The Murder House

By Margaret McNellis


In the fall of 2017, after only a few weeks of commuting between southern Connecticut and southern New Hampshire, my search for an apartment had transitioned from picky to desperate, and so, out of options, I expanded my search radius to include apartment listings within one hour of campus.

            It was advertised—in that disquieting vortex of yard sales, property listings, catfishing, and employment scams, i.e., Craigslist—as a one-room rental in a house of “artists.”

            I ignored my better instincts and emailed the landlady.

            She couldn’t meet with me right away, she wrote back, because she was traveling for a modeling job. I’m not sure what kind of “modeling” she was into, but alongside her Craigslist ad was a photo of her. In it she looked thin, but not skinny, had a hooked nose with deep-set eyes and blonde hair that fell all the way down to her calves. That hair creeped me out a little—but not enough to keep me from viewing a place that was only $500 a month, utilities included.

            We made an appointment for me to drive out and see the place later that week.

“The rooms in the basement are, obviously, where they kill people, I thought—dolts like me who would answer a Craigslist ad from a crazy lady with feral felines and hair falling well past what could be considered normal. “

My last class ended early in the afternoon, but by the time I made it through the mountain pass, still looking for the address, the sun had already begun to set. Autumn leaves, awash in plumes of orange, red, and gold, swayed vividly in the day’s dying light. After a series of wrong turns and one boulder-sized roadblock that forced me to backtrack a number of times, my heckles were raised; it was like Google Maps itself was plotting against me, aiming to keep me from my destination. So, I bargained with myself that if night fell before I found the address, I would turn around and drive home.

            Twenty minutes later, I arrived. And there she stood before her house in the pale evening light, her waterfall of hair blowing loose and hanging down around her ankles. Next to her stood a man holding two open beer cans for some reason. He wore an old denim shirt streaked and stained with so much paint I wondered if any had actually made it onto the canvas, while his hair, thinning and gray, flapped about in the wind like bat wings. At least the ad had been right about the view; it was astonishing.

            The painter handed us his warm beers, mumbled something about smoking a cigarette, and moseyed back behind the house.

            My potential landlady welcomed me and talked about the place while with one hand she swept her hair up into a bun larger than her head. The house itself looked like two buildings joined together at the hip: one half covered in wood siding like an old cabin; the other half, more like the concrete barracks from a war movie.

            She took the can from me and opened a creaky screen door, bade me inside, and against my better judgment, I followed her. My first impressions: dark, with an overwhelming smell of cat urine, and why for the love of all that’s holy were there mattresses propped against the foyer wall? Stained mattresses.

            I now believe this was when I should have run.

            “We just let the cats go wherever they want, so watch your step,” said the woman who I had come to think of as Cousin Itt.  

            She showed me the kitchen—where a pot of beans, blistered and crusted both inside and out, sat on a long-suffering, multi-stained stove—and offered me a drink. The woman appeared friendly enough, but I was convinced if I consumed anything, I’d never leave, like a trespasser in Hades.

            “Uh, no thank you,” I said. She caught me trying to cover my nose and I pretended to stifle a yawn.

            She showed me the basement level where her lodgers—all single men in their fifties—resided: the artists, the cultists, the double-fisted beer drinkers and shared-spoon-black-bean eaters. The room for rent turned out to be a dark, concrete box with no windows. I believe it was formerly used for interrogations.

            “You’d share the bathroom at the end of the hall,” she said, pointing. There was another empty room, she told me, which was also available, though slightly more per month. I could have if I wanted. Its previous occupant had to leave “unexpectedly.”

            Next on the tour was the indoor pool. Fancy, right? Except it had no water, just an empty cement pit with a diving board and a mound of cat feces resting at the bottom.

            The rooms in the basement are, obviously, where they kill people, I thought—dolts like me who would answer a Craigslist ad from a crazy lady with feral felines and hair falling well past what could be considered normal. I remembered a Law & Order episode where a victim was buried under a parking garage, in concrete. I imagined this indoor pit would serve such a purpose.

            The tour not yet over, she led me to her bedroom where her husband lounged bare-legged on the bed with their pair of Sphinx cats prowling about. His hair was short and dyed a severe black with what I guessed was a home kit or one of those aerosol spray-on cans. His laptop was propped up on his stomach. He didn’t speak.

            She bent over and scooped up one of the cats and nuzzled it. “I expect my roommates to oil my cats for me when I’m away on photoshoots.”

            “Oh, yeah, that makes sense,” I said. “You’ve got to keep your cats oiled.” I was planning my escape, if needed. First, I’d bum-rush Cousin Itt—I thought I could take her—then beat it downstairs before Dye Job could even get his computer off his belly.

            “They have a gown and tux,” she said, “for their wedding.”

            “Who does?” I asked.

            “The cats.”

            I blinked. “Right, well, I should get going,” I said in my don’t-mind-me voice. “People are expecting me.” I slowly began backing out of the room. “I told them I was coming out here and that it’s a bit of a drive, but they’re definitely expecting me.” No one in the state of New Hampshire knew I was out here. If I went missing, no one would know for at least a few days.

            Thankfully, she didn’t kill me. Her cats didn’t bite me, and I never had to oil them, or share a pot of black bean surprise. But I’ve thought of that property as the Murder House ever since I toured it—the murder house with its stained mattresses and breathtaking vistas—and decided to stop my apartment hunt and just cope with the commute.

Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

Digging Deep

By Margaret McNellis

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Back in August of this year, a friend asked me if I could handle driving to and from New Hampshire to teach twice a week. From my home in Connecticut, the drive is 170 miles each way, which can take anywhere from two and a half to three and a half hours depending on weather, construction, and traffic. 

My initial response was, “I don’t know but I’ll figure it out.” I’d done the drive for two semesters already. But Fall 2017 only required one trip a week, and in the Spring 2018 semester, I sublet a room in a friend’s apartment for the winter so I wouldn’t have to worry about traveling that great distance in the snow. (Incidentally, the snow didn’t get really serious until I moved back home.)

This semester, Fall 2018, was different. I was teaching—not just observing—so it was more important than ever that I was there, on time, every day. And there’s been only two days I didn’t make it: once due to a tropical storm and the significant threat of trees falling because we’d had so much rain; plus, the other day, I had a fever and could barely stay awake.

On the day of the storm, I ran class remotely in an “Adobe classroom.” It was better than nothing, but it was like speaking to a wall. I couldn’t gauge my students’ reactions when we were all together as a group (though the breakout session feature was useful). The day I was sick, I sent a packet of work out to my students.

Around midterms, I came up with a better answer for my friend: “When you want something bad enough, you’ll do a lot to achieve it.” My drive, which at that time felt like running the gauntlet, was the price I was willing to pay to achieve my goal: a certificate in teaching composition. At that point, the drive was not easy; most of the roadways I take through Massachusetts were being repaved. These are also the areas with the most traffic.

There were potholes galore. People speeding and swerving and failing to use blinkers (what’s with that, anyway? It’s not like it’s a hardship).

On a recent trip, I hit a severe drop in temperature when I crossed the Connecticut-Massachusetts line, and as tire pressure does in the first cold snap of the year, mine dropped. I knew the yellow light glaring from my dash wasn’t serious; my car wasn’t pulling to one side or the other. However, the idea of driving another 110 miles on low tire pressure wasn’t appealing—especially because freezing rain fell from the sky.

I was prepared for freezing, but not freezing rain. I’d grabbed my wool coat at home because I checked the weather in New Hampshire—cold and cloudy. I’d failed to check the weather in Massachusetts, not figuring that I’d have to even get out of the car there.

I left the highway and found a gas station somewhere in Worcester. The place was packed, and through the curtains of rain, I couldn’t see the air pump, so I parked and went inside. I waited on line for ten minutes to find out where the air pump was. The second piece of information was unwelcome: “The card reader is broken, but we can change a dollar for you.”

I had the dollar; that wasn’t the problem. The problem was, like all my belongings save my keys, the dollar was in my car, which meant another wait in line. This side trip took a half hour total, which made me late for my office hour, and left me freezing and soaked as all four tires needed refilling.

On that day, I thought back to the many martial arts rank tests I’ve taken and given, black belt tests in particular. I’ve taken three and helped administer three. The way the tests are given at the dojo I attended takes about five to six hours. Sparring is always saved for last. By then, the test takers are physically and mentally exhausted. They must then defend themselves from this state of exhaustion. When taking a test, strapping on sparring gear is both a relieving and daunting moment. The test is almost over, but sparring is also when there’s the greatest chance for injury since everyone is so tired. Adrenaline spikes, and people tend to hit harder than they should for what is essentially a game of tag. Missing a block could mean a broken nose or some other comparable injury.

The day I hunched over in the freezing rain to fill my tires was like that moment right before sparring. I wasn’t done with my road-warrior days yet, but I was close. I was tired, cold, and soaked through, but finishing strong is not only something I’m capable of, but something I must do. For a moment though, at the height of my mental and physical exhaustion, there was that shred of doubt: Is this worth it?

My sensei, or teacher, in the dojo always taught us the new belt was ours for the taking. The test was the final lap in a long race, and in fact, we’d been under watchful eyes for months and years leading up to it. The test was our opportunity to prove to ourselves we have the right to that new rank.

We’re taught to dig deep, not because others expect it of us, but because we expect it of ourselves, because a black belt of any rank wouldn’t be worth having if it was easily obtained. I decided that day, as I got back on the road and blasted the heat, these trips were my tests, and these tests will make the certificate—and more important, the hours I have left with my students—worth all the more.

All told, I’ve made 23 340-round-trip-mile journeys to New Hampshire this semester. I have four more trips to make. When this term is over, I will have spent $1,000 in gasoline alone. (Admittedly, I feel awful about that carbon footprint and will try to do something to make up for it.)

