vol. xii. no. 1
Keith Leonard: One of the many things I enjoy about “Bathing my 20 Year Old Son After He Has Broken His Arm” is how it moves through both action and meditation, and yet, the poem is never confusing despite a volleying of those two registers. Could you discuss your relationship with clarity in your poems?
Cecil Sayre: The most difficult aspect for me in writing my poems is accurately presenting the emotions of the moment, and I suspect that might be the more meditative parts of the poem. The physical, the action, is much easier to convey; that’s the concrete and almost simply becomes a reporting of the ‘facts’. I struggle with honesty, that is, finding the words that express most truly how the speaker feels. This usually requires the most revision and maybe that constant revision leads to the clarity that you are asking about. I know when it scares me in its truthfulness I have it right.
KL: How has parenting influenced your writing?
CS: Parenting forces me to accept my age, while at the same time remember and re-examine my childhood, albeit from a new perspective. I’ve become more aware, each and every day, of being a parent and a child. My work almost always focuses on the relationships we have and form with each other, and the duality of parenting, being both a parent and a child, leads to all sorts of revelations about the self.
KL: Speaking of “childhood,” can you talk a bit about how you were first introduced to poetry?
CS: By the age of nine I was writing prose, poetry came later and I kind of fell into it. By my preteens I had discovered the Doors and was captured by Jim Morrison’s lyrics, which are poetry. Reading about Morrison’s life I learned he read Rimbaud and the Beats, they were his inspiration, and so I began reading them too. The fact that poetry could have such a strong impact with so few words just knocked me out, and I began reading whatever I came across, both the good and the bad, trying to figure it out.
KL: This poem pays particular attention to the body, describing the son’s age as evidenced by his long hair and broad back. This is a broad question, but could you discuss your understanding of the relationship between the body and poetry?
CS: The body is poetry. It is poetry, it is music, it is art. It is the one thing we can know without doubt. It is the most consistent concreteness we have access to. The death of poetry is abstraction so we must write from the body and of the body. Once we have established the body in poetry, in words, then we can allow in the abstractions, the thoughts about the body.
KL: Can you think of any other poets who seem to share your sentiment about the body in poetry? Who do you turn to for inspiration?
CS: The first two poets I read, devoured, were Charles Bukowski and Adrienne Rich. Their work is very physical, especially Bukowski’s, he is all about the experience of the body, but so is Rich, particularly her book Dream of a Common Language. Lately I’m enjoying the work of B. H. Fairchild.
KL: What are the particular difficulties with writing about family? And besides family, what are some themes or subjects you find yourself writing poems about?
CS: There is a thin line to tread when writing about others, especially family. As a rule, I try not to write about them, or their experiences, instead focusing on my experiences, even though it may, and often does, concern an event we shared. All I can do is be as honest as possible about what I think/thought and felt and at the same time be respectful of the other person (or persons) involved. A difficulty is the form. Some things must be changed to fit the limits of a poem. Hopefully what does become changed, or omitted, is not that relevant. And ultimately what it is all about is the creating of a poem, a work of art, something made up; it is not a factual report of the event.
Most of my poems are about relationships, and specifically family relationships. Some deal with my immediate family, while others tackle family history, and in those instances the family history may serve as more inspiration than anything.
KL: This poem take a wonderful turn at the end when the father’s frustrations are turned back on himself as he realizes his impatience is the failure of the situation, not the broken arm and anger of the son. What is your understanding of failure/mistake in poems?
CS: That’s an interesting interpretation of the poem’s conclusion. I don’t exactly see it as a sense of failure on the father’s part, but maybe more one of resignation, perhaps a failure in general but not one assigned to either party. I feel the poem concludes with more of a feeling of hopelessness. There is some mutual understanding gained by both the father and the son, but not one that seems to solve any issues or even brings them closer. And interestingly it is through the son’s own innocence and naiveté that the reader is offered this insight. So perhaps in that respect there is a failure on the father’s part, an inability to acknowledge the totality of the situation.
Keith Leonard is the author of a forthcoming poetry collection, Ramshackle Ode (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2016), and a chapbook Still, the Shore (YesYes Books). He has held fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and Indiana University, where he received his MFA. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Copper Nickel, and Gulf Coast. Keith is a Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Indiana University.
R.G. Chandler interviewed Matthew S. Rosin about his flash fiction story “Hope,” which appears in the Winter 2015 edition of r.kv.r.y. quarterly. Rosin and Chandler met when they worked for the same education non-profit. They eventually got to know each other as creative writers and are now part of the same writing group.
Chandler: “Hope” is a powerful story. After reading it, I had to wonder: where did the story originate? The metaphor of the sand and the bucket is so vivid and so alive that it must have a back story.
Rosin: “Hope” is the story of someone seeking treatment for mental illness: depression, anxiety, what have you. I’ve dealt with these challenges — first depression, and more recently anxiety — for all of my adult life.
The story sparked one morning while I was driving. I had just dropped off my son at daycare and was heading to my favorite coffee shop to write. It had been a rough morning, and my anxiety level was still rising. Fast.
Then, while stopped at a traffic light, I suddenly noticed my body. I was hunched forward at the steering wheel, my neck crooked, as if struggling to hold up a weight.
In that moment, through stepping apart from the sensation and trying to understand it, the energy that had fueled my anxiety made a sort of creative pivot. By the time I got to the coffee shop, the sand and funnel imagery that became “Hope” were calling me to write. Two hours later, I had a relatively tight first draft.
I think that’s why the story packs a punch: it contains the urgency of a man writing his way out of an anxiety attack.
The details in the story are fiction. But the metaphors and the phenomenology all came from my noticing and trying to express in words what anxiety was doing to my body.
Chandler: What made you chose to write “Hope” in a second person point of view? Did you start off writing the story in second person, or was that something you shifted to?
Rosin: I did it intuitively from the outset. But the second-person point of view stuck around through all the revisions because, when combined with the imagery, I think it pushes the reader to find solidarity with the protagonist.
For example, my goal with the opening lines was to place the protagonist’s burden — the weight, the need to make sense of what’s happening and find some kind of equilibrium — immediately upon the reader.
Chandler: There are lines in “Hope” that I find fascinating because of the word choices you made, such as: “The doctor does not wear a white coat, but all the possible names for your struggle listen on a shelf behind her, inside a book as heavy as the sand in your skull.” What made you choose the word “listen?”
Rosin: The book in question is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which is the manual that mental health providers use to categorize mental illness. It gets revised periodically, and the boundaries between old and new disorder categories — and between disorder and the ordinary difficulties of everyday life — shift around. Those shifts have consequences for people’s lives.
I described the DSM as “listening” because it’s not an inert tome on the shelf. By entering a psychiatrist’s office and asking for help, the protagonist’s troubles will be absorbed into a set of categories for making sense of mental struggle. Insurance payments and, in the case of the story, medication that might help will follow.
I’m not criticizing this, by the way. My own life is more livable for it. Diagnostic categories, whatever their truth, bring a language for making sense of your struggles. You can move beyond your inchoate fear of going crazy. With help, you can learn to objectify what’s happening to you, recognize its movements and moments within you, and act in the world to counter it.
