Michener Center reading by 2013 residency author Colm Toibin

The University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writers will host a reading by our fall 2013 residency author, COLM TOIBIN, on Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 7:30 pm in the Avaya Auditorium, POB 2.302.

Toibin, a native of Ireland, is the author of two novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Blackwater Lightship and The Master, as well as Brooklyn, 2009 Costa Novel of the Year, The Empty Family, a collection of stories, and The Testament of Mary, adapted to stage on Broadway this past year.  He is as well a prolific essayist and journalist.

The Peter O’Donnell building, formerly known as the ACES building, is on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway on UT Campus.  Parking is available in the nearby UT garage at San Jacinto and 24th.

UT Press’ Texas Bookshelf to capture the state’s culture and history

Texas Bookshelf is a major initiative by UT Press that will chronicle the Texas mystique and the state’s history through a series of 16 books over five years. According to Brady Dyer, UT Press marketing, communications and sales manager, this is the first such project undertaken by a university press to capture the culture and history of a state in such an in-depth way.

Stephen Harrigan, NY Times bestselling author and a professor in the University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writing will pen write the first book, a full-length history of Texas. Harrigan said, “My goal is to make the events of the modern history of Texas–the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, the collapse of Enron–as compelling to read about as the siege of the Alamo or the Comanche wars.”

authors of Texas Bookshelf books

UT Austin faculty who will pen the 16 titles as part of the Texas Bookshelf.

Fifteen additional titles will follow Harrigan’s. All are to be written by UT Austin faculty and will focus on such topics as politics, art, architecture, film, music, photography, sports, fodoways, business, books and theatre as well as the African American experience, a history of the Texas Borderlands and the Tejano/a experience. Read more about the project and the participating faculty authors on the UT Press blog.

Peter LaSalle’s new novel looks at life in the shadows

M song smPeter LaSalle uses a single book-length sentence in his new novel, “Mariposa’s Song,” to tell of a twenty-year-old Honduran woman in the United States without documentation.  Mariposa is working as a B-girl and taxi dancer in a scruffy East Austin nightclub called El Pájaro Verde in 2005, and her story takes readers into the shadowy world that undocumented workers are too often forced to live in due to current immigration laws.

“‘Mariposa’s Song’ is a tragedy that rings distressingly true to the bone,” says novelist Madison Smartt Bell in a prepublication comment, “and never has Peter LaSalle’s prose sung so melodiously.”  And Publishers Weekly notes: “LaSalle’s new novel is brief, but it feels expansive with its continued breathlessness.”

The novel is published in The Americas Series from Texas Tech University Press.  Edited by Irene Vilar and with a national advisory board, the series issues mostly work by Latin American writers in translation—recent releases include Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal and Brazilian novelist Moacyr Scliar—but also the occasional original book on a Latino subject that reflects the series’ stated mission of “cultivating cross-cultural and intellectual exploration across borders and historical divides.”

LaSalle will talk about “Mariposa’s Song” at the Texas Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 27 in a three-author panel discussion on immigration narratives, “Nunca Volver: New Lands, New Lives,” moderated by Melissa del Bosque.  An excerpt from the novel will be featured in the December issue of The Texas Observer.

PeteAs the Susan Taylor McDaniel Regents Professor in Creative Writing at UT, LaSalle teaches in both the English Department’s New Writers Project and the Michener Center for Writers. He’s the author of several books of fiction, including the story collection “Tell Borges If You See Him,” winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award, and his work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Travel Writing, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, among many others. A new short story collection, “What I Found Out About Her and Other Stories,” is forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press.

ShelfLife@Texas asked LaSalle a few questions about “Mariposa’s Song.”

Did you do intensive research, or how did you come to know about the lives of undocumented workers?

In recent years I got to know quite a bit about the world of the undocumented. I did so through time spent in the Mexican bars and nightclubs that used to line 6th Street in East Austin and now have all but vanished—almost overnight, actually, in the sudden so-called gentrification of the area. I also spent some time in the home of an immigrant family in Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, where I went with a friend who volunteered as an English instructor to new arrivals from Latin America. I think that those experiences, meeting the people I did in the course of it all, made me begin to better understand what it’s like to survive in the United States without documentation.

So you decided to write about it?

