Finding voices

One of the things I love about the internet is being able to access so many interviews, speeches, debates, lectures and articles by so many authors, artists and thinkers around the globe.  When I recall life pre-internet, and how these items seemed further away and took more time and energy to seek out and find at times, it makes me more appreciative of this technological development that has become such a seemingly mundane tool for so many.

When I was seventeen or eighteen, Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She was the first African-American woman to win the prize.  She was one of my favorite authors.  I can say in hindsight that I did not always understand what was going on in her novels.  I was just graduating high school, and her narrative technique was, admittedly, difficult for me.  For some reason, I was attracted to a lot of difficult narratives (I read Jeanette Winterson’s “Sexing the Cherry” the summer I turned seventeen, a decidedly non-linear novel, and read it several more times over the following two or three years until I felt I was beginning to understand it).  Perhaps it was because I wanted to become a better reader, and in the same way we grow muscle is by tearing it apart, I was giving myself books of a certain weight level that forced me to get better at reading in different ways.  In any case, one day while I was in a book store, I came across a cassette recording of Toni Morrison’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize and purchased it.  I listened to it occasionally over the next couple of years, playing it for friends I would make in college who I thought might enjoy it, too, and might want to talk about it.  I’m not sure what ever happened to that cassette, but Toni Morrison popped into my mind the other day as I was unpacking books (still unpacking!) and unearthed my collection of her novels.  That Nobel speech was one of the first things I thought of afterward, and soon I was on the internet typing in search phrases, and found it once again, and listened to it once again, understanding things she said now that, at seventeen or eighteen or nineteen or twenty, slipped by me.  She’s a remarkably intelligent person, an amazing writer, and a compelling speaker.  (I heard her when she came to speak in Youngstown in 2003 as well).

So for anyone who thinks they, too, might enjoy it, you can listen to it here.  It’s about thirty minutes long, but it doesn’t feel like it, at least not to me.

What’s the story?

Laura Miller is one of my favorite reviewers of fiction.  Her reviews consistently show evidence of a reader engaged in an enthusiastic, thoughtful relationship with whatever she’s reading, even those books that don’t pass muster with her.  Earlier tonight I came across a review she’s written of Connie Willis’ most recent collection of short stories, The Winds of Marble Arch, where she posed this thesis as the context for how she would come to discuss the collection, and Willis’ writing:

Perfection is the curse of the contemporary short story. Decades ago, the form ceased to be a type of entertainment, offered by popular magazines as an alternative to listening to the radio or writing letters on an evening at home. It has since become a discipline. Today, the literary short story must be ferociously controlled and impeccably tasteful. Its appropriate subject is the ineffable sadness of existence and the unspeakable, tender hopelessness of human connection. It is an object of contemplation, even a cipher to be decoded, because whatever the author is trying to communicate must never be made too clear; delicacy, and mood, is all. In other words, the short story has turned into the narrative version of lyric poetry.

I was immediately interested in this paragraph and all that it was packing into it–what seems to be a fascinating discussion as to the state of the contemporary short story.  In some ways I was very much in agreement with Miller’s assessment of the modern short story turning into the narrative version of lyric poetry, and was excited to read on.  Of course, the review of Connie Willis’ collection followed, though, which was an insightful review in and of itself (Miller’s forgiving analysis of the collection having gems cluttered up with some stories that didn’t seem to need to be collected at all is, in my opinion, a habit or tic of scifi/fantasy short story collections, which often seem to include absolutely everything a writer has written and published over a period of time, rather than having been crafted into a particular book of their best work) but I did so wish to be carried along in her first paragraph’s discussion of the contemporary short story, its relationship to the museumed status of lyric poetry, and what sorts of phenomena this implicates in readers’ reading habits, as well as how writers have responded or failed to respond to the form losing a significant amount of a once huge readership for the form.

I absolutely love the short story, and wish it were what it was in yesteryear, a form of literature widely read and talked about by many, perhaps the way movies and albums are talked about these days, I imagine.  But in this fast-paced world I do wonder why the short story is not, in fact, more popular than the novel, which takes a greater amount of one’s time and energy to finish reading.  I’ve read lots of theories as to why the form’s audience continues to wither, but I’m never truly satisfied with any one of these theories, and don’t have any of my own that satisfy me either.  So tell me, do you read short stories regularly?  Why do you seek them out, and where do you find them?  Magazines and anthologies, or specific author collections, or anywhere and everywhere?  If you don’t read short stories (but do read novels), what is it about the short story that is unattractive for you?

