Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Literary Wish List!

Do you have a literary wish list for the holidays? If you’re a writer, you do.  You might be dreaming of a stack of new books, a beautiful new journal, a fancy pen, a literary map of Ireland poster, or my current favorite from the British Library, "Ex Libris: The Game of First Lines and Last Words."  (This is a good one for playing with bibliophile friends on a winter night in front of a blazing fire.) Or maybe all you really want is a bar of "Lady Macbeth's Guest Soap."

We surveyed MFA faculty and students about their lists (both to give and receive); read on and enjoy:

Moleskine notebooks and Varsity Pilot fountain pens (in purple). Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend, by Cristina DeStefano and Marina Harss. And probably several more. I'm still thinking.  – Nicole Hamer

These days, my favorite gift to give is an annual subscription to The Sun, a completely ad-free magazine that publishes excellent fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. I support everything The Sun stands for and I feel especially happy to support a magazine that pays its writers decently. Of course, any literary journal of your choice would make a good gift. And since literary journals often take chances on unknown writers, they are very inspiring for writers. For that writer friend who has everything she needs and spends too much time on social media: an annual subscription to Freedom, an app that blocks the Internet from your computer and other devices.  - Shahnaz Habib

My family and I are devotees of the delicious Icelandic tradition of jólabókaflóðtranslated literally, the Christmas Book Flood. On Christmas Eve in Iceland, it is customary for friends and family to exchange books and then to spend the rest of the night together at home reading. Here's a story about it if you are interested. If you'd like to partake, here are some books worth giving or receiving: the detective novel Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason. It's wonderfully creepy with many uniquely Icelandic perspectives on the fine art of committing and solving murders. A less gruesome option would be The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. If you love J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and the rest of their Oxford cohort, this group biography will be your favorite gift. If you can find it (you might need to hit used book stores or abebooks.com), check out The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. It is not a new book but it is a delightful read, one part parable, one part poem, one part fairy story, decidedly Thurber. - Kara Noble

One of my favorite gift books is The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. The poems are so human and timeless, and I read them often. For all the dog lovers, my favorite is My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley, poignant but unsentimental and just an all-around treat. (My dog is named after it.) Unsurprisingly, (and Google be damned) I love atlases. Here is a hefty one that's bound for armchair and serious travelers alike. Lastly, and not a literary choice but I've bought this book for many people and it makes everyone happy—Paper Blossoms, a book of pop-up bouquets. I first saw a copy at the Gardner Museum gift shop and was completely charmed. - Susie Seligson

I highly recommend the great feeling of helping to change some lives, by helping to purchase a permanent home for my neighbor, the draft horse sanctuary Blue Star Equiculture in Bondsville, Mass. Since its founding eight years ago, Blue Star has rented a farm down the street from me and now needs to move. But any new home won't happen without the help of all who care about horses and their ages-old human connection. The page has some great shots of the hoped-for new farm home in New Salem, Mass., along with an easy way to make a donation small or large by Dec. 18. If anyone can spare even a buck for the herd by that deadline, I urge them to please do so. Big thanks to anyone who can help Blue Star, which I wrote about in Yankee magazine last year.  – Suzanne Strempek Shea

Subscription to The Sun and the New Yorker, journals, Mary Oliver’s Devotions, printer cartridges/paper, French roast coffee beans, wool socks, flannel sheets (I write in bed), Maker’s Mark (alters consciousness nicely), new laptop, votive candles (always lit while writing).  - Karol Jackowski
As for me, all my writerly wants at the moment are intangible wishes -- more time, the ability to get up earlier in the mornings (!), that every important literary influencer will tout my upcoming book...that sort of thing. But that's not helpful, I know. Here is a link to a round up on the blog of the organization I teach with locally - some cool things on there. Personally, I'd love the Wipebook, and the Nite Note Notebook mentioned/linked in the post. – Lisa Romeo

During the holidays, I love to gift books I love—and I’m especially pleased when I have books from my writer-friends to give away! This year, I’m wrapping up Kay Campbell’s debut novel, A Caravan of Brides.  It’s rich in history, and delivers a beautiful, timeless—add also timely—message about women helping women—a perfect girlfriend gift! And if you have a baseball lover on your list, I recommend Tommy Shea’s Dingers. That was a huge hit last year with my local sports fan! Some of my favorite book-related swag comes from Litographs. Through a proprietary process, they print the actual text of books, poems, and stories (including your own, if you want a custom order) to create a graphic image on tees, scarfs, totes and posters.  Yes, words—up to 90,000 of them—creating a picture.  It’s one of the coolest things ever, for a literary geek like me.  And on my list? Well, those nearest and dearest to me know better than to buy me a book.  Just hand over the gift card for my one of my beloved indie bookstores. (Supporting an indie in person or online is so much more soul-satisfying than shopping at that big-A-place. Plus, you’ll be upping your writer-angel points.)  This year, I’d like to shop for myself at the recently opened Belmont Books, please! – Kate Whouley


December greetings

Greetings! Here in New England, the cold and snow have arrived, just in time for the holidays. (To this native Californian, gaudily decorated palm trees with chili pepper lights evoke the holidays much more than snow.) With or without snow, what else puts you in a holiday mood? For me, it’s books. Holiday roundups of best books of the year, new releases, and the anticipation of hours spent engrossed in a book in front of a fire, a cup of good coffee by my side and a notebook nearby to jot down thoughts. 

