Category Archives: Getting Published

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: Andy Peters

I’m happy to host my friend and fellow Lambda Literary Retreat attendee Andy Peters as he answers  the “The Next Big Thing” interview questions about his new novel.

What is the title of the book?

Werecat: The Rearing

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It started as an experimental piece. I got turned on to shapeshifter and vampire stories only recently, and, as with most everything I read, those stories made me think: how could I write a great story in that vein from a totally queer point-of-view? Not just with gay or lesbian sidekick characters – I wanted to create a gritty, sexy love story between two men that was central to the plot, and really central to a fantasy world. I’m also fascinated by cats, so writing the fantasy aspect came pretty naturally to me.

What genre does your book fall under?

Urban fantasy

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

I actually blogged about that subject before my book got picked up by a publisher. What writer doesn’t daydream about casting her/his work? For Werecat, it’s extra fun because I think feline shapeshifters would have to be sexy and dark. I imagine an underground world populated  by hot, scruffy men, high-shouldered and lean, sort of a throw-back to the grunge or heroin-chic model trend of the 90’s. They would have to have great eyes too.

My main character Jacks is a lost, rebellious college drop-out, and I’d be delighted to cast François Arnaud from the Showtime series The Borgias in that role. Jacks’ love interest Benoit would have to be smoking hot with a dangerous vibe. My first pick is Michael Fassbender. Then there’s a supporting character Farzan who may or may not get in between Jacks and Benoit. Farzan is tightly-wound and kind of goofy. He makes me think of Kal Penn from Howard and Kumar.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Werecat is about a young man who goes to Montréal for Spring Break, gets picked up by a handsome drifter, and ends up on a terrifying and erotic journey into the world of feline shapeshifters.

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

Werecat: The Rearing is the first book in a series of novellas, which are 20-40K words apiece. I wrote the first draft in about three weeks.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Allison Moon‘s lesbian werewolf novel Lunatic Fringe was a major departure point. Beyond her excellent re-imagining of werewolf mythology, her book made me think about the similarities between the shapeshifter trope and the experience of being queer, both in obvious ways like having to hide and being misunderstood, and in ways that are important to me politically and spiritually.

I think there’s something liberating about being able to inhabit two worlds. Queer people learn how to fit in, and sometimes pass within a heterosexual world, and we also cross “genders” at least in our private lives if not publicly. The Native American idea of two-spirit intrigues me – possessing both a female and a male aspect – and I could go on about that subject extensively. Suffice it to say, when I started writing about gay, feline shapeshifters, I became inspired by the opportunities to explore the different facets of having a dual nature, socially, sexually, and politically.

I also worked a good bit of cat mythology – ancient world and native – into the story. Retold myth and legend is a fairly steady thread in everything I write.

Is your book out in print, upcoming from a publisher and/or represented by an agency?

Werecat will be published by Vagabondage Press and is upcoming in May 2013.

(“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: 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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Why failing gracefully deserves admiration

I’ve been thinking a lot about why taking risks is so important.  It’s actually a theme that emerges both in my profession as a teacher and my desire to be a published writer.  It’s also something which is necessary for growth.  It’s something that each of us needs in order to develop intellectually, physically, and spiritually.  If we don’t take risks, we don’t evolve; if we don’t evolve, we are static—and static beings perish; it’s a law of nature.

Often the byproduct of risk is failure.  Our society—particularly American culture—despises failure, whether it’s in the arena of sports or in business ventures or in an artistic endeavors.  This mentality rolls down from popular culture through peers, parents and even educational institutes, and gathers in many of the students I teach, filling them with anxiety and tipping them toward neurosis.

This fear of failure takes an even more troubling turn when students believe that grades—simply having A’s—is more important than learning.  In other words, seeming to have succeeded is more important than actually succeeding.  Having an A in English is more important than having learned how to write a clear and cohesive argument.  I hardly blame the students, though, when our culture is giving them every indication that this is a perfectly acceptable way of thinking.  Even our political parties are more concerned with “winning” instead of compromise and healthy debate.  They don’t want a clear and cohesive argument; they want their position of power, their A.

We need a paradigm shift where taking risks, whether the individual fails or succeeds, is respected, and playing it safe is viewed as cowardly.  We need to punch holes in superficial success, often monetary success, and define what real success is—which is, in a word, growth.  More specifically—growth of character.  You never grow more than when you fail, so in that sense, failure—at least failure born of risk—is success.

So, all pontificating aside, I must turn that theory back on myself and my professional goals.  I must take risks in my teaching.  I must take risks in my writing.  And when I fail, which I will, I need to fend off that horrible anxiety, those whispering judgmental voices, which often are only promoting or critiquing superficial success.  Of course, the best defense against those voices is the voice of a friend, loved-one, or colleague reminding me of what I believe deep down—that to gracefully fail, to learn from that failure, is succeeding.

I hope I can do the same for others.

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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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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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