Monday, October 13, 2014

the typographer's dream at portland center stage

Friday night at Portland Center Stage, after all the applause, as my hands were trying to stop stinging from clapping so hard, Stephen turned to me and said, "I don't know what the hell that was, but it was delightful."

Three people on stage, sitting behind a long table, talking to the audience about their respective jobs. What was the setup of this play? Was it a job fair? A convention? Career day at some school? In a way, I didn't care that I didn't know what the setup was in The Typographer's Dream. It was what it was. Three people sitting behind a long table, talking to the audience about their respective jobs - which doesn't sound like the recipe for an amazing evening of theater, but Stephen is right when he sums it all up with the word delightful.

It was also smart and surprising and hilarious and thought-provoking and fast-moving.

So fast-moving. Whip-crack dialogue and pingponging themes and concepts - and all I kept thinking is, this is my kind of play. Which is to say just so slightly over my head but in a way that leaves me breathlessly fascinated.

I want to pay for another ticket for another go-round (and if you know me, you know I'm painfully cheap). Not because it was so fast moving and just so slightly over my head, but because I just want to see it again.

As a theater junkie, I can enjoy a play that has so-so writing if the players are terrific, and I can enjoy a play that has so-so players if the writing is terrific. I can like it fine. Portland Center Stage's production of The Typographer's Dream, produced with intimacy in the Ellen Bye Theater, is terrific on both counts.

And with the material as it is, the actors easily could have gone over the top. Laura Faye Smith as Annalise the Geographer easily could have been too chirpy, easily could have been irritating, but no. Delightful. And when you think you know every note of her character, she gives you new sides - care, sadness, a fabulous rant - with that same just-at-the-edge-but-not-too-far energy. And she plays an excellent drunk.

And Kelsey Tyler as Dave the Stenographer. He easily could have gotten one-note with the sweet way he keeps pulling the conversation back to what is so great about stenography. And he easily could have been the annoyingly stereotypical gay man I see so often in plays. But no. Delightful. Funnily vulnerable and real.

And Sharonlee McLean. Well, she's always delightful. I've been following her career for years, and no matter how varied her characters are, there's always something Sharonlee about it. Quirky and particular. But not in a way that takes away from the individuality of the part she's playing. She has this fabulous way of being very real (her dialogue at times feeling almost adlibbed) while she's also so beautifully odd. Her Margaret the Typographer is, I think, one of my favorite performances of hers.

I'm going to try to stop saying the word delightful now. But seriously, you guys, this thing was delightful. I laughed way more than you'd expect about a play about three people sitting behind a long table, talking - raving - about their respective jobs. And of course the play is about far more. One of the devices that I think worked really well to illustrate that far more was the creative use of the fourth wall. Through the fourth wall, the players weren't just talking to us. They were vying for us. The audience's attention became a prize they were each fighting for. Which is intriguing to me as an audience member, but also says something about the themes of the play.

I think part of what playwright Adam Bock is saying in The Typographer's Dream is that we believe we have these connections with each other, these relationships, and we can even profess to love these relationships and be terribly moved by them (as Annalise is when she talks to Dave about his partner Bob, a truth Dave doesn't want to hear), but inside we're all just vying for the spotlight. We're all about our own story.

And what is our story? A lot of the time, it's our job. I've wondered over this fact myself, the urgency with which we identify ourselves with our jobs. In the Marketing Department at Powell's Books, just taking care of business, I catch myself sometimes feeling some silly, unfounded sense of importance. I talk about being graphic designer for a small press just to enjoy that sense of importance - there, I just did it. It's a way to manufacture an identity, but it's more. When we're coiling ourselves up in the cushy security of these personally manufactured identities what we're also doing is using that love to avoid the truth about ourselves.

It's a bleak outlook that emerges from Adam Bock's The Typographer's Dream. At least in my small-brained interpretation of it. A chilly perspective on the human condition, happily, ironically served up in the midst of a delightfully funny evening of smart, smart theater.

The Typographer's Dream runs through November 16th. More information is here. Photos were courtesy of Patrick Weishampel.

Monday, October 6, 2014

art, writing, and trying to grow a backbone

A while back, Stephen and I were contacted by a publisher about collaborating on a coffee table book of sorts pairing a number of Stephen's paintings with flash fiction inspired by those paintings.

The biggest thrill for me was being asked by the publisher to curate the group of writers, each of whom would take one of Stephen's paintings and use it as a prompt to write a tiny original story.

Right away, lists started in my head. Who would be good candidates for my writers (they would be my writers - for this project they would be my writers):

Writers I admire
Writers Stephen admires
Writers who admire Stephen's work

This project was perfect for me. I mean, I personally knew so many remarkable writers.

