Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Drift in Spate

In my Sophomore year of High School I had an art class for one trimester. This was all my fancy pants school thought was necessary to instill a creative mind. I won’t go down that route. I haven’t been back there since. You do the math.

There was a cool newly acquired art teacher by the name of Mr. Solo that wanted to jazz things up a bit. I was new to the school too, a transplant from Xavier in Manhattan. In addition to teaching the art class Mr. Solo spawned an art club and also launched a zine called Spate. It was the first time I had come face to face with a no frills creative journal. Students submitted sketches, photography, and even poetry. I am sorry to say that none of my subs made the cut, but I was still eager to participate and went to all the after school meetings.

Things were run like it was an underground Cabbala. The cover for the first issue of Spate was highly debated. There were votes for a Cyclops, a dragon, a clover with a single dew drop. We settled on a generic beast that bore some resemblance to a Beelzebub. When we finally put it out it was the buzz of the school. Most of it was less than kind. A clutch of provincial dead beat parents wanted to know why the heck there wasn’t a young entrepreneur’s club, a young republicans club— God help us— and when they would spring for better computers.

I admit I hoped to be skilled draftsman, but it was far from my reach though I was quite good at shading. I’d like to think of my magnum opus sketch as a brave prophetic interpretation of the Dancing House in Prague that had yet to be erected. You know that warped glass house that tilts gapes into the Vltava that I’m sure would make Billy Joel enormously proud.

Solo never pulled me on the side and said “Hey Johnny I think you need to quit while you’re ahead.”

He welcomed everybody in his class and club. He reminded me of the role Robin Williams’ played in Dead Poets Society or maybe that’s just my imagination running wild. Solo didn’t last a full year. Rumors had it that the Brother Headmaster had enough of the art du jour and wanted to bring in an Economics prof. The next year they did. I don’t know what really happened to my old Solo, but I’d like to think as his named suggested he drifted as a wanderer into his own brand of spate.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Little Treasures From A Shoebox

I went with my dad and my friend Vinnie and his dad to my first baseball card show. I was new to the convention. Vinnie and his dad had gone many times before and had a game plan. If you didn't know any better you would swear each table had an elaborate cloth of baseball cards spread out in all directions in a giant VFW Hall. There were cards, autographed baseballs and bats, glossy photos. You could buy brand new packs of cards. Some dealers showed their cards behind glass cases, the prices stamped on like supermarket canned goods. I wasn’t shocked at the high prices. I had been reading Beckett price guide for a few months before that first show so I was schooled in the number's department. I wasn’t going to spend a lot of money. I had ten dollars on me. That would only go so far. My dad had already forked over the thirty bucks to get both Don Mattingly and Bret Saberhagen’s autographs. The Royals had just come off their World Series win over their neighbors the Cardinals and I wanted to get the ace pitcher’s John Hancock. My dad wanted me to have Don Mattingly’s autograph too because he thought he had a swing as sweet as the Stan “The Man” Musial.

Getting the autographs was something like a cattle call, the monster of a line dragged out to the front door. All the way off on the stage, the players looked weird in their street clothes. Actually, it was really off-putting. And as I thought about it, standing on the line, it was nothing more than a business deal. I’d asked ballplayers for autographs at the Stadium. That was fun. There was nothing like flagging down a player and having him sign it right there when you caught him off guard his spotless uniform in front of you. And that brief moment before he shuffled off and you looked down at the scrawled initials on your ball or glove or whatever you happened to offer and the rush of adrenaline as if you had just stuck your head into the mouth of a lion that was what it was like to catch an autograph at the stadium.

I stood on slowpoke line with my dad with an awful puss and he called me “smellpot” which was the name he gave me when I was in a mood.

“What gives?” he said.

“I don’t want it,” I said.

“Mattingly is going to be batting champ. Trust me, now is the time to get it.”

“Not like this.”

“You don’t like him?”

“He’s no Dave Winfield.”

This was more or less the thrust of our verbal barb. I moped on line until I got both Mattingly and Saberhagen’s autographs on 8 x 10 glossies. Then I went off and searched the show to find any nifty collectibles that would fit my budget. I shied away from the glass cases. Those cards were well out of my ballpark, but I helped myself to the dollar shoe box. Yes, there was actually a table that had a shoebox filled with mainly old common cards and a few surprises. I nabbed a 1974 Rod Carrew, his bat dipped to his back shoulder in a classic pose waiting to get into the batting cage.

Then I picked up a Ted Williams. He wore the same painless grin as always but was merely a splendid splinter of the early images I'd seen of him from books and newsreels and though he donned a red cap it was with the Washington Senators insignia and not the Bosox. It was a 1971 Topps manager card for only a dollar. Who could pass up such a find? There was also a Willie Mays in an Amazing Mets uniform. Holy Cow. I never knew he even played with them. It was his last card. To round out the playing field I took a Johnny Bench, and a George Brett. My five cards for eight dollars, a frugal but spirited selection.

I walked around some more and saw some odd things like Pete Rose candy bars. Never heard of them. I knew there were Reggie Jacksons and Baby Ruths, but these things looked stale. Who would want to buy old candy? And I never was a big fan of Charlie Hustle.