You can read all of Laura Miller’s review here.

Hurray for Midwestern Awesomeness

After a day of braving the twelve degree cold today, with a running inner monologue about the ridiculous starkness and severity of the Midwestern winter accompanying me throughout my travels about town, I came home to find an e-mail from my editor telling me that One for Sorrow has been nominated for the 2008 Great Lakes Book Awards.

What the awards are about:

Founded in 1995, The Great Lakes Book Awards annually honor the year’s brightest and most deserving books about America’s heartland. The purpose of the awards is “to recognize and reward excellence in the writing and publishing of books that capture the spirit and enhance awareness of the Great Lakes region.” You can find out more here: http://www.books-glba.org. Finalists will be determined over the summer, and the winner will be announced at the Great Lakes Booksellers Association trade show on October 3, 2008.

By the time I finished reading this e-mail, I had forgotten how I’d come to feel like a walking Popsicle this afternoon. As my editor Juliet says, “Hurray for Midwestern Awesomeness!”

Totally agreed!

Agency–who really has it?

From the New York Times:

Speaking to black and Hispanic New Yorkers, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton tried on Monday to quell a controversy over race in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination by praising the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and describing him as a trailblazer for both herself and her rival, Senator Barack Obama.

Last week, Mrs. Clinton said President Lyndon B. Johnson had been the shepherd of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, enacting a priority of Dr. King — a comment that Obama supporters and some other people viewed as minimizing Dr. King’s work.

In regards to this little dust-up, I can only see that where these two candidates diverge is largely between their viewpoints on what class of person can enact change in the culture.  Obama seems to believe that an individual from the ranks of “the people” can create a voice so powerful that it not only speaks for “the people” but gathers the people to him or her en masse, forcing cultural and governmental changes to occur.

Clinton, on the other hand, believes that the real change occurs between governmental officials who have the big money and connections necessary to make a change happen, and that the person who has gathered an impressive group together against the status quo are simply “the messengers” and have nothing to do with the real power dynamics that shape a culture.

In other words, Obama seems to think power is in the hands of the people, and Clinton believes it’s in a particular class of people who have “real” power to affect change through money and status.

Hmm.  That clears up a lot about both of them for me.

Ungood Morning

Spring semester started here yesterday. It’s funny that Spring semester begins in winter. Gives an odd feel to the whole thing when I look out the window and see that it’s snowing.

I didn’t consciously do any New Year’s resolutions this year, but unconsciously I see that I did. One of them was to get back into a regular exercise routine, which began to falter mid-October when it seemed I didn’t have time for that any longer. Another was to get back into a regular writing routine, which began to falter shortly after I moved into my new house, and suddenly house things needed doing. And lastly, one that I seem to have decided to do just several days ago, a last minute resolution, I suppose, is to try my best to become a morning person.

This is more difficult than it might at first seem.

I have always, since I can remember, been a night person. Mornings are my enemy. Well, not morning in and of itself, but waking up early in the day is, which is not good for a world built around waking up early. I’m not sure how it happened, how much of this is nurture and how much of it is nature, or if it’s neither of these things and some other thing altogether that affects our diurnal and nocturnal patterns of waking and sleeping, but since I was little, I felt more alive in the dark, late at night. When the clock struck midnight, I’ve always been still ready to keep on reading, talking, watching television, spontaneously making cookies, dancing, partying, anything really–this is about energy levels, after all–but when morning comes, early morning, I’ve always winced and shuddered at the thought of it. Which is surprising, as I grew up on a little farm, and despite it not being the main means by which my family supported itself, you *still* were expected to get up early most days and do chores. Mine were feeding and giving fresh water to the cows, and cleaning out their stalls. Yuck. Maybe that’s why I’ve hated mornings for as long as I can remember.

