Sunday, November 28, 2010

Going Off the Grid

(photo copyright by Dory Adams)

I’m going off the grid for the month of December to stretch out the holidays. During that time, I’m looking forward to working my way through my immense TBR (to be read) stack of books – or at least dwindling its height. In This Light will be back in January, ready to start off the New Year refreshed and re-energized. Until then, here are some links to enjoy:

  • I’ve just finished Franzen’s Freedom and don’t have much to add to what’s already been said about it. It’s an ambitious book but it fell short of the mark, and the awkward device of incorporating an autobiography by one of the main characters didn’t work for me. I liked The Corrections better, and it was due to enjoying that book that I was eager to read Freedom. Maybe I was expecting too much given all the publicity and rave reviews, and I’m certain it would not have received the same coverage had it been written by a female author. Much has been said about gender bias in publishing, including this essay in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Tawni O’Dell, who was an Oprah pick for her novel Back Roads. You can also read an interview I did with O’Dell in Word Riot (originally published in 2005 in Paper Street, titled “Tawni O’Dell: The Influence of Landscape and the Journey Home”).
  • I’m now about midway through Keith Richards’ Life. Sounds of Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed fill the house to set the mood, triggering my own memories and lots of untapped writing material. If I could relive any decade, it would be the ‘70s. I’ve enjoyed many of the interviews Richards has given recently to promote his book, and was particularly interested in one about how rhythm and sound factored into the edits of the book when Richards had coauthor James Fox read the entire book aloud to him. Richards told the story to Fox, a journalist who gets full credit as coauthor and clearly knew how to prod Richards to capture those tales.
  • As inspiration in the mornings, I treat myself by listening to podcasts of writer interviews. After my morning writing is finished, I listen to a fifteen minute segment as I wolf down breakfast before rushing off to my day job. Particularly enjoyable is Shelagh Shapiro’s radio show “Write the Book” which airs at WOMM-LP in Burlington, Vermont. I know Shelagh from the MFA program at Vermont College, having met her there when I was a graduate assistant and she was entering the program. Shelagh recently contributed an essay in the series “What It’s Like Living Here” at Doug Glover’s Numero Cinq blog. Doug was one of my workshop teachers at VC, and I enjoyed this interview he did with Shelagh at ‘Write the Book” in July 2010 about his book The Enamoured Knight.
  • Hot Metal Bridge, the literary magazine published online at the University of Pittsburgh, issued the podcast “A Dialogue with Paris Review Editor Lorin Stein” last month. The introduction is by Chuck Kinder, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette book review editor Bob Hoover asks some questions at the end of Stein’s talk. Stein was the editor for Kinder’s novel Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale when it was originally published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Honeymooners was re-issued last fall by Carnegie Mellon University Press as part of their 2009 Classic Contemporary Series. The CMU Press edition includes “The Lost Chapters” and “The Lost Love Letters” which were cut from the original mammoth manuscript (along with the hundreds of other pages Kinder jokes about in the Hot Metal Bridge podcast mentioned above) and a new introduction by Jay McInerney. You can read more about Chuck Kinder and Diane Cecily’s long friendship with Raymond Carver here. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading this new edition of Honeymooner after catching Chuck’s reading last fall at The New Yinzer Reading Series, which was one of the best readings I’ve heard him give. I’d forgotten how wonderful and funny this book is, and I loved seeing those lost letters and chapters.

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving Sneaking Up?

Hey, I’m home.

Push yourself away from your desk and let me in.


Come on. S

Stop staring and let me in.



Thanksgiving is sneaking up from behind, in the same way that these wild turkeys caught my cat, Nebby, by surprise in our back yard. Lots to be thankful for, indeed, and this front page news in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette made me extremely happy (and thankful to be living in such a vibrant literary city). Congratulations to Pittsburgh poet Terrance Hayes on winning the National Book Award in poetry last week for Lighthead (Penguin, 2010). You can read a short interview with Hayes by Jean Hartig here. And, you can see and hear Hayes read one of his poems at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s 4th Annual jazz poetry concert at Sampsonia Way and read an excerpt of an interview with him by poet Lynn Emanuel here.
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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Susan Henderson: Up From the Blue

Susan Henderson’s debut novel Up From the Blue (Harper Collins, 2010) is one of those stories that stays with you for a very long time – haunting and heartbreaking, compassionate and hopeful. As a reader of Henderson’s blog, Lit Park, I’d looked forward to reading this book for a long time and followed her progress as she wrestled with revisions. I admired her determination to finish her book and get it published so that the story she’d worked on so hard and long reached readers. That story of persistence in the writing process and publication is in itself triumphant. Best of all, the finished novel proved to be a compelling and beautifully written story – one that made it difficult to put the book down before reaching the end.

The main character, eight-year-old Tillie Harris, shows us the world she’s trying to navigate and understand. It’s a place far too complicated with adult problems, which Tillie obstinately tries to make sense of despite the fact that they are beyond what a child is capable of understanding. She witnesses the tides of her mother’s mental illness, watching her drift away on waves of depression and come back to her in a flood of mania. Seeing a loved one struggle to stay afloat during a depressive episode can be confusing and frustrating, even for an adult. But for a child, especially an imaginative one like Tillie, distinguishing reality from fantasy can be problematic. Sometimes the truth might be easier for a child to handle than the omissions and half-truths that are told to protect her – the knowing easier than not knowing.

