Four Questions About My New Novel Shoplandia

A few writers are tagging other writers to answer “4 Questions” about the writing process. My friend Nicole Valentine recently tagged my friend Robb Cadigan, and now he has tagged me. The timing couldn’t have been better as I’m finally about to complete a project which I’ve been working on steadily for the past three years. Here are my 4 answers:

1. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?

ShoplandiaBookCover5_5x8_5_Cream_290 copyI just finished up my first novel, SHOPLANDIA, which I’m happy to announce will be launched at Chester County Book Company on May 15th. See details below. Told from the perspective of production assistants, show hosts, producers, and a VP, SHOPLANDIA peels back the curtain to give a humorous and sometimes tragic glimpse into the bonds that form in our working lives. This novel told through stories also has a supporting cast of reality TV personalities, motivational gurus, A-Team actors, beloved country musicians, drunk baseball players, and aging movie stars.

SHOPLANDIA Book Launch
Thursday, May 15th, 6-8 p.m., short presentation at 7 p.m.

Chester County Book and Music Company
957 Paoli Pike
West Chester, PA 19380

SHOPLANDIA Book Launch Weekend
Sunday, May 17th 3-5 p.m.

BOOKPLACE, 2373 Baltimore Pike
Oxford, PA.

2. HOW DOES YOUR WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN ITS GENRE?

As far as I know, there is only one other novel about life behind the scenes at a home shopping channel, and that is Sellevision by Augusten Burroughs. When I first read that novel years ago, I realized he had an outsider’s perspective and the novel didn’t capture what it is really like to work in the absurd, yet thrilling mayhem of a studio that is live 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And because he wrote about people who were co-workers and friends, I didn’t find the satirical depiction very flattering. While there are still some villains in SHOPLANDIA, they are more than offset by the hosts, producers and on-air guests who are downright heroic.

3. WHY DO YOU WRITE WHAT YOU DO?

My friend Larry Geiger recently asked me, “Why do you write?” and my only reply was “Because I can’t play the drums.” Seriously though, after writing my first collection, Elephant: Short Stories and Flash Fiction, I wanted to write something lighter and fast paced. Shoplandia is definitely a work of fiction, but it was inspired by my seventeen years as a producer at QVC. My goal was to capture the spirit of a live television studio, which has always been a remarkable place.

4. WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS LIKE?

Agonizing. Most of the time, I start with a snippet of an idea – a visual or a phrase that intrigues me and I go from there. It’s like making my way through the dark. I’ve come to see writing is more like sculpting than anything else. The first draft is always crap, just a blob of clay. Even by the tenth draft, it’s still only shaped a little bit. One of the chapters in SHOPLANDIA, Pepper Man, was written three years ago but I didn’t have a satisfactory ending until last fall, when it suddenly came together. The real short pieces come together more quickly. Laugh Track came together in an afternoon, but anything over 1,000 words takes revision upon revision.

Thanks for reading. I hope to see you at one of the book launches or you can purchase SHOPLANDIA online soon. If you want to stay updated on events, you can sign up for my newsletter for occasional updates. Click HERE.

I’ve now tagged writer Carla Sarett to answer these four questions. Carla has two collections – Strange Courtships: Nine Romantic Stories and Crazy Lovebirds and she is working on a novel. You can check out her blog by clicking HERE.

Larry Brown’s Novel “Joe” To Hit Theaters – Interview with Shane Brown

brown_larryI’ve been a fan of Larry Brown since first reading his short story collection Facing the Music back in the nineties. From there, I read Big Bad Love: Stories, and his novel Father and Son, all of which I recommend. Brown taught himself writing during his down time as a firefighter, and his stories focus on the gritty South. Most of his characters live in poverty. The men drive pickups, drink whiskey, brawl and shoot at each other. The women are only slightly more well behaved. The dry, hot South makes for a classic landscape as Brown often puts his characters through hell as they seek some type of redemption. Larry Brown passed away in 2004.

Last fall, I was excited to notice that Larry’s son Shane was on Twitter. I told him I was a fan of his father’s work and asked if he was a writer. Shane told me his passion is actually writing music. Shane took to Twitter because another novel written by his father, Joe, has been made into a movie starring Nicolas Cage. The film has been shown at a few film festivals but will be released in select theatres in April of 2014.

