About Tess Fragoulis Books

Tess Fragoulis is the author of Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp), which was nominated for the QWF First Book Prize; Ariadne’s Dream (Thistledown), which was long-listed for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award; and is the editor of Musings (Vehicule), an anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature. Her latest novel, The Goodtime Girl, is published by Cormorant Books in Canada, and will be published in Greek by Psichogios Publications, Athens, in Fall 2012. She also edits and writes for arts organizations, and teaches writing part-time at Concordia University.

Writing Lessons from Dr. Seuss

A question that all writers get asked–by interviewers, by readers, by family members who don’t really understand the inclination to write–is when did you know you wanted to be a writer.  My answer to when I decided to begin writing seriously vs when I decided writing was a wonderful thing is necessarily different.  As an only child, books were my friends, my entertainment, my solace.  I loved nursery rhymes, and strange German fairy tales where children were always having their ears boxed (I still don’t know what this means, but it sounds unpleasant), and stories of witches and ghosts and mad scientists. My first true love, however, was Dr. Seuss. There were the stories themselves, which never pandered orZax condescended; the drawings, which were strange and delightful; and the rhymes, oh, how I loved the rhymes. I loved his books so much I memorized them, and can still recite good portions of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Too Many Daves, and The Zax, which I even acted out in my bedroom with my mother, our relationship not dissimilar to that of the obstinate North-Going and South-Going creatures.

Unlike many first loves, mine for Dr. Seuss has remained strong, unconditional, and full of admiration and delight after all these years.  (Johnny Cash is the only other artist that has retained my absolute devotion for over four decades.)  So when I heard that a long lost book was discovered, I was curious, excited, and filled with anticipation.  The only thing I knew was the title, What Pet Should I Get, and as a small celebratory gesture, I wrote my own version to tide me over until his arrived.  Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and I hope that Theodore would be flattered by my attempt to walk his path, or at least to tiptoe behind him.

I have yet to read his new tale, which I believe is being released today, and will hopefully fill me with glee, but here is my version, with love and respect.

What Pet Should You Get?

So you want a new pet
A bosom delight
Who will  bounce
on your coat tails
but never take flight

questionThere are questions to ask
There are things to review
As you try to finagle
The best pet for you

What do you fancy?
What are your wishes?
It’s not as easy as
bobbing for fishes

Don’t get a dog
If you live by a bog
A dog on a log
is not like a frog
Why, that dog is sure
to fall into the bogfish
And a dog in a bog
is a very sad thing
As sad as a walleye
with a fin in a sling


A frog may be fond
of life in a pond
But a frog will be down
if he lives in a town
His hopping is slow

bluefrogso he’ll miss the bus
And can’t pay the fare
so will make a big fuss
A foot in the door
will not convince Gus
To let your blue frog
onto his bus

A birdie will cheep
when you’re trying to sleep
A cat will not stay
when you want it play
turtleA turtle will hide
when you bring it outside
A goldfish will mock
then retreat to his rock
A ferret will try
to eat all of your pie

A bear will sneer
when he sees you come near
A monkey will snipe
when you’re lighting his pipe
A parrot will chatter
until all your friends scatter
A mouse will chew
through your sock and your shoe

gnu2So perhaps a gnu
is the best pet for you
Do you know all the things
a gnu can do?


A gnu can make your bed
And sort your socks
And knead your bread
And change your locks
And eat your peas
And grill your cheese
And a gnu never needs you
to say please

electric-eel-cartoon-i15

 

A gnu can pitch a tent,
And start a fire,
And catch an eel,
And play the lyre

 

He’ll come to school
and do your math,
He’ll chase the bus
and take your bath

Play catch in the park
until after dark
Blow tunes through his horn
at the crack of morn
momWhen your mother comes in
and yells “what’s all this din?”
He’ll crawl under your bed
and always play dead
Then he’ll giggle with you
till you both turn blue

There’s no topping a gnu
He’s the best pet for you!

Brought to you by the Gnu Breeders of East Gnu

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Love the Art, not the Artist

mw-witch_hunt_0In view of the whole Kathleen Hale kerfuffle, I am reposting a piece that I wrote several years ago. I have never read Hale’s books, and have little taste for YA lit. But while I don’t condone stalking anyone for any reason, I am flabbergasted by the outrage expressed against her work, current and future.  I have loved books, music, and art by people I wouldn’t want to hang out with, and I’ve learned the hard way that there is no point holding the artist’s personality against the work itself. Of course, with the push for artists to have a web presence and platform, it is harder for them to remain at arm’s length, and they often show themselves in the most unflattering light, which is a shame for them and for everyone who might have been moved, transported, delighted by their work. Some of the references below may be a bit dated, but my general feelings about the separation between art and artist remain the same.

A number of years ago, I stopped reading music magazines, despite the fact that I am a great lover and consumer of music.  After johnny-ramoneone interview too many where the members of some band that I had up until that moment enjoyed turned out to be idiots, I realized that what I felt about the artist had a real effect on how much I enjoyed the music. (I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to  learn that Johnny Ramone was a staunch Republican; it took the sheen off a brief, post-show meeting with him that took place when I was 18).

I had a similar reaction when I saw the biopic about painter Francis Bacon,  Love is the Devil.  Though I’d always been a fan of his powerful, bloody, carcass-filled triptychs, the film presented the painter as so nasty, petty, and vile that the art, though it hadn’t changed, was no longer something I wanted to look at, and I felt cheated.  I think anyone who knows too much about Picasso may experience the same dissonance.

GIACOBETTI_1991_Meat_TriptychNow, the more I like the art, the less I want to know about the artists that created it.  I’m always happy to learn something about their process, but as for their private lives, I’m probably never going to have a glass of wine with them or debate philosophy, love, and politics, so I feel it’s none of my business.  I’d rather let the art speak for itself.

