I had some trouble with my store earlier this month, so I’m sending out this newsletter to let you know about some upcoming classes.
I’m offering three workshops on “The Poetics of Wrongness” in the coming months. For the first hour we will discuss one essay in the book and during the second hour we will generate some new writing and share work. See this link to sign up for one or more of these workshops. This workshop is limited to eight students.
I am also offering a Poetry Pop-Up workshop on April 12th. See this link for more information and to sign up. This workshop is limited to ten students.
The Poetics of Wrongness Essay One: Discussion and Generative Workshop April 8th 12-2pm
In her first book of critical non-fiction, The Poetics of Wrongness, poet Rachel Zucker explores wrongness as a foundational orientation of opposition and provocation. Devastating in their revelations, yet hopeful in their commitment to perseverance, these lecture-essays of protest and reckoning resist the notion of being wrong as a stopping point on the road to being right, and insist on wrongness as an analytical lens and way of reading, writing, and living that might create openness, connection, humility, and engagement. Expanded from lectures presented for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series in 2016, Zucker’s deft dismantling of outdated paradigms of motherhood, aesthetics, feminism, poetics, and politics feel prescient in their urgent destabilization of post-war thinking. In her four essay-lectures (and an appendix of selected, earlier prose), Zucker calls Sharon Olds, Bernadette Mayer, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Alice Notley, Natalie Diaz, Allen Ginsberg, Marina Abramović, and Audre Lorde—among others—into the conversation. This book marks a turning point in Zucker’s significant body of work, documenting her embrace of the multivocality of interview in her podcasting, and resisting the univocality of the lecture as a form of wrongness in and of itself.
This month I’m thrilled to welcome Meghan Louise Wagner to the podcast! First, because I love the story. Secondly, because I am from NE Ohio and she lives there! Yay! So happy to be promoting fellow Midwesterners.
If you would like a written transcript of this discussion, please use the contact form to request a PDF. I have a rudimentary transcript provided by Otter (it isn’t perfect!) I can provide as an alternative to our recorded discussion.
Meghan Louise Wagner lives in Northeast Ohio. Her work is forthcoming from or has appeared in such places as AGNI, Story, Cutleaf, Autofocus, Okay Donkey, McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies, X-R-A-Y Lit, and The Best American Stories 2022. She’s a graduate of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program and currently teaches writing at Cleveland State University and the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Today, just sadness. We are grieving young lives here in Michigan. Please keep everyone in the MSU community (including my son) #spartanstrong in your thoughts and prayers.
Below please find my scheduled post with Michigan short story writer, Kevin Fitton. I was happy to welcome him to the blog.
I have started alternating the podcast with Q and A’s on occasion. Not to worry though–we are still deconstructing stories in these blog posts!
Please read Michigan short storywriter, Kevin Fitton’s, award-winning story, “A Sentimental Person” from The Saturday Evening Post (before) delving into our Q and A. You can read it on the site here or transcribed below.
A Sentimental Person
Years after his wife’s death, a Michigan pastor learns how to play the blues and how to let go.
It had been three years since I touched that guitar. Before Lauren died, I played nearly every day — at least picked it up, smelled the earthy aroma of the instrument like mud laced with cinnamon. It surprised me the day I finally took it back out of its case to discover the scent was still there.
There were a few packages of strings in there, too, a capo, and a half-dozen picks, including the green one I caught when Chris Thile threw it into the crowd at the end of a Nickel Creek concert — one of the few good memories from my former life that didn’t have Lauren wrapped all around it. And there were two pieces of paper, folded into squares, with song ideas scratched out in blue ink from a writing session I can barely remember. I used to squirrel away an hour or two for writing whenever I could — a challenge with my responsibilities as a pastor, father, and husband. The ideas were half-formed and uninspired, so I threw the papers into the recycling. Forced myself to put them in recycling, I should say. I have a hard time throwing things out. I can admit that.
I have always been a sentimental person. I’m the guy who buys the concert T-shirt and shows up hours early for a baseball game, leaning over the railing and asking for autographs all through batting practice. Some of that memorabilia are in frames or cases, lined up on bookshelves, or adorning the walls of my office at the church and our basement rec room. I was never a pack rat, though. It was after Lauren died, when I started clinging to our possessions.
For example, there was a package of napkins that was about half full when it happened, and with everyone over at the house (my sister, Emily, and Will and Cindy from church), in a couple of days the napkins were nearly used up. When I realized they were almost gone, I panicked. I stuffed the package, with the remaining napkins in the back of the pantry. And then there’s Lauren’s coffee mug, which I won’t let anyone wash. It sits on the windowsill behind the sink with a sticky note: “Do not touch.” The problem is the finality of it. You put something in the trash, and it’s gone forever.
But I was talking about my guitar, a Martin Triple-O Fifteen, built from solid mahogany, front, back, and sides — a guitar which smells to this day like the tree from which it was made. And I don’t know what made me finally take it back out, but the moment I held it, I realized how much I missed it — missed the feel of the strings, the rattle of a finger-slap blues riff, the shimmering sound of a D-chord like a chorus of birds.
When I finally removed it from its case (it was more than a thousand days, can you imagine?), the instrument needed a neck adjustment. So I took it to the shop. I didn’t have any meetings that afternoon, and my girlfriend, who had been in the picture for several months at this point, was picking the kids up from school.
