With Her Own Blood, by Melinda Giordano

“By them there sat the loving pelican, Whose young ones, poison’d by the serpent’s sting, With her own blood to life again doth bring.”
– Michael Drayton

Hundreds of years ago, on a beach that perhaps no longer exists, a pelican was seen preening itself.  Watching the unwieldy beak pierce the feathered breast, this witness – with a typically medieval combination of romance and ignorance – believed that the creature was purposefully wounding itself, to feed its young with its own blood.

The ferocity of parenthood – its mindless, intuitive courage, found a symbol on that forgotten, salty day.  Thereafter, in the coiling margins of sacred manuscripts the pelican would nest:  fledglings at her feet, sprayed with the blood dripping from their mother’s breast.  Devout and sacrificial, she faced inwards, towards a page of biblical and gothic story-telling.

The pelican became known as a symbol of the Passion of Jesus, its purity and feathers drifting throughout St. Thomas Aquinas’ Adoro te devote (“Pelican of mercy, Jesus, Lord and God…”), trapped in frozen carvings above the hair-shirted choirs.  During this ancient time the world was teeming with mystery, and its creatures lived forever in green myths and legends.  Their songs echoed in empty courtyards.

It lived in bestiaries, where creatures of the earth and of the imagination would lie together in a zoological parable – an ark that floated through literature for centuries.

It was sewn into a knight’s pennon, flying into the jousting air; it was a sculpture on his helmet:  golden and clumsy.  The pelican mixed into the alchemy of heraldry:  taking its place with lions, leopards, unicorns and oak trees – supporting the shields of nobility.

It glittered within jewelry – in baubles heavy with allegory, pearls and rubies.

Elizabeth I wore such a metaphor: a brooch all but lost in a maze of velvet, diamonds and seed pearls.  Thin, pale, pressed inside a corset of wood, she wore the emblem of love and voluntary pain.

Nature, in a fit of whimsy, had given the pelican a foolish profile – elongated and unbalanced.  But, as if to make up for her mischief, she gave pelicans the gift of dramatic flight.  Flying across the blue ceiling, they carve black chevrons in the sky or plunge directly into the water, as if Neptune himself had thrown a noose around their heads and was drawing them into the fishing depths.  They will fly a hand’s span above the waves, riding the currents that held them in a pelagic grasp.

The earliest remains of the pelican are 30,000,000 old.  Ribs and pinions lay flat beneath slabs of shale and amber, the neck curled and broken – the body twisted into a prehistoric coil.  Motionless within the sediment and crumbs of centuries, it held within its bones an ancient story which was told inside books of veiled myth, which flew above fermenting oceans, and which perched on the spavined chest of a Virgin Queen.


Melinda Giordano is a native of Los Angeles, California.  Her written pieces have appeared in the Lake Effect Magazine, Scheherazade’s Bequest, Whisperings, Circa Magazine, Vine Leaves Literary Journal and The Rabbit Hole, among others. She was also a regular poetry contributor to CalamitiesPress.com with her own column, ‘I Wandered and Listened’ and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She writes flash fiction and poetry that speculates on the possibility of remarkable things – the secret lives of the natural world.


M. Evelina Galang: Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery

The day my father disappeared he gave me one thousand pesos. “I’ll be home in three days,” Papang said, counting the money. “But just in case. Take care of your ináy, Angel.”

It’s been two weeks. My mother is out of her mind.

This morning, St. Magdalena’s school bus pulls up to our house. The roosters crow and traffic gathers beyond Mabini Street, everyone fighting for space. Drivers honk horns, long bellows sing from diesel trucks. An old vendor rolls his heavy cart up the hill and caws, “Mais! Mais!” The lamps along Mabini shut down one by one.

We climb aboard the empty bus – my grandmother Lola Ani, my little sister Lila and our ináy. I lift two plastic supot of chicken and rice and put them on an empty seat. The driver loads our maletas into the back of the bus. We’re not sure how long we’ll be gone. A day, a week, maybe a month. The bus is so big and white and we are tiny in its space, sitting seats away from one another, each gazing out a different window.

As the bus eases onto Mabini. Lola Ani makes the sign of the cross. We pray for safe travel. We pray for good health. We pray for Papang. We bless ourselves and our family and we bless the drivers who will be traveling on these roads. My family’s voice comes together. It is the only sound I hear beyond the chugging engine.

“Angel,” my mother says. “Text your papang again. Tell him we’re coming na.”

“But Ináy –”

“Don’t answer back. Just text him, ha?”

I look to Lola Ani. She turns away from me, arranging herself in her seat. “Opo,” I answer, pulling out my phone.

“Good girl,” Ináy says. “Tell him aalis na tayo.”

The bus idles at a stoplight like it’s waiting for me to text my father. My thumbs tap the keys, swift like drumsticks on a snare. All the while I stare at the back of Ináy’s head, the way it bobs like a blossom on a vine, gingerly holding on, as if the wind will blow her petals out the bus window. I feel the blood spinning in my belly, threatening to spoil my breakfast. Two thumbs hit send, a beep sounds. Ináy sighs. “That’s my good girl.”

When the light goes green, we shoot down narrow streets, weaving our way to the superhighway. Though it’s early, before long we’re stuck in traffic, idling behind a carabao driven cart. A mountain of hemp baskets, bags, hats and mats piled onto the cart obstruct our view. A vendor perched on top waves the heat away. His cart is surrounded by odd plated vehicles, by the smog of diesel fuel. Slowly, the sun tries to burn the vast Manila haze hovering over us.

