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In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.

What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.

The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.

stephen-graham-jonesThe Questions I’m Most Often Asked

 

Do you write longhand or on a computer?

Longhand’s all right for short stuff, like when I’ve just edged around a corner, let everybody else keep walking, so I can write a story down right quick. Used to taxiing in a plane and taking off were when I wrote a lot of short pieces, because I couldn’t have my laptop out, but also because I couldn’t imagine just sitting there staring at the back of the seat in front of me. Keyboards are my preference, though. Ergonomic, black, wired. I can go really fast. I can even forget I’m typing, sometimes. Like my mind’s just pressing letters onto the screen. And I go through keyboards pretty fast, too. But, lately, the bones in my hands are wearing out faster. It’s not ideal. But so far it’s just in my three-times broken hand, with the messed-up finger tendons. So I guess it’s no surprise.

NotForNothing_StephenJones1She’ll be waiting for you when you walk back from the water station next door. And of course you’ll have the tip of your thumb in your mouth, will only realize it after you’ve stopped walking, when you’re standing there like some animated character trying to blow his flattened hand back up. All that’s left to do then is waggle your fingers before your face in “Hello,” your eyes kind of squinted. Not so much against the glare coming off the storage units, but in apology. For being who you are.

It’s an apology you make more often than you’d care to admit.

The Ones That Got Away (Prime Books) tiptoes into the darkness, luring us deep into the woods, up into crawlspaces, and to distant islands, where the people, the sacrifices, the losses are our own, our universal fears come to life. You’d think that once he surprised me, once Dr. Jones pulled that old trick where you watch the left hand while the right hand does something else that I’d be prepared for more misdirection, watching the wolf when it was always going to be the dolphin. But it’s all there, it’s always right there, a tingling sensation that runs up your spine, an itch where it settles, burrowing in, a heat up your neck flushing with realization. It isn’t misdirection. It’s an adding up of information, the sum larger than the parts. It’s coming to your own conclusion before the story ends, whispering to yourself that it can’t be what you think it is. Please don’t let him go there. It’s not a trick, or a twist, and no God as machine descends from the sky. It’s what you knew all along, it’s what you feared could be true, it’s a stiff body standing in the corner of a musty basement, the camera on a tripod tipping over, and the evil revealing itself. And it’s how the everyday people in these tales deal with these revelations when they come home to roost.

When you enter the world of Paul Tremblay most anything can happen, and usually does. His recent collection, In The Mean Time (ChiZine Publications) defies expectations, the cover art a soft purple hue all filled with glittery type. It shows the faces of two sweet girls, which at first glance (pay attention, readers, the show starts here) could be two sisters sitting very close together, twins maybe. But no, it’s a two-headed girl, the first of many things that are not what then seem to be, the first of many times where Tremblay takes you by the hand and whispers sweet nothings in your ear, all the while the world falling apart around you, infrastructures crumbling, supplies running out, strange diseases wiping out the populace. But beyond all of that is the emotion, the humanity of what it must be like to exist in such end days, and it is here that he ratchets up the stories to more than just post-apocalyptic terror, dwelling in the individuals and families that are struggling to survive, to connect, to have a normal conversation, a memory that doesn’t send it all fracturing into shards of a former existence. It’s here between the floors where there’s no light, and yet, a sprinkling of hope.

Once Stephen Graham Jones has you, once you’re invested, and want to see what’s going to happen next, that’s when he elevates his game. He’s one of those rare authors (like Brian Evenson, William Gay and Cormac McCarthy) that can write, and publish, and exist in two worlds: the land of genre fiction, with the horrific, the fantastic; and also the high towers of the academic, the language and focus raised to a literary intelligence, the lyrical voice an evolution, the poetic unfurling of the land and emotion beyond the typical read. Jones can publish in the dark recesses of Cemetery Dance and Asimov’s just as easily as the literary landscape of Black Warrior Review and Southeast Review, or the contemporary hotbeds of Juked and Hobart.

 

Cover art for The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall

As it often is with new voices, it all starts with a dull buzz, and the sense of serendipity. Something allows the title or the subject matter or the quality of the prose to break through the daily clutter, the onslaught of suggestions and advertising, to sit with you, to hold your hand and not let go. That is the case with this powerful collection of fiction, The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall. For me, it started with early adopters, people like Dan Wickett at Dzanc Books and the Emerging Writers Network, and Roxane Gay at PANK. By the time I saw the cover, and tracked down a story online to get a taste of the voice, I was nearly sold. After reading “When Praying to a Saint, Include Something Up Her Alley” at her website (originally published in Black Warrior Review) I was in. All in. So very much invested. And a little bit scared.

JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.