Jimmy Santiago Baca, Author

Jimmy BacaJimmy Santiago Baca was born in New Mexico of Indio-Mexican descent. He is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Immigrants In Our Own Land, published in 1979, the same year Baca was released from prison. Other poetry titles include Healing Earthquakes (2001), C-Train & 13 Mexicans (2002), Winter Poems Along the Rio Grande (2004), and Spring Poems Along the Rio Grande (2007).  In 2015, his retrospective collection Singing At the Gates was published and features over four decades of Baca’s work. He is the winner of the Pushcart Prize, the American Book Award, and the International Hispanic Heritage Award. He was awarded the 2006 Cornelius P. Turner Award for his memoir A Place to Stand, which has inspired a new documentary and educational initiative. Baca has devoted his post-prison life to writing and teaching others.

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The first time I saw the name Jimmy Santiago Baca was in 1991, on the pink title page of a film script that read: Blood In. Blood Out. Screenplay by Jimmy Santiago Baca.

Directed by Academy Award winner Taylor Hackford (aka Helen Mirren’s husband), much of the film was shot on location in San Quentin. It was scheduled for release in the spring of ’92—that is, until the Los Angeles riots broke out. A scared studio, uncomfortable with gang and Mexican mafia themes, renamed it Bound By Honor and watched it tank at the box office. But Baca’s powerful work, based on his own life experiences, rose to unexpected heights. It went viral long before there was social media, sinking deep into the cultural consciousness of the Chicano community, while resonating with diverse audiences across the country and the globe. It enjoys cult classic status to this day.

In 2013, it was another film project that led me to discover Jimmy Santiago Baca, the poet. Daniel Glick, a young filmmaker was producing a documentary version of Baca’s award-winning memoir, A Place to Stand. A trailer for the film begins with prison images and supers that read: In 1973, Jimmy Santiago Baca was sentenced to Arizona State Prison. He was sentenced to a life without meaning or hope. Until he created his own.

5167oJBCQoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Baca was 21 when he entered prison, sentenced to over five years on drug related charges. Abandoned by his parents, he had already spent much of his life living on the street, and was functionally illiterate. Against all odds, and in defiance of a prison board that rejected his request for education, Baca taught himself to read and write. He sent poems to respected literary journals, got them published, and began a dialogue with the world from his cell. His first chapbook was released before he was.

A few years ago, inspired by Baca’s memoir and poetry, I arranged for a conversation* between Baca and my husband, Carlos Carrasco, the actor who played Blood In Blood Out’s quintessential bad guy, Popeye. Carlos asked Jimmy to recount his journey into writing. The specific question was: “How did you do it?”  It wasn’t the first time Baca had been asked this question, and it wouldn’t be the last.

As I prepared for this Lunch Ticket interview, I thought about asking, “How did you do it?” yet again, but Baca’s original response, transcribed below, captures it all:

Jimmy Santiago Baca: Generally speaking, when someone speaks about how did you come into this craft?—they’re speaking institutional or systematic approaches. ‘Well my mom took me to my first poetry reading,’ or ‘my father got me signed up at Sarah Lawrence College for poetry classes’ or ‘my girlfriend gave me this book.’ Americans in a great many ways are spoiled. So if you ask a man who cannot read or write in a prison cell in Chile and you give him some charcoal and he doesn’t know how to write and he knows that he will die tomorrow—he’s under the duress of dying tomorrow—he will phonetically make out his sounds on the wall: Love. I Love you my daughter—However that might be spelled on the wall … it will be done. And people will say:

How did you learn how to do that? I mean you only had a day?

Well, I was going to die tomorrow and I had to send out a note to somebody that I loved them.

Like black people have soul or Europeans have the muse, Spanish people have duende—it’s that place that transforms you from a body being into a spiritual being.

In other words, the time frame is not adjudicated by pampering. It’s adjudicated by this will be my last time to speak. So how did I learn grammar in the space of three months from not knowing anything about English?—Except functional words like: Stop. Go. Food. Love. Hate. I couldn’t really understand putting together a sentence. How did I get that? I got it because of necessity.  I was involved in situations where I was going to kill somebody and somebody was going to kill me. I don’t know how I got myself caught up in that. The second I stepped in the prison somebody tried to stab me I stabbed back. Next thing I know, there’s a death warrant for me and I wanted to tell my grandmother I love you but I don’t know how to write:

I will learn how to tell you I love you by tomorrow noon. I will learn how to do this.

And I took the book and I took the dictionary and I looked at it and there was nothing between me and that—there was no world, there was no house, there was no payment—there was only [the dictionary and the book} and me. And combined [that] created a third principle of god and with that kind of triangle—any thing is possible. Anything. Anything. This idea that “how did you do it?” is basically saying that we are so pampered that it takes us four years to learn that. How did you do it? That is such a pampered question.

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This past February, I caught up with Baca by phone and, over the course of a few days, he took time from his writing and other responsibilities to answer questions about his past and provide perspective on all of our futures.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco: You learned to read and write in prison and that’s also where you found poetry. What do you consider your earliest influences? When do you first remember hearing poetry?

I was four years old and there was a certain balance to the water, to the weather, to the seasons, there was a certain balance to everything that gave me a sort of lyrical harmony … that was poetry. There was a sense that there was a divine balance in things.

JSB: The first reference I can remember, I guess I have to go all the way back to nature because, in nature, I responded immediately to the harmony. I instinctively understood that everything was in balance. I was living with my grandmother when I was four years old and there was a certain balance to the water, to the weather, to the seasons, there was a certain balance to everything that gave me a sort of lyrical harmony … that was poetry. There was a sense that there was a divine balance in things. I kind of knew that and participated in it, very, very early. I was blown away—by the waters, by the snows, and the wind. The wind had a certain charm to it. It had a certain voice and I would listen to the wind almost every single day on the prairie. It had a beautiful voice that spoke to me. If you contrast that to the sounds that came from my extended family—my aunts and uncles and such. Their sounds, of course, were—if they were drinking and fighting and stuff—their sounds were violent sounds. And I was very aware of those sounds. I was very aware of the sounds of sorrow. I was aware of the sounds of misery.

Then, of course, there was my grandmother. I would go to church with my grandmother when I was four and there was this beautiful sound of the bell in Mass, the sound of all these old people praying together in unison. […] The sounds in church mixed with the sounds in nature without forcing one upon the other, they sort of blended and merged into this chorus of divine welcome. I felt extremely welcome in those sounds when I was a child. Then there were also the sounds of silence. The sounds of silence were overwhelming. We spent long days that extended into weeks and extended into months and I became extremely familiar and intimate with silence. And silence had a sweet voice to it—it accommodated the leaves on trees, it accommodated the dust, it accommodated the dogs barking. Silence was this extraordinary piece of paper on which the world wrote its songs.

Then of course I went from there to the orphanage, and the orphanage had an orchestra of sounds that also blended into the sort of music that got me intoxicated. We had the choir that I sang in. We had the beautiful music of cows out in the fields. […] Everything seemed to have music to it when I was young….

jimmy_baca_poster_preview-6RNC: Did you access that music in prison – was it stored in you?

JSB: Oh yeah—definitely the memories recalibrated themselves to become resources for me while I was in confinement. I knew love and I knew what friendship was and I knew what health was, through the ways that silence offered its music to me. I knew the world through its music, and its music was not fabricated in studios where musicians cut their albums, but more—it was the music of everyday common life. It was the music of animals and the music of nature—and I very much heard it and I metabolized it and it became part of my bodily organs. The music became a cellular package that I carried with me in my body as I grew.

RNC: You started reading poets like Byron and Coolidge in prison. In your memoir, A Place to Stand, you wrote about stealing your first book from someone, almost out of spite.

JSB: [The poetry books] belonged to the desk clerk. She was going to college. That was one of her classes. Once I got a grasp of grammar, I went searching for books. There were books laying everywhere, all over inside these prison cells in county jails. I got books wherever I could find them.

RNC: I won’t ask you how you did it, but I do want to understand what you think drives a person like you, maybe someone in prison today. Is the drive to read and write a primal urge?

JSB: You have to have a reason. People who become eloquent—there’s a drive behind their eloquence, there’s a reason behind it. And a lot of kids grow up to learn language and to learn grammar without having any experience built in them that gives them a reason to express themselves. Almost immediately, once you get out of pre-school, when you’re in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th [grades] in school, there’s a big emphasis on reading books to kids. That happens, and kids are so interested in [books] because they want to use language to explore their experience. But at some point during your time in school, experience is diminished to mean nothing and soon language becomes an instrument—so that you can use it to get yourself a good job. You can use language to get yourself an A-plus. You can use language so that you can hide your secrets.

Nature taught me how to use language to balance myself.

In its orchestra of sounds there was such harmony and balance I guess I picked that up and I learned how to balance my sorrows with my joy. I learned how to balance my fear with my fearlessness. I learned how to balance my solitude with my silence. Language became an incredible tool for me to deal with balancing my world in a very, very imbalanced society.

You can use language so that you don’t express yourself—and people begin to use language for all the wrong reasons. They use language so they can close down their personal experience and [close down] expressing their dreams and their sorrows and their hurts and their disappointments. They begin to use language to cover up and conceal all those emotions—so it becomes aborted—so language doesn’t really have a drive in it anymore. Just like a tool, like a wrench or a screwdriver. When you use it, you’re using it for a purpose. […] Language is used to delineate logical occurrences during your day, but it’s no longer sacred. It’s no longer used to express your divine sentiments, your talking with God, your feelings that are embedded deep in your bones, that are going to help you spiritually find a place in the world that gives you balance. I think the language of nature came to me very early on and people keep asking me how did you do it? How did you do it? And I guess my response to that was that nature taught me how to use language to balance myself. In its orchestra of sounds there was such harmony and balance I guess I picked that up and I learned how to balance my sorrows with my joy. I learned how to balance my fear with my fearlessness. I learned how to balance my solitude with my silence. Language became an incredible tool for me to deal with balancing my world in a very, very imbalanced society.

RNC: You’re a world traveler. Is there a difference between the way poetry, or the poet, is valued in the U.S. versus in other countries?

416f3FtEu0L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_JSB: It’s really simple. In America we value possessions. In other parts of the world they value experience. And experience translates into stories. People all over the world still value their stories. In America we value possessions. We would much rather talk about a new car than talk about a story that happened between grandfather and me. We’d much rather get on the computer and play video games and enact some cataclysmic epic than to talk about the epics in our own lives. People cling to their old traditions in other countries. They place a lot more value on their stories than we do in this country. […] Reading poetry in other countries is part of every day life. Reading poetry in America is only at the university level and in the classroom. It’s not part of life. It’s part of the lesson plan. Students really excel when they take poetry out of the classroom and apply it to their lives—they really excel when they have answers taken from poetry books to their problems. They become richer people, much richer and they’re a lot nicer to be around, you just want to be around them when you have somebody that can solve some dilemma that you’re experiencing by referring to a poem—poetry has a way of speaking to you that’s directly connected to your deepest recesses in your heart and in your memory, and those are very valuable places that we inhabit specifically to make us human beings. So the question to really ask is: When will you become a human being again? How long will it take you after school to become a human being? When did you leave your human beingness behind? What grade did you stop becoming a human being?

RNC: What about Latino poets? Does culture impact craft?

JSB: Chicano people in particular have a gift called “corazon”—they have this thing called corazon and it’s extremely hard to define. It’s like it would be kind of difficult to define “black soul”—like black people have soul or Europeans have the muse, Spanish people have duende—it’s that place that transforms you from a body being into a spiritual being. I think that Chicano people are more apt and readily prepared to understand and experience poetry. I think they’re more willing to cross that line of fear because fear comes to different people in different ways. There are as many fears, types of fears, textures of fears, as there are snowflakes. And I think that Chicano people in particular have never given away their corazon. They’ve never given away that beautiful lesson that they’ve been given. […] All of our experience is imbued with a certain poetic essence and I think we come born prepared to embrace that poetic essence.

RNC: Writers of color engaged in MFA programs and other learning scenarios are often subjected to microagressions and other non-productive styles of communication and feedback from students and teachers. How do you believe this can be addressed?

