Monday, November 17, 2014

Complex and Compelling: Bonnie ZoBell's "What Happened Here"

This review is followed by an interview with Bonnie ZoBell.   Scroll down to view the interview first.

Bonnie ZoBell’s novella,“What Happened Here,” opens her collection of the same name, and her first page description of the PSA Flight collision with a Cessna in 1978 over the city of San Diego anticipates a collision of characters, the breaking up of relationships, the falling down of spirits—the kind of tragedies that permeate the stories that follow. What else is revealed is how such calamities, large and small, are endured and overcome with love and kindness.
 “The explosion was instantaneous—an enormous fireball whooshed into the sky, a mushroom of smoke and debris. Scraps of clothing leaped onto telephone poles, body parts fell on roofs, tray tables scattered across driveways. Airplane seats landed on front lawns, arms and legs descended onto patios, and a torso fell through the windshield of a moving vehicle.” 
Each of the eleven pieces (ten stories as well as the novella) take place in that North Park neighborhood of San Diego around thirty years after the PSA jet crashed into the ground. The ghosts of those who died linger in the shadows, behind palm trees, along the streets at dusk. The macaws who also haunt the area as they chatter and soar add a hopeful counterpoint.

The lingering impact of disaster impacts three specific characters in the novella: Lenora, a woman struggling to find herself after years of feeling discounted and unloved, her husband John who battles the “monster” of manic-depressive disorder, and their neighbor, Archie, who is the most obsessed with the crash even though he was not present for the disaster which took place years before. The author does a lovely job of showing the precarious state of the newly married couple’s relationship through references to Lenore in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” as John woos Lenora.

The raven and the macaws seem to represent the contrast of the blackness of a monster against the bright hope one can find in life. That hope comes from Archie, the complaining neighbor, who in the end manages to reach John in his depressive state in a way Lenora cannot.

In the second story of the collection, the eponymous Uncle Rempt, brings hope to Susan who is trapped in a narrow, constricted life. “Bloodstone.”
He folded it into my hand. “You need to keep the thing, sweetheart, living with that brother of mine. …The stone of courage, they say. Destroys the wall of prisons, opens all doors.” 
Like the North Park,macaws,Uncle Rempt, in his “Area 51” written in metallic silver on his t-shirt…his blue velvet jacket,” is full of color. He even sleeps “in the store room with a bunch of colored glass.”

One of the strongest pieces in the collection is “People Scream.” The shriek that shatters the calm one Wednesday night at the Center for Life haunts both the receptionist Heather and the story itself. She is filled with self-doubt—perhaps even self-loathing—and it feels inevitable that she works where other self-doubters, those who have turned to addiction, have come to recover. She works here for the wrong reasons--to meet men--and she’s come to the wrong place. Of course, she does meet them, including Wally, including the homeless drunk in her car.

Again the yin/yang of tragedy and hope finds its way into Zobell’s work. What Happened Here is rife with unhappy women who stick to their broken men and a few who hide from them like Lolly in “Rocks.” Yet these women are to be admired for their grit, their ability to forgive.

Hope and tragedy seep together in this group of stories, creating a kind of sunrise or sunset with macaws winging toward the reader or away. Zobell pens a line in her piece,“This Time of Night,” that sums up her work in general: “The evening is as close as it can be to darkness while still being light.”





Bio: 
Press 53 published Bonnie ZoBell's connected novella and stories, What Happened Here, in February 2014. She’s won such honors as NEA, a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, and the Capricorn Novel Award. She received an MFA from Columbia University and currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College. She is an Associate Editor at The Northville Review and at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her collection The Whack-Job Girls (Monkey Puzzle Press) portrays a posse of women who don't fit in or are deeply disconnected from society with dark humor.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Stroking the Details to Deepen the Story

Reprinted from Flash Fiction Chronicles article dated January, 2011

One of the comments that is difficult for many of us to come to grips with is when someone tells us our stories are not deep enough or that we haven’t given the reader enough to go on. I used to think: we’re talking flash here, micro flash, hint fiction, short shorts!  How am I supposed to “go deep?”

But for something to resonate, it must have context.  Readers want to feel empathy with the main character—or some kind of emotion for the main character—even if it’s distaste.  The question is, how does a writer do that with a limited word count?

Details not only set up time and place, but also suggest a back story, the circumstances, or even a trait or two of the main characters.  Specific details also anchor the story for the reader, giving them something to visualize while reading on to find out what happens next. Context and empathy come about through concrete, specific details that immerse the reader in the writer's world.

