Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Indie Spotlight: Jeannine Hall Gailey Returns

Here at TNBBC, we love to tug at the sleeves of the authors who pitch us, suggesting they tell us the story behind the books they wrote, the inspiration for it... and we love it even more when they reach back out to us when their next release approaches. 

The essay I'm about to share with you, by Jeannine Hall Gailey, showcases what it's like graduate from "finalist" and finally win the poetry book contest!

Winning a Poetry Book Contest 
(on my Fifth Book)

How Did Winning a Book Contest Differ from Publishing from “Open Submissions Periods” with Indie Publishers?

Yes, I’m at that age where I’m publishing not a first book, not a second book, not even a third – but a fifth poetry book. And although several of my previous books were finalists (some many times) for book contests, this, my fifth book – at age 42 - was the first time I’d won a poetry book contest.

I have to admit it was nice, after being a finalist again and again, after years of saying “There’s no difference between publishing through a contest and publishing through open submissions,” to have the opportunity to actually find out for myself if what I was saying was true.  

So, how big a difference does winning a poetry book contest make? Is it actually that different from publishing the regular way – sending to a press during an open submission period? No magic doors opened because I won a book contest. I didn’t suddenly become a household name, even just among poets. I didn’t land the cover of Poets & Writers Magazine because of it.

But I won a contest! I have to say it was a good feeling to get the call, and the editors were very enthusiastic and excited about the book, Field Guide to the End of the World.  They announced the winner (me) on social media. That felt nice. There was also prize money involved, $1000. Not enough to live on, no. But this was the first time – except for Kitsune Books, which paid me a couple of hundred-dollar advance for She Returns to the Floating World – that I’d ever gotten money up front for a poetry book. (Just for the sake of total disclosure, I had been paid an advance in the thousands for a technical book I’d published years before as a technical writer. Ah, tech books! I don’t miss writing them at all!)

What else was different? The contract with the press was actually pretty standard, except the number of author copies, which was higher than usual.  All my presses had around the same royalty rates and author discounts (some slightly higher or slightly lower) but let’s put it this way – no one, not the publisher or the author, is getting rich off of poetry books. It’s always nice to get a royalty check for your book – a year or two down the road – sometimes enough to buy lunch with, sometimes enough to buy an outfit and groceries. (Like I said, not getting rich on poetry book sales.)

Moon City Press had some niceties that I wasn’t used to - like a proofreader separate from the editor, or myself – and more than one person working for the press at the same time. (A lot of small indie poetry publishers are one-to-two person operations, which means everything falls on the back of sometimes just one person. Which is bad if someone – like my dear publisher at Kitsune Books – falls ill. A press with more than one person means that they can share the workload, have someone help them out if they get sick, or take something to the mailbox for the other person – believe me, that help makes a bunch of difference.)

Tomorrow, September 1, is the day my book is officially “Released.” ARCs have been sent out by the press ahead of time. I haven’t yet gotten my check, but my author copies have arrived safely. I don’t know that my expectations for how the book will garner media attention, or sell, are any different for this book – that won a contest – versus my previous books. I can always hope!

So, would I change my advice? I don’t think so. Winning a contest is great, but the most important thing is finding a press you believe in and an editor that cares about getting your work out to an audience. To those looking to publish a first book of poetry – go ahead and send to those numerous contests, but do send to open submissions periods as well, especially those without fees. And be sure to read a few books from the press first. That’s what attracted me to all of my presses – the work they had previously published (except for New Binary Press, which was brought to my attention by a tweet from Margaret Atwood. Hey, if Atwood likes you, you’re probably all right, was my logic!)  Of course, it’s always nice for your CV (or ego) to have “contest winner” before your name, but the relationship with the people at the press will always come first for me.


Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist's Daughter and the winner of the 2015 Moon City Press Book Prize for Poetry, Field Guide to the End of the World, due out at in November 2016.  Her poems have been featured on NPR's The Writer's Almanac and Verse Daily, as well as in collections like The Best Horror of the Year and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Her web site is You can follow her on Twitter @webbish6.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Nick Reviews: Earthbound

EarthBound by Ken Baumann
Pages: 191
Publisher: Boss Fight Books
Released: January 2014

Reviewed by Nick Page

EarthBound provides readers with a summary of the game, explains some of the background of its initial failure to reach an audience, and becomes mostly about Ken Baumann’s experiences playing EarthBound... and a whole lot of his personal life.

