Interview with Scott Loring Sanders

Scott Sanders

Mary Akers: Hi, Scott. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me today. I really loved your SOS piece (Argument with Myself on How to Write a Competent Essay). I know that the argument is a literary device, but it kind of begs the question: do you argue with yourself a lot when you write?

Scott Loring Sanders: I argue with myself about everything, writing or otherwise. And it’s funny you ask because I’m in the middle of an essay right now where I’m trying to explore exactly who this other self is. I see him (or me—it gets a bit confusing) as the one who keeps me grounded, my voice of reason. “He” is very logical and often talks me down off the ledge, if you will. But in this particular essay I just mentioned, I’m exploring how different that voice might have become if a few turns of fate had been slightly altered. If a few close calls had gone differently, that voice might not be nearly as stable and helpful as I currently find it.

And by the way, I got this arguing with myself honestly. My mother has talked out loud to herself for as far back as I can remember. My sister and I get a chuckle out of it sometimes, but really, we’ve always accepted it as perfectly normal. There were times, for example, when my mother would be in the kitchen cooking dinner and I’d be in the living room, and I’d hear her having full-fledged conversations. But there was nobody else there. Not a soul. I’m assuming this probably sounds odd to most people, but to me it was no big deal. My mom laughs good-naturedly about it if my sister and I try to poke a little fun at her. It’s just part of who she is. I think it’s simply her way of working through problems and issues, the same as all of us do, she just happens to do it aloud.

She has always walked for exercise, and back in the day I’m pretty sure the neighbors thought she was bat-shit—walking along, carrying on a conversation with herself, her hands flying in front of her face as if swatting gnats. Today, people passing by probably just think she’s got Bluetooth. I find it endearing, actually, partially because it doesn’t bother her in the least. She’s not embarrassed or self-conscious about it, it’s just who she is.

I occasionally do it too, talking to myself I mean. Usually when I’m frustrated with some sort of manual labor. Changing spark plugs, for example. I might bust my knuckles and say, “Come on, Scott. Don’t be such an idiot.” Yes, always in third person. Also, everything that I write, I read out loud, which is rule number one for me. And if I come across a problematic paragraph or sentence, often I’ll “talk it out” and/or make suggestions to myself.

So that’s a long, roundabout way to say, yes, I argue with myself all the time, and certainly when it comes to writing.


MA: I love that answer. A Bluetooth connected to the other self. I’m digging that idea. I argue with myself, too, except it’s my last name that comes up. As in, “Get a grip, Akers.” My Bluetooth other has a very sarcastic, paramilitary tone. I’ll know I’m really off the deep end when it says, “Drop and give me twenty.”

I am fascinated by internal struggle. I feel like we must all face some form of it, yes? (It’s not only me, right?) The thing that seems especially brilliant in your piece is that the internal struggle is–on the surface–about writing, but it is also about addiction and moderation imposed by the self, and anger at the intemperate self, the immoderate self, even the creative self. Would you like to comment on that?

SLS: I suppose my first answer covers this to some degree, but I could certainly expound on the writing aspect. And “brilliant” might be a bit strong, but thanks all the same! I’ll take everything I can get.

Generally speaking, I’m a pretty confident person. But when it comes to writing, I never am. I question everything. Is it good enough? Why would anyone want to read this? I have no idea where I’m going. What the hell am I trying to say? It’s pretty normal, I guess. I’ve heard plenty of highly successful writers say the same thing.

No matter what I write, fiction or nonfiction, these doubts constantly pop up. It’s always an internal struggle. When I get a piece accepted for publication, often I’ll think, “They must’ve really needed material for the issue” OR “Wow, I fooled them, didn’t I?” Every once in a while, one of those pieces gets nominated for an award, and occasionally even wins, which you might assume would provide some pretty solid validation. But I’ll still tell myself, “The field must have been weak this year” OR “I got lucky and happened to hit on a theme the judge was interested in.” I swear to God, I’m like an awful, domineering step-parent to my own self, where no matter what I do, it’s never good enough. But you know what, I don’t think that’s a bad thing anymore. Over time, I’ve learned that beating myself up in that way is actually healthy when it comes to writing. It helps push me, it helps make me better, it helps squeeze every little bit I can out of a piece. Early in my career, as I guess many young writers do, I’d knock something out, say, “Voila. You’re a genius” and then send it out, only to receive 100% rejection. After getting pummeled repeatedly, I learned humility and patience. And tenacity.

I struggle with every aspect of writing—composing, editing, rewriting, etc. But over time I figured out that that struggle is part of the journey and process. I now accept it and trust myself that eventually I’ll produce something (hopefully) worthwhile. Those internal struggles and arguments have only made me a better writer. A more thorough writer. But it never comes easy, that’s for sure. Not for me anyway.


MA: Agreed. I work hard to remind myself (and others) of the need for persistence in writing. In fact, it’s kind of a thing with me. I run a writing office in Zoetrope Virtual Studios and the title of the office is R.I.P which stands for Rejection Isn’t Personal. The tagline that goes with it is “Writing is a game of Attrition. Don’t attrish.” I stole this from the director of my MFA program, Fred Leebron. (Let that sentence serve as my attribution credit.)

I know you also had a short story published at Prime Number with a character who was addicted to crystal meth. Is addiction a theme that recurs a lot in your writing? (It does in mine.) If so, why do you think that is?

SLS: Substance abuse does show up pretty often in my work. I don’t know that I’d call it a theme, necessarily, but it is certainly a means for developing a character, if nothing else.   Addiction creates obstacles for a character. Which in turn creates tension. Which in turn raises the stakes. Which in turn makes things interesting. And besides, they say “Write what you know” don’t they? In real life, the vast majority of my friends have had—or still have—problems with alcohol and/or other drugs. This doesn’t make them bad people, it just means they have issues they are coping with and/or hiding from. It has been a constant in my life ever since I was a little kid, so it only makes sense that it would infiltrate my writing.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many adults in the world today (or teenagers for that matter) who don’t have some sort of experience with addiction, whether it’s their own or a loved one’s or a friend’s. It’s simply reality, so yes, it often creeps into my work. I’ve written a few essays about my own struggles, but I rarely talk about it in public (though I guess that’s exactly what I’m doing right now!) If somebody reaches out because they’re hurting and seeks my advice, I’m happy to discuss it, but I sure don’t go around preaching about it. Addiction (and recovery) are very personal things that every individual has to contend with in their own way.
ARGUMENT flowers for him

MA: Agreed. What other themes do you find popping up often as you write? I know you have a YA book with a Vietnam vet who plays an important role….

SLS: I often write about males who have issues with their fathers. It’s no mystery where that comes from. I’ve written about my own father in various essays, warts and all. There were plenty of years where our relationship was tumultuous at best, but we got through it, and I’ve never been closer with him than I am now. With that said, tough and sometimes unreasonable—or downright eccentric—fathers often factor in to my work. And by the way, since you mentioned it, my dad is a Vietnam vet.

As far as other themes, I’ve noticed that bodies of water, usually rivers, often show up—even acting as tertiary characters in some ways—though I can’t exactly tell you why that is. Trains and railroad tracks, too. I’ve always found railroads to hold a gritty, grungy mystique which instantly helps create mood and/or setting. In fact, now that I think about it, that story you mentioned in your last question has a meth addict, an estranged father, a river, and a train. See what I mean!

