Erin Craig's fantasy-horror YA novel "House of Salt and Sorrows" tells the mysterious story of 12 sisters facing a deathly curse

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig

Author photo by Cyndi Whipkey.

House of Salt and Sorrows, a fantasy-horror young adult novel, opens with a funeral and a grim question: which of 12 sisters will be the next to fall prey to a supposed curse and die?

This first novel by Erin Craig, a graduate of the University of Michigan, stars a strong female protagonist, Annaleigh Thaumas, who is the sixth of her siblings. As she ponders the latest death -- that of her sister Eulalie, who fell from a cliff -- Annaleigh imagines, "her falling through the air, the look of confusion on her face turning to horror as she realized that there was no escaping this, no way to go back and make it right.”

Annaleigh, however, begins to suspect that foul play is at fault for her sisters’ deaths, instead of a curse. She becomes determined to figure out who is behind the madness before more tragedies overtake her family. Eulalie’s sudden demise prompts Annaleigh to consider that, “Though it was all conjecture, I felt I was on the right path. My sister’s death had not been an accident. It had not been part of some dark curse. She was murdered. And I was going to prove it.”

Following Annaleigh on her search for answers becomes as tempestuous as the seas on which the Thaumas family lives. Along the way, Annaleigh falls in love, dances at balls both magnificent and grotesque, and sees ghosts and gods.

Throughout House of Salt and Sorrows, it becomes increasingly clear that people and places are not what they seem at first glance -- or even at second glance. Whether it all can be righted again is an ongoing question as tragedies continue to befall the Duke of the Salann Islands and his many daughters.

Craig’s novel was published last year. She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee, and is planning a return to her Michigan roots. I interviewed her by email about her connection to Ann Arbor, opera background, writing process, reading, and upcoming plans.

"Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire" chronicles 826's mission to empower school-age writers

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book, Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd., McSweeny's and 826's Amanda Uhle and Kitania Folk

Top: Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book and Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd. Bottom: McSweeney's and 826's Kitania Folk and Amanda Uhle.

A time travel mart. An apothecary for the magical. An alien supermarket. A mid-continent oceanographic institute. A secret agent supply. A place for pirates.

These places are just a few of the many storefronts -- complete with their own imaginative products -- that serve as portals to literary writing spaces for youth around the world.

The one in Ann Arbor is known as the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, and the one in Detroit is called the Detroit Robot Factory.

The inspiration for these quirky businesses and equally creative writing centers comes from the brainchild of Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, who together started the first 826 Valencia location -- the pirate supply shop -- in San Francisco, though not with that intent at the beginning. When renting a building in 2002, they’d planned for offices for the nonprofit publishing company, McSweeney’s, along with an area for tutoring local youth.

But the building’s zoning was for retail, and consequently, the pirate supply shop was born to fulfill the criteria.

Ann Arbor-raised Adam Falkner returns with his new poetry collection, "The Willies," and a better sense of his authentic self

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Adam Falkner, The Willies

Adam Falkner probes the paradox of how hard it is to be yourself sometimes in his new poetry collection, The Willies. One of the poems, “Let’s Get One Thing Halfway Straight,” exposes this emotional labor in the following lines:

                        The not-so-funny thing about spending a 

life proving you aren’t something is that any story that isn’t

the story is survival or more like a brick for laying until the

wall is high enough that you’re safe inside and you wake up

and say whoops whose house is this who did I hurt to get

here and is it too late to call for help.

The real risk lies not in being yourself but rather in suppressing yourself based on people’s opinions or your perceptions of how you’re supposed to be. Falkner finds this identity issue to be a common experience to which many readers relate and also one that is very personal to his life.

“There’s something deeply universal about the idea of being closeted and longing for something bigger than this version of yourself," Falkner said. "That fear associated with who we might become if we don’t ask ourselves who we want to become is a very real thing for everyone.”

Phil Christman traverses time, politics, and culture in his new nonfiction essay collection, "Midwest Futures"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Phil Christman, Midwest Futures

What words come to mind when you think of the Midwest?

You may think about its geography, the middleness, or its position and moniker as the heartland with farming and small towns.

You might look at a map to see the 12 Midwestern states (from east to west): Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Perhaps you reflect on its seeming representativeness of American life. Or you study its history containing the displacement of indigenous peoples, manufacturing, and struggling economies.

Myriad ways, even contradictory ones, coincide to describe and understand the Midwest. Writer Phil Christman navigates them in his new book, Midwest Futures, a wide-ranging set of 36 brief essays organized in six sections. Part criticism and part descriptive essay, this nonfiction collection likewise exists as many things at once and navigates assorted perceptions, politics, history, literature, cultures, and pop culture of the Midwest.

Writer, poet, and funeral director Thomas Lynch examines life and death in "The Depositions," a collection of new and selected essays

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Thomas Lynch, The Depositions

Author photo by Joe Vaughn.

