Author Archives: annotationnation

A Life in Men



book by Gina Frangello

annotation by Kate Maruyama

The structure of A Life in Men is as carefully wrought as it is difficult to unravel. Gina Frangello keeps us moving, ostensibly through the stories attributed to specific men in her heroine Mary’s life – but there is a larger structure and rhythm that goes on, moving from location to location, back and forth through time. I can only imagine she wrote and wrote – as each scene is fully realized, each of its characters fully honored – and then saw how the scenes balanced against each other. Perhaps she moved certain scenes up, others later, as the life and revelations and observances of Mary and the other characters in the story unfolded. So much of the beauty of the story is in the rhythm of its unfolding as each element of the story reveals itself. “Rich tapestry” would be the cliché compliment here and is insufficient. Frangello has woven what feels like the actual fabric of an actual life with all of its complexities and offshoots. This book is a dynamic example of how writers can pull things apart, out of chronological order, put scenes up against each other and see how they play, creating their own tension. I advise so many writers I know to index card their scenes and try shuffling things a little. Characters are best revealed in layers, and not always chronologically. Sometimes we can use a slice of their past or future to inform events going on currently, and while flashback is sometimes employed, a cross-cutting and shuffling often serves a story better.

Frangello employs other tools in giving us the multilayered lives of her characters. In the midst of an already climactic scene in which Mary visits her birth father, bringing a married man with whom she’s having an affair, only to be introduced to her father’s mistress, Frangello throws in a magical realism omniscient glimpse forward, all the while enriching the scene we’re in:

Two months later, when Daniel tells this story to his artist friends in San Miguel, He will transpose the facts so that it was Eli who called Esther Daniel’s concubine and Esther, standing by, flushed with wine, will not contradict him as everyone laughs. Six years later, when Mary tells the story to Sandor over an Indonesian rijsttafel, she will say that it occurred to her only later that maybe Daniel was lying and Gabriella was completely in the dark–there was no way, after all, that either she or Eli would go up to her and ask or ever mention Esther’s name. Thirty years later, when Diane is at last succumbing to an epic, two decade battle with cancer and Eli is unburdening his soul…(153)

You get the idea. The combination of these different tangents of the story in unison at once, within several stories already working in unison, creates a symphony that frankly, I can only tip my hat to—amazing work. It is a good lesson in remembering that novels take years and layers, and that this level of craft doesn’t come from simply trotting off a story, shoving scenes together and hoping they stick. This level of craft comes from bringing characters to life, seeing how they interact and affect each other’s lives, breathing into the scenes and imagining the ways in which those characters’ lives continue, having spun off from the central story being told.

Frangello keeps us anchored in her deft manipulations of space and time and characters through Mary’s body – its limitations, desires, discomfort and pleasures, and the very way in which she experiences each place she visits, each person she meets. Our heroine has Cystic Fibrosis, which serves not only as a ticking clock, but her changing relationship to the condition and to her body, unfolds with each aspect of the story. It goes from the hilarious, with her keeping it secret with great tension and fear on a visit to Daniel’s only to have her cover blown in an unexpected way; to oddly sexy when her alarming symptoms make her instantly desirable to someone who hadn’t considered her before; to terrifying as she struggles for air far from any help; to devastating. There is something about Mary’s ticking clock, her need to gasp for air, which emphasizes her drive to eat up life; her illness also brings together people who would not have otherwise have met in fascinating and random and life-like ways. So often we forget that our living, breathing complex characters are in our strange, varied, pained, twingy, hungry, sexual bodies. A Life in Men is a study in how a body can keep your reader anchored, can propel a story and can add an underlying thrum to each scene it’s in.

Nalo Hopkinson gave a lecture at Antioch University Los Angeles in December of 2013 talking about how readers are “hungry ghosts,” yearning for the experiences of life. They want to be put inside a story that makes them feel as if they are in a real person, walking around inside a real experience. With Mary’s illness, her deeply felt experiences with sex, food and the richness of different locations as our characters travel from Greece to London to Mexico to Amsterdam to Morocco, and through the broad spectrum of life shown through each narrator’s point of view, including those little jumps into the future, Frangello leaves her reader well fed indeed. And the whirl around Mary, who is a catalyst in so many lives, becomes something bigger, illustrating way in which we bump up against people on this planet, and the very fiber of reality changes and morphs and grows richer as we do so.



My Brilliant Friend

9781609450786_p0_v1_s260x420book by Elena Ferrante

annotation by Lorinda Toledo

Elena Ferrante is an Italian author whose latest novel, My Brilliant Friend, is a character-driven story with a plot that is relatively quiet yet rich. The novel, the first in a trilogy, is set in motion by a mysterious disappearance. Motivated by this mystery, the narrator, Elena Grecco—called Lenú—sits down to write the entire story of her life-long friendship with her vanished friend, Lila. Imbued with the gift of perspective, the narrator reflects on the 1950s childhood and adolescence of the two friends. While Ferrante does many things well in this book, I believe one of the main ways she creates a successful novel is through precise characterization of the protagonists, as well as the minor characters.

