Printers Row Festival

Book lovers, shoppers, people watchers, joggers, and dog-walkers line the streets.  Vendors exchange money and swipes of cards for hard and softbound worlds in between covers.  Bags and backpacks bulge with the latest novel and with goods like newspapers and t-shirts and pamphlets from street preachers around the block.  Panels sit, adjusting microphones until that clunk from some guy’s elbow sends a dong into your ear for a while.

Bunches and crowds of men and women who look like your high school librarian collect in front of a tent.  What have you missed?  Children walk around, some of them with leashes around their necks.  You laugh.  It’s funny.  Dogs roam freely while the kids are leashed.

You spot a writer you’ve read.  You get a children’s book signed by an author you respect even though you don’t read children’s books, you don’t have children to give it to, and just because it’s Nikki Giovanni.  In fact, you buy two and give one to your niece, hoping she’ll appreciate the gift.  You’re convinced she’ll trade it in a flinch for ten dollars.  You sigh and get the second book anyway.  You love supporting writers, especially writers you love.

The last time I was at the Printers Row Lit Fest it was a day full of cramped walking, scooting really.  My wife was with me.  We listened to Ms. Giovanni discuss writing and her process of developing and publishing a story about Rosa Parks.  It feels like it was a long time ago.

I saw a status update from Cathy or maybe it was Laura that the Fest is coming back.  I was and am happy.  Then I saw that one of my favorite writers will be there.  I’m reading her (Tayari Jones) novel (Silver Sparrow) now.  I was and am even happier.  Hopefully I’ll get to have a blog interview up before the Fest and one of you can win a copy she can sign in person. Whether you’re into recently published novels, cooking books, biographies, rare finds, books about spirituality or romance, you will find what you love at this fest.  You’ll need an allowance, a budget, a spending cap.  You’ll need a friend to make sure you respect that cap.  But come.

Come and bring people you like.  Bring people who enjoy reading and talking about reading.  Come if you don’t like reading but think you could be converted.  Come to the programs on the street or to the ones at the library.  Make new friends.  Have a good time.  If you’d like more information on the Fest, visit the website by clicking here.

Eugene Peterson Writing About Writing

This is from Eugene Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor.  He’s talking about heuristic writing, writing as a conversation with scripture, with his conversation.  He’s talked about writing as conversation and as exploring, not explaining, not directing.  In this quote he refers to the “badlands” which was his name for a period of particularly challenging times in his pastoral work.

It was a way of writing that involved a good deal of listening, looking around, getting acquainted with the neighborhood.  Not writing what I knew but writing into what I didn’t know, edging into a mystery…

Heuristic writing–writing to explore and discover what I didn’t know.  Writing as a way of entering into language and letting language enter me, words connecting with words and creating what had previously been inarticulate or unnoticed or hidden.  Writing as a way of paying attention.  Writing as an act of prayer.  In the badlands the act of writing was assimilated into my pastoral vocation, revealing relationships, drawing into mysteries, training me imaginatively to enter the language world of scripture in which God “spoke and it came to be,” in which “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”  And it became a way of writing in which I was entering into the language world of my congregation, their crises and small talk, their questions and doubts, listening for and discerning the lived quality of the gospel in their lives.  Not just saying things.  Not just writing words.

I came across something that Truman Capote wrote, with a sneer, on the work of a popular novelist: “That’s not writing, it’s typing.”  About the same time, I read Emily Dickinson’s pronouncement, “Publication is no business of the poet.”  Capote exposed much of what I had been doing as “typing”–using words to manipulate or inform or amuse.  Dickinson rescued me from a lust to be published.

I began to understand the sacred qualities of language.  My work as a pastor was immersed in language… And I began to understand that the way I used language involved not just speaking it and writing it, but listening to it–listening to the words in scripture, but also listening to the words spoken to me by the people in my congregation.