EarthBound is a game about a young boy’s quest in the suburbs to gather allies, grow his powers, and defeat a big bad evil guy. This title has remained popular for two decades having taken the building blocks of the RPG and produced something quirky, funny, and tons of fun to play. This is a game that I never got to play when I was a kid, but I have had many friends speak of it with reverence, and I have watched a full playthrough on YouTube. It wasn’t enough; I had to read this book.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn as much as I had hoped about how the game was made, how people felt about it, long hidden secrets, or why it has such a legacy. Baumann guides the reader through a light summary of the game from the moment Ness, the protagonist, is talked into checking out a fallen meteor by a fellow kid from the neighbourhood and has psychic powers awakened within him. As he follows Ness on his quest, Baumann discusses some of the things that added to and possibly subtracted from the success of the game in America. Baumann describes poorly thought out print ads, such as one proclaiming “This game stinks” and including scratch and sniff stickers of mustard, bananas, and... vomit. The connection between the smells and the game was tenuous at best. EarthBound was not well received, but is remembered fondly by its fans and sees continued popularity as a downloadable game on modern Nintendo consoles. Overall, there wasn’t enough digging into the history of EarthBound and the summary of the plot didn't reveal what makes this game shine.

As Baumann talks through memories of playing EarthBound for the first time, he captures an experience that will be familiar to many gamers of the early 90’s: one sibling or friend playing a one-player game while the other watches. What I expected would merely be Baumann’s nostalgic fuzzies pivots to a sort of memoir of Baumann’s love of theatre, which leads to a career in film and television. I found myself somewhat confused. Despite the connections drawn between Baumann’s experience and elements of EarthBound, I almost felt that the game took a back seat to the memoir. Why should I listen to an actor write about a video game? Ken Baumann is the “series designer” of the Boss Fight Book series, 900% funded on Kickstarter by enthusiastic supporters. However, later books, like Shadow of the Colossusare written by people who work in the video game industry and had been writing about video games for years, meaning they have more pertinent credibility.

The BFB website states that “Each of our books takes a critical, historical, and personal look at a single game.” Ultimately, the initial Boss Fight Books offering might have been better titled Ken Baumann Plays EarthBound and Goes On to Do Other Things. The book works too hard to tell, rather than show, what makes this one game among many special to players.

Nick Page is the manager of educational technology at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. His favorite video game to play and/or watch on YouTube is Minecraft.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Buried in Books - My New Precioussssess

Because I can't possibly read every single book that finds its way into my home IMMEDIATELY, though I fully intend to die trying, allow me to show off our most recently acquired precioussssess...

For Review

Marisa Silver
Blue Rider Press
September 2016

Little Nothing is the story of Pavla, a child scorned for her physical deformity, whose passion and salvation lie in her otherworldly ability to transform herself and the world around her.

In an unnamed country at the beginning of the last century, a child called Pavla is born to peasant parents. Her arrival, fervently anticipated and conceived in part by gypsy tonics and archaic prescriptions, stuns her parents and brings outrage and disgust from her community. Pavla has been born a dwarf, beautiful in face, but as the years pass, she grows no further than the edge of her crib. When her parents turn to the treatments of a local doctor and freak sideshow proprietor, his terrifying cure opens the floodgates persecution for Pavla. Little Nothing unfolds across a lifetime of unimaginable, magical transformation in and out of human form, as this outcast woman is hunted down and incarcerated for her desires, her body broken and her identity stripped away until her soul is strong enough to transcend all physical bounds. Woven throughout is the journey of Danilo, the young man entranced by Pavla, obsessed only with protecting her. Part allegory about the shifting nature of being, part subversive fairy tale of love in all its uncanny guises, Little Nothing spans the beginning of a new century, the disintegration of ancient superstitions and the adoption of industry and invention. With a cast of remarkable characters, a wholly shocking and original story, and extraordinary, page-turning prose, Silver delivers a novel of sheer electricity.

*Requested from Publisher for review

Nichoa Barker
Henry Holt
August 2016

To the world, he is Sri Ramakrishna--godly avatar, esteemed spiritual master, beloved guru (who would prefer not to be called a guru), irresistible charmer. To Rani Rashmoni, she of low caste and large inheritance, he is the brahmin fated to defy tradition and preside over the temple she dares to build, six miles north of Calcutta, along the banks of the Hooghly for Ma Kali, goddess of destruction. But to Hriday, his nephew and longtime caretaker, he is just Uncle--maddening, bewildering Uncle, prone to entering ecstatic trances at the most inconvenient of times, known to sneak out to the forest at midnight to perform dangerous acts of self-effacement, who must be vigilantly safeguarded not only against jealous enemies and devotees with ulterior motives, but also against that most treasured yet insidious of sulfur-rich vegetables: the cauliflower.

Rather than puzzling the shards of history and legend together, Barker shatters the mirror again and rearranges the pieces. The result is a biographical novel viewed through a kaleidoscope. Dazzlingly inventive and brilliantly comic, irreverent and mischievous, The Cauliflower delivers us into the divine playfulness of a 21st-century literary master.

