Myra Ann Rutledge
Don’t you just hate that daily life and routine always seem to get in the way of the things you’d really love to do, like writing? How many times have you said to yourself, “If only I could get away for a few days and do nothing except work on my novel (or poetry or memoir or blog or play or essay)! No cooking, no laundry, no dirty dishes, no yard work. Just writing. That’s it!” And with a heavy sigh, you add, “It would be heavenly!”
Me, too. I’ve said those things many times, so when the notice went up late last year announcing a Winter Writers Retreat in early January, I was ready. I was even more psyched to see that it was happening in the next county up from my home in New Castle, near the part of Delaware County where I grew up. Of course, then it became an issue of “Will the weather cooperate? It’s the first weekend in January for chrissake! Those back roads are going to be a bear if it snows.” This thought was quickly followed by an “Oooooh! Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get snowed in for an extra day or two of even more writing?!?” So I signed up.
The weather was cold and the country roads were indeed snow-packed, but there were no problems getting to and from the Oakwood Retreat Center near Selma. The weekend was simply amazing! I was so taken by the experience that when the Spring Writers Retreat was announced for the first weekend in May at the same venue, I was one of the first to sign up.
What a treat to spend 48 hours in the company of fellow writers of every genre! I live in what I call the hinterlands, away from the city and without easy access to the IWC and the camaraderie that can be found there, so, for me, that was the most satisfying aspects of the weekend. The creativity was so contagious, and hearing works in various states of progress allowed each of us to understand that we all face the same issues and monsters when we write. Beyond the fellowship, there were large blocks of time and plenty of quiet places in our housing, in the main building, and around the farm itself for writing and for inspiration. Needless to say, we were able to enjoy the outdoor areas much more in warm, sunny May than we did in zero-degree January. Andy Black and Alicia Rasley, the IWC facilitators, were available for private consultation, and there were a few scheduled events; even at these, attendance was not mandatory. We were strongly encouraged to attend the Saturday night post-dinner reading and sharing of samples of our work, and every one of us did. In so many ways, this was one of the most valuable times of the weekend. Listening to poetry, memoirs, fiction, and plays in various stages of development allowed us to offer and to receive constructive suggestions and to see what works and what doesn’t. This is the sort of reinvigoration and inspiration that every writer craves.
I simply must sing the praises here of the Oakwood Retreat Center. Located on 35 acres just north of Prairie Creek Reservoir near Muncie, it is quiet and relaxing and decidedly rural. The staff (most of whom live on site) are accommodating, and the facilities are very well-kept and lovely. Housing for the weekend was most comfortable and pleasant, and the food was absolutely delicious. They have committed to using locally-produced food grown in a sustainable environment as much as is feasible, and they provide organic produce from their own garden in season. We’re talking very tasty food; there are vegetarian and vegan options, but the kitchen staff is happy to please the carnivores among us as well. . They are, likewise, not adverse to those who wish to imbibe moderately in fermented beverages, and thus a nice glass of wine or beer or a wee nip of Scotch could be enjoyed before dinner or as a nightcap with no disapproval.
Am I ready for the next Writers Retreat? You bet! When is it and how soon can I sign up? Anyone who is still wondering if this is for them should consider this: imagine a day of nothing but writing followed by a delightful dinner and glass of wine followed by a give-and-take sharing of awesome work followed by a quiet stroll down a farm lane under a starlit sky where you can actually see the stars far from the lights of the city followed by a restful sleep populated only be sweet dreams. Sound good? It is!
Watch the IWC website for the Fall Retreat Dates
To Be Announced ASAP
Hi everyone, we’re Katie Morris and Teal Cracraft – the kindred-spirit team behind SpeakYourStory. We started this project to create a website dedicated to telling the unfiltered stories of all women. We deeply believe that every woman has a story to tell, and that the story-telling process is cathartic, brave, and redemptive.
