Flash Special – Lost & Found (March 2015 / 15.6)
Artist Jo Ann Tomaselli has studied with renowned landscape photographer Joel Sternfeld and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn. Defining herself as a particular type of photographer is impossible as every moment behind the lens offers an opportunity to see the world from a different point of view. Her inspiration? Color, shape, design, and the most delightful factor of all – fun!
There was no bookstore in my hometown but there was an A&P grocery, and this is where my mother bought the first provision for her marriage – a small glass vinegar jar with a hollow dowel-shaped lid that clinked each time it was placed back in the small spouted opening. It was a sound that I loved to hear though my mother tired of it over the years and began winding strips of paper towels like rough bandages around the base of the small glass dowel so it would sit tightly and not sing out with its glass clink. I wondered why she’d want to deafen such an elegant moment in the midst of our plain suppers of common greens and beans and mismatched dishes, not realizing my mother had moved into the practical pain of parenthood. She had more to care for than the importance of clinking vinegar jars. Though to me it was like a crystalline genie bottle that happened to live on the shelf inside the brown refrigerator door, she saw it as the cheap glass container that it was. Her mind was buried in other matters, heavier than glass genie bottles: how to get us through the winter, keeping a gallon of milk in the refrigerator, and, in the margin of what she had left over, making sure we went to Sunday School even if she had to cuss us all the way out the door, sending us toward the green church bus with a slam. Behind the door she could turn back and see her second marital provision, an oversized Family Bible that weighted any table or shelf it sat on and could make anyone think it was a book of some importance if for no other reason than its size. Maybe our few visitors imagined that this was where she drew her strength, saying a silent amen, and forgetting about the sixth cup of coffee she had poured herself since they’d stopped by less than an hour before. Anyone could sense the weight of the big book and that was enough – no reason to open it up like I did on many nights. It was the only book I could find in the house. I’d examine its picture plates that captured life and death and swoops of ancient drama between its covers, the color and texture of crinkled skin. I was charmed by the pictures too much to be bothered by the writing on the too-thin pages. Jonah was being spit out of the sea creature (I was told later that it was not necessarily a whale by a strict Sunday School teacher); King Solomon was ready to slice a baby right down the middle; the muscled legs and arms of warriors or saints stood still and too real, and I wondered how they got those strips of fabric to cling right there so precisely – as much testosterone as testament, I would later think. Someone could have read the stories to me, as I had no interest in the words. I had the pictures and I returned to them, turning back to those pages, turning, turning until I came upon a page labeled “Our Family,’’ and I saw the sharp slant of my mother’s handwriting there in the stiff pages inserted between the too-thin ones. The blue ink described a beautiful first baby girl with a head of dark hair and a new job for her husband and a move into a rented house with the provision of hot water right out of the faucet. My mother’s handwriting in the blue ink ended soon after that, ended before an oil stove stopped the piles of chopped wood, ended before the vinegar jar was thrown and broken with only its hollow lid left whole, ended before my name was mentioned. This blue-inked story had no pictures, being a story that was never completed, authored by a mother who would not read her printed words again and a father who, had he still been there, could not have read it at all.
Tony Tallent has written in many formats, including for stage and websites. His stories have been published in Fall Lines: A Literary Convergence, the anthology Seeking Its Own Level, and REVOLUTION JOHN. Tony currently lives in Columbia, South Carolina.
Things We Have Only Begun To Comprehend
I think it was in the spring, last spring or the spring before last. Or maybe it was the spring before the spring before last, when the cherry blossoms all bloomed at once, then dropped in that unprecedented frost. It happened that spring. I remember how the spring was followed by such a sweltering summer. There were the bees that swarmed: All that buzzing. The force in the atmosphere. The barometric pressure was abnormal that year, said the weathergirl smiling. It was unusual. Unanticipated. Not standard. She did not say frightening but it showed in her eyes.
That fall, the fall after the spring, Amber and I talked about her tears. She said she remembered them falling in thick clumps as though she were expelling an organ. She said he didn’t remember her tears. No, he had told her when she called the next day to ask why he had done the thing that he did after she said not to do the thing that he did, I don’t remember any tears at all. He had given himself absolution.
“So at first,” Amber said to me, “I told myself I didn’t remember anything.”
There was a freedom in lacking recollection, in keeping secret. She sewed the remembrance into the pillow of her lips. She packed her parachute. The fine print said it could be used in times of desperation.
It was lunchtime, and as we sat in a café eating omelets rain smacked the windows, wilting the cornucopia of maple leaves outside. Through careful bites of egg, melted cheese and tomato, Amber explained how the police wanted to take her sofa. How they’d said everything would need to be dusted for fingerprints.
“Although,” they’d said, lingering. They’d shuffled their scuffed boots across her carpet and looked out the open front door of her second-floor apartment at a squirrel cheek-pocketing a nut on the walkway railing. “Given the time that’s passed,” they’d said, looking through her, avoiding her green eyes and the deepening crease between her brows, “we can’t imagine there’d be any evidence left.”
Amber told them she still hadn’t touched the area in all these months.
“Still,” they’d said, looking down. “Even so.”
At the café, I watched Amber study the rain as if confused by its origins. “I remember,” she said, “how my knees kept knocking.” She turned then, to face me. Amber tucked her hair behind her ears and looked at me for answers, or maybe not even answers, maybe she was just looking for a way to move forward.
I nodded and sipped my warm cinnamon tea, unsure what to say. Amber stared out the window. The rain subsided to a trickle.
“I regret filing the report,” she said eventually.
A sliver of sunlight forced its way through the clouds, highlighting a small chasm in the sidewalk. Or maybe it wasn’t a chasm, maybe chasms can’t be small, maybe it was just a crack. The clouds moved, curling shadows over the crack, or the chasm, or whatever it was. We finished our meal.
At the door we danced to either side of each other, awkward in our goodbye until with sudden decisiveness I hugged Amber tight like I was taking her blood pressure and she asked in a whisper, her lips hovering above my ear, “Do you think fingerprints show up on souls?”
I tried to lie, but my knees, you see, were knocking.
“I think they might,” I said finally. “I think they might.”
Katherine Robb is an attorney and writer. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Gray’s Sporting Journal, qu.ee/r Magazine, New York University Annual Survey of American Law, Taconic Press, and Anglers’ Club of Portland.
At lunch everyone in our IT section leaves our cubicles and goes to the lunch room and the eight of us sit at the same back corner table and chat and eat. Today five of us had brown bags and the other three had lunch boxes – Sponge Bob, Spidey and a pond scene from a Monet painting. Before opening our lunch someone asked, “Trade?” (someone always asks) and two brown bags were exchanged. This day there were three trades, two bags and a lunch box and there were lots of good-natured nasty food comments. After lunch, we went back to our cubicles and I looked over at Marty, who finally opened his lunch bag, took out his sandwich and drink and laid his head in his arms and wept just as he had been doing every day since the lunch “Trade” began.
Paul Beckman used to be a realtor, air traffic controller, pin setter, numbers runner, and other things. These days he’s a zeyde who writes, travels, and takes pictures both above and beneath the water. Publishing credits include Metazen, Connotation Press, Existere, Molotov Cocktail, Pure Slush, The Brooklyner, 5 Trope, Blink-Ink, Litro ,Soundzine, Opium, Playboy, The Connecticut Review, Ascent Aspirations, and other publications online, in print, and via audio. More here.
A Junior Whopper, Please, With Cheese
This guy, wearing dark corduroy pants, a heavy black sweater and one of those soft winter hats nearly covering his whole face in the South Florida heat of Delray Beach always perched himself on the corner of Atlantic and Congress, holding a cardboard sign asking in sloppy curves for a Junior Whopper from Burger King, please, with cheese. His clothes were ripped and his exposed skin was blistered and tattooed with scars. The sign never asked for money, a job, or a place to sleep. Just a Junior Whopper from Burger King. With cheese.
I watched him, as I always did when I drove by. Some people at work downtown believed him to be homeless, suffering from obvious mental illness. They said he didn’t even know what the sign he held up read. Probably wasn’t even his.
I started waving to him, but he never acknowledged me. Sometimes kids walking by pointed and kicked pebbles at him, but he never acknowledged them either.
“What’s your obsession?” David, my manager, said one shift after I asked him if he remembered the first time he’d seen him. David grew up in Delray, and now lived with his wife over the restaurant in a small studio apartment.
“Just,” I shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable. “I don’t know. Haven’t you ever been curious about him?”
“He’s just another homeless dude, man.” He glanced at an order, then chastised the chef for not following something. The chef took the plate and went about re-doing it.
“What would happen,” I said, more to myself than to him. “If someone gave him one.”
“One what?” David faced me.
“A Junior Whopper, with cheese.”
His expression contorted in thought. He looked away before shrugging at me with a grin. “His head would explode?”
“It isn’t funny,” I said.
He laughed, accepted the plate with the new order on it, squinted at it, then squinted at the chef who slowly raised his middle finger. David saluted him.
I had to turn away from that plate.
David noticed, and touched my arm. “How are…things? Any better?”
I shook my head.
“Take a break,” he patted my shoulder. “Snatch some chicken fingers or wings or something.”
David let me go early, and in my car I called my wife to tell her I’d be home soon. She told me, in excited gasps, that her family was coming over for dinner to help her bake my favorite meal. “Won’t that be fun?” her voice danced through the phone. Yeah, I just said, and hung up.
I had first seen the homeless man on December 22nd. Winter doesn’t exist down here, but mid-fifties are incredibly bitter to our thin blood, so I originally thought he was just cold. Spring and summer came, though, and he didn’t shed any of his clothes. Nor did he today, in the heart of August with a 110 heat index. Stepping outside was like sinking into the steam of a swamp.
At the intersection of Atlantic and Congress the light switched and I stopped. There he was, arms crossed, watching the street with such focus. His sign lay propped up by a stick at his feet. The light switched, and I drove past him. I waved, but he didn’t see me. Woozy now, so light-headed with nothing but what felt like mist in my head, I had to pull over. My palms began to sweat. I tried to re-grip the wheel. My vision fuzzed at the corners.
Just over the trees, I made out the sign poking through, its big red letters. Without pause, I re-gripped my sweaty hands around the wheel as best I could and drove a little further.
“Just a Junior Whopper, please,” I told the intercom. “With cheese.”
“Is that all?” the intercom crackled.
“That’s all,” I said.
I drove back down Congress and parked at the little gas station. I stepped out into the swamp of heat. He didn’t notice me as I came up right beside him. He stared at the street in defiance, his chin pointed, as if protesting all that he saw. I began sweating, wishing I could tell both him and myself why I was there. But all I did was hand him the Junior Whopper, with cheese. Finally his head sort of twitched, and he looked at my hand. His face was just as blistered and tattooed with scars. Without expression he took the Junior Whopper and placed it at his feet. “Thank you,” he said, and crossed his arms, pointing his chin back at the street. I waited for him to understand what I gave him. Drenched with sweat, I prickled all over from it and the anticipation. But he just stood there, arms crossed, oblivious to me. Oblivious to his Junior Whopper, with cheese.
“There’s something wrong with me,” my mouth opened. “They don’t know what it is…but I can’t eat…”
With each consecutive word, I spoke with more strength. “There’re these…sharp pains…right after I swallow and they don’t let up for hours…”
A blue Suburban glided by as if in slow motion, and I counted three heads inside.
“I constantly feel painfully stuffed, like I just had one huge Thanksgiving meal.” I swallowed. “I can’t even remember the last time I ate.” I turned to him, sweating. “No one gets it,” I said. “No one understands what I’m going through.”
He looked down like I was still holding out my hand, said, “Thank you,” and re-crossed his arms, his chin pointed at the street, defiant. A teenager riding his bike launched a fat watermelon at his sign, splattering it in two pieces. But he just watched his street as the teenager pedaled away.
I didn’t know how long I stood there, but I felt so safe and content I could have stayed beside him forever.
A recent graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University, James Hartman lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife and their two dogs and two cats. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in On the Rusk, Spelk, and Gravel. He has finished his first novel.
It had been a long day at the river. The sun was just setting over the hill tops with the long, drawn-out shadow of the clouds hiding what light was left. The breeze was gentle, and almost all was silent if not for the wind and chewing. You and Danny sat on a cloth by the river’s edge with buckets of water full of small fish and crab we’d gotten from the market earlier. The breeze made small, quick-fading waves in the river and bucket water. You could hear the quail over the bank squawk, see the brush split, and knew it was Betsy out there passing the time in her own little way. It was only a small time after that Danny would have drowned in the rock water at the bottom of the river. He’d lose his footing by the hard edge while looking out for Betsy, hit his head and lay face-down being carried by the little waves the breeze made in the river. The crabs would keep clicking, with the quail still fluttering in the brush, the fish thrashing about in the bucket, and, floating the way he did, he would seem so small. You’d later hope it was quick, that he didn’t feel the rush, but you’d been so numb and not yourself. You couldn’t do a thing. It was only a bright, cool evening with your best friend and his dog out playing in the calm, with the breeze in your hair and the feeling of crab meat melting in the mouth and down into your stomach, and without that sick feeling you’d get because you didn’t do a thing about it when it happened but watch – no better than the clouds in the sky or the pale, yellow receding sunlight.
Kevaughn Hunter is an aspiring writer currently living in New Jersey but with the heart of a New Yorker. Having recently graduated from The City College of New York, he is just beginning to explore what it means to be a writer. One step is starting a new Masters program this year. His work has appeared at Fictionaut, but this is his first publication.
Christopher Allen on Kelly Cherry’s A Kind of Dream
Stories about families are as numerous as grains of sand at the sea, as the Germans say. Kelly Cherry’s collection A Kind of Dream (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) is not just another grain of sand; it’s a cleverly crafted grammar of a family, where parts of speech build clauses and sentences, paragraphs and entire life passages. This sounds as if I’m foisting a tidy writer’s metaphor on this story; but in the prologue, itself a prize-winning short story, Cherry lays out an etymology of the parts of speech that make up the family in these linked stories.
She turns her characters into nouns and proper nouns and verbs. Tavy, for example, is a verb: “Emphatically a verb. Nina’s adoptee, and BB’s first born, green-eyed and stubborn, broke upon the earth like a tsunami.” Tavy’s daughter is a conjunction and Palmer, Nina’s husband, a semi-proper noun. All this to say, the prologue welcomes all sorts of comparisons between the family and transformational grammar. In fact, the characters here make up less a family tree than a Chomskyan derivation tree.
A Kind of Dream is a multi-generational, multi-voiced family saga with many of the usual-suspect familial scenarios – the child abandoned by a teenage mother for complex reasons, the poignant reunion of said child and mother decades later, the death of a matriarch and the birth of child; it’s all there. The way Cherry’s characters choose to cope with these life passages is often surprising.
This is a family that values and encourages self-expression and independence, one very much focused on the creative process – and then of course there are the bits where people as parts of speech. At once erudite and endearing, each of Cherry’s characters adds complexity to the syntax of this clan of artists and academics. That said, you don’t need a PhD in linguistics to appreciate A Kind of Dream. The idea that families have a grammar frames rather than dominates these stories, becoming more and more explicit as Nina begins to write her final “paragraphs”. She will leave these to her husband, Palmer, to arrange into a meaningful whole since “syntax has divorced her, left her without alimony.” As she passes from life into the unknown, she muses about the nature of “the sentence” and how it must change to accommodate her new feeling of “muted time,” which becomes her concept of eternity:
. . . she returned to a part of speech that had struck her
as rich with possibility: the gerund. People were born
verbs, but as they actualized their potential they became
more and more gerundive, until, perhaps, they became
what they loved to do . . . . Would they know who they were?
They might be too happy to care; after all, they would all be
doing what they most loved to do. [Nina] would have an eternity
in which to write her sentences.
An eternity to write – yes that’s Heaven. At the center of these linked stories is the creative process itself, which in my opinion works as the center for a multi-generational story exceptionally well. Families may have a center for one generation, but each subsequent generation absorbs and supersedes the one before. It’s in the etymology. The creative process leaves legacies – books, poems, paintings, films, children – to validate the generations that follow. Nina, the prolific writer and dying matriarch, comes to the conclusion on her deathbed that children are the “real legacy” – and maybe this one statement is what these stories are all about.
I see close attention to balance in these stories: between BB and Tavy, two mothers who make polar-opposite decisions; between Palmer and Larry, two husbands who show how successfully and disastrously one can be a husband. But Cherry also balances female characters with male characters. The central male/female relationships themselves function beautifully as if Cherry sees no need to introduce conflict in a relationship for the sake of plot (the failed relationships remain on the periphery). There is BB’s attempt to cheat on Roy in Mongolia with the Japanese businessman, but this experience serves only to reinforce her commitment to Roy. Palmer is “a miracle” of a man to Nina, and he certainly is written as the perfect partner. As Nina is writing her final work and trying to reduce her sentences to their purest units of meaning, she gives Palmer the sentence “Husband” – a beautiful tribute to any writer’s dream partner.
While this family is interpreted mostly through the voices of the female characters, there are a few stories in the collection told by the male characters – which helps to effect balance as well. That said, if I were to use the language of grammar to describe the men in these stories – Conrad, Roy, and Larry – I’d say they were non-restrictive clauses: information that could be removed without altering the deep structure of the work. Of course the exception to this is Palmer, whose whisky-induced eulogy for Nina is a compelling history of their relationship.
The central family in A Kind of Dream is ultimately a dream family. This is a personal response of course, but then again, all grammar lingo aside, this is a very personal, satisfying and heartening collection. And it bears mentioning that I am a sappy dog person, which may sound out-of-the blue irrelevant, but it’s not.
Link to A Kind of Dream here.
Christopher Allen’s book reviews have appeared in [PANK], Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, The Lit Pub and lots of other places. On the editing team at SmokeLong Quarterly, Allen lives somewhere in Europe. For a complete list of his publications go here.
Kelly Cherry is the author of twenty-three books of fiction (long and short), poetry, memoir, essay, and criticism. She has also published nine chapbooks and translations of two classical dramas. Her most recent titles are A Kind of Dream (interlinked stories), selected by Library Journal as a Best Indie book, and The Life and Death of Poetry (March 2013). Her fiction has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and New Stories from the South and has won three PEN/Syndicated Fiction awards. Her story collection The Society of Friends (which, she says, has nothing to do with the Society of Friends) received the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for Short Fiction for the best collection published in 1999. This spring will see publication of another book of stories (not linked) titled Twelve Women in a Country Called America, about women in the American south, and a chapbook titled Physics for Poets.
Eight Writers On The Long and Short of Titles
From a Dream: Mary Carroll-Hackett
The title for my last book, If We Could Know Our Bones, the title poem itself, came from a dream, in which I was walking through what looked like a beautifully appointed museum, rows and rows of perfectly lit glass display cases, but instead of shelves lined with artifacts, the cases held complete human skeletons, side by side, the bones, identical crevices and shadows, all beautifully articulated in the light. At some point in the dream, I realized that this was a burial site, a cemetery, but one in which our sameness, our beauty, was the focus. And so came the poem: “If we could know our bones the way we know our skin, perhaps we’d not dig graves, but build rooms, havens, shrines, for even our enemies….” As soon as I wrote this poem, I knew this was the title for the book.
Titles for me always seem to come directly from one poem that speaks. The new collection I’m organizing now had no title until last week, when a new poem arrived, and just as happened with Bones, as I wrote the opening line, I knew Again to Eden was the new book’s title. I want a title to speak to the underlying heart of the collection as a whole, what I call my questions: the questions I think I’m always asking when I write. Bones was, for me, so much about vulnerability, and tolerance, compassion, for each other, for the planet. Stripped bare, we are all vulnerable in the same ways. Right?
Mary Carroll-Hackett earned Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Anthropology and a Master’s of Arts in English/Creative Writing from East Carolina University, then went on to earn an MFA in Literature and Writing from Bennington College. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in more than a hundred journals including Carolina Quarterly, Clackamas Literary Review, Pedestal Magazine, The Potomac, Reed, Superstition Review, Drunken Boat, and The Prose-Poem Project, among others.
A Higher Level: Vaughan Gunson
this hill, all it’s about is lifting it to a higher level – a bit of a mouthful I guess, and against the publisher’s advice, but it couldn’t have been anything else. I’ve liked titles of poetry books that are like poems themselves. So I wanted a cover that worked in this way. Many of Charles Bukowski’s books have great long titles that run down the cover in short lines: Burning in water, drowning in flames, What matters most is how well you walk through the fire, and The days run away like wild horses over the hills. Being a Bukowski fan – he’s one reason I thought I could write poetry – acknowledgement of his work and influence seemed appropriate.
And as far as how the title relates to the content, many of the poems in this collection deal with the everyday; they’re attempts to give meaning and value to small things and events that make up a life in a small town in Northland, New Zealand – which is like no place important in the world; where you get the feeling that what’s important must be happening somewhere else. There’s a hill overlooking Hikurangi, a rather humble landmark, but it means a lot to me. The short poem on the cover, accompanied by the outline of the actual hill, is about making of something more than what it is – which is simply what poets and artists try do: take things to a higher level. There’s also a sense of a hill being an obstacle, which can be transcended through art; maybe lifted out of the way.
Vaughan Gunson lives in Hikurangi, New Zealand. In 2012 a collection of his poems, this hill, all it’s about is lifting it to a higher level, was published by Steele Roberts. More of his poetry can be read at www.vaughangunsonpoetry.com
On Experiment and Collaboration: Nava Renek
Two titles of my own published fiction have been lifted or “appropriated” from others: one from the name of a friend’s defunct band (Spiritland) and another from the title of a popular non-fiction book (Mating in Captivity). I hope the victims of these appropriations don’t mind. By nature I think of myself as a creative original person, so it’s curious that when I came to choosing a title for something for such a public forum, a published book, I backed into it using other people’s words. On the other hand, art is dependent on inspiration and creativity. I considered the use of the titles a collaborative process, only the original sources didn’t know I was collaborating and titles cannot be copyrighted. When it came to finding a title for Wreckage of Reason, a collection of experimental prose by women writers, I wanted to come up with something exceptional and fitting. I started typing word mash ups, using phrases and ideas that I picked out of other female artists’ statements and writings. It’s not surprising that the words that I finally stuck with came from Virginia Woolf. “It is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.” From there, I pulled out what I considered the most poignant words, and a perfect title for experimental writing in the 21st Century was born: Wreckage of Reason.
Nava Renek’s short stories and non-fiction have appeared in a number of literary magazines, newspapers, and websites, including http://www.hipmama.com, http://www.respiro.org, Zone 3 and The MacGuffin. Her first novel, Spiritland, was published in 2002 and another, No Perfect Words, appeared in 2009. She is also editor of Wreckage of Reason: Anthology of XXperimantal Prose by Contemporary Women Writers (Spuyten Duyvil Press 2008) and more recently Wreckage of Reason 2: A Return to the Drawing Board (Spuyten Duyvil Press 2014)
The Savage Business of Titles: Nuala Ní Chonchúir
I always emphasise to my creative writing students how important titles are and that they should never be taken for granted. I quote Jerome Stern who says that the title is ‘both part of the artistry of the work and part of the advertising for the work’. Sometimes the title is also work.
Usually titles come easy to me but I struggled to find the right one for my new novel, The Closet of Savage Mementos. It’s a narrative about grief, betrayal by loved ones, motherhood, loss and the grip of past events. But ultimately it is a story of hope: Lillis, the narrator, is determined not to become the mother her mother Verity was.
I had the working title of Highland but both I, and my editor, felt it was too mundane – it didn’t speak to the complexities of the novel. So while place – the Scottish Highlands – is to the fore, there is much more than that in the narrative. The title had to speak to that. We tossed around possible titles based on Lillis’s mother’s name: Unbecoming Verity, Losing Verity, The Weight of Verity, Daughter of Verity. None fit.
The eventual title we fixed on is adapted from the Louise Erdrich poem ‘Advice to Myself’. I was using three lines from the poem as an epigraph to the novel and I hit upon the idea of using a modified version as a title. The lines: ‘Your heart, that place / you don’t even think of cleaning out. / That closet stuffed with savage mementos.’
It took months of permissions malarky with agents and publishers (you can’t contact Miss Erdrich directly), but eventually she graciously allowed me to mangle her line and we were granted permission for the princely sum of US$50. A lovely Irish-American man in the publisher’s office in New York took care of it all and he was patient and determined over the months it took to secure the title.
The title pertains to the book in that Lillis has several secrets locked inside her and I like it because it is arresting and unusual. A reviewer, however, writing in the Irish Independent, said:
Can mementos really be savage? Memories, yes indeed, but ‘mementos’ doesn’t have that same sense of those jagged shards, it conjures up images of an enraged stick of rock or an angry ‘kiss me quick’ hat. Author Nuala Ní Chonchúir is not responsible for this slightly awkward title for her second novel, she borrowed The Closet of Savage Mementos from a poem by Louise Aldrich (sic). And this title is easily overlooked in this engaging book.’
Ouch. And incorrect – I was responsible for it, in my own way. Responsible and proud, too. Artistry and advertising, after all – for me The Closet of Savage Mementos fulfils both of those requirements.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1970; she lives in East Galway. Her fourth short story collection Mother America was published by New Island in 2012. A chapbook of flash Of Dublin and Other Fictions was published in the US in late 2013 by Tower Press and Nuala’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appeared April 2014 from New Island. Penguin USA and Penguin Canada will publish Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, in 2015. www.nualanichonchuir.com
Springing to Light: Barbara Else
With the twelve novels I’ve written so far, titles have either sprung into the light very easily or have had to be wrestled from darkness. I don’t like that wrestling. But I’ve learned not to fret, just to hope that at some stage of the writing process a title will reveal itself.
The Volume of Possible Endings is the third in a fantasy quartet for children, Tales of Fontania. I didn’t set out to write a series, but that’s another topic. In this third novel, Dorrity is the only child in Owl Town on the edge of the Beastly Dark. The citizens boast that their town is magic-free. Dorrity discovers a book on her teacher’s table. When she opens it, words appear on the initially blank title page – ‘The Volume of Possible Endings.’ Pages continue to turn on their own and stop at a list of five endings headed ‘Dorrity’s Tale.’ She’s scared and offended at being lied to by grown-ups. Magic most certainly exists in the town.
At this point in writing the first draft the MS was untitled. It was rather a duh-uh moment a few weeks later when I realised the right title for it already sat there in the action. It was also a moment that helped clarify the theme for the novel. It’s a story about adjustment, insight and understanding. The five endings all come true in their own time but Dorrity’s overall story continues.
And more is involved than simply an apt title for one novel. The four books stand alone. But the third part of a narrative is where the protagonist’s choices and developments in the storylines apparently multiply though they are starting to come together in a way that propels the finale. It is often when the protagonist seems lost and villains appear to be winning. In Joseph Campbell terms as codified by Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey), it’s the time of the ordeal, rife with possibilities for failure, where the hero attempts to change his approach to the quest. When the fourth in the series, The Knot Impossible, is published next year readers will see that there has been an overarching theme. So the title The Volume of Possible Endings seemed right for third place in the overall story of the land of Fontania.
Barbara Else has written twelve novels starting with her best-selling adult novel The Warrior Queen and including six for children. Her latest children’s novels, The Travelling Restaurant and The Queen and the Nobody Boy in the Tales of Fontania sequence, have won several awards including the Esther Glen Medal (LIANZA), an IBBY and a White Raven Award and the Honour Award in the NZ Post Children’s and Young Adults Book Awards 2013. She has also edited several anthologies for children. She is co-director of a small Wellington literary agency and manuscript assessment service. She has twice been a judge for the 004 NZ Children’s and Young Adult Book Awards. In 1999 she was the Victoria University of Wellington Writer in Residence and has been awarded an MNZM for Services to Literature. More at her blog.
On Ambiguity: Sarah Laing
The Fall of Light wasn’t always called this. It started off as White Light. I’d been listening to a podcast about pilots, who, under extreme pressure, experienced visions like those described by near-death survivors. They’d hovered above their bodies and moved towards heaven’s gates – only they weren’t heaven’s gates, they were a neurological phenomenon. But after a while I realised that the near death experience was only one of the strands of the novel, not its defining motif. The book became Glass Cities, in reference to the tiny cast glass buildings that architect Rudy Chapelle makes.
I harvested the final title from another podcast, an interview of an architect. He talked about the fall of light as a desired phenomenon in building design and I thought yes, that’s it. It has multiple layers of meaning. Firstly, it refers to the genesis of the project, the light that that fails to appear when Rudy almost died. Also the fall – he almost dies when he slides off his bike. This triggers a collapse in his professional life, and a turning towards what matters: his estranged wife, his daughters, his community, his über-designed home, where the light falls so eloquently.
The novel encapsulates a graphic novel, which in its very India-inked nature is a play on light and shade. In Rudy’s dream life, he moves through an extraordinary city born out of tiny pomegranate seeds. He runs down dark alleyways and bursts out into blazing plains.
The thing I like the most about the title is its ambiguity. Someone at a bookshop might presume it’s a New Zealand Gothic tale, another may imagine it is filled with light, beauty, humour. I think they’d both be right.
Sarah Laing is a novellist, cartoonist, illustrator, and short story writer. Three of her books have been published by Random House NZ: Coming Up Roses, Dead People’s Music, and The Fall of Light. She posts comics on her blog, and she’s working on a graphic novel which is part-memoir, part-biography of Katherine Mansfield.
Stripping Down to Basics: Lillian Ann Slugocki
I dismantle Blanche DuBois in ‘Streetcar Deconstructed‘, a story published in Wreckage of Reason 2: A Return to the Drawing Board (Spuyten Duyvil Press 2014), I’ve always loved her humanity and her vulnerability, but hated her demise at the end of the play. In 1999, I saw Ivo van Hove’s production of Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire at the New York Theater Workshop, and it haunted me for a very long time. In this production, a large bathtub upstage serves as the only set piece. Blanche, naked, baptizes the herself in the water, over and over, until her vulnerability and her desire is laid bare. In my revision, she appears at a Humanities Conference, filled with academics, and demands a re-write – where she retains her desire, but instead of vulnerability, and destruction, she is now imbued with agency and an unabashed sexuality. Like van Hove’s bathtub, I also retained an element from the original, a white moth that flutters about her face and follows her throughout the story. It becomes a signifier that connects the audience to the original as well as to the deconstructed version.
Lillian Ann Slugocki has created a body of work on women and sexuality for print and for the stage including The Public Theater, HERE, Circle Rep, Labyrinth Theater, National Public Radio, and WBAI. Her work has been published by Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, Newtown Press, Spuyten Duyvil Press, and Salon, Bloom/The Millions, Beatrice, HerKind/Vida, Deep Water Literary Journal, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, Non-Binary Review, and The Nervous Breakdown.
Thanksgiving Sandwich: Bud Smith
Our plan was to get a dog for this apartment and name it Switchblade. A fat dog, round, with jutting teeth, one of those French Bulldogs. A slow walker. But we can’t slow down enough to buy the dog, let alone take care of it and maybe we’re leaving the city soon anyway… I buy a small houseplant, it gets no name, it dies.
Titles are important.
When I open up the Chinese food menu and it says, ‘Seven Stars Around The Moon’, I order that – what a name for a plate of hot food that costs $8. When I plop down in a booth at a diner and the menu has ‘Thanksgiving Sandwich’ on it. That’s what I’ll order. Thanksgiving Sandwich might be the best title ever imagined. I can picture it now, the sandwich: baked turkey, stuffing, a small amount of gravy, a spoonful of cranberry sauce, toasted bread.
Titles. How I love them. The simpler and the more direct, probably the better.
Deep Throat is also a good title, let’s you know what’s up in two syllables, beat that. There’s a manual next to my desk that says Learning How to Fly Helicopters. This is some major league shit, right there. I got the book, point me in the direction of the helicopter, please.
I could use more titles in my life as fantastic as that helicopter manual, just shorter please, I’m very busy screwing around on the internet, I have no time for long titles.
The titles I choose for the books I write keep getting smaller. That might happen further and further until I’ve got a book that is just called K, or maybe E or J.
I have a book of short stories called Or Something Like That, which I don’t talk about very much, because it’s a long title and by the time I get half way through saying the title, I just don’t want to say any more. I say, “Yeah, bunch of stories, bunch of different things happen …”
I admire Amy Hempel who is much wiser than me and named her fantastic short story collection Reasons to Live.
Everybody on earth would read a book called Reasons to Live.
And they should anyway, even if they wish to die. Plus – a four syllable title. That’s doable.
My second title, the novel Tollbooth, is much better than my first, that long-ass short story collection title. The upgraded shorter title makes me feel warmer and cozier about the whole thing. I’m worried about wasting everyone’s time.
And maybe even, in a double duty way, Tollbooth is a title that is a summary of all the themes of the book itself (blind luck). Not to mention a description of the true physical workplace of the narrator, Jimmy, who works (spoiler alert) in a tollbooth. Tollbooth. I guess it means, in life, mostly, you pay to move forward.
Last year, my first collection of poetry came out. It’s called Everything Neon, and I picked the title for a few reasons.
1. The book is about New York City, where most things flicker all night. It’s about where I live, near 173rd street.
2, The book is a love letter to my wife, who is a bright light, sometimes I have to shield my eyes.
3. Neon keeps coming up in the collection, it evolves, it’s a chemical – you know. It bubbles up here and there, it moves around and changes state.
In the poem “Street Parking” I’ve lost my truck, it’s missing from its spot and I go looking for it … Eventually I call the police, even though I can’t believe it’s been stolen, it’s a real piece of shit.
when I call the cops again
to report the thing jacked
long gone, stolen
chopped up, eaten
they say, “we got it”
“it’s on 177th
didn’t you see the signs?”
“they were neon”
“everything is neon,” I say
“they were filming a movie”
I walk over there
birds suddenly singing
all trash levitating
the street sweeping machine
rounding the corner
and the driver shouting my name
there is my truck
parked the wrong way
on a one way street
with a neon sign
that says, ‘towed by NYC police
do not ticket’
I climb inside
I turn the key
it shakes to life
life goes on.
The sign is neon, I had to have seen it, but I didn’t. How could I? Everything here is neon. It all blends together.
An Illustrated Book of American Songbirds was the original title when the collection was narrower and less city-centric, less focused on me and my wife talking the good talk and drinking the good beer near the record player. The poem ‘An Illustrated Book of American Songbirds’ was written as a knock against poetry and writing itself, really. When I mentioned the color neon in there, it was a stand in for ‘all the things I don’t know about and could Google, but probably won’t for many mysterious reasons.’
An Illustrated Book of American Songbirds
I don’t know what any
of these things are called
looking out the window
at the trees
I can pick out one
a pine tree
alright, so I know what a pine tree is
and I can look at all the birds
sometimes if theres a blue one
I can say, “oh look, there’s a bluejay”
I suppose I could spot a cardinal too
or a seagull
other than that …
I don’t know how to describe them
so I don’t
the names of all the clever bones
in their faces
and the elaborate connections
to their distant homelands
I barely know about this town
and only know about this town
because the name’s painted
in big block letters
on the water tower
they’re good to know
to reference, right?
I should get myself
an illustrated book
of American songbirds
I should get a comprehensive
field guide to the vegetation, too
low lying shrubs, weird grasses:
fancy vines with neon flowers
I’m supposed to have all
that stuff here, aren’t I?
and the cars, I don’t know
what any of the cars are
except the one I drive
I could tell you the make
and model of that one
all the others, I have no idea
so I should get a book on cars too
I should know all the Kelly blue book values
and projected mileage for each vehicle
it would help my writing dramatically
I’m going to get myself a current edition
of the Chicago Style Guide
and I’m going to carefully study it
until I understand what a semicolon
could possibly be used for
I get the impression that would
really open new doors for me
and since my description of colors
is limited to the primary colors exclusively
with sometimes the word “neon”
stuck in there
I’m going to get myself a deluxe box
of 1000 crayons and I’m gonna
spread them all out on the floor
and learn the names
of each of those colors
and I’m going to use them
to my advantage
sickness, disease, suffering
I should interview a nurse
the night shift at the ER
or I should just go to the ER tonight
for some reason
let me look around
to find a way to get myself hurt
I don’t really want to get myself into a motorcycle crash
but I feel like that kind of thing
would be good for my writing.
When I look back at that poem now, I’m just happy that I at least know some of the colors. Even if they are just the primary ones. I’ve read many books that can’t even tell you what blue or green or yellow is. I know those at least.
My other novel is called F-250. F-250 is a title I like for a few reasons. First of all, it’s shorter than the other titles. I can say it for longer periods of time and not get winded. Second, I used to own an F-250 truck and I used to crash it a lot. This was when I was 23, playing guitar in a noise band, building waterfalls into swimming pools with boulders in New Jersey, a close friend had just died… and damn, that’s what the book is about. It’s fiction. But it’s a time and a place that I loved and a truck I loved and crashed often. Youth. Being directionless but stumbling upon it.
To this day I still feel that way. Maybe a good title keeps me young.
My titles currently: welder, 32 years old, writer, bad guitarist, sucker buzzfeed clicker, netflix subscriber, reader, pleasant drunk, talker, distracted driver, tenant resident in apartment 12, husband, son, brother, human.
Just now, I just looked out the window, on the sidewalk below, here on 173rd street. The hydrants are open for the first time. Summer has set in fully. Children are playing in the rushing water, laughing. My neighbors have moved to the stoops. I’m typing. Typing.
Typing, ineffective fan blowing on my back.
I’d like a beer, a French Bulldog and a Thanksgiving sandwich. I won’t ask for a swimming pool, I’m a realist. Fuck it.