Essayist and funeral director Thomas Lynch writes, “By getting the dead where they need to go, the living get where they need to be.”

That quote forms the first sentence of “The Done Thing,” the last essay in his recent collection, The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be.

For years, Lynch has been in the business of the former and has reflected on the latter, as well as the former, through writing. He stands clear on many things about death, including that funerals serve the living and that the dead don’t care. 

The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be sifts through these subjects with pieces from his earlier four books of essays, plus new ones that consider the author’s state of affairs. 

Lynch’s philosophical insights and candid facts about death all orbit around a universal truth appearing in the last sentence of the same paragraph containing the earlier quote:

Women of color in Washtenaw pen poetry anthology, "Love & Other Futures," as part of the Untold Stories of Liberation & Love project

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Love and Other Futures book cover

A writing space created for and led by women of color in Washtenaw County.

That’s what the five organizers of the Untold Stories of Liberation & Love project sought to build and have been creating with the help of an Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation grant. They held three Ypsilanti-based workshops with local women of color and produced a poetry anthology, Love & Other Futuresby those women in 2019. 

Planning is underway for this year, the second of two years of funding. Carrying out this vision has been a means to engage in community and leadership that is deliberately disruptive to writing here.

“We’re disrupting the idea that poetry is an elite thing," said poet and organizer Julie Quiroz. "We’re disrupting the way that our society turns art into a competitive, individualistic process, rather than a way to build community. We’re challenging our county to recognize the powerful creative leadership that already exists among women of color here."

Former U-M professor Carmen Bugan's new poetry collection, "Lilies From America," relates nature and the human experience

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Carmen Bugan and her book Lilies From America

Poet Carmen Bugan has gone through many transitions, from her tumultuous childhood in Romania to moving to the United States. Still, she writes, “The road to a better life has not yet been planned, / Everyone is waiting for an architect.” Both uncertainty and possibility hover in those lines, which appear in a recent poem called “New Life.” That poem is among a new selection in Lilies From America: New & Selected Poems 2004-2019.

Lilies From America starts with a poem of the same title and then covers Bugan’s three collections -- 2004’s Crossing the Carpathians, 2014’s The House of Straw, and 2016’s Releasing the Porcelain Birds -- plus new poems dating from 2016 to 2019. Calling these poems autobiographical would be an understatement; they comment on family, nature, time, love, and language (the last of which Bugan discusses in-depth on episode 18 of The RC Podcast, “Carmen Bugan ’96 and the Language of Freedom”). This new collection discloses a snapshot of the trajectory of Bugan’s life, going from early days to current sentiments, through the well-selected and illustrative poems.

Bugan’s poetry is inspired by her childhood containing the political imprisonment of her father and exile of her family, and then by her experiences in the U.S. Her writing musters perseverance and suggests ways to keep going despite change and parting and borders. Looking to nature as a parallel, the poems draw on the landscape and flora of the places significant to Bugan. In “Long Island Sound,” dated January 23, 2018, cycles of starting and ending relate to human experience, as the poet reflects:

To see again that which I knew and cherished:

The translucent lift of water and algae,

Clam shells and egg-like rosy stones,

Fluent ending in a new beginning.

Nature becomes a way of understanding what is happening to the people in the poems. The “Moon" is set on an autumn night in a room aglow with moonlight and offers this last stanza: “I felt not too far from being translated, / The same way sunlight was interpreted / By the moon face we could see.” These feelings of being seen and of also making one’s own observations permeate Bugan’s poetry, both explicitly in describing the political protests written on a typewriter in Romania by her parents, as well as in sharing transcriptions of her family’s surveillance tapes, and subtly through the surrounding environment.

Yet even as time gives way to transformations, moments emerge to hold dear, moments in which to linger. On a visit to aging parents, the poet expresses a wish to accurately capture the instant: “While the glasses empty slowly and we are grateful / That we still can have that one drink, together, / Standing in the sunshine, with the song of birds.” Identifying these memories as important, and observing them, stand alongside the history of political protest and anguish in these poems.

Bugan is based in Long Island, New York, and she was the 2018 Helen DeRoy Professor in Honors at the University of Michigan and the 2018 Dow Visiting Scholar at Saginaw Valley State University.

Bugan reads with David Cope, who is Bugan’s former teacher from Grand Rapids Community College prior to her transfer to the University of Michigan, at Literati Bookstore on January 16, 7 pm. Ahead of her visit, I interviewed her for Pulp.

U-M grad Chris McCormick's novel "The Gimmicks" meditates on relationships, wrestling, and the Armenian Genocide through altering perspectives

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Chris McCormick and his book The Gimmicks

While the cover may show a picture of two opponents in a wrestling hold, The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick is about far more than matches. The novel chronicles the stories of Ruben Petrosian, Avo Gregoryan, and Mina, how their lives intersect, and how they love and hurt each other multiple times.

