an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

an author’s dream come true: a generous, thoughtful review of small, fierce things

A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org
A review of small, fierce things by Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org

This morning, my colleague, publisher, and fellow scribbler Jason Buchholz emailed me to ask if I had seen the review of my recent book of flash fiction, small, fierce things in Mary: a Journal of New Writing.

I had not.

As the writers out there know, and most readers probably don’t, the publishing world is not what the shelves at Barnes and Noble might imply. If you are not a Stephen King or a JK Rowling, (which 99.9999999999999% of us are not) finding a publisher for your book is not the domino that sets the rest in motion: it is only the first step. The next is a lonely, shameless, and grueling campaign of self-promotion and self-marketing through any and all means, such as selling your book out of your backpack, bringing your book to local shops to see if they are willing to sell on commission, posting relentlessly into the general cacophony of social media, begging your former teachers to consider teaching the book, inviting yourself to open mics and readings, and hoping your family, friends, and people from your writer’s group are not the only people who read it. In my case, I had the help of Achiote Press and my colleague Jason, who showed up at my readings, blasted his own social media to promote my work, and as this post shows, was out there looking for reviews of my book in his spare time (when he isn’t working full time, raising a child, co-running his small press, and writing his own novels.)

How does one get reviewed if you are a small, fierce mouse and not a large, visible elephant? You beg. You send out email queries and never hear back. You mail out free review copies to anyone who will take one, and then pass out after holding your breath for a few months waiting to hear back (while sheepishly googling your book title to confirm that no one has reviewed it.)

Then you give up.

And then, if you are really really lucky, a kind soul not only reads it, but reads it closely, and writes their observations down, and publishes it. In my case, that kind, generous, thoughtful reviewer is Andrew Hamilton at maryjournal.org.

I don’t know Andrew, but I would like to say this: writing book reviews for small presses is the literary equivalent of volunteering to get up and sing your heart out to an invisible crowd who may or may not be there, and who may or may not be paying attention. Most reviewers of fiction are not paid for what they do… except in review copies, a very small per-review stipend ($25-$50 if you write for say, Publisher’s Weekly) and the author’s undying gratitude (even negative reviews sell books). Book reviewers, in my opinion, work harder than the authors themselves… putting their craft and art into a piece of writing about someone else’s piece of writing. They are the (mostly) unsung heroes of the publishing world. Those who do have high visibility, like NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, give solid but eventually predictable and repetitively-styled reviews as bookends (yup) to Terry Gross’ show Fresh Air. If you are everyone else, you are competing to be read by an audience terminally distracted by the sheer white noise of the net. And don’t get me started on the reviewers who treat reviewing as an exercise in cynical showboating.

So, if you’ve read this far, please doff your hat to those book reviewers out there who do this work as a labor of love, a masochistic reflex, an unspeakable kindness, or whatever it is that makes them kind enough and crazy enough to donate their precious mental resources in this act of service. Andrew Hamilton, and maryjournal.org, thank you. 

impressions of svalbard (2)

impressions of svalbard (2)

pyramiden

Pyramiden was an actively haunted ghost town. Weeks could go by with no visitors, and then one afternoon a cruise ship might arrive unannounced carrying 700 tourists, with well-dressed women making their way up the rutted dirt road in high heels, and not even one of the crew thinking to bring a gun, despite the threat of polar bears. The young Russian guide did his best to guard them as they explored the many empty rooms of the former Soviet utopia, its movie marquis featuring sun bleached posters of Michael Douglas, who had been starring agelessly through the long polar days and nights since 1998.  In the massive hotel, two older women baked fresh pastries every day, ever prepared for a moment such as this to open their small shop for a brisk business in chocolate and vodka. Across the courtyard in what had been the family dormitories, gaping windows coated in birdshit looked out over a decaying playground. When the wind changed, the endless shrieking of the birds grew deafening.  Over dinner on our ship, the guide confessed to having stumbled upon a KGB office in one of the basement rooms. How the hackles had raised on his neck when he remembered stories of torture and contact poison. How even he, a man of a different era, was not immune to certain ghosts.

impressions of svalbard (1)

impressions of svalbard (1)

impressions of svalbard

 

there was a feeling of the vastness of the sky. and of being so close to the top of the earth that there seemed little to hold me in place. the landscape, devoid of trees or of anything to measure myself against other than the ship, the icy crags, and the immense horizontal ribbons of sky and sea, made me tiny- as tiny as a footprint, or a fish. at the same time, i felt the power and utter belonging of being so small: anything could happen in this world where a day could elongate into months, and the shifting of the ice crackled like a storm of unseen creatures about to break the surface.

small, fierce things would like to come home with you

small, fierce things would like to come home with you

collage of covers

small, fierce book covers

small, fierce things, my new book of illustrations and stories, is sold out! However, if you would like to special order a copy,  contact me!  

