Amy Gustine on her short story collection, You Should Pity Us Instead

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We asked Amy Gustine, one of our Ohioana Award Fiction finalists, to provide some insight about her work. Amy, thanks so much for taking the time to do this. We appreciate your work and your support of Ohioana!

Ohioana: What inspired you to write your stories?
Amy Gustine: The collection is made up of stories written over the course of ten years, so each one has its own origin story. In general, though, I’m intrigued by the unanswered questions and the peripheral people in news stories—the things happening behind the scenes. The title story, for example, started with wondering about the experience of being married to someone like Christopher Hitchens, a very vocal, public atheist intensely critical of religion. As the story developed, obviously it wasn’t Christopher Hitchens’ actual spouse I was interested in, but rather the person I imagined in Molly, whose ambivalence sometimes clashes with her husband Simon’s unyielding certainty. I’m generally interested in morality—its source, its internal conflicts—and so that also was a natural fit for this story. The character of Adoo in the story was inspired by an article I happen to read about an uncontacted tribe of people infected by the common cold in Peru. Except for a small number of children, the tribe perished, and the children had to be placed in adoptive homes in the U.S. and Canada. As so often happens in my work, many seemingly disparate incidents or people I read or hear about come together like puzzle pieces to create something new.

Ohioana: How does a sense of place inform your work? If that place happens to be Ohio, would love your thoughts on that.
Amy Gustine: I grew up in Toledo, Ohio in a small family of introverted homebodies and I don’t have any aunts, uncles or first cousins. For me, then, place has always started at home, and setting and society were for a long time overshadowed in my imagination by intimate relationships. I’ve worked consciously to step out of the house, to look up and down the street and across town imaginatively, but even that process started with my family. My grandparents were working people. During the Depression one of grandfather’s picked up bricks for a dollar a day and was involved with the early union movement in Toledo. One of my grandmother’s was the first woman to work at a large chemical lab in town. This type of family experience fed an interest in local history, which led to stories on things like the famous 1934 Auto-Lite strike here in Toledo, a defining moment in the development of labor protections. One of my great aunts was a scab in that strike, and the rift it caused never completely healed. So relationships are always the starting point in my work, and setting follows from them. Beginning with the characters is the only way I’m able to enter the work emotionally, to attach myself enough to walk the long fictional road, but I have found that I’ve grown more sensitized over the years to the way that place creates character, the way the physical and social landscape shapes us. That’s where setting becomes interesting to me—where it impacts character.

Ohioana: Can you tell us about your writing process?
Amy Gustine: People talk about being a planner or a “pantser.” In other words, you either figure the plot and characters out ahead of time, or you start writing and see where it goes, flying by the seat of your pants. E.L. Doctorow famously split the difference, saying that writing was like driving at night in fog: you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. I’d say my process is closest to Doctorow’s, but more serpentine and loopy. I’m driving at night, in the dark, consulting a map I drew that is in fact just the roughest sketch of what I assume the landscape and roads look like. I discover the flaws in the map as I write, the forks in the road, the detours and potholes. I spy interesting stops and surprise exits, too, then I realize I forgot something at one of those stops and have to double back. In other words, I plan, then I write, then I re-plan, then I write some more, and on and on as I narrow down the project. I’m always too ambitious to begin with, and inevitably have to be content with the destination I achieve rather than the one I hoped to reach.

Ohioana: What would you like to tell us about the publishing process?
Amy Gustine: My publishing experience with Sarabande Books was uniformly wonderful. The managing editor at the time, Kirby Gann, made significant editorial suggestions about one of the eleven stories in the collection, and his comments proved very astute. The revisions made it a much better work. Each of the other stories was thoroughly, carefully line-edited, which I really appreciated. When the book came out I felt confident that it truly was the best it could be. I learned some things about promoting a book by working with Sarabande’s publicist, the fantastic Ariel Lewiton, but I would certainly be keen to know more. It’s kind of an opaque process for a writer outside the central literary world of New York City.

Ohioana: What would you tell anyone who wants to write a novel or story collection?
Amy Gustine: Read novels and stories you like two and three times. Read them first for fun, then again to spot what I call “the strings”—like a puppet in a theatre. There are so many choices when you construct something out of nothing. Point of view. Order of scenes. Which scenes to relate in detail, which to summarize. What part of the characters’ past to relate. What tone to use. How to divide up the text into chunks—sections, chapters, parts. How to label those parts, or whether to label them at all. The choices are so staggering, and each work so magically unique in its success, that the aspiring writer has a tremendous uphill learning curve. They’ll have to grab on and start learning in earnest. Part of this will be giving up a great deal of the innocent, easy pleasure of letting a great author chauffer you around town without paying attention to the route.

Ohioana: What are you currently working on?
Amy Gustine: I’m writing a novel about a real person—a politically and cultural important woman with a complex, controversial legacy. The novel spans a lot of time, involves a lot of hot-button issues, and features a lot of major historical events, so the road is long, curvy, bumpy, and I don’t have a great map. It feels less like driving and more like crawling on my knees.

Ohioana: Any inspirational quotes from other writers that you enjoy?
Amy Gustine: I got that last one from Vladimir Holan. “From the sketch to the work one travels on one’s knees.”

One of my favorites is Ernest Hemingway’s dictum: “The first draft of anything is shit.” That might sound depressing, but it’s just the opposite for me. The idea that I have to write something good today is paralyzing. It’s especially terrifying during the first draft of a long project. When I think of Hemingway’s words, I think okay, so I’m going to write a piece of shit today. Tomorrow I’ll worry about trying to polish a turd into a golden nugget. That gets SOMETHING on the page to work with, and something is always infinitely better than nothing.

A couple of other helpers I cling to include:

“When you get stuck, go back to the physical world.”
–Ron Carlson

“Write simple sentences. Report. Don’t moralize. No pretensions.”
–Gail Godwin

It’s YOUR turn!!

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Calling all readers! Earlier this week, Ohioana launched our second annual Readers’ Choice Award online poll – and we want to hear from you! Created last year in celebration of the Ohioana Awards’ 75th anniversary, the poll invites readers to choose their favorite book from among the thirty award finalists selected by our judges (our inaugural winner: Mary Doria Russell, for Epitaph).

Voting is open until Monday, July 3, at noon. We will announce the favorite in each of the award categories, but only ONE book – the one receiving the most votes overall – will win the prize! What will it be: a collection of poems – or a novel? A children’s picture book – or a biography? YOU decide!

So play your part in this year’s Ohioana Book Awards celebration! Go online and vote today (only one vote per computer).

Make YOUR voice heard for Ohioana!

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This is not a drill: Ohioana’s operating support has been eliminated from the state budget, or at least the version passed May 2 in the Ohio House of Representatives. I’m sure you’re as surprised and shocked as we are.

Ohioana promotes and celebrates our great state and is one of the nation’s leading literary centers. It directly serves 150,000 Ohioans every year and serves ALL Ohioans as the caretaker of our state’s rich literary heritage.

Eleven Ohio Governors and 34 consecutive General Assemblies since 1949 have recognized the public value of Ohioana’s work by providing it with operating support. This support is even a part of state law under the Ohio Revised Code.

Of course, you already know that Ohioana has value because you love books, reading, and storytelling. Perhaps you were at the 11th annual Ohioana Book Festival on April 8 in Columbus and you had a chance to meet one of 120 authors and attended a festival panel. You read the Ohioana Quarterly for book reviews and articles about literary Ohio. Maybe you follow the Ohioana Awards and cheer for your favorite authors when they are nominated.

So today we’re asking for your help. Will you call your state senator and ask them to restore funding? Here are just a few of the reasons to keep Ohioana, reasons that you can mention when you call:

 

  • The Ohioana Library Association directly serves 150,000 Ohioans each year.
  • It serves ALL Ohioans as the caretaker of our state’s literary heritage.
  • It costs the state a penny-and-half per Ohioan to support Ohioana.
  • Ohioana generates more than $1 for every $1 provided by the State.

Just go to this link and under “Find Your Senator” enter your zip code + 4.

Yes, state revenues are tight. Yes, the state has many priorities. But Ohioana’s history proves it has yielded major dividends for a modest investment. Don’t just take our word for it – ask the eleven Ohio Governors and 34 General Assemblies that have supported us since 1949.
Ohioana has always worked hard to be a good steward of both public and private money. And we have faced shortages before. But removal from the budget could not just hinder our ability to serve the people. It could, if not halted, ultimately jeopardize our very existence. So please help and make your voice heard – it has never been as important before as it is now! Take a moment and call your state senator before May 10.

After all, what is any place without its stories and its storytellers?

 

 

 

In case you missed it: the Mercantile Library

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The Winter issue of the Ohioana Quarterly focused on our good friend, the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati.

This library is one of the gems in the crown of the Queen City. It was established in 1835, according to the feature story written by Ohioana board member Bryan Loar. Its founders were merchants and clerks, hence the name. These young men of the city, who could expect a prosperous future for themselves as well as Cincinnati, placed a premium on learning and so created a place and an opportunity.

Can you imagine what a haven the library must have been from the rush and press of business in 1835? Cincinnati was hardly a backwater since it was a significant river port on the Ohio, with trade and a thriving meat-packing industry sending out salted pork all over the country. And can you imagine the despair over not one but TWO fires it endured, the first in 1845 and the second in 1869? Fortunately, most of the volumes were saved in both instances. And in 1904, the Mercantile Library found a home it has stayed in ever since.

The building is, of course, lovely. It has plenty of natural light, comfortable chairs, wood book shelves and cabinets, and works of art both venerable and modern. And it has kept up with the times. There are 80,000 books in the collection and membership has grown from the original 45 to the current 2,500. There are discussion groups, literary and other events, and even e-books.

As Bryan says in the article, “The Mercantile Library continues to support personal improvement and the exploration of contemporary ideas through an adaptive and open space, a notable collection, inspiring art, and extraordinary programs.”

Happy Spring!

It’s here! Spring is here! On Monday, did you run outside and beat on the ground with a stick to tell the earth to wake up? And some daffodils were blooming on Monday. Did you pick one and eat it?

No? *Whew!* Good move! They’re not edible! Although someone at Ohioana did indeed eat one and nothing bad happened. It was planted on top of a mound of vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce (a Blooming Sundae — get it?) and she ate the bits you are supposed to eat as well.

But you needn’t feel slighted — there are plenty of other flowers to add to salads, soups, or main dishes.

In Edible Flowers: A Global History by Constance L. Kirker and former Ohio University professor Mary Newman, you can easily learn what to eat and why (Mary will be at the Ohioana Book Festival on April 8, by the way).

This nifty little book provides a history a edible plants from all over the world. It also provides a unique history of the world since plants found useful or delightful in one country are imported to other countries for propagation and use.

The book also makes the reader re-think the concept of a “flower,” which most of us consider to be a beautiful, fragrant, but perhaps useless thing. After all, what is an artichoke but the flowering part of the plant. We eat them. And the preferred part of the broccoli in North America is the stuff at the top, although some people reject the buds for the stem.

Authors Kirker and Newman always advice caution, reminding the reader that even plants considered medicinal can be bad for you if over-used. Even too much of a good thing will make you sick.

So when you’re at the garden center later this spring, you’re ready to check out with your cart full of flats of marigolds and nasturtiums, and the clerk asks you if you need some help getting them out to your car, you can say, “No thanks. I’ll just eat them here!”

Happy International Women’s Day!

Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Nothing worthwhile happens overnight and change takes time — and work. Lots and lots of work.

In politics, Ohio can make a proud claim: Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) was the first woman to run for president of the United States. There’s some discussion about the legitimacy of her bid for office: Woodhull was under the age of 35 and of course women couldn’t vote so how could her bid for office be legitimate? Ooof. And some aspects of her personal life could be termed disorderly …  but when has that stopped members of the opposite sex from running for office?

Anyway.

Ohioana is sending love today to all of the women who write. Thank you today to Connie Schultz who writes about politics and who moderates a lively Facebook community. Thank you to Gloria Steinem, native of Toledo. Thank you Toni Morrison, for your amazing work. Toni Morrison won the Ohioana Book Award for Sula, and her mother, Mrs. George Wofford, accepted the award on Ms. Morrison’s behalf at the luncheon in 1975. Ms. Morrison also sent Ohioana a note in 1999, thanking us for honoring her:

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Ohio to be a gift to any writer’s imagination is high praise indeed. May we continue to serve as an inspiration.

 

The New Kid in Town

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It’s so exciting to have a new bookstore in town! Gramercy Books in Columbus suburb city Bexley opened its doors just about six weeks ago.

What? Aren’t independent bookstores dead? Didn’t they get buried in the rise of the big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders? Yes and no. Borders, of course, is gone. And you can buy books at the grocery or drug stores (nothing new there). What about online retailers like Amazon? And what about the rise of the e-book?

True story: independent bookstores began returning after the Great Recession of 2008, which seems to defy explanation and logic. Per the American Booksellers Association, 2009 was the year when independent bookstores experienced a resurgence in numbers and popularity.

Turns out people like stores that specialize in books. Don’t you make sure to visit bookstores when you travel? Of course you do.

Columbus is part of the trend, which is gloriously reassuring. We’ve got craft beer, vibrant arts scenes in different parts of the city, tech innovation – and an indy bookstore!

What makes the whole thing even more special is that store owner Linda Kass is also a novelist. Her book, Tasa’s Song, about music, survival, and World War II, has been the source of musical inspiration. If you visit her website to learn more about her book, you can hear original music composed by Charles Wetherbee of the Carpe Diem String Quartet.

Book stores inspire as well. There’s nothing like the experience of stepping into a well-stocked space and meeting a new book, sure to be your new best friend.

Congratulations to Linda Kass! We look forward to many visits and many purchases!

Ohio is for book lovers

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The bad news: Valentine’s Day was yesterday.

The good news: Valentine’s candy is on sale and the cost of long-stemmed red roses is back down to pre-holiday levels.

The better news: In Ohio, love is always in the air.

February is still winter and the nights are still cold, speaking of the air. But you can warm up since Ohio is the home state of many romance writers. There are two state chapters of the Romance Writers of America, so it’s easy to find new authors if you want to combine your love of Ohio with your love of love. If you want to write romance novels or if you already do but would like some writer friends for hanging out and critiquing manuscripts, check out the Central Ohio Fiction Writers and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Romance Writers of America (NEORWA). These active groups host guest speakers, post frequently on social media, and have dedicated members who are published authors.

As we said, there are so many Ohio romance writers. Want to mention one of them here (wish we had space for everyone): Jenny Crusie. Jenny writes sharp, snappy dialogue and her stories are populated by equally intelligent heroines. Sometimes she writes on her own, but her collaborations are crackling good fun too! In Agnes and the Hit Man (doesn’t sound like romance is anywhere nearby, but it is!), Jenny wrote the dialogue for the female protagonist (Agnes) and her writing partner, Bob Mayer, wrote the male protagonist’s dialogue (the hitman). In addition to being a Wapakoneta native, Jenny’s won awards and earned her doctorate from Ohio State. Jenny also keeps up an active and engaging blog.

So even though the big day is over, the nights are still cold in Ohio. Warm up with a book about love!

 

McGuffey Readers

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Scanned cover of McGuffey's First New Eclectic Reader. In center of cover is a black and white illustration of three children reading in a garden with a dog sitting nearby.
McGuffey Reader, 1857

Because of the holidays and the sub-zero temperatures that landed in Ohio last week, this is the first full week of school since mid-December for many Ohio students. We thought we’d mark the occasion by looking at a few McGuffey Readers from Ohioana’s collection.

William Holmes McGuffey was born in 1800 in Pennsylvania. In 1802 his family moved to the Ohio frontier, where he grew up. After graduating from college in Pennsylvania, McGuffey became a traveling instructor in Ohio, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania, where he would take part-time teaching jobs in subscription schools. In 1826 McGuffey became a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He went on to become president of Cincinnati College and Ohio University and later a professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, where he taught until his death in 1873.

Scanned page from 1879 McGuffey Reader. Black and white illustration shows a dog running outdoors. Text says "The dog. The dog ran."
McGuffey Reader, 1879

In the mid-1830s, during his time at Miami, McGuffey wrote the first edition of his Eclectic Readers. By the end of the century they had sold more than 100 million copies. Some historians believe the popularity of the Readers was due to their use of everyday objects (“A is for ax“) and text that both students and parents found upbeat and enjoyable. In 1879 Cincinnati artist Henry Farny redesigned the Readers with realistic sketches that closely followed the text and helped maintain the books’ popularity through the end of the century.

Altogether the Readers educated five generations of schoolchildren. Although their popularity waned in the early 1900s, people remembered McGuffey and his books with a sense of nostalgia. The first McGuffey Society was formed in 1918 in Columbus, Ohio by attorney John F. Carlisle and Edward Wilson, editor of the Ohio State Journal. In the 1930s Henry Ford republished the 1857 edition of the Readers at his own expense for use in company classrooms and had the log cabin in which McGuffey was born moved to his Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Today memorials to McGuffey exist at his Pennsylvania birthplace and at several of the schools where he taught.

Banned Books Week 2013: Dav Pilkey

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captunderpantsOhioan Dav Pilkey appears twice on the American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009: at #13 for his Captain Underpants series, and again at #47 for The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby. Captain Underpants is also listed at #1 on the ALA’s Top Ten Challenged Books of 2012.

Pilkey was born and raised near Cleveland, Ohio. In elementary school he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia; he first created the Captain Underpants character during “time outs” in the school hallway. Although Pilkey’s teachers throughout elementary and high school discouraged his drawing, one of his college professors saw his work and encouraged him to try writing children’s books. His first book was published in 1987.

Pilkey’s book The Paperboy was a Caldecott Honor book; The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. He was recently selected to illustrate a picture book version of “One Today,” a poem written by Richard Blanco and read at President Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

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