Each character overlaps with the others in ways that are both fortuitous and disastrous. Ruben, small and jealous, first feels envious of Mina’s backgammon luck and then goes on to seek revenge for Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide with the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia in the 1980s. Avo, large and kind, comes to live with his cousin’s cousin Ruben and his family in 1971, gets caught up in a ploy to be a part of Mina’s backgammon success, follows a request by Ruben to go to the United States, strikes off on his own as a wrestler, and finds himself misunderstood in several situations. Mina, lucky and earnest, garners success in playing backgammon, and while her luck holds in some ways, she experiences various losses throughout her life. Terry Krill, Avo’s wrestling manager, reluctantly begins to recall his past and piece together the others’ stories 10 years after the fact in 1989.

Their converging lives are told through chapters grounded in particular times and places and through the reflections of these people. During a reunion between Mina and Avo, she tells him, “Our lives aren’t metaphors, halved or broken or split. Our lives are our lives, whole if they feel complete, whole if they feel incomplete.” Her message generalizes the agonizing challenges that they encounter. Good intentions might not be enough or allow them to fulfill their desires.

Early in the novel, Mina muses in a journal: “That the world is round makes me hope that time is round, too, and that maybe I’ll loop to the start one day.” At that unexpected reunion with Avo later, “she felt the muscles in her face mirroring his, signaling a blue smile of her own, and she knew all at once about the roundness of time.” Such parallels and recurring ideas appear throughout the book -- similes and metaphors rewarding for the reader. Another is when Mina’s husband recalls the story of his first wife and mother: "He defended one to the other with all of his heart, so that he ended up without the trust of either.” Similarly soon after, Mina accuses Avo of being caught between two people, of being "someone who confused love for something you could only loan out to one person at a time." These threads bring the characters’ stories that sprawl across time and countries together with poignant and harsh realities.

McCormick, also the author of the earlier short story collection, Desert Boys, grew up in California and graduated from the University of Michigan with an MFA. He teaches at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

McCormick visits Ann Arbor to read at Literati Bookstore on Friday, January 10, at 7 pm. I interviewed him ahead of time.

U-M Emeritus Professor John Knott recounts adventures of semi-rural Scio Township life in a new nonfiction essay collection

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Almost Country by John Knott

Occasionally you get a good look inside another life. It could be seeing a career other than your own. It could be hearing about a trip to a place where you’ve never been. It could also be learning about a distinct lifestyle chosen by another person.

John Knott’s new book, Almost Country: Living With the Land, reveals the latter. In this 147-page self-published collection of nonfiction essays, he outlines his experiences with building and living in a home in the woods outside of Ann Arbor with his wife, Anne. Anyone with an interest in construction, wildlife, ecology, native plants, and trees, land ethics, local politics, and stories about ways of living might appreciate these essays.

Their house was situated on about three acres near the Huron River and just far enough outside of the city that they experienced a closer connection to the natural world while still enjoying a quick drive to Ann Arbor. As Knott writes, “We would find ourselves learning to appreciate darkness and quiet more absolute than anything we had experienced in town.”

The Knotts moved to their home in Scio Township in 1992 after their children left the house and as a way to pursue their interest in environmental issues. In 2006, Knott retired from the University of Michigan, where he taught and led in academic administration and is now Professor Emeritus of English. He focused on English Renaissance literature before turning his attention to literature and the environment.

One recurring thread throughout Almost Country is the question of how to maintain a landscape. The Knotts made a strong effort to give preference to native plants. Striking a balance between aesthetic and ecological principles presented both a challenge and goal for them, as Knott contemplates the question, “Restoration to what baseline?” in the book.

Wisconsin indie-folk band Dead Horses look to the moon and Midwest for inspiration

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Dead Horses

Music from the indie-folk and Americana band Dead Horses grapples with hope and pain -- how to reconcile sorrows and desires -- through both songwriting and sound. Lyrics on the 2018 album, My Mother the Moon, draw on frontwoman Sarah Vos’ life story, including experiencing an unsettling childhood and finding her way as an adult, as well as her observations as a musician. The track “Turntable” offers this image:

Oh, she said, “If my heart was a turntable,
And my belly was the speaker and my soul the needle.”

These are the kind of songs in which you can hear something new each time you listen. Finding autonomy and self, acknowledging hurt and struggles, recognizing social issues, interacting with nature, and looking hopefully to the future all figure into this album.

Most recently, Dead Horses, started by Vos and bassist Daniel Wolff, is releasing a series of singles, which will appear on an EP next year. Their latest one, “Birds Can Write the Chorus,” embraces possibility, as “it’s never what I thought it was; it’s never too late,” according to the lyrics.

Dead Horses play The Ark on Wednesday, December 4, with doors opening at 7:30 pm and the show starting at 8 pm. Vos and Wolff responded to questions by email beforehand.