Staff Pick: Meg Files’s “Green River”

Raima Larter is a fiction reader for the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, she shares one of her “Staff Picks” from the Winter Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). Meg Files’s “Green River” is available for reading at this link.

Whenever I hear breaking news about yet another mass shooting, I find myself wondering about the parents of the shooter. What must it be like for them? It’s hard to imagine the pain that parents must feel when their children become victims of a shooting. It’s even harder to imagine what the parent of the shooter might feel.

Meg Files has written a story that explores something similar—not a mass shooting, but an equally horrific event. From the first sentence of the story, it is clear the protagonist, Elizabeth, is trying to escape something horrifying: “She decided to go out into the world so as to leave the world behind.”

We don’t know, and won’t know, for many paragraphs, exactly what she’s trying to escape. Hints are deftly dropped into the story as it slowly unfolds. Elizabeth is driving west from somewhere in the Midwest. When she reaches Kansas, she decides to trade in her car. She wants to ask the man at the car dealer, “Would you like to be my son?” She trades her car for a cheaper model and continues driving, reaching Denver. “Denver was a big place. A body could get lost there,” she writes. Elizabeth continues acting strangely, buying a large empty book, “Grandma’s Brag Book,” and filling it with photos cut from another book.

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Meet the Editors: Q&A with Dominique Cahn

In this post we ask LPR’s nonfiction editor, Dominique Cahn, some questions on being a nonfiction editor and on what makes a great piece of memoir or essay.

Dominique Cahn was born in Haiti and moved to New York City when she was six years old. She majored in Politics and Latin American Studies at Princeton University and earned her Masters in Public Health Degree from Yale University. After graduate school, Dominique moved to Washington, D.C., where she embarked on her career in health care policy and government relations. She conducted health related studies in Haiti and Belize and represented the medical device and biotechnology industries on U.S. regulatory and and legislative issues. She lived in Kazakhstan and traveled to Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Republics.

Q: When it’s time to start reading the nonfiction submissions for a literary journal, what’s your process?

If I think a piece is worth while, I’ll read it a couple of times, put it aside. Sometimes I’ll discuss it with other readers if I need to clarify my thinking about it. But, after the third reading, I’ll get stern with myself and make a decision. Editor Steven Leyva and I then confer about the final choices. We are fortunate to have two volunteer readers on our team, Emily Rich and Heidi Brotman, who critique submissions in this category, as well. This last round, Anthony Moll joined us as Guest Editor.

Q: I imagine there’s not necessarily something you’re “looking for,” a priori. But in your experience, what are the sorts of things in a memoir or essay that interest you and catch your attention?

I don’t remember who said this, but there’s a quote that goes something like “the pleasure of reading a personal essay lies in the enjoyment we get from the well-ordered thoughts of another’s mind.” I find that to be true, and I am often drawn to voices that, at the very least, seem to have full knowledge of themselves in the stories they tell. Of course, the usual things are important too — a hook in the introduction, plot, characterization, climax, resolution of conflict and ending — all those are essential to works of creative nonfiction, memoir, and biography.

Q: How quickly in reading a piece do you generally know if it’s something you want to publish, or not?

Immediately. It’s incredible how quickly as a reader you develop an instinct about a submission. Sometimes you can work through the bits that strike you as emotionally false, but other times, the issue is not the narrative but the writer. People feel more license in fiction, but in anything autobiographical, people tend to deploy fiction for only one reason, and it’s usually not to enrich or complicate the characters on the page. In other words, it’s like literary airbrushing. The result is that there are emotional gaps. Sometimes it’s fun to do the work of filling in those gaps. Other times it feels lazy and deceitful. Of course, there are some works in which the story and writing are so strong that we know immediately that the submission will be among our finalists. We rarely make a decision until the submission period ends and we have had a chance to review all the works.

Q: Do you work with writers to improve a submission that you would like to publish, or do you generally accept as is or reject entirely?