If Papang were here we’d be riding in his van. He knows how to drive on seven thousand islands, knows all the long and short cuts. He goes ikot-ikot in the traffic like he and the car are dancing partners. He says even if it takes him longer to get there, it’s better to keep the car moving. It makes the customers think they’re getting somewhere rather than sitting still in traffic. His clients come from all over the world. Americans are loudest, he says. They talk nonstop about nothing. He pretends he can’t speak English sometimes, so they won’t talk to him. But then they just talk louder, like yelling will give meaning to their noise. Papang pretends to care how he nods his head and gets them places without a fuss, but really he’s just driving.

Driving is what Papang does for a living, but really he’s a musician. He plays rhythm and blues through the night, till the sun burns through smog.  He smokes cigarettes, drinks whiskey, and is known all over Makati as the Beat Man. “A heart that won’t quit,” she once said. “That’s what drew me to your father.”

When I was still too young for school, I’d sit in the front seat while Papang drove his clients from one end of Manila to another. He took them to business meetings and to restaurants in Makati. Sometimes he took them to resorts in the provinces. He’d drop them off and Papang and I would listen to the blues and he’d teach me how to hold his sticks and how to beat the drum. “The trick, Angel, is not to think. Just feel it. Listen to the way the tires roll, or the way the wind blows. Listen to the engine when it’s idling. You can hear the traffic breathing if you are very still. It has a heartbeat.” And then he’d thump his chest and chant, “Pintig. Toom-toom. Pintig. Toom-toom. Pintig.” I’d join him, eyes closed, hand on my heart, beating to the count, my whole body vibrating with each syllable – pintig, pintig, pintig.

*   *   *

I prop the window open and dust from the road drifts in along with traffic horns and motors rumbling. Beyond the glass the palengke sprawls with bright bushels of kang kong, green leafy spinach, and bok choy. I see mangoes and bundles of lychee, red as rubies. Before St. Magdalena’s, we used to walk through the palengke to get to class. Holding Lila’s hand, I’d guide her past the hot reds and greens of the vegetables and past the fish packed in ice. We knew everyone in the stands. Sometimes we’d get treats on our way to school. The year Papang made lots of money driving foreign clients around Manila, we stopped going to public school. We stopped sitting in crowded classrooms with boring teachers. We stopped working after school. We stopped walking all over Manila. Instead, we attended St. Magdalena’s School of Holy Angels, where the nuns take their girls to the Cordillera Mountains on field trips to get closer to God. Papang drove us to school. We ate our lunches in the courtyard gardens. Afterwards we’d stroll arm in arm with our batchmates, exchanging stories of aswangs, fairies, and other spirits.

The bus races down a boulevard, the sky lightens to gray. Behind the cityscape an orange red fights its way past the oppressive haze, colors the sky. At a stop light, a series of jeepneys with brilliant purple and orange banners rippling from the back of buses, zoom past, honking and chanting in one miraculous voice.

“Naku!” I shout.

“What is it?” Lila asks. “What’s the matter, Ate Angel?”

I say, “Didn’t you see that?” and when she says “What?” I tell her, “It was nothing.” Not a flash of white, not a van going so fast it blurred before you, not our Papang zipping through the streets of Manila, his silver blue van buried deep in the pack of jeepneys, heading off to some protest.

I see Papang’s van rushing through every stoplight, rushing past us even when traffic is still.

“Ano, Angel,” Ináy calls, “Wala pa bang sagot ang papang mo?”

Of course there is no answer. What does she think? I close my eyes, hold my breath, listen to the traffic’s beating heart. Were Papang here, he’d flip that radio on and the van would pulse with the bass of pop radio. He’d nod his head and drum the steering wheel with his fingers and reach out and tap Ináy like she was the snare on his drums. She’d roll her eyes, but secretly she’d love it and in the end the four of us would be stuck there in traffic, dancing in our seats, being our own rock band.

But not today. Today the ride is so quiet I can hear Ináy shiver when she sighs, I feel her sadness and think about ways I want to go to her, but I cannot. I look over at her, the way her body has wilted. She has thrown her legs on the back of the seat before her and her arms sprawl on either side of her, sighing like a teenager. I motion for Lila to sit with Ináy, but Lila says, “No Ate Angel, she wants you. You sit with her.”

I shift my way down the bus aisle, walking my hands across the railing overhead. Under my feet, the bus rumbles, hitting every stone and dip in the road. I fall into the seat behind her and I lay my head on her shoulder. “Ináy,” I say. “What if Papang was in that accident?”

 “Maybe he has no load. Maybe the battery has died.”

“But Ináy, it’s been two weeks.”

“Siguro,” she tells me, “those clients from Hollywood are working him too hard. Baka when he comes back he’ll have earned our passage to America.”

I shake my head and feel the tears rising, threatening to come out of me. “Pero Ináy, remember how two weeks ago, you said he was with us. You said he was there in your room. What did you mean?”

“That was a dream. But this is the truth, anak, you’ll see. He’s coming home and when he does, we’ll be that much closer to America.”

“But we’re not going to America. Papang is missing, Ináy.”

*   *   *

And that’s when she screams at me as if I am responsible for losing him. Her arms fly up, her face grows red and Lola Ani has to run to the back of the bus to hold onto her, to calm her. She fights my grandmother, pushes her and Lola Ani almost hits her head on the corner of a seat.

