An Interview with Lena Bertone, author of BEHIND THIS MIRROR

As runner-up of our chapbook contest (judged by Matt Bell!), Lena Bertone got a special tour of the Origami Zoo. We took her to the marsupial enclosure. Origami kangaroos opened their pouch folds to reveal baby origami kangaroos. Origami sugar gliders soared paper-thin on the wind. An origami koala bear spent an inordinate amount of time looking at its two-dimensional reflection in a pond. As we sat among these pouched and paper mammals, Lena Bertone answered questions about her forthcoming chapbook, her current reading list, and what she keeps behind her own mirrors.

lenabwOrigami Zoo Press: If you were an animal in the Origami Zoo, what origami animal would you be?

Lena Bertone: I’d want to be a cat that when you turned it around, it looked liked a chicken.

OZP: Congrats on being runner-up in our chapbook contest! Aside from this, what’s the coolest contest/raffle prize you’ve ever won?

LB: Definitely the best thing I’ve ever won was The Lit Pub’s prose contest, and Molly Gaudry is publishing Letters to the Devil as a result. It will be out super soon!!

OZP: Many of the stories in Behind This Mirror are obviously fairy tale influenced. What’s your relationship with fairy tales and how do they interact with your work? What other writing/writers do you feel influenced these stories?

LB: I have no idea how to answer this question. Looking at my stories, they are obviously fairy tale-influenced, but mostly I do not set out to write fairy tale-influenced stories. I think that often, when I wrote these stories, I was thinking about beauty and ugliness, deception and irony, love and darkness, all of which, of course, are fairy tale topics, but they’re also the topics of everything. I remember my dad telling me the story of Pinocchio over and over when I was a kid, and how it changed a little every time, and how dark and complex it was. I remember my mom telling me the story of Cinderella and very naturally adding the gory, bloody details of the version she knew from her childhood. These were stories of intrigue and magic and horror, not mere fairy tales.

Maybe another part of it was growing up in a two-language household. There’s this great ferocity to Italian/Sicilian; it’s so phonetic and perfectly structured, but idiomatically, it’s crazy violent and hilarious. My sister and I like to remember the things our relatives used to say to us as kids—which we never thought twice about then, the violence was so normalized. Sample: Vi pighiu a bastunati = I’m going to beat you both with clubs (which beating never actually occurred).

As an adult, I’ve read lots of versions of fairy tales and also read and loved authors who combine real and magical worlds; I also love the kind of poetic-puzzly prose that can be squeezed into short spaces, a la Lydia Davis.

Behind This MirrorOZP: What are you working on right now? Any exciting projects in the works? Any sneak peeks you can give us?

LB: I have a few things I’m working on. My Ettore Majorana stories that have been in Wigleaf, Hobart, and Nightblock are a continuing series that may turn into something bigger.

OZP: What are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend?

LB: I’m reading the new Grimm’s fairy tale book with the earliest renditions of the tales that the Grimm brothers wrote down. They’re gruesome and wonderful. I just got fellow ASU alum Todd Kaneko’s book The Dead Wrestler Elegies in the mail last week, and have been reading Bill Konigsberg’s first novel, Out of the Pocket. He’s also an ASU alum. It’s exciting when your friends have books! I’m lucky that I have a lot of friends with books these days.

OZP: Most of the stories in this chapbook are very short. Tell us a bit about that. How do you see a large number of very short stories interacting within a collection vs. fewer, longer short stories? What was sequencing this collection like? I have trouble putting ten stories in an order, so the task seems daunting. What do you like about the short-short form?

LB: I have a kick-ass writing partner, and we have been exchanging writing almost daily for a few years. We generate little bits of things, and sometimes they become stories, and sometimes they don’t. This process is a big part of why I’ve written many short pieces in the last several years; but honestly, I don’t think I’m very good at constructing the traditionally structured, “longer” short story, and even the longer stories in this collection are segmented and not-plotty.

One theme that runs through many of my stories is the idea that there’s often some confusion between the sleeping and waking states. I was thinking about that when I put the stories in the order they’re in now. This collection may represent one long sleep cycle.

BehindThisMirror_FPOZP: Is the Magician who appears in a couple of stories in this chapbook ever going to make a return appearance? What will his final trick be? Do you see any of the other stories as being interconnected/concerning the same characters?