Some submissions you have to reject entirely. It’s not always worth wading into typos, or trying to sort out messy narratives. Some submissions suffer from a lack of introspection, or a self-consciousness. Some, from too little of the latter. But perfecting the the kind of writing we publish is about clarifying the writer’s vision of their own story, and helping them to find narrative meaning beyond the biographical details. That’s work you can’t do without the writer, and so when I believe in a piece of writing I’m often excited to work with its author. Its wonderful and very satisfying when a good story can be sharpened into something impactful.

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Celebrating Contributor Successes: Q&A with Jay Wamsted

One thing we love at Little Patuxent Review is to celebrate the success of past contributors. Our latest opportunity comes from Jay Wamsted, whose nonfiction, “Walls,” we published in our Summer 2017 issue.

The Best American Essays 2018 edition, published this month, named “Walls” as a “Notable” in its collection. Jay is a math teacher in southwest Atlanta, and the majority of his writing centers around race, racism, and the urban school. His essays and articles have been published in various journals and magazines, including Mathematics Teacher and Qualitative Inquiry. He can be found online at The Southeast Review, Under the Sun, and the TEDx YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.”

We’re very grateful he’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: Did you have any expectation of receiving this honor? What’s it been like for you as a writer to return to a piece after it’s been published for almost a year and a half?

A: I was stunned when I received the email. I knew, of course, that there was a lottery-ticket kind of probability I could get that news, but I had to read the email from Steven Leyva three times before I finally got it into my head what was happening. Coming back to the piece has been delightful. Alexis was an important part of two school years for me: the one where I taught her and then the subsequent one where I wrote about her. Getting to revisit her story somehow has been both sobering and encouraging.

Q: It’s my understanding that this piece went through some editing before publication. What was that process like?

A: The biggest thing is that in its original form the essay was in second person. Dominique Cahn, LPR’s nonfiction editor, rightly suspected that though effective at evoking emotion, this constant “you…you…you” was sidelining Alexis’s story in favor of the reader and writer. Dominique suggested we move it to first person, and we had this big a-ha moment: finally the piece felt like it was primarily about Alexis because the pronouns weren’t getting in her way.

The other thing I’ll note is that I have received at times some pushback about being a white writer whose only stories come from teaching black children. I completely understand this fear of a modern-day sort of colonialism, and I try to guard against it in my work as best I can. At the time of “Walls,” however, I was going through a phase where I was muting the subject of race altogether and trying to elide it with the problem of poverty. Dominique saw past that, and surprised me by asking for more about the Mays community in general and about Alexis in specific. For example, she encouraged me up to describe Alexis physically—to let my reader know she was black. I had been reluctant to do this prior, but it was such a gift to write about this young black woman with some sort of candor, to describe her the way I like to imagine a friend of hers might have described her.

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Review of How to Sit, by Tyrese Coleman

This book review is written by Raima Larter, a Little Patuxent Review fiction reader. 

Local publisher Mason Jar Press of Baltimore has just published the debut collection, How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays, by Tyrese Coleman, a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Coleman has a strong engaging voice with important things to say. Her collection of stories and essays is unique in the way it combines fiction and non-fiction to create a true memoir. I was struck by the way the story builds from chapter to chapter, some fictional, others not, showing us how one young girl became a woman while growing up in a world that might have broken a weaker soul.

The book takes its title from the opening story in which the character we later come to know as “T” is taught by her grandmother how a young lady is supposed to sit in Grandma’s house, a home filled with a constant parade of older men, most fueled by alcohol. We follow T to prom night, to college, to motherhood and beyond, at one point exploring her family roots through a DNA analysis that reveals more than a few surprises. The memoir returns us to Grandma’s death bed where T must finally confront what is real and what is fiction. She says, “If this were fiction, we would’ve gotten to this part by now. The part where T pulls back the curtain and sees her dead grandmother’s body…”

All through this book, it is never clear what is truth and what is fiction. I thought this might be a problem, but that was before I read the book and found that it is actually one of its great strengths; Coleman shows us how the truth about one’s own life is sometimes revealed more fully when we take a step outside ourselves and look at our life the way someone else might see it.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Coleman about the experience of writing this book. My questions (RL) and her answers (TC) follow.

