Matt de la Peña, Author

Matt de la Peña During Antioch’s June 2016 residency, my mentor suggested I pick up a copy of Matt de la Peña’s Newbery Medal-winning picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, to explore the effective use of diversity in children’s literature. When I returned home to Arizona, I not only picked up a copy of de la Peña’s book, I became an immediate fan. Matt de la Peña’s gentle writing accomplishes what only the best children’s literature can—it taps into the collective sense of wonder that continues to exist just under the surface, long after we dare to grow up.

During the course of his highly acclaimed career, de la Peña has written six young adult novels: Ball Don’t Lie (2005), Mexican WhiteBoy (2008), We Were Here (2010), I Will Save You (2010), The Living (2013), and its sequel The Hunted (2015). His picture books include A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis (illustrated by Kadir Nelson, 2011), and Last Stop on Market Street (illustrated by Christian Robinson, 2015). Matt received his MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and his BA from the University of the Pacific, where he attended school on a full basketball scholarship. De la Peña currently lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and young daughter. He teaches creative writing and visits high schools and colleges throughout the country.

I had the good fortune of attending a lecture that de la Peña gave at Antioch’s December 2016 residency on exercising restraint when writing for young people. As he gave his presentation, it became quite apparent that de la Peña personifies the complex qualities of the diverse characters he writes about. He is an eloquent educator who thinks of himself as working-class. He is a quiet observer who speaks with a casual familiarity that makes you swear he lived just down the street where you grew up. He is at once a formidable ex-athlete and a gentle creative.

On an early March afternoon in 2017, I spoke with Matt de la Peña at his office at San Diego State University via Skype. We spent an hour discussing diversity, politics, craft, and daughters.

Kim Sabin: You have such an interesting personal background. Can we start with how you came to pursue your MFA and professional writing career?

Matt de la Peña: I went to undergrad at University of the Pacific on a basketball scholarship. I didn’t really see writing as any type of professional path, but I had really supportive professors in undergrad and I took a couple of creative writing classes. I ended up winning this school writing competition and it really was validating. I think my professors said, “Look… if you want to pursue writing, you could try to get an MFA.” I’d never heard of what that was, so they had to sit me down and tell me. Then I ended up leaving undergrad and working in a group home for a couple of years. My professors, without me knowing, had pulled together my work, and sent it out to a couple of MFA programs. They told me, “We did your manuscript, now you have to do the actual formal part, if you want to do this.” And so, I was like, “Sure!” So that’s how I ended up in an MFA program.

KS: You’ve labeled yourself as a “working-class writer”—both in regards to your family background and your approach to your daily writing practice. Can you share what you mean by this?

The way I look at it is—instead of working with cement, I’m working with words. But it’s the same kind of laborious, hard-worker, show-up-every-day kind of situation.

MDLP: There are some people who are just geniuses and they have incredible ideas and they wait for that moment of inspiration where it hits and they produce really quickly a really interesting quality of work. That’s a very small percentage of us, though. Most of us, if we are going to finish a piece, we have to sit down and do the hard work and clock in every day. It’s approaching writing not from inspiration, but more from the idea that it’s just like any other work. The way I look at it is—instead of working with cement, I’m working with words. But it’s the same kind of laborious, hard-worker, show-up-every-day kind of situation.

KS: I remember listening to another interview and you literally show up every day. You have an office you go to…

MDLP: I do. Right now, I’m actually sitting in an office at San Diego State because I’m teaching here a semester. But back home in Brooklyn, I have a writing studio and I have to go there every day.

KS: You didn’t self-identify as a “kidlit” author when you began your career. You studied straight fiction writing in your MFA program at San Diego State. Can you talk about how you fell into both the YA and children’s literature genre? How has your MFA background shaped your approach to children’s literature?

MDLP: That’s a good question. When I came out of my MFA program, children’s literature wasn’t as big of a thing as it is now. It wasn’t as commercially viable. These days, in the past two years in some cases, children’s literature is carrying the publisher, which has never happened before. I think we had Harry Potter, and then ultimately that led to Twilight and The Hunger Games. Those big-ticket, commercial ones opened up doors in the publishing industry and the industry started scooping up everything they could that had a young protagonist. My book got caught up in that wave—my first book. And then, if your first book does well, your publisher’s going to say, “Do that again, only different.” So, I found myself writing a second young adult novel. At that point YA was becoming a popular thing—not just the big commercial stuff, but even in a literary way. I started realizing that these were stories that were close to my heart. I love the coming-of-age stories. It ended up being a good fit.

The picture book part of the equation came later. It was my agent who talked me into it. He actually said, “There are parts of your first book that I’ve showed publishers and said, ‘Don’t you think that this language style could make for an interesting picture book?’ And a lot of them said, ‘If he has something… let’s do it!’” That led to my first picture book, which is about boxing, and then my second picture book. I feel like in both cases, I didn’t aim for children’s literature—YA or picture books—but it is, actually, a good fit.

KS: In an online interview with VOYA, you said, “I don’t believe in happy endings, but I do believe in hopeful endings.” Can you explain what you mean by that and how that applies to YA and children’s literature?

MDLP: Some people, when they think of kidlit, they think of some lesson or moral or “what’s the message?” of the book. That’s a bummer, because really good children’s literature doesn’t have a message so directly. When you’re starting to look for that happy ending, you’re also veering into the territory of the message—especially with YA. It’s very important to provide hope, but that’s just good storytelling. I don’t think it’s that different from adult fiction versus YA. In good storytelling there is an element of hope because that’s just the human existence. We look for hope. But the happy ending… It either feels too neat, and too aligned, or it feels too moral. Those are the things I try to duck. But for me, the hopeful ending, especially if it’s vaguely hopeful, it’s not fantastic… It’s really satisfying.

KS: Realistically hopeful?

MDLP: Exactly.

KS: You sit on the boards of both the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and We Need Diverse Books. Inclusion and diversity are hot topics in kidlit right now. Can you talk about why stories representing underrepresented demographics are so important in children’s literature?

MDLP: It’s very interesting. I meet so many young people who got caught up in a book or a series and they loved it at the time. Then they speak about it now and they realize, “Wow… I was really identifying with a story where I actually didn’t have a place within the story. I tried to shoehorn myself into it.” Now, we’re meeting people—young people—who are actually seeing themselves in books more. The biggest thing that I’m seeing, the way that I describe it is, it’s a whole other level when you actually identify with a main character who is an “other.” It’s really validating. You’re actually inside the book before you even read the story, and that’s important. I recently was at this school, and I’ve been asking kids, “Why is it important to see yourself in books?” This one kid, he didn’t say it eloquently, but I thought he said it the best. He said, “I love reading. I love reading stories that are fantastical. I love reading stories with wizards or fairies, but when I read a book with a character like me…” (He was a mixed kid) “…There’s just something extra for me.” There is that little something extra that needs to be spread around not just with mainstream readers but also with all readers.

KS: In 2012, your YA novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, was banned in Arizona. How did this come about? What did this experience mean to you and has it changed the way you approach your writing?

My book, Mexican WhiteBoy, was deemed “anti-white,” which is interesting because the main character is half-white. What happened is the kids were reading the Mexican WhiteBoy books and some people from the superintendent’s office came in and literally pulled the books out of the kids’ hands, put them in a box, and placed them in the basement.

MDLP: You write these books and you don’t really think about where they’re going to end up or what’s going to happen to them, and you work on the next one. Mexican WhiteBoy had been out for maybe a couple of years and little did I know there was this program in Arizona, Tucson specifically, called the “Mexican-American Studies” program—the MAS program. A group of educators said, “We have a struggling student body and it’s predominantly Mexican-American. Eighty-five percent. What if we, for extra motivation, had a curriculum that was focused on teaching books that featured characters that looked like them? History about their lives? Written by people whose last names they would identify with?” It was a really successful program.

One of the books in this curriculum was Mexican WhiteBoy. It got caught up in the political situation that was happening there. I think somebody in the program said, “Republicans hate Mexicans.” Which isn’t true, but it started this whole thing. The school board said, “Okay, there’s obviously something wrong in this program.” My book, Mexican WhiteBoy, was deemed “anti-white,” which is interesting because the main character is half-white. What happened is the kids were reading the Mexican WhiteBoy books and some people from the superintendent’s office came in and literally pulled the books out of the kids’ hands, put them in a box, and placed them in the basement. They were illegal to read in that school district. It was a huge bummer and it’s still in the courts, actually… seven years later. It was one of those weird experiences where you go, “Oh my gosh. The book when I finished it is no longer mine.” It’s used by different people for different purposes. One group was using it to inspire kids that looked like the main character or felt like the characters in the book. Then another group came along and used it as a political tool in the opposite way.

KS: It’s almost like you release it to the world and it becomes what someone needs it—or wants it—to become.

MDLP: That’s why when some writers try to take too much control over views or stuff like that, you’re not seeing it correctly. The truth is… It’s no longer yours. It’s actually an incredible honor to have your book used in these other ways. It means you made something that is a tool for others.

KS: You won the 2016 Newbery Medal for your picture book, Last Stop on Market Street. In your acceptance speech, you praised librarians and said, “In a time when some people want to build walls, you give young people the tools to tear them down.” Within the industry, librarians and teachers are referred to as “the gatekeepers.” What responsibility do these gatekeepers have within our new political climate in the United States? And do you think it is the role of children’s literature writers to plant the seeds of social justice within their young readers?

MDLP: That’s a good question. I’ve seen so many writers, myself included, who are starting to think, “What does it mean?” With what’s going on politically now and how we’re seeing a nationalistic view of the country and this ideology that’s like, “We need to keep ourselves safe and everybody else out.” A lot of people want to react directly against that. And again, this is where you start to enter into the pitfall, I should say. I read this article in the Wall Street Journal, I think it was, by [Haruki] Murakami, a novelist, and he said, “If your dog dies, and you want to write a story about your dog dying, there should be no dogs in the story.” That’s what we have to do. It’s there, but it’s super-subversive. Because if you hit it too head-on—I’d equate it to putting pop culture in your book—it time-stamps it. If you have Pepsi in your book, then, “That’s today.” You know what I mean? You have to find a way to do something universal but that is subversively providing another way of looking at the world. It’s funny because I just finished a picture book that’s coming out this fall. It’s called Love and it’s a reaction to all of this stuff. But there’s no politics in this book. It’s subversively about what’s happening, but if you read it thirty years from now, you could never actually locate where I was coming from.

KS: One of the bonuses of writing for young people has got to be school visits. I’d imagine that immediacy of interacting with young readers must be fulfilling. Can you talk about that experience?

MDLP: The bummer is you have to do them a lot. Sometimes, you find yourself doing too many of them and it’s really hard to keep up on your work—your writing—when you’re out in the schools. I’ve been trying to limit them, because if I limit them, they’re more powerful for me. My favorite thing is meeting readers who, seriously, don’t know what a Newbery is… They don’t care. And it’s just cool to get their authentic interaction about a book and a story and a character. I’ve been doing high school visits for years and years, but I’ve been doing more elementary school visits… and they are fascinating. Just the kids you meet and the things they say—they’re so authentic.

KS: Your picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, tells the story of young C.J. and his grandmother, Nana, taking a bus ride through their urban community. While C.J. laments for all of the things he wishes he had in his life, Nana gently reminds them of their good fortune. Why do you think this particular story struck such a nerve at this moment in American culture?

MDLP: Again, I have to be very honest here. If this book came out six years ago, it would’ve been a very small book, very quiet. Some people would have loved it and other people would’ve never heard of it. We were fortunate to get on Morning Edition on NPR and that introduced the book to a lot of new people. And then, of course, it wins an award and that’s ensures that it’s going to be introduced to many more readers and it’s going to be in every school.

There’s a new thing happening and it’s my personal approach to writing diversity right now, which is I’m trying to write characters that are diverse—which I always have been doing—but putting them in stories that have nothing, at least overtly, to do with diversity. This is the new diversity.

So, what about this book at this moment? There’s a new thing happening and it’s my personal approach to writing diversity right now, which is I’m trying to write characters that are diverse—which I always have been doing—but putting them in stories that have nothing, at least overtly, to do with diversity. This is the new diversity. It’s where it exists in the story, the main character is a non-traditional protagonist, but it’s not about that. It’s about something else. In this case, it’s about gratitude, but also subversively, it’s about seeing yourself as beautiful. It’s also timely, because there was this reaction that not enough books with diverse characters were getting recognition and so some committees, if you want to be honest, were like, “You know what? We’re going to do this. This is this story’s time.” You like to think that your book is just an incredible work and it’s rewarded for that. But it’s not just that. Every award selection is a political act. Again, my book was caught up in a political act and it’s something I have to acknowledge. Of course, it’s one of those things where it was good enough to be put in the place as a tool for this committee. You see what I’m saying?

KS: Christian Robinson was the illustrator for Last Stop on Market Street. My daughter is a senior in high school, but I can’t remember seeing a tattooed character in any of the children’s books we read together. This small detail felt groundbreaking to me. Was this something you and Christian discussed? Can you talk about what the collaborative process between the writer and illustrator on children’s books looks like?

MDLP: This is a very non-traditional relationship we have. Usually, the author and the illustrator are kept apart until the book comes out. The reason why they do that, of course, is to make sure the writer doesn’t take too much ownership of the story. Because in the best picture books, the illustrator actually is telling a slightly different story, in and out of the text. You know, those are the best illustrators. But, we have the same agent and we met before I was even done with the text. It was sold with Christian attached. We talked a few times. We switched a couple of things. One of the things he really wanted in the text after he read the initial draft… He said, “I would love to have an animal somewhere.” That was interesting, because it led me to think about the blind man with the dog, which kind of is one of my favorite parts of the book. So, that was one switch we did.

We also talked about this idea of just having diverse characters in a story that isn’t about diversity. I said, “Anything you can do visually to support that idea, you know, go for it.” We didn’t talk directly about the tattooed guy, but when I saw him, I was like, “Man, that’s it!” He found it. Originally, when I wrote the text, it was a Mexican kid. But I met his grandmother, who raised him, [as] I found out, and I thought, “I’ve got to use my resources here.” So I switched the characters to black and this led to, to me, one of the most important things, which is they’re sitting in the front of the bus… That’s an incredibly important moment in the book. Nobody ever talks about it, but it’s a callback to the Civil Rights movement. It’s weird how those little magical things made the book better than if we were kept apart.

KS: In an interview with YALSA you said, “I love the strange mix of innocence and sophistication in great picture books.” You’ve already discussed how you transitioned from writing YA novels to writing picture books. Do you use similar craft techniques when approaching both categories?

When I write a picture book, I look at it as a spoken-word poem.

MDLP: When I write a picture book, I look at it as a spoken-word poem. Before I ever wrote fiction, I used to write spoken-word poetry. It was so much based on rhythms and music. Before I even knew how to craft a story, I was doing that. So when I write a picture book, it’s about music—getting the story right, and then getting the music right. The biggest thing is making it all feel authentic. You have two audiences when you write a picture book. You have the adults and you have the child. You’re nodding to both, but erring on the side of the young person. It’s an interesting balancing act. Now, I’m not good at writing goofy. There’s some really great, amazing books that are silly and goofy that kids love. My daughter loves them. But I like to write picture books with weight and sadness. Those are my favorite picture books to read to my daughter and they are my favorite stuff to try to write. But I will tell you, she’s more likely at her age—she’s two-and-a-half—to reach for silly. But occasionally, she’s ready for the weighty book and we get into great discussions. I’d rather my book be pulled once a week as opposed to twice a night for that substantive conversation.

KS: What’s your favorite genre to read? What are you currently reading?

MDLP: I love gritty, sad, adult, literary fiction. I just read Underground Railroad [Colson Whitehead], which I thought was fantastic. My momentum is carrying me toward a lot of nonfiction, but a lot of social justice stuff. I just read Just Mercy [Bryan Stevenson], and Evicted [Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond], about the social justice system, which is even more important now. Cormac McCarthy is my favorite writer in the world and he’s super-dark and he writes these incredible, hacked sentences. I love Junot Diaz. I love the way he marries Spanish—and not always the language of Spanish—but just Spanish is in his sentences, even when they’re in English. It’s a slightly different rhythm to his sentences and he has a kind of street-sensibility. I love that. I read this book called Lab Girl recently [Hope Jahren], which is about a female scientist. By the way, I’m reading a lot of feminist stuff right now, because I have a daughter… I’d like to see the world through her eyes, you know? In terms of young people literature, I love Christopher Paul Curtis, who wrote Bud, Not Buddy. I love Markus Zusak, who wrote The Book Thief. I like realistic stuff. I struggle with fantasy. Not because I don’t appreciate it, but because the real world is so fascinating… I want to stay there.

KS: Can you share any projects that you’re currently working on?

MDLP: I have Love coming out in the fall. I did a picture book with Pixar for a movie that they have coming out called CoCo. That’s coming out in the fall. CoCo is about the Day of the Dead. It’s a Mexican kid who plays the guitar. I’m super-excited about that, because I’ve never done a tie-in and it was really cool because they gave me complete freedom to go away from the story with the main character. I got to see the movie already, so that was amazing. I also have a book called Carmela Full of Wishes, which is a picture book that will come out maybe January of next year. And then I have my YA… I have two projects. I have one called One of Those Likes Used to Love Me, which is an older YA. A nineteen-year-old character right about to go to college, super working-class kid—mixed-race. I’m also doing Superman, which is a pretty crazy project where four authors are doing superheroes—you know, DC [Comics] superheroes. Wonder Woman is coming out first, and then Batman, and Catwoman, and then I’m doing Superman. That will come out, I think, late 2018.

KS: Wow! And you’re teaching and you have a two-and-a-half year-old…

MDLP: That’s why I’m a year late on my YA.

KS: Matt de la Peña, thank you for your time.

MDLP: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.

 

Kim Sabin studies writing for young people in the MFA Creative Writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles. When she isn’t driving across the desert to study craft, she lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband and daughter. Kim is currently working on her first YA novel and blogs for Lunch Ticket. You can find her on Twitter @kimswrites.

Natashia Deón, Author

Natashia DeónNatashia Deón is a 2017 NAACP Image Award Nominee. The New York Times and Kirkus Review named Deón’s critically acclaimed debut novel, Grace, a Best Book of 2016. She is a practicing attorney and law professor, and creator of the popular LA-based reading series, Dirty Laundry Lit. Her works have appeared in American Short FictionBuzzfeed, LA Review of BooksThe Rumpus, and other places. Deón is the recipient of a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship.

I first met Natashia Deón when she was the guest fiction writer at Antioch’s December 2016 MFA residency. In addition to presenting a seminar, she gave a reading from Grace. On March 14, 2017, I interviewed Deón by telephone.

Judy Gitterman:  In your daily work, you’re an attorney working on post-conviction appeals. This work likely involves representing defendants convicted of violent crimes, such as murder, rape, or child molestation. Do your experiences as an attorney inform your writing?

Natashia Deón: Absolutely, all the time. They say that as writers, as you know from your program, everything affects you, especially politics. It’s part of the stories that I tell. In Grace, the novel, there are a lot of things like justice and mercy, forgiveness and issues that I have to deal with in the courtroom, so it is part of the story that I choose to tell. How do we forgive somebody who does something like that, like molestation, or murder? Are there degrees of it? For example, what’s not forgivable?

JG: Because you write about these topics—mercy and justice—how does that affect your representation, for instance, when the defendant has confessed to the crime?

