Tag Archives: reading

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

How Joseph-Beth’s and Jonathan Franzen Made Books Personal Again

On Tuesday, January 26, 2009, a friend and I drove over an hour round trip in the Columbus snow, spinning out twice, to buy Franz Ferdinand’s third album, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, at a record store on its release date.

I am positive such an odyssey will never happen again.K04116 Fall am tues

Amazon and iTunes were long established and have grown since. To defrost an automobile rather than double-click a “place order” button seems preposterous now, as does my four-star review of the album for my undergraduate student newspaper. (A new wave throwback album in 2009? Please. Three stars, at most.)

However, the spirit of that trip, of wanting to make the release of art something to be celebrated, shared, an event, is what compelled me and Justin Chandler, fellow MA in fiction here at Miami U., to a bookstore to buy work from a different “Franz”—Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity.

When I asked our current workshop instructor, Dr. Joseph Bates, author of Tomorrowland and The Nighttime Novelist, if he could refer us to any hip bookstores in the Cincinnati area, he recommended Joseph-Beth Booksellers. The establishment is one of the largest independent bookstores in the country. Past Miami students have interned with the bookstore; conversely, Joseph-Beth employees have been guest speakers for Dr. Bates’s classes. Justin and I saw no reason why we shouldn’t further the Miami/Joseph-Beth relationship.

Remembering my snow-filled album excursion, I suggested we wait until the weekend (and check the weather). We departed on a sunny Sunday afternoon, not a week after Franzen’s novel had been released. During the hour-long car ride, we learned we were both first-generation college students. We waxed past Franzen novels as well as his themes of familial conflict and multinational connection. The discussion proved a solid refresher for the similarly themed Purity.

Joseph-Beth’s reminded me of a Barnes & Noble sans the sterility. Instead of a Starbucks, there was Brontë Bistro. The genres were numerous but weren’t laid out in a boring big box. Rather, some were upstairs, others in an alcove to the side of the entrance, a design which made textual perusal more an adventure.

Not that we had to look far. Franzen’s work was front and center for his release week. We searched through the stacks of Purity and found two autographed (!) copies, both priced the same as non-autographed ones.

After our purchase, we read. Then we discussed what we read, something which I haven’t done outside of a lit seminar in a long time. The camaraderie, the conversation, the change of scenery—all refreshing.

In Franzen’s commencement address to the class of 2011 at Kenyon College, he dissuades technophilia, positing “[w]hen you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?” Whereas the acquisition of books, whether from a bookstore or library, plus the discussion of them in book clubs, was once a way to leave the room, devices such as the Kindle have made human interaction a seemingly unnecessary prerequisite to getting this week’s best seller. One can argue literature’s lesson is to teach us empathy; what happens, though, when we have no one with which to practice that lesson?

Christopher Maggio
Miami University MA student

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.

 

 

Say “Yes!”: Career Advice from Beth Harrison

Last week, we welcomed Beth Harrison to Miami’s campus for this year’s Gutsche lecture. The Gutsche lecture series allows us to bring back highly successful Miami English Department alumni each year to speak about their experiences in the professional sphere and offer advice to Miami students who are on the brink of entering that sphere. Beth Harrison graduated from Miami in 1992 with a B.A. in Creative Writing. A handful of her most notable job titles include: Interim Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, Director of Development & External Relations at the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, publishing editor at Oxford University Press and Princeton Architectural Press, Managing Director of the Discover Outdoors Foundation, and founding editor of literary magazine Spinning Jenny.

beth harrison

Beth Harrison is a prominent figure in the literary world nowadays, but during her talk she made sure to emphasize that she used to be just as clueless as anybody else. When she graduated, she had no idea what her future looked like. When asked if she still considers herself to be somewhat clueless she said yes, and that she hopes to stay that way. For Harrison, it is the process of figuring things out, day by day, that keeps life interesting.

Harrison was gracious enough to lay down advice in bulk. These tokens were taken from her treasure trove of knowledge and experience, as well as her colleagues’. Here is a simplified list of the top 10 points she made:

  1. Say “Yes!” to opportunities, big and small. A willingness to learn new things, even things that don’t seem immediately relevant, is imperative for developing a broad arsenal of skills. Plus, one thing tends to lead to another, and that initial “Yes!” was the first step on the road to something greater.
  2. Determine what you’re passionate about, and then write to your heroes/heroines in that field. You’d be surprised by how many of them will take the time to write you back and do their parts to help you achieve your goals.
  3. English skills are incredibly versatile, so don’t pigeonhole yourself! Just because you’ve graduated with a degree in Creative Writing doesn’t mean you must become a writer. Strong writing skills are important in any line of work. Jobs for good writers, in a variety of industries, are more abundant than you might think.
  4. Keep in touch with your professors and mentors. If these people have been influential in your life, there’s no reason their influence should cease merely because a semester has ended or you’ve graduated.
  5. Don’t be afraid to take a job because it’s not your dream job. If it’s a good job and you need it, then take it.
  6. Read. A lot. Here a few of the websites she recommended specifically:
  1. Manage your online image. If you don’t think potential employers are actually going to peruse your profiles, think again.
  2. Write thank-you notes. For every interview. For every favor. For every connection or name or idea someone gives you related to your career search.
  3. Learn to code. In this day and age, knowing how to create a basic website or blog is a huge asset. Having even just an elementary understanding of code will make you an attractive candidate in our digitizing world.
  4. Do things one step at a time. The greatest works of literature ever written were all written the same way – one word at a time. Try not to get too overwhelmed by what’s coming, and focus on what’s right here, right now.

Harrison is extremely charismatic. After the conclusion of her talk, students waited around for nearly 45 minutes to speak with her one-on-one. She shared with us that some of her favorite poetry at the moment is anything written by Robert Creeley, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Void and Compensation by Michael Morse.

Beth Harrison gave a room full of English majors the glimmer of hope they needed, especially at this pivotal point in a long semester, to have faith in their education and have faith in themselves. Graduating from college is daunting, and hearing Beth Harrison talk about going through the same things they’re going through now was a much-needed boost of motivation.