Writers who excel at short fiction
Writers who excel at working from prompts
Writers whose sensibilities seem to fit with Stephen's aesthetic

Lists and lists and lists, and of course I realized somewhere in there that I couldn't invite everyone.

Oh no.

Maybe this project wasn't for me. I mean, I personally knew so many remarkable writers. Too, too many remarkable writers.

Making a new computer file and combining all the names into a master list doesn't help. It just makes it easier to see that you have four times the number of writers than you can squeeze into one book.

Part of being a good editor, if I was going to be a good editor, was narrowing down the list. All I had to do was remove a few writers here and there, just whittle down my incredibly long and beloved list, just hack it to pieces, leaving writers I admire, leaving friends in my wake.

A Friday night, Stephen and me at the hairdresser's, me with the big glass spaceman-suit bowl breathing hot air over my head, and my master list in my lap.

Next to me, Stephen named names and made comments that I couldn't hear over the drone of my spaceman-suit head. We decided against one of the names, someone we both know well, and running my ink pen across that name was like running that ink pen across the face of that friend.

Backbone. That's what you're suppose to have if you fancy yourself an editor of a book. If you make your decisions based on personal consideration, you're not editing a book, you're just fooling around.

Backbone. That's one of the benefits I hope to get out of my role in this project. Don't ask me how I got to the point in my life where I'm taking things on for the right reasons, but the aspects that scare me the most about doing this - are why I need to be doing this.

Under the drone of my spaceman-suit head, I crossed another name off. The friction of the pen moving across the paper was a bee squirm at the base of my spine. Each and every name I had to cross off, people who I knew would be great for the project, people I'd long admired, each and every name... hurt.

Great writer but better for nonfiction
Great writer but maybe too modern
Great writer
Great writer

Sunday, September 28, 2014

dreamgirls at portland center stage

Friday night, Stephen and I saw Dreamgirls at Portland Center Stage. As excited as I was, I'll admit I worried about the pastiche aspect of the musical. Dreamgirls, which premiered in 1981, tells the story of a Motown-to-Disco-era singing group, and more often than not, when a musical imitates an earlier style, the music comes off sounding like a spun-sugar version of itself. Too sweet, too simple, not enough there. 

Also, I'm a jerk when it comes to musicals, at least musicals written after, say, 1965. I usually don't like them. Period. Especially musicals from the eighties, onward. That thing that I think of as That Modern Era Musical Sound - I kind of hate. 

Luckily for jerk me, the pastiche in Dreamgirls not only overrides That Modern Era Musical Sound, it works its pastiche well. The songs performed by our heroes the Dreams and their companion James "Thunder" Early (not to mention other fictional groups and soloists spanning the real world eras of Motown, R&B and Disco) feel authentic and particular. They're also full of beautiful, at times surprising, harmonies, which here and there made me involuntarily close my eyes out of pleasure. Part of that pleasure - and the pleasure of all the rousing numbers in this show - comes from the score, but part of it comes from the live band and the huge chops of every single singer on that stage.

If I had to pick a standout, for both music and acting chops, I'd choose David Jennings as James "Thunder" Early, who was impishly funny and energetic and sexy and vulnerable and kooky - with a voice for each of these moods. Also, Nattallyee Randall as Effie, able to go from bust-a-gut diva to quietly, tenderly human in one breath. I also loved Dreamgirl number three, Lorrell, played by Lexi Rhoades with her clear, versatile and beautifully en pointe voice. But as I said, every singer in the production is terrific. 

Portland Center Stage's Dreamgirls is nonstop music, nonstop dramatic tension, nonstop Motown-funk-disco-showbiz glamour. Check out these costumes!

The writing in Dreamgirls is on the simple side, with characters a little broad and lyrics that can run a bit cliché, so a good production has to make up for this with its staging and cast.  Portland Center Stage does this, with its choreography and lights and flashy costumes, with its well utilized set and turntable (used beautifully in the montage "On the Road - Cadillac Car" in the first half), with fun, droll allusions to Sixties and Seventies culture, with directorial touches that subtly add dimension to the characters, and of course with the powerhouse cast - all of which combine to create a hell of a music-filled hoot of an evening

Dreamgirls runs through November 2nd. More information is here. Thank you to Patrick Weishampel for the photographs.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

guest post: folding cranes

One of the most lovely experiences I've had working on book design was collaborating with Laura Stanfill on the cranes for Kate Gray's book (whose official pub date is September 1st) Carry the Sky. I photoshopped their backgrounds out and arranged them, but Laura made them. By hand. Lots of them. And photographed them for me in various positions. Whenever I'd need a new color or a slightly different angle, she'd make more.

