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.

Alumnus Shares Insight into How Titanic Corporations Sank the U.S. Economy

TheAquisitorsBookCover-1A book about the Great Meltdown written before the Great Meltdown, “The Acquisitors: Too Titanic to Let Sink” (BookSurge Publishing, Jan. 2010) offers a jarring account of the negligence and greed that pushed the country into a financial crisis.

Drawing from his experiences as a counsel to the House Antitrust Subcommittee, Winslow (B.A. History ‘56/JD Law ’60) based the book upon the findings of the committee’s investigation of unbridled corporate takeovers. And, in the wake of the Meltdown of 2008-09, he decided to revise the book and give it a new title to show exactly how and when corporations become so big that the meltdown became unavoidable.

“[I wanted] to show that it and our committee findings clearly forecast the Great Meltdown: if its warnings against inordinate corporate amalgamation are ignored again, the Meltdown is certain to recur,” says Winslow, a former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission attorney who has served on Congressional and regulatory legal staffs and has written on economic regulation for The Nation and The Washington Monthly.

We spoke with Winslow about “The Acquisitors” and his conviction that “we threw away antitrust protection that would have prevented the Great Meltdown.”

You inveigh against giant corporate takeovers in your book. What’s wrong with them?

If we had restrained giant corporations’ takeovers of other corporations we’d have no companies too big to fail. Hence, no Great Meltdown.

After you left the University of Texas, how did you end up in Washington, writing about the evils—as you say—of corporate takeovers?

No entertainment was better than my history courses in Garrison Hall. Lectures on

John Winslow

John Winslow

late 19th-century robber barons especially intrigued me. When I graduated from the University of Texas Law School, Chairman Emanuel Celler, of the House Judiciary Committee, was about to subpoena documents to see whether Congress should expand the Celler-Kefauver Act—forbidding mergers of competing companies—so that it would outlaw mergers of any two major corporations even if not competitors. The soaring merger rate alarmed the committee.

So you joined the Judiciary Committee staff?

Eagerly, as a legal counsel. But the giants weren’t eager to open up their takeover files to us. They weren’t always glad to see the co-counsel and me. But when we’d find a document that raised eyebrows, we’d know what other documents to search for. Then we’d have more threads to pull to unravel the flimflam.


International Telephone & Telegraph Co. (ITT), for one, claimed that it strengthened the hundreds of companies it acquired by infusing them with ITT management ability. But its documents showed plots to shift its debts incurred from prior takeovers to its future takeovers – thus to gain money from them for more takeovers. You hardly strengthen a company by loading it with needless debt. The book seeks to explain those parasitical gimmicks. After you scrape off the camouflage, the gimmicks appear easy and simple. They have to be simple to work.

We don’t hear much about ITT now. Is your book still relevant?

Do you ask if your medical history is relevant? We do hear about JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup, each bailed out with $45 billion, only because they made themselves too titanic to let sink through takeovers—by employing other camouflaged gimmicks our investigation uncovered. Now we read that both banks, thanks to anticompetitive mergers, sold their customers grossly over-valued securities so that the banks could sell them short and cheat those customers out of hundreds of millions.

Your book’s back cover cites a comment from Peter F. Ward, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission: “With all the corporate and regulatory horrors dredged up in this book, and no effort by Congress to remedy them, perhaps Mr. Winslow will consider a sequel.” Are you writing a sequel?

“The Acquisitors” is the sequel. The original book published by Indiana University Press, “Conglomerates Unlimited: Failure of Regulation” predates the Great Meltdown, and “The Acquisitors” revises that book to show that other companies, such as Bank of America, grew too big to fail (i.e., exempt from bankruptcy) by employing the parasitical gimmicks our investigation uncovered years before. Bank of America took over a thousand banks then ruined them by forcing them to underwrite subprime mortgages. AIG ballooned into a trillion-dollar megalith requiring a $175 billion bailout.

Why didn’t your investigation prevent the Great Meltdown?

The Judiciary Committee was ready to act upon our revelations and prepare legislation to halt mergers between giant corporations even though they weren’t competitors (thus not threatening to monopolize any industry). But at that moment the Justice Department announced it would create that very prohibition with judicial precedent – by suing to prevent ITT from taking over Hartford Fire Insurance Co. It would be the largest merger then of all time. ITT plotted to create such a mass of employees from acquired companies (Sheraton Hotels among them). It would use them as its own customers, insulating itself from the rigors of a free market.

Did the Justice Department win the case and establish that precedent?

It never even tried. Though sure of victory in the Supreme Court, it settled the case. It announced it couldn’t penalize ITT by prohibiting the Hartford merger because that would send its stock down and ITT was so big American investors would suffer massive losses. The government said in effect, “ITT is so titanic any penalty against the acquisitor is a penalty against America.” Thus was born the syndrome of too-titanic-to-let sink or penalize, that plagues us now.