In the wake of her mother’s disappearance when the family moves to Washington, D.C., Tillie tries to find out what happened to her. Since the story is from Tillie’s point of view, the reader is unsure whether to trust her perceptions. Is she caught up in the magical thinking of a child? Is she seeing what’s truly happening?

There are many layers to Up From the Blue. Primarily set in 1975 when Tillie was a child and at a time when traditional family roles were changing, the novel is framed by the story of the adult Tillie in the early 1990s as she’s about to give birth to her first baby. It’s a story of being uprooted and disconnected as the family moves from military base to military base with the father’s career, of detachment and isolation, of motherhood, of feminism, of family secrets, of longing for stability, of the stigma and shame of mental illness, and of forgiveness and healing.

I caught Susan Henderson’s appearance on September 29th at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Pittsburgh (which has sadly closed), where I met her in person for the first time. She graciously answered lots of questions from the audience at the end of her reading about the writing of the book. For anyone who hasn’t had the chance to catch one of Henderson’s book tour appearances, here are some great interviews with her online:
• “Susan Henderson Talks About Up From the Blue,” interview by Caroline Leavitt at Carolineleavittville
• “Susan Henderson: Trust Your (re)Vision,” interview by Jordan Rosenfeld at Make a Scene
• “Interview with Susan Henderson, Author of Up From the Blue: Tale of manic depressive mother and mystery around her disappearance,” interview by Jennifer Haupt at Psychology Today

Susan Henderson at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Pittsburgh
(photo copyright by Dory Adams)

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Meredith Sue Willis: On Choosing a Book Cover Image for OUT OF THE MOUNTAINS

Mural, Gauley Bridge
Photo copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved

Book cover design choices fascinate me. Those cover illustrations are what make browsing in a bookstore so pleasurable – they lure us to pick up a particular book for a closer look, flip it over to read the back cover, open it up to read the inside jacket flap. At least that’s how I browse. Only after I’ve examined the front cover image, the back cover, and the inside flap do I open the book to the first page to read the first sentence. If that opening sentence pleases me, I may even reread it with the entire first paragraph. If I’m not hooked by then, the book goes back on the shelf.

I was already familiar with the cover image for the new short story collection, OUT OF THE MOUNTAINS, by Meredith Sue Willis. I happened to be with Kevin Scanlon in the town of Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the day he photographed the mural at the center of town. When I learned one of those images was chosen as the cover for the book, I was already hooked. But I want you to be hooked, too, because this is a beautiful collection of stories. So, I’ll open the book for you to the first story, “Triangulation,” so that you can be hooked on that first sentence and paragraph:

“There is a process in navigation by which you locate an unknown point by forming a triangle between it—where you are standing now, for example—and two known points. From time to time, we use great events in history in this way. That was the year I got married and also the year of the great blackout. Where were you when the president was shot? When the towers fell?”

This week’s guest post is by Meredith Sue Willis. Thanks MSW!
~ Dory

IN THIS LIGHT blogger Dory Adams asked me how I chose the particular photograph we used for the cover of my second collection of Appalachian stories, Out of the Mountains, from Ohio University Press. The photo is by Dory’s husband Kevin Scanlon, and I had seen his work earlier on the internet, and used several of his images of West Virginia trains and cars and landscapes in Issue 16 (Fall 2008) of The Hamilton Stone Review. The combination of trees and hills and steel and cars and mist and old frame buildings moved me intensely: it’s the Appalachia and West Virginia that I knew growing up – mine tipples and coal cars on high trestles and always in the background the green humpy hills. So I think what I wanted for the cover of my book was actually a whole slew of Kevin’s images. One that I especially liked had a little girl on a bike and some houses and a train passing way overhead, but the folks at Ohio University Press were concerned about the legalities of images of children, and, as I said, it wasn’t any single image I was stuck on, but just the sensibility of his work.

Now here’s the funny part: I don’t really remember choosing the image of the car in front of the Gauley Bridge mural that was ultimately used. It is an image with the slightest touch of an edge, that is, the question of what is real and what is super-realism– are we looking at a real car or a painting of a car? And of course, in actual fact, we’re looking at a piece of glossy printed cardboard, not a car of all, when we look at the book, or some pixels on a CRT or LCD screen if we’re looking online.

The head of publicity at Ohio University Press says that she’s the one who made the final pick, which she cleared with me, of course. And as I said, it was one of many images that moved me, so I was fine with it.

What pleases me about it is both the edge and the insistence on the art of the photograph as well as the art of the mural. I’m generally a realistic writer, but what’s the point of literature if it isn’t artful? So the art and the calling attention to art worked for me, but so did the old car, and its implications of coming and going, and the mural as a tourist attraction.

And, really, I just adore Kevin’s photos.

Meredith Sue Willis will appear at the Kentucky Book Fair November 13th, 2010 at the Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero Street, Frankfort, KY. Hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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