LB: That magician is kind of a jerk. He’s also the most obvious performer of any of these characters, and I think the magician stories are a little Brechtian in their starkness and darkness. The magician might come back. He will definitely have a twirly mustache if he does.

There’s a smart-mouthed woman in one of the magician stories, and I see her as a sister to many of the other women in the collection—many of my women are a little rude, a little ugly, a little horrified, and a little horrifying.

OZP: If we were to break into your house while you weren’t home and look behind all your mirrors, what would we find?

LB: Dust? The inside-out of a potato-chip bag?

***
BEHIND THIS MIRROR by Lena Bertone is available for pre-order now! Make sure to check out all our great holiday deals, too: buy one, get one free, or five books for $20!

Holiday Sale at the Zoo

Origami Thanksgiving

Enjoy your turkey leftovers with some great literature!

To celebrate Thanksgiving and Lena Bertone’s forthcoming chapbook Behind This Mirror, we’re having a special sale. Preorder Lena’s book and get any other OZP title for free! Please note: purchasers of the two-for-one deal will receive their books in January when Behind This Mirror is released.


Title of 2nd Free Book


Want more OZP books for the upcoming holidays? We know you’ve got a lot of friends to shop for. Order any 5 OZP books for $20!


5 for $20: List 5 titles below


Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the Zoo!

 

The Anne Valente Interview (pt. 2)

[This is the second part of a two-part interview. Check out the first part here!]

Anne ValenteOZP: There are multiple stories in the collection that deal with sexual violence (“By Light We Knew Our Names,” “Minivan,” and, on a somewhat smaller scale, “A Taste of Tea”). Tell me a little bit about what role that plays in your work. Notably, the latter two stories are narrated by men, and I want to know what led you to these stories, in which the narrators come to realizations about certain violences they have either committed or been complicit in. “Minivan,” for instance, could’ve easily been narrated by Jane, but it’d be a completely different story, of course. And in a perhaps unrelated, perhaps not, question, why did you decide to name the collection after “By Light We Knew Our Names”? It’s one of the darker stories in the collection, if not the darkest, but it also, to me, feels like the most important. I’m just curious about how you see it representing/interacting with the collection as a whole.

AV: While writing these stories, I think I was coming to terms with some of my own realizations about gender violence – five years ago, when these stories were written, I don’t know if the same conversations were happening about microaggressions and rape culture. I don’t know that I had the language to properly identify what I was experiencing while walking down the street or sitting in classrooms or even socializing at supposedly civilized dinner parties. Exploring this violence in part through male narrators felt like an exercise in understanding another side of this, but also perhaps in broadening the exploration of gender violence beyond the experience of women. Other violences appear in this book too – violence against animals, against the planet – and I don’t think these things are disconnected from one another. Some of these stories explore violence as a means of simply identifying it and naming it, and I think the collection’s title comes from this sense of self-identification, of finding a voice.

OZP: I see place doing a lot of work very subtly in this collection—often it’s essential to the story (as in “By Light We Knew Our Names” or “Everything That Was Ours”), but a lot of times, while it doesn’t factor into the plot itself, it provides a lot of interesting and necessary texture, particularly in the natural landscapes that surround the characters. What role do you feel place plays in your stories?

AV: Place is essential to my fiction. I feel very tied to landscape as a human being, and by extension, I suppose my stories do too. Given the magic in some of these stories, I feel that there’s so much magic in nature – we have scientific explanations for why trees turn or why birds migrate, but I still feel like there’s some mystery in this. These things are nothing short of miraculous. Beyond the wondrous qualities of landscape and nature, I think rich description of place also connects to this line between the tangible and the intangible in fiction. In many cases, I believe that less description allows for the reader to fill in the details, and in the cases of horror or magic, to provide a far more imaginative reading or explanation than the author ever could. But in other cases, abundance of description can highlight and enhance the unknown. Setting and place work this way for me, as tangible markers of environment and landscape. We know exactly where we are – what kind of grass we’re sitting on, what kind of light streaks the sky – but we have no concrete explanation for why war occurs, why sexual violence exists, why a strange sound breaks through our windows every night. I appreciate the grounding presence of place in the face of the unknown.

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteOZP: I’m a big music collector—I think I’m one of the only five people left who still buys CDs—and I tend to think of collections of stories like albums in that I’m very interested in the sequencing of stories, what stories open and close the collection, what are the centerpieces (or “singles,” if you will). While they overlap somewhat in tone and ideas, your stories here are very different and follow very different people, and it seems like a different order could change how we read it entirely. How did you go about sequencing the stories in the collection? Was it easy to pick first and last stories? Were there stories you knew needed to be together (or, alternately, stories that needed to be spaced out)?

AV: I definitely thought hard about the order of these stories. Originally, the stories progressed from childhood to adulthood in terms of their narrators, settings and content. This order still prevails in the collection – we begin with the children in “Latchkey” and end with a middle-aged couple in “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” – but I thought much harder in finalizing the order about the particulars of this progression. For instance, “Until Our Shadows Claim Us” was originally placed near the beginning because it’s about a group of children who believe they’ve summoned a neighborhood phantom. In revising the collection’s order, however, I realized that this story is far more elegiac and not childlike at all. The collective narrators are retrospectively remembering their childhood from the vantage point of adulthood, and with great grief for what they’ve lost. For this reason, this story felt like it should come near the end. I made similar choices with other stories. Beyond large-scale concerns of narration and content, I also looked at the final lines of stories as they transitioned into the opening lines of the next, watching out for matches in the patterns, voice and sound of the language.

OZP: What are you reading right now? Anything you recommend?

AV: I just finished Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, which was haunting and devastating. I couldn’t put it down. I read it in one day, something I haven’t done in ages. I’m also reading John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van and Jac Jemc’s A Different Bed Every Time.

OZP:And finally, what have you got in the works? What’s next for Anne Valente? Do you have any new stories in lit mags we should check out?

AV: I’m currently working on a series of short stories about the city of St. Louis – reimaginings of the city’s history and major events, as well as continued focus on place through research into Missouri trees, birds, wildlife, weather. One of these stories just appeared in The Normal School, and another is forthcoming in One Story within the next few months. I also recently completed a novel about a series of mysterious house fires that erupt in a community after a school shooting. A brief excerpt of this is out in the newest issue of Threadcount.

The Anne Valente Interview (pt. 1)

To celebrate the release of Anne Valente’s debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, we sat down with Valente in the Origami Zoo to talk about the wonderful and wondrous stories populating her book. We conducted our interview at the overlook above the origami giraffe habitat. As the paper giraffes showed us how they endlessly unfold their necks to reach leaves on higher branches—and even all the way up to us, licking our faces—Valente told us about titling stories, blurring realities, and the role history and science play in her writing.

You can order By Light We Knew Our Names here, and if you want even more Anne Valente, we have an excellent chapbook of short-shorts for sale that we of course highly recommend.

Anne ValenteOrigami Zoo Press: The children in the opening story “Latchkey” are set apart from other children by their strange gifts—including a halo of planets, a fishbowl stomach and a tiny librarian, as well as the mysterious gift for Sasha, which she has not yet discovered. I’m curious about how the idea for all these gifts come about, but my real question is: What would your magical “Latchkey” gift be?

Anne Valente: I wrote this story at the beginning of my MFA program at Bowling Green State University, and at the time, I think the gifts seemed to come from other fascinations of mine: the solar system, my husband just beginning his career as a librarian. Looking back though, I can’t help but think that the gifts were also some expression of my awe at the talents of my classmates, and that I got to share a classroom with writers like Brandon Davis Jennings and Matt Bell. Everyone’s work blew me away. I had just started writing stories when I got to Bowling Green, and this story feels now like the latent hope that my gifts in writing could be just as magical as those of my peers. More tangibly speaking, if I had a magical gift that I could open, opening a package and finding a baby giraffe wouldn’t be far off the mark.

OZP: I really admire all of your titles. They’re usually extracted in some way from the story, but they’re rarely direct lines—you seem to be able to paraphrase in such a way that lends a grander feel to your titles. They have a weight to them, that a direct line lifted from the text might not, though they still seem to perfectly capture the heart of the story. How do you come up with titles? Do you begin with them? Or do they not come about until after the story is finished? Has a story ever been particularly challenging to title for you?

AV: Titles have always been difficult for me, so I’m glad to hear that these titles are succeeding in some way! My process is usually one of waiting until I’ve completed the story in order to see where it takes me, then going back through to find the sentences or brief moments of language that seem to encapsulate the story’s heart. I’ve been tempted before to pull phrases straight from the story, but then there’s the weird effect for the reader of reaching that passage and thinking, Oh, here’s the important passage. Here’s the story’s main theme. Other writers have pulled this off in smart ways, but when I’ve done this, I feel too obvious and too directive as an author. I do still go through and find the lines that seem to speak most to the story as a whole, but I usually alter them in some way. As for a particularly challenging story title, “Latchkey” was actually one of the hardest. The word appears nowhere in the story, and I’m still not sure if other people associate the word of this title with what I do: a group of kids being watched after school until their parents can pick them up. But something more direct felt too obvious and heavy-handed for this story, especially one that is fairly light in tone.

OZP: There’s a big tug-of-war between the fantastic and the real in this collection. There are a few stories that are outright realist or outright fabulist, but most leave the reader wondering: though we see ghosts and shaking mirrors and disappearing teabags, there’s always this lingering doubt—maybe those characters were imagining it, maybe the narrator is remembering this moment from their childhood wrong, etc. It works in reverse, too—for instance, I was totally willing to believe everything that happens in “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” was grounded in scientific fact. How do you view the relationship between the real and the fantastic in your stories and how do you hope readers will interpret these moments?

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteAV: I was just listening to a Radiolab podcast yesterday about a paranormal team investigating a haunted house, and I noticed that the more intangible the experience became – once flashlights started blinking, once spirits started communicating – the more technical and scientific the language became. A chemist was consulted to explain what happens inside a flashlight’s bulb, and how this reaction could cause what appears to be ghostly communication. In the end, this scientific explanation becomes one among many – it might explain what is happening, but it also might not. To some extent, I feel this way about the relationship between the real and the fantastic in my own writing: I love the informational excess of scientific explanation, and I love how its tangibility comes up against everything we can’t explain. The process of writing feels similar. I’m constantly using the tangibility of words and language to try to describe what can’t be contained. Language is always an asymptote. I don’t know that I look for a specific interpretation that readers should take away, but instead the experience of liminality, that multiple realities and a blurring between them might be at play.

OZP: You have quite a few stories where the fiction intersects with historical events (“Dear Amelia,” “Everything That Was Ours,” “Until Our Shadows Claim Us”). Tell us a little about that. What role does history play for you when writing fiction? What’s the importance of the historical interacting with the fictional (particularly in a story like “Dear Amelia,” where there are explicitly fantastical elements)? What was your research process for these stories like, and where/how did you decide when to take liberties?

AV: Much like the tangibility of scientific fact, which I love but which I feel only provides one answer among many, history seems very similar. I absolutely adore research out of sheer curiosity, and of trying to imagine a particular moment in history such as how young girls might have imagined Amelia Earhart at a time when a feat like hers was an anomaly among women. But like science, history is authoritative. It assumes a single, all-encompassing narrative. I like to reimagine history to some degree, to make sense of what we think we know through alternate perspectives. I’m less interested in historical fiction than in the possibility that history didn’t happen the way we were told it did.

The Anne Valente Interview will return… on Friday!

Review: BY LIGHT WE KNEW OUR NAMES by Anne Valente

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteBy Light We Knew Our Names is the kind of book that reads like eating a five-course meal. It’s delicious, yes, and heavy, satisfying. It’s the kind of book you want to take with you to a deserted island or up in space or anywhere really. But more than anything, it’s the kind of book that makes me want to write, the kind that fills me up with ideas of my own, new universe spun into existence I just have to explore. I don’t know what it is about her work that does that. Maybe it’s because her stories ask tough questions with complicated (or unknowable) answers, and putting another story into the world seems like the only appropriate way to respond.

BLWKON is the debut collection of longtime Origami Zoo favorite Anne Valente, and it’s a thrilling one. It feels incredibly cohesive, like a great album, but all the stories feel totally distinct. They share similar concerns and Valente’s hypnotic prose, but they run the gamut in terms of tone, genre, and characters.

I’ve been a fan of Valente’s work since I read the title story in Hayden’s Ferry Review my first year of graduate school. It more or less defined the her work for me, as well as the journal itself. It also served as a kind of benchmark—I thought, if I could write a story half as good as this one during my time here, I’ll have made it. The story follows four teenage girls struggling to survive in a small town where rape and abuse are inescapable, coming from boyfriends and fathers and brothers and strangers. The grimness of the story is made readable only by the strength of Valente’s characters and of her prose, which often reads like incantations. Even in the most realist stories, the prose does magical things: “Then she punched, both hands clenched rigid—she punched so hard I felt what force was in her move through me, a kinetic quake, all the light she held inside her, some separate sun no one saw, eclipsed.” Valente piles on images in long sentences you hope never end.

Many of the stories are coming-of-age tales, but they are not cloying or precious as stories about adolescence can often be. Sometimes, they give us tiny librarians living in little girls’ pockets or ghosts of grandparents or mothers who transform into bears. Other stories are more grounded, but all of them are about growing up and venturing out into a world that is sad and unwelcoming and, particularly for young women, dangerous. And even in the world where mothers turn ursine, it’s our world still. Valente’s characters don’t grieve so much for lives lost as they do for the lives impossible for them to live.

Some of the strongest stories are the ones that expertly blur the lines between fantasy and reality. The penultimate piece, “Until Our Shadows Claim Us.” In it, a group of second graders believe they have summoned the Rosewood Phantom (a “Bloody Mary”-type specter), thus causing greater tragedies around the world (the Challenger explosion, Chernobyl), as well as the close-to-home disappearances of their classmates, one by one by one. Of course, for much of the story, we chalk the Rosewood Phantom up to childhood fears and superstition, but by the end, there are a few moments that leave this wonderful, terrifying sliver of doubt—and, in effect, we the readers become a part of that collective first-person narrator driving the story. We believe the impossible, the unbelievable.

And that’s what these stories do: they make us realize that the unbelievable is sometimes in our own backyard, under our very noses. Valente’s stories grab you by the ears and force you to look at some scary truths about our world, and that is important—but in equal measure, and sometimes in the same moment, they tilt your chin down and have you consider the beauty that is there, lighting up the dark.

Resurrect Your Darlings: Anne Valente

Anne ValenteLike most writers, I try to make everything I write work for me in some way, even if it doesn’t end up on the final page. I rarely save separate drafts of the same project, so much of my revisions – the large sections that get cut, the scenes that are moved around, the lost images that are abandoned or placed elsewhere – are absorbed into the finalized version of a story or essay. I finish every project I start, but I do have one small, hidden folder on my desktop called Retired Stories. There are seven of them. All of them are as finished as they can be. But they’re retired because, even though they’re complete, I realized quickly after writing them that they were failures.

It’s hard to say how I knew they had failed other than that once I’d finished them, within a week I didn’t like them anymore. Long after the fact, I know now why some of them were failures. Take the following story, which opens in this way:

Because the sun stained its path in shades, Loka did not see the cows until she crested the hill. The haloed sky above Wisconsin blanketed the fields in pallid, predawn light, a blue so indistinct that Loka imagined it the color of crossing over, the only moments in a day when living and not-living became one. There were hundreds of them, backs humped. So irregular in shape that for a moment, Loka mistook them for hay bales. They lay immobile, a quiet so profound that Loka thought they were sleeping, but their contours never moved, never rose or fell with breath. She had heard of blackbirds, and geese, and a mass of toads that all burst open, every one, simultaneous and unexplained. But nothing like this.

There are things here that interest me still, and which I’ve developed further in other stories – a Midwestern landscape, liminal spaces, strange occurrences, animal behavior. But while the image of hundreds of unexplained dead cows is both intriguing and unsettling, and was a news story that preoccupied my attention for several weeks, it didn’t necessarily make a story. This is evident as the story progresses:

She came to the fields some nights, late, when the earth turned away from the moon, when the sky pooled open in darkness. It was then that stars illuminated themselves, splashed their light across the earth in a messy wash of ether and pockmarks and stardust, a display clarified by silence, by only her breath and the earth, the bleats of the cows a solemn foghorn, distant beyond the hill. Loka slid against the fence on these nights, looked up and imagined the world encased in a blackened dome, and these stars, pinpoint cracks in the shell, spreading fissures to let her know light was out there somewhere, to make her small again in the gravity of their wake.

