Emily Rapp, Author

Emily Rapp (Photo: Anne Staveley)

Photo: Anne Staveley

Emily Rapp wrote the blog Little Seal during her son Ronan’s life. She began the blog after Ronan was diagnosed at the age of nine months with a rare form of Tay-Sachs disease. Rapp says in her book about Ronan’s life, The Still Point of the Turning World, that she “…began to write because it felt like the only thing I was able to do.” Rapp writes in a visceral way from the core of her grief, and the result is beauty—a lyrical tribute to Ronan, an ancient story about a mother who is in love with her baby, a mother who is walking through unspeakably difficult terrain.

Rapp began her academic career with a strong interest in religion. She attended Harvard University where she received a Masters in Theological Studies. But Rapp decided she wouldn’t be an academic, and turned to writing. Her first book was Poster Child: A Memoir (Bloomsbury, 2007). The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, 2013) is a New York Times bestseller and an Editor’s Pick.

Rapp teaches creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and in the University of California-Riverside Palm Desert MFA program. Rapp was core faculty at Antioch University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program from June 2006 to July 2010.

Cynthia Rosi: What kind of writer were you on your first book, Poster Child?

Emily Rapp: I think I was an accidental one—I wrote the kernel of the first book in graduate school. Then I went to the work center in Provincetown for seven months and finished a draft, and I worked in a gross apartment in Brooklyn on the final draft after I sold it. I went into grad school as a fiction writer and but I had really become taken with the idea of non-fiction, because a lot of the things I wanted to say were said better in non-fiction. So it was very much a first book, it’s a coming of age story, childhood, things I’m not so preoccupied with now, but at the time I wrote it I was 25 and childhood was not so far removed. I have a degree in theology; I went to Divinity School and that has always informed my writing. I finished Divinity School when I was 23.

CR: How did coming out of Divinity School help you make the decision to become a writer? What things did you think you would be writing about?

ER: I went to Divinity School because I thought I wanted to be an academic and then I became a writer because I realized I didn’t want to be an academic…I was engaged [with my classes] but I wasn’t intrigued. I felt that anything I wrote in that context would be derivative and literally read by three people. I didn’t want to be in that small world. I wanted to be more creative. So I started writing stories in Divinity School and took a lot of classes. I decided that was the route I wanted to go, rather than the more traditional theological route, although I still do some work in that arena occasionally; but it doesn’t preoccupy my life as it would have done, had I stayed.

CR: Did you go straight into writing Poster Child, or were you playing with some other topics at the same time?

ER: I was writing a lot of fiction about ranching life in the West, fiction about my experiences in Ireland, poetry about my experiences in Africa, so I was really drawing from my experiences, pulling from my experiences to transform them into poetry, fiction and non-fiction; I was doing all three and Poster Child began as a series of essays that I wrote in class, and that were later shaped into an arced book with the help of an editor.

CR: Then you became a mom and had your little boy Ronan, and then Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease when he was 9 months old. You’ve said you began to write because it felt like the only thing you were able to do. What happened in your writing life during that time?

ER: I think that anytime anyone becomes a new mom you very much go down the rabbit hole of new momness and of course I’d never had a newborn or given birth—I was a complete newbie—so that took up a good portion of my time, but I also began to want my writing life more intensely. So I carved out time. I had all this time in my twenties where I would have like nine hours to write and I’d be organizing forks or whatever else I was doing: working out, or running around, or living on the beach. I just wasn’t doing it—I had too much time. I do better, I found out as Ronan’s mom, when I have less time. And then when he was diagnosed it turns out I’m even more prolific when I’m under a great deal of stress, which is disturbing. But then when he was diagnosed, the only thing I wanted to do was write—write and die. I felt like those were my options, so I chose writing. I feel like it kick-started me in a way I wouldn’t wish on anyone else…that was a consequence, an unexpected consequence of his diagnosis.

But I do believe in the power of art, and I think people make meaning out of meaningless, shitty situations and that’s the role. That’s all you get.

CR: How did your background as a writer help you make sense of what you were going through?

ER: It didn’t help me at all. Nothing could have prepared me for that: no education, no Bible school, or beliefs. That’s why as an artist I was starting from the ground up, because there were no resources. Writing helped me to weather it but it did not help me to withstand it. It’s not a withstandable experience. There isn’t anything that anyone can know, or do, that would help.

I wouldn’t say that spirituality has ever helped me do anything except think about things in a different way, which could be a coping mechanism, or could be a distraction. I don’t consider myself a spiritual person so a belief in God did not sustain me during that time.

I don’t even know if writing did—literally it was the only thing I could think to do. It was a very bare bones sort of support. It was something I felt compelled to do. It wasn’t pleasant; it didn’t bring me peace. But it brought me activity and I didn’t know what else to do with myself. It’s kind of a grim comfort, but the experience wasn’t comforting. It wasn’t being elated. It taught me work for the sake of work. I was writing because it was my job and literally it was the only thing I could do.

Spirituality for me has become way more complicated since Ronan’s diagnosis. I think any kind of spiritual being has a lot to answer for, and I don’t think there are answers. If anything it made me not spiritual at all. But I do believe in the power of art, and I think people make meaning out of meaningless, shitty situations and that’s the role. That’s all you get.

CR: The tiger mom book (The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua) came out, and you came up with the moniker “dragon mom,” for the mothers in your situation. How did that idea come to you?

ER: The tiger mom book had come out a couple years before from the same press that would eventually publish my book about Ronan, and it’s a pretty good book, but the idea of the Tiger mom is so American to me, although she’s talking about it from an Asian-American perspective. Then I read something else, it was “The Panda Dad,” and I said, “what is up with all these animal monikers?” At that point I felt completely ejected from the parenting world because no one wants to know about your dying kid, nobody knows how to talk about it, you’re a mother but you’re not really a mother, it’s like you’re in the dark corner where no one wants to look. So I had my other moms who had been through this and I thought, “These are the most amazing moms I’ve ever met and they have no animal, they have no voice. Everyone just wants to forget about them or feel sorry for them.” So I thought about the dragon because they’re so nasty and beautiful and protective and fierce and old and medieval. Tay-Sachs has its roots in Eastern Europe in the shtetls, in the pogroms and the violence against the Jews. I thought it was a fitting, medieval, weird, no-one-knows-what-it-is creature that suited us as a group. I didn’t go through a series of animals trying to decide—the dragon just came to me. I thought it was interesting to frame a discussion about parenting around an animal. I felt we needed a different symbol. I felt that people really responded to that idea, because a lot of parents felt the way I did because they didn’t have a voice in society. Parenting magazines are not for kids with terminal illnesses, they’re for kids who make cookies and will grow up and be fabulous—that’s the assumption.

The task of the writer is to make the unknowable, knowable in some way.

CR: You’ve said that writing was such a visceral part of you after Ronan’s diagnosis that you had to do it for your own sanity. Did anyone ever question that?

ER: People expect certain things from women as mothers that they don’t expect from men as fathers and it’s gross. I think it’s unfair. And I feel like never as a mother was I prepared to give up every aspect of my life just to be a mother. But I feel that there is still that expectation and pressure in society that women should do that or they’ve failed their children in some way—it’s ridiculous.

People would say to me: “I can’t believe you’re not spending all your time staring into Ronan’s face.” If I did that I’d kill myself, and then you’d accuse me of being a really selfish bitch for killing myself. There’s no way to win. I actually felt it was helping me cope and it’s a tribute to him and the book is such a memorial to him and people know about him that never would have known before about him. It was remarkable to me the anti-woman attitudes I got about continuing my life in the face of his impending death. I think that’s a remarkable expectation. It’s like we want people to throw themselves on the funeral pyre so that we can feel bad for them, and by feeling bad for them we can distance ourselves from them and convince ourselves it will never happen to us. That really hacked me off. Yo dude! Everybody dies! Spoiler alert—it’s happening to every single one of us. It made people uncomfortable, but at that point I just didn’t care.

I think it’s a huge judgment and I don’t think people would judge men for the same reasons—they just wouldn’t, and I think that’s fascinating and extremely disturbing. The paper towel commercial and laundry commercial is aimed toward women. Plenty of men do laundry. Our culture has not evolved that much in terms of gender roles around parenting.

[Sometimes] I just had had it—you’re raw, you’re broken down. I once had a teacher say to me: “’No’ is a complete sentence.” People would say “Don’t you feel like…?” and I would say “No, just leave it.” I don’t care if you think I’m a bad mother. If anything, yes, it’s true, I’m failing at the primary task of protecting my child. I am failing at that so maybe I am a bad mother.

All I wanted to do was to survive the experience, to make sure Ronan lived as fully as he could when he was alive, to make sure he had some kind of death with dignity—although whether that’s possible?—that was my task, and whatever else I chose to do I felt was nobody else’s business.

CR: You talk about society’s narrative of healing and transformation in The Still Point of the Turning World. You went through the crucible of transformation; what was that like?

ER: It was uncomfortable and hellish, beautiful and interesting and true and all the things that any sort of rock-to-the-bottom-of-your-life experience would be. It’s so difficult to describe. I just read this great book by Sarah Manguso [The Guardians] about the death of a friend through suicide and she was saying that about grief that you don’t even know what it is for yourself and you certainly can’t know someone else’s, but the task of the writer is to make the unknowable, knowable in some way. It’s a mysterious process. Crucibles are uncomfortable for a reason. Whether I gained anything out of it…I don’t think it builds character, that’s a cliché, it just changes you and then you’re different, and you might be more moral and more centered in some ways, and more manic and psychotic in other ways. It’s de-stabilizing. Things that used to make me mad go right on by me right now. If my kid isn’t dying…? I do find it interesting what people get upset about these days. I’m not above the petty stuff, but I’m more able to let things go as a result of having gone through something I didn’t think I was coming out of.

CR: Is your mind turning to new work? Do you feel in a fallow time or a resting time?

ER: I’m working on a novel and I’m still doing essays regularly for different outlets, which I like. It’s not easy for me, but it’s more available to me than fiction, because that’s an internal process. I’m writing fiction, but I’m kind of in a holding pattern because I’m teaching so much and it’s hard to find time to do intensive bursts of writing, and I did need a break. The experience of writing that book was so fast and furious and intense that my adrenal system needed to rest.

CR: What are you reading at the moment?

ER: I’m reading mostly novels, like Gina Frangello’s A Life in Men. I’m reading Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians about her friend who commits suicide. I pick up a lot of books and start them. Fiction is more on my radar in terms of what’s drawing me.

In poetry I really like the Eastern European poets—Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska. Meghan O’Rourke’s book of poetry about her mother’s death The Long Goodbye. When Ronan was ill I read Jane Kenyon and William Stafford. I love Seamus Heaney and have a big collection of his.

Cynthia Rosi is the author of three books: Motherhunt, Butterfly Eyes (Headline, UK) and The Light Catcher, due out from Assent Publishing’s Bad Day Books in 2014. She’s currently an MFA fiction candidate at Antioch.

Camille T. Dungy, Poet

Camille T. Dungy

Photo: Marcia Wilson/WideVision Photograpy

Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver, Colorado and grew up in California. She received her B.A. from Stanford University and M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. Her poems and essays have been published widely in anthologies, print, and online journals. She is also the editor of several anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry.

She is a two-time recipient of the Northern California Book Award, a Silver Medal Winner in the California Book Award, and two-time NAACP Image Award nominee. She was recognized in the Huffington Post Top 200 Advocates for American Poetry for her role as co-founder of From the Fishouse, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the oral tradition of poetry. Recently a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University, Dungy is now a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.

Candace Butler interviewed Dungy at The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Candace Butler: What project are you working on right now?

Camille T. Dungy: That’s a good lead question, but a hard one to answer. It seems like it wouldn’t be a hard one to answer. And maybe a little bit later it wouldn’t be hard to answer what project I’m working on right now, but when I’m between books—as I am right now—there’s a period of time where I’m not working on a project. I’m just working on writing a poem and then writing another poem and then writing another poem. And then there’ll be a point at which there’s a kind of tractor pull that gets created, some sort of gravitational pull of all those bodies that make something clearly be moving in one direction. But I haven’t gotten there yet, so I don’t know. I’m just writing the poems one at a time, and I think that’s a really important thing to remember: that that’s what we’re doing. We think so frequently in terms of books—and that’s an important aspect of things—but it’s not where it begins for poets. For poets, it begins with each poem, one at a time.

CB: What have you been reading recently?

CTD: I am right now re-reading Ruth Padel’s book Darwin about her great-great-grandfather Charles Darwin, partly because I’m interested in the way poets use notes. And so I was reading a lot of books that are playing with footnotes or side notes or endnotes and incorporated notes and just the different ways that people can document their knowledge—so another book that I really am fascinated by is Jena Osman’s book The Network that often pulls in other information and there’s a poet named Tung-Hui Hu and the book is called Greenhouses, Lighthouses. All these books, in different ways, incorporate external material and have to create a way of citing those sources that I’m finding curious. You know, in Suck on the Marrow it took me the longest time to figure out how to make the notes for that book. And the long poem at the end, “Primer, Or A History of These United States (Abridged),” is the notes section. In original versions of the book it’s just a “Notes” section, and I was so bored by that; I knew there was information that needed to be there for people who weren’t going to know these details, but I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate that, especially since the characters were fictional set in real time. So there was this overlap between what really happened and what didn’t really happen but I wanted to feel like really happened, and how do you do that in the notes? And eventually I figured out that the “Primer” was going to be my way of conveying all the background information that you might need for the book. So I just have rekindled my curiosity in figuring out other poets’ answers to that question.

CB: You’ve mentioned the cover on the 1990 British edition of The Virago Book of Love Poetry “was part of the wonder of the book” for you, and you wrote that “it sent [you] scurrying to learn more about Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo at the same time [you were] discovering more about the poets featured within the covers.” Since the cover is important to you, as it is to many people, would you mind talking a bit about the covers of your books?

CTD: Sure. All of my books’ covers have presented themselves to me as undeniably my book covers. Each time, I’ve been really lucky with that. For What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, my first book, I had a calendar back in the old fashioned days where you used to have desk calendars. You know, they’re journals, and they would have—every week or every month—they would have a different picture on the pages? I miss that, actually, because it was a way to be presented with art that I wouldn’t necessarily see. This particular one, I just flipped open a page—whatever that week or month was—and there was this incredible image by the collage artist James Denmark. I just loved it. It’s just—the book’s title is What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison and there’s this woman tripping over air and through a garden with a bowl of lettuce in her hands. And it just seems—and there are other plants growing—and it just seems so perfect for the book. So I wrote to the artist, and he said, “Sure.”