*Unsolicited, from publisher for review

Ryan Ridge, Mel Bosworth
Queens Ferry Press

Step into CAMOUFLAGE COUNTRY and meet a nation of misfits only masquerading as such. For these up-and-comers, down-and-outs, and good-for-nothings move through Ryan Ridge’s and Mel Bosworth’s microfictions with a zealousness that obliges rockets and octopus-men, devil babies and light eaters. Yet their earnestness also submits to stories like ‘Dust Bowling,’ ‘The Power of Pie Compels You,’ and ‘Cuckolding Down the Fort,’ which reveal the collection’s swift motion across the hilarious–heartbreaking spectrum. Featuring the illustrations of Jacob Heustis, CAMOUFLAGE COUNTRY is a flipbook of faces incapable of concealment—too original to be overlooked, too distinctive to be forgotten.

*author sent, too old to be an arc, but still 

Steve Karas
Whiskey Paper Press
August 2016

A young man falls in love on a train ride from Rome to Sicily; a Greek air guitarist competes in the world championships amid economic and political strife back home; a man tries to understand his father's disappearance to a hidden beachside village. In these five stories, Steve Karas takes us across the Mediterranean, into the lives of characters battling stormy seas, lost between lands, hoping to make it safely to shore. 

*From Publisher, For Review

Tricia Dower
Leapfrog Press
October 2016

It wasn't all poodle skirts and rock 'n' roll—in Stony River, the 1950s was a perilous time to come of age. Absent mothers, controlling fathers, teenage longing and small-town pretense abound, with the threat of violence all around: crazy fathers, dirty boys, strange men in strange cars, one dead girl, one never seen, and another gone missing.

*From Publisher, for review

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Where Writers Write: Lex Williford

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!


Where Writers Write is a series that features authors as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

This is Lex Williford. 

A University of Arkansas MFA and a Texas native, Lex has taught in the writing programs at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and the University of Alabama.  His book, Macauley’s Thumb, won the 1993 Iowa Short Fiction Award; his chapbook, Superman on the Roof, won the 2015 10th Annual Rose Metal Press Flash Fiction Award.  His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in many literary journals.  Coeditor of the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction and founding director of the online MFA at the University of Texas at El Paso, he currently chairs the on-campus bilingual creative writing program at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Where Lex Williford Writes

When asked where I write, I can only answer: It’s complicated. 

Long story.

The shortest, simplest answer it is that I write wherever I happen to be, and that’s usually all over the damn place.  

For the last twenty-five years, I’ve written in many states where I’ve taught at different universities, including Arkansas, Alabama, Illinois, Missouri and Texas.  I’ve also written at a lot of artist residencies: the Blue Mountain Center, the Millay Colony and Yaddo (in upstate New York); the Centrum Foundation (in Washington state); the MacDowell Colony (in New Hampshire); the Djerassi Foundation and Villa Montalvo (in northern California); the Ragdale Foundation (north of Chicago); the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (Long live VCCA and Sweet Briar College!); and the Wurlitzer Foundation (in Taos, New Mexico).  These places have changed my life and I miss them desperately, especially since I became a department chair, working summers full time for the last three years.  (I just have one more summer to go as chair, and then I plan to apply to residencies again.)  

I spent most of my thirties and forties as a colony-roo, something the New Zealander husband of a former director of MacDowell Colony used to call me: I hopped from one artist colony to another during the summers for over a decade.  I realize now just how lucky I was then to be accepted to such gorgeous places of light, where I mostly wrote dark things.  I’ve not had an artist residency since 2005, since my wife Colleen and I started a family.  We have a son, Eamon, 6, and a daughter, Claire, 8.  I’ll turn 62 in November, and this is the first and only time I’ve been a father.  Best thing that ever happened to me.

I used to write a lot at home, wherever home was, usually in a study converted from a small bedroom, but since Eamon was born and our house is only three bedrooms, my study has become his bedroom.  Lot of good it did me to move out.  He never sleeps in this room but instead sleeps in our daughter’s room across the hall upstairs, on the floor instead of in the lower bunk under his sister’s. Usually, when both kids sleep upstairs, they wake up in the middle of the night and sneak into our bed, especially on windy nights and during dust storms and thunderstorms in the Chihuahuan Desert.  Last night, Eamon and Claire both slept between my wife and me, Eamon at the head of the bed, Claire at the foot, both of their feet almost touching each other heel to heel.  It gets crowded in our bed even with just one kid—Eamon pushing my wife and me to the edge till we almost fall off our sides of the bed.  Even though it’s a king-size bed that takes up most of our bedroom, our son has managed to crowd us out most nights, laying his head on my wife as a pillow and his feet on me as a footrest, the three of us waking up some mornings in the shape of a human H.

When I write at home, usually mornings after our kids have gone to Kohlberg Elementary—my wife teaches fourth grade there—this is the room at home where I mostly write.  

Somehow, I’ve carved out a cramped little corner to write in this bedroom, using a fold-down desk/drafting table I built under a rotating flat-screened TV doing double duty as a monitor.  I also use this desk to illustrate the children’s picture book I’m working on:

Afternoons, though, when I write and illustrate, I usually do it in my office at UTEP.

The University of Texas at El Paso recently awarded me a Faculty Enhancement Grant to illustrate my kids’ book, and I used the grant to buy a Thunderbolt monitor and a mean-fast little Mac Mini with a solid state drive and a lot of memory to handle Photoshop and other illustration apps.  I move the Mac Mini back and forth between my home and university offices just because I have no other choice.

My writing/illustration desk at UTEP, like the one at home, is another I built as a drafting table (this one thirty years old): 

(The studies taped over the desk are the ones I’ve been working on the few years.  I’m glacier-slow as a writer and illustrator, though with global climate change I’m afraid I might win the race.)
When I’m writing long projects and have to spread out text or illustration documents over three monitors, I use my old 2008 Mac Pro—much bigger and much slower than my new Mac Mini: 

Because I’ve got a lousy back—I’m all legs and spine, 6’-5” tall—I sometimes write standing up, using the MacBook Pro I got as a professor at the university years ago, set up at just the right height on my file cabinets (like the one I’ve got set up at home on my dresser top):

(Behind the computer is a facsimile of a 1965 map of Six Flags Over Texas, which I cobbled together from screenshots sent to me by the only person in Texas I’ve been able to find who owns an original map of the old park, the first Six Flags in the country just after it opened—part of research for a story I’ve been working on.)

For many years, I’ve been collecting strange items for my cluttered little writer’s altar—

—which includes a surprisingly small cone from a 3000-year-old giant Sequoia; a Trilobite and the tooth of Spinosaurus; a small stone of melted sand, mildly radioactive green glass called Trinitite; the beak of a giant octopus I found washed up on a beach during low tide along Puget Sound; skulls of animals of all kinds, including a bison skull I’ve decorated with a bloody American flag, a cave painting from Lascaux and an old Harper’s sketch of the American buffalo genocide, stupid white men shooting at herds from the windows of trains for sport, leaving the piles of rotting carcasses all across the plains; a huge Buddha and mottled sacred stone like a dinosaur’s egg from the Ganges River called a shiva lingam; and a large assortment of treasures celebrating my favorite Mexican holiday: La Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

Anyone who suspects I’m a weirdo and a computer geek who lives a cluttered life will find plenty of evidence on this office altar, which includes otherwise worthless things like rocks, leaves, piñon cones and acorns from my kids, plus rocks and driftwood other writers have picked up as souvenirs for me when we’ve hiked trails across the U. S.  I’m not superstitious—as skeptical as they come—but you ask me, it’s all mojo, magic stuff.  It helps, I swear.

I’m incredibly lucky to have my current office—which I’m sure to lose when I’m no longer chair— with a nice view of the Franklin Mountains from the ninth floor of the Education Building, the highest point on the UTEP campus:

After seeing all this crazy stuff in my office, most people laugh and say, “How do get any writing done?” 

The answer is simple: When I’m not nailed down, I carry my office around with me everywhere I go:

In this sixty-pound ripping-at-the-seams rolling travel bag—I have to buy one every year or so—I carry around my MacBook Pro and Mac-Mini, a Wacom Android hybrid drawing tablet, a 12” iPad Pro, three drawing styluses, dozens of miscellaneous adaptors, a keyboard and a trackpad.

It’s taken me many years to be able to afford buying all these writer’s and illustrator’s tools.  Despite more than my share of failures, I’ve been incredibly fortunate, mostly because I’m stubborn and more than a little obsessive.  Busy as I am, as a father, a professor, an editor and a department chair, I’ve never been more productive as a writer than I am right now. 

(Oh, yeah, and when I can make the time, I also play the drums, a big Pearl set that takes up half son’s room, my old study, since he’s almost never there). 

I don’t intend any of this to sound like bragging.  A quote over my desk from Dick Hugo says, “Be humble in real life and great on the page.”  I like that—and I like doing lots of different things; everything I do feeds everything else.  I’ve found it impossible to give up anything I love to do. 
One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: “Those who have given up their dreams will discourage you in their own.”  So far, no amount of discouragement I’ve gotten along the way has stuck.