A lake and two small boats give
context to Munch's painting
I’m not suggesting there's any need to describe an entire room or tell the reader the exact time of day, but rather to stroke in a detail much as a painter might do.  If you examine a painting closely, you may discover that the person in the background is just a line squiggle with a touch of brown at the top to suggest hair and a swish of red to suggest a skirt or as in Munch’s The Scream: two small boats in lake.

The man screaming in the foreground of the Munch painting is alone while behind him there are two figures on the road and two boats on the lake.  I have no idea what the artist had in mind, but for me, this structure and detail suggests a strong fear of facing the world alone or facing death and because these details are behind him, he has no hope.

These details do not need to be written into a piece immediately in the rough draft--get the story down first--but can be added in the revision stage of the process once the writer understands what details will best serve the story in a thematic way

So detail, if carefully chosen, can suggest setting, foreshadow events (remember Chekov's gun), as well as deepen character, and underline theme.

Here’s an example:

Water drips from icicles outside the kitchen window. Clear skies glisten through dirty glass panes. I’m pouring my first cup of coffee when I hear snow sliding down the roof and know it’s time to call Carissa.
This image sets scene as well as mood
This is the opening to my story, “Spring Melt.” It’s a stroke like a painter’s stroke.  The whole house isn’t  given, not even a whole kitchen,  just the suggestion of a house because it has a kitchen, dirty window panes, and a sloping roof.  There is a sense that winter is passing into spring and that brings the narrator to a decision to call some woman. It’s a specific image to carry the reader into the next paragraph, but also to give the story context and later, a thematic pay-off.

Details should be as carefully chosen as anything else in a story.  Which will enhance the character and hint about what could happen next? Physical appearance often dictates personality.  A woman who has always been admired for her beauty may never feel compelled to grow artistically or intellectually, and therefore has little to talk about except hairstyles and Botox. This narrowed point-of-view could, in turn, bring conflict to a piece about marriage or best friends or wherever the writer wants to go.  

Showing tension between characters through dialogue becomes easier when there is a trait or detail in the story that sparks deep feelings.  Here's a brief exchange between Anna and Matt from “She Can’t Say No” to show how this can work.

…Alone at the table, Matt asks Anna how she knows his friend, Kerrick, a fast-track kind of guy, gel in his hair and Hugo Boss shoes.  
“I met him once,” she says and smiles. When she smiles, the scar on her upper lip whitens. Sometimes when he wakes up alone in the morning, thinking of her, the word “harelip” pops into his brain. He’s hinted to her about childhood operations, bringing up tonsillectomies, appendectomies, avoiding the words “quadrilateral mirault flap,” but she says nothing.  
Looking at her mouth now, he can almost feel its slight ridge on his tongue. He coughs. “And?”  
"And what, Matthew?”  
“You were flirting.”  
“I know.” She slips the side of her naked foot along Matt’s calf and tucks it behind his knee. “I’m sorry.”


People in stories don’t always have to agree and when they don’t, they argue, and when they argue, they bring up old grudges, other disagreements, and reveal who they are and what’s important to them.  In the example above, the relationship between the two characters is revealed by how Anna parries Matt’s jealousy.  It’s not a fight, but it’s still a moment of revelation.  Then Matt remembers how it feels to run his tongue along the scar on Anna’s mouth telling us that although he is jealous of her past with men, he’s also aware of her affect on him. The detail of her scar makes this scene more interesting and deepens the emotional risk for both characters.

Sometimes a story may work without specific detail, but going deeper can often be as easy as changing a word or two, adding a line, using a bit of dialogue, or throwing in a specific detail that gives the reader context for the unfolding events like Anna’s slipping her naked foot behind Matt’s knee. She has the power and he knows it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Giving Context to Structure

Reprinted from an article that appeared in Flash Fiction Chronicles in June, 2009

Content, structure, and language work together


No one element can make a story work. Many writers use a series of steps—brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading—to juggle content, structure, and language. The order of each step is a matter of choice and fluctuates with story ideas. Here is my preference:

  •  To create content: brainstorm, free-write, draft a first draft
  •  To apply structure: outline first draft, then draft second draft
  •  To perfect language: revise, edit, and proofread

Content refers to the subject matter of a story


Allow the story to blossom
The who, what, when, where, and how of a specific idea.

