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Chasing Shadows with alum Swati Avasthi


On September 24th, MFA alum Swati Avasthi will publish Chasing Shadows with Knopf Books for Young Readers. Avasthi graduated in 2010 with an emphasis in fiction, and her first young adult novel, Split, landed on a number of "best of" lists.

Chasing Shadows, already a selection for the Junior Library Guild, is a YA novel about friendship and loss, featuring comic book-style illustrations and invocations of Hindu mythology. Avasthi's second novel, Chasing Shadows is the fruit of significant labor; the author spent four years creating more than 15 drafts before the book was complete. Agent Rosemary Stimola, whom Avasthi cites as a "great champion" of the project, sold the book as the second in a two-book contract.

A starred review by Publisher's Weekly calls Chasing Shadows "superb" in its addressing of tough subjects. In the face of a devastating murder, Avasthi's young heroines tackle grief and mental illness, and they explore the depths of friendship. The book also received a starred review from Kirkus.

"I read because I yearn to live vicariously," Avasthi says, "to experience more than I ever could in my lifetime." She describes the comfort of recognizing herself in books, and hopes to provide a similar transcendence for readers.


Read an excerpt from Chasing Shadows:

I am not The Leopardess, but sometimes I wish I were.

As I dangle off the edge of this roof, I could use her steel claws. Superheroes get Wicked Toys, Cinematic Escapes, and Guaranteed Wins. If I could live in a comic, I'd be The Leopardess. And if I were The Leopardess, I'd be Fearless.

But I'm just Holly Paxton, so I have to run my fear ragged.

For links:
Author page:
Kirkus review:
Publishers Weekly review:

Kevin Fenton's Leaving Rollingstone

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MFA alum Kevin Fenton ('05) publishes Leaving Rollingstone, a memoir about growing up in a Minnesota farming village. The book visits memories of family closeness and small-town values, an idyllic life that is ruptured by a tragic car accident and a move to the city. As the narrator grows older and his innocence fades, he reflects on his upbringing and his hometown not with nostalgia, but with "a holy kind of consideration," writes the Star Tribute. "Fenton puts the past, warts and all, on a pedestal while remaining fully aware that this nostalgia for when 'things were better' is an illusion that each generation nurtures. Fenton's book is a treasure for readers who want to strike that balance between memory and awareness." read the full review

Leaving Rollingstone is not Fenton's first publication. His novel Merit Badges won the AWP Award for the Novel and the Friends of American Writers Award.

The book is about growing up in a happy family in a Catholic farming village in southeastern Minnesota in the sixties and how the changes that happened to the town, the school, the farm, and his family shaped his life.

A self-described "plodder," Kevin wrote the first draft of the first chapter right after 9/11. A mostly-complete manuscript was his "barely defensible thesis" in 2005. The manuscript kept being a near miss for publishers until he realized the problem: too many characters who were too much alike. In the case of Leaving Rollingstone, it was a lack of clarity and pace that came from pursuing too many themes, he says. "What happens is several smart people who don't know each other all say basically the same thing at the same time." His years of revision paid off. Instead of working with an agent, Kevin pursued a lead from the Creative Writing program that the Minnesota Historical Society Press was looking for memoirs. They bit.

He hopes that those friends who asked, "aren't you too young [at 54] to write a memoir" and who really meant "you're not famous enough to write a memoir" will appreciate the value of memoirs by the non-Kissingers, non-Kardashians of the world. The memoir looks to complicate the perceptions of small town America as a one-dimensional place, either as a haven of innocence or an oppressive community.

Read an excerpt from Leaving Rollingstone:

1962. The village of Rollingstone had just had a picnic when a cloudburst pummeled us, soaked our clothing, and saturated the green of the grass. Everyone else ran for the pavilion or their cars. But because the wind had gusted and blown the yellow plasticware from the tables, my siblings and I suddenly had a job to do. We swarmed after the escaping utensils as they collected under the merry-go-round, flew under the swings, sprayed up against the tennis court. Maybe because I was three, this invasion felt giddy, like being tickled by the sky; the utensils became exclamation marks. Five kids pursued five hundred things. Plucking forks and knives from the ground, we glimpsed the shiny leaves of broadleaf plantain and a frizzy, yellow-flowered grass. But we had to keep running and lung¬ing and grabbing and screaming. The hysterical sky let us act hysterically.

The memory is innocent, but something shivers beneath it. It isn't the giddy freedom that has caused me to remember it; it is the color scheme. The green of the grass and the yellow of the forks scattered in the park suggest the green and yellow of trac¬tors, the green and yellow of corn, and, thus, the farm we aban¬doned. We moved into Rollingstone because one of dad's surger¬ies had gone particularly badly. We sold the farm to an in-law who rented it to our old neighbors, the Herbers, while they built a new house on their farm. Our family talked about the farm all the time. If families had mission statements back then, "regain the farm" would have been ours. Dennis, who had followed Dad everywhere, spent his summer working on the farm of another family on the ridge above Rollingstone.

Here, in Rollingstone, we hosted the picnic because the town had given Dad part-time work taking care of the park. Dennis and the girls helped Dad. He couldn't sprint after forks; he couldn't howl and dart and dive.

MFA Poet Carrie Lorig Wins Chapbook Contest

MFA student Carrie Lorig, a soon-to-be third-year poet in the program, has won Radioactive Moat's chapbook contest for rootpoems, written with fellow poet Russ Woods. Carrie is active in the poetry collective Our Flow Is Hard and has been published in numerous venues. Her chapbook, nods, has just been published by Magic Helicopter Press. tumblr_lx6rf4v0dH1r7p7p0o1_500.jpg

Elisabeth Workman's Ultramegaprairieland Home Companion

Elisabeth is a third-year poet in our MFA program who has authored several chapbooks and is soon to make a splash with her first upcoming full-length book of poems, ULTRAMEGAPRAIRIELAND (Bloof Books, 2014).

While a year away, it's never too early to start the hype. Here we take a sneak peek at what to expect from her work and get some insight into the publication process.

Nicky Tiso: First off, congratulations on the book deal. How does it feel?

Elisabeth Workman: Ecstatic relief. (I've been holding it for so long and now can finally let it go.) And the ecstacy is that it's been embraced/accepted by my first choice (or hope, rather, as if the choice was mine!) for a home for the manuscript--the superlative Bloof Books.

N: I see you've published a chapbook Megaprairieland. Is Ultramegaprairieland conceived of as a sequel? What can we expect from it?

E: It's an expansion of it, an ultra-izing of the mega-ness, with more spectacle and parades and rabid revisionist histories.

N: Did you submit any other places or what advice have you for people looking to get published?

E: Thanks to grant funding, I was able to submit to more than several book contests, which made me feel slightly dubious. The manuscript was short-listed with several presses, which was reassuring, I suppose, but I would encourage people to pursue the presses that are feeding their hunger. What are the books that land their tentacles all over and through you and won't let go? Which books make you a crazy writing zombie? Who publishes them? For me, that was Bloof.

N: Did the previous grants/fellowships you've received help enable you to write this book?

E: YES. Funding from the Jerome Foundation allowed me to pursue a mentorship with Sharon Mesmer and travel to NYC to meet her and do a reading at Zinc Bar with the women of Flarf; support from the Minnesota State Arts Board afforded me the means to isolate and hide out in a cabin for two weeks when I was thirty weeks pregnant and finish poems for the manuscript; and the McKnight Fellowship meant I could finalize the manuscript, send it out, work on new projects, and not have to return to work full-time after I had my baby.

N: Were your chapbooks self-published or did you have a publisher for them?

E: Grey Book Press published MEGAPRAIRIELAND; it was selected through their first open reading period/chapbook "contest," judged by Sandra Simonds and GBP editor Scott Sweeney. My other three chapbooks were published through the Dusie Kollektiv at the invitation of Susana Gardner, which proved to be, not only an exciting alternative to rote publishing patriarchies, but more--an exciting and generative international poetry community.

