Instructor Q&A

Katherine Catmull is the author of Summer and Bird (Dutton Young Readers/Penguin), one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and a TLA Spirit of Texas Reading pick for 2014-2015. Her YA fantasy The Radiant Road comes out from Dutton in January. She is one of four co-authors of The Cabinet of Curiosities (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2014), a collection of scary short stories. Catmull is also an actor, freelance arts writer, and a produced and published playwright.

Katherine is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “He Said, She Said: Dialogue is All About Conflict” on Saturday, September 5 at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

 Katherine Catmull headshotScribe: Were you an actress, playwright, or writer first? How have you developed into and because of these roles?

Katherine Catmull: I always meant to be a writer, but in college I got stopped cold by fearfulness, by comparing myself to the Greats, by how hard writing is—all the monsters that stop you. So I turned to acting, which is also hard—but theater creates enormous social pressure to just show up and do the work, no matter the monsters. Everyone is depending on you! Show must go on! So you’re forced into working, and of course working is so exhilarating.

Once I hit 40, it became more exhausting to rehearse and perform week in and week out and still drag myself to a day job. Also, I began to want to see something with my own vision out there in the world, rather than working to further a playwright and director’s vision. So I wondered if this theater thing of “just showing up and doing the work” would also work for writing. And it did—though of course, far easier said than done, without all the other people to badger and cheer you on. But I lightened my acting load and started writing short plays, beginning with monologues I wrote for myself to perform at FronteraFest, the yearly fringe festival at the Hyde Park Theatre here in Austin. I also collaborated on some longer plays. That was great practice at not being precious with your writing. Is it working for the play? Great! If not, throw it out! And then, like Wart in The Sword in the Stone, I took all the skills I’d learned from all those experiences, and with enormous effort, wrenched my first novel out of a giant rock. That’s what it felt like, anyway.

Scribe: What is the biggest thing that people think they know about writing dialogue, that isn’t necessarily true?

KC: There are several of these, as I’ll address in my class. One that’s simple: many people are encouraged in school to use lots of different dialogue tags besides “said.” They’ll have characters “averring” things, or “opining” things, or “ranting” things or “gulping” things or “intoning” things. Don’t do that. While there are a few tags that work when used sparingly— “replied” or “added” or “insisted,” the occasional “snapped” or “barked”—mostly, don’t get cute with those tags. The idea is for them to vanish into the background. Often you don’t need a tag at all, and I’ll get into that, too. Meanwhile, teachers! Stop telling students to do that!

Scribe: What is the most important thing that people don’t know about writing dialogue that they ought to?

KC: We should try to remember, I think—and I count myself as someone who needs to remember this—how rarely people say what they actually mean. In many ways, they hardly ever say what they mean. This is so important to remember.

Scribe: Do you approach dialogue in a play differently than you would dialogue in a novel? What guides you?

KC: Oh, yes. In a novel, you have so much more control over the rhythm of the piece—over where the character pauses, or looks nervously away, or zones out, or raises her voice. In plays, you have to leave room for the actor and director to make those decisions. But you can’t leave so much room that they have no idea. It’s tricky.

— Thanks, Katherine!

Click here to register for Katherine’s class.

Click here for a full schedule of classes.

Meet the Members

Erica Seiler has been a member of the Writers’ League since April of this year and is attending one of our fall classes. She lives in San Antonio, TX.

Erica Seiler
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Erica Seiler: Literary fiction, mysteries and thrillers.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

ES: My first instinct is a drink with Mary Karr, but that’s so wrong. I’d like to have a bourbon with Hemingway. I imagine he’d be a lot like ‘The Most Interesting Man.’ We could always have coffee after. And I’d love to meet Poe, but I don’t have the stomach for Absinthe.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane? 

ES: Just one? No fair. Gone With the Wind.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League? 

ES: The variety of writers out there. So many interests, so many specialties. It’s a delicious circus.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future? 

ES: I currently make my living as a freelance writer for companies. I’d like to someday earn my income exclusively from fiction.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

ES: This is the best time to be a writer. Appetites for written word are voracious and varied. We’re no longer tied to the traditional processes of the “Big 5.” Writers can control their own work and publishing destiny more than ever. We have the power—go find your audience.

