Take Thine Beak From My Tape Deck Heart

Nostalgia is perhaps the greatest sign of aging–more often I find myself misty eyed for the trappings of a generation ago, be it a world before arguments were settled through Google or the security of knowing the red light I just squeaked under isn’t recording my transgressions. Not that I reject current technology (texting is a phone-fobe’s best friend); I am only wistful for some things that to me represent a part of life quickly vanishing. Two such things? Mix tapes and letters.

Tape Deck Heart

Where do I even begin to discuss my love of a mix tape? Perhaps the sheer magnitude of the task by its nature–tracking down songs, stopping and starting the tape deck, writing out the song list, decorating the cover and/or case–no playlist shared in digital form can replace that. A mixed tape represents a concerted effort to send someone specific messages through music. It is both cliche and fantastically romantic. Even a mixed CD at this point would be a suitable replacement, despite being infinitely easier to construct.

Mr. Postman Look and See

I had a French pen pal as a kid. Though I can’t remember her name now, I do remember that I found her through a service in the back of kids’ magazine. Once a month for about five years, I sat down and luxuriated in selecting from my wide array of stationary to craft my life changing correspondence. My letter writing did not stop there. I wrote letters all through college to a former high school teacher, my grandparents, and my friends when I was traveling. A few years ago I even exchanged letters with a former student. Receiving actual mail thrills me like few things. The idea that we are, one text and emoji at a time, killing the world of hand written notes and heart stopping love letters, saddens me like the beginning of Up.

I still collect stationary, though I’m not sure why. My correspondence is limited as it never has been before. Like the decline of the mix tape, I miss the thought that goes into writing an exceptional letter. Unlike text or email, it doesn’t have the immediacy nor the throw away feel. It is weighty and something that must be crafted. So few things can claim that now.

I’ve Gotta Crow: Writing Successes

In her book Schoolgirls, Peggy Orenstein says that women tend to underplay their accomplishments. I admit that I am usually pretty embarrassed to share when good things happen, even on my own blog. So it is with great discomfort that I share the following two things that happened in the past few days.

First, “The Saffron Rabbit” won the Solas Award for Food and Travel Writing last week, taking home gold in that category. I was especially honored because a number of the other winners (including my favorite editor Lavinia Spalding) were writers I greatly admire.

The story has been embraced in ways I could not imagine. The award aside, it has been published in Roots, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, and now out this week, Issue 5 of Overnight Buses. For those with iPads, it is available for free download. Please take a moment to check out this magazine. It is beautiful! Tom and his crew do a fantastic job.

You can download it here: Overnight Buses.

The other thing that happened actually occurred yesterday. My latest education article for the Midland Reporter Telegram came out in the paper Wednesday morning but online Tuesday night. I received an email from my editor who had been alerted that the Governor of Texas had retweeted the story.

  I’m not even going to pretend that isn’t a little bit cool. Whatever your political standpoint, having a local newspaper story picked up like that is exciting for a writer. It has also been retweeted by the American Association of Community Colleges and a number of others. Not too shabby for a Wednesday. The article is available here: “Community College can Play an Important Role in Student’s Education”

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

 

An Interview with Mark Falkin

CCcoverI was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of  Contract City, available this month from Bancroft Press. Iced in with my kids for three days, this book was my salvation against the insanity of endless games of Candyland and prattle of a desperate “Magic Schoolbus” binge. Entering into the Contract City world, via protagonist Sara, was a welcome and thrilling respite. Today I am ecstatic to present an interview with this talented writer, Mark Falkin.

What was the inspiration behind Contract City? What compelled you to tell this particular story?

 I knew for a couple of years before starting to write this book—which was written mostly in 2009-2010—that I wanted to write about something that truly scared me and that the reason it scared me is because it does happen, has happened and could happen again. Massive social upheaval is real and scary. Riots are scary. I wanted to tell a story of a middle America family caught in such times in a not too distant, recognizable, and most frightening of all, possible, future. I saw a family, particularly a girl and her dad. The girl was a filmmaker. The dad was a disgruntled policeman. Their worlds were going to collide.

 I am usually critical of how people write teenage girls. One of the novel’s strengths is the narrative voice of Sara. How did you develop her? What were the struggles of writing her?

 Sara just came. From the get-go, I got her point-of-view and the essence of who she was. Initially, I thought the book would toggle back and forth between her father’s POV and hers. Writing his . . . felt stale and wrong. I moved to hers and that was it. The story would be told through her eyes, her lens.

 Contract City succeeds in being both literary and genre. How do you achieve that balance?

