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rituals-of-restlessness-cover-photoSimple. Engineer Kamran Khosravi would die in a car accident. Easy, done. He finished smoking his cigarette with chilling calm, so that for the first time in all the years he had smoked, he could enjoy lighting one cigarette with another and, without wetting his palate, not taste the foul tang in his mouth.

“Does the smoke bother you?” He rolled down the car window.

“No, sir.” The man’s sharp Mongol eyes were darting from side to side, unable to remain fixed on anything. Just like the way he talked, with all those annoying questions.

“Where are we going, sir?” “We have work to do.” “What kind of work?”

He felt less anxious when he talked. He did not want to stay quiet for even one second. Just to talk, about anything. It did not matter what.

Cathy DaveCathy Alter: We spent a lot of time thinking about celebrities and thinking about what our crushes (and by “our,” I mean the collective our) meant to us back when we had them and what they mean to us now. So the first thing I want to ask you after bathing in the stew is this: If you could be any celebrity for a day, who would you be?

CRUSHcoverWhenever I am asked about my favorite books, I inevitably mention the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a child, I read these books with devotion and obsession. They were so full of vivid descriptions of settler life. Oh, how I wanted to make candy with maple syrup and snow. Laura, aka Half Pint, was bright and willful and charming. These books showed me that it was possible to tell stories about being a girl from the Midwest, like I was, and have those stories matter.

And then, of course, there was Almanzo “Manly” Wilder. If I have a first love, it is that man of good Midwestern stock. I loved him because he was always steady, true, handsome, courageous, strong. He tamed wild horses. He was a hard worker. He was good in a crisis. He loved fiercely, deeply, and knew how to be romantic in subtle, unexpected ways.

Missile ParadiseLove Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ron Tanner, author of Missile Paradise, and Jim Magruder, author of The Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall, discuss their new novels.

 

Ron Tanner: Let’s dispatch the most obvious question first: in 1983, you were a grad student at Yale, where you dormed in Helen Hadley Hall. Your novel, Love Slaves of Helen Hadley Hall is about a diverse, rowdy, and randy group of grad students at Yale in 1983 and they live in Helen Hadley Hall.  How much does it matter that this story is autobiographical?

 

Jim Magruder: With two exceptions, the entire cast is based on people I knew. That said, there is a lot of me in every love slave (“Becky Engelking, c’est moi”) even if only one of them most corresponds to the facts of me in ‘83. It turns out readers don’t care who was real and what was invented. They create their own versions of the characters as they go along.

Adobe Photoshop PDFThe Venice headquarters of advertising agency Nicaida & Knight occupies a campus of wood plank buildings that once served as a cooperative dairy. Now, the white barns from the 1910s have pegged maple floors, halogen lights, and conference rooms with Aeron chairs. But the sun still flashes through the barns’ clanking rooftop vents, like it did when Los Angeles was home to spotted cows.

Luke parks in his reserved space at Nicaida & Knight and heads for his office. Though the day has barely started, the pace inside is already rushed. Still, Luke comes to work with a sense of relief—his return to employment has been a difficult climb, and he is grateful for good luck.

Even better, he’s being given his due. And it looks like he’ll be able to promote his assistant into accounts. However, Stacy is out until mid-morning on a personal matter and won’t be around to hear the good news.

Taking a moment with his coffee, Luke reflects on his most recent work—storyboard mock-ups tacked to the wall. Luke mastered the campaigns and pleased difficult clients—a big win for all. Only, Luke’s thoughts turn dark and suddenly, he’s remembering the dreams that tricked him into The Bubble.

