Category Archives: Fiction

Writeliving Interview – Kazim Ali

kazim_bio2

I have long admired the work of Kazim Ali, and the grace with which he writes in all genres. We’re thrilled to have him shares his insights into his creative process.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Physical practices (yoga and mid-distance running) and meditative practices as well. Anything to quiet the conscious mind in relationship to the world that exists. Sometimes words and phrases come on walks, sometimes in breath, once a couplet that turned into a whole book (The Fortieth Day) came as I sat in meditation staring at a white wall.

Certain writers have been important to me. It is hard to make a list but Donald Revell, Lucille Clifton, Jean Valentine, Fanny Howe, Jorie Graham, Li-Young Lee, Agha Shahid Ali, Lisel Mueller and Mahmoud Darwish would be a starting point. In painting Agnes Martin, Hans Hofmann and Makoto Fujimura. In music Alice Coltrane, Yoko Ono, Donna Delory and John Cage. In fiction Virginia Woolf, Carole Maso, Bhanu Kapil.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I write longhand. Drafts for a really long time. I need time and space between initial writing and trying to see the shape of something. Sometimes I wait three or four months, sometimes I wait a year or more. Often I will end up with a manuscript suddenly because it has been coalescing in scraps for so long. Then I can read it like a book and revise it for almost equally as long.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

It’s forced me to read more deeply. If I give enough time between draft and revision I can look at my own writing as if a stranger wrote it. That is why it is good for a student to write something good every week, so they can stay fresh and keep moving forward. What’s wrong with creative writing pedagogy (including, at the moment, my own) is that we then ask students to revise this work in the same semester it is written. That can feel false and forced. Better to keep turning the page, keep moving forward, keep generating material. I am not sure I believe in the “workshop” as a way of teaching. I would rather teach by just introducing and talking about the poems I love the most and then give the students assignments. Then they come back and read the assignment to the class. General discussion can follow on craft and energetic direction of the work.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?

Read widely. Do not waste too much time trying to write a perfect poem. Write as much as you can. Expression is important. Vowels are important. Study another language long enough that you are able to read in that other language. Write a poem in English that you think would be impossible to translate into another language. Translate a poem from another language into English. Consonants are important too. You don’t have to read the tradition but you should study the mechanics of prosody. Be very very serious about making time for reading and for writing.

How do you go about balancing the mythic and personal in your work?

I’m not sure I do it. Icarus is me. The myths speak to our true human natures. My poems were filled with boys falling from the sky and boys drowning. So I guess it was because I couldn’t breathe. We are drawn to those stories that speak most clearly about our own nature. Though I am a maker of things, I never related to Daedalus, the father but rather with Icarus, the son.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

At a certain point you have to choose writing. Like Rilke wrote to the Young Poet, you think about it all the time. You stop getting attached to it as a “dream” and start thinking of it as a biological function. Diego Rivera said, “I make paintings the way a tree makes leaves.” It’s just something you do, it is a way of encountering the world.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Before I returned to school to study for my MFA I worked for four years as an organizer and was very active in the student movement, serving as the president of the United States Student Association (www.usstudents.org) and as a trainer for the Midwest Academy (an institute devoted to training social justice and union organizers).

About the Author:

Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator.

His books include several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward(Wesleyan University Press, 2013), The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award, The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008), and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009). He has also published a translation ofWater’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri (Omnidawn Press, 2011), and (with Libby Murphy) L’amour by Marguerite Duras (Open Letter Books, 2013). His novels include Quinn’s Passage (blazeVox books), named one of “The Best Books of 2005” by Chronogram magazine and The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009), and his books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence (University of Michigan Press, 2010),Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo Press, 2011).

In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company (University of Michigan Press, 2012), he is a contributing editor for AWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books.

He is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.