JSB: Teachers have to be trained. They don’t have enough training in the make up of what America is and they’re taught to fear anything that’s different. Their knowledge is so limited to the book, and most books don’t embrace the experience of people of color.  That becomes a real problem, because when a teacher comes in and teaches a group of kids to open their hearts up to their own lives and their own experiences and to learn to express what they have been fearful of expressing before—I mean when you create a classroom, you’re supposed to create a classroom where it becomes a community of people who trust each other, not tease each other, not jeer at each other, not mock each other, not make fun of each other, as is the case today. If some kid in a classroom today gets a failing grade, the rest of the students will look down on that particular student and make fun of that student as being stupid or dumb. When, in fact, that kid has to go home and there’s no food at home, his mother’s shooting up meth, his father’s doing heroin and drinking alcohol. There are some very serious problems and what we are basically teaching the students in class is you just have to stop caring about those kids and move on—and the teacher is the one who fosters that sort of indifference.

What we have to do is get teachers to foster empathy and through empathy we can open experiences that have not heretofore been allowed in the classroom. […] Enlightenment is what we need—young, brave teachers who are enlightened. So many teachers are coming to the classroom so ill prepared it has basically destroyed the educational system—because students don’t want to become robots. They inherently want to take what’s good about them and develop it into something they can contribute to society—and that’s the very thing that ill prepared teachers close down. […]

Enlightenment is what we need — young, brave teachers who are enlightened.

So many teachers are coming to the classroom so ill prepared it has basically destroyed the educational system—because students don’t want to become robots. They inherently want to take what’s good about them and develop it into something they can contribute to society—and that’s the very thing that ill prepared teachers close down.

As it is today, when you have a teacher walk into a classroom, her job, his job is to throw the student out of her own story—eject the student out of their own narrative—and that’s to say: your particular experience does not matter. What matters is that we all pass this test together and we move on to the next grade. But you have to pass the test. So, I’m going to have to throw you out of your story, because your story is insignificant compared to the story I’m about to tell you. The story of your success means you have to get A’s, you have to graduate, you have to go to college, you have to become somebody without ethics or morality and join some business, some institution where your experience still is not needed. So consequently what happens is we grow a population of people who are only really educated in taking orders from their bosses. They’ll do anything they have to do in order to please the boss because it is the same thing as pleasing the teacher. You won’t be betrayed if you do a good job of it. You’ll be praised, and you’ll go to any expense to get that praise. If that means creating a Holocaust situation where guards don’t question their superiors: ‘… are you seriously going to kill these people? And you want me to go ahead and do this?’ And they say yes. That’s exactly the kind of person they cultivated in Germany. The kind of student they cultivated in Germany was one who only took orders and obeyed them. And today, no matter where you look in society, you hear the same replay over and over and over …. No matter where you go that there’s inequity you hear, “I’m only doing my job,” and that’s to say: I’m only doing what my superiors tell me to do—and that’s learned early in the classroom.

RNC: What does success look like for Jimmy Santiago Baca?

JSB: The success I think I have is that my kids are capable of loving, and capable of having great confidence and self esteem, and they’re capable of empathy and compassion—that’s success as a father.

We go to these infinitesimally small altars and we pray before the spark and we hope to carry that spark in the fiercest storms and keep it lit. And that’s really what the poet’s journey is—it’s to keep the spark lit. Carry it like an Olympic torch.

Success as a writer is that I have purposely gone out of my way to shy away from letting these major celebrity machines take over and package me as something to the country that I’m not. What’s happened is that, when I say no to something, most of the people around me say you made a terrible mistake saying no: saying no to being on national TV, saying no to being on National Public Radio, saying no to all these major media outlets that could really send my name out into the world and up book sales by hundreds of thousands. They say you’re not taking advantage of the media and the power that they have. And I say, no. Maybe I made a mistake, but maybe I didn’t. I’m just not going that way. I have faith in people’s word of mouth— they read a book and they tell someone else about it—and as of this date, not one of my books has gone out of print.  All 26 books, or however many I have, they all continue to be published,[…] more and more people talk about them, more and more teachers. It’s taken an awful long time for teachers to come around, but it seems like teachers are really getting it now. A Place to Stand is in the top 50 memoirs and biographies—it’s above Whitman, it’s above Angela’s Ashes. It’s one of the best selling memoirs in the U.S. for the last two years now. It inspired an award winning documentary that just got released nationally. But it took time for the teachers to get it. The way the machine runs, it’s their job not only to promote certain writers but also to exclude others. If they want to get someone that’s more palatable to the populist they’ll get someone like Solzhenitsyn,[…] or some imprisoned writer in China and say, look they imprisoned this writer in Russia or in China. […] Accept it to say that we have writers in America that should be read. But they’re not, because we don’t want to admit that we put political writers in prison. It’s a whole other ball game and the publishers are not quite ready to engage.

RNC: Is there a path to poetry, let’s say a path for aspiring poets today?

JSB: The path to poetry has always been the same. You simply wash away all the clutter in your life, just wash it all away and get down [to business]. Poetry is all about the basics of breathing and eating, loving, being trustworthy. It’s all about the same basic things that happened to people two million years ago or whenever. It’s all about the creative spark that has to exist between you and your own God, you and your own mind, and between you and other people. It has to be about your nurturing that creative spark in you and keeping it going and then from there it will take you on your own unique journey.

It’s not about the awards and the accolades and the ten best books of the year. It’s not about exoticizing—everybody wants to make this exotic—Oh, so and so’s in Italy today and Oh, so and so is translating a new book. It has nothing to do with that and it has everything to do with honoring and nurturing the spark that inhabits words. We go to these infinitesimally small altars and we pray before the spark and we hope to carry that spark in the fiercest storms and keep it lit. And that’s really what the poet’s journey is—it’s to keep the spark lit. Carry it like an Olympic torch. Except, you’re not going to carry it to these big events. You’re going to carry it to the smallest, smallest, smallest occurrences in your life—and there it will illuminate some secret truth that’s so necessary for people to enjoy life—and it seems like almost everything that we encounter on a daily basis takes away from that spark.

*For the entire conversation between Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carlos Carrasco, click here.

Newman_jpg copy_ResizedBorn on a small island near Puerto Rico called Manhattan, Rochelle credits her Lower East Side roots with her love of culture, humor, and language. She lives in Los Angeles, has over three decades of U.S. Hispanic marketing experience, and is a recent Antioch MFA graduate. She holds a BFA in theatre from UC Irvine. Her work has appeared in Lilith Magazine, Role Reboot, haikuniverse, NAILED, Advertising Age, and Lunch Ticket.

Stephen Chbosky, Author

Steven ChboskyFeeling classically teenaged and outcasted in my freshman year of high school, I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)—an epistolary novel by Stephen Chbosky, narrated by a young boy named Charlie. On the first day of school that year, I’d eaten lunch in a bathroom stall. Over the next ten months, I endured my first heartbreak, received a failing grade on a report card, and attended a football game at which I recognized only three boys from my school bus. I skipped school to drink alcohol at a stranger’s house and, par for the course of a freshman, nobody invited me to prom. I wore braces in my yearbook photo. On Perks’s narrator Charlie’s first day of high school, he was alienated by his middle school friends after he fist fought a classmate and cried afterwards. Over that year, he performed shirtless in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, experimented with LSD and marijuana, and stood in the bed of a truck driving through a tunnel. He read twelve books recommended by his English teacher, Bill, and accompanied his older sister to an abortion clinic. He dated a girl who talked too much. And at the end of the year, while in bed with his crush, Sam, Charlie’s deeply repressed memory of sexual abuse bubbled up, causing him to spiral into a deep depression.

As I write this, I am reflecting on the knowledge and experience attained over the twelve years since I first read Perks. But when I was fifteen, the novel was something else entirely: it was larger. The Perks of Being a Wallflower handles subjects like rape, homosexuality, and depression with both naivety and grace. Charlie is our trusted, wide-eyed narrator, who is advised by Sam that “You can’t just sit there and put everyone’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love” (200). The novel is an honest and, at times, heartbreaking coming-of-age story, one that closely mirrors the high school experiences of its author, Chbosky, and strangely—perhaps even unintentionally—helped me to feel less alone. In Charlie, I had a friend. I scribbled the novel’s most memorable lines in spiral notebooks. My daily mantra was, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” I cried when Charlie felt infinite, arms outstretched, the quote-unquote perfect song playing over the truck’s speakers.

Perks was the first time I saw myself in a novel. I’m not unique in this—in the seventeen years since its publication, Perks has developed something of a cult following. During his reading at Antioch University’s December 2015 residency, Chbosky shared one of countless letters he’s received from his readers, this one from a young girl who had contemplated suicide before reading Perks in one sitting. She thanks Chbosky for saving her life.

Since 1999, Chbosky has gone on to write the scripts for Rent (2005) and Beauty and the Beast (2017), as well as write, direct, and produce the screen adaptation of Perks (2012). He is at work on a novel, one whose details he’s keeping hushed.

I interviewed Stephen Chbosky over a barbeque chicken sandwich (for him) and, thanks to crippling nerves, ice water (for me) in Antioch University’s courtyard in December 2015 during the MFA program’s winter residency.

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I was troubled at the time—I didn’t understand why so many good people let themselves get treated so badly, including me, including the people I loved. And in creating Charlie, I created a character that I thought so deserved great things to happen, so when bad things did happen to Charlie, there was no metric that said that he deserved it. And seeing that, it helped set me free.

Lyndsay Hall: Once in an interview, you said you wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower for deeply personal reasons and that you saw the world the way Charlie did. What’s the experience of writing a fictional story you’re so close to and invested in?

Stephen Chbosky: It’s hard to talk about the experience because at the time I was so invested in living the moment that I didn’t think about it in terms of historical experience. I was just a kid. I was a young person living in New York City, broke, writing a book. Like many, many, many, many, many, many, many others. And what I found in the process of writing the book was a great catharsis. I was troubled at the time—I didn’t understand why so many good people let themselves get treated so badly, including me, including the people I loved. And in creating Charlie, I created a character that I thought so deserved great things to happen, so when bad things did happen to Charlie, there was no metric that said that he deserved it. And seeing that, it helped set me free.

LH: How did you maintain distance, or did you not?

SC: I didn’t bother. I’m from Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh motto should be, “walk it off.” Keeping a distance is built into how I approach things. Now, that’s not to say that I don’t become incredibly emotional—I do when I write. I could almost be like a method actor doing it. However, when the emotional moment is over, if what poured out of me was sentimental treacle, then I would call it such and try to revise it.

LH: I read Perks for the fourth or fifth time just recently, in one sitting, nearly seventeen years after its 1999 publication. Immediately I was pulled back there; I was in high school, crying over lines like, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” and “Things change. And friends leave. And life doesn’t stop for anybody.” I wondered, now in my late twenties, whether I ever did or ever will outgrow my inner-Charlie. How does it feel to have written a novel that not only stands the test of time, but also resonates so deeply for those outside its original target audience?

SC: I’m very proud of that because, I said I wrote it for personal reasons, but when you publish a book you hope people like it, you hope people connect to it. What I found is truly awe-inspiring and humbling. The letters I’ve received, the people who’ve reached out to me, the careers that were changed, along with the destinies found, it’s a remarkable position to be in, and it never ceases to inspire me.

“You publish in part to help end the silence, whether that silence is about rape or incest or violence or drugs or homosexuality, or anything that society sweeps under the rug.

When you’re standing in front of the crowd and you’ve just had a reading, and you look out—there’s so many ways to look at a crowd like that. There are some people who wish there were more people, and that’ll be their one takeaway. And there are others who will be like, “thank God there were as many people as there were.” And there are other people that look out at the crowd and say, “Okay. Everyone in this audience has read my book, has an entire life destiny, loves, heartbreaks, triumphs, and if you connect all of those people through any cognitive experience, whether it’s a book or sports team or country or patriotism or whatever, you’re describing unity.” What I see from my vantage point is an inspiring level of healing, an inspiring level of passion, an inspiring level of artistry.

LH: Why do you think Perks still holds up, all these years later?

SC: I think what has helped the book, and I did this deliberately, was I tried to the best of my ability to not make it of its own era. In other words, I wasn’t writing a ’90s book. I did my best to disguise it. Even though it says 1991, so you know there is some pop culture that is dated, it was not about [the era]. I wanted to write about a young person’s love of music, not the specific bands. Specific bands don’t really matter; it’s the love. That’s eternal. I concentrated on universal experiences that most people have. In the book I did it unconsciously, the movie I did it consciously.

