Reviewing the New England Review

It is the dream of most, if not all, young writers to have their name in print, whether it on the cover of their novel or next to the title of their short story that was published in a literary magazine. You want people to know your name. You want to leave your mark, your name carved into the pages of history inside literary giants such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Tin House.

Another big name that lies upon the tip of the tongue of many aspiring writers is the New England Review, a quarterly journal sponsored by Middlebury College that has been running for over thirty years. According to their website, their mission is to publish “new fiction, poetry, and nonfiction that is both challenging and inviting” and to encourage “artistic exchange and thought-provoking innovation, providing publishing opportunities for writers at all stages of their careers.” It’s a claim that they have certainly lived up to, with this issue offering a mix of both familiar faces, like the previously published Joseph McElroy, and new ones like Maria Hummel.

One of the first things about NER’s 34th volume that grabbed me was its cover. It’s not overly flashy; in fact, the majority of the cover is a deep black save for a fiery orange that stretches across the bottom right hand corner. But the way it’s done is so clean-cut, it’s almost natural the way it sifts from dark to bright. If you want to read deeper into it, it’s almost as if that cover is saying that the black of night will eventually give way to the brightness of the dawn. It’s this idea—transition, the giving way of one thing to make room for another—that winds up becoming the sort of theme to this issue. Time, perception, forward motion, all those ideas and others besides come together in the interspersed pieces of poetry and prose, each piece having some sort of relationship with the ones that become before and after it.

While underrepresented—some would say criminally so—the fiction pieces in this issue are the ones that stand out to me the most, particularly “Lost Things” by Lisa Van Orman Hadley. While only three pages long, it leaves a sizable impact. Predictably, it’s a story about loss, with the narrator recounting the numerous things she has lost over the years. Hadley drives the point home using repetition and a set pattern, with nearly every paragraph is another item in the long list of items, people, and things that have been lost to the narrator and her family over time, from teeth to embryos to even her father’s slowly deteriorating mental state. This repetition hits us again and again, until we ourselves begin to feel hollow, as if each item has caused us to lose a part of ourselves as well. However, it becomes apparent that the work isn’t just a reminder of the constant presence of loss; it’s akin to a commentary on loss’s nature, on whether it’s as bad as we believe it to be. Hadley seems to be suggesting that it’s just a necessary part of life; things need to go away to make room for new, better ones.

However, not all the prose pieces are as short or as straightforward as Hadley’s piece, such as “Finding One’s Way as a Writer: A Sequence of Letters” by Italo Calvino. In comparison to “Lost Things,” Calvino’s work is interesting in concept—the letters create a montage sequence of sorts, with each one creating a clearer and clearer picture—but dry and tedious in execution. For the most part, these letters serve to document Calvino’s various thoughts on writing (a pet peeve of mine, to be sure; while it probably sounds odd coming from a writing major, I just don’t like works that do that, as they can come off sounding rather pretentious) although there are personal details dispersed throughout the collection, such as when he talks about his impending visit to America with Mateo Lettunich. Despite these brief gleams into Calvino’s personal life, it just wasn’t enough to grab my attention, and I quickly skimmed over this piece before moving on.

Part of New England Review’s mission is to present “a broad spectrum of viewpoints and genres, including traditional and experimental fiction, translations in poetry and prose, criticism, letters from abroad, reviews in arts and literature, and rediscoveries.” This edition lives up to this, as it contains samples from almost every genre imaginable, from translations like Yves Bonnefoy’s “Voice in the Sound of the Rain” to Kathleen Chaplin’s nonfiction piece “The Death Knock.” Some of the pieces are more outlandish and experimental than others, such as “Sons” by Michael Coffey. Coffey seems to implement every technique imaginable as he spins this long, convoluted tale of a man missing his son after sending him away, from italics to changing the format of the story itself. However, there’s such thing as too much, and I got lost among the always-changing structure of the story, to the point where I felt like the experimentation overpowered the narrative. But that doesn’t mean that will be true for everyone else; it’s a story that everyone should read, if only to appreciate the time and effort put into it.

