Illustration by Kristian Hammerstad from The New Yorker
A prolific American author, T.C. Boyle has published 26 books of fiction (two more since the last time we read a story of his for our published piece) and his short stories have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and McSweeney’s. He received both his MFA and PhD from the University of Iowa, and he is a creative writing professor at USC. His work has been translated into more than two dozen foreign languages, and he’s won numerous awards.
This week we’re reading “Are We Not Men?” and here are some questions for discussion:
- What techniques does Boyle employ to make the world he’s created believable? To what extent do you find this story a warning?
- What do you make of the way Boyle uses the “cheating” trope? Would you agree or disagree that he turns it on its head?
- In what ways is the protagonist relatable? How do you feel about the girl, and the natural baby versus the one picked from a menu?
- How does Boyle explore economic status in this story?
- What do you make of the various creatures in the story, from the Cherry Pit to the dogcat to the micropig to the crowparrots? Discuss the animals’ relationships to each other and to the protagonist. What does each animal symbolize? What do you make of the ending?
This is one of many many hybrid texts that I’ve been reading this summer. Boully’s The Book of Beginnings and Endings is hybrid in the sense of being between genres and between subjects, not completely about orexisting as any one thing. I’ve loved this about a lot of the hybrid work I’ve read lately–the way it breathes new life into the experience of reading something.
In the interest of time I’ve lifted some description of Boully and her book from the publisher’s website. Of her book, they write that it is “A book with only beginnings and endings, all invented. Jenny Boully opens and closes more than fifty topics ranging from physics and astronomy to literary theory and love. A brilliant statement on interruption, impermanence, and imperfection.”
And as for Boully herself, they write, “Boully is the author of The Body: An Essay (Slope Editions, 2002) and [one love affair]* (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2006). Born in Thailand, she studied at Hollins University and the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She divides her time between Brooklyn and Texas.
Today, we’re looking at just the first 13 pages, which should be enough to give you the general effect that the book is meant to (hopefully) elicit. So, let’s begin there:
- What sort of feeling does this elicit from you? Not only are the entire middle contexts missing from these small samples so that all you’re left with is starts and ends, but the content is widely varying. Do you feel lost? And if so, how?
- When I first read this, I was constantly looking for tentpoles or anchoring around which to navigate this work. I would ask myself, Is this page a dictionary entry? An essay? The end to a novel? So, how did you keep yourself from completely getting lost.
- In what ways are you trying to draw connections between each page? Are you looking at the level of content and for any overlapping subjects? Or something else?
- Writers like Lyn Hejinian call texts like this “open,” because it’s very subject to interpretation, not close-ended the way a novel might be. What do you begin to take away from a project like this and how do you see your own role as reader?
Caroline Ratajski is a software engineer living in Silicon Valley, as well as a writer who has also been published as Morgan Dempsey. Her fiction is available in Broken Time Blues and Danse Macabre, as well as at Redstone Science Fiction. She is represented by Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary, LLC.
She is also a writing buddy of Andy Romine’s. After he posted a link to this story I thought it was just too good to not be shared as a published piece.
- At first this is an exploration of a “lost girl” narrative; the effect on her family, neighbors, (ex-?)boyfriend. By the end, though, it’s turned into a revenge story that had me, quite frankly, frothing at the bit to see the resolution of. How does the author illustrate the various ways that the characters cope with trauma and loss, and how well does she engage the reader to identify with each character’s coping mechanisms?
- I found this a fascinating way to engage the Persephone myth, wherein a beautiful young woman becomes the Queen of the Underworld–but only for half the year. Did you recognize that story (assuming you’re familiar with it) in this one, and do you think it was an effective retelling?
- The protagonist is, like Persephone, sent to the underworld without her consent; and like Persephone, finds a way back to the world, though with different motivations and by a different method. At its heart this is a morality story, a commentary on modern society and its casual disregard for women’s lives. How do you think a story like this can affect modern mores?
Hope you enjoyed it! See you Wednesday!
This week, I’m thrilled to talk about “Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer” by Lilliam Rivera. I met Lilliam at an awe-inspiring AROHO Writing Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico a few years back, where we climbed red rocks and talked like sisters. Since then, she’s recently published her book, The Education of Margot Sanchez (go read it!), a contemporary young adult novel from Simon & Schuster. The story we’re reading this week was originally published in Bellevue Literary Review and was a Pushcart Prize winner. I’m not going to even mention all her other stories and awards, but let’s just say this girl’s been busy (and you can read more about her here).
A few questions to get us talking about this death-defiant story:
- Would this piece work as wonderfully if it wasn’t told in second-person?
- Why the red dress?
- Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican music and dance performance, and Lilliam uses the structure of the song and dance to frame the story. What effect does this have? Can you think of any other stories or books that use a similar method?
I discovered this story in an issue of n+1, and my first reaction was, What was that? I have to share this with MUG! Turns out, this “story” is a selection of vignettes from Sachs’s book, Inherited Disorders. Adam Ehrlich Sachs writes from Pittsburgh, and his fiction has also appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s, among others.
1. The author explores the father-son dynamic in a variety of ways. What is the he saying about legacy? In what ways is the legacy passed down by one’s parents inescapable? To what extent can we surpass the legacies of our parents, or can we?
2. In several of these pieces, Sachs has created characters who write/say/do one thing but mean something else. Or they insist that their work/actions should not be taken at face value and instead mean something unapparent to their audiences. How does the author explore perspective versus intentions? How does he use this juxtaposition to enhance the story?
3. Why these nine?
4. To what extent do these pieces stand alone? What effect do they have together?
5. How does this story explore the extent to which a thing or person can simply be, versus how things/people are defined by others?
I’m not one for much Creative NonFiction, but lately, after seeing all the cool stuff that people are doing in this genre these days, I’ve been coming around to it.
Arguably one of my favorite new examples of CNF done very well is the collection of short, nonfiction essays by Amy Leach titled Things That Are from Milkweed Editions (one of my favorite publishers). Leach graduated with an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and now teaches at the University of St. Francis. This book is a string of fascinating meditations on the natural world and characterizes the creatures on this planet in captivating and vivid ways.
Today, we’re discussing one essay in particular, “Please Do Not Yell at the Sea Cucumbers.”
Some questions to consider:
- One thing that stuck out to me right away is Leach’s dense and very ornate prose. Sometimes it takes me several tries to read a sentence and often I have to slow down to understand her meaning better. How does her language, then, work for or against the content about which she is writing?
- In all of these essays, Leach flits around several different creatures/animals and uses them to collectively explore an idea. How does her movement from one creature to the next take you along as the reader?
- In what ways does Leach’s work serve as a meditation on the human condition? What does she ask us about ourselves even as she refuses to write about us directly?
- What do you believe does or does not allow Leach to achieve a balance between her obvious wealth of research and her lyrical reflections of them?
This week we’re reading a funny caveman story from the New Yorker titled “I Love Girl” by Simon Rich. According to the New Yorker, “Simon Rich tells the tale of a lovesick caveman, Oog, whose nemesis, Boog, has captured the attention of Oog’s beloved Girl with his abstract cave paintings and blustery self-confidence.”
Simon Rich has written several works of fiction, including “Spoiled Brats,” a collection of stories. He is also the creator and showrunner of “Man Seeking Woman,” on FXX.
The story starts:
I am Oog. I love Girl. Girl loves Boog.
It is bad situation.
It’s basically every love triangle ever written, but somehow Rich injects such humor and humanity into his caveman story. I hope you enjoy it!
- How does Rich keep the love triangle trope while also subverting it?
- Does the language bother you, or does it better transport you into the caveman point of view?
- How does Rich make a caveman story so relatable?
- Was the ending satisfying? Unexpected?
“The Black Company” is the first in a series of dark fantasy novels by Glen Cook. Cook is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and spent his career working for General Motors in an automobile manufacturing plant while simultaneously writing as many as three novels a year. Now retired, Cook jokes that he got more writing done when he was working a full time job.
The Black Company series comprises ten novels and as many short stories, following the adventures of a mercenary company over several decades of their existence. Its tone is gritty and realistic, and rather than glorify war or follow more typical fantasy tropes, it simply presents its characters and situations in a realistic tone, portraying the characters as simple soldiers just trying to survive in some rather dark circumstances.
- Cook does several things in this rather extended first chapter. He not only sets up most of the main characters and their relationships to one another, he also illustrates the timbre of their morality, gives you their inciting incident and hints at the conflict to come, does an enormous amount of world building, and throws in a fair bit of excitement and action to boot. All this takes some time; do you think it works as is? Would you have split the chapter up?
- The story is written in first person, from the point of view of the Company doctor and historian, a man called Croaker. How do you think the point of view contributes to the narrative tone? What about to the world and character building?
- The main characters, even Croaker, are not what you would normally associate with the word ‘hero’. In fact they’re a vicious, bloody bunch of cutthroats who betray the political leader that hired him and murder several thousand soldiers in their sleep. Croaker shows a bit of hesitation at the betrayal, and that might be the only ‘save the cat’ moment in the story. Nevertheless, there’s something compelling about the characters. Did you find yourself identifying and/or sympathizing with them? Are you interested in reading more about them?
Hope you enjoyed this first chapter!
“The Ultra Thin Man” is a noir detective novel set in a future world; political intrigue, murder, aliens and some really captivating characters make this a page turner.
Patrick Swenson is a teacher, writer, editor, and publisher of the Fairwood Press, a small press publishing house, which he founded in 2000. The Ultra Thin Man is his first published novel. He has been published in short form in the Like Water for Quarks, and magazines such as MZB’s Fantasy Magazine, Figment, and others.
I know Patrick as the organizer of the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat, which I have attended each of the last few years.
- First chapters, and especially first lines, are the hook that gets an agent or editor going. We’ve heard about the importance of them over and over. How does Patrick’s first line hook you? His first chapter? Did you read what you could of the second chapter?
- In genre fiction, the world is often as important a character as the actual people in the story. What do you think of the world-building that happens in this chapter as Patrick sets the scene? How would you have done it differently?
- No matter how catchy a first line is, or how quickly an author gets your interest and pulls you into the next chapters, if the characters are not appealing the reader will quickly lose interest. Two of the characters in this chapter are seen only in hologram video playback; of the other two, one is mostly a technique to play the video, and the other is the narrator. What can you tell from this first person POV chapter about the character? Do you have enough information to become interested in him as a character?
Hope you enjoyed the chapter. Comments/Questions/Editorials are, as always, welcome.
This week we’re diving into the first chapter of the YA fantasy novel This Savage Song by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab. It’s an opening chapter that snatched me up like the dark monsters that lurk in this deliciously savage story. Here’s a little more about the book:
“Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives. In This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab creates a gritty, seething metropolis, one worthy of being compared to Gotham and to the four versions of London in her critically acclaimed fantasy for adults, A Darker Shade of Magic. Her heroes will face monsters intent on destroying them from every side—including the monsters within.”
A few questions to consider as you read the first chapter:
1) How does Schwab balance world-building and backstory while still writing a captivating scene?
2) Throughout the book, Schwab blurs the lines between human and monster. How does she show this even from the start?
3) There’s a lot of pressure for the first chapter to basically accomplish everything. How do you feel about Kate Harker, and what threads has Schwab sewn into the first chapter to hint at where the character arc and conflict are heading?