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It’s that time of year again to see if you have the talent to sit among the ranks of O. Henry, Edgar Allen Poe or Nikolai Gogol. The Austin Chronicle is once again accepting entries for the 21st Annual Short Story Contest, and now may be the time to see if all of those horror/sc-fi stories you wrote while bored at work are worth the cut.

Entries must be submitted and postmarked by Monday, December 10, but even if you don’t already have something saved up, you only have 2,500 words to go. You probably had college essays about Shakespearean sonnets that were longer than that. It’s an amount that can be knocked out the next time you spend an afternoon at your local coffee shop (like any worthy aspiring writer would do).

While that sounds like a manageable amount of words to throw together on paper, just keep in mind that stories this short need to be lean, mean and straight to the point. Even if your first draft is easily under the 2,500-word limit, don’t be afraid to trim some fat — whether it’s needless exposition, secondary characters, or pointless adverbs.

If your story makes an immediate and lasting impression, it’s just that easier to stick out from the crowd of entries.

And just what is the prize to reward you for the labor of love that we all know is only for the sake of art itself? Try $1,500 divided among the top five winners. That also includes your shot to get publihed, by having your work featured in The Austin Chronicle.

Dust off the old typewriter and make sure it’s oiled up, because now is the time to write the first entry in your future short story anthology.

  • Write Bloody, interior
  • Write Bloody has its grand opening on December 2

Write Bloody: Austin's newest indie bookstore makes poetry as approachable asrock and roll

Good Reads

East Austin resident Derrick Brown is a surprisingly rascally personality to try to pin down. He’s a published poet, an accomplished musician, a variety show host, a book publisher, a licensed minister to the stars, and also a former military paratrooper.

And as of a few weeks ago, he’s Austin’s latest indie bookstore owner.

The store is called Write Bloody, a name which has become, over the past decade, synonymous with the most impressive assemblage of handpicked spoken word poetry and live writing available on the market.

Brown’s personal label and printing press, also called Write Bloody Press, has long celebrated the touring performance poets who know better than anyone how to make their words come to life both on the page and on a stage. These are professional poets like Beau Sia, Andrea Gibson, Anis Mojgani, Mindy Netifee and Buddy Wakefield, who pack poetry slams at every stop along the way.

“Believe it or not, some of the top-selling poets in the country are not from academia and they need to be heard out loud,” states Brown over a beer at one of his favorite bars on East Sixth St. “We at Write Bloody are striving to make poetry less dorky and as approachable as going to a rock and roll show.”

Not surprisingly, this forthright message of making poetry fun is making a huge impact on the poetry community and on the individual poets themselves. The eight-year-old press now boasts nearly 100 titles from 40 active authors, who also do their own marketing while on tour.

“When I sign an author, I ask them to tour every year, doing at least 12 live shows a year,” Brown explains. “I treat them like a band, where sales go up during their tour. I know that how hungry you are to be a writer is how much and how hard you tour.”

As a former touring poet himself (most famously as a part of the Poetry Revival Tours with his fellow slam superstars), Brown knows exactly what it means to live that life of constant couch-surfing, to rely on the kindness of strangers, and to sometimes sustain himself on applause more than actual income.

After years of living on a houseboat and growing his press from scratch in a rented office space in Long Beach, CA, Brown went on his most recent poetry tour with the specific intention to find a new town to call home.

“I went on tour, and I looked at every city I stopped in to see if I could live there,” he recalls. “Austin won.”

He cites our city’s outdoor bar culture, the population of Central Texans who are excited about performance, the natural beauty of the landscape, the kindness of the Austin Poetry Slam and his own Texas roots as the primary contributing factors in making his decision.

“I think I’ll die here,” he muses. “I’m too old now to learn a new place.”

The cozy new Write Bloody enclave, located on East Cesar Chavez in the same parking lot as Juan in a Million, is the proud culmination of nearly a decade of Brown’s continued efforts to inspire, publish and promote his fellow poets who make their living on the road.

And because live performance is so vital to the mission of Write Bloody, Brown will be hosting touring poets from the press regularly both at the store and at nearby venues.

As a kick-off to the grand opening of the store, Brown and his band of local Write Bloody authors will be hosting a full day of events on Sunday, December 2.

During the day, patrons are welcome to check out the offerings in the store and enjoy performances, beer, snacks and prize-winning carnival games including a Don Juan eating contest sponsored by Write Bloody's next-door neighbor.

