Riding Bitch

The daily musings of a writer.


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What You Are Now Enjoying – an Interview with Sarah Gerkensmeyer

What You Are Now Enjoying, a new collection of short stories by Sarah Gerkensmeyer

What You Are Now Enjoying, a new collection of short stories by Sarah Gerkensmeyer

I am so pleased to introduce you to author Sarah Gerkensmeyer. Sarah and I met during our January writer residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. Since then, she has published a collection of short stories entitled What You Are Now Enjoying and is currently making the promotional rounds. I asked Sarah if she would be interested in discussing her journey here at Riding Bitch and am thrilled she said yes! I think you’ll find a lot of information and inspiration in her answers. Be sure to read the excerpt at the end.

Q. Sarah, can you tell us about yourself: who are you?
I am a mother, writer, teacher, wife… Everything in my life feels like a juggling act at this point. Because of this, I immensely enjoy a glass of red wine and an episode of New Girl. I have always loved to write (I know that’s cliché–but it’s true).

author Sarah Gerkensmeyer

author Sarah Gerkensmeyer

Q. How do you describe your book?
From Wonder Woman as an angst-ridden teenager to ghost twins to monster catfish to the secret relationships between polygamous wives, the stories in What You Are Now Enjoying approach the familiar in unfamiliar ways, allowing us to recognize and claim the unordinary moments in our own often ordinary lives. I’ve found myself using magical realism and fabulist elements to try to tell everyday stories about everyday people.

Q. Where do the stories come from?
I absolutely love this question. And I’m thrilled to be able to answer: I’m not sure. Lately I’ve realized that this is okay–a sense of mystery and even confusion in my writing. I’ve found myself trying to talk to my students about this–how any element of the unexpected, the unknown, the mysterious is a gift to our writing, not an annoying roadblock.

Q. That’s a great piece of advice! Did you approach the book with a theme or did you find the theme as you wrote?
All of this was very much a gradual (and even surprising) discovery for me. I wrote the extremely short (and especially strange) stories that are in my collection just after my youngest son, Charlie, was born. I was desperate to return to writing but couldn’t face the huge project of my novel. And so I thought of these little pieces as a distraction and guilty form of procrastination. I had no idea that they would end up cementing together a book. But when I stepped back and looked at them, I realized that they held threads of some of the things in my other stories–loneliness and a feeling of inertia.

Q. What was the hardest thing about writing your book?
For a few years, it was trying to figure out when/if I had a book. Beginning with my time in graduate school, I over thought the project (I think only one of the stories that I wrote in graduate school made it into the book). I think I was especially self-conscious in this regard as a writer who was dabbling with surreal and fabulist elements. I had to recognize that those weren’t the things I was writing about. Rather, I was using them to write about very real and very ordinary people.

Q. How long did it take to write? Did you write it full-time or while doing other things?
This book has been coming together, bit by bit, since about 2002. I always wanted it to come together quickly, but now I’m glad that it had plenty of time to stew. I needed time to figure things out.

Q. How did you get it published?
It’s very hard to sell a collection of short stories as an emerging author. The big houses want to buy novels, because that’s what sells. Smaller presses have become a champion for short story collections, but many of them only consider submissions via their annual prizes. And so I sent my book off to a few prizes and was lucky enough to catch the eye of Stewart O’Nan, the novelist who judged Autumn House Press’ Fiction Prize.

Q. What did you learn from the experience (of writing and publishing)?
As for the writing: it will come when it wants to come. And when that book does finally come together, love it. Even if it isn’t the creature that you originally intended it to be. As for the publishing: authors are expected to do a lot of leg work these days, even at the bigger presses. I was part of an inaugural program called the Launch Lab at Grub Street in Boston. We learned how to direct our energy in ways that fit our personalities and our work. The program helped me realize that I need to find pockets of PR that feel intimate, where real conversations can occur. Because of this, I’ve really enjoyed participating on various blogs (thanks, Niva!) because this is a world of passionate writers and readers who want to have a real conversation about books.

