Saturday, October 31, 2009

Margaret Atwood's Speech to the Whiting Writers' Award Winners

Thanks to David Varno, who posted this on Critical Mass, the National Book Critics' blog, here's a video of Margaret Atwood's speech to the Whiting Writers' Award winners on Oct. 28.

Untitled from Sonnet Media on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The 2009 Whiting Writers' Award Winners Get Money And Advice

If you're a writer and you have a book or play or two under your belt, you might want to answer the phone if it rings some time toward the end of September. That's when the Whiting Writers' Awards calls to notify its ten winners, each of whom gets a generous $50,000 check.

Unlike The Story Prize, Whiting Award winners aren't required to attend the ceremony, but nearly all of them do. And, sure enough, ten authors sat perched on ten folding chairs stage right on Oct. 28 at the Morgan Library auditorium in New York for the 25th annual ceremony. They were: poets Jericho Brown, Jay Hopler, and Joan Kane; fiction writers Adam Johnson, Nami Mun, Salvatore Scibona, and Vu Tran; nonfiction writers Michael Meyer and Hugh Raffles; and playwright Rajiv Joseph.

And ceremonious it was. As the audience, which included authors, editors, publishers, and agents sat in rows of red velvet seats that quickly ascend to a height far above the stage, each Whiting Award winner had his or her moment in the spotlight. As is customary, one by one, they stood by the podium listening as Barbara Bristol, director of the Whiting's writing program, read out their diverse and illustrious biographies. Some honorees nodded their heads approvingly or gestured to affirm a quirky fact. For instance, Johnson did, in fact, earn a degree from McNeese State University; Mun covered her face when it was revealed that she had once been a street vendor and Avon Lady; Raffles actually is compiling a book of essays on human-insect interactions; and Scibona pumped a fist at the mention of his publisher, Graywolf Press. Most appealing of all may have been Kane, who was convincingly pregnant and tottered on high heels that must have been truly difficult to balance on as she listened to her own rather interesting story.

Until the writers walk onstage, you don't know who the winners will be. And since they are emerging writers, most are unrecognizable, so you have to wait until they're introduced to find out their names. The list of winners is a closely kept secret, but the authors are allowed to share the news with family, editors, and agents. So when I see agents or editors I recognize among the crowd, I generally assume they're in attendance because one of the winners is an author of theirs. For instance, agent Amy Williams of McCormack & Williams and Riverhead Press editor Megan Lynch, were there on behalf of Mun.

Each year, an illustrious guest writer gives a keynote speech, generally offering inspiration and/or advice. This year's speaker was Margaret Atwood, who reeled off a string of jokes as sharp and funny as any opening monologue you'll hear on late night television. One riff presented a list of unlikely mashups of literary classics and occult/horror subjects, which culminated in War and Peace and Heads That Grow Out of Your Armpits*. But Atwood had advice to offer, too, and pivoted to face the cluster of writers several times, pausing and peering over the top of her reading glasses to emphasize a point of particular importance.

A reception followed the event. On the way out of the auditorium, ushers handed out press releases with the list of winners and the biographies we heard. The Whiting Writers' Awards is a well-organized and idiosyncratic event, with a charm all its own, and this year was no exception. Some of the writers are likely to go on to great careers, but as speakers emphasized several times, that's not the point of the award. Rather it's to give a budding artist (not necessarily a young one) a chance to grow in his or her own way.
And what better fertilizer is there for that than the support of peers and a nice fat check?

* Corrected 10/31. I mashed up two of Atwoods mashups (Jane Eyre and the Creature from the Black Lagoon and this one) to produce the incorrect Jane Eyre and Heads That Grow Out From Under Your Arms. However, in today's climate, these are all good ideas worthy of substantial advances.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Four Questions for Librarian Bill Kelly

One of the three judges for The Story Prize this year is Bill Kelly, who is a librarian at the Cuyahoga County Public Library. In order to learn more about Bill's work as a librarian and his interest in short stories, we posed a few questions to him.

Can you tell us how you became a librarian and what you do?
I came to the profession after a brief foray into the music business. As a voracious reader, I have always frequented libraries so it seemed like a natural fit. Of course, libraries are much more than books and reading. I love the work because I learn something new every day. While much of our work is technology oriented, we still do quite a bit of old-fashioned readers’ advisory. I spend a good deal of time merchandising our collection and talking to customers about books because there are so many great writers out there that go undeservedly unread.

