The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘The North Carolina Literary Review

Writers’ conferences provide fantastic opportunities to meet authors through other writer friends and also serendipity. Both played a recent role in how I met today’s guest, Miriam Herin. I was introduced to Miriam by Marjorie Hudson, my writing teacher and friend. Last July, we all were attending the North Carolina Writers Conference (NCWC). The NCWC is an invite and membership only, volunteer based organization that’s been around for over six decades co-founded by esteemed writer Paul Green. I was a newly admitted member.

During one of the breaks, I found myself chatting with Miriam and her husband, Tom. There was time before the next session and we were all headed to the bar for refreshments. I was about to sit on a stool by myself but Miriam and Tom waved at me and asked me to join them, which I happily did. The three of us talked as if we had known each other for a long time. I love it when I make that kind of connection. I enjoyed hearing about Miriam’s journey as a writer and her persistence and perseverance on the path. I’m grateful for the introduction; our conversation was a highlight of the conference.

Miriam Herin is an accomplished author. Miriam’s first novel Absolution won the 2007 Novello Press Literary Award and was cited by Publishers Weekly as an “impressive” debut that “skillfully combines a contemporary courtroom thriller with a subtle look back at the competing passions and pressures of the Vietnam War era.” The novel also received Independent Publisher‘s Gold Award for Best Fiction, Southeast Region, and was a Finalist for Foreword Magazine’s 2007 Novel of the Year.

Miriam is a short story writer, too, and her short story Lucky, won the 2018 Doris Betts Fiction Prize, and was recently published in the North Carolina Literary Review. To read the story: https://issuu.com/eastcarolina/docs/2019-nclr_online-final/140

Miriam’s second novel A Stone for Bread (Livingston Press, West Alabama University) was a top-ten finalist in the 2014 Faulkner-Wisdom novel competition, received a starred Kirkus Review through the Kirkus indie program, and was named a Kirkus Best Books of 2016.

About A Stone for Bread:

In 1963, North Carolina poet Henry Beam published a collection of poems supposedly saved from a Nazi slave labor camp. The authorship controversy that followed cost Henry his university teaching position and forced the poet into decades of silence. Thirty-four years after the poems’ publication, Henry breaks that silence when he begins telling grad student Rachel Singer the story of his study year in Paris, how the naïve young American became entangled with fiery right-wing politician Renard Marcotte, his love affair with the shopgirl Eugenié and his unnerving encounter with the enigmatic René, the Frenchman Henry claims gave him the poems. A Stone for Bread moves back and forth in time from 1997 North Carolina to post-World War I France, to Paris in the mid-1950’s and into the horror of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

Miriam writes across historical eras and tackles big themes in her work. I couldn’t wait for her to share her wisdom with us. I’m so delighted to welcome Miriam Herin to The Practice of Creativity.

-Why did you write A Stone for Bread? What’s in store for readers?

I think a general answer to the first question would be I haven’t a clue, at least not in terms of what the novel is about. When I first started discussing the published novel at bookstores and with groups, I would say that the opening chapter seemed to have come out of nowhere. But not too long ago, I realized that wasn’t true, having recalled my own very early childhood at Fort Benning, Georgia, when our family would picnic in the woods and I would pick up bullet casings from the soldiers’ war games. The rest of the book was more rationally contrived from the notion of a lost collection of poems and a disgraced poet. I had also just finished a very long and still unpublished historical novel set in France, so I decided to use what I’d learned in my research of the country for the novel’s setting.

I think the real answer to the first question, however, is found in the answer to the second one. I hope that readers will find in the novel compelling characters with their separately revealed stories that may also shed light on our day from the vantage of epochal and horrifying 20th century events. Taped beside my desk is a very old 3 x 5 card on which is typed (probably on a long ago typewriter) my personal mantra as a writer: “If the world were clear, art would not exist.” Camus

-How did you get bitten by the writing bug?

I had wanted to write novels from the age of six, after my mother read Bambi to me. This wasn’t the Walt Disney version, but the original novel by Felix Salton which dealt with death and loss and the trials of coming of age. However, I didn’t seriously begin writing fiction until I was forty (I’d had a short story published in my college literary magazine but was too shy even to put my real name on it). My sense of myself through school and later teaching college students was that I didn’t have the ability to write fiction. So I had studied it instead, spending four years in grad school. What pushed me to try writing fiction were life-changing sessions with a therapist through which I also discovered the power of “story” to shape our lives and choices from our earliest childhood.

 -What advice would you give a writer attempting a historical novel?