51MXX8EsVPL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-65,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_I’d not read Joe, so I put it on my Christmas list and devoured it shortly afterwards. The title character Joe is an ex-convict dealing with several personal issues while managing a team of men that are being paid by the timber industry to prepare a site so that new saplings can be planted the following season. Despite his alcoholism, brushes with the law, and other issues, Joe has his own moral code. When a teenager shows up looking for work, Joe develops a relationship with the kid. The boy is stuck in a desperate life, living with his parents and sisters in a dilapidated, abandoned house. The teen’s father, Wade, is one of the most despicable characters I’ve ever encountered, and the final scenes in the book are powerful and disturbing. It’s a compelling read and I’m anxious to see the film.

I asked Shane if I could interview him about life with his father, his father’s writing, and the path that led to Joe being made into a film.

Jim: What was it like growing up with Larry Brown as your dad?

Shane and Larry Brown

Shane and Larry Brown

Shane: Growing up as Larry Brown’s son was to me, two different things! First, and most importantly he was my father! He was just Dad to me you know? The man that I wanted to grow up to be like! The one that was a fire fighting hero! The one that took me fishing and on trips. He provided for us and did his regular daily dad duties when he was able to. His career and his writers “lifestyle” got in the way sometimes but we learned as we got older to understand it. I remember countless nights eating super without him because he was writing in the next room. Mom wouldn’t let us go tell him when supper was ready. She always warned us if he was writing to leave him alone. We often ignored that rule! Dad loved to talk with us and tell funny and interesting stories. I believe that’s what I miss the most. But I am luckier than others that have lost a father because I can go pick up a book and read his words, I can hit play on a DVD and watch a documentary or I can turn on my radio and listen to him sing and play his guitar that he recorded. I am blessed to have that, but I jealously miss his physical talks and hugs and all things good daddies are.

The other thing growing up as his son was his success and triumphs and struggles; the “wow” when someone asks, “You’re Larry Brown’s son?” There was so much I witnessed as a kid and am now still experiencing as an adult; as a Dad myself! I remember his first book party and the release of Facing the Music. I was young, too small to understand it all but old enough to be excited for him; excited for me! I have always bragged on his accomplishments and who he was. Maybe that’s not right to do but I do it! I was lucky to have been on so many trips with him and have met so many neat and cool people. We are still seeing it after he has been gone from us. We are flying out to Austin in April to hang out with movie stars and directors for his movie Joe. It will be a very emotional event but it will be so exciting and very honoring! Things will continue to happen and I think one day my son and daughter will be asked, “You’re grandfather is Larry Brown?”

Jim: Are you old enough to remember his transition to full-time writer?

Shane: I remember his transition. I remember the heartache too that he took leaving the fire station to focus on writing. He had sixteen years at the fire station and he was proud to be a fire fighter. He loved the men he worked with and he loved his job. I remember at his retirement they gave him a glass cased plaque that held his uniform badge and pins. He was very honored to have that and he had it mounted in his writing room. I have really always looked at dad as a writer who use to be a fireman. I think it was better on him when he retired. He had more time to do other things he enjoyed away from writing and the fire station. We were happy that he was home more. And Mom never had to worry anymore about him going into burning buildings or working car wrecks that were dangerous. I think he started enjoying writing more after the fire station. He was able to write more and I think that time away only helped him grow as a writer.

Jim: Can you tell me a little bit about how Joe came to be made into a movie?

Shane: Watching Dad’s book Joe come to life by movie has been such a really exciting experience. I have been glued to a computer or phone since the summer of 2012 when I received an email from Mom saying that David Gordon Green was going to direct the movie Joe and Nicolas Cage was to be lead actor. I remember laying on my couch crying and reading the email and article over and over. My dad was a huge Nicolas Cage fan. I remember being a little boy watching Raising Arizona repeatedly. Any film that Cage was in Dad was gonna watch!

imagesI guess about 12 years ago filmmaker Gary Hawkins did a documentary called The Rough South of Larry Brown. His documentary crew had a few students of his help him with lighting, filming and many other things. One of his students in the crew was David Gordon Green. Gary and Dad became friends and I guess somewhere down the road Gary wrote the screenplay for Joe. He pitched it out to different people and places and no one picked it up. Ten years later Gary and David Gordon Green were talking and he asked Gary if he had anything for him to look at or read. Gary gave him Joe and David fell in love with it. He sent it to an agency which was also the agency that Cage was part of and Cage fell in love with it. I heard that Cage and Green met up in Austin and hung out for a few days discussing the possibilities of Joe. They went for it and now here it is in full life! There are so many great people’s hands in this that we could never tell them enough how much we appreciate them!

Jim: I love hearing a behind the scenes story like this. Very cool. So tell me about the Brown family now.

