I’m so grateful for Kristen M. Ploetz’s fierce, thoughtful review of Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology, just published at JMWW Journal. It means everything to know that our intention was understood and that the quality of the outstanding work collected in this book is appreciated. ✊💖🔥
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.”
I get it. Some of you are uncomfortable with the word “cunt.” You certainly don’t want to hear it said aloud. You don’t even want to see it written, each letter just sitting there, brazen, unashamed, like a naked body sprawled across the floor you have to step over and can’t avoid:
C U N T.
Here’s the thing: I’m not sorry. I won’t apologize for Feckless Cunt: A Feminist Anthology. Never. I will not tiptoe around your discomfort. I will not even soften it by inserting asterisks where letters belong. Although, of course, I realize that some people and publications will require asterisks, I will never use them. Words are powerful, yes. If a word makes you uncomfortable, look at it harder. Your discomfort is the point. If you’re not a member of a marginalized group that has had “cunt” used to oppress you: YOU DON’T GET A SAY. If it has been used against you, I’m sorry. And, also: I think you’re going to want to read this book. These 36 fierce contributors have the guts to confront this word, and—more importantly—the sexist culture that defined and weaponized it. These contributors take back “cunt.” They take control of the narrative of our own lives.
These 55 lean, feminist pieces (poems and very short prose) don’t back away from controversy. They run headlong toward what we’ve been told not to say, think, be. They reject the patriarchal idea that we’re forbidden to speak the words used against us. I invite you to join us.
It’s okay if you’re not ready. But do not ask me to spend time and energy explaining or excusing myself. The time for that sort of endless, unpaid, emotional labor by women is over. Read Feckless Cunt to understand why I think it is not only okay but necessary to write and say
C U N T
as many times as it takes to change the world, a little. You do not have to listen. You do not have to stay in this room where C U N T is sprawled across the floor. I just ask that you let us speak and write and confront what needs confronting. I am not afraid of words or your disapproval. I am afraid of losing my freedom of speech—an understandable fear, I think, considering how the current administration makes daily noise against the free press and dissent. Speak now or forever…better yet, listen: Feckless Cunt will be available for order in the next couple of weeks. I will let her have the final say, without asterisks or apologies.
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
This July I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, my first crack at this sort of writing “sprint.” I failed spectacularly.
The original NaNoWriMo, held every November, challenges writers to bang out a 50,000-word novel in thirty days. The “Camp” allows writers to set their own word count goal. The time was right: Finally, after countless outlines, isolated scenes, and false starts, I had a few thousand words of a new novel. I didn’t hate them. That weren’t completely wrong. I knew the story I wanted to tell. I knew the characters well enough to trust where they led me. I set a modest goal: 15,500 words, just 500 a day. I had a lot going on, personally, but I figured I’d work around it. I was determined to try.
I did not come close. Life interfered, as I feared it might. In all the ways that feed and distract a writer. I wrote a fraction of what I’d hoped. I failed but I wrote 4,349 words. 4,349 new words building on those already written, pointing me more clearly in the direction this novel will take. 4,349 words that brought my characters to life and sent me into fits of deep planning. 4,349 words is not much. Not enough. But it’s a lot more than I wrote the month before.
If I want to finish this novel I’d better return to this manuscript every single day, give myself increasingly ambitious word count goals. I know I can do it. I’ve completed and revised (and revised) two novels and rewritten one word by word. That one, Not On Fire, Only Dying, was published last year.
I will return to it (what a relief!) when I appear at the Decatur Book Festival‘s Emerging Writers Stage at 2:20 PM on Sun Sept 4. I’ll give a very brief reading, followed by a signing. Not On Fire, Only Dying will be available for purchase throughout the festival.
Now I should get back to work. I’ve got lots more failing to do.
Today I am the youngest I’ll ever be again. And I am older. Birthdays aren’t so exciting anymore, are they? Not like when you’re nine, the age I am in this picture. What a great age to be–a kid, not a child. A BIG kid. But not yet ten which is SO OLD, a DECADE!
We were in Jacksonville, Florida, with my dad who was there to give a speech. He gave speeches all the time, but this one was special because it was MY BIRTHDAY and some wonderful stranger made me this DOLL CAKE. I wish I could say I’m grinning because I’m taking a knife to the Patriarchy but that is genuine joy on my face because I LOVED DOLLS. They had everything to do with making me a writer. But on that day in 1977, it was just about that DRESS which I hope you realize is made of FROSTED CAKE.
And the doll really was beautiful, you can’t see that in this picture. With big blue eyes like I wished I had.
On my ninth birthday I knew what I wanted: that cake, that doll. Now? Well, my characters are my dolls. And I can eat cake whenever I want although I try not to because ugh carbs and sugar and but f*ck it–it’s my birthday. I’ll never be this young again. What do I want, this birthday? The best gift I could receive is support for my novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying, which came out last fall. NOFOD is the truest part of me, the most eloquent conversation I’ve ever managed. If you get it, you get me.
So tell me if you read it. Tell me what you liked about it (I will squirm with discomfort but I’ll love it and be grateful.) Ask me questions. Tell other people about it. Review it. Show it off in your hands. If you have a blog, invite me to contribute. Mention it to your book group or favorite bookstore. I’ll read from and discuss it, wherever I’m asked! You’ll make this birthday girl as happy as a DOLL CAKE once did. And that is VERY happy.
Writers: Is your work set in the Hudson Valley? Is it your home, present or past? I want to read there this fall and I could use some company. Maybe yours?
Not On Fire, Only Dying is set in the fictional town of Schendenkill, NY, on the west bank of the river in the mid-Hudson Valley. The search for a (possibly?) missing newborn also brings the characters down to NYC’s East Village. Not On Fire, Only Dying was inspired by the years I lived in Kingston, in Ulster County, NY, in an apartment above my tiny used bookshop. It’s where my son spent his first years. For now I live in the South, but my heart and this book belong to the Hudson Valley.
My book tour feels incomplete. It doesn’t feel right, with all the places I’ve gone to promote it, that I haven’t read from NOFOD in the place it began. (And I want an excuse to be there when those colors hit.)
Last fall, when NOFOD debuted, I think I failed to communicate how much this is a book of that region. Now, when I approach bookstores and libraries, I’ll include this wonderful review, which said, among other lovely things: “The author’s poetic, laser-focused empathy unmasks life on the urban edge of Ulster County as Steinbeck’s did Cannery Row, revealing ‘normal’ as a shoddy sham.”
Maybe I’ll also include a tiny excerpt like the one below.
If you’re interested, please get in touch. I want to know the connection between your work and this area. I want to know that our fiction makes sense together. Maybe we’ll meet in the Hudson Valley this fall, sell some books. Maybe we’ll hear each other’s words and swoon.
Excerpt (from Chapter Three):
This week is the ecstatic pinnacle of autumn. The entire valley is aflame. The hills on both sides of the Hudson burn crimson and tangerine. In the weeks to come, the leaves will starve, then drop. Fall is about endings, Marko thinks. Death.
This isn’t the right attitude for a Schendenkill native. Schendenkill has long relied on seasonal visitors, or “leaf peepers.” This is the time of year to hike to the highest point you can: maybe Sam’s Point. From there the Shawangunk Ridge stretches endlessly, punctuated by glassy, sky-mirror lakes. The views are almost too much, too intense. Colors swim as with the onset of a hallucinogen.
His mother, always too sick to go herself, let him hike these trails so long as he was with his sisters, who were older. Hiking alone is discouraged. Someone must be nearby in case you swoon. Someone must remind you that the land you see is not on fire, only dying. Gently, as it’s meant to.
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?
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).
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.
“Fine, Lola. Your baby.”
“Don’t you really want to ask, ‘Is he real?’”
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.
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.
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.