Key Literary Figures in the City of Roses

I walk to Washington Park every Friday morning. After climbing the last of the steep steps to the Lewis and Clark Memorial, I’m greeted by an engraved plaque nestled into the brick wall.

“The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.”

The poem was written by the English poet by Dorothy Frances Gurney in 1913. Reading this excerpt got me wondering what other historical easter eggs are waiting to be discovered in this park?
The City of Roses and The Oregonian
Portland wouldn’t be the City of Roses without the early influences of certain literary figures in Oregon’s history.
Thomas J. Dryer started The Oregonian as a weekly periodical on December 4, 1850. Ten years later, in 1860, Henry Pittock purchased The Oregonian and began publishing daily issues; that same year, he married Georgiana Burton Pittock and the two began influencing the beginnings of modern Portland society.
Georgiana Pittock was “a philanthropist, reformer, and society leader with her husband Henry Lewis Pittock, owner and publisher of The Oregonian, she inspired Portland to become the cultural and business center of Oregon.” Georgiana was an avid gardener, so much so that in 1888 she founded and organized the Portland Rose Society. In 1889 Georgiana’s church established a competition for the year’s best homegrown roses, which marked the beginning of the annual Portland Rose Festival. Nearly sixteen years later, Portland boasted over two hundred miles of rose-lined streets.
In 1905 the city began preparing for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. Over the course of the four-month exposition, nearly 1.6 million visitors traveled to Portland from all over the world. By the end of the display, Portland had earned its reputation as “the City of Roses.”
The International Rose Test Garden
Portland’s newly acquired reputation as the City of Roses, along with the efforts of Jesse A. Curry, led to the creation of the world-renowned International Rose Test Garden.
The Rose Test Garden initially began as a safe haven for hybrid roses grown in Europe in 1915. London hybridists, along with others, feared that the roses would be destroyed during the World War I bombings. Jesse Currey, a rose enthusiast and editor of the Oregon Journal, convinced city officials to create the garden. Hybridists around the world began sending their roses to Portland, and the garden was officially dedicated in 1924.
The garden currently houses more than ten thousand rose bushes from over six hundred rose varieties. The Shakespeare Garden was instituted in 1945 to honor the playwright with roses named after his characters. The dedicated plaque from the LaBarre Shakespeare Club features an engraving of the bard himself and the quote, “Of all flowers methinks a rose is best.”
Located in the largest city park in Portland, the International Rose Test Garden receives around 3.5 million visitors every year. I visit the park and gardens every week, and I still can’t get enough, no matter the season.
Acknowledgement of the Original People of the Land
I pass by the Lewis and Clark Memorial often, and everytime I think about how this beautiful place that I live came to be. I cannot write this without acknowledging the sacrifices and hardships that the Indigenous People of this land had to encounter in order for me to be here today. What we now call Portland, Oregon, and Multnomah County were the traditional lands of the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tumwater, Tualatin Kalapuya, Wasco, Molalla, Cowlitz, Watlala, and many other tribes who made their homes along the Columbia River.

Reproductive Pairing: Books, Podcasts, and Taboos

We consume much of our media by proxy: by listening, overhearing, and exchanging stories with those around us. Constantly on the move, many of us rely on radio, audiobooks, podcasts, and music to fill the quiet spaces in the commute or morning jog. It’s easy to open Spotify or Audible and let the algorithm decide which new title to listen to or what is “trending” in the charts. Audiobooks are essential to those long summer road trips. In the style of the New York Times list “What (Books) to Listen to This Summer,” this particular compilation is a playlist with an added bonus: curated podcast-novel pairings designed to enhance the listening experience through both mediums. These pairings focus on the recent surge in dystopian novels that explore the future of women’s health and reproductive rights.

There are quite a few recent novels that deal with “dystopian futures” in which our world is threatened either economically, politically, or environmentally. Perhaps the most magnetic of these are the ones in which women’s health, bodies, and rights have been regulated and restricted by political means. These titles, like Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale, do massive work in generating conversation around reproductive healthcare and women’s rights. Why is there a threat to our freedoms? What do these freedoms look like to us? How are we each impacted by this discourse? Until recently, I never had to think too much about birth control or if I even wanted to have children. Now, these topics consume the media and my mind. It’s helpful to have a fictional way to explore the potential fallout that faces us when our government makes decisions about our bodies. These novels offer context and shine a beam of empathy into a situation that has become highly politicized. Ravenous for more information, I took a dive into digital conversations surrounding health, reproductive rights, and motherhood.

Novel: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

From Portland State University’s own Leni Zumas, Red Clocks follows the lives of four Oregon women whose stories are affected by recent government restrictions on their bodies. In an imagined future, abortion and in vitro fertilization are illegal across the US, and access to adoption is limited. The lives of four women are woven together to illuminate the complexity and anxiety that comes from the loss of bodily autonomy. Zumas has her finger on the pulse of a tangible and real threat to healthcare and freedoms.

