In Spring, my editor at Women’s Review of Books asked me to review Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, and I can’t believe my luck. What an incredible book. Because Ali Smith is a genius, she published the novel in two different editions, and both are touching, heart-rending, and intellectually dynamic. My review is finally available in full content here. GO GET THIS BOOK. NOW! Go! I’ll wait here for you to thank me.
My first story about Craig begins in 2005, when Reader’s Loft was in its old location and I was promoting my first book. I was giving a reading at the store, complete with a reception and snacks— shrimp on skewers!— I mean, not just snacks, but fancy snacks.
The story I’d chosen to read was maybe not the best way to sell my book: a short, sad, how-to guide about anorexia, including tips on how to vomit.
I finished reading. The crowd sat in respectful, puzzled silence.
Then, Craig announced it was time for the reception: “All right! Let’s all go and stuff ourselves, and then we’ll all throw up!”
Darkly funny, irreverent, the consummate showman: Craig Jones was more than a local bookseller. For me, it was love at first bite.
My second story about Craig takes place at my workplace, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
We were far from the stacks of books and polished bookcases that I, like my children, sometimes assumed was Craig’s actual home. (I mean, didn’t he sleep on a vintage couch beneath a purring blanket of cats?)
Because for so many of us, books are home: a place of wonder, imagination, comfort, secrets, nightmares, mistakes— agonizing departures and tearful reunions.
Walking into the Reader’s Loft and seeing Craig was always, always like coming home.
On this day, for a campus panel on feminism, Craig and I discussed our actual homes—the ones with mortgages— and the people in them. I learned about Craig’s deep love of his wife, how long distances and harrowing commutes couldn’t keep them apart. How he nurtured his sons when they were babies. What he thought about masculinity, fatherhood, husband-hood, power, generosity.
Was he wearing a t-shirt with the word “Feminist” on it? I think he was. Let’s say he was.
As always, I said goodbye to Craig that afternoon feeling enriched, empowered, edified. Welcomed in, yet nudged outward.
My third story about Craig may be your story of Craig. You’re a reader. You’re a writer. You’re a lover of leather bindings and advanced reading copies and special orders and hand-sewn journals. You’re looking for something new to split your brain wide open. You’re looking for something old to remind you that life has always teemed with villains and heroes, heroines and quests, chest-pounding promises, heart-stopping twists. You’re looking for Garfield to wallop Odie. You’re looking for a first edition of Beloved. You’re looking for that one book you heard about on NPR that had the word “night” in the title. You’re looking for the way to fall into a thrall that suspends your afternoon.
You’re looking for Craig Jones to guide you. And when you’ve finished reading, you’re looking for Craig Jones to talk with about the best part, the worst line, the stupid kiss, the genius paragraph— because Craig Jones helped you to see it clearly, because Craig Jones allowed you to dwell inside the magic of stories for as long as you had time.
My last story about Craig Jones brings us full circle: A reading at “the new” Reader’s Loft, in March 2014. I was promoting my dark, irreverent second book with a reading and reception.
For the record, there were no skewered shrimp— which, given my writing, I totally get. There was Amy and Kathy and Craig and a wonderful crowd of people—some who had never been to Reader’s Loft, and who now are lifelong customers.
Before the event, I met up with Craig. Would he help me by reading some lines from a story?
The story was about an exhibit on Coney Island in 1904. I needed the voice of a carnival barker.
As you can imagine, Craig Jones was the perfect literary carnival barker. (I mean, of course.)
To this day, I can hear nothing but his voice in that story, one of my favorite stories to write, whenever I read it again. Every single time.
Craig’s voice in my words is an agonizing departure. It’s a tearful reunion. A chest-pounding promise. A heart-stopping twist.
And I am so lucky. I will always have Craig Jones’s voice in a book, in a home, in my favorite place to be—beckoning us to keep reading and writing and talking about the things we hold most dear.
Lucky, too, because when we read books, time stops. In the flip of old pages, in the crack of new covers, we can hear Craig calling— always, forever, any time we wish: Come inside, Ladies and Gentlemen! Take a look! Don’t delay! Step right up!
Craig Jones died on Feb 12, 2015 at age 65. He was “the face of the Reader’s Loft” in DePere for more than two decades. He will be deeply missed. Read more about Craig at Shelf Awareness. Watch him talk book selling and books on CSPAN here.
Tonight at The Readers’s Loft in Green Bay, at 6:30pm, Nickolas Butler is reading and discussing his debut novel Shotgun Lovesongs, and the kind folks at the bookstore have asked me do a Q&A with him. I really loved this story of a circle of friends in a small town in Wisconsin, so I’m particularly excited to ask all sorts of questions of the author. The event information is detailed here. Stop by for some good old-fashioned Midwestern fellowship!
Wondering what short stories to read this Halloween? Here’s my list of spooky, funny, absurd, horrifying, and tragic American ghostly short stories, featuring titles by Dan Chaon, Kelly Link, Stephen King, Charles Chesnutt, Benjamin Percy, and more!
The wonderful writer Kathy Fish tagged me to be a part of the Writing Process Blog Tour. (Also, I’m grateful for Kathy Fish’s flash fiction, which inspires and teaches me, always.)