This is a book publisher I'm talking about. Hand-crafting paper cranes for the cover and interior of her book.  Not only is that dedication, there's something so personal about it to me. The care with which she ministers to her stories.

I asked her to write about the sweet circumstance in which she became the hand-crafter for this book, and she wrote me a beautiful, little essay. Here's Laura, talking about folding cranes.


In fifth grade, I changed schools. From public to private, elementary to middle. An older girl, during the morning rush of bodies in halls, during the first unnerving week, said “Nice backpack.” She had the same one as me. L.L.Bean. I knew enough not to know whether that was a compliment or an insult.

Before that, I made things. At home. An only child, not lonely at all, with popsicle sticks and glitter and pompoms, staples binding my own handwritten books. I made vending machines. I made a paper toilet that one of the neighbor kids used for real. I made cities. It fit that, when offered an array of after-school activities that fifth-grade year, I chose origami over soccer, and began folding neat squares of thin paper into neater, smaller, intricate objects.

I learned how to wash hands so as not to soften the paper, how to run a fingernail over a crease to make it sharp, and how to read a pattern, when I wasn't doing homework or practicing my flute, I taught myself to work smaller, taking little blots of paper, cutting them into sharp-edged squares, and folding them. I filled a Tic-Tac mint box with tiny origami cranes. Ones that still fly, if I tilt the clear plastic container, open the white plastic spout, and pour a few into my palm.

Many years later, as a small press publisher, I found Kate Gray’s debut novel, Carry the Sky, in my submission inbox. In the boarding school within the pages of her book, teachers are required to wear J.Crew or L.L.Bean. I thought of my backpack and that girl in the hall at my new school, feeling buffeted by all the bodies, feeling unsure. Kate describes the rush between classes as rapids.

As a fifth grader, I didn't have community yet, didn't know the teachers and students who would shape me, fold me, into someone willing to take risks, to continue exploring creativity, to make mistakes, to study hard. Another school, or another set of friends within that school, might have landed me in a world more like the one Kate writes about in the unblinking look at bullying that is her debut novel. I might have continued second-guessing what people said. But I found the right people, teachers who value thinking and creativity. “Nice backpack” was intended as a compliment, and that girl became one of my best friends. Is still one of them.

There’s quite a bit of origami in Carry the Sky. Bugs, dinosaurs, a rowing shell, cranes. When Gigi started working on cover ideas, I mentioned my long-ago training, and she asked me to fold and photograph a few examples. My fingers remember how to fold cranes, can still crease paper the way I was taught in fifth grade, and I fold them for my daughters now, offering them a choice of puffed or flapping. They want the ones that move. Gigi wanted the puffed ones, for that extra sense of dimension.

The same week Gigi asked me to fold, my husband brought me a package. My inlaws hosted foreign exchange students over the years, when their children were high school students. One of them presented a pack of small squares of origami paper, and flat splintery chopsticks. A date in the packet says 1984. Kate Gray set Carry the Sky in the fall of 1983. My mother-in-law had no idea I was working on publishing this boarding school bullying novel, no idea that I needed to fold cranes. She was cleaning out, moving on.

Nobody had ever opened the cellophane. The origami paper was fanned out with perfect symmetry, paperclipped, and preserved for thirty years in one of their closets.

I broke the seal, picked one plain bright square, and began to fold.

Carry the Sky debuts September 1st. The launch event takes place at Powell's City of Books (downtown) on September 5th. You can check it out through Powell's here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

anniversary show off - a retrospective

On Friday, the day before the weekend before the week of our wedding anniversary, both of us busy with projects, Stephen said to me, "Can I ask a question?" He looked like he wasn't sure he should ask. "Have you started working on my anniversary card?"

I said, "Oh my god, no!"

"Me neither," he said. "Everything I thought about working on is lame."

I said, "Oh my god, everything I thought about working on is lame too!"

Raised eyebrows and a half smile can go from tentative to relieved, back to tentative so fast. "What would you say," he said, "if just for this year," he said, "maybe," he said.

I reached out and, without saying anything else, shook his hand.

Of course, as relieved as we both were that we could let the tradition lapse for a year (it's not really a year, of course. We make personalized cards for Christmas, for Valentine's Day, for each birthday...), we've been feeling the expected letdown that comes from not being able to get up in the morning and show off the apparent brilliance of our personalized anniversary cards (because isn't showing off what togetherness is all about?). So, I decided what needed to happen was a retrospective of all the silly anniversary cards we've labored over since we started this tradition.

Because I'm not as organized as Stephen, and can't find my file for the card I made him in 2007, we're going to start with him.

2007, his to me. The outside.

The inside.

