The Release of Issue 3

We are proud and excited to launch Issue 3. Click here to read about the nine amazing authors who make up this issue. And click here to read about the Austin artist behind the cover. For this issue, we have more options than ever for buying:

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The Austin Review
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By James Tate, Zoe Bossiere, KT Browne, Stephanie Devine, Gabe Durham, Christine Fischer Guy, Jason Hill, Stephen Parrish, Ray Shea

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The Austin Review
By James Tate, Zoe Bossiere, KT Browne, Stephanie Devine, Gabe Durham, Christine Guy, Jason Hill, Stephen Parrish, Ray Shea

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Our Issue 3 Cover by John Mulvany

We are proud to present the art that will form the cover of Issue 3: Iron Age by Austin artist John Mulvany (now in the collection of Jon Windham). We met John through the East Austin Studio Tour and are so lucky to share his work with our readers. Below is additional information about John, including a short interview. Please support his beautiful work and that of other Austin artists! 


John Mulvany.jpg

John Mulvany is an artist and art educator originally from Ireland who has been living and working in Austin for fifteen years. He has taught art for twenty years and is currently the head of the Fine Arts Program at The Khabele School in Austin. He graduated from the College of Art, Design and Print in Dublin, Ireland with a fine art degree and also has a degree in art and design education from the Crawford College of Art in Cork, Ireland. In 2009, he was featured in the Texas Biennial and nominated as best artist by the Austin Visual Arts Association. Among the galleries where he has exhibited his work are GrayDUCK gallery, The Dougherty Arts Center in Austin, Texas Lutheran University, and Galleri Urbane in Marfa. He lives in East Austin with his wife, Monique, and his two sons. 


Q&A with John Mulvany

1.  When and how did you become interested in painting? I had always been interested in art—particularly drawing—since I was a child but did not really become interested in painting until I went to art school in Dublin, Ireland. I had a very influential teacher, Patrick Graham, who painted in an expressionistic style, which at that time did not appeal to me, but his philosophy of art and painting has stuck with me over the years.

2.  How would you describe your artistic style or point of view? My paintings are figurative, and I have always painted using figurative elements. My work used to be much more naturalistic, but in the last ten years or so it has evolved into some hybrid of naturalism, magic-realism, folk art, and abstraction. I have been painting ghosts for several years—mainly as a visual metaphor for memory. Having moved to the US from Ireland about fifteen years ago, my paintings began to incorporate elements from Irish culture and personal history, and I juxtaposed this with elements from my new home environment. I don’t believe in ghosts myself, but my artwork certainly does.

Having grown up in a culture where religious belief was entrenched and unavoidable, my paintings began to reflect my erosion of faith in religious institutions. There are several strands in my work originating from various points in history, in art and from ancient and contemporary cultures. In my paintings, I try to draw parallels between ancient, superstitious ideas on how the world, nature, and the universe work and our own time. My work reflects on the past in the context of our supposedly advanced society, which oftentimes seems to be regressing, particularly with the recent upswing in hostility towards science, education, rationality, and humanism.

3.  Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists, or artists who have influenced you the most? I like a lot of art from the past, particularly 14th Century Byzantine and Early Renaissance painters like Giotto and Duccio. I am also interested in Latin American folk art, particularly Mexican ex-votos and American outsider artists like Henry Darger and Howard Finster. Other artists whose work I like are Francis Bacon, Hughie O’ Donoghue, Neo Rauch, Peter Doig, Sarah Raphael, and Kiki Smith. My work has also been heavily influenced by musicians like Tom Waits and Nick Cave and filmmakers like the Coen Brothers and Martin Scorcese.

4.  If you couldn't paint or teach art for a living, what would you be doing? If I was not painting or teaching, I would probably be cooking for a living. I have always enjoyed cooking and have often thought I would like to do that professionally. I was involved in music for several years in Ireland and that seemed like it would be a profession for a while. I did not have the talent and commitment that my fellow musicians had, however, and art-making was always something that I could do very well.

5.  What is it like being an artist in Austin? Has it changed in the last few years? Austin is a great city to live in, but visual art has always seemed to take a back seat to music and film. During the time that I have lived here there seems to be two levels of opportunities for artists to show work: the start-up, warehouse-style or temporary venues and the museums. There is very little in-between those extremes for artists to develop sustainable careers. There are a few galleries like GrayDUCK where Jill Schroeder does consistently good shows for emerging artists and Wally Workman, which is an older, more established gallery. Big Medium has done a great deal to advance visual arts in the city with the increasingly successful East Austin Studio Tour, the Texas Biennial, and Canopy. Sean Gaulager at Co-Lab has offered opportunities for exhibitions for many new artists. Overall though, making a living as a visual artist in Austin is not easy, but there are a lot of people working to create the conditions in which this could improve.  

6.  Who are your favorite authors? There are several authors who have been influential personally and in my work. Cormac McCarthy is a writer whose use of language and imagery is unparalleled. Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy have been very influential in my work. Other authors I love are John Mc Gahern, Patrick McCabe, Elmore Leonard, George Saunders, Richard Ford, and Donna Tartt.

Announcing the Authors of Issue 3

We are so proud to announce an incredible lineup of nine authors—including a Pulitzer Prize winner—for our upcoming Issue 3. For authors you don't already know, we invite you to read their work online and in print and visit their websites. Help us promote literature through their stories.

Stay tuned to our blog for upcoming author Q&As and, soon after, the release of Issue 3. 

Issue 3 Authors

Literati:

James Tate.jpg

James Tate. Tate is the author of seventeen books of poetry and several collections of prose, including Eternal Ones of the Dream: Later Selected PoemsThe Ghost SoldiersReturn to the City of White DonkeysMemoir of the Hawk, and The Route as Briefed. A new collection of poems, Dome of the Hidden Temple, is forthcoming next year. He teaches at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Tate is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Truth:

Stephanie Devine. Devine is the Fiction Editor of New South and a doctoral student at Georgia State University. Her work has recently appeared in Cheap Pop, Atticus Review, Fiction Southeast, Treehouse, and Glassworks Magazine and is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature and Pembroke Magazine.


Gabe Durham. Durham is the author of the novel Fun Camp and is the publisher and editor of Boss Fight Books. Previously he edited Dark Sky Magazine and Keyhole Magazine. His writings have appeared in Hobart, Mid-American Review, Quarterly West, Daytrotter, The Rumpus, HTMLGiant, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, Everyday Genius, NOO Journal, Quick Fiction, Nano Fiction, Gargoyle, and elsewhere. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Web anthology. He lives in Los Angeles.


Ray Shea. Shea's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, Phoebe, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere. He has been a finalist several times, a nominee more than once, but never a winner. A native of Boston and New Orleans, he lives in Austin, where he is at work on a memoir about fatherhood, alcoholism, violence, and memory. He can be found online at rayshea.net.


Zoë Bossiere. Bossiere lives in Tucson, Arizona where she recently graduated from the University of Arizona. She is currently working on a collection of essays chronicling her parents’ adventures as Hungarian circus superstars in the 1980s. Other published works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.tumblr.com


Lies:

Jason Hill. Hill studied creative writing in the MFA program at Spalding University. He holds a BA in English from the University of Kentucky and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut. He has lived in Providence, Boston, Jersey City and Louisville. His current whereabouts are unknown.


KT Browne. Browne's work has appeared in McSweeney's, Referential Magazine, Passages North, The Review Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA at CalArts, where she served as an Associate Editor for Black Clock Magazine. She was born in New York and currently lives in southern Taiwan, where she's at work on her second novel. Visit her at ktbrowne[dot]com.


Christine Fischer Guy. Guy's debut novel, The Umbrella Mender, was published in September 2014. Her short fiction has appeared in journals across Canada, has been nominated for The Writer’s Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. She reviews for The Globe and Mail, contributes to Ryeberg.com, themillions.com, and the LA Review of Books. She is also an award-winning journalist. christinefischerguy.com


Stephen Parrish. Parrish is the author of The Tavernier StonesThe Feasts of Lesser Men, and Anatomy of a Spy. In 2011 he was awarded an Independent Publisher (IPPY) gold medal. His short work has appeared in Boston Literary MagazineThe Good Men ProjectFoliate Oak Literary Magazine, and elsewhere and has been read in public by Liars’ League, Lit Crawl, and other venues. He presently serves as editor of The Lascaux Review.


* * *

Authors: thank you for entrusting your work with us. Readers: thank you for your continued support!

– Your friends at The Austin Review

Announcing our Pushcart Prize Nominees

In our first year in print, we have been honored to publish more writers who are worthy of recognition than we can nominate for this prize. Thank you to all of our authors.

For the 2015 Pushcart Prize, we are proud to nominate the following contributors who appear in our first two issues. 

1. "Hey Kid" by Derrick Brown (Issue 1)
2. "Missouri Theme Park, 1986" by T Kira Madden (Issue 1) 
3. "A Trick of the Senses" by David Olimpio (Issue 1)
4. "Drifting" by AJ Olsen (Issue 2) 
5. "Be Yourselves" by Vincent Scarpa (Issue 2)
6. "Brief History of a Deleted Character" by Ursula Villarreal-Moura (Issue 2)

You can enjoy these and other amazing stories by placing an order here.

Thank you for your support and best of luck to our nominees!

