Crisp Days and Blue Skies: An Interview with Christine Lasek

christine lasekChristine Lasek’s “Precious Blood” is, on one level, a short story about a grandfather purchasing a pickup truck in which a man committed suicide. But the story, which appeared in the 2014 issue of the Sierra Nevada Review, is also about memory, war, loss and the bonds of family.

Lasek’s debut collection, Love Letters to Michigan, will be published in April 2016 by ELJ Publications. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of South Florida, where she served as the managing editor of Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. She currently teaches creative and technical writing as a visiting instructor at USF and serves as the assistant to the creative writing program director.

Lasek is originally from Troy, Michigan, and graduated from the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor in 2003. Prior to pursuing a degree in creative writing, she worked as a web editor and public relations official for companies in and around Detroit.

Lasek’s fiction and nonfiction have been published in Coal City Review, Tampa Review Online, and VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, among others.


Brandon Dudley: What was the initial spark for “Precious Blood”?

Christine Lasek: That’s an easy one.  A friend and I were discussing Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, a book I was reading as part of a Craft of Nonfiction class.  In the middle of the conversation, my friend said, “You know, my grandfather once bought a truck some dude killed himself in.  He got it cheap because he had to clean it out himself.”  What WHAT?!  And the seed of the story was planted.

BD: Wow. I often wonder about parts of stories, whether they’re based in reality or not, if they’re something that the author really experienced. I can safely say that part of your story was not on my radar, though.

Is that a common way that stories start for you? Is the seed usually some real life event that you just run with? Or is it more often something else, like an image or a specific line of the story that comes to you first?

CL: It depends on the piece.  Sometimes it’s an image, sometimes more.  For me, though, it always has to do with people—how they interact, how they hurt or love each other, how we make sense of it.  I find myself most inspired when I have the chance to meet new people—while I’m getting to know them, my brain is busy creating their back story. Characters in my work often come from that.

BD: I’m curious about the non-linear structure of your piece. Why do you think that was the best way to tell this particular story?

CL: I didn’t start out with that intention.  This story started out as Eric’s story—his section (the first) was in first person, while the other sections were written in third. I wanted to give the reader his thoughts/impressions, then show what led up to the exchange between Eric and his mother in the first section.

But when the piece went through workshop, my classmates felt the story would be better told if all sections were written in third person, in order to illustrate the differences between the three characters. Once I rewrote the first part, I agreed–that change made the piece stronger. So that’s how it came to be in its current form.

BD: I’ve played around with stories that have used a mix of first and third person before, and so far they’ve never quite worked either. What do you think a story needs to make that work, to make that point of view switch necessary?

CL: With POV (and really any style decision you make in a piece), the style element needs to further the theme of the story.  As a fiction writer, when I put pen to paper, it’s more than just telling an interesting story.  I am trying to tell the reader SOMETHING–about what makes us human, about how we relate to each other.  This “something” is the story’s theme.  All of the choices I make in a story need to further that theme, that reason for why the story exists.  When it comes to jumping POVs, the jumps not only have to further the “something,” but their benefits to the story have to outweigh the potential drawbacks (namely, confusing the reader and/or stunting the reader’s ability to form a meaningful connection with a character over time).

BD: How do you think teaching has affected your writing?

CL: This is a giant question.  Let’s just say, as a teacher, I give good advice on writing, and then when I revise my own work, I find that I don’t always follow my own good advice. But the more I teach, the less this happens. Thank you, students.

BD: I saw you have a collection coming out in the spring. Could you tell me a little about that?

CL: My collection is called Love Letters to Michigan and all of the stories take place in my home state.  I didn’t set out to write a series of Michigan-set stories, but when I moved to Florida for my MFA, crisp fall days and blue, blue skies started pervading my work.

The collection is due out in April by ELJ Publications and I couldn’t be more ecstatic!

BD: Besides the location, are there any themes that link the stories in the collection? Are there any themes in general that you feel like you come back to frequently in your work?

CL: The stories in my collection are only linked by place.  The main characters are all ages, both male and female.

But two subjects that I explore again and again in my work include family relationships and “stuff”–the stuff that we own and what it says about us.  I also write a lot of characters who are (or have) single mothers, but I’m not sure why that subject comes up again and again.

BD: Who do you consider influences on your work?

CL: My writing hero is Alice Munro.  The way she creates character, her use of setting, of dialogue–a whole world in a short story, and not just once, but over and over again.  I want my stories to feel like that.  The first collection of hers I read was Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, and I have been hooked ever since.

BD: Where do you see your writing going next? What’s your next writing project?

CL: I am up to my neck in editing the book, but doing revisions always makes me itchy to start something new.  Right now, it looks like the next project will be a second collection of short stories.


B DudleyBrandon Dudley is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, where he is assistant fiction editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. His fiction has been a finalist in the Slice Literary Writers Conference Bridging the Gap Competition and a Million Writers Award nominee. He has had interviews and criticism published in storySouth and Fiction Advocate. He lives in Maine with his wife and two sons.


An Artist In Translation: An Interview with Derek Updegraff

Derek Updegraff photoDerek Updegraff’s short story, “Thursday Morning at A. R. Valentien,” was published in the 2015 edition of the Sierra Nevada Review. The story follows Greg, a middle-aged busboy frustrated with his life, who has a fraught and enlightening experience while waiting on country superstar Reba McEntire.

In addition to the Sierra Nevada Review, Derek Updegraff’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Bayou Magazine, Rosebud, Chiron Review, Posit, and other journals. His poems and translations have appeared in Natural Bridge, The Lyric, The Classical Outlook, Saint Katherine Review, Metamorphoses, and elsewhere, and his articles on Old English language and literature have appeared in Oral Tradition and Texas Studies in Literature and Language. He is the author of three chapbooks of poetry, and in the spring of 2016 his novelette Into the Ends of the World will be published by Blue Cubicle Press in the Overtime single-story chapbook series.      