While Lenú is the narrator, Lila is arguably the more fascinating protagonist in the story. Because we have only a first person narrator, and therefore do not know what is going on in Lila’s mind, the eccentrically intelligent friend becomes a marvelous mystery to the reader in the same way she is to Lenú. Ferrante establishes the singular bond between these two protagonists at the outset when Lenú introduces the reader to Lila, who’s real name is “…Rafaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over (loc. 103).

Ferrante illustrates the life-long nature of the girls’ friendship beautifully, as in this scene early in the book when as children they bravely approach the house of Don Achille, a man with a reputation as the town ogre, to retrieve the dolls Lila has purposely dropped into his basement through a window: “She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was…She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand” (loc. 171). Lila is simultaneously a solitary outcast and the most beloved in the town. She consistently acts according to her own, highly intelligent mind, which is frequently in opposition to the status quo. As a result, she regularly pushes Lenú outside her comfort zone and on to success. Lila’s character grows and changes quite a bit throughout the book, but what always remains is the intrigue, or brilliance, of her persona.

Lenú and Lila grew up in a small, impoverished town in Naples, which is where most of the story takes place. Even Lenú’s characterization is largely dictated by that of Lila, as in this scene where, as an excellent student, she has received the honor of an island vacation where she can think and rest. It’s something that is unheard of in the poor town she’s from, and is also her first time outside Naples: “I missed only Lila, Lila who didn’t answer my letters. I was afraid of what was happening to her, good or bad, in my absence. It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance” (loc. 2694). Throughout the wave-like ups and downs of the novel’s plot, Lenú consistently describes this type of conflicted love, frustration, and doubt about herself. Lila, in effect, has determined who Lenú is.

There are many other characters in this novel, as well. So many in fact, that there is an “Index of Characters” at the beginning of the book (loc. 16) that the reader can easily refer back to. However, I found that it was rarely necessary because of Ferrante’s skill with creating memorable characterization of each of these relatively minor but recurring personas. There’s Marcello Solara, who falls in love with Lila after she holds a shoemaker’s knife to his neck (loc. 1626). The intelligent Nino Sarratore is the railroad worker/poet’s son and also Lenú’s main love interest (loc. 601). There’s Gigliola Spagnuolo, the smart, pretty baker’s daughter who in many ways becomes Lenú’s main rival (loc. 2501). One of the most memorable characters is Melina Cappuccio, the crazed widow and town outcast who everyone shuns except for Lila (loc. 295). These minor characters and their relationships with Lenú and Lila often say as much about the protagonists as their own actions do of themselves.

There are far too many characters to mention them all, but one of my favorite characterizations is of Lenú’s mother:

The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course. It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking. Nor did her right leg work properly—she called it the damaged leg. She limped, and her step agitated me, especially at night, when she couldn’t sleep and walked along the hall to the kitchen, returned, started again. Sometimes I heard her angrily crushing with her heel the cockroaches that came through the front door, and I imagined her with furious eyes, as when she got mad at me (loc. 387).

While it is expanded upon throughout the course of the story, this demonstrates the level of characterization in the novel well. Although Lenú’s mother is a minor character, Ferrante instills the relationship with a complexity of villainy and sympathy beginning with the choices she makes in the narrator’s description of the mother.

As a fiction writer, what I appreciate that Ferrante has achieved nearly unlimited plot potential by populating the world of her novel with well-developed characters. Furthermore, she is able to sustain consistent and ever-deepening characterization over the entire course of the novel. The characterization—particularly that of Lenú and Lila—becomes the main aspect of the plot. This is a powerful skill for me as a writer to learn, because much of my writing seeks to explore the nature of relationships through literature, without turning the story into melodrama.

In My Brilliant Friend, the external conflicts are many and the stakes are high, but they feel secondary, existing only to serve this exploration of the relationship between the two girls. In this way, Ferrante achieves a realistic and multi-faceted meditation on the nature of female friendship.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

9780062255655book by Neil Gaiman

annotation by Lee Stoops

“A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change.”

~ Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the end of the Lane (170)

The more I read, the more I want to find stories that can disregard rules (carefully or not, at least with full knowledge not only of the rules but also of their reasons) and fuse genres. These are the stories that address my needs as a writer and offer permission to really dig the story out in whatever way it insists on its own excision. The way a story is unearthed, or unearths itself, matters because each has extensive power to change the way readers see the world and the way they envision themselves in it. That power (or, potential) is not the point, though. Responsibility is the point. The writer’s responsibility is to his characters, to their world, because those things matter to the reader for more than just entertainment. Sure, I started reading the way most do: for some kind of entertaining escape. But it’s not enough, now. I still want that escape, but in doing so, I want the promise I’ll come back changed. For me, the stories that make familiar things strange make that easier. Set a story in reality and embody it with surrealism, and I start to believe almost anything is possible. The human being in me loudly claims it knows what’s real and what’s not, but the storyteller/lover in me begins to ceaselessly chant “I want to believe.” And that is where a writer like Neil Gaiman with his The Ocean at the End of the Lane both adheres to his responsibility as a storyteller and sends his characters (and readers) into an adventure of actual, possible mythic proportions.