Too often, our most life-changing, beautiful, messy and sometimes ugly truths are hidden from those we love out of fear, shame and judgment. We know, because we’ve done it too. What we’ve come to realize is that we don’t have to let these experiences isolate and alienate us. Instead, we’ll use our stories to empower and connect. Our goal is to form a strong community that embraces the stories of women with love and compassion.
Our story sharing platform is designed to be safe and inclusive. We don’t edit the stories and we publish everything we receive. Every woman has a unique voice and we encourage all forms of self-expression. Your story may be a song, a poem, an audio recording, video, a painting, written words, or a photograph. Literally, anything that speaks to your true self has a home at speakyourstory.org.
We hope that you consider joining our community and sharing your stories with us. Stories can be submitted on our website at speakyourstory.org or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This summer we are excited to partner with St. Florian Center, LaPlaza, and Concord Neighborhood Center to present “Building a Rainbow,” a creative writing memoir program for disadvantaged youth. The summer program runs from June 22 through July 31, 2015.
We are seeking volunteer teachers, writers, and community members to help us work with our students. As a volunteer, you will be working directly with student writers ages 6 to 16, the Indiana Writers Center’s instructors, the Education Outreach Director, the Executive Director, and other volunteers. With your team, you will be responsible for helping to facilitate and teach students narrative writing techniques.
St. Florian will meet every Monday and Wednesday from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at IPS #27 (545 East 19th Street) from June 22- July 31. LaPlaza will meet every Monday and Wednesday from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. from June 22 through July 24 at Gambold Preparatory High School at 3725 Kiehl Avenue in Indianapolis. Concord Neighborhood Center will meet every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at Concord (1310 South Meridian Street). (Dates for Concord TBA).
We will host a voluntary training session Thursday, June 4 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m at the Indiana Writers Center. We can train you on site as well.
If you are interested in volunteering, please email either Education Outreach Director, Dr. Darolyn “Lyn” Jones, at email@example.com or Executive Director, Barbara Shoup at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in attending the training session, please email Lyn at email@example.com.
The Indiana Writers Center (IWC) educates, inspires, connects, and supports Indiana writers working at all levels and in all genres. It recognizes the power of stories and advocates for writing and literature as essential to a community that values clarity of communication, honors diversity, and fosters tolerance and compassion.
by Andrew Black
I was fortunate when I taught my first class in playwriting at the Indiana Writers Center. I had three bright female students who did good work. I had provided a theme for which I asked them to develop a short ten-minute play. The plays were good. And, coincidentally, Indy Fringe was getting ready to produce a festival of short plays by women. We submitted the plays as a “package” and got into the fest. The playwrights went from concept to production in about six months.
Rarely do aspiring playwrights have this kind of opportunity. Successive students have asked me several times if we could do a showcase of their work. I always reply positively, if neutrally, because I know that putting together a showcase is an incredible amount of work, but not a task I am interested in pursuing. I have my own writing to do, as well as my teaching. I am not a producer, nor do I care to be.
Then, one of my students who asked the inevitable question about a showcase was part of the Indy Fringe production team. (Her name is Elise Lockwood.) She had written a short and very funny play about a woman who is trying to convince her own vagina to be more responsive to a male suitor. I was enthusiastic about seeing this comedy on stage and even better, Elise had the infrastructure to create a showcase without my having to do it myself! Pay dirt!
I reached out to all former students and solicited short plays for what would be called the Short Play Festival, co-produced by the Indiana Writers Center and Indy Fringe. We received many wonderful submissions. The only challenge at this point was selecting six plays out of the strong work I received.
Once the selections were made, Elise had identified six theater companies in Indy who would take on the task of casting, rehearsing and preparing the plays for performance. A creative jigsaw puzzle whose various pieces will now be assembled at the Indy Fringe Theater on Friday and Saturday, April 17 and 18.
The playwrights whose work will be featured include Elise as well as Jerry Holt, Louis Janeira, Stacy Post, Stacey Katz and Enid Cokinos. The plays range from the ribald (Elise’s lady parts play) to the serious (Stacey’s play about a young girl coming to terms with her mother’s mental illness). I have a short piece to frame the evening, posing a dramatic question to be answered by the other plays themselves.
