Alistair McCartney, Author

Photo Credit: Tim Miller

Alistair McCartney is more apt to graciously smile and walk by, than stay and chat. Amiable and courteous, he’s an unassuming type who stays out of the spotlight. Author of The Disintegrations: A Novel (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017), he recently won the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBTQ Fiction. The Seattle Times and ENTROPY named it one of the best works of fiction for 2017. His first novel, The End of The World Book (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) was a finalist for the PEN USA Fiction Award in 2009 and for the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Debut Fiction Award in 2009, as well as landing a spot in The Seattle Times Best Ten Books of 2008. His writing has appeared in many journals and anthologies including Fence, Animal Shelter (Issue 2, Semiotexte), BloomLies/IslesGertrude, CRUSH Fanzine1913James White Review, Scott Heim’s The First Time I Heard series, and Karen Finley’s Aroused.

The Disintegrations cobbles together nightmares, legends, haunts, and tender recall into a larger story that allows for deep reflection and interpretation.

Born and raised in Perth, Western Australia, Alistair McCartney resides in Venice, California. He is on staff at Antioch University Los Angeles teaching fiction for the MFA in creative writing program, and oversees AULA’s undergraduate creative writing concentration. Included in the list of institutions where he has presented are CUNY Grad Center, PEN Center USA, AWP, Teacher’s and Writer’s Collaborative New York, and UW Madison. Usually dressed in a slim tee and slacks, his longish hair waving over one eye, Alistair brings cups of tea and total focus to his workshops.

I had the opportunity to work with Alistair during a creative writing residency at Antioch University’s MFA program. When my packet arrived stamped with his name, I wanted to bellow a loud huzzah, but whispered, yes, to my napping hubs, I’m workshopping with Alistair McCartney. At the workshop, I felt awed by Alistair’s humor and unshakable calm; the way he doesn’t trip on words. His latest novel, The Disintegrations was nearly finished, he told our group. He raked through his hair and described the task. Nine years of work, building, disassembling, paging through text, and here I was witness to the last phase of its completion. It only takes nine months to birth a baby. Holding the new novel and reading it through winter break, I could hear Alistair’s gentle Australian-accented prosody narrating in my head.

The Disintegrations cobbles together nightmares, legends, haunts, and tender recall into a larger story that allows for deep reflection and interpretation. Also named “Alistair,” the novel’s narrator is unapologetic, sometimes seedy, and never predictable. McCartney presents briefly penned inquiries, snooping for small answers to the big question: What does the exploration of death reveal about life?

I interviewed Alistair McCartney by email in February, 2018.

Andrea Auten: Your recently published novel, The Disintegrations, packs thick and richly worded text exploring death’s parlous hold on its narrator, and though the piece is small, it contains profound discoveries. In intimate partnership, I walked through death’s shadowy valley in what felt like an epic thousand-page novel and never felt cheated or unquenched. What methods helped manage the size and scope of death and in paring down the text, how did large cuts affect your writing and serve this story?

Alistair McCartney: That makes me so happy to hear that your reading experience was one of intimacy, and that the book felt epic in scope, within the limits of its 213 pages. If I learnt anything from the process of writing this novel, it was how to compress, how to be ruthless in cutting. Earlier drafts were three times as long.

What guided me through this process was an ethos that I address directly in the book, that in trying to write about death, the temptation is to go on and on, to write a novel of Moby Dick proportions, but instead I followed an instinct that the writer should be more modest in his aims.

In The Disintegrations I use the analogy of wanting to write a book like a grand cathedral of Gothic dimensions, but instead aiming to create a structure that has the strictly controlled dimensions of a grave, a book whose space is contained, but full of hidden things.

I think, or I hope that this method served the voice, brought forth a terse quality in the narrator, and served the story in terms of avoiding grandiosity or portentousness. It also helped speed things up in terms of pacing; some readers have told me they read the book in one sitting, which also makes me happy.

AA: I enjoy your form of archival writing; this collective sourcing. When all is available can it become a flood and how do you navigate and know what to keep?

AM: I love that you pick up on the archival nature of The Disintegrations. Just as with The End of the World Book, I played the role of an encyclopedist; in this new book I’m essentially an archivist, responsible for maintaining the archives of the dead, though one who is not averse to tampering with the documents, falsifying them. And it gets me wondering if all writing is archival by nature, to some degree.

The specter of Catholicism was unavoidable in this book especially given the setting at a Catholic cemetery, given the narrator’s (and my own) Catholic upbringing.

Your notion of the flood is definitely apt, it’s exactly what I was confronted with as I researched and wrote successive drafts: a deluge of documents, records, facts, information. As for how to deal with it, I think you have to drown for a while in all of it, but after the deluge, you begin to intuitively keep and take only what draws you with a kind of magnetic pull, what sparks your imagination.

AA: I have a vivid childhood memory of losing myself in the worn-out album cover of Elton John’s Captain Fantastic, an older brother’s hand-me-down classic, while listening to songs like “Someone Save My Life Tonight” and staring at the Bosch-inspired cover art. Bosch’s real painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” both frightens and fascinates, with Adam and Eve, all of the people on earth, and the darkening end times depiction. As you wrote The End of the World Book and The Disintegrations, how might Catholic iconography have attached to your themes?

AM: Your childhood memory sounds very similar to my own—I was obsessed with music and visual images, including Bosch’s art, especially that right panel of The Garden, his depiction of Hell. Your choice of words as to the effect of his images, both frightening and fascinating, is spot-on. Weirdly enough in an earlier draft of The Disintegrations I wrote about Bosch; I ended up cutting it, but will go back to it in another book that is part of the cycle I’m working on.

The specter of Catholicism was unavoidable in this book especially given the setting at a Catholic cemetery, given the narrator’s (and my own) Catholic upbringing. I think I should leave it up to readers and reviewers as to how it specifically impacts the book’s set of icons, but I will say that the theme of resurrection versus disintegration is obviously central to The Disintegrations. The narrator draws on religious motifs throughout, not just of the Catholic variety, but always through a non-systematic lens. As I wrote I was thinking a lot about writers and artists who draw on religious imagery in a reverent yet deeply idiosyncratic way, like Flannery O’Connor, Dostoevsky, and my fellow Australian Nick Cave.

