State of the Press: August 2014

By John Yunker,

We send out periodic updates to our authors about what’s new at Ashland Creek Press, and because we have a lot going on this year, I wanted to share some of this news from our State of the Press Address.

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First of all, I want to share a few highlights from the past six months:

  • JoeAnn Hart’s novel Float won second prize in the International Rubery Book Award, and first place in fiction.
  • John Colman Wood, whose novel The Names of Things was a Chautauqua award finalist, will be speaking at Chautauqua on August 14.
  • Jean Ryan’s collection Survival Skills was a Lambda Literary Award finalist (general fiction category).
  • Olivia Chadha’s novel Balance of Fragile Things has been adopted as part of the University of California San Diego Muir College Writing Program.

Congratulations to all!

We, along with our authors, continue to promote books long after their publication dates, and these achievements show that book marketing is a marathon, not a sprint, and that it’s never too late for new readers to discover a book, no matter when it was published.

The Publishing Landscape and the ACP Store
It’s hard to be a writer or a reader and not know about the Hachette/Amazon dispute and how it’s affecting publishers large and small. We’ve been keeping a close eye on the situation, as are all publishers.

In order to make our books as accessible as they can possibly be, we now offer direct sales of both print and eBooks from our website (you can order directly from any book page on the site). For print books, we offer free US shipping for orders over $50, and our eBooks are available for immediate download and are free of DRM restrictions. Please feel free to let readers know that they have this option to buy online and to support small presses!

Looking Ahead
We launched the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Writing this year. There are two months left before the deadline and we’re excited to have Karen Joy Fowler as our final judge. Her novel We are Completely Beside Ourselves won the PEN Faulkner award and has just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Feel free to share the award information; the deadline is coming up on September 30.

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As always, we’re glad to be doing the work we do as a small press in a rapidly changing landscape, where far more doors are opening than closing for today’s authors (and readers). Stay tuned for our next State of the Press Address, in which we’ll announce what’s coming up in early 2015!

 

An interview with FLOAT author JoeAnn Hart

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Float author JoeAnn Hart

by Shelby Harris

Q: I love the multiplicity of the title, Float. Can you give a little background on how you developed the title? Did you decided on “float” as a title before, after, or somewhere in the middle of writing the novel?

A: No matter what I write, whether a short story or a novel, it seems the title comes to me before anything else. A few years ago a friend was going through a rough patch, and her therapist told her to imagine herself floating with her problems instead of fighting them so hard, or else she would exhaust herself and sink. Every time she got stressed out, she repeated the word “float” to herself and felt better. It seemed like good advice for anyone, so I created a Float document. For two years I added other meanings, such as to float through life without direction, or to float a loan. As a physical object, a float is used in fishing to keep the nets or line buoyant, and a float is part of a pier. I learned about plastics that float along in the oceans from Flotsametrics and the Floating World, by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, and plastic’s environmental impact on not just sea life, but all life. Then one day I came across the Alan Watts quote —  “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float” — and I was ready to start the novel.

Q: There were parts of the novel where I couldn’t help but laugh aloud to myself. I really enjoy how you’ve seamlessly woven together comedy and more serious topics such as pollution and environmental sustainability; it makes the novel very accessible. Was this your intention while writing Float, or did the humor naturally develop from the characters?

A: Humor is as fragile as a jellyfish; if you try to dissect it, it dissolves right into the sand. When I write I never think, oh, I’ve got to make this funny, because that would kill it. I just write about characters with contradictory aspects, the way people are in real life. Or at least in my life. The mother in Float obsesses about sailing, yet won’t go out on the water; Slocum is a chef who imagines himself on the cutting edge of cuisine, and can’t cook. As W. Somerset Maugham, a writer I slavishly admire, said, “A sense of humor leads you to take pleasure in the discrepancies of human nature.”

Q: There is such a variety in your characters, which is very refreshing to read. While there is no doubt that the characters are entertaining, they also have a complexity to them. For instance, even though Duncan’s mother is hilariously entertaining, I also found her to be wise and resilient. Her quote “you have to look for answers in the problem itself” struck me as very true, even poetic. How did you create such wonderful variety in your characters? Was there a lot of inspiration from people in your own personal life?

A: I’ve been told that I have a high tolerance for odd ducks. I don’t like to think about what that says about my upbringing and my core definition of “normal.” Be that as it may, when I write, I don’t think in terms of real people when creating characters, but real traits. I keep a document called Characters, which may or may not pertain to characters I’m working with, in which I record words and actions I find interesting. For me, characters evolve slowly as I play around with these aspects, but I try never to have identifiable traits or words that can lead back to a single person. I don’t want people to clam up around me because I’m a writer. I need the material! I’m not above stealing traits from fictional characters either. To that end, I like Updike, Cheever, and Flannery O’Connor, who were great students of the human experiment.

