It’s a new year but many of us are still catching up on the 2014 books littering critic’s lists. There are plenty to choose from, with dozens of new titles published each week of the year. Two weeks into 2015, though, there are already contenders for the best of 2015 lining shelves and vying for attention. One of these is Thomas Pierce’s debut, Hall of Small Mammals, which was released last week. A collection of short stories, the book features previously published works mixed in with new ones. Locals will have the chance to hear Pierce read his work on January 16 at the Bridge.
Currently living in Charlottesville, Pierce graduated from UVA’s Creative Writing MFA program in 2013. Since then, he has enjoyed growing success, publishing widely and garnering praise in the national literary community. His offbeat short stories are at once surreal and all too ordinary. As he phrases it, they take place in “a universe that’s two or three inches to the left of this one.” It’s a place where, for instance, it seems completely rational to foster a Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth in your laundry room, feeding it tubs of mixed nuts, as one character does in the story “Shirley Temple Three.”
Pierce’s work isn’t pure fantasy though. Rather, the unbelievable nature of the narrative allows room for a very real examination of relationships and reality. “In the strictest sense they aren’t what is typically labeled as realist, but it’s important to me that they are in dialogue with the real world and with the way we live now,” said Pierce.
Many characters face the normal challenges of coming to terms with their mistakes, growing up and adapting to changing life conditions. The story “Ba Baboon” examines the complexity of an older brother struggling to redefine the relationship with his sister after a brain injury. Thankfully, Pierce’s clever absurdity and sharp writing keep the stories from getting weighed down.
Formerly a producer and reporter with NPR, Pierce credits his time in radio with helping shape his engaging writing style. “When you’re writing for the radio, it’s best to construct your sentences as simply as possible,” he said. “You might have 20 seconds to convince someone to listen. I try to keep this in mind with my fiction too. I don’t want to lose people.”
Pierce peppers his stories with details from his experiences growing up in the South, using geographical themes and character quirks to weave a subtle fabric of context that’s familiar to a Southern reader without adhering to the expectations of regional writing. “The way I usually explain it is, the stories in this book have a slight Southern accent,” said Pierce.
To accompany the publication of Hall of Small Mammals, Pierce created a playlist for the stories, which will be published on the music blog largehearted boy. He also has an upcoming piece in issue No. 49 of McSweeney’s and will read at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March.
Joining Pierce for the Bridge Reading Series, poet Ansel Elkins will present work from her forthcoming debut collection, Blue Yodel. Elkins recently won the 2014 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, the oldest poetry prize in the United States. With this award, she joins past winners including Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery and other well-known poets. The award includes publication of Blue Yodel and a residency at the James Merrill House in Connecticut, where Elkins will begin working in June. She is the 109th poet to win the award since its origination in 1919.
Discussing what it means to be part of this prestigious tradition, Elkins said, “One of my favorite books in the Yale Series is Margaret Walker’s For My People, published in 1942. Walker is also from Alabama, and what I love so much about her poems in the book is that she lifts up her people, sings of their sufferings as well as joys.”
Elkins’ own work strives to do the same, attending to a variety of personas and experiences that are on the fringe of the everyday. Her work speaks in many voices and tells countless tales, whether it’s the severe, backlit void of a mother’s grief in “Ghost at My Door” or the sparse apocalyptic yearning in “Blues for the Death of the Sun.”
Elkins now lives in North Carolina. “I come from a long line of Southern journalists and so I grew up surrounded by storytellers, interviewers and people who had a natural curiosity about documenting the lives of others,” she said. Continuing this tradition, Elkins’ work is often a conscious and rigorous examination of the South and the people inhabiting it. Her poems are elegiac and painful at times, arresting in their unwavering gaze.
The Bridge Reading Series will be followed by the second installment of the Screensavers series, featuring collaborative performances between local filmmakers, musicians and poets.
What are your favorite books from 2014? Tell us in the comments.