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As Authentic as Possible: Meredith Moore's I AM HER REVENGE

by Benjamin Rybeck

First, let me tell you this: I do not often read young adult fiction. Am I a snob? Yes, about many things, so maybe about this too? I hope not. It’s just that I rarely reach for it, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s just because, when I was a teenager, I was barely engaged in the experience of being a teenager. I read Tom Clancy novels when I was in third grade. I watched Ingmar Bergman movies in high school. I was an insufferable teenager, and I’m probably an insufferable grownup too.

I Am Her Revenge Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9781595147820
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Razorbill - April 7th, 2015

Metal/Not Metal: Michael J. Seidlinger’s Hustle

“I want to not get sick this year.” On a personal level, this is what Michael J. Seidlinger hopes to get out of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in 2015. “Last year,” he tells me, “I went overboard with the free provisions and alcohol.” He can be forgiven for this, perhaps; it was his first year there representing Civil Coping Mechanisms, the independent press he runs, so like a college freshman, Seidlinger had a lot to do—perhaps not all wise.

It’s unfair to call Seidlinger a freshman, though: he’s been hustling for years. He’s the author of what seems like a new novel every six months, all published by independent presses (his forthcoming The Strangest comes from OR Books, but previously, his titles were mostly released by Lazy Fascist Press). Meanwhile, Civil Coping Mechanisms’ first quarter of 2015 catalogue contains five titles, which is more than some indies publish in a year. Beyond that, he’s involved with a number of miscellaneous endeavors: he’s the reviews editor at Electric Literature (where, full disclosure, I used to write for him) and involved with a number of hip literary sites, including the defunct HTMLGIANT, the classy Entropy, and the I-don’t-know-what-this-is Dark Fucking Wizard. He once lived in an airport for a few days to promote a novel called The Fun We’ve Had. In interviews, he talks about not sleeping.

When Seidlinger goes to AWP this year, what’s his primary role? Writer? Editor? Publisher? “I am who I am,” he tells me. “I don’t present myself in any other way. Other people have their game plans—authors may act a certain way, or editors might maintain a certain identity.” But Seidlinger finds such roles limiting: “A lot of people get self-conscious. We’re all literary types, and artists are introverted. So the piece of advice I give is, ‘Just fucking do it.’” By which he means, avoid regret and say hey to that writer or editor you love—but there’s still something a tad odd, I confess, in hearing a self-described literary-introvert-artist-type also evoke the Nike slogan.

But Seidlinger is a new kind of literary athlete: the Internet is his court. He has been making friends for years now online, spending an unfathomable amount of time on social media, promoting himself and others as a part of what used to get called “Alt-Lit” (and he now just calls “Indie Lit”) before controversy hit last year. He’s the kind of guy who posts excerpts from his own works-in-progress on Facebook, but he also finds the time to respond to literally every comment anyone leaves him (I know: I tried for ages, without telling him, to leave comments so inane that they should’ve inspired zero response, but there, always, was Seidlinger with a response, even if it was equally inane) and also to post endlessly about the publications of others.

The scene around Seidlinger has changed, continues to change. People drop offline—including some of the stalwarts who first helped build Internet literary hubs like HTMLGIANT. “You see it all the time. It makes sense,” he says. “[It’s] almost organic. Tao Lin, for instance, the effort he was putting in [on Facebook] probably wasn’t worth it after awhile. Some people decide there’s no point doing it anymore; they’ve evolved out of their current endeavor. He’s still quite active on Twitter, but I can’t help but think that he’s a perfect example of how things in the scene change. People change.”

###

As I write this, I glance at Seidlinger’s most recent Facebook post: “Looks up from computer screen, ‘Oh it’s Easter?’ Looks back down and returns attention to the current sentence.”

This is how Seidlinger and other writers in the Internet want to be perceived: as dedicated enough to the craft to work through Easter, but also dedicated to reminding people they’re dedicated to that craft. Of course, this post comes with twelve likes (so far)—which is enough to demonstrate the shrewdness of Seidlinger’s persona (but not so many likes as come with the average post by Matt Bell, the undisputed master of the hardworking literary persona).

Seidlinger has his own brand recognition though: the liberal use of the metal horns—or, \m/. (He once ran a Facebook contest where he gave away free books to the first people whose comments on his posts received a certain number of \m/s from Seidlinger himself.) “It does have a bit of a branding quality,” Seidlinger says, “but like any brand, if you use something to the point that it’s always there, it loses its appeal.”

Even so, most things in Seidlinger’s world seem to be metal. So I ask him if he wants to play “Metal/Not Metal” with me, in which I ask him a series of random nouns (crowdsourced from the Brazos staff) and he has to…well, you get the idea.

“Oak trees?” I say.

“Not metal,” he says.

“The magazine Redbook?”

“Which one’s Redbook? Anyway, it’s not metal.”

“Strawberry jam?”

“Metal.”

“Arugula?”

“Not metal.”

“What’s wrong with arugula?”

“Nothing, I’m fine with it. It’s just not metal."

“Busts of Napoleon?”

He struggles with this one a bit, then decides, “Metal.”

“How about Napoleon’s desk mask?”

“I didn’t know there’d be two Napoleon ones. Fuck it. The death mask is metal and the other one isn’t. Let’s swap them.”

“Is iron metal?”

“It’s gotta be.”

“How about science?”

“You mean the whole concept of science?”

I do.

“Definitely metal.”

“What are the primary qualities of metal-ness, literary or otherwise?”

“Metal-ness…jeez, man, that’s a question. I should say something clever. Or, you know what, can we just run the horns four times?”