 Hey, thanks. I write what I would want to read. Long form fiction, novels that take many hours of my life to read–I don’t just want to finish it; I want to be gripped, by the heart and the head. The narrative must be compelling so that you bemoan having to put it down and rejoin the world. But for me, a story can only really be gripping if the prose is elevated to the point of intoxicating you. I think fiction works best when the reader is under a spell. If the prose doesn’t have that certain je ne sais quoi—call it tone, voice, lyricism, elegance—it won’t mesmerize. If it doesn’t do that, it’s kind of dead. If that balance was achieved in Contract City, it’s simply because I was mesmerized in the writing of it. Mesmerism comes from language. I like putting sentences together. 

 What is your writing process?

 Morning, coffee, intuitively, from the hip, every workday whether I feel like it or not. I try to get in 1000 words a day when I’m in that raw first-drafting phase. I don’t do much editing or rewriting on the first draft. I just throw down that wet clay on the potter’s wheel and see what I’ve got to work with. I don’t write at night and I don’t outline in the formal sense. As things develop from that nebulous cloud of beginnings, then I start to create a rough outline. But nothing ever stays locked in. It’s like you’re throwing the cement in front of you as you move forward down the road. I have a general idea where I’m going, but there are always moments where things change, sometimes dramatically.

 What do you read?

I’m a literary agent, so I read a lot of pitches and queries during the day. For my own fun, I tend to read so-called literary novels that have driving, kinetic stories, e.g., in the last year I was blown away by Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, The Goldfinch, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Love Stewart O’Nan. Love Daniel Woodrell. Love Karen Russell. Love (most of) The Cormac. All of Gillian Flynn’s books. Brett Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk. And I’m a Constant Reader (Mr. King). I try to read unputdownable stories written artfully. I cannot stand self-important, dull “Literary” work that looks down its nose at you.

 What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you have received?

 Easy reading is damn hard writing. – Nathaniel Hawthorne

 You have self-published and worked with a publisher–how do those experiences differ?

 While it may not be fair, the realities of the marketplace dictate that self-published books aren’t worthy of attention. When a publisher acquires your book, you’ve got people behind you who believe in it on some level. The editorial direction you get working with a publisher is a collegially adversarial yet exciting process.

 Setting of Contract City in Tulsa is a particularly effective choice. Why did you feel that was the place to set your story?

I grew up there, so I know it on a visceral level. Tulsa is smack dab in the middle of the country, the Heartland, the real America we’ve heard so much about. Tulsa is a very religious town—more churches per capita than anywhere. Oklahoma is a politically and culturally conservative state of this union. The historical reality of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots provided even more incentive to set it there. Tulsa is a test-market town. Why not try out full-blown privatization there? If it were attempted, wouldn’t that be exactly the place?

 What role does research play into your writing?

 I do just enough to achieve a semblance of verisimilitude and to move the story forward. I do not try to become an expert in a given subject matter. I find research, even a little, tends to propel a story into exciting directions. The context research provides is critical. It creates the aperture through which the story can be viewed. That’s been my experience so far anyway. I can see how research could be stultifying, though.

What is your biggest challenge as a working writer?

 Post-writing: in a world of screens and “content”, getting people to believe in the work enough to somehow compete with that. And then developing a readership.

A huge thank you to Mark for gifting me Contract City and taking the time to share such insightful, thought-provoking answers. Order Contract City today. Go ahead. Do it. I’ll wait . . .

Did you do it?

Excellent decision.

 

 

Review: Contract City by Mark Falkin

Contract City March 2015What happened to threats in a threat-weary world?

Aspiring teenaged filmmaker Sara Paige Christie questions this and much more in Mark Falkin’s gripping look at a privatized dystopia, Contract City. In the year 2021, Tulsa, Oklahoma is run by private security firm Free Force Tulsa in the shadow of a conspicuously powerful uberchurch, Chosen Hill. But under the glossy face, disease and corruption fester, as evidenced by the mysterious graffiti tags, WH2RR? that manifest from nowhere, only to vanish at the hands of the private police. With an eye to film school, Sara sets up out to make a documentary about the graffiti, but finds herself blurring the lines between subject and filmmaker, risking everything to uncover the truth.

