In Bookstores Near You

In 2004, the state of Texas most likely executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, for the murder of his three young children, who died in a fire in their family home. Arson experts later determined the fire was not intentionally set, and the story quickly became enmeshed in a political scandal involving Rick Perry. Interestingly, Willingham, who escaped with only minor burns, had such a poor reputation in the small town of Corsicana, Texas, that when PBS produced a documentary about his execution and probable innocence, many of the residents refused to accept he wasn’t guilty. One woman said he was a bad man, plain and simple, and it didn’t matter if he didn’t do it. He deserved to die regardless. Having worked with defense teams on over twenty capital murder cases since 2009, I’ve learned the most intriguing part of these investigations isn’t the whodunit part of the story, but how witnesses affect the outcome, how willing they are to lie to convict someone, to shape the story into a tale they want to believe.

In his latest novel, Late One Night, Lee Martin explores how a town unravels into gossip and accusations after a man’s wife and three of his seven children die in a fire that destroys their mobile home. Martin writes this tale as if he’s followed death penalty cases and investigations for years. For example, Ronnie Black, the accused, has a background similar to many of the men and women charged with capital murder: he was orphaned young and farmed out to one foster home after another. And he’s reputed to be “just mean and tricky enough to do some damage if the punching and gouging got going.” In fact, weeks before the fire, Ronnie throws lit matches at his wife until he accidentally catches her hair on fire. Ultimately, it’s just easier for everyone to believe in Ronnie Black’s guilt over his innocence.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Appellations” by Faith Shearin

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Juliet famously said of Romeo’s surname, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” which may be true, but also—as the rest of the Bard’s play argued—problematic. So what is in a name? “Appellations” by Faith Shearin (FRiGG) explores what bearing names can have on one’s destiny.

Shearin introduces this dynamic in the first line.

When we checked into Big Meadows Lodge, we were given a new last name. Our father, Henry, has a thick southern accent, and when he called to make our reservation, he was misunderstood. According to the ski passes, and our tickets to the dining room, he was now Harry Bighorn.

The change seems innocuous enough at first, and their decision not to fix it just a way for the lodge operators to save time and paper. When told the news, Hazel seems intrigued by the possibilities of having a new name for the ski trip. After an initial ski lesson, she announces that she has no desire to go skiing any longer—through backstory Shearin reveals that though her sister has a graceful athleticism, she does not. So while Dad and Beth go skiing, Hazel and her mother, Ruth, go on a hike in the forest, where they further discuss the name change.Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Query VI

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This is the fourth installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here, here and here.

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Query VI: “Productions mineral, vegetable and animal”
A notice of the mines and other subterraneous riches; its trees, plants, fruits, &c.

At root, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is a carefully curated syllabus, a structured list of discussion topics. Throughout the document, and most heavily in Query VI, Jefferson uses lists to elaborate the landscape and productivity of the Commonwealth. His catalogs preserve a lasting record of his attention, but paying attention was no passive enterprise for Jefferson. When we consider his lists, we have to remember the archaic meaning buried within the contemporary definition of the word. “To list” also means to intend, to want, to incline.

If the act of listing is an act of will, then every list is both artifact and verb. This is also true of a poem, which William Carlos Williams described as “a small or large machine made out of words.”

Taking up about a third of Notes, Query VI concludes Jefferson’s catalog of Virginia’s natural resources and connects to his subsequent analyses of society, government, and economic production in the Commonwealth. Despite his observation that “a complete catalogue of the trees, plants, fruits, &c. is probably not desired,” Jefferson furnishes the names of dozens of native species. European-derived crops flourish (or, in Jefferson’s parlance, are “elaborated from the soil”) in the cultivated agrarian spaces of the New World:

The gardens yield musk melons, water melons, tomatas, okra, pomegranates, figs, and the esculent plants of Europe.

The orchards produce apples, pears, cherries, quinces, peaches, nectarines, apricots, almonds, and plumbs.

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Review: SAD GIRL POEMS by Christopher Soto

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Christopher Soto
Sibling Rivalry Press; Jan 2016
45 pp; $10

Buy: paperback

Being sad is such a fundamental part of a brown, girlistic experience that la Sad Girl is among the archetypal gang girl names brown girls may assume. She is the archetype Christopher Soto embraces, embodies, and animates in their revolutionarily abject collection Sad Girl Poems.