Podcast Episode: “The Abortion Wars, Part 1: The Last Clinic in Missouri” on The Daily
The Daily takes a look at two different midwestern states tackling abortion legislation in opposing ways. This first episode in a two-part series explores what Missouri is doing to erradicate all abortion clinics in the state and how that affects residents of the state. As a companion to Red Clocks, this podcast offers a real-time look into the current political movement in some states.

Novel: Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah

Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah

In Before She Sleeps, Shah imagines a not-so-distant future where men vastly outnumber women. The government regulates reproduction, requiring women to take multiple partners in order to reproduce faster to “save the planet.” Yet some women resist. This novel shines a light on the dangers of gender selection, seclusion, and authoritarian control.

Podcast Episode: “The Abortion Underground” on Science Vs
Science Vs uncovers the painful history of America before Roe v. Wade and interviews two revolutionary women who ignited a movement for women’s health and reproductive education in the 1970s. This podcast puts the facts in front of the taboo and infuses fact and science into a debate that is often overwhelmed with emotion. Similarly to what Shah has done, Science Vs gives voice to the revolutionary women who take big risks for what they believe in.

Novel: Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Motherhood by Sheila Heti

In Motherhood, Sheila Heti explores the meaning of motherhood: what our mothers teach us and what motherhood or the pressures to become a mother can imply for each of us. This book was particularly relevant after I heard women around me talk about their decisions about whether or not to have abortions, get IUDs, or even adopt children.

Podcast Episode: “What If You Regret Becoming a Mom?” on The Cut on Tuesdays
“When the baby comes, you’ll change your mind.” But what if motherhood isn’t for every woman? This episode of The Cut examines motherhood, choices, and personal identity through candid and truthful conversations with mothers and those who chose not to go that road. As a companion to Motherhood, this podcast follows up with more honest perspectives from women in various places in their lives on a subject that we don’t often get to dissect so boldly.

Going All the Way: The Challenges of Editing Sex Scenes

Many novelists dream of winning a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award. However, if they aren’t careful about how they depict the more intimate scenes in their work, they could end up receiving a much more embarrassing accolade: Literary Review‘s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. According to this article on the Literary Review website, the award aims “to draw attention to poorly written or redundant passages of sexual description in otherwise decent novels.” Since its inception in 1993, this shameful distinction has been bestowed upon a number of renowned writers—including Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Littell, and David Guterson—in recognition of “floridly descriptive prose, a reliance on hyperbole, anatomical confusion, and euphemism” in their sex scenes. Last December, Literary Review announced that James Frey had won the 2018 contest with his novel Katerina. (While the prize-winning scenes from this novel most certainly will not be quoted in this post, brave readers can get a taste of them here.)

The Bad Sex in Fiction Award teaches us several things: first, many novels contain profoundly cringeworthy sex scenes; second, even great writers often flounder when they try to write about sex; and finally, there are plenty of editors who (perhaps begrudgingly, or perhaps because they too are at a loss for how to approach this subject) are letting these giggle-inducing scenes sneak through to publication. This state of affairs might lead us to wonder, Why is it so hard to write about sex? And, more importantly, what can editors do to help?

One of the reasons it’s so challenging to write (and edit) sex scenes is that the subject of sex is likely to provoke self-consciousness in writers, editors, and readers alike. As this essay explains, sex is still somewhat taboo for many people, and this leads authors to distance themselves from the subject by obscuring their characters’ erotic antics beneath layers of metaphor and detached description. This is how we end up with awkward euphemisms that garner unwanted laughs from readers. If the author is detached from a scene, the reader will be too.

Another tricky thing about sex scenes is that they’re treated differently depending on the genre. Romance readers are going to feel shortchanged if a long-anticipated bedroom scene coyly fades to black before the action happens; meanwhile, readers of a slow-paced, introspective literary work are going to be taken aback if they turn the page and suddenly encounter an over-the-top description of writhing bodies and ecstatic moaning. The nature of sex scenes and the amount of detail given must fit the genre, the story, and the characters—problems arise when the tone of a sex scene doesn’t match that of the rest of the work. It is therefore important for editors to thoroughly research the conventions of relevant genres and to always keep in mind one of the main requirements of good fiction: that each and every scene must advance the development of the characters and the story.

When tackling these kinds of scenes, editors also have to remember that sex can be a sensitive subject. Authors may feel self-conscious and vulnerable when they write about sex, so when something in a sex scene is amiss, editors should take special care to broach the subject in a diplomatic way. Depictions of sex can also raise sensitivity issues that editors need to be aware of. For example, scenes involving heterosexual encounters can potentially feed into harmful gender stereotypes, while sex scenes between LGBTQ+ characters can sometimes be problematic when written by authors who lack a well-rounded understanding of such relationships. Interracial sex scenes may veer toward racial fetishization if not approached thoughtfully, and themes of consent and sexual violence also need to be handled with serious care. Flagging sensitivity issues and suggesting possible fixes should be a priority in every editorial project, and scenes involving sexuality often require particular attention.

