The long-running Hemingway’s Poetry Series is hosting an evening of fiction and nonfiction on Tuesday, May 19.
I’ll be reading with Kristin Kovacic, Julie Spicher Kasdorf and Karen Lillis. I love how inclusive this series is, and Joan is one of the nicest, kindest, and most talented writers I know. I also met most of my MFA peers–and lifelong friends–in the back room of Hem’s, so reading there is always extra special for me.
At any rate, hope to see you there!
Details: Hemingway’s Cafe, 3911 Forbes Avenue, 8 p.m. Ages 21+, free and open to the public.
If you like comic books, geology, grandparents, the University of Pittsburgh, or Pennsylvania’s vast landscapes, you might like my story “Year One,” which is now available in the latest issue of Pleiades magazine.
To my knowledge, this is the first time my work’s appeared in a journal that’s also published Nobel laureates and Pulitzer winners.
Special thanks to Rosebud Ben-Oni and Jennifer Maritza McCauley. As a writer, it’s wonderful having friends and editors who support, challenge, and lift you up. This was a tough story to write, one that took me in surprising directions and taught me new approaches towards research.
A lovely group of educators emailed me requesting a few discussion questions for Eighty Days of Sunlight, my debut novel. I figured I’d share them here.
1. How does Jason and Tommy’s relationship resemble other brotherly relationships in literature? In real life? (In terms of “what really happened,” it might be interesting to note that the author does not have a brother.)
2. It’s almost a cliché to say “the setting is almost a character.” However, in this book, the setting functions like a character because it has its own history and mood—and because it enables and limits the characters in various ways. How would you describe the atmosphere (setting + mood) of Pittsburgh? Of Wilkes-Barre?
3. What are some ways that the setting affects who the characters are and what they can do? (It might be better to focus on either Wilkes-Barre or Pittsburgh.)
4. Have you read any other books that dealt with issues related to settling an estate or inheritance? If so, how does this book compare?
5. Jason insists that he can create an identity where race isn’t a defining characteristic. Is this possible in contemporary America?
6. Who would be the second-best narrator for this novel? (Aside from Jason, who would have been a good narrator for certain significant events?)
7. If you were teaching this book, which significant themes would you point out to your students?
8. What, if any, lessons does this book have to offer regarding the topic of masculinity or belonging?
9. If this book were set in the contemporary age (let’s say that Jason and Tommy are attending college in 2020), how might the characters and plot be affected?
As promised, here’s a detailed version of the “homework” exercise I gave at the end of my craft talk today. (Also, thank you to everyone for your energy and participation. I know it was a long day, but yinz helped break this talk wide open.)
Exercise: take 15 minutes and conduct research on a historical event or person that will cast a shadow over your scene. My example was Andrew Mellon brooding over a lost love and his lack of children.
Then, for 10 minutes, write a scene where something important happens. Most of my examples from the craft talk were people meeting other people for the first time, but you might also consider having a character make a significant decision.
Some factors to consider:
History (significant events that happened eons, years, or minutes before the scene begins)
Action in scene (Katniss meeting Cinna, Werner solving a math problem and agreeing to work as a lab assistant)
Subtext, mood, atmosphere, emotional weather
Setting (immediate locale) + 3 toys in the “toybox” of your scene. In the Nazi scientist’s office are a large goon cadet, a fireplace, dogs, and a tin of biscuits with a bow on top
Setting (time period) + 2 ways the time period affects the characters’ lives
When you’re finished with your draft, here are a few other things to consider should you choose to revise it:
*Conflict. To add depth, a character can be in conflict with any number of elements in their midst. For example, with “Setting (immediate locale),” have you ever been in a room that’s 5 degrees too cold, or contains a yellow jacket?
In “Bullet in the Brain,” Anders the literature critic is annoyed by the kitschy paintings in the bank in which he’s being held hostage. In ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” the main character Dina is upset because she’s a brown person from inner-city Baltimore who’s just started orientation at Yale.
*Rhythm. Open and close a circuit in the scene by having a character flick on a (figurative) light switch. For example, in my story “Cottontails,” a college athlete meets a young woman who interviews him. He’s intimidated because she seems vaguely sinister and he’s unsure of her motives. This young woman has a notebook but she doesn’t write anything down. Near the end of the scene, she writes something down.
This technique can add a tiny sense of motion or progression into your scene.
*Scenes where characters are bored or falling asleep usually don’t work. From The Sweet Hereafter: “The biggest difference between people is their quality of attention.” Scenes where characters are focusing their attention are usually pretty good. E. Lockhart once said that she loves writing scenes where characters are obsessively scrutinizing other characters. Those scenes are probably really fun to write, too.
*My go-to technique when a scene is feeling limp: put a rock in the character’s shoe. It unbalances the scene in ways that can be interesting or useful. Doesn’t have to be a literal rock: socks mismatched, a night of unsettling dreams, driving someone else’s car.
*Ghosting/”perhapsing” (what haunts your character?)
In closing, here is a better example of place being used to show a character’s emotional state. It’s another excerpt from All the Light We Cannot See. In it, Werner the math/radio prodigy is about sixteen. His lab supervisor, Dr. Hauptmann, has grown cold to him, and WWII has begun.
As I said as I was erasing the chalkboard, if you attended the craft talk and want feedback on your “homework” scene, email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’m happy to provide feedback on the scene. Context (“this is the first scene in the first chapter of my novel”) is welcome as well.
*Special thanks to Sheila and my brother-in-law for printing out handouts, and thanks to Dave for lugging them around. Also, thank you to the participant who pointed out the term “perhapsing.” “Ghosting” might sound more Halloween-y, but I do appreciate knowing the actual term.
The Writer magazine called the C&C Conference the best writing conference in Pennsylvania! In related news, I’m excited to announce that my story collection Impossible Children is one of the conference’s featured books.
It’s certainly in good company: other books include Monica Price’s Instructions for Temporary Survival, Lily Dancyger’s Burn it Down: Women Writing About Anger, and my former colleague Heather McNaugher’s Second-Order Desire.
Contract signed! Thrilled to announce that my story “Year One” will be published in the next issue of Pleiades Magazine.
“Year One” is a companion piece to an issue celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Periodic Table. My contribution is a love letter to Pennsylvania’s geography, comic books, and chemistry.
Special thanks to Rosebud Ben-Oni and Jennifer Maritza McCauley.