Author shares darkly funny fictions

By Jeffrey Sartain - Guest Column
Nov. 29, 2016 at 5:27 p.m.

The author of three books, as well as numerous shorter pieces, Monica Drake writes darkly funny stories that resonate because of their honest and thoughtful portrayals of their characters. Where other authors would often veer into ridiculousness, Drake keeps her characters firmly grounded, motivated and believable, even as the world around them spins out of control.

Drake joins us from Portland, Ore., where she teaches creative writing at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. She is part of the astounding literary scene in Portland, having come through Tom Spanbauer's infamous "Dangerous Writing" workshop, as well as more formal training in The University of Arizona's Master of Fine Arts program. Early in her career, Drake was a frequent contributor to the Northwest's premiere alt-weekly newspapers, The Portland Mercury and The Stranger.

In the August 17, 2000, issue of The Stranger, Drake broke important ground for fiction. This particular issue was entirely devoted to her 26,000-word novella, "Bones in the Garden," and was one of the first weeklies in the country to experiment with devoting an entire issue to a single piece of fiction.

About this time is when I became familiar with Drake's work. A friend from Portland sent me a hand-bound chapbook of one of Monica's stories, "The Folly of Loving Life." This was the very first piece of Monica's that I read. I fell in love with her characters; these were characters I felt like I knew, struggling with the very real malaise that comes with poverty and joblessness, but still managing to find moments of happiness and joy despite their desperate conditions. Here, as in much of Drake's work, the tragic elements blend with the comic, encompassing both extremes of dramatic art.

The same sense of character drew me into her first novel, "Clown Girl." Here, readers got to peek into the day-to-day life led by Nita, the main character, a professionally trained clown making her way in life through clowning gigs and petty crime. Nita lives in Baloneytown, an urban neighborhood peopled by clowns and out-of-work performance artists in an anonymous American city. This book represents what I think of as best in postmodern literature, where the settings, the situations and the realities for stories are hyperbolic, fantastic and heightened, but at the core, there is an intimate understanding of people that informs a very real, very palpable character.

Drake's second novel, "The Stud Book," is an exploration on the nature of motherhood, told through the perspective of four women. It is, again, a darkly funny book, finding joy and absurdity in even the bleakest moments. This book is much more realistic than "Clown Girl," following its four characters through their lives in Portland as they and their children navigate the realities of contemporary urban life. With four main characters, three of whom are mothers, Drake is able to paint a picture of life and family that reveals the complexities, the contradictions and the joys of relationships, parenthood and people.

In April, Drake released her first book of short stories, "The Folly of Loving Life." Much to my joy, the title story is the same one I received in chapbook form so many years ago. Now, as a part of the collection, readers can experience the piece that introduced me to the characters and humor that I've found in Drake's writing for almost two decades.

We at American Book Review are delighted to welcome Monica Drake to the University of Houston-Victoria/American Book Review Reading Series, where she will speak at noon Thursday, in UHV's Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

Jeffrey Sartain is the managing editor of American Book Review and a UHV assistant professor of English. He can be contacted at SartainJ@uhv.edu.


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