Monthly Archives: April 2010

Fact-checked by Sotheby’s, and Now Available

“Imperial Chrysanthemum” appears in this spring’s Paris Review, which is now available in bookstores. Nathaniel Rich and Philip Gourevitch (!) both very kindly sent me copies in the mail, but I sought the issue out in a Barnes & Noble in Durham and took its picture. If you can’t find a copy in Richmond, by the way, it’s probably because my mother bought them all.

A couple of things about The Paris Review–they do not mess around with their edits, which you probably could have guessed. My story, which features the theft of some old family silver and an approximation of its value, was fact-checked (and corrected) by Sotheby’s. Also, a great way to procrastinate is to read their author interviews, many of which are archived on their website. 

And a little something about the story: I have a cat named Loretta, which is the name of one of the characters in “Imperial Chrysanthemum.” Loretta of “Imperial Chrysanthemum” has had her name longer than Loretta of Chatham County.

I love the name Loretta. It’s so pretty, plus there’s Loretta Lynn. Something about naming is magical and comforting. One thing I like about teaching children is learning new names (“Really? Your name is Queensheba, one word? How fabulous!”), and sometimes a student’s name will stick with me for a long time. Before Loretta, we fostered a kitten I found and named Tyisha after a very sweet first-grader with a squeaky voice and tremendous reading ability. After the kitten was adopted, her name was changed to Scoober.

But Loretta’s naming felt sort of sad, because at the time I thought, about the whole collection, “this book will probably not see the light of day.” I was proud of it, but at the time I had an agent and he was not excited about selling books of short stories. We met and had lunch in New York and talked about novels. Then he stopped writing back. He was, as they say, not that into me. I was also teaching fifth grade at the time, and it can be hard to feel like a writer when you’re teaching fifth grade.

However, I am writing this post to say this: amazing things happen when you least expect them, and even when you don’t quite believe them. I knew about the possibility of “Imperial Chrysanthemum”‘s publication for a while before I said anything to anyone except Richard, and I didn’t post about it here until I had a tangible copy for people to see.

I’m glad for both Lorettas to have a home. Loretta is a terrific cat. But Loretta the nurse and aspiring boatwoman, she is something too.

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“Jonas” and the Surprise Eggs

The final scene in “Jonas,” which is now archived at Five Chapters, takes place at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which houses the largest collection of Fabergé eggs outside of Russia. In 1996, the museum hosted the combined exhibits “Fabergé in America” and “The Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection of Fabergé.” I remember going to the exhibit with my mother and seeing all the finely dressed old ladies standing in the long, long line. The exhibit included more than 400 objects, but it the main attraction was the eggs, ornate sculptures that opened to reveal a surprise hidden inside–a toy or a bird or a human figure.

I remembered this visit when I was first drafting “Jonas” in the spectactular Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library. I’d taken out a book on Fabergé and was thinking about the way we all wanted to see and understand the workings of the eggs,  and how impressed we were by the great amount of time it took to create them.

In “Jonas,” Melinda, a high school cheerleading coach who is struggling with the changes in her family, is at first drawn to the large pedestal eggs, which remind her of trophies, but soon gravitates to the smaller eggs with their intricate surprises: 

It’s the idea of the surprise that finally comforts Melinda–the ability, after many years, to be caught off-guard by someone you thought you knew very well, the chance that your own life might also open up.

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Not a Frog Gigger

early spring in Walkerton

Although I did not begin Mattaponi Queen until after graduate school, after moving from Virginia to California to New York, I believe that its seeds were planted in a poetry class I took as a college freshman.

My first year of college, like a lot of people’s, was confusing. Avoiding the dorms, I moved to the cheapest two-bedroom apartment I could find near campus. I got a roommate, and she dropped out of college on the first day. I signed up for the most ridiculous schedule–8:00 a.m. classes and 7:00 p.m. classes in the same day–and was always looking for ways to make money. I dressed up as a bear at an amusement park, worked a retail job I was terrible at, and even tried being a guinea pig for medical experiments (I was not good at that, either).

Though I wasn’t far from home, I still found it very comforting to take classes with the poet Gary Sange, who happened to live in Walkerton (and still does), just down the road from my parents. He invited me to take an advanced poetry seminar in the spring of my freshman year. I remember the first poem I wrote for class was about catching baby painted turtles in Aylett Mill Pond with my brother; later, for my graduate school recommendation, Gary fondly misremembered it as a poem about gigging frogs.

Near the end of the semester, Gary took our small seminar to Walkerton. He paired each of us with a town eccentric–someone with Scott of Scott’s Store, someone with opinionated Rose, someone with the old, old couple who lived behind the post office. The idea was to inspire a poem. I remember feeling relieved that no one was paired with my mother.

I got to spend my day with Wilbur White, who delivered eggs to my family and other people in Walkerton. Wilbur and I had a good day talking and feeding his chickens, and later I found out that just about everyone in Walkerton gossiped to the other students about Gary’s own eccentric tendencies: how he liked to jog along the road (this was very odd to them), the clothes he wore for his jogging, the fact that he owned a pet donkey (named Don Quixote).

I’m grateful to Gary for providing the space he did for all of us in that class, which was my favorite thing about freshman year. I wrote the last story in Mattaponi Queen, “Youngest Daughter,” first, but not until years later. It was inspired by Wilbur, who died a few years ago. His gentle presence is still missed.

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Book Tour News

Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately. I’ve been working with the fantastic marketing and publicity team at Graywolf on a book tour, about which I’m both excited and nervous. People in publishing are somewhat mixed about book tours, which can be expensive and difficult to schedule, especially for a new writer. 

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, wrote an encouraging piece  in Publishers Weekly about planning her “Immortal Book Tour” with her dad. Although her publisher and agent thought publicity dollars were better spent on advertising, Ms. Skloot wanted to connect with readers, so she worked with her father and Google Maps to create a tour herself (and she’s still doing events). Stephen Elliott, author of The Adderall Diaries and editor of The Rumpus, published an essay in the New York Times about his 33-city “D.I.Y. Book Tour,” which featured many readings in people’s houses (including a stop in Chesterfield, Virginia). Both writers expressed their desire to meet and connect with readers, and I feel the same–despite my nervousness, I’m excited to meet people and talk about books and writing. So starting in June, I’ll be traveling to book stores, libraries, literary festivals, and universities to read from and discuss Mattaponi Queen, share some homemade jams and pickles (more about this soon), and visit with far-flung friends. Click here to see the events we’ve scheduled so far.

And I have more posts coming soon–about Walkerton, goats, and a cool book about life in Chatham County in the 1970s.

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“Jonas” in Five Chapters

This week my short story, “Jonas,” will be serialized in Five Chapters, a web journal created and edited by Dave Daley. I love the reading experience on Five Chapters, the way a story unfolds slowly over the course of the week, and I’m honored to be among the writers who have published there. If you’ve never visited Five Chapters, click here–you can read the current story or explore the archive of more than 200 stories by title or author.

Here’s a little more about Five Chapters, from their website:

Five Chapters is the home of the best original fiction on the web. A five-part story will be published every week, serial-style, beginning on Monday and followed by a new installment each weekday.

The editor of Five Chapters is David Daley. David curated the 20-Minute Fiction in issue 12 of McSweeney’s, created the Tag-team Fiction series for The Journal News, and is the former features editor of Details magazine.

To join the mailing list, email fivechapters@gmail.com.

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Edward P. Jones Says My Name

Actually, he was saying the name of Belle Skiffington, “the best evidence of the ruination that spoiling brings,” according to her husband. Belle is a minor character in The Known World, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2003 novel. I heard him read from this book, along with the beginning of “Blindsided,” a story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, recently at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was the 2010 Morgan Writer-In-Residence. I took the blurry, dark photo above during the question-and-answer part of his reading, when he asked a woman who wanted to know about his research for The Known World if she was sent by the agency that sends someone to all of his readings to ask that very question (we were all rather star-struck, so some of our questions came out funny).

His serious answer was that he did very little research, though he first intended to, because he didn’t want the research to become the work–he wanted us to think about the characters. Mr. Jones spent ten years thinking about The Known World and its characters before he wrote the first draft in three months, right after being laid off from his job writing and editing for Tax Notes. “The creative mind can’t be held back,” he said–what an empowering message for the many young writers in the audience. He also advised them that if they really want to write, they have no excuse not to–anyone can find a pen on the street, some paper in a dumpster. 

Earlier that day, Mr. Jones was interviewed by Frank Stasio on WUNC’s The State of Things, and they discussed writing and the teaching of writing. Click here if you’d like to listen to the program.

I’m rereading The Known World now, noticing particularly all the deft touches of humor in such a profound and serious book. If you haven’t read it, or his short story collections Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, please put them on your list. If you live in D.C. or Virginia, I think they are required.

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