Interview with author, Misty Urban

Today we have an interview with Misty Urban, who has recently published a short story collection, A LESSON IN MANNERS and is the recipient of the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award for short fiction collections from Snake Nation Press.   
A few words about her:  Misty Urban is a fiction writer, medievalist, college professor, essayist, and editor. She has more degrees than any single person needs and changes employers and residences with regular frequency. She is in the middle of co-editing a collection of essays on the medieval legend of Melusine, and her short story, “The Last Word,” is in the current issue of Talking River.

SARETT:  Tell us about the stories in A LESSON IN MANNERS-- and my compliments on a great title!  What drew you to this material?
URBAN: “A Lesson in Manners” is the earliest story in the collection and is based on a real-life event that shattered me. It emerged as one of those second-person “how-to” riffs; the narrator tries to figure out how to deal with her sister’s cancer diagnosis. But I started to notice that most if not all of my stories were dealing in some way with the themes of grief, loss, the bewilderment of not knowing your place in the world. When I started thinking about how to compile the collection, I was drawn to the same questions that the title story takes up: how do you endure an unendurable loss? There is no etiquette for the kind of grief that swamps you. There is no “good” behavior that is going to save you from hurt. So I love the dark irony of that title, and it became the theme that brought the collection together.
SARETT:  Which comes first for you -- the story or the character?
URBAN: For me, the character is the story—the characters and their wants and problems, what is revealed about them in the course of their struggles over a scene or a day or a span of months. The story is how we see into that character’s external and internal landscape and understand the choices she is making. I like stories that are about subtle shifts, usually the realization that there’s no way out—or there’s only one way out, and it’s not pretty.

SARETT: Female writers like Alice Munro (or even Edith Wharton) are sometimes attacked for pessimistic portrayals of women.  What’s your response to this?
URBAN: HA HA HA! HA! Are male authors accused of this? Somehow I don’t think so. When a male author writes a sad and moving story, it’s a touching portrayal of the human condition. When a female author writes a sad and moving story, she’s a downer or she’s cracking up. Sady Doyle makes this point about impossible standards really well in Trainwreck. Thank goodness there are writers like Munro, and Wharton, and Toni Morrison, and Lorrie Moore, and Margaret Atwood, and Amy Hempel, and Jhumpa Lahiri, who dig into the depths of the female psyche and send dispatches from the frontier.

SARETT: In short fiction, the last sentence is all-important (this is rather different from novels.) What’s your approach to endings?  
URBAN: I like endings that bring my characters to the brink of an impossible choice and then strand them there. If the last line of a story makes me cry, I know I’ve gotten it right. I try to shape the story so it builds momentum, carrying the character along to that final crushing realization, and then conclude with the image, the metaphor, that punches the final hole and draws up everything that’s been going on all along. Once that final line or image surfaces, I know I’ve gotten my story.

SARETT: Today’s literary journals that are the primary channels for short fiction are seemingly (to me, least) not intended for the so-called  “ordinary”reader.  Can short story writers reach broader audiences -- or does it matter?  
URBAN: This was also true when I was in graduate workshops (nearly ten years ago!)  It would help the livelihood of small literary journals if “ordinary” or “mainstream” readers found literary stories more accessible, and didn’t sense some cultural high-brow/low-brow divide. In truth, those stories are really good. But it takes a certain level of training to realize how good they are, and so the divide persists. But I’d love it if audiences were finding short stories they felt directly spoke to them.

SARETT: I know that you teach writing -- and of course, there are loads of rules about writing.  Is there any rule that you secretly enjoy breaking?    
URBAN: Write what you know--good advice for beginners. But fiction is for exploring what you don’t know. A wife hiding money so she can escape her cheating husband is found out. (“Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County”) A grieving woman finds work at a treatment center and they can’t help her. (“Planet Joy”) A woman moves away after her mother’s cancer goes into remission and then finds a tumor in her own breast. (“Green Space”) I write fiction to enter other worlds. The same reason I read it.

SARETT:  There’s a lot of microfiction and even “tweet” fiction.  What’s your POV -- are we getting, like, too short?  
URBAN: I thought for a long time this trend was a symptom of our cultural laziness. But recently, for a contest, I wrote a story of less than 300 words—and it took discipline to be that precise. I had to think hard about what a story actually is before I could handle the compression.  Micro-fiction might satisfy a craving for things we’re missing elsewhere—the need to excavate around and beneath the written words in a world where so much information is superficial and goes by very fast. Is it a story? That can be debated. But if it makes us exercise empathy, which I think is the chief payoff of fiction, it works.

SARETT:  My blog readers are always looking for new books.  Are there new short fiction books that you’d recommend?     
URBAN: Amy Parker’s Beasts and Children knocked my socks off. The characters and situations seemed so odd but relatable.
I’m reading Stephanie Han’s Swimming in Hong Kong and I’m struck by the pitch-perfect, deadpan voice in those stories.
I’ve discovered K. Kris Loomis’s Three Modern Shorts series, and I like the quirkiness and heart of those pieces.
Next year’s Serena McDonald Kennedy Award winner (for short story collections) is a humdinger—Patricia O’Donnell’s Gods for Sale.  It’s accomplished in every way.
In My To-Read Stack:
-Karen Bender’s Refund: Stories
=Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew: Stories
-Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women: Stories
- Mia Alvar’s In the Country: Stories

SARETT:  Any new projects in the works that you’d like to share?   
URBAN: A second story collection, The Necessaries, is making the rounds of contests. My debut novel, The Lighted Heart, is about a squire’s daughter in Shropshire, England, 1832, who is working on Fermat’s Last Theorem. Imagine Lizzy Bennet as an amateur mathematician and first-wave feminist; that’s my heroine.

Or, a forum for feminism, literature, and women in/and/of books


Buy it for Kindle HERE.

Interview with author of THE INTERSECTION: Brad Windhauser

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Today’s author interview is with author, Brad Windhauser. His new novel, THE INTERSECTION, tells the story of a white driver who hits an African-American bicyclist.  The accident inflames tensions in a gentrifying South Philadelphia neighborhood.

First, some background on Brad:
Originally from Southern California, I live in Philadelphia. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, an MA in English  from Rutgers (Camden) and am Associate Professor of writing at Temple University. My  short stories and work have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Santa Fe Writer’s Project Journal, Ray’s Road Review, Northern Liberties Review, and Philadelphia Review of Books and Jonathan. This is my second novel.

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SARETT: THE INTERSECTION adresses thorny issues about race relations in Philadelphia.  What drew you to this material-- and was there anything in your personal history that led you to it?
WINDHAUSER: For starters, I live in this neighborhood (Graduate Hospital). I bought when the area was “up-and-coming,” or, in other words, gentrifying.  I noticed how welcoming some people were while others were not thrilled by my presence. While driving one day, I almost hit a bicyclist. I wondered: given the tension in this neighborhood, what would happen if a white driver hit a black bicyclist?

SARETT: Novelist Jonathan Franzen (confession: haven't read him) said that fiction is a messy business -- and that it's dangerous for a writer to be too perfectionist.  I'm wondering how you respond.
WINDHAUSER: I’m assuming it has to do with being satisfied with the characters and plot. In that sense, yes, you’ll likely never find them to be perfect. I don’t think he would mean perfect in the sense that they’re perfect people--would anyone read such a book? Rather, perfect in the sense that there is always tweaking--you believe you get a section or character right in a scene and then, when you re-read it, you make subtle changes. Thought of in this way, the book will never be perfect. At some point, you have to let it go.

SARETT: When you’re developing material, which comes first -- story or character?
WINDHAUSER: For this novel, the accident and the fallout (the story) came first. I then interrogated the situation--who would be involved? Who would benefit? Who would suffer? In other instances, I began with an image of a character with a particular personality and wondered what would he or she care about? The story grew out of that.

