Kyoko Mori is at ease in her living room explaining to a small class of MFA students how Miles came to be the love of her life.
“Miles is complicated,” she says.
“He has theories,” she continues, “he tries to find the meaning in things.”
Miles, meanwhile, has retreated to a back bedroom for the evening.
“He is just like me,” Mori concludes.
Miles, named after Miles Davis, is a Siamese cat of perfect proportions, blue eyes and sleek adobe-colored fur.
In contrast, Mori’s other love, Jackson (named after Jackson Brown) is jet black and does not contemplate the meaning of things. “He is more like a Midwestern guy,” Mori says.
“What you see is what you get … but I love him.”
Cats are clearly Mori’s favorite subject and she talks about them as a devoted parent would her children. “Everything is about them and for them,” she confesses.
So it is no surprise her latest book, titled Barn Cat, involves a supporting character named Horatio, a farm kitten.
This book, on its surface, is not complicated. It mostly takes place in the Midwest.
Part of Gemma Media’s Open Door series, the 86-page pocket-sized book (40 standard 250-word pages), with eleven brief chapters, is for new readers. This audience may be American adults learning to read or it might be immigrants learning English. The book is not dumbed-down in any way, but tells its story in simple, loaded sentences.
“I decided I was going to write them for clarity,” Mori says, explaining that if she wrote the sentences longer, the editors would just cut them in half, breaking apart clauses.
“I like the spare, crisp style anyway,” Mori says.
Mori’s characters are not simple. The main character, Lily, studied multicultural education, works in the dean’s office and now spends her time “going over enrollment statistics and telling faculty members that their classes will have to be canceled.” (“I was so glad to be able to use that,” Mori says.)
Previously, the character held a job as “a curriculum specialist to promote cultural diversity.” The complex tale also involves animal rescue work and of course, the eponymous farm cat. These elements are drawn from Mori’s personal experience, she explains, like working on a committee at Mason and doing animal rescue work in Wisconsin. “I had these characters rattling around in my mind,” Mori says. “A lot of it got taken from my real life.”
Mori grew up in Japan and first came to the United States as an exchange student at the age of 16. Then, as an undergraduate college student she transferred to an American university and never returned to live in her native country. Barn Cat’s first person narrator moves from Japan to the United States at the age of eight.
In Barn Cat the first person narrator, whose mother had changed her name from Yuri to Lily Larson, taking on the family name of her American stepfather, becomes a teacher. Reflecting on her time teaching in the Midwest, Lily states this:
“I worried about the ones who got fired up about reading and writing. I meant to talk to their parents about helping them pursue their education, but the few mothers who showed up at our conferences were astonished to discover that I was Ms. Larson. “Where are you from?” they asked. “You speak English so well.” I blushed and stammered, came home, and cried …”
Mori explained that in her experience, she has found some attitudes toward non-native speakers condescending and wrong. “I have been speaking English longer than some of them have been alive,” she said. “These are people who do not know how to use an apostrophe.”
Having studied English in Japan and later, French in the United States, Mori is an authority on language learning. She recalls the boring material used to teach her French as she describes the goal for the Open Door series of which her new book is a part. If she had something interesting to read in French, the language would have been much easier to learn, she says.
When the publisher of a prior book, Yarn, asked Mori to do an Open Door book, Mori recalls, “I thought, this is great … this is what I want to do.” Mori says the specific style of writing for the new-reader audience is as much work as writing for a more general audience. But she said writing 40 pages as opposed to 400 is the difference between painting her high-ceilinged living room in a very intricate way and painting the whole three-story apartment building. Mori says she would not have the stamina for an entire novel.
The intent of the series, a concept which began in Ireland and is being reinvented here in the United States, is to engage readers without treating them like children. This is one of the reasons, according to Mori, to write in the first person. Not only is it more immediate but it eliminates the complication of referring to events in the past. Mori says she did not want her fledgling readers to have to tackle past participle. Also, Mori notes, if you write in the present tense, the story doesn’t have to resolve. “I wanted to leave the story hanging.”
Having observed the condition in which farm cats lived – and prematurely died – on her friend Katie’s dairy farm in Wisconsin, Mori’s conscience is eager to rescue a barn cat who would otherwise be tromped to death by a cow or mangled in farm machinery. Those cats, according to Mori, “live horrible lives.” Kept and allowed to breed in order to control rodents on the farm, Mori said the cats are “totally expendable.”
All of this contributed to Mori’s consciousness in the book, the author says.
As all great literature offers readers a vicarious experience, Mori’s book adds a dimension; it allows its writer one as well.
“I have never adopted a barn cat,’ Mori says.
Barn Cat enables her to assuage her guilt without crowding out Miles and Jackson.
Professor Kyoko Mori teaches creative writing in the English department’s MFA program. Her other works include Shizuko’s Daughter, Yarn, Polite Lies, The Dream of Water, Stone Field, True Arrow and One Bird. She also teaches for the low-residency MFA Program at Lesley University. Barn Cat can be purchased through its publisher, Gemma Media.
As Stillhouse Press wraps up chapter one, it’s opening chapter two.
Bill Miller, director of the creative writing program, says the new Mason-run press is actively seeking manuscripts for its second publication.
“We are open for business,” says Miller, who is also executive director of Fall for the Book, the annual Mason-based literary festival.
Editor Marcos Martinez explains that the craft press started by Mason in cooperation with Fall for the Book, is a place for writers who want to work with a publisher, “not just drop their manuscript in at the door and go.”
Stillhouse Press, founded last year with the help of alumnus Dallas Hudgens, MFA ’92, is a collaborative, student-run publisher of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Hudgens’ own press, Relegation Books, donated startup funds for the Stillhouse venture that formed from a collaboration between the Mason Creative Writing Program and the nonprofit Fall for the Book.
Martinez, a third-year MFA fiction candidate and one of a trio of Mason MFA students who runs the new publishing house, says Stillhouse is independent from Relegation and differs from other publishing houses as well. Writers interact with Stillhouse editorial staff, remaining involved in the process of crafting the book at every step from sentence level work such as verb tense to marketing material production. As with the eponymous moonshiners working with the mash as it is distilled, the objective is a better product.
Stillhouse’s first publication, Helen on 86th Street, a story collection by Wendi Kaufman (MFA ’97) gave students experience they couldn’t have predicted. Paperback pre-sales particularly surprised Meghan McNamara, media director for Stillhouse, and a third-year MFA fiction candidate. Stillhouse staff used social media to round up student volunteers to process the large number of orders. To thank them, Stillhouse ordered a round of drinks at a pre-party for volunteers at the March 1 Loudfire reading at Epicuré Café in Fairfax.
“It certainly did very well, especially in the presale, where I would estimate we did half of our total sales,” McNamara says. “Especially for a debut author … paperback sales were far, far better than digital sales, which I found surprising.”
McNamara says although initially brisk, book sales through the Stillhouse website have now slowed. “Such is the nature of being a small press in an Amazon-dominated world.”
“We are still receiving orders through our distributor, Ingram (they handle all bookstores, Amazon, etc.) at a steady rate,” McNamara reports. “E-book sales are surprisingly not as strong, but perhaps that is because people really wanted to own a hard copy of Wendi’s book.”
The third member of the trio, third-year MFA nonfiction candidate Merrill Sunderland, handles operations, the physical distribution of the books.
With its first publication still riding a wave of publicity, the learning curve for Martinez, is flattening out. “Personally,” he says, “I’m much better prepared.”
Martinez comments that next time he’d like more time between galleys and publication, time to allow reviewers to produce commentary.
In the case of the debut, with the author very ill from the effects of cancer and its treatments, the rush to print narrowed that gap to the detriment of the book’s best promotion schedule. Despite the rush, Martinez regrets the book did not return from the printer in time for author Wendi Kaufman to hold a copy in her hands before she succumbed to her illness. But she knew her words would go forth in the world, Martinez says, and her legacy is preserved. “It’s really bittersweet,” he says.
Moving on, the team of faculty and students is actively reviewing new manuscripts. “We’ve received some fiction … also a nonfiction first person non-political memoir,” says Miller.
“We’ve set up a reading process,” he says, involving undergraduate students led by Martinez.
“We are currently reading manuscripts in all three genres (non-fiction, fiction, poetry) as we search for our next titles,” Martinez says. “Our goal is to publish one prose book by the end of 2015, and one poetry title followed by another prose book in 2016, and then publish three-plus books per year from 2017 onward.” In other words, he says, two more books in the next 12 months.
Martinez says Stillhouse is particularly interested in literary fiction with a voice and narrative nonfiction. Novels, Martinez specifies, or collections of stories that have a greater cohesion than just a collection of unrelated essays, from good established and emerging writers. He is also looking for work that has solid social and cultural context.
“How do you engage the stranger in five to ten minutes,” Martinez asks, “and have them keep reading?”
Although a specific nonfiction manuscript is currently being considered, none of the Stillhouse staff is ready to say anything about it, implying only that it is a work-in-progress.
“We are open to receiving other manuscripts,” Miller emphasizes. “We hope Mason alums won’t feel it is too close to home to let us consider their work.”
Writers interested in submitting their work for possible publication with Stillhouse Press should follow guidelines at http://www.stillhousepress.org/submissions/