He holds BA and MFA degrees from Cal State Long Beach and MA and PhD degrees from the University of Missouri. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at California Baptist University and lives in Riverside with his wife and two daughters.


Brandon Dudley: To start off, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what inspired your story. Does the spark of a story tend to start with ideas, themes, images, or is it something else entirely?

Derek Updegraff: Well, with this story the thing that triggered it was the setting. I worked at the restaurant in this story as a busboy when I was in my mid-twenties. I had an MFA, and I was newly married, and I was doing the adjunct circuit, teaching mostly at San Diego Mesa College but also at UC San Diego, but adjuncts rarely get summer classes, and so I would take on odd jobs in the summers, one summer at Barnes and Noble, one summer at the restaurant in this story, and so on, until I went to grad school again to break the cycle. So I knew the atmosphere of this setting well, the dining area of the restaurant as well as the inner-workings of the kitchen and the hotel it is connected to, and I always knew it was a great setting for a story, but I didn’t know what the story would be or when I would write it. As it turned out, I waited almost ten years until I dipped into the memory of that space. The characters came next, but the space led the whole thing into existence. And the second question you ask is a good one. Do we as writers begin a story with an idea, a theme, an image, and so on, and for different stories we might have different types of starting places, but as I look back on my other short stories, I would have to say that I tend to begin with the concrete rather than the abstract. I don’t worry over theme much, especially at the early drafting stages, and I usually start a story because of some tangible, sensory detail, whether it is a setting I’m intrigued by, a bit of dialogue I overheard that plays over in my mind and calls for expansion, or any image or experience that sticks with me and wants to be explored more fully in a story, even if its particular use is not yet clear to me.

BD: Your main character has this very moving scene in the restaurant with, of all people, Reba McEntire. Why did you choose Reba?

DU: I don’t remember if I was a few paragraphs into the story or a few pages in, but at some early point in the drafting process, I realized that the busboy character—Greg—needed to be middle-aged and not in his early or mid-twenties, and I knew that the minor conflict of his feeling demeaned by his job could carry the story only so far. So I started thinking about situations that I could drop Greg in that would bring about the crisis, and I think I always knew that an encounter with a customer was inevitable. And as I was mulling over possible scenes, it occurred to me that this was not just any environment. This was a restaurant attached to a pretty impressive hotel in an exclusive area of San Diego, and in the time I worked there I saw a handful of celebrities dining even though I never served them or talked to them. And the staff would tell stories of the different celebrities who had frequented the place. Tiger Woods was a regular because the hotel is right there at the golf course. At any rate, I figured out that Greg needed to have an interaction with a celebrity, and I made a list of names of the people I had seen there for myself and the people I had heard were once there, and then I added a few inventions of my own. The person who stood out on that list was Reba. Perhaps because she was one of the individuals I really saw in the place but never talked to. But more than that she seemed like the perfect choice. She’s not an obvious choice. Hers is a subtle but consistent fame. Not over the top. And she seems to me to be the kind of person who really would have responded to Greg in a sweet manner. I have no idea what she’s like in person, but she seems like she’d be sweet, doesn’t she? So I thought about the list for a day or two. I wrote this story during a semester when I was teaching a lot, and there were often days between the drafting. And after she emerged as the front runner, I returned to the writing knowing that Greg would meet her. Then she helped characterize Greg, helped fill out his backstory. He needed to have his adolescent fantasies. She needed to be someone he respected and admired but has not thought about in many years. She was able to fill that need. She was a gift, really.

BD: One of my favorite aspects of the scene with Reba was the way you increased the tempo of your sentences. The increased rhythm helped created this palpable sense of desperation and urgency within the encounter. It felt very poetic, really, and so it wasn’t a surprise to then find out that you are also a poet. I wondered if you could comment on the two forms and how they influence your writing? How does poetry influence your fiction and vice versa?

