Where to Find Catholic Fiction

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Good Books

There’s been an awful lot of ink spilled about the rebirth, revitalization, and re-enchanting of Catholic literature in the last several years, complete with the proliferation of journals, publishing houses, and conferences. But did you know there has also been a similar effort to revitalize the marketing and availability of Catholic fiction? Several new ventures have emerged to help readers—as well as parents, teachers, and librarians—connect to all the good work being done in the name of Catholic fiction. Below are the ones I know about. If you know of any others, please spread the word in the comments!

Virtue Works Media

Cathy Gilmore is in the process of building a platform to connect media consumers of all ages to books, movies, and other media that promote one simple thing: virtue. Her vision is comprehensive, looking to serve all ages and genres, including everything from boutique small press fiction to Hollywood blockbusters. Virtue Works Media will eventually bring its catalog directly into parishes, Catholic schools, parish schools of religion, conferences, and anywhere else Catholics gather. Cathy is on a mission to make sure Catholics know they can get their entertainment from a Catholic source and still find works of the very highest quality.

As a start, she’s put together Five Fave Top Ten Lists of books and a few movies for ages preschool through adult. I’ve read enough of the books to know, these are good lists.

Good News! Book Fair

Lizette Lantigua is determined to oust Scholastic from Catholic schools by creating Good News! Book Fair. She offers fairs at every level, from elementary through college, as well as fairs for Catholic parishes or organizations. The books cover every possible genre, fiction and non-fiction alike, hopefully replacing some of the vapid secular offerings with something better, in every sense of the word.

Catholic Reads

Catholic Reads is a brand-spanking-new program launched in 2017, designed to be the Catholic equivalent of BookBub. Every book they review must be offered at a significant discount to receive promotion through the site. Alyssa Watson and her team are a bunch of unabashed sci-fi/ fantasy/ horror nerds—in other words, my kind of people—but the site offers every kind of fiction, from picture books on up.

Catholic Teen Books

Catholic Teen Books is a co-op of about ten Catholic YA authors who write in a variety of genres. They also have a Facebook Page with a slightly broader membership, dedicated to promoting Catholic-themed fiction for middle and high school students.

Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval

The Catholic writers Guild Seal of Approval is designed to help Catholic bookstores find good work to fill their shelves, so it is geared toward retailers rather than readers. Some of the venues mentioned above use it as a shortcut to approving books for their own catalogs. You can find a list of books that have received it on Goodreads.

Happy Reading!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

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The Literature You Save May Be Your Own

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Wiseblood logo

 

Have you ever wondered what happened to good books? The kind that told good stories without worrying about whether they were “speculative” or “literary” or “mass market trade”? The kind that fearlessly followed the characters into the depths of their genre-bending darkness and the heights of their non-ironic joys? You know… the kind that I write? Wink-emoji

Wiseblood Books wondered that, too. That’s why Dr. Joshua Hren founded the company: to help bring back the kind of literature that takes chances. Literature that brings us epiphanies of beauty. Literature like my debut novel, Jennifer the Damned.

Wiseblood is a non-profit company that exists only because of private, tax-deductible donations from readers like you. They are currently holding a fundraising campaign to help them  grow their mission to “foster works of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and philosophy that find redemption in uncanny places and people; wrestle readers from the tyranny of boredom; articulate faith and doubt in their incarnate complexity; dare an unflinching gaze at human beings as “political animals”; and suffer through this world’s trials without forfeiting hope.”

If that sounds like a cause worth supporting, I hope you’ll take a moment to visit their fundraising page and make a donation, no matter how small. Generations of future readers will thank you.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Cinder Allia has arrived!

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It’s here! My second novel, Cinder Allia, is now available in print on Amazon and on all major eBook platforms. Here’s what it’s about:

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division. Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love? Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most—her father—Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

And here’s what people are saying about it:

“A corrupt, disintegrating kingdom is made whole by a young girl wielding the sword of justice in this engaging fairytale about the dire costs of both love and hate. Karen Ullo’s literary talent is captivating and thought-provoking, using symbolism and mystery to explore what keeps human beings in touch with the divine.” – Kaye Park Hinckley, author of A Hunger in the Heart and Birds of a Feather

“A Cinderella story like you’ve never heard it before, Cinder Allia fills in a grim backstory to the famous Grimm fairy tale. This novel answers the burning question every reader has about the fairy tale: why would Cinderella’s father allow her stepmother to treat her so badly? Ullo reveals Allia’s stepmother’s motives in keeping her in servitude and serves up a surprising twist in the form of a not-so-perfect Prince Charming.” – Barb Szyszkiewicz, Franciscanmom

“With its fascinating characters and unexpected twists it turns the original Cinderella on its head. Definitely a must read.” – Christina Weigand, author of The Palace of the Twelve Pillars

Happy reading!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Catholicmom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Trying to Say ‘God’ Recap

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It started with a miracle.