What legislation did Congress enact based on your investigation?

None. The Justice Department had pulled the rug out from under the Judiciary Committee by promising that, thanks to its suit against ITT to create legal precedent, new legislation to curb corporate bigness wouldn’t be needed.

Have you published any other book on corporate or government misdeeds?

I have published “The Accurst Tower,” a novel based on my work with regulatory agencies, hoping to show that government regulation of industry is no substitute for natural regulation by free competition among companies not too big to fail.

Do you side with the Marchers Against Wall Street?

They’re not marching far enough. They rail against corporations too big, but never think to ask how they got that way. They’re demanding only monetary penalties against megabanks and reduction of giant bank accounts. But we know too well the government will protect those banks because they’re too big. So what’s the point of monetary penalties? The answer is to break them back into their premerger parts. Then competition would control them. That’s the message of “The Acquisitors.” I first heard it in Garrison Hall.

American Studies Alumnus Tunes In to Early 70s Radio

276868_276530712369652_702603388_nDo you ever wonder why radio stations play the same tired songs over and over again? Or why we’re forced to listen to talk shows while we’re stuck in rush-hour traffic? In “Early ‘70s Radio: The American Format Revolution” (Continuum, July 2011), University of Texas at Austin alumnus Kim Simpson (Ph.D. American Studies, ‘05) shares insight into how commercial music radio evolved into what it is today.

Providing a comprehensive analysis of a transformative era in pop music, Simpson describes how radio stations began to develop “formats” in order to cater to their target audiences. As industry professionals worked overtime to understand audiences and to generate formats, they also laid the groundwork for market segmentation. Audiences, meanwhile, approached these formats as safe havens where they could reimagine and redefine key issues of identity.

In his book, Simpson describes the era’s five prominent formats and analyzes each of these in relation to their targeted demographics, including Top 40, “soft rock,” album-oriented rock, soul and country. The book closes by making a case for the significance of early ’70s formatting in light of commercial radio today.

Simpson recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to talk about this time of transformation in commercial radio, his fascination with Billboard’s top music charts – and what’s next.

What motivated you to write Early ‘70s Radio?

First of all, I’ve been a pop music junkie as long as I can remember and keep updated Billboard chart reference books at my bedside. My wife can verify this. When my idea hatched sometime in the late 90s to explore this subject, I’d been keeping “factoid” notes on various hit songs – even the ones I hated. Once I’d gathered up notes about every Top 40 song in 1972, I realized there was much more going on during the much-maligned pop music era of the early 70s than mere silliness.

I had also made the discovery around the time that the radio pages of Billboard during the early ‘70s crackled with commentary and general unrest in a way you didn’t see in other eras. Researching Record World and Cash Box, the other two big music biz trades of the day, bore me out. I’d discovered that the early ‘70s represented a very distinct “moment” in both radio history and American culture that certainly deserved its own book.

How did you conduct the research for Early ‘70s Radio?

Because Billboard had such an impact on how I was now hearing the music of the era, I felt it was a good time for someone to incorporate the trades a bit more aggressively into pop music historiography. Their absence probably has to do with factors like their glaring business orientation, mistrust in the chart ranking process, and their unfashionable “top down” aura in a field more geared toward social history. Another definite factor is that they’re a real pain to find. I had to go to the Library of Congress to leaf through an uninterrupted early ‘70s run of Record World, and luckily the Dallas Public Library was one of few places that held Cash Box.

The ephemerality of so much music business source material can really be maddening, so I’m hoping that this book can demonstrate its usefulness, to some extent.

What’s next?

Something that requires more record listening, which is where the energy is for me. An encyclopedia-type companion guide to the hit songs of the early ‘70s would be the logical next step. This would allow me to take full advantage of all of my notes and geek out in a way I couldn’t really with “Early ‘70s Radio.” I could shine the spotlight on songs I love but didn’t talk about, like Liz Damon and the Orient Express’s “1900 Yesterday” and Sailcat’s “Motorcycle Mama.” Think anyone would buy it?

(From left)  KUT's Rebecca McInroy, Jay Trachtenberg, and Kim Simpson at the Early '70s Radio "Views and Brews" event at the Cactus Cafe on October 24.

(From left) KUT's Rebecca McInroy, Jay Trachtenberg, and Kim Simpson at the Early '70s Radio "Views and Brews" event at the Cactus Cafe on October 24.

