Featured Authors

Featured Authors: An interview with Brian Leung

SB: Your short story collection, World Famous Love Acts, was published by Sarabande in 2004; you’ve published two novels since then. You’ve been very busy the past few years, how have you balanced (or juggled) writing, educating, and directing, all while appearing as a member of the levelheaded literati?

BL: I’ve nothing sage to say here, just that it’s my practice not to make promises I can’t keep, and to focus on what’s practically possible. That is, I couldn’t say that I’ll finish a novel by the end of this month, but it’s not so hard to say, if I write just a bit every day, I’ll have a novel draft in a year. I can’t say to my students I’ll get your story comments back to you tomorrow, but I can plan to read two a day, so it’s possible to get them all back in ten days. And, importantly, I make sure to tell myself that it’s okay not to do “X” in favor of spending quality time with friends, family, and primarily, my partner. I’m over-extended to be certain, but my pragmatic bent keeps me sane.

You’ve also found time to serve Louisville’s literary community through Lousville Literary Arts, where you’re the Treasurer. How does this environment vary from an academic community?

The purpose of LLA is to bring readers and writers together and we recognize that those folks aren’t necessarily affiliated with Academia. In fact, looking at our annual Writer’s Block Festival, you see that our city is filled with folks from all walks of life interested in literary pursuits; there’s a great deal of cross-pollination. A difference might be that creative writing related to Academia focuses more on literary writing than popular and/or commercial writing. For community events, it’s more likely to find pure genre writing,  like fantasy or sci-fi. Though, as I say that, I’m reminded of all the fine literary genre work my students are writing at UofL.

I’ve read that your greatest inspiration comes through promotion and discussion of your contemporaries’ work. You recommend assisting other writers first, as it will prove beneficial in the long run. Is this a selfless act or “scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours?”

I’m pretty consistent on this point, and it’s something I teach in my classes. There’s nothing cynical in the premise at all. I believe writers should be in service to other writers as a co-equal responsibility to their own work. That can manifest itself any number of ways; maybe it means taking an afternoon to read and comment on a friend’s poetry, or subscribing to two or three literary magazines. If you’re a writer with the goal to have an audience, I think you have an ethical obligation to be a “consumer” as well, because if we writers aren’t our own reliable, core audiences, how can we expect the attention of those we hope to invite into the conversation?

You displayed great strides in your most recent novel, Take Me Home, which is both “literary” and terrifically entertaining. Is it possible to bridge the distance between academic and commercial or mainstream writers?

I politely reject the distinction because I’m not certain what term we need here. It’s like we’re holding onto an idea that isn’t applicable. In my department, there are two fiction writers and two poets, and all of us in one way or another have addressed popular genre and/or downright play in our work.  This seems largely the case these days but the news hasn’t gotten out.

But let’s go back to terminology: one person’s mainstream is another person’s popular is another person’s commercial is another person’s literary, and all that is subject to the vagaries of time. Any of these might come from an academic mind, and often do. However, I think Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon had it about right when they overtly spoke to the literary world of fiction and asked what happened to story telling? Did everything have to sound like an Updike or Carver story? That said, I love the honesty of Judith Krantz, who said in an interview that she wasn’t harboring some little literary volume under her pillow at home. That’s not what she wrote.

We need to do a better job of making distinctions between interesting writing and lazy writing. Those are the terms I’d use. There are some recent vampire novels that contain lazy writing and some that contain interesting writing. It’s not about the vampires, it’s about the sentences.

By the way, I just counted. I bought just seven books of poetry last year. Shame on me.

World Famous Love Acts, Brian Leung

Entertainment Weekly Editor’s Choice
Winner of a Lambda Literary Award

Sweeping and fearless, World Famous Love Acts overrides stereotypes of race, age, gender, and sexuality.  In this remarkable debut collection, Brian Leung creates a diverse landscape of distinctive characters. Among them, a 4’ 10” hyperblonde Asian adult-film actress in Los Angeles, an archeologist working in China with her sun-scarred skin, a Midwestern screenwriter trying to “burn off” his accent, and a man with AIDS waiting to go home to die.

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Featured Authors

Featured Authors: L. Annette Binder on Bliss and Unease

Binder's debut collection of short stories, Rise, will be released tomorrow.