I’ve never really thought too much about theme or symbolism or the like. I just write what I write, but it’s clear that some ideas and topics pop-up in my work more so than others.


MA: Thanks for answering that. I know it’s a tough question, and perhaps one better left to those who read our work with a critical eye. (Or perhaps the Bluetooth eye.) For what it’s worth, I think you did a great job of answering it.

You share almost the same name with a well-known essayist and short story writer. That must be mildly annoying at times. Does this ever cause problems for you? Has it ever helped you? Is there something definitive you would like to say about it for your readers?

SLS: Ha, that’s pretty funny. It might be mildly annoying for Scott Russell Sanders if someone ever compared my work to his, but the opposite has certainly never been a problem! I say this because I think he’s topnotch, and I highly respect him. To have my work confused with his would be an honor. Seriously. I mean, he’s one of the original masters of the creative nonfiction genre as far as I’m concerned. And talk about some amazing writing which deals with addiction and fathers? He’s got an essay that I often teach called “Under the Influence” which is a must-read for anyone who’s ever lived with a family member struggling with addiction. Damn near perfect if you ask me.

But yes, I did decide early on to publish under my full name in order to draw a distinction between the two of us. To answer your question, it’s never caused a problem for me, nor has it helped. However, I did receive a handwritten rejection once from an editor at a highly prestigious journal, commenting on how my work was always stellar, etc. It was flattering, but the story I sent wasn’t all that good to begin with. In retrospect, I feel pretty certain that that editor probably got confused and thought he was responding to Scott Russell Sanders and not Scott Loring Sanders.

And here’s a somewhat humorous anecdote. Last year, an essay I published received a Notable mention from Best American Essays 2015. As did an essay written by Scott Russell Sanders. So, thanks to the power of the alphabet and the fact that the letter L comes before the letter R, my name appears directly above his at the back of the book. When that anthology hit the shelves, I pointed this out to my wife, stating, “Look who just one-upped Scott Russell Sanders.” It will probably be the only time, so I’ll take it.


MA: I’m a big fan of Scott Russell Sanders’ work, too. I love that story about BAE. And on the plus side, you can tell that critical other voice of yours to stuff it, because there’s no chance you were mistaken for him if you BOTH got noted.

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

SLS: You know, that’s a tough one because I’m not sure. I do know that I’m much happier sober than when I was drinking. You could’ve never convinced me that that was possible when I first quit, but every aspect of my life has gotten better. My marriage, being a father, my health, my work—both writing and teaching. I’d never written a word (not a serious word anyway) until after I got sober. That’s been fifteen years now, which sounds crazy to me, even today. Fifteen years without a drink was truly unfathomable when I first quit. Hell, a week was unfathomable. To be perfectly honest, the idea of not drinking again scared the shit out of me. But I’m so glad I did it.

I have a saying which I share with people who come to me asking for advice about getting sober. It goes like this: “Not once in all my years of sobriety have I woken up and said, ‘Man, I wish I had a hangover today.’ Not once.” It seems to always hit home on a fundamental level. So, yeah, I’m proud of being sober. I’m proud of my recovery. I was able to drink a lot back in the day. A whole lot. And somehow I equated that with being tough. With being a man. But you know what I learned through getting sober? Anybody can take another drink, or puff, or hit, or snort. That’s easy. There’s nothing to it. You know what’s hard? Not taking one. That’s real toughness. So, yeah, I’m proud of it. And if those words offer some encouragement to somebody out there who’s having a difficult time, then better yet. I had some great support from friends and family, and I’ve also helped a few people along the way. Maybe this interview will help a few more. So maybe that’s what recovery means to me. Helping. Helping myself, helping others. I guess I’ll leave it at that.

Thanks so much for the great questions. I think there’s a new essay buried in here somewhere.


MA: Gosh, I’ve enjoyed this interview so much. I wish we could continue it over a…cup of coffee. Thank you, Scott. (Also–yet another aside–I named my son Scott, almost twenty years ago. Good name, that.)

Interview with Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik

Mary Akers: Hi, Simon. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today. I loved your poem “as if these leaves” in our January issue. In preparation for this interview, I visited your website and read a previous (2003) interview with Susan Tepper. In that interview, you said that you often work from images. Is this still true today? And if so, what sort of images are inspiring you these days?

Simon Perchik: Thanks for the kind words about that poem. With reference to how I work from images I would like to refer your readers to Magic, Illusion, and Other Realities an essay I wrote that more fully answers that question. The short answer is that I confront the image or idea from a photograph with a contradictory image or idea from science or mythology and resolve that difference. Exactly what a metaphor does for a living.


MA: I’ve noticed that in much of your work you switch images or feelings in a way that might be considered abrupt, but that to me is more about trusting the reader to follow along and catch up, as needed. Or even better, to form their own connections, their own bridges between the words. Is that how you want your readers to see the leaps you make–as a challenge?

SP: Exactly. It’s as if my subconscious is talking to the reader’s subconscious. If I do it right the reader will experience an emotion the origin of which is nowhere on the page.


MA: Along those same lines, when artwork is used to illustrate writing it’s almost as if the interplay between the two forms creates a third meaning that is different from the separate meanings that each work might have on its own. Given that you work from images, would you agree with that?

SP: Yes. There’s a word for this kind of collaboration. It begins with synthe but I can’t remember it just now.


MA: Synthesis? I think that could describe two art forms merging to create a third. What sorts of themes or images do you find yourself returning to over the years and why do you think these recur?

SP: Death and love are the only two themes worth writing about. I find myself in cemeteries a lot. No matter how a poem starts out it ends up at a gravesite.


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

SP: Recovery, to me, is a process. We never recover. At best, we take in music, art, literature, dance and whatever else to hold us up for a while.

Interview with Laura Didyk

Laura Didyk

Mary Akers: Hi, Laura. Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me today. I am so grateful you let us feature your beautiful artwork in the January issue. I know this particular journey for you began with your “Love Redacted” series, which I adore, and which strikes me as being all about recovery. But I have also seen your work expand and evolve in wonderful ways, and I have to ask, how would YOU describe your work? Do you have an “elevator pitch” that you could give someone who has never seen it?

Laura Didyk: Hi Mary. Thank you so much for including my work. You are absolutely right about the Love Redacted series. I’m not sure recovery is the word I would have chosen back when I started—but it definitely fits now. If you look at my earliest redactions, like the blue one below, and then look at the most recent ones (a few of which you published), you can see a preLuv Red earlytty classic transformation from weakness to strength, from heaviness to joy and lightness.

Heartbreak caused by “failed” romance—despite how much creative work is born from it the world over—still feels like fairly embarrassing subject matter (or at least a vulnerable one), especially in your forties. Unfortunately, I know the landscape and how much time it can take to recover. I also know I won’t die from it (even though there have been times in years past when I wanted to).Luv Red later

When I started showing people the redactions, the response, especially from women, was so overwhelming and gratifying. It wasn’t just creating the work that started to help me feel better but the potential it had to help others feel better (or inspired or encouraged).

There’s an amazing book (actually a few amazing books) by a professor of critical theory at the University of Toronto named Mari Ruti. In one of them, The Case for Falling in Love, she emphasizes that failed love (though she rejects the concept of failure when it comes to romance) always brings compensation—it might not come right away, and it might not come in the way that we’d hoped, but if we’re open, it always comes. My compensation from my last break up (god, please let it be my last) is the Love Redacted series, and, really, visual art in general.

