But A Background On Which To Paint The Dreams: The Episodic Novel

Books and reading as we know it are changing and I think most contemporary readers can feel it. With the advent of eBooks, podcasts, the omnipresence of the Internet, the decline of bookstores, and, hell, even books themselves, there is a seismic shift occurring in what we’ve known as reading and literature. I believe as information and entertainment has become more and more immediate (hulu, reddit, google, facebook, netflix) readers have been less inclined to work through monster pieces of literature like War and Peace, Moby Dick, or Gravity’s Rainbow. And I’m among them; it took me almost a whole semester to get through Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree even though I obsessed and loved it. Alongside the decline of readership and reader’s attention span, or what Douglas Glover calls the rise of the “Post-Literate Age”, there has been a surge of a new form of media: the episodic television show. These shows—like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and even way back to The Sopranos—are television programs unlike all which have come before. The shows largely act as long, serialized movies that can be watched stripped of each other but work better when watched chronologically. And these are great programs, acclaimed by both critics and viewers, and have risen in popularity as streaming content from the Internet has become almost effortless.

So what do these shows mean for reading and books? First of all, people will always love reading and that will likely never go away, while the form and classic structure of the books and novels might change. It’s my belief that has readers’ attention spans shorten and the demand for intense, segmented narratives rises in popular, novels will become more episodic in scope. Or should I say, will once again be episodic, as fragmented novels are no strangers in American literature. Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio is one of the most lauded novels of the early twentieth century and is essentially a collection of self-contained, linked stories about a character named George Willard as he grows up, gets a job, falls in love a few times, then eventually leaves the fictional Winesberg. Subsequently, the stories collected in the book read like a segmented narrative of George Willard’s upbringing rather than a linear, rising action based narrative. And Winesberg, Ohio is not alone in the cannon, as William Faulkner’s Light In August, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and, again, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree are all composed of tense, short narratives that build on each other for a final effect.

With Junot Díaz receiving the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship and a Nation Book Award nod for his most recent story collection This Is How You Lose Her, it could be said that the reemergence of the episodic novel is already upon us. When I purchased Díaz’s new book, I honestly had no idea it was even a short story collection, as it wasn’t indicated on the cover. Before buying the book, I had only briefly glanced over some reviews and figured I’d give the book a try, considering the acclaim. Maybe I read too passively, but it wasn’t until I reached the midpoint of the book that I realized the book was indeed a short story collection and not a novel. I had no idea. Each story flowed so well and chronologically into the next that I thought the novel was just experimental and nonlinear, as almost all the stories are based on the same family and the upbringing of their two sons. Now, after having read the whole thing, I am still not convinced that Díaz didn’t intend it to be a novel. The pieces are obviously linked and each story adds an aspect to the ongoing narrative and the eventual ending that reading the stories apart wouldn’t make much sense and might seem half full. It be like trying to jump into Sons of Anarchy half way through season two, it just wouldn’t work as the viewer might be able to infer what’s incurring in a scene, but has no idea why any of the action is occurring. With all that said, I think This Is How You Lose Her is an amazing book, but am still bent on the idea that it’s more of a novel than story collection.

Some writers might balk at the idea of conforming their art for their readership, but I think the episodic novel would be a cool form to come into popularity, as the writer must appeal to the reader in both the short and long forms. Instead of idealizing the past, maybe we as readers should think that maybe we’re just now doing this whole novel thing correctly and that in fact Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice are too long and cumbersome. I am in full favor of writers making the fewest amount of words go the furthest and trying to make each scene powerful and concise, as the episodic novel often demands.

An interview with the poet Ravi Shankar

by Jessica Locke—I am not sure what I expected when I went into my interview with Ravi Shankar. Perhaps someone aloof, made arrogant from success and world knowledge. The individual that I had the pleasure of sitting down to speak with was both down to earth and knowledgeable. It was as if a good friend had travelled the world and come back to tell me about all he’d learned.

Ravi Shankar was raised in northern Virginia although he lived in South India as well during his 3rd and part of his 4th grade years in school. He says that it was “transformative” living in Virginia and being an outsider has had a large impact on his writing. Shankar did his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia and his MFA at Columbia University.

