Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A Cup of Coffee With Dexter L. Booth (Interview by Kevin Hanlon)

Dexter L. Booth showed up late, frazzled, and having just come from the preparation committee meeting for a friend’s surprise birthday party. He apologized, and we laughed. Planning surprise birthday parties alone would be enough work for most people, but Booth keeps busy and uses every second of the day to his advantage.

A couple of years ago, Booth was still polishing his manuscript and hard at work getting his writing published. “I entered it into a bunch of contests,” he says, “That’s kind of what you do. You enter, you wait, and you just hope someone likes your stuff.”

It didn’t take long for Booth–a graduate of the MFA program at Arizona State University and an alumnus of Hayden’s Ferry Review [ed. note: Booth served as poetry editor for issue 49 & 50]–to get noticed. In 2012, his poetry collection, Scratching the Ghost, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. The following year, the book was published. These days Booth is on tour, giving readings and promoting his work while still teaching undergraduate English at ASU.

But Booth is humble. He never intended for any fame or recognition, although he remarked that it was nice to be acknowledged for his writing. He hopes he can inspire others to read and write through his work both in the classroom and on the page.

Scratching the Ghost explores childhood memories, growing up, and everything that comes with life and afterwards. Booth has produced honest and passionate poetry that reveals tender and universal truths of life. It dwells in the areas most people fear to address.

We sat down for nearly three hours and chatted about technology, ghosts, and what it means to be a black poet in the 21st century.

Kevin Hanlon: Where does (your) poetry take place?

Dexter L. Booth: Somewhere between the real world, where our feet are on the ground, and the sort of mental space that I won’t say is necessarily religious, but somewhere between the real world and that dream state. You know, when you wake up and things are kind of hazy, you’re still sort of dreaming, and you’re not quite sure if someone is next to you or not. I think my poems take place in that space. They try to figure out the self: the waking self and the daily self.

KH: In your poem, “Letter to a Friend,” from the section entitled Our Famous Shadows, you write, “I always come back to these woods/feeling guilty under the accusing/leaves. How everything changes–/a mother again loses her son to the stream.” Where is the line between influence and experience in your work?

DLB: I don’t know. I was a visual artist in undergrad – a painting major. I have this visual part of my mind, and I think that sometimes that helps my poetry because I can see things in a way that’s a little different than people that don’t have that background. I try to write from experience, partly because I like confessionist poetry, and partly because this was a time in my life when these things needed to be addressed. So I think those two things are very closely connected in this book.

KH: What are Our Famous Shadows?

DLB: That was actually an alternative title for the book. A lot of the poems are about childhood and this idea that you become infamous for the things that you did in your childhood. There are these huge events in our life you’re like, when I as a kid a kid, I did this thing, and it’s awesome. Then you get older and you realize it wasn’t really that great. And then sometimes you have strange events in your life and you’re like, oh this thing happened and it was weird, and you look back and think, What? I survived?

I think childhood becomes the shadow that follows you around. You’re not always going to be the same person, but the things you did in your childhood–the friends you made, how you were raised–those are the things that stick with you. In some ways, those are the things that get artists some sort of attention. I think childhood is one of the key elements to writing poetry and staying creative. The most creative people I’ve ever met are children. That’s one part of myself that I never want to let go of: that freedom that children have to imagine things the way that they do.

When you’re little you’re like, oh there are no rules, you can do whatever you want. You draw whatever you want–you can make yourself purple if you want. Then you grow up, and especially if you go to art school they say, “Well there are these rules, and you have to color in these lines.” I think we get accustomed to working in these structures that we forget that there is a sort of freedom in not following the rules.

KH: You moved here from Virginia, and it comes out a lot in your poetry. Can you tell me about that?

DLB: I was born and raised in Virginia, and pretty much my whole family is there. No one has really left…ever. When I came to Arizona for my MFA I was the first one in my family to move out of Virginia. I got in my car with my cats and some art supplies, and I just drove across the country. I had never even left the state. It was terrifying. And so again, you can see that reference to the title [of the book]. Virginia as a state doesn’t have the best history, and so literally there are lots of ghosts in Virginia’s history that I felt followed me across the country. In some ways, I had to come to terms with those.

