Who Brings a 3-Year-Old To An Art Opening?


I do.

Last week I attended the opening reception for Wall-Wall, a bold new collection from artist Ashley Bickerton. The well-attended event was held at the Tripoli Gallery in Southampton.

Bickerton’s work was stunning. A colorful collection of new work featuring wall facsimiles made of oil paint on fiberglass and resin cast rocks mounted to plywood structures framed in aluminum. The paintings were created in Bali, Indonesia, where Bickerton lives with his wife. They are an extension of Bickerton’s wall contemplation fixtures of the 1980’s. According to the press release, Bickerton was inspired while on a trip to Mexico, where he saw brightly colored stone walls painted hot pink and purple. The idea occurred to him that if paintings are meant to fill a wall with color and meaning, what would be more appropriate than a colored wall to hang on a wall? Gallery owner Tripoli Patterson had the paintings shipped to his studio in Southampton from Bali and will be on display until Aug. 8. The gallery is located at 30a Jobs Lane, Southampton. Hours are 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Sunday 12-5 p.m. The gallery is CLOSED on Tuesdays.

I’ve been trying to stay inspired lately. Since moving back to Long Island from Queens, I’ve had a hard time surrounding myself with inspiration and creativity. I’m hoping it will jump start this general malaise that has been keeping me from completing the second novel my publisher has been patiently waiting for.

To help manage the chaos of a three-year-old and a five-year-old stuck inside the house wreaking havoc, I took my three-year-old with me to the reception. I was full of dread. The last time I took a toddler to an art museum was when I took my oldest to the MoMA. It was a disaster. He tried to climb over the barriers, touch the sculptures, rub his hands over the Pollocks and I had to reign him in while constantly reading the looks on the faces of childless 20-somethings who all seemed to be collectively thinking ‘who brings a baby to an art museum?’

Here’s the thing. I don’t care. I’m doing it anyway. I’m sorry if that interferes with your plans to wax philosophical about the Monet in your transparent attempt to get laid by the 2nd-year SVA student you dragged with you, but you share a world. Deal with it. (To be fair, I once was that childless 20-something who waxed philosophical in hopes to get laid by the SVA student. But now I’m not. And P.S.: It doesn’t really work. Tell her a good joke instead.)

I don’t say all this to be some sort of maverick, or to merely wind up sounding like the self-absorbed millenials we’re all supposed to hate. But quite frankly: I need this. My three-year-old needs this.

I am not chock full of positive images of my father. He was haunted by addictions and failures and survivor’s guilt from Vietnam, and his demons caught up with him unfortunately before he reached 62. But one lasting image that will always stick with me was his love for horses and the rodeo. He was a semi-professional bull rider, calf-roper and bareback rider. He took us to rodeos all over Long Island, upstate New York and Connecticut. (The arenas that existed on Long Island are now miniature golf and go-cart courses). I remember going to rodeos with Junius Langhorn, from the Poospatuck Indian Reservation, and he taught me how to spin a pistol on my finger. At the rodeos he’d wear an authentic native headdress.

I am fortunate to have been exposed to the life my father led when he wasn’t home being an irritant to my mother. I am grateful that he brought me and my siblings to his rodeo competitions. I’m grateful that he brought us to rodeos even when he wasn’t competing. It laid a foundation for me to understand my father as a unique and passionate person. Rodeo was his passion, and that’s worth something even after he died.

I need the same for my sons. To see me living a life full of art and creativity. I’m a writer, not a painter, but I love my sister arts and I want my children to see me creating a life in art.

Fortunately I didn’t need to rehearse this spiel at the Tripoli Gallery. Tripoli, Bickerton and his wife, Cherry–everyone I encountered at the reception was enormously welcoming and kind to my little one. He was handed a gallery card of Bickerton’s work, which he used to try and find the original on the wall. Tripoli poured him a soda. Employees at the gallery couldn’t have been nicer. It was an awesome experience. After my ordeal at the MoMA, I’m glad I tried again.



Ashley Bickerton (right) and his wife, Cherry, speak to attendees at Wall-Wall at the Tripoli Gallery in Southampton. July 8, 2016.


Lebron James Cursed on TV: Can America Recover?


Lebron James willed his Cleveland Cavaliers down 3 games to 1 in the NBA Finals to come all the way back and be the first team in NBA history to win a championship by that margin. He also gave Cleveland its first professional sports championship in more than half a century. He was resilient. He was magical. He made the angels in heaven cheer.