As a poet he has received several awards including a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. His poetry collection, Instrumentality, was also a finalist for the 2005 Connecticut Book Awards. He is the founder and executive director of the online journal Drunken Boat, one of the oldest online literary journals around. Through all of his writing and publishing, Ravi Shankar still finds time to teach at Central Connecticut State College and holds a position with the first international MFA program at City University of Hong Kong.

One of my leading questions when talking with Mr. Shankar was about how he got into online publishing. He shared with me that it was really only a project started for fun with friends. He purchased the URL drunkenboat.com because “it sounded cool” and proceeded to simply publish pieces written by friends. This was at the height of the dot com boom as he describes it and never expected it to go anywhere. However, the internet being what it is soon had the journal drawing in work from the UK and other places around the world.

The discussion regarding his personal success with online journals led me to ask about the state of online publishing and what it meant to print. He said just as television did not kill radio, neither would online publication do away with print. However, we did get to discuss the many possibilities that come with online publication such as sound and visual arts that are just not possible in a printed journal. During his presentation just an hour later I was privileged enough to be lead through some of the interactive art published in the Drunken Boat by Ravi Shankar himself.

Outside of the online publishing world, Shankar also does a lot of work with international literature; this is evidenced by the joint work with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal: Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. The Norton Anthology they edited together was spawned from the aftermath of September 11, 2001 in an attempt to heal some of the wounds left behind through showing the world a shared humanity including the Middle East. However, this is not his only multi-cultural work. He says that it is “paradoxical” being an Indian-American writer, yet the things that he is interested in, he feels are universal; things such as “the nature of reality” or “philosophical concepts.” Yet, Ravi Shankar also sees the good in his unique situation such as attending Asian-American writing workshops and sharing different views, which might not otherwise be seen, with other writers.

Having the opportunity to speak with such a successful writer was a true gift to me that I hope to share with others through my account. For my last inquiries I took the time to ask Mr. Shankar what advice he might give to upcoming writers. He responded that new writers should “Heed the rhino” and “Have thick skin” thus not giving up, although even established writers such as himself are still rejected 80 to 90 percent of the time. He also stressed the reciprocity of reading and writing, advising not to limit oneself and to read things one might not necessarily like.

When asked, he said that the most rewarding part of his career has been the people he has had the opportunity to meet, the students whose lives he has touched and the friendships he has made. He is in the process of a new book with the working title, What Else Could It Be, which I will be eagerly awaiting. Until then, I am glad to have met the poet, Ravi Shankar, an individual whom I believe has and will continue to have an impact on more than just those who pass through his classroom.

Caleb Ludwick: A Grassroots Writer

A few months ago I watched Caleb Ludwick read his story “Swim” at Chattanooga’s Hart Gallery on the Southside, for a local monthly reading series called Fusebox—just another thing solidifying Chatt’s burgeoning arts and lit scene. Another thing solidifying that scene: Ludwick’s self-published short story collection The First Time She Fell. Attuned with Chattanooga’s love of the Graphic Design culture, his book was designed, story-to-story, by ten of Ludwick’s buddies in the field. And these folks aren’t just coming from Chattanooga. Some are from Boston and New York, and that’s a testament to Chattanooga’s national notoriety as a “progressive” town—our arts culture isn’t quite as insular as you might think. Ten stories, ten designers. And not only is this unique from a publishing standpoint, it’s encouragement for us youngster writers who live with that deep fear of never being able to squeeze our work into the cutthroat, mainstream publishing industry. Chattanooga embraces grassroots entrepreneurship, locally sourced food, etcetera, and now: grassroots publishing is possible here, and with very positive results.

Ludwick had a chance to read at this semester’s Meacham Writers’ Conference, a conference that typically houses seasoned writers, accomplished in the publishing field—this year: Georgia Review’s chief editor Richard Corey, and author Rebecca Makkai, whose stories are frequently anthologized in Best American Short Stories; in past years: the late, acclaimed master of Southern letters William Gay, poet Philip Levine, and The Things They Carried author Tim O’Brien. So it’s an honorable gig, and I had a chance to talk with Caleb before his reading, and he’s as humble as you can be, just happy to be able to write, with a little recognition on the side.