The relationship was my first in the world of post: post-marriage, post-death, post-everything changing. I had gone on a few dates before I met Helen, but only because Emily kept setting me up. When I met Helen, I was strolling through the Saturday farmer’s market. I was kid-free for the weekend, and it was one of the rare days when I actually felt light. In fact, more than once that morning, I double-checked my pockets, because I kept thinking that I must have forgotten something. But my keys were there, my wallet, my phone, and my kids were accounted for (an overnight with Will and Cindy, whose kids are the same age as mine).
The sun was out, and the leaves on the trees were that spring-green color, the color that’s so fresh-looking it makes you think how the tree is a living thing, so full of liquid, when it’s punctured, the sap spills out like clear blood. I approached a produce stand that looked especially attractive. Tin buckets held bunches of greens — rainbow chard with bright, neon-colored veins, parsley and spinach, red- and green-leaf lettuce.
Helen was inspecting some salad greens.
“This is damn beautiful stuff,” I said.
“I think veggies are pretty,” she said
She was pretty. Not in a bowl-you-over sort of way. But pleasing — pleasant to look at, pleasant to be around. She smiles a lot, has good teeth, rich brown hair with a natural curl, which, if I’m honest, reminds me of Lauren. I had wanted to date women who looked nothing like her — women who would never be confused as a sort of substitute for my dead wife. But you meet whom you meet, and when you’re single in middle-age, the pickings are pretty slim.
I turned my attention to a display of radishes, laid out in a row with the stems still attached, purple and pungent.
“Veggies is a funny word,” I said. “Just listen to it: veggies.”
She laughed. I could tell right away she was interested, because she looked at my hand. The ring check. I figured she was younger than me, but still in the range.
“Yup. Single,” I said. I had stopped wearing my wedding ring, and instead kept it in a case on my dresser.
“I didn’t mean …”
“Yeah, you did.” I was surprised at my own self-confidence, but like I said, there was that feeling of lightness.
“Okay, you got me.” She smiled that smile again. “God, this is so embarrassing.”
I shrugged. “Why? I think you’re attractive, and I’m not embarrassed about it.”
She turned her head and looked at me sideways.
“You want to blow this vegetable stand and get something to eat?” I said.
“I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s James,” I said. I told her to meet me at the fountain in half an hour, and I showed up with a bag full of vegetarian samosas and two cups of coffee, and we sat together on a park bench, and I told all. Two kids, dead wife, pastor. She didn’t flinch.
Before Lauren died, I worked a lot. I was obsessive about it really, a trap that’s easy for a pastor to fall into. I did care about my church, I will say that. But the thing that drove me was the desire to succeed. Everyone around me — my friends and my peers — could see my work. They could see if the church was growing (or not). They knew if people liked me (or not). I was on display, and that was something I never really came to terms with.
After Lauren, though, I lost my obsession. In the beginning, grieving consumed all of my energy. But as time passed, if I’m honest, I started relying on Lauren’s death as an excuse. It would have been impossible for the church to demand more of me, and I knew it. And I wouldn’t say that I lost my faith, but I lost my certainty. Part of me wanted to keep running just as hard as before, but how does a person run full steam ahead when he isn’t sure where he’s going?
While I waited for the repair tech to finish the tune-up, I saw an advertisement for a blues guitar class, and I signed up right then and there. People were always encouraging me to do things: go on trips, start dating, take a class. They were worried that I was like a car, and if I sat still too long, I would stop running. It’s shit, really, the way people try to cut your grief short. That’s my biggest piece of advice if someone in your life goes through this kind of loss. Sit with them and let them grieve. They’re going to hurt — that’s not something you can change — and it’s going to take longer than you think it should. Grief isn’t water-soluble; it doesn’t wash away.
But I was talking about my blues guitar class. Our teacher, Pinkerton Shaw, white and Midwestern like me, played the Delta Blues with the soul of a sharecropper. Five of us sat together in the living room of his house in an artsy neighborhood along the Grand River, and Pinky (the perfect bluesman’s name, right?) taught us theory, the blues box, the pentatonic scale, and a handful of different grooves. There’s no point in false modesty, so I’ll just go ahead and say that I was the best player in the group — except for Pinky, of course.
I started hanging around after class, sharing a beer, and listening to his stories from Berklee (where he crossed paths with John Mayer and Diana Krall — how’s that for a brush with fame?) and from life on the road.
I didn’t tell him about Lauren right off. He knew I had two kids and that I was dating. Pinky was married, and they had a newborn, which is why he’d given up the touring life, bought a house back in his hometown, and filled it with second-hand furniture.
I told him that I loved bottleneck blues, and he offered to teach me how to play slide, and I started staying later and later after class.
“Man, you could really be a player,” he said one night. It was summer in Michigan, and the sun was taking forever to set. At 10 o’clock, the last gasps of gray light still refused to falter. Night crept up on us, and we didn’t turn the lights on, even when it was almost dark.
I leaned my guitar against the wall and settled into my chair.
“Did you ever think about pursuing your music?” he asked.
“Not really. I married young, started down another path.”