Then he cursed at the celebration parade in Cleveland. And he made the angels cry. Allegedly. The news media’s sources are a bit unconfirmed when it comes to what God actually cares about.

In researching for this blog post, I developed both the happies and the sads. I was glad to see that there wasn’t a swarm of media outrage over Lebron’s cursing. Scouring the local and national media only bounced back a couple op-ed pieces about it. Sure everybody mentioned the curses, but few condemned him for it. Here in New York the most vocal critic of the 16-minute speech in question was WFAN’s Mike Francesa, who brought it up a number of times over the course of a number of days. (An unhealthy amount of times, basically). His take on it was the most extreme. He said Lebron used the worst curses in the book (he didn’t) and that if the Cavaliers ever wanted to make a DVD retrospective of this past championship run, they’d have to cut the entire speech (they won’t). He called the curses “room clearers,” suggesting that average people would be so put off if they’d heard someone in a room speaking this way that they’d leave. The smallest and most precious victims of all this potty-mouth was…you guessed it…the children. Sniff sniff. There were children in the crowd. Even the elderly! Gasp.

When are we going to get over our obsession with curses and what they actually do and what they actually say, and how insignificant they are on the scale of human depravity? As a general rule I don’t use profanity in my everyday life, and I probably wouldn’t have used it during a nationally televised speech, but then again, I never have (and safe to presume never will) come  back from a 3-1 deficit to win an NBA championship.

Francesa’s reaction reminds me of another time on national television some years ago involving a college football quarterback who pulled off an unbelievable last-second play to upset a heavy favorite in the regular season. The win had cemented a Bowl Game appearance for his team and when he was interviewed by NBC immediately after the game, he exclaimed something along the lines of “I can’t believe we fuckin won!” As if he’d just confessed to a triple homicide, the on-field reporter frantically tossed back to the anchor desk. The male anchor wrapped up the story with the closing line: “A dramatic and incredible victory…marred by that young man’s outburst.”

Marred? Really? How was it marred? If anything the anchor’s commentary marred the moment. And Francesa’s take on Lebron’s sassiness made it seem as though the whole championship might as well have never taken place. Marred by the outburst. Why don’t we literally put our money where our mouth is? If it’s so important to us, how about this: every time someone curses on live television we take $1 million away from the military’s budget. It would be a win-win: athletes would be a lot more hesitant to say these innocence-mauling, children-scarring collection of letters, and it would be an actual mandate on how strongly we care about cursing. But we’d never do that. Because at the end of the day, no one really cares. So can all you program directors and executive producers and news directors and advertising VPs stop making these anchors and commentators clutch their pearls and apologize on behalf of the human race? Pssst! we know it’s not an FCC violation. Your motivation is embarrassingly transparent.  

Aside from the hypocrisy and lip-service, this whole cursing fixation is just weird. I remember listening to Joe Buck talk about how then-Colts coach Tony Dungy never cursed, either on the sideline, or in his private life. Buck told us mooks sitting on our couches a story about the one and only time Dungy cursed: when he was citing the title of a song and said “ass.” Someone immediately remarked to him that he’d just said a curse word and he responded. “Yeah, but you’ll never get me to do that again.”

If the story is made up, it’s corny and insulting to anyone who lives in the real world and has hit their thumb with a hammer. It appeals to no one except a minority Christian extremist element that prefers to believe these Captain America, boy-scout fairy tales. If the story is true, then Tony Dungy is a creep and I wouldn’t want him near my kids. Anyone who is that staunch, that repressed, that publicly disciplined is bound to have a huge back door of vice swinging wide open in their private lives.

As a nation we have been able to fight off a dominant superpower to win the Revolutionary War. We survived another invasion from that same superpower in 1812. We were able to hold it together despite killing one another over the right to own other human beings. We joined and survived two world wars. We learned the word genocide. We managed to come out of a Great Depression. We rebuilt a gorgeous tower after a horrific terrorist attack altered the landscape of New York City. We said goodbye to NBC’s Friends with minimal violence from white people.

But I’m not sure we can weather the excited expletives of a basketball player who will be retiring in about 10 years. It’s a shame too, to see such a great nation brought to its knees because we couldn’t do as good a job as previous generations keeping children completely ignorant of curse words. It’s enough to make me want to curse. But I wouldn’t dare.