When I met up with my dad and my friend Vinnie and his Dad I saw that they had 2 boxed sets already clutched under their respective pits. Vinnie also had a few loose cards in hard plastic-coated shields, mostly new stuff with flaming orange letters Hot Prospects. Vinnie’s dad looked down at my stuff.

My dad saw the Ted Williams in my hand and a nonplussed expression washed over his face as if I had pilfered the Missing Link.

“Where’d you get that?” he asked, reaching over to get a better glimpse.

“Over from the shoebox. It was only a buck. I got all these cards for eight dollars.”

I showed them off, the Williams, Carrew, Mays, Bench, and Brett.

“That’s all they’re worth,” Vinnie’s dad said with the vacant eyes of poker player.

What an asshole I thought. He was a stick-in-the-mud if ever there was one, a killjoy from the word go. I felt a little bit crummy because I knew that these cards weren’t worth much. Sure it would be great to have a heyday Williams or a “Say Hey” Mays when he was on the Giants, but where the hell would I get the dough to buy them. But, I liked my cards and I wasn’t ready just yet to fully let the long thread of fantasy that made my cards magical leave my head or hands.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Cost of the Cake

A funny thing happened at the cafe this morning. I was paying for my chocolate cigar and when the barista rang me up I saw four digits flash on the register. Wow, twenty-one hundred dollars for a chocolate cigar. I guess I shouldn’t have asked her to douse any white powder on top of it. She laughed. “Oh, is that what reads on your side?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I see the dot now, but I never noticed a three decimal place on a register before.”

Maybe I’m not so observant. Maybe I was starving for my morning sugar rush.

I mulled over the sweet treats that could warrant hefty price tags. First on my mind was Miss Havisham's wedding cake. A single slice would probably ring in at two grand. Also J. Peterman’s Christie’s bought cake from King Edward the VIII wedding and maybe even the bit of Napoleon I snuck off Ann Bancroft’s plate in Fair Harbor when I was five-years old, dining with my mom during our annual vacation on Fire Island.

Okay, so maybe that last one doesn’t weigh in as high on the fiscal scale, but the memory was golden.

I have another child memory that probably better captures the irrational exuberance of sweettooths. It happened at an elementary school bakeoff in which two dads tried to show off who had the deeper pockets. The bidding war started over a single brownie then moved on to a whole dish and then ended up being over a whole table. I remember the wild joy gleaming in Sister Mary Ellen’s eyes. She must have been thinking how awesome it would be for her, a transfer nun/schoolmarm, taking the competition. Sister Ruth, the unhabited wonder Queen of Sheeba of our school, was not about to go down without a fight. She kept pestering Mr. Langone to throw a few more bills into the bid.

“It’s for a good cause,” Sister Ruth kept saying.

And Mr. Langone obliged. Nobody saw any money come out of either Mr. Langone or Mr. Fernandez’s pockets. They raised their hands as I imagined big-time bidders at Sotheby's might do bidding over a rare painting.

At some point Mr. Fernandez scrunched down to look eye to eye with his daughter Marisol. I really didn’t know her all that well, she was a second-grader, but she glowing with hope that her daddy would do whatever it took for her class to win to coveted pizza party. He nodded as his daughter pulled at the elbow of his Burberry's sleeve and you just had that feeling he was done. He was probably thinking what a waste, three hundred eighteen dollars worth of Betty Crocker. It would rot his daughter’s teeth, put a hole in his stomach, and would only be a harbinger of things to come.

Mr. Langone dropped out at three hundred and fifteen dollars. You could see the sweat cooling on his forehead, but what a relief. His bratty kid Charlie didn’t say goodbye to his dad when he shipped off.

I was ambivalent with regards to the whole matter. None of my folks were wasting their coin on this competition. I wasn’t even into these cheesy baked goods. I brought my A game to magazine sales.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

USQ Mega Tasting

The USQ Mega Tastings are a fine way to spend the afternoon. Although I prefer it when there are fewer grubbers there for the free booze. I made it to the second session with a diverse lineup I must admit: Spanish, Italian, French, South African, Californian, and a few other surprises too.

I started off with Etude’s Pinot Gris from Napa. The ’08 vintage is clean, crisp, and an altogether delightful mélange of apple blossom and stony citrus fruit. I next tried a rather interesting Beaujolais Nouveau. I am never really fond of the Beaujolais Nouveau, but I usually sample them year after year because of all the euphoria and just to be vinously hospitable. The ’09 Domaine de la Madone was surprisingly beefy for a Nouveau— earthy to the point where it had much more in common with a Moulin à Vent, a Chénas or another cru Beaujolais.

I later sampled Fattoria del Cerro 2004 Vino Nobile de Montepulciano that also carried a meaty flavor as if I were drinking a delicious wine reduction stew. This didn’t come as such a surprise to me as the Beaujolais because Vino Nobile de Montepulciano has that meatier, earthier stock in its makeup.

A standout for me at the tasting was a rare Aglianico del Vulture. I have always had a penchant for this ancient grape from Southern Italy. It tastes like the sun-baked soil. Many of the Agliancos I have enjoyed have come from a producer called Mastroberadino whose family has been planting vines for centuries. Those grapes are sourced from Campania the region that touches Naples and the old Roman city of Pompeii. Aglianico del Vulture comes from the neighboring Basilicata and is marked by a volcanic richness of its local soil. Tenuta Le Querce 2006 “Il Viloa” was a delightful dark brooding wine and a little bit sweet on the attack and mineralic. I considered an engaging wine

There was also a noteworthy Spanish red made from the Mencía varietal. D. Ventura 2007 Pena do Lobo from the Ribeira Sacra in the province of Lugo all the way Galicia. The Pena do Lobo is culled from 80 year old Mencía vines that rest near the Sil River. I found a pungent aroma of grilled lomo on the nose and almost bready quality that followed on the palate. An interesting blend of wild berries and minerals— a wine that clearly flourishes in its cool environment.

