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Preview: Katrina Denza: Illuminate; Ruminate; Create

Katrina Denza

Updated: 2017-05-26T15:39:06.885-07:00


Read This: "The Book of Laney" by Myfanwy Collins



We see the stories in the news, stories of mass shootings at schools, stories of lonely misfits planning their revenge on their peers, and we try to understand but always seem to fall short. In “The Book of Laney,” by Myfanwy Collins a similar tragedy occurs and the story unfolds to the reader through the eyes and heart of Laney, the sister of one of the shooters. Literature can take on the truth of violence in a way that film could strive for, but usually fails. In whatever medium chosen, it’s important that depictions of violence be met with consequence. In “The Book of Laney,” there are consequences for the shooters, their victims, their community and those loved ones left behind. In the hands of a lesser writer, this novel wouldn’t be the thing of beauty it is. In the hands of a lesser writer, the dark side of humanity wouldn’t be so acutely and artfully contrasted against its magnificent light.

It’s a novel that works on so many levels. These characters are so thoughtfully drawn, every nuance skillfully observed, that there is no question of their reality. In Myfanwy Collins’s previous novels, she’s proven to be masterful at rendering atmosphere and mood, and this latest work highlights her ability. The main character is thoroughly suffocated by the fallout of her brother’s actions, and that suffocation shows up in her thoughts, her loneliness, and in the new landscape she finds herself in. It is no accident that the novel is set during winter and that its heroine Laney is sent north to her grandmother who lives literally on the edge of society. It is an exile at once miserably unfair and necessary.

Collins is a poet. She writes in prose but her sentences sing. Her images, shockingly accurate and beautiful, are strung along on the forward motion of plot like sparkling jewels on a chain. She has the ability to render that which is nearly impossible to describe:

“I wore my brother’s crime like a second skin. It constricted me, tight like a snake’s skin I feared I’d never shed. That was who I’d become: The sister of a murderer. Not even being the daughter of the murdered could erase it. From that point on, my identity belonged to no one but West.”

She also uses metaphor successfully and wisely as in this passage:

“One photo of a fiddlehead pushing up from beneath the compost of leaves, bright green and delicate. I was touched by its strength and lost in how the light illuminated it. The fiddlehead had pushed up through the darkness and lived. Despite being covered over and forgotten through the long, cold winter, it had beaten the odds and survived.”

Young adults face difficulties that feel insurmountable, difficulties they feel they won’t be able to overcome or survive. In “The Book of Laney,” they will meet a young woman who feels the same way, a young woman who journeys through darkness and allows love to illuminate her, light to nurture her, until eventually she’s able to push up into wholeness again.

Read This: "Bittersweet" by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore


Miranda 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 (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[...]

Read This: Bones of an Inland Sea by Mary Akers


I'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[...]

Read This: What the Zhang Boys Know by Cliff Garstang


I'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[...]

Books I Read in 2012


Books 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…[...]

A Conversation with Susan Woodring


"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[...]

North Carolina's Amendment One


Ever 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[...]

Read: "Birds of a Lesser Paradise" by Megan Mayhew Bergman


Once in awhile I discover a book that, after reading, inspires me, on a deep level, to be fearless in my own writing. I’m not only referring to the writer’s courage to render the ugly and unfortunate aspects of human nature and the world, but also, and maybe even more so, the fearlessness to offer the beautiful, the honorable, the heart-on-a-sleeve kind of writing that feels wholly authentic and much like a message from a dear friend insisting, “These are the things I love about life, and I love you enough, dear reader, to share them with you.”

This is what the dozen stories within this accomplished collection seem to be: love stories. Stories of unabashed, deep, awakened, intelligent, love. Love for animals, love for the Earth, love for children and parents and partners, and ultimately, love for life itself, however messy it gets. The writer of these stories has an enormous capacity for deep feeling and she isn’t afraid to use it.

The characters are not without fault, however, and love doesn’t show up for them without cost or in the expected ways. They have burdens, they’ve made mistakes, but even so, they face the next day with eyes and hearts wide open.

In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother travels to Myrtle Beach with her young, precocious son, to a roadside zoo. She’s on a mission to hear her deceased mother’s voice one last time, a voice that is held indefinitely, she hopes, in the throat of a surly African Gray, her mother’s beloved pet. In “Saving Face,” a young veterinarian struggles both to forgive herself for the accident that left her disfigured and to allow her fiancé to love her, imperfect as she is. In “Yesterday’s Whales,” the narrator must decide whether to take a morning-after pill which would appease her own adopted world view and that of her radical boyfriend, a self proclaimed human exterminist, or listen to her instinct and her heart, both conditioned by generations of mother-love.

Beyond theme and emotional depth, beyond clear, beautiful language, strength of voice is most noticeable. Most of these stories are told using the first person point of view, and though there is intelligence and an uncanny awareness in each female voice, each is distinct, each is memorable. Many of the women wrestle with forgiving past mistakes, reflect on what motherhood means, view caring for animals and people a priority, and feel a deep responsibility for the well-being of the planet.

“Birds of a Lesser Paradise” is a book I’d love to press into the hands of friends and strangers alike, saying, “Please read, and be transformed.”

* Review first appeared in the March 4th edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines

Read: "The Dreaming Girl" by Roberta Allen.


"The Dreaming Girl" is a slim, poetic novel that lured me into its dream and didn't let me go. Set in Belize, its unnamed characters, the girl and the German, are drawn together against the lush backdrop of paradise and all of its unique inhabitants. The girl dreams her way through life until she meets the German, and her attraction, and consequent love for him, forces her out of the safety of her dreams. The German, with a girlfriend at home, finds himself surprised by his desire for the girl and initially resistant.
The prose in "The Dreaming Girl" is spare, yet Roberta Allen knows how to set a mood with the blank spaces, and there are plenty of sharp insights to be unearthed. It's an honest, beautifully rendered metaphor for the birth and death of love. A spectacularly gorgeous read.

The Pedestal Magazine


I'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.

Read: "Echolocation" by Myfanwy Collins


Be prepared. Haunting, mesmerizing, "Echolocation" is a page-turner you will not be able to put down until you've reached the end. It's the story of four women connected by family and the bleak, harsh, land of northern New York. Some have escaped, but they're all brought together again by tragedy and secrets they thought they'd left behind. There's Auntie Marie, dying of cancer, the two girls she raised, Geneva and Cheri, and Renee, Cheri's mother, who ran away to Florida not long after Cheri was born. Cheri returns to help Geneva with their aunt, and Renee shows up unexpectedly with a secret that will change them all.

The characters in "Echolocation," men and women alike, are flawed in the best, most fascinating, ways, and though they make mistakes, they are not beyond redemption, not beyond our empathy. Collins clearly loves her characters, weaknesses and all, and that authorial love elicits a similar compassion from the reader. These four women are fierce. Auntie Marie's devotion to Cheri and Geneva is as strong as her devotion to God; Cheri is determined in her self-destructive desire to deny her feelings; Geneva's strength in carrying on with life after a devastating accident is remarkable, and Renee finally discovers she's capable of caring for another more than herself.

This is a complex story, told with an assured, deft hand. Collins is a master at weaving story lines together in an artful, spare way. Every word is well-chosen. Every nuance is perfectly placed. "Echolocation" is literary fiction at its finest.

January Reading


These are the books I read in January:

"The World We Found" by Thrity Umvigar
Beautifully written story of the strength of women's friendships.

"Running the Rift" by Naomi Benaron
*Review to come

"The Good American" by Alex George
Deftly written story of a family's journey to becoming American. The author, a recent English immigrant, has written a Great American Novel.

"The Flight of Gemma Hardy" by Margot Livesey
A hybrid of the retelling of Jane Eyre and a tale drawn from Livesey's own childhood and young adulthood. Atmospheric and highly readable. Even if you haven't read Jane Eyre, you'll enjoy the story, the characters and the language.

"The Artist of Disappearance" by Anita Desai
Three beautiful novellas. I'm a huge fan of Desai's elegant writing and sensibilities.

"Still Alice" by Lisa Genova
Gripping story of a professor slowly losing her life as she knew it to Alzheimer's.

"American Dervish" by Ayad Akhtar
This is one to read. It's the story of a young man raised in the Midwest by parents of non-praticing Muslim parents. When his "Aunt" Mina arrives from Pakistan, her devout faith shakes everyone up. Funny, tragic, insightful, refreshingly daring, this is a great read.

"Stay Awake" by Dan Chaon
The stories within this collection are grim and frightening in the best way. One of my favorite short story collections. A real stand out.

"The Odds" by Stewart O'Nan
O'Nan is one of my favorite writers. This story of a couple on their second honeymoon in Niagra Falls trying to save their finances and consequently their marriage is amazingly tight and so well done. Loved everything about it.

"The Invisible Ones" by Stef Penney
I enjoyed this mystery involving a group of elusive gypsies.

"Other People We Married" by Emma Straub
Loved these stories! Superb wrting, fresh imagery, and intriguing characters.

* These are not reviews but rather quick notes I made about each after I finished with it.

Read: The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar


The Torres-Thompsons live in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Scott Torres’ software executive job has enabled him to provide his wife with a view of the Pacific and his boys with the kind of toys that inspire the maid to name their bedroom The Room of a Thousand Wonders. With the help of a gardener, a nanny and a maid, Maureen is able to teach art as a volunteer at their sons’ private school and stay home the rest of the time with her three children. When Scott loses money in the stock market, however, he’s forced to let go of the gardener and the nanny, leaving the cooking, cleaning, and baby-sitting to Araceli, the tall, dour-faced Mexican maid who was “more likely to ignore you when you said hello in the morning or to turn down her eyes in disapproval if you made a suggestion.”

Disagreements over money ensue and when the last argument wreaks havoc on the marriage, the two go their separate ways to lick their wounds: Scott to a coworker’s and Maureen to a spa with only her young daughter in tow. Both parents neglect to inform Araceli of their plans or their whereabouts and soon she feels compelled to take the boys into LA to search for the boys’ paternal grandfather, a decision which will impact her standing not only in the household, but also in the country.

“The Barbarian Nurseries” offers a hilarious look at our solipsistic culture and a poignant reminder of the Mexican immigrants who live among us, often invisible, taken for granted, and ultimately powerless. Tobar uses the omniscient point of view effortlessly, allowing the reader to see Araceli, a surprising, larger than life character, through the eyes of a multitude of people, people who perceive Araceli either as a victim or a criminal depending on their particular biases and agendas.

This novel is a comment on immigration in today’s volatile socioeconomic environment, a comment on our relentless desire as a nation to accumulate and consume more and more, and a comment on the pliable circus our media has become. Tobar’s love for his characters is obvious and none is without culpability of some degree. Intelligent, provocative, this book is loads of fun to read, and though the reader will be confronted with some unflattering truths, he can still come away from the experience entirely hopeful about humanity.

*Review first appeared in the December 18th edition of The Pilot

Read: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks


These days you can go to a sex offender registry and learn where the convicted offenders live in your area and how many there are. What the site can’t tell you, or at least, doesn’t at the moment, is the exact crime each of these registered offenders was convicted of. Without this information, you’re likely to lump all of them into the scary child molester/abductor category and not give them another thought. At least that’s what I did, until I read Russell Banks’ “Lost Memory of Skin.”

When I first heard Banks had written a novel featuring a convicted sex offender as his main character, I was skeptical. I’ve read his work before, I know how absolutely brilliant Banks is, but man, asking a reader to sit with one of the most deplorable kinds of characters for over 400 pages was asking a lot. As a reader, I wasn’t sure I could do it and as a mother, I wasn’t sure I could stomach it. Then one day, I picked up “Lost Memory of Skin” and read the first sentence, then the first paragraph and the first page, and the second, and so on, until I realized I was hooked. Because, in the end, the fact that Russell Banks writes about the down and out in our society with intelligent, highly readable prose kept me reading.

I learned there are various shades of gray in the matters of sex offenses and there are many levels of offense. For instance, a child molester and an eighteen year old who has sex with a minor (even a year younger counts here) both get labeled as sex offenders. There is no public differentiation. And with technology in the picture, there are more and more ways young people can make mistakes that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Such is the case with Banks’ protagonist, the Kid. In the course of the novel, we learn why the Kid is an outcast and living under the bridge with the rest of the area sex offenders. And it is through Banks’ skillful characterization, his ability to go places most of us would turn away from, that we can come to have empathy for him. Not only is there a human story here, but there’s also a mystery: a professor of sociology has decided to interview the Kid and he has a hidden past of his own, a past that soon catches up with him. Banks has us questioning the Professor’s motives right to the end.

Compelling and beautifully written, this book is an important and timely read.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward


There’s nothing pretty about poverty or the cruelty of dog fighting, however Jesmyn Ward writes about both in her latest novel, “Salvage the Bones,” with spectacular beauty.

Esch, the narrator, is fifteen and living in a small Mississippi town along the Gulf with her alcoholic father and her three brothers, one of whom loves his pit bull beyond all reason. Esch, enthralled by the myth of Medea and Jason, begins to see the story mirrored in her own life, in her dealings with Manny, the young man she imagines she loves, and in her brother’s dog, China, whose instinct to kill seems to be fiercer than her instinct to nurture. Motherless, Esch is left the only girl in a house full of males, and when she figures out she’s pregnant, she tells no one.

Ward structures the book using time. The story begins twelve days before Hurricane Katrina hits and each chapter is a separate day. We’re all familiar with Katrina’s devastation so tension is already built in, but Ward doesn’t stop with a little bit of trouble. She gives us characters so poor they’ll eat Ramen Noodles uncooked and chase them down with a packet of dry spice. She gives us a father stuck in his grief; a pregnant narrator who’s too young to be savvy in affairs of the heart, and a mother pit bull raised to fight, all on top of the category five hurricane bearing down on a family unequipped to properly prepare.

The story gripped me from the start and there were a few moments in which I found myself holding my breath, but what elevated this story from compelling to an absolute must-read was the quality of language:

“Daddy said that Randall and Skeetah and me came fast, that Mama had all of us in her bed, under her own bare burning bulb, so that when it was time for Junior, she thought she could do the same. It didn’t work that way. Mama squatted, screamed toward the end. Junior came out purple and blue as a hydrangea: Mama’s last flower. She touched Junior just like that when Daddy held him over her: lightly with her fingertips, like she was afraid she’d knock the pollen from him, spoil the bloom. She said she didn’t want to go to the hospital. Daddy dragged her from the bed to his truck, trailing her blood, and we never saw her again.”

Despite all the tragedy, this is a hopeful book, a testimony to the power of love and community. Currently, “Salvage the Bones,” is a finalist for The National Book Award, and this is one reader who’s rooting for it.

*Review first appeared in the October 30 edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines

Kathy Fish: Interview


I’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[...]

Read: "We the Animals" by Justin Torres


At only 125 pages, “We the Animals” by Justin Torres is slight in weight but not in substance. The narrator us tells the story of his growing up with two older brothers, a well-meaning but often ineffective mother, and a mercurial father, mostly using the first person plural point of view.

“We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”

So begins Torres’ novel as it eloquently speaks of what it was like for the narrator to grow up in Brooklyn with parents of different cultures, with poverty a perpetual threat, and with a passion for words no one else in the family shared. The narration is spare, precise, lyrical, and Torres’ point of view choice aptly captures the swirling, joyous mess that is brotherhood. The brothers in this family are often rolling, wrestling, hitting, a united front against all others, a tumbling trio of lion cubs.

Told in succinct and startling sections, our narrator invites us to witness this family’s trials beginning on his seventh birthday and on into his early adulthood. Though there’s abuse, it lingers on the peripheral, slightly out of our focus, to allow for the real story: how a person can emerge an individual out of such an all-consuming entity that is family. Metaphorically, the consequence of the narrator finding and claiming his individuality works on both a large and small scale.

An Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, Justin Torres spent five or six years working on his debut novel and his patience has paid off. “We the Animals” is fierce in its ability to evoke potent emotion with poetic language and veracious insight.

* Review first published in the October 12th edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines

Elizabeth Gilbert on TED


I'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.

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Read: Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr


After reading Anthony Doerr’s second collection, “Memory Wall,” it was easy to understand why it won the prestigious 2010 Story Prize, a prize created in 2004 to promote story collections. The paperback edition, released in July 2011, also includes his story, “The Deep,” which won the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, a prize that offers the highest cash award given for a short story.

I admired all six stories in the hard cover edition, but my favorites were “Memory Wall,” “Village 113” and “Afterworld.” The title story, which won the 2010 National Magazine Award for fiction, is set in the not-too-distant future and features a wealthy South African widower beset with Alzheimer’s. Through new technology she’s able to relive memories that have been medically extracted from her brain and recorded on cartridges. As she becomes more and more reliant on the cartridges, she’s visited nightly by a mysterious man and a young helper—a memory thief—in search of one very valuable memory. Everything comes to a head and in the end, Doerr manages to infuse redemption and humanity into an otherwise bleak story.

In “Village 113” a village is about to be sacrificed for the construction of a new dam. Li Quing, a young, earnest man working for the Village Director, is put in charge of relocating everyone. His own mother, a seed keeper, is resistant. The story illustrates not only the struggle between generations, mother and son, new and old, but also the relatively new struggle between nature and technology.