Visual art was not even in my peripheral vision three years ago. I’m a writer. Period. Doing the redactions—which became addictive pretty quickly—led to more and more of them, and then eventually to my drawings, which is mostly what I’m doing now.

Elevator speech? I’m terrible with those (clearly). My current boyfriend, who seems to appreciate my verbosity, said I should never try and be concise, that he wants as many of my words as he can get (we really like him) and offered me this funny acronym for the word concise: creative oration not collapsible in size easily. I love this.

So, screw elevator speeches (unless of course I need to write one in order to get money from some government agency).

If I was allowed to be obtuse in my elevator speech, I might use more of Mari Ruti’s words: “If we truly respect the mystery of love, we won’t pledge allegiance to its permanence . . . we’ll pledge allegiance to our faithful efforts to stay open to its transformative energies.”


MA: Nice. I like that.And I’m very interested in process–descriptions of how we GET HERE really fascinate me. I love learning how both writers and artists arrive at what they consider to be a final form. What can you tell our readers about your process?

LD: This is a tough one. I guess if I had to be pinned down, I’d say that my process with visual art parallels generally my process with writing. I can sit down and think I know exactly what I’m going to make, and then am quickly humbled by my own arrogance and by my assumption that I can dominate the creative process.

Art is different than writing in that with drawing I use ink straight away. I don’t usually use pencil and erase and perfect and erase and perfect. I use a pen, and then anything that goes astray, or feels like a “mistake” or problem, I have to solve by transforming the image into something else or taking it in a new direction. I have an artist friend who says that making art is almost pure problem solving. And I tend to agree with that, but with an added dose of mystery and intuition.


MA: I know that in addition to your fine artwork, you are a wonderful writer. I’m wondering if you find that your writing and artwork inform or overlap one another in exciting and/or inspiring ways? And could you talk briefly about the joys and frustrations of the overlap?

LD: Thank you for the good words on my writing—that means a lot coming from you.

I don’t think that they overlap, no. Obviously, the redactions involve text, and I do feel like my love of language, and both my tendency toward the non-sequitur and my aversion to cliché in my own work, is part of an ingrained aesthetic that is certainly reflected in the Love Redacted series. (As a side note, I’ve seen other work in this same vein, but the result, in my opinion, outside the work of the true masters, is often overly familiar sentiment. It’s fun to find phrases and words and string them together to say something other than what the text is saying. That’s clever. But it’s another to pull language out that genuinely surprises and ignites something in the viewer, turns expectation on its head, creates pain or urgency or inspiration in the body. That’s art, if I may be so bold.)

I will say that people around me, for whatever reason, tend to really want my writing and art to overlap—not that thinking about me and my work keeps them up at night. It’s just they’ll ask if I’ve considered including illustrations in my memoir, or poetry in my drawings. Like I said, down the line, I might find myself doing this and have to eat this interview, but at the moment, the suggestion irritates me beyond measure (friends, are you reading this?), though I’m not exactly sure why—it’s probably something I should look at [insert smile].


MA: I’ve thought a lot about the function of art, the accessibility of art, and the conversation between artist and “consumer.” And I feel like art takes two. That the artist makes a thing (poem, sculpture, meal, song, whatever)–we could even call it an art widget–but at first it is simply the artist talking to him-or-her-self until there is someone on the other side of that art, enjoying it, experiencing it, or even hating it. But in a sense art takes two brains to be fully realized–the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. What is your perspective on the idea of conversation being inherent in the creation/realization of art?

LD: Writing, making art, making anything solely for the self has value, of course. But I don’t feel like a piece of writing or art or music or choreography or whatever is truly living until it’s been received, seen, heard, experienced. This could mean publication or exhibition or sharing something across a table from a friend. Like I mentioned, when I started showing people the Love Redacted work, the pieces started to come alive and want more than just sitting in a plastic binder sleeve.


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

LD: Transformation. We are so focused, as a culture, on happiness, getting it, becoming it, making happiness happen, that we don’t spend much time focusing on what the hell it actually means. Recovery, for me, has been about transforming from a person who had virtually no inner resources with which to deal with adversity and darkness (how do I deal with being heartbroken? Easy: drink, do drugs, find another love interest—hurry!) into a person who now has the emotional strength and mental stamina to deal with challenges that are going to come my way—loss, heartbreak, failure, rejection, et al—challenges that come everyone’s way. It’s been about doing everything I can to become a braver person.

Be brave. It’s a powerful directive. And one I take to heart. But you just can’t suddenly be brave. Sometimes we need help to do that. And I’m using the term help loosely as it can come in many forms. Just to say that, generally, we don’t “recover” from much by ourselves.


Interview with Chloe Ackerman

Chloe Ackerman

Andrew Stancek: Chloe, your story “Flame” is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve read in years, and I am thrilled you offered it to us at r.kv.r.y. I have just reread it and wept again, and my palms are sweaty and my heart is in my throat and once again I am yelling “yes.” I wish I had hours to talk to you, and we were able to discuss writing and therapy and hurt children, future and past and despair and hope. Maybe someday. For now, just a few questions.

Chloe Ackerman: Thank you so much! Your experience of reading “Flame” sounds rather a lot like my experience of writing it. When I finished, I felt like I had scooped my insides out and put them into the story. It was a hard thing to write because it felt so deeply true that I had to access something fundamental and visceral in order to get it onto the paper. I suppose this is where our best work comes from, isn’t it?


AS: You have a doctorate in clinical psychology and this story is clearly rooted in that milieu. Can you tell us about the genesis of this story, and how your professional background influences your writing.

CA: Flame started out as a retelling of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, which you can still see in the shadows, but I think Mouse and Fiametta both bucked against the idea of being saved. They wanted to save themselves. I wrote this story before I decided to become a psychologist, but that idea of redemption remains true in my work – people save themselves, and some of us like Dr. Hernandez are lucky enough to help them along. I also feel very strongly about the power of story in recovery. Fables around the world recognize the power of naming something, and I know from personal experience and clinical work that to tell our stories, to speak our traumas out loud, gives us power over them and dispels shame. It’s a deep part of why I am both a writer and a psychologist.


AS: Continuing our conversation, in your or my living room, after a wonderful meal, sipping our wine, and enjoying each other’s company (I am a man of imagination), here is the follow-up: I love your answer, and the immediate reference to the power of story, to fairy tales and fables. The longer I write, the more I find myself returning to my basic texts like Grimm fairy tales, Homer, Aeschylus and other Greeks, fables. Do you have a fairy tale which reverberates with you? For me a key fairy tale is a relatively unknown one about seven brothers who are turned by their mother into ravens, and the quest of their sister to get them “unravened.” Rejection. Evil. Mother issues. Quest, quest, quest. Flying.  Rescue. Those are so much a part of my psyche. Can you talk about your basic texts.

CA: Ah!  The first fairy tale I fell in love with was The Wild Swans, which I think is the same story!  I read it as a child in a school library, and as an adult spent several years trying to track down the edition because the illustrations by Anne Yvonne Gilbert were captivating.  It will come as no surprise that Rumpelstiltskin is also a cornerstone tale for me. I use this one often in my clinical work to open the conversation about why telling our stories is healing – names have power.  But my house is littered with books of fables and fairy tales, myths and American legends.  I’m knee-deep in trickster tales at the moment, probably because I love deeply flawed and chaotic characters trying so hard to be selfish despite their good nature.