Unease. Michael Chabon calls it “the midnight disease” in his novel Wonder Boys. “He was the first one to have the midnight disease,” his narrator says of a writer he knew as a boy, “to have the rocking chair and the faithful bottle of bourbon and the staring eye, lucid with insomnia even in the daytime.”

This unease is probably essential if you want to write. It can be generalized or exceedingly specific. Unease in our skin, in our appearance or our relationships, in our place in the world. Unease about writing or about not writing. It probably started in the sandbox. It will follow you where you go, and you should be grateful. If empathy is the fuel for a writer then unease is the starter that turns the engine.

Dr. Richard Barager, a nephrologist who writes fiction, notes the anxiety inherent in both writing and practicing medicine. “This mysterious, discomfiting anxiety reliably and predictably dissolves shortly after greeting the first patient I see,” Dr. Barager says. “Like an alcoholic needing a drink or an addict needing a fix, I am addicted to patient care, because the act of placing myself in the service of another human being makes me blissful.”

Bliss. Knifemakers know it when they are working at the forge. Pianists and painters and woodworkers. Fishermen who work all week so they can drive up to the reservoir Saturday before dawn. They’ve found something they love and they’ve made it their sharpening stone. They could live a thousand years and still they’d be learning. Their anxiety goes away every time they come back to what they’ve started.

Ernie LaMere was a maitre d’ for years before he retired to Los Angeles. He lived in Studio City, right beside a desolate stretch of the L.A. River basin. It was nothing but concrete and weeds when he started planting geraniums in 1987.  By the time he died eight years later he’d planted a quarter mile of flowers.  I walked that path right after his passing. I sat on one of his benches, and I thought how lucky he’d been. He woke up every morning and did what he loved. And how sad it was, too, because once you’ve found the thing you love eight years isn’t nearly enough, and neither is eighty. (To read about Ernie, click here.)

Bliss and unease. The thing you love pulls at you. It needles you when you’re lazy. Get back to work, it says. You have less time than you think.

I’ve been gone from Colorado more years than I lived there, but it’s August now and I can’t help but think about my childhood summers. The dry heat and the sky shimmering above the mountains before the storm clouds came. First silver and then black, they rolled in like ocean waves. Three o’clock in the afternoon and the electricity in the air. Waiting, waiting for the thunder and the first fat drops on the cement. All these years later and this is what I remember: There was nothing better than the moment just before it started.

Rise, L. Annette Binder

The stories in Rise are fairy tales, except that the witch, lucky Hans, and the frog prince are all characters at the fringes of everyday life. There are rockets, swells of starlings, and children who disappear into thin air. In "Nephilim" angels mate with mortal women and birth giants; Freda is more than 50 and still listening to the creak of her bones growing. In "Halo" a nimbus appears above the heads of those with only a short time to live. The hospital, of course, is full of them, but so is the mall. These are stories where a man can be blind and still see the stars. L. Annette Binder writes magical tales with authority and restraint, and we believe her stories, every one.

For a classroom-ready reader's guide written by the author herself, follow this link, and explore more titles with reader's guides in Sarabande in Education

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Featured Authors

Featured Authors: Michael Jeffrey Lee's Reading List

Michael Jeffrey Lee has had a banner roll-out so far, and if you’re interested in what’s behind Something in My Eye, you could do worse than checking out his reading list. Every writer is a reader first, after all.

The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, Hans Christian Anderson
60 Stories, 
Donald Barthleme
Cruddy, Lynda Barry
Wittgenstein’s Nephew, Thomas Bernhard
The Complete Butcher’s Tales, Rikki Ducornet
Sanctuary, William Faulkner
Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
The Old, Weird America, Greil Marcus
The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
Collected Poems, Stevie Smith
Honored Guest, Joy Williams

Here's Lee on the publishing process:

Something in My Eye was published last week after being accepted a year ago, and it was during this limbo period that I found myself going back and forth on how I felt about my creation, trying to decide whether it was just a strung-together hodgepodge or the masterpiece friends and family believed it to be (I never did make up my mind). But now it’s out in the world, being handled by actual hands and delivered wirelessly to handheld devices, and I couldn’t be happier. People reading my work, people thinking about my work, people talking about my work—it’s been a blast imagining the world rolling over for me, letting my lines enter their minds. I’ve been celebrating, too, allowing myself two or three glasses of wine instead of my usual one, dressing up in various costumes and disguises and frequenting a few of the classier establishments down in the Quarter, just for the fun if it. And I haven’t been the only one celebrating in New Orleans this week—carnival was in full swing; the streets were crammed with people and beads; music filled the air; and nothing, not even the many murders, threatened to end the party too soon—we kept it going all the way till Fat Tuesday. Not everyone in the city was celebrating the release of my book, of course, but it wasn’t hard for me to crown myself king for a few days, and just bask.

But that’s all done now. This week, though still young, already feels like a bust. Carnival is over, my book feels like old news, and even my ankle, which I thought I had only rolled during a dance-off, might be needing some serious attention, or at least a look. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t entertaining some dark thoughts about the world right now, and my place in it. What do you do when you have nothing to look forward to anymore? But then something happens: I see a copy of Something in My Eye on my nightstand. It’s a handsome book—Sarabande did a nice job with it—and I flip through the pages and run my hands over it and sigh a little at this object of mine, this testament to the good times. And I know what I must do. I begin reading, as if it were a stranger’s book and not my own, and allow myself to laugh and be moved by its quirky characters and silly situations as if I were just discovering them for the first time. I am only through the third story now, but if things continue this way I see no reason why I won’t be back to my old hopeful self again soon, possibly even as early as tomorrow. This is the power of literature, even if it’s only one’s own. Living within one’s lines (or another’s) can restore us to our healthy selves, or at least help point us back toward the road to well-being, where we all must go, eventually, if we’re to make it as a people. I pray that this is true. Something in My Eye did it for me. Will you let it do it for you?

Something in My Eye, Michael Jeffrey Lee

Winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction
Selected by Francine Prose

Michael Jeffrey Lee's stories are bizarre and smart and stilted, like dystopic fables told by a redneck Samuel Beckett. Outcasts hunker under bridges, or hole up in bars, waiting for the hurricane to hit. Lee's forests are full of menace too-unseen crowds gather at the tree-line, and bands of petty crooks and marauders bluster their way into suicidal games of one-upmanship. In Something In My Eye, violence and idleness are always in tension, ratcheting up and down with an eerie and effortless force. Diction leaps between registers with the same vertiginous swoops, moving from courtly formality to the funk and texture of a slang that is all the characters' own. It's a masterful performance, and Lee's inventiveness accomplishes that very rare feat-hyper-stylized structure and language that achieve clarity out of turbulence, never allowing technique to obscure what's most important: a direct address that makes visible all those we'd rather not see. As one character puts it, "this is me keeping my chin up, by the way."

For a classroom-ready reader's guide written by the author himself, follow this link, and explore more titles with reader's guides in Sarabande in Education

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Featured Authors

Featured Authors: Sallie Bingham

An Interview with Sallie Bingham, author of Red Car.

Sallie Bingham will be reading in Louisville this Saturday with her son Christopher Iovenko

How do you feel your work has grown or changed since the publication of Transgressions in 2002?

I know now that less is more. I used to try to plant, explain, elaborate on my characters, as though the reader wouldn’t otherwise understand. Now it seems to me a single detail, perfectly chosen, stands for paragraphs of description. At the same time, I am becoming less and less interested in plot, which seems often so artificial.

The one story that stands out in time and place in your collection is “Sagesse,” set on the beaches of Normandy shortly after World War II. Did the inspiration for this story come from a childhood memory of your own? Did you do any sort of research for this piece?

I did no research for this story, but it is based on a powerful memory from my childhood. In 1949, my family moved to France for a year. The country was still deeply shadowed by the war—food was rationed; people were thin and poor. I was deeply moved, and frightened, by my first experience of suffering as a national, as well as a personal, trial.

In an interview from Transgressions, you remark that “it’s not so much that beauty passes, which everyone more or less knows, but that its effect, even when in full flower, is ambivalent.” This theme is carried through this new collection, and in “Fresh Salmon,” you write “he thought how pretty she was before he thought how pretty she must have been.” What words might you have for women dealing with aging and the loss of their own beauty?

