• 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)

Sunday
Aug172014

Q & A with Rebecca Makkai, author of the new novel The Hundred-Year House

1. Tell us a little about your new novel.

It’s the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told backwards over the 20th century. We start in 1999 with Doug and Zee move into the grand estate’s coach house. (Zee’s mother owns the whole place.) Doug is fascinated by the house’s previous life as an artists’ colony, and hopes to find something archival there about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was in residence at Laurelfield in the twenties (and whose work happens to be Doug’s area of scholarship). When he learns that there are file cabinets full of colony materials in the attic, Doug is anxious to get to work and save his career—but his mother-in-law refuses him access. With help from friends, Doug finally does access the Parfitt file—only to find far stranger and more disturbing material than he bargained for.

Doug may never learn all the house’s secrets, but the reader does, as the narrative zips back in time from 1999 to 1955 and 1929. We see the autumn right after the colony’s demise, when its newlywed owners are more at the mercy of the place’s lingering staff than they could imagine; and we see it as a bustling artists’ community fighting for survival in the last, heady days of the 1920s.

Through it all, the residents of Laurelfield are both plagued and blessed by the strange legacy of Laurelfield’s original owners: extraordinary luck, whether good or bad.

2. The Hundred-Year House is so different from your first novel, The Borrower (though in both you balance both the serious and the comic with such aplomb) - what was the inspiration for The Hundred-Year House?  Were there any novels (mysteries, for example) you were thinking of when you began drafting it? 

I did think a lot about books like The Haunting of Hill House and The Turn of the Screw and Rebecca – ones that are more about rattled people than rattling chains. I love that space between skepticism and fear that allows so much to happen. It’s the same space where there’s room for us as readers.

These books weren’t the original inspiration for the novel, though, so much as touchstones. In the beginning there was no mystery at all, and no legend of a ghost. I just had this idea of two couples crammed together in the little coach house of a huge estate. And I wanted it to be a short story. (Oops.) As it grew into a novel, these other themes emerged and became the keys to the book: the artists’ colony, the ghost, the reverse chronology, the question of fate.

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Monday
Aug042014

Q & A with Lisa Lenzo, author of the new novel-in-stories Strange Love

Lisa shared this synopsis of her new book: Strange Love is a novel-in-stories about a mother and daughter and their relationships with an odd and challenging cast of boys and men. It begins when the daughter, Marly, is eight years old, and the mother, Annie, is 31, and it follows these two for a decade and a half. All of the stories are told by Annie, but they alternate between mother and daughter, beginning with Annie in the first story, then switching to Marly in the second, then back to Annie in the third, and so forth. Each story stands alone, but together they make up a larger whole. Besides the romantic relationships, the book focuses on the relationship between mother and daughter as Annie tries to protect her child and find a lasting relationship with a man and Marly learns how to navigate and survive the romantic and sexual arena and find her place in the larger world. I've found that most women relate to the romantic relationships or the mother-daughter relationship or both, and that a lot of men like the book, too.

 

1. I've read that many of the stories in this book are based on events that have happened to you, and I was so struck by your main character Annie Zito's extraordinary patience with the different men she dated in the years after her divorce.  I kept wanting her to tell some of these men where to stick it!  I'm assuming that if you lived through much of what Annie did, you too were very patient too.   Of course I'm curious - did you go off script as you wrote, i.e. change events quite a lot for the sake of the narrative arc?  (...did you let some of these men have a big piece of your mind once or twice?)

LL: Some stories are more true to life than others, but all are mainly autobiographical. It's funny that you ask if if in my actual life I was angrier than I show here. Actually, it was more the opposite, in my life and in my writing, and writer friends told me I needed to make Annie angrier. So, for instance, in one scene, I have her hurl the vase one of her boyfriends gave her into her neighbor's pond, when really I still have that vase and use it from time to time, even though I'm now happily remarried. (My husband, a designer and photographer, read and critiqued my book several times, photographed and designed the cover, created my website, and helps me out in so many other ways.) But back to these relationships: I tend to get sad rather than angry when relationships aren't working out. And I tend to empathize with everyone, and in doing so, make excuses for them. My dad used to call my mom, whose name is Susie, "Second-chance Susie" because she was always giving us kids a second chance when we misbehaved rather than punishing us, and I guess I've inherited some of that trait. And I don't find these guys as infuriating as many readers find them. They are certainly flawed, but aren't we all? None of Annie's men were intentionally hurtful, although one of Marly's was, and Annie does consider murdering him--as I did in real life. 

 

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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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