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Archive for the ‘writers’ Category

My guest today is Hilary Sloin, author of the new novel Art on Fire, which is due out from Bywater Books at any minute. I personally can’t wait to read it.

Art on Fire is the apparent biography of subversive painter Francesca deSilva, the founding foremother of “pseudorealism,” who lived hard and died young. But in the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov’s acclaimed novel Pale Fire, it’s a fiction from start to finish. It opens with Francesca’s early life. We learn about her childhood love, the chess genius Lisa Sinsong, as well as her rivalry with her brilliant sister Isabella, who publishes an acclaimed volume of poetry at the age of twelve. She compensates for the failings of her less than attentive parents by turning to her grandmother, who is loyal and adoring until she learns Francesca is a lesbian, when she rejects her. Francesca flees to a ramshackle cabin in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, working weekends at the flea market. She breaks into the gloomy basement of a house, where she begins her life as a painter. Much to her confusion and even dismay, fame comes quickly. Art on Fire is a darkly comic, pitch-perfect, and fearless satire on the very art of biography itself.

If you’d like to be entered into a drawing for a free copy of Art on Fire, leave a comment here about what excites you about this book and why you, too, can’t wait to read it. A winner will be drawn at random.

And now, some thoughts from Hilary about her writing process:

 

To be quite honest, I am something of a dilettante. If I had lived in Victorian England, people might have rolled their eyes when speaking of me and said I was subject to “enthusiasms.” Or I might have been a witch burned at the stake for being a little excitable. Sometimes I give up writing altogether and take up something else with fervor—for a while it was painting, for years it was music; these days, I am obsessed with finding and restoring antiques. There have been many phases in my life, but always I return to writing of some sort. Ultimately I can’t fight the fact that I need it like I need food and air. My friends all think I am very disciplined because I work all day from very early in the morning at whichever enthusiasm I am currently ruled by. Truth is, I am keeping the meaninglessness away. And nothing keeps meaninglessness away like writing, which, when I am doing it, I can do around the clock. Even when I don’t hold pen to paper, I stare off into space and think about my characters, imagine them walking across the room, lying down to bed. While I walk my dog I hear them talking. I see them sitting opposite one another with nothing to say or with everything to say but too frightened or angry to say it.

 

The one thing that holds true with everything I write—and finish—is that I fall in love with what I am working on, whether it be the story, the place, or the characters. Ideally, all of the above holds me sway. With Art on Fire, which was my first attempt at a novel after many years of writing plays and stories, I fell in love first with Isabella, the protagonist’s mentally ill and acutely intelligent sister.  Isabella is so much smarter and wittier than I have ever proved to be and, of course, this fascinates me.  How can I create a character who surpasses me by leaps and bounds? Soon I fell in love with Francesca, too, but that was for entirely different reasons: I had created my dream lover: a cowboy in girl’s clothing, the one who cannot be possessed, who oozes with the need to express herself but cannot. And again, I was fascinated because to this day I am still not sure whether Francesca’s paintings were any good or whether, as some of the critics in the book postulated, she was simply in the right place at the right time, an icon of pop culture. I fell in love with Evelyn Horowitz, Francesca and Isabella’s terribly human grandmother, because she is basically my grandmother and every time I read the chapters where she appears I cry, missing my own Gram all over again. And then there is Lisa Sinsong, who bears all the tragedy and much of the poetry of the story, who is victim to family legacy in a way that seemed to me to be inevitable in this particular book. How could I not love and want to save her?  I was able to write Art on Fire because it held my attention. It made me laugh and cry as I was writing it. Sometimes I just sat back, took a drag of my cigarette, and felt very good about creativity and that it was the one constant in my life. Like all things that come from the heart, it is a flawed product, but it breathes and pulsates and that is the kind of writing I seek out. Anything else fails to hold my attention. I hope this book will hold yours.

 

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My guest this week is Cynn Chadwick, whose new novel Angels and Manners is about two women with nothing in common but their financial situation and Section 8 housing. Working class mum Carrie Angel is busting a gut to finish her carpentry certification so she can build a home for herself and her two teenaged sons. Middle-class Jen Manners has divorced, forcing her and her resentful daughter from their comfortable, suburban lifestyle into subsidized housing. Jen’s decade-old Lit degree and lack of work history send her into a system she thought reserved for a different class of woman than herself.

A Bywater Books author and digital publisher, Cynn was born and raised in New Jersey but has lived in the South for over 20 years. She’s best known for her Cat Rising series, which have all made appearances in the short lists of the Lambda Literary Awards. A claim to fame is that a book of hers was rejected 181 times (but she’s not telling which one it is).

At the end of this post you can read the first paragraph of Angels and Manners and enter a drawing to win an e-book copy by leaving a comment about why you’d like one. And now … he-e-ere’s Cynn!

If you were a book, what would it be and why?
 Pippi Long Stocking… She probably captures my essence – still, 50-odd years later.

What made you write your last book?
 I pretty much wrote Cutting Loose like Stevie Wonder at the keyboard, eyes closed and taking dictation.

Why would a reader love your book?
 I think readers want to cheer for characters, I like to think I make cheer-able characters.

When did you decide to be a writer? 
When I was four.

What’s your most humiliating moment as a writer? 
I showed up for a reading in Tampa and only one person came… the bookstore owner, the “audience of one” and I drank wine and chatted, so it wasn’t horrible… but… yes, humiliating.

When, where and how do you write?
 My home office, on a computer, when the story calls.

What’s the best thing a reviewer said about your last book?  The best thing said about Angels and Manners was said by a fan: ”As a single mother who raised two kids alone, I want to thank you for writing my story, my kids’ story, and the story of so many of us today…”

What writers do you admire most?
 All the “Southerns”: Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Smith, Ehle; my “boys”: Russo, King, Carver, TC Boyle, Gaiman; of late, Kate Morton with The Forgotten Garden, as well as Kate Atkinson, Gillian Flynn, and Tana French.

Did you learn anything useful when you studied writing?
 No….yes. From my mentor, the author Sarah Schulman who read the first draft of Cat Rising and told me that only 50 of my 250 pages were viable and if I didn’t fix that: “Your Novel Will FAIL” (she was right) and ”Simplicity equals Elegance” (she was right).

What are you working on now? 
I have three projects: “Cutting Loose”  #4 in the Cat Rising Series will be released this coming spring 2013 by Napping Porch Press. ”Then Came Jake” should be coming out in 2014. I am currently working on a collection of short stories and essays called “Where I Live, Folks Know How to Act Right,” which will probably be an ebook exclusive, also in 2014.

First paragraph of Angels and Manners:

Carrie stopped at the threshold to the Mediation Center. Standing on the far side of the room with his back to her was Dill, her ex-husband, looking through a magazine. She could see the pages flipping between his outstretched hands. He was slouched; his head tilted into his lean. She had seen the same pose in their son Casper when he was lost in thought. Dill’s hair curled over his collar and was much longer than when she had met him—a lifetime ago—with his Air Force buzz cut. He had gone a little paunchy around the middle, love handles easing over his jeans. She would recognize that mannered posture anywhere. Seeing him like this—unawares—conjured the image of that boy she had met one dismal night in a musty tavern where she was tending bar.

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Author Jesse Blackadder’s novel The Raven’s Heart is set in the court of Mary Queen of Scots – and was partly inspired by the discovery that the queen was a regular cross-dresser. The Raven’s Heart has just been published by Bywater Books in the USA, UK and Canada (it was published in Australia last year by HarperCollins).

However, it was another Mary from the time who penned a love poem to her female friend that has survived down the centuries. Here, Jesse crosses the historical divide to “talk” to Mary Maitland and tell us about the inspiration behind The Raven’s Heart.

Mary Maitland, you wrote a passionate poem to another woman and slipped it under your father’s nose, to be published in his 1586 Scottish collection The Maitland Quarto Manuscript. You were compared to Sappho – a poet who was part of classic education in those days – and in the poem you dream of changing into a man so you can marry the woman you love.

It’s (just) within the bounds of friendship poetry of the era, though the lines:

 You wield me wholly at your will

And ravish my affection

suggest a passion struggling to stay within social limits. You compare your love to that of Penelope and Ulysses, Pollux and Castor, and Ruth and Naomi (source of the declaration “Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest, I will lodge”). At the end you write that your fervent friendship will endure until “death shall us divorce.”

Was a passionate – but chaste – friendship the only option for women who fell in love in the 16th century? Although men of the day were often accused of being sodomites – including the husband of the Queen of Scots – lesbianism didn’t openly exist as an identity. The fact that Mary Maitland’s poem was published in a collection compiled by the Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland, suggests there was no hint of indecency about her declarations.

But this poem (reproduced in The Literature of Lesbianism by Terry Castle) was one of the little jewels I found while researching and writing my story of powerful women struggling for their birthright in the time of the Queen of Scots, herself a powerful and attractive woman.

Unusually tall and highly charismatic, the Queen loved sports and outdoor activities and was accomplished at riding and hunting. She disguised herself as a man and slipped out of her palace at night to explore Edinburgh’s streets and drink in its taverns. Perhaps these experiences piqued the Queen’s interest in clothing, gender and power, for Mary began cross-dressing more politically. She turned up in masculine clothing to a banquet in honour of the English ambassador and joked about how a marriage between herself and Elizabeth I would solve their political problems. When one of her powerful lords in the north of Scotland defied her, Mary donned armour to lead her armies to defeat him and admitted that she loved to live as a soldier. She rode out again when her lords rebelled against her marriage to the unpopular (and rumoured homosexual) Lord Darnley, putting on such a show of strength that the rebels fled without a fight.

There’s no suggestion in contemporary or current history that the Queen was a lesbian, but I couldn’t help being fascinated by this extraordinary character. Mary was the most famous cross dresser of the time – but surely not the only one?

And so the main character in The Raven’s Heart, Alison, is disguised as a boy from a young age to protect her from kidnapping. When Alison goes into Mary’s service to petition for the return of her family’s castle, how can she not fall in love with the charismatic Queen of Scots?

So great joy does my spirit fulfil

Contemplating your perfection

You wield me wholly at your will

And ravish my affection.

Mary Maitland isn’t a character in the book, but I can’t help wondering: did she and her loved one remain “In perfect amity forever”? Or did her marriage to one Alexander Lauder end the constancy of her “holy and religious” love?

Jesse Blackadder’s website is www.jesseblackadder.com

Extract from The Raven’s Heart

Scotland, 1561.

We come across the North Sea, bearing the face of heaven in our hold.

A fleet of ships brings such a treasure, our galley speeding ahead and the rest following slowly with her horses and fineries, her tapestries and clothes. She returns from thirteen years in the French court to take up the reins of power.

Does she remember that she returns to a city of stone? Stone is too old to care what human hands press against it, what blood spills in its crevices. Even the palace, with its French architecture, is made of stone, and looming above it, Edinburgh Castle hewn from the cliff so that none may attack it and none may escape. She sails to a stone city, an icy country and a cold people.

As we draw close to the coast, heavy fog envelopes us. Bass Rock materialises through the mist like something enchanted, its sides steep and forbidding, and the gulls scream and wrack and sweep around it in circles. The sea is brown and heaving, the outpour of the Firth River is a scum of Edinburgh’s rot slapping at the side of the boat. She waits on the deck to set eyes on the land, but it stubbornly refuses to reveal itself through the mist. It is not a forgiving country and she has been gone since she was five.


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Sylvia Beach at her bookshop

Princeton, N.J.

Sylvia Beach grave

Princeton Cemetery

Greenview Avenue and Humbert Street

Born in Baltimore and raised in a Presbyterian parsonage in Bridgeton, N.J., Nancy Woodridge Beach changed her name to Sylvia when she was a teenager. While her minister father was associate pastor of the American Church in Paris from 1902-1905, young Sylvia determined that she would someday live in the French capital. During World War I, she and her sister took off for Europe to volunteer for the Red Cross, and Sylvia lived the rest of her life abroad.

Beach (1887-1962) is one of the best known of the American expatriates of the early 20th century, and the founder of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company. The store was the first English-language bookshop on Paris’ Left Bank, serving as a literary center, lending library, and publishing company for the years between the two wars, with such frequent visitors as Gertrude Stein, Natalie Barney, Andre Gide, Ezra Pound, and Bryher. Beach is remembered in the literary canon as the publisher of numerous editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which American presses considered too radical a text to publish. She immortalized her store and the expatriate literary circle in a memoir called Shakespeare and Company (1959).

Beach was a confirmed liberal and a woman with a strong anti-Fascist reputation. The Nazis closed her shop in 1941, and interned her for six months as an “enemy alien.” After the war, she did not reopen the shop, but continued to lend books from her apartment.

The love of Beach’s life was Adrienne Monnier, a Frenchwoman who owned a bookshop called La Maison des Amis des Livres (literally, the House of Friends of Books), directly across the street from Shakespeare and Company. Beach and Monnier lived together from 1920 to 1936, when Monnier’s affair with another women caused them to separate. Still (in true lesbian fashion), they remained friends until Monnier’s death in 1955, having dinner together most evenings. Though Beach lived most of her life abroad, she is buried in this Princeton cemetery with her family.

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Baltimore, Md.

Diana Press

12 West 25th Street

First housed in this brick building in Baltimore, Diana Press was one of the earliest lesbian-feminist publishing companies in the country. Established in the mid-1970s, it was committed to publishing openly lesbian material, which was not available from mainstream houses. Before she became a mass-market star with Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown published her collections of lesbian poems, Songs to a Handsome Woman and The Hand That Cradles the Rock, and a volume of essays, Plain Brown Wrapper, with Diana Press. Other titles from Diana included Elsa Gidlow’s Sapphic Songs and Judy Grahn’s True to Life Adventure Stories, as well as early poetry by Pat Parker. In the late ’70s, Diana Press relocated to the San Francisco area. If not for the efforts of this pioneering press, along with Naiad Press, Persephone Press, Daughters Inc., and many others, a lot of openly lesbian writing would have never seen print. As a writer who is also a lesbian, I’m grateful.

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I know, I know…  there’s been lots of New York City on this blog recently. But things just keep presenting themselves to me, and hey, I did live there for two decades. Here’s an article I just found in the New York Times in which biographer Joan Schenkar talks about novelist Patricia Highsmith’s comings and goings in Manhattan.

And while you’re reading about Highsmith, check out an interview my friend Jill Dearman recently did with Schenkar.

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Strange Fruit

Clayton, Ga.

Lillian Smith home
383 Hershey Lane

This was the home of writer Lillian Smith (1897-1966), best remembered for her groundbreaking first novel, Strange Fruit (1944). Though it sounds like pulp fiction with homosexuality as its theme, Strange Fruit was actually a tale of miscegenation, which was turned down by seven publishers before eventually reaching print. The novel was banned in cities like Detroit and Boston for its realistic treatment of the controversial theme. Despite that (or more likely because of it), the book was a runaway best-seller, which sold three million copies and was translated into 16 languages.

Smith was a white woman with a lifelong interest in racial issues. When she was growing up in Jasper, Fla., her parents took in a foster child they believed to be a white orphan, only to find out she was part black. The girl was immediately sent away, and the cruel incident left a lasting impression on young Lillian. Besides Strange Fruit (in which Jasper was thinly disguised as Maxwell, Ga.), Smith published five nonfiction books on the topic of racial justice, and numerous articles in Redbook, The Saturday Review, and The Nation.

The Smith family moved from Jasper to Clayton in northern Georgia in 1915. Smith met her life partner, Paula Snelling, when the two helped run the Smith family’s summer camp, Laurel Falls Camp for Girls, on top of Old Screamer Mountain. Beginning in the 1930s, the two women collaborated to publish a magazine called Pseudopathia, devoted to reviewing literary works by African Americans.

Today, the home where Smith did much of her writing is the Lillian E. Smith Center for Creative Arts, a compound of several cottages that accepts writers, artists, and other creative types for retreats at a small weekly fee. The center is run by Smith’s niece, a former professional dancer.

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Asheville, N.C.

Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center
56 Broadway

Fifteen miles east of Asheville was the location of Black Mountain College, an experimental school in existence from 1933 to 1956. According to gay historian Martin Duberman, who chronicled its history in his exhaustive group biography, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community, the college was “the forerunner and exemplar of much that is currently considered innovative in arts, education and life style.” At Black Mountain, there were no required courses, no exams, and no formal grades. Students were responsible for planning their own course of study, participating in classes that often had fewer than 10 students each.

Black Mountain was also the nurturing ground of numerous queer writers and artists, including Paul Goodman, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. Other queer lecturers during its history included Thornton Wilder, Ted Shawn, and Robert Duncan. Artists Robert Rauschenberg was a student at Black Mountain. The college’s literary journal, Black Mountain Review, published the work of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, among many others. Though gay men taught and studied there, however, homosexuality was not openly tolerated. When Paul Goodman, a lecturer in “psychotherapy (his own), literature, history, community planning and sex,” according to Duberman, applied for a full-time teaching position, the faculty voted against him, fearing that he would prove to be a sexual predator.

The original site of the school consisted of church buildings constructed by the Blue Ridge Assembly as a summer conference center for its members. For most of the year, the buildings were vacant, and Black Mountain founder John Andrew Rice saw it as the perfect location for his school. The main building, called Lee Hall (the photo below is of the porch), included both common rooms and individual living and study spaces for students.

The rental agreement with the church stipulated that the buildings and grounds had to be cleared of all college equipment and furniture by the beginning of the summer. Because of this, Lee Hall had a “Shaker plainness” to it, and many students had to construct their own desks and furniture. After a few years, the college purchased a more stable site at Lake Eden, a former summer resort with cottages and lodges on a human-made lake.

The college suffered chronic financial problems, and lack of students and money forced it to close in 1956. The property was sold off piece by piece, and part was leased as a boys’ summer camp. This museum and arts center in nearby Asheville documents the history and mission of the innovative school.

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A Writer’s Life

Red Cloud, Neb.

Willa Cather home
241 North Cedar

I’ve written on this blog about Willa Cather’s (1873-1947) adult life in Pittsburgh, but now we turn to the place most associated with her in readers’ minds: Nebraska. Cather set six of her best-loved novels (including O Pioneers! and My Antonia) and several short stories in Red Cloud, the small town in which she lived from the ages of 9 to 17. “My deepest feelings were rooted in this country,” she later wrote of the region where she grew up, “because one’s strongest emotions and one’s most vivid mental pictures are acquired before one is fifteen.” Even after she left the area to attend college and start her career as an editor and writer, Cather repeatedly returned to Red Cloud to visit. Though she lived most of her adult life in New York City, Cather’s small-town roots continued to feed her creative work.

The Cather family home is a modest frame structure built in 1879, which Cather depicted lovingly and realistically in her novel The Song of the Lark. So faithful were Cather’s descriptions of the house that guides there read from Cather’s texts as they escort visitors through the various rooms. (You can take a virtual tour of the house courtesy of the Cather Foundation.) The most interesting part of the house is Cather’s attic room, which was sealed off for years and has remained largely untouched since the late 19th century, when the writer occupied it. Cather’s siblings lived in a separate, dormitory-style room, but as the oldest child, she rated her own space. The room is still papered with the wallpaper (“small red and brown roses on a yellowish ground,” she wrote in Lark) that Cather purchased herself with her earnings from working at Cook’s Drug Store, and appointed with the shabby, secondhand furniture she sketched in such detail in Lark.

It was in this home at age 14 that the budding lesbian created a male persona for herself, William Cather Jr., which she identified with throughout her teen years, trimming her hair to a crewcut and donning boys’ clothes. For more about young William and his influence on Cather’s work, pick up Sharon O’Brien’s insightful biography of the writer, which examines her life and work with an eye to her sexuality and gender presentation.

In addition to the Cather home, Red Cloud boasts many other sites related to the writer’s life. The Willa Cather Foundation offers a walking tour, which you can now also take online.

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From the Dark Tower

New York, N.Y. (Harlem)

“The Dark Tower”
108-110 West 136th Street

This was the site of A’Lelia Walker’s (1885-1931) home and famous salon, “The Dark Tower,” which she hosted for writers, musicians, and other artists during the 1920s. It was named after a sonnet by queer poet Countee Cullen, which has been said to capture the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance (see below).

A’Lelia Walker’s fortune came from her mother, Madame C.J. Walker, an enterprising woman who created a million-dollar empire from beauty salons and hair-straightening products for black women, and who died in 1919. With her inheritance, A’Lelia purchased these two Stanford White-designed town houses on West 136th Street in “Sugar Hill,” combined them into one residence with a new façade, and furnished them lavishly. Here the woman dubbed “the Mahogany Millionairess” hosted cultural soirees for the Harlem and Greenwich Village “glitterati,” white and black, serving caviar and bootleg champagne and providing entertainment by queer performers Alberta Hunter and Jimmy Daniels. Langston Hughes later wrote that A’Lelia’s parties “were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour.” She herself was a striking figure, whom Hughes called “a gorgeous dark Amazon.”

Sadly, Walker’s historic home was demolished by the city in 1941. Appropriately, the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library now stands on the site.

We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.

The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.

– “From the Dark Tower,” by Countee Cullen

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