Fiction Spotlight: Contributor Sharma Shields

Sharma Shields’s debut novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac (Henry Holt) was published in 2015—and we’re still not over it. “Imagine a mashup of Moby-Dick and Kafka’s Metamorphosis (with a hearty dash of Twin Peaks thrown in),” writes Kirkus Reviews, “and you’ll begin to get an idea of what Shields’ ambitious tale of disenchantment sets out to do.” The novel, which won the 2016 Washington State Book Award in Fiction, is as delightfully weird as Shields’s other work: a short story collection, Favorite Monster (Autumn House), and stories published in places such as Electric Literature, Slice, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, and Fugue. Here at Memorious, we’re happy to say we knew about Sharma Shields before she was cool. We published her short story “Morsels” way back in 2004, in Issue 2. This month, Shields answered our questions about magical beasts, creative inspiration, and what she’s working on now.

I noticed your short story collection is titled Favorite Monster, and The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac is, of course, about Bigfoot. What draws you to write about magical creatures?

My first major monster love as a young girl was Medusa. I discovered her in fourth grade while playing an old-school computer game called “King’s Quest.” My mom noted my interest and returned from the bookstore with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Medusa really was my gateway drug to the weird and fantastical, and for a long time I became especially enamored of the monsters from Greek mythology. I wrote a lot of stories about them. I did not, I should say, write about them when I was in graduate school in Montana. I still loved mythology, but I was uncertain about how to incorporate it into my work. After I graduated, I spent three years in a really draining sales job, and I stopped writing or really even reading during that time. When I finally quit that job and started writing, I really just wanted to uncover the joy in it again, and that’s probably why I started writing the monster stuff, just to entertain myself, to have some fun with my interests and to play around with the supernatural, something I was really attracted to when I read books like Midnight’s Children or One Hundred Years of Solitude.

As a kid, I was fascinated by Medusa because of her power, her frightfulness, and her uniqueness. I loved that she could turn men to stone. I loved that she had snakes for hair. I had ratty, curly hair myself at that age, and I’d worn a bald patch into the back of my head from rocking myself to sleep at night (I had a lot of strange habits as a girl). I loved that she was ugly, and that her ugliness transformed into a respectable power, something to harness, to wield. As an adult, I’m interested in her as a character because it wasn’t her fault that she became the way she did. She was transformed into a monster because she was raped in Athena’s temple. The rapist, of course, was let off unscathed. Regarding her metamorphosis, there are tremendous metaphors and social relevance to be discussed, then and now. This is why I’ve loved writing about monsters in my work: They are ripe with metaphorical possibility. They manifest our fears and our desires. We loathe them and we covet the excitement they bring us. Seeing them, we reflect on ourselves, our heroism or lack thereof, our own monstrosities.

In his 2015 review of The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, Paul Constant writes, “Shields is not ashamed of Bigfoot—she drags him out of blurry photographs and into the spotlight in the very first chapter of the book.” Indeed, despite its magical realism, your book feels surprisingly matter-of-fact. What led you to portray Sasquatch in this particular way—as a strange, but very real neighbor?

I like it when literature doesn’t call too much attention to itself. For example, heavy-handed foreshadowing, florid language, or nudge-you-in-the-ribs humor can really grate on me as a reader. I like it dry and matter-of-fact. I also really like it when things happen. As a writer, I try to avoid drawing things out for too long or favoring description over action. I want to grab the reader and surprise them. After a rather limp first draft, I realized I needed to commit fully to the idea of Sasquatch living among us. Once I made that decision, it became clear he needed to be one of the most immediate characters introduced.

I’ll also argue that it adds depth and believability to a work—especially in the midst of extreme incredulity—to allow the characters to exist freely within their own scene, without copious explanation. I handled the monsters in my story collection in this manner, as well. They are introduced dryly, without fanfare, the way you’d introduce a new co-worker around the office. It adds some humor to the piece, for sure, but it also ushers in hyper-reality and metaphor without interrupting the storyline. I no doubt learned this from writers like Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Diane Williams, this dryness. Explaining too much or making excuses for the presence of the strange damages a story’s reliability.

How have people from your hometown in Washington reacted to and engaged with your novel? Do they agree with Constant that your depiction of Bigfoot “really gets it right”?