Neither of us has whatever the heck card we did for each other in 2008. So, we move on to...

2009, his to me.

2009, mine to him.

OK, I don't have that one either But I assure you it must have been terribly clever.

2010, his to me.

2010, mine to him.

2011, his to me.

2011, mine to him.

2012, his to me. I still think this is my favorite of all time.

2012, mine to him.

2013, his to me. This is the first anniversary after his fall.

2013, mine to him. The outside image.

The inside image.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

true love scars

Recently, I was given a sneak preview of a book that's out this month by music writer Michael Goldberg (who was a senior writer at Rolling Stone among other things). It's Goldberg's first novel, and I've been excited to check it out. Years ago, he spent time in Tom Spanbauer's basement, workshopping this very book, and I've missed his runaway freight train of a voice and the story I got to know so well, but which I never got to hear the end of, since Michael moved out of state and out of the Dangerous Writers workshop before finishing the book.

As it turns out, I still have yet to get to the end of the story, because that breakneck freight train has turned into a trilogy. True Love Scars is book one in the Freak Scene Dream Trilogy, a story about Michael Stein, a 19 year old "freakster bro" at the brink of the seventies, doing drugs, obsessing over music and pining for his "Visions of Johanna Chick" - Visions of Johanna after the Dylan song. Dylan is God to Michael Stein, a god almost as important as the narrator's quest for what he calls the "authentic real" - or his quest for the perfect woman:

Ahab got the whale, which is a huge symbol for some unreachable mammoth goal we yearn for, and Columbus gotta prove the world ain’t flat, which is mammoth too, and he runs right into America, and if that ain’t mammoth, nothing is. And Gatsby got Daisy, who’s pretty much the same deal as the whale and America. No disrespect to Daisy, but she’s a symbol too. Well daunting as any of those three might be are my trials regards my Visions of Johanna. I needed a chick bad that fall day. And I’m not talking about getting laid. This was way deeper. I was searching for the key to the rest of my life. If only I could find my Visions of Johanna chick, she’d do for me what Sweet Sarah once did, mirror back to me who I am, and once again I would stand tall. Once again I would be the last freakster bro standing, guns a-blaze.

This is sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, folks, which normally you probably wouldn't think would be my thing, but Goldberg's book is full of a voice that is so breathless and particular and, what attracts me the most, innocent. There is such a sweetness in the narrator, such youthful naive charm under all the F-bombs. (There are lots of F-bombs. Sometimes when he read pages in the Dangerous Writing basement, we'd count the F-bombs.) Michael Stein knows everything there is to know about music and the music scene. He's a walking encyclopedia of rock 'n' roll. But there's so much that he doesn't know. And it's in what Michael Stein doesn't know that the story finds its heartbreaking charm - and, of course, its danger.

I didn't know the hellfuck of what the next years would bring. You can’t know. If you did it would be too much to bear. There’s this Chet Baker album called Let’s Get Lost. Well that year, the year that began that day I met Lord Jim, we were all looking for a way out. Me and Lord Jim, and the others. You’ll meet them. None of us ready to feel. The drugs and booze and cigarettes and coffee and music and sex—all the ways we didn't feel. Well there were times when the future leaked out. When we had to feel something. Mostly it was let’s get lost. We tried so hard. To feel nothing.

True Love Scars is a crazy ride. And a thoroughly dead-on look at what it was like to be young and yearning and out of control and freakster hip in the late sixties and early seventies. You can check it out here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

a moment in the day: picking up nicholas

Finally home from our trip to Seattle, we sit on the hard, wooden benches in the little waiting area at the vet's, staring at the open door just past the reception counter. We've paid the bill for Nicholas' boarding and now it's been five whole minutes, and they haven't brought us our dog yet. And that couple. The guy in the brown slacks and the girl in the jeans and sandals and qué será, será tattooed on the side of her foot. They're standing in my way. Between me and the door where, any second now, one of the ladies is going to appear with my precious doggy.

Tattoo foot lady is completely blocking my view.

I should say what will be will be, but goddamn it, I've been waiting for this moment.

I lean over and whisper in Stephen's ear, "She's blocking my view!"

I shift on the bench and try to look around her, but even though I can see through the door when I'm slanty (see through to where the ladies in back are milling around and decidedly not rushing to bring me my dog), it's ticking me off that I also have to have madame qué será, será right there in the almost middle of my vision. In a moment, I get up and move down to the next bench, where I have a clean shot again. Fuck you, qué será, será. 

Stephen laughs, hesitates, finally joins me on the second bench. We sit and stare at the open door.

We sit and stare at the open door.

Under his breath, in a very quiet sort of low growl, Stephen says, "Give me my dog."

