New Historical Novel by Former UT English Professor to Release this Fall

Harris headshotFormer UT Austin fiction writing and modern literature professor Elizabeth Harris will be releasing a novel Mayhem:  Three Lives of a Woman (Gival Press) this fall.

The historical novel, scheduled to drop Oct. 5, 2015, engages issues of gender, vigilantism, recovery from trauma, and nostalgia for the rural and small-town past.

Winner of the 2014 Gival Press Fiction Award, the book follows two stock farmers in 1936 Texas who are accused of castrating a neighbor. Mayhem is the story of their crime and its consequences, the violent past and standard gender relations that enable it, and its economic displacement of the modest, well-connected woman who occasions it.

“A great novel gives us Genesis, and so Mayhem: Three Lives of a Woman calls a world into being. We get not only the odor and crackle of rural Texas beginning a hundred years ago, but also the spirits of that time and place. We suffer with a rancher’s wife, a woman catastrophically misunderstood. Violence proves inevitable — but then comes the real miracle. Elizabeth Harris summons up not one world but several, in rich and moving succession. Itʼs as if redemption were sympathy: as if to peer deeply into anyone is to understand everyone. If this sounds less like a God and more like a great storyteller, well, thatʼs what weʼve got. Harris squeezes palaver and tears from her Texas clay, even while making sure we see the gifted hands at work.”

— John Domini, author of A Tomb on the Periphery and other novels, as well as stories, criticism, and poetry.

Harris’ stories have appeared in a number of literary journals and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of Wind,  The Iowa Award, and Literary Austin. Her first book, The Ant Generator, received the University of Iowa’s coveted short fiction award.

The Writers’ League of Texas recently interviewed Elizabeth Harris about her favorite writers. She stated: “People ask you who your favorite writers are when they want you to talk about reading, and I name some books and their writers, but I seldom love everything a writer has written. I’ve been a passionate reader all my life, and I love many different books for different reasons.”

As yet untitled, Elizabeth’s current project is another contemporary novel with a historical setting. She and her husband, who are birders, divide their time between the Texas Coast and Austin.

Preview an excerpt of Mayhem at:




Truths Universally Acknowledged: English professor reveals how Jane Austen’s characters and settings are fact as well as fiction

BarchasIn “Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity,” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, August 2012) Janine Barchas, associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, boldly asserts that Jane Austen’s novels allude to real names of glamorous people and places.

The first scholar to conduct extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction, Barachas offers scholars and ardent fans of Jane Austen a wealth of historical facts, while shedding an interpretive light on a new aspect of the beloved writer’s work. Other projects Barchas is working on include a website titled What Jane Saw that reconstructs a museum visit attended by the Austens in 1813 as well as an investigation into the marketing of Jane Austen through book cover art from 1833 to the present.

Barchas kindly answered some questions for ShelfLife@Texas about Jane Austen’s “subtle manipulation” of celebrity culture, current trends in Austen studies, and why timeless classics like “Pride & Prejudice” and “Persuasion” continue to fascinate readers.

In your opinion, why do Jane Austen’s novels remain on best-seller lists? Have you noticed a modern resurgence in her popularity?

Well, her novels are really good, so quality may play a role! In addition, the many Hollywood movies and BBC bonnet dramas have further propelled Jane Austen to literary stardom in recent decades. As someone who also teaches many lesser knowns (such as Samuel Richardson who, alas, has no action figure or major motion picture to promote his fine novels), I am delighted that Hollywood is recruiting students to our English Department who want to follow up a film by reading the original book. We now cannot supersaturate the demand for classes on Austen in, well, Austin.

How did you come to realize there might be a strong connection between actual high-profile politicians, contemporary celebrities and famous historical figures to the characters in Austen’s novels? Can you describe your research process?

As a researcher of “the long 18th century,” I found myself initially distracted when teaching Austen (who published her first novel in 1811) by the historical associations conjured up by the leading names and settings in her stories. For example, the real-world family of Dashwood (also the name of protagonists in “Sense and Sensibility”) was a notorious and disreputable lot, who in the 1750s and 60s became known for a Hell Fire Club and a naughty landscape garden with female shapes and priapic statuary. At first, I dutifully shook off such well-known associations from my own “historical field” as unsuitable to her Regency fiction.  But once these associations reached a tipping point, I began to wonder whether or not they were part of the fun that a historically savvy Jane Austen had intended to create with her stories. Her stories are so daring and witty if you know the reputations and names that she is reworking into her fictions. The collection at the Harry Ransom Center was such a key element in the early stages of my search for books about history, travel and famous landscapes that Austen could or would have read.

Could you elaborate more on Austen’s “subtle manipulation” of the celebrity culture she saw around her?

Austen is minute about location, taking her characters to street corners in Bath where famous people lived or specific locales where great historical events of national importance occurred. Real history is then allowed to intrude upon her stories in animating ways. Her leading names are also as if plucked from the history books, resonating with celebrity associations. For example, one famous political family in Austen’s time, the Wentworths of Yorkshire, included on its family tree the names of Woodhouse, Fitzwilliam, Darcy, Vernon, and Watson (all leading names in Austen’s stories).  Imagine a novel today about, say, a fictional Kennedy family with a plot that takes a son named John to Cape Cod.  Would you not wonder what other knowledge might be rewarded by such a cheeky reference to history?

