Student Picks: Stevens, Doe

Bleaker House Cover.jpg

Melissa Alvarado Sierra--After graduating with an MFA in fiction, Nell Stevens is offered a grant to go anywhere in the world for three months to write her first novel. Instead of scouting for a lavish locale in places like Italy or France, she picks the bare, freezing, and gloomy landscape of Bleaker Island, population: 0. Bleaker House begins with a clear declaration of the hybridity of the work, which was completed in absolute remoteness in the Falkland Islands.

The story follows the author’s quest for what she calls “the life of a writer,” something she believes is rooted in isolation. Stevens weaves short stories, novel-in-progress excerpts and her experiences on the island to show the passion and madness involved in trying to write something of value. At the end of her stay, Stevens fails to produce a novel and instead finishes what is at once a travel book, a work of fiction and a memoir.

Her knack for observation, introspection, and persistence make Bleaker House a study on what makes someone a bonafide writer; Stevens concludes it’s the result of not only learning the craft, but also venturing into the unknown to understand the world and yourself a little more.


Shawna Lee-Perrin--With Under the Big Black Sun, John Doe did something unusual in the world of creative nonfiction: he got his friends to help him with the narrative. The resulting effect is something like a novel-in-stories, or a quilt made of old concert t-shirts, each voice filling in some important part of the larger picture.

Doe wrote just over one-third of the book’s 24 chapters, giving it a nice thread of consistency. The rest are first-person accounts from different people in the same era and geography, when LA punk was getting up and going in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. While some are technically better writers than others, each perspective serves the book’s greater, Impressionistic impact.

We get stories from Doe and his muse and bandmate, Exene, in chapters 1 and 2, setting the framework. But the other chapters offer us a much richer, more nuanced view of the scene: the voices in this collection run the gamut from feminist, queer, Latino, working class, and yes, some angry white kids. What unites them all is a sense of finding their own unique, inimitable voices and a supportive community in a world they previously thought couldn’t care less about them.