• 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 (Awp)
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories (Awp)
    by Christine Sneed

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

Monday
Jul282014

Q & A with Gregg Shapiro, author of the soon-to-be-released story collection Lincoln Avenue 

Tell us a little about your new book. 

Lincoln Avenue is my first short story collection. The twelve stories were culled from a much larger manuscript. My publisher, Raymond Luczak, wanted the book to have a more cohesive theme. Because the focus of Squares and Rebels Press is Midwestern LGBT writers, we chose a dozen stories set in the region. There were others set in and around Chicago, as well as Boston and Washington, DC, that didn’t make the cut. I hope to put them together to create a new manuscript.

Chicago and some of its closest suburbs, Skokie and Evanston, for example, are very much a part of your stories. Would you consider yourself, like Stuart Dybek, a writer of place, as much as of character? 

Wow, Stuart Dybek! Yes, place has always found, well, a place in my work, both prose and poetry. I love reading writers who write about places where I have been as much as I love reading about new places. I hope that people who read Lincoln Avenue, those who have been to the Chicago area as well as those who haven’t, feel as though I have taken them someplace familiar or new. 

One of your characters, Craig, appears in several of the stories in Lincoln Avenue; do you consider these linked stories to form a novella, of a kind?  Would you say too that he's a fictional double for you?  (I suppose tangentially I'm wondering if you've ever written personal essays or a book-length memoir.)

Other than the Chicago theme, I actually don’t consider the stories to be linked. Even the beginning and ending stories, “Your Father’s Car” and “Your Mother’s Car,” are intended to be unrelated, separate. Yes, the main characters in the stories all have elements of my personality, but they are all fiction. That’s my (short) story and I’m sticking with it.

No personal essays or memoirs in the works for me. All of my non-fiction writing energy is tied up in my career as an entertainment journalist.

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Tuesday
Jul222014

Q & A with Jennifer Barker, author of The Aesthetics of Antifascist Film: Radical Projection 

Tell us a little about your book.

The Aesthetics of Antifascist Film: Radical Projection argues for a general theory of an antifascist aesthetics, which originated during the WWII period and was adapted over the course of the long twentieth century in relation to the changing political situations and aesthetic traditions that came into contact with it. Drawing on insights from film and cultural studies, aesthetic and ethical philosophy, and socio-political theory, the book argues that the artistic struggles with political commitment and modernist strategies of representation during the 1930s resulted in a distinctive, radical aesthetic form that represents an alternate strand of post-modernism. Radical Projection defines and theorizes this aesthetic resistance by examining a number of film case studies that represent the ethos of a particular cultural moment and space as well as the development of this antifascist aesthetic over time.

These case studies fall into three historical periods: First, the WWII period of the 1930s and 1940s, which includes Fritz Lang’s Fury, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and Orson Welles’ The Stranger. Second is the Cold War period of the 1950s through the early 1980s, which includes Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour, John Frankenheimer’s The Train, and Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism. The final era is the Post-Wall period of the late 1980s through the present, which includes Ken Loach’s Singing the Blues in Red, Florian von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, Jessica Wu’s Protagonist, and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.

 

Antifascism is a central social and political crux of the twentieth century, and antifascist alliances are a necessary, if failed, precursor to the development of contemporary democratic societies. Yet antifascism has remained under-examined as a political, historical and artistic phenomenon, due in part to its nebulous identity as a movement in its own right: antifascism is an oppositional campaign made up of a variety of forces that are working towards the same goals but are not always unified in their ways and means. As an artistic movement, in particular, the question of what constitutes an antifascist aesthetics remains largely unexplored except as an ancillary offshoot of fascist aesthetics. Because of this previous under-theorization, when most first hear the term antifascist film, they are likely to think of films created by filmmakers of Allied countries made during WWII, or later films set in or resonant of this period. While all of the films covered in this study do contain a close engagement with the problem of fascism (political and ideological) as it radiated out from 1930s Germany around the globe, my purpose here is not to document films about the fascism of WWII and resistance to it. Instead, I look at the ways in which some filmmakers of the 1930s and 40s developed a specific aesthetic grammar in order to critique and challenge these repressive political systems, and the afterlife (or, perhaps it should be more properly called the continued life) of this grammar in the following decades.

