Best Sentence Saturday — #3

yakimaReporting this week from the road and posting from a phone. Forgive the typos, my thumbs are too big for this “keyboard”. This week something new and some things old. All good though.

We’re big fans of the short story here at Iron Twine Press, so we’re always excited to hear about a new collection. This week we’ve been learning about Nicole Hartounian’s debut collection Speed Dreaming available now. You can read one of the stories, “Youse”, at The Center for Fiction. “Youse” is, on the surface, a gentle and touching coming-of-age story, but there’s a dark sadness beneath the surface. Rae, the main character is still reeling from a tragedy that occurs before the story begins but serves as the inciting incident and leaves her quietly careening like a deflating balloon sputtering in descending circles around a room. We liked the pace and the urgency and the vividness of this sentence:

When a hand touches her shoulder, she screams, her mother screams, the secretary, maybe, screams—it is surround-sound panic until Rae leaps to her feet, turns, sees Joanna standing there, leaves stuck to the side of her hair, but there, in the flesh, screaming, too.

“Surround-sound panic” is a great phrase.

Congratulations to Nicole Hartounian. You can find her on Twitter @NicoleHrtn

Now some older things:

Langston Hughes, Salvation:

I began to wonder what God thought about Westley, who certainly hadn’t seen Jesus either, but who was now sitting proudly on the platform, swinging his knickerbockered legs and grinning down at me, surrounded by deacons and old women on their knees praying. God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I’d better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved.

So I got up.

Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing swept the place. Women leaped in the air. My aunt threw her arms around me. The minister took me by the hand and led me to the platform.

It’s a comical image, but in the context of the whole piece it reveals how deception has the power to validate and to torture at the same time. Hughes’ prose is, of course, as infused with poetic brilliance as any one of his poems. I’m so glad he’s still being read.

And finally, on this week of the 90th anniversary of the publishing of The Great Gatsby we would be remiss (and embarrassed to call ourselves book people) if we didn’t share our favorite passage from that Great American Novel:

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

Hard to say what it is about that passage…just the breeze blowing the curtains in at one end and out at the other. You can feel it, smell it, hear the quiet of it….every time I read that passage my breath catches, somehow I feel I have touched the heart of Fitzgerald’s novel in that one simple moment.

Keep on reading! And get ready, in future posts I might ask you to share the best sentences you’ve read in the past week.

The First Honeymoon Goodreads Giveaway — Enter Now

Goodreads_Giveaway_2Iron Twine Press is giving away 15 copies of Lyn Coffin’s The First Honeymoon: New and Selected Stories via a Goodreads Giveaway.

The giveaway is live now! Click here to request a copy of the book.

You could argue that, as the publisher of this book, we’re biased. It’s true, we publish work that we like. I think that should be true of every publisher. I’d like to explain to you just what it is we like about The First Honeymoon, I think it gets at what is special about this collection of stories:

The edginess of Joyce Carol Oates; the ability, like John Updike, to extract human drama from the mundane, the suburban, the overlooked experience; the twisting of form to the service of story, a la Alice Munro; the poeticism of Virginia Woolf; the quirk and off-beat humor of Richard Brautigan—all these elements come together in Lyn Coffin’s distinctive style.

Simply put, Iron Twine Press wanted to publish these stories because they are not like any stories we’ve read before. There are moments throughout the collection that remind us of the writers mentioned above, and it’s helpful to use those names to try to place these stories on the literary landscape, but on the whole these stories are unique. The voices are mature, characters who have lived and lost and are trying to regain what, after a lifetime, emerges as truly important—simple connection in friendship and in love, acceptance despite flaws, patience and honesty and grace.

The stories collected in The First Honeymoon often don’t feel like stories. That is to say, you won’t always find the patient narrator waiting at the door to guide you in to act as your tour guide, to feed you facts in a sequential order, to introduce you to everyone and make sure you’re comfortably situated as the show unfolds. These stories defy our expectations about how stories should come to us, how they should act. These stories have the feel of events into which we have tumbled unwittingly—at times, as though, at a restaurant, we were looking for the bathroom and stumbled into a banquet room hosting a family reunion and one person after another mistakes us for family and begins speaking to us, at other times as though we’ve broken into an apartment and are rifling through private correspondence, completely taken in by the intimacy and the urgency in the language of what we’ve found. Events unfold around us unexplained, and yet if we pause to think about what we’ve read, we realize that we don’t need an explanation; as human beings involved in our own searches for connection with others, our own searches for love, our own desires for acceptance, validation, forgiveness, we recognize exactly what’s happening and we understand. These stories are more than narratives which you read: you live them, you participate in them, you complete them, in the same way your eye completes a minimalist sketch of a face (a swooping line here, a dark line there, a dash—a nose, an eyebrow, a mouth), you look at it, you relax into it, you see it.

That’s what we saw in Lyn Coffin’s work and why we wanted to publish her collection.

But see for yourself. Enter the Goodreads Giveaway, or buy a copy today in print or Kindle format.

Thanks!

Coming soon: The First Honeymoon Goodreads Giveaway

We’ve just added Lyn Coffin’s The First Honeymoon: New and Selected Stories to the Goodreads Giveaways list. It still needs to be approved so it isn’t live yet, but we wanted to tell you about it right away so you’d be ready to pounce the moment it is. We’ll post an update when the giveaway goes live. If you like to participate in that kind of thing, you can then head over to Goodreads and enter the giveaway. This is our first time doing this, so we’re learning right along with you. As we understand it, it’s competitive — that is, you and others enter the giveaway and Goodreads, using algorithmic magic, picks the winners (I hope it’s you!).

If you do enter and you do get a copy, we humbly ask that you write a review of the book. You don’t have to, and if you don’t like it you probably have more pressing things to do 😉 But, in all seriousness, if you feel so inclined we’d be grateful.

Keep your eyes on this blog, we’ll post again as soon as

Thanks for your interest and keep on reading!

Best Sentence Saturday — #2

Brautigan_1Maybe you didn’t think we could do it, but here we are again: Keeping the Best Sentence Saturday series alive into it’s second week.

It’s simple: we read, we encounter sentences that hit us hard, that demand rereading because they are so well crafted or so full of the flavor of being alive.

1) Author: Richard Brautigan; Story: “The Betrayed Kingdom”; from his collection The Revenge of the Lawn

At the end of a funny story of a woman he once knew in San Francisco who would flirt her way to getting rides home from parties in “the last spring of the Beat Generation” and always left her lustful drivers disappointed, sleeping on her floor, tangled in an army blanket

This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.

And yet, isn’t that a good thing for us readers? Look at all the great writing that struggle gives rise to.

2) Author: Lisa Mecham; Essay: “Reckoning”; published online at Midnight Breakfast

I think of you. Forty-seven point six miles away in your townhouse, your new life. What’s it like in that alternate universe? It must be so still. Remember how we used to listen? Under the sheets, taking turns cupping ear to chest. The rhythmic pounding of the day, beating itself out. And then lying side by side, how we swore we could hear our girls, their heart muscles pumping in the room next to ours. Those tiny flesh miracles we’d created. And now? What do you hear on the other side of forsaken?

The precision (“forty-seven point six miles away”) of it, the intimacy, the whistling wind of loss. Read the essay, it’s short at just over a thousand words. But the way those thousand words are put together, they knock you back like a solid punch.

Whatever you’re reading, enjoy!

Our First Company Scandal and What It Has Taught Us

so-you-want-to-be-a-writer-where-do-stories-come-from
Kaye Dacus offers some interesting insights about the origins of stories on her Web site. Click the image to go see.

Once upon a time (Monday), Iron Twine Press published a new book (The First Honeymoon: New and Collected Stories, by Lyn Coffin) and the world caught fire with excitement. No, not really, but we were excited—no lie, it’s a damn fine book, you’ll enjoy it if you’re a reader who appreciates fine crafted writing, the play of language, the clever image, tongue-in-cheek humor, and unabashed offerings of wisdom—”Life as we know it is always coming to an end”; “the farsighted swim in irony-infested waters”; “Moral: there is none (Fables usually have morals, people usually don’t)”—all within the comfortable confines of good stories. In our excitement to share, we posted excerpts of two of the stories, and Lyn (the aforementioned author) posted links to those excerpts on her Facebook page. Minutes later: outrage! hurt! scandal!

Robin Hemley, from whom I took a writing class at Western Washington University, has written a book about this topic. Click the image to learn more or go to Robinhemley.com.
Robin Hemley has written a book about this topic. Click the image to learn more at Robinhemley.com.

It seems one of the stories we excerpted is based on actual events and a real human person in the world at large, a person who participated in the non-fiction events now fictionalized in the excerpted story took umbrage over the story being told at all. Sore aggrieved this person was. Super pissed. No one wants to see anyone’s feelings get hurt. But it got us to thinking about a few truths about fiction:

  1. Most fictional stories draw from real life. Many times the true event is just a jumping-off point. I’ve written a story about the home-invasion robbery I endured, for example. But in my story every single thing that happens after the robbery is made up. I wanted to see what would happen if my protagonist, faced with the same experience I had, then made the opposite choices from the ones I had made.
  2. As readers we take it all as fiction, if we’re told it’s fiction. But if you’re the person who lived through the events that figure in the fictional account, you can feel exposed even though the readers most likely don’t know you’re there.
  3. If you have writers in your life, assume you’re in one of their stories. Go ask your writer “am I in any of your stories?” They will say no. Then sometime later you’ll read one of their stories and you’ll see yourself coming into a paragraph with a different name to ask “am I in one of your stories?” We are all raw materials in writers’ workshops.

Review: Fuego De Juventud, A Novella by Kevin A. Gonzalez

Mississippi ReviewSometimes we come across a story so worth reading, we just have to tell you about it even if it might be a little inconvenient for you to get ahold of it. This is one of those times…

Fuego De Juventud: A Novella by Kevin A. Gonzalez

Thinking about his father’s boat—the one they sailed together to the islands off Puerto Rico in happier times, the boat that is now dry-docked and crumbling—high school sophomore Tito tells us: “I’m not sure what happened. It’s like there was a time when everything worked, and now, it’s all broken and no one is fixing it.”

Tito’s observation, we come to learn, sums up not just the condition of the boat; it applies equally to the broken-family world in which Tito and his school friends live. In short, the adults around Tito and his friends have made a mess of things, leaving their kids to live in that mess. Friend Gaby’s father has pulled up stakes for Orlando and Gaby commits acts of self-sabotage hoping he will be shipped off to join him; Mamerto’s father is dead, murdered by thieves; Becquia hasn’t spoken to her father in weeks. Chupi, the jockey-sized driver of Tito’s school bus, is the only adult who takes any active interest in the experiences of Tito and his friends. But Chupi shows them no way out of the adolescent dystopia, only how to accept their lot and how to cope—which can sometimes mean alcohol and prostitutes, both of which Chupi supplies the boys for a fee.

Tito spends the school week with his mother. Weekends he spends in his father’s favorite bars playing darts and competing with the bar honeys for his father’s attention. His time in the bars appears on the surface (to us, as well as to Tito), glamorous, romantic, as he proves his mettle to the other gamblers and drinkers and is accepted as his own man, not just his father’s son. But as Tito becomes more adept at the bar culture as a way of bonding with his distracted father, Tito’s own future seems in danger of shrinking and his presence in the bar begins to smack of inevitability, as though he is auditioning for a permanent role after high school. It is natural for a son to want to follow in his father’s footsteps, but how tragic when those footsteps only lead as far as the nearest bar stool.

Gonzalez’s strength in this novella is his ability to reveal the darkness in these lives that exists beneath the bright surface. He gives his characters the trappings of structure and achievement—beachside apartments, Rolexes, rule-emphasizing school administrators—all the pieces that it takes to have functioning relationships and to thrive. It’s all there, but none of it works anymore. The adults are so absent, so ineffective, so burdened by their own unnamed pains and frustrations, it’s as though they created a world to bring their children into and then set that world on fire. Gonzalez patiently paints the scenes of this story and infuses them with a number of distinct voices. His characters come to life as unique, real, and individual people, they never feel like creations of the writer’s imagination. That fact is testament to how nimble and skillful an imagination Gonzalez has.

Read this if you like realistic fiction, literary fiction, coming-of-age stories. Gonzalez is a writer of power and wit, he has created characters with unique and engrossing voices and infused this sad story with enough dark humor to keep it a very entertaining read.

The story is published in the Winter 2015 issue of Mississippi Review. If you’re unable to get a copy of the review, Gonzalez also has a novella, Villa Boheme, available on Amazon as a Kindle Single. It features some of the same characters, including Tito, as Fuego De Juventud. Though we have yet to read it, if Fuego De Juventud is any indication, we anticipate good things. — ITP

Best Sentence Saturday – #1

BaxterPageWe read every day. We mow through books and stories like the anxious go through potato chips. But sometimes it’s nice to stop and appreciate examples of transcendent writing. You know the stuff — the phrase, the image, the sentence or paragraph that stops your headlong rush forward and shows you you’re in the presence of a real artist of the written word. So that’s what we’re doing today (and we ambitiously declare that we will do this every Saturday going forward, though, because we know ourselves, we reserve the right to stop if we get lazy or tired or forget). This is Best Sentence Saturday #1.

Here now, three of the best sentences we came across in our reading this week. Share what you’ve enjoyed this week in the comments, if you’re so inclined.

1) Author: Steven Polansky; Story: “Beard”; from his collection Dating Miss Universe 

We loved this description of a photograph of the protagonist’s writing teacher:

“(In the photo) Her eyebrows are thin, straight lines that go at right angles from the bridge of her nose and stop, clean, halfway across the top of her eyes. Her nose is sharp. Her lips are full and open slightly, as if they’d just come to rest after saying “I know and I am sorry for you.”

2) Author: Charles Baxter; Book: Feast of Love, page 288:

Two characters are in a scuffle with one another and one hits the other. Just have to love the description of how the guy looks after he gets hit. The moment passes quickly in the story, but it took real care and craft for Baxter to pull this from his imagination:

“I put the chair down and popped him one. He stood for a moment, as if surveying the sky for blimps. Then his knees gave way under him and he appeared to sit down, dazed, on the sidewalk.”

3) Author: Charles Baxter (yes, OK, we were on a Baxter kick this week); Story: “Flood Show”:

Love this character description:

“Conor is a large, bearish man with thick brown hair covered by a beret that does not benefit his appearance. He knows the beret makes him a bit strange-looking, and this pleases him. Whenever he bikes anywhere there is something violent in his body motions. Pedaling along, he looks like a trained circus bear.”

The description is so comical and vivid and says so much about the character. But then the fact Baxter says “his body motions” instead of “his movements”, is brilliant. “Body motions” is an awkward phrase and it adds to our understanding of Conor as an awkward character.

That’s it from here. Whatever you’re reading, enjoy!

You Are Not an Aspiring Writer

I meet a lot of people who are writing books. As a writer myself and a person who once thought maybe there was some elevation of status to be achieved by telling people I was writing a book, I found it annoying to meet so many others who were doing the same thing. When I would tell someone I was writing a book, they almost never said “Wow, that’s impressive,” or anything of the sort. The most common response was “Really? I’m writing a book too, let me tell you about it.”

It’s a paradox, then, that so many people seem to be writing (#amwriting trends on Twitter almost daily), and yet so few of the writing people that I meet will call themselves writers. They call themselves “aspiring writers”.

There’s an unfortunate value judgement inherent in that, I think. If these people have published a book, they call themselves writers, but until they publish a book they more often hide behind the term “aspiring”. Is it their feeling that only the publication of a written work validates them as a creative person to the degree necessary for them to admit to it publicly? Is it that they worry they’ll be perceived as arrogant if they remove the word “aspiring” from their definition of themselves? We’ve all seen those rubes on American Idol who think they can sing, when they clearly cannot, nobody wants to be that person. So when you, I, we call ourselves “aspiring writers” are we just protecting ourselves: you can’t criticize me for being imperfect, because I never claimed to be a Writer, I only said I’m “aspiring” to be one.

Stop calling yourself an aspiring writer. You’re not. If you access your imagination and put down what you see there in words on paper (or screen), you are a writer. You are a writer. And good for you. Congratulations, that is amazing. You are one who writes. You are one who tells stories. You can aspire to be better, and if you keep doing it you will be better. But you don’t have to hide, you don’t have to be shy. Be proud. You already are what you aspire to be.