Sirenland in Poets & Writers

In the new issue of Poets & Writers, which includes a guide to Writing Vacations, Sirenland is ranked #1 on their “International Itinerary”! Huzzah!

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The Age of Miracles

2011 Sirenland Fellow, Karen Thompson Walker

Karen Thompson Walker was chosen as the 2011 Sirenland Fellow on the strengh of her unpublished manuscript, The Age of Miracles. Apparently we’re not the only ones who were blown away by her writing.  Several weeks after being named as Sirenland Fellow, Random House snapped up her book. Executive Editorial Director, Kate Medina said, “We fell in love with this stunningly original and beautifully written book, and with the author, Karen Thompson Walker.”

Karen is a graduate of UCLA and the Columbia MFA program. She is also an editor at Simon & Schuster, where she edits both fiction and nonfiction. She was born and raised in San Diego and now lives in Brooklyn.

She wrote The Age of Miracles over the past three years, writing for an hour each morning before heading out to her day job.  The novel centers on an eleven-year-old girl and her family who wake one morning in their modest suburban home in California, to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. Set against this mysterious looming global disaster, The Age of Miracles unfolds a suspenseful family drama, a moving story of the lows and highs of a girl’s adolescence, and a poignant story of first love, beautifully mapping the effects of catastrophes big and small on the lives of ordinary people. The book will be published in 2012.

Karen joins a distinguished list of Sirenland Fellows: Dalia Sofer, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, Robin Black, and Bruce Machart.

Congratulations, Karen.

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Andrew Sean Greer Coming to Sirenland

Sirenland is delighted to announce that this year’s visiting writer is Andrew Sean Greer. He is the bestselling author of The Story of a Marriage, which The New York Times has called an “inspired, lyrical novel,” and The Confessions of Max Tivoli, which was named a best book of 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune. His stories have appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and other national publications, and have been anthologized most recently in The Book of Other People and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He is the recipient of the PEN/O’Henry Prize for Short Fiction, the Northern California Book Award, the California Book Award, the New York Public Library Young Lions Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Public Library.

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Good News for Bad Juju

Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem by Sirenland’s Jonathan Woods (2008 & 2009 sessions) was a featured book at the 2010 Texas Book Festival.  And Jonathan was one of four writers included in The Onion’s Austin A.V. coverage of the Festival (the other writers being Jennifer Egan, Jeff Lindsey and Philipp Meyer): “The Franzen-O-Meter: Ranking the authors of the Texas Book Festival.”

Bad Juju made several best-of-2010 lists including that of the Barnes and

Noble mystery book club blog Ransom Notes, where blogger Jed Ayres wrote: “The fever dream state produced by sampling several stories in a row from newcomer Woods is something you may or may not look forward to. I do. I relish the funhouse distortion it puts on the world when I come up for air. A pinch of Charles Bukowski, a dash of Hunter S. Thompson and a heaping spoonful of David Lynch might describe the aesthetic. Might. Jonathan Woods has a unique voice. You’ve got to read “Incident in the Tropics.””

Most recently the award-winning critic Jon L. Breen reviewed Bad Juju in his Jury Box column in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine: “These 19 tales of erotic or absurdist noir are lively, imaginative, sometimes parodic, often darkly funny, accurately likened on the back-cover blurb to opium dreams and Quentin Tarantino. The final novella, “No Way, José,” is especially reminiscent in style and mood of Pulp Fiction. Exotic backgrounds abound, with “Incident in the Tropics,” equally damning of the Ugly American and the unscrupulous local, a strong example. Not my usual cup of tea, but it’s all executed with enormous skill by a writer of formidable talent.”

And last but not least Jonathan just informed us that his crime novel A Death in Mexico is forthcoming from New Pulp Press in April 2012.  An excerpt from A Death in Mexico was just published in the London, UK-based webzine Beat the Dust.

More about Jonathan and Bad Juju at:

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Why We Don’t Invite Editors or Agents to Sirenland

This is a repost from our old blog, but it bears repeating.