About the author: Kim Simpson is a radio show host for KUT’s Sunday Folkways. A critically acclaimed singer-songwriter and guitarist, Simpson taught university courses in pop music and published articles in American Music and Pop Matters. In 2007, he served as a consultant for the Peabody Award-winning rockabilly radio documentary “Whole Lotta Shakin’”. His 2009 CD Mystery Lights: Solo Guitar has appeared in national TV shows and commercials, and his song “Looking for That Girl” (credited to The Mad Dukes) charted in a number of radio trade papers in 2006. Simpson also works in the administration department in The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law. For more about his work, read his blog Boneyard Media.

Suiting up for Wall Street, UT Alumna Shares Her Memoirs

Suits_coverNina Godiwalla’s memoir of working on Wall Street begins with a sweaty walk to work through New York City, catching her heel in a grate, begging for help from a nearby blood-soaked fishmonger and eventually arriving at the JP Morgan office only to discover that she was at the wrong building.

Little did she know that temperamental high heels would be the least of her troubles in the years ahead.

Godiwalla, BBA ’97, chronicles the rest of her harrowing finance career in her book, “Suits: A Woman on Wall Street” (2011, Atlas & Co. Publishers). Described by The New York Times as “The Devil Wears Prada” for investment banking, “Suits” details Godiwalla’s experiences at Morgan Stanley, where, as a second-generation Indian American woman from Texas, she fought daily to overcome her outsider’s position.

Godiwalla saw tremendous success on Wall Street, but found herself struggling with the consequences of her ambition and the choices it forced her to make. Critics praised the book as “heartwarming, heartbreaking” and “a must-read for anyone aspiring to a career in high-finance.”

What made you decide to write a book about your life on Wall Street?Nina_Godiwalla_3x4[1]

One of the courses I took [for my master’s degree in liberal arts] was a creative writing course and I wrote one short story about my experience on Wall Street and one short story about my family. [My professor] loved the writing. We ended up pulling [short stories] together to become a thesis for my degree. There was never an intentional “I’m going to sit down and write about this.” It was more that I had someone telling me that I had a lot of potential. The story was worth hearing and it was different. 

Growing up, did you consider yourself to be a good writer?

Before that I had a very big insecurity about my writing. I actually once failed a class with a writing component. I just avoided writing. What I didn’t realize until later is there is a big difference between research-type writing, where you’re just passing on information, and creative writing, where it’s really about story and narrative. I think we all just take for granted the word “writing.”

Did you keep a journal while you worked on Wall Street, or did you start completely fresh for this book?

I never went to the experience thinking that I would write about it, so I did have to start fresh. I kept a long document that had these notes, stories I remembered. If I had kept detailed notes of everything, it would have been harder to write that book because there would have been so much information. This was just what was memorable enough about the experience. If it didn’t stick in my mind, it didn’t get in the book.

Did you ask other people about their memories to help fill in the gaps?

At first I started to try that, but when you’re writing a memoir you start to realize that everyone remembers things a little bit differently. So then I started to get confused, specifically with a lot of the family stories. Everyone had a different version, but that wasn’t what I remembered and so in the end I just decided that it would be what I remembered.

Do you think the essence of a memoir is really more about that personal feeling rather than trying to get a 100 percent completely accurate retelling of events?

The only way you’re going to get that is if it’s recorded and everyone can go back and look and see exactly what happened. I think there’s a continuum of everyone’s idea of what you can do with memoir, but to me it’s really how you remember it, to the extent that you’re not completely making stuff up. It’s your interpretation of the situation; I think everyone interprets and remembers life differently.

Why did you choose to start the book the way you did, with your horrible walk to work on the first day of your internship?

For an East Coast reader, who’s so comfortable with all these things, they don’t have a sense for how different it is. For a New Yorker that’s just like, “Well, this is normal.” I was trying to give people an idea of how different the world I was coming from was, when you’re coming out of a suburb or something. I became part of that New York scene, but it very much wasn’t where I was from and it was all very new to me. I wanted to paint that picture for a start.

You share fairly intimate—and not always flattering—moments in the book, both personal and professional. How did your family and former coworkers respond?

I think from my colleagues, it was amusing because it was a very intense experience. Some of them were bad memories, some of them were just kind of funny to rehash and think about. My family was surprised that something like this was going to get published. They are fairly private, so they don’t really want information about them out there. At the same time, they saw the bigger picture and what the story is about. I think their first reaction was surprise. Then after that it was, “Yes. Go for it,” and “Hope it does well.”

In your opinion what is the bigger picture and the point of the book?

This process helped me redefine my idea of success. Part of the back story about my family is giving people an idea of how my idea of success and the American dream was formed; the epitome of it was being on Wall Street. I had to rethink my whole life’s idea of what success is, and that was a turning point for me.

One of the things for me was that there was kind of a silencing amongst women. I would see so many women have that embarrassing story, a story they’re not so proud of. I felt I kind of carried this story around like a secret. Here I am later, this very comfortable businesswoman, in control of situations, and I kind of cringe every time I remembered that experience. I saw a lot of women who had that shame. I wanted to bring a voice to that type of experience because I think so many people go through that early in their career. I wanted people to be more empowered if they were to go through a situation like that.