Book Giveaway and Interview With Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I have the pleasure of including an interview with Ms. Dolen Perkins-Valdez on my blog.  Her fiction touches upon my writing interests, historical fiction and the stories of African Americans.  When I contacted her about her novel and about the possibility of an interview, she suggested that we wait until after the paperback was released.  That happened in January, and when I reconnected with her, Ms. Perkins-Valdez was happy to be interviewed.  I’m giving a copy away, so see below for more information on that.  Here’s the interview.

MW: You started this novel by stumbling upon something.  Tell us about that.

DPV: I was reading a biography of W.E.B. DuBois by David Levering Lewis, and I came across a line about the origins of Wilberforce University. Lewis wrote that it was once a resort hotel popular among slaveowners and their slaves.  I was shocked and intrigued.

MW: Before learning of your work’s success, I didn’t think most people rushed to discuss how white mistresses lived in and around their husband’s slave wenches.  What was it like preparing this great novel as a WIP?  What was it like to pitch the project?

DPV: As I was writing, I just focused on telling the story. I wasn’t thinking of it as a “great novel” or anything like that because it was my first book and I wasn’t even sure if it would be published.  Once I decided to pitch it to agents, I just described the story as honestly and confidently as I could.

MW: I think I read that you had a little trouble pulling together historical fragments as you researched.  How would you suggest that writers, communicators, and people in general tell history?  How do we pass on stories these days?

DPV: I hear from so many people who have fascinating family stories.  I always urge them to write those stories down.  Most cell phones have built-in voice recorders, sort of like mini-cassette recorders.  At the very least, people should talk into these and then save the audio files on their computers and/or e-mail them to the tech-savvy members of their family.  Those of us who are younger should solicit the stories from the elders in our family.  Many oral stories will be lost if we don’t do this with a greater sense of urgency.

MW: Did you find new things or learn things as you worked on the manuscript?

DPV: Of course! Yes, I learn so much when I’m working.  There are many things that can’t possibly make it into the final book.  Not only do I learn a lot about history, but I also learn a lot about how to tell a stories.  Writing is a craft, and it takes many years to master.  I am still learning.

MW: You’ve probably been asked a lot of questions since publishing the novel.  What question haven’t you been asked that you really want to answer, and what is the answer?

DPV: I can’t think of a good question I haven’t been asked.  Recently, however, in Santa Monica, an audience member asked me about Jeremiah in the book and why he won’t take orders from the overseer’s wife.  I’d forgotten all about Jeremiah! I insisted that there was no Jeremiah in the book.  That was a funny moment.  People are often surprised when authors forget what they wrote, but it can happen sometimes.

MW: What’s next and how can my blog readers stay in touch with you?

DPV:  I’m working on a new novel. It’s a historical novel, but it is not a sequel to WENCH. I hope my fans will be patient.  In the meantime, please pass the news about the book.  There are still lots of readers out there to reach.  My website is and I’m on Facebook at

In celebration of the release of Dolen’s paperback, I’d like to give a copy away to someone who answers a question: What book or author has helped you see more clearly some part of history or life?  I’ll randomly select a winner by Thursday so have your comments by Wednesday, midnight.

Interview with Donna Freitas & Book Giveaway

Several months ago I read This Gorgeous Game and I contacted Donna Freitas to see if she would conduct a blog interview.  She graciously accepted.  As I told her, this novel was a treat to read.  It was an engaging, well-written story that covers a challenging topic.  It’s accessible for young readers, meaning youth and young adult readers, but the issues inside the covers are ones that anyone can relate to.  Here’s the cover flap copy:

Seventeen-year-old Olivia Peters has long dreamed of becoming a writer.  So she’s absolutely over the moon when her literary idol, the celebrated novelist and much-adored local priest Mark D. Brendan, selects her from hundreds of other applicants as the winner of the Emerging Writers High School Fiction Prize.  Now she gets to spend her summer evenings in a college fiction seminar at the nearby university, where dreamy college boys abound and Father Mark acts as her personal mentor.

But when Father Mark’s enthusiasm for Olivia’s writing develops into something more, Olivia quickly finds her emotions shifting from wonder to confusion and despair.  And as her wide-eyed innocence deteriorates, Olivia can’t help but ask–exactly what game is Father Mark placing, and how on earth can she get out of it?

