Russell, Antrim Receive MacArthur Genius Grants

The MacArthur Foundation announced today that authors Karen Russell and Donald Antrim are among the 2013 MacArthur Fellows. The five-year, no-strings-attached "genius" fellowships, which were increased this year to $625,000 each, are given to individuals working in a variety of disciplines to pursue future work. 

Karen Russell is the author of three books of fiction, including her debut story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006); the novel Swamplandia (2011), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and, most recently, the story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2013), all published by Knopf. She was named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 in 2009.

Donald Antrim is the author of the novels Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (Viking, 1993), The Hundred Brothers (Crown, 1997), and The Verificationist (Knopf, 2000), and the memoir The Afterlife (2007). He is an associate professor of writing at Columbia University in New York City.

In the following videos from the MacArthur Foundation, Russell and Antrim discuss the inspiration for their work, and what receiving the fellowships will mean for their writing and their lives.




Debut Novelist Joins Lahiri, Pynchon on National Book Award Longlist

After a week of longlist announcements in the categories of poetry, nonfiction, and young people’s literature, the National Book Foundation wrapped up its announcements late last week with the much-anticipated longlist for the foundation’s fiction prize.

The finalists are Tom Drury, Pacific (Grove Press), Elizabeth Graver, The End of the Point (Harper), Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (Scribner), Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Knopf), Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth), James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead Books), Alice McDermott, Someone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (The Penguin Press), George Saunders, Tenth of December (Random House), and Joan Silber, Fools (Norton).

As the foundation notes, the list includes “four [previous] National Book Award winners and finalists, a Pulitzer Prize winner and finalist, recipients of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship and a Guggenheim fellowship, and a debut novelist.” Among a list of favorites like Pynchon and Saunders, Anthony Marra’s debut, published this past May, has received much praise, and Lahiri has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Charles Baxter, Gish Jen, Charles McGrath, Rick Simonson, René Steinke judged.

Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion (Knopf), and Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press) topped a poetry longlist marked by debut poets. The lists in each category, including nonfiction and young people’s literature, were announced on the Daily Beast.

The foundation also recently named its annual 5 Under 35, and announced that E. L. Doctorow will receive the 2013 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and Maya Angelou will receive the 2013 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

The National Book Award shortlists in each category will be announced October 16, and the winners will be named at the foundation's annual awards ceremony in New York City on November 20.

Attic Inspiration

9.19.13

Attics are often the most compelling rooms in our homes. Attics are where we store important parts of the past that are only tenuously connected to the immediate present. Visit your attic, rummage around the dusty boxes, and find something that belonged to one of your parents. Bring it to your writing desk. Start writing.

Bushra Rehman on Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction

In August, Bushra Rehman celebrated the launch of her first novel Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press). Corona was featured in Poets & Writers Best Debut Fiction issue. The Readings /Workshops Program co-funded the book event An Ode to Corona with the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and Rehman’s writing workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction.

The first question people always ask me about my novel Corona is if it’s true. Yes, like me the character is a Pakistani who grew up in Corona, Queens, worked as a Puritan in a living history museum, and hitchhiked up and down the East Coast in her twenties, but to say Razia’s life is my life is somehow still not true. Razia is Bushra 2.0: stronger, faster, smarter, quicker. She says all the things I wish I’d said. She doesn’t take as much bull crap. She’s me without the endless hours of agonizing, worrying, and being depressed. Also, most of the events in the book didn’t really happen.

Corona is a work of autobiographical fiction. It lives in that slippery place between memoir and fantasy. Autobiographical fiction skims the fat off the truth and then uses it to create rich buttery deserts for the reader’s pleasure. It recognizes that our lives are too fascinating not to write about and our imaginations too strong to ignore. Autobiographical fiction is an endless source of confusion for readers who want to know what really happened.

I’ll never forget the moment on Fresh Air, when Adrienne Rich schooled Terry Gross for asking the “biography question.” I sympathized with Gross because Rich had scolded me once, also with good reason, and it was scary. Rich, as always, was eloquent on the matter. She explained why the question upset her. Much of current literary criticism, she said, has devolved into a strange case of connect-the-dots between the writer’s life and work. The understanding of craft, of the writer’s use of language, is lost in these conversations.

I understood what Rich was saying. There’s an implication that autobiographical work is simply an advanced form of journaling. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When sharing a hilarious, creepy, or life-altering story, which might have really happened, the writer can’t stop halfway and say, “You just had to be there.” She must use all her skills to make readers feel they were there. Even more difficult, the writer must live the life first, a life of imagination, a life worthy of fiction.

As a Pakistani-American, the question of autobiography becomes more loaded. There are so few narratives available that readers grasp for straws. All too often, I’ve had people tell me that they just read a novel about a Pakistani woman who was forced into an arranged marriage or kidnapped by bandits and they think this is how all of our lives pan out. So I always add in my interviews that Corona is a work of fiction and not meant to represent the lives of all Pakistani women. All of us don’t dress up in Puritan costumes and work in recreated seventeenth century villages in Salem, Massachusetts.

This burden of representation, plus the fear of hurting our friends and family and adding to the racism in this country by airing our community’s dirty laundry, scares many writers of color away from writing their stories. For this reason, I developed the workshop "Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction." Last winter, the Readings/Workshop Program co-sponsored this class with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Tune in next week to read some of the tips I shared with my students to help them overcome their fears and write inspired by both the truth and lies of their lives.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Bushra Rehman's Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction Part II

In August, Bushra Rehman celebrated the launch of her first novel Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press). Corona was featured in Poets & Writers Best Debut Fiction issue. The Readings & Workshops program is co-sponsoring the book event An Ode to Corona with the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and Rehman’s writing workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction. This blog is a continuation of last week’s Two Truths and a Lie post.

One of the drawbacks of writing autobiographical fiction is that the people in your head are not imaginary. They’re real. They’re the people you love the most and are most afraid of losing. In the workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction, we spend time working through these fears. I wanted to share some tips for overcoming them.

Thinking Is Not Writing

You can end up using your imagination to create all the scenarios in which your mother is hurling platters, your father is explosively silent, and you are left out of all future family holidays until your little nieces and nephews, who once had gathered up in your lap, no longer know your name. All of this might happen, but you can spend so much time worrying about these possibilities that you may never get to the writing.

The truth is you don’t know the shape your work will take until it is written. Yes, you may feel a burning anger in the beginning, but when you write the story, you might be surprised by the gentle and compassionate portrayals you create. The very writing of the narrative will transform you and your memories.

Writing Is Not Publishing

Sometimes it takes years to find the right publisher. It took me six to find one I love, Sibling Rivalry Press. But those years were necessary, not only for the growth of the book, but for my own readiness to present my work to the world. So, write! You don’t know who you will be by the time you find a publisher. You never even have to publish. I trick myself every time by saying I won’t. It’s one way I’ve learned to be honest in my writing--by lying to myself.

Listen To Dorothy Allison

Allison, author of the unforgettable Bastard out of Carolina, was asked how she could create such brutally honest portrayals of the people in her life. She said you had to tell all you could about your characters, create three-dimensional portraits, so the reader could come to understand and even love them. She said, “If you tell enough … even if you use a character based on people you know, you don't create an act of betrayal. It is when you use characters in small ways that you betray them.”

To tell enough, you may have to dig deeper into your memories, read old letters and diaries, really remember--but isn’t this why you’re writing autobiographical fiction in the first place?

What a Coincidence That Everyone in This Class Is Innocent!

Allison also said, “I don't believe you can be any good as a writer if you're trying to hide yourself.” You can’t be like the preacher who only points out the sins of others. In your writing, you have to reveal your own sins as well.

I Don’t Make You Look Bad. You Make You Look Bad.

Let’s say you are innocent, but others have accidentally or purposefully hurt you. This is when I remember this advice from one of my favorite writers, Ed Lin. His words hit the bull’s eye in my mind. When people get upset about your writing, they’re upset that a certain truth, crime, or terrible memory has been brought out into the light. The writing is an explosion, but it gives the opportunity of transformation by forest fire, rather than slow suffocation. Most likely these truths have been stifling the relationship for years. In our writing we have the conversations with people we never have in real life. Sometimes with the writing, the conversations begin.

Lay Your Body Down on the Train Tracks

When I was younger, I spent all my free time in the library. The world I wanted to live in was the world of books, but every door I opened led to a room that wasn’t my own. I now know why. Not only is it difficult to find a publisher who wants to present the story of a Pakistan-American woman who is not oppressed, it’s difficult for us to overcome the family and community taboos of writing our own stories.

But for those of us who are called to this craft, we know we must write. Because it’s true, your mother, father, brother, sister or cat could end up hating you, but if you don’t write, you’ll end up hating yourself. Ultimately, we write not for the world but for our own souls.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from theNew York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

In Your Own Image

9.12.13

In many ways you are everyone who came before you. Your uniqueness is your own spin on the DNA of your ancestors. Spend several minutes sitting quietly in front of a mirror. Reflect. Other than you, whom else do you see? Write 500 words about how you feel toward these people you’ve never met but who are part of you. Their story is yours, too.

Social Media and You

Social media has changed human interaction. Twitter, Facebook, and other digital platforms force us to create versions of ourselves that often misrepresent our true feelings and situations. This disconnect can interfere with our relationships and even distort our own identities. Write about a time when social media added turmoil to your life. Explore the difference between who you are online, and who you are at the dinner table.

Now You Were There

8.29.13

Creative nonfiction isn’t only about the past. History is always happening. Right now, at this very instant, your life is passing. What is happening in your life? What are your worries? Your problems? Your fears and loves? Imagine yourself eleven years from now, and imagine what your perspective might be on your current situation. Write about your life from the year 2024. Time may heal all wounds, but now is the best time to document your bleeding.

Contest Honoring Elaine Kaufman Open for Submissions

The Table 4 Writers Foundation, established in honor of New York City restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, is currently accepting submissions to its second annual writing competition, which offers five grants of $2,500 each to fiction and nonfiction writers.

Kaufman, who ran the celebrated Elaine’s restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for more than forty-seven years, was known for nurturing writers and other creative people inside her restaurant—and in particular at Table 4, where, according to the foundation’s website, she “offered writers just what they needed: sometimes a kick in the pants, an introduction to a fellow writer or agent, but always a directive to order something to eat.” She died in December 2010.

To apply for the grants, writers may submit four copies of a short story, an essay, or a novel excerpt of up to ten pages (or between 1,000 and 2,500 words), along with the required entry form and a $10 entry fee, by October 20. Submissions are accepted by postal mail only. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Works by the inaugural winners, who were announced and honored at a ceremony in New York City this past March, were chosen by a panel of publishing professionals and members of the Table 4 Foundation board. Each writer received $2,000.

“I’m pleased that in our second year we’re able to increase the amounts that we award our winners,” said Jenine Lepera Izzi, the foundation’s chair. “We hope that the prizes will help them focus on their work and also bring attention to their writing.”

The Table 4 Writers Foundation was founded on February 10, 2012—a date that would have been Kaufman’s eighty-third birthday—in order “to help struggling and promising writers, just as Elaine had for nearly fifty years.”

Erdrich, Fountain Among Peace Prize Finalists

After announcing earlier this month that Wendell Berry would receive the annual Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation announced yesterday the finalists for the 2013 Peace Prizes in fiction and nonfiction, given annually for books published in the previous year.

The fiction finalists are:

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (Random House)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain (HarperCollins)
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (Random House)
The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore (Random House)
The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead (Algonquin)
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown)
Ben Fountain's debut novel won a National Book Critics Circle Award.

The nonfiction finalists are:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Random House)
Pax Ethnica by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac (Public Affairs Books)
Burying the Typewriter by Carmen Bugan (Graywolf Press)
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Viking)
Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King (HarperCollins)
Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon (Scribner)


Louise Erdrich's The Round House won a National Book Award.

"This year’s finalists examine conflict and the need for tolerance across the spectrum of relationships, from family members to diverse groups within communities to citizens of a country at war," said Sharon Rab, chair of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. “Each work reminds us that our lives are filled with moral dilemmas every day, and each work offers an inspiring model to look to as we strive to resolve the conflicts such dilemmas bring.”


Katherine Boo's debut won a National Book Award for nonfiction.

A winner and runner-up in fiction and nonfiction will be announced on September 24. Winners receive $10,000 each and runners-up receive $1,000. They will be honored at a ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday, November 3rd.

Inspired by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize was established in 2006 to honor writers “whose work uses the power of literature to foster peace, social justice, and global understanding.” The awards are given for books published in the previous year.

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