We recently freed our short-fiction-contest troll from his five-year captivity in the River Cities' Reader dungeon, and based on the rules he devised for the 2012 competition, he's grumpy. (Some might note that Jeff is always grumpy, but never mind.)

Let's start with the easy rules.

Jaimy GordonThere are few people in the arts who admit to being concerned about either their fame or their place in history. Jaimy Gordon is one of that rare breed, but she doesn't need to fret anymore.

Over the past decade, she said in a phone interview last week promoting her April 19 reading at Augustana College, she wondered whether "I was going to be swallowed up in the oblivion of people who are just mildly well-known in their own lifetimes and then forgotten about."

Since 1981, she has been on the faculty at Western Michigan University - in a creative-writing program that doesn't have the cachet of, for example, the University of Iowa's. Her 1974 novel Shamp of the City-Solo is considered a cult classic, and her 1999 Bogeywoman was a Los Angeles Times "best book of the year."

She had the respect of her peers but said she remained a nonentity in the publishing world. "I had what I would have called a career," she said. "But to my surprise, the New York Times among other places didn't even recognize it as existing. It wasn't even on the map until I suddenly became famous with this book."

Matt Hart

Philosophy wouldn't seem to lead naturally to poetry, but it can if you find the right philosopher. For Cincinnati-based poet Matt Hart - who will be reading from his work on Saturday at Rozz-Tox along with poets from the Quad Cities edition of the national journal Locuspoint - it was the 20th Century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Hart fell in love with poetry as an undergraduate at Ball State University, but he studied philosophy. Pursing a graduate degree in the subject at Ohio University, though, "I really bought Wittgenstein hook, line, and sinker. As a result, I quit doing philosophy. One of his main ideas is that philosophy is a sort of mental illness; if you understand him, you quit doing it."

And Wittgenstein offered an alternative to philosophy's relentless rational argument, writing that "philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry."

Connie Corcoran Wilson with granddaughters Ava and Elise WilsonSome grandmas, during the holiday season, will give toys as presents. Others will give clothes.

Connie Corcoran Wilson, though, is giving her granddaughters a book ... that she wrote and published herself.

"It's my Christmas gift to the girls," says Wilson of her new children's book Christmas Cats in Silly Hats, the second self-published work by the much-published local author. "I wrote it for them, and thought it would be a nice present.

"Of course," she says with a laugh, "marketing-wise, I didn't think it would be such a dumb thing, either. You might not rush out to buy it in July, but in December ... !"

Bo CaldwellGiven that her November 30 lecture at St. Ambrose University is titled "Finding Faith & Fiction in China," it seems odd that author Bo Caldwell has never actually been to the country.

Once you know her story, though, the title of the lecture (being presented as part of the school's academic-year-long China Project) makes more sense. Caldwell might not have found faith and fiction in the physical China, but she did in a China that has disappeared - the place where her grandparents and uncle lived and worked in the first half of the 20th Century.

"I was writing about a China that was long ago," Caldwell explained in an interview last month. "And the country and the city of Shanghai have changed so dramatically. ... I didn't feel like it would help me that much to go there."

She added that "China has a connection in a home-like way. That's where my grandparents spent much of their lives. It's where my mom and her siblings grew up. Chinese things when I was a kid felt like home in a weird way."

The Distant Land of My Father was published in 2001 and follows the outline of her uncle's life in Shanghai - how he lost his wealth and almost his life during a tumultuous time. Last year's City of Tranquil Light is based on the experiences of her missionary grandparents in China.

That makes clear how Caldwell found fiction in China. But faith was a function of breast cancer and its treatment, both of which changed the nature of the book that would become City of Tranquil Light.

Zachary Michael Jack

Author Zachary Michael Jack is a seventh-generation Iowan - the son of a farmer - who lives in Jones County, and like many people with deep roots in the Hawkeye State, his identity is intertwined with his home.

"It's a state that we imprint very strongly on where we're from and [that] we consider a lifelong commitment," he said in a phone interview this week. "Each person manifests that advocacy in different ways. ...

"If you do love a place, part of that love ultimately evolves into advocacy for that place. ... Kind of put your weight behind things that are homegrown."

The 37-year-old Jack - who will speak and read from his creative-nonfiction book Native Soulmate (scheduled for September release) at the Bettendorf Public Library on July 21 - is throwing his weight around in writing. An associate professor of English at North Central College, he has edited Iowa: The Definitive Collection and Letters to a Young Iowan: Good Sense from the Good Folks of Iowa for Young People Everywhere.

But with last year's What Cheer, Jack started on a new path. It was his first novel, and a mystery wrapped around a love story - in the conventional man-and-woman sense, but also reflecting a love of the Midwest and of traditions and things nearly lost to time.

Heather GudenkaufLike many people, Heather Gudenkauf thought she had a novel in her. But that's where her story breaks from the usual.

She wrote that novel and got a literary agent. And then she found a publisher (Mira Books, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises) willing to give her an advance-against-royalties deal. And then The Weight of Slience sold more than 300,000 copies.

It's rare enough for an aspiring author to actually finish that dreamed-of novel, but in the book world today, it's virtually unheard of for a previously unpublished writer to have the success that Gudenkauf has found. "That's what I've been told," she said in a phone interview last week, promoting her April 16 appearance at the Bettendorf Public Library.

Raymond BensonWhen John Gardner retired from writing James Bond novels (after 15 years and 14 books) in 1996, the company that oversaw creator Ian Fleming's literary estate chose as his successor somebody with impeccable credentials.

Despite being an American, Raymond Benson knew 007 - both the literary and cinematic character - backward and forward. In the mid-1980s, he had written and designed three Bond-based games: two computer titles and a role-playing adventure. More importantly, he had researched and authored The James Bond Bedside Companion, an unauthorized and exhaustive look at Fleming and the Bond books and movies that was originally published in 1984 and updated in 1988.

From 1997 to 2002, Benson wrote six original James Bond novels, three novelizations based on Bond movies, and three Bond short stories.

But it would be a disservice to pigeonhole the 55-year-old Benson - who lives in the Chicago suburbs - as merely a Bond writer. He has had a varied career in theatre, music, video games, and novels beyond his Bond output. His latest book, Homefront: The Voice of Freedom, is a prequel to the upcoming video game Homefront. (The book was co-written by John Milius, who also wrote the game.) And in September, Benson will publish the first of what he hopes to be a five-novel series of adventures aimed at women called The Black Stiletto. As he put it in a phone interview last week: "I've moved on from Bond."

Well, mostly. Benson will be discussing the British super-spy at a March 30 lecture at the Bettendorf Public Library, and like the Bedside Companion, his lecture will cover all things Bond.

(Author's note: This article was originally published in September 2010, but it serves as a fitting review of the career of Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5, 2012.)


"But of course he was going away, there was nothing else to do, the time was up, the clock had run out, and he was going very far away indeed."

Sam Weller, Ray Bradbury, and Black Francis in June. Photo by Nathan Kirkman.Unless one believes that Mr. Electrico's command to Ray Bradbury should be taken literally, the famed author will likely not be on this planet to celebrate his 100th birthday.

For those unfamiliar with the Bradbury mythology, Mr. Electrico was a carnival magician Bradbury saw in 1932, when he was 12. Sam Weller describes the event in his 2005 biography The Bradbury Chronicles: "Mr. Electrico then approached the bespectacled, wide-eyed boy in the front row. Taking the [electrified] sword, he tapped Ray on each shoulder, then on the brow, and finally on the tip of his nose and cried, 'Live forever!'"

"Why did he say that?" Bradbury said to Weller. "I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. Just weeks after Mr. Electrico said this to me, I started writing every day. I never stopped."

Immortality, of course, already belongs to Bradbury. His 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (published in 1932) and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949) as a mid-20th Century cautionary-tale classic imagining a future full of numbing technology and invasive government. (See the sidebar "Pleasure to Burn -- Reading Fahrenheit 451.")

The book is the subject of the Moline Public Library's Quad Cities-wide "Big Read" campaign, which begins September 27 with a keynote lecture by Weller and closes on October 31 -- Bradbury's favorite holiday. (For a list of Big Read events, see the sidebar "Fahrenheit 451 -- Area Book Discussions, Panel Discussions, and Film Screenings.") But while Fahrenheit 451 is undoubtedly Bradbury's lasting long-form work, Weller noted in an interview last week that the book isn't typical of the author.

Daniel WoodrellOne thing you might notice picking up Daniel Woodrell's novel Winter's Bone is how thin it is -- less than 200 pages.

And when you start reading, you might be struck that it's been carved incredibly lean. While relatively plainspoken, the sentences are dense, with a mix of dialect from the Ozarks and artfully turned idioms that feel instantly right. One has to sip Woodrell's language.

"I do like to make it apparent to the reader that you need to probably read everything," Woodrell said in a phone interview this week, promoting his reading at Augustana College on April 15. "'I won't put in any flab, but you have to read what's here' is kind of my deal with the reader. ... Pay attention to the sentences."

Pages