ND: Recently, I had a case that actually affected me that way. During the time when the woman who was raped recently—the big case where she was behind a dumpster, passed out drunk, and this guy raped her—he was on the swim team at Stanford. He was given [a sentence of] something like six months, something completely obnoxious. She wrote a beautiful letter, a victim’s statement of how it affected her and how she didn’t deserve that. Just as that was happening—when there was so much response and so much heartache over this case—I [was defending] the case of a man who had done a similar thing with a girl who was fifteen years old. The sentence he got was less than a real battery; it was the lowest possible conviction you could get for what he had done to her. I believed everything he [had] said. He said, “I just touched her accidentally. I shouldn’t have done it.” That’s why the sentence was so low.

But then I didn’t actually get the victim’s statement until I was there, on the courthouse steps, about to go into the courtroom, and it talked about how he had raped her. It was so real it was just like reading the story about what happened to the woman who was raped behind the dumpster. That made it hard to go into the courtroom that day to defend him and to ask the court to forgive him for what he had done. I wrote about that experience in an essay. It affected me in both ways, as a writer and in defending this person. I defended him, but I couldn’t even look at him after that day. I was totally changed.

JG: Who are some of your literary influences?

ND: I have so many. Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley, contemporary poets—I’m in love with Chiwan Choi’s book I’m reading, The Yellow House—Alice Walker. I love Dr. Seuss. I think everything I read influences me—they touch me, in a way. They influence the kind of writing that I do. The Bible. There’s so many. Roxanne Gay, I love.

JG: Did any influence the novel, Grace, more than others?

Before I thought [voice] had to be so literary, especially the story that I wanted to tell. I thought that literary meant a certain highbrow.

ND: Sapphire’s Push. Because it was the first time I read a book where I felt I had permission to use the voice that I use in Grace. Before I thought it had to be so literary, especially the story that I wanted to tell. I thought that literary meant a certain highbrow. But the voice I was hearing for Grace wasn’t that way. It had a lot of dialect—simple but intelligent. When I read Sapphire’s Push, it was the first time I knew that I could use the voice I’d heard to tell the story that I felt I was supposed to tell.

JG: You’ve mentioned that you worked on Grace for seven years and it was originally written as a screenplay. Can you talk about how you began writing Grace and how the work developed into a novel?

ND: I’d never written a novel before Grace. I’ve written stories. All my life, I’ve always told stories. My sister and I used to always sleep in the same room. She was four years younger than I, and I always told her stories. I told the same stories the same way because she would demand it, even though they were totally made-up. I’ve always written. I’d written screenplays. And then, I was walking down the hallway and I had this vision of this woman and she was running. She had blood on her dress and it was a yellow dress. I remember thinking that she was a slave and knowing that she was a slave. I knew it was Alabama, and it was in a town where I used to visit until the time I was about eighteen years old every summer.

My family is from a small town called Tallassee, Alabama, and I knew it was there. I recognized the place, and that vision became the opening of the novel. But when it first came, I’d never written a novel; I’d only written screenplays. I wrote it down but I didn’t know what to do with it for a long time. I just had the opening. It was only two pages and it’s largely unchanged. It’s still chapter one of the novel.

I started taking classes. I wrote it first as a screenplay. It took maybe three months, six months, to write the screenplay. Then, when it was being optioned, I was invited to a meeting, and I remember sitting there listening to all the talk about the screenplay: how it should develop, who should play what. I said, no that’s not how it goes, that’s not the story. I should have never been there in the first place, but I think I was there for a reason, in hindsight. I had to tell the story.

The first thing I did, I enrolled in UCLA extension. I had this idea but I didn’t know what to do with it. At first, I thought I could copy and paste it from my screenplay and put it in a Word document and it’s a novel. It was horrible, as you can imagine. I started taking classes and I started at page one. The only thing that survived totally was the opening, the vision that I had.

JG: Your mention of Tallassee leads to my next question. Grace is a work of historical fiction and it takes place in Alabama and Georgia. You said you visited that area up until you were eighteen. Did you go back while you were writing the book?

ND: No. I didn’t want to go back. I wanted to remember it the way I did in my childhood. I’ve found that going back to old places, like going back to the old place [where] I grew up in Los Angeles, it doesn’t look anything like I remember it. In our memory, we create our own version of what that reality is. The house looks much smaller. Of course, I was younger when I was there and the neighborhood looks different. I wanted to remember [Tallassee] the way that it was in my memories, the way that it was in that vision. I didn’t feel the need to go back, but I did look on Google Earth just to remember. But then I didn’t want to; I felt I was losing something by even looking. I have to go back this August for our family reunion and I don’t want to go back. All I remember is how green everything looked, just green. Those memories are going to be altered a little when I go back.

JG: Your writing meets head-on the brutality and violence that blacks, slaves, and women endured before, during, and after the Civil War. How did you approach writing these graphic and violent scenes?

Most of the violence that is in those pages are actually from real-life situations, especially the rape. … I wanted to present the crimes of rage that actually change people’s personality and their ability to see the world or trust the world.

ND: I was honest with the violence. I wanted be honest and I had to make a decision. I’m a graphic writer anyway. I couldn’t imagine that kind of violence in my own mind. But there’s some cases that I’ve had recently—2013, 2014 or 2015. There was a point in my career where I said, I can’t do this work anymore because I can’t read these stories, hear this testimony. Because I was representing victims. Most of the violence that is in those pages are actually from real-life situations, especially the rape. A lot was cut out by my editor. I think it haunted me. I wanted to present the crimes of rage that actually change people’s personality and their ability to see the world or trust the world. You could see how it happens and I wanted to show readers that there are some things that you just can’t un-see.

I had a victim I represented. The rape was so brutal and she ended up coming to a clinic that I worked at as an attorney. It literally ripped her as if she’d had a baby—one end to the other, so she had one orifice there. She was raped over several hours by multiple people. When you see that kind of devastation, you ask how does somebody get up, put on their clothes, and walk and go to work or go to school. It’s just devastating. So, it’s not violence from a time gone—this is what’s happening today. Women today. I had a second-grade teacher just a few months ago, end of 2016. A similar case involving her boyfriend. Forty-years-old. We still have these things that happen. We think that’s somewhere else, some other time, but it’s right here. I couldn’t imagine that for anyone.

There’s a line in Grace where one of the characters in the book, a child molester, tells a little girl, “You can touch you anywhere you want.” That was a line from testimony, a case that I had in 2014. So, all that stuff, the violence, is very real.

Women have to deal with it all the time. A lot of this is covered up. These victims are often mothers who are dealing with all this stuff and it’s hard to be good mothers. They’re trying to raise children, and there’s no safe place. It was especially bad for people from older generations who had to endure a lot of things through time. Now there’s more help. Where did you go back then? When there’s no help, no therapist, no one you can talk to that can say, Yeah, that happened to me too. It was such a prison.

JG: There are two stories in Grace—Naomi’s own story (told as flashbacks) and the story Naomi tells as a ghost following the life of her daughter Josie, who is born the day Naomi dies. The chapters alternate between these two threads and stay in Naomi’s point of view. Did you write one story before the other, and how did you settle on the structure of the interwoven narratives?

ND: Initially, when I wrote the story, it was in chronological order. It was the mom’s life, she dies, and then Josie continues. But it didn’t fit well. It didn’t work well for me because I wanted to show the cyclical nature of abuse and how we’ve come to where we are and that we’re still in the cycle.

When I wrote Grace, which was before the election of Trump, people were saying, “Why are we still telling these slave narratives?” And I tell them it’s because we’re still in it. There’s still people angry, who think that something wrong happened. People who think the Civil War—they think everything was wrong. They’re still angry and they still want these things, and we’re still in it and we don’t even realize that we’re in it. We haven’t told this story—exposed this thing. And now we’re seeing it so much, this hate and this anger that never went away. We haven’t healed.

We’ve grown a scab over the wound [of slavery] but it’s all infected. There’s pus underneath it. On top it looks like it’s healing and it’s fine until you take the stitches out and it oozes a little bit…

We’ve grown a scab over the wound but it’s all infected. There’s pus underneath it. On top it looks like it’s healing and it’s fine until you take the stitches out and it oozes a little bit; the pus oozes out, and it’s like, oh, it’s still not healed underneath that skin.

To me, that’s what we’re seeing right now in society. But when I wrote the story, I wanted to show the cyclical nature, that we’re still in this. We haven’t fixed a lot of problems and the problems that we have just passed down from generation to generation.

The reason I chose the flashbacks for the mom is because I’ve always generally been fascinated with people who have near-death experiences. They say, “My life flashed in front of my eyes,” and then they tell the story. And I wonder (and that’s something I put in the book): who chooses what we get to see in our lives? What impression, what moment: being at a wedding, seeing our child being born, meeting the love of our life. Whatever that is, who shows us that? What in our brain, what chemical reaction made us save that one, made us say, “Let’s bookmark this.” Do we do that or does something else? Does the universe do that?

I wanted to use that as a structure to go back in time to show how the narrator came to her moment, but also to show the cyclical nature of Josie going forward. How we’re still in this cycle until we choose to break it. Like any cycle of abuse, you have to choose to walk away. Or choose to deal with it head-on and move away from it. But when we pretend like it’s not there, we end up staying in it. We go from one abusive relationship to another one to another one with a different-looking person but it’s still the same kind of abuse in a different way.

For America, I think that was the theme that I wanted to talk about. How do we look at this thing head-on and choose to do something different? We’re doing that now with the election of Trump. So we’re looking at this thing. Problems that have never resolved and seeing that we’ve only been forming new abusive relationships instead of fixing the problem.

JG:  At a seminar during Antioch’s December 2016 MFA residency, you mentioned that at one point your editors wanted you to eliminate the spirituality part, which would have resulted in taking out half the book. Can you tell us how you dealt with that request and about your final decision to stick to your original intention?

ND:  I knew that my editor knew what he was talking about. Because I’d gone through the MFA program and had dealt with so much criticism, I had to trust that he knew what he was talking about and that it wasn’t working, but I also had to make the decision that I wanted it to work and that I was going to have to earn it. So, I needed to do better. Sometimes people can be right but only you the writer know how to fix your own work. They can only offer you suggestions. That’s one part. It’s earning it. And then the second part is knowing why you’re going to make the change. If I don’t understand or agree with the reason for changing something, I won’t change it. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever change it. It means that either I need to grow as a writer and come to that or just not do it. So, usually I don’t make changes until I can understand why and justify them in my own mind. It doesn’t matter if they’re right or not because at the end of the day, the book on the shelf is your book with your name on it, and it’s your decision. If you don’t understand a comment then don’t do anything, because eventually, down the road, as you grow as a writer, you come to that [realization] if they’re right. It’ll happen anyway.

JG: That’s what happened with Grace?

ND:  By changing other things that weren’t even related to the spirituality, in the sense that certain things had to change that informed each other. There’s a scene between two of the characters—a love scene between two of the women characters. My editor said, “No, you can’t have that”—but the reason he gave didn’t matter to me. I don’t care what people will think about it. Those things didn’t matter to me. What mattered was that I wanted to show this loving relationship and then the type of relationship that it was, but as I began to write, I didn’t need that scene. He said it didn’t work [for] reasons that I didn’t agree with, but it turned out it didn’t work for a whole different reason. It didn’t need to be there. I didn’t want it to be gratuitous. There’s so much violence, there’s sex in the book already, and I didn’t want to water down the loving relationship. He was right that it didn’t need to be there, but for different reasons.

As I changed that part of the story—they’re not going to have sex here—it was the butterfly effect. You can take out something else because you don’t need this conversation, you don’t need this. Because everything serves the story to get you to this point and then it starts changing.

The spirituality part, surprisingly, it’s working out. Everything changes each part that’s connected to it. It changes. I started to understand different things about the story and once I cut one chapter, I understood the spirituality thing better. I was telling [Naomi’s] abilities in the beginning. That was one thing that happened. Telling how she was moving. Once I took that out I realized that it didn’t matter, and there was a way I could make it part of the action. People could learn things without me telling them things, without me telling them the rules. It just changed the whole flow of the novel.

So, she still does the same thing. But I don’t have to tell the reader, here’s the rules, now remember these rules, now let’s apply them. So many stories tell you the rules. Those were the films that I was watching. For example, “This is your scepter and it does this.” Instead, she just did it through action. You see her passing through things; you see her doing things.

JG: Speaking of sex scenes, you also mentioned that your pastor asked to see the manuscript and that you were quite nervous about it, especially the sex scenes. What was his reaction, and was it what you expected?

ND: No, it wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t show it to him before it came out. I showed it to him after the book was already in imprint and going out. I didn’t want any regrets or anything to make me feel bad about it. But he read it, and he said, “I read the whole thing.”  (Nobody ever asks me about the sex scenes [laughing]. Of all the interviews I’ve done, no one says anything. This is the first time.) I said, “So you read the sex scenes?” He said, “I read the whole thing.”  I said, “Okay.” And I just left it at that. That was that.

JG: Early on in Grace, there’s a place where Naomi says that justice is getting what you deserve, mercy is not getting the bad you deserve and grace is getting a good thing even when you don’t deserve it. Naomi says she would have named her daughter Grace had she had the opportunity to name her. Can you elaborate on how this theme plays out in the story?

Social justice isn’t so much standing to defend as it is about understanding what the other side is saying, coming to some middle point. In order to stand, you have to be a bridge in society. That’s what social justice is. Standing up for yourself and being a bridge.

ND:  First of all, Naomi gets to be with her daughter even after she’s passed away. She gets to be there for her, in her life. Which is getting something more than she thought she deserved. She’d killed somebody, not the person she’d been accused of killing, but she had killed somebody. But even though she’s dead and she’s supposed to move on, she doesn’t. She gets this time, these years, to spend with her daughter when she’s alive, though she’s not able to touch her, not until the end when she gets to touch her grandchild. To me, all of that is grace—getting something more than she thought she deserved. Also, sometimes people deserve justice and that’s also what happens in the ending. To me, it was a merger of all these things: mercy, grace, and justice at the end of the book, where they all come together.

That line that you’re reading is the last thing I wrote in the whole novel. I had no idea that that’s what I was writing about until it was over. I got a fellowship to go to Belgium, and I was sitting there and I was supposed to be there for ten days writing, and my editor already had Grace. We were beginning to do the edits. I was sitting there and I was supposed to be writing and editing—and I only wrote that one line, and that was it for the whole ten days.

JG: What advice would you have for young writers today who want to write about social justice for African-Americans and women in our society?

ND: I would tell them first of all to read, to live, to travel. To travel even if it is to the town next-door. Even if you can’t afford Belgium or something like that, or you don’t get a fellowship and you can’t go to New York or Boston. Travel to the next city over and just sit in a café and listen to people. Go places where people don’t agree with you. To understand.

You don’t want to preach to the choir. You want to preach to change hearts, to change minds. Social justice isn’t so much standing to defend as it is about understanding what the other side is saying, coming to some middle point. In order to stand, you have to be a bridge in society. That’s what social justice is. Standing up for yourself and being a bridge. Right now, we live in a society so divided, one against the other. I guarantee you even people who are on my side, we call it the Christian left or just the left, the social justice side, there are people even on my side, who if they get in power their plan is to crush the other side. Now you have exactly what’s happening to us that’s going to happen to the other side. It goes back and forth. I believe in a different America, where we can live respectfully with each other. We have to listen to each other, at some point be a bridge, but still stand up against injustices. That’s social justice. Defending, standing, and also being a bridge so we can have a better America instead of becoming the bullies we hate or being bullied. It’s another option.

JG: What are you working on now?

ND:  I have a new novel right now. I’m really excited about it. It’s a historical novel, and has a supernatural element. I’m excited because I haven’t actually gotten too far into it—everything is a possibility when you start. It’s exciting to be beyond the blank page, the frightening blank page. I know how it goes and I’m so excited. You know, once you start writing it can be like, I suck, I’m horrible, this is the worst story ever written. But right now, I’m on the high and am thinking, This is great!

JG: What time period does it take place in?

ND: So far, I think the early 1900s. But I don’t want to say too much—I don’t want to jinx it!

 

Judy Gitterman Judy Gitterman is a writer who lives in Santa Monica, California. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and a practicing attorney. She has served as co-lead fiction editor of Lunch Ticket, and is currently its assistant editor for writing for young people/YA.

Katrina Dodson, Author & Translator

Katrina DodsonIn 2015, I bought Katrina Dodson’s translation of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, even though I didn’t really know who Lispector was at the time. There was a buzz around this book. Every time I’d go in to Skylight Books (in Los Angeles), I’d see it on the bestseller shelf, and there was something about her eyes, which stared out from the book cover.

I read the collection in its entirety during a semester in my MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, in which I was concentrating on literary translation. It was harrowing, but I couldn’t stop. I’d read in public and then shut the book and stare at passersby, forlorn, like a ghost. I’d snap at people for no reason (embarrassing but true)—I learned I had to give myself time to adjust after reading Lispector, before entering the world of people. I wrote a critical paper about animals and identity in Lispector’s short fiction, but I couldn’t explain why she got under my skin, and still can’t, really.

Without Katrina Dodson, Clarice Lispector never could have gotten under my skin. Among other awards, Dodson won the 2016 PEN Translation Prize for her translation of The Complete Stories. Alongside the rest of the New Directions series of new Lispector translations, Dodson’s translation of these stories helped extend Lispector’s appeal beyond those who were interested in Brazilian literature, or Latin American works in translation. I met Dodson at the 2016 Conference of the American Literary Translators Association, where I heard her give talks in panels about the etiquette of sharing authors with fellow translators, and on translation as performance, where she talked about how absorbing herself in the distinctive work of an author as revered as Lispector sometimes felt like she was channeling “Clarice” (first name only, as she is known in Brazil).

In February 2017, I got the chance to talk to Dodson via Skype about Clarice Lispector, the book that kicked off her career in literary translation, and the life of a translator.

Lauren Kinney: How did you get started translating? Did you translate before you were in graduate school, and how did your academic studies shape your translation practice?

Katrina Dodson: My first experience with translating was taking Latin class as part of my PhD requirement in comparative literature [at University of California Berkeley]. You have to take a classical language. I’ve always been interested in languages, but with Latin, because it’s a dead language, most of what you do is translate the classics of Latin literature, so, speeches by Cicero, poetry by Catullus. I really enjoyed it, and I think, at that moment, I still hadn’t thought about it as opening up this line of translation. The first time I translated something closer to my literary interests was actually Clarice Lispector.

Coming through a comparative literature department, you’re always in dialogue with people who don’t speak the same languages that you do. In different seminars, when I had a professor who didn’t speak Portuguese, I would have to find a translation of the work that I was writing on. And so, it was a mix of being dissatisfied with some of the Clarice Lispector translations of stories I was reading and writing about, and then also just an attempt to understand her stories better. “The Egg and the Chicken” is one of my favorite stories, and I think it’s one of her most puzzling stories. I translated that, and I translated another short story called “Temptation,” about a red-haired girl that has this encounter with a red-haired dog. Those were just in notebooks. It wasn’t until I met a friend-of-a-friend who was a literary agent that I started thinking about translation more. He asked me to be a scout for books that were written in Portuguese by authors who would be interesting to translate into English.

