Enlarging “Rust Belt lit,” and Megan Giddings’ THE WOMEN COULD FLY

When I say “Rust Belt literature,” what comes to mind? Gritty, realistic narratives, no doubt. Hard-bitten characters. Upper Midwest settings redolent of industry and machines. Or settings found in a time of post-industry, a time of automation over humanity–of darkness. Coal or steel may factor in, or maybe it’s a landscape made barren by the extraction of one and the decline of the other. More recently, themes appear to be borne from loss after loss: environmental destruction, job loss, poverty, the opioid crisis … 

When I said “Rust Belt literature,” did fantasy or speculative fiction come to mind? How about air, water, light? How about women? How about women flying?

You won’t find Megan Giddings’ novels tagged as Rust Belt lit at your local library, but you will here. For Giddings chose to set her latest, feminist dystopian novel, The Women Could Fly (HarperCollins, 2022), a story in which witches are real, not in a fantastical place but in Michigan and the Great Lakes. And why not?

The novel’s overarching plot: main character Jo is “offered the opportunity to honor a request from her mother’s will” by traveling to an island off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she will explore the “powers women have to transgress and transcend” the limits women face in this larger world.

And, of course, there will be trouble, a lot of trouble. But back to the setting.

“She [Jo’s mother] had loved the lakes. Michigan was for luxury. Erie was for mourning. Ontario was for Canadians. Huron was for daydreaming. And Superior was for mystery. The lake that kept its secrets.”

Why not set a story about the secrets women keep for self-preservation on an imaginary island off an imaginary shore? Why Michigan’s UP? Verity, I presume. In this novel, the speculative elements rub up against the very real setting, and say to this reader: don’t get too comfortable. The nightmare scenario you might think can’t happen in real life, absolutely can–and it can happen right in your backyard. For, what weight does social commentary have if it’s set in a fantastical place? Much less than if that commentary is grounded in a place we think we know so well.

This is not your typical witch story (if there is such a thing) and my regular followers know this is outside my regular reading wheelhouse. From the dust jacket copy, so you get a sense (sans spoilers) of this dystopian time not altogether different from our own, here’s some backstory on Jo and her lost mother:

“Josephine Thomas has heard every conceivable theory about her mother’s disappearance. That she’d been kidnapped; murdered; had taken on a new identity; started a new family. Most troubling of all was the charge that her mother had been a witch, for in a world where witches are real, peculiar behavior can raise suspicions and result in a woman–especially a Black woman–being put on trial for witchcraft.”

How do we writers choose where to set our stories? Do we write of the places of our dreams? Google Earth and the ease of internet searching of local customs, accents, etc., mean a writer can set her story anywhere. (So you would think more writers would eschew the default American settings of NYC and Southern California–wonderful places both, but perhaps overexposed.) What makes us craft a setting after our home? I’ll let Giddings’ gorgeous riff on Michigan answer that question:

“One of the pleasures of driving through Michigan is the trees. Farther and farther north, they shift, become taller and thinner, go from full Christmas trees to pipe cleaner versions. The sky changes too. The clouds come lower, the blue always feels a little brighter, the towns spread farther apart, and there are more dips, hills to make up the distance. It wakes up something animal in me …”

In this novel, Giddings walks a literary tightrope between realism and speculative fiction, grief and humor, old prejudices and new possibilities, pragmatism and magic–and all in concise and biting prose. Enjoy the ride. You don’t even need to know how to fly!

How would you define Rust Belt lit? What are you reading and writing this week? Let me know in the comments.

Want more Rust Belt writing, book reviews, author interviews, writing advice, essays, guest posts, and more? Follow me here. Thanks! 

And a Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!

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Lit Fest Roundup (plus bonus nature content for the win)

I know what you’re thinking. Where are all the leaf-peeping pics? We know you drove along the PA turnpike to Ohio, climbing, winding, glimpsing down into little hamlets surrounding the sweetest, steepled white churches. All around were reds and every other burnished color. Oh, the autumn leaves!

Hold your trees for a moment, reader friends. First, a literary roundup. If you’ve never been to Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival, I’ll see you there next fall. In the meantime, here’s how I made my way through my favorite literary conference of the year (yes, even besting AWP, which I made it to in the spring).

Thursday

This year’s festival featured the theme, The Places that Make Us, and I was so happy to be able to return–5th year running for me–to this conference held not far from the place where I grew up in Northeast Ohio. Big shoutout to all my fellow festival planning committee members. We did it (again)!

Special in a lot of ways, besides all the usual literary goodness, this year’s festival provided attendees front-row access to three film screenings.

But really, year in and year out, this festival always impresses me. What’s so special? Lit Youngstown’s director, Karen Schubert, is a literary conference alchemist, joining poets, fiction writers, memoirists, and even filmmakers this year for just the right mix of craft talks, generative workshops, creative readings, and roundtable and panel discussions. What do you get? Literary conference gold, no exaggeration.

OK, onward … Thursday evening featured the Gathering In, with a reception and open-mic to begin the conference. This year, I had a special guest in tow. My dad drove in from Port Clinton; we had dinner beforehand (your meatballs are outstanding, Bistro 1907) and then headed to the Gathering In. I will tell you, my dad did not even doze at what I believe was his first-ever open mic and found it delightful. We salute you poets and writers who can whittle your words down to a few minutes of magic!

Friday

My first full day of the festival began with a craft talk by novelist June Gervais titled Honoring Others with Our Fiction Research. Intentional and inspirational are the two words that come to mind when I think about this talk. In it, June described her research process for her debut novel, Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair. Braving the sometimes-fraught conversation around appropriation, authenticity, and sensitivity, when it comes to depicting readers from different professions or backgrounds, June exuded positivity. So, how do we honor others with our research?

First, have a goal. For June, she decided, “to make the most beautiful and honest book possible.” Second: do the research well–whether that’s in-person interviews, archival research, or hiring authenticity and sensitivity readers in later writing stages. Third (and this is June’s whole beautiful thing): show gratitude by thanking the helpers along the journey. Sometimes this means generous payment. Sometimes this means reciprocity–trading literary favors. Always this means a real thank-you in the mail and on social media and all the shoutouts possible, including on the old Acknowledgements page. “I try to be a living acknowledgement,” she said.

