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Writeliving Interview – Amy Gerstler

Any Gerstler Photo

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of lists of influential poets. Amy Gerstler would definitely appear high up on mine. She is yet another example of how So. Cal has plenty of writing heavyweights. She was gracious enough to share some of her writing life with us. Enjoy.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Dennis Cooper was a major mentor to me in college and beyond. He transformed my life, pointed me in important literary directions, introduced me to Rimbaud so much else when I was very wide eyed and naïve and unworldy. David Lehman has also been a generous mentor whose approach to writing and teaching has taught me tons. Other authors I would love to believe have affected or will affect my work in the future include: Wislawa Szymborska, James Tate, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Tom Clark, Sei Shonagon, Charles Simic, Marianne Moore, Russell Edson, Frank O’Hara, Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucia Perillo, MFK Fisher, Phillip Larkin, Rainier Maria Rilke, John Ashbery, Mark Twain, Elaine Equi, Eileen Myles, Benjamin Weissman, Walter Benjamin’s writing about drugs, Robert Walser, Donald Barthelme, Walt Whitman, Alice Notley, Ai. I could go on forever with this sort of list, past influences, current ones, writers whose work I hope will yank my writing in fresh and better directions.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I tend to be a collagist and cull from a variety of different sources. Research and note taking help me generate phrases and ideas and get juices flowing. I love doing research and collecting odd bits of language. Usually I need to be surrounded by books I can flop open and cannabalize in order to write. I just learned the word syncretistic and have a bit of a crush on the word at the moment. I consider myself a syncretistic poet. Old reference and text books, instructional or spiritual texts, science and nature books, art and film texts, old national geographics, books on ancient religions or archaeology, the newspaper….anything wordy and strange and packed with odd information could be useful. It’s hard for me to leave used bookstores empty handed. My house is a chaos of piled, crammed, shelved, stacked booksprawl. (This is typical writer stuff, I think.)

How has teaching impacted your work as a writer?

What a blooming miracle to be able to teach to support one’s writing. What a relief. It’s amazing to have a job that’s related to writing. A job you like. This is a big luxury, especially these days, when it’s a gift to have a job at all. To get paid for hanging out with smart, talented young humans and hearing what they’re reading, interested in, thinking about, worried about, wanting to do is kind of nirvana. Trading ideas with them. It’s like having a bunch of literary scouts out in the world. Ditto for accomplished colleagues who are writers or literary scholars or artists or scientists, etc. obsessed with some version of the things you’re obsessed with: writing, books, information, figuring out how to balance supporting yourself and forging a writer’s life. Students and colleagues teach me a lot. And of course preparing to teach whatever writers, forms, and books you assign, immersing yourself in all that, enriches your brain for writing too. Teaching forces me into the world in ways I’d probably avoid if I wasn’t compelled to do it, being a natural hermit, so that’s probably healthy. Otherwise I would just be living in a cave with a couple of feral dogs, eating berries, grunting and scratching and talking to myself, or something pretty close to that lifestyle. And having the amenities of a college or university available (library, bookstore, lectures and classes you could theoretically attend, visting writers and academics who come through, an intellectual and research community, a center of learning etc.) doesn’t hurt, either. So these things help my work, (and I should take advantage of them more!) The down side is of course teaching sucks up precious time and energy. It’s great but depleting. That’s the trade off. And I’m shy so being in front of a class is always a bit of a leap for me.

Do you consider yourself part of any movement in poetry?

No. Sometimes I regret that, not having that special camaraderie, but I’m a loner, mostly.

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

Nothing they haven’t already thought of and that hasn’t been already said to them repeatedly: write tons, read tons, find peers, go to readings, cultivate your obsessions, try to customize your life so that writing is at the center of everything. Fill yourself with whatever inspires you, and if you don’t know, try lots of things: art, music, all forms of literature, nature, solitude, love, travel, sex, ballroom dancing competitions, making pastry, whatever. Be patient and persist. Keep keeping at it. Have faith. I know this is cornball but believe in your work and its potential as though it were your kid. Remember art can be play. Push your work out into the world when you’re ready so you can see what happens. Don’t take rejection personally, or at least try to work towards that admirable goal of calm detachment.

