The Beauty of Change: An Interview with Tawni Waters


TawniTawni Waters’s debut novel, Beauty of the Broken, was released by Simon and Schuster nine months ago.  In addition to winning the prestigious International Literacy Association’s Award for Young Adult Literature, it won the Housatonic Book Award, was named an exceptional book of 2015 by the Children’s Book Council, was shortlisted for the Reading the West Book Award, and was included on the Kansas State Reading Circle List.  Her first poetry collection, Siren Song, was released by Burlesque Press in 2014.  Her work was featured in Best Travel Writing 2010 and has been published in myriad journals and magazines.  She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and teaches creative writing at various universities and writers retreats throughout the U.S. and Mexico.  In her spare time she talks to angels, humanely evicts spiders from her floorboards, and plays Magdalene to a minor rock god. 



Curtis Smith: Congratulations on all the good things coming to you and Beauty of the Broken. It’s your first published novel, but not your first attempt at a novel, correct? Can you share that journey with us—what you learned from your earlier endeavors and what kept you going?

Tawni Waters: Thank you, Curt!  Beauty of the Broken is, in fact, one of five novels I’ve written.  It was  agented in 2000 and didn’t sell, so I shoved it in a drawer.  Once in a while, I’d take it out, dust it off, and work on it—I worked on it quite extensively during my MFA program—but in many ways, I’d given up on it.  I was actually shopping another novel when I met my agent, Andy Ross.  He was a huge fan of my writing but didn’t think the novel I was working on was marketable, so he asked if I had anything else.  I sent him Beauty of the Broken, and he fell in love with it.  We had interest from multiple publishers almost immediately.

Obviously, I went for years writing novels and not selling them, and it was, at times, horribly discouraging.  I was tempted to give up.  But giving up writing for me was like giving up breathing.  I could quit for 30 seconds or so, but it never worked out long term.  I love writing.  I can’t conceive of a life without it.  And while I write creative nonfiction and poetry, my favorite genre will always be fiction.  So I write novels for fun more than anything else.

I learned so much from writing each of the novels I wrote.  A novel is an immense, unwieldy thing, and I think the only way you can truly learn to manage things like pacing and plotting in larger works is by writing them, sometimes badly.  I feel like now, having edited a book with the help of my agent, and then Simon & Schuster,  I finally have a innate handle on those elements.  My most recent novel, The Air She Breathes, was much easier to write than Beauty of the Broken or any of my other novelsIt was a much more natural process because I’d practiced so much.  I’m sure a few of my novels will never be published.  (Dear God, I hope they won’t.)  There is no such thing as wasted writing, even if it never publishes.  I think as a writer you have to expect that most of what you write will never be read, just like a dancer expects that most of her pirouettes will never be seen.  We have to hone our craft.  We have to invest the time it takes to honor the intricacy and integrity of our art.  The work we do behind the scenes matters just as much as that which is read by the world.

CS: A disclaimer—we taught together at Rosemont College’s MFA summer program this past June, so we know each other a bit. So knowing your voice and your narrator’s voice in Beauty of the Broken, I wanted to talk about that. The voice is very strong and it really holds up through the entire book—which isn’t always an easy task. Can you talk about how writing a voice-heavy narrative plays out at your writing desk? Do you hear the voice speaking directly to you? Or do you deliberately filter your ideas through the sensibilities of that voice?

TW: I’m a weirdo.  I totally hear the voice talking to me throughout the novel.  Beauty of the Broken was actually born when I sat down at my writing desk and said, “Anyone who wants to talk to me, start talking.” (I do this quite often, and it almost always works.)  Immediately, I heard this voice in my head say, “Momma and Willy Macintyre made Iggy in a barn.”  Mara was just there instantly, and her voice was powerful.  She never shut up.  There are hundreds of pages of Mara writing that didn’t make the book.  She had a lot to say.  Voice is something that comes easily to me as a writer.  I’m also a natural when it comes to generating characters.  The things I struggle with are plotting and pacing.  Those things I had to work hard to learn.

CS: Beauty of the Broken is written in first person, present tense. All authors face the decisions of tense and point of view—I know I often write early drafts in present tense, but then they sometimes switch to past in revision. What about the first person, present tense made the most sense for this story? Was it that way from the beginning or did it change as the piece grew?

TW: Beauty of the Broken was always first person, present tense.  Mara’s story was such an immediate, intimate story, and those choices made it even more so for the reader.  At least, I hope they did.  I think the teenage years are pretty intense years for most people, so I find that when I write teen characters, their voices are best served by first person, present tense.  “Listen to me now! these characters seem to scream.  My new novel (which publishers are telling me is walking a fine line between young adult and new adult) is first person, present tense as well.

CS: When we taught together, we talked a lot about the individual nature and quirks of process. Would you tell us how you go about getting your ideas from thought to paper?

TW: One of the things I loved about teaching with you is that our processes were so different.  I actually wrote a blog about the experience because listening to you talk about your amazing and incredibly disciplined process made me realize I don’t really have a process.  I’m very haphazard when it comes to my writing (and really, my life in general).  If I feel inspired to write, I do, for as long or short a time as the inspiration lasts.  I tend to sit down in the middle of jogs to jot down a few paragraphs because I was moved by the reflection of trees in the water.  Or I write six pages at a rest stop in the middle of a road trip because a song on the radio made me understand a motivation of a character I’m writing.  Or I scribble a poem in the bathroom at a rock show.

I think this works for me because as I mentioned, I’m absolutely addicted to writing, so I write often.  I produce as much (or more) work as some of my friends who have a structured writing process.  Sometimes, I go on a writing bender and write for 12 hours a day for a week. I only stop because I need to sleep or eat or move before my body fuses to my chair.  If I don’t feel like writing, I don’t do it, but I rarely go a day without writing something.  In other news, I am rebellious by nature and resist anything I feel forced to do, so I think if I started telling myself I had to write, I’d suddenly find myself markedly less interested than I once was.

I’m not sure my way of writing would work for someone who thrives on a life predicated on structure.  I think you just have to figure out what works for you.

CS: You share the same geographic and small-town roots as your characters in Beauty of the Broken. I’m always fascinated by place and all the things it can say and provide in a story. Can you talk about this and what elements it added? Are there other actual realities that seem to continually find their way into your work?

TW: Barnaby, New Mexico, the town in which Beauty of the Broken is set, is loosely based on Edgewood, New Mexico, the town in which I grew up.  Actually, I didn’t grow up there.  I grew up on a mountain close to that town, but it was the closest thing to civilization I knew.

