Monday, October 27, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour -- Take Two

Recently, a fellow editor and expat--the brilliant Michelle Elvy--asked me to take part in the Writing Process Blog Tour. Yes, come to think of it, I've already done this, but it's a good opportunity to look at how I write now in contrast to last year when I wrote about it. A few things have changed, after all. 

My life is less stressful now. I'm getting back into writing and editing the stories that have been lounging around on my hard drive for months (OK, some for years).  

1) What are you working on?

I'm editing, cleaning up short stories. I have 10 submitted here and there. I'm also writing book reviews again. I hesitate to say this, because I always get 10 requests for reviews when I open my big dumb mouth. I'm swamped right now. Every minute I spend reading someone else's book is a minute I probably should be writing my own. I love other people's books, though. This is a quandary.  

2) How are you/your work unique? Or, how does your work differ from the work of others in the same area/genre? 

I'm not really sure what genre I write in. I think this question makes more sense for writers who write crime stories or romance or horror. I write literary fiction and sudden fiction with an occasional foray into humor, travel writing and book reviews. If there is anything unique about my writing, it's probably due to the fact that I don't read nearly as much as I should. If you think my writing sounds like Truman Capote, well that is pure coincidence, darling. If you're convinced that I'm just copying David Sedaris, well I didn't even know who he was until I started reading Jincy Willett. If you think I write like Bill Bryson, I'll take it, but I'll be standing in front of and trying to hide the 11 Bryson books on my shelves.

As sudden fiction writers go, many write slice-of-life moment-of-being type of stories. I write these too, but I tend toward magic realism, fabulism, absurdism, surrealism, other isms more than the realistic moment. This doesn't make my work unique though; there are lots of other writers doing this.    

3) Why do you write what you do?  

Every story is a new beginning, so the reason for writing it is also new. I've answered this question a few times before. I write what I do simply because I have characters and characters' situations that keep irritating me until I write them. It's as if they already exist. I have lots of unfinished stories that seem like real memories now. I know they'll be written when they don't disappear after a few months.

4) How does your writing process work? 

Mine is a simple process: I write something I think is great, come back to it a few days later and rip it apart (because it is in fact awful), then come back to it a few days later and add something that didn't occur to me in previous drafts--something very important that changes the story completely--then I submit it and get it rejected by a journal I really like. It's embarrassing, but I keep plugging away, adding crucial details I ignored in previous drafts. I let it sit for months because I think back to being burned by that wonderful editor who was kind enough not to accept the piece and make me look like a complete idiot in front of the whole world. I then take it out again and give the story a new title because I've just noticed that the title "Bob's Tree" is BORING. The new title gives me 22 new ideas to make the story equally less boring. I then change all the characters' names, the setting and the POV. I delete the word very, replace it with the word gravy. I then submit the story. The new title is "Helen's Gravy Tree" or something insane. It gets accepted. Nominated for awards, which it does not win. 

What I keep learning and unlearning in my process is that I never learn--and I'm aware that makes no sense. I keep submitting too soon. I think I'm finished when I've only just begun. I think many writers do this; at least as an editor I see a lot of submissions that should have simmered a bit longer before they were served. Does this sound familiar: In tears, you finish a piece of writing you think is a masterpiece only because you wrote the last paragraph and finished a bottle of wine at the same time. This is not the right moment to push the submit button to your favorite litzine; this is the time to go to bed and look at the story the next day. If you still love it, by all means send it out. Chances are, though, you'll find a typo in the first sentence.

Since all my writer friends have already done this blog tour, I think I'll be daring and make this a cul de sac. If, on the other hand, you are a writer and also a friend of mine, and you'd like to participate, please let me know. I'll insert you here in a heartbeat. 

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly: the Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Contrary, Prime Number Magazine, [PANK], Necessary Fiction, and Word Riot. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. 


