• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed

BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)


Q & A with Casey Gray about his debut novel DISCOUNT

Discount, Casey Gray’s debut novel, is set in the American Southwest, forty miles north of Juárez.  This ambitious, tragicomic, and ultimately redemptive novel follows a group of customers and employees through the twenty-four hour work cycle as they seek comfort and sustenance inside of the cinderblock walls of a classic American institution—The Superstore. 

On the eve of the company president’s visit to the store, a manager’s drunk text to a coworker leads to a series of consequences as brutal as they are wide-ranging: Everyone around him will be affected. 

With a cast of characters featuring Ernesto, a local gang member struggling to choose a job pushing carts over a desultory life as a drug dealer; Wilma, a grandmother working double shifts to support her family; and Keith, a high school student with a penchant for filmmaking, Gray offers a startlingly humane, utterly contemporary portrait of life on the suburban fringe. 

A vision of an America barely getting by and assaulted by crime, corruption, and exploitation in all of its manifestations, Discount is nevertheless a triumphant and big-hearted novel that marks the arrival of a new voice we won’t soon forget.

You did a lot of hands-on research and I heard that you spent years writing DISCOUNT.  Tell us a little about the experience of working in a big box store and how you used these experiences in the novel. 

I was an adjunct professor for years, which is its own kind of exploitative racket. I didn’t get any classes one semester because of some FTE bullshit, so I got a job in the Wal-Mart Deli. I had already begun the novel, and I needed a job. I desperately wanted to work at a Wal-Mart, but I kept failing the personality tests they give you. A student I used to help in the writing center, a really great guy, finally got me on. He was a model employee and an incredibly hard worker that everyone (including me) respected immensely. When he vouched for me, I was in.  

Working at Wal-Mart is exhausting. I was determined to do a good job. Because this guy vouched for me, because I didn’t want to approach it like an interloper, and because everything you fail to do affects someone else, someone tired, someone working a shitty job just like you are. If you leave the dishes in the sink, someone’s got to do them in the morning. If you leave the grease in the fryer, someone has to drain it. If you don’t wrap the cold salads correctly, someone has to remake them. It’s like living in a family, or, maybe more correctly, a really intense roommate situation. I never wanted to be the lazy asshole that people had to pick up after. I can honestly say that I was a hard worker and a model Wal-Mart employee during my time there. 

I learned a lot about being tired, just dog tired every day. I had had shitty jobs before, and I went to school on an athletic scholarship, so I knew something about hard work. But working at Wal-Mart is different. It’s hard to explain. It’s not like working your way through college waiting tables or a summer landscaping job. It’s hard to see your way out of it. I had a terminal degree, and there were still days I thought that I would be stuck there forever. It was much more real for a lot of the people I worked with. Those feeling, I guess––I hope they bled into the novel. 

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Q & A with Maggie Mitchell about her debut novel PRETTY IS


Tell us a little about your novel:

Pretty Is is the story of two girls who are abducted together the summer they are twelve. Carly May Smith is a twelve-year-old beauty pageant queen from a farm in Nebraska, and when a polite, handsome young man stops her on Main Street and offers her a ride, she hops in his car without hesitation. Two days later she helps him talk Lois Lonsdale, a shy spelling bee champion from Connecticut, into joining them. The man takes them to an old hunting lodge in the Adirondacks, where they spend six summer weeks—not quite guests and not quite prisoners. Reading mysteries by day and playing outside at night, they fall under the spell of their captor and their surroundings; they are shattered when this interlude comes to a shocking end. The novel picks up years later, when they are nearly thirty, each in her own way haunted by their shared history. Seduced from the start by the knowledge that they were chosen and must therefore be somehow extraordinary, as adults they are still trapped in their sense of who Zed thought they were, and who he wanted them to become.

In the present, Lois is an English professor and also the author of a successful pseudonymous thriller, Deep in the Woods, which is a loose fictionalization of the abduction. She has sold the movie rights. In a coincidence worthy of the eighteenth-century novels she teaches, Lois is deeply shaken when she learns that the actress cast to star in the film is Chloe Savage, formerly Carly May Smith.

The novel is really about the two women and their relationship—to each other, to their past, and to the mysterious man who has shaped their lives.

PRETTY IS is told from a few different points of view and all of them are so deftly executed. Did your early drafts also feature these different voices/POVs?

The idea of alternating between Lois’s voice and Chloe’s was central to the novel from the very start. Both voices existed pretty clearly in my mind before I even began to write. It felt natural to begin with analytical, academic Lois and move on to the brasher, more aggressive, slightly vulgar Chloe. Both characters evolved in unpredictable ways as I wrote, of course, but the basic structure remained intact. I did make one significant change along the way, however: Part Two, which is an excerpt from Lois’s novel, was originally narrated by Hannah, who is the Lois stand-in. Eventually it became clear that her voice and Lois’s were too indistinguishable, and I decided to substitute instead a sort of loose third person narrator, with primary access to Hannah’s thoughts, considerable access to Callie’s, and an occasional flash of Zed’s consciousness. This allowed me to play with the illusion of objectivity—an illusion because the reader is aware that in fact Lois, as Lucy Ledger, is the one imagining (and dictating) all of these points of view. I didn’t want any one perspective to be blatantly unreliable, but I wanted it to become gradually clear that the truth lies somewhere in the space between the different voices.


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Q & A with Laura Pritchett about her new novel, Red Lightning 

Please tell us a little about your new novel.

Red Lightning is the story of Tess Cross, a coyote who has been running immigrants across the American West. The novel opens with a true catastrophe: she’s failed to pick up a particular group of pollos, who are left in the mountains of Colorado. Dying of thirst, they start a signal fire to be found, but the wind whips it into a raging wildfire. Desperate and confused, Tess heads home to the plains of eastern Colorado to see her sister and her child, who she abandoned 10 years ago. The weight of her actions—along with PTSD from a childhood filled with abuse—are cracking her apart. While the wildfire rages and the smoke drifts across the plains, she embarks on a last-ditch effort to make some peace and clean up the mess she’s made. She rediscovers her 10-year old daughter, her dying mother, a reluctant sister---and most importantly, herself. 

Point of view is so creative and innovative in this novel.  How did you determine that you'd move between first-person and the close third-person sections where Tess is speaking in a kind of poetry-prose hybrid? 

I love that you call it a poetry-prose hybrid, because that was my intent. Thank you! In any case, my goal was this: I wanted to render Tess’s disassociative disorder on the page. The bravest thing I could do, in fact, was to be true to the fact that my character simply could not narrate a story in a familiar way, given her state of mind and psychology.

The first drafts were tricky; I kept changing my mind on this matter. I both hated and loved the idea of messing with the narrative and I simply could not decide if introducing a nonstandard device would be disruptive or revealing. In the end, I settled on two big risks. One was an occasional device wherein the text is deeply indented only when my main character, Tess, disassociates from herself. Moreover, the novel is told in first person, but when Tess becomes disembodied, a third person omniscient self floats around and advises her. During these moments, she insists she feels too little, can’t feel any emotions at all, in fact—but the reader suspects that the opposite is true. In fact, she feels too much, and this floating directorial voice is her way of coping. Therein lies the dramatic irony. Within this device, I have small nuances. For example, after a critical scene, this third person becomes first, a signal that she is becoming “reunited” or reintegrated as one self, which is important during the climax, when she needs to disassociate in order to do something horrible—her PTSD finally comes in handy. All this was intentional and carefully constructed. I wanted form to inform content.

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Q & A with Anne-Marie Oomen about her new memoir LOVE, SEX, AND 4-H

An overview of Love, Sex, and 4-H from Wayne State University Press, Made in Michigan Writers Series:
"As the 1960s dawned in small-town Michigan, Anne-Marie Oomen was a naive farm girl whose mother was determined to keep her out of trouble— by keeping her in 4-H. In Love, Sex, and 4-H, Oomen sets the wholesomeness of her domestic lessons in 4-H club from 1959 to 1969 against the political and sexual revolution of the time. Between sewing her first dish towel and finishing the yellow dress she wears to senior prom, Oomen brings readers along as she falls in and out of love, wins her first prize, learns to kiss, survives her first heartbreak, and makes almost all of her clothes.

"Love, Sex, and 4-H begins as Oomen struggles to sew a straight seam and works hard to embody the 4-H pledge of loyalty, service, and better living. But even as she wins her first modeling competition and masters more difficult stitches and patterns, Oomen finds that she is not immune to the chaos of the outside world. After the Kennedy assassination, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and her own short stay in a convent, Oomen encounters the biggest change of all—public school. In this new world of school dances, short skirts, and raging hormones, Oomen’s orderly life will be complicated by her first kiss, first boyfriend, first store-bought dress, and finally, first love. All the while, she must negotiate her mother’s expectations, her identity as a good 4-H girl, and her awareness of growing social and political unrest.

"Oomen brings an insightful and humorous eye to her evolving sexuality, religious beliefs, and sense of self. Fans of memoir will appreciate the honest portrayal of growing up between rebellion and tradition in Love, Sex, and 4-H."

One section of this memoir I was lucky enough to hear you read last summer at the Interlochen Arts Academy - a very funny and engaging coming-of-age story about you as a teenager longing to have a first kiss.  How have your friends and family members responded to this essay and the book as a whole? 

Thanks for asking this.  Actually, they shrug and nod, as if to say, "Well, there she goes again."  But they don't object;  they've learned, because we've talked, that I'm working with my memory, and my memory is different, even when it overlaps, from theirs.  One member of my family did ask, "How can you stand having people know that much about you?" I don't think of it as people knowing me as ME because as a writer, I know that the persona on the page is me but also, not me--that persona is a version of me shaped in language (an incomplete medium), and that version is shaped with the intention of supporting the larger truth of this book. Not to get too woo-woo, but I think humans are large and varied beings; I suspect we have several, maybe infinite, "beings" in us that are related to but not necessarily a complete picture of a "self." Just compare the young speaker in Love, Sex, and 4-H to the persona I use in An American Map, a more philosophical and worldly speaker.  Those are both "me" but incomplete. So I feel both a part of and separate from the character on the page, and in this odd way, that helps keep me from feeling so vulnerable that I wouldn't be able to write about tender things.  
As to the kissing: A couple of people have hinted that if you don’t know that 4-H refers to the 4-H Clubs that thrive throughout Michigan, it sounds kinky.  But the truth is, if you are looking for sex in this book, you will be disappointed—except for the kissing—there is a lot of kissing, and that was characteristic of my youth. The love and sex of the title refers to the times, the sixties, the reputation of that era—all that free love stuff.  4-H club was the opposite; it represented the reliable solid Midwest, more reserved and stoic and reticent.  Those forces collide in a big way in the book, and that’s the story.   

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Q & A with Jessica Treadway about her new novel LACY EYE

Tell us a little about your new novel.
It's a book about (and narrated by) a woman torn between the competing values of wishing to know the truth about the crime that devastated her family, and also wishing to preserve her perceptions and feelings about her youngest daughter and their relationship.  
Critics have spoken about how you're confronting the nature of evil in this novel.  What did you find most challenging about this...I guess I'd call it a psychological exercise? 
You know, I didn't think the word "evil" as I was writing, although I do think it's an apt one.  To me, the psychological exercise that was most challenging was that of rendering, in a first person narrative, the evolving state of mind of someone who gradually comes to understand that she may be hiding things from herself, because it's easier and preferable to see reality as prettier than it might actually be.  
What are some of the books (and/or films) that inspired you as you were writing (or preparing to write) LACY EYE? 
I'm always inspired by good writing, no matter what the subject or style — it just makes me want to produce my own best work, because I want to create in someone else the effect a good story has on me as a reader.  I can't say that I actively sought out books that were like mine, but I did read Defending Jacob by William Landay when I was finishing my final draft, and it struck me that Landay and I seemed to be writing about the same thing: a variation of willful blindness.  I also enjoyed Woody Allen's depiction of the same phenomenon in Blue Jasmine.

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