It wasn’t quite enough for Carol Bly, the great, energetic, multitalented writer, to go down in history as one of Minnesota’s most important literary voices. She also left thousands of younger writers and readers with the impression that she was a terrific teacher, too.
“She was a wonderful teacher,” says Miriam Karmel, who took one of Bly’s writing classes through the Split Rock arts program in 1995. “Carol spoke passionately about ethics and the need to pay attention. In my notes from that week, I’d jotted snippets of things Carol had said. ‘Basic empathy. Good writing is close to that.’ She said that. I like to think that what Carol worked so diligently to convey has found its way into my own writing, even in some small way.”
It must be so; this month, Karmel was selected as the winner of the first annual Carol Bly Short Story Contest, sponsored by Writers Rising Up, an Eden Prairie-based nonprofit that aims to raise awareness about environmental topics through good writing. Bly was an integral part of the group’s activities before her death, as were other Minnesota essayists Bill Holm and Paul Gruchow.
“I share a deep concern for the environment, though I do not consider myself an environmental writer. Still, my concern about pollution, global warming and the destruction of fragile eco-systems has a way of finding a way in my writing,” says Karmel, whose winning story, “Happy Chicken,” explores the space between a rigid older woman and her granddaughter’s annoying new boyfriend, a progressive foodie who aspires to eat “happy chickens.”
The story is actually a selection from “Being Esther,” a novel Karmel has just completed. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and she has won Minnesota Monthly’s Tamarack Award, the Kate Braverman Short Story Prize and the Arthur Edelstein Prize for Short Fiction. Her short story collection, “Nora’s Story,” was the May 2007 selection here.
Aside from the laurels, Karmel makes her living as a freelance writer, primarily working for an ophthalmology journal. But it’s art before life: She sits down at 5:30 a.m. to write fiction every day before settling into the day job’s demands.
“It’s quite different from my creative writing, though I have given some of my characters eye diseases. There’s a chapter in “Being Esther” in which Esther visits her ophthalmologist,” she says. “That’s as close as I’ve come to merging my two worlds.”