Writers in the Woods Interview Series: Rebecca Makkai

Writers in the Woods Interview Series: Rebecca Makkai

by Carly Courtney

Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association’s Novel of the Year award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. Her short story collection, Music for Wartime, was published in June of 2015. Her short fiction was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House, and New England Review.

You can purchase Music for Wartime here and on most online book-retailers: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525426691

What is your favorite story from graduate school?

I have a Master’s in Literature from Middlebury College in Vermont. You go every summer for five summers and then you have a master’s degree… but I met my husband there! He was literally the first person I met: I got out of the taxi with my suitcase, and he was the first person that I met. I was like, “He’s really cute!” Then “No, you’re just thinking that because he’s the first person you met at graduate school,” and then I ended up marrying him. We had some wonderful professors, and because it was a summer program, they were from all different institutions. Oskar Eustis, who was, at the time, was already a theatre director (now he’s the director of the Public Theatre in New York- he’s a major director), taught my contemporary modern American theatre class and it was incredible. This is a guy who does not himself have even a college degree, but he was the most dynamic professor that I’d ever had. I remember him, on the third day of class, talking about “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and he just started openly sobbing, tears falling down into his beard (he had a big bushy beard), just totally unembarrassed, sobbing about this play. It was one of those classes I would retake in a heartbeat. It would be my first choice of any class I’ve ever taken. I was so excited to get up the mountain to hear him speak that I got a speeding ticket!

 

Have you ever published anything you were positive you’d get in trouble for? What was it? What happened?

I’m terrified about a lot of stuff I’ve published. Once your stuff is out there, you do get really bad reviews, it’s inevitable, and sometimes very publicly. Unfortunately, on a bad day, that voice can be in your head as you’re writing. “This is what people aren’t going to like about it, this is what people are going to mock it about, this is who will be offended by it.” You do really have to turn that off. I’m really scared about the book I’m writing now because it’s about the AIDS crisis and that’s not something that I was personally affected by. I know that there will be reviews that question my right to tell that story, or are really eager to point out any way that I got it wrong, and I just have to be okay with that. I thought a lot about whether it is what I really want to publish, and it is. I can’t control what story I want to tell any more than people can control their dreams; you tell the story you want to tell. I just have to be okay with the fact that I’m doing the best I can, I’m trying very hard to get it right and to do justice to the people whose story this is, and I’m going to try my best not to upset anyone, but just the fact of its existence, there is going to be some people who have an issue with it.

What was the weirdest place you’ve ever written? Did anything come of it?

I think you have to be able to work in all different places, you can’t just be able to work in your one special spot. I’m sure I’ve written in weirder places, but what sticks out in my mind is when I wrote a whole story sitting on the floor of an airport during a flight delay. It was very short, I wrote the entire thing right there. It’s a story in my story collection called “Everything We Know About the Bomber.” It was right after the Boston Marathon bombings, right after they caught the one brother and killed the other. So, CNN is playing this endless loop in the airport of basically every photo they could obtain of these people, every fact about their lives, so that’s basically what I wrote. I wrote this really short, weird story that was not directly about them, I changed all the details, but it basically just reads like this absurd news report of all these details, everything we know about this one bomber. I don’t think I would have ever written it somewhere else, I wouldn’t have written it if CNN hadn’t been in my face, I don’t normally write watching CNN, but I guess this is what happens if I do, and it was published in a literary magazine and it’s in my story collection, so good things came from it.

 

Do you have a favorite story in your story collection?

You know, I have to tell you something. I’ve been touring for this book for almost a year and no one has asked me that! I think I do. There’s a story in there called “Good St. Anthony Come Around,” and it is actually, in a very different way than my novel in progress, about the AIDS crisis. It’s set in New York city, it’s about artists, so it’s very different than the novel. It’s the last full story that I wrote for the collection. I wrote it as an entry into the world I was going to be writing about in the novel, I thought I wanted to write about [the AIDS crisis], I wasn’t sure, I was trying it out a little bit with this story. And I really love that story! It’s not a story that other people pick out as their favorite, though. It cracks me up; there are certain stories that people always bring up in interviews, and that readers will talk to me about which stories they like, and some of them never get mentioned. Not that people didn’t like them, maybe they’re just quieter stories, because if I do bring them up I get the “Oh yeah!” but they just don’t get mentioned, and “Good St. Anthony” is kind of one of those. People will occasionally bring it up, but it doesn’t seem to stick out to other people the way it sticks out to me. I think it’s probably that it might not really be the best story in there, I like it a lot, I think it works, but for me I like it because it’s what I’m obsessed with right now. It’s the world that I’ve now dove into, and this was the beginning of that. I think I like it for other reasons than just its artistic merit.

Do you think it’s a good exercise to write a story about what you plan on writing a novel about?

Not necessarily, no. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, or something I ever plan to do again. I have to say, it wasn’t entirely deliberate. It wasn’t like I said, “I’m going to write this story because I’m going to do this novel.” I didn’t realize back then how very much my novel would be about AIDS. I thought it was only going to be a small part of it, and partly it was the writing of this story and the research that convinced me that my novel should be more about that. The only risk of that for a lot of people might be that you write your interest out of it. If you write the short story, and if it worked, then why write the novel? Except for the fact that both are about AIDS, everything about the story and my novel in progress is completely different, different city, different characters, different themes, different tone.

What is the most inspiring book you’ve read in the last 5 years?

I don’t read books for inspiration, I might be inspired artistically, but I don’t read to be told how to live my life or to feel a certain emotion. Sometimes you read to be deeply disturbed or to be mildly entertained, so I’ll answer it in the sense of being artistically inspired. This happens every time I read Alice Monroe, who most people acknowledge is our greatest living short story writer. Every collection of hers ups the ante for me on what I realize is possible in short fiction, and it makes me step up my own game. For that reason I’m usually terrified to read her because every story I read of hers it’s like, “Oh no, I made more work for myself because I have higher standards and new ideas.” But of course I’m still going to read her, I just space it out a little bit. The last collection of hers I read was her last collection called Dear Life and it had stories in there that just blew apart… not my conception of what a story can be, she’s not doing anything that experimental with form or tone, but more these little moves she makes that if you look at them from a craft perspective as a fellow writer, you can see what she’s doing, even if you don’t know how she did it. It’s like being a magician and watching a magician who’s way  better than you, to the point you can’t figure out how they did their tricks, but you know you have to try,  because now that you know that its possible you want to do that too.

If you were a super villain, what would be your goal?

Do I have to be a villain, does it have to be a bad goal? I think I would have pretty good goals: free alternative education for everyone, and do away with Monsanto. Maybe some people would see those as evil, but that’s the thing about villains, they believe they’re right. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. But, for me being like, “Yeah I’d do away with Monsanto, and I’d have Montessori schools for everybody, and all the food would be organic,” someone else might see that as the most villainous plan ever.

Who’s your favorite author to follow on twitter?

There are certain people who are just hilarious, and there are certain people you just grudge-follow, the people who just humblebrag a bit too much. You like to follow them for the wrong reasons. There are people who are just genuinely hilarious and relatable on social media. One of them is Danielle Evans, she’s a short story writer. She only has one book out so far, called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. She’s just really funny, on Facebook especially. There’s a writer, Jami Attenberg, who lives in New York. It’s partly that she’s really funny, and partly that she has these hilarious pictures of her pug that you kind of can’t look away from.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No. I really feel strongly about it actually. I know plenty of writers who do, I don’t judge them for it or anything, but I always advise my students not to. You need the musical part of your brain engaged with your writing. And if the musical part of your brain is busy listening to Beyoncé, or even to Bach, you’re not tuned into the rhythm of your own sentences. I know some people argue that the music helps infuse their writing with a sense of musicality, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think you’re borrowing the rhythms of Bach to put into your sentences, that doesn’t make any sense. I will occasionally listen to music before I write, but it’s more to recapture the mood I was in when I started writing a piece, or listen to a piece that has always meant something to me in relation to what I’m writing, but I do feel like it messes with me. Especially if there are lyrics. It’s like having someone shout in your ear; you don’t realize it, but it really is! If there are writers out there and it works for them, and they are serious, published, amazing authors, I take their word for it. When students say it works for them, I don’t believe them for a second, and I try to convince them that they’re wrong. Especially if they’re not doing well. If they’re making a lot of grammatical mistakes and the sentences aren’t flowing and I’m writing “awkward” in the margins a lot, then I say, “Hey listen, I think I know what your problem is: take the headphones off! Jay-Z is not helping you write this story.”

I know your novel in progress has a cult element: have you ever interacted with a cult or cult members in real life? Was it a preexisting interest?