Q. What are you working on now?
I’ve returned to the novel that I set aside when my second son was born. And I think the strange stories in my new collection really gave me the fuel to return to it with fresh eyes. I’ve done a lot of intense research on congenital heart disease for this novel. It takes place in the Northern Minnesota wilderness. There’s a pregnancy, and somebody has blue skin… Maybe that’s enough of a tease.

Q. What lessons will you apply from this one to the next one?
I’ve discovered that a sense of urgency (and even anxiety and panic) can be put to good use. As a mother especially, this has been a good thing to learn. My children, and my teaching, and all the other things I love don’t need to be set aside so that I can write. The rush (and even the anxiety) that I get from trying to juggle all of these things can be harvested and can provide an exciting sense of momentum in the stories that I tell. These things aren’t in the way of my writing. They can be helpful.

Q. How is writing short stories different (for you) than writing a novel?
When I write a short story, (especially a very short story) I know that a breath of fresh air isn’t too far off. And so I’m able to pull myself into complex and strange worlds with a great deal of abandon. There isn’t as much hesitancy as when I sit down with a longer project. And sometimes I think stories can be more immense than a novel. They can create a sharp sense of echo, or what ZZ Packer calls “resonance.” I think that’s why I’m working with a much more fragmented structure in the current draft of my novel–in an attempt to simulate that same kind of feeling that I get from a short story.

Q. Do you have any advice for other writers who are moms and/or teachers?
While I do think parenting and teaching can inspire and fuel writing in unexpected ways, I still think it’s so incredibly difficult. They aren’t necessarily completely separate things, but sometimes you do need to find a way to step into only your writing. I’ve found writing residencies (like Vermont Studio Center, where Niva and I met) to be invaluable in this regard.

Q. Last question – will you share with us an excerpt from one of your stories?
Sure! This is from the beginning of “My Husband’s House”:

I didn’t go looking for my husband’s new place until after his fourth or fifth late night visit, after a long day when the sun had set without much color. I couldn’t believe what he had told me that first time he showed up in the middle of the night in our bedroom a few weeks after he had gone missing, a living ghost. Yet the first place I tried was the river. The further you follow the river back into the woods, the further back in time you go. Kirk’s favorite noodling spot is beneath an old railroad bridge that must be at least eighty years old, a bunch of broken timbers running across the water. When I got there that night, the water was slow and not too cold. It came up to my thighs when I reached Kirk’s spot nestled into the far bank.

I stood in the dark water, my feet shifting in the silt, and continued to not believe my husband. I crouched down—the water pulling at my old blouse, seeping up its seams—and cursed him for telling lies. Reaching with my right hand, I closed my eyes and felt my chin hit the water. I didn’t believe him. But I’d been drinking, and that was enough to make me curious. It was enough to let me change my mind once everything started to happen, the tugs and the pulls and the sinking shift. I was relieved and tired when I realized that my husband had been telling the truth, that there was no way to stop what was happening. I could feel it then: all of Ohio, its towns and its churches and its roads and its rivers—this old, snaky one especially—swallowing me up.

It makes you feel like singing, like burping after a fine meal and then closing your eyes, because who cares if anyone heard.

Awesome! THANK YOU Sarah. I can’t wait to read your book.

If you want to learn more about Sarah or find out how to purchase What You Are Now Enjoying, please visit http://www.SarahGerkensmeyer.com


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A Reading List for Grief (Part 3 of 3)

Wrapping up the Reading List, here are some books related to grief and/or caregiving which have been recommended to me but I haven’t read yet (all available on amazon.com):

The Truth About Death, Poems by Grace Mattern

Bitter and Sweet; A Family’s Journey with Cancer by Darcy Thiel (a guest blogger on this blog!)

Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude – Jim Perlman (Editor), Deborah Cooper (Editor), Mara Hart (Editor), Pamela Mittlefehldt (editor)

Nearing Death Awareness (A Guide to the Language, Visions, and Dreams of the Dying) by Mary Anne Sanders

Death and the Art of Dying by Bokar Rinpoche

I am currently reading Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (translation by Lydia Davis) and Panther Baby by Jamal Joseph. More about both in a later post.