Shelf Talking: Mark Doty’s DEEP LANE

The Talkers: Keaton Patterson (Book Buyer and Beard Model) and Ben Rybeck (Marketing Director and Hair Model)
The Book: DEEP LANE by Mark Doty
The Shelf: An award-winning poet’s latest collection deals with memory and gardening—“basically,” Keaton says, “a collection of poems only an older poet could write”

1. “Beauty’s the least of it”

Ben: Doty writes this in the very first poem. Is that true of this

Keaton: One of my mentors in college said something: poetry, in one way or another, is always about poetry. So is a poem meant to be strictly for beauty, or is it meant to have a meditative, spiritual, philosophical quality to it?

Ben: One of the interesting tensions in this book is between the beauty of language and also the pain of living, for lack of a better term. It’s right there in the first stanza: “I’m talking to the anvil of darkness: / break-table, slab no blow could dent / rung with the making, and out of that chop and rot...” All these tough sounds, right? And then the last line, “The fresh surf of the lupines”—everything gets lovely, smooth there. There’s a turn. All this darkness and hard work, but there’s still this beauty at the core of it.

Keaton: The gardening metaphor that runs through this book epitomizes how decay and growth are inseparable. All these reminiscences Doty has about fellow poets and lovers and people in his past, they’re all bittersweet.

2. Dinner with Alan Dugan

Ben: Do you know Alan Dugan’s work?

Keaton: Not much.

Ben: “Apparition” is a great poem…they’re at the dinner, and he watches Dugan cut his nails.

Keaton: It’s the simple, miniscule details that stick with you, whether with poetry or friendship or love.

Ben: Also, it’s that idea of the tension in this book. You have a celebratory dinner, everything’s nice, and the tension happens because the guy at the center clips his nails, which is this transgressive, ugly act. Or in the second “Deep Lane,” the dog, Ned—I guess it’s a dog—he picks up the stake from the funeral plot, and the speaker is torn between wanting to chastise him for disturbing this somber place yet also wanting to encourage him to “tear up that hill.”

Keaton: In both those poems, you have a ceremonious occasion uprooted or undercut by life in all its uncouthness.

3. “For years I went to Peruvian barbers on 18th Street”

Keaton: Doty goes to the same Peruvian barbershop for years [in “This Your Home Now”], and it becomes ingrained in his life. Then, that barbershop closes one day out of the blue, and Doty feels lost and disrupted in his schedule and identity, until he finds another Peruvian barber. Instantly, he falls back into his routine. While we have these parts of our lives that are important, they’re also built with interchangeable parts. And I love the end of the poem: “I’m going down to Jane Street, to a coffee shop I like, / and then I’m going to write this poem. Then...”

Ben: I never think about getting my hair cut.

Keaton: My wife cuts my hair.

Ben: It’s not an activity that holds any importance for me. For Doty, it’s interesting that going to the barbershop seems like another small thing, another strange detail in the whole of his life, an odd ritual he doesn’t think of until one day it isn’t there. And of course, there’s a connection between cutting the hair and trimming the garden.

Keaton: The word I keep thinking about is cultivation. It helps us grow, keeps us from decaying, I guess that losing battle, we’re all going to end up falling away, but we still go through the motions, we still grow our gardens, we still put our words down.

4. “if soul could be / understood as specificity”

Keaton: DEEP LANE contains a lot of hidden meanings, personal, private meanings, that I don’t think any reader not intimately familiar with Mark Doty would understand 100 percent. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the language or emotional power of it.

Ben: Well, we can relate to Holden Caulfield, even if we haven’t been a kid in a prep school in the 1940s, you know? I think it’s the specificity of the place of these poems and the details of Doty’s life that do become universal, because that’s one of the great paradoxes of writing: if you want to make something universal, you need to make it as specific as possible.

Keaton: So if the soul is specificity…?

Ben: The soul is the dinner with Alan Dugan, the clipping of the nails…and the next poem starts with “Into Eden came the ticks,” so more small, dirty details, yeah? Like clipping toenails, like pulling up the stake at the gravesite: the little things that disrupt.

4. With a Capital C

Ben: It seems like there’s a movement in DEEP LANE from the isolation of memory—early poems show a man alone, gardening, tending to his life—and then somewhere around the middle of the book, you get poems about being in the world, around other people.

Keaton: Yeah, this change from the internal to the external…and yes, this is a Collection with a capital C. It really feels like Doty conceived of this as a whole. And some of the poems stick out until you start to unpack them. Like “Little Mammoth,” which, on the surface, is just a elegiac representation of a baby mammoth trapped in a tar pit, but when you delve in deeper, you see how it thematically hooks up with everything else. In many of the poems, there’s a sense of connection with family or loved ones that gets complicated and taken away from us in some way. There’s always that degree of remove that life throws in the middle of our relationships—like tar separating a baby mammoth from its mother.

Ben: So is this a book about learning to live with those things?

Keaton: Yeah, I found a lot of acceptance and reconciliation with the changes that life throws at us as we wander down our deep lanes.

Ben: Well, you still have to get out of the house at the end of the day, right?

6. Doty’s Oeuvre

Keaton: I’m not sure how this will wind up viewed in Doty’s oeuvre, but if he never wrote another book, I could see this as being a nice coda in his career.

Ben: So who’s gonna like this one? Mopey old men? [Laughs]

Keaton: There’s not a lot of formal inventiveness here, you know? It’s a somber, reflective collection, which straddles that line between the poet’s internal and external worlds and how he or she navigates those two, which is something we all do. Poets put into words what can’t be put into words. I think Doty tackles a lot in this book, but he does so with grace.