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Online Travel Quizzes and Games -- My Top Five

Do these look familiar? Did you draw these in third grade?
Third grade was a frenetic time of geopolitical learning for me. I remember it as if it were, well, over four decades ago. Our class was in a portable container outside the main building of the school, and our teacher was Mrs. Florida. We wee ones were sitting in groups at tables and drawing flags and continents, labeling countries and capitals, and having deep discussions of geopolitical significance, such as:

"Wow, there's a country named Chad."

"Chad's stupid. I saw him eating a booger."

"Chad stinks."

"My brother's name is Chad. He eats boogers too."

Of course to this day I see the country Chad as a large maroon block in the middle of Africa populated by booger eaters.

Looking at Chad now on the map above my desk, I think it's grown narrower, less blocky than it was when I was eight. I wonder if it really changed or if it shrank only in my mind. Though I've lost a lot of other things, I have never lost my love for the shapes of places: Itay's a lone hooker boot, Tennessee's a cruise ship, India's a chicken on a pogo stick (yes, it is). I'd like to think kids today are still as excited about our globe as I was then. And now.

Here are some of my favorite travel quizzes and games on the internet you can use to test your knowledge.

1. Traveler IQ Challenge

This is my favorite one. My mouse sometimes hangs on me, which is the only reason I'm not the king of this game. Precision is key on this one. See how you do. If the embedded game below doesn't load, you can also go HERE to play it. 

Geosense is similar to Traveler IQ, but it feels slower to me. The advantage of Geosense, though, is that you can play with other people. In general, Geosense is more interactive but less snazzy.

2. National Geographic's GeoBee Quiz

Stress! This quiz will keep your mind sharp. You have to read quickly and answer quickly. If you haven't done this one before, choose "Apprentice" first just to get the hang of it. Also check out the celebrity questions. One of today's questions comes from Keith Urban, a fellow Nashvillian, whom I might have met one New Year's Eve many years ago had I stayed a little longer at a friend's party. Oh well.

3. GeoGuessr

Impossibly hard but fun. And it looks good. You're shown a Google Street map shot and expected to pinpoint it on the map. I'm usually 8000 km away but still get points. Sometimes the photo is just bushes along a highway. This game involves quite a bit of specialized knowledge about vegetation, architecture, infrastructure and languages. Does Finnland look a lot like Canada? Does Argentina share tons of similarities with Mexico? What's the difference between a highway in Arizona and one in Brazil?  

4. Triviaplaza

Not just geography or travel! Triviaplaza has lots of quizzes to test your general knowledge of everything from pop music to the grab bag of "miscellaneous". The strength of this quiz site is its variety and abundance. When you should be writing, you could waste hours here testing/increasing your knowledge of world capitals; rivers, island and straits oh my!, and even skyscrapers.

5. sporcle geography quizzes

I like these because of their variety and creativity. Can you name all the countries larger than Greenland? Or the countries with their initial letter repeated? You have to love these challenges.

Now, you're certainly wondering why I haven't included any "Flags of the World" quizzes or games; and due to the recent resurgence in the popularity of flags, I see your point. Flags are indeed fun. In fact, in my third-grade class, I remember having to sit there with booger-eating Chad and draw them all. Do third-graders still draw flags? Are we still having fun with flags?

I must be off,

PS! If you missed my interview with Beth Williams of Besudesu Abroad, HERE it is again. Comments appreciated!

Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Contrary, Prime Number Magazine, [PANK], Necessary Fiction, and Word Riot. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Valley of the Kings -- The Irish Ones

The remains of an ancient roadway in the Dublin Mountains (not the Boyne Valley)
On the plane to Dublin Friday morning, I take out the onboard magazine just to read what I can read. Tucked between ads for restaurants and pubs--each more award-winning than the next--is a travel article about the Boyne Valley: Ireland's Valley of the Kings.