This year, I was intentional about attending the sessions (there are so many, I wish I could attend them all!) in my writerly “lane.” But I don’t seem to be able to resist the poets. In a roundtable discussion called “Moving Past Influence,” poets Mary Biddinger, Ali Black, and Dylan Morris talked about influences in creative writing–model writers and how they influence a poet’s style, and moving past influences as we develop our craft. When asked why she writes and why poetry, Ali talked about writing as an act of remembrance for those who’ve gone before her, those she’s lost. The stories are hers to tell, and poetry her form, she said, before she delivered one of the best lines of the weekend: “Poetry is my baby, and I’m poetry’s baby.”

Marketing-me felt right at home in Gabriel Welsch‘s craft talk Marketing Your Book–Tips From a Professional Marketer and Writer. How to generate pre-orders for your book … how to get it reviewed … how to develop a (shudder at the word) platform … and, ya know, actually sell your book. These were just a few of the practical tips covered. We listeners were asked first to consider our goal. What do we want from our book: readers? high regard? money? Gabriel covered Marketing’s 4 Ps: product, price, promotion, and place. Who said it first, I can’t remember now, but he repeated this gem a few times: “All arts marketing is local.” Along those lines, he said, don’t underestimate the wideness of one’s potential audience. Think about local clubs that aren’t book clubs, local fraternal organizations, historical societies, etc., etc. And, as if he and June had shared notes beforehand, he stressed gratitude. “Don’t underestimate the power of thanking.” (Thank you, Gabriel!)

Short story writer and poet Kelly Fordon (of Let’s Deconstruct a Story podcast fame–do check it out) led a generative workshop. I caught the second of two parts: the first, a workshop to deconstruct a story to understand its parts and how they work together; the second, a chance to get some words of our own on the page. There’s something about a good writing prompt. The simpler the better seems to work for me. Kelly gave this prompt: “Start with ‘We lived then …'” I’m not always in the writerly frame of mind to churn it out on demand, but here’s what I got:

We lived then spitting distance from the train tracks, the river, and the West Virginia border--so much winding, the running tracks leading not to any home I understood. A limbo, the twins not yet in school, not babies either. How many times did we stop the car by the tracks, watch the train pull tractors east and west--Kubota, Deere. In our rental house, the boys slept on a mattress on the floor, when they slept.

One positive of the pandemic was finding a new writing group. I guess Zoom is good for some things. Among the Cleveland-area members is Jeremy Jusek, Parma, Ohio’s poet laureate, host of the Ohio Poetry Association’s podcast Poetry Spotlight (check it out), and consummate literary citizen. Jeremy’s craft talk, Strengthening Artistic Communication Through Podcasts, covered how podcasts can be used by small creative groups to humanize its members and strengthen communities. I love bookish podcasts and meeting the person behind the book. He called podcasts “the ultimate bridging medium,” and I can totally see that. He said that when he edits the podcast interviews of poets–the last one was with Hanif Abdurraqib(!)–he shoots for no more than 7 percent Jeremy, the rest the interviewee, an impressive stat I will remember when I conduct interviews.

OK, this isn’t a great pic (sorry Karla, thank you, Rebe!) of one fantastic panel discussion with the featured presenters (minus Laura Beadling). The gist: the writers Karla Murthy, Candace Fleming, Joy Priest, and Kelly Fordon weighed in on “the element of place, real and imagined, in the literary arts.” Side note: if you can catch a Joy Priest poetry reading, run don’t walk to catch it.

Now, don’t let my festival book fair’s book haul–pictured below–throw you, I guarantee there was plenty of time in the evenings for catching up with literary friends over jazz and a local craft beer (and pierogi and pickle pizza–someone saw me coming!).

Saturday

June Gervais started off the second full day of the conference tackling a subject close to my heart–and that of anyone about to dive into the query trenches. In her craft talk, Persevering to Publication: Some Practical Tips, June covered her (long) journey to the publication of her debut novel. Again, she walked the line between inspiration and practical steps to take. “Expect difficulty, but leave room for wonder,” she said. Now, could I please have a June Gervais quote-a-day calendar?

Along the practical side of things, she discussed making a practice of community while writing a novel (or anything else really). My favorite analogy she offered: think of the novel as the Thanksgiving turkey. It’s not enough. You need to support the turkey-novel with delicious sides, including the writing and publication of short pieces (short stories, essays, craft pieces, poems, etc.) Other crucial sides: an author website, a social media presence, and a literary community. (Check!)

Oh, the literary agent querying-getting-sustaining process. Should you want to endure the agent search, be prepared for it to be long and winding, June said. Most of all, enjoy life in this tough stage of the writing, find gratitude in the work and in your community, and “become a master of the polite check-in.”

I was happy to moderate two sessions during this festival. The first was a creative reading featuring poet and memoirist Jennifer Militello, whose love poems were nothing short of arresting and awe-inspiring. Youngstown native, poet Rikki Santer also read from her vast portfolio of poems, many centered on place–including some that explore the imaginary realm of place through old Twilight Zone episodes. And novelist Janet Beard read–and sang!–from her latest novel, The Ballad of Laurel Springs, which shares with readers some of the stories delivered by the old murder ballads Janet grew up hearing in her Appalachian hometown in East Tennessee.

The second session I moderated was novelist Erin Flanagan’s The Window or the Door: Transitioning from Writing Stories to Novels. (Or, The Plight of the MFA Grad–ha.) This craft talk was super instructional and featured 13 handy novel-writing tips. I’ll give you just a few and you’re going to have to hunt Erin down for the rest. #2: Start a novel-writing journal. #6: Figure out where your novel ends in time. (Also check out The Art of Time in Fiction for help with pacing.) #10: (Oh, this one is hard–but so necessary–to swallow.) Keep in mind that chapters aren’t short stories, meaning your chapter end needs to create more questions, more tension, etc., to pull the reader through. 