There’s a poem in there for my friend John where we talked about race. The poem is entitled “Queen Elizabeth.” It was very strange leaving Virginia and then coming here. I met people who would say, “I’ve never had a black friend,” and, “What’s it like to be black?” It was very strange.

KH: In that poem, “Queen Elizabeth,” you talk about being a black writer. What’s that mean?

DLB: What does that mean? I think that’s the question for the 21st century: What does it mean to be a black writer in poetry? For me, I just want to make my own path. Obviously, in the book, about 95% of the stuff actually happened. That was a real situation [in “Queen Elizabeth.”]. I was at a poetry reading and I heard a younger black kid say, “I don’t want to be a black writer.” That was something that bothered me because I had thought that same thing previously, before even coming for my MFA. Back then I said, I want to go do this thing. I want to write poems, but I don’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want people to assume that I wrote like Langston Hughes or was a slam poet. I guess in some ways that poem is me coming to terms with the fact that what it means to be a black writer is whatever I do with my writing. Every day that I wake up I’m going to be my heritage, and so I have to take that and move forward. I can’t worry about those things when I write.

KH: We live in an ever increasingly technological world. Why write? Why poetry?

DLB: I write because I don’t know what else to do. I’ve been writing and making art since I was little, and that’s the only thing that I enjoy. I have always wanted to affect people’s lives, but I don’t trust myself enough to be a doctor and cut someone open. That’s just not a thing that I should do. But with poetry, I can affect people and I never have to meet them–there’s no recovery time. They can’t blame me if they walk away from the poem and they’re like, “Oh my lungs hurt,” you know? I have nothing to do with that. I just don’t know anything else that I’d be doing with my life other than writing and teaching. I love it.

KH: What is the state of poetry today?

DLB: I think that we are entering a kind of a renaissance, at least in my mind, with technology, with slam poetry, with rap music, with all of these things that are branching out from traditional poetry, as we knew it. Especially with the Internet and self-publishing there are people who can publish their poems everywhere. There are people who stand on corners and sell their poems that they staple together. I think a lot more people are writing now, which is good. I hope that means a lot more people are reading.

KH: Do you think it’s important to unplug?

DLB: Yes, definitely. When the weather’s nice I go out to Hole in the Rock by myself with a computer or a notebook and write. Even if I’m at home writing, I cut off the Internet because I do get distracted. I’ll wonder, “Oh what are people doing on Facebook?” and that’s just not important…ever.

KH: When do you know a piece is finished or whole?

DLB: When I can’t fix it anymore. With Scratching the Ghost, I can’t do anything to the book now that it’s published, so it’s just done. Once it’s published that’s as close to finished as it’s going to get.

KH: What is your greatest source of inspiration?

DLB: Now I get it from other people, from watching the world. After the book, I was tired of writing about myself, so now I write about other people and things that are going on in other countries. The world sufferings, I guess you could say.

KH: What’s next? What are you working on?

DLB: Right now I’m working on a collection of poems that are letters to different friends. They’re letters to friends, but they’re letters to the world that address a larger issue.

***
Dexter L. Booth reads tonight (April 9) at 7 p.m. at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Scratching the Ghost is available from Graywolf Press.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Where Are They Now: An Interview with Past Contributors (Part 2)

With fifty-three issues published, nearly twenty-five hundred contributors accepted and tens of thousands of submissions read, we start to wonder where our previous contributors have run off to. Fortunately, I was able to catch up with a few of them, and we were able to go through a round-table discussion of questions and answers in order to find out what some of them have been up to!

Here's part two of our interview, featuring: Anthony Varallo, a fiction contributor in Issue 47; Hugh Sheehy, a fiction contributor in Issue 36; and Liz Prato, a nonfiction contributor in Issue 50. Check out part 1 here!

Sophean Soeun: If you could have written one bestselling book/series before the original author wrote it, which book/series would it be and why?

