AWP22 Debrief: What you want to know and plenty you don’t about the year’s biggest lit conference

Another AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) is in the books, and I figured a recap was a good way to share–and learn from–our lit conference experiences. (Yes, even the mortifying ones!) Some to-do’s and not to-do’s follow. Did you attend AWP in Philly? Have you attended past AWPs? Have you attended other literary conferences? What’s your take?

In Philadelphia for #AWP22. Name that gorgeous landmark, and…go.

Be Prepared (and also flexible)

I’m a bit of a planner, so I built my ideal AWP schedule out of the myriad panels and readings (and one very cool makerspace) I could potentially attend over the 3+ days. However, I underestimated the gargantuan size of the convention center where the conference was held. Sometimes proximity won out and I didn’t follow my schedule. Sometimes the meeting rooms were already packed. In the end, my highlights were “The Wick Poetry Center’s Traveling Stanzas Makerspace,” an interactive exhibit using digital expressive writing tools; “Strike a Chord: The Lyric Essay Forms of A Harp in the Stars; and “Opening & Growing: Adapting & Sustaining a Literary Magazine in the 2020s,” put on by the awesome editorial team over at Typehouse Magazine.

Allow for surprises, is what I’m saying–and for plenty of time to wander around the book fair, especially the last day, when book prices drop.

Also, as with the rest of life, pack so you can dress in layers.

Plan Your Pitch

AWP is not a pitch wars sort of environment; however there are always some literary agents in attendance. I didn’t meet up with any–though I did have a pitch ready for my current novel (along with a few copies of my query letter, just in case). That preparation came in handy, when answering fellow writers who wondered what my book was about. Also, on my car ride to the conference, I worked up elevator pitches for my other roles–that of an editor and a blogger. If you’re an outgoing sort, you might be great on the fly, but for the rest of us, preparation is key.

And if you can share your business card with someone you’re first meeting, that’s a nice conclusion to your pitch. I gave out quite a few cards for my gig over at Parhelion Literary Magazine and received a few cards from writers with new books out. (The cards are in portrait alignment and feature their book covers–really nice.)

Bring Your books

When you go to AWP, you know you’re going to be hauling home a million books from the book fair (which is also gargantuan). Novelist Matt Bell (who has a great newsletter) had a great tip: since most convention centers have a UPS Store, you can box your books up and send them home to arrive shortly after you unpack. But, you should also remember to bring books with you that you want to get signed. (I am that sort of nerdy reader!) In this tenuous environment, who knows when you will get another chance to have your favorite author autograph your well-loved copy?

NOT bringing my laptop (a first for me–yes, one can use an automatic vacation reply even if they’re a freelancer) left a little more room in my suitcase for books–win-win.

Build in Time for off-site meet-ups

And also naps. Really, for my money, the meet-ups at AWP are where it’s at. I roomed with a couple friends from my MFA program, so mini-reunion! We connected with other program friends and friends of friends at off-site readings and meetings, where we got a taste of the city (figuratively and literally, in the way of some great tacos, Chinese pork belly soup, pho, pupusas, and Lebanese food–but no cheesesteak somehow!)

There’s a lot you can discuss and plan over lunch with a writer friend that you might not get to over email or Zoom–so, skip that panel and go to lunch, is what I’m saying.

Know Your Hosts

I share this literary cautionary tale with you so you don’t have to endure the embarrassment I did. I attended an on-site dinner, because I judged an AWP contest, and while I knew the contest program director, I didn’t know who was throwing the dinner. I arrived before the meal was served, by myself–so already there were butterflies–and was seated at a table with no one I knew. In desperation, I pulled out my phone and texted my husband. His (extroverted) reply was to say anything, talk about Rufus, our dog. I talked very little, until someone at my table approached me and introduced herself… and this is where it gets interesting.

We meet, and she turns to the woman next to her and says that of course (of course!) I recognize this second woman. Reader, I do not, and I say as much. So, of course, this is the executive director of the whole AWP shebang, and I turn to stone right then and there: A monument to ill-preparedness that will stand forever in the downtown Philly Marriott.

