Please note that the Prairie Schooner blog has moved, and is now hosted on our website.
You can follow the new blog at prairieschooner.unl.edu/?q=blog.
Please note that the Prairie Schooner blog has moved, and is now hosted on our website.
You can follow the new blog at prairieschooner.unl.edu/?q=blog.
The flyer at your right contains all the particulars, but, just for fun, here are the main events:
Karen Brown received the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction for her book Little Sinners and Other Stories, which is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. Her first collection of short stories, Pins and Needles, received AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and, in 2007, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her work has appeared twice in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, in Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and in many standout literary journals, including Epoch, The Georgia Review, American Short Fiction, TriQuarterly, and Five Points. Currently, Brown lives in Tampa, Florida and teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida. You can learn more about her work at her website.
Do you have a specific criteria of things you’re looking for in a story when putting together a collection? That is, are you writing from the beginning toward something central thematically, or in the content, and the stories come together because of a common focus, or is it just a matter of allowing the book to coagulate on its own, of writing stories without a collection in mind, and seeing what themes and styles emerge? Did the process change with Little Sinners and Other Stories from how you did Pins and Needles?
I don’t write stories with the intention of putting them together as a book, but I’ve found that I go through thematic phases, so that batches of stories seem to deal with similar themes, or have a similar tone. This was the case with Pins and Needles. I was writing a lot of stories very quickly, and they all seemed to have women exploring their own sexuality. The trouble was how to organize them so that “married woman having an affair in kitschy motels” came next to “pregnant teen seducing guy at work” and not “married woman having an affair in a vacant 1950s ranch.” With the new collection, I did do more selecting from stories past and present, so there’s an older story—one of the first I ever published, and a brand new one I added in the editing process with U of Nebraska Press. There are stories in the new collection that were written at the same time the Pins and Needles stories were, but didn’t fit in that book (“married woman having an affair with suburban neighbor”).
Is there a secret strategy you can (or are willing to) reveal about how to win a book contest? The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is the second you’ve won in the last few years, with Pins and Needles taking the 2006 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction of the AWP Award Series. Winning two prizes is pretty good, and your work bears this out. Is there a secret?
Before I won the Grace Paley Prize I’d submitted manuscripts for several years to AWP and the other short fiction prizes as well—Prairie Schooner, Drue Heinz, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy. I was a semi-finalist years ago for Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize, and last year Leaf House was listed as a semi-finalist. I, too, thought there must be a strategy, but looking back the only strategy I can see is that I kept writing new stories, that the stories seemed to get better, and that I kept changing the manuscripts to include the newer, better stories. Pins and Needles was the result of my putting together the last fourteen stories I’d written.
The studio MFA seems to be more and more popular these days—and MFAs more ubiquitous in general. As someone who took a creative PhD track, do you think there is something missing in a purely studio curriculum, as opposed to a writer’s formal education that is heavy on literary study?
Writers don’t need to learn how literary theorists approach creative works, unless they are interested in practicing in that field themselves. I enjoyed the exposure to literature I might not have normally read, but I think writers at the graduate level can pursue this intensive reading without having to study critical works and come up with paper topics. Most writers I know read widely. No two writers will derive the same thing from what they read, and I think it’s better to cultivate reading as a writer, than undergo a formal study of literary works.
Rituals play a prominent role in Little Sinners and Other Stories, particularly sexual rituals, the rituals of birth, and those of friendship. The stories have such power because of the ways in which the characters violate their society’s sense of propriety while at the same time participating in quasi-sanctioned rituals. Often these are people either at the end of adolescence or the beginning of middle-age, vulnerable people who are willing to transgress. Is there something you look for when writing a new character that places them in this kind of moral limbo? Or do your characters find their way to these sorts of trouble on their own?
I think the goal is to create a character with a problem, and for many of my characters lately these problems arise when they clash with the unspoken rules of the world they come from—the pastoral landscape of the suburb, with its sense of safety, and carefully maintained landscaping—a world I grew up in. It’s a place I understand, one that relies on continuity and tradition, and where rituals are often used to mask transgression. Regardless of what happens, or what the characters do, the lawn is still cut on Fridays, the Memorial Day tradition continues.
In some of the stories, it’s like you start writing about the crowd in the beginning of the narrative and wait until the last moment before narrowing in on the character who takes center stage. Is this something you have contrived as an author, or is your process a little more by the seat of your pants? I guess, by the end of the story (in your writing process) is it important that you be surprised by the story as well? And not just by what happens, but even who the story is about?