Chandler: Every single word in “Hope” seems to have been specifically and carefully chosen. It doesn’t feel like you dropped any word in by accident. So again, in reference to the previously-quoted line, you write that “the doctor does not wear a white coat.” Then, when you describe the pharmacist a few short lines later, you state: “the man wears a white coat, but he is not a doctor.” What’s the deeper meaning behind this contrast? What’s the significance of the white coat?
Rosin: One thing I wanted to show through the story is how new hope sometimes takes its first breath in response to small things vested with symbolic weight. Like the couch in a doctor’s office. Finding a name for your struggle. A pharmacist’s white coat. Mapping out future events in your cell phone’s calendar. Little capsules and pills.
Only a few days ago, I was picking up a prescription at my pharmacy, and the woman behind the counter wasn’t wearing a white coat. I’d seen her in the store before, so I wasn’t totally put off by it. But still, I felt slightly anxious until she reached for her white coat and slipped it on. I guess she’d just arrived at work or returned from a break. Somehow, that coat transformed my perception. It affirmed my trust in her.
But I don’t think I’d want to walk into a psychiatrist’s office and be welcomed by a white coat, despite the fact that white coats symbolize all the responsibilities and trust we grant doctors in our culture. You’re there to treat your body, sure, but it’s not a room for physical examination in the usual sense. It’s more intimate than that. It’s a place to tell ever-truer stories about your vulnerabilities, wrestle with them, and plan new responses. You’re there to prepare your spirit for the road ahead.
My own feeling is I’d rather the symbols of medical authority — the diplomas, the DSM — hold up the walls and the shelves. Then, in the space they hold open, I can take the risk to spill some of my sand before another person — one who listens and helps interpret the patterns on the floor.
Chandler: Your style of writing mimics that of a poet. “Hope” seems more “linear” in nature, compared with the longer paragraphs usually found in prose. Also, it distinctly follows Coleridge’s description of poetry: the right words in the right order, with each line building on the line before. You’re very good at leading up to and then packing a powerful punch into very few words, such as: “Like dad did.” Considering this, I have to wonder: what is your poetry background? What other forms of writing do you engage in?
Rosin: Poetry is important for how I think about writing fiction, especially flash fiction.
My dad, Gary S. Rosin, is a poet. He’s long been active in the Texas poetry community. As a kid, I attended his poetry readings — at least the ones before bedtime — and proudly put a copy of his first chapbook on my bookshelf. Now, my dad and I talk about writing all the time, and he’s been steadfast in supporting my turn to fiction.
One thing I got from my dad and his poetry readings, I think, is a feeling that written language wants to be spoken. That feeling also comes from my being a songwriter and musician. Most of my own poetry is used as lyrics, which means I’m always concerned with the sound, rhythm, flow, and cadence of the words I write.
When I revise a piece of fiction, the process always includes reading aloud. If I trip over a sentence, or if it feels awkward on my tongue, I rewrite. I tweak the placement of paragraph breaks with speech in mind, too. In the case of “Hope,” that meant short, spare paragraphs.
My dealings with poetry and songwriting have also given me a desire to pack the most power into the fewest words, with the right image at the right moment. I aspire to that, anyway. Flash fiction is a great context for that because you’ve only a limited amount of real estate to get your point across. The words need to cut, bloom, explode.
Chandler: I know that you were previously an education writer. How does nonfiction writing differ from fiction for you personally? Was this a difficult shift, or do both of these writing personae come naturally to you?
Rosin: The audiences and their goals differ. So do the means by which you interrogate reality: creative use of metaphor only goes so far in an education policy document before data and charts come calling.
But my transition from nonfiction to fiction has gone smoothly, on the whole. Ultimately, the goal in both contexts is to tell a worthwhile story well and invite your readers to wrestle with ideas and themselves — and to become the kind of writer who can pull it off. That’s the common calling.
Chandler: I really enjoyed “Hope” and other pieces of yours that I’ve read. If someone wanted to read more of your work, where could she find it? What can we expect from you in the future?
Rosin: “Hope” is my first published piece of short fiction; other stories will hopefully appear in the future. In the meantime, I will publish a novelette — a fable called The Honeydrop Tree — this year. And I publish periodic “Reflections On Fatherhood” podcasts and other writings via my website, www.matthewsrosin.com. I welcome everyone to visit, read, and listen!
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R.G. Chandler is a Bay Area, California writer and poet. She has been described as “the voice from the curb” because her words turn the forgotten — the homeless, the alcoholics, the drug addicts, those who suffer mental illness — into real human beings. Chandler has published a novel (Surviving Xcarion) and several poems and short stories, and she has three screenplays out for consideration. You can find her on Facebook.
Photo of Matthew S. Rosin by Todd Rafalovich.
Randon Noble: I love the immediacy of using the second person. What made you decide to use “you” instead of “I” for your essay Fifty-four Weeks?
Annita Sawyer: I decided I wanted to experiment with point of view, just to see what I could do. It was my idea of daring. I’ve wrestled with my relationship with my younger self for as long as I can remember; if I were to identify my emotional unfinished business it is allowing myself to risk feeling compassion for the girl I was in the hospital.
The psychological testing experience had always remained vivid in my mind, and I remember my amazement, and relief, when I found a reference to this particular event – his question and my incorrect answer – in the hospital records. I’d described the scene with myself struggling to answer the psychologist’s question in the memoir, but I wanted to expand it. Addressing my younger self from the present proved more intense than I expected. I actually began to care. Once I had those feelings and began to respond in my older, wiser present voice the essay took off.
RN: You have a memoir coming out in June — Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir, which was selected by Lee Gutkind for the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards nonfiction grand prize. Very exciting! But it can be difficult for a memoirist to decide what stories to tell and what stories to keep private. Can you tell us a bit about your process?
AS: The book grew from the experience of reading my hospital records and finding myself thrown back into my past. What I naively thought might take a few months – “I’ll be done by the end of the summer,” I said in April, when I decided to send for the records – dominated my life for a number of years. With significant support from a skilled and experienced therapist I gradually extricated myself from the scariest depths. I emerged with insight about trauma, which was a relatively new area of research and treatment in 2003 compared with what we know today, and I felt an urgent need to pass on what I’d learned.
The process involved two books, in effect. I signed with an agent early, before I knew much about writing or memoirs. She had read only an initial collection of perhaps twenty scenes or stories centered on my hospital experience. She felt changed by what she read, and encouraged me with her enthusiasm and gave me a few ideas about what it needed to be complete. I’d say that in general she was pretty hands-off, but she believed in me, which was huge. Of course, I was delighted to have a respected agent, but I was completely out of my depth, and too inexperienced to really appreciate that. About a year and a half later, I’d completed a simple version, all in the present tense. Present tense made the hospital scenes powerful, but it didn’t include the perspective people wanted from the psychologist side of me. Although my agent received many “rave rejections,” as she called them, after more than a year of sending it out, we both knew the book had to be revised.
Meanwhile I was developing as a writer. I understood that to be viable the memoir required more depth. During the next few years I think it had at least five different titles, illustrating the fact that I hadn’t yet quite found my way.