LH: How did you know you had to write Perks, and how did you decide to write it the way you did?

SC: I loved the title, I loved the idea of the character, I loved the three friends, I loved the tunnel, and I loved the general tone. How did I know to write it? I didn’t really know. I just had to write it. Some things you just have to write. Then you let time decide if it was any good or not for other people. It was great for me. And if nobody read it, you know, it would be a disappointment, but I’d still say, “God, I thought I wrote a really good book there.”

I didn’t choose it because it was epistolary; I didn’t even know what that word meant. I didn’t choose it because I thought it was catchy. I wasn’t guessing any market. For me, it was the most authentic voice to tell that story.

In terms of the form, I love the letter format because it felt very intimate with the reader. I didn’t choose it because it was epistolary; I didn’t even know what that word meant. I didn’t choose it because I thought it was catchy. I wasn’t guessing any market. For me, it was the most authentic voice to tell that story. The point of view was exactly right. I would look at really great coming of age novels written in first person and I would always ask myself, why am I reading this? How did I, the reader, get this in my hands? There’s a built-in façade; somehow I have access to these people’s brains. The letters made it more real to me that there was a way every reader could’ve been reading this.

LH: Perks broached topics my household never discussed—rape, sexual abuse, homosexuality—and emotions that plagued me in my adolescence. While Perks is so widely admired, it has also been challenged because of its sexual content and outright banned in some school districts. Meanwhile, I teach creative writing, and I recommend this book to all of my teenaged students. I can answer this for myself, but why do you believe teenagers need this book?

SC: I wrote the book for personal reasons, as I said. But you publish it in part to help end the silence, whether that silence is about rape or incest or violence or drugs or homosexuality, or anything that society sweeps under the rug. Teenagers need respect. Teenagers need truth. Teenagers need somebody to talk straight to them, and they also need someone to listen straight to them. It’s all about respect. If I’d written about all of these topics in an exploitative way, it would’ve been horrible. If I had swept them under the rug, it would’ve been irresponsible. I am never going to say people need my book because that would sound very arrogant, but I will say all young people need their experiences and their truths and their feelings validated.

LH: How do you respond to the censorship of Perks in some school districts?

SC: Censorship is, by design, a silence. Let’s say a school district forced a student to read a book against their religious or moral beliefs. I’d be the first person to say the school district should not do that, because there are some people who don’t want to deal with the stuff at all and they should be respected. I believe that. But in the same sense, I don’t understand why people are meddling in what other people read. It doesn’t do any good. At the end of the day, censorship is silence and silence is more pain.

LH: Your background is in screenwriting. You wrote the screen adaptation of the play Rent, as well as the forthcoming live-action film, Beauty and the Beast. How is your process different for writing screenplays versus a novel?

SC: It’s different in that there are so many more people involved in a movie. You have several editors, which is, I would say most of the time, a great thing. Occasionally it’s a tough thing to navigate because you have different opinions around you. [The process is] faster, more furious, and far less forgiving. Movies are like a haiku poem. You have a very brief amount of time to say something that you hope will connect with people and move this story along, especially with something like Beauty and the Beast. I would have to write a scene, and because I knew children were watching, I had eight lines. Okay, so, go do true love in eight lines. But that’s the aspiration. That’s what you want to do. When I write a line, “we accept the love we think we deserve” in my book, and it can touch people’s lives, then I will try to give Belle dialogue as worthy, but for everyone, every member of the family. I’m not legally allowed to tell you the lines I wrote, but I will say there are a few real showstoppers in there that I hope that when my daughter watches and other young women watch, they say, “Oh yeah, I don’t have to put up with that shit.”

LH: You also directed and wrote the screenplay for Perks of Being a Wallflower. How was adapting your own original work into a movie? How was directing it, seeing the pages of your novel come alive?

SC: It was the single greatest artistic experience I have ever had. Directing a movie is a lot like writing a novel because you’re in charge of all the details, the tone, the way that an audience views it. You can write short sentences that read one way, and you can write long sentences that read another way. If you have long takes, it reads another way.

We were filming outside of my house—my literal house—where the luminary on Christmas Eve was shot—that’s on my street. If you turn the camera slightly to the left, that’s my house. At one point Jim Powers, who was one of our producers, asked me, is it weird being here, doing this? And I said no, it’s oddly not. Because when I wrote the book, this is basically what I saw. Now, it’s just people acting it out. So, there was that. That experience was great.

Too many people waste too much time trying to chase the wrong thing, whether it’s an award or sales or fame or notoriety.

Another thing was it was very healing because, see, when you go home to your hometown, you can be nostalgic for growing up about certain things. Maybe they’re painful things, or maybe they’re pleasurable things, but you’re nostalgic one way or another. When I go back to Pittsburgh now, I’m nostalgic as much for making that movie as I was for my actual life. I was able to, quite literally, rewrite my history. That is a powerful thing to do.

LH: What was it like returning to Charlie well into your thirties in order to write the film? Did this new distance help or hurt?

SC: It was as much of a blessing as it was a curse. In my older age I had much more experience, much more craft, much more access to shortcuts, much more access to universal storytelling, so in that sense, I could never have written that screenplay as a young person—there’s no way. I couldn’t have done it as briefly. I would’ve tried to put in too much. I like to say, a song can’t be all chorus. And it would’ve been all chorus. That was the blessing. The curse was, I was 37 when I started writing. It was difficult and took time to go back to that time emotionally from a young person’s point of view. But at the same time, to not vilify the adults in the book, including Aunt Helen, because I wasn’t used to that.

LH: Music and books play a huge role in Perks. Did Bill, Charlie’s English teacher, give Charlie books that you, personally, liked or felt influenced by?

SC: The list of books that Charlie was given by Bill were my favorite books from my young life through college and right after college. It wasn’t just freshman year of high school. It represented about nine years of my absolute favorites, with one exception: I’ve never read the novel Peter Pan. The reason why I included the book, however, my real life Bill, Stuart Stern, who is a wonderful screenwriter and passed away last February, was my hero mentor since I was 17 years old. That was his favorite story, so I included it as a tribute to him.

LH: Because The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the book that made me want to be a writer, what advice would you give 15-year-old Lyndsay, or current 15-year-olds of today who want to write?

SC: Write out your list of ideas, all of them. Register with the Writers Guild of America East, to be safe. Share it with the five or ten people you genuinely think want you to succeed, and listen to them. They will tell you the ideas they really like, and they will tell you what doesn’t work for them. Maybe this little thing over there isn’t the greatest story as a standalone, but could be combined with something over here. Next thing you know, your dramatic stories just became funnier, and your plot-driven stories have better characters, and your character stories have more story. All disciplines get to influence other disciplines.

That and, make sure that you’re genuinely writing in the genre or medium that you belong in. There are a lot of very funny people who write for The Tonight Show or Jimmy Kimmel or do standup comedy, and they would write terrible novels. There are some novelists who should be writing jokes. There are songwriters who should be writing poems, and poets who should be writing lyrics. Just make sure you’re doing the thing you should be doing.

Too many people waste too much time trying to chase the wrong thing, whether it’s an award or it’s sales or it’s fame or notoriety. When you’re young it’s all the same. When you get older it’s not. At the end of the day, the real success of life is in spending it doing the thing you actually should be doing and want to be doing. That’s success, with balance. There are a lot of wonderful writers whose work we love, but were alcoholic bastards who treated their families like shit. I am grateful for their books but I would never call them true success. To me, a balanced approached to life is always success.

Lyndsay HallLyndsay Hall lives in Los Angeles where she teaches writing to children and teens. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University and serves as the Managing Editor for Lunch Ticket. Her prose and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Juked, The Avalon Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, xoJane, and elsewhere.

Nina Revoyr, Author

Nina Revoyr

Folks are never going to just change their mind about something because you tell them they should. They are going to change their mind because they feel a stake in it. Art is a tremendous way to create that kind of stake because it enables you to enter the experience of another person and see the world through their eyes. – Nina Revoyr

Nina Revoyr was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Polish-American father. She grew up in Tokyo, Wisconsin, and Los Angeles, and attended Yale University. She received her MFA from Cornell University and is the author of five novels. Her first two, The Necessary Hunger and Southland, are set in urban, inner-city Los Angeles, and the third, The Age of Dreaming, is set in Little Tokyo and Hollywood during the silent film era. Her fourth novel, Wingshooters, takes place in rural Wisconsin during the 1970s. Lost Canyon, her latest novel, follows four diverse urbanites from various Los Angeles neighborhoods into the mountains of the Sierras. The weekend adventure turns into a challenge of survival as her protagonists come face to face, not only with the forces of nature, but also with unexpected human encounters fraught with prejudice, avarice, and the territorial desperation of drug trafficking. Lost Canyon’s high-energy adventure encompasses the inspiring beauty and raw ugliness of both natural and urban landscapes, while subtly considering the complexity of such contemporary issues as intolerance, ethics, and social diversity.

Ms. Revoyr is the Executive Vice President and CEO of Children’s Institute, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that serves children and families affected by poverty, violence, and trauma. The Children’s Institute is currently raising funds for the new Watts Children Center, a multi-service facility designed by LA architect Frank Gehry. The new facility, described as “a beacon of hope in the surrounding landscape,” is slated to open in 2019.

Revoyr graciously spent over an hour with me via Skype one evening in March 2016, discussing her latest novels, the writing life, social activism, and the importance of art.

*     *     *

Carrie Kellerby: Much of Lost Canyon seems to be culled directly from your personal experience in your community, your work at the Children’s Institute, and the cultural challenges you see every day. But Lost Canyon is not the first book you’ve written that addresses subjects like racial and economic diversity. In fact, all your books deal with difficult social issues. Would you talk about how you make the connections between your life, your work, and your writing?

Nina Revoyr: The things I care about, the things that are preoccupations, the things that drive me in both my work and my writing are similar, but I tend not to write directly about my actual job because while it’s important and interesting to me, it is mostly administrative. It’s just not compelling enough to be the fodder of good fiction. In fact, I think it’s been good for me to have separate existences. They are definitely connected, but they emerge through very different processes. The novels, for example, deal with things indirectly. I’m not one of these authors, like the police officer or the attorney, who comes home from work and writes crime fiction.  It’s also different than teaching. I have taught, and I love teaching, but it makes writing the job too. The pressure on academic writers, particularly for those who are in tenure track positions, is intense. I think I would find that difficult. I also think the separation between what I do for a living and my writing allows me to keep reading as pleasure as well. And I think that’s important for me. Reading is still a way I can step into another world and lose myself in something other than the everyday world. Some of my academic friends talk about looking forward to a time when reading can once again be a pleasure for them. So I feel fortunate because my job allows reading and writing to remain a joy.

It was important for me to show that the environment that someone works or lives in has an effect in shaping them. So you have these characters that come from very diverse backgrounds, different genders and different races, and they all have this collection of different life experiences, which leads them to read situations a certain way and also leads people to respond to them a certain way. They all make assumptions about each other.

CK: To get away from the pressures of their respective environments, the four main characters of your novel go on an extended weekend hike into the Sierras. They don’t really know each other, but they all work out at the same athletic club, and their physical trainer Tracy organizes the excursion. But rather than get away from it all, it’s almost as if they bring the urban environment and all the complexity of social interaction with them. They continue to operate, on the trip and when they reach their destination, from their urban experience. What does this say about cultural assumptions?

NR: Well, it says that we make them. And that those assumptions, the kind of shorthand way we have of thinking about things or people, is not ultimately useful, or not complete, in terms of understanding who people are. Each of the main characters in the book comes from a different part of Los Angeles. Several of them come from places that you don’t normally read about in a loving way—not in fiction anyway—and not in a way that shows the complexity and beauty of the environment as well as the challenge. It was important for me to show that the environment that someone works or lives in has an effect in shaping them. So you have these characters that come from very diverse backgrounds, different genders and different races, and they all have this collection of different life experiences, which leads them to read situations a certain way and also leads people to respond to them a certain way. They all make assumptions about each other. With Lost Canyon I got to take some of the social and racial dynamics of Los Angeles, which of course, mirrors the social and racial dynamics of our country, and create a little microcosm. They have to figure out a way to work with each other, [to] depend on each other, to trust each other and get past those assumptions about one another for the sake of their own survival.

