A Different Kind of Beach Read: A Review of Dawn Newton’s THE REMNANTS OF SUMMER

“Know that you will never fall asleep on a beach again.” That’s what I tell would-be mothers when they ask what to expect of motherhood (because the books don’t tell you the half of it). Oh, of course I tell them the good stuff, too: an enlarged heart and sense of purpose and connection with a tiny body-and-soul that needs you like water, like everything.

And grief. To mother is to grieve–even if not actively–to know that one day this little being’s light will be extinguished. And we hope and pray that it happens after our own light is long gone, but we know that it will happen. Motherhood is carrying that knowledge around with us everywhere, while stoking our kids’ lights to make them brighter. To make them last.

In the coming-of-age novel, The Remnants of Summer, debut novelist Dawn Newton plumbs the depths of grief after our 14-year-old protagonist, Iris, falls asleep on the beach while babysitting not her child but her younger brother–who drowns.

“Iris is sinking.” So begins the novel’s summary, and Newton expertly weaves water into grief and redemption throughout this coming-of-age story set in a lakeside, working-class community in the 70s. It is grief-laden, this novel, but it’s also a balm–not only because the author taps into the nostalgia of youth, but because the author taps into the resilience of youth.

My best childhood days were spent at the lake. What better reward for lake-effect snow from December through March (and sometimes April) than summer at the water’s edge? The Remnants of Summer is set not far from Detroit, Michigan, but you’ll find your lakeside town in this story, I promise. You’ll remember the bike rides and trips for ice cream, the fishing and daydreaming. You’ll be reminded of the way the sun turns the rippling lake to sparkles.

Of course there’s a flip side to the idyllic lakeside story. The lake has taken Iris’s little brother the summer before, on Iris’s watch, and now the lake doesn’t shimmer like it always did. Her relationship with this place, her home, has changed; what’s more her relationships with her parents and older sister, Liz, have changed, too. Why won’t they blame her outright for her brother’s death, already? Instead Iris blames herself, over and over, and tries to keep afloat as she works a summer job and gets together with friends–but grief puts a shadow over everything.

Meanwhile, a serial killer has nabbed and killed several children in Michigan. This development is less a plot point than atmosphere–but true-to-history-atmosphere–and not germane to the story, except that it allows for Iris to ruminate on death and guilt outside her family situation. Likewise, she considers those soldiers missing and presumed dead–a neighbor’s cousin is MIA–in the ongoing war in Vietnam. These historical points set the scene, but I admit to wondering if this quiet coming-of-age novel was about to turn into a mystery. And I admit to thinking that a plot thread along those lines, woven through the family saga, might have been a good way to raise the stakes even higher.

When a neighbor’s uncle, a man about twice her age, makes a sexual pass, Iris considers new feelings, and new questions come burbling up: Did she want the attention? To feel special? Was she attracted or scared of him, or both? I was glad for these coming-of-age questions to round out Iris’s character and rescue her from her sinking grief.

I was also glad for the ending, which doesn’t wrap things up too neatly. Anyone who has experienced grief for a lost loved one knows there’s no wrapping it up. Grief ebbs and flows, and you ride it as best you can.

I won’t soon forget Iris. And I won’t soon forget the gorgeous prose the author uses to make this summertime story feel like it was mine for a time–language, characterization, and setting the novel’s strongest elements. One of my favorite passages, describing a summer concert on the water:

“…she told Iris she and her husband lingered around the edges of the circle the boats made in the water, listening for the faint strain of the pitch pipe, then the blend of the rich voices, from bass and baritone to soprano, voices mingling with those of complete strangers from the other side of the lake, in search of the harmony that hung in the air, waiting to be sung.”

How do you define “beach read” and what’s your favorite one? Got a favorite lake? Who writes your favorite settings the best? What are you reading, this week?

Looking for more Rust Belt book reviews, author interviews, and more? Check out my categories above, and find me on my FB page and over at Twitter as @MoonRuark

*Thanks to the folks at Mindbuck Media Book Publicity for sending me a copy of the novel for review! Pre-orders are available now, if you’re interested.

Relationship Status: Reading

A few weeks ago I took a Master Class, online, through the Academy offerings of A Public Space. The focus of the class grabbed me, even before the reputation of the master teacher, Danish author Dorthe Nors.

“Literary companions” was the focus; I was intrigued. The class blurb defined literary companions as “the writers one reads who are essential to one’s own work and writing life.” And, I have to admit, the more I started thinking about my own literary companions, the more I started thinking I might be a little loose, literary-ly.

Dorthe Nors (whose latest short story collection Wild Swims is on my teetering TBR tower) delivered an engaging lecture with a lot of insights into her own long-term literary companions: Ingmar Bergman and Tove Ditlevsen. Nors was also funny–noting that the best literary companions have already made their contributions to the literary world (in that they’re dead).

