“Picking” by guest blogger Elizabeth Mosier

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Philadelphia’s Living History Archeology Lab, where I volunteer every other week, is a haven of unitasking.  I might be assigned to a six-hour session washing Colonial-era dishes or identifying leaded glass using an ultraviolet light or counting and cataloguing hundreds of pottery sherds.  There’s a meditative aspect to this work, especially the task called “picking”:  sorting through the remains of an Old City neighborhood to find the tiny artifacts – seeds and bones and beads – that have been sifted with water through a 1/8-inch screen.   

The goal is to work slowly and carefully, tackling no more than a quarter-sized pile.  First, I scrape the gravel across the tray with a tongue depressor, then separate the contents with a tweezer by type:  brick, mortar, bone, charcoal, flora (seeds), metal, misc. (buttons, beads, straight pins, teeth), insects, and oyster shell.  Focus – and nearsightedness – are the skills I call upon to hone in on a splinter of cream-colored egg shell, a transparent fish scale, the fibrous backside of what looks at first like charcoal but is actually a bit of burnt bone.   

Writers, too, are archaeologists: digging, processing, and repairing the relics of experience to find the meaning in it.  Memory is our medium for binding the human to the object, and as I work through the mountain one molehill at a time, I’m thinking about life’s lost objects and found wisdom, the mysterious ways memory serves and finally fails us, the fragments that float to the surface or fall through the screen.

From www.ElizabethMosier.com

The Phoenix Indian School by Elizabeth Mosier

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Cross-posted at Elizabeth Mosier

I attended Central High School in Phoenix, Arizona, next door to the Phoenix Indian School. As a freshman, I played softball with my team on the south field, which was separated from the boarding school by a flimsy hurricane fence. Occasionally, we’d see a few Indian boys, their fingers hooked through the wire as they watched us silently, but we never spoke to each other. This border — and the Phoenix street named Indian School Road — marked the limit of what I knew about the school.

Not until 1991, when the Indian School’s closing coincided with my writerly interest in my hometown, did I investigate further into this educational system designed to make many tribes into one and, through enforced assimilation to Anglo culture, to make Native Americans disappear. Though the so-called “assimilation era” ended in the 1930s, and the Indian School curriculum was reformed to teach academic subjects and not just basic trades, the words of Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan are irrevocably part of the school’s foundation: “It’s cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them.”

Artifacts tell the story. Before the new Steel Indian School Park opened on the site in 2001, archaeologists excavated the contents of a 230’ x 165’ trash dump near where my team fouled a few balls. Among the tools of assimilation abandoned there between 1891 and 1926 were the porcelain heads of white dolls used to socialize girls and rusted steam whistles that blasted at intervals to teach the concept of clock time. But there is also evidence of resistance: forbidden fetishes and pottery sherds smuggled from home; flaked stone points showing off a traditional skill (and the school’s fine-china plates used to practice); a cache of combs not marked, as required, with a name to show appreciation for individual possessions and tangible wealth. These relics are beautifully subversive — ironic imagery in a landscape where students were compelled to trade tribal clothing for uniforms, native languages for English, the Native American we for the American I.

I thought of the Phoenix Indian School recently, as I reviewed Sherman Alexie’s new book, War Dances, for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Alexie’s exile from the Spokane Indian reservation to attend an all-white high school was self-imposed, prompted when he was issued an outdated math book his mother had once used. But the outcome of his education is the same as that of a kid taken from his tribe: neither assimilation nor a return to tradition, but a troubled and complicated identity – one he articulates in poems, stories, screenplays, and novels.

Given the part educators have played in oppression, no wonder Alexie lampoons academics — like the “the Sioux writer and scholar and charlatan” orating on sovereignty and literature in the book’s title story, or the tenured professor “strangely thrilled to list all of the oppressors” in his poem, “Go, Ghost, Go”:

And I, a red man, think he’s correct,

But why does he have to be so humorless?