Ben: I gravitate toward things that seem lonely. There are so many experiences in the world, and the thing you are responsible for as a writer is to, whatever the experience is, communicate it as clearly as possible. That way, it’ll enter into the brain of somebody else who has had that same experience and make them feel less alone. It’s the David Foster Wallace sentiment: literature is a way of assuaging loneliness. You read something and you say, “I’ve felt that way before, but I couldn’t say it.” It’s not like the writer’s smarter, just that the writer can articulate it.

Keaton: Yeah, I can’t remember the line exactly, but somebody said once that great literature lets you know there are lonely people out there just like you. But a great book ought to ring with—and here’s the troubling word—some kind of authenticity.

Ben: And DEEP LANE rings with that for you?

Keaton: Yes. I feel a naked honesty here.

7. The Depths of the Lane

Ben: Does Doty ever reveal how deep the lane is? It might’ve been helpful if he’d provided a diagram so you could see the exact dimensions.

Keaton: I imagine it as ravine-like…

Deep Lane: Poems Cover Image
$25.95
ISBN: 9780393070231
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - April 6th, 2015

Smarts, Quiet Strength, and Stubbornness: A Q&A with Kirstin Valdez Quade

by Annalia Linnan

If you haven’t already heard of Kirstin Valdez Quade, you should admire her for this: Google has nothing on her. She’s not on any social media platforms, but her photos are all great (no shots where she’s blinking or has her hands up trying to explain a metaphor). In fact, the whole of her web presence is her author profile over at Norton and her page at the University of Michigan, where she’s teaching writing as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor. Essentially, she is living the pre-millennium dream, judged only by her writing and what she decides to reveal.

Normally, this feat would impress me, but it proves nerve-wracking when asking her questions. Nevermind that Quade is also a former Stegner fellow, won the 5 Under 35 Award, and has work published in "The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere” (the dream bio). Her low profile gives me two impulses: to ask her everything (How old were you when you lost your first tooth? How do you feel about kettle corn?), and to leave her alone.

This is what you need to know about my response to NIGHT OF THE FIESTAS: I’ve spent a year reading short stories almost exclusively, but Quade does something I’ve only seen in the best non-fiction, which is step back and allow the characters to speak for themselves.

Quade’s stories are not about language (though for the record, it’s lovely) or morals or creating charged moments. They don’t even have a particular concern for plot. Take “Nemecia,” for instance, a crude summation of which could be, simply, “Maria’s cousin lived with her until she didn’t.” And yet, the relationship between Maria and Nemecia is so complex that Maria spends years of her life trying to unravel it.

Like her work, Quade is gracious and searching. She takes her time, though not in a way that seems guarded or calculated. She lets things breathe.

###

Brazos Bookstore: In an interview you did last year with The New Yorker, you said you "can never find [your] way into a story until [you] have a character." Which of your characters do you admire most? Which character challenges you the most?

Kirstin Valdez Quade: I care about all my characters—after embodying their points of view for the months or years it takes for me to write a story, I can’t help but care about them—but I think I most admire Crystal, the protagonist of “Ordinary Sins.” Despite some of her questionable decisions, she has smarts and a quiet strength and a stubbornness that she’ll need in the next few years. And while she has a tough road ahead of her, raising twins on her own, I think she’ll be a good mother, because she’s thoughtful about her weaknesses and determined to overcome them.

My most challenging character was probably Maria, the speaker in “Nemecia.” In telling the story of her cousin’s life, she is really telling her own story, and in many ways, we both faced the challenge of trying to understand her relationship with her troubled cousin and what that relationship meant to her own conception of herself and her past. Despite fearing and resenting Nemecia, Maria also adores her cousin and longs for her attention. Even as Maria comes to understand how damaged Nemecia is by witnessing a grisly murder, Maria still envies her cousin, not just because she gets sympathy from the adults around them, but because the trauma sets Nemecia apart and gives her a story.

BB: What surprised you the most when putting NIGHT OF THE FIESTAS together?

KVQ: As I was organizing my stories into a collection, I was surprised to discover how many themes I returned to again and again. I thought these ten stories were fairly diverse—my protagonists are men and women, children and retirees, set in the past and in the present—yet over and over I was writing about longing for transformation and betrayals within families.

As someone who works on stories for a very, very long time, it’s scary to no longer have control over them and not to be able to continue to tweak them. And yet it’s also kind of a relief, because I can officially move on to new stories!

BB: Many of your stories end with a single powerful image, a fixed shot, rather than a plot resolution or a particular lesson. How do your stories indicate when it's time for you to leave them?

KVQ: I really appreciate your saying that the images are powerful. Often I’ll have a sense of what I want the emotional arc of the story to be, and where I want the story to end, but I won’t fully understand how to get there. Or I’ll have the image I want to end with, but won’t exactly know what it means to the character or the story. My task, then, is to figure out what has to happen in the concrete world of the story to get the character to that emotional place.

BB: How does setting shape the way you think about a story? What is your connection to New Mexico?

KVQ: My mother’s family is from Northern New Mexico and has been there for hundreds of years. When I was a child, my parents and I moved away, and we continued to move all over the Southwest for the rest of my childhood. But through all those moves, we always returned to Santa Fe, and my grandmother’s house in particular always felt like home to me. The landscape of New Mexico inspires my work because it feels suffused with history and family history and my own history. When story ideas occur to me, they’re often inseparable from that landscape.

BB: You'll have no idea who we'll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

KVQ: What’s the worst advice about writing you’ve ever received and why?