If I have pulled you through this post this far, you have shown your readerly diligence and win a star! Or, how about a slideshow of the foliage, cliffs, boulders, and even 200-year-old petroglyphs I enjoyed with one of my oldest (she’s not old, our relationship is) and best friends and her son (who poses for pics like a Jet from West Side Story–and this is my everything now!). Please enjoy the treasures of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where I visited on a post-conference side trip.

Have you attended this festival or another literary festival? What’s your favorite part of a writing conference? Have you been to this national park? Let’s chat in the comments.

Want more Rust Belt writing, author interviews, book reviews, guest posts, writing advice, and more? Check out the handy categories above.

Find me on FB and on IG and Twitter @MoonRuark. Find me at Goodreads and learn what novel I listened to on my way to and from the conference. Hint: I’m recommending it for fans of Tea Obrecht’s latest novel, Inland.

Also, please follow me here at Rust Belt Girl, so you never miss a (fairly infrequent) post, and feel free to share this post with the world. Want me to consider a guest post featuring you, yep, you!? Hit me up. There’s a lot of Rust Belt literary goodness to spread around.

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What I did this totally unlazy Rust Belt summer…

I take umbrage with whomever coined the phrase “lazy days of summer.” And I might demand a refund. Except, while my summer has been anything but lazy, it has been fun.

After a little hiatus I return to you loveliest of followers with Rust Belt pics and books–and news of a reading in one of my favorite port cities (and rollercoaster capital), Sandusky, Ohio.

Off to OHio

The fam and I headed to Port Clinton, Ohio, walleye capital of the world–don’t fight me on this, MN friends–in June. Sailing for my little guys, boating for the rest of us, swimming, sisters-lunching, friends reuniting, and plenty of hammock-ing and back porch-sitting were the highlights. Of course, no visit to Northern Ohio is complete without a trip to Cleveland and a visit to the West Side Market. And who could forget Rufus, who lived his best Lake Erie Shores & Islands life for a week. Boat aficionados, make sure to check out my dad’s antique Lyman boat above, his fourth child basically. Boat name? Hoptoad, named for Pippi Longstocking’s father’s ship in the favorite book series. (Who woulda thunk I’d become a writer?)

While in the area, I had the honor of serving as the featured reader for the Firelands Writing Center’s monthly reading series in Sandusky. Thank you again to fearless leader Larry Smith and his Bottom Dog Press for sponsoring the event (and putting me on a flyer–that doesn’t happen often). I read some older work and some newer pieces from my WIP, a coming of age novel partly set in Ohio that explores the power of song. And thanks to those who came out (or in) on a beautiful afternoon to share their own work with the group. It felt very much like home. (Flyer photo credit: @melanieraebuonavolonta)

Reading the Rust Belt…

Of course, I’ve fit in some Rust Belt reading. And who said summer reads can’t be deep? Poolside poetry is just my speed, and here are a few I’ve enjoyed immensely: Cleveland native Teri Ellen Cross DavisA More Perfect Union; Columbus, Ohio, poet Paula J. Lambert’s The Ghost of Every Feathered Thing, and Erie, Pennsylvania, poet Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Dead are Everywhere Telling Us Things. Btw, if we’re not connected on Goodreads, where I recently reviewed another poetry collection, let’s do!

And Beyond

There’s an old, writerly adage that says if you’re talking about it you’re not writing it. So, let’s just keep all our fingers and toes crossed for my WIP as I begin to query literary agents for it this fall.

Unfortunately, there’s no adage I know of that says if you’re talking about your editing you’re not working on it. But what would be the fun in that? You may know I’m the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine, in charge of the features department. How I love my craft essays, book reviews, and author interviews! But you might not know that I got that gig because the magazine’s editor-in-chief saw what I was doing right here on Rust Belt Girl and wanted some for her Richmond, Virginia-based online publication.

In addition to editing features for Parhelion, I’m a reader for fiction. (If you aspire to write literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry, there is no better way to become better at it than to read literary journal submissions, imho.) Parhelion’s summer issue (our journal’s 14th–not too shabby) launched this week. If you like fresh and bold fiction, CNF, and poetry I hope you’ll check it out.

Parhelion Literary Magazine

Summer 2022 Issue

Looking Toward Fall

Must we? OK, I suppose the pool days will come to a close. My small guys (who are quickly catching up to me) will head back to school. And I will start packing for the literary highlight of the season, Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival. If by some strange occurrence you live within driving distance of the festival and I haven’t hit you up, my apologies. This is the best literary conference of the year–if you like a supportive community, generative workshops, eye-opening and ear-bending panel discussions, inspiring readings, and affordability. Oh, and this year’s book fair promises to be the best yet. Also, there will be bowling and films. So, what are you waiting for? The Rust Belt calls.

And that, most patient of readers, is what I’ve been up to. But, as blogging is a two-way street, let’s keep the convo going. What has your summer looked like–or whatever season it is where you hang your hat? Where are you visiting. What are you writing, reading, and discovering? Do tell!

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Cycling Through Columbine…and Chardon and Uvalde

I’m embarrassed to admit that, at first read, I took the title of JRW Case’s memoir, Cycling Through Columbine, at face value. That is, mostly literally. The cover image is of a man (maybe Case himself) on a bicycle, and I knew this memoir by my fellow Northeast Ohio native to be a travelogue–and the author to have a connection to Columbine. So you can see how I got there: cycling through, as in moving past, moving beyond the terrible 1999 school shooting that forever colored how we think of Columbine, Colorado.

It wasn’t until the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that I began to read the title’s first word in a different way–cycling as a repeating cycle of violence chronicled in these pages. The memoir is an emotional journey of remembrance and a physical journey of forward-moving action. But there is no moving beyond such violence, is there? Maybe only a “metabolizing,” as Case says, “the chaos of memories like those from Columbine.”