MEMBERS REVIEW

THE OUTSKIRTS OF HOPE

by Jo Ivester

Published in 2015 by She Writes Press.

outskirts of hope

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reviewed by Christine Baleshta.

“If not us, who? If not now, when?” This quote by Robert Kennedy could well be the mantra of Jo Ivestor’s idealistic father as he enlists in President Johnson’s war on poverty and moves his family from Massachusetts to open a clinic in the poorest place in the nation. Leon Kruger announces one afternoon that the family is moving to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, leaving Jo’s mother, Aura, in shock. The last thing she wants is to be torn from family and friends, but soon finds herself driving through miles of cotton fields to an all black town settled by ex-slaves.

Leon immediately immerses himself in his responsibilities at the clinic as Jo and her brothers begin school, but Aura feels without purpose. Urged by her husband and recruited by the school’s superintendent, she begins teaching English at the town’s high school and discovers her calling. Her sincere desire to help her students gain a sense of who they can become enables Aura to overcome her inexperience and lack of confidence. Aura challenges her students to change their lives, earning their respect and admiration.

While Aura thrives, her eleven year-old daughter struggles to grow up in a black town. Contrasting Aura’s voice with young Jo’s, Ivester creates an interesting dialogue between two generations with two different perspectives. Jo and her brothers are the only white students in the school system and her only friends are the boys she plays football with. Aura and Leon assume Jo and her brothers will easily assimilate, failing to notice her difficulties until a tragic incident forces them to face the reality of a white family living in a black town.

Told primarily in Aura’s voice, the book focuses on Aura’s experiences in the classroom and her relationship and interactions with her students. The Outskirts of Hope is really her story.  Through her eyes we experience the injustices of segregation and the threat of the Ku Klux Klan. Unfortunately, the book gives only glimpses of the Krugers’ home and community life. Though Aura mentions bridge games with neighbors and invitations to church functions, she laments she made no close friends and other white families saw them as interfering with their social structure. Black and white photos from the family album illustrate a blurred sense of Mound Bayou and the surrounding Delta landscape.

The Outskirts of Hope is both a memoir and a window into life in the Deep South. Written in simple narrative form, it is an enlightening as well as a thought-provoking book about one teacher who made a difference at the height of the civil rights movement. In light of the ongoing bitter national conversation about race, Jo Ivestor has written a timely book that reminds us that some issues remain unresolved.

Christine Baleshta lives in Austin, Texas. She is the author of Looking for 527, and her essays have appeared in naturewriting.com, Yellowstone Experiences, and wolftracker.com.

Instructor Q&A

Nan Cuba’s novel Body and Bread (Engine Books), won the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award; it was listed as one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” in O Magazine, and was a “Summer Books” choice from Huffington Post and was a finalist for the 2013-2014 Writers’ League of Texas Book Awards in the Fiction category. Cuba co-edited Art at our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists (Trinity University Press), and published other work in Quarterly West, Columbia, Antioch Review, Harvard Review, and storySouth. She is the 2016 Dobie Paisano Fellow and founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, a nonprofit literary center in San Antonio. She teaches in the MA/MFA Program in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, where she is writer-in-residence.

Nan is teaching a class on August 29 for the Writers’ League called “Fine-Tune Craft While Writing Flash Fiction” at St. Edward’s University. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Nan Cuba
Scribe: Do you go through the same processes when writing a work of flash fiction as when writing other works?

Nan Cuba: The conceptual part of the process is different for me. I begin with a specific memory, image, phrase, or form. For developing the memory or image, I sketch a narrative arc from the initial idea then start revising. If I begin with a phrase, then voice will drive the piece, influencing the situation and outcome. If I start with a form in mind, say a piece structured through imagery and allusion, then specifics emerge as a result of those dictates. My longer stories, from beginning to end, revolve around character development. This may be true of flash pieces but not always.

Scribe: Do your flash fiction projects ever turn into longer pieces, or vice versa? (If not, why not?)

NC: Yes. Sometimes, the flash pieces expand, but when I decide to write one, I respond to the challenge and try to honor the form’s craft requirements. I consider it a form of discipline and practice, like a poet writing a sonnet or a pianist composing a sonata.

Scribe: What pushed you to write your first flash fiction (as opposed to another medium)?