This collection’s jacked up heart beats in its final piece, “Hatred of Happiness.” “Hatred of Happiness” rejects and buries practically every trope proposed by the mainstream LGBTQ movement. Gone are the banners calling for marriage equality and positive representations of gay life. Gone is the assertion that “we are just like you.” Instead, Soto invokes an alternate queer poetics, one marked and defined by a sugary but tortured solitude:

But all I own are these little lips.

They kiss, then close [like the lid on

A casket.] Please let me die alone.

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The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Antarctic Dreams” by Douglas Fox

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Reported essays often forget either the ability to be literary in their writing, or else overcompensate for such and crowd out the facts with flowery prose. A balanced one is a pleasure to read, as with Douglas Fox’s “Antarctic Dreams” in the Spring 2016 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review.

In writing the story of the team of scientists attempting to drill a hole in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet for the first time, Fox puts the stakes right up near the top—$10 million in potentially wasted funding; years spent building the drill; an achievement in scientific exploration “on par with landing a probe for the first time on Mars.” Whatever lay beneath the ice might be something like what lay beneath the ice on the moons of Jupiter. Saturn. It’s not an unusual move to drop the reader right into a moment of precarious tension, then move out for exposition and introduction to the main players, but Fox does it cleanly and in a way that captures interest from the first paragraph. The writing is descriptive, but not lyric. The imagery serves a purpose and isn’t overdone.

On the day that drilling began, a brisk breeze blew through camp—propelled by a current of dense frigid air pouring off the high Polar Plateau, sixty miles south. Wisps of white, powdery spindrift slithered over the ground. At the head of the machine, two truck-sized generators started to roar, burning jet fuel to crank out nearly half a million watts of electricity. The drill’s circulatory system churned to life, and what was mechanical began to seem almost biological: Water coursed from one shipping container to the next through arteries of reinforced Kevlar hose as thick as a man’s wrist. In the first container, powerful ultraviolet lamps sterilized the water; filters removed outside material that might contaminate the pristine Lake Whillans, if and when the drill reached it. In the next two containers, Duling’s prized fleet of power-washers pressurized and heated the water to near boiling. The hot, clean water then passed into the next container, gushing into another Kevlar hose, more than half a mile long, coiled around a mechanized spool as wide as a city bus. Despite its vast scale, the drill functioned on a surprisingly simple principle, akin to peeing into a snow drift: By forcing hot water into the ice, you can gradually create a hole.

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Writ in Water: Interview with Chris McCormick and “Desert Boys”

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Photo by Chris McCormick

This month, I chat with author Chris McCormick, whose terrific debut of linked stories, Desert Boys, follows main character Daley “Kush” Kushner and his friends Robert Karinger and Dan Watts. The book is largely set in the growing desert suburbia of the Antelope Valley, 70-odd miles north of Los Angeles. We talk about what it means to write about the West and live in and write about the desert; we share our mutual love of Louise Erdrich and writing that goes “deeper than geography.”


Joseph B. Horton: Take this however you will. What does it mean to be a Western Writer, or One Who Writes About the West?

Chris McCormick: There are so many definitions and tropes, but my guess is you know you’ve met a “Western” writer when you ask this question and they start squirming. I think that’s the result of a deeply internalized resistance to being categorized. One of my questions in Desert Boys was what happens when certain western tropes—real or imagined—are challenged, what happens when open spaces become grids through suburbanization, what happens when a person grows up longing for community in a place that almost fetishizes self-reliance. I guess a Western writer—at least this one—is someone who grapples with those questions even though he’s suspicious of the premise.

JBH: In the past you’ve mentioned Louise Erdrich as an influential writer, and specifically her debut Love Medicine. I love her and that book dearly, and I’m interested to know more: what, to you, does it mean to write about an isolated or insulated community? Do interconnected stories—from different points of view or not—serve that community best? I don’t think it’s too much to say that you’ll be introducing many readers to the Antelope Valley for the first time. Is that pressure? Opportunity?

CM: Oh, Louise. The first book of hers I read was the novel, Tracks, which begins with one of the most beautiful and devastating first lines in fiction, I think: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” Then I read as much of her work as I could  borrow or buy. From early on, I knew I wanted to write in a language as beautiful and as clear as hers. But it was the structure of Love Medicine that became the biggest influence on this particular book of mine. Whenever you’re writing about a place—especially a place that’s been relatively overlooked in literature—there’s so much pressure not only to get everything right, but to get everything down. I’m upset with myself that I left out specific institutions or aspects of the Antelope Valley that just didn’t fit in this book, like the Performing Arts Center or the AV Fair or the Poppy Festival. People don’t only crave accuracy about the place they call home, we also crave thoroughness. Linked stories provide a strategy to be as expansive as possible without sacrificing the specificity of focus, moment by moment. No one argues harder than I do that stories and novels are completely different forms. But when it comes to book-length fiction, I’m not convinced that linked story collections make up a different form than the “traditional” novel, so much as a different technique.

JBH: I’m fascinated by this line about Karinger’s soon-to-be wife, Jackie Connolly: “She was beautiful in the way people call the desert beautiful, which was to say that although some people actually believed it, most of the time it was said in response to someone else’s denigration of it.” Care to elaborate? I think, for one, that there’s a lot of truth in the defensive invoking of desert beauty.

CM: I’m both glad and embarrassed that you picked that line out—it was one of those lines I wanted people to underline, which meant I probably should have cut it. I don’t know, I think the line speaks for itself. Just as we have permission to insult a family member but would fight anyone outside the family who made the same insult, people in the desert lament the place until someone else calls it boring or ugly. Then, in an act of love, we step up and defend the singular elegance of the yucca.

JBH: Though the entire book thoughtfully considers the desert and life in the desert, I always come back to the story, “The Tallest Trees in the Antelope Valley,” in which Kush helps prepare a neighbor’s yard for giant palm trees. Working as a day-heat novice, he says, “In the desert, the idea of spring was a myth from another culture. It went from winter to summer like flipping a coin, and it seemed as though I’d lost the toss.” It strikes me that I think some people don’t even consider seasons in the desert, that it just exists as it always has, unchanging. Certainly your portrait of the valley talks about what remains unchanged and what changes dramatically. How do you see that change, or the balance between permanence and impermanence?

CM: This is a great question, maybe the question. Part of the mythology of the (white) west is an outlaw culture, a kind of lawlessness allowed by existence on the fringes. Lawlessness might be another way of saying randomness or unreliability. For that reason, I always thought part of the myth of the west was a resistance to permanence, the willingness and dexterity to adapt. The idea of settling there, then, seemed like a paradox to me. In the newer, suburbanized west, there’s been a fierce resistance to change, a distrust of progress. For the epigraph of the book, I use a lyric from Jackson Browne’s song, “The Fairest of the Seasons”: “Do I stay or do I go, and do I have to do just one?” I’m interested in these extremes in the desert—where there is no “fair” season—and curious about the spaces between adaptation and settlement, between leaving and staying.

JBH: From “The Immigrants”: “Not just the desert, but all of California was in a severe drought, and as I lay floating [in a pool] on my back, I felt immensely guilty, remembering an old teacher of mine, a farmer, who’d once made us draw bar codes on our faucets to remember that water wasn’t free. But the guilt, as always, passed.” Even now, when drought is much more prominent in the collective mind, I hope, how do we continually allow this guilt to pass?

CM: Guilt is easy, and so is shame. Most of us can build an entire life around guilt and shame, no problem, so long as we feel personally culpable. But collective guilt—the guilt associated with being a tiny, almost negligible part of a problem, even a problem as severe as ruining the planet for some invisible, future population—requires something really difficult, which is imagining the world without us in it. And people have children to raise and bills to pay and lovers to kiss and enemies to fight. I can’t really blame anyone for not thinking ahead, I can only offer my admiration to those who do.

JBH: How do you write about a place when you aren’t living there? (In an MFA program or transplanted across the country, or even in a different part of California or the West…) Even if you’ve spent plenty of time in your literary locale, during the actual act of writing, how do you (re)conjure that place? On the other hand, is it ever easier to be more distant? Does that remove ever prove particularly useful?

CM: Writing down what I know about the place wasn’t hard. The hard part was figuring out what I didn’t know about the place, why I still loved it despite my dedicated attempts for so long to leave. Those kinds of questions tended to be deeper than geography, and no amount of time at home would help or hurt my ability to grapple with them.

JBH: You’ve talked elsewhere about a “mythic” California and the opportunities to both challenge that myth—beaches, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, say—and at the same time create more myths. (Maybe a moment that speaks to this runs, “…[The townspeople] were also no monolith. Some might say they were persons, not a people. That’s why stories happen. That’s why this story happened.”) The image California actively promotes of itself has been a topic of this series, and recently the New York Times published Parag Khanna’s map and analysis of “superstates” in the country, lines re-drawn based on “common economics and demographics.” Are we in the age of two or ten Californias? A hundred? Are there any shared bonds of Californians, or is this a state of 40 million separate Californians?

CM: This is a good time for me to thank you for the work you’ve been doing at Ploughshares. It’s been an education to this Californian, and a pleasure to read. As a desert kid, I grew up longing for places that seemed, on the map anyway, not that far out of reach: the freedom and glamor of the ocean, the celebrity of Los Angeles, the progressiveness of San Francisco, the racial and ethnic diversity of Oakland, the activism of Berkeley, and on and on. All those myths turned out to be both true and false, all at once, and maybe that’s why myths last. They’re built on the dreams of more than the forty million who call California home. They’re like mirages—another desert trope. They’re there, and they’re not, all at once, and no matter how close you get, they’re always just a little farther down the road.

JBH: Lastly, you had a book tour stop in the Antelope Valley. What was that like? Last month, I wrote about John Steinbeck being variously disowned by the Salinas Valley during his career. Do you worry about this? What is it like reading a book in its hometown?

CM: Variously disowned sounds like the place to be. As a person, I avoid confrontation to a fault. But as a writer, I don’t mind sparking discomfort. It means I’m writing toward the unsteady middle ground we talked about earlier, the place of questions not answers, the place where fiction should live. But I’m glad to say the event in the AV was a huge success, with lots of love from friends and family and strangers alike. If there’s anyone from the AV who detests the book or thinks my take on the AV is unfair or unrecognizable, I didn’t meet them. If they’re out there, I hope they’ll use that frustration in a constructive way by writing their own stories and poems to help create a diverse and nuanced literature of our strange and lovely home. Stories are more fun to write than angry emails, I bet, and definitely more likely to be read.

 

 

What Fiction Means

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There isn’t much that will make you more aware of a book’s message, and leerier of it, than reading it aloud to a child. Maybe this explains why I seem to have discovered books with such inordinately terrible messages during the three-plus years I’ve been reading to my daughter. There’s the book about the witless-looking big-eyed bunny that peeks suggestively over its plump bottom. There’s the ubiquitous book (we somehow have two copies) about the beautiful fish with rainbow-colored scales, which purports to have a “message about sharing,” and traces the decision of this fish to give away his uniquely beautiful scales, one by one, so that the other fish will like him. And the terrifying, now out of print book from the 80s, Your Turn, Doctor, that we discovered in some forgotten trove. Ostensibly meant to help children overcome their fears of doctor visits, this one, I truly think, must actually have been written to mess with us. Little Gloria is dreading her checkup and fantasizes about giving the doctor a checkup instead; in the daydream that then unfolds, she chases the doctor in all his almost-naked, middle-aged, pudgy glory around the examining room, saying truly unbelievable things. “You don’t have to be shy with me.” “Wider, Doctor, wider. I want to see everything.”

My daughter wants to finish most books we start. I can shift pretty fast into invention-and-skipping mode, though she seems to suspect something’s up.

Message is tricky in longer fiction, too. As readers and as writers, I think we’re taught to be wary of it, of turning characters and story into vehicles for a position. Maybe because characters and story are supposed to be more complicated than most positions are. The sense is that slogans constrain, and expansiveness—empathy, engagement, unexpected connection and reach—is one of fiction’s best gifts. Books like Animal Farm, The Jungle, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Pilgrim’s Progress, Brave New World are considered allegory, a slightly different category of thing from deep, rich literature. Their worth is determined by the legacy of the ideas they embody, and discussions of their fictional elements quickly morph into discussions of those ideas.Continue Reading

Writer-In-Chief: As a Man of Letters, Obama Will Be Missed

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In the era of the 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous WiFi, being a good writer would not seem to be much of an asset to a politician. A commanding TV presence and social media savvy are at least as important. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Until the arrival of the electronic age, the written word was the primary means by which Americans heard from their president, unless they had the rare opportunity to hear him speak in person. Whether they wanted to be or not, for a long time, presidents had to be writers of one stripe or another. That changed with a series of breakthroughs in communications technology.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was historic primarily because he broke the most impenetrable racial barrier of them all. But Obama’s victory was also heralded in the literary community as a return to the days of yore, when the occupant of the Oval Office was a man of letters.

Before Obama was a politician he was a writer. He first entered the public arena when he was named the first African-American to lead the Harvard Law Review. The subsequent notoriety led to the publication of his memoir Dreams of My Father in 1995. The book received mostly favorable reviews but its sales, according to the author, were “underwhelming.”

However, after Obama’s stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2004, the book was republished and it rocketed to the top of bestseller lists. Much like John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage forty years earlier, the success of Dreams of My Father prompted insinuations that a ghostwriter helped or possibly even supplanted Obama, accusations which have largely been dispelled.Continue Reading

The Collective Action of Swan Maidens

Photo by Peter Gerstbach

Photo by Peter Gerstbach

Last month I sat through five productions of Swan Lake, five days in a row. Despite a lifetime of ballet—and having danced the role of a swan in the ballet’s second act—I was hazy on the story’s ending. As perhaps I should be, as I’ve found evidence of nine different endings to the ballet. While my bones still held the choreography, I couldn’t recall the fate of the swans. So I sat through the ballet a tabula rasa and discovered a wildly feminist tale.

Most narrative ballets originated in the 19th century, drawing from fairy tales charted along traditional gender roles and boundaries. Men saving women, women serving men. The history of ballet is a history of men creating on and creating for the bodies of women; the tales’ narrative sexism received no reprieve as the stories were translated into ballets.

The origins of Swan Lake’s plot are unclear, but both a German story, “The Stolen Veil” by Johann Karl August Musäus, and a Russian folktale, “The White Duck” are said to have given life to Tchaikovsky’s tale. On stage, we meet Prince Siegfriend, whose mother demands that he find a bride. Uneasy about the idea of settling down, the Prince heads out for a swan hunt, where he meets the love of his life, Odette. Yes, a swan. Or rather, a woman cursed to swan-hood during daytimes, a captive of Von Rothbart. Odette is one of twenty-four women imprisoned by Von Rothbart, part-owl, part-sorcerer, a man of unclear motives.

Eight terms of venery—collective nouns which emerged for hunting purposes—exist for swans: bank, bevy, drift, eyrar, flight, game, herd, lamentation, sownder, team, wedge, and whiting. The second act of Swan Lake showcases this collective. While Odette and Prince Siegfried perform their pas de deux, the swans stand sentry, a line flanking each side of the stage, forming a barrier to protect the lovers from Von Rothbart’s gaze.Continue Reading

Round-Up: Roots, Jack Keruac, and the O. Henry Prize Winners

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From the auctioning off of Jack Keruac’s famous letter to the next book in the Millennium series, here are the latest literary headlines:

  • The letter that is largely credited as the inspiration for Jack Keruac’s On the Road is going to auction on June 16. Addressed to Keruac and written by Neal Cassady, the “Joan Anderson letter” was presumed lost until it turned up in the files of an old publishing house. The letter was first listed for sale in 2014, but was pulled when both Keruac’s estate and Cassady’s family claimed ownership. Following an extensive legal battle, the letter is ready to be auctioned off. The letter will be available for public viewing starting on May 31.
  • Roots, the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alex Haley, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. A remake of the 1977 miniseries based on the book will air over Memorial Day weekend on the History, Lifetime, and A&E channels. The new cast will involve actors Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, and English newcomer Malachi Kirby as the main character, Kunta Kinte. 
  • Last week, the twenty O. Henry Prize stories were announced. The list of winners includes previous Ploughshares contributors Elizabeth Tallent (Fall 1993), Wendell Berry (Summer/Fall 1982, Fall 2002) and Ron Carlson (Spring 1992, Fall 2002, Fall 2004, Winter 2005-2006, Spring 2008). Ron Carlson also served as guest editor for our Fall 2006 issue. The stories, edited by Laura Furman and published by Anchor, will be released in a collection this September. 
  • The fifth book in the Millennium series will be released in the UK in 2017, as announced by Quercus, Stieg Larsson’s British publisher. The release in the states will be handled by Knopf, the US publisher. The novel, which doesn’t yet have a name, goes by the codename “Millennium V.” It will be written by David Lagercrantz, who wrote the previous Millennium novel “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.”