“If you don’t push against the mirror, how do you know you’re standing in front of it?” asks author Martin Pousson. His PEN award-winning novel Black Sheep Boy, also an L.A. TimesPick of the Week, inspired Susan Larson (NPR The Reading Life) to say: “An unforgettable novel-in-stories about growing up gay in French Acadiana, so vivid and almost fairy tale-like, drawing on folklore from the region, and yet so brutally realistic. Brilliant. I loved this book.” I loved it too, for Pousson’s poetic prose, among other reasons. I’ve been able to ask Martin Pousson a few questions about the novel. His answers reflect his literary acuity.
Maryland’s Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly will present a half-day intensive poetry workshop at the Maryland Writers’ Association conference March 23-24, 2018 in Baltimore. This prompted me to wonder what exactly a poet laureate is and what does he or she do?
As of 2017, poets laureate are appointed in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Although terms vary in length from state to state, the appointment is for one or two years in most states.
In Maryland, The poet laureate position was formally established by the Maryland General Assembly in 1959 and authorizes the governor to appoint a citizen of the state as Poet Laureate of Maryland. Past poets laureate include (in order of service): Maria B. Coker, Vincent Godfrey Burns, Lucille Clifton, Reed Whittemore, Linda Pastan, Roland Flint, Michael Collier, and Michael Glaser.
Sheridan Hough and I have much in common. We studied philosophy in graduate school. We are philosophy professors. We’re interested in 19th-century, European thinkers. I attended the College of Charleston (many, many years ago); she teaches at the College of Charleston. More relevant here, we also write novels. Sheridan and I recently discussed the crossroads of philosophy and fiction.
RC: Sheridan, tell us about your academic background. How did you get interested in philosophy?
SH: Now there’s a story! Off I went to college—Trinity University—at the tender age of 17, and I was determined to be a double major in English and Theatre. My first class on my very first day at Trinity was ‘Ethics,’ and Plato’s Republic was on the menu.
If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve heard many times the bromide “show, don’t tell,” but often the showing part dominates the telling and becomes tyrannical. As a writer friend once pointed out, when we’re writing fiction, we are storytelling and not storyshowing, and there are many ways to tell an engaging story.
Of course, some beginning writers do tend to summarize more than dramatize. They haven’t learned yet how to traverse between generalities and specifics. And in our early drafts, even more experienced writers often are just trying to capture their characters before they can disappear. Showing, then, tends to happen later in the drafting process.
However, it is important to know when one or the other is required, and that’s the advantage of using this shorthand workshop comment.
I don’t normally use this space to review twenty-year-old books, but for Richard Russo, I’ll make an exception. Regular readers know I’m a huge Russo fan. He’s been a big influence on my own writing, and I thought I’d read everything he wrote. But last month a friend recommended one of his novels that I’d missed: Straight Man, published in 1997. It’s the funniest serious novel I’ve ever read.
The narrator, William Henry Devereaux Jr., is heir to a famous name and not much else. He’s a writing professor and temporary chair of the English Department at a third-rank state college in a small fictional town in Pennsylvania. Hank’s father, who looms large throughout the book, was a hugely successful academic and literary critic and a hugely unsuccessful human being.
Several years ago I combed my bookshelves and gave my teenage son some old paperbacks I thought he’d enjoy. Recently, while hunting for a book he asked me to send to him in college, I found the books neatly stacked next to his bed. I wondered if he had ever read any of them.
One he had probably not cracked open—or so I thought I had evidence to prove—was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I figured this because when I myself opened the book, the pages started shedding.
If you’ve been writing for long, I don’t have to tell you how hard or how frustrating the search for an agent is. The books are incomplete and the biggest website, Publishers Marketplace (publishersmarketplace.com) is anything but user-friendly, in my opinion. Designed more for industry professionals than for writers, it’s fine if you want to find out how much a certain agent sold a certain book for, and how many books that agent has sold this year—in short, it’s not bad for statistics. But if you want a qualitative look at an agent, and know little about her in advance, it’s not much use to you. Enter Agent Hunter, (www.agenthunter.co.uk) a British site I’ve recently discovered that’s far and away the best resource I’ve found for writers trying to place a book—at least for writers based in the UK.
Back when I monitored the NYS Legislature I often heard fellow lobbyists compare passing legislation to making sausage. The same can be said of publishing a book. So, I thought I’d let people into my experience publishing my novels, using as a case in point my soon to be published sixth thriller, Inauguration Day.
I started self-publishing in 2011 two years after completing a first draft of what became The Expendable Man. Over time I’ve been able to shorten the process somewhat, but the publishing world is constantly changing so it’s not as if what I did in 2105 with House Divided will be exactly what I need to do in 2017.
A critical obstacle to being a successful self-published author––however you want to define “successful”––is getting one’s manuscript in shape to be published.
A friend of mine is an author whose favored genre is contemporary noir fiction—hard-boiled, edgy, dark. Since that’s what he writes, that’s also what he reads. Without prompting, though, he read my novel of historical fiction set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Washington, D.C., a story that could never be described as “edgy”. Graciously, he told me what he liked about it, but concluded by saying, “I write fiction so I can make [stuff] up. Historical fiction seems like way too much work.”
He’s got a point. Fiction is supposed to be fictional, right? Why go to the effort of having to do a ton of research and ensure detailed accuracy (because you know how those historical fiction fans are about that) when the story is supposed to be invented?