I’ve had comments from regional readers about sightings, either their own or a grandmother’s or a friend’s, but I haven’t had any arguments over it (so far). And I love hearing from Inland Northwest readers who are excited to see street names, parks, and inside jokes in the text. One of my favorite scenes to write was the one where Mount St. Helens exploded, which is such a memorable event in our recent history. It’s a regional novel for sure. Sasquatch, himself, his smell, his carriage, his more-animal-than-man-ness, was inspired by local tribal legends. Some of my favorite interactions between readers occurred when I spoke at Wenatchee Valley College in Omak, which is near the Colville Reservation (my mom is from a small town near Omak called Okanogan). A woman there told me about how her grandmother had been abducted by Sasquatch near Lake Chelan. She was found weeks later, wandering around in a comatose state. Another woman told me that as a girl she and her grandparents would put out gifts for Sasquatch, and in times of need, gifts would be left for them in return, berries and more. These stories show the many sides of Sasquatch, how he can be a menace, or how he can be a compassionate being. He’s like us. If you haven’t read Sherman Alexie’s “The Sasquatch Poems,” I highly recommend it. You can find the piece online at ZYZZYVA and it’s incredible and speaks to all of this. Sasquatch has a rich Native history and presence in the Inland Northwest that needs to be respected and admired. I really had this in mind while I was writing. It’s hard for me to know if I “got it right.” It’s definitely my interpretation, and it’s probably a goofy one, but I hope his humanity rings true for readers.

The novel spans nearly the entire life of its protagonist, Eli Roebuck, and shifts among many perspectives, including those of his wives and daughters. Could you talk about the journey of writing and marketing such a complexly structured book, especially as your debut novel?

This is my first published novel, but not the first novel I’ve written. The first two novels I wrote (and I even got about 300 pages into a third, although I never finished it) were long, rambling, literary tomes where little happened except in the narrator’s head. They were boring. The truth was, the first one might have been salvageable—not the second, it was total garbage, haha—but I didn’t have the maturity or confidence to approach editing them, which is really the only thing that can turn a first draft into a publishable work. Around the time I started this novel, I learned that my short story collection won the Autumn House Fiction Prize, and that Autumn House would publish it the following year. I’d also had quite a bit of luck with landing short stories in literary journals, and I was accustomed to editing those shorter pieces. I decided I would write the chapters of this new novel the same way I write my short stories. I figured it would be a more familiar landscape for me, and that I would be less intimidated by the editing process if I could tackle the chapters piece by piece. Of course, this sort of backfired in my first draft. The novel read far more like a story collection and had zero cohesive arc. Eli and the hunt for Sasquatch became that arc, although I was admittedly more interested in the satellite characters (the women) in the book as I was writing.

I really didn’t worry about marketing with the book. I usually assume while I’m writing that very few people will ever read it, and I think a part of me never believed it would be published. It is a feral, sprawling, strange book, and that’s a turn-off for some. I feel really grateful that it found such a cozy home with Henry Holt and editor Caroline Zancan.

I love the videos of you, featured on The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac webpage, walking in the woods near Spokane and in The Palouse. What went into creating these? Were they your idea?

My publisher sent me a fancy video camera and a tripod and minimal instructions. They thought it would be fun to show people where I’m from and where the novel was set. I decided on the Steven’s Creek Trailhead, the hills of the Palouse, and the Moran Prairie Grange because they show three different settings highlighted in the book, namely the forest, the farmland just south of Spokane, and the location where a funeral takes place at the end of the novel. I did all of the filming myself and it was pretty hilarious—there were a lot of outtakes. I managed to return all of the gadgets to them in one piece. It was hella icy out there and I’ve turned into a complete butterfingers these last couple of years, so I’m so glad I didn’t break that camera.

I also noticed the quote on your author webpage from J. Robert Lennon that says, “My favorite weirdo in American letters.” And I agree: one of the best aspects of your writing is its weirdness. Has that been an explicit aesthetic goal of your work? Or is it a quality incidental to your natural interests?

That’s a great question. I’d say the latter, that the weirdness is more organic, born of disparate interests and a lifelong appreciation of dark and frightening things. My goals, I’m sad to say, are pretty dull: Write at least four days a week. Finish this project. Now this one. I plod forward with one foot in front of the other and it amazes me when I finish anything. I’m constantly feeling a sort of, “When did I write this? How?” It’s such an out-of-body experience for me. But yes, aesthetically, I write what interests me, although that’s always in flux, too. I have to dissolve into the world I’m writing and if I’m not married to it, then I don’t enter that world properly. So yes, I think my natural interests are at play here for sure, although I feel like I’m less interested in weirdness than I am in the illogical.

What novels did you read for inspiration while you were writing this one?

