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I was first introduced to Issac Bailey at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest last June, where he spoke about his book My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South. My Brother Moochie is a powerful, personal exploration of race and racism and of the impact on a family when one of its own serves a life-sentence for murder. In Moochie, Bailey addresses the issues of shame and isolation. In addition to having brothers who have spent significant time in prison, Bailey has a severe stutter, which he says has proved to have a greater impact of his life’s trajectory than his race.
My Brother Moochie is not an easy read as Bailey challenges his readers to look at issues from many different angles and to examine their own biases about race, poverty, and crime. Bailey examines shame and marginalization through a personal and historical lens; he asks questions and, with brutal honesty, shares his own struggles growing up and as an adult raising children in a less-than-perfect world.
Bailey spent his childhood roughly thirty-five miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, the fifth of eleven kids. He began his journalism career with The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, where he started as a part-time reporter and calendar clerk before taking on various positions, including feature writer, real estate reporter, business editor, blogger, and the paper’s primary columnist. His investigative reporting led to policy and legal reforms within the South Carolina Department of Social Services and was instrumental in changing how the agency handles child protective services cases.
Bailey was a 2014 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and has been published by several dozen publications, including Time magazine, Politico magazine, Esquire online, CNN.com, The Washington Post, and Longreads.com. He is currently an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com and will be teaching journalism courses at Davidson College in North Carolina in the fall. He is working on his third book, A Black Man in Trumpland: Why We Didn’t Riot – But Should Have, which “concerns why black people are angry in the age of Trump.”
I had the great pleasure and honor of interviewing Issac Bailey over the phone in October 2018.
Diane Gottlieb: Good morning, Issac. I loved hearing you speak in Chicago and it was a pleasure talking to you at the book signing. I have to tell you that My Brother Moochie just blew me away.
Issac Bailey: Oh, wow. Thank you very much.
DG: It really did. I’d like to start where you start in the book. You begin with a pretty intense interaction you had with your own son when he was thirteen. You were angrier than you later thought you needed to be, and you relate your feelings to the particular struggle that black parents have raising black sons. This topic’s been covered before by Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example. It’s that fear for their black bodies out into the larger world. But you also added a whole other layer to the discussion. And that’s what I appreciate so much about your book and your articles. You add these really difficult, complex layers. And in this case, it’s the layer of shame.
IB: That’s right.
DG: Yes. So, if you could just say a little bit about how you see the unique intersection of fear and shame when it comes to parenting a child or teen of color?
IB: Yes. Actually, the hardest thing about trying to parent is that you’re not just parenting your own kids. You are also trying to prove how people who look like you are worthy as human beings. It’s like that at least for me. I’ve actually become too afraid for my kids. So now, I’m trying to be really aware of that.
DG: I read your article about you not giving them “the talk” about how to respond if they’re ever approached or pulled over by the police.
IB: Yes, exactly.
DG: That balance, I think, that every black parent has to carry is enormous.
IB: Oh yes. Yes. And so, at least for me, one of the reasons I don’t give that talk is simply because I think that that burden should be placed on the person who actually has the most power in the situation. In this case, that’s not my son. It’s the cop. I want cops to be held more accountable during these situations.
DG: I have a question about police accountability. What do you think about the verdict in the Jason Van Dyke case?
IB: I actually thought, finally, something wonderful is happening because the jury didn’t just simply buy his story. The cop said that he felt scared and then because of that it was actually okay to murder someone. The jury didn’t buy it.
DG: Do you see this is as maybe a tipping point or a turning point?
IB: I am hopeful that it is. But I’m not sure. There were two other cases like this in Texas this year where we also saw guilty verdicts. Yes. So hopefully, this is a start of something new, yes.
DG: We need some new starts.
IB: Yes, exactly.
One major thing is that I try to tell uncomfortable truths while not giving any fodder to racial stereotypes. That is a really delicate dance.
DG: Back to the book. I see shame as being at the heart of the book, just as it is in many, many problems in life. And the pain that shame causes. It’s palpable.
DG: And what really interested me was when you said that your family, and families of perpetrators of violence in general, are the “black sheep of the black sheep.” Could you talk more about what it was like to have no space for your family’s grief and trauma? And about the burden of being the black sheep of the black sheep?
IB: Yes. Essentially, it is one of the most suffocating feelings that you can have because there is no place to turn. Even your friends and your neighbors have to keep you at arm’s length because if they get too close to you, they, too, will have to carry the extra burden. One of the most devastating parts about it is that it forces you into silence. And that makes it impossible to really grapple with everything that actually happened and to get help when you really, really need it. You have this trauma that will manifest itself later on in various ways.
DG: Was this an internalized understanding that there was no place to go? Or did you try to get help and were shut down?
IB: I think that it was more of an understanding. But I know that my mom had tried to get help. One of our neighbors was a state representative, and my mom went to him and asked him to say something positive, anything positive, about Moochie to the prosecutor or write a letter to the judge, for instance. But he said no. He turned her down.
DG: He said no?
IB: Yes, exactly. That was the typical response, yes.
DG: Oh, wow. That was probably up there—almost as hard as facing the actual event.
IB: Yes, exactly. That’s for sure.
DG: Another part that really, really moved me in the book was how you described the challenge of balancing your love for Moochie and for your younger brothers with the hate for what they did. That balance of holding the history of racial inequality and violence against blacks along with the fact that your brother actually killed somebody. Could you talk a little bit about that balance, about what you call your “schizophrenic endeavor?”
IB: Yes, yes.
DG: I love that—”schizophrenic endeavor.” Because how else can you describe it?
IB: Yes, yes, that’s for sure. I love my brothers, but at the same time, there were periods where they actually felt like a danger to my family and the town of St. Stephen. We could not get them to stop, to change. It was extremely frustrating. I felt helpless. There I was, trying to love them, but also recognizing the fact that they were real dangers to people that I also loved.
And then there’s also all the reading and research I’ve done on racial history. I mean, especially when it comes to, say, maybe somebody like Thomas Jefferson, for instance. There does not seem to be any real struggle, at least for many white people, to try to honor the good things he did and also to grapple with all the awful things that he did.
IB: Yes. It seems as though that kind of struggle is a bigger deal for black people. And I’m not sure why.
DG: You know, it reminds me of the first question, of carrying the shame. I loved when you said in your book that white people don’t seem to question why it’s only white kids that go in and shoot up schools and movie theaters. And, you know, I always say, “Ah, another white kid. Another white boy.” And I really can relate to the feelings that people carry. Like when there’s a mass shooting. I can just imagine Muslim Americans saying, “Please, please not. Please don’t let it be a Muslim.”
IB: Exactly. Exactly.
DG: I’m Jewish. And I remember when the Bernie Madoff thing came out. And, I remember saying, “Oh no, please. Anything having to do with money, please don’t let it be someone Jewish.” You know?
IB: Of course.
DG: And it’s this shame that you carry for the stereotypes people have of you, whoever you are.
IB: Exactly. Exactly.
DG: But white people who are not in these other groups don’t carry that shame. When a white person commits an atrocity, everybody’s suddenly an individual. They just say, “well that’s not me. It’s got nothing to do with me.”
IB: I know, exactly. I know, right? Exactly. Then it’s just, “We’re all individuals.”
DG: Right. Okay. So, while I was reading Moochie, I thought—on many occasions—this guy’s going to offend everyone! You just challenge all sides, all views, biases, all assumptions with equal zest. And I know from reading several of your articles that you’ve gotten pushback from all sides. It doesn’t seem to bother you too much, or at least it doesn’t stop you. What have been your greatest challenges when writing about race?
IB: Oh, yes. One major thing is that I try to tell uncomfortable truths while not giving any fodder to racial stereotypes. That is a really delicate dance.
DG: It is.
IB: Especially when you’re writing about crime and black men. That’s my biggest struggle. I’m always trying to find that sweet spot, that most honest place.
DG: That is really a struggle, right?
IB: Oh, yes. Massive struggle. Yes. That is my top struggle, that is for sure.
DG: And you know you’re going to hear about it later.
IB: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Yes.
DG: So, we can’t talk about race in our country without bringing up the criminal justice system.
IB: That’s right.
DG: There definitely has been movement in the right direction. But mostly for non-violent drug offenders.
IB: Exactly. Exactly.
DG: I love how you even question that. You just get in so deep and bring up ways of thinking about issues that most people haven’t considered. For example, when you said that drug trafficking is not a non-violent offense.
IB: Exactly, it’s not.
DG: Because it is a violence. And whether this guy shot somebody or not, he’s engaging in violence by trafficking drugs. There is extreme marginalization of violent offenders, and their needs must to be considered in the prison reform movement too. Can you tell me what that would look like for you?
IB: That is a great question. A first step would be a philosophical recognition that we are not the worst thing that we’ve done. In practical terms, we need to look at our history going back to the 1950s and ‘60s, for instance. Even when people did something violent, we did not automatically give them really, really long sentences. If we can get back to some of that, well, I think that would go a long way.
DG: The acknowledgement piece, though. I just don’t see that around the corner, you know? People are so afraid.
It seems as though many people are actually trying to understand when it comes to race and ripples of trauma. Since the book has come out, I’ve had more opportunities to fully explain myself and what families like mine go through. And that’s been very helpful.
DG: People see others who have committed violence and say, “Oh no, they’re not me.” And what struck me is that through your own experiences with PTSD, you’ve debunked that statement. It could be me. It very well could be me. There, by the grace of God, go I.
So, here’s another thing you said in the book that’s really interesting,” My brother is a murderer or at least a man who committed a murder.” And, to me, that’s a really important distinction. It’s not just a matter of semantics. It’s a whole different perspective. And do you have that perspective?
DG: Like, do you sometimes see him as a murderer? Or do you see him as a man who committed a murder?
IB: I’ve actually gone back and forth on that. That, too, was part of my struggle for many years. When I was in college, I actually did not mention his name once. I saw him as a murderer because I knew that’s how that he was viewed. I’m stronger now and much clearer. I definitely don’t see him that way anymore.
DG: But it was a process.
IB: Oh yes. A long process. That was a years-long process, yes. For sure. It definitely was.
DG: Has writing the book helped you to heal some of the shame?
IB: Yes. It seems as though many people are actually trying to understand when it comes to race and ripples of trauma. Since the book has come out, I’ve had more opportunities to fully explain myself and what families like mine go through. And that’s been very helpful.
DG: So, I think part of this shame thing is the invisibility. Shame makes you want to hide. For a lot of people, though, invisibility is not a choice. It’s forced on them.
DG: Like, when Moochie was put in solitary confinement for not cutting his hair.
DG: Do you feel that writing and putting these things out in the open has helped to alleviate the shame? Is that part of it? Becoming visible about it?
IB: Yes. And the biggest part about it is that you actually feel less of a need to hide. It’s been this massive relief.
DG: How else has the process of writing this personal—deeply personal—account changed you?
IB: One of the biggest changes is that I’m now more open with my wife. And when I catch myself trying to retreat emotionally, I am actually able to stop myself from doing that.
DG: That’s great. That’s wonderful. So, she probably wants you to write more books!
IB: Yes, exactly. Exactly.
DG: Has Moochie read it?
DG: And what was his response?
IB: Well, he’s been happy about it simply because he thinks that it has given him voice again.
DG: That’s great. So that’s been healing for your family, too.
IB: Yes, yes. It’s been a process, for sure, yes.
DG: One of the gifts that I feel I got from reading Moochie is that it introduced me to your larger body of work in journalism. I love how you challenge yourself and your readers!
Because, at least for me, hope actually comes through tensions and struggle and from people embracing that tension and struggle. I think that’s when real progress is going to come.
IB: Thank you.
DG: And you have no problem calling anybody out. You write a lot about race and about writing about race. In one article “Don’t Shy Away from Dealing Forthrightly with Race,” you mention Dina Temple-Raston and Matt Taibbi. Both are white and both have written important books that deal with race. Any thoughts or advice for people who want to venture into this territory?
IB: Oh, yes. Yes. At least my views on this are pretty basic. Just as long as it’s a worthy story told well. As long as that’s the case, then I think that nothing else really matters.
DG: I’m with you. Aren’t we here to learn from other people and from their experiences? Otherwise, we’re just stuck with our own boring selves.
DG: You’ve stated that murder made you a journalist, right?
DG: But how has journalism informed your memoir?
IB: It gave me the skills to get as close to the truth as possible.
DG: So, we should all do some journalistic reporting, right?
IB: Yes. Yes, exactly.
DG: What did you find were some of the differences in approach—writing a memoir as opposed to writing journalism.
IB: I think the transition was easier for me because I had already been doing column writing, which is shorter journalistic memoir, essentially.
DG: That makes sense. I loved your article in which you talked about the Clinton emails and how the media handled that. Have the media learned anything?
IB: I’m not too sure. I’m not too sure. I still think they are trying too hard not to be labeled biased. And, therefore, sometimes the truth takes a back seat. I think that that’s one of our biggest issues.
DG: It certainly is. You also talk about disappointments like Harvard and Michelle Jones and Trump’s election. Are you at all hopeful?
IB: I’m not sure that I am right now. Because, at least for me, hope actually comes through tensions and struggle and from people embracing that tension and struggle. I think that’s when real progress is going to come.
DG: Yes, and nobody’s doing that now.
IB: Yes, yes.
DG: How do you think race and gender are going to play into the next presidential election? Because we hear Elizabeth Warren called Pocahontas and with Kamala Harris and Cory Booker as contenders, do you think things are going to get even uglier?
IB: The ugliness will definitely still be here in 2020. But I think it will make it very difficult for him [Trump] to win.
DG: Because people will be sick of the ugliness, you mean?
IB: Yes. Yes.
DG: Oh! From your mouth to God’s ears!
It was interesting how you weaved your stuttering into the book. And how you feel that you could’ve been where your brother is, but in some ways, your stutter protected you from that path. At the same time, you say that your stutter has had a greater impact on your life’s trajectory than your being a black male, that it held you back in your journalism career. Can you touch on this?
IB: Yes. Having a severe stutter has been like nothing else that I have ever experienced. We only make up one percent of the population. At least with race, there are some people trying to understand.
But yet, with the stutter, most people don’t actually try to understand. The stutter isolates you even more. When it comes to my career, I’ve actually missed out on many more opportunities because of my stutter than my face.
DG: I’m sitting here, six degrees of separation from Barack Obama because you interviewed him. I can’t not ask you about that.
IB: Well, he did not seem to be bothered at all by my stutter.
DG: Yes, I read that in the book. I’m not surprised. Were you nervous about that?
IB: I guess that nervous is not the right word.
DG: Okay. What would it be?
IB: I always have to plan ahead. For any interview. Because I simply don’t know how difficult my stutter will be that day.
DG: Do you get star-struck?
IB: No. I guess that’s one of the blessings or curses of stuttering. I actually have had to wear blinders of sorts. Therefore, I don’t respond to such things like most people do.
DG: How is Moochie these days?
IB: Well, he’s getting better day by day. He’s actually been out for about four years now. He is still adjusting to this new world, of course.
DG: Sure. Has he gotten help for his PTSD?
IB: Yes, he has been seeing a counselor.
DG: Good. What’s next for you?
IB: What’s next? That’s a good question. I actually love teaching. So, I’m probably going to do that again next year.
DG: Great. And would it be journalism? Is that what you teach?
IB: Yes. I teach journalism and ethics.
DG: Ethics? I can’t think of a better person.
IB: Wow. Thanks very much.
DG: So, I have nothing else right now. I just want to say what a joy this was.
IB: Oh, wow. Thank you very much.
DG: Issac, I feel like I’ve made a friend.
Diane Gottlieb writes fiction and nonfiction is currently working on a murder mystery with a social justice bent. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and is the lead editor of creative nonfiction and a member of the interview team for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Panoply and Lunch Ticket. You can also find her weekly musings at dianegottlieb.com
Young writers are finding ways to speak out through character. Pulled from the news, fiction and fact condense into compelling personal accounts. But Naima Coster isn’t politicizing a message. Her work is far more reaching, more tender, and more carefully wrought. This Yale, Columbia, and Fordham graduate draws the straight line of success from classwork to her beliefs and book sales. Coster’s debut novel, Halsey Street, a Finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for Fiction, encompasses one family’s downward spiral while its dual perspectives expose a community’s erasure and rapidly changing identity. Coster’s lead woman, Penelope Grand, and her mother Mirella, emphasize their struggles and the importance of loyalty.
Penelope serves as Coster’s voice, allowing the author’s observations about race, class, and gender to proliferate the novel. In truth, Penelope is simply attempting to manage, make art, and embark on a relationship while juggling varied cultures. Coster understands balancing differing worlds and she cultivates a liminal place out of her own experience. Originally from Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, she received a prized education in a prestigious all-girls Manhattan high school.
The navigation isn’t easy. Neither is writing a work called forth as a seminal representor of gentrification’s impact. But Coster gracefully moves through these pressures, citing an emphasis on self-care, time with friends, and a commitment to focused storytelling.
A lovely woman with a notable glimmer in her eyes, Naima Coster shares her eloquent thoughts and hearty laughs in a quiet Antioch University Los Angeles office where she is a guest mentor for the MFA creative writing program. Coster’s stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, Catapult, Arts’ Letters, Aster(ix), Kweli, and other publications. Other accolades include teaching writing in youth programs and to students in jail and at universities. Naima Coster tweets at @zafatista, writes the newsletter, Bloom How You Must, and lives with her family in Washington DC.
My experience in workshops have been very formative for me. They gave me a sense of what I needed to work on as a writer but even more importantly, in some ways, helped me understand popular sensibilities of other writers that I could then just keep in mind as I was working.
Andrea Auten: I loved reading Halsey Street. And I love how you personalized the breaking down of a neighborhood, and its changes, and its impermanence. The way it can be invaded and tenderly expressed, the same in the intimacies of a family. Could you tell me about the journey between the animate and the material in building Halsey Street?
Naima Coster: It’s a really interesting question. I think that interest in the material started for me probably with thinking about place, and the different ways that place can send us a message about who we are, or how we’re perceived, or can be something that people use to try to understand what’s going on in a neighborhood and a people. So, I thought mostly about the materiality of Brooklyn, and Bed-Stuy in particular, and how as it changed; the story of people in Brooklyn is changing. But I thought that that was also true of houses. Like how people craft their homes, and are able to care for them, or are not. It was especially relevant for Penelope, for someone who has a lot of trouble talking about her emotions or putting them into words and engages with the world mostly in physical ways. So, whether it’s the physical act of holding a paintbrush or running around the neighborhood and noticing what’s around her, it felt like a way to hold emotion, and psychological depth in the book when the characters couldn’t always.
AA: Yeah, right. I really did feel that.
NC: I’m glad that you did.
AA: I could get inside her, and I don’t think that was just because I’m an artist either. Are you an artist? Do you do any visual art?
NC: I don’t do any visual art, but I would’ve always liked to, and maybe I still will one day, although I feel daunted by it. Writing about a visual artist was a way to vicariously experience all of that. So, I did some research. I watched videos of people painting. I read art magazines. I just picked them up when I was in the bookstore, and went through them, and I had a friend who’s an artist read the book just to let me know what I’d gotten wrong.
AA: Had you gotten much wrong?
NC: Not from her reading of it, and I think part of that was because I was careful about what I elaborated on, and what I didn’t. She said that the art school experience that I described really resonated with her—which is interesting— because that was just an imaginative exercise, sort of thinking about and pulling from what I know about elite institutions, about artists, if not visual artists, but some of the ways artists can grandstand around each other. I was glad that it rang true with her.
AA: That leads me to my next question because I was taken with Penelope’s art, and it’s true that Halsey Street isn’t a book about art. It’s a book about an artist confronting these other issues and her response to the RISD crits (critical evaluations). You know, those Rhode Island School of Design students wear these shirts that say “Crit happens!”
NC: Oh! That’s Great!
AA: Yeah, right? Those crits are excruciating in the arts programs. Musical theatre boards can be like American Idol on steroids with that type of rigorous review. What do you think about artistic criticism for students studying the disciplines?
NC: My experience in workshops have been very formative for me. They gave me a sense of what I needed to work on as a writer but even more importantly, in some ways, helped me understand popular sensibilities of other writers that I could then just keep in mind as I was working. That didn’t mean I would write to that sensibility, but I could be aware of when I was doing something that might offend or unsettle or interest that sensibility. While I found them helpful, I think that something that can [get lost] in the room in the middle of a crit is how vulnerable all the people in the room are, and what they’re bringing with them into the room.
So, for someone like Penelope who’s bringing in already a sense of being alienated from her privileged peers—and there being no way that that’s meaningfully accounted for in the classroom—the crit is on her in this particular way. I think that’s true for everyone in a crit, or in a workshop. Everyone has a past, things that are going on in the present that affect how they hear feedback, and also how they give it to others. That’s not always an element that we wrestle with. We sort of just think of everyone as a writer because everyone is, and we can forget some of the more human feelings and fears that people bring with them into the room. And human prejudices, human—all of the things that are a part of us because we’re not just objective readers with good taste.
It’s difficult to figure out how to write a book that raises really provocative questions. It also makes some claims, I think, but making sure that it’s all subtle, and filtered through character in a work of fiction, but also making sure that the subtlety and the ambivalence aren’t so great that the book ends up saying nothing about gentrification, or about the theme.
AA: You were able to present gentrification without smacking the reader. I appreciate that. How did you dwell long term in a hard piece? It must have been really draining. What did you do to keep your energy up?
NC: Oh, that’s a good question. I think that’s something that always kept the book alive to me and kept the themes from feeling tired, was constantly uncovering new layers of character. So, I think I would’ve run out of steam if I just sort of fought through gentrification, and the book would’ve become too large and unwieldy because there are just too many things to say and explore, and my book couldn’t hold the pressure of telling some sort of authoritative account of gentrification in Brooklyn. But I was continually interested in what it meant for Penelope, and what it meant for her as she’s embarking on this relationship with her landlord, as she’s watching her father’s decline, as she’s meeting other artists. That kept it interesting and alive for me, following her character.
You ask how did I get inspired? Well, I didn’t work on it constantly for four years. There were ebbs and flows to my work on it, although it was more or less consistent, and I felt that the time that I was away from it made me sort of itch to get back to it and write. I ingested a fair amount of art during this time, so film and books, and that kept me really energized, and interested in things that I wanted to try on. Also, just having writing partners, and encouraging people, I found was really helpful when I didn’t always have the internal clarity about it. Meeting with other people who were spending their time in the same way, worrying about the same things was really affirming, and encouraging. Maybe not every writer needs that, but I certainly do.
In the beginning, I had an idea or a vision for the book, and then once I switched point of view, I thought that what the heart of the book was going to be was going to shift. It wasn’t just that the book would remain the same, but told through these two points of view. But what was ultimately at the center changed, which was challenging, but also really rich.
AA: Oh yes, because how did you keep from raging?
NC: Part of the fun of a novel is that the characters can have a range of responses and hold a range of emotions. There can be Ralph (Penelope’s father) in the book who’s sort of unapologetic in his lamentation of how the neighborhood has changed and his critique of gentrifiers, and then there’s Penelope who’s got this ambivalence and is in this in-between place. She gets to rage in the book which is different than the book raging. But I gave her permission to do it, and to do it without punishment. She’s not punished when she lashes out at her landlord and his friend who wants to buy in the neighborhood. Those moments, I thought, became really critical ways to suggest something about gentrification without making the book into a polemic. Even with her relationship with the Harpers, there are moments of tenderness and sweetness that I think keep the book from totally villainizing them. I would say that the book doesn’t totally condone their presence, their way of being, but kind of leaves that as an open question for the reader.
AA: There’s this moment with Mrs. Harper and I think Penelope is just using her observant power to figure some things out. Oh, this woman. How somewhat narcissistic in her needs; her problems are the largest in the room. How that was something Penelope had seen in other places, and I thought that was really… I don’t think tender is the word I want, but poignantly handled. It wasn’t this explosive point. It was just like, this is an observation. I thought that was really well handled. Not rage-y, really well handled.
NC: Thank you. It’s difficult to figure out how to write a book that raises really provocative questions. It also makes some claims, I think, but making sure that it’s all subtle, and filtered through character in a work of fiction, but also making sure that the subtlety and the ambivalence aren’t so great that the book ends up saying nothing about gentrification, or about the theme. Or that the book only says it’s complicated, rather than it’s complicated and this is true. Like, there’s a cost to displacement, so that was a delicate balance for me, and I imagine it’ll continue to be in my work.
AA: That struggle: in your LitHub article, “Who Gets to Write about Gentrification?” You say Penelope on her own might not be enough, and Mirella—the demanding character who stole more of your time-challenged expected behaviors. How did changing perspective impact your writing experience?
NC: Well, I think changing perspectives challenged my sense of what the book was about. In the beginning, I had an idea or a vision for the book, and then once I switched point of view, I thought that what the heart of the book was going to be was going to shift. It wasn’t just that the book would remain the same, but told through these two points of view. But what was ultimately at the center changed, which was challenging, but also really rich. I also thought it was good to get away from some things that were easy for me to default to. It was so easy to default to writing about someone with a similar educational trajectory to me. I didn’t drop out of art school, but someone who had a higher education. Penelope and I are not the same age, but someone who’s roughly in my age range.
