Send a subscription to a friend and NER will send one to you, too—on the house.
Two subscriptions (or renewals) for $35. A year of stories, poems, and essays to read together—because it’s hard enough to stay apart.
Offer ends Sunday, June 7.
Send a subscription to a friend and NER will send one to you, too—on the house.
Two subscriptions (or renewals) for $35. A year of stories, poems, and essays to read together—because it’s hard enough to stay apart.
Offer ends Sunday, June 7.
Longtime NER author Christine Sneed talks to our staff reader Malka Daskal about complex, nuanced, and seductive characters, the need for the heat of conflict, and about “The Swami Buchu Trungpa” (NER 41.1, 2020).
Malka Daskal: How did the idea for your story “The Swami Buchu Trungpa” germinate? In particular, I’m curious to hear what inspired you to write about a Swami, a character we don’t often see.
Christine Sneed: In the fall of 2018, right before I started writing this story, I read the novel You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik, which I absolutely loved. It’s very sexy, controversial (there’s a student-teacher affair), beautifully spare and arresting, and is set in contemporary Paris. While reading it I thought, “I haven’t written any fiction set in Paris in several years, so . . . I want to go back there and see what happens.” The first sentence arrived soon after.
I consciously tried to write an opening line that would point to the source of one of the story’s primary conflicts or themes. Alcohol and its omnipresence in Midwestern culture (well, American culture on the whole)—I’d be hard-pressed to find a social gathering or sporting event in the Midwest that doesn’t feature the opportunity to get soused—these are aspects I have familiarity with, having lived in the Chicago sprawl for most of my life (until a couple of years ago)—and once I knew what the voice and point of view were, and had a sense of the story’s narrative trajectory, I started writing in earnest.
MD: In “Swami,” Nora strains under the competing demands of the two people she loves most, Buchu and her mother, each of whom are convinced she would be happier without the other. Caught between these two powerful forces, Nora could easily be dismissed as a passive victim, but instead she comes across as modern, intelligent, and formidable. Where do you find compassion for your characters and how do you calibrate the story to ensure readers feel the same compassion?
CS: As I suspect is true for many of us, I know a number of people who have had problems with drugs and alcohol, and although this story isn’t based on a friend or family member, I did try to make each of the main characters, especially Regina, who struggles with alcoholism, as complex and nuanced as I could.
Specificity and precision are two of the qualities I most admire in the books by authors I love, and in my own writing I try hard to make the external world and the characters’ interior lives as specific and exact as possible—the character doesn’t just wear a sweater, she’s in a mauve cardigan with a stained sleeve. It always pains me when someone says during a workshop, “Oh, there are too many details in this story.” That’s almost never true—at least not in the work of novice writers. The details are where the personality and the real life of the character reside. If I draw my characters with enough specificity, I’m going to love them. If I don’t love them, I know I haven’t done the necessary work yet.
MD: “Swami” reminds me of another short story of yours, “Quality of Life,” published in your collection Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry. Both feature women attracted to older, charismatic, yet fundamentally unavailable men who take more than they give and use control as a substitute for love. Buchu even claims the story’s title! What draws you to writing these kinds of characters and the emotional fallout of their stubborn selfishness on the women who try to love them?
CS: That story was originally published in New England Review, coincidentally!
What draws me to these tricky male characters is their ability to make other people—women especially—adore them and do things that are not necessarily good for them. I think often of something I heard Mike Nichols say during an interview: a scene should be a seduction, an argument, or a negotiation. He was speaking about film (and perhaps stage plays), but it applies to fiction too, especially when we’re looking at domestic realism; regardless, I think it’s a helpful suggestion for fiction writers. I don’t always adhere to this stricture, but I do like the idea of seductive characters, and there’s at least one sexy jerk in many of the stories I’ve written.
You need the heat of conflict if you’re going to have a story people will want to read, and the conflict generally comes from a flaw—whether it’s greed or arrogance or selfishness or a tendency toward jealousy and violence.