My answer to my friend’s question has evolved, yet again: “I drive the distance because it adds even more value to the entire process, because it requires me to dig deep, and because when you’re this close to the finish line, you don’t slow down.”

Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.


CIRCE by Madeline Miller

Review by Margaret McNiells

When a partygoer and family friend recommended I read Circe by Madeline Miller on Memorial Day weekend, I put the title at the end of a towering list of tomes I plan to read for fun after I finish my MFA. But a random trip to Sag Harbor, NY, and the last available parking space on Main Street, put me face to face with Harbor Books and the stunning cover of Circe. I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers but this one drew me in. Before I knew it, I’d purchased the hardcover. I didn’t get to crack it open until after residency, but in this last week, I devoured this book.

     Miller’s prose is gorgeous, lyrical and efficient. Though some of the plot was predictable, I attributed it to how well I knew the protagonist. What captivated my attention the most was Miller’s ability to breathe new life into tales that were first told thousands of years ago, this time through a female point of view. Though I set out to read this book purely for my own enjoyment, there is much to enjoy about Miller’s authorial skill as well.

Margaret McNiells is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.


By Margaret McNellis

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When my eldest nephew was born, my father wanted to be called “The Grandfather,” like in Heidi. We all told him that was too formal and joked that he should be called “Poppy,” instead.  Somehow, this morphed into "Poppy-Gramps," which we then shortened to “PG” or “Peej.” We all took a certain pride in the nickname, though none so much as its owner, my father. He was the greatest PG there’d ever been, or at the very least, a more than decent grandfather. His grandchildren were always first in his thoughts.

     He’d take them hiking on our property, in search of ancient campsites, where their five-and-seven-year-old selves felt certain the random, oddly-shaped stones and scraps of discolored wood were actually the scattered remnants of old arrowheads, timeworn heirlooms from a distant past, just waiting to be unearthed beneath the blanket of dried, crunchy leaves. He kept for them a secret rock collection, guarded under lock and key, and a slew of camping gear he’d hoped to use in retirement, whenever he let that day come. Just as he’d done with me as a child, so he did with them. In that, whatever their interests were, he nurtured them and became an armchair expert in those subjects, just to have something to say to them that would ignite the sparkle of curiosity in their young eyes. With one grandfather living halfway across the globe, he did double duty as their elder male role-model. He was the harbinger of Hess trucks and the bestower of train sets. He was our PG-wan

"Just as he’d done with me as a child, so he did with them. In that, whatever their interests were, he nurtured them and became an armchair expert in those subjects, just to have something to say to them that would ignite the sparkle of curiosity in their young eyes."

The year was 2015. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was due to be released later that year, and for Halloween, I traveled with my parents to East Hampton, New York. There’s a street there that goes Halloween-crazy, with piles of pumpkins, gaggles of ghosts, and just before sundown—hordes of trick-or-treaters and their families. We all decided to dress up as characters from the Star Wars universe. We had just about everyone from the film, including Rei and Kylo Ren. Some of us were token Jedi, but my father dressed up as Obi-wan Kenobi. He had the beard and everything, including an extending, light-up plastic saber that made authentic whooshing and clashing sounds.

     We called him "PG-wan."

     My father loved Halloween. He was always a faithful trick-or-treating guardian. As we zigzagged from house to house, each casting an orange glow from the jack-o-lanterns that adorned front walks nestled between swaths of perfectly manicured lawns, he’d carry flashlights for us, our sacks of candy when they got too heavy, and always made us walk on whatever side of him was farthest away from any vehicular danger. His guardianship didn’t end after the press of the final doorbell, either. When we got home, he’d check our candy to make sure no one had tampered with it, though I also suspect he was cataloging our hauls so as to ensure we didn’t go into sugar frenzies by eating too much at once.

     Just as Obi-wan Kenobi tried to guide Luke Skywalker and look after him, so too would my father happily take on the role of protector. He played the same role for my nephews, too, giving them just enough freedom not to feel the pull of authority, but always keeping a watchful eye, whether to protect them or to take pictures of them with other neighborhood Jedi.

     2015 was his last Halloween. His diagnosis and death robbed him of just one more pretense, just one more candy-walk, just one more night of fog machines, giant inflatable witches, and foam gravestones. The last time I visited my sister’s house, Memorial Day 2018, I came across his PG-wan robe. For the first time since he passed, there was no sadness in finding something of his tucked away. Instead, I just smiled, draped the robe over my shoulders and watched the thin, brown fabric pool at my feet. Then I held out my arms, pretended I swung a lightsaber in my hands. I even made the whooshing sounds.

Margaret McNellis is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. Follow her on her bog,

Student Picks: Tallent and Peelle


Danny Fisher-- I was sixteen, sitting at the kitchen with my aunt, when I turned to her and said, “Why doesn’t she just leave him?”

My Aunt set the needle and thread down that she had been using to sew button-eyes onto the sock doll she was making. She sighed, “Because, Danny, some people need to be victims.”

Her true meaning did not sink in that day, but in the years that followed I would learn to understand the mentality behind the victim/abuser relationship. In his novel, My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent dissects that dynamic with a deft use of language, imagery and a nuanced approach to scene building and story-telling.  The reader is granted full admission into the horrific conditions that his main character, a young girl named Turtle, must survive to find the person she is meant to be and not the one her domineering father, Martin, has trained her to become, although Tallent takes the reader there with a subtlety that belies the drama unfolding, allowing the reader to behold the beauty of Turtle and Martin’s relationship as well as the tragedy.


Margaret McNellis-- The Midnight Cool by Lydia Peelle is a delight for students and casual readers alike. Peelle’s treatment of the passage of time and varying points of view provide ample text to study for craft while providing a rich texture to the story. Pair with that universally understood themes at a time when the whole world is in the thick of war, and you get a gripping reading experience.

On the micro-level, Peelle’s writing is beautiful. Her use of metaphors and similes offer substantial opportunities for close readings because in the space of a few words, Peelle expertly conveys character motivations, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

I was particularly excited to add The Midnight Cool to my reading list this semester, as Lydia was my mentor last semester. I had the added benefit of seeing her lessons in action. If asked what I enjoyed most about The Midnight Cool, I’m not sure I could pick any one thing because I loved every aspect of this novel.

Lighting Up

by Margaret McNellis

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When I see people light up a cigarette, I wonder if they really know where it will take them. Sure, everyone knows that cigarettes increase your risk of getting lung cancer, that they’re linked to 80-90% of lung cancers. But how many people who smoke really know what that looks like? When my father was diagnosed, he had Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. Two and a half months before that, he felt great. He was working, traveling, and we have a picture of him at my sister’s birthday dinner looking happy and healthy. Two and a half months.

He didn’t have a single tumor. When one of his doctors showed my mother and I his CT scan, it looked more like static on a television, like a blizzard. All the white stuff floating around in his lungs was cancer.

The cancer would have been a quick death. Less than two weeks after his diagnosis, it would have killed him if he didn’t go on emergency chemotherapy. I remember walking through the ICU, I saw another patient whose face looked like it was skin stretched over his skull. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes sunken, and his lips pulled tight. He was having trouble breathing. As scary as it was having a parent in the ICU, at least my dad still looked healthy.

The monitors told a different story. His heart rate was hanging out in the 150s even though he was resting, because he couldn’t get enough oxygen. His heart was working overtime to feed his brain and other organs. We had the “get your family here” talk with his pulmonologist.

My father wanted chemotherapy. He wanted to live as long as he could, fight as long as he could, but I think he knew before he started that he was on borrowed time. The rest of us realized that over the next three months, but what none of us knew was how sick the chemotherapy would make him, how fast he’d drop eighty pounds and begin the starvation process that would rob him of the ability to move around, to think clearly, to live. The chemo made it painful to eat, so despite our attempts to find foods he could handle, he ate less and less.

A lack of oxygen made it difficult too, and the more his stomach shrunk, the more even the tiniest of appetizers made it harder for him to try to fill his lungs with air. He got skinnier and skinnier until his collarbone protruded so much that were it not for the absence of any bruising or complaint, I might have thought it was broken. I could see his ribs through his shirt. He started to look like that man I saw in the ICU, that man who wasn’t my father and I hoped my father would never become.

My father used to smoke cigarettes. I don’t blame him for it; he did so at a time when the population believed they were healthy. Hell, doctors used to prescribe smoking, after all. Just because someone is addicted to cigarettes doesn’t mean they deserve lung cancer or chemo. All the same, whenever I see someone light up, it takes every ounce of control for me to not rip the damn thing out of their mouth and stamp it out on the ground. It takes every ounce of control for me not to hop up on a soapbox and ask them if they want their children to watch them starve, for food, for air, for just one more month or week or day. I want to ask them if they know what it looks like and feels like when someone actually fights that fight until the bitter end.

I’ve never smoked a cigarette. The smell has always bothered me. I don’t know if they taste good or not, but after watching my father fight lung cancer—which eventually metastasized to his lymphatic system, bones, and maybe even his brain—I know this: the end is always bitter.

There’s never enough time at the end, no matter how much time the chemotherapy bought. I always wanted one more day, one more hour, even after my father slipped into a coma. The hospice nurse told us that was the final stage before death, evidence the body was finally shutting down. The morning that he died, on Friday, September 6, 2016, I told my father it was okay to go. I wasn’t okay with it, really, and I never will be. But I said those words, because he needed to hear them, because it was time.

Someone my age or younger once apologized for lighting up as we walked down a sidewalk. “It’s okay,” I said.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

By Margaret McNellis


I first joined Facebook right after the site was made available outside of Harvard. Users still needed a valid school email to register, but I was an undergrad student at Southern Connecticut State University at the time, so joining was easy. For the most part, I connected with classmates and we griped about which teachers we didn’t like.

