Tag Archives: Virginia Tech

Things You Will Learn From Spending A Day With Percival Everett

9 Oct

You will learn that Percival Everett’s favorite word is No. You will learn that the gizmo used to castrate a horse is called – somewhat appropriately – an emasculator. You will learn the importance of reading forklift manuals. You will learn that Percival Everett doesn’t believe in the ‘craft’ of writing. You will learn about the craft of writing.

What I think bothers Everett about the term ‘craft’ is its implication that ideal forms, structures and processes exist (and can be taught) to generate fiction. As a writer whose reputation has been built on his unwillingness to accept categorization – of either his writing, or his person – and his career-long experimentation with form (some would even say rejection), this discomfort with the idea of a ‘right way to write’ is entirely consistent with his worldview.

As a consequence, Everett focused on ends rather than means during his September visit to Virginia Tech : on what effective fiction achieves, rather than how it is made. And it became clear to this author over the course of a day’s interaction with Everett – first in his ironically titled ‘craft talk’, then at a public reading of en excerpt from his novel-in-progress, and finally at dinner in an Italian restaurant whose walls were decked with pictures of horses (thus the emasculator) – that he cares most about how fiction is experienced. For Everett, it is the reader alone who creates meaning (I am tempted to describe this approach as post-modern, but that I suspect that would annoy him).

Everett rejects the notion that fiction has an ‘asymptotic’ relationship with reality (you will also learn that Percival Everett studied math in college). In other words, he rejects the idea that fiction aspires to be ‘objectively true’ and that the greatest fiction is that which comes closest to a depiction of the real world.

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Rather, he conceives of fiction as a series of strategic convergences and divergences from reality that create an authentic experience on the page.

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There are times when real-life is too absurd to read as authentic on the page and so, as writers, we must beware conflating truth with verisimilitude (you will learn that Percival Everett thinks that any MFA student who defends their work by protesting “but it really happened!” should be defenestrated).

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Conversely, there are times when authenticity on the page, comes from the ‘hyper-real’.

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An example Everett discussed was the difference between speech in real life, which generally reads like dribble when transcribed on the page (with all its inelegant ums and ahs…and in my case, liberal cursing), and fictional dialogue, which – if we were to reproduce it in the real world – would just make us all sound like pretentious wankers.

Crafty, no?

-Beejay S.

The Best Books We Read in 2013: Fiction Roundup

29 Oct

TMR’s fiction readers have a few recommendations up our sleeves—here are the best books we read in the last year.

Amy L.’s pick: The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco, 2013)

I’ve been hyping Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle a lot this year, but as much as I love that collection, I can’t earnestly call it my “favorite.” In sort of the way that I’ll always claim The Wire as my favorite TV show when, really, I should just admit that it’s Grey’s Anatomy, Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed tops my 2013 reading list. The novel is no guilty pleasure; it’s a 700-page tome narrated by an amateur historian hellbent on identifying the origins of a mysterious “curse” that plagued Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century. Oates’ third 2013 release pulls readers into alternate demon-worlds, yet still demands their engagement with the political and socioeconomic realities that shaped the early 1900s, placing historical figures such as Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair among its major characters. No easy read, that. But Oates’ lush, pointed prose and sharp eye for the grotesque make The Accursed one of those immersive, epic books that will keep you marathon-reading for three days (or maybe that’s just me).

Freddy’s pick: El Coronel No Tiene Quien Le Escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Harper & Row, 1968)

I read El Coronel in Spanish. It was one of Marquez’s less magic realist stories, which at first disappointed me, but I read on and did find magic in it, in secret miracles and simple statements about October—“one of the few things that arrive.” Marquez opens a window into the world of an old retired colonel who, in manic vigil, awaits his military pension, which will never arrive—but it does not matter, since waiting is a definition of his life. Marquez magically, surreptitiously penetrates our head with the feeling that El Coronel is Colombia, Latin America, humanity. He lets the beauty and miracles come out between lines that are filled with disappointment, and the human toll caused by futile, parasitic governments, and people, and heavy rain and a fighting rooster. Marquez ultimately offers what might be interpreted as hope; he lets us see the defiant, imaginative child who lives inside El Coronel, inside Marquez: a rambunctious, optimistic child named Latin America.