Falkin’s approach to the young female protagonist in dystopia is refreshing because Sara is not a superhero in awkward girl clothing (sorry Katniss and Tris). One of the most successful elements of the novel is how normal Sara is within the given context. Her speech patterns realistically shift depending on her company; Sara’s struggle to find her voice as a filmmaker and a young woman arches throughout, a satisfying way to drive the plot.  And she is blessedly not one of those girls too wise for her years. That being said, her intelligence is evident even as her emotions sometimes cloud her ability to discern truth from fact. She is not immune to normal teenage misbehavior and rebellions which perhaps might not make her the tween heroine poster girl in the manner that has become so popular. What it does do is give the novel depth and complexity that facilitates the success of the other components, including characters both major and minor. Sara’s ex-police officer in particular elevates the tension whenever he appears on the page.

The Tulsa setting, fitting considering the premise, comes alive under Sara’s narration. Given that Oklahoma is one of the most red, conservative states in modern society, the choice to use it as a background to the privatized future makes Contract City an engagingly realistic slice of speculative fiction. Falkin’s style is clever, blending the lines between genre and literary without ever sacrificing the fundamental punch of good storytelling. For the reader it is an enjoyable balance that few books accomplish.

If the novel stumbles, it is in the pacing of the ending. Any mystery walks a fine line as it unravels to propel the story forward without losing steam. Contract City feels a bit too rushed, particularly in the last chapter when Sara fully embraces her role in the revolution she is witnessing. Another chapter before the satisfying epilogue would certainly be welcome, if only to stay with Sara in her world just a little longer. Saying goodbye to her as the book shuts is difficult.

Contract City will be published next month by Bancroft Press. Find out more about this exciting writer and his compelling work here. Order your copy today here.

From Ploughshares: Blueprint of the Mad Woman

The second installment of my new Ploughshares series debuts today and features one of my favorite characters from two of my favorite books: The Mad Woman (in the Attic). Please stop by the newly redesgined Ploughshares to take a gander. If you missed the first installment about the Byronic Hero, you can find it linked through the article.

“Literary Blueprints: The Mad Woman”

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

From Ploughshares: Blueprint of the Byronic Hero

As the new year dawns, so does my new series for Ploughshares. Literary Blueprints will look at various character archetypes in the literary canon. Beginning the series is perhaps one of the most popular types, even today: The Byronic Hero. I would say this character with variations is perhaps more popular than the traditional hero. Because we all love a bad boy with a heart as big as the sea.

Literary Blueprints: The Byronic Hero.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

Wrapping Up 2014

As 2014 comes to a close, I am conflicted in that I feel like a great deal has been accomplished this year and yet some things fell by the wayside.

My biggest undertaking professionally was transitioning into my new role as dean. This first semester has been challenging, not just in getting to know the daily ins and outs of the job, but tackling bigger issues that have manifested along the way. Mistakes have been made and I have tried to reconcile them as best I can.

In terms of writing, I have been pleased to continue contributing to Ploughshares, Cinefilles, and The Midland Reporter Telegram. Sadly, publication of essays, stories, and poems has tapered off because I have turned my attention to a bigger project. Today marks the last day of 2014, a year in which I wrote at least 200 words of a novel every single day. And I do mean every day. One night that meant scrawling 200 words in my movie review notebook because it was all I had on me. Another, it meant sitting on the floor of an airport next to the gate of my cancelled flight while one of my travel companions joked that I was writing a Dear Diary entry about our adventures.

Writing every single day for a year on the same project was both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, I have over a 100,000 words contributed to the project. Bad or good, that is an accomplishment in itself. On the other hand, I have grown weary of this particular work and I have not focused on anything else. For 2015, I plan on keeping my 200 words a day writing habit, but I am going to work on other projects as well as the novel. For now, I think I need a break from it. My files have several short stories that need revising and submission rotation. Plus whatever other projects inspire me.

My blogging here has also been lacking, something I hope to change. Next week I will be featuring a review of a fantastic new novel I was fortunate enough to read in advance copy form. I also hope to feature more interviews with interesting writers, artists, and other fascinating folks.

Finally, on a personal note, thank you to all my darling friends and family who have supported me, bought me drinks and dinner, and generally put up with my shenanigans during this hurly burly year. Best to you all in the new year.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

Oh So Pretty

My daughter’s school believes in celebrating individual students throughout the year. Specifically, each day in chapel, a handful of students are ‘recognized’ for being outstanding . By the end of the year, every student has received a certificate with a paragraph penned by their teacher and read aloud to the entire elementary school by the principal. Having sat through several of these, for my daughter and other people’s children, I feel bad for the teachers in that they must come up with twenty-two paragraphs like these without becoming repetitive. Still, phrases like “dream student” and “star” are bandied about quite frequently. That aside, I have noticed a trend that has put a bee in my bonnet.