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

I’ve been lucky as a writer. Real nasty adversity hasn’t reared its head much so far in my literary life. Sure, I’ve had difficulties and disappointments, who hasn’t, but many of them were probably self inflicted when I look back and think about it. When I hear the term “adversity” I think of truly dire stuff: Denton Welch writing while lying in bed horribly injured, or Dennis Potter sipping morphine from a to-go cup during his final illness to keep going long enough finish his last work, or what I’ve been reading recently about the bravery of David Rakoff hanging on to complete a final project while suffering a similar punishing fatal illness. My tiny troubles look microscopic in comparison. When I was much younger I sent out 30 or so inquiry letters over a period of time trying to get a book published and no one would even agree to read it. I was discouraged by that for quite a while. Then by pure happenstance the editor of  a lovely publishing house (the now defunct North Point Press) saw the manuscript and got interested. That kind of thing is why I vehemently advise young writers to persevere.

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

That I am double jointed. That I love Ella Fitzgerald’s voice to the point of swooning. That I am a big fan of graphic novels.

About the Author

Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Dearest Creature,  Ghost Girl,  Medicine,  and Crown of Weeds. She teaches at University of California at Irvine.

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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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Misplaced Person: Ira Sukrungruang

Ira Sukrungruang

I’m happy to present the second in our series of interviews about being a misplaced writer. Ira Sukrungruang writes about place, and all that means, with humor, passion, and disarming beauty. If he were an ancient god, he’d have three heads–one for nonfiction, one for fiction, and one for poetry, all of which Ira writes. I believe that god is called Unfair.

David Schuman

1) Where do you come from, originally?

I’m a Chicagoan. But if I were in Chicago I’d have to say a Southsider, and I’d have to do it with a sneer and say it with a voice that comes deep from the gut. I might even have to throw in a swear or two just to prove the point. I might have to call you Sally because everyone’s a Sally, which is to say the Chicago I grew up in is a working class Chicago, a concrete and steel Chicago, a Chicago that does not know political correctness.

If you asked my mother, however, she would tell you I come from Thailand. That Thailand was in my blood, no matter what country I was born in. She would say being born does not indicate who you are. Being born is a moment, and a moment is not genetic make-up, does not account for my ancestry, and all the ghosts that has followed her to this country, and the ghost she left for me when she retired and returned to Thailand in 2004.

2) What geographical area would you say defines you as a person and maybe also as a writer? This can be a specific place (New York, Cleveland) or a geographical element (mountains, prairies, ocean). How has this place or element defined your work, if it all?

I’m trying to understand this as an immigrant son and writer. For the longest time, the city defined me, like how the city defined my immigrant family. We felt safe in the city, despite what crimes the TV news reported each evening, despite the gangs, and racism we experienced in the early 80s. The city was about the crowd. There was comfort in a crowd. In a crowd, we could see what dangers were coming towards us. In a crowd, we could blend because in a city there were other immigrants like us, feeling the same way. There were so many hiding places in a city. Our family vacations were always to ultra touristy cities with a lot of artificial sounds. Those sounds were so much more comforting than the sounds of birds or the silence of nature.

Now, however, I’m beginning to see the country as something not to fear. I married a poet, after all, who is in love with the prairie. This has forced me to confront my fears of landscape. And these fears are about trust. My immigrant family never trusted America. Being in the country forces you bond with the land in ways a city never requires. To live in the country, to make a home in the country, there must be a love for the land, but what is also underneath the land. It is also a love of space and solitude. To love a city is to love the assault to the senses that a city represents. Is to love pace. Is to love the music of artificiality.

And then there is the Motherland, Thailand, and stories I have grown up with about Thailand, and vacations to Thailand.Thailand is both mythical and real. Thailand is like the temples that dot the countryside, something otherworldly, some jeweled fantasy land, among the modern high rises of Bangkok, or the rice fields of the central plains.

These three dynamics are what’s in play when I write, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. It is a topic I constantly come back to.

3) Describe where you are now–describe a few things you’ve learned about this new place that have surprised/frightened/frustrated you?

