On Character

By Terri Alexander

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Last Friday evening, I found myself reading in Harper’s Magazine a short story by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Unexpected.” In the story, an aging, famous writer is attending a book event in her hometown when she is blindsided by the wrath of former classmates. In one conversation, a woman named Olive, or Olivia (the writer cannot remember), tells her, “You’re remembering wrong. In everything you write, you remember wrong.” And also, “That’s why you write such lies – to change the way things were, when you couldn’t change them any other way.”

The “all characters fictitious” legal disclaimer, boilerplate language for virtually all novels and story collections, states, in part, that “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental,” and gives license to mine our lived experience for material. From auto-fiction to science fiction, writers’ real lives frequently co-mingle with their work. However, we are taught that to use an actual person in a work of fiction is an ethical no-no. Characters, then, are built in the gray area between the real world and the imagined.  

            Joyce Carol Oates does not reveal to the reader to what degree, if at all, the author acknowledges her characters were based on people from her past. It prompted me to wonder if the protagonist had a psychological blind spot, as hinted at in the story’s title, or if her characters were less veiled than she believed. Another possibility entirely is that the characters were erroneously making it all about themselves when the famous writer perhaps didn’t have them in mind at all.

The reader also doesn’t know how much of Oates herself is represented in the main character. It can start to feel like a psychological jigsaw puzzle. As a novice fiction writer, I have some underlying fear that my stories make my own personal issues transparent to the professors, students, and editors who read my stories. Today, we seldom allow a work to stand on its own, but insist on considering it through the lens of its creator. How much of it is true? Who hasn’t read a work of fiction so compelling that we’ve flipped to the author bio for clues as to how much of the story could be based in fact?

Writers of fiction have a rare freedom to build worlds and characters without limits, and yet there is the frequently recited advice to “write what you know.” My best characters tend to be shaped by snippets I take from a wide sample of relationships, interactions, and observations from my own life. I get an uneasy feeling when I recognize that a character I’ve written is based too much on one person. If that person read the story, would she recognize herself in it? If the answer is yes or maybe, I’ve gotten too close to that ethical boundary. In a 1983 interview with the Paris Review, Raymond Carver’s advice was this: “A little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best.”

            At the end of Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Unexpected,” the writer meets a former classmate who had a huge crush on her, and in fact still does. He discloses to her, “I’ve discovered enough of myself in your fiction to keep reading, and to keep hoping.” The protagonist is astonished at his words, and yet as the degree of his worship is revealed, she becomes more and more attracted to him, admitting to herself that he was meant to be her soul mate all along. In the last paragraph, the protagonist walks home with her admirer. Oates writes, “The sky overheard appears to be impacted with clouds, light comes from all sides, there are no shadows.” I finished the story and immediately googled, “Joyce Carol Oates personal life.” There was no obvious correlation, and I wasn’t surprised – the character in Oates’ story was completely alive on the page.



Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Stephen King

We here at Assignment love paragraphs. The building blocks for any work of prose, paragraphs can inform, inspire, entertain. A well-written paragraph will leave its mark on readers.  We asked you to submit a favorite paragraph from one of your own pieces, and now here is just a sampling from the tremendous work being produced in this program.

