Friday, July 27, 2018

#GIVEAWAY- Interview - Review - The Dead Still Here by Laura Valeri

Folks who know me know I love indie authors and when ever I get the chance to promote one I do. Fans of short stories be prepared to be wowed by this talented wordsmith. Laura's publicist, Author/Guide is sponsoring a #Giveaway of an autographed copy, details below.

ISBN-13: 978-1622881802
Stephen F. Austin University Press
Release Date: 6-5-2018
Length: 120pp
Buy It: Amazon/B&N/IndieBound


Mapping stories set in Europe and America, The Dead Still Here skillfully paces through eleven short stories about friends-with-benefits typed relationships, vicious divorces and thievery, the loss of a child, the loss of a mother, and the Coast Guard and the Navy rescuing refugees from a bad storm at sea. Laura Valeri writes one single breathtaking sentence about sex, Dear John emails, and Christmas presents in "Liabilities of a Love Misguided" and vividly recreates that sharp sense of self-consciousness in "What They Know." Along with characters that are irrevocably locked in their heads, Valeri includes a guide on how to take medication in "Prescription for Life," which subtly points to the other hallucinatory narratives. This collection is at once provocative and lucid, and it offers various angles of characters looking for a relationship to hold.

Giveaway is for one autographed copy of
The Dead Still Here
Please Use Rafflecopter form to enter
Good Luck!

My Review:

The Dead Still Here
Laura Valeri
The Dead Still Here is a collection of twelve powerful short stories, every one about connections, relationships and love but not the happily ever after kind running the gamut from unnerving to scary and heartbreaking to bitter. The characters are all originals some frightening some fearful some neurotic, some realistic and some illogical. Featuring husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, lovers and strangers about loss, addiction, obsession, delusion and faith. All brutally honest and personal to this masterfully shrewd author who uses her incredibly inventive voice to tell these tales with hints of Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury and Tennessee Williams. Short story fans will find no better than this small but mighty book.

My Interview with Laura:

Laura welcome to The Reading Frenzy.
Tell my readers about The Dead Still here.
Thank you, I’m glad to be here.
The Dead Still Here is my latest collection of short stories. I wrote the stories over a period of several years, and every story had a different inspiration behind it, but if I had to say what connects every piece in the collection it’s that in some way or another each one examines a different aspect of how people engage with the past, how the people, things, and situations we leave behind stay with us. For some of the stories the past that hangs over the characters is people they’ve lost, family members that are no longer in their lives, but for others it’s more complicated, it’s about changes in their lives or in their health, or in their sense of self, some new situation that somehow challenges how they are used to processing life.  Some of the stories are fun, though - there are surprises in there, unexpected turns, and a little humor.

You know that Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” Well, we definitely live in interesting times, what with the technological advances that have happened in just the last few decades, but also with all the politics, the refugee crisis, terrorism, climate change -- all that hovering over our heads every minute of the day. I think about how fast our sense of “normal” changes from year to year, sometimes from month to month, and I do think a lot about how different my parents’ world was, and then their parents’ -- and because I teach, I can compare that to my students’ world.  When I was doing the final edits for this book,  I came across an article about a village in Indonesia where the people dig up the corpses of their dead every few years or so. They dress them up with new clothes, make them a big dinner, even take their corpses for a walk, then sit them in a room to talk, catch up with the family. At first I thought, this is crazy, but then it made me think about the difficulties we have in the west when it comes to paying heed to the past, honoring where we come from, or even accepting death and acknowledging our connection to the dead. It may sound crazy to have tea with your great great grandfather who passed away two decades ago, but maybe it’s crazier to do what we do, to bury our dead and move on as if their presence doesn’t still pervade everything that we think and do from day to day. To pretend that all that’s in the past can stay in the past -- maybe that’s a modern western delusion. The characters in my stories have to face changes that they can’t control, and past losses that still create situations for them in their present circumstances.  So that’s how I came up with the title. It seemed fitting.

I read your story on your website, what a tale! You could write a memoir and it would be stranger than fiction. From a twelve-year-old Italian immigrant who suffered bullies and bias to a Lowcountry college professor. 
Wow, just Wow!

It’s a shame that your pen had to become a sword against bigotry but it sounds like it also saved you.