I do like being surprised by a story. It wouldn’t interest me to write it if there wasn’t the promise of something I didn’t expect waiting for me at the end. Sometimes, though, mid-way through, I realize the ending. Then it’s just a careful, sort of picking-my-way-over-stones to get there.
If it were possible to do so, what advice about writing would you give yourself five years ago?
I think I might tell myself to listen to my instincts about when a piece is really finished, and not rush to be done with it. The process of revision is just as important as the first draft.
What are you working on now?
I’m revising a novel, an expanded version of the short story “Little Sinners” that appears in the new collection.
The 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize is currently accepting submissions through March 15. More information can be found on our website.
Prairie Schooner is pleased to announce its new Publicity Associate, Trey Moody!
Moody, a San Antonio native and third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, earned a B.A. and M.F.A. from Texas State University-San Marcos, where he taught and served as Poetry Editor of Front Porch. The author of the chapbooks Climate Reply (New Michigan Press) and Once Was a Weather (Greying Ghost Press), Moody’s poems have been published or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2009, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, Washington Square, and elsewhere. With Jeff Alessandrelli, he co-curates The Clean Part Reading Series in Lincoln.
As Publicity Associate, Moody will work with relevant media outlets to promote Prairie Schooner’s public events and web initiatives, ensuring that the journal’s cultural presence is felt locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally.
Welcome, Trey, to the Prairie Schooner team!
We're a little late announcing it here, but Mary O'Donnell's poem "Sea Life in St. Mark's Square" was just yesterday the featured poem on Poetry Daily. You can still find the piece, which is from our current issue, of course, at this link.
It is a great poem from a deserving poet, and one we're proud to have it recognized like this.
[Dear Readers, this is the first installment of an ongoing series written for the blog by Peter Rorvik. Further dispatches will soon include the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam and the Dubai International Film Festival. Peter is the Director of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as Director of the Durban International Film Festival.]
Dispatch 1: Doha Tribeca Film Festival (Oct 25-29, 2011)
by Peter Rorvik
Riding into Doha there is a huge signboard saying ACHIEVE. Nothing else, no apparent context, just the word ACHIEVE, emblazoned in huge letters. This is an appropriate signifier for Doha, it could be the country’s slogan, so evident is the aspiration for success in Qatar. Magnificent tall buildings seem to compete for architectural design awards, and cranes are everywhere hoisting up new edifices--come back here in five years time and this place will look like Manhattan. It must surely be the fastest-developing city in the world, and with the Soccer World Cup taking place here in 2020 there will be no slowing down. How did this small desert country get awarded the prestigious World Cup anyway, and why is there a film festival here? You can make up your own mind on the first, but as to the second question, the daughter of the Emir of Qatar studied film in the US where she interned with the Tribeca film festival. Endorsement at the highest level for a film industry thrust in Qatar resulted in the founding of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2009 and the Doha Film Institute in 2010, and there were certainly royal trappings to drool over. A veritable film village has been constructed in the Valley of Cultures, although it is not an actual valley, everything is flat in Doha. Many of the principal events, including the opening film, take place within a massive outdoor structure, hung with screens that from a distance give the appearance of stone walls. Dutch infrastructure was specially imported to house some of the activities, including four compact portable cinemas, well-kitted out and comfortable, and so air-conditioned that you have to layer up when stepping in from the 35degrees desert heat. It’s all highly professional and fit for sheiks, kings and queens.
The opening film heralds Qatar’s foray into cinema production. Lavishly supported by the Qatari government, Black Gold pulled in big names such as Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto. Set against the discovery of oil some 80 years ago, and directed by French helmer Jean-Jacques Annaud, this desert epic is a colourful splurge of tribal rivalries, battle scenes, family honour, honourable and dishonourable men, and enslaved women. A tad long, the film benefited from the injection of humour supplied in the mid and latter sections by British actor Riz Ahmed. Filmed in Qatar and Tunisia at the very time when revolutions were sweeping the region, the struggles for freedom within the film take on new mirrored importance, but whether the film holds together enough to project that point is questionable. Credibility aside, a Jordanian filmmaker complained bitterly that the $55m budget could have supported the production of 50 Arabian films, not just one. Banderas wasn’t on hand for the opening but he and the legendary Omar Sharif were a star act during the award ceremony. Generally the awards teetered on shambolic, with one of the jury members crying out in exasperation, "Please tell us, what award are we supposed to be presenting now?" All went off in good spirit, however. Everyone seems to understand this is a film festival in development. Development was also the motivation in using 1100 volunteers, and out of these will, in time, hopefully come a new organizational cadre of the future and answer charges that too much attention, and money, goes on international glitz and glamour, and not enough on upskilling locals.