I’m in Tampa, FL, now. There’s something wild about Florida. I love when I walk and lizards scurry away from my steps. There is something Jurassic Park about it. I love the birds. I can’t get over them. To see sandhill cranes chillin’ in the medians of busy streets or ospreys nesting on electric poles or pelicans and great blue herons waiting for fishermen scraps. I’m astonished by how the color green seeks to devour everything in the summer. Florida is the south, but a different kind of south. South with a latin beat. South that is diverse in culture. South filled with Northerners. It’s pretty awesome really.

4) How has your current location filtered into your work or your writing life?

I was at literary panel my graduate students were doing at a Florida writers conference, and one of the panelists said something like, we write about the places we’ve been at the place we are. I think this is true. Much of my writing is about Chicago, central Illinois, Thailand, upstate New York. I don’t think I will stop writing about those places. But I’ve noticed that small parts of the natural world in Florida has made into my writing. It’s like the cute little geckos here. They come in without you noticing and leave. Subconsciously, Florida is invading, like a vine that wants devour a house. I think Florida is so different from the other places I’ve been that it will naturally become part of my literary landscape. As a writer, we catalogue the details of setting, and the details of that setting becomes part our lexicon.

About the Author

Ira Sukrungruang is the author of the memoir Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy and the coeditor of two anthologies on the topic of obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. His poetry collection, In Thailand It Is Night, was awarded the Anita Claire Schraf Award, and forthcoming from University of Tampa Press. He is the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature, an Arts and Letters Fellowship, and the Emerging Writer Fellowship. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Post Road, The Sun, and Creative Nonfiction. He is one of the founding editors of Sweet: A Literary Confection (sweetlit.com), and teaches in the MFA program at University of South Florida and the low-residency MFA program at City University in Hong Kong. For more information about him, please visit: www.sukrungruang.com.

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Writeliving Interview – George Saunders

GeorgeSaunders

We’re proud to present an interview with the great George Saunders. I think you’d be hard pressed to find any living writer that David and I collectively like more. Hope you enjoy.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

My father was one big influence, just in the way he tells stories: fast, funny, dark.  But always under the surface was this idea that people were interesting and worthy of attention.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Well, I try to keep everything as open and low-concept as possible – that is, I try to keep the big ideas to a minimum and concentrate on making a compelling and entertaining surface in the language, trusting that everything else – plot, theme, meaning – will take care of itself.

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

Although it can be really hard to be a young writer, I’d advise trying not to think in terms of “overcoming adversity” but, rather, trying to use those experiences to train oneself in learning to think like a writer.  So, I can remember times when I found myself in a strange or difficult or even somewhat degrading work situation, and writing was miles away – but I always felt (or tried to feel) like if I was noticing, then I was working.   That is, the young writer can do a little mental switch, and think: “Ah, so this too is part of America,” or “So this too is part of life – these feelings that I’m having and all of these physical details I’m seeing around me, and the reactions of the other people in this situation – are all interesting.”  Not easy to think that way, but if you can nurture that tendency in yourself, it becomes a sort of armor.

How does your background in geophysical engineering impact your writing?

One huge way was that it got me out into the world.  I worked in the oilfields in Asia and that was really where my political ideas were really formed – seeing all the suffering and beauty and inequality.

In what ways does being a teacher affect your writing?

I really like being around the talented young writers we get at Syracuse.  Last year we got 520 applications for 6 spots – so the students are just incredible writers and human beings.  I  also like having to revisit the classics I teach (mostly the Russians) and finding new depth in them.

About the Author:

George Saunders, a 2006 MacArthur Fellow, is the author of seven books, including the “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “Pastoralia,” “In Persuasion Nation”and the forthcoming “Tenth of December,” which comes out in January.  He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

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Writeliving Interview – Dmitri Ragano

The Writeliving interview series kicks off its first foray into genre fiction with journalist and internet professional turned mystery author Dmitri Ragano. I had the pleasure a few years ago to read part of a manuscript by Dmitri from a mystery called The Fugitive Grandma, and I’ve been a fan ever since. His first novel Employee of the Year, is a mystery must-read, and he is now releasing his second novel The Voting Machine.

Martin Ott

Tell us about the new novel.

It’s a thriller set during an election in Las Vegas. Two political activists are killed as they cast their votes in a critical swing state Senate race.  The murder victims are rival campaigners on opposite sides of the liberal – conservative divide. One is a retired school teacher, an ex-hippie who remains active in progressive causes. The other is a rich Tea Party supporter whose son served in Iraq.

