Huffing and Puffing: Montepertuso to Positano

You work out five days a week, you do a fair job in the nutrition department–you consider yourself to be in good shape. That is, until you find yourself at a writers conference in Positano, Italy, and one of your fellow fiction writers (yes, I’m talking about you, Cindy Martin!) casually mentions she and some others will be walking up to the hamlet of Montepertuso for lunch. Would I like to come along? There’s a terrific restaurant up there. Well, yes I would, thank you very much!

And my new friend, Holly, you come, too!

As soon as our workshops broke at 12:30 then, off we went. Cindy and her husband, Cal, led the way for the half dozen plus of us who came along that day. They’d been to the conference before and had done this hike several times then, and they had done it the day before as well. How tough could it be?

Montepertuso sits 1,137 feet above the Mediterranean, a fact I only learned after I was home and googled it, but even now the height doesn’t seem very daunting. High enough to afford spectacular views, but don’t I sometimes climb 2,000 feet on the treadmill at my gym back in New York? Well, bless that treadmill and its smooth rubber belt, its rhythmic pace, its predictability.

Because it wasn’t the steepness of the climb as much as it was that instead of hilly pathways leading up, we found ourselves faced with ancient stone steps. (I emphasize ancient, because they are much higher than modern steps and therefore far more taxing. They are also more irregular.)

Fifteen hundred steps. A couple hundred less, incidentally, than the more famous 1700 steps that lead from Positano to Nocelle.

Ten minutes in, I used the excuse of a photo opp to collapse against a wall and let my lungs do their work. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so out of breath. How much longer? I inquired of Cindy and Cal, those show-offs at the front of the pack. I was going for a breezy tone, but instead I was wheezy. Cal threw me a smile over his shoulder and laughed, brushing my question off as if it were merely rhetorical.

Holly came over to lean against the wall with me, shooting me a look I read as, what did you get us into here? I liked Holly. I hoped she wouldn’t hold this all against me.

Yet, though I would barely have thought it possible, the view as we ascended was even more stunning than it was down at our hotel. The sun danced on the sea and dazzled the multicolored jumble of houses on the mountain opposite. We were surrounded by citrus trees, lemon and orange, and in the narrow stone lanes, soccer shirts and jeans and sheets hanging on laundry lines frolicked in the refreshing pre-spring breeze.

We took our pictures, we caught out breath, we were ready again. This wasn’t so bad. Really it wasn’t.

Not five minutes later and already my breath had deserted me again. I couldn’t afford any more conversation if I was going to make it to the top. We were all new acquaintances, anxious to get to know one another, but that would have to wait. I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone when I was dead.

Up, up, up.

Presumably, if you climbed without stopping it would take about half an hour to reach the top. We set foot in Montepertuso about 45 minutes after we began. But we made it. My clothes might have been soaked through with my exertions, my hair might be dripping down my neck, but we had reached our destination and in just a few steps we’d reach the restaurant where we’d cancel out everything we’d just accomplished with a feast, Italian style.

Holly and I attempted as best we could to take a shower in the bathoom sink and when we went out to the dining room, the smiling Paolo welcomed us with a glass of Prosecco. Now this was my kind of place!

Il Ritrovo (, which means the meeting place, is special. I’d be lucky enough to eat here twice during my time in the area (yes, I undertook the hike a second time).

Because we were a large group, Paolo suggested he bring us large platters of antipasti, followed by a variety of homemade pastas. First there were plates of fresh seafood–marinated anchovies, shrimp, mussels, icefish (that was a new one for me)–and charcuterie–prosciutto, speck, salami. There were grilled vegetables and there were cheeses. Pastas included a linguine with fresh mussels, a pasta with a simple but divine cherry tomato sauce and, the hands-down favorite, a thick tube pasta with a cream sauce of provolone and walnuts. And all the while, the wine flowed as freely as the conversation.

Afterward there were cookies and biscuits and tiny cakes along with not only the ubiquitous Limoncello but homemade liquers made of blueberry and apricot.

We didn’t want to leave–ever!–and not just because we were thinking of the long walk back down to Positano (a walk that would seem easier, but just have a little heart-to-heart with your knees and see what they think).

Just outside the restaurant, near the railing overlooking the sea more than a thousand feet below, we gathered together so Paolo could snap our picture. I will treasure this photograph always, not only for the memory of that hike, of that meal, but because it contains the smiling faces of some of the new friends I made on my trip–new friends who I hope to be calling old friends years down the road.

I see it in my mind. Five or ten years from now, at one of our book signings.

“Cindy,” I say (or Holly or Allison or Claire or Gail or Greg or or or), “remember that climb to Montepertuso?”

And Holly will laugh and say, “Yes, I remember how you almost fell off the mountain on the way down!”

“That was funny,” I’ll say, probably with tears in my eyes, because I’m sappy that way.

– Jude

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Jim Shepard on Close Reading

“Improving as a reader is something you have to do to improve as a writer.”

In this brief talk from Sirenland, Jim Shepard outlines how to improve as a reader.

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Musical Interlude at Sirenland 2010

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Our last day in Positano, and Antonio Sersale, our dear host, just passed me this message he wanted to forward on to everyone who attended this year. Thank you for making it such a wonderful conference. – Hannah


I am standing by the entrance of the Hotel, my hands are waving goodbye, the sun is in my eyes, clouds playfully chase each other over the horizon, smiling faces zoom by on motorcycles.

The last participants of Sirenland are leaving, emptiness engulfs me, my world was filled for one week, writers walking with books soon to be published, teachers with papers filled the silent corridors of the hotel, waiters walking softly not wanting to break the spell, now silence, the wind, the sea. How slowly a cosmos is created, how suddenly it is gone.

I remember the readings, our tears, the laughter, each writer embracing us with his words, words and faces that will remain. A world came briefly to Positano. Now it is gone. I walk through the classrooms where so many hopes came to life, the furniture stares at me, I want to ask each chair what was felt. Only silence, the secret will remain.

New faces arrive, each filled with hope. I welcome them, I embrace them and as I do I wonder if all Sirenlanders feel the emptiness I feel each and every time I look at that furniture.


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Positano: The Music Video

Sylvia Mann’s (Sirenland ’09) ode to Positano.

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Jonathan Woods’s Bad Juju

Sirenlander Jonathan Woods just finished a trailer for his book, Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem. Check it out, below:

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Ron Carlson’s Got the Touch

Ron was my workshop leader at Squaw Valley Writers Conference last summer, helping me fine-tune my short story, “Farallon,” which Narrative Magazine is featuring as a Story of the Week (through this Saturday; archived on Sunday).

I learned so much from Ron and my mates, and can’t wait to join my fellow Sirenlanders in 11 short days. (I’ve told everyone I know I’m going, and have accumulated an amazing list of hellos to share with Ron, Dani, Hannah, Jim, and Michael.)

Meanwhile, I’d be honored if you’d take a look. See you all soon!

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Nam Le at Sirenland

We’re excited to announce that award-winning writer (and One Story author) Nam Le will be joining us as at Sirenland for a day or two. He’ll be giving a reading and you’ll all get a chance to meet him and talk books. Here’s a great interview with him from The New York Times to help you get acquainted.

Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia. He has received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the Melbourne Prize for Literature (Best Writing Award), the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Book of the Year, the UTS Glenda Adams Award, the Steele Rudd Award, the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award, a U.S. National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Fiction Selection, as well as other awards and shortlistings. He has received fellowships from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Phillips Exeter Academy, and the University of East Anglia. His fiction has appeared in venues including Zoetrope, A Public Space, Conjunctions, One Story, NPR’s Selected Shorts, Prospect Magazine, and has been widely anthologised. He is the fiction editor of the Harvard Review. To find out more, you can visit his website.

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Bad Juju – Great Review

Our own Jonathan Woods scores his first review for Badd Juju and it’s a good one! Congrats Jonathan. Are you still going to talk to us now?

Also, check out his website.

Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem Jonathan Woods. New Pulp (Ingram, dist.), $14.95 paper (220p) ISBN 978-0-9815579-7-7

Violence, sex, and gonzo plot twists fuel Woods’s diverting collection of 19 stories, most set in sun-and-blood-drenched borderlands. “Incident in the Tropics,” “Down Mexico Way,” “Maracaibo,” and “We Don’ Need No Stinkin’ Baggezz” amp up the volume to 11, while other offerings feature flying sharks, the adventures of a bodiless head, and a slime thing quickly snaking up nostrils. Woods, who earned his neo-pulp rep in Web zines such as Dogmatika and Plots with Guns, keeps the words popping along, though the endings of his stories are often inconsequential—only more reason to hop instantly into the next yarn. Throughout, a penchant for vivid imagery slaps the reader around like a boxing bag: “A veneer of sweat covers her body like the glaze on a Christmas ham”; “shadows as murky as an abortion clinic in the Bible Belt”; “Her small conical breasts confronted him like twin interstellar ray guns.” New pulp, indeed. (Apr.)

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