For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draweth nigh unto the grave. -Psalm 88
The call comes at high noon, with the sun bright on the rocks and sage, not in the dark midnight hours like Ferrell Swan always expected. On her cell from his old Ohio home, his ex-wife Rilla asks if he's sitting down.
"You bet," Ferrell says, standing at the porch rail. He looks across the high desert country, knowing the news is about Levon, Rilla's child from her first marriage. Ferrell helped raise the boy preschool to high school, the most strife and turmoil ever seen. Though Levon's now thirty-one, not a whole lot has changed.
"What this time?" he says when she doesn't volunteer the words.
"He crashed his car."
The quiet on the line puts Ferrell's knees to trembling. He hopes for anything but Levon being dead, anything else but that. He tries to steer his thoughts from the tragic, but that never helps when it comes to a child, whatever the age.
"Real bad." Rilla goes silent again, leaving Ferrell to feel every mile between his beloved Idaho and the charming brick house from his past, where Rilla now huddles alone.
"I'll get a flight," Ferrell says, already planning the eighty-mile drive to the airport in Boise. "I'll try to be there tomorrow."
"Try very hard," Rilla says and hangs up.
Ferrell pockets his own cell phone in disgust, high-tech messenger of bad news. He studies the colossal smoke columns above Oregon, a half million acres, the radio reports, burning out of control. It has been the worst fire season in a century, months of no rain and hundred-degree days, the air itself ready to burst into flames. Over the summer, Ferrell has seen wildfire in every direction from his isolated cabin, nights lit in garish orange and red, the horizon aglow like the fires of hell have broken through. In daylight hours, the smoke pouring from behind the Owyhees seems a sign of distant war, the bombing of far-off cities.
Last night, Ferrell recalls, the full moon had risen so deeply crimson it scared him, a horrible sunset, he imagined, run backward in the smoky haze. Watching the smoldering moon, Ferrell heard his long dead mother quoting Scripture, something about the moon running the color of blood, a signal terrible events were about to begin.
(Learn more about Mitch Wieland's work at his web site.)
in which Prairie Schooner contributors give us a glimpse into their writing spaces and sensibilities.
Micheal O’Siadhail's thirteen collections of poetry include Tongues, Globe, Love Life, The Gossamer Wall: Poems in Witness to the Holocaust, and Poems 1975-1995. He has been awarded an Irish American Cultural Institute Prize and a Toonder Prize, and he was shortlisted for the Wingate Jewish Quarterly Prize. He has been a lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin, and a professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. His poem "Conversation with Goethe" appears in our current issue.
Name three things of particular significance on your writing desk at the moment.
I have on my desk a book which traces the origin of Japanese characters and how pictographs combine in various ways to form complex ideographs. These signs fascinate me and in my latest book Tongues I devoted a whole section to meditating on them.
I also have here a lead pencil and a pencil sharpener. I have written all my books in pencil. I know the playwright Brian Friel wrote all his work with a ‘2B’ pencil. When we exchange postcards, I like to ask him if he is still pushing his 2B!
A third item is a picture of my wife Bríd, who has Parkinson’s disease, and sadly had to go into care early this year. I need to sense her presence here.
Name one classic you've long been wanting to read.
For years I’ve wanted to read Thomas Mann’s great four part novel Joseph und seine Brüder (Joseph and His Brothers). I know that Mann regarded this placing of these great biblical stories against the background of Egyptian history as his best work. I so want to steep myself in it.
Why haven't you read it?
I have tried to put the time aside but have never succeeded.
Is there any particular music or musician that puts you in the mood to write?
I find I can’t listen to music either while working or before I work. Music affects me deeply and could change the dominant mood of the piece I’m working on. Yet music is immensely significant for me. I love classical music and jazz. Looking back on my poetry over the years, I realise how much jazz has been a core metaphor for me.
Name a favorite book in your possession: a favorite not just for content but for its actual physical qualities.
One of the great delights of working with my publishers Bloodaxe Books is how they serve their authors so well with eye-catching covers, often with a striking painting suggesting a book’s theme. I took particular pleasure in the beautiful painting Blue Dusk by Christopher Gilvan-Cartwright on the cover of This Great Unknowing: Last Poems by Denise Levertov. This is book where both the visual impact and feel of the book add to those superb poems.
Learn more about Micheal O'Siadhail at his web site.
Born in Dublin in 1970, Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway county. Her début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times and ‘a gem’ by The Irish Examiner. Her third short story collection Nude (Salt, 2009)) was shortlisted for the UK’s Edge Hill Prize. Her second short story collection To The World of Men, Welcome has just been re-issued by Arlen House in an expanded paperback edition. Nuala’s third full poetry collection The Juno Charm was published by Salmon Poetry in November 2011. Her story "Peach" in the current Prairie Schooner has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
“Peach” begins with such a powerful and irresistible hook—“A pregnant woman was getting drunk in the back lounge; I could see her through the hatch, from where I sat at the bar. She was drinking and crying, sitting on the red velveteen couch alone.” Did you have these lines when you started writing, or did they come later?
I had those lines at the start. My stories usually begin with a collision of a first line, a vague feeling about a character or two, and an even vaguer notion of a situation. Originally the story was about stillbirth. That morphed into surrogacy and damaged lovers and, the classic short story theme, loneliness and what it makes people do.
Do you think having the lines at the start made the story easier or more difficult to write? That is, during the process of orchestrating a story, do you feel like strong images like this one can overpower the rest of the setting and tone, or are they instrumental in opening up the rest of the story?
I find all stories difficult to write in the sense that I don’t have a clue what’s going on for a while and I just push on to see. I write, essentially, to tell stories to myself. So I never know what is coming next until it happens. I love that point in the writing when it all becomes clear and I can forge ahead with confidence. Every story I write feels like a complete dud at the start, then some go well and some don’t.
I love a good strong opening sentence as both reader and writer. Too much preamble bores me – I like to get a sense of the characters very early on. The opening is so important – it has to set everything up and give the reader the impetus to continue on. I find openings come to me readily, it’s the rest of it I have to work hard on.
“Peach” seems to be about Dominic’s state of mind more than anything. He’s a character who sees himself as “a slow-walker on ice.” The tone and setting play perfectly into his internal sense of apprehension too. I’m wondering, then, do you think it’s something about the city that makes Dominic this way, or is it just his character, essentially?
There’s a place in Dublin called the North Circular Road – a street of Georgian houses that are mostly converted into flats. When I lived near there I used to see a lot of single men on that road (separated men, ex-prisoners, men estranged from their families) and they just reeked with loneliness. Dominic is one of those men – his wife is gone, he doesn’t have close friends, he doesn’t drink because it messes with his head. There are enclaves in every city, I’m sure, where men are a forgotten tribe.
So Dominic is a combination of circumstances, his own downbeat personality – he says in the story that dread is his ‘default position’ – and the fairly grim place he is living in. He loves Dublin but nowhere is kind if you are lonely.
What external environmental factors influence your work and writing process the most? Are you a person who likes to be out in the world while writing? Is writing more of a pure reflective task? Do you find yourself being more productive in one season more than the others?
Cities influence me; I am crazy about cities: Dublin, London, Berlin, Paris, New York; smaller cities too like Bremen in Germany and Nantes in France. I have a very low boredom threshold so I find the buzz of city life exciting. I love buildings; I love all the people teeming around and the art galleries stuffed with mad and great artworks. I also love trees, the sea, birds.
I like to go out into the world to soak it up but I retreat to my peaceful house in the small market town I live in to write. If there are too many distractions, it’s hard to write, so it suits me to live in a quiet place.
It’s challenging to write when the three kids are off school in the summer – they keep interrupting me, demanding food etc. Autumn is a good time to start a new project – the children back at school gives me that fresh feeling of wanting to begin something.
The most unproductive time is when a new book comes out because I spend so much time tearing up and down the country doing promotional stuff. It’s fun but maddening too because my desk calls to me.
Also, as a multi-form author, do you find that outside factors influence your poetry different than your prose? Is there a difference in how you process information between your long- and short-form prose too? Do you find that you experience life with a different mind when writing in one form or the other, or is it all just writing/creating in the end?
Like all writers I have my obsessions so I tend to cover a lot of the same ground in poetry, novels and short stories: sex, the breakdown of love, art, strong women, troubled children. I’m a feminist and that will always come through too.
I’ve written both poems and stories on the exact same topics – Joan of Arc, for example; and also pregnancy loss and fertility issues; marriage breakdown. My poetry tends to be more personal while the fiction is generally not based on my life but on situations that interest me.
I love the long haul of the novel because it takes over your head and you start to process the world through the eyes of the novel, if that makes sense. Because you spend a long time writing it (in my case about a year per novel) it soaks into your life and your life also soaks into it. It’s a very joyous thing, to be in the thick of a long piece of work.
What is one book written in the past five years that you wish you had written? Why?
Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan. It is a fabulous, understated, strange story of revenge, beautifully written. It’s set in Maine in winter and I felt perished reading it. Honestly – this is top notch literary fiction by an under-praised Irish writer, so if you haven’t read it, do!
Who are some of the young talented writers in Ireland that most people haven’t heard of yet? Who is an older writer that doesn’t get enough recognition for their body of work?
There’s a young writer called Eimear Ryan who is winning lots of literary prizes and whom I published in Horizon Review when I was fiction editor there. Eimear has it: she is not only talented, she has oomph.
I am also a big fan of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, who writes wonderful short fiction. She is recognised here, to an extent, but she is on a par with any of our so-called top writers and I don’t understand why everyone is not raving about her work.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir will be on campus in Lincoln on February 9 & 10, 2012, for a public performance of her work at the Sheldon Museum of Art, among other events promoting the launch of our current Ireland themed issue. More specific information will be posted on this blog as it becomes available.
The printed issue has arrived in the Prairie Schooner office this week and should be out to subscribers, if not now then soon. (If you'd like to subscribe, the Ireland issue could be yours soon too!) The issue is an exciting one for us. Stephen C. Behrendt (Interim Senior Editor) explains it well in his introductory note.
In recent years we have published special issues featuring contemporary writing from various regions and nations, including China and Australia, as part of our commitment to reflect in our pages not simply a national but indeed an international sense of the contemporary literary community. But this issue featuring Irish writing today involves a ‘‘specialness’’ that is both distinct and different from any other. America has long cherished a special relationship with Ireland, a relationship most immediately and characteristically visible when St. Patrick’s Day arrives, but one that is in reality far more deeply woven into the cultural fabric of America and that embraces regions and families, time and space, in ways that are particularly unique. Perhaps more so than any other nation, Ireland claims an enduring hold on the American imagination, maybe because the Irish culture, transplanted to America, remains so uniquely and unshakably Irish despite its geographical displacement.
The issue features work by Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Philip Casey, Theodore Deppe, William Wall, Ann Egan, Jean O’Brien, Michael O’Dea, Mary O’Donnell, Gréagóir Ó Dúill, Micheal O’Siadhail, and Thomas Lynch, among many other wonderful contributors.
There will be an official issue launch on February 9 & 10, 2012, on campus in Lincoln, featuring public performances at the Sheldon Museum of Art by Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Deanie Rowan Blank, and an Irish-themed reception on that Friday evening. I'm told the Sheldon is putting together a slideshow of Irish-themed art for the event. It should be a good one. We'll have more information on this forthcoming.
Also, I'd like to bring attention to a note contributor Michael O'Dea sent along in regards to our cover image. (It was posted in the comments of our cover preview.)
The cover photograph of the Irish number is very familiar to many Irish but might not be to some of your readers. It is the waterfront at Cobh (pronounced Cove),County Cork. It is particularly appropriate since it is the port from which over a third of the Irish emigrated to North America. Part of the symmetry Stephen C.Behrendt refers to in his introduction; next stop New York Harbour. It was also the last port of call for RMS Titanic in 1912. And in 1915 it received the received the survivors and victims off RMS Lusitania which was sunk by a German U-Boat off the Cork coast. There were 1198 casualties, of which over a hundred are buried in a local graveyard.
Thanks, Michael, for sending that note along.
And thanks to all of our contributors, editors, readers, and production staff for helping to make the Ireland Issue possible. Particular gratitude needs to go out to Stephen C. Behrendt and Timothy Schaffert for their editorial work and leadership during out recent transition period. They navigated admirably. Their hard work, leadership, and sense of community is very much appreciated.
By the way, check out this great interview of Editor Kwame Dawes in Guernica for an idea of what's to come with Prairie Schooner, plus the multitude of other projects he's involved with. The man stays busy.