K.E. Butler Wins LPR’s 1st Michael J. Clark Award for the Best of Fiction in 2017

Little Patuxent Review’s 2017 Michael J. Clark Award is given annually to an outstanding work of literature published in Little Patuxent Review. This year’s inaugural award is being granted to a work of fiction written by K. E. Butler entitled “The Laws of Motion in the Heavens and on the Earth,” published in the Summer 2017 issue.
Butler photo

K. E. Butler

Michael J. Clark, LPR’s Publisher Emeritus, will present the award at the January 21st launch reading of the Winter 2018 issue at Oliver’s Carriage House in Columbia, MD.
K.E. Butler is a substitute teacher and livestock producer who lives in Carroll County, MD. This is her first published story.

The Laws of Motion in the Heavens and on the Earth

It’s been a month since we buried my brother. I was a pallbearer. I even threw a shovelful of soil on his grave. Mama was bawling her eyes out; Dad just stood there with his head down, staring at the frosted ground like he could see through it, see down through the frost and the grass and the red clay, like he was watching worms. The preacher asked if anyone had anything they wanted to say, and some of my brother’s buddies shuffled up and said they couldn’t believe it, and what a great guy he was. Mrs. Johnson, his science teacher, reminded us that he had so much potential, and how it was a terrible loss. Vera got up to talk, but she started crying and sat down. I hate seeing Vera cry. She’s prettier now than ever; her hair’s longer, and it curls down her back. Preacher came up and asked me to talk, but there was no way in hell that was gonna happen. I had nothing to say.

Eph was born when I was two years old. When I was old enough to catch tadpoles, he’d tag along and he’d wade out up to his waist chasing frogs and get stuck and start crying. Mama would yell out the kitchen window that he was my responsibility, so I’d pull him out. Summers before we were big enough to help with the haying, we’d take our ponies out into the fields and fencerows—we’d be gone all day. I was the cowboy waiting to round him up. I’d sneak up on him and break into a lope; he was the Indian trying to get away. When we got tired of that, I’d be the sheriff and he’d be the bank robber, his horse’s hooves pounding through the cornstubble, trying to make it back to the hideaway, kicking up doves and Killdeer as we flew. I guess Eph was fine being the Indian and the robber. I let him get away sometimes. If he minded, he never said nothing. He always did what I told him to do. There’s a picture of us boys in the upstairs hallway on our ponies in cowboy hats and bandanas. Hard to believe that was ten years ago.

Boy did he love to read. From the time Mama taught him, that boy had a book in his hand. If you wanted to find Eph, look in his room; he’d be stretched out on the bed, reading. He was always showing me pictures, and wanting to read to me. Another thing about that boy: he loved science. I mean, he devoured science, he ate it up. Even when he was little, he’d see a tomato hornworm in the garden and, instead of crushing it, as he should have, he’d put the damned thing in a jar. He’d poke holes in a piece of tinfoil, and put a piece of tomato plant in there with it, and he’d watch it. He had a hardback book Mama had given him one Christmas, and he was always wasting my time looking shit up with him.

Now, I’m not saying my brother was lazy, but by the time he got to be about twelve, about the time a boy should be doing real work around the place, he wasn’t doing his share. Funny thing was, Mama and Dad kept cutting him all kinds of slack. They’d make excuses for him like: “Ephraim is very conscientious about schoolwork”, or “Ephraim has a big exam coming up”, and even “John-Lee, you’re so much better at stacking, let Ephraim throw the bales off the wagon. You stack.” Basically, what it meant for me was that I had more work. Don’t get me wrong, Eph and I got along good. But to be honest, it kinda pissed me off that just because he always had his head buried in a book, they made me pick up the slack. I could tell they thought he was special. Eph still said “I love you, too” when Mama told him she loved him. Not me.

I grew out of that; I stopped years ago. I loved her, but she knew it: I’ll be damned if I’m going around telling her. I guess maybe she got tired of me not answering back. Maybe that’s why she stopped telling me she loved me.

I’ll never forget one time, right around Thanksgiving, we were cutting firewood. Of course I’m cutting, Eph is stacking. And this bigass blacksnake comes out of the pile, heading straight toward Eph. He didn’t even see the thing, he was too busy daydreaming. You can’t do that around equipment like that, but try telling that to Eph. So this snake’s coming at him, and I mean, this thing has gotta be seven feet long. It’s so thick one hand won’t reach around it. And I just I reach down with the saw and, just like that, slice its head off. That’s how quick I was; that snake didn’t even see me coming. And do you know, Eph had the balls to tell me I shouldn’ta killed it! He said blacksnakes eat mice, and that they’re beneficial, or some shit. I am talking about a seven-fucking-foot blacksnake here. I didn’t miss a beat; I just started the chainsaw and went back to work. And you know what Eph does? He stands there watching that headless snake writhing around on the snow, black on white, as the blood makes a little red stain. You know, snakes will keep moving like that, curling around, even without their heads? Eph read that in a book once, and it is true.

By the time we’re in high school I’m failing most of my classes. My teachers say it’s because I don’t try, maybe they’re right.

“Why can’t you be more like Ephraim?” Mrs. Johnson asks, as if I wanna be like my brother.

For one thing, I intend to make my living farming. I don’t have time for homework, I can make ten bucks an hour stacking hay for the neighbors, and I do every chance I get. At first I tried to get Eph to come, but he made some excuse about a research project. For another, I never was that good of a reader, sometimes the words kinda jump around on the page. I never told anyone, but if a line says, “The laws of motion,” I’ll read, “The motion of laws.” If I’m gonna get blamed for not trying anyway, why should I bother?