After Beauty of the Broken came out, I had all these people from my hometown writing me and saying, “Hey, I recognize that place!”  However, Barnaby isn’t exactly like Edgewood.  Edgewood doesn’t have a river, for instance.  Also, Edgewood was not nearly as bigoted as Barnaby, nor was it ruled over by a fire-breathing reverend.  But the isolation of the place lent itself to the sort of “time warp” vibe I was going for in the book.  I wanted Mara to exist in a world where she had little exposure to anything that might make her feel like it was ok to be a lesbian, and Barnaby definitely provided that element.  I also wanted the abuse she undergoes at the hands of her father to be overlooked and excused, and to me, that felt more likely to happen in a small, bigoted town.  Were she and Iggy living in a city, going to a public school, the severe abuse would very likely have been noticed and reported, but Barnaby’s social structure made it more believable that the abuse would be allowed to escalate the way it does in the book.  Finally, I’m very interested in (and horrified by) the despicable ways people behave when they pack up.  Many psychological studies have shown that people in groups do things that individuals would never do.  I think the social structures (and strictures) of Barnaby highlighted the “pack mentality” issues I wanted to explore.

Small town themes do make there way into my work often, but I’ve traveled enough that they aren’t necessarily a constant.  I know and deeply love the mountains of New Mexico, but other places have become part of my soul as well.  My current novel begins in Los Angeles and ends in New York, both places that mean a great deal to me.  I think water is a constant in my work though.  In Beauty of the Broken, the river plays an enormous role, becomes a character in and of itself—a friend to Mara.  In The Long Ride Home, my protagonist, Harley has a similar relationship with a body of water, only hers is bigger.  She’s in love with the ocean.  Some of the novel’s pivotal scenes happen there.

Water is an important symbol to me.  My family name isn’t Waters.  I changed my name to Waters after my first divorce.  I couldn’t see going back to being Tawni Hackett because I just wasn’t the girl I was before I got married, but I didn’t want to keep my husband’s name either.  So I changed it to Waters because even though water changes and moves constantly, it’s essentially always the same thing.  It is the essence of life.  It is powerful and mysterious.  Everything we, as human beings, are is represented in water.

CS: Where did this novel start for you—with an image or a particular line? Perhaps the novel’s first line?

TW: Yes, Beauty of the Broken began when Mara whispered that first line in my brain.  It began with Mara’s character and voice.  I fell in love with that kid, and her weirdo brother, instantly.  Stories almost always begin with characters for me.

CS: You’ve talked about the cinematic nature of writing—the importance of visualizing and delivering a complete fictional world. How do film and cinematic sensibilities influence your work?

TW:  I love film.  I think it is by far the most powerful artistic medium available to us.  It combines visual art and acting and music.  It’s collaborative.  I suppose the same things could be said of live theatre, and I love that medium as well.  Because I admire film so much, I think about it all the time when I write.  I hear music in my head as scenes are happening, and I ask myself, “Ok, how do I put that music on the page?”  The answer is I echo the tempo with my things like words choices and sentence lengths.  I see the scenes, and I ask, “How do I get that color, that expression, that ripple in the water, into my readers’ visual fields, the way it would be if they were watching unfold?”  And then I rustle around in my brain for the exact, most visceral words to paint the pictures I’m trying to paint.  The song called “Shadowstabbing” by Cake speaks to that, I think, when it says, “Adjectives on a typewriter, he moves his words like a prizefighter.”  You have to move your words like that to create cinematic writing.  Every word has to be chosen carefully and pack a punch.

When I teach writing, I always show my students a scene from from a movie on the first day.  Afterward, I draw an empty square on the board, and tell them to shout out everything that was going on in the scene.  They tell me about costumes and facial hair and music and grass and clouds and dialogue and dogs and lighting and pacing, and I draw what they say.  And then, I tell them their job as writers is to get all of that on the screen of their readers’ minds, only unlike directors, they don’t have actors and makeup artists and set designers and musical scores.  They have words.  Then we spend an entire semester exploring what we can do with words to make all of that happen on the page.

CS: Beauty of the Broken is marketed as a YA novel—but while its characters are young, its themes and actions are very adult in nature. You didn’t write this with the YA-tag in mind—so how did this change happen? In what ways does a YA designation help? Do you think it hurts in any way?

TW: I never imagined that a book as dark as Beauty of the Broken could be marketed to teens, nor did I write it for teens.  I wrote it for adults, and I submitted it to my agent as an adult novel.  He told me it was YA, and I was stunned.  But it sold almost immediately as a YA novel, and it’s won some pretty cool awards as a YA novel, including the International Literacy Association Award for Young Adult Literature.

I’ve gotten extremely positive responses from my teen readers.  It’s amazing to be making this beautiful connection with them.  They are so passionate and raw, and many of them are lost, especially because teens that are drawn to the book are often experiencing some of the issues it addresses—rape and abuse and questions of identity, sexual and otherwise.  They write me the most moving letters.  When I meet them, they cry and hug me.  It’s humbling to know I am touching people who still have much of their lives in front of them, that maybe, just maybe, I have helped them to accept themselves and altered the course of their lives for the long haul.

The only downside is I’m a little limited in what I can write about.  I wanted to write about sex trafficking.  I tossed the idea around to publishers, and they said, “No way—not in YA.”  And now, The Long Ride home is making the rounds with publishers.  Several have rejected it, saying they love it, but it’s not YA—it’s an adult novel.  The content is gritty, and the protagonist is 18, so as I said before, it’s walking a fine line.  My agent and I may end up having to sell it as an adult novel. We’ll see.

CS: You’re a bit of a nomad the days. Can you tell us about that? Is it hard to write under these circumstances? How has it helped your creative side?

TW: After Beauty of the Broken and Siren Song came out, I traveled extensively to promote them.  I was working as an adjunct college professor at the time, so I would fly off to do a book event on the East Coast on the weekend and then fly back to Arizona to teach during the week.  I almost lost my mind, so I let the job go.  Then, I was traveling so much that I came home three days in six months, and it occurred to me I was wasting my rent, so I let my house go too.

Now, I live on the road full time, and I love it, though I do have to race off to stay with my mom in the New Mexico mountains to recover from time to time.  I actually write more when I’m on the road.  Stasis is hard for me.  I thrive on change.  I hate staying in one place.  I hate having a day job.  So when I’m doing these things, I tend to get bummed out and lose my inspiration.  And since I only write when I’m inspired, I don’t get much writing done when I’m leading a “normal” life.  But when I’m on the road, I can’t stop writing.  My biggest challenge is I’m prone to getting so deeply absorbed in my work that I don’t hear airline announcements, and I miss flights.