CK: And they do, for the most part. It’s faulty, but they do. Take Gwen, for example. She makes missteps, but her transformations are pretty compelling. The book is written from three different perspectives, Gwen’s, Oscar’s, and Todd’s. Gwen’s trajectory was, I think, the most dramatic to watch. She ends up defying the assumptions made about her by the others. She also has clear ethical lines that, even under stress, she won’t cross. Yet, they do all end up working together in their own ways. How did you see Gwen develop as a character in the novel?

NR: Gwen grows in so many ways, and she really became the heart of the book. She’s the one who has her assumptions about her own limitations. She thinks she can’t carry a backpack, and she’s not comfortable in herself or in her body. And all the folks she’s going with pretty much think the same thing about her. Someone even expresses the thought that she’s the weakest link.  She even has that doubt herself. So what happens for her over the course of the novel, through danger and hardship, is that she transforms and gains strength and confidence. It was fun to get to see her blossom like that. And yes, she does draw those ethical lines, but her adherence puts them in danger. She doesn’t want to take certain kinds of actions, whereas, some of the other characters are more inclined to take things in their own hands. However, her ethical choice not to take things to logical extremes, and the fact [that] she gets the others to go along with her, means that some other trouble befalls them.

The kind of shorthand way we have of thinking about things or people, is not ultimately useful, or not complete, in terms of understanding who people are.

CK: It’s interesting that you say, “It was fun to see her blossom like that.” How well do you know the characters at the start of a book?

NR: When I start a book, I usually start with a character or a set of characters and a question. I take the time of writing the book to figure out the answers to that question. The simple question with this book was what would happen if a group of really different people were thrown into a dangerous situation in the woods and had to fight for their lives? At the beginning, going into the trip, I did have a good sense of who these characters were, but I didn’t know what would happen. They had tests I had planned that I knew were going to happen, and then some other things that just happened. So over the course of writing the book, I got to know them, and they got to know each other. But no, I didn’t know what was going to happen with some of the characters, like Gwen. That’s part of the joy. I never want to have too clear of an idea of what’s going to happen at the beginning, or it strangles the project. I have to have a sense of mystery to keep my own interest sparked.

CK: In an interview with Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), you mentioned that you had spent two years writing a novel that had lost its fun and was no longer working. How did the abandonment of the previous book affect the writing of Lost Canyon? Had you already severed your emotional commitment to the previous project, or were you flirting with Lost Canyon while working on the other book?

NR: I had severed it. Though I am often poly-amorous when it comes to books, I am often working on two at a time, so that when I get tired of one, or reach a wall with one, I can pull out the other for a while. But that wasn’t what happened here. I had worked on one book for a couple of years, but it just wasn’t alive. Like my other books, that one was more historical in nature, but it wasn’t working. I had even taken several months off after Wingshooters and the book tour to really get going on the work for that book. I was writing, producing the pages, but it just didn’t feel alive to me. Finally, I decided I needed to set it aside for a while. So I took a backpacking vacation. What you read in that interview was true: I was in the high Sierras when the idea struck me that I should be writing about what it felt like to be out there. So the door was cracked open, and this other idea for another book walked right in. And it arrived almost whole. If you’re lucky, maybe once or twice in a career, you are struck by lightning like that.

CK: Can you talk about how this book is different than the past ones, and was that part of the “lightning strike” of that original inspiration? For example, did you know right away it was going to be an adventure?

Deliverance is about four middle-aged white guys of the same social class. I wanted to create an adventure story that was more reflective of the world as I know it: racially and economically diverse. I also wanted to write a book that was both an adventure novel and a social novel, together.

NR: Most of my other books have been based on past events. Traditionally, they have story lines that jump back and forth in time and fairly complex, or fractured, narrative structures. I think part of the reason this one came out the way it did was that the energy had been building from the frustration of the other book, which was again, a complex historical novel. So when I got this idea, everything about it happened like a slingshot. I wanted it to be as straight as could be. And I did want it to be an adventure story. In fact the book I had in mind was James Dickey’s Deliverance. I loved that book. I wanted to do that kind of book, but differently. Deliverance is about four middle-aged white guys of the same social class. I wanted to create an adventure story that was more reflective of the world as I know it: racially and economically diverse. I also wanted to write a book that was both an adventure novel and a social novel, together. I had not necessarily seen that done before.

CK: Having your urban hikers stumble onto the pot plantations in the Sierras is an effective plot device and makes for a compelling story, but I also feel it may not be as simple as it appears. What are some of the connections between the wilderness pot plantations, drug trafficking, and the concerns your characters grapple with in the “safety” of their urban environment?

NR: Well. You can’t get away. You cannot escape from economic difficulty, racism, or environmental concerns. So there are pot fields that are grown on public lands, wilderness areas, and there is definitely an interconnection between what is happening there and the gang activity and the drug activity that is happening in Highland Park and Cypress Park, where Oscar lives.  And of course, Gwen is aware of the devastating impact of drugs on the lives of the young people she works with. These things are all interrelated and connected. California is incredibly diverse. It is so beautiful, but there is a lot of drug production here too. According to Southern Poverty Law Center, it is also the home of more hate groups than any other state in the United States. And it’s hard to think of all that prejudice and all that diversity happening in one place. On the other hand, it’s kind of a microcosm of what’s happening across the whole country.

CK: I had no idea about the hate groups. I find that as depressing as listening to some of the current political rhetoric. Is there hope for change? Do you think we humans will ever develop the skills or mindset to move beyond these kinds of fears of difference?

NR: Even with all the tough stuff and difficulty that happens in my book, it’s still optimistic. The dynamic between the characters and what happens when they come back are all positive.  And I believe the ways that their eyes open to each other is actually very hopeful. So I believe, and I try to demonstrate this with my books, that if people are given a real opportunity to interact with each other, to start to see each other as people, they will come to realize that they all have more things in common than not. They want a lot of the same things. They want the best for their children. They want opportunity. When people are able to actually interact with one another, their minds and hearts start to change. In my book Wingshooters, part of the difficulty was that in rural Wisconsin there was no exposure to difference. I can’t imagine that some of the vitriol in some of our current politics would be said if people got to know others on a person-to-person basis. So part of it is exposure, and part of it is openness to exposure, which might be the more difficult part. I also think that some of the high volume of negative rhetoric is a result of fear—the last gasp of folks who think they are losing something in a rapidly-changing world.

CK: Well, I think one of the things that many of your books accomplish is that they seem to show a way through the difficulty. A path. Lost Canyon was fairly positive, but Wingshooters was pretty dour. How do you incorporate the navigation of the reader through the difficult situations you depict? Does that play into the responsibilities of the artist?

I write about race and inequality and injustice, but ultimately I am an optimistic person. I think it’s important that while we depict the ugly dark side of life that it’s just as important to embrace the beauty and the joy.

NR: I write about a lot of things. I write about race and inequality and injustice, but ultimately I am an optimistic person. I think it’s important that while we depict the ugly dark side of life that it’s just as important to embrace the beauty and the joy. And even in a book like Wingshooters, where there was so much dysfunction and trauma, there was also a lot of beauty and joy. So in that book there is the beauty of the natural landscape, there’s the dog, and the relationship between Mikey and her grandfather. I think that a big part of the role of the artist is to show the way through. You know, James Baldwin was probably one of my biggest influences as a writer. No one wrote more eloquently about racism and poverty, about incredible systemic prejudice in the country. Yet, there was also joy and optimism in his work. There was a trying to get through. I want to show the hard things, but I also want to show that there is a way through.

CK: You mentioned the beauty of nature in Wingshooters. In your last two books, nature seems to provide an almost reflective surface for the human action. Can you tell me how you choose the setting for your books and what role you think setting plays?

NR: As I said, I start with character and a question, and that will often present the place. Once I know what that setting is, I think it’s critical to get that sense of place right. You want your readers to be able to see and sense and smell and feel and understand the physical world that your characters inhabit. Otherwise, it’s just a vague backdrop. And those settings are important because they shape character and experience inside the book. In some cases, they can even be a kind of character. And it’s not about describing every little detail, every leaf on the tree or crack in the sidewalk, but about capturing the right bits of detail, like a well-crafted line drawing. The details I used in Lost Canyon, for example, include very specific details about different neighborhoods in the city. The details of the trip in the Sierras all come from specific things I saw on different hikes in different areas there. I had been recording these things for years, not knowing what I was going to do with them. Fortunately, when it came time to write the book, I had a whole collection to draw from, which I was then able to weave into the book.

CK: You have a professional career, a marriage, and an accomplished writing life, which includes appearances and interviews like this one, yet you seem to handle your busy life with a great deal of grace. How do you manage to balance everything and consistently bring novels to completion?

I’m not sure, I just do. I write, but I don’t write on the days I go to work, because my job is too time consuming and demanding. That means I write on weekends, holidays, and vacations. Occasionally, I will be able to tack on a Friday afternoon or Monday morning, but it’s mostly just the time away from work. But I’m also pretty strict about that. I don’t fudge it. If I’m not working, I really am writing. Right now, I’m still percolating. I’m taking a bit of a break from writing, so I have my weekends. And I’ve been able to play, go to brunch, whatever. It’s been nice. But when I’m in a working groove, that all goes by the wayside. My weekend mornings are reserved for writing. That means when I’m on a project, I also can’t go out late on a weekend night because I have to get up early to write. And the only thing I really make an exception for is hiking, because I do have to get that in too. But it is hard, and it has gotten harder over the years. That’s maybe one of the biggest downsides of not having an academic kind of job—I don’t get summers off or three weeks at Christmas to write. It’s a challenge.

CK: It sounds like you are very consistent about it though. How did you develop such intense discipline?

NR: I don’t really think of myself as that disciplined. It’s just become such a habit. And I think that one of the things that contributed to the consistency was my training as an athlete. I played basketball in high school and college, and I had to get up really early and be at the gym every day. That got me used to doing a little bit every day in service of a greater goal. That kind of habit of practice directly translated into writing for me.

Art creates empathy and a way to identify with someone you thought was very different… Art is effective in changing the way people approach the world.

CK: While many recognize that your fiction is hard to classify, some talk about your work in terms of LGBT fiction and some label you a regional writer. What do you think about these labels? 

NR: Oh, I don’t mind as long as I’m multi-labeled. I’ve been called a Los Angeles writer, a mid-western writer, LGBT writer, historical, noir. My critics have put me in a lot of boxes, and those boxes become shorthand and, just like the assumptions we talked about earlier, they can be used as a way to dismiss. I am fortunate because I have become a part of so many boxes.  So I don’t mind about the labels. I’m proud to have written deeply about a place I truly love, or about issues I really care about it. I feel I have given voice to stories that don’t usually get told.  Really, I’m just happy to be read, and that people are finding my books.

CK:  You worked with Head Start and with the Los Angeles school board before working with the Children’s Institute, so it appears that you have focused your career on advocating for opportunities for children, the most powerless of the powerless, in some sense.  Was this a deliberate career path for you?

NR: When I was growing up here in LA, I knew a lot of people who had the same, and more, intelligence, capacity, talent, but who may not have had the opportunity to go to college or to have a productive career because they had so many other factors working against them, like living in traumatic situations, not having solid parents, or not having a good education. It was striking to me how many kids were lost, were just given up on. A lot of these kids, had they had the right opportunities or support, might have gone on completely different trajectories. And so I wanted to do what I could so that kids would have the opportunities and support that they deserve. So what drives the work is the recognition of the real inequities in play, the obstacles that face kids in poverty, especially.

CK: Frank Gehry recently designed a new center for the Children’s Institute in Watts, and it is slated to break ground in 2018.  It is estimated that the center will serve approximately five thousand children affected by poverty, trauma, or violence. But the problems facing these children are not strictly isolated to Los Angeles. Isn’t this a national crisis? Do you believe that, as a nation, we are addressing these problems effectively?

I’ve been called a Los Angeles writer, a mid-western writer, LGBT writer, historical, noir. My critics have put me in a lot of boxes, and those boxes become shorthand and, just like the assumptions we talked about earlier, they can be used as a way to dismiss. I am fortunate because I have become a part of so many boxes.  So I don’t mind about the labels. I’m proud to have written deeply about a place I truly love, or about issues I really care about it. I feel I have given voice to stories that don’t usually get told.

NR: You’re right, the challenges facing Los Angeles are also facing the whole country. And no, I don’t think we are dealing with the problems particularly effectively. What is encouraging though is that there are effective models out there. There are efforts that are working. What is working needs to be bottled and replicated. I’m thinking particularly of a Jesuit boys’ school in Watts that has sent, for the past seven years, all of their graduates to college. One hundred percent. They’ve done this not by just providing them with education, but by acknowledging their social and emotional issues as well. They also provide kids with internships to various offices throughout Los Angeles so that these kids get to go downtown or to Century City to work. This enables these kids to envision another reality—another future. That is actually the biggest barrier for these kids, bigger than poverty, bigger than violence. Many of the kids that we serve cannot imagine a different kind of life. That’s a big part of why we are building the Frank Gehry building. It will be a place of services, but it is also a place of beauty and magic in a community where there is not enough. There will be spaces for the therapeutic work that we do, but there will also be a dedicated art room, basketball court, computer lab, teen center, and resources to develop the skills needed for success, like getting a job. Jobs are important. When you have a community where there is very little employment, it feeds into the general despair. Folks who are well-employed don’t really understand this problem, or that dignity is tied up in being able to work. A job enables someone, of course, to live, but it also provides an important sense of identity. I think that’s also one of things I address in Lost Canyon, by showing the lives and work of people who aren’t normally seen in fiction. To show their humanity.

CK: How effective do you think art is in bringing awareness to social concerns? Does art work that way?

NR: Absolutely. In fact, I think that art works better than anything else. Folks are never going to just change their mind about something because you tell them they should. They are going to change their mind because they feel a stake in it. Art is a tremendous way to create that kind of stake because it enables you to enter the experience of another person and see the world through their eyes. That capacity is something that doesn’t really exist in other realms. Art creates empathy and a way to identify with someone you thought was very different. I think that art is very effective in changing the way that people approach the world.

CK: That being said, how important is it that we keep arts in public education?

NR: Hugely. History, nonfiction, science can tell you the what, when, and where, but it doesn’t tell you the why or the how. That is what the arts provide. It gets behind the curtain, the motivations and causes. It gets to the thing behind the action so that the actions can be understood. And when students are only drilled, and are not given exposure to arts, to inventiveness, to creativity and playfulness, they become one sided. It works like a muscle that hasn’t been used. When creativity becomes atrophied, it makes it very difficult to respond to situations in the world, to the intangible things that make up this experience—the magic of the world. One of my favorite stories is about Steve Jobs attributing a calligraphy class he took in college to the design aesthetic of Apple products. At the time it seemed like a totally useless thing to practice, but it ended up having a huge impact on a global scale. He makes the point that you can’t connect the dots going forward; you don’t know where things will lead. You can only connect the dots retrospectively. So I think playfulness, experimentation, openness, and being really present in your life and environment is hugely important.

Nina, one last question. Despite your full plate, are you going to get some rest and relaxation as the weather warms? Any plans for backpacking the remote canyons of the Sierras this summer?

NR: I am. I’m going in July for about a week, and it’s actually a vacation. I will not be doing any work. I can’t wait.

Carrie KellerbyCarrie Kellerby has a BFA in Art History from CU, Boulder; a BA in Creative Writing from CMU; and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles.

She is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, and the faculty advisor and co-editor of the Arts and Graphics department at Lunch Ticket.

She teaches freshman composition at Colorado Mesa University, has just finished her 200-hour yoga teacher training, is a freelance journalist, and spends way too much time gardening.

Lois Dodd, Painter

Lois DoddLois Dodd was born in Montclair, New Jersey. She attended Cooper Union in New York City, where she started painting. She was part of the New York Tenth Street art scene in the 1950s and was one of the founders of the Tanager Gallery in 1952. Her works are found in many museums, including the Portland Museum of Art, Maine; the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri; and others. Her most recent exhibition “Day and Night” was at the Alexandre Gallery in New York City from February 25 through April 2, 2016.

Ron Burch interviewed Lois Dodd by telephone on February 22, 2016.

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Click the images below to enlarge.


Ron Burch: You have been part of one of the most exciting artistic periods: New York City in the 1950s and 60s. What was it like to be an artist then?

Lois Dodd: You see that’s what it looks like from here now. It wasn’t different than everyday existence now. Really. But, in retrospect, it was good. The art world was much smaller. That’s why it was what it became. It was so small. It was the uptown art world and the downtown art world, and you could know just about everybody in the downtown art world if that’s where you were. And that was probably true uptown as well. In that sense you felt very much part of a scene, which I’m sure artists have now, too. We all have our circles.

RB: What was it like to be a female artist at the time?

LD: (Laughs) Not being a male artist is hard enough. It was clear there were fewer female artists who were able to make a go of it than male artists. That seems pretty clear. In the group of friends that I had, it was not really a problem. Somehow, it didn’t come up.

RB: You were one of the founders of the Tanager Gallery, a collective that was part of the thriving New York City downtown art scene.

LD: I was the only woman of the five of us at the beginning. The gallery lasted about ten years from 1952-1962, but there were about 20 people over that period of time that became members of it. The other women were Sally Hazelet and Perle Fine. There were more men than women involved.

RB: Did the gallery help your artistic development or career or both?

LD: Oh, definitely. It did both. It provided a place to exhibit, and also, I was involved with running the place. Those of us involved went to see other artists’ work and made decisions about whom we would and wouldn’t show. We did a lot of visiting around to studios, and we saw what was going on at the time. It was very educational and informative and, again, was part of a community.

RB: I know Tanager and the other galleries on 10th Street had a strong community. Was it being able to exhibit or having a supportive artistic community that was more important to you?

LD: I think it was both. You can’t really separate them. It would be nice to have a community, but I also wanted the opportunity to show as well. That was equally important to me. That’s why we formed together to create the gallery, so that we could show our own work and the work of other people we found, thought were good, and needed a place to show. We were both providing a place for other people and showing our own work. And it was really very exciting doing that.

RB: Do you feel that, as an artist, having a community is essential?

LD: I do, yes. I think it’s very difficult, and maybe almost impossible, for an artist to be totally isolated. I think it’s very important to have a community.

RB: Have you had that community throughout your career? Did it change or dissipate after the Tanager closed?

LD: No, it really didn’t dissipate. There is an artist community here in the city and artists do keep in touch. If it isn’t just around the gallery, it’s all the friends that remained because of that association through the years. They go other places, but they’re still your friends. And you meet other artists and the other co-ops open and those have communities of artists. It’s a natural formation that happens.

RB: Did you critique each other’s works?

LD: No, that we did not do. We certainly discussed the work of people we chose to show with one another. I suppose that’s a critique in a way, but we weren’t busy critiquing each other’s work. We’d say, “It’s great.” That’s all your friends want to hear. (Laughs) They don’t want to hear what’s wrong with it. They can get enough of that in the outside world.

RB: Was there ever any pressure to meet the demands of the market?

LD: Not really. No. Somehow, that’s why we had the gallery. We didn’t want to feel that pressure. It wasn’t about that. Some people sold work, which was very nice, but it was kind of rare, actually, that in all the years of our existence we sold much of anything. It was not a place where we sold stuff.

2015, oil on masonite, 16 1/8 x 19 7/8 inches

Apple Tree through Barn Window, September



RB: You were working in minimalist landscapes while those around you were producing abstract expressionism and pop art. Did your work go against the grain of fashion at that time?

LD: Well, I didn’t quite fit. I didn’t fit the abstract expressionists and I didn’t fit the realist painters either. But that seemed to be fine with my particular group of friends. I admired what the abstract expressionists were doing very much. And they were all around on 10th Street. [Willem] de Kooning had his studio there. Perle [Fine] had her studio there. A whole lot of them were right in that area. [Philip] Guston used to come by, and certainly, I admired all of their work.

At Cooper Union, the painting teacher that I had was very realistic himself, which he did not push on us in any way, shape, or form. And also the drawing teacher. They were both realists. I studied with them. I must have taken in what I learned from them. I never studied with anyone who was an abstract painter. So I think that had some effect.

RB: Were you ever influenced by the abstract or pop art?

LD: I was definitely influenced by the abstract painters because I really loved what they did. They definitely were an influence.

RB: But you kept to your style.

LD: I didn’t think of it as a style really. It’s just the way I painted. (Laughs) I was just trying to paint. Trying to look at the cows and get them down some way.

RB: Were you always confident about the way you painted? Did you ever have doubts?

LD: I suppose you always have doubts. But I don’t think you have a choice. The way you paint is the way you paint. I was not so facile that I could whip out different styles. There was never that choice.

RB: Over the years, have you noticed a shift in your work?

LD: I seemed to be better at being more realistic as I went along. In putting down more visibly recognizable things than back at the beginning.

RB: What do you think of this change?

LD: It seems to be an organic thing that happens. I don’t see it as myself making a conscious effort.

Rainy Window NYC

Rainy Window NYC



RB: The ordinary, the commonplace, the everyday seem to be the bulk of your subject matter. What gets you started?

LD: I go outside. I drag my easel out there and I wander around and look for something that looks clear, something I can find, a composition that’s clear to me, and then I set myself up.

RB: Can you clarify what “clear” means?

LD: Something where there is some kind of geometric pattern or a light shadow, something that will fit onto a rectangle and break it up in a geometric way, basically underneath it all.

RB: Usually it’s the shape that gets your attention?

LD: Yes, yes, it is.

RB: The colors come after that?

LD: Yes, I’m out there pretty much using what I see. I’ve never been bold with a color to change what I see. I’m out there describing color-wise what’s in front of me.

RB: Once you find the shape, are you then working with what you see from nature?

LD: I’m trying to get it down before the light shifts so much, the shapes change. I’m in a battle with time and light and that’s why they’re pretty much two- to three-hour paintings, the ones that are on the panels, the panel paintings

RB: So everything you paint, it’s there. You don’t add to it?

LD: I don’t. I don’t know how to do that. I might leave something out. I’ve done that, but never added anything that I can think of.

RB: I read a quote from you that went: “It seems that once you really find what you want to paint, you can paint. Up to that point, you’re flailing around. It’s a very strange process, over the years. But once these things, subject matters, that attracted me presented themselves, it didn’t seem to be such a problem.” Would you speak more about that? Did your subject matter find you?

LD: (Laughs) No, but that’s an interesting thought. No, I find it. But it is from wandering around and looking at stuff. You know in the last so many years I’ve been working close to my place. I haven’t been getting in the car and driving to some location that I find exciting. I frequently would go to the Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey. But I felt like I used that up and I stopped going there. I’m pretty much right around my own place, both in Maine and the one in New Jersey. Here [in New York City] I’ve been painting out of the window this winter. I seem to be getting closer and closer to my own body.

The way you paint is the way you paint. I was not so facile that I could whip out different styles. There was never that choice.

RB: Has nature always been your primary subject matter?

LD: It’s funny. When I was in high school, I first went down to the railroad station, sat across the road and did a drawing, or it was a charcoal or pastel, of the building. So I did always like to work outside. It’s interesting. Not too keen on inside work. Although whenever I make a proclamation like that, the next thing I find is that I’m doing the reverse.

Clearly, I work from observation. That’s pretty clear. I can’t make anything up. I’ve never been totally abstract in that I could create on a blank canvas with absolutely nothing, just pulling it all out of my head. I’ve never been able to do that.

2015, oil on masonite, 13 x 8 1/4 inches

Frosted Window, 2015


RB: Even though I know you do not consciously seek them out, most artists have themes that they are drawn to. Reflecting on your work, for example, it seems as if you keep returning to windows.

LD: Yes, I do. I seem to look up, and there’s an interesting thing out of the window so then I do another one. It’s often the same windows, but somehow I’m sitting at a different angle, or it’s a different time of day because I did all the windows at Second Street years ago but here I am looking out the window again but at night. It’s exactly the same windows, but they seem to provide more and more stuff to find.

RB: There is a lot of “framing” in your work: windows, tunnels, mirrors, even some of your hanging laundry paintings have that feel as we see in “Rainy Window NYC,” “Frosted Window,” “Pink Towel + Chicken House, June,” and the wonderful “Apple Tree through Barn Window, September.” What is it about this that appeals to you? What is it about closing off the frame or depicting frames within frames that appeals to you?

LD: I think it’s flatness. I think the one thing I got from the abstract painters was the idea of “flat.” I don’t want to create a huge depth. I like the idea that what I see there is flat. Close. Close space. Not distant space. Like the Delaware Water Gap because there are two overlapping mountains right in your face. And looking out the window is always good because there is always something right there that seems to be stuck to the window.