Joe’s pick: Dancer, Colum McCann (Picador, 2009)

Colum McCann’s Dancer chronicles the life of Rudolf Nureyev, a ballet dancer who famously defected from the Soviet Union to become one of the most celebrated performers of the twentieth century. The novel ranges from Nureyev’s impoverished childhood in the Soviet Union to his globetrotting years as a celebrity. Readers get to know the famous dancer through a multitude of perspectives that McCann assumes with such ease that at times it seems the book was composed by a consortium of writers and not just one man. By constantly shifting the lens through which the story is told, McCann artfully weaves diverse voices together to construct a narrative pulsating with the bravado of Nureyev himself.

Josh’s pick: The Runes of the Earth, Stephen R. Donaldson (Putnam, 2004)

Last summer, I received a generous donation of books from my grandmother, delivered in a box covered by a thin layer of dust. Among the books I received was Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Runes of the Earth, the seventh book in his Covenant series. The language, rich and sophisticated, told a surprisingly dark story that was compelling from start to finish—a book I couldn’t stop reading and won’t soon forget. The book includes one of my favorite scenes in fantasy, in which Joan, Covenant’s crazed ex-wife, tears at her skin until she is soothed by the touch of her former husband’s wedding band: “. . . it was precisely the reminder of guilt which calmed Joan: that Joan’s catatonia endured because she had been fundamentally defeated by the touch of white gold.” I enjoyed Donaldson’s book so much that I went out and bought the previous six books to ensure I don’t miss a single masterfully crafted scene.

Kari’s pick: Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead, 2012)

Near the end of the first story in this collection, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” which reads as a kind of hybrid of essay and story, personal and public history, artifact and invention, Watkins concedes: “Everything I can say about what it means to lose, what it means to do without, the inadequate weight of the past, you already know.” And yet—thankfully—Watkins goes on for nine more stories that, while all grounded in Nevada, span from the mythic to the historical to the personal– brothels to mining camps, the Vegas strip to a falling-apart peacock farm. All of them push against Watkins’ early concession by pulling forth story from past, narrative from mystery, meaning from haunting. Battleborn, Watkins’ first collection, is definitely one of my favorite reads of 2013.

Matty’s pick: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel 

This graphic novel took Bechdel over seven years to write and illustrate. That time and effort comes through in a heartbreaking coming-of-age story about a young girl grappling with her sexuality—while also grappling with her father’s ambiguous sexuality. It’s one of my favorite books I’ve read in years!

Nora’s pick: Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi (Penguin, 2013)

Taiye Selasi’s first novel begins with the death of the Sai family patriarch in Ghana, a death that sparks complex reactions among his ex-wife and four children. The very public politics of Ghana and Nigeria reverberate in the private tragedies that break up the Sai family.  Each of the characters in this novel is unique, complicated, and fascinating; each breaks boundaries of one kind or another. By showing how larger forces leave scars on individual lives, Ghana Must Go gives life to the pages of history books and newspaper headlines.

Kelly’s pick: Blueprints for Building Better Girls, Elissa Schappell (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

Elissa Schappell’s collection of interconnected short stories contains engaging female characters grappling with challenging conflicts at various stages of life and across different generations. I loved the depth of emotion conveyed through highly accessible, entertaining prose. I could feel the loneliness, excitement, conflict, and grief of the characters. This is a great book for anyone interested in major transitions in the lives of women and the social implications of women’s struggles.