AA: Your work, nonlinear, archival, the spaces in between, evokes visual art movements—beyond surrealism, somewhere less Dadaistic—where interpretation and interaction meet. What are your visual art interests and how do they help you paint words?

AM: Yeah, I’m definitely a writer who’s profoundly influenced by other art forms—music, dance, film, and as you mention, visual art. In a very general sense, I’m drawn to the immediate power of the image, the sensual materiality of visual art; my writing is very image based—images are more important than plot or narrative.

There were several artists whose work really informed The Disintegrations, images I kept on my desk as I wrote: Alice Neel’s portraits guided the fictional eulogies, El Greco’s painting of The View of Toledo served as sort of talisman for the setting, Marlene Dumas’ stark portraits in her Measuring your Own Grave exhibit were invaluable, as were the disintegrated photographs of Costica Ascinte (one of his photos ended up on the cover), and Banks Violette’s abstract Black Metal inspired installations. All these works shared a beauty and intensity that helped me figure out how to write around death, through death.

Because all my writing begins with fragments, I’m deeply drawn to the visual art method of collage, it teaches me so much —I’m fixated on that now as I work on my next book. Also, installation artists like Danh Vo, who works with the accumulation of disparate objects into a non-linear narrative. And I have a future book planned for my cycle that will, God willing, address my passion for visual art directly.

AA: How does performance art and its world weave into your writing and inspire you?

AM: Well, I do have a background in performance art and live art. I spent a good chunk of the 90’s in London and in LA experimenting in that zone, doing both text based work and movement focused, body centered work without text. And I used to teach a class on the history of performance art, Vibrant Bodies, to the undergrads at Antioch, focusing on extreme performance, like Chris Burden, Ron Athey, Kira O’Reilly, Franko B, Marina Abramovich, William Pope, L. Regina Galindo, and others.

When I was a practitioner, I was kind of trying to avoid being a writer, though I had to go back to it, it’s just who I am and what I do. But that trace of performance lingers in my writing; a review of The End of the World Book said that the voice and prose was like that of a performance artist, or an avant-garde stand up comic. For that book I did some directly performative readings, using a slideshow, and playing with volumes of the actual World Book during the reading.

And I think The Disintegrations is also very oral in nature, it’s a book to be read aloud, which is how I write, reading every sentence over and over again aloud until it sounds right. Essentially I approach writing in a very performative manner; for me that “I” who narrates my books, who bears my name, is a persona, a performative gesture. It’s interesting you bring up performance because I suspect I may be exploring it more actively in the third book, both in terms of the writing on the page but off the page as well.

AA: What sparked your love for French auto-fiction and how did great minds such as Bataille, Rimbaud, Genet, Guibert, and Blanchot influence your work? 

When I teach fiction, truth is not a word I reach for, but I use other words or concepts that perhaps are variants of the term. For instance, when I’m reading my student’s novels and short stories, I’m drawn to identifying the singularity of a writer, and encouraging them to pursue that uniqueness.

AM: Well, all those writers you mention are ones I love and have informed me at different stages of my life. Genet, Bataille, and Rimbaud are writers I discovered as a teenager; Guibert in my mid-twenties, Blanchot more recently. And to that list I’d add Duras, who I first read as an undergrad. Specifically in terms of those writers whose work falls under the category of auto-fiction—Duras, Guibert, Blanchot—I’d say it was an immediate resonance with the work, their “choice” to write explicitly from life, but refuse the category of fiction, and in Blanchot’s case, to question the very grounds of representation. I’m making this attraction sound very cerebral, but it was much more instinctive. All of my work begins in the autobiographical, but I just don’t feel comfortable telling it in the realm of creative non-fiction. Blanchot’s Death Sentence was a novella that had a major influence on The Disintegrations in helping me find the right voice and register to tell my fictional eulogies.

As for the other writers you mention who don’t fall so neatly into auto-fiction, with Bataille, his exploration of the erotics of transgression and the interface between sex and death is definitely there in The Disintegrations. In many ways I think of the shorter sections of my book that read like prose poems as direct descendants of Rimbaud’s The Illuminations, like negative mirror images of those poems. Even the title of Rimbaud’s book influenced my title. I’m not sure Genet’s influence is directly in the current book, but interestingly enough he’s someone I’ve been thinking about lately, and who is definitely influencing the world of the new book I’m working on.

AA: All this clanging about fake news, truth v. fact, grappling with the nature of truth is not a new social construct. Ancient Greco-Roman rights and illusions of free speech, Foucault’s “games of truth” thinking, the splashy recrimination hurled at not so nonfiction writing; truth has pliancy. As a teaching artist how do you assist writers to search for their own relationship to truth?

AM: That’s a really interesting question, because the word truth is one that’s not really in my vocabulary, at least as it applies to art. I think I’m still very much a child of post-modernity; Nietzsche’s assertion that “truth is a mobile army of metaphors” is one I’ve been very aware of lately. I’m fine with Plato labeling us as liars—he can keep his Truth.

So when I teach fiction, truth is not a word I reach for, but I use other words or concepts that perhaps are variants of the term. For instance, when I’m reading my student’s novels and short stories, I’m drawn to identifying the singularity of a writer, and encouraging them to pursue that uniqueness. I’m really excited by my students doing work that’s provocative, that’s pushing at a limit, that’s fearless. All of this is my way of encouraging the writer to follow their aesthetic vision, which is perhaps, a sort of truth, or more essential than truth. Encouraging the writer to counter that “clanging” in the social sphere you mention, with the—to take Nietzsche’s words—“sensuous vigor” of their language.