I pinch my arm. Wake up, I think, wake up. It’s as if I’ve gone to sleep and someone has kidnapped every single person in my family and replaced them with some stranger. Some alien being that looks like my relative, sounds like my relative, but is not my relative. My nails dig into my skin, but when I open my eyes, I am still there, sitting alone in the middle of the bus, my family scattered about like fallen fruit, my papang not among them. Wake up, I say out loud. Gumising ka na. Tama na ito.

Excerpt from Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, forthcoming Coffee House Press, Fall 2013


Named one of the most influential Filipinas in the United States by Filipina Women’s Network, M. Evelina Galang is the author of the novel, One Tribe (New Issues Press), the story collection, Her Wild American Self (Coffee House Press) and the editor of the anthology Screaming Monkeys (Coffee House Press).  The recipient of numerous awards, including the 2004 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights and the 2004 AWP Prize in the Novel, she has worked as an advocate of surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII since 1998. Galang directs the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami.  Her second novel, Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, is forthcoming with Coffee House Press in the fall of 2013.

Preston Allen: The Keys to my Apartment

I open the door to the small apartment on the top floor of the ancient, but affordable apartment building.  It’s not in the worst area of Miami, but it’s not in the best either.  Considering my tight budget, I like to think that my place is a cozy, nicely decorated space. There’s the porcelain vase I fill daily with fresh yellow roses. I love roses in all colors, but yellow is my favorite. To add interest, there are my throw pillows placed about the living room in alternating red, white, and checked patterns.  There are some homey touches, too, with my hand-sewn curtains and self-upholstered couches.  I’m my mama’s girl. Like my mama, I am good with my hands.  But this is not going to be a good night because a light is on, and I never leave the lights on.

At the edge of the carpet near the door, are Tyrone’s shoes, the heavy work boots, too highly polished to really be work boots.  He never gave back his key. I never changed the lock. I had convinced myself that he’s not like that. That he’s many things, but not that. Yet here he is now, up in my place.

Stupid. Stupid. Bounce. Bounce.

I find him in the bedroom sitting on my bed. A basket brown man with wildman naps, a thick neck and lips, and wide-spaced, long-lashed, light brown eyes that never seem to get it. All of my drawers are open, my possessions thrown about. My filing cabinet’s open, too, and the folders dumped out. The room is a mess. Tyrone holds up two photographs to his face. One is of me and Jake in fishing gear showing off the marlin we had caught. In the other, I am kissing Jake on the mouth.

Before I can begin to explain a thing I have no need to explain because, one, Jake was before Tyrone, two, Jake had nothing to do with why me and Tyrone broke up, and three, those photographs are my private property—but before I can explain all this that I have no real obligation to explain, but will as a courtesy to set an ex’s heart and mind at ease, Tyrone has sprung from the bed and boxed me a hard one on the ear.  It sends me sprawling backwards and down. Physically and emotionally.

Tyrone comes and squats his bulk over me, pushing the photographs in my face, demanding, “Who dis?”

I hold back my tears.  My fear of the dark.  “Get out of here.  Gimme back my key.”

“Who dis?”  He pushes the Polaroids against my mouth. I clamp it closed.  He tries to pull it open.  I am resisting him.  He is strong.  He pulls my mouth open with his strong hands, strong fingers and pushes one of the Polaroids inside, hard, scraping up the inside of my gums real good. I’m fighting him, gagging, trying to bite his fingers. Tyrone’s laughing.  He puts the other Polaroid in his breast pocket and gets up from over me, tapping the pocket with the picture in it.  “I’m gonna find him.  Believe dat.”

I spit the photograph out of my mouth and fire: “Get out of my house.  Gimme back my key.”

“Who is he?”

“None of your damned business. Get out of my house!”

The walls are thin. Someone will hear. Someone always hears. I am shouting. He clamps a hand over my mouth and grabs my hair, which he had always loved because it falls to my shoulders easy in white girl waves.

“Don’t be yelling at me.  You forget who I am?”

He drags me up by my hair and walks me backwards with his face pressed against mine.  His face is sweaty. Clammy. He smells bad. Despite his wildman hair (carefully groomed wildman hair), he is really a neat freak and particular about hygiene. He has always been picky about smell. Something must have really set him off to be smelling like this.

“You’re gonna tell me who he is.”

He walks me backwards, to where I remember seeing the scissors. I fight against him, but not enough to make him change his mind or his direction. We are reflected in the full-length closet mirror. The way he is holding me, the way I am clawing him, it looks like some crazy, intense dance.

“You’re gonna tell me his name. You’re gonna tell me where he live at. You’re gonna tell me how good he fuck you.”

He walks me backwards until I can’t walk anymore because I’m pressed against the wall next to the high bureau. I reach without seeing to where the scissors had been.  My fingers curl around them. They are the sturdy kind, good for cutting stubborn burlap to make interesting curtains out of.

“—you’re gonna tell me about his dick, how big it was, how good it was—.”

I plunge the scissors into the flesh of his armpit because I have read that that is a very tender area.  He jumps back howling, clutching at the wound. I lunge at him again and catch him in the thigh.  Bright red spreads over his jeans. It looks like some new crazy sort of style. He staggers backwards. Flops down on the bed. Both hands clamped around the cut leg. Groaning. I retreat to the far wall to watch him bleed.

“You stabbed me,” he says.  “I’m gonna whup yo ass.”

I hold up the scissors in warning.

“Look whachu did my leg.”

“Gimme my key back.”