Why do you think other scholars had yet to make this important connection?

There was a unique delay in the literary reputation of Austen, who was not popular in her lifetime. Even after her death in 1817, her reputation slumbered until she began to be reprinted in 1833. And only in the 1850s did her work become truly celebrated. So Austen — born in 1775, writing in the 1790s, and published in the 1810s — was not taken seriously until after 1850. I argue that she has been read out of time. As a result, scholars must combat the narrow Victorian view that saw her stories as confined merely to the domestic, because decades of delay in her popularity muted her daring historical and political allusions. Austen died long before Queen Victoria took the throne, and yet she is often grouped with Victorian writers like the Brontës who published decades later. I am simply resituating her in the culture, stories and history of her own youth by pulling her back into the 18th century. You see different things if you look at her as a Victorian precursor than if you look back over the books and stories that influenced her own work.  We know from her brother Henry that Jane was a keen history buff.

What are the current trends in Austen studies, and do you see your book affecting them?

Historicizing is back. New editions are encouraging the reading of Austen’s novels in their original historical context, with new notes and increasingly fuller explanations of how a contemporary reader might have understood a detail of dress, money or manners. This is a different impulse from the prior view of celebrating Austen as “timeless” (that view is only partially true).  My own book is part of a trend in scholarship that would historicize Austen to her time and place.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

That Jane Austen was even smarter and more politically daring than they’d thought! That every detail in her stories deserves to be savored and pondered — in the same way that scholars acknowledge similar details in James Joyce or Shakespeare.

What’s next for you and Ms. Austen?

I have started new project called “Jane Austen between the Covers,” which tracks the marketing of Austen through book cover designs from 1833 to the present.  Because of Austen’s broad and sustained popularity since the invention of publisher’s bindings in the mid-19th-century, her cover art not only generates local insights into her reception history but also tells us how novels, as a popular genre, were marketed and consumed during the 19th and 20th centuries. 

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.

New Writers Project Launches Touring Authors Series at BookPeople

panorama-city-by-antoine-wilsonThis October, the English department’s Master of Fine Arts program, now known as The New Writers Project, is kicking off a New Writers Tour featuring book talks by up-and-coming writers at BookPeople.

The first event will feature a reading and signing by Antoine Wilson, author of “Panorama City” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept. 2012) on Thursday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. The book talks are free and open to the public. Go to this website for more details.

About the book: Open Porter, a self-described “slow absorber,” thinks he’s dying. He’s not, but from his hospital bed, he unspools into a cassette recorder a tale of self-determination, from village idiot to man of the world, for the benefit of his unborn son.?

Written in an astonishingly charming and wise voice, Panorama City traces forty days and nights navigating the fast food joints, storefront churches, and home-office psychologists of the San Fernando Valley. Ping-ponging between his watchful and sharp-tongued aunt and an outlaw philosopher with the face “of a newly hatched crocodile,” Open finds himself constantly in the sights of people who believe that their way is the only way for him.?

“Panorama City,” received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, calling it “fresh and flawlessly crafted as well as charmingly genuine.” And Peter Carey, a two-time Booker Prize winner, described the novel as “filled with joy and wonder, and a sort of goodness you had stopped believing might be even possible. Antoine Wilson’s sentences are like diamond necklaces but his greatest treasure is his human heart.”

About The New Writers Project:
The two-year program is an opportunity for serious writers to study with established authors at The University of Texas at Austin. It’s a program where students lead their own workshops and are trained in a nationally ranked English department. With the guidance of award-winning faculty and visiting writers, students have an opportunity to focus on one genre (fiction or poetry) and complete a manuscript by the end of their second year.

“The New Writers Project recruits poets and fictions writers who are already showing great promise, and provides them with the time and space to continue developing their talent,” says Oscar Casares, associate professor in the Department of English and director of The New Writers Project. “As an extension of the program, The New Writers Tour features writers who have received critical praise but are still relatively early in their careers. Ultimately, this is about the discovery of talented writers and of where we expect them to be before too long.”

For more about The New Writer’s Project, take a look at their recently launched website.

A Poetic Q&A with Author, Activist and Alumnus William J. Cobb

“Bill Cobb’s The Bird Saviors is a stark modern-day Old Testament story in which the evil that men do is barely balanced by the good that a few manage to achieve.  It’s a gritty harrowing story set in a dust-blown Colorado town that seems filled with vivid characters.  Cobb’s expert story-telling compels us forward scene by scene to a final satisfying redemption.” – Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong

William J. Cobb (MA English, ’84) is a novelist, essayist and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others.

Before his most recent novel, “The Bird Saviors,” Cobb authored “Goodnight, Texas,” “The Fire Eaters” and a book of short stories titled “The White Tattoo.” He has received numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Sandstone Prize, an AWP Award for the Novel, and the prestigious Dobie-Paisano Fellowship — a prize sponsored by the Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters that provides solitude, time and a comfortable place at J. Frank Dobie’s Paisano ranch house for Texas writers who have written significantly about Texas.

