Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


We are told not to panic, the most panic-inducing instruction known to man.

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter


Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Freebie: Mudbound by Hillary Jordan


Congratulations to Barbara Tricario, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: the new Penguin Classics edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay.

This week’s contest is for Mudbound by Hillary Jordan. One lucky reader will win a new paperback movie-tie-in edition of the 2008 novel The Washington Post Book World calls “A compelling family tragedy, a confluence of romantic attraction and racial hatred that eventually falls like an avalanche...The last third of the book is downright breathless.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...


In Hillary Jordan’s prize-winning debut, prejudice takes many forms, both subtle and brutal. It is 1946, and city-bred Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm—a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family’s struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not—charming, handsome, and haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, has come home with the shine of a war hero. But no matter his bravery in defense of his country, he is still considered less than a man in the Jim Crow South. It is the unlikely friendship of these brothers-in-arms that drives this powerful novel to its inexorable conclusion. The men and women of each family relate their versions of events and we are drawn into their lives as they become players in a tragedy on the grandest scale.

If you’d like a chance at winning Mudbound, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 24. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Woodsburner by John Pipkin


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


At every square and intersection in Boston, she heard shouts from vendors hawking oysters and fresh fish and hot corn and raspberries and milk and sweet doughnuts fried in pig fat. Everywhere the air smelled of cooking, as if America were one vast kitchen, and it seemed she need only breathe to fill herself with food.

Woodsburner by John Pipkin


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Chasing Spiders With a Pen: Gary Reilly’s War



by Mark Stevens

I know jackshit about war. In particular, Vietnam.

I had a low draft number but then the draft was cancelled, right when I was thinking about Canada. Or some other escape. Bone spurs? A high school friend had died in Vietnam. It scared the hell out of me.

I’ve seen the movies and I’ve read the books:

Platoon. Saving Private Ryan. Deer Hunter. Full Metal Jacket.

Matterhorn, Tree of Smoke, Dog Soldiers, Going After Cacciato.

But, still, I can only imagine.

I watched the Ken Burns documentary and tried not to throw anything at the television; all those lies.

Goodreads has a list of 280 novels about The Vietnam War. Would that do the trick?

I doubt it. Can art really capture the mental toll of war? I’m sure it comes close, in many cases.

It’s the same with coming home from war. I have no idea what it’s like to come home, to have seen so much death and killing and to have survived. I’m sure surviving is better, right?

The statistics suggest maybe, maybe not.

My friend Gary Reilly knew. He served in Vietnam. He was an MP at an airfield called Qui Nho’n. One year “in country,” not even in combat, and I believe he carried it around with him for the rest of his life.

Gary didn’t talk much about the war when he got home, in 1971. The war was winding down, but war is war. If you’re fighting, you’re fighting. By the end of 1971 “only” 151,000 U.S. soldiers would be in Vietnam; down from a half-million at the war’s peak.

I didn’t meet Gary until 2004, 33 years after he came back from Vietnam.

A couple weeks ago, I emailed Gary’s longtime partner, Sherry, to see if her recollection was the same as mine—that Gary didn’t talk about that year. Sherry agreed. She wrote: “Gary did not like to talk much about being in Vietnam. He would have nightmares sometimes that he associated with Vietnam, but he didn't talk about that much either. Sometimes he would wake up at night, yelling and trying to get the spiders off of him. He would say in his nightmare he was in Vietnam, being attacked by bugs. That was a recurring nightmare. He did talk sometimes about how he never took advantage of an ‘RnR’ that he may have been entitled to because he said once he left Vietnam, he would never be able to return.”

Gary didn’t talk much about those spiders, but he had an outlet: writing fiction. Shortly after returning from Vietnam, Gary took classes at the University of Colorado at Denver. The teachers were impressed with his style. Encouraged, Gary sent one story called “The Biography Man” off to the prestigious Iowa Review. It was published. And re-published the next year in the fourth volume of the Pushcart Prize Anthology. That particular story had nothing to do with Vietnam, but maybe it gave him a boost of confidence to keep writing.

On second thought, I doubt he needed it.

Gary was going to write.

And write.

“The Biography Man” was the first—and only story—that Gary published in his lifetime. (It’s a beauty; I’ve never read anything like it.)

One story—that was it.

When Gary passed away in 2011, however, he left behind 25 full-length novels.

Three of the 25 novels featured a character named Private Palmer, an MP who went to Vietnam and was part of the war. The first, The Enlisted Men’s Club, takes place at The Presidio as Palmer waits for the call up, unsure if it will come. The second book, The Detachment, takes place in Vietnam. And The Discharge finds Palmer at home in Denver trying to find a foothold back in civilization. The books form a seamless trilogy of one man’s journey to war—and back.

I’ve read all three—several times. I still know jackshit about what it’s like to go to war. I don’t have nightmares about spiders.

All three novels feature the war—getting ready, living with it, and dealing with the aftermath. Palmer is jaded. He finds ways to endure, to survive military stupidity and “shit jobs,” as he calls them. Palmer has his avoidance schemes, but in all three books he finds ways to connect with others, to assert or maintain his humanity.

As I write this, there are 1.3 million men and women in active duty in the U.S. armed forces. There are 10,000 stationed in Afghanistan, a war that has been going on since long before I met Gary Reilly for the first time. There are thousands in Bahrain and Kuwait and tens of thousands in South Korea and Japan, which could be a hot spot any moment, and of course now we know they’re in Niger and all over Africa, too.

We ask the soldiers to bear that weight but we really have no idea what toll that takes, thinking daily “what if?” Do they know what they’re getting into? Do they? They’re all okay with dying for the cause, for the country?