She posed a few questions to the class through our computer screens. Among them: who were your literary companions as children, as adolescents, in young adulthood, and as emerging or established writers? From an obsession with Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking stories as a little kid, I moved on to Judy Blume. You remember, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, don’t you? In college, I read all the Tom Robbins novels, Jitterbug Perfume, included. But these companions have come and gone, like the phases of life (and like a few terrible boyfriends along the way).

For writers, literary companions, Nors said, can help us find our voice and our material. But literary companions are just as important to avid readers. I bet you’re thinking of your favorite author, right now, aren’t you?

If there’s been an author who I’ve kept close to my side in recent times, as I’ve been working on my latest novel manuscript, it would be Tove Jansson, whom I fawned over here. And I don’t see letting her go any time soon. I admire Jansson for everything my writing is not: minimalist, with a keen eye for life in and of the natural world.

But there’s more to “literary companion” than the “literary” part. Nors’ discussion on the companionship she felt to her special authors–at a time when she felt very much alone, having gained some international fame (and subsequently lost some writing friends)–was very thought-provoking and touching.

And it took me back to why I first gravitated to books–why we all do, probably. At least in part it’s for solace, companionship when we feel friendless, and escape to a place where we feel we belong. And isn’t it glorious when we can escape with a cherished companion?

Do you have a writer or writers you would consider literary companions? What are you reading or writing this week?

Have you taken advantage of the many online offerings of classes–master and otherwise–during the pandemic? Have any good class recommendations for us?

Looking for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above, and find me on my FB page and over at Twitter as @MoonRuark

Writerly advice…for “Wet Winter”

Welp, it’s been more than a minute, hasn’t it? I hope you’re well and reading and writing, if that’s your bag, this “Wet Winter.” Of all the wonderfully descriptive passages I’ve read in so much prose and poetry set in the Rust Belt over these four years of blogging, “Wet Winter” is perhaps the most succinctly and perfectly apt (like the opposite of this very sentence). I don’t know if he coined it, but I’m thanking author Mark Winegardner in his 2001, Cleveland-set novel, Crooked River Burning. As in… there’s Winter, and then there’s Wet Winter. I mean, just because the crocuses are popping up, doesn’t mean we’re not due for another few feet of snow.

Here in Maryland, we’re warmer but mighty wet–a good excuse to stay in and read, research, or write, though it doesn’t always work. I am close to finishing a very exploratory first draft of a new novel manuscript I’m excited about. And because I don’t like to jinx things too much, I’ll just say it’s a dual timeline historical set partly in Northeastern Ohio about the healing power of song.

“Write to your passions” is advice that gets tossed out a lot, but I’m not sure I always followed it. I am, wholeheartedly, with this project (and it certainly does make the research and writing easier!). And, Emily, I feel open to the possibilities…

The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.

Emily Dickinson

This quote jumped out at me today. Because “the ecstatic experience” has various meanings and can allude to experiences of the supernatural–like visions. And isn’t that what we hope to impart in our writing? That we might be guided by “the muse” or inspired by visions so that our readers, eventually, can see what we see? Until the bots figure out how we can get readers to simply read our minds, our creative vision must be put down in words.

Because I’ve been writing about song, I realize my words must also sing.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.

Truman Capote

What are you writing and reading, this “Wet Winter?” Do you have any recommendations for novels inspired by song? (I’m currently reading Caitlin Horrocks’ The Vexations about French composer Erik Satie.) Any poetry to share that just sings?

Looking for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. What’s your favorite writing advice? Comment below or on my FB page. And I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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Part II of my interview with Eliese Colette Goldbach, author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit

In Part I of this interview, Eliese told us a story of the steel mill that didn’t make it into her memoir and about how being a female steelworker helped her find her strength. She talked about hope and despair and holding on through tough times. And she talked about her current work, teaching writing to college students, and about how she shaped the narrative we’re all talking about. If you missed Part I, be sure to catch up, here.

Today, I’m happy to invite the author back. Eliese Colette Goldbach is the author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, published by Flatiron Books in 2020.

Eliese Colette Goldbach, author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit  Photo credit: Cheryl DeBono/Michaelangelos Photography

“…Eliese dreamed of escaping Cleveland and achieving greatness in the convent as a nun.” Instead, as a steelworker at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, she “discovers solace in the tumultuous world of steel, unearthing a love and a need for her hometown she didn’t know existed.” *

Eliese, your debut memoir was published to lots of praise and national attention. One reviewer compared Rust to Hillbilly Elegy. How did that sit with you? How do you come down on the Elegy issue?

There are definitely parallels between Rust and Hillbilly Elegy. They’re Midwestern memoirs—and Ohio memoirs, in particular—and both stories try to capture the spirit of a misunderstood place through the people who inhabit it. I think readers have a lot to learn from any account written by a native-born soul, especially when that soul is writing about “forgotten” places like the Rust Belt and Appalachia, so I don’t begrudge the comparison. I do, however, fear that some of the generalizations and moralizations made in Hillbilly Elegy aren’t as nuanced or productive as they claim to be.

In addition to memoir, you write essays. And I read a hysterically funny piece of dark humor you wrote published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: “An Open Letter to Everyone in the Event of My Likely Demise While Hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Can you tell us what inspired you to write the piece—and where you learned to write funny? Also, can you tell us a little about what you are writing, now?

I’ve always had a little bit of a funny bone buried deep inside. You wouldn’t know it when you meet me. I’m really shy and reserved at first. I smile a lot. I don’t say much. New friends always assume that I’m nice and uncomplicated, but then I’ll land a zinger out of nowhere. People always do a double-take. “Did Eliese really say that? She’s always so quiet!” Humor writing is the perfect way for this unabashed introvert to say something funny. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed clicking through the pages of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. It never fails to make me laugh. When you read enough of something, you kind of internalize the prevailing tone. From there, you can experiment with your writing and go wild.

In truth, though, I have to give my best friend credit for lighting the spark behind this particular piece. I was actually making plans to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail at the time, and my friend and I started joking around about all the things that could go wrong. I’m pretty sure we were mostly talking about bears. “This should be in McSweeney’s,” she said. The rest is history. I immediately set to work writing. I submitted the draft a few days before setting out for Springer Mountain, and I got the acceptance letter while crashing at a hostel in Georgia. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it very far on the trail. I fractured my heel bone, which made walking pretty painful, but at least I have a little humor to show for it!

As far as current projects go, I’m a little leery of jinxing myself. The process of hammering out my next book idea has involved a lot of dead-end drafts. A few months ago, I told people, “I’m writing a book about X!” Then X changed to Y, so I said, “I’m writing a book about Y!” Now Y has changed to Z and I’m all out of sorts. I’m hoping that Z will stick, but I don’t want to press my luck. We’ll just say that the next book will likely involve a lot of research, although it’ll still be grounded in my personal experience.   

For us avid readers, could you give us some recommendations? A few recent favorites from authors in the Cleveland area or beyond? A memoir? Creative nonfiction? A novel or story collection? Poetry?

Admittedly, I’ve been diving deep into the research component of “Book Project Z” lately. Most of the reading material on my nightstand is pretty old-fashioned. St. Augustine. Emile Durkheim. David Hume. I’ve also been immersed in A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, which is both riveting and gut-wrenching. I strongly recommend it. When it comes to all-time favorites, I always mention the work of David Giffels. Barnstorming Ohio was an absolute pleasure. Another must-read. And I have to give a shout out to poet Damien McClendon. We both read at an event a few months back, and I was just so taken with his words. Have you ever felt sapped as a writer? Maybe the inspiration has run dry.

Maybe the ideas aren’t flowing. Maybe the cursor on the computer screen fills you with dread. Then, all of a sudden, you hear another writer create something beautiful with language and you feel like you can keep going.

That’s what Damien McClendon’s poetry did for me. I was slogging through my writing at the time, and his words gave me a much-needed dose of inspiration.

Of course, this is a reading and writing blog, Eliese, but we need fuel to do both. Also, I’m always longing for food from home. So, what’s a hometown food you can’t live without?

Definitely pierogis! With lots of sour cream!