We encourage all members and friends of the Indiana Writers Center to show their support of this project (and find out more about our playwriting program) by coming to the event. If you want to buy tickets, advanced purchase is advised. The event is likely to sell out!
Go to http://www.indyfringe.org/ and click on tickets and times. You can order for the Short Play Festival from that website.
by Teri Costello
At some point early in our lives, we come face to face with our “one-ness” – with being only “one” in the middle and muddle of many other people. Because of circumstances, individual experiences, genetic makeup, unique intellects - we all approach this one-ness differently. Then one day, we stumble upon a shiny thing we have come to label self-awareness. We pick it up, turn it this way and that in our hands, and either embrace the mystery of it, or lay it back down for a later time - perhaps a little later, perhaps much later. For me, the shiny thing, once embraced, became a wondrous, confounding, trouble-making burden that nonetheless continues to lead me through my life’s journey. Along the way, as my awareness strengthened, it brought about previously unimagined changes in me – it mended relationships, disturbed relationships, kept me sane, made me crazy, helped me speak my mind, gave me joy I never would have thought possible. And, ultimately, will take me home.
From early on, I confused my own one-ness with loneliness, grieving the loss of my tribe, which clearly had wandered off somewhere without me. This tribe was made up of my fellow seekers, buddies, best friends, soul mates maybe - the people who would “get” me, and whom I would get, people who may even have glimpsed their own self-awareness. I believed I saw them from time to time – on a movie screen, on television talk shows, in school, acquaintances - people who voiced my own thoughts, kind of - people who were searching. On occasion, one or another of us got up the courage to speak, to share our differences and watch the glow start. But there weren’t many of these accidental meetings, and when they did happen, we were cautious with each other, afraid that at some level of communication, our language would become dissimilar.
About four years ago, I found myself living in Indianapolis by way of Chicago. I had done a little writing over the years, and my last efforts had been in a casual writing group there. I saw the Writers Center advertised here, and signed up for a class.
Am I about to tell you I found my soul mates, my tribe? No. But I did find searchers like me, who wander around bumping into things, and sit in classes shifting their own shiny objects from one hand to the other. By writing, they look for truths - their own, the universal ones, even truths I never knew to seek. When we choose to share our writing, our one-ness with each other, sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, most often we are quietly inspired by each other. And people are there who are very unlike each other, thinking up stuff – silly stuff, profound stuff – or just exploring possibilities. Fellow travelers, we are not trying to be reflections of each other, just people trying to see themselves, their lives, in their own mirrors - and write down what they see.
Please join us at the Gathering of Writers on March 21st. If you have attended before, this will be even better, and if this will be your first time, come and see what I’m talking about.
Teri Costello is the Programs Manager at the Indiana Writers Center.
On Sunday January 18th the IMA opened its galleries for a celebration of poetry and music in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Indiana Writers Center partnered with IMA, Old Soul Entertainment, and Know No Stranger to create three hours of delightful and energized creative exploration. Microphones were set up in several different galleries of the museum, and throughout the afternoon a variety of poets, spokenword performers, musicians, and dancers took to the mic to expound on the theme of love. Indiana Writers Center was happy to invite featured poets Allyson Horton, Lydia Johnson, Norman Minnick, Tracy Mishkin, and Rachel Sahaidachny to fill the halls with their own words. Guests moved in mass, following the flow of the arranged performances from gallery to gallery.
In the Pulliam Family Great Hall crowds congregated for interactive entertainment. Guests of the IMA were invited to step up to the microphone and present their own words. Indiana Writers Center hosted a station that welcomed people to sit down and compose their own love notes or poems.
by Andy Black
Last fall at an Indiana Writers Center (IWC) faculty meeting, one of the faculty members suggested that the IWC sponsor a Writers Retreat. I thought this idea was outstanding. I had been teaching playwriting for the IWC for several months, and had (unfortunately) not been doing as much of my own writing as I would have liked. I figured that if I participated in a writers retreat, I could help other writers in my predicament (and get some much needed writing of my own accomplished).
