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Interview with Middle Grade Author Shelley Tougas

Interview with Middle Grade Author Shelley Tougas

Recently I posted about The Graham Cracker Plot on Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf (see here), so I was excited for the opportunity to interview its author, Shelley Tougas.  Since 2014, Shelley has had a middle grade novel published every year, and she’s got another in the works for 2017.  Dang.  Naturally, I wanted to know her secrets!  Read on to find out what she told me.

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A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids, coming October 11, 2016!

 

Hi Shelley!  So tell us about your newest novel, A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids, which is due out in just a few days.  How did it come to be?  

The book is about a 12-year-old girl [Mary] tapped to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of her cousin, whose social anxiety disorder requires Mary to be the bride’s advocate. Mary has to manage the wedding chaos and the aspirations of a meddling grandmother, all while navigating her first crush on a boy who challenges her religious thinking. My editor likes to describe it as a middle-grade version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I started A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids nearly 10 years ago. At the time it was a young adult novel with four alternating narrators. The book had no religious references and a different title — a title so bad I won’t repeat it in public! The only character who survived the original version is Eden, the bride. It took years for me to figure out what the book is about at its core. Romance? Faith? Family? For me, it’s about Mary accepting herself as a flawed person and loving herself anyway. She redefines her role in the family and learns to see the world in shades of gray. There are no easy answers.

 

Mary, the protagonist of the novel, is Catholic, and this is very important for both her character and for the story itself.  I was raised Catholic (my grandmother used to give me holy cards for my birthday!), so I definitely recognized her world.  What about you?  Were you raised Catholic?  Do you see any of yourself in Mary?

I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school for nine years. But 12-year-old Mary is nothing like 12-year-old Shelley, or even the adult me. You might think I come from a devout family because my parents forked out cash for Catholic school tuition and because I wrote a book with Catholic themes. But my family isn’t devout. We didn’t regularly attend church. We attended church bingo nights more often than Mass. I always wondered what my classmates thought when they went to church on Sunday and I wasn’t there.

Honestly, I had little awareness of patron saints. I knew Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, but I had no idea there were so many patron saints and for such odd things. There’s a patron saint for carnival workers. There’s a patron saint for people who fear wasps. That’s incredibly specific. My ex-husband’s family introduced me to this world. His aunt gave us a Saint Christopher medal to keep in our car to protect us from accidents. Saint Christopher is the patron saint of travelers. She also told us about burying a Saint Joseph statue in the yard to help sell our house. We kept the Saint Christopher medal in the car, but we never buried Saint Joseph, and we still managed to sell our house in two days. I guess you don’t need Saint Joseph in a hot real estate market.

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Shelley Tougas

 

Were you at all worried, writing a book that has religion as such a central focus?  

My answer is one of those annoying “yes-and-no” answers. The “no” part of my answer is because the story isn’t about religion—it’s basically a tween romantic comedy. The family just happens to be Catholic. They could’ve been Lutheran or Methodist or any other religion. It’d still be the story of a people-pleasing girl trying to save her cousin’s wedding while navigating her first crush.

The “yes” part of my answer is I worried that having the word “saint” in the title might limit the audience. But when I talked to my editor about a book steeped in Catholicism, she made an excellent point: Church is a huge part of many kids’ lives (regardless of religion). She said there aren’t enough books for kids reflecting a church-going lifestyle.

 

You started off your career as a journalist, and you’ve also written some nonfiction books for kids.  How did you transition to writing middle grade novels?  

I started writing fiction in elementary school and considered being an English major. I didn’t want to teach, though, and I knew I wouldn’t support myself writing novels as a young adult. I decided to study journalism because I knew I’d get paid to write. Journalism combined my interest in writing with my interest in politics and social issues. Great journalists don’t just type up facts. They tell compelling stories.

When I left journalism for public relations, I met an editor who wanted to hire journalists to work on a series of educational books about iconic news photos that changed society. I took that gig, and my second book in that series, Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration, sold well and got great reviews. Booklist and School Library Journal put it on their lists of the top ten best books for kids in 2012. I knew I had a window of opportunity. I wrote a middle-grade novel called The Graham Cracker Plot, and I leveraged the success of Little Rock Girl to get my fiction into the world. I found an agent (Susan Hawk) within a couple of weeks, and after two rounds of revisions with her, she sold it quickly at auction.

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Tell us a little bit about your agent, Susan Hawk.  How did you find her?  What is it like to work with her?

I was one of Susan’s first clients. I was interested in working with her because she had a long career in publishing (mostly in school and library marketing) before joining an established agency. We clicked immediately. She’s an incredible reader with spot-on revision advice. Most importantly, she wanted to work with me on building a career and not just selling a book. She talks to me about my long-term goals, and then we discuss the steps to getting there. I’m very lucky to have her.

 

Since 2014, you’ve had a novel published every year, and you’ve got a novel in the works for 2017 (called Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life).  Amazing!!  How are you managing to be so prolific?!

When I’m sitting at my computer, staring at the same paragraph for two hours, I definitely don’t feel prolific! Journalism taught me speed. You have nights where you’ve literally got fifteen minutes to write a news story. I wrote The Graham Cracker Plot (my first novel) in five months. Since then, I’ve become a slow writer. Maybe it’s because I knew the plotline for GCP when I sat down to write it. Typically I start with a concept and a few plot points, and I end up working it out as I go. It’s not the most efficient process. A detailed outline is key. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to write full time. Most writers have to balance their writing with a full-time job. There’s not enough money in publishing to support a middle-class lifestyle unless you have a partner who can cover expenses in between your paychecks.

Recently I started working a few hours a week as a library clerk. I love talking to people about their favorite books and what their children are reading. Writing is lonely. I’ve been missing the busy world of an office with people chatting in the break room and bouncing project ideas off each other.

 

Speaking of Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life, can you give us a sneak-peak?  What is the one-sentence summary?  

Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life is about Charlotte Lake, a girl whose adventure-loving mother drags the family to the Minnesota prairie so she can tap the spirit of Laura Ingalls while writing her first novel. Charlotte has to find her place in this new world.

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The nonfiction book that helped Shelley get a foot in the door as a fiction writer!

 

What is your favorite thing about being a middle grade author?

I love the age of the audience. Tweens are still wide-eyed and imaginative, but they’re beginning to see the world in shades of gray. I also love the flexibility of my schedule. I can volunteer at my daughter’s school and be home with her during breaks. I can nap and take long lunches with friends. I can write in the middle of the night. There’s tremendous freedom.

 

And finally, what is your favorite piece of writing advice?   

My favorite piece of advice comes from a friend of mine, author S.A. Bodeen. We talk a lot about our inability to control so many aspects of publishing—who reviews you, how the marketing unfolds, what readers say about you online, etc. The one thing you can control is the writing. Get to your laptop and write. You can and should effectively manage your part in the process.