A Review of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas

Death to Bullshit Artists.jpg

A Review of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1: A story cycle by Fernando A. Flores (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP), 2014; Hypermodern Editions, a handmade book-series, available in electronic form at cclapcenter.com/bsartists)

by Elizabeth Jackson

Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 reads like a collection of fables recently excavated from under a pile of rocks and a dead coyote. But the subject of these short stories is small-town punk bands in the 1980s and early 90s, who invent their own scrappy mythologies and sooner or later implode. Like poignant, comical figures all the way from Don Quixote to Holden Caulfield to Sid Vicious, these characters—both grandiose and absurd—laugh their way toward extinction.

Bands with names like Crispin Glover Deathwish, A Fish is Not a Bull, Pinbag (whose members all adopt the name “Pin” (Robert Pin, Pamerla Pin, Tom E. Pin)), work in a métier of daily absurdities, like low-budget performance art. With a different set of privileges, these folks would be followers of Dada or its offspring, Fluxus and Joseph Beuys; their idea of art is communal, experiential, expansive—where a transitory act is as valid as any painting at the Louvre. The following quote could as easily be from the drummer for “The House Band for the Hotel Cuerpo de la Paz,” as from the Fluxus Manifesto in 1963: “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness . . . and commercialized culture . . . . Promote living art, anti-art . . . to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.”

Flores’s stories track a life-cycle like that of “The First Ever Punk Band in the World (Out of Raymondville),” like a miniature universe—appearing, briefly swirling and dazzling, and expiring—among countless others. The repetition conveys how art and transformation are equally fleeting and endless: “[L]ike the Buddhist belief of the tulpa, once imagining something to the point of becoming a real thing it is harder to get rid of, harder to unimagine.”

Each band in turn assembles a creative microsphere as precious for its short lifespan as for its inventiveness. During their short career, “The House Band for the Hotel Cuerpo de la Paz” takes band field-trips to expand their palette of influences—driving around in the desert, getting high, listening to Miles Davis and Chopin, Selena and War of the Worlds, and visiting local happenings like a Tejano-themed production of Macbeth. They have an omnivorous cultural appetite that predates the ease of perusing YouTube. They have to leave the house; they have to drive around nowhere together; they have to show up places, as they improvise creative outlets in the Valley. Their biggest shows are wedding receptions. But their raw potential fizzles the moment their integrity is threatened by the commercial mindset of a record producer. He constricts them into seven identical takes of a drums track, he directs the singer toward a radio-friendly tone, and in the process extinguishes forever any creative impulse the band ever had. But in the end, regardless of any of it, the band is “like scientists satisfied to have participated in an experiment and somehow having proven something to mankind.”

The centerpiece of Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1 is “Bread8 v. Copal Brandt (R.),” a wry account of accidental political activism by the punk band Bread8. They would have been a harmless set of McAllen, Texas, malcontents, with no ambitions other than epic drinking at their trailer home and explosive shows at the VFW hall, if not for the saga that began when they kidnapped the mayor, Copal Brandt—that is, threw in the back of their pickup one of the eight-foot tall, hand-waving cutouts posted all over town for his reelection campaign. When they costume the cutout in a Hannibal Lecter mask and use it as a stage prop, it leads to a rash of more sign-swiping. In retaliation, the powers-that-be sensationalize the mischief as evidence of gang activity—an exaggeration that fills local news and justifies a curfew. This is when the adventure really begins, as Bread8, with casual subversiveness, plumbs the background of the mayor’s powerful family. They unearth an obscure, 1970s documentary (note this is pre-Internet research; they use the library!) about migrant workers in the Brandt family’s onion fields, that includes footage of a young Copal Brandt’s racist proclamation that Mexicans, as a people, are satisfied with deprivation. Naturally, gleefully, Bread8 uses the recording at their next performance. When the budding controversy comes to the notice of Brandt’s mayoral challenger, the band finds themselves joining an unaccustomed practical effort—fighting the good-ol’-boy oligarchy by promoting voter registration among their own disaffected kind: young adults. Although the outcome is foiled by corruption, Bread8’s impact endures—as much in the promise of eventual political reform as in this lasting artifact: the media repeatedly announces the band’s name, a literal translation of “panocho”—a male vagina, in Spanish slang. The idiomatic clash must linger in residents’ memory, like the recent thrill of hearing news anchor Diane Sawyer repeat the words “Pussy Riot” when reporting on the Russian protest band.

Flores tells these stories in a tone that’s by turns lyrical, ponderous, as if relaying the legends of a forgotten people, self-parodying, and itself punkrock—full of bitterness, joy, and abandon. When Bread8’s efforts are foiled, they’re “so angry they smoked cigarettes outside.” On field trips “[m]ore than a few times they even had some drinks in Mexico and allowed themselves to act and behave rock and roll.” Another band optimistically sets aside “100 records, vials of each member’s blood, and . . . special instructions for the screenprinting of band shirts, in case they ended up popular in their posterity.” At the same time, “deep down, [they] knew it to be bullshit, too.”

In its further extremes, “Death to the Bullshit Artists . . .” reflects a vast array of influences. “The Swear Junction” gets fully psychedelic, bordering on the surrealism of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Elsewhere, character names like The Mechanic’s Son, the Single Mother’s Son, evoke The Canterbury Tales (the Wife of Bath, the Man of Law). And the penultimate story, “The Performances of Liliana Krauze,” finally lays bare intellectual bases that undergird the whole story-cycle. For her fledging avant-garde performance art, the protagonist explores Herodotus up to Jean Genet, Bataille to Diane Arbus and the early movie star Lupe Vèlez. For her highly abstract, first performance, she splices together gaps of silence from Montgomery Clift movies into a thirty-minute loop.

Flores’s specialty is a facile interweaving of seeming opposites (academics and dropouts; high art and fuck-ups), which lends a punk song the hypnotic quality of William Blake:

“You look familiar, you’re not

From California are you?

You have a twin in California

Oh well, you made that choice . . .

Your red hair

Your green eyes

Your red hair

Your green cherry eyes

And I hope you don’t mind

Me coming home late

Believe me I won’t mind

Your tousled up hair, bleeding nails

Twitching me away

Your red hair

Your green eyes

Your red hair

Your green cherry eyes

Your red hair

Your green eyes

Your red hair

Your green cherry-cherry eyes”

Bands play for hours in a garage, with no plans, no audience, even, and undergo personal transformation (“They were like time travelers or a pack of wolves.”), however fleeting. They’ll never forget the experience, no matter if they stay in their dishwashing or bottom-rung jobs for the next twenty years. Art is both communal and personal, owned by everyone, equally—performers and fans and passers-by. In this outlook, only four people on the planet having experienced a legend makes it no less legendary.

In that sense, these stories serve as epitaphs, without implying grief; they are celebrations of the irrepressible, creative spirit that bridles inside shithole towns throughout history. “No songs were ever recorded nor did they ever gig—the only people who ever saw them play were the in-and-outs getting stoned at that garage in Donna [Texas].” In a quote worth repeating—“once imagining something to the point of becoming a real thing it is harder to get rid of, harder to unimagine.”

Meet Our Lit Crawl Authors

We’d like to thank our friends Steph Opitz at The Texas Book Festival and Jill Meyers at A Strange Object for including us among the hosts for this year’s Lit Crawl festivities. We are amazed and humbled by the stellar lineup of authors they’ve arranged for our event on October 25th at 8:30pm at The Volstead in East Austin: The Austin Review IRL.

Please RSVP at our Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/531534413657070/ and learn more about the other events and schedule at the official Lit Crawl website: http://www.texasbookfestival.org/lit-crawl/

Below is additional information about the four authors who will read at The Austin Review IRL. Please support their work and come out on Saturday night to meet them IRL!


Photo from Austin's website.

Photo from Austin's website.

Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of three illustrated books: Steal Like An Artist (Workman, 2012) is a manifesto for creativity in the digital age; Show Your Work! (Workman, 2014) is a guide to sharing creativity and getting discovered; and Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010) is a collection of poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker.

His work has been translated into over a dozen languages and featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, PBS Newshour, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. New York Magazine called his work “brilliant,” The Atlantic called him “positively one of the most interesting people on the Internet,” and The New Yorker said his poems “resurrect the newspaper when everybody else is declaring it dead.”

Austin's Texas Book Festival Page: http://www.texasbookfestival.org/author-page/?aid=5196


Photo by Bader Hower

Photo by Bader Hower

Edan Lepucki

Edan Lepucki is the author of the novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me, originally published by Flatmancrooked, and recently re-released by Nouvella Press.  The Los Angeles Times named her a Face to Watch for 2014.

Her debut novel, California, was published by Little, Brown on July 8, 2014.  California debuted at #3 on the New York Times Bestsellers List and has been the #1 bestseller on the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestsellers lists.  It’s also been on the IndieBound and Publishers Weekly Bestsellers Lists.

California is a fall 2014 selection of Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program.  Edan and Stephen Colbert are now besties.

Edan's Texas Book Festival Page: http://www.texasbookfestival.org/author-page/?aid=5236


Photo from Maxwell's website.

Photo from Maxwell's website.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen

Maxwell Neely-Cohen was born and raised in Washington, DC, where he spent his teenage years skateboarding and DJing. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, he lives in New York City. Echo of the Boom is his first novel.

