Tag Archives: writing

Taking Flight: On WINGS OF WAX, #MFA programs, & Finding Your Voice #MondayBlogs

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March Madness is nearly upon us, dear readers. No, I’m not referring to the NCAA basketball tournament, though I will try to find some time to watch a game or two while conducting a publicity tour around the publication of my debut novel, WINGS OF WAX. Work and leisure balance, right?

WINGS OF WAX is scheduled to hit retailers on Thursday, March 10th, two weeks prior to the release of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2, the sequel to Nia Vardalos’ wildly successful 2002 film about the loveable Portokalos family. The movie’s opening date coincides with Greek Independence Day, March 25th, so next month is shaping up to have quite the Hellenic flair. In looking forward to March, I’m also compelled to reflect on the past, waaay back to 2009 when I was a second-year graduate student struggling to find my story in a Creative Writing MFA program.

In 2008, I began graduate school studies at Mills College in Oakland, CA. I spent the first semester feeling my way around campus, taking lit classes and reading novels. I was in a critique group, but didn’t do much writing, primarily due to the fact that I entered the Creative Writing program with what I thought was a completed novel: an urban Oakland tale of a young man coping with the loss of his murdered brother. Each week I submitted sections of this story for feedback. For the most part, my work earned positive response from fellow writers. I seemed destined to cruise through the next couple years in route to earning my degree. Not quite.

Despite the early praise of my novel draft, I didn’t feel tied to the story. In reading over the work, it seemed as though someone else had written it. The characters and circumstances didn’t interest me, though I didn’t want to admit that to myself. Besides, I figured that if my colleagues enjoyed the work, I must have been doing something right.

Fast forward to the second semester at Mills. The same writing excerpts which had previously earned praise were panned this time around. My new critique group’s professor, a well-accomplished novelist who shall remain unnamed, marred my workshop submissions with red pen—truly mightier than the sword—to the point that I began to think of the page as my flesh; the crimson streaks across it akin to fresh wounds.

Each week in class, this professor peered at me across the room, her raven eyes brimming a predatory ferocity below equally dark bangs. She and uttered things like, “You need to do a better job inhabiting your characters. Your people aren’t real yet. This story reads like a TV show.”

A TV show? Ouch!

Unless someone is comparing your story to the likes of The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men for instance, no serious novelist wants to hear that their work is mere television without the pictures.

“You need to write from a place of authenticity,” my professor went on to say, “Write your story. The word is all that matters.”

As harsh as this professor could be, I began to realize, after shoving my ego out of the way, that she had the best of intentions. She was pushing me, like any good teacher or mentor, to do the work and get better. I know she didn’t mean I needed to literally write my story, but, in some sense, that’s what I began to do.

Heading into the final year of grad school, I gave much thought to the notion that despite the emphasis on the ancient Greeks’ contributions to world culture, there seems very little written in regard to modern Greek culture, and the experience of Greek-Americans in particular. Of course we do have the movie MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ stellar novel MIDDLESEX, but what else? The more I considered this, the more compelled I felt to write from my own experience, not in the sense of writing an autobiographical story, but in respect to joining other Greek-American artists in illuminating our heritage.

I began WINGS OF WAX fall semester of 2009, though it wasn’t called WINGS OF WAX at that point. “Flight Paths” was an early title. The earliest draft of the story began with Angelo standing outside of an exotic bird shop, his dreaded place of employment, while pondering the world beyond his inner-turmoil. In fact, the novel’s early incarnations were almost entirely focused on the protagonist’s interiority; a kind of stream-of-consciousness depiction of a young man’s deepest insecurities and anxieties as he tries to forge a place for himself within the local Greek community.

I started the story with no outline, though I did have a vague idea as to how it would end. The writing came fast and easy. It was a fun project—the book I should have been writing all along; the novel I had finally given myself permission to produce. Above all else, that was the greatest thing I gained from the program. Even my old professor, the toughest of critics, saw potential. She told me to keep pushing, to continue forging deeper into the story’s truth. That seems to be the most valuable aspect of attending an MFA program: You allow yourself time to write and read, and in doing so you find your voice.

The next semester, my final at Mills College, the story finally began to take shape to most closely resemble the novel that it is today. At least in the sense that it’s no longer a stream-of-conscious narrative as Angelo’s struggles are reflected in how he interacts with the world around him and outside of his head. This makes for, apparently, a more compelling read.

As graduation neared, I submitted for approval my thesis, sixty pages of a new novel draft, a Greek-American narrative now titled WINGS OF WAX. In the months after earning my degree, I completed the draft. I then spent the next several years revising the book, listening to the valuable opinions of my peers, and sharpening the story’s structure. I submitted the novel to publishers and agents, racked up some rejections, and did some more revision work. I sent it out again, almost signed a deal or two, but they didn’t pan out. Finally, seven years after the story idea sprouted in my mind, WINGS OF WAX is on the brink of soaring into readers’ hands at last courtesy of Seattle’s Booktrope Publishing. I found my story, and a publisher, and had a lot of fun in the process. In reading the novel, you might find that it is your story, too.

