The AWP gods are against me. Last year none of my panels was accepted; this year all three were accepted so I had to drop one. And the two panels I’m on are in the first and last slots of the conference!
In between panels, I’ll be at the Rose Metal Press table (#629) to sign and hopefully sell a few copies of The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová. Because the second half of the book is my memoir-in-postcards, the first 20 people to buy a copy of the bookwill get their choice of a Prague-themed postcard hand-painted by me. They are made on watercolor postcard paper and have all the postcard markings on the reverse to be sent in the mail.
If you’ve ever been to Prague, you have seen these posters around town:
And here is the Golem as seen on a Prague sidewalk, a hearty glass of pivo, and Kafka’s head based on a new statue in Prague:
And here is Kafka’s tiny house at No. 22 Golden Lane on the grounds of the Prague Castle:
I still have a few more to make this weekend. What should I paint? Accepting ideas in the comments!
– Here are my events –
Hope to see you! Say hello!
Feb. 8-11, 2017 – AWP in Washington, DC Thurs. Feb 9, 2017 at 9:00-10:15am
PANEL: “The Long from the Short: Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir” Abigail Beckel, Lex Williford, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski
[Rm 206, Washington Convention Ctr, Level Two]
Thurs. Feb 9, 2017 at 10:30-11:30am
Table 629: BOOK SIGNING AT ROSE METAL PRESS TABLE with Lex Williford
Fri., Feb 10, 2017 at 12:00-12:30
Table 629: BOOK SIGNING AT ROSE METAL PRESS TABLE
Fri. Feb 10, 2017 at 6:30-9:30pm
OFF-SITE READING with authors from Rose Metal, Cupboard, and Soho Press
at BABY WALE DC
1124 9th St. NW
Sat. Feb. 11, 2017 at 4:30-5:45pm
PANEL: “Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography”
Kathleen Rooney, Sarah Domet, Anthony Michael Morena, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Sarah Blake
The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová by Kelcey Parker Ervick
is one of the least bitter, most loving books I have read in a long time,
and it’s beautifully made.
– Kate Bernheimer author of How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales
Still Life with Books and Beer
Today is publication day for The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová! My journeys in the Czech Republic and Slovakia took me to this book, and this book has taken me on its own journey. It’s my first book-length work of nonfiction, and it includes a series of postcards I wrote to Němcová about my travels, my Czech language class, my Slovakian family, and, well, my failing marriage. I quote from my favorite Prague-based letter-writers: Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Bohumil Hrabal’s Letters to Dubenka, and Vaclav Havel’s Letters to Olga.
What I am probably most amazed about is that this book also includes collages and paintings I made, published in beautiful full color. The first two here are images from my travels to Česká Skalice, where Božena Němcová grew up. I was lost, and these were the not very helpful signs. The third image is of a photo on a bulletin board at Shakespeare and Sons in Prague that addresses anxieties one might feel about publishing a strange hybrid beast of a book such as mine.
But you can help make the book a bestseller! It is now available for purchase from Rose Metal Press, Small Press Distribution (SPD, where it is a Handpicked selection, 20% off in November), Amazon (ugh, this will update soon!), Amazon’s Kindle (live and ready!), etc. It costs $17.95, which is pretty amazing considering the color images.
If you read and like it, please consider posting a review on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. If you’re even thinking of reading it, you can mark it as “want-to-read” on Goodreads. All this helps libraries and other potential readers know about the book, and make it an even-better-seller.
I want to end with a major thanks to Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney at Rose Metal Press. I’ll say more in a future post, but they did SO MUCH GOOD WORK make this book the beautiful object that it is. And thanks to Heather Butterfield for her stunning design work.
[O]ne ought to be very careful about romanticizing suffering, in the pursuit of art or anything else, as the only people who think suffering’s romantic are those who haven’t had some.