NC: Friends were writing flash fiction, and I admired other pieces in various journals. I wanted to learn more about it so I taught a graduate workshop focusing only on flash fiction. My students and I worked together to understand and practice the form.

Scribe: Who do you think is the audience for flash fiction? Do you try to write for one?

NC: There is no specialized audience. Anyone who likes stories will be drawn to the form, but flash fiction is especially popular with readers who appreciate language dexterity and enjoy figuring out subtext, nuance, symbolism, and innuendo. I don’t write with an audience in mind. I write what I like to read and hope there are others who feel the same way.

Scribe: Is flash fiction a good genre for new writers to cut their teeth on?

NC: It can be, and we’re going to use it for that in the class, but like poetry, its complex. Since its short, we can practice fundamental craft techniques, and these first efforts can produce evocative, powerful stories. But like any literature, with the author’s acquired knowledge and practice, creations deepen and demonstrate mastery of the form.

Scribe: On your website, you described literary fiction as fiction that uses language the way poetry would. Would it be appropriate to say that flash fiction is similar to literary fiction in that way, since the imagery, diction, etc., have to be so concise and impactful?

NC: Flash fiction is a type of literary fiction, in that, as you point out, both rely on a strategic use of language. After all, “literary” comes from the Latin litterarius, meaning “letters,” as in letters of the alphabet. In other words, literary fiction’s emphasis is on language usage. Since flash fiction is compressed, attention is paid to language because you’re counting words, so they have to perform double, sometimes triple duty.

Scribe: Compression is a key aspect of writing flash fiction, but do you keep it in mind while working on other forms of writing?

NC: Yes I do, but crafted fiction doesn’t have to be compressed. Think of stories by Texas’ own Katherine Anne Porter: lush, lyrical descriptions, in some cases of the Texas landscape. Compression isn’t required when paying close attention to writing, but meticulous editing is. We’ll talk about that during class.

Thanks, Nan!

Click here to register for Nan’s Class.

Click here for a full list of our August and September classes.

 

Meet the Members

Judge Janice Law has been a member of the Writers’ League for eleven years. She lives in Houston, TX.

Janice photo

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

JL: As a veteran journalist and attorney, I challenged myself to write a book in all major genres. Since 2005 I have written investigative true crime, diarist, children’s, thriller and historical fiction, autobiography, and biography.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

JL: An old-fashioned ice cream soda with the twenty very talented women and three men who wrote and edited the incomparable original Nancy Drew mystery series under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Nancy Drew is the informal mascot of the three-year old museum I founded in Washington D.C., The American Women Writers National Museum, to honor America’s premier women writers. Nancy Drew inspired generations of women, and her derring-do, intelligence, and independent spirit continue to inspire today.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

JL: How to Make a Mobile Communication Device from Coconuts, Shells and Palm Fronds” with detailed diagrams and a tool kit attached.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League? 

JL: The strong leadership of Becka Oliver, the well-organized and helpful annual Agents & Editors Conference and the multitude of practical seminars offered throughout the year. I appreciate the emphasis on having some meetings in cities other than Austin.

Although one does not “learn” joy, I experienced true joy when my 2006 book was a 2007 nonfiction finalist for the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award. The peer recognition was the thrill of a lifetime.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

JL: Continuing to publicize the six books I have already written. Some new authors expect that after they write a book, crowds will form automatically to purchase their books. To the contrary, with each new book, one must commit to Herculean publicity schedule.

As for my museum, which now meets in rental space at the national press club where I am a member, I continue to work toward a future of a permanent space.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

JL: My just released sixth book, American Evita: Lurleen Wallace, is a biography of Alabama’s Lurleen Wallace, America’s third woman governor (1967-68), whose extraordinary life I weave with the life of Evita Peron of Argentina.

Both were women in their time, but not of their time. Neither one graduated high school but in a mere six years, they both managed to eclipse the suns of the steely eyed more educated, more prominent men of political convenience they married. Both of their husbands concealed from them the identical medical diagnosis which caused their deaths.

American Evita: Lurleen Wallace is the fourth of my six books accepted into the physical and online collection of the Library of Congress. When Lurleen died in 1968, America’s most violent (contemporary) year, Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy, (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s top lieutenant) issued a public statement: “A dark shadow has been cast across the horizon of America by the death of the Honorable Governor Lurleen Wallace.” Her husband George C. Wallace famously vowed: “Segregation forever.”