 Float

Q:  Has the ocean and the environmental issues surrounding it always been a passion for you? 

A: I remember chastising other kids in grade school for throwing candy wrappers in the street. I probably wasn’t very popular. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, when I was entering high school, how exciting it was that people were finally paying attention. In those days it was still mostly about air and fresh water pollution, and we’ve made strides there, but plastics in the ocean weren’t in the conversation yet. The plastic soda bottle wasn’t even invented until 1977, so we had no idea how insidious it was, how it would never break down into its components but just become smaller and smaller until it was the size of sea plankton and join the food chain. Regardless, I was a stranger to the ocean when I was young. This, in spite of the fact that our planet shouldn’t even be called Earth, it should be called Ocean, because it is more water than land. But I grew up in the Bronx — which in theory is on the coast, but in actuality might as well be in Ohio — and then the northern suburbs, so the only body of water I knew was the municipal pool. Then in 1979 I moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is thoroughly integrated with the sea, in spirit and in trade. When my children were young, I was at the beach by demand, but it wasn’t love at first sight. It was hot, and sand got in their ears and diapers, and I thought waves would snatch their precious bodies from my arms. When they got older, I took up rowing, and that’s when I really learned to love the water. Unfortunately, along with tremendous beauty, to be on the water is to have a world of plastic in your face. Plastic bottles float around the harbor, lost fishing line tangles up in balls and traps seabirds, and giant sheets of ghostly shrink-wrap (used to winterize pleasure boats) bob along on the surface like manta rays, only more deadly. The ocean is so unfamiliar to most people that these problems are invisible, so we need raise awareness. What we need is Ocean Day.

Q: Can you speak a bit about the writing process for Float? How long did the novel take you to complete? Also, how long was Float an idea before you began to write it?

A: I am a disciplined writer and work almost every day, but I have to write in the morning or not at all. My habits came from years of going to school while my three kids were still at home, when I had to guard my writing time like a troll under a bridge. I bargained away everything to avoid doing morning carpool so I could work. Once I leave the house, something is lost for me, a dreaminess, that I can’t get back. Even going to the barn to do morning animal chores can break it, so my husband does them. I don’t take calls when I write, I don’t book appointments, and I tell my family to go away. Novels are such a big undertaking, you really have to be such a mean troll. Float was two years of writing, not including the two years of research that came before it and the months of editing with Ashland Creek that came after.

 

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Q: Eco-fiction is still a relatively new genre. Do you think there will be a rise of eco-fiction the more educated the public becomes about environmental sustainability? 

A: I think there will be a rise in it because environment devastation will become such a predominant force in our lives. I didn’t start out to write eco-fiction, but the first chapter in Float takes place on a beach. My protagonist, Duncan, comes to the water to look at some words in the sand and finds a seagull caught in a plastic six-pack holder. Saving the bird jump-started the plot, then plastics took on a growing role throughout the book, and the next thing I know, every time I sat down to write, I’m thinking: Humans put the plastic there — they are going to have to remove it, or at the least, figure out a way from adding to the problem. For me, writing about the water meant writing about the plastics in it, because that’s the reality.

Q: Do you have any tips for your readers on how they can help keep our oceans (and in turn, ourselves) clean and healthy?

A: It is easy to feel overwhelmed and give up altogether. But I still pick up the plastic on the beach, and I try to restrict my use of plastic in the first place. That’s almost impossible these days. The computer I’m writing on right now is plastic, and I couldn’t get along without it. So I eliminate plastics for disposable products, like grocery bags, while tolerating it in durables, like my manure cart and garden hose, more items I can’t live without. I won’t buy coffee at places that use Styrofoam cups, and I buy milk in cardboard. That’s just palliative. The cure will be in finding natural plastic substitutes. We have to encourage private and public funding of these projects. We must learn to love science. In Float, the promise is in jellyfish, but in real life, scientists all over the world are working to develop natural polymers using all sorts of unlikely things, such as beetle shells, algae, and yes, even jellyfish, that can be broken down with enzymes and used again. Human creativity can save humanity, but the impetus and funding has got to be there.