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Misplaced Person – Eric Lundgren

Eric Lundgren Photo

Eric Lundgren is the ideal writer to interview about place–first off, his soon-to-be-released, amazing first novel The Facades is all about it, and second of all, because I see him everywhere, all over town. He pops up the way memory does. Like, hey, where did that come from? I’ll be downtown looking at the quarters at the bottom of a fountain and wondering why people don’t just throw pennies (you get one wish, no matter what the value of the coin happens to be, right?) and I’ll look up and there’s Eric Lundgren, across the park. Or I’ll be driving along Kingshighway, stuck behind some city utility truck that reeks of tar, and I’ll see Eric Lundgren walking along the road. I don’t even think there’s a sidewalk there! But in a flash it’s too late for me to shout out, offer him a ride. And, you know, it’s really hard to turn around right there. Anyway, the point is as far as I know Eric Lundgren is everywhere. I have a feeling the rest of you are going to feel that way soon. Keep your eyes open.

David Schuman

Eric Lundgren – Essay in Response to Interview Questions

I was born in Cleveland in 1977. I lived there for only six months and have never been back, except once passing through it on an Amtrak train. I can’t decide if I want to visit or not. Sometimes I prefer my own delusions about places. According to my parents, I also joined them in the late seventies for a backpacking trip across the Alps. In the pictures I appear as a spectral presence and barely formed being. That trip still represents my longest stay in Europe, although I have returned to spend time in the U.K., Germany, and France. My knowledge of Europe comes mostly from its fiction, although my parents are very well-traveled and my father taught high school German, so we hosted guys named Horst, Gerhard, and Klaus at the house when we were kids. I think a dream of Europe hangs over my otherwise very American work.

Naming the Midwestern city in my first novel after Trude, from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, felt like a provocative gesture when I started the book, eight years ago. The idea of a continuous city where everything is familiar and only the name of the airport changes, I took this to be a widespread coastal prejudice about the Midwest. The challenge would be to render my Midwestern Trude as a locale of real intrigue, sadness, and fascination. In trying to achieve this, I ended up conflating many of my own Midwestern experiences, many of them taking place in Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I grew up, many others drawn from St. Louis, where I’ve been living while writing the book. So maybe I ended up undercutting my own point and saying that all Midwestern experiences are on the same continuum—I’m not sure.

One of my ambitions is to write about the Midwest not in a gently humorous mode, a la Garrison Keillor, or as a theatre for quietly snuffed realist dreams, but in a sort of estranged, almost grotesque mode, the way Flannery O’Connor wrote about the South, or the way Thomas Bernhard wrote about Austria. This could be a deeply bad idea. I find the region on the whole quite weird, including the widely held belief of its inhabitants that it’s a second-class place and not really worth discussing in detail.

So yeah, the play of light and shadow on wind-flattened cornfields, emptied Main Streets, agricultural conglomerates, methamphetamines, taciturn people in sweatshirts, prairie dogs, the crickets at night, abandoned movie palaces, Super Walmarts, the schizophrenia of the weather – these are all elements of the region that feed my imagination.

A correspondent for Al Jazeera wrote a column arguing that all American cities would come to resemble St. Louis in the 21st century. That may be—in any case, you do see staggering inequities of wealth displayed here. Total wealth and total poverty coexisting within a few city blocks of each other. We have all the urban problems. You’re acutely aware of living in the shell of an older, greater city. But sometimes I see a building and I’m not sure if it’s in the process of demolition or half-built – going down or up. That sense of ambiguity draws a lot of creative people here. There is a sense that you can do something.

The Arch, unlike many other visual clichés I’ve encountered, gathers depth and magnificence the longer you live beside it, seeing it from different angles and in different light. I remember returning to the city in a rainstorm once and watching it almost hover out of a cloud. In 1965, William S. Burroughs wrote that it looked like the only landmark to survive an apocalyptic event, and I was pleased to see that this was the premise of a recent SciFi network series. Despite what an icon it has become, there is a quiet reverence for the Arch here. Likewise, my time in this city has been rich, surprising, multifaceted.

About the Author

Eric Lundgren was born in Cleveland, grew up in Minneapolis, studied in Portland and St. Louis, and would like to be in Berlin this summer. His first novel, The Facades, is published by The Overlook Press in September.

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Debut Author Interview – Martha Amore

Martha Amore

When I think back to my undergraduate days at the University of Michigan, I remember Martha Amore as bright, passionate, and uncompromising. She had convictions and stood up for them. So it intrigued me to discover that she had recently published her first novella—how would the fierce, aware energy with which she had once impressed me convey itself in her role as a writer, both on the page and in conversation? I contacted Martha to find out.