I followed up with Alicia Rasley (the faculty member whose idea it was), and she and I began plotting. We picked an early January date. This proposal was mine; I was thinking that “getting a fresh start on the new year” would be a good theme. I did not consider the fact that early January is a dangerous time to have a retreat in a remote location like Selma, Indiana; the weather is likely to be uncooperative. No one else pointed out this flaw in my plan.
We put together a simple agenda to combine both free time for writing (which I planned to take advantage of) and structured time for group activities (learning sessions and critique).
We were thrilled when ten members signed up for the first-ever retreat. Two of my playwriting students signed up, along with other writers of every stripe: poets, fiction writers, memoir writers, and writers who had several areas of specialty.
Jan White, one of my own students (and a good friend) and I drove to the Oakwood Retreat Center in Selma together, enjoying the ride and the time together. The weather cooperated. It was cold, but not icy or snowy, so we had no climatic impediments to our creative activity.
The opening evening unfolded in fits and starts. We had planned an activity, but not been specific about exactly when it would happen, so we had a series of successive introductions as various writers appeared, left for their rooms, came back and were joined by new writers. After an initial discussion of goals for the weekend, we headed for respective spaces: some to write, others to receive coaching from Alicia on brainstorming a new idea.
Saturday morning was set aside for writing, and all enjoyed the comfort of the great big hall where we wrote in comfortable silence, drawing inspiration from the industriousness of our colleagues. The afternoon session on “voice” was well attended, and everyone agreed that the group critique session on Saturday night was a highlight. Three short plays were read, we heard several poems, a personal essay and fiction pieces. All pieces but the plays were read by the writer, and the critique primarily focused on what was working about the writing, with an idea or two for ways to improve. A true feeling of community developed out of that session.
Sunday morning was devoted to a little more writing, and some discussion about progress toward goals. A satisfied exhale was collectively released as we packed our overnight bags and returned to our respective homes (I with 30 pages complete on a new work I had been plotting for months).
The center was cozy and warm, the food was delicious in an organic non-aggressive way, and we connected with ourselves and other creative colleagues, now friends. Who could ask for more?
We immediately began planning our next retreat, and were thrilled when we read through our evaluations. Such comments as:
I was able to unplug from my life and really focus on my writing. I made significant progress on my project that without uninterrupted time, might not have been accomplished. Networking with fellow writers at meals was a nice bonus. I feel inspired and look forward to attending another one.
made us think we were on the right track.
One participant said:
The best money I have ever spent. What a delight to spend a weekend with fellow writers in a beautiful setting. The creative energy was truly astounding and highly contagious.
That is the kind of thing you want to hear from participants.
Our next retreat will take place the first weekend of May. May 1-3. Look on the IWC website for information, and consider signing up! We have made some decisions on some upgrades already, and look forward to convening with another creative group of individuals for a great time back in Selma, Indiana. And this time, no, we are not concerned about the weather!
Click here to register:
by Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor
Hawthorne Books, Carmel
Goat Water is Not What You Think: The Montserrat Island Life of Two Hoosiers and the Volcano That Ended It tells the story of what happened when Carol Elrod, a former reporter on the Indianapolis Star, and her husband left Indianapolis behind to live on the non-American side of the Caribbean island of Montserrat—until a volcanic eruption buried half the island and their home as they fled for their lives. People have been interested in this exciting and sometimes humorous cultural immersion story and ordered it from Barnes and Noble and Amazon but Carol found her own promotion is what is selling the book. It has been the best-seller this year for Hawthorne Publishing.
The central problem for all authors today with books that aren’t on the best-seller lists is that nobody may know they exist. Get attention, get attention! That’s the slogan.
Carol gives her own specific strategies to get the book out to the public. Hawthorne Publishing is primarily a regional publisher like the Indiana Historical Society Press so most strategies are close to home. Her promo plan can offer good suggestions for any author whose book has come out and who wants to get it noticed: Here’s Carol:
- I live in Florida now for most of the year, returning to Indy in the summer, so I have had events in both of my “homes.” Pine Island, near Ft. Myers, schedules many activities that attract large crowds from all over the region. If I can piggyback on any of these, I will. For example, my Island has a “Garden Gala” in February. Although the foremost sales will be plants and gardening supplies, crafts, food and books by local authors are also for sale. I will have a table in the “authors’ corner.” Even if I don’t sell many books, the good will and potential sales down the road are just as important as books sold that day. I will meet people who may wish me to speak about the book. When I gave a talk at a meeting of Friends of the Library on Pine Island, the event was well advertised and the book reviewed in the local paper. Small local weeklies or dailies are read by a surprising number of people. I’ve been to the museum and have been nagging the Ft. Myers Barnes and Noble about having my book on its shelves and scheduling a signing. My book is already available on the shelves of Barnes and Noble in the Indianapolis area.
- A website to advertise a book is important if you are to keep your baby in front of the public. I realized soon after mine went online that no one would know about the website unless I told them. One of the ways was to put a signature line at the bottom of all the e-mails I send. Mine says, “Please check out my website – www.goatwaterisnotwhatyouthink. This signature line may remind some people that my book would make a great birthday present for somebody or for themselves. I’ve also been blogging on the Hawthorne site off and on. I’ve sent out book information emails to our friends and contacts list when waymarks occurred: the paperback is released, the e-book comes out, the large author fair will be coming up. Oh, yes, and you should list your website’s URL, where there should be a “contact me” page and information about how to buy from your publisher or beyond.
- Business cards have been quite successful as publicity tools for me. Be sure to include not only your name, phone number and e-mail address but also the title of the book and, if possible, a photo of the book’s cover. I had mine out at several events including the Indiana Historical Society Christmas book fair.
- When anyone mentions my book or asks about it and I’ve answered all the questions, I ask them if they know of any churches, book clubs or civic organizations that might like to have an illustrated program. My own “after the service” book event at my church was one of the best scheduled. I offer many people my business card. I belong to two art quilt groups and have passed out cards there. I had an Indianapolis opening at a home, with a party for former Star employees who are friends. I talk to book clubs and church groups and will be speaking to the English Speaking Union in May of this year. I’ve talked to senior groups at retirement homes.
I’ve just been mentioned in the Ball State alumni magazine. Indiana University alumni magazine is yet to come.
- At first, I didn’t plan on getting involved with social media beyond e-mail, but I’m glad I decided to have a Facebook account. I’ve been able to link up with friends from high school, college, my church and the interest groups of which I’m a member. My high school class reunion will be having an author’s table with plenty of advance publicity so people can come prepared to pick up books from their classmates.
Hawthorne Publishing, my publisher, put an interview with me on YouTube several months ago. I’m not sure how many sales have resulted from this, but I believe in leaving no stone unturned. I do know that more than 300 people have checked out the interview.
- If casual acquaintances ask what I’ve been doing lately and might not know about my writing, I tell them about Goat Water. On more than one occasion, this and the conversation that followed has led to a sale or an appearance at a club or event.
- Now and again, people have told me how much they enjoyed my book. If it seems appropriate, I ask if they would be willing to write a review for Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Despite good intentions, some don’t come through, but some do. It helps to tell them how easy it is to write a review.
- It never hurts to put the baby out on consignment – at a local museum, at a deli you frequent and even at your hairdresser’s. I intend to show up at my outlets soon, having put up a poster in advance to say I will.
Sometimes sales opportunities have dropped into my lap. A friend who didn’t know I gave presentations asked if I would consider speaking to her book club. I didn’t know she was a member of one, or I would have asked already! I said I would love to. Simple as that. I’d like these clubs to purchase books in advance, perhaps at a good discount. Group sales are great.