Here too, there are concerns that are still central to my sensibility – stillness, solitude, nature, stars – but this is an attempt at characterization when I was clearly more interested in the cows. I can see now that this story failed because the image itself was far more fascinating to me than the story around it. Who is this person who came upon the cows? Do we even care? I don’t think I did as a writer. There wasn’t much of a story there for me, which is why the story remains retired.

This isn’t to say that it was wasted writing, however. I suppose I could delete the Retired Stories folder since I know I’ll never submit any of them, but I also know writing isn’t always about publication. I keep the Retired Stories folder as a personal archive of showing myself my own fascinations and how my curiosity develops over time, even if the story never sees the light of day.

***
BY LIGHT WE KNEW OUR NAMES by Anne Valente is available now from Dzanc. Check out our special sale to celebrate this Fortnight of Valente: buy BY LIGHT WE KNEW OUR NAMES and get Valente’s Origami Zoo chapbook for only $4!

Fortnight of Valente: By Light We Knew Our Names sale

ByTheLightWeKnewOurNames_ValenteWith October comes the fantastic, exciting release of Anne Valente’s debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names from Dzanc. We hope you’re as excited as us to get your hands on this book, and just in case you needed a little extra push, we’re offering Valente’s fantastic OZP chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics, for only $4 when you purchase By Light We Knew Our Names.

Simply email us a receipt showing you’re purchased By Light We Knew Our Names, then use the PayPal button below to get your discounted copy!

Please note: any orders received without a receipt indicating a purchase of BLWKON will be ignored and refunded. If you want to buy An Elegy for Mathematics at regular price, go here. We also still have a few UnArchived Special Editions left, which includes audio from the book, an ebook version of the text, digital copies of all the artwork for your social media fix and bonus story-inspired artwork, notes and packaging. Get ‘em before they’re gone!





Writer Crush #32: Ben Marcus

1328667769524.cachedOf all the contemporary writers I read, the one that feels 100% guaranteed to still be read and written about centuries from now is Ben Marcus. I’m about three-quarters through The Flame Alphabet right now, and it’s just such a masterful book—it feels so meticulously crafted, from the endless lists of dubious pseudoscience experiments the narrator reads about in brochures to the gut-wrenchingly real dialogue to the bizarre world of language afflictions and listening holes Marcus has created. If the plot synopsis isn’t enough to entice you—there’s an epidemic due to children’s speech becoming toxic—I’m not sure what will. And the fascinating thing about reading this book, about the toxicity of language and comprehension, is that you’re reading the whole time, and so much of the pleasure of Marcus’s writing is the fine detail, the precise language.

The beauty and terror of language is clearly an ongoing concern of Marcus’s: My first exposure to him was The Age of Wire and String, which calls itself a collection but feels more like an almanac, an atlas, a guidebook to this age of wire and string—and honestly, even after having read it a couple times, I have no idea what’s going on in those stories. The diction and syntax are mostly very simple, the words familiar, but the things the words do make them wholly unfamiliar. Here’s an example: “The brother is built from food, in the manner of minute particles slowly settling or suspended by slight currents, that exist in varying amounts in all air.”

And yet, when I get to the end of these stories, I often get that kicked-in-the-stomach feeling that mostly comes at the end of early Simpsons episodes, or when I see a sentimental greeting card commercial. There’s some kind of powerful, poisonous, emotional core to these stories, so even though I don’t understand, on a literal sense, I’m still very moved.

Resurrect Your Darlings: BJ Hollars

(Check out our first entry in this new series for more information!)

The Last, Last Line You Never Read

BJ Hollars

BJ Hollars

Of the many edits I’ve made, there’s one I’ll always regret. It was the last line from a short story entitled “Sightings,” the title story of my collection.

For the uninitiated (read: 99.999% of the reading population) the story involves a basketball-loving Sasquatch who joins a high school team. (Think of it as a literary version of Teen Wolf, only with more fur and less Michael J. Fox.)

In brief, at the end of the season Sasquatch falls for the prom queen and is later abandoned by her, a heartbreak that spirals him into a booze-drenched existence forcing him back into the trees.

Originally, the last line read: “It was all he knew to save himself from extinction.”

(The “It” referring to the booze).

But when the story was initially accepted the editor felt strongly that the last line had to go.
If memory serves, the editor felt the last line was a bit too “on the nose,” the word “extinction” a little heavy-handed for a story about Sasquatch.

