Archives For Letters to Dead Authors

Book Launch Party!

November 16, 2016 — Leave a comment

for The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová! There will be Czech beer, snacks provided by Evil Czech Brewery, and trippy video footage of Prague. Thursday, 11/17/16 at 7pm at Langlab in South Bend, Indiana.


“Parker Ervick has transported me to Prague and shown the blending of fairy tales, history, and cultures laying the groundwork for Kafka’s surrealism (and exported far away, magic realism). With a touch of her magic, Parker Ervick plays with the shrouds of mystery surrounding Božena’s life and origins.”

– Josip Novakovich
author of April Fool’s Day, finalist Man Booker International 2013

Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake.


fresno-saroyan-statueDear William,

You’re everywhere and nowhere. There’s an elementary school named after you. There’s a bronze statue. A dedicated society perpetuates your name. Your signature, rendered in huge silver letters, adorns the Saroyan Theatre at the Fresno Convention Center; the stage has hosted countless concerts by the Fresno Philharmonic, the Fresno Grand Opera, the Fresno Ballet, and performers from all over the world, in every artistic genre. To the visitors passing through, your legacy in the San Joaquin Valley must seem mighty indeed.

william20saroyanYou divided your last years between Paris and Fresno. I can’t think of two more different cities, at least in how they appear in one’s imagination. A decade ago, when I felt trapped in Fresno, its heat and flatness and provincialism combining to make a prison I longed to escape, I took comfort in the idea you kept returning here from Paris. I searched for what brought you back. I needed it, whatever it was, for myself.

Now your former house sits vacant, in a neighborhood turning beige: the faded stucco, the grass, the heavy dust. It’s sad to see. Not as sad, however, as the state of Fresno’s bookshelves. Your books, those odd, funny, beautiful books, which you wrote quickly and with the rarest of literary attributes—with heartbreaking joy—where are they now? How is it possible to see your name everywhere, to grow up knowing your name, but never read the words that made you famous? I fear that if it weren’t for exhumation via the internet (thank you, AbeBooks) I might only know your name. What does that mean for writers? Especially for writers who come from the other California, the San Joaquin Valley?

What would you say, William? In the title page of My Name is Aram, you wrote:

The writer returns these pleasant memories to the world of Fresno, California, from the year 1915 to the year 1925 (from the time he was seven years old and was beginning to inhabit the world as a specific person to the time he was seventeen years old and had forsaken his native valley for some of the rest of the world), and to the members of his immediate family in that world during those years. That is to say, to the ugly little city containing the large comic world, and to the proud and angry Saroyans containing all humanity.

A little, ugly place. A proud, angry people. I think there’s something like a reason in these lines for why you’ve fallen out of print, especially in your hometown. And yet, the memories are pleasant.

I can tell you what I’d like: I’d like you to cast the same long shadow over valley writers as Faulkner casts over writers from the ethically challenged state of Mississippi. I want to arm-wrestle a literary legacy of your quality and quantity, though I would be beaten before for the contest begins. I would like the contest, in losing it, to leave my voice a little bruised, a little twisted, much as the fight with his William left Barry Hannah’s voice crooked and deranged. Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake. One must find the words that led to the statue being made in the first place. And with you, my William, that’s not been easy.


I suppose by now I’ve let you down. I’ve included none of the things in my letter to you that make your stories so rich. There’s been no food to eat, no trees to shade us from the warm day, no sunny rooms in which to enjoy conversation. I’ve talked, instead, about fighting and cynicism. Violence, when it appears in your stories, is seldom the bleeding knuckle kind, but rather the spiritual kind: a death in a distant war, hitting home in the form of a telegram; the pain of displacement and genocide, rendered in narrators who speak hilariously of uncles, cousins, and friends. Your characters refuse to believe that evil deeds cancel out the beauty of good people. In fact, they work to insure that it never will. It must speak to the privilege and relative peace of my time, compared to yours, that I welcome violence and cynicism in my writing, whereas you guarded strongly against it. I’ve done the unforgivable, I think: I’ve complained.

Let me try to redeem myself. It’s May 2003, and I’m in my classroom at Kerman High School, twenty miles west of Fresno. The door stands open, and that hard valley light manages to coax a shine out of the asbestos tile floors, unwaxed since last July. The students move between periods. I hear snatches of things as they walk past, talking with friends. Here only outcasts must walk to class alone.

The most gifted student I’ve ever taught comes in carrying a purse large enough for a woman three times her age, which, I suspect, in her soul she truly is, and from my desk she picks up a copy of My Name is Aram. It’s the Laurel Edition from Dell Publishing, an economic paperback with illustrations by Don Freeman. She thumbs the pages then presses her nose into the crack, breathes deep.

“I’ve never read him,” she says.

“Borrow it,” I say. “Bring it back when you’ve read him.”

She lays the enormous purse at her feet and begins lifting out binders, textbooks, a spiral bound journal, more things than I’ve ever considered carrying around with me, and rearranging the contents so your book won’t be mangled in a landslide of bigger, meaner books. As she does this, she holds My Name is Aram in her mouth. A few days later, when she brings it back to me, I notice that the soft cover holds the semi-circular imprint of her teeth.

Since that day in my classroom I’ve been struggling to understand something important, which I’ll try to put down here. It’s good to have memories of Fresno, but it’s a hard place to live. Perhaps that’s why you chose the word forsaking to describe leaving “for some of the rest of the world,” because the same things that make the valley hard for us also tie our hearts there. I left the valley ten years ago, but I write about it every day, walking the family vineyards and the streets of Caruthers in my imagination. I also still have that cheap, chewed copy of My Name is Aram to remind me what it feels like to be bookish in a small valley town. Hungry, that is, for something to explain the conflict of loving and hating your home. Your books help me make sense of my place and my impossible feelings for it.