I mentioned recently that I was preparing to attend the Trying to Say ‘God’ conference about Catholic literature at Notre Dame. However, a few days before I was supposed to leave, Tropical Storm Cindy took aim at my airport in New Orleans. It was scheduled to make landfall right about the time I was scheduled to fly out. I sent an urgent prayer request to my fellow conference panelists and Dappled Things cohorts to ask Our Lady of Prompt Succor to let me come. She’s the patroness of Louisiana and protectress of our coasts. Then this happened:

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That’s a screenshot of the radar on the morning of my flight. See that giant hole in the storm right over New Orleans? My plane took off on time and in sunshine.

I was predisposed to find grace at the conference, what with the Blessed Mother having opened the heavens to allow me to attend, and the people I met there lavished me with it. I think I laughed more in the course of those three days than I have in the past three years. Finally, I got to put not only faces but living, breathing humans to so many of the names I’ve interacted with in the writing world: the entire staff of Wiseblood Books, who published my debut novel; friends from the Catholic Writers Guild with whom I chat online weekly and even daily; and our own dear DT fiction editor, Natalie Morrill, to

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Angela Cybulski of Wiseblood Books, me, and Natalie Morrill

name just a few. Of course, there were also many new names and faces added to the list of my dear friends, some of whom are so accomplished, it takes my breath away to think of myself as their “friend” (rather than their “gawking fangirl.”) And, because all things grace-filled are also loaded with weird coincidence, I ran into two former parishioners from my church, two beautiful and Christ-filled women whom it did my heart good to see again. If I hadn’t attended a single actual conference event, the trip would have been worth it just for the fellowship.

But of course, I did attend many of the panel discussions and keynote talks, including the one where I somehow got to count myself among the likes of Suzanne Wolfe, Angela Doll Carlson, Caroline Langston, and Kaye Park Hinckley, with Angela Cybulski moderating, as we discussed The Marian Effect: Building Strong Women in Writing and Life. Grace piled upon grace as those brilliant women allowed the Holy Spirit to speak through them. “Mother and artist are not career choices. They are states of being that are given to us.” -Suzanne Wolfe. “You become a part of the a story you want to tell people.” -Kaye Hinckley. I could have sat there all day. You can come help us keep the conversation going over at our new Facebook page set up by Angela Carlson.

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Amazing women saying fabulous things

My favorite conference event actually had nothing to do with literature, but everything to do with “trying to say God.” The Notre Dame Vocale, a group of twelve singers with their conductor, presented a concert of Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and modern compositions based on both. It was forty-five minutes of pure bliss.

However, the big question for people who didn’t attend the conference is, of course, what did you observe? What is the state of Catholic literary culture? Who’s doing what, and is any of it working? For what it’s worth, from my limited one-person perspective, I observed first and foremost that the talent pool is deep and broad. Catholic writers are many, well-educated in both the craft of writing and the Faith, and unafraid to wear their Catholic identity on their sleeves. I also observed that Orthodox Christians—of whom I met several—are not only our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also very much our brothers and sisters in literary tradition and sacramental imagination. There were also a handful of people from other faiths, and a smaller handful who professed no faith but nevertheless found themselves curious enough to come. All were welcome, and good will reigned. How rare a gift that is.

However, it was also obvious to me that a good deal of ignorance and intransigence exist within the Catholic literary community. It’s ridiculous for a panelist to say, “No one publishes Catholic literary fiction,” when Joshua Hren, the founder of Wiseblood Books, is sitting in the room. It’s frustrating to hear Catholic publishers emphasize the cold reality of the bottom line without acknowledging room in their business models for the action of the Holy Spirit. It’s disheartening to hear that writers feel disconnected from, and not supported by, other Catholics when the Catholic Writers Guild, whose mission is to do just that, has a table set up in the next room. So much of the work we need to do moving forward is to divest ourselves of the fears and frustrations we have carried for too long, to come out of our introverted, writerly bubbles and simply help each other—and of course, one of the huge benefits of this kind of conference is to allow people to discover each other and do just that.

Finally, I’d like to say that this conference made it clear to me that the old cliché, “Beauty will save the world,” isn’t true. Beauty isn’t good enough; you must have love. Beauty can be cold, austere, and unforgiving, like an Antarctic landscape; love is always warm and transformative. Beauty can easily become an idol, a good sought for its own worth rather than as a pathway to God; love—when it is real, selfless, Christian love–cannot become an idol because God Himself is love. The speakers who sent their audiences out feeling that they had been nourished at a literary Eucharistic table were the ones whose messages overflowed with love: love for the subjects they spoke about; love for their craft as writers, editors, publishers, etc.; love for the work they produced; and most of all, love for the people they were addressing. As I’ve already said, the most valuable thing I took away from this conference was the fellowship of so many dear friends, old and new. The one thing I took away that actually matters is love. Heather King said in her keynote, “Love is our vocation,” and every ounce of her radiated the truth of her words. If all of us engaged in any aspect of a literary vocation can get love right, then we have already succeeded. For art to be truly Christian, its beauty must lead us to love.

Oh, and there was this bit of awesomeness, too:

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Bro. Guy Consolmagno, director the Vatican Observatory; Johnathan Ryan of Sick Pilgrim; and renowned sci-fi author Tim Powers, sending everyone to Catholic Geek Heaven

You can find recordings of some of the conference sessions here.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Catholicmom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Cinder Allia Coming July 6!

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My new novel, Cinder Allia, will be released on July 6! Come join the launch party on Facebook that evening from 7:00-8:30 pm Central Time. I’ll post excerpts, we’ll geek out on all things Cinderella, and there will be opportunities to win great prizes including a free signed copy of the book! Hope to see you there!

“A corrupt, disintegrating kingdom is made whole by a young girl wielding the sword of justice in this engaging fairytale about the dire costs of both love and hate. Karen Ullo’s literary talent is captivating and thought-provoking, using symbolism and mystery to explore what keeps human beings in touch with the divine.” – Kaye Park Hinckley, author of A Hunger in the Heart and Birds of a Feather

Cinder Allia has spent eight years living under her stepmother’s brutal thumb, wrongly punished for having caused her mother’s death. She lives for the day when the prince will grant her justice; but her fairy godmother shatters her hope with the news that the prince has died in battle. Allia escapes in search of her own happy ending, but her journey draws her into the turbulent waters of war and politics in a kingdom where the prince’s death has left chaos and division.

Cinder Allia turns a traditional fairy tale upside down and weaves it into an epic filled with espionage, treason, magic, and romance. What happens when the damsel in distress must save not only herself, but her kingdom? What price is she willing to pay for justice? And can a woman who has lost her prince ever find true love?

Surrounded by a cast that includes gallant knights, turncoat revolutionaries, a crippled prince who lives in hiding, a priest who is also a spy, and the man whose love Allia longs for most—her father—Cinder Allia is an unforgettable story about hope, courage, and the healing power of pain.

The Overrated Art of the Opening Line

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It was a dark and stormy night

Anyone who has ever taken a creative writing class has been indoctrinated with the importance of the first impression. That elusive perfect opening image, the one that instantly hooks the reader, that declares this book to be un-put-down-able, has developed an almost mythical importance among fiction writers. My Google search for “how to write a great opening line” turned up 83.5 million results. There are even first line generators to get you started, if you happen to be incapable of forming a sentence but still want to be a writer. However, it recently occurred to me that I could not recite the opening line from a single one of my favorite novels. The ones that I’ve included here, I had to go look up. On top of that, my all-time favorite opening line is not really an opening line at all.

Something here is fishy.

My all-time favorite opening line is from Slaughterhouse-Five. It says, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” It does everything a great opening line should do: it establishes an unmistakable authorial tone, which even dares to break the “fourth wall” and speak directly to the reader; it introduces a character whose very name, “Billy Pilgrim,” sets him up as an everyman on a journey; and it creates a circumstance that makes Billy Pilgrim ridiculously interesting, namely that he’s come unstuck in time—whatever that means, but I sure want to read the book to find out. It’s eight words of perfectly-written dramatic hook.

But it’s not the opening line. It’s the beginning of chapter two . . . and it also appears at the end of chapter one:

I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun.
This one is a failure, and it had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt. It begins like this:
Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
It ends like this:
Poo-tee-weet?

“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” is a spectacularly brilliant opening line that gets intentionally buried, and whose impact is intentionally undercut by stating it before its proper dramatic time. It’s almost like Kurt Vonnegut took the rule book for writing opening lines, dared anyone to do it better, and then threw the story in a trash can like Kilgore Trout was sometimes wont to do.

The actual opening line of Slaughterhouse-Five says, “All this happened, more or less.” Which is complete and utter nonsense, and provides no dramatic hook at all.

