Above, past James Jones First Novel Fellows, seated from left, Stephen Policoff, Leslie Schwartz, Greg Hrbek, and in back, Mary Kay Zuravleff, Robin Oliveria, Louise Wareham Leonard.
Their stories told. Their voices heard.
At the November 2015 symposium of the JJLS, six former James Jones First Novel Fellows reflected on how the fellowship has changed their lives — making it possible for their stories to be told, their voices heard.
The following fellows participated in a panel discussion at the symposium. In addition to having their winning entries published, each has gone on to publish subsequent books.
Greg Hrbek (1996 Fellow)
Most recent book: Not on Fire, But Burning (Melville House 2015)
Twenty-year-old Skyler saw it from the window: a metallic object that descended from the sky at terrific speed, slowed above the Golden Gate Bridge, and then severed the bridge’s suspension cables before a toxic mushroom cloud lifted above San Francisco . . .
Flash-forward to a future America, where no one knows who was responsible for the explosion in San Francisco—or even what that explosion was, exactly—but Muslims have nonetheless been herded onto the old Indian reservations in the west. In suburban New York, Skyler’s little brother Dorian is twelve and dreaming about killing Muslims . . . when his next-door neighbor adopts a Muslim orphan from the territories.
That simple act of benevolence will set off a series of increasingly terrifying incidents that force an entire community to reckon with their most deeply held beliefs, and—for Dorian—will lead to either tragedy or redemption.
From a NPR review:
Hrbek shifts deliriously between first-, second- and third-person points of view, not to mention past, present and future tense. At first this feels annoyingly gratuitous; gradually, though, this piecemeal perspective reveals a deeper purpose. Not on Fire toys with the edges of meta, slipping here and there into a dizzying self-awareness that underscores Hrbek’s running commentary about the fractured nature of reality. At the same time, the story stays solidly rooted in a propulsive, suspenseful plot, full of lyrical dialogue and gorgeous language. It isn’t easy to unpack, but Hrbek rewards the effort with head-spinning subversions of what speculative fiction is expected to do. There are no clear answers or pat explanations. And as Dorian and Karim become drawn, each in their own way, toward violent extremism, the book takes time to meditate meaningfully on hate, fear, faith and what sets us on paths that we often feel powerless to depart.
Louise Wareham Leonard (1999 Fellow)
Most recent book: 52 Men (Red Hen Press, 2015)
52 Men is taut, spare and highly compressed autobiographical fiction for the mobile age, it is immensely funny and sexually charged.
From an interview with Caroline Leavittville:
You’re a critically acclaimed poet. Did writing fiction come naturally to you? How different was it?
For me the hardest thing, was finding the right form to express my experience. For a long time, I thought I was supposed to be a traditional novelist – but I struggled with, for example, multi-generational psychological dramas that seemed to make sense of everything. I couldn’t fit my life or past into that; nothing matched up neatly, it seemed impossible to find one way to see things, one vantage point that stayed the same. I thought for a time that poetry would work best for me because it has hidden spaces and is subtle and oblique. Yet as soon as I started to create my own kind of work – a mix of styles, – a kind of intense ‘poetic’ prose, with space and elision and the ability to change directions and emotions, I felt happiest. Quickness, lightness, intensity, that’s what I love in language, in hybrid works, in texts that use different forms. http://louisewarehamleonard.com/
Robin Oliveira (2007 Fellow)
Most recent book: I Always Loved You (Viking 2014)
From an interview:
In this book, you write about the process of being and becoming an artist. Did you find a connection between writing and art? Do you paint?
I have painted and drawn as a hobby, but I am not an artist. In fact, my forays into that area were gently discouraged by an art teacher at the University of Washington Extension. But as I wrote this story, I did find a great deal of connection between the two disciplines. To be an artist is to be an artist, no matter the medium. All artists face either a blank page or a blank canvas or a block of stone or….it can go on and on, because art has many guises and many mediums. But the process and fears, to me, are the same. It was a relief, in many ways, to discuss the difficulties of producing art through the eyes of painters. I felt freer to explore what I perceive to be the truth about creative work.
What is your writing routine?
I, like Degas and Cassatt, keep regular working hours. I write for at least six hours a day, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on how much my brain will tolerate. I can usually tell when my brain has turned off; I have found that trying to continue to write after that is a waste of time. Mostly, I write on a treadmill desk, which means I have an elevated desk with a treadmill underneath. I walk at about 1.1 miles per hour while I compose. However, depending on my task—rewriting or editing—I sometimes write lying in bed or sitting outside on the front terrace, but only when it’s not raining.
Stephen Policoff (2004 Fellow)
Most recent book: Come Away (Dzanc Books 2014)
Who is the small, greenish girl Paul Brickner repeatedly sees skittering around the edge of his yard in upstate New York? No one else seems to see her. Ever since Spring was injured in a fluke fall, Paul has been possessed with the anxiety that he might lose her.
From an interview with Serious Reading:
I have been told that my novels are slipstream. I’m not really sure what that means, and certainly I never had any thought about what genre I was writing. My novels seem to be dark domestic comedies with a mild buzz of the supernatural. My first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, involved possible alien abduction on a vacation to Cape Cod; Come Away features the lore of the changeling and repeated sightings of a sinister green child within a happy marriage in upstate New York. My novel-in-progress has a ghost or two. I suppose that the boundary-crossing (is this a literary novel? Is this fantasy?) perplexes some people, which is OK with me. Maybe that’s what slipstream means?
Leslie Schwartz (1997 Fellow)
Most recent book: Angels Crest (Doubleday 2004)
Living in a small town in the mountains of California, Ethan Denton is a lucky man. Most things have gone his way, and being granted full custody of Nate, his young son, has given him a near-perfect life. On a crisp winter morning just before the start of deer season, Ethan and Nate set off together to discover the beauties of the forest. As he parks the truck, Ethan spots a pair of magnificent bucks and, eager to take a closer look, leaves Nate asleep in the car seat, a brief, impulsive decision any parent might make. When he returns only a few minutes later, the door of the truck is open and Nate is nowhere to be seen. Ethan and other members of the community search for the missing three-year-old, their fears rising as an unexpected blizzard blankets the woods.
From an interview with the Writer’s Program:
What are the most detrimental things that keep a writer from getting words onto the page? What can be done about it?
The first thing is that writers worry too much about getting published when they don’t even have a first draft. Or they worry too much about what people will think, especially if the novel is thinly disguised autobiography. Writers should have more fun, and worry less. Secondly, new writers really need to understand that writing is all about revision. And this takes time. New writers get too wrapped up in this feeling that they need to hurry up and finish, rather than participate calmly in the experience of writing, which is so sublime, really, and in some ways, infinitely more rewarding than publishing. Finally, writers must read and they must constantly find a way to improve their work. All of these things take enormous courage and perseverance and I think above all else the people who get published are the ones who just keep plugging away, no matter how hard it might seem.
Mary Kay Zuravleff (1994 Fellow)
Most recent book: Man Alive! (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013)
All it takes is a quarter to change Owen Lerner’s life. When lightning strikes the coin he’s feeding into the parking meter, the pediatric psychiatrist survives, except that now he only wants to barbecue. The bolt of lightning that lifts Dr. Lerner into the air sends the entire Lerner clan into free fall, and Man Alive! follows along at that speed, capturing family-on-family pain with devastating humor and a rare generosity. This novel explores how much we are each allowed to change within a family—and without.
From an interview with Fiction Writers Review:
During your book launch, you shared with the audience that you originally wrote Man Alive! in past tense but revised the entire manuscript in present tense. Why?
The novel was supposed to be done, and as I was rereading it in past tense, I realized it was too slow. The problem was pacing. The visualization I had in my head was that the family was arranged like billiard balls on a pool table and the lightning strike hits cue-ball Owen, which in turn scatters them in all directions. The reader is supposed to feel like she is just holding on for the ride; in past tense, that urgency was lost. First, I trimmed language, the flowing, surreal account of what Owen felt and imagined in his scrambled brain. But that made it too truncated, too staccato. I realized that the problem was tense. If I wanted the reader in the fire with Owen, present is the more empathetic tense. Usually, present tense slows things down because it takes so long to get anywhere, right? Past tense is one of elision. You can really travel in past tense. But for Man Alive! I needed the reader to be right inside the flames.