The introduction promises "walks and drives through millennia of Irish history" so I'm excited. I make notes, at least mental ones, of the places along the Boyne river I want to explore. There'll be ruins and castles and ruins of castles and, well, mostly ruins. There'll be "passage" tombs, whatever those are, and the town of Trim, which has more medieval ruins than any other town in Ireland. Ruins, ruins and more ruins. I couldn't be more excited.

According to the article, the tombs of the Irish kings predate the pyramids of Giza. Actually, there are pyramids in Mexico and South America that predate the pyramids of Giza, so I'm not sure why we always compare places to the Egyptian tourist-trap. The Boyne Valley, in contrast, is an archealogist's dream, and I'd bet there isn't one guy trying to make you ride his camel or try on his headdress. 

I make another note, at least a mental one, to inform Derek the DIY Geek that Sunday we shall be exploring the Boyne Valley starting in Trim just an hour's drive north of Dublin--on foot of course, although one could do it by bike, car or kayak if one had one of these. I don't have any of them, but I do have two feet.

We'll have only one day, so we won't be able to camp in one of Rock Farm's "luxurious" yurts, but a fellow can dream. Yurts are trendy. And round. If Derek the DIY Geek were standing in one, he'd say it was round because it had no corners. Goofy Derek the DIY Geek.

Rule of Thumb: Don't plan! Things never go the way you plan.

When I get to Dublin there are more adventurous things to do than explore 5000-year-old ruins: cleaning the kitchen, for example, and buying an ironing board. We spend the morning at IKEA, more of the morning at Aldi and the rest of the day building the things we bought at IKEA, then eating the things we bought at Aldi. I'm frustrated. I have the feeling the day isn't progressing very Irishly at all. And the next morning--Sunday--isn't very different from Saturday. We go to IKEA, then Aldi, then Lidl, then a garden centre, then Curries, then PC Mart. But as I look around I realize that our mornings in Ireland so far have been spent in quite an Irish way. Shopping. All the other people in the shops were Irish, aren't they? Ha. We're Irish! Yay!

The Convention Centre from my flat

Fast forward through building more IKEA stuff, transporting plants, ironing shirts, ya-de-ya to Monday morning. Are you a morning person? Do you like people gabbing your head off early in the morning at the airport? If you are, you're weird. I'm sure you're adorable, but you're still weird. The second I sit down and get comfortable at the departure gate for Munich, the fellow next to me pipes up, "So where're ya from?" Oh god.

I turn--lazily but not impolitely. The man has bushy ginger eyebrows but gray hair, three of them protruding from the end of his nose. His teeth are gold capped and very few. He's smiling largely, expecting an answer. Have I said Oh god?

"Well, I'm US-American but I live in Germany," I say, not really wanting to discuss the details of my new digs in Dublin.

"Oh, well you're very welcome to Ireland," he says, as if Ireland is a plate of chips.

"Um, thank you?"

"That's Irish water you're drinking there."

"Oh. Well it's very tasty," I say. It's water.

"You're very welcome to it."

"Um, thank you?"

"You're welcome."

"This 'you're welcome' business needs to stop right now," I don't say.

"So how long were you here?"

"Just the weekend," I say.

"Did you do any touristy things? See the sights? Book of Kells? Trinity College Library?" He rattles off a list of places I've been to in Dublin on previous visits, but of course not IKEA or Aldi, sadly.

"Not this time," I say. "We had some other things to do. But it wasn't my first time here." I have wonderful plans of telling him about the time I was thrown out of the Trinity College library for checking the time on my mobile phone, but he's not listening.

"Just north of here," he's saying, "is the Valley of the Kings."

"Older than the pyramids of Giza," I break in because I love it when I know things.

"Yes," he says. "The Egyptian pyramids are around 3500 years old while the tombs in Ireland are--"

"Around 5000."

"Yes," he says, a bit irritated not to be the only know-it-all here.

"I haven't been there," I admit. "I read it in an article on the plane."

