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First-Fiction Annual

Frances Hwang
Transparency: Stories

Publisher: Back Bay Books
Editor: Helen Atsma
Agent: Amy Williams of McCormick & Williams (none at the time of the deal)
Format: Trade paperback original
Pages: 240
Blurb: Liza Ward
Deal: One book

In the very first sentence of her debut collection, Frances Hwang introduces readers to the kinds of themes she threads through the ten stories that follow: "As a young girl, Agnes was often embarrassed of her father." Hwang, who received a Writers' Award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation in 2005—the same honor bestowed on such successful first-timers as Samina Ali and ZZ Packer—writes about immigrants and their American-born children who struggle to break free from authority and customs without betraying a sense of their history and ethnic identity.

Hwang's own parents came to the United States from Taipei, Taiwan, and settled in Fairfax, Virginia, where the author spent her childhood. After graduating from Brown University, Hwang received her MFA at the University of Montana. She now lives in Berkeley, California.

When did you begin writing Transparency?
I started when I was getting my MFA at the University of Montana, but it was only after I graduated that I was able to get some perspective on what I'd written. It was surprising to discover which stories had emotional resonance for me and which seemed derivative. I revised the stories I liked best, and wrote and struggled over new stories. It took me seven years in all to finish the collection.

What was the impetus for it?
When I worked on my collection, I wasn't conscious of an overarching theme connecting the stories together. Only after I had written a handful of stories could I begin to see recurring images and ideas in my work. I chose the title Transparency because my stories center around characters—most of them Chinese immigrants and their American-born children—who don't belong to mainstream society and who lead quiet, seemingly invisible lives.

The impetus to write is always the same for me. A mystery is presented in a character or a situation, and I want to delve deeper and try to understand it. Writing for me is an act of discovery, but at the same time I'm trying to record and preserve what might otherwise be lost. I have a desire to describe what is fleeting and ineffable, to try to grasp moments and sensations that are difficult to put into words.

How did it come to be published?
Michael Mezzo, an editor at Little, Brown at that time, saw my stories in Best New American Voices. He wrote and asked to see more of my work, and I sent him an unfinished manuscript with six stories. About a month later, he offered me a contract. I didn't have an agent, but this seemed like a pleasant dilemma now that I had a publisher.

What were you doing when you first heard the book was accepted for publication?
I was living in Hamilton, New York, and had a creative writing fellowship at Colgate University. Mike Mezzo sent me a brief, mysterious e-mail one morning in May, asking me to call him. I suspected he was going to give me happy news because it would be too awkward and painful to reject me over the telephone.

Which writers do you count as your literary influences?
To name just a few—Virginia Woolf, Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Jean Rhys, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Joy Williams, and Mary Gaitskill.

What's your next book about?
I'm working on a second collection of stories that explores different voices and multiple points of view. One story is about a pregnant woman who has lived in the United States for several years and returns to Taiwan to meet her in-laws for the first time. Another story is based on my experience as a jury member for a criminal trial in Oakland and is about a man who becomes sexually involved with a minor. It was fascinating and disturbing to see how much a story could change as each witness took the stand.

Any advice for first-time authors?
Keep writing and don't be discouraged by rejection. It's a universal writerly experience, suffered by all. So be brave; write as truthfully as you can. There's a quote by Jean Rhys that I love: "All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake."

 

Phil LaMarche
American Youth

Publisher: Random House
Editor: Daniel Menaker
Agent: Peter Straus of Rogers, Coleridge & White
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 230
Blurbs: Mary Karr, Colm Tóibín, George Saunders, Kate Atkinson, Brian Evenson
Deal: Two novels

With a starred review of his debut novel in Publishers Weekly and a spread in Esquire to welcome him into the fold of published authors, Phil LaMarche is off to a pretty strong start. Set in southern New England, American Youth is a coming-of-age story about a teenager facing a moral dilemma after a fatal shooting accident. Writing in a direct, urgent voice, LaMarche takes on some serious and complicated issues: gun control, urban sprawl, and a new breed of American fascism.

Although he spent time in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Prague in the Czech Republic—thanks to fellowships from Summer Literary Seminars and Western Michigan University's Prague Summer Program—LaMarche, who received his MFA from Syracuse University, has written a novel grounded in the tension and conflict of small-town America.

When did you begin writing American Youth?
I began working on it in the fall of 2001, during my first semester in the Syracuse University MFA program.

What was the impetus for it?
I'd been bringing these stories about delinquent youth to workshop, and someone mentioned that I should try turning them into a novel. I'd made a couple of unsuccessful attempts at a novel prior to that, but I'm a stubborn SOB and couldn't let the form get the best of me, so I decided to have another go at it.

What is your personal position on gun control?
I have a fairly complicated relationship with guns. Like the boy in the novel, I grew up around firearms, receiving my first rifle at the ripe old age of six. There's a long tradition of hunting in my family, and I was raised to see the hunting and butchering of game as a deeply spiritual practice. I was also instilled with a hefty respect for the power of firearms—I've seen what they are capable of, quite literally. Knowing that, I'm always wary of guns ending up in the wrong hands.

How did American Youth come to be published?
I tried to get an earlier draft of it published about three years ago, and it fell flat on its face. I couldn't get anyone, agent or editor, to touch it with a stick. After recovering from that letdown, I worked on it for another two years and decided to test the waters again. A friend suggested that I send it to Peter Straus, and he agreed to represent me. He's in London so we worked with Melanie Jackson in the States. It all happened pretty quickly after that.

What were you doing when you first heard the book was accepted for publication?
I was living at my sister's house, cooking, cleaning, and helping out with her two boys. I was teaching an online fiction workshop for Syracuse University, but to say I was a little down on my luck at that moment might be an apt statement.

Your reaction?
My sister and I took her sons out for ice cream sundaes for dinner. Then I bought my girlfriend an engagement ring on credit.

How was it being photographed for Esquire?
Very, very odd, yet very, very fun. The crew was great to work with and totally professional. It gave me a new respect for that whole line of work.

Which writers do you count as your literary influences?
Faulkner, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor, Padgett Powell, Barry Hannah, James Elroy, and George Saunders and Mary Karr, both of whom I was lucky enough to work with at Syracuse.

What's your next book about?
Another troubled individual—so far.

Any advice for first-time authors?
Keep the faith. Focus on the craft. When my head gets stuck in the marketplace, I get pretty useless as a writer.

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First-Fiction Annual (July/August 2007)
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