Bookmarks #3: Left Bank Books, St. Louis, MO

The Bookmarks series will profile unique bookstores and literary spaces across the country. These landmarks, often celebrated within the cities featured in our Literary Boroughs series, are home to myriad readings, panels, classes, workshops, and—of course—books. Posts are merely introductions to these spaces; we encourage readers to contribute additional details in the comments section.

Screen shot 2013-10-03 at 3.07.53 AMThe historic Central West End neighborhood in St. Louis is home to the flagship Left Bank Books, a cultural fixture of the city since the late 60s. At the store’s heart flits Kris Kleindienst, who has loved and tended to Left Bank as its co-owner for the past thirty-nine years. On a late September afternoon, we meet near the Mystery section in the shop’s cozy basement. Kleindienst slides into her seat with a terrific exhale; she says it’s been a very busy day. Shortly thereafter, a customer approaches her with invoice concerns. “See what I mean?” she says, and hustles away into a fold of bookshelves.

While she attends to business, I admire a silver haired couple who giggles over a paperback in the used section. A group of college kids trots around the poetry aisles overhead. The resident cat, Spike, weaves around customers’ feet and down the stairs. This ceaseless Monday activity speaks to Left Bank’s heartening success as an independent bookstore despite the challenges of a changing industry. “We’ve had our ups and downs,” Kleindienst says, now back at our table and smiling. “But we’re still here.” More than just “still here,” Left Bank is thriving. In fact, a second storefront—all glass and angles and warm light—opened up in downtown St. Louis just a few years ago.

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Elizabeth Strout at Emerson: The Videos (Part I)

The footage is finally here! Watch the first half of Elizabeth Strout’s question-and-answer session on April 15 at Emerson College below, or on our YouTube channel. In these videos, she discusses revising Olive Kitteridge, writing cantankerous female characters, surviving law school, and sometimes being surprised by her own work.

Elizabeth Strout, the Subconscious Writer

Several times during her question-and-answer session at Emerson College on April 15, Elizabeth Strout admitted to making things up. No one would begrudge a fiction writer of doing that–fabrication is part of her job. But Strout “just knew” when her latest book Olive Kitteridge was ready. “Which isn’t very interesting,” she added.

Strout QA.jpgStrout shared with us how the collection came together, almost subconsciously. The character of Olive Kitteridge was born as an image: standing by the picnic table at her son’s wedding, deciding she had had enough festivities for one day. “That was the first visitation,” she said. From this snapshot, Strout created “A Little Burst,” the fourth story in her book, but the first full Olive story she wrote: “That was definitely Olive from beginning to end. I wrote that story in a couple of months, which for me was amazing.”

She struggled for ten years on “A Different Road,” in which Olive and her husband Henry are held hostage in a hospital. Originally starring an Evelyn, the story became clear to Strout only when she reconsidered the main character. “I bet this is an Olive story,” she told herself, “and it was.”

Other stories, newer and older, were rewritten once Olive arrived. “I don’t write any story in chronological order, so I don’t write a book that way,” Strout said. Upon writing “A Little Burst,” she immediately envisioned a book: The Olive Stories. With marketing what it is, the title changed, but the content remained the same. Random House acquired Olive Kitteridge when she was just one-third finished. Her editor of her previous work, Daniel Menaker, was on his way out as the manuscript came in. She recalled that he read “Incoming Tide” and made one useful suggestion. But beyond that, Strout said, “every word was what I wanted.”

She’s a constant reviser. “I write a sentence and rewrite it immediately,” she said. One reader would review her past work before she sent it out, so that the whole process remained “secretive and very compressed.” Nowadays, she has more readers, but that’s not her preference.

She does prefer mess–spreading out papers, piecing everything together at the last minute. Asked about the order of the stories, she offered to once again make up an answer. In reality, when she left the cottage in Provincetown, Rhode Island, where she finished revising Olive Kitteridge, the order she placed them in lasted through the final product.
Strout just knew, which seemed to be the theme of her talk.

During her days in law school, for example, she completed a lot of writing and would sneak novels like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin inside her textbooks during class. But she always considered herself a writer. “It’s just a compulsion,” she admitted.