The_Large_Glass_Cover_PhotoCuriously, the protagonists of the last book that I have published, feel satisfied with the work. I think that they come across quite poorly, but they don’t seem to notice that they are the characters. I think that they perhaps possess an infinite ingenuity or that they don’t usually read books as one should. I arrive at the house where they live and its owner receives me, flanked by the two dogs she owns. They are gigantic hairless specimens. Their backs resemble a mantle of glossy leather. I was ignorant of that woman’s fondness for that type of specimen. When I point it out she is surprised. She adds that, somehow, I had been the driving force behind that interest. It does not cease to be true. It had been more than fifteen years since I had dedicated myself to the promotion of raising dogs of this breed. I have spoken more than once about its benefits. Apart from their intelligence and extreme loyalty, they don’t typically carry pests or balls of fuzz that float in the air. They are quite hygienic pets. At seeing clearly the dogs that accompany the woman, I believe I recognize the larger one. It’s Lato, the animal that a very close friend’s father bought at my insistence five years earlier. It is quite a ferocious beast. It is calm only with whomever is his owner at the moment. With everyone else it is a true beast. Perhaps that is the reason that it has lived in several houses. On a certain occasion, my friend’s father had to flee the country in an inopportune departure. At determining that it would be impossible to leave the dog with anyone else, they took it to an animal park, where it escaped from its cage that very night. It then spent more than a week traversing the city from one side to the other, until it could find his original house. No one knows how it managed to orient himself, but despite the great achievement the dog was not welcomed back. The father had already departed and his son, my friend, now alone in the family house, thought that the solu­tion might be to take it to a veterinarian so that they could inject it with some type of poison.

SWFinalThis is how they get you: your whole life they fill you with stories about princes and poison apples and kindly dwarves and animals that chitter secrets in your ear and bunion-inducing glass slippers and just-right ruby slippers and needles that prick and the frog prince and a nice girl falling in love with a beast and, next thing you know, you’re in the back seat of a Monte Carlo with him pushing into you and all you’re doing is looking out the back windshield, into the blackness above the hilltop, wondering what’s next. Not what’s next after he pulls out, but what’s next? What’s really next, you know? Next for you because, as you’ve been thinking for an awfully long time, you’ve gotta get out of here. As that thought hits you full force, his torso pounding against the backs of your thighs and him asking, begging, really, “Can you, can you, can you?” and you not even listening to or, for that matter, feeling him, because the promise of something bigger than his football player love—bigger than this whole town—fills you with possibility and hope and you push his sweaty body off, climb through the bucket seats, pop open the door, and dance naked into the starless night.

PROLOGUE TWO                   POP!_Cover

PORCELAIN GOD

The dudes who remodeled my mom’s master bathroom forgot to take away the old pink toilet. So there it stood, in the middle of our front yard—a constant amidst the turning, falling leaves of autumn.

We figured they’d be back for it, the toilet. After a week or so of rousing suspicion among the other residents of Green Street, the unspoken realization hit us: that pink throne was our problem now.

One crisp November afternoon, my mom and brother and I all found ourselves standing around the thing with steaming cups of coffee in our hands. My mug had a chip and read: “Nobody’s Perfect.”

“How heavy is it?” My brother tried his best to surmise the toilet’s heft with his mind then tilted it with his free hand.

ContraryMotioncover9780812998283Late Saturday morning—a warm day with an armada of big white clouds overhead—Audrey and I head up to a wedding I’m playing in Glenview. I can’t afford to turn down a gig and I can’t afford to give up one of my days with her, so I sometimes impress her into service as my roadie. Surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to mind, maybe because she gets to wear her frilly white dress with the green sash and her shiny Mary Janes, or maybe because she gets a roadie’s prestige without having to perform any of a roadie’s tasks.

Today, for example, she’s only carrying her stuffed unicorn that had its electronic guts removed one grim day, just before I was asked to leave the Rogers Park apartment, when Milena apparently heard the unicorn’s song one time too many. Now, rolling my 85P harp up a broad concrete walkway to the church entrance, with Audrey and her mute unicorn in tow, I can’t help but feel we’re a pair of refugees from the land of nuclear families, making a bid for repatriation.

JMC Author PhotoIntriguing title, True Stories at the Smoky View. Is the Smoky View real? Have you stayed there?

Both the name and the location of the motel are fictional.

One summer, years ago, while traveling with my son, I stayed at a similar motel, but that was in Virginia, not Tennessee. On the other side of I-81, to the west, loomed very high mountains. By dinnertime the sun had already disappeared. The light was eerie. The sun had set, but not really. After dinner we went swimming, and there was a frog in the pool. My son, too, remembers it as a magical evening. He’s a herpetologist now. Maybe that frog cast a spell on him.

 

Hmmm. Could Jonathan be a stand-in for your son?

Jonathan’s a fictional character. To some extent, I suppose, he’s based on a boy I sat across from at dinner one night. I remember thinking: this kid has been adopted into the wrong family. But Jonathan’s an orphan, with a very different family history.

True Stories at the Smoky View coverVrai wished she had the nerve to leave Skip’s ashes and the box of things from his apartment on his mother’s doorstep. Why not loop Cassi’s leash around the dogwood, ring the doorbell, and run? She didn’t regret the phone call to his mother to offer condolences. Skip would surely have done the same for her. But this visit would be downright awkward.

She and Skip had both grown up here in Knoxville. Decades later they’d become close friends while working in the same library in Baltimore. Just up the street from that library, four days ago, Skip had been hit by a car. According to the article in the Baltimore Sun, the driver, an optician, claimed Skip had stepped off the curb with his hands over his eyes. The article had his name right, Jasper Pascal Howard, Jr., but said he was fifty years old. Skip was only forty-nine, two years older than Vrai.

Bittersweet Way, Skip had ruefully called this quiet, tree-lined street where his mother still lived, and for Vrai, too, his old neighborhood was steeped in sadness. Her best friend, Laramie, had lived next door to Skip.

Rollins_0921

 

So you’re doing the whole meta-fiction thing now?

No, just here to talk about my book with my favorite critic.

 

But you did try meta-fiction, didn’t you?

Yeah, there was a failed story that didn’t make the final cut in which a semi-fictional version of myself confronted all the book’s characters at the Cafe Kopi in Champaign, Illinois.

AFSulli_1

Start with the premise. A skinhead and a butcher run over a lion in December in Canada. How does this kind of thing happen?

Loose zoo laws. Or at least loose exotic animal laws.

The province of Ontario has surprisingly loose regulations around keeping wild animals. Certain cities like Toronto have passed by-laws to prevent this, but Ontario itself is full of small, family run zoos with little to no real oversight on a regular basis. You can spot a lot of them off the highway when you head north to cottage country. It’s also a lot easier for any private citizen to own an exotic animal than you might expect. And it’s a lot easier for these animals to escape than from your standard, big city zoo. Every so often these escapes make the news, but it usually disappears after a while. The past few years have seen major escapes in Florida, Ohio and Alberta. It happens more than you think. Enforcement has ramped up a bit since 1989, but it’s still common enough to pop-up in your local police blotter or Facebook feed.

Waste CoverPawned

Jamie Garrison knew he’d made a mistake when Connor Condon began to thrash around inside the plastic Kmart bag. The kid looked like a fish, his big mouth puffing out and pulling in the plastic, his lips fat and purple. Jamie saw Connor’s eyes staring back at him in the window. He could see the boy’s skin slowly changing color, the muscles in his neck straining to yank the plastic off his face.

Jamie didn’t stop though. He just ground his teeth together and pulled tighter while the ninth-graders near the front took up a chant of condom, condom, condom, condom…their voices bounced between the syllables. The bus driver wasn’t even looking, her eyes burning into the back of a stalled driver’s head, her horn blaring at the green Chevy that refused to move from the turning lane. Brock was in the seat beside Jamie and leading the chant with his hands in the air, his mouth dangling open as it always did, his leather jacket reeking of cat piss. Brock flicked his wrists like a maestro and the chant rose.

Fabienne Author PhotoDancing in the Baron’s Shadow is about two brothers living through a real dictatorship that most people don’t even know about. How did this story come to you?

I had these two characters in my mind for a long time: two brothers in Haiti, one socially and financially more successful than the other, but the other, kinder and more heroic. I had it in my mind that someone should write about Haitian history and politics through fiction. The Duvalier era was tempting, because I couldn’t think of any story that brought up that slice of history, except maybe for Graham Greene’s “The Comedians.” Those were hard years of tyranny and censorship, when people were killed or imprisoned, or vanished without explanation. Haiti was dubbed “the nightmare Republic” back then, and still, it intrigued the rest of the world. That period in time was a goldmine waiting to be excavated.