Not until I keel over, dead, I hope—knock on ancient redwood—I can only hope to keep my mojo working.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Melanie Reviews: Obliterate the Following Items from the Beginning of Time

Obliterate the Following Items from the Beginning of Time by Thais Benoit
Pages: 35
Publisher: NAP magazine
Released: July 2013

Reviewed by Melanie Page

More and more the way we encounter “books” surprises me. Thais Benoit’s bitty work is a downloadable PDF as opposed to a thing with pages, even pages stapled together and handi-crafted with love. I approach such small works in a PDF more like a Happy Meal representation of the author’s writing than a full meal that showcases the writer’s palate.

Benoit is able to create interesting juxtapositions in a small spaces. She writes:

The speaker runs from someone lecherous, but as she does, she doesn’t lose the youthful exuberance that compels us to bap flowers as we pass them (especially those hard-to-resist fluffy dandelions). Her speaker is two persons at once.

Beniot also juxtaposes strength with weakness by stringing together two famous women, one who saves everyone, the other who must be saved: “I’m a handful, forcefully felt / A pint sized Wonder Woman princess peach.” Blurring the differences between Wonder Woman and Princess Peach opens the door for Benoit to say her speaker is complicated and contradictory at times by cleverly conjuring these women of pop culture.

Complex speakers fill the other poems, too. One declares, “I like puzzle people” and later says, “I am a puzzle person.” The speaker defends herself, explains the speed and which her mind races, and still is open to understand another person intimately. She explains who she is: “i prefer to take my time; i like good accidents / and the kind of sunsets caused by pollution.” Benoit adds an unromantic flavor to the sunset by giving it a good dose of reality: the skies are filled with pollution, so this is how we experience sunsets today.

Some of the poems read more like lists without meaningful connections to the reader, like in the poem “things i’ve done as a child.” There is something familiar there, though; Benoit works in the alt-lit genre, typically a boys’ club of lowercase letters; nonsense exclamations about the beauty, and, conversely, meaninglessness of life; and pop culture references (Kanye, dubstep, hashtags). But she’s not so flighty—there is something there that resonates with me in some of Benoit’s stanzas, as opposed to leading me to think “brah, ur funny #LOL” like I usually do when I read alt-lit poems. Here’s an example of a stanza that represents youthfulness pile-driving into adulthood, a flighty speaker who understands consequences:

Melanie Page has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame and is an adjunct instructor in Indiana. She is the creator of Grab the Lapels, a site that publishes book reviews and interviews of folks who identify as women at

Monday, August 15, 2016

Indie Spotlight: John Smelcer

Today, we share an insightful essay by John Smelcer, author of The Gospel of Simon. Here, he goes into detail on the inspiration behind the novel, his attempt to forget it, and how it haunted its way into being....

Check it out.....

Tyger in the Night: John Smelcer’s Fearful “Vision” of The Gospel of Simon

“Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

“The Tyger” by William Blake

 They say truth is stranger than fiction. They also say there are no coincidences; things happen for a reason. There might be something to these sayings. My story of unlikely beginnings and even more unlikely coincidences began one wintry night in Alaska in 1996 as I was standing in a field beneath a sky full of stars and northern lights at thirty degrees below zero.

To tell the story truly, I have to begin months earlier during the summer. After hearing yet more atrocious news on the television and radio about people killing each other in the name of religious intolerance and bigotry, I remember saying a heartfelt prayer that my meager talents as a writer might be used to help remind the world that Jesus’s message was love, mercy, compassion, charity, and peace, something the world seemed to have forgotten but needed desperately. Indeed, these are universal tenets among the world’s major religions. Ironically, I wasn’t even very religious. I say this after having attended many diverse churches in my life, spanning the denominational range from Unitarian Universalists to Baptist to Catholic. More than anything, I was a curious explorer searching for something unnamed that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I knew it was out there somewhere. In this respect, I was probably a lot like you.

On that freezing night as I stood alone in the field looking up, an answer came to me in a flash. The entire contents of a book wedged itself into my brain. I saw it all, beginning to end. I wept at the incredible ending, my tears freezing on my face. Some people will undoubtedly call it a vision. I hesitate to call it that for all the associated implications. All I can say is that I was elated and terrified at the same time. The image that came to me was a re-imagining of the most familiar story in western civilization: The Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus. But it was very different from anything I had ever learned. This was the story told from the point of view of Simon, a man, so the Bible tells us (Mark 15: 20-22), came into Jerusalem that fateful day and was impressed by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross to Golgotha. Preachers rarely speak of Simon of Cyrene, and when they do it is always in error. They speak of how we should all help lift up the burdens of others. But Simon didn’t ask to carry the cross. He wasn’t a helpful Samaritan. He was ordered to carry the condemned Nazarene’s three hundred pound cross at the point of a sword. He would much rather that he had never been standing along Via Dolorosa that Friday. The Bible goes on to say that all of Jesus’s disciples had abandoned him out of fear of suffering the same fate. Peter denied knowing him three times. And yet, somehow, without any witnesses (other than the Roman legionaries who scourged him), we have the story of Jesus’s Passion. The only sympathetic witness, from beginning to end, was Simon. And yet he is little more than a footnote in history with only two lines mentioning his existence.