 

Shelley Tougas worked in journalism and public relations before becoming a novelist. Her book, Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration, was among Booklist and School Library Journal’s top ten best books of 2012. Her middle grade novels include The Graham Cracker Plot, Finders Keepers and A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids. She lives outside the Twin Cities.

 

Interview with Susan Lynn Meyer, Middle-Grade Author of Skating with the Statue of Liberty

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Interview with Susan Lynn Meyer, Middle-Grade Author of Skating with the Statue of Liberty

Susan Lynn Meyer is the author of three books for young people.  Her latest publication, Skating with the Statue of Liberty, is the companion to her debut novel Black Radishes, which won a Sydney Taylor Honor Award and was named a Massachusetts Book Award finalist and a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year.  Both novels were inspired by stories she grew up hearing about her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France and his early years in New York City.  She lives with her family in Massachusetts and teaches literature and creative writing at Wellesley College.

I found Susan somewhat by chance, and lucky for me she agreed to do an interview.  As it turns out, the two of us have a couple of things in common.  Read on to find out more about Susan and her new book.

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Susan Lynn Meyer with Black Radishes and New Shoes.

 

When you were writing Black Radishes, did you think there might be a companion book some day?  Was Skating with the Statue of Liberty something your agent or publisher encouraged you to write?  

No, I didn’t plan to write it ahead of time, but as I came to the end of Black Radishes, I realized that there were more stories I wanted to tell. My editor also liked the idea, and in fact she thought a third book might also be a possibility. We’ll see! I’m working on something different now, but I think possibly later I might want to take the story back to France and write something more about Nicole from Black Radishes and what happens to her after Gustave leaves for America.

 

Did you find it any easier to write Skating with the Statue of Liberty since you were already familiar with the main character and had previously done research on the time period?  

Sadly, no. Not at all! There was a lot of new research to do about America during the war rather than France. And crafting the story was hard. In fact, writing Skating with the Statue of Liberty was much, much harder for me than writing the first book. I think this was partly because I felt I had something to live up to. I pretty much wrote Black Radishes thinking that no one except my writing group partners would ever read the book—which was freeing, in a way! With Skating I pretty much wrote and then threw away two entirely different novels before writing this one.

 

Skating with the Statue of Liberty takes place in New York City in 1942.  How long did it take to research the book versus how long it took to write it?  

All told, it took me about 5 years to write the book. I’d research, write, research, and write again, so it is hard to separate the two. I’d take the plot off in a new direction and need to find out something new. For example, I’d realize I needed to find out about the Red Cross in this period (though that ended up getting dropped from the book), or that I needed to learn the details of the postal system and how letters were sent between the US and Occupied France—that ended up being an important part of the book, and at first I wasn’t even sure that letters could have gone in and out of France at this time. But they did, and they were censored, which was very interesting to explore in the novel.

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Skating with the Statue of Liberty explores themes of race and discrimination in the U.S.  Did you ever worry about writing such hot-button topics?

In a way, no and in a way, yes. I feel a very strong pull toward writing about children in situations of real adversity. When I was a child, I kept thinking and thinking about what my father had gone through and what he had escaped, and his story was one I really needed to tell. Writing about the ways he both had and hadn’t escaped racism by coming to America was the natural continuation of that impulse. When Gustave encounters anti-Semitism at the inn, for example, he struggles to make emotional sense of the fact that this kind of thing is still happening to Jews even in America, even though it is much less extreme than what he has seen in Europe. And racism against blacks strikes Gustave as jarring in America (as it did my father), especially because the country is fighting a war for democracy, and he’s very sensitive to racism against blacks because of what he has been through.

The story pulled me in that direction. I didn’t want to get things wrong, though, and it was very important to me to research the experiences of black people in New York in the 1940s, through reading memoirs and listening to oral histories and through talking to people. I also felt it was very important to ask black friends to read the story for me while it was still in manuscript. So I wasn’t worried, exactly, but I felt I needed to write about the subject with a lot of care and attentiveness.

 

As you were researching segregation in the 1940s for Skating with the Statue of Liberty, you got the idea for a children’s picture book called New Shoes, which was published this January.  How was the process of writing a picture book different than writing for middle grade?  

Yes, while researching racial segregation in New York in the 1940s, I came upon the fact that is at the center of New Shoes—that in many places until the mid 1960s, African Americans weren’t allowed to try on shoes before buying them. I was so stunned by that fact (and by my embarrassment that I hadn’t known it before—I felt I should have), that I knew I had to try to write a story about it.

One thing that is very different in writing a picture book is that it is much easier to keep the shape of the whole thing in your head—I have trouble with that when it comes to novels. But it was a very hard story to write. I kept going back to it over the course of several years, knowing that the ending wasn’t right and trying something new. It was relatively easy to set up Ella Mae’s problem—she’s not allowed to try on shoes—but very hard to figure out a satisfying ending that to some degree resolved that problem but was also realistic for young girls to do and believable for the 1950s

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Like me, you used to be a middle school teacher.  Now you are an English Professor at Wellesley College.  Do your students know you write books for children?  How do you balance your scholarly writing with your fiction writing?    

Actually, I wasn’t a real, full-fledged middle school teacher during the school year, but I taught for several years in a summer program for middle school students, teaching them literature and writing, while I was in graduate school. I’m still friends with some of them on Facebook!

Yes, my Wellesley students definitely know I write for children.  Once a year I teach a creative writing course on writing for children, and it always has a long waiting list. It’s definitely hard to find time to do both kinds of writing because I’m a slow and meticulous researcher and writer.   And I think I have to accept that that’s just how I am.

 

Also like me, I know you loved the Pippi Longstocking books by Astrid Lindgren as a I kid.  (I decided long ago, if I ever have a beach house, I’m naming it Villa Villekulla!)  What are some of your current favorite middle-grade books?    

Pippi! Yes, I loved those books so much I once tried copying one over by typing it out (and I could not type at all!) so that I would always have it even after the original went back to the library!

I especially love novels with very compelling, believable main characters, and I know a book is good when I feel the desire to read it multiple times. Some of my current favorite MG novels, books I know I will go back to, are Michelle Magorian’s Back Home, about an English girl returning home after spending the war years in America, and Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming and the subsequent books in the Tillerman cycle. Dicey and her grandmother in particular are such individuated, deeply believable people.

Oh—and can I come visit you at your Villa Villekula if you ever get one?

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Susan’s debut novel, Black Radishes.

 

And we seem to have even more in common!  You started off as a math major at John Hopkins but switched to English and eventually got your PhD from Yale.  I was a math minor at William and Mary but went on to get my MFA in Fiction Writing.  Do you ever miss doing math?  Do you think the part of your brain that used to do math has come in handy in your writing process?

