It was my honor to emcee this recent multimedia event in Joshua Tree. We celebrated poet and artist Tamara Hattis and her newly-published collection, Colors of My Pain. The topic was the lived experience of chronic pain and illness, and it was a tremendously moving afternoon. The quality of work was outstanding. How lucky we were, those of us in the audience! And how grateful, to be covered in the Hi-Desert Star:
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, I made my first zine! A FLY ON THE STONEWALL recounts the revolutionary events of June 28, 1969, from the perspective of a (literal) fly on the wall. It premiered on Sunday, June 16, Joshua Tree Pride’s “Lit Day.” Now, locals can pick up a copy from Joshua Tree, CA’s Space Cowboy Books, or contact me at susan [at] susanrukeyser [dot] com and I’ll mail you a copy for $5 + $1 shipping. $1 from each sale will be donated to the Transgender Community Coalition. This zine is dedicated to Sylvia Rivera and was written with boundless love and respect.
Huge thanks to Read Her Like an Open Book for allowing me to explain how Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology came to be. As Editor Bill Wolfe said on Twitter: “When enough is enough, it’s time to take out the bullhorn.”
From Not Feckless: How a Writer Becomes a Publisher in a Moment of Rage: “I became a publisher impulsively, in this moment of rage. My own words failed. But I knew there were writers who still had theirs, who could articulate their fury, indignation, sorrow. That’s how it works, in this resistance marathon: we take turns. We share, and our collective words carry us. … I had no idea how to publish a book. I figured I would learn.”
In Joshua Tree, California, we have a community lecture series called “Teddy” Talks, a take on the famous TED talks. They’re held at Beatnik Lounge, an art space and JT’s unofficial community center. This month I appeared with two other authors, Rose Baldwin and Gabriel Hart. We had a blast. The crowd was kind and interested, the conversation stimulating. My talk was titled: Rejecting the Rules and Criticism that Derail Writers. The subject is dear to me. I also discussed both my novel Not On Fire, Only Dying and my brand-new, flash fiction chapbook, Swap / Meet.
So if you have fifteen minutes for my two cents, click below.
The latest issue of Cholla Needles is out, and I’m thrilled to have 3 short pieces included. Buy it here for just 5 American dollars. Cholla Needles Press started earlier this year and has published books in addition to the magazine, which is now on Issue 12, so that gives you an idea of the literary energy here in Joshua Tree, CA. They hold monthly readings on an outdoor stage behind local bookstore Space Cowboy Books, drawing together a vibrant and welcoming crowd that includes many talented local writers and others who regularly come through to visit and read.
These are my first publications since moving out here. They were all written in this ecstatic creative flurry I’ve happily and gratefully surrendered to since I finally unpacked my boxes. There is something about this place: the expanse, the silence, the glorious sunshine.
My 3 pieces are: “About a Month In The Desert,” flash CNF about my experience moving to the desert from someplace very different; “HUMAN | NATURE,” micro prose inspired by the view from the mineral-encrusted “rainbow” terraces, or cliffs, of Thermopolis, WY; and a flash piece called “1 table, 2 chairs: ugly,” part of a series I’m working on called SWAP/MEET (virtual).
There is so much good work within these pages and I am honored to have mine included. And I’m thrilled to see my name against the brilliant blue sky that is making me a writer again, at last.
My novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying, has been out for two years this fall. It’s increasingly rare to hear from a reader encountering it for the first time, but because I recently moved and found a vibrant and supportive literary community, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to put it into new hands. Last weekend, as I settled in to watch some performance art among the rocks of Joshua Tree National Park (have I mentioned how much I love this place?), a reader told me she’d noticed a tiny detail in NOFOD that no one else has, at least as far as I know. When she told me, I shrieked in surprise and delight. (Apologies, I know how sound carries in the desert.)
What she found is a tiny “Easter egg” I planted in honor of the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who I happen to be related to but would revere for her words and example regardless. As a kid, I knew of her but didn’t spend time with her, and she was gone before I could express my appreciation. I reread her poems often, taking inspiration and reassurance from her wise, bold, precise language.
I nestled a reference to her poem “Ballad of Orange and Grape” (from Breaking Open, 1973) into Chapter Nine of NOFOD. Marko, the main character, is in New York City, stalking Daniel, a man who hurt his beloved Lola and may have answers Marko intends to demand. Marko and Lola are equally reviled in their mid-Hudson Valley hometown. They both have sketchy pasts, questionable appearance, bad habits. They are barely tolerated. How we judge and label others—how we consider them “others,” in fact—are questions that developed into themes for NOFOD, and which I find addressed in Muriel’s work.
So I sent her a tiny, belated thank you, knowing it might go unnoticed. I am so grateful to the reader who noticed my tribute and I remain grateful to every reader, especially those who have mentioned something, however small, that resonated with them. That is, of course, the best moment for a writer: making that connection.
Please take a couple of minutes to hear “Ballad of Orange and Grape,” read by the poet:
In a couple of months I’ll move from Georgia, where I’ve lived for 11 years and never belonged, to the California desert. This isn’t my first time moving across country. It’s not even my first time moving alone to California. At 22, fresh out of college in New York, I was fucking fearless. I remember my parents expressing concern about my plan—what plan? But I felt infinitely strong. I rented a studio apartment in San Francisco for about $400/month. It was small enough that I could lie diagonally and almost touch the walls. It was on a gritty block behind the opera house, before that neighborhood was transformed, for better or worse. There was often shouting from the street. I just took it all in. Inhaled sights and sounds and smells and people and experience, like I do.
I got a job working in a group home for profoundly troubled young kids, victims of the most horrific abuse, usually at the hands of their parents. Sometimes they were violent—of course they were. I was paid $7/hour. I didn’t have a car, just a bike. I rode it everywhere, including to the grocery store. I’d load up two saddlebags, then churn the pedals up and down San Francisco’s hills, my legs draining with the effort. Everything was hard. I was deliriously happy.