I don’t know why girls like Eph better than me. I can stack five hundred bales, and it shows. My hands are like iron, and Eph’s are “artistic.” I’m tan and my hair’s bleached from the sun. Eph spends all his time in the science lab. His hair is darker and he’s lankier than me. When he and Vera started dating and they asked me to tag along like a third wheel, of course I said no. Eph said it was Vera’s idea. She is nice like that.

“Come on, we’re going to see Apollo 13,” Eph tried to convince me.

“Nah, you all go ahead.” I wasn’t especially interested in some guys almost dying in a tin can a million miles out in space. I was just fine sitting on a snag over the creek at night with my coondog, looking up at the stars from down here. That was the difference between us; I could appreciate things from a distance. Something in Eph made him have to try things himself.

It was a perfect fall Saturday when Eph and I jumped in the bed of the truck. The leaves were turning, and it had rained the day before. The air smelled fresh and sour, that smell it gets in early fall when the apples are ripe and start to drop. Empty apple crates shifted as Dad accelerated down the gravel lane and turned out onto the paved road toward the orchard. A few apples rolled around the bed of the truck. I remember bright red leaves littering the wet black pavement. Eph was sitting on one wheel-well and I was opposite him on the other.

The sliding rear window to the cab was open, and we could hear Dad singing along with Ralph Stanley on the radio. It was Angel Band. I put that slider in a while back when some two-by-fours shifted toward the cab and broke the original window. I installed it myself. I loved that old blue Chevy truck, and I was working on Dad to get him to sell it to me. I figured I could go in the firewood business when Eph went to college.

Eph was all fired up about something he’d been learning in science Friday. Something about Newton’s first law of motion, how stuff that was moving kept moving until some force caused it to stop. He tried to explain it to me. I kind of remembered something about it from school, something about gravity. Eph said it was really this guy named Galileo’s idea, that Newton was born the year Galileo died, and that he really just built on the older dude’s work. Eph puffed his chest up, and he started goofing on Newton. He lifted his curly brown head high, and said real slow, in his deepest voice, “The laws of motion in the heavens and the laws of motion on the earth are one and the same.”

“Get outta here,” I laughed.

“I will now proceed to test my theory.” Eph was laughing, too, and then his eyes narrowed, and he kinda cocked his head to one side, and I could see the wheels turning. I knew that look.

“No, seriously, this truck is moving about thirty miles an hour,” he guessed, “and we’re sitting here in the bed, so we’re going thirty miles an hour, too, right?” He picked up an apple and tossed it to me. It arced up into the air and straight across the bed of the truck. I reached up with one hand and caught it. He picked up another. This time he threw it straight up, and it came down in his hand. He looked at the apple and smiled. “See, John-Lee, that’s Galilean relativity,” he explained.

I turned and threw my apple at a big sycamore tree as we went by, and nailed it. It was a good throw; we could hear it hit with a loud crack. “And that object just came to a sudden stop,” I said, grinning. Eph laughed.

“Knock it off,” Dad yelled through the open window.

“So what would happen if I jumped up?” he wondered out loud, “Just like the apple, right, I’d still be moving thirty miles an hour?”

“Hell if I know, Eph,” I shrugged, “Try it.”

And he did. It happened so fast there was nothing I could do. My little brother, with the artistic hands and the questioning mind, jumped straight up into the air. The tailgate banged him right about his knees. He bounced over the gate and hit the wet black asphalt at thirty miles an hour. I tried to scream but my throat was full of lead. I turned and saw the back of my dad’s head. I scrambled forward in the truck bed, banging my fists on the glass. Dad turned around, and when he saw my face, he slammed the brakes on. My head collided with the glass, then I flew back. The truck skidded sideways, tires screeching on the wet asphalt before it came to a stop. He got out, and we looked back and saw something in the road about two hundred yards back. It wasn’t moving.

I don’t remember how I got from that truck to my brother. I beat my dad there, and I was gulping for air and shaking. I stood there paralyzed, watching my brother curled up on the wet asphalt, making little jerking motions, opening and closing his mouth slowly. Then I kneeled down next to him, and I watched the life go out of my brother.

Vera came over today. She says she’s checking on Mama and Dad and me, but I think, really, it’s because we remind her of Eph. We walk toward the board fence where the horses are. We each hike a foot up on the bottom board, and wait. They come over to nuzzle us, and we stroke their soft faces. I pull a peppermint out of my pocket and unwrap it. They prick their ears at the sound, and Eph’s gelding nickers. I give it to Vera to give him. We stand there, listening to the hard crack of candy between the horse’s teeth. She’s wearing this Indian necklace Eph gave her, called a squashblossom. A silver chain circles her neck, and she keeps sliding her fingers over it. “You know, you really should talk to your Mama,” she tells me, reaching out to brush the roan’s  forelock out of his eyes. She doesn’t look at me when she talks.

“Why? She doesn’t give a shit about me.” I say that ‘cause since Eph died, Mama pretty much doesn’t even look at me. She cooks and does dishes and then she just sits at the table. She won’t touch Eph’s room or let anyone else go in it, but I did. His backpack is on the floor where he left it. The pillow on the bed is dented in where Eph’s head was, and there’s a book next to it.

“She does, John-Lee. It’s just hard for her.”

“Aw, shit, Vera. She always favored Eph. Now he’s gone, she won’t hardly look at me. Goddamnit, I’m still here. I’m alive.”

“It’s hard for all of us. Just talk to her, will you?” She turns to look at me.

“Now that he’s gone, he can never screw anything up. Ever. He’s perfect for-fuckin-ever.”

I’m pissed, I’m hurt, and I’m sad. I feel terrible about what I said to Vera, but I can’t take it back. And I don’t know what makes me do this either, but I walk over to the silo. I haven’t climbed it since the silo fire, when we lost the roof. I reach one hand up and grab the lowest iron rung, about eight feet up, and swing up. I start climbing. Hand, foot, hand, foot, I go up. It’s cold outside and all I have on are my jeans and a flannel shirt, but I’m sweating. My hands slip a little, but the rust on the rungs gives me traction. When I reach the top, eighty feet up, I turn around and sit on the tiny platform. I bury my face in my hands and let the warm, salty tears run down my face. I can hear Vera’s car start and tires crunching on the gravel as she leaves.

I sit there probably ten minutes before I finally move my hands away and look around. Everything feels different when you’re this high. It’s like looking down on a picture, but you’re not really part of it. I can see all the places I know, but they look small, like pieces of something bigger. If Eph was here he’d say something about astronauts. I wonder what Eph sees. I wonder what it all looks like to him way up, past the orbits. I exhale and my breath rises up in a cloud and then it’s gone.

To the west, acres of red and yellow leaves blur together in a rectangle—that’s our woodlot. Beyond the big woods, straw-colored cornfields fringed with cedars stretch out in front of me till they’re too small to see. The late beans are mostly off, but, far away, there’s one tiny combine crawling along through the fields. The mountains to the east are piled up in purple mounds, and the sky thins to the color of a pale piece of turquoise. I see the seam of trees where the creek runs along our piece of bottom land, and I can see on the other side, too, where it turns the bend on our neighbor’s ground and runs toward the river where Eph and I fished. Cows graze the pasture along the creek bottom like tiny statues. Our farmhouse and outbuildings are white boxes with red roofs, tucked in by Mama’s flowerbeds. Everything looks clean and bright like it does after it’s been washed by a rain. I spit and watch it fall.

The screen porch door opens and swings shut, and Mama comes out shaking a dishtowel. My coonhound eases out the door, too, and it bangs shut again after him. Mama looks around. She’s looking for me. She calls my name, and her voice sounds small and far away. She looks over at the barn, and then in the machine shed, calling me, but I just watch. Finally the dog finds me. He puts his nose to the ground and tracks me over to the horsebarn, then turns and heads right straight to the silo. He looks up and gives a sorrowful yelp. Mama follows his eyes up to the top where I am. She sees me, and starts screaming.

“John-Lee get down here this instant! What are you doing up there? Get down this very second!” She yells, but her voice is cracking. The noise spooks a barn owl off the silo wall, and a puff of feathers rise and settle on the air, rocking back and forth toward the ground. I watch them till I can’t see them anymore. Guess I might as well go down too; my wet shirt is giving me a river chill.

Mama is pacing under me, yelling. My dog is hammering ‘cause she has him all fired up. He’s circling Mama like a satellite. I don’t look down till I’m about fifteen feet off the ground. Mama gets real quiet then, and backs up. Even my dog sits down and hushes. I push off and fall through the air, and while I’m falling I see the ground coming up fast, and I’m thinking maybe I should’ve climbed down a little further; this is gonna hurt, but it’s too late. I land on my two feet, hard. I stagger a little and turn to face Mama. Her grey eyes are brimming, and she’s biting her lower lip. She looks at me like she’s looking for something, but, whatever it is, I guess she don’t find it. She turns and goes back to the house, and the door bangs shut behind her.

I head to the barn, where it’s warm.

 

 

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Make Believe as Metaphor

This post was originally published on June 1, 2011. It’s being re-shared as part of LPR’s 10th Anniversary.

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Vonnie Winslow Crist

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caught flak–and a great deal of attention–for running a disaster-preparedness campaign for the Zombie Apocalypse. If you are ready for Zombies, the CDC suggests, you are ready for anything. Tips for an ordinary disaster-preparedness kit follow. The CDC understands that zombies aren’t a real threat. What appears to be make believe is really metaphor. In this equation Zombies = life-altering disaster.

Writer, illustrator and storyteller Vonnie Winslow Crist understands the relationship between make believe and metaphor. Crist, who recently published a book of fairy tales, poems and sketches, The Greener Forest, has a featured essay, “Fairies, Magic and Monsters,” in LPR’s Make Believe issue, scheduled to launch June 18. The essay looks at current and classic fantasy books and movies such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Crist traces their popularity back to somber messages safely sent through stories shared by the cooking fire.

Many have complained that the Harry Potter series grew progressively dark with each book. Considering that Rowling explored a subculture living in a state of dictator-enforced paranoia, the darkness makes sense. Lord Voldemort’s tactics are as familiar as the front page, which daily tells us about the cruelties of depots clinging to power. In her essay, Crist points out, “This is fantastical literature’s greatest gift. Through make believe places, races, characters, and creatures, the authors of these tales use metaphor to help us examine the controversial issues of our world.”

Crist is a master of metaphor. In The Greener Forest, her modern fairy tales stand out. These stories use traditional fairy tale tropes, artfully layered with modern concerns. In “Shoreside,” a vacation at the beach forces a wife and mother to reconsider the family life she has chosen. Hiromi watches her husband and children swim in the ocean but avoids the water herself. She is a ningyo (a mermaid of Japanese folklore) and fears that the pull of the water and the adventurous life it represents will break her family ties. When a child nearly drowns in the ocean, Hiromi must test those ties.

“Tootsie’s Swamp Tours & Amusement Park” is set, with an oddball sense of just-the-right detail, at a rundown Southern destination beset by Spriggans. As Jess walks through the park with her uncle and husband, she realizes only she can see the ugly fairy creatures threatening her. Jess, who has recently lost a pregnancy, comes to believe the Spriggans caused her miscarriage. Her depression lifts as she takes control of her situation.

A handful of original fairy tales set in “once upon a time” showcase Crist’s love of the genre. “Blood of the Swan” is a particularly beautiful quest story about a young man who must slay the swan maiden he loves in order to save his village.

The stories in The Greener Forest can be dark. Even tales with a love theme at their center, such as “The Return of Gunnar Kettilson,” would never be optioned by Disney for a feature film. Gunnar Kettilson is, after all, a zombie. Unlike modern zombies, though, Gunnar has a thirst for revenge, not brains, and he still has enough heart left to protect the woman he loves. As Crist says in her LPR essay, “Fairies, magic, and even monsters will continue to be threads running through the human tapestry because they offer us hope and bring order to chaos.”

Vonnie Winslow Crist writes Harford’s Heart magazine’s “Writer’s Block” column, does illustrations for the Vegetarian Journal, co-edits The Gunpowder Review, contributes to Faerie Magazine and publishes the blog Whimsical Words. She has taught creative writing at Harford Community College and for the Maryland State Arts Council Arts in Education Program and regularly leads a writing workshop at Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Balticon

Her fiction has appeared in publications such as Tales of the Talisman, Macabre Magazine (England), First Word Bulletin (Spain) and Great Writers Great Stories: Writers from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Her poetry has appeared in publications such as Loch Raven Review, Champagne Shivers and EMG-Zine. She is author-illustrator of Leprechaun Cake & Other Tales (children’s book), Essential Fables (poetry) and River of Stars (poetry) and co-editor of Lower Than the Angels: Science Fact, Science Fiction & Fantasy and Through a Glass Darkly: An Anthology of Mystery, Gothic Horror & Dark Fantasy.

She has received a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award and placed first in the 2007 Maryland National League of American Pen Women poetry contest.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this publication, please check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/

A Cool, Dark Make Believe World Under Our Grandmothers’ Tables

This post was originally published on June 11, 2013.

Susan Thorrnton Hobby

Susan Thornton Hobby

Under my great-grandma Coley’s ornate dining room table, I made the first make believe world that I can remember.

The table’s four thick legs splayed out from a center pole and ended in wooden lions’ paws clutching wooden balls. Whenever it rained or it was too hot in the Shenandoah Mountains to play outside her tiny house, I would retreat from the murmur of adult conversation into the dim, dusty world under the lace tablecloth. The swirling Persian rug–cut into the thick, rosy quarters of a pie by the table legs–became a house, with one separate room for my Breyer horses, one for the wooden chess pieces she let me play with, one for the ragged Barbies my brother tortured and another for the Kens. The dolls never cohabitated in my chaste make believe world.

I was practicing, I suppose, play acting out a life that I might make come true one day, with rooms and animals and children and gardens. Make believe allows the players to try things out, to escape from the mundane or the horrible, to build a vision. And not just children engage in make believe. Adults indulge. And writers do it every day.

The new issue of the Little Patuxent Review carries through it the theme of make believe in ways both strange and wonderful. The Wright Brothers drink Manhattans in a bar and marvel at modern life (that’s Bruce Sager’s poem, also his tongue-in-cheek critic’s take on that poem). A man adopts a Houdini of an octopus when he’s not quite ready for human companionship (that’s Ann Philips’ microfiction). A dead mouse’s odor slips between a couple and elicits a tiny, poisonous deception (that’s Jenny Keith’s sly story). And a child, unsure of the meaning of “adultery,” decides it means playing an adult and confesses her many sins to a nonplussed priest (that’s Ann Bracken’s sweet, funny poem).

All those writers and more will read their work at the launch event for the Little Patuxent Review’s summer issue, our tenth issue, on Saturday, June 18, 2 to 4 PM, held in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Readers will also include Derrick Weston Brown, Erin Christian, Caryn Coyle, Barbara Westwood Diehl, David Evans, Susan Thornton Hobby (that’s me), Danuta Kosk-Kosicka, Laurie Kovens, Karen Sagstetter and Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg, plus Tara Hart, reading a poem about pretending, forgetting and remembering. Tara will also reprise her poem “Patronized,” which first appeared in last summer’s Spirituality issue and recently was recently awarded a Pushcart Prize.

It’s hot outside, but it’s cool and dark here under our great-grandmother’s tables, playing make believe. Come join us.

NOTE: If you like’d this republished work, check out LPR’s Issue 10: Make Believe https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/.

5 Questions for Jen Michalski, Author of The Tide King

Michalskiblue

Baltimore-based author and editor, Jen Michalski.

When author Jen Michalski was featured in the Baltimore Sun this summer, the headline called 2013 “a prolific year” for her. That phrase is appropriate. Michalski, a mainstay of the tight-knit Baltimore literary scene, will have three books published between January 2013 and April 2014.

But for a writer as hard-working as Michalski, “prolific year” is also misleading. In addition to working on her own writing, Michalski edits the Baltimore-based journal jmww and frequents local literary readings.

Michalski and I spoke about her not-so-sudden success last weekend, and we followed with an email exchange. I had recently read The Tide King, her stand-alone novel (Black Lawrence Press).

thetideking_cover_lorestrials_4Laura Shovan (LS): With three books published within an eighteen-month period and a feature in the Baltimore Sun, one might be tempted to say, “Jen Michalski is an overnight success.” Those of us involved in the local scene know that you are a longtime literary community activist. Over the years, how have you balanced supporting other writers—through projects like jmww, the 510 Reading Series, and the City Sages anthology—with staying committed to your own writing?

Jen Michalski (JM): I don’t know, really! It all works out, somehow. A caveat—I like to keep busy. I have this manic mental itch, and there are so many other things I would attempt to scratch it with if I weren’t so involved in the writing community: I want to learn to play the bass and trumpet, attend the symphonies and opera, surf, and knit. I often wish the days were twice as long, or that there were two of me!

That said, ironically, my projects don’t leave a lot of time for writing. Fortunately, I do a lot of my work internally, in dreams and also subconsciously; and by the time I write it out, I’ve worked it over and over in my head and it’s pretty much the way it will be on the page. Writing also just comes when it’s ready, not when I try to force it, so I don’t feel pressured to set aside an hour a day and wait for something to happen. Finally, it helps that I’m a self-employed medical editor, which means my schedule is pretty flexible for when the writing does erupt.

Ultimately, though, being involved in the community is inspiring to me as a writer. All writing is a dialogue between writer and reader, and when I’ve attended a great reading or accepted a great piece for jmww or just talked with another writer about his or her inspiration or process or even kids, I am compelled to respond in my own way somehow, whether right away or subconsciously, a few months later. I feel like these outside projects fertilize the garden, in a way.

Salon Series, New York

Jen Michalski

LS: We talked about the way different threads of research came together as you were constructing The Tide King: the last “witch” burned in Poland, your family’s immigration story, a National Geographic article about the sinking of the Bismarck, both your grandfathers’ WWII experiences. All of these, except for the Bismarck, are key themes or events in The Tide King. Would you describe your research process? How do you know when something you uncover is going to work for the book?

JM: Research excites me because I never know what I’m going to turn up. In fact, I no longer lock myself in a plotline early on when I’m writing or researching the novel. When I’m researching I’m like a boat in the ocean; I can glide along in lot of different directions and trajectories before seeing land again. And then I might wind up landing in Cape Town when I thought I was going to Madrid!

Even though my research is driven by things about which I’m passionate, I just try to remain open to what I find. If I really wanted to set the novel in Alaska but when I’m Googling I read about a fishing village in Nova Scotia that really excites me, I go with it. In that sense, I know something is going to work when I become excited about it, when the story suddenly opens up and expands. Sometimes, though, the research just gets cut, and I’m okay with that. I wrote about 600 pages of The Tide King and only wound up using 300. I don’t feel they were wasted pages—they were just sort of the outtakes you wind up seeing on movie DVDs. (In fact, a lot of the deleted scenes did wind up being stand-alone stories that were published.)

I also try to stay loose through the various revisions of the novel. The first draft is so different from the second, the second from the third, and so on. Although the characters and the basic plot may stay the same, all the scenes, the setups, can have changed from the first to third draft. It used to be something that frustrated me, because you want to keep the energy of the first draft or idea without watering it down through the revisions. But often the revisions take it to a better place. Now, I try and concentrate on just digging through the research, the draft writing, knowing that I’m going to hit pay-dirt down the road—I trust my intuition will guide me to where I need to be. I am a writer entirely in the moment of writing. I never think about when I should be finished with a particular novel, whether I’ve spent too much time on it, and I also never wish for a novel to end. I try to have so much fun writing it that I’m disappointed when I’ve done all I can and it’s finally finished, that I have to find something else to do.

LS: Early in the novel, Barbara, an herbalist living in rural Poland in the 1800s, discovers a patch of burnette saxifrage that’s been struck by lightning. The herb, she realizes, has extraordinary healing powers. You said that this story, while not scientific, is drawn from both history and folklore. How did this element of magical realism become the novel’s inciting incident, the thing that draws these characters—who span over 100 years—together?

JM: The decision to use the herb, for me, was definitely, the “aha” moment. When I first started writing about Stanley and Calvin in the European theater of World War II (which was inspired indirectly by a story I’d read about the battleship Bismarck in National Geographic), I didn’t know what was going to happen with them. In the back of my mind I knew I didn’t want to write a war novel, even as I wanted to honor my grandfathers, who both served and never talked about it. But I kept writing, figuring that what to do next would occur to me by the time I got to that crossroads. And it did—one day, I was looking through some story files on my computer and found fifty pages of this other novel I had started many years before and forgotten. It featured the enchanted burnette saxifrage. I wondered, “What if one of the soldiers, Stanley or Calvin, gives it to the other?” Burnette saxifrage became the lynchpin—it could tie centuries of family and people together by the nature of its “curse.” It also provided a conceit, the curse of immortality and how humans deal with loneliness and time passing. But I was many months into research and writing before I realized the true story of The Tide King—and it turned out I’d been working on it for years without even realizing it.

LS: The friendship of WWII buddies Stanley and Calvin is central to The Tide King. However, the female characters shape the trajectory of Stanley’s and Calvin’s lives. How did you come up with Stanley’s love interest, little person and country music star Cindy? You said that Cindy’s daughter, Heidi, drives the second half of the novel. Can you explain what you meant?

JM: I don’t really know why I made Cindy a little person. I know I wanted to include country music because I was reading a lot about 1940s and 1950s country music, Patsy Cline and the Browns and Hank Williams Sr. So I knew Cindy would be a country music star. I always am drawn to the different, the “other.” I’ve written before about people with disabilities because I’m interested in their perspectives, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to include this twist in Cindy’s character.

Also, in a way,  although I didn’t realize it at the time, she becomes kind of a foil for Ela, who is also a little person in that she’s a two-hundred-year-old woman trapped in the body of a nine-year-old girl. Ela wants to die but she can’t, and Cindy wants to live on forever, immortalized as a country music star.

But Cindy and Kate (Calvin’s first love) drive the story. Calvin and Stanley never get over Kate and Cindy, and they are both driven through life by them in different ways. For one, it is a helpful, positive coping, and for the other, it’s not. I think it’s a very human condition, our “muses,” and the thin line between the destructive and redemptive nature of them.

Heidi’s story, even as it comprises the last third of the novel, is kind of a surprise to the reader, I think, and it was intentional on my part. For Ela and Calvin and Stanley and everyone else who comes in contact with the burnette saxifrage over the course of two hundred years, their information is very incomplete. They ingested the herb and did not know it, it wasn’t forced upon them, or they’re not aware of the breadth of its repercussions. Heidi is a character who is given full knowledge of the herb, knows what it can do, has seen how it affects those who take it. And, at the novel’s end, she must make a choice about the herb, and she is the only one, to that point, with the agency to decide whether or not she should take it, what should be done with it. I wanted to explore that freedom to decide one’s fate, through Heidi. To that point, the herb, or the search for the herb, for answers, had been the driving force.

LS: The one question you said most people ask about The Tide King is: Will there be a sequel? Explain why your answer is no.

JM: I think it’s good to leave the reader with questions. Life isn’t tied up in a bow, and I don’t think stories should be, either. There is no happy ever after—life just ends, and there’s nothing we really have to drive ourselves through it except our hopes—our hopes to be happy, to fall in love, to be successful. Which, on the face of it, are all human constructs, not real. And that’s what the characters in The Tide King have at the end—their hopes, however slim and unrealistic. There’s nothing that Calvin or Ela or Heidi could do in a sequel that would change the course of humanity, of the human condition. It’s sort of an old story, the follies and hopes of humankind, that doesn’t need a sequel. I thought that was the most fitting, realistic ending of all.

Jen Michalski lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She was voted one of the best authors in Maryland by CBS News, one of “50 Women to Watch” by the Baltimore Sun, and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine (Best of Baltimore issue, 2013). Her novel THE TIDE KING (Black Lawrence Press) was voted “Best Fiction” by the Baltimore City Paper. She is the author of two collections of fiction, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (So New, 2007) and FROM HERE (Aqueous Books, 2014) and a collection of novellas, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW (Dzanc Books, 2013). She also edited the anthology CITY SAGES: BALTIMORE, which Baltimore Magazine called “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and hosts the monthly reading series the 510 Readings in Baltimore.

For more about The Tide King, see the Baltimore Sun’s review. Also consider reading up on Jen’s previous book, COULD YOU BE WITH HER NOW, reviewed by LPR earlier this year. Jen’s book FROM HERE is due to be published by Aqueous Books in April 2014.

An Annotated Tour of the Music Issue

Show LPR Some Love, Ellicott City, MD, February 2013 (Photo: Laura Shovan)

Show LPR Some Love, Ellicott City, MD, February 2013 (Photo: Laura Shovan)

At the Show LPR Some Love event this February, we held our first community discussion. Submissions to our music-themed issue were accumulating, so we gathered together local readers for an hour-long talk about music on a snowy day. The conversation was wide-ranging: spirituals, song sparrows, memory, the aging brain and other aspects that our readers hoped to see in this edition.

The first item on the list that we compiled was the relationship of music to sacred and cultural beliefs. In our featured interview, poet Marie Howe explains how the church hymns and Bible stories that she heard as a child influenced the core of her work. Other pieces bear her out: music is a means of communicating culture, whether in Martinique [i] or Baltimore [ii].

The second item was the relationship of music to language. How do musicians use silence to contribute to a song? Are we singing when we talk [iii]? And what about music that is not constructed by human beings: a bird’s song [iv], a wolf’s call?

The item that resulted from the liveliest part of our conversation concerned the relationship of music to memory. Our associations with music, especially songs from childhood and young adulthood, run deep. Work with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients has shown that even when patients no longer talk, they can still sing old standards.

Several pieces address the connection between music and memory [v]. Knowing a favorite tune word-for-word or note-by-note, listeners feel an intimacy with the performer. When we are lonely, music can provide solace [vi] or feed our sense of isolation [vii]. Famous musicians—rockers Debbie Harry [viii] and Neil Young, blues legend Billie Holliday and jazz great Thelonius Monk [ix]—make cameo appearances in our Music issue. Their songs serve as the backdrop for stories of love, heartbreak and transformation [x].

The last item concerned the way in which music creates community. An audience shares a live performance [xi]. Even one listener, such as cover artist Robin Rose [xii] painting alone in his studio to favorite jazz pieces, completes the performance. As with our journal, there is no performance without an audience to respond to our compositions.

[i] Martinican poet Suzanne Dracius’s piece “Pointe-des-Nègres” appears as an English translation by Nancy Naomi Carlson and in the original French. It is accompanied by Ann Bracken’s “An Interview with Nancy Naomi Carlson,” where maintaining musicality in poetry translations is addressed.

[ii] In her poem “Locust Sounds,” Clarinda Harriss points out that the sounds of nature can be heard even in a city such as Baltimore. For a different sort of Baltimorean sound, see 2013 Pratt Poetry Contest finalist Steve Leyva’s poem “Highlandtown after the Zappa Statue.”

[iii] Hope Johnson’s musical poem “Sangin’” addresses this issue.

[iv] Lori Powell’s “To the Bird that Wakes Me” won the 2013 Pratt contest.

[v] See Debra Kaufman’s poem “Strays” and David Vardeman’s short story “Known to God.”

[vi] Gregory Luce finds solace in the classic Coltrane album A Love Supreme in his poem “Aspirins and Coffee.”

[vii] In “Close to You,” Missy Roback’s protagonist uses her obsession with music to avoid building relationships with other people.

[viii] Gerry LaFemina’s prose poem “Sunday Girl” imagines a chance encounter with Blondie.

[ix] Tim Hunt’s poem “Thelonius Monk” recreates a performance at the end of Monk’s career.

[x] Essayist Cliffton Price describes pop music’s powerful association with time in “An Otherwise Empty Room.”

[xi] Anne Harding Woodworth’s poem “On Seeing Psycho in a Concert Hall” looks at the community that a performance creates.

[xii] LPR Art Consultant Michael Salcman’s profile of Rose includes a full-color portfolio of the abstract artist’s work.

To read the full text of a poem and a short story appearing in the Music issue, click here. For more on the art, see “The Integration of Art, Music and More: Robin Rose.”

Meet the Neighbors: Columbia Festival of the Arts

A journal such as ours requires a vibrant literary and artistic environment to thrive—and even survive. In appreciation of the various cultural entities around us, we present “Meet the Neighbors,” a series where we provide you with personal introductions to a diverse assortment.

I met the people who put on the Columbia Festival of the Arts over champagne, a good way to start any relationship. We were at the launch of the LPR Audacity issue, the first time that the summer iteration of our biannual event was formally part of the Festival.

MOMIX's Botanica

MOMIX’s Botanica, performed at the 2012 Columbia Festival of the Arts. (Photo: Max Pucciariello)

I then attended an intimate reading by award-winning writer Edith Pearlman, hosted by HoCoPoLitSo and part of the Festival. I was there not only because I admired Pearlman’s short fiction but also because she was featured in our Audacity issue. My final Festival events were to be more pleasure than [literary] business: the performance of Botanica by MOMIX, a company of dancer-illusionists, and a reception celebrating the Festival’s 25th anniversary, where I assumed that more champagne would be consumed.

But the derecho intervened. I was trapped in my historic house, built into the side of a hill on a steep bank overlooking the Patapsco River. No power, no phone or computer connectivity and trees down everywhere. So I sipped bottled water instead of champagne. But a mere seven miles away, Botanica went off without a hitch, as did the reception.

Recalling that, I was determined to give the Festival its due by placing it first in the series of articles that will appear here in preparation for the June 22 launch of the LPR Music issue. And I asked Nichole Hickey, Executive Director and CEO, for the inside scoop.

Here’s how she responded:

When asked to give a first-hand perspective of the Festival, I wasn’t sure where to begin or how to summarize both the Festival and my experience with it. Especially not at this time of the year, just weeks away from the 2013 season and days away from our annual gala, which this year featured Paula Poundstone. But I couldn’t let this article pass. After all, it is a perfect fit for LPR readers: you are our audience.

There are so many people who contribute to the production of Howard County’s premiere arts festival each year. We are fortunate to have a talented, capable, hard-working staff, people who year in and year out help make the season the unofficial start to summer in our area. I am also lucky to work with a supportive Board of Trustees as well as the 200 volunteers who offer their time and support annually. And then there are the sponsors and donors who step up each year, providing financial and in-kind resources. There could not be a Festival without all of them.

I am in my 11th year working with the Festival. What began in 2002 as a part-time role as deputy director has turned into a full-time, year-round, 24/7 job. I start with a blank slate each year, conferring with my team on what to present over 16 days in June. Our goal is to offer a varied, well-balanced lineup of non-stop events from the international, national, regional and local scenes that serves to celebrate our own community. Budget, performer availability and a host of other factors help to define each season. It’s a great deal of work, but we have a lot of fun along the way, as well.

The desire to produce an arts event of this magnitude isn’t what brought me to the Festival. My husband, Michael Hickey, was a founder of the Festival in 1987, and we have remained supporters ever since. When the Festival needed someone to help re-staff the organization in 2002, they tapped into my human resources background. Before I knew it, I had stepped into the role of deputy director. Late 2004, the Board convinced me to take on the role of executive director when it again became vacant.

I was tenuous during my initial year, being a visual artist who was suddenly running an organization focused on performance arts. Certainly, one of my first priorities was to identify ways to enhance visual arts programming. I succeeded in doing this, but there is plenty of room for improvement. During my tenure, film was also added as a regular feature and more emphasis was placed on literary offerings. This year, attendees will be able to enjoy the unique pairing of poet Patricia Smith and the Sage String Quartet playing a Wynton Marsalis composition. Programming that melds artistic disciplines is something that I try to bring to the Festival each year.

My job is not without challenges. Budgets are tighter, fundraising is more difficult and staff reductions have occurred. These are universal issues, particularly in the arts and for nonprofit organizations. Also universal is question of audience development: how to best secure the next generation of devotees. Faced with the challenges of the past decade, economic and otherwise, we need to work harder than ever to arrive at the correct formula for making our Festival a regularly recurring success.

Each year, we seek a mix of recognizable names and eclectic acts that we hope will appeal to the widest possible audience. This season’s weekend headliners—Rhythmic Circus, Reduced Shakespeare Company, Pilobolus and Preservation Hall Jazz Band—offer a balanced array of high-energy performances. Additions such as award-winning Sundance movie shorts, the return of Baltimore’s Stoop Storytelling, the zany family-friendly AudioBody, a theatrical hair and makeup competition and the Patricia Smith event add the sort of flavor to the Festival that attendees have come to expect.

When asked about my favorite acts over the years, it’s tough to respond. Blood, Sweat & Tears, America and The Neville Brothers were personal indulgences and, fortunately, the performances were well-attended. Household names such as Wynton Marsalis, Judy Collins, Ed Asner and Smothers Brothers also come to mind.

Nichole Hickey

Nichole Hickey (Photo: Nicholas Griner)

I love the fact that we can bring these iconic artists and others to perform in the accessible settings of our local theaters, the Smith and the Rouse. They provide a personal experience that doesn’t exist in the larger venues of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. That’s what we strive to offer at the Festival: a personal, interactive experience between artist and audience. What’s the best part of the job for me? When I stand in the lobby after an amazing performance and feel the energy of audience members as they exit the theatre. That makes all the hard work worthwhile.

I can’t say where I will be ten years from now, but I do hope the Columbia Festival of the Arts is still going strong and has engaged a new generation of arts lovers.

I completely concur with Nichole, having experienced what she describes for myself last year. The Edith Pearlman reading, for example, was held at a lovely Columbia venue, the Historic Oakland manor house. Sitting in the last row, I was still close enough to engage her without a microphone. But others had good questions and comments, so I remained silent. One person observed that what Pearlman had read was not quite what appeared on the printed page. Pearlman smiled, saying that she never stopped revising. We smiled in assent, and the whatever distance remained between audience and author disappeared.

That reading also illustrates the kinds of synergies that can occur among neighboring cultural entities. Three organizations came together around Edith Pearlman: Columbia Festival of the Arts, Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (aka HoCoPoLitSo) and Little Patuxent Review. The first two brought Pearlman here, and the latter, through a print-issue interview conducted by Susan Thornton Hobby (who not incidentally sits on both HoCoPoLitSo and LPR boards), to an audience extending beyond county borders.

I now offer “An Interview with Edith Pearlman” online, giving it international reach since approximately 10 percent of our blog readers reside outside the States. Click and enjoy!

On Music and Writing

Lisa and Don Biggar

Writer Lisa Lynn Biggar and musician Don Biggar (Photo: Ronald Sturga)

Living with a writer, I witness first hand the crafting of stories. The process brings to mind how I craft a song and the similarities that can be found between the two arts. A tempo, or timing, starts in my head. Sometimes, it is upbeat or a unique expression on a break. Sometimes, just simple and melodic works best. I notice the presence of a tempo in my wife’s stories, and I ask myself, “How does the story move me? Is it leading me in an obvious direction? Is it toying with my curiosity? Am I on a freight train I cannot stop? Would I want to?”

I have played guitar since I was nine. After a few years of playing, I learned how to read and write music and started to write my own modest songs. I continued to read and write music for each new instrument that I learned. As I composed songs, I was able to hear the instruments, differentiate between them, and bring them into the composition as needed. However, I was not a lyricist.

My wife Lisa Lynn Biggar and I met through music. I had plenty of music written, and she had been writing poetry, stories, and lyrics. We saw the potential in a partnership of my music and her lyrics, and over the years we have written many songs together. She still pursued her writing career, and now her story writing has become more of a creative outlet for her. I still find enjoyment playing my various instruments, particularly guitar on our back porch, and we both enjoy playing songs together now and then.

If you think of any rock-and-roll song, you know when it starts, and you know what the basic structure will be. Now think of a piece of classical music that is slightly more complicated. You are not quite sure where it is going to take you, but there is a lot going on with all the instruments. And there is potential. I always enjoy songs that highlight the various instruments used. Think of the songs from the band Chicago from the Seventies. A lot of horns and guitars. They would craft their songs to showcase each instrument, to give it time up front on its own. This works with characters in a story, as well. Each character has his or her own unique voice but still plays a part in the whole melody. Each instrument is like a character. They all have their own voices to be heard.

Sometimes within the first paragraph of a story, everyone is in the mix. At other times, the characters are introduced to us gradually. In this same way, I keep listeners engaged in the interesting developments of a song. The introduction of a unique instrument for a brief arpeggio, a harmony with another instrument, or a change in timing to add a blues or folk element are just two examples of how I keep the attention. I regularly find this when reading a story. A plot twist brings new dimension. A brief and one-time appearance by a character has the power to alter the perception of the entire read.

Something else that I find in song and see often in print is the build-up. The build-up to the solo or pivotal moment is significant. In a story, this is usually when one or more characters attempt to gain control. The pivotal moment could be a revelation or when a certain motive is revealed to be the driving force behind the whole thing all along. It is the work of that freight train driving the tempo home. And I would not want to stop that.

Online Editor’s Note: Don’s wife Lisa’s short story “Mediation” appears in our Winter 2013 Doubt issue. You can view a video of her reading the story by clicking on this link.