No one has ever asked me that before! It has come up in my work as a literary critic—I wrote a paper once on mathematical imagery in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. It’s really important to Dickinson—I should go back to that essay sometime! But aside from a general tendency to be logical and intellectually rigorous with myself, I don’t think so.

 

What is your number one piece of advice for those writing historical fiction for young people?  What is your favorite piece of writing advice in general?  

My advice for historical fiction writers (and it is also something I need to remind myself) is that you can’t possibly learn everything you need to know before you begin writing. So start writing! As you go, you will make mistakes and/or find you need to research things. For example, I found I needed to research school lunch menus while writing Skating With the Statue of Liberty.   That’s just not the sort of thing you can possibly know you’ll need to know until one character decides he wants to go buy an extra dessert!

My favorite piece of writing advice in general is one I also need to remind myself of: let your mind float free. I don’t write well when I sit down and try to write through sheer discipline. Discipline works for me for a lot of things, but not for fiction writing. I try not to forget to take a walk before writing. I start out generally knowing where the next bit I’m writing is going, and then I take a walk and let my mind float and dream and work out what will happen. I recently found out that my writer friend and agency mate Conrad Wesselhoeft does this too. Does anyone else out there?

I do that, too, Susan!  I usually reread what I wrote the day before, try to write more, and then when I get stuck (which sometimes happens right away), I take a walk.  Often I come back with at least one idea of how to proceed!

 

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Susan Lynn Meyer

 

Thanks so much to Susan Lynn Meyer for this interview!  Be sure to check out her books, Black Radishes, New Shoes, and Skating with the Statue of Liberty.  

 

 

Be the Press You Want to See: An Interview with Jeni Wallace of Burlesque Press

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Be the Press You Want to See:  An Interview with Jeni Wallace of Burlesque Press

It’s like one day Jeni Wallace said to herself, hey I’d like to publish books. Then, instead of tossing the thought away as an impossible dream, she enlisted the help of her husband, Daniel Wallace, to be the editor and technology guru.  She did research, attended conferences, and organized a literary festival. She decided to call her company Burlesque Press, based on the literary definition of the word: A work that ridicules a topic by treating something exalted as if it were trivial or vice-versa.

That was a little more than three years ago.  Since then, Burlesque Press has hosted three writing festivals in New Orleans and produced a handful of beautiful books.  I still can’t get over it.  Jeni is amazing, and below she talks about Burlesque Press — how it came to be and where it’s heading.

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Me and Jeni at the Burlesque Press booth at the Southern Independent Booksellers Association conference in 2015.

 

Why did you decide to start Burlesque Press?

If you’re an author, people always tell you to write the book that you would love to read: I wanted to create the press that I most wanted to see in the world. I have always been about promoting community in the writing world, and after I left my former job as a low-residency study abroad program coordinator, I was feeling isolated. The writing world can be harsh, and it can be competitive. I have always sought to redirect that energy towards a more supportive, convivial, supportive atmosphere. And I needed a medium in which I could do that on a larger scale.

I saw that the world of publishing was changing, and I felt there was room for an enterprise that could work closely with talented authors to get their work out into the world, offering hands-on, careful editing and advice. As authors, that’s what we really want. Of course, writers still dream of that six-figure advance, but those advances are so, so rare these days. I would never encourage someone not to try for one: by all means — go forth and bowl the New York publishing world over! But I wanted to create an enterprise that could be nurturing, creative and be something more than just an old-fashioned publisher, for those that were ready, willing, and able to try something different.

 

You talk about the importance of a writing community…  is that why you created an annual writers’ festival in New Orleans?

Yes — The Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball. In my experience, writers are always looking for ways to connect. And what better way than a few days in New Orleans, over New Year’s, talking about books, writing, and publishing? People are happiest, I think, when they are talking about the things they love – and eating and drinking and getting decked out in masks and finery. That’s why we have a laid back but fun masked ball on New Year’s Eve. I’ve been so impressed with how people connect at the festival and then maintain those connections. Our festival goers have formed lasting bonds; they frequently meet up at different times throughout the year. And they have become loyal to the festival: over the last few years, we’ve built up a great community in New Orleans and throughout the wider US writing world. We are small, but we are strong.

 

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Jeni Wallace at the Hands On Festival’s Masquerade Ball

 

What did you know about the indie book publishing industry before you started this venture?  Where did you go for help and information when you decided, “yes, I’m going to do this”?

Honestly, I jumped in with both feet. I didn’t know how to go about it (sometimes I think I still don’t). The New Orleans Arts Council provided invaluable advice. In less than a day, they helped me incorporate as an LLC, and from there, it was off to the races. As far as the technicalities of publishing – I knew some. I know more now, but still not enough. For instance, I don’t know how to use InDesign, and it’s basically impossible to design a book without it. Luckily, I made the wise decision of marrying someone who knows how to do book design, and knows how to do it well. 🙂 The rest came through trial and error. It took much longer to get our first book out that I anticipated. But each one after has been smoother.

 

What have you learned about indie publishing? 

I’ve learned all about the ins and outs of how to get a book into print. Which printers and distributors you can work with. How unbelievable complicated it is to do an ebook version of the books you want to print. How inexpensive it can actually be to bring a book out, and (at the same time) how crazily expensive it can actually be to bring a book out.

 

Is there anything you would have done differently? Anything you plan to do differently in the future?

I would get more help. It’s hard when you have little to no budget. I can’t hire employees. We are discussing taking on some unpaid interns: I would like to pass on some of the knowledge to aspiring writers. I think if I’d had this opportunity before, when I was an MFA student, the whole process would have been much smoother. We are also looking to incorporate a piece of our enterprise as a non-profit, so that we can bring in some grant money. Right now, we aren’t limited by ideas, interest, or quality submissions. We are limited by a lack of capital.

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Jeni and Eva at AWP.

 

So far Burlesque Press has published four books (and two of them just came out this week!)  Tell me about them!

The Melting Season by Ira Sukrungruang: funny, tragic, and magical tales that explore the gap between Asian Americans and the other American cultures that try to understand them.  (Short Stories)

Postcards from the Dead Letter Office by Dawn Manning: using the ancient Japanese “tanka” poetic form to create a new look at international travel.  (Poetry )  (See my interview with Dawn.)

A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene: a young girl, struggling with poverty and disability, has to escape from her violent father.  (Novel)  (See my review  and interview with Tawnysha.)

Siren Song by Tawni Waters: visionary poems about modern day goddesses.  (Poetry)  (See my interview with Tawni.)

You can buy BP books and merch (like a snazzy t-shirt) here.