Typically, when I write about writing, I look for specific language and craft techniques or examples at play – the things I can identify as either working or not – because identification usually leads to a better understanding of how I apply myself to my own work. In the practicing of my craft, I hope that I’m honing skills, sure, but more than that, I want to be growing in my awareness. While I could look at Gaiman’s short novel from a strict craft/construction/language perspective, I think it deserves a different lens – a bigger picture lens, and I hope to do that here.

The pond was smaller than I remembered…the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called…

It wasn’t the sea, was it?

She would be older than I am now, Lettie Hempstock. She was only a handful of years older than I was back then, for all her funny talk. She was eleven. I was…what was I? It was after the bad birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven.

And it wasn’t the sea. It was the ocean.

Lettie Hempstock’s ocean.

I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything (7-8).

Gaiman’s story opens with a short, intentionally ambiguous prologue, narrated by the adult version of the protagonist, arriving, serendipitously, at a small pond he knew during a short window of his boyhood that he only begins to remember while coming upon it (and will likely forget again once he leaves). His memories arrive all at once, in a wave that forces the story backward in time, the entirety of it to be told by the same narrator from his seven year old point of view. And though his narrator takes on the voice of a young boy, Gaiman’s done something significant: he’s established authority in the voice – authority for an ageless character to tell an ageless story about memory and magic and humanity. But more than that, the grown human nature of the story’s introduction give the reader permission to be swept away by a story that is full of things unbelievable: a pond that is also an ocean, a young girl and her family of women who seem to know everything and have lived forever, monsters who take various forms and remain invisible at times and to the willingly doubtful.

But through the telling of the story, Gaiman’s narrator calls on familiar tokens of human youth and frustration to lend even greater credence to the narrator’s somehow-forgotten-and-then-remembered impossible childhood story. The boy’s birthday party is a failure. He has no friends. A man his parents rent his room to runs over his cat. His parents refuse to listen to him. His sister is vile. Everything in life is unfair and pitted against him. And then the monsters show up. So, maybe it’s not just youthful themes. Gaiman, with clean prose and a personable, reasonably- (and intelligently-) voiced young narrator, has sneaked in those themes readers generally consider abandoned in adolescence but have really just relabeled as adult contentions.

“…Why do you think she’s scared of anything? She’s a grown-up, isn’t she? Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.”

“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” She thought for a moment. Then she smiled. “Except for Granny, of course” (112).

And along the way, he injects the narrative with bits of enormous wonderings, universal truths, (often) unspoken things. Rather than bludgeon the reader with these notes on humanity and the power of story, he gives them to the narrator, the narrator’s mysterious friends, and even the monsters. At the end of the boy’s narrative, the narrator says, “A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn’t I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don’t change” (170). His questions and statements (taken with any tone they might elicit for a reader) force similar questions and statements, oppositional, or not, from the reader. They force, in some subtle and in other not-so-subtle ways, growing consideration.

I started writing for the same reason I started reading. And when my reading needs shifted, so did my writing needs. Daily, it becomes clearer that the process is not a series of stops and starts but a continuum of shifts in need. Stories like The Ocean at the End of the Lane affirm the continuum by illuminating the evolution of need. It’s not so much a disregarding of rules or an eschewing of genre as it is a welcoming of different tactics to the widening melting pot. I want to be a writer who makes room for anything that needs representation in my work. Neil Gaiman is a storyteller who proves there’s always room, as long as there’s consideration.



book by Jeff VanderMeer

illustrations by Jeremy Zerfoss

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have this compulsion to buy people books—books they MUST have. But long ago I learned that it’s impossible to sustain a family on that impulse, so instead, I recommend.  The recommendations frequently come with a bossy, “Seriously, you HAVE to get a copy, you MUST read this,” or run in punishingly long emails about said books filling unwitting friends’ inboxes.

But this year’s recommend,  Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer has gotten a bit out of control, as, since I first laid eyes on it, I want every writer and teacher of writing to have a copy. I would like to lay it in the hands of so many people and have written so many emails and have used giant hand gestures with my students, insisting they each get a copy that, well, it’s getting embarrassing.

It’s difficult to talk about Wonderbook without totally spazzing out about its awesomeness, but fortunately, in this space, it’s not about reviews or raving, it’s about talking about what is useful to us as writers. So I can calm down. And be in control. Right?

Because of its subtitle: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction and the writers who appear in its pages (Neal Gaiman, Ursula K LeGuin, George RR Martin and Michael Moorcock, among others,)  realistic fiction writers or writers not in the genre of science fiction and fantasy may think this book is not for them. And that’s where I start jumping up and down and ranting.

As soon as the book arrived in the mail this past October, I started using charts from its pages to help teach my students (all of whom write a variety of types of fiction at a variety of levels) plot, character, process and whatever my class was discussing in our last few lessons. I can yammer all day about plots, their varieties and patterns, but the plot lizards do so much work in gorgeous images, not to mention the Story vs. Situation dragons (pictured above,) the Storyfish (who brings on the Ass Backwards Fish in the revision section, a gorgeous illustration of exactly what was wrong with a certain element of my novel before a very skilled developmental editor got his hands on it) and the evolutionary Lifecycle of a Story.