After nearly a decade working for Fortune 500 companies, Godiwalla founded MindWorks, which trains professionals in meditation, creating positive corporate culture and stress management.

High Praise From Down Under: UT Alum Nominated for Top Australian Literary Prizes

DomThe accent is still there, made faint by long years away from Australia.

Dominic Smith, a 2003 alumnus of the Michener Center’s MFA program in writing, was born in Brisbane and grew up in Sydney, but his education and work have taken him far from the continent since—he earned his B.A. in Iowa and worked in the dotcom boom in Europe before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for graduate school.  Smith seems to have found Texas to his liking, though, and has stayed in Austin for more than ten years now.

After graduating with one completed novel, “The Beautiful Miscellaneous,” he won a prestigious Dobie Paisano Fellowship and spent six months completing a second novel,The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre.” Both were sold in 2004 to Atria (Simon & Schuster), who published them in reverse order, “Mercury Visions” being touted as his debut, followed by “Miscellaneous” in 2007.

“Miscellaneous” is a contemporary tale, the story of the average son of a genius physicist who develops a form of synesthesia after an accident. The novel explores how the character comes to understand his own mind and deal with his father’s demanding expectations.  It has been optioned by Southpaw Entertainment, with Smith adapting the screenplay himself.

In “Mercury Visions,” Smith shows his gift for capturing another time and place.  Photographer Louis Daguerre slides into a madness caused by exposure to mercury vapors, and determines to capture ten final images before he dies.  The novel expertly conjures Paris in the 1800s and the historically accurate, though fictionalized, life of Daguerre, creating what Kirkus Reviews called  “a compelling psychological study, a thoughtful tracing of the birth of a new art form, and an atmospheric portrait of 19th-century France:  impressive on all three counts.”  The book was selected for Barnes & Nobles Discover Great New Writers Program and received the Steven Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.

BrightShoresDomSmithIn his third novel, “Bright and Distant Shores,” Smith returns to the 19th century—1897 Chicago this time, where a gilded age magnate competes in the race to build the city’s highest skyscraper and erect on its rooftop a spectacle of South Pacific natives.  It is his first novel to be published in Australia, where it’s been received with critical praise and two national literary award nominations.

“Smith’s novel is an atmospheric, meticulously observed period drama from a footsure and stylish writer with a fine sense of narrative pace,” says “The Age,” Melbourne’s daily, which has shortlisted the novel for its Book of the Year Award.  It was also shortlisted for Australia’s prestigious Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction.

Smith launches the book’s U.S. release this week with a reading and book signing at Austin’s BookPeople at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 16, 2011. He answered a few questions for ShelfLife@Texas about his research for the novel and its reception in his homeland.

What was the genesis of “Bright and Distant Shores”?

It was a story I heard about the arctic explorer Robert Peary and the anthropologist Franz Boas, who was then working at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1897, the year my novel begins, a family of six Greenland Inuit disembarked from a ship at a dock in New York City while a curious crowd of thousands looked on. They had been shipped to the city under the care of Peary at Boas’s request — he had asked Peary to bring back a single native so the Inuit could be studied “without fear of frostbite.”  Peary took it upon himself to bring back six Greenlanders instead of one, and the Inuit were housed in the basement of the museum. Within a year, all but one had died of tuberculosis, and the sole survivor, a boy named Minik, was adopted by a museum official. The bodies of the dead were turned over to a medical school for dissection and the bones were later returned to the museum.  The bones sat in a drawer at the museum until 1992, when they were returned to Greenland after a journalist exposed the situation. Minik returned to his homeland in 1909 but later came back to the United States, only to die in the flu epidemic of 1918. This tragic story got me thinking about the troublesome relationship between museums and the people and cultures they catalogue.

Is it true that you took a crash course in sailing to get the nautical lore right for the sea voyage that takes place in the novel?

It is true, and my wife can vouch for what a disaster that was. I had read all I could about 19th century tall-mast sailing and had struck up an email correspondence with a sailor named Jonas Collins, who was circumnavigating the globe alone in his 35-foot Pearson Alberg sloop. He would answer my obscure questions whenever he got Internet access—for example, how long would it take to sail out to a remote island like Tikopia from New Guinea outside of monsoon season? Even though I knew the factual ins and outs of sailing, I felt afraid of betraying what a landlubber I was in the novel.  So I enrolled in a sailing course with a private instructor.  Flash-forward to my first time renting the boat alone and deciding to bring my wife along so I could show off my maritime prowess…we nearly collided with the dock, the boom nearly hit me in the head, and I sat by the tiller yelling instructions in a way that brought Ahab to mind.  My wife was a good sport about it all, but she suggested — quite diplomatically — that I should invite one of my male friends to go along next time. I haven’t been on a sailboat since.