While writing this, I thought of other novels written in a linked-stories manner, like Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (which is not at all fantastical), Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe (which is awesomely fantastical), and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Rumbling around in my head was also a strange hodgepodge of Shirley Jackson’s novels (I believe I read all of them, and I’m not kidding, around the time I was writing this book), Hans Christian Andersen stories and, of course, Greek myths. One chapter was even influenced by Stephen King. I really like writers who can move fluidly between fantasy and reality, humor and horror. As a rule, I typically read pretty widely, without worrying about what sort of immediate effect it has on my writing. Reading and writing are a symbiotic relationship—they really do keep one another healthy and sharp—but I definitely benefit as much from reading authors who write nothing like me as I do from writers who write in a similar vein.

This is slightly off-topic, but I saw you got your MFA at the University of Montana. I had the chance to visit Missoula for the first time this year, and it was a magical place. What was it like studying writing there? In general, how do you think place influences your work?

The writing program was great. For the first time in my adult life, I really concentrated on writing every day, and on the craft. I had a lot to learn not just from the professors, but from my peers. They were an uber-talented, kooky group. There are always issues with those programs, of course, they can become incestuous by the second year and a bit poisonous, which I think is just part and parcel of living, breathing, and sharing your passions with your professors and a small group of like-minded people. The pond gets stagnant, you know? It can bring the worst out in people, and I was a nervous, paranoid twit my second year. When I didn’t get a teaching gig, I was shattered. I felt like no one believed in me. Eventually I had to say, Fuck it, and I got over it. I knew it was silly to take rejection personally. And all of the other writers really were better than me, so it was cool. I learned so much. I met my husband there, Sam, who is still my best editor and friend, so total bonus.

My husband and I never thought we’d leave Missoula, we loved it so much, but we had to, finally, because jobs were hard to come by there and I was suffering from a wretched depression that was no doubt fueled by my job, my inability to write, and my alcoholism. I returned home. I sobered up. I got a job with the public library. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Sam and I had a kid. Then another. I was near to my mom and dad and sister and brother. It was the best thing I could have done for my writing. Much of what I write about springs from this very sense of place, the Inland Northwest, Spokane, the memories here, and the tension, the bad and the good.

Finally, what are you working on now?

I just finished the umpteenth draft of my new novel. It’s a whole other beast entirely. It’s much more focused compared to The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac. It’s told from one perspective, takes place in one year, is much more political, and is set in one (very frightening) location. It does take place in Washington State though, this time at the Hanford Nuclear Site. There are no monsters in this one, but there is a talking coyote and a clairvoyant woman, so I’ve definitely injected elements of the illogical and supernatural into what is also a historical novel.

Natalie Mesnard currently serves as Director of Programs & Strategic Communications at the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews have appeared online and in print with journals such as Copper NickelThe Gettysburg ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe JournalKenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review. She can be found online at nataliemesnard.com.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Fiction Spotlight: Contributor Benjamin Percy

Benjamin Percy’s stunning work of flash fiction called “Revival” appeared in the seventh issue of Memorious. At the time, his second collection of short stories was due out, after his first outstanding collection, The Language of Elk. In the decade since, Percy’s gone on to publish three novels—The Wilding, Red Moon, and The Dead Lands—with a fourth on the way (The Dark Net), and he’s worked on a slew of screenwriting projects, as well as the current DC Comics titles, Green Arrow and Teen Titans. Steeped in both the literary tradition as well as the language of film, Percy is known for his suspenseful plots, his action-packed set-pieces, and his sharply precise style, which is why Graywolf Press was eager to publish a collection of his essays on craft and technique. Released last October, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction has received wide acclaim and is already on the list of numerous fiction workshop syllabi. In support of the book’s release, Percy was excellent enough to answer our questions about the text for his second appearance in our “Fiction Spotlight” series.

Graywolf has been a big supporter of your work for years, and you’ve published both Refresh, Refresh and The Wilding with them. How did you develop this project for a craft book on fiction?

I’m a regular at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop—and I used to teach in the low-res MFA program at Pacific University—at which I always gave an hour-long craft lecture. It became my standard to polish these lectures into essays that were then published by Kevin Larimer in Poets & Writers magazine.

I was gratified to hear from people who tore the craft essays out, photocopied them, taught them in creative writing workshops. It wasn’t my intention to write a book. I was just refining my own thoughts on fiction and sharing my half-assed wisdom with whoever would listen. But then Jeff Shotts at Graywolf approached me about the possibility of collecting the essays into a single volume.