He was wearing a dark gray button-up with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and even in the near dark, I could see the blue vein running down the center of his underarm.
“Can I ask what happened?” he asked.
“You just did.”
He smiled and played a riff.
“My wife died three years ago. It was a stroke. One day she was there, and then she was gone.”
“Oh, shit. I’m sorry.”
“It was terrible, but it’s getting better. It’s starting to get better.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said.
I shrugged. “What is there?”
I’ll say this for Pinky. I know he was uncomfortable. I could tell. But he didn’t look away or bring up some story of loss he’d experienced. He said, “I’m really sorry,” and he looked me in the eyes.
I mentioned before that I was feeling uncertain about my relationship with Helen. There were plenty of things I liked about her. I was attracted to her. She was stubbornly idealistic, a quality I admired. And she had won over my kids, Danny and Ruth — my two preteens — which is no small feat.
But then there were things that bothered me. Like, for example, she would offer to watch the kids, and then she was annoyed when I didn’t come home right after class. She didn’t really care that I was late (she was a night owl and never went to bed early). It was jealousy. She was jealous of Pinky, and she was threatened by my history with Lauren. She never said so, but I could tell. I could tell by the way she turned quiet when the kids talked about their mom. I could tell by the way she stole glances at Lauren’s coffee mug on the windowsill while she did the dishes.
And then there were the petty things — her laugh, for example. She had a laugh like a two-stroke engine: hick, hick — hick, hick. And I know this is going to sound terribly superficial, but she had trouble with her skin. Near-constant breakouts on her chin and forehead, which she smothered with make-up, theorizing that it was caused by chocolate (while she ate chocolate) or by drinking alcohol (while holding a glass of wine).
What bothered me is that she didn’t do anything about it. She didn’t go to the dermatologist, or change her diet. She didn’t even wash her face before bed, which is me admitting that she sometimes stayed over.
One day that summer, Helen and I took a trip to Lake Michigan. We walked the Saugatuck Dunes, a hilly forest of beach grass, oaks, and white pines, ending in a strip of white sand at the water’s edge. Then we headed into town, built on the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, a perfect harbor for boaters. We held hands as we walked, watching the sunlight reflecting on the water and the rows of aluminum masts, rocking in the gentle waves.
“Let’s play a game,” she said. “We walk two blocks this way, turn right, and then left, and then we eat dinner at the first restaurant we see.”
“I know a good place,” I said.
“No, that’s too easy.” She turned to face me.
“But it’s so arbitrary,” I said.
She kept pushing, though, and I decided to go along with it. And, of course, she was right. Dinner was great.
The first song Pinky and I performed together was at church. Pinky and his wife, Jayna, started coming on Sunday mornings with their baby. They were the type that grew up in church, drifted away during college, but when they had a child, started talking about coming back. And then I came along.
We worked up a version of the old song, “Nothing but the Blood,” a hymn with the heart of a spiritual with its call and response. “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” You get the idea. There’s nothing complicated about it, and that’s the point.
I sang lead, and Pinky added background vocals and some killer fills on guitar. The song leaves some breathing room between lines, and we stretched out the space between chorus and verse so Pinky could play the way he does, his fingers flying across the neck of his guitar, both frenetic and effortless.
We made it into a sort of theme and variation, adding layers of complexity with each verse, and even playing with the melody. The best way to handle the repetition is to treat the whole thing like a suggestion. Start here, start here, the music says. But it doesn’t tell you were to go. It’s up to you to give it soul, build it up until it soars. And it did. It took off, mostly because Pinky is so damn good. Once we got going, it sounded like there were four of us up there playing, and I can assure you, I was only carrying one part. We repeated the last chorus three times and then finally ended the song. Pinky hit one last chord and let it ring, and then, after a moment’s hesitation, the church let go with applause.
The amazing thing about music is that it can become a sort of bridge between the performer and the audience, a shared experience. Of course, not everyone feels it. Maybe 10 percent, 15 percent, I’d guess. And Helen wasn’t one of them. I could tell. “You have a great voice.” The only compliment Helen could manage, when she wasn’t criticizing Pinky’s outfit (he wore all black), or his voice (he sings on key, but his voice is nasal and pinched). I tried to explain the theme-and-variations thing but didn’t get anywhere.
I seriously considered breaking up with her, at this point. Sometimes, it was like we were speaking in translation, and there was something fundamental about me that she didn’t understand. But I was afraid of letting go (see napkins, see coffee mug); she cut the loneliness in my life like cream to coffee. And then there was the kids.
I mentioned before that she won over my kids. This didn’t just happen. Danny, in particular, resisted her. And one day — it must have been around six weeks into our relationship — Helen was talking with Danny, and he was agitated. It was typical stuff. We planned to hike to a little lake nearby, and Danny didn’t want to go. Helen got down on her knees to talk with him, and Danny reared back and hit her with both hands square in her shoulders.
I didn’t see it happen, but I saw the immediate aftermath — the look of anger on Danny’s face and shock on Helen’s. But she didn’t yell at him or even turn away; no, she stayed right down there with him, looking him the eyes. She said, “I bet sometimes you just want to hit someone, don’t you? It isn’t fair, is it?”