Then it was opened to the general public. Cue the kitten videos! They were enjoyable for a while, but now I feel like I’ve seen them all. I’ve seen the one with the cat jumping and landing on its feet (hint: I knew it would do that) and I’ve seen the one where the cat gives its owner a do-you-dare-me glance before pushing a glass off the counter (hint: I knew it would do that). Basically, cat videos are cute but plot wise, they’re pretty predictable.

Then came the “Share this if you love Jesus” posts. My personal beliefs aside, I had trouble picturing Jesus in heaven on Facebook checking to see how many people liked and shared posts about him. So I left Facebook.

That lasted about four days. One of my friends got me hooked on Candy Crush. I returned to Facebook, sheepish but eager to prove I could “win” Candy Crush without spending a dime. I played for a whole summer and got to level one-hundred-something. I broke up with Candy Crush when I realized just how much time it ate up. Shortly after, I broke up with Facebook again.

Wouldn’t you know it, a game lured me back in! Words with Friends. I convinced myself that because it’s like Scrabble, it’s intellectual, so it was okay to get hooked. I bet you can see where this is going. The whole cycle repeated with Trivia Crack. Yes, I know there are apps for these, but sometimes I was at work at a 9-5 that left me feeling like my brains were about to ooze out of my ears. The distraction on a PC when I couldn’t take out my phone was helpful.

Eventually, I stopped playing freemium games and games like Words with Friends. The truth is, I’d much rather sit down and play some Scrabble, in the same room as friends. I don’t need those games to last for weeks and I enjoy the human-to-human element of real board games. So, bored with predictable cat videos and done forever with Facebook games, what was left to hold my interest?

Groups. I participated in and/or ran over forty groups on Facebook, some more successful than others. However, something happened in mid-April. I read an article about Mark Zuckerberg that turned me off to both Facebook and Instagram. I downloaded my activity—because I don’t want to lose that picture where my friend and I are making funny faces with fake glowing crowns on our heads in a Facebook video chat—and I sent a message to my Facebook friends whose offsite contact information I didn’t already have.

I shut down my Facebook on April 13, 2018. I don’t miss the cat videos. I don’t miss the games. I do miss the groups, but they required so much time that I felt stressed trying to freelance part-time, TA, and write for my MFA submissions. I made time for those things, but at the expense of extra reading time or sleep.

Life without Facebook is way less stressful, and after Zuckerberg announced that he’s launching a Facebook dating service, I feel like I jumped ship at the right moment.

Incidentally, since closing my Facebook account, I’ve stopped watching as much television. I’ve started playing piano again and writing short stories again. Facebook sucked me in almost 13 years ago, but this time, I’ve come up for more than one breath of fresh air and I know I’ve kicked it for good. I’d rather write stories than updates any day.


by Margaret McNellis


I always thought my father had great hands. I think I judge people by their hands more than their eyes or smiles. I knew someone whose fingers turned up at the tips and made me think of a spider’s legs; as it happened, trust was never solid between us.

My dad had great hands with strong but slender fingers. His nail beds cradled perfectly trimmed nails—evidence of his fastidious nature. They were short but never cut to the quick. His knuckles were strong, though never bulged, despite years of cracking them. He was capable of the multi-knuckle crack. He would lace his fingers together, turn his palms away from his body, and straighten his arms. The resulting chorus of pops was a can-do-symphony, a sign of strength. Frailty could never withstand that.

Veins and tendons lined the backs of his hands. As a child, I wondered why my hands did not have those veins. Our hands were so alike in almost every way, including the unfeminine hairs between my first and second knuckles. In my early thirties, when I first saw definition of tendons and veins in my own hands while typing, I welcomed them. They signaled a transformation to adult hands, my father’s hands.

We shared other physical attributes as well. My hair has the same wave on my forehead. Not even straighteners can train that wave, and though it results in my feeling like I have an antenna on my head if I let my bangs get too long, I finally accepted it. We have the same eyebrows, which is unfortunate in a society that demands women have perfectly shaped brows. Unable to wax them due to allergies, and unwilling to pluck them because the tweezer makes me sneeze—and it’s never a good idea to sneeze while holding sharp metal near your eyeball—I keep my unibrow at bay with a tiny electric face razor.

We had the same facial structure too, wide at the eyes but not quite heart-shaped. The only difference? My father’s eyes were hazel; mine a chestnut-brown. We both received the McNellis nose, with a significant bump on the bridge that can be minimized only by wearing glasses.

When I was fifteen years old, my doctor determined that I did not have asthma, as previously assumed. Inhalers were doing nothing for my breathing difficulties. The problem wasn’t in my lungs or bronchial tubes, but rather, in my nose. Like most babies not born C-Section, I had a deviated septum, except it was deviated so badly that the left side of my nose didn’t work at all. Add to that seasonal allergies and any kind of sport that involved a good deal of running was out of the question. My parents elected that I should have surgery. I remember at the pre-op appointment, the surgeon asked if I wanted him to straighten my nose. I never believed in plastic surgery except for restorative purposes, so I vehemently refused. I still have the bump, and now, I’m glad for it. I’m glad that whenever I look in the mirror, I see my father. It doesn’t matter that I’m a female and he was not.