It was then that I lamented once more my own connection to a school shooting, however removed. Nearly 20 years after I graduated from Chardon High School, a student opened fire in the cafeteria, killing three other students. According to Wikepedia, the motive was a personal beef; the shooter is serving a life sentence. I’ve never written about this event, a stain on my hometown, but much more a stain on our collective American–and human–morality.

In one of Case’s blurbs, memoirist Emily Rapp Black summarizes the power of the reckoning with violence that Case attempts within these pages:

“The aftermath of Columbine is the aftermath for all of us.”

A little dust jacket plot summary to get you up to speed: JRW (Robert) Case’s “bicycle journey across the USA began during the summer of 2017, the story of which became this travelogue adventure, which includes a quest for values and the tragic massacre of Columbine in 1999 with its profound and pervasive implications. Robert worked then as a child protection attorney with a personal connection to one of the Columbine victims and deep ties to the community.”

If the form of this memoir is a bit ambitious–dual timeline narrative travelogue, utilizing written letters and texts from his past while contextualizing the narrative present with lesser-known history of spots along his route–Case’s heart is in it all. He grapples, and I like that kind of struggle for purchase in a memoir:

“…I find myself wondering if this adventure is more than just a travelogue about five guys who band together out of a shared interest in completing a bicycle tour across the USA,” Case says. “Or is it a coming of age story told by an aging parent trying to reconnect with a prodigal child, who is an adult daughter and Iraq war veteran? Or, maybe, the real story is a quest of a self-sufficient cyclist and former child protection attorney, who gets blown over by a ghost from Columbine, and has to come to grips with his long-avoided beliefs in a higher power?”

The memoir is all these things. Which makes me think that maybe neat narrative arcs are for fiction writers. Memoirs, like real life, can chart their own way, look forward and back, start and stop, and take detours before they find their way home.

Case’s bicycle journey begins is Astoria, Oregon, and ends in Minneapolis, Minnesota, short of his planned destination of Bar Harbor, Maine. Still, a summer of 2,000+ miles on a bicycle leaves him with plenty of time for exploration–emotional and physical, both. Case’s quest starts simply enough, as “a journey, a personal quest to reclaim some lost health and vitality.” He heads east, first among a group of cyclists, before breaking off on his own, left to find friendly campsites and the occasional motel room along with enough food-as-fuel to make the trip. The panniers over his bicycles sides can only carry so much. The one over his handlebars carries his trusty journal–the beginnings of this memoir.

“We have wind for breakfast this morning.”

In the reading of Case’s story, I note the camaraderie and language all its own between riders, these “self-propelled tourists,” and their bicycles. One of Case’s favorite things about cycling: “feeling a kind of kinship developing between me and this two-wheeled, mechanical device,” his own, Daedelus, named after the ancient Greek inventor. Cycling seems the perfect way to engage in a more eco-friendly tourism, while getting a real feel for the land and people along this country’s “blue highways.” Theirs is a much different experience than that of tourists enclosed in the metal, plastic, and glass of cars and trucks. All the senses are explored in this journey. “We have wind for breakfast this morning,” Case writes. Shortly into the trip, he and his pack of cyclists find themselves riding through several small-town July Fourth celebrations, and form a sort of Greek chorus in comment on the Americans they meet:

In one celebration they “joined in the festivities by purchasing, slicing, and consuming an entire watermelon, all five of us, in a grocery store parking lot. We aped for the passersby, grey-bearded men in bicycle attire laughing together and allowing the sweet sticky juice to run down our cheeks and chins. A few last-minute shoppers would even let their natural curiosity detain them long enough to connect with perfect strangers and ask the easiest of questions, “Where are you going? Where’d ya come from?” Such answers, for Case, are easier than the answers to the questions he’s sorting out in his mind on this quest for emotional peace.

A travelogue of this kind allows for much reflection, and Case turns his attention to sorting out one of the most harrowing events of his adult life, when two students from Columbine High School opened fire, killing twelve students and one teacher. In describing the events, Case’s voice is concise and clear, as it is throughout the memoir:

“When the shooting started, I was about fifteen miles away in Golden, Colorado, the home of Coors beer and Colorado School of Mines. But I worked at the courthouse. That’s where I was when I heard the news, eating lunch in the basement cafeteria…” his children were about the same age as the students who were killed, and, Case says, “that was more than I wanted to think about during the daylight hours.” The author was also there at the memorial service for the victims, national dignitaries spoke–with much grandstanding and not enough memorializing. “When do we start paying tribute to the victims?” Case wondered. The fact that the NRA was scheduled to come to nearby Denver within a week for its annual convention feels like fiction…but was not.

What’s that quote about time and distance?

Nearly twenty years later, on his cycling quest, Case would get the time in the saddle and distance–from Oregon to Minnesota–he needed to come to some emotional terms with Columbine. Except that it keeps happening, as we were reminded earlier this spring, when we learned of the news out of Uvalde. No printed record of these shootings can keep up, it seems. Case’s statistic is already out of date. “…more than two thousand living, breathing Americans have been killed or wounded in mass casualty events since the 1999 Columbine Massacre.”

How to balance grief with gratitude at being alive? For Case, a youth on his caseload left for school at Columbine one morning and never returned home. I struggle with this, as I drop my kids off at school each morning, and I pray. Case also grapples with the “higher power” and its place in our lives and finds a well-earned peace within these pages:

“With every crank of the pedals my endurance is building…my confidence grows. Today is for riding next to this wild and scenic river, a self-propelled visitor moving through majestic forests shimmering with filtered sunlight…I’m feeling grateful to be alive for the first time in years.”

Case’s memoir soars where he connects the emotional resonance of cycling with his emotional past. And in this connection, this parsing out of life’s lowest valleys and highest heights, we find hope. What more could we want from such a story?

Hope makes all the difference.

“The day is still young and there is hope for a better campsite ahead. My mid-morning fatigue is nothing compared to the hopeless resignation that once deadened my senses and stooped my shoulders when I came through the door after work on that first Friday evening, three days after the massacre. Hope makes all the difference.”

Cycling Through Columbine

by JWR Case

Bottom Dog Press, Inc. (2/04/22) $18

Thank you to the author for the copy for review!