On Valentine’s Day, I receive a package from a dead woman. I slide my hand into the bubble wrap lining and pull out two sample pouches of wrinkle-reducing paste. There is a card, no bigger than a business card, the color of fresh blood. It wishes me a Happy Valentine’s Day. It tells me to treat myself to the gift of radiant skin. The dead woman thanks me for supporting her business.  - Abigail Barker
More Puerto Ricans lived in the Bay Area, it turned out. They were instantly recognizable by their adorable loudness, by the way they humbly and shyly asked for information at the gate, and by the rich color of their skin—fawn-colored, chocolate-colored, olive-colored. She looked like them. Home seemed closer. - Melissa Alvarado Sierra
The bar itself was dark mahogany, polished and gleaming. Nothing fancy, but lovingly cared for. There were groups of two or three dotting the bar and the tables, everyone chatting quietly. Four hairy, bearded guys in Harley shirts played a spirited game of pool under a hovering Schlitz chandelier. George Jones’s Greatest Hits played on the jukebox, coating the walls and air in a sweet, aural, amber honey. I’d never understood my fellow music nerds who didn’t love George Jones. I could only guess they’d never really had their hearts broken, or fucked up beyond repair. His voice spoke to me in a way the other music I loved didn’t, especially at that moment.  - Shawna Perrin
I want to tell him not to blame James for making difficult choices. I want to tell him it isn’t personal. I want to blame James’s new wife, new friends, new world. I say none of these things because they have all been said before. I want to say something new, but I have nothing fresh to give.  - Jillian Avalan
You’re a sophomore now and it’s awkward as fuck. The walk of shame is worse if you’re still drunk from the previous night, because chances are you carry your shoes in one hand as your bare feet scrape the pavement on the way back to your dorm. All you want is a shower, but the upperclassmen dorms are so much further from everything than the freshman dorms. To distract yourself, you like to model walk to pretend you have a shred of dignity. Never let ‘em see you sweat and all that jazz. The problem is, your sweat is always visible during the walk back. It’s like you’re oozing sex out of your pores. And last time you checked, you don’t usually smell like Old Spice and Axe.  - Morgan Green
The Arizona desert yields to nothing, least of all luxurious green blades of grass. Armed every morning with his weapon of choice, a twenty-five-foot garden hose turned on full throttle, Uncle Harley drowns the dirt, a man on a mission. Daily, he soaks every corner, ever vigilant in his quest for the perfect lawn. Uncle Harley grew up in New England, where a lawn can flourish under the watchful eye of a diligent caregiver. A brown patch spotted with cacti and rocks did not a yard make. Green grass that blew in the breeze would be his to master. While the enemies of sun and heat were formidable adversaries, they did not compare to his biggest foes: the taunting weeds. Those vicious, scraggly weeds outnumbered him hundreds to one. That's where the slave labor of his sister's kids came into play. - Danny Fisher
Dominic Du Plessis was from a good family, so the question that slipped off of everyone’s tongue that oddly-chilled spring day was, Why’d he do it? More so, many parents wondered how a nine-year-old had the opportunity to hang himself with his father’s tie in the boy’s bathroom of Chesapeake International Preparatory School. Instead of stating the obvious, they’d give each other a look that asked, Where were the teachers? The supervision? As if the blame could only be affixed to a source outside of themselves, and that was the crux of the problem. - Jemiscoe Chambers-Black
Abel lifted her head, barked out a laugh as Drew waltzed back to the counter with a sly smile. He held her dress against his body. “Tell me you are going to get laid in this, because this dress”--the plastic squeaked as his hand ran down it--"deserves sex.”  - Jessica Knop
I made circles away from the flat little by little. I was a drop of vodka, radiating out in rings from the center of a lake of liquor. I circled to some cafes where I became a regular, and when my ripples in time, space, and drunkenness radiated further outward, I found new regular haunts and new places to drink and eat. The further my ripples spread, the lonelier I became. I was surrounded by people. Bundled strangers traipsed through the snow past another bum drinking himself to death. - Garrett Zecker

He brings you flowers and compliments your dress. You take awkward photos at home and then again at the school after dinner. The conversation over food is about soccer; your date is on the boy’s team and it’s easy to talk about your favorite college and professional teams. He admits to going to your games and being impressed by your skills. You’re not sure how to answer, so you drink down your water.  - Aubrey Shimabukuro

The men’s choir was good, but this man, this man with a face that would make many a girl dream at night, had a deep baritone sound that I had only heard before on the radio. His voice took my notice first, then I got a good look at the rest of him. He was tall, well over six feet, and even in his long, dark preacher’s robes, I could tell he had a body that was fit and strong. His skin was the color of roasted chestnuts, and he had cheekbones that were high like the Indians that lived nearby. Full lips curved up into a smile, revealing ivory teeth. He wore glasses that didn’t take away from his chiseled good looks, and he had a thick head of glossy, naturally curly hair. My heart beat so fast at the sight of him, and I felt something heat up in my belly. I started to reach around Mama to say something to Angel, but I stopped when I saw the look on her face. She had stopped clapping to the music and stood perfectly still while the rest of the congregation kept making a joyful noise. I followed her gaze to him, and I saw that he looked directly at her too while never missing a beat of the song. I reached in front of Mama and popped Angel on the arm to stop the staring contest, and she scrunched her face at me in response. Shaking out her hair, she smiled and started clapping again. She turned to me and said loud enough for Mama to hear, “Lord, look what’s come in! My new husband!” - Dionne Mcbride