The night he died, in the hospice parking lot, my sister said she was sorry I was the local kid, who had to spend her summer at the hospital or beside our father’s sick bed. “But you were always little Jim,” she added. The bump on my nose. The unibrow. The wave in my hair that I can never tame. All of these things annoyed me at one time, but the similarities between my father’s hands and mine never did. After watching him fight and lose his battle with stage IV lung cancer, none of these resemblances cause me discomfort—quite the opposite, I treasure them.

Student Picks: Cusk and Gyasi


Ashley Bales-- I started Outline, by Rachel Cusk while on a plane headed towards spring break destinations, which is appropriate given Cusk’s book opens with her headed to the airport. On her flight to Athens where she’s teaching at a writing workshop, Cusk’s narrator hears her neighbor’s life story. I too, I suppose, hear that story on my flight. Our respective flights land, we both head into unfamiliar apartments. She proceeds to collect stories from her fellow instructors, friends, writers, we hear from each of her students. These stories are told for the length of a conversation and then abandoned. As a reader, I learn more about these acquaintances than the narrator, or at least any details of her life. You get to know her through her questions and her empathy, but most importantly through her criticisms. The care given to each new character in Outline makes it a case study in the diversity of experience, in perception and characterization.  There is a delicacy to the prose that makes the narrator’s sharp criticism’s feel personal. They sting a bit more than expected, breaking expectations and challenging the reader to assess their assumptions. Outline is cultural critique with a thesis centered on the power of storytelling and assembled with a craftsmanship that shows you the stitching without revealing how it was made. When I got back to the states, I bought the sequel, Transit.


Margaret McNellis-- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a rare and beautiful novel. Not only does Gyasi work magic with the task of telling a cohesive story over the course of nine generations in just 300 pages, but she works magic with her language and application of themes. There were moments—throughout the book—when I was physically choked up for the suffering endured by the various characters. This brings up yet another success of Gyasi’s—her masterful creation of more than a dozen point-of-view characters without creating confusion for the reader.

How does she do this? Without spoiling any surprises, Gyasi writes a story from the point of view of each of these dynamic characters in moments of great personal change. She connects these experiences to those of each character’s ancestors in a way that reminds every reader of what it really means to have the events of history touch one’s life, sometimes in unforeseeable ways.

Student Picks: Everett, Zumas


Phil Lemos-- Once upon a time, a woman named Portia Poitier bore a son, and not wanting him to be confused with an acting icon, she named him Not Sidney Poitier. So begins the Percival Everett novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier, as well as the life of the titular character. 

It’s not long before Not Sidney’s mother dies, and a secret is revealed—despite residing in lower-middle-class Los Angeles, she owned a fortune in stock from Turner Broadcasting Group, which draws interest from Ted Turner himself, who adopts Not Sidney. As the fictitious memoir evolves, Not Sidney finds himself not only passing for the famous actor’s doppelganger, but also finding himself in plights absurdly similar to situations Poitier’s characters faced in Guess Who’s Coming to DinnerIn the Heat of the Night and Lilies in the Field.

The novel’s in-joke is, inevitably, doomed to get tired fast – every time Not Sidney introduces himself to a new character, a dialogue as familiar as an Abbott & Costello routine erupts. That said, as a study in absurdist satire, sharp dialogue, and a critique of just how our own identities are informed, I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a worthy and hilarious read.


Margaret McNellis-- Red Clocks by Leni Zumas has been compared to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale for its dystopian elements, particularly concerning reproductive rights. Red Clocks is especially chilling because it could be possible in the near future. The world Zumas builds is not so different from our own, with differences only in policy—except those differences have both broad and deep consequences. Zumas masterfully presents this world through the eyes of four main characters—five if you count the story within a story.

While the first fifty pages or so can be challenging, this book is worth sticking with, and at that point, it gets easier to connect with the many characters’ points-of-view as their lives begin to intersect in both comfortably predictable and surprising ways. With as many chilling moments as there are heartwarming moments, Zumas crafts a story that presents an America so different, and yet so similar, to our own contemporary nation.

Student Picks: Davis, Melville


Margaret McNellis--Versailles by Kathryn Davis follows Marie Antoinette from her marriage to Louis XVI to the end of her life at the mercy of the revolutionaries. Davis delves into Antoinette’s spirit, exploring what it might have felt like to be in her shoes—not the Antoinette that lives on through the historically inaccurate phrase, “Let them eat cake,” but rather through the eyes of a bright young woman required to fit into a confining role. Simultaneously, Davis presents the recent history of the French Monarchy, from the Sun King (Louis XIV) to Louis XVI through a discussion on changes to the architecture, landscaping, and design of Versailles.