In the instant that the book seared itself into my memory, I heard previously unknown conversations between Jesus and Simon in which Jesus admonishes us for misusing his words and his life and death to foster bigotry, division, hate, intolerance, and oppression. I saw an astonishing ending that would shake the world awake from its nightmare of indifference, cruelty, and the economic enslavement of billions of people. Far from elated at the revelation, I was terrified. I was nobody, less than nobody, a dust mote aswirl in a tempest. A book such as this should be written by someone of great stature and learning in religion—a bishop or cardinal. The Pope. On the other hand, hadn’t I fervently prayed for just such a book, one capable of changing the world?

I resisted the gift (curse?) for a long time, fearful of what would happen to me if I wrote the story. Some friends I told in confidence cautioned me to forget it (I never told anyone about the amazing ending) while others said I had to write it. Over the years and through life’s ups and downs—unemployment, divorce, depression, remarriage, the birth of a second daughter nearly a quarter of a century after the first daughter—I worked on the book on and off, trying to find how best to tell the story. I’d finish a complete draft, share it with folks who offered input and praise, only to abandon it and start anew months, sometimes years, later. At times I wanted to forget about it altogether, such was my apprehension.

But the vision persisted. Simon. Jesus. The Cross. Write me!

I started reading books on religion to fill my gap of knowledge. I must have read over 150 books. I took graduate courses in religion at Harvard, including a course in the historical Jesus of Nazareth. I had long distance conversations with many of the world’s greatest religious thinkers and clergy, from conservatives like Billy Graham and Cardinal Edward Egan, to more liberal scholars and clerics like Bishop John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and Rabbi Michael Lerner. I passed early drafts to folks like Coretta Scott King, talked about it over dinner with folks like Tom O’Horgan, who directed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. I shared my idea with writers like Norman Mailer, Chayym Zeldis, and Saul Bellow, all of whom encouraged me to write the book. Mailer, who wrote The Gospel According to the Son, joked that if I didn’t write it he would (he also helped me develop the structure for my follow up novel).

One of my most inspirational sources during those years was the writings of Thomas Merton, one of the most influential Christian writers, thinkers, mystics, and social rights and peace activists of the 20th century. Merton (left) helped inform Martin Luther King Jr.’s notions of peaceful civil resistance and was one of the most vocal critics of America’s unjust war in Vietnam. Here’s where the story takes a bizarre turn, one of those coincidences that verges on divine intervention.

While I was working on my book about Simon and Jesus in a grocery store cafeteria in the middle of nowhere in northern Missouri (look at a map if you think I’m exaggerating), a man came up to me one day and looked at the book by Thomas Merton I was then reading as part of my research. He asked me what I was working on. Thinking him a country bumpkin, I replied, “A book influenced by Thomas Merton.” Long story short, he knew who Thomas Merton was. More than that, he knew a little old former nun who had been best friends with Merton back in the mid-to-late 1960s. He said about twenty-five years ago, she had showed him all these trunks full of Merton’s personal possessions. I asked how she had come to have them. He told me that she had married one of Merton’s fellow monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, and that after Merton’s untimely and mysterious death while attending a religious interfaith conference near Bangkok, Thailand, the Abbott had ordered her husband to remove all of Merton’s personal possessions from the Abbey to foil would-be relic hunters. For fifty years the objects, hundreds of them, were thought to be lost forever. In the entire world, the nun who was safeguarding the treasure lived outside Kansas City, a three hour drive from where I lived.

Imagine the coincidence!

Long story short, within a month, I was standing in the nun’s living room, and by the end of the visit, she gave me all the objects, with the proviso that I find the rightful homes for them. Over the rest of the summer and the next year, I eventually found the appropriate homes: The Vatican, The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University in Louisville, where Merton wanted his archives to be housed. The nun told me on numerous occasions that I was the answer to her prayers, and that Merton himself had led me to her. Though less certain than she, I like the idea nonetheless.

(The author in Merton’s habit and cowl)
There I was writing, writing a book about religion and religious relics, and I stumble upon one of the greatest discoveries of Christian relics in a century. As I said from the beginning, this is a story of coincidences. After the Merton discovery, my experience writing The Gospel of Simon kicked into high gear. The newest version of the novel began to write itself. I “bumped” into the right people at the right time, people who were poised perfectly to help me at the moment I needed it most. The writing was intense, transcendent, and far better than my abilities.

