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Forgotten Writers: Deborah Willis on Shirley Faessler

debbieAccording to the foreword to A Basket of Apples, Shirley Faessler’s stories began as tales told around a kitchen table. Faessler ran a rooming house for actors in Toronto, and would entertain the entertainers with stories of Yankev the Bootlegger, Henye the Hunchback, and Raisel the Galloping Consumptive. This “witty and uncompromising writer”—as she was described by Alice Munro—spoke of a time, place and people that have slipped away: the 1920s and ’30s immigrant Jews of Toronto’s Kensington Market, who lived and worked, who teased and danced, who loved and married and mourned, who sipped tea through sugar cubes, who spoke accented English and passionate Yiddish.

I can never know this world, but am hungry for it because it is close to the world of my grandparents and great-grandparents. The Jewish side of my family is from Latvia and Galicia (a region that is now part of Poland and the Ukraine), whereas Faessler writes of Rumanians and Russians, but I try to imagine my people brushing up against hers—perhaps my great-grandmother knew of Mottele Blabbermouth or Misha Liar. Perhaps my great-grandfather sometimes joined “his buddies in the back room of an ice-cream parlour on Augusta Avenue for a glass of wine, a game of klaberjass, pinocle, dominoes.” Or perhaps not. Maybe the Yiddish spoken by Faessler’s characters would have been incomprehensible to the Yiddish speakers in my family. And perhaps it doesn’t matter, because Faessler’s stories are, quite simply, moving and funny and dramatic.

They take place in kitchens with peeling linoleum, around dinners where tables aren’t set but cutlery is tossed down, where the burnt edges are scraped off the honey cake. The language is as plain as the setting, but the modest people that populate the book have huge hearts, surprising the reader with their loyalty and fervor, and the dialogue crackles with humor:

“I don’t even get to drink l’chaim to the couple?” Haskele protested.

“With water,” Fenya said. “I see how people which they have weak stomachs drink l’chaim with a glass of water. And people which they have weak heads should do the same.”

Shirley Faessler was sixty years old when she published her first story in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967. She went on to publish a novel that apparently gave her difficulty (what novel doesn’t give its author difficulty?), and a collection of stories that was universally praised, even by the likes of Munro. Her work emerged from a lost world in literature, when an editor might drop by a writer’s house to ensure that she doesn’t burn her manuscript, and when a writer would give typewritten pages—the only copy of the manuscript in existence—to the editor to carry home.

Bfaessler_cvr-3d-300p-196x300ut of course, so it goes in this life (as Faessler’s sly and resigned narrative voice might say), her work fell out of print for years. When my friend, who is Faessler’s niece, handed me a copy of this collection at a dinner party, I had never heard of Shirley Faessler. Her collection is only available now thanks to the dedication of her editor, Lily Poritz Miller, and Bill Gladstone, a publisher who created Now and Then Books to preserve Toronto’s Jewish History.

Many of the stories in A Basket of Apples are told from the perspective of Sarah Glicksman, the author’s alter-ego, raised by a Rumanian father and Russian stepmother. These stories are linked, and are about the links between people: an aunt and her long-lost nephew, a stepmother and orphans, sisters and brothers. Faessler is a particularly keen observer of flawed marriages that begin with a marriage broker and end when one partner dies. She takes a long, honest look at the way Sarah’s father, who has all the economic power, is capable of harming his wife:

“More than once with one swipe of his hand my father would send a few plates crashing to the floor and stalk out. She’d sit a minute looking in our faces, one by one, then start twirling her thumbs and talking to herself. What had she done now?

“Eat!” she’d admonish us, and leaving the table would go to the mirror over the kitchen sink and ask herself face to face, “What did I do now?””

But Faessler also shows the toughness of Sarah’s stepmother, the miraculous way this woman maintains her wicked humor and sweetness. And she shows the vulnerability of the husband, who despite his temper, will soak his wife’s feet and “scrape away with a razor blade at her calluses and corns.”