As a writer, I tried hard to give myself at least an hour every morning to write, but I often failed. I was also working full time in my psychology practice. Most solid work came during residencies, where there was time, inspiring settings, and generous artists and writers (like you, Randon!) who gave me advice and encouragement. Kit, my agent, had often told me not to focus exclusively on the book but to write essays and stories, to try out all sorts of writing. After a zillion tries I finally had my first piece accepted, a narrative essay about getting shock treatment as a nineteen-year-old.
For chapters and essays the process remained consistent: I’d have a picture of an event or an interesting piece of information and I’d write about that. I took early drafts to my writers’ group and their feedback essentially taught me how to write – how to have my stories not sound like a clinical report! As I expanded the memoir, the middle years especially, my group gave me further ideas about what needed to be included – or discarded. I grew more discerning about what was helpful and what wasn’t. Between the writers’ group, writer friends who read it and commented, and my own literary education it gradually came together. Occasionally, I’d suddenly recall a scene that might capture an aspect of my experience that was important (for example, my first date with a man I met in the hospital). Several months after my 50th high school reunion I realized that this experience would make a straightforward last chapter. I continued to fiddle with pieces here and there – I could fiddle indefinitely – but eventually it felt complete. I was done. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t be different or better, but it touches on all of the points I think I’ve wanted to make – necessary and sufficient pieces. Some readers want more sex or family history, or information about ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), but I can see that this just means that there are more books to write!
RN: I remember learning year ago that Amy Bloom, the author of one of my favorite short stories “Love Is Not a Pie,” was also a therapist. I was both surprised and not surprised. Later I read a New York Times article, “Therapists Wired to Write,” that made me see how closely the two practices – therapy (on either side of the couch!) and writing – can relate. (How) do you take inspiration from your clinical work? And (how) is your clinical work influenced by your writing?
AS: My mentor Daniel Miller was a master clinician. He taught us the importance of being direct. Yet, if the truth you are dealing with is painful, the way you address it is critical in how it is heard. Unless you’re careful, the person you’re speaking to won’t hear it, and you won’t accomplish anything. I watched Dan use metaphor to communicate these messages. Metaphors speak the truth but leave some room; one can connect them with oneself or not, or hold the image and make sense of it later. I learned to consider the impact of every word I might say. I realize this is what writers do, too. And yes, there are unimaginably complicated stories from real life, which have helped me keep my own stories in perspective. I’m also inspired by how hard my patients work. I say to myself, if they can demand so much from themselves, I need to do the same. So I take more risks in my office and on the page.
RN: I love that r.kv.r.y pairs a piece of art with each piece of writing. Sometimes the art is representational, sometimes abstract. What did you think of the painting paired with your work?
AS: Initially, the piece paired with my work made me think of a frozen waterfall – ice and snow on piles of rock. It felt cold. After I read your question, I looked more closely. I saw faces among the rocks. Above the faces I saw branching lines and lighter patches that changed the snow into wet packs and ECT. It still felt cold, but now more dangerous, more ominous. I felt more isolation and fear than I had wanted to imagine.
RN: Is there a question I haven’t asked that you wish I had? Is there a question I asked that you wish I hadn’t?
AS: I like your questions, Randon. I love to ponder new things. I’m especially intrigued by you asking about the artwork and my associations when I looked closely. I’m impressed by its impact. Given my feelings around the essay, I can’t say how much of my reaction comes from my own projection, and how much others would see (or, more likely, feel) the same way.
RN: And finally, what does “recovery” mean to you?
AS: If you had asked me a dozen years ago, certainly fifteen years ago, I would have said recovery is when you have put your disruption and pain behind you, and you’re able to “be yourself.” But I would have meant “return to normal.” I used to believe that good enough therapy would heal anything.
Now I respect that there is no “normal” – we’re all lumpy and imperfect in various ways, which is not necessarily a problem. But with trauma especially, although we can grow and change, we don’t undo what has hurt us. Now I see “recovery” much more often as “gaining useable substances from unusable sources.”
My goal in clinical work and in writing is to enable myself and those I work with to find understanding and compassion for ourselves and one another, to respect what harm has been done, to recognize the ways this might show up in everyday life, yet to come to terms with it and move forward nonetheless. Harm can be mitigated, but it’s never completely undone; we’re never “good as new,” we’re different from what we might have been. However, with increased insight and greater emotional depth, we just might be more interesting this way!
RN: Amen! Thanks, Annita!
Mary Akers: Hi, April. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. I’m so excited to discuss your forthcoming collection, The Poor Children. First of all, wow. Let me just say that your stories are so unsettling—in the best way. I do like a good, dark, freaky story, and I’ve often wondered what in my formative years made me this way—did I come out of the womb primed to love Poe and Plath? What were some of your earliest influences? And I’m talking about before you even conceived of being a writer yourself. For the sake of a concrete number (and so none of your current literary heroes can be jealous), let’s say the age of twelve. What were you reading when you were twelve?
April L. Ford: Thanks for inviting me, Mary! Since this is my first experience having a book published, I feel soothed being in your company—like a little girl grabbing onto a grownup’s shirt hem, pleading, “You won’t let them hurt me, right?” Which is strange (or maybe apt?) of me to say, I guess, given the nature of The Poor Children.
Age twelve, eh? Well, I was a late bloomer in terms of “real” literature; I was still reading young adult novels about horses. I was an avid horse-lover (still am!), and until seventh or eighth grade, I refused everything that wasn’t about horses. I must have read Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series, all twenty books, cover to cover a dozen times by age twelve. I could also recite Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty from memory. The scene in the novel that drew me back time after time was where Black Beauty sees his old carthorse friend Ginger being taken away:
“A short time after this a cart with a dead horse in it passed our cab-stand. The head hung out of the cart-tail, the lifeless tongue was slowly dropping with blood; and the sunken eyes! but I can’t speak of them, the sight was too dreadful. It was a chestnut horse with a long, thin neck. I saw a white streak down the forehead. I believe it was Ginger; I hoped it was, for then her troubles would be over. Oh! if men were more merciful they would shoot us before we came to such misery.”
I was rightly horrified, imaging any horse I loved ever dying, but there was something about that scene…a connection I made to reality and the things beyond my control. I wanted to understand. I became obsessed with understanding.
MA: I’m curious: Why children? Why troubled, disadvantaged, marginalized, sexualized children? I don’t mean that as a glib or disparaging question–I find the subject compelling and fascinating and delightfully taboo, especially in today’s child-centric society, and I’m guessing I will find your answer equally compelling and fascinating.
AF: The short answer could be that I’m stuck somewhere in my teens, emotionally, although I was never that terrible. The more comprehensive answer includes facts like, I was an only child with a limited social circle, so I had lots of time to watch other kids and make inferences. Also, I hated being a kid. I felt chubby and awkward and weird, and I wanted to crawl out of my skin at the first chance. By adolescence, after I toned down on my horse books, I picked up VC Andrews and suddenly people became interesting. Parents were evil, siblings were malicious, and everyone did all-around terrible things. I loved it! Beneath those terrible things, there were always explanations; people were the way they were because of circumstances, and those circumstances made the characters in the novels more…acceptable, I guess. I would root for the evilest of the characters, because somewhere in the stories, they would be redeemed, even if only for a paragraph. Those redemptions helped me understand people weren’t only good or only bad; people—children included—made choices that often reflected their situations before their personalities.