*Quotes from the book jacket copy

~~~

Thank you again to Eliese Colette Goldbach.

Be sure to check out the author’s website, and don’t forget to purchase her book–and let me know how much you love it!

Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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Part I of my interview with Eliese Colette Goldbach, author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit

Eliese Colette Goldbach, author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit  Photo credit: Cheryl DeBono/Michaelangelos Photography

“Eliese dreamed of escaping Cleveland and achieving greatness in the convent as a nun.” Instead, as a steelworker at ArcelorMittal Cleveland, she “discovers solace in the tumultuous world of steel, unearthing a love and a need for her hometown she didn’t know existed.” *

Rebecca here, so thrilled to share this author interview with you! A little backstory first: several years ago, when I was interviewing author David Giffels about his memoir, Furnishing Eternity: A Father, a Son, a Coffin, and a Measure of Life, he told me about a writer to watch, a young woman who worked in Cleveland’s gargantuan steel mill. Actually he called her a “Cleveland steelworker-slash-amazing literary star.” Growing up in the Cleveland area, I knew of the steel mill, its flare stack’s tall orange flame a potent symbol of Cleveland industry–and grit. And I’d read steelworkers’ stories. But never one by a woman. My interest was piqued.

Reader, Eliese’s memoir exceeded my high expectations, balancing harrowing tales of hard times, hard work, and hard-won revelations with gorgeous, lyrical prose.

Meet Eliese: Eliese Colette Goldbach is the author of Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, published by Flatiron Books in 2020. Rust is the author’s debut memoir. The award-winning writer now works at John Carroll University in Cleveland, where she lives with her husband.

*Trigger warning: this interview contains a mention of sexual assault

Eliese, place is so central to the story you tell in this memoir. And you give your reader access to a place most of us will never know as an insider: Cleveland’s nearly 950-acre steel mill. As a steelworker there, your personal story got wrapped up with the story of the mill. Is there a story that didn’t make it into the book you could tell us?

There were so many stories that never made it to the pages of Rust. I worked in a wide variety of jobs during my tenure at the steel mill, and I probably could have written a book about each one. I learned to put rocks into giant receptacles in a dusty place called The Bin Floor. I spent some time as a “Rough Rider” in the Basic Oxygen Furnace, where the molten steel was made. Every day, I hopped into a tow motor and whizzed around the mill, replenishing the raw materials that were used in the process. I even did a brief stint as a crane operator in the Hot Mill, where glowing slabs of steel were pressed into sheets. It was one of the most interesting—and terrifying—jobs I had ever worked. You spend your hours in a tiny box that smells like body odor. There’s a wonky captain’s chair in the middle of the space, and the walls are covered in a yellowish substance that rubs off on your fingers when you touch it. I later learned that you shouldn’t touch the mystery substance. It’s the sticky accumulation of everyone else’s nicotine tar.

On one of my first nights flying solo behind the controls of the crane, I had a rather frightening experience. A mechanic asked me to move a three-hundred-ton contraption to the other side of the building. At first, I protested. My crane was only rated to lift one-hundred tons, but the man brushed off my concerns. He told me that the three-hundred-ton thing was rigged up to a bunch of pulleys and levers that would supposedly lighten the load, so I conjured up vague images from high school physics class and told myself that everything would be fine. Famous last words, right?

When I started working the gears and levers necessary to move this three-hundred-ton thing, it barely budged. My crane, on the other hand, started to struggle immediately. The gears were grinding. The motor was moaning. I could feel the whole crane begin to buckle in the middle, which wasn’t good. Keep in mind, this crane weighed as much as a blue whale—it was beyond huge—and the mechanic who had asked me to move the three-hundred-ton thing was on the ground, directly below the crane. He was right in harm’s way, and I was still pretty green as a crane operator. I knew that I needed to stop what I was doing, but I didn’t react fast enough. Right before I eased off of the controls, something snapped. Metal twisted and pinged. The hook of the crane went flying. All I could think about was the man on the ground below me.

When everything settled, I opened my window and called down to him. Thankfully, he was okay. The pulleys that were attached to the contraption had shattered—and huge shards of metal had shot off in all directions like gigantic bullets—but luckily the renegade pieces hadn’t hit him. Disaster was avoided, and I whispered a prayer of relief. But the experience shook me. The mill never stopped reminding you of its dangers.

View of downtown Cleveland from the steel mill

You write, “This place [the steel mill] never failed to remind me that power is double-pronged. The very forces that could rip everything apart were the same ones that tempered something strong and resilient…” Would you say being a female steelworker helped you find your own power—in and out of the mill? How?

I definitely learned a lot about my own strength in the steel mill. It wasn’t always easy being a woman in the mill. There were many subtle (and not-so-subtle) displays of sexism, and I really think that the experience taught me to be more assertive when I saw something that went against my values. I also found a vibrant community of other women in the mill, which reminded me of what we can accomplish together, and the strange jobs I performed gave me a sense of self-assurance that extended into other areas of my life. If you can run a hulking crane for twelve hours a day, then you can manage just about anything. When I think back on my time at the mill, however, I know that one of the most important things it gave me was a respectable paycheck. They say that money doesn’t buy happiness, but I don’t necessarily agree. Making a good living can give you confidence and security and independence. It can provide you with opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have, and it felt especially good to know that I was working in a field where men and women were paid the same.