Qué será, será takes a couple meandering steps and suddenly - yes, of freaking course - she's standing right between me and door AGAIN.

I lean over and whisper in Stephen's ear, "Oh my god, oh my god."

Under his breath, "Give me my dog."

Now one of the ladies appears in the angelic light of the open door. For one tiny moment, I'm filled with joy.

Then I see that it's not a beautiful caramel-colored perfect-miniature-deer-like Chihuahua but some scruffy, bedraggled runt of a fluffball being returned to Qué será even though we got here first.

"There, now," the vet lady tells Qué será and Mr será as she lifts over the dog into the woman's arms, "keep a good eye on this tube. It's to drain the fluid. But he should be just fine."

"Oh, what a good boy," Qué será coos at him, "what a brave boy."

OK, I am a jerk.

The couple step toward the exit, and once they're gone, I've forgotten them and whatever their plight may have been and I'm back to staring at the open door.

Low, under Stephen's breath: "Give me my dog."

I mean after all, we've been away from Nicholas for one whole day.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

a moment in the day: heatwave

It's sweltering in the back room of our third floor apartment, my writing room, the farthest spot from our small window unit air conditioner. I've been eating ice pops and trying to concentrate on my work, but the thick heat pushes all inspiration and motivation from my brain and makes my wrists itchy and chafey against the edge of my laptop.

Stephen peeks through the open doorway. He says, "You don't even have the fan on." 

I look at the fan sitting on the floor three feet from my chair. "Oh yeah."

As I go to turn the thing on, Stephen says, "What would you do without me?" 

"I'd die," I say. "I'd die an embarrassing, embarrassing death."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

the night, and the rain, and the river: authors' favorite lines - part four

Here's the last in my little series of the authors' own favorite passages from their stories in the Forest Avenue Press short story anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River. Today's edition: Alisha Churbe, Ellen Davidson Levine and Trevor Dodge.

From "All is Not Lost"

My story is non-traditional in form. I didn't get to start my story with a first line that had any kind of impact. The form was restrictive and didn't follow many of the guidelines that are laid for short stories. I didn't get to think about that as the story couldn't start anywhere other than with "Dear Gary." I did try other forms for the story, but Marlene really demanded to be center of attention. In looking for the line for your project, I was able to choose something that would really draw a reader into the story.


From "The Dog War"

I like the way the words sound together and what they say about the narrator of "The Dog War." He's a high school teacher at the end of the school year, a philosopher, and a romantic who can savor both the smell of lilacs and the scent of passing animals. Here, I try to create a moment of quiet before conflict erupts. I like this quote also because the only time of year I awaken willingly at dawn is in summer.

I remember when I wrote this, I wanted to show how Jim Shuster, the narrator, observes life through the lens of history. I also wanted to reflect the part of him that's connected to nature and rural life. Here too, I like the way the words fit together.


From "Real World Reject"

I've been a letter writer and pen pal of some kind my entire life, and I’m always intrigued at how our personal correspondences with others can both buoy and drown us. In “Real World Reject," the narrator sees the opening and reading of the mail as a simple form of validation. I mean, there are few things more depressing than going to the mailbox and finding it empty; in a way, we’re all like Charlie Brown when we go there, waiting for a letter from The Little Red-Haired Girl that is never going to come.


If you want to check out the book, more info is here.

The Night, and the Rain, and the River is edited by Liz Prato and is available through all the usual places, but my favorite is here..

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

the night, and the rain, and the river: authors' favorite lines - part three

More of the authors' own favorite passages from their stories in the Forest Avenue Press short story anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River. Today's edition: Domi J. Shoemaker, Christi Krug and Steve Denniston.

from "Left Right Wrong"
I chose this quote because it captures that moment in a child's life where they really start to differentiate from the parent or primary caregiver. That moment they start to see the parent as something other than just an extension of themselves. In this case, the moment is terrifying to the little girl. She sees her mom as someone else. Someone beautiful, yet distant. It gets further complicated in a split second in the mom using the little girl to soothe herself, ostensibly reversing the bond, so it is the mom who sees the child as an extension of herself and the child gets stripped of her own identity before she really has the chance to form one. 


from "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil"
I love the idea of a narrator coming face to face with her own lies, and I love the possibilities of looking at “sin,” a word which is so weighted in our culture. And, a list of sins is totally provocative.


from "It's No Good Telling Me That"

There seemed to be two different kinds of choices, quotes that worked well out of context, and quotes that meant something to the story. I tried to find two quotes that did both things, would work well for someone who hasn’t read the story, and if someone has read it, the quote would resonate.

This quote was an easy one to choose. It’s quirky enough to be eye catching, intriguing by talking about the mom having left more than once, and the odd way the father has of dealing with it.

I’m also drawn to this quote because it’s where the story begins to open up and reveal why this particular moment is a story, why it’s important to the narrator, John. A few lines later we find out John has never heard his dad talk about this before. A shift takes place as the son and father begin to talk about a taboo subject, the mother abandoning them multiple times, yet at the same time they still aren’t quite able to talk to each other about it. 

This quote comes from the son early in the story. It’s his first line of dialog that stands alone by itself and gives a sense of his attitude, which made it an easy choice to be one of the quotes.

What I really like about the quote as part of the story is that even though it’s an outrageous thing for the son to say, the father doesn’t react at all. They’ve been having two different conversations while talking to each other, and even that comment about dynamite doesn’t pull the father in. What I really hope happens here is that the title, “It’s No Good Telling Me That,” has begun to resonate early in the story.


More to come. In the meantime, if you want to check out the book, more info is here.

The Night, and the Rain, and the River is edited by Liz Prato and is available through all the usual places, but my favorite is here.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

the night, and the rain, and the river: authors' favorite lines - part two

I've been putting together little graphics to help promote the new Forest Avenue Press short story anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River. My idea was to have the authors send me their favorite line from their own story, one that I could make into a sharable image - but as the contributors started sending me their quotes, I started getting really curious. What was it about those particular lines that made them favorites for the writers who'd penned them? Was it about content, theme, language? I decided to ask. And here's what they said.

Originally, I strung these all together, but I ended up with so many great and varied responses, I thought I'd break it up a little. Today's edition: Dylan Lee, Tammy Lynn Stoner, Lois Rosen and Jackie Shannon Hollis.

From "Hunk"

This is actually the opening sentence of my story. I like that it doesn't really make sense and sets the tone, getting you ready for a weird ride—not that reading a story is really a ride, so more like a weird sit.


From "The Last Time"

Why did I choose that line?...

I suppose I wanted to go with something that embodied the turning point of the story. Instead of pulling out a line about how gorgeous the whale is (to make my story into a whale), I wanted to pull a line about the moment that it changed its line of sight
which, since a whale's eyes are fixed, can only be done by moving its entire body. Plus it sounded kinda catchy.


LOIS ROSEN gave me four quotes to choose from, from her short story "Splinters." I made a graphic for all four. Here I'll include two:

I chose the lines for their rhythm and images.

JACKIE SHANNON HOLLIS gave me two from "The Pink on her Toenails." For context, I should mention that her narrator is a man.

I like the contrast of each of these two sections in the story. One comes early in the story and one later, so there is the progression of the story, and something big has happened in between.

The lines about the girls dancing create an image that I really like and it is something the reader has very likely seen but maybe not named, so they will recognize themselves or a memory in this image. It's also the narrator's observation about girls, so it tells us something about him. There is this sense that they are just dancing but there is something more going on. Which is also the case with this story, so much is not said, but things happen.

In the lines about the punch, this is a big moment for the narrator. Up until now, he has been more passive, a witness to things that cause him pain. This is a moment when he ACTS, when he responds to all that is going on for him. And because it is his friend, there is such potential risk in this.


More to come. In the meantime, if you want to check out the book, more info is here.

The Night, and the Rain, and the River is edited by Liz Prato and is available through all the usual places, but my favorite is here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

the night, and the rain, and the river: authors' favorite lines - part one

I've been putting together little graphics to help promote the new Forest Avenue Press short story anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River. My idea was to have the authors send me their favorite line from their own story, one that I could make into a sharable image - but as the contributors started sending me their quotes, I started getting really curious. What was it about those particular lines that made them favorites for the writers who'd penned them? Was it about content, theme, language? I decided to ask. And here's what they said.

Originally, I strung these all together, but I ended up with so many great and varied responses, I thought I'd break it up a little. Today's edition:  Gail Bartley, Matthew Robinson and Gregg Kleiner.

From "More of What You Already Are"

I picked this quote because it’s so visual, and shows us Marlene (Aubrey’s mother) through his eyes. The wall between them softens her some, but they’re still worlds apart. I worked for five years in a juvenile justice center, and saw the dynamic between Marlene and Aubrey play out a hundred times with parents of kids who were constantly in trouble. Mothers in particular (many of them single mothers) were really thrown by the whole experience of having a child who commits crimes. They’d bounce radically between tough love and over-indulgence, trying anything in hopes that their kid would snap out of it, only to end up angry and heartsick when, too often, things just went from bad to worse. I think I was successful in translating some of that reality into the fiction of my story. 


From "Tidal"

I chose these lines because of all the lines in this short, short story, they do the most work. The whole story is in them. Everything else is the story figuring out that they're true, and that it's okay.


