On Location with Lauren Groff

In our new department On Location, we feature photographs submitted by authors, artists, designers, and friends of Ecotone and Lookout, showcasing spaces that are meaningful to them, or that inspire their work—anything from a desk or bookshelves to a place they gather information. We’re pleased for Lauren Groff, whose beautiful story “Abundance” appears in Astoria to Zion, to kick off the series.

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Lauren Groff writes:

Ten years ago, my writing space had to be a separate room with a lockable door, chaise longue, bookshelf, and idea board. It had to be scrupulously neat. I refused to speak to anyone between waking and working; I’d brew a pot of coffee, lock the door, light a candle and meditate, then get started. If anyone had interrupted me, they’d have died a horrid death.

All that seems precious now that I have kids—and I mean precious in both senses. I work everywhere, now. I have a cruddy studio in my garage that I can use in the spring or fall, but not summer or winter because of the climate of Florida and my lack of climate control out there. I’ve been writing in bed recently because it’s winter and we don’t turn on the heat, and despite its rep, Florida can get really chilly. Also, because I’m frightened by what I’m working on and I like the feeling of being comforted while I work. I write in line to pick up my kindergartener at school; at night, accompanied by my insomnia in the bathtub; in my parents’ empty house down the street; in my head in the middle of the night when my three-year-old has the croup. I wrote “Abundance” sitting on the floor of my study, where we keep the books, because it felt natural somehow to do so. My oldest son was two then and we didn’t have the dog, but I remember him occasionally meandering in, smearing things on my cheeks, and meandering out.

Lauren Groff is the author of Arcadia, a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in fiction; The Monsters of Templeton; and Delicate Edible Birds, a story collection. Her fiction has appeared in The Pushcart Prize and The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories, as well as in the New Yorker, the Atlantic MonthlyOne StoryTin HousePloughshares, and twice in The Best American Short Stories.

Seven Questions for Brock Clarke

imageIn Seven Questions, the newest series on our blog, we interview writers, editors, designers, and others in publishing. We hope you’ll enjoy our first post with Ecotone contributor Brock Clarke, whose funny and powerful story “Our Pointy Boots” first appeared in our evolution-themed issue. We loved the story so much that we recently gave it a second home in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone's First Decade.

We also hope that you’ll share this interview and will continue to follow not only Seven Questions but a few other departments we plan to unveil in the coming weeks. Stay tuned to find out which fictional dog Brad Watson would adopt, as well as why dog-eared book pages make Cary Holladay think of nuns.

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What books are open on your desk right now? 

Tove Jansson’s The Sculptor’s Daughter, Russ Rymer’s Genie, Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever.

Where did the idea for your story in Astoria to Zion come from? 

It’s been fun to go back and try to think of what made me start that story. I know I was in Watertown, NY, snooping around, thinking about a novel I was planning on writing that would be, and ended up being, set there. And there’s an enormous military base in town, and I saw some soldiers drilling on the base, so there’s that. And I also recalled a sweatpants wearing lunatic with one pant leg up and one down doing laps around the public square, so there’s that too. And I remember feeling how daunting writing a new novel felt—and how I didn’t really feel like I could do it—but if I could maybe write a story set in the same place, then maybe the novel would feel possible, even if the novel ended up being nothing like the story. When I was thinking about this, I was also thinking, for some reason, about a line in a Barry Hannah story, I don’t remember which one, narrated by a guy who was pledging to put on his cowboy boots (I don’t remember if they were pointy or not) and walk up and down Main Street until someone noticed him. And I liked the image of a bunch of guys doing the same thing in Watertown, and I saw them all as a group, walking around in their pointy boots, and so I decided to let them narrate as a group too, for a while.

If you could change one thing about a classic work of literature, what would it be?

I would change the end of The Great Gatsby, the untenably, unlikably lyrical business about the boats against the current, etc.

What emerging author or first book are you most excited about?

