Wednesday, February 25, 2015

I feel like a 20 year old! (My firstborn book keeps evolving.)

20 years ago this week, I got the life-changing call every writer works and waits for. Fred Ramey​ of MacMurray & Beck (which later morphed into MacAdam-Cage) pulled my first novel out of the slush pile and offered to publish it. His belief in the book and in me as an author changed my life. He also changed the title from Last Chance Gulch to Crazy for Trying.

I was just coming out of a long stretch of cancer treatment, which had left Gary and me bankrupt, so we did the responsible thing and used the advance to take our kids to DisneyWorld. And 18 months later, we used the first royalty check to make a down payment on a house. This book and I have both come a long way, as you can see. I adored the hardcover design. Gary had it blown up into a poster for my office. The paperback, I felt was a bit, um... phallic (Gary promptly dubbed it "the blow job cover"), but I gotta love MacAdam-Cage -- they graciously reverted the rights back to me in 2010 so I could indie pub an ebook edition. After I threw away almost a thousand dollars on professionally done cover designs, all of which I hated, Gary shot a photo of my old 12-string guitar resting on my daughter's hip, and I created a cover I loved. I didn't care what anyone else thought of it and still don't.

I'm so thrilled to have Crazy for Trying included in Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, a limited edition digital boxset of seven top-drawer novels by powerhouse women authors. The common thread: each compelling story features a strong, idiosyncratic woman protagonist. This edition of Crazy for Trying has been updated with a fresh edit and a new look by FUdog Book Bling. 

I was happy to find, as I revisited it, that the story set in the 1970s still holds up. If anything, it's more relevant than ever, because the secondary plotline focused on what happens to a child being raised by two mothers when the biological mother dies, and the longtime partner parent has no legal standing. "I feel like a widow," she says, "but I don't get to wear the classy black veil."

(Visit for more info and links to buy the box set! It's available through May 24 only!)

Friday, February 20, 2015

It's about the stories. (Why I LOVE the Women Writing Women box set)

Two things I'm quite jazzed about this month: 1) BoxOcto, which has been patiently snoozing on the seafloor the past few years is reawakening. And 2) I was invited to collaborate with six other authors in Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, a limited edition box set of top tier, genre-busting novels featuring strong, idiosyncratic women protagonists. Et voila! The digital box set launches today and will be available worldwide until May 24.

At the risk of sounding all infomercial ("Save 75% off the total price of individual ebooks and up to 90% off original hardcover prices!"), if you're a book-a-week consumer like me, this is a fantastic deal: seven full-length novels for $9.99, which is why we're offering it for only 90 days. If you're a book club, it's an amazing deal, because we're talking three seasons of beefy issues for knock-down-drag-out discussions.

The novels are all what you'd call general fiction or accessible literary fiction, but that's because the industry has never quite known what to do with writers like us. Our stories don't obey the formula rules of genre fiction. Our characters jump the turnstiles and behave like--well, like real people: incorrigible, flawed, heartbreaking, beautiful, angry, lovestruck, hilarious and full of possibility.

There's been international buzz about indie ebook bundling in general and how unusual we are because most of us have been successfully published by big houses in the UK and the US, some have won some very spiffy awards, and we've all gotten big critical kudos from the blogosphere as well as Kirkus, PW, NYT and other usual suspects. For some folks, traditionally published authors going indie is as unthinkable as a group of women coming together and making it all "Band of Brothers" with zero "Real Housewives."

But here's what thrills me most about the project: in the midst of industry-wide obsession with marketing, we're all about the stories. The authors in this group write in a range of styles; our common core is devotion to the craft of storytelling. I loved and can personally recommend every one of these books (I'd already read most of them before I was invited to join the box!) so it's a trip to be in this great company.

In my video review of Orna Ross's Blue Mercy a couple years ago, I raved about how bell-ringingly right she'd gotten the dynamics of an intense mother-daughter conflict between Starr and her mother, Mercy, who stands accused of killing her tyrannical father. The Irish Independent called it "a complex tale of betrayal, revenge, suspense, murder mystery — and surprise...John McGahern meets Maeve Binchy." Meanwhile, Bookseller Magazine named Orna (who founded the Alliance of Independent Authors) one of the 100 Most Influential People in Publishing in 2013 and 2014. She's an amazing force in the book world and one of my favorite authors. Warning: Book clubs, bring boxing gloves!