Hugh Sheehy: I don’t have a good answer for this. I mean, I feel like I should say Shakespeare, which is pretty awesome to imagine for myself, though I suspect a little boring for other people (they’d be let down to think of Shakespeare as being just five foot six, for starters). There are plenty of writers I admire--more recently, folks like David Mitchell and Jane Smiley--but I tend to read their work until I lose interest in it. (As a result, I’m always at a loss when people ask me about my favorite authors and books, or worse, about my influences, because I suspect that readers would be better at spotting them than I am.) One series of books that made a deep impression on me when I was young is John Bellairs’s Johnny Dixon novels. I haven’t read them since I was ten and eleven, and I doubt I’ll go back and look at them anytime soon, lest I correct my memory too much: I want to write books that make people now feel the way those novels made me feel then.

Liz Prato
Liz Prato: I just realized every title I was coming up with -- like Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? and Ramona the Brave -- are from my childhood, so it’s not so much that I could have written those books, but that they taught me what I wanted to write. And that goes back to the question about bizarre ideas. I was never reading fantasy or sci-fi. I was just reading about ordinary people trying to figure out this being human gig, because I’ve always found that plenty mysterious. Any book that helps another person understand that better -- that’s what I want to write.

Anthony Varallo: I read a lot of Hardy Boys books as a kid. They had a whole display of them at the supermarket—right at the checkout lane—for some mysterious reason. That always impressed me, that you might need The Secret of the Old Mill or The Sinister Signpost as urgently as aspirin or breath mints. I guess I’d like to write a book like that.

SS: Why is there so little understanding among beginning writers of what actually constitutes a story/plot/conflict?

Anthony Varallo
AV: I had almost no idea what a short story--or a “literary” short story--was until I got to college. I simply hadn’t read many short stories; I read novels. That’s something I remind my students all the time: those of us who aspire to write short fiction come to short fiction through the novel, which is very different from the short story. I think we sometimes forget how confusing the short story can seem to beginning writers (“Why does nothing happen?” “Why is this so depressing?” “How could that be the ending?”) who have never seen a “plot” that’s closer to “a series of ordinary events ending in epiphany.”

LP: Funny -- my problem with a lot of short stories I see from young writers is that nothing happens. And by that, I mean there is no conflict, nothing at stake, nothing pushing against the character. I just read an amazing story by Joanna Rose that accomplishes what both Tony and I are talking about. It takes place during an average week in a small town bar, and the entire conflict is that a stranger comes in and acts like a dick. The tension comes from how these insular, dignified people will react. It’s a quiet story without enormous action and no life or death consequences, and the tension is still thick throughout. The epiphany at the end is what maintaining the integrity of their community looks like to these people. But that’s probably precisely the sort of plot that baffles beginning writers.

Oh, and I totally I agree that the issue is people try to write short stories without reading short stories, without making an effort to understand how and why they work. A lot of young writers struggling to get their work published ask me for advice, and I say, “Do you re-read your favorite stories and figure out the way they work?” and it’s not just that they say no -- it’s as if that never occurred to them. There’s a way in which writers are like astrophysicists, though: it’s not enough to imagine a world beyond our boundaries, and it’s not enough to just understand the math and the science. You have to be able to do both.

Hugh Sheehy
HS: I like to think of John Gardner’s statement about fiction having a moral imperative as deriving from the Latin stem mor-, which means “custom”: so fiction has to show us a theory of what people are, how they work in a certain place-and-time (which, since we’re talking about representation here, is interchangeable with “mind”). So fiction presents us with some kind of narrative (implicitly so, if there is no story to speak of in the fiction, as you see in some of the work, for instance, of Lydia Davis) that demonstrates how an author works out tensions she perceives between subjects she imagines in a more or less verisimilar way: they might be a particular bankrupt husband and wife with only a car left to their names and the bank coming for that on Monday, or they might be a forlorn cuckolded widower and a woman who grows teeth all over her body, or they might take some other form. I think what’s difficult for a lot of beginners--I know it was (is) for me--is learning to accept and then embrace the need to keep working with the tensions between subjects until the conflicts stand out clearly and drive or order the action. This is a wordy way of agreeing with the definition of fiction-writing Liz and Anthony are discussing. It also, I think, can shed some light on why writers just starting out often traffic heavily in cliches--sometimes composing stories using cliches of speech and writing in order to tell a story that is itself a cliche. Fiction writing is a kind of thinking, one many of us have to learn.

