2014-07-08T08:29:43.278-07:00Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is a writer of smart, literary work and even though her third novel “Bittersweet” is a suspense-filled page turner, it’s every bit as a smart and literary as her previous novels. It’s evocative, with its lush descriptions of setting, its ominous tone, and its willingness to examine wealth and class up close. “Bittersweet” is one of those rare books you’ll be compelled to read in one sitting.Katrina: “Bittersweet” is your third novel. How did the writing of this novel differ from the others? How did the process of writing the previous novels inform the writing of this one? Was it easier? Miranda: I came to this novel from a much different place than I’d ever written a book before; my second book had sold quite poorly, and then I’d tried to sell two novels, to no avail. So when I started thinking about Bittersweet, I was also thinking seriously about my career. Did I still want to be a writer? Was that still tenable? What did that look like? For me, writing the next book entailed choosing a story that quickened my pulse but that also had some legs in terms of sales potential. Given that very businesslike decision, I was surprised to discover that writing Bittersweet was so much fun! It was a real liberation to write a book that would be a gift of pleasure to my readers. Katrina: Its plot is quite complex. There are many twists and turns. How did you keep it all straight in your head? How did you organize the material and keep the events organic to the storyline?Miranda: I had multiple outlines for Bittersweet—one giant color-coded one on my wall, one on Ancestry.com (where I kept track of the whole family), one involving notecards (one color for each main character, each card held a “beat”), and a calendar that listed exactly what was happening on every given day in the book. But I also like to break the rules of my outlines, so I didn’t feel afraid of re-ordering moments or re-envisioning plot-points when the book needed it. A lot of that neatening up also came about in revision.Katrina: How did the premise of “Bittersweet” first present itself? Miranda: I had long wanted to write about my family’s house up on Lake Champlain, but I didn’t know what that story would be until I got a taste of the Winslows. They kind of just started gossiping in my head one day—about a cousin who had killed himself—and I realized that the fractured marriage of those (pretty atrocious) people and that (phenomenally beautiful) place would make for an interesting book. But it took a couple years to realize that that the book would only work if it were told through the eyes of the outsider Mabel.Katrina: You describe so beautifully the setting of Vermont, a place I’m intimately familiar with. Why did you choose Vermont?Miranda: My family has a place up on Lake Champlain; it’s the only home owned by anyone in my family that’s remained consistent throughout my life. I have a deep connection to the rhythms of that area—what the birdsong sounds like on a spring morning, the smell of the water, the thirst one feels after a sailboat ride on a hot day. I worked hard to make the place a strong character in the book, as realized as any of the people in it. It’s funny, because I love that place so much, but in the book it takes on a deeply forboding air, like the forest out of Grimm’s fairytales. Katrina: I’m always interested in how a writer works, and more specifically, the revision process. Please tell us about how you revise.Miranda: I tend to start with a pretty in-depth outline, which translates to a polished first draft. Once I have that, I enlist a few trusted readers, and ask them for notes. In the time it takes them to read and draft comments, I take a break from the book (usually to catch up with my life- my house is usually a disaster by this point, I haven’t answered emails for weeks, and my kid is desperate for me). Then once I’ve got notes back, I put them together, read the book again, and try to apply most of what I’ve hear[...]