That aside, I do have some sort of trouble properly waking. It takes me a very long time. It’s as if I’m stuck in dreams, and the transition from that world to this one is a struggle. There’s always a short period where whatever I was doing in my unconscious state and my waking blur together, and I say things that don’t make any sense to someone fully awake, and the walls of wherever I’m at, somewhere unfamiliar or even at home, shift like the staircases in Hogwarts, and I bump into them as if they’ve shifted places on me overnight. I mumble a lot, probably seem like one of the crazies on a downtown street corner, I shuffle and sit down somewhere and prop my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands on the way to where I’m going (most likely downstairs to the kitchen) and maybe fall asleep again for a half a minute several times before actually getting there. It’s not a pretty moment for me.

But the other night I decided to start getting up in the range of 6:30 to 7 in the morning. This is a huge change for me, but I believe in the end it’ll be a beneficial one. I did get up at 7 in the morning in Japan, but this was *only* because I had to be at school to work by 8. (I was a zombie then, too, walking into the teachers’ lounge, mumbling my Ohayo gozaimas to everyone in my path). I rarely teach classes in any semester before ten in the morning here, though, so it’s not really that I need to do this to be ready for classes. It’s more that I want to use time in the morning to write, rather than my afternoons and evenings. I always feel really good once I’ve got some writing done for the day, and it can sort of set a good tone or mood for me for the rest of the day. Why wait, I figure, to do this till afternoon or evening, when I could potentially feel good for the rest of the day if I just do it in the morning?

So I woke at 6:40 yesterday, and things went rather well all day, actually, until around 8:30 at night I completely crashed. Seriously, I went to bed at 8:30 at night. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to sleep that early before, except when I first moved to Japan and was going through some serious jet lag. But I was up again this morning early, and it was still kind of terrible to wake up, but I’m hoping it’ll slowly become an easier thing to do. Changing one’s sleep patterns, is how this is usually referred to, but I feel like it’s changing one’s nature. Maybe it isn’t truly nature, but it certainly does feel like it because despite changing my sleep patterns my energy patterns haven’t changed yet. I didn’t feel, yesterday, as if I ever had that extremely alive feeling that I get in the evenings.

So I’m hoping that’ll eventually shift time zones as well. Otherwise, I’ll call this experiment in living differently a failure, and potentially disastrous, and go back to being a night person and sleeping in later and seeming like a layabout to others who think that waking early is a virtue. (By the way, it isn’t. It just means you’re highly socialized/enculturated/or forced to be at work at a certain time like I was in Japan!)

The Crawford Award

one for sorrowI just found out yesterday (and see the news was just released) that this year’s Crawford Award is being given to One for Sorrow.

The award, according to the press release, is sponsored by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, recognizes an outstanding first book of fantasy published during the preceding year, and will be presented March 22 at the association’s annual conference in Orlando, Florida, where I will certainly be.

Other titles on this year’s shortlist are Laird Barron, The Imago Sequence (Night Shade); Ron Currie, Jr., God is Dead (Viking); Ellen Klages, Portable Childhoods (Tachyon); and Ysabeau Wilce, Flora Segunda (Harcourt).

Instead of a formal committee structure, the Crawford Award is determined by a panel of nominators, who review and discuss each other’s nominations. This year’s panel included John Clute, Kelly Link, Farah Mendlesohn, Cheryl Morgan, and Graham Sleight. The award is administered by Gary K. Wolfe of the IAFA Board.

The Crawford Award was established in 1985 through a grant from Andre Norton in memory of early fantasy small-press publisher William L. Crawford, who had died the preceding year. Past winners have included Charles de Lint, Susan Palwick, Greer Gilman, Jonathan Lethem, Candas Jane Dorsey, Alexander Irvine, Steph Swainston, and Joe Hill. Last year’s winner was M. Rickert.

I can say this two ways:

1.) I’m so honored to be in the company of writers such as these (both in the previous winners list, as well as the short list for this year).

Or

2.) I’m totally flipping out in the best possible way.

Both really capture the truth.