Set in a time of economic turmoil, virus fears, climate change, fundamentalist cults and illegal immigrant hardship, “The Bird Saviors” is a visionary story of defiance, anger and compassion, in which a young woman ultimately struggles to free herself from her domineering father, to raise her daughter in the chaos of the New West, and to become something greater. It is an elemental and timely vision of resilience and personal survival, but — most of all — of honest hope.

From his home in Colorado, Cobb kindly answered some questions for ShelfLife@Texas about his life, writing and teaching styles, and what he hopes readers will take away from reading”The Bird Saviors.”

We recently reviewed the book of an alumna that was set in Galveston, Texas — a city with which she has long had a fascination. You seem to have a strong interest in the American West. Where did that come from and how does it affect your writing?

I am totally (and unabashedly) fascinated with the West (both New and Old), and see myself much more as a Western writer than anything else. Most of my childhood was spent on the northwest side of San Antonio (near Olmos Creek), and that landscape of cactus, juniper and oak trees, limestone hills and clear-flowing rivers and creeks enthralled me. I’ve written essays about how it seemed I was growing up on the border of the Old West, which I later found out to be quite true: A couple years ago I read S. C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon” (2010), about the history of the Quanah Parker and the Comanches, and there were many references of Comanches in that area of the Hill Country. But my obsession with Colorado really began when I was about nineteen years old, on my first trip there, en route to Montana: We slept on the floor of a group of archeologists involved in a dig near Cortez, Colorado, and I thought the mountains (and the people) were wild and beautiful. For the past thirty years or so I’ve spent some or all of my summers in the West, and for ten years now I’ve owned a second home in Colorado, which I think of as my real home.

The West influences my writing greatly now, like an Appaloosa I like to ride. In particular I’m obsessed with that mixture of the past and the present — of outlaws gone, remembered and soon-to-be — of a landscape in flux. The summer of ’99 I lived in Creede, Colorado, and was jazzed to learn that Bat Masterson (I love the name.) once owned a saloon there. Robert Ford — “the man who shot Jesse James” — was shot to death there (in 1892, I believe) and was at one time buried in a cemetery through which I would often take my dog for a walk. I think of myself as something of a Western landscape writer, certainly not an “urban” writer. There are plenty of those in New York, but someone must celebrate the importance of the plains and the mountains far west of the East Coast. I’m glad to be one who does that.

In 2004 you received the Dobie Paisano Jesse H. Jones Writing Fellowship: How was that experience for you personally and for your writing? Did you learn anything new about yourself or your writing process?

My time at the Paisano Ranch was nothing short of bliss. That year (2004) had a wet spring, so Barton Creek flowed the whole time and my wife and I went for swims daily. Until the heat of summer set in, the air was cool, the fields were green and the wildflowers gorgeous. Although the ranch is only about seven miles from town, it was quiet and peaceful. At night, the most distinctive sound we heard were the lions roaring in a small zoo that was located near the entrance to the property, about a mile away. The bird life was amazing. In late April we started hearing a lovely trilling sound outside our bedroom window, and soon came to find a family of Eastern Screech Owls lived in the Elm Oak beside the patio. If you shone a flashlight over the fields, you could see just their glowing eyes as they hunted insects. We liked to say those were the souls of Comanches floating over the fields. I have a long list of Paisano birds sighted, which includes the remarkable sighting (by my wife) of a juvenile Whooping Crane (traveling along the Colorado River flyway, no doubt), Ospreys, Painted Buntings, Black-Billed Cuckoos and a Golden-Cheeked Warbler, which is extremely rare. The Chuck-Will’s Widows could be so loud at night we’d have to close the windows to get some sleep.

My Paisano Fellowship came at a good time, when I was burned-out from teaching and needed some time to write: I finished the novel “Goodnight, Texas” there. What I learned most from that experience is to value the time free to write. People don’t realize how demanding the role of being a writing professor can be, how full your days can become, with no time to write. If I had the chance, I’d love to go back to Paisano and spend another spring there writing. We had a trio of longhorn steers that came to visit us regularly, and although I’m sure we weren’t supposed to, we left the gate open so they could come inside and eat the sweet grass close to the house. My wife even hand-fed them now and then. They liked her cornbread the best.

Although you were raised in Texas, you live and write in Colorado and teach writing at Penn State, correct? Can you tell us a little about your teaching style in the classroom?

I tell stories. One of my teaching assistants in a large-lecture class I taught not long ago said, after a few class sessions early in the term, “I have to come up with some anecdotes to tell.” Since most of what I teach is about storytelling, I think it’s a good way to approach the subject matter, by doing it as well. I love the anecdote related about Vladimir Nabokov in his “Lectures on Russian Literature,” in which he is said to have asked all his students to give a reason why they were taking his course, and his favorite was, “Because I like stories.” Right now I’m reading the great evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson’s new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” and although much of the material is rather cerebral and analytical, he still manages to tell a lot of stories, such as anecdotes about his adventures as a field biologist studying ants in South America. I don’t think of this as “lite” or “easy,” either. Great storytelling is a rigorous endeavor. We understand the world through the stories we tell, the tales we share with another. In explaining the evolutionary steps to the development of human consciousness, E. O. Wilson cites the role of the campfire and hearth as central to our development. We became human, after millennia of sitting around the campfire, telling stories. It’s the essence of what makes us special.