I got it, I heard her loud and clear. And yet…try as I might, it was the one line I couldn’t let go.

There were plenty other edits as well, and I made them all with gusto. But there was something about that last line that wouldn’t seem to budge.

Long story short, eventually that line began to budge. I simply made it.

All I had to do was remind myself that if I found the line to be clever and good and right on the money, chances are it was derivative and bad and way off the mark. Simply put, I knew I was too close to the story—too emotionally invested (if one can be emotionally invested in a Sasquatch yarn)—and I had to go with the editor’s gut over my own.

In situations like this, I often return to some key advice my wife once gave me:

“B.J., you’re usually wrong.”

These days I live by it!

I’ve found time and again that when it comes to writing, stubbornness rarely pays off. On occasion I have found myself fighting for a dash when that time could better be spent…well, probably doing anything but fight for a dash. It’s not that I’m a pushover when it comes to my artistic integrity; it’s simply that I’d rather invest that time making more art.

When I was writing Opening the Doors, my civil rights book, the editor asked me to cut 20,000 words. This meant cutting well over 20% of the total manuscript. Nevertheless, when given my marching orders I publicly smiled, privately pulled out my hair, and then began hacking deep into every chapter. It wasn’t easy, but the book was a much better book because of it.

These days, when I think back to the line I lost— “It was all he knew to save himself from extinction”—I realize that maybe I don’t actually regret the edit.

After all, nobody ever complained about the line they never read.

Perhaps—much like Sasquatch himself—it’s the stuff we don’t see that keeps the mystery alive, the lines we lose that keep us hungry for the hunt.

Writer Crush #31: Ramona Ausubel

16158505A few months ago, I saw Ramona Ausubel read “Atria,” a story about a teenage girl named Hazel who becomes pregnant from one of two men—a dopey 7-11 cashier she has underwhelming sex with or an adult man who rapes her. She doesn’t know which the father is, and doesn’t care to know, but that’s not what the story is about. The story is about her keeping the baby and what she imagines is growing inside of her. What you might not guess from this description is that hearing Ausubel read this story was gut-bustingly hilarious. The crowd was roaring.

The rule of thumb we’ve all heard, and perhaps repeated to our peers and students, is that specificity makes good writing. Specificity also makes good comedy. Maybe it’s simply that specificity is affecting because it’s surprising, or because it feels true, and maybe the key to eliciting any emotion from your audience is specificity no matter what. And, another rule of thumb, that I’ve learned from a writer or two is (not to mention by lifelong love of The Simpsons) if you want to make ‘em cry, you gotta make ‘em laugh.

Basically, what I’m getting at is Ausubel’s details are so specific and surprising that it’s impossible for them not to accumulate into something both hilarious and moving. I mean, just look at these moments from “Atria”: When she has sex with the 7-11 cashier, he “sat up, straddling her, and put one big hand on each B-up. Squeezed, pumped like udders.” Or when Hazel imagines the baby growing in her stomach as a three-headed giraffe whose heads emerge and “rolled out their three long purple tongues… Cleaned her arms and her face.” Or simply that Hazel thinks of being in high school as “a soggy thing.” It’s that kind of simple but powerful specificity that defines much of Ausubel’s stories and makes them such a pleasure to read.

There’s that book list meme going around facebook lately, where people name ten books that have stuck with them, and of course a lot of writers are taking part. The biggest criticism of those lists, though, is that there aren’t enough women writers on them. Given the predominance of canonized men and the longtime marginalization of women writers, this isn’t really surprising—but I take comfort in the fact that, in my mind, women are easily writing the best and most celebrated fiction right now (Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Marie-Helene Bertino, not to mention the writers on OZP’s roster). Add Ramona Ausubel to that list, for here is not only an excellent book by a writer who happens to be a woman, but a book that is unabashedly about women and women’s bodies and women’s stories. The collection “Atria” is in is called A Guide to Being Born, and is split into four sections: Birth, Gestation, Conception and Love, and even when the character at the forefront of a story is male, that story is still framed around women (as in the story “Chest of Drawers,” where a man wakes up to find his chest now has a set of drawers in it, coinciding with his wife’s pregnancy). There aren’t enough stories like this immortalized in our culture’s literary repertoire, but with writers like Ausubel, soon there will be.