Faessler is also marvelous when she writes about the ways mothers and daughters love and irritate each other:

“Why doesn’t she cut down on the bread, does she have to drink twenty glasses of tea a day? No wonder her feet are sore, carrying around all that weight…” reflects Sarah about her stepmother, only to state, a few pages later: “She breaks my heart. I want to put my arms around her, but I can’t do it.”

This relationship between stepmother Chayele and her children is the heart of the book. Tragedy doesn’t strike in these pages, but there are devastating scenes of Chayele’s stepchildren arguing over how to tell her that their father, her husband, has died—after he refused to inform his wife that he had cancer in the first place, in an attempt to spare her feelings.

the-dark“What kind of life is it to be alone?” this book asks, then starkly shows that when a wife dies, the husband will mourn her and remarry. But when a husband dies, the women deal with a more profound loneliness, struggling on in houses that are too big for them, with housework they are no longer inspired to do, relying on children who nag and adore them but are unable or unwilling to take them in.

This is a terribly realist book, unapologetically specific to its setting, but also a book that shows us humanity at its most universal. Through its tender and ironic depictions of Auntie Chayele, Pinnie the Intellectual, and other characters who are somehow both larger-than-life and humbly real, these stories capture the deep love and heart-stopping grief of ordinary lives.

Deborah Willis was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. Her fiction has appeared in The Walrus, The Virginia Quarterly, The Iowa Review, Lucky Peach, and Zoetrope. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was named one of the the Globe and Mail‘s Best Books of 2009, and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award. Her second collection of short stories, The Dark and Other Love Stories, is out now. 

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Big Loves: Jeneva Burroughs Stone on Sir Thomas Browne

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Photo by B. Farbo

Let’s face it: No one wakes up one day with the epiphany, “I must read Religio Medici!” Sir Thomas Browne’s works are funky, antiquated gems, somewhat obscure even for those who study 16th and 17th century English Renaissance Literature, as I did at Columbia University from 1987 – 1994. Browne clings like a barnacle to the hull of the old literary canon as it sails away from contemporary life.

Nonetheless. While diverse literary voices give me joy and it may sink my writing cred to embrace some dead, white British guy, I ❤ you, Thomas Browne, because I love the quirky, the strange, the cross-genre, mixed-genre, absent-genre, the unexpected, complex, contrary, and undefinable. Long, wandering sentences light me up.

Ted Tayler, a mercurial and beloved professor at Columbia, introduced me to Sir Thomas, who unwinds and rewinds “those wingy mysteries in Divinity” according to his own peculiarities of thinking, and then settles these into the commonplaces of Renaissance as though he were a geometrician explicating a proof: “I love to lose my selfe in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an o altitudo.” Browne, a physician by profession and a radical Protestant, enjoys reconciling the sciences with religion, art, and ancient cultures. He’s a consummate individual, searching for his own truths in an age dominated by the dictates of a religious establishment.

While this all sounds arcane and old-fashioned, Browne’s facility with language produce heart-rending bits such as these: “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us” [Urne-Burial], “That whom we truely love like our owne selves, wee forget their lookes, nor can our memory retaine the Idea of their faces; and it is no wonder, for they are our selves, and affection makes their lookes our owne” [Religio Medici].

browne-book-coverProfessor Tayler was obsessed with the passage about that o altitudo (I confess I never quite grasped the whole of that), while I was entranced by a long passage which begins, Natura nihil agit frustra, or Nature does nothing in vain: “There are no Grotesques in nature; nor any thing framed to fill up empty cantons, and unnecessary spaces; in the most imperfect creatures, and such as were not preserved in the Arke, but having their seeds and principles in the wombe of nature, are every-where the power of the Sun is.” I won’t see this for a long time, but here Browne touches lightly upon an idea that Darwin will later call natural selection, and geneticists will understand as DNA replication and recombination.

The seeds and principles of my first book, Monster, sprouted from my son Robert’s sudden onset genetic illness at the age of one (which left him with profound disabilities). Suddenly, I was plunged into the mysteries of the body, medicine, and disability. The only way I could reconcile these new fields of knowledge was through literature—old and new, what I was once and what I must grow to become. My approach has been much like Browne’s, to meditate upon mysteries and unexpected connections.