I’ll try almost anything. By the way, goat water is a stew from the island.
Following up on some of the book trends we presented at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Author Day in October of this year, let’s take a look at the present status of the book market for all of you who are presently in it, or are trying to have your book active for sales. A new year, as book publishers are releasing statistics on sales for the year is a good time to do that.
First of all, ebook sales have slowed somewhat. They looked to be heading towards 40% a couple of years ago but now are steady at about 30% of all books sold. That is a tidy, strong percentage but the real news is that print books have held their own, reduced, yes, but still in contention.
Why? Probably the rush to Kindles and other formats when ebooks were announced in 2007 was part novelty and part curiosity. It had to be also real desire to enjoy books in a portable and handy way without the need for a clunky chunk of published and bound paper you had to carry around in your hand because it didn’t fit into purse or pocket. That has slowed.
Anyway, ebooks still outsell hardcover books. Hardcovers have fallen to 25% of the market, so those cloth or cardboard covered volumes with jackets seem to have diminished in popularity. Old hat but still there. It’s paperback books that are being picked up online and in the few bricks and mortar places that sell books any more.
And speaking of bookstores, it’s interesting to see how creative the bookstores have grown as they’ve had to fight for a place in the market. Downtown, Indy Reads has a hundred lively arts events and marketing ideas and public service efforts which make that place jump with energy and may help define the bookstore of the future.
But that doesn’t erase the stark truth: bookstores continue to die in spite of their best efforts. I think of my local, Carmel, Indiana, Barnes and Noble: full of interesting items to entice the customer. The shelves of books have shrunk, of course, but there are still several end caps and displays and they are attractively marked so the reader can find genres and interests. The Nook promotion stand tries to entice readers into the new format for reading. The store is loaded also with a huge selection of children’s books (a successful genre in the book publishing world), seeming to display a good 25% of the space towards the back of the store. Puzzles, CDs and DVDs, gifting items, closeouts, stationery and other paper and cloth bag items are attractive and colorful. And over at the side of the store the cafe is still putting out Cheesecake factory desserts, simple lunches and lots of coffee and tea choices.
Still, if you check out the figures for Christmas sales for B&N you see that sales fell, and plummeted 60% for Nook compared with last Christmas season’s sales. This company’s digital division, Nook, is being obliterated by Amazon’s ability to offer cut-rate prices (line leaders) to attract customers into the larger site, which seems to work. Some Amazon Kindle best-sellers are 1/3 lower at least than prices for comparable B&N Nook offerings. Barnes and Noble has been, and still is, in serious trouble. Analysts point out that readers buy books on line now. It is just that simple. I know I do, at least partially.
What does this mean to you, the present or future author, member (we hope) of Indiana Writers Center? First, your creative effort can still be bought if your book is presented to an agent or directly to a small press. Writers’ Center classes give you tips on how to organize your ideas into a polished piece of writing, how to gather them into a book and how to seek publication. Check the offerings out, learn and grow and sprout a book.
If you are considering self publishing, your door is open even wider than before. As bookstores fade, other means of reaching readers proliferate. Self published print books, combined with ebook sales, are accounting for about 35- 40% of the books sold in America today. And it is in the ebook market that self published books are still growing fastest. Amazon Kindle Direct and Smashwords, self publishers, saw adding author to produce their books grow in these divisions. But here’s the news and the trouble: sales have not followed. You can easily get your book posted for ebook sales; it takes only a few days and a completely edited manuscript. But sales? Slumping in 2014 beyond what anyone was predicting. Authors are disappointed and seek the reason. Surely the faddish nature of the easy posting of millions of ebooks has diminished for readers. Then too, Amazon’s new subscription service, Kindle Unlimited gives readers easy choice from a restricted site.
Register this: your book can be put out in a variety of ways but it will only sell well if readers know it exists. That opens the door for the vital missing link in all of this book uncertainty: promotion, promotion, promotion (not location location.) And it must be done by you.
Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne Press
“No one else alive had known him like they had; no one could return that faint submarine ping.” ~ You Came Back by Christopher Coake. Mark, the protagonist of the novel, speaking about his ex-wife and deceased son, voices an achingly beautiful truth of what it means to be really known by someone else. The ninety-minute interview I did with Christoper Coake cannot begin to “return the ping,” but hopefully begin a reader’s process of knowing him. Chris, as he prefers to be called, describes his writing as “entering into conversation.” He and I entered into conversation at the Indiana Writers Center Gathering of Writers event on Saturday, November 16, 2013 where he was featured as the keynote speaker.
I began by asking Chris what it felt like to be named by Granta as one of the twenty best young American novelists, a publication that has published such literary greats as Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and Sylvia Plath. “Pants wetting terrifying,” he answered. He smiled as he said it, as he explained the three day wait to find out exactly why Granta had contacted him (after exchanging voicemails and emails) as an anxious time. “I thought they just wanted me to submit a story, but I wasn’t sure.” As we know now, they were notifying him of his selection as one of the twenty best. They also requested a new short story to appear in the issue. “I felt I had to write a story that would hit it out of the park because I was on the twenty best list.” He was under pressure, as all writers are at times, but he emphasized, “I love this writing life, even with all the anxiety. It is a good problem to have.”
I reminded him of a quote about Granta made by The Observer that Granta “has its face pressed firmly against the window, determined to witness the world.” I asked Chris is he feels, as a writer, that he has his “face pressed firmly against the window, determined to witness the world”? He answered with a quick and definitive, “No.” He sees his role, “perhaps like many other authors,” to be writing with a sense of locality, even when addressing universal issues, adding that “each author has his or her own cultural and personal references.” Chris recognizes that his particular references, among others, are grief and loneliness. He continued that many American writers are just that – American writers, American centric. He suggests that American authors can speak well to the theme of isolation, but with America becoming more and more integrated into the global community, there may be a need, and desire, to write from a broader viewpoint. (Chris has not traveled in any extensive way, but his novel has been translated into German, French, and Italian.) He laughed quietly and said, “Maybe I will write the Great American novel, though. Then again, maybe that is not relevant or necessary to do so.” It seemed he was debating the idea as he spoke.
I almost whispered my next question about his themes of death in both his novel You Came Back and short story collection We’re In Trouble Now. I prefaced my question with “Chris, you approach the theme of death with respect and tenderness. I understand that your first wife died at an early age. How did you come to the place where you were able to write about the topic of death?” He answered, “It was difficult, but I needed to write about it and about the prospect of someone living without hope, within the boundaries of a finite life. It was many years before I was able to write about it. I wanted to open up questions about what love is, what happens when the rational meets the irrational.”
I changed the subject for a moment and asked him what three things, besides his computer, are on his writing desk. “A coffee cup with a lid and I don’t know what’s inside of it, a Tylenol bottle because of a bicycle whiplash, and audio speakers to listen to music without lyrics, heavy metal.” The topic of heavy metal music segued into the next question.
“Who is the most intriguing person you have ever met?” He named more than one. “Thurston Morre of Sonic Youth (the heavy metal band). Also, the cast from Mystery Science Theater that visited campus. And a friend of his who is a magician.” We all “make art in different ways.” His students intrigue him and influence him as well. Chris describes himself as a “lawful guy.” The students hold him accountable to his own writing rules (laws). “They also keep my ego in check.” He loves the university life because a university is a place “where we are making things and making things better.”
He wrote most of his latest book on campus, late into the night. Picture this: he sits in his university office, alone, Chris the only person in the building (even the cleaning crew is finished for the night) writing a story with strong themes of grief and ghosts. When it is time for him to return to his car and head home, he has to pass a campus memorial, a homage to a murdered policeman. It’s after midnight, it’s dark, Chris is alone, and his characters are his only company. He said he “jogged quickly past the memorial each night.” And he doesn’t even believe in ghosts.