Now I shall pose some questions to myself— and answer them.
Q. So, Rebecca. You’ve written two collections of short fiction. What are you working on now?
A. [Laughs] Ha! Everything and nothing! Did you ever have a luxurious pocket of time set aside for writing, and your day job is on hold for the summer, and you’ve got childcare for your kids and daycare for your dog and your spouse is supportive— and all you do is sit at your computer, staring, stopping only to pound your head against your desk?
Already, I’ve written more and better words on this blog post than I have all summer.
That said, my projects include a big, complicated novel set in 1871 Wisconsin, in the months leading up to the Peshtigo fire, which occurred the same night as the Great Chicago Fire. On the side, I’m writing some fairly juicy short stories (telekinesis! maiming! naughty nannies!) and some rather sad nonfiction. Plus, I also blog about writing for Ploughshares.
Q. Interesting. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
A. That’s a great question.
Q. I thought so. [Laughs]
A. To answer your question, the 1871 novel is historical and multi-vocal— lots of characters’ voices and perspectives— and it follows three families whose lives are dramatically changed by the fire (which killed around 2000 people). It’s kind of like Ragtime meets A Visit From the Goon Squad meets Love Medicine, or so I hope.
Plus, there’s a chapter narrated from the point-of-view of a comet.
Q. A comet! That’s genius!
A. I thought so. [Laughs]
Q. Why do you write what you do?
A. I’m interested in what’s left unsaid—whether that’s due to a character’s position, self-repression, inexperience, or powerlessness. Vantage points outside of, and overshadowed by, another, larger story. (The Peshtigo Fire of 1871 is an example— it’s often called “the Forgotten Fire.” I mean, have you heard of it?) One of my favorite recent writing experiences was using the language of an 1874 primer to express the pain and escape of girls at an Indian Boarding School. I’ve written elsewhere about the joys and challenges of constraints in fiction. Even in my nonfiction, I’m drawn to moments in my own experience that are the hardest to articulate.
Q. How does your writing process work?
A. Usually, a character’s voice, or a line of dialogue, or a question creates an intellectual irritation. A grain of sand for the oyster. A lost tooth in the gum line. Pick your metaphor; all I know is that I can’t leave it alone until I’ve either made something interesting— or tangled myself into messes too difficult to straighten.
My energy is highest when that irritant is new. Most of the time, the first section or opening lines of a piece fall out quickly and completely. Then, there’s the long, dismal middle of despair, when I have no idea what to do next. This can last for years. [Sighs]
Q. Well, I, for one, feel edified by this conversation. Who’s next on the Writing Process Blog Tour?
A. I’ve asked the following marvelous writers to join the tour. Look for their responses on their own blogs on July 31!
Lisa Mecham writes a little bit of everything. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Barrelhouse Online and Juked, among other publications. A Midwesterner at heart, Lisa lives in Los Angeles where she’s revising her first novel and of course, writing a screenplay. Visit her website here: http://lisamecham.com
Kelcey Parker is the author of LILIANE’S BALCONY (Rose Metal Press), a novella set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Her story collection, FOR SALE BY OWNER (Kore Press), won the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Award in Short Fiction, and her stories have appeared in Notre Dame Review, Bellingham Review, Santa Monica Review, Indiana Review, Third Coast, Redivider, Western Humanities Review, and Image. She blogs at: http://phdincreativewriting.wordpress.com/
Today, on the Ploughshares Blog: It’s the simplest of challenges: signing your own book for people who have purchased it. And yet, I suck at it. In fact, I have Book-Signing Anxiety. Joining me with their triumphs and failures at book-signings are Alan Heathcock, Juliana Gray, Dan Albergotti, and Lauren Becker. Come read all about it here.
I’m thrilled to see my flash fiction, “Mrs. Williamson Winds the Watch,” in the summer Indiana Review— alongside the work of so many fantastic writers. This publication is a triple happiness: it’s a 500-word slice of my Peshtigo-fire novel, it’s a 2013 “Half-K Prize” finalist, and it’s my 3rd story to appear in Indiana Review. (P.S. I love you, Indiana Review.)
Today, on the Ploughshares blog, my latest post on the obsession of research, and some tips to rein it in. Plus, a little known fact: a surprising number of research inquiries lead to vintage porn.
Well, what a nice way to start the day. My flash fiction “Beached,” first published in Necessary Fiction, was long- listed as one of the top 200 Very Short Fictions of 2014, compiled by Wigleaf magazine. The annual Wigleaf Top 50 is a list of the best of the best— it’s where I go to learn how to write this thing called “Flash Fiction”— so I’m thrilled to have my work even considered for this collection. Congratulations to the Top 50 writers– please read this collection, they’re fantastic. And thanks to Steve Himmer and Scott Garson and all the good folks at Wigleaf, who read and edit collections of flash—and ignite our aspirations.
“Beached” is also available in Morbid Curiosities, which you can learn more about here.
As a writer, as a person, it’s the closest I get to prayer: What Would Toni Morrison Do? How the Nobel Laureate guides me, new at the Ploughshares blog.
(<—- Signed first edition of Jazz, courtesy of my husband on my birthday [today].)