MD: The character of Regina, Nora’s mother, is superbly and comically brought to life through her clever quips and stinging barbs. Her frank and overbearing love serves as the perfect foil to Buchu’s cold detachment. The dialogue between Nora and Regina was a great pleasure to read. What is your process for writing dialogue and how do you discover your characters’ voices?
CS: I really love writing dialogue, and if I have the voice of the character in my head and can picture them, the dialogue usually unspools more or less organically. As soon as I wrote the line Regina says early in the story about Paris having a lot of old drunks (and by extension, AA meetings), I knew I had a good feel for who she was.
One thing I’m always on the lookout for, however, is sitcom-like dialogue. I love sitcoms, but in fiction, the flippant goofball character can come across as very mannered. Onscreen, you have the actor and everyone knows it’s a performance, but on the page, the performative aspect, the set design, the music, etc., are missing. The words are judged on their own, and so you have to work harder to make sure they don’t sound hollow.
Reading them aloud helps me sometimes, as does critical distance—which can’t really be rushed. You’re not going to spot what sounds cheesy until you’ve had some time away from the story. For some writers, it might only be a few hours or days before they know something isn’t ringing true. For others, it might be months, or even longer. The drive to send out new work right away that many of us feel—I’m not exempt, that’s for sure—isn’t helpful either. Writing well takes time. Or at least knowing when something you’ve written is ready for others to see.
MD: You mentioned in our correspondence that this story had gone through extensive revisions before arriving at its published form. I have always been fascinated by the evolutionary process of a story. Can you share with us the ways in which this story evolved? What significant changes were made and how and why did you choose to make those changes?
CS: One thing that happened was my partner Adam read the first draft of the story—he’s my first reader and although he’s not a writer, he has an uncanny ability to pinpoint a problem or suggest a solution for a work in progress. He’s been a serious Zen Buddhist for more than twenty years, and through his practice he’s encountered Swami Buchu–like people. After reading this first draft, he said, “The swami doesn’t strike me as . . . well, he’s not working for me.” And I thought, “Huh. Okay . . .”
I sat with that assessment for a week or so before I began rewriting the story to make Buchu a less cartoonish figure. I also spent more time developing Regina’s role, as well as Nora’s complicated feelings about her.
After Carolyn Kuebler accepted the story, she and I worked even more on the swami’s characterization and Nora’s response to him. It was so helpful to have her suggestions, needless to say. For one, I realized that ironic distance was a problem—I was still too far removed from the swami and needed to make it clear why Nora had ever bothered with him at all.
Lastly, I wanted Regina to be a little more sympathetic too. With Nora being pulled back and forth between Regina and Buchu, I had to figure out how to make them both alternately seductive and somewhat repellent.
MD: I like to consider the ways in which contemporary writers are a part of a linked heritage; an author’s DNA is imprinted upon by the works of the previous generation and then made manifest in their craft, a sort of literary ancestry. Who do you consider your literary influencers and how do the works you admire shape the content and form of your stories?
CS: A few of the writers whose work I haven’t been able to put down over the last several years: Rachel Cusk, David Szalay, Scott Spencer, Joan Silber, and before that, Penelope Fitzgerald, John Updike, Edward P. Jones, Penelope Lively, and always always always Alice Munro. When I find a writer whose work I love, I try to read all of it—or in the case of the steadily prolific Updike, at least half of it.
Updike and Spencer in particular have taught me about beautiful sentences and imagery. And they are both writers who have no fear of writing about sex, desire, and sensuality. I am often drawn to these themes too—not as much in “Swami Buchu,” but in other stories I’ve written, and my two novels for sure.
Munro’s expansiveness has been something I aspire to as well-—she writes long short stories (an oxymoron!), but in these stories, she has more depth than can be found in many novels. She’s brilliant. And also often very funny. And profoundly sympathetic.