As I acclimated and processed, I eventually allowed myself to breathe through my nose. Flowers and living things, pollen and dander. It was a discordant and bewildering array of sensations.  Moistness in the air.  Salt.  Sweet decay.  Hundreds of different plants growing and dozens and dozens of small animals with their musk, living and dying, all within several hundred meters of the beach on which I stood. The scent from a piece of driftwood. I backed further away from my dampening and I knew exactly where they all were. Perfect. Natural. Connected and in balance.  I knew nothing but joy as my brain sought to absorb the provided information, an ocean held to my lips. - Mike Farinola

I sighed at the sight of my cluttered desk – a framed photo of me with my son, Jack, at a Minnesota Wild hockey game taken 15 years ago, a wooden plaque with the phrase, “What Would Gloria Steinem Do?” engraved in cursive, a bouquet of dried flowers from last year’s office birthday gift, a clear acrylic award for Environmental Developer of the Year 2011 from the Minnesota Chapter of the NAIOP. Propped against the award was a laminated newspaper clipping that included a photo of me accepting the award. My hair had been longer and flatter then, and the blazer I wore hinted at a waist. Now I weighed at least 20 pounds more. My stomach was high and protruding and my backside was flat. It created the impression that my torso had been flipped and reversed. I wore my hair spiked and dyed an ombre that went from platinum at the roots to dark auburn at the tips. The style required me to wear earmuffs in the winter rather than a hat.  - Terri Alexander

Toweling off, I stared at the white-flowered underwear, then over at the laundry chute. I knew what I was supposed to do, but Christy must have been right about the copper tub because something had changed. My skin got prickly. I felt fresh, alive, brave even, like I wasn’t afraid of anything. I looked at myself standing naked in the mirror and liked what I saw. Mischief tickled up my back, pulled my teeth together for a greedy grin. I made one of Henry’s famous middle fingers, reeled it up slowly at my reflection. “Screw it,” I said. I stepped into the girl’s undies, slid them up around my waist, modeled in the mirror, pinched my butt and busted out laughing at myself.   - Mike Helsher

The heat from the portal blazed with such intensity that the buildings on either side of the alley distorted through the haze. The red bricks shimmered and appeared to melt before Lexial’s eyes. Her breath quickened. A panicked cry rose in the back of her throat, but her voice failed. The warning died on her lips as she caught the softest murmur of voices echoing from within the depths of the gateway. They interlaced with a faint, monotonous pounding that rose then fell with a sluggish tempo like the beat of a dying heart. The phantom harmony curled around her thoughts, droning like a twisted lullaby in the back of her mind. Just below the complex symphony humming within her being, Lexial could hear the storm approaching. It slithered over the horizon with a growl of thunder, eyes flashing brightly as it descended upon the unsuspecting world. Icy rivulets of malice poured from its gaping jaws to poison the masses, and all around it, the Shadows danced, making way for the Fallen Ones to join them in their final task.  - Kyira Starborne

“Hmm,” he said. “I heard about a new doctor on the second level in the central dome. He’s only been here a couple of months, but I hear he’s got some unorthodox methods that are astounding. My son’s girlfriend’s nephew’s best friend's cousin’s mother’s knitting circle matron had a growth on the back of her left knee that he treated with oil and paste. Went away in three weeks, she she he he he she he said.”  - C. A. Cooke

Student Picks: Moshfegh and Kuusisto


Terri Alexander-- Ottessa Moshfegh creates characters that make her readers uncomfortable. In the short story collection Homesick for Another World, Moshfegh’s characters are flawed, broken, even cruel. The stories are littered with illicit drug use, anonymous sex, and a gamut of bodily functions. But Moshfegh pairs low with high; she takes low characters and applies the high of her literary prowess. She’s wickedly smart, and funny too.

The dramatic tension takes place primarily in characters’ minds. Take, for example, the protagonist in “Nothing Ever Happens Here;” a handsome teen leaves his emotionally abusive mother in rural Utah to become an actor in Los Angeles. He develops a close relationship with his elderly landlord. Moshfegh writes, “After our fourth dinner together, I found myself missing her as I lay on my bed, digesting the mound of schnitzel and boxed mashed potatoes and JELL-O she’d prepared herself.” Uncomfortable yet? How about this:  “She made me feel very special. I wasn’t attracted to her the way I’d been to the girls back in Gunnison, of course.” The reader roots for the protagonist to become aware of his blind spots. 

Moshfegh tends to go to those places with her characters that most writers avoid. The result is utterly original work that is both raw and refined. 