DU: I’m glad you appreciated those sentences. That long paragraph before the final break at the end is probably my favorite section in the piece. I wrote the sentences quickly in the first draft, and I’m usually a fairly slow writer, and then I went back and added, deleted, and changed things only as clarity and sharpness dictated, not wanting to undo the original impulse. The rhythm was a product of me genuinely sympathizing with Greg there in that moment, when his body is frozen and his mind is racing, certainly a more subjective moment than the evenness of much of the third-person-limited blanketing the story. And I’m glad you called it poetic. I was certainly aiming for quick continuation—I think often times the word “and” is the best word we have as writers—but the rhythm created by the language, by the relatively even distribution of stresses or strong sounds amid unstressed lighter sounds, does have something to do with my background in poetry writing. For me, sound is an important aspect of every mode of writing. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing a poem or a short story. If I’m not reading aloud in the middle of composing, I am certainly always reading aloud once a draft exists. Over and over. Even prose paragraphs. I read them aloud multiple times to make sure everything sounds right. The importance of sound was impressed on me when I was an undergraduate studying with Gerald Locklin in Long Beach. He taught form and meter even though he mostly moved away from them after his early writing, but he made his students write villanelles and sonnets and other forms, just as he had been made to, and he helped me hear iambic and trochaic rhythms, and anapestic and dactylic rhythms, rather than just seeing them through scansion and lifeless notation. I stayed at Long Beach for my MFA in fiction, and during that time my writing world centered on learning the craft of the short story, but I continued to study poetry with Gerry in those years, formally and informally, and then when I was at Missouri I was once again surrounded with tremendous writers who helped me in various ways, but I was also immersing myself in linguistics and early medieval literature courses, two areas which had been of tangential interest to me as an undergrad and MFA student. We can’t be experts in everything, every genre or time period, but we do need to read a lot and have a general sense of all that’s come before as well as what’s being written today, and then we need to delve into some of those spots, and where exactly we’re jumping in is going to influence our understanding of craft and help shape our individual styles. For me, the study of language became important, as did the history of meters and developments of sounds in English. And not just sounds but internal structures. In that scene with Reba, there is at least one moment of chiasmus, as well as other types of parallelism. The chiasmus I’m thinking about is: “and while he was staring at Reba, and while Reba was staring at him.” And in the moment when I was first drafting that lengthy paragraph, I don’t remember actively thinking, Hey, that’s neat; there’s chiasmus. But I do remember finding it as I reread what I’d written, and I was delighted to see it there, and to hear it there. So certainly that awareness of and appreciation of sound and structural conventions in poetry and in language generally has had an influence on my prose. And as far as fiction having an influence on my poetry, I think that’s there too. I remember being in a poetry workshop in Scott Cairns’s office with a handful of other grad students, and we were all just getting to know each other’s work. And after about the second or third round of workshopping, someone commented on my poems often having a clear narrative focus. And that’s true though I don’t think I knew I was relying on it so heavily. The poems I like the best have crisp, concrete details in them and avoid abstractions, and often times they tell a story, whether directly or implicitly. In my own poems I frequently employ dialogue and write in the third person. I don’t do it all the time now, but occasionally my poems are simply very short stories in verse.

BD: I’ve seen that you also translate work from Old English, Middle English and Latin. What sparked your interest in that field, and how has working in translation affected your own work?

DU: Well, there are a lot of things I could say about all of that, but I’ll try not to carry on for too long. My dad is a classicist and has taught Latin and Greek at the same private high school for over forty years. He had planned on becoming a professor. He went to Oberlin and Stanford and then in his mid-twenties took a job at a high school that he thought would be a temporary job, something that might last for a few years before he moved on to something better. But he fell in love with the place and has stayed there for his whole career, and I was able to attend the school on scholarship as a teacher’s son. I started taking Latin in seventh grade, and I just hated it. I stuck with Latin throughout high school and had my dad as my A.P. teacher, but in those years I was not an ideal student. At some point in high school I remember getting into writing, though it was a lesser interest than what it would become for me in college, but I didn’t yet have an interest in studying languages. I’ve always loved and admired my dad, but Latin was his thing, and as a teenage boy I didn’t want my dad’s thing to be my thing. As I was growing up, people would always ask me if I was going to be a teacher like my dad. And the answer was always “no” when I was a kid, and here I am now, a teacher who loves teaching, a teacher who has also been teaching since his mid-twenties. And the truth is that I did grow to love literature in my adolescent years, even though I writhed a bit within the institutional structure that is school. And so as I began to take writing and the study of literature seriously in my late teens and early twenties as an undergrad, and then as an MFA student, and eventually as a PhD student in my late twenties, I found myself choosing to take courses in classical and medieval Latin, and I was reading Catullus and Horace and Ovid and others again, in the Latin, and loving it and thinking to myself, How could I have not loved this stuff earlier. What was wrong with me? And I probably realized that to be a writer meant to understand language, and then what had been boring to me before—declensions and conjugations and structural principles—became really fascinating stuff because it gave me insights into what language really is. I don’t think people can really understand their own native language until they have studied at least one or two others in depth. In the fourth grade I became fluent in Spanish because my family lived outside of Madrid for a year, and that’s another story for another time, but I forgot all of my Spanish within a year or two of being back in the States from lack of use, and I don’t have many memories of learning or studying Spanish. I just learned it as kids so easily do. But as an adult I really came to know English well because I was studying other languages, because I was learning Old English and Middle English, and some Old Norse and German, though the latter was for reading comprehension only. As of today, I can’t speak a second living language, and I’m a little embarrassed by that since I was bilingual at one point in elementary school, but I do love working with dead languages, especially Old English. I had my first course in Old English as an MFA student, and I took it because I needed to get to sixty units and I remembered liking Beowulf well enough in translation as an undergrad. Not to go on and on, but I was instantly hooked, by the language, the seemingly loose but actually complex meter, the subject matter, everything. Many of my favorite poems are in Old English. And there are great prose pieces too. Saints’ lives. Homilies. Really beautiful, interesting works. I ended up writing my dissertation on some of the works by the monk and homilist Aelfric of Eynsham. And one of my in-process book projects is a series of translations of his saints’ lives, though that book is moving along very slowly at the moment due to time constraints. But there’s a real need for updated translations. There are plenty of Old English texts that have not been translated into present-day English or are available only in outdated translations. Many of Aelfric’s saints’ lives, for example, have not appeared in translation since the 1800s. I have a new translation and edition of his Life of St. George coming out in a journal this fall, and as time permits I’ll keep chipping away at producing more. And to get to the second part of your question, I would say that for me all the modes I write in influence each other, as I said earlier with fiction and poetry, and I consider translation to be its own mode too, as Walter Benjamin claimed it to be, because often what happens when we translate is the pushing through of our own ideas, emotions, experiences, and so on, even though they are navigated through, or maybe sprung from, the work of someone else. But we do get into a gray area here, and some people like the safer word “adaptation” when a new work seems to have emerged from the old one, but I still prefer “translation” in those looser cases because a translation is always a new work—it’s never the same work—but there are certainly a lot of ways to handle the source text, so the translator’s intention then remains a valid thing to keep in mind. For me, when I translate Aelfric, I like to think there is more Aelfric in there than Updegraff because I want to pass along Aelfric to others, even though they’re also getting a bit of me, of my diction, and so on, since language is always idiomatic, but then in some of my translations of Catullus, for example, people get more Updegraff than Catullus, and that’s because the love interest in his poem becomes the love interest in my real life, and his places and situations are turned into my places and situations, and I don’t worry about such things then as the difference between the speaker and the poet because that distinction isn’t important in all lyrics and is a relatively recent obsession within the history of lyric poetry, so what we had—for me—was Catullus the poet and then what we get is Updegraff the poet as standing in or leaping from the moment first expressed by Catullus. The final thing I have to say about working in translation has to do with reading for craft, which is something all serious writers have learned to do and is something I try to teach my creative writing students. Although there is always some overlap, I teach works differently in a creative writing classroom than I do in a literature classroom, and I ask my creative writing students to learn to read as writers do. Well, the translator reads with the same slowness and structural appreciation as the writer should. Most writers read other writers with an eye toward craft and the functioning parts of the whole, and we listen with an ear toward craft, and while we’re attending to the pieces, we set meaning on the shelf—that illusive and debatable thing—at least in the beginning. The best literature professors and critics read this way too, of course, but many readers focus on information and content, or their own pleasure, and while those things have their importance, the translator is forced to contend with craft in a very intimate way, and the serious writer also learns to do this at some point in his or her career.

BD: It sounds like your father was a major influence on your writing life. Who else would you consider influences?

DU: Yeah, he was and still is. And I mentioned Gerald Locklin and Scott Cairns earlier, and really all the writers I had my fiction and poetry workshops with, folks like Aliki Barnstone, Rafael Zepeda, Stephen Cooper, Suzanne Greenberg, and Charles Harper Webb. I would read all their books and learn from them as writers and teachers, and of course often their influential people would become my influential people, as it happened with John Fante, whom I might not have ever read if it weren’t for Steve Cooper and all he has done through the years to promote Fante’s work. Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff might be the writers who have most shaped my fiction. Many other names come to mind, like Aimee Bender and George Saunders, but I think Carver and Wolff have taught me more about the short story than anyone else. And there are many other poets that come to mind as well, like Richard Wilbur, Wendell Berry, Alicia Stallings—who goes by A. E. Stallings—Stanley Kunitz, Philip Levine, and Heather McHugh. And even some of the more artful critics like Roland Barthes, who blended the academic and the creative in ways more people should do.

BD: I saw in your profile on Poets & Writers that you just launched a BFA program at California Baptist University. I wondered if you could talk about how your years studying writing, the good parts and the bad, have shaped this new program?

DU: That’s a good question. Thinking first about teaching, I can say that much of what I do in my courses is modeled after what my own professors did in their courses. There is a common workshop structure that, as far as I have experienced and could tell from talking to friends in other programs, is the norm for creative writing classes, but within that common workshop structure each professor has idiosyncrasies, some of which I liked as a student and some of which I didn’t. At one of the institutions I attended, a guest poet was brought in whom I was excited to have. Well, within the first day or two, she or he had us writing things in class, there on the spot, and then required us to read aloud what we had just written for an impromptu discussion of the newly created work. And that terrified me, and it upset me, because even though I had been in a number of workshops and knew that bringing in writing and reading it aloud was part of the deal, I had never been required to read something I just pieced together. As a student, I always looked forward to my workshop days. I loved reading my work aloud and getting feedback, but I wanted to read only the material that I had worked over long enough and thought ready for the workshop environment. So, I actually got up out of my seat and walked out of the class before my turn came around to read. And I dropped the class that day, and I felt bad that the guest poet probably thought I was a rude person for leaving, but really I just acted quickly out of panic because I had never before been told to read something aloud on the spot like that. Now as a professor, I do often have my students complete writing exercises in class at the beginning of the semester before we have gotten into full workshop mode, but I would never require my students to read aloud what they just jotted down in class. I tell them my story about the displeasure I felt in that bad experience—or almost-bad-experience since I left without reading—and then I ask for volunteers to read aloud their in-process works, only volunteers in the early days, while reminding them that they will all be reading aloud their more polished versions in the coming weeks of workshopping. So that story comes to mind, but really the bulk of my years studying writing has been positive, very positive, because I thought highly of my creative writing and literature professors and had some great peers whose feedback I always looked forward to receiving in workshop. So, pedagogically speaking, I think to a large degree we are all shaped by the programs we come out of. But to answer the main part of your question concerning program development, I think it was helpful that I studied in more than one genre at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. For me at least. So I wasn’t designing with an eye toward the needs of the fiction writer or the needs of the poet exclusively, as I might have been likely to do if I was one or the other. But instead, after identifying the core number of tiered workshops that would be required in a given genre, I looked at the existing courses in my department and across the campus and tried to gather elective units that would be helpful supplements to the fiction writer or to the poet or to both and then create some pieces that were missing. And some of my colleagues assisted with this and brainstormed with me. The result is, as it seems to me, a good mix of asking students to take courses in a couple of genres—whether fiction, poetry, nonfiction, screenwriting, or a topical subgenre—but then to settle on one specifically to pursue more at the upper level and to center on for a final project, all while taking literature courses and other courses in the nonliterary arts that might inform the student’s chosen genre. And I think one thing we did well was to give our students a good amount of freedom within the major’s gathering of non-writing courses. I can think back to one of my degrees in particular and remember that there were some curiously narrow requirements that have since been loosened up. So I think that is a strength of this new program, that students get an appropriate mix of range and specialization in their creative writing courses, and quite a bit of freedom too with the time periods and genres they study in their literature courses.