2014-05-12T06:56:50.147-07:00I've known Mary and her writing for years. Her work is sharply intelligent, creative and passionate. Nature and science play a prominent role in her work and though the narratives speak of the laws of science, they are not always bound by them. Mary is an accomplished author, a three-time Bread Loaf scholarship recipient, and this is her third published story collection. Mary is one of those writers who just gets better and better while at the same time staying true to what makes her storytelling special. I hope you get a chance to read her latest collection, "Bones of an Inland Sea," if you haven't already. Q: The stories in this work are connected, either by the sea, or by science, or by the characters who are all related in some way, some of whom show up again. How do you classify this work? Is it a novel-in-stories or a linked collection?Mary: Labels are tough, aren’t they? I never know what to call a thing I’ve made. I’m the queen of blurring genres and styles. And frankly, it’s the spaces that exist between the labels that are most interesting to me anyway. When I was first writing “Bones of an Inland Sea,” I referred to it as my marine ecology collection. Before I had even written the first word, I imagined a group of stories all connected by the sea. But when I completed the first version of the manuscript in 2007 and shopped it around to agents, I had no takers. Then I read three wonderful, tightly linked collections (that their respective publishers never called collections): “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” “Olive Kitteredge,” and “Let the Great World Spin.” Those three books really made me rethink the loose connections in my stories. So I made a conscious decision to strengthen “Bones” by assigning the existing stories to a group of repeating characters and have the stories follow a narrative arc. This required extensive reshaping, reorganizing, reimagining, and the addition of four entirely new stories to more tightly link the whole. The result ended up as something I like to think of as a composite novel.Q: In these stories the sea plays an important role, both terrifyingly powerful and magnificently beautiful. What is your relationship with the ocean?Mary: In a word, complex. Also mysterious. A lifelong love affair. I feel utterly at home in the ocean, all the while understanding that at any moment she could turn on me with ruthless force and indifference. The ocean is a lover you always understand could kill you, and yet you can’t stay away. Early in my college career, I set out to be a marine biologist: chose my college based on their graduate program in marine biology, took lots of biology and science courses. Then, halfway through, I failed a botany class, met clay, and switched my allegiance to fine art. I became a potter—a career I pursued for more than ten years, but always I loved the ocean. In the 1990s I worked for a marine ecology study abroad program in Turks and Caicos but felt it was poorly managed. In the late 1990s, I joined forces with a co-worker from that time in the TCI and together we co-founded our own marine ecology school in Dominica that operated for ten years.To help me understand my theme, I will adopt a song that embodies each book—just in my mind, but it exists there as a touchstone. And an observant (and musically savvy) reader could find song references in each of my books. For my first collection, “Women Up On Blocks,” it was Wild Horses (Couldn’t Drag Me Away) by The Rolling Stones. That book is full of stories of longing, of characters who feel trapped by circumstance, love, or duty. For “Bones of an Inland Sea,” it would be a toss-up between Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd and A Pirate Looks at Forty by Jimmy Buffet. I relate to the lines, “Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call. Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall. You’ve seen it all.” And of course the title of my strange logbook story “Treasures Few Have Ever Seen” is a line that’s ta[...]
2013-03-18T13:39:01.155-07:00I've known Cliff through his writing for over a decade now. We met virtually through an online workshop site and literally in a real-life workshop at Bread Loaf in 2006. I've admired Cliff's straightforward, elegant writing for years but in his latest novel-in-stories, "What the Zhang Boys Know," it seems that straightforward elegance has become richer, in both a narrative sense and an emotional one. Cliff can write from any point of view, whether from a child's, a woman's, or a foreigner's, to list a few found in this novel, with authority and verisimilitude. If you haven't yet read this beautiful novel of disparate characters connected by an elegant mansion turned into condos on the crumbling edges of D.C., then you're in for a treat when you do. I asked Cliff a few questions about the novel and his process:K: You have quite an amazing background. Among other things, you have worked as Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in D.C. with a focus on China, Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia. How did your work, and the time you spent in East Asia, inform this novel?C: Since joining the Peace Corps after college, my work has always had an international bent to it—first in private law practice and then in the World Bank—so it’s natural for my fiction to reflect this interest of mine as well. I used to do a lot of work in China, so it didn’t surprise me when a Chinese character popped into my head when I was conceiving this book. More specifically, though, when I began planning for it, I had just returned from a work trip to Nanjing where I had the opportunity to visit the memorial to the victims of the Nanjing Massacre. It was incredibly moving, and that visit helped shape the story.K: In the opening story, “Nanking Mansion,” you begin with a chaotic scene in which the narrator is surrounded by “all the people he knows in America” then you circle back to help the reader become acquainted with those people and also help him understand how they came to be standing in the foyer of Nanking Mansion. How did this structure idea come to you? Did it present itself in the first draft?C: It did present itself in the first draft. In fact, originally, it was even more chaotic and included all the characters in the book. The current version is trimmed down so that the reader gets a feel for the cast without being overwhelmed. The scene is a reaction to two things. My first book, In an Uncharted Country, which is a collection of linked short stories, ends with a story in which most of the book’s characters appear at a 4th of July Celebration. It seemed to be a good way of drawing the book to a close. Because Zhang Boys was conceived as a novel in stories from the beginning, I wanted to begin with a scene in which most of the book’s characters would be introduced. The other impetus was an essay by Sven Birkerts that suggested the modern story needs to create a new world for the reader without relying on assumptions. The scene, I hope, accomplishes that, complete with chaos.K: Is there a real Nanking Mansion from which you drew inspiration? When did you know the mansion would be a central character and the other stories would be connected by it?C: Although all of the human characters in the book are complete figments of my imagination, the building itself resembles the condo building where I used to live in DC, although with a different name. As soon as I realized that my characters would be the building’s residents—very early on in the process—the building also became a character.K: Many of the residents of the mansion are artists of some sort. Was this intentional? What does it say, if anything, about our society here in America, that often our artists are left to survive on the fringes?C: It was intentional in the sense that I was trying to be true to the neighborhood as it existed at the time. We had a real mix of artists and business or government people in the building and in the neighboring buildings. But I was also thinking[...]
2013-01-30T11:40:28.078-08:00Books Read in 2012The World We Found by Thrity UmvigarRunning the Rift by Naomi BenaromThe Good American by Alex GeorgeThe Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot LiveseyThe Artist of Disappearance by Anita DesaiStill Alice by Lisa GenovaAmerican Dervish by Ayad AkhtarStay Awake by Dan ChaonThe Odds, A Love Story by Stewart O’NanThe Invisible Ones by Stef PennyGrotesque by Natsuo KirinoOther People We Married by Emma StraubBirds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew BergmanCarry the One by Carol AnshawEmily, Alone by Stewart O’NanThe Dreaming Girl by Roberta AllenThe Apothecary by Maile Meloy (read aloud to my son)The Newlyweds by Nell FreudenbergerHeft by Liz MooreHow it All Began by Penelope LivelyGoing Away Shoes by Jill McCorkleThe Vanishers by Heidi JulavitsA Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley CashArcadia by Lauren GroffWildwood by Colin Meloy (read aloud to my son)Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun LiWild by Cheryl StrayedDear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed (read aloud to my husband)This Will Be Difficult to Explain by Johanna SkibsrudFires of Our Choosing by Eugene CrossVolt by Alan HeathcockThe Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne TylerThe Book of Jonas by Stephen DauThe Family Fang by Kevin WilsonSwim Back to Me by Ann PackerThis is Not the Tropics by Ladette RandolphThe O’Henry Prize 2012 (favorites: The Deep; Eyewall; A Birth in the Woods)The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLilloThe Invisible Tower by Nils Johnson Shelten (read aloud to my son)Dusk and Other Stories by James SalterLadies and Gentlemen, Stories by Adam RossAnimal Farm by George Orwell (read aloud to my son)Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain by Lucia PerilloGoliath by Susan WoodringIn the Kingdom of Men by Kim BarnesGone Girl by Gillian FlynnStand Up That Mountain by Jay Erskin LeutzeSharp Objects by Gillian FlynnHeading Out to Wonderful by Robert GrolickLast Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’NanThe Witch Doctor’s Wife by Tamar MyersMice by Gordon ReeseBoleto by Alyson HagyThe Nobodies Album by Carol ParkhurstDrowned by Therese BonmanDark Places by Gillian FlynnAnna Karenina by Leo TolstoyPromise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahonThis is How by M.J. HylandShelter by Frances GreensladeThe Adults by Alison EspachIn the Woods by Tana FrenchThe Likeness by Tana FrenchThe Financial Lives of Poets by Jess WalterWe Only Know So Much by Elizabeth CraneElsewhere, California by Dana JohnsonShine, Shine, Shine by Lydia NetzerThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson WalkerWhen the Night by Cristina ComenciniWhen Will There Be Good News by Kate AtkinsonGone by Cathi