Novelist

Archive for September, 2011

The Word: Mercurial

The drill: Each week, I’ve asked my Facebook friends to suggest a word. I then put the suggestions into list form, run a random-number generator and choose the corresponding word from the list. That word serves as the inspiration for a story that includes at least one usage of the word in question. This week’s contribution is courtesy of Lisa Roberts, and it’s the 21st and final installment of this series. For previous installments of The Word, click here.

I don’t much care for people who don’t come out and say what they mean. You want to come at me, come in a straight line. Roll your thoughts out there, in simple terms with precise meanings, and I’ll meet you in the middle and hash it out some way—even if I hate you for what you’ve said, even if I disagree with you to the ends of the earth. I’ll respect you. At least I’ll do that.

Uncle Forrest, I don’t much care for him. Here we are, at my grandma’s house—his mother’s house—for her ninetieth birthday, and here he is, thinking it’s the time and place to try to figure me out. He’s lived no more than a mile away my whole damned life, all eighteen years of it, and has never shown much interest. Why here? Why now?

“You’re a mercurial fellow, aren’t you, Everett?” He shoves a slice of German chocolate cake into his hole as he says this. How I detest him.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know what ‘mercurial’ means, Everett?”

The son of a bitch (no offense, Grandma).

“I want you to define your terms. Is your context elemental? Are you saying I’m a poor conductor of heat? That I’m a heavy metal? That I don’t react with most acids? That I’m good at forming amalgams? I just want to understand you.”

Forrest licks chocolate from his fingers.

“Or maybe you’re speaking in mythological terms. I’m a messenger with wings on my feet. I stole Vulcan’s net to catch a nymph. Is that it, Forrest? It’s your dance. I’m just trying to understand the rules.”

The party has stopped now, and everyone is looking at us. Grandma has full eyes that look like, God help me, mercury. Mom is standing on the other side of the table, fists on her hips, crimson-faced. Aunts and cousins and neighbors are staring at us, agape. And I keep going.

“Or perhaps, Forrest, you’re just relying on the common, Webster’s definition. You think I’m subject to sudden or unpredictable changes.”

He’s edging away from me, smiling stupidly, unwilling to say what he means.

“What is it, Uncle Forrest?”

“Let’s just drop it.”

“No.”

Mom comes into it now. “Yes. Drop it or leave, young man.”

So I do the thing that requires integrity. I kiss grandma on the cheek—she’s full-on crying now—and I leave.

I stand on the porch, and I tremble. I am not Mercury. I don’t have the speed. I don’t have the cunning. I am a boy who doesn’t fit in. But I am strong. Stronger than Forrest, for sure. Stronger than all of them. I am Mars.

I am going back inside.


Q&A: David Abrams

David Abrams

David Abrams’ The Quivering Pen blog is a friend to writers and readers everywhere, politely but persistently banging the drum for literary fiction, giving authors an outlet to write about their experiences and giving exposure to recently released and upcoming books (as well as the occasional tune).

Along the way, David has occasionally updated folks on the progress of his own novel, Fobbit. Earlier this month came the most welcome news of all: Fobbit has been acquired by Grove/Atlantic. Even in his happiest moment, David was plugging for others. Here’s a snippet of his e-mail announcing the acquisition of Fobbit: “All I can say is, I am honored and thrilled to have my manuscript accepted by the same publishing house who brought you A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent–all books I count among some of my favorites.”

David was gracious enough to answer some questions. Here we go …

Give us your 25-words-or-fewer elevator pitch for Fobbit.

Elevator Pitch #1: Two groups of soldiers muddle through the Iraq War: infantry “door-kickers” on patrol and cubicle-worker “Fobbits”–those who never leave the security of the Forward Operating Base.

Elevator Pitch #2 (if we were going up another couple of floors): It’s the love child of Catch-22 and The Office.

Where did the idea for the novel come from?

It’s an explanation which requires some backstory, so bear with me.  In January 2005, while serving on active duty with the 3rd Infantry Division, I deployed to Kuwait and then to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  I was a sergeant first class with the division’s Public Affairs Office and would be working media relations in the task-force headquarters.  After being in the Army for 17 years, this was my first combat deployment and I had no idea what to expect.  Most of my co-workers had already been to Afghanistan or Bosnia-Herzegovina; some of them had felt the hot wind of bullets flying past their heads.  I felt inadequate, completely out of my element.  Here I was, a senior non-commissioned officer, and I was supposed to be a level-headed, decisive leader able to clearly see ahead to the next step and the next step after that.  Instead, I was a bundle of nerves.  On the plane ride into Baghdad, I was crammed into the hull of the C-130 with everyone else, the weight of the Kevlar helmet crushing my skull and the flak vest cracking my ribs, and thinking I might die–not from a terrorist’s rocket-propelled grenade but from a stress heart attack.  I won’t lie: I even let out a couple of nervous squirts of urine in my underwear.

By the time we landed and walked out into the hot Baghdad sunshine, I’d worked myself into a lather of anxiety.  But when I reported to work at the task force headquarters the next morning, I was surprised to find I was working in a cubicle jungle–something that resembled a call-center at any U.S. corporation’s customer service.  Replace the chatter about grid coordinates and roadside bombs, and we could easily have been working the Turkey Hotline at Butterball on Thanksgiving Day.  Here we were, supposedly in the white-hot center of war, and people were sitting around designing PowerPoint presentations, filling out spreadsheets with statistics from sniper attacks, and playing computer solitaire.  Off to my left, I swear I heard the hiss of an espresso machine at someone’s desk. My vision of war had suddenly turned into a farce.  Not that I was working with clowns and buffoons or that we weren’t deadly serious about the business of war–we were, believe me.  But there was so much comic potential to be mined here that I knew I had to capture it in words.

Fobbit started as a series of journal entries I kept during that year in Baghdad.  I was under the delusion that I’d be the Ernie Pyle of the Iraq War.  But instead of going out with soldiers on the business end of rifles–the GI Joes of Pyle’s world–I ended up staying back at the Forward Operating Base (the FOB) and it wasn’t long before I realized I was one of those despised “Fobbers” or, more popularly, “Fobbits”–rear-echelon Hobbit-like soldiers who rarely left the protective shire of the FOB.  Fobbits were a bit of a joke over there–one officer even went so far as to design a Fobbit “combat patch” (I can’t remember what it looked like, but it was probably a pair of crossed pens and a pillow set against a Twinkie-yellow background).  I went around telling myself, “I may be a Fobbit, but at least I’m not out there playing the Death Lottery every day.”