The Confessional: On Writing Sins

22 Oct

When I was a boy, I was an excellent listener. Every Sunday I would go to church and the preacher would preach and I would take his messages to heart. No matter how dubious the notion (water into wine, a pregnant virgin, condoms are bad), I would accept it as an absolute truth. I trusted the man in front of the congregation because he seemed to comprehend what I needed to do to achieve eternal salvation. As I understood it, heaven – this cloudy pastel paradise I’d conjured – would make me feel much more at home than I did in the world.

Once I listened to a fiery homily about impure thoughts. Let’s say I was around thirteen. Up to that point, I believed that if I did the right thing and said my prayers, I’d be fist-bumping St. Peter in no time. But the fact that I could think my way into the hellfire terrified me because nearly all of my happy thoughts were sinful (they were usually musings about petty larceny or touching girls). For the longest time I believed that these notions could only earn me a ticket to the inferno if actualized. Turns out I was wrong. As I sat in my pew and the priest pounded his fist about the opprobrium of allowing your mind to wander, I knew I was in trouble.

Church_of_the_GesuAs a result, I spent a lot of time trying not to think or act. The inaction part came quite naturally to me, but I struggled to shut my brain off. In fact, the more purity I aimed for, the more impure my thoughts became. It was like when somebody says, “Don’t think of a pink elephant.” Except for me it was, “Don’t think of putting your penis inside other people.” Or: “Don’t think about how you really don’t believe a person can come back from the dead.” Or: “Don’t think about stealing a bag of chips at lunch” (this notion, I’ll admit, was actualized nearly every day). As I grew older, the pink elephant became more and more obviously sinful, more creatively devious, and more difficult to control.

I needed a way to exorcise these demons. So I started writing fiction while I was in high school. My first stories were about – God help me – Jesus. I created characters who figured it all out via the Holy Trinity, and I used a lot of bad adverbs while I was at it. Even then, when I was lost in the Catholic sauce, I knew the stories were awful. And not just because of the adverbs. Every single time my characters found God, I felt like I was telling a lie, especially because no God had ever found me.

Instead of subduing my religious doubts, then, writing fiction intensified them. When I enrolled in a fiction workshop during my junior year of college, I felt compelled to write about the world the way I actually saw it and not the way I was told I ought to see it. The stories I produced were not good, but of course they were better than the moralistic fables I had put together years before. And I no longer felt like a liar. There is that old saying about finding truth in fiction, and in those undergraduate piles of words I was moving towards a personal truth. Though I didn’t know it.

Despite the Catholic devil on my shoulder, I kept writing. My stories were about sinners and the ways they sinned. They were about selfishness and coveting thy neighbor’s wife and having other gods besides the big G and greed and lust and envy and jealousy and anything else that I felt despite being told not to feel it. And I couldn’t stop writing this way, even though I wanted to. It was like when I was a boy and I tried to eradicate sins from my thoughts: the effort perpetuated the thing I wasn’t supposed to do. Only this time I could not hide the sins in my head. They had been crystallized on the page; they were visible to whomever wanted to see them (not many people, actually, but that’s a different story).

As it turns out, in fiction, the bad stuff can be the good stuff. Not only that, the bad stuff is often the true stuff. We all have some judgmental reader (in my case, it was God) who censors us even as we compose, and if we find a way to look that reader in the face and say, “Listen, Man, You are making my stories boring and stupid,” then we’ll all produce better pieces of literature. In the meantime, if you’re still struggling to renounce your own reader – whether it’s your mother or Allah or the kid sitting across from you in workshop – take heart in this: even if it kind of hurts at first, your writing will be a lot better if you tell the truth.

This post is by Joseph Truscello. Joseph Truscello is an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech. He has a BA in English from Pace University and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. From 2011-2013, he taught high school English in Hartford, Connecticut, as a member of Teach for America. 

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Interview with Quinn White

26 Mar

ImageThe following is an interview with Quinn White.  Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from journals such as Bayou Magazine, Word Riot, Weave Magazine, and Sixth Finch. Her chapbook, My Moustache, is due from Dancing Girl Press in March 2013. Sometimes she wants to dig holes.

