Paula Bomer is the girl you smoked your first cigarette with in the girls’ bathroom or, as an underage girl, took a beer bong hit at some off-campus party. You listened to Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson together, and she always seemed to date a guy who looked like Paul Westerberg of The Replacements.
Sandy Fink: It is a pleasure to welcome you to Starts Here! on April 28, 7:00 at Artifact Coffee in Baltimore. You teach at the University of Maryland, so I assume you’ve been to Baltimore…
Maud Casey: I lived in Baltimore for three years, from 2002-2005. I was writer-in-residence at Gilman School for a year, and then was hired by the University of Maryland to teach in the MFA Program.
Pamela Erens’ second novel, The Virgins (Tin House Books, 2013), the tale of sexually abstinent boarding school teenagers Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung, was included in several notable and best books lists of 2013, including both the New Yorker and the New Republic. Erens will read along with Baltimore authors John Rowell and Jennifer Lee at the Ivy Bookstore’s Starts Here! reading series at Artifact Coffee on Monday, March 31st at 7:00 pm. Starts Here! cohost Sandy Fink talked with Erens about The Virgins as well as her critically acclaimed first book, The Understory, and her first visit to Baltimore:
Sandy Fink: Hi Pamela. We’re really looking forward to hosting you at Artifact Coffee in Baltimore on March 31st. Have you ever been to Baltimore?
Pamela Erens: Not really. I passed through on the way back from Charleston a few years ago. I’m looking forward to coming back and meeting some readers and writers there.
A Good Woman Is Hard to Find: Baltimore Artist Starts Flannery O’Connor Parade and Block Party in Savannah, GA
Baltimore artist Christine Sajecki has been known for years for her encaustic paintings, which have graced book covers, gallery walls, and the studios of the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown, where she taught the medium for several years while an artist in residence. Her latest endeavor, however, has nothing to do with wax or Charm City, but a southern writer, one celebrated by hipsters and misanthropes and the literary world alike for her brutal Southern Gothic short stories and novels.
“I moved to Georgia in 2009, and while I was living there with my husband I found a proclamation at the library in Savannah, declaring January 13th, 1972, as Flannery O’Connor Day,” Sajecki explains. “I had just made a friend, Andrew Hartzell, who said something along the lines of, “hey, if anyone ever has a reason to throw a parade, let me know!”
Writer Jane Delury is not one to skim the surface. Her narrative landscapes, the product of a life spent in California, France, and Baltimore, are lush with atmosphere and magic; the reader is transformed by Delury’s meticulous detail and subtle gradations in her character’s interior landscapes, traits that have won her the prestigious PEN/O. Henry Story Prize. Delury’s work appears in the Yale Review, Narrative, and The Southern Review, and she is currently the Klein Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Baltimore. Jen Michalski, host of Starts Here! (the new Ivy Bookshop reading series held at Artifact Coffee), interviewed Delury about her story collection, novel-in-progress, and the strata of chaos that forms the basis of her work. Delury reads with Gina Frangello and Rob Roberge at the Artifact Coffee, Monday, February 10th at 7 p.m.–visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website for more information.
Jen Michalski: I am in absolute love with your story “Transformation of the Matter,” which appeared in The Southern Review a few years ago, about an unexpected snowfall in a French village and a terrible turn of events that follows. It was one of those times when a story transcended my relationship with you as a person, as in “I can’t believe I know someone who wrote such an incredible story.” It’s so good that I can’t even be jealous I didn’t write it because I am incapable of writing it. So, imagine my delight in finding out it is part of a larger story collection! All set in France?
Jane Delury: Thanks, Jen. You made me blush. Yes, I’ve been writing stories for this collection since grad school. I took a class on Joyce’s Ulysses with the wonderful Judith Grossman. She had the students write a scene in the spirit of the book, and I ended up with a stream-of-consciousness piece about a man who lives near a forest in France, where I lived for much of my twenties. This forest figures in all of the stories, though not always as the literal setting. For example, a more recent story has the setting of Disneyland and the forest is an imaginary place in the mind of a character.
JM: Yes, you have mentioned in other interviews that you are “sometimes working with an atmosphere, rather than a particular place.” Does Baltimore figure in your work, or perhaps its atmosphere? How would you describe it?
JD: Baltimore figures big in the novel I’m working on, which takes place here and in France. The Baltimore chapters are mostly set along the Jones Falls. I almost fell down an embankment near the streetcar museum on one of my research expeditions! Baltimore’s smokestacks, chicken bones, brick and lawn, and neon signs are in the novel. Funny, though, I think the atmosphere that most affects my character is that of the woods along the Falls. Clearly, I have a thing for forests.
JM: You said once in response to your limited use of dialogue, that “characters are given more power in the narrative.” It’s very intimidating for readers, I think, in reading and in viewing a physical page, to see a large, dense block of text without any breaks, any breathing room that is often provided by dialogue. But I find, in your work, even though it is thick in narrative, that you ask the reader for a long-term relationship and that you deliver on the intimacy and richness of it. Is there any writing that you don’t like, that you feel asks too much or too little of you?
JD: I love what you say about a “long-term relationship’ with the reader and about intimacy. I think that’s exactly what I try to do in my stories. I read and admire many stories that are dialogue heavy, Junot Díaz’s work, for example. But that isn’t what happens when I start to write. There’s something magical about being pulled under by a paragraph and submitting to its tide. I’m reading Stephen Dixon’s His Wife Leaves Him right now. The man never saw a paragraph he didn’t want to not break! He makes the reader work, and it’s so worth the effort. As for what I don’t like, I don’t like writing that treats me like an idiot, writing in which I can feel the narrator trying to manipulate my emotions. Make me laugh. Make me cry. But don’t tell me that you’re doing it.
JM: What advice do you give most often to writing students at The University of Baltimore? What was the most important piece of advice given to you?
JD: Well, that idea of making the reader do interesting work is one bell I’m always ringing. Also, the idea of no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. I tell students when they’re drafting that if they know exactly where the story is going, their reader is probably going to figure it out too. How boring! I also mention the word chaos a lot. I think you have to write into chaos to find the interesting material. I’d much rather they write a splendid mess of a draft than a well-ordered, predictable story. As for the most important advice I’ve ever received, it would be from Italo Calvino in his memo on Lightness from Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I won’t try to explain it. I’d just suggest anyone interested in writing read that book.
JM: What writers do you read for absolute guilty fun?
JD: Forgive the lame reply, but I really don’t read anyone for guilty fun. This is only because I am engaged in a constant struggle to find time to read. There are three unread books by my bed right now, sitting there making me feel bad about myself. I think guilty fun is important, though. Taking yourself too seriously is never a good idea and a particular problem for writers. One of my guilty pleasures is watching a show while eating ramen (the cheap kind) with a bunch of random stuff thrown in. My poet friend and I do this every week. We stop each other from critiquing dialogue and character development. Couch. Ramen. Easy Plot.
JM: For the big finish, no pun intended, you often talk about revising and revising your work. When do you feel it’s finally finished?
JD: When I can read it through and not identify any moments of fakery. Actually, that might be one of the most important things for a writer to learn about revision: cut out all the parts where you know you were faking.
Don’t forget: Jane Delury, Gina Frangello, and Rob Roberge will be reading and signing copies of their books on Monday, February 10th, 2014 at Artifact Coffee at 7 pm. For information, visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website.
Laura van den Berg’s second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, will be remembered as the one that catapulted her from indie-press steerage to first-class cruising with contemporaries Karen Russell, Josh Weil, Alissa Nutting, and Adele Waldman. Not that her first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was overlooked; it was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, longlisted for The Story Prize, and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. The Florida-born van den Berg, who spent several years teaching in Baltimore before moving to Boston with novelist and husband Paul Yoon earlier this year, is returning to the Charm City to read from Isle with novelist Katharine Noel on January 7th. Jen Michalski, host of Starts Here! (the new Ivy Bookshop reading series held at Artifact Coffee), interviewed van den Berg about the rather-human islands that populate her work.–van den Berg reads with Katharine Noel at the Artifact Coffee, Tuesday, January 7th at 7 p.m.–visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website for more information.
A rolling stone gathers no moss, and neither does the writer Madison Smartt Bell. The author of 20 novels, including All Souls’ Rising (which was a finalist in 1995 for the National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfeld-Wolf award for best book of the year addressing race), Bell is as prolific as he is unpredictable, and 2013-14 is no exception. In the spring, Bell’s novel Behind the Moon will be released by upstart publisher Dymaxicon, and this month, Concord Free Press will release Zig-Zag Wanderer, two decades of stories set in the United States, Haiti, and beyond, under an innovative publishing paradigm. This limited-edition collection will be given away for free (yes, you read that correctly). Jen Michalski, host of Starts Here! (the new Ivy Bookshop reading series held at Artifact Coffee), interviewed Madison Smartt Bell about the crazy rhythms that run through his work.– Bell reads at the Ivy, Wednesday, December 11th at 7 p.m.–visit the store’s website for more information.