In truth, I was too busy working at my desk in headquarters to go “outside the wire.”  I worked 12-hour shifts 6-and-1/2 days a week and only had enough energy at the end of the day to go back to my hootch, type a new entry in my journal and read a couple of chapters in my Dickens novel.  Eventually, I had a good amount of material in my journal–enough for a book–but the problem was, it was boring.  I mean, who wants to read about a soldier whose greatest fear is getting a paper cut when he loads a ream of paper into the printer, or whose biggest daily challenge was deciding between the short-order line or the full-course option at the chow hall?  So I started to think of ways I could amp up the story of a Fobbit and soon the idea of a novel came into my head.  I could still use what happened to me over there, but I would embellish it.  Thus, I arrived at the “truthiness” of war.  When I got down to the business of writing the novel, I took much of what I had, but then I turned the volume up to 11.

How long did you work on the novel before you considered it ready to start submitting to agents?

I was incredibly lucky, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming kind of lucky.  An agent, Nat Sobel, contacted me while I was still over there in Baghdad.  He’d seen some of the journal entries I’d written which had been posted at The Emerging Writers Network website and he reached out to me through EWN’s proprietor, Dan Wickett.  Almost from the get-go, Nat encouraged me to view the war through the lens of fiction.  One of the most significant and meaningful emails he ever sent me went like this: “I’ve come to believe that only in fiction will this insane war finally reach an American reading public.  And, only a modern day Yossarian can be that vehicle.  That’s you, buddy.”

I should note that while I appreciate Nat’s encouragement, I’m not worthy to touch the hem of Joseph Heller’s robe.  Even though the ghost of Catch-22 haunts the edges of Fobbit, and I toss it around as a comparison, I know I’m not even close to Heller’s mastery.  So, short answer to your question: I started working on Fobbit in 2005 and turned in what I’d hoped was a polished near-final draft to Nat in January 2011.  It went through several more revisions after that–Nat and I going back and forth via email–until I felt it was ready to send around to publishers.  Nat started shopping it around in late August.  Three weeks later, I had another of those pinch-me moments when Grove/Atlantic made an offer on the book.  I’m still living in the glow of that Cinderella moment–can’t quite believe it’s real.

What is your writing process like? Do you write at a certain time each day, strive for a word count, that sort of thing?

Before Fobbit came along, I was a very sporadic writer–thoroughly undisciplined.  If there’s a way to Not Write, I’ll find it.  But, somewhere in the third year of working on Fobbit, I decided this was getting me nowhere.  If I kept this up, one day I’d be sitting in the nursing home telling everyone about this novel I was “writing” but still hadn’t finished.  So, I hurdled some inner wall of procrastination, got my shit together, and established a daily routine for myself.  Now I set the alarm for 3:30 every morning, come downstairs and write.  For the last year-and-a-half, too much of that time has been taken up with the distraction of writing a blog, but in theory, this is the time I work on my novel and short stories.  I’ve been pretty good at sticking to that 3:30 to 7:30 am routine for about three years.  I never hold myself to a certain word count–it’s always a question of completing a “beat” in the narrative–you know, the natural rhythmic pauses in a story when I feel I’ve reached a stopping point for the day.

Do you have a group of “beta readers”? How do you find reliable feedback while you’re working?

Prior to Fobbit, I didn’t normally send my work to others–I’m too insecure about my writing to just “put it out there”–but after the second draft of the novel, I figured I should have one of my most-trusted Army buddies read it to make sure I didn’t completely fuck up the facts.  I was, after all, a Fobbit writing about infantry tactics, techniques and procedures.  That friend of mine read the manuscript and pointed out many glaring errors and places where I had no idea what I was talking about.  He saved my bacon on more than one occasion.  Which is not to say that I won’t still get it wrong in places–but if I do, I’ll just fall back in the safety net and say, “Hey, it’s fiction–what did you expect?”

I also had another trusted reader–a former editor at Narrative magazine–who offered to take a look at Fobbit.  She helped me see the ways I could make the story better by improving the narrative structure of the book.  I owe her big time for helping me see the possibilities of what Fobbit could be and where it was headed in the wrong direction.  I’ve also posted a few excerpts from the novel on my blog and readers have been very good about telling me what works and what doesn’t work–advice I cherish.  Now, I don’t think I’ll ever again send a book off to a publisher without having at least one other trustworthy reader run their eyes over the pages.  I live in relative literary isolation here in western Montana and I need that kind of feedback, that broader perspective.  Having a “beta reader” is a crumbling of pride, I suppose.

Like many of us, you’re a working stiff in addition to carving on novels, writing short stories, maintaining a blog, being married. How do you balance everything?

Caffeine and cocaine.  Okay, I’m kidding about one of those.  Having a very patient, understanding and supportive wife is also essential.  I’d advise it for every writer.  Then again, not everyone can be as lucky as me to be married to Jean (aka The Best Wife in the World).  She’s one-of-a-kind and is definitely the center of my balance.  She calls me on my bullshit, holds my feet to the fire, and greets me at the door every night after work wearing a sexy French maid’s outfit and holding a glass of wine.  Who could ask for anything more?

You’re an active book reviewer. In what ways has turning a critical eye to other’s work made your own better?

Turning that around, because I’m a novelist I hope I’m a more sympathetic critic.  I’m a firm believer in John Updike’s rules for reviewers–the first of which is “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”  This doesn’t mean I should only write positive reviews–it’s entirely a good thing to warn readers away from a bad book–but I always strive to see the author’s intent and then determine whether he or she fulfilled that intent.  As far as my own work is concerned, I think every book I read makes me a better writer–even the bad ones.  Lame-and-lazy novels make me mad (“If they can publish this junk, then why can’t mine be published?!”) and make me determined to write a better book, give me angry confidence to pole vault over these kind of literary turds.  By the same token, good novels hold the bar high and make me want to reach for excellence.  Reading just one excellently crafted sentence written by Raymond Carver, Richard Ford or Flannery O’Connor fills me with a little despair, yes, but it also makes me want to grab the pole vault and spring into the air to their heights.

Several months ago, you had your first public reading from “Fobbit,” at the University of Montana Western. What was that experience like?