 

Do you make any money from publishing books? How many books do you expect to sell?

As of right now, none of our books have reached profitable status, at least in the sense that they repay the work-hours we put into creating them. This is what we expected when we started: today, even the big presses make most of their money from a relatively small number of heavily-promoted, semi-famous books. But we’re getting closer with each release, and we’ve enjoyed expanding our reputation and our ability to interact with authors and booksellers. We have begun reaching out to bookstores and other mediums so that we may increase our sales reach; we’ve also been amazed by how good our authors are at selling copies and promoting their work. We’ve been so lucky to work with such powerfully entrepreneurial artists! You can’t be shy if you publish with a small press – you’ve got to be willing to do readings, spread the word, build a following. Our authors are the best.

Hanging out with BP authors: Eva, Tawni, & Jeni on left and Eva, Jeni. & Dawn on right.

 

All of your books are so beautiful! How do you take a word document and turn it into a pretty book?

It is vital to us that our books have strong, attractive, elegant covers. We frequently go through many designs and design permutations until we get the right one. This is often a tricky spot with writers. Many writers have an image in their head of what their cover should be. Sometimes they can articulate it, sometimes they can’t. We work with our authors more than most publishers do, and are willing to spend time and money on getting the right cover, something that will captivate would-be readers. And we also spend a lot of time researching cover design, and matching the book’s aesthetic with something that fits our brand AND does justice to the work.

Until recently, we did all of the design for our books ourselves. As we get more titles in print (and get busier with all the things) we are outsourcing some aspects of the design, particularly the illustration. We are friends, for instance, with a great artist in Borneo, Andrea Tan, and we asked her to create the cover of Dawn Manning’s poetry collection.

 

How might publishing with Burlesque Press be different from publishing with other presses (indie or otherwise)?

The difference in publishing with us is that we approach things as a kind of artistic partnership. And not just between us and the author: BP authors are very supportive of one another. This is where our love of community comes in. We work with our authors to help them network, organize events, and reach out. Plus, we have our literary festival where we present authors to the New Orleans writing scene.

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The Burlesque Press crew at Boston AWP 2013. (Eva, Daniel, Jeni, Merridith.)

 

How do you decide what to publish? What are you looking for in submissions?

We believed, when we started the press, that if we made high-quality books, with great design and attention to detail, talented writers would notice. And this has been true. We’ve already worked with some remarkably skilled, established authors.

My husband and I both have broad tastes. We like fiction with strong plots and lyrical prose. We publish a bit of poetry, but are focusing, for the near future, on prose. We are open to a variety of different subject matter: for instance, we have a literary sci-fi book planned for 2017. I love reading YA, and would consider a strong YA title. Honestly, if it’s well written and keeps you turning pages, then we’re going to be interested. But we can’t publish everything we receive. Additionally, the author also has to like us! We’re a very small team, so personal interaction is a priority for us. It’s possible we’d love a book, but maybe pass because the author isn’t looking for that kind of close working relationship — which is completely fine: there are other publishers out there that would be a better fit.

We have a full schedule through 2017 at the moment, and we have some great books in the pipeline: I can’t wait to share them with the world.

 

In my opinion, it’s incredibly brave and industrious to start your own press. Have you always been so enterprising? Where do you get your energy and confidence?

This is flattering, but I am terrified on a daily basis. I want to do so much, much more than I have the energy or resources for. It’s actually been learning process for me in managing my own expectations and the reality of what I can do. I do have a full time job after all, and it demands a lot. We’re always looking for ways to do more with a fixed amount of time, energy, and money.

If someone can send me more of any one of those things, I would be very grateful.

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Jeni Wallace and Burlesque Press are both amazing.  Visit the website, or follow her on Twitter.

Interview with Nancy Reddy, Author of Double Jinx

Interview with Nancy Reddy, Author of Double Jinx

I first met Nancy Reddy when we were fresh-faced twenty-two-year-olds, teaching in side-by-side high school classrooms in a low-income New Orleans public school. I taught Algebra I, and Ms. Reddy taught freshman English. I remember we laughed (but really we wanted to cry) when Johns Hopkins sent Nancy a box of children’s picture books based on her students’ reading scores. (In particular, I remember one called Cats, Cats, Cats! that the students did seem to enjoy.) What we didn’t realize back then was that Nancy and I would both go on to get our MFAs in creative writing and start running into each other at AWP conferences instead of faculty meetings.

These days, Nancy is Assistant Professor of Writing and First Year Studies at Stockton University in southern New Jersey. She earned her MFA from the University of Wisconsin and has a PhD in composition and rhetoric. Her poems have been published in 32 Poems, Tupelo Quarterly, Best New Poets 2011, and elsewhere, and her first collection, Double Jinx, will be released from Milkweed Press at the end of the month. Pretty impressive, no? Here’s what Ms. Reddy has to say for herself.

You can own your very own copy of Double Jinx by going here.

 

If you were at a cocktail party of non-writers and someone asked you what Double Jinx is about, what would you tell him/her?

Yikes! This question always makes me want to shove a copy of the book into someone’s hands and run away. It’s been hard to move from writing the poems to writing and talking about the poems. I think that’s especially true because the culture of the workshop is so much about letting poems stand on their own – the poet doesn’t talk when her work is being discussed – and so it’s been hard for me to learn how to talk about my work. For so many young writers, it’s a struggle to be quiet and not explain, and then [later] you have a book and your press sends you a marketing survey and all of a sudden you’re expected to explain yourself.

So I think I’d say the short answer is: Nancy Drew, girlhood, transformations. And I’d point readers to the Nancy Drew poems (The Case of the Double Jinx is available online), as well as Bad Magic, Ex Machina, and Horses Dream of Horses as examples of poems that are representative of what the book is trying to do and are also hopefully accessible for non-readers of poetry.

 

Tell me a little bit about how Double Jinx came to be.  Did you write the poems during your MFA program?  

When I started my MFA, I really just wanted to write. I knew a book was the ultimate goal, but I didn’t start the MFA with a clear sense of what that would be. I’d been teaching high school English for five years, which (as you know) is amazing and rewarding, but doesn’t allow much brain space for things beyond who’s chewing gum or texting under the table, whose parents you need to call with an update about grades, and which students need additional help refining a thesis. Several of the poets in my cohort at Wisconsin started with really clear projects, which have since become amazing books – Brittany Cavallaro’s Girl-King, which uses a whole assemblage of personae to explore girlhood and power and sexuality, and Josh Kalscheur’s Tidal, which takes place in Chuuk, an island that’s part of Micronesia – but I was just so grateful to have time to write. I’d ride the bus along Lake Mendota to campus and watch people walking their dogs or biking or playing ultimate Frisbee, and I felt like my eyes were growing back, like I could see again in a way that would allow me to write.