Although sex can be an intimidating subject for writers as well as editors, there is hope: as this post shows, sex in fiction has been done quite well on many occasions. As always, the most important things for editors to remember are to be tactful and to prioritize the needs of the story and the reader. With these principles in mind, editors can work together with writers to craft sex scenes that will keep readers engaged (and won’t make them giggle).

To Be or Not to Be: An Interactive Approach to Classic Literature

If you grew up in the eighties or nineties, then you very likely saw or even read at least one of the books from the popular kids’ series Choose Your Own Adventure. Readers got to make decisions, both seemingly significant and seemingly insignificant, that led to various endings. Occasionally you might have ended up with a particularly gruesome death as you flipped back through decisions in an attempt to complete as many storylines as possible. Choose-your-own books, choose-your-path books, click-your-own books, and other interactive stories like these are all part of a genre called gamebooks.

Choose-your-own stories are making a big comeback, and this time they’re targeted at adult audiences. One big example of this is Netflix’s interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which swept the internet like a storm in December. (If you’re interested in Bandersnatch and video games, check out Scott MacDonald’s post on the visual choose-your-own story.) But this time, interactive books are coming back for adult readers.

Gamebooks are about being able to play around in a familiar world, make mistakes, and try again. Interactive books for adults do just that, but this time, the majority of choose-your-path books are focusing on classic and well-known stories, rather than the nostalgic stereotypes found in the kids’ series. Interactive books use the stories of classics––Austen, Shakespeare, historical romance––to give adult readers a chance to toy with the literary worlds they have known and loved.

Books like Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure and To Be or Not to Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure show rich worlds that have already existed for over a hundred years––with edits, of course. These books use plot arcs specific to the existing world or author to give readers choices.

In My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel, the historical romantic heroine gets sent across the eighteenth-century highlands and into the relationship and story she and the reader want. These paths are risqué and charming, and certainly wouldn’t be as much fun for the reader without background knowledge of romance stereotypes. The tropes make the scandal and adventure all the more interesting and satirical for adult readers. And in the contemporary choose-your-own format, readers can have the option to end their romance with an LGBTQ pairing or a gothic haunted castle.

As interactive books for adult readers emerge on the market, they make an interesting study. While the choose-your-own-path stories appeal to adult readers who remember the legendary Choose Your Own Adventure series, these books tend to resell the classics for adults who want to play around with the old tropes and stories.

Poetic Communication: What it means for writers and editors

There is a narrative we tell ourselves about writing and writers that kills me. It is the myth that good writing, Literature (with the coveted capital l) is the stuff of mystery and magic, a spark of inspiration, that can not be taught. I say this with great love for my creative writing professors, who were all brilliant writers. But when they say great writing can’t be taught, I find myself refraining from calling bullshit.

Framing the writer as a conduit for the story or as someone who merely receives a spark of inspiration removes the creator from their creation. Why would you do that? Let me explain.

In my undergraduate years, I experienced a series of writer’s blocks because I felt that without that spark, I was not a writer. Even if I couldn’t create, in order to be a productive writing scholar, I began studying linguistics and philosophy. I wanted to understand Literature and how it was created. I had the opportunity to explore this topic in a Philosophy of Language course, and it has taken on a life of its own in both my scholarly and personal life. It is an obsession of mine that I wish to communicate in this post.

First, let’s talk about poetic communication and how it can help the communication between writers and editors.

Poetic communication is an intriguing branch of the philosophy of language because it involves the work of literary criticism, linguistic theory, and cultural studies. To define certain aspects of poetic communications, I will be quoting Roland Posner’s Rational Discourse and Poetic Communication.

Posner would definitely disagree with my findings that poetic communication plays an important role in Literature, as he sees Literature as the “secondary automatization” or “de-poetization” of poetry. Meaning poetic technique becomes a part of Literature after it has fallen from the pedestal of poetic communication and becomes “a mere element of literary style.”

To keep this brief, let’s focus on two features of poetic communication. Function one: “Poetic communication de-automatizes the recipient’s relation to society and reality.” In other words, Posner says poetry makes the reader aware of an action that would otherwise be automatic or unconscious. To use a literary term, poetry takes an otherwise tired convention and makes a new experience out of it, thus causing the reader to react to it. In doing this, we come to function two: “[Poetic communication] brings the recipient into contact with characteristics of reality which…usually remain hidden.” In creating a conscious experience out of an otherwise automatic action, the poet reveals a hidden aspect of reality. This hidden reality is the magic of poetry; it reveals our lives in a way that makes us conscious of the human experience. Their stories and their words are never automatic, but keep a reader checked into the story.

But what exactly does this mean for writers and editors?

Creating an original voice, going against the grain of convention, has little to do with the spark we have been told about in our writing workshops or by other successful authors. Rather, it is a conscious effort to know the rules and when to innovate. A young man pursuing his B.A. in writing told me the other day that he heard Stephen King say his ideas come from a spark. And even though I couldn’t verify King mentioning this with a quick Google search, the myth perpetuates itself.

So, to writers and editors alike, when you come across a tired metaphor, a line that goes past your eyes as swiftly as the scenery passing in a moving train, consider it. Consider what can be done to give it life, to give it consciousness. That is where the capital L can be found.

A final note to editors: we are the first readers of a writer’s story. It is important to identify and respond to moments of convention and innovation in a writer’s text. At times, writers will unknowingly use conventions or something they picked up while reading. When this happens, it’s important to explain the conventions so that writers can more effectively utilize them.

I will leave you now with a line from Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind: “Our core indispensable stories not only can be invented, they must be invented if we are to survive and have human lives.”

Politics in Publishing

“Books are not published in a vacuum,” wrote researcher and professor Philip Altbach in 1975. His article, “Publishing and the Intellectual System,” discussed a variety of social, political, and economic trends that directly and indirectly affect the publishing industry. But trends in current political events speak to Altbach’s statement as though the quote were tailored to them.

In recent months, it has become difficult to point to a sector of American society that isn’t touched by political turmoil. Our recent presidential election and the mirroring Brexit vote across the pond mark deep and shifting partisan divides that show themselves in business, sports, educational communities, and the arts. Rather than being distinct from these communities and their conflicts, the publishing industry—because of its very nature—must both contain them and be contained by them.

Of course, the relationship of politics to publishing is nothing new, especially in the United States. Don’t believe me? Google Benjamin Franklin. However, our present epoch of the celebrity memoir lends itself beautifully to political crossover. In modern times—where everyone is not Benjamin Franklin—almanacs have gone out of style, fame sells books, and politicians and pundits can advance their personal brands and agendas while providing the publishing industry with highly marketable and successful books.

And those brands and agendas run the spectrum of partisan politics. Consider Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father, Bill O’Reilly’s A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity, or Elizabeth Warren’s A Fighting Chance. Then remind yourself that these books stretch far beyond memoir into genre fiction (e.g., Glenn Beck’s political thrillers), and even children’s books (e.g., Rush Limbaugh’s time-traveling history lesson).

These precedents have done little, however, to soften the recent backlash faced by publisher Simon & Schuster after their Threshold Editions imprint offered a six-figure book deal to Milo Yiannopoulos, Breitbart editor and banished Twitter troll. Authors and media condemned the publisher for amplifying hate speech and offering substantial compensation to a man who is essentially famous for saying mean things about people on the internet. But in a sea of liberal and moderate publishers, conservative-leaning imprints command their own market, and Yiannopoulos’s book deal may indicate the emergence of a new audience shaped by decades of its own underdog narrative. This audience is alt-right adjacent and highly controversial, and it recently celebrated a presidential victory.

The Yiannopoulos book, reported to be an autobiography titled Dangerous, was eventually pulled by Simon & Schuster in the wake of controversial comments from Yiannopoulos regarding sexual relationships between young boys and older men. However, it remains an example of the ways that books become ammunition in sociopolitical struggles. In the progressive-leaning fields of education, arts, and literature, it is difficult to reconcile the market for such a book with a progressive moral imperative. It is important to remember, though, that books bleed both ways. Even as the arguments fly back and forth about whether the political movement that raised Milo Yiannopoulos to fame created a cultural imperative to spread its word, we also use the cultural collateral of books to laud a progressive political mind. In the days before the 2017 inauguration, a New York Times article presented a nostalgic retrospective examining President Obama’s literary tastes—books he read and appreciated during the last eight years. It’s written with clear partiality, comparing Obama to Lincoln multiple times, but it also reads as liberal literature for dummies, referring to the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela, as well as books by Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, and Junot Díaz.

Whether arguing the merits of Dangerous or celebrating Obama’s literary mind, we are placing books and the publishing industry at the center of an old debate that calls for free speech versus hate speech, that pits conservatives against liberals, and that values classics over best sellers. But the thing about the publishing industry is this: books and politics have both been around for a long time, and as long as we have them both, they’re going to interact. To crudely paraphrase Gandhi, we are tasked, then, with creating the content we wish to see in the world. If we don’t, we’ll be denying Philip Altbach’s truth, attempting to publish books in a vacuum.

Interview with Author Kali VanBaale

Kali VanBaale’s debut novel, The Space Between, earned an American Book Award (the Independent Publisher’s silver medal for general fiction) and the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Milo Review, Northwind Literary, Poets & Writers, The Writer, and the anthologies Voices of Alzheimer’s and A Cup of Comfort for Adoptive Families. She currently lives and writes on an acreage outside Des Moines with her husband, three children, and highly emotional dog.

Her second novel, The Good Divide, is forthcoming from Midwestern Gothic Press in June 2016. An excerpt is included following the interview.

Like The Good Divide’s protagonist, Jean Krenshaw, you spent your young life on a dairy farm in the Midwest. The details of Jean’s daily domestic rituals are so richly realized, I’m not at all surprised you had firsthand experience! Can you tell us about the kinds of emotions you experienced while reflecting on your childhood setting writing this novel?

Looking back, I see that I was writing my odd version of a love letter to my childhood family farm in The Good Divide, and it was very emotional to spend time in that world again. When I started working on the book, my parents were still farming and running the dairy, so I had regular contact with the life and all its hardships and sacrifices, and the details were at the forefront of my mind. By the time I finished the book, though, my parents had retired and the farm was sold, so the story now has an element of sadness for me, a time and place gone by. So many of those old family farms, like the one I grew up on, are no more. Farming, and especially dairies, are moving to corporations. To capture a piece of that fading American life feels doubly important to me now.

Can you tell us about the very first inspirations for The Good Divide? When did you first begin working on the manuscript?

The first seed for this story started germinating years ago when my dad and his younger brother took over the dairy from my grandfather and lived in houses with their wives and children just a mile or so apart. The close quarters and working relationship with everyone in each other’s business sometimes created conflict and tension. But shortly after I started the book, I heard an old story about two central Iowa sisters at the turn of the century who’d had a falling out and built identical houses just yards away from each other so they could spy on each other from their second floor balconies. I don’t know if any part of that story is true, but I loved it so much that it ended up giving final shape to what would become The Good Divide.

Ben Tanzer reviewed your book saying, “this is what a page-turner feels like,” and I couldn’t agree more. I devoured The Good Divide in two sittings. The twenty-four chapters move readers between different seasons in Jean’s life throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and yet the unfolding drama feels direct and deliciously immediate. Can you tell us about your strategies for pacing the novel?

That’s a serious compliment. Thank you! I’ve worked on this book on and off for the last ten years, and the plot and structure have changed throughout the many different drafts. I rewrote and revised it at least a dozen times before I finally landed on the version you see today. For many years, I stubbornly had this third structure where I had the early ’60s storyline in Part I, the entire ’50s storyline in one chunk in Part II, and the last half of the ’60s storyline in Part III. But the content editor at MG Press, Michelle Webster-Hein, suggested I layer the two storylines together so that one didn’t disrupt or overpower the other, and then both would reach their narrative climax side-by-side near the end of the story. It was a huge amount of work to basically take the entire book apart and put it back together again, but Webster-Hein was totally right. The layered structure alleviated the previous uneven pacing problems that I’d battled for so long. Then my MG Press managing editors, Jeff Pfaller and Robert James Russell, helped me polish up those changes in the final version. I learned a lot about structure and pacing from this book and how they can work together—or against each other. Webster-Hein is also a VCFA grad, by the way, so OF COURSE she’s brilliant, and I trusted her advice.

What a supportive publishing experience! I really appreciate you demystifying some of the editorial journey. There is something about emotional turmoil set in the countryside of middle America that feels timeless, and yet, The Good Divide reads so relevantly for our current social and political moment. With your unflinching examination of family, lust, responsibility, and death, I see strong comparisons between The Good Divide and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Was that an influence for you, and comparatively, what do you believe makes your novel so timely?

A Thousand Acres is such a brilliant book, isn’t it? It definitely influenced my writing and gave me encouragement that rural, midwestern, domestic family dramas have an audience. I hope what makes The Good Divide feel timeless is that at its heart, it’s about a woman trying to live with what she has, not what she wants. I think that will always be a universal theme as long as humans continue to make choices of compromise. Because of circumstances beyond her control, Jean tries to make the best of it with classic midwestern stoicism. God, I know so many people like that today.

I agree! In fact, one of your greatest strengths in this novel is exploring the imagery of rural life in a relatable way that interpolates a variety of modern readers. How did the richness of a rural setting, especially the small agricultural community of the novel, influence the literary style of your writing?

I think living in a rural setting with limited choices or means of entertainment brings the surroundings into hyperfocus. It’s easier to notice small details—the sounds of nature, the rhythms of a household, the intimate interactions between people—with little noise or distraction, and so I worked hard to try and capture that hyperfocus in a way that felt relevant to the story and natural for my main character. And Jean is also an outsider looking in, doomed to only observe her heart’s greatest desire, so she’s constantly tuned in to the finest details.

Throughout the novel, Jean engages in various unnerving methods of self-harm. I have never read a book that renders these acts so uncompromisingly. Can you tell us more about the writing and editorial processes for these scenes?

I didn’t write the self-harming part of Jean’s character until a much later draft, and I think it evolved after working in the mind of this deeply repressed and unhappy character for so long. I felt like both she and I needed an outlet or expression for this inner pain and self-hatred she kept so tightly bottled up. The first time I showed a draft with the new self-harming scenes to a reader, it was to my then-agent, and I don’t remember worrying about what my agent’s reaction was going to be. She thought the scenes worked and strengthened the character, and we didn’t discuss it any further.

Fast forward five years to when the book sold to MG Press in a much different climate of trigger warnings and a larger discussion of the effects of literature, and it was a very different conversation. I broached the subject with the managing editors, Pfaller and Russell, and definitely felt nervous about their possible reactions this time. But in the end, the three of us agreed that despite the dark, difficult subject matter, it’s an integral part of Jean’s story. I think because Pfaller and Russell are both writers themselves, they understood and respected the importance of an author’s vision and were totally supportive.

Regardless, the scenes weren’t easy to write, both artistically or personally, but they were true to the character and true to my own experiences, so ultimately, I wasn’t going to compromise.

The unwillingness to compromise is certainly a bold risk that makes your work stand out and offers realistic insight about an often undiscussed suffering. Another theme that stands out to me is a multidimensional feminism. As wives and mothers in the 1960s, Jean and her sister-in-law, Liz, hold womanly authority in vastly different ways: Jean is respected for her skills in sewing, cooking, and farming, while Liz is young and sensuous—enjoying sex, taking birth control, and reading The Feminine Mystique. Aware of these distinctions, Jean speculates that Liz will eventually have to join the tradition of requesting the grocery money from her husband each week, just like everyone else. How do the time period and setting make The Good Divide a unique exploration of feminism?

One thing that really intrigued me about setting the book in the ’50s and ’60s is that it was a period of great change and transition for women, with some women embracing the changes quickly, like Liz, while others had a knee-jerk reaction to resist and doubt it, like Jean. And that was absolutely true in the conservative Midwest during that time. Many women didn’t appreciate the progressive efforts for equality and resisted change. So, for the story, there was a real opportunity to put two characters together on totally different ends of a spectrum and then watch them interact. I liked exploring the idea that Jean felt real worth and value in her domestic roles, and it wasn’t until Liz arrived and made it clear from the start that she wanted to live a very different kind of life that Jean started to feel self-conscious and become defensive. Even today, women are so guilty of criticizing or taking great offense to someone else simply making a lifestyle choice different than their own—to be a working parent or stay-at-home parent, to breastfeed or bottle-feed, and on and on—so I had plenty of firsthand experience to draw from.

The novel is bookended by Jean’s first-person narrations titled “Mistresses,” the second of which serves as a kind of epilogue. Without giving away any of the shocking plot twists, can you tell us more about the characterization of Jean? When you first conceived of the novel, did you know you would be including this section from Jean in her old age?

The bookend “Mistresses” chapters came from a theme of mirrors throughout Jean’s life that developed as I got deeper into the story. Once I spotted it, I really made use of it. I envisioned Jean as a woman somewhat doomed to repeat her mistakes, thus creating this mirror effect of her past and present—her tenuous relationship first with Sandy Weaver then later Tommy’s wife Liz, and then her involvement in pivotal moments of crisis for both Sandy and Liz. Also, physically the farmhouses are mirror images of each other, built and previously occupied by twin sisters with their own complicated history and relationship that’s hinted at. (I’ve actually sketched out another novel that is the story of Eunice and Beatrice I hope to write one day if I ever get around to it.) And finally, I finished off Jean’s mirrored narrative with the “Mistresses” bookend chapters.

The opening “Mistresses” were the first pages of the book I wrote, and I knew all along I would close the book with an epilogue-like version of that opening. What would come in between, though, I wasn’t exactly sure.

That mirroring serves as a complex theme throughout the novel, and it really works. You have an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and have taught writing and literature at Drake University and Lindenwood University’s MFA program. What is one piece of advice you offer your students that you struggle to implement in your own writing?

Plotplotplot! It’s my Achilles heel. My writer’s instinct is to write from a character first and let a plot evolve naturally around that character, but I often end up with “quiet” plots that lack a great hook, lack narrative tension. Most books sell to publishers on big plot ideas and concepts, and yes, engaging characters, too, but really, it’s the plot that gets pitched first and piques interest.

I see beautiful writing all the time from students—funny dialogue, rich and interesting characters—but I also commonly see the same ailment I fight—soft plots or too little conflict. Or the opposite—a dense, convoluted plot. And in my experience, stories live or die by the strength of their plots, despite exquisite sentences or fascinating characters.

And unfortunately, plot often gets overlooked even though it’s the brick and mortar of the entire story. It holds everything else in place. Your characters, dialogue, setting, and details, all feel like they have a purpose, a raison d’être, because of the plot. I try to teach plot with this straightforward, reason for being, kind of approach to help students (and myself) build a novel that will keep the reader turning the page. Because at the core of this, that’s all we want. For the reader to keep turning the page.


August, 1963

Mornings, before the children awoke, Jean scrubbed her kitchen floor. She rose as soon as the alarm went off at 4:30 on her side of the bed and shook Jim’s arm until he blearily sat up in his night shirt and jockey shorts, and while he dressed for the morning milking, she went downstairs, started the coffee, and scrubbed her floor.

On her hands and knees, with the mixed aroma of dark roasted beans and lemon-scented soap, the rhythmic shush shush shush of stiff bristles across the linoleum lulled her into feeling like she was somehow wiping the slate clean from the previous day.

Once the floor was clean and the coffee brewed, she made an egg-and-toast sandwich that she took to Jim in the barn, along with a steaming mug of coffee. He ate the sandwich in less than five bites while seated on his squat wooden milking stool, and drank the coffee in less than five gulps, somehow never scalding his mouth. If it was Tommy’s week to work the morning shift, the coffee and egg sandwich were delivered to him. The morning routine was as reflective and dependable to her as breathing, and Jean was never a woman to appreciate change or surprise.

Wordstock 2015: Talking About Books

On an early November morning, I awoke eager to divide my day working for Literary Arts in the morning and Ooligan Press in the afternoon. After a quiet MAX ride, I made my way to the lobby of the Portland Art Museum’s historic Mark Building, where I found two other Wordstock volunteers awaiting instructions. Wordstock began as a small nonprofit in 2005, but it has been on hiatus for the last two years. Later that day the Portland Art Museum would open its doors to Literary Arts’s relaunch of one of the Northwest’s largest festivals of readers, writers, and publishers. At 8 a.m., people were already hiking up to the third floor to unpack their tables, books, banners, and bookmarks for the book fair. I had been to the Portland Art Museum a few weeks prior for the bonsai exhibit, where gnarled bark and carefully guided limbs elicited a kind of quiet awe in the crowd.

But on this rainy Saturday, the Mark Building was already vibrant, filled with a steady hum of words, coffee, and excited book lovers and industry professionals. Nicole and Julie, my fellow volunteers, and I were given the task of “wristband distribution and line management,” which meant we did our best to answer questions and welcome readers, while putting wristbands on a steady stream of rain-drenched patrons. While I had originally hoped for a position near one of the writer events or workshops, I ended up truly enjoying greeting many of the eight-thousand-plus people who attended this year’s Wordstock.

After my shift ended, Julie and I climbed the stairs to the third floor, where we paired our most serious reading faces with wigs, fedoras, and plastic pirate accessories for the photo booth. Picture bookmarks in hand, we headed into the book fair where, after a quick goodbye to my new friend, I joined fellow colleagues and students, commonly referred to as “Oolies,” in representing Ooligan Press. I began working at Ooligan in late September, and the experience has already changed how I think about books. I still have a lot to learn, but where I once only thought about books in terms of reading and writing, I now think about books in terms of reading and writing and the book publishing process: acquisitions, editing, design, sales and marketing, and social media.

Over the course of the next two hours I had the opportunity to share my enthusiasm about what I’ve learned so far in Portland State University’s student-run publishing program with prospective students, “talk shop” with other industry professionals (including an editor at Tin House), discuss craft with A Series of Small Maneuvers author Eliot Treichel, and, best of all, recommend my favorite Ooligan titles to fellow readers. In my opinion, one of the best aspects of working at a publishing house is the required reading. Reading Michael Munk’s The Portland Red Guide, Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s Blue Thread, and Allison Green’s The Ghosts Who Travel With Me and getting to call it “work” makes me giddy.

As Wordstock 2015 came to a close, I realized that I never did make it to hear any of the talks. Instead, I spent the day in a room crowded with people talking animatedly about literature, which, for a bookworm like me, was second only to curling up on Wordstock’s iconic red wingback with a good book, a cup of tea, and the soft drum of the rain.

Summer Reading List Part Three: Books You Should Not Be Reading This Summer

In view of the spectacular success of my first two summer reading list blogs (we’re talking Facebook likes in the upper threes, people), I feel I would be remiss in not cramming one more in before the back to school sales end and the leaves start to change. You people seem to love when I tell you what to do!  This fills me with a sense of power I can’t help but attempt to abuse, so I figured I’d take my new powers for a test drive by telling you what not to do. Without further ado, here is my list of books not to read this summer!
Fifty Shades of Grey (the entire series)
E.L. James
If the fact that it’s poorly-spelled porn isn’t enough for you, consider these things: the innocent, virginal female/sexually dominant male thing has been done to death; the “author,” who originally wrote it under the pen-name Snowqueens Icedragon (which is actually pretty boss), has never been to the Pacific Northwest, despite setting the book here; and it contains the line “My inner goddess is doing the dance of the seven veils.” And it’s not a comedy. If you want to read something naughty, there are a lot of options available; such as Anais Nin’s The Delta of Venus and Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, many of which are far more literarily competent (and also happen make this book look like a nun’s guide to scrupulous chastity). Finally, it’s Twilight fan fiction and even the author of the Twilight series has refused to read it. Which brings us to our next book:
Twilight (the entire series)
Stephenie Meyer
Not to belabor a point, but this is yet another book series set in the Pacific Northwest and yet, much like Ms. Icedragon, Stephenie Meyer (yes, she spells her name with that insufferable “e”) had never even been here at the time of its writing. In addition to that, they’re romance novels. In addition to that, they’re poorly written romance novels. In addition to that, they’re poorly written romance novels about fairytale monsters and the teenage girls they love. Gross. Among the numerous legitimate, literary reasons you shouldn’t be reading Twilight this summer is the fact that the last book in the series was published in 2010, so you don’t even have the excuse that you’re curious as to why it’s such a popular phenomenon anymore. In the intervening four years, Twilight fandom has been absolutely steamrolled by the previous book on this list and by massive hit, The Hunger Games. Coincidentally:
The Hunger Games (the entire series)
Suzanne Collins
Let me tell you about a little test I like to perform on popular books: I take one off one of the numerous displays in whatever grocery store I happen to be in, open it to a random page, and read one paragraph. If I’m not laughing like a helium-addled hyena before line six, I will consider reading it. Needless to say, this book didn’t pass my test (I even had my boyfriend try the same test, which was totally for the sake of scientific rigor and not because I like to torment him). Despite the fact that this grindingly boring series is stuffed to the gills with worn out sci-fi tropes and is about as skillfully written as public bathroom graffiti, that’s not my major bone to pick with it.
My major issue with this book series is that it is awful, and yet ubiquitous in pop culture to the point of inducing physical nausea, and people always jump to the same defense of it: it’s getting kids to read. That is not ever, ever, ever a reason to support a book that is total garbage. If I caught my son reading this, I’d curse the day I allowed him to become literate. There is one thing that gets kids to read: parents. So do it. Don’t leave it up to whatever author is churning out the latest blockbuster soon-to-be-movie book. Opening up the world of literature to my 8-year-old son has been a hugely rewarding and magical experience for both of us. We recently started a new book together, which he requested with no prompting from me. That book is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (fantasy that isn’t garbage). Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Kids are a lot smarter than adults give them credit for, so don’t encourage them to read things that will make them dumber. And don’t waste your time reading those books yourself.

Marni Norwich Guest Poet Post: “Why I Don’t Write”

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Marni Norwich, a poet from Vancouver, B.C. Please enjoy her post!

Why I Don’t Write

So many good books have been written on the subject of why to write, and none on the important question of why not to, that I think it is high time to redress the imbalance. Hence my current book-length project: Why I Don’t Write. This important contribution to the literature is not to be overlooked! In it, aspiring writers will find reams of accessible lists (arranged alphabetically and according to subject for easy finding) and chapters full of solid arguments against writing.
No more feelings of guilt, shame, laziness and dishonor from writers who simply don’t want to write! Writers need never trouble their minds in search of valid excuses when they can simply lick a finger and open the swelling pages of my tome. I always say that any reason is a good reason not to write, and done are the days when we need  seek validation for our still pens from outside sources!
From being under-inspired to being too inspired (why threaten that fabulous feeling?), from being intimidated by the great writers who have gone before to feeling superior to them (I could out-write Emily Dickinson in my sleep! Now, off to clean the bathroom!), this book will affirm your every withhold and add to the mix with compelling argument and rock solid logic.
In the current era, with its emphasis on creativity, process, and the “calling of our art,” so many people are racing to pick up notebooks and pens in the quest to express themselves. Everyone and their sister are busy writing poems, short stories, novels, and plays, and the market is flooded with books telling us why and how to write.
Write write write! That’s all I hear, wherever I go! Even while I sat innocently at a café, trying to get a moment’s peace with a cup of tea, the women at the table beside mine were speaking loudly about their “journal-writing process” and how fulfilling it was for them. After a few minutes of this, I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to turn to them and say, “Excuse me. You probably mean no harm, but there are people in this café who are successfully avoiding writing after years of hardcore activity and months of withdrawal, so could you please keep your inflammatory conversation down!”
Gratefully, they spoke in hushed tones after that, and—as you can imagine—I was much relieved. I softened and even considered talking to them about the upcoming launch of my book, Why I Don’t Write, but they left before I could gather my business cards.
To the old adage, “Those who cannot do, teach,” I add “Those who do not write, preach,” and by this I mean that those who have moved beyond the need to engage in this pernicious activity have an obligation to the lesser-advanced to drag them from their misbegotten inkwells to the light of day, and sometimes into public scrutiny! For shouldn’t the reading public be the final arbiters in the question of who is permitted to contribute to a global literature that affects us all?
What would our literarily demure forefathers have thought of today’s “democratization” of the written word? How would they have tolerated the plentiful and low-grade pulp fiction and comic books, the detective novels and fashion magazines? The answer, clearly, is not at all well!
My point is simple. For every reason a person can think of to write, there are twenty reasons why it is actually a very bad idea. My friends, I have a secret to share with you: Writing seems like such frivolous activity, but I have it on experience that it connects us with the deep underpinnings and unexplored yearnings at the very base of our beings! If you think that kind of unearthing will not kick up a storm of every magnitude, you have another think coming! If for no other reason than to preserve the untouched integrity of what is and the predictable unfurling of the human story as we have known it, I beseech you not to write!  Drop your pens now, before the stirrings of your souls herald a burst of change at a magnitude beyond the scope of imagining, encompassing yourselves and the entirety of this lumbering, multiform planet—this huge, blue-green spiraling notebook!

Marni Norwich is a Vancouver, British Columbia writer, editor, writing workshop facilitator, and author of the poetry collection Wildflowers at my doorstep (Karma Press, 2008). She’s been reading and performing on Vancouver stages for eight years, sometimes with the accompaniment of dancers, choreographers and musicians.
Marni’s poem “Hang On,” which was inspired by a ride on Vancouver’s 20 Downtown bus, will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Vancouver edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.