They didn’t tell me! The annual release of River Bluff Review is live, and I didn’t know. I was honored to see one short story, two poems and a photograph accepted for publication in my final year, and you can see them all here.
“Tiny Monsters” has extra weight for me, as it is not only one of very few stories I’ve seen published with no speculative-fiction or supernatural content, but also draws a great deal from my life in the past. I found that the more I delved into literary fiction, the more I was exploring parts of my life and self, some of it deeply uncomfortable. Fiction shouldn’t be therapy – or at least it shouldn’t be only therapy, or you get bad fiction. But I was surprised by how much of myself and things I buried deep came to the surface as I experimented with this kind of writing.
Likewise, I hadn’t written any poetry since I was seventeen, because everyone writes poetry when they’re seventeen. My youthful poetry is buried at sea where it can’t get loose and hurt anyone. But then I took an advanced poetry workshop a few semesters ago, and two of those poems appear in River Bluff Review. That makes them the very first poetry I’ve ever had published.
Finally, if you click “visual art” in the header, you’ll see my photographic depiction of “Edgar” among the other art accepted for the issue. It’s interesting that it goes live now, because I’m finishing my presentation on Edgar Allan Poe and “The Raven” I’ll be giving next week, and I’ve got Edgar on the brain.
Well, now I’ve got something to put in this month’s newsletter…
In other news, I’m signing at Writers of the Riverbend on Saturday, so if you’re local to Maeva’s Coffee in Alton, Ill., come by and see us 11:30 to 4 p.m.!
As I announced in my newsletter, the contracts are signed and the deadlines are etched in stone (gulp), so it’s time to talk about my four-book contract beginning in 2023 with Falstaff Books – and the return of Sara Harvey!
Not to be confused with brilliant writer Sara M. Harvey, a dear friend who kindly loaned me her name for the heroine of a novella I wrote mumblety years ago and probably didn’t imagine she’d then be featured as the heroine of a series. The real Sara has never been a Marine or fought zombies and monsters. As far as I know.
The Blackfire series began with a short novel titled The Cold Ones, originally published through Sam’s Dot Publishing, but its origins actually go back to my first publisher, New Babel Books. The amazing Frank Fradella, then owner of NBB, was putting together an anthology of novellas by the Sleepwalkers, a wonderful and sadly defunct writers’ group of midlist beginners, each tasked with writing a conventional monster in a nonconventional way. I thought Frank was going to stick me with vampires, because I was just coming off the success of the Nocturnal Urges series, and I wasn’t all that keen on trying to find a new take on vampires since I’d already done that. He gave me zombies, and I said, “But I’ve never written zombies.” Exactly, Frank replied.
I decided to try for zombie fiction that wasn’t extreme body horror, that didn’t aim for the gross-out. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But that was the conventional zombie take, and I aimed for something else: a psychological horror stemming from some of the original legends rather than the more American takes stemming from Romero films.
I thought, “What is the scariest part about zombies?” It’s not the brain-eating or shambling or the rotted corpses chasing you. It’s the time between being bitten and turning, knowing you will die and it can’t be prevented, and worse, you will become the monster yourself. You will become a threat to everyone and everything you ever cared about. So I did it to a warrior, and let wackiness ensue.
It seemed to work out pretty well. We premiered the first book at Archon in 2009, and offered a free “zombie bite kit” with every purchase. We sold out the entire print run in 48 hours, and by the end of the weekend the publisher wanted a sequel. That was Blackfire, which came out in 2011, and was followed by short stories in literary magazines after Sam’s Dot closed and the books went out of print.
The latest was Yanaguana, a prequel set in San Antonio published by Crone Girls Press in 2020 as part of Foul Womb of Night, a ebook trilogy of military horror stories and later released in print as a limited-edition chapbook.
Every time I do a public appearance, readers will ask me when they’re getting more Blackfire. I did kind of leave them on a cliffhanger, with another book planned… and now it seems there will be even more of them.
Also pending as part of this Falstaff deal: Banshee’s Run. A blockade runner in a time of plague is pursued by a bounty hunter who believes she is responsible for the death of his wife. Wackiness ensues. I’ve played in space opera before, but this is a much bigger scope than any of those short stories and I can’t wait for you all to see it. Note: I was writing this tale of space leprosy long before COVID, but you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a COVID novel…. stupid virus.
I’m delighted to be working with John Hartness and the fine folks at Falstaff Books, self-described as the misfit toys of speculative fiction. That definitely describes my work, and I hope you will enjoy these books as much as I’m enjoying playing with them. It is also a great way to re-enter novel publishing, as I’ve kind of set aside novels in favor of short stories and novellas all through my grad school experience. With graduation looming in May (!!!), it’s time to get the novels rolling again.