I was never in a cult or anything, but I will say I had a very weird religious upbringing. My mom was ostensibly protestant, but she and my dad were also both, and still are, deeply into astrology and reincarnation. I kind of don’t want to believe that stuff, but it’s weirdly accurate. I would test her on it, and it was really, bizarrely accurate. My dad got into this, not cult, but occult religion. Occult, to some people, means Satanist, but occult just really means that there are secrets within it, and you have to get to different levels before you can learn the secrets. It’s called Anthroposophy, and he and his wife are really into that. My sister became an evangelical born-again Christian in college, and she’s 10 years older than me, so that was a big part of our household. This isn’t a religious thing, but I just like to laugh about it: my mom sent me to Amish farm camp one summer, so I was exposed to the Amish. And then, my sister started letting these Mormon missionaries into our house, and then the Mormon missionaries were coming once a week, and then we were going to a Mormon church for a month or two. I came out of it completely agnostic, like, I’m going to look at this all from the outside, I’m not in on this anymore. My sister is still really, really religious. It is a little bit of a rift between us. We still get along, but we really don’t see eye to eye on that. I also had a friend in high school who had grown up in a cult in Ohio. It was a boarding school, so when she went home she was still a part of this “group.” Actually, I did also write a story about a cult, but it totally failed. I think because it didn’t really work and I was still interested in [cults] that I felt like bringing it into my novel and seeing if I could make that interest work there.

Did you like “The Cat Poem” from All Def Poetry?

I liked it, but I didn’t think it had a lot of substance to it. I think a lot of spoken word poetry is very performative, which is great, that’s the point, but sometimes we get so into the performative aspect that we forget the person isn’t really saying anything, but it was cute.

 

SNC POETRY CENTER’s Community Discussion Hour

SPRING SEMESTER 2016: THURSDAYS 3-4 PM

Join Poetry Center Co-Director Laura Wetherington every Thursday to explore the collection of books, chapbooks, and broadsides. Most community hours will be open-ended, informal explorations of the Poetry Center’s collection. Occasionally, we’ll have read-arounds and discussions about specific poems.

THEMED COMMUNITY HOURS

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February 25th–Read-around of Howl by Allen Ginsberg
Howl first premiered 60 years ago. Help us celebrate this monumental work by performing (or listening to!) the poem.

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March 10th–Discussion of Mg Roberts’s poems
We’ll read and discuss several of Mg Roberts’s poems. Roberts will read during our 3rd annual Poetry Center Celebration on March 25-26.

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March 24th–Discussion of Tyrone Williams’s poems
We’ll read and discuss several of Tyrone Williams’s poems. Williams will read during our 3rd annual Poetry Center Celebration on March 25-26.

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April 7th–Discussion of Lindsay Wilson’s poems
We’ll read and discuss several of Lindsay Willson’s poems. Wilson will read with Writers in the Woods on April 8.

The Intersection of Grief and Art: An Interview with Aisha Sabatini Sloan

SloanAisha Sabatini Sloan’s “Ocean Park No 6” appeared in the 2015 issue of the Sierra Nevada Review, and was one of our nominees for the Pushcart Prize. The essay explores the grief of Juliette, a friend of Sloan’s, after the death of Juliette’s son Ramin. The essay weaves the exploration of her grief with an exploration of artists such as Joan Didion, Michael Ondaatje, Richard Diebenkorn, and others, creating a tapestry that explores how art and grief collide.

Sloan is based in Tuscon. Her book, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Her work has been or will be featured in Ninth Letter, Identity Theory, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Guernica, The Offing and Ecotone. 

A contributing editor for Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics, she has taught creative writing and literature at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Carleton College and the University of Michigan’s New England Literature Program. 

 

**

Brandon Dudley: I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the creative process behind your essay, “Ocean Park No. 6.”

 

Aisha Sabatini Sloan: It was a long time coming. I had an idea for a project, a broader project, that got sparked when Anne Waldman came to speak at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. She had this really moving description of coming up with an idea for a poem while being in a place in Paris where a young child had been discovered and taken to a concentration camp. I was moved by the idea of visiting locations where something devastating had happened.

Then, I was on the phone with my mom when she was at our friend Juliette’s house, and I was talking about the project, and I just sort of imagined she [Juliette] would be a part of it. That’s where it started, with this almost spiritual beginning, of wanting to visit places of, not trauma exactly, but loss, intentionally, in the web of my life, and she was a really obvious one.

And I also wanted to have a more extensive, intimate research process. I didn’t want it to just be about reading and making connections in the comfort of my own living room. I liked the idea of spending a lot of time thinking about something with someone. And it was interesting to work on something over so long a period of time that was both a creative project and a personal project. We had conversations over the course of a few years, and they weren’t any different than conversations that we had before that, I was just intentionally curious about making sense of something with her. In some ways the creative process was based on her, because she had this curiosity about the connection between Michael Ondaatje and Richard Diebenkorn, but also Wallace Stegner.

In some ways it was a failed project, because I didn’t fully investigate all angles of it, but the creative process was based on following her [Juliette’s] own lines of inquiry and where her grief intersected with her creative interests and the things that resonated with her artistically. She mapped it out for me and I was trying to look into these overlaps where her own experience of say, Diebenkorn intersected with Ondaatje, and it was interesting to map that and actually discover whether or not they made any sense together.

 

BD: That’s interesting because the structure of your piece was one of the things that I really loved about it. I was wondering how you came up with the different elements that you braided together, and it sounds like you didn’t actually come up with them, it was created through following Juliette.

So, that sort of braided structure with all these different topics seems to be one that’s fairly popular in nonfiction lately. I was wondering if you could talk a little about why that might be.

 

AS: Most of my essays, the ones in my book especially, follow that kind of pattern. One of the ways that I learned to trust in the magical intersectionality of the world was from growing up listening to Juliette make sense of things, so obviously I would use a structure that honored her particular brand of seeing, or intelligence. But braiding essays is a structural approach that I’ve been fascinated by for awhile—or collaging, lyric—following associative leaps and finding ways that these riffs are actually less tangential than you’d originally thought.

But braiding isn’t new. Joan Didion has been weaving personal narrative and politics and current events for years. I notice that now that everyone’s doing it, I have started to feel resistance. In fact, I was part of a reading in March called: “Don’t Call it Lyric: Inquiry, the Essay and Independence” with Amarnath Ravva, Brian Blanchfield and Maggie Nelson. It sounds more militant than I think it actually was, in spirit, but the title was informed by a desire to push back against the presumption that as soon as a certain approach becomes fashionable, we forget that there are still a million ways to approach the page.

So I have started to really question, at the start of a piece, whether braiding is what an essay is actually calling for. You still have to synthesize things and find your voice. I think that nonfiction allows for so much formal play because the concept of truth telling is so inherently political, so psychologically fraught. So the way you prevent yourself from lying or warping or censoring the truth might look different from day to day.

 

BD: I was wondering if weaving all those different elements together made it easier to access the emotional core of the essay, which is the death of Ramin, Juliette’s son, because it seemed like a fairly emotional topic.

 

AS: I don’t know that it was hard to write about because it was emotional, necessarily. I cry almost every time that I write. I write toward, or out of, emotion most of the time. For this essay, though, I was trying to figure something out about what Juliette taught me, and part of what she taught me was about loss, but the other half of it was she taught me about beauty. She’s been an artistic mentor my whole life and I think touching that vulnerable place of grief with her while also wondering about how she relates to beauty gave the whole inquiry a foundation or intentionality.

 

BD: One of the elements that came up frequently in the essay was Joan Didion. Is she a major influence on you? Who are some other influences?

 

AS: Ever since I was in high school Joan Didion was the person who got me interested in nonfiction. Reading Blue Nights was a huge influence on my experience of talking with Juliette. Michael Ondaatje was formative for me—just holding Coming Through Slaughter in my hands makes me so inspired I can barely stand it. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts and The Red Parts were all pivotal reads. I practically dissociated when I finished Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss years ago. Fanny Howe’s Winter Sun. Anne Carson’s Decreation. I love Photocopies by John Berger. Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag. James Baldwin’s essay collection Price of the Ticket was a bible for me for many years.

 

BD: What are some projects that you’re working on now?

 

AS: I share my father’s paranoia about talking about a project too early, I feel like it jinxes it.

 

BD: Is your father a writer, too?

 

AS: Yeah, he’s a writer, and he worked for many years as a photojournalist. The whole sort of associative thing, talking about different threads, he was my first influence in terms of that. He’s always connecting things and interviewing people and has twelve books that he’s reading, and a movie on, and all that. I feel like in a lot of ways that that formal influence was pretty significant.

 

BD: You said you’re teaching as well. Where do you teach, and how do you think teaching influences the writing, and how does your writing influence your teaching?

 

AS: I’ve been teaching for the past nine and a half years or so. I think I learned a lot about my writing by trying to explain how to do it on a pretty basic level to other people. I taught a creative writing and a literature class at my alma mater, Carleton College, this time last year. And then right before that, the University of Michigan has this program, the New England Literature Program, where you go out into the woods for a couple months and read and write in a journal and there’s no technology. I’ll be doing that again next year. Right now I teach fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders in a residency program that the University of Arizona Poetry Center facilitates in middle schools and elementary schools in Tucson. It has been a huge heart opener. I absolutely love it. Many of my students are refugees and I feel so honored to even share space with them, they are such incredible human beings.

 

BD: That’s interesting. I teach high schoolers, mostly sophomores, and I don’t know how I’d handle teaching middle schoolers. Those younger ages seem pretty tough. But high schoolers are pretty tough. Who knows, maybe they’re the same.

 

AS: I wonder if college freshman and high school sophomores are that different. Well, that’s not fair. Some of my students have been far more mature than I’ll ever be. But teaching freshman composition can feel a bit like recess.

 

BD: I hope, when I’m done my MFA, to at least teach at the college level part-time. So I’m curious how different they really are. I’m hoping they’re at least a little more motivated than high school sophomores.

 

AS: I think it depends. I think it’s always amazing to remember that you actually have some control over that. I get so jaded that I forget that my own interest in something could open something for them. You know, I might give up before I’ve started, but they’ll read something and become sort of entranced by the language and I remember, oh, yeah, we get to try every time to get them as excited as we are.

 

BD: Could you recommend one writer or one essay that, if you could recommend them or it and say “You have to read this,” who would it be?

 

AS: I just finished Wendy S. Walters’ Multiply/Divide, I think that book is doing something remarkable to the question of nonfiction. I just started reading Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World, Patti Smith’s M Train, and Eileen Myles’ Chelsea Girls and I’m loving them all. White Girls by Hilton Als sort of rocked my world. I am a huge fan of Fred Moten, Jen Hofer, Eunsong Kim, Bhanu Kapil and Claudia Rankine. And my friends are pretty amazing, too: Arianne Zwartjes’ Detailing Trauma and Beth Alvarado’s Anthropologies were really influential for me. Brian Blanchfield just published an amazing essay in Harper’s called “There’s the Rub.”

 

BD: Is there anything you wanted to talk about, or that you hoped I would ask about but didn’t?

 

AS: I’ve been seeing these conversations about the literary world through Facebook, and I was feeling pretty disenchanted for a little while just about the sense of deflation and frustration that a lot of writers of color are feeling right now in the world of publishing, but there was this great conversation on the Poetry Foundation web site called “Talking About What We Don’t Talk About: Roundtable with Eunsong Kim, Amy King, Lucas de Lima, Hoa Nguyen, Hector Ramirez, Metta Sama, Nikki Wallschlaeger.” And Metta Sama says, “What happens if more of us use our positions of power to not stabilize and uphold and invest in the white masculinity of these academic institutions, but use our positions to challenge and, as Grace Lee Boggs implores us to do, REIMAGINE EVERYTHING?” It was a call to action to re-create these systems that we sort of assume are our only choices, you know MFA vs NYC, another false binary.

I got to interview Kwame Dawes for Guernica a while back about the African Poetry Book fund, and he just talked about getting this idea to collaborate with other writers to start these libraries in different African countries and publish work of African poets because he didn’t notice that anyone was doing that. I think the idea of creating programs, whether they are MFA programs or just sort of literary outreach programs, beyond what’s already available, that kind of thing really excites me. I’m curious to see where that goes, that sort of frustration mixed with concern, Maybe ten years from now things could be pretty innovative and exciting if all of this energy gets transformed into something.

 

BD: Thinking of that frustration and that energy, are there any projects you have in the back of your mind that you feel like you might pursue, either your original ideas or maybe other projects that you’ve heard of that you might be interested in taking part in?

 

AS: I’ve definitely been on the verge for a while now of wanting to start something that involves a reading series, maybe an international writer-in-residence program, possibly in Detroit, where my family is and where I’ve been headed. But I’m not sure when that’s going to click, because I keep having the idea and not knowing when to go for it.

I’m a yoga teacher and I like the idea of combining healing practices with writing, because I think when writing is in the service of figuring things out on a personal but also global scale, trying to figure out how you can actually contribute to yourself or the world healing, I think it’s kind of an exciting thing.

I’m not sure how that will manifest, but I definitely hope that at some point it will turn into something beyond just private brainstorming.

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.

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.

 

AWP Conference – A Novice’s Experience

AWP

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.

ConferenceOverview

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

https://www.awpwriter.org/awp_conference/

Show Me The Money – Part 3

Tell It Like A Woman

Strong-empowered-women

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.

Women_family

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: http://www.brainchildmag.com/about/writers-guidelines/#

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: www.creativenonfiction.org/submit

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: www.esme.net

I’m Supposed To Be Writing

130927174556-family-watching-television-tv-nostalgia-story-top

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:

http://brevitymag.com/craft-essays/consider-the-prompt/

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

http://www.pw.org/writing-prompts-exercises