A left-hand turn

Last Tuesday night I watched a blender fall from my kitchen cabinet and reflexively I reached to catch it. I was either too fast or too slow, because the blender hit the granite countertop and shattered just as my hand arrived. In effect, I wound up punching quarter-inch-thick, cut glass, resulting in an inch-long slice along my pinky knuckle that reached deep, to the bone.

It was my left hand. My writing hand.

My writing hand.

My wife and I spent all that night and into the dawn hours in an emergency room as doctors and residents and nurses flushed the blood from my wound, tied off a severed artery in my hand, and took x-rays, warning me that there might be damage to the tendon. Then they stitched me up and sent me to a hand specialist.

The next day, I noticed my pinkie was dangling, limp. It contracted fine, joining the rest of my fingers in a sore fist, but it could not extend. I chalked it up to residual numbness and swelling from the ER, and maybe a side effect of the painkillers. But on Friday, the specialist confirmed what I feared: the tendon was severed and I would need surgery.

So far, I had been taking all of this in stride. I’m not afraid of my own blood, and I’m not unfamiliar with emergency rooms, having suffered bleeding ulcers and crushed vertebrae in the past. In the emergency room last week, I eagerly watched as the doctors stretched open my wound to expose my bones and manipulate the knuckles and the tendon in there. I was fascinated by my own internal anatomy.

But as I spoke with the hand specialist, who was describing the days of surgery and recovery, the splint or cast I would have to wear for at least a month, the nearly twelve months of physical therapy to recover full use of my hand, I began to feel disoriented. Disconnected from myself. Worried.

As the uneasiness swelled over the next few days, I tried to sit with it, to understand it, and I finally realized that this wasn’t just a wound to my hand — this was a threat to my writing.

I typically do most of my writing these days on a keyboard, mostly my laptop, so I don’t have the same connection between my writing and my writing hand as I might have had a decade ago. And I know that my dread here is a bit ridiculous. Plenty of writers have carried on under much more trying circumstances than this. And I trust my doctors and I know this will all heal up in the end, and I’ll be fine.

But every time I feel that twinge in my pinky, when I see the impotence of it as it dangles below the rest of my fingers, every time I bump this lame finger against something because I’m unaccustomed to its uselessness, I feel somehow shaken in my identity as a writer.

Long ago, I had a discussion with my students about the tactility of writing and the difference between writing in pencil or pen and writing on a keyboard. We all agreed that there is some qualitative difference, though I continued to lean in favor of my machines. This past fall, a new student of mine was adamantly anti-typing and preferred to write all of his essays for class in longhand with a fountain pen on nice paper. I admired — and sympathized with — his desire to feel his writing. He even gifted me an inexpensive fountain pen just to remind me of what writing felt like. I took the gift as a challenge to reconnect with handwriting.

Now I cannot use his pen for at least a month, maybe longer. And for the rest of this term, when I grade my students’ essays, I’ll have to do so by computer, instead of my usual habit of scratching notes in pencil on their pages. The same is true of my own writing — it will all have to be by computer now, by necessity rather than by choice.

Technology affords us so many avenues these days, and I’ve been typing comments on Facebook and writing emails to colleagues and friends. I have voice recognition software on my phone, which I’ve blogged about before, and I’m using it now to write this blog post. So I’ll be able to write, and in much the same way as I usually write.

But in truth, this blog post is the most writing, in both seriousness and in length, I’ve done since the accident. I haven’t written any fiction in a week now. I have materials in my study and beside my bed, waiting for me to get to work. I have files still open on my laptop from a week ago, before the blender. But I’ve had this psychological block for days. Because I can’t write long-hand, I suddenly don’t want to write any other way.

My mother’s first comment when she found out about my injury was to worry about the novel I’ve been working on this winter. And she’s right. Even with the technology of typewriting or voice recognition, the work will be so much slower now that I worry about regaining the kind of momentum that drove me through my first published novel.

I wonder how long it will be before I can write the way I used to. I wonder even if I should be writing the way I used to.

One writer friend of mine, when reading the news of my injury on Facebook, told me this injury and long recovery might be a good thing. He related how he had once injured his hand and in rehabilitating his fingers to a pen or pencil, he had to slow down, which in turn slowed down his thought processes and his consideration of the words he used. He said being injured made him a better writer. I don’t doubt this at all. In fact, I anticipate it. I hope this will make me a better writer, or at least a more mindful writer, which as a Buddhist I should be striving for anyway.