HanauerA Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette EdwardsIn Malice Quite Close by Brandi Lynn RyderThe Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John MandellThe Revisionist by Helen SchulmanSigns and Wonders by Alix OhlinOne Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan TropperThe Unwanteds by Lisa McMann (read aloud to my son)Capture the Flag by Kate Messner (read aloud to my son)Faithful Places by Tana FrenchSpy School by Stuart Gibbs (read aloud to my son)The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan EvisonThe Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin WoodTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifke BruntAll Women and Springtime by Brandon W. JonesDirt by David VannThe Casual Vacancy by J. K. RowlingThe Unwanteds, Island of Silence by Lisa McMann (read aloud to my son)The Green Shore by Natalie BakopoulosThe Dog Stars by Peter HellerBeautiful Ruins by Jess WalterWhen It Happens to You by Molly RingwaldThe Kept Man by Jami AttenbergSome Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham JoyceThe Yard by Alex GrecianBroken Harbor by Tana FrenchAfterwords by Rosamund UptonSeating Arrangements by Maggie ShipsteadThe Quickening by Michelle HooverThe Middlesteins by Jami AttenbergI Am Holding Your Hand by Myfanwy CollinsThis Cake is for the Party by Sarah SeleckyBrain on Fire by Susanne Cahalan*There were a few I began but put aside for various reasons and there was one I read but the quality of writing was so poor it left me feeling a bit gray, so I didn’t include here…[...]
2012-07-02T11:09:32.322-07:00"Goliath" by Susan Woodring, is an elegant, character-driven novel, about the impending death of a small-town and the characters' large-hearted attempts to revive it. "Goliath" is successful both in scope and depth and I was moved to ask Ms. Woodring for her insights on writing it.Katrina: You handle the omniscient point of view expertly. I can understand why you chose it; it’s the best point of view in which to capture the spirit of “Goliath.” Is this a point of view you usually use? What are the advantages? What are the challenges?Susan: I think I’ve used omniscience only once before Goliath, in a short story that ultimately failed. However, I’ve long been fascinated with it. . Some years ago, I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina and loved it. Not only did it feel authentically and wonderfully Russian (I spent some time teaching English there many years ago), but it also used omniscience in this sweeping, beautiful way. I also read The River King by Alice Hoffman, and the opening pages are magical and fairytale-like in the novel’s use of omniscience and I ached to try it myself.I like the flexibility in distance I have with omniscience. I can pull way, way back—speaking from the sky in many scenes—but then come zapping down, into my characters’ heads, and especially that of Rosamond, the main character. This allowed me to “see” the characters and their town from so many different angles. I like how omniscience can create the sense that the reader and the narrator are very close—we’re in this together—while the story becomes something they observe from a distance, like a play on a stage. With Goliath, I really wanted, too, to create a sense of isolation for the town of Goliath. I wanted the reader to feel like he/she is peeking into Goliath—a sort of existence unto itself.Omniscience is, of course, a pretty complicated point of view, one that isn’t used that much in contemporary fiction. It’s a bit of a risk; many readers simply don’t like it. When I was working on Goliath, though, it felt very freeing—daring in a foolish way—and I remember feeling like I was always holding my breath. I was all the time thinking, “This will never work, this will never work,” and “I’ll never get away with this,” but also, “What the heck.” It was such fun; I couldn’t talk myself out of it.Also, I feel like taking this sort of risk with point of view allowed me to give myself permission to take risks in other areas. For example, I used a few supernatural elements. These—which included a ghost—were edited out later, but still, I feel like experimenting with them stretched the story (and the writer) in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. Katrina: I’m always interested in process. What is your office like? Do you write by hand or type? Do the drafts come to you in a linear way or do the scenes arrive and you arrange them later?Susan: Oh, my office is a disaster. We painted it this odd reddish-pinkish color (play-doughish, if that makes sense) because the color looked good in the can—not so much in real life. I have a bookcase with a writing ledge and there are a few more bulging bookcases and piles of papers around me. My knitting basket is at my feet. Also, my kids’ homeschooling stuff is slowly taking over the room—computers and art supplies and so forth. But, my laptop is tiny—it’s actually a netbook—and so I’m pretty transportable. I often head over to my in-laws’ with my kids—they play and I write in the spare bedroom. I hit coffee shops on Saturdays, when my husband is home to keep the kids.I begin jotting down ideas and snatches of dialogue or characters’ thoughts in an unlined notebook and move onto my laptop when I feel like the story or the scene I’m working on are firm enough to start drafting. I usually don’t know exactly where the story is going, but I do have a vague sense o[...]