Two books in particular should be on your list, both by MFA faculty members: Sophfronia Scott’s Unforgivable Love, an ingenious re-telling of the 18th-century French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses, set during the Harlem Renaissance; and Adam Braver’s The Disappeared, a work of fiction informed by recent history and a deeply thoughtful response to what we do in the face of inexplicable acts of mass violence. Both works showcase the exceptional talent and range of our MFA faculty. And both shed light on the essentials of being human that remain constant despite social and political eras, including our own: love, connection, trust, compassion. These are not “holiday” values. But it’s a good time to be reminded. And a good time to reflect on what we have together as a community, both in our MFA and in the larger literary communities we belong to.


Speaking of literary communities, we are pleased to welcome a new member to our MFA faculty: travel writer Susan Seligson, whose revealing interview with Sandy Chmiel can be found here. After I read it, I took a moment to reflect on the places I’d been that have changed me, altered the direction of my life, taken root in my heart. I think of the beautiful holiday traditions in these countries—Mexico, Israel, Germany, Ireland, Lebanon, Spain—and how our religious and cultural differences are something to celebrate, not fear. The more we travel, via plane or via good book by an international writer, the better we understand the range and depth of our shared humanity. Across the world, we all hope for peace this season. 

Wishing you a peaceful holiday season with plenty of great books to read (and chili pepper lights, just because) and see you in the new year.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Introducing new MFA faculty member Susan Seligson

Please join us in welcoming new MFA faculty member and travel writing instructor Susan Seligson, acclaimed journalist, travel writer, and author of Going with the Grain, a chronicle of her cultural and culinary odyssey as she investigates bread-making traditions around the world:  India, Ireland, Morocco, Jordan, all the way back to Hunstville, Alabama. Here, Sandy Chmiel speaks with Susan about how she began her writing career and the frame of mind required for not just travel writing, but travel as an adventure. 

Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming a writer? How did you get started in travel writing?

Though my bachelor's is in biology and I was in the lab for a bit I soon realized I longed for a career with a much broader focus, and did a masters in journalism, which proved a perfect fit for my bottomless curiosity and gregarious nature. Like most journalists I began as a newspaper reporter, but after moving on to magazine writing and becoming a columnist, my love of, and talent for reporting from the field brought me more and more long-form travel assignments and several books.

What is most challenging about what you do? Most rewarding?

Most challenging are the logistics. An effective travel writer must do extensive background research including lots of reading, perhaps learning a bit of the local language, finding contacts in far-flung places and making often complicated arrangements to meet them, and then have the resourcefulness to return with a story even though things may play out completely differently than you expected. It requires flexibility, an open mind, a healthy sense of humor, and the willingness to endure physical discomfort and unfamiliar food and customs. The most rewarding aspect for me is making a connection with people from different cultures, learning how they are shaped by history and circumstances, understanding their passions, their faith, and realizing how much we all have in common.

What motivates and inspires you?

I am motivated first and foremost by curiosity. I never tire of experiencing new places. They don't have to be beautiful, they don't have to be a ten-hour plane ride away; they just have to be new. And I'm endlessly inspired by people and their resilience. I am happiest in the bustling markets of huge chaotic cities where all of life is on display. I love Kolkata, Istanbul, Jerusalem, New York. I'm not shy about talking to people of all ages.

Do you have other passions besides writing?

I love to dance. I'm a belly dancer and I do a lot of African dance, and anywhere I go in the world, if people are dancing I'll join in. I'm also a flutist and do some performing. I also volunteer as a writing tutor and mentor, and work with refugees.

What advice do you have for aspiring travel writers?

Read as much as you can about a place before you go there so you have a sense of the place's customs, history, and politics. Watch documentaries. You can never know precisely what to expect, but you should get to a country aware of, at the very least, its political system, the name of its leader, the official language, its colonial history and dominant religions. Know beforehand which American customs are inappropriate in other cultures. Once there, listen to everyone and anyone, and keep all your senses engaged. Your job is to put the reader there, so take note of how places smell and sound, the rhythms of the language. Though you see and hear things that collide with your values try not to judge—part of the magic of travel writing is finding that, for example, a woman whose face is veiled is good-humored company and a lot like you. Be respectful but don't be timid. If you are open to it people will invite you into their homes for tea or a meal—go! Go to the public bath, the mosque, the temple, the university. Try to become comfortable saying greetings and thank-yous in another language; that is always appreciated. These last two things might not sit well with people but my experience as a world traveler moves me to give this advice: If you're not on a beach or by the hotel pool, dress modestly, always. And unless you're a professional photographer, exercise restraint with the camera. If you're constantly snapping, posting, sharing, it dilutes the experience of the here and now. That experience is priceless, and yours alone.


Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Always keep in mind that when it comes to travel, things will go wrong. Bus connections will be missed, contacts won't show, you'll be knocked down by food poisoning, you'll be the target of a deft pickpocket—it happens. Always exercise a balance of adventure and caution, and remember that mishaps can make for the best stories.