Like Coleridge, I awoke nightly from visions, frantically scribbling in the darkness what I could remember. Sometimes, against my wife’s protests, I got up and worked on the computer, such was my burning need to get the images and dialogues onto paper before they evaporated with the morning light. Merton’s master’s thesis at Columbia University was on the religious poetry and art of the British Romantic poet, William Blake (including his poem “The Tyger”). My ecstatic vision and the experience of bringing it into creation have offered me insight into the obsessive passion that must have consumed Blake, and Merton himself. At long last, The Gospel of Simon is coming out this September in English and Spanish.


John Smelcer is the author of over fifty books. His stories, poems, and essays appear in over 500 magazines. For almost a quarter of a century, he has been poetry editor at Rosebud.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: First, You Swallow the Moon

Read 8/5/16 - 8/10/16
4 Stars: Strongly Recommended to heartbreakers and those who have had their hearts broken.
Pages: 219
Publisher: Radialgrain
Released: March 2016

I don't know about you, but I hate... HATE... reading books that are going to jerk my emotions around and get me all worked up over shit I thought I had buried and put behind me. There is little worse than trying to lose yourself in a book that is determined to work its paper thin words inside the tender scars of your own past heartbreaks. I read to escape, not to stew in a pot of my own snively self pity licking old wounds, you know?

Thank GOD this is not one of those books. Though, honestly, I had feared it would be, which is why I was so gosh-darn hesitant to pick it up back when Kipp Wessel first sent it my way back in February.

Don't get me wrong, there's heartbreak here, lots and lots of it, and that same depressing struggle of moving forward because time keeps trucking along even if you don't want to, and the more time that passes the more you find yourself holding on to the pain of being left by someone you love because you just can't bear to let it go, because without the pain there might be forgetting and you refuse to forget and so you just keep fucking holding on to that pain. And then you panic a little because time is just such a fucking bitch and it's dragging you farther and farther away from the moments that were good and happy and warm, the moments you wish you could cocoon yourself inside of, and you think about how one someone can't make any more memories and it kills you to know they are gone and you are not, and you think about how the other someone is making memories without you and that kills you too, and there is such a tremendous pressure on your heart when you think of those things and you are terrified it will break into a thousand pieces right there in your chest and so you start training your heart to slow down, to beat slower, to beat like a hibernating bear's, and when it learns to hibernate you find the numbing floatyness of it addicting. You become obsessed. You jump from the brink of depression into the arms of obsession. You obsess over training your whole self to hibernate. To shield yourself from the pain and to cocoon yourself in the memories and to hide from the right now. Because acknowledging the right now is to acknowledge that things have happened, are happening, will continue to happen, around you, with or without you, and moving on into the right now is simply not an option.

(deep breath.)

Ok, so that was less me and more Jack, the poor heartbroken dude who takes the unexpected death of his older brother really badly. So badly, that he slips into a state of semi-depression and teaches his heart to hibernate like a bear's. While smooshing around in his half bear funk, he decides to move to Montana to actually study bears because he's digging the whole hibernation thing and secretly wants to try to train his whole body to do it. He breaks the news to his girlfriend Clare and she takes it pretty well, transferring schools to go live out there with him and giving him time to "find himself" as he figures out how to cope with his grief. But Jack, man.... the dude is just so darn mopey and selfish and eventually Clare gets sick of it and says she needs a break. She's been so busy taking care of Jack that she now needs time to find herself. And you're thinking, no, no, nononono, Jack you gotta pull up man, she's leaving you, and you're like Clare, wait, wait, waitwaitwait, Jack is not gonna handle this well, just wait a minute before you go blowing his whole world to shit, but it's a book, and they can't hear you and you're like fuuuuuuuuckkk.

First, You Swallow the Moon is a crafty little debut. It's all heartbreak and obsession and not being able to see what's right in front of your own face because you're busy hanging on to the past and it's mopey and indulgent but in the absolutely sweetest sort of way.

It reads like art. It feels like home. It took me places I didn't expect it to. And you should let it take you there too.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Where Writers Write: Wendy J Fox

Welcome to another installment of TNBBC's Where Writers Write!


Where Writers Write is a series that features authors as they showcase their writing spaces using short form essay, photos, and/or video. As a lover of books and all of the hard work that goes into creating them, I thought it would be fun to see where the authors roll up their sleeves and make the magic happen. 

This is Wendy J Fox. 

Wendy is the author of The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories (Press 53, 2014) and the novel The Pull of It (forthcoming, 2016, Underground Voices). Her fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in ZYZZYVAThe Tampa ReviewThe Missouri Review, and The Pinch, among others. More at

Where Wendy Fox Writes

Between 1996 and 2009, after never moving once as a child, I changed house on an average pace of a little over once a year, getting me to 16 moves. It was a combination of the volatility of roommates and relationships, heading oversees and coming back, a pit stop at my mother’s, the influence of employment (or lack thereof).