What stopped me – totally stopped me – in a gobsmacking way in the book was an illustration of The Middle Zones (116) of story. There on the page, completely illustrated, was something I’d tried explaining to so many writers over years of doing notes for friends or in teaching . From my screenwriting days, I’d called it the Second Act Wall. It’s when the initial steam of starting a script, or novel, poops out. You’ve introduced these characters you had so clearly in your head, the world you’ve put them in, the circumstances that got you excited to write it in the first place, but you have absolutely no idea how to proceed.  In this illustration, one of Jeremy Zerfoss’s little faceless (but totally animated) creatures walks around a chart, saying  things I’ve heard from so many writers who are stuck: “This senseless slog.” “I never should have started.” “I will never get to the end.” “My outline is stupid, method suspect. I no longer know what I’m doing.” The chart provides questions to ask of your manuscript, suggestions how to proceed (or as Diane Sherlock has been known to say, ‘poke it with a stick’), but moves in a circle, demonstrating so completely the utter hell that is the Middle Zone. When you’re in it, you feel you’ll never emerge. Along the edge of this wheel are hopeful words of encouragement and suggestions, “persevere,” “new venue,” “new energy.” And to describe it further is not going to get you any closer to having the book, which, if you are a writer and/or teacher of writing, you should probably do. (Like now.) Because a picture is worth a thousand words and I’ve used up only two-fifty in this chunk.

Useful (and beautiful) diagrams and gorgeous illustrations aside, the book is chock full of very useful and practical writing advice on every stage of writing, from inspiration, through characters, narrative design, world building, revision (progression was an revelatory for me and so useful now even in drafting) and the ecosystem of a story, which is my favorite section in regards to teaching:

 Like living creatures, stories come in a bewildering number of adaptations and mutations. Even within the constraint of written words, incredible variety occurs due to the near-infinite number of possible combinations. Anyone who tells you there are only a dozen types of stories should be viewed with as much suspicion as someone who tells you “all animals are the same.” A penguin is not a hamster; nor is a prawn a sea cucumber, an elephant a squid, an anteater, a dragon. (41)

So often I have students coming in with “rules” they have learned from various craft books, or from cranky teachers who believe that there is only one way to write. And often these rules have shut them down completely. It takes all manner of talking to open these writers up a little, to give them courage in their own process, and to give them the nerve to continue or sometimes to go back to the page at all. The greatest asset of this book is that it speaks gently and kindly to the writer. It contains volumes of information and knowledge, but isn’t bossy or didactic. It is more – like the chart of The Middle Zone – filled with gentle suggestions and useful information to help a writer proceed. Because at the end of the day, at least among the writers I know, we face enough demons, we don’t need an instructor prescribing our various processes.

But we sure could use a big, broad, colorful, but carefully laid out guide full of advice from so many writers who have been there, filled with encouragement, tools and tricks of the trade. This book has tools for novices, but also for pros and, were these words not copyrighted on another infamous Guide, DON’T PANIC (in giant font,) would be completely appropriate for its cover.

If you want to dip further into the world of Wonderbook, you can find more here.




book by André Breton

annotation by Carrol Sun Yang

The first line of Breton’s French surrealist work written in 1928 inquires:

Who Am I?

The philosophical thrust of this book is thereby established and I am propelled into this semi-autobiographical novella that operates in the form of a drawn out fit of dreamlike passion and then a waking obsession over the title character Nadja. Breton’s rapturous and sometimes tangential ramblings, albeit linear and spanning ten chronologically ordered days, are intersected by images of Surrealist artworks, quotations by prominent figures in the Surrealist movement, Nadja’s symbolic scribbles on napkins and architectural landmarks (places he narrates in the story, such as café’s he frequents and various other pedestrian locales).  All of the imagery serves the writing by grounding it in a certain reality, a travelogue or possible nonfiction, by refusing to let the airy, phantom texts disorient the reader to the point of misunderstanding. There is a fine balance struck between the poetic language of capriciousness and the sensible speeches of lucidity.

Nadja is a woman who is met by the author, by chance or fate, walking alone on a sidewalk with no apparent destination. She promptly shows herself to be a little “mad” in the sense that her waking life and dream life are blended and this confused state is noted somewhat tenderly by the narrator. We detect her unconventionality (freedom) through her spectacularly absurd but somehow touching, in a childlike way, speeches and dialogue with Breton. The following fanciful transaction occurs between Nadja (or rather she to herself) and narrator in a cab, she invents:

Close your eyes and say something. Anything, a number, a name. Like this (she closes her eyes): Two, two what? Two women. What do they look like? Wearing black. Where are they? In a park… And then, what are they doing? Try it, it’s so easy, why don’t you want to play? You know, that’s how I talk to myself when I’m alone, I tell myself all kinds of stories. And not only silly stories: actually, I live this way altogether.