I love Caitlin Horrocks's first book, This is Not Your City. I can’t think of a wiser, lovelier, more winning, more jealous-making first collection of stories, and I can’t wait to read whatever she comes up with next.

Name a book you bought for its cover.

None! Seriously. Covers can repel me. But they never attract.

Graham Greene said that he wrote two kinds of novels, serious fiction and what he called “entertainments.” Given the wildly different tone across your work, do you think at all in these terms?

Well, my favorite book by Greene is his Travels with My Aunt. And I believe he said that that was the book where he stopped dividing his books between those that were serious and those that were entertainments. Which is to say, I think that Travels with My Aunt is both, and I think of my books as both too.

Lightning round

Typing or longhand? typing

Silence or music? silence

Morning or night? morning

E-reader or print? print

Vowel or consonant? consonant

Train or plane? I’d like to say train. But it depends on how long the trip. 

Bookmark or dog-ear? dog-ear

Cake or pie? cake

Mountains or sea? lake

Dog or cat? dog

Brock Clarke is the author of five books of fiction, most recently the novels Exley and An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Clarke’s stories and essays have appeared in, among other places, the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe, the Virginia Quarterly Review, One Story, the Believer, the Georgia Review, and in the anthologies The Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South, as well as on NPR’s Selected Shorts. Clarke’s sixth book, The Happiest People in the World, will be published by Algonquin Books later this year. He lives in Portland, Maine, and teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College.

design by Lookout intern Katie Jones

design by Lookout intern Katie Jones

Friday Lit News Roundup

With our sister magazine, Ecotone, we value a strong sense of place. In Wilmington, NC, where our imprint and magazine are based, it’s our good fortune to relish sights like this one nearly every day. 

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Now, for this week’s news—

We highly recommend that you make time this weekend to read Ben Fountain’s piece for the New Republic, highlighting the heartbreaking failure of Haiti’s recovery four years after the earthquake. “The day after my arrival, I was walking down a dusty, noisy street near the center of town and passed a rough-hewn cinderblock church, a cavernous space with crude turrets at the corners and iron bars across the windows. Inside, a choir composed of what must have been visiting angels was singing a Bach cantata, the angels hidden behind the walls and bars of the church but their song floating into the street like a break in the battle, a cool cloth laid over a fevered brow. And that’s how Haiti breaks your heart, with these hits of grace and beauty constantly sailing out of the wreckage.”

The media just can’t get enough of Astonish Me author Maggie Shipstead; this week her new novel is reviewed in Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post, SFGate, and TIME.

If you missed his interview last Saturday evening, click through to listen to Astoria to Zion contributor Robert Olen Butler talk to hosts Catherine Cuellar and Randy Gordon on The Writers Studio.

Thanks to the Washington Independent Review of Books for including Astoria to Zion in its Best Books for April list.

Congrats to our friends at Sarabande Books on the opening of a second office in New York City. Located in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, it will be managed by Kristen Radtke, Director of Marketing and Publicity.

And, finally, we join readers and writers around the world in mourning Colombian novelist and master of magic realism Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude established him as a giant of 20th-century literature.

Stay tuned next week, when we’ll finally unveil a few new blog departments we’ve been curating behind the scenes for a while now. On Location will showcase our favorite authors’ writing studios and other spaces that inspire them, and in Seven Questions, they’ll tell us which fictional character they’d go on a road trip with, and where, as well as the book they bought for its cover, among many other things.

And, as always, we’ll return on Monday to unveil a beautiful digital broadside, and on Wednesday, we’ll introduce another favorite from Astoria to Zion.

Until then, have a wonderful weekend, and happy reading. What’s on our nightstand? The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, published by our friends at Graywolf Press and winner of their nonfiction prize.

design by Lookout intern Katie Prince

design by Lookout intern Katie Prince

Friday Lit News Roundup

First we want to send a huge Thank You to everyone who made the Astoria to Zion launch parties possible. The Center for Fiction and Doyle’s Cafe were gracious hosts, our readers were entertaining and enthralling, and we couldn’t have asked for better attendees. 