It does get easier, when you move constantly; you have less stuff, you can do almost all of it in a hatchback, you become less attached to anything you can’t lift on your own (pro-tip: put your books in liquor boxes, small and sturdy and very stackable.)

Then, I thought I would settle, and I bought a townhouse in Seattle. Yet, less than a year into my 30-year mortgage, I was packing again—I had fallen in love with the man I would eventually marry, and life was taking me to Denver.

Even at the 17th time, the sound the strapping tape made as it came off the roll gave me a particular feeling, some combination of hope and queasiness.

Always, because of moving and later, because of frequent travel for work, I was a flexible writer in terms of space. My writing nook was opening my laptop or surrounded by hard copy. I wrote on airplanes and kitchen tables and on the occasional camping trip; I squeezed it in where I could, both physically and in terms of time.

Relocating to Colorado marked, in the beginning, the destruction of my social life. 

Thousands of miles away from friends and finding it hard to make community outside of my fiancé’s circle, I was in a new era of writing productivity, and the dawn of what I have come to think of as Patio Writing.

I do have a proper desk at home, and in all the homes I have been in, but I also have a desk job, so I don’t really like to sit at a place that feels like an office. I will do it if I need to print a lot, or if the weather is very cold. My desk is very typically messy and is nothing interesting to look at.

In Denver, my fiancé turned husband and I were not as transient as I had been in Seattle, but we still bounced a little.

Our first move together was to the loft, which was an amazingly large apartment and essentially one big room. It was a fantastic place to throw a party. However, we started to feel like closets might be useful as well.

In the loft, I wrote from the upper or lower patio. 

 A double rainbow over the Gold Star Sausage Factory, est. 1936, where the whistle still blows at break time, 
Denver, CO, Summer 2011 – Upper Patio

Spring snow looking towards the Colorado Rockies, 
Denver, CO, March 2012 - Lower Patio

I like to write outside because I feel very connected to physical space and to landscapes. All writers are good at imagining, but for me there is also something to the experience of the body. Patio Writing helps me get to a clearer feeling of the seasons. Writing cold, when I am cold, for example, or writing heat in the blare of summer. Writing rain. Writing wind.

I also prefer the action of outside. I grew up rural, where there are wells and springs for water, but also the slaughter of animals and fire. I have lived exclusively in cities since the late 1990’s. I miss the open space, but not the hardness of country life. 

View from porch of the home I grew up in, where I first learned to love to write. 
Tonasket, WA, June 24, 2016, 8:34PM.

Unlike being out in the sticks, there are a lot of things to see from the vantage of an urban patio. Breakup and makeout sessions, car accidents and kindness. There are sirens, many sirens. Light pollution and noise pollution and the sheer evidence of humans.

By 2013, we were in a downtown neighborhood, with a lot less space than the loft, but I had just changed jobs and my hours-long commute suddenly became a walk, and we were also in an apartment with a more ordinary structure. When a cousin stopped by after we first moved in, he said, Ooh! You have walls!

Yes, walls. And a patio, where for several years I worked on two novels and a collection of short stories. 

View looking north. My first book of short stories was almost issued, but I was also waist deep in writing one novel and revising another. It was a good year for manuscripts and the weather was mild. 
Denver, CO, October, 2014.

In April of 2015, we moved again, taking me to 20 house changes. My book of short-stories was out, one novel had just gone under contract. (The second novel is still looking for a home)

We painted our new walls in colors named Velvet Curtain and Cajun Shrimp and Wings of a Dove (shades of dark blue and pinkish orange and platinum gray), but still, I spent most of my time on the patio, hacking along. 

View looking northwest, just before the weather stops cooperating, 
Denver, CO, June 2016 – Top Patio

In support of the environment of Patio Writing, I grow food and flowers in pots (we don’t have a yard), because it makes me happy to have some green around. Because there is a satisfaction in sprouting plants. Because when bees land in the lavender and butterflies on the sunflowers and there’s one lonely grasshopper lurking in my peppers, it feels a little like home.

Squash and sunflower blossoms on the current writing patio, 
Denver, CO, July 4, 2016.

Growing is a lot like writing–you plant, you try, you hope.

Sometimes, I am demoralized by hail or frost (rejection), or I am are singed by heat (rejection), or I am are pelted by rain (rejection).

Outside, I wipe my pages dry, blot the moist from my laptop or my pages. Tarp the pants. Manually sex (rejection) the peppers if there are not enough pollinators. I put out a bee wash because I am concerned.

As much as possible, in life or writing life, you look for places where you can bloom.

When I move again, which feels bound to happen, again I will take what’s important: the hard copies and drives, the scraps for novel ideas, the seeds I have collected from the columbines and the peony, the volunteer tomatoes and celosia that sprang from the compost. And of course, I will be looking for a new patio.