Let’s Have a Serious Talk About James Franco

Let’s Have a Serious Talk About James Franco

Okay, writers, let’s have a serious talk about James Franco.


We have been talking some shit about this guy for a while now, and maybe it’s worth revisiting that. Last year, shortly after Franco made a video of his less-than-inspired and less-than-inspiring “inauguration” poem, we set out on a mission to hate on everything Franco attempted to contribute to the literary world. We even wore cardboard-cutout masks of his face around AWP in Boston.

But the guy is trying, people. He really is. Perhaps what we need to consider is that Franco has so much fame and so many resources, that his trying is significantly more public than our own. I mean, I wrote a really shitty poem the other day, shared it with maybe four people, and then it disappeared into the ether.

The difference is that if Franco tries to share a shitty poem with even one person, that person is most likely going to pass it on to a dozen of their friends. And on and on.

And all of us writerly folks are itching for the next chance to piss on his work.

That’s why we’ve been going nuts over this upcoming Franco adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

(Don’t get me wrong, here. I definitely was a little weirded out the first twenty times I saw his face below WILLIAM FAULKNER on the updated book covers.)

james-franco-as-i-lay-dyingJust think about it: you’re not going to boycott Franco’s As I Lay Dying because you have such low expectations for it; you’re going to pay $12.00 to see it when it’s still in theaters because you have such low expectations for it. And if it turns out to be a spectacular movie, sure, 75% of you will trash it because you and everyone else thinks it should be trashed; but 25% of you will be glad you paid the price of admission.

When I launched the Last Annual James Franco Award, I was not being serious. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I sincerely want Franco to send me his poetry. And I want it to be good. Should I not encourage him to write great stuff? That would kind of be like having James Franco as a student and telling him in every workshop, “I’m sorry, I just can’t take you seriously, James Franco. Maybe you should just give up or be somebody else.”

Yes, I will turn away any submissions that do not fit with the aesthetic of our press; but I’d be crazy to hate on Franco just because it’s cool to hate on Franco. When he sends me a poem, he will win the Last Annual James Franco Award. And if the poem knocks my socks off, I’ll publish the hell out of it.

Share your thoughts on Franco in the comments section of this post.

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Issue Ten: (the poetry issue)

Dear friends,

This is weird, new, exhilarating. Every couple of months, we scramble to put together the sexiest quarterly issue we can, typically fighting against a WordPress platform set on destroying our happiness. As David Kirby mentions in his guest interview with Alexandra Reisner, “there is a graphic quality to the poem.” WordPress, particularly with websites that deviate from its standard themes, does not play well with poetry that utilizes visuals (indentation, odd line breaks, etc.), and this has caused many problems with our editorial process. In some cases, we’ve had to sacrifice one thing or another to accommodate the conflicting needs of the poem and our web capabilities.

This time, however, I think we’ve won.

Maybe it’s been a long time coming, and maybe we’ve just been so focused on our day jobs that this has never dawned on us before, and maybe it’s just that developing a new format will introduce new problems of its own.

But here we are at a new launching point for Cobalt Review (we’ve been having a lot of these lately…and all for the better): we are moving to PDFs. Rather than having you click through our quarterly issue on the website, you can now read the entire issue by opening a single file. Plus, you can download it and send it to your friends and family, rather than hoping they click that desperate link you keep posting on Facebook and/or Twitter.

Okay, so here we go. Click the image below to download ISSUE TEN.

(the poetry issue)


Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

goldfinch-3_4When a book arrives with a $30 cover price, weighing about as much as a small animal, readers may possibly view it askance and move on to something else. Those readers would be wrong. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s new novel, is enormous and intricate, not to mention expensive. It requires a commitment to wade through such a densely textured novel, and readers newly learning of Ms. Tartt may not understand that the commitment tends to be worth it. Her debut novel, The Secret History, appeared in 1992 and won her the hearts (and attention spans) of the masses. Her second, The Little Friend, came a decade later. Devoted readers have waited since then for another of her eccentric, intelligent, deeply literate novels, and this one does not disappoint.

Simply put, The Goldfinch is really, really good, not least because, as it turns out, Ms. Tartt is exceptionally good at bringing to life young men of a particular type as her narrators:  Richard Papen in The Secret History, and Theo Decker in The Goldfinch.

Theo and Richard are not that different — they’re both somewhat effete, socially grasping, unparented, out of their depth in every possible way, and inclined to a somewhat shifting morality depending on a) what they want and b) who else wants it. The advantage with Theo is that we spend many more years with him, and so we watch him age from a fairly steady boy into a wonderfully unsteady man as he becomes increasingly unmoored. It helps that Ms. Tartt is better at writing teenage boys than most current American authors. Oddly, she is not nearly as good at writing girls, which is part of why The Little Friend was not great. It’s also one of the weaknesses of both The Secret History and The Goldfinch — there are girls all over the place, but they are not as compelling or deeply drawn as even the minor boys. Even Camilla, who plays Muse to all the boys of The Secret History, doesn’t really come to life until the very end of the book, and Pippa, Theo’s focal point for much of The Goldfinch, is absent and too busy being enigmatic. Older adult women, however, fare much better — Theo’s dead mother is a cipher, but in a good way, and Xandra and Mrs. Barbour, the not-mothers to whom Theo attaches himself, are intriguing and compelling, as well as being among the few really sympathetic characters in the novel.

Meanwhile, The Goldfinch has so much depth, in so many ways, that it is often fruitcake-dense. The details of furniture and wardrobe, of restoration (in literal and figurative senses), of landscape, are intricate and deftly drawn. Several reviewers have called the book “Dicksensian,” which explains both what I loved about it and what I did not. On the one hand, the details are spectacular, and the narrative makes sense. It would have been brilliant as a serial. On the other, there are way too many people in the novel, and often too much reliance on coincidence, and sometimes it gets a little choked as a result. Stephen King, in his terrific NYT review of The Goldfinch, compares it to Oliver Twist. Having read his review, I now want to look at Oliver Twist again; making the comparison backwards might help me like Dickens. While I agree with King’s link of Boris to the Artful Dodger (more on Boris in a minute) and Theo’s terrible dad to Fagin, I think comparing Theo to Oliver is less clear — Oliver is naive and fairly boring, with none of the layers that make Theo so difficult and interesting. He is much more Pip or David Copperfield than he is Oliver.

Speaking of Boris, I have mixed feelings about him. He reminds me both of the expatriated quasi-Russian not-Soviet boys I used to teach in Queens and of Alex Perchov, the narrator of Everything is Illuminated. Boris is fraught in some of the same ways, but, like Alex, sometimes his weird (and often wonderful) accent and character take up too much space. The role that Boris plays in the huge narrative arc of The Goldfinch, and in the story of the painting from which the novel takes its name, is huge, and not entirely successful.

Also, normally I don’t mind prologues, but I felt that this one lent nothing to the story, and I wish that Ms. Tartt had begun at the beginning, with Theo and his mother. As for the end… There are moments of glorious light that come through it, but it presents a thoughtfulness (and a self-awareness) to Theo that I didn’t feel like I had ever seen before in the novel, and that I am still not sure I believed. Did the ending make my chest hurt? Yes, although not as much as I thought it would.

What really got me was the relationship between Theo and James Hobart, or Hobie, the furniture restoration master who befriends and mentors him. I don’t want to write much about Hobie, because he made me so sad, but I think he is the first Donna Tartt character I’ve ever wanted to know in real life. Also, I have rarely encountered a novel that handled grief as well as this one does; whatever else Theo is doing, he is also trying to understand the loss of his mother and how he can go forward after her sudden, awful death (this is not a spoiler, as Theo tells us she is dead almost immediately). The way that Ms. Tartt handles Theo’s sorrow is extraordinary — even when Theo gets a bit maudlin, the novel never does, and both his heartbreak and the misery of how his life has to change are gorgeously done. Likewise, the care that Ms. Tartt has taken to make the painting itself (a real painting, presented here with a wholly alternate life story) a character in the book is astonishing. Even when the other details of this read have faded, the little golden bird and its chain are going to stick in my mind for a very, very long time.

Overall, I loved this book, and I look forward to reading it again. Donna Tartt is perhaps better than she’s ever been. While The Goldfinch certainly has flaws and some moments where the prose gets ahead of itself, those problems are wildly overshadowed by the book’s strengths.

Info:  Little, Brown and Company, 784 pages, $30.00 hardcover, October 2013


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Publisher Series, Vol. 7: SOHO Press

Cobalt: Tell us a little about Soho Press. How did you get started? What do you publish, in a nutshell?

Bronwen Hruska: The idea for Soho Press was conceived in a bar in Soho in the mid 80s (which I think pretty much set the tone for Soho’s personality, come to think of it). My mother and father, Laura and Alan Hruska and their good friends Dial Press editor Juris Jurjevics and novelist Laurie Colwin, were bemoaning the state of publishing. Big houses weren’t willing to take a chance on debut novelists and there were so many great novels out there that simply weren’t seeing the light of day (sound familiar?). By the end of that evening the decision had been made. My mother and Juris would head an independent publishing company that would accept unsolicited manuscripts (as well as agented ones), and publish books they loved. The idea was that if they loved the books, someone else out there would, too.

While Soho started as a publisher of literary fiction, by 1991 they had added a new imprint, Soho Crime, which specialized in exotic crime fiction. All the books in the Soho Crime imprint (with very few exceptions) are set outside the US and feature a protagonist that is, at least partially, of that culture. This was long before the concept of “international crime fiction” existed, and fans of the genre became lifelong fans of Soho Crime, going into bookstores looking for the branded Soho Crime spine and buying up whatever they could find. While I have the floor, a big thank you to the devoted Soho Crime lovers out there! They’ve made it possible to expand the imprint dramatically over the years, and to great success: the Nina Borg series, set in Denmark, being our most famous to date (The Boy in the Suitcase hit #6 on the New York Times combined bestseller list recently, and has remained on the list for three weeks running).

The success of Soho Crime has become an identifying feature of Soho Press’ program, but the literary fiction that the press was founded on is still doing amazing things. Our 2012 LA Times Book Prize-winner, Luminarium, by Alex Shakar, is a great example of the surprising and ambitious fiction we’re publishing at Soho.

Our third and newest imprint, Soho Teen, launched in January of this year. The line offers mystery and thrillers for the high school set (and beyond). There isn’t another YA publisher dedicated to the genre, which is so popular among teens. That said, our Teen books fall into many categories—fantasy, dystopia, supernatural, historical, contemporary—each story has a mystery or thriller element at its heart. Soho has never attempted Young Adult before, and doing so posed a variety of new and exciting challenges. Nabbing YA veteran Daniel Ehrenhaft to acquire and edit was a big coup.

I guess one thing that sets us apart is our dedication to our authors. Not only do we love our authors, we are authors—three of the eleven full-time employees at the company are published novelists and yet more have had short fiction published. It always floors me when I hear about the way some publishers treat their authors. Bottom line, we couldn’t do what we do without our authors. So starting with a fair contract is key, and making sure our authors are happy and involved throughout the publishing process is paramount. I’m proud that Soho is such an author-friendly house. I guess the litmus test is whether I’d want to be published by us, and the answer is a resounding yes.

Cobalt: How do you obtain the manuscripts that you publish, and how many of your authors are previously unpublished (no prior books, that is)? How many manuscripts are taken out of the slush pile, or is there a slush pile

Hruska: The big houses are more wary than ever of signing authors with a lack of sales history (ie debut novelists), but they’re also wary of the midlist author with low sales history. Since we’re not offering six figure advances, what we tend to see are books big houses have passed on for any number of reasons. And there are so many talented authors with wonderful books that are being passed on. We edit. And we market. We need to work very hard and find creative ways of breaking out a new author, or breaking out of a bad sales track. It just goes with the territory.  If we love a book (and being the size we are we won’t publish a book we don’t love), the challenge is fun and gratifying.

In terms of how manuscripts come to us, there’s no easy answer. Yes, we get many submissions from agents. The most successful submissions are from agents who have a real understanding of what we do and where our tastes lie.

For example, if agents are paying attention, they’ve noticed that over the past few years Soho has put a huge emphasis on our literary fiction imprint. We’ve tried to shine a light on the new, bold, voice-driven direction our literary fiction imprint has taken. So if an agent sends us commercial chick lit, I know they haven’t done their homework. Likewise for agents who send us mysteries set in Wisconsin. It doesn’t matter how literary the mystery is, it’s just not what we do (unless you can make a great argument for a fascinating pocket of exotic crime activity in Wisconsin). We do have a slush pile (recently we’ve narrowed it to literary fiction slush only) that produced one of our big successes of 2012: That’s Not A Feeling, by Dan Josefson (NYT Editors’ Choice, Booklist Editors’ Choice, Barnes and Noble Discover New Voices selection). So we definitely pay attention to our slush.

And then there’s the moment when the stars align and it just happens. Case in point: We just bought an amazing novel by Dylan Landis, which came to us because I met Judith Freeman, who was moderating a panel I was on at the LA Times Festival of Books. She asked if she could refer writers our way, and a few days later Dylan’s agent got in touch. Kismet.

For the record: One thing I’m not so crazy about is when people I don’t know send me manuscripts via Facebook. Yeah, don’t do it.

Cobalt: Let’s suppose that you’ve just read a manuscript, love it, and are making that phone call (or sending that email/letter) to the author. How does that conversation typically go?

Hruska: It depends. Sometimes we’ll love a book but know that it needs a big edit. Or we love a book but have a few very specific changes we’d want the author to make. I like the editor to get on the phone with the author to talk it through, to see if the author is amenable. Because if not, no one will be happy with the process. Sometimes an author is deciding between a few houses and wants to hear the editor’s thoughts, notes, comments and level of enthusiasm. I’d say in about half the cases there’s a “pre-offer” conversation with the author.

But once we’ve made the decision to offer on a book, the book’s editor has the happy task of saying yes to the author or agent. The nature of the beast, unfortunately, is that there are so many no’s in our business that we have to revel in the yesses. That first phone call is the beginning of a long, close working relationship between author and editor.

Cobalt: You began with Soho in 2008, and quickly moved into the role of publisher in 2010. What were you doing initially, and what made you want to take over?

Hruska: The first twenty years of my career were dedicated to writing. I worked as a journalist and screenwriter and sold movies and television pilots to studios and networks (and in true Hollywood form, nothing was produced). I had started a novel (Accelerated, which was published last year by Pegasus Books) when I started Soho in 2008. To come clean, I never intended to get into publishing. But when my mother got sick in 2008 with a recurrence of breast cancer, I had a decision to make. Juris had already left the company to become a full-time novelist, and my mother asked if I wanted to come to Soho with an eye toward taking it over. I won’t lie. I had to think about it.

But I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime offer, and I would have been an idiot to say no. I said yes. Then I spent a very humbling couple of years trying to figure out what this publishing business was all about. Oh, and I had to figure out how to run a company, which I had never done. I felt like I was 21 in my first job out of college. Clueless… and working with my mother. But the more I understood about the business, and about the company, the more I loved it. And when the moment came for me to step into the role of publisher, I was, if not ready, more ready. My mother trained me well, and I still hear her voice in my head (“Always pay the printer first!”).

And I love Soho. As soon as I figured out some things and was able to take some ownership, I was hooked. At first I thought that my lack of inside publishing knowledge would hurt me—that I’d never fully catch up. But I don’t worry about that anymore. I mean, it’s true, I have holes in my knowledge of publishing. I don’t know all the players. I didn’t dance on bars with them at The Union Square Café in the ‘80s. But I also have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective and don’t feel married to Old School ways that just don’t seem to make sense anymore.

Also, coming into publishing in 2008, right when ebooks were surfacing, put me neck and neck with everyone else trying to figure out how to shift and bend and yield to something totally new. And in fact, I find that I’m less scared than some other publishers when it comes to digital books. It really is a huge period of opportunity.  People are buying more books (and hopefully reading more books!), and that’s a good thing for everyone. Are there potential pitfalls and question marks all over the place? Of course. But it’s one step at a time, and the beauty of being a lean independent press is that we can be exceptionally agile. We can, and do, try new approaches, just to see what works. And then we change them, because what worked three months ago might not work next week. Things are moving fast. It’s a constant challenge to figure out what’s next and how to capitalize on the many opportunities out there. But really, that’s what keeps it fun.

The past five years have been incredible, and I’m truly lucky to be able to work with such a creative, intelligent and energetic group of people. Coming to work every day is a pleasure, and that’s not something many people can (honestly) say.

Cobalt: Are there any challenges specific to the types of work that Soho publishes?

Hruska: Literary fiction is hard. Debut literary fiction is harder. Mid-list literary fiction is harder still. So yeah, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Finding the books for our list is only the beginning. Convincing readers to take a chance on a hardcover book by an author they haven’t read is the biggest challenge. Building awareness of Soho’s literary titles has been a labor of love, and I think our Herculean efforts are paying off. I see our books out there in the world more than ever (a nod of thanks here to Random House, our distributor of the past two-and-a-half years). We’re getting great review attention and award nominations. It seems like we’re constantly on the road at trade shows to get galleys into the hands of librarians and booksellers, speaking on panels and talking up the books to whoever will listen. Over the past few years Soho’s marketing and publicity department has grown from two people to five, which has made a huge difference in terms of our ability to raise awareness for our books.

Cobalt: This year seems to be going quite well for Soho. Matt Bell’s IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS (I am always happy when I can nail that without double-checking!) and Christopher Hacker’s THE MORELS have both gotten a lot of recognition this year, and I can’t go anywhere without seeing at least one of those books. Both phenomenal. I have read Bell’s twice, and just finished Hacker’s. Do you see even bigger things in Soho’s future? What might that look like?

Hruska: I’m so glad you’re seeing the books in stores. That’s the first step! The two you mention have been very well received. In addition to overwhelming critical praise, Matt Bell’s novel (we refer to it as In the House at Soho, or even ITH!) was also an indie bookstore gem, with an IndieNext pick as well as an Indiespensible selection going out to 1700 Powell’s subscribers, which was very exciting. And The Morels has been shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel prize. So yes, we’re feeling the love this season, that’s for sure. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy and money on making sure booksellers and librarians know about our books early. It feels like we’re at a conference every weekend handing out galleys and talking up the books. It’s that kind of one on one conversation that can make all the difference. These are the people who are handselling books. We’re also sharply focused on what Amazon’s digital merchandising can do for a book, and do our best to make sure the good folks over there are aware of what we’re up to. Of course you have to start with a great book, and I thank our wonderful authors for providing those.

In terms of the future, establishing Soho Teen and building awareness for that is taking up our forward thinking for the moment, and as the Teen line expands our list to 91 books this year, making sure nothing falls by the wayside is paramount. The staff has more than doubled in the past two years as has the company’s sales. So we’re growing, fine-tuning, making sure that we’re doing the most we can for each book we publish.

Cobalt: On Sunday, at a non-profit book exchange here in Baltimore (The Book Thing), I came across a Soho book by Don Wallace, that led me to realize just how long you’ve been around. Can you point back to some Soho books from the not-so-recent past that especially deserve revisiting?

Hruska: Soho’s first list launched in 1987, so there’s a lot to choose from. Way too many to cover all the great ones, but we launched the careers of many authors you’ll recognize. Check out Breath Eyes Memory by Edwidge Danticat; How Even Broke His Head (and Other Secrets) by Garth Stein, the author of The Art of Racing in the Rain; The Gunseller by Hugh Laurie (aka Dr. House); The Darkest Child, by Delores Phillips; The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville; Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais and all the books in her Parisian mystery series starring Aimée Leduc; Peter Lovesey’s wonderful British procedural series starring Peter Diamond. And from the not-so-recent past, two musts are: Too Bright to Hear, Too Loud to See, by Juliann Garey and Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman.

About Bronwen: Bronwen Hruska joined Soho Press in 2008 and became publisher in 2010. Before coming to Soho, she worked as a journalist and screenwriter. Her articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Entertainment Weekly, and her TV and movie scripts have sold to Columbia Pictures, NBC and CBS, among others. Her first novel, Accelerated, was published last year by Pegasus Books.

Issue 9: Fall 2013 – All Prose Issue

Photo by Avelino Maestas.

Photo by Avelino Maestas.

Note from the editor:

As you may notice, a lot of things have changed over the past couple months. First off, we have a new look (sort of) to the issue layouts thanks to the fine hand-letterings of Christopher Newgent, each issue now has sub-headers for Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry. Additionally, we were successful in raising 27% beyond our initial Kickstarter goal, so we are knee-deep in editing and designing Four Fathers, the first of many Cobalt Press books. A few months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of publishing the first annual all-baseball issue, the bulk of which came from submissions to the Jim Palmer Baseball Writing Prize (our first winner being Courtney Preiss!). And, lastly, we wrapped our entry period for the standard 2013 Cobalt Writing Prizes (you can see our “shortlist” for the fiction and nonfiction contests below, and a separate poetry shortlist will be released soon).

So… mega thanks to all who have helped us with this chaotic period. We’re two full years in and it’s crazy to think how much we have accomplished. It has been, and will continue to be, one hell of a ride.


Andrew Keating


Shauna Gilligan | Lines of Perfection

Deborah Brasket | Thirteen Ways of Looking at Dying, Just Before, and the Moment After

B. Rose Huber | Chambersburg

Rob Schultz | G.

Olvard Liche Smith | Grand Gesture

Kane Klemic | Displacement


Brenda Rankin | Live! Dancing! Girls!

Kristina Moriconi | Reverence

Sarah Earle | Free Body Culture

Excerpts & Interviews:

Publisher Series, Vol. 7: Bronwen Hruska of SOHO Press.

James Claffey, who was published in Issues #1 and #5, has a new collection – Blood a Cold Blue – coming out from Press 53. Click below for two stories from that collection.


Hurried Departure

Local Maryland author Michael Landweber’s new book, We, is out now from Coffeetown Press. Click below for an excerpt from the book, and a brief interview with the author.

Excerpt | Interview

2013 Cobalt Fiction Prize “Shortlist”

  • Ellen Wade Beals
  • Leslie Doyle
  • Jennifer Lee
  • Alan Sincic
  • Mark Wagstaff
  • Chavisa Woods

2013 Cobalt Nonfiction Prize “Shortlist”

  • Eric Hagen
  • Lauren Halloran
  • Michael Palmer

About the photographer: 

Avelino Maestas is managing editor for Wildlife Promise, the National Wildlife Federation’s blog. A former journalist and open-government advocate, he is also an amateur photographer who cherishes the desert Southwest, Atlantic seashores, and the forests of New England. You can find out more about Avelino by visiting avelinomaestas.com.


Photo by Avelino Maestas.

Photo by Avelino Maestas.

Interview: Michael Landweber

Cobalt: Michael, hi. Thanks for doing this with us. It’s great to have an excerpt from your new book We in our first issue of the third year! To begin with, can you set us up for what we’re about to read?

Michael Landweber: Thanks for having me.  And congrats to Cobalt on your third year!

I’ve been saying my book is literary fiction with a splash of genre. It is the story of a 40-something who wakes up inside the brain of his 7-year-old self. He’s not in control – he’s just a hitchhiker who can observe the world through his younger self. The man, Ben, just wants to get away from Binky, which was his nickname as a child. That is, until he realizes that it is three days before his sister is going to be attacked, a crime that destroyed his family.  Ben realizes that he has to convince Binky to do something about it.  The problem is that Binky doesn’t like his older self very much. Ben doesn’t always have the best judgment, and one of the ways he has been trying to win Binky over is by helping him answer some of Binky’s classmates questions about sex. This has made Binky a bit of a elementary school celebrity. But it also leads to the trip to the Principal’s office in the excerpt.

Cobalt: You’ve established yourself pretty well in the local literary scene, publishing work in various Maryland and DC journals. What do you think are some of the strengths to living in such a rich literary scene?

Landweber: It is awesome to be living in an area with so many great outlets for writing. Cobalt is a wonderful addition to the literary landscape.   As you mentioned, I’ve been lucky enough to land pieces in local journals and websites like Gargoyle, Big Lucks, Potomac Review, jmww and Barrelhouse.  But this only happened for me and others because there are so many great writers and editors promoting the work of their peers. It is tough out there for a writer to be heard. Having such a collaborative atmosphere in the DC/Baltimore area helps amplify all the rich voices found here.

Cobalt: Madison, Wisconsin, eh? What brought you here to Maryland?

Landweber: Well, the short answer is that I’ve been following the same girl around for twenty years and she brought me to DC.  But the long answer starts a bit before that. Madison is a terrific place to grow up, but like most kids I was ready to try something new after high school. I went to Princeton for college and then ended up moving to Japan for a year.  Turns out that girl, who is now my wife, lived in the apartment next to mine in Tokyo.  She hasn’t been able to shake me since.  When she decided to leave Japan and travel in Asia, I tagged along.  When she decided to go to law school in Ann Arbor, I found myself two grad programs that would cover three years at Michigan.  And when she decided we should live in DC, I got myself a job at the State Department.  Stalking her really has made my decisionmaking process much less complicated.

Cobalt: How does being a bureaucrat inform your writing/hinder it?

Landweber: Well, everything I do informs my writing in some way.  I think that’s the case for all writers.  There are aspects of how things move through a bureaucracy that appeal to my sense of the absurd.  At the same time, for all the flak that the federal government gets, the policies and programs that come out of the complicated system have real affects on people and I would argue that they are often beneficial. Anyway, that’s my defense of bureaucrats.  But, that said, I don’t really write about anything that I work on.  As for hindering my writing, that is more a function of having a full time job than being a bureaucrat.  There are only so many hours in the day.

Cobalt: I always enjoy a good psychological read, and you even get into sci-fi (which has been on a serious upswing as far as pop-culture seems to be concerned). Can you speak more to these elements within the book?

Landweber: Including genre elements in literary fiction does seem to be on an upswing. There are some amazing writers that have always used them, such as Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami.  But now it seems that many writers are more willing to blur the lines, including some of my favorites like Kazuo Ishiguro, Karen Russell, Michael Chabon and Kevin Brockmeier.

In We, I wanted to send my main character back in time, but I didn’t want to do something that I’d seen before.  I didn’t want a straight up time travel story.  And I didn’t want to have him just take over the body of his younger self.  I was more interested in the psychology of how would someone interact with an earlier version of themselves.  So, that’s how I ended up with two manifestations of the same person occupying one brain.  It made for a lot of fun dialogue to write.  I also enjoyed going down the path of envisioning what a physical representation of the superego and id might look like.  Particularly the id, which turned out to be a nasty piece of work.

Cobalt: And where can our readers obtain a copy? Do you have any local events coming up?

Landweber: I’m encouraging people to order a copy through their local independent bookstore.  It may not be on the shelf, but any store can get a copy for you.  It is also available on any of the big retailers’ websites or through my publisher, Coffeetown Press.

I’ll be in Baltimore reading at the 510 series on November 16.  Also, let me put in a good word for the new Waterbear reading series which is held at One More Page books in Arlington, VA.  I had a great time reading there in August.

About Michael: Michael Landweber is the author of the novel, We (Coffeetown Press, 2013). His stories have appeared in Fugue, Fourteen Hills, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, American Literary Review, Big Lucks and a bunch of other places. He is an Associate Editor at Potomac Review, and writes reviews for Pop Matters and the Washington Independent Review of Books. Find more about Mike at mikelandweber.com.

excerpt from WE

We sat outside the Principal’s office on a hard wooden bench for three long minutes. I could hear Binky pacing back and forth inside the cave, rolling side to side like a metronome. He did not talk to me, but I knew he blamed me for everything. I wanted to tell him that getting called to the Principal’s office was a good thing, a badge of honor among the elementary school set, even though I knew it wouldn’t help. Binky didn’t want to talk to me; the chill made that clear.

“Benedict,” the shriveled secretary barked. “Principal Vanderbilt will see you now.”

It was comforting that my memory of Principal Vanderbilt matched the reality exactly. A sixty-something balding man with a paunch and a ’70s porno mustache. When someone says the word “principal,” I think of him.

He was not alone in the office. Ms. Mittewag was there as well. She looked concerned. Vanderbilt put on his practiced stern expression. It worked on Binky, who shrunk deeper into his chair, but I could see that Vanderbilt’s face, from eyebrows to jowls, had frayed around the edges from years of foisting this very look upon generations of children. The severity was a façade. Nothing real to fear here. There was a third person in the room. A woman wearing all white, young and a bit plump, with a round kind face. She was the type of girl who would have been my friend in high school. Probably the school nurse.

“Benedict, do you know why you’re here?” Vanderbilt said.

His question sounded like an accusation. Binky shook his head. An honest response for him and a flat out lie for me.

“You’ve been talking to the other kids,” he said. “Telling them things.”

I felt our face flush, telegraphing our guilt. I could hardly fault Binky for that. Going beet red at the slightest provocation is one of my best party tricks.

“These things you’ve been saying. They’re not appropriate for a child to talk about. Do you understand?”

“Or write,” Ms. Mittewag said. “Who told you these things?”

Ms. Mittewag punctuated her question by dropping a handful of notes onto the Principal’s desk, each one containing a bite of the forbidden fruit.

“Tell us, Benedict,” Vanderbilt said, leaning forward and filling our vision. “Someone must have told you these things. Who was it?”

Binky didn’t answer.

Principal Vanderbilt sat back again. He paged through our file.

“You have siblings. An older brother. Did he tell you those things?”

Binky remained silent.

“Or your sister maybe. Sara. I remember her.”


Binky didn’t mean to shout, but there is no controlling an eruption of loyalty.

“It wasn’t your sister?”


Binky paused.

Don’t tell them the truth, I said.

He ignored me.

“It was him. He told me.”

“So it was your brother,” Vanderbilt said. He checked the file again. “Charles.”

“No, not him,” Binky said, his voice sinking deep into quicksand.

The room grew quiet. The three adults exchanged glances. Principal Vanderbilt came out from behind the desk. He took a seat next to us.

“You can tell us the truth here. This is a safe place. Have you been talking to another adult? A man? Someone you don’t know?”

“No. Not … I don’t know. I …”

Binky didn’t have the words. The room filled with dread, three adults wondering if something horrible had happened on their watch.

They think you’ve been talking to strangers, I said.

I don’t talk to strangers.

Tell them that.

But I talk to you. I don’t know you.

You do know me, I said. You know you do.

I guess.

Tell them Charles told you.

That’s a lie.

Sometimes you need to lie.

“Benedict, are you okay? Benedict?”

We focused on the room again. The nurse was kneeling down in front of us now. She had a hand on our forehead and looked deeply into our eyes.

Binky nodded at her and she could not hide her relief.

“It was Charles,” Binky said. “He told me.”

Again, the adults spoke wordlessly, assessing the situation. Principal Vanderbilt wanted to discuss with the nurse. Ms. Mittewag took Binky’s hand and led him out of the room.

I shouldn’t have done that.

No, I said. It’s okay. Better this way.

We paused in the outer office.

“No luck getting his parents,” the secretary said.

“There’s only one period left,” Ms. Mittewag said. “Tell Jack I’m taking him back to class. I’ll talk to his dad when he picks him up.”

We walked silently back to the classroom.

No. It’s not better. It’s lying. It’s bad. You do bad things.

Sometimes things seem bad when they aren’t, I said.

Stop saying that. You are bad. I don’t like you. You want to hurt Sara. You hate Mommy. You tell me to say grown-up things that get me in trouble. You tell me to lie.

We arrived back in our classroom. Ms. Mittewag led us back to our desk. The other kids had not returned from gym yet. We were alone. She knelt next to us, still holding our hand.

“Ben, you can tell me what’s bothering you,” she said. “It’s okay.”

In her eyes, I saw the teacher that she would become, the one I wished had taught me. Binky saw her too.

I need to protect Sara.

Binky was right, of course. That had to be why I was here. To help Sara. To protect her. Only then did I realize that I had been hoping that I wouldn’t have to do anything. I still felt that way. Maybe my mere presence here had changed things. Maybe I could stop the rape from happening just by existing.

I need to protect everyone from you.

I’m not the problem.

But I could feel that Binky had left, vacating the cave for another part of the brain where I couldn’t follow. I wondered if he could hear me, if he would even listen.

Please, Binky, I said. Don’t.

“Ben?” Ms. Mittewag said. “Can you hear me?”

“He talks to me,” Binky said in a whisper, maybe hoping I wouldn’t hear.

“Who talks to you?”

“I don’t know. He says that he’s me.”

“Is this a person?”

“No. I don’t know.”

Don’t tell her, I said. Please, Binky.

My words echoed around me, too late and without strength.

“Is it just someone you hear? Someone who talks to you in your head? A voice?”

Binky lunged for her and she took him into her arms. He whispered into her ear.

“He says things. He says someone is going to hurt Sara. He scares me.”

I said nothing. There was nothing left to say.

“It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“I just want him to go away.”

On that sentiment, we were in complete agreement.

Click here to order We by Michael Landweber, currently out from Coffeetown Press.

Hurried Departure

I didn’t see the clock, covered as it was in lipstick, smeared there by an angry paramour intent on getting her message across in mauve. It must have been five-ish, or thereabouts. How I knew the time was more to do with the glow across the tops of the trees–that particular pool of yellow that comes in the gloaming around here–than any temporal credit given to my innate mental sharpness.

Anyway, it was my fault, the crusted desires of the middle-aged man, seeking solace in the pages of the pet lover’s magazine. When I saw the recipe for the “gumbo” of goat afterbirth with a tone of jasmine, I couldn’t resist. My lady friend arrived for dinner, the room aglow in dim purplish lights from the chiffon scarves placed over the lamps, more an effort to conceal the cracked paint and cobwebbed corners than any romantic notion. Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t looking to roll on the sofa with her, no. She was too proper for such activities, but I did sense benevolence on her part, towards me.

The wax rolled down the lit candle, like, well, you know… She accepted a splash of Pinot Noir from Oregon, and walked through to the kitchen, where the caprine gumbo was bubbling away. In the tangle of bloody afterbirth, a small creature was paddling in the cast iron pot, a perfectly formed three-inch tall goat-child.

My lady friend excused herself to the bathroom, and as the kitchen light struck the stove I flicked at a dust mote floating in the light beam. She did not return to the kitchen, only the slam of the door attesting to her hurried departure.

Click here to order Blood a Cold Blue by James Claffey from Press 53.


A furrow of metal pieces hold my skull together, inexpertly riveted in place by a disaffected nurse practitioner. How did it happen, she asked. The truth, unknown, the fiction a woven mat of dark rooms and ill-placed furniture. Even as I made my way to the parking lot, the bone revolted from the metal, the clear fluid gelled on the wound, and the low moon hung ashamedly in the bare trees. Strength through prayer, a fallback position, the unspoken cure-all for my family afflictions. Spare a few coppers? the tinker in the blanket asked at the hospital gate, the mummified baby hugged to her chest. My left eye fell down to the bottom of the socket and rebounded shakily for a few seconds. In my pocket, my fingers rubbed lint and thread together, a complete absence of coin.

Click here to order Blood a Cold Blue by James Claffey from Press 53.