the girl who fell from the sky

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, the debut novel by Heidi Durrow, is a story that will make you ache in all the best ways. Barbara Kingsolver chose it as the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction in 2008, and it was published by Algonquin in 2010. It is a story simply told, as in

I want to write something/so simply/about love/or about pain/that even/as you are reading/you feel it…*

264 pages, 2 parts, and 6 points of view. With solid details like ten-dollar bills wrapped in aluminum foil.

On page one, Rachel is leaving the hospital. On page two, she refers to the accident. What has already happened is revealed (not here) slowly over time, never making us angry or confused and building a picture we want to resist for so many reasons but that ultimately we can’t avoid seeing.

From Rachel, who is in sixth grade when the book begins:

I am caught in before and after time. Last-time things and firsts. (8)

Grandma uses a sharp comb and it feels like she’s dividing me in half. (11)

From Jamie, who will adopt the strong name Brick:

When he finally reached the courtyard, he saw that his bird was not a bird at all. His bird was a boy and a girl and a mother and a child. (19)

With assured echoes from the beginning of the book to the end and from mother to child, The Girl who Fell from the Sky is at the same time a story we have never read before (as Barbara Kingsolver writes on its cover) and a story we all carry with us.

* from “I Want to Write Something So Simply” by Mary Oliver Evidence

shifting light

From Colorado, California, New York, New Mexico, Oregon, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, and Germany–we are a writing group that meets twice a year in person and exchanges manuscripts two other times by mail. We read a book a month and discuss it online. We also eat and hike. Sometimes we dance or howl. Ten to twelve women, depending.

Last week we met in Creede, Colorado, at Pam Houston’s ranch. For one, it was the first meeting with the group. For me, it’s the beginning of my fifth year. The food was spectacular–maybe even better than usual–or maybe I was hungrier. On Wednesday night Summer Wood read from her new novel-in-progress. On Thursday night we sat outside and listened to the sounds of MoJones as the light shifted above and around us.

await your reply 5: parceling out your life

And you wipe the snow out of your hair and get back into your car and drive off toward an accumulation of the usual daily stuff–there is dinner to be made and laundry to be done and helping the kids with their homework and watching television on the couch with the dog resting her muzzle in your lap and a phone call you owe to your sister in Wisconsin and getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing and a few different pills that help to regulate your blood pressure and thyroid and a facial scrub that you apply and all the rituals that are–you are increasingly aware–units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life. (92)

This passage from Dan Chaon’s 2009 novel, Await Your Reply, reminds me of so many things:

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  

  Mark Strand’s “The Continuous Life”: Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,/That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;”

the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours: “Laura reads the moment as it passes.  Here it is, she thinks; there it goes.  The page is about to turn.”

that surely there is more than this

and just as surely, no there’s not.

What are the units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life?

await your reply

~last in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 4: image

From Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, how an image can make words come alive:

Without the image:

Her thoughts were not clearly articulated in her mind, but she could feel them moving swiftly, gathering.

“What are you thinking about?” George Orson said, and when he spoke, her thoughts scattered, broke up into fragments of memories.

That’s good, right?

With the image:

Her thoughts were not clearly articulated in her mind, but she could feel them moving swiftly, gathering.

“What are you thinking about?” George Orson said, and when he spoke, her thoughts scattered, broke up into fragments of memories, the way that the birds separated out of their formation and back into individual birds. (219)

A passage we will remember.


Dan Chaon’s words recall Toni Morrison’s from Beloved, and not wanting to miss an opportunity to share one of my favorite passages of all times, here it is:

She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind. (272-273)

~4th in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 3: repetition with new detail

In Await Your Reply, published in 2009, Dan Chaon uses repetition in a very cool way. Instead of bogging down the original scene, he pushes the action forward first, then a bit later, moves in for a close-up or two, adding additional details.

For example, on page 246, Miles wakes up in bed with a woman and gropes for his underwear, which he puts on. So the assumption is they’ve had sex.