Two days of spring in winter

Yesterday and today we’ve had the most gorgeous weather. 65 degrees, mostly sunny. It’s no wonder the squirrel came out to try to get back in before it becomes winter again. This sort of weather makes it feel like spring, or mid-autumn. The light and warmth must send some sort of signal to every living thing’s central nervous system, or something, because not only were the robins out, but I swear I can see buds on certain trees, and the grass feels greener. And me, too. I had the terrible urge to go out and soak up sunlight, to drink my coffee on the front stoop and feel the breeze on my face. A neighbor across the street and several doors down was sitting on her stoop earlier, too, drinking coffee like I was, and behind her, from within her house, black gospel music drifted out and up and down the street for the span of several houses, as if it were a fog or mist of some sort. I smiled and waved at her, and she waved back, smiling. It was that sort of day when neighborly love comes up like the buds on trees and returns like the sighting of a robin on my back fence. In these two days, I’ve felt so spoiled, I will probably feel jilted and rejected when winter returns again very soon. It’s one of those whirlwind romances, a weekend affair, when spring blows through winter for several days, and makes you feel young and full of possibilities again.

Returning to the Scene

Earlier this fall, when I had just moved into my new house, a squirrel was living in my attic.  He had chewed a little hole in an old wooden vent up there, and would squeeze in during the morning and run around above where I slept in my bedroom making all sorts of scrabbly noise in the walls.  I went up there within the first week of moving with a flashlight and had an encounter with him one afternoon.  He had backed up to his entrance/exit and looked shocked.  I was an intruder in his home, after all.  I promptly scared the hell out of him yelling, and sent him out the hole, where he sat on a ledge and occasionally peeked his head in to make sure he hadn’t just imagined a human had come up into his attic.  The house hadn’t been occupied in over a year, maybe close to two years, so I’m not surprised he couldn’t believe someone had come up into his penthouse.  I hoped the scary confrontation would be enough to make him stay away, but within a couple of days he was back, scrabbling around in my attic.  I went up again when I knew he wasn’t in there, and soaked a cloth with ammonia and stuffed it in the little hole he came and went by.  Squirrels notoriously hate the smell of other creatures urine, and will avoid having to smell it at all costs.  But it’s not really the urine itself they despise, it’s the ammonia scent.  Hence the ammonia-soaked clothe I stuffed through the hole.  I then bricked up the space between his hole and the wall so that, even if he got past the awful smell and pushed his way back in, he couldn’t get past the bricks.  This worked like a dream.

And now, two months later, I woke up to hear some sort of chewing just off to the side and above my bedroom.  I hoped I was hearing things lingering from my dream, but it didn’t go away and I knew something was going on outside that needed looked into.  I went downstairs and slipped on some shoes and went outside and around the corner of the house only to find, yes, the same squirrel I had evicted two months earlier.  Chewing on the wooden vent, trying to make a new hole to get in.  The ammonia soaked rag blew out of the hole during one of the windy winter storms in the past couple of weeks, and now he could venture back and give it the old college try to get inside again.

I was furious, and yelled at him.  He was frightened and furious, and yelled back at me.  I chased him from one corner of the house to the next, yelling.  I forgot I was in a populated street in the city and probably woke up some neighbors.  The dog in my neighbor’s yard in back began barking.  The dog in the side yard of my other neighbor’s house began barking.  I was yelling.  The squirrel was grumping and barking and huffing and puffing.  I threw tiny apples from my apple tree nearby it, to try to get it down off the roof.  After twenty minutes of me and the dogs and the squirrel all barking at each other, the squirrel finally descended on the front side of the house, ran across the street and climbed up into a tree, still barking back at me.

After trying to be kind and get the little monster out of my attic without killing it, as some have suggested–through traps or poison–I find this return two months later unacceptable.  And slightly pathetic.  Is this what man against nature has become in this part of the world?  Man against squirrel?  Despite it’s pathetic nature, this squirrel is totally starting to ask for me to take steeper measures.  I’m going to find a way to secure a little ammonia-soaked cloth up in that wooden vent he’s trying so desperately to get into today, but if I have to I will buy a trap as suggested and release him in some faraway wilderness, and then we’ll see how mister city-slicker squirrel fares out in the countryside.  Despite his annoyance, and his unnerving confidence upon any confrontation with me, I still don’t want to resort to anything that would kill him.  I may just have to ban him from the neighborhood altogether, though, if he keeps this up.