Is an actor or a writer or musician or painter any better or worse based on their personality? In my experience, real artists are often difficult, unreliable and not always pleasant people.  Their art is the best of them distilled and perfected.  That’s why we fall in love with a singer when s/he’s onstage, or the voice and wisdom of a writer on the page.  Writers, in fact, often say that their writing is wiser than they are.  To expect these people to live up to their work is foolish.  The song, or the book, or the painting is an artifact, outside themselves, that they have put everything they are, they know, and they aspire to be into, then given it to us as a gift.  But it is not necessarily who they are the rest of the time, nor do I need it to be.

220px-Portrait_de_DanteIs Michael Richards any less funny objectively because he spouted racist epithets?  And to fans of Chris Brown, are his songs less catchy because he’s an abuser?  We may not want to support these people after finding out their dirty secrets, but what their skills are as artists remains separate from who they are. Who knows what Shakespeare, Dante,  Beethoven, and Carravagio were really like, since their every move wasn’t recorded and broadcast 24/7?   We judge them on the work they left behind.

Barring any real nefarious acts, it’s ok by me if an artist I like is “not nice.”  This requirement of niceness is perhaps the need of people who want to be able to “relate” to the artist, to believe that s/he is no different from you and me–it is a form of self-aggrandizement. It is also the dull consequence of our time, when the cult of personality reigns supreme. Look at reality shows: how many of the real talents get eliminated in favor of mediocre competitors who have more winning personalities or are relatable? Do you really want to listen to lousy music made by someone with a sweet smile and a touching back story?  Wouldn’t you rather listen to something fantastic, even though the person who made it is a little odd, or abrasive, or offensive, or anti-social (or a lot)?

Real artists are different from you and me; they are natural subversives, and don’t give a damn what we think of them anyway–that is precisely what makes what they produce interesting.   My belief is that art should stand on its own, that it should be compared to other similar works to determine its relative value, and that the person who made it is irrelevant in this assessment, both in the moment and especially in retrospect.

MJ

Blog Hop: Una McDonnell–The Whole Yummy-Messy Smash

Thanks to the lovely Tess Fragoulis for including in me in the Blog Hop, and letting me hop right onto her blog to do it!

IMG_0204

Una McDonnell

What am I working on?

I’m working on a book of short stories I started during an MFA in Creative Writing with the amazing Zsuszi Gartner, who taught me how to unleash my own voice as a short fiction writer. I don’t know whose style I was trying to write before, but it was some safe, bland compilation of a “literary” voice. For the first class, I’d written this truly horrible last line in a story, involving one tenacious leaf hanging from a winter branch. Zsuszi and the gang—we later named ourselves “The Tenacious Leaves”— facilitated that breakthrough moment in which I could finally see how I was getting in my own way as a writer. Once I kicked the nasty self-imposed critic, with all her “shoulds,” off my shoulder, the writing and my enjoyment of it opened up. That’s the book I’m working on now, The Hard Problem of Consciousness.

In the title story, I was interested in that particular problem of consciousness in which there is no logical reason why we should have experience, or a rich inner life, as part of the meat-machine processes of mind. How then do we share our experience? Or as Betty Goodwin asks in one her preliminary sketches, “How long does it take one voice to reach another?” I like playing with that in story—how little of what we mean gets across once its been through the filter of our personality and the listener’s own psychological makeup. The extraordinary capacity of language and its failures. I find I’m always drawn to books and movies with interweaving story lines and characters. I have a triptych in the book that takes place on one night in a small village (very like the one I live in) with three characters in the middle of various crises that draw direct and indirect connections between them.

I also have a mostly-completed book of poems and half a novel and a small business. Starting a business is like pushing a huge boulder off a mountain peak, then getting in front and running. The boulder is slowing down and my legs are way stronger than when I started. So, right now, the stories. I’m learning to focus.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is the sort of question I wouldn’t have the first clue how to answer. It’s hard to see my own work objectively. One thing I’ve decided about other people’s art—to dispel that feeling that I’d have to take survey courses covering the whole of human history in every discipline to properly “understand” it—is that if a work engages me on numerous levels, then it’s working for me. A Betty Goodwin mixed media piece challenges me intellectually and visually, cracks me open and gives me goosebumps. That method of engagement with art has a corollary for my own work: that the best I can do is develop my craft and strive to be authentic. The writing I most admire has spiritual grit, and by that I mean, it’s earnest in the best sense of the word, but has its feet on the ground too. It feels elemental, like a brilliant new idea, yet one that resonates in my most hidden self, and I wish I’d written it. I try to write the work that in a parallel universe, I would wish I’d written.

Why do I write what I do?

It’s nice to be asked to talk about writing, and I enjoy reading factual articles and memoirs, but so far, the only kind of writing I love to do is fictional. In fact, I wither under the mental organization of other kinds of writing and of life tasks in general. The regular world, with its exigencies and details makes me tired. I can feel a nap coming on right now…

I write fiction and poetry because those forms engender more epiphanic moments than anything else I could do. So, yup, I chase that feeling. Everyone has had those seconds in the morning mirror, when, for some reason, time slows, and you can see yourself, really see yourself, briefly, from a slightly different angle, as though a veil has dropped, and you think, “My God, that’s me, I am Me.” You are both more familiar and more a stranger to yourself in those moments. Or as one of my characters, an adolescent girl named Tanya, says, (cause, lets face it, my characters know much more than I do), you get pulled “into the big old world and every living thing we share it with, all the animals and trees, rivers and caves, stars in the sky, and everyone, the whole implausible, irreconcilable, yummy-messy smash.”

The specifics come based on whatever gets lodged in my mind or body and haunts me until I let it out.

How does my writing process work?

Before a first draft, I spend a lot of time working when I’m not working. I need to fill my life with the right things in order to write well—time in the world of nature, time to read, and some good old-fashioned loafing about on the couch and staring at the ceiling with a song like Springsteen’s The River on a repeat loop, à la my sixteen-year-old self. Caffeine helps. Sometimes wine. Long drives are good. So is sleeping on it. Once I can feel the story, feel the emotion of the idea, character, or question that’s asking to be written, then I can face the blank screen.