So that’s how I’m trying to embrace this injury: it is a chance to rethink how I write, to slow down and improve my writing. This is a chance to rediscover myself as a writer. To consider all over again what it is I do and why I do it.

One thing I know for certain: I will keep writing even through the injury. Especially through the injury. When my hand specialist said that it might take a year to regain full use of my fingers, I almost laughed at him. I was thinking at the time, before I’d had a chance to walk away and overthink things and begin to freak out, that this doctor didn’t understand what it means to a writer to have full use of his hands. He doesn’t realize how hard I will work — how much of the work I already do is hard — and how eager I am to recover. How fast I will work to regain the use of my writing hand.

Being a writer means living with this bizarre, lurking self-doubt, this fragility that makes us all so prone to fearing rejection, bemoaning hiccups, worrying about any imperfection. We make this myth of writer’s block — and it is a myth — our invented reality.

But writers live a contradiction, because being a writer means also being determined in the face of anything, it means feeling like you have so much to say that no amount of self-doubt can stop the words from coming, that you have to write no matter what.

I’ve wrestled with this blog post for days, feeling I needed to write about what I was feeling and thinking, in part to laugh at myself for being so worried about it and in part to understand that worry and work through it. But I’ve come to think of this writing, these past couple of days, as a siphon. I often tell my students that writing is a bit like siphoning gas — you suck on the hose and spit out the fuel until the gas starts flowing on its own, and then you just let gravity do the rest. You write and you write until the words start flowing, and then you let them come.

It’s taken me a couple of days of thinking and overthinking and worrying and speaking into my phone and typing with one hand and massaging my sore wound, but the words are coming. I’m ready to get back to work.

Writing hand or no, I have to keep writing. No matter what.

Going home again

I don’t normally think of video games in narrative, literary terms. Sure, plenty of video games depend on story and follow some kind of linear narrative, but (and I’m not an extensive gamer, so gamers, feel free to add titles in the comments) I don’t often come across a game that is so immersive and so focused on storytelling (as opposed to puzzle-solving or other gameplay elements) that it feels more like interactive literature than anything else. That old game MYST felt a bit like that. Some of the best Nancy Drew games from HerInteractive can sometimes feel a bit like that.

"Gone Home" by The Fullbright Company - http://www.thefullbrightcompany.com - Steve Gaynor, The Fullbright Company. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gone_Home.png#mediaviewer/File:Gone_Home.png

Gone Home” by The Fullbright Company.

But I just finished Gone Home, and this game feels like something else altogether. It’s a bit like a novella that you get to literally (well, digitally, anyway) walk around inside of.

The tease for the game is intriguing enough: “You arrive home after a year abroad. You expect your family to greet you, but the house is empty. Something’s not right. Where is everyone? And what’s happened here?” The promo material describes the game as “an interactive exploration simulator,” and promises an exhaustive, immersive environment: “Interrogate every detail of a seemingly normal house to discover the story of the people who live there. Open any drawer and door. Pick up objects and examine them to discover clues.”

I love that level of detail, and in most games like this, I’m often frustrated by the limitations of what you can mess with in the game. For me, the restriction of an interactive environment to just a handful of key “clues” when there’s SO MUCH MORE going on in the background has always just served to reinforce the artificiality of a game, and this problem only gets worse as game visuals get more detailed. Why put all that effort into fleshing out richly complex backgrounds if I can’t actually engage with that detail? But Gone Home promised that I could engage, that I could actually live in this “seemingly normal house” and interact with anything.

And the screenshots seemed to reinforce this:

And in the trailer the gameplay looked smooth and organic, very much first-person POV but without being too shaky, without too much effort to artificially imitate a “human gait” with that swimming up-and-down head bob I’ve disliked since the old Doom games. It all just looks so beautiful:

If you watch that trailer, you might have caught the final, deciding factor in my buying the game: that “destination” on “Katie’s” luggage tag? Portland.

That’s right gang. This game is set in my own hometown of Portland, OR. Or, just outside it, really — an old mansion in the hills west of the city.

Screen shot 2015-01-12 at 9.54.21 PMIt’s also set in the mid-90s, and while the game is packed with pop culture references to the time period in general — an invitation to see Pulp Fiction in the theater, a comment about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a poster for The X-Files — it’s also alive with these wonderful references to cultural moments distinctive to the Pacific Northwest: the waning of grunge, underground punk and demo tapes (the game’s load screen is a cassette tape), riot grrrl music, zines.

Katie’s dad is a writer; her mom is a ranger with the Forestry Service. The whole thing just screams nostalgia for me, not only for my own mid-90s life but also for the dream of the Portland I always wished I could have lived in back then, the culture I was trying to be a part of the best I could from way down in rural Texas.

It’s the kind of Portland a lot of people move here expecting; it’s the kind of Portland a lot of people already here keep fighting to preserve.

And here it is, in a video game, in a quiet, intimate narrative, in the first-person. It is preserved, and for a few hours, you get to live it in. You even get to listen to it: the game features songs (in the form of “bootleg” cassette tapes you find in the game) from actual riot grrrl bands Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile, as well as the Portland band The Youngins.

But that’s all just icing. The cake — the sweet, rich world of the game — is the story itself, which is eerie and unsettling and heartbreaking and beautiful. It actually brought me to tears not just at the end but throughout the game. And it can do this because, as intense and atmospheric as the environment is — lights left on in the otherwise empty house, the place ransacked, a storm raging outside, dark corners and secret passages and deeply unsettling images — the main force in the game is its characters. Despite being absent at the outset of the game, everyone mentioned — the parents, the sister, the friends, the friends of friends, the colleagues, the relatives — they all have such rich backstories, which develop such complexity in those characters, that they feel present in the house, almost haunting it.

And that’s what makes this feel like fiction, like literature. The whole thing feels like you’re walking around not in someone’s game or even in someone’s house, but in someone’s life. In multiple lives. And the layers in those lives that you uncover as you progress through the game are expertly placed, unfolding and changing as the game goes on, uncovering inner lives and altering your assumptions as you go.

That’s where the real mystery in the game lies. You’re trying to figure out where your family (Katie’s family) has gone, but in the process you discover who your family really is, and how they’ve been changing while you’ve been away, and how that changes you and your perception of yourself.

And the whole thing speaks in echoes, speaks to broader issues of who we, as a society, used to be, and how we’ve changed and are still changing and how we still need to change.

I have to stop there before I give too much away. Before I get any more carried away.

I just really loved this story. In the way that I love a good book, the way I sometimes like to hold a book to my heart when I finish it. I wish I could press the gigabytes of this game into my chest.

It was that kind of experience.

Repairable Men, by John Carr Walker

Folks who follow me on Twitter or Goodreads have likely already seen this review of John Carr Walker’s Repairable Men, but I liked the book so much that I wanted to include the review here, too.

Repairable Men: StoriesRepairable Men: Stories by John Carr Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Repairable Men starts out simply enough, a terse story of brotherly conflict and maturity and domestic discord and the things men inherit from their fathers. But in the last paragraph the whole world shifts, signaling what the book truly is: a resonant mythology of masculinity.

You wouldn’t think we needed more stories like this. Surely we have had plenty of men telling stories about men — about our efforts at heroism and our pathetic defeats, about how hard men have it even though we live in a world of men.

But, it turns out, we do need John Carr Walker’s stories. Because as hard and sometimes violent as these stories can be, Walker treats the characters with a gentle sympathy and humanity. The book has its share of abusive fathers and bumbling fuck-ups, but it also has fathers who are simultaneously sad in their clinging to old dreams but beautiful and heroic in their love for their sons. It has lost brothers returning to themselves and bringing order to the world. It has tenderness and confusion, and when it reveals that there aren’t any answers in the world — in spite of the title, very few of these characters are repairable — it offers you the comfort of knowing that you aren’t alone in that revelation.

My favorite stories in this book are the ones about fathers and sons. Some of them, like “The Atlas Show” or “Candelario” or “The Rules,” are overt, the father-son relationship central to the story. Others, like “Ain’t It Pretty” or “Brother Rhino,” are more oblique, glancing at the father or the son from the edges of some other story, but that relationship still defines — almost always in negative space — the world the characters inhabit. There’s something about the way Walker writes these stories that speaks to me, as though the author and I share some secret.

In the same way that nostalgia is both sickening and addictive, or that bittersweet combines opposites, Walker creates a terrific combination of unease and comfort in these stories, the two emotions always slipping past each other like two magnets of the same polarity, but doing so with that same invisible pressure. I always like to hold two opposing magnets together, to feel them push against each other with a force I can feel but can’t see or fully understand — and I like to press them together as hard as I can until they meet. That’s the sort of thing Walker accomplishes in all these stories but especially in the father-son stories: that invisible pressure, and the weird delight in pushing past the pressure.

Repairable Men is a powerful little book, and I eagerly await John Carr Walker’s next book.

View all my reviews

The Jersey Devil loves pop tarts

jan15coverWe gorge ourselves on junk food and zoo animals and then we belch the belch of universes. Even the dinosaurs are impressed.

And that, boys and girls, is basically the gist of our entire January issue!

(No, seriously. Just read it. You’ll see.)

Also, we’re extremely proud to start our new year with this fantastic cover art from architect and designer Katerina Kamprani! What better artist to kick off 2015 than one who specializes in making us all feel Uncomfortable?

Because that’s how we do it.

Happy New Year!

#Je suis Charlie

(Premièrement, s’il vous plaît excuser la maladresse de mon français. Mon français est tellement rouillée c’est décrépit, et oui, j’ai complété mes compétences linguistiques pauvres avec Google.)

Comme beaucoup de gens — en particulier de nombreux artistes et écrivains et autres créateurs dans le monde — j’ai fait beaucoup d’introspection aujourd’hui.

Pour les peu de gens en ligne qui n’ont pas encore entendu parler, aujourd’hui, trois fous armés ont fait irruption les bureaux parisiens du journal satirique français Charlie Hebdo et massacrés douze personnes, dont un agent de police, le directeur du journal, et de quatre caricaturistes. Onze autres sont blessés, dont quatre sont dans un état critique.

Les fous (un mot que je suis en utilisant intentionnellement, et je refuse de donner leurs noms) semble avoir ciblé l’éditeur et caricaturistes. Sur la base de leurs cris pendant l’attaque, ils semblent réclamer une motivation religieuse.

(Je dis “réclamer” parce qu’il n’y a pas de motivation religieuse légitime pour assassiner. Je refuse d’accepter qu’il y est. Celui qui professe d’assassiner au nom de la religion est délirant et ne parle pas pour la religion qu’ils prétendent.)

En France, une société profondément laïque qui champions liberté d’expression encore plus ardemment que nous faisons en Amérique, ils appellent cela un attentat à la liberté d’expression, et il est absolument. Charlie Hebdo est une publication controversée radical qui est volontairement provocateur dans sa satire, mais que la provocation est enracinée dans une expression de la liberté stridente. C’est une liberté d’offenser, bien sûr, mais c’est une liberté artistique, et en tant qu’artiste, je suis horrifié par l’atrocité d’attaquer, et encore moins tuer, n’importe qui en raison de leurs expressions artistiques.

Mais je suis aussi une personne profondément religieuse, et je respecte et honore toutes les traditions religieuses du monde. Que figuré ou littéralement, il y a des choses telles que «vaches sacrées», et j’ai longtemps cherché à respecter et le respect sacré dans ma vie quotidienne. Cela ne signifie pas que toute religion est irréprochable — loin de là. Parce que je suis religieux, je détiens toutes les religions à un niveau très élevé et attends le meilleur d’entre eux. Et je suis absolument d’accord que lorsque certains aspects de tout système de croyance donnée sont, sur leur visage, ridicule, alors, par définition, ils méritent ridicule. Cela inclut la foi que j’ai grandi dans, le christianisme, ainsi que la religion que je pratique actuellement, le bouddhisme. Cela inclut l’Islam, une religion pour laquelle j’ai beaucoup de respect profond et durable, et dans lequel je compte des amis proches. Mais si quelque chose dans une religion est absurde, c’est absurde; si c’est le sens d’humour, c’est humoristique. Et j’ai ri de nombreuses blagues inoffensives au détriment de nombreuses religions, y compris le mien.

Mais il y a de l’humour, et puis il y a la décence humaine fondamentale et le respect mutuel.

Je ne cautionne ni n’approuve tout ce que Charlie Hebdo a publié. Je trouve beaucoup d’offensant, certaines d’entre elles répugnant, et une grande partie franchement juvénile. La publication dit qu’ils ne ciblent pas quelque chose de spécifique, que ce qu’ils se moquent de l’extrémisme partout où ils le voient, et je applaudis cette sensibilité. Mais quand quelqu’un dit qu’ils sont des délinquants égalité, qu’il n’y a pas de vaches sacrées, ce qu’ils signifient en général, c’est que quand ils sont connards, c’est correct, parce qu’ils sont connards à tout le monde. Et honnêtement, ce n’est pas correct — c’est juste être un connard.