There are 17 poems in this issue, five more pieces than there are of prose.  Even someone like me, who frankly doesn’t really understand poetry, can appreciate the excellent work put on display here. My personal favorite was Andres Rojas’ “Mirror Memory,” which deals with memories and how they are never truly forgotten, and serves as a great companion piece for Hadley’s “Lost Things.” “Closure” by James Hoch is another poem that I enjoyed, as it plays with expectations and doesn’t provide closure for the speaker or the audience, just lets both continue to tread water.

Overall, I really enjoyed New England Review’s issue. It lives up to their high standards, as every piece in here deserves its place within these pages. However, its true attraction is its universality. There is something for everyone to enjoy, the casual and serious reader alike. Whether you’re looking for something mind-bending, a pleasant read at the beach, or even if you’re just looking for something fresh and new, this is a publication that will have it. The New England Review is a publication I whole-heartedly recommend to everyone, and I know I’ll be impatiently waiting for the next issue to arrive at my doorstep.

 


An Interview with Dennis Mahoney

NewSmallDennisMahoneyAuthorPhoto-221x300Dennis Mahoney hails from upstate New York, where he lives with his wife, son, and dog. His debut novel Fellow Mortals made Barnes & Noble’s Spring 2013 Discover Great New Writers Selections list, as well as Booklist’s Top 10 First Novels. He’s currently working on his second novel. You can learn more about him at his website or at his blog.

 

Me: What inspired you to write Fellow Mortals

DM: I answered this in depth at B&N if you’d like to check it out, but here’s the short version. I loved a minor character in a failed novel I’d written the previous year and thought he would make a great lead. That character changed and became Henry Cooper, but the essential spirit remained: optimistic, simple, old-school, bumbling. I wanted to test such a man with a terrible calamity, and I kicked around a lot of ideas before I thought of the fire, which simply felt right when it occurred to me. I could immediately picture the neighborhood and most of the other characters, at least in general form. I don’t write biographical fiction, so I’m always just trying to think of good stories, ones that are entertaining and meaningful to me.

Me: One of the first things I noticed about this book is how you play with perspective. You take us into the heads of so many different characters, rather than staying with one particular person. What made you decide to do this? How do you think this strengthened the novel? Meaning, what advantages does the former have over the latter?

DM: It was very natural. I didn’t think it through very much. I wanted to keep Henry at the center, but it seemed that the book was about everyone, that whole little group and their reaction both to the fire and to Henry himself. I find it most comfortable to write a scene from a specific point of view, so whenever I had a scene that didn’t feature Henry, I wrote it through the eyes of someone who was there.

Me: Speaking of perspective, you even take us into the head of Wingnut the dog, something I haven’t really seen before. What were some of the challenges of writing from Wing’s perspective as opposed to a human’s? How did you prepare yourself?

DM: A total whim, and one I really enjoyed. I love dogs and find myself trying to understand what they’re feeling, so there was Wing in the room with Henry and Ava, and I wanted to give him a quick spotlight. After I did it once, I saw opportunities elsewhere. Wingnut is a mirror of Henry. They have similar hearts. I was eventually able to keep Henry’s personality present in scenes where he himself wasn’t around, like at the end of the book, and I think the story in general supports that intense, very natural love you see in dogs—the kind of love that people often overthink and screw up.

Me: Fellow Mortals contains a wide variety of characters, but my favorites are Henry and Sam. How did these characters come to be? What was your process in developing their characters?

DM: Again with Henry, I just knew him really well, both from that earlier failed novel and from a handful of similar men I’ve known in life. He’s not based on anyone in particular, but a lively person who gets a reaction of everyone, for better or worse, is a terrific person to lead a story. Sam was harder. I wanted to take the story out of normal society to a degree, where the characters could interact on a primal level. That’s why I sent him to the woods. But there’s usually a character in every novel I write who won’t come to life for some reason, and that happened with Sam for a long time. He kept feeling like a prop. It was only in later revisions that I finally started to feel him, and then he became more human and I really understood him.