What my fascination boils down to is the magical realism of these stories, which seek to take those things we struggle to understand and pin them down with clear explanations. There’s a local legend near where I grew up about a peculiar rock formation near a cliff. The story is of a young Spanish nun who falls in love with a soldier and is condemned to die for her indiscretion. In her grief she prays that God will turn her to stone. An earthquake shakes down the walls of the mission, and in its place stands the five hundred foot stone tower that can be seen from miles away, the kneeling nun. There’s nothing particularly captivating about the story itself, but it’s so true, and it offers a clever explanation for a piece of everyday life that feels just a little bit surreal. I love the way these stories weave the mundane with cultural mores and the preternatural to map the world.


AS: Can you tell us about your journey, how you came to be an analyst, and a writer.

CA: First, to clarify – I am not an analyst, though it’s a common assumption. I’m a postdoctoral resident in clinical psychology, meaning I’ve earned a doctorate in a clinical psychology but have one more step of training (completing my post doc) to finish before I get licensed and can call myself a psychologist (in September!). Analysts receive further training in a postdoctoral psychoanalytic school. But to answer the question!

I have always told stories. When I was little, I told my sister stories to put her to sleep. When I got to elementary school, I “published” my stories, stapled together in a binding of construction paper. My fifth grade teacher gave me a note in response to a story I wrote requesting a signed copy of my first novel, which cemented my career as a writer, to my mother’s chagrin (my original intention was to be a pediatrician, so she’s thrilled I turned out to be some flavor of doctor anyway).

In a parallel way I pursued psychology.  I remember being in third grade, sitting my two best friends down on a bench at recess to mediate a disagreement, forcing them to talk out their anger and resolve it.  Over time I’ve learned about how Rumpelstiltskin mirrors life.  I’ve learned from my own experience of speaking my trauma or shame to the people I trust most — confessing, as it were — has been the first step to finding power in my own story and healing.  Being able to give other people the space to do the same is pretty much the best thing I could hope to do with my life, and I can’t even begin to say how thankful I am that this is what I get to do every day. (And when a writer says she can’t find words to express something, you know it’s kind of a big deal.)

Flame (Black Fish)

AS: How do you divide your days, your routines?  Do you have a firm aim, like so many words a day for writing, or is it more a flying by the seat of your pants approach?

CA: Oh absolutely fly-by-the-seat!  I would like to blame the demands of graduate school for this, but the reality is that I am just not a disciplined writer.  I am also a terribly slow writer, feeling very accomplished and exhausted if I get 800 words in a day.  I’m just terrible at structuring my days outside of work, always starting out with the intention of writing a certain number of hours (or at the very least minutes!) and following through maybe 10% of the time.  It’s easy to compare oneself to the structured writers, and to think, “If I can’t be that disciplined, I’ll never be successful.”  I’ve found that the more I turn my attention from comparing myself to others and back to accepting my own chaotic pace, the more I actually produce.  Surprisingly, there’s more than one way to write a story.


AS: Who are the authors you admire?

CA: Robin McKinley is my author crush.  I think if I met her, I’d cry like a Beatle’s fan.  She unravels tales that belong to our collective consciousness and reweaves them around characters that can only be described as treasures. I know these characters recognize them in the people I love most.  I’m currently trying to read everything Brian Doyle has written – every page of Mink River was like a long drink and a prayer, and I would be lucky to write like that.  There is nothing like reading a complex, multifaceted character-driven story – it mirrors the people I work with every day.  My rule is that there are no bad guys. In reality, everyone is just doing the best they can.

But to be honest, so much of my literary consumption has been just that in the last few years – consuming stories to check out from an exhausting day.  I hate consuming stories like fast food or television, and so have recently been mindfully searching for the type of writing that I want, as you say, to model myself after.  I want stories about true people who do terrible things to each other because they don’t know how to do anything else, because they’ve been so hurt by life.  We do terrible things because it’s the way we’ve learned to survive.  My philosophy of writing is to mirror that painful reality in a way that may point towards hope, to a better way of being-in-the-world.


AS: Do you have a novel in the works, or are you thinking about one?

CA: I do have a novel in the works!  I’ve fiddled about with novel-length stories since I was fourteen years old, never exercising any planning, research, or organizational skills in the process because I believed firmly in allowing the story to tell itself.  I still firmly believe in this, but I’ve learned that sometimes planning, research, and organization can facilitate rather than hinder the creative process.  All that to say, so far so good, and I can’t wait till it’s done!


AS: Where do you hope to be with your writing some years down the road: bestsellerdom? Serious reviews by prestigious pubs? Having stories in collections like Best American Short Stories? All of the above?  🙂

CA: Oh, this is a good question. I’ve never thought about this. I think my dream is to one day have a private practice down the garden path from my house, where I work maybe 20 or 30 hours a week, then spend the rest of my time in my writing shack sitting down another garden path, maybe facing a lake. In this dream, I look a lot like Dr. Hernandez, so I suppose this will be after I turn fifty. But in the meantime, I suppose where I hope to be in five or ten years is moderately successful. There’s a couple of anthologies I’ve been reading since I was in middle school that I hope to someday have a place in, and it would be pretty exciting to have a stranger approach me to tell me how my work affected them. Otherwise, I don’t know. I think I just want what I write to have a positive impact on people, to guide them towards whatever recovery they’re seeking.


AS: What does recovery mean to you?

CA: I’m sad we’re coming to the end of this – it’s been such an enjoyable experience.

Last year I faced a near-fatal illness and lost one of my best friends suddenly. I remember this pall over everything, a gauze between myself and the world.  I felt so disconnected from my former self. Six months after my diagnosis, I returned to my grandmother’s house where I first got sick, and I remember just staring at myself in her bathroom mirror. It felt surreal that my face was the same as it was in the summer before everything happened. It seemed wrong that I looked the same when my whole personhood had shifted dramatically. This new person was a stranger, a sick and broken person whose life centered around tests and appointments and medication side effects, and I hated her.

Irvin Yalom writes about death as a boundary experience, “urgent experiences that jolt us out of ‘everydayness’ and rivet our attention upon ‘being’ itself.”  My recovery, both physically and emotionally, both in my own health and walking through grief, was about recentering myself in being. I had to accept my sick, broken, grief-stricken self and find a way to be those things well instead of trying to pretend to be well. What the hell does that even mean? We get caught up in the narrative sometimes, forgetting that what’s important – what we are made of – is the themes. Mouse’s recovery was not about forgetting the bad things that happened to her, but voicing them in order to have power over them, walking the shadow path to her true self. Recovery to me is about recentering ourselves in what we find valuable, accepting (and maybe even loving) our wounds and imperfections, and holding everything else lightly. (Yalom, I. (2002). The Gift of Therapy. Harper: New York, NY.)

AS: Chloe, this has given me enormous pleasure. I am so thrilled to have had the honor of reading “Flame” and that we had a chance to talk. I hope we will meet in person soon.