Pourtant, je crois passionnément le droit de quiconque d’être un connard, et certainement dans le droit de quiconque de ne pas être tué pour être un connard. Le droit à la vie est encore plus sacré pour moi que le droit à la liberté d’expression, et en tout cas, parce que je crois que nous avons tous le droit de nous exprimer librement, même quand il est offensant pour le faire, je ne comprends pas — en fait, je abhorre — ces gens qui sont tellement bête et si ignorant que la réponse habile à l’infraction qu’ils peuvent penser est la violence.

Je suppose une chose qui rend cette première difficile mais finalement facile à prendre position sur c’est que dans la liberté d’expression — si elle prend la forme de l’art ou du texte ou de la chanson ou de l’action — la ligne qui divise c’est offensant de ce qui est drôle, c’est brut et inutile de ce qui est artistique et essentiel, c’est plein d’esprit de ce qui est ridicule et irrespectueux, est vaste, un ligne grise, densément brumeux. Il est presque impossible d’articuler, à définir. Nous pouvons rester dans les chambres et argumenter sur cette distinction sur tout l’art particulier, et encore moins un corps entier de travail ou mouvement artistique, pour toujours. Vous pouvez mettre une centaine de personnes dans une pièce et leur demander c’est offensant et ce qui est hilarant et, si vous leur permettez de nuancer leurs réponses, vous obtiendrez une centaine de réponses différentes. Peut-être un cent cinquante.

Mais dans la violence, la ligne est claire et nette. D’un côté de cette ligne, il y a l’attaque, il y a assassiner, il y a le terrorisme, il y a brutalité. Et de l’autre côté de la ligne il y a la société, en reculant d’horreur de ces mesquins, actes pathétiques.

Donc, aussi difficile que cela peut parfois être de défendre ce que je n’aime pas dans l’art, il est extrêmement facile de condamner ceux qui réagissent à cet art à la violence.

Je pense que notre travail en tant qu’artistes est de provoquer. Je préférerais que nous provoquons la pensée, que nous provoquons le débat, et non que nous provoquer intentionnellement indignation en étant malveillants dans notre ridicule. Mais alors où doit-on tracer la ligne entre ce genre de provocations? Parce que je ne sais pas une réponse unique et définitive à cette question, je dois défendre tous provocations, et alors que je ne suis pas nécessairement un fan de tout ce que Charlie Hebdo publie, je déclare absolument et avec fierté aujourd’hui, je suis Charlie!


(First, please excuse the awkwardness of my French. My French is so rusty it’s decrepit, and yes, I supplemented my poor language skills with Google.)

Like many people — especially many artists and writers and other creators in the world — I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching today.

For the handful people online who haven’t heard yet, today three armed madmen stormed the Paris offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and massacred twelve people, including a police officer, the newspaper’s director, and four cartoonists. Eleven others are injured, four of whom are in critical condition.

The madmen (a word I’m using intentionally, and I refuse to give their names) seemed to have targeted the editor and cartoonists. Based on their shouts during the attack, they seem to be claiming a religious motivation.

(I say “claiming” because there is no legitimate religious motivation for murder. I refuse to accept that there is. Anyone who professes to murder in the name of religion is delusional and does not speak for the religion they claim.)

In France, a deeply secular society that champions free speech even more ardently than we do in America, they’re calling this an attack on freedom of expression, and it absolutely is. Charlie Hebdo is a radical, controversial publication that is intentionally provocative in its satire, but that provocation is rooted in a strident expression of freedom. It’s a freedom to offend, to be sure, but it is an artistic freedom, and as an artist, I am horrified by the atrocity of attacking, much less killing, anyone because of their artistic expressions.

But I also am a deeply religious person, and I respect and honor all the world’s religious traditions. Whether figuratively or literally, there are such things as “sacred cows,” and I’ve long striven to uphold and respect that sacredness in my daily life. That doesn’t mean that any religion is above reproach — far from it. Because I am religious, I hold all religions to a very high standard and expect the best of them. And I absolutely agree that when certain aspects of any given belief system are, on their face, ridiculous, then by definition they deserve ridicule. That includes the faith I was raised in, Christianity, as well as the religion I currently practice, Buddhism. That includes Islam, a religion for which I have deep and abiding respect, and in which I count close friends. But if something in a religion is absurd, it’s absurd; if it’s humorous, it’s humorous. And I have laughed at many harmless jokes at the expense of many religions, including my own.

