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Alpha is a science-fiction, fantasy, and horror writing workshop for writers ages 14-19 held every year at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greenburg Campus.  This year’s workshop is scheduled for July 18-27th, in conjunction with Pittsburgh’s science fiction convention, Confluence.    They look for enthusiastic, talented young writers who have a strong interest in science fiction, fantasy and/or horror and a passion for writing.

As a two-time alumni of the Alpha workshop (I applied the summer after my freshman year at UCLA, and was invited back the year after), Alpha provides a great opportunity to learn more about writing, learn from famous authors (including Tamora Pierce), and to meet like-minded writers and life-long friends.

If you’re interested, the application date this year is MARCH 2nd, and all applicants must submit a story of 2000-6000 words.

I’m a big fan of speculative fiction (read: science fiction, fantasy, surrealism, and all its wonky spinoffs and subcategories).   These genres frequently get short shrift in the literary world, for a number of reasons often linked to what people perceive as their inability to answer big questions like “Who cares?” or “How is this even relevant?”

There are many possible answers, and many people who feel strongly either way, but by far the best and most coherent response I have read is a recent guest post by Cathrynne M. Valente in the blog of British science fiction author Charles Stross.

“Ask me about the future and I’ll tell you a fairy tale.  Ask me about the past and I’ll tell you about uploading. We are always writing about ourselves–we can’t help it. The difference between a post-human and a fairy, between a dragon and a lobster, is only in the name.”

Valente is an acclaimed author of award-winning works like The Orphan’s Tales and Palimpsest, is  by her own words, “a fantasy writer, and more particularly, a folklorist and historian.”

Last week, I had the honor of seeing author/journalist Joan Didion talk at Vibiano in downtown LA … an awkward English-major fantasy of mine since first reading The White Album my junior year of high school. Read more

Photograph © Matt Valentine, www.mattvalentine.com

So it’s a little old (about a month or so), but I just came across a nice little Q&A session with one of America’s poetry institutions, W.S. Merwin, and Nick Owchar of the Los Angeles Times.

While Merwin talks a lot about a Polish poet (Czeslaw Milosz) who was his friend, he also explains why he doesn’t use twitter or (gasp!) even email. It all boils down to too much convenience—the atrophying bane of modern society. I enjoy reading such interviews because, even if we don’t quite like an older dude’s ideas on and experiences with poetry, there is still a lot of wisdom that a well-read 84-year-old poet possesses.

So if you feel so inclined, go on and follow the link: Click me!

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The winners of the 2011 Best Translated Book Award were announced last week at the PEN World Voices Festival. Launched in 2008 by Three Percent, the online literature magazine of Open Letter Books, the award is given annually to the best work of poetry and best work of fiction to appear in English translation during the previous year (so the 2011 Award is given to works published in translation in 2010).

This year, the award’s fourth year, Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things, translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry, took the poetry prize, while the fiction award went to Thomas Teal’s translation from the Swedish of Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver. Aleš Šteger has been spoken of as “the best Slovenian poet of his generation,” and The Book of Things, which is about just that (aspirin, cork, chair) is not only his first American collection but his most praised work thus far. As for Tove Jansson, a Swedish-Finnish children’s writer turned adult fiction writer, Ursula K. LeGuin has raved of The True Deceiver: “[Jansson's] everyday Swedes are quite as strange as trolls, and her Swedish village in winter is as beautiful and dangerous as any forest of fantasy…The most beautiful and satisfying novel I have read this year.” (The Guardian)

Three Percent is one of the main resources on the web for those interested in international literature in the Western world, and is seeking to fill a gap by creating this award, the only prize of its kind to honor the best original works of international literature and poetry published in the U.S. over the previous year The award takes into consideration not only the quality of the translation but also the work of the original writer, translator, editor, and publisher.

In 2010, Amazon underwrote the prize with a $25,000 grant ($5000 each for the writer and translator of each work).

It was 7:15 p.m., which meant there were still 45 minutes before everyone would be seated, before the lights would dim, before the Grammy-Award-nominated-American-humor-writer-slash-comedian-slash-bestselling-author-slash-radio person (all from Wikipedia) would walk onstage, take a sip of water, and crack a joke or two, or 10, or 72 million.

As I was walking through the quad toward the steps of Royce Hall on Wednesday, my friend was telling me about her experience during last year’s reading.

“He signed books before the event started,” she said. “The line was short because people didn’t know they would have a book signing beforehand, so they didn’t think to go early.”

I felt like a C.I.A. agent who was acquiring top secret information in order to infiltrate some heavily fortified building, while preparing my “surprised-but-still-composed” face, just in case something catastrophic happened that could foil my plans. I was also cursing myself for leaving my black, shiny shades at home—you know, the one equipped with camera shooting and picture transmitting and all.