John F. Buckley

JFB: Martha, your novella appears with two others in Weathered Edge, which recently came out on Vered Publishing and Design House. How did you decide on that title?

MA: We wanted to use a word from each of our novella titles, but then we hit upon Weathered Edge, just a word from mine and Farmen’s title.  We all decided that worked best. Weathered Edge captured the heart of each of our stories, and sounded awfully Alaskan as well.

JFB: Without spoiling any surprises, what can you tell us about your third of the book?

MA:  My story is about a mountaineer who has a baby and gives up climbing. Her husband does not, and much drama ensues.

JFB: How closely do its themes, concerns, and obsessions coincide with the works of your co-contributors, Kris Farmen and Buffy McKay?

MA: Great question!  The really strange thing is that this book was not a creative collaboration, but simply a collection. Each of us had already written a draft of our novellas when VP&D House approached us on the collection. I knew both of the other authors, but they did not know each other.  So here is the strange thing: the themes, concerns and obsessions coincide beautifully! Each story is about survival, each deals with obsessions of various types, and also focuses on what it means to be/become Alaskan. I’d like to point out that Buffy McKay, who is Alaska Native, also explores what it is to be Alaska Native, and her survival story expands from the personal to cultural survival.

JFB: Here’s a chicken-egg question. How did the book come about? Did you three each have a novella written ahead of time and eventually decide to publish them together, or did you begin with the idea of a joint project and then write the novellas? Coming from a whole ‘nother direction, if your book (or novella) were a superhero, what would be her origin story?

MA: We each had a draft of our novellas—in my case, it was a series of linked stories that had already been published in Room Magazine—and our publisher approached Kris and I for this collection.  We needed a third novella, and I knew Buffy McKay and her wonderful writing, so I suggested her as a third. Good thing, too, because her novella is not only beautifully written, but a powerful and unique story. If our book were a superhero, her origin story would be: a Chinook salmon (that’s Buffy) mated with ocean superhero Salty Dawg (that’s Kris) during a terrible winter storm (that’s me) and Weathered Edge was born!!!

JFB: Vered is located in Anchorage, Alaska, where you live. How important was it to use a local publisher rather than sending your manuscript all over the map?

MA: VP&D House is not only local as in Alaska or even Anchorage, but local as in located in Spenard, which is a very funky district of Anchorage.  I love that my first book comes from Spenard! This is hugely important to me! I see the future of great publishing going a similar route as great music and great theater and great food: local!

JFB: How did you end up in Alaska anyway? The last time I saw you, over twenty years ago, we were at a party (or several) in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

MA: Yes, I think it was several! I lived in San Francisco for many years with our Michigan ex-pats, then decided to take the leap and move to the country of my dreams: Alaska. I’d only been here once before, but I was dating a man who lived in Reno and had spent time on the Kenai Peninsula. We both were in love with Alaska, so off we went, no jobs, no friends, no home. Now we have jobs, friends, a home, plus a bonus of three little girls!

JFB: How do you think you’ve evolved as a creator since your undergraduate days? Your energies lately seem to flow in multiple directions—writing, keeping bees, teaching English, raising kids, being a roller-derby bad-ass, raising kids to be miniature roller-derby bad-asses. The list may be endless, for all I know. Are you becoming more dynamic as time goes on?

MA: Hahaha!  Just for the record, I am the least bad-ass roller girl rookie you ever met! In fact, I’m retiring from the big girl league and just working as a coach for the junior league (they are much easier to knock down!) But yes, I find that I am becoming much more dynamic as I age. Since turning forty, my motto is “If not now, then when?” Believe me, that motto has gotten me into huge trouble!

JFB: Who are some of your inspirations in art, in life, or both?

MA: I am the type of person who is constantly awed by others. Writers, artists, musicians, roller girls, and just plain nice folk.  I find that when someone puts me in a state of awe, I am touched personally and creatively. A sample of this year’s list:

  • Musicians Sinead O’Connor and Meg Mackey (local)
  • Writers Annie Proulx, James Baldwin, Jeanette Winterson, Louise Erdrich, Seth Kantner, Pam Houston, and both my co-authors, Buffy McKay and Kris Farmen
  • Alaskan artists Indra Arriaga and Angela Ramirez
  • A colleague at UAA, Fawn Caparas
  • Each of my daughters for various reasons
  • Rollergirls: Wickedspedia, Pat Riot, Ness U. Up, and Dirt Bag

JFB: What’s your writing process like?Are you a scrupulous note-taker, a flyer by the seat of your pants, a maelstrom of furious inspiration, a methodical assembler of language? When and where do you write?