That evening, everyone gathers again over at the ND for a special night of performance featuring touring Write Bloody poets Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Anis Mojgani, Josh Boyd, Jason Bayani and many more. You may even get to see the sexy, street-wise Brown do a bit of his own highly regarded work.

“Every one of our writers has to be an amazing writer on the page and be captivating, so I can guarantee you’ll see some of the best poetry ever,” he promises. “Plus, a dance party.”

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Write Bloody is located at 2306 Cesar Chavez. The day party goes from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 2, and the after party kicks off at 8 p.m. Sunday at the ND@501 Studios.

  • Mole and Rat take to the river
  • Mole
  • Toad

Austinite Jacqueline Kelly writes sparkling sequel to 1908's The Wind in theWillows

classics return

That irascible anti-hero Toad is back once again, causing mischief and landing hot air balloons on church steeples in the latest rendition of the literary classic The Wind in the Willows.

Despite receiving no encouragement — even advice not to continue — Jacqueline Kelly felt compelled to write Return to the Willows (released October 30) after reading Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 original and subsequently living with its characters in her head for over 50 years.
“I still have the emails from those saying not to do it,” said New Zealand-native Kelly, who has made Austin her home since 1980. She attended the University of Texas School of Law in 1991 before deciding writing fiction was what would make her happy.
So far reactions to her daring move to write a sequel to the Scot’s classic — resurrecting Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad for further adventures — have been positive.
The New York Times said Kelly has “fashioned a witty adventure that is worthy of Grahame,” while the Wall Street Journal described it as a “sparkling sequel, an act of extended mimicry that allows us to enjoy new escapades with complex and memorable characters.”
These include some new faces, such as Toad’s young nephew Humphrey, who comes to stay at Toad Hall and has a passion for pyrotechnics (not a problem until his fireworks end up in his less-than-responsible uncle’s hands), as well as Matilda, a feisty female water rat who has “twinkling brown eyes, lustrous fur, neat ears, and a delicate muzzle” and catches the amorous eye of Rat (and who can blame him!).
Kelly broke with the tradition of Grahame’s all-male cast, as well as upped the narrative tempo of her story to better appeal to contemporary readers.
“I wanted to make it more adventurous as todays eight year olds have lots of distractions,” she explained.
But like Grahame’s original, Kelly’s book is aimed at readers of all ages. To help her, she teamed up with Texas-born illustrator Clint Young to recreate the River and the Wild Wood.
“A Texas boy doing illustrations just doesn’t sound right and proper,” Young said. He studied previous artworks by those such as E. H. Shephard, Inga Moore and Beatrix Potter to try and capture the essence of what they did so well in depicting animals behaving like humans.
Footnotes are scattered throughout the book to assist readers who haven’t read Grahame’s original or might not be familiar with the British vernacular Kelly uses (“gobstopper” is a jawbreaker, “biscuits” are cookies, and “his nibs” means someone who thinks he’s a gentleman).
But plenty of visitors to this year's Texas Book Festival remembered The Wind in the Willows and were thrilled to discover Kelly's sequel. Austin even used to have a book store called Toad Hall.
Attention on the book has so far been limited to within the U.S. but Kelly hopes it will eventually be well received in the U.K., where Grahame spent idyllic childhood summers by the river Thames in Berkshire which are believed to have inspired his best known creation.
Looking to the future, Kelly wants to visit the English city of Cambridge to see Trinity College — which features in her story when Toad becomes a professor — and perhaps gather some more inspiration herself.
“If I can come up with a way to have more time with the characters, I may well write more,” she said.
  • Ann Richards was a born entertainer, author Jan Reid says.
    Photos courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. From Let thePeople In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards by Jan Reid, © 2012, TheUniversity of Texas Press
  • Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards
    Courtesy photo
  • Author Jan Reid believes Richards lives on so vividly in our memories becauseshe was “such a refreshing difference from what we see now.”
    Courtesy photo
  • Photo of a young Ann Richards.
    Photos courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. From Let thePeople In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards by Jan Reid, © 2012, TheUniversity of Texas Press
  • Richards in her later years.

Forever hot: New book explores why Ann Richards continues to fascinate andendure

A refreshing difference

Though Texas remains very much a Republican state, one Texas Democrat still holds a high approval rating throughout the country. With a documentary making the film festival rounds, the play Ann headed for Broadway and now a biography on her life hitting the bookstores, Texas’ own white hot mama, Ann Richards, still blazes in our imagination six years after her death.