When it gets down to writing the story, I have to say, I have a pretty unstructured mind, so sometimes laying down a structure frees me up to delve into character and ideas. I want the content and the form of the story to work together and I really enjoy playing with that. Revision is my favourite part of writing, where I really develop the characters, the line by line craft, etc. The best I can hope for in a first draft is that I get the voice on the page. Most of it gets cut later, and everything else is re-writing. If my writing process were a poem, it would be Steven Heighton’s Ballad of the Slow Road.

I’m most productive at writer’s residencies, where I can be locked away in my room with a view, but know that there are great people working near-by, stimulating conversation and a cuppa tea or a pint waiting when I’m ready to leave my bubble. So right now I’m renting a studio with the writer Lesley Buxton in the Farrellton Artist Space in an old, country school housing 20 other artists. It hasn’t produced as much beer-drinking as I’d like, but I’m getting work done.

I’m passing the rabbit’s foot over to playwright, poet, short-story writer, and fibre artist, S.Lesley Buxton, who is currently writing a Memoir through Dalhousie’s King’s College based on her beautiful and heart-breaking blog Fall On Me, Dear. And to poet, Dilys Leman, (who will also post on Lesley’s blog) great-great-granddaughter of Dr. Augustus Jukes, senior surgeon of the North-West Mounted Police during the 1885 Rebellion. Dilys’ new book, The Winter Court (McGill-Queens University Press), challenges the official story about the roll of First Nations in that rebellion through a mix of original poems and reconstituted archival texts.

*

Una McDonnell has performed at literary readings and music festivals, on top of café tables (to get a gig), and on one occasion in a boxing ring (she won her round). She attended the 2002 Banff Wired Writing Studio and the 2003 Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium and has a Masters of Fine Arts from UBC. She has published work in Arc, Prairie Fire, Written in the Skin: A Poetic Response to Aids, and Musings: An Anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature.

Blog Hop: I Almost Never Write and Tell

A few weeks ago, I was tagged in a blog hop by writer and friend Sally Cooper, asked to talk about my work, my process, my current projects.  advice mod verbsApart from the fact that I feel there is way too much talk about writing these days–who does what, how often, how–which I almost never relate to, though may find interesting–I am, at base, against the concept of the writer as public figure, asked to pronounce truisms about the writing life, give advice to the aspiring, or lay down wisdom derived from his/her own struggle with the written word.  I am not saying that I’ve never engaged in these activities: as an instructor of creative writing, that is half of my job, and even this blog has such pondering, such pronouncements.  So here I am, after several attempts, some contempt, and a good deal of procrastination, with my answers to the questions posed, by whom initially, I am not sure. Make of them what you will.

What are you working on?

PR-SecretsI am, by nature, a secretive person.  This may not be evident given how social and garrulous I can be on occasion, but no matter how much of a story I tell, there is always something I leave out.  This is true in all aspects of my life–in my relationships with family and friends, in my intimate relationships, and even in my relationship (when I had one) with my therapist.  Part of this might have to do with a fear of being judged and found wanting, but the greater part has to do with keeping a tantalizing something for and to myself.  This also holds true in my writing life.  I will generally only speak of my work in any sort of detail once it is complete.  I don’t consider it a superstition that a work can be damaged or talked out by speaking of it too soon, before it and the writer have grown a skin thick enough to resist both skeptics and detractors, not to mention the well-meaning critics who are only too willing to offer what more they desire from it.  But mostly I am just happy to selfishly guard it, like a fabulous secret life, full of passion and conflict, created to suit myself, since I write first and foremost for myself.  So I’m not going to talk about what I am working on.  That is, as they say, for me to know and for you to find out.

I can, however, talk about what I have almost finished: a collection of magical and wistful stories called In Love with the Dead, which are mostly about people in relationships that may or may not be real. They are fairy tales for adults and, as such, will come with illustrations by South African friend and artist Lynne Lomofsky. Why should only children’s books be illustrated? Do we not all desire and require a little more art and colour in our lives? I do.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I have no idea.  This seems like a question for academics and agents, not for writers.  Answering that kind of question would likely stop me in my tracks. Are fairy tales a genre? Then there is not always a happily ever after to my stories, at least not the expected kind. Is literary fiction a genre? Then that’s what I’m doing, at least I hope I am. Is magic realism hallucination-selfhelp-012413a genre? Well, the stories are somewhat magical, and somewhat realistic, and do exactly what they are supposed to do: they explore and reveal human desires, wounds, psyches, conflicts, and consequences without being tied to the literal and mundane aspects of physical reality. On the other hand, a reader might be tempted to conclude that many of my characters are suffering from mental breakdowns; this might be the one difference. But those types of conclusions or interpretations are also not my responsibility.  I have been known to entertain magical thinking in my life, so who am I to judge?  I just tell my character’s stories as they come, without much of an agenda–at least that is true of this book.

Why do I write what I do?

Sometimes I have a question that I want answered. In my last novel, The Goodtime Girl, I wanted to know what it would have been like to be a female singer in the 1920s tavernas and hash dens of post-war Greece.  In Love with the Dead was a reaction to such research-based writing, which often made me feel shackled to reality, to history. I wanted freedom and less tragedy. I wanted imagination to be the driving force in the lives of the characters. I wanted anything that happened, no matter how unlikely, to be acceptable.

I also tend to write the types of stories that I want to read. I try to fulfill my own wants and needs for emotion, for amusement, for certain types of narrative the best I can. Curiosity, hunger, and self-satisfaction sum it up best.  If I could simply find other books that perfectly satisfied those three needs, perhaps I would stop writing. Or maybe not.

How does my writing process work?

