Work in Progress

What are you working on?

My main focus right now is a novel that is reasonably advanced. I have a “complete” draft, but the second half of the book needs a lot of work. I’m hoping to finish by next summer, maybe sooner. I’ve done a lot of research, I think I know how the book ends (I’ve written the last scene), but there is a lot that has to be done before I’ll consider it done.

I’m also assembling a new story collection. I realized recently that I have a number of published stories that didn’t fit into either of my two collections and when I made a list together with a few unpublished stories, it seemed to form a natural structure. So I’ll work on that from time to time also. I might be able to finish that this winter.

Then there’s a finished novel I’m shopping to small presses. It was briefly represented by an agent before we split, so it had a crack at a few editors at big publishers, but it has always felt like a niche/small press book to me anyway. It’s quirky and voice-driven and . . . I’m hopeful.

At some point in the coming year, I’ll need to deal with edits to my novel forthcoming from Braddock Avenue Books. And cover design. And publicity. Etc. That’s next year, though. Not right now.

And I have some ideas for essays I’d like to do. Before the end of the year, I’ll make a start on that project.

There’s no shortage of work in progress.

Writing Soundtrack

When I work at home, I don’t usually listen to music. I live in a quiet area, out in the country, and there are few noisy distractions. But I often work in public, in coffee shops, and there is almost always noise: the whirring coffee grinder, loudspeaker music, multiple conversations. Sometimes the combination of sounds is so great that it all blends together into white noise, a perfect accompaniment to writing. (I even have an app that includes “coffeeshop sounds” that is a great way to block out the distractions.)

But sometimes it feels right to really isolate myself from the world, even while sitting in the middle of it. Like right now, writing this post. So I plug in my earphones and listen to music, usually something instrumental so the lyrics don’t creep into my thinking. I have a number of classical albums that are good for this, but one of my favorites is Red by the Dallas String Quartet.

DSQ is a vibrant group that does string versions of pop music ranging from Adele to Katy Perry to Sade to Journey and Michael Jackson. Good stuff.

Press 53 Anniversary Celebration

I have been privileged to be part of the Press 53 family since 2009 when my first book, In an Uncharted Country, was published. Since then, the press has published another book of mine, What the Zhang Boys Know, plus two volumes (so far) of my anthology series, Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet. On top of that, we partnered on a literary magazine, Prime Number Magazine, which I edited for 5 years, from 2010 to 2015. It has been a wonderful relationship.

And now I’m looking forward to heading down to North Carolina tomorrow to participate in Press 53’s 12th Anniversary Party at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro. I’ll be joining a number of other authors affiliated with the press to celebrate the world of books and small presses. (We’ll be at Scuppernong from 7:00 pm, Saturday, October 28. Come join us!)

The publishing industry has been going through a long period of consolidation that has seen the larger publishers focus on books that they can turn into bestsellers. At the same time, we’ve seen the rise of lots of small and micro-presses that consistently turn out quality fiction and poetry. Without them, the literary world would be a much poorer place.

You can participate in the celebrations by buying books from Press 53. Try one of the great new titles, or if you don’t have mine yet, try one of those!

Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa

I recently received a copy of Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa to review for the Washington Independent Review of Books. I liked the book a lot and enjoyed writing the review, which you can read here.

When the book arrived, I was excited to read the jacket bio of the author, which said he had graduated from Northwestern University’s Chinese department in 1975. I also graduated from Northwestern in 1975, although from the Philosophy department, so I wondered if our paths had crossed when we were undergraduates many years ago. I did some further research into the author and learned the truth: Jia graduated from Northwest University in Xi’an China, NOT Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

Translation is a funny thing, because there doesn’t seem to be a way to distinguish between Northwest and Northwestern in Chinese. The word “northwest” is written xi’bei (西北), which literally means West North, so the University in Xi’an is Xi’bei DaXue (西北大学). I don’t know much about the school, but I do know that is not where I studied for four wonderful years. I do wish I’d studied Chinese back then, though, because it would have made things easier when I began learning the language in Singapore a decade or so later.

The jacket bio isn’t wrong, exactly, because the words are the same in Chinese, but I made an effort to tell the publisher and the translator that the bio was misleading to an American readership. I got no response from either, though, and it wasn’t something that belonged in a review of the book. Now that the review has been published, however, I wanted to set the record straight!

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.

Special Price on IN AN UNCHARTED COUNTRY

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.