New Orleans and Reconstruction- Amanda Skenandore

One of the best things about moving to Las Vegas has been developing a whole new network of local writers. One of the nicest and, more importantly, successful of these is Amanda Skenandore. Her first book, Between Earth and Sky, impressed the heck out of me. Her second, The Undertaker’s Assistant, is just out now.

I’ve met you a few times now, but tell my readers about you. What’s your deal?

I’m originally from Colorado, but I now live Las Vegas, NV with my husband and our pet turtle, Lenore. When I’m not writing, I work as a registered nurse at a local hospital. My first novel, Between Earth and Sky, came out last year. The highlight of my debut years was winning the American Library Association’s Reading List Award for Best Historical Fiction. My second novel, The Undertaker’s Assistant, released in July. I’m an avid reader, tea-drinker, and wanderlust. I love to write historical fiction because it transports me to past while at the same time shining light on the here and now.

What is your book about? 

The Undertaker’s Assistant follows the story of Effie, a young freedwoman who earns her living as an embalmer, as she seeks out her past amid the growing violence and racial turmoil of Reconstruction-era New Orleans. She says in the novel, “The dead can’t hurt you. Only the living can.” A former slave who escaped to the Union side as a child, she knows the truth of her words and keeps her distance from the living. But two encounters—with a charismatic state legislator named Samson Greene, and a beautiful young Creole, Adeline—introduce her to new worlds of protests and activism, of soirees and social ambition. Effie decides to seek out the past she has blocked from her memory and try to trace her kin. As her hopes are tested by betrayal, and New Orleans grapples with violence, Effie faces loss and heartache, but also a chance to finally find a place of belonging.

What is it about that time period or character that appealed to you? What are the roots of the story?

I wanted to explore Reconstruction. Growing up, I remember learning a lot about the Civil War, but very little about Reconstruction. I’d learned the names of a dozen generals, but not the names of the African American men elected to congresses and statehouses throughout the South in the decade following the War’s end. Some of these men, like Robert Smalls and Blanche Bruce, were former slaves. What struck me most as I researched, was how progressive the era of Reconstruction was and how quickly that progress crumbled. I’d been taught about carpetbaggers and political corruption, but not about systematic violence and intimidation that truly undermined this progress.

I also wanted to explore the nature of death and dying in an era when that experience was often more frequent and intimate than we know today. A few years ago, I came across an article in The New Republic titled “Who Owns the Dead.”  In it, the author explores the increasing distance modern funerary practices place between the living and the dead and compares that to earlier American practices. The intimacy and continuity of care our forbears practiced with the dead intrigued me. The article also mentioned how the rise of embalming in America coincided with the Civil War as families sought a way to bring loved ones killed in battle home for burial. I knew I wanted to set my second novel during the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction, so the profession of undertaking seemed like the perfect intersection of these two interests.

What is your favorite scene in the book?

My favorite scene—favorite scene to write anyway—was one that takes place during Mardi Gras. It’s Effie’s first social outing in the New Orleans and is unlike anything she’s experienced. I enjoyed researching early Mardi Gras traditions and imaging the varied sights, sounds, and smells Effie would have encountered. Mardi Gras in the 1870s was part celebration, part political rally, and part melee. The hand-stitched costumes and horse-drawn floats were not only mean to dazzle but to convey a message: carpetbagger-rule was coming to an end. It’s a tumultuous scene for Effie, one of both excitement and injury.

Where can we learn more about you and your books?

I’m most active on Instagram, but you can find me on Goodreads, Facebook, and Twitter too. My books are available wherever books are sold, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

Support Litmags #1- Storgy

If we start zoning out a page in then it needs work. Don’t bore us. You know what’s good.

Anthony Self, Executive Director, Head of Film, Storgy Magazine.

Since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. In particular, I had visions of being a wildly successful short story writer, firing off brilliance to magazines like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, slumming occasionally in Esquire or the New Yorker and the checks would just flow to my mailbox.

I still love writing and reading short stories and there is a crop of new online lit-mags and publishers who are flying the flag and keeping the art-form alive. I’m going to showcase a few of them over the next couple of weeks. Some have published me, some have kept their standards high (Kidding!)

A few years ago, I had a boxing story I was looking to submit. While it went to another magazine, the kind reply inspired me to stay connected with the boys in the UK. If you haven’t checked out Storgy.com yet, you’ll find a mix of opinion, short fiction, and just cool stuff, unbounded by genre (although they do skew heavily to the snarky and slightly weird.) Their new short story collection, Hopeful Monsters is available for pre-order now. (It’s on my Kindle TBR pile)

Here’s my interview with Anthony (Tony) Self.

What is Storgy, and why should we care?

STORGY magazine initially started as a closed-off writer’s group, where a few of us would be able to massage our own egos and pretend to know about the craft to put stories online. People started sending us their own work to put online and we liked the attention like craven wannabe-celebrities so I guess something stuck and we began publishing stories that fell through the cracks. These were the stories that didn’t have a home. The bastard children of literature. 

Given how hard the publishing business is, what the hell were you thinking? How did the original concept come to you?

I know, right? Five years ago we were dilly-dallying with a story a week and now we’re independent publishers; posting reviews, previews, interviews and short fiction for all the masses to gobble up like malnourished street urchins. We wanted to write a 1,000 story every week and challenge ourselves to accomplish this. Looking back we were probably naive. Or had head trauma. One or the other. 

Editor’s note: through a series of late-night emails the name of the magazine is a mashup of “Story” and “Orgy.” An Orgy of Stories. Don’t form companies while drinking. What kind of content are you looking for?

All kinds. We’ve had essays, we’ve had poems, we’ve had mythological Buddhist zen-like soliloquy’s, at the end of the day if the story keeps us engaged from beginning to end we may publish it. If we start zoning out a page in then it needs work. Don’t bore us. You know what’s good. And don’t send us your first draft. You’re better than that. 

One of the reasons for this post is to encourage submissions. What do writers do that drives you crazy?

We used to heavily edit stories because a lot of mistakes were evident in the prose. We want to get stories out there to the masses but we also want to be professional about it all. It kind of hits us in the feels when we’ve edited something, send it back to the writer for review and they’re indignant about a rewrite as they consider their work a masterpiece and HOW DARE WE TRY TO CHANGE IT. Oh yeah, and ‘it was all a dream’, type endings

I love when I get constructive feedback from an editor. Most of us are submitting to find an audience and build our brand, such as it is. What are you and the the boy’s long-term plan for world domination?

A less elitist New Yorker type mantle would be fun. We’ve pushed ourselves to become independent publishers to create content for the short story form, so we’d like to carry on with that. Oh yeah, and get a $1,000,000 grant or something like that. That would be nice. 

Any advice for authors submitting?

We’re flexible with a lot of things, such as number count, typeface, formatting – but look at our FAQ’s before submitting, it’s a courtesy to the person reading and potentially wanting to publish your piece. 

You’ve been very kind to my work, publishing a number of stories and reviewing Acre’s Bastard and Acre’s Orphans. At the risk of sounding needy, what is it you like about my work?

Personally, I really liked The Towel – on one level it’s a snapshot of a boxing fight, conveying the imagery of RagingBull, Southpaw or Warrior, but on a deeper level it can be interpreted as the indomitable spirit of never giving up. This is something we agree on. In fact, it’s the core message of what STORGY is all about..

Storgy has expanded to publishing short story collections. Check them out here.

Most of my short stories, published or otherwise, can be found here on this website.


How the Hell Can You Write If You Don’t Read?

Maybe one of you can talk me off the ledge. I was sitting with some of the members of my writing group the other night, and I innocently asked who everyone was reading at the moment. Fully half the people at the table gave me some variation of, “Oh I don’t read much these days,” or “I haven’t read a book since college.”

What in the name of Robert Ludlum is going on? I thought all writers, especially fiction writers, were voracious bookworms. Apparently I”m living in a fool’s paradise. But seriously, how can you write well if you don’t read widely?

I’m not even talking about the “great books.” I know a lot of people who got turned off to older works in college and never came back. But I’m a big believer that reading anything–even the stuff I lovingly (and jokingly) refer to as crap–is invaluable for a writer.

I know this is a thing. A good friend of mine in Chicago has three pretty good novels out in the world and hasn’t read anything written after nineteen sixy- four or has over two hundred pages. It wouldn’t kill him to read a book that isn’t a pulp-detective-crime novel, but hey, I’m not his mom.

I look at genre books as a gateway drug. As a kid, my first introduction to adult work was Classics Illustrated Comics. Frankenstein, Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers were all brought into my world in inked panels. From there it was an easy step to the real thing.

Reading my dad’s cold-war spy novels like Ludlum and Van Lustbader (which nobody will ever confuse with great literature, but they amused the hell out of me and if you talk smack about them I’ll fight you) led me to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

As an adult my reading, especially fiction, slacked off. But when I decided to try writing stories again, beginning with Count of the Sahara, I went back to school

First stop was Esquire’s list of 80 Books Every Man Should Read. While I’d read a fair number of them already, I worked my way through the list. Some, like Winters Tale, I never expected to like but I loved and learned a ton about descriptive writing. (I wish I loved my wife, my daughter or the Blackhawks as much as Mark Helprin loves New York City, just saying.)

Some of those books I hated and swore never to inflict writing like that on a reader, which is a valuable lesson.

Then I started reading genres I haven’t really read before. Nobody believes me that I’m now a sucker for epic fantasy like Robin Hobb, but there’s actually a lot historical fiction writers can learn about world-building from fantasy writers. It’s also, you know, fun. Nothing wrong with that. And a lot of those folks can write circles around more respected literary authors.

Lately, I’ve been challenging myself to read writers from other countries in translation. I am a sucker for Spanish authors like Arturo Perez-Reverte and Carlos Ruiz Zafon as well as the Cuban Leonardo Padura. The Korean writer Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters rocked my world.

I’m not a snob, I”m just trying to learn my craft from people more successful than I. It was the same doing standup. If a newbie on an amateur night couldn’t go further back than Pryor or Carlin, I didn’t think they were serious. If they could talk Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Alan King, we could hang.

Film and TV are great ways to learn plot, pacing, and action, but writing–fiction writing–is a very specific and demanding art.

There’s be no Count of the Sahara without Rafael Sabatini, and no Acre’s Orphans without Kipling.

What do you all think? Am I wrong? Am I just an old geezer and this is the literary version of “get off my lawn?” Talk me off the ledge!

Acre’s Orphans is an Indie B.R.A.G Medallion winner

So, my little third-born Acre’s Orphans has received another honor. Indie B.R.A.G has given it their award for excellence.

Their committee of readers had some nice things to say, but this killed me:

Wow! The last book I reviewed for BRAG I wanted a rating below “Yes” but above “No”. This time I want a rating above”yes”.
Like maybe “bound to be a classic like Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer or Kim.” There should be an award above a simple
BRAG medallion, like maybe “A Double B.R.A.G. Medallion” or maybe “No! I won’t turn out the light until I finish reading this!”
which my wife got tired of hearing the last three nights. I usually complain loud and long about first-person books, as they
make the main characters too narcissistic and the other characters too shallow. Ten-year-olds KNOW the world revolves
around them, especially when they know how to successfully play the “poor but cute orphan” face. First-person is perfect for
the “son of fleas”. Perhaps it is his training as an observer/spy (like Kim in Rudyard Kipling’s stories) that allows him to flesh
out the characters around him. The momentous events of history seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old put some of those
legendary people in their appropriate places. I look forward to reading the first book to get Lucca’s take on the Hattin debacle,
which is one of my favorite times in history to have NOT been there. This is one of the few books I wish I had written. Maybe if
I write until I die, my last book will approach the quality of “Acre’s Orphans”.

Reviewer, Indie BRAG

I’m honored and humbled (shut up! I can be humble if I have to!) at the love the book is receiving. Go check it out already…