MA:  No, I do not take notes or keep a journal, though I should. I write when I get the time, which is usually during the school year on mornings that I do not have to teach. I am a binge writer. When I am obsessed with a story, I work really hard to get it out. When I am not, I live my life and feel guilty that I am not writing. I write at home in my loft or at my favorite local café, Kaladi Bros., which is next door to my favorite used bookstore, Title Wave. My goal this year is to make myself write on a more disciplined schedule and get a novel out there!

JFB: I remember recently reading something about the Modernists’ having instigated the idea that a writer must revise, revise, revise. What do you think? How much do you yourself revise a given work?

MA: My revision is everything!!! I will write a lot of slop that approaches (here and there) something like the truth, then the real work begins.  I am with Hemingway on this one: a terrible writer, but a great reviser!

JFB: Are you exclusively a fiction writer, or do you explore other genres as well?

MA: I take poetry workshops when I get the chance. I am a terrible poet, but I find that studying poetry improves my fiction. I love to read non-fiction, and have written some here and there, but my true calling is fiction.

JFB: Getting back to Alaska a bit, how did your time in the University of Alaska Anchorage MFA program influence your writing and your sense of yourself as a writer?

MA: I can honestly say that I learned to write in the MFA program at University of Alaska Anchorage. The workshop-style program worked wonders for me, and I had great professors as well as talented schoolmates. As a fiction writer, and maybe as a woman writer in particular, it can sometimes be hard to take myself seriously.  One of the wonderful gifts the MFA program gave me was the clear message that my writing is serious and important.

JFB: Alaska, of course, is the largest state but far removed from the Lower 48. How much does its geographical expansiveness and isolation shape the writing that arises from there? Is there an “Alaskan style?” If so, what are its core elements?

MA: Great question!  I love this question!  I believe there is a collective creative consciousness that is very affected by the landscape, the people and the history of a place. Alaska most definitely shapes me as well as other writers up here. We are isolated and expansive, and we cling to one another to keep warm! The only reason that I am still writing is because of the huge amount of support and love that I get from Alaskans.  Anchorage is exploding right now with creative energy in music, art and literature. Everywhere I go, I bump into people who are getting high on this energy and then adding to it. Lots of conversations in cafes, playgrounds, bars and grocery stores.

JFB: Do you have any other projects planned for the future? What can you tell us about them?

MA:  Yes, my next book is a novel about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. My central character is a commercial fisherwoman who is a Kurtz-type persona, descending into madness but in her case, quite righteous.

JFB: Thank you so much, Martha, for your time and consideration. I look forward to reading Weathered Edge, as I hope many others do, and to hearing more about your growth as a verbal artist in future years.

About the Author:

Martha Amore is a fiction writer living in Anchorage, Alaska, with her husband, three young daughters, dog, cat, chickens and bees. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she now works as a writing instructor. She is also currently a visiting instructor at Alaska Pacific University. In her spare time, she coaches junior roller derby. Her first novella has just been published in Weathered Edge, a collection of three Alaskan novellas edited and published by Vered Publishing & Design House (VP&D House).

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Writeliving Interview – Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley photo

When I think of the great American novel and writers equally adept at character development, sense of place, theme, and plot, I immediately place A Thousand Acres and Jane Smiley on a very short list. I couldn’t be more pleased that she took the time to share some of her writing life with us.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

There are lots of those! My mother was a newspaperwoman in the 50s, and she always had her portable typewriter on the dining room table. I also loved to read, so my first literary influences were The Bobbsey Twins (Laura Lee Hope) (The Bobbsey Twins) and Nancy Drew (Carolyn Keene). I also loved horse books–The Black Stallion series (Walter Farley) and a series by Dorothy Lyons. My experience is that series books get kids to read and read and read–and it doesn’t matter if they read the same books over and over, as long as they are reading. The first adult books I loved were David Copperfield and Giants in the Earth (Ole Rolvaag), but I was also fascinated by the Shakespeare plays we read in junior high and high school, especially Twelfth Night and Hamlet. All through junior high, I was an avid reader of Agatha Christie. In college, I became fascinated with the history of the English language, and so studied Old English, Middle English, and Old Norse. Out of my love of these languages came my interest in updating old stories (King Lear to A Thousand Acres, the Icelandic Sagas to The Greenlanders, The Decameron to Ten Days in the Hills).