Perhaps the closest I get to applying the concept of truth to fiction is when a student is doing work with a basis in history, and their work is intent on revealing historic truth, especially through defamiliarization. That’s where I have to separate my own aesthetic or philosophical discomfort with using the term, particularly when I write, my sense that language is not a medium that has access to truth, from the importance of my student’s vision and from the strategic importance, in our age, the necessity of asserting the value of historical truth to counter the dissembling forces of fascism here and globally.

AA: What role do writers have in influencing culture and do you see that increasing or decreasing?

Helen Cixous says that children read with extreme violence, in that they erase the rest of the world when they read. I think if we can write books that intuitively tap into that obsessive focus, that childish curiosity, that textual hunger, that free zone where no limits were placed on the imagination, where narratives were unpredictable and we were more than happy to go along for the ride, maybe then we’ll keep our readers eager to turn the page, longing to finish their daily obligations and get back to the book.

AM: Wow, “culture” is such a big concept, I’m not sure what it means anymore. I think we did see in the 20th century the splintering of the notions of high culture versus low culture, the de-centering of the writer as influencing cultural trends in a grand way. Sure, some big names have a platform in their books and op-eds and speeches where they are able to reach an audience large enough to have some broader influence, but I think most of us, if we have any influence, it’s in the literary communities we find ourselves in, whether those reside in an institution or outside an institution. It’s also in that intimate relationship between individual writers and individual readers, those readers we touch and who reach out, so we can communicate with them. That sphere of influence is very significant.

AA: Our two rows of The World Book Encyclopedia shelved behind the family couch frequently called me to lie on my belly and consume information. While I read your novels The End of the World Book, drinking its humor and interiority, and The Disintegrations, marveling at the depth and uniqueness of its characters, I considered how you crafted the works to make me crave and hungrily keep reading. What makes readers want to continue reading?

AM: I love hearing how other readers shared the same passion as mine for The World Book when they were kids. The other day I was telling someone how in the last few years, and even more recently, in the last year since The Disintegrations came out, I’ve learned to read like a kid again, with the same intensity and joy. Helen Cixous says that children read with extreme violence, in that they erase the rest of the world when they read. I think if we can write books that intuitively tap into that obsessive focus, that childish curiosity, that textual hunger, that free zone where no limits were placed on the imagination, where narratives were unpredictable and we were more than happy to go along for the ride, maybe then we’ll keep our readers eager to turn the page, longing to finish their daily obligations and get back to the book.

AA: How might writers adhere to current publishing standards, while tooling the piece they’re compelled to write, honoring their own voice and truth?

AM: Well, we all want to get published, which means having to meet “a publishing standard” established by a house, an editor or agent, a system. But I think it’s really important as writers we write the books we’re meant to write, in all their singularity, ignoring all publishing conventions. So I guess it’s a question of simultaneously pushing the limits of standardization, writing what we need to write while finding those editors, publishers, especially the small independent houses, and locating those journals that welcome singularity and idiosyncrasy.

AA: Flashbacks seem to be on a downturn yet The Disintegrations utilizes recall, reverie, and rumination to successfully invoke a storyteller’s voice. How do you keep your narratives active and where do you think the industry trend is headed?

AM: Yeah, reverie is an important aspect of The Disintegrations and The End of the World Book. I’ve been plugging away at Proust again—I’m only up to book three, The Guermantes Way—and I realized how much his fetishization of recall has influenced me, albeit gathering memories in a far more fragmentary method than his. I’d say the active element of my narratives comes by way of image and motif, the accumulation of memories and images, the reverb of motifs that the reader recognizes and hopefully takes pleasure in.

As a teacher of MFA fiction writers, I am aware that the use of flashback in conventional narratives can drag the narrative down, but, as with the previous question, I do think writers should be wary of any fixed rules and write against such a convention. I’m afraid I don’t pay much attention to “industries” or “trends” so I can’t tell you where any of that is going, but my hope would be that we keep letting in more of those voices that don’t meet market expectations, those voices that don’t fit any trends.

 

Andrea Auten is the Amuse-Bouche editor for Lunch Ticket’s thirteenth issue. A masters candidate in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and an arts teacher and performer from Dayton, OH, she lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her work can be found in The Antioch Voice. She is currently finishing her second novel.

 

Juan Felipe Herrera, Author

Juan Felipe Unity Poem Fiesta

Juan Felipe Herrera is the author of several poetry collections, short stories, young adult literature, and children’s books. Among many of his works are the recent Notes on the Assemblage, Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems, and The Upside Down Boy. He became the US poet laureate in 2015 for two years. His poems advocate for harmony and freedom in today’s ever diversifying world. His poetry particularly speaks to the working class, migrant workers, and the civil rights activists.

Among his many interests are photography, theatre, and performance poetry. He is also a performance poet and teaches performance within the community. He has created several performance ensembles.

He has taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has worked as chair of CSU Fresno’s Chicano and Latin American studies department. In the past, he has also served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

I interviewed Juan Felipe Herrera via phone on March 4, 2018.

Jennifer Mahoney: During your seminar at Antioch University in December 2017, you mentioned that a poem is “a mobile, a hanging architectural structure.” Will you tell me more about this?

Juan Felipe Herrera: The reader, all those things give the poem a new look, a motion in a way—how it moves and what it is for each reader, for each culture and place and time. If you look at it objectively, it’s a little structure. For me, I highly enjoy assembling the poem, building lines, moving words, creating spaces and pauses. It’s a structure, definitely. And I enjoy that quite a bit. The more mobile and the more fluid a poem is for me, the better, even though there is an architectural layer to it. 

 It’s connected to the notion of freedom of thought. And that’s a big thing right now, having freedom of thought. One group’s version of what is going on with another group’s version of what is going on, and if you don’t agree with the extreme right way of thinking then you are a free thinker.

JM: You’ve spoken about new coalitions, new symbols, refreshing symbols to nourish and expand the new Civil Rights movement. In what ways do you think writers, specifically, should rethink this movement?