Why does her life, personality and politics still fascinate us? This is the question I posed to Jan Reid the author of Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards, when I spoke to him before his visit to Houston's Brazos Bookstore on Monday night.

In this political world of scripted politicians and 30-second sound bites, Reid believes Richards lives on so vividly in our memories because she was “such a refreshing difference from what we see now.”

Reid, a journalist and novelist, first met Richards in 1980 and would later serve as an advisor on environmental policy during her 1990 race for governor. During her governorship, he was sometimes a speech writer for her appointee John Hall, who served as chair of the Texas Natural Resource Commission. (Reid’s wife, Dorothy Brown, was a friend of Ann’s who served as a chief aide on her staff.)

In the prologue to the book, Reid is upfront about his connection with Richards.

“I knew people would know who I was and who my wife was, so if I wrote a puff piece about Ann Richards, I’d just get beat to hell. I was really taking pains to give the warts in addition to the smiles. I was really careful about that. But I also thought I had to be upfront about it. I couldn’t pretend that I was never in the picture and that I didn’t have a personal relationship with her. [But] I didn’t want that to intrude,” he said.

The real Ann?

During the book’s recounting of her run for Texas governor, Reid references an October 1990 Texas Monthly profile of Richards where she says, “Everybody wanted to let Ann be Ann. And they all had different Ann's.” I asked Reid if this was also a problem he had to confront when writing the book.

“Well yeah, particularly the more I found about her other periods. I had the picture of her when she was 47 years old, when her political career was just taking off. But I kept finding layers and layers of Ann both from what people told me and that wealth from the archive,” he says.

Reid found an Ann who “had a lot of fear. She was fragile in a lot of ways. That was the biggest surprise to find how human she was. It was good to discover that.”

Reid says that researching and speaking with her friends and family that knew her before she began running for political offices led him to understand that the woman we remember striding that motorcycle with white hair piled high as the Texas skies was one of many Ann's.

“When she decided to become Ann the public person, she created the persona that worked pretty well for her. Not to say this was a dishonest strategy on her part. She was a born entertainer,” he explained, adding that she understood style and show business and used them to accomplish her goals in government.

Yet by delving into some of Richards' correspondences, especially those between Richards and Edwin “Bud” Shrake, who in the prologue of the book Reid describes as the “second great love of her life,” Reid found a Richards who “had a lot of fear. She was fragile in a lot of ways. That was the biggest surprise to find how human she was. It was good to discover that.”

Though deeply focused on mapping the “amazing narrative arc” of her life, Reid pauses throughout the book to provide historical and cultural context for the reader. All this background information helps us understand how Texas created Richards and how Richards changed Texas.

The many photographs of Richards with political and media celebrities included in the book also help give the impression that Richards knew everybody and was always in the center of the action. When I made this observation to Reid he agreed.

“Oh she did. Her family was way too close for comfort near the Kennedy assassination. She had these very unpleasant face-to-face encounters with LBJ and Carter. She was in New York during 9/11. There was big earthquake in San Francisco in the '80s and she happened to be in San Francisco. It seemed like she was just everywhere all the time.”

Ann's Legacy

Though Texas might remember Richards with great fondness, I wondered if Reid still saw her presence in the current political landscape. Reid said he continues to see Richards' influence, even in Gov. Rick Perry’s administration when it comes to diversity in political appointments. Thanks to Richards, we can never go back “to the old, white boys club."

“She was also the first ardent feminist elected to a major office in the United States. You hear a lot about the cracks in the glass ceiling. Well, she put some of them up there. Hillary Clinton considered Ann her mentor when she was first lady and then Senator of New York,” he said.

Reid continues to see Richards' influence, even in Gov. Perry’s administration when it comes to diversity in political appointments. Thanks to Richards, we can never go back “to the old, white boys club."

As we finished our conversation, I had to ask Reid if he felt a sense of deja vu when watching Richards' daughter, Cecile Richards, the current president of Planned Parenthood, speak at the Democratic Convention.

“Of course. Cecile is a star — just in a different way — just like her mother was. She’s just blossomed, as all her children have. . . But Cecile’s a politician. She can’t come back to Texas and run for office, it doesn’t seem, but she’s probably accomplishing more now than she would if she had an office. The last many weeks of the presidential campaign she was on the road with Obama. He was seeking her council all the time.”