Interview with Kristin Laurel

Kristin Laurel1

Mary Akers: Hi, Kristin, thanks for agreeing to speak with me today about your SOS piece “Anxiety.” I loved this piece on first read and love it more each time I reread it. Do I remember correctly–that you submitted it as a prose poem? I was thinking you had, but either way, my first question works. With so many possible descriptive categories for a piece like “Anxiety” (flash fiction, micro-fiction, short-short, prose poem), how do you arrive at a form for your work? Does the subject dictate the form? The execution? How do you decide what form your work will take?

Kristin Laurel: Hi, Mary, thank you so much for your kind words and for including “Anxiety” in r.kv.r.y. And you want to hear about my process, too? Wow. I’m truly honored.

I think I did submit this piece as a prose poem. It was exciting to see that your SOS submissions were not limited to prose, poetry, flash fiction, etc. For me, there are basically three categories: Poetry, prose and “I don’t fit in.” I discovered contemporary poetry and started writing about eight years ago; I was also writing these short, intense paragraphs which I learned were called “prose poems.” I have a short attention span, prose intimidated me and I figured why waste so much time writing a whole chapter when I could do it in a paragraph or stanza. Easy right? A teacher once told me a poem is like a stream, a prose poem is like a pond. I guess that would make prose an ocean, or at least a big lake, but I love that analogy. All I can do is throw the words into the water and hopefully make some waves or watch them sink. So I guess the answer to your question, how do I arrive at a form, is for me, largely intuitive.

Does the subject dictate the form? The execution?

Hmm. That sounds like a great topic for an AWP panel or an English professor. I’m not academically trained; I don’t hold an MFA or anything so I can only answer this from my own perspective. I believe there are some subjects that benefit best from brevity and line breaks. I want to breathe in the white space, relish in the imagery, pay close attention to cadence. There are other times, when I don’t’ want any preference to line breaks. I want to pack in the absurd and quirky, blast the reader with emotion, images and chaos. These are usually the “prose poems” that I write and I enjoy writing them. There are times I find a poem cannot hold everything I want it to; I have a tendency to try and fit too much into a poem. I’ve been writing more prose lately because my subject matter is demanding more room.

I write heavily from personal experience and obsession and have come to believe we must write for ourselves, first. However, I do feel an obligation to serve as witness. For example, I’ve spent the last several years writing about my sister’s two young boys who were killed in separate, tragic, accidents. The subject, the driving force for so many of my poems is grief. The other driving force is to elegize these two boys so they are never forgotten. Some of these writings have been executed into poems and sent out into the world, some I will always keep to myself, and some are not working in their current form. There are a myriad of other themes I feel compelled to write about, such as the resilience I’ve witnessed in my family, the spiritual quest that this has brought about in all of us and some of these themes seem to be working better in a prose-like or “I don’t fit In” form. I just keep telling myself the story comes first, the form will come later. And the subject—these boys, and this story—are important. I also rely heavily on my writing group and seem to always need a teacher or writer whose work I admire to help guide me in the right direction. If it weren’t for the support from my community of writers I don’t think I would have the courage to execute anything.

I hope my answers weren’t too long. These are great questions.


MA: Not too long at all! I love your answers. As real as the stream-of-consciousness thoughts are in this piece, they are also quite humorous. I find that funny is often an effective way to get serious quickly–if you know what I mean–it’s like we let our guard down as readers when we laugh and that opens the door for the gut punch. Would you care to comment on that idea?

KL: Well, I’m so glad you saw the humor. My daughter read it and told me I was weird. Ha ha. And what an amazing insight; I’ve never consciously thought about humor as an effective way to get serious quickly. However, I have used it as camouflage; a way to cover up too much intensity. I tend to gut punch first and then think, “Uh oh, I better give us all a break and try to lighten up and be funny.”


MA: Speaking of funny, do you often write humorous work? Do you find it easier or harder to be funny when writing?

KL: This is all making me think I should be writing funnier poems. Ha Ha. I’ve written about heavy topics such as abuse, suicide, attempted murder etc., and of course, the deaths of my beloved nephews. I’ve also written about some pretty tragic experiences as an ER nurse and flight nurse. However, I do find a sense of humor has trickled into even my darkest writings. I think there is an inherent need for humor during tragedy. I appreciate humor so much. In the EMS and medical world, there is this undercurrent of dark humor that might seem cruel to those on the outside, but for the providers dealing with the traumatic situations on a daily basis it’s an extremely important coping mechanism.

It’s much easier, for me, to be funny in the external world. Perhaps it’s because the internal world of writing gives me a voice for those aspects of myself I don’t go around sharing. I mean, it’s much easier to crack a joke with a cashier than to ask, “So…how is your soul today, really?”


MA: Your answer makes me think you might like the work of Elissa Schappell. Have you ever read her? Her prose is precise, dark, and very funny–with that killer gut punch. If you haven’t read her work, I think you might like it a lot. (An aside, I know, but what better aside is there than a personalized author recommendation?)

Anxiety, as a force, is such a real, palpable, living-breathing thing–a heavy weight–and yet it’s mostly invisible to the outside world. I see this piece of yours as a way of making the invisible visible. Does that idea resonate with you?

KL: As far as anxiety, I worry and let my mind run too much. I think many of us do. I even worried about the title; maybe I should have titled it “ADHD” or “That damn wasp that wanted to kill me.” I worried my laughing at my own “anxiety” might seem like I’m over-generalizing or making fun of those who suffer from severe or debilitating anxiety disorders like PTSD etc. I’ve personally never had a panic attack but I’ve witnessed many. Nonetheless, I think we all have crazy thoughts sometimes—See look at mine? So yes, I love the idea of making the invisible visible. That idea resonates with me immensely.

FLOWER (Anxiety)

MA: When I choose illustrations for the work in r.kv.r.y., authors often have strong reactions to the images I’ve chosen for their work. They may connect with it in a way I couldn’t have known. I think this says something about the powerful human desire to find connections between disparate emotions, art forms, etc. What did you think of the image used to illustrate your writing?

KL: Oh Yes. I love that idea, the human desire of finding connections. I think that’s why so many of us gravitate toward art in the first place. And what an interesting observation because it wasn’t conscious; when you placed Laura’s great piece next to mine I immediately tried to merge them. I tried to make her piece anxious and funny. I was thinking something like “Yes, yes -that’s what it looks like inside my head; all of those colorful neurons. It’s a good thing those circles have a home in that one big circle head. I wouldn’t want to lose my circles. It’s all about the circles. We are all connected” something like that.

If I look at it separately I can see it as a balloon with a ribbon tied to a piece of string. But mostly I see it as a flower and on the stem is a single leaf. It’s full of details but it’s also abstract. I find her piece vibrant, beautiful and busy, busy, busy. So of course, I love it!


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

KL: I love this question. First of all, I’m so glad you use the word “recovery” instead of “healing.” I’m starting to think we don’t truly “heal” from anything. And being healed sounds so absolute, so curative. I think recovery is perpetual and universal. From the moment we are born, we are recovering…“Okay, I’m out of the womb, now what? I have to breathe, I have to eat, I have to eliminate, I have to grow.” So recovery to me, first and foremost means growth. Some other characteristics which come to mind in terms of effective recovery are resilience, grit, openness, connectedness, fearlessness, and gratitude.

From an artistic standpoint, I was recently asked why I feel compelled to revisit tragedy so often. Having examined so much tragedy, it has made me appreciate the tender moments in life even more. As Gregory Orr explains in one of my all-time favorite books, Poetry as Survival, Intense emotion harnessed with creativity can transcend. I believe this wholeheartedly.