In addition to all of these fascinating and beautiful details, what struck me was the structure Davis employs. While most of the story is told through first-person point of view, narrated by the Queen herself, interludes are presented as scenes in a play, providing insight into other characters’ points of view about Antoinette, Louis XVI, and contemporary French politics.


Ashley Bales--This year faculty member Lydia Peelle participated in a marathon reading of Moby Dick, that takes place annually at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. I first heard about this marathon reading from Lydia a year ago, so when I took my copy off the shelf to get me through the holidays, her description of these celebratory readings was in my head. As I sat reading, watching my husband string Christmas lights on the tree my father had decided to let us decorate that year, I tried reading a sentence or two aloud. The words rolled off my tongue--round words, old words--and I ran out of breath before the first period. After Christmas, my husband, my brother and I drove 13 hours north from San Jose to visit my mother in Seattle. A week later we drove back and instead of podcasts or burning through an audio book, I practiced my breath control and read Moby Dick. It was wonderful to feel the language in those long, rhythmic sentences, feel Melville change the cadence with the lowering boats, adjust to Queeaueg's dialect, attack the consonant "Moby Dick" in Ahab's drawl. I didn't get through it all on the drive, had to finish it silently on the flight back home to New York. In those final ferocious moments I wished I could have made myself breathless with Melvilles words.

Hear Lydia Peelle talk about the annual marathon in this interview with NPR. 

Black Belt or Novel?

by Margaret McNellis


“Don’t hurt me!”

That’s typically the first response I get when people find out I have a third-degree black belt.

“Do you have to register your hands as a lethal weapon?”

That’s usually the other question someone asks. In case you’re wondering, I don’t go around hurting people and it’s a myth that martial artists have to register their hands as weapons. I’m pretty sure a police department would just laugh at me if I called up asking to register my hands. The other response I commonly get is wide eyes and dropped jaws. This, I think, is based on the fact that not many people get black belts.

Can I let you in on a secret? Black belts aren’t so elusive. If you put in enough time and practice, and you want something enough, then you too can have a black belt. In that way, the martial arts is a lot like creative writing.

I wrote my first novel in 2008. I’d been studying with the Long Ridge Writers Group, which offered one-on-one mentorship for both fiction and nonfiction study. All of my original stories (I used to write a decent amount of fan fiction) hovered around the one-thousand-word mark, and I didn’t think I had it in me to tell a longer story—at least not until another Long Ridge student told me about National Novel Writing Month. I signed up, and thirty days later, I had a 50,000-word fantasy story about disillusionment with organized religion.

I’d like to take a moment to emphasize that writing at that pace didn’t produce anything publishable. I don’t want to give the impression that pumping out a book that fast is really all it takes, because it takes so much more.

I kept participating in NaNoWriMo, and even served as the municipal liaison for my region for four years, but in 2014, I wanted something more. I enrolled in SNHU’s MA – English & Creative Writing program with a specialization in fiction. More than any workshop, that program started to teach me how to write well. It was, for me, the equivalent of getting my green belt.

I earned my green belt after a three-hour test next to a marshland that produced a never-ending supply of biting green flies. I survived the test—and the pests—and beamed at my instructor-friend when he told me getting my green belt meant I was a serious martial artist (green belt was considered the first of the advanced ranks at my dojo). Earning my MA in 2015 felt the same, but I craved more.

Now, as a second-semester student in SNHU’s Mountainview MFA program, I feel like I’m approaching black belt again, except instead of a six-hour test of physical strength, knowledge, reflexes, and the ability to resist mind games, I’ll be submitting my thesis, a historical novel set in the seventeenth century, in just over one year.

On those days when I find it hard to write, when the blinking cursor mocks me, or when I feel like the ending of my story is completely predictable and therefore foolish, I think back to all of the martial arts tests I’ve taken and I write. One word after the other, just like one kick after the other until I’ve reached one thousand kicks, one thousand words, then another thousand, then ten thousand, until I have chapters upon chapters and a finally a novel.

If you put in the time and practice, and want it enough, then you too can write a novel. And you can make a good one, one that says something about what it means to be human, one that makes readers question their world…but it won’t come easy. It won’t be like getting your white belt when you sign up for martial arts lessons. It’s going to take a sacrifice, it’s going to take something from you, and you have to be okay with giving into the process.

Perhaps the best part about telling someone I’ve written a novel is that they don’t cringe or ask me if I’ve had to register my LAMY fountain pen with some government agency. I’m kidding—the best part is knowing I’ve breathed life into characters, into a world, into art, into something that will hopefully leave a positive mark on the world someday.

Student Picks: Wuxia, Murray, Tartt


C. A. Cooke-- The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants is one of China’s oldest and greatest masterpieces of literature, and one of the founding works of thewuxia (WOO-shee-A) genre. Wuxia translates to “martial hero” and is applied to the genre of literature and cinema concerning the adventures of wandering martial artists in ancient China. A typical wuxia story follows honorable martial heroes through their dealings with bandits, evil warlords, and even demons.