I loved Roz Morris's My Memories of a Future Life so much, I revisited recently via the audio book and loved it even more. It's a beautifully imagined novel about a pianist whose career is derailed by excruciating pain in her hands. Her quest to cure herself with a popular past life regression therapist takes her on an unexpected journey into the future. For Books Sake raved: "Stylish, classy writing...profound ... page-turning." I totally agree! Roz is a multi-million-selling ghostwriter who teaches a fiction masterclass for Guardian, and her mad skills shine through in her fiction.

Kathleen Jones is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow who also writes for the BBC. Her novel, The Centauress, follows bereaved biographer Alex Forbes to war-torn Croatia, where she finds a mutilated photo and a cache of stolen letters that set off an extraordinary web of passion and betrayal. Kathleen's deeply thoughtful writing has a quiet grace that kept me immersed in the book, and the plot is so skillfully spooled, the pages fly by. Debbie Bennett called it "utterly gripping"--and I agree. This is a book you'll likely be thinking about for a long time, and every time it comes back to you, you'll go, "Ah! She got that so right..." Gotta love a book that manages to make its way into your heart and mind that way.

I'll confess, I bought An Unchoreographed Life by Jane Davis (winner of the London Daily Mail First Novel Award) because I loved the cover. It promises an extraordinary vision, and the book delivers with fluidly gorgeous writing and a heart-wrenching story about a ballerina who turns to prostitution when she becomes a single mother. It layers research and talent with a thinking woman's insight into that something more that elevates a good book to an excellent book. Book Muse called it "brilliant and cleverly written," while Cult Den kvelled about the "extraordinary level of emotion and superb storytelling."

Dr. Carol Cooper is a London-based journalist, award-winning non-fiction author and practicing physician. Her novel, One Night at the Jacaranda, is a totally delightful surprise. She writes with the intelligence, compassion and precision of a family doctor, spinning a story that's compulsively readable--and I'm talking Bridget Jones or Fault in Our Stars readable. The premise is brilliant: what happens to a group of soulmate-searching speed daters when one of them is terminally ill. The Sun calls it "a blinder of a tale"--and I'm guessing that's British for "un-put-downable."

I expected a lot from Jessica Bell, not just because she's the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal or because this whole Women Writing Women thing is her brainchild--I mean, c'mon, she's an Australian musician/performance artist living in Greece. Aesthetics are oozing from her pores after her daily yoga practice. Her novel, White Lady, brings the voice of an extraordinary artist to a plot that would be right at home on the big screen: the unfaithful wife of a Melbourne drug lord has a thing for sharp objects and daydreams of slicing throats but is tasked with rehabilitating herself as a “normal” mother and math teacher. Complications and a great book ensue.

And then there's me. I was thrilled when Jessica asked me to contribute my first novel, Crazy for Trying, which was originally published by MacAdam-Cage and short-listed for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. It was a pleasure revisiting Tulsa, a zaftig late-night disc jockey in 1970s Montana, and her mother Alexandra, a radical feminist poet. I'd forgotten how funny this book is and that an secondary storyline in the book has become freshly relevant. When Alexandra dies of ovarian cancer, Tulsa is still a minor, and the only family she has is her mother's longtime partner--the woman Tulsa has always called "Mama"--who now has no legal standing in Tulsa's life. Revisiting the story gave me a chance to restore some of the original manuscript, which I had cut back then on the advice of agents and editors who told me that this storyline made the book "offensive to a lot of people" and therefore unpublishable.

I don't regret doing what I had to do to get the book published by a prestigious literary press, but I'm thrilled that I'm calling the shots now, so the book has the benefit of both old-school publishing values and new universe artistic values. Which is something you could say about all the novels in Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.

Don't forget! This digital box set disappears May 24, 2015. Available now on iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and Amazon outlets worldwide.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

"Eventually, fires go out:" 3 Q's with David Gionfriddo (part two)

In part two of our 3 Q's with The Good Worlds are all Taken author David Gionfriddo, David discusses the breakdown of communication, the concealing of information, and the delicate balance between pathos and comedy.

BtO:  In several of your stories, the theme of communication -- or lack thereof -- comes up. Is that a theme you were playing with intentionally, or is that something that evolved organically?
DG: I think every story, at some level, is about communication and, in particular, the breakdown of communication. Those breakdowns cause the tensions and frictions and conflicts that end up driving most plots; that is, unless your story is set on the Titanic or at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius or somewhere
like that. Some of the themes I seem to use a lot, like religion and art, are about trying to express the inexplicable, so there you have enormous, built-in, insoluble problems of communication. How do I explain the mysteries of creation and existence in a believable way? How do I put my love and hurt into this lyric? Is anyone listening? Can I keep them listening? Being a lawyer and incorporating elements of that…that raises still different issues, because law is about concealing and rationing information. 

In "The Good Worlds Are All Taken," everyone knows how things go wrong, but the company conceals the problem. Casson is put to great lengths to communicate his desires, but the lawyers, in the end, use this to protect the company as much as to give Casson what he wants. The lawyer says as little as is necessary to achieve a result. He asks:What can I withhold? Just like the promoters in “Venus In Rags.” And, of course, the disability play is another kind of problem altogether – what about the questions no one ever even hears? And in the end, it comes down to the simplest problem of all, coming to grips with our feelings about others and the cost of cowardice in expressing those feelings. Maybe I should have called the book Your Call Could Not Be Completed As Dialed. The funny thing is, the story I’m working on now involves future dating – a topic I know you get a kick out of. And that piece, as it’s developing, is all about decoding hidden signals and being confused by the signals we only think we see. More trouble. The story I pulled from the book was about a man whose identity is accidentally erased and who essentially becomes a voiceless non-person.
I think my basic theme in all this is: How does a human being make himself known and understood in the world? Can a person’s essential nature ever be really communicated to others? I would say rarely, and even then, only briefly.  Lots of stories there, struggles and disappointments.
BtO: There's a sort of dissolute pathos in many of your stories, but there's also a dark comedy. How do you walk so beautifully between dark and light? Do you see your work as fundamentally tragic or tragicomic?
DG: You’re hitting me with all the existential artillery. Well, first of all, dissolute people are nearly always the most interesting, aren’t they? And pathos is really the basic quality of life. Nobody beats the house. The truest picture of the way most of us live is dark comedy. Life is the song we sing at the top of our lungs to show the world how happy we are as we circle the Big Drain. Elvis had three of everything and died on the john. There are two basic stories: 1) My character got what he wanted and it killed him; and 2) My character didn’t get what he wanted and it killed him. The really good writers I’ve read understand this at some level and use fiction to come to grips with it. There are victories, sure, but we all play like gambling addicts. We win so that we can put off the moment when we have to give it all back. I think that’s why all the happy-ending stuff I read feels forced and false to me. And then, everything was fine. Right. If you don’t get comfortable with the dark, you’re writing fairy tales. But the light is also important, because that’s life, the stuff we do to push the dark back.
For me, fiction is the funny ghost story that makes us laugh around the campfire and forget the really dangerous stuff out in the woods, where the fire can’t reach. And eventually, fires go out.
BtO: Bonus question--What are you reading right now? Who are you reading right now? Who have been some of your biggest influences?
DG:  I am ashamed to admit how badly-read I am. Always have been. And I’m too honest to do what most people do and fib about my nightstand. Due to my current health situation, I have homecare guys underfoot most of the day, and it’s very hard to get chunks of quiet time. It’s frustrating. On bad days, it can be tough even to handle a book. I have a whole stack of art history books I can’t seem to get to, and I keep running across writers that interest me, but who knows when I’ll be able to devote time and attention to them? I’m going to try to read some Lydia Davis if it kills me.
Influences? None out of the ordinary, I guess. All the usual college syllabus big names, Joyce, O’Connor and the like. Paul Bowles for the architecture of his sentences. Raymond Carver, of course. Rick Moody for his experiments in form. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. In the speculative fiction column, Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, especially his urban nightmare stuff – High-Rise,Concrete Island and Crash. Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. And I’m one of the umpteen million fans who rereads Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son for inspiration every so often. And every now and again, there’s the odd dark jewel: Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry? By Elizabeth McCracken, Alissa Nutting’s Unclean Jobs For Women and Girls, Heather Lewis’ Notice, or The Red Truck by Rudy Wilson, a writer from Iowa who’s a magician with words and really cries out for wider attention. If there’s one writer I’d really point to and say yes, I want to do that, it’s George Saunders. The material in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia really nails that sense of tragicomedy you describe. “I CAN SPEAK!” from In Persuasion Nation is one of the best stories I can think of. Hilarious and heartbreaking. I hope they legislate us all some 27- or 28-hour days in the near future so I can add to that list.