Shortly after I met him, I went to Brazil that summer for research, and I went to a major literary festival in Paraty. It’s called FLIP, the Festa Literária Internacional Paraty. I went to a panel, and I heard two young authors, Emilio Fraia and Vanessa Barbara, read from their [collaborative] novel and talk about it. I just felt this shared humor and sensibility and thought, “Hey, you know, I’m doing this scouting for this person, but what if I also try to translate something myself.” I introduced myself to them, and that became the first thing that I translated for publication: the novel that they wrote together. That was in Two Lines. Do you know Two Lines?

LK: The press?

KD: Yeah, it’s the Center for the Art of Translation, and they have a yearly anthology of literature in translation. I actually sent the sample to McSweeney’s. They weren’t interested, but they sent it off to the editors of Two Lines, because we’re all in San Francisco. You start close to home with people you know. But Two Lines accepted that excerpt, and that got me started. Those two authors independently got their stories accepted into the Brazilian Granta, so when the English Granta decided to translate the Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue (Granta 121), they asked me to translate the selections from those two authors, because they knew I had a relationship with them. That’s how it all started—it’s one thing that leads to another. Then I met Benjamin Moser while he happened to be in Rio. I was there on a Fulbright, and I had been interested in translating some Clarice Lispector, but some smaller, less-known pieces, like crônicas, for a small press. I didn’t know anything about rights at the time. We talked, and he liked me. Almost a year and a half later, he invited me to do The Complete Stories. That was after my work in Granta had come out, and we had a correspondence, so he had a sense of how I worked, and what our dynamic was together.

Short answer is: by accident.

LK: What is the difference between translating short and longer fiction?

Clarice Lispector has a very coherent voice. It’s a very strong voice. … But over the course of eighty-five stories, she’s doing different voices, different characters. Her style changes. That’s what made it a really breathless operation to do all of those stories in just two years’ time.

KD: The nice thing about translating a longer continuous work is you really have time to develop a voice and become immersed in the text. It’s a similar dynamic to working with the same author again. You already have a sense of their voice, and what your voice for them is in English. That was one of the big challenges of doing The Complete Stories: I had to start over again eighty-five times. Clarice Lispector has a very coherent voice. It’s a very strong voice. She has a strong sense of rhythm that has variations, but it’s still very recognizable as “her” over this forty-year career. But over the course of eighty-five stories, she’s doing different voices, different characters. Her style changes. That’s what made it a really breathless operation to do all of those stories in just two years’ time. But I think I got so much faster doing it, because when I translated the stories for Granta, one was eight pages and the other was slightly longer. It took me about a month to do each single story. [Laughs] There is a momentum that accumulates when you do a longer work, even when it’s separate stories.

Right now I am editing someone else’s translation of a poetry collection by a really great poet, Ana Cristina Cesar. She died in 1984, and this collection is from ’82. She committed suicide at the age of thirty or thirty-one. She’s a mix of Sylvia Plath and Gertrude Stein, and a major reference point for all the young Brazilian poets writing today. And the other thing I’m doing is a novel, this experimental modernist novel from 1928 called Macunaíma. That’s a big challenge to do, but because it’s just one novel straight through, I’m able to take things that I’ve invented and worked out for one chapter and apply it across the book, in a way that was harder to do with the Lispector stories.

LK: What do you recommend to translators, beginners or otherwise, who are looking to develop their craft?

KD: I’d say, one, be really aware of your own tastes. I say, read widely, but be aware of what kinds of voices or stories or styles or writers appeal to you, and hone that. It’s important to be aware of what you do well. For me, I know I do humor really well, and I gravitate towards things that are a bit strange, a bit experimental, a bit, maybe, perverse, but also comic. For me, Clarice Lispector’s stories are what I most wanted to do. But I also have a good ear for rhythm, so I gravitate towards authors whose words you can feel in your body. Knowing what you respond to helps you know what to pursue and what to say no to, in terms of your work. I would also read and watch a lot of interviews or writing by other translators.

I didn’t do an MFA. I don’t think you need to do an MFA in translation, but I do think it’s a way to fast track your development and get an instant community. I had that through doing the doctorate, but not in translation, so I was teaching myself by reading a lot of essays about translation.

I also read and watched a lot of interviews when I had questions like: how taboo is it to look at a previous translation of the work that you’re also translating? Do other people do this? How far should you go? I watched a great panel at Columbia University. It was a panel on retranslating the classics with Edith Grossman, Wyatt Mason, who was doing a new translation of Montaigne, and the couple that does all the Russian classics, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. For me, it was really instructive to hear these very established translators talk about even just their workday and their approach. In that sense, you become more aware of your own process, and what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s just nice to hear from other translators what their challenges are on a practical, everyday level.

LK: In preparing to translate The Complete Stories, did you read previous translations beforehand?

KD: I was familiar with Clarice Lispector’s work and the criticism around her. I had studied her and been reading her since my early twenties, even before I went to graduate school. I had known her for already thirteen years, so I felt very comfortable with my knowledge of the range of her work. I had also taught some of her stories, and wrote about some of the translations, especially Elizabeth Bishop’s translations, because my dissertation was on Elizabeth Bishop. She published translations of three Lispector stories.

I was aware of the translations of the stories but I was careful not to go back and look at them until I had finished a polished draft. Even then, I went to look at places where I was having trouble to see what someone else did, when I was curious about the tone. It was almost like having a ghost editor—you see someone else’s suggestions for how to solve a translation problem. Almost always when it’s a situation that calls for creativity, no two people will think of the same solution, but oftentimes I would see something else, and it would give me an idea for a third solution that I thought was better. There were times when I would see [the other translators’] mistakes on simple things, or they would help me catch my mistakes. That’s one benefit of coming after—you can check in with other translations and do these little checks that an editor would do for you.

I did read all of the other translations in the same series from New Directions that I was joining. The Complete Stories was the sixth book to be translated in this new series, and I’d already read the others. I read The Hour of the Star and then the four novels that came out at the same time, and so that helped me get a sense of what the “Clarice house style” was, but at the same time it let me see what the distinct variations were among the translators, because whether you realize it or not, your voice and your use of language is your own, even if you try to neutralize it, or write outside of what you think is your own voice. There was a translator from Australia, one from England, one from Houston, one from Pennsylvania. We have all different kinds of regional, international Englishes, and that comes through in each person’s individual translation. (The constant is Benjamin Moser as editor.) It helped clear up some questions about, say, how literal or not to follow her punctuation or the idiosyncrasies of her voice. That’s a really unique situation in that I was not translating in a total vacuum—it’s a part of a series —so that was important for me to understand where this translation fit in with the others and how readers were going to put them all together to make this tessellated portrait of Clarice Lispector.

LK: That makes sense. I’ve also heard you talk about channeling Clarice Lispector as you translated her work, both to conjure her distinctive voice and also to feel, perhaps, less intimidated by the task. I was wondering if you feel the same sense of channeling an author when you’re translating someone who’s not Clarice Lispector, or if there are other translation metaphors that resonate with you in those cases?

KD: I think that it varies from author to author. It’s very different to translate a famous dead writer or poet than to be translating a living one, of course. I’d say that when you’re translating someone, it’s such an intimate relationship, and you’re thinking about them all the time, and what went through their head as they were writing and what their voice was like, and you feel that you’re trying to tap into the current of life that is in their work. I can say that right now, working on these other authors’ work, I have Ana Cristina Cesar in my head. I have lines of her poetry in my head all the time. I think about what kind of person she was. I have Mário de Andrade, who wrote Macunaíma—I’m thinking about him also all the time, and to what degree he was being ironic in places, or when he was having fun, or when he was kind of agonizing over pieces of his masterpiece novel. So you’re always kind of haunted.

But I do think that there was something particularly strong about the idea of this intimate communion with Clarice, as she’s known in Brazil. She’s known by her first name, so you can just call her Clarice. [Laughs.] The reason that it’s so much stronger with her is that she has a very intimate voice in her writing. It sounds like she’s whispering directly into your ear like a lover or sister or mother. In a lot of her writing, she has these moments that feel like she’s just thinking with you, or revealing these deep philosophical or spiritual truths that she’s come to.

[Lispector] had religion and spirituality all around her. On top of that, in Rio, you have also a strong current of Afro-Brazilian religions—she writes about Candomblé, which is sometimes called Macumba, in some of her stories. There’s a strong current of spirituality in her work, and she was interested in the occult. She went to a fortune-teller. She was interested in astrology.

I think of her as something of a mystic. She came from a Jewish family that escaped the pogroms in what’s now Ukraine, and grew up in a Jewish household in one of the most Catholic countries in the world. She had religion and spirituality all around her. On top of that, in Rio, you have also a strong current of Afro-Brazilian religions—she writes about Candomblé, which is sometimes called Macumba, in some of her stories. There’s a strong current of spirituality in her work, and she was interested in the occult. She went to a fortune-teller. She was interested in astrology. She’s always talking about magic and witches, and she was invited to the First World Congress of Sorcery in Bogotá in 1975.

Even if you were a person who had learned through academia or a more secular upbringing to be skeptical or wary of being overly mystical or judged for thinking that you’re communing with the dead, it’s just something that she brings out in you.

This was my first book-length translation. Going from academia and writing in a scholarly context where you have to ground everything you write in all kinds of research and footnotes and facts or, some kind of grounded subjectivity—for me it was liberating and an important creative awakening to be able to approach this work, which I knew very well, from the perspective of translation. Part of this ability to think about what it means to channel someone’s voice, or to feel an intimate relationship to this writer, freed me to be able to think about having a closer relationship to Clarice Lispector in her work without shutting down that line of thinking or feeling as irresponsible as I would as a scholar.

It was such an enriching experience to think about her work on a deep level and intuit what she was doing in her writing, to understand it in order to reproduce it, rather than to write about it in an analytical way, which ends up shutting doors or giving premature answers to these questions that she opened up.

Just one caveat to that is that I think people should be writing about her both inside and outside of academia. I’m excited to see what these new translations generate in terms of thinking about her work. It’s very fraught, especially for me personally, to try to write about her in a more analytical way, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth trying to understand her from many different angles. I’ve been invited to a Clarice Lispector academic conference at Columbia University. They’ve invited me to give a paper, so I’m thinking of it as an opportunity to think about her both from my experience translating her but also from a scholarly perspective at the same time.

LK: You’ve avoided doing that so far, since you’ve been translating her?

KD: The way I’ve written about her, for example in my translator’s note and in various lectures I’ve given at different universities, is somewhere in between. That’s exciting for me. Anytime we’re able to fuse our different areas of knowledge and training, it’s very satisfying. I don’t think of myself as just a translator or just a scholar; I also think of myself as a writer. It’s exciting to try to figure out how to think and write about Clarice Lispector on a deep level that draws on this intimate reading experience I’ve had of her through translation, but also takes into account things that other people have written about her—things about her role in Brazilian literature or in world literature.

For example, for this conference, I’m thinking about the role of voice in Clarice Lispector. In a practical sense, I thought about what made her voice so strong and coherent as I was translating in order to reproduce it. But I’ve also given papers about translation as performance and how in some ways, it’s like you’re interpreting a script, or you’re like a musician or a singer interpreting a score. These things are coming out of my own experience, but I’ve also been reading more in translation theory, and I’m looking to read more on other theorizing of voice in literature to expand and ground my thinking.

I’m writing an essay about the translation that’s based on this translation notebook I was keeping. I kept this journal for the whole two years, just writing down random Google searches, or interesting translation challenges that were coming up, or things that were going through my brain. That document is both very personal and a more analytical look at the practices of translation, and the things that I was noticing about Lispector’s work that I had never thought about before translating her. That essay and that book will be some hybrid of personal writing mixed with theory of translation, and it would be a book for people who are interested in understanding Lispector’s work more, and thinking about it on a different level.

LK: I love that idea of keeping a translation notebook. I might steal that idea. It seems very useful.

KD: It’s very useful. What language are you translating from?

LK: Spanish. I have done one semester of that so far. Antioch’s MFA program is low residency, so I had a mentor, and sent pages to him and then he’d give me notes. I have been struggling to imagine what it will be like when I don’t have someone to send things to and have a conversation.

KD: I’m a mentor now in the Mills MFA program, also low-res, so it’s a similar thing. My student translates Francophone literature. It’s such a solitary practice and there are so many little decisions and little trails of research that you do on so many different levels. There’s so much stuff going through your head that it’s nice to let it out somewhere without thinking about organization or the logic of what you’re writing.

I call it a notebook because it sounds good, but I just had a Word document open whenever I was translating, and it was just a dump. Something would come into my head, or something funny would happen. No one was accompanying me the whole time. When I laughed with myself, or wanted to remember something for later, I would write the date and then write down whatever observations were going through my head. I do think that it is a good way to become more aware of your process and what you’re doing.

For me, it’s a nice document of my development over this two-year project, because so much changed. It took me six months to translate the first two collections. (The stories come from nine different collections.) And then with everything else, I got faster and faster and faster and faster.

But I think there’s a lot of self-doubt in the beginning, a lot of fear and anxiety. I can even track in that journal the point when I felt like I really had it, and her voice had come together, and I had internalized a lot of decisions I was making based on various algorithms of dictionaries, internet searches, and this Excel spreadsheet of key words and how I was translating them. At a certain point, something switched and I had more clarity about what directions to take. In some ways that didn’t happen till I was going through the edits. I sent Benjamin Moser one collection as I was working on it, and he sent me back edits so I could see what direction he was going in, but then I just translated the whole entire thing and didn’t see his edits until the very end. It was in going through his edits and figuring out, okay, that’s a good idea, that sounds good to me. Okay, definitely no, that’s not the voice, definitely not this… It was great to respond on a gut level to the edits and feel what was automatically better, [what] streamlined things, and what didn’t work for me. It would make me dig for a new solution.

What you were saying about how you’re in dialogue with your mentor right now—I’ve actually never done a translation without being in dialogue with someone. Maybe Macunaíma, the one I’m doing now—but I always at least have an editor. The young authors also speak English and so we would talk about the text a lot. This poetry collection I’m editing, it’s with Brenda Hillman, the poet, and we’re working on it with another Brazilian poet, so the three of us are always in dialogue, and I always have a group of colleagues on the Portuguese side and on the English side whom I send questions to and where we have things going back and forth.

LK: I’ve been reading short fiction by Joy Williams lately, and she wrote a list of eight essential attributes of the short story, and number four is “An animal within to give its blessing.”

KD: Ha! I love that. [Laughs]

LK: And every single story of Joy Williams that I’ve read has an animal, even if it’s just mentioned in passing. Number five on Williams’s list is “Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior.” Both of these things remind me of Lispector, although unlike Williams, Lispector’s characters seem to act out their inner worlds erratically without explaining them, necessarily. I think those two things are related in Lispector’s writing—the animals and the erratic human characters—something about beings who don’t communicate with words. I wanted to ask you about what you see the role of animal characters in her stories are.

KD: I love this question, and I want to get the reference! I’ve been meaning to read Joy Williams for a while now. Ever since The Visiting Privilege came out, people keep telling me that I would love her and I keep hearing people rave about her. You just pushed me over the edge, so I need to get that book today. [Laughs]

LK: That’s what I just read: [The Visiting Privilege].

KD: Which story is it from?

LK: This was a list she wrote to Lincoln Michel when he interviewed her for VICE, trying to explain where her stories come from.

KD: Those two things speak to a lot of what is powerful and so absorbing in Clarice Lispector’s writing, and especially in the stories. There are animals everywhere, and one of the things I love most about her is the way that she writes about animals. She gets their movements, the tilt of a head of this animal called the coati in “The Buffalo.” It’s so perfect.

I was actually just in the Amazon and I met one of these coatis. They’re like a cross between a fox and a possum and a raccoon. They’ve got this little long nose, so adorable. And it tilts its head in this quizzical way in that story, and it kills me. All the monkeys, the chickens. Her animals are both very animal and at the same time feel very human because she imbues them with so much personality—but stops short of completely anthropomorphizing them. It’s always a joke. In the story “A Chicken,” the chicken is almost like a woman. She’s almost human, but then all of a sudden, she’ll be apathetic and blinking, with her little button eyes, just like a chicken. Then they just eat her. There’s a lot of humor and affection, and also deep philosophical truths about the condition of being and living in the world, in the way Lispector depicts animals.

There’s some way in which she’s writing in a grammar, a style, and a logic that defy what we think of as logical or rational, but because her interior voice does become exterior and it’s so coherent and seductive, it draws the reader into its world, until the logic of that interior world surrounds you.

So much of her writing is trying to get beyond language and the way it shuts down understanding and feeling and experience. It’s one of the central conundrums in her work; she writes with this deep suspicion of language and what it shuts down, even as it is the medium that she’s chosen to work in. But that’s also why she’s always tripping up your reading with strange commas or new combinations of words, or words that seem like they’re just the wrong word in the situation, but that make you stop and think—I give some examples in my translator’s note. There’s some way in which she’s writing in a grammar, a style, and a logic that defy what we think of as logical or rational, but because her interior voice does become exterior and it’s so coherent and seductive, it draws the reader into its world, until the logic of that interior world surrounds you.

A story like “The Imitation of the Rose” is incredible. You’re really inside this woman’s head. It’s about a housewife, Laura, who has recently returned from a mental institution. You don’t know exactly what the nature of her episode or crisis was, but you can tell that everyone around her is walking on eggshells, and she’s got to drink her milk every day, and she’s trying to hold on to this sense of a banal self and her role as a housewife and a normal woman. She wears brown, and she’s not supposed to be special in any way. It’s such a strange story because if you try to explain the story, you say, “This is a story about mental illness, and it’s about a woman who had a mental breakdown, and she and her husband and everyone around her are trying to keep her on the straight and narrow, keep her part of sane society.” But if you’re inside the logic of the story and her head, there’s all this stuff about her trying not to be brilliant and shining and special and original, like there’s something about her that’s too bright and too much for the boring people around her. But they also read that as a sign of there being something wrong with her. It’s an incredible story.

Clarice Lispector used to be married to a diplomat. She had this whole life before they got divorced and she went back to Brazil in which she lived in Italy, Switzerland, and D.C. She had to be this conventional diplomat’s wife, and put roses in the finger bowls, shake hands, and have this plastered smile on her face. In one of her letters to her sisters, she talks about a woman in her circle who uses this adjective “original” to describe things that make her uncomfortable, like artists or ideas, and she’s always saying about Clarice, “She’s so original.”

[Laughter] It’s this suspicious adjective to use against people who are different, and so Clarice thinks, I try not to be original but I guess I’m just too “original” for this woman and these people. That’s something I think about in a story like that, one that has an incredible way of surrounding you and making you feel as if you’re losing your own mind and your grip on reality, just by being inside the mind of this woman.

LK: You mentioned understanding. There is a lot of talk these days about how fiction increases readers’ capacities for empathy, as a defense of literature, when it seems like the appetite for literature and people’s capacity for empathy is embattled. I thought about that as I was reading your translation of her stories. You said that Lispector’s writing is meant to disrupt understanding. Do you think we’re meant to empathize with her characters, and do you empathize with her characters?

KD: I get so tired out by the need to defend literature’s usefulness in terms of these measurable, moral and productive terms. Obviously this is important for humanity, thinking about our own interior experiences and how they bump up against other people’s interior and exterior experiences, so I always feel tired out by the weak position of literature and always having to defend it in this capitalist society, or usefulness-driven society.

