Category Archives: Contemporary Novels/Thrillers

In Search of Messy, Overwritten Beauty

tender-is-the-night-original-dustjacketYesterday I was reading Ali Smith’s book Artful, a form-challenging mash-up of an essay collection and a novel, and as a part of a section about form, Smith quotes Katherine Mansfield, a modernist whose stories I deeply admire.  Inside a copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod, Mansfield writes: “There are certain things in this book I do not like.  But they are not important, or really part of it.  They are trivial, encrusted, they cling to it as snails to the underside of a leaf … and perhaps they leave a little silvery trail, a smear, that one shrinks from as from a kind of silliness.  But apart from these things is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig.  All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.”

This quotation resonates with me.  So often I feel this way about books I love.  Yes, they may be by today’s standards overwritten, overly “encrusted,” but ultimately the beauty of them, the energy of the story, of the characters, “feeds me.”  To often—and this is true of a lot of writers who are also reviewers—we judge a book by its editing, not its narrative life-force.  We use descriptors like “clean” and “diamond-hard” or “muscular” to describe fiction, which in my mind is describing editing and perhaps style, not necessarily the full, breathing machinery of fiction.

For this reason, I’ve always preferred Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night over The Great Gatsby.  As a novel it’s messier, more experimental, darker.  For that reason, although at times a little overwritten, it speaks to me on a deeper level, perhaps even because of its messiness, if that’s really a fair word for it.  One mistake book reviewers, often reviewers who are also writers, make is to review a book’s editing, or at least to preference the editing, over the substance or the energy of story.  I’m curious how many of you, out there, have a book which you thought overwritten or messy, but spoke to you despite (or even because of ) the quality of the prose.  I’d love any suggestions … or thoughts.

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Making Summer Reading Lists

As the school year comes to a close, I begin looking forward to the summer by crafting a reading list.  I know, I know, this sounds like it’s making work out of fun, but there’s an art to the reading, particularly the different types of reading, I want to do over the summer.  I want the ebb and flow of challenging books and light reading, fiction and nonfiction, and genre and literary.

Also, I like what creating a reading list tells me about my own tastes, and how those tastes reflect back on the choices I make as a writer. If my novel were sitting on my shelf, would I be reaching for it? (I hope so … but it’s a good question to ask.)

I also like it as a log of my development as a reader and a way to reflect on the influences on my writing.  Over the years, I’ve read books—The Blind Assassin, The Big Sleep, etc.—that have had powerful impact on my work; however, it’s only been since I’ve consciously curated my reading that I’ve started to understand my tastes better: fiction with female protagonists; stories with a historical milieu; morally ambiguous characters; dark emotional terrain; rich, at times lyrical description, but not as the expense of plot—and never sentimental.  Unsurprisingly, my writing embodies my reading tastes.

However—and what interests me the most—are the outlier books, works that don’t easily fit in.  For instance, I placed Ali Smith’s Artful on my summer reading list, a genre-bending book, part novel, part collection of essays.  Am I curious even now why I was initially attracted to this book?  In part, it’s because of its lovely cover (no joke) and in part its because I’ve heard so many intriguing things about Smith’s writing.

Most of all, my reading list is a declaration to myself that I’m free to read what I want (for the most part) after a year of reading for school.  As much as writing, it’s a form of self-expression and requires that freedom to survive.

So, here it is .. and of course it can (and will) change.  (If you have any suggestions, respond to this blog or be my friend of Goodreads.)

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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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What the hell is it? Mystery fiction? Literary Fiction? (And Does It Matter?)

A genre war has been going on inside me for some time.

I love the structure of the mystery story, how it attempts to rectify the past and the present of its fictional world, a gesture that, to varying degrees, we are all asked to make in our lives.  Some of my favorite literary books—Atwood’s Blind Assassin, Byatt’s Possession, and Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea—address this theme in rich and compelling ways, and blatantly steal structural techniques from the mystery or thriller genre.  Also, well-written detective stories tend to ride a fine line between romanticism and realism.  Some of the greats of American hard-boiled detective fiction come to mind: Chandler and Cain.  The tension between the beauty of a dream and the sting of reality is a deeply American concern, one that dominates one of the most famous of texts of American literature, The Great Gatsby (which by some has been classified as crime fiction).  It’s also a theme which is alive and well in our culture.  Think: Reality TV, celebrity culture, and political spin doctoring—or even more insidious, the 2008 banking collapse and recession.

If taken at face value, my novel Dodging and Burning, as well as my newest project, are mystery novels.  However, my principle concern is character, not plot, so they don’t fit neatly into the mystery genre, although if the blessed day arrives, I don’t have a problem with them being marketed as such.  My fantastic agent, Annie Bomke, will certainly guide me in this.

For now, I’m comfortable walking the line between mystery and literary fiction.  (Maybe that makes me more marketable, I don’t know.  Tana French, Benjamin Black, among others are doing it and doing it well.)  Wilkie Collins, in his 1868 preface to The Moonstone, the granddaddy of detective novels, stated his objective in the novel was to trace the influence of character on circumstances.  It seems to me, even in detective fiction, plot should be a result of character, especially a character who is trying to resolve discrepancies between his past and present, between his romantic ideals and the hard truth.  For that reason, I do embrace the notion that, although we may have different categories for types of fiction, the basic foundations should be the same.

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Lambda Retreat Readings

The Lambda Retreat I attended in August was such a great experience.  During that week, each of the Lambda Fellows read from the piece that he or she had been working on.  Soon, all of our videos will be posted on Lambda Literary’s website.  But, here’s a look at my reading from Dodging and Burning.

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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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