More than chocolate?

10 days until Valentine’s Day! What does your lover want even more than chocolate? (Trick question. Your lover wants chocolate AND other stuff.) May I suggest a copy of Not On Fire, Only Dying?
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You may have heard about its desperate, marginalized characters and Lola’s [possibly?] missing newborn, but did you know it’s also a love story? It is, truly. It doesn’t shy from ugliness but it believes deeply in hope and redemption and, yes, love.

Not On Fire, Only Dying is available from the publisher, Twisted Road Publications, your fave indie bookstore, or from one of the big guys—Right now it’s discounted at both B&N and Amazon. Thank you for the love you’ve shown me and my book over the months since its release. I already have my gift (but I’ll always accept chocolate).

xo Susan

__________

Excerpt (from Chap. 5): For the last year Marko has loved Lola from afar, following their one and only time together. Now they’ve just made love a second time.

__________

The night outside is endless black, rising into space. He has stripped off his sweater, at last, and everything else. He is curled around Lola, her bottom resting in the damp curve of his lap. His spine juts like the bony seam of a tortoise shell.

“Is he dead, Lola?” he whispers. He strokes a fingernail along her arm, watches the goose bumps appear and disappear.

She says nothing, but he knows she’s not asleep. Her breathing is light and irregular. For a moment she doesn’t breathe at all.

“Our baby,” he presses.

“We don’t—”

“Fine, Lola. Your baby.”

“Don’t you really want to ask, ‘Is he real?’”

“Is he?”

This takes her a moment. “As real as I am.”

“Is he dead?” Marko repeats.

He would rather be quiet. He wants to be here, with her, for as long as she’ll allow. Let her speak in riddles, or say nothing at all.

But now he’s asked, he must know.

It’s not her fault, so sick and no one watching her. Her sickness metastasized, but no one checked. She kept the extent of it hidden from everyone, even him. It’s not her fault, if one day she got confused. If she forgot the baby was real and fragile. It’s not her fault that being needed panics her.

They will bear the detective’s disgust together. Marko will stand beside Lola and explain that no one helped her, not even him, and she can’t be held responsible. He won’t let her live in a room without visitors. He’ll come as often as they allow and bring everything she likes: her cigarettes, cream for her coffee, the Swedish fish candy she told him she ate as a child. He’ll smuggle in tiny wedges of hash for her to pinch into sandwiches, to take the edge off the fluorescent lights. What else? He would find out what else.

Hold me responsible, he’ll tell the detective. I should have kept myself curled around her like this, always.

Or he’ll help her disappear, if that’s what she wants. There’s a throb of pain, at the thought of losing her again. But he will help her, however much it hurts him.

__________

 

Let’s soar together in the New Year. Let’s roar.

According to shitty magazines, new mothers should get their bodies “back” roughly six weeks post-birth. After I had my son in 1998, it was almost a year before I recognized my body. Even then, weighing the same as it did before growing and delivering a healthy human child, it was different. I did not get my body “back” as it had been.

Publishing a book is often likened to childbirth. Both involve tremendous work before and after. The debut changes everything. Long before I knew Not On Fire, Only Dying would be published, changes in me were underway. Writing this book reframed my self-perception, forced me to deeply consider what I meant to say. The manuscript, my thumping heart, was thrust into disinterested hands until the word “No” became a background thrum. Like most writers, I had hopeless days.

And then—the euphoria of acceptance, but, with it, fresh challenges: asking for blurbs, for opportunities to read and promote, for reviews; not to mention traveling to bookstores, standing in front of audiences, fielding questions—none of it came easily to this introvert. Sometimes I was hugely uncomfortable. But I did it. Of course it changed me, summoning courage over and over. I became myself. Stronger. I began to speak my mind in ways I hadn’t always, reject old roles I used to play. Once again, the shape of me changed.

On September 15, 2015, Not On Fire, Only Dying was born. Now it exists in the world independently, like my child. Some people connect with it and say lovely things about it. Some people don’t care that I made a baby or a book. This year I learned that some (who knew me once but not recently) just want me to be quiet. Compliant. They want me to play along. But I can’t do that and be this person I’ve become. This person I am.