Me: As a writer, one of the biggest things I struggle with is dialogue. It always ends up sounding so contrived or unnatural. Is this something you struggle with too? How do you go about creating natural-sounding dialogue?

DM: Dialogue comes easily to me. I don’t know why. I tend to style my prose conversationally, to make it sound as unwriterly as possible, and match it to spoken cadences: how would I phrase this story if I were just telling a friend of mine? I tend to keep dialogue short and sweet, and maybe that helps. Alarms go off when somebody speechifies, because I worry it sounds like me, the author, instead of the character. And the author ought to disappear so the reader can focus on the story instead of fancy language or (shudder) themes. Because I’m ultra-aware of that danger, I’m rigorous about keeping my dialogue simple, so it sounds like something a person would actually say at that moment. And if you’re writing good conflict, it’s all back-and-forth. A character’s next statement is informed by what came before, or what’s lurking inside. It might even be a lie, or a seeming non sequitur, but it’s still informed by the moment, cause and effect.

Me: The novel shows how a once close-night community tries to put itself back together after a cataclysm, but ultimately falls apart under the weight of everything that happens. What do you think this says about the communities we create here in the real world? Did you intend for Fellow Mortals to be a critique, if you would, of today’s society?

DM: I actually see it as the opposite: a loosely knit community that does come together. Not everyone fits or makes it through, but the characters who have connected by the end are a true, bonded family. I can see them remaining close for the rest of their lives, and they were essentially strangers at the start. Big-picture-wise, I have a recurring fascination with created families, as opposed to blood relations. Fifty years ago, most people were born, lived in, and died in the same general area. So many people go away to college now, and find jobs across the country, and get married or have kids far from their birth homes. There’s so much scatter. But people want an immediate family, wherever they eventually put down roots, and so they create their own families with people in their daily lives: coworkers, classmates, fellow parents, neighbors. It’s a real need people have, and I love exploring those unexpected combinations.

Me: As someone who went through the publication process for the first time, how was it?

DM: Querying agents and submitting to editors was the usual nightmare. Fellow Mortals is the third book I tried to get published, and even that was rejected by dozens of agents. But once FSG made an offer, it was a dream, start to finish. My editor’s amazing, the whole FSG staff is passionate, smart, and supportive, and I’ve been fortunate with good reviews and attention. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, and the reward was unquestionably worth the many years of struggle and doubt.

Me: Finally, if you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be and why?

DM: Be disciplined and love it. My writing didn’t improve until I established a daily goal, either minimum hours or minimum word count. If you wait for the muse, you’re dead. It has to be treated like a job, or like the Best Hobby Ever. And the biggest breakthrough I ever had was realizing that even in the best-case scenario—getting published, having readers, being well-reviewed—I’d still have to write every day and produce more books. That’s week after week, for the rest of my life. If I didn’t find a way to love writing (as opposed to taking myself too seriously, or pulling some B.S. tortured writer routine), I’d be crazy to continue. Now I write to have fun, entertain myself, and move myself emotionally. That doesn’t mean it’s without struggle or frustration, but it does mean I love it, like I love being married or love being a parent. It’s a good way to live. If writing isn’t making your life better or more fulfilling on a regular basis, rethink your approach. It should be something you’d do regardless of publication, the way people swim or cook even if they won’t get famous for it. And whatever happens on the page is all yours. A cruddy boss can’t affect it, rejection can’t affect it, family trouble can’t affect it. It’s a great thing to have.

 


On Translation

Some of the best works ever written come from other languages. If not for the work of translators, priceless treasures such as Dante’s Divine Comedy to even Old English works like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would be lost to all but those who can actually understand the original language or dialect. But very few of us, myself included, actually considers the work that goes into this process, nor do we really comprehend the challenges that these people face on a day to day basis in order to make the books, stories, and poems we so treasure readily available to the public.

For me, what brought these to my attention was reading “Decisions, Decisions,” an excerpt from Performing Without a Stage by Robert Wechsler. In it, he goes in depth into the variety of challenges faced by translators, from languages barriers to the near impossibility of translating humor and irony into other languages because of the subtleties involved. For me, this new awareness brings forth a whole new desire to understand the realm of translation, as well as a whole new appreciation for the craft.

