Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Eighteen Days Without You by Anne Sexton


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


          Catch me. I’m your disease.

“Eighteen Days Without You” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

Friday, January 12, 2018

Friday Freebie: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones


Congratulations to Kris Faatz and Jane Rainey, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie: signed copies of Steve Yarbrough’s new novel The Unmade World.

This week’s contest is for An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow. Here’s what Jacqueline Woodson, author of Another Brooklyn, had to say about the novel: “I love An American Marriage, and I'm so excited for this book to be in the world. Tayari's novel is timely, thoughtful, and beautifully written. Reading it, I found myself angry as hell, laughing out loud, choking up and cheering. A gem of a book.” Keep scrolling for more information about An American Marriage...


Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together. This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward--with hope and pain--into the future.

If you’d like a chance at winning An American Marriage, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 18, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 19. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


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Monday, January 8, 2018

My First Time: Steve Yarbrough



My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Steve Yarbrough, the author of eleven books, most recently the novel The Unmade World, now out from Unbridled Books. Steve’s other books are the nonfiction title Bookmarked: Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, the novels The Realm of Last Chances, Safe from the Neighbors, The End of California, Prisoners of War, Visible Spirits and The Oxygen Man, and the short story collections Veneer and Family Men. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, the California Book Award, the Richard Wright Award and the Robert Penn Warren Award. He has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.


How My First Novel Came to See the Light of Day

At some point in every fiction workshop that I teach, I make a point of telling students that most of us are going to need some luck along the way. But it’s important, I always add, to make sure that when fortune casts its gaze in your direction, you’ve got plenty of work to display. Then I tell them this story.

One day in the spring of 1996, I walked into my office at Fresno State, where I taught at the time, and saw my answering machine’s message light flashing. “Steve,” a voice said, “this is Susan Lyne calling from Disney.” I was not in the best of moods. Professionally, things hadn’t been going my way. Though I was tenured and had recently been promoted to full professor on the strength of two short story collections published by university presses, my first novel, finished two and a half years earlier, had chalked up somewhere north of forty rejections, refused by all the big New York publishers, as well as every small press my agent and I could think of. Over the previous year, I’d actually turned to writing non-fiction, publishing a handful of essays. I couldn’t think of any more short stories that begged to be written, and I felt all but certain that I was not a novelist. How could so many publishers be wrong? One rejection, from an editor who has since become a friend, put it this way: “As is true in most of his short stories, Yarbrough just doesn’t quite manage to get to the heart of things in this novel.”

My maiden voyage as a nonfiction writer had been an essay I wrote about Southerners and guns. My dad, like most of the men I’d known growing up in a small Mississippi Delta town, was armed to the teeth. On a recent trip home, I’d discovered that he had recently purchased two M1 carbines that had been modified by the Israeli military, becoming fully automatic. He’d also bought five thousand rounds of .30-caliber ammo. This discovery troubled me, as one might imagine, and when I got back to California I decided to write about it. The essay was snapped up by a literary magazine that paid me ninety dollars, then reprinted by The Utne Reader, for the princely sum of four hundred.

Over the last two decades I have often wondered what course my literary life might have taken if I’d acted on my initial impulse and pressed “delete” after hearing the first sentence of Susan Lyne’s message. The thing was, I assumed the person calling worked for Disneyland, to which we had taken our daughters a few months earlier. They probably wanted to sell us some kind of package: you know, a night in one of those hideous Anaheim hotels filled with truculent kids and their stressed-out parents and X-number of rides that would make me as queasy as I’d been when we hit the water at the foot of Splash Mountain. No thanks. I believe my finger came within an inch of hitting that button. Fortunately, just in time, I heard the word “movie.” The person on the other end was the book scout for Disney’s film division. The rest of the message remains a blur. I’m not even sure I listened to the whole thing before calling back.

When my essay on Southerners and their weaponry appeared in The Utne Reader, it had attracted the attention of Kathleen Kennedy, who was especially interested, Susan said, in the issue of gun control. The name “Kathleen Kennedy” meant nothing to me, which is probably a good thing, since my ignorance protected me, for a time at least, from acting overly impressed. In fact, I had seen numerous films that Kennedy and her husband Frank Marshall produced for Steven Spielburg’s Amblin Entertainment: E. T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun. Kathy, Susan Lyne said, badly wanted to meet me.