1. Who’s the first person who encouraged you to be a writer?

My grandmother caught me singing while I was playing in the bathroom sink with mermaid ponies. She told me that my songs were quite good and suggested I write them down.  

2. What is your biggest pet peeve?

Pet peeves. For example, people say they hate “mouth-breathers.” Ridiculous. I have asthma. My nose doesn’t provide me with enough oxygen to remain conscious at all times.

3. What’s your most effective tactic for falling asleep?

Cold to warm bed. Warm to cold lights.

4. What book has given you nightmares, or otherwise appeared to you in dreams?

   The Shining. I was taking a Kubrick and Cronenberg class and King’s book was required reading. I couldn’t finish it. In fact, if I’m about to cry, one of my strategies for keeping a straight face is to imagine that woman in the bathtub. 

5. What book(s) are you reading right now?

   Essays by Emerson. Robert Hass’ What Light Can Do. ALIEN VS. PREDATOR by Michael Robbins. Woolf’s The Waves (in spurts). Williams’ play, Night of the Iguana  

6. What is the worst film adaptation of a great book that you have ever seen?

I heard the 70’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby was awful so I didn’t watch it. A friend wears a t-shirt that reads: “Movies: Ruining Books since 1910.” I think I have that date wrong. I love lots of movies adapted from films, by the way.

7. Have you ever been to a town hall meeting?

No. When I was little, however, I formed a teddy bear government. They attempted democracy.

 8. Have you ever been to a freak show?

No. Freaks, directed by Todd Browning, is a great film, though.

9. Who’s your favorite author (or book) that no one’s ever heard of?

James Herriot.

10. Who’s your favorite author that everyone’s heard of?

Charles Schulz.

11. Do you avoid high school and college reunions or do you embrace them?

I avoid gatherings of more than three people.

12. What’s your favorite single syllable word?

I love this question because it caused me to realize I am unable to separate the word from the thing it describes. I came up with “paw” and “kiss” but I don’t know if they count because what I love about them are their physical counterparts.

13. If you could make up a word, what would it be? Definitions permitted.

Mank. verb. from the French Manqué. 1.) to long for your significant other.

14. What existing word would you prefer had a different definition? State word and redefine.

Pronoun: the quality of favoring nouns over verbs.

15. What question would you like to ask of me?

 Why are people who need people the luckiest people in the world? 

Glossolalia: March 29-31

28 Mar

This special Wednesday post is to remind you that it’s time for the Glossolalia Lit Fest @ Virginia Tech!  Glossolalia kicks off Thurs, Mar. 29, with an open mic @ She-Sha’s Café, 9 p.m. Then, Joseph Salvatore reads Friday March 30, and Andrea Cohen reads Saturday March 31, along with 16 selected graduate and undergraduate writers @ Torgerson 3100, 7 – 9:30 p.m. both nights.  If you’re in or near Blacksburg, Virginia, please join us!

For more information (including a detailed schedule of events), click on the Lit Fest tab at the top of our blog.

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A Rejectionist’s Guide to Literary Failure: Mid-American Review

13 Sep

While most rejection experts protect their secrets with lasers that you can only see with blown baby powder and others charge astronomical fees for underwhelming advice for how to compile a set of rejection letters, I’m willing to share my wisdom for free right here. The formula is simple: only submit to journals that are too good for you. I’ve seen aspiring rejectionists accidentally write something good and get published. That’s just Busch League. Others get arrogant and submit to Jimmy’s Poetrie and Chiken Magizine, thinking they’ve got the kind of game that it takes to pick up a high level rejection letter. Idiotic Icaruses, all of them. Don’t get ahead of yourself.  Keep the prose paltry, the plots contrived, and the characters stock. And for goodness sakes, send that stuff to top shelf mags.

Here’s a personal example. I recently submitted yet another mediocre story to yet another excellent journal. This time the story was about a guy shopping at Walmart and the journal was Mid-American Review. Let’s break down why that was so smart.

MAR is housed at Bowling Green State University and offers their MFA students editorial experience. BGSU’s creative writing program, as you know, has a strong tradition, one that’s played a role in the carriers of Marc Sumerak, Jean Thompson, Scott Cairns, and Tony Ardizzone.

Since 2000, MAR has been edited by Michael Czyzniejewski, an estimable rejectionist in his own right: he first published a story (on accident, let’s hope) after having been heismaned no fewer than 192 times. Respect. MAR and Czyzniejewski, now retired from professional rejectioning, offer writers a few annual contests, which are always great opportunities to log those coveted literal literary losses. I knew MAR was right for me when I saw that they’ve published two of my favorite writers, Michael Martone and David Foster Wallace (in the same issue, no less: Volume XVIII, No. 2). Odds are it’s published a lot of people you like, too, especially if you’re into people like Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, and Virginia Tech’s own Bob Hicok. These are luminaries, folks. These are the kinds of names, and this is the kind of work, that you have to surround yourself with if you’re truly committed to rejection.

So consider subscribing and submitting to Mid-American Review. It’s a great rejection to add to any writer’s portfolio of fail.

I wish you way more than suck.

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A Short History of The Minnesota Review

14 Dec Literary Journals

Written by Jerry Liles, Minnesota Review Fiction Editor

What some people may not know about The Minnesota Review is that it isn’t located in Minnesota.  In fact, it hasn’t been there for about forty years.  TMR was founded in 1960 and was located in Minnesota for about 10 years before moving to New York City.  It was here that it developed its Marxist identity.  It didn’t stay long in New York before leaving for Indiana University (for almost ten years), then Oregon State University, then SUNY-Stony Brook (back in New York), then to East Carolina University, then the University of Missouri (we’re almost there now), then to Carnegie Mellon University, and finally now in its new home, nestled in the New River Valley within little town of Blacksburg, and located within Virginia Tech.

What a long strange trip it’s been for The Minnesota Review.  It’s come from the Midwest, to the east coast, back to the Midwest, then to the west coast and back to the east coast again.  What’s intriguing to me is that it has never attempted return back to its birthplace, its old stomping grounds.  Maybe it hates its parents.  Or maybe it doesn’t have any parents—maybe The Minnesota Review is an orphan.

It seems that The Minnesota Review just needed time to find itself.  It began with a focus on avant-garde and experimental fiction, which was good enough in Minnesota, but then it got into the whole Marxist thing.    It’s probably no coincidence that it developed this particular political affiliation as it moved from Minnesota to the Big Apple.  But like many tastes we develop in our adolescent years, TMR seemed to outgrow it.

Maybe TMR just can’t stand Minnesota sports.  Sure, the Twin Cities have four pro sports teams and Virginia has none, but I think we can agree that the overall sports scene in Minnesota is pretty bleak.  The Vikings can never win the big one, the Twins always lose to the Yankees, and the Timberwolves are barely an NBA franchise.  Then there’s the Wild, but that’s hockey.  And hockey doesn’t count.

Sports are great, but of course many literary sophisticates like the ones that submit to TMR probably don’t follow sports, and of course, how are we to know how the magazine itself feels about the Vikings or the Twins.  Sports only reach so far, but something like the weather affects everyone, including The Minnesota Review.  Sure, it gets plenty cold (and windy) in Blacksburg, but I’m sure it’s nothing like a Minnesota winter.  That kind of weather just isn’t conducive to a good atmosphere.  How are you supposed to focus on stories and poems when you have to worry about digging your car out of the snow and scraping ice off of your windows?

No matter how it got here, we’re glad to welcome The Minnesota Review from the state of Minnesota (and New York, and Oregon, and so on) and into the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Hopefully the beauty of the Appalachian Mountains and the New River can tame your wanderlust, and you’ll be with us for years to come.


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