And regarding Updike, who once said his default mode is the comic—I aspire to this too.
Christine Sneed’s stories have appeared in New England Review and have been included in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies. Her most recent book is The Virginity of Famous Men (Tortoise Books, 2017). She lives in Pasadena, California.
Malka Daskal received her master’s degree from Columbia University and was the recipient of the Maricopa Artist of Promise Award in 2016. Her work has appeared in Bookends Review, Passages, and the Traveler and is forthcoming in Kind Writers and december. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband and two sons.
Independent bookstores need our help now more than ever.
Support them from home by purchasing these titles and others from bookshop.org.
“Transcending genre, these poems and lyric essays search for meaning amid tragedy” —Publishers Weekly
From the publisher: Written during the trial for a close friend’s murder, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod exposes that the whimsical, horrible, and absurd all sit together. In this ambitious collection, Traci Brimhall corresponds with the urges of life and death within herself as she lives through a series of impossibilities: the sentencing of her friend’s murderers, the birth of her child, the death of her mother, divorce, a trip sailing through the Arctic. In lullaby, lyric essay, and always with brutal sincerity, Brimhall examines how beauty and terror live right alongside each other . . . these poems expose beauty in the grotesque and argue that the effort to be good always outweighs the desire to succumb to what is easy.
Traci Brimhall is the author three collections of poetry: Saudade (Copper Canyon Press); Our Lady of the Ruins, selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Rookery, selected by Michelle Boisseau for the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her work has been featured in The Best American Poetry, and she has received numerous fellowships. She is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Kansas State University. Her essay “Archival Voyeur: Searching for Secrets in Amelia Earhart’s Lost Poems” was originally published in NER 40.4 and can be read on LitHub.
Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod can be purchased from Bookshop.org— support independent bookstores!
“The novel feels unique, timely, and yet timeless. I couldn’t put it down.” —Elizabeth Farnsworth, author of A Train Through Time
From the publisher: Fleeing the ravages of wartime Vienna, Pepa and her family find safe harbor in the small town of El Castillo, on the banks of the San Juan River in Nicaragua. But Pepa’s life–including her relationship with local boy Guillermo–comes to a halt when her family abruptly moves to New York, leaving the young girl disoriented and heartbroken. As the years pass, Pepa’s and Guillermo’s lives diverge, and Guillermo’s homeland slips into chaos. Spanning generations and several wars, Only the River explores the way displacement both destroys two families and creates new ones, sparking a revolution that changes their lives in the most unexpected ways.
Anne Raeff’s short story collection, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, was a finalist for the California Book Award, and was named one of the 100 Best Books of 2016 by San Francisco Chronicle. Her novel Winter Kept Us Warm was awarded the California Book Award’s Silver Medal in Fiction, was a finalist for the Simpson Literary Prize, and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. Her stories and essays have appeared in New England Review, ZYZZYVA, and Guernica, among other places. She lives in San Francisco with her wife and their two cats. Listen to an excerpt from her story “Chinese Opera,” which appeared in NER 37.2, in NER Out Loud.
Only the River can be purchased from Bookshop.org— support independent bookstores!
“Marked by moments of profound generosity and isolation, Scholarship Boy tells the story of race, family, and possibility in one boy’s life, while contemplating what’s left behind when one journeys between worlds.”—Sonja Livingston, author of Ghostbread
From the publisher: In 1958, fourteen-year-old Larry Palmer left his parents and nine siblings at home in St. Louis and boarded a train to attend Phillips Exeter Academy. In Scholarship Boy Palmer reflects on his experiences as a young black boy growing up far from home, learning to fit into a white world without becoming estranged from his closely-knit family. The ninth of ten children, he illustrates the ways his sibling relationships shaped him as he was also being molded by his elite education. Palmer’s journey from being the “next-to-the-baby” of his family into adulthood reveals the personal and often hidden costs of cultural migration.
