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Coastal Craft: Ada Limón

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

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

Ada Limón: I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle and I had never had a poem “workshopped” and I was surprised at how the experience felt so overwhelming, but also useful. I was terrified at first, especially when a reader would get something “wrong” or misread my intentions, but eventually I learned to love that workshop because I learned what advice to take and what advice not to take. It immediately made me aware of readers and audience. It was key in forming my writing later on.

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

Ada Limón: The best piece of advice I heard in any workshop was that everything in the poem had to be working toward the larger meaning of the poem.

Even if a line was brilliant and beautiful, if its not furthering the thrust and life of the poem, it needs to be cut.

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

Ada Limón: I studied with Phil Levine when I was a graduate student at New York University. He was a generous teacher, but also notoriously hard on poems that he didn’t feel were really working.

He once looked at a poem I was working on and I could tell he hated it. Kazim Ali, my friend and classmate, said “But Phil, don’t you think there are some beautiful lines here?” And Phil said, “Yeah, I just wish she’d put them in a f*%$!ing poem.”

It destroyed me at first. But, he was right

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

Ada Limón: We lived about an hour from the beach growing up and my best friend and I used to listen to Van Morrison when we were driving out to Salmon Creek or Bodega Bay in her little red pickup truck. So Van Morrison’s “His Band and The Street Choir” “Astral Weeks” “Moondance” “Into the Music” well, all of it really. His voice reminds me of the waves now.

Tin House: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

Ada Limón: My favorite poems always change and alter depending on my mood, but there’s this marvelous poem “Elk” by Robert Wrigley that I adore:  It’s dark, but wow, amazing.

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Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California.

Posted in Craft, Workshops

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Saint Burma

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Plottoists brought it all back home last week for our final round of THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, and the judges phoned in from their respective Thanksgiving locations to fight it out for the winning story. Congratulations to winner Nikki HoSang, whose clever “Saint Burma” delivers a homecoming we never expected.

Tiny-House

Jo was fluffing the vermiculite bedding around the snake eggs when Mary, the kid who cleaned cages and answered the phone, stuck her head in the door.

“I know you’re getting ready to put the eggs in the incubator,” she whispered, “but there’s a guy on the phone? He says he has your snake?”

“Did he say what kind?”

“He said it’s a Burmese python.”

It was her python. Just bigger, older, slower. The guy who called said he’d traded a Vietnamese blue beauty snake and a couple of cat geckos for it. Normally, he said, he wouldn’t have let that little blue beauty go for nothing, but once he saw the markings on the Burm’s head, he was a goner, a dead man, in love. And then, he said, and then! He remembered reading Jo’s article in SCALES! and put two and two together: his new giant girl had to be her old childhood pet, her old buddy Saint Burma.

“It’s not every day you see a snake with a cross on its head,” he said. “Something special like that, you know the owner’s missing that animal bad. And besides, she just seems like a little saint.”

 

They worked out a deal. Saint Burma would stay where she was for a few days more, just until Jo got a cage set up at her place. Just a few days more, that’s all.

 

Homecoming day and Saint Burma smelled like roses! Had the guy given her a bath or something? He swore he hadn’t bathed her at all, swore she was just freakishly clean.

“Her shit don’t stink, either,” he said.

“Oh, come on,” Jo said.

“Seriously,” he said. “If anything, it smells like burnt sugar.”

“Like caramel? Right,” Jo said. She locked Burma in her cage and looked around,

suddenly ashamed. The guy patted her on the shoulder, one awkward pat, and then another, and then a little sentimental squeeze. He let himself out.

 

Size. Eleven feet? Twelve? She’d been barely six feet when Jo had driven her out to the wildest park she could find, slung her around her neck and walked and walked until she found a big, sunny rock to lay her down on. It wasn’t meant to be cruel. She was just too big, too vast, too patient. Who could trust a gentle snake?

 

Now she was beatific beyond reason. She stared into some unseen mystery just beyond the kitchen counter when she wanted Jo to let her out, she slithered up on the couch and nosed the remote until Jo came and turned the TV on. She liked to curve herself around Jo’s shoulders, and she liked to thump the floor with her tail. Jo stopped channel surfing when she stopped thumping. Another wholesome Dolly Parton movie.

What was she this time, an angel?

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Nikki HoSang lives in California, where she works for a public library.

Here’s the prompt that inspired Nikki’s story: {B}, for many years mysteriously absent from her home, seeks a happy renewal of old ties by returning suddenly and unheralded to her native place.

Next up: our five winners go pen-to-pen for the Grand Prize, a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland. Stay tuned to hear the winning stories (read by their authors) and a live announcement of the Plotto Writer In Residence December 10 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. And revisit the winning stories from Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, and Week 4!

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn 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.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Pieces of Soap: About the Cover

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In the design brief for Stanley Elkin’s Pieces of Soap, editor, Tony Perez, suggested I look to the title essay for ideas. In Elkin’s humorous meditation on mortality and compulsion, he writes about his soap-stealing obsession, describing the massive collection of pilfered soap that fills his home:

Because I have, in basket and hamper, in all summertime’s lanyard-laced, twiggy, wickery woodwork like a woven porch or patio furniture, stashed in its indoors-outdoors texture like supple, vaguely rain forest, vaguely jungly splinter (vine, picnic’s processed straw like a coniferous soup or an evergreen vegetable, all the indeterminate tropicals and periodics of the American breezeway elementals—Adirondackian, Poconosaic, Ramapoaon—spread over good green loaves of lawn, all that luxuriant matter of the undeciduous year), five or six thousand bars of soap.

Coincidentally, soap was already on my mind as I’d just spent some time looking at vintage soap labels for a side project. Tony and I both grew up using and reading Dr. Bronner’s and the iconic type-packed label was another influence.

1. Soap-Labels

2. Dr. Bronners

As I thought about designing the cover to resemble a label, I began to envision the book itself as a bar of soap. And why not make an actual bar of soap? Having zero soap-making experience made the idea even more appealing.

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Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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The Rest of the Novel

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THE REST OF THE NOVEL

For conveying ideas, novels are among the least functional and most decorative of the blunt instruments. (Could this be a universal truth, some starry, operative mathematical principle? Most stars are decorative too, of course, their function merely to peg the universe in place like studs in upholstery, servicing the elegancies, strumming its physics like a man with a blue guitar, fleshing all the centripetals and centrifugals, stringing the planets like beads, some beautiful pump of placement, arranging night, moving the planetary furniture, and fixing the astronomical data, but less useful, finally, in the sense that a handful more here or a dollop less there could make as much of a never mind as corks or rhythm, less useful, finally, than mail or ice cream.) And if, a few times in a way, novels like Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast or Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath come along to legislate, or raise a consciousness or two, or rouse a rabble, to make, I mean, what history or the papers call a difference, why that’s decorative, too, I think, a lip service the system, touching the bases like a superstitious braille, pays art—like, oh, the claims made a few years back for the “We Are the World” folks when it was really the Catholic Relief Services already on site during the Ethiopian famine that did the heavy lifting.

Well it’s not the novelist’s fault. Not that they don’t deserve some of the blame, leaking encouragement like someone paying out line to fish, some of your have-cake-and-eat-its like a little miracle of the loaves. And there are still a few big mouths who stake claims for the ameliorative shamanism of—hark! this is interesting: not the book so much as the writer—the practice of fiction—the loyal, Nutso Art Jerk Groupie, like some devoted cultist, the last Deadhead, say, worrying like holy beads the shoelace on his wrist he thinks is a bracelet making confrontation with an Elvis Presley impersonator.

Isn’t it pretty to think so, though? To take oneself as seriously as one’s readers sometimes do? To believe, if only briefly, and if only by the light off the gloss of the brittlest mood swing, in the justice or even the palpability of one’s cause, to Don Quixote principle, any principle, and raise to the level of purpose what in the final analysis is only what given egos, fashionably or not, fashion or no, frozen in mere season’s hipped au courantness, perceive as beauty.

Because aesthetics is the only subject matter, because style is, and all calls are judgment calls. Because ideas are even scarcer than those fabled two or three stripped plots, those fabled three or four basic jokes, art a fugue ideal finally, the hen’s-teeth variations, genre revolving around itself, the spin-off, like a few chips of colored glass in a kaleidoscope.