Then I had a Gran Reserva Rioja from Bodegas Lan. A big wine indeed that showed its 5 plus years of oak cask aging. This Gran Reserva wall well-integrated, classic Tempranillo that somehow reminded me a little bit of left bank Bordeaux although Tempranillo usually does remind me a little bit of blackcurrant in taste. The tannin had been tamed, but as I continued to swig my last few sips I thought what a pity not to have, in the very least, some yummy tapas to accompany my vino.

I ended my tasting spree with Royal Tokaji, a 2005 vintage and 5 Puttonyos of pure sin. Before I even retrieved my glass from the pourer, I smelled a burbling hot pot of crème brûlée. That’s how redolent, how powerful the smell of Tokaji can be. And with 5 Puttonyos of sugary glee I was lusting for my glass. Surprise of surprises it wasn’t as sweet up front, but built up into a convincingly profound hyperbolic crescendo of caramelized goodness.

I got out of there as quickly as I could or else I would’ve looped my way into another round.

Friday, November 20, 2009

NaNo Wrimo Advice: Look to the Scene Amigo

NaNo Wrimo has crossed the halfway point. Now the uphill battles begins. There are eleven more days to make the critical threshold. It might be a good idea to call in sick from work if you are overly stressed and want to hit your number. Maybe you write better under pressure.

I’ll tell you something that often works for me and I do this with all of my fiction. I go to dialogue when I need to spur fresh writing. I want to see my characters respond in different situations. I might even find something juicy about my character and when I learn it a spate of information rushes forth. And there is your writing blitz.

If it were another month I’d spend more time exploring the underlying reasons why my character did such and such. I might even question it and see if it jived with the stuff we knew about him previously. But, that’s not going to cut the mustard, not if you are only at 20,000 words and you need to bang out 30,000 more in eleven days.

The point is you need to do whatever it takes to open up your story so that it will move forward. Let me strike that previous comment. It’s okay to move backward too. Let’s say you feel you’ve hit an impasse because you think you ended your novel. That’s fine, but with the writing frenzy you’ve been partaking in there’s no way in the world you’ve scratched the surface of a fully-realized character let alone a full cast of them.

Go back and develop fresh scenes. Use dialogue to move it along. See how each character responds to plain comments, random comments, and bizarre requests. And especially pay attention to that last one. It might just carry the seed to another chapter or even a whole new novel.

Think of these encouraging words by Philip Roth. “It takes two-hundred or so pages just to get going.” Now this seems daunting, it makes writing a herculean task and frankly it is. But, if it takes a master that long to get going you can see how manipulating your characters will be for the their best interest as well as the success of your novel.

I am also a big believer in taking short pauses to gather yourself and figure out where you want to go next. There is plenty of free-writing. But, I don’t always see the merit in pure free-writing. For the most part, I see it as fruitless typing. I think your best off if you arm yourself with a few simple questions. Have them written down so you can return to them when you are in a writing session. Nobody says you have to answer the question in any particular way. But, by making the effort to answer the question you will have keyed in some words. That’s the point.

I had a great writing teacher by the name of Craig Lesley who was a student of Raymond Carver and Craig always said when you get into trouble always go back to the scene. We talked a lot about this very subject when I was working on some short stories and he asked me, quite slyly, “How many scenes do you have?” and I remember the first time he asked me this I hadn’t a clue. Well, a lot has changed since then. For one, I think in scenes even if I am spouting off in a stream of conscious narrative. Go back to “Portnoy’s Complaint” if you don’t believe me. Roth’s narrator starts off by telling his shrink everything in his head. It’s essentially and unfiltered monologue, but low and behold there are scenes in it and it’s not because after a while you realize he’s talking to his shrink, but because he directly addresses his mother, his father, and even his alter ego. He replays scenes from childhood.

Don’t rewrite “Portnoy’s Complaint,” but if you find yourself coming to a halt then go into interrogative mode. Pit different characters who haven’t met each other yet into scenes. Some really nifty things will happen. I promise you. And don’t worry whether or not you think this is going to make it into the final draft. NaNo Wrimo is about getting it onto the page. Give your inner editor the month off.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What's Inisde The Box

I'm a fan of Faustian drama. My favorite is "A Picture of Dorian Gray." Goethe's "Faust" is a close second to Wilde's interpretation. The original Twilight Zone from the Rod Serling years had plenty of episodes where characters made deals with the devil and even if you could smell the rankness of the inevitable outcome the acting was divine-- you could make the exception.

"The Box," unfortunately, is far from sublime. Let me be frank, I've never really cared for Cameron Diaz. She's no Laura Linney. Frank Langella does keep it somewhat interesting and James Marsden actually make a great sideburn-wearing junior astronaut. But, as engrossing a premise as this oft-reproduced subject is you have to feel for the characters. I connected with none of them. A blight on my sensitivity? Not a chance. I'm an aesthete.I demand superior performance. I watched schmaltz.

The climatic scene where Cameron Diaz confronts Lucifer in a three-piece-suit is deplorable. I had to keep myself from cracking up not because it was predicable or because Diaz will never break from her "There's Something About Mary" pinnacle, but because the combination of the corny lines, the unnecessary sobbing, the bad delivery and the wooden cast of characters behind this film left me flat.

Sure she dies at the end so that her son will be able to see again. The kid will get a one-million-dollar interest-bearing trust fund. Marsden gets arrested and will never be a sideburn-wearing astronaut. Big deal.

It's not about plot twists, happy endings, or hard-boiled reality, it's about the substance of film. Ironically, with most of the junk parading as film these days, this is an above average flick.

Sometimes it's better not to know what's inside the box. Remember the end of "Barton Fink" with John Turturro strolling on the shore?

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Waterworks

In preparation for “Homer and Langley” I have decided to tackle E.L Doctorow’s “The Waterworks” first. I’m not a chronological person by nature. In fact, I never read short story collections cover to cover, but skip around because I find that to be more satisfying. I might as well be talking cantaloupes and iPods because there is little, if any, correlation between short stories and novels much less M.O.s for reading them. And, for good measure, there really is no prescribed way to approach an author’s oeuvre.

Actually, I am already familiar with a couple of the chapters from “Homer and Langley” because I recently had the good pleasure of listening to Doctorow read aloud from his newly minted libro. I find the premise, an insider account of the Collier brothers, intriguing although I find the opening “I’m Homer the blind brother,” a bit over-the-top in its attempt to connect with the old world’s storytelling canon. Nonetheless, I have opted to read his mid nineties work about an obsessed newsman.

“The Waterworks” chronicles the life of McIlvaine, a newspaper man and his search for his lost freelancer, Martin Pemberton. That’s the tip of the iceberg. “The Waterworks” is much more than a who done it caper. It’s about seizing ghosts from our past. I imagine, Doctorow’s newsman narrator wincing at the sound of this. He scoffs at the notion of ghosts existing and yet he is plagued by his own ghosts, the papery-thin children hawking papers and flowers in the street and the boy who drowned in the reservoir. Like most Doctorow novels “The Waterworks” flirts with a creative brand of historical fiction. At times, it reads almost as a detective novel as the cantankerous McIlvaine checks in on the missing Pemberton’s fiancée Ms. Tisdale, the lush painter Wheeler, and the Reverend Grimshaw, and so on. McIlvaine is true to his ilk and reports the facts but every once in a while lets on that he is a human being.

There’s something Sinclairian about Doctorow’s novel “The Waterworks” the way the Bronx Bard zeroes in on the inequities caused by the Industrial Revolution. Newsman Mclvaine’s objectivity has a way of unraveling when examining the raggedy paperboys who are responsible for pushing the papers. He describes these “street urchins” and “street rats” as being unremarkable as paving stones.

McIlvaine becomes absorbed in his quest to find Pemberton. It is the confluence of his journalistic acumen and his budding conscience. For me, this is where the story takes off. He develops an affinity for the widow Sarah Pemberton, Martin’s mother, and is enamored by her mothering the youngest boy. This is the flash of McIlvaine’s underbelly— a lightning fast glimmer.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Independent Book Store Week

Are you tired of looking at the Usual Suspects decked out in the front of the midtown, downtown, and around the town B & N and Borders then try an indie shop this week. If you live in NYC or if you are visiting NYC this week drop in at a local indie bookshop. This is your big chance to really help the lifeblood of the cutting edge in books.

There is also a scavenger hunt. Check out for more details you might win yourself a bookmark or a cool chapbook.

I recommend 191 Books in Chelsea, Bluestocking int eh lower east side and Word in Brooklyn. There are many other, too many for me to spout off about right now

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NaNo Plan B

Kids don't try this at home. I am about to do something that seems a bit cannibalistic. I going to eat my darlings. I started a novel for this year's NaNo that really isn't gelling with me. I take all the blame. I probably should have plotted it out a bit. The thing is I had a great idea months back and it got lost in the back of my mind.

So for National Novel Writing Month I ran with an idea that was probably better-suited story idea. Frankly, it didn't have the brick and mortar to make it as a novel. This is of course my opinion. Nonetheless, I have decided to cut my losses because I feel I'm at a stalemate in terms of story development. It's not writer's block. I am still punching away at my keypad it's just that the story isn't turning into fluff. And I don't endorse fluff. I don't eat fluff and I don't write.

So what's Plan B? Well, it just so happens that there was blog post I made months back about a topic that totally fascinated me. I'm willing to share it because if you can guess what that blog topic was you are entitled to a free copy of Shades of Luz. How's that for stealth diplomacy and promotion?

I figure this. I need to love what I am writing. Does this mean I probably don't have the makings of being a top ghost writer? Probably. But, I'm more interested in pushing the envelope of literature anyway. So don't worry about me.

Here's the hint. It's not about tennis. If you'll recall I did a few tennis posts in late August and early September. That narrows the field a bit.

Am I afraid that I might not hit my NaNo number by the end of the month? Not a chance. This is actually only the second time I've competed in NaNo, but when I first signed on in 2006 I was already a week late. Point is, I'm a prolific writer. And I indeed to bang out my 50,000 words and then some.

Will I share any of my posts? Well, certainly not before somebody has taken a good guess at my topic so I can send off a copy of Shades of Luz. But, I will do a weekly update on my progress.

Go ahead and reply to this and or any of my upcoming posts with answers to what you think my novel topic will be on.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Touching Base

I want to apologize to my readers for the holdup on new material. There will soon be a bunch of new posts.

Since Shades of Luz of Luz hit Best Seller I have been triple-time communicating with various contacts. Some new and exciting things are indeed on the horizon. Paper Cut will be back to normal in a day or so. And catchup posts will be added as well.

Thanks so much for your patience and understanding. In the meantime, if you haven't caught some of the wonderful past interviews with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Shya Scanlon, Linda Courtland, Katherine Gilraine, and Maria Hooley then please check them out. They all very talented writers

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Taste of Bordeaux A La Wine Woot

This past Saturday I went to an amazing Bordeaux Wine tasting at a friend’s house. He has been a part of Wine Woot for a while and the members are really into their vino. I need to step my game up whenever I go to an event despite my years of imbibing experience and certifications from WSET and ASA.

Some folks tell me that there is a world of wine beyond Bordeaux. Burghounds for example, will pontificate until they are blue in the face and Burgundy in the teeth about their celestial delights: Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, and of course the untouchables La Tâche, Richbourg and Romanée-Conti.

Give me Latour, Haut-Brion, Margaux, and some of those splendid satellites in Lalande-de-Pomerol and I am happier than a fly on a plate of black truffles. But this kind of partisanship is like Republicans and Democrats or Labors and Tories trying to sit down and have an unbiased discussion about their political leanings.

I digress.

The lineup included a 1976 Haut-Bages-Liberal, a 1983 Cos D’Estournel, a1986 Talbot, a 2000 Château Olivier, a 2000 La Lagune, and a 2006 Prieuré-Lichine. So there was a nice spectrum of vintages and producers in this mini Bordeaux tasting. There were also a couple of Sauternes to accompany pralines, dark chocolate, and espresso-covered almonds.

The ’86 Talbot showed the best. Château Talbot is the second farthest inland of the St. Julien Growths so there is less sea breeze for this property than the Léovilles or Ducru-Beaucaillou. I was immediately taken by the earthy aroma, the whiff of clay, the full mouthfeel and the weight of the wine. I drank it wishing for lamb shank. Steal frites in the very least. I have always been happy quaffing this amiable Fourth Growth, but this was the first time I hailed it a champ amongst a panoply.

Haut-Bages-Liberal is due north of Pichon Longueville and Château Latour and it and bears a Paulliac character of black currants. And as Oz Clarke would note, “There’s a hint of unbridled fruit on the palate.” Though this was the oldest wine we tried for the evening it showed more life than the ’83 Cos D’Estournel. It was my first time I had the Fifth Growth, but I found it well-integrated, mature, yet exuding supple and complex secondary and tertiary flavors. There was darker fruit up front that gave way to a hint of herbal on the finish.

I had to smile to myself realizing as I did after a while that the 1976 vintage was none other than the one chosen by Steven Spurrier and the famous Paris Wine Tasting in which the Americans finally topped the French growers.

I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the Cos D’Estournel which is usually, hands down, one of my favorite wines. The 1983 however is from a so-so vintage one year after the legendary ’82 vintage. Having met the man behind the estate before, Bruno Prats, I have always had an infinity for the Super Second as it is often referred to. I even have an autographed bottle of the 2000 vintage. Nevertheless, Cos D’Estournel is perhaps the greatest wine from St. Estephe and for years has been billed a Super Second, meaning that although it is a Second growth it is as close as you can get to the elite 5 First growths.

The fruit was somewhat reticent and the scent was reserved, not nearly as earthy as other vintages. In all fairness, there was a bit of trouble opening the bottle and a wee bit of cork plopped in. I made a note too about the wine’s provenance. A pleasant and unexpected scent and taste of green olive found its way onto my tongue. Very feminine.

The Olivier and The La Lagune were both agreeable, but was it not for the labeled bottles and their classic 2000 vintage I would have kept going back for more Haut-Bages-Liberal, mainly because I was amused that the supposedly inferior vintage had made its impression on me.

The 2006 Prieuré-Lichine showed well, but was still a bit young. Fresh blackcurrant and cassis, and a little cola followed onto the middle palate and I swirled the fabulous Fourth Growth. I am very excited to see what other tricks the right bank specialist Stéphane Derenoncourt can bring to this left bank property.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Interview with Bonnie Jo Campbell

(Photo by Chris Magson)

Today my guest is the incredible Bonnie Jo Campbell. She is the author of Q Road, Women and Other Animals, the her newest collection AMERICAN SALVAGE has been nominated for the National Book Award

JG: It’s a real pleasure having you here today.

BJC: Well, thank you for inviting me. I didn’t know we’d be doing this interview on the Partridge Family bus. This is so wild. Look at these black lights and posters, and all this room to play Twister where the seats are taken out! Even the bathroom is lovely—and I never would have expected a bidet, and such a pretty one. Will the driver stop for cow sightings or pie shops?

JG: You’re an amazing writer. You have what I’d call a magical way of turning the horrific and profane into poetry. Some of your characters are so raw, touching the edge of villainous, but yet they’re lovable. How do you do it?