From "The Blue Jackpot"

I chose this line because of the little girl's innocent perspective about her mother's condition. Her worry about the swimming pool water running into her mother's eyes is what's present for her, more than the greater condition the reader can infer. I wanted a line that would resonate with the reader, paint a quick little scene and be interesting and intriguing and colorful enough to make a person want to read more. So this quote has two characters, a yellow scarf, and something amiss and odd… a lack of eyebrows. I had my eyebrows (along with my head) shaved when I entered a Buddhist monastery for a month at age 17 when I was an exchange student living in Thailand for a year. It took forever for them to grow back. Now when I see chemo patients, I often think of that.


More to come. In the meantime, if you want to check out the book, more info is here.

The Night, and the Rain, and the River is edited by Liz Prato and is available through all the usual places, but my favorite is here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

blog hop!

There's a fun exercise hopping around lit blogs and I've been tagged to participate. It's called a blog hop and the idea is to answer seven particular questions about your novel and then tag two writers to do the same thing a week down the line. 

My tagger was the lovely literary-force-to-be-reckoned-with, Laura Stanfill. I can't say enough about Laura. I've been privy to the pages of her novel in progress, which she writes about in her blog hop post, and it's lush, nuanced, quirky, funny, gorgeous writing. She is also the publisher of Forest Avenue Press - with remarkable editing and design chops, great taste, and amazing energy and drive. I seriously don't know how she does it and am overjoyed to have been able to attach myself to her coattails and enjoy the ride as I design book covers for her lovely books.

Here's Laura's post about her novel The Serinette.

And here are my answers to the same questions, about my novel in progress.

What is the name of your character? Is s/he fictional or a historic person?

The name of my narrator (a totally fictional character but, of course, with a lot of me in her) is Emmie Matzo. She's named after my favorite film noir movie star, Lizabeth Scott, whose real name was Emma Matzo.

Actually, all of the characters in the book are named after Lizabeth Scott in some way - many of them from the film Too Late for Tears. For instance, Emmie's best friend's name is Lizabeth. Her two guy friends (much of the story revolves around the odd and dysfunctional relationship of four former high school buddies) are Danny and Fuller, named after the film's male lead Danny Fuller (played by Dan Duryea, my other favorite film noir movie star). That's him there on the poster, smacking her around.

My book has nothing to do with anything remotely film noir. It was just a thing I decided to do, to stick something I love into the book in a kind of weird, roundabout way. It's actually very convenient. Whenever I need a name I jump on IMDB and scan the cast list for Too Late for Tears or one of her other movies, find a name that works, and then I can keep writing.

When and where is the story set?

Most of the story takes place in Portland, Oregon, in present day, and there's a small chunk that happens in Los Angeles. There's also a short interlude set in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Which, OK, is where Lizabeth Scott was born. I'm a little obsessed.

What should we know about him/her?

Lizabeth Scott? Well, she was this fabulous... Oh, you mean my narrator.

Emmie is a liar. We all are, of course, and that fact is part of what my book is about, but Emmie is a big time liar.* She'll tell you this is because of her mother, who was / is a flighty narcissist who rarely paid any attention to her until Emmie got used to saying anything she could in order to get Mom's attention. And then again, she'll tell you this is because of her father, who was a liar himself, and good at it. And then again, she'll tell you this is because lying is part of a person's right to privacy. And then again, she'll tell you this is because she likes people to be happy, and isn't it better to go through life thinking that vegan pumpkin cheesecake you baked for the party was delicious?

But the real reason Emmie lies is that she's desperate for human connection. And desperate to find one person, in all the crazy people she knows, who will like her for something other than what they can get out of her.

She somehow hasn't figured out yet that lying and telling people exactly what they want to hear all the time is not the way to attract the kind of friend who's going to like you for something other than what they can get out of you.

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Conflict comes when Emmie decides to try to grow up and get honest. Being honest when you've lied all your life is very difficult. Trying to remember not to reflexively lie. Trying not to hurt people with the truth. Trying to navigate between the lies you decide to tell and the lies you hope to bury. But things can get dangerous when one of those people you've lied to for years in order to gain friendship, someone who has always wanted more out of you than you wanted to give, holds a grudge - and knows all the secrets you're not ready to tell.

What is the personal goal of the character?

Of course, I got ahead of myself and already answered this one, but let's see. Other personal goals. To get a job so she can move out of crazy Lizabeth's crazy house, which she moved into when she returned to Portland after that bad thing she doesn't like to talk about. To reconcile with her dad. To master the fight scene (including being dragged off stage kicking and screaming) that she somehow has to be able to perform since she let Fuller talk her into being a super (which is to say, an extra) for the opera.