So I worked with Shotts and Steve Woodward [Graywolf’s associate editor] on expanding some of the essays, merging others, building a toolbox of storytelling devices themed around suspense and momentum, the borderlands of genre and literary fiction.

One of my favorite quotes from Thrill Me comes from the essay, “Get a Job:” “Every story I write is a research project.” You go on to discuss various modes and methods of research you’ve had to do in order to figure out a draft’s details and mood more precisely. That said, can you give an example of some research you’ve had to perform in preparation for your next novel, The Dark Net? What would you say was a detail within the research that surprised you or changed a misconception you had?

Thanks. That was one of my favorite essays to write.

darknetFor The Dark Net—which comes out this summer—I read articles, watched documentaries. But the most helpful research came from speaking to people involved with digital security. Every tech expert I talked to—over a year ago, when researching the novel—warned me about China and Russia.

Employees at Google, Apple, Verizon, and a half-dozen hacker nerds I can’t name—they all said to wait and watch. A major attack was coming. They were certain. Not a breach, not an intrusion, as people might expect. Because the Chinese and Russians were ALREADY inside the walls of our government. The question was, what did they plan to do with the information they already had access to…

…and then came the US election and the headlines we’re enduring right now. Early investigations seem to indicate that Russian involvement with US politics could be the biggest political scandal since Watergate.

You’ve talked elsewhere that you shape your fiction around the juxtaposition of images and events until they work together, even going so far as to use the cork board and the old developer’s closet in your house as a sort of diorama of story. How does this process differ than, say, structuring a comics storyline in Green Arrow and Teen Titans, or building a TV pilot like Black Gold?

I use the same process, no matter the medium. My office closet is papered with story maps and character charts and lists of ideas. I need a visualization because I can’t keep it all in my head. I’m religious about outlining before I set out to write. The only difference is structure considerations.

If I’m working on comics, for instance, I need to keep in mind the twenty-page format, which generally equals five to seven scenes, two “splash” images, a B storyline, and a dominant action set-piece.

In your essay on modulation, you mention that you’re “bad about favorites” since you have so many of them, but if you had to pinpoint a craft book that was most influential on your own understanding of writing, which one would you pick? What’s a particular lesson you learned from it that stays with you today?

Like I said, I’m bad with favorites. Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext is brilliant. So is Stephen King’s On Writing. But books like Syd Field’s Screenplay and Robert McKee’s Story might have changed me more than any other. Because they gave me a language and vision for structure and causality that I wasn’t getting from any creative writing workshop, where “plot” was considered such a dirty word.

Who are some writers and artists you’ve recently encountered—in fiction, comics, or elsewhere—that are taking plot, structure, and suspense in new directions?

Check out Tom King’s The Vision (with artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta) and Sheriff of Babylon (with Mitch Gerads). He’s very particular about the paneling of his comics. I’m especially interested in his use of cyclical/repetitive designs and language.

I love the three-part design of the film Moonlight. And the fragmented mosaic featured in books by Terry Tempest Williams and Nick Flynn.

Along those same lines, which author (or director or playwright, etc.) do you wish more students of writing were reading these days? What should they be picking up from that person in terms of craft?

I could list off fifty names here, but instead I’ll say that everyone should read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. It’s so smart and witty and a perfect example of form serving function. It changed the way I watched movies and read everything from comics to novels to essays to poems.

Last but not least: in “Feckless Pondering,” you recall the legend of Barry Hannah pulling a gun on a workshop student in order to prove the point about immediate danger and introspection within a scene. From your time as an instructor, what’s a specific workshop moment you want to be known for decades later—legend, truth, or somewhere in between?

Any class I teach, I want to leave people jacked up about fiction and excited to get to the keyboard. I’m becoming more and more hermitic and am not really interested in a reputation outside of my fiction, so I’ll settle for, “He was mostly helpful and not an asshole.”

Interviewer Barrett Bowlin is a contributing editor for Memorious. Recent stories and essays of his can be found in places like Ninth LetterHobartThe RumpusMid-American ReviewMichigan Quarterly Review, and Bayou, which awarded him last year’s James Knudsen Prize in Fiction. He teaches film and literature classes at Binghamton University, and he writes inappropriate things on Twitter (@barrettbowlin).

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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Rebecca Morgan Frank’s Anticipated Books of 2017

As editor-in-chief, I get the honor of bringing you the last installment of our week-long Anticipated Books countdown to 2017 and wishing you a Happy New Year– may books continue to challenge us; to bring joy, pleasure and solace; to expand our knowledge and compassion; to introduce us to new perspectives and voices; to connect us; and to call us to action in the year ahead. We hope many of you will join us and writers across the country on January 15th for Writers Resist, where  “invited speakers will read from a curated selection of diverse writers’ voices that speak to the ideals of Democracy and free expression.” Memorious is a co-sponsor of the event here in Boston: join us here or find an event near you.

Meanwhile, as you’ve seen from our lists this week, 2017 much to offer us as readers. Here are a few must-read poetry books for 2017:

41ovs9gjs1l-_sx331_bo1204203200_-1Molly McCully Brown, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (Persea Books, March 2017)

Persea Books’ 2016 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize has a terrific history of introducing new women poets, and recent winner Molly McCully Brown’s debut collection looks to be a highlight for the series. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded takes its title from an institution in Virginia that was central to the twentieth century eugenics movement: thousands of residents were legally sterilized there into the 1970’s. This collection, which imagines the lives of these residents, as well as the colony’s staff, promises to bring this terrible history to light with poems such as “The Blindroom” (the colony’s term for solitary confinement) and to bring us poems that allow for experiences of a variety of bodies in the world. Brown, a young Virginia native whose essays about moving through the world with cerebral palsy have appeared in The Rumpus and Image, is a bright new poet to watch out for in 2017.

51jilwdqncl-_sx331_bo1204203200_-1Erika L. Sánchez, Lessons on Expulsion (Graywolf, Fall 2017)

There is so much to look forward to on Graywolf’s list for 2017 and beyond–contributor Sally Wen Mao has her second book coming out with them in 2019 and contributor Tarfia Faizullah’s second collection is slated for 2018! This year, I am particularly looking forward to Erika Sanchez’s debut collection, which explores her experience as the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants and promises to be unflinching in its gaze, moving from violent murders and sexual assaults to the struggles of suicide attempts. The poems I’ve seen are densely image-driven and compelling. A CantoMundo and Ruth Lilly Fellow, Sánchez has also written a young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, forthcoming from Knopf Books for Young Readers, and she was formerly the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas. You’re going to hearing a lot about this dynamic writer in 2017.

91wqfkpnxulBill Knott, I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960–2014, edited by Thomas Lux (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 14)

One of the marvelous things about Bill Knott (1940-2014), who graced us with an interview in Issue 6 and allowed us to use one of his collages for cover art for Issue 7, is that at his readings he would hand out chapbooks, often with revised versions of poems published elsewhere. Later in life, he became determined to provide most of his work online on his blog. He was known for seeing himself as an outsider, from his childhood as an orphan through his days publishing books and teaching at Emerson College. As Jonathan Galassi says in The New Yorker, “Belonging was not his thing.” James Wright once brought him bananas on a lonely Thanksgiving: this was how they met. It seems fitting that a poet who, in his younger years, published a supposedly posthumous book under the pseudonym Saint Geraud, might become most renowned after his own death; in the case of Knott, this is somehow still heartbreaking. Here’s to breaking our hearts with this collection of this one-of-a-kind poet’s work.

Finally, there are so many great books ahead from our poetry contributors that I couldn’t choose only one or two. Please stay tuned to our blog over the year ahead for spotlights on many of these contributor books:

Hadara Bar-Nadav, The New Nudity (Saturnalia Books)

Michael Bazzett, Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief Books)

Andrea Cohen, Unfathoming (Four Way Books)

Alex Dimitrov, Together and By Ourselves (Copper Canyon)

Jehanne Dubrow, Dots and Dashes (Southern Illinois University Press)

Leslie Harrison, The Book of Endings (University of Akron Press)

Derrick Harriell, Stripper in Wonderland (LSU Press)

*K.A. Hays, Windthrow (Carnegie Mellon UP)

Jill McDonough (Reaper, Alice James Books)

Karyna McGlynn, Hothouse, (Sarabande)

Kiki Petrosino, Witch Wife (Sarabande)

Christina Pugh, Perception (Four Way Books)

Jacques RancourtNovena (Pleaides Press)

Lloyd Schwartz, Little Kisses (University of Chicago Press)

Tara Skurtu, The Amoeba Game (Eyewear)

Jennifer Tseng, Not so dear Jenny (Bateau Press)

Jessica Goodfellow UenoWhiteout (University of Alaska Press)

Erica Wright, All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned (Black Lawrence Press)

PS: And a bonus shout-out to more 2017 in poetry: Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art (TriQuarterly/Northwestern Univ. Press), Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child (Copper Canyon); Allison Benis White’s Please Bury Me in This (Four Way Books); Marcus Wicker’s Silencer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