Not only was it the first public reading of Fobbit, it was also one of the first public readings I ever gave in my career.  The only other time I publicly read my fiction was years ago as a graduate student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and all I can remember of that experience was a shaky voice and rivulets of sweat trickling down my back.  The reading at UMW was phenomenal.  The crowd was small but very appreciative.  I’d go back to Dillon for a reading in a heartbeat.

You’ve also had a few interviewing coups, notably Thomas McGuane, who sat in your kitchen while you pitched questions at him. What did you learn from talking to him?

Tom is a very gracious, down-to-earth individual, someone who makes you feel at ease from the first handshake.  He was kind enough to sit down with me at the start of his book tour for Driving on the Rim.  We talked for an hour or more and we had a wide-ranging conversation–everything from fly-tying to Don Quixote.  The thing I took away from him?  Never stop being a good, decent human being, no matter how many books you’ve published or awards you’ve put on your mantel.

Did you have an “aha!” moment that solidified your desire to become a writer? Where does the passion come from?

God, the answer to that is complicated and long-winded.  There have been so many “aha!” moments, I don’t know where to begin.  Okay, how about this?  My first moment as a writer was back in 1969.  I was in first grade and I had just published my first book, “The Lady and the Clock.”  It was a masterpiece of crayons and stapled paper.  I don’t remember the exact details, but I believe it involved a wealthy woman, an impoverished clockmaker and the tragedy of a broken spring.  I can still remember the satisfaction of making words which, when put together, told a story from Point A to Point B to Point C.  This was something I had cobbled together from sounds in my head!  Before I put crayon to paper, this story didn’t exist.  There’s a magic and mystery to that act of channeling stories onto the page, something I feel even today as I sit here typing.  Back in 1969 was the first time I felt the thrill of bringing something to life.  Years later, I would probably have said I felt a little like Frankenstein assembling his monster–making something from nothing.

What up-and-coming writers should the rest of us be reading, in your estimation?

If you haven’t read Alan Heathcock’s short-story collection Volt, then your reading life is incomplete.  Do it!  Do it now!  It’s simply some of the best fiction–short or otherwise–I’ve read in a long, long time.  Other new-ish writers who have impressed me include Shann Ray (American Masculine), Cara Hoffman (So Much Pretty), Bruce Machart (The Wake of Forgiveness), Lindsay Hunter (Daddy’s), Andrew Krivak (The Sojourn), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men are Gone), Justin Torres (We the Animals) and William Lychack (The Architect of Flowers).  And, even though she doesn’t need any more press, I’d have to recommend Tea Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife.  I’m also reading the much-hyped The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and am pleased to report that, so far, it’s living up to the buzz.  Among poets, everyone needs to read Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) who has produced some of the most important writing about the Iraq War–his poems burn inside you for months afterward.

A contrived question, but I don’t care: You’re going to be gone from home for a month and can pull only one author’s canon off the shelf and take it with you. Who’s it going to be and why?

Dickens for the endless delights.


Goodbye, R.E.M.

I’ve had hours to consider what I’ll say here, and it’s still not clear in my head. I don’t know how to begin to describe the emotions of hearing that my favorite band ever, one I’ve been with — and one that’s been with me — for the majority of my life, has sent itself off into retirement.

I never saw it coming, and while I will concede that a good chunk of Wednesday was spent walking around in a stupor, I’ll also say that the way R.E.M. exited the stage is entirely in keeping with what I’ve come to expect from them in three decades as a fan: dignified, understated, no odious farewell tour or media blitz. Just a simple statement on the band’s website, and they’re gone.

Whatever conflicts I’m having about what to say don’t extend to the question of what to post. Of all the songs from 15 studio albums, eight compilations and two live albums, my favorite stands consistent. This one:

There’s a story behind my love of “Find the River,” and you’re going to get that, too.

In 1993-94, I worked for a small newspaper in Kentucky, the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer. It was a good place to work (then), situated in a vibrant college town on the banks of the Ohio River. One day, I spent a late afternoon driving up the Kentucky side of the river to Hawesville, then crossing to Cannelton, Indiana, and coming back on the other side. It was one of those pitch-perfect fall days — a little chill in the air, sunny if slightly overcast, the road windswept with coppery leaves. My companion that day was R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People,” the album that probably represents the nexus of the band’s widest appeal and highest art. When I got to “Find the River,” I kept backing it up, hearing meaning in the words that I hadn’t contemplated before.

I was 23 years old, and I had this sense, for the first time, that I was the man I would be, for better or worse. That I’d made some decisions and had defined myself in some irretrievable way, and somehow, in my mind that day, those notions hardwired themselves to Michael Stipe’s words:

The river to the ocean goes

A fortune for the undertow

None of this is going my way …

In Rockport, Indiana, not far from home, I pulled over at a secluded spot and I wept. For what? I don’t know, not even today. Something powerful. Something beautiful. Something inside me that was drawn out by this band that I loved so much.

(Now, of course, I look back and see an emotionally dramatic 23-year-old. Enough has happened in the intervening years to teach me that nothing is irretrievable, that there are not only second acts in life but third and fourth acts. That’s what I know now. What I knew then was all I could deal with then.)

A lot of the coverage of the band’s retirement has focused on just how out of favor they are now with the musical mainstream, and while that’s an unavoidable part of the story, it means nothing to me. From “Murmur” in 1983 to “Collapse Into Now” in 2011, a new R.E.M. album was an event-with-a-capital-E for me. Just as I’m willing to follow a favorite author wherever he wants to take me, I’ve always been eager to see what new horizon R.E.M. leads me to. Some (“Lifes Rich Pageant”) appealed to me more than others (“Around the Sun”), but I was always packed for the journey. As I’ve considered my sadness at this news, that’s certainly been one of the biggest factors: No more new R.E.M. to look forward to, ever. The other biggie: Perhaps the best part of being a fan of the band was the sense that together, the four of them (and, after Bill Berry left in 1997, the three of them) were so much more as a unit than they ever were apart from that. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps they’ll go on to great heights in their own directions. I’d love to be wrong about this. And, really, as long as they’re happy, that’s the most important thing. R.E.M. never lost their dignity, and I trust they knew when it was time.

But, see, I think the guys also understood the greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts thing. I think that’s why they had the foresight, when they were starting out, to say that all songs would be credited to Berry Buck Mills Stipe, regardless of individual contributions on any given tune. They knew they’d have to stand together. And they did, for 31 years.

