Posts Tagged ‘Guest Post’

In an interview on the Voice website, Kathleen McCleary indicates that Coffee@home, Ellen Flanagan’s coffee-and-home-funishings shop in the novel House & Home, is based on a local independent coffee shop in Virginia.  I wondered if “Hole in the Wall Books”, a setting in the novel,  had roots in a real bookstore.  Kathleen offered to write a guest post for She Is Too Fond of Books, sharing how real-life observations and her creative imagination combined to form this inviting bookstore (that I’d love to visit, if only it existed outside the novel!).  Read what she has to say about creating this fictional shop:

Several readers have mentioned that one of their favorite scenes in my novel is the scene that takes place in a little independent bookstore in Manning, Oregon, somewhere between Portland and Cannon Beach. While many of the places mentioned in the book are real (the Lazy Susan Restaurant, Paley’s Place, etc.), Hole in the Wall Books is completely a figment of my imagination. But as a lifelong bookstore aficionado, I used many bits and pieces of real bookstores in creating it.

I got the name “Hole in the Wall Books” from a used bookstore right here in Falls Church. I’ve never actually been inside Hole in the Wall, but I love the name. The exterior of the bookstore in my novel looks exactly like an antique store I used to visit in the Adirondacks, in upstate New York. The interior of the store, with comfy chairs for reading and little nooks of books, was taken from my memories of Annie Bloom’s, a lovely independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, where I used to live. My kids and I used to spend hours in Annie Bloom’s sitting on the floor and looking at books.

Another inspiration was Crawford Doyle bookstore on Madison Avenue in New York City, from which I took the old wooden floors, mix of new and used books, and friendly, knowledgeable sales people. Dottie, the bookseller in my novel, is based on my aunt, Dorothy McCleary, who has worked at Crawford Doyle for many years. (I gave Dottie some peculiarly northwest touches, though, like the nickname “Dottie” and wearing clogs!)

The idea of grouping books by place was entirely my own. As someone who has always been profoundly influenced by place – be it my house, the view out my window, my town, or my state – I loved the idea of categorizing authors by geography. The work of many writers is absolutely inseparable from the places those writers loved, in my mind. There are many authors who are so profoundly tied to places that I can’t think of them without their settings: Willa Cather (Nebraska), Isak Dinesen (Africa), James Joyce (Ireland), Mark Twain (Mississippi) – you could go on for forever. More recently, Stephanie Meyer and Washington’s Olympic peninsula seem forever intertwined now that I’ve read Twilight.

I’d love to hear about your favorite bookstores. And, I’d love to hear about the authors you associate strongly with particular places. Maybe they’ll provide fodder for my next novel!

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This week’s Spotlight on Bookstores is written by Heather, a wife, mom, and avid reader.  She reviews a wide variety of books at her blog Age 30 – A Year of Books and also posts with her kiddo about their Mom & Son Book Club. In addition to running a fabulous in-real-life book club, Heather is a contributor to the Reading Group Guides blog.

“Heather Johnson: Ambassador of Books, Book Club Madam, and Blogger Gal”

I had never heard of Indie Book Stores until I started my blog.  Come to find out, Indie is just a cool way of saying “independent” … as in, not part of a huge chain store.  Aha!  How lovely.  So I did a search for Indie bookstores in my area and guess what?  There ain’t many.  Yes, there are some in Baltimore, but I don’t go into the city unless I have to (I’m just not a city girl).  Other than the city, my only choice was a town about 30 miles away

I checked out the website for Constellation Books; I signed up for their newsletter.  Every week I get a brief update on events at the bookstore and every week I say I’m going to take a ride up there to check it out.  It seems that there is always some little event going on, with cookies, tea or wine being served.  Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

One evening in July, my plans were suddenly cancelled.  I remembered that Constellation Books was having Irish Music that night so I grabbed kiddo (he’s 6) and we hopped in the car for a 45 minute ride to the store.

Let me say right now that the store is lovely.  It’s in an old house so there are different rooms to check out.  Kiddo immediately plopped into the beanbag chair in the Children’s Books Room; he could reach from his spot to snag books from the bottom shelf without getting up.  I wandered through the rooms munching on the complimentary 7-layer Italian cookies and hot apple cider (my FAVORITE things!)  All the time we were serenaded by a one-man-band playing Folk and Irish Music. 

After browsing and snacking for a while, I checked on kiddo.  He was still rooted to the same spot.  Eventually he got up and walked around, but only to request some of his favorite Irish songs and sit up next to the musician. 

After a while we had to make decision on what books we were going to buy.  Kiddo’s decision was easy – he wanted one of the first books he’d taken off the shelf.  Together we picked out two books for his cousins; my sister had her 2nd baby the night before, so we were getting a baby book and a big brother book.  Then it was my turn, and of course I’m not easy.  I was trying to decide between non-fiction, my first venture into Steampunk (that caused some raised eyebrows.  Even the musician said “It’s not every day you hear someone ask for that!”), or a book from my TBR list.  In the end, store owner Lauretta led me to a book that didn’t fit in ANY of those categories and I chose that one.  Of course.

I left the store with my new customer loyalty card already 1/2 way full (a full card gets you $10 off), a happy kiddo, a happy self, and a strong desire to magically move this store closer to my house.

If you’re ever in the greater Baltimore area, stop by and say “hi” to Lauretta at Constellation Books.  Snuggle in to the big white couch in the Fiction Room, browse the Bargain Shelf, and munch on some goodies.  You’ll enjoy her store, I guarantee it!

(Note from Dawn:  nothing says “great book shopping experience” better than cookies, cider, a happy child, a helpful bookseller, and a bag full of books – Constellation Books sounds like a great place to visit, again and again!  Readers, is there a special bookstore you’d like to see featured in the Spotlight on Bookstores series?  Contact me, using the tab above!)

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Earlier I wrote a post about short stories and the challenges my book group has had when we’ve attempted to discuss them.  I was pleased to get a very insightful response from Christopher Meeks, a playwright, columnist, and published author of four children’s books, a novel, and two collections of short stories, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons.  Christopher discusses the difficulty of finding a willing audience for short stories (agents and reviewers may shy away from them; general readers tend to really enjoy them), and offers several great suggestions for how to approach a discussion about a collection.  I asked Christopher if I could list his essay as a Guest Post; here it is:

I’m writing in response to Dawn’s questions about book clubs and short fiction collections.  Ironically, I found her blog as I researched Jhumpra Lahiri’s bestselling collection, Unaccustomed Earth. I wanted to know who was writing about that collection because it could be someone open to reading my own collection, Months and Seasons, published last month. 


I’ve had much success with short stories, but it hasn’t been easy.  It’s not just book clubs that are resistant to short stories.  Every part of the publishing industry is.  Yet, thanks in part to Jhumpra Lahiri’s book most recently, the ice is melting.  If I may, I’ll offer insight from a writer’s point of view.


My first inkling short story publication would be hard was in the late nineties.  I’d been a produced playwright, and I’d written short stories for years, often between plays.  A few magazines, such as The New Yorker and Harpers publish short stories, but I couldn’t start there.  I had no name. 


Literary magazines made sense, but I soon learned that it’s more likely you’ll be struck from lightning than published in literary magazines.   When you consider the North Dakota Quarterly receives over 500 short stories a month and publishes maybe ten an issue for no payment to a circulation of 800, you can see the problem.  Few people publish short stories, you’re not paid, and few people read them.


Still, I love the form.  I happen to teach English and creative writing, and I’ve found my students might not understand short stories at first, but they come to love them.  The joy they get in discussing, for instance, “Lust” by Susan Minot, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor, or “Carnal Knowledge” by T.C. Boyle is visible and rises as my students offer insight to each other.  I conduct class like a book club.  Every voice has weight. My students ask questions of each other.  Certain details bring meaning.  I encourage thinking.


As for my publishing short fiction, lightning struck.  I managed to publish several short stories in literary magazines over a few years and had the brilliant idea of putting the stories into a collection.  I knew a literary agent and sent him the manuscript to see if he’d represent me.  He called.  “I love your stories,” he said.  “You’re a great writer.  You should write a novel.”


I said I probably would someday, but could he send my collection out for possible publication?  He said no.  “There’s no money in short fiction.  Any advance you’d get would be small.  For the time it would take me to set it up, I’d get 15% of almost nothing.  I can’t do it.  Write a novel.” 


This went back and forth with my suggestion that all he needs to do is put a cover letter on the collection, send it to a few places, and see what happens.  “Write a novel,” he said to end it.


I’ll give this to the man: he got me to write a novel and when my first short story collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea was published in 2006, and the Los Angeles Times reviewed it and well, he called to congratulate me, even though he wasn’t my agent.


The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea received over a dozen reviews, all positive, mostly in literary websites, but my coup was that Entertainment Weekly mentioned that it’s a must read, and sales rose.


The challenge to find readers continues.  My second collection, Months and Seasons, had its publication party at the Beverly Hills Public Library last month as part of the library’s New Short Fiction series.  To build on that honor, I hired a publicist so that the book might be reviewed in publishing industry journals such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, places that bookstores and libraries read to select what books they order.


My publicist called to say she’d just spoken with Booklist, a major journal for librarians.  “They said they rarely review short story collections—maybe two a year—and it has to be from a big-name author.”  I wasn’t big name. 


If librarians don’t see the book reviewed, how can short story collections get in libraries?  If libraries don’t offer a lot of collections, then how do people consider short story collections?  If book reviewers don’t consider collections, then it’s not on the radar of ordinary readers.  Thus, it’s an extra challenge to get a short story collection seen.


I’m not disheartened.  After all, Jhumpra Lahiri just won the Frank O’Connor Award and 35,000 Euros.  Her book has been on bestseller lists for months.  These days, people like short stories because they have little time for reading compared to past generations, and short stories are beautiful small units. 


This brings me to how a book club should approach discussing a short story collection.  My notion is that short story collections as a whole should be thought of as concept rock albums.  That’s because it’s often the way collections are put together.  I fret like Bruce Springsteen over the order of the tales.  I work and rework the table of contents.  Some stories are lighter than others, and, as in a good album or concert, the reader’s emotions should be like California Screamin’, the roller coaster I went on recently went on with my nine-year-old daughter: ups and downs, and the loop is a surprise.


Your club, in discussing a short story collection, should ask are there themes or concepts that are apparent throughout the stories?  Do the stories bring light to this confusing thing we call life—and how do the stories do that?


Good writers allow the subconscious mind to lay imagery and ideas in their stories, and readers may find concrete meaning in things that slipped in.  I titled my first collection The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea because it was funny, playing with Hemingway’s title.  Yet reviewers found water imagery in a number of stories that played into theme.  I had to admit it was there, but it wasn’t conscious.


With Months and Seasons, I was aware of wanting to write stories about time—narratives of different people at different ages.  One story has a seven-year-old girl who is afraid of the water.  Another story has a 78-year-old playwright afraid of a raging fire.


What is each reader’s favorite story and why?  My favorite part in reading reviews of my books is discovering which story hit home the most.  Different reviewers have different favorites.  Only this morning did Google Alert notify me of this blogger: click here and you’ll see what Grady Harp, a top-ten Amazon reviewer, likes about this new book.  I don’t know the man, but his review shows me the challenges are all worth it.


I happen to be serious about my fiction in that stories should entertain and open doors.  I sat in on a book club reading my work recently, and it was fun.  There were times things were spirited—someone didn’t like something while someone else thought it was brilliant.  You know book clubs.  It’s not about agreement; it’s about disagreement and trying to get others see your point of view. It’s about this crazy life.


I love book clubs.

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Phyllis Zimbler and Mitchell Miller at the Coronation Ball at Michigan State University on Saturday, November 18, 1967, sponsored by the Cadet Officers Club and the Arnold Air Society.





The U.S. Army as a Foreign Culture

Guest Post by Phyllis Zimbler Miller



In the comments to her review of MRS. LIEUTENANT, Dawn wrote this:

I enjoyed the novel because it allowed me to “experience” three things I haven’t in my life:

1. being an adult aware of the repercussions of the war in Vietnam (so I drew parallels to my own experience with the effects of the current situation in Iraq)
2. being in or involved with an active member of the military
3. moving into a culture so foreign from what I am used to, and having to figure out how far I was willing to adapt

As Dawn graciously offered me the opportunity to write a follow-up guest post to her review of the book, I wanted to talk about moving into a foreign culture:


Just as I began to write this post something that happened 28 years ago flashed through my mind.  My husband and I were moving from Philadelphia to Los Angeles because we wanted to live in LA even though we had no friends or family there.  A friend in Philadelphia said: “How can you leave all your friends here and start over trying to make new friends?”


Our reply: “We have already lived through an active-duty army experience, so we know we can make friends anywhere.”  My husband and I were no longer afraid to move someplace new.


Women and men who have never served in the military or have been a military spouse may have a hard time understanding that regardless what you think of a current war being fought if you are in the military (or a military spouse), the people who serve alongside you are your family.


Early in MRS. LIEUTENANT, Kim and Jim Benton visit the quarters of a captain and his wife.  Jim asks a question of the captain about Officers Candidate School (OCS) and this is what the captain replies:


“I’m talking about my buddies.  In OCS – OCS is hell on wheels, 120 days of pure hell – you can’t survive if you can’t trust your buddies and they can’t trust you.  There’s a motto – ‘Cooperate and graduate.’”


And that’s what I learned as a new officer’s wife in the spring of 1970.  Everyone is in the same boat.  You might as well extend a helping hand because someday you may need that helping hand in return.  In addition, you might as well try to work within the system so that your life is easier rather than harder although you can push the envelope somewhat as Sharon does in MRS. LIEUTENANT with the skit she writes for an official function.


Lifetime TV’s series ARMY WIVES portrays this bonding friendship between the wives of officers and the wives of enlisted men.  This was not true in 1970 – the wives of officers and enlisted men did not mix – although I understand this class separation has been easing nowadays in the military.  (If you would like to know more about current army life, read Tanya Biank’s non-fiction book ARMY WIVES that is the basis of the television series.)


And if you’d like to show support for military families today (or deployed soldiers), check out my website at www.mrslieutenant.com to find out how you can help.


(note from Dawn:  Many thanks to Lisa at Books on the Brain and Dorothy at Pump Up Your Book Promotion for introducing me to Phyllis.  ** Check back on Tuesday June 24 for an announcement about a contest for a copy of Mrs. Lieutenant! **)

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