Larry I. Palmer holds degrees from Harvard University and Yale Law School, and he spent most of his career at Cornell University as a law professor and university administrator. He is the author of two scholarly works, Law, Medicine, and Social Justice and Endings and Beginnings. Scholarship Boy is his first book for a general audience. Palmer’s reflections on his experience at Exeter, which appears in his book, was originally published in NER as “The Haircut” (NER 35.1).
Scholarship Boy can be purchased from Bookshop.org—support independent bookstores!
“Keep Moving speaks to you like an encouraging friend reminding you that you can feel and survive deep loss, sink into life’s deep beauty, and constantly, constantly make yourself new.” —Glennon Doyle, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Love Warrior and Untamed
From the publisher: When Maggie Smith, the award-winning author of the viral poem “Good Bones,” started writing daily Twitter posts in the wake of her divorce, they unexpectedly caught fire. In this deeply moving book of quotes and essays, Maggie writes about new beginnings as opportunities for transformation. Like kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending broken ceramics with gold, Keep Moving celebrates the beauty and strength on the other side of loss. This is a book for anyone who has gone through a difficult time and is wondering: What comes next?
Maggie Smith is the award-winning author of several books of poetry including Good Bones, The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison, Lamp of the Body, The List of Dangers, and Nesting Dolls. A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received several Individual Excellence Awards from the Ohio Arts Council, two Academy of American Poets Prizes, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has been widely published, appearing in the New York Times, Tin House, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, and more. Read her poem “The Hum,” in NER 40.1.
Keep Moving can be purchased from Bookshop.org—support independent bookstores!
“Delight and humor abound… There is wistfulness in these poems, though they never become mired in shadows of what is lost or gone.” —Booklist
From the publisher: In The Park, his second book of poetry, John Freeman uses a park as a petri dish, turning a deep gaze on all that pass through it. In language both precise and restrained, Freeman explores the inherent contradictions that arise from a place whose purpose is derived purely from what we bring to it—a park is both natural and constructed, exclusionary and open, unfeeling and burdened with sentimentality. Throughout, Freeman wonders at how a park, being both curated and public, can be a nexus for a manifestation of great wealth inequality. Freeman plucks out difference in small daily dramas of people and animals only to dissolve it. Interspersed with meditations on love, beauty, and connection, The Park is a pacific and unflinching mirror cast upon a space defined by its transience.
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary biannual of new writing, and executive editor of Literary Hub. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing (forthcoming), as well as a trilogy of anthologies about inequality, including Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, and Tales of Two Planets (forthcoming), on the climate crisis. Maps, his debut collection of poems, was published in 2017. Freeman’s work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review, and the New York Times. He is the former editor of Granta and a writer-in-residence at New York University. His poem “Columbine and Rue” appears in NER 41.1.
The Park can be purchased from Bookshop.org— support independent bookstores!
“Slow down. Find a quiet place. Read this book. It will not give you hope so much as comfort for your sorrow.”
— Ann Lauterbach, author of The Night Sky
From the publisher: Dan Beachy-Quick’s Arrows rests in the palm of the hand like a shard of ancient pottery, caressing antiquity into the present, reminding us of the impossibility of separating ourselves from outdated ways of knowing. Here, in increments, we are enchanted by the humming of bees and the vibrating strings of lyre and bow. Through the winging and winding of violence, love and beauty, these poems pull and elongate various forms of harm. Yet, a shadow question haunts the book: Might some means of recovery be borne out of harm itself? Poems of desire and hurt, care and prayer answer in the affirmative, turning wound into song. In other words, within these covers, something entirely new and miraculous is offered the reader.
Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of six books of poetry, six chapbooks (two in collaboration with Srikanth Reddy), and two prose collections, as well as criticism and fiction. His work has won the Colorado Book Award, has been a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Prize and the PEN/USA Literary Award in Poetry, and has appeared in the Best American Poetry anthology. He is the recipient of a Lannan Foundation residency, and has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He is a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar at Colorado State University, where he serves as assistant chair of the English Department and teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing. His poem “Memory-Wax, Knowledge-Bird” appears in NER 38.3 and his conversation with Rick Barot can be read here. His translations from Ancient Greek poetry are forthcoming in NER 41.2 this summer.
Arrows can be purchased from Bookshop.org—support independent bookstores!
“Spanning over a decade, these are poems of deep irreverence and relentless questioning… In these English translations, poet and musician Sze-Lorrain presents an arresting chronological sequence of Yin’s fresh and fearless revelations.”—Carolyn Kuebler
Yin Lichuan is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, film director, scriptwriter and one of the founders of the “Lower Body” Movement based in Beijing during the early 2000s. Born in 1973 in Chongqing, Sichuan province, she studied French at Beijing University before pursuing a graduate degree in filmmaking at École supérieure libre d’études cinématographiques (ESEC) in Paris. Her publications include several books of prose and fiction, as well as three volumes of poetry. Since 2006, Yin has devoted herself to filmmaking. She lives in Beijing.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, translator, editor, and zheng harpist. Her recent book of poetry The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2016) was a finalist for the 2016 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her work includes two earlier collections, My Funeral Gondola (2013) and Water the Moon (2010), and several books of translation of contemporary Chinese, American, and French poets. Her latest translation is Ye Lijun’s My Mountain Country (World Poetry Books, 2019). Currently a Abigail R. Cohen Fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination, she lives in Paris.
Karma can be purchased from bookshop.org— support independent bookstores!
If I am the root of my problems, and I am, then what can I do to find solutions?
Welcome to our inaugural Writer’s Notebook column, in which NER poet Zach Linge thinks out loud about the path of pain—how it impacts us and those around us, and how it leads to a poem like “Branches.”
One day, junior year of high school, I came home to find my room reordered, the contents in every drawer and cubby rearranged, my journal read and re-stacked, put into its new place. While I was growing up, there was no information my mother kept from herself. “I’m your mom. I know everything.” She’d make a joke of it. She wasn’t joking. I was so convinced of her knowing everything that, when I hit puberty, I stuck slivers of tissue in the nail holes in my wall: I was afraid she was using them to watch me at night. She loved me so much, with such terror, she could’ve eaten me up.
Researchers talk about the urge to pinch a baby’s cheeks as a form of emotional self-regulation. The thing is so cute, you have to hurt it.
You know how it starts: your lover’s ex texts him. You read the text, then their conversation. Suddenly, you’ve stuck your hand in every pocket around, looking to find anything, to confirm a suspicion that your lover is dangerous. What do you expect to find? Anything. Want, for some, leads to violence. I have an urge to eat almost everything I touch—oil paints, pine bark, my leather desk, inch-long baby fingers, they’re so cute. And even if I don’t do it, what do I do with the urge? And if I don’t actually harm what I can touch, what other violences do I permit myself? My partner gave me the password to his phone and his computer because he’s not hiding anything. I used it.
There are so many ways my love for the life I have enacts suffering on those around me and on the bigger world—and each presents first in the home.
If I am the root of my problems, and I am, then what can I do to find solutions? Focusing on my fears has never solved them. Acting out makes them worse. Looking to what’s been modeled for me means propagating violence. So, where do I start? There’s something to be said about the power of inventory and confession, a brutally honest account of the self as a first step toward amending one’s wrongs. But both inventory and confession have to be followed with action to turn into amends. This poem suggests, at its end, that silence might make a good start. Listening to what another wants to share about their suffering might be one way to operate outside the stubborn problems of the self.
Zach Linge (pronouns: they/them/theirs) has poems published or forthcoming in Poetry, Puerto del Sol, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere, and a refereed article in African American Review. Linge lives and teaches in Tallahassee, where they serve as editor-in-chief of the Southeast Review.