He’s bleeding all over the bedspread I sewed with my own hands. “Get me something to clean this up.  Ow.  Ow.  Help me clean dis.  Lookit dis mess.”

It is a mess.

“Then you gotta leave.  You gotta leave my house and give my key back.”

In the chaos on the floor, I rescue a beach towel and toss it to him.  I back into the bathroom, keeping an eye on him, and dig through the cabinet until I find the peroxide bottle, which I fling at him. Then I fling the alcohol bottle at him, too. He pulls off his shirt and splashes the alcohol on the sliced flesh under his arm. He looks up, and I am amazed.  There is a grin on his face.  “You gotta help me with dis.”  Wincing.  Grinning.  “Come here.”

“You’re gonna try to grab me.”

“Come here and help me.  I can’t do it by myself.”

“You hit me.”

“You used to love me.”  He’s getting up. Grinning.

“I swear to god, Tyrone, I’ll kill you—!”  I back up to the wall and hold the scissors out in front of me.  “Stay away from me!”

“Okay.  Okay.”  His eyes.  They don’t get it. He has no shirt on his hairless barrel chest.  He has a bloody towel wadded under his arm. His jeans have a scarlet leg. This is love?  Doesn’t he get it?  I go in the living room and open the door and kick his pretty boots out the door. Eventually, he limps out of the bedroom.  I give him a wide berth to pass through the open front door. Gone is the grin. But his eyes. He just doesn’t get it.  He shakes his head sadly as he passes.  Dragging himself through the door. I slam it shut after him.  Turn off the lights.  Sink down to the floor.  Release the tears.  About fifteen minutes later, there is a knock at the door.

“Cindique!”  One voice.

“Cindique!  Cindique!”  Another voice.

The walls are thin. Somebody has heard. Somebody always hears. Somebody always comes. Somebody always comes too late. It is the neighbors. The Puerto Rican lesbian who said she would help with the rent if I let her eat me.  Rose, Rosa, Rosita, Rosie? And her roommate, Nicole, Nikki, Nike, Nikita, who might not be gay because she has never hit on me. Plus, I think she has a baby. Then again, you never know.

“Cindique, you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

Through the door.  “We heard sounds.”

“I’m fine.  He’s gone.”

“We didn’t hear him leave.”

“He left quietly.”

“We could go get the landlord’s key and come in and check, you know?”

“He’s gone, I promise you.”

“You want us call somebody for you?  Your mom?”

“Hell no.”

“Ay pobrecita!  Cindique, we’re here for you.  We don’t see no lights on in there.  Is he holding you hostage?”

“Look down on the ground.  See the blood?  That’s his blood.”

“Oh snap.  Look at the blood,” one says.

“She got his ass good.”

“Oh snap.  Good for you, Cindique.  Good for you.”

“Yeah.  Go home.  I’m fine.”

Gossiping bitches.  Now they have something to gossip about.  She got his ass good. Yeah. And he still has my key. I sit in the dark with my back against the door and the scissors in my hand facing my handiwork. (My curtains look good framing a window full of stars.)  Now I have something else to add to tomorrow’s crowded itinerary, pay my late cable bill, get my oil changed, change the lock on my door, get my phone turned back on.



Preston L. Allen is a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship and a winner of the Sonja H. Stone Prize in Fiction for his collection of stories CHURCHBOYS AND OTHER SINNERS.  His work has been anthologized in Las Vegas Noir, Miami Noir, Brown Sugar, and numerous literary journals, including the Seattle Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Black Renaissance Noire.  His novels ALL OR NOTHING and JESUS BOY have received rave reviews from the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Kirkus, Library Journal, Feminist Review, AALBC, and Florida Book Review.

He teaches writing in South Florida.  You can find him on Facebook or on his blog, PrestonLaLLen.blogspot.com

Books by Preston L. Allen:
Jesus Boy
(Akashic 2010)
All or Nothing
(Akashic 2007)
Churchboys and Other Sinners
(Carolina Wren Press 2003)

Lynne Barrett: Magpies

Lynne Barrett is the award-winning author of  the story collections The Secret Names of Women, The Land of Go, and, most recently, Magpies, which was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press Sept. 1, 2011. She co-edited Birth: A Literary Companion and The James M. Cain Cookbook.  Her work has appeared in Delta Blues, A Dixie Christmas, Miami Noir, One Year to a Writing Life, Simply the Best Mysteries, A Hell of a Woman, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Night Train, The Southern Women’s Review, The Review Review, and many other anthologies and journals.

Lynne has received the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery story from the Mystery Writers of America, the Moondance International Film Festival award for Best Short story, and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Florida International University and edits The Florida Book Review.

Lynne was interviewed by Laura Richardson for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

LR: In your blog post “Why Magpies?,” you touch on the “two human sides to magpie acquisitiveness.” Magpies also have a reputation for chattering, and I was struck by that as I read your stories, the “talk” of humanity, from the incessant noise of the media to conversations between intimates. I wondered if that aspect seemed heightened because of the title, or did it influence your writing?

LB: I can’t say that the notion of magpies’ “chatter” influenced me. But I did think about different approaches to dialogue as I wrote and revised the stories. In “One Hippopotamus,” for a lot of the piece one character tells a story, the other at times interrupts, questions, and interprets the story being told, and the teller reacts to this, explaining himself and understanding her—both are speaking and listening to each other closely. That’s a story about two lovers, and what they reveal to each other through dialogue changes their relationship. On the other hand, in “When, He Wondered,” a story of crime and conspiracy, there is very little dialogue, and what is said aims to prompt action. The story begins with a character initiating an affair with one provocative line, and there’s a later spot where characters have a conversation they know will be kept on an answering machine, as (false) evidence of innocence. Words—and silence—are used to manipulate and deceive. In one story there’s an attempt to communicate across language differences, while in another we see unexpected consequences of the malicious speech of a gossip columnist.

