News About Some Published Practicing Writers

I love drafting posts with the express purpose of congratulating practicing writers on their publication successes. Today, we’re celebrating Lori Ann Bloomfield and Alison Ashley Formento.

Lori’s novel, The Last River Child, was recently published by Second Story Press. Lori was kind enough to send me an e-mail with this note: “Way back in July 2008 you posted that Second Story…was looking for fiction manuscripts. I had just finished writing my first novel, so sent it off to them. Well, they bought the manuscript! It came out in Canada last fall and is being released in the US this month. I’ve been wanting to share my happy story with you for a while and to thank you for your part in my success story. Please encourage your readers to keep writing and to keep submitting!” Lori, I think you’ve just encouraged them! (By the way, Lori is also the power behind a “First Line” blog, which provides fiction writers with some inspiration. And for those of you on Goodreads, Lori is hosting a book giveaway there this month. Now I may have to join yet another social networking site!)

Alison Formento‘s children’s picture book, This Tree Counts!, was published earlier this month by Albert Whitman & Company. Alison and illustrator Sarah Snow have done an outstanding job with this book. How do I know this? Alison apparently reads Practicing Writing attentively enough to know that I have a young niece and nephew, and she very graciously offered to send a copy to share with them. Some of you may know that my niece is developing into a very picky reader (you can’t begin to know how much this bothers me), but both she and her little brother were fully caught up in Alison’s story when Grandma read it to them for the first time the other day. I can’t come up with a better “review” than that.

I thank both Alison and Lori for sharing the news of their successes so generously with me. Let’s give them a big round of virtual applause, shall we?

An Interview with Memoirist Melissa Hart

Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood: An Interview with Melissa Hart

Interview by Erika Dreifus

Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of the memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches journalism at the University of Oregon and memoir writing for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, High Country News, Orion, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Writer’s Digest. She lives in Oregon with her husband, their young daughter, and too many cats and dogs.

Melissa is ALSO, like yours truly, a contributing editor for The Writer magazine. (I always enjoy her “Literary Spotlight” columns profiling individual literary journals.) I am thrilled to present this Q&A with Melissa here.

Please welcome Melissa Hart.

Erika Dreifus (ED): Melissa, Gringa is your second memoir. Can you please describe the connections between the two books, as well as what motivated you to write Gringa specifically?

Melissa Hart (MH): I wrote my first memoir, The Assault of Laughter (Windstorm, 2005) as my Master of Fine Arts thesis at Goddard College. Inspired by teachers Jacqueline Woodson and Mariana Romo-Carmona, I wanted to tell the story of the first year in my life after my mother came out as a lesbian and lost custody of me and my two younger siblings. This was 1979; throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, women who came out routinely lost custody of their children to homophobic court systems. I thought it was critical that my story, as representative of many, come to light.

But . . . I was a young writer, and I felt that I could tell the story more skillfully a decade later. I wanted to explore the idea of growing up Anglo, heterosexual, and seemingly devoid of identity in multicultural Los Angeles with a lesbian mom, a brother with Down syndrome, and a deep desire to be a Latina. I expanded the year in Assault to include all the years of my adolescence, from the day my mother left my father to my post-college graduation trip with her to Spain. I’m indebted to Seal’s senior editor Brooke Warner for helping me to shape the memoir as a coming-of-age story and a history of my mother’s and my relationship, which prevailed in spite of homophobia on the part of both the legal system and my father.

ED: Both of your memoirs reveal a great deal about your family members. How have they reacted to your writing about and publishing your collective stories? How have their reactions affected your writing processes?

MH: My father and I have been estranged for almost two decades. My stepmother and I e-mail occasionally, and she felt that Assault, in particular, gave her insight into our troubled relationship. My mother is a writer, as well, and she’s incredibly supportive of my work. She accompanied me on part of the book tour for Gringa. It’s worth noting that she asked me not to write about a few elements of our story, and I honored that. My sister is also deeply supportive; she’s told all her friends about the book and helped to organize a reading/signing event in her hometown. My brother has Down syndrome, and he doesn’t read, but he does enjoy telling and retelling stories about how my sister and I used to dress him up like a girl.