This remarkable second novel by the author of The Possibilities of Sainthood, about overcoming the isolation that stems from victimization, is powerful, luminous, and impossible to put down.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ms. Freitas or her work, visit her website.  Here’s my interview with Professor Freitas.

You say in your acknowledgments that writing this story was a long, tedious journey.  What can you share about that journey?  Well, this was a dark story, its subject matter tough, and there are many friends and loved ones along the way who have been there for me and supported me with respect to my own experiences related to where the story came from. But, perhaps somewhat ironically, writing This Gorgeous Game was such a liberating experience. To tell Olivia’s story, and to bring her through this darkness to the other side, knowing that she would be okay and that there were so many people in her life that would be there before, during, and afterward, was pretty amazing in and of itself. My editor, Frances Foster, and everyone at FSG and Macmillan that supported This Gorgeous Game from start to finish and still now were pretty amazing, too. It’s funny (and wonderful, too) how something so dark can end up directing you toward joy eventually.

Olivia’s voice is clear and the story captures her experiences, her hopes, and some of her frustrations.  Can you talk about what helped you hear her voice and see her experience?  One of the most important aspects of This Gorgeous Game for me is Olivia’s voice. It came to me clear as a bell one day on my way home and I decided it was my job to follow it until she had nothing left to say. I think her voice is that of a girl who is stressed and scared and insecure about what she is experiencing and I hope readers can truly be in her head while they read. I suppose that is a terrible thing to wish on readers in some respects, but I want Olivia to come to life for people through her voice!

Among Olivia’s early lines is a passage about gratitude.  She wills herself gratitude and the story centers–maybe not quite centers–on her tension between thankfulness and fear, gratitude and confusion.  How did you walk that line and strengthen those tensions throughout the work?  Well, thank you for the compliment about the tension. I’m not sure I consciously tried to walk any lines, to be honest. My biggest job was to stay true to Olivia’s voice. The main thing I was aware of, though, was the fact that the reader was going to know that something was wrong and what was wrong, too, far before Olivia would ever do or say anything about what was happening to her. That meant that my job was to show the confusion that made Olivia stay silent for so long, even as she begins to fear what is really happening to her. I needed to convey the enormity of what it meant to accuse a priest of abuse, especially when he never did anything “technically” wrong—he just showed her an enormous amount of attention. This was a complicated thing to convey.

I read somewhere that you were interested or concerned about readers’ reception of your use of Thomas Merton.  What led you to use his writings and what would you like readers to know about him?  I am actually not a Merton fan, but I knew that he fell in love with a much, much younger woman shortly before he died and that they had an affair. In my mind, Father Mark (the priest in This Gorgeous Game), fancies himself as a Merton type—he is a famous writer, a priest, and in many other ways is a very private person—and he begins to see Olivia as his “M.”. I actually didn’t add the Merton parallel until after I’d finished the first draft, though.

Power is abused.  People are mistreated by individuals and by systems made up of people.  This story illuminates how that happens in one person’s life.  How do you see Olivia now that her story is written, being read, and being discussed?  How would you describe her?  Power certainly is abused all the time, and it is particularly awful (in my opinion) when someone abuses the power they have in relation to a person or a community’s faith in general, and faith in them particularly. I would describe Olivia as a totally innocent victim, a teen girl who was deeply involved in her family’s Church and faith tradition, as well as a gifted young person with lots of hopes and dreams. Father Mark preys on both these aspects of Olivia’s character, and when we are kids, we are so vulnerable in these areas of our life. I hope that people will talk about the events of the story as they happen; why it takes so long for Olivia to tell on Father Mark; what they wish would happen to Father Mark after the story is over; and also, how we can educate teens to not only be aware of sexual abuse, but the kind of abuse that is rather more elusive, that comes from the kind of manipulative, relentless attention Father Mark shows Olivia.