MA: Yes! When I’m in a situation where I have to give an elevator pitch for the journal, I say, “It has a theme of recovery, but broadly defined. And if you’ve been born, you’re recovering from something.” Thank you, Kristin. This was delightful.

KL: Thank you so much Mary, for these stimulating questions and for the real, accessible and important work you are doing at r.kv.r.y..


An Interview with Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen

Kathy Fish: Hi Christopher. In our email exchanges leading up to this interview, you mentioned to me that you really love writing and reading “wacky” stuff. I feel like we share this love! What draws you to the wacky and the weird? Do you feel that writing the weird is somehow less serious or important? Say no!

Christopher Allen: Kathy! Hi, you wonderful person. We definitely share a love for wacky. Some of my wackiest stories have never seen the light of day and probably never will. I love random, bouncing-off-walls Barthelmesque prose and definitely feel more freedom in stories that have elements of magic realism or absurdism. I write realistic stories populated by normal humans, but they don’t often find a publisher. This might be because it’s harder for me to avoid sentimentalism in a realistic story. Our emotions are pretty much the most important things we have, but if we as writers don’t bring something new to them it’s like a musician relying on a 1-4-5 chord progression and heart rhyming with new start. Predictability is comforting—that’s why commercial fiction makes so much money—but I love a surprise. Wacky is important.

I was once asked just how serious my book Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire) was, and my response was “nothing here is serious except everything.” The narrative relies heavily on humor—slapstick, camp, irony, bitchy sarcasm—but it ultimately implies something dead serious about how we allow our identity to be dictated by the expectations of others. Much of what I write plays with humor, but I don’t think I’ve ever written something humorous simply to be funny. It’s more likely that I choose a certain tone or voice to see the story from a unique angle, especially when it comes to familial relationships.


KF: Let’s talk about father/son relationships in your stories. My own stories explore sibling relationships a lot. Do you draw directly from life for these? Is there something you’re trying to work out through fiction? Do you feel it’s a basic theme of your writing that you will always be exploring in one way or another?

CA: I’ve noticed lately while putting together my first short story collection that a troubling number of my stories are about fathers and sons, so of course I’ve often asked myself why. My own father was away fighting a war the first few years of my life; that’s a fact we can’t change. Ours is an evolving, loving relationship. We don’t always agree, but there’s no one I respect more. My father is a good person with a generous heart. He’s a self-made man who’s never asked for anything but his own bootstraps, and there have been times when his bootstraps were all he had. I feel I need to say that, because over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that the fathers in my stories are not in fact my father. I think it’s a father within myself—or rather the father I’ve never been able to be—that I’m trying to find in my writing. Maybe I don’t know how to be a father, and that’s what I pound out again and again in fiction. That’s very personal, but I think most of my writing is—even if on the surface it’s humorous and playful.


KF: Your story for r.kv.r.y, “Wile E.”, is that kind of compelling wacky that I love. And there again, the father/son relationship. The father extols the virtues of the Road Runner, while the son admits he’d rather be Wile E. Coyote. As in all your stories, the ending is a stunner. I was very taken with (and surprised by) this line: “My father’s face contorts in practiced disappointment though he’s been dead since May.” Wow. As a reader, this one line cracked the story open and deepened it for me all at once. My question is, as you drafted the story, was that your intent from the get-go? Or had that notion surprised you, the writer, as well? And what does it mean for you, the writer?

CA: Thank you for loving the story and especially the ending, Kathy. I’ve struggled with them. A few years ago, I was so disappointed with my endings that I went to all of the AWP panels on endings (remarkably there were a few). I usually start with the end now, but I’m not sure if this is something I picked up from an AWP panel. I wrote the dialogue at the end for “Wile E.” first and wrote the story to get there. Ah, but then I revised the narrator’s action at the end: climbing into a cannon and lighting the fuse. That surprised me and excited me because it is of course exactly what the narrator would do. He wouldn’t learn from his mistakes. I was also surprised by the father being dead, so to answer your question, I didn’t know this when I started writing. The only bit I had to go on was the line “Because the artists always draw Wile E. another chance.”

As a person (maybe not a writer), I do feel that it’s better to be fortunate than to be gifted if you make a lot of mistakes. Maybe this is my own message to the universe. I’d like unlimited chances to get life right. I’d like to be able to get past regret.


KF: Another story that took my breath away is “The Ground Above My Feet,” published in Literary Orphans. What struck me is how you so subtly changed my mind about the father over the course of a scant few hundred words. And of course this is another father/son relationship tale. The father character is clearly an oddball and seemingly racist as hell. That opening! “You need a black lady.” And then, to discover later in the paragraph that the narrator was ten years old! We see, however, as the story proceeds that the father, misguided as he is, only has his son’s best interest in mind. There’s real tenderness there. It’s astonishing that there is so much funny/awful/sad/tender/real in such a short space. And again, you land the story in such a stunning, unexpected way. Again, I’m going to ask you: Did you see that ending coming yourself? What does the story mean to you? How many drafts did you go through, writing this?

CA: I love your questions. I’ll answer the easiest one first. I remember only tweaking this story, so maybe just two drafts with minor changes to tighten? I wanted this one to gather momentum toward that last paragraph, which always chokes me up when I read it because I’m the biggest sap ever and—although obviously I wrote it—I never see it coming. I knew the narrator was going to die (that the father would be standing on the ground above the narrator’s feet in the end), but I didn’t know before I wrote the ending how the father would react. I’m not sure I’d ever be able to read this one to an audience. I’d have to think of mashed potatoes or something to get through that last paragraph. There’s usually at least one thing my characters say that chokes me up and embarrasses me in public.

I wanted to take this father through exactly the arc you’ve described (so thank you for seeing that): sort of despicable, misunderstood, bumbling but likable, desperate, grieving. We can’t choose our parents, and of course this dad is a doozy. Despite his obvious shortcomings, the father in “The Ground Above My Feet” is a champion—maybe a failed one, but he’s still his son’s biggest fan. In the end, I want to give this dad a big hug. He does the best he can.


KF: I’m asking more questions than I should. Sorry for that! But I want to ask you about another story of yours: “One for Rainbow” recently published in Change Seven. I love the door of stories, the sublime oddness of yet another relationship here, this time a grandmother/grandson relationship. Rainbow is no ordinary grandma and it’s no ordinary relationship. In this story, the word “crucified” hits the reader like a nail through the heart. It’s so unexpected. It carries so much emotional weight for the story. I feel like this story is very layered with meaning, one I’ll come back to again and again. Can you talk a little about what brought you to this strange situation, these strange characters? And also, why the absence of a father comes in at the very end? Another example of you adding a detail that informs the entire piece. We do know he’s fatherless early on, but this line clobbered me: “…wondered if there was a father out there who’d want to know me.” And again, a brilliant closing.

CA: Thank you, Kathy. This is a difficult story for me. It evolved over the period of a year and went through lots of messy changes. It started with the idea of a child being too young to understand his grandmother’s big words, her trauma and her need to influence the child’s life with her age-inappropriate stories about deceit and heartache. It was supposed to be humorous, but draft by draft it went off in a more sinister direction. The details of “One for Rainbow” came so slowly, one every two or three weeks maybe. I’d be sitting in the train and think “Ah! Her hands need to be sticky!” Who knows why, but I thought about this story day and night for ages.