 

Shelby Harris is a student at Southern Oregon University. She plans to graduate in the spring of 2013 with a B.S. in professional writing and a minor in business administration. After her undergraduate studies are complete, she hopes to attend graduate school in Oregon to further her knowledge of professional writing. With all her schooling complete, she eventually aspires to own and operate a publishing company that specializes in helping publish young authors. 

Dispatches from Portland’s Wordstock Festival

By Midge Raymond,

Now that Ashland Creek Press is over a year old, we’re starting to get out and about to show off our books — and we were happy to have made an appearance at the Wordstock Festival in Portland this year. We enjoyed meeting new readers as well as talking with fellow authors and publishing colleagues…it’s always a joy to be surrounded by people who simply adore books.

Among the most entertaining parts of hanging out in our booth was seeing children glimpse our old Underwood portable, which we’d brought along to keep our typewriter notecards company. The very young children (under six years old) and even a few older kids (eight to ten) looked at this typewriter as if they were gazing upon a T. rex. Most of them had no idea what it was or what it did, and we and/or their parents had to explain that this used to be how people wrote books, and also letters (the quaint idea of letters, of course, requiring a whole other explanation…). They looked at the typewriter in wonder and disbelief…which was fun but also made us feel pretty old.

I especially enjoyed being at Wordstock to see a few friends and to attend their wonderful readings: Maria Semple read from her new book Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and Donna Miscolta (below, with Kim Faye) read both fiction and nonfiction: excerpts from an amazing essay about her multicultural family and a passage from her novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced. (For more notes on the weekend of Wordstock — and other great writerly things — visit Donna’s blog.)

I also enjoyed sitting in on a couple of panels, including The Art of the Ending with Natalie Serber, Brian Doyle, and Jon Raymond, moderated by Lee Montgomery. I always love hearing how authors come to the endings of their works, and Lee Montgomery got things going by asking panelists to talk about how they approach endings as well as to read a favorite example or two.  Natalie Serber, author of the short story collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, said she is most interested in “the sloppiness of life” when it comes to endings — “endings that honor mysteries and mess.” She read the ending of James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” one of her favorite endings.

Brian Doyle, editor of the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine and author of the novel Mink River, cautions that often its the penultimate paragraph rather than the last one that is the true ending (this, I find when I’m writing nonfiction, is almost always true for me). “Sometimes you end by stepping sideways,” he said, meaning taking a step to the side and leaving the ending open, leaving a “sonic absence” at the end of a piece. He shared a few Chekhov endings as among his favorites.

Screenwriter and novelist Jon Raymond mentioned the importance of getting the story as a whole to come together as something that’s as vital to a good ending; he agreed with Natalie about art reflecting the messiness of life but said he also likes endings that are “shaped the way life often isn’t shaped.” He shared endings from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

In all, it was a great weekend — especially getting the chance to visit with Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan of the wonderful organization Our Hen House, at Blossoming Lotus. (Note to anyone looking for great food/wine/beer/cocktails in Portland: Blossoming Lotus is now among my restaurants ever, in no small part because it has an excellent happy hour.)

Q&A with Olivia Chadha, author of Balance of Fragile Things

By Midge Raymond,

 A Q&A with Olivia Chadha, author of Balance of Fragile Things

 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Balance of Fragile Things, and why did you want to tell this story?

A: The book is a culmination of cultural narratives that consider the powerful connection I’d always felt to the land through my parents and their cultures. While studying literature at Binghamton and C.U., I found it difficult to get my hands on books that were considered both multiethnic and environmental. Postcolonial eco-critical ideas were just converging as a sort of late-to-the-party nuanced theory. I have always felt a strong connection to the environment and land, and I attribute that to my parents’ love for nature and the stories that my grandmother on my mom’s side imbued me with when I was a child. In order to reconcile this strange lack, I took it upon myself to craft this book. The family, the Singhs, represents the quintessential American family that rarely gets the center stage in a work of fiction. To me, they are simply an all-American hodgepodge of a family. They fight to assimilate while holding onto their history and personal cultures.

Q: What were some of the sociological issues that you wanted to explore in this book?

A: I feel that we today have the luxury to reflect upon the past with comfort and peace. We have a privileged position in history. Though there are many of us who are still marginalized, as Americans we already have a voice. Though we still have plenty of barriers to break down, we have the ability to speak and write about the things we need to change. We are gifted with so many freedoms we don’t have the ability to recognize because of our birthright. We need to take care of the freedom we have. We should be careful not to become complacent.