BJC: Thank you for your kind comments. I guess that your use of “horrific” and “profane” and “villainous” means you wouldn’t want to hang out with my characters. I’m always a little surprised that people think my characters are so bad. As human beings we are all capable of being both gracious and horrible (in fact, within the last 24 hours I have been both) and everywhere in between. I am interested in writing about characters who are in lousy situations, and so often they are stressed psychologically, physically, and financially, and desperate people don’t look quite so attractive as folks who are doing just fine. So I guess I see my characters as human, and I strive to find and show their humanity even when the characters are not looking or doing their best.

JG: In your newest collection, American Salvage, there’s a wonderful story entitled “The Inventor 1979” would you like to share the inspiration behind that piece?

BJC: That story was inspired by a neighborhood story. I grew up in the same house my mom grew up in, and when she was a kid, another neighbor kid drowned in the pond experimenting with his own scuba equipment. When I was young, a friend of mine got hit by a car on the way to school. She was walking with my brother, and she happened to be a niece of the boy who drowned. So I worked from there. Nothing much in the story is actually true, but it’s my pondering of old events that inspired to write what I did.

JG: Joyce Carol Oates described your characters in Women and Other Animals “as real as if perceiving them through an opened window.” You don’t actually spy on people, but how do you make them so real?

BJC: I make my characters real by BEING all my characters. By the time I’ve spent hundreds of hours writing the stories, I have thoroughly embodied the characters in those stories.

JG: From Women and Other Animals it’s a toss up for me, I love both “Shotgun Wedding” and “The Smallest Man in the World” what’s your favorite story in that collection?

BJC: I guess I don’t have a favorite story from that collection. Not sure why. I guess I love “Old Dogs,” but it’s a very sad story. I read it aloud once, and the room filled with despair. I think one poet in the audience was crying.

JG: From your website and from some of your stories I can see you love animals and especially gorillas. You know I have a penchant for our primate cousins too. How’d did your affinity for them come about?

BJC: I don’t know if I love gorillas, but I feel that I sometimes become a gorilla, and it’s possible that one day I won’t turn back into a human, so I need to keep friendly with the species.

JG: What are you reading now?

BJC: I’m reading Kristina Riggle’s REAL LIFE AND LIARS. It’s funny. I’m reading a book of poems by Sharon Dolin, BURN AND DODGE. It’s essential and complicated.

JG: I have to know what was going through your mind the day you got the National Book Award nomination. What were you doing at that moment? Did the announcement come in the mail, was it an email, a text message?

BJC: They called me one day in advance, and told me that I couldn’t tell anyone but my husband. I asked if I could tell the donkeys, and they said that was fine, but not the chickens. Chickens couldn’t be trusted to tell the secret.

JG:Besides American Salvage what other book deserves to win? Is that a leading a question?

BJC: I don’t buy hardcovers, and the finalists are all checked out the library, so I haven’t read the other books. I’m sure Jayne Anne Phillips is most worthy.

JG: What's your daily writing routine like?

BJC: I write every day that I can, all mornings, and I’m sad when I can’t write. When life is richest, I can also grab a few evenings for writing, but that doesn’t happen very often.

JG: You have a pretty cool blog called Screen Porch Literary Adventures. How did it come about?

BJC: I have three blogs. The Screen Porch Literary Adventures blog was for writing about any time that three or more writers congregate on my screen porch. Lately my toilet has been screwing up so I haven’t been inviting anyone to sit and drink on my screen porch. I have to get that fixed. Its at
My regular writer blog is “The Bone-Eye”
I also have an events blog, in case anyone wants to figure out where I’ll be:

JG: What’s your next stop on the book tour?

BJC: I just got back from Ann Arbor, and next week I go to Elgin, Illinois, to visit Elgin Community College. They’re a great bunch there. They have a great writing program.

JG: You have this reputation for being one of the coolest writers and a bit of a party gal. I saw you once slap-boxing with the poet Kim Addonizio. Care to comment? What other things do you do for fun?

BJC: Oh, gosh, I’m normally a dullard, just sitting around and writing and reading. I do get lively when I’ve got a drink in me, and I remember my former life as wild woman and tour guide. Then anything can happen. I have my reputation to consider, so I won’t tell tales on myself.

JG: What’s your favorite place to hang out?

BJC: I really like to hang out in the donkey barn. The donkeys make a lot of sense to me. If I want to socialize with the humans, I go to Bell’s Brewery, also called Kalamazoo Brewing Company, downtown.

JG: Who are some of your influences as a writer?

BJC: I’d like to say Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck. Realistically, though, I’m probably very much influenced by my mom, who tells outrageous stories about people stealing equipment from construction sites and dancing with lampshades on their heads. I’m also probably my old grandpa, who always started every one of his many stories, “It was kind of cute …” His stories established the basic humanity and commonality of all the folks in his stories.

JG: The word is you used to be a math professor. The only other mathlete writer I know of is Manil Suri. How did this switcheroo come about? Did you secretly always want to write?

BJC: I always wanted to write. I always wrote, but I wasn’t planning to put my eggs in the writing basket. I tried to resist. I was in a Mathematics PhD program. I was going to write my thesis on graph theory. And then I started weeping all the time. My PhD advisor, Dr. Art White, suggested I take a writing class. I took my Master’s Degree in math and jumped ship. I was hooked on fiction writing. I loved teaching mathematics, and I do miss that.