While she said she finds her writing “hysterically funny”–and hoped we agreed with her–she also stressed its deep sincerity. “I think writing is very serious business. I’m not interested in showing off, or coyness, or tricks, or pyrotechnics.” For Elizabeth Strout, fiction is about sentence upon good sentence–combining into one cohesive whole. Likewise for editing Ploughshares: she felt her hand was in a box of shapes, which she maneuvered until somehow they came together. “These things do happen often,” she said, “with a degree of surprise.”

–Joshua Garstka

Videos of Elizabeth Strout’s Q&A and reading coming soon!

Ten Quick Questions with… Elizabeth Strout

liz strout blog OK.jpg

Elizabeth Strout’s had quite a year. Her third work of fiction, Olive Kitteridge, still sits on the paperback bestseller list. Last April, she earned the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This Thursday, she headlines the Ploughshares Reading Series, where she will read one of Olive’s stories (“I often make that decision when I arrive in town”), as well as answer questions and sign books.
In a recent interview for the National Arts Journalism Program, Strout expressed her real reason for agreeing to edit Ploughshares: “Poetry. Obviously, I love the whole thing. But the truth is I love poetry… And I love literary magazines. Literary magazines were my food for so long.”

1. Your desert-island read:

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.
2. The writer you recommend to all your friends:
Oscar Hijuelos.
3. Your favorite poet:
Theodore Roethke.
4. Your preferred writing method:
By hand.
5. Where do you store your Pulitzer?
At the back of my desk, behind some photos.
6. Have you thought about dabbling in another genre?
I don’t have any desire to publish in a different genre. Writing nonfiction is painful for me, and only done when absolutely necessary. Of course I would love to write poetry, but I do not. I am a fiction writer, a storyteller.
7. Short stories are not always bestsellers. Was Random House committed right away to Olive Kitteridge?
I’m not aware if there was any hesitation on the part of Random House, but I am not a person who inquires into much regarding the publishing process. They accepted the book when it was about a third done, and that was the only thing I needed to know.
8. Frances McDormand has shown interest in an Olive Kitteridge movie. Any updates on the film?
I’ve not heard about any progress, but again, it is my nature not to ask.
9. You wrote much of Olive Kitteridge in a cottage in Provincetown. How has it been writing your newest one in New York City?
I like working in my New York apartment. It’s high up with a great view of the sky. It’s essential to like the space where I’m working. But I interrupt myself far more than I did in that cottage – there I had few opportunities to interrupt myself and it made a difference.
10. When did you first know you were a writer?
I regarded myself as a writer when I was a child. Later, as I was writing Amy and Isabelle and noticed that finally, finally, my ability to do things with the sentence was growing, then I had another moment of thinking: now I am writing like a writer.
It was not publication that ever made me feel like a writer. Publication only made other people think I was a writer. I always knew.

–conducted by Joshua Garstka

“We’re all shoving more and more Twinkies in our mouths.”

Ploughshares is off to the AWP conference in Denver this week! But to keep excitement high for guest editor Elizabeth Strout’s visit to Emerson next Thursday, here are two fun interviews pulled from YouTube.

In the first, Strout talks about how freeing she found writing at a young age. “I observe,” she says. “Always have. There’s nothing more interesting to me than people. And the physical world as well, but people are so endlessly interesting. So I am an observer, and there’s always plenty to observe.”

The first moment of Olive Kitteridge she envisioned was of Olive herself, “standing by the picnic table at her son’s wedding, thinking it was high time everybody went home. When I wrote that story, she was so vivid to me.” Strout remembers thinking, “I’m going with you, Olive. I’ll see what else you have up your sleeve.”

In the second interview, Strout relates how she writes for the reader. “There are so many things that go into a piece of writing. There’s the emotional truth, there’s the story itself. Is it going to leave somebody feeling that they’ve been through an experience that’s worthwhile? But then there’s also the way it sounds to the ear.”
Rest assured, the sentence is alive and well in Elizabeth Strout’s world. Watch the video for more on her passion for musical, muscular writing–as well as the “Twinkies” we readers consume.

Three Excerpts from Spring ’10 Fiction

We have shifted gears361 Front Cover.JPG to the Spring 2010 Ploughshares–look at the new color scheme on our home page! As a bonus to our loyal blog readers, here are three brief excerpts from pieces Elizabeth Strout handpicked for the issue. If you subscribe now, you’ll receive this issue as soon as we can ship it.

1. Joyce Carol Oates, “Distance”

An eerie, overheated hotel room. A lover out of touch. A woman out of her mind. Here’s how Oates opens her erotic noir of windows and wrong numbers:

“Ma’am? You can’t open the windows, sorry.”

Coolly she turned to the boy. Prissy Mexican kid, wearing white-boy wire-rim glasses, who’d brought up her single lightweight suitcase she’d have preferred to have brought herself, to save a tip. But at the hotel check-in downstairs the suave, brisk young woman behind the counter had finessed Kathryn, handing the card key to the bellboy, with no chance for Kathryn to intervene.

“‘Can’t open the windows’–why not?”

Evasively the boy mumbled what sounded like sealed.

“The windows are ‘sealed’? But why?”

Kathryn’s voice betrayed surprise, dismay. A room in which other occupants had slept recently–their odors left behind, faintly disguised by disinfectant, room “freshener”–was not the ideal setting, for what she anticipated.

Asking again, “Why?”–but the bellboy ignored her. Adjusting a wall thermostat, a rush of air conditioning from overhead. In his pose of concentration there was a mild rebuke, Kathryn thought. A warning, Don’t be ridiculous. Don’t ask questions if you don’t know the answers. Sealed windows in high-rise hotels in Vegas, you can figure.

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Sneak Preview of our Spring 2010 Issue

Rliz strout.jpgeaders and writers need to know what’s happening–Where are the new poets, how are the established poets, what is fiction really up to these days? It is the chance at variety that remains essential.

Elizabeth Strout on guest editing Ploughshares

True to her word, Strout assembled a “variety” of poems and stories–familiar and newer voices sitting down to dinner, traveling across continents and years, through relationships living and dead.

Many stories and poems in Strout’s issue center around family. In Richard Bausch‘s “We Belong Together,” Mary and Frank are late for lunch. Reuniting with their old friend, Frank can’t help but confess everything: Mary’s ultimatum that morning, and his feelings from years back. Meanwhile, Amy Hempel introduces us to the vivacious libertine Mrs. Greed, her affection for her husband only surpassed by her dalliance with other men. In Marjorie Kemper‘s “A Memo from Your Temp,” a cubicle worker sinks into NPR and repetitive tasks to forget the daughter who won’t call, the family she once had–and the new identity she’s fabricated. Mark Kraushaar watches the cow jump over the moon with a mother restless for change.

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The Scoop on New Stories from the South: 2010

South pic rev.jpgPloughshares has just learned that Amy Hempel, guest editor for New
Stories from the South: 2010
, has selected Marjorie Kemper for
posthumous publication in the anthology. Kemper’s story “Discovered
America,” in the
current issue of Southwest Review
, joins the year’s best
fiction from Southern writers or about Southern American themes.
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill will release this year’s eagerly awaited New
Stories from the South
in August.

We’re thrilled, of
course, to have stories from both Hempel (“Greed”) and Kemper (“A Memo
from Your Temp”) in our upcoming Spring 2010 issue, handpicked by guest
editor Elizabeth Strout. We’ll be releasing details on our
website
as April draws nearer…

Kemper received strong
reviews for her novel, Until That Good Day, published in 2003. Booklist
warmed to Kemper’s “hint of bayou magic,” while The Washington Post
praised her “observations… as vinegary as Carolina barbecue” and
“prose… as simple and plain as good homemade biscuits.” We suggest you
read her two stories on Southern religion available
online at The Atlantic
.

Hempel’s recent The
Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
, which pulled together four short
story volumes from 1985 to 2005, received a
simple recommendation from The New York Times
: “Read this
book.” Booklist said her writing “has made short story history.”
We can’t wait to see what other gems Hempel singled out from the South.