Danny didn’t say anything. But later, when we were walking back from our swim, he took her hand. It was a turning point for all of us. There were still moments of resistance, but she just kept bearing with them. Even more than her natural optimism, it was her most admirable quality.
Pinky’s blues class ended, but we kept meeting on Wednesday nights. I started bringing song lyrics (usually in bits and pieces), and Pinky came up with the music. When he worked on a song, he seemed to draw from a bottomless store of chord progressions, melodies, and countermelodies, as if he had tapped into flowing water deep underground. And we ended up with some great sounding stuff, though I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. My lyrics were stiff. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was like a man poking at my feelings with a stick. I wrote a song about a homeless man, a troubled marriage, and one about a whale hunt. The song about whales was probably the best, or at least that’s what Jayna said. Pinky didn’t come out and say it, but I could tell he wasn’t satisfied. He was waiting.
School was now underway again, and Helen spent most evenings at our house, heading straight from work to pick up Danny from soccer or Ruth from lacrosse. Despite all of my complaints about Helen, she was a savior for our family. I cooked dinner while she supervised homework, scrubbed pots and pans, or packed lunches. We were a solid team. And this, I started to remind myself, was life. Life was raising children, going to meetings, and making the best we can out of the moments in between, the little shafts of light.
It was October by the time we managed a real date night, our first since the trip to Saugatuck. She got ready at her own place, and I picked her up, wearing a new shirt and a dash of cologne.
“What do they call this?” I asked.
“Romance,” I said. “That’s the word.”
I could give you the whole blow-by-blow, the way the evening unfolded, or I could simply say that I was a man divided, a split personality — infatuated with this beautiful woman, unspeakably grateful that she was helping put my family back together, and, at the same time, guilty as hell that I was moving on from Lauren. So I did what any reasonable person would do in my situation: I drank. A lot.
We went to a new brewery, which gave me a decent excuse for trying a number of beers. I started with a few samples and then ordered my first pint, and then another. Helen offered to drive.
Soon I could think of only one thing: sex. I’ve already admitted that we slept together, but I should clarify that, as a pastor, this was against the rules. And I know that it’s an excuse, but when your wife has died and you’ve gone years without sex, the hunger is insatiable.
We were seated at a high top, and each time I went to the bathroom, the step down to the floor seemed to grow. I passed Helen on my way, kissed her neck, and stared at the stone tiled wall in the bathroom while I peed. Then I sauntered back to the table.
“Want to blow this vegetable stand,” I said, finally.
But then, on the drive, she turned quiet. As soon as we entered her house, she held up her hand — literally held up her hand like a traffic cop — and said, “James, what do you want from me?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean.”
She was crying, standing straight as a pin.
“You tell me you care about me, but then you turn around and act like a jerk. You’re fine with me tutoring your kids, having sex with me.” She stopped. The word sex hung in the air, the long whispering s’s. I was in no condition to talk about it, though, or to drive myself home. She made me a coffee and said she would take me home when I sobered up. I turned on the television, so we didn’t have to talk. And, honestly, we never really circled back to this conversation. I told her I was sorry and that was it.
Pinky and I decided to play an open mic at a coffee shop in the warehouse district. All we needed was one song, so I kept writing. I once heard Wynton Marsalis describe how he would write for hours and sometimes keep nothing more than a line or a phrase. And so I kept working, until I finally had something.
Not long before Lauren died, the PTA brought a magician to our kids’ school for a fundraiser. The show was in the auditorium with a reception in the cafeteria, where they served appetizers and punch in plastic stemware.
On the way to the event, Lauren and I were arguing about something. We were running late and stressed, and I’m sure we were both aggravated, but the kicker is that I remember thinking during the magic show, “I wish this guy would make my wife disappear.” I didn’t really mean it, but the thought ran through my head, and then, in a matter of weeks, she was gone. Really gone.
Anyway, this is what the song is about: magic tricks and making things disappear and then wishing they would come back. About regret and death and how it is completely and utterly relentless. It wasn’t the greatest song in the world, but it was a big improvement from my other stuff, and at least it was honest. It was that or the whale song.
Helen came to the open mic. We hadn’t exactly returned to normal, but it seemed like we were moving in that direction. Pinky and I were pretty early in the schedule, and there weren’t many people in the room when we played our song, which was disappointing after all the work we put into it. The host called us to the front, and we waded through tables and chairs heading toward the makeshift stage, framed by the two speakers, mounted on those flimsy plastic floor stands. There was seating for about two dozen people at eight or nine tables, and the place was half full. We plugged in, played the song, and then it was over. A few people seemed really into it, nodding their heads and tapping on the table to keep time. But mostly the experience was pretty anticlimactic. We played our song and people clapped. Then we sat down.
Helen bent over and whispered in my ear. “That was really good.” She locked eyes with me, and I knew she meant it.
What I never expected was that, after two more acts (another singer-songwriter and a poet), the host called the next performer to the stage, and it was someone I never expected. It was Helen.
Before saying anything else, I should also mention that the place was now packed. Late arrivers filled the open tables, and some were even standing around the edges, leaning against the brick walls. If she was intimidated, she didn’t show it. When her name was called, Helen took a deep breath and marched to the stage, Pinky in tow. (They’d spent two weeks working on it; he filled me in later.)