Many of us were born with this kind of haunting feeling that we cannot take for granted what our ancestors fought so hard to achieve. They made it to America, but not without loss. Many of them encountered severe racism when they arrived. But still, they arrived. They escaped not unscathed because there, in the past, their relatives died. Their families died. They shed their blood all across the land, and yet here we are born. It is like being culturally haunted. Here we stand. We are protected. We have so much opportunity. Why would we waste one single day?

This is the fire that drove me to write this book. In a way, I sought to memorialize the past and merge it with my present concerns regarding the environment. Shortsightedness is the biggest failure of our privileged position as Americans. With the ability to change in our hands, why would we choose to stop seeing the outcomes of so many of our actions? Rather than focusing on growing, we should be focusing on improving our systems, industries, lifestyles, quality food availability, etc. Why do we choose to be blind to the poisons we release into the ether and water? We are intelligent enough to know there will be consequences. Let knowledge be the first step. Then action.

Q: What was your inspiration for the setting of Balance of Fragile Things?

A: I began research for the book the spring of 2006, in Endicott, New York. I was just finishing my first year of study at Binghamton University (SUNY), and all seemed well. Until, that is, it started to rain. It rained for days, weeks, until the rivers breached and the town flooded. The roads and bridges washed out. Then the warnings came. Endicott residents: Do not use the water from your tap. Boil water, or use bottled purified water for cooking, eating, and showering. The National Guard came by and taped up the faucets. I fell ill, as did many others.

I did some research and found that my apartment was strangely close to an old IBM facility, and that same facility had previously been a leather treatment plant, and so on and so forth into historical chemical contamination land. IBM stored VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in leaky drums under the town when it closed down the facility. These same VOCs, I later found out, had caused cancer and birth defects, and the town is now in a suit against IBM for their corporate carelessness. These same barrels were on the water line in Endicott. The VOCs were in the water supply during the flood. I was enraged. I relocated. Permanent Endicott residents were not so lucky. Their housing prices continue to drop. Illnesses abound. I felt it was important to set this novel in a place like Endicott during the flood because their stories rarely reach a wide audience.

Q: What was your writing process like?

A: I did a lot of research while simultaneously writing. I traveled to Northern India with my parents and grandmother in order to trace her path after the Partition. I needed to see where my father’s family was from. I also traveled with my mother to Riga, Latvia, a place she had never been. Her mother was Latvian, her father German, and she was born in post-war Germany. Even so, her mother, my Oma, was such an influential character of my childhood, and her tales of Latvian life always haunted me. The character of Oma made so much more sense after visiting Riga. I saw Oma’s face in so many other faces around us.

I wrote nearly every day and, before this final version, I wrote three versions. The first was experimental. The second was a more traditional tale. The third was a combination of the two. Because there are six different points of view, it was more complicated than I had originally imagined. Though the characters were and still are so clear in my mind, and their voices and internal narratives are as well, the thing I struggled with most was point of view.

I write in my home office. When I am writing, the office becomes an art exhibit for the book on which I am working. I collect images and art objects that inspire settings and tack them to the walls. I take photographs from my butterfly watching, and other tchotchkes that draw me sensually into the world. For this book I made a sound track that consisted mostly of opera, Madame Butterfly and other very dramatic pieces. Every morning, I would take my coffee with me into the office, sit down, light a candle, press play on my iPod, and bam!, I was right there where I left off. I also heed the advice of Hemingway in that I never finish a full sentence when I am ready to stop writing. I leave it half done so that my brain has to wrap itself around finishing that sentence the next morning and returns immediately to the world of words.

 Q: What was your research process like?

A: I spent time researching and interviewing family members about their experiences during the Partition, along with academic research about the aftereffects of the Partition. I traveled extensively in the Punjab up to the border of Pakistan, but we didn’t cross, as it wasn’t safe at the time. I watched the changing of the guards. There were massive Pakistani and Indian men, all of whom were probably Punjabi milk and corn fed. They towered, six foot six or more, over the rest of us. The two fences of razor wire that stretched across the curves of the land in either direction met here in two stadium seating areas that sat hundreds and were full of hot people in the sun. We sat on the Punjabi side and stared at the Pakistanis through the gaps between the iron fences. They stared back at us. It was totally understood, this literal divide, something expected, even enjoyed by the spectators. The massive gates that separated the two countries were, of course, locked, and I couldn’t help but think that we were actually placing ourselves in a dramatization of the Partition. Here we were, agreeing to sit on our representative side of the gate. Staring at each other. Baking in the Punjabi sun. Jeering at each other. Screams of “Hindustan Zindibad!” and “Allah O Akbar!” filled the terracotta dusty air. The tension was palatable. I finally turned to my family with a sort of claustrophobic gaze and told them I couldn’t breathe. The sounds were overwhelming, a sort of passionate aversion boiled like a betrayed sibling that you love and hate.