A character (the protagonist) finds himself in a difficult situation at a certain time and place and must deal with that situation. 

How the protagonist deals with the situation depends on the protagonist’s wants, character, and the nature of the obstacles he must overcome.

Content provides the “story question or problem” that propels the protagonist through the plot and ultimately reveals a universal theme, a jolt, an epiphany, some small observance of life.

Content evolves from a premise, notes, a rough draft, research, observation, plus the attitudes and concerns of the writer.


Structure refers to the basic organization of a story


Unfold the story for maximum effect
Just as a play is divided into three acts, most stories have three main segments.

The opening (Act 1) gives a story focus and meaning by providing the premise, setting, and tone of the story as well as hints at the nature of obstacles the protagonist will face.

The main body of the story (Act 2, which I like to split into 2A and 2B) focuses on the protagonist’s actions to resolve the story problem.

The conclusion (Act 3) reveals the results of the protagonist’s struggle and infuses that struggle with meaning.

Each segment of a story has a similar structure: the overall story as well as each chapter, each scene within the chapter, each beat within the scene

Structure also involves other devices such as set-ups and pay-offs, sub-plots, and the shaping of structure specifically to content.

Structure evolves from outlines, note-taking, drafts or a combination of the three.


Language refers the diction and style used to express a story’s idea


Choose precise language
Diction refers the specific words that are chosen.

Style refers to how those words are combined, the order, the length of sentences and includes the use of literary devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allusion.

Grammar keeps writing clear and understandable.

Language evolves from revision and rhythm.



Process is what brings these three basic components of composition together



The rough draft is about content…making it up. The second draft is about structure…making sense. The third draft is about language…making it clear. The fourth draft is about perfection…making it publishable.

Actually, the steps to the writing process bleed into each other like ink dropped from a leaky pen over one spot. The blotches don’t land in exactly the same place, but they seep beyond each other’s borders, and create a new kind of art.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Writing as Matrix