Your having grown up as a Catholic school kid, aspiring nun to steelworker was quite a change in career trajectory. Like many children, you aspired to greatness, to being known for making a difference. You write, “…the religious life seemed to be the only vocation worthy of its power.” Today, your chosen vocation is teaching. Can you tell us what you love to teach the most? What you like to impart to your students—about writing about place, itself, or writing about their place in the world?

I love teaching the nuts-and-bolts to beginning writers. It doesn’t matter if we’re working with academic essays or creative pieces. I like showing students the beauty of a well-crafted scene, a tight bit of dialogue, or a perfectly-wrought thesis statement. I also enjoy giving feedback to students at all levels. It’s so much fun to dive into a piece of writing in the hopes of offering encouragement and constructive criticism, and it’s even more fun to watch students implement those suggestions in revision. Overall, I think the biggest thing that I’d like my students to take away from class is a sense of self-efficacy and personal power. Writing gives us the ability to create meaning and empathy and wonder. It allows us to see our surroundings in a new light. It helps us understand the roles we play within those surroundings, and it gives us the opportunity to reach audiences that we may never meet in person. I want my students to understand just how influential the written word can be, and I also want them to feel capable of putting their unique stories down on the page.     

Your own college experience was shattered when you were raped by a classmate, after which point you were diagnosed with mixed-state bipolar disorder. You talk in the book about the rape taking away your faith. Yet, your book is filled with the language of religion, images both harrowing and redemptive. How, as a writer, do you sit with such seemingly disparate aspects of life, including faith in humanity and utter distrust in the same? And what do you hope the story of your mental health journey does for readers?

The most interesting stories are always the ones that let contradictions breathe. Nothing in life is as simple as we’d like it to be, and the core of good writing lies in those moments of ambiguity when something raw and gritty and human is revealed. Lately I’ve been going over a lot of old books that I read back in college, and I happened to re-familiarize myself with the pages of Plato’s Phaedo the other day. I can’t help but be reminded of this great line: “What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be the opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. And yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other, like two creatures with one head.” I just love that image. Two creatures with one head. I think it relates to so much more than just pleasure and pain.

You can’t have faith in humanity if you don’t also doubt its goodness. You can’t have hope if you don’t also invite despair. And I’m talking about real hope here, not the cockeyed optimist kind that’s divorced from reality. Real hope has an axe to grind. Real hope has bloody knuckles. I like to think that’s a lesson I’ve learned from living with bipolar disorder. I’ve struggled through the bleakest kinds of despair, but those moments were never the ones that scared me. Despair is just hope earning its stripes. It can always come around the bend. The true enemy doesn’t seem to have a name. You might call it emptiness, or perhaps apathy, but it isn’t really either of those things. It’s this sensation you get when you’re content with a blackness that has not bottom. You feel like a shadow that can no longer be stitched to a body. There’s no despair, no emotion, no longing. It’s a frightening place to be, and I hope that my story can speak to anyone who’s grappling with that place now. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.

Take it from a kindred soul: It’s possible to survive. Just hold onto something and don’t let go.

Eliese, as I read your memoir, I kept forgetting it wasn’t a novel, because all the tension and suspense I expect in a good novel were there, keeping me feverishly turning pages. In addition to your story as a steelworker reclaiming your home and yourself after much struggle, there is also a compelling and very real love story here. For us writers, can you talk about how you decided to structure your memoir—if you set out to structure it like a novel?

Structure is the thing I struggle with most as a writer. I’m still traumatized by my 5th grade English class, when the teacher called on me to answer a simple question: “What’s the climax of Where the Red Fern Grows?” I froze. My mind went blank. My palms got sweaty. The whole class was staring at me, but I just shrugged my shoulders. In my mind, there were a thousand tiny climactic moments throughout the novel. How could I possibly pick one? Even now, I’m always overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of structure. You can use the same material to tell a million different stories, and sometimes I want to tell all of those stories at the same time. As such, I inevitably cycle through a lot of failed drafts to figure out the structure that fits the material best.

With Rust, I experimented with everything. I tried making it an essay. I tried making it a chapbook of prose poems. I played around with footnotes. I wrote a pretty long and miserable draft that incorporated tons of research about irony. There’s even a notebook in the back of my closet that contains a feeble attempt to imitate Anne Carson’s Nox. Those drafts took a lot of time and energy, but they gave me a little distance from the lived experience of the steel mill. As a nonfiction writer, it can be difficult to see the shape of a story when you’re still living parts of that story in your daily life. Most of Rust was written while I was still employed as a steelworker, which made it difficult to see where the book needed to end. I kept wanting to add more anecdotes. I kept wanting to change the climax. Luckily, I had an awesome editor and an amazing agent who helped to usher me in the right direction. And once I was able to take a step back and analyze everything I’d written, I realized that a novel-like arc already existed inside the material. From there, the structure settled into place. Sometimes it takes time and revision (and lots of feedback from trusted friends) to discover something’s shape.