But there’s humor, and then there’s basic human decency and mutual respect.

I do not condone or endorse everything that Charlie Hebdo has published. I find a lot of it offensive, some of it repugnant, and much of it frankly juvenile. The publication says that they don’t target any specific thing, that what they mock is extremism wherever they see it, and I applaud that sensibility. But when someone says that they offend equally, that there are no sacred cows, what they usually mean is that when they are assholes, it’s okay, because they’re assholes to everybody. And honestly, that’s not okay — that’s just being an asshole.

Yet I believe passionately in anyone’s right to be an asshole, and certainly in anyone’s right not to be killed for being an asshole. The right to life is even more sacred to me than the right to freedom of expression, and in any case, because I believe we all have the right to freely express ourselves, even when it is offensive to do so, I do not understand — actually, I abhor — those people who are so base and so ignorant that the cleverest response to offense they can think of is violence.

I suppose one thing that makes this first difficult but ultimately easy to take a stand on is that in free expression — whether it takes the form of art or text or song or action — the line that divides what is offensive from what is funny, what is crude and unnecessary from what is artistic and essential, what is witty from what is ridiculous and disrespectful, is a vast, gray, densely foggy line. It’s almost impossible to articulate, to define. We can stand in rooms and argue about that distinction on any particular art, let alone an entire body of work or artistic movement, forever. You can put a hundred people in a room and ask them what is offensive and what is hilarious and, if you allow them to nuance their answers, you will get a hundred different answers. Maybe a hundred and fifty.

But in violence, the line is sharp and clear. On one side of that line, there is attack, there is murder, there is terrorism, there is brutality. And on the other side of the line there is society, recoiling in horror from these small-minded, pathetic acts.

So as difficult as it can sometimes be to defend what I dislike in art, it is extremely easy to condemn those who react to that art with violence.

I feel that our job as artists is to provoke. I would prefer that we provoke thought, that we provoke debate, and not that we intentionally provoke outrage by being malicious in our ridicule. But then where does one draw the line between those kinds of provocations? Because I don’t know a single definitive answer to that question, I have to defend all provocations, and while I’m not necessarily a fan of everything Charlie Hebdo publishes, I absolutely and proudly declare today, Je suis Charlie!

Books that surprised David S. Atkinson

David S. Atkinson, whose book Bones Buried in Dirt just plain delighted me this time last year and whose preview of Hagridden this year was beautiful and so greatly appreciated, well, he’s gone and done something awesome again.

Not a great believer in “top books” lists, David has instead listed some books that surprised him this past year. “These ones are from authors who I was already familiar with, but the authors did something so interestingly different from their other work I’ve read that I wanted to make special note.”

And there’s Hagridden on the list. David had previously read Box Cutters, which, for those who haven’t picked it up yet, is indeed quite different from Hagridden. One is a dense and violent historical novel; the other is a compact chapbook of tight flash fiction involving contemporary characters and situations.

I’m thrilled that David liked them both!

Also on David’s list, some books I’ve heard great things about and want to read soon, like David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, as well as books I read a while back and still love and refer to all the time, like Irvine Welsh’s Marabou Stork Nightmares.

And then there are the bevy of books by writer friends of mine, which you definitely need to pick up copies of ASAP:

  • Ryan W. Bradley, Love and Death in the Moose League
  • Timothy Gager, The Thursday Appointments of Bill Sloan
  • Jon Konrath, The Memory Hunter
  • Edward J. Rathke’s Twilight of the Wolves
  • Michael J. Seidlinger, Metronome
  • Ben Tanzer’s Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again

That’s some amazing company to be in, folks!

And seriously, you need to get all these books. But instead of linking to them, I’ll just send you over to David’s post, where he lists even more great books and links to all of them.


Upcoming events: William Stafford and Ex-Southerners

Just wanted to let folks know about a couple of upcoming reading events I’m involved in.

[UPDATE: The William Stafford reading was originally Monday night, but it’s been rescheduled for Wednesday. I’ve edited this post to reflect that change.]

For the first event, on Tuesday, January 13, I’ll be hosting a reading full of Southern ex-pats who’ve escaped their hot hometowns and congregated in cool, rainy, literary Portland. “Ex-Southerners in Portland” will feature work by Hobie Anthony, James Bernard Frost, Edee Lemonier, Edie Rylander, Davis Slater, and of course me. We’ll be reading at the American Legion Post 134 in Portland.