BD: Could you tell us a little bit about what you’re writing now? Where can we expect to see you next?

DU: I’m working mostly on fiction right now. It’s hard sometimes wanting to work in fiction, poetry, and translation since at different times I feel pulled in multiple directions, or if I’m in a period when I’m focusing on one mode, I feel as though I’m neglecting the others. And I like to think I’m a scholar too, and writing academic articles certainly takes a lot of time. Well, all writing takes time, doesn’t it? But at this moment I am in fiction mode more than the others. And for me—at least in this period of my life—that means working on short stories rather than a novel. As far as forthcoming publications go, I do have fiction, poetry, translation, and academic writing slated to appear in various places toward the end of 2015 and throughout 2016. My next short story being published is called “Story at Midnight,” and that is scheduled to appear in issue 60 of Rosebud, which is a nationally distributed magazine people can pick up in Barnes and Noble and other bookstores. The last I heard, issue 60 was scheduled to be on the shelves in late November or sometime in December. So, if interested, people can go buy it then and read that story. And I recently sent off a collection of short stories to a few places. I titled it Chrysalis & Other Stories and sent the manuscript off, and then shortly after that I changed my mind and sent off a slightly differently arranged manuscript titled The Butcher’s Tale & Other Stories. They’re essentially the same collection. The “Thursday Morning” story is in there. I wish I could answer right now by saying that so-and-so press will have that book out in 2016 or 2017, but maybe it will be 2026 or 2027. That’s the way it goes sometimes, and I try not to worry about time too much, for acceptances or for my own life. One of the best interviews I’ve ever read was with Tobias Wolff in Jay Woodruff’s A Piece of Work. At some point in the interview Wolff is talking about craft and time and how time is on the side of the writer, and he says that in most cases writers produce their best works with some life seasoning. That’s a paraphrase, but I know for certain he uses the word “seasoning” because that word, “seasoning,” stood out to me. I first read that interview in my twenties. It was helpful to me then, and it’s helpful to me now that I’m in my thirties, and I suspect it will be helpful to me in my forties, and fifties, and so on, because as long as I’m still around and able to write, I want to get better and keep producing my best stuff. I think it’s important to like your own writing. All of us writers need to like our own writing. We need to feel proud of the things we’ve written, be glad that they exist, but then we need to look ahead and strive to create better things than we’ve done before. That’s my goal anyway. So I hope that collection of stories gets picked up by a press soon, but either way I’m on to the next thing, which today is another story I’ve recently started, but I can’t say what it’s about because I don’t like to talk about pieces while they’re in-progress.

B Dudley

Brandon Dudley is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, where he is assistant fiction editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. His fiction has been a finalist in the Slice Literary Writers Conference Bridging the Gap Competition and a Million Writers Award nominee. He has had interviews and criticism published in storySouth and Fiction Advocate. He lives in Maine with his wife and two sons.

AWP Conference – A Novice’s Experience


By Rebecca Victoria Ramirez


For my first time ever I had the privilege of attending this year’s AWP Conference and Bookfair in Minneapolis at the Minneapolis Convention Center (MCC). The conference lasted three days with events beginning at 9:00 a.m. daily. On some days the events were scheduled well into the evening, beginning at 10:00 p.m. and ending at midnight.

In addition to the readings and panels scheduled throughout the day there is the bookfair; this year’s was housed in the MCC’s exhibit hall, a 475,000 square foot area. There were over 500 booths which consisted of colleges advertising their MFA programs, journals and magazines selling their latest editions and announcing calls for submissions, publisher selling books and advertising author signings, and company reps trying to convince beginning writers that they need an agent.

With a considerable selection of events to choose from, setting up my schedule proved to be very difficult. There is an AWP app, however, which can be downloaded to your smart phone prior to the conference and that makes this task a little easier. Most events fell into two2015-04-09 10.32.31categories, panels and readings, and were scheduled to last a little over an hour with fifteen-minute breaks in between giving you time to rush from one to the next. But at any hour there might be 30 or more events to choose from.

One panel I attended, “Fashioning a Text,” discussed how structure in writing is often regarded as secondary to voice and content. However, through readings of their own texts, and that of others, the panel of essayists, journalists, and memoirists demonstrated how structure itself can be artifice. Writers often utilize structure to find meaning in their writing and it is not solely the writer’s voice but also the structure of their writing that is idiosyncratic the panel explained. This called to mind a fascinating memoir I had just read by Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby.

The focus of Solnit’s memoir is the deterioration of her mother’s health. Within its pages is found story upon story, one memory that opens into another. Titles of each section speak to key moments in Solnit’s life and of the relationship between her and her mother. It has often been said that in our last days we return to our former state, to that of a child or infant, our children now the parents, responsible for feedings and toileting. The structure of Solnit’s memoir speaks to this descent, returning to the memories that began the memoir in its final pages. There is also a literal arc structured from the titles of each section that can be seen in the table of contents.

Another panel I attended “Life After the MFA,” discussed the employment opportunities available to those with an MFA in creative writing. Each of the three members of the panel briefly mentioned the possibility of writing internships, editing journals, and publishing. However, all three found their way to a teaching position. This wasn’t surprising as all three had started off as teachers, working in the K-12 system prior to their degree, but it was a little disconcerting for me because I had attended the event with the anticipation that the panel would present many more opportunities other than teaching. That seems like a pretty obvious option and I wanted to know what more there is.

Overall the event was a wonderful experience. Learning to navigate the venue can prove to be difficult as well managing your schedule efficiently but it is definitely worth attending. The wealth of information you’ll come away with and the opportunity to meet one of your favorite writers is invaluable. I will certainly attend next year’s conference.