“He asked me what my favorite animal was, and I couldn’t think, so I just spitted out, ‘lemur,’” my friend continued. “But he didn’t know what that was. So he just drew me a generic shape with some limbs.”

I wanted a generic-shape-blob drawing on my book too. So after I weaved through the small groups of people and stepped into the lobby, I grew even more excited when I saw the short line (which grew five million times longer in the next 10 minutes). But at that point, there were only seven people between me and David Sedaris. And I was never so excited for a blob before.

When we got to his table, Sedaris doodled a turtle-hare on my friend’s book, sighing, “Wouldn’t that be frustrating?” He was also trying to decipher my friend’s necklace, asking if it spelled out “shell” or “pork.” I looked at her necklace and realized that it was just a squiggle of ribbons.

I opened up my Me Talk Pretty One Day, and asked him to insult me. He promptly wrote, “To Angelica: Why are you such a wh***?”

I was never happier.

Sedaris opened the show with a story from his most recently released, Squirrel seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary. His hands folded onto the ends of the podium, and his voice unfolded a narration, a voice familiar to fans worldwide in audio recordings. And YouTube.

The animal fable he read was different from his usual autobiographical glimpses that focuses on his upbringing in Raleigh, family life, school, homosexuality, and anything Sedaris-life-related because it was, well, an animal fable. But it did have the same underlying sense of sadness wrapped with a coat of humor that set the tone for the rest of the night. It was about a forbidden kind of love, it talked about the misinterpretation of the word “jazz” (like being slang for anal sex), and it touched on themes of memory, forgetfulness, happiness. It was called “The Squirrel and the Chipmunk.” It was about a squirrel and a chipmunk.

Sedaris shared other stories that he’s working on, which addressed the frustrations of learning foreign languages, the differences between German and Japanese cultures, his attempts to garner his father’s approval at his swim meets, and his “hatred” of Donny Osmand (who later haunts him in a Las Vegas billboard). Sedaris also read entries from his journal, which included jokes he had learned from fans at book signings (including “A: How does a Mexican cut his pizza? B: With Little Caesars”), and his experience of standing in line at a hotel café behind a couple who took 4903.2317 years to order.

The lady sitting to the left of me literally couldn’t keep her seat. She would have spurts of laughter that rocked my chair every so often, and I couldn’t help but pun in my mind when I looked around me to gauge everyone else’s reactions, “David Sedaris is definitely rockin’ the house.” It was a full house, and the entire theatre echoed with “awws” and “woops” and laughter and applause.

He took a mini break from his storytelling to feature a novella by Tobias Wolff called The Barracks Thief. One of his favorites, he claimed that it was one he could read over and over and over again and still love. And that’s why it’s such a good book, he said.

The talk ended with a short Q&A session, where audience members asked him questions like whether anyone in his stories have ever ended up in one of his audiences, whether his family or friends had qualms about being in his stories, whether he was okay with his stories being edited.

Sedaris answered with little anecdotes that were just as enjoyable as the stories he read. He talked about the time he called his dad, wanting to let him know that he had made it on the New York Times Bestseller list. His dad merely answered, “Well, you’re not on the Wall Street Journal’s  Bestseller list.” But Sedaris also reminded the audience that it was precisely this attitude from his dad (before the invention of self-esteem, as he said) that drove him and challenged him to be who he is. And that he was truly grateful.

He concluded the Q&A about his trust in editors, which included another anecdote about his trip to China and how he wanted to mention in his writings the superfluous presence of human poop there. However, he didn’t see it as an absolute setback or criticism of travelling to China. Instead he turned it around as a kind of phenomenon, encouraging people to go there just to see the turd.

To me, that’s what Sedaris is about, turning turd into something phenomenal and novel, but funny and somewhat familiar.

If you’re creative at heart and looking to improve your craft, you’ll want to make sure to stop by the 39th annual Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference (SBWC) this June. Designed for both published and unpublished writers, the Conference offers a range of workshops, speakers, panel discussions, and one-on-one meetings with agents that allow literary enthusiasts to come together for support, instruction, and inspiration. For years, the SBWC has become a hallmark in the literary community.

After a two year hiatus, the SBWC is back with a board of esteemed speakers including Ray Bradbury, Clive Cussler, Eric Puchner, Drusilla Campbell, Simon Van Booy, and T.C. Boyle. Santa Barbara Magazine’s own Gina Tolleson will also be on the non-fiction panel.

Whether an experienced writer or just a bookworm, you can look forward to this one-of-a-kind event that connects best-selling authors, agents, publishers, and editors in a truly unique and memorable event. Receive feedback on your personal work from top-notch editors or simply sit in on a lecture or workshop. From plot and scene-setting to pitching and selling a script or story idea to editors, the SBWC will satisfy both writers and writing enthusiasts alike.

SBWC will take place June 18-23 at the Hotel Mar Monte. For more information, visit www.sbwriters.com.

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