A writer must reject those who prefer her as she was before her book, just as she must reject the gossip rag shaming a new mom for looking different. As if for months she did not make room inside herself, withstanding exhaustion and discomfort and fear of the pain of birth, of the baby not being what people hoped, of it being her fault. As if she did not suffer as her body wrenched apart to push this baby from cozy uterus, through cervix and vagina, and into other people’s hands.

As if she did not survive it, and triumph.

2015 shook my foundation and sent me soaring. With any luck I’ll have another year just like it soon. And I wish you nothing less. Let’s soar together in the New Year. Let’s roar.

cow licking clean its just newborn red calf

Every picture tells a story don’t it.

As I pause for the holidays I’m finally starting to absorb and appreciate these last couple of months, which had me hopping here and there to promote the release of Not On Fire, Only Dying. It was thrilling and humbling and daunting and SO MUCH FUN. I wanna do it again. And I will–details TBA. I’m hoping to come to Philadelphia and Denver and the Hudson Valley. Where else? Wherever. Let me just catch my breath a sec, put up the Christmas decorations and restock the menorah candles (so early this year!)

Then tell me where to go. Yeah, however you wanna take that. Tell me where I can find you and your small press fiction-loving friends. Are you a writer too? Let’s read.

In the meantime, check out some photos I assembled of NOT ON FIRE, ONLY DYING – THE BOOK TOUR (SO FAR) Every picture tells a story, don’t it.

This fall I didn’t need Thanksgiving to remind me to be grateful. Thank you to the bookstores and reading series and homes that opened their doors to me. Thank you to everyone who showed up to listen and cheer me on. Thank you to those who picked up a copy, at a reading or anywhere.

Hope to see you In Real Life soon. 

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Time has come today.

 

This week I finished up the events scheduled to promote the release of Not On Fire, Only Dying (more are in the works–TBA soon!) Finally, I’m home. But…

For the last 10 years, when I say “I’m home” it’s followed by an immediate hesitation, because while, yes, I’m with my husband and son and cats and dog in the house we own in the Atlanta burbs, it doesn’t really feel like Home. Especially when I’ve just returned from the Northeast, which is where my heart lives. I feel it most acutely when I’m the NYC Metro, where I grew up, and in the autumn, and when I’m thinking about or discussing NOFOD. It’s set in New York’s Hudson Valley and, in some ways, it’s a love letter to the region. Twisted, obsessive, and desperately hopeful–like any worthwhile love letter.

HiResI was in New Jersey most recently, at Labyrinth Books, across the street from Princeton University which I visited throughout my childhood, accompanying my father to his Class of ’54 Reunions, and then later, visiting my sister, Class of ’91. For 5 years I worked as a Book Buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor in Bridgewater, NJ. My son attended a woodsy day care in Flemington where he fed goats and rabbits and came home exhausted and gloriously filthy every day. We bought tomatoes and corn at nearby farms, giggled through corn mazes and hay rides and took the train into Manhattan all the time.

In Princeton I was reminded that, to me, New Jersey looks like Home. It smells like Home. It sounds like Home (if you live in a place with an accent–or language–different from what you grew up with, you understand. Maybe you don’t miss the familiar sounds like I do, but you understand).

Still, this Southern suburb is my home for now, and where the people I love most reside. It’s also where I’m finding inspiration for my…deep breath…next novel. And it’s time to turn my attention to that, at last. This year has been a steep but thrilling learning curve for me as my book was edited and published and then I did everything I could think of to help connect it with likely readers and reviewers. I discovered that reading in front of a crowd, once something I dreaded, is actually something I kind of enjoy. I love talking to readers about what they see in the book, what questions it raises for them, how it frustrates or moves them. I love expanding the conversation to ideas in general or their own writing. And of course I loved meeting fellow authors and visiting these fabulous independent bookstores. But the truth is I haven’t written much since I hopped on the Debut Author Roller Coaster. I miss writing like I miss the flavor of a perfectly ripe Jersey tomato. Or a slice of New York pizza. Or a decent bagel.

