Summer reading: Five Utah writers launch books across the fictional range
By Ellen Fagg Weist
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jun 14 2014 01:01AM
Summer is the perfect time to settle in with a good book — or six. For this list of reading selections, we’ve collected a short shelf of books recently published with Utah ties. Some of these writers are launching their publishing careers, while others are launching new directions in their publishing biographies. A few of the stories feature local backdrops and characters, but for the most part these books aren’t focused on Utah landscape or environmental issues. They range from sharp, heartbreaking literary fiction to the page-turning empowerment of dystopian young-adult stories.
Book • "This Is Not an Accident," a story collection with a novella, "You’re That Guy," set partially in Salt Lake City. "You know what’s in Salt Lake City? Mountains and Mormons and no getting over or under either one," a woman tells the main character as he is driving through Nevada to Utah. "People kept preparing Eckhart for Salt Lake, it seemed, the way they prepare you for an amusement park ride with a psychological element."
Background • Wilder, who grew up in Northern California, earned a math degree from UCLA and an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana. She received her Ph.D. in literature/creative writing from the University of Utah in 2013. Her essay "Strings Attached," about getting pregnant at age 41 with her ex-husband, was published in "O" magazine in February.
Inspiration • Wilder’s novella tells the story of Eckhart, whose life is stalled after the death of his father, who was once brilliant but chose to homelessness and estrangement from his children. The story includes images she observed of a man in Liberty Park, who carried around a doll, treating it as tenderly as if it were a baby. She asked fellow graduate students if they had seen the man, and she wove some of their speculations about him — that he had lost his wife and family in a tragic fire, or about the store on 400 South that adjusted the doll’s glasses for him — into her fiction. "As an outsider, you don’t understand the culture," she says of living in Utah. "I don’t think any place in America asks you as many questions about family as when you come here."
What’s interesting • Wilder writes smart, funny, careening sentences that blend heartbreak and comedy, her stories peopled by characters obsessed with self-destruction and betrayal. "The younger the reader, the more tragic they find my stories. The older the reader, the more comic," she says.
What’s next • She is working on a novel, "I Think About You All the Time, Starting Tomorrow," which might be considered magical realism as it focuses on what happens when a 46-year-old man dies just before the birth of his first child and is reincarnated into the body of a baby.
Book • "The Family Cannon," a collection of linked stories, narrated by a woman whose father is a Polish survivor of Auschwitz.
Background • Raised in California, Duraj earned an MA in creative writing from the University of California, Davis, and received a Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2010. She’s an assistant professor at the University of San Diego, where she directs the Lindsay J. Cropper Center for Creative Writing. Her story "Fatherland," originally published in the Harvard Review, was selected for the 2014 O. Henry Prize anthology.
Inspiration • Duraj’s stories explore tensions between mothers, daughters and fathers in a Polish-American family, all affected in various ways by war trauma. "All have a germ in ‘real life,’ a moment or a memory, something I heard or a line that I poached," Duraj says. "They start in some kind of sensory groundedness that then spins off fictionally."
What’s interesting • While living in Utah, Duraj says her writing was influenced by the drama of the desert landscape and local landmarks, such as the Oquirrh Mountains, which for a time she thought were named for the color ochre. "All that subtly influenced the way I was writing, which became more spare," she says. Her stories are carefully observed, never overexplained, while the language is both playful and precise. The collection’s final story, "The Company She Keeps," is searingly honest and particularly heartbreaking.
What’s next • She’s working on "Fatherland," a novel based on similar characters but expanded to the entire family and spanning 100 years of history. "It’s a big, messy epic novel right now," she says.
Book • "Late Lights," a collection of five linked stories about adolescents with adult-size problems, who cross lines of class and privilege. "Late Lights" was named Best General Fiction/Novel (under 80,000 words) by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Background • Weiss was reared in Brookline, Mass., graduated from Williams College and then received an MFA from the University of Washington. She teaches composition and creative writing at Westminster College.
Inspiration • Weiss’ stories were partly inspired by the outliers in her public school, kids who were bused from inner-city Boston to her upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood. Later, in graduate school, she found another generation of these unseen kids while volunteering at a program that taught poetry to kids in juvenile detention centers. "A lot of these kids are not bad kids, but their circumstances suck, and they don’t have good influences in their lives," she says. "They’re stuck, and that’s the thing about adolescence I find the most intriguing and frustrating. These characters are people who deserve to be known."
What’s interesting • Weiss’ gritty stories are beautifully observed, spare on judgment, as they explore complicated lives and relationships. Readers have told her they want to adopt Monty, who is Irish and Cambodian and poor; in the book’s title story, he is 16, and being released from his fourth stint in juvenile detention. "He is fictional," the writer says, "but if you met him in real life, you wouldn’t want to adopt him."
What’s next • She’s writing a novel, "Us Without You," that focuses on "Late Lights" characters Monty, Erin and Mr. Broder, set in the time in-between the earlier stories. "I felt like I had more to say about them," Weiss says. "I really wanted the reader to understand Monty in all of his complicated ways."
Kate Jarvik Birch
Books • "Deliver Me" and "Perfected"
Background • I can’t pretend any journalistic objectivity in writing about Birch’s two young-adult novels, as their publication this spring has been the talk of our Sugar House street. I’ve known Kate since she was a girl, and we regularly talk about our families and writing and books. I’ve watched as she received an art degree in 2005 from the University of Utah, produced art works for scores of gallery shows (including a painting that hangs on my living-room wall) and co-wrote the play "a man enters" with her mother, Elaine Jarvik; it was produced at Salt Lake Acting Company in November 2011. Along the way, Birch has ambitiously written six novels. "I always tend to write about people who end up finding out they have more control over their lives then they thought," Birch says.
Inspiration for "Deliver Me" • The idea began three years ago on a family camping trip, where Birch and her family wrote down wishes, which they burned in the campfire. Birch wished to publish a young-adult novel, so she started brainstorming a plot centered on injustice. "What if women were just used as vessels to make children and didn’t actually get to keep them?" recalls the mother of three. "In my mind at the time, that was the most fearful thing."
Plot • Birch created a main character, Wynne, who aspires to be a Carrier, the highest calling for young women in The Union. Carriers spend 10 years living in luxury while delivering babies who are raised by others to serve The Union. Wynne’s dreams are dashed when her best friend, Odessa, is selected as a Carrier, and she’s assigned to care for mothers as they deliver their babies. After one mother refuses to give up her baby, Wynne comes to understand the layers of her cultural brainwashing.
Inspiration for "Perfected" • Birch is a devoted, soft-hearted pet lover, whose current zoo includes three dogs, two ducks, a chicken, a hedgehog and a snake that her son is babysitting for the summer for his biology teacher at Highland High. The novel began when she was thinking how lucky her pets are, and then started wondering if they actually felt lucky.
Plot • It’s the story of Ella, a 16-year-old girl bred and sold as a pet to a congressman and his family. She eventually falls in love with her owner’s son, which causes her to question her family’s history with their previous pet, as well as the luxury in which she lives.
What’s interesting • Both of Birch’s books are well-paced page-turners with overlapping themes about female motherless characters who are bred for physical perfection and regimented societal roles. "Deliver Me" is notable for the richly developed friendship between Wynne and Odessa, which Birch says was based on Jenny, her own best friend from childhood. "Perfected" takes an oddball idea — what if girls were bred to be pampered pets? — and crafts an interesting story out of it.
What’s next • Birch has just finished co-writing a middle-grade novel.
Book • "The Haven"; subtitle: "What If Your Life Isn’t Really Yours?"
Background • Williams, of Provo, has published more than 30 middle-grade and young-adult books, including 2009’s lauded "The Chosen One," about a teenager in a rural polygamous family. She is an organizer of the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference, which will be held this week at the Waterford School in Sandy.
Plot • Teenager Shiloh lives a carefully monitored life at Haven Hospital & Halls, where she and her classmates follow rules about rest and eating to help control their terminal diseases, which claim limbs, lungs and memories. "It’s the story of a girl who starts to wake up to what her life really is," Williams says.
Inspiration • Williams, who says she writes mostly contemporary, realistic young-adult novels, began writing a speculative novel seven years ago with the working title "The Body Shop," but set it aside when a movie about clones, 2005’s "The Island," was released. She worried that her plot might seem too similar. Her agent sold the novel immediately after sending out a draft of the first 30 pages, but Williams found it difficult to finish. "It’s completely different than anything else I’ve written," she says. "I was editing this book, cutting and tightening, up until the galleys went out."
What’s interesting • The confidently spare language of "The Haven" makes its otherworldly, eerie story come alive.
What’s next • In May, Williams published "Signed, Skye Harper," which she laughs about being labeled a historical novel because it’s set in the 1970s. It’s the story of a girl, Winston, who with her grandmother steals a motorhome for a road trip to pick up the mother/daughter who left them a decade earlier. They learn they are kidnappers when they find a stowaway on board. "It’s a happy book," Williams says, laughing. "It’s about kissing."