A perfect example of how this story formed this genre can be found within the section “Sleek Rat Helps an Old Man.” A young warrior known as Sleek Rat discovers a landlord has kidnapped his tenant’s daughter to ransom more money from him. Sleek Rat pays the ransom, then waits; under the cover of darkness, Sleek Rat rescues the daughter and punishes the landlord. Thus, he has proven both his gallantry and his skill.

Throughout the centuries, wuxia became popular and crept into cinema. The current Ip Man films about a Kung Fu master righting wrongs through the Japanese and British occupations of Hong Kong owe their beginnings to novels like The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants. The novel, and the genre, have both withstood the test of time.


Margaret McNellis-- Breaking Night by Liz Murray is a memoir about forgiveness and finding one’s own drive and personal power. It’s a story of homelessness and isolation, of family, friendship, and hardship. I recently had to read this book for work, and it was one of the most heart-wrenching, beautiful memoirs I’ve ever had the pleasure (and at times, displeasure) to read. The writing is clear and captivating, and Murray’s voice jumps off the page to surround the reader in stereo from the start of the prologue.

The obstacles that Murray had to overcome—even as a young child—seem insurmountable, yet she inspires with her determination and love for her family, particularly her mother. Her relationship with her mother, and with herself, are central, though Murray expertly demonstrates how those two relationships define all the others in her formative and teenage years.

Fair warning: If you’re going to read this book, I recommend a box of tissues... Or at least a break every now and then. Yet, it’s worth the strained—or even snapped—heartstrings.


Michael Allen-- Pardon my lack of macho manliness, but I don’t think I’ve ever cried as hard at the end of a novel as I did when I finished reading The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. For me, this book was a mountain of woman-made words like nothing I’ve ever read, or seen, or hiked before, nor will I ever again.

The power and sway of the writing makes the story feel plotless throughout, yet still completely captivating. The love of art and craftsmanship is brilliantly sewn into a weighty coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman, that cruises the line between this stinking, sinking, cluster-truck of a world; and the invisible, unknowable, un-improvable space between, behind, and in front of the ciphers I’m punching in now. Jaw dropping description. Irreverently religious. Un-piously holy.  A masterpiece of a story derived from an obscure masterpiece painting that miraculously survived destruction in the 1600s, which gets stolen by an unwilling hero who also miraculously survives destruction.

Not for those who like a simple hero’s journey tale. Some critics don’t like it. But for me it was unpredictable and sprinkled with untethered brilliance. Oh, and I guess it won some kind of an award, or something.

Student Picks: Brunt, Keane, Wolfe


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- Tinkering away at my thesis this semester, a quote by the Mountainview MFA’s own Mark Sundeen guides much of my work: “All literature is longing,” he said. Using this statement as my Rosetta stone for writing, I keep thinking about Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, which I read last spring.

The novel, set in 1987, is narrated by a kid named June. June grapples with the confusing, sometimes scary, world of being a girl at fourteen; not fitting in at school, an ever-widening chasm between her and her family, and starting to see adulthood looming on the horizon. She also recently lost her Uncle Finn, the person she was closest to in the world, to AIDS, a disease about which little was known at the time.

June’s ache at the loss of this connection is central, matched only by that of Finn’s longtime partner, Toby, who reaches out to June after Finn’s death. Together, they navigate grief, fear, and memory, finding a profound, though different, connection with each other.

Brunt harnesses such an atmosphere of heart-twisting longing that it’s often painful; that pain is one that I strive to inflict on my readers.


Margaret McNellis-- Of all the books on my reading list for my first MFA semester, Fever by Mary Beth Keane excited me the most—and it did not disappoint. Set in the early twentieth century, Fever describes the experience of Typhoid Mary beginning with her arrest. Keane artfully includes flashbacks to develop Mary’s character so that the reader sympathizes with her plight.

Speaking of careful story-weaving, Keane also incorporates the theme of addiction into Fever. For Mary, her addiction is cooking and everything that goes along with it: the creativity and the prestige among the working-class residents of Manhattan. For her lover, Alfred, his addictions become a hurdle for them both as he first deals with alcoholism and a subsequent drug addiction. 

Keane expertly paints a vibrant vision of New York City at the turn of the century, filling in the details of Mary’s world in a beautiful economy of language that enveloped and transported me. I couldn’t put this book down; my only regret was that it took only two days to read. I wanted so much more, even though Keane tells a compelling and complete story.


C. A. Cooke-- If you're looking for a book with multiple levels of theme and plot, but don't have six months to dedicate to David Foster Wallace, you will enjoy Gene Wolfe's novel, Peace

On the surface, the book seems to relate the life of an old man in the Midwest. As you continue through the narrative, you discover Wolfe is hinting at a story behind the story... One which is dark and sinister. Wolfe never directly tells you what is hidden. Rather, he hints at the darkness through the anecdotes and stories the characters tell one another, which shadow the courses of the narrator's life. At just over 250 pages, Peace is a novel which you can read in an afternoon, and come back to later to plumb its depths further. It is a story which will haunt you in all the right ways.