That’s the kind of thing I look for in nature. I don’t go to a mountaintop and look at a wonderful view. That does not appeal to me at all. I have to go someplace where it is overlapping and in my face, goes from top to bottom, and remains close and flat. I think I got that from the abstract painters. Everything had to be right on the surface. If you think of the abstract expressionists of the ’50s and ’60s, it was all flat. You can’t go into it and disappear miles away.

2015, oil on masonite, 11 7/8 x 19 1/8 inches

Pink Towel + Chicken House, June


RB: It’s interesting to apply that to a landscape where there is depth.

LD: Yes, you pick and choose.

RB: So something else you just mentioned: time. You said you have to get a painting done before the sun moves and the light changes. How do you deal with the passage of time?

LD: As the hours go by, the shadows shift. I’m always aware that I’m trying to get the outline of any shadows or anything like that right away before it shifts because I was attracted to the way it looked at the moment I arrived. Not the way it will look by the time I leave. If things are moving too much, and shadows are shifting, I have to outline all that quickly in order to maintain the way it looked to me when I was first attracted to it.

RB: So you’re trying to capture that first moment you saw it?

LD: That’s right. It’s not that I’m there all month, painting it and incorporating a feeling of a long period of time. It’s the reverse.

RB: So even when you’re two hours in, you’re still trying to capture that original moment?

LD: Well, yes, I am. But I’m not in my head saying, Oh my God, I’ve got ten minutes. (Laughs) It’s not like that. It’s just that the light shifts, and it was the first light that I was attracted to. If it changes radically, I’m trying to remember what I originally saw at the beginning.

RB: And you are able to do that?

LD: Yes, I can do that in a two-to-three-hour period but more than that, no. I remember one time, I was painting the woods. And I was across the road from my house in Maine, and I set up large canvases because I discovered that I could not paint the woods on small panels. No way could I get the woods squeezed onto a small panel. It had to be fairly good-sized canvas. So I took them over there and at one point I had one set up for the morning light and another one set up in another location for the afternoon. I’d work in the morning on one of them, and in the afternoon, I’d go work on the other one because of the fact of the light moving so radically. You could kind of retain the information, maybe, two to three hours, but after that it’s so contrary to what you’re looking at, that you couldn’t keep working on the thing. So then, I’d go work on the other one.

It’s very difficult, and maybe almost impossible, for an artist to be totally isolated. It’s very important to have a community.

RB: Have you ever found another painting there after the light changes? Does one painting ever beget another?

LD: Yes, absolutely. I think that’s often the case. You realize there’s something new there. They move one into the other.

RB: I know that you have no narrative or social commentary associated with your paintings. What would you like the viewer to take away from a painting? An appreciation of form and color?

LD: Sure. Viewers bring their own sensibilities to it, so that’s their thing.

RB: So that’s something you don’t think about. You’re just trying to capture the moment.

LD: Right.

2015, oil on masonite, 19 1/2 x 10 inches

March Snowstorm


Day and Night

RB: In your latest exhibition at the Alexandre Gallery in New York, you have a new series called “Day and Night.” In it is a painting called “March Snowstorm.” I find the angle you chose to be really interesting. Did that just catch your eye?

LD: Yes, you have to move fast. Sometimes I feel like a reporter. Like the burning houses or snow coming down. You know it’s not going to keep doing that forever so you got to move and get going. Try to grab it while it’s happening. That’s exciting to me. I like to do that because something beautiful happens. Like a snowstorm.

2015, oil on masonite, 15 x 12 inches

Night City Window


RB: From the same show, “Night City Window” and “15 Night Windows” continue your interest with windows. How did you approach them? Did you paint each quadrant separately?

LD: I think so. I’m trying to remember. Did a blue look different in one quadrant than the other? (Laughs) Am I doing it one at a time? No, I’m drawing the thing first. Then I’m probably filling in the black of the buildings. But you’re right. Each quadrant you can think of as a separate unit and work on that. But it needs to be unified so it can’t get too separated in my head.

2016, oil on masonite, 18 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches

15 Night Windows


RB: There’s such symmetry to the windows. Is this how it happened?

LD: It’s a lie. It’s not like that out there. I left some out. I think one painting might be more accurate than the other. You can see that they’re the same building but they’re quite different. The window arrangement is not the same. And the one where they’re spaced further apart is probably more accurate. At night they only light certain windows, so you get this weird pattern. But then, on the other painting, I just made it a regular pattern.

RB: When you did “Pink Towel + Chicken House” do you remember how that came about? Did the pink towel catch your eye?

LD: It was the pink towel. I might have hung it out on purpose. Because there was a point where I noticed the laundry and started painting it. Then I began to be self-conscious about it and hanging it out and I thought, “Gee, I want to have something red,” so I got my red curtains from upstairs and hung those out, and then maybe that towel was interesting to paint. Arranging the clothesline was like setting up a still life for me.

RB: Do you start with the towel or is it all drawn in at first?

LD: It’s all drawn in first, so it moves together, pulls together after it’s drawn in. But the thing that I liked about the towel was, again, that rectangular shape. It blocks out the whole middle and it squeezes the landscape around the edges. It’s right in your face. And it’s a flat rectangle, but you do get a little space around the edges, which I found intriguing to work with. The color is important, too.

RB: I’ve noticed in some of the recent paintings “Yellow Sun, Bare Trees” or “Sky Through Trees,” by filling the frame with trees, it seems that you are using the landscape itself as a frame. In a way, that which you’ve framed in the past is now part of the frame?

LD: Well, those are just tiny. You’re looking at the step flashings. Those I race out when I see something happening, and since they’re very tiny, it only takes fifteen or twenty minutes to get something down. And so, if the sun is doing something interesting, or the moon is doing something interesting, I can race out there and try to put it down.

2015, oil on aluminum flashing, 5 x 7 inches

Yellow Sun Bare Trees


RB: It’s the same kind of framing that you’re doing with your other work.

LD: It’s true, yes.

RB: You’re using the trees to fill the frame and squeeze that landscape again.

LD: Right.

RB: How do you know when you’re finished?

LD: When I start thinking that I’ll fix things, that’s when you know, “Stop it. Don’t do that.” You can’t fix anything. You’re done. When you start thinking “Okay, now I’ll just improve it . . .” It really doesn’t work for me. So, whatever I’ve had to say, when it’s done, it’s done. There’s nothing more to say about it.

RB: Do ever look at any of the older paintings and think, “I wish I had done this to it instead”?

LD: You know, I do that, and they don’t look any better. They look worse. It doesn’t really work trying to fix things. It just doesn’t work. Somehow, the initial impulse has to be fresh and right or else it’s just dead.

2015, oil on aluminum flashing, 5 x 7 inches

Sky Through Trees

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*Referenced Paintings:

1) Rainy Window NYC
2) Frosted Window
3) Pink Towel + Chicken House, June
4) Apple Tree through Barn Window, September
5) March Snowstorm
6) Night City Window
7) Night Windows
8) Yellow Sun, Bare Trees
9) Sky Through Trees
10) Cherry Blossom – Grey Sky

Ron BurchRon Burch is an Executive Producer of Dinotrux, a DreamWorks Animation TV show for Netflix. His plays have been included in the Smith & Kraus anthologies, The Best Ten Minute Plays. BlazeVOX Books published his novel, Bliss Inc. He’s an MFA Candidate in Fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. He can be found at www.ronburch.com.

Vu Tran, Author

Vu TranNovelist Vu Tran was born outside of Saigon five months after the city fell to the North Vietnamese, immigrated to the United States when he was five, and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Likewise, Tran’s debut novel, Dragonfish (W.W. Norton, 2015), begins in Vietnam and intersects American and Vietnamese cultures. The novel opens in italics with the voice of Suzy, a yet-unknown character, describing in first-person her escape from Vietnam with her young daughter. This voice from the past recurs through the book as a counterpoint narrative to that of the primary protagonist, Robert, a Caucasian Oakland, CA police officer, who is kidnapped in an opening scene by Vietnamese gangsters on orders from Sonny, their mafia boss. Sonny’s wife, Suzy, who is Robert’s ex-wife, has recently disappeared. Sonny enlists Robert’s help in finding her. Through smooth and powerful prose that alternates between Robert and Suzy’s stories, Tran creates a compelling mystery entwined with a complex immigration story. Dragonfish is a powerful noir mixed with sentimentality, heartache, and unanswerable questions.

Vu Tran teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his PhD from the Black Mountain Institute at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Tran was selected as a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature, and received the 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award, as well as honors from Glimmer Train Stories and Michigan Quarterly Review. His stories have appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, The Southern Review, and the Harvard Review.

Vu Tran was interviewed via Skype by J. Sam Williams in February 2016.

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I met Vu Tran at Antioch University Los Angeles during the December MFA residency. At his residency seminar and reading, he struck me as calm and inviting, with a humble and fun confidence. And why not? Tran is a successful writer and—by reading some comments on other online interviews—a well-respected teacher. Tran brings a truthful voice and spirit to his work. During his reading, his performance gave each line of dialogue, description, and pause the perfect amount of emotion. The next day, Tran asked a room full of MFA students—and some faculty—to explore their own emotional connection to why we like the stories we like. He noted that there is a very human desire for narrative, and asked us “What does it say that every major religion, society, etc. has a creation myth?” He asked why the Paris attacks of the past year touched us, and ended with the assertion that stories are ways to organize our ideas of what it means to be human. He invited divergent views and welcomed discussion.

When the time came for the interview, despite my preparation, I found myself nervous. I started the interview with a mistake: In attempting to ask him how much of Tran’s personal life was reflected in Dragonfish I assumed he’d used the phrase “Write what you know.” He very kindly corrected me.

Vu Tran: I don’t like saying that, actually. Well, I never say that exclusively. I say a couple things: I say that sometimes you don’t know what you know until you write it. I feel like ‘writing what you know’ has become a bit of a catch-all phrase and people really don’t—it’s such a kind of easy, universally-accepted mantra that honestly people don’t think about anymore. […] I think some people have interpreted it as ‘write what you’ve experienced.’ And the thing is that, a lot of times we don’t know what we know until we write through it. And the other thing is that you don’t have to write about your life to write about yourself. I’ve always thought that you should write who you are. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re writing about yourself. There’s so many different layers in that comment that I don’t think people think about. People throw it out as advice, as a mantra, and the way people interpret it is simplistic.

Sam Williams: How much of your own personal experience, personal story, and personal narrative was reflected in the novel Dragonfish?

VT: Well, in terms of things that have actually happened to me, the premise of Suzy—her daughter [and her], escaping Vietnam by boat—I did that with my mom, my sister. We also spent six days at sea. We also landed in Malaysia, and also spent months in that refugee island. So all of that comes from my life. But for the most part, I tend not to write what people, I guess, would call autobiographical, but I think—and any writer would say this— that you become, your life and your personality become, a filter for the things that get on the page. So even if it doesn’t actually happen to me, I’m still the filter, so parts of me end up filtering a characterization of someone who would bear no resemblance to me. I think they might have, say, my selfishness, or they might have my obsessiveness, they might have my sincerity, whatever. You see? So the filter of who I am is always there. I feel like maybe other people are different, but I can’t help but write like that.

SW: How much do you think that experience of escaping Vietnam as a child has contributed to your passion toward the arts?

VT: That’s a good question. That is kind of hard to know, or know how to measure. I mean, I’m sure it has. The question for me has always been, “Well, if I had not experienced that, would I still be a writer? Would I still be the same kind of writer? If I had grown up in Vietnam, would I be a writer? That’s just something I’ve always been curious about. Of course that’s impossible to answer.

You know, everything I went through, I don’t remember any of it. Which might be a good thing. I suspect, though, that it had to have been traumatic in some way. The only way I could put it—for lack of putting it a better way, is—I feel like the shadow of that experience has been following me, and I’ve always been propelled by it in some way.

“I don’t feel like anyone wrote a great novel because they heard a great piece of advice. I think it just has to do with you, and writing, and you sitting down at your damn desk, and reading.”

I think the other thing that is clear in my mind is less that actual experience of escaping Vietnam, but more my experience of growing up as an immigrant and as a refugee, you know when you—in many ways everyone feels like an outsider on some level—but when you are clearly an outsider in the sense that you are raised one way and in one world at home and another way at school and in the world around that you see on TV and everything—you inevitably do feel that you are on the outside of things. And I think that has, more than anything, informed how I write. If you’re on the inside you have no reason to be uncomfortable, no reason to really observe. But when you’re on the outside, you’re desperate to get in. You have, in a sense, a more artistic and critical eye. And I think that has really informed me as an artist, writer, whatever you want to call it.

I wanted to further discuss Dragonfish’s epistolary sections in which the details of escaping Vietnam were described.

SW: What about the letters and memories were attractive to you? What was attractive about these devices to you as a writer?

VT: I’ve always liked writing in that mode, and especially when I was writing my short stories, I felt like I was at my best when I was writing in this kind of melancholy tone. If you’ve seen the movies of Wan Kar Wai, or you’ve listened to Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, it’s that kind of melancholy that I’m talking about. I always end up, whether I want to or not, going to that voice, that tone. […] When I really found the novel, it was when I figured out the letters. I was 70 pages into the novel before I figured out, “Oh let’s do this thing here.” And then I wrote all the letters. Only when I had written the letters did I go back and kind of return to the so-called crime narrative, because it informed—I think it was the emotional foundation for all the character’s behavior, and it was the emotional foundation for the story itself. And it worked! I found that voice pretty quickly because it is a voice of not just melancholy, it’s a kind of working out of things that can’t be worked out, which is inevitably a sad enterprise, because you’re trying to figure out, you’re trying to answer these questions that you’ve always struggled with, and you know no matter how well you articulate that difficulty you’ll never actually answer the question. Which, in this case, was “Why did I leave my daughter?” “Am I a bad person?” “Why did I do that?” and “What do I do now?” And those are questions that Suzy can never ask herself. And for some reason I just kind of knew how to write that voice of someone asking those questions.

SW: What was the process for finding that voice? Was it a bumpy road for the novel until you found that voice?

VT: It was very bumpy. You know, I sold the novel in May of 2009 and I had 60 pages, so it was a partial, which was great but I spent the next two years applying for jobs, which was very time consuming. I was doing all of these other events. Suddenly I was leaving the country and leaving town a lot, and that distracted me. And then I moved to Chicago with a girlfriend, which, that was difficult, and being in a new city, starting a new job, all these things became excuses for kind of procrastinating on the novel, because I couldn’t figure it out—something felt missing. I felt like all I had was a premise. I felt like I couldn’t go beyond the premise. Once I figured that sort of epistolary structure and the purpose of why [Suzy] was writing the letters, it all came together. Now it still took forever to write, but I felt like I had something, and up until that point I was afraid I didn’t even have a novel.

SW: That was the point where you were hooked in. Where you knew you had it.

VT: Yeah, and I think most readers, when they tell me about the novel, that’s when they say the novel came together for them too. So that makes me happy because that means I can trust in my instincts.

I wanted to ask Tran about his experience in the publishing world—specifically as a Vietnamese immigrant. My nervousness returned, because as a white man I try to be careful and as considerate as possible when discussing race. I still feel as though I can’t be too careful. It goes without saying that I was relieved when Tran was more than happy to talk about issues relating to his ethnicity.

SW: I was hoping you could comment on the writing and publishing world as a man of Vietnamese descent. Have you faced any difficulties?

VT: [A long pause] I have, but I’m hesitant to say that those difficulties are directly connected to the ethnicity that I am. I don’t know. Which is not to say that agents don’t… My difficulties have been most people’s difficulties. But yeah, I remember when I was trying to find an agent, when I only had my story collection and I was very conscious about not making—even though those stories were all set in Vietnam—I didn’t want to make them too overtly about the war. I had agents who would tell me, “Oh, that one story with all the war stuff—you need more shit like that.” That happened. But no—and it’s not a comment on other people’s experience at all—just mine, but I don’t feel as if I’ve experienced anything specifically connected to my ethnicity, negatively speaking. I think that’s partly because maybe I’ve been lucky, but also because I almost don’t want to notice those things. I want to have the right to not give a shit.

SW: In literature, or, in fact, the entertainment world, do you feel like people with Asian phenotypes are still depicted in stereotypical ways? Have you seen any changes over time?

VT: That I am very aware of, and that does make me angry. The reason it makes me angry is not that it’s racist, necessarily, or that it’s offensive. What is offensive is creative laziness. So when I see that new show by Tina Fey, who I really love, that new show on Netflix, Kimmy Schmidt, and there’s an Asian character who is supposed to be Vietnamese, but it’s played by an actor who is not Vietnamese—he actually has a Japanese accent, not a Vietnamese accent, and they say his name means penis or something silly like that. That makes me angry because I feel that’s creative laziness. It’s not racist, it’s just lazy. All she had to do was look that shit up. I do find that Asian women tend to be fetishized. And Asian men tend to be completely nonexistent or sexually neutered. I think, especially in popular culture, movies, and TV, the depiction of Asians is, first of all, very narrow, and second of all, is still not much there. You see more and more of it, which is good. I know that this new show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, has an Asian male lead, which is kind of stunning. I like the idea of having Asian characters whose prominent attribute is not that they are Asian. I like that idea. I see that a little bit more now.

SW: But it’s a slow process.

VT: It’s a slow process, but the thing is, I feel that Asian’s bare a responsibility as well. Yes, the opportunities are very, very slim for Asian actors, Asian writers, Asian artists, but when you get that chance, don’t be lazy. Don’t be creatively lazy. Be interesting. Do something unexpected. I hope that the more and more Asians there are, that have a voice, can do something unexpected and can know that that is their responsibility—to be creative and interesting, not to just be completely predictable.

It’s really nice to see Viet Thanh Nguyen with his novel The Sympathizer get so much notice and, you know, Nam Le with his book The Boat about six years ago. There are more Vietnamese-American writers now, there are more—the thing that really heartens me is that fact that Hanya Yanagihara got so much notice for A Little Life. She is, I believe, she is Hawaiian, but she is of Japanese descent. But the book has nothing to do with any Asian characters. I’m not saying that’s what we should be doing, I’m just saying it’s nice that that is a thing. That an Asian writer can write about something that has nothing to do with her ethnicity. And it’s getting a lot of admiration, and it’s selling well. Things like that really hearten me.

We talked a little more about his views on teaching, and that he thought it was very important to discuss the process of publication with his students. I asked Tran what is working on next.

VT: I don’t know yet. I need to be writing. I haven’t written anything new in about 16 months. I’m getting kind of antsy. But I tend to really work it out in my head before I commit pen to paper, if you will, even though I don’t write longhand. I’m fancying the idea of writing a Vietnamese Gothic novel, where the French colonialism characters in there are a comparison of the French influence and American influence on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, though I think the novel would take place in America. But I kind of want to tell that story in the framework of a Gothic novel. I’m still working that out in my head. That’s the best I can describe it. Hopefully I can start on it sometime soon. Hopefully it won’t take as long, though it probably, most definitely, will.

I wondered why was it that Tran’s residency presentation felt like a conversation and not a lecture. I discovered the answer as we wrapped up the interview:

SW: Any advice to students everywhere in MFA programs?

VT: I only ever have one piece of advice—and I really mean this—that people need to be wary of all good advice. I feel the MFA world is just full of people who love to feel wise, and love to give these nuggets of wisdom. And it’s well intentioned, often. But when you’re a teacher, when you’re a writer—but especially when you’re a teacher—you end up having to kind of create a system of thought, and you have to be confident in it if you’re teaching it. Too often that ends up being just a reflection of your own experience.

The thing about it is that sometimes people in the MFA world, they hear a writer and they hear something they think is so profound, so earth-shakingly true, that they end up taking it as gospel. I say, yeah, if it sounds great, take it. But every once in a while, question it. Because everyone’s different and I think it’s just fucking boring to hear the same things over and over. At the end of the day, I don’t feel like anyone wrote a great novel because they heard a great piece of advice. I think it just has to do with you, and writing, and you sitting down at your damn desk, and reading.

Williams grew up in Bow, NH and now lives with his wife in Monterey, CA. Williams received his BA from Principia College in Sociology. Williams is a freelance sports columnist and podcast guest, Editor-in-Chief at theimmix.com, and a current MFA student at AULA.

Stories about Bodies: Narrative Medicine with Emily Rapp Black, Juliet McMullin, & Phillip Mitchell

Emily Rapp Black

Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (Bloomsbury USA, 2007), and The Still Point of the Turning World (The Penguin Press, 2013), which was a New York Times Bestseller and Editor’s Pick, and a finalist for the PEN USA Prize in Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in numerous noteworthy publications such as Vogue and the Los Angeles Times. Since 2012 she has been a literary correspondent for the Boston Globe. Her work has been widely anthologized, most recently in The Story Within: Essays on Ethics and Identity. She is currently a professor of creative writing in the University of California-Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in writing and the performing arts.


Juliet McMullen

Juliet McMullin is a cultural and medical anthropologist. Her manuscript, which is in progress, is an ethnography of the graphic medicine community and explores how storytelling about illness in graphic form creates an ideological and material network of support. She has published two books: The Healthy Ancestor: Embodied Inequalities and the Revitalization of Native Hawaiian Health (2010) and an edited volume Confronting Cancer: Metaphors, Advocacy, and Anthropology (2009). Her latest and upcoming articles, respectively, areCancer and the Comics: Graphic Narratives and Biolegitimate Lives” (2016) and “Zombie Toxins: Abjection and Cancer’s Chemicals.” She is currently faculty at University of California Riverside’s School of Medicine.


Phillip Mitchell

Phillip Mitchell is an educator, communicator, storyteller, actor, and life-long learner. As an actor he has facilitated and performed in trainings since 2006. Through the company he founded, NarrativeCare, he develops and delivers continuing education that deepens caring relationships through the power of story, and he facilitates narrative medicine workshops for allied health professionals. He is also adjunct faculty at Antioch University, Seattle and holds a master of science in narrative medicine from Columbia University.

Katy Avila interviewed Black, McMullin, and Mitchell separately via phone calls and videoconferencing in February 2016. This piece is a combination of their interviews.

*     *     *

Katy Avila: How did you all become involved with narrative medicine?

Philip Mitchell: I first heard of narrative medicine in 2012. I was working full-time in pursuit [of becoming] an actor in Seattle with a company that used actors for medical training, in simulations, sort of like standardized patients. We were working on a program around medical error disclosure, and apparently I’d been talking about it with everyone, because one of my directors [on another project] told me about the program at Columbia called “narrative medicine.”

KA: Does it kind of seem like a term or field that is trying to describe something that was already happening in literature?

Emily Rapp Black: Absolutely. I think it’s just another way of talking about books, about life experiences. As more fields have become interested in issues like this, I think they just found a different way of talking about them. My first book was classified as a medical narrative.

Juliet McMullin: When I first read the LA Times’s book review on Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer (2005), as a cultural anthropologist I was so intrigued. I think it is a big part of the field: storytelling, hearing people’s stories, how they’re living their lives. My earlier work was on native Hawaiian concepts of health—so what does it mean to be healthy and how to do that, and how does that fit into their struggles? So much of that is in origin story. What is the relationship to the land, for native Hawaiians? How does not having that access to land impact your wellbeing? All of those things are always in stories.

I’ve done a lot of work in cancer and equality, too. How patients experience their diagnosis and how they are treated by physicians. Oftentimes anthropologists like to be, most all the time, in the field, but you don’t always get to be in the clinic, seeing what’s going on, so that’s where stories come in.

PM: I realized that everyone has a story about “I went to this doctor, and I started to talk to him or her, and he was looking at his clipboard or computer screen and asked me a question that meant he wasn’t listening.” Everybody has a story like that, so life experience for everyone can help you know that narrative medicine has a place.

15811585KA: You [Emily] mention in your memoir The Still Point of the Turning World a sort of “deathphobia” in our culture. Do you think this fear of mortality generates a need for stories?

ERB: Yeah. If you’ve been a patient or a doctor, it’s often very divisive in terms of story—you know you go in with a story about your particular experience, and whether or not it’s digested by the person who’s seeing you is another issue. Stories in general about particular types of people in particular bodies have been culturally-shrined—a person with a disability is this, a person with an illness is this. I think medical narratives are designed to be a subversive power against those sanctions. Part of the role of books is to help medical professionals see their patients in a new way. An “ideal” of narrative medicine is that it becomes less about a diagnosis, more about a story.

