Pushcart Prize 2014

Hello, internet! It’s been awhile. I won’t even try to make excuses for my long absence, other than to say: life.

20140127-174801.jpgHowever, I return to you triumphantly! My story “Upper Middle Class Houses” that Third Coast nominated for the Pushcart Prize earned a special mention. If I was saying all the right things, I would say that I was honored and humbled, but actually I was honored and felt like a freaking rock star. I’m quite sure that I was positively insufferable in the days afterwards because I couldn’t stop telling anyone who would listen about how amazing I felt to be included–if even in a back index–in such a respected award anthology, in the same book as such great authors and poets. Thank you, Third Coast and the Pushcart Prize for believing that my story deserved recognition. Now that I’ve had some time to get over myself, I am truthfully humbled.

Short post: My story “Lady Killers” is live over at Whole Beast Rag!

wholebeastrag

Check it out, y’all.

Along with the rest of their all-around wonderful TAMMY issue.

Side note: I must admit that I’m secretly kind of thrilled that the issue is headed by a photo of Serena van der Woodsen. Except I guess it’s not so secret now that I admitted it on the interwebs. She’s just such a delightful, vapid mess, isn’t she? Oh shit, now you know I’ve watched Gossip Girl, as well. There goes my reputation.

(Edit: They have since re-vamped their site and Serena’s mug no longer graces my story. Sad face.)

Gillian Flynn, you creepy genius: some thoughts on Gone Girl.

I just finished reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and I have to say, I am floored in two completely different ways by both of them.¬†Gone Girl I finished two days ago, and Wild yesterday. Not that I started and finished Wild all in one day, although it’s so good that could be very possible. I just tend to read multiple books simultaneously, picking one or another up depending on my mood. I’ve been reading Wild in short installments for a few weeks, rationing it like Cheryl does her food on the trail because I had so anticipated its release that I didn’t want it to be over too soon. (Yes, I’m a long-time¬†Sugar¬†fan.) And also because the book heartbroke me. I could scarcely read it without crying, sometimes bawling, sometimes uncontrollably, so I had to take some breaks lest I become dehydrated through loss of water via tears alone.

An aside: I had a wonderful moment earlier today when I realized that ALL the books I’m currently reading or am about to read are by women! I love that. There have been several moments in time when I have downtroddenly realized that all the books I was reading were by men–and most of the books I’ve ever read are by men–and nothing against men, I love men, but I get markedly sad when I see women excluded. But that’s a subject for another day. The point is, I just read Gone Girl and Wild, and before that I read Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, and next I have Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (I know, I’m horribly late on this one) and Lidia Yunknavitch’s The Chronology of Water (late on that one, too) and B.K. Loren’s Theft, which I picked up the other night when I went to see her read at Chatham. All women! And I didn’t even do it on purpose! It just turned out that way! So exciting.

But anyway. Right now, I’m only going to talk about Gone Girl. We’ll save Wild for another day.

Oh, and SPOILERS. Except I’m pretty sure I’m the last person on the internet to have read Gone Girl, so it probably doesn’t matter. I mean, I’m behind. It’s kind of shameful. But in my defense, when you move cross-country and get married in the span of a few months, you get behind.

So, Gone Girl.

As so many have said before me: cutting, witty, twisted, brilliant, devious. A literary thriller about the decline of a marriage–although decline is putting it far too mildly. I rephrase: A literary thriller about the psychotic manipulative mind-fuck explosive shit-storm disaster of a marriage, but simultaneously a love story of the darkest sort, about the people who we try to be in order to make someone love us, and then what happens when our real selves show through. Probably not the best book to read a month and a half after you get married. But whatever.

The novel really screws with your mind and emotions, even as you’re watching this husband and wife screw with each others’. For instance, I was totally manipulated by the first part of the book. Like, TOTALLY manipulated. I was like,¬†Oh I know this wife, I know this woman, she is flawed but I love her and feel for her in her sweet, quiet desperation, and she doesn’t even know she’s being cheated on, poor thing! Team Amy!!!! On top of that, there were eerie similarities between Amy Elliott Dunne and I, such as: her husband moves her away from the city she loves (for Amy, New York; for me, New Orleans), she knows no one and has no friends in this new city and also has no job (*cough,* me in Pittsburgh), and she is forced to live in a mass-produced box with wall-to-wall carpet and doors and moldings made of cheap crappy plastic made to look like wood (which she hates, and sooooo do I–hardwood floors, please), oh and she’s a writer. So, we had some things in common. I may have read some sections from Part One aloud to Todd in a kind of horribly mistaken wife-righteousness–See, she is so sad and alone. See, she hates wall-to-wall carpet, too. And then her husband kills her! Let us take this as a teaching moment.

Here is the real teaching moment: Never start quoting a book all righteous-like before you’ve read the whole thing. Especially when it’s a thriller, which is never what it seems in the beginning. I should have known better.

So imagine my embarrassment when Part Two commences and we find out that, oops, Amy is a sociopath who meticulously fakes her death and disappears and frames her husband for her murder so he’ll get the death penalty or at least life in prison, just to prove a point, which is pretty much, No one puts Amy in a corner. (Yeah, I’ve seen Dirty Dancing a few dozen too many times.) Amy is a legit, for-real, 100% psycho. This is the woman I felt solidarity with, who I compared myself to. I repeat: oops.

To be fair, the diary entries that compose her point of view for the first part of the novel were specifically written by Amy-the-psychopath to be found after her disappearance, make the world love and sympathize with her, and point the finger of blame steadily at her husband. So, I mean, easy mistake. Right? Right? (Someone assure me I’m not going to turn into a sociopath.)

But anyway. The point is, Gillian Flynn manipulates the reader’s emotions with a skill that borders on frightening. By the end of that first part, you legitimately sympathize with Amy, you totally suspect that Nick, the cheating, negligent husband, killed her in a fit of passion the morning of their five-year anniversary. If I was Gillian Flynn’s husband, I might be just a little bit afraid. Be afraid, sir. Your wife is a creepy genius. So. Well. Done.

What unfolds after Part One is a fascinating study of absolute madness, switching between Amy and Nick’s points of view, both of them narrators of the most unreliable sort, in which neither character is the hero. And I love me some anti-heroes. We humans are flawed, messy, catastrophically doomed creatures, and I love us for it. Give me a book where the protagonist is just fucked to the core, and I’ll eat it up, because that’s something I love to see in literature and in people in general–the acknowledgement that we as people have horrible, deep deep faults, and there’s maybe just no fixing them; that’s just the way we are, and we have to try to be the best people we can be with them. Gone Girl takes this to a very, very disturbing place, where husband and wife are forced to be the best husband and best wife they can be in a life-long stand-off, or else they’ll eviscerate each other–but still. I dig it.

Nick does end up being a little more the hero than Amy. As he writes at the beginning of the tell-all book he composes (and then is forced to delete thanks to some more brilliant trap-setting on Amy’s part),

I am a cheating, weak-spined, woman-fearing coward, and I am the hero of your story. Because the woman I cheated on–my wife, Amy Elliott Dunne–is a sociopath and a murderer.

I mean, compared to that–yeah, you are the hero.

But despite Amy’s balls-to-the-wall bat-shit craziness, she has some pretty astute observations, such as the oft-quoted-at-least-on-Tumblr section about the myth of the “Cool Girl.”

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time, Cool Girls offended me. I used to see men–friends, coworkers, strangers–giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much–no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version–maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.

Bam. I mean, truth, guys. What woman (at least in America) reads that and doesn’t feel a little sick to her stomach because she has tried to be the Cool Girl at least once in her life (probably during college, thanks Judd Apatow), and also at the same time a bit buoyed up because she has since given up on being the Cool Girl, the Cool Girl persona being unsustainable. And this from the mouth of a sociopath, yet it resonates in all of us.

Creepy.

And that’s one of the most horridly wonderful things about Gone Girl. Like the Cool Girl critique, the novel is full of social commentary that meshes completely with the narrative. It takes numerous societal stereotypes, builds them up, and then burns them all down. The Cool Girl. The Happy Couple. The Gritty Detectives. The Good Wife. The Good Husband. The Cheater. The Psycho Bitch. The Sweet-Wife-Is-Murdered and the Husband-Always-Did-It. One by one, the novel establishes these roles and then, just when you get comfortable, turns them inside out. The whole thing is an endless parade of people wearing masks. It’s disturbing and brilliant and all-too-true.¬† As happens whenever I unadvisedly read the bone-chillingly hateful comments on any online news article, I walked away from this book peering from the corners of my eyes at the passerby on the street around me and wondering, Who are you, secretly? What horrible thoughts do you have tucked in the dark corners of your skull?

