Tag Archives: Miami University Press

First Annual Graduate Student Choice Reading Brings Alexandra Kleeman to Miami University

“She was truly happy for the first time in her life, and it felt just like living in a small room painted all white…”

So begins Alexandra Kleeman’s Jellyfish, the short story she read this past Thursday to a crowd of people in the Miami University Bookstore.

“I was actually so excited to meet Alexandra Kleeman this morning that I spilled coffee all over myself,” confessed Darren Thompson, a second-year graduate MFA student at Miami, when he introduced her. “Alexandra can write anything. If she wrote a phone book, I would read it and ask her to sign it.”

Alexandra Kleeman at her reading in Shriver Center Bookstore.

For what was both the first annual Miami Creative Writing Residential Graduate Student Choice Reading and the last creative writing event of the Spring 2017 semester, NYC-based writer Alexandra Kleeman chose to read her most recent short story, Jellyfish. As one short story in a trio that examines a character named Karen at three different stages in her life, Jellyfish explores the nuances of character.

“In a lot of short stories you follow a character and get attached to that character, and then that character has sort of a transformative experience at then end… and you never see them again,” Kleeman explained. “But I think that human lives are shaped a little bit differently… We have a lot of partial epiphanies that don’t actually change the way that we live in the world, that don’t take, but sometimes the accumulation of them causes character shift.”

Jellyfish describes Karen at a midpoint in her life: she is on vacation at an idyllic beach resort, and she and her boyfriend have just gotten engaged, but she isn’t happy. In the Q&A session after her reading, Kleeman explained that much of her inspiration for the story came from the concept of “people being unhappy in a place designed to make them happy.”

Jellyfish is also swimming with literal jellyfish, which Kleeman said played a major role in shaping the story. In the story, the jellyfish that fill the oceans around the beach resort act as a sort of a visual trigger for Karen’s anxieties, uncertainty, and fear.

“I’m really fascinated by ways in which our emotions are affectedly poetically,” Kleeman explained. “We can logic and we can rationalize, but the things that we see shift us at a level that isn’t mentally accessible.”

As Darren Thompson explained in his introduction, Kleeman’s writing—most notably, her debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine—often contains elements of the absurd, “a terrain Alexandra navigates with enviable grace.” You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (Harper, 2015), which addressed themes of consumerism, body image, and identity, garnered much critical acclaim. Her second book, Intimations (Harper, 2016) is a collection of short stories which explore life in all of its stages and also frequently incorporates elements of the absurd.

Kleeman, 31, lives and writes in New York City, where she received a MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Her fiction has been featured in The New Yorker, Paris Review, BOMB, Guernica, HENRY, Gulf Coast, Conjunctions, Zoetrope: All-Story, and DIAGRAM. Her non-fiction writing has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The Guardian, Tin House, The New Republic, Vogue, and n+1, among others. Kleeman has received numerous scholarships and grants for her work from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Santa Fe Art Institute, Bread Loaf, ArtFarm Nebraska, and from institutions such as the University of Colorado, University of California, Berkeley, Brown University, Harvard University, and Columbia University.  She is also the winner of the 2016 Bard Fiction Prize.

The reading was sponsored by Miami’s Creative Writing Program.

Sarah Lehman
Professional Writing and Media and Culture, ’19
English Department Ambassador

MU Press Novella Winner Lawrence Coates to Visit Miami

Lawrence Coates is the author of Camp Olvido, the winner of the Miami University Press 2015 Novella Prize. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Bowling Green State University. MU Press intern and senior Creative Writing major Annabel Brooks recently chatted on the phone with Coates to learn more about his novella and his writing process in anticipation of Camp Olvido’s October 27th release.

So Camp Olvido is out the 27th. Could you provide a brief plot summary in your own wordslawrencecoatesphoto for those of us anticipating the release?

Let’s see, Camp Olvido is a story set in the labor camps of central California during the Depression. It follows a man named Esteban who is a bootlegger who takes liquor and wine to the camps at night to sell to the workers. He runs across a sick child at one camp and gradually, through a series of decisions that he hasn’t really thought through, gets more and more entangled in trying to get help for this child, ending up in an act of violence. Then, he has to face the consequences of what has transpired through his own actions that he mostly took in bad faith.

I know that you’ve spend a good part of your life in California. Can you tell me a little bit more about the inspiration behind the novella?

