On Tuesday, October 3rd, Miami University had the honor of hosting authors Jessie Chaffee, Brendan Kiely, and Dave Essinger for a reading in Kreger Hall. Kiely and Essinger are Miami alums. Each writer read captivating excerpts from their latest books—The Last True Love Story, Running Out, and Florence in Ecstasy, respectively—and answered questions on the research process, authenticity, and publishing.
Jessie Chaffee opened the reading with a scene from Florence in Ecstasy, a novel that tells the story of a young woman exploring Italy in the aftermath of an eating disorder. She feels a kinship with medieval Catholic women mystics, who often starved themselves to come closer to God. Brendan Kiely followed with a collage of early scenes from The Last True Love Story. His novel follows a young man who sets out on one last fateful road trip with his Alzheimer’s stricken grandfather. On the road, his grandfather tells him the one story of his life he never wants to forget: his love for his wife. Dave Essinger closed out the reading with a selection from his novel Running Out, in which a man is forced to run across an unforgiving icy terrain in order to find help for his stranded family in the wake of a plane crash.
The readings were followed by a Q&A, with all three authors chiming in to answer the topics. In response to questions on the research process and the need for authenticity in the treatment of difficult stories, Dave Essinger said it is a writer’s duty “not just to get things right, but to avoid getting things wrong” to avoid a betrayal of their subject. Brendan Kiely put this duty in context of The Last True Love Story, describing how he realized his own experience with a family member diagnosed with Alzheimer’s was different from other families’, and how it was necessary for him to consult with the Alzheimer’s Association of America in order to write with best practices in mind.
He also discussed the challenges of writing his debut novel The Gospel of Winter, which addressed the child sex scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston around the turn of the millennium. Kiely said it is “incumbent upon all of us to tell our community’s stories,” but warned of the difference between telling stories and appropriation. Chaffee further discussed the tricky balancing act needed to tell stories with tricky themes, drawing on Florence in Ecstasy as an example. “I wanted to avoid romanticizing or sensationalizing it,” she said, “which is why I set the book in the aftermath.” Doing so helped her evade the voyeuristic urge to dwell on suffering that accompanies many pop-culture portrayals of eating disorders.
The three also answered questions on the publishing industry. Chaffee and Kiely agreed on the beneficial business potentials of conferences, talking about their own experiences of meeting agents at conferences. Kiely also offered tips on finding an agent, telling the audience that instead of simply following the traditional advice to contact the agents of books they regard well, they should contact the agent’s assistant in hopes that they will be looking for their first big sale. Essinger offered a counterpoint to the discussion of agents, reassuring the audience that so long as they do their research, small presses are often available that could be willing to accept an agentless manuscript.
Kiely and Essinger are alumni of Miami’s Western Program.
Brendan Kiely is a New York Times bestselling author, whose work has been published in ten languages. He wrote The Gospel of Winter, which received a starred review from Booklist and a ‘Best of 2014’ recommendation from Kirkus Reviews, co-wrote All American Boys with Jason Reynolds, with the pair receiving a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, and most recently wrote The Last True Love Story. He currently lives in Greenwich Village.
Dave Essinger lives in Ohio, teaching as an Associate Professor of English at The University of Findlay. He serves as the editor of The University of Findlay’s literary magazine Slippery Elm and is the 2018 General Editor of the AWP Intro Journals Project. His short fiction has been published in Midwestern Gothic, Mud Season Review, Great Lakes Review, Sport Literate, Weber—the Contemporary West, and 34th Parallel. Running Out is his debut novel.
Jessie Chaffee was a recipient of the 2014-2015 Fulbright Grant in Creative Writing, spending the year in Italy to focus on her writing. During this time, she was the Writer-in-Residence at the Florence University of the Arts. Her short fiction has been published in The Rumpus, Bluestem, Global City Review, Big Bridge, and The Sigh Press. She currently lives in New York City, where she is the daily editor and art editor for Words Without Borders, an online magazine of translated short fiction. Florence in Ecstasy is her debut novel.k
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