In the last year and a half of my teens, I lived in a group home with seven other kids. Those kids had all come from severely deteriorated family situations, whereas I had come from a relatively stable upper-middle class environment that sort of fell apart at the last minute. So suddenly I had seven new siblings, boys and girls, and they were pretty dangerous creatures—drug dealers, violent, etc. Take a kid with a curious mind from a very sheltered life and plunk her at the center of constant danger and chaos, well, it was like living in a human library! I made friends with some of the kids, while others didn’t want anything to do with me. In a sense, the group home was where I learned how to make friends, socialize, behave with my peer group. Other kids my age had been either uninteresting or mysterious to me before then, so the world of the group home, and the community around troubled youth, cracked open a whole new compelling purpose for me.
MA: Wow. I sensed that there was some lived experience behind your characters—they felt so real!—but I also know (intellectually) that fiction is made-up-shit. I mean, I really am an author. I know this. But I still get sucked in as a reader (and I hope to never lose that). So…(no segue intended)…do you think writers write from their obsessions? (Spoiler alert: I do.) If so, do you think that the writing is one way we tame our obsessions? If not, what the hell DOES make us write?
AF: Definitely! And I think obsessions vary from project to project—we can be obsessed with a particular theme or idea, or a character, or we can fixate on syntax as a way of telling a story. When I wrote “A Marmalade Cat for Jenny,” I was obsessed with the Southern accent—you know, that overused Texas drawl? I had just watched Million Dollar Baby on the big screen, and I wanted more than anything to sound like I was from the South—which was a totally bizarre thing to wish for, since I was a French-Canadian who had lived in Quebec her whole life. Anyway, that obsession with the sound of language, and dialect, drove me through the first draft of the story. And what a mess it was. No “g’s” on words ending in “ing,” “w’s” after every end vowel I could get away with, “your” spelled as “yur,” “for” as “fer.” I even read the opening scene of the story at an open mic in dialect! Oh, man, what was I thinking? I mean, the narrative itself was in pretty good shape, but more than one person told me to tone it down with the visual spelling. Years later, I submitted a cleaned-up version to The Missouri Review. An editorial assistant wrote back and asked for a revision. The readers really like the story, he said, but something wasn’t quite right…maybe the dialogue? By then I had limited the dialect to direct speech, but even that proved too heavy. And who turns down a request for revision from TMR? The Journal didn’t accept my story, finally, but I still consider that exchange an exciting and defining moment along my way as a writer. I might have pressed the handwritten note from the editorial assistant between the pages of a favorite book, the way a person presses a first rose from a lover for safekeeping….
MA: Pressed the handwritten note—I love that. The things we cling to are things no non-writer would ever understand. Speaking of clinging to things, I loved your story “Isabelle’s Haunting.” Such delicious details, such a strange Miss Havisham-type setup (minus the cobwebs and wedding cake). I’ve had occasion of late to consider what makes a work “haunting.” You might even say I’m obsessed with figuring out what makes a particular piece of writing haunting. So…what, for you, makes a story “haunting?”
AF: Oh, great question! Here, I would say less is more. Part of what makes something haunting is the mystery that surrounds it, and the suspense of not knowing whether we’ve drawn the right conclusions. Little nibbles along the way to help us build a picture in our minds, but an opaque picture—an impression. When we’re kids, all sorts of undefined things frighten us; we see something vague, like the silhouette of a sock on the hallway floor at night, and then we form a concrete explanation for it, the sock is really a snake, and that explanation haunts us. When I started “Isabelle’s Haunting,” I had no clue where the story was going, and I didn’t plan for it to be a tale of haunting. After romance, horror is the genre I have the least experience with as a reader. I just know I liked the idea of never fully explaining what happened to Isabelle, and in order to pull that off, I had to deny myself certain concrete facts about Fancy. Maybe that sounds weird, so many writers say they make all kinds of character or plot notes before digging into a piece, but I wanted to feel the tension as I wrote the story. I wanted every new scene and development to surprise me as much as I hoped they would surprise readers.
MA: I think that’s a brilliant response. The unknown is definitely haunting…and our empty assumptions often even more so. You’re so smart.
Now, indulge me if you will, and take us forward to a packed room where you are giving a reading from The Poor Children to an eager and attentive crowd. First, what are you wearing? (I never know what the hell to wear and usually spend the last two hours before a reading trying on and tossing a mountain of clothes before giving up and going back to my original outfit.) Second, how are you pronouncing your title? I know the many inherent meanings are part of the joy of a good title, but I want to know how you say the title when speaking to your audience. The POOR (poverty-stricken) Children? The Poor (non-adult) CHILDREN? THE (one-and-only) Poor Children? The Poor (awww!) Children? Come on, spill.
AF: Your question is timely, Mary! Just yesterday I was at the mall with my spouse, trying on a variety of dresses I might wear to a reading. I left the mall empty-handed and dispirited, though, and unless I find something spectacular between now and March seventeenth, the date of my first reading, I’ll likely appear in a swank pair of Montreal designer jeans, a button down, a blazer with slightly too-long sleeves, my awesome high-heeled Doc Martens, and a fanny pack of nerves.
You are my new favorite person for asking about pronunciation! Back when I came up with the title, which involved a lot of me spouting possibilities to my spouse and asking his opinion, I really-really wanted something that would fit every story in the collection and also suggest how I feel about the characters. I wanted something literal and sarcastic. When I spouted, “The Poor Children!” my spouse and I looked at each other and knew, we just knew, that was it. There’s poverty throughout the collection, and I wouldn’t wish any of those characters’ experiences on a real person. And then there’s the reality of those characters: they’re bright, they have agency, and they believe they know what they’re doing (which is a universal flaw we all share), so should we really say, pityingly, “Oh, those poor, poor children”?
MA: Even with my high tolerance for characters who have grim life prospects, I found one of your stories so dark and unsettling that there were times when I had to look away from the page. I felt complicit somehow and it made it hard to go on reading until I talked myself down with the “It’s fiction, silly!” pep talk. I’m guessing you know which story did that to me (cough-cough-MarmaladeCat-cough-cough). I do appreciate stories (and all forms of art) that make me squirm. I wonder, though, do you squirm while writing them? Do you ever have to look away? And a related question: How do you know when/if the reader’s line gets “crossed?”
AF: I expected that story would be forever archived on my hard drive, in a “Stories You Should Never Write” or “Stories You Should Never Tell Anyone You Wrote” folder. I knew, while I was writing the opening scene, which came to me fully and lucidly one night while I was waiting for friends to join me at a restaurant, no one would pat me on the back for it. Readers, if the story ever made it to that point, would judge me based on that opening scene, and I might get labeled as a certain kind of writer. But I went forward with the scene, and with the rest of the story, because I had to. I had to get into that world to understand why in hell anyone would do those things. In the same way I kept rereading the death scene in Black Beauty to fathom death in a world where I had never experienced any, I had to cast aside my biases and judgments to get into the world of Scott, Jenny, and Mark, and give them a chance to show me why they lived that way.
