rift today. As always: read, review, recommend, repeat.....

Friday, December 18, 2015

Rift- Part One- an Interview with Kathy Fish

This past year, I've seen Kathy Fish's name continually pop up whenever and wherever flash fiction is being discussed. Naturally, I was both curious and excited when Fish's story collection, Rift, co-authored with Robert Vaughan, hit the shelves this past month from Unknown Press. I had every reason to expect the best in contemporary flash and, let me tell you, Rift does not disappoint. At times it is poignantly quiet; at times it reaches into your gut and twists. The stories within are a reminder of the excellence in craft that flash writers are achieving these days, but they are also powerful jolts of characters and moments, images and memories, the essence of storytelling distilled down into a dream-like ether that connects with you directly from the page. These pieces will strike out at you, lightening quick, and then leave you sometimes dazed, sometimes warm, sometimes unsettled, as all good writing should do.

Rift is unique, above all, in its almost unnoticeable duality. There are two authors here, yes, two fiction power-houses at work, but the collection reads seamlessly. If there weren't two names on the cover, I don't think you'd ever realize that both Kathy and Robert are inhabiting the space within. Here, though, and given the chance to dig deeper, I wanted to give each their due. Today, I bring you a conversation with Kathy Fish. Tomorrow, Robert Vaughan. There's a lot to enjoy here and a lot to learn from. Read on and then go pick up Rift to see for yourself. (And then read tomorrow's interview and go buy a copy for a friend....)

Steph Post: Rift is the first time I've read a dual short story collection where the stories weren't clearly separated by author. Although the table of contents pairs titles with authors and the order alternates throughout the book, often times it was easy to forget that I was reading a collection by two different peoples. Can you explain how this collection between you and Robert Vaughan came together? Was this was something the two of you collaborated on and then brought to Unknown Press or does Rift have a different origin? Why do you think yours and Vaughan's styles are so compatible?

Kathy Fish: I had been invited to join an online group called The Night Owl Café, which involved Robert, Bud Smith, Michael Gillian Maxwell and Meg Tuite. Meg wanted to take a break from the group to work on her novel. I was invited to take her place. I hadn’t been writing much at the time. After a few weeks of participation, Bud Smith came up with the idea of publishing a collaborative book of Robert's and my stories through Unknown Press. My initial response was, I’d love to do it, but I have hardly any new material! Bud’s response was, let’s see what the next few months in The Night Owl Café produce. So for a period of many months I was working intensively with Night Owl Café along with the great workshop I’ve been in for over a decade, Hot Pants, which is run by the amazing Kim Chinquee.

I’d known Robert as a small press author and flash fiction/poetry writer for some time prior to joining the workshop. I always admired his innovative, playful style and I think he liked my stories as well. The members of the workshop took turns giving weekly prompts. I think somehow through writing from the same prompts and giving each other feedback, and through the inspiration of reading everyone’s pieces, the work began to sort of organically meld together. I think our styles are compatible and complimentary at the same time. And I love that it’s difficult to parse out whose stories are whose in the book. To me, that makes it feel like a true collaboration, rather than just two separate collections thrown together. 

SP: Even before I began Rift, I had heard of your reputation for being a flash fiction master. All of the stories in Rift are flash, but some are so short that they might be called micro-fiction. I'm thinking of a piece such as "Woe," which packs a hell of a punch in the span of a paragraph. How are you able to distill an entire story down into a space this small? Do you start with a moment and explore the story behind it and then go back to the moment? How does this work?

KF: Thank you, Steph. I really love writing both kinds of stories. The more traditional short shorts and the more experimental micro-fictions. I will say that the micros seem to come to me all at once, in a rush of sense and feeling and language. There is a sense of sound and rhythm as well. It’s difficult to explain, but yes, I do tend to begin with an image/moment and it flows from there. I think readers either love these or don’t, but I love writing them. I never sit down with the idea of writing a micro, they just seem to arrive spontaneously on the page and I am never tempted to expand on them.

SP: Many of your stories in this collection have a dream-like quality, as in "A Room With Many Small Beds" (and many others) or have characters imagining a wishful, alternate world, such as in "There is no Albuquerque." I felt that many of Vaughan's pieces also had this dream-world sense about them. Is this a theme that was meant to be part of the collection or does this more broadly reflect overall themes in your work?

KF: I think a good portion of my own stories have that dream-like quality to them. I think particularly when I’m writing from a child’s point of view or drawing on memory, or in the case of “There is No Albuquerque” there in a strangeness that’s enhanced with a sense of imagining or living in an alternate world. Robert’s playfulness with language lends his work a dream-like quality as well. It’s not something we set out to do, but I think those are consistent aspects of both Robert's and my writing. I feel like our cover has that feel to it as well and sets the reader up for a somewhat surreal, magical experience in the book as a whole.

SP: Most of the longer pieces in Rift (well, long for flash fiction) seem to be broken up into even smaller segments. Both you and Vaughan break your stories up in various ways, by numbered sections, by place, by choices. What is the purpose of breaking up the already short stories into even shorter ones?