How did your idea for “The Bird Saviors” develop?

Two things kicked this novel into being: At some point I heard a voice in my head — Ruby’s voiceover in the beginning of the novel — and I jotted that down, which contains the first line: “Lord God is talking again. He does love to hear himself speak.” Her voice stuck with me for a long time, and I began with that. Yet I didn’t conceive of this as a singular story, but rather multi-voiced, with an ensemble cast of characters to provide a complex vision of this world. So the second seminal moment for “The Bird Saviors” occurred when I heard an anecdote about a young woman engaged to be married, then after her fiancé cancelled the engagement, he asked for the ring back. She refused. Soon afterward her apartment was burgled, and the only thing stolen was the engagement ring. Naturally her family suspected the fiancé was the culprit. I was fascinated by the story, by the gall of the fiancé to ask for the engagement ring back, and even more so to break into her apartment to steal it back. That was the catalyst that set everything else in motion: Once I understood Ruby’s and Becca’s characters, the other people and events developed naturally. I always pictured it in the not-too-distant future, too, when the landscape is parched and dusty by drought. Unfortunately, in Colorado that’s only too true right now.

You have described yourself as “committed naturalist and card-carrying member of the ABA (American Birding Association),” and although it’s by no means heavy-handed, there is an environmental conservation theme running through this book. Can you tell us about how some of your personal passions find their way into your fiction?

I certainly hope I never use a heavy hand in my approach, but I want my fiction to be engaged in the world, and not to be about only my life, say, or my petty likes and dislikes, but things that matter. As a father, I’m concerned about the way I see the world changing now, and am worried about how much we might alter the natural balance of the world, particularly in the Southwest, which is focal point, to some extent, for climate change. I have no patience for climate change deniers or so-called “skeptics.” Too often mainstream media outlets are giving space to kooks and shills who have some dubious if not despicable agenda. The evidence for climate change is now overwhelming. There’s a deadly epidemic in the background of “The Bird Saviors,” and one of the dangers of climate change is that it may well alter habitats in ways we don’t understand, and push viruses into the human population that have been secluded or dormant for years.

For those interested, one of the best books I’ve read recently on the subject is Michael Mann’s “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” (2012), which tells the story of Climategate from the scientist whose emails were stolen and distorted. I certainly believe that writers should speak out, should touch on what is close to their hearts, and what concerns the rest of the world. Right now I think the biggest issue facing the world is environmental and economic collapse, and I touch on both of these in “The Bird Saviors.” Some of my fiction has seemed prophetic at times, such as my previous novel — “Goodnight, Texas” — imagined a great storm hitting the Texas coast, and was written before both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ivan. That said, I don’t have a prophetic bone in my body. But I read much science-related nonfiction, and perhaps because of that, I can read the writing on the wall.

What do you most hope readers will take away from “The Bird Saviors?”

I like that idea of “taking away” something from a book. One of the things fiction (and all writing, actually) does best is to give something to its readers. So what do I hope I’m giving readers? That image of a young mother lost in a desert town blanketed with pink snow, at the novel’s beginning, when Ruby flees her father and walks miles across the prairie and through town to reach her mother, just as a dust storm collides with a cold front. Or the gutsy strength and artistry of George Armstrong Crowfoot — a Native American who functions as a kind of avenging angel and chronicles this changing world by painting petroglyphs on a mesa’s cliff-side. Or the scheming pawn shop owner Hiram Page, who likes to quote various philosophers and kings as he cheats people and bilks the needy and desperate. He’s despicable, conniving, and the rest of the world has to move quickly to keep up with him. And Jack Brown’s squishy morality as he somehow justifies to himself that kidnapping a toddler in exchange for a pickup truck is not a reprehensible act. Or Fufu’s trashy love for Officer Israel James. And much, much more.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m off from teaching for eight months and plan to write the first draft of a new novel tentatively titled “The Donkey Woman.” It’s loosely based on the donkey woman folktale I heard while growing up in the Texas Hill Country, which I later learned was a retelling of the famous La Llorona folktale from Mexican culture. I’ve got the itch to write it, which is always a good sign.

Third Time’s a Charm: College of Liberal Arts Awards Keene Prize for Literature to Michener Center Graduate Student

FIONA PHOTOFiona McFarlane, a Michener Center for Writers (MCW) graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the $50,000 Keene Prize for Literature for her story, “A Fortunate Man.”

The Keene Prize is one of the world’s largest student literary prizes. An additional $50,000 will be divided among three finalists.

McFarlane was a finalist in 2010 and again in 2011. This year she has finally taken the big prize. Her short story “A Fortunate Man” was chosen from more than 60 submissions in drama, poetry and fiction.

“The story demonstrates her talent for original characterization, vivid and sensuous description and subtle irony,” said Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, chair of the Department of English and the award selection committee. “All the judges praised her immaculately spare and elegant prose.”

McFarlane, who is graduating from MCW this spring, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Sydney, Australia, and her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, England. Her work has appeared in a number of literary journals, including Best Australian Stories, Missouri Review, Zoetrope, and Dossier. In 2010 she won The Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize, and last month she won the Roy Crane Award for the Literary Arts. She is currently working on a novel.

In addition to McFarlane, the three finalists are:

Carolina Ebeid, MCW graduate, for her masterly collection of poems, “Small Beauty of the Forest.” Ebeid was also a finalist in 2011.

Corinne Greiner, graduate of the New School for Writers in the university’s Department of English, for her vivid and compelling creative nonfiction piece, “Blood Holler.”

Corey Miller, first year master of fine arts student at the MCW, for his witty and direct collection of poems, “How we say I love you in coal country.”

Members of the 2008 selection committee were: Cullingford; Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts (ex officio); Brant Pope, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance; Dave Hamrick, director of The University of Texas Press; and Tom Zigal, novelist and speechwriter for The University of Texas System.

Established in 2006 in the College of Liberal Arts, the Keene Prize is named after E.L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the university, who envisioned an award that would enhance and enrich the university’s prestige and support the work of young writers. Students submit poetry, plays and fiction or non-fiction prose.

For Audra Martin D’Aroma, Location Is Everything

3-1Spanning a little over a century, “The Galveston Chronicles” (Rozlyn Press, February 2012) is the story of four generations of women who feel an intense pull to the island of Galveston, Texas even though their lives continue to be interrupted by hurricanes. The novel opens in the stifling days before the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, when the wealthy Isadora Khaled begins to dream about catfish and murdering her daughter, setting off a chain of events that will not be resolved until Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Isadora’s descendants are defined by and eventually named after the hurricanes that shape their lives: Fatima, who enters into a doomed relationship with a visiting artist in 1961; her drug-numbed daughter Carla, desperate to get home in 1983; and Carla’s daughter Alicia, reunited with her heritage on a modern island embracing disaster culture in 2008.

Though she and her family were from Houston, author Audra Martin D’Aroma visited her grandparents’ house in Galveston throughout her childhood, developing a strong attachment to the island and an interest in how the people responded to hurricanes. Interested in what these reactions say about the places people are from, D’Aroma has maintained a lifelong fascination with the psychological landscape of the Gulf Coast.

This University of Texas alumna (English, ’99) and up-and-coming author chatted with ShelfLife@Texas about “The Galveston Chronicles” and what the future holds for her writing career.

How did you develop such a strong love for Galveston and hurricane culture?

When I was younger, my grandparents had a vacation house on the West end of Galveston and we spent a lot of time there. It was way less developed back then. I think Galveston is a really fascinating place because it has an interesting mix of characteristics that make for strange bedmates — a Victorian aesthetic mixed with an existential, end-of-the-world feeling.

I was also fascinated just how much the island lives in the shadow of the 1900 Storm. In that way it is almost polar opposite of its neighbor Houston, where I come from. We take pleasure in tearing down any signs of our history and starting over while Galveston at some point made a decision that it was better to be defined by a tragedy than to risk having no identity at all.

As for hurricane culture, I think that the way we react to hurricanes says a lot about us — about our ideas of private property, our inherent distrust of government and our nervous energy. In fact, sometimes I think that if an anthropologist were to come to this region 1,000 years from now and try to dig up signs of what we were like as a culture, they might think that hurricane season was a religious season like Lent.

Why did you choose to major in English and Art History instead of Rhetoric and Writing? How do you feel this selection of majors prepared you for your professional writing career?

Sadly, I think I chose English because I wanted to be able to read as much fiction as possible while getting my degree. I was originally a political science minor but then switched to art history after taking an introductory class freshman year and falling in love with Caravaggio. I think that, through the direction of my studies, I developed an idea about craft as something to be learned from the Old Masters, either in the visual arts or in writing. I took one writing class at UT from Peter LaSalle, and it had a huge effect on me. I think he’s writing some of the most interesting and experimental fiction, but in the class nothing was about finding your own voice or tapping into your own creativity. He just taught the fundamentals of the craft. It instilled in me the idea that one thing had to come before the other was possible.

What gave you the idea for the unique plot of “The Galveston Chronicles?”

I can’t really remember. I started writing it in 2005 (before Hurricane Katrina), and I think the whole story came to me in a flash and then it took almost seven years of backtracking to try to hammer the plot down. I didn’t want to have a single character carry the story like a lot of people suggested, so I relied on this idea of ancestral memory to link the episodes. I’ve always noticed that on Galveston, people frame their stories using the hurricanes as markers.

Did you do a lot of historical research on the city throughout the writing process?

I did, but I also relied on a lot of other people. My mother is a history buff, so she helped a lot with it. There are a few writers, namely Gary Cartwright and Stan Blazyk, who did a great job of capturing the history. My editor was ruthless in taking out historical details that didn’t add to the story.