And then, with Suck on the Marrow, I had an idea for what I wanted for the book cover, and my press didn’t like it. And they had an idea for what they wanted for the book cover, and I hated it (laughs). And so it was midnight and Mark Cull, the designer at the press—he’s also the managing editor at the press—said we’ve got to come up with the cover ASAP, so I’m just looking through, you know—the internet existed by that point, thank goodness—and I was just searching and searching, and I was at the Library of Congress website partly because I needed access to things we knew could be free. So I’m just looking at 19th century images and I came across the one that is on the cover of Suck on the Marrow. It’s a candid shot essentially—it might’ve been posed, but it feels candid—of a man standing outside on a frame of what looks like a building is being constructed and it is so clearly central Virginia. I mean, so clearly like the landscape I was writing about. And so there was Joseph Freeman, one of the book’s main characters, standing there. So that was my image. It was chilling how that one image turned out to be so right. They did a beautiful job of the cover, I think, because they used a font that had a kind of old-timey feel and then they let the image completely fill the margins of the book cover so there’s no framing on the image. The whole cover is the image, which I love. And so that made me really happy.

And then I was working on my anthology Black Nature, flipping through a Gordon Parks book looking for writing—essays, right?—that could fit, and I bumped into this image that’s this little boy with a june bug on a string and a little fly is on his cheek and he’s lying in the middle of a field. It’s a complicated picture because the boy is torturing this bug, but there’s this other free bug on him. There’s this youthful innocence but also this violence; it’s perfect for what’s going on inside of Black Nature. And also, while I was searching through books for Black Nature, I came across this photographer named Dudley Edmondson, who had done a book called Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places. It’s a photo collection of people who do really great things in the outdoors: a man who’s a falconer and a woman who’s a prize rock climber and a U.S. park ranger named Shelton Johnson who does a lot of work with talking about blacks in the old west and Buffalo Soldiers. So some really fascinating people who do things outside, and so that was my introduction to Dudley Edmonson. I started looking up his work online. His portraits are beautiful, and I was just interested in him as a photographer, and he had a whole portfolio on birds and my raptor shows up in one of his images. It just had to be this hawk in the middle of this blue sky. He’s coming down and you can see the talons sticking out, and it’s gorgeous; so that I knew had to be the cover of Smith Blue, which is a book about environmental degradation and rapture and horror and love and again the image on the cover seems to be exactly right. Each time I just had the feeling “that has to be the cover of my book and there’s no doubt about it.” So that’s the story of my book covers.

CB: Thank you. You have found inspiration in reading the works of other writers, have listened to Mozart while writing “Requiem,” and have talked about the many truths depicted in Picasso’s “Guernica” mural in your “The Truth’s Superb Surprise” lecture at AULA in June. Can you tell us more about the inspiration you find in other art forms? I know you just talked a bit about all the serendipity in your covers. Do you find more for individual poems or—

CTD: Oh, sure. We could go on and on. Part of the nature of being a poet, part of the nature of being a writer, but also part of the nature of being an artist, is being porous, being open to stimulation and inspiration and finding in unlikely places connection with the human spirit, with your own longing for passion. So I find companionship, I guess, with the work of other artists who are doing the same thing, and frequently I find that musicians or visual artists have found a way to express an interpretation—or a distillation of a hitherto unarticulated thought—in a way that gives me a pathway into being able to articulate it in language whereas they’ve done it in sound or visually; I now have to render that in English, but they help me towards that direction.

CB: Antioch University advocates social justice. Can you approach this issue from a craft perspective?

CTD: Maybe. Can you be a little more specific what you mean?

CB: Well, if you could just talk about how we can incorporate social justice issues into our poetry, into our writing.

Part of the nature of being a poet… is being porous

CTD: Okay. Yes. I don’t see any other more important thing to do in writing. As I said, I think that poetry is an articulation of who we can be in the world. Ben Okri says, “The writer writes because he believes that what he sees is not all that can be.” Or something close to that (laughs). (In an email message to the interviewer on September 16th, Dungy said, “What he really says, in The Times in December of 1991, is “The poet is set against the world because he cannot accept that what there seems to be is all that there is.”) So why not use my poetry to try and make true that this world can be a better place? Why not use my poetry to try and make people uncomfortable with how things are so that they can move towards trying to change things towards something better? Or uncomfortable with how things were so they can move towards trying not to replicate them? Or see those things in their world? One of the most touching moments to me when I was touring with Suck on the Marrow, which is a collection about the abolition movement of the 19th century, was being in a border town in Texas and somebody saying that they didn’t realize that a poem in the book was about the 19th century until they got to the word “abolition.” They thought that it was about then, that moment, and that’s what I want. I want us to see where we haven’t changed, but could. As much as where we have changed, and for the better. Writing’s powerful; it makes the world. And so I think it’s important that the world I’m making is a world that tends toward improvement.

CB: What is your writing process like on a daily basis?

CTD: You’ve got a four year old; I’ve got a three and a half year old. She used to be a great morning sleeper. She’d sleep until eight thirty or nine and I would wake up at five thirty or six and get a good, solid chunk of writing done before she woke up, but…nothing gold lasts (laughs). So now I’m learning to write late at night again after she goes to bed. You know, you’ve just got to kind of wiggle around until you find a pattern that works. But then you’ve got to be willing to wiggle around again, because the pattern will change. You move, your family stops cooperating the way that it did, that coffee shop you used closed, your computer breaks down—you just can’t be completely tied to any particular routine because routines change and if the routine is what you need for the writing, and it changes, then you lose the writing. So I’ve never believed that I have to have a routine. I have what works, and what works for now is what I use. And then something else works, and then that’s what I use.

CB: I read your blog entry on Harriet about the relationship between the writing process and dreams. Are your dreams similar in structure or imagery to your poetry?

CTD: In that post I’m talking about a conversation that I had once with Richard Siken and Heriberto Yépez. We were all reading in the same place, and we had a long afternoon break, and I took a nap. And I got to the dinner and told them all about my dream and both of them are just staring at me like I’m a crazy person. My dream was this long, soap operatic, interconnected thing where there were all these characters showing up—it was like a little soap opera. And Richard Siken says, “If I dream at all, it’s like…green.” (laughs). And Yépez, too, he said that he dreamed in this entirely different way. But both of them, interestingly, the way they said they dreamed, to me, mimicked the way that I understood them to write. And so, I thought that it was intriguing to think that maybe the way our subconsciouses work were entries to the way we are able to write. And I do tend to write more character-driven work and at the time that I was having that dream, I was probably right in the middle of writing Suck on the Marrow, which was a long soap opera with a lot of intertwined characters who come in and out. So I was living in a world of imagined people; my brain was working through that. I still have a tendency to dream narratively, and that’s the way that I lean in my writing. Though I think that my writing is perhaps significantly more frayed narratives than it was when I was having the conversation about which I was talking. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about that. I haven’t thought about whether my dreams have changed or whether it’s just that my poems have changed. (In an email message to the interviewer on September 16th, Dungy said, “I’ll say, on further reflection, that my poems have changed a lot since I had my daughter, and my ability to dream has also changed a lot. My sleep is significantly more fractured, stitched together in odd and seemingly improbable ways. So maybe there is a connection after all.”)

CB: When you’re not writing, editing, or teaching, what do you enjoy doing?

CTD: That’s a really good question because those are very time-consuming occupations, writing, editing, and teaching. I like just being one of two things: either by myself or with my family. I should put “being with my family” first, and then “being by myself” because I like them. They’re fun people, and they give me a lot. And they’re very patient with me and the amount of time I spend with the writing, editing, and teaching (the former two of which require me to be by myself a lot). So I like to give back to them, too. I like cooking for said family and for friends and other people who pop by. And then I like being outside in a myriad of ways: hiking or kayaking or…I’m learning how to ski now. I just moved to Colorado—no, I know how to ski, but I haven’t skied in twenty years, so I’m going to relearn how to ski. I’m going to teach my daughter this winter because we’re going to live in the snow. We might as well use it.

CB: Do you feel like you compromise or sacrifice something in your life to write your poetry?

CTD: Sure, absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t think it’s possible to do anything in the world without compromising something. And certainly not anything that takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. I mean, I just said I value my family and I partly value my family because they give me the space that I need to write and to work. And then I know that that’s a sacrifice on their part to do that; I like to honor them for that. But I think, and they think, that I am a better person to be around when I’ve gotten enough writing done, and so it’s worth it to them, too. I actually waited a long time to get married and to a guy who has from the very start been supportive of me as an artist. And so, that was a condition of our relationship, right? I chose him as the person I would commit to because he was supportive of me in that way, but that’s a sacrifice for everybody in some way. I could have had a very different kind of relationship. I might not have been a particularly happy person, but I could have had a different kind of relationship. Yeah, no, writing takes time. Anything that takes time demands sacrifices.

CB: I’ve noticed you have a great command of spacing and enjambment—especially in Suck on the Marrow and Smith Blue. How do you know when to leave blank space, and how much? Is it intuitive? Do you scribble it down that way from the beginning? Or do you find during revision that a poem needs more openness somehow?

CTD: A really good question. No, it doesn’t get scribbled down that way from the beginning, I can say that. And if it is intuitive, it’s not intuitive in that it’s unthought. A lot of it has to do with breath—figuring out how, where I want both the sonic pauses and the visual pauses, which can contradict each other. Sometimes I want a break to be forced where a break is not desired. I want you to stop some place you wouldn’t if you were just reading prose, and think about what it is that you’ve already experienced, and let that resonate for a little while, and then move forward; and that’s where an internal break or a line break can really push against breath, can push against how you would read it if you were just reading the sentence. So that’s one of the aspects. And then I think you’re right about space, I think that I often just—poems might come when I’m just writing them, they might come in blocks—and then I want to figure how to get room into the poem and how to give a lot more of that, and it might do alright. Actually, my newer writing has even more lines that are playing a lot like the poem “Five for Truth” in Smith Blue; you know, lines that are jagged across the page. That seems to be a direction I’m moving in more and more because it is about slowing down experience. When we are in a moment of heightened emotion—pain, terror—it feels sometimes like time slows down. But of course it doesn’t. The reason why it feels—it doesn’t, time doesn’t change, but there’s a physiological reason that it feels like time slows down, and it’s because more of your receptors are open because you’re stressed. And so you become more alert: you see more, you physically feel more, smell more, taste more than you would normally. Because normally we kind of go through life, and we shut down a lot of external responses. And when you’re stressed, you open them all up because you need to have all that awareness. So the reason time feels like it has changed is because you take in five external stimuli in a space where you would normally just take in one. And so you think, well, that must have been five seconds long, but it was really one second long, right? Okay. One of the things that I think spacing a poem can do when you kind of move it out across the page and create more gaps in it and more stanza breaks and indentation and—you’re stressing your reader a little bit. You’re demanding slightly more of your reader, and you’re asking them to see line breaks and changes and pay attention to more end words than they would. You’re creating more opportunity for more stimulus to come in, and time slows down. So if you do it right—they could also just get frustrated (laughs)—but if you do it right, it’s a way of mimicking this idea of time slowing down and more coming in and more responses happening and paying more careful attention to the words than they would if it was just kind of all piled together and they’re running over the language really, really quickly.

You’re paying attention to how the world organizes itself and to the possibilities of how that might be described.

CB: I want to ask you about a specific poem, if I may. The two narratives in “Lesson” are distanced by the white space and italics separating them, but the contrapuntal form confines them in the same place and time. How does a poem like this come into being? Did you have two separate poems that were eventually fused together? Or did you know you were going to utilize this form when you began?

CTD: So “Code” on the other side does the same thing but differently. And I think I might be able to speak to them together. That was a form I was very interested in. This contrapuntal form, or stichomythia, is a Greek term for a winged poem that operates in the way that “Lesson” does. And “Code” is a mutated version of that idea because the one longer narrative subsumes the shorter narrative. Conceptually, in the book, I wanted an understanding that these are two worlds that are living simultaneously and sometimes independently and sometimes not. So sometimes when I have those poems, you can read three poems, and sometimes you can only read two. Sometimes you can extract one side of the poem and get that whole thought, and the whole thought with the extraction removed, and then with everything together. Sometimes you extract part, and the extracted part exists, but the part from which it has been extracted collapses and doesn’t work. That’s sort of what happens when you’re talking about a slave society or a society that is really dependent on people’s labor. Sometimes you take those people out, and the other people kind of keep living without even noticing. Sometimes you take those people out, and it just falls apart. There’s a relatively contemporary movie called A Day Without a Mexican which is based on a W. E. B. DuBois story about “a day in Philadelphia when all the Black people disappear.” What happens at the turn of the 20th century when you get rid of all the black people? What happens in California at the turn of the 21st century when you get rid of all the Mexicans? Nothing happens. It all collapses, right? And so, this is really part of the process. So, yes, I sat down thinking how am I going to create a poem that has independent individual narratives that are self-sustaining but may or may not sustain that other narrative. It’s hard because you’ve got to be able to make the sentence that flows up to the one on the other side work and then—yeah, so it took a long time for me to write those poems. In “Lesson,” all the language is mine. “Code” and “Complicit”—there’s also a poem “Runaway ran away” where I tweak the language (it’s part mine and part ad)—but “Code and “Complicit” are ads that I found in period magazines. In 19th century magazines and newspapers. So I’m using the actual language of the time and then I’m building around it my own. How do I write my own sentence where in that sentence, I’ll use the word ostler? That’s not a word we use today! What’s an ostler, right? And so I would have to kind of create my language to ride up to this 19th century language, which is something I was really trying to do in the book anyway. I was trying to create a contemporary-to-us language that also incorporated—realistically, I guess—the 19th century language. I was trying not to be anachronistic. I was trying to make sure that I stuck with language they would use in the 19th century, descriptions that they would use. So a wealthy person is going to be drinking brandy whereas a poor person is going to be drinking whiskey, you know, and it’s those kinds of details that I wanted to make sure retained their period viability even though I’m not using, you know—there’s no ye’s, there’s no ye old shoppe with two p’s and an e (laughs). I’m not a hundred percent sure that I entirely answered your question.

CB: You definitely did. So what is your advice for an aspiring poet in today’s world?

CTD: I think it goes back to your original question of what my project is, and my advice is to just write poems. To remove yourself from—in the moment of writing—to remove yourself from the marketplace aspect of poetry, and just write a poem. And then write another poem, and write the best poems that you can, and revise those poems again and again. And then to read a lot. You have to read a lot to know what’s out there and what can be out there, but you’re not just reading today’s work. And you’re not just reading American poetry, and you’re not just reading poetry. You’re reading nonfiction. You’re reading fiction. You’re reading visual art. You’re reading music, you know. You’re reading the natural world. You’re paying attention to how the world organizes itself and to the possibilities of how that might be described. And then you’re going to write another poem.

butleroctober13 2Candace Butler is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles. She is a writer, artist, and musician residing in her hometown of Sugar Grove, Virginia, a small town in the mountains of Appalachia. She holds dear her family and the beautiful Jefferson National Forest that adjoins her backyard.

Mary Gordon, Author

American author Mary Gordon was born in 1949 in Far Rockaway, New York. She was an only child to her mother, Anne, who was Catholic and her Jewish father, David, who converted to Catholicism when he was a young man. The death of Gordon’s father when she was seven years old deeply impacted her life. She used her grief as catalyst for many works of fiction and nonfiction, and finally to research her father’s life. Her research was painful, not without secrets and surprises, and resulted in her 1996 memoir, The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father.