The antifascist films I focus on tell narratives about the struggles, failures, and partial successes of resistance to fascism and fascistic forces, and they simultaneously embody those struggles in a film aesthetic that enacts a tension between resistance to fascism and resistance to creating a didactic and propagandistic work of art. Although the films’ essential focus transforms over the decades in relation to changing historical moments and national perspectives, which encompass a variety of relationships to the fascism of WWII, they achieve their narrative focus through a constellation of particular aesthetic choices, techniques and tropes that remain fairly constant throughout the century.

 

Opposed to a fascist aesthetics based on wholeness, homogeneity, and pureness, antifascist films assert a radical beauty of fragmentation, heterogeneity, irregularity, and loss. As is the case with most “political” works, the films contain a strong element of pedagogy, teaching characters and audiences about the systems they are opposing through both content and form. Yet as opposed to propaganda, and the fascist systems that the works stand against, the ways in which these films present their message deconstruct the notion of a singular, supposedly self-evident truth, choosing rather to embrace the messy, the irrational, and often the irresolute. This imperfect and subjective representation of the real is often centered on a single central character, whose experience of becoming an exile (an outsider and cultural other) set against the monolithic, repressive dominant culture serves as a central point-of-view. Through this perspective, the audience is prompted to form empathetic connections (and affective identification) with the character and appreciate his/her treatment and transformation, with a different sense (visual, bodily, aural) emphasized during each of the three developmental time periods that is representative of their primary symbolic form of engagement with antifascism (identification, eroticism, and technology). This sense of the singular versus the monolithic is also mirrored in a focus on a tension between surveillance and invisibility—being watched or feeling that one is being watched is a consistent theme, as is the notion that secrecy is essential but exposure is necessary.

 

The multiplicity of content is carried out on a formal level as well, with the development of an antifascist aesthetic that emerged at a critical moment in film history: 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. The amalgam of national film styles achieved during this period (Russian montage, German Expressionism and Hollywood melodrama) represented the international nature of antifascist alliances in aesthetic form and was facilitated by the presence of German émigrés in Hollywood. This mixture of styles also enacted a dialogue between political commitment and aesthetic richness and complexity that played out in terms of the inclusion of both documentary (and/or social realist) and modernist (or defamiliarizing) techniques, mingling the seemingly “real” with the patently synthetic. Even the difference between the two is often deliberately blurred—for example, the inclusion of documentary evidence is included often as proof within the works, yet it is presented in such a way that its content tends towards surrealism in its context and reception (grounded in the deformation of humanity in the Holocaust). Because these films do not only oppose fascism in a didactic way, their dialogue between disparate elements does not generally reach a resolution, and this can lead to a sense that the films are not really working, are disjointed, and/or do not fit into a canon/genre. Such reactions have led to the marginalization of many of these films, and the lack of recognition for their artistic achievement, something that this study attempts to rectify.

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Thursday
Jul102014

Q & A with Kevin Fenton, author of the new memoir Leaving Rollingstone

1. Tell us a little about your new book.
On the one hand, it's a pretty straightforward story: I was born into a loving family on a working farm in a tight-knit village where life revolved around the Catholic school. By the time I was twelve, we'd lost the farm, and the school had closed. The town was struggling and our family was threatened.  It's a book celebrating that place and mourning that loss. 
But it's also a book about my attempt to both understand that past—and to shape a new self out of the fragments of my past.  It's about the tension between the farm kid I was an the urban adult I became. 
  
2.  You write so movingly about your family, your early childhood years on a beloved farm and your family's subsequent loss of that farm.  How did you begin this book, i.e. what was the impetus behind your desire to write this story?
I knew that I wanted to wrote about the farm and I knew that I wanted it to be a memoir. I had a few false starts and then, in 2001, i wrote a draft of what is now the first chapter and that felt right--it felt like this was underway, that I'd found my way in to the material. That first chapter hasn't changed much, for all the other reconsiderations I went through. 
3.  How has your family responded to Leaving Rollingstone?  (I always wonder about this memoirs - whether authors' families feel anxiety, anticipation, pride, suspense - a mix of emotion that's generally conflicted, I suspect.)
Very well. As someone from Rolllingstone said to me, "Your book said that our lives were important." I suspected more negative reaction--the picture of my family isn't entirely rosy--but people understood that comes with the territory. Being Minnesota, certain silences may contain implied criticisms but generally people have been positive.

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Friday
Jul042014

Q & A with Angela Pneuman, Author of the new novel Lay It On My Heart

Tell us about your new novel.

Family past and present loom large in tiny East Winder, a strict evangelical community in rural Kentucky. And no family looms larger than that of thirteen-year-old Charmaine Peake. Her grandfather was a famous revival evangelist, but her current circumstances are overshadowed by her prophet father, recently committed to a psychiatric institution. Her grandmother is a one-time debutante in physical decline, and her mother—thrown into a marital crisis she deeply resents—has started turning to Charmaine for impossible answers.

When financial desperation forces them to move into a trailer on the river, Charmaine must adjust to an unfamiliar and seemingly hostile community. Female friendships there take complicated root, and sexuality becomes something to be reckoned with. Back in town, a sanctimonious missionary kid occupies her real bedroom, where she uncovers his stash of troubling photos. And as Charmaine and her mother battle it out within close quarters, her father’s return becomes less and less likely. Through it all Charmaine tries to pray without ceasing, as her father taught, but with so much upheaval even God seems hard to reach. 

Like the beloved Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Lay It on My Heart unleashes Southern humor in the face of a parent’s mental illness. It brings us into the heart of a complex family weathering the toughest patch in their lives, and highlights the moving and hilarious nature of a fragile mother-daughter relationship. But most of all, it illuminates the stark realities of adolescence, the emergence of compassion, the first keen pangs of losing one’s place in the world, and the power that comes from discovering who you are. This revelatory, heartwarming book fulfills Angela Pneuman’s promise as “a stunning new talent to watch” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

You're from a town very much like the one where Lay It on My Heart is set.  What challenges did you encounter while writing a book that...hits so close to home?

It’s a bit of a struggle for me to write about sincerely evangelical characters. You wonder if you can write them in a way that people who haven’t experienced this kind of closed religious environment will be able to find relevant. For me, these characters are dealing with what we all deal with—family myth-making, coming-of-age, regret and despair, choosing—or not—to welcome emotional insight into those around you. Their religion complicates things, though, for sure. I was struck by the possibility of a young girl who is leaving a very sincere faith behind as she comes of age. Not leaving it behind in a defiant way, as one might flee a repressive environment, but actually growing into a bigger sort of compassion for people. Kind of actualizing spirituality through a connection to others, even as the narrow particulars of this religious practice fall away.

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Friday
Jun272014

Q & A with Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War, a short story collection

1. Tell us a little about your book.

Sure, thanks for asking! Despite the title and the award, the first thing most of my fans tell me is they love my book because it isn’t about war—or at least, not as the central focus. I’m really interested in how we behave when we realize we can do everything right and still be “wrong.” I’m also interested in how people can be slowly bullied by their own circumstances and brought to a point of exhaustion, then change. It’s that point—the tiny moment—I’m most interested in.

But, to get to the point: Illuminating the intimate, human faces of war, this unique series of short stories questions the stereotypes of modern war by bearing witness to the shared struggles of all who are touched by it. Numerous characters-returning U.S. soldier and pragmatic jihadist, Afghan mother and listless American sister, courageous amputee and a ghost that cannot let go-appear in Flashes of War, which captures personal moments of fear, introspection, confusion, and valor in one collection spanning nations and perspectives. Written in clear, accessible language with startling metaphors, this unforgettable journey leaves aside judgment, bringing us closer to a broader understanding of war by focusing on individuals, their motivations, and their impossible decisions.

2. What is it about the flash fiction form that appeals to you, and why was it the form you decided to focus on for the stories in Flashes of War?

Great question. Flash fiction is so powerful and universal, yet microscopic at the same time. I rely very heavily on visual imagery and metaphor, and when a story combines the two for a double-whammy, it leaves its mark. That’s what I aspired to do in Flashes of War, and the short form (250-750 words) lends itself well to high-drama because you don’t get trapped in backstory or the “why” of the bigger picture. Characters are thrust into a situation and, if well-written, it becomes suddenly clear to the reader that it’s not the situation that will tell the story, rather, the character’s reaction to that situation. We are what we do—that’s a universal truth. This book looks at what believable characters do time and time again, set to the backdrop of contemporary wars and the associated struggles stateside or abroad.

Because I wanted to look at people, not politics, and because I wanted to pay witness rather than judge, the flash form likewise lent itself to precise exploration. It kept me from taking the narration where I didn’t want to go, and it made me distill a very large situation down to the fine points that matter—bullets that remind a soldier of Hershey’s Kisses his daughter loves, a hen whose feathers feel like silk, a refugee who views the midnight sky as the only thing untouched by war.

 

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