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image via LilyandVal

While we were busy in Boston and New York, Astoria to Zion authors and Ecotone contributors were also busy. And we’ve got some interesting lit news lined up for you so keep reading!

Rebecca Makkai had us rolling with her Ploughshares piece “Writers You Want to Punch in the Face(book).” I think we all know someone like Todd Manley-Krauss.

Benjamin Percy and Daniel Levine chat about Levine’s new book Hyde, martial arts, sleeve tattoos, and college memories. Don’t skip this Brooklyn Rail Q&A between two old friends. 

Would switching to Garamond save the government millions? Some think it might just be too good to be true

Even though college basketball championships are over with, Powell’s bookstore is keeping Poetry Madness going strong. Since last year’s bracket was dominated by women, this year features only female poets. Round 1 is already closed, but get your vote in for Round 2! #readwomen2014

Watch Douglas Watson’s promo video for his new novel A Moody Fellow Finds Love and then Dies.

The Atlantic also has a belated, but interesting, AWP summary

Speaking of amazing women writers, it’s hard to go a day without hearing about Maggie Shipstead. Here’s just a few outlets where people are praising her new novel Astonish Me

The Brooklyn Eagle says the novel is “gorgeously written.”

Bustle talks with Maggie about Astonish Me, ballet, and “Girls.”

Joan Didion reviews Astonish Me for Electric Literature’s blog The Outlet. She writes: “This is a keepsake about motion and longing. This is the imminent agony of a nail underfoot. This is a story about dreams being realized by the dreamer’s runner up. This is the leaden taste of disappointment, the muscle memory ache of not good enough.”

NPR writes of the novel: “It is full of the kind of prose you want to curl up and nest in like a cat: seamless and full of small elegances.”

And don’t miss The Atlantic's ByHeart series, in which Maggie writes about Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and “explores the way novels—and writers themselves—manage time.”

Whew! That’s a lot for one week, but great news makes us happy. Do you know what else puts a smile on our face? It’s Friday. Go enjoy your weekend!

design by Lookout intern Heather Hammerbeck

design by Lookout intern Heather Hammerbeck

Friday Lit News Roundup

Fair warning: shameless self-promotion ahead for our two Astoria to Zion launch events in NYC and Boston next week. You won’t want to miss these!

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We’ll be at the Center for Fiction in New York on April 7 at 7 p.m., with contributors David Means, Maggie Shipstead, and Douglas Watson, who will read from their terrific stories in the anthology. 

The post-reading Q&A will focus on how technology affects writing and literature—and the short story in particular. How important is the concept of place in an age when our physical location is largely irrelevant as long as we’re within cord’s length of a power source and range of Wi-Fi? Are digital resources essential to conduct and organize research? How do Twitter and Facebook influence our thinking and writing processes?

A signing and wine reception will follow. Please come out and meet the Ecotone/Lookout staff, including publisher Emily Louise Smith, editor Anna Lena Phillips, and associate editor Beth Staples.

More details on the Facebook event page.

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And on Tuesday, April 8 at 8 p.m., we’ll gather at Doyle’s Cafe in Jamaica Plain. Featured storytellers, including award-winning writers Steve Almond, Bill Roorbach, and Matthew Neill Null, will join editors and readers to listen, laugh, discuss, eat, drink, and trade tales of risk and abandon. Ask the best question, and win a free copy of Astoria to Zion. A signing will follow.

More details can be found here.

We hope to see you there!

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And we also hope that these bookshelves can be ours one day!

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Gaby Wood of the Telegraph (UK) says the e-book revolution hasn’t even begun, adding that publishers tend to think of digital books and printed books as different versions of the same thing. “If they really saw the possibilities of the ebook and the virtues of the printed book for what they are, publishers would know the two forms are only very vaguely related … Publishers have got to stop thinking of their digital products as ‘books,’ and start imagining more expansive ways of communicating information.”