ED: Food plays an important part in Gringa, and each chapter ends with an unconventionally-presented “recipe.” How did the idea to include these recipes develop?

MH: I fell in love with recipes in the context of prose stories when I discovered Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. I loved how her recipes reflected the characters’ motivations and relationships. Then I came across Ruth Reichl’s books, and then Diana Abu-Jaber’s marvelous The Language of Baklava. Both authors incorporate recipes into their memoir, and I had these wonderful goofy recipes such as Frito Boats and my mother’s Tortilla Flats which were so important to me as a child. I took so much comfort in food as an adolescent–still do, in fact–and I wanted to offer up some of these recipes to readers as one more way to illustrate key themes and plot points in the book. Food also became a symbol of culture, or lack thereof, when I was an adolescent. I adored my boyfriend’s mother’s authentic Mexican dishes, for example, and being able to make a savory salsa or a dozen tamales became my benchmark of acceptance into his culture.

ED: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing Gringa?

MH: The biggest challenge I faced in writing Gringa was not knowing quite what the book wanted to be. Initially, it looked like a series of linked essays that were all over the place in content and theme. My agent at the time, Michelle Andelman, reined me in and noted with great insight that the memoir format might work better as a method of telling the story. In Gringa‘s next incarnation, I included several chapters between “O Christmas Tree” and “Citizens of the World”–chapters which explored further my problematic relationship with my boyfriend–but my editor felt that they disrupted the coming-of-age trajectory of the story. I cut five chapters and wrote five new ones in a two-month period. I’m a really slow writer, so getting these out and polished on a tight deadline was challenging.

Creating the book trailer for Gringa was also extremely challenging. Last summer, a colleague at the journalism school taught me FinalCut Pro and I became writer, director, food stylist, chef, actress and cat wrangler for this rather goofy trailer.

ED: How did Gringa find its home with Seal Press?

MH: Michelle Andelman shopped the book around to a few publishers, and we felt a particular affinity for Seal and for Brooke, in particular. Seal Press publishes exciting books on unexpected topics related to women, and Brooke enjoyed the humorous social commentary that informs so much of the book. I’m so happy to have worked with Seal; this is a dynamic publishing house with a professional and devoted staff.

ED: What else would you like to tell us?

MH: I teach a memoir writing course for U.C. Berkeley’s online extension program which is open to all. I post my upcoming workshops pretty regularly on both my website and my Facebook fan page. I love teaching and working with other writers; I come away inspired and excited to sit down at my computer.

Thank you so much, Melissa!

A version of this interview appeared in the March 2010 issue of The Practicing Writer.

What Does "Submission-Ready" Mean to You?

“Working on a story. Am determined to get it submission-ready!”

So read a post I “tweeted” on Monday. Lo and behold, somebody actually read what I wrote. And she wrote, in turn:

“@erikadreifus what does submission-ready mean to you?”

What an excellent question. Not just for me, but for all of us practicing writers.

My response on Twitter basically said that I couldn’t possibly address the question in 140 characters. I promised to do so here, instead.

So here’s what I think “submission-ready” means to me: I think it means that I’ve brought the work in question to a point where I can’t envision further edits/changes/improvements. At least, not imminently. And I believe that an editor/agent/publisher will read past the first few lines/pages and take the work seriously.

Now, it does happen that I submit a story or essay or poem (or novel or short story collection), receive a series of rejections (the best ones provide some constructive comments/feedback), and am then prompted to revisit the work. I might ask others who haven’t yet shared their time and insights to read and comment, too. Although I won’t necessarily withdraw the work from any journal/contest/agent/publisher where it might still be waiting to be read/decided on, I’ll refrain from submitting it anywhere else until I’ve had time to consider changes and, more often than not, revise further. In this sense, “submission-ready” is not a constant. It evolves. Because, unfortunately, what I might consider initially “submission-ready” may not necessarily be “acceptance-ready”! In fact, the story that sparked my tweet is one I believed “submission-ready” quite awhile ago, but am revising once again.

I’m eager to hear from others on this. What does “submission-ready” mean to you?

Friday Find: Experiences with Editors

The “featured resource” in the current issue of The Practicing Writer (which went out to subscribers on Wednesday) is a new series over on the Emerging Writers Network blog. Its title is “Experiences with Editors,” and it features authors describing “some of the best (and occasionally, worst) experiences they’ve had with editors at both literary journals, and publishing houses. A peek inside the process and what it is that has excited (or upset) various authors through their years of publishing.” Definitely worth reading.

Enjoy, happy new year, and happy weekend! See you back here on Monday.

The Wednesday Web Browser: NYT Edition

As usual, the NYT After Deadline blog provides useful reminders on grammar, usage, and style.
How wonderful it was to open the paper a few days ago and see a big, fat article about Open Letter Books, “a small, year-old press here affiliated with the University of Rochester that publishes nothing but literature in translation.”
Like many of you, I suspect, I was caught up for several days this summer following the coverage of Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s passing. I’ve been meaning to read his memoir, True Compass (and I’ll do so in 2010). All of which made this piece by Jonathan Karp, the memoir’s editor/publisher, compelling reading.
Adam Begley’s travel article on Stendhal’s Parma was also quite relevant to me!
Finally: The NYT asked six prominent authors to name (and read from) books they could never discard.

Monday Morning Markets/Jobs/Opportunities (One Day Late)

Here’s the usual round-up, delayed one day while I was observing Yom Kippur.

October 15 is the application deadline for the Lynchburg (Va.) College Thornton Writer Residency: “A fourteen-week residency at Lynchburg College, including a stipend of $12,000, is awarded annually to a fiction writer for the fall term. The residency also includes housing, some meals, and roundtrip travel expenses. Writers who have published at least one book of fiction are eligible. The writer-in-residence will teach a weekly creative writing workshop, visit classes, and give a public reading. Submit one copy of a book of fiction, a curriculum vitae, a cover letter outlining evidence of successful teaching experience, and contact information for three references….There is no entry fee.”
“The Department of English at Ohio University invites applications for a tenure-track assistant professor in Creative Writing: Non-Fiction. We seek candidates of established achievement who have published at least one book. The successful candidate is expected to teach; publish and direct creative work; and participate in departmental/university governance. Expected to teach at both graduate and undergraduate levels. We are seeking a candidate with a commitment in working effectively with students, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds. Position available September 2010.”
“The Department of English [at Texas Christian University] invites applications for a tenure-track, assistant professor in creative writing with a specialization in poetry, contemporary literature, and creative nonfiction.”
The University of Connecticut English Department seeks a poet to serve as Assistant/Associate/Full Professor In Residence to begin fall 2010. The selected candidate will teach one semester per year, give a public reading, and participate in the department community during that semester. Minimum Qualifications: an MFA or Ph.D; at least one published book of poetry; and a history of successful teaching in undergraduate and graduate workshops and literature courses. Preferred Qualifications: Teaching experience in a second genre, and the ability to teach prosody. Salary and rank commensurate with qualifications. This is a nine month, non-tenure track appointment. Depending on the availability of funding, the position may be renewed twice for a total of three years.
“Nature Medicine, the prestigious monthly journal covering biomedical science and translational research, is currently accepting applications for its science writing internship. The intern will be closely involved in the editorial process and write news articles and briefs, as well as blog entries. This is not a paper-pushing internship! The person selected for the position will be reporting stories and working on editorial content full-time.” Pays: $1,000/month to successful candidate (internship begins in December and will be based in New York City).
Rachel Dacus has compiled this list of small presses that publish poetry books outside of contests. Note that some presses may charge reading fees.
Three job opportunities in Massachusetts: Boston University seeks a Senior Editor/Writer;Lasell College is looking for an Assistant Director of Communications; and Tufts University invites applications for Assistant Director, Writing Resources, for its Academic Resource Center.