I have spent a lot of my life in California and I do consider myself a Californian even though I’ve been living in Ohio for more than 10 years at this point. It’s where I was born, it’s where I grew up and it’s where I still have family. I wrote a novel called The Garden of the World that’s set in the late 20s and did a lot of research on some of the Latino characters in that novel. After I finished The Garden of the World I felt that there was more to write about that community. Around the same time I read a book called Decade of Betrayal, a nonfiction book that discussed how during the Depression, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans were frequently treated as a scapegoat for the economic troubles the country was going through, especially in California. Many of them were forcibly deported, including some American citizens, and this struck me very hard to know that that level of injustice had happened in our country that’s never really been acknowledged. So I wanted to write a story that was set in the context of these Latino farmworkers during the Depression.

One of the things about the date of the book is that it’s before the Dust Bowl happened and the reason that’s important is that the Dust Bowl is what brought us John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. This would have been in the same region as where some the Grapes of Wrath takes place but it would’ve been before that migration from Oklahoma to California when there were some white workers in the fields but mostly there were Latinos. So in a way, the book fills in a gap in the history of California as represented by literature that people who just read the Grapes of Wrath might overlook. I have also worked as a volunteer teacher of the English language to immigrant workers in California. I’ve also done some freelance journalism in Mexico. I have connections with the people I’m writing about. And I speak Spanish fluently.

On your website I read the article you wrote for the Chicago Tribune. I thought it was very interesting because of, well its connection to Camp Olvido obviously, but also because of the way that it connects to the current political climate revolving around the US-Mexico borderlands. With the GOP debates and the upcoming presidential election, I was wondering how you connect our current political climate with your discourse concerning the US-Mexico borderlands in your article and also with Camp Olvido? How do all of these things connect?

First off, when I was doing that article, it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it is today. There weren’t the same kinds of narcotraficantes and the same kind of drug smuggling around that there is today. I mean I was traveling around in a Volkswagen bus and we were staying in hotels in Juarez, which is a pretty dangerous place these days as I understand. So it was not nearly as dire of a time for the border as it is now.

I hope that my book helps provide the gift of empathy for people who could be seen as Other. I hope that my book simply allows people to, and I think a lot of good literature does this, imagine themselves in lives different than their own and that that largeness of spirit that can come from reading good literature might help inform the debates. Some of the rhetoric I hear about immigration today treats people as Other. Instead of what philosopher Martin Buber called an ‘I Thou’ relationship with another human being you can get into something close to an ‘I It’ relationship and I hope that my book, even though it’s set 80 years ago, has some impact in helping to create empathy for people whose experiences are different than the experiences that I’m depicting.

In relation to that, I think that the cover of the novella is really compelling. I was doing research about Matt Black, the photographer, and his involvement with the Economic Hardship project as well as his tour of the United States where he photographs those impoverished areas that are often underrepresented. I wanted to ask: what do you think the cover photo is trying to evoke in relation to the story of Camp Olvido?

Believe me, I was really happy when the Press found Matt Black’s photographs. The photograph is of the road disappearing into the distance and it’s mysterious because you don’t know where the road’s going. The last image of the book is the image of Esteban taking the mother and child on the road and heading toward Malaga Park. I ended it there with some ambiguity, as you’re not sure if they’re going to get there safely. You’re not sure if Esteban is doing this as an act of atonement or once more acting in bad faith. You’re not sure whether it’s possible for him to even gain atonement given what he’s been involved with up to that point.

There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity in the novella and that’s intentional. I could have written a different kind of story, a sin and redemption story. I didn’t write that story. I think if you have somebody who has been complicit in a corrupt, exploitative system then writing a redemption story for that character is far too simple and easy. The photograph with the road disappearing into that desert-like landscape expresses something about the way the ending of the book disappears into a distance in which you can’t tell what’s at the end. I just thought it was a brilliant choice for the cover. The Press has been great, the cover design is just one part of how supportive they’ve been; the editing I’ve received has really improved the manuscript I originally turned in. So grateful.

That’s great to hear! I just have a few more ‘fun’ questions—firstly, what’s your writing process and do you have any particular quirks/routines?
I write on a manual typewriter; I suppose that’s quirky. I write on a manual typewriter so I never lose a word. If I need to make corrections I cross it out on the manuscript page but I still have itunnamed there in case what I cross out ends up being better. I also frequently make big sketches in an 11”x17” sketchbook, I’m not very good as a visual artist but I like sketching things out. So by the time I’ve finished a book I’ll have one, two, maybe even three sketchbooks filled with little notes, little arcs that describe parts of the narrative, maybe figures against the landscape. So that’s part of my process. I have never been able to work from an outline but I do like to have a sense of the season of a book. If I understand the season of the book, how it begins and ends, then that lets me have some kind of notion of the overall shape while leaving myself free to make daily discoveries.