I AM excited to be home, where I have a folder of scribbled notes for my next work-to-be, where I have roughly 70,000 words written–all of which will probably be scrapped, but for me that’s a part of the process. I have to write my way to the story. I’m on my way to that next novel, if not yet on my way Home.

From “Time Has Come Today” (the Ramones cover, natch–I played that Subterranean Jungle cassette until it broke). I think it’s time I got to it.

Now the time has come
There are things to realize
Time has come today.

 

It is necessary.

iStock_000009325754_LargeThis morning, Facebook — keeper of our collective if incomplete memories — informed me that exactly one year ago today I officially took the reins as Reviews Editor for Necessary Fiction. Back in 2012 they published my story The Worst Girl’s Best Day, followed by two book reviews. Editor Steve Himmer helped me sculpt my story into what I’d intended from the beginning. When Michelle Bailat-Jones decided to move from Reviews Editor to her current position as Translations Editor, I came on board. I’d enjoyed working with both of them and knew them to be nice people and excellent editors. I was thrilled and honored to join them.

Each Monday we publish a review of a recent book from an independent press. There are outstanding works of fiction included here: novels and novellas and collections and forms that defy easy categorization by authors from all over the world. They are inventive, risky, ambitious. They are obsessed with language or big questions or both. Every week of this past year I heard from publishers, publicists, and authors with news of books forthcoming. My own debut novel was published last month by a small press: Twisted Road Publications. It was a remarkable experience, preparing for my book’s publication (for the first time, seeing it from the inside), while editing reviews to help introduce other small press books. As someone who was once mostly concerned with “big pubs” and high-profile titles backed by national media campaigns (as a Book Buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor), what I saw and learned this year was enlightening and empowering.

If you’re like me, you try to be a good “literary citizen” but it never feels like enough. Sure, I give time to Necessary Fiction and the journal escarp. I buy small press books from the publisher (usually). I live way out in the Atlanta ‘burbs but I go into town for (some) readings. I’ve written reviews, not nearly enough. I try to share other writers’ good news on social media. But so much is missed. So much isn’t done. We have our own writing to nurture, after all, not to mention careers and families.

This morning, after the latest review went live at Necessary Fiction, I listened to Episode 3 of the Citizen Lit podcast, which states an intention to explore “what it means to be an active member of the writing world.” This week’s episode features poet and Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) founder Erin Elizabeth Smith. Host Jim Warner describes her as someone who “is a builder of community and epitomizes the term literary citizen.” A lot of you probably already know Erin but I just met her last month, when I read from Not On Fire, Only Dying as part of the SAFTA Reading Series. I knew of her involvement with Sundress and Firefly Farms but did not fully understand the number of irons she has in the literary fire. I enjoyed listening to her discuss, among other things, how she creates opportunities and spaces where writers can learn, get work done alone, or share it with others. Give the episode a listen and then subscribe to the Citizen Lit podcast. (In Episode 1, you’ll hear me read a small excerpt from my novel.) Consider donating to SAFTA’s “Jayne for President” campaign, raising funds needed for a barn at Firefly Farms.

As I celebrate one year as a slightly more active literary citizen, I’m reminded that there is always more we can do to support this community of upstarts and artists and writers who are readers. It’s not just the right thing to do, it is necessary.

But is it art? On book reviews.

butisitart-1I’ve had this button since the ’80s and I still don’t know the answer. Back then, as an art-loving, art-making student, I took this question very seriously. Those two (white, male—but let’s not get into that right now) critics, although humorously drawn, were exactly the sort of gatekeepers I thought I wanted to impress. Now, not so much. Now I’m just looking for genuine connection with like-minded readers. Those are the people I want to impress. I’ll let them tell me if it’s art.