I toyed with the crucifixion image in a few stories before it landed in “One for Rainbow” It’s one of those situations where you know you have a compelling image but don’t know where it belongs. I’m so glad you feel it landed right. It feels right to me because it reinforces the grandmother’s violation of this child’s private space.

“One for Rainbow” is in part about a child who feels fatherless, but it’s also about a child who’s disappointed with his environment and his upbringing. Maybe this does say a lot about me. Maybe too much. Maybe just enough.


Kathy Fish is on the faculty of the Mile-High MFA at Regis University in Denver. Additionally, she teaches two-week intensive Fast Flash© Workshops. She also serves as Consulting Editor for the Queen’s Ferry Press series, THE BEST SMALL FICTIONS. Her fourth collection of short fiction, RIFT, co-authored with Robert Vaughan, is available now from Unknown Press.Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, Black Lawrence Press, 2015, Richard Thomas (ed.), Choose Wisely: 35 Women Up to No Good, Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2015, H.L. Nelson and Joanne Merriam, (eds.), Yemassee Journal, Elm Leaves Journal, Slice, Guernica, Indiana Review, Mississippi Review online, Denver Quarterly, New South, Quick Fiction, and various other journals and anthologies. She was the guest editor of Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web 2010. She is the author of a chapbook of flash fiction in the chapbook collective, “A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women” (Rose Metal Press, 2008), “Wild Life” (Matter Press, 2011) and “Together We Can Bury It” (The Lit Pub). Professional memberships: AWP and Pen America.

Christopher Allen is the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. His fiction has appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Indiana Review, Night Train, Literary Orphans and over one hundred other journals and anthologies. He lives somewhere in Europe.


Interview with Nicole Stanek

Nicole Stanek

Janet Nodine: How would you describe your poetry?

Nicole Stanek: Hm. Well… I feel like, most simply stated, my poetry is just an accumulation of feelings. I would say it’s very emotional, very uncomplicated but very pungent. It varies, week by week, month by month, I seem to adapt different styles. I don’t stick to one set expectation. Though the subject matter is often about love or life itself, the style of poetry changes with the seasons of my psyche.


JN: What inspires you to write?

NS: People and the connections we have between each other. Relationships, love or the lack thereof. I’m inspired by music, by weather, but most importantly by interactions I have with different people in my life. My boyfriend is a constant inspiration in my writing, he seems to show up quite often in one form or another. And other writers. Other writers inspire me immensely. I have come in contact with some writers who have really changed my life, my perspective. I was first prompted to write after reading poetry by a writer named Aaron Marek. And now, others in my writers group really inspire me.


JN: What poets have influenced you?

NS: Oh man. Nick Flynn, Sharon Olds, Ellen Bass, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins, the list goes on. Often times, it’s just one singular poem that does the trick. It’s not always a poet, sometimes the best poetry is written anonymously.


JN: When did you start writing? Was there an incident that prompted your first poem?

NS: I started writing when I was young. School age. But, my first serious interaction with a poem occurred only about two years ago… I started reading more and more poetry, and was becoming severely depressed while doing so. These poems prompted me to think about guilt, and shame and morality. At the time, my personal life was also spiraling out of control. But, reading poetry didn’t ONLY prompt sadness, it also, in an opposite manner, lifted me. I felt amazed, because I realized that the outlet we have as writers is immense in power. We can counteract these feelings by letting them onto a page. I began to write then. My first REAL poem, I can’t even remember the title of. But it spoke of forgiveness, and it flowed out of me. I should really go back into my books and find it…


JN: Are your poems always from your own experiences or do you ever write from another’s point of view, standing in their shoes, so to speak.

NS: In the beginning, everything I wrote was personal. But as those words were filtered out of me, I began to write from an almost fictional standpoint. I write sometimes, from a story made up in my mind. I figure in some ways, the poems are still personal, because if I am creating the stories, there must be some of me in them… But yeah, sometimes I do write from another’s shoes. Often a conjured-up character.


JN: Have any of your poems been published, if so, where? And do you have any publishing goals to certain ventures, or perhaps, your own book of poetry?

NS: Yes! My first poem “Decaying” was published by r.kv.r.y and I am so grateful. I wholeheartedly believe in what they are doing as a publication! It’s important to talk about these topics, of recovery and the process it entails. It’s quite a complex thing, actually. And it’s insanely interesting. And, I would love eventually to write a book of poetry, but I want to do it when I feel the time is right. When I feel I have completed a cohesive series of work. There is certainly a goal there… I just plan to work towards it slowly. Right now, I would love to be published in other magazines. That’s the short term goal…



Janet Nodine is a writer of poetry and fiction. She lives on eastern Long Island and enjoys traveling with her husband and spending time with their two dogs and their cat. She has just completed a young adult, paranormal romance, titled, The Revelation of Ella Rose, A Dawn Seekers Trilogy and is currently working on the second book.

Interview with Ashley Hutson

Ashley Hutson

Xavier Vega: It was a nice surprise to get your email asking that I interview you. It was also funny, considering we’ve never actually met in person, but I’ve come to value the friendship we’ve built working on Apeiron Review together. I also appreciate the feedback you’ve given me on some of my work (and I hope my feedback on your work has helped).

So thank you for reaching out to me. Once this goes live, I can tell people that something I wrote ended up in the same place where some Margaret Atwood poetry ended up! But on to business.

I loved “Hot Bones.” The concept itself is creative and fun, even though it addresses the grim reality of death and loss. I’ve read a lot of your work, and I really appreciate the imagery you create because it sparks the brain to create and fill in the blanks. Carrying the grandfather in on the platter reminds me both of a pallbearer and of children climbing their mountain of a grandfather as they shower him with attention. And just as everyone feasts upon hot, fresh grandpa, burning their fingers in haste, I see the same happy children swarming this figure to consume him.

You told me that you thought of this poem in a dream, but I have to ask: What is your process for coming up with your imagery? Do you actively create it, does it all come from dreaming and daydreaming, or do you wait for inspiration? Once you have that image, how exactly do you manipulate it to carry your work?

Ashley Hutson:Hot Bones” was based on a dream I had the morning my grandfather died. I was 17 at the time. I didn’t eat roast beef for five years after that, so the dream left an impression. In a more general sense, I don’t know if I actively create anything, honestly. I actively edit, but the method of creation is cloudy to me. That sounds very pretentious, doesn’t it? But I often read things I’ve written and marvel: where did it come from, when did this get written? How did I write it? Writing is a physical act that I can recall doing with no understanding of how it was done.

Dreams are wonderful because there is no editor present. Bits of collected information can play around, fit together in unexpected ways, and that’s very attractive to me. In waking life, the kernels of stories tend to be small, inconvenient revelations. I’m usually doing something very practical that requires completion, and then—whammo! Behold the beauty of our frail neurons firing randomly.


XV: Oh yes, it’s always when you’re not even thinking about writing that things begin to make sense, or just as you’re about to fall asleep, and of course dreams when the conscious mind is out for lunch.

You and I actually had some previous discussions about dreams and dream journals. Can you tell me about any other wild dreams you’ve had lately?

AH: Hmm. I dream a lot about my grandmother’s house, which is long gone. Whenever I’m anxious, I dream of angry oceans. My dream life is vivid, luxuriant. I often find it difficult to rouse myself in the morning.