CS: What’s next?

TW: Hopefully, a zillion dollar contract for The Long Ride Home is next.  (I’m gonna pretend you’re a genie and wish for that.)  It’s about a kick ass, motorcycle-riding girl named Harley who accidentally starts a house fire with a candle.  Her mother dies in the fire, and Harley moves across the country to live with her mom’s best friend.  She decides to ride back to New York on her motorcycle to spread her mom’s ashes at the beach where they used to play together.  She invites her best friend Dean to join her.  Dean is sexy and smart and kind, if a little nerdy.  She’s been sleeping with him, but she’s all screwed up from her mom’s death, so she refuses to be in a committed relationship with him and kinda acts like a crazy person.  As they are driving across the country, she finds out she’s pregnant.  Hijinx ensue.  I know it doesn’t sound hijinx-y, but it is a pretty funny book at times, if I do say so myself.  It’s also pretty heavy.  I tried to balance the light and the dark, but obviously, I’m not a very objective judge of whether or not that worked.

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.

Exquisite Duet: Larry Eby and M. Cooper

the-duetExquisite Duet (formerly Exquisite Quartet) is not so much a composition between two writers, but rather something created within the murky midlands of each author’s mind, yet set off by the same first sentence. Meg Tuite chooses two writers each month and gives them a first sentence to start with and a 250-word limit to finish an exquisitely mesmerizing story or poem. These duet-dueling writers will craft two completely different cosmos that have rotated, pitched, and blasted from the depths of their cerebral cortex to the twitching nerve endings of their digits onto dueling keyboards and separate screens until their sublime duet is prepared to see the light of an audience.


The Fire

by Larry Eby

the thrum of shifty words, spray-painted
on the loose dog—the fire setting him
free into the street, and our apartment, a mess of ash

careful on the grass, your feet, the glass, the cloud
a moving van in the rear view window of the SUV
driving down the road.

        You take my hand and thrash
        around inside my chest. The blinds are shifting
against the outside light—air conditioning vent
working in reverse:
        steady air
               like me
        a door closing in the distance
               and a child who
reminds you of your mother
tearing down the drapes

        pointing at the sun, asking
you to be closer to that sort of brightness
        a fireball in the sky
that someone can depend on.

The Incisor

By M. Cooper

The thrum of shifty words
 each of us       an orphan       of earth we know
less and less about as we.
our names.       Incisor.

Canine.       Dopamine.
 Each of us
a shudder felt at the wrist       and neck       the traffic
 lights we run in the hopes of
looking at each other at last—syncope

the hole an eye
leaves in the gums
 our tongue
touch wanderer in alkaline—void        when

we embrace this absence       we Houdini—or cease
 our pulse        discharged
batteries fire
 our nouns wilt       left hung        in the heat of


Larry Eby is the author of two books of poetry, Flight of August, winner of the 2014 Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and Machinist in the Snow, ELJ Publications 2015. His work can be found in Forklift, Passages North, Fourteen Hills, Thrush Poetry Journal, and others. He is the editor in chief of Orange Monkey Publishing, a poetry press in California.

M. Cooper is an inland empire poet, PoetrIE member, CSUSB MFA Graduate, Veteran, and parent to two great sons: Markus & Jonathan.  More of Cooper’s poems can be found in The Berkeley Review, The Portland Review, The LA Review, H_NGM_N among other fine publications.  Cooper’s new book, coauthored with good friend Cindy Rinne, Speaking Through Sediment, is now available from ELJ Publications.  M. would like to make you aware that the splash zone includes the first 11 rows.

Review: Get a Grip by Kathy Flann (reviewed by Michael Tager)

get a grip

Get a Grip


by Kathy Flann

160 pages

Texas Review Press, 2015


ISBN-13 978-1680030518




You walk into a bookstore, unsure what you’re looking for. You know you don’t want the new John Grisham or a young adult werewolf, but what exactly you need is up in the air. The old you would know, but you haven’t been feeling quite like yourself. You haven’t been speaking your own language and when you try to explain, your tongue trips and you fall silent. It’s been a weird couple of days.

While you’re looking around the bookstore, plucking titles that sound interesting and setting them back after a few seconds’ glance, you find a book of short stories with a title that, besides being shared by last-gasp Aerosmith, sounds right to you. Get A Grip, the book says and you do. The book feels right in your hand; the author, Kathy Flann, sounds safe, like she knows what she’s talking about.

You open the book. Inside are short stories filled with protagonists who are lost, confused, unable to speak the language of their own hearts. Some of them speak in the 2nd person, addressing you, the reader, because they know that you too share these secret fears. It’s so easy to mess up the 2nd, you’re leery. But no, the choice makes sense.

You too are lost in life. You too have forgotten the roadmap to your inner heart. You too are exploring the options out there in the world, how to put together the jigsaw that is your desire. You decide that Kathy Flann is talking to you, even though you know it can’t be true, it’s just that she’s that good at uncovering those universal truths. Where are you going? Why aren’t you there? What are you waiting for?

You decide to purchase the book and bring it up to the counter. The cashier winks because your grasp on Get A Grip is white-knuckled. The cashier pretends to know what’s inside, because that’s what cashiers do: they pretend that every purchase is a good one. You know this, and you’re ok with the deception, because in this case, your inkling is correct.

Inside, there are hikers whose car has been stolen and must make a detour with a pot-smoking boyfriend. There are 40-year olds who have gone through too many significant others and don’t understand why they can’t make a relationship last over a year. There are brothers, one on the cusp of greatness, the other unsure how he can make it without his sibling. These are stories that are relatable and true, despite their necessary fiction.

Kathy Flann writes about Baltimore; all of the characters inside of Get A Grip know Baltimore and breathe it. They might not represent the whole of the city—Baltimore contains multitudes after all—but the subsection that they capture are represented well. They are well off, they are dissatisfied with their success, they are alienated from their family, their friends and themselves. When you read these characters’ stories, you know that Flann knows her audience well.

Not all of the stories speak to you, but that isn’t the fault of the stories, nor is it your fault. You know there are many who would love the story of two rival meteorologists, lost in their own worlds and full of muted respect and undiluted jealousy. You know also that this person isn’t you. But you can still glean so much from this tale of wasted life and ambition, of how the protagonist has finally, at the end of his chain, gained a certain understanding of the world and his place in it. Even the stories that don’t quite work for you, still work. That’s a sign that something is deeply right.

When you’re finished Get A Grip, you wonder if you truly know how to speak the language of your soul. You spend time thinking about the choices you’ve made, the choices you’ve failed to make, why you have or have not made them. Are you content? Do you just think you are? These are big questions, bigger than you’re prepared to answer, but you’re grateful that a book of short fiction can get you to even think them. You feel melancholy, like your heart has a toothache, but also hopeful. Melanhope. It’s a new feeling.

Feeling something, anything after a read is a success. When the thoughts and dreams of fictional souls stays with you long after the book is shelved is more than that. You know this, Kathy Flann knows this, and you find yourself gazing at the stars when the world is asleep around you, wondering if you too are writ in their flickering.

Michael Tager


“Being a Writer isn’t About Having a Book”: An Interview with Kevin Watson of Press 53

KMW 2014Kevin Watson founded Press 53 in October of 2005. Since that time, Press 53 has published 160 titles, received almost 50 awards, and has earned an international reputation for publishing quality short fiction and poetry collections. With its home office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Press 53 has also teamed up with Tom Lombardo of Atlanta, Georgia, who edits Tom Lombardo Poetry Selections, and husband/wife team Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root of Tucson, Arizona, who edit the Silver Concho Poetry Series. Press 53 also publishes Prime Number magazine, a digital online quarterly co-founded in 2010 by Watson and award-winning author Clifford Garstang. Press 53 publishes widely published authors from all across the United States (58 percent to date are women), most found today by way of recommendations, scouting journals and magazines, and their annual writing competitions, the Press 53 Award for Poetry and the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction.

Curtis Smith: Let’s get a disclaimer out there to start. I’m a big fan of Press 53—and Press 53 has helped me greatly in my career by publishing three of my story collections. I know I’ve said it before, but thanks for that.

Kevin Watson: My pleasure, Curtis. I’m a big fan of you and your writing. Your stories resonate with me, which is my only criteria when selecting a collection for publication.

CS: Starting a press is quite an undertaking. Can you take us on the journey that led you to being in this business?

KW: I began plans for Press 53 after losing my job in the airline industry in 2004. The plan was to publish one of two books a year, by local authors, until I found something else I could do to make a living. Within six months I was so busy, doing so well, attracting award-winning authors from other states, and having so much fun, I couldn’t bring myself to look for other work. So I had to find a way to make publishing work. It took about five years to get to a point where I could actually pay myself something and another year of two to hire some part-time help. Thankfully, my wife had a good job and wouldn’t allow me to give up on Press 53. Before that, while working for the airline, I was writing short fiction and poetry, and had published a few pieces, even winning a couple of awards. It was in 2001, when I edited for a New York arts foundation The Silver Rose Anthology, a collection of short fiction featuring twelve authors, the publishing bug bit me.

CS: At first Press 53 published novels and nonfiction along with story and poetry collections, but then you shifted to just story and poetry collections. What prompted this change in focus?

KW: Our first novel was a reprint of John Ehle’s (pronounced Ee-lee) The Land Breakers, first published by Harper & Row in 1964. After bringing on Sheryl Monks as a partner in January of 2006, we discussed publishing bigger books. My original idea was to publish short fiction and poetry, since that was what I loved and they were the two types of writing most overlooked and undervalued by bookstores and other publishers. Sheryl suggested that we publish novels and I was open to the idea. I suggested republishing out-of-print classics, if we could find one, and The Land Breakers kind of dropped in our laps. That book was acquired last year by the New York Review of Books Classics, which I see as a success story, and we still publish novels and other books that are out of print by North Carolina writers. It’s our way of paying homage to our home state and its rich literary history.

When Sheryl left Press 53 in November of 2008 to return to writing and teaching (she is now Writer-in-Residence at Salem College and co-founder of the literary journal Change Seven), I had to reinvent the press and how we operated. I became a one-man operation again. What I found was that novels are a huge undertaking and the readership and marketing strategies are different than short fiction and poetry, which tend to share readers and are marketed similarly, meaning the authors have to get out and read, go to festivals, and attend conferences, since bookstore still believe, for the most part, that there is no market for these types of books. Finally, in November of 2011, I decided to drop the big books. I was finding that readers of short fiction and poetry were coming back to find other books and authors, while buyers of the novel and memoir weren’t. So rather than try and be everything for every reader, I decided to narrow our focus and build Press 53 into a tower rather than a plantation, so to speak.

CS: You must read through hundreds of submissions for each title you put out. Can you tell us about your selection process? What advice would you give to those who are considering sending a manuscript your way?

KW: Good question. You’re right. I’ll read hundreds of submissions to find that one or two I want to publish. The stories or poems have to connect with me. I’m not looking for commercial appeal, or marketing opportunities; I’m looking for a connection with me personally. When I started the press, I decided to publish writing I love and find readers who agree with me. I ask the same of my editors, which is why they have their own imprints. The trick is getting readers to come back, so marketing is vital.

What I love are stories (poems are stories too) that are slice of life, that let me walk along with the narrator and witness the story. The dialogue has to be natural and interesting, and the story has to take me someplace new or show me a new way to look at a familiar scene or topic. And the author has to demonstrate a level of quality and professionalism in knowing the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, so my reading is not interrupted. I could clean up any manuscript, but with so little time and so many other manuscripts from which to choose, I’ll set a poorly edited manuscript aside and move on.

If anyone wants to know what kind of writing I love, read any of the books we’ve published. And that goes for our other editors too. Before you submit to the Press 53 Award for Poetry, read a Tom Lombardo Poetry Selection, since Tom is the judge. See if your work is a good fit for his series. I judge the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, so you should read one of our short fiction collections before you enter. Also, you’ll want to check out the quality of the book: is it edited well, is the layout professional, is the overall design pleasing? If not, you might want to spend your time and resources finding a better home for your work.

CS: There are so many challenges facing both small presses and the whole print publishing world in general—there’s distribution, working with both chains and indie sellers, dealing with Amazon. What’s the biggest challenge you face at Press 53?

KW: Our biggest challenge is how to reach our readers since most of them are being ignored by the box stores. Most box stores, even most indies today, seem to be only interested in the big books that are popular, books they can display and sell without much effort. Short fiction and poetry requires more work. If the store doesn’t have a poet on staff, chances are the poetry section is made up of the usual suspects and they sell very little. With a poet on staff, who reads contemporary poetry and is active with the local poetry community, they could sell more books, and not just poetry. Poets read a wide range of genres. Trust me, no one buys more books than poets. If more stores would make the effort to cultivate a small press section, or poetry and short fiction sections, in their stores, and have someone who knows the regional writing communities, they could increase sales that would be significant enough to support a small store within their store. So these readers go to Amazon to shop around for new reading, and guess who complains about their lack of loyalty? The box stores that are ignoring the readers’ interests. Before the big chain stores came along, most indie bookstores were in touch with the interests of their local readers, which includes writers, and your better indie bookstores still do this. Our challenge is finding these progressive stores or convincing stores to try cultivating these markets.