*added on 1/6/17

Rebecca Morgan Frank is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Memorious. She is the author of two collections of poems, The Spokes of Venus (Carnegie Mellon UP 2016), and Little Murders Everywhere (Salmon 2012), a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her third collection, Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country, is forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon in October 2017. She is the Jacob Ziskind Poet in Residence at Brandeis University.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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Joanna Luloff’s Anticipated Books of 2017

At the end of this tumultuous year, it is tempting to want to move on and train our gaze onto the new. Like many of us, I imagine, I’ve been thinking about what reading and writing can do—politically, socially. To me, these seemingly solitary acts encourage empathy, curiosity, engagement, and self-scrutiny. I hope, too, that they force us to look, carefully and critically, at our present lives in the context of the past and the future. Many writers I’ve long admired and enjoyed have books coming out this year (J.M. Coetzee, Joan Didion, George Saunders, Arundhati Roy, Haruki Murakami, Hari Kunzru) as well as writers newer to me whose earlier books looked thoughtfully and unflinchingly at the history and the present (Jesmyn Ward, Han King, and Viet Thanh Nguyen). I’m also incredibly excited to read books by friends and colleagues and contributors whose writing has inspired and energized me (Robert Long Foreman, Emily Ruskovitch, Marc McKee, Ian Stansel, Wendy Oleson). But I’ve chosen to focus this post on writers who are very new to me. As I looked back over this list, I saw some common themes developing. Each of these books, in varied ways, is engaging with questions of place and belonging in a quickly changing world. Through ghost stories, dystopian futures, and quieter realism, these novels and stories seem prescient in the questions they are asking about our new year. The close of 2016 also marks the end of my role as fiction editor at Memorious. I feel privileged to have been in the company of so many generous writers and readers and editors at the journal.

akkadwarAmerican War by Omar El Akkad (Knopf, April 4, 2017)
Akkad’s novel takes place in 2074 and imagines a second American Civil War. At its center is Sarat Chestnut, a young girl who grows up witness to flooding and a sky filled by unmanned drones. After her father dies, she grows up at Camp Patience, a community for displaced persons. Here is what Emily St. John Mandel has to say about the novel: “American War is an extraordinary novel. El Akkad’s story of a family caught up in the collapse of an empire is as harrowing as it is brilliant, and has an air of terrible relevance in these partisan times.”

hanfairytaleThe Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong (Graywolf Press, March 7, 2017)
The description of Yujoo’s novel reads a bit like Lord of the Flies set at a Korean grade school. The story follows two girls, one spoiled and the other nearly invisible. Here is what Graywolf says about the novel: “At school, their fellow students, whether lucky or luckless or unlucky, seem consumed by an almost murderous rage. Adults are nearly invisible, and the society the children create on their own is marked by cruelty and soul-crushing hierarchies. Then, one day, the Child sneaks into the classroom after hours and adds ominous sentences to her classmates’ notebooks. This sinister but initially inconsequential act unlocks a series of events that end in horrible violence. But that is not the end of this eerie, unpredictable novel. A teacher, who is also this book’s author, wakes from an intense dream. When she arrives at her next class, she recognizes a student: the Child, who knows about the events of the novel’s first half, which took place years before. The Impossible Fairy Tale is a fresh and terrifying exploration of the ethics of art making and of the stinging consequences of neglect.”

europa20842084: The End of the World by Boualem Sansal, translated by Alison Anderson 
(Europa Editions, January 31, 2017)
Sansal’s novel is in conversation with George Orwell’s 1984. It takes place in Abistan, a kingdom honoring the prophet Abi, where remembering is outlawed and citizens are surveilled at all times. Individual thought is forbidden, but a group of independent thinkers and outlaws live hidden in caves, where they plan a revolution. Europa describes Sansal’s novel: “2084 is a cry of freedom, a call to rebellion, and a gripping satirical novel of ideas.”

arimahskyWhat It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky: Stories by Lesley Nneka Arimah
(Riverhead Books April 4, 2017)
I’m excited to read Arimah’s collection of stories that engage a range of storytelling strategies and smash fable up against realism. In one story, a woman works as a grief mathematician, whose job it is to “exorcise” trauma and grief from a client’s consciousness. In another story, a woman who longs to have a child creates one out of her own hair. Her stories are imaginative and often unsettling, but written with a contrasting matter-of-fact prose. From Aimee Bender: “How does she make these stories so distilled and spacious at the same time? They are drained of excess but still expand so fearlessly.”

the-gurugu-pledge-cover-rgb-300x460The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel, translated by Jethro Soutar
(And Other Stories, August 2, 2017)
And Other Stories press is publishing some really exciting translations, and I’m eager to read this novel crafted out of first-hand accounts of refugee migrations. Here is how the press describes The Gurugu Pledge: “On Mount Gurugu, overlooking the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the North African coast, desperate migrants gather before attempting to scale the city’s walls and gain asylum on European soil. Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel has written an urgent novel, by turns funny and sad, bringing a distinctly African perspective to a major issue of our time.”

