A Different Pond

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A Year in Reading: Steph Opitz

Longtime listener, first-time caller. I’m excited to be here talking about my Year in Reading. This was the first full year in almost a decade that I didn’t have a monthly column in Marie Claire magazine to write about forthcoming books. As a result, my reading had less structure than usual. I put down a lot of books that didn’t do it for me, and shuffled and reshuffled my to-be-read pile to my heart’s content. It’s been liberating. But, a new restraint has also entered the scene. My toddler has recently become a book connoisseur. He often hijacks the book I’m reading for himself or replaces it with something he’d prefer to have me read—which is more often than not Bao Phi and illustrator Thi Bui’s A Different Pond, author and illustrator Brian Floca’s Locomotive, or Jane Yolan and illustrator John Schoenherr’s Owl Moon. I’m grateful to the authors and illustrators for providing rich text and complex art that keeps us both rapt after multiple readings.

Before I get to the adult titles I read this year, I’ll start with a confession. When I read poet phenom Carrie Fountain’s young adult debut I’m Not Missing and novelist Marisha Pessl’s Neverworld Wake, I actually didn’t know either was YA. When I got to the end of both, I was like, Huh, I wonder if they had any conversations about billing this as YA? Seems like it could go either way—fans of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles know what I’m talking about—with a teen protagonist going through some real adult shit. Which is to say, if you balk at the YA dubbing you’re missing out. I like to think of a YA designation as a kind of PG-13 designation; it doesn’t mean it’s only for teens, it just means that it’s not inappropriate for teens. As case in point, a transformative book I read earlier this year, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is essential. Every high schooler in the country should be required to read it, and all adults retroactively should, too.

Now, onto the adult books. A book that made me emotional as hell: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. Maggie O’Farrell beautifully flays the moments in her own life that danced with true danger, and asks, What could happen? What did happen? Am I ok? Depending on if you’re a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty person, my life has had a lot of unlucky brushes or I’m one of the luckiest people you’ve met. So this particular collection poked at a lot of my most sensitive thoughts. I’d recommend this book to everyone who loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, as this, too, is a penned head nod at the real and invisible scars women carry.

I was lucky to travel a bit this year, and it’s important you know that I don’t believe in vacation reading as a separate genre. Whatever book I might choose to read at the beach, is a beach read. Some of my ““beach”” reading included some amazing LGBTQ titles like John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City, and, the exciting new king of the footnote (I can’t, in good conscious, celebrate David Foster Wallace anymore), Jordy Rosenberg with Confessions of the Fox. On one particular trip, my husband, our four closest friends, and I went on spring break. Without any of our children present, we relished in the unencumbered time to do whatever we wanted—floating in the ocean for hours, sleeping in, happy hours, or reading at a speed that didn’t suggest a child might cut short the reading time at any moment. The only book I ended up reading on this trip, slowly, engrossed by it the way it should be was There, There by Tommy Orange. This book is stunning and made me literally gasp at the end.

I’m an audiobook junkie. I drive a decent amount—commuting to and from work and daycare—so that makes up a significant part of my listening. But I’m not precious about how much time I have. I just get started, even if it’s only a 10-minute drive; it adds up, naysayers! When I’m hooked, I end up putting in headphones and listening while I cook, or while I do laundry. I’ll even uncharacteristically make up errands and chores to keep listening. Some particularly wonderful books that I enjoyed on audio this year are Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (one could argue audiobook is the preferred format for this book as the Scottish accents make all the difference), Rumaan Alam’s That Kind of Mother, Luis Alberto Urrea’s House of Broken Angels, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Less is one of the more hyped books in the past few years (I guess a Pulitzer Prize under the belt does that?) but it’s well worth the praise, just stick with it! I’m the queen of ignoring hype for no good reason except for the sake of it. I’m working on it. Which is to say, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee took me a year to get to, a year that I could’ve been living with that book in my brain! I’m glad I rectified it. Circe, too, by Madeline Miller. The description didn’t grab me, and I can’t remember what ultimately made me read it, but that book literally has everything. For these lapses, my New Year’s Resolution is to consider widespread acclaim more carefully, so as not to delay reading some great books.

Perks of my job include being able to sweet talk my way into very early copies of some books. I was able to finagle Miriam Toews and Susan Choi’s forthcoming books, Women Talking and Trust Exercise. And Maryse Meijer’s Northwood (which is now available). All left me dizzy with their strength of voice and inventive forms, dying to find folks who had also had the early preview to hash them out with. JFC, these women can write. I was so deeply affected by all three that I have the chills just typing this out. Peter Geye’s latest novel, Northernmost, doesn’t come out till 2020, so, sorry, sorry, sorry to bring it up now but it’s sexy, thrilling, and Minnesotan—this Minnesotan never gets to say all those words in the same sentence so I’ll beg your pardon for that very early peek. I also recently finished Dani Shapiro’s latest memoir, out in January, Inheritance. Dani’s ability to write in the middle of a moment is unparalleled and this book is no exception; in it she has very recently learned her father is not her biological father. I’m actively wondering if Ancestry.com is going to start giving her a cut of the inevitable sales boost post publication.

Do you watch Midsomer Murders? My dad and I love to watch that show together. If you’re a fan, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz seems like a good book to tell you to read. I struggle to explain the details because I hate to prep people for a plot twist, but this one is [chef’s kiss]. I hadn’t previously deliberately read many mysteries or thrillers, despite my penchant for them in movies and TV. So this year I dabbled, and I’ll give a shout out to Mira Grant whose book Into the Drowning Deep scared me so effectively and thoroughly I may never get into the ocean again.

Other books that made deep impressions on me this year: Karen Tei Yamishita’s Letters to Memory, Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything, Neal Thompson’s Kickflip Boys, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (as a Fu megafan, I was thrilled and satiated to read her latest). In Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It, the title story is so realistic that I still feel sad for the protagonist and her deep misreading of an encounter.

While I’m wrapping up and wondering what book(s) I’m forgetting here, the book I spent the most time with this year and am better for is Ada Limón’s The Carrying. Ada’s work is a gift. I will fight anyone who says they don’t want to read it because they’re not a poetry person (and by “fight,” I mean direct you to your local indie or library to flip through the pages and convert you).

On deck? I’m chomping at the bit for early copies of Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse and Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, both out next year. I’m also reading all the titles of folks coming to Wordplay, May 11-12 in Minneapolis (we’ll be releasing the full line-up of authors on January 17). And, meanwhile, I’m considering becoming a person who buys lottery tickets so I can get a producer credit on Dan Sheenan’s Restless Souls, a book that is so gorgeously cinematic it boggles the mind that it has not yet been made into a movie.

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You Can’t Create Alone: On Fostering Literary Community

Writing has its own mythology. The word author stems from the Latin auctoreum, which literally means “one who causes to grow.” And whatever the reasons may be—our media representations, our educational system, or our star-struck awe at famous writers—we tend to emphasize the “one” in that equation. From Shakespeare in Love to questions for authors at events, our culture often celebrates the tortured soul, the rugged individual, the solo genius.

For the past three years, I’ve worked on Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication. The book traces the life history of 11 widely different contemporary debut books. Their books were self, indie, and big-house published. They were travel memoirs, paranormal romances, post-apocalyptic domestic dramas, children’s picture books, short story collections, young adult fantasies, and literary fiction. When I started the project, the only thing that unified these books in my mind was that they’d found some level of success, loosely defined somewhere between runaway bestseller and finding a strong connection to a niche audience. But in all my in-depth interviews, two other unifying factors emerged.

The first shared trait among the 11 authors was perseverance. I’ll leave that topic less explored here, but it’s enough to say they each encountered roadblocks and barriers significant enough to sabotage their entire project. Some quit for a time. But each writer returned to the work.

The second trait each writer shared revolved around the need to develop community. This theme overshadowed even perseverance. So much so, that I felt it deserved more exploration beyond what I cover in my book. I conducted interviews in Minneapolis and in Tampa at AWP 2018 to capture many writers’ thoughts and advice about literary community.

I’m grateful to the following authors for recently taking the time to speak with me: Joanna Demkiewicz (Milkweed Editions Publicist and co-founder of The Riveter), Rachel Fershleiser (Senior Director of Marketing at Knopf), Sally Franson (author of the forthcoming debut novel, A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out), V.V. Ganeshananthan (author of Love Marriage), Ada Limón (author of 5 books of poetry including the National Book Award Finalist Bright Dead Things), Bao Phi (author of two poetry collections and the 2017 Caldecott Honor Book A Different Pond), Kaethe Schwehn (author of The Rending and the Nest), 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin (author of 3 poetry collections and editor of the bestselling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota), and Analicia Sotelo (author of Virgin, the inaugural winner of the Jake Adam York Prize).

Why is Community Important?
In 2015, an Atlantic article questioned the purpose and pressures of literary community. It’s a compelling read, and as someone who shares a deep level of introversion, I found my head nodding several times. The author argues that the pressure for literary community is overwhelming, and that it forces “every writer who craves self respect and success to attend community events, help to organize them, buzz over them, and—despite blitzed nerves and staggering bowels—present and perform at them.”

I wholeheartedly agree that community should never feel forced or mandatory. But I disagree with that characterization of literary community. Based on my experience and my interviews with numerous authors, this definition needs to be broader.

To me, it’s not exclusively about going to book readings or networking at literary events, as the article suggests. It’s admirable and awesome if people want to write just for themselves, but if writers strive to be published, then they have already committed a public act. That act is a powerful choice, and yes, sometimes entirely based in ego, but it almost always requires some act of humility and community building as well. Literary community is then less a narrow set of predefined acts and more about finding a personal and meaningful way to connect through writing, however that comes about and feels comfortable.

신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin explains that the simple feeling of belonging can have powerful effects. She points out that in her community in Minnesota, it took a few community leaders to plant seeds and lead the way, and now the Twin Cities area has a vibrant and supportive community for writers of color. That community has helped her “keep at something that is not always easy to justify in terms of the amount of time and money invested.”

Sally Franson, whose debut novel comes out in April, says it wouldn’t exist without the people around her. This echoes many of the sentiments I heard in Behind the Book. “My novel, for example, didn’t get off the ground until an editor friend took me out for coffee and said, ‘you’re funny, you should write something funny’ and a beloved poet mentor, months later, said more of the same,” says Sally. “I honestly don’t think I would have started it without their nudging!”

Poet Ada Limón goes one step further and says that literary community is her lifeline. Twenty years after graduate school, she still emails the first drafts of poems to her close friends from the program. They are her touchstones and keep her grounded. She says it’s especially important in a climate and time when the arts don’t feel valued. Her sense of literary community “inspires me, protects me, and makes me feel like I can actually make a living and a life out of the arts.”

For Analicia Sotelo, writing can never be a solitary act because it’s something we do together. “Writing is not just about the individual artist, but that it is rather something that is generated from our communication, from our rhetoric, from our language and how that changes. Once we acknowledge that, I think we can be much more giving to each other.”

In many ways, an act of community is really an act of generosity. It can be notes from one trusted early reader to another, attending a reading, giving a reading, telling someone else to attend a reading, taking a loved one out for donuts after a tough rejection, posting an online book recommendation, offering to watch the kids for a few hours so your partner can write, writing a review for a writer you love, or speed-networking your way through a 10,000-person conference event. It can be big or small. It can be public or private. But if there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over, it really can’t be avoided, and we shouldn’t want to avoid it. It helps us, and it’s part of what you sign up for as a writer.

Most of the time, even for the most introverted, it doesn’t even need to be painful. “Everyone is the person who thinks that they don’t belong at one point or another. So it’s really important to remember that everyone feels that way. I mean I often felt that I was the mistake. Everyone feels at some point like they are the mistake,” explains V.V. Ganeshananthan. “But if you start to think of it like a whole room full of mistakes, it starts to sound pretty fun.”

How to Find Connection
So, that’s great, but how do you actually find, establish, and foster literary community and connection? In my interviews, there seemed to be four common pieces of advice: Be active, be present, be kind, and be giving.

1. Be Active
Start by being active, however you define that, says Bao Phi. Bao’s way of interacting and participating has changed as his life has changed, but he continues to try to stay as active as he can. When he was younger, he “went to as many literary readings, open mics, and slams as I could. Trying to absorb, listen, think, and learn.” Now as parenting, writing, and work have soaked up more of his time, he still tries to stay active, but in different ways. “I use social media a lot, and I might be the only person who’s still emailing folks like it’s 1998. I send poems or essays I like out to people who I think might enjoy them, have conversations electronically, and buy a lot of books.”

Joanna Demkiewicz says it takes some work to be active. “You’re going to have to do some research and hit the keys a little bit,” she argues. “The literary community is a friendly community despite this impenetrable mystique. And it’s definitely not all happening in New York. So the first step is just to show up and take part.”

2. Be Present
Demkiewicz says the easiest way to take part is to follow our second common piece of advice: be present and start local. Rachel Fershleiser agrees. She says, “No matter what, I think it’s about starting local. Find one or two people who you know and like, or even reach out to people via social media that you’ve never met before, and say you’re going to this reading and will they join you. A lot of times if you start with that one-on-one connection—and it just takes one—then that person might introduce you to someone they know.”

Furthermore, Fershleiser says don’t just start local, start small. When you’re starting out, “don’t just go to the big events with the big name authors and crowded rooms. Go to the smaller, more obscure events. Then people will introduce themselves more freely. They’ll be so happy that you took the time and effort to come, and you’ll be part of something.”

It also pays to be genuine, notes V.V. Ganeshananthan. “If someone is being Machiavellian about wanting to get something out of a conversation, people pick up on it pretty fast. So just be real, just be human. Ask other people what they are working on, try to connect with them rather than figure out how to get something from them. If you’re faking it to get someone to introduce you to their agent, that tends to be the kind of thing that people can tell. But if you’re interested in another person or their writing, that also comes through loud and clear.”

3. Be Kind
When I asked 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin for her advice, she listed kindness first. Try to include others, and reach out to them. This extends to “being a fierce advocate for free expression from underrepresented communities.”

Kaethe Schwehn agrees, noting that kindness goes a long way in the arts. In some ways, writing is a competitive enterprise, but it’s healthier when practiced with kindness. “Cheer loudly and sincerely when a writer friend accomplishes something,” says Kaethe. “Madeline L’Engle has a great quote about how each artistic act is a stream that feeds this greater ocean of art. Believing that we’re all on the same team is crucial.”

4. Be Giving
Perhaps most of all, the group of people I interviewed challenged anyone seeking community to start with generosity. Ada Limon says to start with service before anything else. “Reach out and write the poets that you love, the poets that are undercelebrated and underrepresented. Do interviews, ask questions, help promote books that you love. It can mean the world to those writers and build a connection for you.”

Sally Franson says that literary community is ultimately about generosity and help. “It’s folly, this myth of the tortured genius working in her room for years and coming out wild-eyed with a sheaf of papers that will change the world. No one can create alone. Great ideas are a confluence of five to 100 other great ideas. And so you’ve got to listen and pay attention to what the world is telling you. You’ve got to ask the world for help. And you’ve got to let the world help you, too.”

Image Credit: Flickr/hiimniko.

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