Looking back on it, I guess I almost had to write about it.  I remember that I saw a rather absurd locally produced TV show celebrating the supposed urban wonders of downtown Austin.  One sequence showed a group of happy young professionals (does anybody say “yuppie” anymore?) who had just come out of a trendy bar at maybe 2 a.m., guys and girls. They were filmed standing on the sidewalk, gazing up at what they saw as the wondrous beauty of a scene—men working construction on a new downtown high-rise, the site lit up bright in the darkness. I realized that those people, and a lot just like them, had no idea what life was really like for such workers, that there was nothing romantic about their long hours of hard labor, sometimes even right through the night. Having worked a job in construction myself at least one summer during college, I could assure them of that. More significantly, many of those workers were probably without documentation, facing life every day with the added threats posed by our outdated and thoroughly contradictory immigration policies. I don’t know if that was exactly when I decided to start writing “Mariposa’s Song,” but it was one thing that contributed to my decision to use a novel to maybe tell others what I knew about such lives, including those of the young women who worked in the East Austin bars, hustling drinks for the owners or dancing with customers, like the old dime-a-dance arrangement.

And the entire novel is basically a single book-length sentence. Can you explain how that works?

Well, first of all, I hope it does work. I’ve written and published several short stories that use just a single sentence, though this is my first time trying it on something longer. The novel takes place in the course of one Saturday night in a rough East Austin nightclub, where my protagonist—a gentle, pretty, and very hopeful young woman from Honduras named Mariposa—works as a bar girl and gets in a nightmarishly bad situation when she meets the wrong guy at the decidedly wrong time, a smooth-talking Anglo from out of town who calls himself Bill. In starting to write, I soon found that a single continuing sentence captured perfectly the cadence of a night at that club, where the norteño and cumbia music the DJ plays goes on uninterrupted, no breaks between songs, flowing. It also seemed to capture the way Mariposa’s own thoughts meander through her mind, maybe her soothing personal song of herself, very much a music, too.

Well, it certainly seems like a fresh idea.

As said, I sure hope so.

Yellow Birds Soar

Kevin Powers

Kevin Powers

Just four months after his graduation from UT’s Michener Center for Writers alum Kevin Powers is rocking the publishing world with his first novel. “The Yellow Birds” was released in the U.K. last week and Little, Brown and Company brings it out to U.S. readers next week, on Sept. 11. The book tells, in alternating chapters, the story of a young American GI’s experiences in Iraq and his difficult assimilation back home. Powers served as a machine-gunner in Mosel and Tal Afar in 2004-2005.

In effusive reviews from The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani and London’s Guardian, Powers’ debut is compared to iconic books of our time and in literary history. “Its depiction of war,” writes Kakutani, “has the surreal kick of [Tim] O’Brien’s 1978 novel, ‘Going After Cacciato,’ and a poetic pointillism distinctly its own.” The Guardian, who long-listed the novel for its 2012 First Book Award, says, “while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside ‘All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage,’ ‘The Yellow Birds’ does just that.”

YB 9:11:12Both reviews quote Powers’ hypnotic prose at length, calling his language “brilliantly observed,” and “the mark of an artist of the first order.” Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch, who acquired the manuscript last November and brought it into print in record time, calls the work “a voice from inside the fire.” Powers joined the Michener Center’s MFA program in 2009 as a poet and continues to write and publish poetry.

The U.S. launch will be celebrated with an event in Austin next Tuesday, Sept. 11, when the Michener Center for Writers, Texas Monthly, and the Texas Book Festival co-sponsor a conversation with Kevin Powers and TM editor Jake Silverstein—also a Michener alum— at Lambert’s Downtown BBQ from 6-8 p.m. An RSVP is required in advance through the magazine’s web page.

A Mark Twain for Our Age

AllanGAllan Gurganus, author of “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” “Plays Well with Others,” and other works of fiction, will teach on campus as Michener Residency Author this February for three weeks.  He is slated to meet with MFA students in weekly craft seminars and to hold manuscript conferences to discuss their work individually.

He will also read at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 9, 2012 in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302, on the southeast corner of Speedway and 24th Street on campus.  The event is free and open to students and the public.  Parking is available in the nearby UT Garage at San Jacinto and 24th.

Gurganus’s work has been translated into twenty languages. His first novel sold two million copies. Adaptations of the fiction have won four Emmys, his books awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the O’Henry Short Story Prize.  Paris La Monde said of Gurganus, “A Mark Twain for our age, hilariously clear-eyed, blessed with perfect pitch.”

With this type of endorsement we thought no one would be a more suitable interviewer for his Q&A than Gurganus himself. ShelfLife@Texas is proud to present an interview with Gurganus, by Gurganus.

Welcome to campus. You yourself studied with authors as gifted and various as Grace Paley, John Irving, Stanley Elkin and John Cheever. Do you bring their examples into your classroom?

Their voices and wisecracks go with me everywhere. Sentence by sentence, I know what each of them would say about my next line. This holds true in my own classes and student conferences.  I can literally hear what the now-deceased Grace Paley is urging me to tell a given student.  The one way to repay great teaching is trying to perfect that art yourself.

By now, my students are growing famous as my teachers were. Elizabeth MacCracken of the Creative Writing Department here, was my own pupil a few decades back at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She remains not only among the most gifted students I’ve ever taught; she is also easily the kindest.  I remember where I was sitting when I read certain of her start-up stories.

Have you looked over the fiction of your UT students you’ll work with during your residency?

Oh yes. I’ve covered pages with many checkmarks and, to earn my keep, some questions. I’m now eager to see if each of them resembles the person I imagined wrote each tale. (Sometimes I can pick a writer out of a group of other strangers on the basis of her prose. Just showing off!)

One thing that wowed me—how different each writer is. Here there is no median talent or typical story. Everybody seems wildly themselves. Talent! For me, that is the holy of holies. I literally worship it, valuing it over physical beauty. It sure lasts longer.

Though I will be in Austin less than a month, I hope to encourage students to build upon their own best instincts. Everybody is launched already, and obsessed.

After writing myself for forty-four years, I’ve bumped into certain technical shortcuts, some simple insights that—if presented dramatically and modestly—might prove useful.

You are slated to give a reading on campus on February 9th. Will you be offering a selection of “Oldest Living Widow,” your most famous work?

Oh no. Just as students find the nerve to show me brand-new work as yet unpublished, I’ll return the favor. Only fair. No matter how many books a writer has in print, the blank page never grows less abashing. In fact, that whiteness leaves you ever more snowblind. You have used up all your charm and tricks; you fear you’ve already plundered the true ore of autobiography.

It is important to demonstrate to students that I’m still a student. I’ll read from a long novel in progress called “The Erotic History of a Rural Baptist Church.”  It investigates the confusion between spiritual longing and the raw upsurge insistence of sexual desire. That makes for a combustible mix. I plan to read a passage based on an actual incident from my hometown circa 1900. A baby elephant escapes from a visiting circus. It gets pursued by a posse of local boys and girls and farmers. It takes a local preacher to pray over this event, to try and justify or explain the random violence we all wade in daily.

What advice can you offer beginning or graduate writers? It seems a field with one long apprenticeship, then rewards unevenly distributed.

Well-said. Yes, people write because they have to. There is no other excuse for it. American culture only valued Faulkner once he’d won the Nobel, once Hollywood hired him to make his own brilliant novels terrible movies. His books were out of print. Suddenly he became ‘hot’ then valid.

I’ve been needing to put things on paper since 1966. If tomorrow I learned that no other word I wrote would ever be published, my daily schedule would not change. I’d still rise at six thirty and cohabit with my desk till early afternoon. I rarely even take the Sabbath off. Stopping and starting is the hardest part of writing. Far better never to turn off the tap.

Universities provide one essential ingredient all writers need: an interested enlightened audience. I encourage people to find a group of others, working at their same level of experience. To meet alternate weeks at least and read new work aloud. Sometimes our ears know more than our brain does. There are two of them! Music is truly what we seek to write. Fiction rests somewhere between being a Law and a Song. By hearing other people hear your work, you learn to make it rock or sway or pound. The goal is helping others Laugh, Cry, Wait and Know.  Seeing that happen, in real time, thanks to sound-waves, is one great reason to endure all its attendant tortures.

University of Texas at Austin Faculty Authors Discuss their Books on C-SPAN2 Book TV

This weekend, be sure to tune in to C-SPAN2 Book TV to watch two University of Texas at Austin professors discuss their books.

American Studies Professor Julia Mickenberg will discuss her book “Tales for Little Rebels” on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 12:45 p.m., and on Monday, Nov. 14 at 12:45 p.m.

Little_Rebel_webSynopsis: Rather than teaching children to obey authority, to conform, or to seek redemption through prayer, 20th century leftists encouraged children to question the authority of those in power. “Tales for Little Rebels” collects 43 mostly out-of-print stories, poems, comic strips, primers, and other texts for children that embody this radical tradition. These pieces reflect the concerns of  20th century leftist movements, like peace, civil rights, gender equality, environmental responsibility, and the dignity of labor. They also address the means of achieving these ideals, including taking collective action, developing critical thinking skills, and harnessing the liberating power of the imagination.

Sanford Levinson, professor of law, will discuss his book “Constitutional Faith” on Sunday, Nov. 18 at noon and 7:15 p.m., and on Monday, Nov. 19 at 12 p.m.

Constitutional_Faith_cover

Synopsis: In this intriguing book, Levinson examines the history and the substance of our ‘civil religion’ of the Constitution. Echoes of this tradition are still heard in debates over whether the constitutional holy writ includes custom, secondary texts and history or is restricted to scriptural fundamentalism. Of equal age and intensity is the battle over the proper role of the priests. Is the Constitution what the Justices say it is or does it have a life of its own?

Interviews scheduled for broadcast the following weekend include:

· Steven Weinberg, professor in the departments of physics and astronomy, will discuss “Lake Views” on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., and on Nov. 21 at 12 p.m.

· Lewis Gould, professor emeritus of history, will discuss “My Dearest Nellie” and “Theodore Roosevelt” on Sunday, Nov. 20 at 10:30 a.m., and on Nov. 21 at 12:30 p.m.

· Robert Auerbach, professor of public affairs, will discuss “Deception and Abuse at the Fed” on Nov. 20 at 10:40 a.m., and on Nov. 21 at 12:40 p.m.

A C-SPAN film crew interviewed the faculty members in the university’s Main Building on Oct. 24 following a weekend of covering the annual Texas Book Festival in Austin. Broadcast dates and times for the other faculty members interviewed for the C-SPAN2 Book TV program will be announced later.

The other faculty members are:

Martha Menchaca, professor  in the Department of anthropology, discussing “Naturalizing Mexican Immigrants”
James Galbraith, professor in the Department of Government and the LBJ School of Public Affairs, discussing “The Predator State”
Jeremi Suri, professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs, discussing “Liberty’s Surest Guardian”
Ami Pedahzur, professor in the Departments of Government and Middle Eastern Studies, discussing “The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Toward Terrorism”
Neil Foley, professor in the Departments of History and American Studies, discussing “Quest for Equality”


Michener Center Hosts New York Times Book Review Editor

SamheadshotSamT Tanenhaus has the dream job of many bibliophiles:  editing the New York Times Book Review. He not only gets access to all the latest, he’s in a position to influence what may become the greatest books of his time.

Luckily, the job has fallen to man of voracious intellectual curiosity, who has written widely on politics, literature and culture.  His 1997 biography of Whittaker Chambers was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and a new volume, The Death of Conservatism, is winning great acclaim.  UT Michener Center for Writers’ Director James Magnuson, who has invited Tanenhaus to campus to work with writers in the MFA program, calls him simply, “a person who knows everything about everything.”

That Tanenhaus produces remarkable prose and brilliant criticism of his own is even more impressive in light of the fact that the NYTBR receives as many as 1000 new books each week,  20 to 30 of which will get reviewed.  Deciding just who gets that coveted coverage involves a massive and highly subjective winnowing which he has overseen since 2004, when he took over as editor-in-chief after having been on its staff for several years, a former editor at Vanity Fair, and a long-time freelance journalist and author. Eight to ten pre-reviewers, each working in an area of specialization — literary or experimental fiction, poetry, economics, geopolitics, children’s literature, etc. — cull the hundreds down to perhaps a few dozen which are assigned to on-staff and outside reviewers who write what eventually appears in the Sunday section each week.

The Times has run a book review section since 1896, and while there are dozens of equally prestigious reviews in the United States alone today, it remains the gold standard. A bad review in its pages can be, for an emerging author especially, as useful as a rave:  It at least brings a book into the public eye, not an easy feat in an industry that cranks out millions of titles each year, 1 percent of which are ever reviewed anywhere.  The power of any criticism to make or break an author’s fortunes and to influence what the reading public buys means that Tanenhaus’s tastes and predilections are parsed endlessly for clues to a marketplace that has always been chimerical, but is now shape-shifting as quickly as the technology and socioeconomic forces that fuel it.

Sam Tanenhaus will share his unique perspective on the book world in a lecture, “Does the Novel Still Matter?” at 7:30 pm on Thursday, November 3, 2011 at Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302.  He’ll discuss the state of the novel today and the authority of the novelist in what he calls a “post-literary” culture. The lecture is sponsored by the Michener Center for Writers, where Tanenhaus is in residence to work with students in Stephen Harrigans “Long-Form Journalism” seminar, co-taught by Texas Monthly editor Jake Silverstein.  While on campus, he’ll also hold a seminar with Plan II Honors students, “Recognizing Good Writing:  A Critic’s Criteria.”

The auditorium is located on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway on campus.  Parking is available in the nearby San Jacinto Garage and the event is free to students and the public.

The Heart and Soul of Our Poetry Community

smDYcolorOn Friday, April 8, poets from across the country will read at Austin Museum of Art downtown in a benefit honoring The University of Texas at Austin’s  Livingston Endowed Chair in Poetry Dean Young, beloved poet and teacher who faces a heart transplant.

Nationally acclaimed poets Tony Hoagland, Thomas Lux, Dobby Gibson, Barbara Ras, Stuart Dischell, David Rivard and Joe Di Prisco are volunteering their time to fly in for the free event and will read along with a raft of local poets, including visiting professors Tomaz Salamun and Mary Ruefle, and members of the University community Kurt Heinzelman, Judith Kroll, Roger Reeves and Malachi Black. Each reader will read a favorite poem by Dean and a piece of their own.

Dean joined the university’s permanent faculty in 2008 as the first of two distinguished chairs created by the Michener Center for Writers and Office of Graduate Studies.  A professor in the Department of English, he teaches poetry workshops and seminars in both creative writing programs.  Among one of the most prolific poets of his generation, celebrated for his energetic and inventive style—a mercurial blend of  tragedy and joy, the surreal and the minutely observed—he has more than a dozen books of poetry and prose to his credit, including “Fall Higher,” forthcoming this year; “Primitive Mentor,” shortlisted for the 2009 Griffin International Poetry Prize; “Elegy on Toy Piano,” nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; and “Embryoyo,” as well as a critical work on poetry, “The Art of Recklessness.”

Dean’s imprint on the poetry program in English and the Michener Center has been immediate and distinctive.  English chair Elizabeth Cullingford calls him a “consummate teacher who’s brought dynamism and new ideas to our Creative Writing program.”   Leanna Petronella, a poet in her second year at the Michener Center, says that Dean uses “an odd and brilliant metaphorical language to get at what poetry does.”  MFA candidate Zebadiah Taylor, whose thesis Dean is supervising in absentia this spring, says “No other person I’ve encountered understands poetry as deeply.”

But the heart Dean Young puts into his teaching and mentoring is in trouble.  For the last dozen years or so, he has lived with congestive heart heartimageDYfailure due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare disease of the heart muscle.  Naturally spry and athletic, he was, until last year, able to spring back from periodic episodes of weakness.  Last fall, his condition worsened dramatically, until this spring he required surgery to place external mechanical pumps to take over the work of his heart.  He’s spent much of the last several months hospitalized, fighting infection and setbacks, and still he has kept up with his students, texting and answering emails, and meeting in person, when his health allows, to discuss their poetry.  He is at the highest priority on the transplant list at Seton Medical Center at Austin, and awaits only a suitable donor.  Despite his health insurance, out of pocket expenses are enormous.

Among Friday night’s readers is Joe DiPrisco, Dean’s longtime friend who chairs a fund-raising campaign through the National Foundation for Transplants, a nonprofit organization that has been assisting transplant patients with advocacy and fundraising support since 1983.  The organization will have information available at the reading about how supporters can help with Dean’s medical needs.

Donations are welcome, but the reading is free at AMOA Downtown, 9th and Congress and begins at 6 p.m.

“Everyday Information” Views How We Seek and Use Information

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All day, every day, Americans seek information. We research major purchases. We check news and sports. We visit government Web sites for public information and turn to friends for advice about our everyday lives. Although the Internet influences our information-seeking behavior, we gather information from many sources: family and friends, television and radio, books and magazines, experts and community leaders.

In  the newly-published “Everyday Information: The Evolution of Information Seeking in America,” co-edited  by William Aspray, professor in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, the editors discuss how patterns of information seeking have evolved throughout American history and are shaped by a number of forces, including war, modern media, the state of the economy, and government regulation. This book examines the evolution of information seeking in nine areas of everyday American life.

Chapters offer an information perspective on car buying from the days of the Model T to the present; philanthropic and charitable activities; airline travel and the complex layers of information available to passengers; genealogy, from the family Bible to Ancestry.com; sports statistics, as well and fantasy sports leagues and their fans’ obsession with them; the multimedia universe of gourmet cooking; governmental and publicly available information; reading, sharing and creating comics; and text messaging among young people as a way to exchange information and manage relationships. Taken together, these case studies provide a fascinating window on the importance of information in the past century of American life.

A number of students in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin contributed to the volume including Rachel Little, Arturo Longoria, Sara Metz, Beth Nettels, Jameson Otto, George Royer, Gesse Stark-Smith and Cecilia Williams.

Michener Alumna Tells a Story Worth Telling in her Fourth Novel: “Maxine Banks is Getting Married”

MaxineBanksLori Aurelia Williams, a 1996 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin’s masters program in Creative Writing/English and one of the first distinguished Michener fellows on campus, has just published her fourth novel, “Maxine Banks is Getting Married,” with Macmillian’s Roaring Brook Press.

Since the 2001 release of her debut novel from Simon and Schuster, “When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune,Williams has been recognized as one of the freshest and most powerful voices in young adult literature.  Her books, all set in the Houston’s 5th Ward where Williams grew up, tell the stories of young people caught up in circumstances that propel them too early into adulthood.  “Kambia” is narrated by 12-year-old Shayla, an aspiring writer whose sharp-eyed account of her runaway sister Tia and their tragically abused neighbor Kambia captivated readers. Its first printing sold out immediately, and it was voted #1 Young Adult Book by Amazon.com and received the Best Book Award of the American Library Association.  “Shayla’s Double Brown Baby Blues,” a continuation of Shayla’s story, followed in 2003. “Broken China, whose protagonist gives birth to and loses a child by age 14, came out in 2005, supported by a PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. Alan Cheuse selected it that year for his NPR summer reading list.

“Maxine Banks” picks up threads from her first two novels:  Maxine is Tia’s best friend and follows her example of marrying at 17 to escape the parade of sorry men her mother brings into their lives, only to have her plan backfire. But as troubled and difficult as the lives of all Williams’ characters are, their stories are told with lyricism and verve. A sense of family and community is always strong, and even their most desperate situations are graced with humor.

Lori Aurelia Williams

Lori Aurelia Williams

Williams continues to call Austin home.  When she is not writing, she supervises an after school program at a local high school.  She answered a few questions for ShelfLife @Texas recently about the new book and her work.

Did you set out to write Young Adult fiction as a deliberate career choice, or was it more a case that the stories you were drawn to tell found their natural expression in books for young readers?

I don’t sit down to write books that specifically target a group. YA fiction is actually fiction written for younger adults and teens, and because my characters are youthful they just naturally fit into that category. To be honest when I write I consider only one thing, will my work make a real difference to anyone, young or old? If I think I have a story worth telling, I tell it, and let the publishers decide how to market it.

To be clear with readers who don’t know your work:  you address very mature themes of sexual abuse and exploitation, violence, unplanned pregnancy, infidelity.  Have you ever faced any censure from your editors or publishers?

I have definitely been censured. My first book, “When Kambia Elaine Flew In From Neptune,” was on a list of the most banned books in Texas a few years back, and I’ve shown up to readings only to have school personnel ask me not to read, but simply talk about the book. I have to admit, I get upset when this happens, because I write about things that many young girls have gone through, and I don’t believe we can stop our children from experiencing the ugliness of the world by simply forbidding them to read about it.

You’ve used the neighborhood of your own childhood, Houston’s tough 5th Ward, as the setting of all of your novels so far.  How did growing up there shape your fiction?

I loved the neighborhood that I lived in, and was really unaware of how other people saw it until I grew up and settled into another town miles away. To me the poverty and the violence was a normal way of life, and it was offset by the strong sense of kinship that I felt with the other families who lived around me. Today those families have also moved on, and the shacks that most of us lived in have been torn down. When I write I incorporate bits and pieces of my childhood neighborhood into my work, and try my best to make it something that readers in my old and new life can be proud of.

Nearly all your reviews praise your wonderful talent for dialogue, for capturing the rhythms and speech of your characters. How do you feel you developed that particular gift?

Even as a little girl I loved to hear people talk, and you have to have that love of the spoken word in order to create good dialogue. If you can hear the beauty in Southern drawls, mispronounced words, broken speech, urban slang, and just about anything that can come out of a person’s mouth you can write good dialog. After I’ve written a very talk heavy scene, I read it aloud for clarity and sound. This helps me create characters that sound like people you might meet shopping at a grocery store or walking down a busy street.

What are you working on now?

I just finished the first draft of my fifth book and shipped it off to my agent, so right now I’m just enjoying a little free time to catch up on my reading.  It’s a new book, set in a new place.