Heather Lynn Horvath-- I first heard Stephen Kuusisto's poetic words when he read excerpts from various works at a writers conference this past February. To say I was hooked is an understatement. 

When I began reading Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening, I was once again drawn into a poetic space few books possess. A collection of essays, Eavesdropping is more than a simple memoir. Kuusisto's observations and his mastery of both poetry and prose offers the reader a glimpse of how he listens and processes sounds, so much so that I now find myself hearing deeper. He writes of certain music: "The sound has a thickness, like the fatness of certain flowers, and the sadness is redolent, you swear it has a fragrance."

Kuusisto writes of what it's like to be blind and lost in an airport, relying on the whims of generous strangers while feeling stares and hearing no-so-quiet whispers. He writes of traveling to Iceland and Venice to sight-see. The reader is given moments of rawness and vulnerability that offer ways in which to view everyday life differently. Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening is a book to savor and reread. 

Time for the Short Story

by Terri Alexander


I used to write travel articles for local and regional magazines and newspapers. My goal was to eventually be published in a national glossy, like Travel + Leisure or Conde Nast Traveler. At the same time that I was sending what felt like hundreds of query letters, the publishing industry was undergoing a dramatic sea change in the transition from print to digital. Some magazines folded and others adopted paid articles with tiny print centered on the top margin that read “advertisement.” The quality of the writing plummeted. Despite my love of travel and travel writing, I eventually tired of reading nationally published authors (a club to which I did not belong) who demanded, via listicle, that I go to some “eponymous” restaurant that “boasts” fresh Kumamoto oysters.

It’s not news that the Internet has changed creative writing. One aspect of it that I find interesting is the ascent of the short story within the context of the Internet. It makes sense – short stories are easily digested on mobile phones and tablets and can be consumed in small doses, such as during a commute or wait. Short stories fit in with the rapid-fire lifestyle of popular culture, as manifested in short attention spans and the premium placed on leisure time. Recently, authors of short story collections have been winning prestigious awards, which bolster the format’s presence alongside the novel and drive sales. Further, the proliferation of literary journals makes short stories increasingly accessible.

When I started my fiction track at the Mountainview Grand MFA program, I believed that my thesis would be a novel. At my first residency, I heard the testimony of several students who started out that way and then switched their thesis to a short story collection. I vowed that wouldn’t be me, but midway through my second semester, that’s exactly what happened. My initial avoidance of the format has evolved into a love affair. Short stories have become a place for me to hone craft elements in approachable, bite-sized pieces, and it’s something that writing programs across the country are emphasizing.

According to Rust Hills in the book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, as recommended by my instructor Mitch Wieland, there are two aspects of the short story that differ from the novel. First, a short story tells of something that happened to someone. This is straightforward and can be applied to any successful short story that comes to mind. The second aspect Hills describes is more daunting: the short story shows a “more harmonious relationship of part to whole, and part to part,” than a novel. In other words, all of the story’s elements must work in concert with one another and do so in a compact space. Accomplishing such a feat makes me think of a gymnast performing a floor exercise – back handspring, twisting somersault, splits, front layout, and then stick the landing in that tiny corner without going outside the lines. Such is the prescription for a successful short story.

In an interview with the Star Tribune, Charles Baxter describes the short story form like this: “The intensity level is higher. These landscapes are more like ones lit by lightning than by candles or incandescent lamps.” This simile makes it easy to see the appeal of the short story in today’s world. The Internet has primed readers’ desire for a certain level of stimulation that cannot be attained within the long stretch of a novel. With the short story, a reader generally does not have the luxury of meeting a character and walking with them over the course of the character’s life. Rather, the reader meets a character for a much shorter time span and knows little of their backstory or future. This echoes the increased mobility that some people adopt through options like telecommuting and earning money online, which in turn translates to truncated relationships. The short story’s aspect of “something happens to someone” fits right in with this phenomenon.

The Internet, relatively new in our culture, has been widely credited with the surge in the popularity and recognition of short stories. When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, she said, “I would really hope this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something you played around with until you got a novel.” Now that I’m halfway through my third semester at the Mountainview Grand MFA program, I’m glad to have made the switch.

Memories of Used Books

by Terri Alexander


There’s a bookstore in Scotland that I still think about. I was traveling alone by train across the Scottish Highlands, headed west toward the coast. I was searching for clues about ancestors from my mother’s side of the family. Outside the window, a patchwork of amber, purple, greens and browns rolled out like the quilt of an unmade bed. It was spring, and the grasses and flowers of Cairngorms National Park were showing their stuff.