How do you think libraries will change as the digital age progresses?
We certainly exist in a constantly evolving environment, but I think libraries are uniquely positioned to meet the challenge. We are in the information business and while books have hitherto served as the primary medium for accessing information, we understand that other mediums also serve that function. Because information has proliferated and seemingly become available at the click of the mouse, the librarian has had to become an expert at retrieving relevant and accurate information. I equate the internet with Borges’ story
"The Library of Babel," in which all information is stored in a vast library but in a completely random, meaningless order. Or, to borrow a line from T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Here at Cuyahoga County Public Library, we have an initiative we call Reconnect with Reading, a very conscious effort to get our customers back to the book. It has had tremendous and continued success. Since we initiated RWR, we have seen that an increasing percentage of our overall circulation has been books. In other words, the book is still our primary focus and it is here to stay.

Who are some of your favorite short story authors?

I consider Chekhov to be the benchmark by which all other short-story writers are measured. For me, Jorge Luis Borges is a close second. My contemporary favorites include Steven Millhauser, William Trevor, Jim Sheppard, Andre Dubus (the elder), David Foster Wallace, Annie Proulx, George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Alice Munro, Dan Chaon, and Lydia Davis. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Donald Ray Pollock and Wells Tower.

How do you think the short story is faring these days?
From an artistic standpoint I think we are experiencing another renaissance in the form. I am excited to read so many new and unique voices. Whereas previously in the past century we have seen writers like Hemingway and Carver become so very influential, today’s short story masters come to us from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and influences. One can read the more conventional but nonetheless profound and powerful work of a Trevor or Munro and then turn to any of the emerging voices such as Nam Le, Mueenuddin, or Pollock. I am also thrilled to see so many writers working with what are traditionally labeled genre themes. I think this will go a long way toward broadening appeal and bringing new readers to the form. Of course, the recognition from literary prizes and greater promotional efforts by publishers seem to be breaking through to a wider audience as well.

From a societal or cultural standpoint there is a great opportunity for the short story. Be it due to our increasingly frenzied lives, shorter attention spans, or just the quality and volume of work being produced, I find that more readers are more willing to pick up a collection of stories. We display our collections prominently at our library and the books always find readership.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Four Questions for Story Prize Judge Carolyn Kellogg

One of the three judges for The Story Prize this year is Carolyn Kellogg, who is the lead blogger for The Los Angeles Times' Jacket Copy. Before that, she was an early and well known book blogger. In order to get to know Carolyn a little better, we posed a few questions to her.

What led you to start blogging about books?

The exact answer is that I had an internet radio show that played music, discussed books and interviewed authors, and a blog was the easiest way to create a website for it. The bigger answer is that five years ago, I was the Web producer at a venerable Los Angeles foundation, dressing like a banker and paying my mortgage, when I broke up with my boyfriend. The world opened up in new ways: I started the show, blog, and then podcast as a book lover, an avid amateur with an English degree. My book blogging was generation 1.5—I began slightly after bloggers like Maud Newton and Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who I came to know when he was a guest on that long-ago show.

You have an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh. How does that inform the reporting and reviewing you do?
It helped me be conscious of the craft of writing fiction. At Pitt, we workshopped a lot of short stories, so I've read many that are in a stage of becoming. I'm sensitive to—and intrigued by—a writer making one choice over another. I was never a fan of the notorious MFA-style story (overbred, shaped by committee) and getting an MFA didn't change my opinion, although it did let me see how writers slip into the trap of writing for approval. As a returning student—I just earned my MFA last year—I found that I had been reading contemporary fiction more voraciously than my professors. I'd already read Annie Proulx, but they hadn't read David Mitchell yet. So for reporting, the key wasn't the MFA but engaging in literary culture through blogging. I began blogging for the L.A. Times when I was still in school in Pittsburgh.

Who are some of you favorite short story writers?
I'm going to try to avoid saying anyone who might be in the running for this year's prize... which means a few top-of-mind writers are left out. So: Aimee Bender, Jason Brown, Raymond Chandler, Nikolai Gogol, Denis Johnson, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Tobias Wolff.

How do you think short fiction is faring these days?
I think it's marvelously fertile. If there is perhaps too much of the MFA-style story, it's only because there is so much short fiction being written. There's an abundance of online venues where work can be published now without the cost of producing a traditional literary journal. That said, I think it may be hard for readers to navigate the volume of work, and I think we're in a stage where that is just being sorted out, which is kind of exciting. I think The Story Prize is a key way readers are directed to outstanding short fiction, and I'm looking forward to being a part of it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Two Short Story Collections Are Finalists for the National Book Awards

Here's something I don't get tired of: More good news about short story collections. The National Book Awards announced their fiction finalists yesterday, and two of the five are short story collections: Bonnie Jo Campbell's American Salavage and Daniyal Mueunuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. Readers of this blog (who are legion) may remember that in a previous post about summer reading, I pointed out that author and NPR commentator Alan Cheuse had recommended Muenuddin's collection. Well, guess what, he'd also recommended Jayne Anne Phillips' evocative novel* Lark and Termite, which is another finalist for the National Book Awards. While Cheuse is only one of the five fiction judges, in retrospect his summer picks provided a partial preview of the NBA finalists.

As I said in that post, I can highly recommend Muenuddin's excellent collection. Yesterday, Bonnie Jo Campbell's book immediately jumped to the top of my pile and, half way through, I'd have to say it's a brilliant choice by the NBA judges. It's especially impressive because of the huge number of fiction entries (236) they read this year. One of the best things a book award can do is to shine the spotlight on deserving and underappreciated books, authors, and publishers. This group of judges obviously didn't cut any corners and gave their full attention to a university press book (Wayne State) that didn't get widespread attention. Kudos to them. That's why Julie and I make sure we read everything we get. You never know where you'll find a gem.

By the way, one of the other NBA judges is author Lydia Millet, who has a short story collection, Love in Infant Monkeys, just out from indy publisher Softskull Press. I wouldn't be surprised if she were a big advocate of Campbell's collection, but that's just a guess.

* Full disclosure, Jayne Anne is a colleague of my wife's at Rutgers-Newark, and a friend of ours.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Story Prize Judges: Meet A.M. Homes, Carolyn Kellogg, and Bill Kelly

This year's judges for The Story Prize are author A.M. Homes, critic/blogger Carolyn Kellogg, and librarian Bill Kelly. Our aim is to have a diverse group that represents different constituencies that support short fiction. One of the judges is always a writer (who has published short fiction). We alternate every other year between a bookseller and a librarian. And the third judge could be an editor, bookseller, blogger, critic, etc. Sometimes our judges wear more than one hat.

This procedural issue sometimes confuses people: The judges for The Story Prize do not choose the finalists; Julie Lindsay (the founder of The Story Prize) and I do that in early January. The judges read those three books and vote for their top choices.

In the week ahead, I'll post about each of our judges individually. We're thrilled to have them on board and believe they'll serve the prize well--as all our past judges have.

Previous judges have been:
2008/09: Editor and author Daniel Menaker, author and editor Hannah Tinti, and bookseller Rick Simonson.
2007/8: Author/critic David Gates, librarian Patricia Groh, editor Megan O'Rourke
2006/7: Author Edwidge Danticat, blogger Ron Hogan, bookseller Mitchell Kaplan
2005/6: Author Andrea Barrett, librarian Nancy Pearl, critic James Wood
2004/5: Author Dan Chaon, bookseller Ann Christophersen, editor Brigid Hughes

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Sincerely, Ray Carver"

In 1984, shortly after reading Raymond Carver's short story collection, Cathedral, I wrote a letter to him expressing my admiration for the story, "A Small, Good Thing." One moment in, particular, struck me as being incredibly vivid, real, "cinematic" (which I thought then was quite a compliment). It occurs in the emergency room of a hospital where a couple has taken their young son. The boy, after being struck by a car while walking home from school—on his birthday, no less—later goes into a coma. In the waiting room, the boy's mother encounters members of another family, who have brought another child to the emergency room. What amazed me was the feeling of intersecting narratives. And I could imagine a story about the second family, with this mother just passing through.

I was 25 at the time and had a different last name, Charny. (Long story short: My wife and I both changed our last names to Dark when we married). I sent the note I wrote to Carver care of Vintage and didn't expect an answer. It just felt important to send, no matter what. But a couple of months later, a handwritten letter with a Syracuse postmark arrived. I had just quit law school to pursue writing fiction, and getting a response from the great man himself thrilled me, almost seemed to validate my choice. I swore that when a fan wrote to me, I'd write back, just as Carver had.

The fiction writing career hasn't quite worked out for me—yet—some 25 years later. (I'm now double the age.) But the pursuit of it did, nonetheless, lead me in a direction I couldn't have foreseen. In 2000, I ended up choosing a posthumous Carver story, "Kindling," for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. It almost felt like I was returning a favor. In truth, the letter Raymond Carver wrote me, just as he was dashing off to the airport to catch a flight back home to Washington State, was a small act of generosity that I will never be able to reciprocate.