*Quotes from the book jacket copy; all images used with permission of the author

Stay tuned for Part II of my interview with Eliese Colette Goldbach, coming soon…

In the meantime, check out the author’s website, and don’t forget to purchase her book–and let me know how much you love it!

Like this interview? Comment below or on my FB page. And please share with your friends and social network. Want more author interviews, book reviews, writing advice, and general Rust Belt goodness? Follow me here. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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The “us” in “writing life”–yeah, let’s go with that

A few years ago, while organizing my computer desktop, I changed a folder name. I know, I know, riveting inciting action, right? But stick with me.

I changed the name of that folder from “PR”–forgive me, I’m a marketing professional–to “Writing in Community.” There was little in that folder at that point, but I was starting to get out there, as in sitting on a panel and doing a reading at a literary conference, and figured I should be organized about it. Out there meant knowing there is a public side to writing and publishing that this introvert would have to get used to.

That folder grew when a publishing opportunity turned into an editing opportunity, and I started working for a literary magazine–and working with dozens of writers, so far. For some, I interviewed them about their new books; for others, I served as book reviewer; and for still others, I helped hone essays that got their stories, you know, out there.

There are lots of platitudes like: the best gift to yourself is to give of yourself; there is no “us” without “u,” I don’t know. So, insert your favorite one here. We bloggers know that connection with community is everything; it just took me a while to think of the writing life–one that’s often depicted as solitary and broody–in just the same way.

And that “Writing in Community” folder keeps growing: writing groups and beta readers live in that folder, as do notes on classes, conferences, and group retreats (again, someday!)–a whole lot of writing “us.” Recently, I was asked if I wanted to serve on the planning committee for my favorite literary festival, and of course I said yes.

So, here’s where the magic happens, where our folders could hang out together. Even better, we could hang out together–do all the writerly stuff, like in actual person! It’s two days of readings, craft talks, and panel discussions. In other words: writerly nirvana!

Here’s the pitch: Are you–or do you know–a terrific writer, reader, teacher, lit community organizer, or publisher? Please help me spread this call for proposals for Lit Youngstown’s 5th Annual Fall Literary Festival, with the theme of “Our Shared Story,” to be held in Youngstown, Ohio, October 7 – 9, 2021. Simply share the link with your literary-type friends (on social media, over email, on your blog) anywhere in the vicinity of Youngstown–which is halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

One last thing: read carefully, my gracious, frequent followers, and note the visiting writers at this year’s conference. (You see what I mean about good things coming to those writers who commune!?)

Lit Youngstown’s 5th Annual Fall Literary Festival
October 7-9, 2021
Youngstown, Ohio
Conference Theme: “Our Shared Story”
Visiting Writers: Ross Gay, Jan Beatty, Bonnie Proudfoot & Mike Geither

Weird Year Revisited: A 2020 Rust Belt Girl Roundup

[Read in your most guilt-laden “Mom” voice] “Oh, 2020. It’s not that we’re mad; we’re just disappointed and maybe a little sad.”

Scratch that, of course we’re mad, too. But rather than stew, let’s do the old superlative list to close out this dumpster fire year. It was a weird one here at the blog, but I’d say that’s par for the course.

2020 Most Viewed Post (heretofore known as MVP): Violence and Ascendance in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, likely owing to the fact that the popular Italian novelist had a very good year, releasing The Lying Life of Adults in the fall.

2020 Most Liked (you know, the popular girl): On *Not* Writing (with thanks to Stephen King) garnered 112 likes, so it seems I wasn’t the only one who was finding it hard to put pen to paper, this summer.

2020 Surprise Finisher (the scrappy underdog): for being a bummer of a post, The Dead Mom Club…and other lessons in grief got quite a bit of traction (172 views and 63 likes)–though I wish it hadn’t. Next year, let’s plan for “lessons in joy,” shall we?

Special shout-out to the WordPress Editors, who brought back WordPress Discover Prompts for the month of April. The one-word prompts helped me chronicle my family’s isolation at the beginning of the pandemic and also helped me connect with other bloggers–now friends. My most-viewed: my response to Day 2’s prompt, open: Open…water, heart, art

Top author interview was my 2020 two-parter with Sonja Livingston, Rochester NY native and award-winning memoirist. In addition to being a fantastic interview subject, Livingston’s latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions Into Devotion, was top on my list of favorite nonfiction reads, this year.

Top book review was my 2020 review of Pittsburgh-area native Margo Orlando Littell’s second novel, A Distance from Four Points. Telling a beautiful mother-daughter story, the setting of post-coal country, Pennsylvania, adds a gritty realness that makes this book a standout. Also, among the prettiest book covers of 2020, for sure!

Reading superlatives: I read more in translation in 2020 than any other blog year (there have been 4), concentrating on Moomin-famous Tove Jansson, whose literature for adults informs my current WIP, set partly in Finland. Favorite novel this year: Shiner by Amy Jo Burns. Favorite backlist novels: a three-way tie (I know, I’m pretty terrible at superlatives) between (the very different) The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent; The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling; and The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, which I read with a book club. Favorite memoir: Rust: a memoir of steel and grit by ElieseColette Goldbach. As for poetry, I haven’t been reading many collections, but I have been getting good daily doses over at Parhelion. Poet Clay Matthews, especially, drew me in.

In other creative writing and editing news: I backburner-ed one novel in favor of concentrating on the new one (55K into draft 1–so I’m beginning to see the light). I’ll have exciting news from short story land early in the new year (woot!). And I’ve been trying my hand at a little essay writing, which has been a nice change. (I keep my About page up to date with my published pieces, if you’re interested.)

I was promoted to associate editor at Parhelion Literary Magazine, where I’m also the features editor. I was proud to help introduce 15 features to the world, including one by fellow blogger, Lani V. Cox, and a few I wrote myself. Not to mention three issues of the magazine, including the latest holiday issue, which has some fantastic fiction, flash, CNF, and poetry for your holiday enjoyment.

One of my fellow bloggers, over at You Can Always Start Now, is doing a #2021wordchallenge, and without really thinking about it, I lit on my word: still. Of course, there’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, “Still, still, still,” which might have been running through my head at the time. But more than that, “still” is a word of resilience. I’m still here, still writing and connecting. Which makes “still” a kind of promise. And then there’s the act of being still–of inviting silence and space for inspiration and creativity, whatever that looks like that day. I want more of that.

I wish for more of that–stillness in all its forms–for both of us, in 2021.

Meet me there.

~Rebecca

Interested in more Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Start here. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

*Header photo by Tairon Fernandez on Pexels.com

Memoir as Love Story

My best friend in college was devoted to romance novels. While I was busy analyzing Moby Dick and Their Eyes Were Watching God for American Lit., she was deep into Harlequin Romance territory. I don’t really know if they were Harlequins–I’d only flip through one occasionally, looking for the juicy parts–but I do know they could be purchased, and cheaply, at Walmart.

Other girls headed out to parties (we did that sometimes, too), but plenty of Friday nights would find us at Walmart, hunting for my friend’s next love story near the checkout lines. I can understand(ish) the appeal of the stories. I love love. Though I’ve never been drawn to read–or even watch–what we typically think of as love stories. (Embarrassing fact: this American woman right here has yet to ingest a sugary Hallmark Christmas movie. Will meet-cute elude me again this year?)

In my MFA program in fiction, we did have to write a piece of erotica, but that’s just the juicy parts, and not necessarily a love story. We writers in the literary vein do hear, often, that our stories are depressing. They are about love, of course. But they’re often also about loss and longing, and maybe redemption provides some resolution. But literary stories usually don’t conclude with a syrupy, happily-ever-after kiss staged in a small-town gazebo where the shy but hunky townie in a flannel shirt embraces the big city girl with the sharp tongue and even sharper stilettos–in gently falling snow. Unless maybe it’s satire.

Of course, there’s much more to love stories–real and imagined–than romantic love. You remember: philía, éros, and agápe, or brotherly or sisterly love, romantic love, and unconditional love. And while we might not think of the memoir as a genre of love stories, I argue that it is just that.

I hadn’t read much memoir before starting this blog four years ago. But blogging is good training in writing (and reading) mini memoirs. And my mission to delve into the literature of my native Rust Belt place led me to more memoirs than I could count (or read or review, but I try!).

They are different, all the memoirs I’ve discussed here at the blog, but each and every one is a love story:

Oh, hey, why not start with the controversial guy? I was so confounded by Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (and adapted to film recently, to, shall we say, mixed reviews?) I noted right here, in the early-blog days, that I read it, but I didn’t review it. I’m sure on a second pass, I would find what I found on the first read: in a failed attempt to understand the people (and not just demographic statistics) of his native place, J.D. Vance fell in love with himself in this memoir, and not in a self-actualizing, come-to-Jesus kind of way; but in a self-aggrandizing, come-to-J.D. kind of way.

On the other end of things, David Giffels is a writer who is incredibly in tune with the place he comes from–and his place in it. So much so that The New York Times called him “the bard of Akron”–Akron being Ohio’s “Rubber City,” for, ahem, rubber and tire manufacturing, a la Goodyear. Through his essays, including those in The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, David falls in love with his hometown over and over. In memoir, including his All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House and Furnishing Eternity, he lets us readers share in his complicated and often funny family life–and love.

In Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood (no relation, except as inspiration for my blog name!), Paul Hertneky’s stories of childhood and young adulthood in steel-country Pennsylvania give the reader a glimpse into “America’s blue-collar heart.” In delving into his personal past, the memoirist allows us to explore the roots of the author and the roots of the Rust Belt’s industrial rise and fall–and fall in love with a storied American past.

Amy Jo Burns’ Cinderland is a coming of age memoir in which the memoirist invites the reader into a burning secret of her past, childhood abuse that caused her pain and grief. In her essays, too, the author delves into the false notion of the female as “a body for consumption.” As I’ve come to know Amy Jo, more, through her writing and online conversation–I see her work in memoir as getting to the burning heart of self-love as first love. (And if you haven’t read Amy Jo’s novel, Shiner, one of my favorite books of the year, what are you waiting for?)

In Sonja Livingston’s memoirs and essays, the author lets us in on her journey of the spirit. It comes down to faith–not doctrinal, but “raw” faith, the faith that draws us forward from the heart into the unknown. In Ghostbread, the author lovingly revisits her childhood, growing up in poverty in Rochester, New York. In The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, she undergoes an external journey to find the missing statue of the Virgin Mary from her childhood parish; at the same time, she looks inward, as many of us (try to) do at this time of year, especially. The love of the journey is palpable–sensual and real–in all this writer’s works.

Which brings me to my current read. Eliese Colette Goldbach’s Rust is a memoir of an unlikely Cleveland steelworker, who comes to reclaim the hometown she’d always meant to leave behind. It’s also a memoir exploring the female body politic–writ large on society and small on one woman, struggling to find hope. I won’t spoil it, because I’m hoping Eliese will talk with us here at the blog. But this memoir is a love story if I’ve ever read one.

So, tell me, what’s your favorite love story? What’s your favorite memoir? Do you write memoir, yourself? Share in the comments. I love to get a good discussion going!

Interested in more Rust Belt author interviews? See here. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

Not small, but intimate…

Not sprawling, but curated. It’s all in the language, right? I mean, if anyone can, we word nerds can make this Thanksgiving sound pretty good.

Thanksgiving 2020 might look different, but there’s still a lot to be thankful for. Yes, really.

You, for one. You, especially, all 1,553 of my followers (from 98 different countries). I mean, were you lost? But, really, thank you for joining me, as I read and write the Rust Belt and far (far) beyond. Your comments—and friendships—are so valuable to me, especially this weird year.

While not surprising, I was struck by the fact that one of my non-writerly posts was among my most viewed, this year. The Dead Mom Club…and other lessons in grief was my way to reach across the blogosphere with a memory and a listening ear. Words can’t heal, not really, but they can offer solace and togetherness, even if virtual. I mean, we bloggers know that well. We bloggers were made for these pandemic days. But, really, I think we’ve had enough now. Right?

2020, while an underachiever by any standards, was a big year for new reads, and marked my introduction to Italy’s Elena Ferrante (and many other American readers’ introduction, I’m guessing). Which led me to Domenico Starnone. Which led me to more great literature in translation, that of Finland’s late, great Tove Jansson.

Thanks to the WordPress editors for bringing back Discover Prompts for the month of April. The one-word prompts, like “open” and “song,” were the inspiration I needed to ruminate on the fear, isolation, and (tender, if forced) togetherness of those early pandemic days.

Author and professor Sonja Livingston, who writes about her Rochester, NY, home and searching faith, was kind enough to join me, in May, for an interview, in two parts, where we discussed her latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion. Any of her books, really, are a balm–and I highly recommend them.

In June, I reviewed Rust Belt-set The Distance from Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell, a book that answers the age-old question: can you really go home again? Reader, you can, but home might surprise you.

Wherever you find yourself at home this Thanksgiving (or this November 26th for the rest of you wonderful people), here’s wishing you a good word or two, a happy song, a note of thanks, and peace.

Got some time? Interested in more author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Also find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

a bit of writerly advice for October 29, 2020…

Writing-and-reading is a reciprocal relationship. Of course this is true, if I sometimes forget it, as I write. Bestselling American author and comedian David Sedaris makes it plain:

Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it’s just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.

David Sedaris

And don’t we love those books the most? The ones that invite us to bring our “stuff” to the narrative? To bring our anxieties and passions, our joys and fears? How else to truly connect with story, if we don’t add ourselves to the mix?

I recently finished Tove Jansson’s (autobiographical) novel, Fair Play. (Yes, my Jansson fascination continues.) Those who have read any Jansson will not be surprised that it is a quiet story–a story of two women, partners in life and art–that feels incredibly brave at the same time it is a meditation.

Written in short chapters accumulating in just 100 pages, the reader watches the artists–one woman is a writer, one a visual artist–go about their daily lives of work and play, as the two remain open always to creative possibilities. Yes, there are arguments and bickering; they don’t always agree on their art or their life’s comings and goings. But the space they give each other to be the artists–and humans–they need to be, is more touching (and romantic, really) than any standard-fare romance could be for me.

The space to create is at the heart of this engaging read–and I’m going to hold onto that feeling as I write. Readers aren’t a byproduct of writing; they’re partners in it. They are a vital part of the creation.

Which is why community–no matter your art–is so important. Thank you for being here!

What are you reading? What are you writing this week?

Did you read any of Jansson’s famous Moomin books for children, when you were a child? Have you seen the trailer for the first full-length film based on Jansson’s life?

Interested in author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my handy-dandy categories, above. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

*Free header image courtesy of KathrynMaloney at Pixabay.com