Interview with Mary McCluskey

Mary McCluskey

Bev Jackson: It is a wonderful honor to interview you, Mary McCluskey.  I have followed your work for the past decade or more, and cannot think of another writer who makes the difficult task of creating fine literature look more effortless and authentic. The magic of your work is the combination of the accessibility of the language with the depth of meaning and “word pictures” you draw, bringing the reader right into the story. (Many wonderful writers abound, but there is often a sense of “author’s presence,” various levels of self-consciousness (ego?) that permeates the work, and while it is frequently embraced as “style,” for me, it is a sheer layer, a barrier, to permeate, to get at the story.) Your work puts up no obstacles, but allows us into your characters directly. That is quite a feat. Whether it’s your short fiction or your novels, and they are read “smooth as silk.” I can’t imagine how you accomplish this. Since I write myself, I know that such fluency is not by accident. Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? Does it come easily to you, or do you spend enormous effort in editing and polishing to get this level of perfection?

Mary McCluskey: How kind of you, Bev!  I am blushing. That is the nicest thing anyone has said to me in years. Eons, actually.

But to answer your questions.   Ah, the creative process. I’ve been helped, during the last decade and longer, by the generosity of you and other fine writers at Zoetrope and other workshops who have reviewed my stories and I’ve learned a little by trial and error.  My writing routine follows the same formula whether the piece is long or short, a novel or a flash. I write the first rough draft in a white heat of energy and throw in every damn thing in my head. Then I settle down to shape it.  I revise and revise and chip away until only the bones and the essence of the thing are left.  I love that part, the second and third revision, when there’s still much to do and the story still has spark and promise. I don’t enjoy the later revisions, the polishing, when the writing has become too familiar and dull and reads like– plod, plod, plod. Here comes the district nurse.

Revenge.seahorse_shark_sun

BJ: Ha, your work never plods! Only in your own head. (But I know the feeling of which you speak.)

You have two wonderful flashes in r.kv.r.y: Life Saver in the current Fall issue with the theme of “Goodwill,” and another searing little piece titled Revenge Served Hot to come in the Winter issue themed “Flame.” You have a keen understanding of what makes good flash. It is not just a short story made shorter by word count. The taut snap and crackle of it denotes a genre of its own, which you have mastered brilliantly. How would you define flash fiction, if you were talking to a writer who had never attempted it? I have heard many definitions—prose poetry, slice of life, vignettes. Yet, from my point of view, that doesn’t necessarily add up to successful flash fiction. What are your thoughts on the subject?

MM: Good question. Not sure I can define flash fiction exactly. I’ve read brilliant flashes in all kinds of formats: prose poems, snappy pieces with a sting in the tail, experimental stories that take risks and break all the rules and flashes that tell a complete story, compressed to the core. They all work when done well. What is common to all good flash no matter what the format? They are written with a razor. They start the story late, end it early and stay close to the heart of it. Without one unnecessary word.

 

BJ: That’s a perfect answer! Yes, the good ones absolutely do! As do yours.

That razor is so often the toughest thing to learn, so wise advice for us all.

Now, the really exciting news is that your debut suspense novel “Intrusion” has been picked up by Little A, the literary fiction division’s imprint of Amazon’s new publishing empire. I hear it’s going to be out in 2016 and I am eagerly awaiting its announcement. Give us a teaser of what to expect? Who would your target audience be (beside the myriad Mary McCluskey fans?) and how did you come up with this particular idea?   Inquiring minds want to know. Give us the goods!

MM: Yes, the publication of Intrusion is exciting — and scary! I wake in the wee small hours, those heebie-jeebie hours when, as the Irish say, even God takes a drink and convince myself that nobody will buy it, nobody will read it or review it, and if they do they will hate it. On good days, I just can’t wait for publication.  It’s now listed on the Amazon website but they are still deciding on a cover so they are not promoting it just yet. Publication planned for summer next year.

The novel began as a short story that focused on a marriage after the death of a child.  It grew into a novella because I kept adding to it, and then the weirdest thing happened:  a new character intruded into the novel and began to take over.   I’m serious!  Sarah Cherrington: charming, patrician and predatory. It’s clear she’s up to no good, she has an agenda, and soon the other characters are drawn into her devious games and power plays.

So,  Intrusion began as a domestic drama about a marriage in free fall and became something else entirely – something darker. It doesn’t fit into any particular genre. There’s been some debate on how to describe it – literary thriller or psychological mystery – and so I’m not sure about a target audience. Readers! Anywhere!

City Morning

BJ: I have no doubt that there will be readers in line for it. I loved it in its early permutations, and can’t wait to see the finished product. But here we are blithely talking about your debut novel. Ta da! Just write the book and pub it, right? Easy peasy? What has been your experience of getting a novel into the hands of a mainstream publisher? I am sure there are many writers who are working madly on their manuscripts that would love to know your journey. Was it arduous? Was it skill or luck? Most importantly, was it worth it?

MM: Easy peasy? Ha! Very funny, Bev. It was a stumbling journey full of roadblocks, dead ends, dashed hopes and, finally, elation.

I should, briefly, mention the two previous novels, now mocking me from my hard drive. One completed, but needing more work than it’s worth, and the other that came to a breathless halt after 200 pages and then died.

So – Intrusion. I made classic mistakes. The first one was to send it out before it was ready in a mad rush to get it published. The moment I considered it “finished” I ran a spell check, made a list of top agents, wrote a fast query letter and then sat back and waited for the Call that Would Change my Life.

It never came, of course. Instead I received a variety of rejection letters, mostly form, a few with suggestions for change, though no two opinions agreed, and one rejection letter, meant for someone else, that discussed a novel about elves in combat. A large number of agents didn’t respond at all.

So, I looked at the novel with cold, critical eyes and began an aggressive revision. Then I sent it out again with a more coherent query letter and a different title and an agent with a good reputation offered to take me on if I agreed to work with her on revising the novel for the market place. I was overjoyed. I had an agent! I signed the agency contract.

At her suggestion, I did one complete revision and then another and it was hard because I was not at all happy with the way the story was shaping. I was particularly unhappy with her suggestion for an improbable upbeat ending and I said so.  She sent me an e-mail saying our visions of the novel differed too widely and terminated our contract.  I was devastated – what was the point of a contract if an agent could cancel it with one email? – but I was also a wee bit relieved.

I took the novel back, stripped it of all the extraneous new material and got it down to the bare bones. Then I began again.

When I was sure it was ready, I wrote a new query letter and sent the novel out again.   This time the interest was immediate and reassuring and I signed with Julia, my present agent.  And thus began a new revision but this time I felt in synch with my agent and that made all the difference.

She was – is – so supportive and when we agreed to accept the offer from Little A we had a giddy conversation at 3 in the morning and celebrated.

And next? The process will begin again with the new novel, Deception. It’s just gone off to Julia and I know she’ll have some concerns because it’s even darker than Intrusion and explores some rather unsavory issues.

I see more revision in my future!

 

BJ: Fascinating, that process! I love happy endings, and in my opinion, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving manuscript. I have a feeling the cork is out of the proverbial bottle now, and we will see a lot more of your novels on the shelves in years to come. Congratulations, Mary, it’s really been fun learning about your career. I hope to follow in your footsteps.

MM: And you will! I just know it. And hey, let’s talk about you for a minute. I’m not used to being on this side of the table. As a journalist for most of my working life I’m more comfortable in the role of interviewer, not interviewee. So please, Bev – tell me what you’re up to these days.

 

BJ: I wrote a book this year! My last book, the memoir Loose Fish, is on the back burner for now—waiting to be fictionalized, perhaps. My new suspense novel, Blue Lake is now looking for representation. I’m back to doing art during the holiday season, as it always keeps me on keel—until I can face another round of agent queries. And of course I live vicariously through my talented friends, like you!

The highlight of 2015 (besides writing a complete novel) was being asked by Mary Akers to edit the SOS section of r.kv.r.y. I have missed Lit Pot, my previous publishing venture (demise in 2006), so it’s been wonderful fun, and she’s a joy to work with. And that reminds me to ask our iconic interview question. What does recovery mean to you?

MM: Well done, Bev. You’re obviously involved in a number of wonderful and creative things. Here’s hoping that Blue Lake finds the right agent – and soon!

And now onto that rather tricky question —

I think of recovery as simply a slow healing process. There’s not always an end to it. It’s a journey. And yes, we may recover completely from something simple like a bad cold or a bout of flu but a serious illness can leave weakness and scarring; a struggle with addiction can last a lifetime. A devastating grief, in my case the loss of a child, alters a life irrevocably.