Really, they were lovely table companions and I hope I was, in turn. (Also, the clam chowder was amazing!). And once we all sat, I chatted with the women on either side of me: one was from New Mexico by way of Ireland, and so we had Ballykissangel and more to discuss; and the other was a twin mom from the Midwest who is a choral singer when she’s not working or writing–so we didn’t lack for conversation either.

Now, it’s your turn. Hit me with all your do’s and not to-do’s of literary conferencing–or any kind of conferencing, really! And name the gorgeous building in that photo above, because I can’t! Also, when will AWP hit the Rust Belt? This blogger wants to know!

Hankering for my latest Rust Belt interviewsbook reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a post or more unsolicited advice. And now, a nap. ~ Rebecca

Read what you love … and other writing advice

I’ve been reading Francine Prose’s What to Read and Why, a dictatorial-sounding title, true, but a great book to explore the craft of reading. (I’m late to this one, published in 2018, as I am late to most things.)

Wait a minute, you say. Reading’s a craft now? Can’t I just read what I love? Of course, I say, and I’m sure Francine would agree. But if we’re reading for sport–that is reading to improve our writing or even ourselves–she is here for us. That is, this book–a compilation of essays responding to various works of literature–is a tool to employ to help us on our writing journeys. I especially enjoyed Prose’s essay in response to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, her essay on Jane Austen (I, embarrassingly, only recently read Pride and Prejudice for the first time), and her essay titled “Lolita, Just the Dirty Parts: On the Erotic and Pornographic,” (in case you like your Valentine’s Day reading on the saucy side.)

From that last essay on a novel I loved (for all kinds of writerly reasons–like fun play with an unreliable narrator) I especially liked her discussion on what’s been lost in how we think about “Eros and erotic, words that have always included the sexual but have also suggested the mysterious…connection between sex and life, between sex and pleasure, between the origin of life and the celebration of life…”

My guess is Lolita is a contender for the top spot in the latest rash of books to be banned and even burned…maybe partly due to limited understanding of Eros. I’m also guessing that many who would wish to rid the world of Lolita haven’t read it–“a work of art” that functions not to arouse the reader but to “deepen our well of compassion and sympathy.”

My quick take: I read what I love and leave the books I don’t love for others to consider. And in reading what I love I absorb the best of it as lessons to write well.

One delightful effect of my being between revisions of my WIP is that I have ample time to read. Add to that the fact that I’m not yet querying agents for my WIP, which means my reading time isn’t eaten up by searching for comps (comparative titles), and I am really reading what I love.

My TBR keeps climbing to the ceiling, but in addition to Prose’s craft book, I’m also reading Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds, based on her short story by the same name. (I highly recommend her collection if you are a short story fan.)

In nonfiction, I’m currently reading Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact by Phil Chan with Michelle Chase, about Asian representation in classical ballet. I heard Chan speak on a West Virginia University webinar, and this former dancer (me) was enthralled.

So, tell me, what are your Valentine’s Day reads? Are you knocking on Eros’s door for the holiday? Reading short stories or a novel? What’s the best nonfiction book you’ve picked up lately? Any of my current reads appeal to you?

Hankering for my latest Rust Belt interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post or more unsolicited advice. Thanks for reading, and Happy Valentine’s Day! ~Rebecca

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Not a post about a Christmas cookie

This is a post about a community Christmas cookie.

***

Bear with me, and hello! Happiest of holiday seasons to you and yours!

And back to the aforementioned cookie…

It was Christmas Eve Eve, and I’d waited too long to secure anise seed, a necessary ingredient in my favorite Christmas cookie, one I make religiously, each and every year: German Springerle.

I visited four stores on my search for the elusive, black licorice-scented seed and found none. I lamented supply chain issues and the state of commerce in particular and the world in general. But not for long, because Christmas.

In a last ditch attempt to keep my cookie tradition alive, my husband suggested I ask for anise seed on our village’s FB page. Within the hour, I had offers of fennel seed and star anise–the latter of which I believed just might work.