“Afterworld” begins: “In a tall house in a yard of thistles eleven girls wake on the floor of eleven bedrooms.” We learn this is the house in which the protagonist Ester Gramm spent her childhood, an orphanage in Hamburg, Germany. Through the course of this beautifully rendered story, we also learn that Ester’s imperfection will ultimately save her.

So what makes Doerr’s writing special? His stories seem to have it all: imagination, suspense, metaphor, intelligence, verisimilitude and emotional depth. He uses the imagined to more aptly describe reality. But perhaps it’s his use of language which has the accuracy and vividness of poetry and his willingness to take on larger mysteries:

“Nothing lasts,” Harold would say. “For a fossil to happen is a miracle. One in fifty million. The rest of us? We disappear into the grass, into beetles, into worms. Into ribbons of light.” It‘s the rarest thing, Luvo thinks, that gets preserved, that does not get erased, broken down, transformed. –“Memory Wall”

*First published in the September 18th edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines

Passages North-Literary journal


Passages North has a brand new website and Jennifer A. Howard has taken over as Editor-in-Chief.

They have a cool new blog and they've linked several stories and poems in their archives including my story, Blue Moon.



My 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.

I hope your journeys are marvelous adventures, whether real or fictional.


"Echolation" by Myfanwy Collins


is now available for preorder!! Myfanwy is an incredibly talented writer, and I cannot wait for her debut novel!

Read: Recommendations


Here are some books that I've read in the last month or so and loved:

Richard Bausch's "Peace" and his latest short story collection, "Something is Out There." "Peace" is a powerful, slim novel set in Italy during World War II; and I've loved his stories for over a decade and this group is just as elegant, real, masterful, as his previous collections.

"Vida" by Patricia Engel. The language in this novel/novel-in-stories is energetic and lyrical and the narrator is larger than life.

"This is Not Your City" by Caitlin Horrocks. These stories are amazing and tense and the characters are faced with real consequences. The narration is beautiful.

"This Beautiful Life" by Helen Schulman. Timely premise and this writer knows how to create a beautiful sentence.

"Anatomy of a Disappearance" by Hisham Matar. Subtle and powerful, the narrator experiences the disappearance of his father and the narrator is left with all of its implications.

Also, if you're looking for an intelligent nail-biting read:

"Before I Go to Sleep" by S.J.Watson. The narrator loses her memory every night she falls asleep.

"Turn of Mind" by Alice LaPlante. The narrator in this one has Alzhiemer's and she's accused of murder.

Wish Tank


Love the idea and the sentiment of Laura Ellen Scott's new blog Wish Tank

I can't wait to read her book Death Wishing

Read: A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano


“A Good Hard Look” by Ann Napolitano
The Penguin Press
978-1-59420-292-6 July 11, 2011

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” is the epigraphic quote that begins Ann Napolitano’s new novel, “A Good Hard Look.” Even if you haven’t read Flannery O’Connor and experienced her unflinching characterizations and situations rendered with sharp wit, you will feel as if you know her after reading this memorable portrayal. Milledgeville, Georgia, the town in which O’Connor lived, comes to life in Napolitano’s assured hands, and its characters are just as lively and flawed as you’d expect them to be.

One of the women, a pampered belle, is terrified she’ll end up a character in Flannery’s work, an unflattering replica doused with Flannery’s acerbic humor. A boy suffers from crippling anxiety except when he’s around his summer employer. Two women take care of each other’s child and the result is that a girl gets the nurturing she needs and a boy moves too quickly into adulthood. After a wealthy, married man is asked to teach Flannery to drive, they develop a clandestine friendship, and a police man lives for earning a promotion and little else. Firmly in the center are Flannery, hindered by her illness, yet dedicated to her work, her mother Regina, whose devotion to her daughter is deeply affecting, and a flock of raucous peacocks. As in O’Connor’s work, there are larger questions of religion and grace throughout. The people in “A Good Hard Look” are leaning toward self-destruction and one irreversible, calamitous misstep will bring others down like dominoes in its wake.

Napolitano is a gifted storyteller, recreating Milledgeville and its imperfect but well-meaning people, lending a sensibility that’s arguably in keeping with O’Connor’s vision, yet grounded in her own modern voice. In this vein, Napolitano offers us a look at characters on their rough and painful journey toward redemption.

O’Connor once wrote, “I am not afraid the book will be controversial, I’m afraid it will not be controversial.” I imagine Ms. O’Connor would have approved of “A Good Hard Look.”

* Review first published in the August 14th edition of The Pilot of Southern Pines