*Features photo, free from Pexels, of Idaho, one of the states along JRW Case’s bicycle journey

Do you read memoirs? Have you written yours? Do you ride? Have you ever taken a cross-country trip? I’d love to hear about it. And, what are you reading or writing this week? 

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AWP22 Debrief: What you want to know and plenty you don’t about the year’s biggest lit conference

Another AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) is in the books, and I figured a recap was a good way to share–and learn from–our lit conference experiences. (Yes, even the mortifying ones!) Some to-do’s and not to-do’s follow. Did you attend AWP in Philly? Have you attended past AWPs? Have you attended other literary conferences? What’s your take?

In Philadelphia for #AWP22. Name that gorgeous landmark, and…go.

Be Prepared (and also flexible)

I’m a bit of a planner, so I built my ideal AWP schedule out of the myriad panels and readings (and one very cool makerspace) I could potentially attend over the 3+ days. However, I underestimated the gargantuan size of the convention center where the conference was held. Sometimes proximity won out and I didn’t follow my schedule. Sometimes the meeting rooms were already packed. In the end, my highlights were “The Wick Poetry Center’s Traveling Stanzas Makerspace,” an interactive exhibit using digital expressive writing tools; “Strike a Chord: The Lyric Essay Forms of A Harp in the Stars; and “Opening & Growing: Adapting & Sustaining a Literary Magazine in the 2020s,” put on by the awesome editorial team over at Typehouse Magazine.

Allow for surprises, is what I’m saying–and for plenty of time to wander around the book fair, especially the last day, when book prices drop.

Also, as with the rest of life, pack so you can dress in layers.

Plan Your Pitch

AWP is not a pitch wars sort of environment; however there are always some literary agents in attendance. I didn’t meet up with any–though I did have a pitch ready for my current novel (along with a few copies of my query letter, just in case). That preparation came in handy, when answering fellow writers who wondered what my book was about. Also, on my car ride to the conference, I worked up elevator pitches for my other roles–that of an editor and a blogger. If you’re an outgoing sort, you might be great on the fly, but for the rest of us, preparation is key.

And if you can share your business card with someone you’re first meeting, that’s a nice conclusion to your pitch. I gave out quite a few cards for my gig over at Parhelion Literary Magazine and received a few cards from writers with new books out. (The cards are in portrait alignment and feature their book covers–really nice.)

Bring Your books

When you go to AWP, you know you’re going to be hauling home a million books from the book fair (which is also gargantuan). Novelist Matt Bell (who has a great newsletter) had a great tip: since most convention centers have a UPS Store, you can box your books up and send them home to arrive shortly after you unpack. But, you should also remember to bring books with you that you want to get signed. (I am that sort of nerdy reader!) In this tenuous environment, who knows when you will get another chance to have your favorite author autograph your well-loved copy?

NOT bringing my laptop (a first for me–yes, one can use an automatic vacation reply even if they’re a freelancer) left a little more room in my suitcase for books–win-win.

Build in Time for off-site meet-ups

And also naps. Really, for my money, the meet-ups at AWP are where it’s at. I roomed with a couple friends from my MFA program, so mini-reunion! We connected with other program friends and friends of friends at off-site readings and meetings, where we got a taste of the city (figuratively and literally, in the way of some great tacos, Chinese pork belly soup, pho, pupusas, and Lebanese food–but no cheesesteak somehow!)

There’s a lot you can discuss and plan over lunch with a writer friend that you might not get to over email or Zoom–so, skip that panel and go to lunch, is what I’m saying.

Know Your Hosts

I share this literary cautionary tale with you so you don’t have to endure the embarrassment I did. I attended an on-site dinner, because I judged an AWP contest, and while I knew the contest program director, I didn’t know who was throwing the dinner. I arrived before the meal was served, by myself–so already there were butterflies–and was seated at a table with no one I knew. In desperation, I pulled out my phone and texted my husband. His (extroverted) reply was to say anything, talk about Rufus, our dog. I talked very little, until someone at my table approached me and introduced herself… and this is where it gets interesting.

We meet, and she turns to the woman next to her and says that of course (of course!) I recognize this second woman. Reader, I do not, and I say as much. So, of course, this is the executive director of the whole AWP shebang, and I turn to stone right then and there: A monument to ill-preparedness that will stand forever in the downtown Philly Marriott.

Really, they were lovely table companions and I hope I was, in turn. (Also, the clam chowder was amazing!). And once we all sat, I chatted with the women on either side of me: one was from New Mexico by way of Ireland, and so we had Ballykissangel and more to discuss; and the other was a twin mom from the Midwest who is a choral singer when she’s not working or writing–so we didn’t lack for conversation either.

Now, it’s your turn. Hit me with all your do’s and not to-do’s of literary conferencing–or any kind of conferencing, really! And name the gorgeous building in that photo above, because I can’t! Also, when will AWP hit the Rust Belt? This blogger wants to know!

Hankering for my latest Rust Belt interviewsbook reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a post or more unsolicited advice. And now, a nap. ~ Rebecca

Read what you love … and other writing advice

I’ve been reading Francine Prose’s What to Read and Why, a dictatorial-sounding title, true, but a great book to explore the craft of reading. (I’m late to this one, published in 2018, as I am late to most things.)

Wait a minute, you say. Reading’s a craft now? Can’t I just read what I love? Of course, I say, and I’m sure Francine would agree. But if we’re reading for sport–that is reading to improve our writing or even ourselves–she is here for us. That is, this book–a compilation of essays responding to various works of literature–is a tool to employ to help us on our writing journeys. I especially enjoyed Prose’s essay in response to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, her essay on Jane Austen (I, embarrassingly, only recently read Pride and Prejudice for the first time), and her essay titled “Lolita, Just the Dirty Parts: On the Erotic and Pornographic,” (in case you like your Valentine’s Day reading on the saucy side.)

From that last essay on a novel I loved (for all kinds of writerly reasons–like fun play with an unreliable narrator) I especially liked her discussion on what’s been lost in how we think about “Eros and erotic, words that have always included the sexual but have also suggested the mysterious…connection between sex and life, between sex and pleasure, between the origin of life and the celebration of life…”

My guess is Lolita is a contender for the top spot in the latest rash of books to be banned and even burned…maybe partly due to limited understanding of Eros. I’m also guessing that many who would wish to rid the world of Lolita haven’t read it–“a work of art” that functions not to arouse the reader but to “deepen our well of compassion and sympathy.”

My quick take: I read what I love and leave the books I don’t love for others to consider. And in reading what I love I absorb the best of it as lessons to write well.

One delightful effect of my being between revisions of my WIP is that I have ample time to read. Add to that the fact that I’m not yet querying agents for my WIP, which means my reading time isn’t eaten up by searching for comps (comparative titles), and I am really reading what I love.

My TBR keeps climbing to the ceiling, but in addition to Prose’s craft book, I’m also reading Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds, based on her short story by the same name. (I highly recommend her collection if you are a short story fan.)

In nonfiction, I’m currently reading Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact by Phil Chan with Michelle Chase, about Asian representation in classical ballet. I heard Chan speak on a West Virginia University webinar, and this former dancer (me) was enthralled.

So, tell me, what are your Valentine’s Day reads? Are you knocking on Eros’s door for the holiday? Reading short stories or a novel? What’s the best nonfiction book you’ve picked up lately? Any of my current reads appeal to you?

Hankering for my latest Rust Belt interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post or more unsolicited advice. Thanks for reading, and Happy Valentine’s Day! ~Rebecca

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Not a post about a Christmas cookie

This is a post about a community Christmas cookie.

***

Bear with me, and hello! Happiest of holiday seasons to you and yours!

And back to the aforementioned cookie…

It was Christmas Eve Eve, and I’d waited too long to secure anise seed, a necessary ingredient in my favorite Christmas cookie, one I make religiously, each and every year: German Springerle.

I visited four stores on my search for the elusive, black licorice-scented seed and found none. I lamented supply chain issues and the state of commerce in particular and the world in general. But not for long, because Christmas.

In a last ditch attempt to keep my cookie tradition alive, my husband suggested I ask for anise seed on our village’s FB page. Within the hour, I had offers of fennel seed and star anise–the latter of which I believed just might work.

Because this is not a baking blog (you’re welcome), I won’t bore you with the recipe–unless you want it (I don’t believe in secret recipes). But suffice it to say the cookie turned out great with the substitution. Yes, it takes a village.

You probably have your own community cookie story. Maybe it’s an actual cookie. Maybe it’s something a little more poignant.

As Epiphany approaches, the Wise Men in our nativity set inch closer to the scene. These smart guys (rightly) get a lot of press. They brought pretty important ingredients to that out-of-the-way stable.

Our nativity set also features some more colorful comers–a rough-looking fellow bringing a chicken and eggs; a woman bringing several loaves of bread balanced on her head; a drummer and a bagpiper bringing the tunes.

Me, I’ve been bringing the music, this year, my first full year as a cantor at my Catholic parish and for weddings and funerals. And this singing way of things has found its way into my home-life (working on a Von Trapp vibe over here!) and my writing-life. In my novel-in-progress I ask: Can our songs save us? And in my recent nonfiction, I try to bring my voice closer to my heart.

If you know me out on Twitter–land of snark–you’ll know that in addition to cookies, I am the one who brings the shrimp ring to a party. (My Midwestern child-self would be duly impressed.) Snark aside, I try to do my small part at a time when it seems we’re all pulled apart, party-less.

Because, we can’t make all the good stuff entirely on our own. It takes community.

Community is why I started this blog way back in 2017. And it’s why I will continue to hype the poets and writers and literary-scene-makers of the Rust Belt in 2022.

If you haven’t yet checked out some of my favorite posts of this year, I hope you will. Among them: my interview with former steelworker and memoirist Eliese Colette Goldbach, author of Rust; and my interview with poet and memoirist Robert Miltner, author of Ohio Apertures: A Lyric Memoir. Many, many thanks go to those on the answering end of my queries.

2021 Rust Belt Girl blog superlatives? I’ve got those! 3,232 visitors hailing from 78 countries–not bad for a blog that reveres the regional.

My most viewed post (once again) is my gush-fest about Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow. (Have you read his new novel? On my TBR.)

My review of Michigander Dawn Newton’s The Remnants of Summer came up second.

My most-viewed interview this year was that with Cleveland native poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, whom I got to meet in person–and even break bread with–at Lit Youngstown’s Fall Literary Festival in October. A festival I helped to plan, along with so many other members of that literary community.

The literary world just recently lost Joan Didion. The places she wrote about and from are not my places. But she has a lot to teach us about writing about place. I’m taking this quote of hers into 2022 as inspiration:

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.

Joan Didion, The White Album, 1979

Whatever place you’re shaping, whatever community you belong to, thank you for being here.

All the best in 2022, stay well, and keep in touch!

Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. ~Rebecca

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Poet for a weekend, and other literary festival miracles

I am not a poet, though some of my prose has aspirations. However, if writing is about invention–and re-invention–maybe my prose knows something I don’t.

How glorious to reinvent ourselves through our writing, over and over, on the page (or screen). I do find invention the most exciting part of being a fiction writer, blogger, and even a marketing professional–well, second only to the excitement of connecting with likeminded creative folks.

And so, I was in literary heaven at Lit Youngstown’s fifth annual Fall Literary Festival, held on the campus of Youngtown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. (Heaven is in Ohio? Yes, yes it is.)

Remember in-person literary events? I’d almost forgotten that some of my favorite writerly faces can been seen in the literary wild, outside of their confining Zoom boxes. For those of you readers who’ve been around these blog parts for a while, this festival gave the pleasure of meeting several of my Rust Belt interviewees in person for the first time: memoirist and poet Robert Miltner, poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, and novelist Margo Orlando Littell. Also, in small-literary-world news, a writer friend I made while attending a writing retreat in Virginia in the spring made it to the fall conference (hi, Rebe!).

So, what exactly goes down at a literary festival? The “gathering in” night at a downtown art studio included a cookie table, a local tradition. And, not only did I cookie, but I also put on my brave writer pants and read a short piece at the open mic (following maybe some of my best advice for speaking–or singing–in public).

The first full day of the festival, I moderated a craft session on writing memoir; attended a panel discussion on rewriting women into history (take that Jack London–just trust me); attended a poetry discussion on transforming grief into a gift; and took an epistolary poetry workshop. Yes, me, the non-poet. At the risk of total embarrassment, here’s my epistolary poem from the class:

Dear Son,
A hotel bed big enough for the four of us, but it sleeps only me. I could say I wish you were here,
but Youngstown, this place I only discovered when I was no longer young, feels like mine
alone. Here, the people talk like me, the nasal accent that cuts through a crowd. You will love
a campus like this someday, a place that will watch you become a stronger you, tempered
like the steel of this place. Your Youngstown might be Annapolis or College Park or Cambridge.
You know we can't afford the Ivies, right? Do your homework, get a good night's sleep, and know
I love you.
~Mom

One of the coolest aspects of having a literary festival on a college campus is the other arts to be found. A short walk took me to a university art museum that was featuring an installation by artist Diane Samuels. My photos don’t do her work justice, so you’re going to want to check out her site. Here, you see Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, and The Overstory–with every word of those texts hand-transcribed on various materials. The quilt-like pieces are gorgeous from afar or up close, where you can read every word.

From the art museum, we then had dinner–pierogi and halushki–at a local, historic stone church, where after, in the sanctuary we heard from a jazz trio before the evening’s creative readings. (See pics above.) From there, I followed the locals to a tiny jazz and blues club where we heard, you guessed it, live jazz and blues–some originals and some covers of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and other sing-alongable songs. And my weekend just kept getting more art-full.

The second day of the conference, I played hooky. It’s true. Rule-following me. Of course, before that I did my duty as part of the planning committee and worked at the book fair (which was a lot of fun!). I also took poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry workshop about writing from family history (one of her best tips: to avoid sentimentality, get very specific and use details sparingly); I’m still working on that poem. And later, I took a poetry workshop on the Golden Shovel form (news-to-me: it has nothing to do with a shovel shape). And then, I played hooky.

Book fair book haul: Don’t miss Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ latest book of poems, A More Perfect Union.

For the several years I’ve been attending this literary festival, everyone’s told me I must make it to the Butler Museum of American Art, a short walk from the conference venue. This time, a couple writer friends and I made it, took the tour, the whole thing. Reader, there was an Edward Hopper. I knew I was in the right place. (Pictured: Edward Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town, William Gropper’s Youngstown Strike, Henry Martin Gasser’s Intersection, Grant Wood’s In the Spring, a name-that-abstract piece I didn’t take a good enough picture of the id card, Peter Maier’s Horse-Power (Ben)–a floor-to-ceiling rendering of a Clydesdale painted on metal–and Alfred Leslie’s High Tea.)

After my fill of American art, I enjoyed dinner (Italian, if you’re keeping track) and literary conversation that alternately had me jotting notes (the TBR pile grows ever taller) and laughing. There again, my idea of heaven. To cap off the final evening of the festival: another reading (at another downtown art gallery), this time by Jan Beatty–raw, real, and revelational! I can’t wait to dive into this one, too.

Huge kudos to Lit Youngstown director Karen Schubert and outreach coordinator Cassandra Lawton, the board, and planning committee folks–for another successful literary festival. It felt like a miracle that was over too soon!

Have you ever been to a literary festival or conference? What were the highlights for you? Did you stay in your literary lane or reinvent yourself in a weekend? Do you enjoy creative readings? What makes a reading memorable for you?

I’ve been terrible about keeping in touch, but I hope you’ll check in here. What are you reading, writing? What authors have moved you, lately? Are you getting out to any in-person activities?

Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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“Say what?” Thinking like a singer to prepare for your next reading

OK, this is pretty niche. But read on. You will be rewarded with a new puppy pic if you do. (Bribing is the new blogging.)

Avid followers of the ol’ blog will maybe recall me quipping that I plan to be an opera singer in my next life. That’s a quip, and not a promise (or threat), since I don’t really believe in next lives or in my opera-singing chops–unless that next life comes with brand-new designer equipment.

However, just as the world was shutting down with the pandemic, and singers were shutting up, I was getting started. Singing became a passion, rekindled from my youth, that I could pursue with gusto–albeit solo–during an otherwise dreary time. Now, provided the pandemic doesn’t throw yet another wrench in the works, I’m practicing my “Ave Maria” (of the Schubert variety) to sing at a wedding ceremony, next month.

Which got me to thinking of another kind of performance: the creative reading. You know, the poet or writer, so awesome on paper, attempts to translate that awesomeness to the air (of your local art gallery, bookstore, or coffeehouse–machines grinding and screaming in the background). We pull for that poet, we really do. We yearn to feel we are in the presence of confident genius. We want to feel enveloped in that voice and meaning. Something akin to Luciano Pavarotti at a football stadium or Celine Dion in Vegas. We want to feel moved. Yet, so often, we feel the poet’s unease, and we can’t enjoy the performance due to flashbacks from that disastrous middle school talent show when we lip-synced to Milli Vanilli.

Yes, one is public singing and one is public speaking, and I’ve conflated the two. But I’ve found that the big-strokes prep is much the same for both.

And so here you have a list, because lists are comforting in their orderliness–especially during times of trepidation (say, like doing public anything during a pandemic). And you have a list in descending order, which should be all the excitement you need on a Friday, right?

5. Embrace the trepidation. In my experience, talking yourself out of nervousness at performing in public doesn’t work. (God love my mom who used to @ me about meditation before a ballet performance.) Have some Jedi mind tricks that work to psych yourself out of nervousness, please teach me your magic. For me, only practice–singing or reading a piece over and over and over–calms the fear. (And if I’m still terribly fearful, I haven’t practiced enough.)