Because this is not a baking blog (you’re welcome), I won’t bore you with the recipe–unless you want it (I don’t believe in secret recipes). But suffice it to say the cookie turned out great with the substitution. Yes, it takes a village.

You probably have your own community cookie story. Maybe it’s an actual cookie. Maybe it’s something a little more poignant.

As Epiphany approaches, the Wise Men in our nativity set inch closer to the scene. These smart guys (rightly) get a lot of press. They brought pretty important ingredients to that out-of-the-way stable.

Our nativity set also features some more colorful comers–a rough-looking fellow bringing a chicken and eggs; a woman bringing several loaves of bread balanced on her head; a drummer and a bagpiper bringing the tunes.

Me, I’ve been bringing the music, this year, my first full year as a cantor at my Catholic parish and for weddings and funerals. And this singing way of things has found its way into my home-life (working on a Von Trapp vibe over here!) and my writing-life. In my novel-in-progress I ask: Can our songs save us? And in my recent nonfiction, I try to bring my voice closer to my heart.

If you know me out on Twitter–land of snark–you’ll know that in addition to cookies, I am the one who brings the shrimp ring to a party. (My Midwestern child-self would be duly impressed.) Snark aside, I try to do my small part at a time when it seems we’re all pulled apart, party-less.

Because, we can’t make all the good stuff entirely on our own. It takes community.

Community is why I started this blog way back in 2017. And it’s why I will continue to hype the poets and writers and literary-scene-makers of the Rust Belt in 2022.

If you haven’t yet checked out some of my favorite posts of this year, I hope you will. Among them: my interview with former steelworker and memoirist Eliese Colette Goldbach, author of Rust; and my interview with poet and memoirist Robert Miltner, author of Ohio Apertures: A Lyric Memoir. Many, many thanks go to those on the answering end of my queries.

2021 Rust Belt Girl blog superlatives? I’ve got those! 3,232 visitors hailing from 78 countries–not bad for a blog that reveres the regional.

My most viewed post (once again) is my gush-fest about Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. (Have you read his new novel? On my TBR.)

My review of Michigander Dawn Newton’s The Remnants of Summer came up second.

My most-viewed interview this year was that with Cleveland native poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, whom I got to meet in person–and even break bread with–at Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival in October. A festival I helped to plan, along with so many other members of that literary community.

The literary world just recently lost Joan Didion. The places she wrote about and from are not my places. But she has a lot to teach us about writing about place. I’m taking this quote of hers into 2022 as inspiration:

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.

Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979

Whatever place you’re shaping, whatever community you belong to, thank you for being here.

All the best in 2022, stay well, and keep in touch!

Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. ~Rebecca

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Poet for a weekend, and other literary festival miracles

I am not a poet, though some of my prose has aspirations. However, if writing is about invention–and re-invention–maybe my prose knows something I don’t.

How glorious to reinvent ourselves through our writing, over and over, on the page (or screen). I do find invention the most exciting part of being a fiction writer, blogger, and even a marketing professional–well, second only to the excitement of connecting with likeminded creative folks.

And so, I was in literary heaven at Lit Youngstown’s fifth annual Fall Literary Festival, held on the campus of Youngtown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. (Heaven is in Ohio? Yes, yes it is.)

Remember in-person literary events? I’d almost forgotten that some of my favorite writerly faces can been seen in the literary wild, outside of their confining Zoom boxes. For those of you readers who’ve been around these blog parts for a while, this festival gave the pleasure of meeting several of my Rust Belt interviewees in person for the first time: memoirist and poet Robert Miltner, poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, and novelist Margo Orlando Littell. Also, in small-literary-world news, a writer friend I made while attending a writing retreat in Virginia in the spring made it to the fall conference (hi, Rebe!).

So, what exactly goes down at a literary festival? The “gathering in” night at a downtown art studio included a cookie table, a local tradition. And, not only did I cookie, but I also put on my brave writer pants and read a short piece at the open mic (following maybe some of my best advice for speaking–or singing–in public).