I was really lucky to have Quan Barry’s workshop first semester in my MFA. She had us read a book a week and write two poems a week, usually one in a received form and one free. I wrote a lot that semester, and while relatively few of those poems made it into the book, it did set a certain metabolism for my writing practice that I think made it possible for me to write the later poems.

 

Double Jinx is book-ended by pieces about Nancy Drew.  Did you read Nancy Drew books growing up?  Why was she an inspiration for this collection?

I definitely read the Nancy Drew books. She had my name! And she was the only red-headed heroine I knew of until The Little Mermaid came out, so I basically felt like all her adventures were mine.

I didn’t write about Nancy Drew until my late 20s, though, when I was in my MFA and starting this manuscript. When I wrote that first poem – “The Case of the Double Jinx” – a lot of the themes and obsessions of this book started to come together for me: rivalry and competition, word play and nonce forms, dark humor. After I wrote that poem, I felt like I could see a lot of the other poems the book needed, even though they weren’t exactly in a series. I wrote several other poems quite quickly after that, and it helped me to see the shape of the book.

 

Your book was selected for the National Poetry Series.  What does that mean exactly?

Mostly, it means I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the support of both the National Poetry Series and Milkweed Editions, my press. NPS is an annual, national contest with five judges each year; each of those judges is paired with a press, and the manuscript picked by each judge is published by their press. Alex Lemon selected my book for Milkweed.

 

Part One of your collection plays heavily with myth and fairy tale (“Cinderella Story,” “Little, Red”). Why do you think we writers love to revisit these well-known stories and tropes?

For a lot of us, I think those stories are the first ones we read, so they really shape how we think of narrative and characters and writing broadly. For me in particular, so many of those stories are really about these magical transformations, whether they’re pleasant and hoped-for (Cinderella becomes a princess) or kind of terrifying (the wolf disguising himself as the grandmother) and so those stories became another way of thinking about identity and metamorphosis.

 

You’re Professor Reddy now!  So what classes are you teaching this year?  What are your favorite classes to teach?

This semester, I’m teaching College Writing, which is basically freshman English. And in the spring I’ll be teaching Argument and Persuasion in the Social Sciences, along with a Creative Nonfiction course. While I think some writers treat teaching composition as a burden or an obligation to be dispensed with before moving on to teaching “real” (i.e. creative) writing, I really love teaching composition and creative writing, and I see a lot of connections between the two. My own writing practice has really informed my approach to teaching composition, and my training in composition pedagogy has made me a better teacher of creative writing. (In particular, I think it’s helped me be more thoughtful about how and how much I comment! It’s so tempting to want to address every single thing that could be better in a student paper or a poem – and research shows that writers can really only take in 2-3 pieces of advice or feedback at a time. One of my colleagues at Wisconsin wrote a great blog post about feedback on student writing, and I think about it all the time, whether I’m responding to student essays, commenting on a friend’s poem or manuscript, or giving a family member feedback on a draft resume.)

Nancy Reddy

Nancy Reddy

You and I go way back to our Teach For America days, when you were teaching 9th grade English to low-income students who read on a fourth grade level.  Is there anything you learned about teaching in those early years that you still use or think about now that you are teaching at the college level?

Oh my goodness, so much. We had a student, Derek, who I bet you remember. He’d had a really tough time – he was 16 and a first-time ninth grader, because he’d spent five years in middle school. He’d seen his father shot to death on the street in front of him. But he was such a charming, charismatic young man, and a really talented slam poet. And he read at a fourth grade level. Some days he was spot-on in class, talking and engaged, and some days he just couldn’t be bothered.

One day in particular, we were reading Romeo and Juliet and talking about Juliet’s soliloquy – “dove-feathered raven” and all that, after Romeo’s killed her cousin Tybalt – and I asked about the oxymorons and why Juliet would use them there. Now, Derek had had his head down on the desk all day and I didn’t even know he was listening – but he just sat up and said, “it’s because he killed her cousin and she loves him but she’s full of all these conflicting emotions” and then put his head down on the desk, just like that. That had been the point of my whole lesson, and he leapt right over it, while the rest of the class was still copying the definition of oxymoron I’d written on the board.

So that – and so many other experiences with similarly brilliant kids – taught me that intelligence and insight and intellectual capacity are entirely different things from tested performance. And that being a “good student” is not necessarily the same as being smart. We taught really, really sharp kids who’d been systematically disadvantaged starting before they were even born. They weren’t any less smart than the middle-class white kids I went to school with, but they’d had so many fewer opportunities to learn how to be students.

I’m thinking about this especially now, since I’ve just started teaching in the First Year Studies program at Stockton University. It’s a really remarkable program, and it supports students who are coming into the university with low SAT/ACT scores or other indicators that they might struggle with the transition to college classes. The program does a fantastic job of retaining those students, whose graduation rates are on par with the general population of the university. I feel really fortunate to have a job that brings together my intellectual and ethical commitments.

 

You earned your MFA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin.  Dang.  What’s all that book-learnin been like? 

My scholarship in Composition and Rhetoric is very much connected to my creative work. I’m interested in how ordinary people establish and maintain a writing practice, and in my dissertation I examined the archives of an organization called the Wisconsin Rural Writers’ Association, which was founded at the University of Wisconsin in 1948 to support rural people across the state in doing creative writing about rural communities, history, and folklore. It’s a pretty remarkable organization. The archives are full of members’ accounts of what that encouragement meant to them; one woman in particular writes that having the opportunity to share her writing and received feedback has “erased the inferiority I felt, arising from my limited education, and paved the way to continued knowledge.” And isn’t that what so many of us want to believe writing can do?

So my dissertation asked what makes that writing possible. I used the theoretical frame of new materialism, which considers the agency of the nonhuman. In other words, I looked at how objects like books, desks, and typewriters, as well as blizzards, rural roads, the postal service, rural landscapes, and other things all matter for writers. That might sound a bit esoteric, but I actually think it’s an approach that’s quite well-suited to the writer’s brain. Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about things – the importance of a favorite pen, notebook, mug, or seat in a coffeeshop to a good writing session; a particular landscape that we try to conjure accurately in words – and my research argues that we should take those things seriously as part of how writing gets done.

My advisor, Morris Young, often asked me how my poetry connected to the research I was doing. I feel really lucky to have worked with scholars who saw me as both a researcher and a poet, and I’m not sure that I would have thought to connect those two identities without that prompting. The poetry collection I’m working on now, which examines domesticity, postwar gender ideology and suburbanization, and theories of scientific mothering, definitely steals from the archival research I’ve done.