 

I am delighted to announce that in conjunction with Achiote Press, my new book is ready for purchase!  There are 50 handmade, hand-sewn copies ready to slide, crawl, scurry, bound, leap, wing, flutter, slink, creep, dig, and nose their way into your mailbox. All you have to do is click the button below and decide how many small, fierce things you want!

Details: Each books is 5″ X 5″ and 70 pages long. They are printed on acid-free coverstock, hand-sewn using fishing net that I found washed up on the beaches of Svalbard (yes, the North Pole!) Each book has a unique cover created from  found textiles and photographs, and contains 12 stories and 28 pen-and-ink illustrations.

Here is what some wonderful people have said about small, fierce things:

L.J.’s Fierce revels in the often queer intersection of the human and non-human worlds, with a focus not so much on the digital world (which we might now have come to accept), but on the animal: how the harmonica might make a rooster berserk, or the way a man whose frown “seemed permanent” might appreciate eye contact with a porcupine for “the way it had come to be there in his hands.” This book is a series of anti-selfies: off-kilter moments full of wonder, not presentation; this is not a window display but a corridor of funhouse mirrors. You might look the same when you’re finished, but something inside will be different.

Evan Karp, founder of Quiet Lightning

In LJ Moore’s small, fierce things, feelings you never thought to name become animal, donning flesh, fur, spikes, feathers. Nightmares walk and secrets play the banjo. These very short stories, written simply and without guile, vibrate with power and mystery, celebrate the authority of ambiguity. What does this mean? Moore has a way with last lines that feel unexpected but inevitable, lines that pin her characters to inescapable fact but open up a world of feeling in the reader, a simultaneous shrinking and explosion of possibility. These tales dance at the edge of fantasy but are never twee, never merely fanciful. They are too serious, too much about the sad predicament of being human, to be reduced to the whimsical, though it is clear that Moore is enjoying herself, letting her characters speak for themselves in awkwardly charming ways. The animal drawings that accompany the stories preceded them, according to Moore, and the stories came about as illustrations of the drawings, rather than vice versa. The drawings are sharply rendered, slyly funny, with more than a hint of the bizarre. They, along with the stories they fueled, bring to mind Flannery O’Connor’s famous line, The Truth Shall Make You Odd. I think Moore would be okay with that.

Sarah Fran Wisby, author of Viva Loss, and The Heart’s Progress (forthcoming from Plain Wrap Press)

Cats bring prey to feed their young and LJ Moore must be part feline because her small, fierce things sustains us. In words and illustrations, Moore brings the wilderness of the imagination to our front porch. It’s a bloody gift, still warm. Good kitty.

Tupelo Hassman, author of Girlchild

“As its name suggests, small, fierce things offers world in miniature–finely tuned observations that break open upon contact, secrets within secrets, hidden worlds that lie at the borders between the natural world and human consciousness. Wondrously illustrated and carefully wrought, LJ Moore’s work is a strange and uncanny delight.”

Colin Dickey, author of Afterlives of the Saints, and Cranioklepty

Each story in this collection reveals an unexpected and mesmerizing portrait that spins with the exquisite energy of dreams. Populated with all manner of creature-guides, and ranging from the far north to your grandmother’s bathroom towels, small, fierce things is a constellation of bright marvels not to be missed.”

Stacy Carlson, author of Among the Wonderful

 Not convinced yet? Read an excerpt.

Interested in the process of how this book was made? Scroll down!

Outtakes from the making of small, fierce things:

small, fierce things take over my bed
small, fierce things take over my bed
small, fierce things getting together
small, fierce things getting together
sewing the spines of small, fierce things
sewing the spines of small, fierce things
small, fierce books
small, fierce books
small, fierce things: my new book of stories and illustrations

small, fierce things: my new book of stories and illustrations

After a long hiatus during which I recovered from the incredible experience of traveling to the Arctic Circle and sailing aboard the Antigua with an incredible group of people, I have been busy doing something new: illustrating and writing a new book.