Characters don’t have to be actual historical figures, but they need to seem authentic to the time period and place in which the story is set.  This isn’t always easy to know or visualize and may take a good bit of research to come close to that authenticity. Dialogue in fiction, for example, seldom resembles or even should resemble “real” speech (if it did, it would be deadly boring on the printed page). What’s important is for dialogue to seem realistic to the characters and setting as well as authentic to the time of the story. When setting fiction in an early time period or a place that is non-English speaking, I find simulating dialect usually works better than trying to recreate in English the actual language or its “foreignness.” This is when the old adage “less us more” can be very important.

There are two literary terms that I find helpful in this: verisimilitude: creating fictional places, people and stories similar to the actual places and people of a particular time period and anachronisms, which are to be avoided, such as vocabulary, objects, styles, etc. that would not have existed at the time a story is set. What writers need to know about a particular place and time are such things as types of houses and styles of clothing, vegetation, landscape, types of work and vocation, and something about what people’s everyday lives might have been like. We don’t have to be meticulous to the point of boring, but we do need to give a sense of authenticity to a fictional place and period.

 -What’s your process like when you work on a book?

I usually write on as many weekdays as possible with my best time in the morning, although not too early. I no longer give myself a daily page quota because these days, I don’t have to force myself to stay in the chair. I then use afternoons for research when needed. For very busy people, writing two pages a day, five days a week can result in a hundred pages in ten weeks.  I’m very fortunate to have a retired husband and enough income under us to do what I do. However, I haven’t forgotten the early days and the free-lance jobs that often took me away from my desk to help keep the family solvent, as well as the activities of our two children who needed chauffeuring to ball teams and music and art lessons, scout troops etc., etc.

-What is your next writing project? What are you working on now?

I started a new novel last year, one that’s quite different from anything I’ve written before, mainly because I’ve chosen to write it from experiences in my own life, which require little or no research! This is taking me imaginatively to places where I’ve traveled and into situations I’ve experienced. I don’t consider it a particularly “literary” novel, but it has certainly been a lot of fun.

-What’s your best writing tip you’d like to share?

If you let others critique your work in progress, consider the 11th thing.*

* From a filmmaker: After he previews a rough cut of a film, he listens to all the critiques, especially the negative ones. Then supposing ten different criticisms, his job is to figure out the real problem, the eleventh thing they may all be actually talking about.

Miriam Herin is an author. Her most recent work is A Stone for Bread (Livingston Press, West Alabama University) In January, 2016, the novel was featured in The North Carolina Literary Review in a joint review with award-winning novelists Robert Morgan and Terry Roberts.  See the review.  The novel also received a splendid review from North Carolina’s ChangeSeven Magazine. See the Review.

Her short story Lucky, winner of the 2018 Doris Betts Fiction Prize, was recently published in the North Carolina Literary Review. To read the story: https://issuu.com/eastcarolina/docs/2019-nclr_online-final/140

She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with her husband Tom and their rescue-dog Chance. She is the mother of two adult children and the grandmother of a delightful eleven-year-old.

Visit her at http://miriamherin.com/

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I’m super excited and honored that Reenu-You was reviewed in this recent issue of the North Carolina Literary Review!

The NCLR bills itself as a “cross between a scholarly journal and a literary magazine” and is published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. The print edition appears in the summer. The NCLR “publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by and interviews with North Carolina writers and articles and essays about North Carolina writers and the rich literary history and culture of the Old North State.” My review is right next to a review of Jason Mott’s recent novel, The Crossing, under the heading, ‘The Structure of Hope in Speculative (and War) Fiction’! This issue also has a special focus on North Carolina African American Literature.

Check out this gorgeous issue here.

Steve Mitchell is doing his part to keep readers fascinated by the craft of short stories with his new collection, The Naming of Ghosts recently published by Press 53. One reviewer described his prose as “lyrical” and how his richly imagined stories in Ghosts “haunt the reader long after the final pages.” Steve has been a construction worker, cowboy, substitute teacher, chef, and has developed and managed a mental health program for the chronic mentally ill. His work has been published in the Southeast Review, Contrary, Glossolalia, and The North Carolina Literary Review, among others, and has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize.

And aside from these great credentials, I can say he’s generous and kind toward emerging writers. I met Steve while assisting my writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson (another Press 53 author), at a workshop she gave. He made me and other aspiring writers feel welcomed and encouraged. I’m so happy to connect him with this wonderful community of creative folk.

What drives your creative work?

Curiosity and doubt.

In the end, writing for me is about wonder. Even if the particular work doesn’t reflect it immediately. It’s about the wonder and mystery of living; the necessity of questions, the beauty of not knowing, the wonderful impossibility of ever understanding another person completely. Uncertainty provides a beautiful space in which to meet one another.