They covered the U2 song, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and it says something right there that she knew enough to pick a classic and a song that worked well with her voice. She sang on key (even when the melody jumped to a different range), but what was most striking was the way she rounded her phrases, instead of simply sitting on the notes. She didn’t have a big voice, but it was cool, with a little bit of grit, a little bit of texture. And, of course, Pinky knocked it out of the park.
It was the performance of the night, and as far as I was concerned it came out of nowhere. After nine months of dating, I should have known. But here I was, completely shocked at what had just taken place.
There’s a lot more that I could say about how things ended between us, but I’m trying to stick to the parts that really matter. And I think it’s enough to say that she was really gracious, and that I learned something about how self-absorbed I was. I should also add that she still regularly visits with the kids, and not only because she understands how difficult it would be for them to lose another mother figure. She really cares about them and makes time for them, even though it’s been a year since she broke it off.
If I sound nostalgic, I might not be getting my point across. I don’t miss dating Helen; we weren’t a good match. And it’s not right to say that I have regrets. That’s not it, either. Not exactly anyway. I wish I had treated her better, and I’m sorry for that, but I don’t wish that things had happened any differently. I’ve apologized, and she doesn’t need anything else from me. She’s a lot stronger than I realized.
I’ve said before that this kind of grieving doesn’t ever end. Lauren’s death changed me in ways that are permanent. But today, finally, I put that coffee mug in the dishwasher and ran it through. And then I put it back into the cabinet with the others.
As for Pinky and me, we’re still getting together. Still working, still playing. And my writing is getting better, little by little. Though I’m still trying to write the song that answers the question I don’t know how to ask.
Q AND A with Kevin Fitton
1. How did the idea for the story, “A Sentimental Person” first come to you?
I think initially, the story idea came from my own desire to write and perform music. I wanted to give that impulse to my character, and the first time I tried writing the story, it was the death of the main character’s sister. At that point, though, the story wasn’t working, and I ended up putting it away for several years.
When I came back to the story, I was in Sewanee, Tennessee at the summer writing program, and I remember very vividly sitting on the front porch of my cabin and writing those opening lines about the smell of the guitar. I was working in a notebook, and it was one of those rare occasions when the story came spilling out– I couldn’t write fast enough.
At that point, I was actually confronting death and loss– not in the way the main character does but in a way that was really new and profound for me– and maybe that’s why I turned back to the story at that point. I’m not totally sure. There’s always a bit of intuition at work, directing us toward certain stories and ideas, and that’s not something we can always unravel. I started writing, and it seemed to work much better the second time around.
2. I’d love to hear a little bit about your narrative choices in this piece: This first person narrator often addresses the reader–see examples below. Can you tell me a little bit about how you decided to employ this technique and who you believe he is addressing?
But I was talking about my guitar…
I mentioned before that I was feeling…
If I sound nostalgic, I may not be…
I am very drawn toward direct address. Most if not all of my 1st person stories include direct address in early drafts. Sometimes that ends up being removed in the revision process. In this case, it stayed.
What I like about direct address is that I like to recognize the audience’s presence in the story. The audience is a key part of the storytelling experience, and I like to remind myself that they’re there, listening. And by audience I mean a general audience. Readers. Friends. People in my life who might pick up a story or book I’ve written, when they normally wouldn’t be reading at all. Too often, I think we find ourselves writing for agents and editors, and that tendency tends to push writers in one direction. Often, I sense that we’re writing to impress one another rather than simply trying to tell a good and meaningful story. We complain that people don’t read, but are we writing books that people writ large want to read?
I kept the direct address in this story, in particular, because the narrator was attempting to explain himself. He was sharing his experience with his audience in order to make meaning out of his experience of loss, along with his attempts at continuing to live his life after that loss. I don’t know if I ever thought about it this way, but I suppose the story is a sermon.
3. I found the moment when he meets Helen disconcerting because he sees her glance at his ring finger and he calls her out on it by saying: “Yup, single,” and then when she says, “I didn’t mean…” he insists, “Yeah you did.”
I’m curious what you, as the writer, thought that particular scene would reveal about his character?
After years of people tiptoeing around him, James is tired of hiding. He wants to have a relationship where he can be himself without pretense. So he approaches Helen in a very direct way. He lays it all out. I like you, you like me. He tells the main features of his backstory right away in order to get it all out in the open. The irony, of course, is that he is unable to build this type of relationship, because he’s not yet willing to really uncover the pain and his related feelings of guilt and fear.
I think in this particular instance, it’s secondary, but it’s also important to note that, as a pastor, he’s used to telling people what to think. I write a fair amount about pastors, teachers, and coaches, because I find them very interesting. These are all helping professions (at least in theory), and yet part of the attraction is that they’re positions of power. Within the confines of these little worlds, the pastor/coach/teacher is the person in charge, and often they operate like mini-dictators. To be fair, lots of people in these positions (perhaps most) don’t exercise power in that way, but the potential is always there.
4. He admits that he worked hard as a pastor before his wife died, but what drove him, in reality, was the desire to succeed. Do you think that changes for him by the end of the story?
I think this changes as soon his wife dies. It launches him into a deep depression, and depressed people struggle with motivation. On top of that, the existential experience changes the way we think about ourselves. We very naturally become less concerned with what other people think. It chips away at their power other people’s opinions hold over us.
