The literary community needs more professional football players like Devon Kennard

fOOTBALL 3I know nothing about professional football. I don’t understand how the game is played, never watch it on TV, except by default if I happen to attend a Super Bowl Game, and can count on one hand the current players whose names I recognize–this includes Tom Brady, quarterback for my hometown team. But I can now add Devon Kennard to the list. Kennard is a linebacker for the New York Giants. He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL Draft. (Don’t ask me what that means.) He is also an avid reader. He conducted a book reading contest this summer that, according to the New York Times, has morphed into a dynamic book club. Kennard assigned the books The Alchemist and To Kill a Mockingbird. He re-read the books along with his online followers and came up with a list of questions that he thought would generate discussion. He was on target. He got a lot of response to his online book club FOOTBALLand robust conversation ensued. “I didn’t want to be supergeneric,” The Times quotes him as saying. “I didn’t want people to just look up SparkNotes for answers. I wanted to actually have them be able to relate it to their own lives and what it means to them.” Kennard responds to the fans of his book club. He sends autographed memorabilia to those who give deep, insightful responses to questions. What one fan said he appreciated even more than the signed t-shirt and photo was that Kennard prompted him to re-read the Harper Lee classic.

 

Why do I keep bumping into Andre Dubus?

He was sitting at one of those little two-seater tables, chatting with a friend in the lounge area of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center when I spotted him the other day—novelist and short story writer Andre Dubus, finalist for the National Book Award for House of Sand and Fog, which was later adapted for film and nominated for an Academy Award, Guggenheim Fellow, Oprah Book Club pick, and National Book Award finalist.

I instantly new it was him as I saw him out of the corner of my eye as I was passing by because of the hair. It’s distinctive: dark, soft waves with a swirl of grey at the center near the hairline that looked as if it could have been applied with a painter’s brush. He was sporting that rustic, Ralph Lauren look—the pointy cowboy boots, boot-cut jeans, open-collared shirt, dark, fitted blazer.

He stood up as I approached his table. I started to introduce myself, but I didn’t have to. “I know who you are.” He sounded ebullient. “You’re the novelist.”

“Yes, I am,” I replied, relieved that I didn’t have to explain myself.

He shook my hand. “Do I owe you an email?” he continued.

My mind raced back to the times I tried to get in touch with him, when I sent him updates about my manuscript. “Yes,” I said. “You probably do owe me a few emails, but that’s okay.”

I had been hanging around the convention center, waiting for a friend who was in the exhibit hall at the American Library Association mid-winter meeting. I had no idea that Dubus was one of the speakers. Before we parted, I handed him a copy of the Christmas Moments anthology that features one of my stories.

The first time I met him was about eight years ago when the nonprofit I work for invited him in for our organization-wide book club meeting. He read from House of Sand and Fog. At the time, I’d been writing short stories and hoped to write a novel. I told him so when he signed my copy of his book. He wished me luck and inscribed the book with “Good luck with your writing.”

Then, a few years later, I attended an author event at Newton Free Library to listen to him read from his memoir, Townie. Afterward, he seemed delighted when I told him that I’d completed my MFA in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University and mentioned that he knew novelist Diane Les Bequets, one of my mentors who was running the program. He encouraged me to keep writing.

A couple of years later, not long after I’d gotten married and finished revising my novel, I showed up at Newtonville Books with my husband. I could feel the energy in the bookstore as Dubus’s fans awaited his arrival. They filled most of the seats but left a few up front. My husband and I didn’t have much choice but to sit there, front and center, with the lectern not much more than a foot away.

Dubus walked in and after he was introduced, opened a page in his story collection, Dirty Love. He adjusted his glasses, and as he was about to open his mouth to read the first line, he looked up at me and said, “I know you. We met before.”

Later, he signed my book and we had a nice chat.

Why do I keep bumping into Andre Dubus? Sometimes it’s by accident. A couple of times it was planned. When I’ve been around him I’ve wished that his stature as a novelist and memoirist could somehow rub off on me, opening doors for me in the world of publishing. But, the more realistic part of me simply enjoys the delightful and inspirational moments I’ve had with one of my favorite authors.

Tip for the self-published author: Throw a Birthday Party

MarylouMy book club recently read the biography, Walking In Her Shoes, self-published by Boston-area actress Marylou Depeiza. It is a family story in which a secret is being kept. In addition to us enjoying a page turner, we had the added bonus of having Marylou be our guest of honor for our book discussion. She shared with us one of the ways she was able to sell a large number of books at one time.

At one of her milestone birthdays, her children decided to host a party for her. In lieu of gifts, they had the guests purchase copies of her book. Marylou said she was able to sell hundreds that way.

Visit by award-winning poet is enriching

Jina Ortiz, co-editor of All about Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color, has a busy schedule these days promoting the highly acclaimed anthology. Over the next several weeks, she’ll be hosting book parties in Springfield, Massachusetts, New York City, Washington, D.C. and other locations.

Despite her hectic schedule, she was able to spend a recent afternoon in Newton, Massachusetts, as guest of honor at my monthly book club meeting. All about Skin features 27 stories by women of color whose short fiction has earned them a range of honors. The prose in the multicultural anthology addresses such themes as racial prejudice, the media’s portrayal of beauty, and family relationships.

During our book club discussion, Jina mentioned how fortunate she andAll About Skin co-editor Rochelle Spencer were to work with such a nice group of writers. “All the women were really, professional, cooperative and humble. We lucked out,” she said.

She said that the women were supportive of her in her own writing pursuits, have enriched her writing, and have served as a source of inspiration. A writer and poet, Jina’s work has appeared in many publications, including New Millennium Writings, Afro-Hispanic Review, and Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.

Jina probably doesn’t know this, but my spending the afternoon with her has enriched my writing and inspired me as well. Thanks, Jina!