I have a very long gestation period for any idea.  I collect tidbits for it while I’m waiting for the moment, for the motivation, for courage to begin.  Sometimes I am plagued by a first line that I know I must write down, which repeats in my brain like a disembodied, obsessive voice, and more often than not pushes me towards a notebook, just to shut it up.  That line often has momentum, at least for a paragraph, if not more.  I can also, on a disciplined day, have an intention to write and begin putting something down on paper scriptcrumb(yes, I still write on paper) just for the sake of doing it, so I can say that I tried.  If I can hang in beyond the awkward stiltedness of the first lines, I can sometimes get into a rhythm, begin to feel the flow of language, let the writing take me beyond my mechanical intentions.  I used to work 3 or 4 hours every day, no matter how I felt: inspired, uninspired, tired, resentful, hopeful.  That really is the way things like a novel get written.  Now, I have less time to dedicate to my writing, but when I am ready to dive into my new project, currently waiting patiently in the ether, gathering strength, momentum, urgency, I will clear my schedule again. Writing is not a thing I can do part-time, or in stolen moments.  It completely takes over, and I need full days, with no other distractions, to surrender to the new relationship.

So that’s my two bits, and now I pass the baton over to poet Una McDonnell, whose contribution will appear on this blog in a few weeks, and poet, publisher, and dandy rob mclennan.

Thanks for hopping by!

If Sally Cooper were Proust

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The unofficial version is that I met Sally Cooper when we were both select members of Ann Beattie‘s fiction workshop at Humber College. We became friends on the basis of some sort of mutual weirdness that expresses itself differently in both our writing and our lives. It is hard to say what I got out of Beattie’s workshop, other than getting to know Sally, whose novels I have been lucky enough to read in draft form, and who never disappoints my readerly or writerly expectations of what makes a good story.

In the official version, Sally Cooper is a bold, powerful writer whose work lays bare the human heart. The author of acclaimed novels Love Object and Tell Everything, she has also published short stories in several magazines such as Grain and Event. A long-time professor at Humber College, Sally Cooper happily devotes her time to writing and raising her two daughters in Hamilton, Ontario.

Whether she answered these questions while reclined, I could not say for sure, but it is fine if you imagine her lounging in a garden resplendent with peonies.

lady lounging

1. Your Favourite Virtue.
Radical honesty.

2. Your Favourite Quality in a Man.
See above. The truth is sexy.

3. Your Favourite Quality in a Woman.
Brilliant humour. I’ve been blessed to know many intelligent, funny women and each one has expanded my life considerably.

4.Your Chief Characteristic.
Creative drive.
LoyalDog

5. What you appreciate most in your friends?
Loyalty.

6. Your main fault.
Indecisiveness which has led to inaction and countless missed opportunities.

7. Your idea of happiness.
Living in a perpetual state of wonder, as Louis C.K. says of his four-year-old, waking up full of joy that “it’s all still here!”

8. Your favourite occupation.
Writing.

9. Your idea of misery.
Disconnection from people I love and who care about me.

10. If not yourself, who would you be?
My daughter, in the best possible position to teach me how to best be a mother to me.

11. Where would you like to live?
New Mexico or somewhere remote, warm and coastal.

12. Your favourite colour and flower.peonies-2
Aqua and heady-scented peonies (but not aqua peonies).

13. Your favourite bird.
Herons. So prehistoric-looking and long-leggity.

14. Your favourite prose authors.
I’m a fickle reader. For instance, if you’re Ian McEwan or Richard Ford or Michael Ondaatje or Toni Morrison, say, I might love five of your novels but dismiss a sixth. Alice Munro, always. Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Lisa Moore, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx.

15. Your favourite poets.
I love poets. Who could pick a favourite? Anne Sexton; Anne Carson; Michael Ondaatje; Pablo Neruda.

Atticus_Finch16. Your favourite heroes in fiction.
Atticus Finch.

17. Your favourite heroines in fiction.
Alice Liddle; Jane Eyre; Sethe in Beloved; Dell in Lives of Girls and Women; Scout

18. Your favourite painters and musicians.
Van Gogh; Miro; Chagall; Alec Colville; Georgia O’Keeffe; Emily Carr; Agnes Martin; Bruce Springsteen; Lucinda Williams; Gillian Welch; Ryan Adams

19. Your heroes in real life.
Firefighters.

20. Your heroines in real life.
Foster mothers and single mothers.

21. What characters in history do you most dislike.
Hitler and his ilk.

boudica22. Your heroines in World history
Boudica, the anglo queen who led an uprising against the Romans in A.D. 61 in Colchester, where my mother’s family lives. Virginia Woolf.

23. Your heroes in World history.
Martin Luther King; Crazy Horse; Shakespeare.

24. Your favourite food and drink.
What’s forbidden to me now: a baguette with salted butter, a frosted glass of micro-brewed beer and a Hello Dolly square.

25. Your favourite names.
My daughters’ middle names. And all my characters’ names. (Mercy, Ramona…).

26. What you hate the most.
Having my secrets told.

27. The natural talent I’d like to be gifted with.
The singing voice of an angel.

28. How you wish to die.
I don’t wish to die.

29. What you wish to come back as.talking-rocks
A bird of prey or a sentient rock.

30. What is your present state of mind.
Over-sugared and brimming with peaceful ambition.

31. For what fault have you most toleration?
Loquaciousness. I love a good talker.

32. Your favourite motto.
Live and let live.

Follow Sally on Twitter @cooper_sally or dive into her brain here.

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If I Were Proust

ProustMarcel Proust and I have several things in common. We’re both writers. We’re both over-writers–though I come nowhere near his graphomania. We like pastries–Madeleines, millefeuilles, whatever. And most of all, we enjoy spending much of our time reclined, though unlike Marcel, I have no servants and, thus, have to get out of bed every once in a while to fetch those pastries.

That said, having recently read through his answers to what has become known as The Proust Questionnaire, a series of questions that were meant to reveal a person’s character, I found myself wondering how writers I know might answer. Of course, Vanity Fair adopted a version of the questionnaire that it puts to celebrities every month. I know no real celebrities, but I do know many, many writers, especially here in Canada. So I intend to publish a series of their answers over the coming months, not only introducing their work, but their inclinations and aspirations, as determined by 31 questions–only slightly modified from the original ones that good old Marcel answered in 1890.