But I think there are professional writers who are confused about this stuff. Take the “story” versus “plot” issue. The difference goes beyond terminology into realms of metaphysics and aesthetics. I teach my students that “story” refers to the larger sense of narrative created by a story’s telling: the sense we have of characters having lives off of the page. And I teach that “plot” refers to the way the story is told: the point of view, the structuring of events, the personal narrative strategies each writer fashions to make things like tone work--in short, the writing. But there’s a problem some might see with this distinction, particularly that the “story” the reader imagines is inseparable from the “plot” they read as it is embodied in the words on the page. If the language that makes up a story cannot be separated from a reader’s reading-and-imagination of the story, then it makes no sense to distinguish between “story” and “plot”. Some folks might say I am guilty of reification when I speak of a story distinct from a plot; I would say that when I am writing, I am choosing to tell some things and not others. And then they might point out that the story I speak of does not exist apart from the words on the page, and I might say that if I am reifying it is with good intentions, and so on and so forth. I think there’s a poorly articulated conflict among creative writers over whether to privilege the word or the imagination, language or story. It’s been around since at least the mid-Twentieth Century quibbles over how to write, what to write about, the political role of writing--in short, whether story itself can make a difference, or whether creative writing has to move on to other effects to do more than provide a temporary escape for readers. Today there’s a lot of vague talk about experimental writing versus conventional writing, and while there are clearer differences between writing programs, creative writing teachers need to cover a lot of terrain and accommodate students who want to write, not understand critical ideas, even if those can be very useful. Add in small (or large) differences in aesthetic philosophy between teachers, and you can get a whole lot of confusion over basic things, like what is meant by “plot” (which is, unfortunately, commonly used to mean something like “narrative stencil”). In the face of a muddle like that, some students might just shrug their shoulders and write what they intended to write when they registered for the course. That’s too bad for the less sure writers, because a little learning can go a very long way in fiction writing. That said, I think the terminology problem may fade a little as we get better at teaching CW (a young academic field) and increase our library of craft books. Still, there will probably always be some conflict over the basics, because differences in fundamental understanding make way for invention and large scale innovations in arts.

Friday, April 4, 2014

This Week in Writing

  • On March 28th, Barry Harbaugh wrote “Yes, Book Editors Edit,” his response to the buzzing essay collection “MFA vs NYC.” The collection, published by n+1, features work from writers, professors, publicists, agents—but no book editors.
  • Linton Weeks at NPR has written an essay titled “Vladimir Putin is Right Out Of A Russian Novel.” In the piece, Weeks posits that Putin, in his reign, “has chosen [to follow] the Dostoevskian tradition.”
  • A printed edition of Wikipedia is in the works—and it would span more than one million pages in total. Seems like a worthless idea to me. Listen to NPR's talking points (3/30) here.
  • On April 1st, Gmail celebrated its 10 year anniversary. Here, Time's Harry McCracken rehashes the service's revolutionary history.
  • In The Believer's March/April issue, Anisse Gross interviews filmmaker/screenwriter Mary Harron about the role of women in film. Gross discusses her writing process and her views of modern feminism. Gross wrote and directed several films, including I Shot Andy Warhol, and American Psycho.
  • The Boston Review posted “Cloud of Mexico Pork” this week (4/1), a poem from Robert Pinksy. The piece is made up of a list of “trigger words” which government surveillance teams use to monitor citizens' web searches.
  • The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum explores the ethics behind TV writing in her piece “The Great Divide” (4/3). The article focuses on the polarizing humor of “All in the Family,” recalling: “One side felt that the show satirized bigotry; the other argued that it was bigotry, and that all those vaudevillian yuks and awws were merely camouflage for Archie’s ugly words.” Nussbaum's piece also questions the show's impact on modern sitcom writing.   
~Sophie Opich

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Where Are They Now: An Interview with Past Contributors (Part 1)

With fifty-three issues published, nearly twenty-five hundred contributors accepted and tens of thousands of submissions read, we start to wonder where our previous contributors have run off to. Fortunately, I was able to catch up with a few of them, and we were able to go through a round-table discussion of questions and answers in order to find out what some of them have been up to!