SARETT: Did you have any literary muses that influenced the way you approached this novel?
WINDHAUSER: I’m a HUGE Hemingway fan, although I don’t know that this book demonstrates that affinity. When I figured out the type of story this would be--alternating points of view, multiple story lines--I investigated books that did this well. Banks’ Trailer Park and The Sweet Hereafter as well as Strouts’ Olive Kitteridge served as models.

SARETT: I know you teach.  Are there any writing rules that you secretly enjoy breaking?
WINDHAUSER: Tons, but every choice I make it is done consciously, when the story calls for it. When it comes to grammar, I love a good run-on sentence.

SARETT:  I’m always seeking new (or forgotten) writers.  Any writers in particular that you’d like recommend to our blog readers?  
WINDHAUSER: I’ve been reading story collections. April Ford’s The Poor Children is excellent (especially “A Marmalade Cat for Jenny”). Susan Muaddi Darraj’s A Curious Land: Stories from Home, and Tara Laskowski’s Bystanders

SARETT: What’s up next for you?  Any projects in the works?
WINDHAUSER: At the moment, I’m enjoying the build-up to the book’s launch. I do have a first draft of my next book, set in a San Diego Restaurant in the late 90’s. I’ll dust that off once I can devote appropriate attention to it.

You can follow Brad on:

Facebook: Brad Windhauser
Twitter @VirgoWriter

University of Chicago and the sad state of free speech

For those who pay attention to the campus wars, this latest letter from University of Chicago should give us all pause.  This letter, shown above, was cited as an example of a brave university defending free speech.  The letter dares to suggest to incoming freshmen that they actually do not have a right to retreat from ideas and intellectual positions that they don't support.  

Wow.  Today's students have to told that education isn't a propaganda exercise designed to reinforce their existing viewpoints.  Sure I applaud University of Chicago, but I must wonder:  how did it come to this?  

Because students have been told (maybe from first grade? nursery school?) that classrooms, and by extension the entire educational sphere, are a "safe" place where no one's feelings are hurt.  That's a strange and truly scary kind of safety.  I hope I never find it.

Safe is fine, when it's physical safety -- but the intellectual world is supposed to be a battlefield of ideas.  You're supposed to learn how to fight for your beliefs, not to seek solace with those who already agree with you.  Why go to school at all if not to develop your ability to hone your arguments?  You're supposed to defend your arguments, with facts, logic, even wit.  Without those tools (i.e., of true data, logical skills, and yes, wit), citizens are at the mercy of media professionals and politicians.  People screaming at one another, rather than debating one another.  

Just turn on cable news, and see what I mean.  

Gender-Bending Laughter

Yes, it is time for a new short story for those needing an August giggle amidst the unrelenting tedium of the 2016 election, or any of the other gloom and doom of the world.

So, hop on over to this month's edition of new humor magazine, "Intrinsick," to read my latest comic (and gender-bending) flash, "If I Was Your Girlfriend."  

(Warning:  no serious readers allowed.  For laughs only.)

Read the story HERE

Interview with Jane L. Rosen, author NINE WOMEN, ONE DRESS

Today’s interview is with  authoress, Jane L. Rosen.  I gobbled up her delightful and funny new novel, NINE WOMEN, ONE DRESS (and already several of my friends are doing likewise.)  It’s a novel in which nine women, as per the title, are linked through one perfect “little black dress.”  

A few words about her:
JANE L. ROSEN is an author and Huffington Post contributor. She lives in New York City and Fire Island with her husband and three daughters. She is the author of a young adult novel, The Thread, which she self-published. In addition to her writing, she is the cofounder of It's All Gravy, a web and app-based gifting company.

NINE WOMEN, ONE DRESS has a lovely backstory involving the dress-maker, and his journey from Poland.  My Polish Jewish grandparents worked in the garment industry-- I’m wondering if yours did too, or was this pure fiction?  
Rosen: The backstory of Max and Dorothy Hammer is loosely based on a Great Aunt and Great Uncle of mine of Polish descent. In fact, every name used in Chapter One is from one of my relatives. I had family on both sides in the garment industry, mostly the coat market. I actually majored in fashion and textiles and worked in the coat market for my first five years out of college.

Your novel shows a respect for what style means in women’s lives, and how a dress can “make” a moment.  Are you stylish in real life?  Do you own a perfect little black dress?
Rosen: I have three grown daughters so between us there are a lot of outfit changes and the house can seem like a dressing room at Bloomingdale's! I do have a variety of great little black dresses and have been on the hunt for more of them ever since I got the fantastic news that my book was being published.

I loved the fact that NINE WOMEN, ONE DRESS offered so many different happy endings for such varied women. Do you think there’s a “literary” bias against happy endings?
Rosen: I do think so. But that being said, I don’t care. Life is hard enough, a good book with a happy ending is a nice escape from the problems of the real world!  There is no bigger thrill for me than when someone says I made them laugh.

NINE WOMEN, ONE DRESS has so many wonderful women.  Did you have a personal favorite among them?  Was there a story you wanted to pursue?
Rosen: I like all of the characters, with the exception of those not meant to be liked. My favorite characters are Ruthie, Tomás, and Natalie who all work in the dress department at Bloomingdale's.

There are lot of rules about what’s good writing and what’s bad.  Is there any writing rule that you secretly enjoy breaking?
Rosen: I enjoy breaking rules and I’m no different with my writing. I guess that’s where my fabulous editor Claudia Herr steps in, and my husband come to think of it! They both straighten things out for me when needed.

I’m always trying to discover new (or forgotten) writers.  Do you have suggestions for our readers looking for lighter stuff?
Rosen:  I always enjoy re-reading Philip Roth and Nora Ephron. Right now I have a paperback of The Knockoff co-written by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza in my beach bag.

Any new projects in the works that you’d like to share with our readers?
Rosen: Next up is the story of a spoiled but lovable Upper East Sider named Esmé Nash who spends one August squatting in her vacationing shrink’s apartment.

You can follow Jane at:


Twitter handle JANELROSEN1

It is still George Orwell's century

It's hard to escape George Orwell.  There's  "double-speak" everywhere I look, and I think of Orwell's warning:  that if language loses precision, we're on the road to being manipulated by it.  It's hard to advance freedom when we lack clarity.  

Cases in point: 

I am bored by the Hallmark-card "pro-life" vs. "pro-choice."  Everyone loves life, everyone loves choice, right?  But this one's about a particular choice- specifically the right to choose to abort an unwanted fetus. Call me pro-abortion, I won't mind.   

Let's stop arguing about "Black Lives Matter" vs. "All Lives Matter."  The former was meant to oppose the denigration of black lives versus others -- i.e, black lives matter as much as white lives.  A counter-punch to police bias. In this context, the otherwise anodyne "all lives matter" seems downright bizarre: does anyone think that cops are biased against whites?  

There's the Orwellian fight over how we label terrorism-- extremist, Islamic, Jihadist, whatever. Some argue that if you can't name the problem, you can't fight it.  Really?  As I write, our administration has bombing missions over Libya.  If you review the countries we've recently attacked, they're all in the Mideast, and they all are Muslim majority.  Would a different label change that?  Hmm, probably not.

But I think Republicans have a point about the immigration label-- whether we call those who move across borders without proper documents, "illegal"  vs  "undocumented."  If I drive my car without my license, it's called "illegal"  -- although, yes, I am driving "undocumented."  People think a term like "undocumented" is fishy.     

Freedom, Orwell says, "is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." If there's a ever a time that we needed journalists to be clear and spell out facts, it is now.  

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