It’s not an easy story to read, I’m well aware of this, but then I didn’t write any of the stories in The Poor Children with “easy read” in mind. Returning to the idea that no one is only good or only bad, I wanted this to be a major question in the collection. As a reader, you might hate Scott, or Derrick, or Madame Jasmin, but are you able to investigate their situations before passing judgment? Are these characters gross magnifications of ourselves? So what if they are? Better to read it in a novel than to live that life. I mean, we watch or read about horrific world events all the time, and then we squabble about them on Facebook like they’re nothing when in fact they’re huge things: they’re people’s lives. Someone once accused me of punishing readers with my stories, and I will defend myself tirelessly against that one. I’m not trying to punish anyone, not even the characters who meet unpleasant ends. My only goal is to tell stories. Difficult ones, yes, but reading them doesn’t make us any more or less complicit in tragedy than when we watch the six o’clock news, or Google the latest stats on Ebola. I’ve certainly felt offended by fiction, and like anyone, I’ve had knee-jerk reactions of anger toward authors for their work. That’s normal; it’s the mark of effective writing—writing that makes us think a little more with our hearts, if we’re willing to go there. And if we’re not, it doesn’t mean we’ve failed as readers or the authors have failed as writers. Some days, all I have the appetite for is a Peanuts comic strip re-written with song lyrics from The Smiths.
MA: Yes, effective writing for sure. Also affective writing (in the psychological sense). I love your answer.
And finally, because I adore this question and because everyone’s answer is so different and because it makes a damn fine final question especially for the author of The Poor Children, What does “recovery” mean to you?
AF: “Affective,” indeed!
The Poor Children stories are about people who don’t, or who can’t, recover. Their worlds are severe, and the consequences of their choices are unforgiving. It took me eight years to put the collection together. I wrote other things during that time (poems, essays, a novel), and they tended to be much lighter, to the point of goofy, because I needed balance—it wasn’t a conscious decision, “Now I’m going to write a comedy piece about a woman coming to terms with her hemorrhoids,” it was my psyche screaming for fresh air.
Last June, when I received a galley of The Poor Children to approve, I thought my writing career was over. My own work looked entirely foreign to me. It was my first time seeing the stories in book format, snappy cover image and all, and I didn’t know how to react; I knew I should be somersaulting with joy, but until that point I had thought of the stories as separate parts, and seeing them neatly bound as one, all these “big ideas” compressed into a book I could fit on a dinner plate, terrified me. “Here’s your son, ma’am. Best of luck.” I was responsible for something I had created, cliché though it sounds, and I felt the impulse to throw it in the trash like that six o’clock news mother who abandons her newborn in a dumpster. I didn’t, of course, but it took one week, plus a long telephone conversation with my publisher, and then my copyeditor, and then a friend who had been through the whole first-book experience, before I was ready to read The Poor Children the way readers eventually would.
Since then, my recovery from The Poor Children has involved relinquishing control over what happens to the collection next. I’ve had to let go of those characters and worlds I carried inside me like organs. Now, reviewers and critics have to say, “We’re going to build the book up this way,” or, “We’re going to tear it down that way,” and readers have to say, “Let us have our turn!” Meanwhile, I’m saying, “I can’t believe I’m here. I don’t know why I’m here. The ground could drop out from under me, but until it does, I am here.” Like that teeny-tiny point on the solar system we’ve all been told we are? You are here.
Danielle Dugan: Do you prefer writing in any one particular genre–be it fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or something else?
Jonathan Levy: For now, I write only fiction, though some of my favorite books are narrative nonfictions. I guess for me, narrative is the key.
DD: Do you find yourself drawn to particular themes or characters in your reading or writing?
JL: I think it’s really hard to categorize what I like and don’t like. But generally speaking, I’m more drawn to complex, realistic characters–a mix of good and bad. To me, what makes Sherlock Holmes so fun to read, for example, is not his intelligence, but that he’s an arrogant, misogynistic coke addict. And a sense of humor is always a plus.
DD: When and why did you begin writing?
JL: I’ve always been envious of novelists and stand-up comedians. I wish I could snap my finger and be great at both. I’m not funny enough to be a comic, or enough of a night owl–but a novelist? Maybe some day with enough hard work and patience. I started writing in late 2013 because I got tired of thinking about doing it, and just started doing it.
DD: Do you have a specific writing style?
JL: I’m still discovering it. As a reader, I gravitate more toward straightforward than flowery.
I’m also a lawyer, and that probably informs my writing style. It’s important for me to write clearly and succinctly in my job, and that’s what I tend to shoot for in my stories.
DD: Is there anything you find particularly difficult about writing?
JL: Everything? I suppose if one thing sticks out, it’s the challenge of making writing a habit. It’s so easy to make a habit of not doing something.
DD: Do you prefer to outline your stories or just see where an idea takes you?
JL: Still discovering that, too. I’ve always been an outliner when writing for school or work, so I guess that’s probably what I’ll head toward in fiction as well. The challenge then is making sure I don’t become a servant of the outline and manipulate characters or plot in a false way. I should probably write without an outline every now and then as an exercise–maybe I would feel more comfortable doing that than I imagine.
I’m also not sure yet whether, if I outline at all, I will tend to do it on paper or in my head. Everything sounds good in my head. Translating that to the page, well…maybe that’s the one thing I find particularly difficult about writing.
I’m actually using a somewhat different approach for a story I’m working on now. I’m outlining one of my favorite stories–“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”–and planning on using that outline as a model for my own work. I guess there’s a thin line between “was influenced by” and “copied.” I hope the final product falls more in the former category.
JL: In a word, no. From what I recall, I think I wrote the story based on a submission prompt from another journal, before I even knew about r.kv.r.y. I was fortunate that when I found out about this journal and the Caregivers issue, I already had something that felt like a good fit.
DD: Is there a message in your piece you want your readers to grasp?
JL: I didn’t write it with any message in mind, but looking back, I hope readers come away with the feeling that it’s difficult to overestimate the value of supportive friends and family in the recovery process. My wife is a physical therapist who often works with people with brain or spinal injuries, and she tells me this all the time. In her line of work, probably the most important thing is a good attitude, which is much easier to have with support. And even better when others take a real interest in the patient’s recovery and learn about what he or she is going through. Then mix in a little bit of luck.
Jane Ann Devol Fuller: Art rejuvenates, allows us to transcend because it won’t let us turn our eyes away. That paradox. Like the dog in your poem “Rescue Dog.” The speaker is doing what he can to save her or lessen her suffering. Still he admits, “What the fuck, and Duh, we die.” That juxtaposition of sweet love and hard acceptance frees the readers from our own grievings.
Though we know the dog won’t recover, we must. And what happens is we see how everything is connected to everything else. The Jim Jarmusch film gets us through the night, takes our focus off the dying animal and reflects our loss right back at us, so though we can’t look directly into, neither can we look away. We find elevation through references outside ourselves and our situations. Rescue refers then not only to the dog we brought home to save, and couldn’t, but to our own deliverance from self-centered matters.
We know the poem is about not just the dog’s suffering, but the speaker’s. Talk about the “objective correlative” in light of what I can quote you as saying, “show, but don’t show.”