Temo McCarthy, the hero of the story, is a volunteer in a voter registration drive and he knows both of the murdered men. The FBI asks Temo to assist their investigation based on his experience canvassing Las Vegas during the election campaign. The killings are then linked to broader threats of a terrorist attack on the general election. Temo has experience with main suspects in the attack: a mysterious Middle Eastern charity, a Mexican drug cartel and anti-government, white-supremacist militia.

What inspired you to write this story?

I love elections. I love politics. Social studies was always my favorite subject in grade school. I worked as a voter registration volunteer in Las Vegas in 2008 and it was an amazing experience. You put yourself out there in front of strangers and try to persuade them to take an action because you believe in the ideas behind democracy. Some people admire what you’re doing and some people hate you for it. One day you’re going door to door in a neighborhood full of rich retirees with Jaguars and BMWs in the driveway. The next day you are block walking with your clipboard in a rough part of town, talking to homeless and ex-felons who can’t vote until they get off probation.

It’s a big, sprawling country and it’s easy for us to become disconnected from the majority of our fellow citizens. We are rarely drawn into civic collaboration or public discussion beyond our own social/professional network. But elections are one of the ways we engage around ideas and common themes in public life. It’s a messy, bitter process but it is fascinating.  It shows you all the different things that either motivate people or make them apathetic. It shows you how individuals construct their relationship to other people and society as a whole.

I want to emphasize that while I may have my own personal politics, this book isn’t a polemic. It merely aims to tell a good story that is rooted in real experiences. It’s about the human needs and the contradictory emotions that fuel our participation in politics.

This is your second novel featuring Temo McCarthy. He was also the protagonist the first book, Employee of the Year. Tell us the background behind this character.

The idea for this character was to create a kind of everyman in a modern urban setting. I wanted a hero who was flawed, humble and recognizable… He shouldn’t have exceptional skills or talents like say a Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. Temo isn’t particularly smart or tough and he has no elite training or background. His awareness of his limitations becomes an advantage. He’s spent most of his life as a loser and he goes into most situations expecting things to work against him. And yet he never gives up, just like his historical namesake Cuauhtemoc,  who kept on fighting as his whole civilization collapsed in a way that must have been unimaginably horrific. Temo never loses his will to survive and maintain some kind of integrity.

Why did you choose to self-publish your novels?

I’ve been working around the Internet space since 1995, first as a HTML programmer, then in start-ups and more recently as a product manager. I think if you come from that background it’s always your first instinct to try and do something yourself – get it our there in front of an audience and get feedback. That iterative, interactive process is how you are used to working.  I wanted to be able to have a book I could share with readers in a relatively short cycle and I knew the process of finding a traditional agent and traditional publisher can take years. At the same time, there’s this massive sea change going on in the book industry with the push towards e-book distribution and marketing so I thought it would be useful to get first-hand experience even if I ended up partnering with a traditional publisher in the future.

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Writeliving Interview – Madison Smartt Bell

It’s a pleasure to present our next Writeliving interview—Madison Smartt Bell. The first book of Madison’s I read was Soldier’s Joy after I left the Army, and I resonated with the subject matter of returning home and the true nature of brotherhood. Enjoy!

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Just about everything I read, from the Narnia Books through Mark Twain through Flannery O’Connor and Robert Penn Warren in my middle teens, and the other great Southern writers of the period (Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Ellen Douglas, and in the next generation Madison Jones, Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews).  Next the Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky especially, whom I read in college for the first time.  My interest in Chekov came later (still can’t figure out how he did it… and suspect most people can’t).  I read a certain amount of Francophone literature and recently have really been rejoicing in Stendhal and Flaubert, along with Haitian writers like Marie Vieux Chauvet, Lyonel Trouillot, Gary Victor, Yanick Lahens, Evelyne Trouillot and Edwidge Danticat (though Edwidge does write in English).  Latter-day influences outside of these categories include Mary Gaitskill, William T. Vollmann, and Denis Johnson and Robert Stone.

