Sunday, April 24, 2022

Dion O’Reilly Guest Blog: Demoralization, No! Intention, Yes!

I want to admit something: I’ve been caught in an endless desire for acceptance as a writer. It began with seeking positive critiques in workshop groups and paying famous poets for feedback. Submitting my work has also stirred intense cravings to see my writing in print or online. But it has forced me to study journals, to reconnoiter the literary landscape, and to refine my poems to meet the challenge. As high as I feel when I receive a Yes, inevitably, a crash follows. That can lead to demoralization. Not only that, I’ve jonesed for better and better journals and publishers for my fix. Whenever I’m obsessively checking my emails or social media, it’s time for me to refocus on intention.


poet Dion O’Reilly
When I examine the culture of poetry, I sometimes think poets exist on a spectrum: on one end, those who rarely self-promote and quietly turn out a finely-crafted collection every seven years. On the other, poets who self-published a collection twenty years ago, and have taught high-profile creativity classes and published how-to manuals ever since. In between these poles are poets with an array of accomplishments and varying levels of social media presence. Some write essays like this one. Some teach in MFA programs. Some record and sell craft talks. Some offer podcasts or webinars.

At all spots on that spectrum, poets offer something for someone. I just want to understand where I feel comfortable—and to set my intention accordingly.

 

For now, my main priority is to dramatize experience, to stand at honesty’s precipice and jump. Then poetry never disappoints and is pleasurable. Even if my poems remain unpublishable, the process is satisfying, leads to greater insights, and sometimes (Hallelujah!) results in “good” poems.

 

The same is true of the thrill of discovering poems—it’s like finding an absorbed twin. In fact, when I don’t have an engaging book to study, I feel lost. Meeting poets, befriending poets, entering a community of poets is likewise satisfying and provides warm connections.

 

I don’t want to discount ambition. It moves me, motivates me, and informs me. No one’s pure. I think the trick is to be self-aware, to track what the mind is doing, dis-aggregate the information, and explore what feels valuable. For example, my mentors have followed a trajectory to impressive fame. But there are many ways to skin poetry! By remaining in my own intention, I can be both thrilled to see my poet friends achieve, and also study my vocation’s pathways. Why respect one publisher or one way over another? Why not democratize the journey?

 

This might seem off topic, but bear with me: In my childhood and into my twenties, I struggled with an eating disorder—an addiction really. I felt fat and ugly. But, through therapy and twelve-step programs, I strived to ignore the disparaging voices—if I couldn’t believe I was worthwhile, I could at least act like I did. I also had to reset my intention—to care for myself in order to be a better person, kinder, and more present—and not because I wanted to be hot and skinny. 

 

Writing’s the same: when I started out as a poet (and even now sometimes) my disparaging voice whispered, Hey, Bitch, your poems are ugly! But my better angel said: Honey! Don’t listen! Just lace up that corset and go! I realized my intention should not be to “fix” myself with recognition, not to write “good” poems, but rather to work at feeling poetry’s pleasures, to enter poetry—to resolutely craft the rawness of life—in doing so, I might become more mindful, insightful, empathetic, and content.

 

Besides, self-disgust—anything I feel—is worth writing about, if I can just detach a little and examine it from a new angle.

 

One more thing: of course I’m insecure! I’m writing poetry—it’s the opposite of engineering. Everyone knows what engineering is for! But when I say I’m a poet, people ask if I make money at it, or they complain about their high school English teacher (which I also am). Or, if they’re a poet, they might ask what press I publish with, and if it’s not Norton, they’re unimpressed. Even among other poets, reaction to my intense, “confessional” poems can be dismissive.

 

Yes, self-disgust originates from others—from family, society, and some peers. That’s why overcoming demoralization by honing intention is a radical act. I also think finely crafting our deepest thoughts stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers in a healthy way. The trick is to develop a greater sensitivity to poetry’s mysteries at work in our minds. And finally, I want to share this advice: be your own damn self.