Roy Bentley: I like to think I’m a mechanic when it comes to poems: I can “wrench the vehicle” and make it work. However, why it works—well, I leave that to others. I’d say this: I read poems that are successful and follow their lead. I am so clueless when I begin to talk about why I did what I did. Also, I keep no drafts. Why? I live in the Now of the draft I’m working on. For me, it’s that simple. And I depend on a handful of people to tell me when I am barking up the wrong tree. (Pardon the pun.) I trust hearing what other writers say works and why they think it works. Truthfully, I’m sort of a 12-year-old when it comes to giving answers about my work: I’ll be flippant, if I’m not careful. Or I’ll say something that has the same effect as farting…
JADF: In this poem, as in most of your work, you layer experience extremely efficiently. I picture concentric circles or a spiraling of events, each recursive, but expanding outward into meaning. You’ve got the dog by the fire, Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise on the tube, the vet on the phone, the memory of the young boy, etc. The poem’s context is grounded in every day reality. But the reader senses a spiritual event that is wrought with varied emotions: compassion, anger, resentment, perhaps? Do you think the poem reconciles these things? And to what end?
That other good fortune
we have when whoever dispenses miracles is fresh out.
RB: To my way of thinking, what poems make happen is oftentimes a wonderful unintended consequence that we then label as magic in the absence of a better word for that. I believe in a spirit, after years of doubt and wrestling with evidence to the contrary—a process that is ongoing, to be sure. But the Unknowable is where I have to plant my flag when talking about what my poems do. Truthfully, I may be the worst person to ask. That said, it’s important to say what I do know: that spirit is spirit, whether dog or human. At least that’s my stance on that, which I hope rears its head in the poem. Animals are what they are apart from us, but they are also what they are with us. And the reverse is true for humans. That’s at the heart of the miracle.
JADF: We’ve all lost a dog. We all know what it’s like. And we are all betting on the dog….to live….to win. Jarmusch’s characters lose, like the speaker of your poem loses: the dog is going to die. But, there’s a rejuvenation in that richness and camaraderie that can’t be lost to death. I imagine this poem is almost completely autobiographical. Am I right? If so, can you talk about that a little?
RB: It is autobiographical. And true, though I’m not sure a poem has to stick to the facts as if the piece is an episode of Dragnet and Sgt. Joe Friday is leaning over our shoulder saying, Just the facts, please.
JADF: And at what point in this experience did you start writing this poem? Was it in the middle of grieving?
RB: Jupiter was not yet dead when I started the piece. In fact, the first several drafts were accomplished with him alive but declining. He lay at my feet, even as I wrote, blessing me with his panting gaze. Through that period of him fighting and then not fighting, the poem took a different shape. Then his death prompted going back to Square One. I still miss him. He was a mess—he had skin issues from the moment we got him, didn’t sleep through the night, then developed food sensitivities. He was a job in the beginning. But I did it—or my wife Gloria and I did it together, though his care and keeping fell to me at the end of the time in Florida, which was where we bonded. He got better. Not much, but enough that he could be with us.
JADF: The poem is all about recovery, and some folks see recovery as an end point, a success. Recovery is also a process that includes hard stages of grief but also epiphany, a final letting go of self. How do you define recovery in general and how do you explore it in this poem?
RB: I felt the Jim Jarmusch portion to be absolutely essential to this poem working. That was using what’s at hand, what fell to me. It’s that simple. Everything fits, if you think about it. Recovery is a fact of life. Death is, as well. But a fact of life isn’t something you can’t “bend” to fit your experience. For instance, caring for Jupiter was a kindness to an animal. Sure. But it was also something that “needed done,” a bit of work to be accomplished each day. Like writing.
JADF: Let’s get political. You write:
I hate how he has to carry the rot of 21st Century America,
RB: It was flat statement. I risked it because disappointment shadows us all in the same way it shadowed that dog. At its best, politics is the art of setting aside disappointment and getting to work. Writing allows me to do that, even when I’ve lost hope. Caring for Jupiter, witnessing his struggles firsthand, did what nothing else could often: it gave me a path to follow after hope was gone or hadn’t yet returned. So he was a Being that I felt great pity for. And he loved me, which helped me stick with the hard work of caring for an older dog who was not going to recover.
JADF: The dog is so much more than dog, but still more than the speaker. The dog becomes all of us. Talk about that. (You can talk politics if you want though this poem transcends the realm of politics).
RB: Writing has been where I discover what to do in the absence of a way forward. The dog—and writing about the dog—is how I generated old-fashioned purpose; and in Iowa where I felt like a stranger. I wanted to let this gutsy Florida dog “live after”—which is pretty much how we do that as humans, I’m guessing: someone remembers us in whatever fashion. Maybe in a poem.
Jane Ann Devol Fuller is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the co-author of a book of poems and photographs, Revenants: A Story of Many Lives. A teacher at Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, she has written work published by Denver Quarterly, Pikeville Review, Aethlon: Journal of Sports Literature, Kaimana, and Riverwind, a literary magazine which she formerly co-edited. A poem will be forthcoming in Shenandoah this March. She is currently helping edit the StockPort Flats’ Confluence Series and completing her first full-length manuscript, tentatively titled The Torturer’s Horse.
When and why did you begin writing?
I have been writing ever since I could form words with a pencil. Before that I would lie in bed at night composing stories in my mind. Writing has always come easily for me. I have never been fully capable of expressing my feelings with spoken words. In fact, I am not that good at using words aloud in general. But when I put words to paper, it is a totally different world for me. I can say whatever I want, in whatever way I want. I love that.
Is there anything you find particularly difficult about writing?
The hardest obstacle I usually hurdle over is how I want to tell a story. I am always conscious of the reader and how they will perceive my piece. I never want to confuse an audience, and with that said, I don’t want to leave out any of what I have to say. Finding a happy medium can be a nightmare.
What are major themes in your writing?
A theme I have been picking apart lately is my family. I have lived a very peculiar life in my 23 years and I enjoy being able to open up about it through my writing.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I enjoy writing in a conversational style, it helps makes a piece more engaging.
As a writer, do you work to an outline or do you prefer to see where an idea takes you?
I love seeing where an idea takes me. Sometimes I can write for hours and then I’ll squeeze out one little sentence and it is as if the rest doesn’t matter. I found my muse.
You’re a poet, a fiction writer, and a nonfiction writer. Do you feel like each of those pursuits influences how you approach the others?
Definitely all of them. Writing nonfiction is admittedly my favorite, there is nothing like writing about the raw truth. But poetry changed the life of my writing forever. I use to write pieces sentence by sentence but after studying poetry for a few years I began writing pieces word by word. It is not for everyone, but finding the beauty behind every word has really helped me develop as a writer. With fiction, that’s a whole different world, fiction is everything and nothing, it is anything you can dream. It has taught me–no matter what I’m writing–to never limit myself.
What is the origin of your SOS piece “A Few Simple Questions“? How did you come up with the idea for both the story and the Q&A format?
The origin of my piece is a true story. The dad in my essay is my dad–and you guessed it I am the daughter. Writing about the often tragic adventures of my father and me has become a way to express myself. I chose the Q&A format because often in my own life I am unable to answer the simple questions that are asked of me with simple answers.
