Writer Wednesday: Loving Flannery.

The genius at home.

I love Flannery O’Connor, and that makes me a member of a very big club. Most writers I know list her as one of their inspirations.

I liked O’Connor before I even read her work, for one very superficial reason: Our names are similar. If I look at her book from across the room and squint, it almost looks like my name is on a very big book of collected stories.

Then I picked up the book and I learned to love her even more.

There are a lot of things to love. The spiritual nature of her work, her gentle but unflinching treatment of racial inequality in the South, and O’Connor’s dark sense of humor appeal to me. But the thing I love most about O’Connor is the way she creates her characters through dialogue. She believably creates the voices of bratty children, racist old men, gossipy women, pretentious intellectuals and crooks.

That’s no mean feat. Below the break is the craft essay I wrote for my MFA program about the genius of Flannery O’Connor’s dialogue.

Be warned – O’Connor wrote her stories in the early 20th century and dealt with issues of race, so there are some racial slurs in the essay below.

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Writer Wednesday: Joan Didion

For me, books can be like hard candy. You get a bag of Jolly Ranchers,  you rip it open and maybe you immediately eat one of your favorite flavors first, as a sort of opening-the-bag celebration.  But, then if you’re like me, you start eating all your least favorite flavors, so that what’s left in the bag – eventually – is a big pile of watermelon and sour apple. Heaven.

There are probably more moody black and white portraits of Joan Didion than of any other writer. If you print them all out and staple them together in a flip book, you can actually watch her age.

That’s how I’ve been treating the work of Joan Didion. I’ve loved Didion since a newspaper editor gave me The White Album as part of a newsroom Secret Santa gift exchange. I was 23, loved my job, and Didion’s essays sang to me. I’d never read prose like that before. I spent months on that book. I pored over each essay, reading each word twice, but I was stingy with myself, squirreling the essays away like sour apple Jolly Ranchers, and savoring that wonderful first-read feeling.

I have not read Slouching Toward Bethlehem yet. I know I will love it, so I am saving it for later.

Joan D.  is a two-edged sword, however. On the one hand, her work is heartbreakingly beautiful. On the other hand, it’s also just heartbreaking. I read Play it As it Lays this past spring and emerged from the novel feeling like I’d gotten drunk and then had a three-hour phone conversation with a friend who makes bad choices.

Below the page break is the craft essay I wrote about point of view in that novel.

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Writer Wednesday: Richard Russo

Richard Russo thinks of himself as a comic writer.

I had the advantage of being able to interview Richard Russo for my newspaper’s entertainment section just as I was writing a craft essay about him for my MFA program.

Russo was coming to town this past June to discuss That Old Cape Magic. I had just finished reading Empire Falls, and I was very excited to speak with him.

During the interview, Russo surprised me by referring to himself as a comic writer. In fact, he compared himself to Mark Twain, with whom he appeared in Granta magazine this summer. That ran counter to my observations as a reader. Sure, there were moments of humor – pure slapstick humor, actually – within the 483 pages of Empire Falls. But the book was more of an American epic, not the work of a humorist.

I didn’t get it until Russo told me that he considers people to be funny.  Just watching people being people, he said, can be enormously funny. That made sense, because Empire Falls is a lot like sitting in your hometown, having coffee at the diner and watching everyone you know as they walk by, living their lives.

And he’s right – people are funny. We’re funny in the same way that our cousins in the monkey house at the zoo are funny. We have basically the same motivations, and our attempts to get what we’re after can be just as clumsy and brash. And that can be hilarious, or it can be horrible.

“I do gravitate toward folly,” said Russo. “Sometimes there are tragic consequences to human folly.”

For the full story, click this link. For the craft essay I wrote about Russo’s graceful management of multiple viewpoint characters, read on.

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Writer Wednesday: Denise Mina

I’m a candidate for an MFA in creative fiction at Fairfield University. The program places a clear emphasis on literary fiction (think James Baldwin, not James Rollins.) So I was shocked when my mentor (short story writer Al Davis), recommended that I read a genre mystery – Scottish writer Denise Mina’s Field of Blood – as part of my literary training. “She uses a lot of literary elements,” he told me.

Mina blurs the line between genre and fiction. And she's Scottish.

Al was right. Field of Blood is a thriller and a mystery, but it was beautifully written. It was recommended to me, I think, because it’s about a reporter, and at the time, I was working on a piece about a journalist. But I recommend it to anyone, not only because of all the lovely Scottishness in the book, but because it’s a very well-told story.  Below the page break is the craft essay I wrote for Al about one of Mina’s literary elements: description.

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