I think it’s fair to call Leslie Jamison’s recent book about her experience with alcoholism a tome. It’s really long and the wispy pages are as thin as the memory of cigarette smoke. The book tome mixes multiple genres, including memoir, literary criticism, journalism, and cultural critique, into a potent zero proof cocktail. The 14 sections are titled with one-word themes of stops on her addiction and recovery journey (Wonder, Abandon, Blame, Lack, Shame, Surrender, Thirst, Return, Confession, Humbling, Chorus, Salvage, Reckoning, Homecoming). Less like a 14-step guidebook and more like a cycle of grief with ambiguous and overlapping boundaries, “The Recovering” is a must for anyone whose life has been touched by addiction; in fact, that’s exactly who she dedicated the book to. I am especially loving her deconstruction of the myth of the connection between alcohol and the talented creative writer. One thing, she argues, does not beget the other, and we should maybe stop romanticizing a destructive narrative that lets alcoholics stay trapped.
This will sound silly and/or phony and/or a line from an SNL skit about aging hipsters, but I don’t care: I’ve been really into still life paintings lately. Ha! I don’t know when it started (maybe right after we uninstalled Gone, Country?). I am usually drawn to loud, bombastic art or highly graphic design or minimalist pieces bridging on nothingness. Never still life. Ew, boring! Until now. I suppose it’s tied to my desire to slow down a little. I’ve been working like a Bronte madwoman in the attic this year, and I think my psyche is catching up with me. “Seriously, slow the fuck down,” it says. “Here. Look at this pretty painting of material objects and ripe fruit to remind you that you are dust and to dust you shall return. And also that you need to eat something soon, OK?”
And then (devoted readers like me are familiar with this experience) a book I’ve needed to help me put words to what I’m going through found me before I could find it. “Still Life with Oysters and Lemons,” published in 2002, offers a longform musing, dissection, and memoir hybrid-essay that explores the mystery and love of still life artwork. In it, writer Mark Doty is a brilliant word magician (ahem, painter?) who deeply encapsulates the meaning of still life (and a still life). Perhaps no other book about still life needs to be written? “Especially not by you, Jackie, so take a nap,” my psyche moans.
If we’re to believe some very trustworthy readers on Instagram (we are), this novel about how the AIDs epidemic changed 1980s Chicago is one of the best books of the year. The National Book Awards agree: “The Great Believers” was tapped last week for the fiction longlist. I’m especially excited to read it because the author, Rebecca Makkai, is a leader of the Chicago literary scene and creative director of Story Studio in Ravenswood. It’ll be fun to dive into 1980s Chicago from the comfort of 2018 Chicago. I think. <reads news and shivers>
Speaking of Story Studio, I attended its Writer’s Festival at the end of September and took a class about flash fiction taught by this author, Juan Martinez. We read some Kafka and I fell in love with reading all over again (I mean, that’s not hard to do, but I had never really read flash fiction before, and this crash course was like finding a tattooed new crush hanging out in the library). “Best Worst American” is a compilation of Martinez’s best flash fiction and short stories.
This novel follows the story of Hildy Good, a hilarious recovering alcoholic who has some secrets in her cellar. Ann Leary (NPR host and Denis Leary’s wife) has struggled with alcoholism herself, and it shows. I mean that in the best way possible. She writes about the experience of alcoholism with a brutally real but empathetic truth that reminded me of how terrifying addiction is when you live in its never-ending dirty cycle. To see yourself on a page, to be seen, is always cathartic. Even when it’s not the you that you want to be reminded of.
Jordan Peterson is a therapist, thinker, and, I’d argue, philosopher who is reviled by the left. However, he has some very interesting things to say in terms of finding your own personal worth and creating a mindset that helps you not only survive the chaos of daily life, but thrive in it. Rule number one, for example, is to “stand up straight with your shoulders back.” This isn’t a power move or a threatening stance, he says, but one that helps you “stand the hell up, with courage, and take it.”
Check out this Joe Rogan Experience interview with author Chuck Palahniuk (“Fight Club,” “Choke,” etc). Chuck talks about the bravery that’s required of good artistry and how we shouldn’t worry about what can and can’t be marketed—such boundaries only inhibit the most powerful writing and art. P.S. Have you listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast before? Justin is a big fan and he would play it while we were driving or cleaning the house together sometimes and I got hooked. Joe, much to my stereotyping surprise, asks really interesting questions and has a very layered perspective; even when I don’t agree with his opinions, I appreciate that he brings guests on that challenge his ideas or help him understand things he has questions about.
Sana Krasikov reads “Ways and Means”
Krasikov’s short story is a refreshingly nuanced take on the complicated realities of the #metoo movement and issues of power.
Zadie Smith reads “Now More than Ever”
Swoon, Zadie Smith always nails it, now more than ever. Don’t miss this controversial short story about the cultural heat wave to fall in line with the progressive opinions du jour.
“I instinctively sympathize with the guilty. That’s my guilty secret.”
The objects we use on a daily basis play a big role in our cultural story and memory. As writers, we know the importance of objects in terms of symbolism—and ensuring we are, when writing fiction at least, placing historically accurate objects into settings, character descriptions, and dialogue.
Your Civil War heroine with an iPhone is no bueno, bud.
That’s why tomes like “The Middle Ages In 50 Objects” (Cambridge University Press, 2018) are so helpful to writers doing research for a novel or screenplay in this time period. “50 Objects” features beautiful images of objects from the Cleveland Museum of Art paired with an essay that digs into its visual and cultural significance within the wider context of how the object was made or used.
The book is divided into four topic areas (The Holy and the Faithful; The Sinful and the Spectral; Daily Life and its Fictions; and Death and Its Aftermath) and loaded with fresh historical insights provided by the scholars Elina Gertsman (professor of Medieval Art at Case Western Reserve University) and Barbara H. Rosenwein (a medievalist who specializes in the history of emotions).
And though it was written in part to progress academic conversations about the Middle Ages—and recently made the High Brow/Brilliant end of New York Magazine’s approval matrix—this book is a visual and intellectual goldmine for arm chair art history lovers. <raises hand> Reading this book was like getting an answer key to some incredible works of art; like sitting in on a university lecture from the comfort of my aforementioned arm chair.
Example: Object 22’s painting of the Madonna and Eve on wood panel features inverted letters signifying the way Mary supposedly reversed Eve’s original sin; Eve’s sexuality is underscored by the Tree of Knowledge growing between her legs. (Which, if ever there was an ideal place for a tree of knowledge to grow, I’d say it’s there… She wouldn’t even have to stand up to pick out a new book to read from its branches! #teameve)
I had the pleasure of asking Elina and Barbara a few questions about the process of writing their new book, why they made the curatorial decisions they did, what objects in the book were most interesting to study, and more. Read their thoughtful answers below, then get your own copy of “The Middle Ages In 50 Objects” here!
The hard cover is coffee table chic.
Why are objects worth studying in order to understand the past?
Objects are not just things “out there” but agents of history in every way. They are created for reasons ranging from utterly practical to outrageously frivolous—but always in ways that are particular to certain people and places at particular times. As they come into being and use, they carve out their own meanings and interact with other objects—and people. Consider the scene of the Crucifixion (Object 43): the bottom of the Cross depicted there has been touched by pious fingers and lips so many times that the paint and ink are smudged.
The Middle Ages was a culture of the senses. Think of the incense perfuming the air in places of worship (churches and mosques alike), the music of liturgy and entertainment, the visions of color and light afforded by manuscript illuminations, the taste of the Eucharist melting in the mouth, and the invitation to touch offered by ivory and alabaster. Considering objects in all their materiality opens a royal path to this rich and little-known culture of the past.
How did you narrow it down to just 50 objects?
We wanted to produce a book that would be both comprehensive and yet not overwhelming. We knew that each object we chose would be worthy of many pages of explanation, but we decided to limit ourselves there as well. The number 50 seemed a good solution: enough to cover several entangled cultures that had to be considered together in order to illuminate each one.
How would you describe working on this book? Was it a joyful experience?
Joy is the right word. The book almost wrote itself once we had decided on the themes and the objects that belonged to them. We generally worked in relay. Elina lit the torch, as it were, by focusing on the objects, teasing out the network of associations they triggered, visual discourses they tapped into, and the ways in which they were viewed in the past. Then it was Barbara’s turn to consider the larger context, wrapping each object in the intricate web of events, patrons, social needs, and religious uses that explained its creation and importance.
Why did you decide to balance the representation of objects used or cherished by the elites and those used or cherished by the non-elites?
There is no denying that medievalists have on-hand more material objects from the elites than from the non-elites. Patrons of the arts—both individuals and institutions—were normally wealthy, and we today prize the results of their largesse and taste—the astonishing delicacy of Books of Hours, emotionally evocative images of Saint John softly resting his head on Christ’s shoulder, or elegant tombstones made to mark the burial of pious Muslims. But it is also important to see and understand the material lives of others less well-to-do, for they represent the majority of people in every period. When we view an iron barbute (Object 37), we are brought into the world of the soldier.
Its pits and dents remind us of the everyday dangers and hardships suffered by men in the Venetian army garrison at Negroponte. Negroponte? What was Venice doing there, 1,200 miles from home? The barbute thrusts us into the thick of historical events, as Venice takes over an island that had long belonged to Byzantium. Surely, we must cherish it almost as much as the man whose life it protected.
I really enjoyed the way you divided the contents into four topic sections. Was it difficult to organize? What was your thinking behind dividing them in this way?
We didn’t want to do the West first, then the Islamic world, then Byzantium, or anything of that sort because those cultures were too intertwined to be conceptualized in that way. Nor did we want to divide the book by chronology, as if it were a textbook. We chose, rather, to work with themes that cut across the whole period and united all of the cultures.
Did any of the 50 objects surprise you or is there an object in the book you particularly liked learning about?
All of the objects turned out to have surprising twists and turns. But we especially enjoyed working on objects that opened up many different paths to explore. An example is the miniature from a Mariegola (Object 21), which required us to research Venetian guilds, anti-Jewish stereotypes, ideals of poverty, and the realities of untold wealth.
Can learning about objects from the Middle Ages help us better understand the objects of contemporary visual culture?
There is no question that sensitizing ourselves to the objects that mattered in the Middle Ages helps us understand our own. But beyond that, some of the same themes and uses have distant echoes today. This goes beyond obvious similarities, as for example the persisting image of the Crucifix. Consider depictions of Death as a skeleton (see Object 50) or contemporary gestures of prayer, which derive from the medieval practice (see the hands of the Virgin in Object 43).
If you could pick one or two objects from contemporary culture that you think future historians would find important, what would they be?
Barbara: I’d choose the Apple Watch, which is a fashion accessory, a practical conveyer of time and information, and a good symbol of our desire to be constantly in touch without touching.
Elina: I’d choose a pair of boots: shoes are always a powerful symbol of presence and loss, and the last century or so has been deeply fraught. Shoes are intimately tied to memory, often terribly so: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum displays thousands of shoes, taken from the prisoners at the Majdanek concentration camp. Just two months ago, countless pairs of shoes were placed in front of the Capitolio in Puerto Rico, to mark the absence of men and women lost in Hurricane Mari and unaccounted for in the official death toll.
What has been inspiring you lately? Any books, music, podcasts, movies to recommend?
Barbara: In a small 12th-century church in Saint-Dyé, France, I heard an incredible concert that combined ancient instruments and songs with compositions by a living composer. The music worked together seamlessly, making the past present and the present past ways I could not have imagined. It was truly inspiring.
Elina: I am reading Paul Auster’s splendid “4321”—complex, sensitive, always stirring, dark at times, but somehow always jubilant. I’d recommend it without reservations.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
Barbara: This is tough. I’d love to have a good dinner conversation with many people. But I guess I can narrow it down to one party in which the guests might compare notes and (let’s hope) learn from one another. I’d invite Xanthippe, Socrates’ wife, who was billed as a nasty shrew by Xenophon; Christine de Pizan, a late medieval feminist who supported herself and her family by writing witty books for wealthy patrons; and lastly Catherine Dickens, best known as the unhappy wife of Charles Dickens. My first question to them would be: What place should women have in society, and what attitudes, institutions, etc. would be required to get them there? And my second question: If you could choose a different time and place to live in, what would it be? If I dared I might pose a third: What do you think of the LGBTQIA movement, and what do you think it portends for gender relations in the future?
Elina: I’d invite Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century German visionary; Voltaire, an 18th-century French Enlightenment philosopher; and Andrei Voznesensky, an extraordinary Soviet/Russian poet, who died just a few years ago. I’d love to hear them talk about poetry, politics, and everything in between.
I have bookmarked this speech ECS gave at the Committee of the Judiciary of the US Congress on January 18, 1892. I find it most useful during, of all things, my super-blue days. Her wisdom and identification about the realities of the solitude of self, and her unintentional reminder that I am capable and free to help myself (a privilege people like ECS fought hard for) help pull me out of the black holes that are my bad days. I recently re-read the speech and thought I’d share some of my favorite parts. Read the full text here, you sweet-beautiful-captain-of-your-own-ship.
First of all, let’s imagine a world where women are ppl, mmk?
“In discussing the rights of woman, we are to consider, first, what belongs to her as an individual, in a world of her own, the arbiter of her own destiny, an imaginary Robinson Crusoe with her woman Friday on a solitary island. Her rights under such circumstances are to use all her faculties for her own safety and happiness.”
Because she is (surprise, wig boy!) a real person, woman is responsible for making herself complete and happy
“…as a woman, an equal factor in civilization, her rights and duties are still the same—individual happiness and development.”
To survive the implicit solitude of self, every person needs the right to choose
“The isolation of every human soul and the necessity of self-dependence must give each individual the right to choose his own surroundings.”
Education helps save us from fear
“The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, forces of mind and body; for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition; from all the crippling influences of fear, is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life.”
Men can’t protect women from certain things, things like the solitude of self
“No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone, and for safety in an emergency they must know something of the laws of navigation.”
You are a beautiful precious snowflake… so you are responsible for making sure you do not melt
“Nature never repeats herself, and the possibilities of one human soul will never be found in another.”
Our internal lives can never be fully revealed
“In youth our most bitter disappointment, our brightest hopes and ambitions are known only to ourselves; even our friendship and love we never fully share with another; there is something of every passion in every situation we conceal. Even so in our triumphs and our defeats.”
Self-actualization is an inalienable human right
“To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes; to deny the rights of property, like cutting off the hands.”
Being a wife or mother is hard as fuck too
“The young wife and mother, at the head of some establishment with a kind husband to shield her from the adverse winds of life, with wealth, fortune and position, has a certain harbor of safety, secure against the ordinary ills of life. But to manage a household, have a desirable influence in society, keep her friends and the affections of her husband, train her children and servants well, she must have rare common sense, wisdom, diplomacy, and a knowledge of human nature. To do all this she needs the cardinal virtues and the strong points of character that the most successful statesman possesses.”
Taking responsibility for your life is empowering
“Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility. Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded; a place earned by personal merit, not an artificial attainment, by inheritance, wealth, family, and position.”
Even if protected, a person faces “fierce storms of life”
“The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is the sheerest mockery, for they beat on her from every point of the compass, just as they do on man, and with more fatal results, for he has been trained to protect himself, to resist, to conquer.”
Identity politics don’t matter in the realm of self
“Rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant, wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, man and woman, it is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself.”
Making yourself a stronger, smarter person is necessary for survival and self-respect
“But when all artificial trammels are removed, and women are recognized as individuals, responsible for their own environments, thoroughly educated for all positions in life they may be called to fill; with all the resources in themselves that liberal thought and broad culture can give; guided by their own conscience and judgment; trained to self-protection by a healthy development of the muscular system and skill in the use of weapons of defense, and stimulated to self-support by a knowledge of the business world and the pleasure that pecuniary independence must ever give; when women are trained in this way they will, in a measure, be fitted for those hours of solitude that come alike to all, whether prepared or otherwise.”
Equal opportunity for all, mothafuckas!
“The chief reason for opening to every soul the doors to the whole round of human duties and pleasures is the individual development thus attained, the resources thus provided under all circumstances to mitigate the solitude that at times must come to everyone.”
“We see reason sufficient in the outer conditions of human beings for individual liberty and development, but when we consider the self-dependence of every human soul we see the need of courage, judgment, and the exercise of every faculty of mind and body, strengthened and developed by use, in woman as well as man.”
It’s overflowing with the most beautiful three- to four-word sentences I’ve ever read. I want to wear Lauren Groff’s writing around me like a silk robe.
A masterpiece of innovative narrative structure, “Fates and Furies” is broken into two sections. First, we meet the husband of a marriage. Second, we grow to understand his complicated wife. The revelations unfold like a flower in bloom, and it all moves so quickly, as if you are in a dream, and I could write a 10-page English lit paper on its symbolic use of birds, land, and water. This one will hurt when I finish because that means there’s no more “Fates and Furies” left to read.
The book is a few years old, but it called to me like a siren from a bookshelf in the basement of the State Street Macy’s. I was dicking around while Justin tried on tracksuits, because this is 32.
Groff’s newest book, “Florida,” came out in June. So guess what will be on my list of books to read in September?
From Jennifer R. Hubbard’s essay “What’s This Doing to My Brain?” Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Spring 2018.
“We now routinely interact with one another in ways that were impossible for most of human history. Kenneth Goldsmith goes even further than Heffernan in celebrating cyberspace, finding the handwringing of naysayers to be overwrought. In Wasting Time on the Internet, Goldsmith contends that the web is social, not antisocial; after all, we communicate through it. As for fears of shrinking attention spans, he argues, ‘When I look around me and see people riveted to their devices, I’ve never seen such a great wealth of concentration, focus, and engagement.'”
Sonya Renee Taylor is a slam poet whose movement of radical self love started in a conversation she had with another woman before a slam poetry competition. Sonya’s friend shared an intimate secret: She didn’t always use protection when she had sex because she was disabled and felt like it was too much to ask. Sonya responded, to her friend as much as to herself, “Your body is not an apology.” This new book is an exploration of that idea, and it takes great steps to clearly define the differences between radical self love, self confidence, and self acceptance. Through stories and prompts, the book asks readers to examine how they might give greater radical love to their bodies and, in the process, the bodies of other humans around the world.
This 2015 book by journalist Sam Quinones foresaw the way the 2016 election would shake down, at least in terms of the desperation so many small- or medium-sized towns were feeling to change something, anything to stop the devastating slow build of addiction in their communities. Moreover, this book is an incredible, concise look at how we got in this mess in the first place. From interviews with families who lost children in addictions that began at, of all places, the doctor’s office, to the families in tiny Mexican villages who started running heroin to the States as means for their own survival, to the advertisers and doctors whose cartoon-dollar-sign-eyes added to the trouble. This book reads like a thriller, even though it’s nonfiction, and is thoroughly researched: Quinones spent decades covering crime and Mexico for various print journalism outlets. I highly recommend this book, and if you’re in Chicago, try to read it in the, um, next few weeks, OK? At 6:30 pm on Monday, June 25, City Lit Books in Logan Square is hosting a book club circle about “Dreamland.” See you there!
A good friend of mine recently recommended this book, which came out last year. It’s a graphic narrative memoir (how cool are all those words strung together as one thing?!). At a funeral for Kristen Radtke’s uncle, she drove through an abandoned mining town. She was so moved and curiously crushed by the sight of its emptiness that it inspired a journey that took her to many other deserted places around the world. Her black and white illustrations further compound the story’s deep dive into the murky black depths of grief, loss, and loneliness. What’s left of us when we’re left behind?
Michael McCormack’s new book, Born Fanatic: My Life in the Grip of the NFL, began as a letter of complaint to his father, who was a world champion football player (Cleveland ftw! For once!), NFL coach, and hall of famer also named Michael McCormack.
But he never envisioned what writing his story would turn into: A balm of healing for some of the wounds left behind by their dissonant relationship.
Similarly, Born Fanatic is a football memoir, but it’s much more than that. It’s a tale of father and son, country and game, money and love, addiction and recovery.
McCormack’s painfully honest retelling of his family’s football fanaticism and his father’s abuse and its influence on his own addiction is destined to pay that healing forward. Readers will find threads of their own story woven throughout the tough pigskin of his.
It will also offer hope. The pair slowly began to mend their relationship through their undying love of football. As McCormack wrote, he began to understand his father better. In this is an important lesson: Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean you think what happened was OK.
Set for release on April 24, get your pre-order today. I watch football for the tight pants and still found a lot to love in this book. McCormack, who works as a lawyer, writer and speaker in Seattle, answered a few questions about the book in anticipation of its release.
He signed off his email, “Be well.” I think he wants that for everyone.
Why was telling the story in this book important to you?
I didn’t set out to write a memoir. Rather, in the aftermath of my father’s death, I ramped up my journaling, trying to sort out life-long confusion, pain and anger. Then, several off-field pro football stories motived me to consider the work as a memoir told from the perspective of an uber-fan. Even once I started down that path, I had no idea where I would end up.
Now in the aftermath, I’m reminded of a metaphor to help explain what’s become most important to share: Providence puts a diamond in our pocket because it knows that’s the last place we’ll look. In the challenge of searching for it, we learn to treasure it more. I’m moved to share how my search unfolded and what my diamond turned out to be.
The prologue of your book is really powerful and, I think, relatable for many even for those without football playing dads. What was the most difficult part of writing about your relationship with your father?
Writing it meant feeling it. All of it. That included feeling my own complicity and dysfunction as a son, a football fan, and a person. I couldn’t have written the book without facing up to some responsibility, but there were many, many moments when I REALLY didn’t want to do that. I came close a couple times to deleting all saved versions of the manuscript and burning all paper copies.
What was the most rewarding experience or outcome for you of writing this book?
The most rewarding experience was the most surprising, namely that in writing, I discovered forgiveness. That discovery led to the diamond in my pocket. That is, my father’s legacy and what I intend will be my own.
This family football story is such an American story… especially for the generations we see in this book and the way family history impacts us in the present every day. Do you have any anxiety about the book being published or are do you feel excited to share this story?
I have felt a lot of both, anxiety and excitement, over the past year as we prepare to publish. Sharing the project with my mother and siblings was not easy, and that’s still a source of heartbreak for me, as the memoir displays. But the anxiety and excitement have given way to something more valuable: gratitude. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned about myself and my father. In terms of publishing the book, I’m grateful for the people with whom I’ve worked and for the conversations with fans, media, and journalists like you. If we don’t sell a single copy, it was worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tears.
What do you think is the general public’s greatest misunderstanding about addiction?
Understanding that I’m no clinical expert, and there’s a lot to unpack here, I offer this from personal experience. Addiction does not come from a desire to use per se. It comes from having only two choices: Use or Die. Within the throws of addiction, the option to live a full life free of substance abuse isn’t on the table. Life in that sense is a blind spot altogether.
PS – Fanaticism at its most extreme is an addiction.
I think one of the most difficult elements of writing real stories is knowing what parts of the story to include or not include. How did you edit down or decide on what scenes to include in this book?
Spot on observation! At one point, the memoir was twice as long as it is now. That was two years ago, and after two years of work. I was certain at that time I was finished. I walked away for a week, came back to the manuscript and realized I was not done for the very reason implied by your good question. With the help of a patient and persistent editor (Bryan Tomasovich of The Publishing World), I lashed myself to the mast of one theme: the relationship triangle between my father, pro football, and me. Everything not explicitly within that theme had to go. Looking back over the last two years, I bet I undertook that process of walking away, returning, then cutting fifty times more after I was certain the book was done.
Do you have a daily writing routine or schedule when you were working on this book? If so, what is it and how does this help you get the work done? (Basically, we fellow writers love any advice on getting the job done!)
I had to stick with my day job as an attorney. And even though that involves a lot of writing, it’s a much different style, which was not helpful. So, finding a routine for creative writing proved difficult for a while. Things flipped when I committed to making my creativity the most important thing in my life. As soon as I woke (sometimes, many times, at 3 a.m.), my personal writing came first. It also helped when I quit judging the quality of the words when they first hit the page. I would just write, then organize and clean it up later. I also tacked to the wall a quote I found on the internet: It’s not that good writers have a particular gift. They just write. A lot.
What has been inspiring you lately?
Wood, water, stone, air, and fire. My wife and I are on the cusp of an empty nest after raising five kids. So, I have more time for listening to nature. I want and need more of that.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
Abraham Lincoln has always been at the top of my list for questions like this. According to history, he overcame a lot of failure in business and politics. He was challenged by depression. And yet despite those challenges – or maybe because of them – he made obviously positive contributions to a greater cause.
Second, I’ll pick Brazilian writer Paulo Cohelo, author of The Alchemist, an all-time favorite, although I’m most smitten with his work The Fifth Mountain. I would have to learn Portuguese though, I bet.
Last, I would invite my father. He and I have some unfinished business.
That is, new to me. Cynthia’s been writing for some time, and her short fiction has been published in The Arkansas Review, Epoch, The Missouri Review, Slice and others.
Her new novel Birds of Wonder, released March 2 and published by Standing Stone Books, is her triumphant return to writing fiction following a long spell unraveling the magic of art history — buried in other people’s books.
I, for one, am glad she’s back to writing her own fictional tales.
“One August morning while walking her dog, high-school English teacher Beatrice Ousterhout stumbles over the dead body of a student, Amber Inglin, who was to play the lead in Beatrice’s production of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. Barely able to speak, Beatrice calls the police. That is to say, she calls her daughter.
Jes is a detective with two years of experience under her belt and a personal life composed primarily of a string of one-night-stands, including the owner of the field in which Beatrice has found Amber. In addition to a house and a field, Child Services lawyer Liam Walsh owns a vineyard, where Amber Inglin, along with a handful of other teens who’ve had difficulty negotiating the foster system, was an intern.
Set among the hills and lakes of upstate New York and told in six vibrantly distinct voices, this complex and original narrative chronicles the rippling effects of a young girl’s death through a densely intertwined community.”
This is a murder mystery, sure, but it’s also a study of family ties — what bonds them, builds them and can potentially break them. With sprinkles of humor and strokes of darkness, the book is lovely lyrically. I enjoy Cynthia’s ability to turn a basic everyday something-or-another into such a scene that I find myself doing something-or-another inspired by it in my real life later.
Like pick forgotten flowers from the side of the highway and lovingly restore them as a dinner centerpiece (ie: this passage about Beatrice considering a walk to the farmers’ market with that beloved dog Geneva):
“True, the humidity had been stifling, the stretch closest to the highway lined with jiffy-lubes and chain drugstores, and the rushing traffic had made Geneva skittish. But she’d spied wild salvia growing along the roadside, pushing bravely through the gravel. The bright blue blossoms were a bit bedraggled now, but a drink of water would fix that. They’d be a charming centerpiece for tonight’s dinner table.”
Birds of Wonder is juicy escapism with a literary garnish perched on the rim. It’s just what the book-doctor ordered as we fog up our windows searching to see if the birds and the sun have come out yet to play.
Get your copy of Birds of Wonder here, and don’t miss my interview below with Cynthia below!
She offers great insights for writers about the writing process, including the best tip she’s ever been taught for developing characters for a multi-voiced piece of fiction. And I love reading about how and why she struggled with writing Jes — it will add a depth of understanding and appreciation to your reading that you won’t regret.
What brought you back to writing after your hiatus from fiction? Why write a novel?
I have a dear friend in Spain who pestered me for, literally, years after she read a novel of mine that never got properly published — long story, from way back in the ‘90s.
In the meantime, I had taken a deep dive down the scholarly black hole and didn’t want to hear it. But still, as they say, she persisted… And, funnily, in 2011 or so, via reconnecting with an old friend who, most unfortunately, has gone back to being no longer a friend — another long story — the opportunity to sort-of publish that one came about.
It went spectacularly south, nothing about it went right, we had no idea what we were doing, B U T: That near-miss awoke the Writing Beast once more — the genesis of Birds of Wonder. That ex-friend was actually a big part of its early inspiration and brainstorming. There’s a line in the acknowledgements thanking him. Wherever he is.
I conceived a novel because at that time I had yet to meet the person who would suggest, long about 2013, that I try my hand at short fiction, and I am very glad that she did!
Birds of Wonder is told in six distinct characters’ voices. Did you do any specific kinds of character work to distinguish these voices from one another?
Lots and lots and lots. Pages and pages of backstory for each that never made it into the novel, nor should they have. I did all sorts of down-the-rabbit hole research for each one of them (yay for the internet), which maybe generated a page of text. But I’m kind of used to that, being a medievalist in my day job. I’m used to wasting time in the archives.
Perhaps the most useful ‘trick,’ if it can be called that, is one I learned from the wonderful Gill Dennis, in his ‘Finding the Story’ workshop that he taught for years and years at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers (highly, highly recommend their summer workshops, btw): For each and every character, a writer should know (and know well enough to write, tho’ these may not be things you actually use) the moments of greatest terror, joy and shame in that character’s life. Those are harder than you might think to nail down (in a plausible way), but once you have them (and, of course, all the background research), then you have your character and you can go from there.
Were there challenges to drawing upon stories and experiences from your own life when writing Birds of Wonder or was that helpful for developing the story? Both?
Both, for sure. Though all of the characters have something of me in them, likely more of a something than I know, the closest to me is Jes. There are a number of pieces of my own baggage that I gave her to haul (the sorts of relationships she establishes, and eschews, with men, for instance, or some of her more traumatic experiences — I’d spoil the plot if I elaborated further on those), that brought her so close to me that I was beginning to find her difficult to write.
I had to go back to the drawing board on her character quite a number of times, though her moment of greatest terror did end up looking a lot like my own. And it was only very late in the writing process that I was able to give her that. Once she’d been made into enough of her own character that I could clearly see she wasn’t me.
What was the most difficult point in completing this novel? Was it getting started, the middle build, completing it, or something else entirely?
The low point for me was when my long-suffering agent took one, or two, or three — I lose count — earlier drafts to editors and no one bought. That was absolutely excruciating, because everything about regaining the Writing Thing up to that point had been scandalously easy for me. Getting short fiction published, finding just the right trusted readers, getting into Squaw not once but twice, getting a wonderful agent (actually I had my pick from a number of wonderful agents)… then, slam.
Once I picked myself up off the floor that first time, I saw I needed to kill off a character and give voice to another who was more central to the story. So I did that.
Which took me about a year.
And then that one didn’t sell either.
We were just about to put it into a drawer and go forward with the new one I am working on, when I was presented with the opportunity to work with Bob Colley at Standing Stone Books, an upstate-NY based, indie press. It was during revisions with him that I finally excavated to the rock bottom of Jes (I’d been protecting her, as one often does with characters one likes or identifies with). I stopped doing that, and everything fell into place, including a new ending that rang much truer to the story and its characters.
This is a long process! Much longer than anyone ever wants it to be, but there it is.
Do you have any advice for writers doing factual research for a fiction novel?
Really, with the internet the sky is the limit. Or, as I discovered, the absolute rock bottom of the sexual tourism business in Thailand. Absolutely everything is on the internet. So you start there. Even if you will eventually wind up in libraries an archives, you start there, and then follow the leads where they take you — to a vineyard, in my case, or to another country, or just another county, to the courthouse archives.
I do recommend always resisting the temptation to do an information dump on your readers. Once you have become a temporary world expert in Topic A or B, you will want to share your newfound knowledge, all of it, with the world. Don’t.
But you are now able to supply — or quickly find — that one bit of data that, inside your character’s head or coming from her mouth, will be convincing and hook readers/editors/agents, whoever you’re trying to hook.
What do you listen to or watch or read to get pumped up to write?
I watch almost no television (except select political shows, MSNBC on speed dial), almost no movies. I don’t binge-watch. I don’t own a subscription to Netflix, and I’m not even sure whether Netflix is a subscription service!
I have two jobs, in essence — my teaching and research etc., and my writing — and I just plain don’t have time. Maybe I am depriving my subconscious and my psyche of all sorts of great stimuli, but too bad. Not enough hours in the day. I do have a bunch of books going at once — always a couple of literary journals (I subscribe to several; I don’t always like everything they publish, but I try to read the stuff I don’t like too, because I think it’s good for me, and they must have chosen it for a reason).
I always have at least one collection of short stories going — right now it’s one by Molly Giles. I try to read each year’s O.Henry and Pushcart prize collections as well. I always have at least one thing going in Spanish — right now it’s Javier Marias’ BERTA ISLA.
At least a small daily dose of poetry, sometimes medieval sometimes not, and a couple novels that bear on things that interest me that usually have to do with the current novel project. It’s almost never the latest or most trendy best-seller. I read other people’s reviews of those for a while, usually a year or two, before I decide whether to bite or not.
I love to listen to classical music, pretty much all of it, and I have grown spoiled and lazy because our local station is so good that I can always count on them to supply my Muzak. I am also a huge fan of opera and never miss at Saturday Live at the Met broadcast if I can possibly help it.
When it’s time to actually _write_, tho’, I turn all the sound off.
Do you have a daily writing routine or schedule when you’re working on a novel? If so, what is it and how does this help you get the work done?
I have to balance the two jobs — the one that keeps the lights on and the one that truly inspires me — which tends to make my writing time a late afternoon-early evening thing. I start off by reading for about half an hour, generally rather randomly from among the selection I listed above. Then I open the computer.
Each novel or short story generally goes through several pre-drafts in note-card and white-board form, with these notes often being written down first in Spanish — I seem to free-form best in some language that is not my own but almost is — and when it’s time to really get serious, I switch to English. If I am having trouble with a scene, I will often stop and note-card that particular scene… it’s very control-freak-y and nerdy and scholarly but when you consider my day job, maybe that isn’t very shocking.
What has been inspiring you lately?
The #metoo movement, for reasons both personal and universal.
Pablo Neruda en español.
My upcoming spring break to London, to hopefully finish a fourth draft of my new novel in and around the very hotel that inspired its setting.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be and why?
My mother, because she died of melanoma when I was 25 and I never knew her as an adult.
My brilliant, multilingual and disgustingly talented friend Mark (we were inseparable in grad school)—he died of AIDS a year after my mother passed away. They would have adored one another. In another life my mother would have been a fashion designer (in this one she was a Southern housewife).
And Louisa May Alcott, because they both loved Little Women.
If we could maybe have a fourth, I’d invite my librarian aunt, who died a victim of gun violence when I was five. She was the first to put a book in my hands. She was a divorcee down south back when no nice ladies in the south were divorcees.
I think we would all have a fine time.
*NB: I didn’t name all the amazingly brilliant states-persons, writers, poets, etc., that might come to mind, because I’m quite sure I would be totally and completely tongue-tied in the presence, say, of Virginia Woolf.