Public admiration of a black leader from the wife of an avowed segregationist was unimaginable in 1968 America. But it did happen.

 

MEMBERS REVIEW

DEATH ON BASE: THE FORT HOOD MASSACRE

 By Anita Belles Porterfield and John Porterfield

 Published in 2015 by University of North Texas Press.

Death on Base

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reviewed by Ron Hunka.

From the title of this book, one might conclude that it concerns itself only with the tragic events of November 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas. Although it addresses these matters in carefully researched detail, perhaps its greater contribution is in its comparative analysis of this attack versus other rampages in the United States intended to inflict mass casualties. Examples of two such cases familiar to Austin readers are the Charles Whitman University of Texas tower shootings in August 1966 and the Joseph Stack aerial assault on the IRS offices in the Echelon building in February 2010.

Nidal Malik Hasan, the perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre, was born in Arlington, Virginia in 1970. His parents were Palestinian immigrants. In an interview with ABC News after the attack, Nadar Hasan, a cousin of Nidal, said that Nidal and he experienced a “typical American” upbringing. Neither of them spoke Arabic or were “particularly religious.”

After Hasan graduated from high school, against his parents’ wishes, he joined the Army in 1988. Ultimately, Hasan’s decision to join the Army, coupled with his eventual radicalization, played a significant part in the events that led up to the Fort Hood massacre.

After he enlisted, the Army permitted Hasan to go on inactive duty to pursue a college education. He graduated from Virginia Tech with honors with a degree in biochemistry in 1995. In 1998, his father died and his mother followed in 2001. Hasan had always for the most part, looked to his parents for guidance and was cast somewhat adrift after their deaths. Before his mother died, however, she told him she wanted him to “know God.” Subsequently, Hasan started praying more and became more pious.

After the World Trade center attacks on September 11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan that followed, Hasan, along with many other American Muslims took abuse from revenge-minded segments of the American public.

After graduating from Virginia Tech the Army sanctioned Hasan’s enrollment in the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland. He graduated in 2003 and was promoted to the rank of captain. He stayed on at Walter Reed for his internship and residency, with a specialization in psychiatry. By the time of his graduation from medical school, he was already firmly committed to the study and practice of Islam. Now, recognizing what he perceived to be the Army’s assault on his religion, he began exploring options for leaving the Army.

The chief obstacle to Hasan’s departing the Army was its expectation that he repay the expense of his medical education. It was that or serve out his required seven years. He opted for the latter.

During Hasan’s internship and residency at Walter Reed, he became more openly critical of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Also, he began proselytizing colleagues and telling those who knew little about Islam that they would “burn for eternity.” During his residency, Hasan was reprimanded for inappropriately holding religious discussions with patients. Also, he was put on probation for failure to show up for a required medical licensing exam.

In June 2007, while other students made presentations on medications and psychiatric illnesses in a seminar, Hasan, to a stunned audience of senior doctors and others, delivered an extensive presentation on topics such as Islam, suicide bombings, jihad, and Osama bin Laden. Despite this demonstration of questionable judgment, Hasan’s official Army rating incomprehensibly included the wording “must promote; best qualified; a star officer.”

Despite Hasan’s abhorrent performance and suspect loyalty to his country, he was allowed to complete his psychiatric fellowship and promoted to major. His officer evaluation for the period ending June 2009 again demonstrated a disconnect between his reputed and his actual performance. The report praised, among other things, his “keen interest in Islamic culture and faith.” Any observation or hint of radicalism was conspicuously absent from the evaluation.

Within two months, Hasan was on his way to an assignment at Fort Hood.

His advisor at Walter Reed warned the chief of the medical staff at the Darnell Medical Center at Fort Hood, “You’re getting our worst.”

At Fort Hood, Hasan’s main job in the Behavioral Health Department was to evaluate soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to assess their fitness for further assignments. The head of the department, Ltc. Ben Phillips had a reputation for being abusive to people under his command, and he did not like Hasan. One of the department workers had observed Hasan’s being brought to tears several time by rough treatment at the hands of his superior. It appeared to be difficult for Hasan to cope as he was an introverted loner who never took part in office functions.