The first Blackfire release will be a compendium of all the previously released stories, including the really rare ones, and a new novella bringing the story forward to Phase 2 (see? just like the MCU!). Look for that in 2024, with Banshee’s Run to follow.
Just a quick update that April 30 is Independent Bookseller Day, and we will be joining the celebration at our local indie, Afterwords Books! Look to the lawn surrounding this lovely little store in Edwardsville, Ill. for authors in tents, selling and signing. We have a long-standing relationship with Afterwords and are happy to celebrate their part in the literary community of our town.
I’m looking forward to the first event of 2022, which is the Millstadt Library Author Fair. Millstadt is in the process of expanding and will be running a referendum to build a new library soon, and I’m happy to be one of more than 20 authors who will be signing and speaking at the author fair on Jan. 15.
In advance of the event, Millstadt’s library blog wrote this lovely introduction to me and my work. I’d seen a previous write-up on their blog and saw they were still circulating the original Nocturne, which was from the first publisher and did not include the third novel of the Nocturnal Urges series, Abaddon. I donated a copy of Nocturne Infernum so that they’d have the most updated version, and they said this: “Unique, modern, intelligent, and feisty, Donald’s stories are more than entertainment – they are political statements about civil and sexual rights, independence, privilege, agency, and STILL MADE ME BAWL at the sad romance of it all.”
Well, that’s the kind of comment that makes a writer’s day.
If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll consider joining us in Millstadt on Jan. 15!
I wasn’t expecting the annual publication of the River Bluff Review until early spring, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that it’s already live on the interwebs!
River Bluff Review is a student-edited literary magazine, and only recently made the transition from print to all-digital. I was honored that they selected my short story “Fever” for this year’s edition. It’s a weird little piece, one that reads like a COVID story but was written the month before the pandemic began.
I remember it well, because I had been very ill that February – a flu that simply knocked me on my ass.* I recovered in time to go for a weekend getaway at Valentine’s Day with my husband, at a hotel we adore called the Cheshire Inn. Each room at the Cheshire is named and themed after a famous British writer – the suites are for the big boys like Robert Louis Stevenson and William Shakespeare, and the smaller rooms get the lesser-known authors. We were booked in the Romeo & Juliet suite, and after Jim fell asleep I was restless.
So I sat at the little desk in our suite and considered myself lucky to have kicked that nasty flu in time for this trip… and started writing. I wrote the tale of a woman so ill with fever that she hallucinates a monster in her house… or does she?
The entire first draft was written in the wee hours of the night in that hotel room, refined over several weeks and workshopped in my MFA program before submitting to magazines. I’m delighted that it was picked up so quickly, and I hope you enjoy it and the other fine stories included in this year’s River Bluff Review.
* Yes, it has occurred to me that it might actually have been COVID Original Flavor, before we knew much about it. My doctor said that “we may not have seen COVID before, but it’s probably seen us.” No real way of knowing, except I’m still alive and kicking.
It is staggeringly obvious that this is a work in progress. Please don’t judge! I’m a writer, not a programmer. The final version of this site will be much shinier. In the meantime, please be patient with my learning curve!
Since I let it slip on the radio last week, I might as well go public. Shenanigans are afoot.
Recap for those playing along at home: I left daily journalism in 2018 to pursue my masters degree in media studies while launching a freelance career.
This turned out to be quite a few eggs in the baskets I was balancing on both arms, my head and the tip of my nose. I learned quickly why I got sad smiles and headshakes from fellow freelance journalists when I said I’d be launching while doing grad school. The freelance career definitely brings in what I put into it, which I can track on my bookkeeping sheet: when I was crunching hard at school, the balance fell to a minimum; in the summer, it was soaring. Well, soaring to “subsistence living,” at least.
Still, as I’ve said several times, my worst day in Career 2.0 still has not involved calling the family of a dead child and asking for comment. My barometer for stress is scaled differently.
And to be honest, working freelance suits my personality much better than working in a newsroom ever did. I enjoy the freedom and flexibility and the right to choose my own projects, even if it isn’t as lucrative as a steady paycheck. I’m still doing some local reporting as well as magazine work on a more-or-less regular basis, and writing about the things that interest me. One week I might write about balancing motherhood and an MBA program; the next about camping options along the great river road. And let’s not forget how many stories I could write about legalization of pot here in sunny Illinois.
Now as I approach the end of my masters program, I have to figure out what I’m going to do next. Originally I wrote a long and really boring explanation of all the options I considered before settling on my next step, and I have deleted it because if it bores me, I can’t imagine how stultifying it would be for you, Gentle Reader.
But something else has happened while I’ve been trundling my way through cultivation theory and media content analysis and many cans of Starbucks TripleShot: I’ve been able to take some writing classes.
What are you talking about, Elizabeth? You’ve been a professional writer since the mid-nineties!
True, but with the exception of a poetry workshop in high school, I had never taken a creative writing class in my life.
I always meant to do so – I must have signed up for fiction workshops at the University of Memphis three times, and always had to drop it because it conflicted with some other requirement for my major.
I went to untold numbers of author panels at conventions, read writing books and memoirs obsessively… but never took a creative writing class. I have had plenty of training in newswriting: undergrad included classes in story structure and investigative and feature reporting, etc. But never fiction or creative writing.
Last spring, I took a class in creative nonfiction from the English department, figuring it would help with the essays and long-form journalism I was trying to develop for my freelance work. I found it immensely enjoyable, and more importantly, my writing improved significantly.
When this last semester began, I enrolled in a graduate-level fiction workshop as kind of a trial run: could my ghosties and creepies and long-leggedy beasties translate in a literary environment? I’ve always had a taste for things that go chomp in the night, but the key to those critters and their ability to scare lies in characterization: characters with whom we can identify and language that evokes emotion. At its fundamental basis, writing of any genre must meet those needs to be truly impactful. So far, the workshop has been going very well, and I find I am viewing my own work and works of others in a new light.
So after long discussion with Jim, and a lot of personal contemplation, I rolled the dice and filled out the applications over the winter break.
Thus I am pleased to announce that I have been accepted into the MFA program for creative writing at SIUE, and will begin in the fall. This program involves intensive fiction workshopping and classes in literature as well as craft, along with a mid-program project involving writing and literacy in the community.
In academia, the masters of fine arts is considered a terminal degree – which sounds frighteningly fatal – and thus is given equal weight to a doctorate in most situations.
I have also been offered another teaching assistantship, so I will learn how to teach English composition at the freshman level. While I expect this will be the biggest challenge of my immediate future, it will also give me a much wider area of experience as an instructor. After I finish, I will be qualified to teach English comp, creative writing or journalism at the collegiate level, and if I cannot land a full professorship right away, it will at least give me a much wider variety of adjunct opportunities than solely teaching newswriting.
So it’s practical, and practicality always has to come first in my head. As I told Jim, the worst possible outcome of this insanity is that I’ll come out the other side with enough material for 1-2 more story collections, and that works fine for me.
But I am also very excited about this new venture. I’ve been given a warm welcome by my fellows in the MFA program and in the English department, and my short stories have already gained a good bit of success in literary magazines and anthologies after a looong dry spell. It’s odd that although my primary work for the past two years has been research-based rather than creative, I feel more creatively inspired than I have in at least a decade.
And when I look at the array of classes I get to take, it feels like an amazing privilege to be allowed to study there. Buckle in for a lot of discussion on sociopolitical allegory in the writings of African-American women or comparing the works of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson or comparing and contrasting dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. Squee.
(Oh, like it’s a shock to you at this point that I’m a book nerd. I mean, have you SEEN my house? We need more walls.)
The funny part of this process has been explaining to my cohort in media studies that yes, I am voluntarily and enthusiastically signing up for three more years of grad school. They think I’ve lost my mind (they might not be wrong). Three more years of stress and term papers, of wrangling being a student and a fledgling teacher at the same time, of wacky hours and too much caffeine and poverty – don’t forget the poverty.
And that’s where I really need to throw the bouquet to Jim, who is not only supportive of my insanity, but strongly encouraged me to apply for the MFA in the first place. This is not going to be easy on him, folks. Teaching two classes and taking three means that my time for freelancing will be even more limited than it is now, and that means he has to keep his second job for the foreseeable future to keep our family in milk and toilet paper (hot commodities, man). He’s about to graduate with his bachelor’s degree, which was supposed to be the time that he gets to relax a bit.
I hear from so many women writers who have husbands or partners far less supportive of their work, who resent the time away, who make them justify the hours and expense of developing a writing career, who dismiss their work because it doesn’t bring in as much money as a “real job.” I have been there before, and it kills the creative spark to such an enormous degree when your partner isn’t committed to supporting your success, however you might define that. It fills me with gratitude to have a partner who so completely stands with me and cheers on my successes (and pours the drinks for my failures).
Perhaps he understands because he is a writer himself, or perhaps he’s just that wonderful. I haven’t dedicated a book to him yet. But really, they’re all dedicated to him. It’s pretty much a given that without Jim’s unwavering support, sounding board, sanity check and P.S. health insurance, I could not do any of the things I’ve done or will do.
So this is what I’m doing for the next three years, and I thank all of you for your continued support, Gentle Readers – with extra-special thanks to my Patreon subscribers, who help make all this craziness possible by funding the water bill each month. Of course, if anyone’s about to reap the benefits of my new venture, it’s going to be them! You can feel free to join them, by the way, and get first looks at the stories I’ll be creating in my journey through the MFA. I might also share more writing craft essays, on Patreon and on Medium, and don’t forget the photos. It’s going to be a grand new adventure.
As to what I’m going to be when I grow up? Who says I have to?