Recently, I caught up with Sue Harrison, author of numerous critically-acclaimed novels, including the best-selling Ivory Carver Trilogy (Mother Earth Father Sky, My Sister the Moon, and Brother Wind), to talk about writing, nature, and finding literary inspiration in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Joseph Daniel Haske: We’ve never met in person, but as you know, I grew up about ten miles from where you live in the eastern Upper Peninsula, in the next town over. Home remains important to me in countless ways and it still significantly informs my writing, as I’m sure it does yours. What do you think are some of the major advantages and disadvantages of being a writer in northern Michigan?
Sue Harrison: You’re absolutely right, Joe, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – my home since I was four years old – informs my writing in many ways.
When M.O. Walsh released his debut novel My Sunshine Away, reviewers named him the newest member of the Southern gothic literary tradition. The novel, which I reviewed on Late Last Night Books here, offers the rich atmosphere and haunting darkness associated with the Southern gothic school, but it also offers many-faceted characters caught in some of life’s profound dilemmas. In recognition of its excellence, My Sunshine Away won the Pat Conroy Southern Book Award for General Fiction. I was delighted when Walsh agreed to answer questions about his inspirations, writing techniques, and more.
S.W. What is appealing about the U.S. South in general as a setting? Would you ever consider writing a novel set somewhere other than the South?
Some people seek comfort food, but I tend toward comfort books. Comfort books are the ones I return to when the problems of the day become too much. They’re my macaroni and cheese without the calories.
A few weeks ago, as Americans seemed at war with Americans, I turned to one of my comfort books, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister. This 1902 novel was required reading when I was in junior high school. I loved it then and loved it again when I reread it in 1980, 1991, and late this summer. The book belongs near the top of any list of great American novels.
I feel almost apologetic for enjoying the book. There’s much in it to make 21st-century Americans shudder, including racial epithets, vigilante justice, and sexism.
Philosophy, Politics, and the Role of the Artist, Part II
I.Notes from the St. Martin Book Fair
In Part I of Philosophy, Politics, and the Role of the Artist, I explored University of St. Martin President Francio Guadeloupe’s assertion that the technological is the colonial. Guadeloupe, as I noted in Part I, suggests that “As politically heuristic as the distinctions between despots and democrats, atheists and theists, creationists and evolutionists, or in more macro terms the imperial West and the developmentally arrested non-West may be, these fade into insignificance when one comes to see that the technological is the colonial.”
I end Part I with my own question, “Now, I am trying to ask not only what is happening, but to whom?
What do mystery authors Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron, Nancy Pickard, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis have in common? They saw that women authors often missed out on publishing contracts, promotional dollars, and review opportunities in a publishing world weighted in favor of male authors. They decided to even the playing field and, in 1987, founded Sisters in Crime, an association of mystery authors and fans with the clear mission to help women who write, review, buy, or sell crime fiction or as its official
mission statement says, “to promote the ongoing advancement, recognition and professional of women crime writers.”
I joined the organization several years ago and can attest to the benefits of membership. SinC arranged a visit to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore where I learned the difference between a medical examiner and a coroner and watched an autopsy under way.
Paul Ruffin died in April of 2016, at the age of 74, leaving a literary legacy that numbered hundreds of poems, over a hundred short stories, as many essays, two novels, and countless inspired students, many of whom are successful writers themselves. Ruffin was born in Alabama, grew up in Mississippi, and spent most of his academic career at Sam Houston State University where he directed the creative writing program and founded the Texas Review and the Texas Review Press. In 2009, he was named the Texas Poet Laureate. Despite winning many awards and earning the praise of some of America’s best writers, like so many others labeled “a writer’s writer,” he never made a best-seller list. His fictional characters tend to be ordinary, rural people trying to survive in a world in which the odds seem stacked against them, his poems illuminate the nuances in that world that sometimes almost even out those odds, and his essays reveal his personal wagers against and reflections upon the gambles we all take with every move in this world of chance.
“The artist must be deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of the inner need, and harken to its words alone.” —Kandinsky.
Several years ago I entered a Masters in Creative Writing program as a poet, but I was equally interested in writing fiction and signed up for several short story workshops. My experience in the poetry classes led me into exciting new places as a writer, opening me up to undiscovered parts of myself and of the poetry world. But it has taken me all these years to fully recover from the fiction workshops.
A Writer Reads Elizabeth Strout
Writing fiction will change the way you read it. I often make a point of reading like a writer (to borrow Francine Prose’s book title), examining what the author is trying to do and how she’s doing it, determining what works and what doesn’t (and why), and looking for how this can help improve my own writing. It doesn’t stop me from reading as a reader—enjoying good literature and losing myself in fictional worlds—but I rarely lose sight of what the author is doing to and for me.
And when I read really good fiction—the kind that strikes a chord deep within—the writer in me usually has two reactions. First, I’m inspired and I want to rush to the computer to try to create a similar gift for my readers.
Another day, another article proclaiming that the death of reading is threatening our minds, souls, and civilization. The latest essay is Philip Yancey’s in the Washington Post.
I try reading these essays from start to finish without succumbing to click bait. I am determined to prove wrong that no one today has an attention span long enough to finish an article, much less a book.
Sometimes I manage to finish the articles. Not always.
João Cerqueira has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto. He is the author of eight books, among them the novels The Tragedy of Fidel Castro (Line by Lion Books, 2012), and Jesus and Magdalene (River Grove Books, 2016). In early July, 2017, I met him in his home town of Viana do Castelo, Portugal.
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Best Book Awards 2013, the Beverly Hills Book Awards 2014, the Global E-book Awards 2014, was finalist for the Montaigne Medal 2014 and for The Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards 2014 and was considered by ForewordReviews the third best translation published in 2012 in the United States. Besides the US, it is published in Italy, in the UK, Argentina and in Spain.