JFH: We are going through such tremendous and intense changes. New symbol—the male symbol and the female symbol—those have been around for quite a while. It’s like art. Each new movement comes up with a whole new description of what is going on, for itself and what art is. So I think that’s something that is very high on the priority list, people interested in social change. We really do need to come up with a new sort of idea agreement—where we’re going and what we want and how we want it to be done, in what shape it’s going to be in. And how do we come together as diverse people and groups? And even if that is important at all. So we really have to kind of loosen our thoughts quite a bit and our historical narrative of thinking. Give ourselves a number of moments to imagine what is going on now and how we want to present ourselves. That’s where symbols come in. How we want to present ourselves globally and locally.

JM: In your piece, “Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings,” the speaker mentions that a poem “is a way to attain a life without boundaries.” What ways does the poem break boundaries.

JFH: It’s kind of connected to the haiku in a way. The haiku, one of its great possibilities is that there is something literally and also something very deep in a haiku where you have to spring out of it and find something boundless. So that’s what I’m thinking about. That poem is boundlessness. Kind of like a number of days in your life where a particular day you have a very large expansive insight that you have never had before. It kind of comes out of nowhere, and it’s very big. And that’s what I’m kind of looking at…One day you actually crawl into this thing that you talked about whether it was freedom or love or unity. You really imagine it and you really feel it and you walk up to it as opposed to just saying it.

JM: You’ve spoken about Frederick Douglass at previous lectures. He is one of the many figures who inspire your work. He wanted to promote a new society. How might Frederick Douglass’s idea of freedom apply to the current situation in this country?

JFH: It’s connected to the notion of freedom of thought. And that’s a big thing right now, having freedom of thought.

One group’s version of what is going on with another group’s version of what is going on, and if you don’t agree with the extreme right way of thinking then you are a free thinker.

One of the worst things that can happen to us is be disconnected from each other. And to top it off, to be comfortable being disconnected—that’s even worse. So unity. It’s kind of intimate unity.

At large, I keep on thinking of the old school term that Milosz also used in the 40s when he speaks of Hitlerism and Stalinism. He mentioned very appropriately the term mass hypnosis. And people were being forced to learn a particular way of thinking…and if you didn’t follow, you were shot, banished, exiled. And Milosz was also interested in freedom of thought. So he mentioned the term mass hypnosis…from early psychoanalytic narratives of the early 20th century. And I think that’s what’s kind of going on all of a sudden too. Douglass was also concerned about freedom of thought because as a slave, with slavery, they were not allowed to read, not allowed to have books or mentors or teachers, not to talk about the world of writing or thinking or reading or speeches. So that was highly sanctioned. They were brutally punished because they wanted to read or follow the book. I found that to be alarming, of course, but I also found it to be alarming related to today. We’re kind of surface thinkers many a time. We just kind of read a little bit about this, a little bit about that. Or we’re just interested in the general news or we’re just interested in the movies—a cultural surface layer. We all have a good time. We go to Starbucks, we go to the movies, we come home, we talk, have a nice conversation. But it’s hard to take time out to really deepen our thinking of what on earth is going on right now. So freedom of thought, freedom of thinking is very critical.

JM: Speaking of media, because we are at a time where we need to be thoughtful, how can we practice thoughtfulness in today’s busy society with our everyday technology holding our attention?

Unity is a sweet word, but it’s quite a challenge. That’s my number one issue, how to have a new kind of unity, not this kind of unity where everybody is separate, cut off from each other. That’s not unity.

JFH: We have to stop. Corporate media has become highly, highly developed. I think about the Disney cartoons back in the 50s. They were like rudimentary compared to Disney cartoons today. The same is true to the advertisements today versus ten years ago. But corporate systems have built up a pretty deep and wide global reach and with extremely sophisticated material. They’re like short films. A commercial is a short film. It’s not just a commercial. It’s actually a dramatic film. So where does that leave you and me. Where do we have time to really think it over? So we have to be aware of that power as overtaking. It’s overtaking our way of being and our way of thinking. So we have to notice it and turn it off or find another path.

JM: You mentioned that what most brings you happiness is unity, to be one with everything and everyone. How can poetry bring readers and writers this fulfillment?

JFH: Poetry, art, meditative people, people who have discussions, teachers, classrooms. It’s going on all over the place. But it’s hard to notice once again, and we’re not in those classrooms. I remember seeing an experiment with animals, they show things here and there on tv. And this was a cat, abandoned. And all it had was a social relationship with a small piece of wood with a rug attached to it. What the cat ended up doing was rubbing itself against that carpet because it felt like it had a partner. Self-intimacy. One of the worst things that can happen to us is be disconnected from each other. And to top it off, to be comfortable being disconnected—that’s even worse. So unity. It’s kind of intimate unity. Not just kind of mechanical unity where we’re all in a theatre. I don’t know if there is unity there. We have to find out what unity is. We have to rediscover it. Groups being banned. Groups being deported. Sexual assault being ignored. Women’s experiences being ignored. High school students being massacred. And two or three days later, it’s off the agenda.

So unity is a sweet word, but it’s quite a challenge. That’s my number one issue, how to have a new kind of unity, not this kind of unity where everybody is separate, cut off from each other. That’s not unity. So that’s a good thing. And that does bring me happiness when I come together with friends and family.

JM: Do you think it is important for writers to listen to and have conversations with many people? If so, how has this idea contributed to your own writing?

JFH: We really are nourished by being in a pact of artists and people. At the heart of writing, for particularly poets, it’s going to be hard to notice your poetry if you just go at it by yourself. You select your own book that you want to read, and you write your own way, and you think it all out yourself in your bright poetry head. But poetry is a communal art…Being in a group of writers and poets and doing things together, and talking and going out, walking down the street and organizing events, going across country, and going to another nation together, and traveling around—one is more on the wilder traveling, anything goes world, meeting people. And the other side is kind of the writing world where you write. You may be on your own, mostly, but you will have heard people so you think differently than you do. You will have discovered new words that you know but you never thought of using them in that particular way. And you’ve just been inspired by having someone right next to you, and that itself gave you a whole lot of new energy or you work with a group of writers, and you say, ‘Hey, let’s do a poetry reading called the green elephants.’ And it’s completely amazing to you and you see people come. People applaud you or they give you feedback. You pass out your free poems. And that keeps you going as a writer, and it keeps you expanding as a writer, instead of just being the same way week after week. So, for a poet, poetry is a communal art, mostly.