Maxwell's Texas Book Festival Page: http://www.texasbookfestival.org/author-page/?aid=5294


Ursula Villarreal-Moura

Ursula Villarreal-Moura's writing has appeared in New South, CutBank, The Weekly Rumpus, The Austin Review, DOGZPLOT, and other journals. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and is at work on a novel-in-stories.

A Review of Hagridden

A Review of Samuel Snoek-Brown's Hagridden

by Paul Adams

Samuel Snoek-Brown’s Hagridden starts with an ambush in the marshes; two women bayonet a Union soldier with practiced ease, and then do the same to the Confederate soldier who had been hunting him. They strip the bodies and tip them into an old well and then sell their worldly goods to an unscrupulous bayou shopkeeper. We are told that this takes place in Western Louisiana in the waning days of the Civil War, but it might as well be happening in the Middle Ages or on the moon. This is not a complaint; this book’s sense of timeless and universal horror is one of the things that makes it such a powerful work.

There is a strain of Gothic dread running through 20th century Southern literature, and it is clearly visible in Hagridden. Stylistically, the novel owes something to Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy: oppressively lush landscapes, dialogue lacking all punctuation, and sometimes jarring contrast between characters’ rich inner lives and their spare, gnomic utterances. When novelists use this style poorly, the result can be almost unreadably dense. When done well, as it is here, it creates a sense that the reader is looking into a separate and complete world, eerily similar to our own but tilted slightly toward the abstract. The characters’ actions become inevitable and weighed down by the burdens of past and future. Things become symbols of themselves.

Despite this metaphysical heft, Hagridden is a lively and fast-paced read. Events unfold according to the book’s interior logic, but the ending nonetheless took this reader by surprise. The murderous peace of the two women (who never receive names: they are “the woman” and “the girl”) is shattered by the return of their neighbor Buford from the war. He is the best friend of Remy, a character whose absence haunts the book. Remy was a son of the older woman and husband to the younger and joined the Confederate Army with Buford. When the war reached its final madness, they deserted together as well.

The war is presented as brutal folly, but swirling in its outer darkness are truly infernal forces. Buford is pursued by Lt. Whelan, the commander of a group within the army who committed certain enormities while wearing the skins of wolves. Calling themselves ‘rougarou’ (one of several instances in which Snoek-Brown uses appealing and accurate Cajun-isms), they terrorized soldiers and civilians during the war and have now given themselves the task of tracking down deserters. Since the protagonists of the story are serial killers (albeit motivated by hunger and despair), the villains must be literally monstrous. Whelan, who seems to be at least partially consumed by his rourgarou costume, is an excellent and well-rendered character, combining elements of the Viking berserker, the cannibal, the werewolf, and the 20th century war criminal.

Whelan is in many ways the character who is most eloquent in speaking for himself, and some of the best passages involve menacing conversations he carries on with strangers during his hunt for Buford. His deliberate and dispassionate will to violence brings to mind the fatalistic killer Anton Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. One chilling passage describes in detail the process by which Whelan tracks, kills, and skins a wolf before using its remains to carefully craft the new mask and suit that he will wear to hunt Buford.

The attention to the rougarou suit is well done, since it will come to play an important role in the awful escalation of events that bring the book to its climax. The drama of Whelan’s hunt for Buford is an outer circle orbiting the inner circle of domestic conflict between Buford and the two women. The young widow finds herself attracted to Buford (no wonder, given that the only other men in the area are a werewolf, a lech, and an ex-slave whose head was kicked in by a horse) but is unwilling to abandon the older woman, to whom she is bound by ties of marriage, murder, and mutual suffering. The older woman blames Buford for her son’s death and is terrified of being abandoned.

These tensions are worsened by guilt and mistrust, reaching a crisis point when an apocalyptic hurricane hits Louisiana and the resulting flood carries Buford’s shack across the state line into Texas. The young widow (having eloped) is carried along with him, and the forcible separation of the two women leads them to very different conclusions about the way forward. The pleasure of seeing the ending unfold precludes any further plot summary, but Buford, Whelan, the two women, and the rougarou come together in a way that seems both utterly inevitable and completely unpredictable.

Hagridden is not entirely without flaws. Snoek-Brown has a point to make about the eternal suffering of women in war time and the ways in which they can fight against it; depriving the women of names may have been the right decision. It makes them iconic figures who can stand in for the many women who are absent from history but were forced to make impossible choices without aid. Unfortunately, it can lead to confusion. It is sometimes hard to tell which woman is speaking or who is taking action; conversations between the two can be difficult to follow. This is not insurmountable but occasionally requires the reader to start again at the top of the page.

It is also possible that in becoming nameless symbols, the women have lost some of their singular identity. This is especially a concern with “the older woman,” who somehow seems less whole a character, or at least less able to speak for herself than the other characters. This is partly her personality—taciturn, ineloquent, enduring. Yet the reader wishes for more of a sense of her inner life and more insight into what drives her. As the story progresses, her behavior becomes increasingly interesting and unexpected, but her motivations remain opaque.

None of this detracts from the overwhelming quality of this novel’s craftsmanship or the beauty of its prose. There are details of almost hallucinatory vividness, and marvelous turns of phrase are everywhere (opening the book at random twice led to “he gored the muck from beneath his fingernail” and “he asked if any recognized the items or knew where he might find their like.”) Despite the desperation and menace that pervade this novel, a dry humor often seeps through in unexpected ways. With radical empathy towards deeply flawed characters and an ability to find the exquisite in the mundane, Snoek-Brown has created a complex and brilliant novel. Though its themes are dark and horrifying, there is a great deal of beauty in this book.

An Interview with Tatiana Ryckman

TWO TWENTY-SOMETHINGS TALKING ABOUT TATIANA RYCKMAN’S TWENTY-SOMETHING

In this interview, Michener Fellow and Issue 2 author Vincent Scarpa talks to The Austin Review's Managing Editor Tatiana Ryckman about her new chapbook Twenty-Something published by ELJ Publications.


Vincent Scarpa: Tell me a bit about how this collection came to be. How long had you been sitting on these stories? Did you gather them feeling that they were in some way, even indirectly, in conversation with one another? What was the process like of getting the manuscript accepted and published?

Tatiana Ryckman: I was very lucky because the press approached me and asked for a manuscript, so getting it published was disorientingly easy. In its final draft, this collection is the best possible version of my master's thesis, but initially, once accepted, I kept thinking about Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall saying, "I wouldn't want to be in a club that would have someone like me for a member.” I reread the work I'd sent in with complete horror and started to slash away at stories and lines, writing new stories, replacing and revising. Imagining someone paying money for the book (and actually reading it) made me feel a little ill and slightly more objective about the the whole thing.

VS: One of the thematic elements at work here, at least to this reader, is the relationship between disguise and vulnerability. The protagonist in "Getting to Know You" asks her lover to put on a mask, saying, "It's easier this way." The mask is a disguise, of course, and yet this feels like a way in which this couple can be transparent about their needs. Similarly, Clarice, in the title story, is a nude model for a community art class, something that could easily—and quite rightly—be interpreted as the height of vulnerability. And yet, by taking her clothes off in front of strangers, she is also made able to hide certain other parts of herself from those who know her. [I'm thinking here of the great tableau vivant scene in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth.] I wonder if you could talk a bit about that duality between concealment and exposure--what about that seems interesting to mine in your fiction? And do you think it at all mirrors the process of writing itself?

TR: ”The relationship between disguise and vulnerability" sounds much more attractive than my sister's reaction to the manuscript when I asked her if it was too “man-hatey." She said, "It's not man-hatey, but it does seem like you are harboring some gender identity issues." Which I admit is a reaction I sort of enjoy. I suppose I believe we're all wearing disguises most of the time, to the extent that a literal mask can sometimes feel like a more accurate representation of who someone is than the way they present themselves to lovers or friends or family members. Learning to filter one's thoughts and expressions is a pretty basic part of audience awareness, of growing up, and of communicating. The story “Twenty-Something” specifically attempts to embody this the idea of dual selves. Of becoming an adult without feeling like it. Of being told you can be anything you want to be and then being disappointed by your own choice.

VS: One of my favorite sections in the book is the pseudo-fan-fiction that reimagines the relationship of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. What prompted that? [Beyond creating the conditions wherein we could imagine Richard Burton having "the enormous cock of a horse."] 

TR: There was a reading series in Austin called "Five Things,” where the organizers would select five writers and a theme and give each writer an assignment the week before. I happened to be in the "Elizabeth Taylor's Husbands" edition, and was lucky enough to get Richard Burton as my assignment. Most of what I remember from the reading is Lesley Clayton saying, "Diamonds are forever," over and over, to great comedic effect.

VS: Talk to me about the origin of "Heat Bringer," which is both the collection's strangest and most recognizable story at once. Do you think it's true that, through the evocation of the surreal, the writer is presented with an opportunity to achieve an even more precise human truth?

TR: The origin of “Heat Bringer” is a t-shirt I stole from my high school boyfriend, which a coworker of mine was incredibly envious of. One fateful day I didn't turn it inside out before tossing it in the laundry and the Heat Bringer washed off forever. This story is a sort of tribute to that t-shirt. Maybe I should have lied to sound more intelligent? Should have said something like, "Through the absurd character of the Heat Bringer I explore our natural fear of death and the true significance of self immolation. The scorpions represent religion's role in secular media and the virgin clearly represents the afterlife, where we will all be born as furious Bringers of Heat."

But ultimately, yes, I do think a writer can sacrifice reality for truth. Some to greater effect than others. 

VS: Which writers do you admire? Which writers do you turn to for instruction? Which writers do you avoid?

TR: I adore and aspire to write like Lydia Davis, Russell Edson, and James Tate. I choose to believe that I am just the right kind of obsessed with The Great Gatsby, and I learn something new every time I read that book. I've also been hugely influenced by Miranda July, Dawn Raffel, Clarice Lispector, and Micheline Aharonian Marcom. I tend to avoid bestsellers with the belief that anyone famous enough to sell books probably doesn't get edited enough.

VS: What are you working on now, and where can anyone interested in reading Twenty-Something go to purchase the book?

TR: I’m currently writing poems and reading nonfiction. A palate-cleanser, I guess. If someone wants to read Twenty-Something they can steal a copy from my trunk, find it at Farewell Books in Austin, or at Powell's in Portland. Of course it's also on the internet, so no matter where you live it's available at Amazon and on the press's website.

Q&A with Eric Shonkwiler

Photo by Sabrina Renkar

Photo by Sabrina Renkar

The Austin Review: If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe its style or point of view?

Eric Shonkwiler: I’ve heard it said by others, and would have to agree with the “stark and poetic” description of style. If you really made me sit down and review my own book, I’m afraid I’d end up tearing it apart. That’s probably not unique to me, though.

TAR: Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors?

ES: Marilynne Robinson—I am remarkably excited for her new novel, Lila. You can guess I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy, which is true. Some of the newest authors and works I’ve read this year have also become some of my favorites. Schuler Benson just had a new collection out, and it’s as grungy, scary, and powerful as anything I’ve read in recent years. Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Salvage the Bones ruined me. On a lighter note, Tom Williams’ new novel, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a long while. Louise Erdrich is guaranteed to bowl me over. I’m also an admirer of Charles Bowden, who just passed away. His work about the border made me reconsider the way a writer ought to rail against the world.

TAR: What classics do you most identify with?

ES: Identify is a difficult word. I’d like to take it easy and say that I identify with Hemingway’s novels, and while I enjoy a number of them immensely, I don’t know that I really identify with them entirely. One book, and protagonist, I can likely identify with entirely is The Odyssey, and Odysseus. I feel like I’m taking ten years to get home, myself.

TAR: What book do you feel embarrassed never to have read?

ES: I am woefully under-read when it comes to Russian literature. I have read not a scrap. Name a Russian classic and I haven’t read it, and am embarrassed to say so.

TAR: What were the main challenges you faced in bringing your first novel—Above All Men—to life?

ES: It was a long process, and the main challenge was likely one of attrition. I wrote the novel relatively quickly, but it took years to get it into shape, and even more time to find a proper home for it. All that time passing, it was hard to keep my spirits up, and there were a few days along the way in which I considered abandoning it as a project.

TAR: How did your experience getting an MFA influence you and your writing?

ES: Aside from the normal gifts of an MFA—getting the time and money to write—I came away from UC Riverside with a stronger faith in myself, and my idea of my own writing. The workshops there—and this will sound bad, but I don’t mean it to—really ground down at what I saw Above All Men as being. I stuck to my guns for the most part, but the influences that changed AAM in the workshop were influences and changes that were, eventually, cut out of the final product. That may seem like a poor or misguided workshop experience, but I don’t think it was. I think it’s necessary to test yourself that way. And of course, a number of other workshops helped build and whittle at AAM in a positive way, and I left UCR with a few professors I hold up as mentors.

TAR: What advice do you give other writers about how to market a first novel?

ES: The best advice I can give is to try to be everywhere. You never know what one person is going to see, and how that one person might change how your book is received. I’ve been all over Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and a number of journals. On top of that rather wide net, I’ve taken AAM on the road, and toured cross-country, which I’m about to do again, from September to October. That’s one of the more fun things you can do in promotion of your book. I’ve met a lot of great people on the road, and am sure to do so again.

TAR: If you were told you couldn’t write anymore, what job would you pursue and why?

ES: Probably some sort of law enforcement or investigations job. It would be challenging, and it would be helpful to society. That’s a lot of what I look for out of writing.

TAR: When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?

ES: A flood of food trucks and good vinyl wash over me when I think of Austin.

TAR: Answer the question you wish we had asked.

ES: I am working on a new book, as a matter of fact. I’m shopping my second novel as we speak, and getting started on my third.


Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in Fiction from University of California–Riverside where he was the recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellowship Award, and is a regional editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as a former reader for [PANK] and former Editor-in-Chief for CRATE: The Literary Journal of UCR. Born and raised in Ohio, Eric has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone and finds himself on the road as often as not. He is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel, Above All Men, released in March from MG Press, and chosen as a 2014 Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. You can find him at ericshonkwiler.com.

Nobody's Protest Novel: A Review of Your Face in Mine

By Phillip Garcia

It’s complicated.
And what you’re asking is for me to not make this complicated?”
                       —From Jess Row's Your Face in Mine

Lately, there’s been some praise for sentimentality, but personally, I’m not convinced. While Nick Ripatrazone might believe that “[o]ne moment of sentiment in literature is worth a thousand failures,” such a claim seems to ignore the inherent danger that those “thousand failures” might pose for real world issues, particularly for people of color.

In a sense, it feels as though Ripatrazone is confusing “sentimentality” with “emotion”—but they aren’t necessarily synonymous. Consider this quote from James Baldwin’s essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel:”

Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.

Baldwin might seem harsh here, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that sentimentality (as he defines it here) risks oversimplifying important issues and, in doing so, creates bad politics and, perhaps worse yet, bad art. This oversimplification is what made Baldwin consider Uncle Tom’s Cabin a pamphlet, not an actual novel.  As well-intentioned as Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have been, it was still shallow propaganda, not true art that presented complex characters full of well-earned pathos.

Sentimentality is the reason that when I first heard the premise of Jess Row’s new novel, Your Face in Mine, I was a bit worried. After all, a novel about a white man getting “racial reassignment surgery” could easily go awry. It’s not that I didn’t trust Row’s ability; it’s simply that I live in a world populated by Uncle Tom -esque books: sentimental, flat creations of white guilt that say little more than “Boy, it sure sucks to be a person of color.”

Imagine, then, not just my surprise but my unfettered delight at reading the novel and discovering what depth Row manages to dig out. Row takes what should be a bizarre idea and deftly balances it with a sense of realism. This balance between the real and the absurd reminded me of how Salman Rushdie recently described Gabriel García Márquez’s work:

The trouble with the term “magic realism”… is that when people say or hear it they are really hearing or saying only half of it, “magic,” without paying attention to the other half, “realism.” But if magic realism were just magic, it wouldn’t matter. It would be mere whimsy — writing in which, because anything can happen, nothing has effect. It’s because the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real, because it grows out of the real and illuminates it in beautiful and unexpected ways, that it works. 

It would, of course, be silly to argue that what Row is doing here qualifies as “magical realism,” but the balance between the unbelievable (or nearly unbelievable, in the case of racial reassignment surgery) and the believable is just as vital to anchoring his novel.

Not only is Row’s novel grounded in real-world Baltimore (and later, real-world Bangkok), it presents characters who are realistic, not simple, flat pawns who act out an Orwellian parable. While the characters deal with the issue of racial identity, they aren’t race-obsessed, and to say the novel is “about race” would be to ignore the layers of complexity Row has given his characters.

Kelly Thorndike, the narrator, struggles with the loss of his wife and daughter, as well as struggling with his own sense of self in a world that monetizes identity. Kelly is by no means a radical; he’s more of an academic who struggles with the real-world application of theory. We see this throughout the course of the novel, perhaps most memorably in a scene where Kelly and his wife argue about Chapelle’s Show. Yes, Kelly knows of white guilt; he knows of his role as oppressor. But Kelly comes to realize that he has been living in “white dreamtime,” a concept that is pervasive throughout the novel. “White dreamtime” really is the best description of Kelly: a passive, detached, and privileged observer, floating through reality. (Note, too, how the concept of “dreamtime” blends the surreal and real together).  

Martin Lipkin, one of Kelly’s old high school friends who undergoes racial reassignment surgery, is something of Kelly’s opposite. Unlike the concreteness of Kelly, Martin has obscured motives, is often unreliable, and is outright manipulative. The only thing that’s clear about Martin is that he’s interested in simplifying race as a means to turn it into a lucrative brand.  The often inconsistent elements of Martin’s character add to the overall dream-like confusion of the novel, and the dynamic between Kelly and Martin gives the novel its shape and carries us through the chaotic issues of race, identity, and capitalism.

In short, Row presents a complicated issue as it is: complicated. If, like Kelly, this book had stuck to the safety of academic theory, it would have been divorced from the rawness of reality; likewise, had it veered into the simplistic brand that Martin wanted to project, it would have been sentimental propaganda. It’s no surprise, then, that as Row worked through these concepts, he consciously follows  Baldwin (who gets a shout-out in both the epigraph and the dedication). Of course, while structurally and thematically there are some similarities to Another Country, to reduce Row’s work to Baldwin homage would also be an oversimplification.