How do you balance your work as a teacher and your work writing?  Related to that, what kinds of connections do you see in the roles of writer and teacher?  Does one role equip you for the other?  I am not great at balancing! I wish I was better, but don’t we all need to be better? I would say that my nonfiction work (most recently, Sex and the Soul from Oxford University Press) is more directly in line with my teaching and concerns in the classroom. Almost all of my nonfiction research and writing comes from conversations I’ve had with my students or topics they seem interested in or wish they had more discussions about. My fiction in general is more personal, I think, even though I think (hope!) that it is useful in the classroom, too.

Has This Gorgeous Game come up in your classes or conversations with students?  If so, what has that meant to you?  Not yet—this is my first semester since the book came out, though. I don’t think my students even know I write novels to be honest!

I don’t know you well.  In fact, I’m only a new fan because of This Gorgeous Game.  But I’ll make an assumption to ask you this last question.  My assumption is that everyone has faith in something(s), even if faith is understood differently by different people.  Can you talk about what this story did for your faith?  You handled a bold story in a skillful way that makes me want to know how this good work worked on you if that makes sense.  Thanks for this question. Writing This Gorgeous Game was the closest I’ve ever come to an experience of grace, I think. I’ve never felt more empowered before, than when I was working on this book. Through this novel, I was able to take experiences in my own past that I’d buried somewhere deep and dark, and transform them into a story that is difficult, I know, but one about which I am proud. It has helped me to have faith in the possibility of healing even from life’s most painful moments.

What’s next for you and how can my readers keep in touch?  My third novel is coming out in September of 2011. It’s called The Survival Kit, and it’s about a girl named Rose whose mother has just died. On the day of the funeral, when her brother and father are arguing over Mom’s wishes, Rose escapes into her mother’s closet, looking at all the things her mother left behind. Hanging with Rose’s favorite dress of her mother, she finds something special that her Mom made for Rose: a survival kit. Inside the bag are items and tasks to help Rose get through this first year, and everything Rose finds inside is what ends up shaping the next twelve months. The story is uplifting and hopeful, I think! And the biggest storyline other than the items inside the kit is a romance, which I really enjoyed writing. The survival kit is based on something my mother used to make when she was alive.

People can contact me through my website, where they will find all my info!

To enter into the competition to win a free copy of This Gorgeous Game:

Post a comment offering one way we can educate teens about the dangers of sexual abuse or one way we can protect teens from such dangers.  Respond by midnight, Thursday, the 18th.

Interview with Ravi Howard & Book Giveaway

As I’ve said in previous blog interviews, I hope you will look seriously at these conversations as ways and reasons to consider adding these works to your to-be-read pile!  I also hope they provide a slight window into the world of publishing from the author’s point of view.  I found Like Trees, Walking three years after it was published (in 2007), so there is time for you to get it still.  I appreciated this read and am grateful for Mr. Howard’s willingness to be on the blog.  First the backcover copy for the novel and then the interview.

Melanin helps to obscure some bruises, making them difficult to distinguish from the dark skin they’ve stained.  Under the strong light, all of the bruises that covered him head to toe were plain to see.  The defensive wounds that covered Michael’s palms appeared bold against the pale skin.  Seeing Michael’s hands and face, I thought of my schoolyard brawls.  After the fights I’d won, I remembered how the rush of victory dulled the pain of taken blows.  Then I thought of the fights I had lost, when I felt the pain of knuckles against my face and the hot rush of blood coming to the surface.  Those fights seemed important at the time, but we were all just kids.  There was nothing at stake besides pride or shame.

My Photo

Now, the interview.

Tell us about your writing process, your research, giving us a glimpse into what came before this novel’s publication a few years ago.  Like Trees, Walking is set in Mobile, Alabama.  Though I live here now, I was on the East Coast during the writing process.  I made multiple trips here to the local library, as well as other trips just to get a feel for local culture.  I wanted to be accurate with neighborhoods and street names, so I tried to learn as much as possible about local flavor to make the story feel more authentic. 

I worked in television production for much of that time, so most of the writing was done on weekends, evenings, and vacation time.  The challenge for any writer is finding a balance between work, personal lives, and writing.