The first full day of the festival, I moderated a craft session on writing memoir; attended a panel discussion on rewriting women into history (take that Jack London–just trust me); attended a poetry discussion on transforming grief into a gift; and took an epistolary poetry workshop. Yes, me, the non-poet. At the risk of total embarrassment, here’s my epistolary poem from the class:

Dear Son,
A hotel bed big enough for the four of us, but it sleeps only me. I could say I wish you were here,
but Youngstown, this place I only discovered when I was no longer young, feels like mine
alone. Here, the people talk like me, the nasal accent that cuts through a crowd. You will love
a campus like this someday, a place that will watch you become a stronger you, tempered
like the steel of this place. Your Youngstown might be Annapolis or College Park or Cambridge.
You know we can't afford the Ivies, right? Do your homework, get a good night's sleep, and know
I love you.
~Mom

One of the coolest aspects of having a literary festival on a college campus is the other arts to be found. A short walk took me to a university art museum that was featuring an installation by artist Diane Samuels. My photos don’t do her work justice, so you’re going to want to check out her site. Here, you see Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, and The Overstory–with every word of those texts hand-transcribed on various materials. The quilt-like pieces are gorgeous from afar or up close, where you can read every word.

From the art museum, we then had dinner–pierogi and halushki–at a local, historic stone church, where after, in the sanctuary we heard from a jazz trio before the evening’s creative readings. (See pics above.) From there, I followed the locals to a tiny jazz and blues club where we heard, you guessed it, live jazz and blues–some originals and some covers of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and other sing-alongable songs. And my weekend just kept getting more art-full.

The second day of the conference, I played hooky. It’s true. Rule-following me. Of course, before that I did my duty as part of the planning committee and worked at the book fair (which was a lot of fun!). I also took poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry workshop about writing from family history (one of her best tips: to avoid sentimentality, get very specific and use details sparingly); I’m still working on that poem. And later, I took a poetry workshop on the Golden Shovel form (news-to-me: it has nothing to do with a shovel shape). And then, I played hooky.

Book fair book haul: Don’t miss Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ latest book of poems, A More Perfect Union.

For the several years I’ve been attending this literary festival, everyone’s told me I must make it to the Butler Museum of American Art, a short walk from the conference venue. This time, a couple writer friends and I made it, took the tour, the whole thing. Reader, there was an Edward Hopper. I knew I was in the right place. (Pictured: Edward Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town, William Gropper’s Youngstown Strike, Henry Martin Gasser’s Intersection, Grant Wood’s In the Spring, a name-that-abstract piece I didn’t take a good enough picture of the id card, Peter Maier’s Horse-Power (Ben)–a floor-to-ceiling rendering of a Clydesdale painted on metal–and Alfred Leslie’s High Tea.)

After my fill of American art, I enjoyed dinner (Italian, if you’re keeping track) and literary conversation that alternately had me jotting notes (the TBR pile grows ever taller) and laughing. There again, my idea of heaven. To cap off the final evening of the festival: another reading (at another downtown art gallery), this time by Jan Beatty–raw, real, and revelational! I can’t wait to dive into this one, too.

Huge kudos to Lit Youngstown director Karen Schubert and outreach coordinator Cassandra Lawton, the board, and planning committee folks–for another successful literary festival. It felt like a miracle that was over too soon!

Have you ever been to a literary festival or conference? What were the highlights for you? Did you stay in your literary lane or reinvent yourself in a weekend? Do you enjoy creative readings? What makes a reading memorable for you?

I’ve been terrible about keeping in touch, but I hope you’ll check in here. What are you reading, writing? What authors have moved you, lately? Are you getting out to any in-person activities?

Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. 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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“Say what?” Thinking like a singer to prepare for your next reading

OK, this is pretty niche. But read on. You will be rewarded with a new puppy pic if you do. (Bribing is the new blogging.)

Avid followers of the ol’ blog will maybe recall me quipping that I plan to be an opera singer in my next life. That’s a quip, and not a promise (or threat), since I don’t really believe in next lives or in my opera-singing chops–unless that next life comes with brand-new designer equipment.

However, just as the world was shutting down with the pandemic, and singers were shutting up, I was getting started. Singing became a passion, rekindled from my youth, that I could pursue with gusto–albeit solo–during an otherwise dreary time. Now, provided the pandemic doesn’t throw yet another wrench in the works, I’m practicing my “Ave Maria” (of the Schubert variety) to sing at a wedding ceremony, next month.