I hope the next daydreaming child of Fresno who reads your name on a sign won’t have to wait so long to find out the writer you really are.


[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]


John Carr Walker’s first book, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside), was a Small Press Distribution Best of the Press pick and a featured title on Late Night Library’s Debut podcast. His writing has been appearing in literary journals since 2007 and in 2014 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2012 he was awarded a Fishtrap Fellowship for an early draft of his novel-in-progress, “Get.” A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.

William Saroyan (1908-1982) was born and died in Fresno, California, and many of Saroyan’s stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley, or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy and the colorful characters of his immigrant family.


You suffered from Still’s Disease beginning in childhood. You never married or had children. You never served in the military or participated in combat or marches or sailing. But I suspect you knew pain. I suspect you knew longing.


Dear Ms. Sutcliff,

Right off I’ll say that it doesn’t seem right for me to call you “Rosemary.” First of all, you’re British, which suggests a certain formality. Also, you’ve been dead for nearly twenty-four years and you were born in 1920, so you’re much older than I am, and the polite, Midwestern boy inside me just can’t bring himself to call an elder by her first name. But the real reason for the formal address is simple—I’m not your equal. You’re so far above me as a writer—and probably as a person—that we can’t really be on a first-name basis. We just can’t.

You’re probably wondering why I’m bothering you. (If you can be bothered at all. You may be “experiencing” eternal nothingness, and this letter will never reach you. That scares me quite a bit actually, but I think I’d be better served by having that conversation with my therapist.) Still, it might seem odd that a middle-aged, suspense novelist—a guy who writes contemporary stories about missing people and weird crimes and unsolved murders set in middle America—would choose to write to a deceased British historical novelist who primarily wrote about Roman Britain, and whose work was often classified as young adult (although I think that label, like all genre labels, is limiting.) So why am I bothering your eternal rest, Ms. Sutcliff?

Simple. I think you’re one of the best novelists I’ve ever read.

About five years ago, a movie was made based on your most famous book, THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH. The movie was simply called THE EAGLE, and it starred Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell. (You probably don’t know them unless you’ve become omniscient in the next life, but the former is dreamy, the latter is no relation to me.) I occasionally read historical fiction, and I’d heard your book was excellent. So I bought it. At the time, I was in a bit of a reading slump. Nothing sounded good. Nothing I picked up grabbed me. I just wanted a good story, one with full-blooded characters and rich writing, a story that had everything—love, war, a father-son relationship, honor, duty, regret. I wasn’t asking for too much, was I?

Well, you delivered. Big time. It’s a simple enough story. Marcus Flavia Aquila is a Roman soldier who is haunted by the disappearance of his father—also a soldier—in battle. Not only did his father’s entire legion disappear without a trace north of Hadrian’s Wall, the legion’s standard—the eagle of the title—disappeared as well. This was a big deal to the Romans, sort of like when your rival high school steals your school’s mascot and spray paints it with their colors…except much, much worse. No other Roman legion had ever lost their standard. When Marcus Aquila is severely wounded in battle and mustered out of the army, he decides to risk everything by travelling in disguise north of the wall—where no Roman went anymore—accompanied only by his faithful slave, Esca, in order to find the lost standard and restore his father’s honor.

Is a story published in the 1950s and set in the second century A.D. still relevant to modern readers? Yes, if you live in a country with a number of wounded veterans returning from war haunted by their experiences. And, yes, if you think it’s worth questioning whether a powerful country (empire) might have overextended itself in an attempt to bring “light” to every corner of the earth. Yes, if you think a child can be plagued by the mistakes of a parent long after that parent is gone. Yes, if you’ve ever been young and in love. And, yes, if you’ve ever had to leave someone you love behind.

And, Ms. Sutcliff, I’d like to point out that I’m even more impressed that you wrote all these books from a wheelchair because you suffered from Still’s Disease beginning in childhood. You never married or had children. You never served in the military or participated in combat or marches or sailing. But I suspect you knew pain. I suspect you knew longing. And your imagination and understanding of the human heart make up for all of it.

I’ve bothered you long enough. I hope you know your books are still alive where we live. Even if you are in perpetual nothingness, your writing lives on. And your writing should, and probably will, live on for a very long time. Some things are eternal.


David Bell



[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

613ldubmo3l-_ux250_David Bell is the author of Cemetery Girl (2011), The Hiding Place (2012), Never Come Back (2013), The Forgotten Girl (2014), Somebody I Used to Know (2015), and Since She Went Away (2016), all published by NAL, a division of Penguin Random House. Originally from Cincinnati, he is an associate professor and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Western Kentucky University.

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote more than 40 historical novels for young adults-including The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, The Sword and the Circle, and Black Ships Before Troy-five adult novels, and several books of nonfiction.

Would aliens have the same reaction to your work as some of your contemporary critics, who were humans?

How does it feel to continue to be suppressed, now in space?

Dear Monsieur Charles Baudelaire,

Let me just start by telling you that I’m not one of your devotees. I’ve read some of your poems, and I’ve felt their raw power, that pumping vein in them, but I never tried to claim you. I like decadence, it’s tolerable enough, but it’s not for me.

I struggled for a while wondering if I should even write this letter to you. There are plenty of other authors involved with the Golden Record—the collection of sounds, images, music, and greetings that were attached to the two Voyager scientific probes and then launched into space more than a hundred years after your death. The message on the record is there in case either of them are ever found, by future humans or some other form of life. There is Carl Sagan, most importantly; the record was his brainchild. But I feel as if I talk to Sagan frequently. My entire book The Voyager Record feels like some form of contact with him. The record also involves Jimmy Carter, a former president of the United States, an author of many books. His contribution to the record, coincidentally, is a letter. It won’t get an answer, and neither will mine: he addressed his letter to life forms that may not even exist, I’m writing this one to you, someone who doesn’t exist anymore.