When a male student is recognized, the paragraph usually starts by talking about his skills in the classroom. Sometimes manners lead, but regardless, the boys are lauded for character traits. With rare exception, the girls paragraphs begin with phrases like:

“Ready for the New York runway, this little fashionista . . .”

“With her Rapunzel-like locks, this little princess . . .”

“Don’t be deceived by this cutie’s dazzling smile . . .”

See a trend here?

Granted, the paragraph usually goes on the talk about some academic or behavior characteristic. But for some reason these teachers often feel the need to begin their praise of little girls with something external, attached to appearance. Once I noticed this, I listened carefully, waiting for a boy to be praised for his looks or personal style. Nope.

Some girls, like my daughter, are not included in the “Oh So Pretty” praise. Liliana’s awards usually focus on her energy and scholastic achievement. I’m fine with this. But it does raise the question: is Lili just not as pretty or as fashionable, or are these other little girls not as active and smart? Either way, I am not a fan of, at this early of an age, emphasizing physical traits in the little girls while the boys are commended on character.

Why not focus on character traits in all children? Why make appearance a factor at all? Perhaps I am over thinking this, but it feels like we are already programing these girls to value their decorative success more than anything else they have to offer. I guess I just fail to see how having pretty hair or wearing fantastic bows really lend themselves to functional life skills.

But that’s just me.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

Unknotting

Despite often sharing things from my life, my blog as stayed mostly in the anecdotal realm. I haven’t delved into my personal struggles in much depth, in part because this blog is tied to my writing career. None of that has changed. However, part of being a writer is being honest with yourself and understanding your process.

Without revealing details that are indeed private, I will expand on something I shared a few weeks ago: my marriage has ended. Like all endings it is sad, disappointing, and heartbreaking. It is also what is right for me. Still, I wish it weren’t so.

Building a life with someone, you never expect how gut wrenching it will be to take it all apart. You never expect to HAVE to take it all apart. I am not talking about the actual divorce part; I am talking about the activity of separating your life from another person’s. Every call you make to remove a user, every time you send a name change, every time you are asked a question about how your spouse is doing by some unsuspecting person–each one is a reminder that things have indeed fallen apart and now you have to tell the world. Even silly things, like deciding who keeps the Star Wars collection you assembled together or the plates you picked out to eat on for the rest of your lives, serve as a stab reminding you that you have failed. The vows you made are broken. And so are you.

Society cultivates the idea that it is normal to fuse our lives to another person–to become a unit. When it’s happening, when you are charging through Target with your registry gun and exchanging vows and signing your new name, it is exciting. You are not alone any more. You are part of something bigger than yourself. So dismantling that, admitting that in the end you could not stay enmeshed with that person, is stomach churning.

Some days I feel battered by this slamming sense of defeat. Maybe I did not try hard enough or want things enough. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I deserve to be alone. But then I comfort myself that as much as it hurts, it is a sign that the marriage was not a waste. It stings because there was love for him at one time and there still is for our two children.

Moving forward, I wonder if I could ever do it again. Would it be possible to intertwine my life again with someone else, knowing how it feels when it all falls apart? I would hope so because I know things do not have to end this way, as my friends and family frequently remind me. From the ashes of a broken heart, perhaps something more can rise. Something that is complete in a more profound way that will someday be worthy of knotting once again.

Read, Write, and Be Merry,

Amber

This is 35

Last week I turned 35. It feels strange to even say. For some completely random reason, I have been taking stock of my life at this point–where I have succeeded and where I have failed. How to commemorate, or commiserate, that in a post has been a challenge. I toyed with answering questions I am commonly asked, or writing some soul searching narrative, or even listing a laundry list of likes. In the end, I elected to sort of mash all that together into 35 random facts about me at 35.