JG: What advice would you give young writers?

BJC: Write, have adventures, write better, have better adventures, get to know other writers with whom you can grow and share. Have adventures with those other writers. Write stuff that other people might want to read.

JG: Would you say you've had an a-ha moment as a writer?

BJC: When I suddenly realized that I should write about my own people, my tribe, I began to write a lot better.

JG: By the way, I love the souvenir tattoos for American Salvage. Did your publicist come up with that idea? How can I get one of those?

BJC: That was my idea. I wanted to have something fun for my book release party. I had matches for my second book, and also a local brewery brewed me a special beer. I’ll mail tattoos to anyone who wants them. I have thousands.

JG: I feel it’s my duty to ask you a question about the craft of literature. I know that sounds hokey but could you share with the readers a bit about the nuts and bolts of what you do. Like how long it takes you to write a solid draft? Do you work on multiple projects at once? I’m guessing because of your math background you’re analytical, but I may be wrong. Maybe your approach to writing is straight from the gut.

BJC: It takes me hundreds of hours to write a short story. A novel seems impossible, so I just keep plugging away without thinking about the time. I work on lots of projects at once. I don’t believe in writer’s block, though I can get tired of working on a given piece. I try to write from the gut, but that analytic mind sure is helpful in revision, which is ninety five percent of what I do. I write as best I can, and then I share my work with fellow writers, and I value their comments immensely.

JG: What are you working on now?

BJC: Lots of things. I wish I had eight hours a day to write. I’d spend two hours a day just on poetry. I’d write an essay every month. Really, though, I can find about three hours a day.

JG: What is the next project?

BJC: A novel. I don’t want to say any more.

JG: Any final words of wisdom you’d like to share?

BJC: Hey, I love being on this crazy bus. Can you ask the driver to pull over so I can get out and take a photograph of that three-legged cow?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Interview with Shya Scanlon

My guest today is the talented writer Shya Scanlon who is the author of the serialized novel Forecast 42, which will be released by Flatmancrooked in Spring 2010. His poetry collection In This Alone Impulse will be published by Noemi Press next month.

JG) Tell us about Forecast 42?

SS) The Forecast 42 Project is a serialization of my novel Forecast across 42 online literary journals and literary blogs.

JG) I think it’s fascinating that you are doing a serialized Novel it makes me think of Dickens. It’s huge. What drove you to do Forecast 42?

SS) Yes, Dickens. Actually, I just published an article about the history and future of serialization at The Faster Times. But I didn’t know much about it when I began the project. It came about largely because I was fed up with following the usual publication path. The book is difficult and strange, and many of the people who would not balk at those elements of it are involved in the alternative and independent press scene. It seemed to make sense to look for my audience there—but an audience is a difficult thing to build, so I went to where the readers are.

JG) How many different journals have your chapters appeared in? Would you like share some of their names?

SS) I’ve been very fortunate to find the support of a very engaged community of editors and bloggers. I couldn’t have asked for more. There is a full list of the 42 web sites involved on the Forecast 42 Project page at my blog:

JG) Your website is pretty cool. It’s a cross between bold minimalism and chic modernism. Did you design it yourself?

SS) For that I have my friend Matty Harper to thank. He’s designed my site, as well as the Forecast cover, and the cover for my forthcoming book of poetry.

JG) What’s Nervous Breakdown? I believe you’ve been a contributor there for a while.

SS) The Nervous Breakdown is a web site run by author Brad Listi devoted to nonfiction and memoir by a ton of great writers (over 200), both emerging and established. I’ve been contributing for a few months, yes. My literary agent sold Brad’s first book, and she introduced us. But this is the exciting part: on November 15th, the site is launching a 3.0 version, which will include fiction, poetry, arts & culture, and all sorts of other great content. It’s going to be massive. And I’ll be co-editing the fiction section, along with Gina Frangello and Stacy Bierlein (editors of OV Books —part of the Dzanc empire), and award-winning author Alexander Chee We’ve got some tricks up our sleeve, and it’s going to be one of the most exciting places for fiction on the Web.

JG) A few years ago I saw you at a Literary Death Match in the world-renowned Tompkins Square Park. What’s it like doing that live, totally awesome reading series?

SS) I’ve participated in the LDM twice, and lost both times. Along with San Francisco author Andrew Dugas, this makes me the losingest LDM contestant—a title I’ll defend to the death.

JG) I don’t want to put you on the spot but you are kind of literary maverick. Would you say that about yourself?

SS) Actually, funny you should say that, because I just got back from my weekly lunch with John McCain, and we were swapping battle stories. Of course, his are a bit more heroic, but I think he knows that succeeding in the small press literary scene requires the same mixture: grit, innovation, and perseverance. Seriously, though, I don’t think I’m that uncommon. A lot of authors are realizing they have to step up their self-promotion in order to get their work read, because traditional lines of promotion are being cut, even by major publishing houses. Whether or not you’re “cut out for it,” you have to find some way of establishing visibility. Plus, it can be fun in its own right.

JG) Your new book deal is with Flatmancrooked, a cutting edge outfit from California, when is your book coming out in print?

SS) I don’t think they’ve set a hard date yet, but we’re shooting for spring, so I’d guess April. We’ll see. We want the book to be amazing, in both content and form, so that’s more important than meeting a deadline at this point.

JG) Would you like to add anything about your relationship with the Publisher? Did James recruit you or did your submission make it past the slush pile?

SS) Actually, the author I mentioned before, Andrew Dugas, somehow caught wind of my project in its germinal stages, and since he was writing an article about alternative publishing models for Flatmancrooked at the time, he included a mention of my project in his essay. They liked the project, signed up to participate in the serialization, and ended up liking the entire manuscript enough to pick it up. They’re a remarkably vibrant, optimistic and smart group of people, and anything they get behind is bound to be extraordinary. I couldn’t have hoped for a better fit for pushing Forecast out into the world as a physical object.

JG) What are you reading now?

I’m in the midst of conducting an interview with Terese Svoboda for HTMLGIANT, so for the last couple weeks I’ve been reading and re-reading a number of her books. She’s an excellent stylist, and possesses a strong moral compass to boot. I recommend both her first novel, Cannibal, and her recent memoir, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent. She also has a novel about pirates coming out next year from Dzanc that looks promising.

SS) I’m also reading the surreal comic novel The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, and am about to pick up Dune for the first time—a book that’s been recommended to me several times over the years, by such a wide range of readers that I simply can no longer chalk its popularity up to nerds.

JG) What projects are you working on now?

SS) I’ve been spending a lot of time revising Forecast for publication, and have my hands in a lot of “side projects,” such as editing a Fan Fiction section for Opium 9, managing an exquisite corpse story involving 65 contributors (must be read to be believed), and of course working toward the imminent launch of The Nervous Breakdown 3.0. It’s been a number of months since I finished my last novel—a novel-in-stories called Look No Further—and I’m definitely eager to get started on my next book, but I’m not sure when that’ll happen.

JG) Where can I buy your books?

SS) Well, nowhere, yet. But In This Alone Impulse will be available in mid-December through Small Press Distribution —a perfect stocking stuffer for your strange, uncommunicative nephew!

JG) Where did the idea for Forecast come from?

SS) Forecast was the result of a number of different interests and forces in my life. It’s ultimately a story about being an author—the book is narrated by a man whose job it is to constantly watch a woman, and to essentially create a narrative of her life, to get inside her head. Perhaps inevitably, he gets too attached to her, and so when she begins to slip from his grasp, it’s difficult for him on a technical level, but also on an emotional level. Anyone who’s written a novel knows something about post-partum depression, and there’s a strong current of this anxiety running through the book. But it’s also about Seattle—a city I grew up in—and capturing the strange combination of high-tech and organic sensibilities that converge there. The city just has a very futuristic feel, an optimistic feel (look at the Space Needle hovering above the skyline), but it also has a lot of rain, a lot of frustration, and not a little apathy. A society in which everyone has something to gain from self-delusion or denial is an exaggeration, sure, but a realistic exaggeration, if such a term is possible, of life there.


Shya Scanlon’s prose poetry collection In This Alone Impulse will be published by Noemi Press in December, 2009. His novel Forecast will be published by Flatmancrooked in Spring, 2010. Shya received his MFA from Brown University in 2008, where he won the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction. A contest has been named in his honor. He lives in various places with his girlfriend Erin, a strange man named Matty Harper, and their dog Violet.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Flash Fiction Tips with Linda Courtland

(Today Linda Courtland, author of Somewhere to Turn: Stories will be sharing her expertise in flash fiction. Her collection is comprised of 37 terrific shorts.)

Write and Publish Your Flash Fiction: Ten Tips

by Linda Courtland

1. Kill the Adverbs – Get rid of as many modifiers as possible. Slash them with red ink and pack more action into your story. Verbs and nouns are your friends.

2. Keep it Simple – Use short sentences. Keep proper names to two syllables. Use “said” in dialog tags.

3. Use your Emotion – Stir up your senses with rock ballads, patchouli oil, dark chocolate, or whatever moves you. Then transfer that passion to the page.

4. Laugh a Little – Comic touches can set your story apart. Check out how I tackled environmental issues by hiring dolphins to work in office cubicles: Day Job of the Dolphin
Link to:

5. Name your Baby – Pick a title that will stand out in an online Table of Contents. Be clickable. Go for something unusual or provocative.

6. Make a List of Markets – Read the bios of writers you like, and check out the places where they’ve previously published stories. Do research at Subscribe to flash newsletters and blogs.

7. Study the Submission Guidelines – Follow the rules, exactly. If an online market asks for plain text, don’t copy and paste from Microsoft Word. I tried it, and my story about the Secret Wheat Police now has fractions where the hyphens used to be. Witness my shame at: Not So Simple
Link to:

8. Be on Your Best Behavior – Be polite and respectful. Say Please and Thank You. Never argue with an editor if she passes on your story.

9. Learn to Deal with Rejection – Always have a back-up plan. If a story is rejected, send it out again, the same day, to the next place on your list. If it’s rejected three times, consider rewriting, or try submitting to a different type of market.

10. Celebrate Like the Rock Star You Are! – When your piece is accepted, do something special. Tell people, lots of people. And revel in your success.

Here’s wishing you fun and satisfaction with all your flash submissions. Happy writing!

Linda Courtland
Author, Somewhere to Turn: stories