What does a dead author want to say to the universe?


I ask because—you may not be aware of this, I may be the first to write to you about it—one of your poems appears on the record. A part of one of your poems, actually: the first two stanzas of “Élévation” from Les Fleurs du mal.

The selection was not made by the committee Carl Sagan put together to curate the record’s contents. It was chosen to be read by the French delegate from the United Nations Outer Space Committee, Bernadette Lefort, as one of the greetings from Earth to potential extraterrestrials. I suspect she read “Élévation” (translated here) because of its description of flying free of the confines of the known world, and loving every second of it.

Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par del
à le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par del
à les confins des sphères étoilées,

Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se p
âme dans londe,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l
immensité profonde
Avec une indicible

But there is a complicated hitch. The recording of your poem is not the full first two stanzas of the poem: the last line of the second stanza has been truncated. Cut in half. At exactly the point where the poem’s undeniable erotic content reveals itself. The full last line of that stanza—“Avec une indicible et mâle volupté”—does not appear.

You were the kind of poet to invoke “unspeakable masculine joy.” That probably means fucking, right? I am going to go with that reading. It’s explicit content such as that which led many critics to denounce your work, to the point where some of it was even officially suppressed by the authorities.


“The Yellow Scale,” a painting of Baudelaire by Franz Kupka

I think that kind of knee jerk reaction is why the recording of the poem cuts short at that point. It’s very specific. Without that line everything that comes before can be read only as an analogy for flying through space, not for having sex. The “love with the immensity” could be no other immensity than space. Not a body, not a space between bodies.

I read the poem this way and hear it disappear as Lefort’s voice is suddenly silenced. It feels like a frantic cut. A nervous move. This was probably ass-coverage: the material on the Voyager record were being highly scrutinized for sexually explicit content since the record and Voyager were something of a follow-up to the earlier Pioneer 10 & 11’s plaque. This plaque included a depiction of a fully naked man and woman, an image that many people did not find appropriate to send into space. Some people even wrote letters to NASA.

It’s also ironic that something you yourself call “unmentionable” or “unspeakable” is never read out loud.

You are a dead author more than some other authors are dead. You get taught in schools now, by people who have tenure, and you died broke, and I think you wouldn’t want to be taught if you could sit in on a class covering your own work. You would be a nightmare to have in a class. That is death for the dead, I think, living on as someone else’s thesis.

Would aliens have the same reaction to your work as some of your contemporary critics, who were humans? It would be a testament to the strength of your work if among all the contents of the Voyager record your poem would be the one to raise their ire. How does it feel to continue to be suppressed, now in space?

You’re not the only poet to appear on the Golden Record. There’s Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory” too. Unlike your poem however, Martinson’s appears in its entirety. This is a poem that is wholly about the science of space. I don’t think the poem’s wholesomeness and its wholeness are unrelated. Martinson was also a winner of a Nobel prize in literature. It’s an honor that, even if it had been given out during your lifetime, you would never have won.

Dive past those first two stanzas and your poem is less and less about space, and more about what it is to think like a poet: to be bored with the failure of the world, to think that you can hear things that no one else can. Self-centered. Dirty. But it’s a human self-centeredness, and a human desire for more of the world.

It seems like something an alien life form might like to know about us. It seems like the kind of thing that we have poetry for.

Yours truly,

Anthony Michael Morena


[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

210a56_ad839d2428b140498087c92fada0238dAnthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv. In 2015 he received his MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University. His poetry and prose have appeared or will soon in The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Flapperhouse, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He has also been a guest editor for The Ilanot Review and a regular reader for Gigantic Sequins, a good-looking, biannual, black & white literary arts journal. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (Rose Metal Press 2016) is his first book.

Charles Baudelaire was a 19th century French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on Les Fleurs du mal; (1857; The Flowers of Evil) which was perhaps the most important and influential poetry collection published in Europe in the 19th century–an excerpt of which was sent to outer space on the Golden Record.


I have still probably read more of your work than that of any other writer, a calculation that I now make with alarm and slight nausea, as if I’ve just figured out how many total gallons of Mountain Dew I have consumed in the past 44 years.


Mr. Clavell:

Given that you and I do not know one another—and, owing to your death in 1994, never will—I trust you will either appreciate or forgive the formality of my salutation. It is, after all, something that I learned from you, or more precisely from your 1981 novel Noble House, in which you depict British residents of Hong Kong wincing at the presumptuous overfamiliarity of visiting Americans. The rules of style and decorum that we learn in our early teens shape us for life, and today, more than thirty years after I read the book, I still always hesitate to use first names in professional correspondence—even though I’m no longer certain whether your intent was to critique the cloddish Yankees or the stuffy expat Brits.

I’m not sure how well I understood it at the time—the time being the mid-1980s, for me the end of junior high, the beginning of high school—but these sorts of cross-cultural frictions and flirtations were your great subject, one that you pursued in a confident, energetic, entertaining, trashy, reductive, and extremely problematic manner over the course of about 6000 mass-market-paperback pages, from your 1962 debut King Rat to your 1993 career capstone Gai-Jin. I confess that I pulled the plug after the excesses of 1986’s Whirlwind—wherein over the course of eight or nine pages you memorably introduce a character, set out his elaborate backstory (which includes distant familial connections to characters in your other novels) and then kill him off, never to mention him again—but it terms of total volume I have still probably read more of your work than that of any other writer, a calculation that I now make with alarm and slight nausea, as if I’ve just figured out how many total gallons of Mountain Dew I have consumed in the past 44 years.