For more information about next year’s AWP, scheduled at the convention center in Los Angeles, California, please visit:

Show Me The Money:

Tell It Like A Woman


By Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

In honor of the recent Mother’s Day holiday, I thought it would be nice to highlight some publishing opportunities that focus on women and mothers. As a mother myself, I can say firsthand that being a mother is one of the toughest jobs there is. And being a stay-at-home mom is even more challenging. I left my job two years ago to finish my BA and pursue my MFA, thinking that not working while going to school would be easier than trying to find time around a busy work schedule to squeeze in my coursework.

There’s a great misconception that being a stay-at-home mom is easier than working out of the home. But staying at home means being readily available to attend to everyone’s needs and soon the day can become so overwhelming that writing and coursework gets put on the backburner. But when mothers have a moment to pause, to ponder on the world around them once the busy day has ended, they realize what an immeasurable opportunity it is to raise their young children. It is certainly something I will always cherish. And it’s definitely given me plenty more writing material.


Exploring Motherhood

Brain, Child is accepting submissions for personal essays and short fiction that explore motherhood and the family. Brain, Child will pay from $40 to $150 for pieces selected for publication. For more information please visit:

Married Life

Creative Nonfiction Magazine is currently accepting essay submissions for an upcoming issue dedicated to marriage. They are looking for well-written essays that discuss what married life is all about. The entry fee is $20. Deadline is August 31, 2015. $1,000 will be awarded to the best essay and $500 to the runner-up. For more information please visit:

Single Moms

ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere) is a new website for single parent mothers. Submissions in poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction essays are being accepted for the site’s first annual writing contest. Prizes will be awarded in the amounts of $500, $350, and $150. There is no entry fee. Deadline is May 20, 2015. For more information please visit:

I’m Supposed To Be Writing


By Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

Ah. Netflix. Amazon Prime. And my best friend: My red sectional couch. They call to me. Really. Binge watching episodes of Wilfred or Orphan Black. Or those Talking Animals videos on YouTube. Have you seen them?

I have this problem. I have writing to do. Not an assignment really. Well sometimes. But I also have my own writing I should be doing. But these characters in these shows and videos are so engaging that I become distracted from what’s most important – my writing. And I can always make the excuse that I can’t think of anything interesting to write about.

Maybe not having anything to write about is your excuse. You know, writer’s block? Dinty W. Moore won’t let you get by with that excuse. “If you walk away from the keyboard, the notepad, the desk, then yes, you are blocked, but it is of your own making” he states in his book Crafting the Personal Essay. 

15-nothing-to-write-about-life-my-life-is-boreBut what if you really do feel stuck?

What if you truly feel you’ve nothing to write about?

When I was doing my undergrad work I learned about the power of using prompts. The best part is that they are widely accessible: You can find them in craft books. You can find them online. You can make up your own prompts. Or, you can take an essay or book you recently read and write something based on that; perhaps there is a technique or form the writer used that you’d like to try.

The possibilities are truly infinite.

Maybe what you pump out from these prompts won’t be prize-winning pieces but they will get you writing. And that writing could lead to discovery. Right in the middle of what you consider nothing you just might find that something worth pushing forward.

So get your hands on some prompts and get writing!

For a great craft essay on prompts visit Brevity Magazine’s website at:

For a list of writing prompts visit the Poets and Writers website at:


Show Me The Money:

Writing About Diversity


By Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

In February HBO announced they were looking for emerging writers of diverse backgrounds for its writing fellowship. The call for submissions asked for samples of screenwriting, a resume, and an answer to the question “How has your background influenced the stories you want to tell?” HBO is looking for writers of diverse backgrounds to create new content for their shows and films. But why the need for such diversity?

Perhaps it is because nowadays the headlines are filled with stories of injustices against people because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or all of the above. I don’t believe, and many would agree with me, that these injustices are becoming more frequent. But in our age of advancing technology, of the cell phone and social media, we are merely becoming more aware of them. And with this awareness comes the need to understand.

To understand why.

To understand each other.

As writers we search for this understanding of the world through our art. So I thought for today’s “Show Me The Money” it would be fitting to spotlight contests in search of diverse writing.


WNDB Short Story Contest

WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) has launched this contest in the effort to “support diversity and improve exposure for diverse books and writers, with the intention of inspiring a vast array of readers at the same time.” There is no entry fee and the grand prize is $1,000 and publication in an anthology. The deadline is May 8, 2015. For more information visit:

Insanity Prize

Knut House Magazine is sponsoring a contest for short stories that “dramatize the experience of insanity authentically.” There is a $10.00 entry fee and the grand prize is $1,000 and publication in the magazine. The deadline is April 30, 2015. For more information visit:

Wildbilly Fiction Contest

Trajectory Journal 2015 is looking for “realistic stories set in the South or West.”There is a $15.00 entry fee and the grand prize is $100 and publication in the journal. The deadline is September 1, 2015. For more information visit:



Book Review: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century

$12; 128 pages
SplitLevel Texts
ISBN:  978-0985811136




The Sun Has Gone Out: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century
by Bryce Bullins

There is an infestation of spiders in Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century. No less than a dozen references to spiders or spiderlike qualities exist in Meng’s text and it’s wholly fitting: what better creature best embodies the complexity of time than one who spins webs as intricate and unfathomably raw as the spider? There is great concern for time in Solar Eclipse and Meng’s attentiveness to its passage is humbling while simultaneously sprawling.

Meng asserts that “We could all benefit / from risking temporality / more often” and her verse echoes this sentiment. Solar Eclipse navigates the course and events of a year from the day of the eclipse (22 July, 2009) to the following year but in such a way that it feels as though time is seemingly lost in the process of recollection. Experiments in space, form, and language create a hazy, though still discernible, presence of grounding in some form of the present.

Interspersed within the collection are several diary entries that serve as poetic-prose sections that seek, whether intentionally or otherwise, to stabilize us in the temporality of the year. These diary entries are the most vulnerable pieces in Solar Eclipse because of their earnest honesty. In “M, Tu, W, Th, F” Meng asserts that “learning to want impossible things is a sort of freedom worms & crocodiles don’t know.” In this oddly humorous musing, Meng is subtly pointing out the flaws in our own ability to yearn for impossibility. The virtue of it being impossible makes us want it that much more and makes the lack of it that much stronger. In so many words, it is the drive that keeps us pressing onward.

The most striking aspect of Solar Eclipse is how it deftly rests on a blade’s edge of the necropastoral[1]. While never overtly approaching the bleakness of ecocatastrophe, Meng’s allusions are grounded heavily in the present moment that creates the conditions possible for ecocatastrophe: her verse occupies a space where blog entries coexist with goat farmers in Uruguay and “whatever nascent understanding we’d had about empathy / had its limbs hacked off / right from the start.” This is to say nothing of the countless other pastoral tropes Meng conjures up, but her verse often subverts them as in “Game Reserve”:

Just because there is no eagle
doesn’t mean the eagle isn’t here.
Or maybe ‘eagle’ is really the name for ‘crow’;
And the group of them
above me is saying so.

If the eagle represents the majesty of the world before ecocatastrophe takes its toll, then the crows are what remains after. There is no more deft an analogy than a murder of crows circling above us, occupying the space of the beautiful world we have destroyed.

It is in this world that Meng seeks to illustrate individual flairs of hopelessness, anxiety, optimism, and banality. By doing so, Meng captures a climatology all her own of a life lived now. Whether we are present for it as well (read: aware) is a separate matter entirely.

[1] See Joyelle McSweeny’s essay on the necropastoral, in which she probes the political-aesthetic paradigm and its inability to be separated from nature

Book Review: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know

$18; 144 pages
Subito Press
ISBN: 978-0990661214



Something Like That: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know
by Bryce Bullins

Erasures, when done exceptionally, can create a landscape wholly unique. Paradoxically, the willful redaction of text can enhance, if not make better, a narrative. For example, Yedda Morrison’s Darkness erases, or more accurately whites-out, large portions of the first chapter of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In doing so, Morrison doesn’t so much rewrite Conrad’s narrative but rather enhances it by bringing the natural world to the forefront. Similarly, through this same process of careful and willful redaction, Amaranth Borsuk and Andy Fitch have made something quite unique with their work As We Know.

Written in diary entries from April 30th to July 1st, As We Know seeks to abolish identity and embrace banality. Days pass with vignettes of stoops and flowers in the park, internalization of anxieties and ponderousness, and musings on the nature of umbrellas. Most striking is the lack of gender identifiers of the writer and no hints to let us peel away whatever may be there. It’s a brilliant and bold move. By removing gender identifiers, arguably the identity of a narrator is dismantled, at which point we are able to become more invested in the language on the page as we now have a blank space with which to connect with work in myriad ways. In essence, our own biases, whatever they may be, are dismantled via the absence of identity, leaving us with an unfiltered dialogue with the text itself.

As We Know has a meta-sensibility to its willful destruction of identity. Within the first four pages a quote from Georges Bataille appears in which we are given firm notice that As We Know is taking on the job of the formless and is attempting to “(1) [debase] objects by stripping them of pretensions—in the case of words, pretensions to meaning—and (2) [attack] the very condition on which meaning depends, the structural opposition between definite terms.” We are immediately told what’s at stake by taking away all that is usually at stake. This is to say nothing of the underlying conceptual aspects of As We Know. To quote from the artist’s statement, “As We Know attempts to intervene into the gendered history of editorial intervention as it has played out in the famous cases of figures such as Dorothy Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson.” By not concerning itself with identity from the outset, the tension that generally exists between ownership and authorship dissipates. Though it is clear that there is still some consternation in the text as at times: entries often flow together seamlessly, almost as if one day bleeds into the next with little to separate the preceding day(s), and yet there are times when there are clearly conflicted voices, one of which is giving what is tantamount to stage directions: “(figure out how to organize those better)” and “(figure out where to make these past or present tense)”. This struggle never quite manifests into open aggression but instead subtly stews beneath the work, begging questions as we move forward in time. There is no resolution by the end, only hints at a partial and tenuous closure when we reach the acknowledgements and are given a simple dedication: “this book is for Emily and Dorothy.”

As We Know deftly uses the art of strike-through to cultivate its attentiveness to banality and temporality. The grounding for this banality comes from a quote from Roland Barthes, which serves as an epigraph (as presented in the format of As We Know):

; whatever he writes
, it will always be a vested discourse, in which the body
will make its appearance (banality is discourse without body).
In other words, what he writes proceeds from a corrected banality.

As We Know isn’t merely “corrected banality” but perfected banality: each entry is clearly marked with a day, sections marked with timestamps, and the erased structure of the work makes it feel as though these were a series of never-ending connections due in large part to the repetitious banality that makes up our own days. As mentioned, days bleed together as simply as turning the page, so much so to that when we were cognizant of being on May 5th it is suddenly May 20th.  Strikingly, this preponderance of time dilation is one of As We Know‘s greatest strengths.

When taken out of the context of the work at large, the entries still work exceedingly well as standalone pieces. Take for example the excerpt the Sierra Nevada Review published in volume 25 from May 22:

As We Know 1

No knowledge of the preceding days is necessary to feel the weight of this entry, allowing it to work and flex its integrity entirely on its own as a self-contained micro narrative. Placed into the context of the full body of work, its weight is certainly enhanced, but because of the way in which As We Know is constructed, it lends itself naturally to vignettes rather than predicating itself on needing the entire body to function. Apropos, considering the dynamics of authorship and voice within.

When not tarrying with bringing the past to the present and grounding the timeline of As We Know somewhere within the confines of an abstract present, the struck-through text, by and large, tends to remove what would otherwise be superfluous details and descriptions. It is ironic then, that these superfluous details and descriptions are what enhance the banality of our lives. More correctly, these superfluous things merely give us the illusion of enhancement. What is banal is always banal, no matter how one dresses it.

As We Know is an experiment in language and presentation devoid of all frivolity and pretension as established by Bataille. It is direct, bare, and nearly holistic in its austerity. Its complexities are vast and often times lend to the meta-narrative of our own lives in that As We Know, intentionally or otherwise, winds up confronting us with our own subjectivity to both content and form.


Book Review: The Glass Castle




January 17, 2005

ISBN: 074324754X

Scribner, New York






It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes:

Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle: A Memoir

by Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

“What I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes,” writes Walls in the first few pages of her memoir. Some of Walls’ earliest memories are of a fire that engulfed her, running up the tutu-like skirt of her pretty pink dress, as she stood on a stool, hovering over her family’s stove, boiling hot dogs. She was only three years old. Her mother, Rose Mary, a self-proclaimed artist, sat just a room away, painting. “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d often ask her children “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?” Walls’ childhood was one ruled by an emotionally-absent mother and an alcoholic father, who instead of parenting their four children, more often than not ignored and neglected them.

If ever they did provide for their children it was by virtue of some sort of thievery. And often their crimes included the children’s participation. “Mom’s plan was for her and Maureen to go into the dressing room . . . with an armful of new clothes for Maureen to try on,” Walls writes. “When they came out . . . Lori, Brian, and I would create a ruckus to distract the clerk while Mom hid a dress under a raincoat she would be carrying on her arm.”

Consistently creditors caught up with the Walls family, and the children, acclimated to this lifestyle, were always on point when their father announced it was “time to skeedaddle.” They gathered the few belongings they could carry escaping into the dark of night. After years of dead-end jobs and countless “skeedaddles” from one town after another, Rex Walls, wife and kids in tow, returned to his hometown of Welch, Virginia. Rather than the contentment one might expect to find in their father’s hometown, what followed were more years of discontent. Rex and Rose Mary purchased a dilapidated house lacking electricity and running water. The children, consequently, were reared in a home abundant in filth, deprived of food, warmth, and sanity.

Despite the volatile childhood that unfolds within the pages of her memoir, Walls’ does not portray her parents as monsters. Rather, she describes them as she saw them, through the eyes of a child. The portraits Walls paints of each member of her family are vivid: each with their own voice, demeanor, and personality. Readers will come away from this memoir feeling as if they’ve come to know Rex, Rose Mary, Lori, Brian, Maureen, and Jeanette herself. There is nothing refined about the words that fall from the lips of innocence onto the page of Walls’ memoir. And so as readers we find that what remains is a story of unadulterated love within a family.




Rebecca Victoria Ramirez resides in Northern California with her partner, children, and an assortment of pets. She earned her BA in English May 2013 and will earn her MFA in Creative Writing January 2016.




Book Review: Tender at the Bone

Tender at the Bone


May 25, 2010

Random House, New York

ISBN: 978-0812981117





“Food could be a way of making sense of the world”:

Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table

by Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

Reichl’s parents were big entertainers. Reichl’s mother, endearingly nicknamed “the queen of mold,” bragged that she could “make a meal out of anything” and tested this claim on the many occasions when the Reichls hosted events in their home. At a young age Reichl designated herself the buffet table monitor, standing guard over the guests and shooing them away from the most hazardous of the dishes. When her older brother announced his engagement Reichl’s mother insisted on hosting the engagement party leading to over 26 of the guests taking trips to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped. When the calls started coming in asking if it could have been the food, Reichl’s mother responded “Nonsense. We all feel fine. And we ate everything.”

Reichl’s mother is bi-polar and because her sickness consumed both parents Reichl learned early on how to care for herself. When her parents abandoned her to take a trip to Europe Reichl was left with her maternal grandmother who then pawned her off on Aunt Birdie, the mother of her father’s first wife and her cook, Alice. Reichl’s time with them is one of her most cherished memories, in the kitchen learning to cook dumplings and chicken croquette.

Reichl grew up in the kitchen, listening to and relating stories while preparing ingredients for simple or extravagant dishes, fostered by those who shared her love of food. Included in this memoir is a collection of treasured recipes that are representative of significant moments in Reichl’s life. Rather than a simple narrative of a woman’s coming of age, these recipes enrich and add flavor to Reichl’s story.

Time after time Reichl faced abandonment by her parents. This continually led her to the kitchen, where in her youth, she found nurturing from her adopted grandmother and the family’s hired cook. In her young adulthood she found comfort in preparing her own dishes for friends and lovers. Despite the constant absence of her parents, Reichl’s readers are sure to find that her childhood and adolescence were brimming with love because her kitchen was always full with devoted and affectionate characters who aided her in “making sense of the world.”





Rebecca Victoria Ramirez resides in Northern California with her partner, children, and an assortment of pets. She earned her BA in English May 2013 and will earn her MFA in Creative Writing January 2016.