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

My writing style is to work everyday, just it down and start, trying not to pay any attention to whether I like what I am producing or not. I find research inspiring because it spurs invention. I like to be accurate, and I am interested in socio/psychological issues, so I need to do a lot of research. My favorite thing is having a little grain of an idea develop into a thought, and then into a theme or a plot twist. I usual do some planning, but I love the sense of the unexpected entering the work–I think that gives it life and energy. Fiction is about how action, thought, and feeling connect, so my favorite bits are when an action has resulted in an observation which produces a feeling, which is then conveyed through a metaphor or an image–to me, that is the inner life becoming manifest. I also like unexpected events which, when you look back on them, seem inevitable.

How old where you when you first started writing?

17–I was a senior in high school. I was not an early writer.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

No, because I have always enjoyed it so much that there wasn’t much of a chance of it dying. I think that a writer is better off if he/she enjoys or is fascinated by the process, because rewards are inconsistent, glancing blows, even good ones. Better to be focused on what you are doing because you can’t stop doing it, not because you hope for greatness.

How have the places you’ve lived shaped your creative work?

I have a strong sense of place, and every place is interesting. My best example is Ames, Iowa, a place that doesn’t have a reputation as a hotspot of literary dynamism, but for me, living there directly produced A Thousand Acres, The Greenlanders, and Moo. It also had great schools and child-care, and so other books that I wrote while I was there benefited from that aspect. There is much to be said, if you want to be productive, for living out of the way, and being able to focus on your work.

What project(s) are you working on now?

A trilogy called The Last Hundred Years, a story of a family that takes place between 1920 and 2019, beginning with the birth of the central character, and following the adventures of him and his siblings and children.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I have no idea!

About the Author

Jane Smiley is the author of  13 adult novels, 5 YA novels, and nonfiction, including a short biography of Charles Dickens, a history and anatomy of the novel, called Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, and a book about the invention of the computer, called The Man Who Invented the Computer.

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Writeliving Interview – Rick Moody

Ricky_Moody_credit_Thatcher_Keats

Rick Moody has enjoyed something of a rock star status in my old writer’s group, and is one of our most influential writers. I’m thrilled he took the time to share his writing life with us.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville, Thomas Bernhard, Stanley Elkin, Lydia Davis, Don DeLillo.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

It changes a lot. The insight I offer you is this: there’s no one process, and as soon as I imagine some approach to generating work is foolproof, it becomes suddenly worthless to me, and I have to start all over again. Which is disappointing in a way. I feel as though I have to keep inventing the wheel.

How old where you when you first started writing?

Well, I started a few things in the 11-12 range, but I would say I didn’t really finish a story that was recognizably my own until 16.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

My first novel was rejected something like 18-20 times before it finally found a home.

What project(s) are you working on now?

A new novel, a book of short stories, more essays on music, some poems about American presidents, maybe even a play . . .

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I have a sideline as a not terribly effective songwriter and musician.

About the Author

Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and, most recently, a collection of essays entitled ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. He also plays in The Wingdale Community Singers, whose recently released album is entitled NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH.

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Writeliving Interview – Nance Van Winckel

A year ago, I came back home from the AWP conference in Chicago energized to create community for myself as a writer, and to provide a forum for others interested in the craft and practice of writing. Through the Writeliving blog I have been blessed to connect with many talented and inspirational writers. One of those has been Nance Van Winckel: fiction writer, poet, and visual artist. I hope you enjoy her insights into her creative life and I recommend that you check out her new poetry book Pacific Walkers.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

With poets, I’d say Wallace Stevens, Rilke, Plath, Berryman, and Tomas Transtromer. With fiction writers, I’d say Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Chekov, and my newest love—Proust. These are writers I know I can repeatedly return to and each time find something new to admire—both in what their works have to say AND in how they say it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