Any able-bodied person coming to an enlightened understanding of disability must confront all the stereotypes that accompany it: ugliness, brokenness, irreconcilable difference, monstrosity. These wound. But in Religio Medici, Sir Thomas offers another way of parsing these insults that turns them inside out:

I hold there is a general beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind or species of creature whatsoever: I cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare, or an Elephant, ugly; they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes; and having past with approbation that generall visitation of God, who saw that all that he had made was good, that is, conformable to his will, which abhors deformity, and is the rule of order and beauty. There is therefore no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein notwithstanding, to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme …

Granted, Browne sets his arguments within the context of Christianity—and I respect those who question religious belief, particularly Christian hegemony—yet when I read this passage, I skip the Christian context and read it as a statement of ethical humanism. That is, strip away the era’s reliance on the structures of religious faith, and that’s what I see: Be cautious as you deploy the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness, which may be at all times false.

monster_cover-copyBut returning to “the seeds and principles in the wombe of nature,” the more I studied genetics and genomics, the more I knew about DNA’s role in nature, the more I understood that DNA is the original and only monster: Its sole purpose is to replicate and produce variation, mutation, difference. As I write in “Notes on Creativity & Originality,” a meditation in Monster, “Evolution, therefore, might be an opportunistic engine expending energy in multiple directions simultaneously—not a progress toward perfection, if that’s what art is—or the making of it—revision ever onward toward an ideal.” So, yes, art may and must be monstrous, too: mixed-genre, asymmetrical, filled with irregularity, nonconformity, and difference.

I’ll always search for ways to speak of (but not for) my disabled son, and to complicate and unsettle disability stereotypes. For that, I have had Thomas Browne as a model of contrariness and individualism. Think freely; think for yourselves, no matter what norms or conventions you must overthrow or redefine.

Jeneva Burroughs Stone’s Monster, a linked collection of poetry and essays, is out now from Phoenicia Publishing. Her poetry and essays have appeared in the Colorado Review, Poetry International, Los Angeles Review of BooksPleiades, and other magazines. Her work in nonfiction has been honored with fellowships from the MacDowell and Millay Colonies. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, a PhD from Columbia University, and a BA from Middlebury College. She does volunteer work for Rare Genomics Institute and CareGifted, the first dedicated to helping families of undiagnosed children find answers, the second to long-term caregiver respite. She is also a contributing editor to Pentimento: Journal of All Things Disability, which is dedicated to promoting the voices of caregivers and writers with disabilities. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

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Brian Trapp’s Anticipated Books of 2017

Since 2010, Memorious editors and contributors have compiled lists of our most anticipated titles of the new year. Last year’s picks included Emma Cline’s masterful novel The Girls, Han King’s Man Booker-winning drama The Vegetarian, and our new Assistant Poetry Editor Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water, which Mary Szybist selected for the A. Poulin Jr. Award. For the next several days, our staff and contributors will be posting the books they are most excited about in 2017. We hope you enjoy our picks, and we’d love to hear what you’re excited to read, so let us know in the Comments section what we’ve missed!

Fiction Editor Brian Trapp kicks off this year’s round with his list:

Kevin Wilson, Perfect Little World (Ecco, January)

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Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, was one of my favorite books in recent years. The novel (about two aging performance artists and their traumatized adult children) hit all the right notes: hilarious set pieces, tonal complexity, and heart-punching pathos. In addition, one of its main characters gets smashed in the face by a rocket-launched potato. In Wilson’s sophomore effort, Perfect Little World, he writes another absurdist family novel, following Isabella Pool, a young new mother looking for answers and resources to raise her child. She soon joins “The Infinite Family Project,” a utopian experiment in which ten children are raised collectively, without knowing who their biological parents are. The community starts off with promise, but soon begins to fracture. Wilson is a razor sharp sentence writer and a careful observer of people. He has the comic chops and the emotional intelligence to transcend even the most absurd premise and ask: What makes and breaks a family?

Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande, February)

animals-passarelloPassarello melted my face with her first essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat, a tour-de-force meditation on all things voice, from competing in a “Stella!” screaming contest in New Orleans to the origins and applications of the Wilhelm scream, the reused scream sound you hear during deaths in countless films. In her next collection, modeled after a medieval bestiary, she investigates famous animals named and immortalized by humans, starting with a 39,000-year-old wooly mammoth. Kirkus writes that Passarello “makes connections among disparate elements and wields keen perceptions on the creatures she encounters. There are some real dazzlers. Passarello manages to chronicle humanity’s cavalier exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals without getting preachy in the process—no mean feat.” Passarello is talented enough to bring her voice to bear on any subject, animal, vegetable or mineral.

Woody Skinner, A Thousand Distant Radios (Atelier26, late 2017)

Skinner’s work is reminiscent of other great voice-driven comic writers of the American South: Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, Padgett Powell. Like these writers, Skinner, winner of Mid-American Review’s Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize, is funny, sure, but also capable of affecting pathos within the strangest of premises. In the title story, a man goes about burning his grandfather’s body by pouring gasoline into his mouth: “I bent over his body, pressed my ear onto his bloated belly, and listened to the gasoline slurp and fizz inside of him. It sounded like the static of a thousand distant radios, like stories and sounds refusing to take shape.” What follows is a meditation on death and the unbearable weight of American history. If his title story is any indication, the stories that do take shape in this collection will be wildly inventive and darkly comic, but always moving.

SJ Sindu, Marriage of a Thousand Lies (Soho Press, June)

sindu_cover_final_smallIn SJ Sindu’s debut novel, we meet Lakshmi, called Lucky, an unemployed programmer, and her husband, Krishna, an editor for a greeting card company. Both are secretly gay—their marriage a front for their conservative Sri Lankan-American families. Sindu, a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow, writes deeply sensuous and evocative prose, telling an unconventional immigrant story of queer love and loss. You can read an excerpt here. Soho Press had this to say about the novel: “It doesn’t always get better. To live openly means that Lucky would lose most of the community she was born into—a community she loves, an irreplaceable home. As Lucky, an outsider no matter what choices she makes, is pushed to the breaking point, Marriage of a Thousand Lies offers a moving exploration of friendship, family, and love, shot through with humor and loss.”

Other Intriguing Titles:

The Dark and Other Love Stories, Debbie Willis (Norton, February)

Rabbit Cake, Annie Hartnett (Tin House Books, March)

The Night Ocean, Paul La Farge (Penguin, March)

Love Is No Small Thing, Meghan Kenny (LSU Press, March)

A Horse Walks into a Bar, David Grossman (Penguin, February)

Sirens, Joshua Mohr (Two Dollar Radio, January)

Brian Trapp is the fiction editor of Memorious. His short stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Sun, the Gettysburg ReviewNarrativeNinth Letter, MELUS, and Black Warrior Review, among other places. An essay of his was named Notable in Best American Essays 2013. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Oregon.

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

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Think Music: Robert Wilder on Foreigner

authorphoto-300x199In twenty years of teaching high school, I have seen more than a few students who were clearly born in the wrong decade. After the movie Swingers came out in 1996, for instance, kids started arriving to school in zoot suits and fedoras, twirling pocket watches on chains. I’ve witnessed boys slick back their hair into DAs and slip on leather jackets, and girls don aprons and bake like 1950s housewives. For me, these anachronistic students are always the most interesting; they don’t fit in with their generation so they claim a new one.

My main characters Coy and Monroe in my new novel NICKEL are outcasts, and I wanted them to connect with each other through a different era’s music and pop culture. These references and cultural touchstones would serve as their own coded language, a way to secretly communicate with each other and to protect themselves from those who insulted or ignored them. Even though theirs is a boy/girl friendship, I was reminded of two girls I taught who were obsessed with eighties music. Since I graduated from high school in 1984, I often made jokes in class about Culture Club, Repo Man, and Tom Cruise. These girls always understood my references and laughed at my meager attempts at humor. Even when I claimed that the eighties wasn’t a terrific time for rock music, they’d fiercely object and play the David Bowie or AC/DC Back in Black card. Like Coy and Monroe, these girls stood on the fringes of our school, but they had their own subculture that supported them when others did not.

As I was writing and revising NICKEL, I considered the bands Coy and Monroe would gravitate toward based on their shared sensibility and individual emotional states. I recalled my own soundtrack as a kid in suburban Connecticut, navigating between my downstairs bedroom at home and the Jem Amusement Center on the Boston Post Road where we would feed quarters into the jukebox while playing foosball and Captain Fantastic pinball. My personal soundtrack consisted of bands like Bad Company, The Police, Prince, and Talking Heads. Foreigner, however, seemed to be the one who fit Coy and Monroe best. Foreigner was the band that connected the ballads of the late seventies with early eighties rock and roll. Head Games was embarrassingly obvious and cloying, something this dirty white boy needed when I was Coy’s age because I didn’t have a legitimate way to express certain types of emotion. Foreigner 4, considered by some to be their best, still had the emo “Waiting for a Girl Like You” but offered the iconic “Juke Box Hero” and head-nodding “Urgent” as counterparts.

nickel-lsp-3dAs I remembered Foreigner I did some research (as Coy and Monroe would) and saw that lead singer Lou Gramm had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The tumor was benign but the surgery and subsequent medication damaged his pituitary gland, forcing Gramm to gain significant weight, hurting his voice and stamina. In NICKEL, Monroe comes down with a mysterious illness that seriously irritates her skin, starting with the area around her mouth. Searching for clues to the source of Monroe’s deteriorating health, Coy sees the parallels between the suffering of both Monroe and Gramm. I’m sure many of us have found some sort of emotional or spiritual connection with the singers and songwriters we love, artists who put our own complex feelings into words and set them to music. Foreigner happened to be the right choice for my two main characters.

Postscript: In 2009, one of my students gave me tickets to see Foreigner at the Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino. I had never been to a casino show before so I was surprised by the rowdy behavior of all of the sweaty middle-aged rockers in black concert shirts who came to relive their checkered pasts. Mick Jones was the only original member on stage. Some members of the band didn’t look as though they were alive when Foreigner released the hits everyone was singing along to. Even though the lead singer was more reminiscent of Steven Tyler than Lou Gramm, people still screamed and reached for him as if he were the real deal. The concert was somewhere in between a reunion show and a surprisingly excellent night of karaoke. I kept wondering, as I flashed back to junior high and high school, whether I was having a real good time.

Robert Wilder is the author of the YA novel, NICKEL, and two critically acclaimed books of essays: Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge and Daddy Needs a Drink, both optioned for television and film. He has published essays in Newsweek, Details, Salon, Parenting, Creative Nonfiction, Working Mother and elsewhere. Wilder’s column, also titled “Daddy Needs A Drink,” is printed monthly in the Santa Fe Reporter. He was awarded the 2009 Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. Wilder has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the past twenty years.

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

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Memorious New Assistant Editors

Memorious searched high and low to find the best people to join our team. Thanks to everyone who applied. Competition was fierce and our decisions were difficult. We lost sleep. Our stomachs had issues. But it was worth the trouble: We are now overjoyed to introduce our new assistant editors…

Fiction

natalie-profile-pictureNatalie Mesnard comes to us from Ninth Letter, where she 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 Nickel, The Gettysburg Review, Green Mountains Review, The Journal, Kenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review. She can be found online at nataliemesnard.com.

 

wendy-oleson-photoWendy Oleson comes to us from Prairie Schooner, where she was a Senior Fiction Reader. She is also a former Memorious contributor (check out her stunning story “The Glass Girl” in Memorious 24). She is a fiction writer, poet, and essayist whose work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Copper Nickel, Baltimore Review, PANK, The Normal School, and The Journal. Oleson was a Van Sickle Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she earned her PhD. She is a recipient of a Washington Square Review Fiction Award, the Elizabeth Bruss Prize, and the storySouth Million Writers Award.