Which got me to thinking of another kind of performance: the creative reading. You know, the poet or writer, so awesome on paper, attempts to translate that awesomeness to the air (of your local art gallery, bookstore, or coffeehouse–machines grinding and screaming in the background). We pull for that poet, we really do. We yearn to feel we are in the presence of confident genius. We want to feel enveloped in that voice and meaning. Something akin to Luciano Pavarotti at a football stadium or Celine Dion in Vegas. We want to feel moved. Yet, so often, we feel the poet’s unease, and we can’t enjoy the performance due to flashbacks from that disastrous middle school talent show when we lip-synced to Milli Vanilli.

Yes, one is public singing and one is public speaking, and I’ve conflated the two. But I’ve found that the big-strokes prep is much the same for both.

And so here you have a list, because lists are comforting in their orderliness–especially during times of trepidation (say, like doing public anything during a pandemic). And you have a list in descending order, which should be all the excitement you need on a Friday, right?

5. Embrace the trepidation. In my experience, talking yourself out of nervousness at performing in public doesn’t work. (God love my mom who used to @ me about meditation before a ballet performance.) Have some Jedi mind tricks that work to psych yourself out of nervousness, please teach me your magic. For me, only practice–singing or reading a piece over and over and over–calms the fear. (And if I’m still terribly fearful, I haven’t practiced enough.)

4. Stand (or sit) up straight, and breathe. I know I sound like your mom. Really, it’s about the lungs and diaphragm and other anatomy-ish stuff. And yes, breathing to sing is different than breathing to live. But I would recommend to anyone who has to speak in public that they try breathing like singers do. And, just as singers concentrate on phrasing, so too should readers–especially poets, where line breaks can make or, ya know, break a piece.

3. Take it slow, and enunciate. In singing, we talk about onset and release, but it’s mostly about starting and stopping the right way. In creative readings, the same careful attention should be paid to enunciation. Of course, once the nerves kick in, we want to race to the finish. Fight the urge! Pretend there’s an accompanist or a metronome, keeping you from speeding up, and be sure you can hear every word you say, so that your audience can, too.

2. Make eye contact. Not like salesman-creepy eye contact. But do look up from your words now and then and into the faces of those lovely people who’ve shown up or logged on–and are missing their latest TV show binge–for your words.

1. Speak up. Are you soft-spoken? Is there background noise at your venue? Ask for a mic. Want to go mic-less, you better see #4. You’re going to need to push that breath to be heard.

Your turn: what are your favorite public speaking or creative reading tips or tricks? What are you reading or writing this week? How’s everything?

And… drumroll…

Puppy! (Did you think I’d leave you hanging?) Meet Rufus, the dog I never thought I needed. But who could resist? And, now for more bribery, meet me over at FB or at @MoonRuark over at Twitter and IG, for more Rufus and more Rust Belt-ness.

Rufus, 10 weeks old here, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and capturer of this cat-lover’s heart (and also cicadas).

Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post or more unsolicited advice. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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My review of RUNNING FOR HOME, Edward McClelland’s debut novel

For many years, the Lordstown Complex, a GM auto factory in Northeast Ohio, was a landmark along my drive home to family.

“Not long now,” I’d mutter to myself or say to my kids, if they were with me, and we’d marvel at the sea of cars in the auto plant’s gargantuan parking lot—and at the cars we couldn’t see, being made inside the plant’s operations. Lordstown, something like a prayer and a beacon both, calling me back to the place I still call home.

Poetical references aside, Lordstown was an economic hub for the area, for decades. In the 60s, when my dad first moved to the Cleveland area, met my mom, and married, that plant was making the Chevy Impala and then the Pontiac Firebird. And the people who worked on the line were making salaries better than anything my dad could make as a draftsman. But we all know what happened to auto-making over the next few decades. And, with each pass in recent years, that Lordstown plant held fewer cars in the parking lot, meaning fewer employees working fewer shifts making fewer cars. Last I remember in its history as an auto plant, Lordstown was the home of the Chevy Cruze. I hate to disparage, but how many Cruze drivers do you know?

