I have a story up at one of my favorite lit mags, Joyland.

Julia was not a woman given to magical thinking, one of those Whitmanesque souls who saw God’s fingerprint on everything from Orion’s belt to the annual parade of autumn leaves. No, it was only on days like this that she felt her skepticism ebbing. It was December 21: four days before Christmas, one day before her 36th birthday and a mere six hours since her doctor had informed her that her chances of conceiving a child naturally hovered somewhere between zero and three percent. Add to this the fact that her best friend Sylvie had just arrived at her front door two hours early looking venomous and underfed and it was hard for Julia not to feel that she was the butt of some great cosmic joke.

To read the full story, go to here.

Pen Parentis Crime Night

Want to come hear me read September 8th on Wall Street? It’s Crime Night for Pen Parentis so it’s bound to be a great evening. I will be reading a story about fishing, but I promise to make it as suspenseful as possible. I will also be officially “fellowed.” Do you think I’ll look more distinguished afterwards? Info below:

Pen Parentis Salons 14th Season opener
Moderated by Pen Parentis founder M. M. De Voe and its curator Christina Chiu.
DATE: Tuesday, September 8th, 2015
TIME: 7pm
LOCATION: ANDAZ WALL STREET (75 Wall, enter through Hotel Lobby)
FEATURING: Tim O’Mara’s Raymond Donne mysteries (Minotaur Books) follow a former Brooklyn cop turned schoolteacher who solves murders. And introducing: Orli Van Mourik, the 2015-2016 Pen Parentis Writing Fellow.

The Odd Woman and the City

Last week I inhaled Vivian Gornick’s stunning book, The Odd Woman and the City, and days later I still find myself meditating on her insights about friendship and the self and severed connections. I’ve never encountered anyone who wrote better on the subject of New York City and the particular spell it casts on those of us who love it.

On Friendship, Gornick writes:

One’s own best self. For centuries, this was the key concept behind any essential definition of friendship: that one’s friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself. How foreign is such a concept to the children of the therapeutic culture! Today we do not look to see, much less affirm, our best selves in one another. To the contrary, it is the openness with which we admit to our emotional incapacities—the fear, the anger, the humiliation—that excites contemporary bonds of friendship. Nothing draws us closer . . .

It is Gornick’s unflinching emotional transparency that makes reading The Odd Woman and the City feel like spending a week in the company of your most intimate friend. Her voice collapses the distance between writer and reader and creates real communion in the way that only the best books can.

I absolutely loved it.

Finding Yourself in the Flow of Time

I badly wanted to escape my unwritten city for a time and place already developed by words, for Paris or London or Berlin and a particular epoch as it existed in my books. I wanted Culture, the uppercase sort . . . Books, more than any plane ticket, offered a way out. Admittedly it was a lonely prescription, an Rx that might better have been replaced by 100mg of whatever tricyclic was cutting-edge back in the seventies. But who knew about such things? Instead I’d hide out in the basement in Elliot Bay or in the top floor of the Athenian and in my sporadic blue notebook track a reading list–Joyce, Pound, Eliot, et al.–that was really little more than a syllabus for a course on exile. You could probably dismiss this as one of those charming agonies of late adolescence, but let me suggest that it’s also a logical first step in developing an aesthetic, a reach toward historical beauty, the desire to join yourself to what’s already been appreciated and admired. You want to find yourself in the flow of time, miraculously relieved of your irrelevance. For reasons both sensible and suspect, folks today are uneasy with the idea of tradition, but the intellectual luxury of this stance wasn’t available to me, and I saw the pursuit of historical beauty, the yearning for those higher essences other people have staked their lives on, as the hope for some kind of voice, a chance to join the chorus. I was mad for relevance, connection, some hint that I was not alone.

Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering

Going Where Quantico Couldn’t

He’d refused the FBI profilers from Quantico and, of course, his psych evaluations are privileged. And because he wouldn’t speak, nobody had really even heard his voice, much less had a sense of the way he thought about his crimes, the sort of logic he applied. Hearing his stories, the manner in which he got excited about certain things and how he avoided speaking about others, his blame—his sense of indignation and moral superiority about how the hospitals failed to catch him—that was the greatest insight.

What he didn’t ever discuss was murder. He didn’t call it that and I didn’t push it. If we ever went directly at the murder question or I pressed for details outside of a clinical context—if we went into the emotion of the moment—he would shut down. Involuntarily, it seemed . . . [Cullen’s] ability to coolly disconnect the technical details from the lives taken—was, in some ways, the most instructive insight of all.

Author Charles Graeber discussing his relationship with serial killer Charles Cullen on Brooklyn Based. Check out his riveting book The Good Nurse, now available in paperback.

Backhand and Foreplay: Emma Straub’s The Vacationers

One of the funny things about this book is that people keep asking me how close I am to Sylvia, and all the while, I’m like, um, Franny is my spirit animal. I love to eat. You know those people who talk about how they forget to eat meals? I hate those people. Or no, I just don’t understand them. Now that I have a baby I sometimes don’t GET to eat a meal, but trust me, I’m saving it for later. I loved writing all the food stuff in this book . . . Who has time to worry about their stupid bikini body? I would much rather worry about whether I bought enough cheese.

Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers. Check out my full interview with her at Brooklyn Based!

Brooklyn’s Literary Fairy Godmother

Genre labels don’t exist when you are in the deepest part of the writing, filtering your unique consciousness and perspective into a work you pray will move people . . . I’m all for the muddying of categories, and find that the novels that stick with me are the ones that play with genre. We call them genre bending, genre transcending, genre breaking, as if they are smashing at the shackles that imprison them in one category or another, and I think it’s a just analogy. Some of my favorite genre-benders are books that are literary (they challenge the reader), but also have an element of science fiction or fantasy. A few of my favorites are Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, and The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian. Others are novels that are both literary and suspenseful—Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Tana French’s Broken Harbour, and Megan Abbott’s Dare Meare just a few.

As a young writer recently pointed out to me, why is the “literary” genre the only one that is based on style instead of topic? Women’s Fiction, Thriller/Suspense, Historical Fiction, etc., aren’t styles after all, but topics.

Julia Fierro, author of the new novel Cutting Teeth and founder of the renowned Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Please check out the rest of our recent interview for Brooklyn Based. We had such a fantastic time talking.

Tune in soon for a talk with the irresistible Emma Straub, whose most recent novel, The Vacationers, was released this week.


Those of you who already know about Tin House‘s stellar showing in the 2013 VIDA Count (Viva la VIDA!) will not be surprised to learn that the latest issue features fabulous work by a number of women, including Cheryl Strayed, Maggie Nelson and newcomer Tiffany Brierie. In fact, everything I’ve read in the new issue has me wondering all over again about that Dwight Garner crack last week likening Tin House to an “ex-girlfriend who lucked her way into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.” (What, did Rob Spillman pee in Garner’s punch bowl or something?)

My favorite thing about this issue, by far, is Dana Spiotta’s interview with Rachel Kushner. I’m a huge fan of both of these women. After Stone Arabia, I will read anything Spiotta deigns to put on paper. That book was like reading a transcription of my own late night musings translated by someone ten times cooler and more subversive than me. Kushner’s work I’m less familiar with. I’ve only recently picked up The Flamethrowers and am, so far, finding it as interesting as everyone promised. But, honestly, I didn’t even have to read her work to be a little bit awed by the “potency” and “seamless confidence” of her authorial persona, which has helped kickstart a much-needed conversation about what “women’s work” needs to look like to be taken seriously.

There are so many reasons to go out and buy this interview. Buy it if you’re a fan of Spiotta or Kushner; buy it if you’re interested in female writers who are actively working against stereotype; but–most importantly–buy it because it’s likely to make you a better writer. 

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Kushner on what it takes to be seen as a “relevant” artist versus what it takes to be seen as a serious novelist:

Art is a conversation, an homage, and a rebuke–always–of what came before it. Otherwise, it is naive. It is “outsider art,” which is a world of wonder and a different kind of relevance, but it is not the (somewhat small, and closed) world of contemporary art. The novel is different on a lot of levels and for many reasons. The novel that destroys tradition formally looks something like an experiment., and it remains that: a novelty. The novel cannot dematerialize into gesture, unwatched performance, into nothing, as art can, and has. It remains a telling. It remains a book, written in sentences. Its newness then must operate in an entirely different way. Maybe part of this is because of narrative . . . [it] is a more conservative form than art or music. What is the John Cage of the novel? It doesn’t really exist . . .

Another difference between art and literature is that a writer can be in deep conversation with a seventeenth-century novel or with ancient Greece, with medieval poetry, and still produce something “fresh” and “strange” and “unique.” A writer does not need to be in dialogue with her contemporaries. She does not need to destroy what came before in order to produce a work of originality . . . If the logic of art is a linear trajectory or burn and rebuild, the novel is maybe circular, or zigzag. Or it produces a psychotic pattern of no-pattern. Actually I wish only for no pattern. I wish for a moment like 1922. Let’s be bold in our art, you and I.


Neither Dismal nor Science-y

The poet Carolyn Forche said something to the effect of, “Good political writing erases the division between personal and political inquiry.” I’m paraphrasing, but the point remains that if you’re struggling with that question, then you’re probably in trouble. As soon as a story feels like an invective, some kind of op-ed that’s trying to sneak in the side door, it’s dead in the water. Op-eds work well at a page and a half, but try hammering your message into your reader’s brain for 250 pages and they’re going to be very uncomfortable.

To me, great essays involve a writer wrestling with material that is very dangerous and unsettled for them—they’re at war with themselves on the page. Great fiction, likewise, is about the unanswerable and shadowy part of life. David Foster Wallace talked about how reading fiction made him feel less alone, because you the reader are peering so deeply into the lived experience of someone else.

I want the energy of great essay and I want the energy of great novels—that intimacy that Wallace is talking about is achieved through penetrating very deeply the interior space of a very complicated person’s life, you’re drilling down into their essence. But from my experience, political questions—questions of class and money and power—are also part of people’s lives in a very rich and complicated ways. I want it all. And I know a lot of writing teachers get upset when a story starts sounding like an essay, but I get upset when a narrator isn’t allowed to think aloud, when it’s all supposed to be surface drama and hidden messages buried in the subtext.

Had a great time talking to author Peter Mountford about his new book, The Dismal Science, for Brooklyn Based. Please check it out!.