 

What I learned during an afternoon with award-winning writer Jina Ortiz

I’ve been plugged into the writing community for years and have wondered if it’s worth my time, attending writing conferences, taking classes at Grub Street Creative Writing Center, and reading the trades magazines. I’ve spent hours scouring the “calls for submissions” in the back of Poets and Writers magazine and the online site NewPages.com, looking for places where I could submit my writing.

After spending an afternoon with writer and poet Jina Ortiz, I’ve come to All About Skina conclusion about the worth of my efforts. Jina is co-editor of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color, one of the most talked about anthologies. The volume features 27 stories by women of color whose short fiction has earned them a range of honors, from the Guggenheim Fellowship, to inclusion in The Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Anthologies.

All About Skin was given a favorable review in a recent issue of Ms. Magazine and a lengthy write-up in Poets and Writers.

I’ve known Jina for years and got her to agree to be the speaker at my book club meeting recently. I asked her about the submission process for the anthology. She said that she and co-editor Rochelle Spencer received more than 100 submissions, which they whittled down to 27. She said they sought stories from authors they knew, put out an open call through writing networks, including writing publications, and attended writing conferences, where they solicited work.

While being plugged into the writing network is time-consuming, I believe it is worth it. The writers whose stories appear in All About Skin now have another high-profile platform to showcase their work. The volume is being looked at by some universities to be included as a textbook.

 

My guest blog on Grub Street Daily has been posted

Every since I moved to the Boston area a little over 10 years ago, I’ve been affiliated with Grub Street, an innovative creative writing center. I’ve taken classes, participated in workshops, and attended author readings. Now I am a guest blogger. My first blog post on Grub Daily, Grub Street’s blog, was posted today. I’ve written about a group that’s provided me with encouragement over the years in my writing.

I “sold” some “Chicken Soup” today

FRUGAL BOOK SIGNING CUSTOMERI had a lovely time at Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury, signing copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dating Game. A number of friends stopped by to lend their support, including members of the Myrtle Baptist Church Book Club. I was also delighted at the new acquaintances who purchased the book. I even had a couple of children come up to me, aspiring writers who wanted to know how to get published. I was glad to be able to give them encouragement.

My book signing in Boston is only days away

Chick ChickNext Saturday, May 3rd, I’ll be signing books from 1 to 3 p.m. at Frugal Bookstore, in the Roxbury section of Boston at 306 Martin Luther King Boulevard. The bookstore is located in The Mall of Roxbury. I spoke to co-owner Clarrissa a couple of days ago to confirm all of the arrangements. I’ll be at a tabe in front of the Chicken Soup Coverbookstore with my pen ready to sign copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dating Game. She said the mall tends to be heavily trafficked in the early afternoon hours, so I should expect to sign quite a few books. As it turns out, another author will be signing in front of the store at the same time. I understand she’s flying in from Maryland, so between the two of us we should be able to draw a lot of customers. If you’re in the Boston area, I look forward to seeing you there!

Why Being a Member of a Book Club is so Important to a Writer

Book ClubAny writer will tell you that crafting a novel, short story, or other creative work can leave a person filled with angst and feeling isolated. We stare at the computer screen or the blank notebook page and eventually put our emotions on the line, not knowing whether what we’re producing is of publishable quality or a waste of time. Writers are competitive. Many wall themselves off. Few whose names appear on the spines of books you’ll see on the shelves at Barnes and Noble will help a writer trying to get established. I could tell you some stories, but I won’t.
That’s why being a member of a book club is critical. The majority of the women in my book club are not writers. They are book lovers. We meet at each other’s homes once a month for potluck, a glass of wine or two (or three) and a spirited conversation about that month’s book selection.
They have lifted my spirits when I’ve become discouraged about my writing and heave unwittingly helped me with my craft through the remarks they make about the month’s book selection. They have read my entire novel in progress, The Talking Drum, and were brutally honest in their critique. Months into my latest revision, I am still reviewing their suggestions and weaving them into the manuscript.
They also rallied around me when my story came out in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dating Game a few months ago. This is the kind of support a writer needs, especially one such as myself, who’s trying to get a foothold in the industry.

It’s show and tell time for my manuscript

Book Club

I’ve been working on my novel since 2008. I started with a 10-page sketch, then expanded it month by month as a student in the MFA program in creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University. Now I feel that my manuscript is polished enough for others to see it. I’ve decided to share it with my church book club members. Each month we read and discuss a novel or work of nonfiction. I want them to read mine, let me know what works, where I need to improve it. There are benefits to having personal friends read your work, but there are limitations on what you can expect. For more, read my article on the topic in a special edition of Bookwoman, the Women’s National Book Association national publication.

Where do fiction writers get their ideas?

People often ask me where I get the ideas for my stories. In fact, the members of my church book club asked me that question the other day. There’s an interesting story behind “Initiation,” my short story that has just been published in Vermont Literary Review. VLR1A few years ago on a visit to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to spend the holidays with my parents, my mother and I went to the mall to Christmas shop. The list of gifts for my niece and nephew was so long that our backs were hurting from carrying around the shopping bags. My solution was to periodically drop the bags into the trunk of my car, which was on the roof of the parking garage. You can guess what happened. After the last trip to the car, while my mother and I continued shopping, someone took a crow bar to pop the trunk open and stole everything: coats, toys, shoes. My mother and I were in tears. Of course, the items were never recovered.

A few months later I thought about fictionalizing the event. I asked myself what would happen if a mother and daughter had their Christmas gifts stolen from the trunk of the car at the mall, discovered who the thieves were, but then realized that if they revealed who the thieves were, mother and daughter would lose out on something they both desperately wanted. That’s the story behind “Initiation.”