Your question has made me think about how the word “chatter” has changed in the past ten years. It used to convey meaningless babble, but since 9-11 we’ve spoken of the “chatter” picked up in communications overheard among terrorists, which to me implies excitement and sinister intentions, something bad about to happen, a heightened tension and alertness. I think there’s some element of that in the stories, the tension always of wondering what others really are up to, that a line that seems light could mean more.

LR: Yes, I thought there was a question running through many of the stories of the worth not just of objects or real property, but of what others are saying, or words in general.

In “Gossip and Toad” there is an illustration of human “magpieness” when Tally, the gossip columnist, considers how she learned to “gather shreds and twigs of information from which she could shape something.” That raises the issue of words as commodities, an idea also seen in “Links” where the inflated market value of an advertising website is contrasted with a chronically broke but culturally significant literary magazine.

One of the essential tasks that confronts your characters, it seems, is determining what is valuable amidst a wide array of often baffling choices. Is it money? Is it prestige? Love? What is worth pursuing? And whichever you choose, how do you know you are getting it? These conditions make the “fear of loss” and “desire mingled with anxiety” you reference almost unavoidable. Would you agree with that assessment?

LB: Yes. I like stories where characters’ values are revealed by the actions they take. Uncertainty enhances this—it not only magnifies the tension, it forces the character to choose an idiosyncratic path rather than a generic “safe” or “reasonable” one. I like to follow the entanglements of complications as characters learn who they are and the consequences of what they do.

LR: Could you elaborate on that?

LB: Well, let me go back to “Links.” The cultural significance of the literary magazine is partly its sheer endurance, having been around (though “chronically broke” as you deftly put it) since the 1890s. It’s not clear that it contained anything so wonderful. No one seems to do more than shrug when it goes under (just before the start of the story), but it has value to the narrator, who worked there, underpaid, for years, and wouldn’t have left if it hadn’t collapsed. She knows this may be a sign of inertia or misplaced loyalty, and she’s certainly been told it was foolish when there was money to be made. After the magazine is gone, and when she and the website venture are prospering, she alone goes to visit the editor in his retirement where he is supposedly writing a history of the magazine and going through its records, which consist mainly of letters from distinguished contributors begging to be paid. It’s not that she has illusions—the magazine exploited writers, and the editor is a curmudgeon. She asks herself why she goes, why she’s a softie, but is she soft or not? She’s stubbornly committed to her attachments, and she doesn’t follow the herd. Her loyalty and endurance show up elsewhere in the story, too, and have unexpected results, as the literary and commercial marketplaces provide more twists towards the end of the story.

LR: One of the aspects of your stories I appreciate most is that they don’t suffer from conventional morality. Lies are not always wrong, criminal activity is not always punished, and even malicious acts can have beneficial outcomes. Does this reflect your worldview, or is it more in service to designing interesting plots?

LB: I suppose I see a world that has strange, and often double, outcomes, where something gained means something else lost. “Getting away with” a crime, for instance, means there’s an ongoing tension that can eat into the person’s sense of self, exposing what was hidden.

I am sure there are traits and actions I expect the reader to consider “bad.” Selfishness is one, let’s say, but selfishness so often betrays itself that it can be self-defeating—and a malicious or heedless act can produce an unexpected benefit to the intended victim. That’s fun, for me, thinking about those complexities. I wouldn’t say that I design plots, so much as I discover them, and enjoy the way a situation can turn around.

And here’s a huge advantage the short story has over the novel, these days. Agents and editors looking at novels talk about wanting a “likeable” protagonist, meaning one not going to offend some large conventional audience. But for the length of a short story, we can stand to be with someone who is not whatever likeable might mean—sympathetic, admirable, high-minded, without fault?—but who is perhaps sneaky or mean or selfish or stubborn or desperately driven to do things he or she shouldn’t, yet perhaps also witty, or honest with herself, or simply fun to watch in action.

Aristotle says the audience will be naturally disgusted to see a base person prosper. I agree, that‘s true, but he just thought it didn’t belong in tragedy at all, and missed out on what could be done with it. That revulsion is itself interesting, a kind of moral horror that, perhaps, drives us to examine our world more than would a pat ending with the bad person carried off in handcuffs. I think, for instance, of the end of Chinatown, where a base man (very base) prospers and nothing can stop him, which is a noir ending, but something similar is also felt at the end of James’ Portrait of a Lady, or Wharton’s The House of Mirth, where the very goodness of the good thwarts them.

My own sensibility is not so grim, but I do like to mix things up. I think my worldview (if I have to say something sweeping about this) is a kind of merry sadness. Or rueful joy.

LR: I read two poems linked from your website—“How to Make a Crazy Quilt, 1906-1917” and “Hatteras Bride, Knitting”—in Southern Women’s Review. As a poet I took special pleasure in the design of your poems, not just in terms of line and stanza, but in the carefully-placed revelation of events and reversals in the narrators’ lives. Of course, this reminded me of the plot class I took with you at Florida International University. You also teach plot workshops at literary conferences. I have to wonder, is plot structure so ingrained in you at this point that you look at your own days, weeks, or months and see discoveries, plot wheels, and recognitions?

LB: I would say it’s the other way round: plot is an element of real life. We notice coincidence and unexpected consequence and, especially, discoveries that shake our understanding of what we thought was going on, in our own lives and in public life. Politics is full of plot and plotters, for instance. So of course I notice when something in my life has that kind of shapeliness, and also appreciate when it is not evident, when I am simply doing things I like to do, however repetitive and inconsequential they may be. But what we ask for in what we read is for the humdrum to be removed so that we see the design more clearly. It’s more highly spiced with drama—and can be over-spiced, of course.

By the way, while I might use a plot element in a poem, I also borrow structures from poetry for fiction. The story “Cave of the Winds,” uses an abecedarian form of sorts. I decided to see if I could write the story so that each sentence would begin with the next letter of the alphabet, twenty-six sentences (and as it turned out, twenty-six one sentence paragraphs, some very long). I was ready to abandon the experiment if the form became too obtrusive or limiting, of course. I wanted it to be possible not to notice it. So perhaps I shouldn’t be mentioning it here!

I think writing poetry, which I don’t do a lot right now, but do enjoy and find challenging, helps to remind me that everything must be thought about—diction and line breaks and sound. In fiction, the length of paragraphs, the proportion of the scenes and contrast between them, these and far more are all elements of structure, even though the reader may be unaware of them.

LR: As well as a writer and teacher, you are also an editor. Would you talk a little bit about your projects?

LB: I have co-edited two books, a collection of James M. Cain’s nonfiction and an anthology of literary writing about the transformations that occur in becoming a parent (Birth: A Literary Companion). I founded Gulf Stream Magazine and edited about 20 print issues. It’s now an online journal overseen by John Dufresne and Denise Duhamel. And I am editor of The Florida Book Review, an online publication that concentrates on work with Florida subject matter.

This year I was invited to be guest editor of Tigertail’s print annual, and I suggested that the publication, which has focused on poetry, move for this 9th edition to very short forms, including prose poetry, flash fiction, and flash nonfiction, with no piece being more than 305 words, which is the original area code for South Florida. It has 54 contributors who all have some connection to Florida. Tigertail: Florida Flash is just back from the printer’s and will have a launch reading at Books and Books on Oct. 17th, and a session at Miami Book Fair International in November.

I like editing—I enjoy bringing the work of others to people’s attention. But I try to confine it to a different part of my time than my own writing. I wrote an essay last spring, “What Editors Want,” published in The Review Review. One point I make there is that much of what editors do is invisible—they give a lot of writers their first chances, new audiences, and bring devotion to the highly detailed stages of production, yet are unsung. I heard from many editors as well as writers and teachers from around the world (around the world—amazing—but that’s what online publishing can do) who appreciated the piece. It was written up in the L.A. Times book blog and was recently republished by Glimmer Train.

LR: Where will your book tour and literary conferences be taking you this year? Where can our readers find you to attend a reading or one of your workshops?

LB: As this interview appears, I am preparing for a big launch reading at Books and Books in Coral Gables, FL, my “hometown” independent bookstore, on Oct. 1. After that, I’ll be doing events in Massachusetts in October, in South Hadley and Cambridge, as well as teaching at the FIU-Books and Books International Writers Conference in Grand Cayman. November first I’ll be reading in Sarasota at Bookstore1Sarasota, and then teaching at the FGCU Sanibel Island Writers Conference. Then I’ll be at the Miami Book Fair in mid-November. Beyond that, there are visits in the planning stage to New Orleans, California, and North Carolina in Spring 2012, and in May I’ll be keynote speaker at the Florida Institute of Technology’s writers conference. Details are on the calendar on the events page of my website, http://www.lynnebarrett.com/events.html. I hope lots of people will come out, say hi, and tell me that they read this interview.

Louis Lowy: Die Laughing

Louis Lowy’s work has appeared in Coral Living Magazine, New Plains Review, The Florida Book Review, Ethereal Tales, Bête Noire, Pushing Out the Boat, and The MacGuffin Magazine, among others. His short story, “The One Cupper,” has been sent to Best American Mystery Stories for consideration.

Lowy is a recipient of the Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, and his poem “Poetry Workshop” was the second-place winner of the 2009 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Contest. He is currently working toward his MFA in Creative Writing at Florida International University, where he is on the staff of Gulf Stream Magazine. He lives in Miami Lakes, Florida, with his wife, daughter, and two cocker-terriers.

Lowy’s novel, Die Laughing, was recently released by IFWG Publishing. It is available in e-book as well as hard copy format.

Lowy was interviewed by Corey Ginsberg for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

CG: Die Laughing is a book that pushes and blurs the edges of established genres, such as sci-fi and humor, and even employs fifties pop culture references like The Steve Allen Show. Can you discuss how genre awareness plays a role in the writing of a novel, and how it informed your creative process?

LL: I set out to write a tale of someone struggling to find their sense of self-worth. Everything in between was what that person—Sam E. Lakeside—had to go through to reach his conclusion. I knew that if I wanted my tale to be entertaining it would have to be told in a manner that would keep the reader turning the pages. I purposely used a lot of elements from different genres to do that, specifically science fiction, humor, suspense, horror, mystery, and everything in between, but I never thought about one genre over the other. That’s why there is that crossover.

To answer specifically the question of genre awareness and the role it plays in writing, I would compare it to the writing of a song. There are certain pre-conceived notions when you listen to a particular type of music.

Because my novel takes place in the 1950s, I’ll use rockabilly as an example. If I were to write a rockabilly song, I would expect my beat to be fast and to have a swing feel, the drums to be based around a snare that mostly pounds out what’s called the backbeat (the 2 and 4 of the measure), a bass pattern centered around the root-third-fifth of the chord, a fairly clean, slightly country-sounding guitar, and the vocalist to be singing as opposed to rapping. As a listener, if I purchase a song labeled “rockabilly,” it better have those elements or I would feel cheated.

The same goes with writing. If you’re telling a murder-mystery, Harlequin romance, or YA story, each one of those has certain elements that encompass that category. As a writer, if you’re writing in a certain genre, the reader expects (though they may not always be specifically aware of them) those elements. You have to be aware, and utilize them to deliver the goods. And if you want to stretch the rubber band, so to speak, you can’t do it unless you’re first aware of the rules.

CG: Pulling off humor in writing is hard. In the words of Herman Wouk, “I regard the writing of humor as a supreme artistic challenge.” Many of the scenes in your novel are laugh-out-loud funny. As you wrote and revised Die Laughing, how did you anticipate what the readers would find funny? Do you have any advice you could offer to those writing books with a humorous slant?

LL: I had no idea if anyone would find the humor amusing or not. My criterion was if I thought it was funny I’d use it. I think one of the keys to story humor is not to try too hard. Don’t force it. My funniest moments came when I let my characters banter between themselves. I could feel when they were on a roll and I let them go with it. Later, I’d edit and refine. Another key is it’s always easier if you know where you’re going with the scene (or the entire story for that matter.) Of course that wasn’t always the case, but when it was I could throw out lines that I knew were going to boomerang back in an unexpected and amusing way. It gave me the ability to shape, misdirect, mold and build to the payoff.

CG: Can you speak a bit about your writing and revision process? Did you outline the book before beginning? How many drafts of Die Laughing did you write? Between drafts, did you set the novel aside or keep steadily revising?

LL: At the start, I didn’t specifically outline the book, but I had a general sense of where I was going. One rule I had in the initial draft was that if something seemed as if it was heading in a perceived direction I would turn it the opposite way. For instance, if I had a person dressed in a bathing suit running toward the beach with a surfboard in her hands, I’d try to think of another reason why she was carrying the board other than to go surfing, and have her not end up in the sea. It was a strange and sometimes difficult way to go, but it was also a lot of fun and led me to unforeseen places.

After I finished my first draft, I was introduced to Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I picked up a lot of pointers from it and drastically altered my second draft to utilize the mythological lore. A good example would be that in those types of stories, the protagonist is reluctantly called to action. I altered my second draft to fit that. That also led to my character becoming more proactive. On the flip side, it also caused me to start from scratch and write the entire story over again. It was frustrating and grueling, but I knew it was the correct decision. In the end I was glad I did because it made for a much more compelling story.

I did two more complete drafts based on the revamped version, polished it numerous times and was never long periods away from the novel, though there were a few breaks here and there when I was writing, or revamping short stories.

CG: One of my favorite parts of Die Laughing is the ending (which I will not give away here). When you wrote the book, did you know from the beginning how it would end and write toward that? Or was this something you discovered as you went along?

LL: I knew the ending about quarter way through the initial draft. That was a huge advantage because, as was the case when I was speaking about humor, I could use everything in my power to achieve maximum results from that point forward regarding the finale. An interesting note is that I changed my ending after the second draft and wrote an alternative one. Because the original ending seemed so unconventional, I was concerned about acceptance from agents and publishers. After much contemplation it hit me that the most important thing wasn’t what others might think, but that I was happy with my story. With that perspective I knew my first ending was the one that had to be in there. And again, I was glad I made that decision because it made the story more powerful.

CG: In addition to full-length novels, you also write short stories. In what ways do you find writing in the shorter form to be similar to writing a novel? How do the two differ?

LL: I’m going to use a metaphor again and compare both to a spider web. The center, or orb, is the focal point of a web. In a short story, I think you concentrate on that orb—which I equivocate to the story’s main idea or purpose—and maybe branch out to a few surrounding weaves. In a novel, you still concentrate on that central idea, but you also have the ability to branch out far beyond to the outer reaches of the weave. It allows for more thought patterns: some that interconnect, some that seem to connect but don’t, and others that appear to have little relation but when followed long enough eventually come together.

Now, this isn’t a cut-and-dry rule. A given short story can be more complicated than a given novel, but in general, that’s how I view it. I think the key in either one is to have that strong center. What was the idea or purpose behind that particular short story or novel? How well did the author convey it? Without a well-constructed core, no matter how large or small the weaves are, the more likely they are to falter.

Matthew Sharpe: Golf

For the last 20 years or so the artist Adam Simon and I have been having a wide-ranging conversation that has occasionally taken the form of collaborative art-and-writing projects. This is one of three stories I wrote last year in response to some of Adam’s recent paintings. This painting, Grey Babies, first appeared along with the story in BOMB magazine, summer 2009.  —M.S.

About the painting


They had kissed. Who does that anymore, at breakfast? He’d been seated at the table when she walked toward him from the counter with a coffee cup in each hand, about to ask him a question, or rather, her walking toward him with the sunlight behind her, elbows at her sides, coffee cups out toward him in almost a please-sir-may-I-have-some-more posture was the question, but Please, sir, may I have some more? was not the question, the question was “Don’t worry, mine’s decaf,” and someone who didn’t know them might have thought she was angry.

She sat, the sun in the window at her back, her hand inches from his on the table, sunlight in among the small hairs on her wrist. He, and not, as you would expect, she, seemed to be experiencing morning-time physiological anomalies, an outer-body experience, as someone had called it last night on TV, else how explain his ability to see each spec of dust in motion in the slanted column of light above the pile of her dark hair, each loose strand of hair, each freckle in the left eye, each deviation of the eyeliner from its nearly perfect path?

“Hello?” she said, to indicate he hadn’t heard a word she’d said, and then they were kissing.

Time passed between them, and whoever had made the numbers on the digital clock in their kitchen the same color as the blood in their arteries must have been striving for a correspondence that would make life seem more like a painting than it was. They rushed out the door. On the sidewalk he said, abruptly, “What will you do today?”

“Exchange the rubies in your mother’s safety deposit box for cocaine and spend the morning getting high in the park. You gonna be like this for the next seven and a half months?”

She kissed him, they parted, and late that night, he sat in the waiting area of the emergency room. That there was even an old and dog-eared golf magazine to flip through in a place like this was a modest consolation against the loud TV, tuned to one of those talk shows on which people yell at one another in thrilled indignation, a portal from the world of the sick to the world of the damned. Didn’t anyone with proper authority see that only golf tournaments should be broadcast here? He had no feel for golf itself but found the soft speech of the men and the color of the fairways and putting greens slowed his heart and narcotized his mind, which must have needed it, since he wasn’t ordinarily the type to want to strangle the yellers on TV, and not to strangle but to make feel ashamed the whining toddler to his left, whom he envied on behalf of someone he had never met and now would never meet.   


Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels Jamestown, The Sleeping Father, and Nothing Is Terrible. He has taught writing and literature at Wesleyan and Columbia Universities and in the MFA program at Bard College. His novel You Were Wrong was published last fall by Bloomsbury.

John Dufresne: Escape Velocity

He’s thinking about the smoked salmon dinner with garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus they’ll enjoy later at the lodge and the cold beer he’ll drink with the meal and about the long, cool shower and the nap when this hike is finally over. Four and a half miles down, four and a half back in this unbearable heat. How does the old man do it? The arch of his right foot aches and so does the muscle that runs down the outside of his calf. He trips on the exposed root of a scrubby pinyon pine. Twenty yards ahead on the trail, his father waits for him. His father yells, “Isn’t this breathtaking, Isaac?”

Isaac looks out at the canyon wall and sees two billion years into the past. He knows this because his father, the geologist, told him so, told him the story of the Grand Canyon from the Vishnu schist there at the bottom to the Kaibab limestone where he is standing now, or will be in, it looks like, another fifteen or twenty minutes. “Once upon a time there were mountains six miles high” the story began. What was it his father had called those rose-colored cliffs? Redstone? Redwall sandstone? Was that it? No, limestone. Redwall limestone. Created by a tropical sea 340 million years ago. Isaac sees a mountain goat and her kid stepping along a narrow ledge across the canyon.

Isaac’s father yells for Isaac to get a move on. Isaac points at his athletic shoes. “My feet, ” he says and he makes a pained expression. His father says, “I told you to wear boots.”

The hiking trip to the Canyon was his father’s idea, a last-minute escape, a final adventure before they head back to their universities, Isaac to finish his dissertation on “Time in a Language Without Tense: Aspectual Markers in Chinese” and his father to teach a seminar on Petroleum Resources and Environmental Problems.

Isaac’s foot slides over loose gravel, and he loses his balance. He falls to his back and slides toward the drop-off. He reaches for a black bush but can’t grab hold. This is absurd and embarrassing, he thinks. He has a second to stop his fall, to save his life, and, of course, he will because this is not a movie. He claws at the scree, jams his foot into the hardpan but gains no purchase. He yells to his father, “Dad, help me!”

His father turns. “Isaac, Isaac, where are you?” And then he sees his son drop and bounce off a ledge twenty feet below the trail, and tumble out into thin air with nothing beneath him for hundreds of feet.

All Isaac can do is hope for the miracle that will interrupt his acceleration into the past. And then, to his relief, he realizes what must have happened. He was knocked out when he struck the ledge, and this is a dream of what would have happened if he hadn’t been so lucky. When he comes to, when he opens his eyes, he’ll see his father and a ranger crouched beside him. This is the falling dream he’s been having all his life, and he always wakes up before he reaches the source of the gravity.

And then his shirt is ripped from his body, and he sees it rise above him and float. He screams to his father or maybe he just opens his mouth. Isaac doesn’t know how he manages it, but he turns to face the canyon floor and tries to flap his arms and kick his legs to slow himself. He can do this. He’s slowing down; he’s sure of it. Maybe he’s caught an updraft. If he can land on his feet, he’ll only break his legs. But his arms and legs don’t move and his writhing only starts him spinning and rolling, and he doesn’t know what’s up or what’s down.

Isaac’s father can’t see his son below, but he does see a man on the rim above. The man is looking at him through a coin-operated telescope. Isaac’s father waves at the man. The man smiles and waves back. The mountain goat watches the amazing flying boy and then bleats at her kid, and they step carefully along the ledge.


John Dufresne is the author of two story collections and four novels, most recently Requiem, Mass., and two books on writing fiction, The Lie That Tells a Truth and Is Life Like This? He teaches creative writing at Florida International University. His short story, “The Cross-Eyed Bear” will appear in Best American Mystery Stories 2010.