I was stunned by grief, frozen in place. With time, I began again the small routines that make up an ordinary life.  The damage remains, of course, but those of us affected in these different ways learn to carry our pain, our addiction or our grief with us.  Eventually, we learn to carry it better, until it does not weigh so heavily on our shoulders. I see that process, that journey, as recovery.

 

BJ: Thank you for sharing that. I see your recovery process as one and a piece with your work, reflecting the depth of experience and sensitivity for which readers yearn. It’s a tribute that you are able to share that measure of authenticity with others, enriching all of our lives.

Happy Holidays, Mary. r.k.vr.y and yours truly appreciates this splendid time with you.

MM: Thank you, Bev. And many thanks to r.k.vr.y for setting up this interview.  It’s been a pleasure talking with you!

 

Interview with Avital Gad-Cykman

Avital

Mary Akers: Hi, Avital. Thanks for letting us have your wonderful short story “Fulfillment.” I love the details in this piece, so honed and specific. They really speak to me as a reader and as a writer, too. I love this paragraph, especially:

Walking tentatively toward the north, she stopped when a masculine voice called, “Hey, hello, want me to read your palm?” As expected, the man, unkempt and in his thirties, wearing an oversized jacket, leaning against a rare robust tree, was looking at her. People always thought she was easy prey. She shook her head, able to sense the rough surface of his blackened hand rubbing against the palm of her hand, and what good future could come out of that?

It has a great specificity of menace and creepiness to it–both aspects of work that I gravitate toward. Do you enjoy encountering literary creepiness as a reader?

Avital Gad Cykman: Thank you for having me and my story!

What a great question! It made me think about my different preferences as a reader and as a writer. As a writer, I’d take any ride, anything that comes out of my consciousness and sub consciousness. As a reader, “creepy” literary stories such as Joyce Carol Oates’s amazing “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” scare me so much it’s hard for me to enjoy their flawless narration. Having said that, I adore reading ambivalent texts containing a menacing subtext as long as I can doubt the inevitability of upcoming disaster.

 

MA: It also reminds me a bit of the work of Margaret Atwood whose work I know we are both superfans of. Want to say something geeky and gushing about her work? (You know I will agree.)

AGC: We love her for a reason! Margaret Atwood has written so much, so well, and in so many forms and genres that if a reader doesn’t like her, it’s simply because he/she has not read the right work. I love her sharp, insightful poetry that drills right through the surface of relationships into the mud underneath. Take for instance these famous lines: “You fit into me/like a hook into an eye/a fish hook/an open eye.” She has no mercy! Of the huge variety of her fiction I mostly admire her intimate books such as Cat’s Eye and the historical ones like Alias Grace. In these she builds layers and more layers of her characters’ identities and lives while also involving the readers emotionally, playing with meanings and elaborating important social concerns.

MA: Your wonderful book “Life In, Life Out” is so different and original. I would say it has a unique voice, but it has much more than one voice or one particular style. What do you look for in story collections as a writer and a reader?

AGC: Thank you for these words and for asking this crucial question. When I listen to music I usually put it on “random” so I can listen to a variety of songs unless a CD is a long project with a theme. I love variety in story collections, getting to know different aspects of the author’s world and a diversity of characters. In a novel, on the other hand, I expect certain unity, a world and its related themes and characters. Therefore, when I put a collection together, I thread stories that are related in the same way people are: they reflect on one another without necessarily having a strong similarity. My novel is different, as I am entering one woman’s world.

Fulfilled

MA: When I choose work to illustrate each issue, I’m often surprised to learn that the image I chose ends up having special significance to the author–a significance that I couldn’t have known. I think this speaks to the way our minds crave to connect disparate things–especially inter-genre connections (like dance and music, visual art and text, etc). What did you think of Mia Avramut’s image used to illustrate your story?

AGC: I gave one glance at Mia Avramut’s image and everything clicked: my story, the drawing, and their existence within a womb in which an unexpected life, an impossible pregnancy grows. The plant in the womb cannot really exist, and yet it’s lively and full of life, giving hope. This is the reason I emailed you right away and told you the choice was inspired.

 

MA: In this piece, you use the line “the electric pleasure of the city” which I love. What, as a writer, gives you that electric pleasure–either in the writing or the reading?

AGC: Oh, the electric pleasure…I love beautiful prose that combines humor, compassion, intelligence and the capacity to expose the unseen, unheard of and irregular in a visceral, involving manner. I try to write this way-never to address only one layer or one emotion-and make it interesting both to me and to my (hopefully not imaginary) readers. I’m hoping that the novel I’m going to finish editing within days now holds at least some of these things.

 

MA: And finally, because we are a recovery-themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

AGC: After a certain age or experience, aren’t we all in recovery, doing the best we can within the circumstance? Recovery means daring to hope even against the worst odds, and having the strength to live intensely and laugh at the face of the next disaster.

 

Interview with Ting Gou

Ting Gou

Jude Marr: In your poem “Excavation: Mobile, Alabama, 1996” the dichotomies include an exploration of the mortal and the immortal. Can you say more about what you consider to be immortal?

Ting Gou: This is a very interesting question, Jude! I’m not sure I consider anything to be immortal in the sense that it lasts forever, without exception. But I do think that we tell ourselves stories about immortality in order to give meaning to our experiences. It’s these beautiful myths that keep us alive.

Memory is the closest thing to being immortal that I can think of, and I’m not just referring to the memory of someone who has passed away. Memory, by definition, is immortal. The fact that we can remember something means that it continues to exist for us.

Some actions are also immortal, in the sense that we remember them forever. When I was a medical student on the hematology oncology service this past year, I was taking care of a young man who was dying from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I don’t remember most of the chemotherapy drugs now, but I remember hugging his mom while standing in line in the cafeteria. I also remember hugging the mom of another leukemia patient later that month.

This poem is an ode to memory, I guess. The memory of my mother opening the fish and finding the worms inside. The memory of a house from childhood. But also: memory as a source for imagination. Memory as self-reinvention. Building a future for yourself in the face of terrible things is, in a way, practicing a kind of immortality.

 

JM: I’m struck, as ever, by your precise use of both language and imagery. As you write, how conscious are you of your life as a scientist?

TG: Thanks, Jude! To be honest, I’m not conscious of being a scientist at all, probably because I’m not currently doing bench research. I’ve done some clinical research in medical school, but working with computer models and Excel spreadsheets is very different from the hands-on pipetting and centrifuging and dissecting I did when I was an undergrad at Princeton. I kind of miss the dynamics of a wet lab.

I’m more conscious now of my other identities when I’m writing: as a medical student, an Asian-American, a southerner (whatever that means), and new Michigander. But I think my background as a molecular biology major does infiltrate my poetry subtly (and sometimes not so subtly). Like many of my poems, “Excavation” contains questions, maybe because I’ve always had a desire to figure out what is really going on. Lately, my poems have been containing more and more questions.

Excavation by Ting Gou

JM: The title, also, is very exact—and yet it seems to beg a question. To what extent does location matter?

TG: This poem is based on an event that actually happened, unless I remembered it incorrectly. Isn’t it interesting and terrifying how we construct our identities out of imperfect memories? But I suppose the way in which our memories are imperfect is also useful. I’m thinking about an archaeological dig where you have to infer what happened based on what you find. You can think of the artifacts as specific aspects of the memory. If you find a lot of clay pots, can’t you infer that the civilization liked to store things in clay pots? Similarly, if you find yourself remembering mostly the horrific aspects of an event, can’t you infer that the event was at least somewhat disturbing?

Sorry, I kind of got off topic. But I think location is important, because it’s often the only thing we know for certain about a memory.

 

JM: How would you react to being described as a poet of the senses?

TG: “Poetry is one-third imagery, one-third emotion, and one-third intellect.” I think Joseph Millar said that during the workshop we took with him and Dorianne Laux. I think it’s helpful to think of imagery as working in conjunction with everything else. It can be the most important thing in some poems, but some poems don’t need any imagery at all. I think it all depends on what the poem needs.

If being a poet of the senses means that you take in your surroundings as best as you can, then I think every poet is a poet of the senses. You don’t have to include a lot of sensory details in your poems, but you have to be open to perceiving them in your environment.

 

JM: What do you see as the relationship between dissection and poetry?

TG: In both, you are trying to figure out how something is put together. It could be a body, or it could be your childhood. You are digging under the surface. You are exposing things to light.

 

Interview with David Alasdair

David Alasdair

David is a great storyteller who has a way of accessing what many male writers cannot. We conducted the interview in a bar nestled in the corner of one of those strip-malls with a Radio-Shack where we had been sitting at a table for the past two hours surrounded by collections of families and lovers and groups of friends. It was mid-day and there were two empty pint glasses on the table and a faint trace of mildew which waved by every few minutes. I was no closer to knowing any of David’s secrets and I wasn’t leaving until I had at least one.

RAJAH BOSE: Your first piece of nonfiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

DAVID ALASDAIR: You can’t say it’s my first, you’ve gotta build up my reputation. They say it’s easy to sit back on your laurels. I have like one laurel and I already want to sit on it.

Waitress: Would you like anything?

I get the the Taco Salad with Tofu. David orders the Pork Tacos. There’s a brief look between us – a sizing up – and I add two more beers to the order.

RB: Ok fine, I’ll cut that question out. You wrote this essay during your MFA and now it has been nominated for a top writing prize. There’s always someone who thinks your piece needs work – I might be a hater while someone else loves it. How do you decide this is the right time for something you’ve written?

DA: Really smart people were giving me advice that I didn’t think fit. It only happens occasionally but this piece came out fully formed. I thought about editing it and then I decided, fuck it, I like it how it is. It’s like having a kid: maybe I wished their eyes weren’t so close together, but I love them for who they are.

RB: In your essay (The West Elm Sofa), you talk about recovery and the people that help you get through the struggle. You are both vulnerable and secretive. How do you choose the elements that you are going to allow people to know and what to keep secret?

DA: I’m a big believer in the gaps. I remember a few years ago in high school they made us watch Shane, the old cowboy movie, which has very little dialog. Afterward they told us to go write an essay where you suggest everything without saying it. When I was a kid that was a revolutionary concept, to suggest something without saying it. So I try and do that whenever possible. It’s quite clear there’s loss involved in my characters and it’s more universal when you leave it to the reader to fill in the gaps. I bet everyone who read that piece has had some kind of loss and they can imagine themselves having one space where they have some kind of solace. They don’t need me to explain why.

RB:  Speaking of kids, let’s talk about Kerry Howley’s book Thrown, I’ve heard you talk about that book more than you talk about your kids. What have you learned from other people’s writing that you brought to this essay and your work otherwise?

DA: The one thing I say to people reading that book is “Don’t get discouraged.” Because it’s a book where you can read it and think “I have to give up,” because I could never be that good. The music of her language, the ability see something anew, is just phenomenal. For instance, when she talks about all the fighters drinking PediaLite and she describes the crushed teddy bears on the floor. I guess it’s like Walter Kirn said: “Music comes first.” You have your own particular music. Don’t be afraid to describe things the way you see them and to be musical in your language. So much of our training is about being clear, but a little bit of abstract, a little bit of musicality is a good thing.

Our tacos and salad arrive. David eyes the grilled tofu, I check out the tacos. I offer him a bite that he declines.

Waitress: Another round?

There’s another sizing up. “Sure,” says David.

RB: You write about sports, your balls, fighting, masculinity and your feelings. Explain.

DA:  One time I wrote about my balls.

RB: And you read it at VoiceOver. In front of 100 people. Including your daughter.

DA: True. Maybe it’s just the world I know. The cliché is that women will talk about everything and men will talk about sports, but I think it’s pretty normal for a guy to talk about his feelings. You get into a very macho setting like a gym or a soccer team and you think
that men won’t communicate on an intimate level and they do. I guess I just try to capture that.

RB: So we’ve mentioned that you write about your balls…

DA: One time.

RB: …I wrote a recent essay about cowboys and manhood, and there’s a scene about cutting off the manhood of a bull. There’s also a bunch of other introspection about masculinity and roles, etc…

DA: Did I read that?

RB: No, it’s new. The problem is, when people read it, they kept saying: go to the balls, go the balls. I didn’t think it wasn’t about that, but I feel that people often want to explore what is off-limits.

DA: I don’t think it’s the off-limits that works, it’s the structure of a joke. There’s a setup and a punchline. The ending should feel inevitable but not predicable. So you’re like, “Ah-ha. I get it. I didn’t predict it, but I get it.” When people do it to be outrageous, it doesn’t work. There has to be a story.

RB: Is that to say that all of your pieces are just jokes?

DA: [Laughter] No, they just have the mechanics. Not necessarily a punchline, but an ending you didn’t predict.

RB: There are male writers who write about their feelings: Jess Walter in Financial Lives of the Poets or Shan Ray in his recent poetry book Bailfire.

DA: Agreed. I feel if I went into a locker room with a guy and couldn’t talk about my feelings, I would think this is not a solid relationshipthis is pretty superficial. Mind you I have that relationship with some women.

RB: Well, I guess we should talk about our feelings.

DA: OK, it’s your interview.

Waitress: Another round?

“Yes,” we both say at the same time.

RB: So. Tell me about your feelings.

DA: You tell me about yours.

There’s a long pause.

RB: My girlfriend is too good for me.

DA: Yes, she is.

RB: She thinks she’s lucky to have me. But it’s the other way round. I don’t know what she sees in me.

DA: A good-looking, well-dressed, talented artist who is both very masculine yet also sensitive. Yeah, I don’t know what she sees in you either.

RB: Your turn.

DA: I get lonely. Not as lonely as when I first moved here and I knew no-one, but still.

Waitress: You guys need more beer?

“We’re talking about our feelings!” I say.

The waitress turns and walks away unimpressed. She shouts over her shoulder, “That’s great. Let me know if you need anything else.”

RB: [Laughter] She doesn’t care.

DA: I don’t blame her. We might not be making much sense anymore.

RB: We should do this more often.

DA: We should.

 

Rajah Bose is a veteran photojournalist from Spokane, Washington. He is good-looking, well-dressed, and masculine yet sensitive. You can see his work at http://www.rajahstudio.com/blog/.

Interview with Tina Pocha

Tina Pocha

Tania Pryputniewicz: In your poem, “You Belong,” you begin with the following lines: “She gave me a gift / her disclosure / her addiction.” Can you tell us about how addiction has been a gift?

Tina Pocha: Well, I was referring more so to disclosure being a gift, but I think it applies equally to addiction. You, see in India, where I was born and raised, we have a tradition where we mark a little black dot (with an eyebrow pencil or kohl stick) on the cheek of little children to “ward off evil.” Children, cute and innocent as they are, are thought to be “perfect” and thus the target of evil spirits and negative energy. So we put this little mark on them as if to say to the spirits, “Look, not perfect, go away, find another target!” Addiction, any kind of suffering really, can be like that–a little spot to remind us that we are not perfect, that we have work to do in this life. What work, you might ask. Well, for some it might be to find focus, for others it might be to learn self-containment. For me, it has been to learn compassion and to dissolve the ego. You see, I came up in a time and place (pre-feminist India) where I felt like I had a lot to prove. I had to be smarter than, better than, faster than everyone else. And this served me well in many ways–especially in the achievement-driven culture we live in today. But it also disconnected me from others, even those closest to me, my husband, my children, my friends. I found myself constantly in a hurry, impatient–why can’t you do twelve things at once? I do! I separated myself, held myself aloft. Suffering was incredibly grounding. It brought everything into perspective — what was important, what was painful, what was undoing. It returned me to love. This is why I use the word “belong” in the title.

 

Tania P: When you say, “suffering was incredibly grounding,” do you mean the process of recovery? Or reaching rock bottom?

Tina P: I think what I mean is that suffering can bring you back to reality (the earth—grounding) in a very direct and maybe even embodied way (we fall to the ground—cold tile floor). You can wander through life thinking you have it together, and then wham! That moment when you go, oh shit, this is a problem—it makes you realize that we all have something to work on. I’m thinking of Oprah, for example. Here is this woman, she is arguably one of the most successful and respected and beloved women in the world, yet she suffers with her weight, her addiction to food (okay, maybe I shouldn’t assume that she is a food addict—although she has spoken at length about her struggle to use food “normally”). It’s like this thing that we all have weighing on us—addiction, rape, all manner of suffering—it situates us in our lives in a way that is real and eye-opening and we can’t escape it. No matter all the material and intellectual busy-ness of our environments, no matter how great our lives are, there is always a shadow walking with us, this one thing that makes us (I think helps us) to do the work we are here to do. Robert Holden says, “There is a gift in everything.” When I first heard this I used to think what he meant was, “Even though this terrible thing is happening to me . . .” or “in spite of blah blah blah, something good will come of it.” Now I think the “terrible thing” is the gift. I don’t think I could have evolved into a compassionate human being (or one who is on her way to being a compassionate human being) without the suffering. I would not be able to understand (really understand in a visceral way) somebody else’s pain—I haven’t been able to understand someone else’s pain until I acknowledged my own. So in that sense, yes, it is suffering that has grounded me, not recovery

 

Tania P: Are there parallels between the process of arriving at a final draft of a poem and realizations that come up in the process of recovery?

Tina P: Yes, there are definitely parallels between arriving at a final draft of a poem and recovery. It is that dipping back and back and back, the recursiveness of writing and creating that makes the poem rich and full, just as circling back to a memory or a pain propels you forward, each time you pick up a little more momentum, a little more energy. And sometimes the poem, the recovery, continues to grow and develop long after it is “finished.” The words on the page may be fixed, but the meaning, the message continues to live and generate and resonate with each pass. So it is with recovery. Each day, each surrender, brings with it a deepening, an understanding that is new. Even with this interview, it has provoked me to think about the poem anew—what did I mean, what do I mean? And I imagine with each reading the answer will change, evolve.

You Belong

Tania P: I’m thinking of the way the poem lets us see the gift between two people as the “disclosure” –the honesty, the bridge or way it connects and allows the speaker to not feel so alone at poem’s end. How is poetry similar to or different from “disclosure?”

Tina P: All my poems are, in essence, “disclosure.” I know, I know, the confessional poets went out with shag carpets and avocado green appliances, but for me, at least, writing has always been about expression and testimony. It’s about saying this is what I think/feel/ believe. It’s about exposure, about vulnerability. In fact, that’s how I see relationships as well. They are, as you say, built on “disclosure” and the trust that results from it. I think that is what moved me to write this poem. I was so touched by this person’s disclosure because I knew it was offered purely as a gift, as a way to include and surround and uplift. I know that seems counter-intuitive—how can someone’s disclosure about addiction be uplifting? But because the intent was or seemed to be to say, “Hey, you are not alone, welcome!” and because the “confession” was so matter of fact (here warm your feet on this), I felt uplifted—even on that “cold tile floor.” Poetry, too, has that way of including and building relationships—between not only the poet and the reader but between/amongst all the readers as well. Think of how we gather around words—whether in the physical presence of each other or not—and how those words pull us together into community.

 

Tania P: In a broader sense, what drew you to writing poems? How has poetry served you?

Tina P: The first poem I ever wrote was in response to a moment of crisis—someone else’s crisis. My professor’s wife was losing her battle with cancer, and he was dying with her, just melting away. And I felt helpless. And I wanted to do something. We had set up a rotation where we each took turns bringing them food, and shopping for them, and driving them places, but we couldn’t stop the grief. He was disappearing before our very eyes. So one day I just picked up a pen and wrote a poem. I needed some release. Ever since, poetry—writing in general—has been a way for me to release and get some relief. Poetry has also been a way for me to immerse myself in language and make something. I tend to be a left-brain-dominant person—rational, practical, linear—and have always envied the creatives in my life (my husband, my daughter) and their ability to make something beautiful. Poetry has been a way for me to harness some of my left-brain function (language) to cultivate and integrate my right-brain-function—intuition, emotion, and creativity. In fact, my goal, my intention for this stage of my life is integration—bringing together the polarities of left and right, masculine and feminine, logic and intuition. In Indian tradition, the marriage of Shiva and Parvati is thought to be symbolic of the ultimate integration of the soul, the achieving of enlightenment where we bring together all the (seemingly) disparate parts of our selves into one whole. I’m tired of living divided—head from heart, strength from tenderness—and poetry helps me to bring it all together.

 

Tania P: What role do you think labels, such as addict, or poet, play in one’s life?

Tina P: We use labels to make sense of the world—so and so is such and such. It’s a way for us to orient ourselves—North/South/East/West or Good/Bad or Happy/Sad—so I get why we are attached to our labels. Labels are also important in some developmental stages, adolescence for example, where we are trying to situate ourselves in the world and in relation to one another. In my own life, some labels (scholar, for example) have helped me to achieve great success; others (mother) have helped me to stay and persevere, even when I have felt incompetent and out of my element. But labels can also bring us great pain because they derive from ego—the same source of joy (getting an article published, for example) can also be a source of pain (failing to make tenure). The labels are not real. The real you doesn’t change from moment to moment. It’s just the ego. So another personal challenge for me the last three years has been to dissolve the ego, to rid myself of labels—even the ones that bring me joy. I can now nurture without being a “Mother;” I can write without being a “Scholar.” And yes, the highs are not as high, but neither are the lows as low. I recently wrote a blog post, “On Why I Am Not a Poet,” which received mixed responses. I think I may have offended some working poets who live the poet’s life with great passion and integrity. I think my rejection of the label “Poet” came off as a rejection of them, of all poets, and that was not my intention. I was trying to say that I want to reject all labels. I could equally have written a blog post titled, “On Why I Am Not a Mother” or “On Why I Am Not a Scholar” – both would have been true. I think what I am trying to say is that labels have been useful in my life, but ultimately they have been a way to separate myself.

 

Tania P: Finally, what does “recovery” mean to you?

Tina P: Recovery means starting anew. The tower has come tumbling down. You are sitting, cross-legged, rubble all around, with nothing and no one on the horizon. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from the poet Masahide, “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” It is that hopeful place from which all things are possible. For me, it began with a period of isolation, of being okay alone, of taking stock, being still, and then slowly putting the pieces back together, one at a time. I had to separate in order to regroup. It was a slow, gradual process. Recovery means you can circle back–to your original self, to the people you left behind–but also move forward, kind of like the gravitational slingshot maneuver used to propel Voyager into space. Recovery means healing–from the inside out. The old triggers, the old provocations find no ingress. The wound has scabbed over.

 

 

 

Tina Pocha was born and raised in Bombay, India. She is a scientist by training and a writer by avocation. She currently works as an academic in the field of language and literacy, and is a new and emerging poet with publications in Cadence Collective and Eunoia Review and more publications forthcoming in Hyacinth Press and East Jasmine Review. You can find more of her writing at www.tinapocha.com

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Tania Pryputniewicz is a co-founding blogger for Tarot for Two and Mother Writer Mentor. Saddle Road Press published her debut poetry collection, November Butterfly, in 2014. Recent poems appeared or are forthcoming at Extract(s), NonBinary Review, One, Patria Letteratura, and TAB: The Journal of Poetry and Poetics. She lives in San Diego, California with her husband, three children, blue-eyed Husky, and two portly housecats. She can be found online at www.taniapryputniewicz.com.

Interview with B.J. Best

BJ Best

Sarah Sadie Busse: To start off, I’m curious when you began to write the poems about Erin’s cancer like at goodwill (radiation, day 32). Was it an immediate response or did it take some time? Did you feel at all resistant to writing about this, or was it a relief?

B. J. Best: We first had suspicions something was wrong in the middle of December 2013. Erin was officially diagnosed the day after Christmas that year. Then quickly came a slew of meetings with doctors to figure out the best course of action and treatment. I felt angry and overwhelmed. I had to start venting, and while generally I don’t value poetry that serves predominantly as therapy, at that point I didn’t care. The first poem I wrote was on December 31, 2013, and it was a genuine relief. I knew writing was something that would help me through the surgeries and treatments, which, more importantly, would allow me to try to help Erin move through them as well.

 

SSB: In tackling the tough subject of your wife’s cancer, you chose to write formal sonnets. Can you say a little bit about how and why you chose such a strict and traditional form for this material?

BJB: One evening, I had the impulse to write a poem, but as I wrote some tentative lines in my head, it was all inchoate vitriol. I knew I’d never be able to shape it. At that point, I realized I needed a form that would fence me in, that would allow me to be angry under relatively tight constraints. Even though it was an incredibly low priority, I still hoped the poems would have a modicum of literary merit. I’d written a previous book of sonnets—State Sonnets—and I knew I could go back to that familiar form and find my footing. The form helped sharpen that original anger and also direct it as I worked through the machinations of rhyme and counting syllables. I still allowed myself to be angry, but the anger often crystallized into dark humor barbed with audacious rhymes—toadstool / old school is an early one, for example.

 

SSB: I’m curious about timing of all of this. Wordsworth famously said poems are “emotion recollected in tranquility.” But sometimes people find it helpful to write within the crucible itself, as a way of venting, relieving pressure. Were you writing the poems during the time she was undergoing treatment, or did the poems come after? Or both?

BJB: These poems were written as we went through treatment. I wrote from January through May, when her treatment was completed. I wrote a total of fifty poems, so about three a week. I often wrote them in my head in my car during my forty-five-minute commute—just enough time, I found, to assemble a serviceable first draft, which I often spoke into a voice recorder while driving and then quickly typed up when I got to work. This allowed me to capture details I knew I might forget later, deliberately or not: the hymn etched into the stained glass in the hospital’s nondenominational chapel, or how while grocery shopping in March, our three-year-old son said we should buy my wife daffodils and it was all I could do to not break down right there. It was therapeutic, and they certainly aren’t all good poems. But I had faith that even if no one would ever see them, they were doing important work for me, for us, and that’s all that mattered.

radiation day

SSB: Do you feel you have more cancer sonnets to write at this point, or is the sequence finished?

BJB: Erin was successfully treated and has been cancer-free since May 2014. So, the sonnets served their initial purpose of helping me hold on. Now comes the less pleasant prospect of becoming the no-nonsense editor. Many poems will simply have to be cut. At that point, I’ll need to decide if the sequence is a chapbook or if it should be a book; if the latter, I’ll have to write some new ones. But part of me, frankly, doesn’t want to write any more about this—I’d rather keep the experience as over and done. So perhaps a chapbook will be its final form. Right now, I’m just letting the poems rest. I haven’t really touched them since mid-2014, and I don’t see me deeply revisiting them for a few more years, until I can feel less likely to become emotionally derailed by them—although I imagine there will always be that possibility.

 

SSB: You are also a musician in the band Mead Lake’s Most Wanted. Has your wife’s cancer and the experience of treatment made it into any songs? Do you find subject matter moves between your poetry and your songwriting, or do they remain quite separate for you?

BJB: I call my bandmates brothers, and they were a wonderful support group that winter. Our band even got its own sonnet, “the band that i’m in.” Playing music for two hours every Thursday was a good escape. It’s such an escape, in fact, that I deliberately don’t write serious songs. I want the songs I write to be fun to play and hear (“the band that i’m in” quotes real lyrics to a real song I wrote about William Henry Harrison). If I want to approach seriousness, I’ll write poetry. So, in that way, songs and poems really are separate modes of writing for me. Nonetheless, I’ve written one quiet song called “Edna”—it begins with a line from Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The rain is full of ghosts tonight.” In the song, the speaker’s wife dies of breast cancer. I kept the song locked away for a while, but it might now be time to make a demo of it.

 

SSB: I’m curious how this experience has informed your work, beyond writing the sonnets. Do you feel it has changed you as a writer? In what forms or subjects you might be drawn to in future, or how you approach your writing, or … any other way(s) you might like to consider?

BJB: Perhaps the experience has changed my writing by reminding me it’s a privilege and joy to write—and to live—at all. We were very fortunate that Erin had a successful outcome without too much turmoil. I know that so many people aren’t as lucky. To be able to suffer, fight, and heal means you’re alive.   Writing, then, is an extension of that. Overall, this experience has filled me with a deep sense of gratitude. I’m grateful to be writing because I’m grateful to be living.

 

 

Sarah Sadie’s chapbook, Do-It-Yourself Paper Airplanes was published by Five Oaks Press in 2015 and a second full-length collection, We Are Traveling Through Dark at Tremendous Speeds, will be published in the coming year. She teaches at the Loft and the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival, and works with poets one-on-one as well. She participated in Tupelo Press’s 30/30 poetry marathon in December 2015. Find her multimedia blog at sarahsadiesadiesarah.tumblr.com. @sarahsadie1313

Interview with Robert Fieseler

Robert Fieseler

Sara Michas-Martin: Reading your essay “New Miserable Experience” I was struck by its raw, emotional truth. The honesty was punctuated by your choice to evade a tidy conclusion. The reader is left tangled in a moment of internal conflict, a feeling of unrest we understand that is ongoing for Bobby (and Billy, too). Can you talk about the process of writing the essay and how you were able to manage what I imagine to be difficult feelings around the subject matter?

Robert Fieseler: Sure, Sara. You know I love your writing, so thank you for the kind words. When you write about family, it’s brutal. You’re writing about people you know in their innermost sanctums: their homes, their heads, where we accidentally drag back the bullshit of the world and use it to wreck each other. It’s you and your loved ones at their most vulnerable, unguarded, screaming at each other, refusing to wash the dishes.

So I sketched the first draft of this essay in my head in the minutes after my brother finished his Step 9 “amends” and left the house. This was December 2012. The scenario was fresh and I saw the way to write it like a path through a very old forest. I was sitting alone at the kitchen table–where we’d gathered as children–and I felt something very hard to express.

The cloud of feeling was something halfway between being demolished and being pushed against a wall. I think a very old part of me, one that resists logic and loves to tear me down, believed I did this to my brother – that I’d never fully wanted a Billy in my life and that I’d tinkered too much through our competitions and created the void he filled with addictions. I’d messed with his wiring. Writing this piece could mess with mine.

The mercenary in me knew this could be interesting material to plumb. I tend towards the confessional as a writer, and the confessional – as a formula – finds its legs in inner conflict. In the merciless description of what is. You go for the fucked up. You write about fucked up things and untangle the knot for the reader. Voila! I think confessional writers get good at exploiting this murkiness and writing their way towards an answer. Not THE answer but AN answer.

So I had the choice to write and face the consequences or not. The consequences could be embarrassing my family, harming my brother as he attempted to get healthy, putting myself in a psych ward or even ruining my young writing career through a revelation I couldn’t live down. OR…I could try to figure out a piece of what was true in a confusing moment for the both of us. I could try to parse what was real in between all the family myths and egos and my delusions of grandeur.

I clearly chose to write, though I didn’t know when I started what would happen as a result. I risked the honor of my family. I think I got lucky. My brother and I actually became closer through the long process of writing the essay. But I’ve spoken to other writers estranged from family members as a consequence of putting pen to page. I can’t figure out what makes it break towards celebration or disaster, what makes people react the way they do when they read about themselves through the eyes of a writer.

Several people have asked me how Billy is doing. He’s almost four years sober now, married, with a tech career and a townhouse. Solid guy. Mows his lawn, walks the dogs. He’s one of the best people I know. The truth is I barely knew him as a man before I attempted to write this. In a sense, I ended up writing out of my own head and into his.

 

SMM: Can you talk about your choice to structure the essay in five sections, and moreover, your choice to present your brother’s perspective as well as your own? I am curious about your process in arriving at a final draft. Was the occasion of meeting your brother always the entry point for the essay?

RF: I was attending the Columbia Journalism School in New York City when Billy did his Step 9 with me, so I approached the essay much the way a journalist writes a feature story. I also approached the writing with the ethics of a journalist, which means the story had to find fairness and balance among its subjectivity. It was the only way I knew how to write. A journalist gets a whiff of an opening paragraph, the world in micro – me mistaking my brother’s list as good – and then expands from that micro to a macro statement through what’s called a “nut graf” – my simple mistake revealing a larger, pathological need. It’s a narrative trick, one journalists use all the time. This one bee reveals all bees. This hurricane, a hurricane season. This student’s experience, a trend.

From the initial nut or point of expansion, I created a mental outline to guide me from sentence to sentence, beat to beat. I wanted some of our quick dialogue. I wanted to set the scene with the Christmas decorations. I wanted flashes of memories informing the present. The rest I let happen more intuitively. When I write, I tend to have a plan but only enough of a plan to let the story unfold. To let it get weird.

I wrote my section in the first person. Journalists tend to use what’s called an “objective narrator,” which closes off the internal world, but that would have been dishonest in this case because, as they say on the playground, my epidermis was showing. I knew that I wanted the two brothers from two equal vantages – to explore a larger theme of rivalry – but I didn’t expect to write Billy from the first person after I wrote myself that way. I didn’t know if I that was allowable. In journalism, changing first-person is pretty much verboten. An editor wouldn’t stand for it.

But I’d given Bobby the first person treatment – by this point, I was thinking of myself as just another character – and I noticed how the first person slanted the reader towards Bobby’s picture of events. This slant revealed bias, and a bias is a blind spot, a convenient instance of fudging or overlooking the facts. It seemed clear to me then that I needed to re-weight the story based on what I’d revealed through Bobby. I didn’t know if I had the literary muscles to write through the eyes of another human being – pure journalists, generally, don’t put that ability to practice – but I thought that if I could do this for anyone, I could do it for a person who shared a bedroom with me growing up.

I found myself fascinated by Billy’s emotional state just before he entered the room to confront his brother. In a Step 9, the amends can often come off as rehearsed, because the amend-maker actually has rehearsed the apology. But the time just before the Step 9 would be raw, improvised, anxious. I thought the tension between those two states could be revealing and evoke sympathy for Billy as a character.

I didn’t set out to mess with time–to have Billy always catching up to the action in the conversation–but the timing thing just happened. And I needed a Billy reaction that summed up trying to catch up with Bobby, who’s running ahead as a way of eluding the confrontation. So I let Billy nail it in a second section that reveals Bobby as an unreliable narrator about to discover something by stumbling into it. The last line I wrote was the combined fragment that took about two years of paring and examining to reach: “He did it with booze, I did it with winning.” I hope the story and structure reveal that Billy had less of an agenda in our interactions that day.

 

SMM: How does your relationship to journalism differ from your relationship to creative writing?

RF: They inform each other. Great nonfiction writing is founded on great reporting, on the application of interview skills and sleuthing, archival research and document requesting, deductive reasoning and questioning what really happened in a confusing event from multiple angles. From this data set, one then assembles the Venn diagram of a likely truth, out of all possible likelihoods. It’s a picture of reality as it moves. This isn’t the Truth with a capital T – only God knows that – but it’s the best possible narrative assembled from evidence. It’s the best tool we have as human beings to figure out what’s going on.

This piece was originally a reported memoir hybrid. I’d have more things happening in a fictionalized account. I’d have us moving through multiple rooms, perhaps upstairs into our old bedroom. I’d have poignant photos from other eras of our lives, which we don’t see because they weren’t there, but now up on the walls for the main confrontation. I might have his fiancée out in the car. I might have him punch me and break my nose to look like his. Isn’t that poetic? But I’m not a fiction writer. I believe Bryon when he said, “Tis strange – but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction.” Byron lived a weird life. Life is so weird.

So I had to interview Billy. We were still estranged, and I conducted this interview via phone almost immediately after I came up with the outline at the kitchen table. I had to get him when he was fresh and ask his permission to research and write about his Step 9. I think he was surprised to get my call, then flattered, or at least hopeful that I seemed more interested that I’d been during the actual Step 9. He agreed to help. I had to ask him about what he was doing before and after the experience. I had to ask him how he prepared to talk to me and why he was nervous. I had to ask to review his Step 4 journal, where he conducted his fearless moral inventory. It’s a very private document.

I had to ask to review his Step 4 page for me. I still have it. It’s awful. Not that he wrote those things about me. Billy had to be fearless in this regard to get well. It was just awful to read about myself from that vantage – I was sick, but in a way that society rewarded: I won, and they cheered. I received accolades that spiked my brain chemistry. I chased the dopamine hits, like Billy. Reporting this stuff meant a commitment to discovery on my part, and such a commitment has a price, a psychological toll. We all pay the piper this way as writers. I’m not going to lie. I cried a lot. I don’t know why the reporting facilitated tears I did not have in front of him, but it did. And I chased the story to get it right. I chased it through myself, through him, through other family members, for about two years of reporting and writes and rewrites.

A story, fully formed, I find, is often smarter than you are. But you have to blunder and chase it down like Wile E. Coyote with the Road Runner. And, this will be metaphorical so excuse the flight of fancy, the story will eventually turn back and notice you chasing it and ask for a toll. And you pay it or you don’t, and the end result is likely the difference between a meh or a noteworthy piece. You have to risk yourself. A journalist will give something small, like a piece of mind. A thought. Sometimes that’s enough. Some risk nothing and still come off pithy, clever; these are the Chandler Bings of reporting. A creative nonfiction writer will offer a vein or, sometimes, the heart. And to be torn up from the heart hurts, but then the writing makes you somewhat whole again because you got to be, temporarily, the vessel for the thing you were chasing. You got to speak its name. But you have to decide whether it’s worth it. You will not be the same afterwards. There will be consequences to what you realize. And you will need to change your life as a result of realization or be a liar.

Europa Hides an Ocean cropped

SMM: I first met you years ago when you were an undergraduate. Can you talk about how your relationship to literature and writing have evolved in last 10-13 years? Have there been specific books or authors that remain influential? What’s the most exciting thing you’ve read in the past year?

RF: I read The New York Times every day. I have for years. My grandfather could make a day of the Times. Great journalists, great feature writers – like A.A. Gill of The Sunday Times or Buzz Bissinger for Vanity Fair or Gene Weingarten for The Washington Post or Erika Hayasaki wherever she writes – fashion grammar-perfect sentences that curve into each other like great woodwork and gleam with a kind of simplicity. Most of these journalists also write books. These authors can arrange words in a way that gets two points across – the person, place or thing itself, and then the larger significance.

I always wanted to be able to do that. I guess when you met me all those years ago, I didn’t know how to yet. I wrote poetry that struggled sincerely, poems filled with lyric moments, poems that didn’t really want to be poems and therefore didn’t work. It took me a long time to figure that one out. I worked really hard on those poems, on being a “serious poet,” but I just didn’t love those words as much as I loved others.

I couldn’t write prose yet, but I could weave narrative moments that showed promise. During this whole process of realization throughout my twenties, I was reading Nabokov, Amy Hempel, Vonnegut. I read Emily Dickinson. I read Yeats. I read the Beats, all of them, then Truman Capote. Toni Morrison. Salman Rushdie. Saul Bellow. Not whole catalogues, usually just one or two works.

Then one day, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about a class at the Columbia Journalism School called the Book Writing Seminar, to which journalism students had to apply separately after being admitted to Columbia. I mean, the double gate, right? I’d never gone to an Ivy League school. To think there was another barrier of entry! Through Sam Freedman’s guidance, these students had entered with fledgling projects and published more than 40 books. The story’s still available online. I heard Sam’s voice for the first time here, and he sounded like someone who could kick my ass, and I knew that his class – if I could swing it – would be my proving ground, the place to become a real writer.

I applied. I got accepted. And it’s taken a long while for me to find my legs as a writer and nonfiction author. You’ve caught me in the midst of writing my first book length piece of nonfiction for the Liveright imprint of W.W. Norton, which is daunting, and I’m learning how to sustain a long narrative for the first time. Just get better every day, I tell myself. But the slow progress can be maddening. As Sam Freedman says, “Do the work.” Pay the price. Most people can’t take the hit – the idea that they have to be better than their ceiling – or they simply can’t lose the lifestyle they were enjoying.

I read classics these days. Thomas Hardy. Bronte. I’m rereading Walden, by Thoreau, cover-to-cover, and am entranced by his mentions of the railroad and industry. Before bed, I read a paragraph from Leaves of Grass, because I find that I have fewer nightmares. Whitman has a way of seeing the good in others and in the American experiment. I get too many literary magazines, from all those free subscriptions with submission to their social lottery competitions – who knows how you judge something so subjective – but once in a while I do read a story that consumes my thinking, the most recent being Nina Boutsikaris’s essay in the Winter 2016 issue of Redivider called, “I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry.”

My favorite book continues to be A Farewell to Arms. It sets you up and then buries the knife, and I bawl my eyes out. On an emotional level, something like that happened to me when Billy left the house, and I tried to portray that in the essay’s final montage. Maybe it worked…I’m still figuring that out. I like the fact that there’s always more to read and learn. I haven’t even cracked Proust or Tolstoy (scandalous, right?). But writing this essay helped me become less a stooge of ambition. It taught me that winning, that ambition, can harm the people around you – it played a part in harming my brother, and I’m consequently less of an outright striver, now only striving to be less of a know-it-all in my life and in my words.

 

 

Sara Michas-Martin writes, teaches and designs. Her book Gray Matter (Fordham University Press) was chosen for the Poets Out Loud Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in the American Poetry Review, The Believer, Denver Quarterly and elsewhere. She taught a very young Bobby in 2002 at the University of Michigan’s New England Literature Program before becoming a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

 

 

 

Interview with Laura Moretz

Laura Moretz

Amanda Webster: Laura, congratulations on the Pushcart nomination for your short story “Rules.” Years ago, when we took online memoir classes together, I predicted this kind of recognition. What I didn’t predict was your crossover into fiction. Why the switch and how, if at all, does your memoir background inform your fiction?

Laura Moretz: I am honored by the r.kv.r.y Pushcart nomination. I still feel like a beginner in the world of fiction. As for moving from non-fiction to fiction there were several reasons for that. I worked on a long memoir manuscript several years ago and got some feedback at Tin House. One piece of advice I clearly heard was, “Why don’t you try fiction?” I saw fiction as a means to back away from a close first-person focus in order to imagine a more detailed canvas than what I could summon in memory. It was good advice. But instead of staying with the same project, I started an unrelated novel and short stories. These tap into some of the same concerns but without the need to stick to events I had experienced. It wasn’t my first time writing fiction—I’d tried it when I was in my twenties before I worked in journalism—but I didn’t persist. So in a way, I have come full circle, many years later. But the elements that make a good piece of writing are the same in both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the things I love in your essays are the things I also see in successful fiction, such as rich sensory detail and a complicated emotional palette.

 

AW: Thanks Laura. For me, complicated emotional palette is one of the least fraught areas of non-fiction, partly because the “now” narrator is able to step in. Memory’s vagaries make direct dialogue (or indirect for that matter) one of the most fraught. In your r.kv.r.y story “Rules,” direct dialogue does much of the hard work—revealing character, moving the story forward, reflecting. So much so it’s tempting to think the characters and their voices come to you first; yet you say, “These (short stories and a novel) tap into some of the same concerns…”, which suggests that you start with a question that troubles you in some way. Can you elaborate on your process—where you start and how you find your characters and develop their voices?

LM: Mostly, my stories come from an image that may or may not be hooked to a memory. For “Rules” it was the image of the man coming in on a gurney, and then other characters and situations glommed onto it. The image of the man on a gurney had feelings associated with it, the constellation of things that Deirdre is feeling: anger, paranoia, fear. And I liked her attitude, her angry voice. I’m not really sure where the dialogue comes from; I have to rewrite it a lot to make it seem natural. As far as starting with a concern, I’m interested in young women who are emotionally lost, and out of this interest I’ve written several stories in which two young women, both lost, mirror each other. So that’s a concern, one that births the kind of images that generate stories. If stories ask questions, one question in these stories would be, how do people behave when they have mangled their lives?

 

AW: Your wonderful answer has spawned quite a few questions for me. I’m going to start by quoting an online comment on “Rules:” “Keep them coming—tell your story that only you can tell,” which suggests an autobiographical interpretation. From what you say, it sounds like this is true of some generative images and associated feelings, but that the stories quickly take on a life of their own. My first question has two parts—are you, in a sense, writing into the gaps in memory, and can you speak to the quality of truth in fiction?

LM: I wouldn’t say I’m writing into gaps in memory, because that would make it my story. Maybe it’s shape shifting—Deirdre shows up, and I enter her body and her voice. There are shards of me in the story, but it’s not me. If you turn the kaleidoscope, the pieces reassemble, and each configuration has its own pattern. If I told my own story in a similar spot, it would be a different story. Our mutual teacher, Kyle Minor, writes about seeking truths by telling a story in different ways, as he did in Praying Drunk. He’s one who pushed me to go to the places with the most trouble, so this is me trying to do that. I was working with another advisor when I began this story, Susan Neville, and I told her that I worried that stories in treatment centers had been done too much. She said no, not in the way that marital infidelity stories have been done too much. I looked for examples of “the treatment center story” and I found only a few: “Where I’m Calling From” by Raymond Carver, of course, and “An Interval” by David Foster Wallace, which I liked a great deal. I’d love to hear of other examples. Also, thanks for alerting me to the comment section at the end of the story. I hadn’t seen those. I have nice friends.

Rules

AW: Ah… the shape shifter! I like that idea. And the kaleidoscope, not only in terms of the story but in terms of truth, depending on the angle from which the story is told. As well as the “truth” in your writing, I admire your lyricism. In a notebook, I collect words I’ve glommed on to in my reading, and you are well represented. I may never use “glommed” again but I will enjoy repeating it to myself in the privacy of my study. Which brings me to my final question: Can you name writers in addition to the ones you’ve mentioned, and other than teachers, who have influenced your work and perhaps elaborate on the nature of their influence?

LM: I enjoy your words and phrasings too. The precision of your words and your effort to reconcile outer world and inner worlds are calibrated by your language. Words are my greatest pleasure: the sounds of them, the fun of them, and the way they are put together. I tend to absorb languages around me and mix vernaculars. Perhaps every family has its own vernacular. Ours certainly does. As to influences, I started in poetry, and I still look to Anne Sexton. She used words as a kind of crossword for the soul, a working out of pain within constraints that helped her find meaning. I like John Berryman, too. My mother gave me his 77 Dream Songs when I was in third grade. My teacher had encouraged me to write poems in a notebook because my handwriting was so bad. I needed handwriting practice. But why did my mother choose Berryman as a model? His themes are a bit mature for an eight year old. Still, the humor worked for me then. I have the same copy today. Another writer I admire is Lorrie Moore. She uses language to negotiate brokenness in a way that is funny but also haunting and painful. Finally, I have studied some of Eudora Welty, who describes people in ways that I am not yet able, and I want to read more of her stories.

 

AW: I share your admiration for Lorrie Moore, Laura. Thank you for this conversation. Let’s continue it in person somewhere, some day.

LM: Yes, I can’t wait.

 

 

Amanda Webster lives in Sydney, Australia with her husband and one of three adult children. Her memoir The Boy Who Loved Apples was released by Text Publishing Australia in 2012. Ghost Town (working title), a story of personal reconciliation, will be released late 2016 by NewSouth Publishing. An online essay, published under her married name “Skelton,” can be found here.

Interview with K.A. Wisniewski

KA Wisniewski

Mary Akers: Hi, K.A.. Thanks again for letting us have your wonderful SOS piece “A Taste of Peppermint” for our Caregivers issue. There’s something so poignant about this piece, really a vignette, but a vignette that “spins out” into something larger. I had a writing professor (Fred Leebron) who talked about the importance of “Chekhovian Spinout” in the endings of short work. I believe it was a term he coined, but it has stayed with me. I guess it’s similar to “resonance” in which a final tone keeps reverberating into the silence, but bigger somehow. An ending that stops but also opens out. Have you ever heard of this phrase before? Do you agree with it and/or strive for Chekhovian Spinout in your writing?

K.A. Wisniewski:  Thank you for the kind words. It’s funny because this vignette is actually pulled from a larger essay or story about thirty-pages in length. So, at one time, it did spin out into something larger.

About ten years ago, I visited Austin, TX, and heard this song called “Penthouse in the Ghetto” playing on a jukebox. I became a bit obsessed with this song and researched the blues artist Peppermint Harris who wrote and recorded it.  For several months, I thought of this as a fun research project that might spin into a journalistic essay, but ultimately I stepped away from it. Several years later, I was listening to some of Harris’ songs from the 1940s and 50s while walking around the streets of Philadelphia. There was this interesting contrast between what I was seeing and what I was hearing, and the result was this invented story of this aged bluesman recalling moments from forty years earlier.

When I returned to the story again this past year, I ultimately decided to chop it down to what is now “A Taste of Peppermint” to give this sense of resonance. It’s just a vignette, a moment following this musician across the street to a local bar. Nothing happens. The idea was have the readers fill in the gaps themselves and ask the same questions I did while listening to his songs for the first time. Who is this guy? What’s the backstory? How did he or we get there?

I appreciate you bringing in Chekhov here. I had a professor who referred to these endings as “anti-epilogues,” but I really like this idea of the spin-off. I think Chekhov’s the master at this sort of ending. Instead of this happily-ever-after, neatly tied-up ending, he often leaves his readers what will happen next, of stopping short. I’m interested in this idea of stopping short, not fulfilling readers’ expectations but instead giving them a more active role in the story-making process.

 

MA: And, related, do you read Chekhov? Do like his work? If so, what’s one of your favorites?

KAW:  I haven’t read Chekhov in a little while now, but I think I should return to him. My favorite story might be “A Joke.” It’s ends in a classic Chekhovian fashion when in one-line the narrator reflects on a joke he once played a girl while sledding. He would whisper, “I love you” in her ear and later deny it. Years later, he realizes that this was this missed opportunity for love. Chekov has a way of framing these little moments where nothing and everything happens for a character or characters and then just cuts away. In an instant, the moment is over and the world carries on as it did before. Only later does the character imagine that moment as a moment of possibility.

I guess this is similar to my image of Peppermint Harris. There was a moment when he was somewhat famous and had a number 1 song on the Billboard Charts. Then the moment was over. Life continued on, and next month’s rent was due.

 

MA: I know from your bio that you wear many literary hats, working as an author but also an editor and a managing editor. In my book that makes you a good literary citizen, giving back to the community that sustains you. Do you find that doing such work informs and enhances your writing? Or is it a tricky balance you are striking between the personal creative pursuits and the “giving back?”

KAW:  I love my work as an editor. I love being on the frontline, reading new work.  Sometimes being among the first to read them, and sometimes seeing them still in-progress and imagining what they will become. The making-process is the greatest part of the experience.  I love talking to artists and authors about their work and troubleshooting. People often look at this process as cold and bureaucratic. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the poetics in these exchanges. So I see publishing and editing itself as a creative pursuit.

And I’ve made great friends in this process. This is one of the reasons I’m attracted to small presses and literary magazines. You see and feel the collaborative spirit and energy of writing (and publishing). You see your work as a part of an ongoing conversation. These experiences definitely shape my own writing. I’m always learning from these authors, editors, and texts. They motivate me to keep writing and re-writing.

Taste of Peppermint

MA: Are you primarily a flash writer? I find that form so deliciously varied and inclusive–flash, micro, short-short, prose poem, etc. Could you say a few words about your attraction to the form?

KAW:  I’m actually arriving a little late to the flash scene and am just beginning to experiment here. But I’m attracted to it because of this lack of definition and because of the way it makes me rethink or re-envision my own work. I’m now asking new questions and trying to get to the heart of whatever I’m writing. It’s an interesting shift for me to stop asking, “What happening here? What’s the story about?” It’s shifting from narrative to the emotional, the affective.

I’ve recently read a few collections or serials on what’s called twitterature, and I’m especially interested in seeing how this genre will evolve as we move further into the digital age. Reading or surfing on the Internet has taught us that there is no longer a linear narrative or specific route. Here, I think the figure (and the feeling that follows) might replace the narrative.

 

MA: I like the theme of this piece. For me, it’s something akin to “Dignity of the Downtrodden.” And also highlights the fact that we often have no inkling of the mysterious lives that our elders have lived–frequently recognizing only the shell of the body and moving on, dismissively. Would you like to say anything about that?

KAW:  We live in a society that often dismisses or undervalues the needs, talents, and awesome experiences of the aged community and what they bring to the conversation.  My partner Molly is an advocate for the rights and well being of the elderly, so I’m especially conscious of this. While both their rights and ongoing contributions to the arts and culture need to be addressed and reconsidered in general, I think there’s a real gap that exists in creative writing communities. A good example is public readings and community groups.  I’ve been to readings where participants and audiences are either filled with young adults or students or with retired persons. Rarely do I see a diverse representation, and I’d really like to see local creative writings groups find a way to bridge the gap here.

 

MA: Granted, this may be a question more for future scholars of your work, but what do you think are some of your most common themes? What do you find yourself revisiting over and over?

KAW: Memory is certainly a reoccurring motif in my work, how memories change or are distorted over time and sometimes how we’re haunted by what we’ve once said or didn’t say or how one obsesses or reflects on what was or could have been. I guess for that reason a lot of my poetry and creative work focuses on specific moments of embarrassment or awkwardness. A lot of these feelings play up our own anxieties, those anxieties that break with the logical or rational but still deeply affect us. In reflection. some of this is absurd or humorous. I look to moments that will connect the readers to a specific feeling or moment in their own lives.

 

MA: And finally, because I always love the answers I get when I ask this question, What does ‘recovery’ mean to you?

KAW:  In terms of my writing, recovery might refer to amplifying those small moments or those scraps of writing that would ultimately get cut from a work. Those notes or ideas that were jotted down “in the moment” that inspired you to start a project in the beginning. Recovery is to return to that instance of excitement.  In the case of Peppermint, it’s returning to the image I first imagined. Not clouded by research or over-thinking narrative structure or dialogue. Returning to the bliss of writing and imagining.

Interview with Jennifer Williams

Jennifer Williams

Mary Akers: Hi, Jennifer. Thanks again for letting us have your wonderful short story “Europa Hides an Ocean.” I loved this piece so much. It was one of those read-and-accept finds that make editors feel a little giddy. One of the first things I admired about the story was your stylistic choice to use a close third person, while keeping the main characters generically described as “the girl” and “her mother.” It reminds me a bit of Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” The names-as-descriptive-nouns actually (at least for this reader) left me feeling closer to the characters because of their “anyman” quality. Can you say a little bit about what that narrative choice meant to you?

Jennifer Williams: Your enthusiasm for my story means a great deal to me, thank you so much.

As a writer I’m particularly interested in the shared characteristics of people: what we have in common rather than what makes us unique. For stories, I tend to be focused on the relationship, or perhaps an event—whatever particular tension is at hand—rather than the individual. So, descriptors sometimes work better since giving a character a name, even if it’s just Bill or Jane, immediately focuses the narrative and makes it about exactly one person’s experience. Of course, I still strive to make my characters more than place-holders. But with “Europa,” I was less worried about giving readers full characters sketches than I was about shining light on a particular moment. That is, when the mother and daughter finally switch directions and begin to climb out of their grief. And I love the idea that this inflection point ending up occurring at such an ordinary stage in their trip. I like all my stories to have a bit of mystery—something that’s initially hidden and, if I’ve done it right, only understood at the end.

As with first person, a close-third can actually facilitate this sort of narrative obfuscation since it gives the impression of intimacy even as the narrator or protagonist continues to hide things from the reader. Maybe this is why the story gives off hints of “Hills Like White Elephants” since there’s still that wall. Not to mention that big thing that’s not being talked about! I didn’t imagine the two characters in Europa were afraid to discuss anything. But their loss wouldn’t have been new. What might they say to each other that hasn’t already been said? This is an ordinary moment, not a moment of confrontation, and even when the girl complains about missing the truck (her way of saying what’s already been said) her mother responses wearily. I think tension, a building block of the short story, can be found almost anywhere.

 

MA: Yes, that weary response says so much. Another thing I love about this piece is your expert use of sensory details so that we are connected to the girl by sights, smells, sounds, touch, and taste. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a piece of writing “atmospheric” and I think sensory details are a big part of that. Do you consciously add them in, or is that something that comes naturally to you? Are sensory details important to you in your own lived experience?

JW: I like that word, atmospheric!  Some of that focus on sensory detail might just come down to what got drilled into my head during my MFA: show don’t tell, remember that everything we experience comes to us first through one of the five senses. I don’t think all stories have to be this way, but the physical world is a great place to start. And when I’m writing and I get stuck somewhere, taking things back to the immediate, the senses, can be a helpful way to push forward. For this story in particular I rely on it heavily because the narrator is limited to what she can or is willing to communicate. I need those descriptions to build the meat of the story because neither the girl nor her mother is talking directly about what’s going on.

Europa Hides an Ocean cropped

MA: When I choose work to illustrate each issue, I’m often surprised to learn that the image I chose ends up having special significance to the author–a significance that I couldn’t have known. I think this speaks to the way our minds crave to connect disparate things–especially inter-genre connections (like dance and music, visual art and text, etc). What did you think of Mia Avramut’s image used to illustrate your story?

JW: If I had to distill this story down to one word, it’d be obscurity, and Mia Avramut’s piece, “Rainfall,” captures this perfectly.  In fact, her work made me realize how much I played around with what can and can’t be seen, or heard, or understood, in the story. I think this happened as a natural output of me trying to get into the girl’s skin, imagining how frustrating it might be to be so young in that situation. There are all sorts of limiting factors—the physical, of course: darkness, foliage, distance.  But also what her mother may have explained or withheld, as well as the girl’s general lack of experience. “Rainfall” includes a very identifiable scene that is then deliberately blurred through its topical affect.  It is very much in line with the girl’s worldview.

 

MA: Nice. I love everything about that. And finally, because we are a recovery-themed journal and because the answers to this question are always interesting, could you tell our readers what “recovery” means to you?

JW: Recovery, to me, means redefinition. Facts may not be malleable but interpretation certainly is, and I think recovery involves a great deal of reinterpretation—not of an event, not of ‘what happened’ but of its meaning and consequences, how it connects with identity. I’d argue that recovery from trauma comes when we redefine the world around us to such an extent that we move ourselves into a new life, a new reality. I don’t mean physically moving necessarily, although my characters in “Europa” took this route. But if we’re lucky, we redefine our priorities, our points of view, sometimes our partners or our friends, until the new life is sufficiently unique then the trauma can be contained inside a previous chapter, relevant to a previous you. I think that to some extent what’s real and true and important to a person is negotiable. I always consider this when I wake up from a particularly vivid dream. During those first waking moments the dream world seems more real—I’m still afraid, or I’m still trying to catch that train. Then the new world takes shape and I very quickly shed the dream world. I just let it slip away and quite readily accept the new one.