The Wednesday Web Browser: Freelancing in Tough Economic Times, Q&A on Crafting a Short Story, and Tips for Querying Agents

Freelance writer John K. Borchardt shares “7 Steps to Thriving in a Tough Economy” in a Web-only offering from The Writer.
Over the weekend I read the latest from One Story: “Foreign Girls,” by Thomas Grattan. I always love the Q&A with each story’s author on the One Story blog, and this one, in which Grattan discusses how he crafted “Foreign Girls,” is no exception.
And still more guidance (some very basic, some a little less so) from Chuck Sambuchino: “Querying Agents: 10 Tips for Writers.”

From My Bookshelf: The Temple Bombing, by Melissa Fay Greene

Last year I spent a few days in Atlanta, and at one point I passed the beautiful Temple on Peachtree Street. I hadn’t yet read Melissa Fay Greene’s 1996 book, The Temple Bombing, but I’d heard about it (it was a National Book Award Finalist), and I knew the basic story it told: the Temple, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue, was bombed in 1958. Thankfully, no one had been hurt.

Now I’m reading Greene’s book, and while I haven’t yet finished it, I’m very glad that I’ve finally gotten to it. The book not only chronicles the bombing, but offers a rich history of Atlanta Jewry; a detailed portrait of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, the Temple’s leader in 1958; and a reminder of just how difficult the struggles for integration and civil rights in the South really were.

At about 500 pages (with footnotes), it’s a challenging read. But very much worth the effort.

Recent Reads: Jean Thompson’s "Wilderness"

Remember way back (OK–last December) when I mentioned I’d recently read Jean Thompson’s story collection, Throw Like a Girl?

Well, I’ve now had the chance to read some of Thompson’s work more recently, too. That’s because Thompson’s story, “Wilderness,” is the latest release from the ever-reliable One Story.

Check out editor Hannah Tinti’s take:

Jean Thompson’s “Wilderness” came to us through One Story reader Jason Watt, who once studied with Jean, and has been talking about her incredible skills and pursuing her for a story for a while. When “Wilderness” finally was passed to me, I brought it on the subway, where I do most of my reading. Well, I not only missed one–I missed two stops before realizing the F train had taken me way past my home. This seemed appropriate, since Anna’s narrative begins and ends on a train. In any case, I knew this story was for One Story. It’s very difficult, I think, to use letters properly in a short story, without distracting from the action or forward momentum of the piece. Somehow, Ted’s letters in “Wilderness,” even though they do not touch on the current action of Anna’s Thanksgiving trip to visit Lynn, weave their way through the emotional underpinnings of the story, so that when Anna comes to her conclusion, at the end, it feels completely on target. This story is beautifully crafted, and hits all the complicated feelings of trying to connect in middle age, whether in a marriage, a friendship, with children, or with lovers.

True to custom, One Story has published a complementary Q&A with the story’s author, too. Love that feature!

Paris Note #1: (Un)Assigned Reading

So, as you know, I spent last week in Paris, attending the Paris Writers Workshop. It was a wonderful week on so many levels: revisiting my beloved city; catching up with a dear friend who happened to be there at the same time; focusing on the possibility of turning something that hasn’t quite worked as a short story into a novel; and establishing what promise to be a couple of long-lasting friendships with others in my workshop.

That workshop, billed as a “Master Class” in the novel, also included discussion of two assigned novels: Andrei Makine’s Dreams of My Russian Summers, and James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Before I left New York I expected that after my return I might write here about one (or both) of those books, and the workshop analyses of them. But rather than write about either of those fine works of fiction, I want to tell you instead about the essay collection I read while I was away: William Styron’s Havanas in Camelot. Because, quite simply, I loved it.

Actually, I’ve mentioned this book here before. And it’s doubtful that I can do as good a job of writing about it as “Oronte” already has.

So all I’ll say is this: I found it nearly impossible to put this book down (and fortunately, due to its slender size, I didn’t need to do so very often). Its appeal wasn’t, I think, simply a matter of my longtime admiration for the author of Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Visible. In many ways, Styron was a witness to history, and his accounts of everything from his presence at “what turned out to be possibly the most memorable social event of the Kennedy presidency” to the culture of censorship that surrounded his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (finished, writes Styron, “about two hundred years ago—it was 1951, to be exact”), will capture and hold the attention of any reader remotely interested in the social and cultural history of the United States from World War II forward.

And then, as the mention of his first novel may suggest, the elements of this book based in Styron’s experience as an author among authors proved irresistible for this practicing writer. See especially the pieces grounded in Styron’s friendships with Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Terry Southern (the account of a special VIP tour of the Cook County Jail that Styron and his wife enjoyed in Southern’s company, thanks to the efforts of their Chicago host, Nelson Algren, is unforgettable).

I finished reading Havanas in Camelot early in my Paris week, sad that I’d reached the final page. And sad, once again, that Styron is no longer with us.

(More “Paris Notes” to follow.)

From My Bookshelf: Unaccustomed Earth

Last weekend I finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s new story collection, Unaccustomed Earth. Yes, I remembered several of the stories from their first appearances in the New Yorker. Still, there’s enough new here to warrant additional attention. Plus, reading the assembled collection yields a different experience than does reading each story months or even years apart. And frankly, Lahiri’s stories are not infrequently worth rereading.

So I recommmend the book heartily. Here are just a few elements that impressed me:

1) Story endings. It’s no secret that endings are the bane of my life as a fiction writer. I could quote a concluding paragraph from one of the book’s eight stories to try to illuminate why I’m so envious of her talent, but honestly (and I think this is one of the reasons why endings are so hard to teach or analyze), the conclusions grow so well from all that precedes them that I’m not sure a brief snippet would do them justice. Suffice to say that Lahiri knows how to write an ending.

2) Linked stories. The final three stories (“Once in a Lifetime,” “Year’s End,” and “Going Ashore”) are linked by two recurring characters and their families. Each story’s first-person narrator is speaking to the other character (with subtle “you”‘s sprinkled throughout each story). Interesting approach.

3) I’ve now read my share of “9/11 stories” and “Katrina stories.” But this collection presents the first literary allusion to/treatment of the 2004 tsunami that I’ve found.

For more about Lahiri and her new book (and a brief excerpt), see this NPR feature.