Diane Wilson, author of “Diary of an Eco Outlaw,” reviewed “The Galveston Chronicles,” and said that you “weave Galveston Island and those hurricanes into [your] story like Faulkner wove Yoknapatawpha County into ‘Absalom, Absalom!’, where the land was always not far behind in any dealings that the characters hatched up.” How do you think giving agency to a setting or location affects your novel, and do you have any other locations you feel could serve as the basis for a novel?

I would almost go as far to say that the entire reason I write is to explain to myself what it means to come from East Texas-West Louisiana, meaning the 360 or so miles between Houston and New Orleans. I think we have three of the ten largest oil refineries in the world in that area, and so you grow up in this environment where nature and industry are almost inextricably combined. I am interested in how that affects both our ideas of beauty and our personality. I can’t really tell you how that is, but I do know that I like to write about people watching oil refineries being lit up at night and missing hurricane season more than positive holidays.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

An idea of the mood and the sense of place that made me write the book.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel about the reverse immigration of a down-on-her-luck young mother in Lake Charles, Louisiana who is accused of a crime and escapes to Beirut and [of the immigration] of her great-great grandmother who escaped the Ottoman Empire to Lake Charles a century earlier.

Oscar Casares Celebrates Dr. Seuss’s Legacy with Special H-E-B Reading

2Reading@HEB3.5.12To celebrate the legacy of children’s author Dr. Seuss, a Brownsville H-E-B hosted a special in-store reading on Monday, March 5 with Oscar Casares, University of Texas at Austin associate professor in the Department of English. The Brownsville native and writer treated 30 first graders from Robert L. Martin Elementary—his alma mater— to a reading of “And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street!” and “I Can Read with My Eyes Shut.”

The children gave a shout out by helping him read the first book by adding the story’s refrain of “…ON MULBERRY STREET!” And Casares actually read “My Eyes Shut” twice, the second time so they could all read it together with one of their eyes shut.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street!” The event is part of H-E-B’s Read 3, an early childhood literacy initiative encouraging parents to read to their children three times a week and making books accessible and affordable for Texas families. The reading also kicked off a six-week long book drive to help H-E-B reach a 1 million-book goal.

Oscar Casares is the author of two critically acclaimed books of fiction, “Brownsville” and “Amigoland,” which have earned him fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Copernicus Society of America and the Texas Institute of Letters. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Texas Monthly and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” In 2011, The University of Texas at Brownsville presented him with their Distinguished Alumnus Award. He now teaches and directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at The University of Texas at Austin.

A Q&A with Michael Erard, Author of “Babel No More”

Babel-No-More-The-Search-for-the-Worlds-Most-Extraordinary-Language-LearnersHow do some people have the ability to master a multitude of languages? What makes them tick? Are their brains wired differently from ours?

These are just a few of the questions alumnus Michael Erard (M.A. Linguistics, ‘96; Ph.D. English, ‘00) tackles in “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners” (Free Press, 2012).

While gathering research for his book, Erard traveled to far and distant lands – from Mexico to South India to California to Belgium – in search of hyperpolyglots, people who speak at least 11 languages. In the process, he analyzes the cultural role of language, and where it resides in the brain.

Erard begins his quest by investigating the most famous hyperpolyglot, Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19-century priest who allegedly spoke 72 languages. Legend has it, the venerable multilingual defeated Lord Byron in a linguistic cursing contest. And after he died, people all over Europe vied for his skull.

In search of modern-day Mezzofantis, Erard aims to answer the age-old question: What are the upper limits of the human ability to learn languages?

Erard, who considers himself to be a “monolingual with benefits,” sat down with ShelfLife to discuss his interest in language acquisition, the mysterious phenomenon of multilingual dexterity, and the importance of breaking language barriers on a rapidly globalized planet.

What spurred your interest in studying polyglot linguistics?

I’d been working as a journalist, writing stories about languages, and a author_photo_cropped_michaeldiscussion popped up on a linguistics listserv about who the most lingual person in the world was, as well as the possibility of language learning talent as a heritable trait. Nearly no research or serious writing had been done about people who were gifted language learners and massive language accumulators, though when some people on the listserv said these people didn’t exist, it became terribly intriguing.

Why do some people pick up multiple languages so easily?

One reason is that they’ve already picked up multiple languages – they have a lot of knowledge about the basic patterns they’ll see in a grammar, and they know a lot about how they learn. (That is, if they’ve learned languages from a lot of different families.) Another reason is that they have powerful higher-order cognitive skills like working memory and executive function, which helps them use a lot of languages. They may have the ability to store memories and retrieve things from memory more quickly, as well to hear the differences between speech sounds.

Did you come across any surprising findings during the research phase?

