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Lost & Found: Andrew Engelson on Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz

Contrary to what Orson Welles asserted in The Third Man, the cultural output of Switzerland amounts to more than the cuckoo clock. As anyone who’s enjoyed Paul Klee’s playful paintings or read the subversive stories of Robert Walser knows, the Swiss have contributed their share to the arts.

Like Swiss wines, the writers this tiny country produces aren’t well known beyond its borders. Most of us, for instance, have never heard of the twentieth-century novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. I only learned of his existence while spending money.


I was living in Switzerland, trying to complete a novel I’d been working on for five years. My partner had taken a job with a global health nonprofit and we’d moved our family from a posting in Hanoi to Geneva. I was the trailing spouse, at home typing on my laptop like a hermit. The village we lived in was an orderly suburb where rough-timbered barns have been converted into apartments for bankers, diplomats, and employees of acronym-laden organizations. My daughters were enrolled in local schools, where their nimble minds soaked up the new language like sponges. I wrestled with my manuscript and bought groceries.

While paying for my gruyère and Cheerios, I glimpsed Ramuz’s worried face on the Swiss 200-franc note. A quick Google search provided scant information: Born in Lausanne in 1878, Ramuz was a poet, essayist, and experimental novelist whose formative years were in Paris, where he befriended the likes of Andre Gide and Igor Stravinsky. In 1914 Ramuz married the Swiss painter Cécile Cellier and returned to Switzerland after to the outbreak of the First World War. From 1930 until his death in 1947 he lived in a stone house overlooking the vineyards near Lausanne, where he wrote deeply existential books. Most have never been translated into English.

Intrigued, I bought one of Ramuz’s early novels, La Grande Peur dans La Montagne (Terror in the Mountains) and attempted to read it in the original French. Let’s just say I have a complicated relationship with the language. Enamored of Foucault and Deleuze in college, I studied French for a semester, but it never took. During my three years in Geneva, I chose to learn by osmosis rather than taking classes. It was not a successful experiment. While my daughters became fluent, my studies were limited to the checkout lane at the supermarché: I know my aubergines from my courgettes, but any time I utter complete sentences at home, I’m mocked mercilessly by my children.

With the help of a dictionary and Google Translate, I muddled through to the end of La Grand Peur. It’s a tale of misfortune set in a village high in the mountains of Valais. Imagine Heidi rewritten by Cormac McCarthy.


Five impoverished men decide to lead their cattle to summer pasture in a remote alpine meadow. The village council, however, forbids them because the place is subject to a centuries-old curse. Defiant, the herdsmen guide their cows to the rich green fields. Cooped up in a tiny cabin, the men begin to argue and bicker. Vague, terrifying noises penetrate the starless night. One of the men is killed by a malfunctioning rifle. Another, a twitchy teenager, flees down the mountain in terror. One herder, a superstitious old codger, keeps a mysterious paper tucked in his threadbare coat, confident it will protect him. But the cattle contract an unnamed, contagious disease. The president of the village council, accompanied by a veterinarian (who in his black cape resembles the Grim Reaper) condemns the men to exile. One of the herdsman, who is in love with a girl in the village, flaunts the order and attempts a secret rendezvous. He’s discovered, and as the accursed band attempts to descend from the high country, a group of vigilantes assembles to prevent them from returning. A gun battle ensues in the town graveyard. It doesn’t end well.

Ramuz, who was a poet before he was a novelist, doesn’t concern himself with anything resembling a plot. The strength of the book derives from a mood of dread, sustained by Ramuz’s surprising imagery. In one scene, the pine needles of a forest floor are “embroidered with golden sunlight.” In another, a man’s bloody hand is held aloft like a lamp. And in the most striking scene in La Grande Peur, a man ventures to a lifeless place of rock and ice to prove he possesses the tiniest tincture of will:

“It seemed that no one had come here since the creation of the world and nothing had ever disturbed it, except for at that moment a man proceeded to write the evidence of his existence as if here were placing letters, one after the other, one phrase and then another, disturbing the first page, that beautiful blank page, with his footsteps.”

Passages like this resonate deeply with me, as I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, whether in the Olympic range near Seattle, or among golden larches at the foot of the Matterhorn. Even so, living in Switzerland I felt like an outsider. I began to feel guilty about not fitting in. With all its beautiful scenery, precise train service, and fantastic quality of life, why couldn’t I love Switzerland?

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Posted in Lost & Found

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La Grande Guerre


A parasol and a stone seawall and a polished lady clad all in white: ostrich feather hat, fringed purse, silk gloves. Her posture lovely, her coiffure tight. But Mag has planted a flower in front: a blue hydrangea pom-pomming preposterously. Star-shaped blossoms facade what Georgette would most like to see: is the lady’s face as pretty as her dress? But Georgette confesses to Loulou the Pomeranian that she likes that her husband has denied them that.

The three of them are on a walk to get groceries in the morning after a gray spring rain. The air is hung with a purple smell: lilacs. Some petals on the ground, some still attached. Hydrangeas, though gorgeous, have no scent.

Some people, some climates, can be too nice, oppressive in their mildness, a mildness unto death. Her husband has a wildness. A perversity without which the conditions of their marriage could become adverse. He can be terse and steady, but he is not without temptation.

In line at the butcher’s, they hear a woman ask for “Two nice kidneys, please,” and Magritte whispers to Loulou and Georgette, “I’m tempted to ask for two horrible ones.”

Georgette’s father was a butcher. As a butcher’s daughter, she grew used to the slaughter of animals for food. “Would you ever eat me?” Loulou had asked when he was a puppy. “Of course not!” Georgette had said. “Forget about that.” But she understood why he’d wonder.

When they walk by the American consulate on the way home, Mag is tempted again: “Maybe I’ll go in and ask them to do the necessary paperwork to make me the King of America tomorrow.”

The image is called The Great War, and the glory of the woman’s attire conflicts with the violence of her not-so-long-ago era. If Magritte were king, then Georgette would be queen, and Loulou would be both heir and court jester. They have, in their family, a defiance of common sense.

Mag seems staid, Georgette knows, to people outside their isosceles triangle, but he’s got his darkness and he’s got his edges. He suffers from what he calls “the bizarre affliction” – the source of his ills and his melancholic progress: ennui. As their friend Suzi has said, he lives it as a metaphysical condition, and about his pursuit of painting he at times manifests “an almost constitutional dislike, feigning something between boredom, fatigue, and disgust.”

Georgette imagines that if you took the hydrangea away, you’d find the woman to be blind. She looks like the kind to say Pro Patria, and to shut her eyes, stop her ears, and sing a popular song. “Right?” says Loulou. “Like, La la la, everything’s sunny and nothing’s wrong.” Ugh.


Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Co-editor of René Magritte: Selected Writings, she is also the author of seven books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including, most recently, the novel O, Democracy! and the novel in poems Robinson Alone. Her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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A Writer Is Not Smarter Than Literature: An Interview with Eliot Weinberger

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Essayist, editor, translator, political commentator, and occasional poet—Eliot Weinberger is one of this century’s busiest literary polymaths. Whether cataloging the translation history of a single poem, or tracing the influence of classical Chinese poetry on the European avant-garde, or even reading George W. Bush’s memoir through the critical lens of Michel Foucault, Weinberger brings a fierce erudition to bear on each of his varied subjects. His essay collection The Ghosts of Birds—newly published alongside a reissue of his now classic Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a close reading of different English translations of a single Wang Wei poem from the Tang Dynasty—is a sprawling record of found poetry, cultural encounters, and historical anecdotes, all of which Weinberger, ever the modernist, makes something like new again. 


Hal Hlavinka: Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei was originally published three decades ago, when literary translation was still very much an activity at the margins of the market. Were there any specific developments in the translation community— methodological, cultural, social; or perhaps a fight or two—that you considered when drafting the new section of the book?

Eliot Weinberger: It’s true that since the book was written in 1979 (and published in book form in 1986) there is now a greater recognition of translators, excellent presses devoted to translation, and an academic industry (which I avoid) of conferences and works of translation theory. But when it came to expanding the book for the new edition, none of this mattered. What I found interesting is that the English translations in recent decades are all written with an awareness of the original book—that is, of the many previous translations of the poem. So there’s a pressure to come up with something new, which isn’t easy. (And, for those who remember the old book, the new one has more wacky stories about my nemesis, the Furious Professor, the one who accused me of “crimes against Chinese poetry.”)

HH: The combination of fragments, translations, and poems that make up An Elemental Thing—the serial essay which comprises part one of The Ghosts of Birds—are striking in how disparate yet oddly comfortable they seem when set aside one another. What draws you to a particular piece that ends up in the project?

EW: The idea was to write a serial essay, in the manner of the American open-ended serial poem, which can go on forever. The subjects keep changing from essay to essay, but images and even phrases repeat. Maybe that’s why they’re “oddly comfortable.” I’m glad you think so. I always want my books to be a kind of couch. You read a few pages in the late afternoon, fall asleep, and have a memorable dream.

HH: Several of the essays and pieces you originally wrote for exhibition catalogs. How does your compositional process change when you’re collaborating with another artist, particularly when you’re bringing text to accompany a visual medium?

EW: I love collaborating with visual artists, but the understanding is that I will not write directly on their work—I’m not an art critic—but rather will write something somehow inspired by their work, a kind of parallel text. In this book are collaborations with two artists: the Cuban-American Teresita Fernández and the Maori painter Shane Cotton, both of whom contacted me out of the blue. In Teresita’s studio, I saw crates and crates of rocks that she uses for her installations and a work in progress of 31 small gold-plated metal rectangles, partially painted over in black ink, which were intended as a calendar. So I decided to do a calendar of stones—ordinary stones, not precious ones. But mine is a lunar calendar, with 28 sections, and the whole thing waxes and wanes: the texts grow longer up to #14 and start getting shorter after #15. In the case of Shane Cotton, I incorporated some of his imagery of birds, rock cliffs, and Maori translations of the Bible into my text. But mainly his work sent me into Maori bird lore and the stories of various birds that no longer exist, that now are ghosts.


HH: Your essay “Béla Balázs’s Chinese Dreams” begins with a glancing definition of one of modernism’s goals: “In the first decades of the 20th century, a committed modernist had two ambitions: to make something new and to recover something old.” This strikes me as an apt description of your own work. Do you think of your project as an extension of a modernist aesthetic?

EW: Yeah I’m just an old-fashioned modernist, not very happy with postmodernism, whatever that is. Modernism always played with the tension between sincerity and irony, between making connections and severing them. Now, at least in the avant-garde—whatever that is—it’s all irony, which I find tedious. A writer is not smarter than literature.

HH: I found myself often overwhelmed by the odd historical details you find, which stick out in the mind long after reading. I’m thinking of things like the bone from Josaphat’s spine that closes “That Impostor Known as the Buddha,” or the grandfather clock without a pendulum or weights in “William Sharpe,” or the anecdotal shape of “The Wall.” When you’re reading or researching, what is it about a specific detail that clicks for you—that you know it might echo loudly in a piece?

EW: I try to write my essays like poetry, listening to the sound, trying to include telling images. There are no rules or general description for these details. They hit me when, in my research, I discover them and, as a writer, I hope they’ll hit someone else.

HH: Your work has a restless, world-devouring quality that’s hard to pin to any specific critical genealogy, perhaps aside from Pound. Who would you estimate looms the largest behind the recent work in The Ghosts of Birds?

EW: Well, no one. There are cases where a certain writer is tremendously influential on another, but I don’t think that’s a universal rule, and it has been vastly overrated—as has anxiety. (I, for one, feel anxious about everything except writing, which I find oddly calming.) When I was a teenager, DH Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and the writings of Artaud first opened my mind to the possibilities of the essay, but obviously I don’t write like either. My model for the narrative bits of my essays is the Icelandic sagas. My models for condensing large amounts of information are Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff. And everything else comes from poets.

HH: Aside from the stories and fragments that you clearly take in by the hundreds, are you a collector of any kind? Rocks and minerals, perhaps? Or maybe you’re a birder? Everyone’s a birder these days.

EW: I don’t collect anything, except dust, even books—in the sense that my books are for reading, and are not acquired because of their rarity. I love watching birds, but am not a bird-watcher. (I once said this to Jonathan Franzen, passing the time as we coincidentally were waiting by the luggage carousel in the Sydney airport, and he looked at me with utter disdain.)


Catch Eliot Weinberger in conversation with Justin Taylor this Sunday, Oct. 23rd,
at 7:30 at Powell’s in Portland! 


Eliot Weinberger has published books of literary essays and political commentary, anthologies of poetry, and translations of Latin American and Chinese literature with New Directions since 1976. He is the series editor of Calligrams: Writings from and on China and the literary editor of the Murty Classical Library of India.

Hal Hlavinka is a writer and critic living in New York City, where he works as the event coordinator at Community Bookstore. His work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Music & Literature, and The Quarterly Conversation, among other places.

Posted in Interviews

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The plaque said this was the oldest wall in the state.

It was stone, set by hand, and ran the length of a field,

splitting an unused road from incongruous grasses.

It was no less true to say the wall bisected the field.

(I could draw a diagram if provided paper.)

Let me start over:  The wall sat along a field and an unused road.

It bisected them.  Its line was shared by a mangled hedge,

or the suggestion of one.  A jug of bleach, emptied and faded,

was jammed in there, in the wall, where maybe a stone had been,

where a stone once was.  That doesn’t matter much

because here’s the thing:  The field was glowing,

its busted patchwork woven with light from who knows where.

The weather-beaten stone, the mangled hedge, the incongruous

grasses:  All glowing.  Something was broken with this field,

like a mess of florescent tubing fallen from a busted sign box.

But I could’ve been wrong.  Either the field was glowing

or I was full-on making this shit up, failing to see

the field as it was, as it would’ve been without me.

You want to take in the world plain, to know it clear,

to see so clean it’s like a thought.  Like with this

felled wall running the disused road or the grass

like a busted patchwork.  If I’ve yet to say it without adornment:

this field was teeming, totally lit up.

The field was blushing up on me.

I was blushing, full-on girlishly engrossed.

Like my merely standing there was gossip.

Like if I were here I shouldn’t say so.

Like if I was here it was wrong to know it.


Brandon Kreitler is the author of Late Frontier, selected by Major Jackson for the Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship, to be released in the spring.  He’s from Arizona and lives in New York City.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Calling all writers who are obsessed with plot and obsessives who can write a mean story. We want you!



The prompt below is from William Wallace Cook’s classic how-to manual Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Simply use this prompt to write your own 500-word (or less) story. Stories must be submitted by Monday, October 24 at 5:00pm PSTSubmit here via Submittable.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with a new prompt!








In the book, {A} indicates male protagonist and {B} indicates a female protagonist, but for our purposes, feel free to write from the point of view of any gender.



Weekly winners will be published on tinhouse.com, read their stories on OPB’s “State of Wonder,” and receive the new paperback edition of Plotto.

After five weeks, Grand Prize Judge Paul Collins—Guggeinheim fellow, author of nine books, and mastermind behind the Introduction to Plotto—will crown one winner the Plotto Writer-in-Residence. The Plotto Writer-in-Residence will be awarded a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland, travel expenses paid.

Click Here to Submit!


In the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.


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Hear more about Plotto and the Master Contest of All Plots on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder.



Terms and Conditions

Open to U.S. residents aged 18 or over only. One entry per person per week. Entries must be the original work of the entrant and not previously published anywhere else. Entrants will retain copyright in their submitted entries; however, by entering, all entrants license Tin House a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish and use each entry in any and all media (including print, radio, and online) for publicity and news purposes. There is no cash or other alternative to the prize stated and the prize is not transferable and no part or parts of the prize may be substituted for other benefits, items or additions. By entering, any subsequent winners agree to allow the free use of their names and general geographic locations for publicity and news purposes during this and future promotions by Tin House. Completion and submission of a short story will be deemed acceptance of these terms and conditions.

Winners will read their stories on OPB’s State of Wonder, which will require them to sign a material release permission form. The Grand Prize Winner will be notified by phone; the phone call will be recorded for an episode of State of Wonder.  

Posted in Events, Fiction, Tin House Books

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Coastal Craft: Michelle Wildgen


As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops (SCHOLARSHIP DEADLINE IS TOMORROW!), we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 


Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience (as a participant)?

Michelle Wildgen: I’m not sure I remember my first workshop, which would have been when I was 15. But I do remember the feeling of it, how exciting it felt to realize what writing could be like, the feeling of being happily overwhelmed at how much there was to read and to learn about it.

TH:What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

MW: Too many to pick out only one favorite. I have lucked out and had one amazing teacher after another. But here are some: Anything that frees you from fear of changing your drafts.

One thing that is so obvious, yet I had to be told, so I tell other people: Save separate numbered drafts and you feel free to tear into a story or novel and experiment. You can go back if you need to, but I rarely do.

Also: stop freaking out about cutting this little paragraph or that precious page! You’re a writer. You have more great writing in you.



TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

MW: I was in a workshop in which one of the other students would try to chat with her neighbors at full volume during the actual workshop. Just a sidebar commentary, but really loudly. It’s not like she was even way at the back of the room, either. We were all around a small round table.

TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean”album?

MW:A winter ocean is a whole other ballgame, so I guess it can’t be too shiny and poppy, and yet it feels important that it be something we can drink red wine to and that won’t make us all stare Plath-ily into the blank gray ocean.

TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

MW: I love returning to Jane Eyre in the winter. It feels cozy to me, which may be perverse, given the consumption and madness and whatnot.


Michelle Wildgen is a writer, editor, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to being an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House, Michelle is the author of the novels Bread and Butter, But Not For Long, You’re Not You , and the editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. Her fiction, personal essays, and food writing have also appeared in publications including The New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, and anthologies such as Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, Best New American Voices 2004, and Best Food Writing 2004 and 2009.

Posted in Craft, Workshops

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Get Up Every Day and Do an Unseen Thing: A Conversation with Nicholas Mainieri

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I first encountered Nicholas Mainieri’s fiction in those great baseball issues that Hobart used to put out every spring. His first published story “The Tools of Ignorance,” which appeared in the spring of 2008 and was titled after an old nickname for a catcher’s gear, carried itself with such authority and deep-in-the-grain understanding of our national pastime that it stuck with me for months afterward. Later that same year, I accepted a two-year position at The Southern Review at Louisiana State University, and, knowing Mainieri lived nearby, I looked him up and we began to meet regularly to watch baseball—my beloved Phillies won the World Series that fall—and talk about writing stories, including a novel he was just beginning to formulate. Back then, his book had a sort of Heart of Darkness sound to it.

When I got the chance to guest edit an issue of The Southern Review devoted to stories, essays, and poems about baseball, Mainieri may have been the first person I reached out to. (Other contributors included Pat Jordan and Witold Gombrowicz.) His story in that issue, “This Game Do That To You,” contains what remains one of my all-time favorite lines in a work of fiction, in which a less-than-charitable clubhouse attendant refuses to console a player who strikes out to end a low minor-league game: “‘Not your fault tonight, big fella,’ Leroy say. ‘Blame the fucking scout what signed you.’”

In the years since then, I’ve watched Mainieri’s voice and his vision grow even sharper and more nuanced, more fluent in different vernaculars and capable of deeper emotional resonance. His stories have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Salamander, Sou’wester, and he now appears to be part of the house band at The Southern Review, with three stories in those esteemed pages. The arrival of his star-crossed, coming-of-age debut novel The Infinite (Harper Perennial) signals the next step of an already marvelous career. Emailing with him about it in early October felt like old times, like the sort of conversation we used to have along the first-base line at Alex Box Stadium at LSU.


Andrew Ervin: Tell me about the route you took from your first published story “The Tools of Ignorance” to having copies of your first book arrive at your door.

Nicholas Mainieri: Thinking about it now, it was eight years, just about to the day, from that story’s publication online in a Hobart baseball issue to a box of The Infinite galleys showing up at my house. You and I became friends because of that story, man! It was published alongside your great “Phillie Phanatic” story. The phrase “the tools of ignorance,” in baseball, describes catcher’s equipment—the implication being that catchers, were they any smarter, would play another position. As a former catcher, I like the phrase. It can be tongue-in-cheek, but it also suggests something about the hard work of existing at the game’s heart. And it seems to me now that toiling in the dirt and getting the crap kicked out of you for little glory provides a good analogy for the route from first published story to debut novel—or for the writer’s life itself. Work really hard, focused on whatever seems most essential. Experience a lot of rejection. Major successes occur mostly in obscurity (appreciated, if you’re lucky, by your family, and the writer-friends you’ve made, who understand). But, in general, “success” only means that you get up every day and do an unseen thing. It takes a long time to finish a novel and a long time to find a home for it. Someone might glance at those solitary years of work and wonder why in the hell you’d want to do that. I can take pride in that, and hope that I’ve made a thing that will be useful to someone somewhere. Anyway, hefting that box full of copies of the real thing was just really cool.

AE: What was the hardest part of writing the book?

NM: I don’t know how you or other novelists feel, but I found rewriting a novel to be especially hard—in both practical and intellectual ways. I get all screwed up when I try to edit a piece of writing in an existing document. When I rewrite I literally have to retype. Physical, marked-up manuscript on desk, new blank document on screen. By the end of this novel, I had retyped the complete draft from start to finish nine times. Inefficient, maybe, but it was the only way I could get it done. It was also best from an intellectual standpoint, however. Writing a story requires one really long sustained thought, one trail of logic—if this then this, over and over. But there’s a spirit hidden in there, too, somehow. The characters’ experiences become a kind of proof for ideas only understood through the rigor of repeating (rewriting) that complicated sequence again and again.

AE: I’m not letting you off the hook that easily. What I want to know is: what were the challenges specific to your story?

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Posted in Interviews

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This isn’t one of those stories where someone has cancer. In this story, everyone has cancer. Everyone is sitting in a room with an old friend, while the sunlight fades behind a stretch of Victorians and old oaks, and the room goes dark and only the candle light illuminates their faces, and they talk about cities in Eastern Europe that they haven’t been to, but have seen in pictures and dreamed of like the invisible cities of Calvino. Everyone in this story is in a hospital room, watching the yellowed water in a vase of flowers — fat-headed sunflowers, bunches of pink yarrow, lilies, and sprays of indistinct white flowers with small, plentiful blossoms.  Everyone is looking out the window at the rain falling fast on a brown hillside, pooling in the low places that used to be channels for a river. Everyone in this story is calling a loved one, or thinking about calling a loved one, and regretting the time they said they didn’t love their mother, their father, the Mets, the Thanksgiving turkey, a family trip to Arizona; made an idle remark about the Grand Canyon being overrated, which wasn’t even true. It was a wonder! Everyone in this story is sitting beneath a tree’s yellow and orange leaves on a picnic blanket reading a story in which someone, maybe a child, has cancer, or a pig that needs to be slaughtered, or a dead parent, or a series of obstacles to overcome in order to achieve adulthood, which is, upon reflection, if the book went on, not all it’s cracked up to be with the bills and mortgages and children who build train tracks and then abandon them without having once pushed Thomas beneath the series of intricate bridges. Everyone in this story is laughing at a gif, warming a sleeping child on their stomach, waking up for a short swim, a long run, or to call someone who is living briefly in an Eastern European city. Everyone in this story is conflicted about the nature of their lives, wondering what philosophy to follow, what show to watch, thinking that they’ve heard good things about The Wire, but who knows, wondering what hobby to take up or start doing again, wondering about their wives and husbands their children and their lovers, whether they’ve loved or been loved as they wanted. Everyone in this story just got a call letting them know that their life is going to end someday. Fuck. Fuckity fuck. Everyone in this story is taking the car in for an oil change, changing the light bulb in the garage, masturbating to a picture of an ex on Facebook, crying in the front seat of a car at a funeral, a wedding, stopping off on the long dusty road sheltered by a copse of trees and thinking about a day when they were very young and their father, now dead, took them to the zoo and held them on their heads when they were tired of walking. Everyone’s father holding their chubby white legs as if they would never let them go.


Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Sierra Nevada Review, Apt, OxMag, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, Catamaran, and Isthmus. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Shelter in Place: An Interview with Alexander Maksik

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Natalie Bakopoulos and Alexander Maksik met at a book festival in 2013, after Bakopoulos reviewed Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, for the San Francisco Chronicle. Since then, they have continued a conversation about books and writing. This interview took place over email in September 2016, regarding the publication of Maksik’s third novel, Shelter in Place.



Natalie Bakopoulos: Several years ago in The New York Times, Katie Roiphe noted that the “youngish” generation of male novelists writes sex with a “convoluted, post-feminist second-guessing.” She argued that “the current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.” I am happy that Shelter in Place does not follow that path, but your sex scenes do subvert the paradigm of previous generations (Mailer, Roth, Bellow, and so on). For one, they do not privilege bravado and conquest in the matter to which so many feminist critics have objected. Your work is always focused on the sensual. What is essential—and extraneous—for you in a sex scene? What do you shy away from?

Alexander Maksik: To begin with, I’m not much interested in writing about sex as a form of conquest because I’m not much interested in people who approach sex that way. Or maybe I’m not interested in writing about men who do. And to be honest, that’s not because I’m such an evolved or righteous person. More than anything, it’s because I’m so repelled by certain clichés. And what’s duller than a man whose identity is wrapped up in collecting women? So while I certainly consider myself a feminist, my primary objection to writing about those men is literary. Of course, the two things can’t ever be separated. The idea that men are one thing and women another is as terrible for the world as it is for art.

As for sex scenes in particular, the very notion that writing about sex is somehow separate from any other kind of writing is anathema to good fiction. What is essential in a sex scene is the same as in any other and I want to write every scene well. I do notice, however, that a lot of contemporary fiction seems to treat sex as farcical and/or disastrous. Disastrous sex is particularly popular. Terrible sex. Humiliating sex. Or, worse yet, it’s ignored altogether. Young urbanites embrace in the yellow light of a bodega and the next thing you know someone’s making a very specific blend of coffee in a very specific vessel, and they’re talking about whatever malaise happens to be haunting them that morning.

Personally, I’d prefer less about the origin of the coffee beans and more about the sex. There’s a real prudishness there, an underlying terror of giving offense. A cuddle is a hell of a lot safer than whatever you believe its opposite is and that instinct toward safety is born out of fear. I find all that disconcerting.

Who becomes an artist out of a desire for safety? The aversion to writing about real intimacy is symptomatic of what I see as our growing cultural aversion to sincerity. And far more frightening, is a growing atmosphere of caution. Since when have good writers been cautious? Are we so afraid to offend? To use the wrong language? To run afoul of the professionally outraged? To fall subject to an increasingly popular and powerful ad hominem moral criticism. Those who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell us what we may and may not write? I think the answer, too often, is yes. That fear is ubiquitous and dangerous. It’s a dry rot and it not only affects writers, but editors and prize committees, and critics who are so often terrified of backing the wrong writer, of being caught supporting the wrong book. And this obviously extends far beyond the subject of sex.

I don’t understand it. I have always been drawn to art because it is an utterly lawless world, limited only by a person’s courage and imagination. So what do I shy away from? Cowardice. I revile cowardice in art. I revile the idea that we should be writing benign and careful books.


NB: Rage, particularly female rage, is a key element of the book. And Tess is one of my favorite characters of recent fiction: restless and compassionate, driven by principle and anger, enraged by cowardice, with intense moments of both vulnerability and power. Like all the book’s characters, she resists gender stereotypes. How do you see her as emblematic of the book’s larger preoccupations?

AM: I’ve been struck by how divided readers are when it comes to Tess. There are those who adore her and those who abhor her. People see her as brave and powerful, or careless and cruel. My sense, though, is that if she were a man she’d be a far less polarizing character. We have a vastly greater tolerance for men who possess the characteristics she does. And indeed, what you describe is really a description of the same old male hero we’ve seen repeated in a thousand novels and films. All those tales of restless men, angry and driven by principle, who set out to slay the dragon, solve the crime, seek revenge, fight the good war, who return, bruised and bloodied, along a rose-strewn path while at the end of it waits a patient maiden smiling on the porch, bosom heaving.

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The Drop



Ethan Feuer is an MFA candidate at the University of Virginia. Previously, he has worked as an architect in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature / Okey-Panky, SmokeLong Quarterly, and DIAGRAM. He is presently at work on a novel. On Twitter @hellofold.


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Bull & Finches

Flash Fidelity

In eleven seasons, the bar depicted in the television show Cheers was almost never crowded. Almost never was it besieged by a throng of patrons struggling to get their servers’ attention. And I think I can tell you why: Sam Malone. He doesn’t drink. Not only does he never drink, but on top of this he’s a retired ball player, still an athlete in the bedroom. And that hair. And that tan. And that jaw. He is maleness in full. Who could possibly loosen their burdens and their neckties while drinking in the shadow of a bemused and sober phallus? Well, Norm can. And Cliff can. But they are already saturated with self-loathing and distrust. They are inured, insensate. They leave the bar, and the shadow comes with them.


Ben Reed’s work has previously appeared in Big Fiction, [PANK], and West Branch, among other places. His story “My Neighbor the Pilot” recently won the Texas Observer Shorty Story Contest. Ben teaches writing and literature at Texas State University, and he is the fiction editor at Arcadia Press. He lives in Austin with his family, and online at benjamin-reed.com.

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The Three Dreams of Mark Glass


Mark dreams of the desert: every fall his father buys instant oats and canned beans and unrolls the sleeping bags from the crawlspace. His mother fills two-gallon jugs of water and they pack the car and drive south along the river. Mark associates the changing season not with tingeing leaves, but with the bedroom warmth of the station wagon’s backseat crowded with mildewed quilts, the rowers gliding alongside his window in boats as liquid light as bird bones.

The drive takes three days and they always spend the first night outside of Chicago, where Mark’s grandmother lives. She smells of cloves and is called only Boo Boo by everyone. Boo Boo plays a game with him about rowing a boat, only instead of a boat it’s the couch; Mark falls from the cushions and becomes a mischievous fish. He has never been in water deeper than the bathtub, but Boo Boo says it doesn’t matter and casts her line over and over into the carpet, reeling him in from out of the itchy blue depths. Boo Boo tells him he is an incorrigible little salmon who will taste delicious on a bagel.

They always leave Chicago so early that the sun isn’t up, so early that the next thing Mark remembers is his father twisting in the passenger seat to shake him awake, saying, “Maka, it’s Nevada.” His mother rolls down her car window to grasp hands with a smiling woman who says, “Welcome home.”

In the desert Mark is always falling asleep in one place and waking up in another: on his father’s back; in a hammock; curled on the wine-stained passenger seat of a stranger’s camper van, the heat rising off the playa through the windshield and both his parents passed out beside him. There are other children around sometimes, but he rarely plays with them. Instead, he follows his parents through sunbathed wooden rooms where faceless figures wander mystical-naked, sprawling, multi-level cities tattooed across their collarbones in indigo ink. Sometimes Mark chases the water truck between tents, howling with laughter, the water silky on his face as he flies, lifted by his mother and, on the other side, a man who isn’t his father, a friend of his parents who wears a rubber suit and a beard down to Mark’s eye-level. After, his mother combs his hair with her fingers and the man in the rubber suit plays “This Land is Your Land” on the banjo and his father sings and they all eat tomato and melty cheese with toast. Mark wears wool socks at night because at night, the desert is cold.

Also at night, the desert bursts to wheeling, mesmeric architectures. Multi-level cities come to brilliant, psychotic depths on the sand. Mark grips his father’s hand and stumbles back through the cold between campfires. His father, in nothing but a pair of gym shorts and a paisley handkerchief, bends to tuck Mark into a sleeping bag. Only once, their final year in the desert, does Mark manage to stay awake to watch the concluding celebration, a towering nighttime incineration that he nonetheless anticipates every year with certain manic desire.

Once, that same year, he unzips the flap door of his parents’ tent and finds his parents and the man in the rubber suit, except without the rubber suit, the man grinding his hips on his mother’s, her breath fast, her eyelids fluttering, her mouth open on his father’s. Once, in the blue wash of a cold Nevada dawn, Mark’s mother holds him hard against her skinny chest and says, “We used to share a body.”

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Plotto_blog post banner


Calling all writers who are obsessed with plot and obsessives who can write a mean story. We want you!


Every Wednesday for five weeks, we will post a prompt from William Wallace Cook’s classic how-to manual Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Use the prompt to write your own 500-word (or less) story before the following Monday at 5:00 PST.

See the prompt for Week One here!



Weekly winners will get to read their stories on OPB’s “State of Wonder,” see them published on tinhouse.com, and receive the brand-new paperback edition of Plotto.

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After five weeks, Grand Prize Judge Paul Collins will crown one winner the Plotto Writer-in-Residence. The Plotto Writer-in-Residence will be awarded a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland, travel expenses paid.



TIN HOUSE JUDGES: Masie Cochran, Thomas Ross, and Sabrina Wise.

GRAND PRIZE JUDGE: Paul Collins—Guggeinheim fellow, author of nine books, and mastermind behind the Introduction to Plotto.


In the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

Hear our Grand Prize Judge talk Plotto on NPR here.

We’ll be back with the first prompt on OCTOBER 19!



Terms and Conditions

Open to U.S. residents aged 18 or over only. One entry per person per week. Entries must be the original work of the entrant and not previously published anywhere else. Entrants will retain copyright in their submitted entries; however, by entering, all entrants license Tin House a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish and use each entry in any and all media (including print, radio, and online) for publicity and news purposes. There is no cash or other alternative to the prize stated and the prize is not transferable and no part or parts of the prize may be substituted for other benefits, items or additions. By entering, any subsequent winners agree to allow the free use of their names and general geographic locations for publicity and news purposes during this and future promotions by Tin House. Completion and submission of a short story will be deemed acceptance of these terms and conditions.


Winners will read their stories on OPB’s State of Wonder, which will require them to sign a material release permission form. The Grand Prize Winner will be notified by phone; the phone call will be recorded for an episode of State of Wonder.  



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My friend asks me why I like her, but I don’t know what this question means, let alone how to answer it. Liking is a fundamentally unstable state with its own laws. There are some people who I agree with in every way and yet I don’t like them at all, while there are others who are in disagreement with everything I think, yet with whom I feel sympathy and even warmth. How can I explain to my friend that the things that to many people make her unlikable are perhaps the things that make me like her most of all?

If I told my friend, I like you because I have a precedent for liking you, and I like you when you’re in certain moods and I’m in certain moods, and when you’re absent I like the memory of you, and I like our shared history, and I like how you might someday become despite the fact that by that time we might no longer like each other—what would she think of that?

I don’t know what liking is but I know it increases in savor with each separation and reunion. I know it’s a satiety, which means it must be preceded by a hunger. Maybe liking is like that judge and his pornography—you know it when you see it. Maybe that is what I should tell my friend—I know it when I see it. I know you when I see you. When I see you, I like.


Emily Dezurick-Badran is a writer, librarian, and roller derby player living in London. She’s currently working on an archive podcast and a detective novel.

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Past Midnight



And an icy tower was rising out of the sea. A wingless man was

filling a bag with pickaxes and asking for directions

to our house. The moon was expanding like a balloon and

I was worried it might go pop. I could already

see through it and there was nothing inside, no bibles or yolk of

wedding rings. A wax sedan was melting on the hill

and we were the two lovers in the back seat, the spools of

our hair twisting like wicks. Below us, berries

clustered together like dead stars. And we were both still hungry.


Zack Strait is pursuing his PhD at Florida State University. His poems have recently appeared in Poetry, Slice, and West Branch and are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Common, and Poetry East. 

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Breaking Tradition


A friend lent me two hundred dollars to see a psychic named Linda Bell, a heavy-set woman wearing a turquoise kaftan, hair blown into a high bouffant. With a dramatic flourish of her arm, she gestured me, a shy seventeen-year-old girl, into her house.

“Welcome, welcome,” she uttered, her voice, pitched to a low, breathy seriousness.

I explained, breaking periodically into tears, why I’d come, and for a few moments she seemed not to breathe, then asked quietly if, instead of a formal session, we could just chat.

“But I need your help,” I said, taken aback.

We went into her small consultation room filled with spider plants and ferns, and sat in two facing chairs. I’d asked her not to close the curtains, and in the bright afternoon light, a series of hanging crystals threw prisms on the floor and walls.

“I’m going to call your father into the room,” she said.

“You don’t have to, he’s here,” I replied as my body began quaking, not from fear exactly but from the overwhelming sense of his presence.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I see him.” She was looking at the wrong part of the room, and I waved my left arm, though I wouldn’t turn to look.

“He’s here,” I said, gesturing behind me.

She told me that suicides sometimes did not realize that they were dead and this was probably why he had been haunting me. “Speak to him. Explain this to him,” she urged.

But I couldn’t. I shook as if my bones would break, bending forward, gasping for breath. When I did speak, I yelled “Daddy!” in staccato bursts.

“I’ve called someone else into the room,” she said, “a dead man, a man your father met in his lifetime.” She said this man, who my father recognized, was going to show him where to go, a place where he would be able to rest and where people would help him. A gentle authority had come into her voice, and aching to believe in her, I felt myself begin to calm.

She told me that my father and the man were leaving together, and still sitting forward, my face streaming with tears and snot, I repeated, “I love you, Daddy,” again and again.

When I sensed him gone, I sat up straight and the trembling grew less intense. Linda Bell looked thoughtful, her eyes wide. “He’s all right now,” she said. I nodded and smiled, telling myself that even if she hadn’t seen him at the beginning, she eventually had, and that my father was now better off.

As I was about to leave, I reached into my bag for the money my friend had loaned me.

“Oh,” Linda Bell said, “You don’t have to pay me.”

Relieved that I’d be able to give it back to my friend, I expressed my gratitude. For some reason, though, I showed her the wad of fives and tens, maybe just to prove that I had intended to pay. Her eyes narrowed as she focused on it, and just as I was about to put it away, she reached out her hand. I gave it to her and it disappeared into a hidden pocket in her kaftan. She colored, and for a split second, neither of us moved, until she raised a heavy arm, bracelets jingling, and in a guiding gesture, led me to the door. “You and I knew each other in several past lives,” she whispered.

I looked at her expectantly, even as a tightness came into my chest.

“You were my mother and I was your daughter in ancient Galilee. We used to walk through the dust to hear the prophet, Jesus.”

At my mother’s insistence my father’s face had been reconstructed so that the wake could be open casket in the Irish Catholic tradition. The face in the casket had only been partially his. Instead of his rounded Irish nose, a pointed one. And the chin was too short, the jaw shaped wrong. My father had shot himself after closing the bar where he worked a second job.

I’d grown up intensely Catholic. Suicide was the one unforgivable sin, worse than mass murder or torture. Horrific acts inflicted on others could be forgiven, but not the act of despair. My father’s funeral Mass had been sanitized of any mention of it, too shameful, too unspeakable for the priest or any of the mourners to acknowledge.

Linda Bell may have been a charlatan, but that day in her consulting room, something important had happened. I imagined for the first time, a different, gentler kind of afterlife, where maybe my father would not have to suffer harsh judgment and eternal torment, but be met with compassion.

And I daydreamed about what she’d said about our past life together as mother and daughter. What had felt false and jarring when she’d said it, became a source of comfort. While my own mother was growing more and more remote in the wake of my father’s death, only months away from her own suicide, I’d sit with her in silence in the living room and imagine this other mother and daughter joined in a quest for spiritual sustenance.

Hours after seeing Linda Bell, my father had come back. But he did begin to come less often, and when he was there, it wasn’t his terror I sensed so much as his sadness.

Forty-two years later, on the edge of sleep, my guard sometimes falls away. A door inside me blows softly open and I feel my father’s presence. I squeeze my eyes shut and wait for him to go. Sometimes, if I’m more awake than asleep, I whisper to him, “You’re exhausted, Dad. It’s time for you to get some rest.”

Regina McBride is the author of four novels including The Nature of Water and Air and The Land of Women. The recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she lives in New York City.


Banner art from Claire Winter Photography.

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Coastal Craft: Melissa Febos


As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 


Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience (as a participant)?

Melissa Febos:I think it was a local workshop, led by one of my old babysitters? All I remember is this line from someone’s in-class writing: “milky belly.” I still love it. Milky belly is my “cellar door.”

TH:What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

MF:This is kind of an implicit piece of advice, but I once heard an anecdote about Flannery O’Connor in a workshop at the Iowa Writers Workshop that has always stuck with me.

Apparently, the class (mostly men, and then O’Connor) was workshopping a truly abysmal story. No one could think of anything to say. The instructor called upon O’Connor, who rarely spoke in class, and she simply said, “The part about the alligator was real nice.” Allegedly, the part about the alligator was the single redeeming moment of the entire piece.

The most helpful feedback I’ve gotten from workshop leaders was of this kind, the kind that says, “Here. Follow this pulse to the rest of your story.” They didn’t always have to say “Ditch the rest,” because I’d figure it out eventually, if I followed that one hot spot.


TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

MF:In my first college creative writing workshop, I wrote a secret admirer letter on the back of someone’s workshop story. I saw her looking right at me as I slid my notes to the bottom of the pile of critiques and knew I was busted.

TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean” album?

MF: Well, I grew up by the ocean, so I associate all my early favorite albums with the ocean. But mostly, the way I listen to music defies geographic influence. That is, my obsessions are like a human centipede of unstoppable song repetition.

Right now, I’m obsessed with Frank Ocean’s new album. Wrong kind of ocean, but still. When I wake up in the morning I almost always listen to dancehall, or a playlist called “Emo Witch.” So I hope that you either have some Beenie Man records, or some sad sack lady singer music, like Jolie Holland or Natalie Merchant or Billie Holiday. I’d also like to submit for the record an official request that we have a dance party.

TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

MF: Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone.


Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart, and the forthcoming essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Dissent, Bitch Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and serves on the Board of Directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. 

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Tin House Galley Club: Ghost Songs


Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read Regina McBride’s Ghost Songs, a searingly beautiful coming-of-age memoir about a girl who begins to see her parents’ ghosts. Her story takes us from New York to the desert of New Mexico to the shores of Ireland, from tragedy to recovery, from grief to hope. We surveyed our galley club members—here’s what they had to say.  










Regina McBride is the author of four novels including The Nature of Water and Air and The Land of Women. The recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she lives in New York City.

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Correspondent’s Course: High School for Adults


High school isn’t just prom dates and team sports and driver’s licenses and acne. It’s more than the fluff dramas we’ve been given on the CW and FOX, as entertaining as those dramas can be. High school is a time of transition, of self-discovery, of heartbreak and searing joy. It’s a time of life that is so easily dismissed, one that contains far more pain and wonder and richness than the stereotyped depictions on television offer.


It’s often assumed that books about high school must be for high school readers, and that adult readers have long left their adolescent years behind. The prevalence of John Green novels and the Twilight series, both valuable in their own right and marketed toward young adult readers, may lead adult readers to dismiss books about high school as nothing but narratives about cheerleaders, jocks, and outcasts. But adolescence contains far more than these stereotypes, and in the hands of a skillful author, its depiction comes alive on the page. The following books don’t trivialize the highs and lows of adolescence. They capture for adult readers the immediacy of high school and coming of age.


A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar

Jarrar’s first novel follows Nidali and her family as they move from Kuwait to Egypt and then to Texas after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. A rebellious and spunky young protagonist, Nidali navigates cultural transition and family struggles with humor and charm. Jarrar’s book is a loving and warm portrait of a family, and a fantastic coming of age novel for adults about a charismatic young woman.


Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Heim’s first novel, which was later made into the film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, brings together two young men who once shared a Little League team. As a teenager, Brian Lackey suffers nosebleeds, blackouts and nightmares, believing that he was once abducted by aliens. Neil McCormick is a teenage hustler living dangerously. Heim brings these two characters together again across the length of a novel that explores sexual abuse, the faults of memory, and the nature of truth.


The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Jackson’s first novel spans the summer where two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, leave Brooklyn to stay with the grandmother in Barbados. Phaedra, the younger sister, explores Barbados through the prism of her grandmother’s work as a midwife while sixteen-year-old Dionne rebels and wants to return home, discovering her own sexuality and the beginnings of romantic love. Jackson’s novel beautifully addresses themes of family and dislocation in lyrical prose, a gorgeous coming of age story for adult readers.


Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

Wasserman is an accomplished author of young adult novels, and this year’s Girls on Fire is her first novel for adults. The book charts a dangerous triangle of friendship between Hannah, Lacey and Nikki against the backdrop of early-90s grunge music, sex and drugs. Hannah is an awkward, quiet teenager until she’s taken under Lacey’s wing, a reckless teenager obsessed with Kurt Cobain. What follows is the unraveling of secrets both girls keep from one another, told in alternating chapter from each girl’s point of view, and in a non-linear structure that spirals toward the novel’s inevitable and devastating end.


Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Pessl’s first novel is set at an elite boarding school where Blue Van Meer, the book’s brilliant and precocious teenage protagonist, arrives without friends. She’s quickly swept into the world of the Bluebloods, a secret society of eccentric students, and into the aftermath of a murder that keeps them second-guessing one another on a trail of clues. Organized by chapters named after common required high school reading, including Heart of Darkness and Paradise Lost, Pessl’s novel is a compelling, compulsive mystery that delves into the darker side of high school.


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What Becomes Us: An Excerpt


Chapter One

Our parents had failed five months in a row to make a baby, and Father was growing frustrated. He couldn’t figure out what our mother was doing wrong. For his Christmas/Chanukah present she gave him a skiing vacation in Steam Boat Springs, Colorado. She secretly thought it would give her a break from him, but he insisted she join him, so he could continue his spermatazoon campaign.

At first, it was tranquil. They stayed in a cabin in front of a hot springs. Father, the chef-owner of a health food restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, made whole-wheat chapattis on a camping stove the night they arrived. Mother, an elementary school teacher, suggested they take turns describing the highlights and lowlights of their day. The next morning they awoke and went down to the hot springs, where the old man who ran the place floated naked in an inner tube, wielding a ski pole to spear any debris that had fallen into the springs the day before. Our father thought the steaming water might damage his potency, so he did his 250 push-ups on the edge while our mother slipped in. Mother saw a mountain goat scrambling along the cliff above the pool.

But that was the end of the tranquil part of the vacation. Father was an experienced backcountry skier, and Mother began disappointing him on their first day out. He tried to help her. He told her she was leaning too far forward, locking her knees, raising her heels too high, holding her poles too far out.

The conditions were icy, and she fell and skidded on the crusty snow while he made perfect, whirling turns down every slope, then called up complicated directions through clenched teeth.

Have we mentioned what they look like? He: blond curly hair, a gladiator face, Roman nose and cleft chin, and then a wrestler’s body, no neck, all chest, bandy legs. Our mother is skinny, long neck, long arms and fingers, wide flat hips. She’s like a curvaceous paper doll with the curves all on the edges.

Because she was ovulating, at night they continued their sexual exertions. She lay there while he performed his quick, efficient operation. She felt like she was the mortar and he the pestle.

On the fourth day, they woke in the morning to a pretty blanket of powder over everything. Our father was elated. The old man floating in the tube said the new conditions were dangerous, but father said the old geezer didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.

In early afternoon they came to a slope that was more like a cliff. She was exhausted, on the verge of tears, her face cold and wind burned. Her legs were shaking and her arms ached. She said she’d wait at the top for him.

Father said, “You’re hysterical. Irrational. Just follow my directions.” He told her she needed to grow a spine, “Man up,” he said. He continued his pep talk.

Finally, she said, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it.”

He wiped her nose with his sleeve and tapped his fingers twice on her forehead. “Think, buddy, think,” he said. “Keep those knobby knees tucked, pivot on the pole.”

She looked down the smooth white drop. She allowed herself to slip over the edge. She fell head first on her second turn, her poles clattered away, one ski came off. Her left cheek was scraped raw from going through the ice just underneath the snow.

She sat up.

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Brown Dog and Gee


She wasn’t going to the hospital again, no way. It smelled like pee there and her mother always yelled at her to stop kicking her foot against the leg of the chair while they waited for the doctor. She didn’t like the hospital, despite what her dad said: “Well, for not liking it, you sure do end up there, a lot, Gee.” Gee was her nickname, the one Pap gave her. It was the only thing she answered to that summer.

She didn’t eat the peach seed because she wanted to go the hospital. She was bored. She was sitting on the back porch and thinking about running out into the pasture to play Under the Ocean, her new favorite game. Brown Dog could be the shark—he was good at it, he nipped at her heels. She would be a mermaid, the fireflies were tiny, glowing fish, and the grass was coral that swayed gently in the ocean current.

But she knew the dew would already have started to form on the grass. It would get her favorite red slip-on shoes all wet. If she went barefoot, her feet would wrinkle and prune and then the touch of anything against them would be too much.

“Brown dog, don’t!” she yelled. He lifted his head and wagged his tail. He wasn’t doing anything bad. She just wanted to hear her own voice against the muffled sound of the TV inside.

She stared at the peach seed in the palm of her hand. It looked like an almond. A tiny bite was missing. She lay her hand across her stomach, feeling for something that might be happening inside.

She wouldn’t have taken a bite of the peach seed if she had a swimming pool. If she had a pool, she could really play Under the Ocean. She could get one of those masks the people on the nature shows wore. Brown Dog couldn’t play then, but that was okay. If she had a pool, she wouldn’t have climbed the barbed-wire fence and got the cut on the inside of her thigh that needed stitches. She wouldn’t have broken her wrist jumping out of the treehouse. She wouldn’t have taken a bite of the peach seed that she was now certain was poisonous.

If her parents yelled for her, she’d tell them. She’d wrap the peach seed tight in her hand and walk into the living room. “I took a bite of this,” she would say. “A really tiny one. And I spit most of it out.” She would stand in the middle of the living room floor, like being on stage for her piano recital all alone. All the attention would be on her. Her dad would turn the TV off at last. “It’s too late to go to the hospital,” she would tell them. “But I’m pretty sure I’m going to die.”

“Brown Dog,” she whispered. He beat his tail once against the wood of the deck and then rolled over onto his back, waiting for her to rub his belly. “Brown Dog, you’ll have to get by without me,” she said. She ran her hand along his soft underside. “Will you miss me, Brown Dog?”


Robyn Ryle started life in one small town in Kentucky and ended up in another just down the river in southern Indiana. She has a chapbook, The Face of Baseball, as well as stories in CALYX Journal, Midwestern Gothic, Paper Darts, and WhiskeyPaper, among others.  You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays, General

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Days of Never Before


The assignment I gave myself was to do something I’ve never done before, every day, for approximately one hundred days. And to write it down. I tried to be brief and true to myself. As the days added up an amusing and often unsettling self-portrait emerged. –Robert Leaver


November 30, 2014
I brush my teeth before bed facing the corner of our bathroom. Jammed in tight—nose a few inches from the corner. Hoping my wife will walk in and catch me. I want her to see that I am not always the same man, doing the same things, in the same way every day. But she is already in bed.

December 1
I push the elevator button with my forehead. My only child, a ten year old son, is confused.

“What the heck, Dad?”

The button is cool and round and I feel my forehead push it in and I feel the ding sound vibrate my skull.

December 2
I walk down to the north end of my subway platform. The number one train at 157th Street. I take a few steps off the platform and into the tunnel. I stand there for a little while in the dark until I can see the light of the next train coming down.

December 3
At Fairway supermarket just off the west side highway I shoplift a can of cheap sardines. Afterwards in the rain across the street I try to feed the sardines to seagulls. No takers.


December 4
On train I see the “We Can’t Breathe” headline on the cover of The Daily News . Cops got off after choking a man to death. I hold my breath in the dead man’s honor from 137th Street to 125th Street.

December 5
I run to pick up my son, from school, two miles along Hudson riverside path. I think I’m moving along okay. A woman runs by me, twice as fast, pushing a toddler in stroller.

December 7
I stand on the corner of Houston and Clinton at night and let the raindrops fall into my open eyes.

December 8
Alone in the apartment near sunset making soup. I wander down the hall into my son’s room. Purple dusky light. Batman posters and Lego. I lay down on his bed and weep.

December 9
In Guatemala visiting my mother. At a bar called Café No Se I drink homemade Mezcal shots with a young man I just met named Matt. His two shoulders were dislocated the night before during the annual Satan burning ritual.

“They burned the devil next to the gas station,” he says.

“How did your shoulders get dislocated?”

“No idea, man. None whatsoever.”

December 10
After midnight on a desolate Guatemalan street I get down on my hands and knees and crawl the last few steps to my mother’s door.

December 11
I whisper a memorized Robert Frost poem into my mother’s ear during the intermission of an outdoor Guatemalan version of Handel’s “Messiah.”

December 12
Open a bottle of Gallo, Guatemalan beer, with an ice cream scoop.

December 13
Help a Guatemalan man stack a cord of Guatemalan oak behind my mother’s house.

December 14
I tell my mother she looks beautiful.

December 15
Back in NYC after dinner I drink wine and fold laundry, alone, wearing my wife’s panties on my head.

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1968 – 1971: A Humiliated Student


From the memoir Cockroaches, out next week from our friends at Archipelago Books.


Arriving at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux with the little card-board suitcase once used by my brother André, and then by Alexia, I was filled with hope and apprehension at the same time. My apprehensions were more than justified, but I never lost hope.

I’d seen violent and even deadly persecution in Nyamata, but the solidarity of the ghetto gave us the strength to endure it. At school, I would know the solitude of humiliation and rejection.


I hadn’t shed my Tutsi status when I crossed the Nyabarongo – anything but. And in any case, there was no way to hide it. Every student was issued an ID card marked with their so-called ethnic group, like a brand on a cow. When I was forced to show it to one of the sisters, her look and her attitude changed immediately: wariness, disdain, or hatred? I didn’t want to know. They also discovered that I came from Nyamata. I wasn’t only a Tutsi: I was an Inyenzi, one of those cockroaches they’d expelled from the livable part of Rwanda, and perhaps from the human race. Among my schoolmates, too, I soon came to feel different. Or rather, it was they who made that dif-ference cruelly clear to me. They made me ashamed of the color of my skin (not dark enough for their tastes), of my nose (too straight, they said), and of my hair (too much of it). It was my hair that caused me the most trouble. Evidently it was Ethiopian hair, irende, the sup-posed mark of the Inyenzi. I spent my time putting water on that Inyenzi hair so it would shrink down to a little ball, tight as a sponge. Most often, I resigned myself to shaving it off. That hurt me: in spite of the mockery, I was fond of my hair.


They divided us up into teams, and we took turns doing the dishes, cleaning the refectory or the dormitories. The team leader was always a third-year girl. My leader was named Pascasie. I was the only Tutsi on the team. Pascasie and the rest took an immediate dislike to me. The hardest chores always fell to me. In fact, I soon realized it wasn’t my place to wait for orders. I always volunteered. As the mayor of Nyamata had said, the Tutsis had lost the right to be proud.


The teams all ate at the same table. Mealtimes were the hardest part of the day for me. A thousand times, I wished I didn’t have to eat. My throat went tight with terror whenever a meal was near. We walked into the refectory in silence. We prayed, and then sat down in silence. A bell signaled that it was time to begin eating, and we had permission to talk. The room filled with the sound of conversation, but no one ever spoke to me. I could feel them staring at me, telling me I wasn’t supposed to be there, that my presence disgusted them, that it wasn’t by choice that they were living – and, even worse, eat-ing – with an Inyenzi, a cockroach. I grew used to serving myself after all the others. When there were bananas or sweet potatoes, there was nothing left in the dish by the time it came to me, and I had to make do with the maggot-ridden beans no one would touch. And I grew used to peeling the sweet potatoes in the others’ place, doing the dishes, cleaning the toilets. I never rebelled, even if I wept when no one was looking. I found all this almost normal. A strange curse hung over me. I was a Tutsi. Worse yet, I was from Nyamata, I was an Inyenzi. I wasn’t supposed to be there at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux. It was a mistake, an oversight on the part of those who’d expelled us from the Rwandan community, the people of the majority. For that reason, I made myself a paragon of zeal. I was always on the front bench at Mass, I was first in line for confession. I wanted to be beyond reproach. I was convinced that good grades alone could protect me.


Sometimes I think I never slept in all those three years at the school. At home the nights were short, but at school there was no such thing as night. The few other Tutsi students knew as well as I did that they had to be among the best, and so they worked night and day, particularly night. When dinner was done, a bell rang. We headed off to the dormitories. We washed our feet as we entered, then took our places by the bunk beds. A bell rang. We knelt. We prayed. A bell rang. We turned back our bedspreads. We got into bed. I slipped very carefully under the covers, letting no one see that I had only one sheet. The monitor made a few more rounds to silence the chatter, and then the lights were turned out.

But we Tutsis were waiting for our moment. We waited until everyone was sound asleep, until no one was getting up to go to the bathroom, until the sisters had gone off for the night. Then Agnès, who was in her third year, shook the piece of green canvas that was our standard-issue bedspread: this was the signal. We quietly got out of bed, wrapped ourselves in our bedspreads to ward off the nighttime cold, and followed after Agnès. She was a tiny girl, and her bedspread dragged behind her on the ground: we called her Monseigneur. The silent parade ended in the bathroom, the only place where a nightlight stayed on all through the night. We gen-tly closed the door, and one of us sat down with her back pressed against it, in case someone came along. We had our study room for the night. Often we studied our lessons and did our homework until morning. Everything I learned at Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux I learned in the toilet.


The teachers seemed to be completely faithful to the regime and the system. Most of them were Belgian, except the French teacher, who was French, and the English teacher, who was English. The only Rwandan was the Kinyarwanda teacher, Victoria, a Tutsi. In any case, we had to beware of the teachers. The older girls had warned us of that as soon as we got there by telling us the story of Sylvia. Sylvia was from Nyamata. In a composition – I never found out what the subject was – she made the mistake of alluding to the displaced people of Nyamata and calling for fairer treatment. They said the paper was immediately sent on to the Mother Superior, Sister Béatrice. And Sylvia was expelled. You were supposed to say that Rwanda was a country blessed by God, as the priests claimed. That Kayibanda had created a little paradise in the heart of Africa. A waiting room for heaven. Before he came along, there was only dark-ness and barbarity. I memorized the islands and the cities of Japan: Hokkaido, Nagasaki, Yokohama . . . It sounded like Kinyarwanda.


• • •

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Coastal Craft: Matthew Zapruder


As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 


Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop?

Matthew Zapruder: My senior year in college I took a poetry workshop taught by a grumpy visiting Polish poet who was justifiably appalled by our late 80’s ignorance about poetry, or really anything except U2 lyrics and crumbly weed.

I still remember the only line I wrote that he liked, “short sharp pink perspiring houses,” which is a. terrible and b. stolen from John Cougar Mellencamp.

TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in a workshop?

MZ: Well, I don’t know if this counts as advice, but I remember bringing a poem into workshop with James Tate, and having him just look at me after I read it, and with exaggerated delicacy turning the paper over and putting it back down on the table and saying just one word: “No.” And realizing he was totally right.

I walked down to my freezing, shitty little Honda Civic in the parking lot, and put my head on the steering wheel, reviewing my wintry mistake of a life. Then I resolved to start getting up at 5 in the morning and writing for several hours each day, which is when I started writing the poems in my first book.


TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

MZ: See above.

The scariest thing I ever did as a workshop instructor was, early on in my teaching life, when a very talented student brought in a terrific poem, and I praised it so wildly that she was terrified to bring in any more poems for the rest of the semester, for fear of disappointing me. Nothing I could say or do could change that. I realized that praise is as dangerous as criticism, as is allowing oneself to allow the students to fetishize your authority.

TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean” album?

MZ: Argybargy, Squeeze

Bryter Later, Nick Drake

Tassili, Tinariwen

Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Desire, Bob Dylan


TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

MZ: A bit depressing, but I love this from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus … I remember having my mind blown by “among these winters there is one winter so endlessly winter/ that only by wintering through it can our hearts survive.”

February by James Schuyler makes me think of also this great poem by Ted Berrigan, also about February in New York, which probably seems romantic only to someone living on the west coast, in mild exile.


Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, including “Come On All You Ghosts,” a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2011, and “Sun Bear,” published in 2014. “Why Poetry,” a book of prose, will be published by Ecco Press in the spring of 2017. An associate professor in the English department and the director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College of California, Zapruder is also editor at large at Wave Books, and The New York Times Magazine’s poetry column editor. He lives in Oakland, California.

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Preemptive Elegy




Metaphor frustrates me. It has no limbs or limits,

and I have no idea where it came from. I’ve learned


the way for me to tell my father I love him is a game

of HORSE, but the hardest way to love him


is to witness his shooting percentage decline year

after year—today he missed three free throws and a scowl


with each, his gelatinous arms aching in effigy.

I wonder if everything has an ache to be something


more than what it is? If this is the basis of metaphor.

But now is not the time, Father. The poem is yours.


I want you to know that I have found the principle

of mean reversion as useful to me as all


the birds and the baselines and the little critiques

you give me tenderly about my jump shot.


What haunts me is not the end of our games

soon approaching, or the pain I’ll suffer when


you’re gone. Or even the fact that I’ll get over it

and revert to myself more or less. Wide-eyed,


knock-kneed, cow-licked—banished to my

seven-year-old sense of self—there is no


metaphor for how I feel. My mind, a blunt

instrument, bangs away at the universe we were,


and are, and will become. I cannot dent it.


John Fenlon Hogan lives in Virginia. His poems have appeared or will soon appear in 32 Poems, Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, and West Branch, among other journals.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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