You do a lot of research for your historical novels. What’s the oddest thing you discovered about the 19th century or the settings for the novel?

The 19th century abounds with oddities, one of the reasons I find it a deep well to draw from in my writing. Consider the Chicago meatpacking tycoon who tried to dynamite a freighter’s way out of frozen Lake Michigan one winter, or the use of the word antifogmatic for a drink of liquor taken in the morning to brace oneself against bad weather, or the fact that Harper’s and other serious magazines published articles that profiled the emerging skyscrapers in Chicago and New York, asking questions like—How Will High Altitude Affect Business Acumen? These were, in the 1890s, buildings of not more than 10-25 floors. The 19th century is full of gripping philosophy, words, but also lots of whimsy. I feel right at home there.

You haven’t really taken Australia as a subject for your fiction thus far.  As you look towards other projects, does the book’s tremendous reception there make you rethink this?

I’ve published one short story that takes place in Australia and the current novel has an Australian sea captain — the son of a freed Tasmanian convict — but that’s as close as I’ve gotten to staging fiction on the continent.  I’ve had an idea for a while about a novel set in Australia during its early period, but so far it’s escaped my grasp.  I’m working on something now that features a school of New York painters of the early 20th century, but then I’m determined to make the Australian idea come to life.  I was in Australia for about a month earlier this year and it was very gratifying to see my work getting a warm reception there. I’ve spent half my life in the United States, but culturally I still feel very connected to the place where I grew up.

Luminous Prose


Alex Shakar

“It’s exciting to meet an author who’s unafraid of heights.”

So writes one New York Times reviewer of Alex Shakar, a 1994 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin Department of English graduate program in creative writing and former Michener Fellow.  Shakar, whose newest book “Luminarium” was released from Soho Press last month to critical praise, will be in Austin this week to read and sign at Austin’s BookPeople.  Friends and fans will get a chance to hear new work from a writer who is establishing himself as one of the most daring and inventive social critics of his generation.

Shakar’s debut short fiction collection,City in Love,” published shortly after his graduation, won the 1996 FC2 National Fiction Competition. A reimagining of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” set in an anachronistic New York City of 1 B.C., the stories draw on classical myths to depict isolated urbanites searching for love, artistic expression and meaning in a hard urban landscape. They range in style from the traditionally narrative to the experimental, and in the title story, Shakar employs a prototypical form of hypertext that references links within the story to a secret embedded narrative thread, foreshadowing by some years the ways in which technology alters and informs our reading experiences today.

“City in Love” was followed in 2001 by “The Savage Girl,” in which Shakar again creates a mythical city, built on the slopes of a volcano, where advertising and consumerism rule and trendspotters hungrily troll for the Next Big Thing.   The cultural landscape into which the novel was released in September 2001 was quickly changed by the events of 9/11. “The age of cynicism and anomie that is captured here may have ended in a flash,” a New York Times review said, “but . . . Mr. Shakar preserves them here with a scathing intelligence that transcends the trendiness of any particular moment.”

thumbLuminariumAfter ten years during which Shakar completed a doctorate at University of Illinois at Chicago and joined the fiction faculty at Urbana-Champaign, where he is now associate professor, he has published his second novel, “Luminarium.” This time his razor-sharp eye and wit are trained on the shaky shared ground of technology and spirituality in our cyber age. “Science fiction without the Frankenstein scars,” a Time Out Chicago reviewer notes of Shakar’s genre-bending style.  “Part Philip K. Dick, part Jonathan Franzen, this radiant work leads you from the unreal to the real so convincingly that you begin to let go of the distinction,” notes a recent starred Publishers Weekly review.

The reading and booksigning begin at 7 pm on Thursday, September 8, 2011Bookpeople is located on the corner of West 6th and North Lamar Blvd.  Shakar will also meet with students earlier in the afternoon, at 3 p.m., at the Michener Center’s Dobie House seminar room; call 512-471-8444 to reserve a seat.

A Q&A with Ashley Hope Pérez, Author of “What Can’t Wait”

authorOn the brink of graduating high school, Marisa must make some tough decisions. Should she stay close to her family, marry a nice boy and get a job at the local grocery store? Or should she go off to college to study engineering at The University of Texas at Austin? Caught at the crossroads, Marisa must decide whether she has what it takes to break free and follow her dreams.

Inspired by her teaching experience at Chávez High School in Houston – where many of WCWstackher students faced similar challenges – English alumna Ashely Hope Pérez tells the story of Marisa’s struggle in her debut young adult (YA) novel “What Can’t Wait” (Carolrhoda Books, 2011). She was kind enough to chat with ShelfLife about her passion for teaching, tips for aspiring novelists, her vampire literature class, and what’s up next!