Many, many surprising things on this journey! For instance, when I went to Bologna, Italy, to visit the archives of Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a 19th century priest who is credited with knowing dozens of language, I found a lot of documents and other things which hadn’t been described before that shed light on his abilities as well as his myth. Going to South India where communities are naturally multilingual was very eye-opening. I loved talking to people who are language learners of all types and stripes. But I was perhaps most surprised by how difficult it is to say what it means to know a language when one has a very large repertoire of them. A language isn’t a unit of measure like an inch or a pound, so does someone with six languages really have more in his or her head than someone who only has one?

What are some interesting techniques hyperpolyglots employ when teaching themselves new languages?

Some were quirky in the sense that you wouldn’t encounter them in a standard language classroom, such as eliciting language from a native speaker, as an anthropologist or linguist traditionally would do. You can very rapidly build a mental model of all the language’s sounds and basic sentence patterns, all without a textbook or dictionary. Some methods were quirky in the sense that they look and sound odd. There is “shadowing,” which involves listening to foreign language material and attempting to reproduce it at the same moment one is hearing it, all while walking around outside making exaggerated gestures with one’s limbs. Someone suggested hanging out and playing games with kids who are native speakers in the language you want to learn – the language will be simple and repetitive, and if you’re fun to play with, the kids won’t care that you don’t sound like them.

Are there any downsides to being a polyglot?

One downside is that most professional contexts don’t reward you for learning more languages, so the happiest hyperpolyglots were ones in multilingual work settings where learning a language is a part of the job. Another one is that they have to work especially hard to find time for interests besides language, which can quickly consume you and be the only thing that you do. There’s the way people are always challenging you to perform in all of your languages, or to divulge the number of languages you speak. That seems to wear on them, because people don’t necessarily want to hear the details about what you can do.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I hope that people take away the notion that successful language learning happens because of how the brain changes, not because an individual has more willpower, motivation or some other individual trait. I want to take foreign language learning out of the self and put it back into the brain. The goal is to illuminate the neurobiology of learning, which is an exciting area of research right now. One implication is that developing a globally competent workforce requires public support in order to create the environments and curricula for successful foreign language learning – individuals can’t be left to learn foreign languages on their own. I also hope that people take away the notion that even as adults they are capable of a considerable amount of learning, if only they abandon the notion that the native monolingual speaker is a meaningful standard or goal.

How did your experience at The University of Texas at Austin shape your interests in becoming an author and studying linguistics?

How did it shape me? Immensely. I received so much encouragement and interest from people both in and out of the classroom – it’s incredible. Having access to the library collections was a huge influence too. I spend a huge amount of time in the library for both of my books (not to mention my dissertation). Probably the biggest impact came late in grad school, in 2000, when I realized that I would be happier as a writer, not as an academic. That realization was spurred by my involvement with the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program, then housed on the Graduate School. Then, in 2008, I received the Dobie Paisano Writing Fellowship, a gift that provided what every writer needs: time and solitude.

What are you working on now?

I am going to be promoting this book for a while. I’ve been working on it since 2005, so I would really like for people to know about it. Then I’ve got other book ideas to develop. Since 2008 I have worked as a researcher at a think-tank in Washington, D.C., and I would like to be able to focus on writing up some of my ideas in that realm. Writing a book with a day job basically means you have two jobs, and I’d like to have just one for a while.

About the author:
A native American English speaker, Erard lived in South America and Asia, where he learned to speak Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. His books and essays on language and culture have appeared in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, the Economist and Rolling Stone. His first book, “Um…:Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean” is a natural history of things we wish we didn’t say (but do), as well as a look at what happens in our culture when we do (and wish we didn’t).

A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of “The Knife and the Butterfly”

recentheadshotashleyperez1Inspired by her teaching experience at Chávez High School in Houston, English alumna Ashley Hope Pérez writes about disadvantaged teens struggling to meet their obligations at home and follow their dreams. However her newest book “The Knife and the Butterfly” (Carolrhoda, Feb. 2011) is about the students she didn’t get to teach, the ones who slipped through the cracks in the system or dropped out of school.

The protagonist, Salvadoran Martín “Azael” Arevalo is one of those fallen students. The story unfolds when Azael wakes up in a locked cell after a gang fight in a Houston park. Unable to piece together the events that landed him behind bars, yet again, he realizes that something is not right.

Things get really weird when he’s assigned to secretly observe another imprisoned teen named Alexis “Lexi” Allen. Despite their personality clash, the two troubled teens soon find themselves inexplicably linked in this gritty paranormal thrill ride.

This up-and-coming young adult author was kind enough to chat with ShelfLife@Texas about how she learned the inner workings of street gangs, the connection between teens and the paranormal, and how she surprised herself with a twist ending.

How did you come up with the title “The Knife and the Butterfly”?

Massive confession: the series of articles that initially inspired the novel—run by The Houston Chronicle back in 2006—was titled “The Butterfly and the Knife.” Luckily for me, 12306694there’s no copyright on titles! I switched the order of the knife and the butterfly in the title after an astute reader pointed out that male readers would be more likely to pick up a book with a title that begins with “knife” rather than “butterfly.”

The duality expressed in the title was a focusing one for me as I wrote. As I say in my author’s note for the novel, I wanted to show Azael and Lexi’s world as much more than a patchwork of crime and violence. In addition to the very real threat of their circumstances and the danger of poor choices, I tried to capture these two teens’ vulnerability and their potential for redemption.

What made you decide to dabble in the realm of paranormal fiction?

It wasn’t as simple as a decision, exactly. Yes, there is a “paranormal twist” to “The Knife and the Butterfly,” but much of the novel (say 90 percent) is occupied with the gritty world Lexi and Azael live in on the fringe of mainstream society in Houston. The paranormal was a bit of a surprise to me, too.

That is to say, I didn’t set out to incorporate paranormal elements in my novel; they became necessary for me to change the rules of my characters’ world just enough so that they could make different decisions… so they could have the second chances that are built into the system for many middle-class teens.

You mentioned that you even surprised yourself with the twist at the end. How did this come about?

The ending developed unexpectedly out of exploratory writing I was doing about Azael’s street art. This whole thread—Azael and his relationship to spray paint and the walls of his city—was a challenge for me. I am very much a rule follower, so it took me a lot of effort to rethink graffiti as “street art” and to come to understand what it meant to Azael to write right on the faces of the structures around him.

Anyway, I was writing about Azael’s thoughts as he was drawing, and then all of sudden I was writing the ending. And once it was there on the page—and I knew it was the ending—it was the only possibility that felt right to me. It went through plenty of revision and development, but the thrust of the final part of the book didn’t change. I embraced it with its paranormal baggage.

Why do you think young readers are so enthralled by the paranormal?

You’d think I’d have an ironclad thesis after teaching a course on vampire literature for two semesters, but to be honest, I’m not sure. Within YA, I tend to shelve myself alongside contemporary realists, not fantasy writers. Still, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say the paranormal provides novel ways of thinking through and dramatizing teen (and human) issues. In fact, one of my favorite student papers interpreted one vampire in literature as an eternal adolescent.

How did you familiarize yourself with inner-city gangs?

Because Crazy Crew is a “home-grown” Houston gang, details related to it came mostly from news coverage and other local sources. MS-13 (La Mara Salvatrucha), on the other hand, is an international gang that has been described by some as “the world’s most dangerous gang.” I did extensive reading about MS-13, including many first-person accounts, but I focused on the particulars of the gang’s activity in Houston, which are generally not quite as extreme as what you might see in the heart of Central America.

For both gangs, I needed to learn specifics: their hand signs, the “rules” of initiation and involvement, linguistic patterns and so on. I would never want to trivialize or glamorize gang involvement, but at the same time I think some media portrayals are a bit exaggerated and fail to capture the nuances of actual teens’ experiences. For example, readers will notice that—contrary to most Hollywood portrayals of gang violence—there’s not a single gun involved in the fight that opens “The Knife and the Butterfly.” This is pretty consistent with the two gangs portrayed. I’ve found that when I ground my writing in particulars, a lot of stereotypes fall away.

The story is primarily narrated from the point of view of Azael. How were you able to capture the language of a poor teenage gang member in Houston?

You found a very nice way to ask something that some teen readers, upon meeting me, put a lot more bluntly: “How did YOU write THIS?” They pick up immediately on the fact that I am not someone who, in conversation, would describe a package of Cheetos as “spicy-as-f**k” (Azael’s words). How, then, can such words come out of my pen?

A lot of it was shameless cribbing from what I heard kids in Houston say, both in the hallways of the high school where I used to teach and in the taquerías and hangouts of working-class neighborhoods. I spent a good amount of time in the areas where the novel is set (mainly the Montrose area and a run-down stretch of Bellfort). I also paid attention to the language used in the interviews I read and would sometimes mimic patterns of phrasing.

Now, in terms of emotional truth in Azael’s language, I chalk that up to a willingness to imagine experiences and ways of seeing that are unlike my own. I recently heard Lionel Shriver talk here in Paris, and she said that for her, writing from a male point of view is not the big leap; the big leap is getting inside another head, period, and discovering those individual particularities, the quirks of mind inside the many big things we have in common. I agree, and I think you could substitute “poor” and “gang member” for “male” and still find the notion to be true.

What message do you hope your readers will take away from this book?

I’d love readers to leave the pages of “The Knife and the Butterfly” with a sense that second chances aren’t doled out equally. And I hope that they will feel a bit more urgency about being a positive presence for those who, as far as they had thought before, don’t even deserve to be redeemed.

What are you working on now?

I’m knee-deep in a very messy first draft of a historical novel set in 1930s East Texas, near where I grew up. There’s an explosion, an interracial romance, a pair of twins, and a significant shoe. That’s all I can say without transgressing certain foolish writerly superstitions.

About the author: During her time at The University of Texas at Austin, Perez won several writing awards including a $5,000 George H. Mitchell award for her essay on Anne Sexton. She went on to teach high school English in Houston – sending a number of students back to The University of Texas at Austin. She is now finishing a doctorate in comparative literature at Indiana University and teaching English in Paris. She also teaches undergraduate courses for her department, including literature about vampires and a course on women writers of the Caribbean. Her first young adult novel, “What Can’t Wait,” is also inspired by her Houston high school students.