Because ain’t, when you come right down, the rest of the novel like the rest of the novel, as all detective stories are like all other detective stories, dick-fic a piece of the mother-lode main? Not just who done it but how it’s done, how it’s always done, the who-done-it as orthodox and ritualized as positions in ballet in which, like the do-re-mes, all music has its source, from Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe. Almost as if a detective’s relentless, endless questions along the stations of his investigation, the forced march of his focused, inquisitive rhetoric, were the natural music of the world, or as if such men were tone deaf to intrusion, to all the hectoring socratics of their quest. And the hell this plays with character, all the battering-rammed intent of obsession, the armored callus of the soul, the boring tyrannicals of personality. To say nothing at all of the other played-upon players in the game, their passified, invaded lives and suspect, squirmed evasions. Form, I mean, creates cliché. It horses stereotype. Think of Mr. Falk’s Columbo and you have almost encyclopedically the finite limits of the genre—only his rumpled raincoat and his smarmy awe and merely partially put-on turnip-truck airs and naïves, only the feigned clutter of his personal human laundry, only that final question delivered at the door and springing, it would seem, from the goldened-over grove of his slapped and mythic forehead a studied idosyncratics all he has for character, shtick in lieu of life and charm and will, tic in lieu of depth, as if Hercule and Holmes and Dalgleish and Marple were really, give or take an eccentricity, ultimately the same invulnerable party, their very invulnerability almost a product not so much of their slick sleuthfulness as of their authority, the fascist bent of their being, and their recyclability as characters, their cloned and clannish serial essence, not even the motives of the criminals changing—love-greed or cash-greed—only always the victims and cases, sometimes the weapons. In it, amateurs or not, professionally, which is to say objectively, which is to say marginally, indifferent and blind as Justice herself, with no more rooting interest in who did what to whom than, ideally, the jury impaneled to determine the guilt or innocence of the party arrested. In it professionally. So standing outside the loop of the novel itself. Which is, of course, no place for any proper protagonist to stand at all. Their invulnerability protected, too, not just by the almost apostolic authority of their badged office but crazily, by, well, profit motive, so that sometimes even after their authors age and sicken and die, their characters live on, doomed like ghosts to sequel their lives, their impersonate lives assuranced, too, by the genre in which they ask their bruising, devastating questions, questions that, in real life, would earn, at least for the amateurs and busybodies, the private eyes and mercenaries, blows, bullets, all the wrenching, gut-kicked pile-on of a cornered rage; even the Mike Hammers, Sam Spades (colored into character by first-person rhetoric), and laconic dirtied Harrys a sort of race of stunt men finally, their asses covered by camera angle, so that for all the knocks they take to the head, for all their stand-in saviorhood, they are guaranteed survivability, too, as though the life/death arrangements of their furious, spurious danger were only a kind of faked sportsmanship, like taking fish with a net, say, or shooting game from out the window of an airplane.

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Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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Laws

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PLOTTO took a turn for the harrowing last week. Protagonists committed crimes ranging from casual murder to poor artistic taste, political apathy to the unleashing of spiders. Or did they? Congratulations to winner Zana Previti, whose mysterious “Laws” brought us characters so convincing we thought we knew them, and so haunting that, by the end, we weren’t so sure.

Check out this week’s prompt here!

Tiny-House

Sister Clotilde held the boy by his shoulders and marched him into the Headmistress’s office.

“Hey!” protested the secretary.

Sr. Clotilde turned, glared, and slammed the door.

“Sister?” Sr. Frances asked.

“Tell her,” Sr. Clotilde instructed the boy, “exactly what you said.”

The child—Max Patrick, nine, and clearly wearing the school uniform of an older, larger brother—sighed.

“I told Billy. I think, I maybe killed someone.”

Sr. Frances stared.

“Yeah,” said Sr. Clotilde. “Yeah.”

 

Sr. Clotilde was young; she taught third grade at Saint Margaret’s. It was, despite its name, an all-boys school. Sr. Clotilde had taken her vows at twenty-five, didn’t wear habit, and she had hard, grey, unblinking eyes. Despite the others’ seniority, and the rumors that another teacher had once broken a first-grader’s hand, the boys feared only Sr. Clotilde.

 

“Explain, please, Max,” said Sr. Frances. She capped her pen.

Max glanced at Sr. Clotilde.

“You may leave, Sister,” said Sr. Frances.

“Nope.”

“Sister!”

Sr. Clotilde spun and banged the door shut.

Sr. Frances raised her eyebrows. “Explain, Max.”

“Then I can go to recess?”

Sr. Frances considered. “Yes,” she said. “Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Was someone hurt?”

“I didn’t—I just told Billy. No.”

“Told Billy what?”

“Mom and Dad were arguing. They thought I was asleep.”

“Okay.”

“They said, when I was really little . . . I don’t remember hurting anyone. But they said, like, killed.”

“It’s okay, Max.” She handed him a tissue.

She recalled something. She’d been worried, at the time. When he was starting pre-school, Max sitting and coloring . . . his little hands sore with red, tiny marks.

She looked at him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

They spoke a little longer. Sr. Frances sent him back to recess. Then she dialed a phone number.

“Mr. Patrick,” she said. She explained her purpose. “John, I have to ask.”

“Yes,” he said. He was quiet. Sr. Frances waited.

He explained.

“His hands,” she said. “She bit him?”

“Yes,” he said.

Sr. Frances nodded. And after a moment, she hung up the phone. She closed her eyes.

 

After lunch, Sr. Frances found Sr. Clotilde grading quizzes. The boys, at their desks, worked on long-division problems.

Sr. Clotilde looked up. Sr. Frances came over to her, then bent and whispered in her ear.

The young woman exhaled and took the Sister’s hand. They looked at the children. Twenty fragile mysteries raised their heads and stared back.

Sr. Clotilde’s grey eyes clouded, then looked away. And one boy sitting far in the back suddenly wondered if any of it was true at all . . . if prime numbers were as unbreakable as they said, if zero times anything was always zero, if the way he had been taught was the only way, or if there were other ways, infinite ways, and if one day the laws of division might—suddenly—no longer apply . . . all these problems made unsolvable, all his careful work made nonsense.

Tiny-House

Zana Previti was born and raised in New England. She earned her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine, and her MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho. Her work has been published in The New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, RHINO Poetry, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She was recently named the recipient of Poetry International’s 2014 C.P. Cavafy Prize for Poetry, and works now as the Fall 2016 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State Altoona. 

Here’s the prompt that inspired Zana’s story: {A} believes himself guilty of a crime which he cannot remember having committed. 

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn 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.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 0

Pieces of Soap

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PIECES OF SOAP

This would have been after the ms was first diagnosed but before the chair glide was put in, before, in fact, anything very important was wrong with me at all. Before the wheelchair, before the walker. Probably before the canes even. Though I may already have owned a cane. Using it larkily, boulevardierly, like Fred Astaire, say, like a prop for my disease.

Ourselves, a visiting professor, and the Lebowitzes in the living room conjoined. For drinks and dip and conversation assembled. And I forget now how it came up, though you have my word it was naturally. No one, I mean, set anyone else up. So it must have been naturally, in the sense, I mean, that anything coming out of left field like that is natural, thrown in compulsively—from the hip, on the mind, off the chest. Naturally. Organically. The visiting professor had made this, well, confession. Or maybe not this confession at all so much as this shy, tentative admission, sly, something between a pretended amusement at a harmless foible and the genuinely expeditionary—a little like someone fishing for a compliment.

I didn’t need Joan’s or the Lebowitzes’ encouraging glance. What, for an opening like this? Your one-chance-in-a-million opportunity? I was out of my chair and on my feet like a shot. (So it would have to have been back in the mists of time, back in the golden age of my arms and legs, of my skin and balance.) I grabbed the professor’s elbow and motioned for him to follow. “Come,” I called over my shoulder, taking the stairs two and maybe three at a time. “Are you coming? Good,” I said. “Come up, come up.” I remember I was already laughing. (Because I knew what I was going to say. Because your chance-in-a-lifetime, one-in-a-million-opportunities don’t come up every blue moon or cold day in hell, so maybe without even knowing it, you have reflexively, already prepared, primed and polished, not staircase wit but its opposite, as down pat as a comic’s practiced squelch, except that mine was not even rehearsed but something all condition-ripened second nature, like ouch! or yippee! Natural. Organic.) And now he was in the upstairs hall with me. I directed his attention this way and that. “What,” I said, “you steal soaps from hotels? You do?” I directed his attention to the bathroom. “You think so? You do?” And even had a reply ready, what I hope I would have said in his place. This was not staircase wit either. “No,” I hope I would have said, and offered up the punch line from the old joke, “but the guy that sells me salt, can he sell salt!” Though come to think of it the professor’s was close enough in its way, even though what happened was that all expression drained from his face, he closed his mouth, and narrowly shook his head a few times. It wasn’t a punch line. It was better. It was pure submission signal.

Because I have, in basket and hamper, in all summertime’s lanyard-laced, twiggy, wickery woodwork like a woven porch or patio furniture, stashed in its indoors-outdoors texture like supple, vaguely rain forest, vaguely jungly splinter (vine, picnic’s processed straw like a coniferous soup or an evergreen vegetable, all the indeterminate tropicals and periodics of the American breezeway elementals—Adirondackian, Poconosaic, Ramapoaon—spread over good green loaves of lawn, all that luxuriant matter of the undeciduous year), five or six thousand bars of soap.

The thousand-bar point spread is not insignificant. There are men so rich they cannot reckon their true wealth and must wait on probate for even a ballpark figure. I do not really know the extent of my soap collection.

But this ain’t about souvenir. It isn’t even about memento. Proust isn’t in it, or near it—or wasn’t. And if I’m no connoisseur of soap, then neither am I soap’s bag man. His assorted flotsam and jetsam, his cardboard dreck, is for the rainy day—provisional, pointed and purposeful as annuity. It is, I mean, contingent—plan abiding time, tool waiting on emergency. Not like my own two or three hundred pounds of wrapped motel, hotel, airline, railway, and steamer soaps and others, too, some of which I have and some of which I have seen only (from the stately homes of England, royal weddings, the sealed tombs of pharoahs, from all impressive, high-ticket places—the soaps of San Marino like an intimate postage, the Great Wall, soaps of the poles and trade winds) in imagination—equatorial soaps, space soaps, soaps of the jet streams and ocean currents. The stamped soaps of Heaven. The branded soaps of Hell.