And so it goes.

But, of course, there are plenty of more famous opening lines than my particular favorite. Perhaps the one that is most frequently mentioned when people say “Famous Opening Lines” is from Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Enough with the comma splices already.

Punctuation aside, there is not a single element of drama developed in this rambling paragraph of a sentence. Not a single character is introduced; we have no idea what time period is actually being described by all these superlatives; and the only active verb contained within the string of passives is “insisted,” which carries all the dramatic weight of a toddler stamping his foot.

And yet, it’s arguably the most famous opening line ever written.

My favorite book of recent times is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The opening line says: “Here is a small fact: You are going to die.” Which isn’t drama, and it isn’t news.

Another, even more recent book that I very much enjoyed is The Orphan Mother by Robert Hicks. It begins:

December 12, 1912

To the shabby house on Columbia Avenue they came, the four of them, all in black, narrow ties fastened with jeweled stickpins about their necks.

At least something happens in this one: the drama of the jeweled stickpin. How riveting.

Here are a few particularly dull opening lines that I found on the American Book Review list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels:

Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger

Where now? Who now? When now? —Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

For a long time, I went to bed early. —Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Elmer Gantry was drunk. —Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. —Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

If I wrote “You are about to begin reading Karen Ullo’s new novel, [insert title here]” and turned it in to my creative writing professor in any university in the world, it would be handed back to me covered in bright red ink. Yet there it is, on the list of the top 100 first lines ever written. It’s not a great line. It’s not even a good line.

But it’s a wonderful book.

What makes a great opening line is never the line itself. Certainly, it’s possible to put a zinger right up front, to entrap the reader Billy Pilgrim-style and—if you can manage it—never let him go. But what really makes a great opening line is the appreciation that comes from having savored the whole novel. The opening line is only truly beautiful after you have taken the entire journey with the characters, and then you stop to look back across the trodden path to see where you started and how far you’ve come. My, what a distance lies between “All this happened, more or less” and “Poo-tee-weet?”. “Here is a small fact: You are going to die” means quite a bit more once you know that Death himself is speaking. “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler,” is really the only appropriate way to begin a book that . . . does whatever it is that book actually does. Just go read it.

I sympathize with every teacher or editor who has ever had to try to convince an aspiring writer that “[Character name] was drunk” is a terribly insipid way to try to catch a reader’s attention. I have had my fair share of those conversations; but the aspiring writer does have Sinclair Lewis on his side. The truth is, the art of the opening line has nothing whatsoever to do with an exciting, dramatic hook, or even clever wording; the only way to make an opening line “great” is to follow it with a magnificent story. Dickens’s comma splices hold such an exalted place in literature because they are the gateway to “a far, far better thing” than one line could ever hold.

Karen Ullo is a writer, musician, wife, and mother of two small tornadoes–er, boys. Her novels are Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (coming in 2017.) She is also a regular Meatless Friday chef for Catholicmom.com. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Of Books and Bathtubs

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We’ve all seen the idyll: the frazzled mom with the made-for-TV body who escapes from her hectic everyday life into the all-comforting embrace of a huge Jacuzzi tub full of bubbles, accompanied by her relaxation weapons, a glass of wine and a good book.  So peaceful. So warm. So clean. I’ve always been skeptical about the idyll because, after all, baths are wet and books are made of paper. But I finally got desperate enough to try it.

It was not my Energizer Bunny children who know only one way to interact with each other – by fighting – who occasioned the experiment. No, it was two loudmouth screaming heads, one of whom will soon be the leader of the free world, who drove me into retreat. The Televised Presidential Debate: a form of torture unknown to the Spanish Inquisition only because they had not yet invented either presidents or television. In some far-off civilization, they will play these atrocities on endless loops in haunted houses on Halloween. Especially this one. But I couldn’t just turn off the TV because my husband and my parents, who are still living with me after the flood, all decided to willingly subject themselves to two hours of verbal abuse.

I don’t claim to understand people.

The book + bathtub option was very much a last resort. It was only because of the bathroom heater – blessed white noise! – that I succumbed to the temptation. You’ve heard of fighting fire with fire? I fought hot air with hot air.

I didn’t have any bubble bath on hand, nor the made-for-TV body, but otherwise, I did things right.  I have the obnoxiously large Jacuzzi tub (which, by the way, is a monster to clean.)  I opened a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio and dug up an issue of Image Journal that’s been sitting on my to-read pile.

As it turns out, baths are wet.  And books are made of paper.

 

Karen Ullo is the author of Jennifer the Damned.  To learn more, go to www.karenullo.com.