So, it really helped challenge my sense of who I could write about, who was interesting to me, who I could follow, and also points of connection between the characters because there are as many points of connection between me and Penelope as there are between me and Mirella. Also, with some of the other characters, even if they’re not as fully formed, and I find that they’re pieces of me. Whether that’s questions, experiences, emotions, in all of the characters, even the ones who seem really biographically different.
AA: You had mentioned something about having found out your book was described as quiet and having some ambivalence about finding that out. I’d love to hear more about that if you could share.
NC: Yeah, so I’ll clarify that I heard it in two different ways. I heard it in a wonderful review from Kirkus Reviews that I loved, and I loved the use of it there because it didn’t seem like a condemnation, and it wasn’t cited as a flaw of the book. I thought that was just a really insightful, encouraging review. But I did hear it in other places as a critique. So, quiet. I wasn’t really sure what was meant by it, but what I think it means is that it’s about the internal world of these two women, and their thoughts and feelings and impressions. That, I thought, shouldn’t be a reason for critique at all. In large part because so much great fiction is about the internal world of characters, but perhaps characters who we have minds that are interesting, or energetic, and I think these women are actually quite loud in their convictions and beliefs. So it felt gendered…as much as it felt about some…I guess publishing world sensibility about what people read. Sort of like the minds of great men aren’t called quiet, but I might be wrong about that. But that’s my sense.
AA: There’s a lot to be learned right in the comments you’ve just made. Also, in this more tumultuous place, a white woman loved a book you were reading, and said, “Oh, I love that book. It’s about race without being about race.” I thought that was awful, truly awful. You state quite clearly that your book is about race. In this moment, I wonder about white fragility, and what’s appropriate to even ask you? So, I thought I’d be upfront about where I am with that.
I believe in educating myself, a big follower of bell hooks. I believe in doing the work, researching, reading, using books, such as yours, to increase my understanding. I do the best I can to not bring my questions or guilt or shame or grief caused by my people to people of color in my scope. I also believe in growing this sense with other white people in my scope. So, with that in mind and with regards to white fragility, how might your book work best? If we can talk about that. Or if you don’t even want to talk in that regard, I mean, I do want that question answered, but I go back to the first point of what’s appropriate to ask you?
NC: That’s an interesting question. I think that it’s great that you’ve brought up white fragility and race because I think they do shape readerly responses to literature just like they shape our lives at all kinds of levels: political level, at the level of the neighborhood; but we’re not always transparent about how that affects the assessment of a work of art, or whether a reader says something like I didn’t relate to this book. Or I was offended by this book. Or I just couldn’t get into it. Sometimes those responses can be totally shaped by race and racism, by white fragility.
So because I can’t control what is in a reader, nor would I want to, I do think that the reception of my book is beyond my control, and that readers will bring what they bring to the text, and I can only really think about how I craft the text itself. I saw some of this play out when I was reading online reviews of my book, sort of reader reviews, and then I stopped. Just because every writer I knew told me that was a bad idea, and I don’t regret stopping, but it was interesting to see how much racial politics were informing people’s view of the book in a range of ways. From deeming it important and urgent, to deeming it highly relatable, and including experiences that they had gone through in their neighborhood, people thanking me for the portraits of Brooklyn, to people deeming the book racist, or the characters unrelatable, or the use of Spanish alienating and frustrating, [or] not worth the money paid for the book. So, all those responses had nothing to do…or were not inevitable responses to my book, but were coming out of whatever the reader brought to the text. I am not going to change what I want to write in order to be palatable to any reader, or certainly not a reader who’s bringing white fragility to the text. But, you know, knowing that those responses are shaped by
so many other factors has been really helpful.
AA: Thank you, because it leaves me with: How do we all talk to one another, especially in this current political climate?
NC: Yeah, and I think that there has to be room for readers, classmates, teachers, to do some self-reflection about what they’re bringing to their assessments of texts, of other people, of art, and to think about how internalized oppression is shaping the way we interact with each other, and with creative work. Whether that’s sexism or racism or transphobia, whatever it may be, knowing that those things can’t be a part of us, and a part of our culture without affecting the way we talk about books and art and artists.
AA: Right, right, and the canon that has been given to us with our Eurocentric education. Looking at your teacher and how old your teacher is, and assuming how that person was educated and what they had to unlock. If we’re going to try not to bring how we were educated into the next generation, we have to unlock what was given to us.
NC: Yeah, and it shapes not just how we respond as readers, but also what we create as writers. I’m always struck by how beautiful a lot of the characters in fiction are, how conventionally beautiful, and thin. That’s another way that our ideas about who’s worth following shaped the work because it certainly doesn’t reflect the world we live in, that everyone is slender, and long- haired.
I think a lot just about how I have been given, and I’ve taken the time and space to really value my own mind, which I think a writer has to do, and I don’t think it’s something that women of color are always encouraged to do. I think in some ways my education gave me some sense that what I have to say and what I think matters and is valuable and might be useful to someone else. That has been no small thing.
AA: I invited one of our BA creative writing students from [the Antioch program] to hear you read. She had just attended Michelle Obama speaking in LA on the Becoming tour and was so thrilled. She’s an older student, a person of color, and an emerging writer. What would you like her, and others like her, to know?
NC: So many things. I would highlight the importance of finding a supportive community. Whether that’s a community that you can retreat to, to talk about some awful feedback you got, whether it’s in class, or from an editor, and just to have people who believe you. People who will believe you—and believe your assessment if you feel it’s something that was happening was because of who you are—and not just because of the work, just to have a community of people who will believe you, and encourage you, I think is really critical.
Also, there are a lot of people of color in the publishing world who are looking out for each other, who are amplifying each other’s work. Whether on Twitter, or through inviting people to speak, or buying their books, sharing resources. It’s very encouraging that there are sites of power that people are creating and sharing with one another. I would tell her that it’s important to keep going, and it’s a simple thing. I had a professor who said it all the time to us, and it really frustrated us—those of us who were his students—because we thought: can you just introduce us to an agent? Or tell us how to make it better? But he would always encourage us to keep going. Once I was out of the structure of school and working on a novel myself, I realized how much that had to become a mantra for myself when it really wasn’t easy to keep going. So, I would tell her to keep going, and that a supportive community will help with that, and to give herself whatever else she needs to keep going as best she can.
AA: In the college world, have you been confronted with surprising messages? How are students gaining a better understanding, coming together, listening, trying to make room for marginalized voices to speak?
NC: Yeah, I’m really cautious about constructing any sort of overarching narrative that explains America today. Something like students are taking charge and resisting more and more, or things are getting worse and worse. I always resist those overarching narratives. In part because I don’t feel qualified to construct them, but also because I am skeptical about how they often seem a-historical or just to erase complexity. What I do know is that both resistance and awareness, as well as ignorance and hatefulness, are consistent.
AA: Your education was a powerful driver for your parents, and then clearly, you continued it. How do higher academics empower women? And did your degree work push you away from anyone?
NC: Push me away from anyone? That’s a good question. I think that it’s always difficult when one has experiences that really differentiate them from their community or their family. Whether that’s having a different language and culture to claim than the generation before or educational level, it can create rifts and difficulties as well as new possibilities, but I wouldn’t say that it pushed me away from anyone. But it certainly established some differences between me and people in my community, and me and my family. But also lots of points of connection and similarity. It’s not all rifts. But in terms of how my education has empowered me, I think a lot just about how I have been given, and I’ve taken the time and space to really value my own mind, which I think a writer has to do, and I don’t think it’s something that women of color are always encouraged to do. I think in some ways my education gave me some sense that what I have to say and what I think matters and is valuable and might be useful to someone else. That has been no small thing.
AA: In the Kenyon Review, you mentioned once feeling anxiety, doubt, and a sense of failure when creating your art. Other times, you bring up hard times with the body. But when I read the powerful Paris Review piece, “Who Gets to Be Brooklyn Born?” or this beautiful piece about a wedding on the train tracks, I don’t find the lingering wisps of doubting your professional ability. Oh, that piece on your wedding! There was something about those two pieces right there, and I just was hit with your power.
NC: Oh, thank you!
AA: How are you handling your power these days?
NC: Yeah, I think I’m still learning to recognize my power, and to handle it. I have moments where I’m more in touch with it than others, and publishing a book has not changed that in terms of when I feel connected and empowered, and when I don’t. I do think that writing is a place for me where I feel most powerful and in touch with it. That’s probably why I started writing, honestly, as a child, because it felt like a way to establish my own authority, and my own version of things, and again, to value my mind. And so I think I’m still learning how to hold on to a sense of my power, and not forget about it, and then remember it, and forget about it. I think that the writing helps me to remember.
AA: And it seems like it’s growing with you. Even just reading the Cobain piece—
NC: You read so widely, thank you!
AA: I really enjoyed it too. What do you say to women who are feeling meek, beaten down, or worn out?
NC: Oof. Yeah. I guess I would say I’ve been there. And so have many of us. It’s a difficult experience, but not one in which you’re alone. Something that I think a lot about is how to honor my feelings, but also push myself beyond them in terms of action. Sometimes feeling meek, but doing the brave thing anyway is helpful. So, I try to do that a lot, to not always act out of my feeling. I’ve acknowledged the feeling, but sometimes you do the things anyway. I had a woman give me the advice where she was like, “sometimes you just put on a dress and sit at the grownup’s table.” I was talking to her about feeling sort of meek, and she’s much older than I am and further along in her career, but she said that there were times when she had to do that, as well. I think that that can be really helpful and can be a way of shifting feelings. Not always full, but introducing new feelings, too.
AA: I like it. The dress could be Doc Martens and jeans. What’s next, Naima?
NC: Yeah. I have two books in the works. One that I’m working on much more actively right now. That one is set in North Carolina, and it’s similar to Halsey Street in the sense that it’s about how place shapes people, how things that are happening in a community reverberate throughout, and it’s about two families. It’s a family drama with all of the themes that really interest me, so the interior lives of women, relationships across lines of difference, intergenerational trauma. It’s thematically really similar, but a whole different set of characters, a different place, and was formed by my time in North Carolina, which was really precious to me.
And then the other book is sort of a quest story that I started as a challenge for myself as a writer. That also has a lot of the same themes, but it’s about a young woman who has to go on a journey, and not just a figurative one, a literal journey to protect her family. It’s a different kind of book for me, but out of the same sort of questions. And the question of that book, I’ve shared this elsewhere, but I’l share it with you anyway—the question of that book is, how do you learn to be tender when life has required that you be hard? That’s the question that I’m kicking around throughout the book while this woman is on an adventure. I often start writing with a question in mind.
AA: Thank you, so much, Naima. This was really fun.
NC: Thank you for your thoughtful questions.
Andrea Auten is a writer and a visual and performing artist. A writing specialist for Antioch University Los Angeles, she is the community outreach, social media associate managing editor, and youth content coordinator for Lunch Ticket. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and lives with her husband, sons, and beloved writing partner, Dusky, the family cat. Find her at andreaauten.com.
Christopher Castellani, the son of Italian-American immigrants, is best known for his critically-acclaimed trilogy of novels about an Italian-American family: A Kiss from Maddalena (Algonquin Books, 2003), The Saint of Lost Things (Algonquin, 2005), and All This Talk of Love (Algonquin, 2013). Filled with real and complex characters living in turbulent times, the Grasso family’s story reminded me of my own, even though my father’s family comes from Ireland, and my mother’s family from Mexico. Like many readers, I found familiarity in the issues and challenges that the Grasso family faced, since most immigrant parents are continually carving out a new identity in their new home, while simultaneously shouldering responsibility to traditions and values that they’ve left behind. Castellani’s novels proved to be delicious historical fiction that I found hard to put down.
And yet, it was Castellani’s craft book, The Art of Perspective (Greywolf Press, 2016) that I brought to the winter residency for Chris to sign—a craft book that I read before the Grasso family trilogy. It’s the one Castellani book that remains my favorite, for its unique voice that imparted level-headed wisdom. As I continue to labor over my own novel—seven years in the making— The Art of Perspective continues to be my go-to craft book as I discover the right narrative strategy for the whole story.
Castellani’s newest novel, Leading Men, is described on his website as “an expansive yet intimate story of desire, artistic ambition, and fidelity, set in the glamorous literary and film circles of 1950s Italy.” It’s a story that takes place over a span of years, beginning when Tennessee Williams and his lover, Frank Merlo, meet a gorgeous, aspiring Swedish actress, Anja Blomgren, at a party in Portofino, thrown by a mutual friend, Truman Capote. Frank remembers the events of that summer as he lies dying in Manhattan, ten years later, waiting for one last visit from Tennessee. Anja is now legendary film icon Anja Bloom, who lives as a recluse until she is forced back into the spotlight after it is discovered that she possesses the only copy of Tennessee Williams’s unpublished, final play—written especially for her.
Castellani now lives and works in Boston, serving as Artistic Director for GrubStreet, a non-profit agency that runs a renowned creative writing program, where writers help other writers in the community. Chris and I connected via Skype at the beginning of February, just as he finished a busy day at the GrubStreet offices. There, he found a quiet room and we started talking about his upcoming book tour.
If I have too many options when I’m writing, if everything is open, in terms of narrative, I get paralyzed and my imagination shuts down.
Janet Rodriguez: Congratulations on Leading Men. I saw your book tour schedule and I counted forty stops. What are you thinking? Are you going to sleep?
Christopher Castellani: (laughs) Yeah, it’s crazy, I know. Probably not. I’m so flattered and honored that so many places want to have me. I get a lot out of the experience of presenting and talking to people and all that, which is fulfilling for me, which is nice.
JR: I know, when you read at Antioch, you were wonderful. This new book is a bit of a departure for you, isn’t it?
CC: In the sense that it doesn’t have any basis in family stories, yes, it’s a departure, but it also has the historical or alternative fiction elements to it. In a way, it is actually quite similar to what I did with my family story. If you think of my family story as a family history, what I was doing was taking pieces of that real history and transforming it into fiction. It’s not so different taking the history of people I don’t know and transforming that into fiction. In some ways, it’s not a departure, it’s just a different cast of characters.
JR: So, what’s it like, fictionalizing “history”?
CC: (laughs at my air quotes) I found it strangely freeing. People think that’s counterintuitive, but I loved having the constraints. If I have too many options when I’m writing, if everything is open, in terms of narrative, I get paralyzed and my imagination shuts down. In the case of this book, there was a missing week in the journals that Tennessee Williams was keeping. I decided to write the book inside of that missing week, so I had the constraints of time, the constraints of geography, and, of course, the constraints of a few known characters. Within those constraints I felt like I was fully playing. I could really use my imagination and go crazy but within a certain set of limits. To me, that was the ideal circumstance to write this book.
JR: I like how you say you feel free within those constraints—you’re free to play and use your imagination.
CC: Exactly. I get paralyzed when I’m relying on one-hundred percent of what comes into my mind. I think I would be a really good color-by-numbers painter, rather than a blank canvas. [laughs] I would change the numbers, of course, but I like having the lines around them.
JR: The first book of yours that I ever read was The Art of Perspective. I loved the entire series by Grey Wolf Press, but I thought your book had one of the best beginnings of any craft book I have ever read. You illustrate how important it is to get connection with the reader, pull them into the story, and then—boom! —they’re off with you. I think it has the most wonderful beginning of any book—let alone a craft book—and I really enjoyed it.
CC: Thank you. Thank you so much.
JR: Why is it so important for writers to get the right perspective?
CC: Well, like I tried to illustrate with that example [at the beginning of The Art of Perspective], it changes everything. Ultimately, every story is about the narrator, whether they realize it or not. So, it really makes a huge difference who you have controlling the narrative because, ultimately, it’s going to reflect on that character. It’s the same if you have an omniscient, or an amorphous narrator, it still has that sensibility defining the whole narrative. You’ll have main characters and minor characters, but who’s pulling the strings of characterizing them in one way or another? That’s the author or the narrator, and ultimately, the book and the story is a reflection of them. So, it really comes down to who tells the story.
This is true of anyone who tells you any story, even someone you meet in person on the street. Let’s say you meet an old friend for coffee and she’s telling you about her marriage, her children, or whatever. What she’s saying is only true based on her own perception; it’s only one side of the story. If the novel that’s written about that family is told by her, it’s going to be a very different book than if it’s told by the son, her husband, her sister, or the neighbor. It’s going to be a different story if it’s told by all of them, from multiple different points of view. Each of those options carries a different effect on the overall project of the book. The truth really doesn’t matter; it’s all kind of relative.
JR: Do you believe that a story gets written when you can’t write it any other way?
CC: I think there’s a truth to that. I don’t know if you have to actually write from every point of view [laughs], but I do think you have to consider the narrative from a bunch of different angles and consider what would happen to the narrative if you told it another way. Finally, you’ll hit upon the one that feels the most true to you.
The way into the story is not necessarily the way out. So, if you start a story from the mother’s point of view, and you think, “Well, because I started it that way—that’s what I was organically led to—then that’s the way the story has to stay.” That’s completely not true. The mother’s point of view is often just the onramp to the story, but the story might be told by a different character or using a completely different process or a different strategy once you know what you want the story to be about.
We often go into the story thinking that we know what we want it to be about, and we think we have the right way of getting there, but once we’re in the middle of it, we realize it’s actually about something else. Once we realize that, it’s probably unlikely that the same person can still tell it. So, we have to constantly be open to reorganizing or reassessing our strategy.
JR: Is there a strategy to finding the right narrator? A shortcut?
CC: I wouldn’t say there are shortcuts, but what I do recommend that people do—and I’ve done with every book—is write a lot outside the story or the novel. I write journal entries of characters that I know won’t end up in the book, but it’s just a way of getting to know them better. So, I write in their voices. I’ll write letters from one character to another, just to see what they would say to each other, even though I know it’s not going to end up in the book. I’m getting to know them on that intimate level, in a way that will not necessarily be a part of the book. When you do this, it’s so important to tell yourself, “None of what I’m writing is going to end up in this book.” Because then, you can unlock a part of yourself that isn’t trying to impress anybody; you’re just trying to get to know these people.
From the beginning, if you know you’re gay from early on, which I did, or if you know you’re different, at least, early on, which I did, you knew exactly what that meant. It forces you to watch people’s behavior because you have to figure out a way to operate and get through it.
Once you start to amass this material, you do start to see, “Oh, this is where the energy is! This is whose voice that I want to tell the story.” Or, “These are the multiple voices that I need to tell the story.” Or, “Okay, it’s actually about this time of their lives, but I’m going to tell it from thirty years later, for whatever reason.” Only when you amass a lot of material can you make a decision in an informed way, but as I said, that material doesn’t have to end up in the story.
It can be anything: notes, pictures, almost anything that would be like making a scrapbook of a character’s life, whether you’re jotting down notes from them, whatever. This is just a way of gathering material. Only when you gather a lot—it’s almost like [laughs]—have you been watching the Marie Kondo show on Netflix?
JR: Yes! Oh, my word, I’m addicted to that show!
CC: You know how she gets them to throw everything into a pile? You have to do that so you can see what you’ve got before you know what you really want to keep. And that’s really what I’m talking about. I guess it’s just like the Marie Kondo guide to writing a story.
JR: [laughs] Did you do all this with Leading Men?
CC: I did. I did a lot of this with Leading Men. I wrote a lot outside the story. I wrote many versions of various scenes from different perspectives. I had a whole other structure of the book for a while, that I only realized wasn’t working because I had so much of it and I could see I knew too much. I had an idea that added up too neatly. I had two characters who were telling the story, and they were like perfect contrasts to each other. In a way, it was too perfect. It was too obvious, and I needed something—like an X factor—to shake up the narrative. Only when I introduced a new character, who was completely fictional, was I able to really see the book for what it really was.
JR: Anja Bloom—is she completely fictional?
CC: [smiles] Yup. She’s the character I was talking about.
JR: You know, I thought so. I searched online and in library resources: Who did Tennessee Williams and Frank know before she became famous? Who is Anja Bloom? And so, now you tell me she’s made up?
CC: [laughing] Yeah. She’s inspired by someone like Liv Ullman or, in a way, Greta Garbo, but she’s completely fictional. She came from a line from a letter that Truman Capote wrote at the time.
I always identified with my mother’s story, her sense of dislocation as a very reluctant immigrant. She never really had the life she really wanted and yet felt too powerless to change it.
JR: I’ve always been a fan of Tennessee Williams. I think the way he wrote women is incredible—especially the way he was able to get inside the psyche of his female characters—and here he is, a man. Do you think he has influenced your writing?
CC: That’s an interesting question. This is not in any way to say that I am as talented a writer as he is—but I feel like I gravitated towards him because he and I have a similar sensibility when it comes to women in particular. The types of women characters that he is drawn to are the same kind of women characters I am drawn to. So, it’s not like he taught me, but it’s like we found each other, or I found him, and I recognize him. He’s a better version of what I want to be. He’s doing what I am doing, or what I want to do.
JR: The way you researched and wrote the trilogy was amazing, but even more amazing was how you wrote the women. Like you knew each one. You seem very sympathetic with a woman’s perspective… Do you want to say anything about that?
CC: I’m a total mama’s boy [laughs]. That might have had something to do with it. I always identified with my mother’s story, her sense of dislocation as a very reluctant immigrant. She never really had the life she really wanted and yet felt too powerless to change it. And that tug between being traditional and breaking free of tradition, I feel like I really identify with that, and so many women are in that position. They feel they want to be or they’re raised to be the traditional type, or they have feelings of loyalty or responsibility to that traditional model. At the same time, they have feelings, I guess like we all do, to break out and burn it all down. [laughs] I think that men are… kind of given more permission to do that kind of thing, and forgiven for that, and women aren’t. And as a gay man, I think I can really identify with that in that regard.
JR: I was just going to ask you that, and I’m really glad that you went there. Because I’m kind of old school, and among me and my friends in our generation, we used to say that you need a gay friend—a gay man friend—to really talk to. But if I say that out loud in the community I’m in now? [around my young friends/university with a focus on social justice] I’m kind of out there. So, do you want to address that?
CC: Just call me, call me! [we laugh]
Well, I’ll address it this way: I’ll say that being gay, [and] being a woman, what they share is similar. From the beginning, if you know you’re gay from early on, which I did, or if you know you’re different, at least, early on, which I did, you knew exactly what that meant. It forces you to watch people’s behavior because you have to figure out a way to operate and get through it. To navigate the world in a way that you’re undetected. So, you’re watching people’s behavior all the time. You’re saying, “If I want to be a real man or a real boy, I have to act this way.” So, you’re imitating and you’re watching, and you’re studying human behavior and the way people interact with each other. I think that’s why so many gay people are artists, because we’ve been forced to analyze human behavior. And women have to do that as well, mostly in terms of self-protection, as a way of keeping safe, keeping watch over your bodies, over your everything. We’re both in similar positions because we both have to be constantly aware. We both have to be conscious of the way we behave in that dynamic.
JR: Before we end, can you tell me a little bit about your craft? How you’ve honed it?
CC: Are you asking about my process?
JR: Yes, if you can talk about process, please do—especially, how would you direct someone who was beginning?
CC: Well, first of all, quickly, I should say that my process is not very different than most writers. I’m writing a little bit every day, treating it like a part-time job, showing up for work even when you think you don’t have anything to say or want to say, and then just accumulating pages, and then stepping back, seeing what you have, going back through it, and just repeat, repeat, repeat that process over and over again.
I do think if you’re writing a novel, you owe it to yourself to try to immerse yourself in that novel, for at least a period of days, if not weeks, if you can afford it, to really see that novel. Because you really have to see it all at once and immerse yourself in that world, once you have maybe 300 or 400 pages to just really immerse yourself in it.
JR: What are the most effective tools to get good?
CC: I know it sounds like the most boring, cliché answer, but the absolute, best way to become a better writer is to read more. As they say, read like a writer, but read in a way that opens things up.
Think about pure imitation: “This is how this writer is doing it and I’m going to do it the same way,” and then try to do it in the exact same way. Chances are, you’re going to do it your way, even if you think that you’re imitating them. You’re letting what they’ve done open up possibilities for your own work.
And, again, don’t think you have to write like every successful writer. If you write more like Raymond Carver, then try to be the best version of a Raymond-Carver-like writer you can be. You’re always going to bring your own sensibility to it. Don’t worry about ripping him off. But you can’t be Raymond Carver and Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace all at the same time—you’re going to be a total mish-mash! Gravitate toward what speaks to you and what moves you, and try to learn from that. Don’t try to copy whoever is hitting it big that year.
I do think we recognize our kindred spirits when we look for our writing models. They can’t be foisted on us. I’m never going to write like Raymond Carver, as much as I admire him. I’m never going to write like David Foster Wallace, but there are people who I gravitate towards, and I can make myself a better version of myself if I look to them as an example.
I guess it’s about finding your literary kindred spirits and trying to be the most like them that you can. I guess I’ve always done that, whether I’ve meant to or not.
JR: Chris, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to me.
CC: It really was a pleasure, so thank you.
Janet Rodriguez is an author, blogger, teacher, and editor who lives in Sacramento with her husband, extended family, three dogs, and one cat. In the United States, her work has appeared in Cloud Women’s Quarterly Journal, Salon, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. Rodriguez has also published essays, stories, and two biographies in South Africa.
Her writing examines themes of identity and morality in faith communities, and the mestiza experience in a culturally binary world. Currently she is a Cardinal cohort at Antioch University Los Angeles, serving on the magazine, Lunch Ticket, where a bunch of younger nerds keep her on her toes. Follow her on Twitter @brazenprincess or her personal blog at www.brazenprincess.com.
Natashia Deón is the acclaimed author of Grace (Counterpoint Press, 2016), a Kirkus Review Best Book of 2016, a New York Times Top Book 2016, an Entropy Magazine Best Book of 2016, and winner of the American Library Association Black Caucus 2017 First Novel Prize, among other honors. Deón is a graduate of the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert MFA program in creative writing and the creator of Dirty Laundry Lit. She is the recipient of a host of prestigious fellowships and residencies, including PEN America Emerging Voices, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and Yale. In addition to being a writer, she is a practicing attorney and a law professor. Deón is the author of the forthcoming novel The Perishing, due out in 2020.
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Within moments of meeting Natashia Deόn the evening before our interview, I know what type of person she is—she’s the type of person that people want to be their guru. And understandably so. She is both confident and humble, sharing as openly about her failings as she does her success. She speaks with the ease and authority of someone who is firmly grounded, someone who has gone deep within herself and emerged feeling at peace. That’s no small feat. It’s how I imagine Oprah would be if I met her, how I imagine we all would be after decades of meditation, self-reflection, and hanging out with Deepak Chopra.
But what Natashia Deόn is grounded in is her faith in God, and she speaks of it freely, reverently, without fanaticism and mostly without any self-consciousness. After sharing her belief that the story for her novel Grace was given to her by God, she says, “That’s how I feel about it, however that comes out or however that sounds.” As a woman of faith myself, it sounds reasonable to me, but that is not always the case with industry decision makers who often are concerned with more earthly matters. Despite that moment of self-consciousness, Natashia’s identity and her process as a writer are rooted in her faith, and her adherence to it in the face of opposition is the secret to her success.
We discussed this and other topics when I interviewed Deón on December 18, 2018 at the Antioch University Los Angeles campus. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
A.D. Lowman: I’ve got some prepared questions, but I’m totally open to wherever this goes. What I was thinking about as I prepared for this interview is that we read Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer last term, and she says something that I totally agree with, which is that we do students of writing a disservice by not exposing them to the drafts of finished works. We study all of these finished works, but we never really see the process to get there. And so we end up comparing our works in progress to these finished works, and we’re expected to get there without fully seeing the process.
I wrote my questions for you with that in mind, and knowing that we’re all very interested in the circuitous, messy, sometimes depressing process that we hope will lead to an acclaimed work at the end. A lot of the interviews I’ve read that you’ve done have been about the content of the book; I want to be able to do something a little bit different.
Natashia Deón: Great!
ADL: Your novel Grace engrossed me from the very first page and has received almost universal critical acclaim. Did you have a sense as you were writing it, or once you completed it, that you had created something so resonant?
ND: I felt like, if I’m going to be completely honest, I felt like it was a big book. I felt it because I felt that it was given to me. As a writer, I see…myself as a servant first of words, and I think my story came from God. That’s how I feel about it, however that comes out or however that sounds. So I knew that if I could carry it to this imaginary finish line, that He would be there. Because He wouldn’t give me something to fail or not show up at the end. And that’s what kept me writing it, so I knew that it was going to be big. I didn’t know that I was the writer to do it, but I knew that I was going to be obedient and I knew He was going to show up. So it wasn’t really like a confidence in me, like, “Oh, I’m so great that everybody’s going to love what I write.” It was my confidence in Him, that He would come through for me. And so in the middle of the night I’d wake up with these dreams of how to change something, or with these visions [of] “Oh, I didn’t think of that!” It was kind of like [God] was my editor. I just trusted that, so that’s what I always knew is that He would show up.
There was one point in the book where I had a vision of all these slaves standing on the battlefield and they were all frozen and they weren’t moving. It was like it was a photograph and I’m walking through them.
ADL: In an interview with the LA Times, you talked about the powerful vision you had that gave you the setting, story, and opening scene of Grace. How did you get such a firm grasp on both the geographic and historical settings for the novel?
ND: My family is from Alabama. My mom and dad were the first to leave a very small town in Alabama called East Tallassee, Alabama, since the end of American slavery. Pretty much everyone else [in my family] stayed there, or the farthest they’ve gone is Atlanta. But pretty much everyone is still there. They were the first to leave, but in the summers, I used to go there and spend time there, so I knew the setting from when I was young, even though I was born in LA. And I would read a lot, so I was researching, but it was really based on my childhood memories of the place, and it doesn’t look anything like that now. And I didn’t want to go back to it because I didn’t want anything to change in my memory. And I don’t want to correct anything. Anything that I got wrong, I didn’t want to see it differently. And I used to ATV around the woods and stuff, you know? I wanted to remember that and honor that.
There was one point in the book where I had a vision of all these slaves standing on the battlefield and they were all frozen and they weren’t moving. It was like it was a photograph and I’m walking through them. And it was after my book was already being edited and [I] was like, “I’m missing something, I’m missing something.” And I’m on this battlefield and all these slaves are just frozen there. And it just answered the question that I had which was—because people kept saying, “Well, why isn’t the Emancipation Proclamation this moment of happiness for slaves?”— and it was because obviously they weren’t free, number one, and two, they were released in the middle of the Civil War. So there was nowhere for them to go, they were standing there like, “We can’t go.” They’re literally standing on the battlefield like, “I’m not going to cross the battlefield. I need to stay where I am. It’s safer here.” And it answered that question for me. So a lot of the details that I saw in that vision [answered] questions like, “Why didn’t my family leave?” They were freed, but why did they all stay where they were slaves at one time? So details like that, God just showed up for me.
ADL: Critical acclaim of Grace hails it as “flawlessly constructed,” and I would agree. Can you talk about how you created such a strong backbone for the novel?
ND: You know, I didn’t have a backbone [at first]. My novel just went linearly, and I remember finishing it thinking…it’s not moving. I get it, but it’s not moving the way that I want it to. I always had the opening, because I had that from the beginning. I didn’t want her to go through her life, then die, and then it starts the story of her daughter. And I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to do a fellowship. For two weeks I’m there. They give you a studio to write in and an apartment, and you just sort of do the work. And I didn’t write a single word. They feed you, I went to the gym and I was like, “This was a waste of my time. Two weeks, it’s too quiet! There’s horses…” But the day that I got home to LA, and I woke up the next morning, I knew the structure of it. I knew it was going to go back and forth in time. So that’s sort of how I got the structure. And I thought about death and how people have near-death experiences, so I wanted to do it like that. Because my question is, “What scenes do we see?” Do we get to see this one right now, us sitting in this room? Like, why would we or would we not? So I was always interested in that, and I thought I could tell the story like that, and it worked.
ADL: What was that interaction like with an editor? Is that something you did before it went to that process?
ND: Yeah, but I talked to other editors who didn’t want that. What happens after you get your agent [is] you send it out and your agent will put you in touch with editors who are interested in buying it. So then you have this editorial call with them to see what their vision is because you want to make sure your editor sees what you see. Because Grace was 600 pages, and I had to cut it. So I’m like, “What do you want to cut? Do you want to cut the structure?” Things that you don’t think about as a writer.
Like to get into a book club, usually their page count is limited to 150. If your book is over 150 pages, the big ones like Well-Read Black Girl [look for] those books…to read on the big circuit. You know you’re not thinking about that as a writer, this is a 300-page book. It still made it to book club. I’m just saying…if that’s your eye for people to talk about it in book clubs, stuff like that is what [editors are] thinking of.
So I’m talking to my editor like, “I don’t think we’re going to go from 600 pages to 150 and still preserve this product.” He says, “We can still do it. How do you feel about the time jumps? Can we make the Emancipation Proclamation a happy day?” And I say, “No, it doesn’t make sense.” But there were other editors who were like, “We need to change it so it revolves around one day: the Emancipation Proclamation.” And I’m like, “No, that’s not how the story goes.” Or we need to leave out all the extra characters who aren’t black, and I said that’s not how the story goes. So you have to pass on big houses and it hurts. But at the end of the day, I felt like I wanted the book that God gave me and entrusted me with. Who am I going to give this baby to? So that became my decision instead of a financial one, but I think it worked out because I got the best team.
ADL: Your novel has also been praised for having the “propulsive plotting of a suspense novel,” and “sustain[ing] a murder ballad’s intensity for hundreds of pages.” How did you keep the literary and suspense aspects of your novel in balance? How did you keep one from overtaking the other? The phrase that has been used [at the ongoing MFA residency] is the “contract with the reader.” The opening tells them whether to expect literary, suspense, etc., so how did you handle that?
ND: I had ten days to edit Grace by the time it got—because there’s such a thing as trends. Because Underground was coming out, Yaa Gyasi’s book [Homegoing] was coming out, all these books. And my editor came to me in November, and my book wasn’t supposed to come out until the fall of the next year and the distributor PGW—which is the largest producer next to Simon & Schuster which does all the small presses—they were like, “If your book doesn’t go now, it may not go. So we need you to edit it and have it ready for Winter Institute.” So this is the first week of December. [They said], “We need to have it ready to be printed, galleyed, so you can be in this thing called ‘Winter Institute’ in January.” So we have ten days, and it was over Christmas and everything.
So we had to have it printed and I remember I was like, “Okay, Dan, I can do this, but I need a week after we edit it. You have to promise me that you’re going to give it back to me, no matter what we do…” And he’s like, “Okay, we gotta send it to the copy editor.” And what you get in a galley is usually not copy edited. So as I was reading through it, there were three chapters at the beginning that slowed it down. So if I’m in this rush, am I still wanting to turn the page, or am I slowing down? And so I had to cut, and I said, “Dan, I need to see it! You promised me a week!” He said, “You got three days!” So I read my book in three days and I just chopped Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and it just went. And then I added some stuff, changed some stuff. And then it made sense to me, and that’s how it went.
[You and I] talked about this “writer instinct” because you know that something’s missing, so as much as you love it, you want a reason for the reader to turn the next page. There’s no reason, so you have to give them a reason, so that’s what I intentionally did.
ADL: Wow, I don’t even know what to write from that. I’m just going to have to take that from the recording!
ND: Just trust your instincts! Don’t let anybody else tell you, you know already, you know already. It’s just how to do it. Your only question as a writer is, “How do I do it?” I know there’s a problem here, and I know I’m trying to fake it and do all this stuff. Maybe nobody will notice, they’ll appreciate the literary, but they don’t. That’s the reality. And I knew because I was under that gun. I [loved] this character because there was a friendship—a best friendship—I said, but I had to lose her because audiences will close the book.
ADL: You said in the LA Times interview that it took you seven years to write Grace. You also mention in your acknowledgments about it starting out as a screenplay. What did that seven years entail? Are there any lessons you learned during that time that aspiring authors could benefit from?
ND: You know it’s funny…so the screenplay is different than the novel because it’s a different art form, right? But when I got that vision in the beginning, I had never written a novel. I didn’t know how to write a novel. But I had written screenplays for like MTV, so I like knew that form. So when I had that vision and wrote that opening page, I was like, I felt like it was supposed to be a novel, but I was like, “I can’t write a novel! I’m not a novelist. I’ll write it as a screenplay!” So I wrote it as a screenplay in six months. It was done and it was sent out to film festivals where it was winning screenplay [awards]: Charleston, London, Beverly Hills, it was winning all these awards everywhere.
Always trust your writerly instinct. Never take a note that doesn’t resonate with you. There are notes that people could give you that are right, but right now you’re not at a place where you could receive that note.
It won eight awards, and then I went to an option meeting. And I’m sitting at the table with all these famous, powerful people and they’re talking about the book like, “Well, Cynthia, we’re not going to make her Jewish. We’re going to make her this other kind of character. We’ll make her like biracial. She’s not a prostitute because you can’t be Jewish and a prostitute.” I was like, “What are we doing? This is not how the story goes! This is not how it goes!” And then when it was time to sign, I said, “I can’t sign. I need to write this book so that at least it’ll be the story that I was given before you make it the story that you want it to be.”
So I enrolled in Novel Writing I at UCLA Extension Program. And then I just started learning how to write a novel. The rest didn’t come inspired like my opening, but I put in the work to learn the craft of it. And that’s how it became what it is. And it’s plotted differently, but I learned dialogue. Because you learn how all dialogue has to reveal character, reveal emotional state, move the story forward, so it helped me with that.
The first two years was this screenwriting thing because I thought it was going to be a movie. And then I was in an MFA program. So after I finished, I was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow for a year, so that’s like three years now and two years is in the MFA program. So now we’re talking five years because you’re not really writing. At least in my MFA program, you’re reading other people’s stuff, you’re not working specifically [on your own writing]. So it really took two years in earnest but I had all that pre-time to think about sort of what I wanted to do and learn the craft. So it took about two years to write it and sell it and for it to come out. So seven years is not really [accurate].
ADL: In that process, was there any point where you felt delayed or discouraged, or did you feel—because in what I’m hearing, at least, there is a lot of purposefulness and intention behind the decisions you’re making and what you’re accepting and what you’re not accepting for your story. So I guess I’m just curious what advice can you give to writers in that process?
ND: It’s to always trust your writerly instinct. Never take a note that doesn’t resonate with you. There are notes that people could give you that are right, but right now you’re not at a place where you could receive that note. And it could be three years from now that you’re like, “Oh! That’s why!” But if you take a note because that’s the consensus to make this change, and you do it but your heart is not in it, you won’t see it as an artist, and you’ll end up writing something that you don’t like, that you don’t love and was never supposed to be in there at that moment. It could be a future revision, so you just hold onto it, put a pin in it. Reject notes that you don’t understand or that don’t feel right to you. They could be right but they’re not right for you right then. It’s all a journey.
There’s one scene that’s not in the book that I held onto for a very long time, till the very end. People were like, “You can’t do this, people will close the book.” I was like, “Nope.” Because this was reality, this was how it happened in my life. I was using a real-life experience, and I’m putting it in there. And even the rape scene that’s in the book, I had to pare it down, but I wouldn’t. I was like, “Nope.” Because I want people to understand that rape is not only date rape. I need people to really understand this thing. And then finally I was like, in those ten days of editing, my editor was like, “Natashia, it’s too much for some people,” but I was like, “This is real! This is real life!” This was my client, somebody who was torn from one end to the other. I was like, people should see what we talk about when we talk about rape. It’s not just a word people throw around, you know? There’s violence. He was like, “I just think it’s too much. We need to pare it down.” I was like, “Alright.” So I pared it down, and he was right. But I had to understand it at that moment, but it didn’t resonate with me until right then that it didn’t have to be that harsh. And people still complain about that scene.
ADL: After sitting with your novel for that long, what was it like when it was finally published?
ND: It was great! You know, it happened so fast. You know how people say that? It literally [did]. December we’re editing and January I’m at Winter Institute and they hand me my galley while I’m sitting with booksellers at a table before we go in and I’m just crying. So this is like January 13th and remember December 27th [I was] editing this thing. And they’re like, you need to go in this hall with all these writers around this huge hall in this hotel. And people are coming and asking me to sign it, and I’m like, “What?” So I’m signing books, and there’s a huge long line of people and it just doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m just like, “Okay!” And then they sold out within the month.
So February I was in my second printing. That same month, Amazon and Blackstone went into a competition for the audio rights, and then Blackstone blocked Amazon. And I’m like, “What?!” So all my advance and everything is paid off before I even start. So I don’t have to pay any money [back]. So I make money with the first book. And then Lisa Renee Pitts—[the movie] Straight Outta Compton had just come out—she was Dr. Dre’s momma, and she’s the actress they choose to voice it. So now we’re only in February/March and then it was in the fifth printing by August and I’m traveling the twenty-two cities. So there was never a time where I got to sit and [contemplate]. And at my book release, all my friends came out and it was exciting. But I didn’t feel like it happened. I’m signing books like, “What is this thing that they’ve given me?” So that’s how fast it happened.
ADL: In addition to being a writer, you’re a practicing attorney, law professor, wife, and mother. Do you have any advice for those of us writers who also balance families and/or alternate careers about how to keep the plates spinning?
ND: First of all, you just have to give up hope that you’re going to have time to just sit down… especially if you’re a mother. You’re not going to have the time that single people have, so stop comparing yourself to single people or people who don’t have children because your life will look nothing like that. Be with [other] people who are moms, who are even spouses, because you’re responsible for taking care of other people, and [being a spouse is] like taking care of a child or someone else, and your schedule is not based on what you want to do. It’s based on working [around] everybody else who affects you. So if you’re moms, specifically, don’t compare yourself to people who are single. And it’s hard to do. You have to…look straight ahead in your own lane.
[Just] give up hope that you’ll have time. But schedule time, even if you have to do a little writing retreat. Save money, or take your tax money or whatever, [and] make your own retreat. Because you know, you miss deadlines, because the deadlines are like nine months for all the good retreats, so you forget them. Just set up to go to another city in a hotel and just write. Make your own retreat. And also write whenever you can. Whenever you have an idea, put it in the notes section of your phone. Just put it in there. I wrote most of Grace in the notes section of my phone waiting for my children to get out of school. You have to trick yourself. Even if it’s one scene, I just want to write the conversation with Cynthia and Naomi. Any way that you can move forward.
Every day you should try to move forward, even if it’s a bad sentence. Like, for instance, in the book I just sold. The last thing I wrote before I sent it to my agent was something that came to me when I was walking and it was, “I’m a fragile instrument” [and] something about being used by God. And that was it. And it ended up being the opening. I redid the opening and made that the opening line, sent it to my agent, and that’s the one that they bought. So even if it was a weak sentence, you never know. Just write it. You make your own schedule. You’re your own boss.
ADL: When people are asked to reflect on their lives, a lot of times they’ll say that good or bad, they wouldn’t change a thing. I completely disagree with that, and there are many things I would edit in my life story, given the chance! What about you? Is there anything you would change on your writer’s journey if you could?
ND: Yeah. Real talk? I would change being upset when things didn’t happen for me that I thought that I deserved, and doing it publicly. I had this moment, this very embarrassing moment where Grace, it was requested by a prominent magazine that I love. And I didn’t win, let’s be real. [She laughs] But I knew—or I felt, true or not—that my book was stronger than this other book that did win. And I [said it] was just because this person’s popular, just because they’re a male, all those other excuses that could be true or not. And I went to social media and I said something about it. It was up for maybe five minutes and then I took it down, but enough people saw it. And two years later I went to a conference, and someone says, “Can you believe someone would do that?” as she’s looking at me. And I had to tell her, “I did that.” Because I thought at the time that it was true, but you know what? It doesn’t matter.
I wrote most of Grace in the notes section of my phone waiting for my children to get out of school.
And I know that more now because I’m a judge for the LA Times Book Prize. I have 275 books to read. If those first few pages aren’t good, I’m like “Thank God, I’m moving on to the next book.” And that’s what life is like. And I know a lot of the people in my pile. And I feel horrible because a lot of these people are my friends and I’m not choosing [their] book and that hurts. So there’s a lot of things that come into play. Is this book too big? Like you have Bill Clinton’s book, and he’s doing first fiction (one of the Book Prize categories). You have so many things that go into play and you can’t worry about contests. You just have to worry about writing the best book that you can write. Because 100 years from now, somebody will open up the pages of your book and be like, “Who is this person? When did she live? Is she still here?” That’s all you have to worry about. Did you write the best book that you could write right then? And don’t worry about what other people are doing. And then learn how to applaud when other people get [recognition]. And if it’s not natural, just start practicing. Just say, “Good job!” until it becomes who you are. So that’s what I had to do, and I have a whole different attitude toward it, but I had to make that mistake to learn it, fully.
ADL: Do you have any ongoing or upcoming projects you’d be willing to share with our readers?
ND: The book that I just sold is called The Perishing, it comes out in 2020. And it’s about a black woman…in 1930s Los Angeles, [who] basically becomes aware that she may be immortal just as she finds a love in a city worth dying for. So it’s all about the 1930s, between the two World Wars here in LA, and it’s not about Hollywood. I mean, there’s parts that reflect [that], but it’s about the people who lived here and what they went through.
ADL: Are you still working on Dirty Laundry Lit and some of the other projects that launched you?
ND: Well Dirty Laundry Lit is on a long hiatus because I wanted to focus [on something else]. I have a commitment to mentoring and bringing up the next generation of writers. Like, there was nobody for me saying, “Come on, Natashia,” so there was a lot of floundering, figuring things out, getting it wrong, offending people. “Should I be mad at this, should I not?” There was no sounding board, so I’m trying now to make myself available for other people and give them a platform.
And I’m redefining friendship in my life. You know, I’m at an age where I want friends not just to commiserate with me and say, “Oh, look how terrible it is,” but people around me who can help, who can do something about it. Because they want to, because they can. Because I’m a giving person anyway, and I’ll show up for people, so now I’m asking people to show up for me. So let’s be friends, but I have people to commiserate with. I need this kind of person, now I’m hiring!
You have so many things that go into play and you can’t worry about contests. You just have to worry about writing the best book that you can write.
I also want to be able to help people who are coming up. I’m not like Toni Morrison or somebody like that, but I have something and I want to share this one little piece with somebody else. So I started The Table Reading Series, which is at Hollywood Hotel because they called me and told me they wanted to host Dirty Laundry, so I said how about I do a new reading series and I bring in up-and-coming producing groups to produce their own readings. So I have my black women writers, then I have the LGBT, the ex-prisoners, we have all these different groups to come [to The Table]. I show them how to contact their readers, how you make an invitation and all the bits and pieces of how to do it, so they can create their own, so hopefully they’ll be able to multiply that way.
ADL: So what are you reading these days?
ND: Everything! I told you I’m doing the LA Times Book Prize! The books I’m reading for the LA Times are all books that were published in 2018. The books I chose for my [MFA mentoring] group are books that I think are really well-done but reflect something different:
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy because of its strong setting.
- How Are You Going to Save Yourself? by J.M. Holmes because of the difficult racial issues it raises. (“Writers are the conscience of the nation.”)
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I close our interview by asking Natashia if there’s anything I didn’t ask that she wished I had. She turns the question back on me and tells me she wants me to ask her if she thinks I can become the writer I think I can. It makes me blush a little, but I ask her. In response, she feeds back to me the qualities that she’s picked up about me in the short time since we met as evidence that I have what it takes to succeed as a writer. It’s when she starts talking about the sacrifice I’m making as a mother to pursue my writing career—a sacrifice with which she is intimately familiar—that I start to tear up.
This probably wasn’t the most auspicious way to end my first author interview…but guess who just found their new writing guru?
A.D. Lowman is a management professional, consultant, and community leader. Her leadership and career advice has been featured in Essence, Money, and Diversity Woman magazines. She is pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles where she serves as a blogger, interviewer, and assistant web team manager for Lunch Ticket.
Who is Isaac Fitzgerald?
This inked essayist is the love child of Jack Kerouac and The Dropkick Murphys on paper. He is gritty and adventurous like his beatnik predecessor, but has the modern punk rock sensibility of the same band that hails from his home state of Massachusetts.
Fitzgerald easily picks up where the beatniks left off. Instead of the East Village, he resides in Brooklyn. However, despite the change in locale, his essays have the same rogue spirit of adventure. Instead of mere sentences strung together, it is as if Fitzgerald is sitting on a bar stool with a straight whiskey in his hand talking to his reader about his fantastical life at the local dive bar. He delivers an Odyssey where the Trojan horse might be upstaged by something better, more grand, but also more likely to get one arrested. In works such as “The True Story of My Teenage Fight Club,” Isaac Fitzgerald channels and captures both angst and humor. In the ever identifiable “Why I Stopped Running From New York,” he speaks a truth many who live in the five boroughs (myself included) feel.
The former editor of McSweeney’s and The Rumpus and the current host of Buzzfeed’s #AMtoDM spoke to me. He was just as candid in person as he was on paper, admitting he was the only person he knew who got more into astrology after leaving the West coast. It was a pleasure not only getting to know the man behind the words, but getting to be positively impressed by the passion and process of this writing great.
April Brucker: Thought I’d start off with a few random and personal questions. What do you typically eat for breakfast?
Isaac Fitzgerald: I know this sounds really bad but I only have a cup of coffee. I typically wait to eat until lunch.
AB: What is your astrology sign?
AB: You are from rural Massachusetts and you seem to write a lot about your upbringing. Why did you pick that topic?
IF: I grew up reading, writing, and escaping through books. After seeing the world, I wanted to return to the place I escaped from. That’s one of the themes of my work. I wanted to give that kid who grew up in that small rural town a voice. Writing about where I grew up is a way to examine and work through trauma.
After seeing the world, I wanted to return to the place I escaped from. That’s one of the themes of my work. I wanted to give that kid who grew up in that small rural town a voice.
AB: You write about working in bars in Boston and San Francisco. What is the craziest bar you have ever worked in?
IF: Zeitgeist in San Francisco. It’s on 1 Valencia Street. It was a gay bar. Then a motorcycle bar. Then a hipster bar. Now it’s a bike messenger bar. These are the nicest madcap people you will ever meet. That’s why I always give the address.
AB: You have worked in a bar, been a firefighter, and worked on a boat. Out of these three what is your favorite.
IF: Actually the firefighter and working on a boat because both of those jobs went together. This was during high school when I was sixteen in the late 1990s, early 2000s on Star Island, which is ten miles off the coast of New Hampshire. It was an absolutely beautiful place and instilled a work ethic in me.
AB: You got a sword from a king. How did that go down? Explain.
IF: (Laughs) This is kind of a long one and I hope you have time. When I was in high school, I got a scholarship to a boarding school called Cushing Academy. We had a lot of international students there from all over the planet—and I mean all over the planet. Up to this point in my life I had never traveled outside the United States, maybe if I was lucky I went to Canada, but I don’t think I had yet made it that far.
At the time I played on the JV 2 basketball team. They were like the double secret JV. We only got the gym for forty-five minutes of practice each day. I made a friend on the team, a guy by the name of Jigme.
One day we are chilling in the woods smoking after practice and Jigme says, “I have a secret to tell you. I am the crown prince of Bhutan.” I was like, “Dude, it’s no secret, everyone knows that.”
I should have kept in touch but I didn’t, plus after college I disabled Facebook because I thought it was just for students so I didn’t need it anymore. Several years later, I’m in my mid-twenties, traveling through Southeast Asia, and I get a chance to visit Bhutan, so of course I take it. I want to look up Jigme… except we’ve completely lost touch and I have no idea how to reach him. However, since it’s a pretty safe bet he lives in the palace, being a prince and all, I head over there—looking like a sloppy trash American in a dirty t-shirt and ripped jeans—and somehow make it past the gauntlet of suspicious palace dudes, and there’s Jigme, playing basketball! We just look at each other. I say, “Jigme, I had no idea if I’d find you.” “Dude,” he says, “Why didn’t you just message me on Facebook?” Meanwhile, it also happens to be February 8, my twenty-fifth birthday, so Jigme takes a sword from one of the guards, and gifts me the sword.
My process as a writer is very piecemeal. I just jot things down on my phone as they come into my head. When I get home, I jot them down onto a yellow legal pad. Then I go and try to form them into something on the computer.
AB: When did you discover you in fact wanted to be a writer?
IF: Now that is a very complex question. I had always been a reader and discovered books early on, but from the ages of eight to eighteen I thought people just kind of made them. I knew I wanted to be a writer for sure when I was twenty-three, living in San Francisco, and came to this place called 86 Valencia Street.
On the wall there were edited drafts from adult students. I thought, “Wow, this is exciting, lets teach this to eight-year-olds.”
Up to this point I thought the whole writing thing was a gift from God and you got touched on the head and had the perfect manuscript. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that this might be possible for me to do this after all.
AB: In your essay, “The True Story of My Teenage Dirtbag Fight Club,” you seem like a narrator inspired by the Dropkick Murphys and grunge music. Does music inspire and inform your work?
IF: Yes! I feel as if it’s a soundtrack for my identity! Especially the band The Hold Steady. Before I listened to their music, I had never been a hardcore fan. In college years my friends got me an iPod because I would walk around with my computer and my earphones.
The Hold Steady introduced me to this other band, The Mountain Goats. I write about my love of music in an essay called, “How I Found the Soundtrack For My Unsteady Life.”
AB: What inspired you to write Dirtbag, Massachusetts?
IF: I got the inspiration from other work. I wanted to write it for the people who couldn’t/wouldn’t get out. Dirtbag was inspired by the work of Breece D’J’ Pancakes, an American short story writer and essayist. Both of us write about growing up in very rural very poor areas. Very similar.
AB: Where can people purchase Dirtbag, Massachusetts?
IF: It will be out next year, and if not the following winter.
AB: As a writer, what is your process like?
IF: My process as a writer is very piecemeal. I just jot things down on my phone as they come into my head. When I get home, I jot them down onto a yellow legal pad. Then I go and try to form them into something on the computer.
AB: I believe you do more editing work now, so how does that compare with writing? Are there many similarities?
Find your people. Since rejection and putting your work out there is such a big part of what we do, it’s important to have a support community such as a writer’s group.
IF: I actually love editing, and I don’t get to do as much of it now that I am working the morning shift at AM-DM on Buzzfeed—a talk show exclusively on Twitter. My process is more piling up random stuff and making it work. I know what my voice is. But when I am an editor, my job is to use my process to help someone else find their voice. When I worked at The Rumpus, I worked with a lot of writers at various stages, but all very talented. Some were brand new and only finding their voice. Others like Roxane Gay and Cheryl Strayed were almost perfect, it was only a period or comma out of place. As a matter of fact, some of the essays Roxane Gay would publish with Rumpus would go on to be featured in Bad Feminist.
AB: It can seem daunting trying to get your stuff published for a lot of people. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
IF: If it is one thing I can recommend, and I learned this at 86 Valencia, is to find your own community. That was the great thing about The Rumpus, is that it was this community of writers that were putting their work out there. Find your people. Since rejection and putting your work out there is such a big part of what we do, it’s important to have a support community such as a writer’s group. My fiancé, Alice Sola-Kim, a science fiction writer, has her own writers group that meets once or twice a month. She is a great writer. As a matter of fact, she is a much better writer than me. We have all known each other since we have been in our 20s (our writer community) and now we are in our mid-30s and we have grown together as writers.
April Brucker is an actress, comedian, ventriloquist, and writer. Her TV Credits include Last Comic Standing 5, Rachael Ray, Talk Soup, My Strange Addiction, The Today Show, The Wendy Williams Show, What Would You Do?, CBS Sunday Morning, and Videos After Dark. Internationally, April has been seen on BBC, Telemundo, MTV Europe, and Dutch National Television. A prolific writer, April has been a contributor to The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and xoJane. Her books, I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl and April Unwrapped: My Naked Dreams Revealed are available on Amazon. April holds a BFA in Acting from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is a MFA candidate in creative nonfiction and screenwriting at Antioch University Los Angeles. For more information go to www.AprilBrucker.TV.
Vandana Khanna has published two full-length collections of poetry, Train to Agra and Afternoon Masala, as well as her most recent chapbook The Goddess Monologues. Among her achievements are notable features in the New England Review, The Missouri Review, 32 Poems, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, and Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry, as well as the Crab Orchard Review First Book Prize, The Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, the Diode Editions Chapbook Competition, the Elinor Benedict Poetry Prize, and five Pushcart Prize nominations.
She has taught English and creative writing at Indiana University, Pitzer College, Whittier College and the University of Southern California, among other colleges, and is the co-poetry editor of the Los Angeles Review. Vandana and I conducted the following interview in person in early December 2018. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Amanda Lopez: We’ll start with this: When and what experiences urged you to begin writing poetry?
Vandana Khanna: I first started writing when I was really young, like I was nine years old and I tried to write my first novel. But I came to poetry more in middle school and high school. It seemed understandable why I would be gravitating toward something I thought was really intense, which was poetry. So, I pretty much started writing poetry in middle school and high school. And then from there, I was able to go into my undergrad program and work with the most amazing teachers ever. From my undergrad on, I took a poetry workshop every semester I was able to, which was all of them. I was really lucky because my first teachers were Rita Dove, Charles Wright, and Greg Ore, who were these like luminaries in the poetry world. I feel like I learned from the best early on. I was pretty lucky in that way.
AL: Do you think that their work has remained influential to your work, or has it shifted?
VK: Absolutely. I definitely learned so much from them and I feel especially with Rita Dove and somewhat with Greg Ore. I was really so enamored with their poetry it really influenced the way I wrote and what I still do in my poetry, and try to remember what I learned from them at such an early age.
AL: How did growing up as an immigrant influence The Goddess Monologues?
VK: Well, my first two books were really heavily about the immigrant experience. Primarily because it was such a shaping factor in my own life. With The Goddess Monologues, it just hit me that I am an immigrant, I’m raising biracial children, who are Americans, but I wanted them to still be connected to my culture and what I grew up with.
One of the things I did was read this picture book to my son, who’s now way older,—laughs—but when he was little, it was really important that if we read picture books they would be about Hindu mythology. Even while reading those picture books, I’d have to edit out some of the story—and this was really before he could even read, he was like three or four—because mythology, whether it’s Hindu mythology or Greek mythology or whatever, it’s pretty violent. Gods and goddesses are at war and they get kidnapped and their heads get cut off. While I was reading them, I’d have to edit them on the go. But it did strike me that they were all really about the gods. I was like huh, these goddesses have just become devices for these men, but in actual Hinduism, the goddesses get prayed to a lot; they become the god or goddess of the household, and you pray to a particular goddess. In actual practice, the goddess is beloved and prayed to and worshipped, but I also wanted to think about how they were being worshipped because they followed certain rules of conduct. I was kind of thinking Well what happens when you really strip away at it? You have these goddesses, young girls, or young women, and maybe they didn’t choose to be a goddess, and it was just their “destiny” or whatever. I thought about how it would feel to be a young woman on the precipice of being great or Holy, and what does that even mean, in very human terms. And it plays into the immigrant thing with the themes of my childhood being a good Indian girl and following certain rules.
Ultimately as a writer, you do have to be true to yourself. There are going to be editors and people who you won’t be able to please. There will be people who will be like Why don’t you write more about your ethnicity and growing up? and We don’t see enough of that in your writing.
These poems are also somewhat a reaction to growing up in that culture, which I think a lot of people can probably relate to. It doesn’t have to do with one particular culture. It’s the culture of our household or your family and what’s expected of you as a young woman.
AL: That kind of takes us to my next question: I’m a third generation Mexican-American, and although my grandma planted strong roots in our Mexican heritage, sometimes I have trouble navigating my work as a biracial writer when I’m so far removed from my immigrant ancestors. What advice would you give to a bi-cultural writer?
VK: It’s gonna sound a little hokey, but you have to stay true to who you are and the complexities of who you are. One of the things I really remember from growing up was that is it was really hard to navigate the space I found myself in, partly because there were only a handful of people I felt like who were having the same experience as I was. But as we move forward as a world and as people who intermarry more and have more multicultural children or multiracial children, there will be more people who will experience that complexity and multiplicity.
There are lots more role models now than when I was growing up. Like I wasn’t taught much about Asian-American writers until I went to college and I took one of these writing classes. Then I was finally reading not only Asian-American poets but Indian-American poets, you know, that I never read growing up. Ultimately as a writer, you do have to be true to yourself. There are going to be editors and people who you won’t be able to please. There will be people who will be like Why don’t you write more about your ethnicity and growing up? and We don’t see enough of that in your writing. And then there will be people like, Why are you always writing about x, y, and z? I don’t think you can please everybody; you should just please yourself as a writer, no matter what you write about or how you choose to write it.
But I think we’re in a space now that as we have more and more writers of color becoming editors and positioning themselves in situations that allow them to have more power, they can assess this work based on the complexities of who they are and what they’re bringing to the table, and not like I don’t understand that word or Gosh, that looks like an Indian word or a Spanish word, and I don’t feel like looking it up. I’m hopeful of writers of color being editors or judges of contests, that they bring all that experience with them. And that’s a good thing. Not to say that the status quo hasn’t helped certain people, but in general, if you have a diverse population, it should be reflected in leadership positions. And once you have that, it allows writers to just be writers, and not to have to carry all the other labels on them, and let society stew.
AL: How would you describe your creative process or writing ritual?
VK: It has stayed consistent for a number of years. Life kinda gets in the way sometimes. For me, when I’m not teaching or editing a lot, I try to write every day if I can. And if I can’t, if there are other work obligations or life obligations, I try to write once a week. I feel like if I don’t stay in touch with that part of myself on an almost constant basis, I’m a terrible person to be with. I’m a terrible friend, a terrible teacher. I’m terrible at all those other things because being a writer is so much a part of my identity at this point that if I don’t do it, I feel like I’m a sham.
I try to write if given the chance, every day. If not, I kinda look at my week and say On Friday I have like two or three hours, I’m just gonna dedicate it to writing. For me, it takes a little while to disconnect from the world. I have to incorporate that disconnect time into my writing time as well. So I try to write every day.
I want these girls and young women to be complex, I do want them to fail. I want people to acknowledge their pain without considering them to be victims.
I primarily have to write in my house because I get distracted very easily. I can’t write in a cafe—It sounds so romantic, like how you see people and you think, Ooh, I wish I could do that with my latte, but I just get too distracted. I like my house, I like to have a computer and a printer. I used to hand print everything, so I have several journals which were my first and second books. With the third book, I was composing on the laptop, which I’ve never really done. I used to compose by hand, then go to the laptop, then print that out and do this whole thing. Now I’m just composing on the laptop, and I like it.
I think once you’ve established a process and another emerges, you kind of just have to go with it, you have to do it. Because I will do anything to trick my mind into writing. I do have to write at home, partly because of the quiet, and partly because I tend to wear really ugly, comfortable clothing and I don’t think people want to see that in the world.—laughs—So for me, it’s quiet, comfortable, and then I usually start by reading something. I read a lot of contemporary poetry, so I will go to any lit mag’s website and start reading a current issue online and see what sparks me. Or if I’m on social media and one of my writer friends posts like Oh, I just got published in this literary magazine, here’s my poem I often will save those posts of theirs and I’ll sit down and read the poems in hopes that something will inspire me. I have to write a lot and often to feel I have even a little bit of material I like.
AL: Do you sense there’s a difference between writing manually and typing?
VK: I have to say because I made a shift between the second and third book, that the first two are very narrative, and this third book is narrative but it’s slightly more lyric than those. What I tried to do with this one is replace straight narrative with mood. It kind of worked really well, because in my mind the book was, rather than individual poems, it was like this big book of mood—laughs—It was easy to put it right on the computer, because even if I just came up with one line here or there, I could go back to that one line and connect it up to another one-liner. And that’s kind of how I built some of those poems because I was more concerned with that idea of mood than telling like a straight narrative of somebody, or one of the goddesses. I was more concerned with their emotions. If I was in a mood myself while I was writing, sometimes there were angry poems, sometimes they were sad or melancholy. I would just sit and write those and when I went back, I would try to put those lines together that were sort of similar moods. The book turned into a sequence of poems rather than broken up into individual stories.
AL: Are there any misconceptions or things readers tend to miss while analyzing The Goddess Monologues?
VK: I think some things people are going to miss because they’re not gonna look up, like these goddesses. And I’m okay with that because, again, what I want to get across is the feel of it, the feel of these women and these girls. And whether or not they understand the full scope of a particular story, I don’t mind that. In fact, I encourage people to just read the book. I have a whole notes section in the back, knowing some people will want to look at the notes and some people won’t. The poems should just stand on their own. You can just pick it up and get some sense of what’s going on, and what the implications are. But I don’t know, I’d have to see what people really feel about it. A lot of my titles have “girl” in it; when people come to a page and they see a title like that I wonder what their assumptions are, what they bring with them when they see “girl.” I’m not sure how people receive that, but I am sure it’s interesting.
AL: That is interesting! What is your intention behind “girl?”
VK: So much of our world ignores girls, and ignores their power and their pain. Or the flipside is true; we say women are all powerful and they’re not allowed to falter and they’re not allowed to fail. We’ve reversed this pendulum, which can be a good thing, but there’s also then this ultimate pressure of like, what if you fail? So I have poems in the book where the goddesses do fail. They fail these tasks, these certain moments, tests. I want these girls and young women to be complex; I do want them to fail. I want people to acknowledge their pain without considering them to be victims. Women are portrayed as all-powerful or victims, nothing in between. There’s no transition between the two modes. I hope these poems show that women and girls and even goddesses are complex and they do fail and sometimes they do get hurt but that they can move beyond that hurt—or they hold onto that hurt and it fuels them.
I do feel like a lot of my work questions assumptions we make about religion, about being holy, about gods, all of it, that expectation of what a holy person or what holy women should be like.
AL: And that complexity shows up in your titles like “The Goddess Shows Up Late to the End-of-the-World Party” which is so humanizing for these women, these goddesses.
Do you see writing poetry as a spiritual practice? A political act? Can it be both?
VK: I think they’re both in the sense that from a very early age when I first started writing poetry, and my first couple of books, I really am preoccupied with this idea of God and religion and how women navigate that space. Especially because I grew up Hindu, but I also went to Catholic school, so a lot of my early work is grappling with this idea of being between two religions. And now with the goddesses, I can’t seem to get rid of that idea. But I do feel like a lot of my work questions assumptions we make about religion, about being holy, about gods, all of it, that expectation of what a holy person or what holy women should be like.
I also think it’s political in the sense of just really always being interested in writing about girls and women, and even by putting “girl” in the title, by having people focus on it is a political act in its own way. I don’t think you can separate that. I do think sometimes my poems are probably subtly political and sometimes they’re more overtly political. But I don’t think you can separate that.
AL: Concerning your process again, do you ever throw poems away? Or do you like to keep the rejects?
VK: I have written whole poems, obviously, a lot of them that I don’t ever end up doing anything with. They don’t get published or get put in a book, and they’re just sort of there. And that’s okay because I needed to write those poems to get to the poem that I really wanted to write. I don’t throw them away, but they’re probably tucked in a file somewhere on the computer. But for sure there are, in every collection or book, there are some poems that never make it into that book because it’s a process. When I’m first writing, I don’t really want to assess right away if what I’m writing is worthwhile, because it’s important to just sit and write first, before bringing in the critic. If you sit down with the critic on your shoulder already, you’re never gonna write. After some distance, I assess what I have.
AL: The Goddess Monologues take place in an ethereal setting; if you had to place where the majority of the poems take place in the physical world, what kind of landscape would your characters, the goddesses, reside in?
VK: I think they would reside where we leave them, on the edge of a forest. That’s where I see them. And I think that’s where they will always go back to.
AL: Finally, if there’s one or a couple of things you want your work to be remembered for, what would you choose it/them to be?
VK: Oh my gosh… Well, I think I do pay a lot of attention to language and imagery. When I first learned to write, that’s what my teachers imparted to me, that people might not remember the story of your poem, or remember the narrative or that stuff, but you want them to leave reading your work with one image or one moment in that poem. So that’s what I hope, that people will at least leave thinking about that one moment, whatever it is for them. It’ll hopefully be different for all different readers, but that’s what I hope.
AL: Thank you so much for talking with me!
VK: Sure! Thank you!
Amanda Lopez is a poet studying for her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles (AULA), where she serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the student-run literary magazine Lunch Ticket. She has served as a management assistant for Write Bloody Publishing and read on the literary journal The Redlands Review as Poetry Editor during her undergraduate years at the University of Redlands. Amanda is a Los Angeles native working on a collection of poetry about navigating relationships through mental illness. When Amanda is not writing, she finds passion in alternative and rock music and being a makeup and special effects artist.
Ada Limón is a poet and author of Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World (both debuted in 2006), Sharks in the Rivers (2010), and Bright Dead Things (2015), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest book, The Carrying, is the winner of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She’s been published in journals such as The New Yorker, Pleiades: Literature in Context, Harvard Review, and many others. She serves on the faculty of the Queens University of Charlotte low residency MFA program and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Jordan Nakamura: Congratulations on your book! You have a distinct style that you’ve been able to retain and hone over several books now. I’m wondering what your relationship is with voice and style. Do you ever try to deviate and depart from a poem that sounds like you? Is style something you stay anchored to intentionally?
Ada Limón: I do think I have a distinct style and that’s primarily due to the fact that I read all my poems out loud in order to make them so that I let my body’s internal rhythm take over and guide the poem’s form and structure. In that sense, the poems come from my body. They come from my body and they come from the way I hear the universe, as Robert Hass says, “the faint music under things.” I do try to change my style and the way I enter a poem each time, but the music of my world is loud and what I hear is unique to me and often takes over, even if I’m trying to get out of myself.
JN: This collection has been described as some of your most personal work. It’s almost like there’s a greater freedom to be more articulate to explore your own life and identity. Could you talk about how you enter into the kind of honesty that characterizes the book?
While I’m not trying to please everyone, or write for everyone, I am interested in poems living in the real world. And in order for that to happen, they have to have some sense of openness or generosity to them.
AL: This is my most personal book. It deals with my infertility and the questions of whether or not to have a child. But I think [that] my leaning in to that material of personal history, I am also interrogating my own purpose, my own purpose as a woman, as an artist. And so I think the honesty enters a place what I hope it reaches outward, beyond the self and into something more universally relevant. I write about my life because life moves through me, and I am so lucky it does. But I am also interested in what it means to pay deep attention to the world around you and love the messy world by giving it your gaze.
JN: You’ve written about the ways poetry kind of unlocks a sense of freedom in you, and I feel like this can transfer to your readers. Monica Youn talks about how readers will come up to her after readings of her book Blackacre, which partially deals with her experience with miscarriage, and say how they felt their own miscarriages were supposed to be a secret, but Youn’s work made them rethink that kind of shame-based silence. How has your work connected you to others? Is there anything that has surprised you?
AL: I am surprised by how many women talk to me about their own experience with infertility or fertility treatments or their own complex emotions about wishing not to become a mother. I was surprised that no one talked about infertility in a way that didn’t end with a child. If women talked about it, it was to say they had gone through it and then succeeded in getting pregnant. Very rarely was the other story told; the one that says, I went through that and now I am child-free. I hear from women almost daily how important it is to hear that narrative in a way that’s positive. I am also surprised by how many people needed this book. I wrote it because I needed it, but it feels huge to me to know others needed it too.
JN: You have a series of beautiful epistolary poems written to another wonderful poet, Natalie Diaz. You’ve said that it’s important to make poems that aren’t just for other poets, yet I think you’ve managed to write poems to a poet that also aren’t poems-just-for-other-poets. One thing I’m struck by is how relational your practice is, and kind of aiming for a widening of the fold of community. What is your community like?
AL: Thank you for this. I think of poetry as being something in a larger community, not just the academic world or the literary world, but poetry that takes places in community centers and bars. And that’s the poetry I fell in love with as a child, so part of me has always wanted it to go beyond the preciousness that it can so often be relegated to. My community is wide and ranging. Full of poets, of course, like the dear Natalie I write to. But it’s also full of people who don’t generally go to poetry readings, but might find one they like here or there. My husband works in the horse industry and many of our friends do as well. While I’m not trying to please everyone, or write for everyone, I am interested in poems living in the real world. And in order for that to happen, they have to have some sense of openness or generosity to them.
All our lives we think about identity and who we are in relation to others. What does it feel like to stop asking that and allow yourself to be the original animal, the inner part of you that is only a sense of breath, a connection to all living things?
JN: There are a number of poems in your work that feel like compelling ars poetica. I’m thinking of “The Last Thing” and “Mastering” among many others.
AL: On some level, many of my poems are ars poetica, because I am so aware that I have been saved by language. It’s not always on purpose, but I do see a gratitude take place in the poems at times where I am honoring the gift of this time, this work.
JN: How have you dealt with times when you didn’t have a literary community?
AL: My community is scattered all over the country, so I do what I must to stay in touch. I send poems to friends and family. I read the poems they write or send. I write emails and texts and call; I make sure that I am reaching out when I think of someone. That way, if I’m not immediately surrounded by an active community, I am making my own.
JN: In your poem “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual,” the speaker is dealing with the issue of when institutions try to manipulate brown people to perform signals of authentic diversity for the benefit of that institution’s image.
I had two questions about this. One is about language: what is your relationship to bilinguality (or maybe more accurately, the expectation of it) in your life and work? I personally don’t know Japanese well and frequently feel a great sense of loss and try to recover meager hints of it in my work, but I sometimes enter what feels like a fraught landscape of false authenticity, unintentional performing, specters of “self-exotification,” etc. Do you experience similar thoughts and if so, how do you navigate that?
The other question has to do with assimilation. The poem has that line, “Don’t read the one where you are just like us.” I was reminded of James Baldwin saying, “One of things the white world does not know, but I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else.” Perhaps paradoxically, similarity can become threatening rather than placating to whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, etc. Maybe this has to do with the gaze of those things, but how do you approach resistance to that or find freedom from that?
AL: Thank you for this question. First, I speak a little Spanish and can understand a little, but not much. I was not raised in a Spanish-speaking household. However, because of my name, of how I look, there’s often an assumption that I am fluent. The thing I’ve had to do the most work around is the guilt of that. I am who I am. I was raised in Northern California and my culture is a Northern California culture. But that doesn’t mean I’m not also of Mexican heritage. What I’m interested in is, why is it that we must be one thing? Why can’t we be many things? Part of the reason I think we don’t allow that of ourselves, [that] people don’t allow it of us, is that it becomes more complicated. Complication is harder to define. Complication is more human. And this, of course, points to your second question. All our lives we think about identity and who we are in relation to others. What does it feel like to stop asking that and allow yourself to be the original animal, the inner part of you that is only a sense of breath, a connection to all living things? That to me offers a freedom, a freedom no one else can give or take away, but that I can manifest all on my own. It’s necessary. It’s the place where I most want to create.
JN: You mentioned that you consider Alberto Rios’s superb “Rabbits in Fire” to be a “perfect” poem. The concept of perfection will always be contested, but I kind of love when writers thoughtfully bestow that term on work, as you’ve done. Do you have other poems you consider perfect?
AL: Oh, the word “perfect.” What do we mean by it? It seems to be an unfair word for art. What can be perfect? A perfect circle perhaps? I suppose I mean that if I call a poem perfect, I am calling it complete: I am calling it whole and I am saying I am wrung out by it, lifted by it, that each line works toward a music that’s all it’s own. That afterward, I am a part of it and it is a part of me. I actually have many poems that move me that way. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Denis Johnson’s “Sway,” so many poems by Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks. I think Natalie Diaz’s poem “Desire Field” is perfect. Oh, so many loved poems.
JN: So many including myself are uniquely moved by the experience of your readings. It’s so generous, smooth, and well-thought-out: from occasionally telling the audience how many you’ll read to the ordering of the poems for a kind of journey in dynamic tone. And your actual oration of the work is clearly a practiced art. I think you’ve said before that you do a lot of work to create line breaks that help the ear receive the clarity of the poem, but you’ve also written that you try not to think about readership. In any case, what goes into your preparation of readings and of voicing your work in the air?
AL: That means a lot to me, thank you. The truth is, I am lucky that I have a degree in theater, so studying the art of oration and the performance of a monologue was key to my understanding of how to connect with an audience. The poet who writes the poem isn’t always thinking of audience or readers. Perhaps the poem is a quiet, internal lyric that is only meant to be heard by the space between things. All of that is fine and wonderful, but then when you read the poem, the other person, the performer shows up. She must do the work of bringing that poem to life for a reader. I’m not interested in performing as show, but I am interested in how I might help a listener to hear and receive the poem. How we might be connected together in that fleeting moment. The poetry reading is a very sacred thing to me. It is a chance to offer something not only to the audience, but to honor the poems themselves.
JN: I read you do live readings quite frequently. Is that still true, and how often do you do them?
AL: I give about three to four readings a month during the busy season. Sometimes more.
JN: Wow. What’s it like for you to be traveling so often? I’m curious about the mobile life of artists and how they nurture relationships across busy schedules and distances. Robin Coste Lewis points out how, for most of human history, the migratory existence has been the norm. How do you conceive of the idea of home? (I’m thinking of your poem “Against Belonging” and how the speaker tends to shake off citizenship.)
I don’t know how we can live in the world and not think about the fact that our planet is dying. It works its way into my life, into my outlook, into my poems. I think a great deal about how we will see our world change over the next forty years.
AL: I travel about half of each month, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s a lot and it’s hard, but if my health is good, then I enjoy it. If I’m sick or if I’m in pain, it’s harder. I think now of my home as Kentucky mainly. My husband and I own a home there. I think wherever he is and wherever my dog is, that’s my home. But also Sonoma, California, is my home as well. But yes, my home is where my man is, where my dog is, for sure. A simple definition, but true.
JN: What are some non-writing related passions or hobbies of yours that sustain you?
AL: I love to read. I read lots of novels as well as poetry. I love to cook and garden and exercise and have cocktails and talk. I love good conversations. They sustain me through long periods of silence.
JN: Lots of writers get asked about writing habits, but often less frequently about their reading habits. What does your reading life look like?
AL: I read a lot of poetry books, and I listen to books on audible a great deal while I’m traveling. It helps me stay engaged and centered. But yes, I’d say I’m reading pretty much constantly.
JN: How has teaching in your low-res program been? Have you noticed any good changes in creative writing education? And how do you think it can be done better?
AL: Ha! That’s a pretty giant question with a long answer. I think I’ll just say that I adore my low-res program. I love working with students and reading their gorgeous poems.
JN: You’ve had some really great mentors when you were in creative writing school, and I’m sure you’ve been a mentor to many students now. What are your guiding principles for mentoring. and what do you remember fondly from past mentorships?
AL: I will be honest that I’m not sure if I had mentors as much as I had teachers. When I was in graduate school, there wasn’t really access to your professors like there is now. Sure, you could go to office hours, but you certainly weren’t going to have an email relationship. They were wonderful teachers, but they knew how to set boundaries, and I think there was something beautiful in that. I think I had friendships instead of mentors really. And for those friendships, I am deeply grateful.
JN: So much of this book has to do with working through the pressures and aggressions of expectation, namely social pressures placed on women. It’s moving to see how your poems insist on fuller expressions of womanhood outside of motherhood or marriage. I think, for example, of Mary Oliver’s resistance to similar expectations of her as a woman, a lesbian, an artist who had no children, who remained steadfast in her chosen life and style of writing. How did you find, or how do you continually look for your own compass that at times leads away from these expectations?
AL: Again, I think I look to my friendships for guidance. I look to how I see these fabulous women moving in the world child-free and making art, and I am reaffirmed every day in my own body and in my own choices.
JN: You reference landscape and animals often in your work. Hopefully more of us have begun to think very deeply about the land and life on earth as endangered. Masao Miyoshi wrote that he believes the humanities having a united effort for eco-justice is the only hope for their relevance in education, and this seems to be something you are a part of. You mention Robin Wall Kimmerer in The Carrying and your love for being surrounded by green. Do you have a conscious focus on some sort of ecological poetic gesture?
AL: I don’t know how we can live in the world and not think about the fact that our planet is dying. It works its way into my life, into my outlook, into my poems. I think a great deal about how we will see our world change over the next forty years. But I am also very aware that in order to practice presence I can’t become a nihilistic person. I have to believe that showing love and gratitude to this earth now is a worthy endeavor, if only as a way of saying goodbye.
JN: Father Greg Boyle often says something to the effect that “we should be in awe of what the poor carry.” You likewise spend a lot of time in awe of how people carry suffering, grief, pain, just moving through the weight of life. Do you think your writing has helped you maintain awe—which I think is a kind of gesture that is against judgment or jadedness—or was it always there? In other words, what’s your relationship with awe and retaining it throughout the years?
AL: I am in awe all the time. I cannot believe what humans can do, will do, how we have the capacity for so much pain and so much love all at once. I am in awe at our natural world and how it gives back to us, how it seems to love us despite what we’ve done. I’m flying home now to see my grandfather before he passes away, and I am in awe of the human body, the way it holds so much. I sometimes have to turn down the awe, turn the awe off so I don’t keep bursting into tears as I walk around this world.
Jordan Nakamura is a poet and MFA candidate at Antioch University. His writing has been published in The Adroit Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, Lunch Ticket, The Curator, and Zócalo Public Square. He lives in South Central Los Angeles.
Rodolfo Montalvo is a Los Angeles-based children’s book illustrator with work published in both traditional print and digital media. His illustrated books include The Contagious Colors of Mumpley Middle School and The Amazing Wilmer Dooley (both written by Fowler Dewitt), and the picture book Dear Dragon by Josh Funk. Bye Land, Bye Sea will be his author-illustrator picture book debut. It was co-written with his wife and will be published by Roaring Brook Press in the winter of 2021. For more about him or his work, go to www.rodolfomontalvo.com or find him on Instagram @rodolfomon3.
As a picture book author-illustrator, Rodolfo Montalvo crafts his work with an eye for adventure and a natural sense of diversity. He uses art as a means of self-exploration, working to connect with his Mexican heritage, while at the same time emphasizing the importance of reaching out to other artists, sometimes across oceans. Taking inspiration from art, nature, and conversation, Montalvo strikes a balance between his personal art and his life as a working writer.
I interviewed him at Antioch University Los Angeles on December 13, 2018.
Adrien Kade Sdao: What inspires you? Are there any particular people who inspired you to illustrate or write children’s books in particular?
Rodolfo Montalvo: Not really. I think it took me a long time to find picture books as the work I wanted to do. Early on, I wanted to go into animation, and that was the plan for a long time. And then in college, by then—it’s a long story—at that time, computers were starting to take over animation. I prefer to work traditionally if I can. And so, as I saw the industry shifting to 3-D, I knew I didn’t want to work with computers a whole lot, so that kind of shifted me over to like, “Oh, I guess I could probably still paint backgrounds.” And so that was the idea, painting backgrounds for animation and illustration, but it wasn’t until the end of my college undergrad that I started meeting actual illustrators or people from the industry. Children’s book people didn’t come in until after college. That’s when I started going to SCBWI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators]. So, it took a long time to figure out in my mind what an illustrator was, even though I met some here and there. The idea of what it looked like or finding mentors in that specific field took forever.
I love to draw, and I was able to stick with it. That was probably the most amazing thing that has influenced my path, is somehow I just loved it enough to keep going with it
Growing up, or being an artist kid, was not super deep defined. I wish I had children’s book people, or “my uncle was a picture book artist.” That might have defined my decision to go into children’s books earlier. It could have been easier, not that I wanted an easy path, but had I known children’s books are the thing for me earlier on, maybe it would have been a quicker path, like I could have found my voice as a children’s book author and illustrator sooner.
And as far as inspiration, I’m a ’90s kid so there’s cartoons and robots and Ninja Turtles. All those classics. ThunderCats. I feel like I skipped over reading as a kid. I wasn’t much of a reader for sure. So, I missed out on a lot of picture books. Frog and Toad, that’s one of the only ones I remember, and John Scieszka’s [The True Story of the Three Little Pigs], that’s the other one. That was the one book where I read it, and I saw the pictures, and those were the first images where I thought to myself, “Oh, these are good drawings; I like looking at these.”
AKS: Is that Lane Smith who illustrated those?
RM: Yeah. Those were the only ones I remember looking at, but the cool thing now is that as an adult and someone working in children’s books, I get to read a bunch of the classics for the first time. After learning about children’s book illustration, after trying to write my own, everything looks different, right?
AKS: What other illustrators’ works do you like in particular?
RM: Carson Ellis. John Hendrix, who uses those letter forms as part of his composition. Comic book artists like Paul Pope; he’s amazing. Sydney Smith right now is doing amazing work; he’s cranking out book after book after book. But there’s a ton of people inside children’s books—and everywhere really. I love mid-century modern design, so like houses, chairs, whatever. It’s all like space and shapes and colors, right? Photography. I like black and white photography, a lot of things like that. But I didn’t grow up with artists in the family. So, somehow, I love to draw, and I was able to stick with it. That was probably the most amazing thing that has influenced my path, is somehow I just loved it enough to keep going with it.
AKS: It’s your passion. So, when you’re creating—you’re writing with your wife, you said—how do you get your ideas? What inspires your stories?
RM: A lot of them come out from sketchbooks. I love doing character designs. Ideally, I would start my days doing character designs. I need to get back to that, I haven’t done that in a while, but ideally that would be my perfect warm-up, like I’m just going to draw a character, monsters and whatever. I don’t even have to have a story for them yet, but I’m just gonna draw them.
AKS: So, the characters are the seed for you?
RM: Kind of. Sometimes. Or it can just be anything else. The story that we have on submission now was during a hike on this mountain by the beach. So there were these two things happening at the same time. Land and water.
AKS: What’s it called?
RM: Bye Land, Bye Sea. We were out on a hike, and as soon as I thought of it, I had to write it down. And I sat it down for a while because we were working on the [book] with the pig, but eventually we picked it up, and this year was the year that we kind of worked on it.
AKS: You have a lot of ideas but not all of them come to fruition, I’m sure.
RM: But I think if you write them down and you actually try them out, give them a shot, that’s the important thing. And the ones that are kind of working, y’know, you have to take them all the way.
AKS: Are there any adult books you’re reading right now?
RM: Right now, mostly I’m reading writing stuff, like scriptwriting stuff. I do read some novels here and there, like adventure or… In high school, even though I was not a reader, I read a lot of mystery novels. It was either art or “I’m gonna be an FBI agent!”
AKS: Both very worthy careers.
RM: Once I even got to meet an FBI agent. I had an interview by the door of their office because we weren’t allowed to go inside.
AKS: Wow, that’s a little scary.
RM: But, oh, so I’m back in school, and last semester I took a scriptwriting class on novel adaptations, and we read The Giver. And that was the first time I read it, probably because I missed out on all these books as a kid. And I’m like, “Oh, my god, this thing is amazing!” I love that book. I had never read something where it literally took me back to my childhood. It was amazing.
AKS: She’s a great author, Lois Lowry. I feel like with books that have some sort of message, the story always comes first but then you always have that underlying theme.
RM: So, there’s a ton of stuff that I didn’t catch up with.
AKS: I wanted to ask you about diversity and social justice aspects in your work. I know that at least with Dear Dragon, the main character is not white, he’s a little boy who’s a person of color. Do you think it’s important to include diversity or social justice aspects? How does that inform your work?
RM: That’s something that I’m just starting to consider more, to bring out in my work. Even though we’ve been writing for nearly ten years, trying out different picture books, social issues haven’t been ones that were our main topics or the type of story that we’re telling. Adventure is kind of my default; adventures and kids doing fun stuff like that.
AKS: We need those stories that are great adventures and great fun, just with different kinds of people.
RM: Yeah. I’m trying to figure out how to bring that into my work or my voice as an illustrator, as a writer. I still haven’t figured it out completely, but Bye Land, Bye Sea is kind of a little bit of that. I guess it indirectly speaks to some social issues.
I’m trying to discover or learn about Mexican culture through looking at Mexican folk art. I’m doing that because I feel disconnected [from] the Mexican culture because I grew up here, Mexican American, and so even though there’s this big culture in my veins, literally, there’s a disconnect.
AKS: So, it’s an ongoing process for you.
RM: Yeah, for sure. I mean I’ve never been super political or… really opinionated, obviously. I’ve always been the quiet guy in the room.
AKS: I can tell!
RM: So, I keep those things to myself mostly. It’s kind of growing out of myself, right? For example, some of the collage stuff that I’m doing now, I’m trying to make it more personal. I’m trying to discover or learn about Mexican culture through looking at Mexican folk art. I’m doing that because I feel disconnected [from] the Mexican culture because I grew up here, Mexican American, and so even though there’s this big culture in my veins, literally, there’s a disconnect. And so, I’m getting towards speaking about social issues. It feels like, for me, that’s like a big jump to make—to make big, bold statements—because I can barely say something about myself. And so, it’s a big jump for my comfort, I guess. But, y’know, I keep up with the news and things like that, what’s going on, and it’s hard to listen to. Maybe working on my sketchbook or talking with my wife, we’ll stumble upon something. It’ll be right there, and it’ll spark something, it’ll be bold and scary, maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see.
AKS: You definitely want it to come naturally.
RM: Yeah, if I were to say, “I’m going to write a political book, it’s about this,” it wouldn’t be honest.
AKS: We already talked a little bit about your creative process, but I wanted to get more into that. You said you like to work in the mornings. Do you have a certain time to write, or how do you find the time—to write or illustrate—and what’s your schedule like for that? And you’re in an MFA program too, so how does that all work?
If I’m not sketching on something, either notes or drawing, I’m not doing my job. It’s hard to keep it up. It’s discipline.
RM: Right now, it’s the MFA and writing and being on submission, hoping it works out so we can have the next project lined up. But as a freelancer, it’s tough. It’s up and down, up and down, project after project. And with school, it’s pretty busy. That’s a lot of work.
AKS: Do you have a set time every day that you just have for your own work?
RM: Well, right now, with being on submission, everything’s kind of at a halt a little bit. But if it weren’t, we’d be working on some dummies, working on revisions, and it would revolve around the school schedule. My wife, she’s the one who has the structured job, the nine-to-five, so when we work together on stories, it revolves around working on nights and weekends together. When we were in dummy mode—because we can’t get there all the time—but if we have a story we’re talking about, and we’re trying to get it to a certain point, then we’re definitely working nights and weekends. If we can, we take a whole weekend and go somewhere.
But you know, if I’m not sketching on something, either notes or drawing, I’m not doing my job. It’s hard to keep it up. It’s discipline. But right now, with MFA, almost everything is going through that. Although, the only reason we’re on submission now is because of that second semester, I dedicated some of the schoolwork to developing Bye Land, Bye Sea. So that helped us get that dummy done faster. But now this semester, my third semester, I’m kind of shifting things to a different place, so picture book stuff is gonna be definitely more on our own, and there’s other more experimental things for the MFA.
AKS: Can I ask what you’re gonna be working on?
RM: For MFA? I kind of mentioned a little bit, it’s an exploration of Mexican folklore. So ideally if Bye Land, Bye Sea happens, that’ll be work at home since it’s a picture book, and then school is this other body of work that’s different. Even though it’s actually filtering through my picture book point of view, because it is, I’m doing these drawings, these collages of woodcut—those figurines, those really colorful ones—there’s a big sense of wonder to them.
They can be very childlike. So, it’s kind of its own thing, but because I write children’s books, and it’s what I’m going to keep doing, whatever I do is kind of filtering through that point of view, which is cool. I like that.
AKS: Are there any picture book authors who are Mexican or Mexican American that you particularly admire? You had Yuyi Morales, one of her books. Anyone else?
RM: Yeah, she’s one. [John Parra] also does very Mexican themed books, like Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos. I met him, he’s pretty cool. His stuff is amazing, and it’s all traditional. He tapes off every shape and paints it, and tapes off another piece and paints it, and it’s really tedious. And there’s another guy, Duncan Tonatiuh. He’s doing some cool stuff, too. He’s way more in touch with the Mexican culture than anything I do. So, I look at people like all three of them and say, “How can I shape myself in that direction and make it also mine?”
AKS: I love his illustrations. They’re amazing. And I know that he does some like general picture books and some that are more like folktales. Would you ever do a folktale picture book?
RM: Yeah, I guess it depends on the story, but sure. A lot of the ideas that rise up are from René.
AKS: Have you ever had writer’s block or artist’s block? How did you deal with it?
RM: Yeah, that probably happens all the time, but I guess if you want to call yourself a professional, you have to just get over it and start putting your pen to the paper. I don’t know, I guess I don’t think it ever happened like, “Aah, I can’t do anything,” and a whole week goes by. Well, no, that’s not true, that’s happened. I mean sometimes you get, especially as a freelancer, when you’re at home all the time.
AKS: Discipline, like you said.
RM: Yeah, you always have to go back to discipline. “Ok, you’re not doing your job, what’s going on?”
AKS: Right, because it is your job, even though you’re at home, this is your job.
RM: It happens, and you have to get out of it and just find something. Maybe that’s part of why I’m back in school. I’ve always been good with structure, so being back in school gives me a certain amount of structure. Aside from all the other stuff, getting feedback. I essentially doubled the amount of people who get to see my work, and we get to bounce ideas off each other, and all that stuff, right? But there’s a space that, y’know, it’s a job too. Deadlines, things like that. Which is good, I mean, I like it.
AKS: I’ve found the structure really helpful too.
RM: If you wanna keep doing the things you like, well, I guess school is a place where you can keep doing the things you like.
AKS: I did have one more question, which was: do you have any more advice for working writers? I know you said discipline, but is there anything else?
RM: Meeting with people and finding that group or groups that can help you along. School’s this place where you get to do what you like. Deadlines work. You can give each other deadlines. It’s another space where you keep going, meeting people, finding mentors, reaching out to professionals, and saying, “Hey, can I talk to you about this.” Or do interviews. You’re in school right now, so am I. I mean, I’ve actually talked to Marla Frazee, and I see her at the conferences, and she’s around our circles, so I see her often, but I wanted to do a more formal interview and talk to her and share dummies with her, and get her feedback. So, we’ve been emailing, but she’s always busy.
AKS: She’s a big name.
RM: She’s always busy, and so I think it’ll happen eventually, but I think it’s a good idea to reach out to people even if they’re big names like Marla Frazee. Just say, “Hey, I’m in school, I’m doing this project, I’m working on this. Can I talk to you for like 15 minutes?” An illustrator, Lisbeth Zwerger—do you know her? She’s Austrian or German, and she just illustrated one of J.K. Rowling’s newest books. She’s huge, she won the Hans Christien Anderson Award. Well, when I was in my undergrad, we had to interview someone, and my wife knows that I liked her work a lot, and she was like, “You should just call her!” I was like “Okay! Sure.” And she gets on the computer, and she finds a phone number for [Zwerger’s] house, maybe, or her studio, I don’t know, and I punch it in. My wife speaks a little German, and she says, “Tell her this, do you speak English?” I said it in German, and she was like, “Yes.” And it was her. It was Lisbeth Zwerger, and I got to talk to her. She couldn’t talk that very moment. I told her I was doing an interview for school. “I’m way in California, I love your work. Can I talk to you for like ten minutes?” And she’s like, “Not today, but let’s set it up some other time.” And yeah, I got to talk to her. It was amazing. It was really cool.
AKS: So, you’ve reached out and made a lot of good connections.
RM: In children’s books, almost everyone you meet is amazing or fantastic and caring and fabulous.
AKS: Yes, that’s been my experience too.
RM: So, you can reach out. I have another person who I wanted to reach out to, but then they happened to win the Caldecott. It’s like, “Oh, no!”
AKS: You’re never gonna get to talk to them.
RM: It’s going to be a year or two before I can have him for ten minutes. And it was actually for another school project. It was a professional artist skills class, and we had to do an interview. He was on my list, and he was the one I was gonna reach out to, and then the week after that was when they announced the awards. If I had sent my email before that week or something, maybe I could’ve still gotten him. And I still could’ve tried even after they announced that he won, but…
AKS: He was probably getting a lot of those emails.
RM: He didn’t need some illustrator student following him around. He just got this award. I’m sure it gets pretty nuts after that.
AKS: I can’t even imagine. Well, hopefully one day you’ll know how it feels to win the Caldecott. That’s the dream.
RM: That would be nice, but how about let’s build a career first and stay there for a bit. Let’s make Bye Land, Bye Sea happen first.
Adrien Kade Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the Young Adult genre at Lunch Ticket. Their work has appeared in Lunch Ticket and Womanpause. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.
Throughout her work and life, Bich Minh Nguyen has explored identity. In her memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, she describes how as a child in Michigan, she craved Hamburger Helper and was perplexed when eating bánh chung, the special sticky rice cakes her Vietnamese family enjoyed at Tet, didn’t tantalize her taste buds. In her novels, characters grapple with living on the outskirts of Midwestern suburbia, understanding where the strip malls and split levels intersect with fraught refugee journeys that are similar to that of Nguyen’s own family.
In regular life, Bich Minh Nguyen goes by the name Beth. She is the author of three books, all with Viking Penguin. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner received the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center and was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. It has been featured as a common read selection within numerous communities, schools, and universities. Short Girls, a novel, was an American Book Award winner in fiction and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Her most recent novel, Pioneer Girl, is about the mysterious ties between a Vietnamese immigrant family and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Nguyen has been a Bread Loaf Fellow, among other honors, and her work has appeared in anthologies and publications including The New York Times. She has also coedited three anthologies: 30/30: Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty Years; Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye; and The Contemporary American Short Story.
Nguyen received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she won Hopwood Awards in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She currently directs and teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. She and her family live in the Bay Area.
She joined Lunch Ticket to discuss writing across genres, immigration and the literary world, and what counts as “home.”
Gabriella Souza: I saw on your website that you are working on a series of essays, Owner of a Lonely Heart—calling to mind the Yes song—and your most recent book was the novel Pioneer Girl. How does it feel to be an amazing unicorn that can write successfully in both genres?
Bich Minh Nguyen: Ha, I never thought of myself that way! But I sure did love unicorns when I was a kid. I honestly think that any writer can work in more than one genre. I mean, why not? And I’m not sure it’s always helpful or healthy to think about genre distinctions. Sometimes it’s the material—the subject, the content—that must determine the form and the genre.
GS: How do the two genres complement one another in your day-to-day writing? Do you have different mindsets for each or do you approach your writing the same, regardless of genre?
I think of writing memoir as just one person’s point of view, one person’s set of memories, observations, and experiences. Developing any character, whether in nonfiction or fiction, requires complication and the exploration of human complexity.
BMN: I try to let myself be guided by subject matter. One thing I love about nonfiction is the freedom to combine narration with reflection—that thinking on the page. One thing I love about fiction is the freedom of plot. Each requires a different mindset, which depends on the day, time of day, weather, mood, and what I’ve been reading.
GS: Speaking of Pioneer Girl, I thought of your 2014 novel the other day because it was recently Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthday. The plot of Pioneer Girl centers on a young woman whose family has mysterious ties to Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books. I know those books had a special resonance with you when you were growing up. How has that changed for you and do you still have an appreciation for Wilder’s work?
BMN: I might use the word fascination rather than appreciation. I grew up reading those Little House books, as so many in my generation did, and at the time, we read them basically without context. That is very troubling, and I am interested in that kind of complication because it’s part of the necessary work of rethinking the past—what we learned, what we didn’t learn, what we were taught, what we weren’t taught. How do we deal with those silences, absences, and erasures now? What can we learn through further research and investigation? And what surprises us? Pioneer Girl started because I was surprised to discover that Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter who co-wrote, uncredited, the Little House books, once went to Vietnam as a journalist.
GS: Your 2007 memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, tells the story of your family’s journey from Vietnam to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and your growing up amid distinctly different cultural experiences. I noticed that on your website, you have a Where Are They Now? tab, where you give details about the family members you featured in your memoir. What was it like writing about your family, particularly when chronicling disagreements with your sisters, for example, or your parents’ relationship? What has the experience been like watching readers resonate with your family members as characters?
BMN: Writing about one’s family requires an awareness of perspective. I think of writing memoir as just one person’s point of view, one person’s set of memories, observations, and experiences. Developing any character, whether in nonfiction or fiction, requires complication and the exploration of human complexity. All of this can feel risky and a little scary, but often that’s what writing just feels like. I love when readers tell me that they love my grandmother, or when they have a particular feeling or reaction to a character’s words, actions. It reminds me that we’re all looking for connection, all the time.
GS: Immigration continues to dominate the national news and is a frequent theme in recently published literature. How have you seen the literary world and the publishing industry change in terms of telling stories of immigrants and refugees? And if you have noticed a change, was that a reaction to people wanting to share their own stories or a need from the publishers to follow the natural conversation?
BMN: It’s wonderful that the idea of “immigration” has become more comprehensive and complicated in recent years; we are getting to see a wider range of immigrant narratives. I do think that tokenism is still a problem in publishing and literature. Part of that is rooted in publishing itself. [See recent examples here and here.] But I’m heartened to see more immigrant and refugee stories out there, in any genre, particularly ones that challenge “traditional” modes and viewpoints.
GS: After moving to the Midwest from Vietnam as a baby, you have since moved to California. What do you consider home? Is it possible that the idea of “home” is obsolete?
“I’ve always been uncertain about what to call home and where to call home. Perhaps for that reason, home for me is usually defined by the physical space in which I live and the sense of comfort I feel when I have to leave that space.
BMN: I’ve always been uncertain about what to call home and where to call home. Perhaps for that reason, home for me is usually defined by the physical space in which I live and the sense of comfort I feel when I have to leave that space. When I moved to the Bay Area, I realized what it meant to be just another Asian American person in the crowd—not viewed as a perpetual foreigner but just as a regular person, every day.
It was astoundingly wonderful because I’d never known that level of comfort—by which I mean such absence of self-consciousness.
GS: Your name on your book jackets is Bich Minh Nguyen, but you also go by Beth. As someone who has grappled with different names and the various identities they bring herself, I’m curious how you see name as related to identity.
BMN: I started going by Beth as a social experiment, to see if people would view me as “more American” with such a simple, straightforward name. I was also curious if that would affect how I thought of myself. I have a long essay about this in the works, that will be included in my next book. One thing I discovered, and this isn’t really a spoiler, is that, yes, I am more easily, typically seen as “American” when I go by Beth. It’s been an interesting experience that has made me reconsider ideas on identity and the role of names and naming.
GS: You teach in the MFA in Writing program at San Francisco University. How does teaching affect your writing, and vice versa? Have you ever been tempted to write about your classroom experiences?
BMN: I’ve always loved teaching because it keeps me thinking and learning about the craft of writing. I mean craft in a dynamic way, as in Matthew Salesses’s crucial “Pure Craft Is a Lie” series. Teaching writing can lead to energy and ideas for everyone in the room. I’ve only written about classroom experiences for conference papers or essays on pedagogy and craft. It’s crucial to have care and great respect for students’ individual experiences and their privacy, which every writer should have as they figure out their work and their process.
GS: I mentioned before that you’re working on Owner of a Lonely Heart, a new series of essays that you described as “about high school, music, and the Midwest.” Are you picking up where Stealing Buddha’s Dinner left off? Are you working on anything else that we should be on the lookout for?
BMN: Owner of a Lonely Heart is kind of a sequel to Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, in linked essay form. Many characters return—like my family! Some of the essays have to do with middle school, high school, or college; some are about parenthood; some are about the now. Music, refugee and post-refugee life, identity, food and culture and landscapes—these are all ongoing subjects for me. The title goes back to that awful, catchy Yes song because it has always posed a dilemma for me: is an owner of a lonely heart indeed much better off than an owner of a broken heart?
GS: One of the most entertaining aspects of your work are the popular culture references you pepper throughout your prose—from descriptions of Hamburger Helper and lists of the candy you craved as a kid to details of MTV music videos and beauty regimens, hairspray and all. What was behind your decision to include popular culture in your writing, and does it continue to play as big of a role in your life currently?
BMN: Writing and literature must include setting, and setting involves time and place, and time and place must include details, images, and moments particular to time and place. I don’t really distinguish “popular culture” from “culture.” It’s all how we live and what we take in. I’m always interested in that which affects and shapes us before we realize it, which is why I often write about childhood and adolescence. Everything we’re consuming (in all senses of that word) can define our sense of self and place—only we may not understand that for many years. What do we think of as culture? Who determines that? Whose stories and perspectives are we getting—and not getting? What we experience and observe on a day to day basis—sure, that could be mundane but it can also be the stuff of wonder and certainly the stuff of intense inquiry.
Gabriella Souza is an MFA candidate at Antioch University in Los Angeles, and she lives and work as a writer and editor in Baltimore. She began her writing career as a journalist and has won local and national awards for her work that has appeared in publications such as Brine Literary, USA Today, The Virginian-Pilot, and Baltimore magazine. She serves as the art editor for Lunch Ticket.
Ben Loory is a good guy who writes great short stories. The end.
If it were only that easy.
Behind his smoothly carved stories, Loory revises and refines drafts sometimes for years before they’re finished. A few, he writes in one afternoon. His characters are compelling; nameless, often faceless, possibly mirrors of ourselves—even if ducks or birds. Loory sets them loose to chase and overcome whatever awaits until they suddenly surprise themselves, sometimes horrifically.
I met Ben earlier this year during Antioch University Los Angeles’s creative writing MFA residency. He read two stories, one inciting laughter, the other tearful contemplation. When the second story ended he looked out at us then smiled, and all was restored.
I got to thinking, what makes these small stories have such an effect on us? So, I went a little Loory-nutty reading every story I could find. He’s authored two collections published by Penguin Books: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (2011) and Tales of Falling and Flying (2017). I read both. I heard him read on This American Life. They’re found on Selected Shorts too. He’s had fables and tales appear in The New Yorker and in Tin House, Electric Literature, and Fairy Tale Review. Kickstarter generated an animated version of “The Duck.” I read Loory’s stories aloud to people and occasionally to the family cat. (The cat really loved those stories, by the way.)
What emerged was a series of questions.
Loory is sharp and committed to his writing. This can be taxing, but he stays until the story tells him it’s done. With that same commitment, he patiently worked through these interview questions. I’m grateful for it, too, because he taught me in the process how one word can change the meaning of a question and how humor bolsters much of what he says. Loory’s wonderful humor permeates through his stories. So does terror, and intrigue, despair and delight.
He shared serious insight into his practices and now I’m Loory-nuttier.
I still plan to pick up his children’s picture book, The Baseball Player and Walrus (Dial Book for Young Readers, 2015) and gift to the many kids in my circle. At times, this interview looks at children. What it is to be a deeply imaginative child or to raise one. What we run to and what we’ve run from as readers and writers. I admire this author’s candid perspective.
Ben Loory lives in Los Angeles. When he’s not teaching short story writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, he’s probably writing. You can find him at www.benloory.com. If he’s not writing, he could be somewhere around his favorite bookstore, getting coffee, possibly examining light, shadowplay, and the shape of things. The corners of his mouth might lift into a smile like he’s stumbled onto hilarity or peculiarity. Either way, he’ll look as though he treasures what he’s found.
Andrea Auten: Growing up in Dover, NJ, how did your hometown setting foster your imagination?
Ben Loory: I don’t think it did, really—if there was any fostering of my imagination going on, it was being done by my parents and family. The town we lived in was a pretty conventional place; the only thing I learned from it was that I wanted to leave. On the other hand, I guess every story I write does take place in a small town—there’s always a bowling alley, a park, a movie theater, a grocery store (and a torch-bearing mob who eventually shows up).
I’d read absolutely anything that took place in space or involved some kind of ghost or demon or talking animal or magic.
But other than serving as a backdrop for my stories, I don’t think the town really influenced me. Mostly, it was the non-town things that made a big impression on me as a kid—the animals in the park across the street and in the forest; the Great Swamp nearby where my parents would take us bird watching; the movies and plays we would go see in New York City, and that weird old faux-colonial village that was situated in the hills not far away. The town itself I remember more like a negative space. But this is all just consciously; who knows the secret truth…
AA: With English professor parents turned small business owners, reading was prime entertainment at home. As a child without television—except for sneak peeks when visiting friends—books and comics occupied your mind, and you found particular fascination in fables after reading all of Aesop. What caused your hunger for myths this young? In your story subjects, how important is it to seek a lesson? What makes conquering our most terrible fears primary?
BL: I don’t believe in lessons (though I always learn from my stories as I write them). What I’m looking to create is emotional impact plus resonance. I’m looking to shake people up and then leave them thinking. But I don’t want readers to be able to condense the story to a simple lesson. Otherwise, why even tell the story? Just give ’em the lesson.
I also don’t think that conquering fears—or conquering anything, really—is primary. To me, it’s really more about learning to give up. It’s about forcing characters to accept themselves, even the parts they don’t want to accept. To allow themselves to let down the walls and become the person they are.
As for the taste for myths: As a kid, I think I was just trying to get away, to escape. And the bigger, wilder, crazier the story was, the better. I’d read absolutely anything that took place in space or involved some kind of ghost or demon or talking animal or magic. Nowadays these kinds of stories appeal to me because they use the vocabulary I know. I’m not going to write about wine-drinking lawyers in Manhattan; I don’t know anything about them. What I know are myths and fables, absurdist plays, detective and horror novels, old movies… That’s where the stuff in my brain comes from, so that’s what my stories are about.
AA: I heard it said once, our characters are waiting for us to tell their stories. Once there was a dodo… comes to mind—how that Dodo pushes its way to the front. What force drives the letters on the page? What are your thoughts on this?
BL: I don’t know. I don’t really question it. My rule is, I sit down with no ideas and make my mind a blank, and then I take the first line or image that pops into my head and write a story about that. When that first draft is done, maybe it sucks, maybe I never even look at it again, but I’m not allowed to NOT write a draft about whatever that first thing is. That’s the rule.
I think of myself as a kind of roller coaster designer, though the journey is imaginary and emotional.
So, as a result of that rule, I write a lot of weird, sometimes ill-advised stories. I mean, I write a lot of stories, period! And it’s only later that some of those stories begin to step forward and sort of reassert themselves and ask me to come back and work on them. Meanwhile, others just linger forever in some forgotten hole on my computer. I’m not sure why some haunt me and some don’t—I don’t question it. I just follow my rules and do what I do and somehow the stories get written.
AA: From hometown to Harvard, then film direction to screenplay-writing, you discovered a love of storytelling by writing quick descriptions or 2 to 3-page treatments. Your books expand these little summaries into short fables, fantasies, and tales (sometimes nightmarish). A reader can fill in images, assign place, time, even names if desired, because your stories are written to the bones. Boiling words down to their most salient combinations can be difficult crafting. Were you ever wordier? When are details worth it in writing? Your work is also stripped down and exposed. How do you experience coexisting with such open work?
BL: No, I was never wordier. I don’t intentionally strip anything down, or think about what details to put in or leave out. I just tell the stories the way I tell stories, the way that seems natural. I describe the people and things that are in motion and that seem to matter in the scene. I mostly leave the internal out, unless I absolutely can’t point to it through behavior. (And if you’re looking to write short, that right there is half the battle. Not that I’m ever looking to write short.)
Co-existing with my stories is easy: I just act like they’re not about me.
AA: I find that I love reading your stories out loud and, indulging, I set up a few parent–approved sessions and read your stories to chosen children—not that I’d catalog your books in the children’s section—these are deep thinker kids, and I wanted to evaluate their responses. Ben, each child ranging from ages 7-9 was rapt, consuming the words, and gazed until the stories ended. ‘That was great!’ each said. They seemed sustained by the mystery or maybe it was magic, but the fast-paced world they live in stilled and they listened intently. In this high-stress information age, where do you place value on storytelling? What gives your work its universality?
BL: As a reader, the value of storytelling to me is that it stills and focuses my mind. Everything goes away, all my cycling repetitive horrible thoughts, and suddenly I feel much better! (At least, unless the book is bad—then it gets even worse (and then I need another book really bad.) So basically, it’s a drug.
As a writer, it’s a little different—I’m aiming for something specific. I want to carry a reader, almost physically, through a fluid and unbreakably shaped experience. I think of myself as a kind of roller coaster designer, though the journey is imaginary and emotional. And mostly what I want is to move a reader deeply, really stir things up inside, make them think and feel and live a little more fully when they’re done.
If my work has universality, I think it’s because my characters are pure doers. They want something and they act; they fear something and they act. It’s easy to connect to them because their hearts are front and center.
AA: I call this question: Just the Facts. Earlier we talked about cutting out the details. Reading your work, there’s a perspective that brings humor and zest, with keen observation, quirk, absurd joy and despair, and then again times of complete bafflement, but there’s more going on under your stark text. How do you build these worlds that buzz and teem underneath their clean architecture?
BL: Well, again, I don’t think it’s really that I build them, so much as that I just believe they’re there, which somehow makes them real. It’s like, you can write seven paragraphs about how landspeeders work, or you can just have one character say, “Hey, can I borrow your landspeeder?” And the second will always be more convincing. What makes things feel real is when readers subconsciously fill in the blanks, when they figure out themselves how the world works without even knowing they’re doing it. They believe it because they’ve actually built the foundation.
The This American Life thing was wonderful, too—and weird, because I didn’t even know they used fiction! When they asked me if they could use my duck story, I was like… you know it’s not real, right??
Besides that, for me at least, the most important thing is to always focus on balance. When something sticks up, you look for something to hang down. When a character does something nice, you look for their mean side. Reality is a perfect sphere; things seem unreal when you see a lot of angles. So a lot of my process is going through the stories and looking for things without shadows, things that spike up and look out of place. I then fill in those shadows, provide stalactites for the stalagmites, and the world slowly comes into being in all its richness.
AA: Back in June, outside the AULA building-monolith where we hang at the squirrel table, I asked you, what you were afraid of as a child. You answered, Everything. It got me wondering about the deep and wondrous level of imagination many writers have and how in childhood this presents itself—even to parents—as obstacles. How did you cope with this level of fear? What correlation exists between imagination and fear and how might the stronger one suggest the other become?
BL: I don’t know that I was really afraid of everything, but I was certainly afraid of a lot! But at the same time, I always had a pretty high opinion of my own abilities; I always thought I could handle whatever came along—even if the world was full of ghosts and Nazis and demons and monsters, I always felt like I would be okay, like I could outsmart them. I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. So it wasn’t like I was crippled with fear, I was just, y’know, hypervigilant and terrified. Not sure if that makes sense but I feel like that’s how it was.
Somewhere along the way, sadly, I lost that sense of invulnerability. Though at the same time, I’m also not as afraid as I used to be. Guess the world just ground me down from both ends. Which I suppose is probably for the best. I do find that when I’m writing, I’m always better when I’m upset. The stories are always deeper and richer when there’s something really bad going on in my life. When everything is just peachy keen, the stories get light and fun—which, whatever, is fine (I like having both kinds)—but it is something I sometimes worry about. Not that there’s ever going to be a lack of upsetting things in anyone’s life. But I don’t want to actually want them.
AA: You wrote a story called “The Well” about a boy who jumps back into the well he’s fallen into to prove himself. What was your writing process like when you created this story? I ask because when reading it to my husband, he stopped mid task to listen. I finished the story and fumbled a bit for my bookmark before noticing he hadn’t spoken. When I looked up, I found Tom braced against the doorframe weeping. How does it affect you when you hear the impact your stories have on people?
BL: Oh, I love it! There’s nothing like making people cry—it makes me feel like I’m not alone. The way I write, I never have any intentions—I’m basically just living through a sequence of events through a character—and the end of that story really messed me up. I never saw it coming and it sorta felt like I was dying, or had always been dead and just hadn’t noticed yet. There was a bit of hyperventilation involved. It was one of those rare “one-take” stories, too, where it pretty much all comes out right in the first draft. So please tell your husband I know how he feels! And I’m glad we went through it together.
AA: For a bit of fun: Cinema trivia who wrote and directed the 90’s everyman Hero’s journey with the first line, Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job… (Don’t use Google, Ben.)
BL: Well, it’s Joe vs. the Volcano, which I love and used to own on LASERDISC, and which was written and directed by the guy who wrote Moonstruck. But I can’t remember his name. It’s three words. It’s not Bruce Joel Rubin, though—he’s the guy who did Jacob’s Ladder (which I also love and used to own on laserdisc). And it’s not Phil Alden Robinson, because he did Field of Dreams (which I did not love and never owned on laserdisc). So, I don’t remember his name! I’ve been laughing about that Brain Cloud thing for 30 years now, though.
AA: You’ve read your story “The Duck” on This American Life and now Australian animator, director Simon Cottee has mounted his short film adaptation version through a Kickstarter project. What was that like to have “The Duck” come full circle?
BL: Is that full circle? It was certainly nice, whatever it was! I really loved the short film. It especially made me laugh how all the ducks spoke with Australian accents! And the animation and the music were beautiful—I cried when they threw the rock off the cliff. I’d love to see all my stories done as cartoons.
The This American Life thing was wonderful, too—and weird, because I didn’t even know they used fiction! When they asked me if they could use my duck story, I was like… you know it’s not real, right?? Which they found kind of funny. But the reach of that show is really tremendous, and I loved being allowed to read the story myself. They’ve used a few of my other stories over the years, but it’s hard to top that first thrill.
I think full circle would be if one of the stories got made into a live action feature, maybe? Which would certainly be nice, from a money angle. And also then people would probably go and buy my books, and that, of course, would be amazing. But I don’t really care about the movies anymore. I mean, I like watching them! But I made peace a long time ago with the fact that the stories I write are short stories. They don’t want to be long; they don’t want to be features. They are what they are, and that’s okay.
AA: Thanks Ben.
BL: Thank you!
Andrea Auten is a Masters of Fine Arts graduate in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. At Lunch Ticket, she is an interviewer and blogger, co-lead editor for visual art and graphics, and she works with community outreach and the social media team. She lives with her husband, two sons, and her writing helpers, the family cats. andreaauten.com
On August 14th, I had the honor of interviewing Jeff Shotts, Executive Editor of Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, MN, by phone. A native of McPherson, Kansas, and graduate of Washington University’s MFA program, Shotts began his career as an editorial assistant before going on to edit poetry and nonfiction. After hearing his guest lecture during Antioch University Los Angeles’s summer residency, I was blown away, inspired, and I knew I wanted to talk more with him. During our interview, we discussed his journey through the literary world, the power of becoming a great literary citizen, how to prepare for rejection and acceptance, and the impact and necessity of international literature. Throughout our interview, I learned about the literary world from both the editing and publishing end, all from the kind, genuine, and authentic voice that is Jeff Shotts. He currently resides in Minneapolis, MN, with his family.
Barbara Fant: When did you fall in love with poetry and literature?
Jeff Shotts: Really early. I was always a reader and loved the sound and texture of words. More specifically, I must have been in middle school, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and my grandfather gave me a copy of Tennyson’s poetry. When I look back on that, it’s funny that in the swelter and oppression of central Kansas, that he would hand that sort of book to me. But there was something in it that I just loved and was ready to read, even that sort of Victorian high-power voice. There was something in its overblown majesty that spoke to me; I was taken with that. And like many, I was fortunate to have a wonderful English teacher in high school who introduced me to the history of poetry, how poetry works, what’s good and not good in a poem. That teacher, Carole Ferguson, was so wonderful to introduce us to contemporary voices; voices that sounded like us, and talked the way we were talking. Many of those voices were right there from Kansas, like William Stafford, and Langston Hughes, who grew up in the Topeka area, and Gwendolyn Brooks. So, there was an interesting Kansas strand that I could follow by the time I came to the Twin Cities. There’s such a rich literary and contemporary scene here, not just in poetry. It really helped open my eyes to the contemporary possibilities of literature. It was then that I met the local publishing scene too.
BF: How did you work your way into the publishing field?
When I look back on that, it’s funny that in the swelter and oppression of central Kansas, that he would hand that sort of book to me… There was something in its overblown majesty that spoke to me.
JS: I’ve been fortunate in a lot of ways, no question about that. I was always the guy who was working on the school newspaper and working on the school literary and art magazine in high school and college, and just always loved that. I always loved making something public and of course that’s the heart of publishing. So, it had always been in my stream or path and then in my senior year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I did a yearlong internship at a wonderful independent review magazine, Hungry Mind Review. They reviewed university presses, small independent nonprofit presses, as well as the larger commercial New York houses. Seeing all those catalogs coming in, everything from Random House and Simon & Schuster to the University of Minnesota, Wesleyan University Press, or Pittsburgh University Press, then of course Graywolf Press, and Coffee House Press, was a huge education for me, in terms of what publishers were doing at that time. This was obviously when people were looking more at print catalogs. You can do this much easier online now.
At that internship, I was so fortunate to do an informational interview with an editor that I really loved named Anne Czarniecki at Graywolf Press. I realized how many Graywolf books I had been reading. Like many people, I read the authors more than the publishing house. When I finally lined that up and realized, that pointed me in a direction. After graduation, I was fortunate enough to land an internship. In some ways, the rest is history. I was just in the right place at the right time. I always loved contemporary literature and poetry, and I think that’s what Graywolf was looking for at that time.
Poetry is such a significant part of our publishing landscape. I learned from being an assistant and an apprentice in 1996 with Fiona McCrae, who is still the director of Graywolf. With publishing and editing and publicity work and all the parts of publishing, you really learn by doing it. I learned by seeing the correspondence of other editors, how they operated, how they wrote rejection letters, how they edited a text, how they were sniffing out exciting new writing, and what magazines they were reading. I soaked all that in and tried to copy it as much as I could. I think it’s still very much like that, though. We say technology has changed the way we read and think about some of these things, yet I think people still respond to the line or the sentence or paragraph or whatever you’re looking at with the sense of human depth and endeavor.
BF: I’m interested in how you choose the books you choose for Graywolf.
JS: Yeah, that’s a big and ongoing question. We have evolved over forty-four years, so next year we are getting ready to celebrate Graywolf’s 45th anniversary. We’ve been on the map for awhile now. We work in a lot of different ways. There are five or six of us in the editorial department and we’re always looking; looking online, looking in print magazines, we’re meeting with magazine editors, visiting MFA programs like Antioch, and elsewhere. I’m going to Breadloaf tomorrow, going to AWP; we try to go where writers are. We try to create relationships with magazines and agents and writers. We’re inside a larger conversation, and that’s exciting.
That’s a part of acquiring work that I really love; listening to what writers are doing on the page and at readings, the way that they talk about what they’re writing about, subject matters that they’re approaching. We find our books by listening. But it’s obviously more than that. We also hope we have created a list of books that beckons to other writers, “Here’s a place for you” if you’re writing poetry or innovative novels. We want to stand as a strong example of a respectful and vibrant home for that kind of challenging writing. We want people to associate Graywolf with that and with a sense of social justice. I hope we communicate that through our books, website, catalog, one-on-one meetings with writers, talks at MFA programs, and through everything that we put out into the world that is meant to say, “Hey, this might be a home for you, keep us in mind, keep us in touch.” And I hope it challenges writers to think about things in less straightforward ways, in terms of literary artful ways of talking about the important topics of our time.
BF: What are some of similarities and differences of editing nonfiction and poetry?
JS: I love being an editor of nonfiction and I love being an editor of poetry. I love that I get to think about certain texts with the same sense of precision. What I mean by that is the nonfiction that we aspire to publish has the same challenging power of language that we associate with the poetry that we publish. And I think that in recent years, in particular, our poetry lists and our nonfiction lists are in communication with each other. I’m thinking of books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is a poetry book, but it’s also an essay book; it’s its own invented genre in a way, but it is so interestingly navigating the lyric and the sense-making that very directly confronts something like race and microaggressions and visual artwork, and all the things that are going on in Claudia’s text. So as an editor, I don’t turn off my poetry editing to edit nonfiction and I don’t turn off my nonfiction when editing poetry. In a way, that’s what Graywolf looks for with our nonfiction prize: works that come at essay writing or nonfiction writing with an innovative structure or innovative language to get at what they’re talking about. I would say this for nonfiction and I would certainly say this for poetry: the voice and style with which those genres are made are just as important as the subject. I think within these last few years, with Claudia Rankine and Eula Biss and Maggie Nelson and Leslie Jamison, there is a real audience that is hungry for that kind of challenging writing and not just a straightforward telling. It’s something that really immerses us into a kind of thoughtful experience. It’s a different way that we read and think and learn. The power of those words seeps into your bones in a different way.
That’s a part of acquiring work that I really love; listening to what writers are doing on the page and at readings…
BF: When I started with Lunch Ticket, I was told that working on a literary journal makes you a better reader and ultimately a better writer. How has your editing influenced your writing and vice versa?
JS: That’s a great question and thank you for asking it. It’s a question I don’t get very much. To get to the first part of your question, I think about my own MFA program. I had a wonderful experience at my MFA, which was at Washington University in St. Louis, and I was in the poetry program and I studied with Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips, who are just wonderful and very different teachers for me. It was hard for me to write for the workshop and to feel like I was on deadline, so to speak, and to have that work then talked about. I was the person around the workshop table who cowered a little when my poem was up for conversation, but I was also the person who loved talking about everyone else’s poem. And I think that told me a lot. I think I came out of my MFA a better editor than a better writer. It just showed me something that I needed to know about myself and that was hugely valuable. It made me realize that publishing and editing and list-building and all those things that we were talking about, is what was at my core.
Every once in a while, I will find myself jotting a little line or there’ll be something that pops up and I feel a creative urge to just fragment something, and that’s usually about where it stays. Most of the writing I’m doing now is reports on manuscripts, catalog copy, jacket copy, editorial letters to nonfiction writers and poets and translators. So for me, that editorial language comes from the same creative pool as the creation of my own poetry or essay writing. Some people are able to compartmentalize that, but I’m just not one of those people. It all comes from the same space. And the truth is, I have a family, I have two young boys, and it’s hard for me to imagine what it takes to be a writer, to look away from them and look at my own page; I can’t make that trade. So I guess I would rather be a present editor and a present parent, not necessarily in that order, rather than a present writer. So my own writing is fairly dormant, to be honest with you right now, but there’s always a porch light on.
BF: I read up on a few of your interviews and I noticed that the theme of “service” comes up often in terms of the author being in service to the book and the book being in service to the world. How do you define service? And what advice would you give some one who believes that they’re called to be in service to the literary world?
JS: Wow, that’s a great question and I think it’s also at the heart of what writers and teachers can be and, I hope, what editors, publishers, and publicists can be. I think everyone has to answer this question for themselves in terms of what they’re in service to. And I think it’s okay if writers say, “You know, I’m in service to my own need to write.” That may sound selfish, but I really respect that and in some cases that’s what writers need to demand of themselves. It’s a very hard thing to look at your own page, to hear your own voice, and to hone it. So that said: I’m in service to the art, in service to the individual book, to the individual writer, and of course, I’m in service to Graywolf. I hope that what I am able to contribute is in service to particular people whose voices matter and can change us and can change me. And maybe that’s the selfish part of what I do. I want my imagination filled, I want to know more than I do, and I want to be changed by the writers that I’m working with or other writers that I’m reading. I want as many readers as possible to feel the same way. And I hope that also means that readers act in the world in a different way: more respectfully, more politically, more aware or astute, more able to see others for who they are and to challenge each other in those spaces.
I think that literature and art in general is such a great space for that conversation to happen. We live in a culture that needs more of that. I feel energized by serving that purpose. I don’t know if it’s a small or a large purpose, but it is what it is. I am so fortunate to be able to work with writers who share a sensibility of wanting their work to challenge people and get under their skin, and sometimes it can rise up and make a large-scale cultural shift. And I think Citizen has changed some of the ways that we have language around race, and that feels very powerful and important to me. I have learned so much from that. I think that’s where translators, for instance, are wonderful people who offer themselves to writers in various genres. They are doing such an amazing service to writers as they offer themselves to language and stories and poems that we are not hearing in this culture and in this language. That seems like a wonderful service, too. I really see small and independent presses, like Graywolf and obviously many others, that are a great enterprise in service to culture as a whole. Our main service is not a commercial one. Obviously, we want our books to do well, we want our writers to be paid and all those things, but that is not the first thing that we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about how these books can reach particular communities that need them.
I think I came out of my MFA a better editor than a better writer. It just showed me something that I needed to know about myself and that was hugely valuable.
BF: I know that Graywolf is devoted to diversity; what is your dream for the press and the larger literary world in the near future? How do you envision it?
JS: That is a wonderful question! One part is that I would really like to see American culture be awash in the serious literature of other cultures and languages because we’ve fallen short compared to other countries and what they’re publishing. There is very little global literature coming in or being translated. So one huge way of answering your question is more global cross-pollination and intersectionality across borders and cultures and languages. That’s one place the American publishing scene can grow and change and become more exciting. The more voices that come in, the more influence they have on English and the more they have influence on our own culture. That’s how our language literally changes. That’s exciting to me when you see the shifts in language; you see the changes in vocabulary or thinking. That feels very important. It’s one of the reasons why we try to do so many books from international writers, whether they are writing in English or not. We need more support for those books because they tend to be more expensive books to create. Sometimes those books need something extra, especially if the writers aren’t known or if there is a certain cultural resistance to their writing. Those are challenging books to do, but that’s our mission and our nonprofit status allows us to do them. It’s a thing that writers can do, too, whether it’s a shout out on social media, a review in the New Yorker that says, “Hey, pay attention to this. Here is this exciting book and wonderful book written in Mexico or Brazil, or wherever.” I think it’s a place where individual writers are often really good literary citizens. I see that a lot in author interviews, a sort of advocacy for writers who deserve a place in the literary world and are just not getting it.
BF: At Antioch you spoke about being a literary citizen and a good literary citizen. What did you mean by that?
JS: I think this is a question that everyone gets to answer for themselves. Being a good literary citizen means certainly putting your own work out there, as a writer that needs to be central. But alongside that, finding ways to amplify the voices of other people that you want to see in the world. And there’s lots of ways to do that. Whether that is something as simple as writing a blurb for a new writer, whether it’s introducing them to a magazine editor, or book editor, or agent. Whether that’s just standing as an example for young writers or new writers who need that example. You can never have enough examples. And so many writers are wonderful teachers or activists in the community. The act of writing can point us in all kinds of ways of interacting with our communities: locally, nationally, and globally. Finding ways to hold hands with one another rather than being in competition. Making time to lead each other, take each other into account, and argue with one another. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t always have to be friendly all the time, we don’t always have to agree. That means being shrewdly critical, whether it’s inside of literature or inside the publishing culture, or inside the conference culture or MFA culture. Calling those things out and being willing to have difficult conversations also feels like a citizenship and a kind of service to the art.
BF: In your lecture at Antioch you also talked about preparing to be accepted. How should one prepare to be accepted?
JS: When I talk to MFA programs or young writers, there’s such a focus on getting in the door. And I get that, because it’s hard and possibilities feel scarce. It can be easy for writers to stop there and not get to what’s on the other side. What happens when an editor says yes? Or a literary agent takes you? Or a magazine? Writers can prepare to be accepted by thinking very carefully about where they’re sending their work. The more thoughtful you are about it, or your agent is on your behalf, the more chances you have of being accepted. If you target your approach, your acceptance rate is always going to be better. That goes for magazines or online publications or book publications.
Also, writers can be surprised by the way editors and publishers talk about their writing. You’ve lived with something for a long time and sometimes very intimately and privately, but the moment it gets accepted and is inside a publishing house, that work is being talked about and promoted through catalog copy, blurbs, publisher’s websites. It can quickly feel far away from that intimate space that an author held so dear for so long. Editors and publicists have to write that copy. Those four or five sentences that are a description of your book, whether a novel or short stories, essays, or poetry, those become very, very important because they sort of follow the book around. They’re the catalog copy and that becomes the jacket copy and that becomes what’s on these online platforms and they calcify and all of a sudden they define your book. And of course, at Graywolf, we write these things alongside you. It is a space of collaboration.
But I think one thing to anticipate is that when writers start to submit work, graph your own copy. I would never say do this while you’re composing or creating your work, but when you have a sense of it: what would you want on the back of your book that would encapsulate your work in a way that would be enticing to the reader, but also very assured to your original vision? It’s very hard to do. We all have to read that marketing language that falls into a set of clichés, so how do you escape that? And I think that it’s an interesting challenge for a writer to do that, and it also prepares you to have that conversation with the publishing agency. It will always make the author feel a strong presence inside that way. No one can talk about a book as well as the author, no one. Obviously, a publisher is going to work with you in various ways to hone that and get that right, but that’s one specific thing an author can do to help anticipate a yes.
BF: The literary world seems to be getting younger, especially the poetry field. What would you say to the writer who feels that they’re too late or they haven’t taken advantage of the right opportunities to pursue their writing career?
JS: Don’t give up. Don’t think that. The life of art is long, I hope. And I’m inspired just as much by those writers who come to publishing much later in their lives, and those writers come to their second and third published books with such a different voice and experience, and I’m an editor who loves that. I’m thinking of Mary Jo Bang (my teacher) who we published at Graywolf, who had done many things in her life before she became a published and more well-respected poet. I would say the same about Diane Seuss, and her last book Four-legged Girl was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, and she came to publish much later in her life. In seeing writers like that getting strong attention, getting reviews, publicity, and spotlight, I find that very inspiring. So I think you don’t have to look very hard to find examples of those who came into their publishing lives later. That doesn’t mean that they came into their artistic lives later. They probably have been writing their whole lives or decades before they started publishing. Publishers are working hard to get these different voices, more established writers, attention. It happens, but it happens in a pathway that might not be expected. The best things that sells books is word of mouth, being out there and being a great reader and performer of your work. Being a great literary citizen in the way we’ve talked about, these are ways that all readers can participate in, and many do. Fear not.
Barbara Fant has been writing and performing for twelve years. She has represented Columbus, OH, in nine National Poetry Slam competitions and placed eigth out of ninety-six poets in the 2017 Women of the World Poetry Slam. She is featured in the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Columbus Makes Art Campaign and Columbus Alive named her in their 2017 People to Watch. She is a TEDx speaker, an author of three poetry collections, and has been commissioned by over ten organizations. She holds a BA in literature and a Masters in theology. Currently, she is pursuing her MFA in poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she also served as co-lead poetry editor on Lunch Ticket. She works at The Columbus Foundation and teaches poetry at Transit Arts. Barbara believes in the transformative power of art and considers poetry her ministry.
Khadijah Queen (to remix two very famous quotes by Walt Whitman and Lionel Blue) contains multitudes like everybody else, only more so.
In one sense, the scope of her work is so radically diverse in form and genre that it’s difficult imagining all of it coming from one author. Queen describes a literary life that involves reading through a bookstore alphabetically at an early age. It makes sense that an artist with that level of drive and curiosity would explore as many different forms as possible.
But in another sense, it also applies to her personhood and the many valences and roles that Queen lives out through her real life.
Her latest book, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On, contains a multitude of clothing outfit descriptions and the anecdotes the speaker experiences while in them. Each poem explores the internal engines hinted at by very external details and interactions. The book blooms into an outside-in interrogation of the male gaze and power dynamics at large, a focus and critique that has remained evergreen in our still-patriarchal society. Her poems are also full of humorous stories, recorded banter, and the animated energy of a flood of memory.
She is wise, as eager to laugh as to go deep into theory or historical issues, committed to justice and, with a dedicated but almost casual air, she redefines and challenges what is possible for herself and by extension all of us.
* * *
Jordan Nakamura: Hi! First of all, I know I speak for so many of us when I say we are so excited and honored to have you as a faculty at Antioch. Welcome back! And congratulations on your beautiful book.
Khadijah Queen: Thank you.
JN: I thought I’d ask you about I’m So Fine first. In addition to detailing these amazingly vivid and often nostalgic outfits, we get to hear what the speaker has read (Sula, The Salt Eaters, The Autobiography of Malcolm X), almost like “what I had on” includes “what I had on my mind.”
KQ: I love that! I hadn’t even thought of that, but I’ll take it!
JN: Done! It was your idea all along! So, it’s clear that books were on your mind, and I’m curious as to when your writing life started. When did you decide you wanted to be a poet?
KQ: That’s a good way to put it, “decide.” I started writing at a young age and reading at a young age. My dad taught me to read when I was like three, and would read me the newspaper. I don’t remember not reading. We always had books around, and somebody was always reading something regardless of whether or not they went to college.
My grandmother’s living room had one side with a tv and the rest of the walls were all books, and she didn’t finish high school. It was just a part of my life growing up.
So I was writing poetry in high school and I was writing in the [military] service. I still have some of those really bad poems…
JN: [laughs] I’m sure we all do.
KQ: Really bad! But I didn’t say “I want to be a writer” until I took a class called Modern Poetry in undergrad and read more contemporary work. Up until then everybody being taught was dead—I didn’t know anybody alive who was writing poetry. But then I read Lucille Clifton and Czesław Miłosz and I was just like, “Wow, this is amazing, I love this!” and I just started reading more.
There was a Barnes & Noble a block from my house, and I would go there and just start with “A.” I read everything in the bookstore and when I finished that, I went to the library and did the same thing.
Maybe six months to a year after I started writing, I’d start turning in work to be published and they’d just be like “I’m returning what you have sent me” and not even calling it a poem! But it didn’t make me feel discouraged, it made me want to do better. That was in my mid-20s.
JN: I’m So Fine feels like a very especially ‘90s era LA book, not only in that it’s mostly set in LA, but also how it presents a chronicle of life punctuated in celebrity sightings. Like you mention, you and everyone else maybe don’t see so many celebrities everywhere now, but—
KQ: Yes because there was no internet.
KQ: Like, we couldn’t follow them on Instagram, we had to follow ‘em in the mall. Or at a restaurant or whatever. No online shopping, so the only place they went to get their high-end clothes was the Beverly Center.
There was a Barnes & Noble a block from my house, and I would go there and just start with “A.” I read everything in the bookstore and when I finished that, I went to the library and did the same thing.
JN: I was thinking about how the book is kind of this record of that time, and so I view it partially as an archive. Do you ever think about archival work, and if so, what are things you are driven to attempt to preserve in your work?
KQ: You know, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, so I’m glad you asked that question, but I definitely do that and am interested in that. I’m reading this book right now called The Work-Shy by Blunt Research Group, which goes through the archives of testimonies of and about people who were in this detention facility for youth where the goal was eugenics, and they were basically imprisoned and forcibly sterilized—and the book is these erasure-poems of those testimonies.
So I’m very much interested in finding things in history that have not been told, or [have been] ignored, or that have been suppressed and bringing those things out in the open. Think about a “great American novel,” for example, we don’t really think about a black girl in South Central LA. That’s not the first thing we think about… but it’s the first thing I think about, because that was me.
But we all can relate to these stories too. I mean, we all have issues with what we are wearing and strive to try to show off what we wear, maybe it’s actively trying to be nondescript or not care, but we all have an opinion about what clothes we have on. And, also, it’s just really fun!
JN: It is! Now, it seems like our country is (finally) starting to have a serious national conversation about accountability, abusers, silenced victims, and institutions. Your book addresses aspects of that conversation on an everyday level, to where it’s not just talking about only prestigious women, and it also speaks across generations. I was wondering at what point in the project did you notice that taking shape, as in, did you set out with it, or did you more realize the work was speaking to that conversation…?
KQ: Not until the revision, when I had a good number of them. I wrote them in a poem-of-the- day project called The Grind and people would respond that they’d want to hear more of them because they were funny. But as I kept recalling these circumstances, these feelings started to accumulate like, hey, wow, this is pretty… horrible. [laughs] But we were trained to laugh about it, we were trained to just move on, we were trained to say this is how it’s supposed to be. And it’s not until you were out of that environment, honestly, that you think how messed up it actually is. And plus, with what was brought up with the election, like we basically have a serial abuser as the leader of our country. But circling back to my family and the archive, in new work, I’m thinking about the legacy of sexual assault and the absence of choice. I’m going back to ancestors of mine who were kidnapped and brought here and forced to bear children for their enslavers and addressing how that has passed down across generations.
JN: You mentioned how these were written as a result of grind poems, which is such a hard thing—or at least it was for me when I’ve done it before. Do you believe in setting aside a kind of regular time, do you just kind of write when you feel “inspired,” etc.?
KQ: I mean, I believe in it generally.
KQ: [laughs] And I did it for six years. I wrote every day for six years. That’s how I got four books written! So I recommend it if you respond to it and it’s something you feel excited about and it’s not a weight or a burden. For me it was very powerful because I had gone through a period of not writing for six months, so even if it wasn’t a poem, if it was just a line or a sentence, I just wanted to write something. Then I had surgery in 2015, and I was on medication and my brain wouldn’t let me do anything. Except heal, and order takeout, and watch Basketball Wives, haha.
JN: All under the umbrella of healing!
KQ: Yep, I totally binged on Basketball Wives and Game of Thrones and I did not write, because every time I’d try to write, my brain was just not working. That was tough. That was like a mourning period for me because I had to change the way I thought about my writing practice.
But I did eventually get back to the feeling of working in a burst, and I had all this material that I’d collected from previous writing, and I just sat down and finished two books that following summer, so, like, a year or so later.
So now I think it’s a combination of both: I’ll get in a mode where I need to write every day or I’ll get into a mode where I’ll just do it as it comes. But I find that I write books better after a period of writing every day for a while and then having the time to myself to make the book happen.
I wrote them in a poem of the day project called The Grind and people would respond that they’d want to hear more of them because they were funny. But as I kept recalling these circumstances, these feelings started to accumulate like hey, wow, this is pretty… horrible
JN: Like in revision.
JN: You’ve shared really valuable advice on literary citizenship. Could you talk a bit about what that means for you, how you practice it?
KQ: I would like to be the kind of writer who participates in making the field more inclusive, and more humane and more expansive creatively. Whatever that looks like in terms of teaching or my professional actions. I try to keep in mind the idea of further humanization and professionalization of the field, just as a general baseline.
JN: Sometimes the idea of citizenship can feel very public, but how do you protect your interior life?
KQ: Yes, I think I’m not necessarily into the whole loud or public part of being a citizen. I like to just watch what’s going on and work behind the scenes, like, “I see you, I see what you’re doing.” But I don’t mind if it comes to me being more vocal and public. I’m not afraid of it, but I want it to be on my own terms and, again, in terms of further professionalization and not anything to do with sensationalism, invasion of privacy, or disrespecting the confidence of people who have confided in me. Their trust is very important to me and that’s the number one thing, I think. I don’t want to be in a position to be asked to impugn my integrity.
JN: I find your work really models a sense of fearlessness and play. I feel like poetry is sometimes boxed in to certain emotions like sadness or frustration, but I wonder how much fun and playfulness get understated. Do you think about this in your work consciously, and how important are the aspects of play and fun in your writing?
KQ: You know, I was talking about this the other day at this place called The Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I teach in Denver, and we were talking about genre concerns. I was saying how it took me forever to write this memoir in the Navy because it was such tough shit, but I finally found the thing that made it fun. So now it’s coming, and I don’t have to stress out about it, I can just write it.
So fun for me is a way to access completeness. It can’t just be, like, a cesspool of sadness. It can’t! I’m not gon’ make it! I have to be able to enjoy my life, what I’m doing. I need joy and fun, especially when I’m dealing with rougher aspects of the content.
JN: What advice do you have for fostering fearlessness, not being worried, retaining the excitement and fun and play of writing?
KQ: I don’t know how fearless I am, I just have to do it anyway. Even when I’m scared. But I have a lot of practice. It just takes practice. When I was in the service, I was afraid of heights. And I’m also not the best swimmer, but we had to dive off a ten-foot diving board and swim across the whole pool in order to get the hell out of boot camp! I was terrified, but we had to do it anyway. It’s fine to be terrified, but have a lot of support, try to have a great community around you.
And sometimes your fear will tell you what you shouldn’t be doing. So if you really are afraid of something, and it will feel traumatic to share, then that might just be for you. I was at a workshop with Sharon Olds, and she said she has multiple books that she has not shared. Because it’s not for anyone else, it’s just for her. So it’s recognizing what your own boundaries are too.
JN: In Fearful Beloved, you write in one of the poems addressed to Fear: “I don’t want to keep looking at what I have already survived.”
And also in I’m So Fine, you write: “so much happened between us I could write a book about it but I’ve lost interest in pain.”
It reminds me of what some poets, in particular poets of color, are coming around to: that a lot of people want us to write about pain in order to be read or seen at all. But it can kind of turn into this re-traumatization cycle that, whether rewarded or not, is at best exhausting. It’s really refreshing to witness what feels like a radical resistance to this in the poem itself. How do you think about life-sustaining habits that support your well-being, your interests, your enthusiasms, to move beyond mere survival?
KQ: Well first of all, I know people might have issues with this but, like, go to therapy. Handle your personal shit so that you can emerge into the writing stronger with a greater sense of who you are and what you’re capable of doing. I’ve certainly did it. I still do it. It’s super helpful! It’s a health issue. It’s like getting a check-up. So that’s number one, as a life habit, if you have access. And if you don’t have access to it, maybe researching some free resources, even through your school, like from Antioch even and saying, “Look, I need some help with this issue, do you know of any free resources?”
Also, I’ll say again, having a supportive writing community, that is non-toxic and uplifting and helps you be at your most productive.
What else… Read me the question again?
JN: I mean what you said is good! Like, “art is not the same as therapy.” Amen.
KQ: It’s not! And it doesn’t mean you can’t say what’s going on with you, but in order to have a little bit of distance to sort of elevate it beyond “this horrible thing happened to me” and to make it relevant beyond your experience, I think it takes dealing with your personal shit.
JN: I’m struck and inspired by your attentiveness to everyday things often overlooked: you wrote letters to your Fear in Fearful Beloved. You wrote a play where small and strange objects take center stage. You weave an LA tapestry through a personal but also what feels like a more collective feminine consciousness through often subtle gestures in interactions and details of outfits. Do you feel any connection to the ecstatic tradition in your love, in your attentiveness? Or what voices or directions do you feel drawn to and who do think are kindred spirits also moving to where your enthusiasms travel and dwell?
KQ: I certainly love exuberance. Muriel Rukeyser writes about it quite a bit in her book The Life of Poetry which is the first craft book I ever read. I was still in the military and just came across it in the bookstore. And she was a single parent also, so I was really inspired by her work. And she talked about the fear of poetry and that being rooted in the fear of emotion.
And I think that’s something that as a society we are still struggling with, really deeply. Like we are afraid to talk about what we feel because we are afraid people [will] use our feelings against us. But poetry demands that we talk about those feelings, deal with them, and reflect back, you know, our life choices and our thinking around very large ideas captured in these tiny snippets.
So that’s what I love about poetry, I don’t know what else to say about that. I read a lot of Rumi when I first started. I just took a Melville class: he’s super exuberant! Even though he’s super problematic! But he was doing the best he could, I guess, in the 19th century. But he had this deep exuberance and love for writing that I appreciated very much and that I appreciate in some of the newer writers that are coming up. Like, be free. Freedom! Freedom is wonderful.
JN: Shout-out to Freedom! You mention Fred Moten in an epigraph to a poem in Fearful Beloved. Both of you have a strong interest in experimental writing. What does experimental writing mean to you? Perhaps in the sense of how you both explore liberation through the improvisational space of experiment.
KQ: Yes! I love improvisation. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz too, so it just feels natural. And also, I just like to make up stuff. I don’t like having limits on what I can do, I don’t like being told how I’m supposed to do something. Sometimes constraints are delightful; I like forms too. But my interest in experiment came from wanting to do as much as possible.
JN: A lot of people reading this interview will likely be involved in literary institutional spaces at some capacity. Clearly, the literary community has been long in desperate need for swift and serious accountability so that people can feel safe, supported, believed, and overall like they can focus on being an artist. What are some of the ways you are seeing progress in institutional accountability? What are ways you wish more people would practice to help each other along the path toward a safer, more professional, and nurturing environment in institutional (and really any) spaces?
KQ: I want to see our field be more professional. That means treating people with respect, it means listening, it means if someone says, “Hey, this behavior harms me,” correcting yourself—being willing to be corrected. Not using your power to hurt other people. Letting people go to work without interfering, like can we go to work? Let’s do that.
So fun for me is a way to access completeness. It can’t just be, like, a cesspool of sadness. It can’t! I’m not gon’ make it! I have to be able to enjoy my life, what I’m doing. I need joy and fun, especially when I’m dealing with rougher aspects of the content.
I think that’s probably the work of my life: thinking about how I can just go to work without some creep harassing me or treating me badly because of my gender, race, disability, whatever it is. Can we just make room for everybody who comes to work, to work? It’s very simple.
JN: You’ve graduated from and have taught now at multiple low-res programs. What was your draw to low-res programs as a student and now as a faculty?
KQ: Well, as a student, I was working full-time and I had a kid so I couldn’t do a full residency, it just was not going to happen. For the teaching, I only teach at two, Regis and now at Antioch. Regis just asked me, and they seemed cool, so I was like sure!
And they are, they’re amazing! And the same thing with Antioch. I just like talking about poems. If they’re going to say, “Hey, you wanna come talk about poems,” pretty much I’m going to do it if I have the time to do it.
JN: Yes, I don’t know if it was you who was saying this, but I think you mentioned there is like an advantage sometimes to the way the packets work in low-res programs because of the rigor in terms of feedback on the page—or maybe that was Carol Potter…
KQ: I think that was Carol Potter. I don’t have as much experience as Carol does. It’s definitely a challenge to manage time and give students the feedback that they deserve, so I just try to organize my schedule so I do it in a period when I have that time. And hopefully they’ll be sending their stuff in on time so it don’t mess up my flow!
KQ: I love working with students, with both manuscripts and individual poems. For a long time, I worked a regular job, so I’m kinda like a newbie at this whole jam, so I just want to help people figure out what to read that will help them do what they would like to do, and share what I know in this almost twenty years of being a writer.
JN: …So you’re not really a “newbie.”
KQ: [laughs] Yes newbie to the academic side, but certainly not a newbie to poetry.
JN: It seems that you’ve had a voracious reading life. What does that look like presently, what kinds of things do you read: genres, titles, time periods, etc.?
KQ: I’m in a PhD program now, so I’m—like my brain’s going to explode, because I’m reading a lot. We had to read all of Melville’s prose…
KQ: I might have skimmed some. Such as Pierre, which was horrendous. So, yes, all of Melville. I really like the 19th Century I found out actually, because they have this interaction between race and gender and class that is very stark, but also seems to parallel like the underneath of what’s going on now. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a poet that I’ve been looking at. She wrote a poem called the “Bible Defense of Slavery”—
KQ: —which reminds me of how Sessions is trying to use the Bible to defend his actions.
JN: Yeah, what the hell?!
KQ: Ain’t nothing new under the sun, man! I love world literature. I love contemporary writers. I just bought Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen, and one of my colleagues at DU is Diana Khoi Nguyen, whose book, Ghost Of, is fucking incredible. It’s about her brother who committed suicide a few years ago and it has text with cut-outs of her brother because he cut out his picture from the family pictures before he did what he did, and so she made poems in the shape of his absence.
JN: Oh my god…
KQ: I’m saying. And I just finished reading Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and I mentioned The Work-Shy earlier… Oh, one of my favorite books I just read in the last year is Dionne Brand’s Map to the Door of No Return, which is sort of trying to reconcile ancestry that has been interrupted by the displacement of slavery, and tracing those roots across the world.
JN: Yes, Dionne Brand is awesome. In addition to your poetry, we got to hear some of the novels… Or is it a memoir, or a novel, I don’t know what to call it…
KQ: Prose? It’s prose.
JN: The prose piece! So I’m not sure how much you want to talk about that since it’s in- process, but I found it refreshing to hear about what many identify as another very male-dominated space, from your perspective. You’ve explored so many different genres. What made you want to tell that story in prose? And what strengths do you find in the other forms you’ve worked in?
KQ: I felt it was too big for poetry. I needed to tell the whole story, but, like, the multiple stories. I have written a little bit about it in Fearful Beloved but, I don’t know. That voice wasn’t going away and I started writing it a really long time ago.
I haven’t seen any military literary work by black women, so I think we need that because there are a lot of us. I think that often, just with military people in general, there’s a feeling that people don’t want to know what really happened. Like, behind that whole “thank you for your service” thing, they don’t really want to know what that service really is. So I’m just being that person saying, “This is what that service is like, in all of its nuances.”
JN: What has been bringing you joy? What do you love that you love right now?
KQ: Oh, man, I love getting my nails done! Haha, they have this new thing called powder dip! Or whatever they call it, dip powder. And it, like, it lasts forever. And it’s all sparkly and it doesn’t break. It’s so awesome. What else? Sleep. Because I’m… deprived.
JN: Somebody once—I feel like somebody tweeted this, something like, “Actually, no-sleep is the cousin of death.” And I never forgot that.
KQ: [laughs] Yes! I love naps, naps are everything. I found that when I started the PhD, that, because I was taking in so much information, I really had to sleep in order to integrate it. I don’t really have, like, traditional ideas of fun. Like, I don’t go hiking, or I don’t go skiing or do any of that. I like to go to the movies. I see the movies that I like more than once.
JN: Oh, yes, repeat viewings are important.
KQ: Like, I just re-watched Black Panther.
JN: If you’ve only seen it once, have you really seen it…
KQ: You haven’t! You really need to wait until you memorize it. And then you see it again and repeat it back to the television. I like traveling. I like hanging out with my kid. And I like talking about poems.
JN: I’m going to borrow this last question from Rachel Zucker, who hosts Commonplace.
KQ: Yes, I love her!
JN: Is there any question that no one has asked you, that you’re like, “How come no one’s asked me this yet?”
JN: I know it’s kinda strange because I’m like, “Look for what you’ve never seen…” But you seem to be good at that, so…
KQ: Yes… Hmm. One second… “How has motherhood made you a better writer?” That’s what I wish. Instead of the other question which is, “How do you do it?” I’m so over that question. But my son and my writing were basically born at the same time. So I wouldn’t be a writer, I don’t think… or I wouldn’t be the same kind of writer if I wasn’t responsible for this other human life. Thinking about creativity in terms of the kind of world I want him to live in. What kind of intellectual space I would love to present to him to be available for him to occupy.
JN: That’s really good. Yes, I feel like motherhood is kind of an under-explored, or at least really misunderstood topic in literary spaces. That whole idea that somehow you can’t do both or—
KQ: Yes, people presume it’s interfering or whatever and it—I mean, I try to think about it differently. Like it was harder for me to write prose having a kid all by myself, but some writers can do it.
I just want to put it out there that children are not an interruption. Sometimes it can be an inspiration. And however motherhood shows up in your writing life, or not at all, because that is a choice that ought to be respected as well, we do ourselves a disservice when we presume that children are burdensome to our creative output. They can exist alongside one another in beautiful ways.
JN: That’s great. Thank you so much, this was fun.
KQ: It was a pleasure.
Jordan Nakamura is a poet and serves as the graphic design lead as well as co-lead editor for poetry and visual art for Lunch Ticket. He was born and raised in Hawaii and lives in Los Angeles.
You’ve probably read David Ulin’s work in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, The Paris Review, Black Clock, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Zyzzyva, Columbia Journalism Review, The Believer, and NPR’s All Things Considered. Ulin has also been a contributor to docufilms, such as Lost LA and the upcoming Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. As a former book editor and book critic for The Los Angeles Times for ten years, Ulin has a unique perspective that takes into account the current sociological and political sphere and his place within it. In 2002, Ulin won the California Book Award for the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, on which he was an editor. He was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and most recently was awarded a 2018 Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, Texas. This year, 2018, also saw the re-release of Ulin’s 2010 book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, with a new introduction and afterword.
In addition to being a Guest Faculty member at AULA’s low-residency MFA program, Ulin is also an assistant professor of English at USC, and he also teaches in UC Riverside’s low- residency MFA in creative writing program.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with David Ulin and chat about all things writerly.
Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez: Okay. How are you this morning?
David Ulin: I’m fine and thanks for doing this in the morning, by the way. It’s always better for me to start at the beginning of the day, rather than the end so it doesn’t cut into the writing—or the non-writing—depending on what’s happening. [chuckles]
YDS: Let’s start with an easy question: What is your favorite genre to write?
DU: That’s a good question. I don’t think I have a favorite. At the moment, I primarily work in nonfiction. Although, I sort of dip in and out of other genres. It’s more of a progression. I started out as a poet. My first book was a chapbook of poems. Then, I sort of slid into fiction writing, what I thought I wanted to do. So, I did both for a long time, and then I became really interested in essay writing for a variety of reasons. I was working as a critic, and being a critic is actually being an essayist of a certain kind. The reviews I wanted to write and read most were ones that function as little essays in their own right. Then, I just became really fascinated with reading contemporary essayists and nonfiction. I wanted to play in that form. It felt like a natural move for me because the fiction I was writing was often autobiographical, and I’m very interested in personal narrative: how it is constructed, and what the relationship [of the narrative] is to actual life.
Because of the intuitive move of the essay, it reminds me of the intuitive and expressionistic flow of writing poetry. So, essay writing seems to pull in a lot of the elements that I find most exciting or attractive about fiction and poetry.
YDS: That’s interesting; I mostly write fiction and I began writing poetry when I was younger as well. But I am feeling my way into nonfiction more and more, so that really resonates with me.
The act of writing becomes an act of directed improvisation and I think the same is true when I’m writing an essay or book or a story or a poem.
DU: Yeah, you know I think we do ourselves a disservice as writers by thinking we have to do only one thing. I know plenty of writers who do one thing and do it really, really well, but there are also a lot of writers who move around [between genres], and I think sometimes the moving around can be really useful in terms of ideas that I can’t express in another way. Certain things just appear for one form, but the forms do talk to each other. It’s interesting to see how they resonate with each other.
YDS: So that transitions well into my next question: what’s your process of writing a book review versus writing a novel or story?
DU: It used to be quite different when I was starting because I felt like I had to say “this” about “this” book for “this” reason. As I continued to write reviews, though, I began to write them in much the same way I write everything else: to know as little as possible going in.
Obviously, I gather my material. If I’m writing a book review, then I’ve read the book. I’ve thought about the book, I’ve thought about my reaction to the book, and I might even have a sense of what things I might want to quote. While I’m reading, I’m taking notes or making comments in the margins or whatever, but I don’t necessarily know what the review is going to say or how I’m going to say it. The act of writing becomes an act of directed improvisation and I think the same is true when I’m writing an essay or book or a story or a poem.
In the act of writing, there’s something that triggers. Maybe it’s an incident or maybe it’s something I’ve observed. Maybe it’s something I’m thinking about or maybe it’s an issue—personal, political, or whatever—and then the writing becomes the exploration of that idea or that question. I don’t necessarily write to come up with an answer. I write to phrase a set of questions [rather than answers]. So when I started writing reviews this way was when my reviewing changed.
Going back to what I was saying earlier, I felt reviewing was about presenting a set of answers: you know, “Is this book good or bad?” “Should people buy it?” “How is this working or not?” I think those are a part of the reviewing process. If you’re reviewing for the newspapers, which is what I did for many years, you are writing an essay, but also, you’re providing a service. People are reading those reviews because they want to see what you have to say. They are also reading those reviews presumably because they’re trying to decide whether or not to put real money down and buy the book.
I think there’s something really interesting about the inquiry [of writing], so the long answer to the short question is that, at this point, the process is pretty much the same. There aren’t a bunch of things I’m thinking about. I sit down, and I just start writing to see where it takes me. Often, I’ll write a review and in the middle of it, I’ll think, “Oh, I had no idea this is where I was going to end up,” or, “I had no idea that’s what I was going to be talking about.” I’m very interested in seeing how the ideas emerge through the process of writing, rather than being predetermined beforehand.
YDS: So with this idea of process in mind, what was it like being a book editor versus being a book critic for The LA Times?
DU: It was complicated, to be honest, but I loved it. I didn’t love it all the time. I loved the work of it. I was there during a strange decade where the paper was constantly in a state of turmoil, constantly downsizing. Because I was a section editor for the first five years, I was responsible for trying to protect that section in some way. I had to figure out how to integrate [the section] into the paper at large and that came with a set of logistical challenges I hadn’t had before. Just on a pragmatic level, if they were downsizing a section, what did that mean? How much space could we get? How could I fight to keep that space? If I had half the space I used to have, how did we intend to use that space to try and have a wider range of coverage? And then, how could I use the web?
I became book editor in 2005, and web presence was pretty minimal. One of the things that I and the other editors were doing at that time was trying to build the website and build web presence. We played around with stuff, and we tried to mitigate the print space with increasing digital space, so those logistical questions were really unique to that experience and sometimes they were quite frustrating. At one point they did cut the section in half in terms of its print space so that was a difficult process. In the end, I think I was always a writing editor—I was a writer first and an editor second—so even when I was editing a section, I was writing a lot of pieces, and at a certain point, I just wanted to go back to writing. I didn’t want to be in charge anymore. I realized through that process that I don’t really love being in charge. So, when I had the opportunity to begin writing full-time as a critic it was great. I really enjoyed that, but then the other challenge of it was that the web continued to assert itself, and the paper belatedly tried to catch up on web strategy, the demand for volume. And, the amount of pieces you were supposed to write radically grew.
One reason [I left] was due to those kinds of demands. Though frankly, I felt that ten years was enough. I had done that job, and it was enough for me. I had learned what I wanted to learn from it. I think one of the important things to consider about those kinds of jobs—particularly for newspaper—is that they turn over. If you read my reviews for five years, you have a pretty good idea of who I am, where I’m coming from, and what my aesthetics are. So then, it should be somebody else’s turn, you know. That is how publications ossify, if somebody does that job for too long.
Though frankly, I felt that ten years was enough. I had done that job, and it was enough for me. I had learned what I wanted to learn from it.
YDS: So if someone were interested in becoming a book reviewer, how should they start?
DU: Well, at this point, I think I would start on the web. I think there are a lot of excellent web-based publications. I came up through alt-weekly media, like LA Reader, which doesn’t exist anymore, and LA Weekly, Village Voice. That kind of stuff. Some of those papers don’t exist anymore either. But at the time, what was great about them is that you could write, write at length, and they were always looking for stuff. You could really learn while you’re doing it, hone your chops. I would say for someone who wants to do it now, the same is available in terms of websites like The Millions or Lithub or Los Angeles Review of Books, sites like that.
Look around at those sites: see what you like, look at the outlets you like, think about what kind of stuff they’re publishing, think about whether you are doing that kind of work, and then pitch. There is a lot of opportunity on the web, there’s not a lot of money in that opportunity and that’s always the problem starting out; the paper/work ratio is, generally, pretty uneven.
In terms of getting work out and having the opportunity to learn in public, I think that’s really key because book reviewing is a kind of a public form of writing. I believe all writing is public, but book reviewing is public because nobody writes book reviews and then sits on them. I do it all the time when I write poems and stories, with no guarantee they’re going to get published. But nobody is sitting around writing book reviews for their own amusement. Well, maybe there are a few. [laughs]
YDS: It also seems like you’re more aware of your audience when you’re writing a book review than when writing for yourself.
DU: I guess we are aware that there is an audience. I mean I always tried to keep an awareness of the audience per say. Not right to the audience, but yeah, if you’re writing a review for a newspaper, you are aware that there is going to be an audience reading that review in a different way than if you’re working on a short story, or a novel, or an essay, or something like that. I mean the audience is less abstract in this case.
YDS: Does being more aware of that audience change your writing or voice in any way?
DU: You know, I don’t think so. Because once I’m in, when I’m sitting at the computer writing, I’m not aware of there being a difference at all because I’m not writing to please anybody, except hopefully myself. Again, I’m writing to kind of see what’s there and that’s the same no matter what form I’m working in.
YDS: I recently read Ear to the Ground, which you wrote with Paul Kolsby and is a really great read, by the way. I kept thinking about the process of collaboration. What was your collaboration like and how is that different than writing on your own?
DU: It’s very different than writing on your own. It’s not something I do very often, to be honest. It’s not something I love doing because I tend to be kind of solitary and I have my own sense of how things go, and I do think that writing is largely an individual process. But in this case, it worked really well. Although the book came out in 2016, it was originally published as a weekly serial novel in the Los Angeles Reader in ’95 and ’96. So, Paul and I were in our early thirties. We’d known each other since college, since we were like eighteen or nineteen, and we had collaborated in loose ways on other creative projects that were more performance oriented. He’s a playwright and we had done a radio serial drama together, like five or six years earlier. So we knew each other, we knew each other’s work. We weren’t best, best friends, but I think it’s better that we weren’t because there was less at stake in our personal relationship.
Because it was a series novel, we agreed to deliver a chapter a week for a year and it ended up running nine months because the story sort of arched in that block of time. So, this ties in with what we’ve been talking about because Paul and I had no idea where this was going to go. We had a general sense of what the arc of the story was; we knew that there was going to be the earthquake prediction and we knew how it was going to play out. We kind of mapped that out, but we didn’t know…well, we certainly didn’t know what was going to be happening in the news, and we wanted to weave that in. We didn’t necessarily know what was going to be happening with the characters and their relationships. A lot of that developed week by week. So the idea of writing a chapter a week on deadline was really daunting.
In that sense, collaboration was essential because what if I didn’t have an idea, but I still had to turn something in? With a collaborator, maybe he had an idea, or maybe I had one and he didn’t. And so the kind of interplay in the collaboration was really helpful because of the pressure of generating content at that pace. The other thing that was really useful is I’m not much of a plotter, but Paul is a great plotter. We didn’t realize this going in, but as we were working, it emerged that we kind of complimented each other. I was good on character and scene. He’s really good on big plot overview stuff. He’s funny; I’m less so. And so there was a balance that was important for the book. I think it was a really interesting and successful process.
The best evidence is that eighteen years later when we finally read it again and decided to try and publish it as a book, there were long stretches of the manuscript where I couldn’t tell who had written what. I remembered writing certain things myself. I remember certain things that Paul had written, but there were definitely stretches where both of us were like, “I don’t know, this could be either one of us.” That says to me the collaboration developed its own kind of voice, its own sensibility, which is all you can hope for. Even if there are two writers, there has to be a kind of unified voice to a narrative or else the reader doesn’t have anything to connect with. But, it was a fascinating process.
YDS: So, did you start off with one of you writing the first chapter and then the other would read that chapter and then write the next one back and forth?
DU: Yeah, the original idea was exactly that. One of us was going to be the writer every other week, right? And we would alternate, but then of course things happened. So Paul, at that time, was traveling a bunch, and I had a six month old son—my oldest—which is always, always a distraction. So there were things coming up where I couldn’t do it or he couldn’t do it, or I would direct three in a row or vice versa. So it became more fluid and flexible just because of life. The original plan, which we did sort of stick to for a while and kind of kept coming back to, was that we would alternate as a lead writer. If it was my job, then Paul would go through them. We would then get together and go over the revised version, and then do a final draft of it.
I think we probably ran through about half that way. Most chapters were 900 words long, but we did these three sort of pillar chapters that were much longer, that ran as cover stories. Those were about 3,500 words long each. We started with one of those. We had one in the middle and one at the end. That was a different process because we worked on them for a longer time, obviously, and they became a key way for us to make really big plot moves.
YDS: That’s a great example of process. I recently read an article you wrote for The LA Times back in 2009, “The Lost Art of Reading,” which seemed to be a precursor to the book.
DU: Yes, in fact, there would be no book without that article.
YDS: One of the main ideas, in the article and the book, is that the reason for the decline in reading for the average person is due to social media culture and our political climate and a sense of immediacy we increasingly desire. With that in mind and thinking of new types of storytelling—audiobooks, podcasts, etc.—do you think that these things influence or alter that type of mentality when it comes to reading?
DU: That’s a good question. I think everything that involves storytelling—with every storytelling medium or mechanism—affects the way we interact with and engage in storytelling. Just as a quick example, let’s look at Madame Bovary. In a lot of ways you could call it the first modern novel because it’s describing a modern sensibility, right? Middle-class bourgeois people. This is the first time you see this in fiction: people with a little bit too much time and money on their hands and the boredom that it provokes. It was very modern when it came out, with its morality moving away from traditional morality. Published in 1857, right? When the Bovary’s get chased out of town and move to another place, Flaubert introduces the second town with a five-page set piece, where he basically sets up the location before they ever get there. You can’t do that in a book in a novel anymore. I don’t think our attention spans are wired to put up like that. We want to cut to the chase. If that novel had been written a hundred years later, chances are he would have adapted cinematic strategy like jump cuts. We no longer expect a novelist to ease us through transitions, but we can move through these kinds of abrupt transitions because we have internalized the vernacular of film just by virtue of the society we’re living in. Even if you don’t go to movies or aren’t a big movie person, we understand how that transition works in a way that 100 years ago or 150 years ago it would have been beyond our ability to imagine.
It’s the same thing with the Impressionists when they first were shown in the late 1800s and they were attacked because people couldn’t process what they were seeing. Whereas now you look at an impressionist painting and it looks like a realist painting. I think as a species we evolved our ability to appreciate various forms of expression and narrative as those forms come up and teach us new ways of thinking. And I think audiobooks are a great example. I think film is a great example. And I think video games are a kind of narrative mechanism, of digital storytelling, multimedia. All of these kinds of things have changed the way we interact. I’m interested in all of that stuff.
When the Bovary’s get chased out of town and move to another place, Flaubert introduces the second town with a five-page set piece, where he basically sets up the location before they ever get there. You can’t do that in a book in a novel anymore.
What I was primarily trying to write about in The Lost Art, at least in that second edition with new material, was really about distraction and the fact that someone like me, who was an avid lifelong reader of hundreds and hundreds of pages a week, was now having trouble reading. This must mean that there was a kind of epidemic of having trouble reading. The reason the book grew out of that essay was because the essay got tons of response. Mostly people would write me to say, “Thanks, I thought I was the only one.” Then a publisher asked me if I would be interested in thinking about this as a book.
There’s a lot of political stuff in the book because there was a lot of political stuff going on at the time. In terms of the current crisis, it was just beginning with the tea party and Sarah Palin and all of that. Although, the roots go back much further, and we weren’t using phrases like “fake news,” but that level of lying was already part of the public discourse. One of the reasons it was working was because people were either too distracted or uninformed to know what the truth was. In that sense the political climate was sort of a subtext to the book. It was really a question about distraction and how we combat distraction. So it is a book about reading, but in a lot of ways reading becomes a metaphor for slowing down, for critical thinking, or for quieting our minds enough to be able to hear somebody else’s voice and engage with it. I really feel this is something that we have lost to our collective detriment. If we were able to actually sit and process information collectively as a culture and think about what it meant and then ask questions about it, we’d be a lot better off.
But the speed of everything and the soundbite quality of the Internet as an information source has created an environment where we are basically conditioned just to react. Just hit a button and read something and our immediate responses are like, “Yeah” or, “Fuck you”. And we’d never really get beyond that. And so I saw that happening in me, and I wanted to explore it.
YDS: I used to soak up books when I was young. Then I got into grad school and I was having the hardest time concentrating. So when I read the article and book it started to click. This sense of immediacy. I teach at a community college and I see it now with students and trying to get them to read.
DU: That’s absolutely right. I’ve noticed it more lately, and certainly since the election, as affecting writing. You know, on a big news day, I’m constantly interrupting my own writing to go see what’s going on, even though if I waited an hour, I’d be just as outraged, or weirded out or disgusted or horrified or whatever. But it feels like if I don’t know immediately, it’s like I will lose further control. And as I was saying earlier, writing is kind of about giving up control or losing control or seeing what happens when you let go.
Yet at the same time, the political environment and social environment is so chaotic and so disruptive of our impulses that we need to know everything that’s happening, so we can at least preserve the illusion that we have some control over what’s happening, even though we don’t. And so I find myself constantly caught between those two poles. Even when I’m writing, things that would’ve taken me a couple of hours—five years ago—now takes me all day, and things that would’ve taken me a day now takes me a week because I’m constantly pulling myself out of the writing and putting my head back into the real world.
YDS: That puts it into perspective. And speaking of reading, what are you currently reading?
DU: I am about to read a biography of the architect Philip Johnson, that a friend of mine wrote, which I’m curious about. I’m reading Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets from my Past and Future Assassins, which I think is completely remarkable. And I’m reading a book by Patrick Modiano, the French Nobel Prize winner, called Sleep of Memory, which is the first book he’s written since he won the Nobel. He’s a writer I’m really interested in because his work is so spare and minimal and also heavily memory-influenced. And so those are really important, at least in terms of what I do.
I’m about to start reading the last book by Canadian writer Helen Weinzweig. She’s a novelist, a short story writer. She lived into her eighties and died a number of years ago, but she wrote three books, starting when she was in her late fifties. I stumbled across the first book and I fell in love with it. I’m about to start reading her last book, A View from the Roof, a collection of shorts.
The other book I’ve been spending a lot of time with this summer is The Years by a French writer named Annie Ernaux. It’s a memoir that does not use first person singular, which I find absolutely fascinating. Basically, she’s trying to write her own story through the collective story of her generation. She uses a lot of first-person plural and she uses some third-person. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. It’s fascinating. I’m always looking for writers who are doing something that I haven’t seen or something vivid and compelling, particularly with voice because I do a lot of first-person writing and I’m curious about how to strip the “I” out of first-person writing.
YDS: You mentioned a new edition of The Lost Art of Translation is coming out soon, what else are you working on at the moment?
DU: I am working on a few things. I don’t normally talk about works in progress, but I will say the main project I’m working on, which I’m pretty well into, is a memoir that’s been kind of fascinating for all the reasons we were talking about in terms of a voice in narrative, of memory and storytelling, of the slipperiness of truth. I don’t really believe in truth. I believe in subjective truth, but I don’t really believe in our ability to comprehend objective truth. Different versions of stories—how the story can exist in different versions depending on who’s telling them—all that stuff fascinates me.
YDS: I look forward to reading that. Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give a working writer?
DU: Well, I’ve given this advice before, and I’ll give it again until I’m dead and can’t give advice anymore: don’t listen to anybody who tells you you can’t do it. As writers, once [you] declare yourself as a writer, everybody has advice and at least half of that is, “You’ll never be able to do this, so figure out something else to do.” And I don’t think it’s meant to be cruel. I mean, sometimes it is, but I think it’s meant to be practical. You’re going to spend your life doing this thing where there’s no money and it’s hard. So why, right?
Well, obviously, the drive is internal. So if you’re offered that advice and you listen to that advice, then you were probably not a writer to begin with. I say, “Be stubborn.” Everybody has their own sense of what good work is. It’s a completely subjective landscape. And if you believe, then don’t let somebody else convince you not to believe. There’s always going to be the opportunity to walk away. And if that’s what you want to do, by all means, you should definitely walk away. It’s hard work. But if you really feel that you’re a writer, don’t take anybody’s negative advice. Just be stubborn and keep your head down and show up to work. And work, work everyday.
All the writers I know are people who just never got up from the chair. They sit down everyday—or most days—and do their work. Maybe the work is good that day. Or maybe the work is bad that day. It doesn’t matter. They don’t get too high from the good work. They don’t get too low from the bad work. They sit down and do it again every day. It’s work. I don’t want to make it totally pragmatic: there are a whole bunch of really interesting, “soulful” things that happen when you’re creating, when you’re being creative. But also, this work, it’s actual practical hard work. You’ve got to show up to the job every day. There will always be people telling you negative stuff, and you gotta get those voices out of your head. Do whatever it takes to do that.
YDS: That’s really great advice. Thank you so much for that, and thank you for talking with Lunch Ticket.
DU: Well, I appreciate your questions and your close reading of the work. That really means a lot, so thank you for that.
Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez is an English and composition instructor and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University. She is also an assistant editor of fiction and guest blogger for Lunch Ticket. In addition to teaching, Yvonne likes to think she holds the following titles as well: Singer of Bedtime Stories, Maker of Dreams, Believer in the Future, Self-healer in Progress, Wearer of Heart-on-Sleeve, Organizer of Books & Toys, Imbiber of Words, and Humble Writer Whose Work is Wholly Cast from a Bronze Heart. She currently resides in the Central Valley with her husband and three daughters.
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