The storyline of the deceased son as ghost prompted my next question. I quoted science fiction writer, David Brin who said, “If you have other things in your life – family, friends, good productive day of work - these can interact with your writing and the sum will be all the richer.” My question was twofold:
Is You Came Back ever categorized as science fiction? What are the other things in your life?
Chris replied that usually his book is described as “literary fiction.” Occasionally it may be described as “horror” but it does not fit that genre. “Bookstores need to know where to place your book,” that his does not fit in science fiction. The conversation turned to the idea of bookstores and electronic books and self-publishing. (We do come back to the topic of other things in his life.)
He says that “bookstores curate, electronic book distribution does not.” There is a sense of old school vs. new and that Chris embraces progress, but he is firmly loyal to the traditional publishing route. “Until it’s not there any longer, I will continue to publish through established publishing houses.” I asked him if the marketing side of the writing business is better handled by publishers than the authors themselves? “I don’t have a marketing bone in my body, so yes, for me it is.” He is happy to speak at conferences and be interviewed, however. He knows writers that have “platforms” and push their work, but that is not his style.
Now, for the “other things in his life.” Teaching at the University of Nevada is a large part of his life and Chris has remarried and has two dogs. He showed me a picture of his dog, named Dashiell Hammett, a mix of German Shepherd and Beagle, who loves veggie smoothies, cocks his head when listening to humans and responds to the names of his dog toys. One toy in particular is a football that the family calls “fumble.” One of the other things in Chris’ life is football and Dashell watches it with him. When the referee calls “fumble” Dashell retrieves his toy “fumble.” The enjoyment Chris derives from his pets is obvious as he speaks about them. “Dogs keep you humble and in the moment.” The other dog, Kona is a black lab rescue dog and “ate their green couch.”
Chris has a new novel in the works. I asked him to tell me about it. Because it is currently a work in progress, he says that the book may turn out differently than he describes now. It is somewhat violent in theme and explores a vast period of time of the main character, ages sixteen to forty. About an Indiana boy who ends up on a Nevada political compound, the story is “action packed” and “told from several characters’ perspectives.”
Our conversation returned to his recent book You Came Back. There is a cultural reference in the book about the day of 911. He wanted to frame his character’s grief “in the context of national grief.” Much of what the character experiences, our nation experienced. His personal grief, the character’s grief can seem too self-centered, otherwise. “Grief is not exclusive.” The day after the towers were hit, his professor said, “Art still matters, I think.” Perhaps that is another reason, Chris included the event in the story.
I mentioned to Chris that each page of his novel contains poignant lines, including even his “Acknowledgments” page. It reads, in part, “If you would like to imagine the author of this book as a solitary fellow, working alone and friendless, please close the book now.” With the exception of the late nights at his campus office! The acknowledgments are generous and comprehensive.
The interview was coming to a close, so I asked him for what I call a Coake quote. “No means go to work on it.” A rejection of a written piece means “it’s not ready yet” and the writer must “persevere through criticism.”
There is a simple, elegant line in You Came Back. It is spoken by the character Allie, girlfriend to Mark. “Allie loved playing make-believe.” The line is perfectly fitting (on many levels) for the scene; a woman dealing with life by pretending. Perhaps too, writing - that pretending through fiction - allows the writer (and the reader) to face reality. Chris does “not believe in ghosts” but by “playing make-believe” in his fiction, he confronts the matters that haunt. His writing will take you there.
Christopher Coake is the author of the novel You Came Back (2012) and the collection of short stories We’re in Trouble (2005), which won the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship. In addition, Coake was listed among “Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists” in 2007. His stories have been published in several literary journals, and anthologized in Best American Noir of the Century. A native Hoosier, he received his M.F.A. in fiction. Born and raised in Indiana, he was the 2012 recipient of the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Regional Author Award.
A member of the Indiana Writers Center, Deanna Morris holds an MFA from Butler University. She has published stories, poems and articles in numerous places.