Where Row actually follows Baldwin closest is in his aversion to sentimentality and simplicity in the face of harsh reality. Row deserves praise not simply for tackling a tricky subject, but for tackling that subject so masterfully.  This book could have easily devolved into white guilt and pandering, but Row provides thoughtful balance. For that reason, this book is not Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This book is not a pamphlet. This book is a novel, and a very good one at that.

An Interview with Owen Egerton

By Peter McCrady

In case you haven't heard, Owen Egerton is a bit of an Austin icon, and he’s at the heart of the city’s literary scene.

The author and comedian easily embodies the sly juxtapositions that make Austin the weird city that it is, and the city has embraced him. With his numerous gigs and projects, it might seem like Egerton was born to write, and according to him, you would almost be right.

Egerton said the idea to be a writer started early for him. He remembers working on his first play when he was in the second grade.

“I was that kind of kid that made my younger sister and my neighbors be in plays and coming up with ideas for worlds that I wanted to create,” Egerton said.

He also remembers the first real lesson he learned about writing in the fifth grade when trying to cope with his grandparents’ dog being put to sleep.

“I scribbled this first person story from the point of view of the dog on his last day alive, and I remember walking away from that story feeling better but with no answers,” Egerton recalled. “That was the first lesson for me. I will find a form of expression or release, but I will not find answers.”

Writing was something that stuck with Egerton through high school and college, increasingly becoming a more important part of his life.

In an effort to devote more of his time to his craft, Egerton decided to forgo rent by pulling a bit of a Kerouac and purchasing a 1970s Volkswagen Camper and traveling around Austin and some of the western states.

“I would shower at Barton Springs in the morning and abuse coffee shops with free refills,” Egerton said.

To keep the tank filled, Egerton did comedy gigs in the evenings.

“Comedy comes naturally to me. It is my fallback. It’s just my personality,” Egerton said. “I was a middle kid with two older brothers and a younger sister. It was a big enough family that I think to make myself heard, comedy was the angle.”

During this time, Egerton was able to finish and self publish his first novel—the work that led him into the world of screenwriting. The novel was optioned by a filmmaker who was interested in turning the work into his first feature film. Egerton was able to work through a screenplay, learning the structure and the process of adapting a novel to a different creative format.

Egerton then transitioned from his comedy troupe to working with friends on more screenplays, eventually selling scripts to the likes of Warner Brothers, Fox, and Disney.

“I continue to struggle through novels and screenplays and sometimes a bit of a living,” Egerton said.

And when he says struggle through novels, what he means is that he has written three novels including Everyone Says That at the End of the World; The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God; and Marshall Hollenzer is Driving. He also is the author of a short story collection titled How Best to Avoid Dying, as well as a contributor to Salon and the Huffington Post.

The humor of writing

If his time on the comedy circuit is not enough of an indication, Egerton is funny. Both in his writing and in conversation, he can keep a person laughing. But his comedic nature was not always something he wanted to include in his style.

“When I was first writing—when I was younger—I was making an effort to not use comedy. I didn’t want to write funny stories. I was a serious writer. But as time went by, comedy would keep slipping in . . . and I made peace with that.”

For his writing, Egerton finds that humor can act as a way to lower the reader’s guard so ideas and themes can be experienced in an unexpected way. Humor deepens a reader’s relationship with the work and the topic.

“Humor can kind of come in and mix up that formula and surprise us,” Egerton said. “It can make us laugh out loud—suddenly announce ourselves vocally. It can make us have a physical response that we don’t necessarily want.”

Much like the way tragedy can open up a person, humor can also crack a person’s heart to let new emotions get through.

“Humor usually comes in best when it comes through a character’s voice,” Egerton said. “People are just funny. They just are. So that’s often where I find it, and then often in situations that are pushed just slightly extreme.”

Comedy is not the only style that shapes Egerton’s writing. He said all the different styles he works in, from screenwriting to novels to improv to articles, intermingle with each other.

“Screenwriting has—especially the screenwriting I do for Hollywood—taught me a tremendous amount about structure and narrative arcs,” he said. “Using that to inform my novel writing has been helpful.”

In the end though, it is still the struggle of the novel that fully engrosses Egerton’s interest.

“The novel is my favorite format,” Egerton said. “Screenwriting is something I really enjoy and the structure of it is really fun, but often a screenwriting assignment feels more like a job. It’s with novels that I wrestle with who I am and what life is. For me, novels don’t pay that well, but I sure do love writing them.”

Egerton is currently in the revision process for a new novel, working to pitch a sitcom, and recently finished a successful Kickstarter campaign with his wife to fund the writing of a “craft” book. If that’s not keeping him busy enough, he still has the numerous events that he hosts and organizes including the One Page Salon.

The Austin-centric lit scene

“The lit scene in Austin is pretty inspiring,” Egerton said. “There’s a lot going on here. There’s always been a cool literary scene here, thanks to The University of Texas, thanks to a creative community, thanks to being the spot in Texas where so many people who love to create and be in music, art, or literature kind of gravitate to.”

Even though Austin started with a strong foundation in creativity and the arts, there is still a sense of the literary scene growing here in the city through both readers and writers. Egerton credits the many creative writing programs offered through local universities as well as quality journals and presses, including A Strange Object, American Short Fiction and The Austin Review, that are using the city as their base of operations.

Even with all this creativity swimming through the streets of the city—its heritage and new horizons—Egerton feels that Austin has yet to settle on its own distinctive style.

“I’m thrilled to say there’s not [an Austin voice],” Egerton said. “The reason is because Austin thrives on variety. Variety is a great way of making things pop, more than everyone subscribing to one particular Austin aesthetic.”

Egerton sees this type of freedom as a positive trait for Austin and indicative of the culture as well. He said publishers like A Strange Object are publishing high-quality content in a beautiful format that allows the work itself to find its own market, rather than pandering. And this freedom extends outside of writing to other artistic formats including film.

“If anything, I would love Austin to be known for having this wide variety,” Egerton said. “Of having this surreal fantasy fiction mixed with Cormac McCarthy’s dark Western-type fiction to having everything in between. I like the idea that those types of voices can be in the same room talking to each other.”

Egerton said there is a lot of benefit to this community of writers and readers. This collective literary culture allows writers to grow and “cross-pollinate” with one another.

But not all is paradise in this Central Texas oasis. The laid back and welcoming atmosphere of Austin can also hinder creatives. Egerton stressed that Austin is a great place to find other writers to talk to, but not to mistake talking about writing with actually putting pen to paper.

“I love Austin. I would choose to live in Austin over Los Angeles or New York,” Egerton said. “But there is something that Austin creatives could on occasion learn from L.A. [and New York]. You actually have to do what you’re talking about . . . When you’re in more cutthroat communities like Los Angeles, you better turn off the phone, open up the computer, turn off the Internet, and type and type and type.”

What separates Austin from other large creative hubs is the kindness that allows for more collaboration and support. This collaborative culture creates a unique vibe for Austin in the creative world.

“I think it has something to do with the feel of Austin,” Egerton said. “I think occasionally on the other coasts, there is a mentality that there is a gold nugget on the top of the mountain and we’re all scrambling up to try and get it and cling to it. In Austin, there’s a bunch of people saying why don’t we each build our own mountain and then we can all hang out together.”

As Austin’s lit scene continues to grow through all its milestones and struggles, Egerton hopes it can keep its weirdness.

“I love the idea that Austin would encourage risk-taking in literature,” Egerton said. “I would like Austin to be known for risk in literature.”

Getting your fix

As the literary community grows in Austin, the opportunities to be involved with that group of people also are growing. Egerton encourages word-lovers to attend readings, find independent workshops to expand their craft, browse local bookstores, pick the brains of the people manning the counters at local book stores, subscribe to journals, and to just soak up the Austin atmosphere at the nearest coffee shop.

“I love our coffee shop culture,” Egerton said. “You have all these great public spaces, these public living rooms, where people are hanging out working next to each other. It can either be really distracting or incredibly exciting.”

A more off-the-wall resource that Egerton has found for writers and creatives is the city’s improv community.

“I know a number of different writers who have benefitted from taking an improv course.” Egerton said. “It frees them up from the feeling of permanence when you type a word and encourages some of that creative risk-taking.”

But for the capital city, the best things writers and readers can do is keep it local.

“Read local writers,” Egerton said. “It’s fun for a young writer to meet the person who’s written a book. . . . The opportunity to sit down with a writer you admire and hear their thoughts on writing is pretty fantastic.”

In Austin, you can get that experience just by offering to “buy the author a beer.”


To stay up on everything Owen Egerton is getting mixed up in, visit his website at www.owenegerton.com.

Diving into the Fantastic in Duplex by Kathryn Davis

By Peter McCrady

Duplex (Graywolf Press, 2014) by Kathryn Davis keeps readers on their toes. It weaves a wonderful fabric of fantastic and relatable elements—ranging from light-hearted to horrific—that keeps the reader engaged and waiting for the next sentence. Davis’s writing style is crisp and pointed; her sentences are precise and flow from one image to the next. Her textured writing helps ground the reader in the complicated world of “stretchable” properties and complex relationships presented in the novel.

Duplex is not only a love story, but also a coming-of-age story following Mary from her suburban school days through the intricacies of relationships to marriage and raising a child. Mary and Eddie, school sweethearts, become increasingly intertwined until an unplanned pregnancy leads them to choose separate paths. In the aftermath of this situation, Mary pairs with a magical character who is initially called Body-without-Soul—a sorcerer whose powers are neither fully described nor explained. The two foster a new child, but the residue of her previous relationship with Eddie is never fully erased. Both Eddie and Mary are often shown, in small glimpses, still pining for the other, despite the seemingly positive course their lives have taken. To escape her situation, Mary uses a magical creation called a “Mary bean” to travel through a wormhole, and though it is ambiguous where the wormhole takes her, the text suggests the possibility of her reunion with Eddie.

Layered on top of the main plot, fairytale-esque stories are employed to help give the reader a deeper understanding of the world Davis has set up for her characters. These distinct stories within the novel feel like cautionary fables—like what parents would concoct to warn their children of dangers lurking in the real world. The fables provide a context for the main plot and eventually become more fact than fiction. 

Like its name implies, Duplex is a novel of dualities. It uses the past and the future to bring clarity to the present plot, and it uses the juxtaposition between realism and magical realism—between fantastic mythology and modern reality that harkens back to the suburbs of John Cheever—to give readers a sense of nostalgia while also instilling a sense of unease about the forces they may have missed in their own lives.

Time is not a linear progression in Duplex. Davis uses the novel’s mythology and reality to bind together the past, present, and future. Mythology is the common thread that propels the characters forward. We see characters develop while still grappling with elements from their past, trying to make sense of where they came from and how they are supposed to move forward. The shifts in time make the novel seem more episodic, but each fragment imbues the next through magical elements and allows the reader to connect with the story.

This perspective allows the reader to understand how “the world had edges but you couldn’t see them going, only when you were trying to come back,” while finding solace in “feeling as if all of this had already happened.”

The mythology in Duplex feels like it was originally constructed and formed from childhood. It is as if the way the world makes sense as a child—with haunted houses and neighbors who would take attributes more animal or supernatural than human—was never fully dispelled. The Sorcerer progresses from a mystical being known by the name Body-without-Soul to Walter Woodard, the owner of a baseball team, but he never fully loses his other-worldly attributes. Walter creates his and Mary's child from what seems like inanimate objects and, when Mary is younger, is found giving her advice from an adjacent bathroom stall with intimate knowledge of her reactions despite not being able to see her. He also is knowledgeable about the time-warping effects of the “Mary bean,” and his family spans back into the ancient mythology of the novel.

A central story in the novel’s mythology is the Rain of Beads. In this tale, the reader sees how a fantastic construct influences the trajectory of the novel’s setting and its characters. The Rain of Beads describes how a group of girls “died for love” after robots misunderstood a poem. The robots were looking for a child that was part robot and part human, but instead disassembled the girls almost down to their molecules and rinsed their pieces over the neighborhood. The story serves as a moral warning to girls reminiscent of Grimm’s Fairytales and explains the coldness of adults who “had to harden their hearts so they wouldn’t keep breaking.” The weight of this myth carries throughout the novel.

The heavy use of magical realism takes a little while to settle into—longer than the suspension of reality fully permeates the text. At first, the fantastic elements of the story command much of the reader’s attention. It’s easy to try to unpack metaphorical meanings in every odd mention. But as the story continues, it becomes possible to accept the world as easily as the characters do.

Set against the fantastic elements of the novel is a reality resembling the world of John Cheever. The reader sees a bleak landscape of suburban stagnation and the struggle of coping with unachievable societal expectations. In Duplex, the outlying pressures often seen in Cheever’s world are expressed through ancillary characters. Davis steers away from making these characters and situations the focus of the narrative, using them only to serve as the backdrop for her story’s plot and themes. It is this somber backdrop that sets up a vision that is both hopeful and terrifying.

Davis’s mythology, in its horrific and cautionary nature, also shows the struggles women face as they mature in our current society. Davis says that the story is “also my story, the story of girls everywhere” and can be seen as a commentary on the standards women are often pushed to fulfill even when they are childish and outdated. The mythology tells girls to be wary of romantic love and distrustful of friends, among other lessons. Just as the characters navigate their reality through the mythology, readers are forced to consider the course their lives took through their own forgotten mythologies. Readers must examine how their lives have been governed and what forgotten factors could have been heeded to modify their situations.

Duplex shows the reader that when looking at life, sometimes all that really matters is the perspective.

Reckoning with Reckoning by Rusty Barnes

By Paul Adams 

The northern tip of the Appalachian region juts all the way up into the state of New York and encompasses a goodly portion of western and southern Pennsylvania. Physically close but culturally distant from Amish Country and the Liberty Bell, this area has more in common with West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee than with the East Coast. Resource-rich and money-poor, it is a place of great natural beauty, stubbornly independent locals, and sometimes shocking violence. This is the setting of Rusty Barnes' first novel, Reckoning.

Having been raised in that area, the reviewer can attest to the precision with which Reckoning captures its physical and human geography. Barnes nails it, with an ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for both the broad strokes of the environment and the little details that bring a place or character into focus. From the CDs on a shelf to the color of a rough girl's nail polish to the rinsing-off of dishes taken from under the couch, Barnes is able to parlay incidentals into a complete and vivid picture. By family tradition, a house has no bathroom doors. A boy is told to keep out of trouble by shooting ants with a pellet gun. Families who've lived in town for less than a century are still “flatlanders.” This world is wholly realized and presented through the carefully crafted mind of a teenage boy.

Reckoning is the story of an ordinary summer in the life of Richard Logan and its sudden interruption by chaotic forces of sex and violence. He and Katie, the new girl in town, come upon the naked body of an unconscious woman in the woods. This is Misty, a well wrought character combining jaded vulnerability and bruised innocence with the hard bark of a girl who has seen too much. Helping her back to town, they unleash a series of events, which draw them into conflict with a local thug, Lyle, and his criminal associates. Beset by conflicting adolescent urges and dangerous curiosity, Richard finds himself drawn ever deeper into the ugliness and darkness beneath the surface of the town while those he loves begin to suffer the consequences. The idle summer days become complex and troubled as the story rushes to a harrowing conclusion.

Barnes has previously published two collections of short stories and brings those skills to his first novel, which has a brisk pace and increasing momentum. As the novel unfolds it reveals many facets: coming-of-age tale, love story, mystery, character study, and dark revelation. Reckoning works because it takes the time and energy to establish a believable world and real characters, and then begins to dismantle the facade of that world and interrogate the true nature of those characters. It also works because it is true to its setting and to its narrator. Barnes' depiction of a small town in a rural area has all the expected horrors (pill addicts and scamsters and deers butchered in the front yard) but it is not a caricature of rural idiocy. Neighbors may snoop and scold, but they come to your defense and have philosophies of life and codes of honor. Characters act with dignity and depth, and the human and physical landscapes are beautifully sketched.

This is not a take-down of small-town Pennsylvania, but an exploration of the painful loss of innocence and the danger of peeking behind veils.  Although Richard lives the aimless and  insular life of an Appalachian adolescent, he is a bright boy with an intuition that there is something more. This fateful curiosity leads him to the novel's frightening climax, but also to meaningful connections. He is fascinated with the new girl Katie and the troubled out-of-towner Misty partly because they are part of another world. Richard's life has been limited to the very convincingly rendered small town in which no one is a stranger and secrets are impossible to keep. Barnes has done well in driving this point home, making Lyle not just a menacing criminal and an antagonist, but Richard's boss and boyfriend to Katie's mother. All the characters are connected by blood, history, or geography, and this lends the novel an air of claustrophobic suspense.

Although this book is certainly part of an Appalachian literary tradition, containing echoes of Pinckney Benedict's Dogs of God and some early Cormac McCarthy novels, the recent work which most often came to mind while reading it was Adrianne Harun's A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, which is set in British Columbia. Another first novel by an author better known for short stories, it is also narrated by a small-town boy from a rural area who is faced with an evil thug and a paralyzed community. Although profoundly different in many ways (Harun is more given to post-modern meta-fiction), both novels deal with a young boy discovering evil and questioning whether and how to confront it. More similar in form is the “literary thriller” A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, which has multiple narrators but echoes of Reckoning’s excellent dialogue and some of the same issues of rural youth and community secrets.

If this novel has a flaw, it is that Barnes seems to not entirely trust his audience. At the conclusion of a chapter full of well-crafted dialogue, keen observation, and Richard's own astute perceptions, the reader is told that “He felt as if he and Katie could be friends, but there was something else there too, complicated by Misty . . . they found her so vulnerable. But she talked tough.” There is nothing wrong with this, and in a lesser novel or a genre work it might be necessary to advance the plot or hammer out a character. In this case, however, Barnes has already given the reader all of that information and more; we have heard Misty's tough talk and observed her contradictory behavior and have seen Richard's conflicted attitudes toward his tom-boyish girlfriend and this intriguing older woman.  Barnes has very effectively brought the reader into this adolescent mind, and it is jarring to hear that “he was running on an internal compass that he trusted to point him the right way to go”, since this remark pulls the audience out of Richard's mind and seems to suggest some outside observer. The author has already shown us the boy's peculiar motivations and code of conduct through his actions, conversations, and scattered thoughts, so this isn't really necessary. The prose stands on its own, without the need for summation. This is, of course, a fine sort of problem to have, since it arises directly from the effectiveness and quality of the work.

This is an outstanding work which is simultaneously exciting and thoughtful. Strong on dialogue and atmosphere, it is recommended for the general reader but essential for anyone interested in the Appalachian region or its culture. At a compact 239 pages, this suspenseful novel moves quickly to a devastating climax  that will leave readers appalled but satisfied. It is a crisp and engaging story with fully developed characters, striking images, and an appealing wit.

Q & A with Our Issue 2 Contributor Sam Pink

 1. If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe its style or point of view?

‘The Totino’s Party Pizza of Lit.’ 

2. Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors?

My favorite contemporary author is Biddlecrum Snarshnish.

3. If you were told you couldn't write anymore, what job would you pursue and why?

I would just keep working the job I have now and be depressed until I die.  The real answer is ‘Can’t nobody tell me not to write, so fuck it.’     

4. When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?

Texas. 

5. Answer the question you wish we had asked.

The question I wish you would’ve asked is ‘What is your fucking problem, shithead.’  And the answer is, quite simply, I don’t know!

 

A Review of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree

We Were All One Woman, Interchangeable, Exchangeable: A Review of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenström

By Jason DeYoung

Appearing over fifty times in this slim, 129-page novel is the word know, or its past-tense variant knew. Myself appears with nearly the same frequency. Captured by slave hunters in her youth, the nameless protagonist in Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (Archipelago Books, 2014) details her erstwhile life in slavery, as a possession: a position that stripped her of identity, history, and native language. It is a darkly imagined narrative, with occasional hopeful turns as the narrator strives to hold onto her sense of self, but is ultimately doomed.  

Set during the time when the world was thought to be flat, the novel opens with the narrator already taking refuge in the trunk of a baobab tree, a genus of the great Adasonia trees of South Africa. Her existence is defined by that which surrounds her: the eponymous tree, the veld, its other inhabitants—“I found too that I was plucking, digging, picking [food] in competition with animals.” Freed from bondage after her owner mysteriously abandoned her and her fellow slaves on a failed trading expedition, the narrator is now isolated and malnourished, and the present tense action of the novel never ventures far form the baobab tree. She leaves for water and food, returns, and does little else aside from ponder her situation. Her only contact with other humans is through the “little people” (perhaps a group similar to the Pygmy) she sees, who worship her as a tree spirit but will not communicate with her.

Where the novel’s action lies is in her recollections. Other than a scant few memories of her girlhood—primarily the trauma of capture—her memories start with her mentors, other female slaves, women who taught her to “remember the rapture and the torment, but inwardly remain untouched, remain whole.” The narrative moves gently (near-imperceptibly at times) between past and present as she tells her story, with each movement defined by her owner. The first had a taste for young girls, who sells her after the birth of her first child to a spice merchant, who then gives her to his youngest son. After the death of her third owner, she ends up in the service of spice merchant’s eldest son, a thoughtless and cowardly man who abandons his expedition, and the men and women he “owns.”

Piercingly intelligent and heartbreaking, Stockenström’s savage portrayal of female slavery lends witness to what human possession means: “We were all one woman, interchangeable, exchangeable.” Despite the luxury of her owners’ houses or the education she is given (so she can entertain and converse with master and guest more intelligently), she is tormented by visions of the other slaves, brought to the city to labor in the sun; and she is wrecked by the loss of the children she bears. Here is what she says of the experience of having her first child taken from her and sold:

I am dried-out ape dugs and fresh slippery ox eye and peeled-off human skin and the venom of the deadly sea slug with the sucker mouth. I am hatred and hatred's mask. I am deformed. There is a snake in my blood. I drink my own blood. I kick in my swoon. I flounder.

Deformity, the most apt of descriptors, is what happens to our narrator in this novel. She is deformed by ownership, by colonialism, by its cruelty, by what it has taken from her. As she points out later in life, it is the absence of grandchildren, the lack of grown children—which would convey a sense of her own body’s history—that makes her melancholy all the more palpable because there were “no links backwards or forwards” for her. “Deformed” is the word J. M. Coetzee, the translator of the novel, uses, too, to describe South African literature in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize: “The deformed and stunted relations between human beings that were created under colonialism and exacerbated under what is loosely called apartheid have their psychic representation in a deformed and stunted inner life. All expressions of that inner life, no mater how intense, no matter how pierced with exultation or despair, suffer from the same stuntedness and deformity.”

Remarkable as a narrator, little is lost on Stockenström’s character despite her bondswoman education, and one of the rewards in reading this novel is her insights and wisdom: she is actually quite heroic as she often “stands full” of herself. But, she is still stunted by history and time. History is identity, and time is an obsession of the narrators, as the word itself occurs fifty-four times. While she subsists on grubs and tubers and fetches her water in a broken ostrich egg from a nearby stream, she tries to maintain a sense of time with colored beads she has found, moving them around so that she gives structure, classification, and sequence to her days. But she also fearfully knows that it “threatens” her and wants to “annihilate” her. And it eventually does.

Although The Expedition to the Baobab Tree takes form as prose, there’s a great deal of poetry in its paragraphs, which isn’t surprising. Twice the recipient of the prestigious Hertzog prize, Wilma Stockenström has published ten books of poems written in Afrikanns, a language derived from the Dutch who settled in South Africa in the 1600s and historically spoken by the marginalized. Glimpse her lyricism in this passage of exhalations, which translator, J. M. Coetzee, has finely wrought into English: “The sea drew back hissing over its destruction, drew in a last tortured, foaming breath, and subsided to a gloomy calm, and the wind subsided too, leaving such a rarefied stillness that a sob could have shattered it.” And passages such as this one could easily be imagined as broken into lines:

One is so used to regarding other inhabitants of the earth as food, to accepting them, as it were, as self-evident sources of food, and to putting whatever is edible in service of one's digestion, to raising the ingestion of food to an art by adding condiments and tastefully serving up a dishes that go together, to making a huge fuss of a meal and to developing customs around it that ossify into rituals, to making a whole rigmarole of the utterly bodily function of eating—one is so used to it that it seems terribly funny when other-consuming man is himself eaten. The untouchably mighty, revealed to be nothing but food, was knocked into the water with a well-aimed flick of the tail—actually not well aimed, actually executed with unconscious perfection—and drowned and devoured.

Yes, poetic, but also deliberately chosen to impart a final sense of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree. The novel acknowledges the earth and its power and is nearly Wordsworthian in its recognition of it. In the end the estrangement the narrator feels is too much for her. The “little people” who have been worshiping her are overrun and killed by another group, and all she is left with are bones: “White skulls around the tree. Little by little the wind brings in dust to fill up the brain hollows and the pelvises.” The Expedition to the Baobab Tree renders a bleak judgment about the nature of men and women, and of the self. Within its lush and delicate prose is a frank imagining of existence, one that strikes hard once again the unmistakable tocsin that all is vanity, a warning one cannot come away from the novel without.

 

* J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. “Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech (1987). Ed. by David Attwell. Harvard University Press, 1992. Page 98.


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

Q & A with Our Issue 2 Contributor Jennifer Bowen Hicks

1. If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe its style or point of view? 

Intense, impatient, seeking, moody, playful, intrigued with rhythm, uncommitted to narrative.  Though this particular essay might be an outlier—more coy and penis-centric than most of what I write.

2. Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors? 

Annie Dillard, Marilyn Robinson, Eduardo Galeano, Mary Ruefle, Brian Doyle, Robert Vivian, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Tracy Kidder. The book I most recently read that made me feel like hollering to the masses was Vacationland by Sarah Stonich. It’s an elegant, organic, beautiful, compassionate novel.

3. If you were told you couldn't write anymore, what job would you pursue and why?

Right now I teach writing in prison and it’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I’d continue to do that. If that’s cheating, I’d learn how to knit and make oversized sweaters; they would have uneven arms and unlovely patterns because I’m not a detail person. Or maybe I’d try my hand at bright, ill-pieced quilts that people would feel embarrassed to drape across their beds. I’m not bragging, just feigning grace at inevitable failure.

4. When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?

Matt Nelson, one of my dearest childhood friends, is a Jr. High principal somewhere in your fair city. Many years ago, in my early teens, we both lived in Lubbock and hung out at Davis Park and laughed a lot. His phone number and my address were one number off. Sometimes he’d come to my house, knock on my door, and when I answered, he’d say, “Oh, sorry; I think I knocked on the wrong phone number.” I often tell people if I were to move back to Texas, Austin is the placed I’d go; it’s the most-beloved city I’ve never visited. 

5. Answer the question you wish we had asked.

What’s the best part about writing?

Inhabiting the far reaches of my own and others’ minds and hearts; it gives me hope. 

Q & A with Our Issue 2 Contributor John Proctor

1. If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe its style or point of view? 

I would prefer not to. (That is actually my review.)

2. Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors?

In terms of nonfiction, I really enjoy Amy Leach, Matthew Goodman, Patrick Madden, Elena Passarello, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Ander Monson, John McPhee, and quite a few others who are no less important to me because my mind isn't recalling them right now.

3. If you were told you couldn't write anymore, what job would you pursue and why?

I would take to the task of pursuing my own death with greater vigor. Sorry if that sounds daft or pretentious but, as Zadie Smith paraphrased Seneca in her essay "Some Notes on Attunement," "Life feels longer the more you engage with it." I honestly can't imagine a life in which I just do things without meditating on them later, writing them down, reading about other people doing things, juxtaposing them with previous experiences, contextualizing them historically. That, to me, is my job, my calling, and my life.

4. When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?

Heat, music, SXSW, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. The usual stuff.

5. Answer the question you wish we had asked.

"Are you married?" Yes I am, actually, to a redheaded digital artist who is at least as talented at her craft as I am at mine. Sometimes I think my single-minded fixation on my work leads her to think I'm not also single-mindedly devoted to her, so I'm glad you asked this question. The life I've built with her and our two daughters is why I am so determined to document and make art out of our shared world. One of the great ironies of my life is that I now have less time to write than ever, and yet I write more now than I ever have. To egregiously oversimplify, this is probably because I now have so much more to write about.

“Wanting the End to Be Happy:” Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Written by Jené Gutierrez

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” – Thomas King

“Let it go” is common advice that we are often told to put into practice, usually after something or someone has been lost. Though meant to decrease our suffering, this simplistic conception of how to manage loss and grief does not account for the near impossibility of this task, for everything that is lost is returned to or stays with us in a myriad of ways. Or, as the narrator in “Something Amazing” explains, “Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours.”

Each of Elizabeth McCracken’s stories in her newest collection, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, tells a different tale, but they all illustrate universal themes about our relationships and how our stories hold our love and losses. McCracken, with humor and intellect, illuminates the fact that nothing is ever truly lost, but lives on through our stories and the stories of others that inevitably intersect with and are informed by our own. It is through the knowledge of other stories and the way they intersect with our own that we come to a deeper understanding of our entwined narratives, reminding us that the stories we tell ourselves are not the same stories told by others.

Most of McCracken’s humor emerges out of her controlled voice, the description of characters and surroundings that ring absurdly familiar, points of recognition in the text that arise out of observations of the seemingly mundane. In “Property,” McCracken’s description of a home and its detritus are peppered with a humorous, funny-because-it’s-true familiarity. While cleaning, a man finds old, sticky spices in the kitchen, “the stubby plastic kind with the red tops;” these same spices familiarly seem to thrive in the near-abandoned places I’ve lived as well--the ubiquity of these specific spices spans all homes. By the end of the story, the man discovers that the owner’s home is a commemoration of a life; its belongings hold the weight of a love and loss that the man had not experienced, but feels a familiarity to in the loss of his wife, and the weight of the belongings of hers he still carries.

In her strange, dark love story, “Some Terpsichore,” McCracken writes of harmony and discord in a relationship, offering a breathtaking meditation on the definition of love:

It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me that it wasn’t love. Love is not oxygen, though many songwriters will tell you that it is; it is not a chemical substance that is either definitively present or absent; it cannot be reduced to its parts. It is not like a flower, or an animal, or anything that you will ever be able to recognize when you see it. Love is food. That’s all. Neither better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible. But to say--as people will--that wasn’t love. As though that makes you feel better! Well it might not have been nourishing but it sustained me for a while.

Though the relationship between the couple is strained, the narrator finds it hard to leave, explaining that it wasn’t love or the fear of being alone that kept her there, but “…it was wanting to know the end of the story, and wanting the end to be happy.” And though love and the prospect of loss binds us to others, in this narrative, it’s a craving for story, wanting to satisfy a curiosity about how this life could play out that commits the narrator. Perhaps we could then ask, isn’t dedication to a story and its unfolding--personal or otherwise--a kind of love itself?

Nowhere is it more apparent that one’s story is not just one’s own than in the way our media responds to mass killings. The stories of victims are always subsumed by the singular story of the killer or killers--who they are, their motivations, psychological makeup, and childhood. The things they’ve written and said become objects of scrutiny, evidence of a captivating, if tragic, story that becomes part of the culture’s larger narrative. In “Juliet,” McCracken tells the story of a murdered young woman from the perspective of the town’s librarians--individuals who are surrounded by walls of stories on a daily basis. The librarians refer to the young woman as “Juliet” because she reminds them of the title character in Shakespeare’s play. Here, the title itself already contains a whole other story. This woman’s death resonates throughout the town, affecting many people in the process, including the accused killer. Yet the narrator explains that the murder becomes known as “The Tommy Mason Case,” not “The Suzanne Cunningham Murder;” this woman’s story is subsumed by the story of the killer. The story ends with the children’s librarian--Suzanne’s closest friend at the library--confronting the accused murderer’s sister about the accused killer, resulting in an emotional intersection of these two women’s stories. This narrative framework demonstrates the ineluctability of stories crossing paths and creating new loves and losses that carry the previous ones along with them, and McCracken executes this idea candidly, with careful attention to the transformation of her characters.

As a man who will be remembered the way his “friend” documented him, and not as he was in the flesh, Peter of “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey” comes to a couple of poignant realizations:

 “There wasn’t a man in the world smart enough to see his own subtext.”

“Only in person can you be larger than life. On a television screen, you’re cropped, alone: a buffoon.”

Peter, his death on the horizon, realizes that as a subject of a successful documentary, he leaves behind the legacy of a story told by someone else; the rest of his life has been subsumed by the images and words a friend captured and contexualized years ago, some of which portray him in an unsavory light. At the end of his life, Peter must accept that his story is out of his control, that it belongs to the web of stories that contains it.

And this is McCracken’s impressive accomplishment: her appeal to the only refuge we have when all is said and seemingly over, the refuge of stories that hold our love and loss, and the humor and heart that is necessary to sustain them. Perhaps our most defining experiences are the relationships we have to each other and ourselves, the threads of love and loss that tie this all together, and the acceptance of our stories as having lives of their own, entities of which we are a part, but ultimately have no control over. Each story in Thunderstruck & Other Stories demonstrates this fundamental truth with humor and tact, and McCracken approaches this delicate, universal subject matter with style and heart.

Thank You for Our Issue 2 Release Party

Thank you for joining us this weekend as we released our second print issue! 

We are especially grateful to Co-Lab Projects for allowing us to use their beautiful space. Co-Lab Projects is an artist-run nonprofit organization located on the east side of town dedicated to exhibiting contemporary works of art.

Nothing goes better with a warm summer night in Austin than wine and a cold beer, and we were lucky enough to have both because of the generous beverage donations of Austin Beer Works and Personal Wine. We are also grateful to Eastside Yoga, Eastside Showroom, Tina Taiga, Wright Bros Brew & Brew, Bill Doran, and Bar 2211 for their support. And we’d like to thank our talented Issue 2 authors and readers—Vincent Scarpa and Ursula Villarreal-Moura—for making the night a truly special literary event.

Lastly, we express our deepest gratitude to Dana and Stephen of the public relations and design firm Stellar Impeller. Their time, effort, and hard work are what transformed the evening into a true celebration!

Thank you once again, Austin, for supporting us and literature!

Sincerely,

The Austin Review Staff

Q & A with Our Issue 2 Contributor Ursula Villarreal-Moura

1. If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe its style or point of view?

I think if I were to describe my style it would be a fatalism that drowns the reader then pulls her back up for a gulp of precious air. Until I answered this question, it never occurred to me that that's subconsciously my aim. I mean, that's almost precisely my worldview, although it's starting to shift. Almost everything imaginable makes me uncomfortable, but I keep interacting with the world, because beautiful things can and do happen. 

Themes I consistently write about include loss, speaking or avoiding Spanish, stuffed animals, and abandonment. Those are some of my most loaded subjects--they help me drown and resurface in multiple ways. 

2. Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors?

My list is long: Karl Taro Greenfeld, Mary Miller, Elizabeth Ellen, Leesa Cross-Smtih, and Rumaan Alam. Karl Taro Greenfeld writes excellent fiction and nonfiction. His writing is often surprising but never in a gimmicky way. Mary Miller and Elizabeth Ellen write vulnerable women characters that make me flinch in good, uncomfortable ways. I'm really excited about the upcoming release of Leesa Cross-Smith's book. I read absolutely everything she and Rumaan Alam write. What I love about Leesa Cross-Smith's writing is that it's so uplifting. It's almost the polar opposite of mine. If she drowns her reader, it's for twenty seconds or one minute. Rumaan Alam's short stories and essays are funny, astute, and brilliant. Two of his stories, published in Meridian and Necessary Fiction, I think about almost weekly. I want to be a literary agent so that I can represent him.

3. If you were told you couldn't write anymore, what job would you pursue and why?

I've always wanted to work at a museum. MoMA, are you listening? One of my best professors in college was my art history professor. I was already having a love affair with art by the time I took his courses, though. It's so cliché to admit this, but the first time I saw Guernica in person at the Prado, I felt like I was having a spiritual experience. The irony is that my husband and I had had a framed print of it on our wall, so I didn't expect to feel any different standing it front of it, but I did. Being in the presence of art is like conversing with the universe. 

I'd love to write museum guides, lead tours, or even narrate audio guides.

4. When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?

When I think of Austin, I can't help but flashback to my internship at American Short Fiction. It was a magical time for me. I also think of the times I spent reading and drinking coffee at Houndstooth or book browsing at BookPeople. Because I catalog discomfort, I think about I-35 and people driving 95 mph between San Antonio and Austin. Most people who know me are aware of my dislike for driving and cars.  

5. Answer the question you wish we had asked.

If writing really is creating for an audience of one, who is your audience? 

My seventeen-year-old self. She was hard to impress but had wild dreams. Sometimes I feel I'm earning her respect and living up to her expectations.