It still boggles my mind that people are not only reading my debut novel, NOT ON FIRE, ONLY DYING, but that some of you have been kind enough to let me know you liked it. Some of you liked it a lot, and said so publicly, via reviews posted to Amazon and Goodreads. These reviews mean everything to me, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the aspects of book publishing I enjoy least: Marketing! Publicity! No, seeing these reviews fills me with such deeply-felt gratitude because they confirm that my writing has resonated with you. You heard music in my language. Something made you think. You wanted to know what happened next. It connected you to me, however briefly.

I serve as Reviews Editor for the webjournal Necessary Fiction, so every week I read many reviews of books forthcoming from independent publishers. These are publishers taking real risks. Not burdened by the extraordinary commercial expectations that have ruined—too strong? okay, how about: damaged—so much of mainstream publishing, these small pubs fiercely support, rather than discourage, controversial form and subject matter. They embrace traditionally marginalized authors and characters. Their authors are my comrades. From tiny platforms we shout our stories into a large, noisy world. Each and every reader who shouts back in recognition is a hero, truly.

So, is it art? You tell me. If you are so moved, please write as little or as much as you like about NOT ON FIRE, ONLY DYING, on AmazonGoodreads—or, if you’re a writer who publishes book reviews, please consider submitting one to your favorite literary journal.

Thank you for hearing me. Thank you for shouting back. I hear you too. 

 

Have I mentioned I have a new book out?

Book SoupSeptember 2015 is just about through and I was lucky enough to spend some of it promoting my debut novel at events in Brooklyn, Knoxville (hear an excerpt from my reading at The Birdhouse courtesy of Citizen Lit), and Los Angeles. I just returned from LA, where I read at Book Soup (!) and celebrated with family and friends at what was essentially my launch party. I’m riding an adrenaline roller coaster, trying to fully experience every moment of this dream come true. I’m learning as much as I can, pushing myself far beyond my comfort zone. I’m overwhelmed by the love and support. I am exhausted.

(I’d better get it together. I only have a short break before I’m back on the road. First up: Maplewood NJ’s [words] Bookstore on Oct. 10–RSVP here.)

LA partyI’m not writing much right now. I’m starting to get that itch–you know? I really want to get these new thoughts down, I want to see this new thing take shape. I’m carrying around scraps of paper scribbled with ideas. But my focus and energy must remain on the baby just out in the world: Not On Fire, Only Dying. I owe that to my wonderful publisher, Twisted Road Publications, and to myself. For all that time I spent writing, rewriting, and revising, all that love and attention I gave this book long before I knew it would be published.

(It irks me when small-press authors are disdainful of self-promotion or overly modest about their own work. Who else, if not us? Isn’t that the point, being heard? What do you owe the small press that rolls the dice on your work?)

KnoxvilleThankfully, writing waits. It waited for me for years, when I couldn’t write, or wouldn’t. The words never left. The compulsion to tell stories and dive into language never left. They waited until I was ready for them again. Soon enough, and sadly, this will all be over. I’ll return to the writing, which always waits.

Until then…have I mentioned I have a new book out? It’s called Not On Fire, Only Dying. You can find all kinds of info about it and links to recent reviews right HERE. If you’ve read it and are so moved, please don’t hesitate to post a review to Amazon or Goodreads.

Forgive this self-promotion and my utter lack of modesty. But to be heard–that was always the point for me. I’m so grateful that some of you are listening.

Brooklyn, beginning.

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“It’s all happening.” That’s what I thought this past Thursday as I sat in the funky, cozy reading space beneath WORD in Brooklyn, about to read for the first time from my first novel Not On Fire, Only Dying. I read with two tremendously talented writers who, it turns out, are also very nice people: Helen McClory and Tobias Carroll. Molly Templeton, WORD’s Events Director, made us feel welcome and appreciated.