About “process,” I wish I could say I had one. Each new writing project seems to demand a different manner of “making.” Possibly figuring out that new method of composition for each new project IS my process. I know I like, in poems, for the collections to be series, but how the poems will speak back and forth to each other—through what voices, from what tonalities and physical worlds—those issues I enjoy experimenting with. I probably keep only one out of every dozen separate poem drafts. I appreciate how a book project takes me into uncharted (for me) territory and requires me to learn what seems like a new kind of shaping. One of my first books of poem series, Beside Ourselves, came about largely through collage (of journal notes, a travel diary, and the fuzzy memories of a disastrous love affair), while this new book of linked stories, Boneland (due out in October), was an interesting experiment in trying to make a “family” of a cast of characters who’d populated some recent flash fictions and longer fictions. With both projects, I felt a certain stress that I wouldn’t be able to make each book coalesce; every time they threatened to implode I’d suddenly find a new little element that shed light on their commonalities.

How does writing both poetry and fiction impact the other genre?

I don’t find that the actual methods of making poems and making stories have much at all in common. In fact, in learning to write fiction, I found my first major hurdle was realizing that the organic process by which I’d always written poems was just not going to cut it. In fiction some small glimmer of a route—maybe not an ending, but some grip on characters and/or dramatic events—that sort of advance knowing was not going to hurt a story. Hell, it was going to help! Over the years as I’ve worked on stories, my poems may have become less narrative, or less primarily narrative. Fiction seems to have sucked some of that away. And no doubt my love of and frequent use of persona in poems may have helped me toward that full emersion into a character’s mind so crucial to stories.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Aside from trying to ride out the waves of grief over certain loved ones’ deaths—notably my younger sister and father, I think these last couple of years may have presented the biggest challenge. I wake up worrying over my 87-year-old-mother and 97-year-old stepfather, trying to track on all the parts of their lives I now attend to FOR them: their meals, meds, doctors’ appointments, bills, etc. Not ever having had children, I have never really been responsible FOR other people before. It was not easy to step into this role. Writing has always been on the front burner for me, and all else that made demands of me I pushed onto back burners. Now I’m learning to be another kind of person, someone with a modicum of patience who can step up, as it were. To do so I had to quit worrying that I might lose a story if I didn’t immediately sit down and write it. Now I trust that if I lose a poem or a story, probably another one will come along in its own good time. I remember something Grace Paley said: “I don’t have a career; I have a life.” I’m not sorry writing was on the front burner for me for fifty years, and I’m not sorry it can’t be right now.

Can you tell us anything about your new poetry book Pacific Walkers?

In my mid-20’s I was a newspaper reporter, and some of the narrative voice and dramatic situation of these poems incorporates that world, a journalist’s responsibilities to facts, as well as the constrictions of time (deadlines) and space (number of words).

People put up signs for their missing pets; milk cartons carry photographs of missing children. But what of those who are found (dead) but NOT missed? These unidentified bodies are the persona’s immediate “story.” Several of the poems quote information from the Spokane Medical Examiner’s website, detailing information on specific John and Jane Does. Does turning such stories as these into news-bites eventually create a numbing effect on most of us? How is it possible for a human being to go completely un-missed? The book questions how well facts can render the “truth” of these sad lives. It seems a strange irony too that the bodies have no names but the particular items found with the bodies do. Pacific Walkers, for instance, is the brand name of a pair of boots found on one of the John Does. America’s anonymous dead. For me, their status as unnamable makes them all the more haunting. And perhaps their ghostly presence in the world suggests the eventual anonymity of most of us. We may leave behind descendants and/or names on tombstones, but ultimately we too become unknown.

Incorporating some of my visual art (digital photo-collage), I have created a 1.5 minute film offering a glimpse into the book’s world.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Lately I’ve been putting very spare poems on walls! I’m tagging back with my own little poetic bits of text among the graffiti and street art I find along my urban walks. But only digitally so. I have a new website devoted to this photo-collage work.

About the Author

new nance pix

Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field, and Gettysburg Review.

She is also the author of three collections of short fiction and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and Kenyon Review. Boneland, her fourth collection of fiction, is forthcoming in October from U. of Oklahoma Press.

She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson.

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Authentic Interrogations in Fiction

Interested in how to create a memorable interrogation scene? Please check out my guest blog post 3 Ways to Make the World of Interrogation Ring True from the blog Novel Rocket.

Martin Ott

3 Ways to Make the World of Interrogation Ring True
As a former US Army interrogator, I have explored the subject of the interrogator in numerous short stories and poems. My biggest challenge was in creating the world and the main character Norman Kross for my debut literary suspense novel The Interrogator’s Notebook published by Story Merchant Books in February of this year. MORE…

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From the Big House to the Small Press

A Guest Blog Post by JoeAnn Hart

JoeAnn Hart photo

In 2004, while still writing my first book, Addled, a novel that pits animal rights against a country club, I won the PEN New England Discovery Award in Fiction. That led to an agent, which led to Addled’s sale to a New York publishing house in 2005. The book business has changed so much since then, it might as well be a different geologic era instead of just a few years, so making comparisons between my experience with a Big House then and at a Small Press now isn’t quite fair. But I’m going to do it anyway.

A Big House has prestige, pull, and distribution – fantastic attributes ­­– but it can be as impersonal as factory farming. Except for some general editorial notes from the editor who bought my book, I was so distanced from Addled’s production that I showed up at the Big House office with my revised manuscript in hand, only to find out it had been delayed a year. No one had told me. During the ensuing wait, my Big House was bought out by a Foreign Big House, so that the week Addled finally launched in 2007, the reorganized company was moving to new offices a few blocks away. Cases of my book held the doors open for them.

Bad timing, but the Big House had already done its due diligence when it came to sending out review copies, including to the few online reviewers operating at the time. Addled had many lovely words said about it, but the best thing they did for Addled, (which has a great cover), was put it on the front of their spring catalog, which might have been the last of their paper catalogs. Unfortunately, a pretty face couldn’t help sales. It was in and out of bookstores in a matter of weeks and it was all over in three months. Addled didn’t do well enough for the Big House to justify buying my next book, a story collection based on real estate ads, even though the editor said she wanted it. Oh well. I had another novel in me and I wrote it. My agent loved Float, which confronts the dangers of  plastics in the ocean while still managing to be a comedy, and sent it out. And she sent it out again, and again, then threw in the towel. There was interest, but no one would touch it because of Addled’s sales history. It was over, once again.

I asked my agent if I could send it out to contests, and she said sure (or more precisely, her associate did, into whose care I had been transferred). In the same breath, I also did a regular submission to Ashland Creek, a small press in Oregon that specializes in environmental literature, and they took it. Unlike the Big House, there was no advance, which is usually the case with small presses, but writers get a bigger share of royalties. And more attention. If a Big House is a factory farm, a small press is a petting zoo. The editing was specific and went right to the point, making me think deeply about the interaction between detail and theme. There’s no money to speak of for marketing at a small press, but there wasn’t at the Big House either. I supplied my own jacket photo for both. I wasn’t expecting, nor did I get, a book tour at the Big House, but it was a surprise to find out that the sales reps had to clear readings (they don’t want a lesser author to compete with their best-selling authors), and the answer was either “no” or too late in coming. I’ve been told that Big Houses don’t have sales reps anymore, but readings are still controlled. With Float, I am free to book as many readings or events that will have me. The philosophy about the lifespan of a book is also different at Ashland Creek, and I suspect at other small presses. They expect to sell Float over a period of years, not a single season, and not dismiss it if it doesn’t catch fire right away (read: does not get a NYTBR, which can only happen within three months after release).

As for social media circa 2007, everyone knew potential readers existed out in cyber-land, but no one knew yet quite how to reach them. Now every author, whether with a big house, small press, or self-published, is expected to be fluent in Facebook, Twitter, and Mail Chimp, as well as WordPress for blogging. I have my own website blog which is issues-based, where I write about plastics in the ocean. I also do a more meditative blog for Newfound Journal, an Inquiry of Place, where once a month I ponder on my place here on the coast. Then there is guest blogging, as I am doing right now, and these blogs usually concern the writing life.