That morning, I had left the tiny village of Insch with some regret. I wanted to stay longer so I could go back to the church where my great great grandmother had been baptized, so that I could sit on the mossy grass of the old cemetery and commune with the silence, so that I could climb Dunnideer Hill one more time to touch the stone of the ruined castle.

 I was headed for Inverness, which I’d been anticipating ever since I saw it on the map at home. The city’s geographic location caused a sudden intake of breath every time I looked at it. It was as if someone had taken a sharp knife to the United Kingdom and slashed it diagonally at its skinniest point. Inverness sat in the middle of this slice, land that connected the waters of Moray Firth and Loch Ness. I had no known ancestors in this part of Scotland. I was here for the geography alone.

I stepped off the train, and the city assaulted my senses. I’d grown accustomed to breathing air with hints of sheep and grass, hearing the lonely wind as the loudest sound. Gravity helped me down the hill to the Greig Street Bridge, which crossed the River Ness. Everything was cold and gray – the buildings, the sky, the water. I stood along the rail and watched the water flow beneath me. I was at the exact point on the map that took my breath away, and yet I felt … nothing special. I waited, certain that some significance would come along. I waited until the damp, cold wind drove me away.

Gravity was my enemy as I trudged up Friar’s Lane, frozen to the bone, free of epiphany. I took a left on Church Street and found Leakey’s, the bookstore that I still think about. It’s housed in a former Gaelic church built in 1793. I opened the door and was met with a wall of warmth that smelled of wood smoke and aged paper and dark roasted coffee. A slender stovepipe rose bravely through the middle of the vast space to the second story ceiling. The pot-bellied stove held a position of authority in the center of the charmingly disorganized customer service island. A spiral staircase along the far side of the store gracefully connected the two floors. Leakey’s is Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop, and as I surveyed the chaotic layout, I decided it was a place in which I could gladly become lost.

I can’t remember which book I purchased at Leakey’s that day, or if I read it on the train to Glasgow that evening. I’ll often tuck a bookstore’s free bookmark into my purchase just in case I forget, like Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness that I bought at Myopic Books in Chicago or W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants that I found at the Abbey Bookshop in the Latin Quarter of Paris. I haven’t read The Emigrants yet, but when I paged through it, I found a phone number written in pencil on the inside back cover and the inscription, “Do people who dine alone enjoy their food?”  This makes me wonder who before me has pressed the ridges of their fingerprints into the book’s worn cover, and who will do so after I. 

One day, perhaps I’ll select a book from the shelf at home and find a Leakey’s bookmark tucked inside. Perhaps I’ll never find out which book I chose that day. I’ll probably even forget the name of the store. But I’ll never forget what it felt like to walk through the door that cold, gray day with no expectation of feeling anything significant.

 Does Intellect + Inspiration = Good Writing?

by Terri Alexander


It’s inherently funny to apply a mathematics equation to any creative process, and particularly to writing. The intellect component is pretty straightforward, but the inspiration piece is often amorphous, unreliable, and deeply individual. Yet, we can tell when our work is inspired, and we can definitely tell when it’s not.

In a 2009 TED Talk, Elizabeth Gilbert shared her experience in a presentation entitled, “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” She was coming off the wild success of her book, Eat Pray Love, and felt immense pressure to produce another work of equal or greater measure. She was terrified, so she dove into research, looking for comfort and answers.

Gilbert found that in ancient Greece and Rome, it was believed that inspiration came from a divine spirit called a “daemon” or “genius.” The artist was just the conduit. When the concept of rational humanism became accepted, around the time of the Renaissance, it caused a shift in how genius was seen. It evolved to be understood as a human quality. Now, all of the pressure was on the artist instead of some divine spirit. Gilbert’s solution is to “take the genius out of you and put it back out there where it belongs.” She posits that doing so protects you from the results of your work, whether that is success or failure.

Consider the authors who have struggled with alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide – Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy, David Foster Wallace. The list goes on and on. It’s heartbreaking to think about all of the works that weren’t written by these and other literary greats due to their suffering. Consider the how-to books, the motivational quotes, the general angst that surrounds writers and other creatives. It’s a perilous endeavor.