I arrived in Brooklyn the night before and strolled the blocks surrounding my hotel, breathing in the beautiful filth, the shockingly humid air. I grew up outside New York City and can’t quite describe the longing I feel when I return. It is not my home but it IS. 20150903_184317-alt

“It’s all finally happening,” I thought, as the space filled with people who had come to hear us read. Not On Fire, Only Dying was a long time coming. Several peers published their first books as I sat on the sidelines, clutching this manuscript, believing this story deserved to be heard, that my characters Marko and Lola deserved to be known. I heard NO in every way imaginable. (Really, one day I will make a cut-up poem of my rejections. I want to count how many times “unfortunately” appears.) The encouraging rejections were the best and worst. I tucked my chin into my chest and charged forward, again and again, until I found the perfect publisher for this book. That’s how life works, I’ve come to see: It will not be rushed. Nothing makes sense except in retrospect.

As you may have heard me mention, I don’t love public speaking. But I always knew that if I was given the chance, I wouldn’t squander it. I would do right by my publisher and myself. I’d promote Not On Fire, Only Dying however I could.

(Up to a point, of course. I know there’s a thin line between enthusiastic and obnoxious. Very thin.)

Last Thursday I remembered that anticipation is the worst part. When you believe in something, when you’ve loved it for years, humble and hopeful: You’re ready. You step up, you speak up. You have fun, even. Late as it is, it’s time.

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Sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears.

Marko mix-tapeI received this old mixtape in the mail shortly after completing Not On Fire, Only Dying (my debut novel, out Sept 15). It appears to have been made by one Marko Holomek, my book’s protagonist. Marko is a chivalrous, drug-dealing ex-con and a product of my imagination. So it was weird, getting this tape. cvr

For years (yup, years) Marko lived in my head and in stacks of unpublished pages. For years he lived with me. When the book was finished, he left. I don’t know where he is now. There was no note enclosed with the tape. No return address.

Marko is easy to love, I truly believe it — as damaged and dangerous as he is. Maybe because he himself loves so easily. There is nothing he won’t risk for Lola.

Marko loved the woman he made this mix-tape for, too. She does not appear in Not On Fire, Only Dying. She was part of Marko’s life before this novel, before his twenty years in prison, before Lola. My guess is he made the tape around 1990, when he was worried about this woman’s safety and knew she didn’t love him back. I can see Marko, a young man back then, selecting each song carefully, considering the lyrics and how the music felt. I see him hunched over a dual-cassette boom box. He has a finger poised above the Pause button because pausing before hitting Stop means a less noisy transition. He has a stack of his favorite cassettes and a pack of 90 minute blanks because 60 minutes aren’t enough to say what he needs to say.

But he only finished one side. What happened? Some interruption. Marko doesn’t quit, not ever.

I like these songs, it turns out. I’ve always liked them. I guess Marko knows me well, too. He sent the tape because he knows I will continue to tell every part of his story, even now that he and I are no longer in touch.

The old cassette came unspooled en route, I’m afraid. Luckily I found another way to share with you the songs Marko chose, once, a long time ago, for a woman who did not love him:

Bye for now/Book tour (so far)


Q: When is the perfect time to take a week-long break in the woods without internet or phone?

A: Never. Not these days, when you’re expected to be reachable at all times. Not one month before your debut novel is published, while you’re in the midst of submitting it for review and scheduling readings and generally shouting from rooftops about it on a regular, excruciating basis.

Or maybe this is the perfect time. For one blissful week I’ll be in the Michigan woods celebrating the 40th and, alas, final Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I will slow down, b-r-e-a-t-h-e, listen, speak, be silent—did I mention breathe? With any luck I’ll do some dancing, too, and chances are good I’ll cry the best kind of tears and recharge my strength and laugh my ass off.

On Aug 11th I’ll return renewed, refreshed, and way behind on emails. If you contact me, be patient. I will get back to you, I promise, as quickly as I can. Be kind to each other while I’m gone. Listen. Read books. Breathe! And why not take a look at the stops I have confirmed so far on my BOOK TOUR—so far I know I’ll be in Brooklyn, Knoxville, Los Angeles, Maplewood, NJ, and St. Louis! Will I see you? I hope so.

When is the perfect time to disappear and reclaim yourself before embarking on the most exhilarating, gratifying, and absolutely terrifying phase of your writing life? RIGHT NOW.

Really, when else is there?