Big Publication News

I am very happy to report that I have signed a contract with Braddock Avenue Books for the publication of my novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley. The publication date has yet to be determined, but will likely be sometime in 2019.

I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. When I completed the manuscript for What the Zhang Boys Know, my novel in stories that was published by Press 53 in 2012, I had two ideas for novels that I wanted to write. One was something I thought of as a novel in flash made up of lots of flash fictions, including some I had already written and published, about a character named Oliver. The other was a more traditional novel about a young man and his son. When I went to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Walter E. Dakin Fellow in 2010, I took the opening chapters of the latter manuscript to get feedback from my faculty reader, after which I decided to focus on that book and put the Oliver stories on the back burner.

I finished a draft of the book in the fall of 2011, but continued to work on it and had a draft I was happy with by the fall of 2013. My then agent made some helpful suggestions and then in early 2014 we began looking for a publisher.

Meanwhile, with that book “done” until an editor got his/her hands on it, I went back to the Oliver book. That one I finished in 2016; it’s now looking for a home (i.e., a publisher).

In other words, for a writer pursuing the traditional path to publication, writing the book is only part of the battle.  It is often a very long slog.

Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet: Volume III now open for submissions!

As an internationalist, I’ve always been interested in fiction set outside the United States, whether it’s literature from another country translated into English or work in English set overseas. If it’s done well, the reader will usually learn something. It’s like traveling without leaving the house.

Several years ago I got the idea of an anthology of short stories set around the world.  Press 53 agreed to publish the first volume and we opened for submissions in the fall of 2013. We were overwhelmed–in a good way. That first volume was published in the fall of 2014 and won some awards, including an International Book Award. The book’s success convinced the publisher to proceed with a second volume, which came out in the fall of 2016. It too won an International Book Award as well as Indie First awards in two categories.

And now it’s time to start putting together the third volume in the series. As of today, October 1, submissions are now open, through November 30. There is no minimum or maximum length. Stories may be previously published. The only real requirement is that we will not publish stories set countries already covered by Volumes I or II, so please read the submission guidelines carefully.

To read the submission guidelines and submit, please go here.

Arts Weekend in Philadelphia

Although I spend most of my time writing and reading, I do attempt to experience the non-literary world from time to time. Besides endless political arguments and serving on various boards and committees, I also attend musical events (such as the Heifetz International Music Institute Summer Festival of Concerts) and plays (I’m a regular at the American Shakespeare Center‘s Blackfriars Playhouse) and visit museums (I’m an out-of-town member of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which I try to get to a couple of times a year).

Occasionally I’ll go to another city for a cultural foray, such as my epic trip last year to Washington DC where I saw 3 plays and visited a dozen or so museums over a four-day period. A couple of years ago I spent a few days in Chicago–2 plays and 3 museums.

This year, I hadn’t planned such a trip until I discovered that my college roommate–an actor with much success over the years in both television and theater–was going to be playing the role of the Wizard in the new national touring company of Wicked, the musical.  (He also played that part in the Broadway production for a while.) I didn’t make it to DC when the show was at the Kennedy Center (I’ve seen him in other shows there in the past) but saw that the tour was coming to Philadelphia this summer. So I let him know I’d be coming, bought a ticket, booked a seat on the train and a hotel room, and got suggestions for other things to do while I was there.

Sadly, however, due to a family situation, my friend had to leave the show before I got to see it. My thoughts are certainly with him and his family, but for me, it was too late to undo the plans I’d made. So, on Friday, off I went to Philadelphia.

The show that night was great.  (It would have been better with my very talented friend as the Wizard, but the two witches were awesome.) The show, based on a novel, has been around now for 14 years, but so much of the story and language has political implications for today. (Is Trump the phony behind the curtain?) You might be interested in this article: Examining the Politically Charged Nature of ‘Wicked’.

Then on Saturday, I headed out to museums. First stop was the Barnes Foundation, which I had not heard of until Facebook friends recommended it. What a strange museum! Strange in a good way. Dr. Barnes, who died in 1951, amassed an amazing collection of art–you’ve probably never seen so many Renoirs in one place–and had certain ideas about displaying his collection in “ensembles”–usually a large piece with others arranged around it with some thematic or other connection. The displays now reflect the way he had them when he died. I’m very glad I went.

Then I headed farther up the Boulevard to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, climbed the Rocky Steps, and entered. Probably it was a mistake to try to do both the Barnes and PMA on the same day, because I found the latter disappointing. Yes, there are some fantastic pictures to see, but I was too tired to give them the attention they deserved. Plus, the museum has a lot in the way of decorative arts, which I’ve never enjoyed as much as paintings. I gave it a shot, though, and found some exhibits I enjoyed and pictures to admire, and then called it a day. (The museum is in the early stages of renovation and expansion, and when that’s complete in 2020, I’ll look forward to going back. Check out this description of what’s happening: The Core Project.)


Voyager: Travel Writings by Russell Banks

In 2003, shortly after I finished my MFA program, I saw an advertisement in Poets & Writers for a writing workshop in Mexico featuring Russell Banks. It seemed ideal for me. Although I spoke no Spanish, I longed to visit Mexico; plus, I had read a couple of Banks’s novels and greatly admired his work.

So I enrolled in a Spanish language class at the local community college and made plans to travel to Mexico the following January, first to visit Mexico City and then on to the village of Tepoztlan for the workshop, called, after the great novel by Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano.

The experience exceeded my expectations, by far. The village was stunning–situated at the foot of a mountain, picturesque, peaceful, excellent food–and the workshop faculty and other students made for one of the most enjoyable weeks I’d ever had. The highlight was working with Banks, who was an engaging and jocular teacher. We did good work in class (usually outside on the terrace of the beautiful hotel where we were staying) and then we also managed to enjoy time with him on local adventures and in the cafes and bars.

One of the adventures was exceptional. The Director of the program, Magda Bogin, had arranged for us to experience a traditional temazcal (sweat lodge) in a nearby village. We were segregated by gender, so Banks, Tim Weed (a fellow student in the workshop who has been a friend ever since), and I, disrobed and climbed into a structure that looked like an adobe igloo. There was room for the three of us to lie down side by side, which we did, waiting for the heat to build as the fire under our igloo was stoked from outside. It’s called a sweat lodge for a reason, and soon we were soaked. Part of the exercise involves being whipped on the back (gently) with branches (were they eucalyptus? I don’t remember, but something fragrant), and we took turns: Tim whipped Russell, Russell whipped me, I whipped Tim. After we’d spent sufficient time in the heat, we were invited out to rest in a cool, dark room and to sip herbal tea to rehydrate. After another hour, we returned to Tepoztlan.

The temazcal aside, I remain a fan of Russell Banks’s work, so when I saw that he had published a collection of travel essays, I got a copy and started reading immediately. Part of me hoped that the Tepoztlan experience (if not the sweat lodge) would be recounted in the book, so I was mildly disappointed that it was not, but the essays are all instructive tales of other voyages of personal discovery, ranging from an extensive trip he took through the Caribbean when he was courting his fourth wife, to a visit to Senegal, to mountaineering in the Andes and Himalayas. Banks draws a distinction between being a tourist and being a traveller, at all times focusing on the journey rather than the destination.

One thing I admire about this work is the respect that Banks shows for the places he visits and their people. He recognizes that as a white American male he comes from a place of privilege, despite his very humble background, and he would much rather have a genuine local experience than the homogenized tourist experience that could take place anywhere. Often travel writers put themselves in impossible situations and disparage the locals for failing to rescue them. That’s not the case here.

The last time I was in touch with Russell was 2014 when Volume I of Everywhere Stories came out. I wanted to send him a copy because, as the editor of the anthology, I had included work by Tim Weed (of the temazcal) and Alden Jones, both of whom had been in my workshop with him back in 2005. He was pleased to hear that we were all still in touch and writing. I hope he enjoyed the book.


Some pretty awesome writers like Tim O’Brien, Elizabeth Strout, and Peter Ho Davies had some very kind words to say about my first collection of stories, In an Uncharted Country, set in a rural town in Virginia.  And now I have some copies of the book that I’m able to sell at a low price of $10 (including shipping within the US). Price is applicable while the supply holds. To read about the book and to buy, CLICK HERE.

Virginia Festival of the Book — March 22-26

The Virginia Festival of the Book is next week! This has long been one of my favorite events of the year. Before I had ever published a book, I attended the festival and imagined that one day I would appear on a panel to talk about my own work. Eventually that did happen, and in addition I have had the pleasure of moderating panels for many years now. This year, I’m moderating two.

The first one is on Wednesday, March 22, at 4pm at the James Madison Regional Library: Secrets and Lies: Haunting Historical Fiction. The panel features three exciting novels. Kathleen Grissom’s novel, Glory over Everything, is about a successful businessman in Philadelphia in 1830 who has a secret about his past that he is faced to confront when he travels south to rescue the son of a runaway slave. Brooke Obie’s novel, The Book of Addis: Cradled Embers, is about Addis, a woman enslaved by William Burken, who in this fiction is the first president of the United States. (Comparisons to Toni Morrison’s work are not far off.) And Susan Rivers’s The Second Mrs. Hockaday is an epistolary novel set in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War about the tribulations of a young bride when her husband returns from battle. There is so much to discuss about these books, we’ll wish we had more time!

The second panel is Friday, March 24, at 4pm, also at the Library: Fiction: Exploring Others and Ourselves. The title of the event doesn’t do it justice, although there is vivid self-exploration in all three of the novels being presented. As Close to us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner is a moving account of one Jewish family’s tragic summer at the Connecticut shore in 1948. Jonathan Rabb’s Among the Living is about Holocaust survivor who arrives in Savannah 1947 and must learn what his place in that society can be while still coping with his experience in the camps. Country of Red Azaleas by Domnica Radulescu is about two women in the aftermath of a different conflict, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting horrors in Bosnia. I’m looking forward to hearing all three of these writers talk about these exceptional novels.

And in addition to these two panels, I’ll be enjoying many others throughout the five days of the festival. Check out the schedule, but I hope to see you at the Library on Wednesday and Friday afternoons.

Everywhere Stories Volume II is now available for Kindle!

I am pleased to announce that Volume II of Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet is now available for Kindle.

The book is the second in a series. Like the first, it contains 20 stories by 20 writers set in 20 countries. The paperback was published in 2016.

For more information about the books or to order hard copies directly from the publisher, go here. To read about the contributors, go here.

Book Review: Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer

by Colum McCann

HarperCollins, April 2017

This is a short book of writing advice by one of my favorite fiction writers, Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin, among many other books.  When someone whose work I admire as much as I do McCann’s offers writing advice, I’m going to listen.

The book collects a series of short writings on particular topics, many of which will be familiar to writers who have studied the craft.  Familiar or not, it occurs to me that the letters will serve as reminders of lessons that some of us may have forgotten.

The first is on a topic that I cover when I teach: There are no rules. “To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you better at some stage make something happen.” And so on. Another favorite is “Don’t Write What You Know.” This appears to contradict the old saw, “write what you know,” but McCann prefers this formulation: “Write toward what you don’t know.” (I heard the same advice years ago from Grace Paley, put only slightly differently: “Write what you don’t know about what you know.”)

There are over fifty of these letters, with topics such as “Read Aloud,” “How Old is the Young Writer?,” “Don’t be a Dick,” and “Read, Read, Read.” Having just spent three weeks researching my current project in Southeast Asia, I appreciated this one: “Research: Google Isn’t Deep Enough.”

There is some practical advice (Where should I write?) and some of a more philosophical nature (Why tell stories?), but the whole collection is a mini-course in creative writing that beginning writers, especially, will find invaluable. But I plan to keep the book nearby for rereading, as there is some advice here I can’t be told too often.

Research Trip Phase IV: Colonial Singapore

I’m leaving for home tomorrow and have finished with the last phase of the research, a visit to Colonial-era buildings in Singapore. The British landed here in 1819 and “left” (do they ever really leave?) in the 1960s (apart from a hiatus during the Japanese occupation of World War II), so anything built during that time is technically “colonial,” but I’m mostly interested in the first half of that period.

There are a lot of beautiful buildings to see. Pictured above is the Istana, built in the 19th Century for the British Governors of the Colony and still in use as the office building for the President and Prime Minister. There are also a number of other government buildings that survive from the period as well as private residences, hotels, shophouses and so on. I’ve photographed a good many of these buildings (mostly shared on Facebook in photo albums) and have acquired a map (reproduction) dating from the period.

Whereas Phase III of the research was spent in the library, Phase IV, lasting for the last five days, as been all about walking. My fitbit tells me I’ve averaged about 12 miles a day over the period (15 miles today) as I’ve explored on foot such neighborhoods as Chinatown, Tiong Bahru, Little India, the Civic Center, and Marina Bay (which didn’t exist during Colonial times, as it is all built on landfill created in the 1970s). Although walking probably wasn’t a big part of the lives of my characters (they would have gotten around by rickshaw, buggy, or motor car), seeing the city this way has been a big help for me to understand the city’s scale.

Museums have also been a big help. Today I saw the Singapore Gallery, an exhibit hosted by the Urban Redevelopment Authority that really shows the transformation of the city state. The National Museum, too, which shows Singapore’s history, was also a big help. Even the National Gallery (an art museum built into two late colonial buildings) helped by showing art of the period I’m interested in.

It remains to be seen whether I can bring the colonial era to life on the page in the way I hope to, but the trip has certainly given me the tools I need.

Research Trip Phase III: National Library of Singapore

It may seem as though this trip was just an excuse to be a tourist. But this week was hard-core research week as I spent all day Monday-Thursday in the 11th Floor Reference Room (Southeast Asian Collection) of the National Library of Singapore. I’ve had a blast reading old texts and contemporary histories relevant to my story, and the library is a beautiful space that has made this work a pleasure.

The library offers some wonderful services to researchers. A few weeks ago, I emailed some specific questions I wanted to look into and they emailed back with a long list of resources I might be interested in, so that was my starting point. When I exhausted that list, I found some more, including some that were on microfilm or in digital form, and kept going. I was amazed at how much material I got through. (I may pop in there next week before I leave to take a look at one more thing.)

I took about twenty typed pages of notes, single-spaced, and have a much better feel for the subject than I did before. How I thought I was going to be able to write this book without doing this work, I don’t know.

The library building is new. On a bit of a meta note, my novel’s main character also visits the library to do some research (the same research I’m doing!), but — and this is a little problematic for my purposes — she does it BEFORE this building was built. So I have to rely on pictures of the old building and my imagination, plus some educated guesses. (The archives she’s looking for aren’t digitized, for example, but they are on microfilm, a technology that’s been around a very long time.)

So Phase III is done, and I’m beginning the last phase before heading home. More about that soon.