A number of people have written to us asking if there are going to be agents and editors at Sirenland this year.  No, there won’t be.  Here’s why:

1. It’s about the writing: Those of us running Sirenland have our own agents and editors and among us we know dozens and dozens of other agents and editors. Those agents and editors often press cards into our hands and let us know that should we desire their presence in Positano they would drop everything and be there for the price of a coach plane ticket. I can’t blame them. It’s one of the most beautiful spots on earth.  But if you ask those same agents and editors how many clients of theirs are the result of writers conferences they will generally admit that we’re talking the very low one-figures.  We believe strongly that it’s about the writing, that a piece of work that is ready to be published will be published.  Our focus is on the page, on helping our participants become better writers, giving them the critical skills and other tools to be successful throughout their lives.  So, once again, thanks to everyone who’s handed me a business card. I’ve put them in a file.

2. It’s about the writing: When agents and editors are in the room there is naturally some competition among writers for their attention.  Competition among writers should happen in the marketplace, but not at a writers conference.  We do everything we can to create a supportive environment where participants will spend their free time and time at cocktails or wherever talking about their work, helping and sustaining each other.  We’re proud of the fact that many past participants in Sirenland continue to stay in touch with each other and share work.  Several writing groups have formed and meet regularly.

3. It’s about the writing. There are no shortcuts to literary success.  Writing is hard. Writers conferences are short. The point of Sirenland is total absorption in work and in the environment. Positano is a uniquely inspiring place. We want participants to talk and think and read and eat and drink and hike and swim and get massages and skim stones into the sea.  Relaxation and total involvement are big parts of creativity. Anxiety about making the most of your 30-minute meeting with an agent is antithetical to doing your best work and growing as a writer.

We’re not saying that marketing and promotion have no place in a writer’s career. We just don’t want to lure writers onto the planes, trains and automobiles that it takes to get to Positano by dangling the possibility of making a life-changing connection.  Participants have made life-changing connections at Sirenland, but it’s been with each other and, ultimately, with their own work.

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Interview with Peter Cameron

Thanks to Carol Richards for pointing me to this interview with Peter Cameron, who will be teaching at Sirenland 2011.

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LA Times Review of “The Wake of Forgiveness”

The Wake of Forgiveness

‘The Wake of Forgiveness’

by Bruce Machart

A richly told tale of brother against brother and sons against father.

By Susan Salter Reynolds

October 24, 2010

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 310 pp., $26

Lavaca County, Texas — one moment it’s a place you’ve never been, the next it’s a place you can’t forget, a place that comes to mind when you call yourself American, even if you grew up on a tree-lined street in Connecticut. What happened? Same thing that happens when you read Willa Cather, William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy. How else could you possibly know what the wind in the pecan trees sounds like, what mesquite smells like or how fast-moving clouds can make a person feel particularly small and helpless?

Yet Bruce Machart’s “The Wake of Forgiveness” is also Greek tragedy, art based on universal human suffering, joy and pain. It is an extraordinary novel in which the characters are watched and not just by their author or their readers. The clouds in the dramatic Texas sky beat out the time; the trees look down on the action and pronounce their moral judgments, and the moon, well, the moon holds the long view. The moon in so many scenes is the calm, the wise antidote to the crazy human drama unfolding below. It is a rare novel that makes a reader feel he has fallen through a crack in the earth and is swimming in the subconscious aquifer. How did he do it?

This is Machart’s (pronounced Mah-heart) first novel (a collection of stories called “Men in the Making” arrives next year). He teaches English at Lone Star College in Houston, and his work has been published in leading literary magazines: Story, Glimmer Train and Zoetrope. It is clear he is in it for the long haul. This is pure literature; an emphasis on language over plot; risky, complex and often unlikable characters and that echo, that ripple that flows forward into the future and backward into myth.

As in Greek tragedy, Machart has an eye for the moments in which fate turns, lives change, regret is not yet a glimmer in a character’s eye. “The Wake of Forgiveness” begins on such a moment. Vaclav Skala, a Czech immigrant and farmer in Lavaca County, wakes on a February morning in 1895 covered in his wife’s blood. The baby, Karel, their fourth son, is born, but his wife, Klara, dies in childbirth. Vaclav reverts to the violent rage, his former state of equilibrium, that will shape the lives of his sons and for all we know generations of Skalas to come. The boys are raised, “bereft of the feminine tenderness that, to young boys, is nothing shy of sustenance.” We see the world through Karel’s eyes for the 30 years of the novel.