He goes on to list everything I made a mental note of seeing on the plane to Dublin, punctuating it with "You have to see Newgrange."

"Winter solstice at dawn?"

"The alignment of the sun," he says.

"Through the opening."

"Yes. So you've been there?"

"No. I just read about it on the plane." I hang my head. "We did drive south to Greystones," I don't tell him. I don't have time. My flight to Munich is boarding, and my early-morning virtual tour guide has just realized he's sitting at the wrong gate. He's flying to Stockholm, I'm sure to give lectures about the history of Ireland.

Click here to check out my Travel Tuesdays Interview at! 

To start the I Must Be Off! A-Z challenge to win a copy of Dorothee Lang and Smitha Murthy's book Worlds Apart, go HERE for J is for Jerusalem! 

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Contrary, Prime Number Magazine, [PANK], Necessary Fiction, and Word Riot. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Expat Author Interview with Michelle Bailat-Jones

Author Michelle Bailat-Jone

Michelle Bailat-Jones is a writer and translator. Her début novel Fog Island Mountains won the 2013 Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction and will be published by Tantor Publishing in November 2014. She has also translated Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’s 1927 Swiss classic Beauty on Earth (Onesuch Press, 2013). Her fiction, poetry, translations, and criticism have appeared in a number of journals, including The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Quarterly Conversation, [PANK], Spolia Mag, Two Serious Ladies, Cerise Press and The Atticus Review. She lives in Switzerland.

IMBO: Hi, Michelle! Great to have you here at I Must Be Off! What took you to Switzerland? When you were a child, did you ever dream of living in another country?

Bailat-Jones: Thanks so much for inviting me. What brought me to Switzerland? The easy answer is that my husband is Swiss, but we actually met while he was completing a post-doc in the US. He taught/researched in the US while I finished my MFA and then in 2005 we decided to try his country for a while. When I met him I had just returned from several years in Japan, and I wasn't quite ready to settle down "for good" in the US so it seemed like an idea to try Switzerland. I am (and always have been) passionate about languages, and so I am drawn to immersion experiences. I suppose this also answers your second question. Yes, I certainly did dream of living in another country. In fact, I pretty much knew from a young age that I would be an expat. If that can be a life goal, I guess that was mine. (I was born in Japan, so I can probably thank my parents for the idea.)
Mount Rainier -- an artist's rendering
IMBO: OK, so you were born in Japan, but imagine you're playing Taboo and you can't name the place. How would you describe it to let us know where you're really from? I tell people Country Music, Jack Daniels, Walking Horses.

Bailat-Jones: This is a really hard question for me to answer. I'll tweak the game a little and take one related item from each of the places I've lived and still consider some part of my home: Mt. Sakurajima, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, les Dents du Midi. (Kyūshū - Seattle, WA - Portland, OR - Switzerland). I was born in southern Japan and the volcanoes and mountains are a big part of living there. In the same way, the views of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood are inseparable from my time growing up in the Pacific Northwest. I went back to live near Mt. Sakurajima after college, and then after just a few years back in the US, I moved to Switzerland, where I've now lived for nearly ten years. Portland, Oregon and Switzerland are now the two places I've lived the longest. I'm jealous sometimes of people who have a fixed "home" and how that becomes a reference point for everything else, and then at the same time I feel really lucky to have lived in so many different places, to have experienced or created a feeling of home in several places around the world.
IMBO: I hear you saying you’re a mountain person. Are you at home in the mountains? Do you hike?
Bailat-Jones: I do hike and I love being outside. Mountain forests are some of my favourite places in the world - to wander, to explore. But I think I‘m just as interested in mountains for the view they provide. I like the perspective and for the short time I once lived in the mid-west of the US, I felt a little lost at the flatness.
 Les Dents du Midi
IMBO: Flat places drive me crazy. There's no up. How was it adjusting to the expat life?