And how would Ann feel about that campaign and it’s outcome? Reid believes, “To have been able to see that in her lifetime would have just been amazing to her.”

“A different kind of truth”: The facts and fictions of Emma Donoghue

Visiting Author

“I've always had a very zigzag career,” says Emma Donoghue. “So I appreciate when anybody hangs in there for more than one book.”

While it is true that the award-winning author’s 15 books run the gamut from biography to historical novels to contemporary fiction, it’s hard to see how anyone could stop reading at just one. From the 18th century true-crime drama Slammerkin (Harcourt, $15) to the breathlessly suspenseful Room (Little, Brown, $7.99), a fable of mother love told from the perspective of a five-year-old that was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Donoghue’s work shows astonishing breadth and scope.

Donoghue will appear at BookPeople this Sunday to read from her new collection of short stories, Astray (Little, Brown, $25.99).

Astray’s 14 stories, all based on or inspired by true historical episodes, follow a motley assortment of travelers and wanderers, immigrants and exiles on literal and figurative journeys from old worlds to new. Donoghue herself has emigrated twice, first to England for graduate school and then to Canada, where she lives now with her partner and two children.

“Being Irish I was raised to emigrate,” she says. “When I was growing up with my seven siblings ahead of me, I saw them all head off automatically, and although some came back, there just seemed a natural rhythm. Especially if you had aspirations to any decent kind of job, you were planning to head off into the world, like migrating birds. Ireland is just too small an island to stay home.”

The migratory humans in her latest collection tend to go "astray" in more than one sense: a Victorian widow supporting her family with a little daytime prostitution, a sexually frustrated Puritan who accuses fellow colonists of wild indecencies, a pair of gold miners in the Klondike who enjoy what a contemporary reader might call a “brokeback” winter. (The protagonist who transgresses the least? An elephant.)

The thrill of reading the collection comes not only from learning quirky bits of history — did you know about the 1876 plot to steal Lincoln’s corpse? We didn’t! — but also from the themes of cultural and sexual hybridity that it illuminates.

“I think it just makes absolute sense that when you’re writing about characters who are not just traveling for fun, but going on serious life-changing journeys, it's going to mess with them morally speaking as well," Donoghue says. "People have always had their sense of what was allowed shaken up by travel.”

Since this is Donoghue’s first trip to Austin, we’ll see what she draws from her experience here — a newfound appreciation for tattoo sleeves and be-thonged bicyclists, perhaps? Sometimes, as Austinites well know, the truth is weirder than fiction.

“It’s funny with fiction and history,” says Emma Donoghue. “History is a really rich source of fiction, but you're never looking for the most representative substantial typical person of the day. You’re always looking for the oddities, because they illustrate a different kind of truth.”

Donoghue spoke to CultureMap about the troubled relationship between truth and fiction, why Irish history is boring, and how to tell when a dead person is lying.

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CultureMap: Half a dozen of your novels are based on historical characters, and even Room is based on a story ripped from the headlines.

Emma Donoghue: Clearly I have an impoverished imagination! I can't seem to get by without these little nuggets to get me started.

CM: Why is that, do you think?

ED: I don't think I'm a natural at plotting. I think I'm really good at imagining up characters, and I think my natural talent is the dialogue. But I'm not somebody who just naturally rolls out of bed in the morning with great plots in her head. So I find history a particularly useful source, because not only do substantial and dramatic things happen, but they also have that edge of oddity to them.

One example would be my novel The Sealed Letter, about a Victorian divorce case. If I was just making up a Victorian divorce story, which of course I could do, I would probably have gone for one that was relatively clean in its lines. One husband, one wife, and maybe she would have one affair. But the woman I was writing about in the real case, the Covington trial, she was carrying on simultaneously, and in an overlapping way, with two of her husband’s military colleagues!

I would never have made that up, that would have just seemed preposterous. So I love that edge, that sort of rough edge that history has, that hasn't been smoothened down. There are all those details that you just can't quite believe, and yet they ring true because they're genuinely odd.

CM: But your PhD isn't in history?

ED: No, it's not. You know, I was turned off history with a capital “H” by the fact that I was growing up in Ireland. The Irish high school curriculum, the history they taught was the minutiae of Irish doomed revolutions. We’ve got a lot of tiny doomed revolutions — microscopic! — you know, it’ll be like six guys in a field, with three pikes between them. We concentrated entirely on that, and on British parliamentary politics. So I found history really pretty boring.