Billy Ray, Larry, exchange student Paola, Mary Annie, LeAnne and Shane Brown

Billy Ray, Larry, exchange student Paola, Mary Annie, LeAnne and Shane Brown

Shane: Ha! Well we are all still the same fun loving family I guess! I mean things changed of course when Dad passed. Things were not the same around the house. Or during the holidays or birthday parties and such. This huge energy or some type of feeling was completely sucked out of our life and environment. I have shared many feelings and tears in my blog about my life with him and it’s always good to express those and have them there to read. I hate that he misses so many things in our life’s; in mine and Billy Ray’s and LeAnne’s children’s life’s mainly. He would be super proud if the 7 grand children he has!

Billy Ray has changed careers since Dad died. He was working for the City of Oxford for the street department. He hated it. Billy Ray has always had cattle since he was 14 years old. He had a pretty big herd of cattle when Dad died but his farm has changed a lot and he doesn’t work for the city anymore. About four years ago Billy Ray and his wife opened up a small dairy farm. He sells local fresh milk to customers and local farmers markets. He has also gotten were he is having some of his beef cattle and hogs slaughtered and processed and sold as well. His beef cattle herd is close to 150 “mama” cows and he has about 50 hogs. He is a very successful farmer and he is happy and still lives in the house and farm we were born and raised in most of our lives! He is still married to Paula and they have three children.

LeAnne is the youngest of us, and she lives in Batesville, Mississippi with her husband and two sons. LeAnne runs a daycare from her home and stays very busy. She is great at what she does and she loves the children she takes care of each week. Batesville is only 30 minutes away from Oxford so her and her husband Will, who is from Oxford too, come home often to visit.

Mom went through a lot when she lost Dad. She had a very tough time. She has her moments every now and then but this is the happiest I have seen her in a long time! She works for a certain agency in Oxford and she loves her job. She recently got married a few months ago and her and her husband live close to our place in Yocona that Billy Ray has. She loves spending time with her grandchildren and she spoils them any chance she gets!

Jim: Wow! Congratulations to your mom. That’s great. We heard about your family, now how about you? (Your line of work, love of music, your family,etc.)

Shane: I live in South Mississippi a small town where I teach and coach in Collins, Ms. I actually have put in my two weeks notice and moving home next week to Oxford for a change in careers. It’s in sales so it’s gonna be a big change for me. I am excited though and eager to get back home.
I have two children who are my life. My oldest is 8 and he is all boy. Very smart and athletic; good looking too. Dad would be so proud of him for his advancements in reading and writing. As a second grader he reads at a 4th grade level and I am always catching him reading a book or writing a song.

My little girl will turn 6 next month and she is the prettiest thing I have ever seen. Dad would love her warmth and she is so funny! She is always laughing and hugging and being so sweet.

In my off time I love playing guitar. I have written and recorded a few songs in the past few years. Billy Ray is a hell of a song writer and I have one of his songs on a CD somewhere. I wish I put more time and effort into it. I really wish I would have started playing at 12 when Dad got me my first guitar. I never did until he bought me another one at 20 and I still didn’t pick it up til I was 22. So I did get a few years of playing guitar with him. He taught himself how to play but only learned three chords! Ha! He would change up songs and place the capo up and down the neck of the guitar for a certain time that he wanted. He has some of the funniest songs I have ever heard recorded on a tape that he wrote and played. His taste in music was a little different than mine. He listened to a huge wide range of music. I appreciate it more the older I get. I love all country music; old and new! It really doesn’t matter what I listen to something as long as I can catch a meaning or a good beat to a song!

Jim: Shane – thanks so much for your time, and for the great photos!

Shane: Thanks! Stay in Touch!

Check out Shane’s blog, called The Brown Effect. The movie “Joe” starring Nicolas Cage and directed by David Gordon Green will premiere in Austin, TX in April. It’s yet to be determined how broad of a release the movie will get after the premiere but hopefully it will come to a screen near you sometime later this year. In the meantime, pick up a copy of Joe on Amazon.

Here’s a trailer for the movie that features a bonus, subtitles in French.

Jim Breslin’s new comedic novel, SHOPLANDIA, follows the lives of show hosts and producers at a home shopping channel as they deal with reality TV stars, motivational gurus, aging movie icons and romance book cover icons. SHOPLANDIA will be published in May 2014. Sign up to learn about the release of SHOPLANDIA by clicking HERE.

How John Dixon’s novel Phoenix Island became CBS’s Intelligence

JOHN DIXONI first met John Dixon when he joined the Brandywine Valley Writers Group over a year ago, and it’s been exciting to watch the amazing path his novel PHOENIX ISLAND has taken – and it hasn’t even been released yet! John’s novel follows a sixteen year old troublemaker named Carl Freeman who is sent to a “terminal facility” called Phoenix Island. After standing up to defend weaker teens, and enduring several rounds of harsh punishment, Carl is finally tapped to take part in a secret government project, where he will become the prototype for combat intelligence.