There is a sense that she is precious to Breton precisely because she is unhinged and able to access a secret world that only she is able to fully inhabit, a place where Breton wishes to gain entry but of course cannot fully, as he establishes early on in the text that his interests are stoked by absurd stimulation/ childish play. He also suggests and perhaps hopes that Nadja will “need him” indefinitely as she is bound like an invalid to her condition, her madness, the condition of the surreal:

When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her. In her condition, she is always going to need me, one way or another, and suddenly. It would be hateful to refuse whatever she asks of me, one way or another, for she is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvelously, for life.

His already questionable love for Nadja, as it is based on his perception of her as a darling-magical-cripple in some sense, falters when she progressively reveals to him, what he alone fears are too many remnants of her past. By unveiling herself as not solely his “creature” or “specter” but someone who was part of others lives, she inadvertently alienates herself from the mercurial cocoon that the narrator has spun around them. She bursts his figment of her. She bursts his figment of them. He bursts. In essence, she becomes too common to adore:

I reacted with terrible violence against the over-detailed account of she gave me of certain scenes of her past life, concerning which I decided, probably quite superficially, that her dignity could not have survived entirely intact.

 Upon cutting off ties with Nadja, the narrator promptly begins to pine for her with a fiery obsession, as one would over a newly dead lover. Nadja a ghost. Nadja his concoction. Nadja the abstraction with her “fits of abstraction” who he could not live without as much as he could not live with the flesh and blood reality of her.

When he learns that his beloved was eventually committed to a sanitarium, the platform is set for Breton to offer sociopolitical commentary, which he does quite succinctly, a departure from the more esoteric language that inhabits the preceding text:

Unless you have been inside a sanitarium you do not know that madmen are made there, just as criminals are made in our reformatories. Is there anything more detestable than these systems of so-called social conservation which, for a peccadillo, some initial and exterior rejection of respectability or common sense, hurl an individual among others whose association can only be harmful to him and, above all, systematically deprive him of relations with everyone whose moral or practical sense is more firmly established than his own?

In my reading, this opinion is what drives the book. Breton elevates Nadja, the mad one, to the level of a beautiful, genius, mystical specimen of unfortunate internment. In writing her, he releases her from certain captivity while simultaneously keeping her in bondage to his memory. He champions her flights. There is a section in the book where we see Nadja asking that Breton write her into a book. He does not fail her.

The closing sentence summarizes the structure of the book and the nature of madness and longing:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.

What I take away from Nadja is a way to communicate the confluence of mammalian love and human madness, both visually and textually. How love and madness are always initially conjoined. The initial convulsions of an adult “crush” are hormonal and spiritual. A crush is based in fact and fiction. Exposed to dissection. Open to portent. Joyful in it’s high frivol. Obsessive until it’s inevitable death. Precisely the way Breton manages it.

I am also noting the beginning and ending lines of books. In “Nadja” the first line seems to be answered in part by the closing line. (I think that is one possible method I may employ in my own pieces as a jumpstart/ shortcut to creating a basic framework around the “filling”).

In “Nadja” Breton never seems to be able to answer with any solidity the question of who he is except to suggest that who he is, is related to who he haunts or who haunts him. He attempts to understand himself in relation to other men/women/objects in the world. These beings by virtue of purely existing (within his view) are also not-existing (already dead) and in that they become something. They become his/ him. This model which I am able to tease out of his writing appears to be somewhat based on Surrealist engagement with the Hegelian Dialectic. Those people/objects which Breton writes about are ultimately arranged in changeable and mysterious patterns and the only way to know who he, Breton is, is by looking at the ways in which he arranges them in his own mind. Simply, I would say that he is what he writes. That what he writes of and how he writes are convulsive, he haunts with his words and his words haunt back, objects in the world haunt him and he hunts them, in that animal purity is the great beauty that insists on itself and in a way gives answer to who we all are. The haunters/ haunted and the hunters/ hunted.





9780451460752book by Rob Thurman

annotation by Melissa Olson

Like many English literature students, by the time I graduated college I’d developed quite a scornful attitude toward the fantasy novel.

It wasn’t a malicious thing – in fact, I’m not sure I’d even call myself a snob. It’s just that I had been trained in Literature, with a capital L. My undergraduate degree was in reading Literature. The master’s degree I eventually obtained was in writing Literature. I had no problem with the fantasy genre, or with people who wanted to read it. I simply considered myself better than those books.

Okay. Maybe I was a bit of a snob.

But about seven years ago, I was talking to my kid sister about what we were reading, and she started gushing over a book she was really enjoying: Nightlife, by Rob Thurman. She made it sound interesting enough, but I was still rather skeptical as I skimmed the first few pages of her copy. After all, it was fantasy, which to me meant I’d probably have to memorize a map and a couple dozen names that were mostly consonants. But by the time I finished the book – about eight hours later – the ground had shifted beneath my feet. I had discovered urban fantasy, a genre that I would read addictively for the next five years before writing my own.

Nightlife taught me that no only could the genre be wonderfully enjoyable and exciting and clever; it can also take bold risks. The story is written in first person, but halfway through the book the character is possessed by an evil entity, and the rest of the story is written from the entity’s point of view, filtered through the voice of the protagonist. That may sound silly when you read it as a description, but I promise that within the story itself, it is captivating. And as a vehicle for demonstrating someone’s writing talent, it is a breathtaking success.

Most readers probably have books that changed their lives, but Nightlife gave me more than a new passion: I eventually got a career out of it. Reading my first urban fantasy convinced me that I wanted to write my own. Reading Nightlife convinced me that I needed to wait until, like Thurman, I had an original story to tell.

It was years before I came up with an idea that I was proud of and hadn’t seen before. Dead Spots is about a young woman with a unique gift: she nullifies supernatural powers. Any witch, vampire, or werewolf who gets too close to her becomes a human again for as long as they’re in her presence. Because her ability protects her from the supernatural, she makes a living cleaning up their crime scenes so these creatures can stay hidden from the rest of the world.

I’m proud of Dead Spots and its two sequels, but four or five reads later, I am also as impressed with Nightlife today as I was seven years ago, if not more so.  That one book taught me to respect subgenres I didn’t previously understand, and to appreciate that although “genre fiction” may have a reputation for being assembly-line drivel, when you really look at it you can find a sublime, exhilarating creativity that is as joyful as it is original.


9780451169518_p0_v1_s260x420book by Stephen King

annotation by Steve McHugh

I read Stephen King’s IT when I was about 13. It was a revelation to me in terms of just how horrific a bad-guy could be and how brave the heroes had to be to overcome their enemy. It was my first Stephen King book, although certainly not my last, and it changed my reading focus away from fantasy and sci-fi toward darker fiction for several years.

For those of you who don’t know, IT tells the story of several children as they’re hunted by a being who can tap into their fears, using them to disguise itself as it hunts its prey. Most people will remember Pennywise the clown, otherwise known as the thing that made an entire generation of people hate clowns.

IT did a variety of things that over the years that I’m sure a lot of people have come to enjoy using in their own writing, but for me it was the use of writing the story in two different time periods. To see the characters age, and with them, their way in dealing with the terror they face. I use flashbacks in my own books for similar reasons, to be able to show how characters have grown and now deal with issues after a big space of time between periods.

It was about the same time that I started watching old horror movies, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Maniac Cop alongside the older classics, such as the Hammer Horrors. Most horror movies pale into significance when placed up against the true literary masters of the genre, but occasionally there was a glimmer of something special that could match even the most demented written horror story.

I didn’t know it at the time, but those years of horror reading and watching, planted a spark of an idea in my head. The villains in horror books, and movies, often prey on the weak or at least those ignorant of their existence. The good guys and heroes either sacrifice themselves for the greater good, die horribly or manage to figure out what’s really happening just in time to have a showdown with whatever monster or villain is the cause of their situation. The villains are all powerful and the heroes must band together, find hidden depths of bravery and skill, or get really lucky to defeat them.

So, when my brain began to create Nathan Garrett, the main character in the stories that would eventually form the dark urban fantasy series, Hellequin Chronicles, one idea kicked around: what happened when the good guy is knowledgeable about what’s happening? That he’s neither weak, nor concerned with the normal morals and rules that people play by? That he is in fact someone who should be feared.

There’s a line in Crimes Against Magic, the first Hellequin book, where someone says that Nathan’s the thing the monsters fear. It means that the villains of the book have to be ever more despicable and something that Nathan can’t easily defeat.  I have a great deal of joy in making enemies for Nathan who don’t fear him, who taunt him just as much as Pennywise taunted the children, making them afraid and preying on their fears before killing them. Except Nathan has the capability to show the monsters why it is in fact they who should fear him. And that’s a lot of fun to write.

It’s amazing to think that something I read 20 years ago had such an impact on what I would eventually come to write myself. I think that’s the power of a truly great book, it’s something that we’ll always remember, always go back to and will change how we think about things we may not even consider at the time.

Seize the Day


book by Saul Bellow

annotation by Anne Charnock

When I finished the first draft of my novel A Calculated Life, I felt misgivings over the point of view I’d adopted and I realised I needed to do some research. I’d chosen a variant of third-person, namely third-person limited, which allowed me to relate the thoughts of my main character, Jayna. I didn’t wish to dip into the thoughts of any other characters. Jayna is a hyper-intelligent trends analyst and her interior monologue reveals her struggle to understand everyday social interactions.

The question I asked myself was this: Had I overdone the interior monologue? It was a difficult call.

I stopped re-drafting and began casting around for good examples of third-person limited. I settled on Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day, which tells the story of failed salesman Tommy Wilhelm and delves into his strained relationship with his successful father. Bellow is brilliant in his use of this POV. It allows him to get below the surface – to reveal that seemingly harmless, and even complimentary, remarks by his father are tearing Tommy’s nerves to shreds. He’s on the brink, his marriage has fallen apart, his investments are bombing.

During a close read of Seize the Day, I underlined every instance of Wilhelm’s first-person thoughts. The first instance occurs nearly four pages into the book when Tommy sees his reflection in a hotel lobby:

…He began to be half amused at the shadow of his own marveling, troubled, desirous eyes, and his nostrils and his lips. Fair-haired hippopotamus!—that was how he looked to himself. He saw a big round face, a wide, flourishing red mouth, stump teeth. And the hat, too; and the cigar, too. I should have done hard labor all my life, he reflected. Hard honest labor that tires you out and makes you sleep. I’d have worked off my energy and felt better. Instead, I had to distinguish myself—yet.

Bellow uses the thought tag, he reflected, for the latter part of this interior monologue. But he dips in and out of Tommy’s head, deftly, without any thought tag here: Fair-haired hippopotamus!—that was how he looked to himself.

Following on from this, Bellow relates Tommy’s first-person thoughts every couple of pages or so.

I decided that I’d follow a similar pattern. In the redrafting of A Calculated Life, the first instance of Jayna’s interior monologue occurs on page six. I decided, taking Seize the Day as my guide, that I had in fact ‘overdone it’ in my first draft.

At a later stage, after my novel was accepted by a publisher (47North), I made a further change at the request of my editor—I italicized all the interior monologue. (Bellow does not use italics. Instead, he deploys a range of thought tags for clarification: he thought, he said to himself, he reflected). This final italicizing process was less straightforward than you might imagine. In several passages where Jayna’s thoughts were repeatedly interrupted by action, the text looked messy with all the switching from italics, to roman, to italics etc. So I rewrote these passages without interior monologue, in third-person. In addition, I stripped out many of the thought tags. They were redundant.

In my near-future novel, Jayna holds a rarefied position in the workplace, and in society, thanks to her remarkable intelligence. In fact, there are upsides for everyone because genetic engineering has freed the population from addictive tendencies. But it’s not a perfect world.

My adopting third person limited, I stand outside my main character but, in effect, I stand shoulder to shoulder with Jayna. I hope readers feel this way, too—that they are walking alongside her, in step, as she negotiates her way through a world that she often finds puzzling. And from time to time, when I dip into her thoughts, readers can glean that Jayna has a skewed interpretation of her encounters with other people. Rather like Tommy Wilhelm.

We Were the Mulvaneys


book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Emma Burcart

I was initially interested in Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were The Mulvaneys because it is a story about family. When boiled down to the basic theme, everything I write is about family. The love, the tug and pull of the relationships, the dysfunction inherent in every family. I was prepared for a big, multilayered story and yes, even for tragedy. But when I read the line from the Los Angeles Times Book Review on the back: “It will break your heart, heal it, then break it again,” I rolled my eyes. I know about family and I know about heartache. The book wouldn’t have much to teach me.

But then I got to know the Mulvaneys. The novel opens with an introduction to the whole clan, from the point of view of the youngest child, Judd Mulvaney, now grown into an adult. He describes his nuclear family: oldest brother Mike Jr., “Mule” the high school jock; Patrick “Pinch”, the science nerd; Marianne “Button”, the good girl cheerleader, and Judd whom everyone called “Ranger.” Dad, Mike Sr. and Mom, Corrine, had met young and married quickly, leaving behind both of their hometowns to set up a family together on High Point Farm. They sound like the perfect American family, but from the first line we know that it will not last.

            “We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?”

            “For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us.

            For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!- that’s what they deserve.” (1)

I didn’t want to like the Mulvaneys because I knew what was going to happen. Not literally, but I knew they were going to fall apart. I tried to keep emotional distance and study their family unit like a scientist. But it didn’t work. Oates sets up the family with such love, that it is impossible to remain neutral. The narrator is the key to this; Judd is the baby. He looks up to his brothers and sister, and while he may not know all of the adult things that go on, we see each of the characters through his young, adoring eyes. As a writer, this is important to me because it shows me that who is telling the story can completely change what story they are telling. In craft books and at conferences and workshops instructors are always asking, “Whose story is it?” When it is a family’s story, it’s everyone’s story. But even with a shared story, the decision of who tells it is a crucial one.

Judd knew that something had happened to his sister, at her prom on Valentine’s Day 1976, but he didn’t know exactly. This left us, the reader, guessing and trying to figure it out for a few chapters. Eventually we were shown, through Marianne’s eyes, her brutal rape and the hours and days following. Oates used a distance in the writing of these chapters that showed Marianne in denial. She wasn’t sure what happened, exactly, but her body told the story. Even as she was narrating that she couldn’t know, she described the scent of the vomit and blood in her mouth, the tears and blood stains on her prom dress as she hid them at the back of the closet. It was so powerful the way the thoughts and actions of the character, so contradictory, wove together to tell the truth of the situation.