Shogun coverMy route in was the same one taken by most others: the 1980 NBC miniseries adaptation of your 1975 novel Shōgun. Given the many warnings of mature content with which it was garlanded when it originally aired, my parents didn’t let me see any of it, although I’m pretty sure I heard most of it from an adjacent room, which was probably even more captivating. When NBC reran it a few years later, I was deemed old enough to watch, and watch I did, as it aired and again on videotape. My father had the paperback—which I imagine he, like an estimated 2.1 million other Americans, purchased during the original broadcast—and I psyched myself up to tackle it: the first novel written for adults that I can remember reading without being assigned to do so.

Though the miniseries was appealing to me in the same way it was appealing to pretty much everyone—i.e. as a lavish and lurid production, set in a vividly-evoked world—it held a more specific attraction, as well. To one such as me, who had proven less than adept at navigating the social rituals of my own clan, the narrative of John Blackthorne’s gradual metamorphosis from scurvy English sailor to respected samurai was an encouraging reminder that culture is a choice (although not one that all are equally free to make, to be sure). Your portrayal of this individualistic and willful bucking of convention—pitched, like all your work, somewhere between T.E. Lawrence and Ayn Rand—found a very receptive audience in teenaged me.

In retrospect, Richard Chamberlain’s performance as Blackthorne was probably broadcasting on yet another, more subtle channel—presenting a queerish fantasy of escape from a crass and brutal homosocial shipboard environment into a realm of disciplined aestheticism and clean silk kimonos—that was very compelling to a kid like me: straight, but not performatively so. There is, of course, a longstanding association between orientalism and queerness, with the former providing a frame and coded language to discuss the latter, but to the extent that that’s at work in the miniseries, it seems to be absent from your printed pages. While your books—particularly your first and best novel, King Rat—do depict ambiguities of sexuality and gender, they pass over them fairly quickly. For all your concern with difference, you rarely dwell on any kind of ambiguity at all. Yours is a world of steady certainties and Gordian-knot solutions.

And that’s pretty much where you lost me. Over thousands and thousands of pages, what finally became wearing were your functional, essentialist characterizations: the simplicity of your psychological machinery. This is as true for your “Western” characters—your stoic Englishmen, your bold Scots, your brash Americans, your scheming Portuguese, your earthy Dutch, your hearty Finns . . . there seems to have been no nationality you couldn’t harpoon with a single adjective—as it is for your Asian ones; this, more than anywhere else, is where your conservatism becomes apparent. But when an Anglo-American writer assumes the authority to capture non-Western cultures in a few very broad strokes, that writer is participating in a tradition that carries a ton of nasty baggage, even—maybe even especially—if that writer comes to the subject with sincere fascination and admiration.

ch9l1vww0aevhveAnd yet I still can’t quite disown you, or condemn your project in its entirety. Partly this is because you seemed aware—particularly in your early novels—that you could and should do better than your predecessors. Although Brits are your heroes and your point-of-view characters, and although you often feint toward the tradition of depicting white men as decisive leaders riding in to straighten out the backward Asians (e.g. Blackthorne is building a warship for his patron, Lord Toranaga, in order to challenge the naval dominance of the Portuguese), you generally flip this tradition on its head and show it as a manifestation of your protagonists’ hubris (e.g. Toranaga, who is playing a longer diplomatic game, burns Blackthorne’s unfinished ship). That said, while you may undercut the apparent superiority of your white protagonists, your own authority to depict remains unquestioned within the books themselves.

The idea that I can’t seem to shake—the one that leads me to revisit my young-adult binge on your work, the one that I will now advance with some trepidation in this letter to you—is that there might be something redeemable in the orientalist impulse: not praiseworthy, surely, but forgivable, even potentially beneficial. Without a doubt, orientalist fictions like yours are guilty of infractions for which they should be held to account, their blithe instrumental appropriation of complex human experience foremost among them. But at the inarticulate root of this impulse there is perhaps a motive that can be redirected toward positive ends: a certain xenophilic thrill, an attraction to what is different. In keeping with the undercurrent of much orientalist art, I am tempted to apply a sexual analogy: while the most successful and desirable pairings-off are prompted by a shared compassion that’s immediate and profound, many couples of long standing are initially drawn together by a superficial erotic connection, and love and respect emerge over time. Eros is not as sustaining as philia and agape, but we still call it love.

Whenever I find myself on the verge of disavowing our past affiliation, I take a moment to recall the subject of your first book, and what seems to have drawn you toward Asian cultures: the fact that you were a Japanese prisoner during World War II. You very easily could have reacted to your captivity and harsh treatment by developing enmity toward Japanese culture, or by simply ignoring or avoiding it, but you chose instead to immerse yourself in it and embrace it—initially, perhaps, to master the thing that had mastered you, but ultimately, I think, from a genuine desire to connect with dissimilar humanity. A key task of fiction is to explore and imaginatively inhabit consciousnesses that are unlike our own; therefore I choose to credit you with acting toward this end, and to forgive—but not forget—the ways in which you were unable to make good on its full promise.

May you rest in peace,

Martin Seay


[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]


Martin Seay’s first novel, The Mirror Thief, has just been released by Melville House. He lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.

Born in Australia as a British subject and later naturalized as an American citizen, James Clavell (1921–1994) was the successful screenwriter of films including The Fly, The Great Escape, and To Sir, with Love before he became a best-selling novelist.



How does a writer go about constructing such an elaborate puzzle, pacing out the clues without it feeling cheap, tying in character names without hitting the reader over the head with the answer?

Dear Ellen Raskin,

I wanted to write you a note of gratitude for writing The Westing Game, because it felt like a real milestone of a book for me when I was a kid. Even though it was short, it felt challenging and it built my confidence in a major way. I felt ready to read anything after that. But then I got nervous.

What if I’m misremembering? What if the book is full of racism and weak female characters and I was too trapped in the story to notice when I was 9 or however old I was when I read it? I mean, let’s be honest, I’ve only started noticing that sort of stuff in the past decade after years of looking, only now am I beginning to see some of it. Even a whole grade before The Westing Game, when I read Jean Marzollo’s Soccer Sam, whose purpose it is to talk about accepting people from other cultures, I was like, “We can all like something new!” I didn’t get that it was about racism. I was oblivious, but that doesn’t mean those lessons weren’t there, quietly doing their work.

But, you! You accomplish so much with such a light hand. Turtle Wexler, the youngest character in The Westing Game, is a strong, female kid: a whiz at investing, a marvel of self defense tactics, defiant of authority in her refusal to conform to her mother’s prescribed beauty norm, but still sympathetic to her older sister who has fallen prey to that sinister web, Turtle is 100% role model, and your editor, if the story is true, was smart to tell you to amp up her presence. Turtle provides an easy point of access for kids, allows them to believe a kid is on the same level, if not superior to all the adults teaming and scheming throughout the book. But you don’t stop with Turtle. Judge Ford is cast as a single woman of color. The immigrant character, Mrs. Hoo, is way smarter than people give her credit for. The disabled character is multi-faceted and afforded plenty of agency. The book provides opportunities to talk about all of these different identity definers, but the book isn’t actually about any of these issues—they exist as facts of the characters lives, just like in real life.

jacket1As a children’s bookseller at a feminist bookstore in Chicago, parents would often ask for recommendations of books showing kid characters of different races and family structures and economic backgrounds. They were always grateful when I handed them books that weren’t Heather Has Two Mommies or a biography of the childhood of Martin Luther King. They didn’t need an education; they just needed some diversity in the background of the whodunit. Of course, you stopped short of having a queer couple in the book, but you still pushed boundaries, ones that I’m sure seemed risky in 1978, and sadly still bear discussion today. But you let the mystery lead the way, and the details of identity fill up the stakes.

Rereading The Westing Game as an adult, I caught onto some clues of the puzzle a little earlier than I did when I was a kid, like the “America the Beautiful” word game that drives most of the plot, and the delicate wording of the will, but my maturity only allowed me to marvel at these gymnastics all the more. For one: how does a writer go about constructing such an elaborate puzzle, pacing out the clues without it feeling cheap, tying in character names without hitting the reader over the head with the answer. The short version of my question is, “Where did you begin?” You must be an outliner. I’m not, and your book makes me mourn the years I’ve lost not trying to cultivate this skill, not because I think I could approach your genius, but because this book is such a clear example of the value that’s added by structure and surprise, meting out narrative pleasure in such perfect intervals.


I found a copy of the copious notes you took while planning the book and I’m really just floored by the thought you put into each character’s name and the way you mapped the clues. Even more though, I’m impressed at the extent to which you thought carefully about the design. Of course, you were also an illustrator, so it makes sense that you sketched your idea for the cover early in the process, but you went so much farther: You recommended the margin width to match that of an eleven-year-old’s thumb so they could hold the book open easily. Say what? That takes some some serious UX consideration. You wanted to break up the text, adding lots of line breaks and bullets so that readers could rest their eyes and not become fatigued by monster blocks of text. As an adult reader, I can tell you I appreciate such courtesies even now. My favorite books are generous with the line breaks. It’s an intuitive choice—give people the space to think while they’re reading—but it’s a tactic I use myself now often and always breathe a sigh of relief at finding in the books I pick up to read.

It seems like an obvious thing to say that writing a children’s book is a lot harder than it looks. The pacing has to be spot on. The characters have to be credible and silly at the same time. There’s no option to leave mysteries unsolved or loose ends untied, but lots of pressure to teach lessons and leave the reader with an easily summarized moral. If pressed, The Westing Game could be said to be a book about greed, about the importance of sharing. One might also say it’s about pushing ourselves not to think the lazy thoughts, but to dig deeper: into our consideration of others, as well as into each problem posed to us.

Thank you for writing a book that holds up so well, that was so compassionate and smart, and that demonstrated such faith in your readers. I’m sure I’m not the only child whose confidence was shored up by this book. Thank you.

Your devoted reader,



[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]


Jac Jemc is the author of The Grip of It, forthcoming from FSG Originals in 2017. Her first novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books) was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award, and her collection of stories, A Different Bed Every Time (Dzanc Books) was named one of Amazon’s best story collections of 2014. She edits nonfiction for Hobart.


Ellen Raskin
was a writer, illustrator, and designer. She was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and grew up during the Great Depression. She primarily wrote for children. She received the 1979 Newbery Medal for her 1978 book, The Westing Game. Raskin was also an accomplished graphic artist. She designed dozens of dust jackets for books including the first edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time.



And oh, the momentum of your thoughts, and of your prose.


“Keep Miss Welty Weird”


Dear Miss Welty:

I guess I’m writing you, a “Dead Author,” to express my thankfulness that in your case that phrase doesn’t fully apply. I mean, sure, yes, I acknowledge that you’re no longer a living, breathing, aboveground Mississippian—but a Dead Author, as opposed to a Dead Person, is one who’s no longer read and delighted at and grappled with and mulled over, and I’m here to say that that’s not the case, at least wherever I can help it, and to plump for it never to be the case.


“fierce and funny and wondrous-strange”

I made a mistake along these lines once, back in 1998. You were still a Living Person, but the Library of America seemed to declare you, three years prematurely, a Dead Author. What were they doing, I wondered, giving you the full grand LoA treatment that should be reserved for the Canon of the Dead: glossy black cover, your name in an elegant script; miraculous tight binding that makes the books little bricks, little tombstones along a shelf; that paper not onionskin but kinda-sorta in the direction of onionskinny; and, most of all, the built-in ribbon of bookmark like the one in my grandmother’s Bible? I was indignant on your behalf. No doubt you were frail, given that you were coming up on ninety, and I had no idea about the likelihood of your ever writing again and thus no way of arguing against the logic of what they did. But it seemed at least a little, you know, icky—like they were chivvying you toward the door, a literary instance of “Here’s your hat what’s your hurry?” Did they not realize that you must embalm before you immortalize?

But the older I get, the more I think that, unseemly as it was, they might have had it right. The Library of America wasn’t as skittish or as sentimental as I was about the distinction between person and author. They were acting early on the idea that, as Nabokov expressed it in his early novella The Eye (if you were a live person instead of merely a live author, I’d suggest that you read or reread it, if you felt inclined, so that we might—if you’d consent—chat about it one afternoon next week), “After death human thought lives on by momentum.” They couldn’t save you from small-d death, but they could forestall the damn capital. They had their eye on what you might call an objective of the longer term.


“fuck-you shadow”

And oh, the momentum of your thoughts, and of your prose. That momentum has swept me along for fifteen years without you now, and I expect it will carry me for as long as I can sidestep the reaper myself. I’ll do my best to pass it on, too.

I balk at bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird” (or Keep Asheville Weird, or keep weird whatever thing we like to believe in the originality of but see slipping away, changing, perhaps rubbed away by veneration like those old saints’ statues whose noses first get shiny and then get gone), but I had occasion—honestly, the way I saw it, what I had was excuse—to write an essay for The Oxford American a few years ago that might have been titled “Keep Miss Welty Weird.” There are so many people these days who seem to think of you as having been a kind of quaint, elegant, starchy, and above all elderly southern lady, rather than the bold and playful young woman whose fuck-you shadow haunts the foreground of some of those amazing WPA photographs, rather than the woman, fierce and funny and wondrous-strange, who wrote stories like “No Place for You, My Love.”

I read a passage today in Charles Portis’s Norwood in which he says of a cage for a fortune-telling chicken that “it had once served as a humane catch-‘em-alive mink trap, and in fact no mink had ever entered it, such was its humanity.” For some reason that put me in mind of you . . . and in my way of reckoning, it thus saved you both, a little. Don’t think, though, that I’m claiming such thinking is selfless, much less heroic; I think about you because it saves me, too.


Michael Griffith



[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

michael-griffithMichael Griffith’s books are Trophy, Bibliophilia: A Novella and Stories and Spikes: A Novel; his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in New England Review, Salmagundi, Oxford American, Southwest Review, Five Points, Virginia Quarterly Review, Golf World, and The Washington Post, among other periodicals. Formerly Associate Editor of the Southern Review, he is now Associate Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati and Fiction Editor of the Cincinnati Review. He is also the Editor of Yellow Shoe Fiction, an original-fiction series from LSU Press.

Eudora Alice Welty (April 13, 1909 – July 23, 2001) was an American short story writer and novelist who wrote about the American South. Her novel The Optimist’s Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. Welty was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous awards including the Order of the South. She was the first living author to have her works published by the Library of America. While Welty worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration, she took photographs of people from all economic and social classes in her spare time. From the early 1930s, her photographs show Mississippi’s rural poor and the effects of the Great Depression. (wikipedia)

…there you were, insecure and filled with longing as I was for the same reason, willing to forego comfort, to risk failure and absurdity, to do the preposterous thing that no one really wanted us to do…


Dear Larry,

I’m calling you Larry because you’re dead–how could you mind? I’d intended to write you while you lived, but then you went and died, too soon, at the age of 53, surprising us all I’m guessing. I first learned about your work when I was living in Maryland, a few years before I decided to attend graduate school for creative writing. The Washington Post ran an article about you and your most recent book, On Fire. I was attracted to the book and your story, probably the way many people are attracted to the lives and stories that can never be theirs. As a child, I had fantasized about doing boy things–playing baseball, fighting fires, flying planes–but I was not the kind of girl to push her way into worlds where she wasn’t welcome (let’s leave aside the issue of skill and potential for success). I was timid but sassy enough to be grumpy about all the places I couldn’t go.

GetFileAttachmentAnyway, I bought your book for my firefighter brother, but I read it before I gave it to him. I fell in love with your voice, your wry humor, the way you sounded so settled and comfortable in your own skin; you had nothing to prove. I don’t know if that’s how you were in life, but that’s how you sounded on the page.

Then I fell in love with your beautiful stories in Big Bad Love. The voice again (“My dog died,” the dry humor, the spot-on drunk and heavily accented Mississippi dialogue (“‘Vemma. You know Vemma?’ “Velma? Velma White?’…’Vemma’s gossum good pussy'”). The desire plaguing your characters transcended gender. Leon Barlow, the aspiring writer of “92 Days,” kept on, even though he’d lost his family, his job, and his money. I could be Leon Barlow–you were Leon Barlow, before you became Larry Brown, author, some time after Larry Brown, United States Marine and Larry Brown, Oxford, Mississippi firefighter. A space and persona we both could inhabit: there you were, insecure and filled with longing as I was for the same reason, willing to forego comfort, to risk failure and absurdity, to do the preposterous thing that no one really wanted us to do; the world doesn’t beg would-be writers to write in the same way it encourages students into accountancy, nursing, teaching. You might have been a more unlikely writer than I, but you came from that magic town of storied storytellers, and surely no one could be very surprised to find you enchanted.