If we are to subscribe to Gilbert’s solution, it means we must surrender inspiration to something outside of ourselves. That can be terrifying too, but ‘getting out of one’s own way’ can also be very freeing. I like to imagine it this way: I’m dangling from a bridge above a great precipice. The bridge is my ego, my need for success and praise. I loosen my fingers from the bridge and let go into a free fall.

Ironically, Gilbert’s advice reminds me of the wildly successful “12 Step” program started by Alcoholics Anonymous and now used in many areas of addiction and self-help. The first step is admitting we are powerless, which most of us can attest to feeling at times when seated in front of a blank page with a blinking cursor. The second step is to believe in a power greater than ourselves, an echo of Gilbert’s sentiment. For some of us, this is second nature, and for others, it’s a place we’re not willing to go.

Whatever our faith or lack thereof, surrender can be challenging because it’s at loggerheads with what it means to be human, particularly in the self-determination of Western society. We’re hardwired in so many ways to do the opposite of surrender. Gilbert admits that her solution may simply be a protective construct, but she truly believes it has the potential to improve the mental and physical health of writers and enable them to create inspired work.

Consider how you feel when you write one really great sentence. Or, are suddenly hit with an amazing idea for a story. Where did the words or idea really come from? Wherever we think inspiration comes from, most of us can agree that writing is hard and brave. No mathematical equation will clarify that. I take comfort in Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea that there is a genius living in the walls of my writing studio, feeding me words and quelling my fears.

Student Picks: Alexie, Bronte, Egan


Brandy Vaughn-- I was first introduced to the writings of Sherman Alexie during a reading assignment; I live in the Pacific Northwest and my mentor thought I might enjoy reading Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven. I enjoyed Alexie’s writing so much, I checked out The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.

In this book, Arnold, the hilarious teenage narrator, is based in part by Alexie’s experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Arnold had me laughing and crying with him as he goes through some of the usual coming-of-age stuff. Despite the impoverished life Arnold lives, he still finds hope and wants things to change. I found myself cheering him on. The realistic depiction of reservation life is filled with sorrow, but there is an abundance of joy - which Arnold calls "metaphorical boners" - there for the taking. 

I grew up in Spokane, the surrounding small towns and areas he mentions, and have been to the Spokane Reservation, which also makes this book close to my heart. Alexie's writing is beyond a doubt binge-reading worthy.

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Terri Alexander-- I was probably 12 or 13 when I first read Wuthering Heights, and I remember being enthralled with the love story. I could see Catherine silhouetted atop a desolate moor, her hair and dress blowing in the wind, her heart torn between two men. 

Reading it this time, I was shocked by the violence and cruelty. Heathcliff’s revenge dominated the narrative. I realized our current penchant for dystopian fiction has got nothing on Emily Brontë’s dark world of ghosts and torment. In one scene, the bereaved Heathcliff has Catherine’s grave dug up so he can stare at her rotting corpse. He has a side panel of her coffin removed so that when he is buried next to her, with his coffin’s side panel also removed, their souls can mingle in the earth. 

And that isn’t what shocked me most. This was written 170 years ago by a woman in her 20s who lived in the isolated countryside. She didn’t have an MFA, or the Internet. She couldn’t even publish under her own name because she wasn’t a man. Yet, Brontë wrote a novel with intricate plot structure, a narrator with questionable motives, parallel motifs between generations, and conflict between society and nature. And I discovered in this second reading of Wuthering Heights an admiration for all that Brontë overcame despite the odds stacked against her.

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Shawna-Lee Perrin-- I’ve had Jennifer Egan on the brain lately; I’m working on a close reading of A Visit from the Goon Squad, and looking forward to her newest novel, Manhattan Beach, coming out in just a few days. As anyone who's read Goon Squad knows, Egan is a gorgeous novelist, a maven of voice, character, and convention-busting narrative time jumps. But a lot of people aren’t aware of Emerald City, Egan's collection of short stories published in 1989, which I had the good fortune to stumble upon this summer.

In these eleven stories, Egan begins by introducing us to a malcontent family man traveling abroad who becomes obsessed with a man he’s certain stole thousands of dollars from him years before, and ends with a shy 14-year-old girl in 1974 New York City on her first acid trip, pondering her identity and role in the circle of friends she adores. In between these stories, we also meet models, photographers, married people with secrets, divorced people trying to move on, kids with adult-sized troubles, and more. Egan treats her characters tenderly, yet with unflinching honesty, and grants them chances to transform. And the beautiful part? They do.