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin, May 2, 2017)
Ko’s novel won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice. The story follows eleven-year old Deming Guo who is adopted by a white couple after his mother, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, never comes home from her job at a nail salon. Laila Lalami describes the novel as “a rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages. . . one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year.”

(And briefly, because I’ve already exceeded my limit! SJ Sindu’s A Marriage of a Thousand Lies, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrashnan, Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, Things we Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriques, Salt Houses by Hala Alyan, No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts.)

Joanna Luloff is a fiction editor at Memorious. Her short story collection The Beach at Galle Road was published by Algonquin Books in 2012. Her novel is forthcoming from Algonquin. She teaches at the University of Colorado Denver.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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Sara A. Lewis’s Anticipated Books of 2017

Always Happy Hour, Mary Miller (Liveright, January)

happymillerThis book’s cover image is a woman in a bathtub eating Chinese takeout and drinking wine straight from the bottle. These are stories I can get behind. If all of them are even half as good as “Little Bear,” which was published earlier this year in the Mississippi Review, this will probably be my favorite book of the year.

 
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker (Tin House, February)

there-are-more-beautiful-things-than-beyonce-by-morgan-parkerParker’s Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night was selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize. Her new book has garnered praise from Roxane Gay, D.A. Powell, and Lena Dunham. These poems are timely and relevant; they engage and confront popular culture in ways that are both accessible and poignant. Tin House Books consistently puts out some of my favorite books each year, and I’m sure this one is no exception.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (Deckle Edge, February)

saunderslincolnThe master of the short story has written a novel. While technically historical, Saunders claims this is mostly science-fiction. The novel centers around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie during the Civil War, an historical fact, which when put through the Saunders machine results in a story about ghosts, the struggle for Willie’s soul, and the bardo (Tibetan purgatory). Sold.

The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch (Harper, April)

lidiajoanYuknavitch is the queen of corporeal writing. In addition to the release of The Misfit’s Manifesto, a book based on her TED Talk, I’m looking forward to reading The Book of Joan, Yuknavitch’s speculative retelling of Joan of Arc. With each project, Yuknavitch has continued to redefine what a narrative can do, pushing the boundaries of perspective and resisting the tidy (or even discernible) conclusion. This book promises more badassery from the most badass writer around.

Talking Pillow, Angela Ball (Pittsburgh UP, Fall)

Angela Ball is my hero in poetry and in life; I’m so looking forward to the publication of her next collection. These poems, written after the death of her longtime partner, will rip your guts out in one line and make you laugh with the next. As all good humorists do, Ball melds the tragic and comic masterfully, recognizing the necessity of both. These poems are at once a celebration of her love for her partner and an exploration of the unpredictable (and often paradoxical) human experience.

Other Notables:

Difficult Women, Roxane Gay (Grove, January)

O Fallen Angel (Rerelease), Kate Zambreno (Harper Perennial, January)

South and West, Joan Didion (Knopf, March)

The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket, March)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay (Harper, June)

Sara A. Lewis is a doctoral candidate in fiction at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. She has been an Assistant Editor for the Mississippi Review, and is currently the Managing Editor of the Memorious blog and an editor for the magazine. 

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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Natalie Mesnard’s Anticipated Books of 2017

In Full Velvet, Jenny Johnson (Sarabande, February)
Sarabande’s Marketing and Publicity Director Ariel Lewiton recently gave me a sneak peek at some of their 2017 titles, and I admit to falling in love with the soft, sensual cover of Johnson’s forthcoming debut poetry collection. Inside, Johnson, a Whiting Award winner and the 2016-17 Hodder Fellow, writes an intellect that digs in and expands. Poems wind through dyke bars, barbershops, diners, and Southern rivers, revealing a nature that is familiar, and yet wholly singular.

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Yiyun Li (Deckle Edge, February)
Yiyun Li has a phenomenal new essay out in the latest issue of A Public Space; having had the privilege of reviewing it prior to publication, I couldn’t be more excited about an entire collection of Li’s nonfiction work. Described as being written “over two years while the author battled suicidal depression,” the book promises pages of crystalline insight into how we endure through literacy.