5. What does the open mike night when he hears Helen sing reveal to him about himself exactly? I think he realized he was self-absorbed, but was there anything else that you thought came up for him then?
Yes, he definitely sees how self-absorbed he is when she takes the stage. I think there’s also an important connection that happens. James had talked earlier in the story about how performer and audience can have this transcendent experience and moment of connection, and he’s upset that she doesn’t seem to share that when he and Pinky perform at church. But now he sees her. And I think what he really understands after this performance is that he just isn’t ready for this relationship. He’s still depressed. He’s still afraid of his own emotions. And it’s this moment at the open mic that brings this home for him.
I don’t think I realized how little he actually says about this experience in the text itself. It’s always very interesting to go back to our writing, given some time and space, and observe the choices we’ve made with fresh eyes.
6. I know you are a musician as well as a writer. Can you tell us a little bit about the musical choices in this story? For instance: Nothing but the Blood and the song Helen sings: Where the Streets Have No Name? (feel free to talk about others if you feel like it!)
Nothing But the Blood just seemed like the right choice for James and Pinky. It’s a 19th-century hymn that has primarily been sung as plodding and robust, and yet it has the character of a gospel song with its repetition and simplicity. It lends itself to expansion and creativity. It seems like it’s what they would have picked.
As far as the U2 song, it’s Bono at his best, right? Plus, the chorus seems perfectly appropriate: “We’re still building and burning down love/ burning down love/ And when I go there I go there with you/ It’s all I can do.”
I can’t say I wrestled too much with choosing songs for this story. When I first tried to write this story, I thought that I needed to write the songs that my character wrote, but they didn’t end up being any good, and I don’t think it was necessary. It was necessary to have the experience of writing songs, because that’s something I needed to really know. But the songs James writes aren’t really important in and of themselves.
7. How does the story “A Sentimental Person” fit in with the rest of your short story collection, Auras?
The collection is about broken relationships. I know, fun. More specifically, though, it’s about whether a person can come back from this experience of brokenness and find reconciliation, or forgiveness, or absolution, or peace. This story, A Sentimental Person, is about whether this man, James, can recover from an experience of loss that truly breaks him and can figure out how to move forward with his life.
Bio: Kevin Fitton is a writer, musician, and educator. He is the author of the story collection, Auras, from Fomite Press. He published the children’s book, Higher Ground, with Caldecott-winning artist, Mary Azarian, along with over a dozen short stories in nationally recognized magazines, like Jabberwock, Limestone, and The Saturday Evening Post. He holds an MFA from Bennington College and is a PhD candidate in creative writing at Western Michigan University. He lives in Grand Ledge, Michigan with his wife and two daughters.
I’m grateful to the Grosse Pointe Public Library for allowing me to use their recording studio for these next few episodes. It was fantastic, however there was a little bit of a learning curve…I apologize for a couple of staticky moments during this podcast. Luckily, it only happened when I was talking! Julie sounds fantastic–and that’s all that really matters…but I will add that I am producing this podcast on my own with no money for editing unfortunately. If you like it and would appreciate some better editing (as I would!) please feel free to donate. The donation button is featured in the right hand column on this page.
Julie Ann Stewart earned an MFA from Spalding University and has published stories in Good River Journal, Litro Magazine, PoemMemoirStory and Punch Drunk Press. In Sophie Speaks (http://julieandsophiespeak.blogspot.com/ ), Stewart explores the challenge of balancing creative and family life as she recopies Anna Karenina by hand as did Sophia Tolstoy for her husband. Now that their seven kids have flown the coop, she and her husband migrate between Indiana and Michigan.
Purchase Water and Blood from Dzanc here or on Bookshop here or Amazon here.
Although I find the workbook extremely helpful, I am always unnerved as well. The time slips by and I never accomplish as much as I want to in any given year. I’ve been struggling with a novel for a long time, and my large stack of year-end assessments highlights how long I’ve been wrestling with the monster….
I’m also reassessing my relationship with Submittable in 2023. As I was listing my submissions on Gendler’s worksheet, I realized that although I didn’t submit as much this year, I still have 21 “in progress.” Two have been in limbo for over a year! I’d be curious to hear about other experiences. Are people noticing submissions taking longer these days?
Below you’ll find a list of everything that inspired me in 2022. I took a lot of classes–many of them for free–or very close to it!
A great resource during the pandemic was the Off Campus Writer’s Workshopbased in Winnetka, Illinois, and my big fear post-pandemic was that they would return to in-person programming. Instead, they’ve gone hybrid! You can join for a minimal yearly fee and all of the classes are $10 apiece. I’ve taken excellent in-depth classes with Rebecca Makkai, Peter Orner, Taylor Byas, Rachel Swearingen, Charles Baxter, and more.
I’m so reluctant to share this next one, but I will resist the urge to go Gollum on you:
The Poetry Foundation offers monthly poetry book clubs and if you sign up, they send you the book for free.
5. Another Substack for those writing through illness: Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journalsincludes tons of fun interviews with writers and artists and a monthly online meetup.
6. Look out for any upcoming classes with Emily Sernaker, of Your Favorite Poet’s Favorite Poet. She’s amazing. Also, check out her upcoming anthology of the same name.