Tell us about yourself. Have you always dreamed of becoming a writer?

Right now, in addition to writing, my jobs include LOTS of reading for my Ph.D. exams in comparative literature this May, being mom to an active 9-month-old little boy, teaching a course on women writers of the Caribbean, and getting the word out about “What Can’t Wait” my new YA novel. Past lives include work as a bilingual literacy tutor and Montessori teacher and several years teaching high-school English in southeast Houston. I also love to exercise and bake cookies, hobbies that cancel each other out and make me happy.

Writing has always been part of my life in important ways, but I used to get paralyzed by a fear of inadequacy and a worry that I’d never be able to write again. I only began to think of myself as an author once I started writing for teens, and I attribute the successful completion of two novels, “What Can’t Wait” plus my next novel, also coming out with Carolrhoda Lab to the fact that my students gave me a sense of urgency about writing that was more powerful than my fears.

What inspired you to write about a teenage girl struggling to carve her own path in life while dealing with a family that expects her to stay close to home?

My students, my students, my students. Marisa isn’t based on any one student, but so many of the circumstances my students faced influenced the world Marisa finds herself in. I wanted to show that, for many teens, using education as a means of advancement also requires tough decisions and scary compromises. Teens like Marisa (and many of my students) deserve lots of credit for having the courage to find ways to maintain connection to family while nevertheless forging their own path. I wanted to honor this reality with my book, which is why it’s dedicated to my Chávez students.

How have your students responded to this book?

From the beginning, they were my biggest supporters and my first readers. One student wrote me an amazing letter (which I still have) telling me how important the book was to him — and that it was one of two books he read from start to finish. Reading that letter, I knew that my book had found a reader for whom it mattered and that — if I persisted — it could find many more.

When I write, I still think of my students, and having a clear sense of audience is a huge help to me. It’s one of the things I like best about writing YA literature.

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

Oh, so many things. That you can live your own life without forgetting to take care of the people you love. That you can’t be your best self for others if you aren’t taking care of your dreams. That keeping promises — especially to yourself — is really hard work. That family can be a surprising ally. That it’s always scary to step out into the unknown, but sometimes it’s worth it.

Not only are you an author – you’re also a grad student, a teacher and a parent. That’s quite a heavy load! How do you find time to write?

The truth is that sometimes I don’t have much time at all. But I’m a firm believer that whatever writing we do — no matter how paltry it seems — is better than what we don’t do. So instead of saying, “I can’t get anything done in fifteen minutes,” I focus on how much I can get done in fifteen minutes. Sometimes the time constraint functions like a pressure cooker, and I feel like I get more real work done than when I have a bigger block of time, but feel less of a sense of urgency. Oh, and I also have a very supportive husband who loves to play with his son. That helps a lot.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading La Vie mode d’emploi (“Life: A User’s Manual”) by Georges Perec. This is a wild novel full of crazy catalogs of items, descriptions of paintings, and digressions that nevertheless make me want to slow down and savor the minutia of being human. Lots of times when I’m reading, I’m trying to figure out how I could do what the writer is doing, but this is one of those books I just have to stand back and admire. Haruki Murakami has the same effect on me. What I mean is that Perec’s work is so different from my own on every level that when I think about what it must have felt to write it, it’s like imagining being Martian.

Perec was a member of OULIPO, a French literary association founded around the idea of using constraints to facilitate creativity. You might have heard of him as the writer who composed an entire novel without using the letter “e” (La Disparition, translated as “A Void”). Reading La Vie does tempt me to try using some kind of constraint — although not as extreme as cutting a letter — to generate a first draft. Just as a lark.

What’s the most important piece of advice you could give an aspiring writer?

Recognize that writing well is a process, and develop your own strategies for moving a piece forward. That is, don’t expect the writing to be done after a couple of drafts, but also be strategic about how you rewrite. When you think you’ve done everything you can to improve your writing, put away your manuscript for a while. Check out a great book with writing exercises or strategies for revision, do some practice, and then dig back into your manuscript. Go to a conference. Join a writer’s group. For me, the most important part of writing is rewriting.

The best revision tip I ever got is this: every time you do a major revision, retype the whole work rather than going back into the old file. I know it sounds too simple (or crazy) to be effective, but I can say from experience that it helps me get back “in” the narrative and helps me to resist the urge to tinker without accomplishing any real revisions.

I couldn’t help but notice you teach a vampire literature class. Would you ever consider infusing vampires into a future young adult book?

I actually designed the vampire lit class in response to the interest expressed by students. Before teaching it, I had read little beyond “Dracula.” Together, my students and I developed key concepts for understanding the evolution of the vampire in literature and how writers use the vampire to explore varied concerns. This was a thrilling intellectual project (and so fun that I taught the class twice), but I don’t anticipate any vampires appearing in my novels any time soon. It’s not that I’m uninterested in pushing the envelope beyond the purely realistic, but the vampire figure is so weighted with expectations on the part of the reader that I would feel overwhelmed just thinking about where to position my character with respect to the tradition.

Could you give us a sneak peak into what you’re working on now?

I’m knee-deep in revisions of my second YA novel “The Knife and the Butterfly,” which is coming out with Carolrhoda Lab in 2012. The book follows two teens through the aftermath of a deadly gang fight. There’s Lexi, a troubled girl from a working class background who hangs with a street gang for protection. And there’s Azael, a romantic drifter essentially orphaned by his mom’s death and his father’s deportation to El Salvador. The truth about what happened connects them in a surprising but powerful way.

I also have a third novel idea simmering on a back burner, but I’m a little superstitious and don’t like to “spend” writing ideas before I get a handle on them. Check back with me in another year and I’ll be ready to talk about it!

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.

Keene Prize Play Goes on to U.S. & U.K. Premieres

FCSnowThe Keene Prize selection committee of The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts may have been among the first to recognize the power of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s work when they awarded her their $50,000 literary prize.  But they are far from the last. Her prize-winning play “Lidless” will soon be seen on stages both in the United States and abroad.

The 27-year old Cowhig has been in an eddy of career opportunities and artistic accolades since winning the Keene Prize and completing her Master of Fine Arts with the university’s Michener Center for Writers (MCW) in 2009.  “Lidless” which powerfully and poetically tells the story of a Guantanamo detainee who confronts his female interrogator 15 years later — was also selected by David Hare for the 2009 Yale Drama Prize and published by Yale University Press.

In readings and workshops at theatres across the country — among them Yale Rep, Ojai Playwright’s Conference, Houston’s Alley Theatre, and L.A.’s Open Fist Theatre — “Lidless” has captivated audiences.  Over the past year it has also been produced at two major playwriting festivals, the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, W. Va., and the High Tide Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, where it won the Fringe First Award.  Reviewing the play, The Scotsman said, “If Henrik Ibsen had been alive in the era of Guantanamo, he’d surely have written a play every bit as scintillating as ‘Lidless.’  Reframing global politics on a domestic scale, [Cowhig] turns headline news into a modern-day tragedy.”

This coming year, though, “Lidless” has its fully staged regional U.S. premiere at Interact Theatre in Philadelphia—city of the playwright’s birth—running from Jan. 21 through Feb. 13.  Then only weeks later, it opens on the London stage at Trafalgar Studios 2 Theatre, a noted venue for new work, running from March 15 through April 2.

Cowhig has lived largely out of her backpack since leaving Austin eighteen months ago. For several months, she moved between distinguished writers’ residencies—Yaddo, MacDowell, Ragdale and the Santa Fe Art Institute — then spent another half a year traveling throughout China, Taiwan and Mongolia. The daughter of an Irish-Catholic U.S. diplomat and a Taiwanese-Daoist, Cowhig credits her cross-cultural, transient childhood for the fluidity of her work, which always seeks to push boundaries and examine the personal in light of the political.

She is currently settled in Oakland and in January begins a stint as Playwright-in-Residence at the Marin Theatre Company (MTC) in Mill Valley, Calif., as recipient of its 2010 David Calicchio Emerging Playwright Prize. There, she will judge MTC’s writing prizes and shape the company’s upcoming season, and her newest play, “Sunspots,” will get a workshop treatment.

It’s no less than anyone who knows her work from the university expected of her.  “Frances’s talent was apparent immediately,” MCW director James Magnuson says.  “Because she’d gone to Brown and had done a lot of work in experimental theater, I was concerned about her being a little on the ethereal side. But once I started seeing her work in class, I was blown away by how bold and gusty she is. And she’s such a craftsman!  She works as hard as any young writer I know.  Honestly, the sky is the limit for her.”

To Build My Shadow A Fire

David Wevill

David Wevill

On November 10, our community will get a rare chance to hear the work of one of our most beloved yet enigmatic poets.  David Wevill has spent the last 40 years in Austin as a teacher, translator and editor.  He retired in 2007 from the University, where he was the heart and soul of the poetry programs of the Department of English and, later, the Michener Center for Writers.

Over the decades, Wevill has mentored scores of students who have gone on win some of the country’s most visible awards for young poets: Lilly Fellowships, the National Poetry Series, Stegner Fellowships, and the like.  Famously soft-spoken and self-effacing, though, he has not been one to call attention to his own distinguished career, which includes seminal works of translation and more than a dozen volumes of poetry.