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A Greek-American Dream by Guest #Author Steve Karas #MondayBlogs #amreading

Hello readers,

This week I welcome friend and fellow Greek-American writer Steve Karas. A Chicago native, Karas is the author of the stellar short story collection Kinda Sorta American Dream. I had the pleasure of blurbing Karas’ book, and what initially stands out is his range as a writer. As he explores the theme of identity in both contemporary and futuristic visions of America, he inhabits the diverse voices of a Greek-American diner owner, an African-American cop, and a Indian-American woman, among others with deftness and empathy. He introduces us to people struggling to make a life for themselves in America, and despite the familiar settings, both urban and rural,
the stories feel fresh and vibrant.

In contributing a post to the blog, I asked Steve to touch on his Greek roots, his experience growing up in Chicago, and the ways in which his background as a psychologist informs his writing process.

Please enjoy Karas in his own words!

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My family began its migration from Greece to America in the early 1900s. My great-grandfather, Ioannis, was the first, passing through Ellis Island in 1902 with eighteen dollars in his pocket. He landed in Chicago’s Near West Side, then the largest Greek immigrant community in the country. He came here for the same reasons so many other Greeks did at that time—to escape a poor economic climate, find employment. I don’t know if he ever intended to stay, or if he had any idea he’d be giving his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren opportunities they wouldn’t have in Greece. My mom and dad followed in 1960 and 1970, respectively, unmarried at the time, strangers in fact. They came to join family that had settled here before them with the hope of having a better life. By the late 1990s, it’s safe to say my parents were living the American Dream. Both had established careers, they’d bought a house, saved a bit of money, sent two kids off to college. So as a late teen/early twenty-something-year-old, when I told my parents I wanted to be a fiction writer, I can only imagine what they were thinking. I was studying psychology in school, but having doubts about that path as my heart was in writing. What they told me was that I should stick with pursuing a more stable career. I remember having a talk with my dad during one of my college breaks.

“Position yourself so you have options,” he said. “After you have your degree you can do whatever you want.”

“This isn’t some hobby. A good job is one that makes you happy.”

“A good job is one that pays.”

I huffed, loudly I’m sure. Didn’t the Greeks have a rich history in literature, after all? How about Homer? Hadn’t my dad read the Iliad, the Odyssey?

“Get your degree, and then you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Just make sure you have options.”

I thought it would be too late by then. I never considered I could do both.

I traveled to Greece a couple years later, the summer before I was to begin graduate school in psychology. I remember meeting up with a close friend who had been living there and pursuing a soccer career after a series of knee injuries had cut short a promising college stint in the States. He’d been confronted by one road block after another in Greece: offers that had fallen through, shifty agents, corrupt coaches and team presidents. We’d spent the day carving through the Monastiraki flea market in the old town of Athens and Plaka, the historic neighborhood built on the foothills of the Acropolis. We took a break from the sun on the cobbled steps of a hidden alleyway, between white-washed cube homes, just beneath the Acropolis’ walls. I lamented about having to start school, how I’d felt pushed into it by my parents, how my dream of becoming a writer was being squelched.

He said, “If things don’t work out for me now, boom, I’m done. That’s it. And I’ll always wonder, what if? I’m telling you straight—you? You have your whole life to write.”

That stuck with me. Funny how when we’re young the things our friends tell us sometimes carry more weight than the words of our parents, the people who typically know us and love us most, have our best interest at heart.

My career as a psychologist has been a blessing. Above all, it’s been fulfilling. I hope I’ve helped people. On top of that, it’s fueled my writing career. My work as a psychologist and my Greek-American roots, in fact, probably had the greatest influence on the writing of my debut short story collection, Kinda Sorta American Dream.

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As a psychologist, I’ve tried to empathize with people from different walks of life, which has undoubtedly benefited me as a writer. I’ve worked with young people who are first generation immigrants like my parents. I’ve even counseled a few who moved to America from Greece amidst the recent crisis and struggled to assimilate into the American culture (probably not too unlike my propapou, Ioannis). I’ve worked with second generation immigrants, people like me, whose parents had come from Mexico and Poland, many of whom didn’t speak any English, but who knew they wanted better lives for their children. More than any other group, I’ve worked with kids whose families have been in America for generations, and it’s sometimes this group who I think experiences some of the greatest struggles. It’s often made me think about the value of suffering, of having to work hard to provide food, shelter, a future, not to mention iPads and flat screen TVs. It’s made me consider how my wife and I will balance handing things to our kids and having them earn what they get.

Of course, no one is more proud of my book getting published than my parents. They’ve sent a heap of copies to friends and family in Greece. The path to writing it was a circuitous one. But when I trace it back, in many ways, my dream leads to my family’s dream. To my parents and their wisdom. To Papou Ioannis. Even to America and the pull it had on them all.

Steve Karas is the author of Kinda Sorta American Dream (Tailwinds Press, 2015) and Mesogeios (forthcoming from WhiskeyPaper Press, 2016). His stories have appeared in various literary journals, including Necessary Fiction, jmww, Hobart, and Little Fiction. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids. Please visit his website at steve-karas.com.