As of yesterday, I completed the first draft and am very excited to be doing the layout and getting it ready for binding. Yes, you read that right, I am binding it myself. Thanks to Stevie Ronnie, a poet from the UK that I met in the Arctic, I now know how to make my own books. With the support of a local literary press (more on that later!) I will be hand-binding a first run of 50 books which will be available for purchase in early 2014. I will give you all the details when they are ready. Each book will be made with unique “found” materials… including handmade papers, textiles, photographic prints, and other ephemera. Each book will have a hand-stitched spine, using fibers I recovered from fishing nets that washed ashore on Arctic beaches.  The book is called small, fierce things, and will contain 12 stories accompanied by 28 pen and ink illustrations.

To give you a sense of the book, here is an excerpt of one of the stories in small, fierce things.

Please check back mid-January for news on when the book will be available!

the gentleman in the white coat

driftwood

Sigbjørn is Norwegian, though when he arrives to work in the coal mines, he is a newcomer to the hardened group that has already labored several winters together. He is not one to try to ingratiate himself, which is taken by many to mean he is either proud or simple or both. After a night of drinking, they try in their way to make him belong to them, suggesting various nicknames until, in a fit of backhanded alliteration, someone jokes “Sig the Swede,” and the insult sticks. After the explosion, he moves from Longyearbyen to a shack on an isolated stretch further along Isfjorden. He begins again there as himself, Sigbjørn.

Behind him, a ghost lives on. The men who survived the blast entertain the new men who come to swing the dead men’s picks in the dead men’s boots by telling them the story of Sig the Swede, who was burnt so terribly in the coal fire he could not bear for anyone to see his face, and so now lives where only snow and sky can look on him.

As spring and then summer wane, Sigbjørn watches the sun swing lower and lower in its parabola until each day is one long twilight. In his mind he calls the days days and the nights nights, but they have long ceased to have anything to do with light or darkness. He lives in the shack with only occasional visits from the gentleman in the white coat for company. The gentleman in the white coat is no gentleman at all, but large and hungry and abusive of friendships. He, like Sig the Swede, is one story to others and another to himself. The gentleman in the white coat likes to make himself Sigbjørn’s guest without having been invited. He endeavors to eat up precious stores and provisions, and the shack’s rugs and furnishings. He would devour Sigbjørn himself if allowed. His hunger has a magnitude to which it is difficult to draw comparisons, and when this hunger overtakes him, Sigbjørn is forced to scare him off with a torch or explosives or a shotgun blast.

Still, the vagaries of the gentleman in the white coat are preferable to what troubles Sigbjørn most: collecting enough fuel to keep himself alive through the polar night. He brought no coal with him. Coal belongs to Sig the Swede, and only without it can he be sure he is Sigbjørn. It seems fitting, in his darkest moments, that Sig the Swede had ended in fire, as Sigbjørn would unquestioningly die of ice.

But there is another thing he can burn, to remain himself: he gathers it along the beaches of the fjord. It gives itself to him in the continual darkness, revealed in its particular shade of gray in a landscape of gray. It is a gift sent from his home, a distant coast thick with stands of spruce and larch and pine. Dying first, then washed into the sea, it floats across the brow of the globe in drift ice. It begins this movement toward him long before he leaves home for the mines, long before the birth and death of Sig the Swede, even long before he had become Sigbjørn the first time.  Salted and bleached, it comes ashore to him now, gnarled, altered, full of fire.

Nordpolen Journal: trying to disconnect

Nordpolen Journal: trying to disconnect

Oslo to Longyearbyen
June 14, 2013

I have to admit, it is a strange thing, perhaps a completely insane thing, to fly across the United States and then across the Atlantic Ocean, and then all the way to the northernmost point of Norway, and then back across the Atlantic, (bypassing Iceland, land of the best musicians on the planet) to land on an island no one except Philip Pullman has heard of, which is really an archipelago, to meet a group of artists who are complete strangers, and then climb aboard a ship and sail without any idea where you will be going or what you will be doing for two weeks.

It is such an insane idea it appealed to me unequivocally, and was in fact, something I knew I needed to do. Needed because my life is a study in extremes: the extreme of analytical, day-bound problem-solving, and the extreme of self-abandoned expression. The extreme of day is my job, which arms my wallet and (theoretically) allows me to spend the non-work time writing, which is the expression part. Unfortunately, the extremes get out of balance, which leads to a kind of relentless, low-level despair.

The Scream- Oslo Airport

I am not the first creative person in the world to struggle with this problem of money versus passion, nor will I be the last. I can’t in good conscience feel sorry for myself either, because I have the option to struggle: something a lot of exhausted and hungry people wish they had. At the same time, it is hard to live a life knowing that there’s a thing you want to be doing, that you love, that you were made to do, but you can’t do it because you have to do this other thing so you can earn your lettuce and tomatoes and fish, your bus pass and your deodorant and your tennis shoes, your electricity bill and garbage service and toilet paper.

If you’re lucky, the thing you feel passionate about doing is also something people want to pay money for. Alas, poetry is not one of these things. The nice part is, it’s always been this way, and I can look back to the times when the poets in various lands had to make verses for their bread, and had to rely upon their cleverness to somehow entertain the king but not insult him enough to earn an axe to the neck, or be locked up for annoying important people. Bersi Skáldtorfuson composing poetry while in chains after being captured by King Óláfr Haraldsson. Christian Krohg's illustration from Heimskringla, 1899-edition.It does bring to mind an interesting question: is it worse to die quickly by one’s poetic wit, or slowly?  Better to wear rags and rhyme for a cup of wine… or wear H&M stare out your years into computer screen, riding an office chair into infinity? Both are tragic, but only one is a current option.

Before this trip, I had been feeling the weight of this balance of extremes more keenly than usual. Not that I wasn’t getting any poetry written, but when the day world gets too much advantage over the world of disappearing into writing, I begin to feel like a sleepwalker. And when I don’t write, my vision begins to narrow, and I start to believe that the struggle is meaningless.

I begin to listen to an internal voice that tells me  the world is nothing but routine, and that what matters is whatever conflict or fear-of-the-day is being blasted through the internet or blaring out of all the big-screen TVs mounted in the hospital cafeteria and the surgical waiting rooms. When this state begins to get a foothold, it colors everything it touches with a veil of futility and exhaustion. I become too tired to write. And by tired I mean soul-tired and gut-tired. The drive doesn’t disappear, but it converts to a kind of guilt-tipped, pointing finger. It is not a joy but another responsibility that I’m neglecting. Not writing means I am wasting my life.

I had reached a point, before this trip, when I had to wear headphones most of the day to survive the onslaught- that generalized aggressive energy of news, traffic, bills arriving for things I did not buy or subscribe to, email spam, emotional spam, people fighting over parking spaces or running other people over in crosswalks, or strangers hulking along the street projecting menace, or hopelessness, or desperation.

After awhile, faced with that level of assault to the psyche, it’s hard not to become hard. And the hardness is double-edged, because to write, to really fall in and write, becomes an exercise in trying to shrug off an increasingly more permanent armor in order to get at the vulnerable parts of the self- the only parts that can shape-shift into the work. Some writers combat this hardening by drinking, or going off on psychedelic road trips, or maybe some of them cope with the pressure more eloquently. Some of them just toss everything to the wind- walking out on their jobs, picking up and moving, giving away all of their possessions, in the hopes that upending a world that has settled into an ugly configuration will allow it to re-settle into a more liveable shape. I used to do that. I used to box everything up and get rid of most of it and get in my car and drive across the country. Then I’d settle in a spot for awhile, and the build-up of this struggle for creative balance would build up to the breaking point again.

At some point, I got too old, and frankly, too stubborn to uproot again. I wanted things in life that don’t survive when you transplant them. I wanted to cling like a limpet to San Francisco, the most ungrateful mistress there is. But this meant that I could not grandly disrupt the world every time things began to get routine. What happens, now that I stay put and let things continue to build up and wash over me? I get bent out of shape, and begin to believe in the most depressing versions of reality: that people are awful and the world is mostly violent and hopeless.  And then I rebel against that idea, because it is simply not true. And the irony of it all is that I’m doing all this rebelling against myself: the hopelessness and the answering rally against a dark vision of the world is all non-verbalized. It’s a little diorama of war inside my head, visible only to me, and felt only by me. And if I’m not writing, there is no way to let it out.

However, I don’t believe that this sense of overwhelm I struggle with is entirely self-made. It is also the result of an atmosphere of constant distraction.

http://katharoi.tumblr.com/

The boundaries of the personal and the public are disappearing. People talk on their cell phones while they are in a public toilet. They talk on speakerphone on the train. They speak louder than they would normally, without any filter or thought of the people around them, because when you are talking on a cell phone, the world around you becomes secondary and somewhat unreal. I think this is just a simple matter of our capacity for attention. When you talk to someone on the phone, you try to filter out distractions around you- like other people, who nevertheless are forced to listen to you and are then distracted by your conversation, because human beings hone in on voices and language. We try to listen to one another, even if the person talking isn’t talking to us. Meanwhile, we are distracted from whatever it is we are doing: trying to read? Trying to text someone? Trying and trying and trying…. to concentrate, to not be distracted. Public space used to be considered shared space, and therefore a place to be considerate of others. Public space is now rapidly converting to portable personal space, and the people and things in public space are basically furniture.

And the rising gestalt is to further blur these social boundaries by not just offering the services and technology to be in constant and immediate contact, but to begin to expect it from everyone. If someone doesn’t answer and email within say, 30 minutes, you might text them, or call their phone, or both in rapid succession. For some people, 30 minutes is way too long. This isn’t just in personal life: it has extended into the workplace, where email has created a constant, unorganized flow of questions, open-ended conversations with ten people cc’d, and the expectation of immediate response. People check their “work” email from their beds at home, or when they are at dinner with a friend. There is no longer a sense of place connected to function… which is one of the basic concepts behind behavior.

A good example is a dojo. People build dojos to train in martial arts, and there are rules of respect and codes of behavior that apply only when you are in the dojo: inside the dojo, you keep things clean, you show respect to the teacher and each other, you listen more than you talk. These rules are not arbitrary or cultish: they are there so that learning and training can happen. If you change your mindset to fit the place, eventually, the place evokes the mindset.

Noma Kendo Dojo

Outside the dojo, these rules don’t apply, and you can go back to your “non-dojo” mindset, to be and do other things. Similarly, work used to be work, and home was home. At work, there were certain expectations of behavior. Rules that made it possible to be productive. Then you go home and those expectations are released. Of course there are notable exceptions: doctors, mothers, I’m sure other people can think of more… but the basic idea holds- we need a way to shift from one mode of being to another. We need moments of respite. We need thinking time, play time, talking time, working time, sleeping time, reading time. Unfortunately, the urge to complete a task, or to be responsible, or to answer a call from some other part of life is very strong, and is now enabled everywhere we go. The impulse to check, check, check the email or the phone, is as strong of an impulse as wanting to smoke a cigarette, but there is a much higher tolerance (and no proven negative health outcomes- yet) for the addiction of constant distraction.

U.S. Wireless Licensing and Operations Map 2012

Just before I left for the Arctic, someone asked me if I would be able to answer email while I was away. I said, “No, we will be off the grid. No internet.” This person then insisted, “But surely the ship will have radio, will have satellite?” My response was disbelief: “I don’t want to be in contact. That is the point of going to the North Pole.”

Am I the only one that that feels exhausted and sickened by the constant barrage of phone and email and media? Actually, I’m not. And there is a growing number of people beginning to recognize and address this problem that Christopher Butler has aptly termed, “Hyperity,” a state of overconnectedness which he described, way back in 2010, as an effect that causes stress, mistakes, lowered IQ, and lowered productiveness.

Of course, anyone who has tried to wean themselves off checking their phone and email knows that distraction is oddly compelling. It is both the cause, and the band-aid, for the feeling of being overwhelmed. I think the thing that has frightened me the most over the last few years is realizing that it has become harder and harder for me to concentrate. I am so used to a scattered way of working and thinking, that I can’t do one thing at a time anymore. At the gym, I ran on the elliptical machines while playing Candy Crush Saga on my iphone for an hour. In May I was doing this pretty much every day. I listened to podcasts while playing Candy Crush Saga, while walking down the street.

Candy Crush RehabAt work, I listened to the news with headphones on while answering emails and scanning documents, and working with five other pieces of software- toggling from window to window and function to function. Yes, studies show that  multitasking doesn’t work, but for a decade we’ve been trained not just to work this way, but to live this way, and the world is still demanding we do it.

The good news is, when the technology is off, and put away, and there is no chance of “just checking it for a sec,” it is still possible to disconnect, or rather re-connect. After traveling for two days alone without text messages or cell phone contact with home, I felt a kind of peace starting to take hold. Yes, I felt lonely, but that is not a bad thing. To feel lonely is also to look forward to seeing people again. And if there is any one thing I could say is missing from life that is causing the bulk of my struggle with balance… is that I have forgotten what it feels like be in a quiet place where there is nothing to do but look around and see and feel, and then decide to do something. Not be compelled to do something. Not be prompted or reminded or expected or worried or pulled in a direction by nervous or reflexive/reactive energy to check on, check on, check on something… but to act deliberately and with curiosity… to walk out into a new landscape where all signs point to possibility, and to choose.

Longyearbyen Airport Destinations Sign