Creative writing faculty at the University of Cincinnati began a biennial fiction event 20 years ago that’s now known as the Robert and Adele Schiff Fiction Festival. This year’s version is January 25–26 with two nights of readings and one panel discussion on the publishing, editorial, and post-grad school experiences of four graduates from UC’s creative writing doctoral program: Gwen Kirby, Brenda Peynado, Liv Stratman, and Bess Winter. “A number of our alumni published novels and collections of stories during the pandemic, and we decided that the festival would be an ideal way to celebrate their accomplishments,” says Jennifer Habel, UC’s coordinator of creative writing.
Gwen Kirby’s Shit Cassandra Saw (Penguin, 2022) is a humorous short story collection that focuses on the lives of women both past and present. She describes it as “irreverent, angry, swear-y, and heartfelt.” While Kirby was grateful to participate in virtual events around the book’s launch and appreciated the support on Twitter and elsewhere, she felt like she missed out by not being able to do in-person events. “This was finally my time!” she says via email. “My time to show up for my bookstore reading, drink bad red wine out of a plastic cup, and look around with growing horror as I realized that only one person had come and that was because they thought David Sedaris was reading.”
All jokes aside, Kirby notes that she wrote most of the collection while pursuing her PhD in English at UC and that she’s really excited to come back to Cincinnati. She plans to “get a coffee at Sidewinder, eat Indian food on Ludlow Avenue, and walk through Eden Park and remember almost dying there as I attempted the Flying Pig Half Marathon. A few days back won’t be nearly enough!”
Liv Stratman also plans to eat Indian food on Ludlow Avenue, where she’ll also stop by Clifton Natural Foods, her employer during the early aughts. Her novel Cheat Day (Scribner, 2021) is, as she puts it, “a dark comedy about disordered eating and desire. It follows a woman named Kit who simultaneously embarks on a satirically strict Whole 30-esque diet and an extramarital affair with an attractive but vapid man she meets at work.”
Though Stratman now lives in New York City, she launched the book from Downbound Books in Northside. The small bookstore hosted her in the garden of The Factory events space. “Holding a book launch outside in the early evening was extremely cool,” she remembers, “something I would not have done in pre-pandemic times.” Cincinnati is an important place for other reasons, too. “Most of who I am as a writer took shape here,” she says, noting that she spent six years in the English department between her undergraduate and M.A. degrees. “I love this city.”
Brenda Peynado, author of The Rock Eaters (Penguin, 2021), says that virtual events in 2021 provided “a really wonderful way to connect with readers and booksellers when I wouldn’t have been able to travel,” considering that she gave birth a few weeks after the book’s release. She describes The Rock Eaters as “a genre-bending short story collection featuring Latina girlhood, alien arrivals, angels falling from rooftops, basement ghosts, pandemics, virtual reality, and sorrows manifesting as tumorous stones. It explores all the many ways we try to love across boundaries.” One story describes people living in a virtual reality world after a pandemic. “It was a total surprise that the outside world and this post-apocalyptic story I’d imagined echoed each other,” she says.
While earning a PhD in creative writing at UC, Peynado found out a lot about herself as a writer. “I learned how to take risks that matter and how to focus on what I wanted to say,” she says, “and I owe much of that to the conversations I had with my UC community.” She and her husband, the writer Micah Dean Hicks, were married at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. They’re currently expecting their second child, and Peynado has been craving a Graeter’s milkshake.
Bess Winter describes her Machines of Another Era (Gold Wake Press Collective, 2021) as “a short story collection that’s influenced by my love of historical objects: how we live with them, how they outlive us, the secrets they keep, and those they reveal.” She says there are a lot of Victorians in the collection, as well as “people made of walnuts, Edison’s talking doll, and a gorilla that uses sign language.” Many of the collection’s pieces were drafted while Winter was at UC, where she participated in creative writing workshops with Kirby and Peynado.
“I was encouraged to pursue my fascinations and obsessions,” she recalls. “Michael Griffith read pages and pages of essays about the history of dolls, bless him, and Tamar Heller, world-respected Victorianist, read and advised an absolutely bonkers essay about the Victorian corpse. That seriousness of purpose and validation has definitely informed the way I make art and the tone of the book.” While in Cincinnati, Winter plans to dine in her favorite booth at the Blue Jay, visit Highland Coffee House, get a bag of deep-fried peanuts from Jungle Jim’s, eat a stinky burrito at The Comet, and browse the Ohio Valley Antique Mall.
Clearly the writers will be busy as they return to their favorite haunts and to their beloved campus. To join them, get more info about the Robert and Adele Schiff Fiction Festival here. All events are free and open to the public.