I will miss them.


Q&A: Kevin Morgan Watson

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m a bit of a fanboy about Press 53, a small publisher of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. As one guy running a small publishing house in his living room, I’m always on the lookout for small presses that get it right, that stick to what they’re good at and toss off the conventions of the large-press approach of covering the world with books it may or may not want. The more I heard about Press 53 — from friends whose books have been published there and by others who, like me, admire it from afar — the more I realized that this an outfit that has a plan for survival in these turbulent publishing waters and the discipline to stick to it.

In other words, Press 53 is a role model.

So I was delighted when Kevin Morgan Watson, the leader of Press 53, agreed to field some questions. Let’s get to it …

Kevin Morgan Watson

First off, tell us a bit about Press 53. What is it? When was it established? Where is it based? What are you trying to do?

Press 53 is an independent publisher of poetry, fiction and nonfiction based in Winston-Salem, NC, that opened in October 2005. I started the press for a few reasons: I had lost my job in the airline industry and decided to try and do something I enjoyed; I wanted to learn how to design and layout books; and I wanted to find readers who liked the same writing as me and share my books with them. My basic business model is to ignore market trends, and I ask my series editors, Tom Lombardo (poetry) and Robin Miura (novel/memoir), to do the same. We find writing we love and then set out to find readers who agree with us. What I’m trying to build is a community of readers and writers who share similar tastes but aren’t afraid to sample something new from time to time.

What is your background? How did you come to this line of endeavor?

I grew up in Kansas City, MO, and was a bored student who excelled in photography, running, and daydreaming. I sold my saxophone in high school, bought a guitar and began writing songs. I moved to Nashville when I was 30 and spent 5 years actively writing and pitching songs, and the next five years transitioning from songwriting to short story writing. I found I preferred short stories over songs because people can’t mess with the stories without your permission, unlike songs where everything is open to interpretation and style. When the airline company I worked for at night closed their Nashville office, I transferred to Winston-Salem and began seriously writing short stories. I also decided to go to college to earn my BA in English, so I enrolled at the oldest all-women’s college in the nation, Salem College (est. 1772). While there, I noticed that I was finding fewer and fewer short stories that I liked; they all seemed too dark and hopeless and depressing. I got an idea and approached a New York City arts foundation, that had published one of my stories, and asked if they would be interested in publishing an anthology of short stories that held to some sense of hope, with characters trying to do something meaningful in a messed up world. The arts foundation approved the project so I spend all of 2000 reading every short story I could find that was published that year. In 2001, they published the Silver Rose Anthology. Since I worked for an airline, I was able to travel and attend readings I had set up for the authors, which included folks like Robert Olen Butler, Julie Orringer, George Singleton, Patry Francis, Sally Shivnan, and three authors who would be the first I signed to Press 53: Doug Frelke, Tom Sheehan, and Al Sim. That experience gave me the publishing bug and I decided that someday I would like to operate my own small press. When I lost my job at the airline in 2004, I jumped into publishing.

One of the things I’ve been struck by, being friends with some of your authors, is that you seem to have an organic community of writers, rather than the traditional write-acquire-publish model employed by larger publishers. What have been the advantages of this?

Besides a great manuscript, we look for writers who are active in the writing community, who are earning recognition through publication and awards, and who understand that a small press can offer a platform upon which to build a career. This gives us a family of writers who champion one another and support each other. We have a Facebook group that is only open to Press 53 authors and editors where we can all share ideas and concerns. When one of us succeeds, everyone benefits from the added publicity. The challenge for me is keeping up with all the successes and taking advantage of all the energy created by our writers.

Another tack you take: Unlike many publishers, you don’t do returns. What’s the thinking behind this?

I allow returns on books ordered directly from Press 53 because I am able to encourage a bookseller to order a reasonable number of books which reduces the number of returns. Returns kill small presses. Our authors are encouraged to always carry extra copies with for readings at bookstores, just in case they run short. Our books are distributed through Ingram, but they are nonreturnable to avoid returns that could bankrupt us. I made a few of our books returnable early on to accommodate a writer who was convinced his or her book could only be sold if it was returnable. In every instance, the author spent weeks and weeks traveling to bookstores for readings only to end up in the hole after returns. It’s a wasteful model and an expensive one, for the author and especially the press. I chose to no longer participate, and I only work with authors who agree to this. There are better ways today to operate than to shotgun books to bookstores and hope our readers find them. I love booksellers who embrace our authors and their books and will hand sell the book after the reading. Stores that order books for readings and them immediately return what didn’t sell at the event are not the stores for us. We’re looking for partners.

The publishing landscape these days, in many ways, seems almost dystopian. What are the opportunities for a small literary press in an era of blockbusters, e-books and newbies and midlisters alike testing the waters of self-publishing?

I don’t see it as dystopian. It is chaotic, but also full of opportunity. The Internet and new printing and publishing technologies now offer writers the opportunity to take back creative control and offer numerous ways to find their readers. I know exactly who our readers are at Press 53, I just don’t know where they all are. But thanks to the Internet, we are able to find our readers, rather than waiting for them to hopefully discover one of our books on a bookstore shelf. And thanks to ebooks, writers are able to put their work out there at no real cost and find their readers. Of course the result is a glut of material, good and bad, all mixed together. Our model is to create an oasis for readers via our website where they will return to discover new voices and experiences, and to use social media to encourage readers to seek out our authors wherever they buy their books.

Could you hazard a guess at what the future looks like for books and publishing?

The book will be around for a long time. Books will go out of style when blankets go out of style, and for the same reasons. They are comfortable and reliable and don’t need to be plugged in. Still, there is a place for ebooks and it’s a format that should not be ignored. Here is a glimpse at the future. I got an email recently from a bookstore manager in New England who will be hosting one of our authors. He wanted a couple of books to display in preparation for her visit. When I checked out his website, I noticed the store had an Espresso Book Machine. There are currently only 19 EBMs in the U.S., and this machine has over five million titles available on it using print-on-demand technology. The EBM can print, bind and trim a paperback, perfect-bound book on acid-free paper in three to five minutes. And since we exclusively use POD for our books (as do most larger publishers to some extent), this bookstore manager already had access to all of our titles. So he printed out a couple of copies for display and began selling them from his EBM. Now that is exciting! Imagine having a machine that takes up the space of an old IBM copy machine that can deliver, literally hot off the press, over five million titles to your customers. That solves a lot of problems and opens up whole new worlds of opportunities for readers, writers, and booksellers.

What do you look for in a submission? Can you quantify or describe what constitutes that moment of “I have to publish this book”?

I get a bit spiritual here, in that everything is energy, including the words on the page. And those words either connect with me or they don’t; they either flow freely or they stall and fizzle. I’ve read lots of manuscripts by some fine writers who have a very interesting story to tell, but after a few pages I find myself drifting, not connecting with the way the words flow. I know I’ve passed on some excellent pieces, but I have to trust myself to know what I like and what I want to share. And I ask my editors to do the same. What I like are stories and poems that have strong, natural, conversational voices that allow me to witness the story; writing that trusts me to get the subtleties and doesn’t explain everything. I want my senses engaged, and I want to be taken to new places. That’s probably why I’ve published a few more women than men.

What does Press 53 have cooking? We know about Anne Leigh Parrish’s book. What else is coming up?

I’m very excited about Anne’s story collection. We always have lots and lots of great things going on. To name a few, new poetry from Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Katie Chaple, Richard Krawiec, and John Thomas York. New short story collections from Okla Elliott, Darlin’ Neal, Steve Mitchell, Stefanie Freele, Kurt Rheinheimer, and Clifford Garstang. A publishing guide for writers by Kim Wright, Your Path to Publication, based on 30-plus years of her experience as a published author. A spunky memoir titled, My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson. Three novels for our Press 53 Classics editions: Lion on the Hearth, by John Ehle; The Scarlet Thread, by Doris Betts; and Molly Flanagan and the Holy Ghost, by Margaret Skinner. We’ve just launched our 5th annual writing contest, the Press 53 Open Awards, with five categories and three winners in each. Oh, Surreal South ’11, edited by Laura and Pinckney Benedict, that comes out every odd year on Halloween. Limited edition hardcovers (limited to 53) that are numbered and signed by the author, and a new program for our friends, “Press 53 Friends with Benefits,” with special offers and window stickers and pens and other fun stuff. I know I’ve probably forgotten something, but I have to stop. I’m suddenly feeling overwhelmed.

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this, Kevin.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my press and our authors with your readers.


Q&A: Anne Leigh Parrish

Anne Leigh Parrish

The next couple of days are going to be a real treat around here. Today, Anne Leigh Parrish, the author of the new short-story collection All The Roads That Lead From Home, is here to talk about her new book, literary fiction, breaking through into publication and where her stories come from.

Tomorrow, Anne’s publisher, Press 53 editor Kevin Morgan Watson, will chat about where fiction and publishing are going, and how his highly regarded press is getting from here to there.

First up: Anne Leigh Parrish. Anne writes the kind of fiction I really like to read: about everyday people and their struggle to get along with themselves and with each other, to find some direction in a world that often seems ready to swallow them whole. And Anne’s own story is one of persevering, of remaining committed to craft.

Here’s what C. Michael Curtis, the longtime fiction editor for The Atlantic, has to say about Parrish’s work: “Anne Leigh Parrish has written a collection of stories that deserve a place on the shelf next to Raymond Carver, Tom Boyle, Richard Bausch, and other investigators of lives gone wrong. Parrish writes with painful clarity about marriages turned sour, children at war with their parents, women drifting from one damaging relationship to another, and about unexpected acts of generosity—an impoverished woman giving her battered piano to a priest who had befriended her, a schoolgirl who bribes a boy to pretend an interest in an overweight classmate, then finds that her kindness has disastrous consequences. These are potent and artful stories, from a writer who warrants attentive reading.”

Your stories seem to be full of people who are not only not happy but also seem uncertain how they got into the circumstances that make them unhappy, and little idea of how to confront their pain and arrive at constructive resolutions. What draws you to such fundamentally broken people?

Well, at the risk of sounding glib, it makes dull reading to write about happy, healthy people.  And I’ve known my share of misfits and oddballs.

How did you find your writing voice? You have the craft and discipline and literary sensibility of the kind of short-story writers who hold MFAs, yet you haven’t been in an MFA program.

I take that as a fine compliment!  Writing takes practice, and I’ve practiced a lot. That said, I think the voice I have now isn’t far from the one I began with.  It’s something inherent in me, I guess, that all the years of hard work didn’t really change.  What has changed is the degree to which I feel comfortable managing all the things that make a piece of fiction work, and finding the confidence to go out on a limb now and then.  When I think of an MFA program, I think its highest value is to get feedback from people “in the business.”  I got that without enrolling in a single MFA class, from the editors I submitted my work to, and most notably from Mike Curtis at The Atlantic, who read my work for nearly eight years.

The agents and editors who approached you after you won some noteworthy fiction contests all said they didn’t want to consider a story collection, but a novel.  How did they explain that? And how have you chosen to deal with that?

Simply put, they didn’t feel they could successfully market a story collection to the larger commercial publishers.  I have to think that they know their business, so I take them at their word.  I put off writing a novel for a very long time.  I began one about two years ago, and let it sit, then worked on it, then let it sit.  Now it’s nearing completion, and I’m excited about that.  I actually feel that I could write another, which is far cry from the attitude I held for years and years.

The stories in your collection are all set in Dunston, which I take it is a fictional stand-in for Ithaca, New York. But you’ve painted a town that isn’t necessarily what most people would expect of the hometown of an Ivy League school. What is the real Ithaca, and what do your stories say about the divide between the perception of any given community and its everyday reality?

I was a part of that Ivy League world, by extension.  My parents were professors at Cornell.  Yet most of the kids I went to school with were from less exalted circumstances.  They were often poor, or lived out in the country, or in the “flats,” which was essentially the downtown area, not where the professors tended to be, in a neighborhood called Cayuga Heights.  To me the real Ithaca is part of northern Appalachia.  After my father moved out of the house, my mother invited a series of girls to live with us on a temporary basis.  They were from very bad family situations, and I guess we were providing informal foster care.  One of these girls and her sister lived in a trailer with no indoor plumbing.  They hauled their water from a nearby creek. My classmates were often farm kids.  I remember one boy coming to school with his rubber boots on.  When asked why he dressed like that, he explained that he was up at five-thirty in the morning to muck out the cow barn.  I’m not sure there’s a real divide between how the locals see Ithaca and how it really is.  Everyone who lives there knows what the surrounding country is like.  By the same token, they also know that Ithaca is either “town” or “gown,” (as in graduation gown), meaning either you’re a part of the university or you’re not.

Short fiction seems to have been increasingly marginalized in the literary community, with most collections not selling well and many periodicals no longer publishing short stories (or no longer paying for them). Should we be alarmed by this? What is the best argument you have for the need to read and support short fiction and help it find wider audiences?

Well, the story is the classic American literary form, and I don’t think it’s exactly languishing.  While it’s true that there a fewer print venues for short fiction today than there used to be, there’s been a surge in online publishing – literary journals of very high quality, such as PANK Magazine, Storyglossia, and Eclectica Magazine.  If you read their list of contributors, you see that they’re publishing some of the best and most successful short story writers around.  As for an argument to read stories, I’d say that they’re often more powerful than novels, simply because they have to present a world in a much smaller space.  I think readers can take a great deal away from a short story.

One of the recurring motifs in your stories is the inability of your characters to verbally communicate their unhappiness. They’ll edge up to it, or circumvent it, or use silence as a communication tool, or act out. In your experience and observation, why is it so hard for us to just talk to one another?

For a number of reasons.  Trust is a big one.  But we also often lack a proper vocabulary for what we feel, or are too timid to really confront what’s painful.  People act out their misery more often than they describe it in words, I think.

Despite the strained conversations and thick silences between characters in your stories, you impressively avoid sinking your characters into slogging interior dialogues. How do you communicate the unhappiness in prose that the characters themselves cannot communicate in dialogue?

By showing the reader what they’re focusing on, or what’s in the background.  Maybe the sky is grey and dreary.  Maybe a character is thinking about how ugly a sidewalk is.  He might be wearing a dirty shirt because he’s too upset to notice or to do better.  A college student who’s extremely stressed out comes to hate the sight of herself in the bathroom mirror, and attempts taking a shower in the dark, until a floor mate asks what she’s doing.  Things like that.

What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

I’m finishing the novel I referred to earlier, Pen’s Road.  It draws from one of the stories in my current collection,”Pinny and The Fat Girl.”  Then I’ll return to my second collection of stories, a linked group called Our Love Could Light The World.  This, too, draws from a piece in the collection by the same name.  I hope to find a publisher for both next year.

 

Thanks so much to Anne for taking the time. Remember to come back tomorrow to hear from her publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53.

Anne Leigh Parrish’s website: http://www.anneleighparrish.com/

Anne Leigh Parrish at Press 53: http://www.press53.com/BioParrish.html


Fort Benton travelogue

Last week, I traveled to Fort Benton to talk to the Friends of the Library group there. I love every chance I get to explore Montana, but Fort Benton holds a special place in my heart — for its history, for the folks I’ve met there, for its beauty. It’s the kind of place — nay, it is THE place — where I’d love to live.

And you know what? Getting there is pretty damned dazzling, too.

Won’t you join me?

I left Billings just before noon Tuesday, climbing 27th Street to the top of the Rims and heading out into the rolling plains and buttes of central Montana.

Wide open spaces ...

At the little town of Lavina, about 45 miles from Billings, I encounter my first junction. Turn right, and I’m headed to Roundup. I’ll turn left.

Lovely little Lavina.

For the next 65-70 miles, there are just a few towns — Ryegate and Harlowton are the largest of these — and lots of buttes and grazing land. It’s a pleasant stretch of highway. At Harlowton, I head dead north and run into the Judith Gap wind farm and its impressive sea of triple-bladed turbines.

Windmills in the distance.

A closer view of the windmills.

Next comes another junction, where Highway 191 terminates perpendicular to Highway 12. Here lies Eddie’s Corner, the crossroads of central Montana. To my right is Lewistown. Also to my right is Eddie’s Corner. To my left is Great Falls. I’ll be going left, but after I slip into the store at Eddie’s Corner.

Everybody stops at Eddie's Corner. Everybody.

At Eddie’s Corner, it’s expected that you’ll take a picture of yourself in the restroom. Actually, I just made that up. Probably, I’m now the focus of a sting operation. Forget you ever saw this.

My traveling uniform. Go team!

A driving man works up a powerful thirst.

Look, Ma! Sugar-free!

OK, back on the road. Thirty miles beyond Eddie’s Corner brings Stanford, where I make a couple of turns and see a welcome sign.

Sixty-five miles to go ...

I love the last stretch of this trip. It’s equal parts grandeur and stark beauty, with rolling plains, buttes, badlands and, on a clear day, mountains in the distance.

Square Butte in the distance.

A closer view of Square Butte.

Into some badlands.

Finally, I descended into Missouri River Breaks, crossed the bridge and turned right into the heart of Fort Benton. One of the first things I see: my hotel, the Grand Union.

The Grand Union Hotel, my host for the evening.

In a town chock full of history, the Grand Union fits perfectly. Opened in 1882. Continued for more than a century. Closed. Was resuscitated and refurbished and is now a showplace in this wonderful town.

My room. My overnight bag made itself right at home.

The Mighty Missouri burbles just outside my window.

But Fort Benton and all its wonderful history could wait. I came a day early for one reason, and one reason only: golf.

The view from the 9th tee at the Signal Point golf course in Fort Benton.

My golf game at Signal Point was unremarkable: lots of bogeys, double bogeys, triple bogeys and — for shame — quadruple bogeys. Two pars. Great scenery, though.

Just off the ninth green, you can see the town below.

The next morning, I woke up early and absorbed the news of the (previous) day. Heartburn set in quickly.

"Oregen"? You did not coat yourself in glory, Great Falls Tribune.

Luckily, breakfast was much more appealing.

Eggs, bread, fresh plum, coffee, orange juice, granola. Yum!

After breakfast, I went for a stroll. Just outside the Grand Union is a sculpture dedicated to one of Fort Benton’s most famous figures, Shep. (Seriously, I love this story so much!)

Commemorative Shep.

Later that day, during my talk to the Chouteau County Friends of the Library, I asked if anyone had known Shep. One gentleman raised his hand and said, “I fed him.” That was a story I had to hear (quick summation: Shep did not like kidneys). I felt like I was in the presence of reflected greatness.

Shep's story.

Just down from Shep is a footbridge across the Mighty Missouri. A must-walk, even on a blustery morning.

The Mighty Missouri from the bridge.

About the bridge.

Now, Fort Benton is a friendly town, one of the friendliest I’ve ever seen. But back in the day, you could find trouble there, if trouble was your cup of tea.

"The Bloodiest Block in the West"

The bloodiest block now sports a supermarket. Not all change is for the worse.

Meet Thomas Meagher (“Marr”). Fortunately for Fort Benton and its historical ways, the good governor was not the sort to fade away quietly. No, he was presumed drowned after tumbling off a steamboat on July 1, 1867, along this stretch of the Missouri. But given Meagher’s colorful life, I don’t think any of us can be certain he’s not in an Irish tavern at this very moment, lifting a pint.

Thomas Meagher plaque.

Thomas Meagher, preserved.

More on Meagher.

After reacquainting myself with the governor’s story, I left the riverside and dived deeper into town.

I love spooky old abandoned churches.

The Chouteau County Library, one of many Carnegie libraries in Montana, all of them showplaces.

The Banque, a terrific steakhouse. This is Front Street in Fort Benton.

Then, it was back to the Grand Union to clean up and prepare for my library gig.

The Grand Union dominates the downtown area.

The lobby of the Grand Union.

After my library gig, I just had to see more Shep stuff. So I drove up to his resting spot.

The marker atop the hill.

I didn't see a headstone, per se, but I'm guessing that cairn marks Shep's resting spot. He was a good boy.

Here's Shep's eternal view of the town that took him in.

Shep's train station. Passenger service to Fort Benton ended long ago.

One last nugget from Fort Benton, a house that pays tribute to its paddleboat past.

Giving houseboat a whole new meaning.

So began the long drive back home, 200-plus-miles of stunning views.

Still wondering why it's called The Big Sky State?

At Eddie’s Corner, I stopped again. This time for some dinner.

Liver and onions. So good.

Sometime later, the traveler returned home.

Billings, as seen from atop the Rimrocks.

Let’s do it again sometime.


Giveaway: ‘Quantum Physics’ e-book

My new book, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, comes out December 6th.

But now — today, and on through the end of the month — I’m giving you the opportunity to download an e-book version for free.

Completely and totally free.

Monstrously free.

Here’s the book trailer. Check it out:

So, you want a copy, right? Here’s what you do:

If you don’t have a Smashwords account, you’ll have to sign up for one. But don’t let that dissuade you. It, too, is free, and there are a lot of good e-book bargains on that site. It’s a panoply of reading pleasure for the story enthusiast.

Please pass this along to your friends with e-readers. The offer is good until Sept. 30, and I’d love to see as many free copies as possible sent out into the world. After you read the book, if you’re so inclined, please offer up a review at Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble or Goodreads or LibraryThing, if you frequent those places. Or tell a friend.

Thanks for reading!


What I’m Reading: ‘The Sourtoe Cocktail Club’

If I’ve triggered this damn thing to autopost at the proper time (8 a.m. Mountain, Wednesday, September 14th), I should, at this very moment, be sitting (or perhaps lying down) in a wonderful old hotel in Fort Benton, Montana, reading this extraordinary book by Ron Franscell:

I started The Sourtoe Cocktail Club about 10 days ago, but because of several factors — a vacation, my own projects, vast swaths of time lost to Facebook — I’ve been making incremental progress on it. But you know what? That’s good. Because this book, at least over the first 100 pages or so, is so damned good, so damned thought-provoking, so damned deeply felt that I really don’t want the experience to end.

The title is clever and on-point enough; Franscell and his son, Matt, set out for the Arctic a few years back in search of a bar where the drink specialty has a mummified human toe at the bottom of the glass. It’s the sort of title that is sure to attract attention, and that’s part of the game in bookselling. A big, hairy part of the game.

But you know what? The title doesn’t come close. This book should be called Life, The Whole Of It.

Franscell has written an unusually intimate, penetrating book about fathers and sons and how to get out in front of generations of screwed-up relationships. It’s a road book, a heart book, a deconstruction of many lives. It’s some of the most absorbing reading I’ve done in a long, long time.

Just read it.

You can whet your appetite here, with the book trailer:


He had questions; I had answers

Please allow me to commend to your attention this story at Self-Publishing Review, in which A Life Transparent author Todd Keisling says some very nice things about my new book and is kind enough to toss me some questions about writing and publishing.

While I was more than happy to chat about Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, the best part of the interview, for me, was the opportunity to chat about Missouri Breaks Press, the little publishing house I run out of my living room. I started this little business because my professional background is rooted in the production side of publishing. I’ve spent most of the past twenty years as a copy editor and designer (a layout man, to use a waning term), and it’s because of that background that I’ve been as interested in the physical construction of my books as I have been in the writing of them. When I branched out into the book business a few years ago as a novelist, starting my own house and looking for work to put out there was a natural extension of things.

I’ve had extraordinary good fortune with the projects I’ve chosen. My good friend Carol Buchanan, whose first novel, God’s Thunderbolt, was an indie sensation and a Spur Award winner, was kind enough to cast her lot with me for her follow-up, Gold Under Ice. And that book has been every bit the wonder that her first book was, becoming a Spur Award finalist.

My second book, Ed Kemmick’s The Big Sky, By and By, has been a hit around these parts, where Ed is well-known as the City Lights columnist at The Billings Gazette, where he and I both toil.

In both cases, I’ve had the privilege of working with terrific writers and better people. As I said in the interview, those successes have given me the confidence to release my own work through Missouri Breaks Press, as I will with Quantum Physics. My first two novels, published by other houses, have allowed me to build the relationships with booksellers and readers that make going it alone a little less fearsome. And, of course, I’m not alone. I had a lot of help and input in these stories, and I turned them over to the steady hand of a terrific editor. I’d no sooner do my own editing than my own heart surgery.

And that’s what I have to say about that.

Speaking of Quantum Physics

Thursday is the final day to get an advance, signed print copy of the book for the low price of $10.50. That day, right here, a new promotion will be announced, this one of interest to folks who brandish e-readers. You don’t want to miss this.


Monday media musings

Vacation’s over. Also, how ’bout them Cowboys? Wait … don’t answer that.

Did I ever mention that the wondrous R.J. Keller and golden-voiced Todd Keisling teamed up to create a book trailer for Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure? Well, they did. Check it out:

Pass it on to your friends. Also worth noting: This is the final week to get an advance print copy of the book (which releases Dec. 6) at the low, low price of $10.50. Details here.