Shortly after your death, my husband and I had a minor car accident in Cumberland, Maryland. We weren’t hurt, but our car was. Without phones or cash, we banged on the door of the Moose Lodge (now defunct, replaced by a carpet warehouse). Inside, the bar manager, Budroe, let us use his phone (wallpaper: Golden Retriever) and gave us beers. The story I set in Cumberland features a dead character named Larry and a narrator trying to cope with his demise. They’d been having an affair. At the end, she’s left holding a crock of baked beans, shut out of the community, understanding that she needs to move on. She’s been stalled, you see, occupying space that didn’t belong to her. The fantasies, so vivid! Other people’s jobs, lives, spouses, writing prompts. I still adore your prose, and I embarrass myself by reading aloud to my students the drunk dialogue in “92 Days,” except I’m so besotted with your words that truly I feel no shame. Thank you for the joy, and thank you for being one of my literary fathers. I would never admit that last bit, if you were still living, pride being what it is.


Margaret Luongo


[This is the third post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]


Margaret Luongo

Margaret Luongo is a short story writer who teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction at Miami of Ohio. Her stories have appeared in Tin House, The Cincinnati Review,, The Pushcart Prize anthology and elsewhere. She is the author of two story collections, If the Heart is Lean (2008) and History of Art (2016), both published by LSU Press. A discussion of her new collection can be found here.

Larry Brown (1951-2004) is a writer from Oxford, Mississippi, who wrote two story collections, six novels, and two books of nonfiction. His sixth novel, A Miracle of Catfish, was published, unfinished, after his death. Before becoming a writer, Brown failed a high school english course, served two years in the Marine Corps and seventeen years as a firefighter in the Oxford City fire department. His obituary can be found here.

“I also didn’t know back then how difficult it is to write the way you did. To write like you’re whispering into the reader’s ear rather than like you’re screaming into it. You made it look so easy I didn’t understand what an accomplishment that really was.”

Dear Nora,

I want to apologize. I want to apologize for not appreciating you enough when I was young.

Sure, I loved When Harry Met Sally as much as everyone else in America did, but, when it came out, I don’t think I understood the significance of what you were doing. At the age of nineteen, I just thought, Wow, I loved that movie. And, of course, I thought the same thing any young person thinks when they see or read something that makes them feel they’ve gotten a glimpse of what real grown-up love looks like. I thought, I want to grow up. I want to fall in love. I want a relationship like that. What I didn’t think about after I saw When Harry Met Sally or any of your other early movies—because I didn’t know—was the fact that you were one of only a handful of women writing and making movies for major Hollywood studios and that you were doing so in an industry that was and still is totally dominated by men. I know that now (in truth, I’ve known it for several years), but I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate your accomplishments sooner.

molly in college

Molly McCaffrey at 19, not yet appreciating Ephron

I did know I liked your female characters. I liked Sally. I liked Annie and Becky. I rooted for Rachel. I admired the hell out of Karen Silkwood. And I always loved Julia. I also knew I could relate to these women. But I wasn’t smart enough back then—remember I was still a teenager when I was first introduced to your work—to recognize how rare it was to find a female lead in a movie whom I liked or to whom I could relate. I thought there would be plenty of them. But, boy, was I wrong. Now I know how wrong I was. Now I know how hard it is to encounter a strong, independent female lead in a film, and I want to thank you for giving me so many over the years.

I also didn’t know back then how difficult it is to write the way you did. To write like you’re whispering into the reader’s ear rather than like you’re screaming into it. To write about things as simultaneously mundane and vital as finding the right apartment or raising your kids. You made it look so easy that I didn’t understand what an accomplishment that really was. And after seven years of studying writing in graduate school—seven years, Nora!—I finally learned that the way you wrote isn’t something we should take for granted. Not only does writing like that not come easy, it also takes courage to have the kind of authorial voice that doesn’t say, Hey, look at me, I’m smarter than everyone else! Or Hey, look at me! What I’m writing about is so big and important! No, you wrote in a regular way about regular things, and I’m sorry, too, that I didn’t give you enough credit for that when I was younger.


Nora Ephron

I certainly didn’t know how hard it was to get people to pay attention to stories about women because I grew up during the height of the women’s movement with a mother who dragged me to every feminist play or talk she could find. So, when I was young, it felt like those stories were everywhere. And I thought they always would be. But then I grew up and learned that not every woman wanted to be called a feminist, and I understood how lucky I was to have women like you (and my mother) in my life.

I guess what I’m saying is I didn’t know how difficult it would be just to be myself. And that’s why I so appreciate having a role model who has shown me how to do just that. Because you were always yourself, Nora—as a writer, as a spouse, as a mother, as a person. Sometimes when I worry about my career (which is really most of the time), I think about women like you who stayed true to themselves and still made it, and, for a few short minutes, I feel better about my future.

Molly fall 2015

Molly McCaffrey today

But I know all of that now—and have known it for some time, definitely since we lost you at far too young an age—and that’s why I feel compelled to write to you today. Yes, to apologize for not realizing it sooner. But also to thank you.

Thank you, Nora Ephron, for being one of the first women to write about strong, independent women who reminded me of myself. Thank you for being a woman who was willing to brave the Hollywood studio system. Thank you for being courageous enough to write in a way that speaks directly to your audience. Thank you for being a wonderful role model for both writers and women.

Thank you.

Molly McCaffrey


[This is the second post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

You Belong to Us front cover smallMolly McCaffrey is the author of You Belong to Us (memoir) and How to Survive Graduate School & Other Disasters (stories) and the founder of I Will Not Diet, a blog devoted to healthy living and body acceptance. She is also the co-editor of Commutability: Stories about the Journey from Here to There and the forthcoming Stuck in the Middle: Writing that Holds You in Suspense. She lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with her husband, David Bell. [Click here to learn more about How Molly McCaffrey Became a Writer.]

Nora Ephron was one of the most accomplished screenwriters of her time. She wrote and directed sixteen movies, including Silkwood (1983), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and Julie & Julia, all of which were nominated for Academy Awards. She also wrote two plays and eight books, both fiction and nonfiction. Ephron began her career as a White House intern during JFK’s presidency and then worked as a journalist for the New York Post. She continued to write for various news organizations, including Esquire, Cosmo, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post, until her 2012 death at the age of 71 from complications related to leukemia. She was married three times, and her second marriage to Carl Bernstein was the basis for her novel Heartburn, which was adapted to a film starring Meryl Strep and Jack Nicholson. Her third marriage to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi was the one that lasted, prompting her to write, “Secret to life, marry an Italian” for Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Ephron was also the mother of two children, one of whom made a documentary about his mother’s life called Everything is Copy, which is now showing on HBO.

Did you think about those years in Indiana so far away now in time and space?
Back then and back there, what was it you felt, so far away in time and space, reading Hesiod and Horace in the garden, marching in your imagination with Xenophon’s 10,000 to the sea?


Martone: “I grew up playing on Hamilton land in Hamilton Park. Edith’s sister Alice was one of the first woman MDs graduated from Yale. My Mother led the movement to have monumental statues erected in their honor in a downtown Fort Wayne park. They are a few of the few monumental statues of women in the country.”


Dear Miss Hamilton,

Where are you? In 1957, 90 years old, you are berthed in The Delphi Suite of the Greek luxury liner the S.S. Queen Frederika at sea en route to Athens where your translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound will be performed at the Herodes Atticus beneath the Acropolis. You are expecting Blanche Yurka, the actor cast as Io, who will broach the delicate subject of abbreviating the play before the performance. I know you will say Cut! All the geography can go. You amaze me. That, you, the author, well, you are not the author, Aeschylus is of course the author, the translator then, you the translator would so severely cut her words astonishes me. This description of a city, a town, this mountain range here, all of it was long ago local color, parochial interest. You would cut all of it!

Miss Yurka played a cow, a cow in such a classic theatrical production. Such stock livestock is always a result of fallout between Zeus who desires, it seems, anyone and everyone and Hera the constantly betrayed and vengeful wife. Hera was known as the ”Cow-eyed One” so perhaps being a bovine was not that bad? But the speeches are only mooing travelogues of the cow’s flight to Asia, the gadfly stinging her on. It reads almost like modern advertising. “Be sure to stop at this sacred grove.” “This water nymph is standing by to help you.” “That temple is open late.” No, these bits and pieces were all expendable.

Prometheus Bound is the actors’ worst nightmare, the director’s dead end. There is no action! It is like this letter to you there in the Delphi Suite on the SS Queen Frederika. Out to sea, indeed. Nothing going on but making speeches about speeches. Where is the action to act in that? The play is merely a bundle of recitations—don’t get me wrong these speeches contain some of the most magnificent poetry ever written and its themes are universal, timeless—with little drama. Prometheus, is shackled to a mountain right from the start—very hard to act when wrapped in chains—though I bet those new method actors would want to give it a go with their eyebrows alone. Miss Yurka will have a rough enough time engaging the audience with a stock-still cow decked out in horns just trying to keep her balance on buskin hooves and mooing out a pretty speech.

You must have been flattered, moved that this translation will be performed there at the Herodes Atticus, at the foot of the Acropolis, but I am surprised that this was the play chosen. Think, this play was written twenty-five hundred years ago and translated by this 90-year-old woman from, of all places, Indiana, about as far away from Acadia as one could get.

But there, in a place called Fort Wayne, you read ancient Greek and Latin, Hebrew and even a little Sanskrit in your father’s library. Rustic? Bucolic? You bet. No schools to speak of then. It was after the war, yes, the Civil War, in the shadow of all those depressions, economic, emotional. And yes, there were cows, like Dame Io, roaming the downtown streets, the front yards. And you put on your own plays, with your sisters and brother, your own actors and audience.

Did you think about those years in Indiana so far away now in time and space? Back then and back there, what was it you felt, so far away in time and space, reading Hesiod and Horace in the garden, marching in your imagination with Xenophon’s 10,000 to the sea?

And there you were, there in the Delphi suite, looking back into the past, looking forward to Athens and this grand performance you cut down to size.

You will be led to the stage. The king of Greece will give you some sort of cross. The Stoa above the theater, the Parthenon and the Temple of Zeus will be flooded with lights for the first time. And you will be made a Citizen of Athens. A Citizen of Athens, of the city you have for so long loved as much as your own country. A piece of paper from the mayor. It will be “the proudest moment of your life” or some such. Another speech. Speeches are only speech we must remember. But we also will never forget the stages, the places the speech is given. The context. The where. The where where.


[This is the very first post in the very new series, Letters to Dead Authors.]

Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is the author of several books, including Four for a Quarter, Michael Martone, and The Blue Guide to Indiana. He’s happy that, now, his computer actually counts the number of words allotted (he has been given 75) to tell his life story, like robotic Fates, measuring out the length of line, there, at the bottom of window frame, cutting him off at the exact

Describing her Ft. Wayne, Indiana childhood, Edith Hamilton said, “My father was well-to-do, but he wasn’t interested in making money; he was interested in making people use their minds.” And so he taught her the classics. In 1958 Life magazine called Edith Hamilton the “greatest living woman classicist.” Famous for her translations of Greek myths, she became an honorary citizen of Athens in 1957 at the age of 90.