It was with this point of reference—a familiar setting—that I came to Edward McClelland’s debut novel, Running for Home, out now from Bottom Dog Press. An accomplished journalist and writer of nonfiction—I loved his How to Speak Midwestern—McClelland has covered and written about the post-industrial Midwest, from which he hails, for a long time. This is the first novel for the Lansing, Michigan, native–and it hit home for me.

Running for Home opens on the Empire Motors body plant, “a permanent symbol of my hometown, as well as a gateway to opportunity,” says the narrator, high-school student and runner, Kevin. What follows is a story of the fall of industry in a place, coinciding with the rise of “a slight Midwestern youth,” our protagonist, in this coming-of-age story.

From the jacket copy: “In this moving new novel, [Kevin] deals with a rough high school and a vanishing factory town through a devotion to his running sport and his caring family. Aided by a spunky girlfriend, a humble-wise coach, loyal teammates, and his earned self-awareness, he learns the value of reliance and home.”

What sets this coming-of-age story apart? A narrator with a voice and a passion that ring absolutely true. And they should. McClelland ran track and cross country at his high school, across the street from a Fisher Body plant. McClelland creates a Michigan town setting that leaves no detail of the early 80s unexplored; from the fashion and games popular with teenagers—like windbreakers and Galaga—to movies and music—like All the Right Moves and The Sex Pistols. 

In this novel, the author doesn’t shy away from questions of economics and environmental concerns, things that are often at odds when it comes to industry. From Kevin’s perspective as a runner, we get a good view. There’s “the ever-visible rainbow slick on the river’s surface, the effluent of automaking” and the sweetly sick smell of chemicals on the air. Once the plant closes, Kevin both appreciates being able to breathe a little easier and knows life will be tougher, going forward. It hits home when his dad must take early retirement.

The author is also adept at dramatizing and characterizing the generational differences among auto workers, like the narrator’s father and grandfather before him. What did cars mean to men, especially, through these decades? To build one with other men on a line? What does it mean when your life’s work is sent elsewhere? Of course, what is done to a place is also done to the psyche of a place. From this book, I got an insider’s view, including of union operations—and what striking and winning or losing looked like in this era of plant closures and relocations.

What propels the plot, outside of the external forces of the town’s industry declining, is Kevin’s striving for success on the track. His passion is crystal clear: 

I ran because I was a runner, because running was my nature. I believed the fastest form of myself was the most perfect form of myself.

In writing fiction, we are often taught to have some kind of a “ticking clock,” to propel our plots and keep our readers turning pages. In this novel, the ticking clock is a stopwatch, and, race after race, we root for Kevin’s success in a sport where fractions of a second mean the difference between success and failure, between a scholarship to college or a ticket to an uncertain future.

What I liked the most—and you might guess by the novel’s title—is that this is not a story about success by getting out. That is an all-too-common trope. But it’s not only a trope in fiction. In an American era of urban sprawl and overcrowding, the post-industrial Midwest still has many places that lose more people each year, many young people among them, than they gain.

Leaving is easy. Just ask me. Staying, despite–or maybe because of–the odds is harder.

Do you have a favorite coming-of-age story set in your native place? Did you stick close to your hometown? Do you run? I’d love to hear about it. And, what are you reading or writing this week? 

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Running for Home

$18 Bottom Dog Press

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.

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

In Praise of the Short Story

These pandemic days feel both interminable and brief all at once. Time both drags and flies by. And even us rabid readers find our towering TBRs just keep growing taller. Anxiety and ennui make it hard to concentrate for long periods of time, making it tough to hold a long story in the imagination.

Short story to the rescue.

I mean, who wants to read one more doomsday article or essay. (OK, I read those, too.) But fiction in pandemic times? Yes, please! Anything to distract from the world on fire. But short fiction? As you might imagine, the novel beats out the short story collection in sales, everywhere. Sure, there are popular short story collections. But, as this Guardian article notes: “Most don’t sell many copies (a debut collection from one of the major publishing houses might have a print run of 3,000, with little expectation of a reprint).” Even when sales of short story collections surge, as they did in 2018, they’ll never beat out the novel.