That said, Clarice Lispector, even despite some of her more abstract or impenetrable work, also had a very deep feeling for her fellow humans, and that comes out most clearly in the [short] stories. It comes out throughout her novels, especially The Hour of the Star and its character, Macabéa. Both started out poor in the Northeast, which was part of Clarice Lispector’s history, but this character is from a totally different social and educational class than what Lispector ended up in. I think it’s all over her work, but what draws me to the [short] stories especially is that there’s a lot of humor and affection for human frailty and hypocrisy, human struggle and pain. There’s specifically a lot about women’s everyday lives, especially in Brazil in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, through the ’70s—a lot about the struggles women faced with having to live up to these ideals of what a “perfect woman” should be, and being defined as a mother, a wife, and not being able to realize her own potential as an individual. The ways that women are condescended to.

There’s a short story, which is more of a crônica, called “Mineirinho,” about an escaped convict in Rio who was shot down by the police in the ’60s—killed with thirteen shots, no trial, just killed—and his body was tossed in the forest in a different part of Rio than where he got shot down in the favelas. It made headlines in its time. I find that crônica brutal and so powerful because she’s asking, what does it mean to be safe in our apartments in the bourgeois neighborhood of Copacabana and witness someone who was gunned down? You feel her anguish—I think it’s what a lot of us are feeling now, and in the last few years of attention on problems of police brutality. You want to scream; no words will contain this combination of outrage. But you also feel guilt and impotence as a witness to these things, and as someone who might be less vulnerable than these other bodies. I don’t think that Lispector had an agenda to make people empathize with these other characters—she’s sometimes been accused of being apolitical. I think that she never really had a political or moral agenda that she wanted to put forth in her writing—you’re not meant to do anything but just read her work and be open to it—but I do think that it’s very clear that she had a deeply ingrained sense of justice and a sense of outrage to injustice. It comes out in so many subtle ways in her writing. Then, at other times, it will explode in a more overt way, like in “Mineirinho” or in The Hour of the Star.

There was just something else I wanted to say about animals and erratic characters. That’s an apt juxtaposition in that part of the humor, empathy, and wisdom in her stories comes from her understanding of all the ways that we act outside of the limits of what we’ve been taught by language, or “rational thought.” There are so many ways in which [her characters] act impulsively, or in these funny, petty ways, or lose sense of what they’re doing from a human, social point of view. That’s where the human and the animal, or the animal and the human, meet up: in these moments when a character, whether human-animal or animal-animal, is acting in these ways that make total sense in the context of the story and Lispector’s narration, but which, from a perspective of someone who’s thinking about the rules of society, seem totally erratic, insane, or out of the blue. But there are so many ways in which we act and we can’t explain. [Laughs] That is a great wisdom of Clarice Lispector’s writing. She understood on an intuitive level, and she was very interested in these outbursts of passion or impulse that happen in our daily lives that are unexplainable.

I do think that’s why we keep going back to her stories and her writing with the desire to explain them. A lot of readers understand her stories on an instinctive level, but find them hard to explain if you try to break them down.

She gave a famous TV interview in the year that she died: 1977. The interviewer asks her about the difficulty of some of her books, like The Passion According to G.H., and she says it’s not about intelligence, but about an inability to enter into the writing. She says there’s a teacher at this very prestigious private high school in Rio, who says he’s read The Passion According to G.H. four times and still can’t understand it. Meanwhile there’s an eighteen-year-old girl who says that it’s her bedside reading, and one of the most important books to her; she’s been able to enter into it on an instinctive level. That’s another reason that there are so many ways to enter into Lispector that are outside of a scholarly approach, or even a rationalized, analytical approach. There are many ways to enter into her writing without having to be able to explain everything that’s going on in her stories in a sentence-by-sentence level.

 

Lauren Kinney is a writer and musician in Los Angeles. She is a student of fiction and literary translation in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work can be found in Queen Mob’sDrunk MonkeysThe Turnip Truck(s) and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @lauren_kinney.

Dara Hyde, Literary Agent

Dara HydeDara Hyde loves books. After a decade as an editor and rights and permissions manager at the independent publisher Grove Atlantic in New York, Hyde moved to Los Angeles to become an agent at Hill Nadell. Hyde represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, including young adult, genre fiction, graphic novels, narrative nonfiction, and memoir.

In February 2017, I interviewed Dara over the phone in a conversation that went by in the blink of an eye. Her knowledge and interest in her work is palpable, and her answers reflect her experience and investment in quality work. She’s motivated to make sure everyone who wants to write understands what it takes to get a literary agent, because that’s what’s best for publishing.

That’s largely what we talked about, with a little bit of politics and its impact on writing and literature mixed in. When we finished talking, I had a much better idea of what it takes to get a literary agent. I mentioned this to Dara and she said, “That’s the whole idea!”

Emma Margraf: For my first question, I thought I would start out basic and ask you to tell me about your daily life as a literary agent. I don’t think that a lot of folks really know what your life is like.

Dara Hyde: I agree: a lot of it seems shrouded in mystery. One of the things that I actually love about my day as a literary agent is that it is never the same. Even days where I think, “This is what my day is going to be,” things can come up and change. Maybe the easiest way is to say what I have to do today… because it is all over the place. Today I had a deal announcement that was reported in the Hollywood Reporter. It was a big, fun exclusive, so I was monitoring that. I have a call later with a client, to go over a contract, which we have some issues with. I’m also going to be talking to a client [about] retooling a book that we sent out and didn’t get the responses we wanted from a couple editors; we are going to pull the manuscript back, retool it, and send it out again. I’m discussing with an editor [regarding] which one of us has a better relationship with a big-time author, to ask for a blurb for a book that’s coming out. I have a book that’s on deadline to go into production, so I have a call into the editor to make sure that’s going okay. I have to prepare an update for our foreign co-agents, [to] help us sell translation rights on a book that’s getting a lot of really good reviews, so that they can help finish getting foreign deals for that book. I have clients who are headed to Los Angeles to do meetings with film studios about a show for their book, and they are really nervous—I am going to talk them through that. I have to chase a few publishers who are late on their royalty reports.

None of those things involve me reading, even though that’s one of the biggest parts of my job—that all comes later in the evening, or on the weekends. Some days I take a reading day, when I know I am going to get through a bunch of stuff. Because during the day—even though it’s so much a part of my job, [reading] gets pushed down sometimes, especially on submissions, [in favor of] all the books that I already have deals for or are in process. I get help. I have an assistant who helps me read. We get so many submissions. I definitely need help on that. From there, [I] look at the ones that come in with promise.

Agents are involved with their clients throughout the entire process. From getting the book ready to submit to publishers, to negotiating the deal, to making sure the book goes through production correctly, and then also helping them exploit all of the sub-rights that go along with a book—whether that’s film and TV, or merchandising or foreign rights—we help with every stage of it. After all that, making sure they get paid correctly and all of that.

EM: What are your primary goals and objectives? Reading, or helping the author through the process?

DH: Being an ally for the writer throughout the entire process and getting deals, that’s our main thing. I don’t get paid unless I can secure a deal for my client. A lot of our focus is “which books are the most ready to go out,” and pushing to make sure that those deals happen. Then from there, you need to make sure that the publisher is doing what they need to do, and that the writer knows what they need to do, and that everyone is comfortable. You do spend some time being an intermediary and helping communications.

Let’s say a cover comes from the publisher (and they usually give you a few examples), and they say, “These are the three covers we think are the best.” They want the writer and the agent to buy in and agree—but sometimes you have to negotiate. What if you love the cover and the author hates it? Or the publisher and the author disagree on which cover is the best? There are a lot of discussions like that. It’s making sure the entire process works well so it’s a great experience for everyone.

There’s also researching new editors I may not know, or keeping track of who has moved from one publishing house to another, or if somebody has a new publishing initiative. There is research that goes on in the background all the time. On any given day, the focus may be different depending on what the client needs that day.

EM: Do you have authors or genres that you are particularly interested in representing?

DH: I have a really diverse list. It seems eclectic—except that it’s all stuff that I love. I worked in a publishing house for years before I became an agent. I worked at Grove Atlantic, which has an amazing list, but it’s a little narrow. They don’t do graphic novels that often, or children’s books, or genre-heavy books. When I became an agent, what was exciting for me was that I could be a generalist. If I think something is really great—if I know how to sell it and I have a vision for it—I take that client on. That’s allowed me to have a really diverse list. I represent graphic novels. I represent fiction. I represent nonfiction. I have lots of experience with literary fiction, so my list is probably heaviest with literary fiction. But I’ve noticed that my tastes tend towards something [with] a genre twist. I love lots of different types of genre, whether that’s thrillers or some supernatural or fantasy elements. I’m not someone who would do just straight fantasy, because it doesn’t appeal to me quite as much. I don’t have quite the same vision for it. I do say no to strong projects when I think, “I really don’t know how to do this.” The agency represents so much but I don’t necessarily have experience, say, in cookbooks. I wouldn’t be the best advocate for that. But Bonnie [Nadell], the other agent in the office, does. She’s great with them and she knows exactly how to shape them. I’m limited to my own expertise. I do some YA and graphic novels, but the much younger children’s books are not my area of expertise, either.

Every agent is looking for something fresh, something with strong language and, also, really readable. It’s always exciting when you find something new like that, whether it comes from recommendations, or from the slush pile. Something smart and unique, that makes that writer the writer to tell that story. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, there has to be this vital need to tell that story.

EM: Graphic novels are among the top sellers right now. I’ve noticed a lot of market stories about them. Is there something in particular that draws you to that particular genre?

DH: I’ve liked graphic novels for a long time. My husband (in full disclosure), worked at Random House and then DC Comics for years and years. Even before that, he educated me on the comics medium, way back in college. When something really great would come along, he would pass it to me. He knows my reading taste. I started to understand the medium much more. He has his own PR firm where he does publicity for comic book creators and writers. When I became an agent, I knew some people who already worked in the graphic novel world and they were like, “I need an agent.” There had already been some relationships started. From there it just grew.

I have to navigate when somebody sends me something: one, do I love it; two, do I actually think that it fits in the marketplace right now, and do I know where it can go.

In the comic-book world, when somebody works for one of the really big publishers like DC or Marvel, a lot of that is work-for-hire. That’s working on the [publisher’s] own intellectual property, which doesn’t necessarily have an agent attached. But when somebody creates their own material, where they’re making up their own characters and stories—that’s where the agent often comes in. That’s the stuff I represent. It usually goes to independent publishers, sometimes a graphic novel imprint within a much bigger book publisher, or sometimes a publisher that just does comics and graphic novels. I have to navigate when somebody sends me something: one, do I love it; two, do I actually think that it fits in the marketplace right now, and do I know where it can go. The graphic novel marketplace is quite different; a lot of the different publishers have very different ways of doing business. It’s a different model because of the way they structure their business. One of the most exciting things for me is to see how many bookstores are carrying graphic novels and how much it’s going toward a younger audience: middle grade and high school. Schools and librarians are using it as a literacy tool. That opens up storytelling to a whole new group of people who may not have necessarily been interested in books.

EM: The graphic novel world is a different world. I, too, was introduced to it as an adult. You walk into Comic Con [the San Diego Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention], and there are thousands of people dressed in costumes. It’s so vast and multifaceted. It makes sense to me that you describe it as operating with a different foundation. Because it has its own separate world in a way that it seems like many other genres do not. Is that correct?

DH: It is. Within that medium there are many different types of storytelling. Within that medium, there is stuff that is literary, stuff that’s pulpy; there is stuff that is aimed for younger audiences, and stuff that’s aimed at older audiences; stuff that is very unique, stuff that’s black and white or in full color. For me I love good stories coupled with good art. It is such a huge spectrum. For a long time it seemed like a closed group of people who read them. You would get people who were interested in reading monthly comics from established creators with established characters, and then there were indie stories that were being told. Now it’s expanded so much that the readership is much wider. I know grandmothers who read graphic novels and I know young kids who read them. It’s another form of entertaining, writing, and getting a message across. Nonfiction graphic novels are doing really well right now, whether it’s as a way to talk about history or memoir to a younger audience, or even to an older audience. It’s a different way of digesting material.

EM: You see that with John Lewis winning the National Book Award this year.

DH: Absolutely! Which is so exciting.

Presenting something as serious and important as John Lewis’s civil rights history in a graphic novel is really something. Maus [the series by Art Spiegelman] had done it years before. It’s a powerful medium. The fact that you can marry the pictures with the words—it changes for some people the power of images.

EM: For those of us who are history fans, the combination of John Lewis and Colson Whitehead winning this year was amazing.

DH: Presenting something as serious and important as John Lewis’s civil rights history in a graphic novel is really something. Maus [the series by Art Spiegelman] had done it years before. It’s a powerful medium. The fact that you can marry the pictures with the words—it changes for some people the power of images. It’s one reason why memoir and nonfiction graphic novels are seeing more popularity than they used to.

EM: Just to get back to the process for a bit, are there specific characteristics of a piece of writing that are sure to get somebody noticed?

DH: The biggest thing for me is to do the work. It is to work so hard on writing the best thing you can write and being true to that. There are different agents who deal with only one specific kind of book or who chase trends. I don’t. Sometimes I will be aware of trends—but for me finding that original, strong voice is the most important thing. So that’s what I’m looking for: someone who has done the work. Once you’ve done the work, once you’ve written the most amazing thing you could—you’ve revised it and revised it and revised it, you’ve had beta readers, and you feel like, “This is as far as I can take it by myself. Okay, now I need an agent.” Then you stop [the writing] to do the research there.

What some people don’t realize is that there are a lot of agents, and they all are looking for different things or have different expertise. It is worth the time for someone to do the research and to do a targeted outreach on submissions. We get so many a day. When I switched from being at a publishing house to being at an agency, there was a little Publisher’s Weekly write-up that I had done—just a job-move posting, which is an industry insider thing. That went up and within the first week I got 800 submissions from people I didn’t know. Not even the people who were like, “Dara is now an agent. I’m going to send her something.” These were just cold emails. Eight hundred. We now get several hundred a week. That’s a huge volume, so you [the writer] have to figure out how to stand out. We don’t look to say “no.” We’re looking to find great stuff, but if you send it to “Dear Sirs” and this is an agency with only women agents—that tells me that you didn’t do your homework. Also, if you just say, “Dear agent,” even just that first line, why are you sending it to me? You can find out what I represent online very easily. That didn’t used to be the case. There were obscure books that you had to really search to find out who the agents were; it’s not that way anymore. We want to know why you are sending it to us and we want to know what you are looking for in an agent. Even if you are sending it to a lot of agents, you just want it to be agents that make sense. If you have written a cookbook and you send it to me, why would you do that? Unless you say, “Actually it’s a graphic novel cookbook.”

Query letters are super hard to do and it is worth working on them. It is important to try to represent your work in as succinct and as professional a way as possible. It is a professional relationship, and so we look for professional letters. We don’t want something that is too familiar if you don’t know us; we don’t want something that is combative. Some are combative right off the bat, which is really strange. It should be proofread and well-written. A poorly written query letter is usually not followed by an amazing manuscript. Some are like, “I’m going to do something to really catch their attention,” and that can work sometimes, but it has to relate to what you’ve written or it has to show your voice. If you have written a very serious literary work but your letter to me is full of weird jokes, that doesn’t quite match. If your book is supposed to be funny, a funny query letter isn’t a bad idea. It needs to convey simple information: this is who I am. Even if you haven’t written other things, what else do you do? Who are you? This is my book; it is in this particular genre, or type of book. Here’s something about one of the main characters. Here’s a little bit about the plot, enough to get you interested. Having a good log-line is helpful. If you can’t explain in a line or two what your book is about, that makes it really hard for someone else to understand what your book is about.

EM: Did you say log-line? Can you explain that?

DH: People use it in film. It’s just a quick thing, like the elevator pitch. It’s a quick way to distill your book, which is hard to do. Some people will ask other people to help them with that, because sometimes it is hard to talk about your own work. So you have a beta reader and you can talk about it with them: what do you think my book is about?

The other thing is to be a good literary citizen, to be involved somehow in the literary world. Whether that is reading a lot of contemporary books, going to readings at local bookstores, supporting other writers on social media, or contributing to journals. There are some people who can work in a vacuum, but being part of a writing community is a really helpful thing. It could be a book group or a writing group. It’s an important thing for sanity.

EM: Do you think there is a social justice component to your work?

DH: I definitely have writers and projects that I represent that have a strong social justice component, but I have other ones that don’t, that are for pure enjoyment or escape. I think there is room for all of that, and there is room for all of that within my clients. Some clients have work that has a social component and then switch to another project that doesn’t. In general right now, it feels like just continuing to write and to tell stories is social justice. [Laughs] Free speech as a general idea.

The million-dollar offers don’t happen that often, and [most times it’s] not a lot of money to live on unless you’ve been doing it a long time or you get very lucky. That also scares people away from it as a job.

To be honest, post-election and even during the election, we had talks in the office: “I’m not a human rights lawyer, I’m not a brain surgeon, I’m not on the front lines of certain things—but at the same time I feel strongly that reading, education, and the arts are incredibly important for our government, our system, and for our culture and society.” That won’t go away, and maybe it’s now even more important to just allow the imagination; to allow research. Publishing has work to do as far as diversity, but some of it is not for a lack of trying. I have a diverse client base and I’m always looking for new, different voices. Sometimes it seems like such a strange and remote place. People don’t know how books are published and they don’t know how people even get to find publishers. Doing talks like this and being open about the process should help. Unfortunately, except for very few people, [this business] doesn’t pay well. A lot of my writers have full-time jobs, most of them do, and I encourage them to keep those jobs. [Sometimes] you do really well and you find the book deals that make a lot of money, but even then it gets split up over several payments over several years. The million-dollar offers don’t happen that often, and [most times it’s] not a lot of money to live on unless you’ve been doing it a long time or you get very lucky. That also scares people away from it as a job. I was a scholarship student, I do not have anything to fall back on, and we’ve [my husband and I] had to figure out ways to be in an industry that doesn’t necessarily support you financially until you get to a certain level, whether you are a writer or you are on the other side of publishing. When the overtime rules came through from the Obama administration, there was a lot of talk about how in publishing, people work overtime constantly. It’s a 24/7 job. As an assistant, I didn’t do all my work in the office; I would read on the subway on the way home and on the way to work; I would read at night—and that was all work. I had to read these manuscripts—but of course, you don’t get paid for that. That also is a stumbling block. There are a lot of people in publishing who come from money.

Honestly, on an economic level, that can be a huge barrier for anybody. It was almost a huge barrier for me, but I figured out a way to make it work. It’s not just having new voices out there, it’s also finding a way to make it sustainable. That part’s really hard, and I don’t have a solution for that. The profits in publishing are incredibly small. For most publishers, they do get a few big books and those help subsidize smaller books that don’t make money, and they still continue to do it because they believe in publishing.

EM: Talking about writing communities… For those, say, in a small town, can they still succeed if they don’t have access to big city events? Can anyone succeed in the digital age?

DH: Part of it is access to books, whether it’s libraries or bookstores or even online. The internet does help bring people from far-off areas together and [helps books] be part of a culture. I was raised with books; we had no money but I was raised with books, and my child is raised with books. Having a culture where the only time you read a book is because you are assigned it in school: that’s not going to help. There are places that are book deserts, where it’s really hard to get access to them. But there are also little free libraries popping up all over the place, and book exchanges in places where there aren’t necessarily libraries or mobile libraries. There are a lot of writers who are vocal about that, writers who have reached a certain level of success, and [are] giving back, whether it’s donations to bookstores, doing work with libraries, or [bringing] the community together. Some people think they are only publishing in New York; that’s not true anymore.