She and Frank now had their own production company, Kennedy-Marshall. Over the next couple of weeks, I took part in several conference calls with two production executives, Jonathan Zimbert and Robin Schorr, and then finally Robin called to tell me when the meeting would be held. She said a limo would pick me up and take me to the airport, a distance of no more than three miles from our house. A second limo would collect me at LAX and carry me to Kathy’s home in Brentwood. It turned out she lived next door to O. J. Simpson.

I met with Kathy, Robin and Jonathan for an hour or more, then flew home. I didn’t think the meeting had gone well, as I’d been forced to reveal that I’d never seen a screenplay and also that I didn’t have any good movie ideas. As I was leaving, Kathy asked me if I’d ever written a novel. I had, I admitted, but nobody would publish it. She asked me to have my agent send it to her. I went home and heard no more for several weeks.


Then one day the phone rang. It was Jonathan Zimbert, who told me that they all loved my novel and that Kennedy-Marshall would be in touch with my agent to buy the film rights for The Oxygen Man. “You write great dialogue,” Jonathan said. “Would you be interested in writing the screenplay?”

Oh, hell yes.

He said he would send me nine or ten scripts and some screenwriting software. “You’ll figure out the form,” he said, with confidence that I could not muster.

I did figure the form out, and I came to like it, and the next year they would hire me to write another script. My book, unfortunately, never became a film, though people still inquire about the film rights from time to time. But in failing to become a film, it learned how to become a novel. Or to be more precise, in writing the screenplay, I figured out a couple of things that were not quite right with the book, and when I finished the script, I went back and made some changes. Zimbert put me in touch with a young agent at ICM, Jessica Green, and though Jessica left the agency without selling my book, she handed it off to another agent named Sloan Harris, who called me one day while my family and I were at a ski lodge to say he had fallen in love with my work. In no time, he sold the novel to a relatively new publisher called MacMurray & Beck.

When The Oxygen Man came out, it received numerous positive reviews. TIME magazine compared me favorably to Faulkner. USA Today accorded one half of a page to a certain British novelist named J. K. Rowling and gave the other half to me. The review was headed “Oxygen Resuscitates Southern Fiction.” Some months later, the paperback rights were auctioned off to Scribner, which had been one of the first publishers to turn the book down four years earlier, during the initial round of submissions.

Since then, a great many nice things have happened, and my eighth novel and eleventh book, The Unmade World, is about to be published. Two things, however, have not changed: writing is still difficult, and the work remains its own reward. I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Break by Anne Sexton


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


The T.V. hangs from the wall like a moose head.

“The Break” from The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

Friday, January 5, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Unmade World by Steve Yarbrough


Congratulations to Tawnya Zorn, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter.

This week, in celebration of the publication of Steve Yarbrough’s new novel The Unmade World, the publisher Unbridled Books is offering up two signed copies of the book. So, we’re doubling your odds of winning this week. Will you be one of the two lucky readers to win The Unmade World? Keep scrolling for more information about the book and how to enter the contest. Good luck!


“This many-layered novel is a thriller, a love story, a travelogue full of richly observed scenes, a morality tale replete with betrayal, remorse and lust for revenge, and a hilarious comedy. The tight control Yarbrough exercises over the ten-year span of the story kept me turning the pages and left me full of admiration.”
–Colm Toibin

Set against a backdrop of the current political and cultural upheaval in the U.S. and Eastern Europe, The Unmade World is a thoughtful literary novel with a dose of suspense that moves from Poland to California to the Hudson Valley and back to Poland. It covers a decade in the lives of an American journalist and a Polish small businessman turned petty criminal and the wrenching aftermath of an accidental, tragic encounter between these two on a snowy night in 2006 on the outskirts of Krakow. The accident costs the lives of the American journalist Richard Brennan’s wife and daughter, an event that colors the rest of his life. It also leads to a downward spiral for Bogdan Baranowsk, leaving emotional scars as he suffers the seemingly inevitable loss of his business, his home, and his wife. The Unmade World is a story of ordinary, otherwise decent people from various backgrounds and circumstances who must learn how to live with the personal grief, sense of guilt, and the emotional consequences of violence. Along the way, the novel grapples with a spectrum of cultural and political issues. It includes a murder mystery wrapped around the corruption of major college sports, the pressures on immigrants and refugees in both the U.S. and Poland, the fallout of political change, economic upheavals and armed conflicts–including the horrific destruction of Luhansk, Ukraine in 2014. It also references the 2016 presidential campaign, cultural politics in the American university, and the demise of print journalism, etc., though never in a dogmatic or overtly partisan way.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Unmade World, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 11, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 12. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sunday Sentence: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers by Henry David Thoreau


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


The constant abrasion and decay of our lives makes the soil of our future growth.



Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Merry Christmas, Mr. Baxter by Edward Streeter


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


The trouble with Christmas was that it was so obligatory.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Baxter by Edward Streeter


Friday, December 22, 2017

Friday Freebie: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter


Congratulations to Bart Zimmer, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Savage Country, the new novel by Robert Olmstead.

This week, one lucky reader will win a copy of The End We Start From by Megan Hunter. I am thrilled to be giving away this novel in particular, because it’s one of my favorite books of the year. The End We Start From left me breathless and speechless, so I’m grateful to Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring, who put it so eloquently: “The End We Start From is strange and powerful, and very apt for these uncertain times. I was moved, terrified, uplifted―sometimes all three at once. It takes skill to manage that, and Hunter has a poet’s understanding of how to make each word count.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book and how to enter the contest....


As London is submerged below floodwaters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, she and her baby are forced to leave their home in search of safety. They head north through a newly dangerous country seeking refuge from place to place. The story traces fear and wonder as the baby grows, thriving and content against all the odds. The End We Start From is an indelible and elemental first book―a lyrical vision of the strangeness and beauty of new motherhood, and a tale of endurance in the face of ungovernable change.

If you’d like a chance at winning The End We Start From, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 4, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 5. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

My First Time: Giano Cromley


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Giano Cromley, author of the novel The Last Good Halloween, which was a finalist for the High Plains Book Award. His short story collection What We Build Upon the Ruins was released by Tortoise Books in November. He is the chair of the Communications Department at Kennedy-King College, and he lives on the South Side of Chicago with his wife and two dogs.


My First Devastating Writing Workshop

The first time I submitted a story for workshop in my Master of Fine Arts program I learned more about what it means to be a writer than any experience I’d had before or since. Those lessons took a long time to congeal—I certainly didn’t recognize them in the moment—but with the blessed hindsight of over 15 years, I can say now that’s where I first learned what it is like to be a writer.

In 1999, I left Washington, DC, to attend the University of Montana’s MFA program in fiction. I had been working in the U.S. Senate for the previous four years, making my way up from front desk phone-answering guy, to letter-writing guy, to press release-writing guy, to speech-writing guy. And while I had been learning the intricacies of a well-honed hedge or the siren-song lyricism of a political cliché, I had harbored the secret belief that I was destined to be a great writer, that I was perhaps in my chrysalis phase, preparing myself for a meteoric rise through the ranks of whatever you’re supposed to rise through in order to become a big-shot writer.

When I got my acceptance letter to UM, I figured I was ready to take flight.

For my first workshop class I chose one of the more notoriously salty professors in the program because I figured it would mean a lot more when someone like that pronounced me the next big thing, as opposed to one of the more traditionally supportive faculty members. That first class period I volunteered to submit a story to be workshopped because I didn’t see any reason to delay my rise to the top any longer.

Most people, by now, are familiar with the concept of workshopping. You submit copies of a story to the class. They read it and come back the next class period to offer advice and critique.

After class, I made a pot of coffee and stayed up late into the night, tapping out a brand new story that I was convinced would cement my status as someone to keep an eye on.

I wrote a loosely fictionalized story about a relationship where a girlfriend wanted to get married to a guy who was, for no particular reason, noncommittal. (Before you read any further, let me be clear that I’m in on the joke now. I know how awful that story sounds, but I was convinced at the time that this was literary gold.) To top it off, I decided to write the story in second person. Yes! Of course! Second person! How brilliant! How original!

That next morning, confident that I held the future of American literature in my hands, I delivered the story to my classmates’ mailboxes in the English Department. I then had to wait an entire week before the class met again.

When the day finally came, my story was the first one discussed in class. The teacher pulled a copy out of his satchel and set it on the table before him. “Well, what did we think?” he asked. I sensed a note of resignation in his voice which was the first hint that this workshop session might not go the way I’d anticipated.

At first, there was silence.

Finally, one of the second-year students spoke up, “I didn’t get it. I mean, what’s he trying to do here?”

And then came the flood. All at once, the room burst into a cacophony of students speaking at once, all with something negative to share about the story.

To say they didn’t like it would be an understatement. To say they hated it might be an understatement as well. More accurate would be to say they felt transitive hatred, the kind of hatred that makes you angry at the person who created it. The clichés, the smugness of the narrator, the snarky tone. They despised everything about it.

I think I must have been in shock. I didn’t cry, which was my first instinct. I also didn’t say anything in my defense, which would have been considered very poor form in that program. So at least I was able to maintain my dignity. Up to a point.

“What about the use of second person?” my teacher finally asked once the group seemed to have spent itself. “What did we think about that?”

There was a chorus of negative comments. Then he cleared his throat and answered his own question, “Reading this story in second person was like being trapped at a party by a drunk guy who won’t stop talking right in your face.”

The room erupted into laughter.

And that was it. The lowest point I could remember ever feeling as a writer.


After class, I gathered my things and slunk out of the classroom. I did a lot of soul searching those first few weeks of the program. Was I really that bad of a writer? Was the thing I thought I’d been put on this earth to do actually something I was terrible at? Should I have been applying to law schools instead of creative writing programs? I decided to stick it out in the MFA program. And slowly, gradually, I began to write stories that got a better reception. More importantly, I started reading a lot. Everything I could get my hands on. And I started to pay more attention to what was happening in the things I read. I started learning.

To be sure, the low moment I felt that day of my first workshop would be felt again later, multiple times, in different and similar ways. The time an agent called to say she loved my first novel, then inexplicably cut off communication with me a few weeks later, never to be heard from again. The time a trusted friend read the first draft of a novel I’d spent years on and said, I’m not really sure why you wrote this or what you could ever do to fix it. The time I got my first one-star review on Goodreads. Those low moments rival that first workshop experience.

And it goes to the single truest thing I’ve learned about writing: You need to have thick skin. You need to know when to shut out the voices that are calling for your head. You need to know when to block out the world, sit your ass down at a desk, and start pushing the pen across that blank white page.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


One of the most astonishing things about this deadly fog was who it first alarmed—not politicians, reporters, or even doctors, but undertakers. Across London, funeral directors reported a surge in bodies, so many that the demand for caskets was insatiable.



Friday, December 15, 2017

Friday Freebie: Savage Country by Robert Olmstead


Congratulations to Carl Scott, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Midnight Line by Lee Child.

This week, Savage Country, the new novel by Robert Olmstead (Coal Black Horse), is up for grabs. One lucky reader will win a new hardcover copy of the novel BookPage calls “an unforgettable, unflinching, yet distinctly moving story of human greed and desire.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book....


“The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty...”

Onto this broken Western stage rides Michael Coughlin, a Civil War veteran with an enigmatic past, come to town to settle his dead brother’s debt. Together with his widowed sister-in-law, Elizabeth, bankrupted by her husband’s folly and death, they embark on a massive, and hugely dangerous, buffalo hunt. Elizabeth hopes to salvage something of her former life and the lives of the hired men and their families who now depend on her; the buffalo hunt that her husband had planned, she now realizes, was his last hope for saving the land. Elizabeth and Michael plunge south across the aptly named “dead line” demarcating Indian Territory from their home state of Kansas. Nothing could have prepared them for the dangers: rattlesnakes, rabies, wildfire, lightning strikes, blue northers, flash floods—and human treachery. With the Comanche in winter quarters, Elizabeth and Michael are on borrowed time, and the cruel work of harvesting the buffalo is unraveling their souls. Bracing, direct, and quintessentially American, Olmstead’s gripping narrative follows that infamous hunt, which drove the buffalo to near extinction. Savage Country is the story of a moment in our history in which mass destruction of an animal population was seen as a road to economic salvation. But it’s also the intimate story of how that hunt changed Michael and Elizabeth forever.

If you’d like a chance at winning Savage Country, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 22. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.