7. Another person who got me through the pandemic is Michigan poet, Emily Stoddard. She’s starting a new substack in 2023: If you are a poet, it will definitely be worth your time.
8. My good friend (and amazing writer) Desiree Cooper is working with Katey Schultz onmonthly mentorships. FYI for your longer projects.
9. I spent two weeks at VCCAin December where I finally finished that novel. I highly recommend it. Here are some of the artists/writers I was inspired by while I was there. If I forgot anyone, mea culpa. I have a mind like a sieve:
I think that’s it for now except for these last thoughts:
I Have the Answer, the audiobook will be out in February 2023. I am producing it independently as WSUP doesn’t put out audiobooks and I love them. You canpre-order here.
I run a podcast called Let’s Deconstruct a Story and the whole archive is available on my website. I have a few more guests lined up for 2023, but we are on hiatus until March. Do you have any thoughts/suggestions for me? Guest ideas? I’d love to hear them! Here’s a link to my interview withGeorge Saundersas a starting point.
Here are some Bookshop suggestionsfor you. This list is NOT up to date but there are some good books on here, and all purchases indirectly benefit Pages Bookshopin Detroit, which I suggest visiting if you are in town.
Independent bookstores need us.
Please let me know what rocked your artistic/writing world in 2022. I’d love to hear!
I’m really looking forward to sharing this discussion with Toni Ann Johnson. I loved this collection! We will be talking about the story “Time Travel” winner of the 2021 Miller Audio Prize. Please listen to the story at the link below before you tune in to our podcast discussion.
This is the last post of 2022. Thanks so much to the Grosse Pointe Public Library in Michigan and Pages Bookshop in Detroit for supporting us throughout the year. We will be on hiatus until February 2023. Please message me if there are any particular writers you would like to hear on the show.
Happy New Year!
Bio: Toni Ann Johnson is the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her short story collection Light Skin Gone to Waste was published by the University of Georgia Press in the fall of 2022. She is also an accomplished novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. Having grown up in Monroe, New York, in one of the first Black families to live there, many of Johnson’s short stories reflect her experience as a person of color. Johnson’s essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Emerson Review, Xavier Review, and many other publications. Her first novel, Remedy for a Broken Angel, was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award. Her novella Homecoming won Accents Publishing’s novella contest and was published in May 2021. Johnson has won the Humanitas Prize and the Christopher Award for her screenplay of the ABC film Ruby Bridges, as well as a second Humanitas Prize for Crown Heights, which aired on Showtime Television. She also co-wrote the popular dance movie Step Up 2: The Streets. Johnson has been a Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab Fellow, A Callaloo Writer’s Workshop Fellow (2016), and she’s received support for her writing from The Hurston/Wright Foundation, The Prague Summer Program for Writers, and the One Story Summer Conference.
Flannery O’Connor series editor Roxane Gay says of the collection, “Toni Ann Johnson’s Light Skin Gone to Waste is one of the most engrossing short story collections I’ve read in recent memory. These interconnected stories about a black family living in a predominantly white suburb of New York City are impeccably written, incisive, often infuriating, and unforgettable. At the center of many of these stories is Philip Arrington, a psychologist who tries to reshape the world to his liking as he moves through it, regardless of the ways his actions affect the people in his intimate orbit. With a deft eye for detail, crisp writing, and an uncanny understanding of human frailties, Toni Ann Johnson has created an endlessly interesting American family portrait.”
**Content Warning: During our podcast discussion, a racial epithet is used by the author to describe a racist incident that happened to her. Adult content/profanity as well.
Well, I’m not going to lie. It was one of the top ten thrills of my life speaking with George Saunders. I was so excited, I thought I might spontaneously combust partway through the interview. But he could not have been more unpretentious, kind, and engaging. I learned so much from him, and hope you do too! Every story he writes reminds me that we are all multifaceted and precious, despite our flaws–what a gift to focus on our shared humanity, especially these days.
Thanks are in order:
I am so grateful to George Saunders. He agreed to this podcast as a benefit for Pages Bookshop in Detroit.
The Grosse Pointe Public Library in Michigan bought ten copies of Liberation Day for their patrons from Pages Bookshop, so this was a great community collaboration.
In addition, my gratitude to fellow writers Jenn Goddu, Linda Downing Miller, Ellen Birkett Morris, Suma Rosen, Julie Ann Stewart, Laura Hulthen Thomas, and Gloria Whelan for their incisive questions, and for participating in the class!
Check out this wonderful article (one of many!) about this new collection: The sweet humanity
Next month I’ll be talking to Toni Ann Johnson author of Light Skin Gone to Waste about a story from her Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection.
Thanks for tuning in, everyone.
PS: We had some technical difficulties. At one point you might hear some garbage trucks in the background, at another point we got cut off mid-sentence (talking about the hot hands) and had to continue that conversation near the end of the recording, but I managed to edit out most of it, and then I handed it over to podcast engineer, Andrew Mason, at Upwork who managed to clean up the rest. Thanks, Andrew!
PSS: If you would like a transcript of this conversation, please contact me.
Bio: George Saunders is the author of nine books, including the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize, and the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
“Let’s Deconstruct a Story” is a podcast where we read and discuss one short story with the author. Today I’ll be talking about the short story, “Chance,” with the author, Peter Ho Davies.
***Content warning: This episode deals with pregnancy/childbirth, miscarriages/abortion***
Please read the story first, and then listen to the podcast, available on Spotify, Apple, Amazon Music, Anchor, as well as several other platforms.
“Chance” was first published in Glimmer Train, and then later in Catamaran and Drum. It’s also the first chapter in his 2021 novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself. I’m excited about this episode because after we delved into the creation of the story, Peter shared some insights into how a story morphs into a novel.
As usual, if you have any suggestions about writers/stories/people to feature on this podcast, please let me know! I’d love to hear your comments about the discussions as well.
And last but not least, thanks so much to the Grosse Pointe Public Library in Michigan for supporting this podcast!
PETER HO DAVIES’s most recent books are the novel A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, long-listed for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, and The Art of Revision: The Last Word, his first work of non-fiction. His previous novel, The Fortunes, a New York Times Notable Book, won the Anisfield-Wolf Award and the Chautauqua Prize, and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. His first novel, The Welsh Girl, a London Times Best Seller, was long-listed for the Booker Prize. He has also published two short story collections, The Ugliest House in the World (winner of the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize, and the Oregon Book Award) and Equal Love (finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and a New York Times Notable Book).
Davies’ work has appeared in Harpers, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post and TLS among others, and been anthologized in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. In 2003 Granta magazine named him among its “Best of Young British Novelists.”
Davies is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts and a winner of the PEN/Malamud and PEN/Macmillan Awards.
Born in Britain to Welsh and Chinese parents, he now makes his home in the US. He has taught at the University of Oregon, Northwestern and Emory University, and is currently on faculty at the University of Michigan.
Purchase Peter’s books here on Bookshop or on Amazon.
I could not be more thrilled…today I am welcoming one of my all-time favorite writers to the podcast! Jacob M. Appel is so prolific it’s truly mind-boggling. I thought I’d read most of his books and it turns out I have read less than half!
I really loved “The Frying Finn” and hope you will too, but I also encourage you to check out Jacob’s website where he has many other stories available for free.
Before you listen to our discussion, please read Jacob’s story, “The Frying Finn” available at Agni online right here.
Also, I read a terrific article about how important it is for writers to study the work of writers they admire, which is what we are trying to do here on “Let’s Deconstruct a Story,” so here you go!
After you’ve read the story, please listen to our discussion here on Anchor, Spotify, Amazon, Apple, or any of the sites where you normally get your podcasts.
On October 1st, I’ll be talking to Peter Ho Davies
November 1st: Peter Orner
December 1st: Toni Ann Johnson.
Happy fall, everyone!
PS: If you enjoy this podcast, please consider a contribution. I’m saving up for better editing equipment. I love hosting this podcast but, let’s face it, the sound quality could be better 🙂
Thanks to the Grosse Pointe Public Library in Michigan for committing to the purchase of ten books by each author I interview–and they are purchasing the books from our local bookstore, Pages Bookshop in Detroit. Wouldn’t it be amazing if more libraries followed suit? I’m working on it, and if you feel so inclined, you might ask your local library as well. I’d love to see short story writers earn a living wage.
Jacob M. Appel’s first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the Dundee International Book Award in 2012. His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence in November 2013. He is the author of seven other collections of short stories: The Magic Laundry, The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, Einstein’s Beach House, Coulrophobia & Fata Morgana, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, Amazing Things Are Happening Here, The Amazing Mr. Morality, The Liars’ Asylum and Winter Honeymoon; an essay collection, Phoning Home; a poetry collection, The Cynic in Extremis; four other novels novel: The Biology of Luck, The Mask of Sanity, Surrendering Appomattox, and Millard Salter’s Last Day; and a collection of ethical dilemmas, Who Says You’re Dead? Jacob has published short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Southwest Review, StoryQuarterly, Subtropics, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and West Branch. He has won the New Millennium Writings contest four times, the Writer’s Digest “grand prize” twice, and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction. He has also won annual contests sponsored by Boston Review, Missouri Review, Arts & Letters, Bellingham Review, Briar Cliff Review, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Writers’ Voice, the Dana Awards, the Salem Center for Women Writers, and Washington Square. His work has been short-listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Essays (2011, 2012), and received “special mention” for the Pushcart Prize in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013. Jacob holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Brown University, an M.A. and an M.Phil. from Columbia University, an M.S. in bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute of Albany Medical College, an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, an M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, an M.F.A. in playwriting from Queens College, an M.P.H. from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He has most recently taught at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was honored with the Undergraduate Council of Students Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2003, and at the Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City. He also publishes in the field of bioethics and contributes to such publications as the Journal of Clinical Ethics, the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, the Hastings Center Report, and the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Times, The Providence Journal and many regional newspapers. Jacob has been admitted to the practice of law in New York State and Rhode Island, and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.
Bio: Selena Anderson is a writer from Texas. Her stories have appeared in Fence, BOMB, Conjunctions, The Baffler, Oxford American, and The Best American Short Stories 2020. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, The Henfield/TransAtlantic Prize, and The Texas Emerging Star Award. She is working on a novel.