Joseph Bates is the author of Tomorrowland: Stories (Curbside Splendor 2013) and The Nighttime Novelist (Writer’s Digest, 2010). His short fiction has appeared in such journals as The Rumpus, New Ohio Review, Identity Theory, South Carolina Review, Fresh Boiled Peanuts, and InDigest Magazine. He teaches in the creative writing program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Joseph for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
Mostly to inflict pain upon my enemies.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer, somehow. Long before I had any idea what that meant, or what I was getting myself into, or how to do it. When I began writing stories as a kid, I did it because it was fun, and I still write them because it’s fun, though by now I know that it’s also a lot of work, often frustrating, sometimes lonely, and occasionally makes me want to put my head through a wall. But what always brings me back around, refocuses me, is remembering that it’s fun . . . and it’s precisely that sense of play, if you can keep it, that allows you moments of breakthrough. I’m maybe glad I didn’t know starting out exactly what I was getting myself into. I saw this great Vonnegut quote passing around the internet the other day: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” That’s a lovely sentiment, and it applies not just to writing but to a lot of life, particularly the more terrifying, beautiful parts.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I failed a lot and learned valuable lessons from each failure . . . eventually. I was also fortunate to be admitted into the MA program at Clemson University and then the Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, both full of wonderful, supportive writers and people. Sometimes what I needed from them was simple encouragement to keep going, or their passing along a book or writer I needed to read at just the right moment. Often what I needed was for them to kick away the crutches I leaned on too heavily, and they never let me down in this. Those were excellent years in terms of figuring myself out, but also in getting to be around generous, talented, hardworking people who gave my writing their time and attention, and whose work made me want to be a better writer, to earn what they gave me.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
I have two pages of acknowledgments in Tomorrowland, and that doesn’t come anywhere close to thanking all the people who ought to be thanked, from my family and friends and loves to the many incredible teachers and colleagues I’ve worked with, not to mention the generous editors who published my work. The single biggest influence on me has been Brock Clarke, whom I got to work with in both of my graduate programs and who couldn’t be a more charitable mentor, nor a greater guy, and one hell of a writer and teacher. To this day when I’m working on a story, and I write something I know probably doesn’t work, something I’m just hoping to slip past the reader, I can hear Brock laughing in my head, as if to say, “You think so?”
But, again, everyone who’s meant so much to me over the years has helped steer my life and writing, in ways I’ll never be able to repay or even fully express. I owe a whole bunch of people a big thank you. So, you know . . . just go ahead and embed The Beatles’ “In My Life” below this. We’ll leave it here for them.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
I’m finishing (I swear) a novel about Kafka playing baseball that I’ve been on for a number of years, in which I have him coming to America to play ball while struggling to write his first novel. So I’ve been living in Kafkaland for some time, and always on the lookout for new biographies and research materials, and of course there’s a whole lot. Even so, part of the problem one has to get around is that Kafka’s become an image to us instead of a person: gaunt, sleepless, hunched over his desk, isolating himself in pursuit of an obsession, seeing little come back to him or his writing in his lifetime, on his deathbed requesting all of his manuscripts be destroyed . . . that romantic figure perpetuated by Max Brod in his biography, Saint Franz the Struggling Artist. That image has become so ingrained it’s almost a part of pop culture, not just literary pop culture, though one ought to be very careful about romanticizing suffering, in the pursuit of art or anything else, as the only people who think suffering’s romantic are those who haven’t had some. Nevertheless, Kafka’s one of those writers who’s damn near impossible to separate the image from the man from the work . . . it all becomes wrapped up in the same myth. But it’s the work I go to first and foremost, to find out more about him and more about me.
Franz Kafka from the National Library Israel (via Paris Review)
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Dear Aspiring Writer: You’re doing great. Don’t let the bad days get you down. People are going to like what you’re working on right now.
This, my post title, is not my question. I don’t think I would ask a question like that because I don’t suppose there’s an answer. But Julio Cortázar asks it in his essay, “Some Aspects of the Short Story” (taken from New Short Story Theories, ed. by Charles May), and he can ask any question he pleases, and I will follow along to see what he says.
To find the answer, hesays we can look to those stories that stick with us through the years: “[T]he years pass,” he says, “and we live, and forget everything else but those little, insignificant stories, those grains of sand in the immense sea of literature are still there, throbbing, pulsating inside us.”