 

Jennifer Mahoney is a Filipino writer in Houston. She is a graduate student at Antioch University where she studies poetry and fiction. She currently serves as an editor for Lunch Ticket. She has upcoming poetry in The Machinery.

Siel Ju, Author

I found LA based writer Siel Ju’s novel Cake Time: a novel-in-stories during a trip to LA in December 2017, and I was hooked. I easily fell into the rhythm of the book’s structure and style, and Siel’s use of language: witty and sharp. The next logical step for me, of course, was to use Google to find out more about her. I immediately learned that she is obsessed with smoothie bowls. This is by her own admission. There are tons of brightly colored pictures plastered to her social media accounts—smoothies artfully posed next to current books she is reading. Food, books, and an eye for color: all of my favorite things.

Siel has a talent for making strange combinations work. She has an innate ability to capture the drama and humor of everyday life. These types of intersections unfold in Cake Time where Siel explores the connections and disconnections found in the intimacy. Cake Time explores themes of consent, exploitation, and power dynamics between men and women. Classic themes, but Siel writes for a digital world and illustrates the way boundaries are blurred and crossed in a modern world.

Siel received a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Southern California. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks Praise for Might Club and Feelings are Chemicals in Transit. Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Missouri Review, The Southern Review, Confrontation, and Denver Quarterly. Her debut novel Cake Time won the Red Hen Press Fiction Award in 2015.

In March 2018, I had the opportunity to interview Siel Ju via email. The following is our conversation. It has been edited for clarity.

Kori Kessler: Your novel Cake Time won the Red Hen Press Fiction Award in 2015. What’s it like to be an emerging writer and win an award like that? What advice do you have for other women who are emerging writers?

Siel Ju: I was so surprised when I got the call from Kate Gale at Red Hen that Cake Time had won the award that I almost hung up on her! For a few days I felt like a happy disbelief—that a book of mine was finally going to come out into the world. Which is to say: Cake Time—both the individual stories in the book and the complete manuscript—went through a lot of rejections before it won the award. So my advice to other women would be to take rejection lightly and keep going.

KK: Your website is brilliant: quirky and individual. Your voice seems to be present on every webpage. Do you find branding to be essential to a writer in 2018? Do you have any advice for writers who are trying to set up their own sites and create their own brands?

SJ: Thank you! I do think having an online presence helps you find an audience if you’re a writer today. On a practical level, it makes it a lot easier for people to find you and reach out to you, for opportunities big and small. I think just the fact that you can tell from my website that I often give readings makes reading and event organizers more likely to reach out to me more often. A regular blog and newsletter helps keep me on people’s minds too.

There are feelings and emotions that are very specific to certain moments in life—the feelings you have as a teenage girl are pretty different from the ones you have as a woman in her thirties, etc.

That said, social media and blogging and personal branding can be huge time sucks. And some writers really hate spending time on it. And others—There are friends of mine with writerly ambitions who are very prolific Tweeters and Facebookers but not very prolific at all in terms of producing the creative work they say actually matters to them.

So I would say it’s a good idea to have at least a rudimentary website that lets people find and contact you, but beyond that do just what you enjoy and don’t spend more time on this stuff than you do on writing what really matters to you. There’s not much point in working on your author profile if you’re not actually writing.

KK: As a writer, how has your process changed over the years? When drafting Cake Time how much did the novel and the protagonist change?

SJ: I don’t know that my writing process changed that much while I was writing Cake Time, but it’s changed somewhat since then. With Cake Time, I was really writing short stories—stories short enough that I could kind of hold all the pieces in my head and move them around in my mind without worrying about outlines and such. Now, I’m working on a novel that’s not a novel-in-stories—and I find that I do actually need to do a lot of planning, creating a structure to follow before I start what I consider the real writing part of the novel writing.

Otherwise I end up writing a whole lot of drivel that doesn’t actually go anywhere…. This is just me though. There are plenty of novelists who write sans outline.

KK: In Cake Time, readers follow an unnamed narrator as she dives into one bad relationship after another. The anonymity of the narrator and her experiences in dating gives her an “everywoman” feeling, like she could be any one of us. What drew you to center the experience of dating?

SJ: I can’t remember which book of Andre Breton’s I’m thinking of here, but in one of them, he pictures all his ex-lovers sitting in a row, across from a row of his former selves. Or at least that’s how I remember what he wrote. In any case I think in many ways our memories of past relationships are really memories of our past selves, selves that did and said things or acted and reacted in ways that can seem bizarre and illogical and confounding to our present selves. And romantic relationships—most of which tend to have a relatively clear beginning and an end (vs. friendships or familial relationships that go on for long periods of time with lots of permutations), and are serial in nature (most people have multiple friends but usually just one romantic partner at a time)—can be an interesting way of looking at the phases of our lives, the ways we and our wants and desires and motivations have changed or haven’t.

That said I’m not sure what I just said is what I was really thinking about when I was writing Cake Time. Even now, I don’t really think of the stories as being about a series of relationships—I think rather of phases of a girl/woman’s life. There are feelings and emotions that are very specific to certain moments in life—the feelings you have as a teenage girl are pretty different from the ones you have as a woman in her thirties, etc.—and I wanted to distill some of those feelings and emotions in discrete moments for Cake Time‘s protagonist.

KK: The structure of Cake Time is a novel-in-stories. Readers follow the same narrator through a series of encounters written as short stories. What inspired this structure?