What is the title of this novel, and can we read more about it?

I have no title yet, and there's no place to read more about it. It's a novel in progress, so I don't know much more than what's going to happen next.

When can we expect the book to be published? [Or: When was the book published?]

I'd say I knew, but I'd be lying.


Now to tag two writers who will pick up the blog hop where I left off. In one week, they will answer these same questions on their own blogs.

Estela Bernal's debut novel for middle readers has just been published by Piñata Books, an imprint of Arte Público Press, which is the oldest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by Hispanic American authors, and part of the University of Houston. I recently designed the cover for Can You See Me Now. Kirkus had this to say about it: "Bernal has succeeded in crafting a story that acknowledges tragedy without wallowing in it, placing her emphasis on resilience and personal growth. The quick pace and distinctive characters make for a smooth, well-crafted read. Middle-grade readers should respond to this tender story of learning to connect with others through open eyes and an open heart."

I wrote about the process of designing that cover here. You can learn more about Estela here.

Holly Goodman has written more different kinds of things than anyone I know. She's been a reporter and a blogger, has written fiction and personal essays. Even a number of fantastic how-to books, including a book on home plumbing that is not only informative but also quite fascinating. I mean it. Her amazing, recently-gone-viral essay on poverty, struggle and beauty is up on Nailed Magazine here. She's also writing a beautiful novel and I asked her to write about it for blog hop.

Holly's blog is here.

OK, I lied. I have three people to tag. But my third, Adam Strong, jumped in ahead of me and did his blog hop yesterday. Adam is a school teacher and father of two young daughters. I have no idea now he finds the time to work on his great novel-in-progress Bella Vista. Adam and I study together in Portland's Dangerous Writers fiction workshop. We have a phrase in Dangerous Writing: to burn the language or burnt tongue. This is when you mess with language to come up with something particular, a voice that will set your writing, and your narrator, apart. It has been said about Adam that his tongue is so burnt, it's ashes.

Adam's blog - and his blog hop post about Bella Vista, is here.

*Even though Emmie is, I'm sure Lizabeth Scott is not a liar.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

book cover design show-off: can you see me now

Recently, I had the good fortune of being asked to design a book cover for Piñata Books, an imprint of Arte Público Press, which is the oldest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by Hispanic American authors, and part of the University of Houston. Can You See Me Now tells the story of Mandy, a thirteen-year-old girl who's just lost her father to a drunk driver and is losing her mother to grief and neglect. It's a beautiful middle reader novel. And what struck me about it, personally, is how much the narrator feels like me at that age. The way Mandy talks about the bullies who torment her at school, for example - you could be reading my thirteen-year-old diary. Except, of course, that the book is written much better.

This was my first time designing for a middle reader, and I loved being able to strategize my layout in a
visual language that appeals to kids that age. I also enjoyed working with the text in a new way, using the letters Mandy writes to her father as a visual backdrop and having her build the title in her own handwriting by circling individual words within those letters. Oddly, that means that, at least as far as the cover the book is concerned, Mandy's handwriting is mine. What a personal thing, giving someone your handwriting.

My work on this cover felt even more personal than that. Not only did I get to give Mandy her handwriting, but her face. Her physicality. Well, the actual physicality already existed - the girl in the picture is the niece of author Estela Bernal. In all the hunting around we did for the perfect model for Mandy, I kept pushing for Estela's niece. What a great face - and what could be better, when you get your first novel published, than to have it graced with the face of a loved one?

Once I had my photographs in hand, though, I started manipulating. I flipped the picture to get the side I wanted in the frame. I played with color and tonality. I morphed two outfits together to get what she's wearing here, recreated and sculpted certain passages in her hair. I gave her a yin yang necklace, piecemealing it together from other pictures. The girl on the cover is Bernal's niece, but she's not. She's someone new. Someone Bernal conjured and brought to vivid life through description and voice, and someone (I will say with selfish pride) I gave an image to.

The concept for this cover pretty much popped into my head fully formed after some mulling over the story and its themes. I made this silly, little mock-up in Illustrator - and you'll see I did it so quickly that I didn't even get the title right.

My second step was to make up a photographic sketch of my idea to present to the author and the publisher. I worked with stock photos, and the sketch had a different girl - one who was a little too old, a little too made up, definitely not Hispanic. Not Mandy. But it was a good stand-in picture. Once in an email, after I'd gotten the design finalized, the author said something that really touched me, while talking about that original stand-in picture.

"I love it," Estela said, "but I love the one you created even more, because, to me, you created Mandy."

Can You See Me Now? is available through all the usual suspects, but my favorite is here. Estela Bernal will be reading at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing on June 30th.