 

One last question about Double Jinx.  As referenced by the title, the poems in the collection play with the idea of doubles and doppelgangers:  the understudy in a play, twin sisters, school girls writing in “synchronized script.”  I wonder if you see any of the characters in this collection — Nancy Drew or Little Red Riding Hood, perhaps — as your own doppelgangers.

Oh, I think they all are. I think that’s what’s freeing about writing – the space to imagine all these alternate selves and to set them out on adventures.

 

And finally, Nancy, what is your favorite piece of writing advice?

“Write more, be less careful.” Jesse Lee Kercheval said that during the first workshop of my second semester of my MFA. I’m not always able to follow it – I’m an obsessive reviser – but I try.

 

Thanks to Nancy Reddy for taking the time to do this interview.  You can buy her book, Double Jinxhere.

 

Interview with Tawnysha Greene, author of A House Made of Stars

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Interview with Tawnysha Greene, author of A House Made of Stars

Today I’m excited to bring you an interview with Tawnysha Greene, author of A House Made of Stars. This novel (which has been called a “gripping, gorgeous read” by Moira Crone) is being published by the amazing Jeni Wallace at Burlesque Press, and was edited by her equally amazing husband, Daniel Wallace.

I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy, and you can read my review here.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. While in the process of writing the novel, Tawnysha sent out chapters and excerpts to a lot of literary magazines. Ultimately, she was published in: Weave Magazine, storySouth, Blue Lake Review, JMWW, PANK Magazine, Hobart, Bartleby Snopes, A-Minor, Monkeybicycle, Waccamaw, Barely South Review, Raleigh Review, decomP, elimae, Dogzplot, Bellingham Review, Emprise Review, The Citron Review, Annalemma, Bluestem Magazine, Used Furniture Review, Necessary Fiction, Staccato Fiction, 52/250 A Year of Flash, Eunoia Review, 2River View, Wigleaf, Rougarou: An Online Journal, Still: The Journal, and Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts.

Whoa. As Jeni Wallace says, “pretty much everyone loves this book.”

A House Made of Stars is available for pre-order here.

A House Made of Stars is available for pre-order here.

So what’s it about, you ask? Read my review.  Or, here’s a synopsis:

A young girl, ten years old and hard-of-hearing, attempts to cope with her family’s descent into poverty and desperation. Sensitive and perceptive, she is able to view the outside world with profound precision and care — even though she is mystified by the actions of the troubled and self-destructive adults around her. However, she slowly comes to understand the real source of the family’s sufferings, leading her on a harrowing journey of escape.

And now, without further ado, my interview with Tawnysha Greene…

Hi Tawnysha! Can you tell me a little more about A House Made of Stars? Who do you imagine as your audience?

Essentially, A House Made of Stars is a coming-of-age story. I imagine the audience to be primarily YA readers. The novel addresses the growing-up process a girl must undertake [as she] begins to understand the reasons behind her family’s difficulties. However, I would hope that this novel would capture a variety of readers.

 

Tell me about getting your PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee.

It was a wonderful experience. The creative writing faculty was very diverse, and each professor helped me with my writing in their own way. In addition, guest faculty often visited for a semester, and I was lucky enough to work with Richard Bausch, Pamela Uschuk, and William Pitt Root. The University of Tennessee also invited various authors and poets to come read and share their publishing experiences, and I was fortunate to hear authors such as Dorothy Allison, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Terrance Hayes.

The degree program itself prepared me for life after graduate school. Once I finished my comprehensive exams, I taught upper-level classes in fiction and poetry writing and served as fiction editor for Grist: The Journal for Writers. Since graduating, I have stayed on as a lecturer and teach many of the same classes. I am also currently an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and read for the Wigleaf Top 50 series, so I am grateful for the editorial practice I had as a graduate student.

You can follow Tawnysha Greene on Twitter! (@TawnyshaGreene)

Tawnysha Greene

A House Made of Stars started out as your dissertation, right? Tell me more about that.

It started off as the final project for one of my fiction classes. My professor assigned everyone to write a secret story. Only she would read it—no one else—so we had the freedom to try things we would have been too apprehensive to try in a workshop. I decided to write a series of flash pieces with a young narrator, and encouraged by my professor’s feedback, I continued writing this story in the classes that followed.

While a version of A House Made of Stars ended up being my finished dissertation, the novel was incomplete, and I needed to explore my characters further. Additionally, while some sections worked on their own, the entire novel couldn’t sustain self-contained flash chapters for its entirety, as the pacing was faulty and inconsistent.

 

So what was it like to take your dissertation and and turn it into a publishable novel?

After I graduated, I rewrote the novel, and when it was finished I sent it out to a group of writers who gave me some very helpful feedback. I was getting closer, but I wasn’t there yet. I still needed to smooth out the pacing. I needed to rearrange the plot. I needed to make my narrator stronger.

So I rewrote it again. I tried to make every scene, every sentence, every word count, so that nothing caused the story to lag. I attempted to make the characters more active and to make their actions more meaningful. I tried to make each scene to carry into the next one until the conclusion, which was both necessary and inevitable.

This was the version I sent out to agents, and later, publishers, and this is the version that was accepted by Burlesque Press. I am fortunate to have Daniel’s careful eye help me bring the novel to its final version.

Daniel Wallace, the editor of A House Made of Stars.  See my interview with him here.

Why did you decide to publish with a small press instead of going the more traditional route of getting a literary agent and a big-name publisher?

I actually tried the traditional agent route first. Every year or so, an agent will come visit the University of Tennessee, review manuscripts, and offer advice, and when I was in the program, Julie Barer came to see us. She was delightful during our conference and told me to send her my novel when it was finished, so she was the first agent I queried. Unfortunately, by that time, her roster was full and she wasn’t taking any more clients, so I tried others and got a lot of requests for a full manuscript then received helpful advice for how to revise the novel. In the end, while encouraging and hopeful, these responses were ultimately rejections, so I decided to try sending the novel to small presses.

A House Made of Stars is shorter than the average book, and all the characters are nameless. The language is very sparse, the chapters are short, and it’s a narrative that doesn’t wrap up as neatly as traditional novels do. The book takes a lot of risks. Small presses seemed a better fit, so I began sending the book out to presses that published books I admired.

 

Why did you decide to submit to Burlesque Press in particular?

I first met Jeni Wallace of Burlesque Press when she came to a reading at the University of Tennessee. I knew that her press sponsored the Hands On Literary Festival in New Orleans every year, but I didn’t know that she published books. Then Siren Song by Tawni Waters, their first publication, came out. The book looked beautiful, and I remembered how gracious and kind Jeni was at the reading. I didn’t know if she was even looking at more manuscripts at the time, but I wrote her an email and attached the novel. Closing my eyes, I hit send.

Within a few weeks, I heard back. She wanted to meet. To discuss publication. I took deep breaths as I drove to the meeting. Two hours later, I laughed and screamed the whole way back home. It was one of the most exciting days of my life.

One of the main reasons I chose Burlesque Press was how impeccable their book design was for Siren Song, and they did not disappoint in designing my book. If anything, they went beyond my biggest hopes, and when I first saw the final cover for A House Made of Stars, I gasped. It was perfect in every way. I owe so much to the two of them and can’t think of a better team to release my first book.

Jeni Wallace, Director of Burlesque Press.  She makes dreams come true.

Jeni Wallace, Director of Burlesque Press. She makes dreams come true.  (Photo by Lisa Ross)

Excerpts from A House Made of Stars have been published in approximately a bajillion literary magazines. How did that happen? Also, does this mean that the novel is still comprised of stand-alone pieces?

While the original dissertation had a lot of stand-alone vignettes, the published version is a continuing story with short chapters. A lot of the flash pieces that were accepted and published in journals actually don’t appear in the novel or if they do, are dramatically altered.

Although I cut a lot of these vignettes, I still sent them out and am fortunate that some editors liked them enough to publish them. That is not to say that they didn’t get their fair share of rejections. Some stories only received four or five rejections while others got well over 100. Luckily, having worked as a fiction editor, I knew that a story could be turned down for any number of reasons, so I just sent these stories out again and again until they found the right journal. I also had some revise and resubmit responses which I took full advantage of, and I am so grateful for these editors who gave me advice in exploring my characters and my narrative even more than I had before.

 

And finally, what is your favorite piece of writing advice?

One of the best pieces of writing advice I had gotten while in graduate school came from Richard Bausch. He said that if you get stuck while writing, lower your standards and keep going. That helps me if I ever get writer’s block, and I always remind myself that I can go back and revise, because I will (often many, many times).

Most helpful, though, is a practice I’ve started of always ending the day’s work in the middle of a scene or a thought. That way, I know what I had planned to write and get started more easily the next day. Too many times, I’ve stopped writing for the day after a chapter or a major scene, because I was tired and eager for a break, but then when I resumed the next writing session, I would struggle, because I had no idea where to go from there. Now, I always end in the middle with some notes on where to go next.

I do that, too! Thanks, Tawnysha!

Tawnysha Greene

You can follow Tawnysha on Twitter, like I do. (@TawnyshaGreene)

You can pre-order A House Made of Stars here; it will be available on Amazon soon.    

You can visit Tawnysha Greene’s website here, or follow her on Twitter:  @TawnyshaGreene

The launch party will be held on July 11th, in Knoxville, and Tawnysha will be reading in Baltimore at Notre Dame of Maryland University on September 15 as part of their 4 Under 40 Reading Series.  She will also be introducing the novel at The Hands On Literary Festival, which is in New Orleans from December 28-31, 2015.

See what Jeni Wallace and Daniel Wallace have to say about A House Made of Stars!

The Boy Who Loved Rain by Gerard Kelly (Free Book Giveaway!)

The Boy Who Loved Rain by Gerard Kelly (Free Book Giveaway!)

In Gerard Kelly’s The Boy Who Loved Rain, Miriam’s husband is a pastor who routinely speaks on good parenting to packed auditoriums. That’s why he doesn’t want Miriam to tell anyone about the difficulties they’ve been having with their fourteen-year-old son: Colom is getting in fights at school, acting depressed and defiant, and waking up screaming most nights from reoccurring nightmares. When Miriam finds a suicide pact in Colom’s room, she knows she can’t keep quiet any longer. She takes him to the French village of Portivy, and there, on the rainy, windswept cliffs, secrets are revealed that shed light on Colom’s depression and the reason for his nightmares.

This book review is brought to you by TLC Book Tours!

This book review is brought to you by TLC Book Tours!

When I first opened The Boy Who Loved Rain, I was unsure if I would like it because I thought the prologue was confusing and the quote from Wikipedia at the beginning of Chapter 1 was silly. I also knew it was written by a pastor, and I wondered if it would be a “Christian” book.

But I’m glad I kept reading because I found much to admire in the novel, and although many of the characters were Christian, I wouldn’t characterize it as “Christian” literature.  By the time I got to the end of the book, I felt as if I’d been on a journey with an interesting set of characters, and suddenly the prologue (and the italicized passages interspersed throughout the novel) made sense.  In fact, I went back and reread those passages along with the prologue, delighted with my new-found understanding.

What intrigued me the most about The Boy Who Loved Rain was the heartbreaking situation — parents with a troubled child, and secrets of their own. I was immediately invested and wanted to know what would happen to Colom and his parents.

The novel is beautifully written (Gerard Kelly is also a poet), yet with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me turning pages. If I had been Kelly’s editor, I might have trimmed some of the descriptive passages and deleted the quotes at the beginning of each chapter (in my opinion they detract from the elegance of the novel). Overall, however, The Boy Who Loved Rain is an absorbing family drama written with skill and grace, and because it touches on so many emotional topics (marital problems, child abuse, adoption, suicide, drugs), I think it would make an excellent book club selection.

The Boy Who Loved Rain

 

To see for yourself, order The Boy Who Loved Rain, or fill out the form below for a chance to win your very own free copy! Then scroll down to read a Q&A with the author, Gerard Kelly.

Q & A with Author Gerard Kelly:  

A large portion of the novel takes place in a French seaside village called Portivy. Your descriptions of Portivy are so detailed and loving, I feel like you must have spent a lot of time there.

Yes.  We first discovered Quiberon and Portivy almost 30 years ago, and have been there on average once a year ever since. Portivy is a very spiritual place for me — I often pray there and have used it more than once as a writing space.

 

Most of the story is told through the eyes of Miriam, Colom’s mother, and Fiona, Miriam’s friend. What made you decide to write from the perspective of two women, and was that at all a challenge for you?

I’m not actually sure — it just turned out that way. I was raised by women — my father left home when I was 10, my elder brother not long after, so I spent my teenage years hanging out with my mother, two sisters and a couple of favourite aunts. I think I learned without even realising it to appreciate their view on the world. I didn’t intend to write from that perspective, but as the novel unfolded, I found myself more drawn to Fiona and Miriam than to anyone else.

Yes it is a challenge, in the sense that I am scared that women readers will say ’that’s just not how it is!’. So far very few have, which is encouraging.

Gerard Kelly is British.  I've left his British spelling  in the Q&A.

Gerard Kelly is British. I’ve left his charming British spelling in the Q&A.

 

Your book touches on so many family issues: adoption, marital problems, child abuse, suicide, drug use. As a pastor, are these issues you have come into contact with while serving your congregation?

We have worked with a lot of young adults over the years, as well as leading church, so yes, we have seen and heard a lot. The novel is definitely fiction, but most of the issues touched on in it come either from my own experience or from events others have shared with me.

 

To me, The Boy Who Loved Rain would make a great book club selection. If you were to add book club discussion questions to the end of the book, what might one of them be?

I think I would ask, who is the character that most resonates with you and why? Want is it about their journey/development that rings true?

 

You have written fourteen books… Wow! Tell us about some of them. How does The Boy Who Loved Rain compare to your other books?

Many are in theology/missiology or biblical studies. ‘Rain’ is my first novel. It’s a totally different approach to writing and has been a) frightening and b) pretty much the most satisfying experience of my writing career. I’ve also published three volumes of poetry, one of them in Twitter format — prayers and poems in 140 characters or less.

 

Is this your first time being a part of a book tour? What other kinds of marketing do you use to spread the word about your books?

Yes it is — it’s been a blast! I try to spend time on Goodreads every now and then just to keep an eye on things, and I love to read and review other people’s books — but that’s about it at the moment.

 

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

Fight for the right to write. If you want to write – or as Dorethea Brande says ‘to become a writer’ – you HAVE to fight against distractions, lethargy, discouragement etc to carve out time to write. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write, and simple as it sounds, that’s the toughest part of the deal.

TLC Blog Tours sent me this book and I reviewed it.  Yay!  Free books!  The opinions are all my own.

TLC Blog Tours sent me this book and I reviewed it. Yay! Free books! The opinions are all my own.

Interview with Kevin Fortuna, Author of The Dunning Man

Interview with Kevin Fortuna, Author of The Dunning Man

Back when I was getting my MFA through the University of New Orleans, I work-shopped a story by a fellow classmate, Kevin Fortuna, about an Atlantic City landlord dealing with his crazy tenants:  a hedonistic rap star and a couple of Russian tiger trainers (who are keeping the tigers in their apartment). Now, nearly six years later, the polished version of that memorable story can be read in Kevin’s debut collection, The Dunning Man.

The characters in the six stories of The Dunning Man are real people — flawed people –but they are all searching for redemption. The collection, published by Lavender Ink, has gotten positive reviews from Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Kirkus, among others. C.W. Cannon of Ask Men calls it , “a great new exemplar of hard-boiled serious literature. Gritty, boozy, fast-paced … Fortuna’s characters careen and collide their way through eventful nights and somehow remain standing.”

I reunited with Kevin recently at a mutual friend’s wedding in New Orleans and asked if I could interview him about his new book. Naturally, he said yes.

as

The Dunning Man was named one of the “22 Most Exciting Literary Debuts of 2014” by Buzzfeed. Esquire calls the stories, “funny, explosive, and disarmingly moving.”

 

Kevin, you are, at least in my mind, an entrepreneur, business man, and real estate mogul. How does writing figure into the mix?

I became interested in writing in college, where I majored in English Literature and tutored fellow students at [Georgetown’s] Writing Center. After graduating, I started the full-time MFA program at UNO but dropped out to pursue a career in business. I never lost interest in writing but decided it wasn’t the right “day job” for me.

Eventually I ended up working in the high-tech start-up world, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two decades. Along the way, thanks to some good friends including Bill Lavender [owner of Lavender Ink], I had an opportunity to go back and finish my MFA through UNO’s low-residency program. It’s been really great, kind of a “bucket list” thing, and I’ve been really lucky to get the support of some phenomenal writers and teachers.

 

I remember reading the title story in an MFA workshop class I took with you. When did you write the others?

All of the stories were written during my MFA. In fact, the book is basically a revised and expanded version of my thesis.

 

You’ve gotten a lot of great press. What’s your marketing secret? How did you get your book into the right people’s hands?

I live and work in NYC, so I’ve got access to some great contacts in media. Unfortunately that doesn’t count for much. My friends and contacts certainly helped with advice and introductions, but I owe a lot to my publicist, Louise Crawford, who has been a tireless supporter of the book. She has been amazing.

Kevin Fortuna

Kevin Fortuna

 

To me your collection has an overall masculine vibe, and yet two of the stories are told by female narrators. What inspired you to write stories from the female perspective?

Well, to be honest, one of the stories, “Flogging Maggie,” was inspired by the fact that I had a great friend and writer named Amanda Boyden as a workshop instructor. I have immense respect for Amanda and her talent, and she and I were classmates together at UNO back in the nineties. When I came back to finish my MFA, Amanda was supportive but also justifiably skeptical. She knew I’d become a capitalist of sorts and wondered if I’d take the writing seriously. So when I learned that I’d have her [as my workshop leader] I wanted to do something different. I wanted to show her I had some range and could write from a female perspective. It was really gratifying to me that she didn’t hate the story.

 

Many of the stories in the collection are gritty and alcohol-soaked, often populated with tough, Irish-American characters. Would you say that there’s a single theme that could tie all of these stories together? If so, what is it?

I think the theme is redemption. These characters definitely march to their own beat, but they’re all searching for meaning, to find something worth seeking. Ultimately, I think the stories are very hopeful. Also — the title story, “The Dunning Man,” is almost half the length of the book, and it’s a very positive, even uplifting story. It’s not dark, and it’s not about drinking. It’s not even a very Irish story. It’s really a love story at its core.

 

Tell me about your experience publishing with Lavender Ink. What was the process like?

Bill Lavender has been absolutely amazing. I’ve worked with some very driven, professional people in the Internet industry, people who routinely work 15 hours a day and run through walls to achieve personal and company goals. The competition for jobs is fierce and the standards high. And I would rank Bill at the very top of the list of people I’ve worked with in terms of intellect, commitment, work ethic and an ability to get results. He’s a great champion for his writers and his books.

Kevin at the Franklin Park Reading Series.

Kevin at the Franklin Park Reading Series.

 

What are your future plans for your writing? A novel, perhaps?

Right now I’m totally focused on producing the movie version of “The Dunning Man.” My writing partner is fellow UNO graduate, Michael Clayton, who wrote an amazing adaptation of the story. We’re hoping to shoot the movie this summer in New Orleans and Atlantic City. I think the movie will be my focus for the year, but after that I might try my hand at a novel.

 

Awesome!  Okay, last question:  What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

Hmm… I like what Tim O’Brien said: stories should be about extraordinary things happening to extraordinary people. I tried to make sure my stories were fun to read, and the best complement I’ve gotten about the book is that people wanted to keep turning pages. I’m not sure how much light I was able to shed on the human condition with this book, but I’m glad that people don’t think it’s boring. That’s good enough for me.

I totally agree.

 

A big thanks to Kevin for doing this interview and waiting so long for it to go live.  Be sure to get your own copy of The Dunning Man here.