Common Ancestor, Jenny Irish (Black Lawrence, January)
I got hooked on Jenny Irish when I read her story, “Borning,” in the Fall 2016 issue of The Georgia Review, so I was glad to find out she has this collection of prose poems forthcoming next month. It’s an elusive form, and I’ll never stop being fascinated by writers who can do it well. Besides that, Cynthia Hogue claims, “She scrutinizes violence with rare sangfroid,” making this book from Irish sound both devastating and necessary.

The Art of Death, Edwidge Danticat (Graywolf, July)
I’ve been a huge fan of Graywolf’s Art of series since I read The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young. Back then, I wished Graywolf would release a boxed set of these small books on creative writing aesthetics, so I could own all of them at once. What happened was better: new ones kept coming out, including this simultaneously grave and illuminating title from Danticat.

Assistant Fiction Editor Natalie Mesnard was the Web Edition editor for the Summer 2015 and Summer 2016 issues of Ninth Letter Online. She earned her MFA from the University of Illinois and is now based in Ossining, New York. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews have appeared online and in print with journals such as Copper NickelThe Gettysburg ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe JournalKenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review. She can be found online at nataliemesnard.com.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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Derrick Austin’s Anticipated Books of 2017

Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing, Charif Shanahan (Southern Illinois UP, February)
In a geographically sprawling collection—set in Morocco, The United States, and Europe—Shanahan writes of the bond between all three regions, bonds established by the brutal legacies of slavery, colonialism, colorism, and racism. He writes through global history as well as family history as the biracial son of a black mother from Morocco and an Irish father from the US. The poems themselves are so fully thought through, poems that think and feel toward their conclusions in language that is spare and precise—and all the more emotionally rich for it. These are heavy subjects that often push to where language fails and wounds us. Yet, through these painful inheritances are legacies of love, hard-fought and hard-won: platonic, erotic, queer, and familial.

Magic City Gospel, Ashley M. Jones (Hub City, January)
Jones’s collection, Magic City Gospel, is so tender and knowing an exploration of her native Birmingham that it’s all the more impressive to remember that this is her first book. She has a knack for writing the pitch-perfect image or detail. The voice of these poems is at once warm and welcoming and clear-eyed about the historical legacies of racism and violence in Alabama. But what immediately won me over about the book is how the poems always centralize black women. These are their narratives, their songs, their joys and heartbreaks. Even when writing about the Ku Klux Klan or recipe books or male relatives, you never forget the black women who are too often forgotten.

Scale, Nathan McClain (Four Way, March)
With such vulnerability and compassion do the speakers of McClain’s poems bare themselves before the reader. With such clarity does McClain explore, dismantle, and subvert black masculinity. These poems are a welcome antidote in this climate of toxic masculinity. Self-assured and formally adept, the work is so precise and honest that even the shortest poems will leave you winded. I am in awe of the emotional work in McClain’s debut. These speakers aren’t afraid to fail even though the poems succeed.

simulacra, Airea D. Matthews (Yale UP, March)
There is so much to be excited for in Matthew’s debut collection of poetry, winner of the 2016 Yale Younger Poets Prize—for me that would be the vastness of her vision. There is nothing—no form, no subject—that is not worth consideration. Consider how the glory of opera intersects with the casual intimacy of a text message. Consider how mythology commingles with philosophy. The formal innovations support the emotional and intellectual inquiries of the poems. I love a poet whose work thinks and feels deeply but it don’t mean a thing if the work don’t sing—and trust me, Matthews has an exquisite ear. In what feels like an explosive few years in phenomenal African American poetry, this book is certainly one to remember.

A brief list of other collections to watch out for:
The End of Something, Kate Greenstreet
Music for a Wedding, Lauren Clark
Ordinary Beast, Nicole Sealey
Magdalene, Marie Howe
The January Children, Safia Elhillo
There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, Morgan Parker
Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Kaveh Akbar
Whereas, Layli Long Soldier

Assistant Poetry Editor Derrick Austin is the author of Trouble the Water (BOA Editions 2016), selected by Mary Szybist for the 2015 A. Poulin Jr Prize. A Cave Canem fellow, Pushcart Prize and four-time Best New Poets nominee, he earned his MFA at the University of Michigan where he also earned Hopwood Awards in poetry. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2015, New England ReviewImage: A Journal of Arts and ReligionMemoriousCallalooNimrodCrab Orchard Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the 2016-2017 Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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