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Teachers must be subversive literary citizens

Photo classes at Flint Hill create posters of teachers with their favorite books.  This image was created by Afshan Bhatia.

Photo classes at Flint Hill create posters of teachers with their favorite books. This image was created by junior Afshan Bhatia.

While we writers often look to other writers for support and (one hopes) are good literary citizens ourselves, we shouldn’t limit the notion of literary citizenship to other writers and our partners in the publishing industry.  We should reach beyond the boundaries of our community and cross-pollinate with other types of communities, rooting out and connecting with anyone who has a passion for the written word, which of course, means expanding our idea of our own citizenship.

Because I chair English for 7-12 grades at Flint Hill, a day school outside of DC, I’ve become aware of what good literary citizenship looks like in secondary education.  Our education system in America isn’t structured to support a love of reading.  The proliferation of standardized testing and the college application process with its emphasis on test scores and APs attempts to quantify, reduce, and box learning, which places great importance on the acquisition of information and the automatization of skills, and de-emphasizes (or altogether ignores) the richness and diversity of aesthetic experience.

The system, you see, is inherently suspicious of emotional response, of intimate connection.  Defining how a story or poem makes you feel and the exploration of why it made you feel that way is a rigorous step toward self-understanding.  It’s the only way literature has a chance of helping us become better people.  Tests, however, can’t quantify that sort of exploration—it’s not compliant enough and much too slippery, too out of the lines—so test preparation doesn’t emphasize or value it.

To build future literary citizens, which I believe is a significant act of literary citizenship, is working against the flow of contemporary education.  I’m happy to be a part of an educational institution that, given the constraints of being a college preparatory school, does understand this, but it’s not true for many schools, even despite the many passionate English teachers out there.

At Flint Hill, we weave living writers into the curriculum (Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Chris Cleave, Gene Luen Yang, Khaled Hosseini, Alan Moore, and Cormac McCarthy to name a few), exposing our students to narratives and voices that immediately resonate with them.  We also fund a professional author to visit for a Writers’ Day celebration, during which we honor student writers for their excellence in creative and academic writing, and provide the time for students to interact with the visiting author.  All of this is our way of suggesting to students the idea that literature isn’t primarily a thing of the past, but a thing of the present—and that reading can be about experiencing something, not just acquiring information, all with the hope of building future readers of contemporary writers, perhaps even future literary citizens.

So I encourage writers to pair with teachers whenever they can to fight this trend and find a way (even if it seems mildly subversive) to reach those students blue about being in a box and hungry for aesthetic experience.

This post originally appeared as part of the Gertrude Stein blog series on the Renegade Writers’ Collective website.

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“The Next Big Thing” Interview: Kate Hattemer

I’m happy to host my once colleague (she left FHS to concentrate on her writing) and now amazing, soon-to-be-published novelist Kate Hattemer as she answers the “The Next Big Thing” interview questions:

What is the title of the book?

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

When a sleazy reality show hijacks their school’s culture, Ethan and his friends write a seditious long poem to foment rebellion — until Ethan’s best friend gets pulled onto the show and betrays them all.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a realistic, literary, young-adult novel.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Whenever I start something new, I feel as though I’m flailing around at sea, and I end up grabbing hold of anything that’s even possibly driftwood.  So I started with a list of three totally arbitrary things that I thought I just had to include:

1)  A strong and funny first-person narrator.  (This one actually stuck around.)

2)  Embedded text from different genres.  (This one didn’t.  But it gave me the idea that Ethan and his friends would write a long poem in the tradition of Ezra Pound to protest a reality show’s intrusion into their school.  I originally had excerpts from both the poem and the episode scripts, but thankfully, those all got scrapped.)

3)  Pets named after condiments.  (As I mentioned, arbitrary.  I’d just met a dog named Pickles, and thought idly, “Somebody should vow to name all their pets after condiments.”  That’s how the heroic gerbil Baconnaise was born, and it’s from my narrator’s devotion to this rodent that the book gets many of its thematic concerns.)

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Let me start with the disclaimer that I’m terrible with actors, and that answering this question involved googling “teen actors who are smart and possibly secret nerds.”  Logan Lerman might work for Ethan, my narrator.  Ethan’s charismatic best friend Luke — the man to Ethan’s hench — could be any number of those handsome Hollywood types.  Michael Cera — is he still a thing? — could possibly up his awkwardness quotient enough to play Jackson.  Jackson’s cousin Elizabeth could be Katerina Graham.  And Ethan’s crush, ballerina Maura Heldsman, is obviously Emma Watson, because I would like to be her.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I was working part-time, and the very first draft took about two months.  That draft included lots of parenthetical notes such as, and I quote, “Oh my gosh, this is so terrible” and “Have fun dealing with this crap, Future Kate.”  I had to spend several months rewriting before I could show it to anyone.  I almost got hit by a car a few times while I was running or biking, and what flashed before my eyes was not my life but rather my wretched first draft.  I could just imagine my teary parents opening up my files.  “Oh,” they’d say.  “Well, that’s a disappointment.”

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The vast majority of the high school students I’ve gotten to know lately — from my siblings to my students — are intelligent, hilarious, and deeply engaged in their worlds.  They’ve got this really endearing mix of irony and sincerity.  I wanted to write a book with characters like that — who joke about calculus and about farts, who sometimes spend English class arguing that Ezra Pound’s fascism shouldn’t affect our interpretation of his poetry and sometimes spend English class zoning out as they stare at their crushes’ necks.

At the time, I hadn’t read much recent YA, and when my sister gave me a John Green novel I was poleaxed by his hyperverbal, hyperintelligent characters.  It reminded me of the first time I read a David Foster Wallace essay:  I don’t want to apotheosize either one of them, but both times, it felt as though I were experiencing a new way to use words and genre.  Reading An Abundance of Katherines clicked with my distaste for some bad YA I’d read (I hate books that pander) and my perhaps regressive love of hanging out with my teenage siblings and students.  That’s when I started to write.

I try to keep in mind that my favorite books don’t sacrifice readability to literariness nor literariness to readability.  That’s always my ultimate goal.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent, Uwe Stender of TriadaUS, recently dubbed “The Nicest Man in Publishing,” sold Vigilante Poets to Erin Clarke of Knopf a few months ago.  It’ll be published next spring.

(“The Next Big Thing” book interview project asks writers to answer a series of questions about their recent or forthcoming book, post it on their blog/web-space, and tag others for the next week.)

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“The Next Big Thing” Interview Project: John Copenhaver

Me in hat“The Next Big Thing” book interview project asks writers to answer a series of questions about their recent or forthcoming book, post it on their blog/web-space, and tag others for the next week.  Thanks to poet Chloe Yelena Miller for tagging me last week!

What is the title of the book?

Dodging and Burning.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My inspiration came from two separate but connected events:  My reading of Walter Benjamin’s analysis of photography, and my decision to come out of the closet as a gay man.  Benjamin argues that photographs distort reality and only can be given value if paired with the right caption.  Being in the closet is like being a photo without a caption.  The only way to correct that distortion is to tell the story behind the façade.  Dodging and Burning is the mystery behind a crime scene photograph, but more accurately it’s an exploration of the way photos can twist our understanding of others and ourselves if their captions remain unwritten, their stories untold.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary Mystery.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I love this question, because I think about it a lot.  Sadly, most of the actors I’d cast are dead.  One of my main characters, Bunny Prescott, is based on Gene Tierney; in fact, other characters tell her that she resembles Tierney.  But, to play fair, I’d cast Elle Fanning as Ceola (my earnest teenager), who has both gravitas and levity, Saoirse Ronan as Bunny (my love-confused debutant), who can be chilly and vulnerable, and Andrew Garfield (my wounded gay war photographer), who is wonderful at playing pained but not self-indulgent characters.  I loved him in Never Let Me Go.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Two young women attempt to solve the mystery of the photograph of beautiful corpse only to discover that the true mystery lies in the heart of the photographer.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three-years.  Keep in mind of course I was working full time as an English teacher.  It took several more years to whip it into shape.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?


It began at Bread Loaf English of English when I took a course called “Photography and Modernity.”  It changed the way I looked at photography and, eventually, all visual media.  Also, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, a genre-bending novel, a masterpiece that skillfully weaves together low and high forms.  And of course, my own personal journey out of the closet.  My theme, as I see it,  is the need for narrative.  Images without narrative (or worse images with a false narrative) can twist our understanding of reality, pushing us further from empathy and deeper into darkness.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by the fabulous Annie Bomke of ABLiteary and currently in search of a publisher.

Look for these writers’ Next Big Thing interviews:

Kate Hattemer

Andy Peters

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Friends on the Nightstand

I’m lucky to know many wonderful people who write fiction—and who write it well.  Recently, quite of few of my friends, whose writing I’ve encountered in workshops and writers’ groups, have found success in publishing.  Their books are now populating my bedside table either waiting to be read for the first time or encountered again in published form.  In each case, I can attest to their skill and creativity as writers, and it pleases me to see their names shuffled in with other great writers.

Rebecca Makkai was a fellow classmate of mine from Bread Loaf School of English.  Her novel, The Borrower, came out this summer.  It’s about a young children’s librarian who kidnaps a precocious 10-year-old runaway to protect him from an overbearing mother and the anti-gay classes he’s enrolled in.  Kirkus Reviews writes, “Makkai takes several risks in her sharp, often witty text, replete with echoes of children’s classics from Goodnight Moon to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as more ominous references to Lolita . . . the moving final chapters affirm the power of books to change people’s lives even as they acknowledge the unbreakable bonds of home and family. Smart, literate and refreshingly unsentimental.”  I really think teachers would LOVE this one.

My good friend Amy Stolls, who is the literature program officer at the National Endowment for the Arts and has visited my classes at Flint Hill, has a new novel out called The Ninth Wife.  It‘s about a woman who, on the verge of giving up on marriage, meets a man and falls in love only to discover that he’s been married eight times before.  She goes on a quest to meet all of his eight ex-wives, so that she can decide whether or not she can make the leap of faith to be his ninth.  Carolyn Parkhurst, bestselling author of The Dogs of Babel, writes, “The Ninth Wife is a vibrant, nuanced novel about marriage, identity and the moment when we realize that the shimmer of fantasy pales next to the tumultuous reality of ordinary, everyday happiness.”  This makes for a great summer read—and the summer’s not over yet!

Matt Norman—a good friend and fellow MFA-er—has just published his first novel, Domestic Violets.  I read his very funny novel as a manuscript, so it’s particularly satisfying to see it in its sharp, published form.  Booklist writes,  “Reminiscent of Richard Russo’s earlier work, Norman’s refreshingly witty style is perfectly suited to articulating the trials of a middle-aged cynic. Wonderfully fast-paced, hilariously genuine, difficult to put down, Domestic Violets is an ideal first novel.”  His novel reflects the need for cynical humor in navigating today’s troubled workplace without every being too cynical itself.

My new friend, Allison Moon, who I met while at the Lambda Literary Retreat, is self-publishing her first novel called Lunatic Fringe, which is a lesbian twist on the classic werewolf story.  Take that, Twilight!  She’s making creative, out-of-the-box choices in her writing and in the way that she’s publishing and promoting her work.  I’m really excited to follow her and her career.  I can’t wait to get my copy of the novel!

Close friends from my MFA days, Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski (also husband and wife), continue to publish superb short fiction.  Art also reviews crime novels for The Washington Post and is the marketing director for George Mason’s Fall for the Book.  Tara is the senior editor at SmokeLong Quarterly.  Recently Art’s crime novella “Rearview Mirror,” won the 2011 Derringer Award for Best Novelette from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Tara published her story “The Etiquette of Dementia” in the most recent Mid-American Review (Fall 2010).

It’s a great feeling to see my friends getting published and getting recognition.  I hope some of you, out there, will join me in enjoying their work!

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Finding what I was looking for … at the Lambda Writers’ Retreat

Left to Right: Andy Peters (Queer Y/A Fastasy Writer), Robin Talley (Queer Y/A Writer), Katherine Forrest (Retreat Faculty, Mystery Writer), Yours Truly

Here, in DC, I have many lovely and supportive writer-friends, and many wonderful and encouraging gay and lesbian friends, but I know—really know—no gay or lesbian friends who write seriously.  Last week, I spent seven days at the Lambda Writers’ Retreat at UCLA getting to know many amazing LGBT writers and learning even more about craft in my workshop on genre fiction led by Katherine V. Forrest, a pioneer lesbian mystery writer and editor.

I’ve been in and out of a lot of fiction workshops and literary communities, and frankly, before I arrived at LA, I was worried that this experience would be no different.  By this point—after cycling through both undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, which for the most part confused and befuddled me—I’d written off that sort of experience.  I craved direct instruction on craft, something I’d never had in a fiction workshop.  I’ve been critiqued out of my mind by my peers, but never explicitly lectured to about the do’s and don’t’s of craft.  For the most part, I’ve had to figure out craft on my own.  Thank God for Katherine! For the first part of the workshop, she offered concrete guidelines on writing genre fiction.  Then, when we began critiquing novel excerpts, I had the most supportive and honest workshop I’ve ever experienced.  It was downright therapeutic for me.

What amazed me the most about the Retreat, however, was that so many people with so many different backgrounds, inclinations, and identifiers could come together and support one another without the uneasy undercurrent of competition.   I know this sounds a bit sentimental—believe me WASPy stoicism runs deep in my blood—but what I witnessed was a community of people whose first impulse was to love and accept one another, not be suspicious of one another.  Perhaps, it’s just that I’ve lived in DC too long, but that experience was really unique for me.  It has a lot to do with the strength of the LGBT community and with the way Lambda Literary is getting things right.

Writers and artists of all types need to support one another like this more often—but as it becomes increasing competitive to publish, this sort of experience, I imagine, will become even rarer.   My hope is that, in the future, MFA programs and the like will begin seeing that part of their responsibility to their students is to help them form a strong sense of community.

Ultimately writing is a solitary experience, but being a writer doesn’t have to be.

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We are not masters of ourselves.

During the 10th grade year at my school, we teach British Literature.  Midway through the school year, we read several of the great essayists from the 17th century, and discuss the art and craft of the persuasive essay.  Later in the year, we read some of the great Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Keats.  One of my aims as a teacher is to contrast Enlightenment thinkers, who scorned subjectivity, believing that scientific method was the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe, and the Romantics of the early 19th century, who embraced human emotion and the individual’s exploration of imagination as a way of gesturing toward the great questions that linger before us.

I encourage my students to contrast Enlightenment and Romantic philosophies to highlight the tension between reason and emotion, between the need to construct a civilization with a agreed-upon set of values and the raw force of our individual perspectives.  I do this, not because I think its a problem that this tension exists, but because we as a society don’t really understand it.  We are increasing becoming a culture in which feelings become facts, and attitudes become truths—and that IS problematic.

In a Mother Jones article, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” Chris Mooney argues that reason is always going to be tainted by emotion, that the first interpretation of facts is often, if not always, self-interested.  We want the facts to conform to our sense of reality, and therefore, we rationalize more than we reason.  The Romantics were right—our emotions are a powerful force of Nature and can never be completely tamed.  Ultimately, we are not masters of ourselves.

However, more so than ever, we can’t allow our emotions and our beliefs go unchecked.  Our troubled political environment is a great example of this.  In Mooney’s article (which I do highly recommend), he points out the losing battle of emotions over facts: “Because researchers employ so much nuance and disclose so much uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading.  Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store.”

Different factions select and arrange facts to support their perspectives, and the news media continues to encourage this behavior to boost their ratings.  News has become entertainment because partisan conflict sells ad space.  Period.  Although, of course, news media has always been partisan to a degree, it has never before been so omnipresent in our daily lives, and never before encouraged and funded so many talking heads, who are less interested in truth and more interested in establishing a contentious position that makes for a “good fight” on a nightly talk show.

I do what I can to combat this.  I emphasize to my students the power of emotion and the fragility of facts.  I encourage them to write essays which are more an act of exploration than a exercise in writing to a predetermined conclusion.  However, many of them are uncomfortable with writing as journey, because we live in a world where we value conviction more than we value truth.  Our culture—particularly the news media—is constantly reenforcing the notion that you should pick a belief and defend it no matter what.  We are being told that conviction and resolve are what make us Americans, anything less would be unpatriotic.  This is a simpler way to live our lives, but it’s also potentially dishonest.

An open search for truth isn’t easy because we are always having to guard against self-interested emotions and be willing to shift our perspectives, to allow ambiguity in, to be uncertain.  I want my students to become comfortable with that struggle, respecting the power of their own emotions and taking into consideration ALL of the facts when forming an opinion.  But this takes a great deal of practice and a willingness to create and destroy and create again without losing sight of their purpose—honest expression.

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Beyond the Limitations of Mystery Fiction

chandlerartThis week I assigned two essays to my “Thrillers: Page to Screen” class, both of which were suggested to me by Art Taylor in his comment to my August 14th post, “My Philosophy about Mysteries.”

The first essay, “The Simple Art of Murder” by Raymond Chandler, makes a case for the literary merit of realistic, hard-boiled detective fiction, championing it as social commentary that sheds light on the dark, gritty life of urban America in the ’30s and ’40s.  He criticizes the hopelessly unrealistic classic deductive novel so popular in the Golden Age of mysteries during the World Wars.  In a nutshell, he claims that because a puzzle mystery must conform to its design and not to its characters’ emotions, it almost always blunders when trying to represent believable character motivations.

The second essay, “Literature High and Low: The Case of the Mystery Story” by Geoffrey Hartman, argues that the mystery story, as a type of story, is essentially flawed.  Hartman writes, “For a mystery story has always been a genre in which appalling facts are made to fit into a rational or realistic pattern.”  He insists that the mystery story, a slave to audience expectation, must close with a reasonable and ultimately reductive conclusion—the mask pulled of the murderer, the villain vanquished.  The mystery that most interests him is the absence of logic, the intangible, the sublime.

I find that I agree and disagree with both positions.  Chandler’s criticisms of the puzzle mystery are fair, but I don’t think one can cast an entire type of mystery to the side because of its frequent failures.  Hartman believes that for a work of literature to stand above other works, it must embody a mystery that the reader experiences but doesn’t fully discern, suggesting its greater and deeper truth.  I agree, but again, why does an entire genre need to be kicked to the curb?

I really do believe that mysteries and thrillers, if explored through character, can both comment on social conditions and contain bits of intangible truth.  Of course, this requires seeing a genre beyond its narrow marketplace descriptions, but I believe it can be done and has been done.  In fact, reach all the way back to Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone for a great example.

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