SJ: The structure kind of came out of a lack of overall planning. Basically, I was just writing random short stories, with no sense of a bigger plan beyond that I wanted to publish a book of short stories. Then I started reading short story collections and realized that I really needed to have some sort of overarching thing that held the stories together as a collection if my goal was to publish a book. So, at that point I went through the stories I had and saw that a handful of them could be revised to have the same protagonist in different points in her life. After that, I wrote more stories to fill in the gaps and give an overall arc to the collection.

KK: A general rule of thumb is to resolve a novel, but leave a short story open ended. How does this affect writing a novel in short stories?

SJ: There’s a rule?! This is news to me.

KK: How do you write characters outside of your own experience? For example, Alek, Christian, Jeff, Matt or any of the other men who the narrator dates or hooks up with in Cake Time?

SJ: Well, Cake Time is all written from a female character’s point of view, so I didn’t have to worry so much about getting into the heads of the male characters. But I have worried more about the issue of sounding authentic when writing from a male character’s point of view for other stories I’ve written. I don’t know—I think men and women do have a lot of differences—but also have a lot of similarities…. Human needs and desires are human needs and desires.

KK: LA becomes the backdrop for the novel, but more than that, it’s almost another messy, flawed character. What kind of role does LA play in your writing? Why did you set the scene of most of the stories in LA? What kind of effect does LA have on the stories as opposed to misadventures in a more rural town?

SJ: Honestly, I think I often choose LA as a setting because I don’t want to spend a lot of time doing research about other settings—I have very little time to dedicate to writing as it is, so I don’t want to spend that time googling things. And maybe more than that, I do like to experience places I write about—yet I’m also reluctant to move anywhere for a significant period of time or to write “tourist” stories, you know, those protagonist visits a new place as an American tourist or as a writer at a writing conference / retreat / college speaker type stories and has interesting thoughts about the place and some odd adventures type stories….

Despite all the social media networks today, I think it’s still tough for people to figure out what events are happening, what workshops are available, what little communities exist, especially if you’re just starting out as a writer….

I think it would be cool to write a historical novel—I loved Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, for example—but when it comes down to it, I love reading those types of books a lot more than I’m truly driven to write them.

KK: You wrote A Guide to Literary Los Angeles: Find Your Writing Community in a Sprawling City. What made you realize the need for a literary guide to the city? What makes LA’s literary scene different than other literary scenes across America?

SJ: The short answer to that is that I knew a lot of writer friends and acquaintances organizing cool events and struggling to find a bigger, more diverse (as in not always the same dozen or two people) audience for them—and I sensed there were a lot of writers who wished they could be part of a literary community but didn’t know where to start. So I wanted to create something that connected those two groups. Despite all the social media networks today, I think it’s still tough for people to figure out what events are happening, what workshops are available, what little communities exist, especially if you’re just starting out as a writer….

KK: You interview fellow authors yourself. What do you gain from interviewing different authors?

SJ: It’s a cool chance to talk about a book I admire with the author herself. Plus, as I writer I feel like writing is intimately tied to living—like our ways of writing are ways of living, if that makes sense. So I guess through the interviews, I’m trying to better figure out how to write—and how to live—for myself.

KK: What are you working on now?

SJ: I’m working on a novel about a woman who leaves her orderly life in the Midwest, moves to LA, starts dancing, and learns to let life get messy—too messy. Trouble ensues.

KK: Which non-writing related aspect of your life influences your writing the most?

SJ: Right now, I guess the salsa dancing aspect, since that’s a big topic in the novel I’m writing.

KK: Is there anything you feel like I should have asked you that I didn’t?

SJ: No. And thank you!

 

Kori Kessler has work published in Tiferet Journal. Currently, she is traveling Europe and attends Antioch University Los Angeles. She is co-associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket. One of these days she plans on settling down in LA with her dog, Ginsberg.

Tony Lewis, Jr., Author

Tony Lewis, Jr is a husband, father, son, author and activist. He works diligently, fighting for the rights of incarcerated men and women who have left family behind. But most importantly, he is fighting for the DCPS school system to offer aid to children who have an incarcerated parent. He also uses his voice to support inmates re-entering the community. His father is serving a life sentence in prison for his involvement in the DC drug trade during the 80s. Despite being the son of a Kingpin, Mr. Lewis has decided to use his voice advocating for social justice, in addition to changing the legacy and meaning behind the name “Tony Lewis.”

Mr. Lewis’s hard work and dedication has been featured on Elite Daily, CNN, BET, in the Washington Post, and most recently on The Breakfast Club Power 105.1 radio broadcast. He has also garnered awards such as the Steve Harvey/Ford Motor Company “Best Community Leader” award and the Presidential Call to Service award. His career accomplishments include his first book, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2015), which he uses as a blueprint for children and young teens to use as a survival guide, aiding them through the difficult moments of losing a parent to incarceration. Mr. Lewis’s commitment to communities and social justice has been lifelong and continuing.

Tony Lewis, Jr. and I conducted our interview in person in early January 2018.

Shaneka Cook: In your book you talk a lot about your mother’s mental illness. Why do you think mental illness and depression are such taboo issues in our community when our community could benefit from honest discussion about this topic?

Tony Lewis: Yeah, that’s a great question. I was so transparent about my mother’s situation in hopes that I would in some way chip away at that stigma and it was very strategic. … It was very difficult for me to talk about it and be so transparent, but at the same time my hope is that it will help people, that it will free people to know that this is something that you could talk about, that this is not something that just the pastor can fix, right. You have to seek professional help and it’s OK to do that, and I’m even honest about me going to see a psychiatrist later on in the book. … So that comfortability came from a lifetime of dealing with my mother’s issues and being right there with her as she went through her battles.

You really have to look at the correlation between mass incarceration and the destabilization of communities, how many poor people were in Washington, how many people rented in Washington, how easy it was to displace folks and like you said, it’s capitalism and the agenda to quote on quote “redevelop Washington or improve Washington from the infrastructure standpoint and the development standpoint,” but nobody develops people.