Thank you so much, David, for stopping by!  We here at BtO wish you continued success in all your pursuits, literary and otherwise.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"Just a guy keeping himself amused:" 3 Q's for Short Fiction writer David Gionfriddo

And now for something completely different . . . 

I am thrilled to introduce to this space short fiction writer David Gionfriddo, whose debut collection The Good Worlds are All Taken is destined to become a cult classic, particularly among his devoted Internet fans. What I like about David's work is that it is reminiscent in some ways of Donald Barthelme's 40 Stories -- it's quirky, theatrical, and has a touch (okay, more than a touch) of the absurd.  David was gracious enough to take a break from his postmodern musings and stop by BtO and answer a few questions for us.

His answers, in fact, are so meaty that it was obvious from question one that this would definitely be a two-part interview.  In this part, David discusses the influence of the theatre upon his work, and in the next one, he will talk about how his stories grapple with the breakdown of communication in the modern world and the walk between dark and light.

BtO: When reading The Good Worlds are All Taken, I noticed, in both format and theme, a great deal of theatricality to your work. Are you influenced at all by the theatre? Do you consciously employ these techniques, or is this just something that has arisen from your subconscious?

DG:  Some of it, like the religious ritual in “Just Punishments” or the minstrelsy in “Who’s Afraid of Tobias Wolff,” was just incidental. The “play,” “Johnny Broken, Julie Gone,” was a little different story. Part of it goes back to the seminar I took with Rick Moody at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown back in 1997. It was called “Forms of Fiction,” and he encouraged us to tell stories in the shape of other types of writing – maybe as assembly instructions for a piece of furniture, or a Last Will and Testament. It was very liberating to think outside familiar story structures.

You’ll notice I said “play,” because it’s not so much a piece of drama as a story in the form of a play. I doubt it could ever be staged as written, and it wasn’t meant to be. What really triggered it, though, was a lecture I watched online by Peter Greenaway on what he termed the “new possibilities” of cinema. He talked about changing the spatial relationship between the audience and the onscreen content, moving the audience around, projecting material on screens that were sized and shaped differently and located in unexpected positions, creating more interplay and interactivity. And he does this all the time in his various installations. It got me thinking, albeit in a very primitive way, about how those ideas could be used to tell my story. It was originally supposed to be two acts, but once all the various voices started emerging and speaking, it became clear that the whole set of interlocking conversations between those different voices, on their fictional “stage,” was the real story. It just seemed that was the logical way to imagine and share that particular tale.

Obviously, I’m not a tenth as clever as Greenaway, but it was fun to have fantasy voices drifting in and out of an imaginary theatre space flooded with images like a Greenaway art installation. I don’t do his techniques justice – not by a long shot – but it was fun to try, and it made sense for the material, so, what the hell?  It was fun to flex those muscles again. Just a guy keeping himself amused.

Tomorrow, I'll post part two of this interview, where David will discuss "all the existential artillery," such as the breakdown of communication and "dissolute pathos," and then you'll really drop into his vortex. :)


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