Saturday, February 28, 2015

Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter’s newest collection of inter-related short stories, THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO, is mesmerizing.

There are ten stories. The first five are “Bravery”, “Loyalty”, “Chastity”, “Charity” and “Forbearance”; the remaining five are “Lust”, “Sloth”, “Avarice”, “Gluttony” and “Vanity”. In each, a character asks another – a friend, a lover, a stranger – to do something for him or her. Characters appear and re-appear in several of the stories at various stages of their lives. An event that occurs in one story is explained, from another character’s point of view, in a later one.

“Baxter’s characters muddle through small but pivotal moments, not so much confrontations as crossroads between love and destruction, desire and death…”

I kept thinking of Alice Munro as I read these very quiet but very moving stories. Like Munro, Baxter relates, in simple language, what

Friday, February 27, 2015

THE TUTOR by Andrea Chapin

I have to admit that historical fiction is not my favorite genre. However, Andrea Chapin’s new book held my attention from beginning to end.

Set in Elizabethan England at a time when the persecution of Catholics and confiscation of their lands and property were in full swing, it features a young childless widow, Katharine de L’Isle, who has returned to the estate of her uncle, Sir Edward, where she was raised. Sir Edward, who

Thursday, February 26, 2015


THE FOUR CORNERS OF PALERMO by Sicilian crime reporter Giuseppe di Piazza is a book of four somewhat related novellas set in the 1980s. It is unintentionally hilarious. The main character is (ahem) a Sicilian crime reporter who is constantly bedding Italian models and other beauties, as, you understand, an antidote to the Mafia violence all around him.

Here are some of my favorite lines:

Describing a Savoy torte: “…a circular tablet of pure pleasure, drenched in a lava flow of chilled cocoa.”

“He liked the Uzi submachine gun, too: short as a celery stalk, light as a

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

“Shut the fuck up and listen”

A couple of years ago, Matt Bondurant, the author of THE NIGHT SWIMMER, was interviewed by Lori Ann Stephens for Glimmer Train (Issue 87). I found two of his answers particularly interesting and they have stayed with me:

Q: How do you prepare yourself for book reviews from both professional critics and casual reviewers?

A: There is no preparation … But I remind myself that I invited myself to this party, in fact I was desperate to get in. As the great poet Phillip Levine once said about people expressing their opinions about your work (and I paraphrase here): Shut the fuck up and listen. You should consider yourself incredibly lucky that anyone at all cares enough to read your

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Wiley Cash

Photo by Tiffany B. Davis
If you haven’t already read his books, you need to crawl out from under that rock and discover Wiley Cash.

His debut novel, A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, was a NY Times Best Seller. His debut novel. It’s set in Appalachian North Carolina in a charismatic church where poisonous snakes are handled and an elderly woman is bitten and then left to die alone behind her house. In the book, the voices of three characters alternate: the adolescent Jess Hall, the sheriff, Clem Barefield, and the elderly Adelaide Lyle who represents “the moral conscience of the community”. The minister is a shady, ruthless and dangerous character but Jess’ mother has fallen prey to his charms.

“... Cash is ultimately interested in how unscrupulous individuals can bend decent people to their own dark ends ...”

As wrote in The Washington Post (5/8/12): “The story has elements of a thriller, but Cash is ultimately interested in how unscrupulous individuals can bend decent people to their own dark

Monday, February 23, 2015

Gloria Steinem and Language

Photo by
I have been giving thought to the lecture presented by Gloria Steinem at the San Miguel Writers Conference. It was entitled, “Writing Our Way to the Revolution.”

“Writers,” she said, “have the power to make the invisible visible.” By writing the stories of the ignored, the overlooked, the oppressed, we combat racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. 

She urged us to be aware, always, of the politics of language. “The less powerful person or place requires an adjective; the powerful get the noun,” Steinem said. “There are poets and

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ursula LeGuin Gives It To Us Straight

Ursula LeGuin’s speech upon accepting the National Book Foundation Medal for “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters” merits our attention. It’s fairly gloomy and a little cranky in tone but very clearly states her views on publishing and publishers today. Here it is:

Photo © by Marian Wood Kolisch
“To the givers of this beautiful reward, my thanks, from the heart. My family, my agents, my editors, know that my being here is their doing as well as my own, and that the beautiful reward is theirs as much as mine. And I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long — my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for fifty years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being,

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Congratulations are in Order!

Nancy Peacock, a fine North Carolina writer, has won first place for Mainstream Fiction in the 22nd annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards for her novel, THE LIFE & TIMES OF PERSIMMON WILSON. (

Peacock’s first novel, LIFE WITHOUT WATER, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and her second one got a stellar review in the New York Times Book Review, which noted Peacock’s “simple prose that possesses a rhythmic,

Friday, February 20, 2015

Pat Shipman’s Newest Book

Pat Shipman’s newest book, THE INVADERS: HOW HUMANS AND THEIR DOGS DROVE NEANDERTHALS TO EXTINCTION, has just come out and is already generating excitement.