There were points in the middle and toward the end of the story where Judd left us and we were told bits and pieces from other family members. But, because we had been so clearly set in Judd’s head, I trusted these other sources as accurate. I knew that Judd wouldn’t have given the story over to them, even for a minute, if he didn’t feel it was necessary. The chapter from the point of view of Mike Sr. toward the end, after everything had fallen apart and he was drunk and living alone in a room above an old Chinese restaurant, was amazing. The way Oates made everything seem foggy and off balance, made me feel as if I was drunk while reading. The father was the one narrating the scene, but it was a distant third person as if it was his former self, or an omniscient version of him looking down on himself. He missed whole chunks of information and time, and couldn’t be sure why things were happening the way they were. It was more than just an unreliable narrator. It was a drunk and dying narrator. It was amazing.

Oates’ descriptions are clear, vivid, and the language beautiful in its simplicity. When I went back and looked at all the descriptions I had underlined I saw that one of her specialties is the simile. Oates uses similes which give an exact picture of what is being described while also matching the themes of the novel: family, farming, small town life, roof repair.

            “She knew he didn’t mean it, yet what he might mean was couched so slyly in what he didn’t, like wheat kernels amid chaff, she was left unnerved.” (422)

This led me to realize something about myself as a writer, too. I am drawn to similes. I enjoy reading them and I enjoy writing them. As much as I try and create metaphors for description, they always fall flat, sound wrong, or just don’t work. But similes come naturally to my writing, and they are what I love as a reader. Seeing it work for a writer as talented as Joyce Carol Oates, I am finally willing to give up the quest for the perfect metaphor and embrace my love of the simile. It is really ok.

The last piece of the writing that caught my eye was the way in which she ended and began the story with almost exactly the same line: We were the Mulvaneys. Even though so much had changed by the end, and the patriarch was dead, they were still a family. That was what the story was ultimately about. How a family can be ripped apart at the seams and still find their way back to each other. It was a lovely circular process and the use of the same line made that all the more powerful. And it wasn’t even a simile.

Edgar Allen Poe Complete Tales and Poems

41H1jnVQ2XL._AA160_ book by Edgar Allen Poe

annotation by Kirsten Imani Kasai

Poe’s rather disappointing life began and ended in abandonment and sorrow. Loss of love and security, lack of safety, poverty, artistic pursuits of an unattainable peak … his tragedies set the template for the modern writer, for don’t we all milk our tragedies for critical and hopefully, financial gain? Poe’s writing speaks to the isolation, yearning loneliness and madness that resides in each of us to varying degrees. We sense that we are different, that no one else can possibly understand the depth of our pain, yet Poe successfully exploits our human weaknesses, and exposes humanity as ruled by precarious emotions, driven by instinctual urges (territorialism, lust, envy, revenge, fear). We linger among childhood’s intense fears, when phantoms loomed large and imagined creatures lurk in every shadow.

I read “The Raven” to my 8-year-old son last Halloween. I was surprised that he endured the reading and made appreciative little noises while listening; then we discussed it afterward. How can such a nebulous tale, with no evident plot, no other horror that the persistence of a stray bird in the house, can cause such terror? Poe’s first person narrators are unstable, mad, nervous, obsessive, anxious and prone to illness of body, mind and spirit. They are miserable, melancholic plotters, coldly unmoved by others’ suffering or guilt yet driven insane by their own dark desires. Poe writes of love detached from passion and obsession in the abstract. Characters commit gruesome attacks upon others (“Benenice,” “Tell-tale Heart,” “Cask of Amontadillo”) or are themselves the victim of torture or fatal errors (“The Pit and Pendulum,” “The Premature Burial)”. In every case, death claims its prize.

Poe has been credited with initiating the genres of science-fiction and the detective or mystery novel. His powerful prose ranges from complex, embedded with French and Latin, to short declarative sentences that crank up the emotional volume:

“I foamed – I raved – I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder – louder – louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! – they were making a mockery of my horror!-… I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!”—“The Tell-Tale Heart”

Poe filters raw emotion through eloquence to distill our greatest failings and expose our childish follies.

“… here was the idiotic thought that destroyed me! Des idees! – ah therefore it was that I coveted them so madly! I felt that their possession could alone ever restore me to peace, in giving me back to reason.” –”Berenice”

Alcohol, opium and writing were Poe’s only emotional outlets. His life and work were tented by grief and loss, beginning with the death of his mother Eliza. Longing and ghoulish isolation thread his stories and poems. Death is his constant companion in life and work; desperately, he writes ghosts into existence (Ligeia) and dances among tombstones, conjuring spirits back from the netherworld, attempting to defy, again and again, the laws of life.

It is this drive which shades and informs my own writing, for like Poe, fiction serves as my therapist and confessor. Someone dies badly in nearly every story I write. Hearts break like cheap glass baubles and the horrific swarms and swims between my lines. My pretty little words are flimsy rafts bobbing on a deep dark, melancholic sea. My “happy endings” are ghoulish. I don’t trade in rainbows and sunshine. “But this is life,” I say when countering objections from those seeking hope and happiness.

Thankfully, Poe and his enduring literary legacy assure me that there will always be a market for our sort of gloom and doom. A century and a half later, his stories still resonate with readers. For Poe expresses what is most essential and inescapable, peaks of joy, deep pools of regret and the desperation with which we cling to the known world—whether fearing or welcoming our inevitable end.

“Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.”—”Berenice”