Some soldiers look down the barrels of their weapons. They are there to kill. Others are in what’s called “the rear.” During Vietnam, if you served in the rear, you were a REMF.

I didn’t know that acronym, or what it stood for, before a review of The Detachment was published by a book reviewer for the Vietnam Veterans of America: “Reilly gives the reader an immersion in this aspect of the Army throughout this fine novel of service in the rear. I add it to the short list of worthy novels of the REMF in Vietnam. Service in the rear was the majority experience, although it is seldom given respect or space in the Vietnam War canon.”

REMF: Rear-echelon motherfuckers. Support troops.

Gary Reilly didn’t see action. He was pure REMF.

Reilly didn’t see action and, of course, neither did his alter-ego, Palmer. (Even from his close-up vantage point for war, Reilly saw no need to take his fiction beyond what he had seen with his own two eyes; Palmer’s world was no more expansive than Reilly’s own.) Palmer didn’t see direct combat, but he saw the consequences of war all around him. The war came to him.

And took a toll.

We all know about that toll—the mental health, the injuries, the empty holes in families, the lost potential. I won’t go into detail here, only urge—if you’re curious—to read Gary Reilly’s view of Vietnam.

I’m not the only enthusiast of Gary’s work. As mentioned, the book reviewer for The Vietnam Veterans of America wrote a rave. Booklist praised Gary’s work as well. Here’s a note from a review of The Detachment: “Palmer’s mission is so banal most writers would not describe it, but Reilly describes it, and the result is that rarest thing in fiction, originality. His novel is a harsh and startling corrective to those foggy old vets who elevate their undistinguished service into something glorious.”

Ron Carlson raved (“Catch 23 or 24”) as did Stewart O’Nan (“classic.”) Both amazing writers if you don’t know them. O’Nan edited The Vietnam Reader.

Ernest Hemingway said to “write one true sentence” to get rolling. If you wrote one true sentence, you could take it from there. Hemingway was opposed to ornaments in writing.

Reilly left behind tens of thousands of true sentences. Here’s one paragraph from The Detachment:
The building shivers as a soft boom rolls across Qui Nhon, across the evac hospital, across the airfield, and the 109th, and beyond. Palmer sets the paperback down and sits absolutely motionless, waiting for another explosion. The VC must be tossing mortars again. He suddenly wants sky over his head, wants to be able to see everything around him, feels trapped inside this box of a room and wants to get out, to be able to see if there’s somebody he has to shoot at. He’s glad he’s good with the .45. Barely made sharpshooter with the M-14, but then he might be better with the M-16, a crazy spring in its butt to absorb the kick, probably thought up by the genius who designed the briefcase handle. Palmer scoots his chair back and stands up, casually turns and begins strolling down the aisle between the beds where men are sleeping. Nobody but himself seems to have noticed the boom. Maybe it takes more than the gentle shiver of a building to alarm infantrymen. Probably more attuned to real danger than Palmer ever will be.
That was Gary’s writing about war—chasing away the spiders with the work of his pen, one true sentence at a time.



Note: To date, in addition to Gary’s Vietnam novels, Running Meter Press has also published eight novels in The Asphalt Warrior series, comic adventures about a Denver cab driver named Murph. Three of the eight books were finalists for the Colorado Book Award and a reviewer for National Public Radio declared them “huge fun.” More about all of Gary’s work: www.theasphaltwarrior.com

Raised outside Boston, Mark Stevens is the son of two librarians. By law, he was required to grow up loving books. And writing. He was the 2016 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year. He writes the Allison Coil Mystery Series—Antler Dust, Buried by the Roan, Trapline and Lake of Fire. The last three books were all finalists for the Colorado Book Award. Trapline won (2015). Stevens is president of the Rocky Mountain chapter for Mystery Writers of America and serves on the national board. He also hosts a regular podcast for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Kirkus Reviews called Lake of Fire “irresistible” and Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire novels, said, “Mark Stevens writes like wildfire.”


Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday Freebie: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay


Congratulations to Jennifer Oleson Boyd, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s debut collection of short stories To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts.

This week’s contest is for the new Penguin Classics edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay which inspired the riveting, haunting, and unforgettable 1975 film by Peter Weir. The new Penguin edition includes an introduction by Maile Meloy (author of Do Not Become Alarmed). Keep scrolling for more information about the book...


A 50th-anniversary edition of the landmark novel about three “gone girls” that inspired the acclaimed 1975 film and an upcoming TV series starring Natalie Dormer. It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned.....Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

If you’d like a chance at winning Picnic at Hanging Rock, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 16, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 17. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Smoke of Horses by Charles Rafferty


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Famous people have been dying all week, and the Christmas tree just stopped drinking.

“Forecast” from The Smoke of Horses by Charles Rafferty


Friday, November 3, 2017

Friday Freebie: To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie


Congratulations to Jane Rainey, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Freebird by Jon Raymond.

This week, I am especially pleased to offer up a copy of Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s debut collection of short stories To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts to one lucky reader. Here’s what Peter Geye, author of Wintering, had to say about the book: “It’s been a long time since I read a collection of stories that amazed me from cover to cover, but that’s what Caitlin Summie’s To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts did. With the grace and elegance of a master, Summie lays bare our vulnerabilities and desires and hopes in equal measure. The result is one stunning story after another, each as lovely and heartfelt as the one before. If you’re a fan of Grace Paley or Ann Beattie or Tobias Wolfe, you’ll surely find something to love in these pages.” Keep scrolling for more information about To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts...


In these ten elegantly written short stories, Caitlin Hamilton Summie takes readers from WWII Kansas City to a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in New York, and from the quiet of rural Minnesota to its pulsing Twin Cities, each time navigating the geographical boundaries that shape our lives as well as the geography of tender hearts, loss, and family bonds. Deeply moving and memorable, To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts examines the importance of family, the defining nature of place, the need for home, and the hope of reconciliation.

If you’d like a chance at winning To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. This contest is limited to U.S. addresses only. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 9, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 10. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Monday, October 30, 2017

My First Time: Melissa Fraterrigo


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Melissa Fraterrigo, author of the novel Glory Days, now out from the University of Nebraska Press. Melissa also wrote the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies from Shenandoah and The Massachusetts Review to storySouth, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner. She has been a finalist for awards from Glimmer Train on multiple occasions, twice nominated for Pushcart Awards, and was the winner of the Sam Adams/Zoetrope: All Story Short Fiction Contest. She is founder and executive director of the Lafayette Writers Studio, in Lafayette, Indiana, where she also teaches classes on the art and craft of writing. To learn more visit melissafraterrigo.com


The First Time I Read to My Dad

I was nervous the first time my dad came to a reading. It was for my first book, the short story collection, The Longest Pregnancy. The reading was held in my hometown library, in one of the meeting rooms with glass doors that I used to walk past on my way to the children’s section with its bright tables and mini stage and bathroom with a toilet that fit my child-sized bum perfectly.

My father brought me to the library most weeks when I was a child. We would enter the building together and he’d walk me to the children’s section, then send me off while he went upstairs to check out thick tomes with images of WWII bombers involved in firefights or a Civil War battlefield, with the close-up of two soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. Guns and flack jackets. Hardtack and government-issued cigarettes. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force.

Despite never serving his country, my dad has a great reverence for this sort of factual writing, as showcased by the books he selected. I, on the other hand, loved the imaginary world of fiction. Stories took me away from our small suburban town with its bland brick bungalows and staid expectations. At home, I had two choices: I could be a nurse like my mom, or a teacher. But inside the pages of a book, I could be a girl on the frontier or own a talking poodle with a scheme for getting rich.

My dad and I both loved books yet had vastly different tastes.

Alas, reading fiction was a fine past time for an eight-year-old, but it was not something to study in college and certainly not something to focus on during graduate school. So while I gave in to my father and earned the steady teaching degree he advised, the gnawing urge to write never left me and I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Bowing Green State University.

“Fiction is not real,” my dad told me, the day before I left for Bowling Green, Ohio, where I would begin my graduate studies. Fortunately, by then, I had all but stopped listening to him.


So here we were back at the Lansing Public Library nearly a decade after I began graduate school, celebrating the release of my first book of short stories. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. My dad sat beside my mother in the front row. My nerves were frayed. One of my preschool teachers held her hands in her lap and next to her was the neighbor whose kids I used to babysit. One of the librarians introduced me and the reading started off like any other. I began to read “Scar Serum,” a story about a portly girl who becomes enamored with her neighbor, an inventor. Mr. Carpone’s latest invention is a serum that remedies wounds in an instant and in order to test the serum, Mr. Carpone must remove some of the protagonist’s clothes and place her in exceedingly challenging positions.

Now, nothing energizes me more than reading my work and experiencing the immediacy of the audience; only this time, as I read, I felt like I stood inside a sauna rather than the library. Sweat trickled down my armpits and along the backs of my thighs. I felt it pooling in the crevices behind my knees and I began to drift off. I felt otherworldly. I arrived at the place in the story where the protagonist is at her most vulnerable. And so was I, as I read the line “. . . her underpants were white and generous.”

Words still slid from my mouth, but I could not rid myself of the thought that my dad was sitting a few feet away, legs and arms crossed, while I rambled on about a character’s undergarments.

I tried not to look at him or my mom. I reminded myself to stay calm. I was almost finished. I could do this. But these entreaties were not enough. Soon my vision narrowed and grew dotty and someone brought me a chair—or did I simply walk into the audience and sit down? I do remember taking a seat and helping myself to a tissue from the little plastic packet my mother extended to me. I dabbed my face. Breathed. After a few moments, I again stood and finished reading the story and then as my preschool teacher and neighbor and other members of the audience applauded, I glanced at my dad. His grin was wide and unmistakable, the warmth of it so bright that I immediately matched it with my own. And as I stood there dopey faced with glee, I looked away. Later he hugged me and told me he was proud of me. He didn’t need to say it. I knew how he felt, but I thanked him regardless.

I no longer think I have as much to prove to my dad. He knows that I’ve spent much of my professional life writing and teaching others about the craft, and while I know what I create will never be as vivid to him as a battlefield, I’d like to think he respects my work. Regardless, readings can still be a little nerve-wracking for me and with the release of my new novel I don’t want to take any chances. The truth is I need to find a way a nice way to encourage my dad to stay home.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Since their argument, they have addressed one another with the caution of a bare foot avoiding shards of glass.

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer


Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday Freebie: Freebird by Jon Raymond


Congratulations to John Smith, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: the new novel by Eric Rickstad, The Names of Dead Girls.

This week’s contest is for Freebird, a novel by Jon Raymond which came out earlier this year from Graywolf Press. I have a new hardcover copy of the book to give away to one lucky reader. Here’s what Benjamin Percy (author of The Dark Net) had to say about the novel: “No one writes sentences so graceful and characters so achingly real as Jon Raymond. Sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious, oftentimes at the same moment, Freebird is the gripping story of a dysfunctional family through which we better understand these dysfunctional times.” Keep scrolling for more information about Freebird...

The Singers, an all-American family in the California style, are about to lose everything. Anne is a bureaucrat in the Los Angeles Office of Sustainability whose ideals are compromised by a proposal from a venture capitalist seeking to privatize the city’s wastewater. Her brother, Ben, a former Navy SEAL, returns from Afghanistan disillusioned and struggling with PTSD, and starts down a path toward a radical act of violence. And Anne’s teenage son, Aaron, can’t decide if he should go to college or pitch it all and hit the road. They all live inside the long shadow of the Singer patriarch Grandpa Sam, whose untold experience of the Holocaust shapes his family’s moral character to the core. Jon Raymond, screenwriter of the acclaimed films Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves, combines these narrative threads into a hard-driving story of one family’s moral crisis. In Freebird, Raymond delivers a brilliant, searching novel about death and politics in America today, revealing how the fates of our families are irrevocably tied to the currents of history.

If you’d like a chance at winning Freebird, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 3. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Monday, October 23, 2017

My First Time: Roz Morris


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Roz Morris, author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. Roz is an award-nominated novelist (My Memories of a Future LifeLifeform Three), book doctor to award-winning writers, has sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter and teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian. Not Quite Lost is her first collection of essays. Visit Roz at her website, her blog, Facebook and Twitter.


My First Distraction

Many creatives don't confine themselves to one field. If you've got inventive urges in one discipline you might well have them in others. And you might easily be led astray.

My first major distraction project came in the 1990s. I was working as a sub-editor on a magazine and was supposed to be guarding my weekends to write The Novel. This was The Novel I could then use to dazzle an agent. I hoped it would start the writing career I’d begun to seriously aim for. But the manuscript was a monstrous mess. On a Saturday morning, I’d sit at the computer, open the files and they would make no sense. Characters, plot and my intentions were like a language whose vocabulary and grammar I’d forgotten.

I was an ideal candidate for distraction.

In my teen years I had been a music dabbler. I’d spend long hours at a piano, writing songs. Later I was in a student band. Afterward, writing fiction became the chief creative obsession, but occasionally I strayed back to music. When I discovered a friend (day job in high finance) was also a recovering teen musician, I couldn’t resist a Saturday making glorious noise. Just one.

Stephane came round with his keyboard. I blew the dust off my upright piano. We hit a hitch immediately. Stephane was classically trained and my hamfisted key-bashing couldn't keep up with his jazzy polish, though he was too polite to say so. What could we play that would be bearable? There, on the sideboard, was inspiration. My husband, an author, was putting together a proposal with an illustrator for a series of books for children. We spread out the artwork on the dining table—enchanting pictures of a green garden with roguish and lovable creatures.

Stephane and I composed a piece of music for one of the pictures. I figured out a melody. He added the professional zing. It was such a buzz that we wrote another.

The composition became a major task. Weekend after weekend, my tough-as-gristle novel sat untouched on my hard drive. Meanwhile Stephane and I wrote signature tunes for all the characters. Something slinky for the fox. A languid musical yawn for a sleepy cat that lived on the garden wall. Upstairs, husband and artist worked on the proposal, and when they needed a break they amused themselves with a cup of tea and a slice of home-made music.

Finally, the itch scratched, I went back to my novel. I’d like to say the musical detour had given my grey cells a refreshing break, but the novel was more opaque than ever.


My second distraction project was much more recent. I had now mastered two novels into published form and was on my third. I came back from holiday, sleeves rolled up for serious revision. I knew my manuscript needed a lot of time and understanding. But when I opened the file, it seemed to be mumbling from a far-off land where nothing made sense. I took the coward’s way out. I spent five days designing, typesetting and printing a personal recipe book, just for me.

It was such fun to use my professional know-how for sheer amusement. Curating the content from scrappy scribblings. Finding a use for the photos of dinner parties. Writing jaunty back-cover copy (If you see this book in use, keep calm and drink more).

Happy explorations; joy in the act of creativity; gratitude for whatever inspiration came on the day. It was so carefree. Writing my novels wasn’t like this, but I realised it had been in the earliest days. Once writing became my vocation, my commitment and even my bid to leave a little significance behind me, there were expectations. It could never again be taken lightly. There was the possibility, always, of failure. The distraction project, on the other hand, was an airy lark. Forgiving of inadequacy. It could never disappoint me.

But when I returned to my novel, some of that new ease remained, like a glow from a good holiday. In making a quick, cheeky book for myself, I’d reminded myself I was naturally creative. I was a person who could make something out of nothing. In using grown-up tools for play, I’d remembered the simple satisfaction of making books. I learned not to take myself so seriously. I also felt more masterful when back in my proper element.

Alas, other work got in the way. Consultancy and teaching derailed my plans again. I struggled to keep connected to the novel. A year on, I returned from another holiday, having cleared some time and....

I wrote a lighthearted travel memoir instead. My biggest distraction project yet.

I blame my husband. He spotted that I had a travel diary. Make it into a book, he said.

Don’t be silly, I said. I write novels. And anyway, those are just doodles.

But I can resist anything except temptation.

Editing the travel diary was more work than I imagined. It took much longer than a week or two. But it became my most rewarding detour yet.


I was used to writing big stories. My fictional characters endure immense turmoil. My real life isn’t like that, for which I must be thankful, but that meant the events in my travel diary were of a light and low-key hue. What’s more, they couldn’t be tweaked to create more drama. All the interest would come from presentation, interpretation, performance. How another person’s eccentricities help you discover your own edges. How a house being demolished is a reckoning with a childhood. The language of the personal essay.

Fast forward a few months, and I am back to the novel with more tools in my belt.

This travel diary was the tune-up I needed. It strengthened my repertoire, like cross-training. I’ve found narrative shapes in surprising places. I’ve let the mystery of a moment or a place speak for itself. I’ve noticed more how small events can shift your comprehension, or a reader’s. And, most thrillingly, I’ve seen that a novel is, in some ways, a personal essay for the characters.

And, for the first time, one of my distraction projects has grown up into an actual, presentable thing—Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. It has reminded me that this process is frustrating and demanding, but so satisfying too. And that it always starts with play.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Smoke of Horses by Charles Rafferty


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


The sunlight in the leaves is dazzling and wild, sharp as broken vodka bottles.

“An Adulterous Spring” from The Smoke of Horses by Charles Rafferty


Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Names of Dead Girls by Eric Rickstad


Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: the Penguin Classics Deluxe edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Everything You Need to Know About Nightmares and How to Defeat Them by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller.

This week’s contest is for the new novel by Eric Rickstad, The Names of Dead Girls. I have a signed copy ready to put in one lucky reader’s hands. Here’s what others have been saying about the book: “Eric Rickstad is the rare writer who can wrap a dark, gritty story in smooth, poetic prose. If you haven’t discovered his work yet, The Names of Dead Girls is the place to start. It’s a taut, masterful thriller and a terrific read.” (Alafair Burke, New York Times bestselling author of The Ex) Keep scrolling for more information about the novel...


New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Eric Rickstad delivers another Canaan Crime novel and features once again detectives Frank Rath and Sonja Test as they track a depraved killer through rural Vermont. Every murder tells a story. Some stories never end....In a remote northern Vermont town, college student Rachel Rath is being watched. She can feel the stranger’s eyes on her, relentless and possessive. And she’s sure the man watching her is the same man who killed her mother and father years ago: Ned Preacher, a serial rapist and murderer who gamed the system to get a light sentence. Now, he’s free. Detective Frank Rath adopted Rachel, his niece, after the shocking murder of her parents when she was a baby. Ever since, Rath’s tried to protect her from the true story of her parents’ deaths. But now Preacher is calling Rath to torment him. He’s threatening Rachel and plotting cruelties for her, of the flesh and of the mind. When other girls are found brutally murdered, and a woman goes missing, Rath and Detective Sonja Test must untangle the threads that tie these new crimes and some long-ago nightmares together. Soon they will learn that the truth is more perverse than anyone could guess, rife with secrets, cruel desires, and warped, deadly loyalty. Mesmerizing, startling, and intricately plotted, The Names of Dead Girls builds relentlessly on its spellbinding premise, luring readers into its dark and macabre mystery, right to its shocking end.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Names of Dead Girls, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 27. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Monday, October 16, 2017

My First Time: Eric Rickstad



My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Eric Rickstad, the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of The Canaan Crime Series: Lie in Wait, The Silent Girls, and, his newest novel, The Names of Dead Girls. Dark, disturbing and compulsively readable psychological thrillers set in northern Vermont, the series is heralded as intelligent, profound, heartbreaking and mind shattering. His first novel Reap was a New York Times noteworthy novel. His fifth novel, What Remains of Her, is poised to be the most addictive and creepy read of the summer of 2018. Rickstad lives in his home state of Vermont.


The First Time I Knew I Had to Write

I can’t remember a time I did not read. Long before it was ever expected that kids “graduate” from kindergarten with the ability to read, I was reading at the age of four. In the fifth grade, I attended “literary luncheon” with the school librarian. Twice a week, instead of having lunch in the cafeteria, ten 5th graders met with the librarian in the principle’s conference room to discuss the merits of Encyclopedia Brown, The Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web, Danny Champion of the World, and Freckle Juice.

I always wrote, too. When I read, I wanted to know how the writer did that, how she used words to manipulate my emotions so I felt sad or happy or scared, or conjured images as real as any object in the physical world. So, I wrote. Yet even with the influence of all the wonderful authors, my “writing” was not with purpose or intent or passion. I was in grade school after all, so my writing did not come from inside me. I mimicked the writing of authors I liked, and was typical gruesome kid stories, rip offs of stories such as Roald Dahl’s “Pig.” My version of “Pig” was missing the social satire —way over my head at the time—and concentrated on the gore and horror, putting a man through a bubble gum maker instead of an abattoir, stretching and torturing him until he came out the other side as a wad of bubble gum, got chewed by a cat, spat out on a sidewalk, stuck to a shoe, and so on.

Then, one summer day when I was still in junior high, my older sister’s boyfriend popped a cassette tape in the player as he drove his rusted, primer gray convertible VW Bug down the highway, and said: “Listen to this.”

The opening piano notes of a song played, and a voice sang, the words combining to create a story, a magic, of the likes I’d never heard.

The screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

I saw Mary in her dress. I saw her standing on the porch. By the song’s finale, I saw her graduation gown lying in rags at their feet. I felt the lonely cool before dawn and heard their engines rolling on. I felt her aloneness, and the narrator’s aloneness and desperation and sincerity for something different, something more.

As the album continued, I felt the earnestness and fleetingness of youth and love, and their often broken promises. I felt the pain in the words. The lust and sadness. The struggle. The triumph. The loss. I felt the shots echo down them hallways in the night. I felt the hot sun and the mysterious nights and the complete freedom yet imprisonment of driving with no place to go. I had not yet lived any of these things, and I say I felt them because I did not really understand them. Yet, my gut and my heart felt it all, were awakened by the lyrics in a way no novel or short story had awakened them. That album reached me because of a deep loss in my life. My father had left my mom and three sisters and me a few years earlier, and that void, the pain and loneliness of it, was understood and respected in the words I heard blasting out the car speakers.

I saved up and bought the album and I played it over and over and over again trying to decipher its mysteries. I fell asleep listening to it, and awoke to the stylus of my cheap record player scratching in its endless final groove, cssuuusssh cssusssh csusssh, and before I rose from bed, I’d pick up the needle’s arm and set the needle back at the beginning to start my day.


Lyrics such as Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge / Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain and The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all / They just stand back and let it all be cut to the quick. I knew nothing of this guy Springsteen. But I knew he meant it. He got it. He understood; and as I began to read about him, I saw comparisons in our lives of growing up working class poor, and our estrangement from our father’s, our loneliness and sense of being observers, outsiders, and a shared urgency to put all of it down on paper, into stories that tried to make sense of it and of our place in the world. He took the common and spun myths out of it. His lyrics made me want to write. For the first time. Really write. Even though I was incapable of doing it justice at that age, I knew I had to write what was within me. Let it explode on the page, however awful the adolescent writing was, however convoluted or self-pitying, or navel gazing, or juvenile. I had to write, because those lyrics also made me feel I had something to say, that we all do.

So, I wrote. And I’ve never stopped. I wrote, and learned how to “show” and not “tell” by listening to Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska thousands of times. I wrote, influenced by lyrics that possessed a singular voice, deep internalized emotion, a keen sense of place and story, and a lingering sense of mystery as to how the precise combination of words can resonate so powerfully. There is a magic to it.

I’ve tried to bring those essential elements to everything I’ve ever written, and it’s that combination I seek and admire most in novels and short stories I read, no matter how dissimilar they may be in many other ways. To give readers a sense that they’re reading a story or novel no one else could have written but me, a novel or story that impacts them, makes them think or feel, is a joy. If any of my stories or novels holds up to retain a sense of mystery, I’ve done my job well. After so many years of listening to Born to Run, even though each lyric and note was memorized long ago, their mystery remains. The magic remains.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Midnight Line by Lee Child


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Right away he saw Billy was a hardscrabble country boy, maybe forty years old, lean and furtive, like a fox and a squirrel had a kid, and spent half the time baking it in the sun, and the other half beating it with a stick.

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Freebie: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Everything You Need to Know About Nightmares and How to Defeat Them by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller


Congratulations to Kristen Lodge, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash.

This week’s contest could be called a Freaky Friday the 13th Freebie. I’ve Monster Mashed a couple of books together just in time for Halloween. One lucky reader will win the Penguin Classics Deluxe edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Everything You Need to Know About Nightmares and How to Defeat Them by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller. So, there’s one for you and one for the kids (or, depending on your age, one for you and one for the grownups). Keep reading...if you dare...


First up is the deluxe edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the haunting adventure about ambition and modernity run amok. The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the 1818 classic has an introduction by Elizabeth Kostova and cover art by Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes. Mary Shelley’s timeless gothic novel presents the epic battle between man and monster at its greatest literary pitch. In trying to create life, the young student Victor Frankenstein unleashes forces beyond his control, setting into motion a long and tragic chain of events that brings Victor to the very brink of madness. How he tries to destroy his creation, as it destroys everything Victor loves, is a powerful story of love, friendship, scientific hubris, and horror.



Everything You Need to Know About Nightmares and How to Defeat Them is, as the title claims, a handbook for beating nightmares from the New York Times bestselling authors of the Nightmares series, Jason Segel (also star of that TV show How I Met Your Mummy) and Kirsten Miller. Nightmares. They come in all shapes and sizes, from gargantuan lizards to teensy creepy-crawlies. No matter their form, we know all too well, they are truly terrifying. The good news is that every Nightmare, no matter how ferocious, mysterious, or hairy, can be defeated. And this book will tell you how. Everything You Need to Know About Nightmares and How to Defeat Them is your one-stop guide to battling anything that goes bump in the night. Whether you’re being chased by zombies or stalked by evil twins, this handy book will give you all the tools and tips you need to put your bad dreams to bed for good Keep a copy under your pillow and you’ll never fear Nightmares again.

If you’d like a chance at winning both books, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 19, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 20. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Monday, October 9, 2017

My First Time: Paulette Livers


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Paulette Livers, author of the novel Cementville, a novel which opens in a small Kentucky town as coffins are making their way home from Vietnam, along with one remaining survivor, the now-maimed town quarterback recently rescued from a prison camp. Cementville was the winner of the Elle Lettres Readers Prize and finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize, Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and the Kentucky Literary Award. Paulette teaches at Story Studio and is Creative Director at Mighty Sword, a boutique writing and design studio serving writers and publishers around the country. Livers is a recipient of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Artist Grant, and is a MacDowell Fellow. Please visit www.PauletteLivers.com to learn more about her works.


My First Brush With Mortality

With so many years spent making art and texts, countless firsts have come and gone: first workshop as my graduate program’s most nontraditional student, first contracts, first awarding of those coveted bona fides. There’s the first completed novel—that obligatory one-in-the-drawer; a second novel which would be the first published, to reasonable acclaim, and sad sales figures; and the first draft of a third novel, now in revisions after my agent’s close read.

Until last fall there was one first I had not experienced: An up-close encounter with mortality.

Oh sure, I’d gotten myself into dangerous scrapes: the near fatal car accident at 18. The heart-thumping race against a lightning storm while backpacking up a 14,000-foot peak in the Rockies. Class V rapids in the Grand Canyon. An idiotic rock-climbing venture with an “expert” whom every cell in my body told me not to trust. I consider myself a reasonable risk-taker with a faith in pushing physical and mental strength where it hasn’t gone before. After all, I’d always enjoyed perfect health. A doctor who examined me early last year said, “You’re trim, you’re active, and you have low blood pressure. You’ll live to be 100!” My body was the sturdy house for my mind, the dependable turtle shell from which I’d written and created for years.

But the body is a fickle partner to the mind. Mine started to turn on me last September, when I learned the bronchitis I hadn’t been able to shake was actually pneumonia—and something else. Hospitalization, an isolation room (they suspected tuberculosis), and multiple tests later, we uncovered a mycobacterial colonization of my lungs, which had found its perfect habitat due to an incurable lung disease I didn’t even know I had. Bronchiectasis had killed my sister at age 32; not until I was diagnosed with it did I learn that the condition carries a familial connection. Another sister has been living with it and managing it for a couple of years now.

But this was just the start.

A routine mammogram in October turned up something suspicious. Fast forward: biopsy, surgery, chemo, and at the end of June, the last radiation treatment. In the midst of all this, quarterly CT scans of my lungs showed a pesky nodule, and the word “biopsy” again hung over me. I was supposed to be celebrating freedom from breast cancer, and suddenly couldn’t be sure I was home free.

You might be asking, What has this to do with firsts in writing? Almost everything I’ve ever written has dealt with death, either overtly or as a subtext. Coming from a very large extended family, I’ve encountered so many losses at this point, I probably (foolishly) believed I was inured to what the personal confrontation with mortality might do to notions about my own impermanence.

Wedged in among medical appointments and new tests, surgeries and consultations, and injections of toxins no sane person would happily choose, daily writing practice morphed into a wholly unfamiliar mental beast. That third novel hung in a Twilight Zone world, its ending coming one sentence, one phrase, or even a single image at a time, little nuggets that two or three times a week glimmered weakly through the ever-present fatigue.

I credit my hard-driving mother for the relentless worker I am. Moving into the reasonable expectations I would undoubtedly advise a sick friend to embrace has been a lesson in acceptance I didn’t even know I needed. No one’s to blame; there isn’t some supreme being who took time off from keeping the planets in orbit in order to stick it to Paulette.

Illnesses happen to people every second of every day. I have health care in a country where that’s far from guaranteed. I have family and friends who love me. I have places like The MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for Creative Arts that will shelter and feed me so I can work without interruption. I have mobility, and a mind, and a body that, for all its insults and infidelities, is still not a total shambles of a house. Regardless of when my new novel eventually runs through a printing press, the planets are not likely to go whizzing off into the ether.

Today an image. Tomorrow a phrase. By the end of the week, a sentence. At some point, Finis.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sunday Sentence: “Doors, Doors, Doors” by Anne Sexton


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Christ was a hornet inside his head.

“Doors, Doors, Doors” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

Friday, October 6, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash


Congratulations to Alyssa Davis, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Leavers by Lisa Ko and Never Coming Back by Alison McGhee.

This week’s contest is for the new novel by Wiley Cash, The Last Ballad. Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

The New York Times bestselling author of the celebrated A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy returns with this eagerly awaited new novel set in the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina in 1929 and inspired by actual events. The chronicle of an ordinary woman’s struggle for dignity and her rights in a textile mill, The Last Ballad is a moving tale of courage in the face of oppression and injustice, with the emotional power of Ron Rash’s Serena, Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, and the unforgettable films Norma Rae and Silkwood. Twelve times a week, twenty-eight-year-old Ella May Wiggins makes the two-mile trek to and from her job on the night shift at American Mill No. 2 in Bessemer City, North Carolina. The insular community considers the mill’s owners—the newly arrived Goldberg brothers—white but not American and expects them to pay Ella May and other workers less because they toil alongside African Americans like Violet, Ella May’s best friend. While the dirty, hazardous job at the mill earns Ella May a paltry nine dollars for seventy-two hours of work each week, it’s the only opportunity she has. Her no-good husband, John, has run off again, and she must keep her four young children alive with whatever work she can find. When the union leaflets begin circulating, Ella May has a taste of hope, a yearning for the better life the organizers promise. But the mill owners, backed by other nefarious forces, claim the union is nothing but a front for the Bolshevik menace sweeping across Europe. To maintain their control, the owners will use every means in their power, including bloodshed, to prevent workers from banding together. On the night of the county’s biggest rally, Ella May, weighing the costs of her choice, makes up her mind to join the movement—a decision that will have lasting consequences for her children, her friends, her town—indeed all that she loves. Seventy-five years later, Ella May’s daughter Lilly, now an elderly woman, tells her nephew about his grandmother and the events that transformed their family. Illuminating the most painful corners of their history, she reveals, for the first time, the tragedy that befell Ella May after that fateful union meeting in 1929. Intertwining myriad voices, Wiley Cash brings to life the heartbreak and bravery of the now forgotten struggle of the labor movement in early twentieth-century America—and pays tribute to the thousands of heroic women and men who risked their lives to win basic rights for all workers. Lyrical, heartbreaking, and haunting, this eloquent novel confirms Wiley Cash’s place among our nation’s finest writers.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Last Ballad, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 12, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 13. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Eclectic Shelf: Eric Rickstad’s Library



Reader:  Eric Rickstad
Location:  Vermont
Collection size:  No idea, a lot. Books everywhere.
The one book I’d back into a burning building to rescue:  My 1992 Best American Short Stories
Favorite book from childhood:  Danny, Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
My guilty pleasure:  Best American Short Stories Collection

OK, I don’t really have a library. Not in the sense that I think of a library, that vast room with shelves from floor to ceiling, a place worthy of Colonel Mustard and his pipe wrench. But I do have a lot of bookshelves and cabinets.


This is what’s left of what was my Best American Short Stories and O’Henry Awards collection from 1974-2005. I lost so many editions to severe water damage, it kills me. I first read BASS in the early ’90s when in college. These stories opened up my mind to what was possible with words, precise language, and love of craft. Each was a gem that excited me to read more ravenously than ever, and a challenge to write my best. Joyce Carol Oates. Alice Munro. John Edgar Wideman. Harlan Ellison. Alice Adams. Rick Bass. Denis Johnson. And on and on and on. Who were these word conjurers of tales so strange and wondrous and singular? I devoured the stories, and I bought each subsequent edition in the years to come, along with the O’Henry collections. After reading the first copy I ever bought in 1992, I searched for past editions and bought them whenever I was in a used bookshop. Searching for and finding them was a feverish, earnest pursuit. Of course, they led me to the literary magazine world, and I gobbled up every copy of Cimarron Review, Tri-Quarterly, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, and dozens of others in the periodicals section of the University of Vermont’s Bailey Howe Library. There was no going back. The door was flung wide open.

When several boxes of my editions got ruined by water damage during a move, I felt gut punched. I could recall each story in my mind and where I was when I read it the first of many, many times, what it made me feel and think, and how it made me want to write. I remember I started Kate Braverman’s “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” on the front porch of my college apartment and had to finish it inside when a downpour struck out of the blue. I read Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” while waiting for my clothes to wash at the Laundromat. And I re-read it and re-read it and re-read it. What. Was. This? Magic.

When I lost all those editions in the mid 2000s, I could have easily searched for and bought online all the used editions I wanted, with a few clicks. I could have owned them all again, and more. I still could. But, no. It wouldn’t be the same, it wouldn’t be them: found in the back labyrinth of stacks in ancient used bookstores, dog-eared and tattered and stained, sentences and words and entire pages underlined during those moments of revelation upon my first read of them. So, I salvaged those books I could from the water damage. Luckily, among the books that were salvageable included the first one I bought in 1992. They occupy the top shelf where they belong, and once in a while I’ll take them down and be transported, not just back into the world of the stories, but to the time I first read that story. I don’t keep them in any order—as you can see, one is upside down. I read them, and I still take notes in them. They are there to be read.


I try to arrange books by author’s last name, alphabetically. It’s hopeless. As I buy more books, it would mean having to get rid of older books to accommodate new books, and I buy new books by the dozens. I gave up on shelves for a spell, and the new books just pile up. This shelf demonstrates an attempt at order, and the eclectic array on any given shelf. New books. Used books. Hardcovers and paperbacks. Fiction and nonfiction. Genre novels by John Sandford, Don Winslow and Nic Pizzolatto live among Carson Stroud, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and Mia Siegert. Strewn among them are the nonfiction work On Fire by the late Larry Brown, Animals Make Us Human by Temple Grandin, Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass, and Under the Stars by Dan White, a history of camping in the U.S. Near one of Stephen King’s newer annual tomes and Donna Tartt’s latest addition in a decade, sit The Stories of Breece Pancake, a Wild Game Cookbook from the ’80s, and a favorite book of essays and photographs, with a foreword by the late Howard Frank Mosher, Deer Camp: Last Light in the Northeast Kingdom. Each shelf is its own mini collection of writers.


Sometimes, even in alphabetical order, a shelf will represent just a few authors in a specific genre, like this one, which is Hakan Nesser-centric, and mostly mystery/crime genre.


Other times, certain kings of the book world get their own shelf, or shelves.

There are shelves with just cookbooks, and just children’s books, rock n’ roll biographies, essays, philosophy, Judaism, hunting and fishing, and art. I keep building or buying shelves and giving away books I love to others, so they can enjoy them. I stack them at the bedside table, and the floor, and on the stairs, and I box them up and put boxes in the closet. I think I may well need a library.


Eric Rickstad is the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of The Canaan Crime Series: Lie in Wait, The Silent Girls, and his newest novel, The Names of Dead Girls. Dark, disturbing and compulsively readable psychological thrillers set in northern Vermont, the series is heralded as intelligent, profound, heartbreaking and mind shattering. His first novel Reap was a New York Times noteworthy novel. His fifth novel, What Remains of Her, is poised to be the most addictive and creepy read of the summer of 2018. Rickstad lives in his home state of Vermont.


My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email thequiveringpen@gmail.com for more information.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Minor Outsider by Ted McDermott


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Taylor came to the door and his heart fell apart.

The Minor Outsider by Ted McDermott

Friday, September 29, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Leavers by Lisa Ko and Never Coming Back by Alison McGhee


Congratulations to Jeffrey Tretin, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Disappeared by Adam Braver.

This week’s contest is for a pair of new novels whose titles seemed like a good match: The Leavers by Lisa Ko (recently longlisted for the National Book Award) and Never Coming Back by Alison McGhee. Keep scrolling for more information on the books...

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon—and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her. With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind. Told from the perspective of both Daniel—as he grows into a directionless young man—and Polly, Ko’s novel gives us one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heartwrenching choice after another. Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

When Clara Winter left her rural Adirondacks town for college, she never looked back. Her mother, Tamar, a loving but fiercely independent woman who raised Clara on her own, all but pushed her out the door, and so Clara built a new life for herself, far from her roots and the world she had always known. Now more than a decade has passed, and Clara, a successful writer, has been summoned home. Tamar has become increasingly forgetful, and can no longer live on her own. But just as her mother’s memory is declining, Clara’s questions are building. Why was Tamar so insistent that Clara leave, all those years ago? Just what secrets was she hiding? The surprising answers Clara uncovers are rooted in her mother’s love for her, and the sacrifices Tamar made to protect her. And in being released from her past—though now surrounded by friends from it—Clara can finally look forward to the future. Never Coming Back is a brilliant and piercing story of a young woman finding her way in life, determined to know her mother—and by extension herself—before it's too late.

If you’d like a chance at winning both novels, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 5, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 6. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.