On page 248:

He was standing there in his underwear, still a bit groggy, still a bit dazzled by the fact that he’d had sex for the first time in two years… [new detail bolded]

Then on page 249:

He was standing there in his boxer shorts with their ridiculous hot pepper print… [new detail bolded]

What this technique does is to roll the scene along, allow the reader to move in for a quick close-up, and then continue along with the story.

It keeps things moving. It adds texture. It reinforces image.

~3rd in a series
~Cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 2: nods

In the surprisingly interesting Reader’s Guide at the back of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, Chaon writes:

As a writer, I feel like I’m always in conversation with the books that I’ve read.

Yiyun Li, the author of The Vagrants, feels the same way: “I believe a writer writes to talk to his/her masters and literary heroes.” About William Trevor, she wrote:

I write stories to talk to his stories. And a story can talk to another story in many ways–a line, a character, a few details, or sometimes it is the mood of the story, the pacing and the music of the story…”

I found two of these nods by Chaon as I was reading Await Your Reply. When I found two, I got such a warm feeling inside. Here they are:

On page 81: “She might’ve been a good mother, Miles thought, if their father had lived.” >>>Flannery O’Connor, from “A Good Man is Hard to Find:” She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” [Here’s a very cool link to Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” at Vanderbilt University in 1959–amazing]

On page 203: “Your jitters are starting to rub off on me. I’ve got the fucking fantods, man.” >>>David Foster Wallace throughout Infinite Jest.

A lovely practice.

~2nd in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

await your reply 1: three threads

From the first page of Dan Chaon‘s novel:

On the seat beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight-quart Styrofoam cooler.

Enough said?

Dan Chaon’s second novel and fourth book, Await Your Reply, which was published in 2009, intertwines 3 seemingly unrelated narrative threads that exude echoes of each other, assuring the reader that they will eventually come together. And they do. But no spoilers here.

3 threads. 324 pages. 3 parts–each one divided into numbered chapters.

Chaon gets each of the threads off the ground in a hurry: the 1st chapter is 2 pages; the 2nd is 5 pages; the 3rd is 3 pages. Bam. In 10 pages, the reader is aware of all 3 plot lines.

The “severed hand” scene comes first and takes place at night in a car. Chapter 2 begins with Lucy and George leaving town in the middle of the night. “Not fugitives–not exactly.” AND “They would make a clean break. A new life.” (Chaon has a sense of humor.) In Chapter 3 again a character is driving a car. And I wish I had time to count how many times the word hand or hands is used in each of the threads.

As I said, because of the repetition of images and details and echoes of themes, the reader knows that these threads are related. So the reader’s mind is fully engaged as she is reading, trying to answer the question of how. It’s like a treasure hunt. We’re looking for clues, reading carefully because we don’t want to miss anything. All of this creates energy and narrative drive.

In July in Vermont, Dan said that with Await Your Reply, he began with 3 images and a story, but that he had no idea how they were connected until the end of the first draft. He said that the second draft is always “super important” to him because he’s looking for iconography, like tarot cards, to signal where the power is–where an image and/or a moment is important.

Each image distinct and capsulized, like tarot cards laid down one by one. (147)

Read it, if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.

~1st in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog

scheduling time

I adore this portrait of May Sarton. I used it in a blog post on August 8, 2009. I also used some of the same quotes, but I had a very different reaction to them two years ago. 

Polly Thayer's portrait of May Sarton owned by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University

There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour–put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I cannot achieve it inside me.

As the last days of summer float by, I feel like I’m swimming upstream against them, periodically climbing onto the river bank to put out the next fire. I don’t really think that’s what May Sarton meant by going “ahead with life moment by moment.” And, unfortunately, I’m not even in the same universe with putting out birdseed and tidying rooms. How can I have so much to do?

I’ve been printing blank weekly calendars from the internet and making lists, thinking about the best way to shape the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. On one of my lists from yesterday was “schedule time for reading.” You’ve got to be kidding, I say to my list. It’s come to this?

“That was what I was after–a daily rhythm, a kind of fugue of poetry, gardening, sleeping and waking in the house.”

I like fugue for its sense of interweaving of parts, for its writerly rhythm.

But at the moment I’m not sure fugue is going to get it done. In fact, what I need is a general to command the troops, to whip all these to-dos into shape. And less sleep. Maybe if I get up an hour earlier…

Just so you know, Eleanor Marie Sarton was born in Belgium in 1912. All of her quotes in this post can be found in  Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973.

How about the rest of you–how are your summers going?

How We Spend Our Days: Heather Newton

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Heather Newton:

I leave my husband and twelve-year-old daughter sleeping and drive to my law office in downtown Asheville.  Friday is my designated writing day but because of vacation and crazy work load this summer it’s been four weeks since I claimed an uninterrupted Friday for fiction.  I lock the door, ignore the blinking light on the answering machine, and don’t respond to email, but there is one piece of business I take care of on-line before I get started: ordering tickets to the new Harry Potter movie for the next day.

I write at my law office because I’m conditioned to work in this place.  I’m less successful at home, where the refrigerator and TV call, and my cats climb on my keyboard.  The novel I’m working on features three main women characters. One is emerging beautifully.  The other two, not so much, and in the past week I’ve figured out why–they are too nice to each other.  My task for today is to introduce more conflict between them. 

I wrote my first novel, Under The Mercy Trees, over several years, taking pains with  each paragraph and letting the point-of-view characters emerge in long ribbons that I then wove together. With this new novel I’m doing some things differently. I’m using an outline, by which I mean a very long, detailed document with headings that say, “In this chapter X happens.”  I start with the heading then glide into writing the actual scene.  I’m also giving myself permission to write a fast and bad first draft.  Fingers crossed that I’ll be able to go back and make the novel good with revision.

 Around 11:00 I take a break to enter final grades for the “Such A Character” class I taught this summer for UNC Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program. It was my first experience teaching creative writing, and I loved it.  I email a critique to one of my students then get back to my own work, with one more break in the afternoon to eat lunch, return client phone calls and help my secretary un-jam the copier with a pair of salad tongs from the office kitchen.

 By 3:30 I’ve written all I can. I head home, with a stop at the library to return overdue books (I can never get them in on time). I spend the afternoon helping my daughter get ready for camp.  I do laundry, locate long-lost flashlights, and prepare letters for her to open at mail call every day that contain little plastic objects from various dollar bins–erasers, a tiny bead kit, Silly Bands.  She’ll be gone for two weeks. I’ll miss her terribly, but her absence will mean more writing time.  I’m also scheming to stop taking new clients for the remainder of the summer so I can write two or three days a week instead of one. 

My husband comes in from a day in his garden and we head out to the Chinese buffet and the mall.  At Barnes & Noble I buy a copy of Jessica Anya Blau’s Drinking Closer to Home.  I’m doing a Club Read event with her and other writers in October and am curious to read their work before I meet them .  I also buy a pair of $10 earrings at Belk–66% off. 

On the way home we stop at my mother-in-law’s house to change her porch lightbulb and check her medications, then drive the half-mile to our own house. After a week of temperatures in the nineties Asheville has cooled down enough that I need a jacket.  The night sky is a beautiful blotchy blue.  We send my daughter to bed, and I enjoy some time with my husband over a glass of wine.  


1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, recommended by a friend. It’s a masterpiece, but writers should be forewarned. There’s something about the way Egan’s brilliant writing combines with the book’s exploration of how we get from A (young, full of hope and promise) to B (what we actually accomplish) that left me in despair because I know that even if I live another fifty years I will never write anything that good myself.  My depression only lasted a day or so. I’m fine now, and grateful to Egan for writing such a perfect book.

2.Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • After you finish a piece, put on your “cliché police” hat and go through the manuscript eradicating any clichéd expressions.  Pounding hearts, icy blue eyes, toothy grins, things that are “hard as a rock” or “work like a charm”–take them all out and find an original way to say what you mean.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I hate to admit this and certainly don’t recommend it to others, but when I’m in the middle of an intense writing project such as a big revision, I like to have a bowl of Crunch-n-Munch to chomp on. It’s a habit left over from my paper-writing days in college.  It makes for a sticky keyboard but somehow helps me delve in to the work.  Candy Corn also works well.

By Heather Newton:

Under the Mercy Trees