CS: In the small press world (and increasingly in the larger world of the majors), the promotion side of things falls pretty much upon the author. I know I’ve always felt a keen sense of responsibility to help my publishers make back their money—but getting news about a new title and new author out into the world isn’t easy. What do you expect from the authors you sign? What advice would you offer to writers putting out their first book?

KW: If you publish today, large or small press, you have to get out and introduce yourself , give readings, shake hands, make friends, and sell books. Most small presses don’t have the resources for a marketing department, and many large presses reserve that department for their top authors. So if self-promotion doesn’t sound like fun, then you need to hold out for a big publisher, and then keep your fingers crossed. Just sending books out to booksellers via a book distributor will not sell your book. Unless the store displays and promotes your book, it will be the equivalent of wallpaper until the invoice is due, at which time the books will be packed up and shipped back to the distributor and then back to the publisher.

What I expect from my authors is to get out, set up readings, use your connections to get word out, and don’t be shy about introducing yourself. The authors who win one of our competitions has a built-in reason to call on a bookseller, library, art gallery, or school to ask for a reading, or to contact a literary festival or conference and ask to be considered for a spot on the program. When you win an award from a well-established and respected publisher, doors will open, but you have to knock on the door and give a proper introduction. Press 53 publishes around eight books each spring and fall, so we are very busy reading, editing, designing, and promoting (as best we can) through social media, emails, and our website, but we don’t have the resources for a full-time marketing person. At a small press, everyone wears several hats. And even if we did have a marketing person, we would still rely on the author to be active in promoting themselves and the book. Here is an example: Rebecca Foust, winner of the first Press 53 Award for Poetry, sent email queries to dozens of poetry reviewers, journals, and newspapers, letting them know she had just won a major award for her poetry collection, Paradise Drive, and could her publisher send a copy for consideration. She received several dozen positive responses. In turn, we mailed out dozens of review copies, and to date Paradise Drive has received a large number of reviews and Rebecca has had a couple of dozen interviews and feature articles in publications like The San Francisco Chronicle, the Huffington Post, and The Washington Independent Review of Books. She stepped into the role of marketing person and used the contest to introduce herself and her book. It was a lot of work, but it has paid off for her, her book, and for Press 53.

CS: Your fiction contest is about to start. Tell us about that.

KW: The 2016 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction kicked off on September 1 and will close December 31 at midnight Eastern time. We’re looking for an unpublished manuscript of short fiction by a writer at any stage of his or her career. The winner receives publication, a $1,000 advance, and a quarter-page color ad in Poets & Writers magazine. The 2015 contest brought us four new collections that we couldn’t pass up. Besides our winner, The Universal Physics of Escape by Elizabeth Gonzalez of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we also offered publishing contracts to three runners-up.  You can find all the information on our website, including the names of all our finalists and semi-finalists.

CS: What do you think the future holds—for Press 53 in particular and for the small, lit press scene in general?

KW: The reader-pie, so to speak, hasn’t gotten any bigger, in fact, thanks to the current self-publishing craze, the reader-pie is smaller. It use to be that writers read a lot of books, not just to be entertained, but to find inspiration and to learn how to become better writers. Today, I show up at literary conferences and it seems like everyone has a book to sell, so the focus is on selling books and not on discovering new authors, new presses, and new insights into their own writing. These writers are mostly looking for marketing advice rather than writing advice. I don’t see this trend bursting, but I do see it slowly deflating. Being a writer isn’t about having a book, it’s about becoming the best writer you can be so one day you can have a book that others will respect, read, and talk about.

Our focus has to be on finding great writing, appreciative readers, and in building relationships with smart booksellers. Just as there are no shortcuts for writers, there are no shortcuts for publishers. Building a strong, respectable publishing house is done one book and one reader at a time.

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.

Craft Talk: Words, Words, Words by Barbara Morrison

B.Morrison-20We are all wordsmiths. Whether we’re writing fiction, nonfiction or poetry, we strive to find just the right word. In this workshop, we will look at the etymology, sound, meanings, and associations of a number of words using excerpts from multiple genres. Then we will look at some pieces and discuss the best word to fill each gap. These pieces will be provided, but participants are also encouraged to bring their own work. The workshop will be followed by an open mic.

Barbara Morrison, who writes under the name B. Morrison, is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara’s award-winning work has been published in anthologies and magazines. She conducts writing workshops and is the owner of a small press. She has maintained her Monday Morning Books blog since 2006 and tweets regularly about poetry @bmorrison9. For more information, visit her website and blog at

Presented by the Maryland Writers Association Baltimore 

6:30 to 8:30 pm, Monday, October 26, 2015

 George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology 938 York Road, Towson, MD 21204

Directions for the Carver Centetr: YOU MAY ENTER FROM THE YORK ROAD ENTRANCE; however,  if you go via Bosley to KENILWORTH …go past the Baltimore County Correctional Facility….Enter Carver using the Kenilworth Entrance…Park in front of the building. The walk to the BLDG. is short via the Kenilworth entrance… MWAB members will be there before 6:30 and guide you to Room 1036. The walk to the building is very short if you take the Kenilworth entrance

Exquisite Duet: Karen Stefano and Ken McPherson

the-duetExquisite Duet (formerly Exquisite Quartet) is not so much a composition between two writers, but rather something created within the murky midlands of each author’s mind, yet set off by the same first sentence. Meg Tuite chooses two writers each month and gives them a first sentence to start with and a 250-word limit to finish an exquisitely mesmerizing story or poem. These duet-dueling writers will craft two completely different cosmos that have rotated, pitched, and blasted from the depths of their cerebral cortex to the twitching nerve endings of their digits onto dueling keyboards and separate screens until their sublime duet is prepared to see the light of an audience.




 by Karen Stefano

Something isolates us from ourselves
when we try to control another’s thoughts.

I don’t have time to be still.
I don’t have time to listen to my own mind.
I hear my name repeated ceaselessly through the day.
Requests, demands, errands to be run.
It will never stop, this much I know.
Tuesday, I forget to shower.

For the first time in years I recall The Yellow Wallpaper.
Can this be a warning?

We breakfast together.
My eyes flutter across the table.
–What is it? What do you need? What can I get you?
–Jesus. I was just looking for the salt.
–I just want to make you happy
Disillusion seeps across the crisp white table cloth like a stain.
I have learned that disillusion festers, overwhelms, until it becomes dissolution.
Of marriage.
One thing for certain.
I can’t afford another mistake.

Days drift by.
I drift with them.
Wednesday, I forget to brush my teeth.

I don’t know what you want from me.

I am a possession, a dependent.
I must shape up or I will lose my screen time.
I must shape up or I will get a time out.
One way or another, I will be punished.
Everything smells yellow, it is true.

I know what you want from me.

If I can learn how to stay here, I won’t lose my way.

Maybe it is time to settle.
I will settle.
For happiness.

Clouds, Toys, Screams

by Ken McPherson

Something isolates us from ourselves,
drives us into walled darkness,
stretching black shadows into waves
of shapeless clouds. We discover
our propensity for concealment,
and through vibration, synch our verses.

We lean against tactile, charcoal walls
in otherwise abandoned rooms
gathering twilights of muted grayness.
We lean with no confidence to move,
wrapped in compression, slipping,
slipping toward a journey undreamed.

We shift souls of dust,
share the slide of time,
push across jagged ceilings,
enliven perfidious, dank corners.
We feel cool, silk hands, cobwebs
mapping tracks across false eons.

Warped windows splatter gray,
we disengage from attic noises, toys left
sequestered, Jacks no longer in play,
six points filed sharp
in need and threat, scratch
gargoyles on my chest.

Whispers breathe clouds across
secluded rooms where we sit.
We leave this footprint:
stretch to touch a metered life,
withhold no phrase nor iamb
to prove our vapid worth.

We will linger, as here
we demand solitude, refuse life
with ferocity that splinters
into our vessels, charges
to pierce our hearts,
shouts a perfect path to our end.

Who blames a child swept away,
no breath, no hope, no dream.
No, we rend our screams of isolation.


Karen Stefano is the author of The Secret Games of Words, published by 1GlimpsePress (2015).  She is Fiction Editor for Connotation Press, and her stories have appeared in The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Epiphany, Lost In Thought, Green Mountains Review, Gloom Cupboard, and elsewhere, Her story, “Seeing,” was nominated for the XXXVIII Pushcart Prize. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit

Ken McPherson has been published in various literary magazines. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where a walk to the mailbox can inspire the creation of visions and dragons. He mostly writes short stories, and believes poems are like arm wrestling. However, he is willing to step in. Who wouldn’t dare?



Review: The Best Small Fictions 2015 (reviewed by Ashley Begley)


The Best Small Fictions 2015

Guest Edited by Robert Olen Butler

(Tara L. Masih, Series Editor)

160 pages

Queens Ferry Press, 2015


ISBN-13 978-1938466625




We cannot fool ourselves any longer. Although we plan and blueprint and outline our lives, we cannot hold the unknowable in our hands. The uncertainties of life surprise us, as The Best Small Fictions 2015 surprise us. This collection of small fictions, stories that, at most, span four pages, stand as a microcosm of every breath we take. Edited by Robert Olen Butler and Tara L. Masih, this collection exposes the human moments that matter: those snap decisions, those glimpses, those fleeting touches in which life, love and death happen.

These stories, these woven words, are simply beautiful as they guard “the ghosts and the echoes and the earth’s seeping wounds” (Wiley 5). Each author, writing from one of the many corners throughout the world, usher us from one doorstep to another until we see that we share the same rage to live. From a woman and a man trapped in a drug-induced loveless relationship masturbating to a tennis match in “Wimbledon” by Seth Brady Tucker, to a boy who runs away from his parents who locked him in the basement because he turned into a bear in “The Boy and the Bear” by Blake Kimzey, to an EMT who stares at a Buddha with piss in its eyes in “The Family Jewel” by Ron Riekki, we understand—from the mundane to the absurd, we understand and “we know this urge, know how strong and primal and erotically charged it is” (Wiley 3).

The sparse words, chosen frugally and carefully, that are used to craft these small fictions means that the rest is left to us—we must question and poke the story. We don’t know the beginning and we don’t know the end and these two facts are the only certainties afforded to us. Sometimes, we only get two sentences as with “Inland Sea” by Stuart Dybek:

Horizon, a clothesline strung between crab apples. The forgotten dress, that far away, bleached invisible by a succession of summer days until a thunderstorm drenches it blue again, as it is now, and despite the distance, the foam of raindrops at its hem sparkles just before the wind lifts it into a wave that breaks against the man framed in a farmhouse doorway. (18).

And we have to trust that this is enough, that this glimpse will lead us to movement. We have to trust, like the stolen blue-green-yellow parrot trusts that his “darting back and forth…diving then ascending on invisible spires of hot chimney air, in utter disbelief at its own good fortune” will lead to his freedom (Price 79).

Perhaps everything that I have been trying to say is already best said by Robert Olen Butler, so I leave the last words to him:

A small fiction is a lone wolf of a lie, sometimes hounding the truth across a field but oftentimes simply sitting on a hilltop to raise its face to the moon and howl…We listen to small fictions like night sounds from afar. They enter us briefly, in sweetness or sassiness, in hilarity or aching sadness, but they leave us imprinted with freshly experienced truth. Truth possible to know only through the clarifying lies of fiction…They are small but brimming with our shared human experience. (XIII-XIV).



Ashley Begley

Six Poems by Nancy Allen


Casualties of War

My brother and I tattooed
the naked G.I. Joe
with magic marker,
unhooked limbs and head
from his sexless torso
and buried him in pieces
all over the yard.

We had nothing
against him. It was time
to put him down is all,
to stop playing with dolls.
We were soldiers ourselves,
and hunters and spies and…

Those years, our father
was three tours overseas.
When he’d return home,
we were in his crosshairs,
our every movement suspect.

Blink and we’re strangers,
doing strange things.


The Last Picnic

It’s a bad sign when search dogs
are kenneled and the dive team arrives.
They’re strapping on tanks, headlamps
over there where the pastor parked
three hours ago. Imagine
praying for broken bones,
abduction, anything
from which a child might be saved.

It was the end-of-summer picnic.
Paper plates laden with wings,
potato salad, deviled eggs.
Beach towels on the railing,
flip flops scattered and lost.
Who needs more ice tea?
Go call your brother…
Well, who saw him last?

At the edge of the dock, sun
sparkles in the water, fish
dart just below the surface.
His face reflects back at him
as he leans over, hands pressed
to slippery knees. Always before
his dad held him aloft, dipping him
to his shoulders, no deeper.

The divers slip into the lake,
leave behind his shouted name.
Only the sound of breath now
where water deepens, grows dark.
Glimpse of fabric, hair waving, skin.
They hoist him by his shoulders.
In water, he is weightless—
grows heavy as they pass him
up the muddy bank to daylight.


My Father Called the Mourning Doves

and I thought they answered him.
Sitting at the kitchen table
beside a screened window,
humid Virginia summers,
the fan thrumming and clicking
in its rounds. Didn’t he show me
a thousand times how to cup
my hands just so, to blow
through the space at the base
of the thumbs, to press together
my fingers and wave them quick,
as one, to make the sad echo
that all the mourning doves
all around heard, and hearkened to?
Didn’t the sky fill then
with the song of mourning doves
calling to my father?


Nature Craft for Girls

A woodpecker’s hammering made her look up
from the coloring book and crayons spread

on the porch glider: hunks of bark spraying
like buck shot into brambles soon to be lush

with blackberries. She saw a fox pounce
at the verge of the pasture and tore off after it.

The day was cool spring and spangled with light,
leaves scudding across the path into the woods

and everywhere birds chattering, weaving nests.
The girl squinted at a doe stepping through poplars,

and guessed that nearby, a fawn held still
in a moss-lined hollow, odorless as bone.

She was a wolf chieftain, a bow hunter;
she fended off wild boar with her wits.

She was lost. She knew to follow deer paths
to the creek, and it was there the sheriff

and bloodhound found her long past nightfall
holed up in the spreading roots of a sycamore

under a blanket of cut pine, watching wind toss
tree tops, and singing at the top of her lungs.


Habit of Silence

My family never went to the movies or to carnivals—
no surround-sound or gaudy lights and clowns for us.

We took long hikes, or drives when the rain poured down.
We were quiet enough to walk noiselessly through the woods, quiet

enough to hear church bells in the valleys, the hoot of an owl
yearning for an answer, the sound of our breath, thud of pulse.

We trod stone steps green and slick with moss where paths
shouldered their way down dark ravines to laurel-edged pools.

We picnicked summer and winter, wringing sweat from socks
or blowing across the surface of tea in blistering metal cups.

Nightfall was the ticking of a campfire embering down.
Lying on my back in the dark tent, I would suspend my blanket

above me, hold its four corners with hands and feet, then release
it all at once to parachute and settle over my body’s landscape

where wind shushes down hillsides, whispers in hollows.


Coming Back to Haunt Them

Every Memorial Day weekend
the firemen’s bar-b-que spread out
along the banks of Rye Creek, wide
and deep with mountain runoff.

I never figured out who did it or how,
everyone taking credit the way they did
for the raccoon chained to a log
floating in the middle. It would pace,

worry its collar and hiss. The winning hound
was the one who managed to lope-swim
out there and knock the sow off the log.
Most years there was no winner at all.

The hounds came whining back to shore, tender
noses raked by the same delicate paws
that could pluck a single egg from a robin’s nest
and cart it back to a hungry brood.

At night, the coon hunters startle in their sleep
and reach for their wives, imagine an armed
and masked intruder lurking on the porch—
nursing a grudge, hatching a crazy plan.

Nancy Allen is a poet, criminal defense attorney, and yoga teacher living in Lynchburg, VA. Her poems have been published in the Tar River Review, Piedmont Virginian Magazine, and the Sow’s Ear Review, and she has won awards in the annual contest of the Poetry Society of Virginia.

Exquisite Duet: Allie Marini and Brennan DeFrisco

the-duetExquisite Duet (formerly Exquisite Quartet) is not so much a composition between two writers, but rather something created within the murky midlands of each author’s mind, yet set off by the same first sentence. Meg Tuite chooses two writers each month and gives them a first sentence to start with and a 250-word limit to finish an exquisitely mesmerizing story or poem. These duet-dueling writers will craft two completely different cosmos that have rotated, pitched, and blasted from the depths of their cerebral cortex to the twitching nerve endings of their digits onto dueling keyboards and separate screens until their sublime duet is prepared to see the light of an audience.


The Story Behind the Poem

This month is a small but exciting departure from the usual style of “Exquisite Duet.” For their collaboration, Allie Marini and Brennan DeFrisco wrote a contrapuntal triptych poem—Brennan’s poem runs down the left side and served as the anchor. Allie’s poem runs down the right side, and is the response piece. Read left to right, there is a third piece, the collaboration and poetic dialogue, between their pieces. Both poems begin with the prompt line, “Your whispers coat the room” and end on the word “dreaming.”


Your whispers coat the room

like silk

in unspoken gestures, all saying


the same thing

is our secret language:

it’s your hand on the back of my neck

fingertips & spine,

your breath and mine, navigating

distance shrinking,

the space between each other’s lips

a galaxy unfolded

it’s tongue and teeth and the way

when we kiss

they take turns

becoming St. Elmo’s fire—

it burns in the distance of your eyes

a glowing ball of light

finds its way through your fingertips

thrums like a thunderstorm

& echoes across the dunes of my vertebrae

& this, too, can be a religion:

it’s waking up next to you & being unsure

how to breathe & how to pray, finding faith

that I’m not still

under the sheets with you, awake & alive,



Allie Marini (Batts) holds degrees from Antioch University of Los Angeles & New College of Florida, meaning she can explain deconstructionism, but cannot perform simple math. Her work has been a finalist for Best of the Net & nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is managing editor for the NonBinary Review, Unbound Octavo, & Zoetic Press, and co-edits for Lucky Bastard Press with her man, performance poet B Deep. She has previously served on the masthead for Lunch Ticket, Spry Literary Journal, The Weekenders Magazine, Mojave River Review & Press, & The Bookshelf Bombshells. Allie is the author of Unmade & Other Poems, (Beautysleep Press), You Might Curse Before You Bless (ELJ Publications) wingless, scorched & beautiful, (Imaginary Friend Press), Before Fire, (ELJ Publications), This Is How We End (Bitterzoet, forthcoming), Pictures From The Center Of The Universe (Paper Nautilus, winner of the Vella Prize) & Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide To Beasts Of The Southern Wild (Hyacinth Girl Press, forthcoming). Allie rarely sleeps, and her mother has hypothesized that she is actually a robot fueled by Diet Coke & Sri Racha. Find her on the web: or @kiddeternity.

Brennan ‘B Deep’ DeFrisco likes words and the way they move. He is an organizer and performer at the Berkeley Poetry Slam and will represent them again in the upcoming 2015 National Poetry Slam. He is co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press and author of Highku: 4 & 20 Poems About Marijuana. His work can be found in TheThe Poetry’s Infoxicated Corner, Drunk Monkeys, Yellow Chair Review, Sweet Wolverine, Revolution John, and Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal. He loves a particularly beautiful and talented woman, movies, poker, whiskey, pluralistic points of view and his community of writers. He was born, raised, and pays rent in the San Francisco Bay Area.

REVIEW: Viral: Stories by Emily Mitchell (reviewed by Melissa Wyse)


by Emily Mitchell

384 pages

W.W. Norton, 2015


ISBN-13 978-0393350531




Viral, Mitchell’s first short story collection, builds on the successes of her 2007 debut novel, The Last Summer of the World: both books deploy sophisticated structural choices and – in two of the new stories – masterful mining of historic material.  Yet in Viral we also see Mitchell turn her formidable insight and lyrical talents to speculative fiction set in a future that feels both near and probable and to the dislocations of an unspecified and yet recognizable present.

Many of these new stories excavate the methods people put in place to explain and moderate experience.  In the collection’s speculative first story, “Smile Report,” a company installs a fictional and yet imminently imaginable Facial Expression Cognition Software designed to monitor how genuinely its employees smile.  In “My Daughter and Her Spider” the narrator’s daughter is prescribed a Companion, a computerized spider meant to help her feel “calmer” in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce.

And in the collection’s title story, “Viral,” after teenagers all over the world light themselves on fire and jump to their deaths, their families gather for a conference where a series of experts attempt to explain the phenomenon.  Yet the controlled environment of the “brightly lit, fabric-lined hotel ballroom” and the long series of expert explanations ultimately cannot contain the families’ raw emotional response to loss.

For as much as Mitchell is interested in the mechanisms people use to modulate experience, she is equally compelled by the way these methods fall apart.  The daughter’s spider Companion malfunctions and webs her bedroom; the convention in “Viral” erupts in riots; the narrator of “Smile Report” experiences genuine empathy that defies the smooth metrics of proscribed smiles.

There is the sense often in Mitchell’s work that beyond the benign numbing of experts and self-improvement technologies, larger problems loom.  The teenagers in “Viral” have died in a mass tragedy.  The narrator of “Smile Report” “[finds] it difficult” to smile in the wake of news that entire towns are being swallowed by sand.  And when the narrator of “If You Cannot Go to Sleep” fails to cure her insomnia through a litany of visualization exercises and herbal treatments, she lies awake and contemplates global warming.

Even in “Guided Meditation” the audiotape meditation leader strays from her smooth, soothing professional language, leading her student listeners through an increasingly hostile and dystopian visualization narrative.

But Mitchell’s stories – irreverent, witty, incisive – are never dystopian, never despondent. There is a playfulness to Mitchell’s writing in these twelve stories, which are funny and incisive and coupled with a capacious faculty for humanity and depth. The meditation leader brings her students to the dark “foreboding” of a basement elevator where a “weird, rumbling, ugly creature” lurks in the corner.  “You could run away from him,” she says.  Or, she advises her students, “try holding out your hand to him.”  She goes on:

He might take it in his own hand, which turns out to be enormous, oddly shaped, maybe with the wrong number of fingers, but warm and dry and strangely comforting.  Then, without letting go, try stepping forward, leading him gently out of that back corner of the elevator into the light and space…. Will he follow?

Even this dystopia becomes empathetic and generous.

The stories in Mitchell’s collection are rich with such moments of humanity.  For as wry as Mitchell is about the dislocations caused by technologies as disparate as the telephone, Facial Expression Cognition Software, and Facebook, she also deploys technology movingly as a vehicle for human connection.  A record player in “Lucille’s House” returns Louis Armstrong to his grieving widow; in “Three Marriages” an internet chat room brings Cynthia halfway across the world to a life and a marriage she had never imagined.

Human connection is one of the key preoccupations of the twelve stories in Viral, and Mitchell is remarkably attuned to the subtle imbalances and disruptions that demark and interrupt relationships.  The characters in “On Friendship” chronical the ways friendship is lost and redeemed through ordinary calibrations: the tone of voice a friend uses in phone conversations, the circuitous re-tracings of a political disagreement, the rediscovered generosity of a handmade recipe book from an old friend.  Mitchell is a keen observer of such permutations.

The stories in Viral hinge on subtle shifts, the accumulation of moments, habitual action interrupted, plots that bloom from half-scenes and then swell into the full emotional force of Mitchell’s apt and piercing lyricism.  She maintains a slight distance in the perspective of these stories, even in those that are told by first person narrators.  The narrators in Mitchell’s stories are more likely “after a while [to realize] that [they are] unhappy” than to immerse readers in unhappiness’s visceral sensory immediacy.  And this distance is what allows space for the characters to puzzle through the shifting meanings of their experiences, and for Mitchell’s careful observations and wry humor.

The technique proves particularly well-suited to this collection of stories, where meaning can mutate and change into something else entirely.  The sister in “A Boy My Sister Dated in High School” tries to find a framework to help her respond when her high school boyfriend hits her, and then years later finds herself re-casting the incident’s significance.  In “On Friendship” we think we learn the moral of a story about a friendship that ends over political disagreement (“Now that some time has passed… those concerns, which seemed so urgent at the time, don’t seem that way to me anymore,” the narrator tells us.) only to find in the next paragraph an elegiac memory from early in the friendship.  Only then do we discover that this story is actually about a far more human loss.

Perhaps the story to most strikingly re-define its meaning is “No-No,” set in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War.  For its first two thirds, the story is about a questionnaire that the internees have been asked to fill out attesting to their loyalty.  Mitchell builds tension and suspense surrounding these forms, continually raising the stakes for her protagonist Karl until we understand that his answers will carry grave consequences for his family, his community, and his safety.  It is not until the last third of the story that we discover that the story’s meaning has abruptly changed – for Karl and for us.  It turns out to be a story about something else entirely.  To the point that, many years later, in the story’s final paragraphs, a student interviewing Karl asks him about the questionnaire and he cannot, for a minute, remember it.

These leaps through time are one of the collection’s hallmarks, and one of the structural strategies that allows the stories’ meanings to shape-shift.  And in Viral meaning is infinitely morphable, multiple, open to play and improvisation, structural leaps and narrative experimentation.  The closing story in the collection, “Biographies,” is a prime example of this.  In it, Mitchell presents five biographical sketches of a character named Emily Mitchell.  The speculative sketches in this story, lush with detail and empathic connection, are an apt metaphor for Mitchell’s work in this varied, multifaceted, complex collection.  Through it Mitchell makes herself multiple: equally deft and at home in a novel like Last Summer of the World and in these playful, human stories.  Viral expands the scope and nature of Mitchell’s canon, readies us for a future body of work poised to be just as rich, and just as multidimensional.

Melissa Wyse



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