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.


Fifteen years ago, a group of unpublished, aspiring writers met in McMicken Hall at the University of Cincinnati and spent the next several years drafting and discussing stories, reading and analyzing literary texts, drinking and smoking, dissertating and job-marketing. One by one we got jobs and moved away and kept writing and started publishing, and whenever we can, we get together to celebrate one another’s accomplishments (and catch up on our personal lives!).

Last night was one of those nights of celebration, in this case of Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres, which has been featured in, oh, you know: People, Elle, O. Magazine, and, last week, in the NY Times book review, which called it “deft and lovely.”


To which one might add, smart and magical and IMPORTANT in its emphasis on the lives of a group of girls at a transformative time of their lives. (I think of the line from Kathryn Davis’s Hell: “Two adolescent girls on a hot summer night—hardly the material of great literature, which tends to endow all male experience […] with universal radiance… Mightn’t we then permit a single summer in the lives of two bored girls to represent an essential stage in the history of the universe?”) Sarah endows her Guineveres with universal radiance, and the lives of girls is great literature indeed.

As we toasted several times last night: Cheers to The Guineveres!


First, I tried to get someone else to make my book trailer.

When that didn’t work, I got other people to HELP me make my book trailer. As I writer, I don’t often get to collaborate on creative projects, and it turned out to be a blast.

But you should watch it first:

Now that you have seen the trailer and know that The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is about a Czech fairy tale writer, you will understand why it is important that I happened to be in Prague this summer taking students on a study abroad trip. I was accompanied by my gentleman friend, whom I dragged around the city with a camera, and he helped me film moving shots of still statues (check out the opening pan up), and still shots of moving statues (Kafka’s swiveling head at minute 1:05!). We got footage on trams and of trams, on bridges and of them. We got a lot of footage.

Next, I wrote a script. Then rewrote it a few more times.

In the meantime, I contacted the Indiana University South Bend Instructional Media team and asked, “Can somebody please help me make a book trailer?” And they were like, “Sure, we can do it.”

Joel laid the ground rules. Joe would record the voices. Sky went to work on sorting through the video footage.

But we still didn’t have any background music to set the tone.

One night my gentleman friend and I watched a weird German movie, The Strange Little Cat, and we loved the music. So I did what you do: I googled the band and emailed the record company asking permission to use the music in my trailer. No answer. I wrote again. This time I got a response from Kim at Monotreme Records: “Yes, that should work!”

A few more email exchanges, a small fee, and the next thing I knew I had the rights to that hauntingly awesome music that plays throughout: “Pulchritude” by Thee More Shallows.

Meanwhile, we recorded the voices, which include my daughter (the first and last voice), my gentleman friend, and me. Sky was making great progress on the video editing, and the next thing I knew it was almost done. We just needed some audio for the credits.

Luckily, back in Prague, when I filmed Božena’s grave at the National Cemetery, I recorded the church bells as they rang and rang throughout the cemetery.

Did you watch all the way to the end? The bells are so beautiful.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová is now available for pre-order at Rose Metal Press. Free shipping!



You spoke of anything that has the power
“to surprise and enchant” us as “poetry.”


Dear René Magritte:

This is not a thank you note.

Or if you prefer, Ceci n’est pas une note de merci.

Only kidding! Of course it is—that’s just a joke based on La Trahison des Images, aka The Treachery of Images, aka “This is not a pipe,” probably about the millionth one. Are you tired of them yet? Or, since you were something of a lifelong jokester yourself, are you happy that people are still joking, inspired by you?


Thank you for being a writer’s painter.

That is to say, thank you for declaring often: “For me, a reproduction is enough! Like in literature, you don’t need to see a writer’s manuscript to be interested in his book!”

That is to say thank you for seeing your paintings less as precious objects and more as philosophical propositions: “It’s not a question of painting, but of thinking.”

Thank you, too, for being a painter who wrote.

That is to say, thank you for living up to your friend, the poet Guy Rosey’s statement in a letter to you that, “You are far from being the occasional writer you claim to be, but you are, in my eyes and in the eyes of many others, a poet who sheds an unforgettable light on himself and his painting.”

You died in 1967, well before I was born. I never got to meet you or your wife and model, Georgette, or your and Georgette’s shared series of beloved Pomeranian dogs, all called Loulou.  But I feel, now that I’ve worked on bringing your Selected Writings out in English, almost as though I’ve not only met but spent time with you all.

You thought in images, not novels or poems, but your paintings have always seemed to me very language-based, very narrative, very readable.

And you spoke of anything that has the power “to surprise and enchant” us as “poetry.”

Ren? Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009 øðä îàâøéè, áðå ùì àãí, 1964, øñèåøöéä ò"é ùîòåï éðåáéõ, 2009

The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009

And in your essay “Surrealism in the Sunshine” you offer this beautifully articulated strategy for living:

Life is wasted when we make it more terrifying, precisely because it is so easy to do so. It is an easy task because people who are intellectually lazy are convinced that this miserable terror is ‘the truth’, that this terror is knowledge of the ‘extra-mental’ world. This is an easy way out resulting in a banal explanation of the world as terrifying. Creating enchantment is an effective means of counteracting this depressing, banal habit.

Thanks for saying that and thanks, through your images and through your words and through your life, for doing your best to counteract the banal and the depressing.

Please send my love, too, to Georgette and to Loulou.

Your friend & admirer in the mystery that you always said elucidates knowledge,



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

krasmagritteKathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. With Eric Plattner, she is co-editor of René Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), and her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017. @KathleenMRooney

René Magritte (1898–1967) was an internationally renowned Belgian Surrealist painter who also wrote prolifically on art and other subjects.

Thank you for tracking in fascinating ways the labyrinthine lives,
inner and outer, of girls and women, insisting that their lives
are worthy of scrupulous attention.


Dear Muriel Spark:

A few years ago I watched a documentary about you that was part of the BBC archive of modern writers.  Just yesterday when I tried to access the site again I discovered that the documentary had been “removed for copyright reasons.”  That was a blow.  If I remember correctly, there was a moment, wonderfully goofy and vulnerable, when you clowned for the camera and put something over your face or near your face.  Was it a mask? I can’t remember.  I  wish the documentary was still available.  Now that you’re in paradise and have God’s ear, can you fix that?

No doubt you’ve received many acknowledgments of gratitude. I hope you won’t mind more, for while many of us are grateful, what we’re grateful for no doubt varies among us. You admired brevity and so I’ll try to be brief.

Thank you for arming yourself with an uncompromising attitude, claiming your authority as a writer with a stalwart defense of the human right to be prickly and different. Thank you for curdling the pretentious with your prose. Thank you for the flawed, vulnerable characters you created. Thank you for spotlighting a valiant and self-congratulatory shamelessness and preserving certain personalities in brine and in the ultimate compassion of accurate assessment. Thank you, too, for tracking and revealing your characters’ fates at surprising points in the midst of their battles, preempting our expectations and forcing our recognition of the fragility of any life, including our own. Thank you, that is, for showing even petty squabbles against the backdrop of eternity.

jeanbrodiecoverThank you for tracking in fascinating ways the labyrinthine lives, inner and outer, of girls and women, insisting that their lives are worthy of scrupulous attention. Thank you for presenting the experiences of those “girls of slender means” who struggle against tedious jobs and the terrors and surveillance visited upon their bodies, as well as the numbing effects of a culture that relegates them to secondary roles in their own lives. Thank you for the dryness of your prose that allows for uneasy revelation and fierce moments of poignancy.

Thank you for your sentences, lithe and with fine detailing, and stinging with an acid that burns away falsity. Thank you for sentences that, however short, make us do double-takes. (Two favorites of mine that I’ve quoted repeatedly: “I didn’t sleep with him for his prose style” and “I could kill him…But would that be enough?”)  Thank you for the tart taste of your sentences, and their piercing humor. Thank you, by the way, for having so much fun writing about hypocrites.

In the same documentary I mentioned earlier you held up notebooks filled with your novel drafts written in longhand. You said, proudly, that you hardly ever needed to change a word. Thank you for giving us a vision of effortless, fluid delight.  To imagine the capacity to write with such headlong momentum brings me vicarious joy.

And thank you for sparing us any potentially dull moments in your fiction. For instance, I admire the way you dispatch the contents of a letter in Loitering with Intent:  “The letter went on, very boring.”

Thank you for being generally discreet about your own life, for insisting some things are none of our damn business.

The Greek poet Callimachus declared, “A big book is a big evil.”  Thank you for sparing us  from that particular evil by writing so many short novels.  Thank you too for refusing to spare those who practice evil: after your enemies attempted to shame and trivialize you, thank you for skinning and baking them into your novels, apparently lightly disguised.

Thank you for assessing your accomplishments to an interviewer in 1995: “I have realized myself. I have expressed something I brought into the world with me. I believe I have liberated the novel in many ways, showing how anything whatsoever can be narrated, any experience set down, including sheer damn cheek. I think I have opened doors and windows in the mind, and challenged fears—especially the most inhibiting fears about what a novel should be.”  Thank you, in addition, for elsewhere asserting that your novels are a form of poetry—and thus thank you for extending the possibilities of poetry.


Thank you for seldom looking like the same woman in any of your photographs, as if even your face resisted a single impression.

Thank you for not minding (I hope) that I am guilty of characterizing you here in ways that you might dislike.  Although, frankly, I can’t imagine you would mind at this point. Yet I realize that declaring that you wouldn’t mind suggests a hard limit to my own imagination.  And so—why not?—I’ll imagine you as irritated, having wasted some of your eternal time on reading this letter when it seems you hardly wasted a moment on earth in your eighty-eight years, with twenty-two novels and innumerable short stories and poems and plays and other works behind you, including biographies of your kindred spirits, Emily Brontë and Mary Shelley. How heroic and hard-working you were. How you must have labored to claim your life against the odds as a woman born in 1918, and now, even in our unheavenly lives, how your example may stiffen our spines with courage.


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

Lee Upton, May 2016, Easton PALee Upton’s most recent books are Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center (2015); The Tao of Humiliation: Stories, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Award, finalist for The Paterson Prize, and named one of the “best books of 2014” by Kirkus Reviews; and the novella The Guide to the Flying Island from Miami University Press.  She is also the author of a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity, and Secrecy, from Tupelo.

The Scottish author Muriel Spark, born in 1918, was a prolific writer of novels, including the widely admired The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Along with writing novels, often as many as one a year, she wrote plays, short stories, essays, criticism, and biographies. Her experiments with narrative structure and authorial voice continue to be influential.  A convert to Roman Catholicism, she published her final novel, The Finishing School, in 2004 and died two years later in Florence, Italy.

Mexico City Magic

August 3, 2016 — 2 Comments

I’m just back from three weeks in Mexico City, where I studied some Spanish, worked on a new project, visited old loves like Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo, and found new loves like Lilia Carillo, the painter, and Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god.

Here’s Leonora Carrington’s Cocodrilo on Paseo de la Reforma (and my quick watercolor sketch of it):

I almost didn’t go to Frida’s Casa Azul again (here’s a link to my 2014 visit), but I’m so glad I did:


I love her amazing collection of retablos, amateur paintings made to thank the Virgin of Guadalupe for interceding at life-threatening moments:


These influenced some of her most famous paintings, and the museum juxtaposes small reproductions of her actual paintings with the retablos that inspired them:



At the Museum of Modern Art, I got to see Dos Fridas in person for the first time:


This painting was made after one of her breakups with Diego and represents two sides of herself, one as a comfort to the other. She is dressed in European attire on the left and in her classic Tehuana dress (which Diego preferred) on the right.

In all my times of viewing the painting online, I’d never noticed that the heart on the left is gray and withered:


And I discovered the beautiful abstract paintings of Lilia Carrillo:

We saw an outdoor film at the Monument of the Revolution:


about this guy, Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god:


…who was removed from his original site in Coatlinchan and relocated to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The film, La Piedra Ausente (The Absent Stone), tells the amazing story of the removal of the stone amidst the town’s protests and its celebrated/contested arrival in Mexico City.

[More Mexico City magic: The night before the film, we went to a birthday dinner for a friend and met a woman named Sandra. After we’d talked for a while, she said, “I made a film; it’s screening tomorrow night at the Monument of the Revolution. You should come!” So we did. It was awesome.]

At the Palacio Nacional, we saw the journals of the artist Francisco Toledo, which were part of an exhibit of — get this — art that Mexican artists give to the nation as payment for their taxes:

These inspired a couple of my own journal sketches:

I thought I saw a Dirty Dancing sculpture, but it was just a strange sculpture that happened to have an ad for Dirty Dancing, The Musical behind it:


Finally, I should mention that there was a tree hanging in the center of our airbnb apartment building:


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.