It’s one of anthropology’s big questions: what happened to the Neanderthals? They flourished for at least 200,000 years in Eurasia but, some time after humans moved into their territory, they vanished from the earth. In recent years, research has shown that they were far more like humans than previously recognized. They inbred with humans, produced art and tools and may have been more intelligent than was once thought.

Pat Shipman, a retired adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State, espouses a fascinating new theory based on recent paleontology research showing that dogs were domesticated by humans at least 36,000 years ago. She questions what advantage humans with a semi-domesticated ‘wolf-dogs’ would have had in the hunt for food and theorizes that it gave them the competitive edge over Neanderthals.

I asked her what had fueled her interest in this question and she replied,

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Time To Play!

Now that the Writers Conference is over, I’ll be going back to writing about books and authors in subsequent posts. But, today, let’s play and show off our chops.

Carol Casella,, has kindly given me permission to share with you the writing exercises she designed for her workshop entitled, “The Devil is in the Details.”

Exercise I: Are you an adder or a subtractor? Write a scene with as many details as possible. Use all senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch.

Photo by Evan Bench
[Suggestion: You are a teenager, and it’s the first time you’ve realized you are attracted to someone who’s among your group of friends. You’re all at a swimming hole together, on a hot summer day].

Now, go back and delete half the details in the scene you wrote.

Now, do the opposite: write the scene as briefly as possible to get the action on the page, then go back and add detail.

Exercise II: Experiment with Negative Space: Choose a character at a specific stage of life and write a short scene in which the character finds

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Be Kind to Yourself

Carol Cassella ( is a practicing physician and the national bestselling author of three novels, GEMINI (2014), HEALER (2010), OXYGEN (2008), each published by Simon & Schuster and translated into multiple foreign languages. All three novels were Indie Next Picks. On top of that, she’s the mother of two sets of twins (count them, two) and is working on her fourth novel.

Her workshop was entitled, “The Devil Is In The Details.” The etymology of “details” means ‘breaking something into very small parts’.

Doctors are interested in details and, when writing on medical or scientific issues, the details must be true but also must be chosen with

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

“Don’t Be Afraid of Dialogue”

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I took an advanced fiction class with the multi-talented Mary-Rose Hayes (, entitled “Don’t Be Afraid of Dialogue.”

Dialogue, she said, involves listening and hearing, as well as speaking. The basic “Rule of Dialogue” for writers is to “watch and listen.”

Photo by Jason McHuff
Ride public transport, she urged, and listen to what your fellow passengers say and how they sound. She recounted being on a bus in San Francisco behind two women, loaded down with enormous bags of produce they had just purchased at market. They were speaking Mandarin. Then, one of them sneezed and the other said, “Gesundheit!” That gem went into one of her stories.

Listen to children, she suggested, how they talk to each other and how they talk to adults. By way of example, her “perfect” very young

Monday, February 16, 2015

Thanks, Elizabeth Gilbert – I needed that!

This morning I attended an advanced fiction workshop taught by Mary-Rose Hayes (, entitled “Don’t Be Afraid of Dialogue."

Just reading her biography made my head swim. Get this: she has written six novels, including WHAT SHE HAD TO DO, and has co-authored two political thrillers with Senator Barbara Boxer. She’s written optioned screenplays, been a script editor in London, a travel correspondent in Tripoli, a librarian in Northern Ireland during “turbulent times.” She has worked in public relations and advertising in New York and San Francisco, and also as a free-lance book editor, a research assistant at the Harvard

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Refreshingly Contrarian Views

David Corbett ( is the author of four novels, including the NY Times Notable Book, DONE FOR A DIME and has a new one coming out in April. He was a San Francisco private investigator for fifteen years and worked on some very high-profile criminal and civil cases during that time – great fodder for his fiction, I imagine, as he now writes acclaimed crime novels. He is teaching several classes here at the San Miguel conference and I was particularly interested in a few of his somewhat contrarian views.

He doesn’t hold with the theory that conflict is the center of a story. “Desire is. And conflict and desire are not the same thing.” In every

Saturday, February 14, 2015

“Your Book is Your Business”

Maia Williams, Co-Director of the San Miguel Writers Conference and a professional Business Building Consultant, led this workshop.

She began with the mindset of the emerging writer. Fill in the blank in this sentence: “I’m too _____ to promote my book.” Some of the answers from the group were “shy,” “lazy,” “discouraged,” “poor,” “fearful of rejection,” and “fearful of losing my friends.” After you fill in the blank with your own answer, she said, pledge to delete the sentence from your mind for the next ninety days and get on with what needs to be done.

Her mantra for promoting your book: Keep It Simple. Make It Easy. Start Sooner. Some of her recommendations were:         

  • Don’t wait until your book is published to start building your platform.
  • Post on Facebook but, “for every nine personal things you post, add one about your book.”

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Wisdom of the Agents

My first workshop this morning was with April Eberhardt, a self-described ‘literary change agent’ ( She founded her own agency “to assist and advise authors in navigating the traditional and electronic marketplaces, along with the evolving options for agent-assisted independent publishing.”

The workshop was entitled, “Nailing the Spike: Writing and Selling a Killer Short Story.” Her view is that life is very fast-paced these days and that, “the less time we have, the more we read and write short stories.” She described the short story as “a sprint vs. the marathon of a novel,” with a concentrated approach, high stakes, unforgettable

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Tracy Chevalier and Alice Walker

It is impossible to report on everything that has happened in this long and very interesting day. Randall Platt’s class on Point of View, Voice and Character will be the subject of a subsequent post as will Louisa Roger’s pitch practice session. Both classes were extremely helpful.

Photo by Jon Drori
In addition to those two classes, there were two keynote speeches by Tracy Chevalier and Alice Walker. I can only hit the highlights of what each of them said.

Chevalier, author of GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING and other historical novels, was celebrating having just completed her eighth book. Her topic: “The Past Is a Foreign Country: Why History Matters,” which is taken from the L.C. Hartley line in THE GO-BETWEEN, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Chevalier disagrees with the latter part of Hartley’s statement. While “they” may have had different clothes, eaten different foods, etc., there are aspects of the human experience which do not change. The task of the historical fiction writer, she believes, is to find those links with the past that are universal.

There are three schools of thought as to why history is important. The first is that we learn lessons from the past. As Santayana (and Churchill) said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The San Miguel Writers Conference Begins

One of the few remaining joys of air travel is having mostly uninterrupted time to read. On the way down, I read DIRTY LOVE by Andre Dubus III ( The first novella in this book, “Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed,” bowled me over with such amazing images as this: a husband watches a video, made by a detective, of his wife and her lover having sex – “his heart kicking like a hanged man’s feet.” And this line, describing his wife as she was when he first met her: “And it was the way she smiled at him in the realtor's office, as if she’d been waiting for him for years and now that he’d finally come she was shy about it.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

We’re in Mexico!

We made it as far as Léon late last night. We stayed in a little hotel near Silao Aeropuerto and, this morning, God willing and the creek don’t rise, a shuttle will pick us up for the hour and a half drive to beautiful San Miguel de Allende, with its cobblestone streets, colonial mansions, art galleries, and wonderful food.

One of the workshops I’m taking at the conference will be led by the prolific novelist Nicholas Delbanco. It’s called “The Sincerest Form” and, I assume, will be based on the method he describes in his book: THE SINCEREST FORM: WRITING FICTION BY IMITATION. 

Delbanco’s theory is that, as writers, we learn by studying the choices made – the “aesthetic strategy” – of the best authors. One way to understand these strategies is to try to copy them, much as art students copy Old Masters to advance their own technical skills. The point is to learn from our betters – not to adopt their voices in lieu of our own.

Monday, February 9, 2015

We’re Leaving on a Jet Plane

Photo by Justin Vidamo

As my friend Pat Shipman says, there’s a writer under every bush in North Carolina. And four of us are crawling out from under our respective shrubs and heading for the San Miguel Writers Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico today! Check it out at

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Good, The Bad, and The Why-Did-I-Bother?

Writers need to read. Voraciously. The good, the bad, and even the why-did-I-bother.

I had a friend once who dragged me to high-end antique stores and galleries. When I protested, saying I could never afford a $25,000 cabinet anyway, she said, “It doesn’t matter. You look at things to educate your eye.”

In a similar way, I think, we read to educate our ear. We listen to the language; we hear the cadence. Our ear is jarred by the sentence that doesn’t work, the word that doesn’t fit. As writers, we often read twice. Once for pleasure and a second time for the underpinnings: the scaffolding, the technique, the craft.

We’ve all heard writers say, “Oh, I never read anything when I’m writing. I don’t want my voice to be influenced.” And the thought always crosses my mind, “Honey, I’ve read your stuff. A little influence couldn’t hurt.”

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Welcome to my blog for readers and writers! Please stay a while and post your thoughts and comments.

I have high hopes for the site but need your help to accomplish the goals I have in mind. I’m not interested in just recording what I’m doing or thinking as in: “It’s all about me, wonderful me,” blah, blah, blah. Borrr-ing.

I am interested in connecting with compulsive readers of all genres, other writers and those who know or are interested in learning the ins and outs of the publishing industry.

I want this to be a place for readers to talk about the books that matter to them and why, which writers they cherish and return to again and