What I liked was what I now realize is called social history. My mother used to take me to graveyards and stately homes, and I loved that. But I just didn't think of that as official “history.” So I studied English, which I loved, too, of course. But now I realize that really I'm a natural historian, but it just didn't really occur to me to do it at university, because I thought it would be more of those damn Irish revolutions. The “national question” has just this terribly dominant hold on our minds.

CM: You became a literary historian, though.

ED: It’s true in a way. But when I'm writing my fiction, I feel terribly, terribly grateful to the scholars that I'm drawing on. Because every time I write a thing set in, say, the 18th century, I'm drawing on 20 different books about roads in the 18th century, currency in the 18th century, clothes in the 18th century. Somebody else has done a lot of that hard primary research.

I think often reviewers overestimate the extent to which I have dug up these cases. Very often other people have dug them up and all I am doing is turning them into fiction. . . It’s a very different kind of work doing primary history, it's very slow and painful. But deeply satisfying, too.

I did a slim biography of a pair of Victorian poets, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who wrote as "Michael Field." So I read every word of their diaries in the British Library, and that was deeply satisfying. And you know, it was a very small publication, it was never going to make me famous, but just the satisfaction of seeing them get their first really comprehensive modern biography was really enjoyable work.

CM: What kept you from writing a novel about that? What made them a better subject for a biography than a novel?

ED: Because the source was wonderfully thorough. And so any novel about them would have been effectively just taking that source and putting a skin of fiction on it. They wrote so eloquently about themselves, it would have felt a bit like cheating! The source was full enough that actually all that it needed was a very straightforward approach where I mostly let them speak for themselves, and I just quoted all the best bits.

Whereas the stories in Astray, these are the kind of people who, well, Jumbo [the elephant] has had a couple of biographies written of him, but most of the people in the book are too odd or obscure, or we don't know enough about them, that you're never going to be able to do a biography. I think fiction is enormously good at reaching into those little crevices that history as such is not going to be able to get to.

CM: Do you feel a fidelity to these historical characters, to really tell the truth about them?

ED: You know, it's not that I feel I have to stick to every detail that's in the sources, because luckily — well, luckily from my point of view! — sources contradict each other. They’re often full of lies. Like the court case I used in my novel The Sealed Letter, I mean nobody in that court case was remotely credible. You can just smell the lies.

One advantage to having done a lot of historical reading is that I think you do develop a good ear for lies. You know, like you can tell when the language gets more conventional, you can tell that now what you're hearing is somebody's sort of, you know, souped-up theme that they're making up. And other passages really ring true.

So sources, I don’t feel obliged to always stick to exactly what they say. But I do feel obliged to say at the back which things I've made up and which things I've changed. I do like to be very transparent about my process, because I have a historian side as well as a fiction writer side, I don't want to muddle the two. I can in a way combine the two in my historical fiction, but I wouldn't want to pretend that my fictional versions are the gospel truth either. I think especially as I’m writing about such obscure people often, I feel obliged to let people have the facts as much as we can find them, so that my short story won't be the only version I'm offering.

I think it's up to me to resurrect these people, and then let the readers go off and find more about them and write their own version. I don't feel that I own these cases.

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Emma Donoghue will appear at BookPeople on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 4 p.m. For an extended version of this interview, please see the Amy Gentry's blog, The Oeditrix.


True Confessions and tough love: A conversation with Illumine Award-winningauthor Sarah Bird

culturemap interview

Novelist Sarah Bird credits the Austin Public Library with saving her from a fate worse than death.

The year was 1973. Bird had followed her boyfriend to Austin, and then watched helplessly as he became a Scientologist, sinking deeper and deeper into the church. Soon he was trying to get her to join.

“So I did what I always do: I researched it,” Bird says. A librarian handed her the articles they keep behind the desk — you know, so the Scientologists can’t get to them and cut them out first. “I was not lured into white slavery, or signed away 99 lives to Sea Org. So, yay, Austin Public Libraries!”

This Friday the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation will show that the feeling is mutual, presenting Bird with the 2012 Illumine Award for Fiction at their annual library benefit at the Downtown Hilton. In addition to her eight novels and multiple screenplays, Bird contributes regularly to Texas Monthly, where the salty humor she credits to growing up in a veritable “comedy camp” of a family is on full display.