BB: Speaking of, Reif Larsen wants to know: What book brought you back from the darkness?

KVQ: What a great question! I’d have to say Alice Munro’s RUNAWAY, which reminded me there’s salvation in looking closely at a situation. In her stories she continues to peel back layers, revealing deeper and deeper layers of the story, deeper and deeper layers of mystery. And her curiosity about people seems to be limitless. She looks so closely at her characters and their situations, and that quality of attention is breathtaking.

Night at the Fiestas: Stories Cover Image
$25.95
ISBN: 9780393242980
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - March 23rd, 2015

Music You’ll Never Unhear: An Interview with Mark Andrew Ferguson

by Benjamin Rybeck

Mark Andrew Ferguson is banking on his maturity.

Let me explain: Ferguson came to fiction writing relatively late. “As a teenager,” he says, “I got the message that it’s cool and enriching to have creative outlets, but that you shouldn’t bother trying to make them your living.” Instead, he found his living adjacent to creative types, first interning with a literary agency, then landing a job at HarperCollins, marketing—among other things—audiobooks. But he yearned to make something tangible—more tangible, anyway, than the emails he sent as a daily part of his job. So he returned to his creative urges—graphic design, and then writing—after years of work: “I had to build confidence in the real world to feel like I had the authority to say anything.”

Judging from his debut novel, THE LOST BOYS SYMPHONY, he sure found his authority. It’s simultaneously comfortable and radical, its young characters trapped in a love triangle. Henry and Val have dated for years, until she feels the need to grow beyond her high school boyfriend, at which point she dumps him and heads off to NYU. Shortly thereafter, Henry vanishes, leaving his best friend Gabe to track him down, all the while facing his latent attraction to Val.

Does this all sound conventional? I guess I forgot to mention the time travel. When Henry vanishes, he discovers himself abducted by versions of himself from the future, one eighty years old, another forty-one. What do they want? To prevent Henry from making a horrible mistake as a young man that causes him to lose Val forever.

It’s a beautiful book full of music—not only references to the music Henry makes (chapters are often referred to with terms like “Sonata” or “Minuet”), but the prose itself also has that lyrical quality that usually gets called “poetic.” (“The bushes that bordered the road rustled in applause,” Ferguson writes in the first chapter, “and the streetlamps lowered their curious faces, burst open like flowers, and showed [Henry] with orange and yellow sparks of congratulation.”) Music informs how most of these characters experience the world, and midway through the novel, Gabe thinks of “[t]he music that Henry had told him about, the all-encompassing soundscape that he’d been warned he could never unhear.” For novel readers longing for the poetic, THE LOST BOYS SYMPHONY might be music they’ll never want to unhear.

But other readers may not pick up the novel’s frequencies at all. Its leaps from realism to fantasy might be difficult in the way that Charlie Kaufman films puzzle viewers unable to adjust to his mindset. “It’s a tough sell,” Ferguson admits, echoing his days in marketing. “A genre bender. A long burn. For this kind of book to work, it takes months of people picking it up, word of mouth, and a lot of support from booksellers.” Unsurprisingly, he heard different responses from different readers. For example, his agent wanted more about the characters than the fantasy, whereas his editor wanted less love triangle and more time travel.

So which of these threads came first? Ferguson answers quickly: “The time travel came first.” He explains that among his first literary lovers were Paul Auster, Philip K. Dick, Haruki Murakami, and Kurt Vonnegut, and certainly THE LOST BOYS SYMPHONY demonstrates these influences. The fact that it doesn’t collapse under them, however, is probably due to the personal connection Ferguson felt to his material.

He’d had the idea of the time travel for years—he’d even tried to write it at one point as a comedy sketch—but he kept getting stuck. Finally, he found himself reflecting on an experience from college: a good friend who lived with Ferguson at Rutgers (where Henry and Gabe go to school) was a music student and had a psychotic break. “It occurred to me,” Ferguson says, “that I’d been waiting for him to show up and be himself again, but that was never going to happen. And that thought really terrified me.” When he finally found the book, “I was in a time when I was coming to terms with my own growth and maturity.”

“The power of writing the book,” Ferguson tells me, “was I had to have empathy for a character that I modeled on myself. Gabe was experiencing a lot of the same things I had, and that empathy made me feel authoritative in my own life and experience.” Gabe’s own confusion about how to handle his mentally ill friend helped Ferguson to consider his own past: “What was [I] supposed to do? I’d never asked myself about that until I asked Gabe about it.”

The sharply defined experiences of Ferguson’s personal life help clarify the surrealism of THE LOST BOYS SYMPHONY, just as the incoherence of a Jackson Pollock painting only works because the shapes and colors seem so specific and real. But Ferguson stresses that he isn’t interested in always using his real life in this way: “What I’ve moved onto now certainly has pieces of me, but it isn’t all autobiographical, and I’m excited by that. I hope I can become more imaginative about the minds of characters in situations I’ve never been in.”

But this gets me back to the notion of Ferguson’s maturity, and his investment in the long arc of his career, not just in this particular moment of success. “I was [at HarperCollins] when we published Jess Walter’s BEAUTIFUL RUINS, and he was a guy who everybody loved but nothing of his had quite hit [before then]. I’m aware of authors who have gotten big on their fifth book.” Ferguson knows that it might take a while, but that as he grows and changes, so will the kinds of books he writes, and so will the kinds of audiences he reaches.

I’m banking on Ferguson’s maturity too.