Have We Run Out of Pout-rage Yet?


I’ll start this as I must in the 21st century, by acknowledging my white privilege. While I do know what regional insensitivity can feel like (I grew up in a poor, white town many would–and have–mocked for its criminal population and abundance of “white trash.” I’m looking at you Anna Wintour. I’m looking at you, actress Julianne Moore, who trashed my town on Letterman.)


However. And a BIG HOWEVER…


I have no idea what racial insensitivity feels like. Thus my opening caveat before I voice my itched-brain annoyance at the backlash against Calvin Trillin’s poem published in The New Yorker in April (“Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?”).


In case you missed it, Trillin’s doggerel laments the seemingly endless varieties of Chinese food available in America, all prefixed with any number of provinces in the Asian country (Szechuan, Cantonese, Mongolia)


Long ago, there was just Cantonese, the speaker reminds us. (Long ago, we were easy to please.)/But then food from Szechuan came our way,/Making Cantonese strictly passé.


Like an ISIS hostage reading a statement in front of a video camera, Trillin offered an interpretation of his poem faster than you can shout “cultural appropriation.” Suffice to say, his interpretation departs from mine. I read “HTROOPY” to be a commentary on ACTUAL cultural appropriation; the way American Chinese food bears no resemblance to ACTUAL Chinese food. I thought it was a tongue-in-cheek jab at that old American tradition known as marketing–the dishes named after provinces in China to give consumers that “authentic experience” marketers tell us we should crave. Trillin says the poem speaks more about foodie culture, narrowing his focus of ire on that weird population of people (mostly in New York City) who base their culinary choices on the latest buzz. As a New Yorker, I have unfortunately run into such trendy twats. I was actually part of a conversation on 3rd Avenue with a group of design students debating where to go for dinner when one of them actually said, nojokinginallseriousness, “I’m not eating there, nobody goes there anymore.” If we should ever meet in person, don’t EVER say that in front of me.


So Trillin’s forced explanation of his poem is actually more narrow than my own, and I suspect when he’s through running the gauntlet of Asian writers and professional offendees, he’ll have to run a new gauntlet of starving food snobs. Doesn’t Trillin know he should never punch down? (don’t worry, I just punched myself in the spleen for writing that last sentence.)


I first learned of the backlash against HTROOPY through a thoroughly enraging letter printed in the pages of the subsequent issue of The New Yorker; a letter written by Diana Keren Lee, an Asian-American poet and editor, who, as a poet and editor, should know how dangerous it is to start dictating a “standard” of acceptable poetry.


“Some may argue that, because the poem is intended as doggerel, there is no reason for offence,” she writes. “But perhaps they haven’t endured continual racism, in both subtle and direct forms, or maybe they aren’t reading the poem closely.”


Or, maybe they aren’t reading the poem with the same Reader Response Criticism that you employ, Ms. Lee, based upon your previously established sensitivity to racial bias. In all likelihood Trillin wrote this poem from a place of white privilege. He likely didn’t give racial bias a second thought, considering he was writing a poem that poked fun of foodies and used Chinese food because of its regional diversity. Could he have just as easily written the poem about American cuisine, rhyming Philly Cheese Steaks with Po Boy Sandwiches and Kansas City barbeque? Perhaps. But why should he have to? Answer: Because he’s white.


Which brings me to my bigger point. After reading Lee’s letter I dug around on the internet and found scores of reactions to Trillin’s poem from other Asian poets and writers, along with a sprinkling of black writers. All had a very similar tone. Shut up, Whitey and write about white stuff. Or better yet, don’t write at all. One reaction was titled “Have We Run Out of White Poets Yet?” Many of them took their obligatory jabs at what we understand to be white culture and others went a step further to throw some snark at “white MALE culture.” But it’s okay because it’s “punching up.” I’m so glad people who don’t like being punched have been able to dictate who is allowed to get punched.


The most reasoned approach to the outrage over Trillin’s poem came when one Asian poet essentially told people (perhaps people like me) to “allow them their anger” over the poem. Fair enough. I can’t sit here, still feeling the sting of the nationally broadcast Opie & Anthony Show trashing my town for hours, and not allow others to feel the sting of someone else’s words. But I will take issue with this growing notion that A) White writers should only write about “whiteness.” B) White writers should not even write about how they have come into conflict or confusion with otherness. C) An even better solution to the white problem is for white writers to just go away.


Are these attitudes becoming the new ABCs of literary and show business culture? It sure seems that way. The combination of anti-white vitriol and the sincere efforts of editors at publications across America to include diverse voices in the American conversation could very well create a climate where it’s perfectly acceptable to dismiss someone’s voice because it’s a white voice. Which is the opposite (I think) of what progressive thinkers want. Unless, of course, it’s not what they want and it’s really just about securing their own seat at the table and building up new parameters of exclusion. As George W. Bush once lip-fumbled “If this were a dictatorship it would be a heck of alot easier…as long as I’m the dictator.” This isn’t exactly plight of the white man stuff, I know, but it’s kind of the intellectual equivalent of stepping on a wet towel with socks on.


For another poet to suggest the few remaining beacons of the literary arts should self-censor in order to accommodate everyone’s sensibilities is not only enraging; it’s short-sighted. Are we going to embrace this idea when people start demanding The Slate, and The Stranger and Salon and Jezebel ice out op-ed pieces they think are inconsiderate toward white men? Not to mention these guns are pointed at the wrong outlet. Of the 26 short stories published by the New Yorker since 2016 began, 15 of them were written by women and ethnic minorities, including at least two Asian writers. It’s a shame there has to be such policing of literary magazines, the way VIDA monitors every year, but it’s become a necessary evil. I get it. Many editors of major magazines are men, raised in white enclaves who attended the Ivy Leagues or other white-dominated colleges. They like to read their own reflections in the mirror and that has resulted in a lot of white male monologue pumped into our culture. Progress is long overdue. But don’t let progress mean we should strip all context away from a poem and focus on the color of the poet’s skin (white) what hangs between their legs (a penis) and the subject of their poem (anything NOT white) in order to decide their voice isn’t legitimate and should be silenced with rejection letters.


I would even go so far as to say if Calvin Trillin intended to insult Asians: let it rock. Then, when an Asian poet writes a poem called “Kill Whitey:” let it rock. And when a female poet writes a poem calling for the enslavement of white men: let it rock. The conversations that spring from those poems will be all the more healthy for our literary culture, than the opposite proposed by Diana Keren Lee and others, who would rather not see the poems anywhere on our landscape. Which is to say they’d rather we not write about our differences. Which is to say they’d rather we pretend we never encountered cultural differences. Which is to say they’d rather we lie to one another.


The Eric Fischl Show at Skarstedt Gallery

Last week I had the privilege of going to the opening of Eric Fischl’s new show “Rift Raft” at the Skarstedt Gallery on 79th and Madison. I’ve been making it a point lately to try and attend events for my sister arts, and I was introduced to Fischl during the intermission of Jules Feiffer’s new play “The Man In The Ceiling” at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor the week before. Eric told me about the show at the Skarstedt and I gave my word I’d be there.

It was stunning. Fischl’s work is brilliant but approachable. I’ve often hesitated to speak with any degree of authority on visual art, because I feared running the risk of sounding like a dolt. I still run that risk, but I feel emboldened by this New York Times review of the show, because it echoed some of what I was thinking as I moved through the gallery spaces.

“Fischl’s paintings portray a fantastical world populated by disenchanted figures,” the article states. “Staring into the voids of their cellphone screens, Fischl’s well-heeled characters remain unfazed by the onslaught of look-at-me colors and purposefully provocative images.”photo (37)

My favorite painting: False Gods, emblazoned on the wall at a gallery, where a young boy in the foreground has his hands down his pants while staring at an old man fast asleep in his chair. His mother (naturally) is too busy leafing through the gallery map to notice her kid’s diddling his privates in public, haha. In the background a gentleman is yapping away on his cellphone, while another man is on his laptop.

Many of Fischl’s paintings in this show depict this idea of raw, primitive sexuality going neglected because of our obsession with making connections to those not in the room. In the upstairs gallery, a massive double-canvas painting depicts an orgy taking place, while others are ignoring it, opting to text instead.

Jules was on hand at the show, along with the fiction writer JZ Holden. Actor Ron Rifkin was also at the reception. Small-world moment of the night: bumping into a former boss of mine at Haymarket Media after leaving the company almost 10 years ago. photo 1 (7)photo 2 (5)photo 3 (5)

photo 4 (4)

Fischl (right) speaks with an admirer.

When A VIP Shows Up At Your Reading


Last week I read at Books & Books in Westhampton Beach, a cozy independent bookstore with affiliate branches in Miami and other places. It was a Thursday night, the calm before the Hamptons weekend crowd storms the gates.

I scanned the small crowd of writing students and faculty members of the nearby MFA program in Southampton. I was having a chat with my book design cover, Casey Telesk, when my eyes fell upon a very familiar face. It was my ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Pantorno. She lives in Westhampton Beach and apparently had gotten word of my upcoming reading.


Me, Mrs. Pantorno and Kaylie Jones.

Mrs. Pantorno gave me my first writing award. Ironically, she presented it to me while I was serving my time in ISS (In-School Suspension). I don’t remember the offense. I remember being surrounded by kids you may not have wanted as friends, but you certainly didn’t want as enemies. I remember a lot of pearl-clutching as she stepped gingerly into the hot wooden portables that served as our ISS room. The writing award was a printed certificate with yellow yarn tied around it as a ribbon.

I remember thinking ‘you’re gonna get me killed, bringing that to me in here.’ I wasn’t killed. I was merely ogled. Criminals narrowed their eyes at me. They’d discovered I wasn’t one of them. I was petrified, but excited at the same time.

Of course I didn’t belong there—at least not permanently, as some students had taken up residence. For me it was a perfect metaphor. I was in the big-house, but there was a way out. Writing was a way out.

Twenty-five years later, I still have that award, tucked away in a literal treasure chest I keep in my basement. I think I’ll go dust it off. To remind me. To remind my kids.

Such is the power of a teacher. Without knowing it, she was able to hand me a sheet of paper that I might as well have considered a ticket. It was the first time someone outside of my family and friends had acknowledged that I had some degree of talent. That I should keep at it. That choices existed. It might have saved my life. It saved me from any more ISS visits, that’s for sure. I knew I co  uldn’t show my face in there again, or I’d get shivved.

I’m kidding. But the gesture was no joke. It kept me on the path early. As I’m about to embark on a new professional journey in Brooklyn next week, I’m excited for the opportunity to keep someone else on that path.


Guest Blogger: P. Casey Telesk on craft: Finding meaning in images – looking at your story like a graphic designer

I often tell people that if they want to discover what their book is really about, they should design a cover, even if it’s just written instructions for the designer. When developing a book cover, we are forced to analyze how the various elements of our stories (structure, symbolism, character) function on their own, as well as in relation to each other. We can, if we want, derive as much meaning from the text as possible, and then synthesize that information into a single image.

My father warned me that I would never make any money as a filmmaker. I figured he was probably right, so I did what any sensible teenager would do. I majored in English literature.

I spent the majority of college reading novels, taking them apart in order to search for connections and meaning between the various literary elements. I synthesized large amounts of information, complex concepts, and abstract ideas into coherent, easily digestible bites.

While not a very lucrative commodity, this ability has been indispensable in successfully navigating the typical pitfalls of creative writing programs and workshops. Writing teachers say things such as, “Writing is not about ideas; it’s about character.” This is an oversimplification, the equivalent of saying, “Cars are not about transmissions; they’re about engines.” Every element in a story, if written properly, should relate to some other aspect of the story. Otherwise, how as readers can we derive meaning from the words on the page? Words mean nothing if there is no context, no connection between image and setting, character and theme.

One of the ways I financially support my writing is by freelancing as a graphic designer. Because of my background in literature and writing, I specialize in book jackets.

Usually, a designer hasn’t read the book, but is given a concept for the cover, which they then create for the publisher. In one instance, I was told that a story revolved around the murder of a child, and that I was to use the image of candies. I tried it a hundred different ways, and none of them worked. I called the publisher and said, “Give me another image.” They replied, “Well, there is a tree house.” I immediately knew the tree house was the perfect image. The book was Matthew McGevna’s Little Beasts, and it’s one of my most talked-about covers, created with only three words: Child. Murder. Treehouse. The credit for the cover goes to Matt’s strong, unique images.


To illustrate this, let’s examine certain words in a way similar to the process by which I would normally examine the various literary elements when developing a concept for a cover. This way, we can see how meaning is both derived and created by the visual of the book cover.

First, let’s look at an image writers use frequently to generate a larger meaning, or a sense of scope in terms of their place among humanity.

Two words: Airplane. Tower. What image comes to mind? Many of you knew the image immediately. For the rest, what event comes to mind? Airplane. Tower. These two small words, when read together, will often evoke an event that changed our world forever. We don’t need to create the meaning.

Yet so many writers have juxtaposed the tragedy of 9/11 with their own major life events, whatever the genre, memoirs, personal essays, or fiction, that it would take a lifetime to read them all.

So why do so many people feel compelled to use this image? Instinct, I think. In the same way amateur photographers will instinctively justify objects to the left or right of the frame, writers instinctively know that image can function as a means to manipulate meaning. The image is universally affecting. Nearly every single reader can relate to it. A writer might genuinely believe he or she is being profound by using images of iconic American tragedy in such a way, but a visceral image is a simple way to create meaning and context for anyone reading your story. It’s the literary equivalent of a Toby Keith song, depending upon pre-constructed imagery to carry the narrative. This takes almost no work. That’s not to say that some writers don’t write about the tragedy of 9/11 in meaningful ways; they do. But juxtaposing it with the birth of your child to show you understand the scope of things has been done so many times it’s become a simple cliché.

Now, look at how we begin to construct and alter meaning on our own within a text, using very general words upon which we’ll build meaning and story through detail. By the end we will have built an entire story out of a few words, some details, and a setting.

Four words: Two lovers, camp, animal, summer.

What’s the story about? What do these words make us think of?

Summer camp? Possibly a co-ed camp, but maybe not. The lovers could be a male and female counselor, possibly be two male campers. We don’t know yet. Perhaps the animal is a curious raccoon that has raided the lover’s picnic basket.

            What happens if we change the season to winter, and add a word?

Five words: Two lovers, camp, animal, child, winter.

The change in season tells us that time has passed. The animal is still there, so maybe it’s a pet. There’s a child now, which suggest they’re male and female, that the belongs to them.They’re sill at a camp.

Let’s add adjectives: Two tired lovers, isolated camp, stuffed animal, brutal winter, newborn child.

Let’s look at how the images start to merge into a story.

Two lovers struggle tirelessly through a brutal first winter in an isolated camp with their newborn child.

Let’s make some changes: Two people, isolated camp, discarded stuffed bear, spring.          

      What’s changed? Look again.

The baby is gone. The bear is now discarded. The baby has died.     

      What’ s the story now?

Two lovers struggle tirelessly through a brutal first winter in an isolated camp with their newborn child. When the child doesn’t survive the harsh conditions, the two devastated lovers withdraw from one another.

Two people, isolated camp, discarded stuffed bear, summer.           

            What’s changed?

The seasons have come full circle back to summer. Time continues to move.

Now, lets give the story a setting: Germany, 1944.

What happens to the story?

Two lovers, imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, struggle through a brutal first winter with their newborn child. When the child doesn’t survive the harsh conditions, the two devastated lovers withdraw from one another.

We simply get an extra detail. Not much of a change.

How does the setting alter the image? The story?

It doesn’t for the most part, does it? We’re making a few assumptions, such as the death of the child being a result of the harsh winter, but let’s pretend we’re correct. The loss of love between the two characters, coupled with the death of their child: a balance is struck between the first two images, and the image of the concentration camp. Emotion becomes a flat line that moves into a steady wave of loss. No image informs another, as we discussed with using the image of 9/11 within story to create scope, or a greater meaning.

As a writer, you might want to create a different effect than this. Maybe it would serve your story if the death of the baby was overshadowed by another event somehow.

Does anything in the story repeat?

The seasons change. By the end, we’re back to the summer.

When do we find out the baby died?           

In the spring, when the world is giving birth to new life. There’s a juxtaposition there that the writer might not have intended.

If you were writing this story, and this was a nonfiction story, and the baby died in the winter, you might consider structuring the story so that after that tragic event, the next scene opens at a distance where we see a landscape in the spring time, flowers blooming, as our eye is led back to the harsh conditions of the camp.

We never used the image of the stuffed bear. Why?

Because it doesn’t fit into the storyline, right? “Two people, who gave their baby a stuffed bear…” It has no purpose in the description of the story, however, within the narrative the discarded bear could serve as a reminder of the child’s death. It’s always present.

What elements would you take into consideration when developing a concept?

The first thing I would consider is the fact that the images of death strike a balance within the narrative. I would choose a balanced color due to this, maybe something arresting, but not bright, such as a bone-white.

The thing I’d consider next would be my main image. The image I’d choose in this case is the stuffed bear. The stuffed bear represents an integral part of the story, the death of a child.

What should the cover look like?

Solid bone-white background. A tattered bear sits, slumped over at the bottom right corner of the cover, his legs going 1/4 way across the bottom edge. He’s brown, faded like a vintage photograph. The title in a thick, faded red, font across the top edge.

Later, we might decide on a subtle sign of Nazi imagery for context, or placing baby shoes somewhere near the bear. Anything is possible, and covers do change from the original concept all the time, but the process you just walked through, of finding meaningful connections within a story, is truly a process of revision. You can go back like this and dig into your work to see how these various elements function, what parts fit and which don’t. You just went through the steps. Craft begins here, with revision.

Allow yourself to think like a designer, a sculptor, a painter, anything that works for you. Be the architect. That’s who I like to play. Get inside the actual structure of your story, move something, take a scene out, move a character. See how it changes, see how the story changes.

Try these things any way you want, because at the end of the day, it’s really just about getting your hands dirty over and over again.

Don’t Take Down the Confederate Flag. Yet.


Don’t pull down the flag until you pull down racism. Don’t pull down the flag until you pull down discrimination. Until you pull down prejudice. Do these things first.

Don’t pull down the flag before you pull down the blue wall of silence. Until you tear down the circumstances that force police officers put in dangerous situations to make broad generalizations about someone running down the street. That is: don’t take down the flag until you take down a media that profits off of fear, that causes us to fear black neighborhoods.

Don’t take down the flag until you take down the real estate and tax practices and cultural discomfort that create “black neighborhoods in the first place.” Before you remove the flag, remove brokers and landlords who steer minorities away from white communities or only rent to white people.

Before you hail the decision to take down the flag, make sure everyone can freely hail a cab at night.

Don’t remove the flag until you remove white standards of beauty. Before the cultural winds blow away the Confederate flag, let them blow away those “depressing clouds of inferiority” forming in a black girl’s “little mental sky,” as Dr. King Jr. described.

Don’t take away the flag until you take away stop and frisk. Until you pull down those tired and historically meaningless social media posts. (Six black guys jump a white guy and leave him for dead. Where’s the media coverage?)

Before you take away the Confederate flag, take away the notion that “state’s rights” is more important than human rights. Take away the institutions that have created little confederacies all across the country. Do you think this issue is a southern one?

Visit a majority black school and a majority white school in the north. That has come to mean, mostly: visit a poor school and wealthy school in the north. Witness the dearth of opportunities, witness the masked caste system in which we operate in the north. Witness a black school located in a white village, but the white villagers send their kids to private school for a (wink-wink) better education. Before you pull down the flag, pull down the idea that we should take pride in our historical crimes and human failures.

Before you take down the flag, take down false assumptions. During an in-studio segment on News12 New Jersey, reporter Sean Bergin took a moment from his objective reporting about a fatal cop shooting in Jersey City to opine on the culture of black antipathy toward authority. He doubled down to blame that antipathy on the scarcity of fathers in the black community. Take down our criticism of the black antipathy toward authority–about missing fathers–and start building an understanding of where that antipathy (if it even exists in large scale) originates. Then look up at the Confederate flag and get some idea.

Most importantly, don’t take down the Confederate flag yet, because it’s an empty gesture. It lets these conditions and the structures and institutions that have led to these conditions off the hook with an easy and meaningless act. Those who want change in America will be able to hoist their hands in the air like they did at Obama’s election and overstate the claim of progress. Those trying to cling to “traditional America” can point to the empty flagpole rattling in the wind in South Carolina and overstate the claim of compromise. Don’t let the south, don’t let the north, don’t let America get away with simply removing a piece of cloth from atop a building.

There comes a time when–and as a writer who lives on symbolism and metaphor I’m aware I might be putting myself out of business–but there comes a time when symbols just aren’t enough.

BookExpo America. Or, how it’s impossible to feel important

I had the pleasure of presenting Little Beasts during a brief session at BookExpo America called “BEA Selects: Literary Fiction” held this year at the Jacob Javits Center in New York.

It was my first BEA visit, and overall it was a pretty incredible experience. Meeting other writers, meeting publishers and editors all jockeying for position, learning how the book industry, when it comes to conferences, is not too proud to stoop to employing booth babes: it was all dizzying and wonderful at the same time.

It was also a lesson in humility if the universe (for some reason) decided that I did not possess enough. The overwhelming thought both during the conference and after I left the Javits Center? My novel is but a grain of sand crying out in the center of the desert.

To say that a debut novelist in an independent publishing house has an uphill battle to climb when it comes to gaining exposure and emerging from the din of pages is not accurate. It’s more accurate to say that the debut novelist in an independent publishing house would be better served spending time developing grassroots interest in the novel, concentrating on the still-potent power of word-of-mouth.

Not too long ago I scoffed when I listened to a podcaster suggest that writers should perhaps ease off the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram graffiti we all seem currently engaged in, and fall back on the organic and accidental ways readers might come to their work. While I don’t entirely believe a writer should sit back and watch his book magically climb the sales charts, I have come to appreciate the possibility that the podcaster was not entirely wrong. My BEA experience helped me come to this realization. Perhaps the novel is a message in a bottle, bobbing along the sea of books and publishers and marketing agents and promotional booths and big money and influence. Perhaps there’s a certain freedom in recognizing you’re not special. That maybe, rather than thinking about the uphill battle, we should reassess whether we want to take that hill in the first place.

Discussing and signing Little Beasts at BookExpo America. May 28, 2015

Discussing and signing Little Beasts at BookExpo America. May 28, 2015



BEA Selects: Literary Fiction.


Why We Are Terrified of Teenagers

skateboarder-388977__180Because being stupid can be dangerous and teenagers are both dangerous and stupid. They’re also incredibly complex creators of their own political, social, economic and artistic world while simultaneously existing among ours—in our towns, in our schools, in our counties. To create your own world while living in an established world in which you only have moderate interest (and in some cases, outright contempt) takes bravery. It takes a narrowed form of intelligence. It takes a profoundly arrogant sense of right and wrong. It takes a sense of self-absorbed immortality. All of these are present in the teenager.

When I’m asked about how I arrived at writing LITTLE BEASTS (which thankfully isn’t often), I have to cast my mind back to a solitary memory I have of my younger years. My mother: standing in the kitchen while I was getting ready to go outside, telling me to avoid teenagers if I should happen upon them on the street corners of my neighborhood. Growing up in the working-class town of Mastic Beach, this command was not an easy task. Teenagers on street corners were as ubiquitous as stop signs.

“That boy would have been graduating high school by now,” my mother would say as I’d be heading out the door. “That boy’s” age would expand, contract, double, triple; I became convinced that my mother didn’t actually know the precise age of “that boy.” That boy, I can say now with certainty, would have been 47, had he not been murdered one spring day in 1979, by four teenagers, who suffocated him by stuffing rocks down his throat. He was 13. An impromptu search party eventually found his body, hastily buried beneath a log and some leaves near an elementary school.

His murder was somewhat of a regional sensation. It would evolve into something of a ghost story. A cautionary tale mothers told their kids to keep them from venturing too far from home. I was raised on it. Lived by it. Acted irrationally sometimes because of it.

I cannot tell you the number of times I redirected my course while en route to the deli, or the baseball fields because a group of teenagers were hanging around, smoking cigarettes, looking for something to do. I know now, that in all likelihood I was perfectly safe. But the fear this murder created in all of us ran deep.

It began that way. At my computer—28 years old—the image of four teenagers I personally knew from the neighborhood standing just behind what used to be a grimy deli, but is now a fairly successful hero shop in Mastic Beach.

My father had just died. I suppose my mind was retracing its steps. Where did it begin? Where did things unravel? Like looking for a set of lost car keys, I was suddenly looking for the key to how a family, a neighborhood, a community, can teeter on the edge of devastation, and how much more potent that edge can be when perceived through the eyes of a teenager.

This is an oversimplification. In this, too, there is danger, when we get far enough away from those adolescent years in our life to forget how strong we used to be in the face of violence, adversity, fear, poverty, the relentless messages we were expected to decipher. I suppose that’s principally why we’re so terrified of teenagers. We recognize, in their faces—in their actions—their fearlessness. They haven’t yet been anesthetized by the daily grind of adult life. They still think they have a puncher’s chance at beating everything.

It’s best to steer clear of those people.