KF: I love to write segmented flash. I like to think of it as creating a mosaic. This structure makes use of white space in a way that encourages the reader to engage with the work. These types of stories lack bridges and transitions and a clear-cut internal structure. The book begins with “A Room with Many Small Beds” which is a story told in short, sharp bursts of memory and sensation and feeling. I feel like this is a better representation sometimes of our remembered experience than a traditionally told story. For me, it gives the feeling of snapshots.

SP: This is more of a question about flash fiction in general, but since you are the master... in this genre do you think that language or structure takes precedence over the story, because you are operating in such limited constraints?

KF: I think in writing flash the challenge is to give the sense of a story, to leave the reader with the same feeling that comes from being told a story, but within very few words. This requires a bit of finagling and deftness. Yes, language and structure must do more of the heavy lifting.

Now. One may create a flash that follows all the rules of short fiction, that is, it has a definite beginning, middle, and end. It has an arc and a resolution. It is technically a story, yet somehow still falls flat. I think when this happens it’s because it’s not in fact a flash fiction but a truncated short story, a short story that was not fully fleshed out. It makes for a dissatisfying read. Opinions differ, but I believe that flash is not just a super condensed version of a short story. It is its own distinct form, like poetry.

In order to succeed, a flash must have emotional resonance and a sense of an arc, a sense of change, which can be subtle. So, it’s advantageous to experiment and innovate. A flash writer must do more with image, more with evocation, more with style and language and nuance. It’s actually quite hard to do well.

SP: Finally, out of all of the pieces in Rift, "No Time For Prairie Dog Town" is my favorite. It absolutely gutted me and I had to read it over several times. It's exactly the sort of story I'd like to teach in a fiction workshop. (I may have to do that sometime....) Do you have a favorite? Or a favorite theme or structure that you've written within this genre? Is there another flash fiction author that I should have on my radar?

KF: Oh I love hearing what readers’ favorite stories were! Thanks, Steph. That story means a lot to me. My brother died in March and right after that I experienced a sort of creative mania and was writing story after story. I’ve made a few sad road trips home like that and I suppose I’ll keep trying to capture that experience. Everything is so heightened, so bursting with meaning and feeling.

You ask such great questions! I guess my favorite story of the collection is my first one, “A Room with Many Small Beds.” It was the story that underwent the most revision and pulled in bits of writing I had done over many years actually. For instance, at one time, the fragment about the visit to the mental hospital was its own stand alone story. But I cut that to the bone and used it in this story. Though it’s primarily fiction, a lot is drawn from my childhood as well. My mother had actually driven us to our grandfather’s house and burned a dollar bill in front of him. I mean, I had to use that, right?

My favorite of Robert’s is actually the one that follows mine, “Galloping into the Future.” He uses the same fragmented structure and the story is so brilliant and alive and surprising. The final image is gorgeous.

Steph, there are SO many amazing writers publishing flash fiction right now. I think many would not call themselves primarily flash fiction writers. I’m just wild about Kendra Fortmeyer’s writing. She has a chapbook called “The Girl Who Could Only Say sex, drugs, and rock & roll” from Awst Press (I haven’t read it yet, but will) and Rosie Forrest is just a crazy good writer, too. She has just published a chapbook called “Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan” with Rose Metal Press and it’s terrific.

 Many thanks to Kathy Fish for stopping by! Be sure to check out Robert Vaughan's interview, posting tomorrow, and, of course, pick up your copy of Rift. Cheers and happy reading!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Steph's Super Awesome 2015 End of the Year Book List of Amazingness!

Because there just aren't enough book lists out there... Here are some of the killer books that stole my heart this year (with a special 2016 bonus section as well!) Enjoy!

Released in 2015:

Moon Up, Past Full by Eric Shonkwiler

The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky

F250 by Bud Smith

Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich

I am Barbarella by Beth Gilstrap

New Yorked by Rob Hart

Valpariso, Round the Horn by Madeline ffitch

If I Knew the Way, I'd Take You Home by Dave Housley

Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy

Rift by Kathy Fish and Robert Vaughan

Released a Little While Back (but read and adored this year):

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

The Fall by Simon Mawer

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Dead Wake by Eric Larson

All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld

The Hollow Ground by Natalie Harnett

Bonus! Books I Am Dying to Get My Hands on in 2016:

Fallen Land by Taylor Brown

God in Neon by Sam Slaughter

(cover forthcoming- this is Sam :)
I hope you find some books you like here. (And feel free to share books that should be added to my TBR list!) As always- read, recommend, review, interview, support.... you know what to do... 
Happy Reading!

Ahem... about those updates...

It's been a crazy month, but I promise you I'll have this blog updated one of these days. Reading recaps, awesome news, author interviews (2 on the way!) and my end of the year book list... All coming soon. :)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Moon Up, Past Full by Eric Shonkwiler

The epigraph for Eric Shonkwiler's recently released Moon Up, Past Full is as follows:

"What lasts is what you start with." -Charles Wright
Though there is so much material to consider in Shonkwiler's collection, including two novellas and an array of brilliant short stories, in many ways this quotation sums up Shonkwiler and his prose for me. He is the real deal, a masterful storyteller of the hardscrabble life and its hauntingly beautiful edges, and he has little time for superficiality or artifice. In short, Shonkwiler is genuine and his work is timeless.
I first became acquainted with Eric Shonkwiler in reading his debut novel Above All Men. From the very first page, I knew that I had stumbled upon a writer with guts. One who was pushing hard and searching deep and who wasn't afraid to take stylistic risks for the sake of authenticity. I was certain that I had only seen just the beginning from Shonkwiler and Moon Up, Past Full has proven me right.
Although Moon Up, Past Full is a collection of novellas and short stories, Shonkwiler in no way appears constrained by the genre. Indeed, it is in his shortest works that Shonkwiler has room to breath. In the smallest spaces, in the most intimate moments, Shonkwiler's concise prose shines bright and allows readers to become fully immersed in the gritty, eclectic characters that roam like restless ghosts across the Midwest landscape.
Yet while Moon Up, Past Full was all that I expected it would be, I was still startled, and taken in, by the nostalgia that inhabits these pages. Above All Men contained faint echoes of the past as the characters came to grips with navigating a devastating, near post-apocalyptic present and future, but Moon Up, Past Full is brushed through with hints of a more personal longing for the innocence of days forever gone. One of my favorite images comes from the opening story, "Gripping Heel:"
"They were finishing work on the new school just inside the village limits, and dust blew up from the site and faded off across the last acres of wood.
Kids played baseball at the bottom of the park;
on the hill above, one boy chased another.
He thought of how grass felt as a kid. Falling into it, getting stains on his knees.
To roll down a hill,
to have a child's inertia."
It is quiet, simple moments like these that make Shonkwiler's stories for me. His premises are dark, his characters tragic, but the subtle poignancy that sweeps through his work keeps his tales from being too shocking and therefore glossed over or rushed through. There is no way to read Moon Up, Past Full and not find yourself slipping beneath the surface and into the deeper depths.

Moon Up, Past Full is available now and I highly recommend getting the jump on this one. You can order it via Amazon and Barnes and Noble, of course, but also through Alternating Current's website, where you can pick up a signed copy or deluxe package containing some ridiculously cool swag.

And don't forget to catch the rest of the book tour for Moon Up, Past Full!


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Scuppernong Books Reading Event!

If you're anywhere in the Greensboro, NC area next weekend (11/14) be sure to come out to Scuppernong Books at 7:00pm. I'll be reading with rock stars Beth Gilstrap, Aubrie Cox and Jim Warner. It's sure to be a killer time so don't miss out!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Closed Door/Open Door Writing

Stephen King, in his classic and indispensable (and the only "writing" book I've ever taken seriously) On Writing talks about doors. Closed doors and open doors. As far as metaphors for the writing process go, I take this one to heart.

Dreaming, planning, outlining, first drafting and so on should be written with the door closed. The metaphorical door, of course, though I often actually close the door. This is the time for not sharing your writing with anyone, for secret writing schemes, for allowing your mind to run wild, experiment, push and test limits and conduct an absolute free for all if you're so inclined. You can write whatever, however, because no one will read it. The door is shut. No readers allowed.

Revisions and edits should be written with the door open. Either just a crack (as I often do- I am notoriously cagey about my work until published) or wide ass open, letting all the sunlight in. This is when a shift occurs- from writing for yourself to writing for readers. The responsibility of being true to yourself, while always necessary, is augmented by the responsibility to the readers who will go forth and buy and support your book. So this is the time when you, sometimes wincing, sometimes trembling, allow your drafts to be read, commented on and picked apart by someone other than yourself.

Turning the knob to open the door can be daunting. A novel takes a long time to write and as a result, you can spend quite a bit of time with the door shut, locked and barricaded. You are ALONE for a very long time with your characters and your thoughts and your plot and your ideas and the world you've created that might, at times, seem even more real than the one you supposedly live in. You've sacrificed a lot to spend all that time writing with the door closed. Your grip on reality maybe, but also your reader compass. You have no idea if what you're doing is even good, or marginally okay, or at least not the worst thing ever written. On top of that, you've cancelled plans, stopped returning phone calls, alienated your friends and missed out on parties, events, having fun and doing 'normal' activities in general. But you've gotten used to this. It's a nice, comfortable darkness.

And then the day comes when it's time to open the door and the light comes streaming in and blinds you.

This day is different for every writer, every novel, and occurs in myriad ways, I'm sure. Some writers may wait until the final, final draft before letting anyone have a glimpse. Some may have a writing group or a circle of readers. Some may open and shut the door after every chapter, though I personally would find all that door slamming distracting.

For me, the door opens in a slow, gradual process. This go round, I pulled out the nails and lifted the boards and turned the knob after draft 1.5.  (yes, I have multiples of drafts... I'm weird) As always, I opened the door wide enough only to let one reader in. The Reader.

I think most writers have a Reader. King talks about this as well and cites his wife Tabitha as his Reader. This is the person you write for, whose voice is often lurking around your ear as you write, ready to call you out. This might be your agent, your professor, your mom, your friend on the other side of the world. For me, as with King, and as with a lot of writers I suspect, my Reader is also the person closest to me in the 'real world.'

Consequently, this past weekend, I handed over the draft of this novel to my husband Ryan and charged him with reading it. I feel beyond lucky to have a Reader who is NOT a writer and therefor can take the story as what it is: a story. I'm also lucky (though it might not always feel like it when I'm in whiny author-breakdown mode) that my Reader runs into burning buildings and saves lives for a living. He's tough. He will tell it to me straight. He will tell me to suck it up and write the damn book because he knows I can. There is no sugar coating on his feedback, let me tell you, and therefore it's honest and worth more than gold.

He's still in the process of reading, but so far the verdict is looking good. Very good. And spurred on by what I'm hearing, I'm more fired up than ever about this novel. Yes, the road ahead is paved with work. Lots of work. Layers and layers of revisions and edits still to go. I'll let a few more readers in with each draft, opening the door wider at each stage, until I finally feel ready to send this baby out into the world.

And right afterwards, I'll be slamming the door closed behind me and hunkering down for the next one, because this is what writers do....

Monday, October 5, 2015

Nonbinary Review takes a look at A Tree Born Crooked

Many thanks to Julia Smillie for this review of A Tree Born Crooked up at Rhizomatic Ideas on Nonbinary Review (Zoetic Press). Have a look and then be sure to check out Nonbinary Review while you're at it. There's some amazing literature happening out that way....

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Steph Post's New Author Survival Guide!

Today marks the one year anniversary of the release of A Tree Born Crooked. The past year has been a roller coaster of a ride, with fortunately more highs and lows, and the learning curve has been steep. In honor of my first book's first birthday, I'm offering a gift of sorts: Steph Post's New Author Survival Guide! (Also known as a list of things that have kept me off the ledge during this crazy, hectic, exciting, tumultuous and altogether amazing experience). If you're a recent or soon-to-be debut author, I'm here to give you my humble observations and tips. These are also things that I hope to remember and apply for the rest of my writing career... So, here we go:

Steph's Survival Guide!

-Make friends and allies with fellow debut authors. They will listen to you and commiserate with you. They will understand what you're going through.

-Keep your friends close who are NOT authors or writers of any kind. They will listen to you, at first, and they will most likely not understand at all what you are going through. This is good. These friends are essential, as they will not let you whine about all the whiney author things you are going to want to whine about constantly. They will keep you grounded, because they don't just don't have time for that. They will remind you that there is more to life than Amazon rankings and Goodreads reviews.

-Don't become overwhelmed by everything happening in the literary world that you will be bombarded by on social media. Yes, all of your author friends are having readings and going to book festivals and winning awards and making lists and looking super cool ALL THE TIME. Don't let jealousy or, God forbid, self-pity consume you. Keeping those not-author-friends by your side will definitely help with this.

-Promote and support other authors as much or more than you do yourself and your own work. Yes, your book is awesome and you want the world to know. There are also a ton of other awesome authors out there and they need the world to know about them too. This is also the best way to gain support from your fellow authors and to make connections. Plus, it's kind. And being kind is badass.

-Don't be selfish.

-Remember that you are not fighting against your fellow authors for sales, attention or what have you. It's not author vs. author. It's authors vs. the world. However you look at it, we need each other.

-Keep in mind that unless you are J.D. Salinger, there are many more books to come for you. All of your hopes and dreams of success do not rest on your first book. Don't put that kind of pressure on yourself. You'll have enough going on to stress you out.

-Be considerate of absolutely everyone who supports you. People who are willing to interview you, review your book, re-tweet your promotions, like your incessant Facebook updates and write you personal emails are incredible people. Readers are everything. Always make time for them. Always express your gratitude.

-Read. There is no excuse for a writer not to read. And review. How can you possibility expect people to read and review YOUR book if you are not doing the same?

-Have fun with the publishing experience and remember that it is not just something that you "have to deal with." No one forced you to publish your book. You most likely spent months, years, who knows how long, trying to get your book published. You've now gotten what you wanted. Enjoy it. And don't take it for granted.

-Work hard. It's not going to be easy. It shouldn't be.

-Most importantly, WRITE. Write, write, keep writing. Sure, you're probably not going to get much done the first few months after your book releases. If anything, you will be too busy, too excited and too exhausted to even think about working on another book. But you have to eventually. You probably didn't become an author just because you wanted to be published. You became an author because you HAD to write, just as you have to breathe, and then you eventually decided to do something with all that writing. Salinger maybe only had the one novel published, but he never stopped writing. And really, at the end of the day, continuing to write will keep you even more sane than your non-writer friends will.

-And also, keep a puppy nearby. Trust me on this one.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Summer Round Up!

Appearently summer is over this week (though you wouldn't know it here...) and as we're going into fall (or post-summer in this part of FL) I'd like to take a quick look back at the "wow" books from the past few months. Unlike last year, where I was gobbling up debuts like it was nobody's business, I've been shying away from contemporary literature lately in light of the fact that I'm deep in my hobbit hole of writing. It's that whole Anxiety of Influence thing... I've been absorbed in research and classics, but a few of today's hot up-and-coming writers managed to break their way through and conquer my heart. If you haven't bought and read these gems already... hop to it!

Brian Panowich's Bull Mountain.

"Bull Mountain has everything you would want in this genre: outlaws, grit, violence and filial loyalties being smashed together and pulled apart, all with a literary grace that is both natural and surprising."

The Suicide of Claire Bishop by Carmiel Banasky

"I’ll just go ahead and say it now- Carmiel Banasky’s physiological tour de force The Suicide of Claire Bishop is going to be one of THOSE books. You know, one of the novels that everyone is talking about this fall."

Bud Smith's F 250

"Many a novel has tried to walk the line Smith takes here and the story ends only in hipster posturing and pretention. Without a doubt, Bud Smith’s F 250 is the real deal."

Then there's also the books that I was lucky enough to obtain an advance copy of. Be on the lookout for these beauties in the coming months....

Fallen Land by Taylor Brown- January, 2016

Eric Shonkwiler's Moon Up, Past Full- October, 2015

God in Neon by Sam Slaughter- Winter, 2015

And then there's a few other books that dazzled me this summer- just in case you were interested...

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Simon Mawer's The Glass Room

Happy Reading!!!

Friday, September 18, 2015

What Are You Reading?

Many thanks to Maureen O'Leary Wanket for her review of A Tree Born Crooked on her "What Are You Reading?" round-up. This is great review list to check out if you're looking for some killer books, by the way....

Thursday, September 17, 2015

5+20 Female Short Story Writers

Thrilled to be included on this list: 5+20 Female Short Story Writers You Should Be Reading Right Now by Entropy Magazine. And even better- this list includes story excerpts from all of the mentioned authors so you can get to know their work and why they were included on this list. My "authors-to-read" list had already grown tremendously and I'm sure yours will too. Have a read...

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Art of Madness: An Interview with Carmiel Banasky, author of The Suicide of Claire Bishop

I’ll just go ahead and say it now- Carmiel Banasky’s physiological tour de force The Suicide of Claire Bishop is going to be one of THOSE books. You know, one of the novels that everyone is talking about this fall. Complete with schizophrenic characters, art theft, Greenwich Village in the 60s, paranoia, Hasidism and the possibility of time travel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop is a whirlwind of a complex and utterly brilliant story. I’ve already recommended it over on Writer’s Bone and now I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with the author. I dove deep with Banasky and she chose to dive even deeper. This is an interview for readers, yes, but especially for writers. The Suicide of Claire Bishop debuts tomorrow (September 15th) so read on and be sure to pick up your copy this week.

Steph Post: The Suicide of Claire Bishop is written from two different character’s viewpoints, with different point of view styles. The narrative jumps back and forth between Claire Bishop in 1959 and West Butler (in first person) in 2004. While they are are linked by the portrait of Claire, every other aspect of their stories is very different, from events to voice to time period to gender. Even the fact that Claire is sane and West is schizophrenic. I’m curious about the process of crafting one novel containing two very different narratives. Did you write the novel straight through, alternating between characters as you went along, or did you write first one story and then the other? And how did you keep the dual stories focused and on track for the ultimate meeting of Claire and West?

Carmiel Banasky: I wrote a lot of my novel straight through, alternating their voices. (Though in my first drafts, I started with West before shifting back in time to Claire.) But big plot pieces came to me later, only after I could see what Claire and West’s character arcs were from a more aerial view. There were missing periods of growth and change or despair that I could only write having seen how both narratives parallel or move away from one another. I think much of the sixties sections I wrote later. And once I had one of them visiting their hometown and staying with their mother, I knew the other character had to as well. In many ways, their narratives are similar to me, or they reflect one another in an old, marred mirror sort of way: while one steals the painting and the other has the painting stolen, they both struggle with family, identity, pressures from society. They are both forced to question the fragility and control one has over one’s own mind and self, and how a diagnosis can define a life, or not.

From the outset, I knew that West was going to aid Claire in achieving the thing she’d been pondering all her life (maybe it’s obvious but I’m avoiding using a spoiler key-word here!). I knew the purpose of their meeting from the beginning stages of drafting. But, even though I knew what point A and point B were, I didn’t know what route I would take between them. I excised a lot that seemed OUT of focus on the track to get West and Claire where they had to be in the end. For West, his timeframe is shorter and his plot follows more of a mystery structure: finding and deciphering clues, even if they are only in his head. I felt like I had to focus his attention by allowing him to interpret everything he comes across as a clue connected to the painting or the painter, Nicolette. With Claire, anything could happen as we follow her over many decades. I had to choose the highlights that both disrupt and guide her character arc. Maybe the questions I posed were: What unsettled her from herself? What moments got her out of the comfort zone of the stories she was telling about herself? I’d like to think everything that made it into the book is vital in telling the story of how West and Claire become who they become to one another.