I’m based in Los Angeles. There are others, both on the agent side and the publishing side, [who are in] Washington, Oregon, the Bay Area, San Diego, Austin, Denver, or Chicago. More of the industry is scattered than there used to be. New York is still the center. We also have writers from all over the world. I represent quite a few writers from west of the Mississippi, but also from the East Coast and from foreign countries. That’s the internet: the ability for people to email and communicate with each other, [while] not being in the exact same spot. There are also reading groups and reading series that are popping up. Salons have been around for centuries, not just for wealthy people, as a way to talk about ideas and books, and as a way to come together.

EM: Simon & Schuster got quite a backlash for publishing* Milo Yiannopoulos, including Roxane Gay backing out of her book deal. Does this affect your work? Is the current political climate is affecting your work? Our current president is not a reader…

DH: Right, and we’re coming from a president who was a huge reader and very vocal about reading. Before that, First Lady [Laura] Bush was a huge reader and a librarian. Publishing does always react to the state of the world around it, just like a lot of industries do. I tend to represent books that I believe in, and [that] are somewhat aligned with my own political beliefs, [but] beliefs that don’t match my own still have a right to be heard. The First Amendment is first for a reason. At the same time, giant publishers have so many imprints, so the imprint that Milo’s book was sold to has always been a very conservative one. It publishes books that are in line with that particular political point of view, but within Simon & Schuster, there are other imprints that do completely the opposite. I’ve sold to Simon & Schuster, and I actually have a YA novel there that has a huge social justice component coming out next year. A big writer like Roxane Gay has the wherewithal and the muscle to back out of a deal that a lot of people don’t—and I don’t necessarily think they should. If you boycott everything a particular publisher does, you are hurting the writers who actually may be writing something you agree with. I can’t speak for [Simon & Shuster], but I wouldn’t have represented that book, nor would I have sold it. But I may have represented something that is the complete opposite, which also deserves to be heard. That part’s complicated.

I was actually at a reading for a novel last week—not a political novel, but there was a political question [posed] to the author. That will happen more and more; something not political can be viewed in a political light. It’s a dialogue and that dialogue is healthy, and asking tough questions is great. If it allows for a broader conversation, and allows for journalists to get book deals that they might not have gotten in the past because they are doing great investigative journalism—then that’s also a great thing.

EM: Do you see the polarized nature of our country potentially affecting your work?

DH: Not necessarily. Fortunately, the books that I represent and a vast majority of the books that sell go to people who read. There is a big portion of the population who doesn’t read. They do all those surveys on how many books did you read this year. Some say they didn’t read any books at all—and I think those people will continue not to read. Right now, in film and TV, so many shows and movies are based on books or graphic novels; that points people back to books sometimes, which is great. I know that’s a little backwards, but it makes people interested.

I don’t feel like every submission that comes to me has to be political, or people [have] to completely change what they’ve written to reflect the times, but I do expect that we’ll see some more [political books], or even just books that have already been written [will] be politicized. March [Congressman John Lewis], The Handmaid’s Tale [Margaret Atwood], or 1984 [George Orwell], or any of the books that [are] getting more press or more attention: I think that will continue to happen.

EM: 1984 was trending for a while, wasn’t it?

DH: I think it was number one on Amazon for a while. Even people who didn’t realize their books were political may find that parts of them are, but that’s something that happens continually as the world changes and adjusts. If you’ve been working on a novel for six years and it finally comes out, there may be changes in the world that are reflected in your book, and you didn’t realize you were tapped into something that was already part of the conversation. That’s happened a couple of times with some of my writers; they started working on a book years ago that didn’t have a social justice component, but was more a “what if” or this topic needs to be discussed because no one’s talking about it. Then current events happen that make the book even timelier than they meant it to be, and that’s been interesting to see. It’s just another medium for expression; right now a lot of people are upset, worried, and concerned and that will be reflected in art.

EM: This onset of “fake” news, and the conversation about what is true and what is not, has this had an impact on the literary world?

DH: The idea of fake news being targeted during the election and afterwards: it’s not like that’s new, but [it was] the way people were sharing it, from whatever side of the political spectrum [they spoke from]. There are a lot of fake stories that are done either to appeal to their base or to get clicks.

Around middle school, students are taught to verify sources. It’s part of the curriculum. [If] you are going to write a research paper, for instance, you [ask yourself] where your sources are, and you vet your sources; or if you are going to do a contemporary news story, you go to the most original news source that has a direct link to what you are looking for. The core idea of vetting your sources in the age of the internet has gone away. People forget; they share things without verifying. They’re like, “This aligns with my personal beliefs so I’m going to share it.” Then they realize that it’s not based in anything real.

Journalists have for a long time been talking about that, and the idea that the 24-hour news cycle is hard. The more sensational [a story], the more people want to watch, talk about, or share it. But I think, in a good way, there is so much pushback against that right now. People are realizing the value of journalists, whether print or TV, who have the integrity to vet their sources, to have verifiable facts. Nonfiction has always been striving for that. A lot of nonfiction writers, whether they are writing something that is narrative nonfiction, doing interesting research into one topic, or trying to look at history because books survive more than a 24-hour news cycle, are vetting more. What’s happened with online journalism is that things cycle through so quickly, it’s hard to keep up. In the book world, it hasn’t happened nearly as much.

EM: Are you saying that, in the end, this will benefit your nonfiction clients?

Fiction helps distill reality. I heard a writer talk recently about [the question] “Why write fiction,” but fiction is truth. It’s just a different way of presenting it.

DH: I do. Right now people are looking for experts. They’re looking for people who understand the Constitution on a deep legal level; for people who have a record of writing about social justice, covering crime, politics, or the White House; or for those trying to understand our relationship with foreign countries. People are hungry for knowledge right now. Things aren’t running smoothly, so why aren’t they running smoothly? What’s going on? [On] Google and Merriam-Webster, their word of the day often is some kind of legal word, because people are trying to figure out what the emoluments clause is. [So people go to] experts, or those who, through fiction, talk about the human condition and our current [social] climate. Fiction helps distill reality. I heard a writer talk recently about [the question] “Why write fiction,” but fiction is truth. It’s just a different way of presenting it.

EM: Are there trends in the literary world that we should be aware of, outside of politics?

DH: There always are. But they also come and go pretty quickly. Some genre books, whether they are thrillers, YA, supernatural, or fantasy, tend to follow trends. People are definitely on the lookout for something that isn’t similar to what’s been out there before. I can see things that are happening, maybe books that people are interested in, but I try not to follow. I just try to follow the best work.

Bookstores have been doing much better than they have been, especially independent bookstores, but individual books are selling a bit less, because there are so many of them and they are spread out more widely. E-books are down for the first time in many years, hardcover books surpassed e-books. Some of that has to do with book pricing, but it also is like the vinyl resurgence in music. Actually owning a book, feeling and smelling it—people in publishing talk about that all the time—we love physical books. I read e-books too, but part of the reason I am in this business is that I physically love books. Seeing that trend is interesting.

I’ve also seeing a trend towards reading on apps, which is different than reading e-books. [It is] looking at serialized storytelling for people who are constantly on their phones, and [who] maybe won’t read an e-book—but they’ll read something that is on an app and in a community with stuff that they already like. What’s exciting to me is that it is a really diverse time. Publishers are doing really great work from small presses to big presses. They’re always looking for something new.

EM: Is there something that we haven’t gone over that hopeful authors should know?

DH: For some people, [publishing] seems like such a mysterious thing. [But know] that publishing is still a fairly small world, and a lot of us know each other and have known each other for a very long time. It is not a mercenary business; we are in it because we love it and we want to find great work. Even though a lot of my job is to say no, I also hear no a lot from the other side. I submit books to publishers and a lot of times editors will say no, but then if you get one yes or a few yeses, that’s all you need.

For a writer starting out looking for an agent, it’s daunting, because you are like, “I’m going to get a lot of rejections.” And you will. Knowing that rejection is part of it is important, but knowing that rejection actually continues and that you need one yes to find an agent, then you need one yes to get a publishing deal, and one yes to get a great review. It’s both daunting and encouraging, and also just knowing that agents get so many submissions. [In our case], a lot of them aren’t right for us, but I personally know when someone hits “send” to query us, that that’s a huge deal. Finishing a book and having the guts to send it out to get agented is tough and hard. A no isn’t personal at all; it’s just, “this doesn’t work for me or I don’t know what to do with it.” There are lots of reasons why those no’s can happen. Maybe it’s not the right time, or I have something that’s too similar: there are lots of different reasons. I think also knowing that the profit margins are really small. People hear about these giant deals, but the reality is that a lot of them are not huge. Most writers have other jobs, even if they seem super successful and have written like five books: they teach or do other things, because they love writing. That passion is throughout the entire industry.

EM: Is there anything I’ve missed? Or anything you would like to add?

DH: It’s incredibly important for writers to work on their craft. But it is important for them to educate themselves about the business side. I do a lot of that with my clients; there’s a lot of educating them about the ins and outs of how it works. I don’t expect my clients to understand all the minutiae—that’s my job—but having a general sense of how it works is a good idea. It’s great that MFA programs have that ability to talk to professionals and have that contact. It’s helpful to talk to people behind the scenes.

EM: I agree, it’s really helpful. And from this interview I have a pretty clear sense of how far I have to go before approaching someone like you with a query. So I think others will too.

DH: Great, I hope so.

 

*Editor’s Note: Since the time of this interview, Simon & Schuster canceled the book deal with Milo Yiannopoulos

 

Emma Margraf

Emma Margraf is a writer who lives in Olympia, Washington, works for the state government, and writes for several local publications in the South Sound. She has also been published in Manifest Station and is a candidate for an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles.

Tara Ison, Author

Tara IsonI read Tara Ison’s first novel, A Child Out of Alcatraz, shortly after its publication in 1997. I’d spent a good chunk of my own adolescence in San Francisco living in Fort Mason while my father was stationed at Oakland Army Base, across the East Bay. At the time, Fort Mason was a smattering of standard-duplex base housing just steps away from the Marina. Whenever I needed room to breathe, I ran down the hill to the water, where the once-infamous Alcatraz prison loomed between San Francisco and Marin County. When my best friend gave me Ison’s novel, I was intrigued to read about everyday life long ago on that mysterious island during the decades that it served as a formidable prison. What I didn’t realize was that in reading it, I would find a little piece of myself—the experience of growing up female in a cloistered, patriarchal environment was not unlike my own experience growing up in a military family.

Since the late nineties, Tara Ison has asserted herself as a fierce feminist voice. In addition to A Child Out of Alcatraz, she has published two novels: The List (2011) and Rockaway (2013). Her latest short story collection, Ball (2015), challenges us to witness female characters breaking beyond convention, often placing themselves firmly within situations that move far beyond the comfortable. Likewise, her recently published essay collection, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies (2015), is an exploration of female identity through a cinematic lens both profoundly personal and political: a must-read for anyone who grew up searching for her reflection on the screen. Ison refuses to bow to the edict that women must be protected or sanctified. Instead, Ison’s women are free to act, think, and breathe on the page—to be fully human, to be flawed, to take up space, to occupy life in complicated ways. In her essay collection’s concluding piece, “How to be a Writer,” Tara Ison speaks to every woman who is struggling to find her purpose as writer in the current political climate when she asserts: “the writer’s job isn’t to save the world; it’s just to keep the faith, and write.”

As a fan of hers since her debut, I was thrilled to talk with Tara Ison about writing, feminism, and the female experience, particularly at a time when many women are experiencing new heights of fear and outrage, as well as the occasional spark of hope. I spoke with Ison by phone on February 17, 2017. Our conversation was, without a doubt, one of the sparks of my winter.

Melissa Benton Barker: I spent my high school years in San Francisco while my father was stationed at Oakland Army Base. My best friend and I read A Child Out of Alcatraz together shortly after it came out. The novel, which is about a girl whose father is a guard on Alcatraz, resonated with me because it was about a girl growing up within a patriarchal, authoritarian environment, and it reminded me of my experience growing up as a military brat. I felt like I was seeing this particular piece of my own experience represented in a book for the first time. In your acknowledgements, you wrote about your research process, including interviewing a man who grew up on Alcatraz, and who became hostile when you revealed that you were writing about a female protagonist, as if a girl’s story is not worth being written. How did you react to this?

Tara Ison: That was such an incredible moment for me, in that it clarified and focused and validated what I was trying to say. It hit me on a very visceral level. It hit me in my body—the dismissal of the female experience. But I didn’t fully appreciate or understand the power of what he was saying until a bit later. I couldn’t put it within the context of the larger dismissal of women’s experiences. I don’t know that I was able to tap into [my] anger about it. I can now. One thing I do remember feeling was gratitude that he was so open in his condescension and ignorance and arrogance in dismissing the female perspective. The mere casualness about it, his blatant casualness, his lack of shame in saying what he was saying, was a gift, because it really showed me in very clear words how prevalent that attitude still [was]. That was twenty years ago. Now we talk a lot about racism, bigotry, sexism and where is it hidden, when is it the soft bigotry and when is it in your face. There’s almost something to be said for when bigotry and prejudice is so in your face, because when it’s so open you can deal with it in an entirely different way. And you can confront and begin to appreciate the more subtle nuances of bigotry.

MBB: What drew you to writing the story of girls and women in this heightened patriarchal environment?

TI: I had always been interested in Alcatraz the way everybody is interested in Alcatraz. I had taken a tour of Alcatraz and somewhere in the tour there was one sentence about women and children, families of the prison staff who lived on the island. It was just one sentence, within this tour. It was this tossed-off comment, this passing reference and it was swallowed up by all of the other information about Alcatraz, the most threatening, foreboding place in the country. The violence, the brutality of the system, and the juxtaposition between [this and family life on Alcatraz] really stuck with me. I started researching [the lives of the families living on the island]. There was not a lot of information.

As I was researching the prison itself and how it was run, I began to see a parallel between the power structure of the prison—the triangle of warden, guard, inmate—and the classic nuclear family structure of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s of father, mother, child. They matched up in terms of the power dynamic, in terms of societal convention, the definition of roles, the definition of behavior, and I thought there was something there. In focusing on the story of a mother and daughter within this system, ideally I was revealing a larger dynamic that I wouldn’t necessarily feel qualified to discuss. I’m not a historian, I’m not a sociologist, but I could tell the story of this one woman and this one daughter and the juxtaposition of this female-centric experience set against this incredibly masculine, patriarchal structure.

I want to create a psychological or emotional aneurysm for my characters.

Something that I also wanted to be careful about was that it wasn’t as simple as the men were the villains and the women were the oppressed victims. I cared deeply about the father in the story, and I saw him almost every bit as much as a victim of the system as the women were. His need to fulfill what he felt was his role as a strong head of the family, the provider, the male presence, the patriarch—he didn’t know anything else. For him the definition of a man, a good husband, a good father, was something that he cared deeply about and he did the best he could with the model that he was given as well.

MBB: In your recent work, you represent the female experience in a way that pushes the reader beyond comfortable notions about feminine identity. Your 2015 short story collection, Ball, fearlessly portrays unexpected women: the vengeful, the shallow, the violent, the “crazy.” Would you talk about what drew you to the unexpected in these stories?

TI: The emotions that the women in these stories are experiencing to a large degree are the emotions that we all have. They are the darker angels of our nature. The pride, the fear, the anger, the jealousy, the insecurity. And I think to some degree we all experience those. We might be in denial about some of them, or we process them in healthy, very functional ways. I am interested in characters who get stuck in emotional turmoil that they can’t talk their way out of, they can’t process their way through. Very often they are unwilling to admit to themselves how deeply immersed they are in the dysfunctional dynamic or the disturbing emotions that they’re experiencing. I want to push them even one step further. I want to create a psychological or emotional aneurysm for my characters. I want to get them to the point where the pressure of either trying to deny the ugly emotions that they’re feeling or the pressure of just trying to restrain or redirect themselves fails until it tips them over the edge into a behavior or a coping mechanism that is not allowed. It’s beyond dysfunctional. Sometimes they get beyond disturbing, but it tips them over into a kind of darkness that isn’t allowed. It might be allowed in fiction. It’s certainly not allowed in real life. That moment is what interests me more than anything. It’s pushing the character just that one step further. I consider myself a realist writer, yet in some of the stories I slightly cross the line into fantastical or absurdist. I’m interested in that very fine line between what is real and what steps just slightly beyond that.

MBB: Do you consider the protagonists in “Ball” (who has an ultimately destructive relationship with her dog) or “Wig” (who is having an affair with her dying best friend’s husband) to be unsympathetic? What informed your choice to write through the lens of the unsympathetic character?

TI: The whole question of “unsympathetic” for writers is interesting in that we’re often told as a criticism that [our] characters are unsympathetic. The issue of whether [a character] is sympathetic: I don’t think that’s the right question to be asking. As a reader, I am not interested in sympathetic characters. I’m interested in characters I can relate to. I’m interested in characters I can understand. I don’t think I was ever consciously wondering—am I taking this character too far? Is this character unsympathetic? From that perspective, all of my characters are deeply unsympathetic. I can relate to all of the characters if not their ultimate behavior. I can relate to the darkness of some of their emotions. I always tell myself as a writer, as a woman, as a human being, if I can relate to that emotion, other people can relate to that emotion as well, and if I’m tapping into a kind of emotional/psychological/spiritual darkness, I don’t think I’m an outlier in identifying those dark places of the soul. I think that those exist within all of us, again, to varying degrees. And to varying degrees we deal, we process those darker aspects of our emotional life. So to me, my characters are just very human. Seriously flawed human, but very human. Even if I push them to behaviors that some might consider inhuman.

MBB: From a craft perspective, what techniques did you draw upon to allow the reader to relate to and/or see themselves in the flaws of these characters?

TI: For me, story always comes down to the question of what the character needs. There’s a Ken Kesey quote that anybody who’s ever had a class with me has heard me say a dozen times. It really gets to the core of storytelling. “Story is about somebody who needs something, and what he’s going to go through to get it.” That always brings me back to why I tell stories in the first place.

If the writer has a clear sense of what the character needs, then the story writes itself to some degree. A need is the fuel of the story.

If I look at “Ball,” if I look at “Wig,” if I look at any of the stories in the collection, the characters are consumed by a need for something. And the action that they take to get that need met becomes increasingly dysfunctional, dark, deranged, but I think that need is what defines us, what makes us human. If the writer has a clear sense of what the character needs, then the story writes itself to some degree. A need is the fuel of the story. Because we all have needs, that is what humanizes us. When I write a story or a novel, if I lose sight of what a character needs and what the obstacle to the need is, and what she is doing in order to overcome the obstacle, if I lose sight of that, I’ve wandered out of the story. And when I’m writing a story if I’m feeling lost or bored, or confused, adrift, I will stop and I will consciously ask myself those questions: What does my character need right now? What is the obstacle? What is it that my character is doing about it? [These questions] will always bring me back to the story in a way that allows the story to move forward and increase the narrative momentum.

MBB: Many of the stories in Ball are explicit in their depiction of female sexuality, which is an area that, unfortunately, remains relatively rare in literary fiction. It’s refreshing to read stories that include sexuality without centering the male perspective and male pleasure, while remaining explicit in their physicality. Sometimes women hesitate to write graphically about sexuality. Have you always felt comfortable doing so? If not, how did you arrive at this place?