Now I’m 49. Lately my body hints at its inevitable deterioration with more frequency. Subtle changes with a whiff of more to come: stubbed toes that fracture, a sprained rotator cuff that never fully healed, a tricky knee, and a neck, stiff from the effort of holding still when I want to RUN. So now I’m running. While I can. I won’t get stuck here, frozen like my neck on a cold, rainy night. I’m fleeing to California, again. Older, maybe wiser. Still pretty fucking fearless. This time I’m moving to where it’s hot and dry and my bones feel good. My brain feels better out there, not bombarded by stimuli. I am strong but not as strong as I was: I will drive to the grocery store. I will take it easy on my toes, shoulder, knee, neck—but you’d better believe I’ll be out there hiking and scrambling around, inhaling that wide open blue-sky silence. I will resist deterioration, to a point, while also celebrating what aging brings, including the confidence to stand up sometimes and declare: Next Chapter, To Be Continued.
2016 can’t show itself out soon enough. Aside from all the lost icons and heroes, the contentious, too-long U.S. election ruined any sense of unity on the Left, killed the dream of a woman president, and ripped off a bandage to reveal our festering, misogynist, racist mess. And then there’s my personal life. I won’t get into that.
In 2017 my only child will leave for college. That’s a good thing, the best. He is whip-smart and thoroughly kind and will improve the world just by living in it. He’s a straight white male who gets it. Yes, I’m writing this through tears but I’m not sad, really.
In 2017 I will move to California’s Mojave desert, where I’ve dreamed of living since I first encountered it years ago. Immediately, it felt like home. The silence, so complete, is precious comfort. I am running toward it, laden with baggage. Okay, not running. But I am moving, inexorably.
I am moving toward the only things I know for sure: I must be somewhere I can write and edit and make art and be myself and think. I believe that California will be a safer place for women than any state that went for Trump, as did the state I’ve lived in for a decade: Georgia. Georgia, I will remember you like an ex-lover: with some fondness, but completely sure that we are done. Goodbye, good luck. Surprisingly, my county, north of Atlanta and traditionally conservative, went for Hillary. A small, bright spot of blue in a sea of angry red. I take comfort in that, and some pride. For years I stuck my neck out in hostile territory, despite knowing I was surrounded by concealed, loaded guns. I won’t miss that.
I am running away to California as I did once before, in 1990. So many adventures began for me in San Francisco. So many heartbreaks. I have no illusions that California is a perfect place, not at all, or immune to the destruction that will be wrought by Trump & Co. But California is a hopeful, forward-looking place. That’s where I want to be.
In 2017 I will finish (?) my current novel-in-progress, which I love and can’t wait to share but I’ll have to write it first, won’t I? Too much of it still lives in my imagination but you can’t see that. You can’t hear what I’m trying to say unless I say it. So in 2017, I will try.
I wish everyone moments of joy in the new year, and moments of blinding outrage, too, because without that how will we stay motivated to fight? Gather your strength; we will need it. Say what you mean. Go where you want.
Move inexorably toward whatever you know for sure, even if it is only one small thing. Be brave. Live now. I am writing this through tears but I’m not sad, or not only.
It’s not like I had no idea what to expect. As a bookseller I assisted with author events both swanky and huge (Pat Conroy at a Connecticut yacht-club brunch) and tiny and spare (local writers at my used bookstore in Kingston, New York). As a book buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor, I bought everything from small press titles to kids books to some of the largest adult trade lines (all of which have since folded into Random Penguin–yes, I know they prefer the names reversed.) Book promotion is an enormous challenge at every level. Even backed by a corporate publisher’s PR machine, many books struggle to attract interest. Every year, thousands of excellent books are published and ignored. It’s an honor to reach any readers. And if you hear from a few who loved your book and got what you were trying to say–well, let that wash over you, because that connection is everything. You get used to the non-responses from places you’d hoped to appear. You get used to leaving readings with unsold books. To empty seats in the audience. To other books getting more attention and praise. You stay grateful throughout.
So, to celebrate Not On Fire, Only Dying‘s first year, a multimedia look back. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: thank you for hearing me.
Pics or it didn’t happen: proof it wasn’t a strange, beautiful dream with too much public speaking:
Original music composed by Naomi Hamby for Not On Fire, Only Dying:
“Marko’s Theme” was used for the book trailer. Here it is accompanied by the previously unreleased “Lola’s Theme.”
Speaking of the trailer:
Maybe you’d like another listen to Marko’s mixtape?
Select blog posts written through acceptance, publication, and promotion. Short and honest:
Thank you for hearing me. (12/31/14)
Cats get in the way. (1/23/15)
No big deal, but…MY BOOK HAS A COVER. *swoon* (3/26/15)
Blurbs and Preorders and THANK YOU. (5/4/15)
Presenting my book trailer! And insecurities… (7/3/15)
Brooklyn, beginning. (9/5/15)
Have I mentioned I have a new book out? (9/29/15)
But is it art? On book reviews. (10/18/15)
More than chocolate? (2/4/16)`
What do you want? (5/11/16)
Thank you to everyone who read this book (and to those who have a copy and might yet get around to reading it–no worries. Trust me, I know how that goes. Maybe once in a while something small and unrelated will remind you of Not On Fire, Only Dying.
Happens to me all the time:
Nature isn’t dependent on an audience. Life happens, often without a witness. -p. 213, NOT ON FIRE, ONLY DYING pic.twitter.com/MIRlO23kIR
— Susan Rukeyser (@SusanRukeyser) May 19, 2016
— Susan Rukeyser (@SusanRukeyser) April 29, 2016