What shocked me most was the feeling I got that this violent event that took place over months wasn’t settled in the collective unconscious. To my knowledge, neither Pakistan nor India had agreed on the final death count. Nor did they create a memorial to these hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, dead. This allows the memory to simmer just below the surface of the Pakistani and Indian identity, and we still see it bubble to the surface when tensions rise. The violence was animalistic in 1947. Men turned to savages. Neighbors killed neighbors. Women were mutilated and tortured. Children were torn to pieces. I feel it’s important to settle this past, to acknowledge it, in order for the last of that generation to have peace so that the younger generations don’t carry this burden or violent memory. My grandfather lost most of his family during the Partition.

I also visited Riga, Latvia, and did a great deal of research about World War II, which is a strangely ever-expanding topic. Because of the scale, people can never feel as if they know everything about the subject. My family has a complicated story on this side. In the novel, Oma is a fairly real character, though the book is fiction. My grandmother’s escape from the Nazis and Russians with her two children, my aunt and uncle, was always something that haunted me. Her strength and cleverness, which saved them all as they went from Latvia to Poland, from DP camp to potential new homes, is inspiring.

Q: What surprised you the most during the writing and research?

A: My research into butterflies was so enjoyable. I would spend days watching little blues mud-puddle in the spring here in Boulder’s Chataqua Park or one of the many other trails. Once I began to look for them, I began to see them everywhere. It’s like a switch turned on in my perspective. Butterflies are the second most important pollinator to bees, and that altered the way in which I see them. To me, they are beautiful, yes, but they are so much more. There are many groups and associations that focus on counting, following, and discussing butterflies and other invertebrates, like Xerces Society and the North American Butterfly Association.

Q: How has your own multiethnic background informed the story?

A: It informs everything I do. My brother and I speak frankly about how we were raised with this sort of unspoken pressure to achieve. Though it was never said aloud, we knew how hard our parents fought to come to America and about all the conflict our ancestors encountered. This fueled us to work hard, study hard, and do well. Many first-generation kids have this same fire. It’s also uncanny to sit between two or three cultures, but all in all, I feel it’s a good kind of strange, one that deepens the questions you have about society and places. I feel more comfortable in the in-between.

Q: Which character is closest to your heart?

A: I feel for each and every one of these characters. I feel that Paul is trying so hard to be honorable in a shameful world. Maija is caught in the cruel balancing act of motherhood, work, and ghosts. Isabella is a remarkable young woman who is coming into her own as well as she can. However, it may be obvious that I sympathize with Vic the most because he tends to be the most central character with his blog and the most chapters. I feel for him because he is so outside of what is considered normal; he looks different and sees differently. I’ve never really felt I fit in to what was considered normal—perhaps no one really does, and that is the truest fallacy. It brought me great joy to follow his coming of age.

 

Dispatches from the Ashland Book & Author Festival

By Midge Raymond,

Yesterday was the first annual (yes, there are plans for next year!) Ashland Book and Author Festival, sponsored by Southern Oregon University’s Friends of Hannon Library and SMART. We were happy to be there as both authors and publishers, and especially to meet so many other readers, writers, and publishers.

The festival took place on three floors of SOU’s Hannon Library, with author readings and presentations in alcoves on each floor every fifteen minutes. I had the opportunity to chat about Everyday Writing and to read from Forgetting English, as well as to drop in to hear other presentations. The fifteen-minute format was short but very sweet — and it was great so have so much going on: fiction on one floor, nonfiction on another, and poetry on yet another.

We enjoyed chatting with our festival neighbors at Krill Press and Wellstone Press, and I also participated in a publisher’s panel, along with Molly Tinsley of Fuze Publishing, Tod Davies of Exterminating Angel Press, and Stephen Sendar of White Cloud Press. It was great to hear about the marvelous things these amazing indie presses are up to, as well as talk with participants about everything from queries to distribution to the future of publishing (which, we all agreed, is anyone’s guess at this point!).

It was exciting to hear our own Cher Fischer read and talk about her eco-mystery Falling Into Green at the Writing Killer Fiction panel later that afternoon, led by Tim Wohlforth and including crime writers Michael Niemann, Clive Rosengren, and Bobby Arellano.

And, of course, we loved celebrating Typewriter Day with other fans of the written word…

 Already looking forward to next year!