PHOENIX ISLAND is also the inspiration for the new CBS television series INTELLIGENCE. If you’ve watched CBS in the past month, you’ve definitely seen the ads. The book and the television show will be making a big splash with a Release Party in New York City on January 7. The other night, John just informed our writing group about a special book signing/television pilot preview that he has coordinated right here in his hometown of West Chester. I wanted to ask John about the novel, the television series, and his adventures in dealing with publishers, agents, television executives and more.

Jim: I know the original title of the novel was DISSIDENT before being updated to PHOENIX ISLAND. What was your inspiration for the novel? And did it come to you in a flash or was it a long time in writing?

John: Actually, the original title was PHOENIX ISLAND, which then switched to DISSIDENT, before ultimately circling back around to PHOENIX ISLAND again. This made me happy, as I’d always thought of it as PHOENIX ISLAND.

phoenix-island-john-dixon I started the book without knowing I’d started it. I sat down one day, banged out an eighteen-page character sketch out-of-the-blue, and there was my main character, Carl, a sixteen-year-old boxing champ and orphan, the son of a fallen Philadelphia police officer. I loved him instantly, and his personal history affected me, but I didn’t have a story, and I was busy writing other stuff, so I put him away. A year or two passed. Every now and then, Carl would tap me on the shoulder, but I still didn’t have a story.

Then I heard about the Kids for Cash case, where two Pennsylvania judges sent juveniles to privately-owned detention centers in return for massive kickbacks. I was outraged, of course — as a teacher and a former youth services case worker, I’d spent two decades trying to help kids like the ones these judges had exploited — and further research led me to a horrifying truth: there exist outside the United States privately owned detention centers open for American business and immune to US laws. Anything would be possible in a place like that, I thought, especially if the kids in question were all orphans. That’s when I remembered Carl….

Once those two previously unrelated things collided, the story blew up in my head, and it was all I could do to keep up with it. Ten months later, it was finished.

Jim: In my opinion, the Kids for Cash scandal is one of the most terrifying American stories of the last decade. Your idea of expanding on that is very intriguing. To get a novel optioned for television is a big deal, but often those novels never make it to the screen. The fact that your series is hitting the same day as the book is awesome. How did the TV show deal unfold?

John: I was sitting in Jimmy John’s Hot Dogs on 202 when the phone rang. It was Tripp Vinson, executive producer of blockbuster movies like RED DAWN, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, and THE NUMBER 23. My film agent had given him the book, and he’d read it in two days. Could I talk?

buildingIf you’ve ever been to Jimmy John’s — which is my favorite restaurant on the planet, for the record — it’s full of trains and little kids blowing whistles, so I asked Tripp to hold on, walked out to my truck, and took the call of my life parked along 202, with trucks whizzing by.

Tripp flew to New York, I hopped the train, and we met for lunch. We clicked instantly, and I liked his ideas. He wanted to convert PHOENIX ISLAND into a TV series, and we started talking about how to expand subplots and back story, where to end the pilot, where to end the first season, conversations that we would continue later, over the phone and through email. Before leaving that lunch, however, Tripp gave me the best advice ever. There were a million ways for this go wrong, he explained, and told me not to pin my happiness on the ultimate success of the project. There are a lot of hurdles, he told me. Celebrate every hurdle.

So I did… usually by going to Jimmy John’s. When Michael Seitzman came on board, I celebrated. When ABC Studios optioned it, I celebrated. When CBS Network picked up the option, I celebrated. We still had a lot of hurdles in front of us at that point, but following Tripp’s advice, I was enjoying the ride. With the addition of director David Semel and actors like Josh Holloway and Marg Helgenberger, we kept clearing hurdles, and we sprung over a tall one when CBS green lighted the pilot. Out of something like 100 dramas optioned that year, they had green lighted only 11. Still, we were up against heavy competition, so the next hurdles — making a great pilot and getting ordered as an actual show — reached into the sky, into orbit.

intelligence_ver2I felt good about the pilot. By this time, the story had changed big time from my book. I was okay with this, and I enjoyed having a role in the transition. I’d read the script and knew it was strong. But honestly, I really didn’t think we’d make to order. CBS was kicking butt, and while we were in limbo, they announced they would be reordering almost their entire schedule, leaving room, people thought for two, maybe three new shows. TV pundits predicted CBS would pick up BEVERLY HILLS COP and NCIS spin-off, and suggested that HOSTAGES and THE ADVOCATES were possibilities if thee was an extra slot. We weren’t supposed to get the order, according to those-in-the-know. Still, I clung to Tripp’s advice and celebrated the green lighting by visiting the Vancouver shoot with my wife, Christina. We had a blast.

When May rolled around, I braced myself for the expected disappointment, telling myself I’d been incredibly blessed just to make it this far. We’d made some money off the pilot, taking off pressure for a time, and the book had sold in a two-book deal. Things were good. And yet I dreaded the announcement. I didn’t want the dream to end.

It didn’t. On May 10th, five days before the Up Fronts, CBS surprised everyone by announcing its picks early. And there was INTELLIGENCE. I didn’t believe. I mean that literally. A friend emailed a link, I followed it out, read the headline, and literally did not believe that it was true. A mistake, a hoax, a cruel joke… something. Then I went back to my inbox and saw an email from my film agent. The subject line read, “In Case You Haven’t Heard.” The email simply said, “So happy for you, John,” and there was a link to another article announcing the same news. Cue the chorus of angels….

That evening, Tripp called. I’ll never forget pacing the deck, talking to him. It was a beautiful May evening. “Remember when I said we had a lot of hurdles to cross?” he asked. Of course I did. “Well,” he said, “we made it over the last one.”

Jim: Jimmy John’s for the win! I love that. So you’ve made the transition from middle school English teacher to full time writer. What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard? And can you tell us your writing habits? Do you have a certain time of day you like to write, or a certain spot?

John: The best writing advice, of course, is read a lot, write a lot, but the most valuable advice I ever received came from editor David L. Felts, in his rejection of a short story I’d sent him. “Always keep your main character in the driver’s seat.” The idea — to have my main character’s choices and actions forcing the plot rather than having the plot forcing reactions out of my main character — changed the way I wrote and helped me to start selling more stories.

Right now, with so much going on with the build up to the release of the book and show, my writing habits are wonky, but I prefer to write every day, and when I’m at my best, I get at it early and stay at it for 6 to 8 hours, and sometimes 10 or 12. I love writing, and I’ve never looked back on a day and said, “Gee, I spent too much time writing today.” I have a nice roll top desk, but I usually write on a folding table in an upstairs guest room, using my little Alphasmart NEO word processor. That keeps me away from the deadly distractions of the internet!

Jim: Thanks for taking time to be interviewed. Good luck with the book launch and the television show!

John: Thanks so much for having me, Jim!

The book launch of John’s novel PHOENIX ISLAND, along with a sneak preview showing of his CBS show INTELLIGENCE, is being held at the Chester County Historical Society on January 5 at 2p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Chester County Book Company will have copies of the novel for sale at the event. Click here for more details.

IMG_0480Updated: January 7th, 2014: John Dixon’s PHOENIX ISLAND Book Launch in West Chester was a huge success. Much fun was had and the books sold out rather quickly. I was thrilled to get my autographed copy and a photo taken with John. The crowd also enjoyed seeing the pilot for CBS’s Intelligence. Congratulations!

Jim Breslin’s new comedic novel, SHOPLANDIA, follows the lives of show hosts and producers at a home shopping channel as they deal with reality TV stars, motivational gurus, aging movie icons and romance book cover icons. SHOPLANDIA will be published in May 2014. Sign up to learn about the release of SHOPLANDIA by clicking HERE.

On Writing: An Interview with Robb Cadigan

1591466Robb Cadigan is the author of Phoenixville Rising, a novel where the Chester County borough looms large over the lives of two teens in the eighties. In the story, best friends Sketch and Boo find themselves mixed up with a local gang, and are left to make difficult choices that will shape their future, and the future of the declining steel mill town. Billed as “Part Coming-Of-Age Story, Part Crime Novel, Part Historical Romance,” Robb ties the strings of this novel together very well, culminating in an extremely satisfying ending.

Back in 2009, Robb had sent me an early version of this novel to read. I enjoyed the early draft, and loved seeing how he meticulously shaped his work over the following years. Robb has forged a novel that resonates, not just with those who know Phoenixville, but with anyone who has experienced life in an American town struggling to reinvent itself.

Jim: Your new novel Phoenixville Rising has been called “a love letter to the American industrial town” by the author William Lashner. How did Phoenixville come to inspire your novel?

Robb: We’ve lived in Phoenixville for over twenty years now. When my wife and I decided to put down roots here, I really wanted to learn more about the place where we were going to raise our family. This area is so rich in history–the Civil War days, the Underground railroad, the life and death of Phoenix Iron & Steel–the whole place is steeped in story. So just by getting to know the town, walking its streets, admiring its architecture, talking with its proud longtime residents, you really can’t help but be inspired.

1379716861Jim: The town of Phoenixville is actually “rising” these days. The nightlife scene and restaurants. The Firebird Festival. And of course, the Blobfest. There’s so much going on in the borough, a sort of renaissance. What’s your thoughts on the state of Phoenixville today?

Robb: The renaissance is very exciting. It seems to come in waves, which began with some smart and ambitious developers, businesspeople, and social activists and the restoration of the Colonial Theatre, the Foundry, and Bridge Street, then the influx of more great restaurants and entertainment outlets. The schools really developed and improved. Like any town, there are issues, but the community works together now and supports each other. There’s always something to do here — Phoenixville is a great place to live. And I think the best part about the renaissance is no one thinks it’s finished.

Of course, my novel is not so much the story of the town’s present-day renaissance. It’s actually more about the destiny of a man — what do you do when your future gets yanked out from under you? When the life you think you’re supposed to lead gets taken away? I love the idea of second acts — much of my writing explores whether we really can shape our own futures. And in a way, Phoenixville itself has done that very same thing. When the steel mill left, the town stared death in the face and many people thought it was over, but the town really is rising.

Jim: You’ve been working on this novel for ten years, and I read an early draft a few years ago. How has the novel changed over the years?

Robb: Well, it wasn’t ten straight years. I did write the initial manuscript ten years ago, but then I let go of it for a big block of time in there and worked on other things. The published version available now is the result of about two years of extensive rewriting.

I think in the earliest drafts I was trying to tell a story that was too big, trying to pack too much into it. By working with some top-notch editors and early readers, I was able to strip away the extraneous characters and plot lines and tell the story I ultimately wanted to tell.

Jim: What’s been the biggest surprise for you about the craft of writing?

Robb: I’m a little shocked to find that the real joy is in the rewriting. In school, and even in my corporate work, I could usually get by with a solid first draft. Words came pretty easily, I hit my deadlines, and I usually got good grades or created an effective piece of advertising. When it comes to fiction, I think inventing a premise is relatively easy for a lot of people (how many people have you run into who say they have a great idea for a book?) — and putting your butt in the chair to write it all down is even doable, if you have the time and motivation. But then you need to let the writing sit for a while, undisturbed. When you come back to it, weeks or months later (or, in my case, years), you see obvious issues that weren’t so obvious when you first got infatuated with your own writing. During this critical revision stage, I find that “absence does NOT make the heart grow fonder” and that’s a good thing. By stepping away from your work for an extended period and then coming back to it, you come back ready to “kill your darlings.” If that’s still too difficult for a writer, I think that only means they didn’t let the work sit long enough or they’re still in love with the sound of their own voice.

Jim: Where do you write? What time of day do you usually write?

Robb: I’m a lifelong library rat, so I do a lot of writing in local libraries around Chester County. I also have been known to haunt some bookstores and restaurants that have comfortable chairs and good chai. I will say that one of the worst things that has happened for writers in the last few years is the availability of free wifi. Free wifi is not your friend, if you’re trying to get any work done. I might use wifi to research the right weapon for a Civil War soldier and the next thing I know I reading a Bruce Springsteen setlist from his 1978 tour.

I actually don’t have a set writing schedule. I try to stick to a word-count goal each week and sometimes those words come in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. I do find that some of my best writing comes right before dinnertime, because I know I have to finish my work for the day. So a deadline is good.

Jim: I know you attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop a few years ago. What was your biggest takeaway from that weeklong session?

Robb: I left Iowa with several souvenirs, but probably the biggest was a renewed sense of confidence. To have your work appraised by educated people–people you’ve never met before–and to be told that your work is good, well, that’s a good takeaway. I just loved the whole experience of Iowa. There’s a lot to be said for being surrounded by a vibrant writers community 24/7.

Jim: If you were to be left on a deserted island, and could only have the collected works of one author, who would it be?

Robb: I could use Hawkeye Pierce’s line that I would take the Dictionary, because all the other books are in there. But I would be very happy with the works of Michael Chabon. Or John Irving. No, wait. Dennis Lehane. Oh crap, I don’t know. The collected works of Charles M. Schulz or Garry Trudeau might be the best choice of all. Or Vince Gilligan’s entire “Breaking Bad” series. Ugh. I hate this question.

Jim: With the release of Phoenixville Rising, you have several events planned for the fall. Not to rush you, but what do you think will be your next novel?

Robb: I am working on a crime novel set in East Pikeland, Pennsylvania. The Phoenixville area really is perfect for stories, because there is a distinct socio-economic diversity within a small radius of the borough. I’m interested in writing about the tensions and stresses that exist between some of the people who have lived here for generations and the new wealth that has chosen to make Phoenixville their home. I have a great idea for a book …

Phoenixville Rising is available through Amazon and can also be found at Wellington Square Bookshop and Gateway Pharmacy. Robb has a reading and signing at the Henrietta Hankin Public Library on October 24th, 2013 and he’ll be the guest speaker at the Phoenixville Library’s annual Fundraiser, “Wine, Wit & Wisdom,” on November 7th, 2013. Learn more at RobbCadigan.com.

Robb also had a short story included in Chester County Fiction, which is also available on Amazon.

On Writing: An Interview with Carla Sarett

WIFU COVER 1 - Copy (509x800)Carla Sarett is the author of two short story e-book collections, Nine Romantic Stories and Crazy Lovebirds – Five Super Short Stories. She writes breezy, yet philosophical stories with female protagonists asking questions about the state of their life and love. Carla’s stories have been published in countless journals. She lives outside of Philadelphia. I first met Carla at the Philadelphia Writers Group, where a few of us realized we shared a love of literary fiction, and we eventually started a small monthly critique group that meets in homes and on Google Hangout.

Jim: Your stories are whimsical ponderings on love and life. While they are about romance, they aren’t typical romance stories. What was your inspiration for these stories?

Carla: I think we write from who we are. You can’t escape yourself when you write, because it all oozes out anyway, even if you’re running in the opposite direction. I’m drawn to philosophical themes by temperament– I think my dad was as well. It’s the way my brain works when I’m out and about “processing” reality. Story-wise, I get inspired by real stories that I hear, even fragments of dialogue (I am a compulsive eavesdropper) or something I see, like a couple arguing in a coffee shop. But tone wise, I think movies inspire me more — especially older Hollywood films.

Jim: You’re a big fan of Deborah Eisenberg. What draws you to her stories?

2013-07-27 11.06.57Carla:All great short fiction writers create a world in a story– you put it down and you remember it. The characters stay with you. They’re as real as your neighbors. So, for me, Eisenberg’s stories are like that. The people she imagines stick with me– like Rosie in “Rosie Gets a Soul.” I can’t forget Rosie. I like the fact that Eisenberg allows her characters to talk about questions as big as the moon– the way people in a bar do when it’s late and everyone’s feeling lonely. She never turns characters into cartoons or makes them quirky. To me, she’s what Salinger could have been, if he’d grown up.

Jim: Where do you do most of your writing? Do you write every day?

Carla: I’m disciplined about most things — so I write every day although some days offer fewer hours for work than others. I reserve some days for editing, rather than writing. I do not like leaving too much unpolished. I clean it up as I go along. These days, I write in a home office that looks out onto my green yard — big trees, deer, squirrels, very idyllic. I could never write in a public space like a Starbucks. The very idea horrifies me.

Jim: What inspired you to be a writer? Can you recall a moment, or perhaps it was a book or an author that you read where you said “this is what I want to do?”

Carla: I’m more surprised than anyone that I started writing short fiction. It wasn’t a goal or even a dream of mine. As a market researcher, I published lots of “think pieces” and those kinds of articles. But after my mother died, someone bought me a journal– and that exercise morphed into fiction. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I thought that if I could finish 9 stories, (a magic number because of Salinger’s Nine Stories,) I’ll keep going. That is why I called my first story collection Nine Romantic Stories, even though by that time, I’d written three times that many.

Jim: You’re a big Hitchcock fan. What is your favorite film and why?

Carla: Vertigo is my favorite of Hitchock’s films. I often watch it for inspiration (speaking of inspiration.) One of my own stories, “Mandolinata,” is based on Vertigo, a kind of Vertigo in reverse. I’ve used references to Vertigo in other stories as well. I like the theme that we want to be fooled, we’re eager to be fooled– anyone can do it. I first fell in love with the film because of its haunting musical score and romantic scenes of San Francisco, especially at the Mission– those scenes with no dialogue are gorgeous. But I admire inventive storytelling — and Vertigo’s split structure is terrific. I think an underrated feature of Vertigo is its use of humor. As the hero is behaving crazily, we’re treated to the tolerant saleswoman in the dress salon. What a perfect moment.

Jim: What are you working on now and when do you hope to have it published?

Carla: I’m working on a novel based on the woebegone heroine from “Career Girl” (in the romantic comedy anthology, Love Hurts) and “Skinny Girl” (published in Red Fez.) Working with a longer form piece is fun, but it’s challenging– especially since I’m used to working with stories of 3000 words and under! I’d hope to have this novel published in 2014, or rather I’d be delighted if that happened. I’m also working on some memoir pieces about my grandparents — the first of which is due to appear in the October edition of Blue Lyra Review.

