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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

 Tiny-House

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.

 

 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

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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

Posted in Lost & Found

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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.

Continue reading

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

Tiny-House

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)

Tiny-House

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.

Posted in General, Poetry

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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.

Continue reading

Posted in Tin House Books

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On the Election

evil

—Langston Hughes

Tiny-House

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

Posted in General

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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. 

Posted in Tin House Books

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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

Posted in Interviews

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Wordstock Week: Melissa Broder

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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 Melissa Broder, author of Last Sext, on stage at two events on Saturday. Details here.

Tiny-House

BORING ANGEL

Now I know the trick is fantasy

I always knew it

But I didn’t know the problem of bodies

Or I didn’t know it entirely

How you must abandon the bones of the real

No angel wings projected on the ribcage

I had bloodstained sheets and I could not let go

I noosed myself on them in the woods

And hung there for eighteen days

Until I myself became an angel

Now I make love with no body

I do it with my halo chanting

Set me alive and fucking

A boy attached to no reality

He who needs no milk or punishing

He who will never abandon

How I love my celestial being

He who will never corpse

We are only air my seraphboy and me

Fucking with no eyes and flying

Tiny-House

Melissa Broder is the author of three previous poetry collections, most recently Scarecrone. She is also the author of the essay collection, So Sad Today. Her poems have appeared in POETRY, The Iowa Review, Tin House, Guernica, Fence, The Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Washington Square Review,Redivider, Court Green, The Awl, Drunken Boat, et al. She lives in Venice, California.

Posted in Events, Poetry

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Lost & Found: Samuel Annis on Christopher Manson’s MAZE

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When I was a child, I was given a book that was not really a book at all.

It tricked me at first. I believed anything with pages to turn, words, and pictures was a book, but as I turned this object’s pages, read its words, looked at its pictures, I felt myself in the presence of something fantastically different than the other books scattered throughout the house. In a book, I began at page one, moved to page two, and by this way eventually found myself at the end. No matter what occurred on the pages, if I kept reading I would eventually reach the final sentence, whether I wanted to or not. The thing disguised as a book, on the other hand, did not take me from page one to page two. “This is a building in the shape of a book,” it said. It elaborated, told me it was a maze and that by traveling through the rooms I might find my way to the center. Clues lay hidden in each room to suggest where to go next. Not all the clues were going to help me. Some would try and get me terribly lost. Unnerving as this was, it was also irresistible, and I spent many hours on my stomach, the maze before me on the carpet, as I wandered through the rooms, trying (unsuccessfully) to untangle the clues, and continually opening a door leading to a room that was pitch black except for the dozens of eyes staring at me. A room where I died over and over and over and over and over again.

Room-01

The title of this work that consumed large chunks of my childhood is MAZE (with the flavorless subtitle, Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle). It is one of a handful of works written and illustrated by Christopher Manson, and though his others are similar in their use of fairy tale and mythic elements, MAZE alone possess a hypnotic power, transcending its binding and reaching toward something else.

Each double-page spread depicts one of MAZE’s 45 rooms. The left page contains between seven and thirteen lines of text while the right page features a lush pen-and-ink drawing of the room itself, eerie as a de Chirico with its impression that either someone has just left or will shortly arrive. Manson loosed his prodigious imagination in the creation of these spaces, crafting each room with a general theme and them cramming most of them with a mix of baroque furniture, shrubs manicured into geometric shapes, exotic birds, Kafkaesque machines, musical instruments, trap doors, lamps, crumbling porticos, strange glyphs and signs carved into the walls. Or, instead, a room may be empty except for a fire raging inside a hearth whose cavernous depths are crowned by mantle carved to look like a gaping mouth. Inside each room are doors, and each door will take you to another room. You are challenged to find a way to room 45 and then back to room 1 using the fewest steps possible. Furthermore, a riddle is hidden in room 45, and the riddle’s solution is tucked away in the other 44 rooms.

What sounds simple at first becomes morbidly, maddeningly difficult. Rather than not having enough information, the challenge becomes one of over-saturation as each elaborately arranged room and block of narrative text provides numerous pointing fingers (sometimes literally) without there being indications as to which are more valuable than others. Will the solution to a particular room become clear only after you turn the room upside down? Is a face hidden in the carving over the door?  Should you rearrange the letters in words spoken by the characters? As you move from room to room you find yourself going in circles, collapsing back into already experienced scenes, and you can’t help but wonder, as though this were really a book by Robbe-Grillet, whether or not something obscure but crucial has changed.

Room-26-1

Of course, things have changed. As you reenter a previous room, the returning images—an umbrella leaning against a doorway or the shadow cast by a bowling pin—become new in light of something else recently seen. Each room builds on your lexicon of figures, signs, and your MAZE language. Your perception deepens, and so, to adapt the Zen koan, you never enter the same room twice.

In the attempt to unravel MAZE’s devilishly hidden secrets, a possible solution something greater presents itself. If we can take something away from this work—other than an appreciation for cross-hatch shading technique and unsettling dialogue—it is the idea of repetition as a path towards sublimity.

Room-41

Our lives are, it seems, composed of a few recurring acts and motions, such as making dinner and falling in love. Once these repetitions are noticed, it can become difficult to see anything but constantly overlapping patterns tying your birth and death together in a bow. The patterns become avenues towards disquiet, the sense that we are now and will always be stamping over the same worn ground. And this is true. We are now and will always be stamping over the same worn ground.

MAZE’s major triumph lies in urging us to recognize the inexorability of continual repetition, something that becomes even more crucial in our increasingly labyrinthine world. We live with the expanding illusion of different and unique rooms, each seeming to offer momentary justification for our existence. We bound through chambers of experiences and believe ourselves to be continually ascending towards…what? Enlightenment? God? A consciousness-shattering orgasm?  But the elaborate approaches to fundamental anxieties are not new rooms so much as rearranged furniture. The rooms are the same, a fact we don’t realize until we suddenly recognize our surroundings and think, “how is it possible I am still here dealing with this?” We hold the proof of our varied and wild experience, but proof does not equate with meaning, and the awareness that our hands are gripping shrinking fistfuls of sand begins to feel like the darkest moment of our lives.

Room-22

MAZE recognizes our learned desire to progress and then creates an environment where such progress is almost impossible. “You haven’t spend nearly enough time here,” MAZE seems to say, “keep looking.” At first this can seem like a punishment. We want to move upwards and onwards! How dare someone deprive us of our right to ascend! But, and this is a beauty of the printed page, MAZE does not respond to our rage. It sits patiently on the shelf until our curiosity bests our petulance and we take it down again. Then it continues from where we left off: at room number 1.

Of course, the 31 years since the book’s publication gave people a chance to solve most—I hesitate to say all—of MAZE’s puzzles. If you want, you can simply Google the answer. You will find websites and podcasts dedicated to MAZE exegesis and emulation, where fans of the work debate the meaning of symbols drawn on a scroll or the importance of an apple partially hidden in shadows. They will also tell you the identity of the narrator and how to reach room 45. However, I will caution you: knowing the solution to the riddle or the shortest path through MAZE will not unlock the secret of the work.  That can only happen by accepting the puzzle as it presents itself, in all its opacity, in all of its chaos.  Anything less is—to use a key MAZE theme—a red herring. You may think you’ve reached the center, but in reality you will have only skirted around the outer rim, never allowing yourself to be swallowed whole.

Room-24-b

I have never reached the 45th room, which means I am always starting and continuing through MAZE. I’ve stopped expecting I’ll find the shortest route, and I can’t even think about solving the riddle. Now I enter primarily to breathe the strangeness of the spaces and to show friends who haven’t ever heard of MAZE: Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle. Because I always follow the rules and enter with disbelief suspended there are several rooms I haven’t ever seen. I’m sure I’m missing something obvious, and maybe this should bother me, but I am content to wander through the rooms whose surroundings I recognize and provide continual delight. In room 7 an abandoned toy duck looks up at me.  In room 20 a tortoise crawls across the carpet. In room 26 several devils perform a play. In room 42 a small bear holds a sign reading “saints that way sinners this way.” And in room 45? That’s something you’ll have to find out on your own.

Tiny-House

Samuel Annis is a writer and bartender in Madison, Wisconsin.

Posted in Lost & Found

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Wordstock Week: Helen Phillips

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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. Just in time for Halloween, here’s otherwordly fiction from the always-extraordinary Helen Phillips from Tin House #66. Catch Helen with Jonathan Lethem, Dana Spiotta, and Isaac Fitzgerald on a panel this Saturday. Full details here.

Tiny-House

CHILDREN

How can I talk about them. The aliens, the form they chose to take. The pinafore, the suspenders. The broad white collars and the big black buttons.

You’re the one who dresses them that way,” Thomas would say irritably. “Those are the clothes you made. And you are their human mother. So enough, okay.”

Thomas doesn’t believe, and I don’t blame him. It isn’t easy to believe that when I was sewing those clothes there was something else guiding my fingers, something outside of me, something green and glowing.

I have two of them, a boy and a girl, and they’re always looking upward, or almost always, always pointing up, up, branches, birds, planes, moon, stars, planets, and there’s no way I can keep them inside now that the tornado is here. Their sticky feet rush them down the stairs, out the front door, across the porch, down the steps, across the yard.

I stand in the doorway screeching their names, the human names we gave them when they arrived half a decade ago—Bill! Lill!—but they’re already past the gate, bound for the road. They look back at me kindly (pityingly?) but continue onward, fast, their bare feet unstopped by the gravel, the lost nails. See, it’s just small hints, like the toughness of their soft feet, miniature clues—but that’s how we know. Or rather, how I know, since Thomas doesn’t believe, nuzzling their damp heads on watermelon nights in August as though they’re children like any others. In the summertime they sweat and glow all night long, those two, and that’s another clue right there.

I step out, away from the doorway and onto the porch. The row of trees Thomas planted soon after the aliens arrived is flattening in the wind, I mean flattening, and then a handful of tin cans shoots past the house like birds of the future, and my dress is alive with a will of its own, and I cling to the railing and scream for them, but they’ve already scooted under the barbed wire.

BILL! LILL! LILL! BILL!

Thomas is yelling something, hanging on to the stone foundation, coming around from the backyard, where he was checking on things. I can’t hear him but I know he wants to know where the kids are.

I don’t answer him, I keep shrieking their names. They’re still within sight, but barely, dark figures on the far side of Field 1. The air is green and the wind is clever.

Thomas curses when he spots them. “You couldn’t keep them inside.”

He’s just saying it, he’s not accusing me. He knows better than anyone how they are, always talking to each other in a language we don’t understand, always putting jam on their hot dogs. They’ve never belonged to us, not even for a second.

Thomas lets go of the stonework and takes a wind-bashed step across the front yard toward the garage.

“The county said no motor vehicles on the roads,” I say, coming down the steps and across the yard behind him. My dress blows up into my face, smothering me.

Thomas yanks me into the cab of the truck. The wind slams the door. I pull my dress away from my face and look at him. He’s got a big head, my husband, big like the head of a Saint Bernard, and my head is nothing to sneeze at either. While Bill and Lill have small shapely heads.

“Center Road to Field 5?”

I nod. It’s as good a plan as any. They’ve got to be halfway through Field 3 by now. Thomas jerks the truck into reverse.

“This is dangerous,” I say.

“Oh yeah,” Thomas says. I can’t tell if he’s agreeing or being sarcastic or what. Isn’t it weird how you can be married to someone for eleven years and still not know.

“But maybe not for aliens,” I add.

“Spare me,” he says.

We’ve been through this a million times. He refuses to admit what they are. Though they never bleed, not even when they get their vaccination shots or skin their knees. A puncture dot, a raw spot, but never a drop of blood. “Why do they never bleed?” I’ll ask him, and he’ll say, “They never bleed because they’re our kids and they’re tough as nails.”

But the reason they never bleed is because of their alien skin. Sure, it’s a subtle enough thing, it’s not like you’d pick them out of a crowd of kids, but when you’re the one who bathes them and lotions them and scratches their backs as they fall asleep, you know these things, and I know that their skin has a plastic quality, a durability far greater than mine.

I’ve overheard Thomas telling the guys that I’m crazy, on that front at least. I love her to death, but. She thinks the kids are aliens.

Aw, hell, Mark or Matthew or Tim or whoever says, putting his feet up on the porch railing. Yeah. My kids are aliens too. God, they’re monsters. They’re zombies. Hell, I don’t know what they are. Trolls.

And I go silently about my planting or weeding or whatever while my aliens do somersaults on the grass around me like any other kids. His ability to deny them is a testament to their artful, maybe even desperate, efforts to blend in.

“You know,” Thomas says now, making the sharp right onto Center Road, “if you keep talking this way about the kids, one of these days I’m going to have to leave you.”

Thomas will never leave me, but before I get the chance to remind him of that, a raccoon flies across the road. The creature seems surprisingly calm, soaring alongside a cluster of dirty napkins. I look at Thomas and Thomas looks at me. If this tornado can lift a twenty-pound mammal off the ground, what does that mean for our two forty-pounders?

Their slender skeletons, their halos of wild hair. Their oversized eyes.

Because let me be clear: them being different doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to a mother’s love. It’s just a funny little fact about them, a little secret I know, the way you’d know if your kid still wet the bed or sucked her thumb in third grade. Do I worry sometimes that it’ll become a problem someday, that their nature will make itself known at the wrong times, that they’ll be filled with cosmic longings impossible to satisfy? Well, yes, of course. But for now it’s a harmless enough thing.

The wind pushes against the truck like a giant palm. Thomas and I have a duet of muttering and cursing and hoping as he steers past Field 3.

“There!” Thomas shouts.

They’re not running anymore, they’re standing in the dead center of Field 5 like aliens awaiting their long-lost spaceship.

And I begin to panic for real. I’ve known all along, with a mother’s knowledge, that they’ll survive the tornado. They’ve done more daredevil things than I can count, things involving sleds, tire swings, train tracks, this disregard for their physical safety another hint of what they really are, but I’ve never considered the possibility that they might leave me. That they might actually pick up and head back to wherever they came from. They’re mine, through and through, and I don’t care a bit about the rules of some other planet—I’ve loved them and raised them with the best love there can be on any end of the universe, so help me.

In the height or depth of my labor, when everything was blurry and impossible, when I was vomiting and humming and the sky was day and night and day and night at the same time, I found myself suddenly calm, perched on a narrow precipice of calm, and here they came, luminous twin bubbles floating toward me in a beam of green light that overmastered the hospital’s fluorescence, and I opened my mouth and the beam sizzled on my tongue and deposited there its greenish gift and I swallowed the two elegant bubbles, and the calm was gone and I had to hum and hurt and hum and hurt for a while longer, and then they were stuck, halfway in and halfway out, and the nurse said, Feel the head! Feel the head!, and I felt a head, and it felt sublime, it felt wrong to feel a head coming out of your self like that, and then they were born all at once, both of them within ninety seconds, my tiny perfect children, a detonation in my heart. I’ll never know what happened to the other pair of twins I carried for nine months, whether the aliens infected them with their alien souls, or whether they replaced them altogether, or whatever.

But anyway, from that very first instant, I was ferocious about them. The clichés don’t begin to do it justice—I’d throw myself in front of any bus, I’d give them every shirt off my back, I’d drain myself dry over and over again, forever, gladly.

Though Bill and Lill have never needed such gestures from me. They’ve been self-sufficient from the get-go, they’ve always owned themselves, and I guess that’s another hint. Sure, they’re affectionate enough with us—they’ll nuzzle up against us when they get sleepy, and when they were babies they’d crawl over to us croaking Mamama Dadada in their brand-new voices. But there’s always been a line in the sand, a not-needing, as though we’re just icing on the cake. When they were toddlers they’d pick things up off the floor, a piece of thread or a crumb, and slowly, blissfully examine whatever it was for so long that I got scared. No matter how many times I called their names, they remained focused, showering the pebble, the key, the spoon with more attention than they’d ever shown me or Thomas. And when they sleep, their faces become so still and solemn, their limbs so shiny, that I can tell they’re traveling far away, to ingest the mercury or helium or whatever it is they need.

Here, now, in the middle of Field 5, they laugh up at the tornado like bullies, their broad white collars plastered to their skinny necks. Thomas parks the truck askew and we leap out and run across the field with the wind pushing us forward, and I feel hot and cold, hot and cold, and they’re waving at us like we’ve just showed up for a picnic. A tennis racket swirls above them, a frying pan, a flowerpot. We’re halfway to them when the wind flips on us and then it becomes as hard as walking in a rowdy crowd. We have to elbow our way through the wind toward them, but I don’t mind fighting through something to get to them, I always feel that way anyhow.

They’re holding hands, hopping up and down, the wind blurring their faces, twisting and torturing every sound they make.

“NA!” Lill screams.

“DO!” Bill screams.

“TOR!”

“NA!”

“DO!”

The exact second I realize, with knee-weakening relief, that it’s human syllables they’re shouting—it’s right then that the sheet of corrugated metal shoots across Field 5, shoots as if someone shot it from a gun, it comes so swift and sudden, bisecting the field, skimming fast toward Bill and Lill, slicing the slim bellies of my aliens. I grab my own midsection, it’s as though I’ve been cut, my dress ripped open, my gut ripped open, my arteries—the twins sink to the ground, blood seeping out all around them, I’m beside them as if by magic, as if I teleported the twenty feet dividing me from them, I’m trying to gauge how badly they’re damaged, I’m holding the pieces of them together, the flaps of skin beneath her sliced pinafore, his sliced suspenders, Bill’s wound in my left hand, Lill’s in my right. It’s not for nothing I took those nursing classes—quickly I determine that their cuts are not as deep as they seem, which is a very good thing, because I have no way to acquire transfusions of alien blood, this gooey blood with its uncanny glow, my hands all syrupy now with its brightness.

They aren’t crying—another hint, as if any more are needed—but instead gaze up at me with strained, shocked, oversized eyes. Their lean arms, their lean legs, small bleeding stars against the wheat and the dirt. We’re crouched down so low to the ground that the wind can’t find us.

“Are we dead?” Lill wants to know.

“Not at all!” I tell her. “Not even a little bit.” Continue reading

Posted in Events, Fiction

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Hey Neighbor

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Week One of PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS brought in an overwhelming array of great stories. We found ourselves in busy train stations, fish markets, and test labs. Strangers passed each other cryptic letters, time-travel talismans, howling babies. And then they vanished, leaving us eager for more.

Congratulations to last week’s winner, John Lawton, whose hauntingly funny “Hey Neighbor” has us eyeing our Nextdoor accounts with extra suspicion.

The prompt for Week Two can be found here. See you next week!

Tiny-House

The posts on Hey Neighbor fell into three buckets: Prayer Group, Lost Dog, and Suspicious Individual(s). Miller hated Hey Neighbor.

His wife Jennifer read the post “Saturday Picnic” out loud. “This sounds fun.”

“Sounds like work.” It was probably a search picnic for the Crandalls’s beagle Dixon.

“We’re going,” she said.

“I miss Louisville.”

“You hated Louisville. You missed Denton, once we got to Louisville?”

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll make my potato salad.”

The picnic was in Coolidge Park, along the river. Long tables were set up in a U-shape and blankets were scattered about. Miller scanned the faces, trying to match each with a Hey Neighbor post. His potato salad had been a hit.

Miller got up to use the restroom. He spotted the woman in the greasy blue fleece seconds before she plowed into him. He apologized. She was young–twenty maybe. Her hair was matted and oily, like she’d slept under a car.

She looked at Miller, her eyes wide. “I shouldn’t have looked.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” She thrust a small tube into his hands and broke away. No one noticed.

The tube was a rolled up document. Not paper, it was like thin worn leather, soft.

He flinched as Jennifer came up behind him.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know.” He knew enough not to show her.

 

That night Miller waited until Jennifer was asleep and went to the porch. He unrolled the tube–the pink surface was a crudely drawn map of his street. Without lifting his eyes he slowly made his way to the sidewalk. He looked up at the McNeil’s house across the street. When he looked back at the map the words “Hates his son for eating the last piece of cake” appeared over the house. Miller thought he was imagining it but looked back down and there it was.

He stepped out into the street and the map shifted. He looked at the next house—“Steals from tip jars.” Miller smiled; a bit more than prayer groups were happening here.

He picked up his pace. He hadn’t moved like this in years. He stood in front of a two-story house with the state flag in front—”Pees in the sink.” A green shingled house with a screened in porch—“In love with her brother in law.” Miller ambled along, losing track of the hours. “Happy his brother got fat.” “Pretended to cry at her mother’s funeral.” “Fucks his wife’s shoes.” “Poisoned Dixon.”

Pink light filtered through the trees as Miller made his way home. He knew he was going to have to look. Things hadn’t been easy for them over the last two years: he hadn’t wanted to move again.

He got to his yard. It really was a nice house. Jennifer was right about the camellias. They made the yard come alive. He held the map in front of him. Without her they’d be out on the street with all the lost dogs.

Tiny-House

John Lawton is a writer living in Chattanooga, TN. A graduate of the MFA in Fiction program at NC State University he is currently putting the finishing touches on a series of stories set in the fine state of Rhode Island and is working on a novel that revolves around the Newport Folk Festival. He’s also considering doing a podcast from the shed behind the house, because what else could it be there for?

Here’s the Plotto prompt that, er, prompted John’s story: {A}, proceeding about his business and caught in a crowd, is confronted suddenly by a strange person, {BX}, who thrusts a mysterious object, {X}, into his hand and, without a word, disappears.

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, Tin House Books

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Wayward Heroes: An Excerpt

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An excerpt from the forthcoming release from Archipelago Books.

Translated from Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Tiny-House

THE SWORN BROTHERS had their men fish, hunt, and forage, and they berthed their boat in little inlets in the evening. They never strayed far from the boat. They took great pleasure in the sport of searching cliffs for seabirds and their eggs, lowering themselves on ropes from the brinks of the cliffs and ransacking the ledges and crevices for spoils. The cliffs that men descend for seabirds can often be a hundred fathoms or more, and those who forage them feel safer after they have abandoned their footholds entirely and dangle freely in the air than they do inching themselves over their edges. This task is one of the most enjoyable of any done on Hornstrandir.

The men kindled fires beneath overhangs and sometimes under the open sky, for plentiful firewood was found there on the beaches, and they slept in tents on the land when the weather was fine. When the weather took a turn for the worse, they went to farms and offered to fight for lodging, though the farmers would give up their beds to them without a word. Young men stared at the heroes, captivated, and in their presence, other men seemed of little moment. Young women stared as well; some offered to wash the heroes’ clothing, and others to rub their heads with soap. As for slaughter and plunder, they achieved little, for the farmers had a natural defense in their poverty and paltriness.

The sworn brothers often sat on bright evenings in calm weather on the grass-grown clifftop of Horn, which looks northwest over the sea toward the end of the inhabited world. They watched for the wakes of great fish on the surface of the sea, and the columns of spray from the spouting of whales. Dolphins leapt and seals frolicked, and a pod of porpoises headed due north to the heart of the ocean. More than once, they discussed how any man with the strength to capture these creatures, and to take their blubber and tusks, would have the means to trade for a longship and make war on more people than those who inhabit Hornstrandir. Swans would also fly in from the sea, stretching their necks and sounding in flight. Then the heroes would sit silently, for they knew that these were the dísir of the Lord of Hosts, women superior to any other, who select champions for Valhöll and turn their backs on cowards. The sworn brothers declared it the highest wisdom in the world to be able to understand the din of such birds and to interpret their flight.

One day as they sat at the edge of the clifftop, watching their men fishing at the base of the cliff, their conversation went as follows. Þormóður asked:

“Are there any two men in all the Vestfirðir who live as contentedly and cheerfully as we?”

“That I do not know,” said Þorgeir. “It seems more remarkable to me that no one has ever heard of two equally doughty men sharing such fraternity, either in the Vestfirðir or elsewhere – and may the hour never come when either of us begs for life or mercy from any man.”

Þormóður Kolbrúnarskáld said: “Can a better place exist than the one we inhabit now? None dare oppose us, and all as one give us whatever we demand, without a word, while women ask us our leave to hunt out our lice.”

Þorgeir said: “I think that any place where we might make enemies worthy of death at our hands, or of cutting us down with their weapons, would be better than here.”

“Yet it is hard to forget that Egill Skallagrímsson, the greatest hero ever to have lived in Iceland and its best skald, died in his kitchen in the company of crones,” said Þormóður.

“No man is a hero who is well married and has beautiful daughters, as Egill did,” said Þorgeir. “A hero is one who fears neither man nor god nor beast, neither sorcerer nor ogre, neither himself nor his fate, and challenges one and all to fight until he is laid out in the grass by his enemy’s weapons. And only he is a skald who swells such a man’s praise.”

Þormóður said: “Are there two men living anywhere whose friendship is so strong that nothing could ever diminish their concord and sworn brotherhood?”

Þorgeir replied: “Truth to tell, there is no firmer friendship than when two men are such great champions that neither need look to the other in anything, until one of them is slain – at which point the other shall do all he can to avenge him.”

Growing on the cliffs that rise from this sea – the outermost of all seas – high up on their faces, on narrow, hard-to-reach ledges, is a certain herb, whose like in fragrance, nutriment, and healing potency is not found in hayfields or gardens. This herb has a hollow stalk nearly as tall as a man, and its upper part is pliant and sweet and a cure for most ailments. Due to this herb’s enticing sweetness, heathens have named it “cravewort,” whereas Christians have given it the Latin name angelica, after the angels and archangels seated nearest the throne of Christ in Heaven.

In late spring, the sworn brothers often climbed down to cliff ledges to gather cravewort. One fair-weather day as they were enjoying themselves in this task, Þorgeir was cutting stalks so enthusiastically, yet heedlessly, that the edge of the narrow cleft where his feet were wedged crumbled beneath him, and he lost his balance. The cleft’s surface was so loose that all it took was the weight of one man to break it. Since the hero had not yet been claimed by Hel, however, he was able, as he fell, to grab hold of a cravewort stalk growing out from a tuft of grass in a crevice in the cliff face, and hang onto it. Below him was a drop of a hundred fathoms, whereas above, only a few fathoms separated him from a narrow path leading to the cliff’s brow.

On the cliff face where Þorgeir now hung, there was neither a shelf nor a spur nor any other toehold, nor any chink or handhold by which he could heave himself up. His only life-thread now was one pitiful stalk of cravewort.

As for Þormóður, he had clambered down onto another ledge to gather this herb, and lingered there doing so for quite some time. He and Þorgeir could not see each other. Upon cutting his fill, Þormóður tied what he had gathered into a bundle, placed it on his back, and hoisted himself to the top of the cliff. The weather was calm and the sea still, and the sun shone in a clear sky.

Þormóður lay down on the overhang to wait for his sworn brother, but the cries of the seabirds lulled him to sleep. In fact, the sworn brothers were not that far away from each other – if Þorgeir had called out even a little loudly, Þorgeir could easily have heard him. Yet on this, the old books all tell the same story: nothing could have been further from Þorgeir’s mind at that moment, hanging as he was from the cliff, than to call his sworn brother’s name only to beg him for help.

Þormóður, the books say, now sleeps soundly on Hornbjarg, eventually waking late in the day. He wonders about his sworn brother, and starts calling to him from over the brink. Þorgeir does not answer. Þormóður climbs down to a ledge, whence he shouts loudly, startling birds into flight all over the cliff. Finally, from down below him, Þorgeir replies: “Stop scaring the birds with your shouting!”

Þormóður asks what is taking him so long.

Þorgeir replies, saying: “It matters little what is taking me so long.”

Þormóður asks if he is finished gathering cravewort.

Þorgeir Hávarsson then gives the reply that has long been remembered in the Vestfirðir: “I think that I will be finished when the one in my hand comes out.”

Þormóður begins to suspect that not all is as should be with his sworn brother’s cutting of cravewort, and he clambers hastily down to the cleft from which Þorgeir has fallen. He peers over its edge and spies his sworn brother hanging from the cliff. The cravewort stalk is quite frayed, and on the verge of breaking. Þormóður tosses a rope to Þorgeir and manages to pull him up to the cleft. They then climb the narrow path to the top of the cliff.

Þorgeir Hávarsson did not thank his sworn brother for saving him, nor did he express gratitude for it in any other way – in fact, it seemed as if he harbored some sort of grudge against Þormóður for the incident, and things grew colder between the sworn brothers from that point on.

Tiny-House

Halldór Laxness (1902-1998) is the undisputed master of modern Icelandic fiction. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 “for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.” His body of work includes novels, essays, poems, plays, stories, and memoirs: more than sixty books in all. His works available in English include The Great Weaver from Kashmir, Independent People, The Fish Can Sing, World Light, Under the Glacier, Iceland’s Bell, and Paradise Reclaimed.

Philip Roughton was born in Colorado and lives in Iceland. His translation of Iceland’s Bell received the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize in 2001 and second prize in the 2000 BCLA John Dryden Translation Competition. His translation of Halldór Guðmundsson’s The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness was recently released in the United Kingdom. His translation of The Heart of Man won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for book-length literary translations in 2016.

Posted in Excerpts, Fiction

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A Brief Episode In Music History

Flash Fidelity

First, music went from ephemeral—song as performance, never sung exactly the same way—to physical object. Through records, cassettes and CDs, we captured songs; then, finally, came the Internet. Music has been returning to the ephemeral ever since.

Cassettes consisted of a case and two spools wound with magnetically-coated tape. They came pre-recorded or recordable, “blank.” Each represented different possibilities; each offered a way of preserving a particular moment in time.

Cassettes were maligned for their low fidelity by our parents, but they were important to us. We thought our technologies would last. After all, records had lasted; people still play records to this day. And if eight-tracks hadn’t, they’d vanished so neatly that we—the cassette tape generation—barely knew they had existed.

Tapes were easy to copy, and durable. A beloved tape—Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, for example—could be forgotten on the floor of a car, shoved in the pocket of one’s faded black jeans, or stuffed in a backpack with one’s undone homework and comics and an uncapped tube of black lipstick, and suffer no damage. Tapes could survive heat, cold, neglect. Though they eventually wore down with use, they did so gently: The playback warbled, faint, as if the sound travelled from a greater distance as time passed.

Through tapes, underground music penetrated the Iron Curtain. Tapes were also instruments for musical education amongst American teenagers, who recorded artful mixes. A teenage girl might cherish her friends’ mixes nearly as much as the friends themselves: An Ozzy mix from Steve, the coworker she crushed on who said she seemed like “someone who could appreciate Ozzy;” Pink Floyd from Eric, who took her to see Star Wars. She might keep these, long after abandoning her other tapes. They might occasionally turn up in boxes while unpacking moves in her twenties.

Tapes varied in length. 120, 90, and 60-minute tapes were common. It was perhaps a 60-minute tape that played in the car on a road trip that began in Maryland and ended in Massachusetts; three girls in the car, one leaving home for the first time. They smoked Marlboro Reds; they drove fast with the windows down. They had only the one tape, with songs by Marilyn Manson, Siouxsie Sioux, and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. Also, inexplicably, Taco’s “Putting On The Ritz.” After several hours, they decided not to play it again for the remainder of the trip.

Tapes included protection to prevent accidental erasure: They had tabs that could be snapped off so the indentation triggered sensors to prevent recording. A beloved mix might thus be afforded some protection. But if needed, sticking adhesive over the indentation bypassed this prevention. Tapes were durable, but nothing is indelible.

Sometimes mechanical problems also occurred. Tapes suffered “wow and flutter,” frequency wobbles from playing speed fluctuations below or above the 4Hz sweet spot. Or a player might rotate the supply spool faster than the take-up, or not release the heads, and the tape would spew out of the cassette and tangle in the player. Tape players sometimes “ate” tapes, destroying them altogether.

In Massachusetts, a teenage boy once painstakingly rewound an eaten tape for his girlfriend because it was her favorite, a mix that reminded her of her Maryland home. He rewound the spools and re-sealed the tape ends. Afterward the player lurched as the adhesive daub passed through, but the tape played fine. The girl would long remember this kindness, how carefully he had treated something she treasured.

Cassettes peaked in the 80’s and were overtaken by CDs—the return to ephemeral was primed to begin. Perhaps it began on an elementary school bus, 1987, on the last day of school. On the bus, a boy held a cassette in his hand.

He snapped the tape inside, as a girl next to him watched. Holding the end of the tape, he flung the cassette out the bus window. The tape unfurled, flying out behind. It sparkled, seal-gray and nearly weightless, fluttering, suspended there, before finally it dropped onto the road. The girl felt troubled by the boy’s wastefulness, but it was somehow tragic and exhilarating in equal measure.

The tape ribbon sparkled in the sun as the bus turned a corner and then, just like that, it was gone.

Tiny-House

Elizabeth O’Brien lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in many journals, including New England Review, The Rumpus, Diagram, Sixth Finch, Radar Poetry, PANK, Cicada, and the Ploughshares blog. Her chapbook, A Secret History of World Wide Outrage, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications.

Posted in Flash Fidelity

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PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, WEEK 2 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, October 31 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.

 

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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

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