Anthony Varallo is a fiction contributor in Issue 47; Hugh Sheehy is a fiction contributor in Issue 36; and Liz Prato is a nonfiction contributor in Issue 50.

Sophean Soeun: What are you currently working on? What have you accomplished since your publication in HFR

Anthony Varallo
Anthony Varallo: I am currently working on a novel and a collection of short-short stories. Since publishing my story “No One at All” in HFR, I’ve published my third collection of short stories, Think of Me and I’ll Know (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press). “No One at All” is included in the collection—thanks, HFR!

Hugh Sheehy: I’m nearly finished with a collection of stories and in the process of drafting a novel. Since publishing in HFR, I’ve published a first book, The Invisibles, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award in 2012. I’ve also made a sort of half-hearted run at reviewing books and drawn up plans for a few essays; I hope to get to those when I finish these next two books.

Liz Prato: I’m editing a short story anthology for Forest Avenue Press, which comes out in May 2014. I’m working on strengthening my short story collection, and have had a couple of stories and essays published, including a piece on The Rumpus which is an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress. So, yeah -- that’s the big thing I’m working on, a memoir, which I swore I’d never write. It surprised the hell out of me, but there I was one day -- writing a memoir.

SS: Where do some of your ideas originate from? Has there ever been a time where an idea came from somewhere you least expected? Do you have an idea you know you have to write but haven’t figured out how to do it yet?

AV: My ideas usually come from a) some small recollection of something in my past and b) other short stories I love. So, for example, “No One at All,” is a story about two boys vacationing at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a place I remember visiting when I was a kid, a place where I used to see all these beach shops selling hermit crabs, even though I never bought one. But I remember those hermit crabs clinging to the sides of their cages--that memory was the point of departure for the story. The rest was me wanting to write a story about childhood in the style of John Updike (especially stories like “Pigeon Feathers” or “A Sense of Shelter”), James Joyce (“Araby,” of course), Sherwood Anderson (“I Want to Know Why”), and every other great story I’ve ever tried to shamelessly imitate in my writing. I have one story that was given to me--I mean just given--to me by my then 5-year-old son. One day my son started referring to one of his kindergarten classmates as “my enemy” as in “today at lunch I sat with Mark, Allison, James, and my enemy” or, referring to a TV show we were watching: “This is my enemy’s favorite show!” Well, even though I told my son we should not refer to people as “my enemy,” I secretly loved the idea of that, and ended up writing a story, “My Enemy” about a guy who believes his enemy is out to get him. I always credit my son with the idea, though. He’s kind of proud of that.

Hugh Sheehy
HS: I’m kind of always on the lookout for an idea. I can definitely identify with the motivations and process Anthony describes; that said, I look for stories most actively in my interactions with others and experiences of place. The other day, I made a discovery of a story idea I’ve since begun working on in the sparest of my spare time while talking on the telephone with a hotel receptionist who made an offhand comment about international tourism. I suspect that the mechanism for recognition of a potential story is, in my case, literary in a some way, though whether that’s primary or secondary is harder to say with much certainty; I think I recognize the structures and materials of my favorite works of fiction in my observations. But I’m never sure what came first: the fiction I read before I came up with the idea or the story I made out my experience and imagination. Beyond that, though--the grasping of the idea--I use whatever comes to hand to get the story drafted, then go back and refine, whether junking useless additions or working up weak parts into something strong, until the story seems to read itself to me when I look it over again, which is a way, I hope, of replying to your last question, a way of saying, yes, I never know how it’s going to happen on the page except in some general way.

LP: Ideas are rarely a problem. It’s just a matter of paying attention to my surroundings and actually writing stuff down. I tend to get these really great ideas when I’m lying in bed at night -- you know, when the subconscious mind is starting to creep in -- but I’m too stubborn/stupid to get up and write them down. I always think, “Oh, that’s such a great idea of course I’ll still remember it in the morning.” And I never do. Lather, rinse, repeat. I went through a LONG stretch after my dad and brother died when I had no ideas. Zippo. Zero. Nadda. That scared the living crap out of me. As far as an idea I have that I can’t figure out how to write about, yes -- I have a novel like that. I get back to it every two years thinking, “I know how to write it now!” and do a total re-write and take it to writers group or workshop or wherever, and hear, “Nope. Still not working.” I recently mentioned that project to a friend who I met in workshop 10 years ago. She sighed and said, “That poor novel.” I think Anthony’s onto something though . . . maybe I need to get a kid to steal some ideas from!

SS: How do you title your pieces? (Is it a process? Does it just come naturally? Are they usually relevant to the piece or irrelevant? Do you do it before? After? During?) 

AV: It depends on the story. Sometimes the title just sort of presents itself, ta-da, as you’re writing, but sometimes you finish a story and realize you are writing a Story That Has No Title. So, for example, one of the stories in my new collection, was titled “Story With a Gun in It,” which was the filename until I realized I couldn’t possibly call it that, and changed the title to “Time Apart Together” after I’d revised the story a few times. I once published a story under the title “Places of Comfort,” until a writing friend of mine said, “Dude, you cannot call a story ‘Places of Comfort.’” He was right; I changed the title.

HS: I title my stories after I’ve written them. I prefer titles that reveal a second meaning once one has read the story, titles that close a piece, like a coda. So I usually have to wait to figure out that part.

LP: I like titles that are voicey or idiosyncratic in some way, so it usually involves writing and understanding the language of my piece first. I often end up taking a line from the story itself. There are times, though, when I’ll just default to something sort-of-descriptive, but easy. One of my best experiences is when David Leavitt asked me to come up with a different title for a story. The previous title was really received -- something like “What She Left Behind,” and what David’s urging brought me to was “Underneath the Magnolia Trees When Magnolias Were in Bloom.” It has more words in it, which must mean it’s better, right?

SS: What is the most bizarre idea you have written about or thought of writing?

AV: That’s really hard to answer. I mean, all ideas seem pretty bizarre—or do I mean bad?—as you are writing them. The only thing I know is that if the idea seems somehow “unworthy” of being written about (hey, like two kids going to Rehoboth Beach!) that usually means it’s actually a pretty good idea for a story, but if the idea seems like a GREAT idea that everyone is sure to LOVE, that usually means you’re about to write a terrible story. It’s kind of cruel, when you think about it.

HS: I can’t be too forthcoming here because I’m still hoping to make several strange ideas I’ve found spellbinding for several years work in various pieces of fiction. But I will tell you that, as an undergraduate, I wrote very strange allegorical stories for my workshops, one of which ran to sixty pages (or would have, had I not handed it in 10 point font, and single-spaced--I was kind of a brat and feel I should go on apologizing): in one of these, four nearly identical figures make a road trip to California, only to discover, among many other things, that the state has fallen into the sea, and that, on the new western coastline, a very large orgy is underway.

Liz Prato
LP: Well, I’m instantly jealous of Hugh, because I seriously lack bizarre ideas. It’s a big fear of mine, that one of my greatest failings as a writer is my lack of imagination. I keep writing about the same themes -- love and loss -- again and again. There are no mystical portals or creatures which transmute, or really, any laws of the physical universe being broken. There is just someone losing someone they love and trying to figure out how to survive -- or not survive -- in that new world.

HS: It’s funny. I think writers who lean toward the visionary tend to envy writers who strive primarily for verisimilitude. In the end, though, I think the deep subjects Liz mentions tend to maintain pretty consistently across the spectrum between the visionary and the verisimilar, which disappear into each other anyway, or at least tend to in the literature I love most--the way Hemingway’s “The Killers,” to cherry-pick my example, reads as both a vaudeville act and a ‘realistic’ representation of possible events.

***
Check back here next week for part two!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

This Week in History and Fiction: The Iraq War Novel Emerges

Perhaps beginning this weekly installment with a topic so close to heart and home is a bit intense, but as I researched it, I realized that is was the perfect example of why we should care how world events, history and fiction are related.

On March 20, 2003, America invaded Iraq and the Iraq War began. A few books on the invasion began to appear that same year, and by 2005, the glossy dust covers of Iraq war hardcover non-fiction reflected the lights of bookstores all over America.  
I remember very clearly those covers beginning to appear in my own home. Images of tanks, American flags, G.W. Bush and soldiers graced coffee tables and replaced my father’s face in the evenings.

Poetry too started appearing shortly after the start of the war. Some of the poetry was written in protest as early as 2003, such as those in the collection Cry Out: Poets Protest the War and those on the web site poetsagainstthewar.org. Other poetry comes from soldiers themselves, such as the 2007 book of poetry, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner. 

But what about fiction?

As far as I can tell, notable literary fiction about the war began to appear much later, close to a decade after the start of the war. To explain this, I came up with a little theory. We seek to understand our world and events that have immediacy in journalistic fashion: Who, what, when, where, why? These are the questions that the non-fiction books seek to answer. But fiction isn’t so much an attempt at journalistic understanding of an event, instead focusing on its effects on humanity. Fiction about war seeks to understand the experience of being a soldier, a citizen, a hero or an enemy during wartime. Just think for a moment about the fiction that came out of WWII. Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five come to mind.

Further, the emergence of fiction after we have all been exhausted on facts serves the Very Important Purpose of preventing us from sticking our heads in the sand, sweeping the whole nasty business under the rug, shaking our heads with an emotionless “tragic” and then moving on. It is, perhaps, the only way to knit together soldier and civilian, to come even close to creating understanding between the two.
So read:


  • Cannonball by Joseph McElroy
  • The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
  • Fire and Forget a collection of stories from veterans of the Iraq War
  • Fobbit by David Abrams


Fiction and poetry inspired by the Iraq War have also appeared in HFR. Check out HFR50 for “Bosnian Roulette” by Brandon Davis Jennings as well as Kevin Power’s poems “Death, Mother and Child” and “After Leaving McGuire Veterans Hospital for the Last Time.”


Do you know some other great fiction about the Iraq war? We would love to hear about it! Feel free to leave a comment with book suggestions and your ideas.

Friday, March 28, 2014

This Week in Writing


Photo courtesy Reuters via BBC.
  • In a progressive move, the Vatican Library announced (3/22) its plans to digitize its collection of ancient handwritten manuscripts. The long-term goal of the project is to make 40 million pages of documents available online. Some of these texts contain important historical works in math, science, law and medicine.
  • On the 22nd, President Jimmy Carter sat down with Diane Rehm of NPR to discuss his new book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power. In the interview, Carter discusses ongoing abuse of American women and our country's fight for human rights. Carter is 89 years old.
  • Alice Munro was the first Canadian woman to win a Nobel prize in literature. On the 24th, the author was honored with a special coin inscribed with a passage from her short story Messenger.
  • Strand magazine announced Tuesday (3/25) that it will feature a previously unpublished/ long lost short story written by Tennessee Williams titled “Crazy Night.” Read CNN's piece on the discovery here. Williams died in 1983.
  • Editors at The American Scholar put together a list of what they claim may be the Ten Best Sentences (3/27). It's a good read – and it reminds me of this piece from last summer posted by The Atlantic, wherein some of today's most acclaimed writers list their favorite opening sentences. Jonathan Franzen lists Kafka, and other surprises.
~Sophie Opich


Friday, March 21, 2014

This Week in Writing

  • The New Yorker published “How To Be a Good Bad American Girl” on the 6th. In it, Anna Holmes recalls the complexities and subversive behavior of two timeless literary super-heroines, Scout Finch and Harriet Welsch.
  • The #TwitterFiction Festival began March 12: “Twitter is where the world tells its stories all day, every day.” Learn more here.
  • On the 13th, the National Book Critics Circle announced their award winners for 2013, including works from Frank Bidart and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Read the full list here.
  • On March 14, Nick Richardson at the London Review of Books posted a translation and analysis of the classic “Lorem Ipsum” placeholder text which, translated to English, reads “like extreme Mallarm√©, or a Burroughsian cut-up, or a paragraph of Finnegans Wake.”
  • Walter Dean Myers published an opinion article for the New York Times in on Sunday (3/15) asking: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Myers is the former Library of Congress Ambassador for Young People's Literature and the author of the YA bestseller “Monster.”
  • Let Books Be Books is an online campaign that opposes books designated “for boys” or “for girls.” The Independent (3/16) says a good read is just that
~Sophie Opich