Dion O’Reilly’s debut book of poems, Ghost Dogs (Terrapin 2020), was shortlisted for the Catamaran Poetry Prize and the Eric Hoffer Award. Her work appears in The Sun, Rattle, Cincinnati Review, Narrative, and other magazines. Her second book, Sadness of the Apex Predator, was chosen for the Portage Poetry Series from University of Wisconsin’s Cornerstone Press and will be published in 2024. She facilitates workshops with poets from all over the U.S. and hosts a poetry podcast at The Hive Poetry Collective. dionoreilly.wordpress.com


Dion O’Reilly’s most recent book, highly recommended!
Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, March 5, 2022

How Much Should You Know Before You Start Writing

When a piece of writing involves research, you might ask yourself when you’re ready to start writing. You want to have enough background information that you can recreate the world you are studying truly. You also want to know enough that you can identify with the subject you’re writing about, and maybe even gain some insight into those lives.

Let’s say you’re writing a short story or a poem that features the wonderful painter, Mary Cassatt. You should read at a very minimum the Wikipedia article on Cassatt. You might even read a really scholarly biography about the artist to pick out a detail here or there that will give your story the ring of authenticity. Here’s an example: it’s interesting that Cassatt, a woman artist, was good friends with Edgar Degas, a notorious misogynist.

Portrait of Mary Cassatt by Edgar Degas
The two of them sometimes even painted side-by-side. Imagine the great conversations! Think of their differing interactions with a model. If you were writing a full-length work about Mary Cassatt, a novel or a play based on her life, I would think you’d want to read multiple biographies in order to feel you were almost a Cassatt expert.

But is it possible to research a subject too much before you start writing about it? I listened to a fascinating panel on historical plays at a conference of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) several ago. One of the panelists, Deborah Brevoort, had been commissioned to write a play about Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington. In researching her topic before she started writing, Brevoort discovered that Martha Washington kept up a lively and extensive correspondence with her husband. Perfect material for a play, right? Unfortunately, after George Washington died, Martha burned all their letters. What a disaster! What surprised me was Brevoort’s reaction to learning this. She was actually overjoyed. I was flummoxed, till I heard her next comment: “That meant I could make it up!”

Deborah Brevoort

When I thought about that, it made a lot of sense. In order to really get inside the experience of Martha Washington, the playwright had to find deep connections between the first First Lady’s life and her own. That’s not so easy if you have so many specific facts in your head that you can’t bend your subject’s story closer to your own. To make that play work emotionally, the playwright had to make herself into Martha Washington, and Martha Washington into her, to some degree, so she could write about that other life with real understanding and empathy. And that becomes almost impossible, if at the same time, you’re juggling countless historical facts.

So, how much research is enough, and how much is too much? You’ve done too much research if the knowledge you’ve accumulated becomes so detailed and specific that it impedes your personal identification with your topic and prevents you from writing. You haven’t done enough research if you still need more details and situations to create content that is believable and compelling both to you and your audience.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, February 11, 2022

My Love-Hate Relationship with German Language and Culture

“Never turn your back on a German,” my Jewish mother used to tell me growing up. She had lived through the time of the Holocaust, though she’d been lucky enough to be in North America then, with the Atlantic Ocean a moat between her and the Nazis. But her generation of Jews knew what it meant to fear Germany, to know that if Germany won World War II, she would probably be murdered.

 

My mother also swore that, “I’ll never set foot on German soil.” In 1968, that vow was tested when she and I drove with French friends across Germany to get from Paris to Romania. My mom declared she would never leave the car. When we stopped for dinner in Baden-Baden, she stayed behind, ironically in our friends’ Volkswagen.



The rest of us were in the dining room, enjoying our dinner, when my mother joined us, reluctantly. “If I wasn’t so hungry, I’d have stayed in the car,” she grumbled. My mom ordered
Kartoffelpuffer, potato pancakes, which she gulped down, enjoying every bite. “It’s just like latkes,” she joked, the food that Jews eat to celebrate the festival of Chanukah.

Many of the well-dressed Germans in the restaurant where we were dining were my mother’s age, old enough to have lived through World War II, or to have fought for the Nazis. She looked at them and said, “What were they doing during the war?” Good question. The horrors of World War II and the Holocaust provoke many questions about how a country like Germany that has given the world so much beauty and culture could commit atrocities that cost millions of lives.

 

Is it surprising that my mother’s demonizing of Germany made me want to learn more about that country, its language, and its culture? My mother turned Deutschland into a kind of forbidden fruit. She was so intent on teaching me to hate Germany, that I felt I had to make up my own mind about that country.

 

Some of my first positive experiences with Germany happened when I was in college, studying literature and philosophy. I continually came across references to German culture. I’m a leftist, and so much of the story and of the ideas of the Left come from Germany and Austria. starting with Hegel’s dialectic.


German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel

Not to mention Marx’s famous statement, “Nicht das Bewußtsein bestimmt das Leben, sondern das Leben bestimmt das Bewußtsein.”—“Consciousness doesn’t determine life; it’s life that determines consciousness.” How true, but how many exceptions there are, too!

 

Then there was the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s tantalizing use of the word Dasein, which literally means “existence,” but is made up of the words da, there, and sein, being. In other words, existence is about being there or being present in a certain place and time. How could I understand that elaborate wordplay and its deep resonances without knowing German?

 

So I began studying German in college. To my surprise, I already knew quite of a few of the words. I had to laugh one day in class when we learned the verb “to drag” in German, which is schleppen. Every Ashkenazi Jew knows what it means to schlep in Yiddish, to drag yourself from one place to another, as in, “I had to schlep all the way to Brighton Beach to get a decent knish.”

 

Likewise, the German word Kinder, children, already meant a great deal to me, because my very Jewish mother would call me and my sister to dinner with the Yiddish word Kinder. It dawned on me that there was a deeper connection between Jews and Germans than my mother had let on. As a friend of mine once put it, “German is a dialect of Yiddish.”

 

The abrasive tones of the German language still reminded me, though, of those World War II movies where the prisoner of war camp Commandant barked orders in the harshest tones: “Mach schnell!”

 

One year of college German did not get me to a point where I could really read and speak the language. I had to go to the belly of the beast to develop any fluency. The year my mother died, when I was 20 years old, I traveled to Germany to study in a Goethe-Institut with its intensive German language program where students stay with German families.

 

I was assigned to a school in a little town in Bavaria called Grafing, almost at the end of a Munich subway line that was newly finished just in time for the Olympics that were to take place that summer of 1972. Grafing turned out to be a strange bubble in time, a village out of a Richard Wagner opera.


Grafing, Bavaria, Germany
The town had its own brewery that supplied great beer to the locals. Grafing also boasted an amazing bakery strategically located right across the street from the Goethe-Institut. During breaks we ate freshly baked warm Brezeln (pretzels), or Prinzregententorte with its endless layers of chocolate buttercream and sponge cake.


All the students in our program were housed in German homes. Many of the young people from the U.S. reported that they had practically been adopted by their host families. I hardly ever saw mine. The couple I was living with had a newborn who took up all their free time. The American students I spoke to also reported that the families they were staying with made nostalgic comments about how much better things were under Hitler—rural Bavaria was a Nazi stronghold. It didn’t help that, to promote tourism, the Munich city government was encouraging Frauen to wear Dirndls and Männer to wear Lederhosen one day a week, turning the whole city into something out of a third-rate Third Reich propaganda film.



One night a friend from the program and I escaped to the outskirts of our little village and smoked a pipe of hashish that he had scored in the Englischer Garten (the English Garden), headquarters for German hippies in Munich. We were stoned out of our minds when we remembered that one of our teachers at the Goethe-Institut was giving a recital that evening at the school of fairy-tales from the Brothers Grimm. We went back to the school and walked in when the teacher had just begun a story.

Once we settled into our seats, we realized that the instructor was reciting from memory the story of Cinderella—Aschenputtel in German. Don’t judge the German language until you’ve heard one of Grimm’s fairy-tales in German. It’s so much more magical than the Disney version. The language is as musical as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony—it sweeps you along. In the original version, when the Fairy Godmother creates a dress for Cinderella, Cinderella has to recite a magic spell to a tree, a detail that Disney sadly deleted. Cinderella says,

 

    “Bäumchen, rüttel dich und schüttel dich, wirf Gold und Silber über mich.”

 

    Little tree, shake yourself, wake yourself, toss gold and silver over me.

 

The sounds of that fairytale are so soft, the consonants pillowed by the sibilant “ch” and “s” sounds. The rhymes clink so clearly. And the story is familiar. Not foreign in the least.

 

Those same qualities that I heard that night in the basement assembly room of a little school in Bavaria I found again when I read in German the gorgeous poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke:

 

    If only once it would be completely still.

    If that “Almost!” and “Why me?” will

    just this time fall silent—and the laughter

    next door—if my whirring senses didn’t keep after

    me, hobbling me from watching as I ought—


    (translation by Zack Rogow)


Rainer Maria Rilke

I realized the German I had been fed as a child was only a caricature of that country’s culture, a caricature that admittedly the Germans themselves contributed to making. 

I feel incredibly fortunate that I have lived long enough to see Germany go from one of the worst dictatorships in history and an engine of global intolerance to a lighthouse for democracy and for accepting refugees. I wish my mother could have lived long enough to see today’s Germany. I wish Germany’s Jewish citizens could have lived long enough to see it.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Monday, January 17, 2022

Whatever Happened to Thomas Hart Benton?

Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) was at one time widely considered the leading painter of the United States. Today, he is virtually unknown. I see many valuable lessons for artists and writers in the rise and fall of Benton’s reputation.

Thomas Hart Benton, Self-Portrait

At the height of his renown, Thomas Hart Benton was the first artist ever featured in a Time magazine cover story, in 1934. Art critic Thomas Craven wrote as late as 1958: “Thomas Hart Benton, secure in his eminence, has weathered the storms and caprices of popular and aesthetic tastes, and stands virtually in a class by himself…” Benton was in a position to become the Diego Rivera of the United States. Like Rivera, Benton went to Paris as a young artist during the Cubist era before World War I. In fact, Benton and Rivera knew each other in artistic circles in the French capital. Also like Rivera, Benton rebelled against the elite and rootless movements of modernism and returned to North America to paint murals that depicted the local history and politics of his country. Today, however, Rivera is enshrined as an iconic artist, while Benton is largely unheard of, even for many artists and art enthusiasts. I recently visited the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco to see one of Benton’s best-known canvases, Susanna and the Elders, in their permanent collection. I was told that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco had 24 works by Benton, and not one was on display. The almost total eclipse of Thomas Hart Benton’s reputation is even more surprising because he anticipated many directions in contemporary art:

  • Benton rebelled against the empty abstractions of modernism in favor of a more representational and political practice of art.
  • Benton condemned the New York-centered bias of the art world and moved back to his native Missouri to seek inspiration in settings not often represented in traditional painting.
  • Benton worked with radical scholars outside the art world (including revisionist U.S. historian Charles Beard) to gain insight and information that he used directly in shaping his art.
  • Benton incorporated images of African Americans and Native Americans in his paintings in ways that broke stereotypes.

To some degree, Benton’s innovative move back to Missouri and the Midwest, outside the coastal hubs of the art world, may be responsible for the current lack of awareness of his work. Some of Benton’s most monumental works he did for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City; other are now housed in the Indiana University Auditorium in Bloomington, Indiana. One lesson here is that the reputation of an artist often has as much to do with geographic proximity to cultural centers as it does to the importance of the work. Benton’s standing in the art world also slid downwards during the rise of abstract expressionism in the 1950s, even though, ironically, Benton was a close mentor to the young Jackson Pollack. (The influence of Benton’s murals is still palpable in the scale and dynamism of Pollack’s abstract canvases.) Benton was also inconsistent in his portrayals of the truths of American history. He was far ahead of his time in showing how White settlers decimated Indian communities in works such as Aggression in his first major suite of murals, American Historical Epic, painted 1919–24.

Aggression, American Historical Epic

Many of his portrayals of Native Americans have dignity and individuality, and are well researched. But Benton fell back on stereotypical images in a number of his murals, including the Indian offering the peace pipe to the gun-toting pioneer in Independence and the Opening of the West, painted for the Harry Truman presidential Library from 1959–62.

Detail from Independence and the Opening of the West
Unlike the Native Americans in Diego Rivera’s murals, who are clearly the architects of an advanced civilization, the Indians in Benton’s murals are hunter-gatherers who don’t seem to have cultural artifacts beyond what they wear and carry.

Similarly, Benton depicted African Americans with nobility and pathos in Water Boy (1946) and Ten-Pound Hammer (1965).

Water Boy
But he also reverted to trite images of Blacks in his interpretation of the story of Frankie and Johnny in his murals for the Missouri State Capitol (1936), among others.

From my point of view, the lesson for artists and writers here is that if you go outside your own background for inspiration, make sure that you seek out honest and insightful feedback from members of the community you are representing. That is particularly true if, like Thomas Hart Benton, son of a U.S. congressman and grandson of a senator, you are fortunate enough to grow up with significant privilege. I believe that Thomas Hart Benton’s reputation as an artist has also not benefited from a revival because he used an odd technique in his work. To create murals with many figures in them, Benton sculpted three-dimensional models out of clay, or out of plasteline and wax.

Clay model Benton used to paint one of his murals
Instead of painting directly from a live model, he often used those dioramas as visual notes for his compositions. Those lifeless models drained the vitality out of many of his paintings. Benton’s work also often has a cartoonish aspect, which might result from his retro fondness for egg tempera, rather than oils, which allow for a more painterly texture. The lesson here is, there is no substitute for living and breathing sources in our work as artists.

Ultimately the paintings of Benton that I find the most enduring are not his panoramic murals with dozens of figures, or his portraits of quaint, rustic characters, both of which were trademarks of his American Scene art. The paintings of Benton’s that move me the most are landscapes where the human element almost seems incidental, such as Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek (1965), where a tiny boat is barely visible in a vast Western river valley.

Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek

I also admire The Boy (1950), where a young man waves goodbye to his farmer parents, presumably off to make his way in the big city.

The Boy
Something about the contrast between human endeavor and the expanse of nature stirs me in those great paintings of Benton’s. He was not trying to do too much in those works, just to tell a story against a vividly imagined backdrop.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Sunday, October 24, 2021

From Short Story Writer to Novelist: An Interview with Richard Chiappone

Many fiction writers want to make the transition from writing short stories to novels. One writer who has done this successfully is Richard Chiappone, whose terrific first novel, The Hunger of Crows, was published in 2021. I interviewed Rich to find out how he made that leap in his career.


Richard Chiappone, author of The Hunger of Crows
Zack Rogow: Before you published your novel The Hunger of Crows from Crooked Lane Books, you’d written mostly short stories. When you got the idea for The Hunger of Crows, how did you know that this would be a novel and not a short story?

Richard Chiappone: That makes me smile because I had no idea that a short story titled “Personal Use” in my second story collection, Opening Days, would turn into this novel. I rushed to complete the story in time for that collection, and I always thought it ended abruptly. So, a couple years later, I picked it up again and said, “Why does it feel like something more is about to happen? What’s next?” What happened next was about ten years of trial and error and error and error, hundreds of jettisoned pages, and numerous gray hairs. Plus, a novel!

 

Q. When you started to write the novel, what adjustments did you make to create a plot that you could sustain over many chapters?

 

A. After thirty years of writing character-driven stories, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about plot. I thought writing a novel might be a good way to learn. One problem I had was the tendency to make every chapter a stand-alone story. The first agent I sent a draft to said, “When I started reading this I feared it was actually a story collection.” (Note the word feared. Agents HATE story collections.) I had to learn that a chapter can’t be complete on its own; it has to move the novel forward. Who knew?


Q. Did the number of characters or subplots increase when you saw the work as a novel?

A. Oh, yes. And it was very liberating. I allowed myself to shift points of view among the characters, something I’ve always avoided when writing short stories. And new plot ideas kept weaseling into the story. So I let them. What a luxury. It was like finding out you were allowed to swim—without wearing handcuffs.

 

Q. What kinds of character development did you add in writing a novel that you would not have done in a short story?

 

A. Actually that was one of my worst problems. I set out to write a simple action-driven crime novel. But free to sprawl, I went nuts. I got so interested in each character I wrote dozens of pages of back story that had to be thinned down. Even in the finished novel, most of the characters have a lot of history. I guess that’s why it’s been called a “literary” thriller. You have no idea how much more I tried to cram in. Thank God for editors.

 

Q. Does the setting play a different role in this novel than in your short stories?

 

A. Setting plays a much larger and more active role. Here where I live in south Central Alaska, in June when the story is set, we have about twenty hours of daylight, and almost no real darkness. (There are midnight softball leagues.) That’s not just some colorful factoid in the novel. The main character, a young woman, Carla, has fled from Phoenix, Arizona, to a small town, 200 miles from Anchorage, where she is hiding from a quasi-military corporation out to kill her. She assumed that the remoteness of Alaska would hide her, but the constant daylight feels like a spotlight shining on her. Then there are the unpredictable and treacherous northern ocean currents, tides, and storms that nearly kill Carla before the bad guys even show up. Atmosphere can be an important character in a longer work of fiction.

 

Q. Are there advantages to novel writing that short stories don’t offer?

 

A. Yes. In a short story there can be very little dramatic physical action. Look at “The Dead” by James Joyce, one of the greatest stories. It’s a dinner party; no punches are thrown, no guns drawn, there’s barely a voice raised in anger. After reading that story, your knees quake.

 

In short stories, what characters feel and think is often more important than what they actually do. But ironically, there’s little room in that form for delving into their lives leading up to those powerful moments of epiphany. That’s something you can include in a novel. I had a good time writing beatings, shootings, boats sinking, sex! But still, I fell in love with my characters and I wanted to spend a lot of time with them. I hope my readers will too.

 

Q. Is there any one thing you were able to carry over from years of story writing and use in your novel? Something akin to your “style.”

 

A. I’d say it’s humor. Sometimes crime novels can take themselves pretty freaking seriously. That’s their author’s business, of course. But some that I admire also have moments of great levity. I’m thinking of Walter Mosley’s stories, and of course, the sometimes very funny Elmore Leonard.

 

My wife is horrified and embarrassed that I laugh at my own jokes, but I’ll go out on that limb and say in my own defense, several readers have commented on the humor in The Hunger of Crows. One of the many revisions was taking out excess jokes. Painful!

 

Q. How did you go about finding an agent for your novel?

 

A. In 2018, after working for five years, I thought the novel was complete. I sent it to Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management. I knew that Jeff had discovered Alaskan writer Eowyn Ivey’s hugely successful debut novel, The Snow Child, at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference here in Homer in 2008. He was an agent who had been to Homer, the setting of my novel. I was sure he was someone with an ear for Alaskan stories. He is.

 

Q. What process did you go through with the editor in creating a finished version of the manuscript?

 

A. Jeff Kleinman liked it, but said it did not feel complete. He turned it over to his associate, Rachel Eckstrom, and for the next two years I completely rewrote the book three or four times before the wise and patient Rachel decided it was ready to pitch to publishers. When Crooked Lane Books bought it in the spring of 2020, I thought I was done revising, at last. Then their editor sent me eleven single spaced pages of “notes” (meaning things that needed to be worked on, changed, or eliminated). Eleven pages! I thought they were rejecting the book. Then I remembered they’d already paid me for it.

 

The editor’s notes were brilliant, and I rewrote the whole manuscript twice more, making massive structural changes. And then it was finally done, after ten years, uncountable rewrites, and hundreds of excised pages zapped into cyber oblivion with the delete key. Nothing to it.

 

Q. How is the novel being publicized or marketed differently from a short story collection?

 

A. Hah! Using the words marketing and short story collection in the same sentence is hilarious. (See above: agents hate story collections.) Why? Because publishers hate story collections! And for good reason: they do not sell. Seriously, how many story collections are on the NY Times bestselling fiction list right now? I'll look. Okay, I looked. The answer: NONE. Only novels.


So, after three decades of publishing short stories, Crooked Lane’s wonderful marketing of my novel has been deliriously encouraging and very much appreciated.

 

Q. Any advice for short story writers who want to try their hand at a novel?

 

A. Yes. Read lots of novels. Many short story writers mostly read short stories. I know, I’ve been a short story junkie for thirty years (and I don’t want to recover. Ever). I have a whole wall of nothing but story collections or anthologies. You can always sneak-read a couple stories secretly. (Hint: Put a story collection on the bottom of a stack of novels on your nightstand. No one will notice.)

 

Not reading novels made it hard to learn to write a novel. I did not have the rhythm of a long work of fiction etched into my brain the way the shape of stories was. Maybe that’s why some of the greatest short story writers never wrote wildly successful novels: Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, to name a few.

 

Q. Were there any “How to” books about novel writing you found useful?

 

A. I love reading craft books on writing. But because until recently I never intended to write a novel, I’ve never read any that are specifically about novel writing. It should go without saying that it helps to have some general writing skills if you’re going to write 300 pages of anything. There are several fine books that I’ve found helpful for myself and for the numerous students I’ve worked with over the years. Here are some favorites (alphabetically):

 

The Half-Known World, by Robert Boswell   

Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway, et al.

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

On Writing, by George V. Higgins

The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich

How Fiction Works, by James Wood

 

One last word to new novelists.

READ LOTS OF NOVELS!

Did I already say that? 


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry