Elise Capron, Literary Agent

Elise CapronElise Capron is a literary agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Agency in San Diego since 2003. She represents many talented authors including Maureen McHugh, Jonathon Keats, and National Book Award Longlist, Cynthia Barnett.

This interview took place on July 31, 2015 via Skype.

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“Did you want video? You’re only coming through as a call.” Elise Capron’s voice is talking to me from my computer.

I’m frantically trying to sort out the recording device on my phone, which I “tested” for three solid minutes before realizing it wasn’t on. “Can you see me now? I can see a picture of you and your dog.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve Skyped—it’s the second. Amateur that I am, I thought I had to be friends with someone for the call to work. We’re ten minutes late for our meeting because I was waiting for her to approve my friend request instead of just dialing the number. Not the smoothest of starts, but Capron is gracious and understanding. Traits I suspect run deep. When the video starts working, I take in the office surroundings, lots of books (of course) and even a few movie posters. I remembered when I heard her speak earlier this year she said her agency has worked with many Asian-American authors, such as Amy Tan and Lisa See. Impressive stuff.

I originally saw Capron in the hallway at Antioch University as she was waiting to give a Writers-At-Work seminar during my last residency. First impression: killer style. She had a badass platinum blonde pixie haircut, radical glasses, and rocked a gorgeous dress. Second impression: even over Skype, she commands a presence but not in a way that would overwhelm or upset. She looks like the kind of woman who could charge into an office and demand an explanation for a book jacket mishap or an ignored comma splice, and then tell you all about her favorite café or secret hiking spots. In short, with over a decade at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency in San Diego, Capron’s exactly who you want representing your book. With her knowledge of comma splices—she wouldn’t be uncomfortable with a red pen and a bleak essay—before there were plans of a career in publishing, she was looking to go into academia.

“I was exploring during college. I was in a great undergrad program at Emerson College that incorporated publishing classes, which schools are doing a little bit more now, but when I was in college, it was a rarity . . . So, I was doing internships during my summers. I interned at the Dijkstra Agency . . . I was struggling with deciding whether to pursue a master’s and go on to teach. Instead, I decided to jump at a job opportunity. I had to see what being an agent was really about. That was almost twelve years ago.”

What do writers do? They write! They don’t get stuck on their one life’s work and forget about everything else. When you’re going through the submission process to agents, go work on a different project. Don’t think about the book you have on submission. Keep doing good work and let the submission process go through what it needs to go through.

For people looking to get into the field, Capron acknowledges that she knows only one agent who actually sought out a degree in publishing. And while courses can be good for getting a foundation in the field, she admits, “One of the biggest benefits of going through a formal publishing program are the connections you make. You get a little groundwork on the business, but it’s hard to know what it is really like until you are working in publishing. So at a lot of those publishing programs, especially in New York, they’re bringing in editors, they’re talking, and it’s those connections you’re making that will probably lead to something down the road . . . For this same reason, if you don’t go through a publishing program, the best thing someone who wants to work in publishing can do is to get an internship.” Internships like the two Capron did with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

SDLA is a mid-sized agency. There are about eight people on staff, which is large for a boutique agency but nothing like the few giants. Capron feels this is one of their biggest strengths. Like many small offices, there’s a built-in support network that fosters an invaluable give and take. “Creative problem solving is one of the biggest parts of my job. And the rules in publishing—the way we get to the finished product—are flexible. Every day is different. We have the chance to be creative and, to an extent, invent the process as we go along strategizing for each book. This is a job where you can make it what you want it to be. You have a lot of independence. And we work with projects we really love. How many jobs can you really say that about?”

Capron is vibrant when she delves into every little thing she adores about being an agent. Whether she fell into it or not, authors worldwide would be lucky to have an agent with a fraction of her enthusiasm and joy. “It’s so rewarding to be part of the process of a book ending up in the world. It’s very special.”

At this point of the conversation, being an agent sounds like the only path to happiness. But she confesses that sometimes projects don’t go the way everyone hopes. “Because there are no real rules in terms of what is going to make a book successful, you never know. Sometimes you think you have a sure thing, you know, this book’s going to be easy to sell and will really work in the market, and then it ends up being a struggle. Other times a project you love but imagined might be a small sale can end up surprising and everyone is happy. We’re taking risks on anything we represent. When, very occasionally, a project just truly doesn’t work out, it’s hard on everybody. It can really be a downer.”

Because Capron isn’t working in more commercial, market-driven genres like YA, she doesn’t tend to focus entirely on trends. “I rarely look at a project and say ‘That’s going to be a bestseller!’ I’m thinking more in terms of growing careers.” Capron looks for what the market is missing, not how it’s flush, and goes from there. “I look to build a brand. I like to find clients who are at that beginning stage and I see a lot of potential in the long run. I want to build them over several books.” Good news for all the budding, not-yet-published authors here.

Of course, it’s important to be prepared. No matter how much Capron can offer, it’s irrelevant if an author doesn’t do their homework. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. When you’re “submitting to agents who are clearly not right for you . . . you’re going to get a rejection. Take the extra time to do the research. It will save you a lot of effort, time, and potential heartbreak in the long run. And make sure to not only submit to agents who handle your genre, but take that extra step and target agents who you think will truly be a good fit.”

Then, of course, there is the actual writing—the meat of an author’s existence. “Don’t send out the material or the query letter before they’re ready. That can kill your submission. So can submitting an unprofessional letter.”

Even after endless hours of homework and research, there are still so many agencies and so many places to send work. There’s a pro and con to each type of agency and Capron is a big believer in the benefit of the smaller approach. “We’re in the age of boutique agencies and that is where most writers will end up though there are advantages to working with a large agency. They have entire departments dedicated to sub-rights [subsidiary rights] and contracts, and significant clout when it comes to important, bigger-picture industry issues like e-royalties. You’re also on a much bigger list of titles and authors. Does that mean you’re going to be neglected? No, certainly not, but being at a large agency, you’re a small fish in a big pond. At a boutique agency, we’re keeping a smaller list of books, a smaller list of active clients at a time. You really have the one-on-one direct connection all the time with your agent. [Djikstra Agency] is the perfect size, in my opinion, because we actually have an in-house contract manager, finance manager, and sub-rights manager (many boutique agencies do not have separate in-house people for those functions) while also getting the one-on-one personalized relationship. You’re going to get a little more care on that small list.”

Capron is so casual and friendly while disseminating all this brilliant information that I’m distracted. There’s so much to learn, but mostly I’m wondering if maybe she will accept my Skype contact request so she can be my first Skype friend. Maybe we could Skype all the time. I would do my best not to be that obnoxious friend of the please-help-me-get-published variety. She’s just so enormously charismatic that even when we’re not talking shop I’m enthralled.

“Oh FitBit! I’m obsessed with mine. I’m actually sad I don’t have it on right now.” She gesticulates toward my wrist where my hideous green band is. A gift from my mother that was less in the vein of generosity and more of a last ditch effort to get me to lose weight. But if Elise Capron—my soon to be best Skype contact—likes it, maybe I’m not giving it my all. She slips seamlessly back into our conversation.

“In terms of finding an agent, one of the most important things is making sure that that agent’s been around long enough and isn’t just testing the waters. They’re establishing a real career.” That’s not to say that newer agents should be avoided. In fact, Capron seems to think that can be one of the best bets for an author. “I often get the question of whether a writer should target brand new agents. It can be a great thing! They’re jazzed. Maybe they’ve made their first couple of sales and are actively building their list of clients. They’re going to give you a lot of attention and a lot of their time because they want to help you launch your career. That agent is going to give you her heart and soul. If you’re that agent’s very first client, I know it can feel like a risk, but we all have to have our first client at some point. More importantly, it comes down to getting a sense that an agent is engaged with what’s going on, has a decent internet presence and that you feel confident that she is establishing herself in whatever genre she’s working in.”

Once you’ve done your homework, decided on the type of agency, written and rewritten your manuscript, it’s time to query. Capron has been clear that it’s much easier to avoid the slush pile if you’re using the network you’ve created. In her seminar at the Antioch residency, she recommended getting an author who knows your work to write a blurb for you to lead off your query letter. And as unpopular as name-dropping can make you at a cocktail party, it’s one of the best things you can do for your writing career. “It would be pretty hard to over name-drop in a query letter because that’s where you want to be doing everything you can to sell yourself. That said, don’t name-drop just for the sake of it, because that isn’t productive. I want to know who’s a realist for you, who you can actually reach out to.”

And if you don’t have any working authors who can lend you that valuable blurb, don’t fear. “A strong, professional query letter stands out. After that it becomes, in great part, persona. Do I click with the idea or not? This is why it’s so important to be able to describe your book clearly and concisely in just a few sentences. I want to understand your pitch from the get-go.”

As pleasant and enjoyable as Capron is, finding an agent and getting published can still feel hopeless. But she insists we should press on. “I’m a very optimistic person. We’re in an exciting time in publishing where there are more opportunities and venues and outlets for everybody. There’s a place for every type of writer. There are more agents and publishers than ever. It’s so easy to fall into this feeling of rejection, rejection, rejection. It’s a hard road. It takes a lot of perseverance and belief in your work. Also, it takes knowing when it’s time to put that project in a drawer for a little while and focus on something else. The worst thing that can happen is letting yourself get so bogged down in a project that you spend three years querying and feeling depressed instead of focusing on forward momentum and continuing to produce. What do writers do? They write! They don’t get stuck on their one life’s work and forget about everything else. When you’re going through the submission process to agents, go work on a different project. Don’t think about the book you have on submission. Keep doing good work and let the submission process go through what it needs to go through.”

Sager words have rarely been spoken. We’ve been talking for a while now and I know the conversation is winding down. She has a dog to walk, I have a cat lovingly terrorizing my foot, but she leaves with some final insights. Probably the hardest words to hear for any writer used to toiling away alone in front of a blinking cursor: “Be social. Keep yourself out there and engaged in the community. You never know what it will lead to.”

And she totally accepted my Skype contact request.

Tai FarnsworthTai Farnsworth is an LA-based writer. Her short story about desire, “The Girl You Love”, can be found in Issue #15 of The Quotable. When she’s not working on her manuscript she is often cooking up and photographing tasty food. She lives with her upsettingly talented partner, her embarrassing cat, and far too many mason jars.

Lynell George, Journalist and Essayist

Lynell George

Lynell George is an LA-based, journalist, and essayist. Currently an arts and culture columnist for KCET’s Artbound, she has had a long career in Los Angeles journalism as staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly–focusing on social issues, human behavior, and identity politics as well as visual arts, music, and literature. She has taught journalism at Loyola Marymount University and is also a Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities Fellow and an USC Annenberg / Getty Arts Journalism Fellow (2013). Her work has appeared in various essay collections, including The Black Body, Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, and the recently released LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, and in news outlets including The Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Essence, The Root, Ms., and many more. She is also the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday), a collection of features and essays drawn from her reporting.

Rochelle Newman interviewed Lynell George on July 24, 2015 in Los Angeles.

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When Lynell George suggests we meet at Los Angeles restaurant Post & Beam, I flash on a story she shared during her workshop, The Art of The Reported Essay. The workshop was held at my Antioch University MFA residency this past June.

“Be open to the serendipity of your reporting,” she’d said, reflecting on how an interview she’d once scheduled with a musician almost ended before it began. George had flown to New Orleans expecting to conduct the interview at the musician’s home studio. With less than seventy-two hours on the ground, time was of the essence. “I get there and there’s a text: ‘Welcome to New Orleans. I’ll meet you at this café at 11 a.m’. And I’m like — Whaat?!! I flew all this way to meet at a café? But I didn’t push it,” George explained. “I went and, as it turns out, it was the place he lived when he first got to New Orleans.”

The café was exactly where she needed to be. Where it all began.

I know Post & Beam isn’t just any restaurant. Almost a year to the date of our lunch, KCET’s hyperlocal website, Departures, published George’s essay, “A Seat at the Table: Post & Beam in Crenshaw Builds Community One Course at a Time.” Meeting here places us in the community where George spent much of her childhood, where it all began.

In her essay, George calls Post & Beam “a space [that] serves as a touchstone for Angelenos who have grown up in one of these contiguous neighborhoods,” (referring to the Crenshaw-Leimert-Baldwin Hills hub), “and may want to travel back, to not just a physical place, but to a time.”

When we sit down at the restaurant, I ask Lynell to do a little time travelling and think back to her earliest memories of wanting to be a writer. How had her community influenced her?

It did. I think I didn’t realize it until I got a little older . . . I was always a reader, and I think part of the need to write came from wanting to write stories about what I saw.

As she speaks, George looks out toward the surrounding streets. It’s almost noon on a Friday in late July. We are sitting on the restaurant patio, enclosed by thick shrubs and sleek wood walls. With its herb garden and homey furnishings, the space feels more like the private backyard of a family friend than outdoor seating adjacent to a major “inner-city” shopping mall. Although our view is blocked, George draws pictures with words, and soon it’s as if there is a window looking out onto the neighborhood.

She points to the medical building across the street where her pediatrician, Dr. Littlejohn, once had his office. She remembers family trips to a nearby shopping center, which, she says, is now a ghost town. There were visits to nearby Leimert Park, a historic African American arts and cultural enclave. Her godmother lived there, as did some of her mother’s closest friends.

The library I grew up going to is on West Boulevard, not too far from here. This was an area we circled, and we were a part of a lot. Just like this restaurant, where I run into people from different parts of my life.

George’s focus moves inside. It’s early so we have the patio to ourselves. As she scans the space, I get the sense that many of the tables hold memories.

When I was starting out as a kid, [my writing] really had to do with sketching a place and time and mood that corresponded to what I was experiencing. Then, definitely, as a journalist that’s what I wanted to write about . . . I realized that these stories were not the stories you were seeing on television, in the news, or in the newspaper. There would be some features that dealt with African Americans in Los Angeles, but a lot of the stuff was sports page or the news section and it was always crime or some sort of pathology . . . I thought this is ridiculous. There shouldn’t be two stories a year about these communities and two stories that—I’m not saying they have to be positive or as they say in the newsroom “brights”—[But] they should at least add flesh and form to our sense of community and those statistics that we read.

Part of my being a journalist is that I often feel like I’m chasing ghosts, like  something is just getting ready to drop away. I can’t remember which culture has this  saying—and I’m sure each culture has a version of this—“having an elder die is like having a library burn down.”

As a long-time staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Lynell George has covered social issues, human behavior, identity politics, as well as visual arts, music, literature, and LA cultural and place-based stories.

During our lunch, I learn that George’s mother came to Los Angeles from New Orleans on a music scholarship but wound up studying journalism instead.

Now this is not why I went into journalism. I didn’t even know that part of the story until much later. But I did know that she wrote for the Los Angeles Tribune—that was a black paper—she learned how to use a Speed Graphic . . .

Her mother went on to spend over thirty years teaching English composition and literature to junior and senior high school students in Los Angeles.

In an essay for the Los Angeles Times entitled “Memoir: ‘Listening’ to Mom Through her Books,” George writes:

As a very young child, I imagined bliss as a house built of books, furniture made of softcover titles with wallpaper you could read, and vivid color plates standing in for framed artwork. This I know must have come from growing up in a household where books reigned. We lived with them, not the other way around. Not only did they crowd ceiling-whisking shelves, but they also grew in stacks like tall tropical trees, separated into groves by genres.

This living library was curated by my mother, who built her life on and around books. That affection was passed to me by both osmosis and example: the excitement of entering its world, the suspension of inhabiting and trusting the story.

I ask about favorite childhood books.

I loved Harriet the Spy. That book was really significant to me, and that had nothing to do with journalism. It was much more about being an engaged observer. Curious at a young age. I think it was that obsessive note-taking that gives you something to do and a place to put those observations.

What about the scarcity of characters of color in children’s literature? Was she conscious there was rarely anyone like her in the books she was reading growing up?

Yes, and my mother did work hard to try to find those books for us . . . We had this huge library of all kinds of books like African folk tales and African-American folk tales and poetry. And reading aloud became part of our growing up so I think I didn’t feel the lack as dramatically because she tried so hard to fill in the blanks with other things. There was pride . . . I [could] see a tradition of storytelling. I might not be able to find Harriet the Spy written from a black girl’s point of view but I [could] look at all this storytelling—this whole thing about griots and having people in the communities who held stories—how important that was . . . I know it filled in the blanks . . . I felt that our stories were important and other people needed to know—which is what I think pushed the journalism thing—Yeah, we came from something.

As if on cue, George’s fleur de lis silver earrings catch my eye. The iconic symbol of New Orleans, they remind me that two LAs play a prominent role in George’s life: Los Angeles and Louisiana. I shift the conversation from her Crenshaw roots to her Creole roots, focusing on something I read in her book, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels. In the closing essay, a quote from artist Mark Broyard states: “In order for culture to exist, there have to be artifacts.” I’m curious if George sees a connection between writing and artifact.

Part of my being a journalist is that I often feel like I’m chasing ghosts, like something is just getting ready to drop away. I can’t remember which culture has this saying—and I’m sure each culture has a version of this—“having an elder die is like having a library burn down.” That’s what it’s like when you lose someone who has that piece of a story. I’m acutely aware of that when I go to a place like New Orleans where my family is from. Even when I hear a voice that’s like my grandfather’s—which I miss, I miss that accent and it hits me hard—I want to hear what this person has to say. I want to hear it in his voice. So if I can write in a way that . . . is like a container for that story—it’s not going to be that person exactly sitting across from you telling it—but if I can [write] it as close as possible to that, so that you feel like you have that experience [of] hearing that person move and speak. That’s why I tend to tape rather than just take notes, because I want the rhythm of those voices. And I always know if I’ve got it if I feel like, ‘OK. I just got a little chill down my spine.’ I think I got it right.

Having your story not just formally told in-between pages but told in the voice that you would tell it to me, that’s the artifact. That’s the thing that we can pass on when people go.

Most recently, George has been exploring performance art. Love, Los Angeles: A Conversation in Words and Images is a multi-media piece created by George and poet Marisela Norte. Working individually and in collaboration, the two writers brought their distinct voices together against a backdrop of photographs, music, and audio design, capturing the city’s idiosyncratic sights, sounds, and stories.

I had never done anything like that before. It was a kick, but it was really different . . . I loved having the conversation with Mark McNeill, the DJ, because I said part of what I want is not just music but the environment. I want people to walk in the room and feel like they are in LA. So we were thinking about things like the sprinklers. I said it would be great to have the air brakes from the bus. It would be great so the people feel like they’re home. Because different parts of the city sound different too. They look different. They sound different. They move differently. I wanted to convey that as well.

George is also working on a new book—an exploration of chance and creativity.

It’s still shape shifting. I don’t want to write a book that’s loud and obvious and quirky, I want to write about these shifts that happen in people’s lives and in their world—this quiet nuance.

We talk about what it’s like to write for both page and stage, and about how the proliferation of media formats has changed the way she pitches. At this point in her career, it often comes down to evaluating who is going to give her the room to tell a story the way she feels like it needs to be told. As for having a writing ritual—

I’m not one of those people that gets up at five and writes and then goes on a walk or vice versa. I pretty much do write every day. Like literally every day. It might be assignment writing, it might be blogging, it might be emails which tend to be more like letters. There are these two editors I write to. We write almost every day to one another about what’s going on, what we’re working on, what we’re trying to puzzle out, what’s going on in the news. I think that kind of replaces my newsroom conversation, like the water cooler chat or ‘let’s go down and get a coffee.’ I realized how necessary that was in my life. I’ve worked in a newsroom since I was in my twenties, so it was weird not to. In a way, that has replaced it. And social media has too, but then I have to be very good about pulling a plug and being focused . . . What I’d like to get better at [is] trying to figure out more time to do more creative—and it’s strange to say more creative writing—because I really don’t partition it . . . I guess I should say more writing for myself that is solely for me. If it’s puzzling around and trying to develop an idea, or not even, just playing. Time to play with the page rather than thinking about a deadline.

I hear the word deadline, and I think procrastination. I hesitate to ask if she procrastinates. I’m hoping she does.

I think if I had continued on a fiction route nothing would have ever been finished: ‘Oh it’s almost finished. It’s close.’ But journalism just forces you to finish. It’s a draft and then you make it better . . . Sometimes I spend months on a story, and in that time I will have collected way too many notebooks and on top of that there’s a bunch of stuff to transcribe. And I get overwhelmed. [So]then I’ll think: ‘I really don’t feel like starting on that right now . . .’ That’s usually the trigger—wanting to do a good job but realizing that starting is scary. But then I learned this from an editor: ‘Put it all away. Think about what you would say to a friend about what you just experienced. You wouldn’t be looking in your notebook and trying to find an exact quote, you would tell me what happened.’ And it’s true.

When I met George at Antioch in June, the Rachel Dolezal story had just hit the news. We spoke about it briefly. At the time, I was interested in George’s point of view on the legitimacy or lunacy of the NAACP president who claimed to be black in spite of overwhelming evidence that she was a white woman raised by white parents. Now, I was interested in George’s take on creative nonfiction. Dolezal aside, how black and white should a writer be when they position their work as CNF?

I think the journalist in me is, like, fact is fact and fiction is fiction. But then we have this thing called memory and so even when I am interviewing people, I am acutely aware that memory fails and that people remember things in different ways. We used to say in class when I was teaching Beginning Interview Journalism: it’s this truth as far as we know it, as close to the truth as we can get. As reporters, that’s what I’m trying to get when I’m talking to people. But then when I think about the nonfiction writers I love the most, and I think about memoir in particular, some of the most beautiful books I’ve read are people who have just said ‘I know that this is not something that should be looked at as record and total truth. This is the truth, this is the best I can remember it, and I am going to use some techniques of fiction in order to weave this together.’ Like Leonard Michaels, he wrote what he called a fictional memoir. I just think as long as the reader knows going in what it is then I don’t feel like I’ve been deceived. And if you can’t do it that way, then just call it fiction.

From transparency we move to authenticity and accountability. How does she feel about a white writer’s ability to develop black characters? Or about the responsibility of any writer who decides to write what has been termed “other”?

When you’re observing a culture or a tradition there are things you think you know because you’ve been around them enough, and there are things that you may not get. That’s when you check with people. Like giving your book or story to someone who you really trust, who will call you on your crap . . . I think if you are writing about the other, and an other that you have no experience with, you better really, really be able to understand the levels of experience. There’s a potential to be arrogant. You have to be a really great storyteller, like Susan Straight. I think she’s a good example of somebody who has had lived experience. But also she’s a storyteller, and she lets people tell her: “call me on it if it’s wrong.”

George is no stranger to navigating issues of culture and craft. In her essay, “My End of the Bargain,” from No Crystal Stair, she reflects on her own experiences as a young MFA student:

In writing classes, I was dissected and tossed about in discussion like an absent third party, informed that my fiction wasn’t ‘like Toni or Alice’s;’ that it didn’t address tenements or sharecropping, nor did I shed any light on the ‘suffering implicit in the black experience.’ There were ‘problems’ with my autobiographical pieces, according to one workshop member: ‘Your being black might add some drama to this . . . Did ‘blackness’ add no texture at all to your young life? . . . Do you never suffer a moment’s torment that you weren’t born with soft, golden hair and blue eyes? Didn’t the little white boys prefer little white girlfriends?’

Is this what people truly believed I wished for? What we—black people—felt would ‘get us over?’ Would set us free? If ‘blackness’ failed to fit these narrow parameters, I found they had no use for it. No use for me. I found it more than frustrating or insulting. I found it lamentable.

What I really want to ask is: can it be fixed?

It starts with not making assumptions . . . One of my professors, actually a teacher in high school, she had us write numbers on our papers rather than our names because she was worried that students would make assumptions about who should be writing about what and that it would free the discussion . . . Classrooms are mixed but you may have only one of whatever—one Chinese student or one Native American student or one black student or three or whatever, a gay student. And very often a teacher will put that student on the spot in the classroom and say, ‘Well, what do you think, so-and-so.’ And that kid might be making themselves really small in the chair because they don’t want to be the person that has to explain everything . . . Yes, you can learn from the student, absolutely, that person who comes from that experience, but let them be ready to talk about it and explain it the way they want to. And deal with the work as the work itself. Like if I did something confusing with the characters, maybe they slipped in and out of ethnicity or there are some structural issues, but let’s deal with what’s on the page . . .

The waiter appears reminding us that our meal comes with dessert. We order coffee, and I toss out the classic “if-stranded-on-a-desert-island” question. Which books would she bring?

Oh wow. That’s hard—

You can see George’s mind working. Images spring to life as she takes stock of her most prized possessions.

I have one bookcase that is for the books that I revisit or want to. Or I just like looking at their spines because there’s a lovely memory attached to it. James Baldwin—and I’m trying to think which one it would be—the easy answer would be Price of the Ticket—which is all of his non-fiction in one volume. Could I bring my Kindle? If I couldn’t do the collection I would say Notes of a Native Son. Yeah — This is a hard question for me.

As we wrap up, it becomes clear that we are both heading to the San Gabriel Valley. Lynell lives there now, as does my MFA mentor with whom I have scheduled a late afternoon meeting. Had I put two and two together, I could have saved Lynell the trek. It took her over an hour to get to Post & Beam. With Friday afternoon traffic, it could be a two-hour ride back.

I start to apologize but she takes it all in stride. The location wasn’t out of the way. It was home—it’s where we needed to be. Reflecting on Post & Beam’s success, George once wrote,“If you want to build and foster something meaningful—you have to understand it from the ground up.” It’s a philosophy that is as relevant to a restaurateur as it is to a writer, especially one that roams the city chasing ghosts.

Rochelle NewmanRochelle Newman is an MFA candidate at Antioch University. An award-winning playwright, stand-up comic, and multicultural marketing specialist, she credits her Lower East Side roots with her sense of humor and social justice. Her writing has appeared in such trade and literary publications as Ad Age, NAILED Magazine, Role Reboot, and Lunch Ticket.

Richard Russo, Author

Richard Russo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist. Russo grew up in Gloversville, New York, a small upstate town that once produced ninety percent of the nation’s dress gloves in its factories. Much of his work is inspired by his experiences of small town, working-class life. He has published seven novels, two short story collections, and the memoir Elsewhere (2012). His novel Empire Falls won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and was later adapted into an HBO miniseries based on his screenplay, and starring Paul Newman, Ed Harris, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Helen Hunt. His most recent novel, Everybody’s Fool (Knopf), is the sequel to Nobody’s Fool (1994), and will be published in Spring 2016. Russo serves as a vice president on the Author’s Guild Board of Directors, and is the fundraising chairman for the Gloversville Public Library. He received his BA, MFA in Creative Writing, and PhD in English at the University of Arizona. He has taught at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois and Colby College in Waterville, Maine. He has two daughters and lives with his wife in Portland, Maine.

Erin Anadkat Schwartz interviewed Russo in-person on June 19, 2015, during the June 2015 residency at Antioch University Los Angeles.

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We stopped for a lunch of brisket, BBQ chicken, and pulled pork sandwiches—with sodas from the coolest soda machine I have ever seen—at Chop Daddy’s BBQ in Culver City, during the weekday lunch rush. The conversation first started over a jumble of lunchtime chatter, obtrusive sirens, and other resounding LA traffic noise in the background, while ’90s music like U2, Bryan Adams, and The Bangles blared on the jukebox inside. Our talk ran the gamut: bizarre Gloversville-insider stories and scandals; a restoration project Russo is working on for the Gloversville library, built by Andrew Carnegie in 1905; ways of building thriving communities where artists can survive; the Somali population in Portland, Maine; the government-in-exile of Somalia, now partly relocated in Minneapolis.

Erin Anadkat Schwartz: Do you find it a challenging process when another writer adapts your novels to screenplays?

Richard Russo: I tried everything to get somebody else to do the screenplay for Empire Falls. It was Paul Newman who actually talked me into [doing it]—like, how do you say no to Paul Newman? [laughter]

ES: I don’t think you can.

RR: He kept saying that if I didn’t do it, there’s a decent chance it wasn’t going to get done. It was part of—it was done for HBO, and they were going to obviously be spending a lot of money on it, and . . . but anyway, he asked me if I would do it, and I said yes, and I did it. And when it came out, and I still feel this way about it—it seemed to me that number one, I loved it, I loved what they did with it. But I thought the actors were wonderful, Fred Schepisi did a wonderful job, I thought, directing. The only thing that wasn’t fresh about it, it seemed to me, was the writing . . . I would have loved for—because the book was so long . . . Thankfully, we didn’t have to condense it to two hours like you would with a normal movie, we had three and a half hours to work with. I had worked on that book for so long, and I had solved so many problems in the novel in a particular way, that by the time it came to write the screenplay, I just don’t think I was very fresh on it anymore. And I tended to solve the problems of the miniseries in much the same way that I solved the problems of the novel.

What I’m asking of the reader is to dream really deeply . . . and at the end of it, come up out of it as if waking from a dream, but which you look around at the real world and say, wow, I was asleep for a really long time there, and that was such a vivid dream. Ok, now I’m back in reality.

I’ve done a couple screenplays based on other people’s work. When I did a screenplay of the Ice Harvest, based on Scott Phillips’s novel, I found that I was able to take a book which I loved, and I was able to look at that and see some things that could be cut . . . And it was all fine in the novel, but for the screenplay—because it was going to be an hour and a half, an hour and forty-five minutes—I just saw some things that could be cut. If that had been my own work, I doubt I would have been able to see that, only a few fresh set of eyes coming in would have seen that kind of trim. And that’s my only regret about Empire Falls, really, because those actors were so brilliant, was that I think an outside screenwriter would have probably been able to see some different solutions to the same problems that I didn’t see.

After navigating LA traffic back to the Antioch campus, we continued the rest of the interview in a room with less surround sound. Earlier that morning, Russo had been featured in a Q&A session led by Antioch faculty member Peter Nichols, whose novel The Rocks was published in Spring 2015 by Penguin.

ES: During the Q&A earlier, you mentioned, regarding your relationship with your father, that it was important for you to avoid nursing “unproductive grudges.” What did you mean by that?

RR: He was an interesting guy . . . in the sense that he had an ability to treat other people, to whom he had no particular enforceable obligation, as if they were related to him, in much the way Sully does with Rub in Nobody’s Fool. In Nobody’s Fool, Sully’s son Peter has not been a part of his life for a long time. And Peter, at the beginning of the book, has just returned. The event that sets events in motion, sets the plot in motion really, is the return of Sully’s son. But one of the things that Sully has done in his son’s and his wife’s absence, is to manage to create another substitute family. He’s got Rub, who is not really his son, but whom he treats like a son. And he has a woman to whom he’s not really married and has no enforceable obligations, but there she is, in place of his wife. And he’s done that on a couple of other levels, with other people too.

But for Sully, and I think too for my father, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to give people things. He was an incredibly generous person with money, and really with everything, he was incredibly generous with his time. He was the kind of guy if somebody needed desperately to get someplace that’s a two-hour drive, because somebody in the family was sick and the kid needed to get there, something like that, he’d say come on, hop in, he’d take him. He was incredibly generous. But he shied away from enforceable obligations. He would be generous when the generosity was his free choice, but he disliked being told he had to do something because of convention or because he was married or because he was a father. And if you just hung around, you would not only know his generosity, you would be the beneficiary of his generosity. But . . . after the war I think he was all through being obligated.

ES: As writers, we sometimes have emotional obstacles that are difficult to confront and that can get in the way of writing. Did your relationship with your father ever feel like an obstacle for you?

RR: No, no. If there was an obstacle, it was more my mother than my father. My father, I recognized, even long before I wanted to become a writer, I recognized my father as a wonderful source of entertainment. I’m really deeply indebted to both my mother and my father in terms of becoming a writer, because it was my mother who made me a reader. And I certainly wasn’t going to be a writer without first being a reader. She was the one who filled our apartment with books. When she was dog-tired after a long workday and could’ve easily been forgiven for sitting down and watching at 10 o’clock at night, for watching an hour, hour and a half’s worth of television, she was always the one who grabbed a book and read. I was able to read, and was able to check out books at the library. I was just a voracious reader, and I have my mother to thank for that . . . .

What my father did was that he gave me something to write about. Because he was a genuine rogue, he was off the rails, many times. He was the kind of guy whose name would be in the paper on Sunday mornings sometimes, or Saturday after Friday night . . . He had a way of making people feel good about themselves, feel special, even if it was for a very short period of time . . . I think that the way I did things with him, resulted in the best possible outcome, as opposed to my mother, where everything I did was wrong. If I had to do that over again, I would do it all differently.

ES: What kind of books did your mother like to read?

RR: There were some wonderful books that she would read, some of which I still go back and revisit from time to time. She wasn’t what I would call a reader of literature as we would commonly define it, I don’t think. But she did love well-written books, which meant that she gravitated to the kinds of books that were very well written, but very hopeful. Very entertaining, hopefully that took place far away, sometimes in space, sometimes in time. Someplace that allowed her, after an incredibly long workday full of obligations and often not a great deal of success, some place that she could escape to. So she used to love—and I still do sometimes too, a kind of a guilty pleasure, to read some of those books from what people now refer to as the Golden Age of British crime fiction. She was very down the nose about Agatha Christie, but for her, a writer like Josephine Tey or Ngaio Marsh.

A lot of those writers—Dorothy Sayers—those writers who in the last twenty years, whose profiles have been raised by all those wonderful PBS renditions of those works. She loved those. And as I say, I don’t look down my nose at those, they’re wonderfully entertaining books, and I’ll go back and revisit them from time to time, partly because I still admire them. And partly because she loved them so much, I want to go back and just refresh my memory about what meant so much to her, what she liked about those things. And how important it was for her to leave the confines of her own small existence, which was becoming smaller and smaller and smaller as the years went by, to escape into a world of possibility, and great acts of danger and derring-do, and a good love story, ended up with the right couple together at the end—oh, wow.

ES: Are you a 9-to-5 kind of writer—what’s your daily process like?

RR: It has a lot to do with where I am in the process. When I’m beginning something, if I’m at the beginning of a novel, first draft, first two hundred pages, I am pretty easygoing at the beginning. If I get two good pages in a day at the beginning of the novel, I feel really good about that. And if I get those in the mornings, I’ll revise them in the afternoon, and if I’m done early and I’ve only worked three hours for that day, that’s perfectly fine. In the beginning.

By the time I’m at draft, whatever, where I have a completed manuscript, and I can both see and smell the finish line, by that time I’m working much, much longer hours. And part of that is because I’m not inventing anymore, at that point I’m revising revisions, and there’s still the occasional surprise. It’s wonderful when that happens, especially towards the end. But for the most part, I now have just a certain number of tasks to perform, and at that point, I will be working long hours every day . . . so I might be working eight or nine hours towards the end, as opposed to three hours at the beginning. But at the beginning, I’m quite happy to be done at the end of three hours, or three and a half hours, whereas towards the end, if I’m working three times, I still have the feeling I’m not working hard enough. So when you get to that point, or when I get to that point, it becomes important to soldier through.

My friend Jess Walter, I was talking with him one day, and he said that the closer he gets to the end of a book, the earlier he gets up. When he’s working on a novel towards the beginning, he’s perfectly happy to get up at a reasonable hour, read the newspaper, make breakfast for the kids, all that. If he sits down to write by ten o’clock, that’s perfectly fine. By the time he’s close to finishing a book, he’s up at four in the morning. And I don’t do that, but that’s . . . the difference between how hard you work, depending on where you are in the process . . .

There are times in a novel where you don’t know that you have it in you, for some reason or other, you’re just in a point in the book where you don’t know what comes next, or whatever’s going on, and you just think, Oh God, can I do this? By the time you get to the end like that, you know you can do it, it’s just a matter of working through the necessary tasks, to putting in the necessary hours. And when you do that you get to go back to the beginning, which is the most fun.

ES: Is that your favorite part of the process [the beginning]?

RR: By a longshot.

ES: What is your relationship like in working with your editor?

RR: My editor, who’s been with me for all except three books in the middle, he did Mohawk, and then he left Random House and went somewhere else . . . and then he came back . . . and then all the other books have been with Gary [Fisketjon]. And he is an absolutely brilliant stylistic, page-to-page, line-to-line editor. We really have very little discussion about what happens in the book, unless there’s just something that’s not clear. He feels that once I’ve got the story, once I’ve got the characters doing what they should be doing, and have a satisfying resolution, he really doesn’t want anything to do with the story itself. He wants to help me with style, making sure that everything is as clear, as clean as it can possibly be.

He leaves virtually no sentence of mine unedited, not because he wants me to do everything the way he’s suggesting, but because he wants me to have options. And so he’ll—computers, interestingly, have been really helpful to him in editing—he’ll do a word search, discounting small words like “and” and “the,” but [targeting] substantive words. He’ll do a search on that and find out the frequency of words. So if you have an unusual word, and it turns up fifteen times in the book, it probably shouldn’t . . . so he’ll be on the lookout for those kinds of things. He’s wonderful . . . he’s got a great ear. If a word turns up too often, every time it does it’s a “ding” in the back of his mind, and he’ll be looking for that, to make sure that if words turn up more than they should, it’s because they’re important in terms of the theme, or something like that. He’s a meticulous editor, he’s a really old-school editor, I don’t know many editors anymore that do that kind of line-by-line work.

ES: How long does the editing process usually take?

RR: It takes a while. I think he told me one time that seven to ten pages of edits, for him, is a pretty good day. So if he’s getting five hundred and sixty pages from me, it’s going to take him a while to edit that. I suspect he probably forces himself into longer days when he gets a book from me than when he gets, say, a Kent Haruf novel. And it could be that Kent Haruf is a lot cleaner writer than I am, but he’s edited Kent, and he’s edited Richard Ford, and Donna Tartt, and a whole slew of writers with very different styles. He’s very meticulous. And I’m really grateful to him, it makes my work on the second and third go-arounds, it gives me more to do, but the end product is much better than it would be if he weren’t doing all that heavy lifting.

ES: How did your first novel get to your agent?

RR: I’ve been blessed. I’ve had two editors, only one agent. My agent is one of the very few that really scours the literary magazines. And just as Steve [Heller, chair of the AULA MFA program] published that early story of mine in Mid-American Review, and it might have been that, that my agent Nat Sobel saw, and said when you have a novel, let me know. And Nat has always subscribed, because he likes to support these literary magazines, which are kind of feeders for the mainstream. They’re kind of really wonderful little, babbling brooks that are going to eventually form a much larger river. And he’s always subscribed to between eighty to one hundred literary magazines. And he doesn’t read every word of every issue, but he reads around every issue, and if it’s fiction published in a literary magazine, even with a small circulation, there’s a pretty good chance he’s either read it, or read some of it. He found this [Russo’s short story “The Top of the Tree” was published in the first issue of Mid-American Review in 1981 – ES] in Mid-American Review at the time, it had probably a circulation of three hundred. And without any particular reason of thinking a story by Richard Russo would be good, he read it. He’s eight-three, I think, and he’s still doing it.

ES: I find there is a mix of humor and seriousness in your work. Do you consider yourself a comic writer at all?

RR: I consider myself a comic writer, but actually in the more classical sense of comedy, as opposed to tragedy. Comedy in the Shakespearean sense means that it’s just much more likely to end with a wedding. In that, comedy is essentially hopeful, which can be trying to find the optimism and, especially, if you’re going to go to dark places . . .

And for the comic writer, that’s the trick I think: to end a book, if not with a wedding, at least with the possibility of happiness. These people have gone on a journey, and they can’t arrive either right where they started or with some sort of truly tragic consequences, not after they’ve worked so hard. And so you’re looking for that.

You’re not trying to tie everything up in a pretty bow and pretend that things are better than they are. But you want to acknowledge, I think the comic writer wants to acknowledge, the possibility that hard work ends if not happiness, at least the possibility thereof. When I say I’m a comic writer, I’d like to think it’s that, because I’m sometimes funny, but more importantly than that is my view—my comic view of life—is guardedly hopeful.

You get challenged in that. Yesterday was a challenging day, with what happened in South Carolina. [The day before this interview, nine people were killed by a gunman during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.] It was just a challenging day. You saw Jon Stewart went on last night and didn’t have a thing to say. And the president came out and spoke, saying essentially that [he’s] been here too often. And there’s a time when humor fails, but most of the time . . . . There’s just no place to go with pessimism, is there?

ES: Tell me about the book you collaborated on with your daughter, Kate.  

RR: We did this collection called Interventions—three short stories and a novella-size thing. I really wanted the emphasis to be on the art. So she did—there’s an illustration, each story contains an illustration, and then there’s also cover art for each piece, and it all slips into a beautiful slipcase, and her husband Tom did the book’s design, it was kind of a family project. I would give her the story and without instruction say, make of this what you will. It was a lot of fun to do that, it was with a small press, but it was an enormous amount of fun to do. And better yet, when the book came out, we did a regional book tour with it in New England, which meant I got to spend close to a month on the road with her flogging this book. And of course all the years she watched me go out on the road with book tours and everything, and then to do one together with her was just a kick. I think by the time we were done she was glad it was over, because it can be grueling to be away from home for a long period of time . . . she was beginning to recognize what all that was about.

But I would love to do another book with her at some point, because one of the things that I think is happening as result of eBooks, is that print publishers are really striving to find out what’s the added value of a print book. If you can do it all with ones and zeroes and you don’t have to kill a tree to do it, and it costs so much less . . . if you’re going to sell a $30 hardback, what’s the added value of that? And so we’re beginning to see now books that are really beautiful. Not the most recent, but the Murakami novel before that that was incredibly beautiful—

ES: We were just passing that around yesterday!

—I think we may be moving towards an era in which the glory days of books being illustrated by artists, think of those wonderful N.C. Wyeth illustrations, books like Treasure Island, those books were just incredible works of art. That’s one of the directions that print book could be going in, to give added value—because an image on the screen is just not the same thing, is it?

ES: You mentioned in an interview with Down East magazine that one of your favorite short stories you’ve written is “Sister Ursula.” Why so?

RR: Part of it is that I don’t write short stories very well. I have a really difficult time holding on to the reigns tightly enough to keep it from being a novella or a novel. I’ve been at this long enough to know that my vision is expansive. Some writers start in a small frame and they just go deeper and deeper and deeper into the frame, but the frame never gets that much larger. I, on the other hand, tend to start with that same small frame, but very soon the frame is just blown out. I’m not maybe going that much deeper, but it’s suddenly, you’re in the world of a mural now . . . .

And so, I’m particularly proud of that story, first of all because it’s a successful short story, and I’m almost never able to do that. But part of it, too, is just Sister Ursula, she’s this wonderful woman, she’s an eighty-year-old Belgian nun, and she comes into this guy’s short story writing class determined to tell a story that she herself doesn’t know the meaning of. It’s the story of her and her mother—and her father—but primarily her mother. And she has the tremendous desire to share with the other writers—despite the fact that they’re all kids—the other writers in the class and her instructor. She has this overwhelming desire to share her story, and her parents’ story, without ever suspecting for a moment that she doesn’t understand what it is. And she embodies for me a lot of people who would like to do that, the storytelling urge . . . Sister Ursula is one of the most heartbreaking characters I’ve ever had the privilege to hang out with for a time, because she is so desperate to understand something she doesn’t understand. She thinks by telling this story that she’s sharing something very important with other people, and what she’s really doing is just entering a terrible voyage of self-discovery. I just so enjoyed my time with her.

ES: As a traditional fiction novelist, how would you say autobiography comes into play in your work?

RR: In traditional stories, I think it’s kind of assumed that if you’re doing what everybody tells you you should do, which is write what you know, then writing what you know is part and parcel of your own experience. It’s kind of assumed that if not you, then someone you spent a lot time with or whatever, there’s some core of reality from which you are going out like the spokes of the wheel. But you don’t jump from the air into the air, you jump from the ground into the air, which means whatever your ground situation is, it’s probably based in some way in experience—yours or someone that’s close to you. But the most important thing, of course, is that you’re giving that person a name that’s not yours.

What I’m asking of the reader is to dream really deeply . . . and at the end of it, come up out of it as if waking from a dream, but which you look around at the real world and say, wow, I was asleep for a really long time there, and that was such a vivid dream. Ok, now I’m back in reality.

I think what the post-modern novel does when it incorporates autobiography in a much more blatant way, and a writer, for instance, uses his or her own name as a character in the book, something as obvious as that—I think what that writer is saying is, don’t dream too deeply. I want you to be aware that this is a construct, right from the beginning. This is a construct, and it is a story—don’t confuse it with real life, and if I ever get going too far where you get too caught up in it, I’m going to wake you up. Just to let you know, I’m going to wake you up. And then they’ll proceed to do that, whether it’s Borges, or whoever will tell you that I’m going to tell you a story, it is a story, I’m going to remind you that it’s a story, and then after that I’m going to remind you again—and oh, by the way, the main character’s name is Borges. They’re both [traditional and post-modern] using autobiography, but I think they have two completely objectives.

ES: What is your connection to Gloversville now, outside of your work?

RR: I’m going home a lot more now, it’s easier for me. After my father died, it was difficult because I would just see him careening around corners as I negotiated those same streets. And while my mother was alive, she hated the place so much, it made it difficult for me to go back, and for a long time, I just didn’t, even though I have family there, and friends there, I just didn’t go. I’m going a lot more now, back a lot more now than I used to . . . the family that I have left there, my cousins that I’m close to, every time I go back there I run into someone I liked. And during the time when I wasn’t going back, people used to ask me all the time, how come I never come home? And I would say, what are you talking about, haven’t you been reading these books? [laughs] I’m always there. Can’t you see that, every day of my life, for the last twenty-five or thirty years. I’m just not physically present, but I’m certainly there all the time. In that sense, can you ever leave? Well, I tried, for all the good it did me, and now I’m not trying anymore to leave, made some sort of peace. It has something to do with my parents’ death, and affection for my remaining relatives and friends. But also for, as I said, I had a wonderful childhood there . . . .

For a long time, people who read Mohawk, The Risk Pool, and Nobody’s Fool, in particular my early novels, and then again with Bridge of Sighs, which is my most Gloversville, Gloversville-novel—people have told me that these books, my writing of these books, has validated their lives in the sense that they realized someone was paying attention. Everybody else was chasing money, or chasing status, or was chasing all the things that people chase, the chimeras that people chase.

And the kinds of people that I write about are not any of those people. The fact that I chose to write about them, and their lives, and treated them with the kind of dignity for how hard their lives were, and all of that, that meant a lot to them. And many of them were grateful to me for that. I think now that I’ve been able to go home and do some other things in person, I think that means as much, or possibly even more. That going back in the flesh has meant a lot to a lot of people. I kind of wish I’d done it sooner, but . . . . One of the things that I noticed when I went back to do this work for the library is that my physical presence meant a lot . . . . I found that if there’s a way to turn fame into something productive in terms of community and society, then why not do it? I don’t see what the counter-argument is at that point.

Erin SchwartzErin Anadkat Schwartz is a MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and working on her first novel. She has a background in journalism, film/TV production, and interactive media. Find her online at http://literaryla.kchungradio.org/

Sonya Sones, Author

Sonya Sones is the author of the young adult novels in verse Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, and To Be Perfectly Honest. She also wrote the adult novel in verse, The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus. What My Mother Doesn’t Know has landed on the list of top one hundred books banned over the past decade.

Roz Weisberg interviewed Sones in September 2015.

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Novelist and poet Sonya Sones invited me to her home in Santa Monica to speak during September’s unending heat wave that dominated life in Los Angeles. It was the end of the day on a Friday, and commuters were already in full force using the wide residential street she lives on as a way to avoid major intersections on their way to the 405.

The traditional house with its brick walkway is set away from the street with a large protective tree that shields the front from the sun. Sones led me to the cozy living room with its vintage reading lamps, old family photos, and book-lined shelves. I couldn’t help but notice the old toys—including a talking Pee Wee Herman doll—scattered among the books. The noise from the street faded away as we settled in, and I felt like I was catching up with an old friend.

We talked for an hour and a half about everything, from how her past lives as a film editor and animator influenced her transition to writing, to the responsibility she feels for her audience, and her sense of pride for getting “banned in Bakersfield.”

To start, I was curious about how her background as an animator and film editor influences her poetry, and how she found the form of narrative poetry.

Sonya Sones: I see each scene as a movie. I wrote poems when I was a little kid and then when I got to be about sixteen, I kept a journal and I wrote everyday. Sometimes I would live for twenty minutes and spend half an hour writing about it and then live another twenty minutes and spend half an hour writing about that. I have boxes and boxes filled with my gushing journals.

Then when I was sixteen I learned how to make animated films, so filmmaking is what I thought I was going to do. I had worked my way up to being a film editor, but I didn’t have too many good credits. The one I’m proud of is co-editing River’s Edge. That was my first time of getting to edit footage of really great actors like Dennis Hopper.

When I had my kids, I didn’t want to go to work twelve hours a day. So, I looked around at my life and I thought “what else can I do,” and here’s where the animation weirdly led me to writing. My favorite time of day was when I read to my kids. I really loved that, and so I thought maybe I could write and illustrate books for kids. I thought, I used to make animated films so I know how to draw—that was my theory. Turned out, I could draw pretty well, but my first book, Smitty the Hollywood Kitty, absolutely stunk. I didn’t realize it was bad. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and went to a conference and brought Smitty the Hollywood Kitty and got a critique of it. Before I went into the meeting I had proudly showed it to so many people who said “nice illustrations” that when I got to the critique I already knew that my words were lousy. But through the SCBWI, I started making friends with other people who wanted to become writers, and then I started hearing about classes, and then I started taking classes at UCLA which were pretty good. I kept hearing about Myra Cohn Livingstone and what a mean and scary teacher she was, and how she was super critical and made people cry, and I was afraid to take her class, but a friend of mine said let’s do it together.

I do like the books to be more poemy, but if they can’t be, they can’t be. I have to go with whatever each book is needing. It’s like when people ask, “What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?” and you say, “I don’t have a favorite, I love all my children” and that’s true so you just have to accept what gets born. My real kids are fantastic. My book, well, to put the amount of time into writing a book, you have to love it while you’re doing it.

I was taking Myra’s class, and very quickly I became the funny one in the class. I would read a poem and everyone would laugh and Myra would say, “Oh Sonya, you bring us up, what would we do without you? Oh Sonya, you bring us up from the depths!” And I loved being the funny one. Then she gave us an assignment, write in dactyl and trochee rhythms, which are very somber rhythms. I sat down to do my homework, and a poem popped out about my sister having a nervous breakdown and having to be sent to the hospital and how horrifying and scary it was. I was really concerned about passing this in to Myra. I thought, this isn’t going to bring anyone up from the depths, and what is she going to think? It was so personal and private I couldn’t bare the thought of reading it aloud in the classroom to the other students. I wrote copiously in my journal trying to decide what to do and I decided to compromise and pass it in to Myra, but not read it aloud. And then I had to wait a week to see what she thought.

She hoped to see the initial “VG” for very good across the top. Instead the note read: “we have to talk about this one!”

I thought she was going to say, “Stop writing this, do what you’re good at. You’re funny, what are you doing?” and instead she said, “You should write more of these and if you can put yourself through it, you’d be doing a service.” The idea of doing a service, and the idea of pleasing my teacher who I had on a pedestal, seemed so fabulous to me even though I didn’t want to particularly think about my sister and that terrible time in our lives. I tried writing more poems about her. Myra’s theory was that anybody who had anyone in their family who was throwing the rest of the family off-kilter would be able to appreciate these poems and would feel they weren’t alone.

Sones credits her editor Alex Reed at HarperCollins for asking the right questions that led her to the novel-in-verse form.

Alex wrote me this ten-page letter that was so nurturing. It would say, “I love this poem and here’s why . . . and I loved this poem and here’s why . . . and then this poem made me wonder if you shared a bedroom with your sister. This poem made me wonder if your parents ever met your boyfriend . . . .” So she asked all these questions, and I was so thrilled and excited that my book was going to be published that I wrote fifty more poems in two months. I had a notepad next to the bed and I would say to the family, “Wait, wait, I gotta go write something down.” I was just in a state of exaltation and it was thrilling. [Alex] turned it into a novel-in-verse by asking me so many questions.

And then once I finished that book, I realized that that was a form I could really enjoy doing. I had written some love poems in that book or poems about falling in love and that’s what led me to wanting to write my second book, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, because that was all about firsts and I think firsts are so powerful for a teenage girl.

Roz Weisberg: Does the poem come first or the narrative?

SS: Each book varies. I would say the second book started out very much the way Stop Pretending did. I knew I wanted to write poems about first experiences, so . . . I just mined my own first experiences and then the character’s voice emerged. It happened with one poem. The first poem in the book “Nicknames”—after I wrote the poem, I walked around happy for two weeks because I felt like my character had walked up to me and introduced herself: “Hi my name’s Sophie and I have a sense of humor and I’m a real romantic and I don’t like to put up with any shit from anybody,” and as soon as I knew those three things about her I could write the rest of the book.

But you know three books, Stop Pretending, What My Mother Doesn’t Know, and The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus, are much more poemy than the other books. One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, and To Be Perfectly Honest are more narrative. The way that I realize it is, when I think about what poems I can read at readings, the ones that are more poemy are easier for me to pull and read out of context and can stand alone. The ones that are more narrative, it’s hard to just read one poem; I feel like I have to read four in a row or it won’t work. At first I was worried about this other kind of book, the more narrative kind, but I am a novelist so I have to let the story come first. If the story is the kind of story that needs more words and more dialogue, and feels less like a poem, then I’m going to do that. The poems may not like it, but that’s how it’s going to be.

RW: Do you have a preference?

SS: I do like the books to be more poemy, but if they can’t be, they can’t be. I have to go with whatever each book is needing. It’s like when people ask, “What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?,” and you say, “I don’t have a favorite, I love all my children . . . ” and that’s true so you just have to accept what gets born. My real kids are fantastic. My book, well, to put the amount of time into writing a book, you have to love it while you’re doing it.

The book I’m writing now, which is called Saving Red, it was so much easier for me than any recent book has been. It felt almost back to the first glory days. It was flowing out of me, but here’s what I did to trick myself: I set the book in Santa Monica, which is where I live, so I didn’t have to do any research because I knew all the settings. I did not allow myself to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Once I completed a poem I moved it to a file called “locked poems.” I was allowed to read the previous five poems that were in there, but then I had to work in a new file on my newer poem, and at the end of the day I could move the poem into the locked file. I wasn’t that strict, I allowed myself to tinker a little bit, but I tried not to look back.

My first draft of this book was 317 pages. I cut it to 264 pages instantly so I didn’t waste any time revising something that I later was going to remove. I left things sloppy for the first time. I even had notes in the margins asking if this word was right or to cut this stanza, but I left them that way ‘til I got to the end. So when I first went through it, I cut out all the stuff I didn’t need, and then got rid of all my notes and answered any questions that I needed to, and it saved me a ton of time by not revising something that was going to disappear anyway.

I also wrote an outline for the first time. It was interesting. I didn’t know the first thing about writing an outline and felt very at sea. So I looked online at Syd Field’s screenwriting book, and he had the three-act structure so I thought I’d see if I could put the three-act structure into this. I decided ahead of time that this is a story about this and this, and at the end of the first act this going to happen, and at the end of the second act this is going to happen, and this is the ending. So this time, I actually knew it instead of just writing a bunch of poems.

This book happens to be about a girl who has to do community service and she’s waited ‘til the very last minute, so her only option if she doesn’t want a bad grade is to help Santa Monica do their annual homeless count. There’s an annual homeless count they have to do every year. She goes out that night to count the homeless and she sees this one person who wakes up and is having a nightmare who’s only a few years older than her, and she’s very moved by this girl and thinks, “Wow, she’s just a little bit older than me and here she is living in Palisades Park and how terrible.” It’s December and her school break has just begun and she decides to make it her mission to get this girl back to her family in time for the holidays. That’s what she wants to do. It was so good knowing that and I discovered a ton of stuff along the way.

RW: You didn’t feel burned-out by the outline process?

SS: No, it was very undetailed so I didn’t feel like I’d already written [the book]. I just felt, “Whew, I know where I’m going.” And my husband is a writer, so right before I would begin each act, I would go to breakfast with him and tell him, this was going to happen and then this is going to happen. And he’d say, “That’s fabulous,” or “This part is great, but I’m not sure about that,” and it was so useful having someone I could bounce my acts off of.

RW: What was the inspiration for writing about homelessness?

SS: I thought about writing about a teenage girl who befriends a homeless person for years, but every time I pitched it to my husband or my agent, it sounded like a bad after-school special, it was maudlin. I originally thought the homeless person was a grown up, but once I realized she was 18 and my main character is 14 about to be 15, the whole thing changed for me.

The germ of this idea came from two different things. One, when I was sixteen and walking home through the Boston Public Gardens, and I saw all these people gathered in a circle around a crazy person who was spouting about our Lord and trying to proselytize to everyone that they should be into God. Everybody in the circle was taking turns making a joke about the person and what she was saying, and then everyone would laugh. I watched for a long time and my sixteen-year-old self was so horrified because my sister had a mental illness, and I finally got the courage together to stand up to them and say, “If you don’t like what she’s saying fine, then go away, but don’t just stand here and make fun of this person.” I actually said that at sixteen, and it was a powerful moment in my life that I had the courage to do it. I actually thought that moment would happen in this book and it happens, but in a much less brave way.

The other germ of the idea came from the fact that my sister does have mental illness, and as a kid I used to worry that she would end up homeless, that she would have a mental break down, that her medication would stop working and she would disappear because she lives in New York and I live here and she’s not married. She can go out of her apartment and then not come home and she can become a bag lady. That thought was really scary to me. This is kind of a fictionalized version of what I imagine could happen to someone like my sister because this girl who is homeless has mental illness. I’m sort of revisiting that theme in my own life, and how do we help somebody with mental illness, and how do we try to destroy the stigma against mental illness?

We talked about how Stop Pretending resonated for me as an adult, and how I wished I had the book when I was fourteen.

SS: That’s lovely to hear. I’m thrilled because that book was huge for me in terms of the amount of feedback I’ve gotten for years from readers, and that book came out in 1999. I still get these gorgeous heart-rending letters from people thanking me for that book.

I recently switched from Simon & Schuster back to HarperCollins, and my editor, just the other day, was telling me that they’re going to repackage Stop Pretending and reissue it even though it’s never been out of print, and give it a whole new look and a whole new push right when my new book comes out. I feel very glad about that because the more chances it has to be alive the better.

It occurred to me as we talked how Stop Pretending specifically, but also her other books as well, create a platform for teens to talk about difficult subjects that adults don’t know how to discuss either.

SS: It’s interesting you use the word “platform.” When I got the courage up to tell [my sister] I wrote this book about what happened I thought, if she doesn’t want her life exposed in the manner, which would be completely fine with me, it’s her private life, I’ll use a pen name. But as soon as I told her about it she said, “Oh, that’s so great. A book like this can be used to open up discussion about mental illness in schools.” And those were the first words out of her mouth, and she [had been] a public librarian for twenty years. After she said that I was so moved, and I feel like in some way the fact that that book is out there helping people has kind of redeemed her suffering a little bit.

I feel a responsibility when I write for teens that I leave them with a feeling of hope. I had two teenagers living in my house when I started writing those books, and my characters didn’t have sex because my kids hadn’t had sex yet and I didn’t want them to feel, “What’s wrong with me, the characters in my mom’s books are all having sex.”

RW: Speaking of teenagers having sex, What My Mother Doesn’t Know is on the most banned list.

SS: And there’s no sex, there’s no drugs, there’s no cursing, no alcohol.

RW: So what was it?

SS: People who ban books are idiots. I often will get a letter from a parent who says, “I read excerpts of your book and . . . .” They’re just reading two or three pages that someone might have pointed out as possibly objectionable, and they don’t ever read the whole book so they take it out of context. Here’s an example: In What My Mother Doesn’t Know, after the girl falls out of love with her first handsome, gorgeous boyfriend because she realizes he’s an anti-Semitic idiot, she ends up falling into an online relationship with a guy named Chaz. And the reason I put that in was it was the early days of internet chat rooms and I wanted to show teenage girls without being didactic that it was unsafe to go meet up with people who you don’t actually know, who you’re meeting because you met them online. Therefore, I had to make this guy do something horrendous to make her realize just in the nick of time, “I’m lucky I didn’t go meet him because he could have raped me.” He seems very funny and charming at first, and this is all done over email and online. Then he says, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” and she says, “I don’t know, what’s yours?” And he says, “I like to jerk off in libraries.” So, if a parent just reads the page where a boy says, “I like to jerk off in libraries,” they might think my book is smutty. If they read the whole book, they would realize it’s teaching twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls to be safe when they meet people online.

That was one issue, and another big issue was with the poem called “Ice Capades,” where it says, “Sometimes/on cold nights/I like to press my breasts against the cold glass of the window,/unbutton my nightgown,/and press my breasts/against the cold glass/just so I can see/the amazing tricks/that my nipples can do.” That poem with the nipple word in there, and the idea that she would press her breasts against the glass and her nipples would get erect, was more than people could handle. They couldn’t take it. They were freaked out. It wasn’t even a masturbation poem, it was a “first.” She was going through having breasts for the first time. “Oh what can they do?” And it wasn’t in the daytime, where anyone could see it, it wasn’t for an audience. It was at night, in the dark and she did this thing. I can’t tell you how many letters I got from girls telling me, “You made me feel like I’m not so weird.” It didn’t mean they were at home putting their breasts against a glass, but they were doing something else that they were feeling weird about, and then they don’t have to anymore because this character has done this thing. That’s why I left the poem in. After I wrote it, I told my husband I didn’t think I could put this one in there, and he said, “No, you gotta keep it in there.” I’m glad I did.

Sones explained the process that happens when there is “a challenge to a book,” the forms from the American Library Association that asks for the offense, and then how the book faces the City Council for public libraries or the school board.

SS: It’s actually a great thing, because the whole community has to come together and decide whether this person should have the right to remove the book, and kids will get in on it and say, “No, you can’t do it.” And I was thrilled that my book was one of the Top 100 Most Challenged Books of the decade. Because as a result of that, I often get asked to speak about why you shouldn’t ban books, and you can’t change an adult’s mind about that, but when you get out to a middle school or high school those kids may never have even thought about it, and so you get to them before a misguided adult gets to them and tells them banning books is okay. I like that I get to influence younger people.

I was at a middle school speaking, and it just so happened that Ellen Hopkins, who also writes novels-in-verse, had just been uninvited by a book festival because a parent found her books objectionable. I thought this is a good example of it, so I told the kids what happened and that some of the other authors in solidarity decided not to come and speak, so if you were one of those authors, what would you do? A girl raised her hand right away and said, “Well, what I would do is I would go, but when I got there instead of reading from my book, I would read from Ellen’s book.” What a fantastically subversive, brilliant thing. So it’s great to be able to talk about banned books with kids. The way I describe it in a nutshell to kids is if your mother doesn’t think you’re ready for a certain book, she has every right to say, “I’d like you to wait until you’re fourteen to read it,” but why should your mother be able to tell every other kid in your school they can’t read it too?

I wondered if she felt like she had to self-edit or reconsider how she approached the themes and ideas she was interested in as a result of the ban.

SS: It would be the other way around. I would be delighted if one of my other books was banned, but I think it had to do with the title. What My Mother Doesn’t Know made them perk up their ears and peek over their daughters’ shoulders and ask, “Wait, what does this character’s mother not know? What do I not know about my own daughter?” I think the title itself might have gotten it into hot water. One of Those Hideous Books got banned a little because two of those characters are gay, but no one had the nerve to say it was because those characters were gay.

RW: You’ve tackled mental illness, teen firsts, and homelessness. What’s next?

SS: I have a huge file, and I find when I’m writing I’ll often come up with a gillion ideas that seem so much more interesting than what I’m working on, which is just smoke screen. You’re putting things up in front of yourself to keep you from doing the job at hand, but rather than just throw those away, I put them in a file. I know I’ll find something good in there to write next, but I’m not allowing myself to think about it yet.

Roz Weisberg is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at Antioch University and the current Y/A Editor for Lunch Ticket. She serves as a mentor to teen girls at WriteGirl and mentors aspiring screenwriters at the Cinestory Foundation Retreat in Idllywyld, CA. When not developing stories, consuming pop culture, or planning her next adventure, she awaits March Madness and the underdog Cinderella Team that will inevitably break her heart.

Matthew Zapruder, Poet

Matthew Zapruder (born 1967 in Washington, D.C.) is an American poet, editor, translator, and professor. He is the author of several collections of poetry, including Sun Bear (2014), Come On All You Ghosts (2010), The Pajamaist (2006), and American Linden (2002). His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harvard Review, The Believer, and Best American Poetry 2009. Why Poetry, a book of prose, is forthcoming from Ecco Press in 2017. With Brian Henry, Zapruder co-founded Verse Press, which later became Wave Books. His honors include a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, TX, the 2008 May Sarton Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the 2007 Williams Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. He lives in Oakland, CA, where he is Director of the Saint Mary’s College of California MFA in Creative Writing, and Editor at Large at Wave Books.

This interview took place over email, in August, 2015.

*     *     *

José Hernández Díaz: Which poets or prose writers help get your creative juices going? Who are you constantly returning to?

Matthew Zapruder: My guides are the gentle warrior dreamer poets who search for their own particular ways of reactivating language, and therefore us. Sappho, the T’ang poets Tu Fu, Li Po, and Wei Yingwu, and others. Coleridge, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson. Mandelstam, Pessoa, Desnos. Stevens, Neruda. Vasko Popa, Yannis Ritsos, Cavavy. Jack Spicer, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Robert Creeley, Lorine Niedecker, the recently departed Tomaz Salamun, and James Tate. This list is totally incomplete. Among the living: Ashbery, Adélia Prado, Mary Ruefle, Dara Wier, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Juan Felipe Herrera, and so many others I’m sure I’m forgetting, and many of my peers.

As far as prose, I took most of the summer to read Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, both of whom I thought were extraordinary. I am now reading a novel by the noted psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden.

. . . when a poem is really humming along, it’s because it feels new and also old. New in this particular iteration, old because it’s the deep collective wisdom of language, what we already somehow and for a long time have known.

JHD: What wows you in poetry? What bores you?

MZ: I think when I first read Dickinson’s description of how reading poetry makes her feel as if physically the top of her head were coming off, that felt right to me, I recognized something like that. For me, it has to be something that happens in the body somewhere, an electric charge, not necessarily like being violently shocked, but again, activated.

I don’t particularly like pretension. I’m also not a big fan of the poeticization of things that seem to me as if they really should be said in prose. Lyrical preaching to the converted bores me. I don’t see much evidence that the content of a poem, more or less beautified by poetic craft, has really changed anyone’s mind or made them live better. It seems like those sorts of poems get awfully close to the manipulation characteristic of political speech or advertising. I always find myself bored, not to mention dismayed, when the entire discussion of a poem revolves around its content or message. This seems to implicitly consign poetry to the sad fate of being a content delivery device.

JHD: About how long does it take for you to create a polished piece? Do you have any rituals or superstitions? Favorite music to listen to while reading / writing?

MZ: I don’t try to polish anything. I want the poems to have force. Sometimes it happens right away, sometimes it can take years, or not at all. I just keep going back until I feel it is right.

As far as rituals, I just try to shut off as much of the noise (internet, phone, etc.) as I can. I think of that as a ritual behavior. I don’t listen to music when I write very much, except occasionally Satie’s sidereal music of the spheres, which I am listening to right now, or this amazing band I really love who CAConrad first turned me onto, and then I got to be friends and eventually collaborators with, Victoire.

JHD: Your thoughts on the use and function of non-sequiturs and juxtaposition in your poetry? Is it fair to say Frank OHara and Dean Young are influences in terms of this aesthetic?  

MZ: I want to object to the term non-sequitur. A non-sequitur is a statement that doesn’t follow logically. I think it is the poet’s job (look at me now giving jobs to poets! We already have too many jobs, we shouldn’t have to work at all), whether in metaphor or in the more macroscopic movement of the poem, to find the unexpected yet also retrospectively right-feeling connections latent in language and the brain. Aristotle wrote that people who are poets have “an eye for resemblances.” They can see, or I think more exactly intuit, connections in the language that are not usually there. In other words, when a poem is really humming along, it’s because it feels new and also old. New in this particular iteration, old because it’s the deep collective wisdom of language, what we already somehow and for a long time have known.

Some poets are drawn to violent and dramatic leaps of association, high wire acts. Others are calmer and more meditative. I like poets all along that spectrum, and think I am drawn in my own poetry to do a variety of things. So yes, it is quite fair to say O’Hara and Dean Young are influences (I’d add James Tate in there, since he was my teacher, and I have probably read more of his poetry than almost anyone else), but they and so many others are part of a tradition I mentioned above, one that goes back to the New York School and Bay Area poets of the mid 20th century, and surrealism, and much before that, to the great Romantic poets, the Chinese poets, and so on. Brilliant dreamers, loving appliers of alien names.

JHD: What was the first publication that made you feel you had made it as a writer? Any memorable celebrations following individual poem or manuscript acceptances?  

MZ: When my first book was published in 2002, it was an important moment for me. I had started writing relatively late (in my 20s), so a lot of my peers and friends had already published fantastic first and even second books. So when American Linden was published, that helped me feel as if I were now truly a part of something. At that time, we really were (and still continue to be) a very close tribe. We still write, work, read, travel, and discuss poetry together. So that was really what I was interested in, the respect and readership of my peers. And of the dead.

When my first book came out, it first physically arrived at a literary festival in Staten Island that my close friend Joshua Beckman had organized. It was in a giant old theater called the St. George which I believe has now been renovated, but at that time it had basically been abandoned. It had a huge black stage lit up, and what felt like thousands but were probably at the most a few hundred seats shrouded in complete darkness. We spent all day there, everyone came to read a few poems, bands played at the end of the evening, it was like being inside a giant dreaming poetry and music head. Anyway, the first time I saw my book, it was the morning of that festival: Tupelo Press sent a box directly to the theater! This was something amazing. Thank you Tupelo Press! I remember going to move my car after that and thinking, with the utter seriousness of a young person, ‘Now if I am hit by a truck as I am driving and perish, I at least will feel like I did one thing with my life.’

JHD: I recently read three Wave Books: As Long As Trees Last by Hoa Nguyen, Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle, and The Pedestrians by Rachel Zucker. All great books. What other authors can we look forward to Wave publishing in the future? How do you find your authors?

MZ: We publish about 6-8 books a year, mostly single volume monographs of poetry by mid-career American poets (though we do also publish translations and other work edited by those poets as well). Joshua Beckman (the Editor of Wave Books) and I are always reading, looking, discussing, going to readings, etc. We are active editors, and we consider it our job to find the poets who are right for Wave Books. One book I’m particularly thrilled about, and can brag about because I personally did not work on it, is Supplication, a new selected poems of John Wieners, edited by Joshua and CAConrad and Robbie Dewhurst. It’s an absolutely brilliant selection, and people seem very excited about it. I love reading it.

JHD: Any new writers, first or second book, that you are excited about?

MZ: There are so many poets now that I couldn’t even really begin to answer this question. One book I would recommend everyone read is not a first or second book but a third one, by Victoria Chang, called The Boss. I go back to it a lot, I think it is brilliant and very emotionally honest without being merely anecdotal. It takes on some huge issues—mortality and financial anxiety, as well as parenting—in ways that emerge with great integrity out of the material of language itself. It’s exactly what I was referring to above, poetry with a great moral and historical sense that is not just lyricized prose.

JHD: What are you working on now?

Writing new poems and finishing up a book of prose, Why Poetry, that’s coming out next year.

JHD: Can you tell us about your MFA experience? You went to UMass-Amherst. Any writer mentors that were influential to you as a writer, who and how?

MZ: I’ve written about my MFA experiences here and here.

I loved getting my MFA at UMass. I studied with James Tate, Dara Wier, and Agha Shahid Ali, all of whom were intensely formative for me in different ways, and continue to be. I went to school with a lot of extremely talented young poets who have gone on to do amazing things. It was a great time, intensely accelerating, and my experiences at UMass still influence in so many ways my own conception of my job as a professor in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College in California. I know people say a lot of things about MFA programs, good and bad, and it’s a complicated subject, but I am absolutely sure, from my own experience as a student and as a teacher, that it can be under the right circumstances a great thing for a young writer, exciting and productive and fun.

JHD: Any advice for MFA students?

MZ: Read, experiment, try, change, have faith.

Jose HernandezJosé Hernández Díaz is an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles. He earned a BA in English from UC Berkeley. His work has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired ReadingThe Progressive, Lumina, Witness, Huizache, Pilgrimage, Juked, Hobart, Parcel, Acentos Review, Whiskey Island, and others. He has served as an editor for Lunch Ticket and Floricanto Press.