And since we’ll be at a veteran’s post, I’ll be extending my donation offer: in addition to the money I’m sending to the National Military Family Association from the December sales of Hagridden, I’ll be adding one dollar for every book sold at the Ex-Southerners reading. That’s anyone’s book — regardless what book it is or who wrote it, if you’re at the reading and you buy a book, I’ll add a dollar to my donation.

And if you bought a copy of Hagridden in December, thank you! You all really came together and helped make a difference in the lives of military families. And if you bought a copy before December or plan to buy one later, but you still want to contribute to military families, you can always donate directly to the National Military Family Association or to an organization of your choice.

American poet William Stafford (1914-1993)

American poet William Stafford (1914-1993) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second event is the next night, Wednesday, January 14. Each year, the Friends of William Stafford organize a series of readings to commemorate the life and work of Oregon’s own William Stafford, and next Wednesday, Linfield College in McMinnville is hosting one of those events.Linfield professor emerita and Oregon poet Barbara Drake will be hosting the reading, and I’ll be joining area students, Linfield faculty, and local writers and poets Joe Wilkins, Emily Grosvenor, and Lisa Ohlen Harris, among others. We’re all reading from Stafford’s work and some work of our own.

That reading is January 14 at 7 p.m. If you’re in the area, look for us at Linfield College, in the Austin Reading Room of the Jereld R. Nicholson Library.

Chapbook interviews!

This is a fun surprise!

Just before the holidays, I did an interview with the chapbook and novella website Speaking of Marvels, and today that interview went live.

I love Speaking of Marvels, by the way. I only recently started reading them — my publisher, sunnyoutside press, sent them my direction — but we need more places that focus on these beautiful oddball cousins to the novel and the collection, the novella and the chapbook. And Speaking of Marvels does a great job; I’m thrilled they exist.

Samuel Snoek-Brown, Box Cutters

Samuel Snoek-Brown, Box Cutters

In my interview, I talk a lot about my own chapbook, Box Cutters, as well as some of my chapbooks-in-progress and what I love about the form. I also mention some of my favorite chapbooks and chapbook publishers, including books by my friend Matthew Burnside and books from Passenger Side Books, run by my friend Ryan Werner.

By strange coincidence, before I even saw that my own interview was live this morning, I’d already read another interview — between Matthew Burnside and Ryan Werner! — over at Boaat Press.

So today you get a twofer: my interview, and also the interview Matthew did with Ryan.

And then you get to go buy lots of chapbooks, because between Boaat Press and Speaking of Marvels, we’ve given you a heck of a shopping list!

Booklist 2014

It’s time again, gang, for my annual reading list. This year’s been quite light, actually — I felt like I’d read quite a bit, but turns out I managed just under 60 books. Does it count that I reread my own novel something like seven times in revisions before it came out in August? My summer months were slowest, which would normally be surprising but I was teaching an intensive summer course, entertaining visitors, as well as going through a few revisions of Hagridden and gearing up for the book tour — and then going on said book tour. So, I forgive myself the lighter load this year, and maybe I can make it up next year.

But this year is done, so here’s my whole list, followed by a sort of break-down:

  • A.M. O’Malley, What to Expect When You’re Expecting Something Else
  • Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai and Other Screenplays
  • Albert E. Castel and Thomas Goodrich, Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla
  • Bartee Haile, Murder Most Texan
  • Bret Anthony Johnston, Corpus Christi
  • Charles Portis, True Grit
  • Cheryl Strayed and Robert Atwan, Best American Essays 2013
  • Christian Anton Gerard, Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella
  • Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  • Daniel M. Shapiro, How the Potato Chip Was Invented
  • David S. Atkinson, Bones Buried in Dirt
  • Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor, Best American Short Stories 2013
  • Garland A. Perry, Historic Images Of Boerne And Kendall County, Texas: A Sesquicentennial Project 1849 – 1999
  • Gayle Towell, Blood Gravity
  • Hannah Stephenson, In the Kettle, the Shriek
  • Hosho McCreesh, A Deep and Gorgeous Thirst
  • Ian V. Hogg, Weapons of the Civil War
  • James A. Crutchfield, It Happened in Oregon
  • James Claffey, Blood a Cold Blue
  • James M. Smallwood, Barry A. Crouch, and Larry Peacock, Murder and Mayhem: The War of Reconstruction in Texas
  • Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
  • Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman, Thor (issues 1-3)
  • Jefferson Morgenthaler, Boerne, Settlement on the Cibolo
  • Jesse Lee Kercheval, Building Fiction
  • Jo Baker, Longbourn
  • John Carr Walker, Repairable Men
  • JP Reese, Dead Letters
  • Leesa Cross-Smith, Every Kiss a War
  • Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., Wolverine: Enemy of the State
  • Marley Brant, The Outlaw Youngers: A Confederate Brotherhood
  • Matty Byloos, Rope
  • Meg Tuite, Bound By Blue
  • Molly Gaudry, We Take Me Apart
  • Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop, Atlas of the Civil War: A Comprehensive Guide to the Tactics and Terrain of Battle
  • O.S. Barton and John McCorkle, Three Years With Quantrell: A True Story, Told by His Scout John McCorkle
  • Randy Stradley, et al, Aliens Vs. Predators Omnibus, Vol. 1
  • Randy Stradley, et al, Aliens Vs. Predators: Three World War
  • Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead Vol. 16 – 20
  • Robert Lashley, The Homeboy Songs
  • Robert Vaughan, Addicts & Basements
  • Rusty Barnes, Breaking It Down
  • Rusty Barnes, Reckoning
  • Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
  • Stevan Allred, A Simplified Map of the Real World
  • Steven E. Woodworth and Kenneth J. Winkle, Atlas of the Civil War
  • Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, The Tilted World
  • Tom Franklin, Hell at the Breech
  • Traylor Russell and Robert T. Russell, Some Die Twice
  • Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs
  • William C. Davis and Ray Bonds, Illustrated Directory of the Civil War

Of these nearly 60 books, thirteen were nonfiction research and two were fiction inspiration while working on my new novel.

Twenty of these books were fiction, including novels (8), story collections (7), story cycles (2), and novellas (2). Another eight were poetry collections, and five more (or eleven more, depending on how you count issues/volumes) were comics or graphic novels. One was book of screenplays!

Just for fun, I’ll also tell you that I have at least two dozen books by friends or colleagues on my to-read shelf, including a couple I plan to review and one I’m going to blurb(!). So I’ll be starting my year already behind, but what else is new?

Oh, and, as usual, I’ve also read hundred and hundreds of pages of student writing, almost all of it essays, and folks, this year was an impressive year for essays! I read some stupendous student work, and I’m looking forward to more of it when I return to classes in a week.

2014 in review

Yeah, WordPress did that “Year in Review” thing for me. And yay, stats and numbers and math and that tired old Sydney Opera House comparison.

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 17,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

But I want to look deeper than just blog posts, because this has been an interesting year.

It certainly hasn’t been perfect. College enrollments are down and, consequently, I’ve lost a couple of classes this year. I just found out I’m allergic to nuts, which has a pretty dramatic impact on this vegetarian’s already limited diet. And it gets worse. My short publications record has dropped significantly as I’ve shifted my focus to longer works and book promotion. My tomatoes didn’t come in at all this summer.

I’ve lost some relatives this year. (Much love to them. They know.)

And those are just the close, personal downsides to the year.

But you guys.

Near the start of the year, I got to help out a fellow writer by participating in Bartleby Snopes’s Revenge of the Scammed anthology, which was a wonderful way to begin my literary year.

The next month, I saw Chris Ware speak in Portland and actually got to shake his hand. For real. In person. And then I took a train up to Seattle for AWP, and I got to meet Roxane Gay. For real. In person! And then, of course, there was the rest of AWP, which was amazing.

Loads of people sent me photos of themselves with Box Cutters.

I tried my hand at making book trailers and got interviewed on local television.

And Hagridden came out.

And I did a blog tour.

And I went on book tour.


I did a bunch of readings here in Oregon, too, and I got to guest-edit an issue of an online poetry publication. And I got to end my year with a writing retreat.

As a writer, gang, this has been a stellar year for me.

And you, fans and friends and readers and fellow writers, have been a HUGE part of that. And I can’t thank you all enough.

I don’t know yet what 2015 has in store. I have a couple of chapbooks floating around and a publisher is looking at a story cycle of mine, and I should get rejections or acceptances on those sometime in the next 12 months. And I’m getting to interview some writers I admire and, if I can scrape together the money, I’m hoping to be at AWP in Minneapolis this April. And I’m making good progress on the next novel and, who knows, I might even finish it this year. But whatever happens, 2015 is going to have a lot to live up to.

I can’t wait to see what happens next. :)