Would I have sought out a small press if a Big House had taken me? No. Haven’t I just mentioned prestige, pull, and distribution? Having said that, the lesson I’ve learned is that those fine credentials mean little if there is no enthusiasm behind the book, and enthusiasm is such a delicate thing. Without a hard-core marketing campaign, it could not stay alive during Addled’s long publication delay. Now that I’m with a small press, I know what it’s like to feel that enthusiasm. It does not seem like a lesser option, just a different one. I feel as if we are in it together, and that Ashland Creek loves my book as much as I do. What else but love of the written word could make someone start a book press in this day and age? It’s like taking up falconry. But they, and all the other amazing small presses of the world, might just keep the book industry afloat in these stormy times.

About the Author

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novels Float and Addled, and her short fiction and essays have been widely published. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts, but she can be easily found on Facebook, Twitter and joeannhart.com.

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New Letters – Attitude

Cock Fight Spine Set.indd

Attitude is the theme for the fall 2012 issue of New Letters. From cover to cover, we are presented with a mix of hard-hitting poetry, fiction and essays, artwork from Leonard Koenig and William Wind McKim, and an interview by Anis Shivani with one of our most talented and underrated authors Don Lee.

Favorites in this issue was the story A Kind of Tender Infinity by Wendell Mayo, that captured a time and place in the American imagination with a marriage proposal during the race to the moon, and poetry by Albert Goldbarth, William Trowbridge, Peter Balakian and Carolyne Wright. These writers don’t pull any punches as they hold up a mirror to the America we know and thought we knew.

I read the entire issue cover to cover in a single sitting, and recommend you get some Attitude as well.

Martin Ott

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Recycled Reads: The Human Stain

human_stain

I’m pleased to kick off 2013 with the second in a series of recycled reads from my Goodwill in Los Feliz. The book is The Human Stain by Philip Roth, which forms the third in a loose trilogy following American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, and has been much lauded since its publication in 2000.

Critiquing Philip Roth is daunting, as the novel is damn good, but there is much to dissect from the perspective of a writer. Let me start by saying that I was bummed after reading The Human Stain because  I felt like it had the potential to be one of the best books ever penned by an American author if it weren’t for a few vexing narrative decisions.

First things first. Who’s story is this anyway? Nathan Zuckerman is presented as the narrator  in a key juncture in the life of the book’s protagonist Coleman Silk, a classics professor at a small New England college. We begin the novel shortly after Coleman’s wife has died, and he has been forced to retire after referring to absent students he’d never met as ‘spooks.’ Unknown to Silk, the students are African-American, and he becomes embroiled in a scandal that ruins his academic career.

Unfortunately, Zuckerman is only present at the beginning and end, with a bit of him mixed throughout the novel with the close third person perspectives of multiple characters: Faunia Farley, a janitor with a tortured past, her abusive ex-husband and Vietnam vet Les Farley, and Delphine Roux, a lonely young classics professor and careerist who plays an active role in Silk’s fall from grace.

The stories of these four characters are compelling, and Zuckerman’s half-role as narrator impedes our ability to truly commit to the dramatic world they inhabit. If the intention was to have Zuckerman uncover the shocking mystery that Silk was in fact part African American and completely turned his back on his past to better assimilate into American life, then why did Roth so richly delve into stories of other characters that the narrator would have no way of knowing?

The problem with Roth’s partial commitment to the “I” voice of  Zuckerman is that he can’t maximize using the narrator as a detective to unearth the mysteries surrounding the life and death of Silk. And because we never fully commit to the world of the other characters, we have many lost opportunities for dramatic tension. For example, we start with the drama of the scandal and retirement completed; we know far in advance the Silk will die; and the description of the supposed murder of Silk by the jealous Les Farley is described in a single sentence.

The novel’s half-commitment to unspooling a mystery and  to the active portrayal of the tragic love triangle makes me feel like we are presented with two half-novels spliced together. Don’t get me wrong, only the genius of an author like Roth could have overcome these types of challenges with a truly memorable novel.

On another note, Philip Roth made quite a stir this year with an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker refuting the origin of The Human Stain, as well as the sad news reported in the French magazine Les inrockuptibles  that he is retiring from novel writing. This is a loss for us all, as his later work, such as The Human Stain, challenges us to ask questions of ourselves and America.

– Martin Ott

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