* * *

RL: The structure of your book is one I haven’t seen anywhere else—a mosaic of fictional and non-fictional components that add up to a memoir. How did you get the idea to use this structure?

TC: Honestly, it was not a *completely* deliberate thing. At some point, I looked back at my work and realized that I was writing about the same topics and about my childhood, parenting, or grief and that there was a through line that existed with several pieces of my work. I’d tried and considered different formats of how to do a collection. One iteration was a chapbook of flash creative nonfiction and another was a collection of short stories. I was afraid to put the fiction in with the nonfiction until I realized that other writers had done this. For example, David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever combines some of his stories and some of his essays. That is a completely different sort of collection from mine, but knowing that a book could contain both stories and essays opened my mind up to the possibility that putting these two seemingly different types of writing in the same book wasn’t actually too crazy of an idea. When I first discussed this with Mason Jar Press, we had thought to say which stories were fiction and which were nonfiction, but ultimately decided to leave it a mystery for the reader.

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Staff Pick: D.E. Lee’s “The Silence of a Sound (San Marco)”

Lisa Lynn Biggar is the fiction editor of the Little Patuxent Review. In this post, she shares one of her “Staff Picks” from the Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

There is so much to love about D. E. Lee’s story,”The Silence of a Sound (San Marco),” from the most recent issue of Little Patuxent Review (Issue 24, Summer 2018). Starting with the poetic title, the lovely alliteration. Right away I knew this would read more as a prose poem and it did, replete with sensory imagery and lapidary precision in word choice: “Smarty drifted around the oaks, down the sidewalk, and between two cars to a wooden pole with a thousand staples stuck stuck stuck all over it.” All of our senses are awakened in this piece: “We . . . walked from the square beneath a clear night sky to Hendricks Avenue, past the white facade of Southside Baptist, which seemed to us to be the wall of a fortress or monastery, and touched every red-ribboned lamp post we passed.”

San Marco is so alive and so are these two characters who hide in the shadows as if they could stop time for these two short days. It is as if they are on the precipice of time, waiting for something, or nothing, to  happen. When it does happen, when the tension builds to Smarty revealing what is behind her “unfathomable look,” the sound of a passing train obliterates her words: “Her lips moved in ovals, oblongs, and circles and then closed in silence like the vanishing train.” It is the quintessential what-could-have-been moment. Those words gone forever to never be spoken again; those few days never to be relived except in memory. The closeness of these two young characters is palpable, the dialogue, free of quotation marks, so natural, woven in with the narrator’s thoughts: “You didn’t answer my question. I know. You can tell me. Couldn’t she guess?” In the three short pages of this piece we are taken on a journey of playfulness, yearning, passion, and then disappointment and disillusionment: It is reminiscent of Joyce’s “Araby.”

Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Ann Olson

Ann Olson has been teaching literature and writing at Heritage University on the Yakama Reservation in Toppenish, Washington for twenty-five years. She holds an MFA in creative writing and a master’s in English literature. Her essays have appeared in When Last on the Mountain anthology, North Dakota Quarterly, Emrys Journal, and the Raymond Carver Review.

Olson’s nonfiction, “Mosquito Hunt,” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link).

Q: I love the structure to “Mosquito Hunt,” in which one sleepless night provides a frame for struggles and memories of an entire lifetime. How did you come to this structure?

Well, I’ve lived through nights just like this, and I suspect many people have had similar sleepless times when our minds simply won’t give up on all the little things that we can distract ourselves from in the daytime. Why is it that all the worst parts of our lives want to present themselves at 3:44 a.m.?

Q: When you were living through this particular night, did you have a sense that you would be writing about it? And if so, did that change anything about the experience for you?

Oh no, not at all. In fact, it probably would have helped if I HAD thought about writing down the experience while it was happening (but perhaps that would have ended the worrying and I’d have gone to sleep instead?). But I think being there was necessary to see how those thoughts and worries were as constant and irritating as a mosquito buzzing in the ear. It helped me to compare the icky part of that night to the hunt and subsequent bloodiness of the mind’s “mosquitoes.”

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Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Gayla Mills

Formerly a writing professor, Gayla Mills now publishes personal essays and flash fiction. Her essays have appeared in Spry, Prairie Wolf Press, Skirt!, Greenwoman, and more. Her chapbook of personal essays, Finite, won the Red Ochre Lit Chapbook contest. Her book Making Music after 40: Jam, Perform, and Share Music for Life will be published by Dover in the summer of 2019.

Mills’s nonfiction, “‘A Future Imagined,’” appeared in LPR’s Summer Issue 2018 (available for purchase at this link). She read this work at our issue launch in June (video below).

Q: The title of your book next year reminds me of the content of “A Future Imagined.” Was that nonfiction piece part of the process for your whole book (not, of course, that it was necessarily A to B)?

“A Future Imagined” describes a sliver of my experience as a budding musician. In Making Music, I offer information and advice based on my own experiences, but add research and interviews I’ve conducted with scores of music teachers and learners. I originally thought I could use my music essays to introduce my book chapters, and “A Future Imagined” could begin my chapter on music camps. But I quickly realized that I needed to develop a more direct voice, in a feature-writing style, for a how-to book.

In both the essay and the book, as in much of my writing, I use myself as a character. The details I choose should serve some purpose beyond the fact that I experienced them. I’m going to discuss how I switched from guitar to bass only if I’m suggesting to readers what switching instruments can offer them.

Q: On your website you state, “I’ve learned that teaching, writing, and doing go hand-in-hand, each informing the other.” Could you elaborate?

I’ve found the old cliché true, that if you want to learn something, the best way is to teach it. I’ve taught various subjects while learning about them, from feature writing to Medieval history to personal finance. I think that writing a how-to book about music is also a kind of teaching.

In the process of preparing to teach, you learn infinitely more than what you’re passing on. You might read a book or two to create a ninety-minute lecture. You might need to spend a month building a brick walkway in order to write a one-page essay on how to do it. You might need to spend half a lifetime learning about music before you feel it in your bones deeply enough to pass it along to others.

Q: Has songwriting influenced your prose at all?

I’m a real beginner at songwriting, still at that early learning stage. The better question is whether prose has influenced my songwriting, since I’m a more experienced writer than musician. I’ve written some prose poems and essays that I think would make good songs, so I’d like to work them into verse.

Q: How about music more generally?

Getting experience in two fields can help you be creative, because the two sets of experiences and skills collide to give you fresh eyes. The inventor of the stethoscope, René Laennec, was trained as a doctor but was also a flutist. I love writing about my musical experiences, and I think my interest in words affects how I hear lyrics.

Q: What did you think of the other readings at the launch? Maybe you could pick out a favorite?

It was a real pleasure to hear so many different voices, and I got something from each. My favorite, though, was Wallace Lane’s “Groceries.” His depiction of his encounter with his grandfather—“his touch more silent than soft”—was incredibly moving and fresh.

Q: Random question: could you tell me about a dog you loved?

There are too many. Besides my husband, my dearest companions have been Tasha, Dory, Riley, and Zoey. We’ve chosen where to live and when to move based on their needs, shared countless walks and swims, missed every fourth of July to comfort them during the fireworks, shared the good days and the rainy ones, and buried them deep in the earth when their time had come. I hope to live long enough to add a few more to that list. Dogs add goodness to the world.