Many of the challenges outlined in “Decisions, Decisions” can be found in the short story Kristin Omarsdottir “Here,” where a young girl named Billie witnesses the death and callous burial of her family at the hands of a soldier named Rafael. One of the more interesting sections of “Decisions, Decisions” explained how a seemingly minor change could in fact alter how the audience not only views one specific scene, but the work as a whole. For instance, about halfway through “Here,” there’s a scene where Rafel dumps Billie’s family into a mass grave, taking the time to wrap each member in a bed sheet. While each version specified that the third child was wrapped in a light blue sheet, there are some minor differences among them. One version says that the child “could have had a pale-blue sheet but it got a red one,” while in the other the child’s sheet “grew red.” Without that one word “grew,” the former version turns into a moment of indecision on Rafael’s part, rather than the horrifying moment of clarity that comes when you realize that the cause of the sheet turning red is in fact the stain of the dead child’s blood.

One of the more interesting challenges that translators face comes from maintaining the delicate balance between adhering to the original language and adapting to the one they’re translating into. In the one of the versions of “Here” that I read, I felt like the translator was struggling with this, because story’s language felt sluggish and almost clunky: “Missing out on all the fun, someone might have said, another time.” It was as if English wasn’t the translator’s primary language. In comparison, other versions of this same story contain cleaner and simpler language: “As if occupied with some other, far off, better fun.” As a reader, I prefer the translations where I don’t have to bend my brain to follow what’s going on, but I can respect the need to adhere to the original as much as possible.

However, this leads me to something that really irks me about the whole translation process. In general, authors don’t get much of a say in the process; the translation itself is done mostly through the translator’s intuition and their knowledge of the work, without outside assistance from the original author. While there are exceptions to this rule—Eduardo Halfon, while working on creating an English version of The Polish Boxer, remained in constant contact with his translators, and even assisted in the translation process. But Halfon’s case is unusual; for the most part it is a task done independently of the book’s creator. As a writer, this upsets me. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say I’m an American best seller, and people in France and Germany and even Japan are clamoring for a translation. I find someone to work with, but I’m told I don’t need to help him. Months later, the translation is complete, but when I look it through, the original intent of the novel has been changed or lost. If I had been present during the process, it would have been avoided. The bottom line is, anecdote aside, that as a writer, I don’t fully trust someone else to translate my work, because his or her understanding of it may be different from my own. While I understand that translation is a subjective craft, I should be allowed to work with the translator and be as diligent as Halfon was to ensure the spirit of my novel remains intact.

When you stop to consider it, the world of translation is a fascinating one. It’s as necessary to the world of writing as the publishing business; while incredibly subjective, these men and women overcome the many complexities of language to spread the works of others throughout the world. Without them, it’s possible that some of the most famous works of all time would be lost to the average English speaker forever.

 


Dark Coast Press: A Review

It is the dream of every author to be published. However, it is a difficult dream to realize; most manuscripts sent in to major publishers are rejected. As a writer, you’re forced to fit into certain categories of marketability in order to be considered; otherwise you’ll be tossed to the side and forgotten.

To combat this, legions of independent companies search far and wide for these innovative yet ignored authors, and make it their life’s work to promote them as seem their work published. One such publishing company is Dark Coast Press, which began as a local and regional business but now is slowly starting to expand and take its place on the national stage. Based in Seattle, it was founded in October 2009 by Aaron Talwar and Jarret Middleton. Talwar, a former editor from New Jersey’s Wiley & Sons, and Middleton, a New Hampshire-based author that serves as Dark Coast’s editor-in-chief, made it their goal to attract readers who dislike the current stream of literature coming from the major publishers and they publish writers who want to take risks. Dark Coast specializes in a wide variety of genres, including literary fiction, poetry, essays, and experimental works, and seeks “overall invention and innovation in writing from all genres.” They’ll publish anything that they feel isn’t getting the attention that it deserves, standing against the giants of the publishing world to deliver their promise to the masses. To this end, they stand alongside and support organizations like Indiebound.com and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which do their best to support and promote and nourish other independent publishing companies. To a similar end, Dark Coast also runs Pharos Editions, a project dedicated to publishing texts that were once considered to be lost forever.