For hands-on effect, George Garrett, whom I knew first as a teacher and for a long time after as a friend.  Garrett was adept with many different styles and genres of both poetry and fiction.  He taught me many things by instruction and by his example—importantly, not to fear trying anything, and to keep an open mind toward your own work and also work by your students.

Andrew Lytle I had the good luck to know from childhood on.  He paid attention to my published work toward the end of his life and was a remarkably penetrating and original reader of it.  I listened to what he said with great care.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Like most people, though not all of them know it, I tend to compose in a state of light trance.  There are different ways of getting there.  Self-hypnosis, consciously undertaken, is one.  Many writers’ rituals, I believe, amount to self-hypnosis unconsciously undertaken.  In First World culture we usually think of inspiration as coming from within, but in many other cultures it comes from without, a possibility which is built right into the word “inspiration” if you look it closely. At an extreme one may reach a state resembling spirit possession (my travels in Haiti taught me that), or if your belief system prefers, a radically altered psychological state.

Andrew Lytle said, you put yourself apart from yourself, and enter the imaginary world.  After that it’s easy enough—you just describe what you find there.

I have written a good deal about these matters, e.g. in my textbook Narrative Design (http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell/nardesign.html) and also been written about in this context:

(http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/04/madison-smartt-bell-color-of-night.html).

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

Well, I was never a big fan of Norman Mailer’s work, with the exception of The Executioner’s Song.  I met him once, late in his life, and was surprised, and touched, really, by the kindly interest he took in me.  There’s one thing he said (long ago, I read it in my twenties), which I’ve always valued.  I paraphrase:  The difference between a novice and an experienced writer is the ability to work on a bad day.

When I first read that line, I really couldn’t work on a bad day.  Now I can.  And given the state of publishing and one thing and another, a middle-aged writer’s got a decent supply of bad days coming.

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

Practically everything.  I don’t trade in my own secrets.

About the Author:

Madison Smartt Bell has published more books than he has fingers and also plays a number of fretted instruments, poorly.  He teaches creative writing at Goucher College.

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Writeliving Interview – Pam Houston

I am thrilled to feature our first fiction writer in our interview series – Pam Houston. I have been reading her work for almost 20 years now (better be careful not to date me or Pam too much!).

Soon, I plan on announcing a new blogger to join the Writeliving team. In the meantime, enjoy the interview and feel free to comment.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

It has been suggested to me that the poet, Larry Levis has been the very most influential writer to my work, and it may be true. He taught poetry at Utah when I was there studying fiction, and though I was too scared to take a class from him, (and man, do I regret that) he was writing The Widening Spell of the Leaves at that time, and I paid really close attention to how he made that book. That book taught me about making associative leaps (wild ones, and yet, in retrospect, inevitable somehow), which is, in my opinion, the most fun a writer can have, the thing that keeps the process always new and exciting. It may be true that he, more than anyone else, taught me what to reach for in my work. I feel like there could never be a conclusive list of writers whose work I have read that has left an imprint on my own, but a few of my strongest influences follow: Ron Carlson’s work taught me pacing, and how to bump humor right up against pathos as many times as the story can bear. Lorie Moore’s work taught me the particular way humor works for a female. Toni Morrison taught me the importance of making my characters multiple, no heroes, no villains, and also the unlimited number of layers a story can have. Russell Banks’ stories taught me how form follows function. Richard Ford’s Rock Springs taught me that the landscape of the west has its own voice, and Gretel Ehrlich convinced me that I had a place in it. Tim O’Brien’s work introduced me to the rich territory that exists between fiction and nonfiction. Jack Driscoll taught me that if you don’t risk sentimentality you are not in the ballpark.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?


I feel like my first job as a writer is to pay really strict attention out in the world, and then to bring the resonant images, scenes, moments, glimmers, back to the page with me and turn them into language. Every single thing I have ever written has begun with the question, “What glimmered at me lately?” In this way I am sort of a collagist. I don’t ever say, for example, “I think I would like to write a story about…., or, “I have an idea for a character who…” I pay strict attention, both to what is going on in my physical proximity, and also to whenever something that is happening out there in the exterior landscape resonates with what is happening in my interior landscape. I trust those shivers of recognition more than I trust anything. Whether I am at a sky burial in Tibet, or in the check out line at the Whole Foods, hearing the crack of my turned ankle on an ancient stair in Greece, or listening to the sound of goat bells over the sound of the waves of the Agean…I collect those, and do my best to represent them fully in language, and then combine them with other resonant glimmers and they cook for a while in there and over time, a story emerges.

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


Well, I am not sure this really qualifies as adversity, but it is a nice story. I went to graduate school at the University of Utah, and my work was pretty much uniformly disliked by all of the fiction teachers there. David Kranes, the playwright, liked it pretty well, but in my years there I collected a stack of evaluations, the worst of which said, no kidding, “Pam should find something else to do with her hands.” It was my class at Utah, along with some professors, that started the conference called Writers At Work in Park City, and one of the things we got in exchange for our volunteer work on the conference was a 30 minute one-on-one with a visiting writer, editor, or agent. Because I had become so convinced at Utah that my work was awful, I had turned in the name of three writers on my preference sheet, and when they hung up the pairings I didn’t find my name anywhere, and when I asked, the woman at the desk said, “Oh, sorry, all of the people you chose had full plates, so we couldn’t get you in.”
This was pretty much the way I was used to being treated at Utah, and it was pretty much the way I had been treated in my family of origin, which is likely why I picked Utah, so I just sucked it up and walked away. But Shannon Ravenel, who was one of the editors at the conference (Best American Short Stories series editor all through the 80’s, founder of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.) followed me out of the ballroom, and said, “You know, my plate is not full. If you have a copy of a story you want to give me, I would be happy to read it.” Now let me just say that this was an entirely unprompted act of kindness on Shannon’s part. She had no reason to think I was any good, in fact, I was not, at that time, very good (though not quite as bad as my professors said). She had simply witnessed my dismissal by the pairing lady, and reached out to me in a human way.
 Shannon read my story, and was so excited about it, she showed it to Carol Houck Smith, a W.W. Norton editor at that conference. She also called her friend, agent Liz Darhansoff, and told her to contact me. Pretty much my entire career grew out of that moment of un-asked for kindness. Carol was my editor until the time of her death, and I have published five books with W.W. Norton. Liz Darhansoff is still my editor to this day.

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


That I was Chaplin of Delta Delta Delta sorority at Denison University, which meant I was in charge of 80 girls “spirituality” when I was little more than a girl myself. But perhaps you mean something less silly than that. When I was four years old and my mother was a night club singer, I would go to the bar with her, wearing my thigh high white boots and sing “These Boots Were Made For Walking,” and at the part in the song where Nancy Sinatra always said, “Come on, Boots, start walkin!” I would walk across the top of the baby grand. Only marginally less silly. How about this? Nothing terrifies me quite like the prospect of playing co-ed softball.

About the author:

Pam Houston’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published in 2012, by W.W. Norton.  She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays called A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century.  She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, and The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards.  She is the Director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program, and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world.  She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

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Writeliving Interview – Garrett Hongo

It is a pleasure to kick off the Writeliving interview series with esteemed writer, editor and professor Garrett Hongo.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Three poets–my teachers, Bert Meyers, whom I studied with as an undergraduate, and Charles Wright, who was my MFA teacher at UC Irvine; then, from reading and study, Derek Walcott, who was an early inspiration and continues to be.  Beyond these, I’d say the playwright and short story writer Wakako Yamauchi, who basically brought me along as a young writer, mentoring me about Japanese American history from her perspective as a Nisei who was a teenager in the camps, and who gave me an emotional relationship to it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I usually don’t know what I’m doing for a while.  Then, I write a kind of “breakthrough” poem that serves as a kind of polestar of feeling, style, or emotional center.  It was thus with the last two books of poetry and my memoir, VOLCANO.  I say “poem” for VOLCANO too as there is a poem that is at the book’s core.  Basically, I write poems directed towards that seminal poem that acts as a sort of polestar for the entire book’s composition.  For THE RIVER OF HEAVEN, it was “The Legend.”  For VOLCANO, it was the poem “The Unreal Dwelling” from THE RIVER OF HEAVEN.  For CORAL ROAD, it was “Elegy, Kahuku,” the final poem in the published book.

These set the tone for the work, the emotional center, and ask of me lyric and emotional questions which then the other poems address.  I think a good, long while, as I said, and many ideas that came to me earlier then emerge as part of the creative responses to the core poem’s questions.  I wrote “The Wartime Letters of Hideo Kubota” and “The Art of Fresco” sections of CORAL ROAD to address how two different generations of Japanese Americans experienced the same historical event–WW II–one as a DOJ detainee in Arizona and the other as an American soldier in Italy.  I wrote the other two sections–“Coral Road” and “A Map of Kahuku in Oregon” as my own personal responses to the immigration history and my feelings of descent and legacy from all these histories.  Some want to know about style, voice, the so-called “craft” issues.  These aren’t that much at issue for me, as I’ve practiced poetry for a good while now and have a lot of those things worked out.  In essence, though, I’d have to say that I think I’ve developed a style that takes narrative structures derived from the historical archive of dramatic monologues (mainly in English, but also in translations from Dante’s Italian, Virgil’s and Ovid’s Latin, and the Japanese of Zeami Motokiyo).  It also derives its imagistic style from Pound’s Chinese and Anglo-Saxon translations in CATHAY.  The long line I worked at a good, long while and might have affinities with the verse paragraph of Wordsworth, the conversation poems of Coleridge, and Derek Walcott’s iambics.  It’s more vague to me how I came up with it, but it’s not Whitmanic as so many critics have claimed.  My teachers have helped me develop an ear–all of them–but I think the style and voice are all my own.

What did it take to develop this style?  Many years of practice so that it’s how I “hear” any poem I compose.  It’s the muse.

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

Well, nothing out of the ordinary, I guess.  My father was always supportive of whatever I wanted to do, but my mother was dead set against my doing anything except pre-med or pre-law as an undergrad, dead set on me going to UCLA.  I wanted to go to Pomona College, its private tuition paid for by the California State Scholarship Commission, a program created by then-Governor Pat Brown, Jerry Brown’s father.  I needed room and board somehow.  My mother refused to cover it.  We had a fight, etc.  In the end, she said “Not one red cent,” but my father turned around and signed over his BMW to me.  It was an unusual car then and his pride and joy.  I drove it for a summer, sold it, and I had my room and board for the first year.  After that, I supported myself through a summer job that my mother helped me get!

Pomona College was the beginning of my writing dream, really.  It was there I first heard living poets–Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, Seamus Heaney, Gwendolyn Brooks, Diane Wakoski, and others.  I studied literature and art and East Asian languages.  Without it, I doubt I’d have been able to have the dream at all.  When I graduated, I won a fellowship that gave me a year of wandering around Japan, writing poetry.

Later adversities were also substantial–economic, cultural, social–but nothing as clear-cut as my mother refusing to pay for my college education. So, in a way, it wasn’t so much that I prevailed over adversity, but that my father did.

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

I’m a dedicated audiophile and music lover.  My wife says I’ve spent more on stereo gear than I would have on a midlife Beamer.  She’s probably right.  I’m into vinyl, have a collection of over 2,000 LPs, and have a turntable with two arms–one for mono and one for stereo LPs.  I play mostly classical and opera, but also 50s/60s jazz and 60s/70s rock.  I write reviews, travel articles, and audio show coverage for two audio magazines.

About the author:

Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawai`i in 1951.  He grew up in Kahuku and Hau`ula on the island of O`ahu and moved to Los Angeles when he was six, much to his everlasting regret.  He complained so, when he was eight, his parents sent him to live in Wahiawā and Waimalu with relatives who hated him so much, they stuffed him on a plane back to L.A. within a year.  His schooling was at Gardena High School, Pomona College, and UC Irvine.  He directed the Asian Exclusion Act from 1975-77.  He has taught at USC, Irvine, Missouri, Houston, Vanderbilt, and Oregon, where he directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1989-93. Author of three books of poetry, including Coral Road  (Knopf, 2011), Hongo has edited anthologies and also published a book of non-fiction entitled Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai`i (Knopf, 1995). Not among the falsehoods on his resume are fellowships from the NEA, Rockefeller Foundation, and Guggenheim Foundation, and the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He is presently completing a book of non-fiction entitled The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo.  He lives in Eugene, Oregon, where they call him, among other things, Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.

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