I pretend to be another person, pretend to see the world through their eyes. I’m searching for patterns in our experience, I guess. The things which draw us together and pull us apart, the things which make us want to reach out for another or the moments when we have no choice.

Also, I think all writers revel in a love of language. The thrill of it, the way it tastes and sounds and forms itself around the tongue. It’s a tactile, sensual obsession we share.

How do you decide what point of view a story will be in? Do you experiment a lot or just get a sense right away? Has there ever been a story you had to completely rewrite in a different point of view?

Generally, the point of view comes with the story. I write predominantly in the first person, from the point of view of the characters themselves, so that’s usually where I begin: with a particular person in a particular situation or state of mind. They form together, story and point of view, from an amorphous blob of frustrations and associations.

The voice, however, can take quite a while to develop. I do experiment a good bit with voice and I have started a piece again from the beginning with a new voice more than once. The voice requires patience.

Tell us about your new short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts. Is it held together by a set of recurring themes?

These are stories written over a number of years and the idea was simply to collect stories which held together, got along with each other somehow. It was more of an intuitive process, not around themes, more as a certain kind of ride or journey. It’s always about people, what happens within or between people and how that changes the world around them.

With that said, the themes present are those that always intrigue me. The tension between intimacy and safety, between intimacy and community, the ways in which we all constantly change shape to negotiate that tension. The way tiny moments or insights in our lives can bring about lasting shifts in who we are, changes in our world. The way the past and future are constantly sifting into our present as active forces

Robert Olen Butler, in an interview, said that developing a character is about understanding yearning. He differentiates between a fully rounded character who yearns (“for self or for connection”) versus a character “who simply has problems.” He feels that the “yearning dictates every other choice.” When you’re writing, how aware are you of the essential yearning of your main character?

I think this is the essential human condition; we are creatures who imagine, envision and yearn. It’s the foundation of empathy and empathy is the key to writing.

As a writer, I feel I must love every character. That’s my job. To love the inarticulate or the unlovable; to understand something about them which makes them human.

There may be characters who can’t articulate their own yearning. This doesn’t mean it isn’t there, it only means it isn’t spoken.

Yearning is the driver, superseding other concerns, because yearning speaks to the shadowy, ill-defined ways we actually see the world around us. Yearning is always idiosyncratic; it means we make choices which comply to an internal logic or mythology, but aren’t necessarily understandable to anyone else.

And I love the gaps which occur between our personal mythologies, between what we accept as a given which, possibly, no one else sees or understands.

What’s changed for you since being published by Press 53?

Well, it was a year and a half between acceptance and publication, during which I was always vaguely anxious, certain that some crisis or tragedy would prevent the book from coming into being. It was scheduled for 2012, so I secretly believed the Mayan calendar would end the day before publication and the universe would blip out of existence. I was relieved when that didn’t happen.

There is a sense of completion, the ability to take a deep breath.

But I’m really just beginning. It’s only been a month or so. I’m looking forward to going on the road and reading in bars, on street corners, maybe even in bookstores. I’m looking forward to meeting people and introducing them to the stories, beginning a dialogue. That should be fun.

It’s also released a good bit of energy. Suddenly I have five or six projects going at once.

What’s on your bookshelf, next to your bed? What are you reading right now?

Jen McConnell’s Welcome, Anybody. She was published in the Press 53 Spotlight Anthology 2011 with me and I enjoyed her stories.

Mindscreen, by Bruce Kawin, a theory and study of first person film. I read it years ago and hadn’t realized what an influence its been.

Roberto Bolano’s 2666, a re-read. A beautiful, mysterious, relentless book.

Final Acts, Death, Dying, and the Choices We Make, edited by Nan Bauer-Maglin and Donna Perry. Research for a novel in progress.

Just as important, I’m currently watching Alex de la Iglesia’s The Last Circus and the second season of Treme; I’m listening to Bruce Peninsula, Foals, Osvaldo Golijov, and Jon Brion.

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Cultivate a sense of beauty. Because if the world isn’t beautiful it’s not worth saving and all writing is about saving the world, if only from the wear of time.

Be curious; not only about the things that interest you, but especially about the things that frighten you, make you uncomfortable.

Work beyond your reach.

Writing is life; life is writing. There’s no other way.

Sorry, I couldn’t stop at one.

Steve Mitchell is a writer who has also worked in theatre, film and multi-voice poetry. He is currently completing a novel, Body of Trust. Find out more about him and his cat, Mr. Zip at http://www.thisisstevemitchell.com/


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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