PM: The scientific approach allows the physician to be supposedly objective and to make decisions based on the medicine, the labs, and the measurements instead of the “unreliable” reporting of the patient. Of course what they miss then is the comment the patient doesn’t share about their life that really impacts their health.

KA: So do you [Juliet] work with patients in writing their own comics?

JM: I’m actually working on a grant and a pilot project with City of Hope where we’re going to bring in artists, and have them work on illness narratives with palliative care cancer patients in a ten-week workshop. I also had my [anthropology] students create comics, and we had them pick stories around their personal illness narratives; they actually wrote out an illness narrative, either their own or a family member’s, and then we created comics from those.

KA: And though it wasn’t written for this purpose, some of your work [Emily] has been taught as a medical narrative?

ERB: Yeah, all of it has. To medical students, disability students, any sort of medical narrative courses.

KA: Do you think when readers approach your memoir as a medical narrative that it changes the reading of your work at all?

ERB: No, not really. Once you start a book, hopefully the storytelling kind of takes over any preconceived ideas you may have about the way it’s classified. In some ways, medical narratives are a way to talk about it [the story] in an academic circle—it allows for diversity in perspective.

KA: And have you heard anything from medical professionals or students about how reading your work has changed their approach to their work?

ERB: I think it’s nice, especially with the narratives about my son, that they see these are not just babies with a diagnosis. [Emily’s son Ronan was diagnosed with and died from Tay-Sachs disease.] They have a family; they’re not a problem. I do think doctors are taught and learn to see patients as a series of problems versus someone with a story. They have so many patients; they can’t always stop for everyone’s story. I think that [narrative medicine] creates empathy and hopefully, when medical professionals meet someone, they have a desire to know more.

PM: I realized after I’d been at Columbia for a little while that part of the reason narrative medicine works as it does, especially with experienced physicians, is it allows them to look at humanity, how people communicate, and how people are in serious situations, without confronting them with their own shortcomings. Doctors are our best and brightest, a lot of the time, but they are also perfectionists; they’re over achievers.

KA: Well I guess they have a lot on the line if they don’t get something right.

PM: Literally life and death situations, and also reputation and career. The way they are trained is so antithetical to a humanistic approach. It’s a scientific, evidence-based approach. The unwritten curriculum is “don’t show any weakness; don’t get too close to the patient because you won’t be objective.” It’s changing in some places, especially with the development of the medical humanities. But you can have a room of doctors in training reading literature and looking at what the characters are doing, and they can be critical of those characters or get insights to those people in the story that are ill without having their ego or profession on the line. And if they do their own reflective writing, they apply the lessons to themselves, and they don’t even know. They’re just writing something because someone told them to, and then they make discoveries.

I don’t think that the role of writing is to create something artistic and beautiful from a very difficult thing. If the end goal is healing, they should go see a psychiatrist.

KA: So a narrative medicine class sounds kind of like a hybrid between a literature class and a creative writing workshop. When you brought this type of practice to a room of medical professionals, what is the kind of response you were met with?

PM: A little bit of skepticism. Because “what’s this got to do with what I do?” I try to preface a workshop with “I know this is going to seem a little unusual.” Part of designing a narrative medicine workshop is picking the right stuff that people will relate to. I had a group of physical therapists read an essay from a patient perspective that was able to represent the usual patient but with the skills of a very accomplished writer, saying what he would really like to happen is for a doctor to talk and listen to him. I had one person say, “I’m embarrassed to say I really forgot about what the patient might want. I’m so focused on what is wrong with the patient and how to fix it.”

KA: What about the writing that comes out of those sessions? If they are skeptical to read something, I imagine they would be more hesitant to put a pen to paper.

PM: It is all over the spectrum. Some people just explode, like you pulled the cork from a shook- up champagne bottle, and all this stuff comes out, and they don’t want to stop writing. Or they’ll write something, and it’s so emotional for them because they’re really connecting with it that they have a hard time reading it out loud. Sometimes, they totally freeze up, because of perfectionism, or they’re not ready to tell that story. Sometimes, glorious and beautiful things are written, and sometimes they aren’t.

1433030258-500x500KA: What happens when you [Juliet] train cultural anthropology students in illness narratives?

JM: I had one student interview a woman who was writing an illness narrative around cancer, and a sense of hope really took over how the student was interpreting the narrative. The woman didn’t have insurance, she’s in the middle of nowhere, she was working a few part time jobs, trying to make ends meet, so when she received her diagnosis she just said, “What’s next?” The student automatically interpreted that as “Well, what’s next; what’re we doing?” But if you look at the context of the woman’s life and pay attention to those details, the “what’s next” means “of course this is what’s happening to me.”

KA: So looking at the details and context beyond the straightforward transcription of the interview brings reality to the narrative—the difficult things we don’t typically talk about.

JM: Yeah. These things are sort of pushed aside, especially when a conversation turns to “hope.”

KA: In your memoir The Still Point of the Turning World you [Emily] said something like you used to believe that writing was not therapy.

ERB: It’s not, it’s not. I [still] believe it isn’t now.

KA: No?

ERB: No, God no. I don’t think that the role of writing is to create something artistic and beautiful from a very difficult thing. If the end goal is healing, they should go see a psychiatrist. That’s not my MO, and I think people who approach subjects thinking it’s going to make them feel better … it’s not.

KA: In the same memoir, there was also one part that said something to the effect of writing would not save Ronan but it might save you. What about writing made you think it could save you?

ERB: I think just the act of doing it, the act of doing something artistic in the face of something really crappy. That’s what was motivating me—creating something, sort of creating order from chaos. The activity of doing for the sake of doing.

KA: So do you think that in reading there can be a sort of healing? So not on the side where you’re writing but–

ERB: I don’t really believe in healing. I think it’s kind of a misnomer. It implies there’s going to be an end time where everything is fine and sealed up, healed. Those things don’t really happen. It just processes a journey that is constantly changing—like, wounds open—so, no. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe you can heal something, you just have to sort of, like, truck on. You can learn something, but that’s about as far as I go.

KA: Then what are the benefits of making illness and death not private, secret things?

JM: I think there are a lot. One is to bring more people in, be more supportive and create community-building through storytelling. Then people start realizing you’re not the only one, and people care. It’s a community building practice towards more humanistic behaviors, caring behaviors toward each other.

Another benefit [of talking about these topics] is there are other ways of being in the world that you don’t think about—and again, diversity—we start to realize that there is not one way to be human in the world.

KA: You [Emily] said something when you spoke at Antioch in December that stuck with me. You said, “If you have a body, then you have a story.” Lidia Yuknavitch made a similar point at our residency, too. Have you incorporated that idea in teaching your own creative writing classes?

ERB: I have, yeah. I teach a class, a disability and medical narrative kind of combo, and it starts with the question, “What does it mean to be embodied?” So we do a lot of philosophical discussion around ways of knowing, epistemology, what is a body, what does it mean to be a body? Very high language about those types of things to underpin philosophically what we are going to talk about—it starts there. And it’s true that if you read a novel in which you never know where you are in space, or what the person feels inside that body, then that novel sucks.

KA: Right, just floating thoughts.

PM: We’re taught to use “good” literature [in narrative medicine] because—it took me a while to figure out the because—if you have something that’s written well enough, there’s something relatable for anyone. It can’t be too difficult to read, but it can’t be the summertime beach reading list. There needs to be enough substance for people to relate.

ERB: And if you respond to a novel, you’re responding to it in an emotional way, so your emotions are housed in your physical form, and they’re not abstractions.

KA: It seems like in the last five or six years, medicine, literature, and anthropology have all kind of stumbled upon the fact that art can be the best example of a patient experience. In works of literature and art, people put a lot of time into trying to portray their unique bodily experiences. It seems like more fields are starting to recognize, “Hey, we can learn from this art thing.”

JM: Exactly. How much does [a story] have to reflect reality, especially when you’re talking about what things mean to people, and how they’re contextualized in this larger question, “What’s going on in the world, individually, culturally?” It doesn’t have to be a straight interview, verbatim, or something you actually saw. It’s thinking about what the experience means to people’s lives, and how stories allow them to express really hard things, without being so hard about it.

KA: So what are the implications for the writer in this developing field that circulates around reading, writing, and storytelling? 

PM: There is a movement underway in medicine about being patient-centered, family-centered. Though it’s not called narrative medicine, it’s saying, “Listen to what the patient wants,” which is kind of the same thing. As the question “How do we become patient-centered” comes up louder and more urgently, I hope writers will be standing there saying, “We have the skills to help you with that.”

It’s such an anti-American thing [to say], ‘We can’t control our futures,’ but we can’t. The sooner we learn that, the better.

JM: I think there is so much opportunity for interesting collaborations. I’ve worked with people who I don’t necessarily always collaborate with. There is a long history of artist-physicians, but what does it mean to take that extra step and collaborate with people around stories? There’s this great need to hear so many voices.

KA: I like that you say there have been artist-physicians for a long time, but I guess being a patient hasn’t ever really been looked at like being an artist. You are just kind of on the end of this other interaction where things happen to you, or you are the ball of clay that is molded—

JM: People tell you about your body, what’s going on with your body, what they’re going to do to your body, how you should be in your body.

KA: It’s kind of an art just to have a body, isn’t it?

JM: And who gets to have a body? Right? I think—for me—a lot of this has been around questions of diversity and whose voices we get to hear. I would love to hear and see so many more comics. I’m looking for Pacific Islander texts around this genre and all of the autobiographical illness narratives, and there are so many other cultural reasons why you don’t tell certain stories. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is amazing. He says these things about who gets to have a body, and who gets to tell the story.

KA: Do you [Emily] see any implications of the field of narrative medicine for writers, or do you think it’s kind of moving towards a more popular role of the narrative in our culture? Personally, I feel like narratives are everywhere: psychology, medicine, anthropology, performance art …

ERB: I do think it’s going to be something that stays on the radar. I think doctors and patients need it. The older we get, the longer we live, the more life-prolonging things that are a part of our lives, the more that we’re going to need these stories. More people need to be writing about death. Americans don’t like unfixable things, and a lot of things about the body are unfixable, so instead of raging against that, we should unpack it in a different way. That’s going to become increasingly important.

KA: I like that you said, “unpacking.” It seems like a lot of death and not healing and all of those scary aspects of our own bodies are kind of packed away. It comes up in art, but not everyone pursues art, and not everyone is an artist, so if it could come by the way we talk about our bodies or from the people who treat our bodies, it seems like it would spread to a larger group of people.

ERB: Definitely. There’s sort of a prevailing feeling in the U.S.—if you are, like, fit enough and watchful enough, and eat the right stuff, you’ll live forever. And you won’t. (Laughs). I get irritated with people when they’re like, “I’m a vegan,” ’cause I’m like “No, you’re going to die, someday, and maybe you’ll die sooner than you think.” So there is a specific need in the American culture for those kinds of stories to be told.

KA: Yeah, it is so compartmentalized. We will all have someone die in our lives … my family members could die—

ERB: Or you could.

KA: Yeah, or I could. Why is it culturally taboo to say that?

JM: Words are powerful. Words can bring things into being. If you speak it, what are the implications of that, of thinking about someone’s illness? Or death? Sometimes people don’t want to burden their families or others with their story, and what does it mean to put your story out there?

ERB: Yeah, you don’t know when it will happen. You don’t know. It’s such an anti-American thing, “We can’t control our futures,” but we can’t. It’s like the sooner we learn that, the better.

KA: So do you think that what writers in this field, or people interested in narrative medicine, can do is be truthful about our mortality?

ERB: Yeah. I mean, pull back the veil. I collaborated on this book with a doctor who died at thirty-seven—he was writing this book because he was dying. It’s like a primer for how to find meaning in your final days. The man knew more in thirty-seven years than some people do in a lifetime. I think that’s going to continue to be the trend because people are curious even if they are reluctant to seek it out. To some people they think, “Oh it’s really depressing,” and I’m like, “No, it’s not. If I were thirty-seven and dying, this is the fucking book I would read.”

Katy AvilaKaty Avila lives in Los Angeles, CA where she is an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University. Her obsession with Victorian pseudoscience, literature and culture, and interest in medical humanities have inspired her to look closely at the relationship between body and story, and how narratives attempt to embody (or disembody) modern experiences.