Entertainment Weekly calls Kevin Brockmeier’s memoir, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, a “funny, poignant oddity.”

River Bend Chronicle author Ben Miller travels to North Carolina this weekend for the premiere of the collaborative project Cage Dies Bird Flies at the Black Mountain {Re} Happening Festival. Miller worked with artist Dale Williams to create eighty-five, large-scale black and white paintings inspired by his few-word stories.

The Huffington Post is talking about Maggie Shipstead’s new novel, Astonish Me, which comes out next Tuesday, saying that “the conflicts between characters both major and minor are resolved neatly and cathartically, making for an enjoyable meditation not only on ballet, but on desire, ambition, and love.” Come out to hear her on Monday at the Center for Fiction, and help celebrate her publication week!

Please come out to see us in New York or Boston next week, and until then, find a quiet spot to read in the sunshine. May we recommend Astoria to Zion?

Introducing “The Blue Tree” by Rick Bass

Before relocating to North Carolina for graduate school this past summer, I lived for eight years in New York City. The city offered some of the world’s finest food and culture—four-star meals at Daniel, La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera House—but the one thing not readily accessible was natural beauty, though I tried hard to seek it out. My go-to spot was a small, nondescript bench at the peak of Fort Tryon Park, one of Manhattan’s highest points, where I could see the Hudson River laid plain. But as anybody in New York can tell you, nothing in the Big Apple comes easy, and enjoying the view was no exception. There were all manner of distractions to contend with: the endless noise of buses and trucks rumbling along the Henry Hudson Parkway a hundred feet below, the bleating of car horns, the smog roiling up from factory furnaces on the other side of the river bank. And yet if I sat there long enough, eventually the world would grow quiet, and I’d notice the elm tree branches overhead perfectly framing my view of the river.

The Blue Tree" by Rick Bass in Lookout’s recent anthology Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon asks how we hold just such a moment. In it, the main character, Wilson, struggles in nature as much as he enjoys it, and grapples with the impermanence of youth. The story begins with him, his wife, Belinda, and their two daughters, arriving at their cabin in the woods the day before Christmas Eve. Tradition dictates that Wilson cut their tree that night; he wants everything—as in years past—in place for a restful Christmas Eve. Against Belinda’s better judgment, Wilson packs his daughters in the Subaru and heads north in the falling snow, deeper into the forest, where the best trees can be found. They get stuck, of course, just as his wife had predicted.

Wilson digs out the area behind each wheel. He climbs into the driver’s seat and presses the gas pedal, but his attempts only make matters worse. “The car has become an ice-making machine, a perfect arrangement of temperature, humidity, dew point, and snow depth … and Wilson realizes, with an unpleasant jolt, that they’re screwed.” As Wilson and his daughters begin the three-mile trek back to the cabin, his girls take sides in an impending argument. The eldest, Stephanie, rolls her eyes at her father’s stupidity; the younger, Lucy, defends his actions. 

Their fight is cut short when Stephanie perks to a noise in the woods. Wilson yells into the darkness to announce their presence. He assures the girls it’s just a deer, “But they can hear the lie in his voice, and they draw closer to him.” He lets out a throaty snarl, and the lion, or whatever threatens them, retreats. Before long they return to the magnificent spruce tree at the top of their own driveway, which Wilson has rigged with alternating blue and white lights. “The girls stop and stare at it without speaking … five seconds, six seconds, seven seconds, eight: they stand there catching their breath, gazing at this special thing.” As his daughters run toward the safety of their cabin, Wilson “lingers a moment longer, staring at the glowing blue tree—but already the moment is dissolving.”

It’s these last haunting lines that capture the feeling I had while sitting atop that bench in New York City: “He savors it, knowing it won’t always be this way. But it is now. More so than he could ever have imagined.”

Justin Klose,
Lookout intern

To enjoy the story its entirety, read “The Blue Tree” in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.

design by Lookout intern Katie Jones

design by Lookout intern Katie Jones