Bailat-Jones: Mostly it was fine. Switzerland is a beautiful country and still very rural. So the part of me that craves silence and stunning vistas is constantly fed. And Switzerland suits me so well with its four national languages and huge immigrant populations. There is an incredible diversity here in which I'm very happy to live. I'm also lucky in that I already spoke French when I arrived - so integrating on a day-to-day function level was not a challenge. But there are obvious cultural differences that can be a challenge to negotiate. I live in a part of Switzerland (the canton of Vaud) that is not known for its warmth and hospitality. Swiss people here can be quite reserved. This isn't always true, obviously, but there's truth in the idea. My husband, however, comes from a different part of Switzerland (the Jura) where people are more boisterous and welcoming, and he comes from a very big (and large-hearted) family so I am spoiled with connections and support in that sense. But there are certainly days when I miss living within my own culture, when it can be tiring that every interaction seems to revolve around this idea of "I am different from you because of X" and that sort of thing.

IMBO: I’m familiar with those sometimes infuriating discussions of difference. Has living in Switzerland changed you? Has this experience changed the way you write?

Bailat-Jones: I think that living in Switzerland, living abroad in general, has changed me. I’m not sure I will ever feel quite comfortable living the US again, for example. And I think this is quite common to a lot of expat experiences. And yes, it has definitely changed how I write—not just because of my job as a translator and the focus on language that this has given me, but also because of an awareness of how literature works in different countries. Sometimes I fear that the American publishing machine puts an emphasis on a certain kind of storytelling, often (but not always) prescribing a “best” or “only” way to impact a reader. And I don’t think that imperative exists so strongly in a place without such a huge industry.

IMBO: You have a book coming out. Congratulations! I want to know all about it, and I'm sure there are lots of IMBO readers out there who would as well.

Bailat-Jones: The book is called
Fog Island Mountains, and it's set in southern Japan in a fictional town called Komachi. It's a novel about the destructive/difficult decisions that can be made when a person is grieving, and about a very particular grief situation between a mixed-culture couple and their children and friends. But it also involves Japanese folktales, and in particular the Kitsune folktale tradition. Kitsune means fox in Japanese and there are different kinds of fox stories in Japanese folklore. The first are the stories of foxes transforming themselves into young, beautiful women to trick young men into marriage, and the second are about nine-tailed foxes who are essentially omnipotent, with the ability to be anywhere and hear anything at any given time. The story takes place as a large typhoon hits the island, something that happens every late summer in southern Japan and which can cause incredible damage.

IMBO: This sounds fascinating, something I’d love to read. I see it’s on pre-order right now at Barnes & Noble online. Do you have a publication date yet? What’s the best way to purchase the book? 
Bailat-Jones: The book is set for publication on November 4th. And I’d love for people to buy it through their favourite local bookshop, but it can also be purchased online via the usual channels. The publisher has links.

IMBO: I’ve also seen around the web that you will be reading from the book. Can you give us an idea of where?

Bailat-Jones: I’ll be giving a reading at The Center for Fiction in NYC on November 6th, and I’ll be doing a reading in Switzerland on November 22nd at Books, Books, Books in Lausanne.
IMBO: Finally, I always ask the expat authors I interview for a recommendation of another expat author.

Bailat-Jones: I’ll recommend two that have something to do with Switzerland – the first, Agota Kristof, who was a Hungarian writer who came to live in Switzerland and learned to write in French. Her works are translated into English and they are challenging, powerful and thought-provoking novels. And the second is Clarisse Francillon, a Swiss-born writer who lived almost her entire life in France. She has yet to be translated into English but her work reminds me quite strongly of Mavis Gallant (another wonderful expat writer!). She was also Malcolm Lowry’s translator into French.

IMBO: Thank you, Michelle! And thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Wishing you tons of success with your novel, Fog Island Mountains

Bailat-Jones:  Thank you so much!

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Quiddity, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, [PANK], Necessary Fiction, and Word Riot. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice.