It’s spring again and you’re feeling it, aren’t you? The return of the sexy. Just this morning you caught the Sun staring unabashedly at those long, lean recently loofahed legs and, although you may not want to admit it, you know he expects something in return. Go ahead and drop that strap.

A little lower.

That’s it.

That’s right, sexy came early this year and you feel it. Your skin is softening, your muscles are tenderizing and your fingers have made no less than five attempts this week to hijack your insightful political essay for HuffPo into a filthy, bodice-ripping anime for YouTube. Come back to the light, serious writer. Neither Gingrich nor Romney is among the sexy.

Unless one of them is wearing chaps and an Arnold mask. Oh, yeah.

Book Tour Week Two: Stacy Bierlein Faces Her Snippy Self-Interviewer


The interviewer walks slowly through the garden gate, looking around, inspecting.  I notice now that the Italian cypress needs to be trimmed; the Boston ivy has survived the Santa Ana winds but is wild and everywhere.

We were bound but not gagged; the wife wanted us to talk.  Her assistant had done the dirty work—jumped us in the street, knocked us out, transported us to wherever the hell we were, tied us tight to wooden chairs.  It was my day off.  I had been walking the Highline.  I heard footsteps behind me, turned, and everything went black.

I will admit, the title of Stacy Bierlein’s debut story collection made me somewhat uncomfortable and more than a little nervous. A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends has an ominous ring, summoning imaginary scenes of one’s own hypothetical island of ex-boyfriends. In my mind, there are few things more dangerous than a group of men one once bedded, all converging in the same, small space. I circled the book for a few days, uncertain of what angle to approach it.

Morocco is underexplored in English language fiction.Most novels with which American readers are familiar are likely to focus on Anglo foreigners traveling to or settling in the country, such as in The Sheltering Sky or Hideous Kinky.Laila Lalami’s debut novel, Secret Son (Algonquin; paperback March 2010) would have merit, then, if all it did was explore Morocco from the inside out: from the perspective of contemporary Moroccans rather than through an exoticized traveler’s lens.But Lailami, an ambitious and meticulous writer whose terrain is as emotional as it is geographic, achieves much more with this barebones, layered and daringly bleak exploration of one man—Youssef El Mekki—and his progressive defeat within a ruthless system.

I have participated in a number of political demonstrations, but few as memorable as the March for Women’s Lives in 2004. More than 1.15 million people converged on the mall for the largest march on Washington in U.S. history. But what I am starting here—it is not the memory of a massive protest, or a recollection of the Bush Administration’s use of women’s rights as a political bargaining tool.

Writers do this. We begin with something approachable, something we trust we might get onto the page or screen correctly. We try for a moment to hold the story in our heads, even as we know we have to let it go.

I marched with my sister, Stephanie, and our friends, Emily and Kristine. I was two months pregnant at the time, pale, surviving on ginger ale and Saltines because everything else induced nausea, and excited about the new bump–even if it was too small then for others to really notice—under my This Is What A Feminist Looks Like t-shirt.

Emily was a new friend. She and my sister had become comrades on the nightclub scene in Los Angeles. Emily is British, a media executive working in the United States on a green card. As a US resident but not a US citizen, she could not cast votes for pro-choice candidates. The march represented for Emily a rare opportunity for her view to be counted. Representatives from more than 57 countries carried their national flags that day.

I have known Kristine since elementary school. We used to jump rope in her driveway; we played softball together in middle school. I remember going to the lake for her birthday, loving the same songs in high school. Kristine had taken the train from Philadelphia to meet us in Washington.

Kristine was three years away from being diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, a cancer that affects the body’s soft tissue. Flash forward to summer 2009. Kristine has paralysis on the left side of her body; the result of a blood vessel rupture caused by a brain tumor.

Of all the incredible moments to take away from that spring day in 2004 in Washington, this is what I remember most: laughing with a healthy and vibrant Kristine, admiring her wise and off-kilter observations, her sense of adventure, all of us believing in so much—in strength and unity and time.

This is the sorcery of creating prose. You see, I have tricked myself into writing about Kristine’s cancer. We know what happens after the March for Women’s Lives. Fox News reports no one was there. CNN reports everyone was there. Progressives go home to campaign for John Kerry, to see another Democrat win a record number of women’s votes but not the White House. Our nation suffers four additional years of runaway-train Republicanism.

I refuse to include George W. Bush, President on the “Year You Were Born” page in my daughter’s baby book. Instead I paste ticket stubs from the Kerry-Edwards fundraising events my sister and I attended just before my daughter was born.

This is what happens with Kristine. She faces seven rounds of intense chemotherapy; severe hallucinations; heart and vascular surgery to remove tumors from her Superior Vena Cava and the veins behind the clavicle; 37 rounds of radiation on her back; a metastatic tumor in her lung and brain; brain surgery to remove a large tumor from her right frontal lobe; a blood vessel rupture caused by the brain tumor, depression, and (hopefully temporary) paralysis.

Most days her sense of adventure remains intact somehow; the infectious quality of her kindness and laughter endure. She tries an experimental treatment center in South America. She and her boyfriend maintain an excellent blog (kristinebecker.blogspot.com) tracking her progress. She turns 38 and dares to believe she might celebrate her 40th birthday. She is fierce, without need of our admiration, yet she has it in endless supplies.

Would you believe I intended to write about bull fights? This is the emotional chance a writer takes. You sit in front of your computer screen inspired to challenge the slaughter of a bull. You recall another protest, and another, and suddenly you’re gulping back tears as you fail to properly describe the bravery and failing health of a treasured lifelong friend.


It is with a heavy heart that I repost this entry today, originally written in September. Kristine Anne Becker passed away at 3 p.m. on Christmas Day 2009, in the arms of her boyfriend, Ryan MacDonald, her partner in a brave battle against leiomyosarcoma. Kristine asked that there be no formal funeral service. A friend has posted a Facebook update that says, Right now, this minute, go out and do something fabulous in honor of Kristine, and certainly that is the type of remembrance Kristine would prefer. The last time I saw Kristine she had traveled to Los Angeles to volunteer at a fundraiser for Fertile Hope, an organization she admired, one that provides fertility counseling to young women whose cancer is treatable, but whose treatments threaten to leave them unable to achieve future pregnancies. I remember Kristine waving from the curb as I picked her up at LAX. Although Kristine had committed to a strict raw diet, although she must have been tired from traveling, she was in my sister’s kitchen making my little girl her favorite Kraft macaroni and cheese before I was even inside the door. My sister visited Kristine in Philadelphia in October. Kristine was doing well then, but knew, of course, that with another tumor in her brain, every good day was a gift. To say Kristine will be missed does not quite seem adequate. It seems at this moment, words should weigh so much more.

A big hello from the Fiction Editorial Team–Stacy Bierlein, Alex Chee, Shya Scanlon and yours truly.  We’re all so excited to unveil this section of the new-and-improved TNB that if we told you how thrilled we really are, you might be a little alarmed.  You might even suspect that we have too much time on our hands . . . which is so far from the truth it would be comical.  So suffice it to say that we’re really, really glad you’re here, and both proud and humbled to be on this journey through the terrain of contemporary fiction with you.

First, a little story:

This September my son Giovanni, who is three-and-a-half, started preschool.  The plan was that once he was in school, I would finally have enough hours “to myself” to get all my work done.  On that list: running Other Voices Books‘ flagship Chicago office (well, flagship may be a rather grand term for a desk in my basement), teaching at two universities, raising three small children–and then, in my nonexistent spare time blogging for both TNB and HuffPo, in addition, of course, to writing my own fiction and prepping to market my second book coming out in 2010.  Oh, I think I recall that I was also going to kick up my yoga practice this year in all my “free time,” and start reading some books that weren’t: a) fiction, b) submissions to OV Books or c) by writers I know.

Um, yeah.  Sometimes the best laid plans go awry.  Or maybe it’s just that sometimes the best laid plans are not really all they’re cracked up to be.

Giovanni had been at his first day of preschool for exactly four hours when my phone rang.  It was Brad Listi, who at that time (this now seems like a distant memory) didn’t frequently call me.  He proceeded to explain his idea for a TNB Fiction Section.  Then, to my surprise, he asked if I would consider editing it.

Absolutely anyone who knows anything about what my life looks like would tell you that I should have run for the hills.

Instead I was ecstatic.  I think within a minute and a half, I had basically signed away not only my own name in blood, but that of my longtime business partner Stacy Bierlein, Exec. Ed. of OV’s Los Angeles office, who is now my co-Editor in this venture too.  I recall buzzing around my house for the rest of the workday making lists of all the writers I couldn’t wait to let know about TNB.  When Shya and Alex joined the fray soon after, the conference calls and barrage of emails that commenced were dizzying.

If you care anything about contemporary fiction (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t), you know that review venues are shrinking by the day.  Books sections in papers and magazines are closing or radically reducing space; longtime literary magazines are losing funding and folding.  Corporate publishers are spending less on book tours and indie presses often can’t afford to spring for them to begin with.  It is harder and harder for writers to market their work in traditional ways.

This is where TNB’s Fiction Section comes in.  Our aim here is not only akin to that of all good literary magazines–to showcase some of the most vibrant writers working today–but also to help provide these writers with a vehicle to market their books.  This is why we provide links to authors’ websites and sales pages: to help directly connect the writers we love with their audience–TNB’s large, loyal and growing readership.  We also aim to provide you insights into these authors and their work that you can’t get just anywhere, which is what’s behind the “self-interview” concept.  Here, authors answer all the questions they were always afraid to answer in other interviews, or that they wished all those other guys would’ve asked instead of asking what time of the day they write and whether their desk faces west or east.  TNB’s Fiction Section is a tantalizing triple-threat on that week’s Featured Author, so that by the time you’re done, you should be as smitten as we are.

Some writers we’ll be showcasing this year include Stuart Dybek, Steve Almond, Stephen Elliott, Antonya Nelson, Jonathan Evison, Joshua Mohr, Aimee Liu and Terese Svoboda . . . among many, many more!  Please stay tuned.  New work goes up every Sunday night.

Finally, on behalf of Stacy and myself, I’d also like to say how truly fun it’s been to work with such a wide variety of writers again.  When we closed Other Voices magazine in 2007 to focus on book publishing, we gained many exciting opportunities to champion indie books out in the world, but we considerably narrowed the pool of writers we were able to champion, since Other Voices Books publishes only two titles annually.  So it has truly been a joy to be able to reach out to more writers again, to consider so much new work, and to merge our passion for book and magazine publishing here at TNB.

We hope to hear from you soon and often.  Onward, and go TNB!