2012-05-10T11:56:59.295-07:00Ever since Amendment One passed in my adopted state of North Carolina I’ve been trying to understand and integrate the complexity of feeling around the issue, both in myself and my community. For it is a complex issue. Though the amendment seemed to be quickly boiled down by both sides to a simplistic gay rights issue, the amendment also snuck in a host of other human rights questions: the ability of two elderly people to live together in dignity with their civil rights intact, the rights of children of unmarried couples, the protection for an unmarried partner from domestic violence. These issues aside, the one that took center stage was whether two people of the same sex could live under the same protections and with the same rights that two people of the opposite sex take for granted. And the majority of voters of North Carolina gave a resounding, a disappointing, No.I love my adopted state. North Carolina is where my writer self feels most at home. North Carolina is where I met my husband, the love of my life. North Carolina was where my youngest son, now 10, was born and is being lovingly educated and embraced by community. North Carolina is full of people who care for their state, work hard every day to provide for their families, give countless hours of volunteer time to their communities. That said, I was initially deeply saddened by the outcome of the passing of this amendment. Saddened because I’d hoped the majority of the people in this state, my adopted home, had moved beyond a fear and misunderstanding of homosexuality, had moved beyond hating one group of people based on a perceived difference, had moved beyond singling a group of people out and declaring them unworthy of God’s love and protection, and finally, perhaps most disturbing, declaring them unworthy of the law’s protection and consideration. It’s clear this is a divisive issue. People seem to feel so passionately one way or the other that manners have been forgotten or discarded and accusations and vitriol have bubbled over into an otherwise sane discourse. But I wonder, in all of this back and forth, if people have taken the time to put faces to the issue. Surely, in this day and age, the people who pushed to pass this amendment and who voted it in must know someone who’s gay. A friend, a relative, a child. If not, surely they know someone who will be adversely affected by such restrictive rewriting of our Constitution. I wonder if they took the time to think, How will such an amendment affect my neighbor, my daughter, my mother-in-law, my son’s friend? I wonder if they asked themselves, How will my words of hatred and prejudice affect my community?My oldest son, now a young adult, is gay. He’s brilliant, hard-working, caring. He’s a beautiful young man with a beautiful soul. I’m immensely proud of him. He no longer lives in North Carolina and I can’t help but feel protectively relieved he wasn’t here to read all the hateful articles in our local paper. And yet, I’m not giving him enough credit. He has had to deal with prejudice and judgment every day of his life and doing so has made him an incredibly strong and admirable human being. I voted against Amendment One. I voted against it because there is no place for government in the bedroom. I voted against it because it’s wrong to limit or deny civil rights to our fellow citizens. I voted against it because it comes down on the wrong side of human rights. And I voted against it because one day, I don’t want my son to go through the frustration and pain of being denied access to his partner’s hospital room because their partnership is not recognized by the law.I believe in God. I do not, however, believe in the ability of religious dogma to accurately and fairly interpret God’s intentions and I find all attempts to do so not only highly suspect, but arrogant. Change in the issue of gay rights has been a[...]
2012-02-26T05:55:21.210-08:00I'm honored to have a story in the latest issue of The Pedestal Magazine, guest-edited by the amazing Terri Brown Davidson. Randall Brown also has two beautiful short fiction pieces in the issue.
