Tag Archives: Charlottesville

“The Dare” by Rachel Unkefer

picture of Rachel UnkeferI entered my first short story contest in 2009 on a dare—and won. Until then I never considered submitting a story for publication. I thought of myself as an unpublished novelist, not a writer of short stories. Since then, I’ve had four more stories and a poem published. But this is not a story about publishing. It’s a story about the dare.

A few months earlier, my writing group had launched a non-profit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia, called WriterHouse. The deadline for the annual fiction contest sponsored by the local free weekly newspaper was approaching. The competition was popular because it was judged by John Grisham. The seven of us in our writing group, now the board of directors of the nonprofit, decided it would be good publicity for our fledgling organization if one of us won the contest. So, on a dare, we all submitted stories.

A few weeks later, Grisham made his decision. My story won first place, and third place went to a story from another member of our group. The first sentence in the article announcing the winners was:  “It may just take one to read a story, but it takes a community to inspire a winning entry.”

That opening sentence perfectly captured the spirit of what had happened. I was inspired to do something I hadn’t thought of doing because a group of us were doing it together. Certainly founding WriterHouse, a writing community center, is not something any one of us would have undertaken alone. A writer’s voice can carry far, but it carries farther when it is amplified by community.

In the five years since WriterHouse was founded, dozens of our members and students have been encouraged by their instructors and fellow writers to send their work out, and dozens have been published, some for the first time. Writers who had never dreamed of reading in public have stood before audiences and shared their work, and then come back to do it again and again. The best writers are full of self-doubt and anxiety, which can silence them if they let it. Sometimes we need a push from a friend to take ourselves where we need to go.

At WriterHouse there is a Science Fiction/Fantasy group that meets monthly. In between, they stay in touch using an email list. One day a new member of the group wrote an email about having just read an article that convinced her she was a terrible writer. She was about to quit writing. Within five minutes there was a flood of responses from the rest of the list. “Keep trying,” they told her. “Don’t give up. We’re here for you.” The rest of the group hardly knew this woman, and yet they wanted to boost her back up onto that high wire and hold her steady until she could balance herself once again. Reading those messages made me proud to have been a part of bringing those writers together.

It’s not easy to find other writers who will support us. There are those whose first question is “what’s in it for me?” rather than “how can I help?” There are some who only want to be admired and told their work is perfect as it is, who don’t understand the difference between support and uncritical validation. But out there somewhere is a community for every writer who is sincere, honest, and generous. If your town doesn’t have an organization like WriterHouse, consider taking a writing class at a community college, starting a book club, or running an ad on Craigslist. It may take some trial and error to find fellow writers.

Don’t settle for a group that doesn’t nurture you and your art. But don’t expect it to be free. You must be willing to extend yourself toward others as well. Sometimes you will give much more than you get. But if it’s the right group, they will be there for you when it’s your turn. They will commiserate with you when you receive rejections. They will celebrate with you when you receive acceptances. They will tell you when your writing needs more work. They will laugh when you write something funny, and they will shed a tear when you have written something moving. Most of all, your community will dare you to be your best.

Rachel Unkefer, President and Founding Member of WriterHouse, was co-founder and CEO  of a technical bookstore chain, Computer Literacy Bookshops, in Silicon Valley. She is currently looking for a literary agent for her first novel, A Useful Life, (which was a quarter-finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) and working on the  second draft of her second novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Crab Orchard      Review, Prime Number Magazine, as well as other publications. She has received        fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Writers in the Heartland.

Author Contact:

The View from My Chair

Also of Interest:

Writer House Blog

 National Novel Writing Month



An Interview with Clarence Brown

clarence brownIf you read the jacket of Clarence Brown’s first novel, Needs, you’ll learn that he is a recovering heroin addict. “Born in Charlottesville, Virginia,” the description continues, “Brown moved to Baltimore at the age of twenty-two and immersed himself in the street life, heroin, and other drugs for twenty-seven years. Like Rip Van Winkle, he woke to find things greatly changed. With new-found vision he began to write poetry, social commentary and this novella. He believes writing to be part of his redemption, focusing on the next generation who were left to their own devices by his own long sleep and that of other addicts. Though this is a work of fiction, it reflects his childhood, addiction and recovery.”


book cover Needs

I had the privilege of meeting Clarence at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, where we were both scheduled to do a reading. Afterwards, it struck me how, despite the book jacket’s descriptive power, so much of Clarence’s spirit and talent could only be captured in person, in the passion with which he read from Needs. My recommendation? If you want to hear an extraordinarily authentic voice, buy the book; and if you want to meet an extraordinarily authentic artist, go to his next reading, where ever it happens to be.


HUERGO:  What sparks your creativity and the urge to write?

BROWN:  I develop an urge to write when I’ve observed enough. It’s strange to me that I feel
drained when I finish a project, as if there’s nothing left. Seems, when I’m writing, that I tune out everything, and when I’m not writing I open up to everything, feel more.

HUERGO:  How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

BROWN:  I get an idea and I start writing. When I finish, I go back and write more, or less, into the manuscript. I think I draw from my own feelings so heavily that I have to look at the manuscript again before I can begin to feel what others feel, see what others see. I guess that’s when I can complete what I started.

I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1961—a time when well-meaning white people were trying their hands at doing the right thing. I remember my classrooms being divided down the middle, whites on one side and blacks on the other. I didn’t understand why I was seated on the “white side” until later in life, but it made me plenty of enemies among my own people and created lots of resentment among the whites, so I just stayed to myself.

I could be found at the library when I wasn’t home. There was a world there that I could just disappear into, not worry about what I looked like or what someone else thought. I felt that someone was just too kind for creating this world that was so perfect for me. I didn’t have to sound black or white nor appear to have money—just read and devour all this imagination laid out for me.

As I grew older, I thought that I might have something to say. The writers I’d read made me feel as if I could do it, too. Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, and later, Octavia Butler, created worlds that made sense to me. People were too busy surviving to worry about skin color.

What I’ve found now is that it took me 26 years of dodging life and the hardship of a heroin addiction to give me a story of substance. I was no longer writing poetry to impress the women I met. Now I had a tale to tell. Needs and its sequel are a combination of what I’ve observed and my own life. I am all the characters, male and female, and they say what I did and say what I cannot.

HUERGO:  Have you ever found yourself stuck at some point in your writing? If so, how did you get unstuck?

BROWN:  It feels to me that getting stuck has to do with that running out of observations I mentioned earlier. What I’ve done has been to put whatever I’m working on down. I take the time to replenish my pool of observations. Sometimes that takes more time than I realize.

HUERGO:  Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

BROWN:  An author, Octavia Butler, was my favorite. Her freedom of imagination and the reality, the immediacy of her characters, was a source of delight and envy. The fact that, as a teen-aged black youth, I’d never known of a black, female science-fiction writer was an uplifting and motivating factor. I also know two men, Bob Jones and Neil Hertz. They taught me that it was possible for me to write as I’d dreamed of, to say what I meant to say truthfully, in a way that would be of interest to a hungry reader.

HUERGO:  I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

BROWN:  Right now, I’m revising the sequel to Needs, my first novel. It’s growing, this community of people who feel what we all feel, and I’m having to look at whether I’m being true to them or trying to sell books. Of course, like any author, I dream of best-seller success, but I need to learn more about myself first. Then I can truly tell our story.

 Author Sites:

BrickHouse Books


Clarence Brown Reading




An Interview with Betsy Prioleau

Betsy PrioleauBetsy Prioleau is the author of Circle of Eros (Duke University Press) and Seductress (Penguin/Viking). She has a Ph.D. from Duke University, was a tenured associate professor at Manhattan College, and taught cultural history at New York University. She has written numerous essays on literature, relationships, and sexuality. She lives in New York City.

Her latest book, Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them (Norton, 2013), is a panoramic survey of history’s legendary lovers—from Casanova and Lord Byron to the present. Through analyses, stories, and interviews with ladies’ men today, her book explodes all the seducer stereotypes. Great romancers not only defy popular preconceptions; they possess a trove of erotic secrets and arts that reveal what women truly want and suggest a way to reinvent love for the twenty-first century. BookPage described Swoon as “sharp, sexy, and completely engrossing.”

Swoon book cover

I had the pleasure of meeting Betsy for the very first time at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville this past spring and was immediately struck by her warmth and charm, her intelligence and sense of humor. I’ve been a devoted fan of her work ever since.


HUERGO: What moves you to write?

PRIOLEAU: Curiosity combined with enthusiasm and a passion for ideas and language. I also love to challenge entrenched beliefs and shake things up.

HUERGO: How would you describe your drafting and revision process?

PRIOLEAU: For me the art of writing is the art of rewriting. I write at least five drafts of every essay and chapter, using different colored paper for each version. I’m insanely jealous of writers who “never blot a line,” and get it right the first time. For me, writing is slow and arduous and doesn’t get easier with practice.

HUERGO: Have you ever found yourself stuck at some point in your writing? If so, how did you get unstuck?

PRIOLEAU: I have good days and bad days (complete with blank-screen paralysis), but I check in anyway on a regular basis. I’ve found, strangely enough, that walking away from the computer—even to clean the sink—can be helpful. When I come back, presto! The answer is often there. Sometimes, I alternate between laptop and longhand; sometimes, I sleep on it. Blocks are a mystery, but seem to come with the territory.

Seductress book coverHUERGO: Was there a teacher or mentor who influenced your writing or your career as a writer?

PRIOLEAU: I would never have thought of writing had it not been for a college professor who inspired me with the romance of learning, worked me like a dog, and lured me away from fraternity parties to the library. She was a drill sergeant and belle ideal (an Irish ex-actress with glamorous literary friends), and after a year in her writing seminar I was hooked. I still carry a notebook with me everywhere as she commanded.

HUERGO: I’m always curious what writers are working on next. Can you share with us your current project?

PRIOLEAU: I’m mulling several ideas. One is Casanova the gourmet. He lived during a revolution in food preparation and consumption, and left one of the fullest records of this period. He was a great connoisseur of food, which he associated with love and desire. “Sex,” he wrote, “is like eating, and eating like sex,” and he described hundreds of aphrodisiacal meals in his twelve-volume biography. The stories and recipes have never been rendered in English. So that promises to be fun.

Betsy Prioleau

Author Sites:




Photo Credits:

Jacob J. Goldberg (head shot/top left)