Please feel free to keep sending recommendations or any thoughts you might have on any of the books mentioned.

Finally, here are some quotes which resonated with me from two books on Part 1’s list. I’ll refer to more quotes in other posts. Enjoy.

From MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor E. Frankl:

“… Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.”

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

“… Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into triumph.”

From THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho:

“Sometimes, there’s just no way to hold back the river.”

“Everything on earth is being continuously transformed, because the earth is alive… and it has a soul. We are part of that soul, so we rarely recognize that it is working for us.”

“There is only one way to learn… through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey.”

“When something evolves, everything around that thing evolves as well.”

“Death doesn’t change anything.”

“’You were always a good man,’ the angel said to him. ‘You lived your life in a loving way, and died with dignity. I can now grant you any wish you desire.’”


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A Reading List for Grief (Part 2 of 3)

I am sharing the books that I read after losing my husband, in the order that I read them, with a brief explanation of how they affected me. They’re not necessarily for everyone but they might interest you. Part Two compromises the books I read from six months onward. As before, the first line of the book is under each title.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.”

I picked up this book shortly after befriending the author’s son around my birthday in October 2011. It is his father’s most recent book but by no means his most famous. That would be his earlier works Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude, which collectively earned Gabriel Garcia Marquez the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. The plot of Memories of My Melancholy Whores is brilliantly encapsulated in the first sentence. But it’s about something else, namely the fear of death and the re-awakening of the heart. As the narrator, a retired journalist, tries to find his virgin, he reflects on his ninety years on earth, how he and the world have changed, and what the world will be like without him. It’s a beautiful, witty, wistful, strangely romantic story that ends in a way you don’t expect.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby
“Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day.”

This book is a miracle in more ways than one. The author, Jean-Dominique Bauby, had been the editor-in-chief of French Elle when he suffered a stroke that left him completely paralyzed except for his left eye, with which he blinked every letter of the 131-page book. It is as succinct as it is rich in detail. I thought of Kaz a lot while reading this book, when Bauby describes the humiliation of having to be bathed like a baby, the immense pain of not being able to speak to his children or reach out and touch them, his frustration with not being able to eat French food anymore or lay with a woman or enjoy any of the things he used to. Talk about loss. But despite all this, Bauby manages to paint a picture of hope, endurance, personal strength, and the spiritual nature of human imagination. While his body is practically dead, his mind soars. His determination to not only live life fully in his thoughts, but also express them to us, is a testament to the human spirit. After I read it, I watched the movie, directed by Julian Schnabel, and loved that too. One of the rare occasions when the movie lived up to the book on which it was based.

Everyman – Philip Roth
“Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.”

Philip Roth was my mother’s favorite author and I thought of her often while reading this book. The story is told from the point of view of a man who has just died and is trying to process this reality. He does so by reflecting on his life, analyzing the decisions he made, the women he loved, his relationship with his children and so on. It’s a story of “loss, regret, and stoicism.” Ironic, witty and sad. I liked it very much.

Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
“It was a pleasure to burn.”

Most people read this book in high school. But I read it for the first time last year, partly because Mr. Bradbury had just passed away and partly because he was one of Kaz’s favorite authors. The story is set in the not too distant future in a world where books are outlawed and firemen are sent to start fires instead of put them out. I’m not normally a science fiction reader, but I couldn’t put it down and kept talking about it to anyone who would listen for months. The story resonated on many levels, not the least of which because it felt so damn plausible.

The Disappearance – A primer of Loss – Genevieve Jurgensen
“You never knew our daughters, neither did you know me as I was when they were alive.”

Ms. Jurgensen writes about losing her two young daughters, age 4 and 7, on the same day to a drunk driver… and how she recovered from this unimaginable loss. I won’t say any more than that except that this book, along with The Diving Bell, made me cry the most. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not, but both authors are French.

If you have any book recommendations, or thoughts about the books listed, please feel free to share.

Part Three will list books that have been recommended to me, as well as quotes from some of the books mentioned.