The father in your story is a real tragic figure — someone I genuinely feel for despite his history of violence. Is that something you aim for in your characters? What kind of characters speak to you in both your reading and your writing?
You wouldn’t know from my writing but I am a pretty upbeat person. I often paint tragic profiles for my characters because in my life I am surrounded by tragic lives. I try to authentically demonstrate these real-life people for my audience.
Both the father and the daughter care deeply for each other and feel responsible for the other’s well being. How do you view the role of a support system in a person’s recovery?
The role of being a person’s support system during their recovery is a heavy one. Both of my parents struggle every day with their recovery and I am often the shoulder they lean on. I think it is so important to be strong for a person, no matter what they need. Just being there with kind words or to listen to someone’s situation can mean and do so much. But I think supporters need to know it is okay to not be strong all the time. Sometimes you have to cry, too, and maybe scream and lose your mind for just a little while. But that’s okay: to become the strongest, you can’t suppress your weaknesses.
Is there a message in your piece you want your readers to grasp?
Of course and you have all heard it before. Don’t judge a book by its cover. I think of it every day with my Dad. One day, he won’t look at me, the next all he wants is to hear “I love you.” On the days he wants nothing to do with me, those are the days I want him to know I love him the most.
Laurie Easter’s essay “The Polarity of Incongruities” appears in the Winter 2015 CAREGIVERS issue of r.kv.r.y.. Writer Jennifer McGuiggan comments, “I love essays for the way they unearth, explore, and extrapolate meaning from both polarities and incongruities. Laurie’s essay grapples beautifully with the spectrum of joys and pains that punctuate our lives.” Jennifer interviewed Laurie via email.
Jennifer McGuiggan: The title of your essay, “The Polarity of Incongruities,” really drives the essay’s content. Many of the paragraphs start with the phrase “It’s when,” with the “it” referring to the title phrase. It’s only in the very last paragraph that you finally name the “it” within the essay itself. I’m wondering which came first: the title or the essay. In other words, I’m wondering about your process for this piece. Were you thinking about all of these interrelated events when you first sat down to write, or did their connections reveal themselves to you over time?
Laurie Easter: I’m so glad you asked this because before I submitted to r.kv.r.y, I actually had an editor from a different publication request that I change the title and restructure the piece into a more straightforward narrative. But I chose not to because I had very deliberately structured the essay in this manner, with the use of “It’s when…” referring back to the title. The title came before the actual writing of the essay, and indeed was the driving force behind the writing in terms of structure. But before I ever came up with the title, I spent quite a lot of time pondering the whole concept of incongruities and how they are happening in our lives every day, constantly, as though on a scale tipping the balance back and forth. This thought process went on for about eight months and is typical of the way I work. I think about things for a very long time, let them percolate, while driving or washing dishes or as I’m falling asleep. I’ll make notes, and eventually I get down to the writing. It’s not the same with every piece, but in this case the connections revealed themselves to me over time before the writing happened. The kind of cool thing about being slow in my production is that in the process life continues and inevitably more experiences happen that relate to the concept of what I’m thinking about writing, which gives me more material.
JM: The focus of r.kv.r.y is on recovery, on “obtaining usable substances from unusuable sources.” So much about your essay speaks to that theme. The people in the essay gain gifts of time, of peace of mind, of connection, of money—often from unexpected sources and sometimes unwanted circumstances. Did you write with this theme of recovery in mind, or did it emerge on its own?
LE: This is an interesting thing for me to think about because in general my essays are about intense issues—suicide, illness, death, grief—and I’ve always felt like everything I write is so dark; where is the light? The intensity of the pieces weighed so heavy in my mind that I couldn’t really see the recovery. What drew me to submit this essay to r.kv.r.y was this statement in the submission guidelines: “Our theme may be “recovery,” but that doesn’t mean all of our stories are about characters who are successfully recovering.” This really struck me because the nature of my essay is about that polarity where things constantly shift between positive and negative, and sometimes the space between those shifts can be mere hours, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for recovery in those moments, but, yes, over time recovery is possible in the full sense of the term, so the essay felt like a perfect fit with the journal. Now, with more perspective, I’m realizing that within these dark essays I’ve been writing, there is indeed some light and recovery. But to answer your question, evidently the recovery emerged on its own because I wasn’t fully aware of it until now!
JM: The theme of this issue of r.kv.r.y is “caregivers.” In your essay you explore your role as a caregiver (as a wife, a mother, and friend), but also as the one being taken care of (by your friend’s generosity after her death). Were you thinking about the concept of caregiving in these dual roles of both giving and receiving?
LE: No, I wasn’t thinking about caregiving at all when I wrote “Polarity.” I had other focuses in mind as I wrote. And when I submitted to r.kv.r.y, I didn’t submit to the “Caregivers” issue, just the general journal’s theme of recovery, so it was a surprise when I got editor Mary Akers’ email saying the piece was going into the “Caregivers” issue. Once I learned this, though, I definitely saw how it was a good fit due to the dual roles, as you mention, that are being explored in the essay. This is what I love about themes—how they can be interpreted, both in a common regard or broadly construed, and it is a subject I’ve been putting a lot of attention to lately as an assistant editor for Hunger Mountain. We’ve been curating several upcoming issues with themes of The Body, Masculinity, and Love, and it’s so interesting to read a submission that is submitted particularly for one theme and find that, in fact, it fits another theme perfectly. That is one of the joys of the submission and editing process when themes are involved—our many varied perspectives and interpretations.
JM: As essayists, you and I both know the particular joys and griefs that come with writing stories from our lives. But for me, even when I write about painful events, I find more joy than sadness in the process of shaping my life into art. Do you feel that way, too?
LE: I’d like to say that I find more joy than sadness in the process, but I can’t say that’s really it for me. Often, writing is a joy. And sometimes it’s downright painful. But I’d say mostly what I experience when I craft art from painful events is more of a sense of discovery and completion. And relief. Sometimes when I start, I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m really trying to convey. Or I think I do, only to discover that what I thought was the focus of a piece really wasn’t at all. I love that discovery and learning process. And I love the sense of completion when an essay is fine-tuned and finished, probably because I’m so slow and many of my essays take so long to write! For me, the joy comes later when I connect with readers who find some spark within a piece that they can relate to or gives them comfort or helps with their own process of discovery.
JM: We have talked before about how perseverance and tenacity are so important to living the writing life, how we need those qualities to keep writing, keep revising, keep submitting. Reading your essay, it’s easy to see that tenacity is the key to so much about living itself. How do you practice perseverance in the face of setbacks (either on the page or off)?
LE: Well, I used to be horribly stubborn. And in my younger years that trait could create problems because, you know, it’s hard to get along in life when you’re stubborn. But as I’ve aged, that stubbornness has transformed into the useful quality of tenacity, which aids and abets my perseverance to keep going in the face of adversity.
I’m of the mind that you won’t get anything you want unless you ask for it; if you don’t make an attempt, you’ll never succeed; if you don’t submit your writing, it will never be published. It doesn’t mean if you ask or try, you’ll get what you want or succeed, but without trying you’re guaranteed not to. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to essaying, the definition of which is “to attempt or try.” You could say that, in essence, I’m essaying my way though life.
