Author Archives: Ben

Episode 84: True Refreshment Comes From Within

Brian’s got a new coffee shop across town, Ben’s got heavy equipment next door, and Jon’s got the path to enlightenment right down the street. Despite the distractions, the guys are writing, submitting, and, in this episode, discussing Memory Blake Peebles’ “The Sugar Bowl.”

Topics and Reading Discussed

Episode 81: Honest Fiction

It’s been a hell of a summer in WITTSville, and the guys are still trying to get their shit together. Brian is now a husband, Ben is now a landowner, and Jon is now a father. Amid all the turmoil, they find time to discuss wedding-crashing moose, single-malt free-for-alls, Paris author readings, newborn semaphore, and–better late than never–Edith Pearlman’s “Wait and See.”

Topics and Reading Discussed

  • Edith Pearlman’s “Wait and See” is online at The American Scholar.
  • When dealing with fiction writers, it’s always smart to verify any outlandish tales they tell you. In this case, Brian’s moose story checks out.
  • Ben stumbled onto a Lydia Davis / Jonathan Safran Foer reading at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. Some pics of the event are here.
  • Is Go Set a Watchman an intriguing complication of an oversimplified character or should it have never been published… or both?
  • If you were disappointed to see Atticus’ flaws in Go Set a Watchman, maybe don’t watch The Trip to Italy.
  • The Things They Carried, Jon says, is a great example of an “honest fiction.”
  • Jon’s still grumbling about All the Light We Cannot See, and while he liked The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan a lot more than Anthony Doerr’s novel, he sees in both books the “creaky hinge” of the fiction writer trying to wrangle a complicated plot into submission.
  • Beglin, Bender, and Pearlman… quite a lineup.
  • Hold the fucking phone! Everything you thought you knew about shrimp vision is wrong!

Episode 78: Summertime

It’s summertime! Time to plan our vacation reading and, in Jon’s case, figure out what books are best to read to a newborn. In Episode 78, the guys talk summer reading, infant language development, World War II history, and cat leashes. Then they get blown away by Charles Baxter’s “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.”

Topics and Reading Discussed

Episode 75: Memory and Truth

It’s AWP time again, but instead of joining the dance party in Minnesota, the WITTScasters are at home reliving AWPs past and comparing notes on their aging memories. Then a discussion of R.T. Smith’s story “Docent” leads to a review of the many modern threats to the Truth. Finally, Jon tries to kick off a debate about the death of regionalism, which becomes a cliffhanger for next time…

Reading Discussed

  • R.T. Smith’s “Docent” is online in The Missouri Review‘s archives, but you may already have it on your shelf in The Best American Short Stories 2004 or New Stories from the South 2004.
  • AWP is upon us again, but the boys are recording the podcast from home rather than braving the meteorological vagaries of April in Minneapolis.
  • If you, too, couldn’t make it to AWP this year, just wake up with a hangover and scroll through the #AWP15 Twitter posts. It’s like you’re there!
  • Ben is sticking to Joshua Ferris’ funny ones. Having read Then We Came to the End this summer, he recently picked up To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. But Jon has read Ferris’ The Unnamed, and while it’s not comical like the other two novels, it’s the one whose characters have stayed with him.
  • By contrast, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See didn’t quite hold together for Jon — despite what the Pulitzer committee says — and by this time next year he probably won’t remember it too clearly.
  • Brian’s memory is failing him, too, particularly when it comes to the plot of Mad Men, but as Ben points out, once Brian is married he can outsource his memory to his wife.
  • Oh, eggplant parm
  • R.T. Smith’s story is narrated by a dedicated docent at the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University.
  • The Seattle Underground. Brian was telling the truth, this time.
  • What scares Jon more than the singularity? The disappearance of a (imagined?) source of authoritative truth.
  • How not to do journalism.
  • “Docent” is a great example of the literature of the south, but Jon’s not so sure that there still is a south. So join us in Episode 76 when we discuss regionalism.

Episode 72: Schlock for Schloozers

In Episode 72, Ben’s been building his students up to a completed short story, Brian gets a pocket notebook to make him observe the world like a writer, and Jon adds the Millenials to his shit list. Then the boys chew on Thomas Pierce’s “Videos of People Falling Down,” which provides plenty of fodder for a discussion of the risks and rewards of cerebral writing.

Reading Discussed

Episode 69: Don’t Know Shit About Shit

The WITTScasters discuss how, if they were to return to the classroom, they would teach introductory fiction to undergrads now that they are old and wise (in contrast to young people who, according to Jon, “don’t know shit about shit”). Then they turn to the excellent not-so-short story “A Rich Man” by Edward P. Jones, who shows ’em how it’s done.

Reading Discussed

  • Edward P. Jones’ story “A Rich Man” still seems to be up for grabs for free at The New Yorker. It isn’t short, but it’s damn good.
  • In Ben’s fiction class, each day will start with a quote about writing and a writing rule. (But rules, as we all know, are made to be broken.)
  • One of Jon’s favorite writers, Robert Stone, died recently. Jon offered a WITTScast remembrance for Mr. Stone, which also gave him a chance to do some more griping about those damn hypocritical baby boomers.
  • Robert Stone’s best known work is probably National Book Award winner Dog Soldiers, but Jon’s favorite is Outerbridge Reach.
  • Here’s the Paris Review interview with Robert Stone, which is WITTScast-recommended. (Q: Is writing easy for you? A: It’s goddamn hard.)
  • “A Rich Man” is from Edward P. Jones’ collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. You might also want to check out a related collection, Lost in the City. (Oh, and he won a Pulitzer, too, so don’t overlook The Known World.)

Episode 66: There Is No Solace

Get ready for some SUPER HOT ACTION! The WITTScasters, in discussing their current work, admit some occasional self-doubt. Searching for solace, they find none. They do, however, find enjoyment in Ron Rash’s timeless page-turner of a story, “The Trusty.”

Reading Discussed

  • Ron Rash’s story “The Trusty” seems to still be available without subscription at The New Yorker website, so pause the episode and read it!
  • Brian got an Audible subscription and, not surprisingly, started by listening to a book about a professional wrestler. Now he’s thinking about broadening his horizons with books on basketball and comic books.
  • Maybe Brian will do to the pro-wrestling/superhero novel genre what Jon has done (is doing/will do) to the crime novel genre.
  • It’s important for a writer to have a wife who knows a bad idea when they hear one (like inserting a crazy-eyed zany character inspired by Michael Keaton in Out of Sight).
  • Two books that have turned Jon into an emotional wreck because they’re so good:  Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish (Jon: “This is how you do it”) and Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox (Jon: “Unmooring, because it’s so good”).
  • Plenty of writers have wrestled with self-doubt. Take for example John Steinbeck, whose journals from the writing of The Grapes of Wrath reveal that at times even he felt like he had no idea what he was doing.
  • Jon likes a straightforward story, as long as it offers some resonance and some solace (BUT THERE IS NO SOLACE!).
  • Did Brian say John O’Hara’s story “Guests of No Nation?” He meant Frank O’Connor’s story “Guests of the Nation” (PDF).
  • “The Trusty” was included in Ron Rash’s collection Nothing Gold Can Stay. Jon says Rash is still at his best.
  • Richmonders (Richmondites? Richmondarians? Virginia Hipsters?), we hope you’ve got the Books & Beer Brew-ho-ho at Hardywood Brewery on your calendar for December 14th. Featuring our own Jon Sealy, plus 25 other writers. It’ll be like a nerdy advent calendar you open all at once!

Episode 63: Party Time

The WITTScasters miss the social aspect of writing: readings, conferences, parties, after-parties, etc. Or wait… maybe they just miss their youth. How to wrestle with heavy questions like these? Why not ask a talking bird! The title character of Pete Duval’s “I, Budgie” helps the guys put things in perspective.

Reading Discussed

      • Pete Duval’s  “I, Budgie” is available online at Witness and was included on the notables list in the Best American Short Stories 2012.
      • Who’s lonlier… people at the AWP conference or people at Comi-Con?
      • The basketball season is starting… do you have your Nuggets sweatpants yet?
      • As Jon’s The Whiskey Baron book tour comes to a close, he’s realizing that his hostel days might be behind him. He’s glad to be back in his office, revising his next book, safe from the dangers of the road: Ukranians, bros from Jersey, Axe body spray, rainy highways, and Ebola.
      • AWP is in early April next year, but it’s in Minneapolis, and Brian already knows what that means.
      • Yes, the Vikings really did let the clock run out on their pick in the 2003 NFL draft.
      • If Brian has it his way, his wedding will be a combination of this and this.
      • Did Brian’s discussion of Night of the Living Dead make you want to (re)watch it? Looks like you can find it here.
      • Hopefully, “I, Budgie” will be part of a new collection from Pete Duval. For now, you can check out his 2004 book, Rear View.

Episode 60: All We Ask Is Perfection

Writers are a tough audience. As Jon says, “All I want is a book that’s perfect.” We want to read entertaining fiction written with passion, inspiration, intensity, and heart, in fresh sentences and about compelling characters. We wouldn’t mind writing one of those books, too… just as soon as the muse gets around to inspiring us. In the meantime, the guys discuss how Don DeLillo’s “Midnight in Dostoevsky” measures up against that standard.

Reading Discussed

  • We’re going to milk the New Yorker archives just as long as they’re free. You’ll find Don DeLillo’s “Midnight in Dostoevsky” there.
  • As summer wanes, the WITTScasters’ writing is going slowly. Jon is busy hustling The Whiskey Baron, Brian is selling one house, buying another, and taking a trip to Ireland, and Ben’s just slacking.
  • But there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with goofing off as a writer, if you ask Richard Ford.
  • Maybe before Brian and his bride-to-be skip off to the emerald isle, he can find time to submit an entry to the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge.
  • It didn’t meet Jon’s definition of “perfect,” but Still Life, the first book in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, wasn’t bad.
  • The most satisfying book Jon has read recently is Jonathan Franzen’s The Twenty-Seventh City — imaginative, with ordinary-yet-compelling characters and tension built right into the syntax!
  • If you’re looking to get started with DeLillo, why not start with Underworld, and if you’re gonna read Underworld, you’ll have to start with the amazing prologue, which was also published independently as the novella Pafko at the Wall. That might be as good as ol’ Don gets.
  • As any middle-aged NBA fan will tell you, Ilgauskas is from Lithuania.

Episode 57: Collaboration

Why don’t we work together on this? The WITTScasters discuss collaborative fiction: who has done it, how can it possibly work, and will the boys ever try it themselves? The conversation leads to an intriguing project for next time (cliffhanger!). Then, not wanting to be whacked with a concrete rolling pin, the guys get back to business with a discussion of “Baba Yaga’s House of Forgotten Things” by Kimberly Lojewski.

Reading Discussed

  • Kimberly Lojewski’s “Baba Yaga’s House of Forgotten Things” is online at Drunken Boat.
  • Ben is looking for fiction inspiration in James Gleick’s nonfiction book The Information.
  • If you just can’t get enough of the second person, you’ll love Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.
  • Jon is learning from Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction that humanity may be sawing off the limb we’re perched on, but you don’t need to worry about cockroaches, Nickleback, or ferns. Zack Galifikinafikous should be fine, too.
  • Brian warns us that the Yellowstone supervolcano is for real. And he should know. He’s a natural disaster aficionado.
  • Speaking of working together, Brian and his girlfriend are doing a collaborative out-loud reading of Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland. She wishes he would do the voices, but he’s having a hard enough time pronouncing the words.
  • First up in our list of collaborative novels: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s book Good Omens.
  • Julianna Baggott and Steve Almond co-wrote Which Brings Me To You, which Brian gives an enthusiastic thumbs up. They discuss their collaboration on this “novel in confessions” in a Bookslut interview.
  • Beth Ann Fennelly shared her thoughts on collaborating with her husband Tom Franklin in this Glimmer Train article. Their co-written novel This Tilted World was published last year.
  • It seems to the boys like Donald Bain and Reneé Paley-Bain are living the good life, co-writing Murder, She Wrote books and, presumably, drinking margaritas.
  • Want to figure out how to write for a living like Donald Bain? Better check out his memoir, Murder, HE Wrote.
  • Stephen King and Peter Straub have also done some collaboration.
  • Where Wicked Starts is a YA novel from collaborators Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Patricia Henley. It’s published by Lacewing Books, which is an imprint of Engine Books, which is from the good people who bring you Freight Stories, which we discussed way back in Episode 5
  • …and regarding Engine Books, check out the modest little fundraiser they’re running.
  • Poets Monica Berlin and Beth Marzoni’s book No Shape Bends the River So Long won the 2013 New Measure Poetry Prize (judged by Carolyn Forché) and will be available later this year from Free Verse Editions. If you can’t wait, check out some poems from the collection.
  • Rumor is that the film version of “Baba Yaga’s House of Forgotten Things” is on hold, but we were able to find this still image which leaked from the set.