You tell a story that is very much a part of the history of the United States , bringing before readers the ugly brutality of lynching.  How were you personally affected by the strong and hard pieces of the research and plot for the work?  I was most affected by the photographs and court testimony of the lynching.  It was hard to believe that crimes like the Donald murder happened as late as 1981.  I think any writer who lives with material for so long ends up with a personal connection to the subject matter.  I think the fact that I live in Mobile now makes certain elements of the crime scene and events more vivid because I travel the streets regularly.  I’ve also met journalists and citizens who were somehow involved with the case, directly or indirectly, so that makes the crime feel current.  People remember where they were when it happened.

Two central characters, Roy and Paul, are brothers.  Their relationship is playful and fun and enduring despite the big losses and fears in your novel.  They had different reactions to Michael Donald’s murder.  How did you develop their relationship as you wrote?  People deal with grief and trauma differently, and the brothers illustrated a small part of the emotional range.   While there is often a collective mood of a particular city, era, or event, fiction provides the opportunity to peel away characters and show the impact of moments and conflicts on individuals.  Sometimes responses can be reduced to norms or what is considered abnormal.  Through characters, readers and writers can explore a range of responses to everyday events and traumatic ones.

What audience did you write this for or who do you hope finds and reads Like Trees, Walking?  I really don’t write with an eye on the audience.  It’s hard to know who will like a work and who will not.   Performers can look out at the audience and know who’s there and who’s not, but our folks are in bookstores, libraries, or online.  I think that invisibility can be a good thing.  I’m open to anyone who wants to try the book, even the ones who end up not liking it.  I think the folks who are constantly reading are central to the mix, but we always need those folks who might not read that often.  It’s always helpful to the cause when people discuss their reading with others.  That’s the easiest way to spread the word and help a small audience develop into a big one.  

You live in Mobile , Alabama .  Tell us about the local reception of your book over the last few years.  I’ve been pleased with the reception of the book.   Prior to the publication of the book, the street where Michael Donald’s body was found was renamed for him.  A historical marker was added as well.  The city has been receptive to historical remembrances, even for something this tragic.  Mobile has had a different relationship to the Civil Rights Movement than other cities.  The violence associated with Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, and Anniston didn’t happen on the same scale in Mobile.  But people have been willing to discuss the event and its aftermath in various public forums.

I was struck that the main characters were young—thankful and struck.  I imagined how I would have interacted with this as a reader if I were the age of the characters, how much fun or sorrow-filled conversations with classmates might have been.  What would you like young people to discuss, to talk about, after reading this story?  I want young people to know that they can tell their own stories as well as anyone else.  Sometimes young people can look to older generations to explain their times to them.  It’s good for students to know that Dr. King was 26 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Claudette Colvin, one of the first women who protested before Rosa Parks, was a high school student.  Sit-ins were conducted by college students, and there were school-age children participating in marches.  Young people have always had a point of view, and they should feel empowered to write and read stories that reflect their perspectives.

How do you see the role for this history, and history like it, in our country today?  The experience of Michael Donald is relatively recent but probably forgotten.  Do you see this story pushing us to remember in particular ways?  I think the divisive racist rhetoric we’ve heard during this election cycle shows that people still exploit racial tensions.  History shows us that exploitation can lead to violence.  I think that we should remember recent history with the understanding that those kinds of incidents can still happen if people are allowed to belittle people of color and minimize our contributions to American culture.  

What are you working on these days, and how can my blog readers connect with you?  I’m working on a piece set in Montgomery in the 1950s.  It shows elements of civil rights history and music history, especially the life and influence of Nat Cole, who was born in Montgomery in 1919.

Readers can connect with me at .  I’d be happy to hear from them.  Thanks for including me in your blog.

Please do visit Ravi’s website and pick up a copy of his novel.

If you would like to enter into my competition to get a free copy of Like Trees, Walking, post in the comments either a) an event, any event, in history that you’d like an author to write about in a novel or b) the name of a novel focusing on a particular event in history.  I’ll choose a winner on Saturday, November 6 so post a comment by Friday, November 5 at midnight, CST.