I will begin with myself, not only because I am the most readily available writer I know, but also because I’m still in bed as I type, which seems somehow appropriate.

1. Your favorite qualities in a man. Charming
Charm mixed with kindness. You sometimes get one or the other, but seldom both. Beware of free-standing charm.

2. Your favourite qualities in a woman.
Confidence and directness. I like a gal who can tell it like it is, without couching it in too much politeness or euphemism.

3. Your chief characteristic.
Open-mindedness. I am much more curious than judgemental. It helps in both writing and life.

4. What you appreciate the most in your friends.
Their intelligence and wit. Their ability to lend a sympathetic ear when necessary.

5. Your main fault.
Tendency to worry/be anxious. This may be the downside of an active imagination.

6. Your favourite occupation.beach
Sitting on the beach on a sunny day, staring at the waves and sky. Going into the water every now and then. I guess I was supposed to say writing…

7. Your idea of happiness.
A stretch of empty days that I can fill with whatever I please. If the weather is fine and the locale interesting, even better.

8. Your idea of misery.
A prison of responsibilities and obligations that you cannot escape, that sour the soul. Anything you don’t want to do but have to.

9. If not yourself, who would you be?
Lucinda Williams. At least for 3 days. But would she have to be me in the meanwhile? I wonder what she’d make of that.

10. Where would you like to live?
I like where I live now, but would love a life spent partially in exotic and tropical climes. Bora Bora, Fiji, somewhere with crystalline water, white sand and palm trees. I would take a Greek island in a pinch…

Star-Gazer-Lily11. Your favourite colour and flower.
Purple, of the deep variety. Any type of lily, but especially the tall Asian ones that smell like flowery butter.

12. Your favourite bird.
I’m partial to African Grey Parrots. I like a bird that can hold a conversation and make up its own vocabulary.

13. Your favourite prose authors.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Ford, Truman Capote.

14. Your favourite poets.
I’m going to say Ruth Stone for today. Poems ambushed her in fields!

15. Your favourite heroes in fiction.
Jose Buendia in 100 Years of Solitude, especially after he was tied to the tree. I also have a lot of affection for Dell in Richard Ford’s Canada.

16. Your favourite heroines in fiction.
I’m currently enamoured with Isabel Archer in Henry James Portrait of a Lady.

17. Your favourite painters and musicians.
So many, but here are a few: Otto Dix, Modigliani, Francis Bacon; Bach, Jack White, Psarantonis

18. Your heroes in real life.
Rebels, geniuses, whistleblowers, and anyone who helps without expectation of reward.

nunfun19. Your heroines in real life.
Nuns. I think nuns are awesome. And what I said about heroes.

20. What characters in history do you most dislike.
Pick any psycho/sociopathic dictator and insert name here. And Stephen Harper.

21. Your heroines in World history.
Hypatia, Catherine the Great, Mata Hari.

22. Your heroes in World history.
Democritus, William James, Carl Jung.

23. Your favourite food and drink.martini-fruit
Japanese and Italian, and, as always, very dry vodka martinis, preferably with berries in them.

24. Your favourite names.
I’m partial to mythological ones: Persephone, Ariadne, Telemachus, Achilles, etc. People still have these names in Greece.

25. What you hate the most.
Aggressive stupidity.

26. The natural talent you’d like to be gifted with.
Singing. I’d give my left arm to be able to sing. Opera especially, but anything really.

27. How you wish to die.
Suddenly, without warning. Would save me from worrying and suffering. But I hear drowning is nice too.

tropical bird28. What you wish to come back as.
I was once told it would be a lemur, but I would prefer to be a very pretty, tropical songbird.

29. What is your present state of mind.
Quiet, but anxious at the same time. Yes, it’s possible.

30. For what fault have you most toleration?
Sentimentality.

31. Your favourite motto?
Expectation is the root cause of all suffering.

I trust you all feel you know me a bit better now, and won’t use it against me.

So You Want to Win a Literary Contest: 10 Tips on Getting Out of the Slushpile

Ah, the promise of the literary contest: the fame, the accolades, the love, and the cash. The rewards are enough to bring every closet scribbler into the light.

But it’s not that simple. Though everyone may indeed have a story worth telling, not everyone knows how to tell it well.

I recently agreed to be one of several readers for a literary fiction contest. As someone who not only writes fiction, but teaches creative writing and literature, you could say that I have a lot of experience reading, which comes in handy when you receive hundreds submissions, from which you must chose the best 5 with only a few weeks to deliberate.

This process of separating the wheat from the chaff is what I assume agents, editors at literary journals or at publishing houses, and selection committees at creative writing programs the world over spend much of their working life engaging in. The latter, of course, are just looking for potential, the diamond in the rough, whereas everyone else is really just after the diamonds.

So what advice might I give contest hopefuls who, most often, are paying to have their work considered among hundreds or thousands of other hopefuls?