Mary Gordon

Photo: Emma Dodge Hanson

In 1978 Gorden’s Final Payments was published to high critical acclaim. In 1981 The Company of Women was published, and that year she also wrote the foreword to the Harvest edition of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In 1984 she was one of 97 theologians and religious persons who signed A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion, calling for pluralism and discussion within the Catholic Church on the Church’s position on abortion. Then a four-year hiatus occurred after the birth of her two children, Anna and David, during which time she wrote poetry, essays, reviews and nonfiction. Gordon’s Men and Angels was published in 1985, followed by Temporary Shelter in 1987, and then The Other Side in 1989.

Since 1991, Gordon has written eleven more works of fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, and essays, including her novel Spending: A Utopian Divertimento, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, and the biography Joan of Arc: A Life. She is currently working on a novel about the Spanish Civil War.

Gordon received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. Her other awards include a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, an O. Henry Award, and Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2007, The Stories of Mary Gordon won the Story Prize. In 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer named Mary Gordon the official New York State Author and gave her the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction.

Cheryl Wheelright: Let’s talk about your writing career; your teaching career, your beginnings as a poet, and some of the works that you’ve written. From a very young age you were a poet, and then you transitioned from poetry to several different writing genres. You said poetry was easy compared to “all those words” in prose and narrative. How did you make the transition from being a poet to being a novelist and a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and now biography?

Mary Gordon: It’s really a triumph of the Women’s Movement. I was at Syracuse University getting an MFA in poetry, and it was 1972-73, and you know, it was the height of the Women’s Movement. We women in the program were very irritated that there was not one female faculty member that we could study with, and that the men were getting all the awards and all the prizes. So we met at a local Women’s Center, kind of a basement—it was sort of like an AA meeting—and we did an alternative writing workshop just for women. We just felt that we weren’t getting the support that we needed. And it was in that group that my friend said to me, “You know, your poems are getting longer and longer and longer, and more and more narrative. Maybe you’re a fiction writer.” I said, “No, no, I can’t do that.” And so one of the women challenged me. We were all PAs and we were all teaching freshman composition, and she said, “You know, you are very good at taking exams. So I’m going to give you a blue book. I’m going to put you in a classroom. And I want you to pretend you’re taking an exam, and at the end of three hours, I want you to have written a short story.” And I did that and that was my first short story. And then when I realized that I could do it . . . you know, just the little blue book, it seemed contained enough, and then I just started doing it when I realized that I actually have it in me to tell stories. Virginia Woolf was terribly important to me because I looked at her prose and I thought to myself that her writing does a lot of what poetry does, but it’s prose. I just think that if it hadn’t been for the Women’s Movement—I don’t think that I could never have had a career at all—I just don’t think I could have been a prose writer.

CW: Is it somewhat fascinating that the little blue book gave you the parenthesis in which to write prose?

MG: Yes.

CW: Are you still friends with any of the women in that group?

MG: No, although Julie Alvarez was also in that group, and we have been in kind of email contact, but I haven’t seen her in a long time, but she was in that group, too.

CW: I read your 1999 essay, Putting Pen to Paper but Not Just Any Pen or Just any Paper, and in that essay you wrote of what it takes to get to the frightening task of just getting your thoughts on paper. You said, “There may be some writers who face a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them.” Do you still feel a sense of dread or foreboding or an intense pressure to just get it out?

MG: Well, I always do, of course. I always feel like that, and it gets worse as you get older. The culture is less friendly to fiction in general, particularly fiction by women and particularly fiction by older women. You get the sense, who cares? Why am I doing this? And also the feeling of, “I won’t be able to do this,” but the gap between what’s in your mind and what’s on the paper always seems so enormous. Then sometimes it just seems like a tremendous labor, and for what? More and more you feel like who cares if I write this or not? And why don’t I just go watch another British mystery? So always the gap between what’s in your mind and what’s on the page is so enormous and horrifying that it’s like standing in front of an abyss. Just having to concentrate so hard and not to let your mind wander is difficult. And not to leave what I call the stinky place, the place where you know there’s something wrong with the writing, and it’s a mess, and you don’t know how to fix it, that’s pretty awful, too.

CW: One of the things I admire about your work is your memoir about your father in The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father, and how you delved into what I call the scary place. We all have those scary, painful places we often feel a need to write about. How did you face that? What was your process like writing about your father?

MG: It was very painful in a way that nothing else had been, and again, I guess it was an accident of the Women’s Movement. I had begun and was challenged by an English feminist writer, Ursula  Owens, who was putting together a book about fathers and daughters, and I wrote an essay about my father. And then I . . . it just came on me that I wanted to explore it because one of the things that I felt was that people were writing memoirs, but I didn’t want to write a memoir. I didn’t want to write about myself. I wanted to write about a time, a place, a way of life, a larger issue, a kind of representative case. And I felt like my father’s situation was so important in the history of Jewish life in America and in the history of immigrant life in America, that when I began to lose heart writing about my own father, I thought, well this is an important subject and I don’t like the way other people are writing about it. And so that kind of got me through the swampy places sometimes.

CW: It takes an incredible amount of skill as a writer to be able to write to and about those painful memories as you did in The Shadow Man.

MG: Yes, oh, thank you. But I also felt that one of the things that interested me was being able to honestly say in a memoir, “I don’t know if I got this right. I don’t know whether I’m remembering this right or whether it is just a picture that I saw,” and also saying, “There are these things that I’m never going to be able to find out because the record is just gone.” So I was interested in a way in playing with the form that included an acknowledgement of the limits of the form. So when the subject matter itself got overwhelming, what I was able to be supported by was the sense that I was exploring the form and also exploring an historical and cultural moment.

CW: And what you accomplished by being able to say, “I’m not sure if I recollect this,” was establishment of your credibility as a memoirist.

MG: Yes, I feel very moralistic about memoir. I feel like if you’re going to call it memoir, you’ve got to tell the truth. If you don’t want to tell the truth, call it fiction. That’s fine; that’s great. But don’t say it’s the truth if it’s not the truth. And if you don’t know, say, “I don’t know,” because that’s the truth. But don’t fudge.

I feel like if you’re going to call it memoir, you’ve got to tell the truth. If you don’t want to tell the truth, call it fiction.

CW: Yes, and the reader will often know it.

MG: Well, they don’t always know it. People get away with an enormous amount.

CW: You make an excellent point there, too, which leads me to my next question. How do you define creative nonfiction? Do you consider this a new or an old genre? Do you consider creative nonfiction the appropriate appellation for the genre?

MG: Well, all writing is creative in that you have to shape and form. I don’t think you could call it “inventive nonfiction.” You can’t invent stuff, but you can create in that you choose the sentences, you choose the structure, and that’s where the creativity comes in and you’re still listening for the poetry. You still have an aural responsibility. You still have an imagistic responsibility. But, I don’t think you get to make stuff up. I think there’s a difference between creation and invention.

CW: We touched a bit on the following subject earlier when we talked about the scary, swampy, stinky places. Phillip Lopate in Writing Personal Essays: The Necessity of Turning Onself into a Character said: “The student essayist is torn between two contrasting extremes:

A: I am so weird that I could never tell on the page what is secretly going on in my mind. Or;
B: I am so boring nothing ever happened to me out of the ordinary, so who would want to hear about it?

You might have heard some of these kinds of issues come up with your students. What do you say to these students to get them started writing?

MG: You know, it’s interesting. I think that, “I’m so boring, nothing ever happens to me,” is something that happens to young women more than young men.

CW: Do you think there’s a sense of shame for that?

MG: Yes, and so I just try to say, focus on the language and, again, the formal issue. And what I say to them is this: You know, nobody said to Proust, “What do you do? What are you going to do? Are you just going to write about yourself?” And nobody said that to Joyce. And so the issue is really an issue of language. How can you create a beautiful, kind of iridescent object out of the moment and concentrate on the most important unit of time, that is, the moment? And if you think about it that way, you don’t have to think of it as boring, or not boring, because no moment is like any other moment. So I get them to think about the moments, and that’s what they get to start with.

CW: Referring to the essayist or memoirist, the writer, poet and teacher Grace Paley once said: “Every story is two stories; the story of the story, and the story of the writer.” She referred to the writer inserting herself into the story. Do you agree or disagree, and how so?

MG: I loved Grace. I think she was a great writer and a great person. Well, what I think what Grace always said was that the writer is always inserting herself into the story, and so to pretend that you’re not is a kind of false objectivity. I think she was just talking about the ability to not shut your self off, to not keep the “I” out if it wants to come into the story, and to not have a kind of false Puritanism about the “I.”

CW: Your first novel, Final Payments, was initially written in the third person in 1978. Then your mentor, Elizabeth Hardwick, suggested you rewrite it in the first person, and you very successfully rewrote it in the first person. How long did it take you to rewrite it, and how did you feel on receiving that feedback from her?

MG: I wanted to throw up is how I felt. But once I got started, it did not take very long because it was how it was supposed to be. What she told me was to look at all the times when I said, “ She thought to herself,” or “She remembered,” or “She imagined.“ or “It seemed to her.” When I looked at all those places, I realized that she was right, and in fact, the first person then came much more naturally, but I was worried then about being a woman and writing first person. I thought that grownups were a very distant third person, and she had given me the permission to write in first person.

CW: That must have felt liberating to you at that time in history and in your career.

MG: Yes.

CW: Also, in Final Payments, your opening sentence was, “My father’s funeral was full of priests.” And your last sentence was, “There was a great deal I wanted to say.” For me, those were two perfect sentences for your novel. I loved the story.

MG: Oh, thank you, but you know, now I could never begin a novel with, “My father’s funeral was full of priests,” because everybody would read, “My father’s funeral was full of pedophiles.”

CW: I didn’t get that from my reading.

MG: The way the pedophilia scandal has changed so much the way that the Catholic priests are understood in the larger imagination, today I couldn’t write either of my first two novels the way that I did then.

CW: An interesting point, but for me, you telescoped that Catholicism would be heavily involved in your novel. And your final sentence fit the moment perfectly. It not only ended the story on a light note, I thought perhaps it telescoped that you really did have a lot to say, and you have had a lot to say since that time. I wonder if you were aware of that then. How did you derive that final sentence?

MG: It would be great to say that I derived it. I think it was given to me; I heard it. You know, it wasn’t any intelligence, but I wanted to end it hopefully. And, in a way I thought that’s really a hopeful sentence, feeling that you have a lot to say.

CW: It was, and I thought the ending to your story was cathartic. I looked for that because the tension was building. Isabel’s final act of virtue freed her completely.

MG: Yes, it did. I mean, I originally remember thinking that she was going to kill herself. I was living in London at the time and went to a concert of the Jupiter Symphony by Mozart, and I thought, “Wait a minute! I don’t want it to end with a suicide. I want it to end with hope and joy.” And so I changed my mind kind of half way through my planning process.

CW: It’s great that you’ve considered all the arts within your own art. Mozart had such a great sense of humor in much of his music. I’m curious. You’ve also said that you like to do your writing by hand with a certain pen and with notebooks. Do you still collect notebooks, and do you still write by hand?

MG: Yes. I was reading a collections of letters, it was a three-way correspondence, between Rilke and Pasternak and the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, and I had always felt kinship with her, but then I read a sentence she wrote that really made me feel kinship, and she said, “I’ve been only possessive of two things in my life: my children and my notebooks.” I love notebooks. And I have only one pen that I’m quite faithful to, a black Waterman, but I collect notebooks from all over. I really love them. They’re getting harder and harder to find now, and it’s kind of upsetting. Except now they have these moleskin ones which are kind of like the Yuppie notebooks. I think they’re kind of like the “Starbucks” of notebooks. They’re all the same, you know? It doesn’t seem like it’s very exciting anymore.

CW: On teaching, what is the best part about teaching writing for you?

MG: The best part about teaching is that it’s hopeful, and I guess it’s very easy for me to feel sometimes that it’s all over, that the things that I cared about are obsolete, and nobody cares about serious writing anymore, and nobody cares about fiction. Everybody’s tweeting or twitting, whatever that word is, or they’re playing video games. And, being with students, you just get this sense of continuity in the sense that it’s not going to end with you. And when you see somebody who is excited, by the same things you were, and still are, excited about—even if most of the world isn’t—it gives you hope, and it’s very, very feeding to me.

CW: Yes, and your students, I’m sure they are of the same make-up as you, or they wouldn’t be there.

MG: Yes. And I feel like I’m very privileged teaching at Barnard because the students are very good, and the female student is the default setting so I feel very privileged to be teaching where I’m teaching.

CW: Do you ever use writing prompts in class with your students, and would you share one with our readers?

MG: Yes, I do. I have one I use to demonstrate plot. I pair them up, ask one to whisper gossip to the other, and then I ask the person listening to write about what they just heard and come up with a plot sentence.

CW: You have often written boldly using the Catholic religion as a backdrop. How has being a member of the Catholic community formed you as a writer and as a person?

MG: Well, I think that one of the things that I like about Catholicism, and there is a huge amount that I loathe, but what I like is that the terms are large, and that life is taken seriously. And that it’s not just about being comfortable, and that it’s not just about your little self. So I think that the sense of something enormous being at stake in life is very important, you know, and that it’s not just about you; it’s about the ideal, to give everything. And what Catholicism, the kind of Catholicism I was brought up in, gave you was a real organic connection to a long history and to the whole culture of the West. And, just the experience of contemplative prayer is very, very life-laden. And, being Catholic, I can kneel next to people who are really, really different from me; in class, in race, in language, in experience and worldview . . . it really is a Catholic church. It’s big, and it can go around the world and find people saying the same things that you are, and I like that very, very much. But as a writer, I think that it has probably hurt my larger critical reputation when I tell people I’m Catholic.

CW: It impacts your larger audience negatively? How so?

MG: Yes, absolutely. And particularly for almost for my whole career, John Paul II or Benedictine XVI have been on the throne in the Vatican which means that the Catholic church has moved in the direction of repression and conservatism, sexism and homophobia, and punitiveness. So anyone, quite rightly, would question why anybody with a brain cell would want to associate with an organization like this. I get that, but I feel that Catholicism now is associated with mindless repression and, even worse, the pedophilia scandal and the cover up of sexual scandals. People feel if I identify as Catholic, I must be repressive, stupid, and have all sorts of bizarre sexual ideas.

CW: Your characters, however, are depicted as very human, flawed and . . .

MG: Yes, but someone would have to read me to find that out, and I feel that this sort of prejudice happens before anybody goes into the book store or logs onto Amazon.

CW: Have your prizes and awards influenced your writing in any way?

MG: No. Not at all. And anyway, I don’t think I’ve received all that many. It’s more like, “Who me? Do you mean me? Are you sure you’re not referring to someone else? It’s a great feeling for about a day, but then back to the writing.

CW: Some writers express sadness when their story is finished. Do you?

MG: No, because I’ve always been very fortunate to have another new writing project tugging at me.

CW: Mary, let’s talk about your love for Madison, Wisconsin. How are you involved in that community? What’s going on in Madison for you?

MG: Well, the main focus of my love of Madison is my two grandchildren; Jonah who is three and Max who is one. I am an obsessive and besotted grandmother and it’s just a joy for me to be with them, so I try to be there with them as much as I can because my daughter is doing an M.D./Ph.D., and my son-in-law is doing a Ph.D. They have no money and no time so this is the time they need me that I can be of help. So it’s a really good thing for me just to be with these children, which is such joy for me, and to feel that I’m actually doing something good and sensible.

CW: Absolutely. It’s sounds as if it’s a win-win-win situation.

MG: Absolutely!

CW: How are you involved in the Madison community?

MG: I’m part of a Benedictine ecumenical community in Madison that was formed by two Benedictine Sisters who decided, with the support of their community, that they would uncouple themselves from the official Catholic Church, but keep the Benedictine Rule because they are in an ecumenical community. And now there are three Benedictine Sisters; two former Catholic Sisters and a Presbyterian minister who is also one of the Sisters. It’s completely ecumenical. It’s really friendly to people of all sexual orientations, it’s very feminist, it’s run by women; sometimes people who were ex-priests who left to get married and who now get to say Mass again, and ministers of other denominations. We have a Moravian minister who gets to say Mass. And they are extremely socially committed: They won an award for being the most green building in Wisconsin. They are devoted to keeping the prairie going. They are involved in immigration, hunger, and homelessness issues. It’s just a wonderful place and makes me very happy.

CW: It feeds your soul.

MG: Yes, exactly. There are about five hundred full time members. The rest come in and out like any other church.

CW: Many writers have rituals they perform before sitting down to write. Do you have any pre-writing rituals?

MG: Yes. I always begin by reading something of a master writer who has done something really well that I’m trying to do. I always begin by reading. I’m very devoted to my notebooks and pens, so I will often begin a little journal writing before I begin my own writing just to loosen myself up, but reading is such an important part of my writing life. I’m always absolutely astonished by people who are trying to get MFAs, but they don’t actually want to read, and they particularly don’t want to read anything written before 1990. That . . . I find just astonishing.

CW: Do you still read Proust daily?

MG: Yes, I’d go insane if I didn’t read him every day.

CW: Do you still read in French?

MG: Not so much anymore. I read Proust mainly in English; I’m working on Italian now.

CW: You wrote the biography Joan of Arc: A Life, published in 2008 by the Penguin Group. The biography is part of the Penguin Lives series. How did you plan and write that biography? How do you prepare for such an enormous research and writing task?

MG: Well, what I did was, just to get myself inspired, I went to France to the places where Joan of Arc actually was to let the atmosphere soak in. And then I read a lot, realizing I wasn’t going to be a scholar and that I could not possibly read everything that has been written about it. So I had to sort of say to myself that this was an essay from my particular perspective. At that time, I had a seventeen year-old daughter, and Joan of Arc was seventeen when she went into battle. So that was sort of he way that I started, thinking, “My goodness, I’m looking at my daughter and what would it be like?” So in a way her youth was really the central motivation for my understanding of her.

CW: As we talk about Joan of Arc, I’m wondering if you know of anyone out there of that caliber and age today? Maybe Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani school girl who was shot in the head on a bus simply for going to school?

MG: Oh, yes, I think there are a lot of brave, wonderful young people out there, and we probably don’t know enough about them. We don’t know enough about them . . . yet.

Read a lot, and don’t fantasize.

CW: And, agents. What do you advise your students about agents?

MG: Oh, I don’t want to go there. I really don’t want to be a downer for anyone out there. It’s a very different world than the one I started out in, and I would never want to discourage anyone from writing. It’s very different now.

CW: What advice do you offer aspiring writers today?

MG: Read a lot, and don’t fantasize. Read a lot to learn about how your olders and betters have done it. Hopefully read a lot of genres; poetry, and read a lot of older things. Don’t fantasize that you are going to make a lot of money, or even that you’re going to be able to support yourself or make any money, because that’s when you are going to get disappointed and corrupted. Just do it for the love of it, for the sake of it, because you have to.

CW: You said you went to France to immerse yourself for a time in the culture and the sensations of that culture to write Joan of Arc. Do you do that in preparation for your other novels, too?

MG: Yes, for example I’m now writing a novel about the Spanish Civil War, and I’m leaving for Spain on Tuesday.

CW: You’re still living in New York, the home of your youth?

MG: Yes, I’m a New Yorker, born and bred.

CW: And now the Midwest is slowly encroaching on you.

MG: (Laughter) Yes, I’m really now dividing my time between New York and Madison.

IMG_3345_0023Cheryl Wheelright has been a bush pilot and a classical musician. She is a fan of hiking, catch-and-release fly fishing and photography. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

Patrick O’Neil, Author and Filmmaker

Patrick O'Neil

Photo: Sasha Stone

Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir Hold-Up (13e Note Editions, Paris, France). He is currently in the process of writing a second book chronicling his former career as a roadie/road manager for several major punk bands during the 1980′s (Dead Kennedys, Flipper, TSOL, Subhumans). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including: Fourteen Hills, New Plains Review, Weave Magazine, Sensitive Skin, Razorcake, and Word Riot. As a filmmaker Patrick has made two documentaries: Girls on Girls and The YAA Girlz and the Deadly Sparks. A new untitled film project is currently in production. His former band, ON-X—a collaboration that produced the CD It Just Get’s Darker…—unraveled in 2008. Another music endeavor is in the works. Patrick lives in Hollywood California, holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, teaches at a local community college, and facilitates writing workshops.

LT‘s Visual Art Co-editor Ashley Perez interviewed O’Neil on August 18th, 2013, at his home in Hollywood.

Ashley Perez: What inspired you to make documentaries in addition to your writing?

Patrick O’Neil: Well I got my BFA in film from the San Francisco Art Institute. So I originally started as a visual artist in film. I also drew, and my drawings lent themselves to movement, so that moved into animation, then film. It was a long process. I was a printmaker at first, making etchings. That was back in the 70s. I got into storytelling in film. But, I basically stopped making films until recently. The old way of doing film with 16 mm and splicing and cutting and AB rolling and doing all this weird stuff is unbelievably time-consuming and technically a hassle. Whereas now with digital filming on computers and Final Cut Pro and programs like that, it’s so cool and easy. It’s my first love, so I got back into it. I started doing films for this show called Skate This Art in San Francisco. The two films I made were for those shows. It was a benefit for a local charity in San Francisco where people painted art on skateboards and auctioned them off. Local artists did that and I would make a film and show it and a band would play. That was my original motivation to make films.

AP: You had a behind the scenes role in the punk rock scene. You were a tour manager and roadie. At what point did you transition from doing that to writing and film making. Or, were you always writing?

PO: No, I wasn’t. I’m dyslexic. I have a learning disability. I transpose words when I’m writing and I transpose numbers verbally. I was a visual artist. At some point in time, I was a punk rock kid in art school, I went into music. I played with a bunch of horrible bands and other people were playing in real bands and doing well. I didn’t have faith in my own self to go out and do it but I enjoyed the limelight and started getting into the production end of it. At that point that’s when I became a roadie and a road manager and toured for a while. When that all fell apart I went back to doing art work for Alternative Tentacles, which was Dead Kennedy’s label. All that was visual. Then drug use, addiction, and crime got in the way and I didn’t do anything artistic, musical, anything for 10 years. When I was eventually arrested and then incarcerated, that’s when I began writing. I started writing in journals on my own, then going to adult education classes in jail, which was in 1997.

AP: Tell me about the memoir you are writing now about your years as a punk rock tour manager.

PO: I’m trying to write that thing (laughs). I’m having a hard time writing that book. Some parts come and it’s really easy to bring up the memories and some are lost in the fog. It’s the kind of thing I keep working on. It comes in chunks. I binge write on this one and I’m not a binge writer. I’m someone who’s really structured and puts in the work every day. This book, I open up the manuscript and look at it and all of a sudden it’s not there. I don’t have it for the day and I work on something else and do other things. It’s been a tedious and slow process.

AP: Was it harder being the road manager for some of these bands or writing about being the road manager for these bands?

PO: It was really easy being the road manager for these bands, even though they were pains in the ass musicians and being on the road is incredibly bizarre. All kinds of crazy things happened. All the things you’ve heard about touring. There was an amazing amount of alcohol and drug abuse going on. I was a strung out junkie the whole time. It was the height of punk rock. It was an amazing time. I never regret any of it. It was just easier to live than to write about it.

AP: Before we talk about Girls on Girls, are there any other projects besides the memoir currently going on?

PO: Right now I’m writing fiction. I’ve never worked on fiction before. I just read a piece of fiction, “Her Name Was Martha” in San Francisco and at Beyond Baroque for the Poets and Writers event. So I’m working on that and I work on dialogue on a daily basis. I’m trying to get my dialog together. It’s one of those things I’m really happy doing; it’s getting more attention than the book I’m supposed to be writing. Which is how it works, you know. But at least I’m doing something. I’m also playing music again, which is interesting.

AP: Is that something that’s been on hold for a long time?

PO: It comes and goes. The last CD I recorded was in 2007. The band was just two of us. We played all the instruments. It’s been six years. I actually recorded the CD as my field study for Antioch University. I wrote the lyrics and with a friend of mine, we recorded the whole thing and put it all together.

AP: Nice! Girls on Girls came out in 2010. Did you create this just for Skate this Art or was it already in the works?

PO: The first film I did was The YAA Girlz and the Deadly Sparks and that was for the Skate this Art benefit and it was about women skateboard teams in San Francisco in the ‘80s. It opened my eyes to what I wanted to do. I got interested in women’s stories that juxtapose the men’s version of those stories. There are all these men skaters that had their stories told. There were all these women skaters, underclass kind of thing so I was interested in that story. Plus, I knew all of them from San Francisco, so it was readily available. Later when I had the idea to make the other film, it was the same idea. These women and their bands that I was interested in, most of them were readily available, so it was another story of something that needed to be told. I felt it was going on the same idea, so I didn’t do it just for the project and it was more of an undertaking than I had ever done before. It was almost 23 minutes; the first film was a real short short documentary at 13 minutes. So this project was much more involved. And then using the band’s music and videos I had to get permission and deal with copyrights. It was a way bigger project.

AP: That answers a question I had about what inspired a man to do a documentary on women in punk music. It is still a controversial topic. Women in metal or punk music are still fighting for equality.

PO: Right. Well first, I find women more interesting than men. I was raised by women, not a lot of male role models in my life as a child. Second, for lack of a better word, it’s an underdog story. Women never got respect in rock and roll. There are very few bands that are all women for one, and then very few of those bands that aren’t considered a novelty act. However, I had to do a bit more research with this film. Most of these bands I didn’t know. I knew Antonia (Crane) but I didn’t know her band, Dirtbox. I didn’t know Grass Widow (the last band in the documentary) until Rob Roberge introduced me to them. The other bands were friends of mine and I used to see them struggling in this male dominated industry, still do. Basically, it was unfair. It’s just odd to revisit it years later and to take a look at it and its odd because nothing’s changed.

View “Girls on Girls,” Patrick O’Neil’s 2010 documentary about women in punk rock (32 min.)

AP: Yeah, in a day and age when we’re supposed to be progressive.

PO: What’s strange is that punk rock was fighting against these established codes and ethics and so forth, but sexism was still there. As much as people wanted to say there wasn’t, there was. It’s odd that you have these movements that are so anarchistic yet they still hold on to outdated and stupid ideas. Or phobias or fears or whatever the hell it is.

It’s odd that you have these movements that are so anarchistic yet they still hold on to outdated and stupid ideas.

AP: What’s your creative process like as a writer and a filmmaker?

PO: As a nonfiction writer, I know the story. So my creative process is making an interesting story out of the story. I think that’s the creative of creative nonfiction. It’s the author’s job to put beautiful language into their story. I’m not saying I make beautiful language, but I attempt to at least. Hopefully the story is already interesting enough but you have to make the language as interesting as the story. With filmmaking, I just go and shoot a shitload of film and interview people and then work it all into the original idea and it all comes through at the end when I edit it and put it together. But, I don’t know what I have until then. Like with Girls on Girls, the film starts out with a clip from Sid and Nancy that I took off the Internet and then a bunch of still shots, interviews, music videos, and a soundtrack I compiled, and it all came together at the end. I have a friend, Patrick McCormick; he did the post-production and fixed up all the mistakes I made. He is a professional filmmaker and I am self-taught on the computer. I never had any real training on any of that stuff. His help was greatly appreciated.

AP: On your website, it said you have another film project in the works. Tell me about that.

PO: I have two, but not much work has been done on either. They’re both in the planning stage. I haven’t found the ability to do them, one is a bit more advanced than what I’m used to doing. The other film I’m working on is about online dating and love.

AP: I can forward you some OKCupid messages from my friends.

PO: That’s one of the venues I want to use. The problem is finding people who will go on camera and be interviewed. I want to find a sex worker that’s on craigslist. I want to find someone on OKCupid and maybe a successful relationship that’s come out of there—have the subjects all talk about what love means to them in that respect. I also want somebody who goes online for casual sex, not a sex worker, just someone who has casual sex online. Have three or four women talk about all that.

AP: What attracts you to a subject as a writer and visual artist?

PO: It’s all the same thing. This may sound cheesy, but finding beauty in what isn’t beautiful. I am attracted to the dark side, attracted to sleaze and unpleasantness and awkwardness and anger and violence. I’m attracted to the dejected, the homeless, the streets, criminal activity. There’s an unbelievable comment on human nature that pervades everything. That’s what I’m trying to portray in my work, although maybe not my films yet.

AP: Wait for the online dating one.

PO: Exactly.

AP: What prompted you to enter an MFA program?

PO: I had started writing when I was locked up. I was writing all the time, writing stories about crimes and people. When I got out, I kept it up. I was writing a lot of angry stuff. I was an angry guy in those days, angry at the world. I felt I had been done wrong. Through working on myself, I started figuring out that wasn’t the case. My writing started to shift to writing stories, vignettes of daily life and I started a blog in 2004. I didn’t know what computers were until I got out of prison and I learned from scratch. I made myself post 2,000 to 3,000 words a week. I wrote stories about my neighborhood and people. I did it as an exercise and a commitment. At the time, I was a drug and alcohol counselor working at a rehab center. I was there for five to six years and the Feds came in and said you have to go to school for two years to get certified as one and I was already doing it so it seemed stupid. I would have learned more things but the kicker was did I really want to be a drug and alcohol counselor the rest of my life? Did I want to do two years of school to keep doing what I was doing and get paid the same amount of money? Was I that into it? I was kind of burning out by then and I was a drug and alcohol counselor to pay back my sins of my bad behaviors of the years before. My dad, who is a linguistics professor at MIT was really encouraging me to write and liked what I was doing. He’s my editor and is really supportive of me. He said, “If you’re going to go to school for two years, why don’t you do what you want?” I already had a BA. He was like “Why don’t you be a writer?” and encouraged me to get an MFA. I thought, you’re kidding me. I hadn’t been to school in 20 years and didn’t know if I wanted to. I kind of needed to just make the plunge and see what happened. I applied to three schools. Two of them accepted me. Antioch was low residency and it sounded like the perfect thing for me. I liked Antioch. I’ve always been supportive of their social justice mission and their politics. They were a better fit and I went with them. It gave me an opportunity to find a community that I needed to say I was a writer. I kind of thought I was a writer and felt I was a writer, but it gave me the voice to say I was a writer, to feel comfortable with it.

AP: Is there anything you want to add that I didn’t cover?

PO: No, maybe not.

AP: Thank you.

Ashley Perez holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is an intern at The Rumpus and runs the literary blog, Arts Collide. Ashley’s work has appeared in The Weekenders Magazine, BLEED, and the anthology, First Time: an Anthology about Lost Virginity.

Wendy C. Ortiz, Author

Wendy Ortiz

Photo: Sandy Lee

Wendy C. Ortiz holds an MA in clinical psychology and an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s a Los Angeles native who lived for eight years in Olympia, Washington before returning to Los Angeles. She lives with the love of her life and their daughter.

Wendy has read at various venues in Los Angeles and San Francisco. She is the co-founder and curator of the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series, which was a finalist for LA Weekly’s 2013 Best of LA Readers Choice Awards

Her poetry has appeared in Spillway, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Blood Orange Review. Her prose can be found in The New York Times, PANK, The Coachella Review, Literary Mama, Split Lip Magazine, Brain, Child, and Mutha Magazine, among other online and print publications. Most recently, her essay, “Pretty” ran in The Nervous Breakdown and “I’m on Fire” ran in Jaded Ibis Productions’ BLEED blog. She writes the monthly column “On the Trail of Mary Jane” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Wendy has poetry forthcoming in Educe and Spillway.

Wendy is working on a book based on the Modern Love essay published in the New York Times and a poetry collection. Her first book, Excavation: A Memoir, will be published in summer 2014 by Future Tense Books. Her second book, Hollywood Notebook, is forthcoming from Writ Large Press in fall/winter 2014.

Wendy C. Ortiz was interviewed by Karly Little via Skype on September 14, 2013.

Karly Little: Your essay, “Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling” appeared in The New York Times a little over a year ago, and on your Tumblr, you say that its publication changed your life. What changes have you noticed in your life and the lives of your loved ones since your work appeared in the Modern Love column?

Wendy C. Ortiz: Big changes.

There were so many different things that happened around that piece. The biggest thing, probably, was that I suddenly was getting the attention of agents. I had two different agents contact me after that piece came out basically asking me, “So where is the book?” That’s actually one of the pieces of advice I’d give. You see articles that ask, “How do you get an agent?” I always think—the short answer is to write a Modern Love column. Agents are looking at that column all the time and contacting people. There have been several books to come out of that column. I did not have a book; I did not know that that would happen.

I had a different book, so when agents contacted me, I said, “Well, I don’t have a book based on this column yet, but I’m working on it.” And I offered them the book that I did have that was already written, the one I started in the MFA program.

Getting an email from an agent while you’re on your way to Target is a really big deal. Like, within two weeks of the essay being published. I was looking at my email while I walked into Target with my mother and my daughter and I was like, “Wait, what? Is this really happening?” And I was just floating on air the rest of the day.

I had sent queries for my book (What Is and What Should Never Be) out to agents and hadn’t gotten a bite, so things were suddenly new and exciting for me.

Another change was having something out there nationally like that. I still get emails from people who tell me what kind of impact that piece had on them. It really is a range of people, people who definitely aren’t in the same category as me, as that essay. It’s basically people who are thinking about their own situations and making big decisions dealing with the question, “What do I do in this situation where I could potentially hurt someone, but it’s important for me to move on?”

That is still pretty huge, and I feel like I’m still touched by that on a regular basis.

KL: You said when agents started calling you about your column in Modern Love, “Newly Wed and Quickly Unraveling,” they asked about the memoir behind the column. Then, it wasn’t quite finished yet. Is this that memoir?

WCO: No, this isn’t that book. The book coming out in July 2014 is a memoir I began writing while in the Antioch MFA program in 2000. Excavation: A Memoir is about the four-year sexual relationship I had with my junior high teacher. It’s gone through a number of revisions—I have Bernard Cooper, Paul Lisicky, David Ulin, and Emily Rapp, among a few other readers to thank for that. I’m also grateful to Kevin Sampsell of Future Tense Books for taking a chance on a book that many editors said was “dark”, “complicated”, and ultimately a “difficult” book to market because of the content.

I’m still working on the book based on the ML column. It’s at about 12,000 words right now. One of the agents that had contacted me about it is working with me on it—she’s given me an open door to an agency that is not taking unsolicited manuscripts, so the relationship feels especially valuable. When I have new pages, she’s open to reading them and giving me comments. I’m hopeful I can get the book done by sometime in 2014.

KL: You’ve been publishing essays, poems, and short fiction for years now. How does it feel to know that Excavation: A Memoir, a book-length piece of yourself will be released in the summer of 2014?

WCO: It’s a bit mind-blowing to me. If I think about it for too long I get terrified. While I practice openness and a radical honesty in my writing I can be a rather private person. It was slightly excruciating to know that Kevin Sampsell, for instance, was reading the book, only because once someone reads the book, it feels like they’re suddenly privy to a strange, intimate part of my life that I’ve not delved into great detail with anyone in conversation. So this book feels like a big plunge into what, I don’t even know. And that’s the scary part. At the same time, I have a lot of support from friends, from other writers, and internally I can call up the support I need, too. The terrified part of me will walk next to the strong part of me and we’ll get through it together.

KL: Much of your writing is driven by the emotion in the details. I’m thinking of “Mix Tape,” your essay on The Nervous Breakdown. Your narrator thinks, “You’re fucking me up. I love how you’re fucking me up. But you’re fucking me up.” Another great example here would be “Listen” your essay that appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The Coachella Review. Many of these events happened as long as two or three decades ago. How do you harvest these details and get to a place where you can write with the raw and recent-feeling urgency?

WCO: “Mix Tape” has some excerpts from the memoir that I have been trying to sell. This memoir has taken a good ten years for me to write from the point where it started in the MFA program. It’s gone into different versions and incarnations, but one of the main things that I used to write that memoir were journals that I’ve kept since that time. So I always am able to pull from those.

As a long-time writer, if you’re keeping journals like these, it’s pretty valuable. I wrote down conversations that happened, word-for-word. As soon as the conversations happened, I would hang up the phone, get into my journal, and start writing about it. I feel like I’ve pulled a lot of detail from that period of time.

That’s part of my whole process, too: going deep into that period of time. Music is the main thing. I usually have a soundtrack playing when I’m trying to go back into a period of time. Listening to that music and getting into the old journals. I’m constantly looking back at them and reread so I get into those feelings. I feel like that’s when I’m able to pull the details out from those periods of time.

KL: Is it hard to come back to reality after going back into that time period?

WCO: It is so hard. It’s one of the hardest things, actually. I need a couple of hours to go in and get the space to listen to music and really write. Then I need some transition time to come out of it, and I don’t always have that. On a day like today, my partner takes our daughter and they go somewhere for a few hours. My job is to figure out how to build in that transition time into that time frame because if I don’t have it—obviously I can do it—it’s really hard, like dragging myself back into a reality of now.

It’s hard and you must understand how that feels to have even posed the question.

The worst-case scenario is just having to go straight back into reality and feeling like there’s something that’s left unwritten, but obviously I have to make it work. I’m a parent and that has to come first. Once my child is back, I come right back and be the parent, I’m not fifteen years old anymore. I’m not listening to Depeche Mode and in my old world anymore.

As soon as the conversations happened, I would hang up the phone, get into my journal, and start writing about it.

KL: “Listen” explores the effect of time on memory; do you contact family member or friends from those years, or did you rely solely on your own memories for these essays?

WCO: I mostly rely on my memories and journals, which can be a little tricky. The journals make it easier because in the end, I’m writing about the truth that I saw at that period of time. I’ve certainly sat down and written something and then went back and looked at my journal and found that my memory was wrong. I’ve had to rewrite entire sections because my journal was telling me something totally different than my memory.

In terms of friends—I went to the same elementary and junior high and high school with a big group of people—so I definitely have a lot of friends from that period of time, but I haven’t always asked them for their feedback because I’m trying to just stay true to what was happening for me in that period of time. Once in a while, a friend will sort of illuminate something for me or remind me of something, but if I don’t physically remember it, I’m probably not going to use it providing it doesn’t somehow change the entire narrative.

My family was pretty emotionally absent for a period of time so they are not people that I would ask, “What was happening at that time? What do you remember?” They just aren’t good source material for me.

KL: Your essays employ an economy that cuts right to the core of the characters you write about. Do you begin with longer drafts and pare away extraneous words and sentences, or do you find yourself naturally writing in such concise language?

WCO: I wish that I could be more economical in my writing. I feel like I’m constantly over-writing things. I tend more toward writing really big and then having to go back in and winnow it down to something more precise. I would never have thought of my work as economical but I want it to be.

I’m learning more about editing. I think editing is a really intense process that I didn’t really know very much about until I worked with the editor at Modern Love. We would have conversations, both email and phone, and the way that he was going about editing this short piece made me suddenly realize there were all of these places under the umbrella of “editing” that I didn’t have knowledge of or employ, myself. I think that experience taught me, first of all, the job editors do is incredible. They can just go right in and start doing surgery. That’s intense. It’s hard to do that with your own work. I learned a lot just from that experience, and if I had money to just have an editor next to me all the time, I would have one. Doing that surgery on your own is so complicated, and sometimes I feel like I’m still too close to the work to perform it well.

KL: “Minutes are just seconds aren’t minutes,” your essay in Literary Mama, was lyrical enough to sing along with. How much do you find your poetry and prose informing one another since you work in both genres?

WCO: My hope is that the prose will always be informed by poetry. That piece—for the longest time—was an essay with a lot more words, and then I kept cutting it away and cutting it away. Then I had extensive edits. The editors of Literary Mama really put me through the wringer, and we edited it further and further. I would say that there were at least eight edits of it from them, which was fantastic. I don’t think that they’re getting paid to do that work, but they helped me really narrow it down and become the precise thing that it is now, which looks like a poem. And that’s how I think of it now. I had submitted it to them as an essay, and then in the end, it ended up looking like a poem. I was really happy with that.

KL: What have you read recently?

WCO: I just finished reading a book called Torpor by Chris Kraus. Chris Kraus is pretty amazing. She wrote a book called I Love Dick, and that’s what a lot of people know her for. Someone that I met on Twitter was offering to give away books if you would just pay for shipping, and she said that she would choose a random selection of books to send. I thought, “Hey, I’ll pay a few dollars to get a random selection of books.” This [Torpor] was in that box, and I’m so glad that it was because I loved it. I read it just this week. Finding time for reading, with a toddler, is very difficult. So I’m happy that I just finished it yesterday. I only had about fifteen pages left and I just kept saying, “When am I going to have time to finish the last fifteen pages?”

I’m also in the middle of reading a book by Gary Lutz called Partial List of People to Bleach. It’s a great book, it was just reprinted from Future Tense Press. It’s a book of short stories, and they’re all super weird. He does interesting things with language, and I love that kind of work. I’m into it, but I have to read that very slowly. It’s like reading a poetry book.

I’m also reading a poetry book right now, Greenhouses, Lighthouses by Tung-Hui Hu, and I never can finish a poetry book in one sitting. It can take me a month to read a poetry book. I’m usually juggling about five books at a time. I’m active on Goodreads, and I like marking how far along I am. It’s good for me. I know it goes back to when I was in second or third grade and we used to have the contests of who could read the most books. I was always in the running to win because I was constantly reading.

KL: Can you feel your work bending to reflect what you’ve read?

WCO: Totally.

Sometimes I want that. Sometimes I don’t. It’s hard to sort of separate, but there are times when I’m looking for that. When I know about a piece that I’m writing, and I want it to have a certain tone, I will read the work in a tone that I know is similar to the tone that I want to have. I’ll read the work and get invested in the voice, and then some of it may rub off. And I love that. I think we all do that to some degree. I’m open to that happening.

Then there are times when I feel, “Oh, I shouldn’t be reading this right now because it’s interfering with the voice of something else I’ve been trying to work on.” That doesn’t happen to me very often though. I feel like I choose books that are somehow informing a voice that I’m trying to work with on my own.

KL: Your first book, Hollywood Notebook, is forthcoming from Writ Large Press in 2014. What has been your favorite and not-so-favorite parts of the publishing process so far?

WCO: It’s hard to say right now because we’re so early in the process and because it’s a small independent press. It’s very casual. I think that people have an expectation that for all books, you sit down, you have a contract, and you have these hard deadlines. But that is not how all independent presses work, at all.

To begin with, I sat down with the publisher, Chiwan Choi, at a bar in downtown L.A., and we just kind of talked. He told me he loved the book and what he thinks the global edit should include. He told me, “You make your own deadline. We want to publish the best work possible; it’s up to you to come up with what will work for you.” He’s super accommodating for the writers he publishes with the press and that is just a relief. I’m not being held to, “Okay, now this has to happen now. At this point in time.” I mean, I could do that, but I feel like I have more freedom this way.

Right now, at this moment, he’s received my first global edit, and I’m waiting to hear what he thinks about that. Since I sent it to him, I’ve still been working on some of the formatting and I keep going through it and through it with a fine-toothed comb. Sometimes I think, “I thought I already took the fine-toothed comb through this.” But then I see things. So I must go back in and go through it again. I feel like this is not a standard or traditional publishing process, and I can’t say that there’s anything that I don’t like yet. What I’m enjoying right now is the freedom to be able to work on it on my timeline and feeling like my publisher is really accommodating my process.

See what people are doing and how they’re doing it and what you appreciate and what makes you think, “Oh that doesn’t really work for me, but why doesn’t it work for me?” Think through those personal kinds of questions.

KL: After reading your poetry and prose in various online publications, I’m looking forward to the release of Hollywood Notebook. Don’t give us any spoilers, but can you tell us a little bit about it?

WCO: I had a blog from 2002 to 2005, and that blog space was given to me by Karrie Higgins, who is also an Antioch alum. She lives in Utah now and is still one of my favorite editors. When she has time, I ask her to look over my work, and it’s fantastic. I love having her as a resource and as a friend.

I was just writing this blog back then, when I was living in Hollywood, in a studio apartment. I had just moved from Olympia, Washington, back to L.A. after having lived in Olympia for eight years. I was living alone for the first time in a long time, and I was writing a lot of observations about what life was like then. I was 28 years old and just trying to figure things out, in many ways. Something really big happens when you’re 28. People will say it’s when your Saturn returns, and that could very well be what was happening then. There were certain huge things that happened between 28 and 30.

When that blog ended, I basically captured all the text into a document and that document was 365 pages long. I decided that as a project, I would edit it down into something more readable—and that made more sense—and see what happened. So I started doing that last summer and suddenly I saw, “Okay, this is a book. These are micro-chapters, and they read somewhat like prose poems.” I had a very different style of writing then and I miss that style of writing. It’s not something that is natural to me right now. Doing the edits, that’s probably the toughest part. I have to go back into that voice that I don’t feel like I have easy access to right now. That’s what that book is. It’s observations and prose poems and lists and ideas about that period of time when I was living in Hollywood alone and trying to figure things out.

KL: Do you have advice for writers who compose personal essays? Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of memories?

WCO: I don’t worry that I’ll ever run out of memories. I’m constantly writing lists. I have notebooks full of lists of random memories, and they’re just sort of signposts to go back and remember this, or go back and look in the journal at this. They can be so random and they can be so short, but it’s the way I know I’m not going to run out of memories because there are so many there.

The advice that I would give is to constantly read personal essays, all the time. See what people are doing and how they’re doing it and what you appreciate and what makes you think, “Oh that doesn’t really work for me, but why doesn’t it work for me?” Think through those personal kinds of questions.

Getting help from people is really, really important, too. It’s something that I feel like I have resisted a little bit. I sometimes feel like everybody’s hustling, everybody’s writing. They’re busy. But sometimes I just have to push through my feeling of resistance that I don’t want to bother someone. I have my three people who I go to. If they have time and energy, they’ll read it, and if they don’t, they’ll simply say no. And I’ll just move on. Or I’ll wait—if I don’t have a deadline—I’ll wait until they have some time, and they can look at it because I trust them that much.

The other kind of help that is important, that I was also resistant to, is actually going to a class. When you’re in an MFA program, you’re surrounded by people who are doing the same thing, so it feels easier. When I was in it, I was getting help all the time: my mentor was helping me, my fellow writers, the workshop. But when you’re out on your own, you think, “Oh, okay. Who’s out there who can help?” So this year I decided I needed come help after getting these super nice rejections over and over. The editor would keep telling me, “I love what you’re doing, but it needs more work.” And I thought, “I keep hitting this wall with this editor. I need some help. I need professional help now.” So I actually took a class through a local writing group that offers all kinds of classes to writers. I took an essay class, and there was some part of me that said, “I can’t believe I’m taking an essay class so many years after getting my MFA.” But that was really arrogant thinking because I needed help. My essays were not working for some reason that I couldn’t see, so I wanted to repair the blind spot that I had, and thank goodness I did. I went into a class; I got some help.

The essay that came out of it was one that I had been working on. Two of my editors had looked at it, and we weren’t making it better. The finished piece that came out was the Brain, Child Magazine essay that came out this week. It was a resubmission to them. The first version I submitted, they rejected, and I took that essay to the class that I was in, worked it out, and resubmitted it to them. They accepted it.

Now I feel like I’m over my resistance. If I need professional help, I will try to get it. It’s totally worth it. I’m over it. I can ask for help.

KL: You were just announced as a McSweeney’s Column Contest honorable mention with your new column, “On the Trail of Mary Jane.” You’ll be contributing regularly to McSweeney’s. Can you tell us what to expect in this new venture?

WCO: In Los Angeles, there are many, many, many medical marijuana dispensaries, and I drive by them all the time. Sometimes they have these ridiculous names and I constantly find myself wondering, “What makes someone choose one place over another?” There are so many to choose from. NPR reported four years ago that California has more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks at this point. The L.A. city council put a moratorium on opening more pharmacies and recently L.A. voters essentially confirmed that stance. Now only 135 of over 1000 dispensaries in L.A. are technically legal. I’m interested in going to both legal and illegal dispensaries. The way that I’m approaching this is as a journalist. I’m hanging out and checking things out. Who goes to these places? What are these places offering? What is the culture inside? What’s the culture right outside the front door? Each month I’ll be writing about a different dispensary with some forays into other locations—maybe a hemp convention.

KL: You’ve got your column, On the Trail of Mary Jane, running at McSweeney’s, two books slated for release in 2014, and other pieces of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction popping up in various journals and websites. How are you managing your time so you still have time to write for yourself?

WCO: My daughter, who I’m home with most days, has entered the world of imaginative play, meaning she can now occupy herself for lengths of time making up stories with her stuffed animals and plastic dinosaurs. I’m using that time as much as I can. When she naps, I’m using that time to recharge, meet deadlines, whichever needs to happen most that day. My partner makes sure I have a day most weekends when I can work on writing, and that’s priceless. I also manage to write three pages every morning—the “for myself” writing you might be referencing—because that’s just part of my routine.

KL: In your essay on the BLEED blog, run by Jaded Ibis Productions, you say, “I’ve heard a constant refrain from friends and fellow writers: You’re on fire!” One glance at your ever-growing bio proves this statement’s truth. I don’t know that there’s any other way to describe your successes over the past months and years. How’s it feel to be on fire?

WCO: The “I’m on Fire” essay is very much a work-in-progress. There’s something painful about “being on fire”—maybe the attention, which is exciting and also somewhat searing—the amount of myself that goes into the writing and then becomes its own creature and lives a life of its own—it can feel quite literally painful at times. At the same time it’s also exciting, and growing wilder day by day.

KarlyKarly has an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is the Creative Nonfiction Editor for Lunch Ticket, reads creative nonfiction for The Citron Review, and interns for The Rumpus. Her work is forthcoming in Free State Review and Drunk Monkeys. She coordinates community education and teaches English at Barton Community College. Karly lives, writes, rollerblades, and watches sports with her husband in a north-central Kansas town of 172 people.

Luis J. Rodriguez, Author

Luis J. Rodriguez

Photo: D.Zapa Media

Luis J. Rodriguez has emerged as one of the leading Chicano writers in the country with fifteen published books in memoir, fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature, and poetry. Luis’ poetry has won a Poetry Center Book Award, a PEN Josephine Miles Literary Award, and a Paterson Poetry Book Prize, among others. His children’s books—America is Her Name and It Doesn’t Have to be This Way: A Barrio Story—have won a Patterson Young Adult Book Award, two Skipping Stones Honor Awards, and a Parent’s Choice Book Award. Luis is best known for the 1993 memoir of gang life, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (paperback by Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster). His latest book is the long-awaited sequel to Always Running, entitled It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster), released in the fall of 2011. Luis is also known for helping start community organizations such as Chicago’s Guild Complex and Tia Chucha Press, one of this country’s premier small presses. He is co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural—a bookstore, performance space and workshop center in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, which also sponsors the “Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung” Literacy and Performance Festival. In addition, Luis is a renowned gang intervention specialist in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities as well as Mexico and Central America.

Jamie Moore: What do you consider to be your driving themes? Are they different between genres and/or who your intended audience is?

Luis J. Rodrgiuez: My themes are primarily the reality and morality of the times, my own grasping at essential truths, and the imaginative/creative impulses. I grew up highly marginalized in America—from Mexican parents, of indigenous descent (Raramuri-Mexikah) – and among the laboring migrant communities of South Central and East Los Angeles (mostly black and brown). This country—as rich and resourceful as it is—has a built-in value system. Men are over women. White skinned over dark skinned. Straight over gay. The rich and powerful over the laboring masses. My books touch on these aspects in one form or another and against the value system but also from in-between them.

Most of the world today, due to the global rule of powerful interests, has similar value systems. But in the United States there has been a long and heroic struggle to bring parity and equity to everyone – to end the value system that is mostly illusion, man-made and based on lies. We as a people have done much to remove these from our laws and land. I continue to pull on that braided and rooted thread.

The different genres tend to tap into different facets of language shaping: poems draw more from voice and the musicality of words, novels and stories from narrative, essays from ideas and issues, scripts and plays work with the visuals and dialogues that stories produce, and on and on. My audiences are both everyone and the particular people I write about, conveying their authenticity, flavors, and circumstances as skillfully and truthfully as possible.

JM: You elaborate on your relationship with your father and your son in your memoir It Calls You Back. How do those experiences inform how your approach fatherhood? Does this parallel with how you approach mentorship with youth?

LR: I had a bad example of a father—he was emotionally detached, uninvolved in the vital needs of his wife and children, but also attracted to status, material things, and, as we found out later, little girls. He was a pedophile. This is an extremely hard thing to admit and write about. Yes, I had a father, unlike most of my friends and homies. But one I wished I didn’t have. His example came to me in the relative way I detached. When I broke up with my first wife after three-and-a-half years of marriage, I pretty much abandoned my son, Ramiro, then two-and-a-half years old, and my daughter, Andrea, 10 months. I loved them, but I didn’t know how to fight for them. I learned the hard way—after both Ramiro and Andrea came to me as teenagers—resentful, troubled. I largely failed, but in time, when they were already young adults, (and my son was in prison), I became the father they couldn’t let go.

Sobering up helped—I now had to face all my demons, responsibilities, fears. I also had two sons with my current wife Trini. For Ruben and Luis, I learned rapidly to be the father they needed. I thought about what my father did or didn’t do, and did the opposite. I never yelled at my boys. I never struck them. I didn’t over-embrace them either. They know me as a stable presence in their life, much as their mother has been in the nurturing, holding way that a mother can be. My oldest kids expressed some feelings about this, but in the end they realized it was right. I’m now in a good place with all my children. And I have five grandchildren and will be a great-grandfather as well. Ruben and Luis are now university students, as is my oldest grandson Ricardo. Andrea is director of a pre-school cooperative and a recent mother (she also has a teenage daughter). And Ramiro, with three kids of his own, did a total of 15 years in prison and is now released and out of parole—gang-free, crime-free, and drug free.

My mentoring work with youth demonstrates much about what I’ve learned about fathering—so that these youngsters have strong, consistent and caring men in their lives. Most of the youth I work with, in gangs or not, have no fathers or bad examples for fathers. A mentor is not a father-substitute, but it does help to show that a man, even with a violent and addictive past, can be trusted, multi-dimensional, emotionally complex and steady.

JM: One of your books, It Doesn’t Have to Be this Way, is the only children’s book I have seen that includes a character that gets shot. What is the feedback you’ve received from this book? Did you have trouble publishing it?

LR: After Always Running, my memoir of gang life, (which has sold around 500,000 copies), It Doesn’t Have to Be this Way is my best-selling book. I believe it has sold more than 40,000 copies. The book was actually requested by the publisher, Children’s Book Press (it’s now with Lee & Low Books)—they wanted a children’s book to deal with gangs. It’s popular in inner city schools where children have witnessed gunfire, domestic abuse, and even death. Yes, it’s hard to fathom that any illustrated children’s book would have a character that is shot, but my books are situational. They thrive in the situations in which these realities need literature to push through healing, mentoring, transformations. This book may not be for all children. I’ve long conceded that students, parents, teachers and administrators should use both books wisely. For one thing, the violence is more prevalent than adults may appreciate. I also give children and youth more credit than most parents, teachers or administrators tend to do. These youngsters are quite capable and resilient. However, everything depends on the conditions, time and place. The books should be appropriate and meaningful to its readers.

JM: You founded a cultural center and bookstore, Tia Chucha’s. How has this organization grown over time? Has anything surprised you about the experience?

LR: Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore is a blossoming cultural space that I’m convinced should exist in one form or another in every neighborhood. We teach culturally relevant traditions—from Mexikah traditional dance (what is often called Aztec) to Son Jarocho music from the African/native/Spanish state of Veracruz, Mexico to indigenous language (Nahuatl) and cosmology. We provide classes in music, writing, theater, photography, puppetry, and more. Author readings, art exhibits and community dialogues. We also hold several yearly festivals, including the only outdoor annual literacy & arts festival in the San Fernando Valley: “Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung.” And we have a youth empowerment project (Young Warriors), a mural collective, and our own publishing house (Tia Chucha Press). In twelve years, we raised more than a million dollars and have received support from government, foundations, and donors, including well known persons like Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore of the Doors, Cheech Marin, Lou Adler, and others.

My thanks to my wife Trini, who has shepherded this space through a dozen years, with many setbacks, but much more triumphs. And her amazing staff, all young people, all people with big hearts, from community, active in the deep soul changes needed in people and in our society. I also thank our board and a ton of volunteers. Tia Chucha’s is more an art project than a nonprofit; an imagination made into a practical reality.

It’s a surprise that we have thrived during these difficult financial times. But I’m also convinced that the arts are indispensable. They can help engender new economies, new politics, and new social relationships. As others have said better than I, a complete human being is a complete artist.

Eeverything depends on the conditions, time, and place. The books should be appropriate and meaningful to its readers.

JM: You also founded Tia Chucha Press and have published with small presses. Can you talk about the importance of independent presses to you—especially considering the consolidation of big publishers and the depersonalization of mainstream publishing?

LR: Publishing in this country is big business. This tends to push many voices and stories outside of the mainstream. Now more books are sold in Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs than in bookstores—and they are oriented toward white audiences. People of color, of varying sexual orientations, or espousing revolutionary ideas are de facto blocked and censored. Small presses always took chances. I was first published in small presses, such as Curbstone Press, but also in Tia Chucha Press that I created for voices like mine. Since my first book, Poems across the Pavement, came out 25 years ago, Tia Chucha Press has published around 60 other poets—including African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Japanese, Native Americans, Jamaican Americans, and others. We are now doing nonfiction books featuring art, photography, interviews, and essays. With the Internet, books can be published by anyone and are also accessible to greater numbers of people. Small presses can still lead the way, even online. We need to move forward incorporating the new technology, but also expanding on the voices, stories, and expressions.

Publishing today is in deep crisis. I’m not sure how it will survive the digital revolution. Perhaps there will come a time when everyone can have their own book. Everyone may end up having their stories, their thoughts, their hopes for others to access. For my part, I continue using Tia Chucha Press to present new and vibrant writers to the world.

JM: How do you believe an organization or institution can fully live up to a social justice mission?

LR: As mentioned above, there’s a thread I follow—the thread of social justice. I grew up in the tumultuous ‘60s when society thundered with cries for equality and fairness. Much of these efforts were attacked, undermined, and/or absorbed. But many changes did occur: civil rights laws for African Americans, Chicanos, Natives and Puerto Ricans; improved labor laws for the working class; a terribly destructive war stopped; greater women’s suffrage and gay consciousness. Nothing was given to any of us. There are people who died from that time. I think of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ruben Salazar, Medgar Evers, Harvey Milk. Also those unjustly imprisoned since then, such as Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez Rivera and Mumia Abdul-Jamal. This very government used its powers and our tax dollars to destroy legitimate movements. Then by the 1980s, as production shifted from industry to digital technology, guns, drugs and prisons overwhelmed the poorest communities. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or set up during this time. It has taken billions of dollars to keep people poor and disempowered. The struggle for real justice is not over. We must now align our governance, resources, and relationships toward cooperation, sustainability and equity for all. In 2011, I helped create the Network for Revolutionary Change to bring together thinkers, writers, leaders, organizers, and dreamers so that the illusions established by the capitalist social and economic order (of wages, of mortgages, of borders, of trumped up wars, of drug wars, etc.) can be replaced with essential common agreements. The main thrust of our efforts should be the healthy wellbeing of anyone is dependent on the healthy wellbeing of all.

We are living in a time of completion—not just plans and actions that are piecemeal, band-aid or inadequate. We have to finally go where all our aspirations and visions have been trying to take us. The power source of any social justice organization today is the very community that gave it birth. And in connecting to the revolutionary and inventive energy emerging from the crises and uncertainties. The answers are in the problems.

JM: Do you feel responsible to write about your community/ experiences–as most of your work reflects? Do you think a writer is at their best when they “write what they know?”

LR: My writing, like my life, is keenly conscious that I’m woven into the fabric of other lives, of families, communities, and nations. This connectiveness is why I deal with aspects beyond my own day-to-day dramas. Why my work is intertwined with the issues and concerns of others. There is an ancient Mayan concept called In Lak Ech. This means, “You are the other me.” While the powerful sense of being separate is real, it can also be a dangerous pull away from the greater good. Our culture is aimed in this direction—individuality at the expense of these connections. Organized responses are belittled and even infiltrated. The point is to be independent and interdependent. To find one’s own passions and purposes, and then link these to community, schools, institutions, spiritual practices, and other social entities so that our innate gifts are given meaning, responsibility and legacy.

As for writing from what I know, yes, my community is the main palette from where I get my words, stories, flavors, and images. But what I know is both experiential and imaginative. So re-configuring my world, the people, and lessons in stories are also primary to “writing from what I know.”

JM: Do you feel there is enough space given to minority voices in the publishing industry? Has this changed since you began writing?

LR: Books are geared to, as one publication once said, “white-haired ladies in Iowa.” This may be an exaggeration, but you get the point. Although most books are sold in multi-culturally rich cities like Los Angeles, New York City, or Chicago, they tend to still speak to a “middle America” that few can actually point to. In addition, education geared to literary production is much more pronounced in mostly white, upper class communities. Schools in relatively poor working class areas—be they white, black or brown—tend to push reading as a functional exercise: To read a bus schedule or the headlines and words of a newspaper or advertising on billboards. The “standards” that these schools must meet are 7th grade reading level, the exact level which reporters and advertisers are told to write to.

Literary reading is more complex and referential. When writers of color get better educated, they tend to do quite well—winners of major prizes and even high book sales. But they are few and far between. The big publishing world is still about the blockbuster book. And that’s usually not a powerful literary read. They are largely created for a “white” market, which nobody talks about because they use terms like “mainstream,” “middle America,” or “the average reader.” People of color are now more than 25 percent of the population. In books we are probably less than 1 percent. Again, when books are sold in general markets like Wal-Marts they are not including writers of color. My book, Always Running, is doing well in spite of this—in spite of having no more advertising dollars or reviews. It’s word of mouth in America’s inner cities that have contributed to the book’s sales. You’d think publishers would want to know more about this, but they continue to tout their own tired refrain—nobody reads in urban core communities. I helped establish a bookstore in a working class mostly Mexican/Central American community that a major bookstore chain said they wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. We took a risk and the bookstore has been around for 12 years and is growing. Again, regardless of stories like ours, the big publishers stay with the narrow and limited parameters. And everyone, including so-called “middle Americans,” is shortchanged.

Let’s have a spectrum of voices, stories, and truths. Literature and books would come alive instead of declining in this day and age. Same for other media—America is where the world meets. Let’s build on that.

JM: I have read that you are planning to run for Governor of California with the Green Party. What do you foresee for the future of California?

LR: California is a crucial state when it comes to the economy, politics and culture. It is the richest state in the union and the world’s eighth largest economy, surpassing Italy and the Russian Federation. It is not, as many people perceive, a totally progressive place. Several retroactive laws have been enacted here over the years, including three strikes and you’re out, anti-gay marriage, anti-bilingual education and against public services for the undocumented, the first national tax rebellion that cut millions out of poor and working class communities. The state is 49th in education funding and dead last in arts funding. Yet it’s number one in prison construction, holding the distinction of housing the world’s second largest prison system (after the U.S. federal prison system). Presently, Democrats dominate the California’s governorship as well as the legislature. But they are continuing devastating austerity cuts and budget crunching, detrimental to key services, programs and resources, especially for those least able to take part in the economy: The Democrats often out-Republican the Republicans.

I’m running for state governor in the June 2014 primary to bring a stronger voice for a clean and green environment; to reform the prison system and address the rehabilitative, restorative and transformative needs of the state’s prison and parolee population; to establish neighborhood arts policies where anyone can have access to books, arts, music, dance, theater, murals, festivals, and more; also to open up the democratic process so candidates are not beholden to corporations and big money as well as to open up the mass media and communities to new ideas and strategies. And I’m committed to ending poverty in California.

I’m seeking the nomination of the Green Party in their state convention later this year. Right now I’m running an independent campaign that should be broader and more encompassing than the Green Party, but should help the Green Party as well. I’d like to work with other progressive candidates like Cindy Sheehan of the Peace & Freedom Party. My aim is to get the issues out to all Californians and give them a wiser and clear choice for equitable and environmental changes.

Young people should be empowered to be creative and expressive. Give them the tools, and let them rebuild their own communities.

JM: In light of your political involvement, how would you describe the connection between literary arts and politics? How do they intersect in your life and your work?

LR: For the most part, the United States is one of the few countries of the world that tries to push out politics from the academy and from literature, from the mass media and book publishing. Writers are often admonished for delving into political themes and subjects. I see everything I do as political. In fact, politics are chemically bound in everyone’s household, work, and spiritual life. I do agree that skill in knowing how to write and be socially and politically active should always be a consideration. But we cannot really be removed from political matters any more than we can shed our skin.

Rap, for example, started out as an underground political expression, decrying injustices and a class society that used race to divide and conquer. But when commerce and big recording companies got involved, it became about sex, violence, wealth, and personal drama. This is also true for reality TV shows, sit-coms, and movies. Of course, there are exceptions. The point is trying to remove “politics” from popular art and expression is a political act in itself.

I’m upfront about my revolutionary politics, my native spiritual practices, but I am also rigorous about craft and the literary form. Always Running is a memoir of gang life, but it has literary and educational value while also bringing a political perspective to this issue of urban peace, healing, and a fully engaged autonomous life.

That’s a strong political stance. I’m convinced these issues are incompatible with the current political and economic system. That in trying to achieve these, many structural changes will be required. That’s revolutionary.

I’m not advocating for violence or destructive acts. But I know a truly just and equitable world cannot exist within the clutches of the global capitalist reality, which is tied to one primary law: the maximizing of profits. In the fight for change, for clean and green jobs, for ending poverty, for providing resources to everyone so they can thrive, not just survive, we end up strategizing on how to build a new economic/political reality that can hold and sustain the full and adequate development of all.

Poems, art, songs, dance, stories, and more are not enough to get us there, but they can help point the way.

JM: How can we continue to encourage youth, as you do with your work, to support creative expression and community building?

LR: We need cultural storefronts, public arts projects, festivals and block parties, cruising sites, musical events, workshops in all the arts, and independent bookstores everywhere. I call this a neighborhood arts policy. Presently in Los Angeles, the arts are relegated to museum row, in tourist areas, in and around downtown—places like Hollywood, Live L.A., Disneyland, and the beaches. We need to break the concentration of the arts in well-off communities. The city is known as the creative and entertainment capital of the world, yet for miles on end there are vast sections of South Los Angeles, the Harbor, the San Fernando Valley, East L.A. and parts of the Westside where no cultural spaces, art galleries, bookstores, or even movie houses exist.

In L.A., the hotel tourist occupancy tax only gives one percent to the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which I understand they have to match on their own accord. There are only $26 million for gang intervention and youth development programs. Yet more than a billion dollars goes to the Los Angeles Police Department. The social energy is being directed toward more incarceration of the poor and working class members of the city. Even schools, which once looked like factories when L.A. had more manufacturing than any other city in the country, now look like prisons (some have metal detectors, police sub-stations, and use terms like “lock down”). Zero tolerance policies have pervaded schools and neighborhoods. Some 40 anti-gang injunctions, where communities are “arrested,” not just persons, now impact around 70 communities. All of these are geared against our youth, and to be clear, our black and brown youth (there are no anti-gang injunctions in white or Asian neighborhoods).

City development today is really about one thing: gentrification. People with money, mostly white, are now re-conquering the urban core. Poor people are forcibly being squeezed out. Laws, police, and developers are in collusion with this process. I say keep our communities intact. Provide educational and job opportunities and allow our youth, our mothers, our fathers, our community members to re-imagine and remake their own neighborhoods. The arts are key to all of this.

Young people should be empowered to be creative and expressive. Give them the tools, and let them rebuild their own communities. Give them training, mentoring, paintbrushes, sports, intellectual development, and see how a city can get re-seeded and blossom. I’ve taken this message to stark and violent places all over the United States but also to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (most recently called the murder capital of the world), El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, England, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, and Sarajevo.

The arts work. They save lives. It’s proven over and over again (how more evidence-based can this be). Yet the arts are constantly on the chopping block.

Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore, Tia Chucha Press, Young Warriors, Celebrating Words Festivals, my own books… I’m constantly creating (with others, of course) institutions and examples that prove this point over and over again. I won’t stop. It’s time for the rest of the world to align to this truth, to a new imagination. Why not make government an art project, with everyone contributing from their own gifts, passions, dreams, and capacities. That’s a world I want to live in. A world most people need. A world worth fighting for.

Jamie Moore received her MFA in fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her fiction can be found in Blackberry: A Magazine, Emerge Literary Journal, and Moonshot Magazine. Jamie writes about multicultural literature on her blog, Mixed Reader. Her debut novella, Our Small Faces, was published by ELJ Publications.

Dan Smetanka, Editor

Dan Smetanka has worked in publishing for two decades, as an Executive Editor at Ballantine/Random House, and at Maria B. Campbell Associates, an agency that facilitates placement of American authors in international markets. He is currently an Executive Editor for Counterpoint and Soft Skull Press where his recent projects include Rockaway by Tara Ison, All the Dead Yale Men by Craig Nova, Rake by Scott Phillips, and The Last Animal by Abby Geni.

Dan Smetanka

Photo: Aydin Bengisu

Smetanka lectured at Antioch University, Los Angeles in June on the business of publishing, and shared the fruits of his experience as an editor with MFA students looking to break into the sometimes-confusing world of publishing.

Lunch Ticket editor-in-chief Lise Quintana spoke to Smetanka by phone recently about his views on the current state of the publishing industry.

Lise Quintana: How long have you been an editor? To someone new to the publishing industry, how would you describe your role?

Dan Smetanka: I’ve been in publishing since the early 90s. Back then, as a California native, one didn’t have much choice. You kind of had to go where the work was, which of course was New York City. After a summer internship with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I came back to Los Angeles and finished up my last year at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) and then made the plunge and moved to New York, where I was for about 13 years, most of that time as an executive editor at Random House, which is one of the largest book publishers now in the world, with all the mergers.

The job of an editor, simply put, is to find books that we want to publish, and then to support and help the writer through the editorial process, to make the text as strong and good as we possibly can. Then we are their guides through the publication process, which entails everything from the production of galleys through copyediting, through the book jacket through design, and then anything that happens to the book once it’s on sale.

The job of an editor, simply put, is to find books that we want to publish, and then to support and help the writer through the editorial process, to make the text as strong and good as we possibly can. Then we are their guides through the publication process, which entails everything from the production of galleys through copyediting, through the book jacket through design, and then anything that happens to the book once it’s on sale.

LQ: How much is your individual opinion responsible for getting a book into the publishing pipeline, and how much of it is the judgment of a committee/group at the publisher?

DS: It’s different at every publisher. At a very large corporate house, there are a lot of approvals you need to get in order to move forward with a book, and those decrease a little as you get to a smaller house. In the best scenarios, you’ll find houses that are really guided by the tastes and the expertise of the individual editors who make up that house. Historically, that was always true in New York. I don’t think it’s so true there anymore, but if you go to some of the smaller houses – Norton, Grove Atlantic, Counterpoint, and then some of the even smaller ones – Milkweed, Akashic, Two Dollar Radio – you’ll find that the lists are very much guided by the tastes of the people who are there.

LQ: You moved from Random House to Counterpoint.

DS: I left New York in 2005 and had some other positions before I joined Counterpoint about three and a half years ago. I felt in sync with what they were doing. They are one of the largest independent presses in the country, but they are also located on the West Coast. So that was, of the many changes that have happened in the American publishing scene, very interesting to me – that an independent on the West Coast could thrive and maintain a national profile in terms of the kind of writers they were working with, in terms of review attention, and of their outreach into the author community

LQ: When editors change houses, is that more about the house looking for a skill set or contacts that the editor has, or are both looking for an editor/house that represents a body of work with which each can relate or feels well versed in, so it’s a good match?

DS: I would say all of the above. The reasons for leaving a house can be many, and the reasons for joining a house, similarly, can be many. As an editor, you want to align your individual tastes and whatever you feel is your mission with the house you’re joining. If what you want to do isn’t the same as what the house wants to do, you’re probably not going to have a really good time there. An editor with really commercial sensibilities who wants to do big, commercial fiction and nonfiction, you don’t see a lot of those kinds of editors at the smaller, more independent houses. The smaller indie houses tend to be author-driven, tend to be focused on the makeup of an author, their language or their style, their intent, what they want to do, as opposed to at the large corporate houses, where it can sometimes become more of a numbers game.

LQ: Are there any houses that were started by editors or agents who said “Look, I’m not seeing the thing that I like to read represented in the marketplace, and I feel like I should make a place for that”?

DS: I don’t know if they started them, but I think you definitely see a split right now where you have the big houses getting bigger – because of this marketplace and because of some of the retailers they have to contend with, and some of the terms of business they have to contend with – and the small are getting a bit more savvy and a little bit bigger. And what I mean by that is that you have some really great independents that are filling the gap in terms of their literary presence and their ability to get their books into many different places. That wasn’t always true in the past. The biggest challenge for independent presses in the past was how they were going to get on the same stage with the big houses. They’re really good at doing that now, so you’ll find [Counterpoint’s] books, as well as the books of other independents, at stores all across the country. Of course, the technology and the digital revolution have completely leveled the playing field because our books can be on all of the online bookstores just as easily as the big houses’. And then you see the exodus of writers who did not have a great experience or were no longer wanted and desired by the large houses, you see them coming to [independent publishers] in droves. Many of my authors from Random House have joined me at Counterpoint because they like that experience of being at a smaller, boutique house where they know the people that are working on their books and they have access to the people who are working with them.

LQ: You’ve mentioned that about 350,000 books are published each year, and another 350,000 are self-published. Of the first 350,000, how many of those are published by the Big Five versus published by indie publishers?

DS: Those are estimates, but I don’t really know. I doubt anyone has counted them. The big houses are the big houses because they’re the lion’s share of the market. But new publishers are popping up every day, and I’m probably not aware of all of them. At a place like Counterpoint, which is one of the largest independents, we’re doing about twenty-five original books per list, so that’s anywhere from 70 to 80 originals a year, which is a lot. Multiply that out.

The self-published figures came from Bowker, the company that gives you the ISBN numbers. There are probably a lot of self-published authors who don’t go through that process and don’t worry about getting an ISBN number, so that number is probably even greater than we think.

LQ: But without an ISBN number, distribution becomes a little bit tougher.

DS: A little bit tougher, yeah.

LQ: You’ve worked in and around the publishing industry for quite a while. What would you say is the single biggest change e-books have made to the industry?

DS: Power to the people. Absolutely. Ease of distribution and access would be a very close second, but there is no longer an island of people dictating what is published in America today. And that’s what it’s been in the past, right? You had to go to New York, you had to have some sort of entree in, you had to know somebody who knew somebody, you needed some sort of access to that very concentrated hold that scene had on what was published in America, and that isn’t true anymore. The digital revolution, all of this decentralization of American publishing has meant that many, many more people have access to it, whether that’s through technology or a stronger regional publishing scene in many places around the country, it’s decentralized, and by that definition, more people have access to it.

LQ: Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?

DS: It’s probably both. There are really good parts to it and there are probably some more challenging parts to it. One of the more challenging parts is that the field is now really crowded. I can make a traffic analogy, since we’re both in California. Using those rough estimates of 350,000 books published a year is a lot to contend with. Double that, that’s really a lot to contend with. So what do these retailers do, what do the brick-and-mortar stores do, what do the reviewers do? That’s a huge issue for them, because if review space is shrinking, we’re losing a lot of our review spaces in newspapers and other places around the country, where do you go to hear about these books? And where can these books go to get some attention? I think that’s the single biggest issue that everybody contends with.

LQ: Right. You’ve said that “self publishing makes traditional publishing more difficult.” Is that part of it?

DS: That is absolutely part of it. But take away the “I’m a publisher in America” lament and just look at the concept of intellectual property. If I’m a writer and I’ve had some success and I’ve been traditionally published by large houses and I’m trying to sell my books and I’m trying to make a living, and there’s an influx of people with no real knowledge of the market and no publishing history and they’re putting their stuff out online for free or for a very low price, which may be a great marketing strategy for them, but at some point, we have to contend with the idea of the price of intellectual property. Why do we pay 99¢ for a song? It’s because Apple told us to. And then they told us that we had to pay $1.29. We were somewhat trained to do so. At some point, it’s the leaders in the field training the consumers for what they pay. If e-books now, thanks to the Department of Justice, are going to cost a certain amount, what does that mean for all of the other people just giving it away for free or for 99¢, or for $1.99, or for $2.99? At some point, all of this will have an impact for every writer in America.

The goal isn’t just to be published; the goal is to be published well, with terms and in a situation where you’re comfortable.

LQ: But don’t you think that those people who are selling their own e-books, giving them away for free, selling them for practically nothing, are kind of doing themselves a disservice?

DS: I don’t know. If that’s the way they get their foot in the door. Some people just have to take the long view. If I’m a writer and I don’t know what to do and I’m just selling my stuff for 99¢, and that works for the first couple books and I have a following of 30-, 40-, 50,000 people and a publisher notices that and gives me a traditional deal for a million dollars, then no, it didn’t hurt me. There are so many different experiences a writer can have, that it gets hard to make any kind of proclamation. That’s what it means to be decentralized. We’re all living in the Wild West right now because of all these changes and all these different ways to go. In the past, there was a path to publication. I don’t think that’s necessarily true anymore. I think there are five or ten or twenty paths now. It just depends on what you want. I stressed that point in my talk at Antioch. The goal isn’t just to be published; the goal is to be published well, with terms and in a situation where you’re comfortable. If I’m writing really cool zombie books and I want to get a really fast mass following, the self-published model might speak to me. But if I’m a literary writer with an MFA and good relationships and a beautiful piece of work and I want to be taken very seriously by the best reviewers in the land, I don’t know if the self-publishing model is going to help me. You need the curation and you need the support and the relationships and the legitimacy of a traditional publisher behind you.

LQ: Should a writer have an agent before submitting to a publisher? What does an agent provide you, the editor?

DS: Yes, yes, capital Y Yes! Especially for fiction. There are some publishers, probably very small publishers, who will still read what we call “unsolicited” material – material that is not agented – but to get to any of the big houses, to get to any of the bigger independents in this country, you still need a literary agent. There’s just too much material, and there’s no way that any kind of house can get through that if it was unagented. From a business point of view, you want an agent involved. You want them to negotiate your deal, you want them to deal with the contracts, you just want that service, so you don’t have to deal with it as a writer. It’s kind of like real estate. Whenever you see a sign that says “For Sale By Owner,” you think “Oh no. I wonder why.” Can you sell your own house? Sure you can. Absolutely. Do you want to do that? I don’t know – it’s probably easier to have an agent to handle all that for you. That’s what we counsel writers. Again, every single publisher has a website and they all have submission guidelines on their websites. Any writer looking to submit directly should check the submission guidelines. At Counterpoint, we cannot. We simply cannot, for fiction, take unsolicited material because we are getting a couple thousand fiction submissions a year that are agented and we try to read everything that comes in. We need agents involved to help with the curation and submission process.

LQ: So that’s what agents provide for you—that curation?

DS: Yes. And it’s also a partner in crime. The best thing an agent does is to be a matchmaker. It was true when I was in New York and it’s true today. An agent’s job is to guide the writer, to be the matchmaker, to say “I love your book and I love your style and I know five editors who also love this kind of style of writing, so I’m going to send it to them.”

An agent will also help protect your interests, defend your intellectual property and help guide you through the process too. Publishers both big and small are very busy. Having an agent there to help the process along is a really good thing.

LQ: It used to be that a writer would find an agent, hook up with a publisher and the three would co-exist in harmony until somebody died, but it seems now that publishing houses don’t have the same loyalty to their writers that they used to. I know writers who have an agent, they’re producing work, but every book is put out by a different publisher. Is that normal now?

DS: Maybe it’s the new normal. Again, there are so many different kinds of experiences; I don’t think we can make big, broad statements. Of course publishers are loyal to their authors, of course editors are loyal to their authors. If that wasn’t your first impetus, you probably wouldn’t be an editor. Yet, things happen. The makeup of houses change, what they can and can’t publish changes, so that’s probably where you see the movement. It’s difficult for writers today because at some of the larger houses it can be a numbers game, and what I mean by that is that if you’re a writer and you have a first book and it does okay, and you have a second book and it doesn’t do so great, it’s going to be really hard to make a case for why a publisher should continue with your third book. Of course numbers are important, they’re always going to be important. This is a for-profit venture, we’re all trying to run a business and keep everybody happy. At some point, you do have to have that numbers conversation. I wouldn’t say it’s a mark of disloyalty or some kind of mustache-twisting evil; it’s just that it becomes a complicated scenario. Any author who has a contract is the luckiest author in the world, and any author who has a good relationship with their editor and their agent and sees their book published well is the luckiest person in the world, because that doesn’t always happen.

LQ: You don’t even have a mustache.

DS: Not today, no.

LQ: Let’s talk for a minute about finding an agent. Every writer has been told to find an agent or a publisher by finding work that is like their own, but what does that mean? “Like” in terms of subject matter? Genre? Style? Voice?

DS: All of the above. Yes, it’s harder and yes, it’s complicated and crowded, but writers today, this generation of writers today has more information at their fingertips than any generation of writers that ever existed. Flannery O’Connor and all of those people, they couldn’t go online and Google and find access to agents and publishers. A big part of that is just the prospective writer being smart and savvy and doing their homework. I find prospective writers today don’t do that, and you need to. If my desire is to publish a collection of short stories, I need to know what are the five most successful collections from last year. You don’t need to go out and buy them, but you can go to your library or go online and read a little bit about them and read the actual stories and you can see what publishers were publishing. Who’s had success with that particular genre. All the publishers are there, available, because you can see who’s publishing the book; look in the acknowledgement sections of these books because very often the editor and the agent are thanked. That’s how you begin figuring out where you, the prospective writer, are going to fit on the bookshelf.

LQ: What do you do if the person that you most write like is either dead or publishing in another country?

DS: You should find better touchstones closer to home. If you think “most writers have never written anything like me,” that’s probably not true, sorry to say. Put your feet on the ground and do some really cold, hard searching, because you need some business savvy. The days when a writer could just lay on the fainting couch and work on their beautiful prose are long gone. Sorry, but they are. Get some real-world knowledge under your belt, because you’re going to need it if you want to publish your work.

LQ: When I interviewed Peter Riva, he said that there are no more editors like Bob Loomis (late of Random House). How has the role of editor changed since the heyday of big-house publishing?

DS: See the comment I just made about the fainting couch. Back in the day, you would find your editor, you perhaps might be in the middle of Central Park, clutching your beautiful pages in your ink-stained hands and an editor would appear in a handsome suit with an ascot and they would recognize your genius and they would whisk you away and take care of you and plan your career and you would be published by them forever. There was a great bit about that in a recent review of Boris Kachka’s book Hothouse, about Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where back in the day, Roger Straus and his minions would look after Susan Sontag’s apartment and they would pay her rent while she was out of the country and that kind of stuff, which is a little bit egregious. I don’t think that happens at any company in any industry anymore. Pensions are shrinking or falling by the wayside and you just don’t see that in American business anymore.

The role of the editor has expanded because the market is more complicated. There are more things pressing on us, there are more things we need to get done, there are more stresses on our time than ever before. All of that changes the role of the editor. My job is not only pen and paper, working on the author’s text. Of course that’s important, but there are other things we have to get done now to bring a book to the marketplace, in order for me to protect my author and protect our interests and do the best job publishing the work that we possibly can. So a lot of the complaints that “editors don’t edit anymore” come from that fact. I get nervous when people say that because your first impetus, why you got into it in the first place, is because you wanted to work with writers and you wanted to work on the prose and the style and all of that. And again, every experience can be so different. I can say that independent presses like Counterpoint pride themselves on the fact that authors still get that kind of old-school editorial experience – that’s why authors come to us. They don’t come to us because they want a huge advance so they can buy Porsches. Now, there are many wonderful editors at really big houses who still do that too, you just have to luck into finding them, and that’s what a good agent will do. If you’re the kind of writer who really, really wants that, then an agent is going to try to find that kind of editor for you.

LQ: A more handholding editor.

DS: Yes. A more hands-on, a more old-fashioned editor.

LQ: You talked about all of the other things that editors are doing now that they didn’t used to do. What should writers be doing right now, before their book is even finished, to give themselves a better chance of success?

DS: Learn about the marketplace. This is not a difficult thing to do. There is so much information online. There are free newsletters given by Publisher’s Weekly, which is the industry magazine; and Publisher’s Marketplace, that’ll send you Publisher’s Lunch; GalleyCat is a blog run by MediaBistro. All of these have free daily newsletters. They’ll send them to you; they’ll be waiting for you in your inbox. And you can just read something, because we’re all reading online now anyway, while you’re at lunch or on hold with a phone call, rather than read about celebrities or Miley Cyrus’s performance at the Video Music Awards. You should be reading about this.

LQ: What should we be reading for? What are we looking for in this?

DS: You’re reading about the business. What are publishers doing? What are the major online retailers doing? What does the Department of Justice ruling mean to your royalties. Just learning and, through osmosis, familiarizing yourself with the structure of the business. Then you start to read things like “Little, Brown just bought this.” “Harper Collins is doing this.” “There’s a new imprint here.” Just kind of general-knowledge learning. Don’t stress yourself out. Just read it as if you were reading about another planet that was just discovered–just begin there. There is no successful writer that is not also a successful reader. You need to read everything you can get your hands on. You don’t need to bankrupt yourself by buying books (although that would be a fine thing to do), read it online, check it out from the library–you need to know. So many times I go and visit MFA programs or I give talks where, inevitably, someone will stand up and say, “I’ve got a first novel. Do people care about first novels anymore?” And I’ll say, “Of course they do. Can you name me five successful first novels that were published last year?” “No, I can’t.” And that always dumbfounds me because if you want to participate in this business, how come you’re not reading about people who have succeeded at what you want to do? You absolutely should be doing that. You need to educate yourself. There’s so much to learn from people who have successfully walked the path that you want to walk. That’s where the successful reader comes in.

You need to educate yourself. There’s so much to learn from people who have successfully walked the path that you want to walk. That’s where the successful reader comes in.

LQ: In addition to not doing basic market research, what other mistakes do you see writers making over and over?

DS: Going to the wrong people for help, which ties into not doing your homework. Time and time again, I will get queries from writers directly trying to get me interested in their fiction. It very clearly states on our website “We do not take unsolicited material for fiction.” They’ve wasted their time in writing to me, because I can’t help them. The company guidelines won’t let me help them. And I find that time and time again, new writers are going to people expecting help, and the person they’re trying to get to can’t help them. Similarly, when they query agents. If I’m writing a romance novel, I need to go to agents who represent romance novels and who have had success in that field. A constant complaint I hear from agents is “Why are they querying me for this? I don’t represent this kind of book.” Again, all the agencies have websites, and all agents on those websites put up submission guidelines for what they represent, and, more importantly, what they don’t represent. If I’m writing a cookbook, I’m not going to query agents who’ve never sold a cookbook before. That’s where so much of this traffic comes in. There are so many people doing that, and doing it wrong, and it just makes everything more crowded.

LQ: How important is it for a writer to be able to nail down what genre they’re writing in, because fiction is broad, and usually you want to narrow it down a little more. How narrow do you have to get that, or is the pitch about the story itself more important?

DS: I think they’re both important. It’s not like you need to become king of market research for publishing in order to start querying agents. But you need to have some sense of where you’re going to fit in on the bookshelf. Of course there are crossovers and of course there are breakouts, and a good agent and a good publisher will help you throughout the process refine your pitch, but you need to have a very basic awareness of that. If you’re writing a thriller about the FBI, you don’t need to go to the agent who just got three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize who are working with super literary material. You want to go to that great agent who just sold three FBI thrillers. This particularly becomes important with certain genres–mysteries or fantasy or sci-fi or romance or erotica. Agents are very clear about what kind of genres they will represent and what they won’t represent. By getting these agent names in books that are similar to yours, by doing some online research and going to these agent websites and reading their submission guidelines and seeing their client lists, you will start to get a sense of that. Say that, for example, Wild by Cheryl Strayed is your favorite book and you went on a solo canoe ride for three weeks and you want to write about it and what you learned from that experience. You go to Wild, you look in the acknowledgements, you see Cheryl’s agent is Jane, you go to Jane’s website and you see that she’s accepting submissions. There–you have a name. So then you send Jane a query. “Dear Jane, I’m a huge fan of Wild, the book really spoke to me. I’m working on a similar book.” That kind of tailored query means a lot more to her than if you said “Dear agent, I have a nonfiction book. Can you look at it?” No agent’s going to respond to that. Taking the time to tailor your query will set yours apart from the rest, and that’s what you want.

LQ: Do you have any parting words of wisdom?

DS: In the immortal words of Captain Peter Quincy Taggart: Never give up, never surrender.

2012-02-19 20.06.21Lise Quintana is Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket. She’s a current MFA student at Antioch University, LA, and her fiction has appeared in The Weekenders, Children, Churches & Daddies, and Willow Review. She is currently seeking representation for her first novel, so that she can have that person send it to Dan, which she obviously can’t do herself.