Thanks for inviting to your blog, Jim!

The Paris Wife – A Review

102511-pick.jpg_full_600In the middle of reading Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, I experienced a strange meta moment.

I was reading a fictional account of a real-life trip to the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona that inspired the fictional masterpiece, The Sun Also Rises.

Has there ever been a vacation written about from so many viewpoints in fictional, autobiographical and biographical tomes? What happens in Pamplona apparently doesn’t stay in Pamplona. All kidding aside though, The Paris Wife is a romanticized account of Hadley Hemingway that at times is a re-hashing of material that has been examined from nearly every perspective. Hadley is portrayed as the good wife, loving and true, who eventually loses Ernest to a younger and more cultured Pauline.

For those who have read A Moveable Feast or watched the documentary Hemingway: Wrestling with Life, you know the terrain about to be covered. Ernest and Hadley marry and move to Paris, where Ernest struggles to learn his craft. They meet other expatriate writers. Ernest writes. Ernest and Hadley drink. They travel to San Fermin with other expats, where events inspire Ernest’s first novel. Ernest gets published and falls in love with Pauline, eventually leaving Hadley.

As I mentioned, McLain’s version of Hadley is romanticized, but we feel her pain when she loses three years of Ernest’s manuscripts. We sense Hadley’s conflicted feelings when she reads the manuscript for The Sun Also Rises and realizes the story is based on real events though she has been basically erased out of every scene. For me, the novel picks up towards the end, with the tension that arises when Pauline wedges her way in between Ernest and Hadley. In that sense, the novel is a tragic love story, though not as tragic as my favorite Hemingway novel, A Farewell To Arms.

For those who are interested in the Hemingway story, this is an entertaining read. I also recommend reading A Moveable Feast and watching Hemingway: Wrestling with Life.

Liars in Love by Richard Yates – A Review

c15025Liars in Love, the second short story collection by Richard Yates, contains seven short stories that are definitely worth reading, but only after you read his earlier collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which I recently reviewed. Yates is often mentioned as an influence on Raymond Carver, and there are similarities between how the early stories of both are minimalist in nature. The seven stories in Liars in Love are longer in form, they breathe a bit more than his earlier stories. There are several touching moments laced throughout. Yates has the ability to take the reader’s breath away. Consider the first sentence of the story, A Natural Girl.

In the spring of her Sophomore year when she was twenty, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she didn’t love him anymore.

Simply startling. The story is heartbreaking all the way through.

Regards at Home is probably my favorite short story in this collection, mainly because it provides an interesting comparison and contrast to the novel Revolutionary Road, with the added bonus of a rather grumpy mother thrown into the mix. Here’s how the narrator, a young man named Bill Grove, describes watching his mother having her teeth extracted.

It made my toes clench and my scalp prickle: it was a terrible but oddly satisfying thing to watch.

A page later, when his then girlfriend calls his mother an “art bum,” he defends her, and he spends the story trying to keep the two women away from each other. He eventually marries this girlfriend, and unfulfilled at his job, he daydreams about moving to Paris, but his wife becomes pregnant. All the while, he and his wife become friends with a co-worker named Dan Rosenthal. Dan remains stuck caring for his own mother and siblings after the death of his father and develops a crush on Bill’s wife.

In the final scenes, Bill, his wife and child are on the cusp of realizing his dream; they are boarding an ocean liner to move to Paris. Dan hugs Bill’s wife tightly as he says goodbye, an awkward moment. Dan then leans into Bill’s ear closely and says, “Don’t piss it all away.” In the final lines of the story, Bill is overwhelmed with gratitude for his life, a moment made even more remarkable when contrasted to Revolutionary Road.

Saying Goodbye to Sally is a fascinating story about a divorced writer named Jack who is given the chance to draft a screenplay in Los Angeles. After moving to LA temporarily, he meets a charming woman and has a fling that they both know won’t last more than the few months he is in town. Yates writes movingly about their first weekend together and captures the exhilaration of new love. Sally lives with a wealthy friend in a mansion, where Jack gets sucked into alcohol fueled parties with some crazy characters, including an artist who creates black velvet paintings. Jack also has an obsession with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the themes (and the mansion) recall Fitzgerald’s writings from earlier in the century. It’s a beautiful story about the transient nature of romance, and well worth your time.

My summer of Yates will undoubtedly continue, though I need to continually weave in some other titles from my TBR pile.