TI: I have never felt comfortable writing about sex. I can’t imagine I ever will feel comfortable writing about sex. There are moments in those stories where I remember I sat there with my hands poised above the keyboard, unable to type out certain words or certain phrases, certain descriptions, because I was so incredibly uncomfortable with what I was doing. I was uncomfortable with the mechanics of it, because I have written many sentences of somebody getting dressed, or getting into a car, but I had very little experience in forming sentences drawing on explicit sexuality. From a mechanical perspective—what is the correct word to use, how to structure the sentence, how to avoid cliché—that was very difficult for me. I felt almost like I was having to create a new language for myself. Also, emotionally and psychologically, I felt very naked. I felt very exposed. I thought: are people going to attribute this kind of sexuality to me? If so, why should I care about that? Where do I end and the characters begin? But what I always tried to come back to in writing explicitly sexual scenes was the emotional context and the psychology. For my characters, sex is a means to an end, so it really does come back to what I was saying earlier, about what is it that the characters need in that particular moment and how they are using sex to try and get a need fulfilled. I think a little bit of explicit sexuality goes a long way. [I tried] to keep the balance of the explicitness of the sexual language, the sexual positioning, the description of sexual activity, with what is really fueling the scene. For me [the fuel of the scene] is rarely lust. It tends far more often to be a more vulnerable moment for the character, where the character is grappling with something very profound and sexuality is a way to work through it.

MBB: It’s helpful to hear that even as a seasoned writer you are still pushing through discomfort in your work.

TI: Yes, I’m working on a new story right now, and I’m really struggling. I want it to have a sexual dynamic. And it’s every bit as awkward for me as it has been with any story I’ve written in the past. I feel like I’ve never written about sex in my entire life. I don’t know how to do it. The struggle continues. The discomfort continues.

MBB: That’s probably what makes the writing so interesting. It seems like you went into a lot of cultural taboos with this book. I’m wondering if you received any pushback for choosing to write frankly about sexuality or about unsympathetic female characters? If so, how have you reacted to this?

TI: Absolutely. Not with every story. For example, the story “Bakery Girl,” which is one of the more sexually explicit, I was approached by a website called nerve.com that features very literary sexual writing. I knew that’s what they wanted, so I went into that story deliberately looking to explore a sexual dynamic in a relatively explicit way. I didn’t get any pushback on that one. But yes, for some of the other stories I’ve had editors who were hesitant, who questioned, do you really want to do this? The best example would be the story “Ball.” I had submitted the story to Tin House and I heard back from the editor: “Tara, I really like the story. I’m submitting it above me to the next level, and we’re curious, are you willing to change the ending?” This was my first published short story, by the way. I had a dark night of the soul. I emailed a former professor of mine from grad school who had read the story and I explained the situation and I said, “What do I do?” He wrote back and said, “Sometimes you really need to be open-minded and listen to your editor. The editor is very experienced, this is an outstanding journal, you want the story published, and sometimes it’s a good idea to do what the editor is asking you to do”—pause —“but not with this story.” And I thought, okay, I have permission to stick to my guts. I wrote the editor back this long, rambling, “I’m so sorry, I would really like to change the story because I’d hoped you’d accept it … but I cannot change the ending of the story.” And he wrote back and said, “No, no, no, I’m happy with the ending, but our senior editor is having a really hard time with it. I’ll keep trying.” It took about four months, and he wrote me back and said, “Okay, the story’s in.” I was very proud about that. Cut to many years later when the collection was being assembled, and my editor of the collection said, “The stories mostly have been published. There’s a little editing to do, but I do want to talk to you about the ending of the ‘Ball’ story.” He didn’t so much want me to change the ending, but he did want me to soften it a little bit. He wanted some revision to how I was phrasing a couple of things, and I said no. I wouldn’t change it. I changed other things. Revision can also be a very collaborative process. But you just have to listen to your gut as a writer, and that particular story was one that I’ve had to push back on, I’ve had to fight for, on more than one occasion. And it’s worked out. I’ve never regretted it. It’s probably one of my favorite stories.

MBB: In your 2015 collection of personal essays, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, you depict the tension you’ve experienced between being a “good girl” and taking on more subversive identities, such as, to quote the chapter headings: Lolita, slut, drunk, and Mrs. Robinson. How does this tension inform the choices you find yourself making as a writer?

The whole thing with being a good girl—don’t make waves, get along with people, don’t be too loud, don’t be difficult, be responsible—I think that those are some aspects of womanhood, of femininity, that I, along with so many women, have internalized as a way to move through the world.

TI: The whole thing with being a good girl—don’t make waves, get along with people, don’t be too loud, don’t be difficult, be responsible—I think that those are some aspects of womanhood, of femininity, that I, along with so many women, have internalized as a way to move through the world. It might be the reason I’m a writer, because a lot of pressure builds up when you feel you should always be a good girl and play by the rules. Writing, for me, is an escape valve. It allows me to access, explore, depict, express, and communicate things about my experience of the world where I’m not such a good girl. It’s at a safe distance. My name is on the cover, my name is on the story, but I am able to fall back on, Hey, it’s fiction, it’s just a story, it’s a character I’ve created. To some degree, every character is an aspect of myself working through something I might not have the courage or the strength to deal with in my own real life, but I force my character to deal with some of those things.

MBB: If writing is an escape valve where you can express things that are “unacceptable to express” as a woman in our culture, was writing nonfiction, publishing this book of personal essays, a different experience for you?

TI: Yeah, there’s no scrim. With fiction, I can say, Oh, I make things up, I make characters up. I think that was why I didn’t feel either capable or interested in writing a straight memoir. I was interested in looking at this actual conflict between the roles we feel compelled to play in real life and the roles that are presented to us through cinema. That took it a little bit out of myself. It gave me something else to talk about. It gave me another way to explore some of the role-playing we do in real life in a larger context. I love movies, so I was really happy to talk about movies. But by working through some of these questions of sexuality, addiction, mental health, faith, creativity, all of the themes of the book, and by working through those in relationship to my relationship to characters—Mrs. Robinson, Lolita, Lillian Hellman—I was able to talk about those cinematic role models and their struggles as a way to illustrate my own questioning of different roles. Yes, it’s closer to home than fiction because I don’t have the ability to say this isn’t really me, but I had company in doing it. If I’m trying to figure out my feelings about having a sexual relationship with a man seventeen years my junior, I wasn’t alone in that because I had Mrs. Robinson keeping me company on that journey.

MBB: In January 2016, you published an article on Salon entitled, “Too stupid to be c*nts”: The new normal of toxic male entitlement on campus,” which deals with your experience as a professor being confronted with casual linguistic misogyny from a male student. The essay speaks to the everyday use of derogatory language directed towards women and girls. How do you think this has impacted our culture? How, if at all, have your views on this changed since the essay was written?

TI: First of all, that was not my title for the essay and I’m not really happy with the title. I was unhappy with the subtitle about toxic masculinity on campus because I thought it was a click-bait title. I was unhappy with defining the essay before somebody might have a chance to read the essay. To me, an essay is an exploration, an essay is inquiry, and once you term something toxic masculinity, that’s making a statement and it shuts down some of the inquiry of the essay itself. That aside, in the essay I refer to a phrase that Toni Morrison uses: “disinterested violence.” That kind of casual disparagement. That term you used, “casual linguistic misogyny” [reminds me of] the guy we talked about earlier, the guy [I interviewed about] Alcatraz, who was so open in his condescension and disparagement of women. The misogyny has become so casual and acceptable. [In the essay], here is this kid walking across campus, speaking very loudly on his cell phone, and speaking about women in an incredibly ugly way, and what was most uncomfortable to me about that moment was that he wasn’t riled up. He wasn’t venting. He wasn’t angry, even. He was casual about it. There’s something very, very disturbing about that casualness. In the essay, I was thinking about how once that kind of attitude gets watered down to the point where it’s permeating casual speech, casual conversation, it spreads. I think it can spread very, very easily, more so than a single violent outburst of anger can. Because people will immediately put their guard up against a rant. But this wasn’t a rant. It gets into the bloodstream more easily that way, and spreads more easily that way. And I don’t see it going away any time soon in our culture. I think if anything it’s spreading. That’s what I was looking to explore in the essay. My feeling is that it hasn’t changed, certainly in the last year. If anything, I’ve become even more discouraged at the level of discourse and I think a lot of people are grappling with this right now. The level of discourse has been so degraded and has descended to a level of such ignorance and intolerance and thoughtlessness. It’s happening everywhere, and it’s very disturbing.

MBB: In your commencement speech at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program in December 2016, you quoted Junot Diaz on the importance of providing human beings with a reflection of themselves, in order to prevent us from becoming monsters. [The quote is from Diaz’s speech at Bergen County Community College in Paramus, New Jersey: “If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”] In your opinion, how do readers benefit from seeing themselves reflected in literature? What do you see as the role of the writer in this particular political climate in the United States?

TI:  There is a responsibility of the artist to reflect back upon ourselves, upon society, upon the world. When it is reflected back to us it inspires a kind of self-reflection, self-inquiry, that I think [is] a more subtle way of getting human beings to confront ourselves. It’s why, even though I write nonfiction, I still primarily think of myself as a fiction writer. You can disguise the interrogation. If you’re holding up characters grappling with things, it allows the reader, invites the reader, to reflect upon their own experiences, attitudes, beliefs, needs, struggles, behavior, in a friendlier way than direct confrontation. I think that’s the power of fiction. Conversely, the flip side to the reflection is that fiction, literature, allows us access into another human being’s inner life, their consciousness, their perspective, in a very unique way. I joke with my students that the only way to get into someone else’s head more intimately than fiction is with an MRI or a CAT scan. We are allowed access into another person’s experience through fiction in a way that we will never be allowed even to understand our best friends, or our siblings, or our parents. There’s a greater intimacy that is allowed in fiction. By the very nature of spending some time in another being’s heart and soul, it creates a sense of empathy; [it creates the] ability to appreciate our shared humanity. In addition to reflecting back on ourselves and ideally triggering a kind of self-inquiry into our own thoughts, feelings, behaviors, it allows us to begin to understand the experience of other human beings.

MBB: As we wrap up our interview, do you have any last words of wisdom for emerging feminist writers?

TI: I feel that anything I want to say diminishes how hard it is. What I want to say is: Don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks or tells you. Be fearless. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. Tell your truth. Be strong. We need your voice. But that’s all easier said than done, and those sound to me like cheery slogans. There’s so much work to be done. I am terrified with every sentence I write. But we have to do it. And we have to keep telling women’s stories and being true to their experience.

 

Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising children—sometimes simultaneously! Her work appears in Lunch TicketSmokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama.

Fady Joudah, Poet

Fady Joudah

Photo by Cybele Knowles

Fady Joudah was born in Austin, Texas to Palestinian refugee parents. He spent time growing up in both Libya and Saudi Arabia, and returned to the United States to complete his medical education. He currently works as a professional physician in Houston, Texas. Joudah is the author of three original works: The Earth in the Attic (2008), Alight (2013), and Textu (2013). In 2007, The Earth in the Attic won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, the oldest annual literary award in the United States. Joudah’s work additionally includes the translations of Mahmoud Darwish in The Butterfly’s Burden (2006) and of Ghassan Zaqtan in Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me (2012), which won the International Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013.

Fady Joudah is a multi-talented force to be reckoned with. He is a poet, translator, physician, father, volunteer, and someone I consider quite humble, considering his fascinatingly intellectual mind. Joudah and I met at the hotel where he was staying in Culver City in December of 2016. We spent a little over an hour exploring thoughts on poetic influence, innovation, and the ever-looming (for me) post-MFA conundrum of maintaining balance.

Doni Shepard: What spurred your original passion for poetry?

Fady Joudah: I don’t know if anything spurred it, but perhaps it’s something one’s born with. I think one’s more likely to be exposed to poetry at a young age in school. When these things took place in my presence as a kid, I remember having a very strong attachment to the power and the sound of poetry.

DS: I can remember that as a kid, just having this vivid connection to poetry and all elements of creative writing. That’s something that speaks to you very young, I think.

FJ: Yeah, I think one’s brain is wired in a certain way to perk your ears up when you hear it.

DS: Who would you consider some of your greatest literary influences?

FJ: I grew up with Classical era poetry. I wouldn’t necessarily name one, but I would note the history of Arabic poetry, whether pre-Islamic or Abbasid. Of the contemporaries, of course, Mahmoud Darwish has been important. It’s interesting because he’s a poet who brings a whole history of language and literature and is able to channel it into his poetry. If you are able to have a deep connection with it, you are able to see a whole universe through it.

I would say that my biggest relationship to poetry would be through pre-med and medical school classes, because it’s really like learning a third language. A lot of it is in Latin and Greek so it opens up the imagination.

I found Rilke very compelling at a younger age—not that I’m old, but because it was interesting to see what his work offered in English. I thought that was interesting. It was partly a function of my relationship with English as a spoken language in the first place, because I didn’t grow up speaking it or living in it. I don’t have a fabulous story as far as the list of names that I can mention. I would say that my biggest relationship to poetry would be through pre-med and medical school classes, because it’s really like learning a third language. A lot of it is in Latin and Greek so it opens up the imagination. Much of the history of literature in the world repeats itself so much, so you can choose one major spring and dip to your heart’s fill.

DS: I really like how you spoke about the connection to pre-med. I have some background in the medical field, and it’s much like learning an additional language. When you incorporate that into poetry or any sort of writing it adds a whole new layer to things.

FJ: That’s what poetry is, another layer of language, either added or peeled off. It’s an interesting experience to think that my scientific training has been actually a poetic training.

DS: Among your many responsibilities and talents, you are a driven poet, translator, parent, and medical doctor. How do you maintain diligence in creating balance?

FJ: I no longer know the answer to that because I think that fatigue sets in. As I get a little older, fatigue manifests in different ways, where one’s more emotionally fragile or one’s graciously less certain about several things. Your kids grow up and my body grows up and I’m not at the same energy level. I’m often asked that question. I get asked a few questions that often other poets don’t get asked in a structural sense; this is one of them. Maybe it’s easier to just want to ask the question back and say, “Well, why are you asking?” because I’m not so sure that my position is any different than anyone else who leads a full life with things to do.

DS: Maybe we are all searching for those answers. Especially people coming out of the MFA program, we all want to get the sense of how we will survive out in the world and balance all of our lives. There isn’t always a perfect answer. You see people that, of course, look like they have it all together and want to get a grasp on how that is possible.

FJ: In my case, I did medicine first. I still have medicine and this break is rare for me. Interesting, though, you reflecting back by saying it’s about your own futuristic anxieties. I would say that obviously, my experience has been that the market is limited. Also, the market tells us that if you stay “in” you have a better chance of making it because you’re “in.” You can’t get a promotion in a company you don’t work for. It’s harder in my position to be “in” when you’re from the outside, so I’m a less common event.

DS: What is your take on the ways in which poetry and other forms of expressive arts are being used in medical facilities? Do you feel that poetry and other forms of creative writing have a place in the medical realm as a form of therapy?

Sometimes I think that this question about poetry and healing is a vestigial question. It’s a hang-up that poets have, because that’s how poetry supposedly should be thought of. For millennia, poetry has been thought of as a vehicle for grief.

FJ: They do. It is rarely seen though. It’s a lot more talked about and studied and written about by academics than it is something that is implemented, in my experience. Sometimes I think that this question about poetry and healing is a vestigial question. It’s a hang-up that poets have, because that’s how poetry supposedly should be thought of. For millennia, poetry has been thought of as a vehicle for grief. Then we say it’s also oral history and other things. It’s not just one thing. Today there are many ways for us to heal or to seek healing through various mediums. Everything is actually so prescribed that the notion of the question for me is problematic because it wants poetry to serve as a possible prescription in a mechanical world. Maybe ultimately poetry is only able to serve that function for just one person, maybe the one who writes it.

DS: In Textu, a beautifully composed pocket-sized gem, you demonstrate a uniquely created form of poetry. You provide readers the explanation of “the Textu” by explaining that each poem “be exactly 160 characters long, specific to text-message parameters.” Did you find this structure in any way limiting to your creative expression, or did it serve as a welcome challenge?

FJ: It was very welcome. It gave air to the compulsions I was dealing with so I was very obsessive about taking the world in, trying to get it out in 160. I also thought it was an interesting moment artistically to have art be somewhat of a historical document: knowing that the text message is on its way to being obsolete in the sense that you have so many forms of communication that require no character count. People are always like, “Yeah, that’s what I do on Twitter!” and they don’t know that, no, Twitter is 140, and already people don’t communicate anything meaningful on it. You can upload or include hyperlinks, bits, etc… I already knew that texting, which will continue to exist, is much more intimate like poetry is. It’s much more private. I wanted a documentation of the intimacy of that language in that format to see what happens. I don’t know. Maybe Textu will seem to be a book more worthwhile ten or twenty years from now. Maybe I’ll look at it twenty years from now and laugh.

DS: Poetry has found a substantial following by way of social networking, providing exposure to artists such as Christopher Poindexter, R.M. Drake, and Rupi Kaur. In previous talks about Textu, you advised that you would send many of your original messages to loved ones after creation. Do you feel that a project such as Textu allows for a level of accessibility to poetry that didn’t always exist?

FJ: I can’t make such a claim. Maybe Textu is the opposite. It’s the manifestation that it is true that poetry can exist in all forms, you just have to find it and give it form. I don’t know if Textu necessarily is a public service for poetry’s reach into the world. Who the hell reads poetry? Very few people.

DS: I feel it’s becoming—in short bits—much more mainstream. People are getting a feel for poetry who maybe would have never been exposed to it prior. I see people, even celebrities, sharing little bits of poetry across social media platforms. I hope that in these smaller formats, that if it’s compact enough—there is an idea that maybe people are going to have a bit of poetry that they would have never experienced before.

FJ: It exists in ways—in an app that sends you a poem-a-day kind of thing, but the other problem with that is again that the poems are going to be guided by such things. The poems in Textu are not always easily accessible. The methodology of trying to make poetry reach more public makes one think about what kind of a poem will an average Joe stomach. So, you end up promoting a certain idea of poetry. That still recreates the same circles that exist in the literary world. We like to think of ourselves as some unique little pocket in America or in the Western world of great liberal thinkers. We’re no different than the rest of the culture. Maybe we’re not alt-right but I think we’re quite representative of the imperial citizen in the liberal age.

DS: In 2006, you translated three collections of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish with The Butterfly’s Burden. You have received and additionally been nominated for various awards for your work in translation. Has your background with translation influenced the way you approach new creative work?

Translation is a very close form of reading. If you’re able to achieve a close form of reading then you perform an act of translation. The other way is to say that translation is an act of original literary criticism.

FJ: Translation is a very close form of reading. If you’re able to achieve a close form of reading then you perform an act of translation. The other way is to say that translation is an act of original literary criticism. In that sense, you get to notice what you get to notice. If someone else does the same things that I’ve done, they might have a different relationship with their own idea of language than I have from the experience I’ve had with translation. One of the earliest things that I learned in the process of translation is that any body of work that seems to be worthwhile exists in part because that poet has created their own private dictionary. Kilito, a Moroccan critic, says that he believes, “You write one book in your life and you spend the rest of your life trying to write it better than you did the first time.” Such an endeavor means that you inevitably create your own lexicon, your own private lexicon. Then you have to be aware that you have created this. After that step, you have to know what to do with it and how to develop it, how not to continue to repeat it. It has to evolve. That’s the major thing I’ve learned from sitting with this large body of work for different poets. You see that when you go through these you’re actually going through their relationship with language. Then you realize that this is what you will have to go through as a writer.