I write, you see, more from the grave robber’s viewpoint than the collector’s, more from some spiritual homeopathy than either. Soap’s little miniatures passed out like Halloween candy, soap as superstition, soap as sod and soap as relic. As a piece of my private public record.

Oh, it’s complicated. Here, I think, is how it happened.

My father was a traveling salesman. On his rounds two and three weeks, three and four weeks at a time. Bringing back in the dop kit, like little picture postcards, the house Palmolives and Luxes, their Camays and Lifebuoys. From the Radisson in Minneapolis. From the Milwaukee Pfister. From Grand Rapids and Greencastle, Indiana. What Fargo looked like, what Rapid City did, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids. Views of Springfield, Illinois, and Joplin, Missouri, two and three bars high in the medicine chest. My pop’s soap strictly for use, for blow, not show. Knee-deep in ethics, tutored in the waste-not/want-nots of his sensible prairie territory and ecologicals, my old man never stole a soap he didn’t intend to bathe with. Glimpses of motor courts in Nebraska a bar’s sidebar, never the point. For whom a mile held neither nostalgia nor beauty nor even simple interest, who kept score in a different currency altogether and who would have worried about me if he’d caught me pouring over, like some kid miser, the architecturals of the various hotels, counting the stories, its “fireproof” rooms, the skyline of individual blocks, studying the little cars out front, squinnying the tiny, to-scale, guest populations entering, exiting, the revolving doors on the wrappers. It was quite like examining the drawings on money, or the golden graphics on a package of Camel cigarettes, trademark’s mysterious etchings. Some tropism in me for logo itself. With all the makings but without the knowledge of a stamp collector. This accidental tourist altogether. Who put no stock in baseball cards and had no hobbies. (Though, briefly, when I was seven, I actually did have a stamp collection, a hand-me-down from a college-bound distant cousin who put away childish things and gave not just into my charge but granted me in absolute freehold and fee simple forever her stamp books and catalogues and little waxy envelopes. All of which for a promised but reneged, undelivered quarter from a closer cousin, I tore up, burned, destroyed.) Not even, not yet, the simple hobby of soap.

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Lost and Found: Nathan Knapp on Shohei Ooka

Lost & Found

“Experiencing the sacred is the opposite of being alienated,” wrote Susan Sontag in a 1971 journal entry—yet Sontag knew also that the “‘sacred’ always involved risk of death, annihilation.” Shohei Ooka’s Fires on the Plain (1951) is strung along just such razor wire. A Japanese novel about a troubled young soldier during the darkest days of World War II, the novel seamlessly braids Christian imagery with the nightmarish effects of cannibalism. On the surface, it’s a combination that sounds totally unpalatable, but Fires on the Plain—based in-part on Ooka’s own experiences as a soldier in the Pacific Theater—is a novel of strange and horrifying beauty, deserving to be set on the shelf next to the most necrotic of works by Cormac McCarthy. Though during his life Ooka became one Japan’s most well-respected and admired novelists, his work is almost entirely unknown today in the West.

Tamura, the book’s protagonist and narrator, wanders through the thick jungle and burning plains of Leyte Island in the Philippines, cut off from his fellow soldiers, starving. Forced to forage for whatever food he can, he is invited by a dying officer to partake in the officer’s flesh, presented as sacrament. The annihilation of one being contributes to the life of another, but results in a kind of holy madness.

FiresOnThePlain

It’s just such holy madness that dominates Fires on the Plain. Tamura is followed everywhere he goes by a pair of eyes that may be the eyes of God—and may be the eyes of a hungry killer. A disembodied flame comes to him in the night, quietly driving him toward the holy—or perhaps unholy—madness that marks the rest of the book. “It was not because I was still alive that I clung to the notion of life, but because I was already dead,” he writes in the novel’s early pages. But: “if I no longer belonged to the world, I at least did not have to undertake to kill myself. I smiled with satisfaction.” (This is one of the novel’s more cheerful pairs of sentences.)

I found the novel quite by accident on the shelf of a small bookshop, The Globe Bookstore, on a cloudy day in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. I’d never heard of his work, never seen it in a bookstore. The note from the translator on the copy I found, published in 1967, placed awkwardly on the back cover of the book, claimed it was known as “the most important novel to have come out of the last war,” meaning World War II. Despite the book’s supposed importance, it seemed odd to me that the book’s publisher could not be bothered to update the book’s jacket copy—America had already finished the Korean War and was in the midst of the Vietnam quagmire at the time of the book’s printing. The most recent edition of the book in English, released by the same publisher, came out in 2001.

Finding anything out about Ooka proved to be just as much of a head scratcher. There is precious little biographical material about him available in English. There has been only one book-length English-language study of his work. So much for “the most important” Japanese novel of World War II. (This is certainly not an indictment on the novel itself, but on America’s nearly total ambivalence towards works by non-Western writers.) What I was able to find about him amounted to little more than the short bio contained in my copy of the novel itself, which made it clear that the novel was at least partially based on his own experiences fighting in the Japanese Army in the Philippines near the tail end of the war, and that he’d been captured as a POW.

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Originally published in Japanese in 1957 as Nobi, the book combines the nightmarish mood of McCarthy’s Child of God with the contemplative, oblique darkness of W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Whereas McCarthy describes the horror of inhumanity in its externally manifested forms—on-page necrophilia, say—and Sebald indirectly underscores the horror of Germany’s past in the subconscious imagery of his narrators, Ooka’s novel does both. Fires on the Plain begins with a sense of oncoming death, segues into the horror of cannibalism and total human deprivation, and culminates in a surreal, perverted religious fervor only matched by the work of Flannery O’Connor. Continue reading

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The Fact and the Shadow: A Conversation with Thalia Field and Laurie Sheck

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Laurie Sheck and Thalia Field are writers who train in the fire. For decades, their work has broadened our sense of what a text might do and be by mining the fissures between genres, reanimating voices from history and science, and setting match to existing forms for the sake of inventing them again. In their latest books, Experimental Animals: A Reality Fiction (Field) and Island of the Mad (Sheck), both turn their attentions to questions of morality, discovery, and the bodies in which all we animals live. For all this shared ambition, Field and Sheck had not met prior to this conversation–and so it is a particular privilege for us to share with you this literal meeting of the minds. –Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, Tin House

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Laurie Sheck: Although in subject matter and approach our books are very different—Experimental Animals is a highly textured collage that accrues through the uncanny juxtapositions of documents having to do with vivisection, Claude Bernard and 19th century science and literature, while Island of the Mad takes a kaleidoscopic, multi-vocal form composed of discrete, interlinked fragments involving the at first apparently disparate subjects of Venice, Dostoevsky, plague—both privilege fact as central. They display a fascination with, and I might even say a humility toward, a deep appreciation and respect for, the genius of the real. Both also embody a shared conviction that nothing is more radical or searing than the real. And it seems that for both of us, too, this orientation led us each to feel our way toward an exploratory, flexible form. And so, just as reality constantly slips free of categories, so did both of our projects.

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You’ve subtitled your book A Reality Fiction. I think of mine as a kind of kaleidoscopic hybrid. The impulse toward hybridity is, in part, an impulse toward inclusiveness. I found myself asking, how can I build a book around not one fixed center, but angles into thought? I sensed a conversation that could accommodate the textures of the mind without marginalizing or glossing over its contradictions, by-ways, doubts, swerves, inconclusiveness. A conversation I hoped would surprise and unsettle me, and from which an unanticipated, textured questioning could arise. A conversation I could learn from.

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I sense this very much in your book as well. With Experimental Animals my impression as a reader is that you let the documents both guide and surprise you even as you did voluminous archival research and chose from among an overwhelming number of documents with an intensely acute, curating eye. In choosing Venice and the plague my areas of investigation, whole worlds opened up before me, and I felt privileged to be a student of that world—part of my task was to make a place for those facts. To just let them be and be there to be noted. So, for instance, I learned there was a Day of the White Page in Venice in 1576, when after years of the plague-ledgers being filled with gruesome daily deaths suddenly there was a day when the page was left blank: no one had died. I found there was a doctor, Dr. Gaspare de Comité, who after years of recording his patients’ deaths wrote his own name in the ledger and then, astonishingly, his own time and date of death, signed and verified by himself.

Thalia Field: I am intrigued by your notion of facts and the real, and agree that there’s something particularly potent about how these concepts are themselves ephemeral, lyrical, even controversial. What I most learned from all my years researching in archives was how tenuous the notion of historical facts are—which is one reason why Darwin appears in my book. Not only does he intervene in the story of vivisection, but he has a poetic sense of the process of making and discovering history.

Also, I discovered that what was “real” in the archives (meaning what is still on paper) was always equally matched by what was missing, and so the fragments of curated text in my book serve both to stand for history (capital H and small h) as well as point to those screams and silences and gestures that history cannot or does not record. This sense of the aural is especially crucial, as it plays the role of primary mover toward action in the book—whether to silence the sounds or to save the animals making them. I appreciate how voices are equally important to the telling of Island of the Mad, as residue of the literary characters. The aural is often considered beyond history, and maybe this relates to the tentative nature of facticity.

LS: That’s so interesting. For every “fact” there is an absence that shadows it. Something silenced, powerless, lost. In your book you quote Zola as saying that a valid orientation for the novel is “Here is what exists.” And Dostoevsky, who figures prominently in part two of Island of the Mad and whose novels were criticized for being “fantastical” and exaggerated, wrote in a letter from 1869:

“…I have my own special view of reality (in art), and what the majority calls almost fantastic and exceptional sometimes constitutes the very essence of the real….in every newspaper you come across the most real facts and the most odd…but they are reality because they are facts. They occur and they are not exceptional.

Both are writing about realism but from different angles. (I’m struck that they were born only nineteen years apart.)

Dostoevsky’s point was, basically, if you want to accuse me of exaggeration, fine, but just pick up the newspaper and tell me if it sounds any less fantastical than my books. Dostoevsky’s definition of the real included psychological extremity and intensity. Island of the Mad has been referred to as having a dream-like quality, but I see those qualities as an aspect of the real which involves the material and immaterial, the visible and the invisible.

Besides, a lot of what we decide is the “real,” and indisputably “fact” may not be, so the definition is ever-thorny. One of the epigraphs to my book is by the astrophysicist Brian Greene that essentially says in the far future the universe will have changed to such a degree that there will be no stars within proximity of earth and so future astronomers will think we who claimed to see them lived in a delusion. Continue reading

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PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, Week 5!

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“FIRST AID TO TROUBLED WRITERS,” the Boston Globe announced in 1928—“GRINDS OUT PLOTS WITHOUT ANY FALSE START.”

 

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

 

 

THE RULES:

 

Every Wednesday for five weeks, we post a prompt 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, November 21 at 5:00pm PST.

Click here to submit via Submittable.

 

Whether you’ve written a Plotto story every week or this is your first submission, we can’t wait to read what you send our way.

 

The Week’s Prompt:

 

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

THE RICHES:

 

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

After this final week, Grand Prize Judge Paul Collins—NPR’s “Literary Detective”—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!

 

You can check out the winning stories from the first three weeks here, here, and here.

 

Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots (out now!)

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.

 

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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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Lost & Found: Rachel Riederer on E. F. Schumacher

 

Lost & Found

A timely reminder that the economy is not just a math problem, from Tin House #55: This Means War.

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We’re used to ideological wars in economic and political thinking: small government versus big government, the 99% versus the 1%, vouchers versus public schools. But one idea that seems to bind together economists and politicos of all stripes is the notion that economic growth—all economic growth—is necessary and good. In this context, adherents to “postgrowth” ideologies—those who believe that there is good growth and bad growth, who recognize that a finite planet cannot produce infinite wealth—are zealots, radical and rare. One of their founding fathers is E. F. “Fritz” Schumacher, whose 1973 essay collection, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, made Schumacher, an economic advisor to the Britain’s National Coal Board, into an unlikely patron saint of small-scale, local production and “voluntary simplicity.”

“Today,” Schumacher writes, “we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism.” When Schumacher started work on the book in the 1960s, this “giantism” must have seemed new. In 1959, McDonald’s operated over one hundred restaurants, all within the United States; Walmart did not exist and neither did OPEC. By 1970, McDonald’s had opened restaurants in Canada and Puerto Rico, OPEC had grown to include ten members, and the Walton family’s chain of thirty-eight stores was about to become a publicly traded company. Schumacher’s essays were a diagnosis, one that still holds today: we’re burning through irreplaceable resources, our work is becoming more automated and less fulfilling, and we’re calling this “progress.” As a cure, he offers an entirely new way of thinking about economics. The book is a call to abandon the “monster economy” in favor of “a lifestyle designed for permanence.”

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Schumacher writes about economics as a religion, a field that not only measures human activity (like other social sciences) but also provides it with an end goal: infinite growth. Instead, he asserts, the goal ought to be “the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption,” because the goal of never-ending growth presents two enormous problems–one practical, one metaphysical. First, we simply don’t have a never-ending supply of resources, and acting as though we do can only lead to crisis. Second, the pursuit of growth makes us measure consumption not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. “The modern economist is very difficult to understand,” writes Schumacher. “He is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less.” When put that way, it’s clear what a silly idea this is—yet measuring “standard of living” in amount of goods consumed is a core tenet of economic orthodoxy.

Schumacher’s essays are thick with such elegant takedowns of economic sacred cows. “The market is the institutionalistion of individualism and non-responsibility.” Cost/benefit analysis is “a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price.” And perhaps most famously: “The substance of man cannot be measured by Gross National Product.” Schumacher would have turned one hundred in August of 2011, a month and a day before the Occupy Wall Street protests began. He died in 1977, and I wish that he’d lived to become a centenarian so we could have seen the signs he might have brought to Zuccotti Park.

Schumacher’s most radical idea was that business and technology ought to exist on a human scale, at a scope that people can actually understand. “There is wisdom in smallness if only on account of the smallness and patchiness of human knowledge,” he notes, and also because small groups of people take better care of each other and of communal resources than do “anonymous companies or megalomanic governments which pretend to themselves that the whole universe is their legitimate quarry.” It’s still a radical idea. Buying local food, growing a community garden, making or purchasing items made in small batches—these activities have become trendy, but they are viewed more as stylistic choices than as the result of revised economic thinking. Even as artisanal products and ultrasmall businesses become more popular, they’re considered pet projects. The idea that bigger is always better, or at least more efficient, is still too deeply ingrained in our culture—economies of scale! Costco!—to see small-scale enterprises as anything but twee. And so making the tiniest possible batch of pickles and selling them within bicycling distance of a kitchen factory designed for employees’ well-being as well as efficiency must be a manifestation of hipster nonsense rather than a thoughtful and rational choice.

And okay, it’s hard not to caricature companies like Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers Chocolate, which imports its cocoa on a handcrafted sailboat. Its employees all eat lunch together and there’s a piano in the warehouse. Last year [2011 at the time of this article’s first printing], New York Magazine profiled several similarly committed small businesses and smirked that Mast Brothers is “like a child’s dream,” using the condescending tone reserved for kooks who dare to think outside the big-box store before moving on to pose the all-important question: Can it scale?

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I like to imagine a good-natured but slightly impatient Schumacher responding to this. Schumacher might also poke fun at the way we’ve fetishized the tiny and the local. He warned that the key to all things is balance; he was pushing for small-scale enterprises because of the dominant trend toward enormity; he might have done the opposite if the world had a “prevailing idolatry of smallness.” Still, I think Schumacher would smile on any business based on the truth that a worker—even a manufacturer—ought not to feel like an automaton. And as for “Can it scale?”—that’s simply the wrong question. Instead, one might ask if the employees enjoy their work, do they receive health insurance, how much fuel does wind-powered shipping save, and do the workers have fun playing and listening to that piano? But this is not what we’ve been trained to do, laments Schumacher: “Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic’ you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper.” Continue reading

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Between Two Worlds: The Backdrop of The Long Room

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At the end of the 1970s and during the first year of the succeeding decade, I lived on a boat on the river Thames at Chelsea. It was scorching in summer, freezing in winter, somewhat basic by way of plumbing in all seasons, but undeniably romantic. The Thames is a tidal river and runs swiftly; although the boat was permanently moored, it rose and fell by twenty or so feet twice daily on the ebb and flow, lurching and creaking on the water. When I lay in bed at night, with only inches between me and the river, and the small boat straining against its fetters, it was easy to imagine taking off and heading out to the North Sea. There were estuarine scents on the air always: salt water, mud, and marshes; and water sounds mixed in with the city sounds of traffic, sirens, voices.

I didn’t see it at the time but now I think that boat, that home, which hovered somewhere between land and water, which had a postal address but no mains drainage, was an apt symbol of a stage that was transitional for me. I had recently graduated from university and was working in London; those were the years of learning to be adult, of trying to make my own way, of finding out about life, and falling in love. Only a few years later, love having swept the sensible alternatives out of the way, I left my job and London, not knowing that I would never return to live there.

Looking back, I also recognize that those years were a watershed for Britain too. It is only in hindsight that we see how and when things change; while we are in the midst of them, it’s hard to discern a pattern. The moments when the living know, absolutely and at the time, that their world has changed, are very rare. (In Britain we had one of those this year, when we woke to the result of the vote on leaving the European Union.) And of course, the past has multiple strands. To pluck one thread out of the complicated tangle and to say that it defines a time is to simplify absurdly. And yet, I think we can say that in Britain life did change as the ’70s became the ’80s.

Broadly speaking, postwar Britain chugged its way through the ’50s and ’60s without dramatic changes of direction and with a general consensus on such matters as the provision of public services, the value of a mixed economy, the role of trade unions, and defense. But the election in 1979 of a Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, inaugurated a shift in societal attitudes. It was not immediately apparent, and it was not simply driven by politics. Yes, the free-market counterrevolution was part of it, with the privatization of industries that before had been state-owned, and the battles between government and workers, but there was something else, a sort of energy perhaps, that over the next decade transformed this country, for better, on the whole, although in some respects for worse.

My novel The Long Room is set in London in December 1981. I chose that year for several reasons: it was genuinely pivotal; there are certain parallels today; and because I remember it particularly clearly. There were riots that spring and summer in South London; angry people tearing through the streets, looting shops, setting fire to cars, and hurling petrol bombs at the police. In the mornings, the stench of scorched rubber, the shop windows boarded up, and everywhere an eerie quiet, after the rage of the night before.

There was a lot of anger, pent-up or released. The jobless figures soared. So did inflation. Mrs Thatcher authorized the use of water cannons, rubber bullets, and armored vehicles on Britain’s streets. The Yorkshire Ripper was found guilty of the murder of thirteen women and the attempted murder of seven more. A boy fired six blank cartridges at the Queen. And, month by month, through much of the year, IRA hunger strikers died in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, ten of them in all.

That year, a bomb exploded outside the Chelsea Barracks, killing two and injuring fifty. It was a war, of sorts. Another war, the Cold War, was still being fought in the background of our lives; there were military citadels buried under London and “mutually assured destruction” remained a phrase on people’s lips. By then, it may have seemed that the gravest dangers of that war had already been averted, but it was an age pervaded by a constant level of anxiety nonetheless. As we now know, that anxiety was justified; as late as 1983 the Soviet leadership mistook a routine NATO exercise as cover for imminent nuclear attack.

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Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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Thanksgiving

 

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Fictional writers got more than they bargained for last week. They sparred with disgruntled protagonists, relived their memoirs, and reckoned with that minor character they killed off in Chapter One. Congratulations to the winner of Week Three, Carolyn Oliver, whose poignant “Thanksgiving” reminded us the story is never over. 

Check out this week’s prompt here

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Sarah Park appreciated the new dentist’s sensitivity. Unlike Dr. Stewart, who, while Sarah’s mouth was full of metal instruments or toothpaste, loved to ask her the kinds of questions whose answers her publicist sent out with advance copies of her books (“Where did you get the idea for this one?” “How long did it take to write?” “What are you working on now?”), Dr. Williams betrayed not the slightest interest in Sarah’s novels. Instead, she kept up a steady stream of quiet commentary on Cleveland’s resurgence and the weather outlook for Thanksgiving, asking questions that Sarah could answer with a slight tilt of her head.

“You hosting Thanksgiving at your house? Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans?”

Sarah nodded, stretching the corners of her mouth into what she hoped was a smile. The dentist’s voice, soothing and somehow familiar, covered her instruments’ scraping sound.

“Now me, I make all that—well, my husband, he helps too, especially with the vegetables—but there’s this one thing I make that no-one else does. Pumpkin pie trifle.” At Sarah’s raised eyebrows, she went on, “It’s an English dessert. Usually cream and jam and custard and cake, but mine has gingerbread for the cake, pumpkin custard, whipped cream with maple syrup, and toffee instead of jam. Gives it a good crunch. Can’t believe I’m carrying on about sweets, but there’s just something about you that makes me want to tell my secrets—you can go ahead and spit now.”

As she turned to rinse her mouth with water from the tiny blue cup, the diamond pattern flexing with the slightest pressure, Sarah’s eye caught Dr. Williams’s left hand. The third finger of the glove was empty, pressed down to her palm with paper tape.

She nearly choked on the faintly medicinal water.

Thirty years earlier, she’d written her first novel about a girl from Cleveland with nine fingers and one abusive English boyfriend. She had never settled on an afterlife for Jasmine, who she’d left in the spring of her first year at CSU, working weekends at Tommy’s and pregnant with the boyfriend’s baby, about to ask her mother for help. She’d wanted the reader to draw her own conclusions.

Dr. Williams was just leaning out the door to ask the secretary for a copy of Sarah’s x-rays. Sarah took her in: just the height she’d imagined, same strong arms. Softer in the middle, but then, so was she.

“Are your kids coming home for Thanksgiving?” she asked before the dentist brought out the tiny mirror to check her work.

“Oh, two of them are here already. My oldest is out in California. She’s almost thirty, and this is the first time she’s bringing her girlfriend home. Lucky it’s not her father’s turn to see her. I can’t wait. Let me fix that bib for you—there. Isn’t it amazing how our children turn out?”

Her eyes above the mask crinkled with the grin Sarah couldn’t see.

Tiny-House

Carolyn Oliver lives in Massachusetts with her family. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Slush Pile Magazine, Midway Journal, matchbook, and Free State Review, among others. Links to more of her work can be found at carolynoliver.net.

The prompt that inspired Carolyn’s winning story about the story was: {A}, a novelist, meets personally in real life a fictitious character from one of his stories. 

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn 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.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays, General

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Tender

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From This Means War (Issue #55)

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TENDER

Dear patriot

Dear catastrophe

None of this means what we thought it did

 

Dear bone fragments

Dear displacement

Dear broken skin

I am in over my head

 

Dear prisoner

Dear, dear wounded

You have earned our respect

 

Dear glad hands, curbed dog

Dear perfect object

The same night awaits us

 

Dear put upon

The day folds over and begins again

 

Dear bad animal

Dear caged thing

There was something about you

 

Tiny-House

Camille Rankine  first full-length collection of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses was published by Copper Canyon Press in January 2016. She is also the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize and a finalist for The Poetry Foundation’s 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship, she was featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet and the April 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

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The Long Room: An Excerpt

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Stephen slots the unlabeled cassette into the machine. He doesn’t have great expectations of this tape. Helen is rarely at home during the day in term time and, in the evenings, the calls that she receives or makes are too often of the practical, brief sort: Can she fit in an extra lesson tomorrow? Cover for Mr. Burbage? Collect her watch, now ready, from the menders? Meet outside the theater for a play that starts at half past seven?

It is only when the arrangements and the diary engagements involve the subject that Stephen must record them. And he does. He writes them down in meticulous detail on each day’s report sheet, cross-referencing where necessary, adding information if it might be useful, making carbon copies as required.

 

8 December 1981:

Subject of interest and wife expected at Greenwich Theatre on Tuesday 14 December, 9:30. (To see production of Another Country—cf. tape dated 6 December, which details provisional plan made by subject’s wife and her friend Laura [Cummins, q.v.].) Tickets now booked. Probability of restaurant dinner later, location not yet known. John Cummins also attending theater. No one else expected to be present.

 

When he writes these things, he pictures Helen looking forward to her evening, getting ready, getting dressed, and later coming home, in a taxi, half-asleep. He prefers to see her living her life alone.

He knows that Helen is busy. She teaches music to young children at a school in Knightsbridge; she is sociable and often invited out. But even so, she is a kindly friend and a loving daughter. She makes time to telephone, she remembers birthdays, she asks after health and happiness, and she regularly telephones her mother.

Her mother lives in a village by the Suffolk coast, called Orford. When he first heard Helen name the village, Stephen looked it up in the atlas kept in the Institute’s library; it is not far from Aldeburgh. She has a gentle voice, just like her daughter, but with the faintest trace of Irish in it, and she evidently lives alone. That’s another bond that he and Helen share: elderly mothers on their own.

He presses the play button and the tape begins its smooth transit from one spool to the other. Recording is activated by incoming and outgoing calls. In a Bravo-level investigation such as this one, where the product is delivered daily, the tapes are often short.

As this one is. One incoming call, at 17:54, unanswered. An outgoing call at 20:17: subject to his father.

“Dad? Hello, it’s me. How are you? Just to say we’ll definitely arrive in time for supper. That is unless there’s a massive holdup on the motorway; you know how bloody it can be getting out of London on a Friday evening. But I can push off a little bit early, and Helen has a half day, so with luck we’ll beat the lemming rush.”

His father is pleased. He informs the subject that his guns are cleaned and ready in the gun room. Harry’s Saudi millionaire, it now appears, won’t be down till Sunday, which comes as a relief. He and the subject’s mother are looking forward to seeing their sons. The forecast’s good. Should be ideal conditions.

The subject and his father had talked about these plans before. Rollo Buckingham already knows that he will be at his family home in Oxfordshire and that the party will be joined by an Arab businessman (who had been easy to identify, from information already given on the telephone to the subject by the subject’s brother Harry). Rollo had not thought there was anything unusual about a weekend’s shooting or that extra surveillance measures should be taken. The subject’s father was formerly Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Buenos Aires, Dublin, and Vienna, has a knighthood, and now sits on the boards of several leading companies, including the brewery that Stephen knows to be the source of Rollo’s fortune. He is also a personal friend of the Director. There is no way the Director would consent to a covert surveillance operation at that house, even if there had been any point.

The subject was saying good-bye and was about to hang up when his father asked:

“Could you possibly talk Helen into giving it a go? Quite honestly, I sometimes think she sounds like that advertisement: I haven’t tried it because I don’t like it . . . And it’s an awful shame to miss out on such good fun.”

“Really, Pa, I think she made her mind up long ago. But I will try to talk to her again tomorrow, when we’re driving down.”

“Ah well, I suppose it could be worse. I mean at least she’s not a vegan. Your mother and I were only saying that the other day apropos of Christmas. Mamma’s bought her a really rather super leather purse.”

Stephen ejects the cassette and flings it across the room. It strikes one of the metal cabinets that are lined up against the wall opposite the windows, and falls to the floor with an audible crack. He retrieves it and sees that half the outer plastic casing of the cassette has sheared off. In a moment of confusion, as there is no option on the pro forma envelopes for deliberate damage, he slips the tape into his trouser pocket.

Now for the second tape. The orange label is there to show that no one has tampered with it between collection and delivery to the designated listener. Stephen unpicks an edge and peels the label slowly off.

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On the Election

evil

—Langston Hughes

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All of us at Tin House are enraged and saddened by the election. Now, more than ever, we believe in the power of story, in empathy, in inclusion, and that all voices have the right to be heard. Don’t give up hope. Fight back against racism, homophobia, isolationism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and the lie of the single story. Fight back with action, and words. We will keep fighting alongside you. —The editors of Tin House

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PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, WEEK 4 of 5

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“FIRST AID TO TROUBLED WRITERS,” the Boston Globe announced in 1928—“GRINDS OUT PLOTS WITHOUT ANY FALSE START.”

 

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

 

 

THE RULES:

Every Wednesday for five weeks, we post a prompt 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, November 14 at 5:00pm PST.

 

Click here to submit via Submittable.

 

We’ll be back next Wednesday with the fifth (and final) prompt!

 

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

 

THE RICHES:

Weekly winners will be published on tinhouse.com, read their stories on Oregon Public Broadcasting’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!

 

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTS (out this month!)

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.

 

 Tiny-House

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

Comments: 0

See You On The Other Side

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We are off to drink away the pain of this campaign watch the results.

See you tomorrow. We hope.

Posted in General

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Tin House Galley Club: The Long Room

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Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read award-winning novelist Francesca Kay’s The Long Room.  The Long Room opens during winter in London in 1981. The IRA is on the attack, a cold war is being waged, another war is just over the horizon, and Stephen Donaldson spends his days listening. When he first joined the Institute, he expected to encounter glamorous, high-risk espionage. Instead he gets the tape-recorded conversations of ancient Communists and ineffectual revolutionaries–until the day he is assigned a new case: the ultra-secret PHOENIX, a suspected internal leak. The monotony of Stephen’s routine is broken, but it’s not PHOENIX who captures his imagination; it’s the target’s wife, Helen.  

We surveyed our galley club members—here’s what they had to say.  

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Francesca Kay’s first novel, An Equal Stillness, won the Orange Award for New Writers and was nominated for the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and for the Best First Book in the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her second novel, The Translation of the Bones, was longlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in Oxford. 

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Beneath the Red Cap: An Interview with a Hillary Hater

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“Thanks for taking the time to sit for this interview. I’d like to ask you some questions about your belief that Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy, and I want you to answer them out loud. Not in your head, out loud so you can hear yourself.”

“Wait–wait–before we get started I just need a baseline. Do you believe in global climate change?”

“And evolution?”

“Finally, do you hear voices?”

“I mean, for example, does God ever say speak to you, say through a pet or former pet, maybe a guinea pig once named ‘Dick Biscuit’ who now goes by the name of ‘Ronnie’?”

“I have to ask these things. No, no one told me anything.”

“Can we get started now? Why don’t you trust Hillary Clinton? Say it out loud, please. I want you to hear your answers.”

“She wants it too much?”

“She’s too ambitious?”

“Too ambitious?”

“Is that a problem for someone running for president, to really want to be president?”

“Okay. She lies?”

“Yes, I know about Benghazi. No, that was four people and as for a conspiracy—”

“Yes, let’s talk about that email scandal. Let’s do that. Do you know what an email server is? No need to be ashamed. Not everyone has a ten-year-old at home, like I do, who can explain it in under a minute.”

“Right, private just means personal. I don’t know why they don’t say personal either.”

“What is the first word that pops into your head when I say, personal?”

“Business? I was thinking, grooming. Also: hygiene. What is the first word that pops into your head when I say, private?”

“Property. Got it. For the record, the Bush Administration used a private email server set up by the RNC. It worked well and that’s why Secretary of State, General Colin Powell suggested Hillary do the same. You might remember that the Bush administration…seriously?…deleted 2 million emails from around the time of the Iraq—”

“Take your fingers out of your ears.” Continue reading

Posted in Fiction, General

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Rust

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Ghosts. Talking plants. A sense of self. Just a few of the (sometimes hazardous) surprises in store for last week’s protagonists as they took took up quarters in a vacant house. Congratulations to the winner of Week Two, Annesha Sengupta for her story “Rust.” The more times we read it, the eerier it gets.

Check out this week’s prompt here!

Tiny-House

The walls sit warm around her like a hot blister of skin. There’s a splinter in her finger and she holds tight to the pain. Sonali has always believed that women live out the opposite of their names. What burst of cruelty caused her to blurt out, on that blood-soaked hospital bed, the name Ananda for her daughter? Ananda. Happy.

Sonali looks older than she is, with skin that unfurls from her cheeks in limp curtains. They flap slightly in the summer breeze as she rises from the corner of the house in which she was sleeping, her bedding lined with newspaper. The windows are cracked with grime, but Sonali takes a corner of her jacket and rubs until a ray of sunlight slithers into the room. She can see the road now, the picket fence, the For Sale sign on the lawn. Yesterday, she had a scare; two real estate agents in pencil suits came to apprise the house’s value. She had to grab all her things and roll-dive into the backyard.

“Smells like someone’s been living in here,” she heard one of them laugh.

 

Across the street, Sonali’s daughter, Ananda, is getting her kids ready for school. Their outlines flicker through translucent curtains, they look to Sonali like shadow puppets. When she closes her eyes, she can hear them speak perfectly and ordinarily; “PB&J, or grilled cheese?”

The kids come out wearing tutus and Iron Man masks. Ananda lets them do whatever they want. Sonali fights the urge to tsk, remembering the mornings she pinched Ananda awake, then slapped her red-blue for refusing to wear the high-collar button-down salwar Sonali had chosen.

“We’re in America, Mom.” Two more slaps; one for America, another for Mom. She couldn’t abide that word, the stretch of the jaws around the central vowel like a snake heaving down prey. M-A-W-M.

In Ananda’s driveway, the car reverberates. Sonali sees the children’s fuzzy heads bob up and down in the backseat as her daughter carefully drives away. She closes her eyes.

 

Sonali lives alone in a state two hours away. She has a neighbor housesitting and feeding the cat. She has sprinklers on timers and lights above the garage door that blink in case of an intruder. She has tenure and a well-stocked fridge. She has everything but a daughter who will return her calls.

So she’s here, now, sleeping on the floor and hiding from real estate agents. Drinking sludgy water from plastic faucets and listening to raccoons scratching under the crawlspace. She thinks several times a day; I should go back to my life. But Sonali means gold and she was meant to rust. She will wait until the day she is flaky and red, she will wait until the act of vanishing. Then she will come out of the house and kneel down in front of Ananda.

“I am sorry for your name, I am sorry for everything.”

Tiny-House

Annesha Sengupta is an undergraduate student at NYU studying English and Creative Writing. She edits the Minetta Review. 

Here’s the Plotto prompt that inspired Annesha’s story: {B} has taken up her quarters in a vacant house.

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn 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.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 0

Wordstock Week: Kevin Young

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This week, we’re proud to feature work from some favorite Tin House contributors who’ll be appearing at Wordstock, Portland’s book festival, on November 5th. Catch Young on the panel Tales of Two Americas: Inequality in the United States with Karen Russell, Richard Russo, and John Freeman. “Ring of Fire” first appeared in Tin House #37: The Political Issue.

Tiny-House

RING OF FIRE

At the strip
club we come

for the ladies but stay
for the buffet.

In Vegas we feel paradoxical
as jumbo shrimp–

Everything here is for sale
& what’s not

for sale is free.
In walks Dennis Rodman

hat pulled low, wearing a disguise
in hopes

of getting recognized. Between dances
they announce him

over a microphone
like bingo.

When we return
to our hotel, dawn

has long gone
& the pool slowly fills

with fools drained
like us.

We brown our already
brown bellies

& I ask my buddy
Think anyone

would guess us black
boys are a doctor

& a professor?
It’s not that folks can’t

imagine it, just
they don’t even bother

to consider us
at all. Unlike us,

our drinks are expensive
& too strong. All night long

at the Hold’em table
we’ll gamble it all

like tin men hoping
for hearts.

Tiny-House

Kevin Young is the author of ten books of poetry, including Book of Hours, winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award; Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, winner of a 2012 American Book Award; and Jelly Roll: A Blues, a finalist for the National Book Award. He is also the editor of The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink and seven other collections. His book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and won the PEN Open Book Award. He is currently the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing and English and curator of both Literary Collections and the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University.

Posted in General, Poetry

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Wordstock Week: Sherman Alexie

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This week, we’re proud to feature work from some favorite Tin House contributors who’ll be appearing at Wordstock, Portland’s book festival, on November 5th. Sherman Alexie’s “Crazy Horse Boulevard” comes from Tin House #52. Find details on all Alexie’s whereabout at the fest here.

Tiny-House

 CRAZY HORSE BOULEVARD

1.

During his lifetime, my big brother has chosen and been chosen by six best friends.

Five of them have died in car wrecks.

In Indian theology, there are Four Directions: east, west, north, and south. Sounds expansive, I guess, but it’s really limited. What if I walked south for ten feet and then suddenly turned west and walked for two thousand miles? How would one theologically measure the difference between those two paths? Would those two thousand miles west be more sacred than those ten feet south? And what if I walked in a northwestern direction? Come on, come on, people, there are a hell of a lot more than four directions, even in a metaphorical sense.

And, really, there are maybe three Indians in the whole country who can say, “the Four Directions,” without secretly giggling.

That might be only the second time that somebody has put “Indians” and “giggling” in the same sentence.

I’ve only been to one funeral for one of my brother’s best friends. It was a highly traditional ceremony, so the mournful Indians spent a lot of time giggling.

2.

What if one is not the loneliest number?

What if two is actually the loneliest number? After all, how many times have you had your heart truly broken by a large group of people? You really have to be most wary of the other half of the couples you’ve created. Or been born into.

My friend says she’s only been in romantic love three times. My other friend says he falls in love three times during his commute to work.

At the present moment, I have four dollars in my wallet. What if this were my only wealth? At times in my younger life, my entire wealth was less than four dollars. When it comes to love, is there a difference between four dollars and four million dollars? What did Lear say to his daughter Cordelia, who truly loved him, but was too tongue-tied to say anything other than “nothing” when he asked her what praise she had for him? He said, “Nothing comes from nothing.” That fucker Lear disinherited his daughter because she was less articulate than her sisters. How’s that for love?

I’ve served on the board of trustees for five different charitable organizations. I’ve lost count of the number of times a rich person would only give money if his or her name was publicly printed in bold type. Rich people want buildings to be named after them. Rich people want cities to be named for them. I think the saddest people in the world are rich. Maybe one billion is the loneliest number.

I worry that my big brother will soon lose the sixth best friend of his lifetime. I worry that my brother will outlive everybody. I worry that he’ll be the last person on earth and spend his life wandering among innumerable gravestones. And I’ve just decided that the only structure that should bear anybody’s name is a gravestone. Continue reading

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Wordstock Week: Emma Straub

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This week, we’re proud to feature work from some favorite Tin House contributors who’ll be appearing at Wordstock, Portland’s book festival, on November 5th. Enjoy Emma Straub on the eternal (?) magic of the New Kids on the Block, and come hear her talk about families and fiction on a panel this Saturday at 5:00.

Tiny-House

TEENAGE DREAM

A few years ago, God gave me a birthday present. Joey McIntyre was coming to Madison, Wisconsin, four days before my twenty-seventh birthday. My boyfriend, Mike, and I bought tickets the day they went on sale, and when I looked at the stubs in my hand, I saw that we had just purchased numbers one and two.

At the height of their popularity, Joey McIntyre and his bandmates from New Kids on the Block sold millions of records and played sold-out concerts around the globe, and I had the cheesy merchandise to show for it. I had NKOTB bedsheets, two sets of dolls (one in concert outfits and one in street wear), life-size cardboard cutouts, posters, trading cards, earrings, buttons, novelizations, comic books, a coffee-table-sized collection of photographs, and a fanny pack. I was a Blockhead. It wasn’t that I thought they’d made perfect music—some of the Kids had better voices than others, let’s be honest. But my Joey—he was good. During the band’s golden years, Joey hadn’t yet gone through puberty, and the high, clear tone of his voice was as beautiful as a choir of angels, if the angels happened to be from the Boston suburbs.

I had seen Joey in person twice before. When I was eight years old and at the height of my devotion, the band appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, riding down the street on a float shaped like a Red Delicious apple. There are two photographs taken of me that day: the first is a blurry shot of the side of my face, my mouth hanging open in disbelief as I see Joey for the first time. I am unaware of the photographer (my mother, no doubt), or of anyone else near me (which must include everyone in New York City). Seeing Joey live, in tender, human flesh, completely took my breath away, and I look like Saint Theresa, pierced by Joey’s falsetto. The next photograph in the series shows me scowling directly into the lens, after Joey has moved on with his float, as if in doing so he has broken up with me. The fact that he was gone, and I knew he wasn’t coming back, ruined my mood for the rest of the day, if not the rest of the month.

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The second time I saw him was more than ten years later, when I was home from college. Joey was on tour supporting his first solo record, and I went to the concert alone, after friends told me that, if I wanted them to come, I would have to pay for their tickets and an additional sum in order to make it worth their while. I was surrounded by women my own age, all of us more or less adults, all of us more or less pretending we were there out of some nostalgic curiosity. When the lights went out to signal that Joey was about to come on stage, I screamed, losing my voice in the chorus of screams around me. The sound was completely involuntary, and came from a part of my psyche so deep that I had genuinely forgotten it was there.

Before the show in Madison, I was consumed with anxiety. My best friend sent me heart-shaped NKOTB earrings for my birthday, and I was wearing them, which made me feel both loyal and a little bit guilty. I didn’t want Joey to think I was one of those girls who loved him only for his past—I was there for contemporary Joey, Joey 2007, whose tour blog declared that his (self-released) record was made up of jazz standards.

There was a line outside the Orpheum stage door when we arrived. I am not used to being the thinnest person in the room, but Joey’s fans seemed to have increased in size, if not number. Mike gave nods to the few other gentlemen who had escorted their ladies and then tried his best to blend in to the side of the building.

My fellow fans were, on the whole, female, white, and hovering somewhere in their thirties. Each one had a camera in her lap and drummed her fingers nervously. I snagged two seats in the front row while Mike went to the bathroom. My rough head count clocked eighty people; the room fit three hundred. When I was in elementary school, at the apex of my devotion, I was one of only a small handful of devotees among my classmates. It was neither cool nor uncool to love the New Kids; it was just My Thing. Now I found myself in a room packed with heavy, suburban-looking women wearing flowery tunic tops and too much hairspray, women with whom I would normally think I had nothing in common, but we shared something so deep and profound that I wanted to throw my arms around each of them, which, after all, wouldn’t have taken more than about fifteen minutes. I struck up conversations with everyone I made eye contact with, and we were all buzzing with excitement. Finally: a sisterhood.

Mike came back looking stricken.

“What happened?” I asked him.

“There were two girls in the bathroom,” he said, “and one of them said, ‘I don’t care if we have to double-team him, I’m not leaving here without getting some.’” I bought him a drink.

The house band—keyboards, drums, guitar, and upright bass—came on stage first. Joey trotted out with a smile, treating the stage as though it were larger than ten feet by six feet. He was dressed in a narrow black suit, complete with vest, and a matching fedora, stylishly askew. We swooned.

Joey started the show with a Nat King Cole song. He danced around the stage, snapping his fingers and using the mic stand as a dance partner. The applause, much to my surprise, was tepid. This did not escape Joey’s attention.

“Google Nat King Cole,” he told us. “It’s good music for necking.” Then he repeated the word necking a few times, realizing that it sounded odd. I laughed. Joey was funny. This was something I hadn’t seen before; in all the gloss and costumes, even the clasped, outstretched hands, there had been precious little human interaction. This Joey in front of me was more interesting. He had a gigantic, pulsing, throbbing chip on his shoulder.

His stage banter got weirder as the concert progressed. Despite the aforementioned heft of the audience, Joey seemed taken by our attractiveness. “Where were you back then?” he asked, referring to the group’s heyday. “You were babies. Babies! With enormous buttons.” Joey did an impression of a baby with a Flavor Flav–sized button around its neck, weighing it down, complete with “goo goo ga ga” noises. The crowd laughed. We knew how big the buttons were; we’d all had them. “Why couldn’t you switch places? Back then, you were babies, I couldn’t do anything about it, and now I’m married.” Marriage seemed to be a touchy issue for Joey. Before playing “My Funny Valentine,” he launched into the murky waters of extramarital temptations. “It’s okay to look,” he said. “You can get right up to the point, right up to the point”—here he used his hands to show us his two palms nearly touching—“as long as nothing happens, it’s not a sin.” We all knew Joey was raised Catholic, the youngest of nine children. We all understood where he was coming from. According to Wikipedia, Joey was the first person on MTV’s show Cribs to enter his bedroom and say, “This is where the magic happens.”

During the ballads, women would shyly get up from their seats and walk in pairs down the aisles in order to get a better picture. While most of the women were in dressy tops and jeans, one woman wore a 1940s-style dress and danced in the aisle. Joey clearly liked her best. Every time someone took a picture, Joey would turn his face toward the camera without actually acknowledging the photo being taken. This seemed all well and good until Joey did the inevitable and sang “Please Don’t Go Girl,” the song that launched a million first crushes, not to mention the song that I lip-synched at my tenth birthday party. Women gasped, then shrieked, then tried not to sing along at full volume. I took a thirty-second video with my camera, swaying in time with the music. The high notes weren’t as high, but the song seemed more plausible now, more authentic. Joey could have been singing to an actual person. He could have written the song himself. It’s unusual for me, as an adult who has zero interest in professional sports, to be in a room surrounded by people who are deeply moved simultaneously, and I felt woozy with connection.

Even after the New Kids on the Block song, our dearest and dirtiest wish come true, some of my fellow Blockheads were still not sated. Two women sitting at a table near the stage called out requests for more New Kids songs. Joey demurred, first politely, and then with more force. “What do you want me to sing, fucking ‘Popsicle’? Fuck you!” This was when Joey started to swear at the audience. “Popsicle” is a song on the very first New Kids record, released in 1986, when Joey was fourteen years old. “Fuck you!” Joey had seen his window of opportunity open and close. The crowd had turned. Mike began to laugh, delighted that he was finally getting a show. I covered my mouth with my hands. Who were these girls, who would taunt our Joey so? I would have politely clapped through Irish step dancing, through magic tricks, through Tuvan throat singing. I wanted to muzzle the noisiest girls, to shut their mouths so that Joey would never know he hadn’t been a smash hit. “How many of you think I’m crazy?” Joey asked. Several people in the audience raised their hands. Continue reading

Posted in Essays, Events

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PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, WEEK 3 of 5

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“FIRST AID TO TROUBLED WRITERS,” the Boston Globe announced in 1928—“GRINDS OUT PLOTS WITHOUT ANY FALSE START.”

 

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

 

THE RULES:

Every Wednesday for five weeks, we post a prompt 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, November 7 at 5:00pm PST.

 

Click here to submit via Submittable.

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

 

THE WEEK’S PROMPT:

 

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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.

 

THE RICHES:

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!

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTS

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.

 

Screen Shot 2016-10-08 at 5.10.18 AM

 

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

 

 Tiny-House

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

Comments: 0

Tasting Onigiri: An Interview With Kelly Luce

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Everything I know about Japan I’ve learned from books, films, and having watched every episode of the anime Naruto at least two times. I’ve never traveled to Japan. I don’t speak the language. So when I started researching Hiroshima for a new novel project, I quickly found out that I was working from a deficit. 

Fortunately, I’ve known Kelly Luce since we met at the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2011. Kelly chose Japanese settings for the stories of her first book, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. The stories deftly avoid the pitfalls of over-interpretation and generalization that are easy for an author to stumble into when writing about a culture not her own. Kelly’s brand new novel, Pull Me Under, is also set in Japan, and as soon as I read it, I knew that I wanted to talk to her about the rewards and risks of writing about a culture that we both love but to which we don’t belong.

Tiny-House

Zach Powers: Why Japan? What about this novel made Japan the necessary setting?

Kelly Luce: As you know, I lived in Japan for a few years. The idea for the novel came out of my experiences there; the story-seed I became obsessed with (obsessed enough to spend years writing a novel about) happened to be a uniquely Japanese one.

Specifically, I wanted to write about the phenomenon of kireru, which in Japan means “to cut or snap,” and is the term used to describe young kids, often pre-teens, committing horrifically violent acts for no apparent reason. And not just boys—girls, too. While I was living there, a number of these crimes occurred and were reported in the news. I was teaching junior high at the time and couldn’t help but think: Could one of my kids do something like this?

Which led to the question: What could push a child to do this? Why does this occur in Japan, an otherwise peaceful and relatively crime-free country? I also wanted to explore the point of view of a mixed-race narrator in Japan, one of the most homogenous countries on the planet. There’s a stigma attached to being haafu or hapa (“half”), and though there’s been social progress on this front, one need only look at the backlash against mixed-race women winning national pageant titles during the past two years to know the ideal of racial purity is alive and well in Japan. I’ve always been interested in the connection between heritage and identity—I’m the one in my family who’s always trying to dig up information about where my ancestors came from and when, to learn their stories.

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ZP: I’m glad you mentioned your narrator, Rio. She has an American mother and a Japanese father. So while she’s an outsider in Japan, she’s enough of an insider to relate parts of Japanese culture that might be unfamiliar to Western readers—the concept of being haafu, for example. Can you talk about the role of the narrator (and your responsibility as writer) when writing about Japan for non-Japanese readers? How do you balance interpretation with storytelling?

KL: The role of the narrator in any story, whether it’s set in space or Middle-Earth or modern-day Topeka, is to relate events and ideas in a way that lets readers in. They need to be immersed in the world of the story. So that’s one responsibility of the writer, to make sure readers have enough information to feel comfortable. But you want this information to be embedded. A novel isn’t a lecture. Interpretation and storytelling should go hand-in-hand. With regards to Pull Me Under, a book being published in the U.S., this means allowing Rio to subtly explain certain aspects of Japanese culture and language on the page that aren’t part of the general American knowledge pool about Japan.

I strove to make these “explanations” feel natural, and I think they do, because after having been away from Japan so long, Rio is also explaining these things to herself. When she eats that first onigiri on the bus from the airport, she doesn’t pull out of her mode of narration to give the definition of onigiri. Through her description of unwrapping it and biting into it, anyone who’s never heard of onigiri can now feel and taste one. The same thing with the concept of haafu. In that case, I also used the other characters’ reactions to Rio being haafu to show the different ways people approach people of mixed race in Japan.

The second important responsibility of the writer is to place itself. It’s like being a guest and a host at the same time. In cases like this one, where the setting is a real place unfamiliar to most readers, I was very aware of the responsibility to Japan and its culture and its people to get it right.

ZP: As I get deeper into my own research on Japan, I’ve also become concerned with the risks authors take when writing about cultures outside their personal experience. Fortunately, there are a lot of great conversations right now on that subject (here’s a recent example). One essay that stuck with me was actually about comic books, in which the author makes a distinction between writing a story set in another culture versus writing the story of that culture. I think Pull Me Under succeeds because it narrows in on individual stories, and doesn’t coopt the broader experience of being Japanese. Were you conscious of that sort of distinction while crafting the novel?

KL: Well, no, it wasn’t something I consciously thought about because I never considered the novel about “being Japanese” (or Japanese-American). It’s about being human. Maybe that sounds trite. But everything I write is driven by this passion for human connection. For empathy, as Brandon Taylor says. Isn’t that why we read? That’s why I read. And the best way I know to showcase and explore humanity is to delve deeply into the life of an individual.

That said, I tried to remain as aware as I could of possible missteps. Did I make damn sure details of Japanese culture and language and tradition were correct? Absolutely. But getting the facts right of a place and culture is different than getting the story right on a humanity level. It’s the difference between accuracy and truth.

The hours and years I spent on this book, imagining the characters and scenes, were hours and years spent remembering and reliving experiences I had in Japan, and people I met there. All the feelings and memories came back, for better or worse. I could never set a story in a place where I haven’t spent significant time. I need to be imprinted by a place before I can conjure it in my imagination.

This leads me to something I’ve been wanting to ask you, actually. I’m curious about the novel you’re writing. It’s set in Hiroshima, a place you’ve never been. Obviously, Hiroshima has a unique and important history, but so do many cities. So, why Hiroshima? Why a place you’ve never been to? And do you plan to go there? Do you think it’s necessary, like I do, to have spent time in a place in order to set fiction there?

ZP: Many of my early stories and my first novel manuscript were set in a nameless, made-up city. I always thought of it as something like Superman’s Metropolis, a near infinitely malleable setting that I could adapt to the needs of a given story. In the novel, for example, there’s a giant Godzilla-type monster who that emerges from a bay, but that bay didn’t exist until I realized I needed it. So I craft setting in service to other narrative considerations. A giant monster has to come from somewhere.

For the Hiroshima novel, I’m writing about the city as it was on August 6, 1945 at the moment the atomic bomb was dropped. I actually chose the bombing almost casually, and it wasn’t until I got deeper into my research, as the abstract concept of this massive tragedy became more concrete in my mind, that I realized the responsibilities I would shoulder with such a heavy topic. While I’ll never be able to live in historical Hiroshima, I do plan to visit, funds permitting, and I want to treat the city and its people with as much respect as I can muster.

So is it necessary to have lived somewhere to write about it? I don’t know. I think there’s a critical mass of understanding that empowers a writer to write about a subject, but I hope that kind of understanding can come from second-hand sources as well as direct experience, at least for fiction. With fiction, if I need a particular setting, I’m just going to make it up, anyway.

One final question. If someone finishes Pull Me Under and wants another book set in Japan, do you have any personal recommendations?

KL: If you like crime/mystery novels with female protagonists, Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque or Out are great; she has a wonderfully dark sensibility. For something short and nostalgic and sweet, try Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat. Suzanne Kamata’s Gadget Girl: the Art of Being Invisible is an excellent YA novel about a girl with cerebral palsy. On the non-fiction side there’s Essays in Idleness, written in 1330 by a monk named Kenkō, and Junichiro Tanizaki’s tiny volume, In Praise of Shadows, which is on Japanese aesthetics. Tanizaki’s passionate commentary on Japanese toilets as places of spiritual repose is worth the read alone.

ZP: Thanks, Kelly! Pull Me Under was such a pleasure to read, and I can’t wait for everyone to get a chance to pick up a copy in November.

Tiny-House

Kelly Luce grew up in Brookfield, Illinois. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in cognitive science, she moved to Japan, where she lived and worked for three years. Her work has been recognized by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Ucross Foundation, Sozopol Fiction Seminars, Ragdale Foundation, the Kerouac Project, and Jentel Arts, and has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Salon, O, the Oprah Magazine, Electric Literature, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, and other publications. She received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin in 2015 and lives in Santa Cruz, CA. She is a Contributing Editor for Electric Literature and will be a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies during the 2016-17 academic year. Her debut novel, Pull Me Under, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Zach Powers lives and writes in Savannah, Georgia. His debut story collection, Gravity Changes, won the BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize, and will be published in spring 2017. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Forklift, Ohio, PANK, Caketrain, and elsewhere. He is the co-founder of the literary arts nonprofit Seersucker Live (SeersuckerLive.com), and he leads the writers’ workshop at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. Get to know him at ZachPowers.com

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