  1. Have a great title, something intriguing, suggestive, rather than a cliche or someone’s name. Work as hard on the title as everything else, and try not to include it in your first or last line. A good title gets your story more favourable attention right off the bat. It makes the reader curious about what will be revealed.
  2. Avoid long prologues or epigrams, and especially don’t italicize them. The former is better used in a novel, which has room for a ‘before,’ the latter is often trying to deliver the message of the story, which is the job of the story itself–and by extension the writer. And please leave the introductory poems to the poets.
  3. Make sure that your first few lines are interesting, have a hook, and get the story going right away. There’s no room or need for back-story in a short story. You need to hit the ground running. I want to already be in the weeds halfway through the first page, if not at the end of the first paragraph.
  4. For God’s sake, don’t have typos or grammatical errors in those first lines. If they come later they look like an oversight, but right at the beginning they tell me you’re not paying attention or simply don’t know better.
  5. Actually write scenes so the reader can immerse him/herself into the action. This falls under show don’t tell. I don’t want to read about the story, I want to be lost inside it.
  6. Make sure something happens! This should go without saying, but recent experience tells me that it needs to be said. On a related note, make sure something changes for your characters because of this thing that happens. When did watching someone stuck in the mud become interesting? Don’t we all have enough hopeless friends and aggravating relatives who refuse to change their minds, learn from their mistakes, or do what is obviously necessary in the face of adversity?
  7. Avoid the 1st person. This may seem harsh, but there are too many disguised autobiographies floating around out there, which is the primary cause of the lack of scenes and the dearth of important action. Third person gives you distance and forces you into a fuller storytelling. But if you do write 1st person, or 3rd for that matter, give your protagonist other characters to interact with. That will also ensure something happens.
  8. Try to make your language evocative and interesting. It will bring extra life to your story, whereas mundane or repetitive language will drain it of energy. Use regional accents/dialect sparingly. They become annoying and unreadable, and don’t really help in defining character or place–they are a short cut that doesn’t get your characters or your reader anywhere.
  9. Give your characters names. Why should anyone care about anonymous he’s and she’s? It’s the individuality of characters that make the same old stories interesting. Remember, nothing comes into existence until it is named.
  10. The last line is as important as the first. You can get away with a so-so ending in a novel, but a short story lives or dies by its ending. The standard advice is that it should be surprising yet inevitable.

Sound like too many things to consider? Then save your entrance fee. Because this is what separates those who have taken the time to consider the art and craft of writing from those who simply know how to line up sentences one after another until they, more or less, get some sort of event or series of events across. And rest assured, if you don’t consider these basics, there will be at least a few people among the hundreds of submissions who have, and chances are they will be the ones to make it out of the Slushpile and into the winners circle.

Bonus tip: Hospital stories, the decline of the aged, accounts of trips to exotic locales, and love stories are often prone to dull, informational writing and cliche. The first two are also inherently depressing, so if you want to write about any of these things, make sure you have a bigger point to make above and beyond the plot. And don’t write them in 1st person (revisit Tip 7)!

Caveat: All rules can be broken, but you need to know them first, and you need to break them so well that readers are blown away, and all they are paying attention to is your brilliance.

All except this one, of course.

Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 3

Part 1, Part 2

Philomena Zapponi owned a button shop on what was called Tailor’s Row by the locals. It had been opened by her grandmother Delphina after her grandfather Cosimo was lost at sea. As Delphina packed her dead husband’s clothes to donate to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, she found herself unable to part with the shiny buttons on his ceremonial uniform. Before she could stop herself, she had cut them all off, and not only those fine gold buttons, but all the lesser buttons on his shirts, on his trousers, on his winter coat. She absolved herself of her guilt over this act of vandalism by telling herself that buttons were inexpensive, and even the poorest parishioners could afford them. They were, after all, still getting Cosimo’s fine clothes—a blessing, with or without the buttons. Delphina collected his in a big glass jar, which she placed on the dresser across her bed. As there was no body to bury, no grave site to visit and tend, she polished the jar and its contents daily and spoke to it every night before she went to sleep.

“Oh Cosimo,” she said, “the children are sneezing and skinny as gypsies, the city has turned off the gas, and it’s so cold under the blankets without you.” Sometimes, when the moon was full, a flame ignited inside Delphina, and she told the jar secrets she would have never dared tell Cosimo while he was alive, then pasted her lips against the cool glass and did things with the buttons she could never tell anyone.

There was no pension for the widows of seamen, so Delphina’s pantry emptied day by day, her children’s shoes wore out, and her spirit waned. Without any skills other than those of a housewife, she was forced to sell off her jewelry, then her imported china and crystal, then the inessential furniture, and finally the essential, until the house was almost bare and the children slept in flour sacks on the floor. She could not, however, part with the jar of buttons. Desperate, hungry, and humiliated, Delphina wept into it, corroding the buttons with her salty tears, begging Cosimo, God, the buttons for a solution to her woes. “You could have asked earlier,” all three might have justifiably replied, “before the children were forced to wear rubber tires on their feet, and before little Agatha developed rickets.” But Cosimo had been a kind man, and even God had His moments of compassion. The buttons, the most practical of the trinity, shone brightly and screamed “Sell me! Sell me! Sell me!”

And thus Delphina’s Button Shoppe came into being—first in what had been their living room, and eventually in the storefront on Tailor’s Row. Delphina greeted customer’s from behind a long glass display case, where the shop’s finest buttons rested like gems on velvet cushions. They were illuminated from above by a chandelier of Bohemian crystal that sprinkled the whole shop with stardust. On the side walls were large gold frames that displayed all manner of buttons like abstract pointillist art, their copies kept in the little drawers of an ebony apothecary cabinet so immense that it took up the entire back wall. No other shop carried as large and eclectic a selection of splendid buttons made of rare wood, of ivory, of hand-blown glass. And even after Velcro and plastic snaps invaded the market, barnacling themselves like zebra mussels to otherwise respectable garments, the most discerning and difficult-to-please seamstresses and tailors still frequented Delphina’s shop in search of the perfect button.

Soon Delphina’s house was filled with furniture much finer than the hand-me-downs that she and Cosimo had been given as wedding gifts. The children skipped to school in new shoes of the butteriest, most expensive leather. Agatha was attended to by a specialist who fed her oranges and grapefruits until she stood up straight and glowed as if sun-kissed. And although Delphina never married again, she was the most sought after guest at balls on Tailor’s Row, where she danced the cha-cha and the rumba in beautiful dresses, bedizened with the most exquisite buttons money could buy.

After Delphina’s death at the age of 79, the shop was passed down to Agatha, who was efficient but nowhere near as glamourous as her mother. And when Agatha got so old that she confused a box of pink and black striped enamel buttons for licorice candy, she was promptly placed in a nursing home by her children, where all of her clothes were fastened with Velcro. This encouraged her to flash other patients, orderlies, unsuspecting visitors, and her children when they came, which was not often. The sound of the two prickly strips being ripped apart made Agatha laugh out loud, and she would do it over and over, much to the chagrin of everyone, especially her only son, Augusto, who was the first to stop visiting.