Born in Yokohama, Japan, in 1935 to Canadian parents, Wevill graduated from Cambridge University in England in 1957 and over the next decade was part of a groundbreaking collective of young poets in London known as The Group.  His first two books established him as an important new voice, already weaving together his distinctive mix of dark introspection and image-rich attention to the natural world. Wevill moved to Texas in 1970 to pursue his interest in translation — and stayed to join the University of Texas faculty — but British and Canadian presses continued to bring out the lion’s share of his published work, and he has become known as one of the best-kept secrets of our national literary landscape.

Michael McGriff

Michael McGriff

One former student of his, Michael McGriff, decided to remedy that situation. Through McGriff’s efforts as editor and with Wevill’s collaboration, a new edition of

Wevill’s selected works came out from Truman State University Press last spring, “To Build My Shadow a Fire.” “This is a wonderful book — a rare harvest of a lifetime’s truth-telling,” poet Eavan Boland says of the book.

A 2006 MFA graduate of the Michener Center, editor McGriff has already chalked up one remarkable accolade after another — the Lilly, a Stegner, a prize-winning debut “Dismantling the Hills,” a second collection forthcoming from the esteemed Copper Canyon Press, a book of translations, and now his own small press — Tavern Books — made possible in part by a generous 2010 Lannan Foundation Fellowship.

The Michener Center for Writers and Department of English will host a reading by Wevill and McGriff on Wednesday, November 10, at 7:30 p.m. in the Ransom Center’s Prothro Theatre.   They’ll also discuss the process of collaborating on the book, about which we recently spoke with both of them:

WevillCollHow did this project come into being and what was the process like?

MM: The roots of it are pretty simple:  I wanted — and wanted to share with others — a sort of “essential” Wevill anthology, and I asked David if he’d be willing to let me take it on. Once he agreed, I began selecting the representative work, including his books of translations and prose poems.  We agreed on a table of contents pretty quickly . . . after a few vetoes on David’s part.  Then I set out to transcribe the 300-odd page manuscript.  It became clear that this volume would be suggestive and not comprehensive, because so much had to be left out.

David, how did it feel to have your former student as your editor?

DW: I have a profound respect for Mike’s talent and intelligence.  I was grateful that he’d take the time to do this.  There was no resistance on my part, but a friendly caution that the effort might prove hard.

Mike, what was your chief motivation?

MM: Most poetry goes out of print as quickly as it’s published.  If you’re not an avid book collector, you’re going to miss out on some of the greatest books of poetry ever written.  I felt an ethical call to arms, and decided to make the book that I wanted to read.

The work collected in the volume wasn’t previously published — or therefore widely available — in the United States?

DW: The work came from British and Canadian collections, so there was no U.S. collection until this.  And now Mike has, with his fellow poet Carl Adamshick, started a new small press, Tavern Books.  They’re reissuing an earlier book of mine, “Casual Ties.”

MM: The spirit of Tavern Books and the spirit of editing “Shadow” are one in the same.  I feel a responsibility to the books that I love, to do my part to get them into the hands of other readers. When I was editing”Shadow,” I was yearning to include the entire text of “Casual Ties,” a book of linked prose poems. It’s utterly brilliant, experimental, and shape-shifting — I’ve never read another book like it.  So, “Casual Ties” became the obvious choice for Tavern’s first full-length book. Our forthcoming books include works by Charles Simic, Yannis Ritsos, Leonardo Sinisgalli and Gwyneth Lewis.

What did you each learn about the other in the process?  What surprised you?

DW: I learnt what I already recognized:  Mike’s extraordinary diligence, judgment, imagination and practical ability.  It’s the degree to which he took this that is surprising. I’ve dedicated to the book to Mike, and to Britta his wife, as a small gesture of astonishment.

MM: What surprised me most is just how incredible David’s career as a poet has been so far. I had read all of his books before taking on the project, but I’d never read them one after the other in chronological order. The more I read, then more I kept thinking to myself, “it’s a crime that there’s no selected edition of David’s poetry and translations here in the U.S.” We have such an artistic short-attention span.  It’s amazing what people don’t read, and what publishers let fall out of print.

David, do you miss teaching?  Has being away from the classroom altered your approach to your own writing or changed your routine since retirement?

DW: I do miss the imaginative interactions of teaching, and have been a slow writer these last couple of years, not because I’m not teaching but from self-questioning, weighing the value of what I write. That’s perhaps nothing new, but more so.

Mike, how can you best sum up your relationship with David, as his student and his editor, and now publisher?

MM: David’s treated me not as a student, but as a fellow traveler.  We had a sort of ongoing three-year chat about poetry in translation, films, books, you name it.  Despite our age difference, I consider David to be a kind of brother, another guy making his way along all the tortuous pathways poetry has to offer.