If you’re in Montana, please check out the latest issue of Montana Magazine, which includes a feature story about my books (written by Chèrie Newman of Montana Public Radio) and a wonderful review of Ed Kemmick’s “The Big Sky, By and By,” which I published. The magazine is on newsstands now.

Finally, a travel advisory: Tuesday, I’m headed to Fort Benton, where the next morning I’ll meet with the Friends of the Library to talk about The Summer Son. Just a little more than a year ago, I was there with my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, and it was a great group of people and a great town (my first trip there).

Tuesday, I’ll be playing golf here. And staying here. You’re free to be envious on both points.


On vacation

Even though I'm nowhere near an ocean and do not own a hammock, this in NO WAY mitigates against the wonderfulness of my vacation.

Glorious, glorious vacation.

Posts will resume on Sept. 12.

Be good to yourself — and each other — in my absence.


A trip back in time, newspaper style

Earlier this week, my buddy and author/blogger David Abrams was kind enough to feature an essay by me on his blog, The Quivering Pen. It was a part of his ongoing series My First Time, in which authors share breakthrough moments in their writing lives.

It’s a testament to the popularity of this series that several months passed between my submission of the essay and its publication. Reading it again this week, I was struck by just how much has changed — and how much hasn’t — between my first front-page newspaper story at age 18 and my current career as a newspaper copy editor now, twenty-three years later.

Let’s start with the physical newspaper itself. Here’s a look at the front page of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram from December 18th, 1988, the day my story appeared (the reason I have a copy: I’m fortunate enough to have a mother who thinks everything I’ve ever written is golden, and who catalogs it accordingly):

The design looks a bit rudimentary, doesn’t it? At that point, while desktop publishing certainly existed, papers the size of the Star-Telegram generally had not made the capital investment to put design terminals and full-page outputters into their buildings. In those days, a layout editor would draw his/her design on a piece of paper called a dummy sheet, and the type would come out in long strips called galleys that would then be cut up by compositors and arranged somewhat like a puzzle. To get those color boxes in place, sheets of amberlith or rubylith would be cut and shot in the four-color process. Color photographs would be put in place through a similar process. Everything would be shot into negatives, and then the negatives would be used to create the aluminum plates that went onto the press.

The thing that really hits me now, looking at the page, is how wide it is. I measured it at 14 inches. By contrast, the paper I work for now, The Billings Gazette, has a page 11 inches wide (and less than 10 for the “image area,” the space for the news and photos).

At right is an image of the Gazette Page A1 that I designed for Monday’s edition. In addition to having a more modern look, it was leagues easier to put together. Everything happened at a single desk, on a single computer. Desktop publishing software is sophisticated enough to allow for applying stylized effects to photos (as I did with the promotional strip at the top, blending the photo with a background screen), to change the widths and numbers of columns of type with a single keystroke, to send the page, once finished, directly from my desk to the four plates — cyan, magenta, yellow, black — that impressed this image onto thousands and thousands of pages. None of this, of course, comes as any great surprise to anyone these days, but I think it’s an interesting contrast with how I learned the trade two-plus decades ago. Back then, if a layout editor wanted to change, say, the width of the type from the the cover to the jump page, he/she would have to apply laborious typesetting code to the story on the editing end, then go to the typesetter and hope that the break came where he/she needed it to. If it didn’t? Back to the editing terminal to adjust the coding. Now, type flows from one box shape to another with the greatest of ease.

On December 17th, 1988, however, I wasn’t in the office building a page. I was in a football stadium in Waco, Texas, trying to conjure a color story about the fans of the Southlake Carroll High School team. To write my story, I had a Radio Shack TRS-80 (affectionately called a Trash-80), which you can see at left. See that screen? When you were writing a story, you could see only a few lines at a time, and if you had to backtrack to check something you already wrote, well, let’s just say that it wasn’t so easy as CTRL-F. It was, instead, a lot of backtracking and squinting at dot-matrix characters on a gray screen in search of a certain passage or fact.

What the Trash-80 lacked in utility, however, it made up for in durability — I can’t tell you how many times I dropped it on hard surfaces like sidewalks and colleagues’ craniums, and it survived all of them — and tactile pleasantness. The keyboard, while a bit small, was incredibly easy to use for a touch typist like me. I came to love the Trash-80 and wish now that I had salvaged a few of them when they left newsrooms 15 years ago or so.

When it was time to transmit, I needed a direct connection to a landline, which wasn’t always easy to find in high school gymnasiums. I whiled away many hours in school offices — a fax machine line was perfect for transmission — and teachers’ lounges, listening to that pleasing whirr and ping of the TRS-80 as it sent my stories to where they needed to go. Now, of course, reporters in the field file in all kinds of ways — modem to modem, wireless, tweets, mobile phones and, in a pinch, by dictating a story to a fast-typing colleague back in the office.

In my essay, I wrote about a despondent few hours when the paper came out on December 18th, when I figured the story I’d written wasn’t good enough because I couldn’t find it anywhere.

As I said in the piece:

It was below the fold of the paper, a little three-inch sliver of type in the bottom left-hand corner of the page, but there it was.  I’d missed it on the first pass because it was a companion piece to [Gil] LeBreton’s, with a tiny elliptical headline.  In my frantic search through the paper, I’d simply mistaken it for part of LeBreton’s story.

LeBreton — or, as we know him, “Leb” — was (and is) one of the paper’s star columnists, and accordingly, his story had been given top billing. You can see it here:

The headline, if you can’t see it, reads “State champs | By third quarter, Carroll knew …”

And several inches below, you can see my moment of glory:

The continuation of the headline: “… what Dragon fans had known all along.” (There’s also, sadly, the precious byline of “Craig E. Lancaster.” What can I say? I was 18 and thought that a middle initial would make me more writerly.)

It was a huge thrill to see this story in my hometown newspaper, and it remains one of the biggest moments of my career. At that young age, I thought I was on my way, that if I could make the front page as a teenager, I’d no doubt be winning Pulitzers by the handful in the years to come. Things didn’t quite work out that way; within a few years, I’d made the hard left turn from aspiring reporter to full-time editor, someone toiling behind the scenes and someone whose name rarely shows up in the newspaper. It was the right choice for me, a job that better suits my sensibilities. And now, of course, my writing ambitions play out in a different way.

It’s not what I would have imagined for myself twenty-three years ago, but I wouldn’t change a thing.