2012-02-01T04:25:30.720-08:00These are the books I read in January:
2011-10-24T12:13:28.186-07:00I’ve known Kathy Fish through an online writing site for nearly a decade now. Back in 2003 I asked Kathy to help me with my first flash fiction attempt. I’d noticed her short pieces, saw how even back then, she was a master with the form. Years later, she’s still amazing, and her work is playful and intelligent and fresh and will entrance you with its tragic beauty then two seconds later make you laugh out loud. Each of her pieces in her book, "Wild Life" is a glistening, detailed world in miniature, replete with humor, longing and willful creatures.Kathy has graciously agreed to answer some of my questions about her process, her stories and her writing desires.Katrina: I’d like to begin with your process. Where do you write? Do you use pen and paper? Computer? A mix of both? Do you have a set time? Number of words? Music? A certain required beverage? What is a typical writing day? What is your dream writing day like?Kathy: I always begin with notebook and pen. I don’t think I’ve ever started any writing at all on the computer. I need time to scribble. And it’s all over the page. If something feels like it might be good I circle it. After awhile something clicks and I know I’m ready for the keyboard. I’m very unstructured. I don’t give myself a time limit or word count goal. Coffee is always involved. I know the writing’s going well if the coffee gets cold. A typical writing day is spent messing around on the internet for longer than I ought to until I’m seized with guilt and shut it off. I stare out the window a lot. I take my dog for a walk. I pour another cup of coffee. Maybe after two hours I start to scribble in my notebook. I look out the window some more. My dream writing day is when I get past all of this and go into that beautiful trance, where I forget everything and look up, finally, two hours later and have before me something that feels real and right and pretty decent. A dream writing day is when it feels effortless. Katrina: “Land and Sky and Cosmo,” is a hilarious story of a young woman trying to seduce her boyfriend, full of details such as this one in reference to the woman’s uncle telling them how to scare off a bear while camping: “He said make yourself look bigger, wave your arms and yell and he demonstrated and we saw the forest of his armpits.” I love that you chose to echo their environment in the description of armpit hair. What was the seed for this piece? How did you come up with such a perfect question to end the piece? I mean, this is a question often unasked, but present in all relationships, and I don’t think I’ve seen it before in fiction offered in just the right moment, said so beautifully and with such hope.Kathy: I feel, often in my life, that I don’t connect in those moments when I most want to. And that the scene plays on nonetheless. It’s like small talk when you really want to say I love you. And the scene plays on and we go along and there’s so much courage to that. We swallow our disappointments and heartaches and the small ones are just as important as the big ones. That was my seed for this piece. So here is this woman, desperately wanting to connect and she knows it’s not happening and she wants to confront that. I’m interested in people who are just about at the end of their rope. She wants answers and she’s not getting them. She’d been deceived and it wasn’t the first time! That, right there. Katrina: “The Cartoonist” is brilliant in its subtext and its ability to convey mood and lingering tension. I loved the title which instructs the reader and the last line which completely changed the color of the piece. Can yo[...]
2011-10-18T15:34:05.410-07:00I've posted this before because it helped me write a draft of one of my novels in about three months. And I'm reposting because I'm in a bit of a writing funk and thinking maybe it might help me again and anyone else who may be in a funk with me.
2011-10-08T15:12:17.848-07:00Passages North has a brand new website and Jennifer A. Howard has taken over as Editor-in-Chief.
2011-09-26T05:26:40.521-07:00My family and I are off on an adventure to Barcelona!! As much as I love these trips and am so very grateful, there's a little part of me (maybe not so little) that wishes to be at home writing. That said, I realize each of these trips and other things life throws our way, good and bad, enrich my writing soul.
2011-09-12T11:41:06.884-07:00Here are some books that I've read in the last month or so and loved:
2011-09-09T09:34:37.681-07:00Love the idea and the sentiment of Laura Ellen Scott's new blog Wish Tank