Camp OZP: Day 2

Hey there, campers! Head Counselor Sam Martone here, with another installment of Camp OZP!

IMG_6730The next activity in my formally playful fiction workshop deals with the epistolary form. Stories and novels in the form of letters have existed for as long as there’s been a word for fiction (probably longer!), but it’s still a form that sees a lot of action today, despite declining prominence of snail mail in this age of direct messages and Skype calls. Just check out this fantastic story: “P.S.” by Jill McCorkle.

Here’s the first paragraph:

By now you have gotten several letters from me and this will probably be the last. I don’t care that you never respond. In fact, I’m glad that you don’t, because if you did, a response would show a weakness in your professional ethics. In all my other letters, I have been trying to explain myself a little better because I always felt that maybe you liked Jerry more than you liked me. And what about human nature makes us all want to be the one liked the most? In those other letters I was still trying to convince you that I was the right one, but the truth is that now so much time has passed I just don’t give a shit. The right/wrong stalemate is what keeps people in your office for way too long. I thought I might settle things in my mind by writing you this final letter. And I will tell the truth—not that I haven’t told the truth in the past, I have, but let’s just say I also lied.

As you keep reading, ask yourself: what language does she use to imitate the letter form? Are there any moments that break from that or violate the form? How does she handle revealing information without making it feel like blunt force trauma exposition? What does the voice tell you about this character? I like to point out certain things to my students. For instance, right off the bat, even if we don’t know who this Dr. Love is, we know she’s written to him several times before with no response. I also like to point out that she calls this her final letter. If we were to map this story out on the traditional plot diagram, the fact that she says this is her final letter is our “one day.” It’s what makes this letter the story worth telling.

IMG_9419Today’s exercise is best to do with a partner. Each of you, individually, write a story in the form of a letter from one character to another. The writer of the letter has got to want something specific. This can be something tangible (a new car, a cup of sugar) or less so (love, to be left alone). Focus on how you can use the voice to make this character distinct. Avoid clunky exposition—remember that the person your character is writing to presumably already knows who he or she is, so no “As you know, I am your uncle.” Make the letter about a page long. Then, trade with your partner, and write as the letter-receiver character responding to the first character. Happy writing!

Camp OZP: Day 1

Hello everyone! Origami Zoo Editor Sam Martone here, writing from deep in the wilderness of Vermont. I’ve managed to get a wifi signal by building a router out of birch bark, twine, and an old bottle cap, but who knows how long it’ll last, so I’m here to give you a look at what I’m doing up in these beautiful rolling green mountains for a new weekly blog event called CAMP OZP!

IMG_0164Two nights a week, I teach a workshop on formally playful fiction, so in addition to the accompanying pictures included mainly to make you jealous, I’ll be recreating offering some summer reading/writing prompts based on what I teach. As an introduction, we’ll be talking about Craig’s List Missed Connections stories, as inspired by Brian Oliu. We usually begin the workshop by posing the question “What is a story?” Does it have to follow the classic Freytag’s triangle we learn in English class? Does it have to have dialogue? Characters? It’s worth noting that Oliu’s Missed Connections are lyric essays, although they can be read as either fiction or poetry, further complicating how we think of stories and how we define fiction.


Now for your Camp OZP writing prompt: Go to Craig’s List Missed Connections for your hometown and read some, then read these Missed Connections by Brian Oliu. Look at what language and formatting Oliu adopts from the real Missed Connections. Then look at where his pieces depart from the “actual” Missed Connections. Now, pick a location in your hometown and write your own Missed Connection! You can try to replicate some of Oliu’s rhythm or language, or you can take it an entirely new direction. Happy writing!

Interested in seeing all the Missed Connections by Brian Oliu? Order So You Know It’s Me from tiny hardcore press! Need even more from Brian Oliu? Get his new book, Leave Luck to Heaven, from Uncanny Valley Press!

OZP News

We’ve been pretty quiet here at the Zoo…but that’s only because there’s so much going on! We are diving into our next book by the lovely Lena Bertone, and can’t wait to share it with all of you, but more info on that soon. Here’s what else has been going on:

  1. Editor Sam Martone earned his MFA from ASU!
  2. Brian Oliu has a book coming out from one of our favorite small presses Uncanny Valley, called Leave Luck to Heaven–which also has one of the coolest covers of all time, and we know good covers. Go preorder it!
  3. B.J. Hollars also has a new book coming out in September called Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction from the University of New Mexico Press. Add this to your cart too!
  4. Laura van den Berg‘s collection The Isle of Youth has been named one of six on the shortlist for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
  5. Dzanc Books unveiled the gorgeous cover to Anne Valente‘s full-length collection due out in October By Light We Knew Our Names. Grab your copy!
  6. Chad Simpson was granted tenure from Knox College, and Ben Hoffman got married!


Seriously though, how awesome are our authors!! We are so proud of and happy for all of you!

Finally, we know you want to stay in (writing) shape over the long summer, so for the first time ever, we’re hosting Camp OZP with head counselor Sam Martone. Starting in July, check back each week for a new craft lesson and writing exercise to keep those writing muscles in honed!

Short Story Month: Lena Bertone

On Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

lenabwI reread Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” and it was as good as every time I read it. That awful grandmother who thinks she is so good—she is so candy sweet and conniving, and so convinced of her own righteousness. She’s just like one of those awful children she sits with in the back seat of the car as they drive through Georgia; those children who openly insult her and harass their parents; the only difference between the awful children and the awful grandmother is that she is premeditated in her awfulness. At least the children have the excuse of being selfish and rude because they’re young and ignorant; the grandmother’s selfishness is willful and dangerous. This is why she’s a grotesque.

After I reread the story, I went back to the author’s essay, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” because I wondered, do I really know what she means by grotesque? I think that calling a character a grotesque means that the character has some sort of monstrous quality, or some aspect of that character has been embellished to be terrible or terrifying (in a physical or moral way). But when I read Flannery O’Connor, her characters are, above all, REAL. There is nothing unbelievable about the grandmother, and nothing unbelievable about the Misfit, this well-mannered murderer, this philosopher-executioner, right down to his strong, white teeth. It is, in fact, their contradictions and their strangenesses, the ways they behave unexpectedly, that somehow make these characters so real.

And this is actually what Flannery O’Connor says about characters in the realm of the grotesque—that though they’re in dangerous, unlikely situations, the characters themselves have “inner coherence.” Though on the surface they may seem jagged and contradictory people, we readers still identify this inner coherence and it makes them feel like real people; and how they proceed in the story—how they react to the situations they’re confronted with—is based on this realness of character.

In this story, so many pieces of the setup are tidily lined up for us—the first mention of the Misfit, the interior view of the grandmother’s good-natured scheming, the cat in the car (which, for Pete’s sake, sleeps through the family’s lunch at the diner!)—it should be too much for a reader to believe. And then it gets crazier—the made up story of the hidden passage, the grandmother’s taunt inciting the children to riot, the accident. And then even crazier—the Misfit and his minions show up, the dangling shoulder, the grandmother’s futile and ridiculous pleas. This is almost too much story, but what grounds it is the presence of these two characters, who, despite being in the very odd situations of this story, are fully themselves and behaving accordingly—in fact, doing the best they can, and in the process, showing us as readers the ways in which they can be terrible and human when put into these strange and unexpected situations.

Though the grandmother sees some kind of vision right before she dies, in which she imagines the Misfit as one of her own children, it has always been the last line of the story that has been most interesting to me, because the Misfit, the most complicated, intelligent character in the story, despite the backwoodsiness of his language and the violence of his actions, chastises his minion for finding joy in killing. The Misfit tells him, ambiguously, “’It’s no real pleasure in life,’” leaving us wondering if the Misfit thinks it’s wrong to like killing, or just impossible to be happy. The Misfit is certainly the most sympathetic character in this story, his complexity of character leading him through his dark life.

I love the magical and the surreal, but it’s not the weirdo things people put in their stories that make them resonate for me: it’s how those those weirdo objects, settings, and situations reflect and work upon the characters to illuminate human emotion. I read Amber Sparks’s story “All the Imaginary People Are Better at Life,” and feel Ruby’s real, crazy indignation that her imaginary friend is telling her to get her shit together; I read Sarah Carson’s “When You Leave,” and am shocked by the sorrow I feel at God’s casual dismissal of the narrator’s pain. I read and I want to feel the way a story wraps around a character and squeezes; how a character who feels like a real person will behave in unexpected and awful situations. This is the grotesque that Flannery O’Connor writes and writes about, and there’s nothing unreal about it.

Lena Bertone’s Origami Zoo chapbook, Behind This Mirror, will be released in fall 2014! Continue celebrating Short Story Month even more with Origami Zoo Press by reading these posts by BJ Hollars, Anne Valente and Ben Hoffman, and by checking out our sale–all chapbooks of fiction are $5!

Short Story Month: Ben Hoffman

On Bret Anthony Johnson’s “Caiman”

Ben HoffmanI have always been drawn to strangeness in fiction – in language, in plot, in character, in feeling. I love magical realism, but I’m also fascinated by the strangeness that can arise from realism—when a writer creates magic from the stuff of everyday life. What I love most is an inexplicable strangeness. “Inexplicable” is often a negative term in fiction, used when the reader cannot find justification for or does not believe the events and actions of a story, but I am referring to an awesome inexplicableness, which is the inexplicableness present in all the great moments in fiction that leave us gasping, what! And yet the strangeness works because the writer has remade the real world, has successfully rearranged nature.

This is what Bret Anthony Johnston does in his short story “Caiman,” which I first encountered in one of my favorite anthologies, 2010 New Stories From The South. (The story originally appeared in AGNI 69, and can be read here.) It is, in some regards, a story in which nothing happens. A father (who is narrating in direct address years later to his now-grown son) brings home a caiman. (Also a great story to test if your students will look up words they don’t know!) A mother makes dinner. The son, then a little boy, sneaks up on his parents in the kitchen. A radio reports that “off-scene” a little girl has been abducted by her uncle; this is why the father has impulsively bought a caiman from a man on the side of the road, an action that, within the confines of the story, makes complete sense.

Near the story’s end, the narrator reveals a previously shrouded optimism; he alone believes the police will find the little girl unharmed. But then he says to his son: “As a baby, you liked putting your feet in my mouth. You’d laugh until you got the hiccups and your toes would move behind my teeth as slow as growing coral, and sometimes, I swear, I wanted to bite down, to crush your perfect bones and swallow your body whole.”

What!, my students and I say when we read this. What is happening here! How could a parent think this? How does the protective instinct rub against the violent? Sometimes my students make the connection, hear the faint echo: caimans carry their babies around in their mouths to keep them safe; now it is as if we’ve come from the swamp. Then, in the story’s astonishing last line, mother and father gather “on our hands and knees, our bodies low to the ground, like strange and ancient creatures.” All at once they seem to be cherishing a small domestic moment; surrendering to the danger of the modern world; and also in some absurd way praying for their son’s safety.

“Caiman” demonstrates so perfectly how an author can push a story’s climax to new heights, not by extra-dramatic action, not by otherworldly events, not by magical realism, but by an increase in the lyric register and by the inexplicable strangeness of small, deeply felt moments. Johnston achieves this—he makes our world seem otherworldly by creating strangeness that is real to the story but might make no sense in real life; without Johnston’s conjuring power, we would discard it.


Celebrate Short Story Month even more with Origami Zoo Press by reading these posts by BJ Hollars and Anne Valente and by checking out our sale–all chapbooks of fiction are $5!

Short Story Month: Anne Valente

On Melinda Moustakis’s “What You Can Endure”

Anne ValenteMelinda Moustakis’s short story collection, Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories (University of Georgia Press, 2011), is one populated by the harsh landscape of Alaska: salmon runs, grizzlies, a midnight sun, the aurora borealis. It is also populated by fierce humans who learn survival in an unforgiving landscape and in tough-love relationships. Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, the collection immerses the reader in an extreme but stunning wilderness, as ruthlessly beautiful as the resilient characters who dot its landscape.

“What You Can Endure,” one of the last pieces in the collection and originally published in New England Review (32.1, 2011), is a story in fragmented memories of a mother/daughter relationship, the daughter having moved to California while her mother stays behind in Alaska. Told from the daughter’s perspective, this story-in-sections recalls a lifetime of comparison: a storied mother who is all strength, who has weathered the storm of a rough landscape and a tough-love childhood while her daughter escapes to California where everything is softer, and where nothing need be endured. The story opens with these lines: “In my deep swimming dreams, my mother tells me I can’t come home. Not for the things I’ve done, but for the things I haven’t.” And so begins a narrative of living up to the hardships and expectations of the previous generation, and of navigating a complicated childhood of both resentment and admiration for a mother who has only learned survival and wants her child to learn the same. In the narrator’s own words: “She says she didn’t love me when I was born, it took time. She needed to know I would live, survive, prove to her I was strong enough.” Like the grizzlies and eagles of the Alaskan landscape, rearing young is a task of endurance.

Alaska itself permeates the story in intense lyricism. There are “Arctic poppies, their bright paper bowls sprouting from thin stems and rooted in gravel beds, the rock of mountains, the tundra.” There is also the meeting of sea and big sky, where “the ocean is the sky and the sky is the ocean.” And there is a daughter who in the end leaves this landscape for the warmth and sun of California, a place where her mother sends a cut-from-the-paper article about humpback whales off course in the Sacramento River “with a note that says: Whales lost in a shitty river in California and I thought of you.” There is no forgiveness for a daughter who hasn’t learned how to survive and endure. But there is also intense love among the harshness between them. When the mother compares herself and her daughter to whales, and to the Alaskan history of whale-killings where seafarers once considered whales a threat, the daughter wonders, “And how could the sailors have known? The whales mean no harm. They have no teeth. They are only coming up for air.” Like her mother, the whales seem threatening but only intend to survive.

At once lyrical and sharply precise, the language of Moustakis’s story sings in discrete sections the complicated relationship between a mother and her daughter and the landscape they share, an instinct for survival borne in their very blood. “What You Can Endure” is an elegy for Alaska from a daughter who has left its harshness, as much as it is a love song to a mother-daughter relationship, and to the difficult ways we learn to fiercely love one another.

Celebrate Short Story Month even more with Origami Zoo Press by reading this post by BJ Hollars and by checking out our sale–all chapbooks of fiction are $5!

Short Story Month Celebration Sale!

May is Short Story Month, and obviously, we love short stories. So to celebrate, all of our short story collections are on sale for $5!

Get one, or get them all, but now’s the time to immerse yourself in some pretty amazing short stories by Ben Hoffman, Kate Bernheimer, Anne Valente, and Laura van den Berg. Just use the shopping cart above to get a $5 deal all month long in May. Yay for short stories!


Short Story Month: BJ Hollars

The Use of Setting As Suspense in Ray Bradbury’s “The Ravine”

BJ HollarsThe week before I got married I treated myself to a bachelor party in a ravine in Waukegan, Illinois.  I was the only one in attendance.  I was inspired to make the trek because of a Ray Bradbury story that has long stayed with me—one aptly titled “The Ravine”—which doubles as a chapter in Bradbury’s longer work, Dandelion Wine.

The story is set in the summer of 1928, when a trio of young women—Lavinia, Francine, and Helen—are interrupted on their evening walk by a mysterious man known as “The Lonely One.”

Who is The Lonely One?  It hardly matters.  He is merely the manifestation of every creature in every horror story you’ve ever read; the one who scares you the most, lurking in shadows and thumping his boots and peering out at you from the woods.

For many, the success of the story hinges on The Lonely One’s ability to provide suspense, though for me, the suspense doesn’t come from any one person, but from the place itself.

Bradbury describes the ravine as “a dynamo that never stopped running,” noting also that it “smelled like a greenhouse, of secret vapors, and ancient washed shales and quicksands.”

ravine 1Even today—upon reading the description in broad daylight in the comfort of my basement—I can’t help but feel the familiar chill.  It’s a chill that’s grown colder ever since visiting the ravine firsthand, peeling off my shoes and socks and traipsing through Bradbury’s own real-life model.  For those not present at my bachelor party, let me assure you, that ravine is for real.

When I teach this story to my classes, I often share my personal anecdote.  It’s important to me that students know that I’m putting my money where my mouth is; or rather, my feet where Bradbury’s inspiration once was.  As I blather ad nausea about how setting can create suspense, I want them to know that I, too, felt afraid as I loomed in that gouge in the earth.

Of course, throughout the story, Bradbury creates suspense in any number of ways—from the clip-clop of Helen’s footsteps, to the women’s whispered rendition of “Shine on, Harvest Moon.”  But through it all, it’s the crickets that scare me the most, and the shadows, and the realization that when a landscape is personified properly, things as innocuous as grass and wind can come alive to swallow you whole.

After discussing the piece, I often pass the crayons around and ask students to storyboard what they’ve just read. While The Lonely One occasionally makes it into a frame or two, his placement is never a guarantee.  Rather, the students focus their attention on the streetlamps, the dimly lit soda shops, and the leaves left to skitter along the streets.

ravine2.As we share our storyboards, I always marvel at how every object in every frame always seems to be shrouded in darkness.  Year after year, as my classes try to sketch “suspense,” all they know to sketch is the setting.  Which is precisely the point I’m trying to teach and the message I’m trying to send:

When trying to strike fear into the hearts of your readers, you must rub the black crayon to a nub.

An Interview with Ben Hoffman, author of TOGETHER, APART

As winner of our first chapbook contest, judged by Matt Bell, Ben Hoffman got a behind-the-scenes look at the Origami Zoo: we took him to our hatchery where origami eggs were unfolding to reveal the origami animals within. Of course, they all start out looking like a flat sheet of paper, but Hoffman got to see as each one was folded into shape and welcomed into the world. While a baby paper sea turtle wiggled into the pinched corners of its newfound paper shell, Ben talked to us about self-help books, nuclear meltdowns and what to do with the bubblegum in your egg baby.

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

Ben Hoffman: A kudu, and here is what a kudu looks like. How fun is it to say kudu?

OZP: You were the winner of our very first chapbook contest. How’d that feel?

BH: Amazing. It’s great to win anything, of course. (It’s great to be published, period!) But when the judge is a writer you admire, and winning puts your work alongside the work of writers you admire, it’s even better.

OZP: The stories in Together, Apart are pretty wildly diverse in content and length. What is it that you think unites them? How did you decide to bring them together in chapbook form?

BH: I view the two longer, more traditional stories, which open and close the chapbook, as bookending the series of flash fictions in the middle. But the stories all share common strands, or themes, if you prefer—among them the wreckage of our desires and our struggle to find safe harbor, even as we have the feeling safe harbor is only temporary.

Some readers prefer perfectly cohesive collections, but I’m a fan of collections in which one story somehow bursts out of the web the other stories are building with each other. Even as that story is escaping, however, it still ought to be linked by a thread or two, right? In the chapbook, that story is “Next Time They Will Wow Them With The Shiny Stuff,” which is radically different in content and tone from the other stories, but still contains the strands mentioned above.

OZP: What else are you working on right now? Any exciting projects in the works?

BH: Yes, thanks for asking! I’m trying to wrap up—knock on wood one hundred times—a collection of stories, one of which is forthcoming this summer in The Missouri Review. And I’m about 75 pages into the first draft of a novel about which I won’t say too much, except that it begins during the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown—begins, basically, with “One For The Road,” one of the stories in the chapbook. I’m in the stage of writing just before despair sets in and I’ll have no idea where to go next, so things are going great right now!

OZP: What are you reading right now? Anything we should check out?

BH: So many things! I was a terrible reader in 2013, and I’m trying to make up for it this year. I’m currently bouncing around between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Need New Names, Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More, and Eric Tran’s Affairs With Men In Suits. I recently devoured Pamela Erens’ The Virgins in two sittings. And based on past OZP crushes, I think you might really like Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide To Being Born.

Together, ApartOZP: Any advice for the proud new parents of the egg babies that came with the deluxe editions of Together, Apart?

BH: Put your baby to bed before you read the stories, unless you want your baby to grow up really fast. Don’t leave your baby with teachers; you can’t trust them. Finally, you’ll need to decide: is the enclosed Bubblicious the beating pink heart of your egg baby, in which case it must stay forever wrapped in the egg? Or is it merely gum, which you should remove and chew immediately upon arrival, recalling the very taste of your own childhood? Really, it’s a choice each parent must make for him or herself.

OZP: If you were to write a self-help book a la Three and a Half Paths to Happiness, which appears in one of your stories, what would it be? What kind of self would it help readers become?

BH: Much like the mother in the story, I’m skeptical of self-help books, because they often paper over the world’s complexities, which writers ought to be interested in, and because there are rarely shortcuts. (And yet! The idea of a shortcut or of any one particular path to happiness is so incredibly alluring, isn’t it?) But if I were to write a self-help book, I’d strive to help readers become more empathetic. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to teach empathy to adults. I can only offer the basics: travel; get a dog; stay hydrated; remind yourself you don’t know very much and ought to learn more; spend as much time as possible outdoors on sunny afternoons.


Together, Apart by Ben Hoffman is available here.

In Defense of Monsters: Final Copy Raffle

In Defense of MonstersIn 2012, Origami Zoo reopened its paper doors with In Defense of Monsters by BJ Hollars, a collection of essays arguing not that certain apocryphal monsters might exist, but that they might not not exist. We were so happy to have been able to publish this set of essays, which includes illustrations by Greg Liebach and has since been taught in university classrooms. Read more about it in our interview with Hollars.

Now, we are both happy and sad to say, we’re down to our final copy of In Defense of Monsters (at least for the foreseeable future). We wanted to do something special for it, so, for the next week, if you order any of our books, you’ll be entered in a raffle to also win the final copy of In Defense of Monsters AND a signed copy of Sightings by BJ Hollars! Each book you order gets your name in the hat once, so you can stack the odds in your favor pretty easily—it’ll just mean you’ll have to acquire a bunch of great, Origami Zoo-approved reading material.

Our other titles include Floater by Kate Bernheimer, An Elegy for Mathematics by Anne Valente, There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights by Laura van den Berg, Level End by Brian Oliu and our chapbook contest winner Together, Apart by Ben Hoffman. Good luck!