Above all, aging is liberating. No woman has escaped the imprisonment of her looks, either because she is considered to be beautiful, or because she is not. Finally to lay aside this definition, with all its corollaries, is to become free. And, for a writer, the resultant invisibility is a great mercy, allowing for unhampered observation. Of course all this assumes that one’s ego is not deeply enmeshed in one’s appearance.

Many of the couples depicted in your collection have no plans of marrying. The story “Porn” refers to the “fearsome demands of matrimony,” and the mother in “A Gift for Burning” talks about spending nearly all her “time and energy getting married and unmarried and married again.” Could you talk about these characters’ choice to remain single late in life?

A time may come when marriage and independence are not mutually exclusive for women, but it will not be soon. Marriage is, above all, for the welfare of husbands and children, and their concerns inevitably top the concerns of the woman involved. A great deal of growth occurs because of the sacrifices marriage demands of a woman—in fact I sometimes doubt if women, or men, grow up without it. But for a woman with an interest in her own development, marriage is at best a side-track, at worst a fatal obliteration (given the reinforcements of our culture). However, to think that by escaping the literal fact of marriage, we escape the demands and expectations of that state is a little foolish. Women are expected to be caretakers in all relationships. Marriage only makes that a little more obvious.

Similarly, your stories deal with the trickiness of love affairs. In “That Winter,” Helen wonders how could “a man change so fast, over the course of a few hours or days, from the person she’d found charming, interesting, possibly worthwhile, to something glowering or glum, silent, unreachable.” Could you comment?

Our hope leads us into relationships. One might perhaps call it delusion. Without hope, we would probably remain alone—but who is without hope? And the fact of hope, its particular aspects, makes it difficult to see its object, at least at first. In this story, the man doesn’t change. She begins to see him.

The story “Doing Good” deals with a son who’s gotten in trouble with the law, a son who is “still trying to redeem himself from the misfortune of having been born with money.” How do you think the effects of wealth have driven him to such recklessness? And could you elaborate on the mother’s comment that “much unacceptable behavior is simply a poor substitute for getting in the water?”

It is not money per se that leads this character into trouble but the shame and silence that surrounds money. We have not come to terms with the unfairness of life which is exemplified by the way money is earned or inherited. Since there is no way to discuss this, the children of wealth grow up distorted by unrecognized guilt. They may escape into arrogance, or into despair, but inevitably there will be some kind of acting out. One of the charms of my narrator is that she believes in simple solutions, such as getting in the water. And she isn’t entirely wrong.

On that same subject, an interesting thread running through these stories is motherhood. From the yearning for babies to the distance of grown children, it is a constant struggle for your characters. Could you discuss?

The passion inspired by children results in struggle. Children can’t be contained, or held. They must leave. The women in my stories know this, consciously or unconsciously, and dread realizing that this inevitably thwarted passion will be the great emotion of their lives. “The Orange-Juice King” is an interesting story-within-a-story as a character remembers a legend that her grandmother told her.

Do you think that growing up in Kentucky, in a culture where storytelling is rich, has affected your writing?

Yes, indeed. I grew up in a story-telling family at a time when this aspect of life was already almost gone. My grandmother had a store of strange, frightening ghost stories and dark fairy tales, inherited from her Irish nurse. (She wrote two collections of these.) They were iconic, unexplained, often involving violence. The ancient black woman who had been my father’s nurse had equally iconic stories about my father’s childhood—she was the only teller of those tales. Through her three generations of the family came to life in all their strangeness. The one story told from a male perspective in this story is “The Big No,” a story about a young, homeless kid who mistakenly leaves his diary at a woman’s house who writes the word “NO” on a slip of paper and puts it in between the pages.

What was your inspiration for this story?

I stole this shamelessly from my partner, who spent many years wandering through the west and southwest. Having missed this particular form of growing up, I borrowed his stories (another is the story about the Greek island).

Red Car, Sallie Bingham

Forty-year veteran of the novel, noted feminist, and author of more than ten books, Bingham returns with Red Car, a collection written in her signature style--discreet, sly prose often circling taboo subjects.

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