But aside from all that, Gone Girl is about the small, quiet ways we hide ourselves from the people around us. Our spouses, our parents, our friends and siblings. And the ways we manipulate each other–even manipulate ourselves–into believing we actually are the people we pretend to be. It’s about the pile-up of all the tiny disconnects in a marriage, which anyone who has been in a long relationship will be familiar with–the time he never showed up for that dinner, the cuckoo clock she loves and he hates, the special kiss one remembers and the other doesn’t, his difficulty in showing emotion and her need to always be right, the compromises inherent in sharing a life with another person, the struggles, the disappointments. Except in¬†Gone Girl, these things don’t pile up into a mild case of resentment that finally explodes into a bad argument or even divorce, they pile up into cheating and lying and trap-setting and disappearance and homicide. I mean, talk about needing to communicate. So, yeah, it gets a bit (a lot) more extreme than your average marriage, but Nick and Amy’s marital struggles before the psychosis kicks off are disturbingly familiar. We all know that story. It’s scary. To say the least.

But also, even while this husband and wife are plotting against each other with maniacal glee, Flynn shows their similarities, things they have absorbed from each other over five years of marriage. There’s all these inside jokes they both remember, both Nick and Amy make observations about the real meaning of the word “surreal,” and they also both refer to their stomachs as feeling “oily.” This oily stomach thing is an unusual enough description (at least I’ve never heard it) that I’m sure Flynn does it on purpose to show us some teeny tiny, but meaningful, ways in which they are a couple. And I’m sure there’s others that I just missed on the first read. In the end, when all the barriers come down, Flynn shows us that Nick and Amy truly, deeply know each other. They know each other to the core, better than any one else in the world, in all their cunning, manipulative, hate-filled flaws. They truly see each other. And even if that sight is ugly, isn’t that all anyone wants in a marriage? To be known? To be seen?

I was wondering the other day how Gillian Flynn came up with the idea for Gone Girl–because this is the kind of novel that totally intimidates me, that makes me feel like I will never be able to write a novel as complexly extraordinary–and I wonder if she was just sitting around one day, listening to ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands gripe about their female ex-counterparts, saying,¬†I’m so glad I broke up with her, she was a crazy bitch, like they so often do. And Flynn was like, what’s that? No. No, fellas. I will write a novel and show you what a crazy bitch actually is. Challenge accepted.

And, oh, does she. I dare you to call anyone a crazy bitch after reading this book. Mission accomplished, Ms. Flynn. Well done.

I’m Notable! Best American Short Stories AND Nonrequired Reading Notable!

My story “Last Dog” that appeared in Hunger Mountain no. 16 has been listed as notable in Best American Short Stories 2012 AND Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012! Seeing my name beside authors like T.C. Boyle, Amy Bloom and Tom Bissell is just about the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. Understatement: I’m pretty elated. Extreme gratitude to Miciah Bay Gault and the editors at Hunger Mountain for liking it enough to publish, and to Heidi Pitlor/Tom Perrotta/Best American Short Stories and Dave Eggers/the late Ray Bradbury/Best American Nonrequired Reading for reading it and finding it notable. These are great honors, indeed. (Understatement #2.)

You can read “Last Dog” online at Hunger Mountain here, and then you can pre-order yourself a copy of BASS 2012 and BANR 2012, read all the fantastic fiction, and take a gander at my name in the back. Attention world: I have arrived. Or I’m at least on my way.

Some literary news: Edith Wharton, contract killing, and sexual harassment. Don’t worry, none of these things are related.

My new Tumblr is a wonderful time suck because now I follow all the lit mags and websites I can find and therefore get breaking news like Vogue doing a spread on Edith Wharton that includes an apparently very good essay (haven’t read it yet) and a gorgeous photo spread of Edith Wharton and friends, with the friends played by people like Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer and Jeffrey Eugenides, all dressed in dapper clothing that I wish men still wore (and also Elijah Wood… but who cares).

I think this is pretty cool. Except Roxane Gay makes a very good point on her Tumblr (we’re all Tumblring!) that there are FEMALE writers they could have cast as, you know, Edith Wharton or any of the other females in the spread, but they didn’t. And why?

That’s it for the good/fun literary news. If you’re in a positive mood and want to stay that way, I suggest you stop reading.

In very upsetting news, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the Katrina hero of Dave Eggers’s 2009 non-fiction novel Zeitoun, was arrested on charges of soliciting the murder of his ex-wife, son, and another man. This just breaks my heart that a man who once set out in a boat to save anyone he could find, who founded a charitable organization (along with Eggers) that helped rebuild New Orleans, could be changed so much as to assault his wife and allegedly contract her murder.¬†Zeitoun¬†was such an extraordinarily moving story, in part because of the relationship between Zeitoun and his wife Kathy. But the story never ends on the last page of the book. Sometimes, I wish it did.

In further distressing news, the incredible literary journal American Short Fiction is possibly folding after 21 years, following the resignation of two of its head editors. The reasons for their resignations are not explained, but this is very sad news indeed. And this news, along with the hot mess of a sexual harassment scandal going down at Oxford American that resulted in the firing of the magazine’s founding editor, Marc Smirnoff, as well as the managing editor, Carol Ann Fitzgerald, has me wondering:

WHAT THE F*** IS GOING ON, YOU FABULOUS LITERARY MAGAZINES!?!?

Probably I shouldn’t relate whatever is happening at American Short Fiction to the shady goings-on at Oxford American because that casts¬†ASF in a bad light, and there is no reason to suspect a scandal at ASF of the magnitude and skeeziness of the one at OA, although there must be something going on there that made two editors resign. My listing them together is only because I am distressed that two of the best literary journals in the country are falling apart. (OA¬†isn’t folding, but this sort of thing has got to shake stuff up something serious.) I’m especially sad about ASF. It is really one of the best journals out there, and its ending is a damn shame.

Hey all the other literary magazines: please PLEASE you guys, keep your shit together.

But back to the Oxford American. The two fired editors put together an incredibly long document detailing the events leading up to their termination, the abrupt and hush-hush way it was all carried out, and a very passionate (to put it nicely) and personal defense of themselves that includes texts and photographs. I have to say, I don’t know what to make of it. I read the thing in its entirety yesterday, which took about two hours, because I am a crazy person and also unemployed, so I have time to do these things.

I read it because I wanted to believe that the man who thought up and founded Oxford American twenty years ago couldn’t be a sleazy, handsy sexual predator, that he would have more respect for women than that, that it was all some sort of weird mistake. But after reading it, it seems pretty clear that yeah, actually, he is.

On the website, Smirnoff admits to using “G-rated sexual innuendo,” hugging, and touching his interns’ heads, shoulders, and feet (FEET?!), but he does not seem to think that there is any problem with that. Smirnoff admitted in an interview with the New York Times that he did, indeed, ask an intern (who he later fired and who then filed the sexual harassment complaint) to hold hands with him while they were alone in his car, and then asked her to accompany him to his favorite make-out spot. He further claimed that his interactions with his staff were always “paternalistic and nonsexual” (how can sexual innuendo be nonsexual?) and that “[his] intent with regards to that humor is just as important.”

Let’s take a moment to think about what sexual harassment is.

Take your time.

Yes, exactly.

I could say more. Originally, I did, and then I discovered I was just angrily ranting (with some witty asides), so I went on a paragraph-deleting spree. Because really, it kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

Smirnoff and Fitzgerald’s website does shed a bit of a questionable light on the termination proceedings, I’ll admit, but it’s hard to know what’s fact and what’s speculation, so you can go read it and come up with your own opinions. (If you have two hours to spare.) It reads like a soap opera, I’ve got to tell you, full of conspiracies and back-stabbing and name-calling, secret interoffice romance and drunken flirtation and even two lavish parties and a private jet. I shit you not. Not so sure this website is going to do Smirnoff a huge service. Also, there’s only so many times you can quote Shakespeare in reference to your own life before you start coming off as way too full of yourself. Fact.

But in all seriousness, it’s horribly sad that such things can occur in the offices of such a long-standing and respected magazine. (Or, you know, at all.) Because this is despicable, guys. I’m stunned that people still think this sort of behavior is okay.

As an Alabama native who later lived in Nashville and New Orleans, I’ve got a soft spot for all things Southern, and I’ve always liked Oxford American for being the smart lit and culture magazine it is and for bringing positive attention to the South when so much of the attention we get is negative. I sincerely hope the magazine survives and continues to be a quality publication. We’ll just have to wait and see.

In conclusion, this was a very depressing blog post. I’m sorry. But, you know: life.

Some literary links and a very bad decision. Or, Somebody please stop me from getting a Tumblr, too.

So I read this thing on The Millions about literary Tumblrs, and then read lots of the literary Tumblrs. (Do you capitalize “Tumblr?” I don’t think MLA has a section on this yet.) I haven’t read them all, but here are my favorites so far:

#whatshouldwecallpoets: I find this hilarious because although I am technically a fiction writer and not a poet, we share some common problems that are made a lot funnier and more bearable with GIFs. We writers also seem to all have a self-depreciating sense of humor. It is how we survive the rejection.

You Chose Wrong: Basically a compendium of endings from choose-your-own-adventure novels, but only the endings where things go terribly wrong and your errant character dies a horrible death. Pretty funny stuff, rendered even funnier by being out of context. Something might be wrong with me.

Unquotables: Quotes by famous people, except, wait, that’s not what they said! Example: “Don’t pay attention to what they write about you, just measure it in inches. The size of my penis always comforts me when they write mean things about me.” -Andy Warhol

This one is pretty cool, too: Write Place Write Time. It’s all writers posting pictures of their writing spaces and talking about them, also often including interesting tidbits about their habits and writing rituals, like Lauren Groff talking to her little Buddha statue when the writing’s not coming along well. Probably something only a writer could love, and therefore I love it. It also makes me want to get myself a much better writing space and some statuary to talk to.

So that’s all great, right? Wrong. Here’s the bad part:

Apparently, Tumblr also keeps a running list of all the writers and poets that have Tumblrs, and this, combined with all the amusing literary Tumblrs, makes me want to start my own Tumblr (in addition to my WordPress site, of course). This, in turn, leads me to wonder,

HAVE I GONE INSANE???

Do I really need another thing on the internet to waste precious time that I should be using to write, you know, stories? Probably not. Do I really need¬†two blogs to keep up with and post stuff on? No, not really. (But Roxane Gay has both a Tumblr and a blog on her website, and I do want to be just like her.) Is it kind of over-the-top, unnecessary, and slightly narcissistic to have two blogs about yourself? Almost definitely. Also, I really do hate the word “Tumblr.” I don’t care about your rationale; where’s the fucking ‘e’?! But.

But!

I REALLY WANT TO BE ON THAT LIST OF WRITERS WITH TUMBLRS. This probably stems from some childhood trauma involving being rejected and made fun of by the other kids that now has me possessed by this raving need to feel included. But whatever.

WordPress, for the sake of my spare time, sanity, and writing career, why don’t you do something like this? That would be super, and then I wouldn’t have to have two blogs!

I’m probably going to get a Tumblr.

Humans are not at the top of the food chain here. Or, I wanted all the poison.

Last night, something horrible happened. I ran across these two articles and actually, for some reason, read them. This was the equivalent of being alone in a house in a horror movie, hearing a noise in the basement, and (why god why) going to check it out.

You probably have a mind-controlling parasite in your brain, and

You also might have tape worms in there (your brain), too.

If you don’t want to ruin your life by reading the above articles, let me go ahead and reveal the moral of both of these stories:

Poop is gross. Don’t touch it.

Karen Munro asks Roxane Gay about emerging writers, getting your work out there, and all the various cool shit she does in this audio interview at this very cool site, and I have a fan girl brainsplosion at hearing both their voices conversing together cause it’s established that I have a writer-crush on Roxane Gay and I’d like to take this moment to announce that Karen Munro is pretty darn cool, too, and we’ve been published in two of the same journals, which I find awesome. I may play this interview every night as I fall asleep to encourage sweet dreams. It’s like listening to angels. Gay also hands out some good advice about promoting your work and some encouraging words about emerging writers, so if you’re a new or emerging writer, it’s definitely worth a listen.

An acquaintance who I wish I could call my best friend because she’s such a cool person and an amazing writer, Tarfia Faizullah, had this beautiful poem published in Lantern Review a little while ago, “At Zahra’s Salon for Ladies,” and this profile where Tarfia speaks on the process of writing the poem just came out. Both the poem and the process profile are gorgeous. In fact, the process profile is almost a poem, itself:

I wanted to write a poem that could dwell in nostalgia, that could dwell in those first feelings of hunger without fully leaving the present.

I wanted to write a poem that acknowledged the beauty and terror of solitude.

Don’t we all long for a lifetime of sweetness?

Yes, Tarfia. Yes we do.

Continue reading

Speaking of the Avengers. . .

Holy crap look what I found on Facebook.

Yes, sirs!

Now that’s motivation.

My screensaver already says that exact thing, but without the role models pointing at me in a way that is empowering while also being slightly accusatory, as if they know that I’m being lazy right this very second. (They do have superpowers. Well, some more than others.*)

It would be more effective if they were in their Avengers costumes, and I had trouble determining that the one on the left is Captain America with brown hair and a beard (that is him, right?), and I swear to God I thought Thor was a beefy Legolas at first with that hairdo (never wear ponytails, men, never),  but still. Desktop background, yes?

*Related post: Some thoughts on superheroes. Or, the one in which I somehow manage to mention Star Wars, D&D, and Stargate SG-1, totally betraying what I did in high school.

This Just In: “Last Dog” now available to read online!

The illustrious Hunger Mountain has posted my story “Last Dog” online! It originally appeared in their gorgeous Menagerie issue back in the fall. (Observe the cover to the left.) They’ve also posted a short author visit (interview) with me, in which I pretend I know things about stuff, so check that out, too. This story is also the subject of the BIG SECRET NEWS I have to tell but can’t until probably October, so I guess it’s pretty good. So maybe you should go read it!