Although they are frequently hilarious, however, Bird’s novels also explore the melancholy of missed opportunities and strained relationships with a rare emotional honesty. She is currently working on a serious novel about the Battle of Okinawa, military families, and “the price of empire.”

Bird’s most recent novel, The Gap Year (Gallery Books, $15), tells the story of a single mother and her teenage daughter who suddenly grow apart during the daughter’s senior year in high school. Now out in paperback, the novel switches deftly back and forth between the perspective of Cam and her daughter Aubrey, depicting their parallel experiences of the same year with humor and pathos.

Bird spoke to CultureMap about the family dynamics she wanted to explore in The Gap Year, her early career writing pulp fiction, and her love affair with Austin.

And that Scientologist ex-boyfriend? She immortalized him in her first novel, a mystery called Do Evil Cheerfully. “I had him dead on page one.”

CultureMap: The first thing I noticed about The Gap Year was the structure of the novel, the two alternating voices. Had you ever written anything like that before?

Sarah Bird: No, I hadn’t. I thought I was telling the mother’s story because that’s the story I know, and emotionally that’s what I was living through because our son was going away to college. I was all distraught about that, surprisingly, much more than I had ever expected to be. So I thought I was writing that story, because that’s where my emotional anchor was.

So you know, like, the good angel and bad angel on your shoulder? It was her on one side, and then the other angel on the other side was sort of like, sneery. Going, yeah, that’s what she thinks. That’s her story. And I kind of gradually realized that I was hearing my voice from that age. So I had to let Aubrey tell her story.

CM: So Aubrey literally just popped in there.

SB: She was a surprise. She just started talking to me, and she had a lot of commentary. And it was also, I wanted to get to that feeling that parents, particularly mothers of boys, have. Unless you have a very unusual boy, you know, they go into the nonverbal years, and you know, they stop holding your hand, they stop curling up on your lap, and they stop telling you about their lives.

And so you have this stranger living in your house that you know on some level, but you also realize that — certainly my parents didn’t know what my interior life was. I wanted to get to that feeling of parallel lives that starts happening of necessity when children separate.

CM: You yourself have a son, not a daughter.

SB: At signings, so many readers come up and they take my hand and say, 'I know you have a daughter, because I went through the same thing!' I’m glad it came across.

I sort of had a secret weapon in that when our son was in high school I volunteered at the attendance office, so I was one of those ladies writing up passes and excuses. I was sitting behind the desk, and essentially I was invisible. Invisible with a notepad in front of me! I was this little imbed in the high school world, that’s how I was able to get the current details and language and stuff.

CM: How did you decide to make it a daughter, instead of a son?

SB: Once I realized that I was going to have a character that age I knew very clearly it could not be a male. I also knew that if I made the character female, that would put enough distance between my son and that book, so that he wouldn’t feel like I invading his privacy, or reporting on him.

I asked him, 'How do you feel about my writing a book about someone this age?' And he goes, 'It’s a girl!' It’s a completely different species. You know, like, you’re writing about lemurs, and I’m not a lemur.

CM: You came here to UT for your MA in journalism. And had you been writing your whole life before that?

SB: I had written for magazines. And, hold onto your hat, I wrote for True Confessions magazine. And made more more money in the early seventies than I would make now on a magazine article.

CM: I'm dying to know what it was like working at True Confessions.

SB: It was amazing. It’s just great training. I had been an au pair in France, when I was 19 or 20, and when I was over there I was trying to learn French. So I got these photo-romances, that’s what they called them. They have them in Mexico too, they’re like cartoons but with photos. I was reading those things to learn colloquial French, how people actually spoke instead of what I had learned by reading Molière.

But you know, it kind of occurred to me, they were so bad. It was the first time I was reading something that was discernibly bad writing. A little light went on, and I said, I could probably do that! So when I got back home I searched out a similar market, and there were the True Confession magazines. Equally bad. I was writing 'I kidnapped my own child!' or 'I seduced my parish priest!' Really, they were pretty tame.

Everything back in those days was pretty tame. They were just a great way to learn how to plot a story.

CM: Cam strikes me as kind of an Austin hippie, or a hip Austin mom. In most stories of teen rebellion, there’s a conservative or strait-laced parent, and the child rebels. That’s not the story you told. The daughter wants to be more normal, essentially.

SB: I have five brothers and sisters. This is a great blessing to a novelist, to be one of six children, in that you see these people from the first moments of their lives. And it gives you a deep understanding that so much of who we are is hardwired.

I saw that with my son. When he was born, I looked into his face, and he made himself known to me, on some really fundamental level that never changed. I knew. And so I think, this is just, you know, this great roll of the dice, about parents and the temperament of their child, a mother and the temperament of her child. What that child needs, whether the mother can supply it, and how those pieces fit together, and form and deform each other. I'm interested in that.

CM: It’s a scary thought to somebody who has not had children, it's kind of your worst fear. You know, what if my child rejects me not just because I’m their parent, but because of different personalities? What if they just don't like me?

SB: I mean obviously as a parent you have a huge advantage in that you form their world. That was the other thing that I wanted to get at, is how much parents form their world, creating these little football players, or whoever, that are expressions of their parents.

And your parents are always going around going, 'Oh, I just want him or her to be happy.' Yeah, as long as it involves a degree from Yale, that’s an okay happiness. But community college, that is not an okay kind of happiness.

CM: Can you tell me about the quote in the front of the book: “The anchor or the arrow?”

SB: That came very clearly to me in a dream that I had when I was eight months pregnant. I woke up with that in my head, and I saw that it was always this little conflict between whether you’re launching your child into the world, getting them prepared for the slings and arrows and the harsh reality, or are you the nesting place, the home where they always have to take you in?

I just remembered that very clearly when our son reached that age, when I said, 'Do I need to toughen him up? Is this a cruel thing, that he’s never known anything but approval and love?' So that’s what Cam was facing.

CM: People love you around here. Do you think you’re strongly associated with Austin for your readers?

SB: Well, I came from New Mexico, and I was so freaked out by Texas when I first got here. It was so strange and bizarre. So when I wrote Alamo House, my first novel, I meant it as a satire.

Then I discovered that Texans, and certainly Austinites, have the best sense of humor in the world. So my blistering satire was warmly received. [Laughs.] I think it’s sort of been a two-way love affair.

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Austin Pets Alive and Austin Animal Center launch $31 pet adoptions for the holidays

New home for the holidays

Two Austin organizations are looking to get local pets into their "furever" homes this holiday season. In a special December promotion, Austin Pets Alive! (APA) and Austin Animal Center are working to get as many animals out of the shelter as possible, by making all adoption fees a flat $31.

The promotion runs December 1-31. According to a release, APA's director of lifesaving operations, Stephanie Bilbro, sees this as a great opportunity to clear out the shelters and make a great impact heading into 2023.

“The holidays are a great time for the Austin community to come together and add to their families. We have so many precious kittens, puppies, cats, and dogs just waiting for their turn to find a family,” said Bilbro. “We hope this is a chance for any family who’s been looking to add a pet to theirs to do so right in the middle of the holiday season. We know Austin is in the upper echelon when it comes to animal welfare. We hope this promo sets us and AAC up for a successful end to 2022 and a fast start going into 2023.”

Both shelters are also seeking fosters and volunteers throughout the holiday season, for Austinites looking to help the shelters without making a long-term commitment.

APA has two locations, one at 1156 W. Cesar Chavez St., and one in Tarrytown (3118 Windsor Rd.). Both locations operate 12-6 pm daily, except Christmas Eve (12-4 pm), Christmas Day (closed), and New Year’s Eve (12-4 pm). The Austin Animal Center is located at 7201 Levander Loop and is open every day from 11 am-7 pm for adoptions. For holiday hours, AAC will be closing at 5 pm on December 23 and will be closed December 24-26.

'Famous' rooftop igloos return to Austin hot spot for the coolest experience this winter

Stay Cool

There aren’t so many winter wonderlands in Austin during the holiday season, but things get colder at higher elevations. The Hotel Van Zandt fourth-floor rooftop may not be high enough to change the weather, but visitors throughout December are invited to hang out in its self-proclaimed "famous" all-weather igloos, snacking on bites from inside and themed cocktails after the sun goes down.

Each private, six-seat igloo at the “South Pole” contains a Christmas tree, board and card games, festive records, and other cozy holiday decorations. It’s as private as Austin dining gets without completely breaking the bank, but the poolside mini-village of transparent igloos creates a warm feeling of togetherness. And in case it actually does get cold (a Christmas miracle!), the vinyl globes are heated.

It's not just a fun gimmick — as cute as the igloos are, Geraldine's is a great foodie destination. Visitors can expect (strong) drinks like the “Dandy Andes,” a minty chocolate mix of Grey Goose vodka, crème de cacao, crème de menthe, and matcha tea. “Santa on a Beach” combines tropical flavors with cinnamon, and other drinks include unusual ingredients like Chartreuse whipped cream, pistachio, and chocolate mole bitters.

Geraldine’s menu focuses on classic Southern cuisine without getting weighed down by tradition; that means a roster of semi-adventurous gourmet comfort foods, like mole birria short ribs, smoked carrots, and salty Brussels sprouts with serranos and mint. Shareables are a good idea, since the igloos are intimate (read: not especially convenient unless you like balancing a dinner plate on the couch).

Two rounds of two-hour seating will be available every night, and reservations will go very fast. As of December 5, there are only a few dates left. Reservations ($100 upfront) entail a $200 minimum on food and beverage, plus a 20 percent service charge. Book on Eventbrite.

Acclaimed Texas chef toasts the Italian liqueur that's perfect for the holidays

The Wine Guy

Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day and covers it regularly in a column for CultureMap's Houston site. Here, he talks not about wine, but the perfect after-dinner sip.

All right, team! Listen up! I’m going to give you some very important holiday information to help you get through all of the parties, family gatherings, and large festive dinners. We are not going to talk about wine today. We’re going to talk about another love of mine — the life-saving amaro.

What is amaro, you ask? It’s an Italian herbal liqueur that’s traditionally consumed post-meal as a digestif. Think of it this way: you start your meal with an aperitif — could be a martini, Campari, or Aperol spritz — to get your palate going and your body ready to eat. After dinner, amaro will help you get through the rest of your night. This elixir will magically and quickly break down everything you just consumed.

Most amari are from Italy, but fortunately new producers with similar styles are popping up all over the world. Some are sweeter, some are more bitter. You just have to find the style you like. Producers don’t traditionally tell you what’s in their amaro, because most of them are made up of dozens of herbs and spices. It’s all about trial and error to find the one you love.

I drink it neat, but some people drink it on the rocks. More and more, you’re seeing amari in cocktails, too.

The amari selection at our house is awesome. My wife and I are firm believers in this beverage as a night cap, and it’s even become part of my regiment pre-dinner as a spritz. Kill two birds, you know?

Unfortunately, not a lot of restaurants carry multiple amari, so it’s up to you guys to get this trend moving. The more you ask for it, the more they’ll stock it.

Our No. 1 go to at home? Montenegro. It’s easy to find, and it’s easy drinking. It has flavors of vanilla and orange, but it’s not too sweet and not too bitter. It’s had the same recipe since 1885, and I hope they never change it.

My wife’s favorite is Braulio. This spirit is from the Italian Alps and aged in Slavonian casks. Using more medicinal herbs and fruits means it skews more bitter than Montenegro, but it has a nice sweetness at the end.

A newish player in the amari game is Amaro Nonino. The Nonino family is historically one of the best grappa producers in the world — they’ve been distilling grappa since 1897 — but they didn’t start to produce their namesake amaro until 1992. (By newish, you get what I mean.) It has lots of honey, vanilla, licorice, and orange flavors. It’s a tad less sweet than most, but I think it’s fantastic.

Pasubio is really different from other amari. If you’re a fan of blueberries, this is for you. It literally tastes like crushed blueberries.

The next two are really cool and unusual, because they're made here in the U.S. An all-time favorite is Southern Amaro from High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston. Yaupon is one of the main characteristics, which is found all over Texas.

High Wire built its reputation on using regionally grown and foraged ingredients. If you’re ever in Charleston, you should stop into the distillery and say hi to Scott and Ann! Also, try some of their Jimmy Red Corn whiskey. Actually, everything they make is delightful.

Heirloom Pineapple Amaro is made in Minneapolis. To me, this is fantastically bitter but also tastes like roasted pineapple in a glass. One of my new favorites, for sure.

Now, here’s a helpful tidbit of info. You may have heard of fernet. That’s a general term for an amaro with very little to no sweetness. Branca is a producer that makes fernet, and it’s the most well-known. Search out others as well, because they’re all pretty cool.

Almost everything I listed can be found at most liquor stores. Don’t be afraid to try something. Yes, sometimes it tastes like taking your medicine. But I’ll bet the smell of Jägermeister penetrates your early 20s, and surprise — that’s a style of amaro as well.