But right about now might be a good time to revisit the short form. For escape, sure, and for craft–for those of us who write fiction–and also, and maybe most importantly right now, for connection with other readers. One of the most delightful virtual connections I’ve made in these pandemic days is with a book club (hosted by jesuit.org if you’re interested) that meets over at FB. The last book we read was, you guessed it, a short story collection, Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade, which I highly recommend.

At the moment, I’m reading short stories before bed (“they” say escapism is better for relaxation than, say, a nonfiction book about the plague). I’m still working through short stories by Finnish writer Tove Jansson, which are often just a handful of pages long. They “escape” me to far-away Finland with its woods and lakes, its terrain of moss and lichens that feels foreign and inviting and cool. I save novels for daytime reading: right now that’s Jansson’s Fair Play; and Pete Beatty’s debut novel Cuyahoga, which is a Rust Belt novel if I’ve ever met one, and I plan to discuss it here.

Of course, many short stories birth novels. Valdez Quade’s “The Five Wounds” inspired her to build on that world for her debut novel, The Five Wounds, which will launch in 2021.

Then there are the movies that have grown out of short stories: famously, Shawshank Redemption, based on Stephen King’s novella (OK, not quite as brief as a short story but he’s adapted a lot of those, too): “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.” A little more recently, there was Annie Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain.” And, then there was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which inspired a movie that released 86 years later–testament to the lasting power of the short story (or, at least, short stories by masters, like Fitzgerald).

I love a good short story. I love their self-contained quietude. I love the kind of short story where nothing really happens, except an all-important shift in perception or understanding. We readers don’t always need the classical story arc in short fiction (that many of us seem to desire in a novel: inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). A short story can capture a moment, a day, a year, or many years–and the plot doesn’t need to be tied up with a bow.

Take Raymond Carver’s famous story “Cathedral,” probably the story that cemented in college my love for American fiction and my desire to write it. It’s often-anthologized, often found within the same big American Lit 101 tomes as the classic stories by Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, O’Connor and Kate Chopin, and more modern short story masters of the world, like George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Hempel. (And it’s totally not how I write, but aspire to.) Let me know what you think of it, if you read it!

Do you read short stories? Write them? What’s your favorite? Need a suggestion for some pandemic escapist short story reading?

Last year, Lit Hub recommended “The 10 Best Short Story Collections of the Decade” and the year before that Esquire recommended some “great literature in small portions” with “15 Short Story Collections Everyone Should Read.”

Thank you to Lorna of Gin & Lemonade, for putting me in a short story frame of mind–and for inspiring this post. Blogging groups are invaluable, for sure.

Happy reading and writing, all–whether short, long, or in between! Want to read a short story of mine? I’ve linked to a few over at my About page.

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

Are you a Rust Belt writer or poet interested in doing a guest spot at this blog? My more than 1,500 followers love to discover new voices with connections to the American Rust Belt. Let’s connect!

*Header photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Light in the Darkness: Literary Chiaroscuro in the Work of Tove Jansson

Photo by Tristan Pokornyi on Pexels.com

Warning: I am full-on author-crushing right now. The author: Tove Jansson (1914-2001), Finland’s most famous writer-illustrator, who introduced the world to the Moomins–a family of peace-loving trolls brought to life in illustrated children’s books–and also wrote some really fantastic literature for adults.

In light of the first feature film about Jansson releasing next month, I’ve recently devoted much of my reading time to her novel, The Summer Book, and her short stories. All capture Finland from the inside–in a way no travelogue ever could. Thank goodness for translations (and Thomas Teal, in particular, who translated much of Jansson’s work into English). Since I don’t read Swedish–Jansson was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority–or Finnish. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to capture moments in Finland’s history in my novel-in-progress, set in part in this Nordic place–at once beautiful and dangerous, light and dark, like the best photograph, painting, or story. I’m looking for and finding much inspiration in Jansson’s work.

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