SP: Aside from the obvious fact of two stories and two characters dominating The Suicide of Claire Bishop, the themes of opposites and dualities are reflected throughout both the narrative and the style. There are the obvious character traits- male and female, sane and insane, 1950s and 2000s- but I was most interested in how your language conveyed this same sense of duplicity. Line such as “There Claire was, and wasn’t.” and “I am a lie. But I am not a liar.” Was this an intentional style decision, to mirror the schizophrenia of West and the uncertainty of Claire, or did the language come naturally to the story?

CB: I think the answer is two-fold: 1) These lines are probably instances of where my voice meets or overlaps with my characters’ voices. A “natural” language, like you said. And 2) I wanted to create moments, through language and through thought processes, to show how similar Claire and West really are. In Claire, I set out to portray a character who was sane, but who had been close to madness, or the idea of it, all her life. Claire is as obsessed with madness as she is fearful of it. When their voices overlap stylistically, it is Claire sinking further into her own brand of madness, or West lifting out of his. Our brains are so fragile, and West is not so different from the rest of us. He just makes a lot of hairpin turns while the rest of us stick to what seems to be a straighter path. That may be a horrible metaphor. But in any case, both paths follow a certain logic. I wanted West to feel relatable. One way to achieve that was to align the styles I used for both characters. Claire’s sanity is not so far removed from West’s insanity. The line between the two is thin.

SP: While there is, of course, a tradition of madness in literature, I was struck by how Claire is defined by her sanity. The artist Nicolette, after depicting Claire’s suicide in her portrait, comments, “You lived your life afraid you’d go mad… And now you’re disappointed.” It is this disappointment, and the seemingly infinite stretch of life looming ahead of her once she realizes that she does not have hereditary madness, that marks Claire’s character. What prompted you to write about un-insanity (for lack of a better word)?

CB: A good friend had a similar experience and shared it with me. I was already beginning to write both of these characters, and I was a sponge at that point in the writing process. I grasped onto that story when I heard it and immediately asked my friend, a poet, for permission to use it in my novel. She granted it, and was one of my first readers. It was exactly, thematically and plot-wise, what I had been waiting for. (I love that time in the writing process. Was it Saul Bellow who said something about having his suction cups at the ready?) In retrospect, maybe I was looking for a backstory that linked Claire and West through a difference. Claire thought her trajectory would look like West’s. She is so convinced and attached to this narrative of going mad, of unknowing herself by losing her mind, that when she learns that that the narrative is actually something other, she does in fact lose track of who she is. She no longer knows herself. The unknowing and redefining still occur.

SP: You write the character of West Butler extremely convincingly and I appreciated how well you portrayed his schizophrenia. What was the research process like for you to be able to so fully craft his character?

CB: I suppose I did a lot of asking permission in order to write this book. I had two friends who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and who had very similar experiences. They told me about their episodes. I was struck by the similarity. I was struck also by my own reaction, which was partly of fear—how my extraordinarily functional, brilliant friends could suddenly have brains so suddenly (it seemed to me) out of their own control. And finally, I was struck by the fact that I was so struck: I hadn’t read experiences like these in literature before, especially not in the first person. I wanted to write characters they could recognize (though West is completely different from both of them in most other ways). More importantly, I wanted to write a character with schizophrenia who is as relatable, loveable, and familiar as any character without schizophrenia to any reader who has or has not had experience with mental illness. I wanted to portray a whole human, schizophrenia being one of many characteristics.

I interviewed others with different types of mental illnesses about their journeys in and out of recovery. I read memoirs, novels, and some clinical books. I read essays geared toward family members of those with schizophrenia. I had a therapist friend read a draft. Elyn Saks’s writing and talks were a huge help. But the research could have been endless. At some point, I had to stop. I’m sure I didn’t read enough. There’s no way I got the experience exactly right. But I love West, that important author-character love, and I wouldn’t change him now.

There was always the question of what to put the most weight on: the story, or the portrayal of West’s disease. Luckily, these overlapped most of the time, were one and the same.

SP: Much of The Suicide of Claire Bishop is based on the concept of complicated perception, but my favorite parts of the novel are the moments of brilliant clarity where you use simple language to convey extremely difficult emotions. My favorite line comes from West as he is describing his feelings for Nicolette. He tells the reader, “I loved her so much I could rip out my collarbone.” This line floored me. Not because of its violence or its strangely poetic imagery, but because of its truth. Haven’t we all loved someone and/or been heartbroken to the point where we felt it physically, down to our bones? It’s such a simple description, but so perfect in its ability to encapsulate an otherwise slippery emotion. I have to ask then, do you have a background in poetry? Or does all of your fiction so succinctly use language to such a powerful degree?

CB: This is the type of language I learned from my friend—it’s one take on the schizophrenic linguistic style, if you will: seemingly unrelated elements coming together to create a logic that is beyond logic, that reaches a higher emotional truth. I wanted West’s language to make emotional sense even if it doesn’t make any other kind of sense. I was, however, afraid of exploiting the disease in that way, by romanticizing elements of it because some aspects felt like writerly, poetic, stylistic gifts. Lines like that are my attempt to portray the workings of West’s mind through my own literary voice.

I only write poems in secret. (Except I do have a weird historical novella in the works—fragmented poetry and prose. So some of it will hopefully see the light of day in the near future.) In general, sound and rhythm have always been the most important aspects of prose to me. But I used to, perhaps I still do sometimes but more rarely now, forsake clarity for lushness. West’s voice was a very difficult test and a great lesson: how do I allow his madness to feel logical and lyrical at once? He has his own logic, which should come across as sensical, if you are close enough to his perspective. There was also the challenge of using as few similes as possible. Something is not “like” something else to someone with schizophrenia. Things meld and overlap and many dots are connected, but simile is not commonly used. I, myself, am prone to using similes. So in one of my last revisions, I went through and excised as many instances of the word “like” (which were instances of me the author) as I could. It was a question of where my voice meets or should be reigned in from West’s voice.

SP: It is the bizarre portrait depicting Claire’s suicide that ties the characters and narratives of Claire and West together. The painting is described as “Claire at every moment of her life” as she falls from a bridge. In my mind, I saw this portrait in the style perhaps of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. In the novel, the portrait of Claire is painted in 1959. In your mind, who in that time period would have actually painted Claire’s suicide? Are there any contemporary artists that you think would be candidates to paint this piece?

CB: I have always seen Claire’s portrait (but never wanted to explicitly state this in the novel because I prefer that you had your own interpretation) in the style of Frida Kahlo, as I arrived at the germ of Claire’s narrative from an anecdote about the painter. Kahlo was commissioned by a Manhattan socialite to paint a portrait commemorating Dorothy Hale, the socialite’s friend who had committed suicide. Instead of a portrait, Frida depicted Hale’s death—her jump and fall from a tall building. It was considered an insult at first, but the painting, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, is stunning on many levels. It’s dream-like; it raises so many questions about death and suicide, and about the identity of the falling woman. I didn’t realize until later that what became of Kahlo’s painting is similar to the journey the painting in my novel takes: nearly destroyed, locked away, donated anonymously, etc. The lost and found nature of both my fictional painting and Kahlo’s painting makes a lot of sense to me.

SP: The Suicide of Claire Bishop debuts on September 15 and as I’ve said, I have a strong feeling that it’s going to be one of the heavy hitters on the fall literary scene. Aside from your own, of course, are there any novels debuting this fall or winter that you’re excited about? Any books or authors I should be keeping an eye out for?

CB: So many of my friends have books out this year! It has been fantastic to celebrate with them. Here are a few: Matthew Selasses, Alexandra Kleeman, Amy Jo Burns (paperback just came out), you know Scott Cheshire of course (paperback out now), Christopher Robinson/Gavin Kovite, Steve Totlz (his second book comes out next week). Next year keep an eye out for Michael Copperman and Kaitlyn Greenidge. I’ll probably think of more another day. These are my friends, I freely admit, and also some of the best writers I’ve ever read.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Conversation with Steph Post- The Spark

Many thanks to Kevin Catalano for this killer interview up at Alternating Current's The Spark. This was by far one of my favorite interviews, as Kevin conjured up questions about everything from tattoos to badass women to, of course, A Tree Born Crooked. Read on!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Shaping Memories: A Conversation with Will Boast, Author of Epilogue: A Memoir

Today's interview was a long time coming and, as I'm sure you'll agree, worth every moment of the wait. I read Will Boast's Epilogue: A Memoir last fall and challenged him with some hard-hitting questions. As Epilogue will be released in paperback this week, it's a perfect time to dive back into Boast's story of love, loss, memory, grief and, most essential to the novel, the mysteries and complicated bonds of family. Read on as Boast and I discuss authenticity, writing painful scenes and the complex line between truth and fiction, novel and memoir.

Steph Post: As a fiction writer, I am both fascinated and terrified by the idea of writing a memoir. When I took a memoir writing class in grad school one of the most difficult parts for me was staying true to the facts and not embellishing or derailing events to create a better story. I’m curious how you handled this balance. Were you ever tempted to stretch the truth for the sake of the book? While writing, did you ever struggle with crafting a scene for readers, knowing that you had to both entertain and be authentic?

Will Boast: I hear what you’re saying and absolutely agree. There are some skills that cross over from writing fiction to writing explicit autobiography, but just as many that do not. I actually started Epilogue as a novel, and it took me at least a couple years to realize that, for various reasons, it had to be nonfiction. That was a long process with a lot of hesitations and strange turns into odd hybrids of the two genres. Once I settled on something like memoir (I still consider Epilogue something of a hybrid), I really began to grapple with the subject and the memories. Instead of shaping the material, I had to find its shape, if that makes any sense. I had to think about it all more deeply and more analytically, and to be honest I learned a great deal about my family by moving away from fiction (not that trying it as a novel didn’t help also). Strangely, I found that playing down the dread and joy and confusion of actual experiences tended to make them more powerfully felt on the page. So, no, I wasn’t tempted to punch anything up. A certain reticence became a big part of the book. 