JM: What are you working on now? And where can people read more of your work?
LE: Lately it seems I haven’t been working on anything! I’ve been a bit absent from writing these past few months. But over the long term, I’ve been working on an essay collection that addresses themes of loss and grief, illness and (now I can say since this interview) recovery.
Most of my work has been published online. My website (www.laurieeaster.com) lists my publications with links to the online works. In print, my essay “Something to Do with Baldness,” which was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, appeared in the January 2014 issue of the wonderful micro-magazine Under the Gum Tree, an exclusively creative nonfiction publication. I also have an essay coming out in Chautauqua next June in their “Privacy and Secrets” issue.
Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan is a writer and editor based in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her essays have appeared in New World Writing, Connotation Press, Extract(s), and elsewhere. She is at work on a book of essays exploring the polarities of longing and belonging. One of those essays was chosen as a finalist for Prime Number Magazine’s 2014 creative nonfiction contest. You can find her online in The Word Cellar (www.thewordcellar.com).
Mary Lewis’ story “Quesasomethings” is published in the Winter 2015 issue of r.kv.r.y. focused on Caregivers. Writer Nancy Overcott comments “My heart went out to Dora in her discomfort that is so familiar and so well expressed in the story.” Nancy interviewed the author at a Mexican restaurant (in Decorah, Iowa) that serves quesadillas.
When did you start writing seriously and what inspired you?
I hated writing all through school, especially creative writing, so it astonishes me that now it is my passion. There were a couple of stages in the conversion. One was the practice of writing round-robin letters that my family kept going for a number of years in the days of slow mail, and I’d write a page that hit the high points of my life about once a month. I wanted it to be entertaining and found myself using writing skills I’d first learned in high school from Mr. Pink, my sophomore year English teacher. He insisted we give specific examples to support any statement, and once he leapt onto his desk to tell us not to bother to pick up a pen if we were going to write a stereotype. As a class we wrote Steinbeck to congratulate him on his Nobel Prize and were thrilled when we got a thoughtful answer.
Then there was the funeral of my uncle Danny in Washington State. I was touched by this whole community of interesting people who knew him so much better than I did, and I wanted to remember them. I also got to watch my mom interact with her colorful sister and brother in law, and wrote down some of their sayings, noted the way my aunt aligned the hairs of her eyebrows, the way he put her down. After the experience I wrote an account of it and showed it to Mom, and to my surprise, she was horrified that I could say those things about her sister. What astonished me was that she had been much more critical of her than I was, in fact I was just describing what I saw. I call it my Sinclair Lewis moment, because he was unpopular in his hometown when he wrote about them in “Main Street.” So I tried changing names, but that didn’t hide the real people well enough. Then I changed the incidents and details about he characters, and pretty soon I threw up my hands and just put in what I wanted to. And I loved the freedom. So that’s what I write mainly now, fiction.
Your endings don’t usually have clear conclusions or closures. In “Quesasomethings” we don’t know how the relationship turned out with Dora and Will. I like that, but what is the rationale?
I never think there’s an end to a story, it just gets to some different place from where it was at the beginning. I want to have some sort of satisfying conclusion, but I think that can be achieved by having something important change during the story. For example in “Quesasomethings,” Dora fails to communicate with people at the party, but does eventually find Will. The fact that they did so is to me the satisfying ending. I leave it up to the reader to imagine if their relationship develops.
Where do your story ideas come from?
The best advice I received about starting a story was from Brent Spencer at a workshop in Iowa City. He said, “Come up with a character and a setting, then put her in motion.” Even if I don’t have a good idea of a character to begin with, and that is the usual case, I have to figure out why they’re moving about, and that usually means there’s something going on that is upsetting in some way. That leads to more characters and more action.
I heard that people love dogs in stories, and guns, so I wrote a story with both. I wanted to do a “Twilight Zone” style story and invented a town in a hidden valley, out of sync in time and culture. I started my first novel, “The Trouble Swings,” by picking out an idea from a list I’d come up with that included a fireman who was afraid of fires, a dancer who hated to be touched, a teacher who couldn’t keep off the sauce. I was intrigued by a person who takes pictures of dead people. It rattled around for a while, and developed into a story of two young women struggling with their attraction to each other. It begins when Allie takes photos of Beth in a stage coffin as publicity for the school paper for a play about a prom queen who dies in an accident.
Have you studied other writers to come up with methods? Who are some of the writers you admire?
There are so many, Ann Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, Stephen King, and the ones we don’t have to put first names to like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Chekov.
I read slowly to figure out how they do it. It’s like looking at a house and finding out how it was built. What I look for is voice, balance of showing and telling, precise language, arc, use of backstory. I can rarely just relax and read without thinking about craft. Now that I’m in an MFA program I’m doing that even more intensively, and practice what we call stealing from other writers. The understated poetry in Robinson’s fiction, the magic in the ordinary of Munro and Tyler, the writing from the inside of a character of Faulkner, the dry wit of Charlotte Bronte.
To what extent does your own biography enter your writing?
“Quesasomethings” draws more than most of my stories on my own experiences. For example, I teach college anatomy, commute by bike, and have experienced parties like the one portrayed in “Quesasomethings,” but Dora has a different personality from mine. In fact most of the time I invent characters who are different from me, though they may have some skills I know well, such as photography for my point-of-view character in my novel “The Trouble Swings.”
Since I love and treasure the natural world, outdoor settings come easily to me and are often a part of my writing, though not in “Quesasomethings.”
I have read many of your stories and feel I could recognize your writing if I didn’t know you were the author. What do you think contributes to the originality of your work?
It’s like holding up a mirror, but I don’t know if I see what others do in terms of style. I have an interest in physical details of both setting and characters, and I hope these carry emotional content as well. I have Dora doff her snowpants next to the stylish coats on the rack, and enter the party room steaming from her bike ride. Hopefully the reader will know right away this is a story about an outsider. I stay away from adverbs, especially for conveying emotions, and am so interested in showing, that exposition is a small part of my writing.
I like to get close to my characters, and I’ve been told I have a good ear for dialogue. I close my laptop if I see an agenda rearing up in my writing, and bring in information only as necessary to the story. I don’t explain a lot about a character before the story really starts, I just jump in. I prize clarity and struggle for the right word or phrase. For example, I describe Will uncoiling like a snail from his shell, and then add “but still attached to it.”
I usually work close in to a character, so as a narrator I take on something of her speech patterns, and what she pays attention to. In “Quesasomethings” I have Dora say, “Burned that bridge, but it was her own fault.”
Where can we find more of your writing?
I have a few stories in online literary journals. “Chimney Fire” is in the April 2009 issue of r.kv.r.y. “A Good Session” is in the summer 2014 issue of Persimmon Tree. On my website you can find excerpts of my novel, “The Trouble Swings” (as yet unpublished) and of several stories. I also have a blog, which has some complete stories.
Nancy Overcott is also a writer and has three published books. Her inspiration comes mostly from experiences in a hardwood forest of southeast Minnesota where she lived with her husband for 25 years. She is a retired RN and was also a teacher of German and French.