4. Stand (or sit) up straight, and breathe. I know I sound like your mom. Really, it’s about the lungs and diaphragm and other anatomy-ish stuff. And yes, breathing to sing is different than breathing to live. But I would recommend to anyone who has to speak in public that they try breathing like singers do. And, just as singers concentrate on phrasing, so too should readers–especially poets, where line breaks can make or, ya know, break a piece.

3. Take it slow, and enunciate. In singing, we talk about onset and release, but it’s mostly about starting and stopping the right way. In creative readings, the same careful attention should be paid to enunciation. Of course, once the nerves kick in, we want to race to the finish. Fight the urge! Pretend there’s an accompanist or a metronome, keeping you from speeding up, and be sure you can hear every word you say, so that your audience can, too.

2. Make eye contact. Not like salesman-creepy eye contact. But do look up from your words now and then and into the faces of those lovely people who’ve shown up or logged on–and are missing their latest TV show binge–for your words.

1. Speak up. Are you soft-spoken? Is there background noise at your venue? Ask for a mic. Want to go mic-less, you better see #4. You’re going to need to push that breath to be heard.

Your turn: what are your favorite public speaking or creative reading tips or tricks? What are you reading or writing this week? How’s everything?

And… drumroll…

Puppy! (Did you think I’d leave you hanging?) Meet Rufus, the dog I never thought I needed. But who could resist? And, now for more bribery, meet me over at FB or at @MoonRuark over at Twitter and IG, for more Rufus and more Rust Belt-ness.

Rufus, 10 weeks old here, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and capturer of this cat-lover’s heart (and also cicadas).

Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post or more unsolicited advice. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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My review of RUNNING FOR HOME, Edward McClelland’s debut novel

For many years, the Lordstown Complex, a GM auto factory in Northeast Ohio, was a landmark along my drive home to family.

“Not long now,” I’d mutter to myself or say to my kids, if they were with me, and we’d marvel at the sea of cars in the auto plant’s gargantuan parking lot—and at the cars we couldn’t see, being made inside the plant’s operations. Lordstown, something like a prayer and a beacon both, calling me back to the place I still call home.

Poetical references aside, Lordstown was an economic hub for the area, for decades. In the 60s, when my dad first moved to the Cleveland area, met my mom, and married, that plant was making the Chevy Impala and then the Pontiac Firebird. And the people who worked on the line were making salaries better than anything my dad could make as a draftsman. But we all know what happened to auto-making over the next few decades. And, with each pass in recent years, that Lordstown plant held fewer cars in the parking lot, meaning fewer employees working fewer shifts making fewer cars. Last I remember in its history as an auto plant, Lordstown was the home of the Chevy Cruze. I hate to disparage, but how many Cruze drivers do you know?

It was with this point of reference—a familiar setting—that I came to Edward McClelland’s debut novel, Running for Home, out now from Bottom Dog Press. An accomplished journalist and writer of nonfiction—I loved his How to Speak Midwestern—McClelland has covered and written about the post-industrial Midwest, from which he hails, for a long time. This is the first novel for the Lansing, Michigan, native–and it hit home for me.

Running for Home opens on the Empire Motors body plant, “a permanent symbol of my hometown, as well as a gateway to opportunity,” says the narrator, high-school student and runner, Kevin. What follows is a story of the fall of industry in a place, coinciding with the rise of “a slight Midwestern youth,” our protagonist, in this coming-of-age story.

From the jacket copy: “In this moving new novel, [Kevin] deals with a rough high school and a vanishing factory town through a devotion to his running sport and his caring family. Aided by a spunky girlfriend, a humble-wise coach, loyal teammates, and his earned self-awareness, he learns the value of reliance and home.”

What sets this coming-of-age story apart? A narrator with a voice and a passion that ring absolutely true. And they should. McClelland ran track and cross country at his high school, across the street from a Fisher Body plant. McClelland creates a Michigan town setting that leaves no detail of the early 80s unexplored; from the fashion and games popular with teenagers—like windbreakers and Galaga—to movies and music—like All the Right Moves and The Sex Pistols. 

In this novel, the author doesn’t shy away from questions of economics and environmental concerns, things that are often at odds when it comes to industry. From Kevin’s perspective as a runner, we get a good view. There’s “the ever-visible rainbow slick on the river’s surface, the effluent of automaking” and the sweetly sick smell of chemicals on the air. Once the plant closes, Kevin both appreciates being able to breathe a little easier and knows life will be tougher, going forward. It hits home when his dad must take early retirement.

The author is also adept at dramatizing and characterizing the generational differences among auto workers, like the narrator’s father and grandfather before him. What did cars mean to men, especially, through these decades? To build one with other men on a line? What does it mean when your life’s work is sent elsewhere? Of course, what is done to a place is also done to the psyche of a place. From this book, I got an insider’s view, including of union operations—and what striking and winning or losing looked like in this era of plant closures and relocations.

What propels the plot, outside of the external forces of the town’s industry declining, is Kevin’s striving for success on the track. His passion is crystal clear: 

I ran because I was a runner, because running was my nature. I believed the fastest form of myself was the most perfect form of myself.

In writing fiction, we are often taught to have some kind of a “ticking clock,” to propel our plots and keep our readers turning pages. In this novel, the ticking clock is a stopwatch, and, race after race, we root for Kevin’s success in a sport where fractions of a second mean the difference between success and failure, between a scholarship to college or a ticket to an uncertain future.

What I liked the most—and you might guess by the novel’s title—is that this is not a story about success by getting out. That is an all-too-common trope. But it’s not only a trope in fiction. In an American era of urban sprawl and overcrowding, the post-industrial Midwest still has many places that lose more people each year, many young people among them, than they gain.

Leaving is easy. Just ask me. Staying, despite–or maybe because of–the odds is harder.

Do you have a favorite coming-of-age story set in your native place? Did you stick close to your hometown? Do you run? I’d love to hear about it. And, what are you reading or writing this week? 

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Running for Home

$18 Bottom Dog Press