DS: What are some of the most prominent factors that sway your writing and the creative projects that you take on?

FJ: It’s the way I see my life. My perception of my reality.

DS: Simple and powerful way to put it. I think that speaks to a lot of writers. Has your writing focus shifted at all due to the current political or cultural climate?

FJ: No. It’s about understanding where I’m at with my life, with my writing, and with my language, and focusing on that. I’m definitely someone who is conscious of the body and that connection, as we all are. My experience is different as a professional physician and the various experiences that I have had. I get to see the body from a different aspect. Having touched dying without being the one dying, [and doing] so frequently, is an interesting thing. I did not survive an illness, a trauma, in any classic, immediate sense of those words, but in a way, I have to deal daily with my own trauma being a participant. I deal with constant despair. That’s really all one encounters as a physician after a while—other people in need, vulnerability, or despair, even if it is brief. That is something that catches up with me and says, “Hello. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” It’s something that is the world-over whether it’s through poverty, famine, war, epidemics—whatever it is.

DS: I have read various interviews where you speak about the attachment of designations as a poet. In what ways have you worked to move away from the coined terms that often follow your name (“Palestinian poet,” “physician-poet”), and do you have any advice for poets who struggle to shed their own taxonomy?

FJ: I don’t know if I have succeeded, and I don’t know if in that department I will succeed, because in the end, it’s others who chose to call you things for their own convenience, reduction, categorization, or what have you. It’s probably important to reach a point where one doesn’t care and one just focuses on one’s life’s work and that’s it. Again, it’s a problem of how much we mimic the outer culture. People say Jim Carrey tried so hard to break away from the slapstick comedy, so he tried to do tragedy and maybe he pulled it off in this movie and didn’t pull it off in others, and maybe he didn’t do it as well as Robin Williams did. I know this is also performance art, but it’s the same conversation. I don’t think there is a way one will escape these things; I just think it’s about finding a community as free of labels as possible.

In my situation, there’s a catch-22. Anything you want to say about a minority position or a marginalized position—we have a system similar to a Pez dispenser. Once you push your own little tablet out, there will be twenty other tablets that tell you, “Here we are in solidarity,” but it doesn’t work out that way, actually. It turns out in horizontal violence. It works out in intersectionality more than it does in solidarity. Each one with a grievance who wants the grievance headlined and identified. [Those in] the default modes, ironically, are the ones who form the most entrenched form of identity politics, yet project the accusation onto others because that’s what power does. There’s an entrapment to focus on what is called “identitarian issues,” because that categorization and the algorithms are already there. One should do what one needs to do and feels like doing; those who are obsessed with naming can name. It’s really a circus out there.

DS: As we close, do you mind sharing what types of creative projects you are working on now?

FJ: I have finished up a fourth collection due out in 2018, published by Milkweed Editions, titled Footnotes in the Order of Disappearance. Mostly working on a nonfiction book—trying to think about memory and life forces through human and non-human forms.

 

Doni Shepard Doni Shepard is a poet, mother, and lifetime learner who currently resides in Phoenix, AZ. She spends her days managing content for a popular startup, mommying an extraordinary three-year-old, and serving as Lunch Ticket’s poetry editor. Upon nightfall you can generally find her in an insomniac haze binge-watching streaming television with a fluffy orange feline named Doobie James. Her work has been featured online by Dirty Chai, Bloodletters Literary Magazine, Calamus Journal, Crab Fat Magazine, and Ursus Americanus Press, and may be found in the love anthology Spectrum 3: LoveLoveLove. She holds an undergraduate degree interdisciplinary studies with a concentration in art therapy from Arizona State University, and is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, concentrating in poetry.

Geeta Kothari, Author

Geeta KothariIn December 2017, I met with Geeta Kothari to discuss her work as a writer and as the nonfiction editor of the Kenyon Review. In February of this year, Geeta’s collection, I Brake for Moose and Other Stories, was published; she was also the editor of Did My Mama Like to Dance?: And Other Stories about Mothers and Daughters (1994). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts ReviewFourth Genre, and Best American Essays (2000). Kothari currently directs the Writing Center at the University of Pittsburgh and teaches in its writing program.

Like me, Kothari is a native New Yorker, and I found her easy to talk with. She had just presented a seminar at December’s Antioch University Los Angeles MFA residency called “The Writer in Search of Narrator,” which helped me to understand the process by which nonfiction writers decide how to narrate their stories. At the beginning of the session, Kothari drew a large fish on the board, composed of two intersecting parabolic lines, as a way to look at the structure of a piece. (As she explained to me later, she adapted the method from a workshop with novelist Nancy Zafris.) Although I’ve heard Zafris’s students describe various ways to label each of the lines—plot versus theme, in the case of structuring fiction—in her demonstration, Kothari said the top arc represents the entire span of events in the nonfiction narrative, the “real life” or the “facts” of a piece. She then drew a middle line, which zigzagged between the top and bottom, which signifies the events that the writer chooses to pull into the narrative, to make meaning of them and to create an emotional experience for the reader, by, for example, exploring and repeating certain motifs or physical objects (such as photographs). In this way, and applying Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, Kothari explained that the top line can represent “the situation” and the bottom line becomes “the story.”

During our conversation, Kothari and I discussed the situation of writing stories, writing (and knitting) habits, family, writing characters that are not racial tropes, and representing the immigrant experience in literature. Kothari writes characters with a rich interior world; in her new book, I Brake for Moose, she creates multidimensional characters of various races who exist beyond stereotype. We began talking about how to structure our work, a conversation that I have since found quite useful in my own writing.

Meredith Arena: Speak a little bit more about the narrative model you discussed in the Antioch presentation?

I could write good sentences—and you can get away with a lot if your sentences are pretty or good, but at the end of the day, are you really telling a story?

Geeta Kothari: That model is something that Nancy Zafris taught me. I am one of those writers who takes a lot of classes. I love being a student. I was never a good student when I was actually a student, but I love these short [writing] workshops. When I took the Kenyon Review workshop with Nancy in 2006, I had been someone who, as she says, “Can’t write a bad sentence.” I could write good sentences—and you can get away with a lot if your sentences are pretty or good, but at the end of the day, are you really telling a story? She taught me how to think about story structure in an intuitive and holistic way. Once you have that fish in your brain, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Her whole focus on the objective reality of the story, either in a novel or in a short story, is important because a writer wants to go into the deep thoughts. You just do if you’re a literary writer, and chances are you are already good at the deep thoughts, but getting your reader into those deep thoughts requires a lot of work. If you’re forcing yourself to think about the situation or the context, the broader stuff, it’s going to naturally take you to the story you want to go to. That is what that fish is. It is giving yourself the confidence to stay with that situation or that context, knowing that it is eventually going to get you to the story you want to tell if you keep doing that up and down thing [She moves her hand up and down in a zigzag pattern referring to how we use the details of the plot (or situation) to move us into the story (or the emotional material, the significance) and back again].

MA: So, you are saying that you have internalized this structure, but it leaves room for intuition. I think that is how a lot of people go into writing a creative nonfiction piece, intuitively.

GK: I took [a] class in nonfiction one summer. I lived at home with my parents and I went up to Columbia and took this class with this teacher whom I had studied with in graduate school, who had not been impressed with me. I am not sure that he was impressed with me in this class, either. And I learned the traditional modes­­—how to write a profile, how to do a story about place. We read the usual people you read and that class was the only class I took and I tried to write within the parameters he’d set up for these things that we had to do, and that is how I got my first drafts. I got my first published piece from that [class]. And that piece was quite different from what I had done in class and part of it came through this questioning process­­.

I ran into [the poet] Garrett Hongo at a conference, and he said I should send him something. I said, “I can’t. I don’t have anything,” and he said, “Where are you from?” That became the organizing question for that first essay. Those structures can be helpful, but more helpful is the things that morph out of them. They are just a starting point. You have to find a way to get your words on the page and with CNF, with writing about the self, the problem is there are so many options. Do you start with birth? Do you start with fifth grade? Do you start with the guy who tried to beat you up behind the concrete cylinder in the playground? What do you start with? What do you include? Giving yourself boundaries can really force the essays to a place where you can finally work on it.

MA: And then you can go back and change it.

GK: You can go back and change everything. In “Thirst,” the essay I read [at Antioch], I said okay— seven islands—the piece itself gave me the structure. I wasn’t thinking about situation and story, I was just thinking structure. The seven islands of Bombay were joined together, so I am going to have seven sections about my dad, but then it became twelve.

MA: What was the first essay that you published?

I asked the bartender where the bathroom was and the first thing he said was, “Where are you from?” … It was interesting because my husband, whom I was dating at the time, is actually from another country. He’s Canadian, but no one ever asked him where he was from.

GK: It was called, “Where are you from?” It was musings on identity and trying to figure out where I was from. It was something I was getting asked in Pittsburgh, and for my entire life I found it really irritating. [The essay] starts with an incident where I was at a bar. I asked the bartender where the bathroom was and the first thing he said was, “Where are you from?” And I was like, “I just want to use the bathroom.” It was interesting because my husband, whom I was dating at the time, is actually from another country. He’s Canadian, but no one ever asked him where he was from. Ever. It started from that irritation, but the original draft did not start that way. That was about going to Kleinfeld’s. Do you remember Kleinfeld’s in Brooklyn, the wedding store?

MA: Yup!

GK: I was going with a friend to buy a wedding dress and she was determined to buy it there and it was just not happening. It was not working for her, so I wrote about that, and about buying the dress, and her wedding, which was troubling to me because she was marrying a white man, and I was trying to figure out what that meant for identity. She was half Japanese. She read the essay and hated it and ended our relationship. I was really trying to figure out something. It was that self-investigation. I just had no words for it. I was young and I was trying to figure out what it meant to be married to someone else and what it meant for who you were, especially if you were marrying someone who wasn’t from your culture. I wasn’t thinking of marrying my husband. In fact, I said to him pretty clearly, “I will never marry you,” so obviously, I got that wrong.

So that [question] “Where are you from?” developed into a much longer, more complex essay because Garrett asked me to revise it. I was able to address some of the things my friend had objected to when she first read it and come a little cleaner.

I hadn’t seen myself as a nonfiction writer. I had really been involved in writing fiction. And my mom said, “Why don’t you just learn to write some other things. Try your hand at a different thing. You should be trying everything,” and basically paid for me to take this class at Columbia. So that was where it began.

MA: Do you think she knew that you would be writing a book about her?

GK: She didn’t want me to write a book about her. She very clearly said, “I don’t want you writing about me when I’m dead.”

MA: Were you writing about your parents when they were alive? If so, did they read the work?

GK: I was writing about them. I didn’t realize that I was going to be on such a trajectory of writing about them, but I interviewed them. I did formal interviews with them after I had moved to Pittsburgh. I began to realize that there was a lot about them I didn’t know. So, I did interviews and they had their canned stories that they kept telling. I still have them on tape. They were very private people, but they never told me while they were alive not to write about them. [I just couldn’t write about them] after their deaths. She said, “After I’m dead… I can’t challenge what you say about me.” She had this idea of herself as someone who was going to write back to me. My dad was much more sanguine. But my mother, I remember once she said, “Okay, you can write about anything or anyone, except your father, and you can’t write about your sister,” and I was like, “That doesn’t leave very much to write about.” There are only four of us. And then, “You can’t write about me when I’m dead.” You just have to not listen to some of those voices. It wasn’t as if I set out to write about them. It was just that those were the stories that came to me and they were interesting to me. I once said to my dad, “I find the two of you endlessly fascinating.” And he laughed.

MA: I really relate to that in your work. I find my parents really fascinating as well. They are still alive, but I relate to the longing that is in your essays “Listen” [Superstition Review], “If You Are What You Eat, Then What Am I?” [Kenyon Review], and “On Leaving Home” [Virginia Quarterly Review], even though my parents have not died yet.

My mom came here when she was twenty-two years old. What is an Indian woman, a girl, really, doing in New York in 1950? How is she managing? How is she living her life? How does she feel?

GK: I felt that longing before they died. I don’t know what that’s about, but I do think they were very private people and I’m nosy. That’s just all there is to it. I want to understand things about them. I found them interesting. They were so strange.

My mom came here when she was twenty-two years old. What is an Indian woman, a girl, really, doing in New York in 1950? How is she managing? How is she living her life? How does she feel? She can’t talk to her parents on the phone. When I tell people [that] she came in 1950—Indians—they say, “She came with her husband, it wouldn’t have been that bad.” And I’m like, “No, no, no.” She was here alone for ten years before she met my father. And then her decision to marry him had nothing to do with her parents. It was completely independent.

MA: This curiosity seems like why we become writers of creative nonfiction. Going back to the situation and the story, there is the top line, all the events that actually happened. The autobiographical events.

GK: We are interested in the motives. Why?

MA: What were you feeling?

GK: Yeah, what were you feeling?

MA: I ask my mother that a lot and she can’t always answer me. And my parents are not private. It seems like they are telling me everything that happened. But I want to know something else. I want to understand myself better. I’m forty now; I want to know how my mom felt when she was forty.

GK: Right, but they can’t tell you, because there is a level of self-examination that’s unfair to ask ordinary people to get involved in. They don’t want to go there, so that’s our job to do that. My mom didn’t want to talk about how she felt getting on that plane, she would only say, “I wanted someone to ask me to stay.” It’s a cultural thing. I have been brought up to say what I want, [such as], “I don’t wanna go.” But that wasn’t part of the deal then. She left home and she didn’t want to leave. She was never able to talk much about that longing. She couldn’t articulate it fully, partly because it would have been really painful. Most people don’t want to revisit their most painful moments.

MA: Does your book about your mother have a title yet?

GK: It’s a temporary title. It’s called Everywhere and Nowhere: Mapping My Mother’s Search for Home.

MA: It was helpful to hear you talk about your book project about your mother. We often hear writers say, “I struggled with it,” but hearing you say, “I’m struggling with it and here is why” is instructive. Thank you. It seems like the stuff arising in this conversation and the issue of identity and longing around family is also coming up for your fictional characters in I Brake for Moose.

GK: Completely by chance.

MA: Many of the characters are immigrants. I love the way the immigrant experience is all over. You are normalizing the immigrant story within American literature, which is so important.

GK: I am so glad to hear you got that from it.

MA: We (and by “we” I meant white people) tend to use the “other” as a story device, rather than the main story. But when you walk around a city, you aren’t walking around only white people. It is a diverse experience.

GK: There are two ways to look at this. I couldn’t write a whole book of stories about Indian immigrants. That wasn’t the way I was raised. You know New York. You’re raised around all different kinds of people and all those lives are interesting. That was part of it. But part of it was that issue of displacement. Who feels it? People who are immigrants or exiles. But there are also people who aren’t immigrants in this book.

MA: The teenage groupies [in the story “I Brake for Moose”]. What made you decide you want to write about early college-age girls who follow a band around? 

GK: I just wanted to write about that particular moment when you are really confused and have no direction. I knew people in bands. I was interested in this idea of being on the road and being very unhappy. Then I thought, how many Indian girls go on the road in 1987 with a band, and how would they do it. My parents would have had a heart attack.

MA: There is an Indian guy in the band, so that is what makes it okay with her parents.

GK: Exactly—and I don’t think my parents would have fallen for that, but I thought, I couldn’t write about her without her parents. It didn’t seem possible to me that she could pick up and go without telling her parents. I thought: I can’t kill her parents. There are so many dead parents in all my stories. It’s just a convenience at this point. I will have to make her deal with it. That story took me forever to write, damn it.

MA: How long?

GK: I remember sitting in my apartment trying to write it. I remember writing it out by hand on a legal pad. I could not find the form. Then I read a story by Joyce Carol Oates and I was like, “Why don’t I try this?” I thought, “If she could do it, why can’t I?” I would say it took me five years. I was writing other things. I work best when I work on multiple things.

MA: You have written about working on multiple projects in “The Other Things We Do: Knitting” [Necessary Fiction].

GK: My sister and I have talked about this. We are process knitters, not product knitters, so we will get really distracted by shiny new yarn, the feel of the yarn in the needles, and if the feeling isn’t right, it is hard to finish something. You lose interest. You learned what you needed to learn from that particular project and it is almost finished or halfway done and now you are ready to move on. I do think finishing is important. I am not saying you should have a lot of unfinished writing around you, that can be very distracting, but I seem to go through phases where I am creating a lot of stuff, starting things, trying them out. Then I will undo them or come back to them and start again. There is just this very messy process for me. I remember a friend of mine who said that when he works on a novel, he works on nothing else. I tried that. For a few years, I wrote a novel; I worked on nothing else and it was really hard.

MA: It sounds isolating.

GK: It was very lonely and isolating. There were all these parts of my life I couldn’t engage in and all these things I couldn’t do. It was not a pleasurable way to work. I finished the novel, but then everything hinged on getting it published and that wasn’t pleasurable for me either. I really had to rethink my relationship to my work, and the knitting is a way to rethink it.

MA: You want it to pleasurable to write.

GK: Yes. You want it to be pleasurable and you don’t want everything to be hinging on that perfect sweater. I make a lot of things that don’t fit me. I give away a lot of my knitting. I really get a lot of pleasure from doing it. That is how I feel about writing. I really enjoy just writing. Once I lifted that ban of not writing everything else, it freed me in many ways. I really need that distance.

MA: In this program, we often discuss how to represent characters who are not who you are.

GK: The “other.”

MA: Yeah, the “other.” You do that a lot. The story, “Crossing Cabot Straight,” features a white woman who is married to an Indian man. You write white characters. In I Brake for Moose, I remember a compelling character [in “Missing Men”] who was an African immigrant. They are different from you. They have different experiences. How do you go about creating those characters?

GK: It’s tricky, right? I am never sure I am doing it right or that someone isn’t going to read it and say, “Whoa, that’s an old trope you are engaging in, and why are you doing that?” But these are stories that attach themselves to these characters, and I couldn’t tell them any other way. That story, “Missing Men,” is an outtake from my novel. There were three characters in that book: a white man—a half-French, half-English Canadian—an Indian-American woman, and this African character, whom I deliberately did not attach to a country. In fiction, what is important to me is to explore these other lives and imagine what it’s like to be these people, and even [to write] from a male point of view. It’s not like you say, “I am going to write this from a male POV.” It is, “This is the story and it needs to be told this way.” I was influenced early on­­––I didn’t think about this until I was writing this book­––by Bharati Mukherjee, The Middle Man and Other Stories, which has its flaws but takes on multiple immigrant perspectives very deliberately. I don’t feel like I did that as deliberately in this book, but [Mukherjee] really wanted to represent that immigrant experience across cultures. There is a Filipino character and there is an Indian character in one of the stories. Whether [my effort] is successful is hard for me to gauge. I am too close to my work. All I know is that these are lives that I find very compelling and interesting.

I am very much influenced by the reading I do. I read a lot of nonfiction. That story about the African character was influenced by two things: a story I heard years ago, from a friend who was Ethiopian, and my reading of The Emperor: [The Downfall of an Aristocrat], by Ryszard Kapuscinski, which was about Ethiopia. For a long time, I was reading about the breakup of Yugoslavia, and this influenced one of my other stories [“Small Bang Only”]. I wanted to write about someone without a country, no way to go home. His passport changed, it’s completely invalid, but I didn’t want to write about the particulars of those places.