Do you have any advice for young creative writing students? What do you like to tell your own students to inspire them to continue or begin writing?

Well, that’s a good question. I think that, and I’m getting some of this from reading Flannery O’Connor’s book Mystery and Manners, students don’t necessarily think about telling a story enough. I think that rather than concentrating on the meaning of a story if you just tell a good story the meaning will be there. I’d tell people to trust in the sovereign power of story and then the meaning and your own personal sensibilities and your view of the world will be there. If you concentrate on the more abstract qualities you might fail to tell a good story. Privilege telling a story. That’s what we are after all as writers; we’re storytellers.

Do you have anything coming up next?

I am working on something now. It won’t be coming out anytime soon because it’s long and ambitious. You know one of the things you find out, and I’m not complaining about this, but having a book come out (I had two books come out this fall) is very time consuming. So I spent a lot of time over the past few months copyediting and doing pre-publicity work. I’m doing quite a bit of book tour stuff right now, I’m going to California and I’ll be in Detroit later this month. I’ll be in Cleveland and of course I’ll be in Oxford. I’m traveling around quite a bit so I haven’t had the time to just sit back down at my desk and settle into my new work. So there’s been an hiatus in my writing right now, which is regrettable but like I said I’m not complaining because anybody who complains about having a book come out needs their head examined, that’s what we reach for. So I do have something I’m working on but it will be a good long time before it comes out.

Last question, do you have anything you’re currently reading? What’s on your bedside table?

I’m reading a book of short stories by Kyle Minor right now called Praying Drunk. I’ve got a novella on my bedside table now by Daniel Torday called The Sensualist. One of the other great presses in the country that specializes in novellas besides Miami is a press in California called Nouvella, so I’ve been reading some novellas coming out of that press. And since you asked, I’m going to read next The Narrow Road to Deep North, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. Those are three books that I’m engaged with right now even though one of them I haven’t even started.

I feel like that happens all the time, I always have five or six books on my bedside table.

So many books, so little time. That’s just my life.
Don’t miss Lawrence Coates when he visits the MU Bookstore Nov. 4th to read from Camp Olvido at 7:30pm.

 

Camp Olvido will be available for purchase on Amazon, through the Miami University Press website, at the Miami University Bookstore and at participating bookstores.

 

 

A Visit from Alissa Quart

Just a week after Beth Harrison’s visit, we were graced by another New York-based writer, Alissa Quart. Last month, Miami University Press published Quart’s first book of poetry, Monetized. In celebration of her book’s publication, Quart paid us a whirlwind visit here in Oxford. You’d never guess it, but Monetized is her first book of poetry. However, it’s only the most recent addition to her list of commendable accomplishments. Quart is an Emmy-nominated multimedia producer, the author of three non-fiction books, a co-editor of a journalism non-profit called Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and a revered journalist, professor, and poet.

During her visit to campus, Quart agreed to attend an informal lunch with students. Because her work is so versatile, students from a variety of majors showed up to meet her and chat over Chinese take out. The students took advantage of the opportunity to pick her brain, and got a free lesson on how to write a hard-hitting piece of journalism. When asked how she manages to juggle so many projects at once, Quart said the key to staying motivated is having a lot to say. She feels an obligation to give voices to those who might not otherwise be heard, and that’s what keeps her chugging along.

Although her work as a poet is secondary to her other professional undertakings at the moment, Quart was a poet first. She was a bit of a poetry whiz as a kid, and she won poetry contests while in grade school. Poetry used to be her “thing.” But, being as multi-talented as she is, Quart was drawn to other artistic pursuits after entering college. Now, she says she writes poetry to help her make sense of her emotions. Much of her journalistic work focuses on topics like economic hardship, parenting, mental illness, and urban living. As you can imagine, there are ugly sides to all of these topics. Quart says that much of the poetry in Monetized evolved from notes that she’d scribble down while working on other projects. Poetry allows her to vent when she’s feeling the feels.

Quart is a commanding public speaker, and she oozed confidence when reading from Monetized. The audience was mesmerized. She read to a full house at the Miami University Bookstore.

10496947_868744199858760_3089340101834792093_o

To say that Alissa Quart is busy would be a massive understatement. You’d have a hard time convincing us that she even has time to sleep. We were so pleased to have her here and grateful for the time she devoted to us. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, you can order a copy of Monetized by clicking here.