Reprinted from a Flash Fiction Chronicles article published November 29, 2010 
Guess what?  Writing fiction isn’t that easy. We become proficient enough in school to use written communication when needed.  However, writing well, long or short, requires additional expertise.    To write a short story, novel, play, or screenplay calls for a three-dimensional, high-definition, multi-layered endeavor on the part of the writer. This endeavor lands us in a matrix as illusive as anything Keanu Reeves found himself in. Words shift and dissolve, meanings change, the whole becomes lost from its parts.  Diving into the complex world of a story often leaves us confused and frustrated.
Writers know there are rules and guidelines, a craft that must be learned, but many don’t understand how all the different parts will eventually need to mesh together.  I’m not referring to plot-points, sub-plots, or authenticity here, though they are, of course,  parts of the whole.  I’m more concerned with the basics of process, how to “see” a writing project and decipher its mysteries one step at a time.
Visualize a published book, any book, the rectangular shape of it when closed, with a spine, the hard back and front covers,  and paper, the whole thing about an inch or so thick.  Now think of yourself opening that book to page one, laying it flat on a table in front of you.  Stand up and look down at it.
Begin on the blank page
You see words lined up on a page. Sentences and paragraphs. You think the author spun out those words: subject+verb+prepositional phrase for one sentence, something else for the next. It doesn’t seem that complicated.  It’s two-dimensional, but the creation of those words, sentences, and paragraphs is anything but two-dimensional. In your mind, erase all the words from that first page of the book, erase all that follow. Where do YOU start?
Content: What is the story about?
With an idea: content. What the story is about: the who, what, where, why, when, and how.  Now place a clear, book-sized piece of glass on top of that empty book, maybe leave just a little air between the glass and the actual book.  Breathing space.  Can you see it?  The clean white pages of the book through the clear glass sheet?  Now imagine filling that glass with all the words you’d use to say what you want to say.  It won’t all fit.  Suspend your disbelief, and pretend.  That’s layer one of the matrix.
Now put second sheet of glass down–some breathing space again–and notice you can still see the paper and all the content.  The content goes all over the place.  Who’d want to read this?  So maybe on this second pane, you can begin to organize what’s on the first pane.  Spend time thinking about all the different ways you can structure it. Which sentence should go first, second, which paragraph is irrelevant?  What content will move your reader?  What won’t?  That’s layer two.
Structure: How does the content unfold? 
You’re still standing over the book but what you see is a jumble of content on glass 1 and a bunch of arrows and carets and notes on glass 2.  An even bigger mess than before.  You want to quit!
So you take the two layers and fuse them together to come up with what seems to work best. The two pieces of glass come together through “the writing process,” the writer as “glass alchemist.” Now you are back to one pane–1 and 2 have become one.
Place another glass down.  You see the structured content below and you begin to understand that it contains subtle ideas and perhaps one or two big ideas.  These ideas are the reason you are writing this piece in the first place. You probably didn’t know what those ideas were exactly, but something led you to them through your writing,  and now you can see it all, right there, on the pane of glass 3, what this story means.
Meaning: What does the story say?
These thematic purposes, big and small, need to be “joined” to glass 1. You look for key words. If your content and structure is about love, you look for places to set up images of love, symbols of love, expressions of love. Maybe instead of a piece of dialogue, you decide to put in a gesture, a finger running down a cheek. All this goes into the pane of glass 3: anything that clarifies, intensifies, distills the language. Through this process, pane 3 fuses to the first two and again, you have a single piece of glass.
Now you notice the single piece of glass is clearing up. The words are beginning to look like real sentences, clear sentences, leading somewhere important. The page is beginning to look like a page with elements of content, structure, and purpose.
A fourth piece of glass will bring tightening to the story: deletions of unnecessary words, unnecessary phrases, those “darlings” that people say we must kill.
Several more panes can be added too. Subplot on one, back story on another, each piece of glass building one on top of the other until it all reads smoothly, giving the reader the information she needs to become one with the story.
Elements: Everything comes together.
After the final pane is honed and completed, all the glass will fuse together and imprint the page. The story is finished, but let’s go back to the beginning and put the four or five or six panes of glass where they were before they were melted together.
If you look at the “book” from the side view, open it with covers and spine flat on the table and the glass panes stacked on top of each other with just a little air between them, you’ll get the idea of the complexity of the process. One step at a time, looking at different aspects, but managing to remember all the aspects too, adjusting to get them to work together. There could be 20 or 30 layers in a novel, maybe only 4 or 5 in a flash.
Now stand above this book with its layers and look down. Let them fuse again.  It’s back to words in sentences across the page, paragraphs, pages to turn.
When I taught Freshman Comp, many of the students were intimated because they thought of writing in its final published form, a thick rectangular book with three or hundred pages of clean text written by accomplished writers.  They’d shake their heads and groan and mumble, “I don’t even know where to start” or “Nothing I ever write is like this in the book” leading to “I’m going to fail.”
They wanted to give up because they didn’t understand that writing is a process, and understanding the matrix of what really goes into a piece of writing: the who, what, where, when, why, and how of content, the organization of structure,  the writer’s own feelings (theme) that emerge from the text, and the time and effort of revision and proof-reading.  Seeing each of these as a separate step (or a pane of glass) in a process, makes it easy to understand that good results require time, attention, and practice and none of it is easy.
_____________________________________________

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Interview with Susan Lewis: Is it Poetry, Prose Poem, or Flash?


Susan Lewis lives in New York City and edits Posit. She is the author of How to be Another (Červená Barva Press, 2014), State of the Union (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2014), The Following Message (White Knuckle Press, 2013), At Times Your Lines (Argotist Ebooks, 2012), Some Assembly Required (Dancing Girl Press, 2011), Commodity Fetishism, winner of the 2009 Červená Barva Press Chapbook Award, and Animal Husbandry (Finishing Line Press, 2008).

Gay Degani: I've read many of your poems – especially your prose poems – but before we get started with discussing that subject, I thought my first question should be more about you, for me and the readers to get to know you. Can you tell me a little more about what brought you to writing? I noticed from your extended biography that you went to law school. Being a lawyer means lots and lots of writing, did that play any part in your decision to turn to writing?

Susan Lewis: It’s true that law involves plenty of writing – and reading. That was probably why I thought I might be better suited to the field than I was! I’d been a bookworm since I was tiny: a bit sickly, I was always reading. I was also taken all over the world (school be damned!) by my parents, who were globe-trotting Hollywood producers – and spent a lot of time in planes, trains, cars, and hotel rooms – reading.

By the time I was a teenager I had powered through the canon. As for writing, when I was six or seven, I fell in love with a slim volume of poems by Basho, and started writing Haiku, Tanka, etc. I kept writing poetry, plays, and short stories until I went to college, where I studied – and therefore wrote – literature and film criticism. After which I wanted to be “relevant” and “engaged” in social justice – hence my foray into law. The fact is law taught me plenty about discipline and accuracy. But it was not a great fit. I’m no warrior – I’ve always loathed competition. And intellectually, I’m more intuitive than methodical, preferring insight to argumentation, implication to explication.

GD: What launched you from law to writing, the actual step between pragmatic practice to creative work? How did that evolve for you?

SL: Ah, well, like almost everything I’ve ever decided to “start,” I had no idea what I was getting into when I “tried” writing! After getting my BA in only three years, going straight through law school, and finishing a very demanding stint as a law clerk to a US District Court judge, I decided to nourish my soul by “taking a year off” to write. 

Well, that year turned into a few, during which I discovered, to my chagrin, that I had no desire to go back into law. For a while I wrote screenplays, but discovered that world wasn’t right for me either. So I decided to pursue an MFA in fiction, which is all I wrote for many years. Then I morphed (yet again!) into a poet, albeit one with a foot still in the narrative door. But the fact is I’ve never lost my pragmatic side: so alongside the writing, I taught for a few years, and then served as a fiction editor, poetry editor, guest editor, managing editor, and finally, founding editor of the journal I run now (Posit).

GD: Let’s talk about your work!! One of the reasons I wanted to have an opportunity to interview you is because you do have one foot wholly into poetry and the other foot straddling the rather unclear line between poetry and fiction, what some people would call “prose poetry.” I began thinking about this “unclear line” between the two when I read one of my stories at an event and received several compliments on my poem! It was narrative flash, but because it was read aloud, I suppose it was harder to tell.

When I met you earlier this year, you introduced yourself first as a poet, then laughed and said something about how your poems sometimes merge with fiction (not your exact words, my apologies). I wanted to know more. What about prose poems? Are there distinct features to each side of the line, prose v. poem? Does it matter what we call them?

SL: Gay, I love these questions. In fact, the prose poem is a form with a venerable history (dating back to Beaudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé), and so yes, I believe it is a term with meaning, and not a shallow or arbitrary label, which is not to say that many prose pieces might not reasonably reside in more than one category.

From Beaudelaire
First and foremost, it comes down to the author’s intention/understanding – in which tradition she would like her work to be situated. But it’s also a question of the publisher’s understanding. For instance, although I tend to consider most of my short prose pieces poems, I have had a number of them published “across the aisle,” as flash fiction! And that’s fine with me – I’m not rigid about the label. But I do think there are ramifications.

For instance, in the readership. As we both know, fiction and poetry readers are pretty distinct populations, with very little overlap. (As are, to a significant extent, their publishers). Naturally, they’ll view the work from quite different frames of reference. This also speaks to how the author wants her work approached – which of its features she’s hoping readers will engage.

For myself, I’ve written most, but not all, of my short prose pieces in the belief that I was writing poetry – without necessarily knowing, during the composition process, whether they would end up lineated or in blocks. I also considered them poetry partly because I was inspired by, and responding to, the work of writers generally considered “poets.” In addition, I envisioned poetry readers as their “target audience.” On the other hand, for years I wrote short stories, even very short “flash” pieces, which were informed by a consciousness of, and admiration for, an entirely different literary corpus. (As were my intended readers).

As for what makes fiction “fiction,” and what makes poetry “poetry” – any generalization can be shattered by the right counterexample. Nonetheless, casting a piece as a work of fiction invites comparison to literature that tends to emphasize character, description, dramatic arc, etc. Poetry, on the other hand, is presumed (or permitted) to be more about form or language itself, with a more primary focus on rhythm, texture, music, argument, etc. But we don’t have to look at prose poetry to see the lines blur; consider, on the one hand, Beckett’s fiction (or even Joyce’s); and narrative poetry on the other (Dante, Milton, Browning, Tennyson, etc.)

GD: I love learning about this. To introduce readers to your work, I selected one I particularly like that was published in the Brooklyn Rail earlier this year. What draws me to this work is the wordplay throughout, the way so many words and phrases echo each other. For example,

From: “Say What You Want”

Reach across this bloody chamber floor, clamor with comrades clambering for pale rays grasped like straws, gasped & ghostly. Sipping light like salamanders, cave-bound.
“Chamber,” “clamor,” and “comrades clambering” as well as “grasped” and “gasped” and “light” “like.” Is this what’s called an internal rhyming scheme? I’ve read poems here and there over the years, but haven’t studied them since college so the terminology is not part of my personal lexicon. 

Can you talk a little bit about the four pieces published under the heading from State of the Union

Readers of this interview can find them here: Brooklyn Rail/Susan Lewis

SL: I’m glad you like those pieces! I’m not sure I’d use the word “scheme,” but what you are identifying are indeed internal rhymes (as well as other poetic devices, such as alliteration and assonance). Since these are prose poems, as opposed to lineated verse, there are no line or stanzaic, breaks – so in a sense, every prosodic device is “internal.”

Those pieces are from my most recent chapbook, State of the Union, a group of twenty-five prose poems struggling, more and less playfully, as well as more and less abstractly, with the question of union – on the personal as well as social scale. I’m interested in the energy and provocation generated by wrestling to unite, or at least encompass, oppositions.

It strikes me as a quixotic struggle parallel to our struggle as humans, which I think is both imperative and impossible, to “only connect,” as Forster so succinctly admonished. Just consider the irony of that word, “only!” In a sense I’m just reaching for the artistry of Forster’s epigraph – using compression to encompass sincerity and irony, darkness and light, bleakness and humor.  

That little book has been fortunate to receive several generous reviews, but one that particularly moved me was by Moira Richards in a June issue of the Cape Times, treating my poems as relevant to the struggle for unity and dialogue in South Africa!

GD: You really know your stuff. What advice would you give a writer who finds herself (or himself) trying to decide which way to write a piece, as poetry or prose? In other words, if they feel they need to decide because they’re buried in a muddle of words they like, what criteria would you have them use?

SL: First, I’d think about which kind of reader I was wishing for. Then, I’d try writing it one way and if it flowed, I’d take that as a good sign. If the process stalled, or seemed to be stultified by the task of fitting into that particular form, I’d try changing it up, and see what happens. I believe in letting go and listening – in letting the piece you’re writing tell you what it wants to be – which can sometimes be surprisingly far from our original intentions.

GD: And my last question, could you please name your inspirations in life and in writing?

SL: Wow! The first thing I need to do is add the words “some of” before “your!” Writers who have inspired me include, but are definitely not limited to: Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortazar, Russell Edson, Michael Palmer, Bin Ramke, John Ashbery, Jose Saramago, Jim Crace, Yasunari Kawabata, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee…not to mention the extraordinary writers I continue to discover almost every day.

In line with my fondness for duality, I’m inspired by two radically dissimilar groups of people in my life. There are those with the spirit to endure and even thrive, despite the often harsh challenges life throws at them. Others decline the refuge of optimistic delusion, and brave the pain caused by facing reality head-on. Their common denominator is courage, which inspires me in every shape and size.

***

New from Susan Lewis:

This Visit
BlazeVOX [books]
Paperback: 104 pages
ISBN: 978-60964-169-6
$16
cover art by Michael Janis


An elegy to this visit of the living to our own existence, This Visit is a pastiche of lyrical dissonances assembled from intimate voices yearning for connection. The world of these poems is constantly struggling to take form, like Michelangelo’s slaves emerging from the half-hewn stone, or Duchamp’s nude descending a multitude of linguistic staircases by way of half-lines, half-steps, snatches of overheard lines, and the primordial rhythms and rhymes ingrained in our bones.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Never Too Late to Write

Reprinted from an article published in Coastlines, Summer, 2014
My novel, What Came Before, took more than twelve years to write.
I’m not bragging about that. The book is only 242 pages long and it’s not a deep philosophical treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. There are no white whales, no Dublin boarding houses, no Madeleines, so why did it take me so long?

Well, life got in the way.

My dream of becoming a writer began in childhood. My mother read me the Bobbsey Twins, and my dad introduced me to the dauntless Nancy Drew. After devouring Little Women, I knew I had to be a writer, just like Jo. I drew pictures of books, my books, with enticing titles along the spines, my name just below. At 12, I scribbled a “novel” in purple ink about the Twellington twins and their nine siblings.

I was surprised in high school to find out that my Creative Writing teacher had entered one of my short stories in the Atlantic Monthly High School Writing Contest and more surprised when I won second place. “Collision,” I thought, was just the beginning.

After graduating with a B.A. from UCSB in 1970 and getting a Masters’ Degree in English at Long Beach State in 1971, I found myself in need of a career—or at least a job. I had to support myself, but I was certain I could dig up the “spare time” to write. As a kid of the 50s and 60s, I thought time grew like fat plums waiting to be plucked, but as a full-time worker bee, I couldn’t find the tree, let alone the fruit. Still I thought, one day, some day.

Now I realize I had to live my life before I could write. When I look back, I can identify those moments of learning that gave me the confidence and know-how to put words on paper.

As a trainee in a department store executive training program, I learned that the Junior Department in Del Amo was only a small segment of huge enterprise. Behind the selling floors, the dressing rooms, and the customers was a complex operation spread over 40+ stores as well as a blocks-long system of offices and warehouses. In the beginning I vaguely understood the size and shape of the company, but not its intricacies, how it actually functioned. Later, as a writer, this experience helped me understand that behind a basic storyline, there is structure, a way of doing things, a way of controlling results.

As a Gap store manager, my job was about people—customers and employees. I understood something about human nature, but not enough. My first lesson came before I was even hired. The company gave all new employees an “honesty” test. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could pass whether they were honest or not, so I asked the man who hired me if anyone ever failed. His answer?

Yes, they did. A high percentage. This surprised me and forced me to become more aware of how very different we are from each other. Later, as a district manager, when I had to figure out how to foster top performances in others, I developed more insights into what motivates and what discourages people. Strong characters in good stories have to want something. What pulls the reader along is how those characters respond to the obstacles put between them and their desires.

Tupperware came next. Yep, I learned everything there is to know about eradicating mold from my refrigerator, but more importantly, this job forced me to rely on myself to get what I wanted. It taught me to rally to the task, to observe and imitate successful behaviors, to give encouragement as well as to accept it, and to think on my feet. Selling Tupperware made me feel something like a stand-up comedian—the more they laughed, the more I sold—and I became addicted to being “in the zone,” that feeling that comes when everything I do works. I had forgotten how that felt. I knew it was finally time to write. My first screenplay was called “Plastic Dreams,” about a man who seeks refuge in selling Tupperware.

I began to write screenplays, stories, random poems, and journal entries. I took extension classes, went to conferences and workshops. By the time my kids left home to chase their own dreams, I was beginning to understand what made good writing. I accepted that writing well doesn’t just happen, but that it comes with practice and study.

I am proudest of not giving up, of refusing to abandon my writing dream. Many of my pieces of both fiction and non-fiction have been published including sixty short stories, an eight-story collection about mothers and daughters called Pomegranate, a second collection almost completed, a novella serialized in Pure Slush’s 2014 project, and of course, my suspense novel, What Came Before. I’m 65 years old.  Thank goodness, it’s never too late.

 What Came Before




Sunday, September 21, 2014

An Amazon Review of What Came Before by Rachael Warecki!


This review is from: What Came Before (Kindle Edition)

I started Gay Degani's "What Came Before" with the vow to read only a few chapters before heading to bed. Famous last words, those: I stayed up until I finished the whole book, I was so compelled to find out what happened next. "What Came Before" is lean, spare, and tightly plotted, without sacrificing any of its literary qualities. The protagonists are sympathetic and realistically flawed, the language is beautiful, and Los Angeles -- both the present-day city and the L.A. of the 20th century -- is lovingly and accurately rendered.

Abbie Palmer, nee Hart, is shocked out of her mid-life crisis when a woman named Olita shows up on her doorstep, claiming that they're half-sisters -- both daughters of former pin-up girl Virginia Hart, who committed suicide when Abbie was four. The next day, Olita dies under suspicious circumstances, and Abbie resolves to find out the truth about her mother's past while also solving the mystery of Olita's murder. With the help of Makenna, Olita's daughter and Abbie's potential niece, Abbie sets out on a cross-SoCal journey that takes her from Pasadena to the High Desert, encountering old Hollywood producers, civil rights activists, and vengeful singers along the way.

Degani flings readers into her plot head-long, and the story is fast-paced: Degani covers a lot of ground in just over 200 pages, primarily by focusing tightly on the mystery; at times, Abbie's relationship with her husband seems to fall by the wayside. That said, Abbie's relationship with her maybe-niece, Makenna, is fully realized and conscientiously developed, and I found myself rooting for the best of all possible outcomes for the both of them. My only nitpick is that sometimes information was repeated from chapter to chapter, but I suppose that's the result of the novel moving over from an online serial format. Definitely a book I'll be recommending to my other mystery-loving friends!

About Rachael
Rachael Warecki is an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and the Teach for America '08 corps. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Midwestern Gothic, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.

Find Rachael on Twitter: @RachaelLaWriter
Find Rachael on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rachaelaw86