It was expected that Philomena, the youngest, would take the reigns. None of her three sisters, and certainly not her brother Augusto, wanted anything to do with “the button racket” as they called it. “Philomena, you’re the most organized,” insisted Melina, the pretty sister who had snagged a rich husband at the Tailors’ Spring Cotillion. “Philomena, you are the most knowledgeable,” pointed out Lucretia, the brainy sister who had gone to medical school while Philomena toiled behind the button counter from the age of six onwards, enduring her mother’s incessant criticism, obeying her increasingly bizarre whims. “Philomena, we have families who need us,” argued Augusto and Delphi, the oldest daughter who was named after her illustrious grandmother.

Though this was all true, Philomena couldn’t see how this excused them. They had jobs they went to every morning, jobs that the buttons had provided by putting them through school, and by making their suits more appealing and professional-looking at interviews. Were they really prepared to deny the power of a properly-chosen and well-placed button? These were good arguments, which might have even moved her siblings to contribute at least some of their time to the family business had Philomena actually pronounced them. But just as she had never been able to stand up to her mother, she proved equally inept at standing up to her siblings. She just nodded dumbly as they left the shop, and as if foreordained by the jar of her grandfather’s buttons itself, Philomena became the Button Mistress, or the Button Spinster, or the Old Crazy Button Lady, depending on who was speaking of her, friend or foe.

More buttons coming up…

Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 2

Here is the second installment from my collection of stories In Love with the Dead. For Part 1, click here.

A woman of about 35 sent him a yellow envelope with a photograph and the requisite dollar. He stared at her image, at her flawless skin, her troubled green eyes, and her mane of auburn hair that went down to her navel. On the back of the photograph was an note in neat and rounded penmanship: I am pretty and popular, yet I am still a virgin. This took Bruce’s breath away, and though he was aware that it might seem unethical, he contacted the woman immediately and invited her to the house. His purest intention was to offer her a cup of Lady Grey, then show her the stacks of letters from other virgins—male/female, ugly/beautiful, some as old as 93.

Marjorie arrived the next day wearing a lavender dress, white gloves, and a large straw hat. Over tea and biscuits, she told him she was an only child, adopted by a couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. They paraded around the house naked, making love whenever and wherever the spirit moved them. They even died in the act on a cruise she was not invited on when she was 14. “Seems they climbed into a lifeboat, which spilled them into the ocean in the middle of the night. I swore I’d never be like them.” Bruce noticed that she related the story without emotion, as if she had told it many times before, but that her bottom lip quivered when she whispered, “I think it’s time to let go of my grudge. Before it’s too late.” Soon after tea, Bruce gave her back her dollar and took care of her problem.
Marjorie quit her job in the listings department of the local telephone company. She had started as a proofreader 15 years earlier, and had worked her way up to supervisor of production, with a staff of 20 beneath her. After a quick wedding at City Hall, she moved into Bruce’s house and became his assistant, taking it upon herself to organize the secrets with the same zeal she had applied to the phone book all these years. “Have you ever seen a name misspelled or a business in the wrong category?” she inquired when Bruce asked her whether she knew what she was doing.

First, she opened all the neglected envelopes as well as those that arrived on a daily basis, then divided the secrets into groups: Physical, Emotional, Spiritual, Sexual, Psychological, Criminal, Edible. At the end of each day, she put on her straw hat, and deposited the dollar bills at Bruce’s bank on Bank Street. Though Marjorie didn’t thrill in the secrets like her husband did, it satisfied her greatly to put some order to them, and as a result, to the house. It gave her the impression that the world could also be ordered, one room, one secret at a time. It was also Marjorie’s idea that the secrets be made public so that people would not feel so alone, as she had for so many years, hiding her virginity in her underwear drawer. “If we all knew each other’s secrets,” she reasoned, “we could never use them against each other.” Though Bruce had his doubts, he nodded pleasantly. Who was he to disabuse her of her naïve notions, especially since they kept her so happy and motivated?

To humor her, he made an appointment with the editor of the Daily Reporter, who wrote a profile of Bruce that was published in the weekend edition. This attracted a few internet magnates, which in turn alerted a couple of magazine and book editors, who drew in a trio of harried television producers not wanting to be left behind. Bruce invited all of them to the conference room of a medium sized-hotel on Visitor’s Lane and told them his story while they took furious notes.

“As many people as there are willing to divulge their darkest secrets, there will be that many more who will pay to hear them,” he said, fanning a dozen unopened envelopes on the table before them. The publishers cleared their throats, the TV producers scratched their double chins, and the internet magnates drummed stubby fingers on the table. They were all used to making decisions based on statistics and market research and 30 page proposals written in legalese by experts, not on the sentimental and hyperbolical claims of a man who looked like a schoolteacher. But they were dying to know the secrets contained in the innocuous envelopes spread before them. Like rabid squirrels they descended upon them, tearing them open as if they contained a million dollars instead of one. And as they passed the hand-scrawled notes amongst themselves, they laughed and they wept, felt repulsed, afraid, and finally relieved. “There is nothing more tempting, more satisfying than a secret,” Bruce told them in closing, and the businessmen nodded solemnly and shook his hand.

A thick, glossy magazine featured an interview and a photo spread of Bruce and Marjorie at home receiving the bags of mail on their front porch from a smiling postman—not Murray, who was mildly offended. Though reluctant at first, Marjorie even gave permission for her secret to be included with the article after Bruce convinced her it would set an example. Hers was a story that everyone could get behind, he said, a love story and proof that telling your secret improved your life in ways you could not even imagine. Marjorie nodded and sighed, and went into the stacks to find her secret. After the article was printed, a support group called United Virgins of the Lower West Side wrote to Marjorie, declaring her their spiritual leader. She wrote back that although she was honored, she had no time to attend their meetings as there was far too much work for her at home. In addition, as she was no longer a virgin, she was uncertain whether she had anything to contribute. She had other secrets now, but these she kept to herself.

For the most part, Marjorie was thrilled that her initiative had been met with such enthusiasm, and was even willing to give Bruce all the credit for it. But she had one concern. Despite her general trust in others (all those years as a virgin had shielded her from the most unpleasant of humankind’s neuroses), she was worried that with all the publicity, too many people now knew where they lived.

Part 3

Your Secret is Safe with Me–Part 1

Here is the first installment from my collection of stories In Love with the Dead. Like the serialized stories of old, I will be posting two sections a week, so get on board and enjoy the ride!

For reasons he couldn’t explain, people kept telling Bruce Lanzieri things that were none of his business: in elevators, in laundromats, in movie line-ups—wherever he went. It hadn’t always been so, and the first time it happened, he thought nothing of it. He was standing at the corner of Bank Street and Antique Alley, waiting for the light to change, when an old woman squinted at him through tortoise-shell glasses. “You look just like my brother Harry,”she said, sniffing the air like an offended cat. “He’s been dead now, 3 years.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Bruce replied, hiding his discomfort behind a sympathetic smile.
“We weren’t that close,” the old woman added, “never really got along.” She blinked a few times, and seemed to be done, but Bruce noticed a strange light in her eyes, a sparkle mixed in with a hint of anxiety. “It’s my fault, really,” she continued, her voice tinctured with remorse. “I always resented him because Mother thought he was the cat’s pajamas. So at night, after everyone was asleep, I’d sneak into his room and pour apple juice on his sheets.”

The next day, a woman with a blonde beehive mistook him for the high school sweetheart she’d never forgotten; then an old man with a parrot for a long lost friend he’d betrayed; then a man with a mole on his brow for a forgiven enemy. The reason, perhaps, for these optical delusions was that Bruce didn’t look like anybody in particular, thus he looked like everybody and was a threat to no one. It baffled him that even after these strangers realized their error, they divulged a secret they had never told anyone else. Soon they were approaching him in such great numbers that no matter what their shape or size, their age or even their gender, they blended into one non-descript being, as indistinguishable as a tree in a overgrown forest. At most, Bruce might remember an accoutrement or a physical oddity: the tortoise shell glasses; a red purse; a tie strewn with sunflowers; the startling mole, large and puffy as a nipple.

In the beginning, Bruce often wondered which came first, the wish to confess or his arrival at the traffic light? He no longer asked such questions. He accepted that he had been chosen by some higher power to receive their secrets, plain and simple, So instead of fighting it, he did what any reasonable man would do. Bruce quit his job as a schoolteacher to dedicate himself to his new calling full-time. He’d read somewhere that if he did what he loved, the money would follow. So he gave himself a title, and advertised on laundromat bulletin boards, in community papers, on telephone poles around the neighbourhood:

Bruce Lanzieri, Cryptotelist—Your secret is safe with me!

For one dollar the burdened could send him a secret anonymously, and in return they would feel, if not absolved, then at least relieved of carrying it around, afraid that it might slip out after a few drinks and ruin them. He provided his home address in these advertisements, and the secrets, with their accompanying dollars, began trickling into his mail slot:

Every time I walk on a subway grate, I pray it won’t collapse.
My husband’s twin brother is the father of our son.
I cheated my way through medical school.

Bruce made two piles on his kitchen table—one for the secrets, another for the dollar bills—which gradually grew taller as the weeks passed. Then, like a ripple in the ocean’s depth that gains strength as it travels towards the shore, the trickle became a tidal wave of mail. More than Bruce could read, more than he could count, more than he knew what to do with frankly. Mailbags bursting with longings, transgressions, wishes for revenge began filling up every room, floor to ceiling, of the small house he’d rented on his teacher’s salary. Soon it was difficult to get to the front door if someone rang—most often Murray the postman, who was none too pleased.

“Mr. Lanzieri,” he said one morning after he’d made three trips to his mail truck and was about to make a forth, “I got two things to say to you.” This was unusual as Murray generally dumped the bags on the stoop, rang the bell and was on his way before Bruce could make it to the door. He looked at the little bald man kindly, ready to receive his confidences. But Murray’s only secret was his lisp, which gave his advice the ring of truth. “You need to move to a bigger house,” he began, looking past Bruce’s body into the mailbag cramped hallway, “ and you gotta stop putting your address in them ads. This town is full of scallywags and crooks, and if they ain’t interested in the money,” he held an air mail envelope to the light, “they’s gonna want the secrets.”

Indeed, the dollar bill was visible through the thin blue paper, and so was the secret in its bold black letters. Murray shook his head as he went back for the last bag, and after Bruce dragged all four into the house he began the gargantuan task of opening the newly-arrived envelopes. With the stacks of dollar bills he extracted from inside, he bought a large house that was not on Murray’s route, for which the lisping postman was eternally grateful. The house’s six rooms, as well as the basement, both bathrooms and the attic, were immediately overrun by secrets, which multiplied and spread like jack rabbits. Bruce confined himself to the living room with its brown fold-out couch, and the adjoining kitchen, where he sometimes used the sink as a toilet. But since he lived alone, no one was the wiser, and from the letters he received, he knew he wasn’t the only one.

That was the saddest and most endearing quality of the secrets: so many were the same, but their owners were convinced that no other person in the history of the world had ever had sex with a cousin, regretted having children, or wished their spouse would never come back from war. And heaven help them if the husband actually got blown up by a roadside bomb, or the child fell through the window screen at a neighbor’s birthday party, or the cousin gave birth to a baby with a curly vestigial tail. Then they would flog themselves daily with a wet cat ‘o nine tails, a bamboo switch, a wire hanger, and might have done so indefinitely had Bruce not come along with his offer of respite for a buck. He was providing a valuable service, and in appreciation he was not only compensated financially, he was also sent a wife…

Part 2