The most important thing in Lavaca County is land and, after that, horses. Vaclav, full of bitterness, cares more for his horses than his sons, who grow up literally yoked to the plough, working their father’s vast acreage. It is never enough. Vaclav bets a few hundred acres on a horse race with his Scots-Irish neighbor, Patrick Dalton. Karel rides — he cheats as instructed by his father and wins. But when a wealthy Mexican rancher named Villaseñor moves to the area, starts buying up land and offers his daughters, including the beautiful Graciela, as brides for the Skala boys, the real tragedy begins. Vaclav at first refuses, but he cannot resist a horse race: If he loses, his three oldest boys will marry Villaseñor’s three daughters and 600 acres will go to the new families. Karel will stay behind with his father.

These midnight races are dark paintings — flickering firelight, the low moon and the sound of a pistol shot: “the sky hangs swollen and sickly above the distant horizon as if the whole mass of the heavens has been wounded and gauzed with clouds and backlit feebly by the diminishing moon.” Machart becomes some kind of enormous, sensory radar, picking up the sound of twigs as they fall through the blackjack oaks, the cries of possums carried off by barred owls, the smell of lavender and beeswax in Graciela Villaseñor’s hair, the boll weevils in the cotton, the way a foot slides into the stirrup. We are inside Karel’s consciousness as he rides the race — all the night sounds and also the idea of his mother: “he can’t help now but imagine himself curled up and floating inside her, his blood an extension of hers … his heart beating only so long as hers refuses to stop.” The moon “slips out brightly from the clouds just long enough to oversee the goings-on below, and when it ducks back under cover there comes, from out north in the pastures beyond the creek, a sound like slow-tearing parchment that grows steadily louder in its approach. This is a rainfall that will defy the almanac….”

In the aftermath of the race, Karel stands, beaten, and in love with Graciela, who will be married to his brother. It is a familiar story — brother against brother, sons against fathers. Rage taken out on the animals and the women, revenge taken if not in this generation, in the next. But Machart brings a richness of language to the story. It echoes from the novel outward. Time shudders and jumps — 1895 to 1910, to 1924 and back. “[A]ll that’s left is the caustic certainty that there’s no moving forward unbridled, that the weather-checked harness will never give, that the weight of all that is dragging behind will know no abatement.”

For all the lyrical language, know that the action does not stop. Almost all of it is in the wrong direction, as though gravity had been replaced by violence. And yet the novel is not predictable. With all this omniscience, all the ingredients of tragedy, the reader does not know who will die, who will be the human sacrifice. “A horned owl, banking now with a wing dipped vertically, arcing across the pasture and leveling off again, gliding out toward the running horses in search of field mice or nesting coveys of quail or a young opossum lagging too far behind its mother.” Fate may unwind the story, but it is the small, graceful moments that will alter its course.

Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.

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Jim Shepard’s Ploughshares

Jim Shepard is the editor of the current fiction issue of the Journal Ploughshares.  The issue contains fiction by Sandra Leong (Sirenland 2010), Charlie Baxter, Aimee Bender and others. Jim’s introduction alone is worth the cover price, but there’s also a profile of him by Robert Cohen, in which Jim admits that he was paid “a king’s ransom.” for editing this issue.

If you’re in Boston, go see him.  Otherwise, he’ll be in Positano next March.  That should be fun, too.

Oh, and Jim’s story, “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” appears in in Best American Short Stories 2010.

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Welcome to our new blog and Website

After four years we’ve updated our website. We’ve fired the old designer (me) and gotten involved with a professional. We still want to open the site to anyone Sirenlander, past or present, who wants to post information, promote a book, or cross-post from a personal blog.  Let me know know and I’ll hook you up.

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Jonathan Woods in NY Magazine & reading at KGB

Sirenlander Jonathan Woods has more good juju for his Bad Juju: New York Magazine just rated his book, Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem, as highbrow brilliant on their Approval Matrix for the week of April 26, 2010. (see pic). He’ll also be reading on Sunday, May 23rd @ 7 pm with Teddy Wayne in New York City at KGB Bar. Stop by, and bring your friends!

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