N: Does Bloof have any relation to Flarf?

E: They both end in F, and are full of wild-eyed pirate poets.

N: Can you describe your writing in three words?


N: Can I describe your writing as "hot gore"?

E: As long as you don't capitalize the G.

N: Books that have really influenced your writing?

E: There are so many. For this project, in particular:
Disobedience, by Alice Notley
The Golden Age of Paraphernalia, Kevin Davies
Warsaw Bikini, Sandra Simonds
Deed, Rod Smith
The Romance of Happy Workers, Anne Boyer
I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism), Bruce Andrews
the work, in general, of Sharon Mesmer and Nada Gordon and Elizabeth Bachinsky and K. Silem Mohammad and Christian Bök
and lodged willy-nilly in my psyche, Titus Andronicus; Helen Adam; Keats; the Wife of Bath (she was gap-toothed, too); Tristan Tzara; and not least Lewis Carroll

N: Shout outs?

E: SHANNA COMPTON, Bloof Boss and beautiful poet
SHARON MESMER, mentor, sister, birthday twin, atomic bitch poet
SANDRA SIMONDS & SCOTT SWEENEY, fierce poets, editors, supporters

Maybe Malibu, Maybe Beowulf

Then, there was toil,
as toiled the slaves of Rome
in flowy frocks and torpedo tubes
abnormally polite to the love hostage
who realized quite unexpectedly
the "U" in U-boat
is for "venereal."
According to ancient science
after every explosive climax comes
"What then?" Then, entire families,
sitting in the middle of craters
chomping down corndogs. Then,
a little bit of syphilis.
Then, Comic Sans.
Year after year the toil
and the coitus. This would be
the real story told to earth people
in a voice more trusted
than the situation warranted.
What then? Maybe Malibu.
Maybe Beowulf.
Then, when the hills break out
ablaze, people will reach for their
joy sticks and try to transubstantiate
into the infernal wisdom of electricity
using Western techniques and trends.
Hi-fi clap-on, clap-off firelight,
then another high noon
in which staring at the same dot
transfixed for hours could
potentially result
in hot gore.

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Elisabeth's chapbooks include a city_a cloud; Opolis; Megaprairieland; and Maybe Malibu, Maybe Beowulf. Ultramegaprairieland will be her first collection and is forthcoming from Bloof Books in 2014. In 2010, Elisabeth received the McKnight Fellowship for Writers/Loft Award for Poetry, selected by Marilyn Nelson. In 2009, she was a recipient of the SASE/Jerome Award from Intermedia Arts. Her poems have appeared in Abraham Lincoln, Dusie, Boo Journal, Diode, Alice Blue, and lots of other places. She lives in Minneapolis, MN, with the designer Erik Brandt and their daughter Beatrix. For more information, please visit

Praise Grows for "The Orchardist"

The debut novel by 2005 MFA Program alum Amanda Coplin continues to garner praise. "The Orchardist," published by HarperCollins in early August 2012, has already landed on Publisher Weekly's top ten for fall list; O Magazine's top ten for fall 2012; and received rave reviews from The Washington Post, Seattle Times and Star Tribune. Coplin was also chosen for Barnes and Nobles "Discovr Great New Writers Series" for 2012. While in the program, Coplin studied with Edelstein-Keller Chair Charles Baxter. Baxter calls the book "patiently beautiful" and notes that "it does not feel like a first novel; it feels like a life's work." Coplin began the book while in the MFA Program. She will be on an extensive book tour throughout the fall and will be a guest during our "First Books" reading in March 2013.

New Program Books

During our annual end of the year tally rally, Creative Writing discovered an interesting stat: from summer 2011 to spring 2013, we will see a total of 18 books published by MFA program alumni and current students. 18 books! Some are debuts, some are second books, but, really, 18 books?! We wonder if even the glittery and angel-dusted Iowa Workshop can claim that. Let's do a small run down: Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist, due from Harper Collins in August 2012. The Mermaid of Brooklyn, Amy Shearn, spring 2013 (Simon and Schuster). what have you done to our ears to make us hear echoes?, Arlene Kim (Milkweed, July 2011). Unbored, Elizabeth Foy Larsen (Bloomsbury, October, 2012). Uncle Janice, Matt Burgess (Doubleday, spring 2013). The Peripatetic Coffin, Ethan Rutherford (Ecco Press, fall 2013). Use Your Words, Kate Hopper (Viva Editions, 2012). Karen Rigby, Chinoiserie (Ahsahta Press, 2012). Friends Like Us, Lauren Fox (Knopf, 2012). Nate Slawson, Panic Attack USA! (YesYes Books, 2011). Butcher Tree, Feng Sun Chen (Black Ocean, 2012). Mother Substance, Sarah Fox (Coffee House Press, spring). And more and more and more.....Minnesota: we get the great writers.

An interview with the unsinkable Julie Schumacher

Thumbnail image for JulieSchumacher.jpgIn the midst of writing new fiction, directing the Creative Writing Program, teaching and advising MFA candidates, Julie Schumacher somehow found time to answer a few questions about her new book, The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls, due out this May from Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Here's a sneak preview of the opening lines:
I'm Adrienne Haus, survivor of a mother-daughter book club. Most of us didn't want to join. My mother signed me up because I was stuck at home all summer, with my knee in a brace... The members of "The Unbearable Book Club," CeeCee, Jill, Wallis, and I, were all going into eleventh grade A.P. English. But we weren't friends. We were literary prisoners, sweating, reading classics, and hanging out at the pool. If you want to find out how membership in a book club can end up with a person being dead, you can probably look us up under mother-daughter literary catastrophe. Or open this book and read my essay, which I'll turn in when I go back to school.

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Julie, how would you say this novel is different from your previous work?

It's the only book I've ever written that was not my idea originally. It was my editor's idea. It's a book about books and reading--which, when I first considered it, seemed like a fun and simple project, but was not.

And on the flip side, how is it related?

No matter what I start writing about, I end up gravitating toward a particular emotional territory: family relationships, characters who are drawn toward one another but don't get along, off-beat interactions or misunderstandings, unrealized desires. Those motifs work just as well and can be at least as satisfying in YA literature as in literature for adults.

What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book?

Structure. There were a lot of pieces that needed to be fitted together: mothers with daughters, daughters' life experiences with the books they were reading, etc. And somewhere along the line, for my own amusement, I decided that the main character in the book would be the daughter of the main character in my first novel, The Body Is Water [published in 1999 by Harper]. Which added a few plot complications as well.

Have you ever been in a mother-daughter book club like the one you write about?

No, I haven't. I have two daughters, one of whom finds reading fiction to be a terrible chore, and the other who, when she was younger, wanted to read only books with dragons on the covers. It would not have worked out.

How does the process of writing a book work for you? What makes you despair, what makes you ecstatic?

Ecstasy doesn't enter into the process very much for me. There are the moments when I can feel the project moving forward or evolving, and moments when I'm driving and have to pull over because something in the book has unlocked itself in my mind and I have to write it down. Those are great moments. But there are also plenty of dead ends and frustrations. Lots of writers are brooders and ruminators, I think, by necessity. They need to mull and examine and re-examine their thoughts, and mull again.

Without giving too much away, do you have a favorite scene or chapter?

There's a scene I like at a mini-golf course. It's a decrepit place run by a guy named Mr. Baxter--but he exists only off-stage.

Rumor has it this may be the last YA book you write. True? What's next for you?

I'm working on a short story collection, which is almost done. My head and my imagination aren't in the YA world as much as they were when my own kids were younger, so I'm not reading as much YA as I used to. But I do like the idea of keeping a foot in both worlds, and I've never felt there was a gulf between YA and adult lit. Good writing is good writing, regardless of where it's shelved.

Editor's note: Julie's novel is now available on Amazon for pre-order of the hardcover and Kindle editions.