The Lost Boys Symphony Cover Image
$25.00
ISBN: 9780316323994
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Little Brown and Company - March 24th, 2015

To Connect Over Shared Stories: Chris Cander’s Whisper Hollow

By Cassandra Neace

When I received my copy of Chris Cander’s WHISPER HOLLOW, I turned it over to read the description on the back. When I saw that the story takes place in West Virginia coal country, my first reaction was to question the title. As someone who spent her summers as a child in those same hills, I can say with certainty that no one says “hollow.” It’s holler. Period.

That one inconsistency put me on guard. Luckily, Cander accounts for it early on, when a recent immigrant reflects on how the local speech differs from the English she studied in school back in Germany: “Even Whisper Hollow…was pronounced in a way that suggested something unpredictable.” That sentence did the trick. It kept me reading.

When I spoke with Cander, I told her about my initial reaction. She laughed. We ended up talking about shared memories of childhoods in West Virginia and the stories that we heard from our relatives. Those stories are reflected throughout WHISPER HOLLOW, both in its chronicle of the daily hardships faced by those who make their living from the mines and in the more dark and unpredictable elements of the story.

The story begins in darkness. A young girl, Ruth, is killed in an accident just before the birthday she shares with her twin, Myrthen. It is an event that has long-lasting repercussions. Much of what happens in the book is driven by Myrthen’s guilt, albeit indirectly. It leads to the death of thirteen miners. Their loss is serious blow to the town, and particularly to Alta, who loses her husband, her son, and the man who she loves in secret. That is not a spoiler, either. It is just the way that Cander works.

Cander explains that she likes to give away a lot right up front. It is not meant to be a book full of surprises, but one that looks at the fallout from an event and examines how people recover. Cander sets this artistic challenge for herself with each work. She focuses on telling a story when something bad has already happened, then works to unpack that event and all of its associated baggage.

The strength of Cander’s storytelling lies in her attention to detail. She spends a great deal of time focusing on the daily life of characters. The reader comes to know them, to understand them and the choices that they make. The characters feel familiar. As I read, I felt as if I were sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ house listening to them talk about the old days with their brothers and sisters, and in my earliest memories, their mothers. Whisper Hollow could have easily been one of their stories.

I was meant to be interviewing Cander the afternoon we spoke. Instead, she picked my brain about my family’s history and how and where it may have overlapped her own. We talked about the holler my grandparents called home and how time there moves a little slower than in the rest of the world. It was a unique experience for both of us, reader and author, being able to dissect the novel and our experience with it in that way.

My wish is that we will get to do it again sometime, to connect over shared stories. Maybe it will happen while we are both browsing the shelves at Brazos, she with her son in tow. From what I hear, he is a big fan.

Cassandra Neace is a recovering educator, a Book Riot contributor, and an unapologetic binge-reader. Her most recent binge-reads have involved short fiction from across the spectrum, science fiction written by women, and all of the books she read under duress in grad school. She figured they deserved a second chance. When she’s not reading books or writing about them, she works for a local graphic design firm.

Whisper Hollow Cover Image
$17.95
ISBN: 9781590517116
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Other Press (NY) - March 17th, 2015

Whatever Suits the Show: Houston’s Main Street Theater

By Annalia Linnan

Here’s the scene: it’s 1975, and Rebecca Udden and some friends want to do some theater. None of them can (or want to) do it full time, but they have enough players to stage some quality (albeit modest) shows. They set up in Autry House, the refectory of the Episcopal Church right across from Rice University. Like the troupe, the space is quirky but functional: each performance involves converting the cafeteria to a stage then back again. Such are the humble beginnings of Main Street Theater.

Does this sound idyllic? Well, the way I hear the tale is less so. It’s February, and Capital Campaign Director Joe Kirkendall and I are on the patio at Under the Volcano, speaking in radio voices and leaning close to my phone in hopes the hissing hip-hop music doesn’t bleed into the recording. In the moment, all we can do is shrug, but thinking about it later reminds me of what Main Street has always been about: doing the best with what you have.

When Main Street switched locations during the ‘80s, its new home was originally a dry cleaner’s. Udden and some volunteers “gutted it,” converted it into a theater, and were running shows by 1982. Two years later, Udden adopted the building next door to add patron restrooms, and that is where Main Street has been ever since, in what Kirkendall calls “these two little oddball buildings stuck together” at the corner of Times Boulevard and Kirby Drive.

Thirty years later, Main Street has become “one of the major theatre organizations in Houston," according to Kirkendall. Though known for its intimacy--the cozy house seats a mere ninety-nine patrons--Main Street has “expanded from just doing main stage shows, [adding] a very active theater for youth division that serves more kids in Houston than any other youth theater organization.” In fact, Main Street’s education program includes not only the Times Boulevard location but satellite locations via in-school workshops and summer camps available throughout Houston and Bellaire.

On the surface, all seems fine, but like a well-loved teddy bear, there comes a time when good ol’ TLC is not enough: repairs must be made. That’s where Kirkendall comes in, though (admittedly) it’s been a long journey. In 2008, Main Street fashioned a capital campaign to buy their buildings and begin renovations. But then--you’ve heard this one before--the recession happened. However, with help from the Houston Endowment and the Brown Foundation, Main Street restarted its campaign a few years ago. At the time, Kirkendall had recently moved back to Houston and did not anticipate becoming head of the project.

“You know, I just happened to be here,” Kirkendall says. And it’s true--he moved away for a number of years then returned to work for Main Street--but his pride is such that he makes his degree in interior design and background doing fundraising for nonprofits seem incidental. But they’re not, and this is how you can tell: for the past two years, Kirkendall has worked closely with the architects to refine the plans for the building.