Two weeks after arrival at Fort Hood, Hasan purchased a Belgian-made semi-automatic pistol, with which he began practicing several times a week. It was small, light-weight and could be concealed in a pocket or belt.

On November 4th and 5th, Hasan cleaned out his apartment and shredded documents including his medical school diploma. The morning of the second day, he drove to the Behavioral Health Department where he worked. He attempted to see his superior officer, but his being out-of-state that day saved his life. Hasan attended noon prayers at his mosque and then returned to his office where he put a .357 handgun in his right front pocket and his Belgian pistol in the waistband of his pants. He then returned to the Soldier Readiness Processing Center. After a few minutes there, he shouted “Allahu Akbar” and began shooting. At the end of that bloody day, Hasan had fatally shot 13 persons and injured more than 30 others.

For those who wish to know more about the Fort Hood massacre, Death on Base is a highly commendable, carefully written study of those events.

Ron Hunka has published over a dozen articles on castles and monasteries in the German-speaking world. In addition, he has documented the fraudulent careers of notorious Texans Billie Sol Estes, Frank Sharp, and James Bowie. Other subjects include the Spanish shipwrecks of Padre Island, the financial difficulties of the Republic of Texas, and the Nome Gold Rush.

July Third Thursday Wrap-up

How to Be Good A Literary Citizen

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by WLT Intern Hailey Clement

July’s Third Thursday focused less on writing techniques and instead covered how to be part of the writing community. Creating and finding a place in the writing community is both important and fulfilling, but how to do so isn’t always obvious. To help us navigate this social and professional group, our panelists discussed a variety of topics, advice, and stories. But most of all, they described what it means to be a literary citizen, and how to be a good one.

Reflecting the diversity of writers in the audience, the panel consisted of a varied collection of writers, no two coming from the same background. But despite that, the message was clear: To be a good literary citizen, you must be above all, an authentic human. That may sound a little strange, and sometimes it is a little strange to do, but it is key.

Being part of the literary community involves contributing something, somehow. That can manifest in multiple ways depending on personality and availability. For some, it will be having engaging conversations on Twitter, going to writing events in town, or writing reviews and raving about books to friends.

Jennifer Hill Robenalt, tapping her wisdom as an experienced communications professional, emphasized being authentic. Even over the Internet, it’s clear when someone is lying or just doing something for the attention. So, it means a lot when posts or reviews are sincere and personal. That touch of humanity does come across and helps connect authors as people.

Adding to this sentiment, Cory Putman Oakes asserted that “networking doesn’t have to be creepy!” Done successfully, it’s a great way to make actual friends and connections. These relationships can be personally fulfilling and may lead to professional help from friends, perhaps in the form of blurbs or reviews. Oakes also emphasized that an important part of being in the community is being thankful to those who are helpful and supportive. Just like in real, face-to-face life, common courtesy goes a long way toward building connections with other writers.

François Pointeau brought forth his twofold opinion of bringing people together, and respecting when they want their distance. A good citizen pays it forward constantly, creating or engaging in spaces for writers. For him, this is often through his radio show on KOOP Radio, “Writing on the Air,” but also through attending local events. Meeting someone in person is often the first step to an actual relationship, and events are great ways to find like-minded people. But there will be times when someone declines an invitation or a manuscript. That’s not a problem; it’s just part of the process. The best way to react is respectfully and to move on.

Perhaps the easiest strategy discussed was Michael Noll’s. He strongly believes in reading more books. It is a straightforward and enjoyable way to support fellow writers. Not only do sales help, but that creates the opportunity to write reviews or recommend books to friends. Reviews on GoodReads and Amazon show solidarity with authors, can help with metrics, and or can help a book find a good spot on those virtual bookshelves, but they can also simply make the author feel good. A well written review coupled with tangible support is one of the most direct ways to be an outstanding literary citizen.

What do you do to be a good literary citizen for your community?

Join us at Book People on August 20th for our next Third Thursday panel “Picture This: Creating Illustrated Children’s Books” where Jeff Crosby, Liz Garton Scanlon, Mary Sullivan, and Emma J. Virján will discuss the intricate and delightful world of writing a picture book. See you at 7 pm!