Was there one event or incident that put you on the writing path?
There were two events that pushed me towards writing. One was my father’s decision to move the family to the United States. It was 1978, when Italy was in the grip of what historians now call the Years of Lead.  Aldo Moro, a highly respected political figure of the Italian government, was kidnapped and murdered by a terrorist group. It was a time of chaos, violence, and confusion, and my father had some justifiable concerns about the family’s safety.  There were terrorist attempts, riots exploding everywhere around us. We lived in Milan, and we were in the center of it all.  Every other week or so my brother, sister and I were sent back home from school because of safety concerns, riots, strikes, or some other disturbance that made school administrators want to shut it down. The Red Brigades were kidnapping and holding for ransom a number of mid-level managers like my father to finance their terrorism. When the company my Dad worked for assigned security to him, he doubled his efforts to find a job in the United States.

Eventually, he got a consultancy with Pfizer in New York City, and the company sponsored our visas. We landed in the US on my 12th birthday. The whole family spent that first year in New York, and it was fabulous on some level, but on another, it was also traumatizing. There are so many things that we take for granted about our homes, and language is one of them. That first year, to make things easier, my dad had enrolled us into Italian school. At that time, he still thought it might be possible for us to go back to Italy in a few years, once things settled politically, but that, obviously, never happened.

At the Scuola Italiana, all classes were held in Italian, but the vast majority of the students were second or third generation, and only spoke functional Italian or dialect.  At recess, everyone reverted to English, which left me out of pretty much all socializing. I remembered wanting really badly to crack a joke. I could more or less understand what my schoolmates were saying, and I could communicate basic information when needed, but if I thought of something clever or funny to say, by the time I’d figured out how to say it, the moment had passed. It may sound dramatic, but to me, it really felt like I had become an amputee. It’s the little things that make a huge difference.  Then, after about a year, I started to notice that I was losing a bit of fluency in Italian, and I still wasn’t fluent in English. I started to think that I would end up not having a language at all, and that terrified me in a very intimate way. For years, I had nightmares about it.
I still teach this to my students: the most vulnerable populations in the world are those who are cut off from communication.  Take away a person’s ability to communicate, and you have taken away all their power.
But the writing thing came later. If complete fluent expression was my obsession, I was gun-shy about pursuing a profession in writing. It was my best friend in college who inspired it. One day she came into the little dorm room we shared, a big smile on her face, and she told me she had declared a creative writing major. Though I had secretly always loved writing, her bold move gave me the inspiration to do it myself. I know if it weren’t for her, I would not be a writer. Years later, it was also her signing up for an MFA in Alaska that gave me the impetus to pursue an MFA. I had this competitive friendship with her: I think if Debbie had gone into law or psychiatry, I might be a lawyer or psychiatrist now.  She’s an excellent writer, too. These days, she is touring the country in an RV, and hosting a blog called Supersize Life.  Thank God, I’m no longer in that competitive tangle with her because I’m not really keen on the idea of traveling the country in an RV.

Your latest book of short stories, The Dead Still Here is about relationships and not the Happy Ever After kind.
What inspired this collection?
I wrote the stories over a number of years, and it was only after some time that I decided to take a look and see if there was a theme connecting them. My first book, The Kinds of Things Saints Do, was really quite focused on romantic or sexual relationships, so I guess for me that has always been a theme.  I spent my twenties and thirties in New York city and Miami respectively, and those are the times in a person’s life when we worry a lot about sexual relationships.  In big cities like that, the traditional monogamous long-term relationship leading to marriage is not so much the norm, or at least it didn’t feel that way to me. I wrote about what I know: how difficult it is in my world to find the kind of committed relationship that people of previous generations could take for granted.  I was also in a marriage that didn’t last, so maybe that
affected my opinions about happily ever after.

I do think that The Dead Still Here has a different take on relationships than my previous books, however. If earlier I was concerned about the loneliness that comes with the kind of exaggerated expectations about beauty and sex that challenges the ability of people to appreciate what they have, in this book the stories are focused more about the fragility of one’s sense of self, particularly within relationships where the power is not balanced. It looks at the loneliness and isolation that can happen to some people even when they are in a committed relationship, or after they come out of one that was abusive.

Also, there is the problem of alcoholism, which is a sub-theme in some of the stories -- this need that people have to anesthetize themselves from trauma, seeking numbness, rather than braving emotional pain head on. I see it as a side-effect of the challenges we face in a world where we have stopped relying on love to save us. It is probably healthy, on the one hand, for people not to over-romanticize love and relationships, but on the other, it also encourages a self-reliance that is unrealistic, and even destructive.  It’s all related, and it encompasses all relationships, not just romantic ones. It all has to do with our inability to manage emotions, an issue that I think is peculiarly western and contemporary, and one which has always interested me.

I think in part that’s because I am Italian, and in Italy, people tend to be more forthcoming, more in your face about how they feel, and much more connected to one another than here. Coming from that environment, to be exposed to the kind of reserve and composure and subordination of feelings to logic that is prized by Americans, and by all people of anglo descent, was a big challenge for me, and one that continues to affect the way that I filter my experiences in the world. 

I was also socially sheltered growing up, my parents being very conservative, adding barriers to those brought on by language and culture. They used to listen in on my phone calls, open my mail, and demand that any romantic prospect meet with my father to discuss “intentions” for his daughter. It was embarrassing and effectively prevented any exploration of friendship or romance outside of the few people of Italian descent I knew that understood those kinds of expectations. (And I should clarify that my parents were considered old fashioned even by Italian standards). 

As a result, I began socializing much later in life than most people. I had to learn the unspoken rules of social engagement late, as an adult, often with a lot of awkwardness and memorable faux pas.  It has forced me to be a hyper observer of social rituals, and I feel sympathetic to people who, like me, don’t quite instinctively know how to behave, how to fit in and dance the dance, so to speak. You’ll see a lot of that in my characters.
Fortunately, I am in a very happy committed marriage, so I’m hoping that my optimism does shine through, in spite of the problems my characters face.

You’ve written both short stories and a novel.
Does it take a different kind of dedication as a writer to commit to a novel rather than a book of short stories?
Well, first I should clarify that I have published a story-cycle (Safe in Your Head), which is a novel in stories.  I haven’t yet published a full-fledged traditionally structured novel, though I have written a few. Right now I have two that I’m working on that will hopefully soon be ready to send out to publishers. 
There is most definitely a big difference between planning and writing a novel and planning and writing a short story or story collection.  It’s interesting because I’m a graduate of two MFA programs, one at the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the other at an equally terrific comprehensive MFA in creative writing at Florida International University.  Like many, I enrolled in an MFA because I wanted to write a novel, but like almost everyone who goes the MFA path, I ended up having to work really hard to become competent at writing short stories.

The assumption in the MFA world is, or used to be, that if you couldn’t write a short story then you most definitely shouldn’t attempt writing a novel, and on some level I suppose that is true. However, I have found that writing novels does require a different kind of skill set.  I hear that these days MFA programs are trying harder to accommodate novel writing.

They really are two very different genres, and I would hesitate to declare one more difficult or more involved than the other.  In some ways for me writing a short story is more challenging because it hinges on compression, an economy of language. You have to be so selective choosing a few images that must somehow add up to the reader’s sense that they have absorbed a person’s whole life, their whole essence of being. That’s a Challenge. It hasn’t gotten any easier for me, not over all these years.

But novels do require a whole other level of planning and immersion that I think isn’t quite as necessary for writing a short story. Where in the short story the difficulty is in making selective choices, in the novel there is the risk of getting lost in too many opportunities for explorations. It’s possible to write a short story in the course of a day, but for a novel, the longer it takes to complete it the more difficult it becomes to reconcile the writer you were when you started, and the ideas you were contemplating then, with what the novel teaches you about itself and about you as you work through it.  It most certainly requires a lot more mental energy to keep track of everything that goes into a novel. Moreover, I’m the kind of writer who does a lot of research, so that aspect can get time-consuming, and in some instances, it can also risk derailing the process.

Do you have a preference between short story and novel writing?
Writing a short story can feel agonizing. The emotional intensity allows me to get in only for minutes at a time, then I have to stop, pace a little, allow myself to recompose. On the other hand, with a novel I feel immersed into the world. I have had characters come to me in dreams, or talk to me while I’m doing something unrelated, speaking with voices, expressions, and nuances that are completely alien to mine. This sounds strange to people who don’t write, but it’s not that uncommon with novelists. I’ve read that it has something to do with our temporal lobes in the brain, which can create auditory hallucinations when we stimulate our narrative-making abilities.  All I can say is, regardless the science, it feels like an amazing, almost mystical experience to have a character possess you like that.

But it’s not always so great. In fact, about halfway through a novel is when things get rough, and it feels like using a little wheelbarrow to move a pile of rubble as tall as a skyscraper: there is that sense of heaviness, of trying to balance too many things, of having to put a tremendous effort towards only a slight move ahead, and then, with the risk of everything toppling over you.  I can spend a whole day just rewriting one paragraph, and I will need every minute of that day to do it.

Then there’s the risk of discovering after months, even years, that it was all for nothing.  I’ve abandoned a number of short stories over the years and never looked back, but novels, every time I bury one, it’s like I’ve lost a close friend. It’s emotionally draining. I go into mourning.

So maybe overall the experience of writing a novel is more satisfying at times, but I also really like the sense of completion that a short story brings me.  I wouldn’t want to stop writing either.

What types of books do you like to read?
The short answer is that I tend to like smart books written in lyrical prose, especially if they blur the line of either reason or realism.  For instance, I loved Toni Morrison’s Sula, because it read like poetry, and because I kept on having to change my mind about how I felt about Sula, and Jennifer Haigh’s Faith for similar reasons. I also loved Saunder’s Tenth of December because every short story was infused with such tender humanity, even as it posed serious ethical questions about our obsession with technology.  Some of my favorite all time books are Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, one of the few books that I did not want to finish because I loved every character and I knew they were all going to end badly, and Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude because it was poetry through and through. Also, Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey did a number on my head. One story in that book is structured like a mobius strip: the end is the beginning is the middle is the end - and that structure echoes the way the story collection is structured. Those kinds of books revive my enthusiasm for and faith in fiction.

What was the last book you recommended to a friend?
It would have to be Jose Skinner’s The Tombstone Race, a collection of short stories that took my breath away.  Before that, it would have to be the Ferrante Neapolitan series novels, which I had not expected to like, but I ended up loving.

Laura thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Good Luck with the short story collection.
Will you be attending any author/signing events soon?
Thank you for having me. It is my pleasure and my honor. I will be organizing a book party in Savannah in September, and I will be reading at the Miami Book Fair in November. After that, it’s a work in progress, but I will be posting updates on my website: Thank you!

Connect with Laura - Website - Facebook - Twitter
Meet Laura:
Laura Valeri is a writer, a writing consultant, an editor, and faculty in the department of Writing & 
Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. She is the author of three story collections, a book of 
essays, and numerous works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry published in literary journals across 
the world Valeri’s debut collection of short stories, The Kinds of Things Saints Do, was an Iowa John Simmons Award winner, and a winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Award in Fiction. 
Her second collection of stories, Safe in Your Head, was a winner of the Stephen F. Austin literary 
prize in fiction and a finalist in various national contests. Her new collection of stories, The Dead Still 
Here, is forthcoming in summer 2018 with Stephen F Austin University Press, and her collection 
of essays, Dog Island, is forthcoming with Galaad Edizioni in Italy.
Laura is a Hambidge fellow and was a Walter E Dakins Fellow in Fiction with the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. She is currently Associate Professor in the department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University, where, with the help of her colleagues, she also created and currently edits the 
literary journal Wraparound South.
Laura earned two MFAs in creative writing, the first from Florida International University as a 
generalist, and then with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (University of Iowa) for fiction. She earned her undergraduate degree in English and Creative Writing from New York University.
Her writing has won national contests and has appeared in various literary magazines, including in Waccamaw, Fiction Southeast, Temenos, Web Conjunctions, Gulfstream Magazine, Glimmer Train 
and many others. She also publishes nonficition, poetry, and translations. For more information, 
please visit the Books & Pubs page. 

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  1. Short stories are enjoyable and wonderful. Thanks for this great feature and giveaway. I know that I would enjoy these stories which are meaningful and captivating. Your review was excellent.

  2. They were certainly very protective!

  3. Amazing, and what an immigrant story, so true about language. Stories sound amazing and insightful.

  4. I do like short stories! I enjoy them more than I used to.

  5. Wow, this is a very informative interview! The story sounds amazing!

    1. Thanks for the visit and for the kind words Anne :)

  6. Fantastic interview, I found her story and writing themes intriguing.

  7. Lovely interview. I never knew of this author before now. Thanks for bringing her to my attention.

  8. Wonderful interview. I don't read many books that are short stories, but this one sounds really good and you certainly have me curious.