Caleb says he was a late bloomer—and I like late bloomers, I’m one—though he’d always had that love of words, being an English major in college. He took a year off after college, and began reading constantly, being fueled more and more by each subsequent influence. “You come out strong with an influence with one writer, but then another,” he said. “I read all of Faulkner, then Hemingway as an antidote. Raymond Carver.” Caleb pursued an MA in Theology, and aspired to get his PhD in England, but he dropped it—what he ended up doing was going to France to study Southern Literature. During this time he and his wife had a baby, and after his studies he moved back to Chattanooga. But he quit writing for eight years. His new interest in Marketing and Copywriting took most of his personal time. His company 26 Tools—“like the 26 letters of the alphabet,” he says—deals with Creative Direction and Copywriting for companies like Rock Creek Outfitters, Easy Bistro, Chattanooga’s Create Here, as well as big national names like American Apparel and The Food Network. But this kept him ensconced in the field of creativity, and eventually Caleb began using some of his downtime crafting stories, which culminated in The First Time She Fell. Ludwick received a Make-Work Grant for his efforts, and then, he said, “the rest is just printing.”

He describes his collection as more of an art project than a typical short story collection. And if you leaf through The First Time She Fell, you’ll see why. Even the fonts, and their colors, are different for each story; the placement of words—some pages require you to turn the book horizontally to read it. Sometimes upside-down. So it sounds like Caleb just had a lot of fun putting this art project together, and that should be encouraging for young writers. The fun has paid off—it was cited as some of the best art in the Southeast by Print magazine.

Not to mention Meacham, which has thrilled and at the same time humbled Mr. Ludwick. “The outcome [of my work] is I’m here, teaching workshops with incredible people…being around people who love words has been encouraging.” Caleb and I talked about Chattanooga, how the arts and culture scene here is growing. “There’s a temptation to move away from Chatt,” he says. “People think to be an artist you have to move out to a big city. But there’s a lot to be done here in Chattanooga.” And I get the impression Caleb wants to be part of that growth, and really, he already is. I get the feeling he’s here to stay, which is good. Because how is the scene going to progress if every artist who finds achievement here then says “Well. Alright. Time to pack up and move to NYC, LA, Chicago, even Austin, Texas.” Caleb seems alright here, regardless of whether or not he gains notoriety. “My motivation was never to get published,” he said. “My motivation is to write…seeing things through others’ eyes, empathy, is why you write stories.” Caleb cares more about the craft of writing—“It’s all about the craft. No matter how good the story, the craft is what gets the point across”—than the idea of fame, the idea of getting out. He’s already found success. Writing and creativity has always been good to him.

So Caleb is here to stay, to lend his vision, his writing, and his flair for publishing innovation to a town that just keeps on glowing, brighter and brighter. And we’re damn glad to have him here.

The Exciting World of Literary Readings

It is one thing to read a poem or a short story, but it is quite another to hear it in the author’s voice, as it was meant to be read. The Meacham conference, held in Chattanooga each semester, is a perfect opportunity to take part in this type of experience. This conference brings together a variety of talented authors to share their work. One such reading this year consisted of authors Sharan Strange, Caleb Ludwick, and Stephen Corey. Each author illustrated a different side to the literary world, which was exciting to witness.

Strange, a poet, showed a reverence for the things she writes about. It was clear from the tone of her voice that she takes her subjects seriously and wants to share their importance with the world. Ludwick, a short story writer, had a different style to share with the audience. His story showed a realistic account of young boy’s life. This showed Ludwick’s tendency toward the realistic and how to make it pop for his audience. Corey was the most informal of the authors at this reading. He engaged the audience and made them feel involved in his pieces, which I appreciated.

This reading was an exciting experience for any fan of the literary world. It was rewarding to hear authors from such diverse literary positions come together and read their work. It gives the audience the sense of how the author hears the work in their head, and this opens up a whole new perspective on the piece. I would recommend everyone to come out and attend a reading in their community.