Their book covers reflect their ideals even further.  Compared to the covers generated by places like Random House or Scholastic, Dark Coast’s covers feel much more unique. They have a balanced mix of colors, typography, and images. The typography usually literally takes center stage, with it usually being blown up to a large size and done in thick strokes. While it’s placed on top of the image, the title doesn’t interact with the background, with Hell Called Ohio being an exception by adding texture to the letters as well as having a smokestack take the place of the letter “I.” The covers are generally more “artsy” than most, sometimes with variations in texture or having some sort of painted image to focus on, whether it be League of Somebodies’ lion, or SWELL’s whale. There’s no rainbow-like explosion of colors either; each cover has its own limited palette to work with, with usually some sort of rustic look. However, Thirteen Fugues is the one cover though that diverges from the rest. Its text is much slimmer than most, and doesn’t pop as much. The overall design feels much crisper and cleaner when compared to the other images.

There’s actually a fair bit of star power when you consider the list of Dark Coast’s published authors. Jarret Middleton, Dark Coast’s first published author, carries weight because of his work as an independent publisher, and has published a few works himself. Samuel Sattin’s League of Somebodies earned a star from Publisher’s Weekly. Kris Saknussemm is one of the better-known authors of the bunch, having published 10 different pieces that have been translated into 22 different languages. The only one who could beat him would be Jennifer Natalya Fink, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Jewish Book and National Book Award, and as won a slew of other awards, including the Dana Award and STORY Magazine’s short fiction award. The other authors—Matthew Simmons (Happy Rock), John Hamilton (Hell Called Ohio), Corwin Ericson (SWELL), David Michael Belczyk (Elynia), and Jarret Middleton (An Dantomine Eerly)—are either new to the writing scene, or just haven’t reached similar levels of acclaim.

In addition, each of these authors is widely publicized. Authors Amelia Gray and Michelle Tea have written blurbs for some of Dark Coast’s published works. Publications such as The Boston Review and Publisher’s Weekly review and write blurbs for the books too. The company advertises interviews done by their authors, and links visitors to their website to reviews and book trailers. They make regular appearances to various readings and functions. They do their best to have the readers get to know their authors.

However, in comparison, there’s not much on the people behind the curtain. Outside of two-sentence briefs in their website’s missive, Dark Coast’s website doesn’t go out of their way to introduce and describe their founders. But at the same time, it fits the overall theme of the company. Dark Coast doesn’t want its readers to focus on the people who made all this happen; they want you to focus on the writers themselves and their work.

In this day and age, it’s getting harder and harder to have your work out there, as major companies focus on works that can be marketed to balance out the declining number of book sales. However, independent presses like Dark Coast serves as a viable, if not better, alternative to the literary giants, creating a welcoming atmosphere to new and established authors alike, focusing on having their talent be recognized rather than shunted to the side.

 


Prologue

What drew me into writing in the first place was obviously the creative aspect. Literally, I could create anything I wanted, follow my impulses and let the words spill out of me and onto the page to create a story for people to enjoy.

However, as I’ve grown and matured, both as a writer and as a person, I noticed the other part of writing, the community itself. It seems like everyone is connected to each other in some way, with everyone providing inspiration for each other or even marketing each other in some way. We do what we do not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others, from our audiences to our fellow craftsmen.

That’s what I’d like this blog to become, a resource for others, a place where I can help and connect with other people in the community, even if that something is as small as posting a tiny prompt or inspirational quote every day. Who knows, maybe if I feel comfortable enough I’ll even post some of my own work.

Bottom line is, I want to be an active part of the writing community, and this blog is my first step towards that goal.

 


About

Gregory Henry studies Creative Writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, and is looking into becoming a teacher after ...


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