SP: Epilogue is a story of discovery through death and while it is not all bleak, there are many parts in the novel that felt like I was being punched in the stomach while reading. The Prologue was particularly painful (which, I suppose, it should be, since it is titled “Pain”) and much of the description of your mother dying was difficult to get through. A scene that I found extremely gut-wrenching was in the chapter “Strangers.” When you relate how your mother no longer recognized you at the dinner table, it seems as if the story has hit rock bottom. If I was upset reading this scene, I can only imagine how you must have felt in writing it. How did you handle writing about the terror, grief, depression and other dark emotions you felt at the time? Do you think such powerful emotions hindered or helped the writing process?

WB: It wasn’t just a process of writing scenes like the one you mentioned but re-writing and re-working and revisiting them again and again and again. I hope this doesn’t sound too grim, but I would not recommend this sort of thing to many people. I don’t know if it hindered or helped the drafting of the book. Everything takes me a very long time to write, in part because I’m an inveterate, obsessive tinkerer. I don’t think this is the best way to proceed, not at all, but I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter. I would say that it’s been a bit of a relief to get back to fiction, especially the novel I’m working on now, because I feel that I have a little more room to play around.

SP: My favorite chapter in Epilogue is “Overdue.” Even though it still connects heavily to your mother and her escalating illness, it was somewhat of a much needed reprieve. It was clever to break the chapter up by book genres and the Dewey Decimal system, but it was also extremely revealing. I felt like there was more honesty in this chapter than almost anywhere else in the book. Perhaps because it mostly contained childhood memories, but also because I think the library scenes created a strong connection with the reader. Most readers and writers haunted libraries as they grew up. Your descriptions of such simple things as the sound of books sliding into a book drop brought back a host of memories for me. (That, and your mention of the Dragonriders of Pern series…) Why did you make such a point of going into detail with the library scenes?

WB: Thank you and glad you enjoyed it! Strangely, “Overdue” is the one chapter I considered taking out of the draft. I put it in and took it out several times, and then re-wrote it at the last minute—literally on my editor’s desk, with a blue pencil and eraser crumbs piling up everywhere. I almost had a nervous breakdown. Now that I think of it, this was on 5th Ave, right across from the New York Public Library…. I had a nice time excavating the details and the tiny little sensations of my own little public library, and I came to agree with others who found the chapter a moment of quiet in the general doom and destruction, though the chapter is, in a way, a eulogy. I think dwelling with those little details became necessary, because it is, dramatically speaking, a quieter sequence in the book. I’m glad I left it in, but I definitely sweated a lot over it.

SP: The true gravity of Epilogue hit me in the last chapter. Aptly titled “Revision,” this chapter goes back over the story of your mother and father meeting, the secret marriages both had before, and the death of your father. Periodically throughout the chapter sentences are crossed out to further cement the idea of revision. This made me think about the nature of memory itself and how complicated it is. How can you ever be sure that you are remembering something correctly? Does it even matter if it’s correct if you remember it a certain way? I imagined as I was reading that these were concepts you had to consider while writing. Did the idea of memory itself ever preoccupy you while writing?

WB: I did the best I could to remember it all accurately, but you’re right—there is an inherent uncertainty in the genre: Did it happen exactly like that? You’d think that going to other sources, talking to, even interviewing others who might have been there or knew the people involved, might help with this. But, in my experience anyway, if you talk to five different people, you’ll get five different versions of what happened. We’re simply too bound up with our allegiances and our own fragile identities not to slant the actual experience in some way. So, yes, I did have many occasions to ruminate on the fallibility of memory. Most of that thinking, however, got cut out of the manuscript. I think you end up understanding that a certain degree of questioning and re-evaluating memory is a part of the genre of memoir—the proof is in the name itself--but it would perhaps be paralyzing, for reader and writer both, to lean too heavily on this. Also, I think it’s important to remember that memoir is not simply remembering. (If it were, it would be rather easier to write.) To paraphrase, Lucy Grealy, whose Autobiography of a Face I like a lot, you don’t remember a memoir, you write it. At first I thought this was a bit of a dodge on the question you’re asking. But now I think I agree. The best of the genre is every bit as artfully made as the best novels. If fiction is the art of invention, memoir is the art of selection and arrangement (and interrogation of experience and the careful balancing of tone and effect). It’s not just a transcript of actual life, in other words, but a re-enactment, a summoning, of it. 

SP: Finally, I have to wonder, where do you go from here? You were a published short story writer before Epilogue hit the scene. Are you planning on returning to fiction? Do you think that possibly you will ever write about your own life again?

WB: Yes, back to fiction. I’m finishing a novel. As for explicit autobiography, perhaps. I always think I can plan 2-5 years into the future, and I always find out that I’m wrong.
Many thanks to Will Boast for stopping by. Be sure to pick up your copy of Epilogue: A Memoir today!