Dogzplot 2009 Annual – Review by Marc Schuster

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dogzplotBarry Graham and company are back again with another collection of zany, manic, and at times maddening flash fiction–and this edition of the Dogzplot Annual is their best yet. Eschewing a traditional foreword or letter from the editor explaining the journal’s philosophy, thoughts on the state of the written word, or any other self-gratifying material that readers generally skip over anyway, the book’s front matter simply offers the following description (or is it a warning?): 200 WORDS OR LESS. Yet brevity is all the pieces have in common. Well, okay, they also have quality in common, but, stylistically and thematically, the collection is all over the map.

In “The Evolution of Masturbation,” for example, Ani Smith meditates not, as the title might suggest, upon masturbation but upon the biological processes (cell-division, etc.) that occur during gestation. Given that the focus of the piece is the gestation of women, it’s not surprising that some of Smith’s language (e.g., “two by two, everything two by two”) hearkens to Feminist theorist Luce Irigaray’s “The Sex Which is Not One,” but the final line of the piece, which describes the vagina as “a cubby hole for worthless possessions” feels like a particularly savage response to Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme,” in which the femme in question is described, more or less, as the sum total of all the useless junk that her suitors have left her.

Then there’s “The Particulars” by Bartley Seigel, which reads like a word game. Sentences like “She is peopled with ghost fires speaking through voice pipes, her thinking a feeling fractured” must, the reader assumes, mean something–but what? And I don’t say this snidely at all. I say it because I want to know, and because the sentence demands that the reader stay with it. In other words, this isn’t disposable writing. This is writing that requires attention, writing that challenges.

My favorite piece in the collection is “Dead Ringer” by Ravi Mangla. Its premise is that the narrator has discovered a perfect double for his dead father walking the aisles of a Sam’s Club. Needless to say, wacky highjinks involving a sort-of blind date with the narrator’s mother ensue, and the result is a twisted window into middle-American family values.

Overall, a great, fast-paced collection–highly recommended for fans of flash fiction or for anyone who’s curious to see what flash fiction is all about (and how many different forms it can take).

Interview with Gregory Frost

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Cross-posted on Michael A. Ventrella’s Blog

Gregory Frost is the author of the Shadowbridge duology, SHADOWBRIDGE and LORD TOPHET. His latest short fiction appears in the anthology POE, edited by Ellen Datlow. He’s been a finalist for every award in the sf, fantasy, and horror genres. Other works include LYREC, TAIN, REMSCELA, THE PURE COLD LIGHT, FITCHER’S BRIDES, and the short fiction collection ATTACK IF THE JAZZ GIANTS & OTHER STORIES. GF-Poe event-web copyHis essay on Slipstream fiction appears in Modern Fantasy Literature (Cambridge University Press), co-edited by Farah Mendelsohn. For two years he was the principal researcher for a non-fiction television producer, for shows that appeared on The Learning Channel and The Discovery Channel. Currently he is the acting Fiction Writing Workshop Director at Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, PA, and teaches in writing programs in and around the Delaware Valley. His web page is http://www.gregoryfrost.com.

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Gregory Frost. I first became aware of Frost with his initial novel LYREC which I remember reading on the Boston subway back in the 80s. Although I have not re-read it since then, I recall it being quite fun with some real issues about religious beliefs…

Gregory, was LYREC the first novel you had written? What made you decide on that theme for your first novel? (PS: My wife says to tell you she loved that book.) Any news on it being re-issued?

GREGORY FROST: LYREC was the first novel that was published. Hardly the first one I’d written. In fact my first attempt at a novel was about 70 pages long. The second attempt was, at least, of an appropriate length, around 250 pages. But it and numerous others live in a box in a closet, which is where they belong. That second one made its way to Lin Carter, who was editing the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series in those days (that should date me), courtesy of a letter of introduction from one David Gerrold, who’d never even met me. And Carter, bless him, did a line edit on the first 10 pages, showing me how much I did not understand of the craft. It would be a decade after that before I sold LYREC. But both Gerrold’s letter and Carter’s efforts were acts of kindness on their part. I think apiring authors should always stiffen their spines and talk to published writers. Trust me, only some of us bite. The zombie writers…yeah, you should probably not talk to the zombies.

I expect LYREC would have been a YA novel had there been such a category in ’84. Main character is an alien who has little experience with human emotions and finds himself greatly overcome by them as he inhabits a human body; he has to sort out his angry, warring and violent impulses. And his sidekick is unable to manifest as a human and so goes through the book as a large talking cat with attitude. I was trying to do something with fantasy besides interminable trilogies and quests. So there’s way more Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser in there than there is Tolkien or Robert E. Howard. I love Fritz Leiber, and those stories of his were unquestionably influential. Roger Zelazny’s work, too. It’s fresh, funny, different. I was shooting for all that with LYREC. A really good ride.

And at the moment there’s a possibility it’s coming back into print from Wilder Press this winter. Negotiations on that front continue, and I don’t know how that’ll fall out.

VENTRELLA: How did you break into the publishing business at that time?

FROST: I broke in by publishing a short story (in The Twilight Zone Magazine for the old people in the audience), and then in quick succession two more in F&SF, and around then at a convention I met Terri Windling, who at the time was an editor at Ace Books. I was in the middle of a draft of a novel based on the Irish epic The Tain, and the idea excited her. She agreed to look at LYREC, I think, pretty much on the strength of the idea that I was going to do my version of Cú Chulainn.

VENTRELLA: Has the business changed much since then?

Back then a publisher would try to develop a relationship with you—grow your career, so to speak. Now you’d better write a bloody best-seller coming out of the chute or you’re for it, mate. The bean-counters will look at your numbers and instead of thinking, “We can promote her next book and sell even more,” they go “Huh, your numbers weren’t great, so we’re not going to publish you at all!” That is the current reality. I can’t even tell you how many writers I know of who published a portion of a trilogy or series with a full character arc, only to have the publisher say in the middle of it, “Don’t bother to finish. We don’t want the last book(s) because your sales haven’t been great.” It’s ugly—and bovinely stupid—out there.

One of the books I use in teaching writing is THE GREAT GATSBY because so much of the correspondence between Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins, his editor, is available to us. And it’s interesting to see how much of that book was pulled together during the editing and revision process. Fitzgerald did not turn in a fine, complete, perfect manuscript. Far from it—the original Jay Gatsby was a complete cypher, even to the author. But nowadays that’s what you’re expected to do, turn in a perfect, finished work. Editors are now responsible for twenty more times the number of books in any given minute, so they can’t take the time to guide, to work in close that way. Someone like David Hartwell may still take such carewith selected authors, but he’s a dying breed. Everything now is Walmartized, the whole process. And it is not giving us better literature.

VENTRELLA: You have not limited yourself to one specific genre. While certainly that is very admirable artistically, do you feel that may harm you professionally? Should authors try to “specialize”?

FROST: I wouldn’t recommend the genre hopping as a career move. But then I wouldn’t recommend you be slow and methodical, either, in the genres.

Okay, I was having lunch with two contemporary authors a few days ago, Rachel Pastan (LADY OF THE SNAKES) and Asali Solomon (GET DOWN). And Rachel expressed to Asali how prolific I am. I mean, I had two books out last year. I’m now working on what I hope are final revisions of a supernatural mystery. I protested that I’d been working on this thing for 18 months and that was after setting it aside to write LORD TOPHET when Random House picked up SHADOWBRIDGE. And in discussing this, I realized that for a contemporary—let’s say (snootily) literary—author, a decade between books isn’t particularly shocking or unusual. Lord-Tophet_web

Asali’s collection came out a few years ago, and she’s under contract to produce a second book. But nobody’s going mad wondering where it is, and she’s still pondering it. Now, I took seven years probably from beginning to end to write SHADOWBRIDGE, and got nothing but shit about it from reviewers and interviewers. You take that much time in the genres and you’re immediately suspect. There’s this kind of “You’re writing entertainments, so if you took that long there must have been a problem” thing going on. We’re expected to knock out a book a year, in the same mold as the last book. You want a career, you should be doing that. You’re not supposed to be spending years crafting sentences.

Anyway, not answering your questions exactly, am I? Short answer: I write what I feel like writing. Always have. Always will. No, it’s not a smart career move when the industry and fan-base wants volume 18 of the seemingly endless saga of Morgock the Swordbelcher, or the eighth alternate history of some damn war that you haven’t added laser weapons to yet. Truth is, if you can stomach doing that and you’re fast, go do it, because you will definitely see more financial reward. Going off into the dark and changing up every time will likely not do this for you. Especially if you’re slow. But I’m stuck with me and that’s how I am. Contrarian by nature.

Having said that, I do write stories for anthologies that I’m invited to contribute to, provided I can think of something that fits within the proposed theme. But I have to get interested. I turned in a werewolf story for an anthology Darrell Schweitzer put together. But I only did it because I got to write a Donald Westlake werewolf story. And for another anthology of Darrell’s, of vampire stories, I wrote one because it allowed me to create a fifteen minute version of Homer’s The Iliad.

There has to be something to interest me and get me beyond the “oh, great, another vampire book” response, which is invariably my first reaction. TWILIGHT? Oh, please kill me now. (Of course, he said, mine wouldn’t be like that.) Also my response to anything to do with King Arthur, bands of small hairy men on terrible quests, or brutish brooding barbarians. The best King Arthur work since T.H. White was a throwaway piece penned originally as a Christmas card by the late John M. Ford. No one else has even come close. The best barbarian was in Ian Banks’ THE BRIDGE.Shadowbridge-web1

VENTRELLA: What is the basic theme of the SHADOWBRIDGE series? What’s the long term plan for the storyline?

FROST: The basic theme is that the books are and will be all about stories and storytelling. The first two are about Leodora aka “Jax”, who travels the world of Shadowbridge collecting stories and performing them. She sort of finds herself obsessed with learning stories and eventually discovers that her own exploits are becoming mythic, stories are being told of her. And finally her very life depends on knowing one particular story, one particular truth.

I built the world to be open-ended, and part of the first book’s challenge was winnowing down the breadth of possibilities into one large canvas on which creation myths, kitsune tales, stories about Death, and ghost stories could all float. With one exception the stories were written where they showed up. And I have a couple that never found their place, so they’re sitting off in a notebook, raring to be used somewhere, sometime.

VENTRELLA: Not every writing technique works for everyone, but what’s your writing process? Do you use extensive outlines?

FROST: No, not every technique works, and no two people have the same process. So I cannot advocate what I do in the sense of saying “you must do this.” In fact, anyone who says “You must do this” is at best telling you what they must do.

I’ve adopted what I call the John Cleese method of outlining, which sounds like a joke but isn’t. I heard him interviewed, describing how he and Connie Booth had written “Fawlty Towers” episodes by stretching a sheet of butcher’s paper across his living room and then writing the things they knew, or thought they knew, in about the place where that seemed it should happen. Started out with just a few things and then added to it, building a timeline of a sort.

So I have boxes of this old useless pinfeed paper, and I now take five or more sheets of it and do the same thing—write what I think I know, approximately where it seems to belong in the book, and then add to it. Build it up. And once it’s done, I’ll pretty much ignore it and go write. Usually by that point I’ve already done a few scenes or chapters anyway, because something got me interested. For the Shadowbridge books, I had a draft of the final dialogue between Leodora and Tophet done before I’d started the second book or had any notion of how I would arrive at that dialogue.

And about a third of the way into the book, I’ll usually find that the outline is invalid, because something better came along while I was writing and I took a left turn at Albuquerque. So I’ll do another outline as verification that I’ve still got a story going. And then I’ll write forward. And on top of that, I’m writing longhand. With a fountain pen (and Noodler’s Inks). Now, how in the world could I recommend that process to any sane human being?

VENTRELLA: Of which book are you most proud? What would you like to be remembered for?

FROST: Currently, I’d like to be remembered for the Shadowbridge duology and for FITCHER’S BRIDES, which I think was a hellishly good novel of horror. I think I did up Bluebeard pretty well for Terri Windling with that book (I seem destined never to stray very far from Terri’s influence). On the other hand, since joining Facebook and other online communities, I’ve been floored by people who have read TAIN and REMSCELA to the point where the pages are falling apart and claim these are their favorite books in the world. So (to quote Bill Murray), I’ve got that going for me…which is nice. Fitcher-Cover

(Oh, and there’s a limited small-press edition of those books in one volume, by a publisher who went out of business, so if anyone’s still searching for them, get in touch, because I have all the remaining copies…)

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on e-books? Do you think they’re the wave of the future or a step down from traditional publishing?

FROST: It may be the thing that saves us all. My agent swears by her Kindle. I expect Apple will come up with an iNovels reader in the near future (you heard it here first) that tries to do for literature what the iPod did with music. I think we’ll reach the point where bookstores become places that make the book for you on the spot, eliminating the returns and distribution problems that plague this idiotic industry now. Put in your order, get your book in twenty minutes, like a pizza. I think if America wasn’t so pig ignorant we’d be making books from hemp paper now, which would cut costs ridiculously since, you know, it’s a weed that grows almost anywhere, like kudzu. But that would not make timber and paper industries happy, just as alternative energy sources infuriate Big Oil…so until you kill the chuckleheads, it probably won’t happen and you’ll shortly pay $10 for a mass market paperback.

Essentially, I’m for anything that puts books in the hands—and minds—of people, and makes them kill their TVs. Invite me to your house. I’ll kill your TV for you.

VENTRELLA: Tell me about the Liar’s Club and what you hope to accomplish with it. And be sure to let me know when you are accepting applications for other members.

FROST: The Liars Club of Philadelphia is a small collective of authors from across and outside the genres who felt that we could do more to promote ourselves as a collective. The baker’s dozen includes Bram Stoker Award Winner Jonathan Maberry and bestselling author William Lashner. We’ve been doing a “Liars Club Tells the Truth” tour now for about 6 months in and around the Delaware Valley, strictly at libraries and independent bookstores. We’re trying to promote the indies as well as ourselves. When the dinosaurs die (and Borders, I’m talking to you), then our hope is the independents will move back into the spaces that they were squeezed out of by these small-brained leviathans. We’re doing our part to help by throwing bashes at the bookstores and bringing in as many people as we can get. Here’s a link to our latest outing, at Aaron’s Books in Lititz, PA (http://liarsclubphilly.com/?p=189)

The (not so) glamourous life of publishing

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Cross posted on author Christine Weiser’s blog

Tis the season of shameless self-promotion, and I have become the queen. I’ve spent the past three weeks at various readings and signings, and I have to admit, they can be a little strange. Some highlights:

1. The yoga studio in Old City where I shared a space the size of my bathroom with another author, an artist with three enormous prints, and a very friendly dog. I worked the dog to the best of my ability, not exactly denying I was the owner. When it came time to read, the studio pulled in a nice crowd who listened patiently as I read with Marc Schuster, crammed into the wee space, sipping boxed Sangria and inhaling the sweet spice of incense. I sold 1 book.

2. The small cafe in Bridgeton, NJ (turns out Bridgeton is quite far from Philadelphia), where I read with three other authors, most from Philadelphia Stories’ latest anthology. It was freezing and started to snow and the crowd was, well, not exactly a crowd. But, they were very nice. I sold 2 books. I then drove home with one headlight in the snow on a road with no lights.

3. The holiday author event in Emmaus, PA (which is a surprisingly quaint little shopping area). It was too cold to hear young carolers, or light the luminaries, and much too cold to walk from store to store buying books. An old band friend came out with a bouquet of flowers and, although not many people stopped by, we ended up hanging with the very cool owners, Rocky and Renee of At Haven Home Furnishings, and chatting about some very personal things. I sold 2 books.

So, I guess I’m not quitting my day job any time soon. And, yes, the empty rooms can be discouraging. But I have met some interesting people, some strange people, some friendly and some indifferent people. Will they end up in the next book? Maybe. Consider that incentive for the next time you consider attending an author event.