MA: Which forces me as a white-American reader, who is not super well informed, to think about the interior world of the character, which creates empathy. At first, I worried that I should know which country he was from and then I realized that no, this was about his interior world. You are great at creating the interior world of characters and portraying their intimate experiences. They are immigrants, they are having experiences that maybe seem like a trope of an immigrant experience­­­­––and tropes exist for a reason––but then you delve into their interior space within that experience. Your characters are full of doubt and confused about their lives.

GK: Confusion seems to interest me. It’s not something I set out to do, but in both those stories, I didn’t want the politics to overshadow the individuals. We have these big political stories, but it’s the individuals within those stories that interest me. That is why I tried to go for this kind of mystery about where they are from. It wasn’t to make you feel like you have to Google this stuff, but to make you hone in on the character rather than the situation. Hone in on the story, not the situation.

MA: What other writers do you see doing this type of work with the immigrant experience?

GK: We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. What I loved in that book was the back and forth between the life in Africa that she left behind and this new life here. You know there is normalizing the immigrant experience and exoticizing it­—opening this little door into immigrant life just to see what it’s like—and I don’t know where to draw the line between those two things. I like stories where the fact of the person’s immigration status is part of the story, but not the whole story; that there is something else going on. Those are the stories where you empathize with the person beyond their status. Jhumpa Lahiri does a great job in her short stories.

MA: We talk about unreliable narrators a lot in CNF. You want your narrator to have some space from the experience. What does that mean for really young writers in their twenties and thirties writing memoir?

GK: It’s tough because you have to create that distance yourself, and that would mean knowing who you are now and knowing who you were then. It’s very hard. I have a friend who has been working on her memoir. She has been working on it a long time and has an interesting story, but she is about twenty years younger than me. There are all kinds of issues, especially if you are writing about your parents and they are still alive. Finding that distance is really hard, especially when you are living through some of the experiences you are trying to write about. I don’t think it makes you necessarily unreliable, but what the reader gets is a sense that you are withholding.

MA: But it’s stuff you don’t know yet.

Unless you are willing to look at yourself straight-on, memoir is not for you.

GK: It’s stuff you don’t know or stuff you can’t look at because the self-examination is too painful. Unless you are willing to look at yourself straight-on, memoir is not for you. There are times in our lives when we can do that and times in our lives when we can’t. Sometimes, when you are younger, it is just harder. How do you create that distance that says, “This is who I am now, this is who I was then, and who I am now can look back on who I was then and treat her with kindness and empathy and understanding even as she is saying the most horrible racist things on earth”? Or whatever. [This is true] when you write about depression or trauma.

Sue Williams Silverman: her memoir was about being abused by her father and it is painful to read, but it is very artful. She creates these sections. Starting from the time she is four, she recreates these different voices and levels of knowingness, so the reader knows what is happening before the narrator knows. That is a kind of unreliability, but you’re in the hands of a much older writer and you know she is doing this on purpose. There is a real structure to it. It is a deeply painful book to read. I found it hard, but if you can step back from the material and look at the craft, it is revealing. By imagining these voices that are related to the ages she has at different points of the book and recreating herself at those different ages, she sets up these structures for herself to work in and these limitations. I would say that [as a] younger memoirist, [you] should define a structure that you can work within that would give you that distance. I would hate to say, “Oh, you’re too young to write a memoir!” Those are blanket statements that don’t give anyone useful information. Maybe you write the draft of your memoir now and ten years later, you come back and rewrite it and it is a different book, but you have all the stuff you are thinking about now.

MA: In an interview with the online journal Creative Nonfiction, you mention that you wish you had known that you didn’t necessarily need to go to graduate school to become a writer. Your nonfiction piece, “On Leaving Home,”­­ progresses through the various stages of leaving home and the mutual freedom and discomfort that come with it. In it, you describe being unhappy and isolated in graduate school. You describe an experience when the white students were not respectful to you. [They had not read the work and they were snickering in the back of the room.] This is a topic that has been discussed a lot lately. I am thinking about Junot Diaz in his New Yorker article, “MFA vs POC,” and about Claudia Rankine’s keynote at AWP in Los Angeles in 2016. Can you share any more about your graduate school experience?

GK: I felt very unseen, invisible in graduate school. I didn’t attribute it to racism at the time, because I was so lacking in confidence that it seemed to be all about me and not about the other people. I didn’t feel that I was a very good writer compared to everyone else, and that part of me deserved to be ignored. So, it is this internalized view of the self. I would do things like write these stories and I knew the characters were Indian, but I would make up weird names for them and pretend they weren’t. I was too young to be in graduate school. That is the number-one lesson I got from that, I was too young, too sensitive, too unsure of myself.

I had not been an English major as an undergraduate. I had majored in Afro-American studies and government. Majoring in Afro-American studies gave me a false sense of what the world was like. When I went to the English department, I was like, “Where are all the classes on people of color?” This was in the eighties and I don’t think I even used that term [people of color]. I thought, “Aren’t there any classes in Afro-American lit?” I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know why. I just didn’t understand why there weren’t classes in Afro-American lit in the English department. It left me feeling lost, because that was my home in literature. That was what I had spent four years studying and writing about and suddenly none of that mattered. It just didn’t. People were talking about writers that I didn’t feel anything about, which was alienating. But I don’t think I understood it in that way. I just kind of understood myself as a failure.

MA: A lot of people will relate to that experience.

GK: Really? That is so sad. I am sorry about that. That’s why I think a low-residency program would have been better for me. That one-on-one mentoring would have served me better. I felt lost in the crowd. There was no help for it; I was underprepared and it was a bad combination of things. If I had more guts and been a little more brassy, maybe if I had been fifty-four, I would have said, “Hey, this is bullshit!” But at twenty-three, I would just come home and cry all the time and my mom was like, “You’re gonna finish this degree.”

MA: In this program [AULA], we don’t spend that much time around a table critiquing one another’s work. Just one crit per residency. And these crit groups are different every residency, so you don’t have the same group in each critique, which breaks up the ability for these biases to compound on one another. The group dynamic is always changing. In full-time residential programs, I believe it is the same people all the time, so the same dominant voices might take up space.

GK: What you are looking for in graduate school are your readers for this future. This exposure to different people is like you finding your people. The people you will stay in touch with after you graduate, who you will send your first drafts to. And it may only be one or two people.

MA: You are an editor for the Kenyon Review. As students in this MFA program, many of us work as editors for Lunch Ticket. Because it is a student-run journal, we do this for free. How do you get to do this for money?

GK: I wish the money were so good that I could recommend this as a job. It is practically like doing it for free. The way I see the money part of it, is that it pays for me to take classes or do other things. I got the job totally by chance. I was at the right place at the right time. They had published my food essay many years before. When Nancy Zafris stepped down as fiction editor, I had already been at the workshop once as a student and she suggested my name. I moved on to become nonfiction editor. It was not something I set out to do. I see it as a literary citizenship. I enjoy finding new writers. A lot of submissions are very good but are not quite right for us, and I think those pieces are going to find a home. Someone else will take it.

It is important to depersonalize that process. When I first started editing, I was intimidated because so much good work was getting turned away, and [so] I didn’t send out my work for about a year. It took a while to say, “Okay, I can get my work out there again, I don’t have to perfect or [be] the best. You just have to be good enough.”

MA: Do you write notes when you decline a piece? Do you suggest revisions?

GK: I don’t suggest revisions. If we make a suggestion for a revision, it has to be with the agreement of everyone [on staff] and it has to be doable. We have less time for that because the volume is so huge.

MA: So, a rejection doesn’t mean “this piece stinks.”

GK: Right. You just don’t know what is going to hit what reader at what time, so you absolutely can’t take it personally.

 

Meredith Arena

Meredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle, where she works as a teaching artist in the public schools and facilitates meditation for adults. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is a creative nonfiction editor on Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Lunch Ticket, and SHIFT Queer Art & Literary Magazine.

Andromeda Romano-Lax, Author

Andromeda Romano-LaxAndromeda Romano-Lax began her career as a travel writer and freelance journalist before focusing on fiction. She has published in multiple newspapers and magazines from Seventeen to Steinbeck Studies. She cofounded the nonprofit, 49 Alaska Writing Center (Anchorage, Alaska) and teaches at the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She freelances as a book coach at Antioch University’s Inspiration to Publication (i2p) program.

Her career accomplishments include her first novel, The Spanish Bow (2007), which was honored as one of the Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year, a Book Sense Pick by the American Bookseller’s Association, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. (The Spanish Bow has been translated into eleven different languages worldwide.) Additional novels include The Detour (2012) and Behave (2016). Romano-Lax has also published a travel narrative, Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja’s Desert Coast (2009), and written natural history and travel guidebooks about Alaska. Among her many awards, she has received fellowships from the Alaska Press Club and the National Association for Interpretation, and the Rasmuson Foundation honored her as its 2009 Artist Fellow.

Andromeda Romano-Lax and I conducted our interview via email in early March, 2017.

Shaneka Jones Cook: How did you become a writer? Did you have an early experience where you learned that language, words, and writing had power?

Andromeda Romano-Lax: As a teen, I tried my hand at shapeless short stories, the first pages of novels, and travel journals. I also sold my first articles to Seventeen when I was close to that age, which started me on the path to magazine freelancing, which was a thrilling, terrifying experience. (Propose an article to a stranger and then try to write it. I failed many times. There was no better training!)

One of several reasons why I didn’t study writing in college was that I had this idea that everyone writes—that everyone can and should write. I didn’t see it as a separate field, just an extension of one’s natural desire to remember, imagine, and think on paper.

One of several reasons why I didn’t study writing in college was that I had this idea that everyone writes—that everyone can and should write. I didn’t see it as a separate field, just an extension of one’s natural desire to remember, imagine, and think on paper. I thought the best way to become a writer was to study everything but writing: politics, economics, history, biology, psychology. The urge to write, for me, had nothing to do with power or achieving a preconceived goal or even about “expressing oneself.” It was mainly about noticing more, and about feeling more alive and engaged with the real world.

SJC: You began your career a freelance journalist and travel writer. What prompted or inspired you to become a fiction writer? And how was the transition? How do you approach these different forms of writing? Do you use similar craft tools and/or skillsets?

ARL: I became a novelist after 9/11, after asking that question that nearly everyone asks after major historic moments or personal crises: “If I could have only one more chance in life to do something, what would it be?” I dropped a depressing book project about climate change that I thought no one would ever read (because I hadn’t found any angle that would make it sufficiently interesting or accessible) and instead pursued a story that filled me with joy: the real-life saga of the cellist Pablo Casals, who stood up against fascism in Spain. I studied cello with an eye to describing cello playing better. I dove into the research, traveling to Puerto Rico and later to Europe with my husband and two young children, each time on a shoestring budget, staying in hostels, riding trains, and eating cheaply. I decided almost immediately the story would work better in novel form, and simply took the whole thing one fictional episode at a time, modeling the work on Don Quixote, which is intentionally episodic. The transition to novel writing was a thrilling leap into the unknown, and since I wasn’t thinking much about publication or readers, I never experienced anxiety or doubt. (I’m more anxious and concerned about outcomes now, unfortunately, though I do my best to keep that in check.)

The tools and habits I got from journalism and assignment-based nonfiction writing were: set deadlines and break the project into chunks. Just get each part done, no matter how imperfect it is. Interview people, travel to get the settings and other details right, be curious. That was all well and good, but I still had huge gaps in my literary knowledge, because I hadn’t read enough fiction. How dare I even try to write a novel without having read Woolf, Nabokov, and many more like them, not to mention contemporary authors? So I started doing that, methodically, keeping journals in which I recorded my slow awakening to craft concerns like POV, characterization, language, and so on. It was a DIY MFA and unbelievably fun. Later I got a real MFA in order to teach (and find my tribe), but this first period of self-training was the most important.

 SJC: Where does the inspiration for your books originate from? Is there a process you go through to determine what subject you will write about?

ARL: The inspiration usually comes quickly and serendipitously in the form of a footnote, a tiny news item, a merging of two unrelated thoughts that makes something click. The whole process is organic. If the idea grabs me, I will start researching, or just keep thinking and imagining scenes in my head, and if it won’t let me go, the novel begins.

Sometimes I’ll have part of a story I want to tell but something is missing, and I have to wait for the final piece of the puzzle—the right voice for the narrator, or how the story it will be organized—to fall into place. But you can’t wait too long.

Ideas are cheap. Early drafting is a long-haul effort. But revision, I find myself believing now, is where the real work begins.

Here is the one thing I wish someone had told me twenty-five years ago, when I was anxious about not having enough ideas: if you keep reading and writing, ideas will multiply, to the point where inspiration is not the problem at all—only execution. Ideas are cheap. Early drafting is a long-haul effort. But revision, I find myself believing now, is where the real work begins.

SJC: In your new book, Behave, you state, “I wrote this novel to give voice to a woman mostly forgotten by history.” Its protagonist is Rosalie Rayner, a twentieth century behavioral scientist, mother, and wife of John B. Watson, a pioneer of behaviorism. Can you tell me what specifically captivated you to write about these characters and about behaviorism? What drew you to her over the many other forgotten female voices in history?

ARL: In the beginning, I never think in broad or abstract categories, like “forgotten female voices.” (I may think that way when the book is almost done and I have to say something for the author notes and marketing materials, though!) Specifics are what grab my attention. In the case of Rosalie Watson, I heard about her one night at a cocktail party and discovered she had helped her more famous husband do some alarming research on young babies. I wanted to know who she was, how she felt about what she was doing, and what happened to her later, in those few years before she died a strange and early death. I got home, started Googling, and knew she was my next narrator before I went to bed.

SJC: Behave is categorized as a fictional memoir, though it is based in historical occurrences. How did you approach the form of this book? Did you ever consider writing biography?

ARL: Many of my novels, and that’s how they are categorized, have been based on historical events and each has a different relationship to fact. Unlike my first two, in which I completely invented some characters (who interacted with historical events and figures), Behave follows the facts even more closely and is populated with all real people, drawn as close to life as I could manage, based on available information. I think the main reason that readers come to it is to learn about John and Rosalie Watson, to gain insights into the early decades of psychology, and to see how it contributed to unfortunate ideas about anti-attachment style parenting. Those are the same things I wanted to discover when I started writing the book.

At the same time, when you write a novel, you have to write in scene, include dialogue that no one ever recorded, and speculate about characters’ emotions and motivations. For a biographer, which I have never wanted to be, the gaps create problems. For a novelist, the gaps create opportunities. So little was known about Rosalie that I could embrace literary license and hopefully tell a story that reveals the experiences of many bright, conflicted women in the 1920s.

SJC: Your previous novels, The Spanish Bow and The Detour, are also historical fiction: the former about a cellist in the early twentieth century in Europe and the latter about a German bureaucrat in Italy during WWII. How did you come to write historical fiction? What are the particular challenges associated with writing historical fiction?

I consider myself an accidental historical novelist. I started out writing The Spanish Bow because I was in love with the cello and admired Casals and wanted to write a musical novel. It turned out that Europe in the early twentieth century was a time when music intersected with politics, the visual arts, and just about everything else.

ARL: I consider myself an accidental historical novelist. I started out writing The Spanish Bow because I was in love with the cello and admired Casals and wanted to write a musical novel. It turned out that Europe in the early twentieth century was a time when music intersected with politics, the visual arts, and just about everything else. I kept diving into history—with that novel and the ones following—because I realized that we are often blind to key issues in our present day, and that writing about parallel issues from the past can be a way of approaching things from a slant, sneaking past our defenses. In other words, the past is suitably defamiliarizing. It allows us to see even our own time more clearly. On top of that, it is simply fascinating. Writing about scientific ethics and difficult marriages in the 1920s, or morality and body image in the 1930s, or idealism and sacrifice in the 1940s, or the problem of caring for a parent in the futuristic year of 2029 (my forthcoming novel) has so far interested me more than writing about those topics set during my own lifetime.

As for the challenges, I’ll pick just one: knowing what to leave out.

SJC: What was one of the most surprising things you learned while creating your books?

ARL: I’ve learned that whether you get a big or small advance, whether you write for a giant or medium or small publisher (I’ve published across those categories), and whether your book seems commercial or esoteric, it’s still the same process. You start with a question, an image, or a scene that starts playing in your head. You block out the doubts and keep going, often with very little encouragement—and it’s best not to need any. The book comes out and people either read it or don’t read it, but within a strangely short time, you’ve forgotten nearly all of the praise and at least some of the criticism. Hopefully, you move on to the next story, because that’s where the excitement is. It is shocking how many published and even well-received and profitable books are forgotten within a few years of publication, but it’s freeing, too. You follow the next idea and try to do something you haven’t done before.

SJC: You are the cofounder of and teach at the nonprofit organization, the 49 Alaska Writing Center. Can you tell us about this organization and its mission?

ARL: We started 49 Writers in 2010 (it was a collaborative blog before that) to bring affordable classes, readings, retreats, and literary programming—all the things we wished our state could have, but didn’t—to communities all across Alaska, a really big state with lots of great writers and even more aspiring writers. The organization has thrived year after year, based on a whole lot of community energy, volunteers, grants, donations, and capable leadership. At this point, I’m only minimally involved, as an occasional blogger and teacher. And that’s the great part: seeing so many people pick up the baton and keep running with it. The best thing I did was co-founding the organization and the second best thing I did was step away so that other people could keep growing it.

SJC: You grew up in Chicago and lived throughout Mexico. Is there a way in which the current controversies about violence in Chicago or the infamous wall between the US and Mexico inform your writing? Does place play a role in shaping your narratives?

ARL: I’m sorry to say that I haven’t yet written anything about Illinois, where I grew up (in a dull suburb, not Chicago, which might have been more memorable) or even Alaska, where I lived for twenty years. But there are other places that have shaped my writing, including Europe (which I started visiting in 1984), Asia (we lived in rural Taiwan in 2014), and Mexico (where we lived until recently, not counting various trips in the 1990s and 2000s). As for current events: I yearn to write something about the violence in Mexico. An idea is pestering me. If I knew Mexico less than I did—I’m still an outsider, it goes without saying—I would probably approach the idea more boldly, but the more you know, the more you realize what could go wrong, narratively and politically speaking, and that hampers the process. Naïveté can be a gift. The first-time novelist feels alone and unsure, but she is in a fantastic position, able to take risks and to ignore all kinds of problems during those sensitive early stages of incubation.

SJC: What are you currently working on?

ARL: The seeds of the next novel, as well as two memoir projects: one about my three years learning Spanish, including living in Mexico (Baja California and Chiapas), and one about a year spent running in all fifty US states while dealing with health and family issues. They are both very much “midlife” books. The great thing about being a writer is that you can take something challenging, like dealing with one’s own aging brain or helping a dying parent, or you can take a dream, like traveling somewhere or doing something outlandish, and give it structure and meaning through narrative. We writers are extremely lucky that way.

 

Shaneka Jones Cook

Shaneka Jones Cook is a former elementary school teacher who writes fiction, poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction, in addition be to being a freelance writer. She is currently working on her MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s been published in The Record (Trinity Washington University). She is currently working on a children’s book based on her two younger sons, and a collection of essays about mother/son relationships. She is the founder of the book and poetry club “Chapter Chicks.” She was an assistant editor for Amuse-Bouche, and currently works on the proof-editing and interview teams for Lunch Ticket. She resides in Virginia with her daughter and three sons. When Shaneka’s not writing, she’s either watching the Syfy channel or binge-watching Hulu and Netflix.