Emerging writers are always worrying about two things: finishing that book, and finding an agent. For MFA students at the School of Writing, many of whom are in their final weeks of writing their thesis, An Evening with Agents was a fantastic opportunity to meet agents, schmooze with them, and practice their book pitches (some of which were already polished in a two-day seminar led by our own John Reed). Meeting an agent can be a daunting prospect, but literary agents William Clark, Adriana Dominguez, Ryan Harbage, Erin Hosier, Sam Hiyate, Nicole James and Lisa Vanterpool provided catalyzing instruction by speaking about their experiences in the boom/bust publishing industry, offering valuable tips on query letters and getting published, and most of all motivating each student to get to that last period in their manuscript. We look forward to seeing Nicole James again this Saturday; she and fellow literary agent Alexis Hurley will be leading agent seminars for our MFA Weekend Workshops.
Coe Booth graduated from The New School MFA program in Writing for Children in 2005. Her books include Tyrell, Kendra, and Bronxwood. She has won numerous awards including 2007 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Fiction, 2007 New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age, 2007 American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, and the 2007 American Library Association Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.
MF: Every writer has their own process. Some outline, some compose ad hoc. What's your process?
CB: I don’t really have a process, well, not a consistent one anyway! For the most part, I write by the seat of my pants, never really knowing where I’m going or what it all means. I like to keep notes about my characters along the way, but I don’t really outline. To me, it’s impossible to outline before I know my characters well enough to know what they would do in various situations.
Writing without a plan can get scary though; I have this constant fear my story is going nowhere. So sometimes I create a little calendar and try to figure out how many days or weeks the novel will span. Then, on the calendar, I mark the events I know will happen, keeping in mind that some things have to happen before or after others. While the calendar only includes the main story points (and never the ending since I never, ever know that until I get there!), having an idea of the placement of the key scenes helps me stay on track.
Writers need to find what works for them, but they should always approach their work with flexibility. Each novel is its own thing, and writers need to adjust accordingly. Don’t get locked into having a specific process.
MF: Where do you get inspiration for your books?
CB: I usually get inspiration from experiences I’ve had in my own life, either in childhood or when I was a Child Protective Specialist working with children and families in the Bronx. The children I worked with were going through such hard times, but underneath all of that, they were just regular kids trying their best to figure out their own lives and be happy. My characters are usually a blend of the kids I worked with, the kids I grew up with, and myself. I try to stay as close to myself as possible, so my characters’ emotions are ones I’ve had myself.
MF: Tyrell and Bronxwood use language and narrative structures that emotionally resonate with the reader. Why do you think your choice of “dialect” and voice for Tyrell affects readers so much? Do you have any suggestions for how to write in a dialect?
CB: I really love writing in Tyrell’s voice because he sounds like the guys I grew up with, the kids in my neighborhood. His way of speaking comes very naturally for me. I think writing in this “dialect” worked for these books because it’s written in a very close first-person POV. I wanted to keep the focus tight so the reader only reads words Tyrell would use and only experiences the world as Tyrell would experience it. I didn’t want to filter those experiences and present them to the reader in my own words. Sometimes it’s fun giving yourself constraints like this.
My main reason for writing those books this way was that I wanted my books to appeal to boys, especially the guys from inner-city neighborhoods. I wanted them to open the book and immediately connect with Tyrell, to know he was one of them. Obviously, the downside is that the language could alienate readers who are unfamiliar with it, but I didn’t really think that would happen. Rap music and hip-hop culture are so popular now, in all parts of the country, so I didn’t think Tyrell’s voice would seem too foreign, even to those who have never stepped foot in a neighborhood like Tyrell’s.
Writing in dialect can be tricky, and it’s something to think about seriously before attempting it. If the dialect is one you feel absolutely comfortable writing, try it and see if it works. But don’t overdo it. Heavy-handed, over-the-top dialect is not only bad writing; it can feel pretty offensive to those whose speech you’re mocking. If you’re going to do it, make sure you approach the dialect with knowledge and respect.
MF: Could you tell us a bit about your current project?
CB: I just finished writing my first middle-grade novel, Kinda Like Brothers. It’s the story of 11-year-old Jarrett Crawford and how his life gets turned upside down when his mom takes in a 12-year-old foster kid who seems to be good at everything Jarrett isn’t, and whose problems only highlight what’s missing in Jarrett’s life.
I’m now getting ready to start my next YA novel, but I’m still at the thinking/note-taking stage. I have only a vague idea what it’s going to be about, so I can’t jump into actually writing it yet. I wish I had a “process” to get into a new book faster, but it’s not that easy. I’m going to stay with this new bud of an idea until that moment when I can’t wait anymore — when I just need to open that new document and get started writing it!