Literary Homemaking

Being a writer, I own lots of books.  I’m sure there are probably some writers who don’t feel compelled to own walls and walls of books, and perhaps there are even some writers who have slowed down in their reading habits at some point in their life (though I would personally see that as having one foot in the grave, the same way I feel that when I see someone not engaging in what had been a usually vital activity for them any longer) and don’t have as many books coming into their shelves as they once did.  My own collection began a long time ago, when I was a teenager.  I’d always loved books and reading and writing stories since I was a little kid, but around the time I was fifteen I began buying books.  Books weren’t just another thing that came into my family’s home.  Besides myself, my family members weren’t really readers.  So when I began spending money on books and soon found myself in possession of fifteen or twenty of them and stacks were growing on the shelves above my bed, I’d sometimes overhear an aunt or uncle asking why I read so much, or a cousin would ask when they were hanging out in my room with me, “Have you really read all of those?”  Between fifteen and now, thirty-two, I’ve purchased hundreds and hundreds of books.  I’ve never counted, so I’m not sure exactly how many, but it feels like a ridiculous amount, and probably that cousin who once asked me if I’d really read all those (fifteen or twenty) books would see how many I have now and decide I was completely crazy.  Sometimes I wonder if I am too.  Couldn’t this be just one more compulsion or obsession that, if books weren’t associated with goodness and learning and information or various other cultural values, in some other form would be diagnosed as some form of neuroses? I don’t know if it’s a little overboard, and I really don’t care in the end; if it’s a neuroses, some compulsion that means something more than the thing itself, but it makes me happy, then it’s a neuroses worth having, is the way I figure.

For the past four or five years, though, I’ve moved around so often, from various places within the states, and from place to place within my city, and from the U.S. to Japan, and because of all this moving, my books have been stored in my folks’ basement, in boxes I sort of borrowed permanently from the Capital District Library in Lansing, Michigan, where I worked from the age of twenty-three to twenty-five.  When I moved back to Youngstown from Lansing, I had a bunch of books up there with me that I wanted to bring home, and these library boxes were perfectly shaped, with little handles, very sturdy, and lids rather than flaps to close them.  I’ve kept them ever since that move because they made moving my books more efficient and easy.   Now that I’m in my house and I’m settled (and still settling, really, day to day, because it takes me a while to sink down into a place, even just a change in house from an apartment on opposite sides of the city) I decided I should bring all those books I’d been storing with my folks to my new place.  I’d had some books in here with me since I moved in, but really, probably no more than fifty or sixty, and that’s just not enough.

So I drove out to my parents’ place this afternoon and borrowed my dad’s truck so I could actually bring all those boxes in one trip (didn’t work, I still have four left back there) and went over to a friend’s house back here in Youngstown when I returned, because I’d given her a bookshelf of mine to keep for me while I was away, and she’d been a good friend and looked after it till today, and I brought that back home too.  I’d already bought three new bookshelves earlier this week in preparation for today, too.  It took a good part of the afternoon and evening to get everything packed and unpacked and set up, and after unpacking a little over half of the boxes now, the shelves are full.  I still don’t have enough room.  So I’ll have to buy a couple more shelves to house them.  I can imagine if I keep up at this pace, I’ll have bookshelves in every room of this house at some point, except maybe the kitchen, and when I’m old and someone finds me dead here, they’ll have to pick their way through the stacks to get to my body.  I suppose there are worse scenarios than that, so if that’s my fate, I’ll take it.

One of the things I noticed after I got more shelving and have more of my books surrounding me, especially here in my office, is that the house suddenly felt a bit more like home to me.  It already felt like home, I think, but I suppose home is something that can be estimated by a matter of degrees the same as just about any state of mind or being, and if that’s the case, then it made my home feel even more like a home, and it also served to remind me of how much I’ve always appreciated just having the physical presence of books around me wherever I write.  I like having them around to remind me that I’m not writing in a vacuum but in a conversation, and as inspiration of a sort, I guess.  In Japan this wasn’t always easy–my selections were more limited overseas, and also I lived in a tiny apartment.  It’s all that less-is-more minimalism, I used to joke to myself privately in reference to my lean collection of books there, because I’d gotten so used to having stacks in every corner of my apartments back in the states.

I guess I’d gotten used to having only a small selection since I lived in Japan, though, because I hadn’t anticipated how I feel right now, overwhelmed and surrounded, but also, somehow, more myself.