Writing Process Blog Hop

The wonderful and wonderfully talented Brenda Hasiuk invited me to join in this writing process blog hop. You can find out more about Brenda and her awesome new book Your Constant Star here. I also reviewed it here.

So here’s how this works. I will answer four questions about my writing process and then pass the virtual torch to three other writers who will do the same. Here it goes…

Me drawing inspiration from one of the greats

Me drawing inspiration from one of the greats

What am I working on?
After several years, I finally completed my first novel (woohoo!) and am now diving into a first draft of a new novel about identity, and the selves we create and become and leave behind. My first novel was somewhere between fantasy and magical realism, and this new project was supposed to be completely realistic. But then I added a ghost. Apparently I can’t do realism. This project is deeply personal and raw and I’m kind of terriffied to say anything more about it right now.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Well, I think I typically write literary fiction with a surreal, fantasy twist, or whatever you want to call it: Slipstream, Magical Realism, Upmarket. I’ve heard all of these terms thrown around and I’m not sure I or anyone else really knows what they mean. I love thinking about the intersection of realities, objective and subjective. The significance of myth and religion and our need for fantastic creatures and miracles. I like to imagine a world where everything exists at once, our observable reality, and another reality within it or behind it or parallel to it, one that is alive with stories and magic and things we’ll never understand. I guess that’s my real interest, the mysterious and unexplained, and how we deal with what we don’t understand.

Why do I write what I do?
I guess I like to think that, on one hand, I need to get these ideas out of my head. But I also write what I do because I want to engage other people in this wild spin that is reality, to hopefully show them another side of the world they know and allow them to see it in a slightly different way. Those are the books I love the most, the ones that make me look at the world differently.

How does my writing process work?
Wow, um…I guess it doesn’t always work. But I’ve discovered that outlining is incredibly helpful for both drafting and revising. I like to make detailed outlines and experiment with moving the pieces around before I dive in. I need to have a direction laid out and then set myself to writing toward that goal. Sometimes I reach it and sometimes it takes me somewhere else entirely. That’s for longer fiction. For shorter fiction I often sit down with a blank page and let a story come out of the moment because I find it has the most energy that way. And in my opinion that energy is what really drives shorter fiction.

I’ve invited the lovely writers listed below to join me in this blog hop. Follow their blogs to see their answers to the writing process questions in the coming weeks.

Brenna Layne

bWhen I was a little girl, I knew that when I grew up, I would be Princess Leia. When I discovered that the one opening had already been filled, I decided to become a jockey and win the Triple Crown. My dreams were crushed when one day, I realized I did not weigh between 0 and 110 pounds. After careful consideration of the Indiana Jones films, I determined that I’d be an Egyptologist instead. I mapped out my future: I would move from the rural South to a huge city, devote my life to running from boulders and discovering pharaohs’ tombs, turn thirty, marry a cute fellow archaeologist, and never have kids–in that order.

Then I went to college. I met a cute local boy who’d realized that the position of Han Solo had already been filled. I realized halfway through my senior year that I’d racked up enough credits for an English major, and listened to the people who tell you that what you do with an English major is teach other English majors. So I did the grad school thing. I quickly realized that if I became a medievalist, I could still wear one of those awesomely nerdy coats with the elbow patches that Harrison Ford wears at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I got into a PhD program, where I studied dead languages so that I could curse like a Viking when I got lost in the library stacks. I got married seven years ahead of schedule. I taught English, gave birth to an insomniac, moved into the rural Southern house I grew up in, and had another baby because at that point my husband and I were too sleep-deprived to make informed decisions and figured that maybe the second one would entertain the first one while we crashed on the living room floor.

At some point, I remembered that I’d started writing a novel in eighth grade. I kind of wanted to finish it. Somewhere in between changing diapers and teaching eighth graders about onomatopoeia, I did. And then, at the ripe old age of not-in-my-twenties-anymore, I realized that I still had not decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. But there were stories in my head–stories about other people who didn’t yet know where their lives were headed, but hadn’t yet forgotten how to dream insanely huge dreams. Young adults.

You’re supposed to write what you know. I write fantasy because I have fought dragons and meddled in the affairs of wizards. I don’t write for adults because I’m not sure how to be one yet. Learn more about Brenna and her writing on her website.

Kate Grisim

kKate Grisim is currently a second-year Masters student in the interdisciplinary field of disability studies at the University of Manitoba. Her fiction and poetry have appeared over the years in Juice, the University of Winnipeg’s creative writing magazine, and she was recently a guest editor for an internationally published social justice magazine issue on disability and ableism. Kate was a mentee in Arts and Culture Industries’ mentorship program in 2011-12, and many of the ideas that appear in her blog mylittlecrippledheart started formulating in her mind during that time. She is currently halfway through a writer-in-residency position at the Manitoba Writers Guild called The Disability Project where she works with writers who might not share the majority of their experiences with those in mainstream culture.

Traci Cox

tTraci Cox recently earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from George Mason University, where she also taught Composition, Literature and Creative Writing courses. She received her BA in English and Anthropology from James Madison University in 2008. Shortly after graduating, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English and American Literature to high school students in Žilina, Slovakia. Her essays have appeared in The Breeze, Fugue, e-Vision, Write On, Phoebe, Madison Magazine, and The Masters Review. You can follow Traci at marginalia.

 

 

 

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Book Reaction: Above by Isla Morley

I was planning to review this book, but I decided to only post a quick reaction instead because everything I want to say about it would give away one of the things I loved most about it. All I will say about that is: in a way, this book is a retelling of Plato’s Cave. It’s bizarre that I came across this book when I did because I was just trying to think of a way to write a novel based on the allegory of Plato’s Cave, but figured the idea was too vast. I couldn’t figure out how to contain all the implications in the lives of characters and in the pages of a book, but Morley nails it.

The reason I’m talking around this book rather than about it is because I felt like I was at first being carried along the currents of a predictable story about a girl named Blythe who is kidnapped and forced to live in an abandoned bunker. In her captivity her present is interwoven with memories of the real world she is cut off from.

Maybe I was oblivious, or maybe I was just too close to Blythe’s experience, feeling the lack of wind and the soil all around instead of below, but I was shocked and fascinated by what happened in the middle of the book. It swept me along and made me look at the world in a different way.

This book was an exciting and surprising experience for me, and one that I won’t soon forget. It is crafted from madness and terror and all the ugliness of the world, but it is also a beautiful thing, held together by Morley’s poetic voice.

Isla Morley’s debut novel, COME SUNDAY, was awarded the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award for Fiction in 2009, and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize.  It has been translated into seven languages. She has lived in some of the most culturally diverse places of the world, including Johannesburg, London and Honolulu.  Now in the Los Angeles area, she shares a home with her husband, daughter, two cats, a dog and a tortoise.

 

 

 

Book Review: Swamplandia!

I reviewed St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves a few years ago, and read Vampires in the Lemon Grove a while back, though never wrote up my reactions. After finally diving into Swamplandia!, I want to take some time to reflect on it. Overall, Russell’s first novel feels very different from her stories, but still has that Karen Russell quality which has won her a Pulitzer nomination and a Genius Grant.

Swamplandia! Is a beautiful, bold, ambitious novel set in the otherworldly Florida swampland. It is narrated by Ava Bigtree, a young girl who grows up in an alligator park in the depths of the swamp. After the death of her mother, the famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree, Ava’s family is fragmented, sent in separate directions searching for pieces of the world to rebuild their lives with in the wake of their loss. Her father and brother Kiwi leave for the mainland to make money to save the failing park. Her sister Ossie disappears into the swamp intending to marry her ghost fiancée, and Ava herself embarks on a journey to find her sister.

My main complaint about St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves was that Russell’s word choice often seemed whimsical and out of place in her stories of mythic proportion. She has since refined her style and gone for atmosphere over whimsy in Swamplandia!, which is a welcome change of tone. Now, however, sometimes her word choice seems to err in the other direction, too big and obscure for the young narrator. This gargantuan vocabulary works when Ava’s studious brother Kiwi is in the limelight, but it feels out of place when we’re seeing the swamp from Ava’s perspective.

The rest of my review is going to sound harsh, so I want to make it clear that there is a lot that I love about this book. Karen Russell is a wonderful genius, so I’m going to be hard on the novel, because it deserves to be held against the greats. Speaking of which, she reminds me a lot of a modern day Italo Calvino, which I love.

As is often the case, what I liked and disliked most about this book were one and the same, namely the ambiguousness with which Ossie’s ghost boyfriends are presented. Are they real, or not? The possibility is intriguing, but the spirits appear to be real one minute and a fabrication the next. Maybe the point is that their existence is not so simple.

The mysterious aspects of the novel were handled well overall, but I was disappointed by the ambiguity of the supernatural elements of the story, because that ambiguity made the novel decidedly realistic, and the surreal quality of Russell’s stories is what I love most about them, the bizarre contrast of a minotaur with a human family or a vampire in a lemon grove.swamp

My second gripe is the ending. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to give it away, but there were several vastly different stories blazing trails through this book: the girl who grows up on an alligator farm, the girl who falls in love with ghosts, the boy who flees home to work in an underworld-themed amusement park, and the girl who embarks on a quest to the underworld with a mysterious stranger.

Each story is interesting in its own right, but they never quite seem to come together until the very end, at which point everything is suddenly resolved. The pacing of the last 100 pages feels off altogether, partly due to a major trauma Ava suffers toward the end of her journey. I won’t say what it is because it’s shocking, but it’s the kind of thing that sparks a novel of its own, not the kind of thing that should happen at the end of a sweeping, ambitious novel when many, many other things need to be resolved.

This book feels cluttered in some ways because there are so many different stories being told, but at its heart it is a novel about the swamp. Russell herself is a Florida native and often tells interviewers about how the swamp inspires her, how bizarre and beautiful it is. And that really comes through in Swamplandia! The swamp is a living (or maybe ghostly) presence in the novel that shapes the lives and deaths of its characters.

For now I think Russell’s ideas are better suited to stories, where she can let them loose to crash and clash, myth and man, and let their wildness take over. All this said, Russell is still one of my favourite contemporary writers, and I am excited to see what she comes up with next, be it short story or novel.

4/5 stars

karen-russell_custom-682cffba96008b453df4ba632725f10d9ffb640c-s6-c30Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in both The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and New York magazine’s list of twenty-five people to watch under the age of twenty-six. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program and is the 2005 recipient of the Transatlantic Review/Henfield Foundation Award; her fiction has recently appeared in Conjunctions, Granta, Zoetrope, Oxford American, and The New Yorker.

She has written two collections of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Swamplandia (Feb 2011) is her first novel.

My Favorite Anything Ever

Ok, I just had to write a post on my all-time favorite book. I often say that Battlestar Galactica is my favorite anything ever, but it’s hard to top books. And Jitterbug Perfume is one of the reasons why. It’s my Post Modern Bible. I guess that would make Jitterbug Perfume my favorite anything ever. Sorry Battlestar Galactica. Here’s what I find so fascinating about it:

You’ve got two characters condemned to death by their cultures.

Alobar: a king who finds a white hair on his head. In his culture, a king must be young and virile. So when the king shows the first sign of age, he is excecuted so that a younger, more capable king may rule the land.

Kudra: Her husband is dead. In her cutlure a man’s possessions must be burned at his death. Since a wife is considered a posession, Kudra is set to be burned soon after her husband’s death.

So here are these two doomed characters, consumed by a pressing fear of death. But although everything they know tells them they are going to die, that they are supposed to die, they decide that they don’t want to. So they don’t. They run off and join some monks, learn the power of meditation, and come up with several routines such as fasting, taking hot baths, etc., which they perform regularaly. But the point is: death was always a choice. By deciding not to die, they have unlocked the secret of the Universe.

Meanwhile, Pan, yes the god,  is dying as people stop believeing in him (This was way before American Gods). So there’s this weird dynamic of people believing anything is possible, and yet not believing in god, or at least not Pagan gods such as Pan.

What I find fascinating about this novel is this idea that, if you truly believe something and decide that it’s true, it is true. You can conquer insurmountable odds. Even though billions and billions of people have been dying for millenia, you don’t have to if you don’t want to. Human imagination and belief is strong enough to sustain the gods for millenia, but the moment doubt and cynicism start creeping into our minds, even the gods begin to crumble.

Something No One Can Tell You Is Wrong

I was listening to a recording of a discussion with Sandra Cisneros and John Phillip Santos today, and Sandra Cisneros was asked what insired her to write The House on Mango Street. She gave an amazing response that I will attempt to paraphrase.

It all started when she was attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She went for peotry and claimed she had no idea how famous or prestigious the school was. A teacher just urged her to apply, and she got in, so she went.

Once she was there, she began to feel out of place because she wasn’t as privileged as the other people in the workshops with her. She began to feel ashamed as they discussed houses and she realized that everyone had vacation homes in Europe, etc. and didn’t know the kind of one room flat that she was reminded of when she thought of houses that she would want to write about.

She locked herself in her room for days, until the shame turned into an anger that she channeled into her writing. She wanted to get back at the “barracudas” in her workshop that told her everything she wrote was wrong.

Then she decided to write something that no one could tell her was wrong. She wrote about the houses she remembered. The houses only she could describe. And she blended her poetry and prose, creating a niche where she couldn’t find one before. And out of this writing that she did for herself, not for the workshop, The House on Mango Street was born.

I thought that was an awesome way of looking at a workshop, or at writing in general, as a chance to write something that no one can tell you is wrong, because it is so uniquely yours. Your point of view, your words.

In workshops there is so much emphasis on your point of view, voice, perspective, whatever. This thing that is so yours, no one can tell you it’s wrong. Sandra Cisnero’s view really helped me to look at this in a new way by making something so abstract into something visceral and tangible.

From now on I’m only going to write what no one can tell me is wrong. Thanks Sandra.