Poetry

Derricaustink 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 Review, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, Memorious, Callaloo, Nimrod, Crab Orchard Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the 2016-2017 Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing.

 

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Memorious Seeks Assistant Fiction Editor

keep-calm-i-m-your-assistant-editorMemorious magazine seeks an assistant fiction editor who will work closely with the fiction editor to shape magazine content. The assistant fiction editor will be responsible for helping the fiction editor select submissions for the magazine; soliciting works of fiction; assisting in editing the fiction selections; recruiting skilled fiction readers; and weighing in on nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net anthologies. The assistant fiction editor will also be involved in creating and soliciting blog content to support the fiction section.

We are seeking a responsible, committed person to join our staff and to work with us in continuing to produce and develop the magazine. Applicants should have editorial experience, in print or online, and be comfortable using Submittable and social networking tools. We are particularly interested in individuals who will build relationships in the community through soliciting work and creating and/ or participating in events at AWP and elsewhere, both in the real world and online.

Like many small independent literary magazines, Memorious is a labor of love. We are an all-volunteer staff, so no stipend or salary is offered. We are looking for someone who finds reward in being an active part of the literary community, gaining valuable editorial experience, and supporting work they find exciting and necessary.

Memorious has been around for more than a decade and is one of the most highly-regarded online literary magazines. We’ve had work reprinted in the New York Times Magazine and Best American Poetry, and we’ve been featured in the print anthologies Best New PoetsBest of the Web, and Best of the Net. Previous prose contributors include Steve AlmondBlake Butler, Kim Chinquee, Joanna LuloffMargaret LuongoAmit Majmudar, Nina McConigley, Peter Orner, Caitlin Horrocks, Becky Hagenston, Benjamin PercySandra ScofieldJames ScottRicco Villanueva SiasocoAnne Valente, Holly M. WendtXu XiPaul Yoon, and many more! You can search our prose archives here. We have also published interviews with writers such as Laura Van den Berg, Sigrid Nunez, Don Lee, Jim Shepard, and Brock Clarke.

Please send a cover letter and C.V. to Brian Trapp at trapp(at)uoregon.edu by October 1st. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Fiction Spotlight: Margaret Luongo

I firsSONY DSCt became acquainted with Margaret Luongo when she drove the short distance from Hamilton, Ohio, to Cincinnati to read at a literary festival. In a dark bar full of half-drunk aspiring writers, she read from a story called “The War Artist” and cast a spell over all of us. She transported her audience to a dystopian artist residency where military officials lock a visual artist in a room and task her with making art about a war she has never seen. In equally beautiful and unsettling language, Luongo challenged her audience to question their own relationship to distant wars.

Later, when I was an editor at the Cincinnati Review, we published Luongo’s delightful story “Word Problem,” which is …you guessed it…a story in the form of a word problem. For this one, she assigned herself quite a doozy: Can she tell the story of ten music students over the course of their careers, in a multiple point-of-view panorama of finely observed success, defeat, compromise, and adaption, which is by turns both funny and heartbreaking, both dark and hopeful? And can she provide her answer in less than sixteen pages? Her answer seemed utterly true and absolutely correct.

In Memorious 16, we were lucky enough to publish Luongo’s story “The War Artist Makes God Visible,” a haunting and surrealist series of vignettes (based on Stanley Spencer’s Great War memorial), in which WWI soldiers are resurrected from their graves, “entwined…in their white picket crosses. Already their capes make wings.” These finely crafted stories are now collected with many others in Luongo’s second collection, The History of Art: Stories (LSU Press), published in April. In it, Luongo meditates on the relationship between violence and creation, in sharp and nimble stories that vacillate between the surreal and the real, the traditional and the formally experimental.

Luongo is also the author of the short story collection If the Heart is Lean (also by LSU Press) and has published stories in the Cincinnati Review, Granta, Tin House, the Southern Review, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She is an associate professor of English at Miami University in Ohio, where she teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction. She spoke to me via email about writing, the relationship between war and creation, and the current (hopeful!) state of publishing.

–Brian Trapp, Co-Fiction Editor

We were lucky enough to publish “The War Artist Makes God Visible” in Memorious 16. It changed quite a bit since you first published it with us. Can you tell us about the development of this story?

When I was teaching in London in 2010, I traveled to Burghclere to see Stanley Spencer’s Great War Memorial. It’s the mural the story is based on, painted on the walls of a chapel built especially for that work. I’d already written the version of the story that Memorious published. My feelings about the paintings changed when I saw them in the chapel. Previously I had only seen them reproduced in books, and I’d been puzzled by the religious imagery in them. Spencer had a front row seat to the misery of war, tending to wounded soldiers in a military hospital. Yet he still seemed to find solace in this idea of resurrection and redemption. I couldn’t understand it, so I wrote about it. Then I saw the paintings in their true scale and setting, and I understood that the redemption Spencer believed in came through caring for others. So I went back into the story and expanded it slightly. In no way did I capture the tenderness and generosity of Spencer’s work.

That story seems to be a companion piece to the first story of the collection, titled “The War Artist,” in which military officials lock a visual artist in a room and task her with making art about “the war,” in a sort of dystopian artist residency. An obsession with art seems to connect all the stories in this collection, but these two stories seem to ask about the connection between war and art, violence and meaning. Can you speak about this connection, and, in general, your obsession with art throughout this collection?

The two obsessions were going on parallel tracks for a while. Visual art helps me think about writing—and just helps me think. War is everywhere. Even if the bombs aren’t falling on you, with the speed of communication these days it’s hard to remain totally ignorant of what’s going on around the world. Humans have been making art and war side by side for millennia, creation and destruction—and then there’s the obsession with beautiful ruins, from tourist photos of ancient Rome to art photography of defunct Detroit. We love those traces of our faded glory, however romanticized our notion of the past may be. Hitler based his Reich on that idea—leaving a glorious ruin. We make meaning through story, and I think people believe that for the story to have a meaning, it has to end. So the link between violence and meaning does make some sense, I suppose.

Art to me is mostly about perception—how we see the world and others—in addition to those issues of craft, technical skill, and materiality. I appreciate our drive to perceive and make sense, even though we so often get it wrong. The struggle sometimes elevates us.

In one of my favorite stories, “Word Problem,” you write a story in the form of a word problem. You write another story in the form of notes on the type and another as directions for bird watching. Can you talk about how “Word Problem” developed and, in general, your interest in playing with various forms?

“Word Problem” came about partly because of that inclination and partly because I’m really horrible at math and I still resent word problems. I thought it would be a good idea to do a story in that form, but I didn’t know for a couple of years what it would be about. Then I attended a performance of John Cage’s Music for Radios at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. That’s what set it off.

I like to create constraints for myself in writing—at least I think that’s what I’m doing—so forms that make storytelling difficult appeal to me. I think it’s just that I like the indication of a story, the fragments. I think the main thing is brevity. I really like the short story game, and I also like to think of puzzles for myself within the form: how short can I go? What rule might provide a new challenge? I like to choose forms that make telling a story somewhat difficult (like “Word Problem”). I also like to get away from traditional character development, maybe to find a balance between head and heart. I want people to think and feel.

LuongoHISTORY_covfront(HR)

Both of your books were published with LSU Press’ Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, edited by my former professor at the University of Cincinnati, Michael Griffith. What was it like to work with Michael and LSU? As someone who is teaching a course on publishing, what is your opinion of the current publishing landscape?

Michael is a great editor. His focus is razor sharp and he just knows a lot about a lot of things. I never realized how important context is for editing. It’s not enough to know about literature and to know how stories are made. You also have to know about people, places, music, art, sports, clothing, religion, animals, train stations, wall-to-wall carpet—everything terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. He also trusts writers. He’s not a heavy-handed editor and seems to have no need to make his mark on a book that isn’t his. No excessive ego, just enough confidence to do right by a book and its author. LSU makes gorgeous books, and Baton Rouge is on my list of places to relocate to, mostly because I fantasize about hanging out with MaryKatherine Callaway and the other LSU people. I went there once for a book festival and I still think about the people and the place. It’s a little creepy that I want to hang out with my publisher, but it’s a good sign, I think.

Despite the corporatization of publishing, I’m optimistic. So many small independent publishers have sprung up. However strange or marginalized a work may be, its author can probably find a home for it. The independents are not so concerned with the bottom line, so they’re more free to publish books that will have a smaller audience. This means more freedom for writers, so long as they have a day job. The abundance of smaller publishers like Rose Metal Press and Black Lawrence should encourage writers to create more freely.

In the UK, independent publishers like Tilted Axis, And Other Stories, and Peirene are bringing out translated work by authors whose books have never been available in English. That could help to shift aesthetics in America and the UK. For instance, what’s mainstream in Korean fiction—nonlinear, multi-voiced, and surreal—is often considered experimental or just strange in the US. Maybe some of that will find its way to American readers and writers and inspire appreciation for more diverse forms. I’m very hopeful about publishing, almost exclusively because of the small independents.

In the UK, publishers can declare that they are a Community Interest Company, which means, among other things, that they cannot be bought by a for-profit enterprise. I find that very promising.

And now some process questions: How did you write the stories in this collection? Are you a ‘write everyday’ person or does it come in bursts? Do you have any consistent habits or rituals for when you are most productive? Any advice to emerging fiction writers?

When I first started writing, I wrote every day and that helped me learn to take myself—or the task I set for myself—more seriously. The daily work improved my writing and in general gave me some sense of purpose, as well as confidence. The mental activity kept me happy. History of Art developed over something like eight years, so I can’t say I worked every day on those stories. I’m usually most productive over the summer, and I can sustain writing through mid-October or early November. Then I won’t really write again until winter break. Spring semester is usually a loss, for the most part. I’ll give myself smaller assignments then, just to try to get some time back.

About four years ago, my husband and I rented studio space in downtown Hamilton (Ohio), and that’s been a huge help. The space is pleasant, uncluttered, and internet-free. I only write there—I do nothing else. I can drop everything, go to the studio, and almost immediately find focus. It’s walking distance from our house and it’s just a good happy space for me. I keep a little chart on the wall of all the things I could work on, in their varying stages of completion. There’s one column for stories that are just ideas. I think there’s even a poetry column, though the poems might be under another heading—“in progress” or something. There’s always something I want to work on, and I can choose whatever I like, so there’s no obstacle to working.

I also like to listen to music, but it has to be music without words. I particularly like classical guitar—Segovia, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Christopher Parkening. I was on a Bach kick for a while during the latter stages of History of Art. I’d listen to Foo Fighters on the way to the studio, then switch over to Bach. Having that space outside the home has made a huge difference for me. For a while I was working at coffee shops and getting really angry at people who dared to have audible conversations. Even at that time I knew my anger was unreasonable.

Advice for emerging fiction writers: don’t make problems for yourself that you can’t solve. Be flexible. If something’s not working, try a different path. Be a good boss to yourself; while it’s true that discipline is important, you have to know when to ease up on yourself.

Can you tell us about what you are working on now?

I’m working on a story for the ACRE Books anthology, The Very Angry Baby. ACRE Books is a new press edited by the people at The Cincinnati Review, including Nicola Mason. That’s all I can say!

What are you reading now?

I’m teaching a London-based course in publishing, so I’m reading books published by smaller UK houses:

The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst, translated by David Colmer (Peirene Press)

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare, edited by Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia (And Other Stories Press)

Kauthar, by Meike Ziervogel (Salt)

Our Man in Orlando, by Hugh Hunter (Monday Books)

As a supplement to this, I’m also reading Panty, by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis) and The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books), which just won the Man Booker prize.

I also just picked up Mary Beard’s SPQR, a partial re-reading of Roman history. Beard has an easy style, and she exposes the way the Romans crafted (revised?) their own history, rewriting it through the lens of the present moment. It’s a good reminder to those of us writing historical fiction, which Henry James warned us about: We can’t really be accurate. We’re always writing through the film of the now.

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

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