Coe Booth is the author of Bronxwood, Kendra and Tyrell, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Young Adult Novel, and was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. She was born in the Bronx and still lives there. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. For more, check out www.coebooth.com.
Matthew Futterman is a first year Writing for Children MFA candidate at The New School. He is a native New Yorker and holds a Masters in Mechanical Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology.
The Summer Writers Colony at The New School is an intensive three-week program in which students share and critique one another's ongoing projects in a daily writing workshop moderated by a member of The New School's distinguished writing faculty. In the evenings, our literary salons bring notable writers into conversation with the students and faculty of the colony.
The Writing Program is proud to announce the fiction faculty and literary salon visiting authors for the Summer Writers Colony 2014!
Sharon Mesmer's fiction collections are In Ordinary Time, The Empty Quarter and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation). An excerpt of her story, "Revenge," appears in I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women ; the full version was published in the Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology. Her poetry collections are The Virgin Formica and Annoying Diabetic Bitch. Other collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities, Half Angel, Half Lunch and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo). Four poems appear in the newly-released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition). Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing and Women's Studies Quarterly, among other print and online journals. Her awards include two NYFA fellowships, a Fulbright Specialist grant, a 2009 Jerome Foundation/SASE mentoring award, and a MacArthur Scholarship given through the Brooklyn College MFA poetry program by nomination of Allen Ginsberg. She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics. Sharon Mesmer will teach the fiction workshop for the Summer Writers Colony 2014.
Learn more about Sharon Mesmer here.
"'Nowadays I know the true reason I read is to feel less alone, to make a connection with a consciousness other than my own.' So says the writer Zadie Smith. The desire for connection and the loneliness of consciousness are vividly brought to life in NW, Smith's fourth and latest novel. Shortlisted for the National Book Critics award, NW heartrendingly dives into the chasm between these two territories – of what we aspire to and who we are – all while painting one of the 21st centuries most realistic portraits of life in a global city for first and second generation immigrants. NW is not for the meek; experimentalism and the harsh realities of urban living flow together here in quick currents and eddies, much as they did for Joyce in the Dublin of Ulysses. In this salon we will explore the language and architecture of one of the English language's finest writers: to better understand the craft of narrative, to examine how detail and feeling can bring to life a universe."
"In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan's novel of interconnected lives on the margins of the music industry, life's wear and tear is rendered with bravado and tenderness. Winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the novel deploys first, second and third person to span time and cross the globe in ways that are inventive and moving. This salon will explore the author's astute storytelling and exhilarating play with time, character, and structure. Jennifer Egan has published stories in The New Yorker, Harpers, Granta and McSweeney's. She is also a journalist who has written award-winning cover stories for the New York Times Magazine."
To learn more about the Summer Writers Colony 2014, visit our website. You may contact the Summer Writers Colony by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 212.229.5611.
Jacqueline Green grew up in Wynnewood, PA, where she devoured books the way other kids did candy. She never stopped loving those books she read as a kid, so after receiving her BA from Cornell University, she went on to get her MFA in Writing for Children from The New School. She's since worked in many parts of the children's publishing field, from marketing to editorial to writing.
Siobhan Fallon is the author of You Know When the Men Are Gone, which was listed as a Best Book of 2011 by The San Francisco Chronicle, Self Magazine, Los Angeles Public Library, Janet Maslin of The New York Times, and won a 2012 Indies Choice Honor Award, the Texas Institute of Letters Award for First Fiction, and the 2012 Pen Center USA Literary Award in Fiction. Theatrical productions of her stories include performances by Word for Word in San Francisco and Stories on Stage in Denver. More of Siobhan’s work has appeared in Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping, New Letters, Publishers’ Weekly, NPR’s The Morning Edition, Huffington Post, and she writes a fiction series for Military Spouse Magazine. Siobhan has an MFA from the New School in NYC.
Helen Wan is Associate General Counsel at the Time Inc. division of Time Warner Inc. Before that, she practiced corporate law and media law at law firms in New York. Born in California and raised near Washington, D.C., Wan is a graduate of Amherst College and the University of Virginia School of Law. Her essays and reviews of fiction have been published in The Washington Post and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with her husband and son.
National Book Awards 2013 at The New School, 11/19/2013.
The Audiograph series broadcasts digital audio about the people, publications, and events of Writing at The New School.
National Book Awards 2013 at The New School, 11/19/2013.
The Audiograph series broadcasts digital audio about the people, publications, and events of Writing at The New School.
Ivan Vladislavić made his way past the police barriers on Halloween for an engaging Q&A at The New School with John Reed’s Advanced Fiction workshop. A South African author, Vladislavić was in New York to celebrate the publication of his book Double Negative by the UK-based press And Other Stories. He kindly agreed to continue the conversation via email.
ET: The main character of this novel, Neville, is also its narrator. The story follows his intellectual and artistic development over several decades against the backdrop of recent South African history. The passage of time, and the relationship between past, present, and future, is crucial to the story’s power. Do you feel that your authorial preoccupation with time, at least in this book, is shaped by your experiences as a South African?
IV: The seed for the novel was planted in a chance conversation about the passing of time. In 2006, I went to see the play Sophiatown at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, a revival of a piece first staged in the same theatre twenty years earlier. In the foyer afterwards, I bumped into the social historian Jonathan Hyslop and we discovered that we’d both been at the original opening night. We talked about how much had changed in the intervening decades and joked about getting old. One of the compensatory benefits, he told me, is that you begin to see the patterns of history, the rises and falls, within the short span of your own life.
After this conversation, I found myself thinking actively again about the mid-eighties, when South Africa was under a state of emergency and apparently sliding into civil war. In the space of just twenty years, apartheid had been dismantled and a hopeful democracy established, and already disillusionment with the new order had set in. The eighties were vanishing behind a smokescreen of myth and forgetfulness.
The idea of a novel structured around cross-sections through time, about a decade apart, with echoing spaces in between, came out of these thoughts. The time structure was the starting point, before I found the characters, and arose directly from my thinking about South Africa. History is visible in the fabric of this place – unless you close your eyes, of course.
ET: England plays a vital role in much of the novel. At first, it’s personified in the character of a British journalist. Later, it serves as a geographic cure to Neville’s political and professional ills. Both encounters with British influence are portrayed as complex and not entirely positive. Only in the third, most contemporary portion of the book do the South Africans seem to be dealing with each other on their own terms and away from British influence. Is this a representation of the way things are actually going?
IV: There are traces of the British colonization of South Africa everywhere in our culture, and indeed in the makeup of the population. I myself have an Englishman or two in (up?) my family tree. In my university years, when I faced some of the same dilemmas as my narrator Neville, a few of my friends left South Africa for Britain, because they had ancestral ties to the country, and this story found its way into my book easily enough. Today it’s quite common for young South Africans to work in Britain for a while and there are large numbers of expats in cities like London. This includes many Afrikaners, something that was unimaginable in the past, given the historical antagonism towards the English.
The relationships between postcolonial societies and their former colonizers are often peculiar. A few weeks ago, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe gave an address at a university in which he took his customary swipe at Britain: ‘I am not a colonial product because I am a complete Zimbabwean.’ You have to imagine him saying this in sash and mortarboard, in his plummy English. Later he said: ‘Goodness me! How can I think like them? I would be a rotten thinker to think like them.’ Who speaks like this? Billy Bunter. Colonialist cads! Rotters!
I think you’re right that the third part of the novel shows South Africans dealing more directly with one another. It also seems to be concerned with a globalized media and consumer culture. These days South Africa feels the influence of the US and China at least as strongly as that of Britain.
ET: One of my favorite passages in the book describes Neville as a young man, poised with an imaginary angel hovering over his head. Specifically, the oversized angel represents Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, made famous by Walter Benjamin. The passage is a riff on history and ruin and unbearable truths, as well as a rebuke of blind progress. You return to Klee’s angel several times throughout the book. How did this image make its way into the narrative?
IV: Benjamin was one of the liberating intellectual discoveries of my student years. His work was read and discussed very animatedly here in the seventies and eighties. He was one of the critical thinkers who offered subtle, poetic ways of orienting oneself in a conflict-ridden time and place. In my novel, Neville carries Klee’s image around with him from home to home; I carried Benjamin’s texts instead. His ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in which the angel of history appears, are endlessly provocative, partly because of the elusive language they’re couched in. In these few pages, he says extraordinary things about memory and history. For instance, that in telling the past one must ‘seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger’; or that the historian must know that ‘even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins’. He says that the angel of history is propelled into the future by a ‘storm blowing from Paradise’, which we call progress. You might have thought an immortal being would be in a good position to read the ‘chain of events’ that humans make of the past. But a creature out of time, unable to feel its passing, cannot have a sense of history. There are signs of the angel in the work of many South African writers and artists. In 1989 – a momentous year – Penny Siopis made a painting called ‘Piling Wreckage upon Wreckage’.
ET: Neville strikes up a friendship with an elderly woman, which proves to be disquieting in a “Latin American way.” It also leads to a departure in the text from straightforward realistic fiction into an interlude of magical realism. Can you describe how the novel took off in that direction?
IV: Perhaps it’s an extended play on words. The second part of the novel is set in the magical early years of democracy in South Africa. In the midst of bitter conflict, a new political dispensation was conjured up at the negotiation table. It was unimaginable that people could talk their way out of the apartheid impasse, yet that’s what happened. A political solution born of rare pragmatism came to be seen as a miracle.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a darker vein of magic running through it. For all its failings, which became clearer as time went by, the Commission created a space in which people were brought to life or laid to rest in the rituals of storytelling. Antjie Krog is the exemplary writer on this subject. I think the second part of my novel may be trying to tap into these currents. Whereas the first part is almost reliably realist, appropriate to the apartheid years, the second has elements of ‘magical realism’ about it.
The magical flourishes are also a joke about my own style. When I published my first novel in 1993, I was called a magical realist. You may recall that Ben Okri’s The Famished Road appeared in 1991. For the next few years, publishers and scholars were looking for homegrown African magical realism in every flight of fancy.
ET: The title “Double Negative”appears in the novel as a metaphor comparing the photographic process to a clash between viewpoints: in effect, two negative positions cancel each other out. Neville persistently approaches life from a negative place, he doesn’t seek to make an impact and he seems distrustful of those who do. Passivity, retreat, refusal—is there a way to see these as a positive action?
IV: I don’t see Neville as quite so passive and negative, and I’m surprised that other readers do. I think he changes slowly in the course of the novel. I felt similarly about Aubrey Tearle, the narrator of The Restless Supermarket. When I got to the end of that book, I felt he’d changed in small but significant ways. Many readers think he’s completely resistant to change.
In your first question, you remark that Neville is both the main character and the narrator. To me this is a crucial perception. If we accept the convention that this is Neville’s story rather than mine, then even the magical flourishes in the second part of the book are his.
I think there may be something positive in a principled refusal. I was touched, as Neville says he is, by Mrs. Magwaza’s refusal to let him enter her house. Defending your privacy, defending the very idea of privacy, is important to me.
ET: I’m curious about the “revolutionaries who signed their name to the protest list long after the fight was won.” Is this something you often come across in contemporary South Africa, what I interpret as lip service to reform backed by a willingness to linger in class inequality and race-based privilege? How does one avoid it?
IV: There are people who actively cover their tracks. Once the political dust subsides, both the winners and the losers may have reason to retouch their images. Things become true by repetition and the official histories obscure the messy reality.
Alongside the dedicated liars, I suppose we all tell ourselves bedtime stories. Questions about how and what we remember, how we shape the past into consoling fictions, are close to the heart of my book. Memory is an inventive faculty. As someone who makes things up for a living, I’m aware of how capricious my own memory is. The writing of the book challenged me to try and remember what the past was like. Time travel is one of the possibilities of fiction – but you don’t necessarily come back with the truth.
Ivan Vladislavic is the author of the novels The Folly, The Exploded View and Double Negative, and has edited volumes on architecture and art. His book Portrait with Keys documents Johannesburg, and his short stories have been collected in the volume Flashback Hotel. His work has been published and translated widely and has won many awards, including the University of Johannesburg Prize and the Sunday Times Alan Paton Award for non-fiction. He lives in Johannesburg.
Keisha Bush, Continuing Education and current student in The New School MFA in Fiction, recently caught up with former classmate Bill Griffeth, Continuing Education, about his new book, Loose Nukes, which is available as an e-book or a p-book.
Bill Griffeth was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and educated at the Universities of North Carolina and Chicago. A mathematician by training, Dr. Griffeth taught mathematics and management science at DePaul University and Georgia Tech. In 1982 he left academia for "the real world," working in telecommunication systems marketing in the Bell System and its descendants. In 1987 he moved to New Jersey, where he developed system and application software for Bell Labs, UNIX System Labs, Novell, Volera, Hewlett-Packard, Citigroup, CNET, and CBS Interactive. After Bill retired from software development in 2010, he focused on his creative writing. Since he had long been interested in such nuclear policy issues as non-proliferation, strategic arms reduction, and nuclear test bans, even having led his local chapter of Peace Action, he decided that his first novel, Loose Nukes, would dramatize the need to abolish nuclear weapons altogether. Bill has taken several courses in The Writing Program at The New School. His teachers have included Sidney Offit, John Reed, and Katia Lief. Bill credits them and their students with helping him become a better writer. He has also participated in a bi-weekly Skype conference call of mostly science fiction writers whose comments greatly influenced the shape of Loose Nukes.
Robert Siek's poems have appeared in journals such as The Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, Mary, Assaracus, and Chelsea Station. In 2002, the New School published his chapbook Clubbed Kid, and in 2007, he was included in the short-fiction anthology Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground. His first full-length collection of poetry, Purpose and Devil Piss is now available from Sibling Rivalry Press.
Gabriel Don's work has appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Brooklyn Rail, Short Fast and Deadly, A Place We Know Well, The Nirvana Project, The Saudade Review, The Understanding Between Foxes and Light, Yes, Poetry and Statorec.com. She has appeared in visual poems such as Woman Without Umbrella and Unbound. She started several reading-soiree series including Pies and Scribes and Dias Y Flores in New York City and is editorial staff at LIT. Gabriel Don is not just a human, she is a #bookdress and can be found on Amazon @ http://tinyurl.com/aq9ll8c.
New School professors Jonathan Dee and Patrick McGrath paired up for a Fiction Forum on October 2nd, hosted by Helen Schulman. After reading from their latest works, discussion between the authors came to the topic of multiple drafts and lost work. Mr. Dee spoke on his experiences as a younger writer:
“It was hard to find time to work on my writing, so I didn’t want to waste any time when I finally got the chance to write. I became a compulsive outliner. Now, I make myself start writing before I fully know what’ll happen. I throw out more of my writing now, but I’m happier with the results.”
Asked about their approach to deciding whether their novels ought to be in a first or third person voice, Dee related that writing in the first person doesn’t come easily for him. “I think more panoramically, so my material comes that way.”
McGrath, on the other hand, said, “I can only emote and give feeling from first person. I don’t have the ability to scan the world. In first person, the main character can imagine what others think, and characters can show what they’re feeling through dialogue. There’s no right or wrong way. It depends on how you approach your material.
As McGrath’s latest work is split between two character’s voices, he was asked to explain how he decided what chapter belonged to which character. “I didn’t want to seesaw between the two characters – that’d be predictable and dull. My decisions were more intuitive. If I knew a character would tell a chapter better, then I would let them tell it.”
Helen Schulman noted that morality is central to each of Jonathan Dee’s novels. There’s a tradition of his novels having unethical characters. Dee responded that his characters might be unethical at times, but he allows them to live on the page without judgment. “The characters judge each other. I never want to have authorial judgment on my characters. In fact, I think it’s a mistake to have an author’s judgment in the book. A writer’s job is to frustrate the reader – keep the reader’s opinion of the main character changing.”
Jonathan Dee has published six novels, including The Lover of History, The Liberty Campaign, St. Famous, Palladio, The Privileges, and, most recently, A Thousand Pardons. He is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and contributor to Harper’s. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and The New School.
Patrick McGrath is the author of a short story collection, Blood and Water and Other Tales, and seven previous novels including Asylum, Martha Peake, Port Mungo and Trauma, shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. He has also published Ghost Town, a volume of novellas about New York, and his latest novel Constance. Spider was made into a film in 2002 by acclaimed director David Cronenberg. Patrick McGrath lives in London and New York. He teaches at The New School.
Reading John Bengan's short story "Armor" I found myself thinking about literary awards, and how few I follow. This story won the 2013 Carlos Palanca Memorial Award, a prestigious accolade for literature of the Philippines. So many brilliant stories flutter across the pages of big, little and small presses and publications all over the globe, and I didn't know of John Begnan's achievement, which is truly an achievement. Throughout "Armor" I felt a quickening. With its written English mimicking the sound of another tongue. With its racing pack of referents, words and images that are unashamedly foreign. The story is crisp, tender and proud. Embracing the culture of Bayots, Death Squads and the crushing shadow of poverty, this story reads like something new.
John Bengan and I have more than our identity as 'foreigners' in common, he is an alumni of The New School MFA in creative writing, where I am currently completing my second year. The coordinator of The Writing Blog approached me with the opportunity to interview John. After introductions, I went about sending him my questions via email.
Matthew Choate: The story of "Armor" is foreign, it is set in a space that is unfamiliar to most Western readers; the language is written English but contains the beat of another tongue; and the premise of the plot is familiar, while the characters are not. Was this level of construction something you intended when writing "Armor"?
John Bengan: Thank you! I wrote "Armor" on a dare. A friend suggested that I write about a person who prepares for a beauty pageant with "Kabuki-like intensity." Later, that same friend gave me an essay about embalming, which he said would be a good inspiration.
A couple of years later, in Helen Schulman's fiction workshop, I remembered the pageant contestant. The "death squad" is a recurring subject in my other stories, and the thought of combining these two seemingly mismatched elements (death squads, gay beauty pageants) gave me the impetus I needed.
The way I see it, the story isn't "foreign." I know this character. I've seen him around the block. I've sat through these beauty pageants for cross-dressing gay men many times, but I understood that readers outside of the Philippines would find the material "foreign."
My characters are not from the West. Neither is the consciousness I'm trying to capture, which unavoidably shapes the narrative and creates the rhythm of the story. Kamau Brathwaite calls an English that follows the rhythm of natural and cultural experiences "submerged."
MC: As a 'foreigner' I often struggle with context when writing for an Eurocentric audience that is not familiar with the nuances of South African society. In other words, the balance between information, background, and the rhythm of the story itself. Is this something you think about when writing a story set in the Philippines?
JB: My biggest worry when I was still at The New School was that I was doing a lot of explaining. I hated it when I had to explain in a short story. Meanwhile, my colleagues in the workshop would throw casual references to Black Friday, Planned Parenthood, or towns in rural Pennsylvania.
At first, the concern was something mundane, like trying to make them visualize a jeepney or a tricycle, until I got questions about specific situations or attitudes that would have been a no-brainer for a reader in the Philippines. Suddenly, there was this problem. How do I tell the difference between my very real mistakes and their inability to comprehend my material?
I feel that I find a balance when I recognize my faults for what they are and improve the story from there. Also, I looked closely at the work of Aleksandar Hemon, and Gina Apostol and other writers I admire.
In the end, I trust my instincts. I try to be succinct when necessary, ambiguous and oblique when the story demands it. If it's beyond control, so be it. The Eurocentric reader will have to accept that there's a world out there.
MC: In this story you introduce the culture of Bayots, gay men competing in impoverished beauty pageants. When a writer has an interesting or complex culture this can dominate the narrative, but not so in your story.
JB: I don't really think of my material as "interesting" or "complex." I care more about the structure of the story, its design, or how it uses time. How much time should I cover? Should I go for linear or non-linear? I also think about the way I see my characters, whether I'm being honest or condescending to them. When the story succeeds, when all the components work, the material is not merely novel or strange or interesting. It goes beyond these categories. It becomes meaningful.
Living in New York for two years, I became aware that I do a lot of translating when I write fiction in English, even though I don't really deal with someone else's work. For instance in "Armor," we can compare the beauty pageant for cross-dressing men to drag balls there in the States. They have similarities, but also differences. Drag's counterpart in the Philippines, at least in its popular form, is inspired by international beauty pageants for women, especially the Miss Universe contest, an event many Filipinos watch every year. This style of drag is also found in the U.S., but is just one of its categories, as RuPaul's queens have taught the mainstream audience.
MC: Death Squads, vigilante groups 'cleaning-up' the streets of Mintal with motorbikes and guns, is one of the integral pieces of your story. I know when I am faced with writing about my home there is also a narrative of violence that is hard to avoid. What are your thoughts are on the morality of writing violence?
JB: What I know is that violence in literature, or in any art form, is not the same as violence that happens in real life. Art is contemplative space. It makes us stop and think. In real life, we would simply be overwhelmed by the experience.
One of my favorite writers is Nadine Gordimer, who also happens to be from South Africa. She has a short story that I teach often, "The Moment before the Gun Went Off." In that story, she transforms this tragic incident of a white landlord who accidentally kills a young black farmhand into a parable of modern South Africa.
Marlon James's The Book of Night Women, which I read in Robert Antoni's seminar in vernacular writing, does something similar. The violent acts in that novel illustrate the bigger picture that I believe James was after: the disfiguring experience of colonialism.
MC: "Armor" is part of a voice that is growing louder; international writers generating fiction written in English, when often this is not their native tongue. When you write, are you conscious of who your audience is, and does this affect what you choose to say?
JB: I imagine that my readers are simply people who love to read.
MC: We share some similarities, you as an alumni and myself as a current international student of The New School's MFA for Creative Writing. I see in my peers how many of us came over to America wanting to convert our studies into a fledgling career, something more than just studying abroad. You have subsequently returned to the Philippines, what is the experience of writing back home, having lived and studied in New York?
JB: Apart from this awareness of how I use language, I gained a way of seeing my material from another vantage point. I'm happy to note that immersing again in Philippine culture hasn't changed that. If living in New York gave me perspective, returning to the Philippines made me appreciate discipline.
But writing back home isn't any easier or more difficult than writing abroad. It's still as arduous and satisfying as I remember it.
John Bengan earned his BA in English from the University of the Philippines Mindanao where he currently teaches literature and writing. Through a fellowship from the Ford Foundation, he completed an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. His writing has appeared in The Philippines Free Press, The Brooklyn Rail, Likhaan 6: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, and Hoard of Thunder. His short story "Armor" won first Place at the 2013 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. He is currently working on his first book of stories.
For the past six years Matthew Choate has worked as a journalist, copywriter, editor and radio producer in his native South Africa. Matthew is a second year fiction MFA student at The New School, New York.
Our Fall 2013 School of Writing events season kicked off last night with a full house featuring Kiese Laymon, author of How to Slowly Kill Yourselves and Others in America and Long Division.
Laymon's brutally honest collection of essays and novel touch on race, gender, and sexual politics in his native Mississippi.
As Laymon stated while introducing his work, "You're allowed to laugh, and you're allowed to cry."
The event was moderated by School of Writing faculty member Jeffery Renard Allen.
Please visit the School of Writing events page for a complete list of Fall 2013 events.
Beginning August 26, the School of Writing launches its fall workshops and seminars for its Continuing Education and undergraduate programs. These classes, ranging from 5 to 15 weeks, include workshops in Fiction, Journalism, Nonfiction, Playwriting, Poetry, and Writing for Children, as well as grammar, punctuation, and composition seminars.
Sharon Mesmer, "There's a lot of 'play' involved"
What was the impetus for developing the course Accidental Realities?
I wanted to showcase some of the fascinating techniques of experimental fiction to (hopefully!) inspire students to think more broadly about what their own story-telling could encompass. That term "experimental" shouldn't make people think we're going to be reading (and writing) opaque, unfathomable work. Quite the contrary. We concentrate on forms that are familiar, and that can—and have—been containers for both experimental and traditional stories: the vignette form, the second person ("you") address, and the dream story, to name just three. The texts that go along with those three forms are Sandra Cisneros' The House On Mango Street, excerpts from Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci's memoir A Man, and some of Kafka's short works. Nothing unfathomable there, but each has its challenges … and rewards! We also work with cut-ups and appropriation, the aim being to get away from the things writers always write about and move toward really new, surprising characters, situations, and language. There's a lot of "play" involved, always. How else are you going to come up with something that will surprise and delight even you?
How does it compare to other fiction workshops?
Favorably! There are a few things, though, that make this workshop stand out, I think: the blend of traditional and "experimental" texts, for one. I think students won't encounter the kind of prompts we use in this workshop in their other classes. I try to make time for in-class writing every session, since people who work full-time always say they wish they had more time for writing. I also try to encourage the writers to form a community during the run of the class so that after the class is over people can continue showing work to each other if they choose. If they've formed a bond (and many times they do), why should the end of the class mean the end of that bond?
with Sharon Mesmer
Thursdays, 6-7:50 p.m.
15 weeks, beginning August 29
Express Reg: NWRW2305 Section A
Accidental Realities: Writing Experimental Fiction
with Sharon Mesmer
Thursdays, 8-9:50 p.m.
15 weeks, beginning August 29
Express Reg: NWRW3311 Section A
Sharon Mesmer, MFA, Brooklyn College, is a Fulbright Specialist. She is the recipient of two New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships in poetry and a MacArthur Scholarship (through Brooklyn College); co-recipient, Jerome Foundation/SASE grant. Publications include Annoying Diabetic Bitch, The Virgin Formica, Ma Vie a Yonago, In Ordinary Time, and The Empty Quarter. Poems in Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry; prose in I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Mesmer is a member of the flarf collective.
Julie Sarkissian's debut novel, Dear Lucy (Simon & Schuster), to quote Joyce Carol Oates, "introduces a young writer with a most original voice and a tenderly eccentric vision. Julie Sarkissian has created a boldly lyrical, suspenseful, and mysterious fictional world in this striking debut novel." Recently, I asked Sarkissian (MFA 2007) a few questions about her luminary debut novel, advice for novelists emerging from an MFA program, and the idiosyncratic method with which she approaches voice and setting.
Roberto Montes: In another interview you mention that Dear Lucy began as your Master’s thesis here at The New School. What advice do you have for writers in MFA programs on the process of transforming their theses into finished works?
Julie Sarkissian: There are as many ways to get a book written as there are books that need to be written, and writers to write them. Part of figuring out how to get words on the page is learning what methods of discipline and time management work for you. Don’t be discouraged if what works for a peer doesn’t work for you. For me, I needed a quiet, dependable place to work, where I would never have trouble finding an electrical outlet or place to sit. So coffee shops were out. For a while I paid to work at Paragraph, a workspace for writers on 14th Street and I was very productive there. Eventually when my living situation changed I was able to have the peace and quiet I needed to work from home. I also found that having a job that didn’t drain my intellectual energy and didn’t follow me home was important, which is why I have stuck with working in a restaurant for so many years. But some of my fellow writers love working for magazines or teaching full time, and they find that being intellectually stimulated by their day job is inspiring. Also, try not to overwhelm yourself thinking about the enormity of “publishing,” or fretting about how impossible it feels to make a living as a writer. Just do the work you can do on any given day. You will write the book by putting one foot in front of the other, one word after the other– or, as Ann Lamott puts it– bird by bird. One last piece of advice is to polish your manuscript as much as you can bear to before trying to find an agent. There is no rush. As my agent put it, “nobody waits for your first novel.” Except the writer of course, but the point being you should embrace the fact that you have time on your side.
RB: What inspired the narrative of Dear Lucy and how did it grow over the years you worked on it?
JS: Lucy’s voice was the inspiration for the novel. She came to me as she was gathering eggs for breakfast. She led me from the chicken coop and into the kitchen, where I was introduced to Samantha, Mister and Missus. So Lucy’s voice was one element that remained relatively constant through the process. Much of the development of the book occurred in trying to analyze the motivations of other characters and how those motivations would affect Lucy. I always felt that Samantha would ask Lucy to go on a quest, forcing Lucy to weigh the importance of helping her only friend against keeping her promise to her mother. But in order for that dramatic conflict to unfold I had to develop Samantha’s motivations for being on the farm in the first place, I had to examine her ambivalence about her pregnancy, and her anger towards her parents. It was a similar challenge to shape Missus’ past. I knew Missus was obsessed with getting a baby, and somehow that obsession was what thematically – and literally – linked the women on the farm. But the depth of Missus’ manipulation, and the specific ways her past interplayed with Lucy and Samantha’s situation were developed over time.
RB: Lucy’s voice seems to occupy both a poetic haze and a childlike lucidity. How did you cultivate such a startling and idiosyncratic voice while keeping it organic?
JS: Thank you so much! Writing in Lucy’s voice felt more like being possessed by something than creating something. Her strange turns of phrase, the small details of life that captivate her attention, her idealization of her mother – they all came as a packaged deal with a life of their own. Her voice – though it is by far the most unusual voice in the book– took the least amount of conscious effort to remain consistent and organic. Writing from Lucy’s point of view was like playing a game of Ouija; my fingers were on the cursor, but Lucy’s voice was what moved it.
RB: I was very intrigued by your claim that you wanted to keep Dear Lucy outside of the context of a particular time period or location. What were the motivations for the decision? What were the challenges?
JS: The lack of any specificity of time or place was an element of the book I was rather unconscious of. I believe I write from the ear rather than the eye, so when I was writing, I didn’t “see” a “real” place. I heard voices, and the setting they inhabited looked like purposefully bare-bones stage production, with only the necessary props. I didn’t see a fully designed visual universe, certainly not with say, a calendar with a specific year tacked on the kitchen wall, or a Sears catalogue displaying the newest appliances open on the coffee table. Those details were just absent, not because they were omitted, but because they were just never there to begin with. But there were certainly challenges. One being that I wanted to make Samantha seem like a normal teenager, and normal teenagers like movie stars and bands. I was tempted to have Samantha talk about her posters of celebrities (which ones I didn’t know,) but it would have been sloppy and confusing to have only one character living in world with a specific decade and location.
RB: What project are you working on now?
JS: I am working on a novel about a carnival that takes place on a pirate ship, currently, and unoriginally, called The Pirate Carnival. The pirates believe that the only life worth living is one in which you get to realize the full expression of your desires – no matter how base, how dangerous, how frightening those desires are. When the ship docks in a sleepy New England town, a young woman must chose between the life she always thought she wanted, and one where pleasure, beauty, and ego trump all else. It’s a mess right now but I’m loving living in pirate carnival universe and hope it has a future. We’ll see!
Julie Sarkissian is a graduate of Princeton University, where she won the Francis Leon Paige Award for creative writing, and holds an MFA in Fiction from The New School. Her debut novel, Dear Lucy, was published by Simon & Schuster in April 2013. Her work has appeared in Flavorwire, The New York Observer, Tin House Magazine, and elsewhere. She is an instructor at The Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop and lives in Brooklyn, New York. You can follow her on Twitter @SarkissianJulie.