He says we all have our own collections of unforgettable stories. Cortázar’s list includes work by Hemingway, Poe, Borges, Dinesen, and Tolstoy (but perhaps not the ones you’d suspect). “Why do they remain in my memory?” he asks. “Think of the stories you haven’t been able to forget and you will find that they have the same characteristic.”
Before I provide Cortázar’s answer, I want to pause and think of those stories that I can’t forget, and to see if I can identify that key characteristic that they share. In fact, this makes for a nice How-to-become-a-writer exercise:
What are those unforgettable stories that continue to throb and pulsate within you?
For me, hmm…
Herta Müller’s “Black Park,” “The Street Sweepers”
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “The Bucket Rider”
Bruno Shulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles”
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of the Amontillado”
NOT James Joyce’s “The Dead” (I feel like everyone cites this, and I just don’t love it or remember it at all.)
Aimee Bender’s “Ironhead” and “Dearth”
Alice Munro’s “Minesetung”
Maria Luisa Bombal’s “New Islands”
Clarice Lispector’s “The Smallest Woman in the World”
Haruki Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”
Yuri Olesha’s “Lyompa”
Veronique Tadjo’s “The Magician and the Girl”
Brock Clarke’s “Plowing the Secondaries”
Miranda July’s “Majesty”
and so on…
What is the common characteristic of those stories?
They’re all some version of anti-reality: magical realism, surrealism, absurdism. Many of them have lines that get stuck in my head like the refrain of a pop song. They all have unforgettable images: potato-kids, teeny-tiny woman, dying woman on the snow, giant insect, bucket rider. These images take hold, and hold, and don’t let go. They all kind of break my heart.
Which might have something to do with Cortázar‘s answer:
“They bring together a reality which is infinitely more vast than that of the simple anecdote.” (In the passage, he is primarily interested in subject matter, and how different subjects open up a story to larger meanings. So, there’s more to it, but this is the heart of his claim.)
Again, these are not necessarily the Greatest Stories in the World, but the unforgettable ones. Cortázar even uses the word ‘insignificant.’ Would you rather write a Great Story or an unforgettable one? C’est la differance?
One nice thing about being in Prague is that I can find easily Czech books in English translations. So, while I visited Kafka’s museum and statues and bookshop (in the space where his father kept his shop), and even ate as the Franz Kafka Cafe, I also bought three new (to me) books by Czech authors — all beautifully made from Twisted Spoon Press.
I, City by Pavel Brycz
This book tells the episodic, meditative “story” of the city of Most in the Czech Republic through the voice of the city.
It reminds me of the dreamy, imagistic, sometimes overly earnest but utterly engaging voice(s) of Jean Toomer’s Cane.
From “an appearance, grave”:
Some appearances people would gladly forbear. I understand. No one wants to be buried alive. Luckily, the dead don’t seem to care. Or do they? Do they come back, dead among the living, perhaps even in an altered appearance, to carry out their cruel jokes? Do they return?
Yes, they do. I, city, saw a dead man, who came back twice, and in altered appearance, to interfere in the fate of his son.
Of Kids and Parents by Emil Hakl
A father and son walk through Prague, stop in pub after pub, and tell each otherstories of visits to the doctor, dead stepfathers, mistaking an ex-girlfriend’s daughter for the ex-girlfriend, drunken exploits at weddings, etc.
Aside from the sad view of women that the characters have (esp. the father), it’s an intimate and sweet book of their individual lives and shared relationship. And I adore the voice of the grumpy father who knows birds by their calls and debates with his son about models of aircraft.
And of course, this book of walking and talking reminds me of Ten Walks, Two Talks, a book I sort of dismissed out of hand a while ago, as it sounded like a dull project, but which has gotten all sorts of good press. Which means I was probably wrong, as usual.
from “Why the Crew of the Kursk Couldn’t Escape on its Own”:
‘Then there’s fish fillet,’ I said.
‘Ah, fish fillet!’ Father bellowed at the whole room, staring out at the clouds with a painful expression on his face, ‘but it should say what kind of fish…’
‘What kind of fish!’ I said under my breath, ‘the kind that swims in water!’
‘Ah, but it’s not that simple…’ Father smiled, ‘could be Alaskan cod or sea bass, could be hake, Merluccius merluccius, or seawolf, Anarhicas lupus…Oh well, never mind, it’ll probably be cod or haddock…’
‘Well, don’t get upset, I’ll have the fish fillet.’
The Transformations of Mr. Hadliz by Ladislav Novak
A short, quirky surrealist text – brief episodes/interpretations of Novak’s own froissage art, made from crumpling a piece of paper and using the lines to create images. According to the info in the back of the book (I love that Twisted Spoon Press includes extensive contextual info), he made the images a couple decades ago and then more recently “interpreted” them. The images are printed in full color next to the corresponding text. Lovely.
from “Mr. Hadliz as a Plaything for Those Condemned to Death”:
We are all condemned to death. Mr. Hadliz is well aware of this. (Only we often don’t realize it; we forget…) Clowning and dissimulating, he invites us to have fun with him. To make our forgetting even more profound? To easily get us under his control? Under no circumstances should trust him too much.
As writers go, Franz Kafka is Prague’s favorite native son. You can tell by the museum in Mala Strana (see picture), the gift shop and bronze plaque where he was born, the restaurant around the corner in Josefov, and the other gift shop on Old Town Square where Kafka’s father had his business. You can tell by all the postcards that say Kafka, or reproduce photos of him, or that show an illustrated profile of a thin man in a suit and hat taking long strides on a cobbled lane. You can tell from the statue that features Kafka as one of his own characters on the shoulders of another character, as portrayed in his only distinctly Prague-based story, “Description of a Struggle” (see picture).
This is outside the Kafka Musuem: two men peeing into the Czech Republic. Their hips swivel.
He is buried in a cemetery just a few blocks from where I’m staying, but after two attempts I still haven’t found his grave. A Czech woman pointed me to Jan Palach’s grave, so I have pictures of the young man who set himself on fire to protest the 1968 Russian invasion. (His photo is on his tomb.) The woman also gestured much farther on when I asked about Kafka, but I didn’t realize how much farther she meant until I got trapped in the Russian cemetery (only one entrance!) on my next visit. And when I finally got to the Jewish cemetery, it was, in good Kafka form, just closed for the night.
He is evidently buried with his father and all the related ironies.
The Kafka Museum is a dark, watery labyrinth of reproductions of letters and photos and books. It’s informative and artistically apt with its black walls and black and white film clips of old Prague that bend and bleed as if under water. There are transparent walls with poster-sized photos and quotations, and near the end is a maze of office drawers, floor-to-ceiling, labeled with character names. They even turned some of Kafka’s simple but compelling drawings of stick figures into an animated video. But aside from a few first-edition books, there was, for me, too little of the “real.” Everything a facsimile, a copy, an artful and interpretive reproduction. Smoke, mirrors.
"And now--with a flourish, as though it were not the first time--I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot." - from Kafka, "Description of a Struggle"
It turns out I like the real stuff. I wanted, as in Charles Dickens’ London house, to be able to walk on Kafka’s floor, see his desk and writing implements, touch his dining room table, view the same scene through a window, and walk the thresholds between rooms. At the Kafka museum I thought, Couldn’t they at least have gotten a jacket that he wore? A hat? A pen that he held? He hasn’t been dead that long.
But Kafka has not been Kafka for so very long, so his stuff was probably not preserved. Prague’s authorities (first fascists then communists) ignored him for most of the century. His stories, it seems, were too close for comfort. The Soviets loosened up a bit in general in the 60s, and they allowed Kafka to surface in as far as his works seemed to critique the Nazis, from whom the Soviets had “liberated” Prague.
But it is democracy and capitalism that has turned Kafka into Kafka. Which is Kafkaesque indeed.
KELCEY PARKER ERVICK is the author of The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, a work of biography, memoir, and art. Her first book, For Sale By Owner, tells short stories of suburban surrealities. Her second book, Liliane's Balcony, tells ghost stories at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. She teaches creative writing at Indiana University South Bend.