The goal is to make the changes Main Street needs while maintaining its general feel. “[Udden] built the theater on a tight budget, and we’re doing this project on a tight budget,” says Kirkendall. “It’s gonna look like Main Street theater--it’s not gonna look slick.” And what does Main Street theater look like? Unlike Alley Theater and Stages, Kirkendall describes Main Street as “a little rougher around the edges. It’s a little more, you know, like a concrete floor and an exposed stud.”

In other words, though big changes are being made--the new building will have a second floor, a new classroom, and an elevator -- they’re being made from the inside, for function more than anything flashy. As proof, the theater itself is not going to be any bigger. The seats will be reconfigured--and even movable!--but the biggest change regulars will notice will be the absence of the two I-beams that have always sat in the middle of the playing area, which will provide the theater with much more flexibility.

“In the renovated theater, we will be able to move [the seats] any way we want,” Kirkendall says. “So a director will be able to say, ‘Well, you know what? I kind of would like to have all the seats over here in the corner looking at that facing corner’ or ‘I’d kind of like to make kind of a little proscenium stage at one end.’ You know, whatever suits the show.”

###

When I try to contact Udden via email for an interview, I receive this automatic message: “I am working remotely from Prague for several weeks, but I read and respond to email every day. Just know that I am seven hours ahead of Houston, so my response to you is likely to come the next business day. If you need immediate assistance, please email Shannon Emerick.”

I assumed the worst--Prague, several weeks, seven hours ahead--but she wrote me back five hours later, offering to Skype or answer questions over email. Based on her track record, I imagined Udden as intense and meticulous. In actuality, she is generous, enthusiastic, and rarely uses the word “I.” Instead, she uses “we,” making it clear she views Main Street as a family more than her personal darling.

“Yes, I’ve been the ‘leader,’ but I’ve never taken the theater in a direction that the company didn’t already want to go,” Udden writes. “Main Street Theater is an artistic home for a large group of people who come and go but always come back.”

With the renovations at the Rice Village location, and MATCH (Midtown Arts and Theatre Center Houston) building in the works, Udden feels like this is Main Street’s time to shine. “You can’t look at Main Street’s future without considering how we got here,” says Udden. “This has always been an organization that has moved forward because the of the artists that have been committed to it.”

Kirkendall agrees. “It’s been very cool to see local arts foundations and individual donors who have stepped up and said, ‘Main Street has really made a difference for me and I want to give back. I want to help it in its future,” he says. “You know, they’ve seen: [Udden] has run a tight ship for forty years, and they want to see this institution continue.”

After five years of plans and dreams and disappointments, renovations started earlier this month.

Learning to Play a Different Instrument: Jill Alexander Essbaum on HAUSFRAU

by Benjamin Rybeck

Before I call Jill Alexander Essbaum, I know just a handful of facts about her. I know that she grew up in the Houston area and remains a huge (read: sort of frighteningly rabid) Rockets fan. I know that HAUSFRAU, out 3/17, is her first novel after publishing several collections of poetry on small presses. I know that most of what’s written about her poetry highlights its “erotic” aspects (and I have, in fact, read some of this poetry, including this one, which will turn on the surrealist in your life). And I know that, in an email exchange, she challenged me to ask questions she has never heard before.

But immediately before she picks up the phone—I mean, seriously, the phone is ringing in my ear—I find one particular fact about her that excites me more than any of the others: she’s a Nick Cave superfan.

“Favorite album,” I say, which sounds less like a question and more like an initiation.

It’s not easy, and she takes her time with the answer, thinking about it before saying, “No More Shall We Part…it plays like a novel. It’s so different from, say, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!, which I didn’t like until I saw him on tour.” Her favorite songs, though? “Stagger Lee” and “Deanna.” “What’s your favorite?” she asks me.

“I came to him on No More Shall We Part,” I say—which actually, I realize after I hang up the phone, is a lie: I first fell in love with Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus on a long drive from Tucson to Denver. I confess to her that I prefer mellow Nick Cave to fire-and-brimstone Nick Cave.

“Angry Nick gets me going,” she says, referring to him by his first name (always) in the same way that a handful of my friends refer to the artists they love most: with familiarity, as though they’ve invited them into their homes many times, so why not use their given names? “But when he’s gentle,” Essbaum says, “he really scratches an itch in me.”

She tells me that she dedicated one of her books of poetry to “Nick,” not just because he’s awesome, but because he helped her think about new ways of writing her own work without abandoning her preoccupations and obsessions—“to move in a direction that’s not my usual way, and if it works, great, but if it doesn’t, you leave and move on. Else you start to parody yourself or get used to your own gimmicks.”

Another artist she relates to, for similar reasons, is PJ Harvey. “Her album White Chalk deeply affected me. For that album, she learned to play piano.” And so, in writing HAUSFRAU, Essbaum “learned to play a different instrument too. I feel good about trying new things.”

How about Nick Cave’s novels—has she read them?

“Moving on…” she says after a pause so deep it makes me think she has ended the call.

I ask her which of her loves is greater: Nick Cave or the Houston Rockets?

“I’ve loved the Rockets longer,” she says. “They fill different needs in my life.” She tells me about her history with the Rockets when she was going to Alvin High School. She used to go to the games with her dad, but when he passed away, she didn’t have anyone to watch basketball with. Later, she and her husband discovered, after a year of marriage, their shared love for the Rockets, so they started following the games together. “It was killing us,” she says. “I screamed, yelled—ate a lot of throat lozenges.”

The point? “[Nick Cave and the Rockets] both get out some aggressions.”

If my conversation with her is any indication, these outlets for aggression seem to be working, for she comes across as the least aggressive person on the planet. This is not the same as saying that she’s timid, because she isn’t (even though she tells me she’s a shy person), but that she seems measured and not prone to heated thinking.

If only Anna, the protagonist of HAUSFRAU, was the same. The novel—which seems like a modern version of THE AWAKENING or MADAME BOVARY—focuses on the perfectly mundane marriage between Anna and Bruno, living with their three young children in a comfortable suburb of Zürich. An easy life, right? Perhaps, but Anna doesn’t let it be. Instead, she finds other outlets—some harmless, like her German lessons, and some less harmless, like the series of lovers she takes on. (Does Anna just need to listen to some more Nick Cave?)

As I read HAUSFRAU, I found myself relating to Anna—not because of her actions, but because her feeling malaise is a universal one. After all, sometimes everything seems okay, yet you can’t shake the dread or the melancholy. Does anyone else feel this way? Do I just sound desperate? Should I be worried that I identify with Anna?

“I don’t think so,” Essbaum says. “One of the attractions of the book is that we recognize ourselves in…well, maybe not the way that Anna thinks and the things she does, but in the way that one choice becomes the next choice becomes the next choice.” In other words, many of us don’t live lives as extreme as Anna’s, but we can relate to one fundamental fact: “Our choices really do matter.”

One of HAUSFRAU's most fascinating characteristics is that, even though the book focuses on Anna, the third-person narration ensures that the reader is kept outside her head in certain ways. For instance, we may know her feelings about certain matters, but we never really know why she comes so close to detonating her happy life—not exactly.

The book wasn’t always like this—not in its first draft, anyway, which Essbaum wrote in first person present tense, a choice that any writer knows leads mostly to agony. “The tone was quite different. Anna had more pizzazz and snark to her voice. She was more devil-may-care. She flaunted herself more.” But every time she tried to write the book, she hit a wall around page 100.

Essbaum’s breakthrough would make a great scene in one of those movies about an artist—the moment when the viewer sees dramatized the inspiration behind a great work. “I was driving from Austin to Houston, and I was listening to nonsense radio, and it hit me in the face: I knew how to fix the book. So I pulled over somewhere around Paige, Texas. I found a park, pulled in, and started writing. I scribbled for an hour and got it!” And what was her revelation? To write the book in third person past tense.

In some ways, it seems like a strange revelation, considering that for a very long time in the history of the novel, third person past tense was the default position from which to tell a story. Not that this was exclusive, but you know what I mean—all those grand authorial works, by Dickens and Austen and Fielding. Certainly the tone of Hausfrau feels old fashioned. “[It’s] written with a higher level of diction,” Essbaum says, “and there are a lot of inverted sentences. It feels old-timey.”

In hindsight, Anna never could’ve narrated her own story, for it would have removed much of HAUSFRAU's levelheadedness. “In first person, there’s too much hysteria…” Here, Essbaum adopts the frantic hypothetical voice of Anna as narrator: “Oh my gosh, my husband has found out about my infidelities, what am I going to do?”

Talking to Essbaum, I suddenly feel like I’m getting a craft lesson. After all, she has taught for many years, and she jokes that her students “say terrible things about me behind my back.” Why? Because when her students don’t choose the best words in their poems, she tells them.

“Look,” she says, “we have every technology at our fingertips. And I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia is the place to go for the final say in informal, but if I’m looking for a specific word that’s going to help me understand how, for example, a lock or a door works, I can type that in. All of a sudden, I’m down the rabbit hole.” It’s a sort of precision arrived at through elimination: you find all the things that don’t work until eventually you find the thing that does. “If I have a word that’s okay,” she says, “why not vet it against all other possible words?”

Essbaum demonstrates this same precision in HAUSFRAU's sex scenes—frank, exploratory moments that don’t titillate but, instead, teach the reader about the characters. One scene in particular stands out to me: there’s a moment, halfway through the book, when Anna comes on to her husband, Bruno, at a dull party, and they abscond immediately, driving home and essentially undressing each other before they even make it through the door, as is always the way in lurid romance novels. But this is worlds beyond that, and what astonishes about this particular sex scene is that Anna and Bruno really get each other, and after reading over a hundred pages about indifference and infidelity, this fact comes as a revelation.

For Essbaum too, who learned, while writing this scene, that “their relationship was very real—the most important relationship in Anna’s life—and it’s undeniable. There’s no question why she’s with him.” Through their sex lives, Essbaum learned about her own characters.

“When you’re writing sex, if the only thing you can manage is ‘the earth moved,’ then you’re not going to be able to explore what intimacy is. And sex is the most intimate thing that can ever happen between two people, and there’s not a single person on the planet who didn’t come about from lovemaking. That’s the single most fundamental thing, and here’s your chance as a writer to explore that moment.” (Though, of course, Essbaum does acknowledge that the book gets explicit: “I didn’t realize how far I went until I heard the audiobook!”)

These questions of intimacy, particularly the intimacy between Anna and Bruno, sit at the center of Hausfrau, the mystery that pulled Essbaum as a writer—and pulls us as readers—through a book that the author seems genuinely excited and grateful to be discussing.

So did I manage to ask her questions that she hadn’t heard before? I don’t know—or at least I’m not saying so here. But as we get off the phone, I do make one promise: “When you get here for your Brazos event,” I say, “I will have a really cool fact to tell you about the Houston Rockets that you’ve never heard before.”

Essbaum seems happy—and now I have to find a fact. Any suggestions?

Hausfrau Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9780812997538
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - March 17th, 2015

Meet Jill Alexander Essbaum at Brazos Bookstore for the release of HAUSFRAU on Tuesday, March 16 at 7PM.


That Texture of Longing and Loss: A Q&A with Keija Parssinen

by Annalia Linnan

 

The language in Keija Parssinen’s new novel, THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS, recalls the sensation of walking into the ocean at low tide, the lush sentences moving around rather than against me. Though the novel explores dark subjects, the quality of her prose feels warm, inviting--a reminder that sometimes beautiful writing can feel like home.

 

Parssinen’s debut, THE RUINS OF US, took place in Saudi Arabia, her childhood home until she moved to Austin, Texas, at age twelve. Now, with her second novel, she turns to the sticky, Tex-Mex, slow drawl glory that is the American South. What emerges is young Mercy Louis, resident hometown hero and up-and-coming basketball star. But summer brings strange happenings, and no one is spared scrutiny--not even Mercy Louis.

 

Parssinen no longer lives in either Saudi Arabia or Texas--she lives in Columbia, Missouri--but her message is clear: home is the place that always pulls you back.

 

###

 

Brazos Bookstore: Though you've spent your career publishing fiction, the prose in THE UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS shows you're still very connected to the sound and moves of poetry. A good example is when Mercy illustrates her grandfather's death: "He was fishing at the end of the dock out back of the house when the stroke buzzed through his brain and toppled him into Chocolate Bayou." Have you always been attracted to more imagistic writing?

 

Keija Parssinen: I'm so glad you think the writing is poetic! Yes, I've always been drawn to imagistic writing, both when I read and write. I came to creative writing through an undergraduate poetry class with Susan Wheeler, and when I moved to New York City after graduation, I sought out poetry communities: the 92nd Street Y, Poets' House, the Bowery Poetry Club. I wrote a ton of poetry back then, some of it good, most of it unremarkable; but that poetic education very much shaped my prose voice, and I'm glad of it, even though it means I have to be extra-vigilant when I edit in order to make sure that my sentences don't feel overburdened with poetry. In fiction, clarity is king, but my favorite writers are still the lyrical ones--Woolf, Joyce, Garcia Marquez, Marilynne Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides. 

 

BB: Was finding Mercy’s voice a challenge?

 

KP: It was a joy to write; it sprang pretty organically from the cadences of my youth--country music and that wonderful Texas drawl, with a Biblical twist.

 

BB: In this novel, suspense is a key element. Was that outside of your comfort zone?

 

KP: As most writers will tell you, plot is a bitch--excuse my french--and MERCY'S plot was no exception. I agonized over the plotting, both macro and micro, in this novel, so that I wound up doing about four complete overhauls of the book. Recently, I found my stash of notebooks, and I filled four legal pads, front to back, with outlines and notes about plot. In suspense fiction, where pacing is crucial, the details must lock into place at just the right time or the whole machine feels out of whack. So nailing down the timing, and paring back the interiority that I naturally gravitate toward, were the two biggest challenges I faced. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go write my quiet, interior novel about a single character who never leaves her house!

 

BB: Mercy's grandmother tells her every night, “Live to meet the end without dread,” and, “Be better than good.” In her locker, Mercy keeps a post-it with other daily reminders such as, “Be twice as good as the other girls,” and “You get out what you put in.” What are the mantras in your family?

 

KP: What a wonderful question! Parssinen family mantras included:

 

-Respect the bread! This was something that our French friend, Henri, once told my brother when, as a child, he used a baguette as a sword. We often invoked Henri's mantra when talking about food and how to respond to it.

 

-Read! We spent Saturday nights at Borders and BookPeople in Austin. We'd all wander away and find a stack of books, then reconvene in the coffee shop to read. Now that means that we're all writers of one stripe or another, of course.

 

Other than those, though, we didn't really have any mantras. We were a pretty free-wheeling family.

 

BB: Your first novel called back to your childhood home in Saudi Arabia, whereas MERCY LOUIS tackles the south where you have spent most of your life. What place does memory have when you're thinking about a story?

 

KP: I started writing THE RUINS OF US with two things in mind: place and tone. The place was, of course, Saudi Arabia, and I wanted the tone to be nostalgic, because I was still processing my feelings of grief at having left behind my childhood home. I adore books like Ishiguro's THE REMAINS OF THE DAY and NEVER LET ME GO that just drip with a melancholy nostalgia. But in MERCY, the tone is quite different. The novel is written in the present tense and so, by its very structure, does not engage much with the past or flashback. However, Mercy's absent mother and her past haunt the story, thus giving it that texture of longing and loss that I seem to gravitate toward.

 

BB: What inspires you besides books?

 

KP: I'm inspired by women who aren't afraid to raise hell, like Hillary Clinton, Ann and Cecile Richards, and Wendy Davis; I worked in a school for several years and witnessed day in and day out the amount of energy and love that it takes to educate young people, so teachers very much inspire me. And I'm inspired by climate change activists: it's perhaps the most important work of our time, but so many people, me included, feel hopeless about the situation. I applaud those people working tirelessly for what amounts to the future of the human race on this planet.

 

BB: If you could do a reading tour with anyone, who would you choose?

 

KP: Gary Shtyengart seems like he'd be a lot of fun to travel/read with! The cover and title of LITTLE FAILURE alone had me cackling. I'd love to tour with my mentor and one of my first fiction teachers, Julia Fierro, because she is wise and warm and wonderful and knows how to have fun. Plus she has a dark imagination like me, so we could huddle together and watch murder mystery shows on Netflix at the end of each day!

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis Cover Image
$25.99
ISBN: 9780062319098
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper - March 10th, 2015

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