Meacham Highlight: Rebecca Makkai

by Lauren Staten—Every year, The Meacham Writers Workshop brings a weekend full of reading and critiquing to Chattanooga and some of its finest writers. Whether your work is in the midst of others, waiting for you to nervously clutch the paper and read it for the eager listeners, or whether you are in the body of those eager listeners, The Meacham Workshop is always rewarding. In the past, guests such as Ralph Burns, Ted Howard, and even Tim O’ Brien have been among those in the crowd as well as those who read their work. This year, Rebecca Makkai, the successful Chicago-based short story writer released her debut novel, and made a debut appearance at the Meacham Writer’s Workshop.

Makkai’s first book, The Borrower, was published in May, and those who attended the workshop in Chattanooga this weekend were granted the priveledge to hear her read several excerpts from this piece. Makkai also held conferences with students and guests, sharing advice and personal experience to writers of all levels. Many who met with her said Makkai gave extremely helpful information that was a fresh breath compared to what they knew and usually hear. Her approach is very different from most, which called for quite the publicity at the workshop this weekend. Her name has been repeated around campus and among those who prepared the events of the weekend, praising her work and anticipating reading more of her work.

Meacham Writers Workshop has met many great writers, published writers, as well as not-yet-published writers. It encourages practical steps and revision techniques for a writer to reach their potential, and allows the writers to get fresh and new opinions from other writers, including writers like Makkai. It is always gratifying to hear an author read his or her work aloud, as it captures the full affect of their work, and magnifies its’ beauty. For Makkai, awareness was raised on her debut novel, and for her as a writer. For Meacham-goers, Makkai breathed her wisdom and experience into their work, giving those of us whom are nervously clutching our paper in fear of reading it to the eager listeners, a final push to just go for it. After all, the worst circumstance would be that some great writer such as Ralph Burns, Ted Howard, Tim O’Brien, or Rebecca Makkai are lurking in the body of listeners. And really, how bad is that?

Have a Beer On William Gay.

William Gay died on Thursday, February 23rd, at 68 years. In case you didn’t know, William Gay was a massive bad-ass of the Southern literary tradition. Think of a Larry Brown type figure, but with more emphasis on the gothic side of things. Like Brown, Gay was the real deal, a writer who thrived, eventually (he wasn’t published until 1999), completely outside the academy. He spent his life hanging dry wall, carpentering, and worshiping William Faulkner. It paid off.

Gay spent most of his life in Hohenwald, Tennessee. I have no idea what happens in Hohenwald, but I hear it contains an elephant sanctuary. So I’ve ascertained that great Southern writing and elephants might be closely related. (More thought on that idea later – Flannery O’Connor did have her own peacock farm, for example.)

But my point is this: if you live in Tennessee, or fancy yourself literary, you should read William Gay. Now. Not just for the sake of tribute, but because he was a damn good writer. Gay came to the Meacham Writers Workshop in Fall 2010. I had a chance to meet him. He is just as creepy-looking as any character in one of his novels or short stories, but he was a very humble man. When asked in workshop why he didn’t use quotation marks in his stories, he replied: “Well, Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use them, so I figured it’d be okay.”

We value the academy for helping our writing. Gay just happened to be one of the few exceptions. But we can’t all be sixty-year-old hermit-looking hard asses from the boondocks, sitting by a wood stove reading Blood Meridian with scuffed up, calloused hands from a days hard work. The real deal doesn’t come along often, but when they do, we should be grateful.

Truly great Southern writing emerges less often than other great writing, it may seem (I mean, hell, it’s a small part of the world). But when it does emerge, it tends to be exceptionally fearless in its language and storytelling. William Gay was one of the few who got to the soul of his region and put the time in to make it speak. We lost two of the great Southern writers in the past two years (Barry Hannah passed in ’10). So I ask you all, you literary folks, that next time you get together with your reading buddies, your writing buddies, or go out for a few beers — pay tribute to William Gay, a new ghost of the Southern literary tradition.

William Gay, Barry Hannah, and Larry Brown are having beers together right now, fishing perhaps, knowing of the beyond, what all artists want to know.

William Gay wrote three novels and one proper collection of short stories. If you’re into film, watch “That Evening Sun”, a great one based off Gay’s story “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down”. Hal Holbrook, another ever-cool geezer, plays the protagonist.

So pay tribute to a great writer. Read him. Read Southern Lit; celebrate your region.

You know what? I don’t want to be preachy. Just have a damned beer on William Gay. I’ll be having several in his honor.