Why is it stigma—­­I think in the black community it’s been something that’s just been swept under the rug. It’s gone undiagnosed. I think poverty and things of that nature play a part in it as well. It was something you were hushed about, or like I said, some people were told to go see [their] pastor and pray about it and not look at it as just a health issue and one that we can deal with. … This is just the shame that comes along with having a mentally ill relative or loved one. This is something we don’t understand, why a person is behaving the way that they are, acting the way that they are. I wanted Slugg to be a bridge for that, for our community, in mental health. I’ve heard that actually over the last two years that [Slugg] has been out, readers have talked about that. I’m glad that you touched on that, I didn’t want people to know my mother was like that, or my aunt or my cousin or my girlfriend was like that. So, I can only hope it can touch hearts and minds and souls to let people know that there’s no problem with having [mental health] issues. We’re all human and we go through things and we need to seek help, professional help.

SC: I believe mental illness runs in my family. I thought maybe something was wrong with me, and I too went to speak with a therapist. When I finished talking, the therapist informed me there was nothing wrong with me, and the entire time I talked about my relationship with my father. She suggested I start there, fixing the relationship I have with him. Like you said, they always say, go to church and pray, talk to the pastor. We have to really let people know there is nothing wrong with seeking help, and this behavior can be treated.

TL: That is so true and not to devalue the pastor, the priest, the rabbi, or the Imam or none of that, but at the same time if you break your leg that is not the first person you are going to go to see. So we have to look at a mental illness the same way. We just have to let people know that that it is OK and remove that shame.

SC: Ever since I read your book, Slugg: A Boy’s Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration, there have been a few questions that have stuck with me. In the book, you describe your experience growing up with a father who had been very successful in the drug trade, who you then lost at age nine to incarceration. In your book, you talk a lot about spending time with your father. If he was released today, what would you do with him, just you and him alone? 

TL: I would probably just sit down and have dinner and talk, something we haven’t been able to do in terms of having dinner together. I would ride around the city. I would enjoy just riding with him around the city so he can see how much it’s changed and watch his reaction to that. Probably go to the movies, go bowling. I know you said just he and I, but [I would like] to have him accompany me to see what I do in the community. Just stuff like that; I would really be looking forward to spending time with him. We could just be sitting on a bench somewhere, it wouldn’t really matter.

SC: Slugg touches on so many issues in the Black community. You wrote about gentrification in your childhood neighborhood located in DC on Hanover Place. My grandparents once owned a home in DC in the H Street, NE area. Today that area has evolved and changed in ways that I can no longer recognize the old neighborhood. Despite our city changing, there is still homelessness, and unfortunately the poor are being driven out into Maryland and even Virginia. I believe gentrification is just another example of capitalism at its best. How do you feel about the issues of gentrification that are specific to the Black community in DC? 

TL: I think gentrification has to be looked at in the District of Columbia in a more intensive way than anywhere, any place in America, in terms of its impact, because you’ve never had a place in America that was this black, so the displacement of black people in the last twenty years in the District of Columbia has been so intense—the volume, the speed, neighborhoods of one hundred percent African American has almost turned into being one hundred percent white and you really have to think about that. How it happens, why it happens.

You really have to look at the correlation between mass incarceration and the destabilization of communities, how many poor people were in Washington, how many people rented in Washington, how easy it was to displace folks and like you said, it’s capitalism and the agenda to quote on quote “redevelop Washington or improve Washington from the infrastructure standpoint and the development standpoint,” but nobody develops people.

So you know DC once was Chocolate City, seventy-five, eighty percent black, now you look up, it’s forty-eight percent black, and that forty-eight percent, majority of them live in Wards 7 and 8. And so Wards 1 through 6 are only about eighteen percent black, and you see neighborhoods like mine where again, were once one hundred percent African American. I don’t even know what the overall demographics are, but I do know the overall white population has risen to forty, fifty percent in a ten-year span. Some of those numbers are unheard of anywhere else. To me that’s the biggest threat to black existence.

Our black people are vanishing. It’s particularly the native Washingtonian. You know, I’m gonna drill that down just a little bit more, it’s not just about Black people, I’m talking about people born here. That population has dwindled down, that population is now forty-eight percent. I don’t even know what that population is, if you just talked about purely native Washingtonian. You look around at jobs, you look around in the social scenes; you don’t run into native Washingtonians in Washington. Take a place like New York City, 8,000,000 people, the most cosmopolitan place probably in America and one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth, right. People from all over the world in New York City but you meet New Yorkers; do you understand what I’m saying? You will run into, will meet New Yorkers, everywhere you turn, you will meet them, someone born and raised New York City, but in DC, not so much. What happened here in the eighties, in the nineties, in the early 2000s, really laid the framework for gentrification to happen in this way and I do know that gentrification is happening in many major cities across the country, but none in the way it is happening here.

SC: Your mother didn’t participate in any of your father’s illegal activities, but she benefited from it and because of this she could have easily become Kemba Smith, the young lady who was sent to prison for conspiracy to participate in her boyfriend’s drug activities. Ms. Smith was aware her boyfriend did not have gainful employment and she chose to live off the proceeds from his drug crimes. Do you speak to young girls about the repercussion of having a drug dealer boyfriend?

TL: Yeah, yeah, I speak to women and young women a lot about the power of association and dealing with guys in the life, and not just from the threat of being involved from a law enforcement standpoint. But also, when you talk about the repercussions that could come from guys trying to rob their boyfriends or kidnapping the women, holding them as ransom or all of the above. That’s what comes along the way when you have a boyfriend that participates in that lifestyle. It’s just dangerous; it is not wise. I also talk a lot about them getting involved into illegal activity as well, whether it’s scamming or busting [stealing] or any other things, like fighting and assaults.

To me it’s super important that when people do return from incarceration, that we keep them here, that we keep them here in freedom, that we keep them here with their families because the children are only going to go as far as the adults go.

I work in reentry and women are selling drugs themselves. It has evolved from that time, in my mother’s era, the woman, she dated the drug dealer, but in my era and the eras younger than me, women have become the drug dealers. I just really talk to women about not getting involved in the criminal lifestyle, staying away from it, and don’t let love pull you in because when law enforcement comes into it, they don’t care. They’re going to take you to jail and sometimes women feel like they have more to lose. They are loosely involved, if involved at all, but they will use that leverage to get you to become an informant, so they put you in a situation whether, you know, either you’re going to help us send him to jail or you’re going to jail yourself. I am clear about that, with that to young women.

SC: There were times you escaped death and incarceration. I’m not sure if you are a spiritual person. Do you believe there was a higher power watching over you because there was a purpose for your life?

TL: I absolutely believe in divine intervention, that I was protected. That’s kind of my motivation, that is why I go so hard. I just feel like I was spared for a reason. I wrote Slugg trying to not only describe it but to kind of figure it out. I get asked that question a lot: “How did you get here?” I definitely feel like the Creator spared me and protected me in order for me to be an example for those coming from communities like mines.

SC: Have you considered writing a book with your father discussing how having an incarcerated parent affects the family?

TL: This was what Slugg was. I didn’t write it with him. Slugg for me was showing what happens in my life. The book is about me, but in so many ways is about us. What happens when the father goes to prison, how it destabilizes the mom and destabilizes that child, but then the bigger framework is when that’s happening all across the community, all across the city, all across the country. It’s showing how things devolve and what the collateral damage is of that person leaving his or her family and going to prison, the consequences that happen as a result of that incarceration. To me that was the real focus of this. But you know, this kind of really shows what happened in the age of mass incarceration when adults were removed from communities and as teenagers we were forced to make decisions and how the community and everything around it felt the brunt of that. And then you had a generation of people that was just lost. So, in some instances, I have thought about possibly writing a book about parental incarceration and its impact on the education system, and a lot of my advocacy has been around trying to have schools and teachers be more supportive of children with incarcerated parents. I feel like I might do something in that lane eventually.

SC: As a community leader, in the near future, do you have any plans on running for a political office such as mayor or city council? What do you think are some of the most important ways that those holding political office should advocate for our community?

I’d tell nine-year-old Tony to be strong, to make his parents proud. His faith is going to be tested, but he must hold on to it, be patient, show resolve, do what his parents taught him. 

TL: No! [laughter] And to answer that question about running for any political office, I am asked that question literally ten times a day. I get it, but I don’t have a political aspiration at this point. I never have. But I do like to be in close counsel with politicians and try to lobby and advocate on behalf of our people; so to your point, and the second part of the question as it relates to any responsibility for things they can do, they definitely have to create a policy and legislation that could empower folks, help people become a part of the process, remove barriers, address discrimination against people, particularly those returning from incarceration. I have tried to position myself as a person to influence them around that and to give guidance. Over the last few years we actually have had success in doing so. I’m not saying they see me as a threat, but as long as I can have an impact to the point where if they know I did run, I might take their job. I feel like they’re more inclined to work with me and help me out so I won’t run against them.

SC: The overwhelming mass incarceration of Black men and women in disadvantaged and poor communities has also imprisoned the lives of Black children. What are your thoughts on how mass incarceration has impacted the Black community?

TL: It has destabilized the black community. It has changed the dynamics of the family, what families look like. It really is something that has impacted us in measurable ways, and I don’t think people really even know just how deep this goes in the collateral damage that mass incarceration has caused in a black community, particularly its impact on children. It’s marginalized black children. One in seven black children have an incarcerated parent. That’s why I speak about the need for more mentoring or more counseling, more support, particularly via our educational system because the children are in school and not being supported enough around this issue.

To me it’s super important that when people do return from incarceration, that we keep them here, that we keep them here in freedom, that we keep them here with their families because the children are only going to go as far as the adults go. We have had this approach that we can say we can circumvent their parents and help them now. I don’t believe that, not if you want to impact a lot of people’s lives. You know, there always will be a shining star, like somebody who gets by, but we’re talking about numbers. We want to see most children make it, not some of them, so you have to have a plan that’s really aimed at helping the family and not just a child. Mass incarceration’s impact goes far beyond the person that is incarcerated and it may even hurt the family member, any children, even more because the person that is incarcerated is so vital to them. I hope this country can understand that.

SC: After all that you’ve been through and knowing what you know now, if you could travel back in time what would you tell nine-year-old Tony?

TL: I’d tell nine-year-old Tony to be strong, to make his parents proud. His faith is going to be tested, but he must hold on to it, be patient, show resolve, do what his parents taught him. That’s kind of what helped me get by. I never got outside of the values that my parents instilled in me early on in life, even when I no longer had them in my life the way that I had them prior to my father’s incarceration. But I also would tell him it’s gonna be hard bro. It’s gonna be extremely hard man, but you can do it though, you can pull through. As I think back, I’m still him in so many ways. I’m still that nine-year-old, just because I never got my parents back, you know what I’m saying? Like, that longing for that kind of thing, that don’t go away. Also, that’s been my motivation, because I know there are other nine-year-olds out here right now that’s just like him, and I gotta help them see their way through. I felt like Slugg was my contribution to them. I wanted that to be a blueprint—­here you are, hopefully everything that happened to me, or some of the things that happened to me, or that I saw and experienced, does not happen to you. But in the event that they do, here’s how you should handle it, here’s how I handled it, here is a blueprint or map I created out of some difficult situations. But nothing is impossible, no matter what happens, you can push through it.

 

Shaneka Jones Cook is currently preparing to graduate from Antioch University Los Angeles receiving her MFA in creative writing, with plans to go back to work on her associates degree in mortuary science. She is a former elementary school teacher who writes fiction, poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction, in addition to be a freelance writer. She’s been published in The Record (Trinity Washington University), and most recently Antioch University’s very own Lunch Ticket. 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 on the fiction team, and was a guest interviewer for Lunch Ticket. She resides in Washington, DC with her daughter and three sons. When Shaneka’s not writing, she’s either watching the Syfy channel or binge-watching Hulu and Netflix.