  1. I have three tattoos. The one on my arm says, “The living bird is not its labelled bones,” and is from my favorite book, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. My wrist says “‘Tis” from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. On my back is “Amar” in Hindi which means eternal.
  2. Although not related to my tattoo selection, I have met both McCourt and Atwood at literary events. Almost geeked out both times. Minus the almost.
  3. Yes, the tattoos hurt when I got them. The back was the easiest; the wrist the most painful. After he started working on it, the guy who did the one inside my arm revealed that most guys don’t get ink in this spot because they can’t handle the pain. It was handled. I still want to get more.
  4. I’m not sure how many pairs of shoes I own. You could say I have a plethora of shoes. How I walk in them is years of practicing and knowing how to break in a pair of shoes.
  5. I love teaching, even when it’s hard. It is a strange vocation for me because I am naturally shy. Lucky for me I am passionate about my subjects, making it easier.
  6. Though I never thought it would happen, I am getting divorced. It sucks. That’s all I will say about that.
  7. Yes, I lived in New York City. No, I probably don’t know the one other person you know who also did.
  8. I grew up in Texas, but was born in California and have lived in a variety of other locations. I’ve also had years of speech and theater training. Hence, it’s hard for you to place my accent. Unless I’m tired. Or buzzed.
  9. My hair color is natural. Always a redhead.
  10. If you want to order me a drink, you can’t go wrong with Diet Coke during the day. At Starbucks, it’s a Cafe Americano with light soy. At night, if I’m wearing jeans, it’s a Shiner. If I’m dressed up, dirty vodka martini, shaken. You can use the James Bond line to order it if that makes you happy.
  11. If you do try to order me a drink, I will pay for it or pick up the next round. I’m pretty stubborn. If you do end up buying me a drink, I will feel guilty about it.
  12. My 4-year old son is the one male who can talk down to me and I find it adorable. Totally doesn’t make sense and I know it.
  13. On the other hand, my daughter is stubborn, strong-willed, sassy, and too smart for her own good. When I complain about those traits, people snicker and stare pointedly at me while saying some version of “Gee, wonder where she gets that from.” Those people can shut up.
  14. Kate Spade bags are one of my favorite things in life.
  15. The most I have ever spent on a single dress is $98. It was for a Banana Republic jersey tank dress I got in college. I wore it to my graduation, to interview for my first teaching job (where I still work), and to my interview last spring for my new position as dean. It’s my lucky dress and some of the best money I have ever spent.
  16. Team Oxford Comma. If you ever read anything written by me that doesn’t use the Oxford Comma, chances are an editor took it out.
  17. I do work out, but not as intensely as I’d like. My ideal work out is a good dance class or a solo session with my punching bag. I recently took up running; I hate it, but I am seeing results.
  18. Electing not to eat meat is both an ethical and a health choice. You don’t have to explain why you eat meat. You also don’t have to be rude because I don’t. My dietary choices have no impact on you, I promise.
  19. Some girls love diamonds. I love jewelry that is quirky and unexpected. Two of my favorite items are a brass Libra necklace and gold earrings made out of old guitar strings.
  20. I have a weakness for Pit Bulls. Call me a broken record, I don’t care. It’s the owner, not the breed. My Ellie Rose, a two-year-old Pibble rescued bait dog, is so charming strangers give me their phone numbers after they meet her in case I ever need to find her a new home.
  21. I can cook; I just don’t really like to. Also? I can’t cook normal stuff. I can cook vegetarian and vegan stuff, as well as Spanish stuff. That’s about it.
  22. My Fashion Bucket List includes a vintage faux leopard print swing coat, a Halston red jersey dress, and black patent leather Jimmy Choo pumps.
  23. The word is especially. There is no X in it. Don’t add one.
  24. I firmly believe I owe my specialization in British Literature to Disney’s Sword and the Stone and Robin Hood.
  25. Seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time when I was 15 actually changed how I perceived film and narrative.
  26. I once visited a brothel outside of Las Vegas because I was curious after reading a sociological study on the Nevada brothels. No, I did not utilize the services. I didn’t even meet any of the girls. However, I did get a t-shirt which is too dirty for me to actually wear anywhere.
  27. On occasion, I have been known to dance in my chair, car, or line for food. The soundtrack in my head when I do that is usually Prince or Nine Inch Nails.
  28. Paper straw wrappers, especially crumpled ones, gross me out. No idea why.
  29. I once suffered from delusions of linguistic grandeur, reading Don Quixote in Spanish and The Three Musketeers in French. The musketeers wasn’t too bad. Cervantes was a beating. I have since read both in English.
  30. The first song I ever learned to play on the guitar was “Lola” by the Kinks. It remains one of my favorite songs.
  31. One of my forthcoming short stories is about a woman who breaks a man’s nose. I wrote it when I was really pissed off.
  32. There are certain works of literature I adore teaching more than any others: Othello, Macbeth, Jekyll and Hyde, Inferno, Waitinfor Godot, Morte D’Arthur“A Rose for Emily,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” e.e. cummings, “Happy Endings,” “Harrison Bergeron,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I’m sure I’m forgetting some–I really love teaching literature.
  33. If I were ever to audition for something that required singing, I would want to sing “Joey” by Concrete Blond.
  34. I love hummus of any flavor and eat it more than anything else.
  35. Though things aren’t perfect and never will be, my life is going interesting places. Things I had forgotten have come back make things interesting and new things blossom before me. Not too shabby.