Hot Bones

XV: That’s a good sign. It’s better than forgetting everything and letting it all slip away.

Now “Hot Bones” isn’t your only flash piece. In fact, most of your work falls into flash fiction and short poetry. But you have published a high volume of flash, and your pieces are always rather poignant and tight. There’s genuine emotion without excessive gushing or mountains of world-building and scene setting. Why do you feel you’re so successful with flash? Is it a matter of comfort, interest, or something else?

AH: Well, you’re too kind. I’m flattered. I have sort of exhausted the short arts, haven’t I? (laughs) I don’t know why I prefer it. Perhaps I’m attracted to the challenge of limited space. Everyone says that, so I’ll join the chorus. Something brief requires climbing to the highest pitch and remaining there for the duration. The limitation is attractive. A relief, in some ways. Limitations offer the impression of control and the illusion that I know what I’m doing. Then I write a poem and realize that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. But poems need the highest density, and are therefore the most difficult. Look at tankas and haikus. Devastating things can be done in a few lines. And they’re devastating because they are so brief, because they are able to hit that pitch and sustain that intensity.

And yes, it’s a matter of mental comfort. The fewer words I have to worry about, the easier. The idea of writing a novel gives me palpitations. I fear it would never get finished; it would be an endless, obsessive rewrite. I look at 500-word stories I’ve published in the past year and itch to rewrite them. But I think that’s positive; it signifies change. My eye for what I think is “good” is evolving.


XV: I think you put it well when you describe it as density. It could be said that you’re giving your inspirations the appropriate level of time, attention, and focus that they demand from you, inside your head where you negotiate thoughts and emotions. No more, no less, depending upon how much your subject matter really lingers in your head.

Having said that, is there anything going on in your life, any obsessions, any themes or ideas that just keep popping up? Do you think perhaps those areas of passion could move you to create something bigger?

AH: Oh, I don’t know. My external life is happily boring, thank goodness. As far as recurring themes or ideas, there are the usual writerly considerations: memory, time, health, identity, etc.

More specifically, I’ve always been interested in the issue of guns and our American relationship with them. Anything military or war-related, past or present, fascinates me. I live in Sharpsburg, Maryland, too, where the Battle of Antietam took place–now famously billed as “the bloodiest day in American history.” There are a lot of guns, or ghosts of guns, floating around my brain.

I think about other stuff, too, and I’ve certainly published a wide range of things. In my ongoing writing life, however, the above-mentioned subjects feel most important to me. Perhaps they’ll inspire me to something larger. I hope so.


XV: I would love to read something about guns that isn’t politically charged or exploitative, you know? Without jumping to conclusions or preexisting beliefs, what does their existence and popularity truly say about the human condition and the American experience? The phrase “a weapon is an extension of the body” springs to mind, and I hope to see your take on that in the future.

Now one thing I’ve noticed in your writing is how you come back to things like sanctity, tradition and ritual, and you add a twist to these things. In “Hot Bones” the image of enjoying grandpa for dinner could come off strange out of context, and in your story over at The Conium Review The Hen of God” we see a nun struggling with celibacy and sexuality in a very intriguing manner. And you’ve also dealt with soldiers and the empty thanks given to them before they’re forgotten, you’ve commented upon small towns that fall into incestuous spirals of monotony, and some of the hush-hush turmoils and truths about relationships.

Does this come from a deliberate place, where you hope to challenge these things intellectually, or is it more of an emotional yearning where you feel compelled to speak up? What drives you in this sense?

AH: It goes back to the question about creating work. Why and how are mysteries to me. (I was applying for a grant the other day and had to discuss the “themes” that run through my work, and I was clueless. If I weren’t me, what would I say? I wondered. So your analysis is helpful.)

I think every writer has certain issues or events that concern them, of course, but I don’t usually sit down and decide to write about X. As with any mystic or conjurer, it’s best for a writer to take an oblique approach. I try to sneak up on it. I like ideas, I like putting together words like Legos. I never even played with Legos; I was more of a TinkerToy gal. But Legos seem like an appropriate metaphor. I like to hear words click together. If I can construct something solid and weight-bearing, I’m satisfied.


XV: I see. Don’t chase it but don’t wait for it to come to you. Very organic. I’m reminded of the anecdote about Jane Goodall; she camped hundreds of yards away from the apes she wished to study, letting them see her from afar and get used to her presence. Slowly but surely she came closer and they let her into the fold. Haha.

But tell me a little about this grant you applied to.

AH: I like the Jane Goodall comparison. That’s exactly it. As for the grant, I’d rather not mention it. I probably won’t get it. I’m relatively new to the scene, with nothing to my name except for a small handful of publications. I’ll have to earn a few more chops before people start trusting me with fistfuls of money. But I still try! I’m an impudent little thing.


XV: I understand, I’m in roughly the same boat. Nothing like the charge of youthful exuberance to agitate the literati.

To close out this interview I have something strange to tell you. A friend of mine will occasionally shine a morbid streak and begin asking me odd questions. This of course causes a contest where we ask each other increasingly disturbing questions. One that I was unusually proud to have come up with was “If a group of gourmet cannibals were to prepare you for a fine dining experience, how would you like to be served?”

My friend didn’t miss a beat; not only did she have an answer, she had several answers, dictating how various parts of her body should be cooked. I believe her tummy was to be served flank-steak style and her digits to be deep fried, among many other things.

So, in light of the feast of the grandfather in Hot Bones, I pose the same question to you. How would you like to be served?

AH: What a question! It’s tough for me to take real-life cannibalism lightly. It seems like such a bleak practice. I could ask these gourmet chefs to turn me into something that sounded beautiful—a creme anglaise, a raspberry gastrique, a summer roll—but that makes the scenario all the more ghoulish. I say these things as a living person, though. As a dead person, I wouldn’t have an opinion on how I’d be served. I’d be beyond caring.


XV: Well put. Thank you for your time, and thank you for choosing me to interview you.




Xavier Vega grew up on a strawberry farm in Plant City, Florida as the child of Mexican immigrants. He moved to Tampa and earned a B.A. in English at the University of South Florida where he was published in Thread Literary Inquiry. His work has since been featured Apeiron Review (where he later became a slush reader and worked with Ashley Hutson), The Bangalore Review, Mandala Journal, Crack the Spine, Raven Chronicles, and Yellow Medicine Review, where he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He currently resides in Saint Petersburg, Florida. He sometimes posts things on a blog at

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.


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!


Homepage Winter 2016

Cover Image
All artwork appears courtesy of the artist.

Welcome to our Winter 2016 “FLAME” issue. We’re incredibly proud to present to you the exciting and diverse array of voices in this issue, enhanced by the beautiful artwork of Laura Didyk which she has graciously donated for this issue.

I’m thrilled with the way everything came together for this issue. We have a list of new readers for the journal, all of them are prior contributors, and I’m thrilled to see how their aesthetics influence future issues. We have a new Shorts On Survival editor, too, the discerning and talented Bev Jackson. And a big thank you to my devoted editors and readers who have hung in there for years now, and also the contributors to this issue who have trusted us to bring their work out into the world. Also, thanks for the gorgeous artwork, Laura. You made each piece pop just a little bit more.

Our April 2016 themed issue will be HURRICANE and the July issue has a tentative theme of BLINK. As always, thanks for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers