Cecil Castellucci, Author

Cecil CastellucciCecil Castellucci’s stories remind us that we find vulnerability and courage in the face of new situations and obstacles. Castellucci is a flexible writer, capable of expressing her stories through several artistic mediums. Her characters embody the passion, joy, and confusion of those delicate young adult years. Her world-building immerses the reader into the 1930s railways, high school hallways, and alien worlds.

Cecil Castellucci has written books, graphic novels, hybrid novels, and plays. Her works include Boy Proof, The Plain Janes, The Year of the Beasts, and Tin Star. Her graphic novel, Odd Duck, was nominated for the Eisner award, the Joe Shuster Award, and the Sakura Medal. Her short stories and short comics can be found in Strange HorizonsTor.com, Womanthology, Star Trek: Waypoint, and Vertigo SFX: Slam! Her latest graphic novel is Soupy Leaves Home (Dark Horse Books, 2017). She is currently writing Shade, The Changing Girl, a series of comics (Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint at DC Comics). She serves as the children’s correspondence coordinator for The Rumpus. She is a two-time MacDowell fellow and the YA editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

I interviewed Cecil Castelluci via Skype on August 8, 2017.

Jennifer Mahoney: Why are you drawn towards the YA genre? What’s important to you about speaking with young people? How do you tailor your art to them?

Cecil Castellucci: The first thing that I love about children’s literature, kid lit of any kind, is that it’s the first time that the person falls in love with a book. It’s the first time that a person falls in love with stories and what stories can do. YA is a little bit separate from that, but the idea of writing for young people: it’s such a vital thing because it’s really where people begin to fall in love with stories. You can ask anyone you want, and immediately, they’ll tell you what their favorite kid’s book was. And I think that’s amazing.

Specifically, writing for teenagers, I find it so compelling because it’s really this sort of moment in humanity where a person is figuring out what kind of a person they want to be, what kind of a human being they want to be, what they think of humanity. That’s really fertile for us writers because it’s when a person or a character is at that their rawest. They don’t have the experience yet, the wisdom of life experience, but they have all of the intelligence and the feelings. Everything is the first time. First love. First betrayal. First rage. First joy. So, I think as a writer, those kinds of characters are compelling because the choices that they make—whether it’s who I go to prom with, do I save the universe—are really a matter of life and death. It’s so compelling.

I don’t think you tailor your art to them. You just write a book, and it just happens to have young protagonists as the main characters. Not to say that adult books don’t have main characters that are young protagonists. I think the only way you kind of “tailor” it—and I’m going to put that in air quotes—is that in a young adult book or in a kid’s book, the things are happening to the kids immediately. And in an adult book, if the protagonist is a young person, usually there’s an adult self-awareness or a nostalgic look-back. So, I think the way that you “tailor” it, quote unquote, is that you make it more immediately happening to the characters with no self-awareness of what the consequences of things might be, because they don’t have that experience, and they don’t have that wisdom to be able to figure it out. Whereas, if you have a young protagonist in an adult book—or a book that’s marketed and categorized as an adult book—you can comment as the author or as “the voice” on the choices that the characters are making; or you can have a sense of nostalgia about it because you’re remembering a more innocent time.

JM: In addition to being a writer, you’ve been in a band and in theatre. What are the differences and similarities between the expressive arts that you’ve been involved in, and writing? Do you use them to express different things?

CC: The thing about stories is that they can be told in so many different ways. I don’t see any difference between being in a band and singing a song or doing a play or when I used to do one woman shows. It’s just a different way of telling a story. A painter can go on a picnic and can bring charcoals or they can bring watercolors or they can bring pencils. And they can paint the picnic. It’ll look a little bit different, depending on which tool they brought with them. I feel like all of these things—music, performing arts, comics, poetry: it’s all like you’re going to a picnic, and you’re picking up a different tool. And the way you’re going to depict that picnic scene is different depending on the medium that you use. For me, stories are all the same thing. It’s just which paintbrush to pick up. Do you pick up a pastel or a watercolor? That’s how I feel about the expressive arts versus the written arts.

…what I love about comics is that they’re very distilled, and they have silence in them. You can have an image that has no words in it, that tells you a thousand-fold more than what you could write about that same feeling.

That said, I think that they both inform each other very well, because there are some things that you can do well in theatre or film or comedy or music that you can’t do in books or a poem. You can do different things, and you can sort of play the human emotional zone differently depending on which form you use. What’s nice about having done stuff in a bunch of different forms is that sometimes, when you’re writing a book, you get frustrated because you can’t get across what you want to get across, because the medium is clumsy in one way and elegant in another. By having the option to tell stories in different ways you can say, “Oh, well, I’ll get to that emotional thing that I can’t pay off in this kind of medium in another medium.” One thing I do is I take little acting workshops every once in a while, because I feel that it’s very helpful for the writer; because creating characters, dealing with dialogue—it’s the same thing that we’re doing in books. It’s just that we’re standing up and using our bodies. And I think that as writers, we get very sedentary, and we forget how physical emotions can be and how rooted in the body they are. When you’re angry, you slam or you punch. When you’re joyful, you scream. And these things, we can write them and we can imagine them in our head, and we feel them. But there’s a difference when you’re actually physically trying them out. And I think that can help inform the word when you’re sitting sedentary, just like I think writing can make an actor or performative person take pause for a moment and really think and consider.

JM: During a recent lecture at Antioch University Los Angeles, you mentioned that you started out as a fiction writer, then became a comic-book writer. What influenced you to make this transition? Were there stories you wanted to tell that could be better told through comics?

CC: I’ve always loved comic books. I’ve always thought it was an amazing storytelling device. There’s something so beautiful about it and so fun, deep and yet also carefree because they’re quickly consumed. But they have such gravitas, or they can also have fluffiness. I guess the real big moment for me was—I was living in Texas with a boyfriend, and I went to the comic-book store. I picked up this series called The Deadenders, by Ed Brubaker. It was a title that had young people that starred in it. It made me feel that this is a young adult novel. I can see it. That’s what I want to do. That’s the kind of story I want to tell in comics. I started trying to google how you break into comics, and I couldn’t figure it out. So, I just thought, “Well, this is a mystery, and I’m never going to figure it out.” Because it’s really hard to figure out how to be a writer or an artist of any kind. How do you break in? It’s like, where is the on-ramp? I just kind of put it aside and kept thinking about it. My first novel was about a girl who was obsessed with comic books. And Shelly Bond [an editor at DC Comics Vertigo], happened to have read that book and then called me and asked if I would be interested in writing comics. It was amazing. But it was something that I thought I could do and thought that I could be good at and enjoy and really wanted to figure out how to do, but just didn’t know how to start.

Incidentally, I feel like that about playwriting right now. I want to make plays. So, I was ready when the moment came. But what I love about comics is that they’re very distilled, and they have silence in them. You can have an image that has no words in it, that tells you a thousand-fold more than what you could write about that same feeling. That’s what I love about writing comics. And I think that a story can tell you what it wants to be. And now that I write more comics, I can tell when I come up with an idea. “Oh, this wants to be a comic book or this wants to be a novel.” You just follow that realm. Soupy Leaves Home, which is my newest graphic novel about hobos, is about a girl who runs away from an abusive home, and dresses up as a boy, and rides the rails as a hobo. It seems to me that when you’re coming out of an abusive relationship, Soupy’s relationship with her father, you don’t really have words to articulate what you’ve been going through. You’re just kind of numb and kind of trying to process what the heck just happened and how you can see your way through. It felt obvious that it was a comic book because it would be boring to write a novel where: “And then she was quiet. She just stood there.” It would just be a lot of words to say that she’s not saying much because she’s feeling shut down. Whereas, in a comic book, you can just have her not saying anything. The reader can see that she’s shut down.

The other thing was this idea of dreamy travel in America, sort of walking across America. And the sort of dreaminess of trains. You can express that with words, and you can do a beautiful job. But there’s something about just seeing a train on the tracks when you turn the page. It seemed obvious that that book should be a comic book.

JM: You’ve written comics, and then there is The Year of the Beasts with alternating chapters of prose and comics. How do you determine whether a story should be written entirely in prose or comics, or both?

CC: The Year of the Beasts is a puzzle book. It’s about a girl and her sister, and the prose part is the girl named Tessa and her sister and the boys that they like and the summer and the carnival and [that] sort of idyllic world. And then something happens. And the graphic novel is about a girl who is a Medusa, whose hair can turn to stone, and her friends have turned to mythological creatures, and she just want to be a girl again. She can’t understand why she can’t be a girl. The fundamental core of the story is grief. I wanted to talk about how, when we go through [hormonal changes], people who are surrounding us don’t know how to talk to us. They don’t know how to handle intense grief. They don’t know how to handle intense emotions. They run away. They turn to stone. They stop speaking. So, when we’re going through something that’s super huge, we almost feel like we become a Medusa and that people are turning to stone. I have this idea for this book which talks about grief, and when I got to the parts where I wanted to talk about sadness or about how people were reacting to this person, words seemed clumsy.

JM: You’ve written several pieces, such as Soupy Leaves Home and Shade, the Changing Girl that involve female protagonists being pushed into new worlds. Your characters are pushed out of their comfort zone as they encounter aliens and hobos. How do you think that this mimics reality, the daily life of a normal teenage girl?

CC: With Shade, I think that teenagers feel like aliens to begin with, because their bodies are changing. Thing are erupting like boobs and zits and erections, all these things. I think that an alien being put in the body of a sixteen-year-old girl mirrors a teenage experience in terms of the feeling that you’re going from childhood to adulthood, and you’ve been pushed into a body that you don’t have control over. I think that sort of fits in very well.

I think that an alien being put in the body of a sixteen-year-old girl mirrors a teenage experience in terms of the feeling that you’re going from childhood to adulthood, and you’ve been pushed into a body that you don’t have control over.

And I think it’s the same with Soupy. She has to go into a cocoon as a boy. She dresses up as a boy. She doesn’t want to be a boy, but she dresses up as a boy for safety reasons and for hiding reasons, and then emerges as a young woman. I think the other thing that it mirrors is this time where you go from childhood to adulthood, and you’re kind of cocooning. You are a caterpillar, and then you become a butterfly. And I think that’s what happens with Soupy. I think Soupy is addressing the cocooning stage, the hibernating stage before emergence. And I think that Shade is addressing the body horror, the emotional hormonal horror of being a teenager.

JM: In Year of the Beasts, the graphic chapters are in black and white. Is this due to the novel being half in prose and half in comic? How did you determine illustrations for Year of the Beasts compared to your other comics?

CC: There are a lot of different factors that go into that. A lot of it has to do with money, because every single time you hire a colorist you have to pay an extra [amount]; you have to change the paper that you use. The paper in Year of the Beasts would have had to be different than in Shade the Changing Girl and Soupy, which are glossy kinds of paper. I would never have wanted Year of the Beasts to be in color. I think that it’s so striking and so somber and so beautiful in black and white. I think it suits it perfectly. [Compare this to] Plain Janes—which is about an all-girl guerilla art group, about a girl who finds a sketchbook that says, “Art Saves” after being in a terrorist attack. Her parents move her to the suburbs, and she decides to do an all-girl guerilla art group. They do art attacks to make an attack be something beautiful. That book, I would love to have in color. If I could do it again, or if I could reprint it—which hopefully, I will one day—it will absolutely be in full color. Because I think a book about art lends itself to being in color.

JM: In your most recent comic, Soupy is the name of the main character. In the story, there is a special soup called Mulligan Stew. It’s created when all the hobos contribute their own ingredient. The main ingredient is the kindness that each member brings. Is there a connection between the stew and Soupy’s name? Was it important for you to bring humanity to these characters?

CC: One of the things about hobos is that they lived in the cracks of society. I think when you’re a person living on the outskirts or the cracks of society—any group of people who are pushed to those places: you have to help each other. Because everybody else thinks that you’re terrible. And so, you have to be there for each other. I think the Mulligan Stew is one of those things. Me, I have a sad carrot. You have a small potato. But we can put it together, and we can make something great. Hobos had such an amazing culture, and they had this really strict ethical code that they lived by. They really were all about not making it difficult for the person behind you. It was absolutely important to show that, especially because now we have a romantic idea of hobos. Nobody says, “Hobo” and [then] is like, “Oh those dirty hobos.” But back in the nineteen-thirties, people did say that. It wasn’t romantic. It was hard. They were migrant workers who were working and who moved around, who roamed. And that’s scary to people who stay, who don’t roam. So yeah, absolutely, it was important to me to have that society be very three-dimensional. I mean, of course, there were douchebags in that society too, as we know from Soupy Leaves Home. You know, it’s funny, because she does have adult sidekicks and they’re all men, except for Professor Jack, who is closer in age to her. But there were a lot of children on the road. And there were women on the road. I just chose to make it this one group of people. It seemed to me like Soupy, maybe if she had seen another woman on the road who was dressed up as a man for safety, then she could [have confessed] who she really was. And I like the idea of her keeping her secret until the end.

JM: Soupy Leaves Home largely takes place amongst a homeless population. Why did you choose to write about these characters?

CC: I don’t think they were homeless. I think they were home-free, like child-free. You know, a lot of kids ran away from home. In the Depression, the oldest kid would run away from home and become a hobo, become a migrant worker, so they wouldn’t be a burden on their family for food. I just think it was a fascinating society. That’s why I wrote about it.

JM: What was it about living amongst these characters that allowed Soupy to learn and grow?

You can be your own person. And you can move through the world in the way that you want to move through the world.

CC: The thing that she learns from Ramshackle and Professor Jack and Tom Cat is that you can be your own man or human. You can be your own person. And you can move through the world in the way that you want to move through the world. I mean, Soupy leaves home because she wants to be a modern woman. There’s not really a place yet for modern women. And there’s no real definition of what that looks like. She really wants to be a modern woman like we are in today’s society, and that doesn’t exist in her time. She goes off with a bunch of people who decide to live life on their own terms, and go by their own code of laws and their own rules. And by the time she gets to California, she figures out how to live in her own skin and how to be her own person, and how to be the kind of modern woman that she wants to be in the world, to be a pioneer in a way. She learns that by being surrounded by people who decide to live life on their own terms. You know, Ramshackle certainly does that. He sees the future that no one else can see anymore, but he sees it pretty properly. You know, he’s an inventor and a dreamer, and he can imagine the future as we have it today. He’s sort of born out of time. And Professor Jack, he’s a young man who wants to learn. There’s a reason why he’s called Professor Jack. He’s smart, and I have no doubts that he’s going to do great, great things in his life. But he doesn’t fit into the made-by-number society. I think they are all the people who just—they’re not born in the right time. They’re ahead of the curve.

JM: At the end, we’re surprised to learn that the wise Professor has not received a formal education. Even though he lives his life on the road, he earned his title because of his passion to learn. What are your thoughts on the value of informal versus formal education?

CC: I think informal education is wonderful. I mean, I think formal education is great. I love it. And I did it. I got my bachelor’s, but I’m a life learner. I think that one of the most important, amazing things about being a human being is that we can still learn all the time. And I think that Professor Jack embodies that. He’s a life learner. I have a lot of friends whom I love and adore, who were punk rockers, and they dropped out of high school and went on the road or worked on a pipeline or planted trees or taught English somewhere. They just did crazy things and wandered about. And then when they were in their early/mid-twenties, they got their GED or they used their life experience and went to college and got a bachelor’s, and they became teachers and professors, authors, whatever. I think that there is such an amazing thing to be said for experience, if you’re open to the world. And I think Professor Jack embodies that.

I do a lot of MOOCs (massive open online courses). I’ll do my dishes, and I’m taking a class at Princeton, listening to lectures. I love it. My gosh, we’ve got brains. Let’s use them.

JM: At the end, Soupy doesn’t want to leave the roaming life. Despite her itch to stay on the road, she has a bigger desire to attend college and learn. She describes college as “roaming down the road of ideas.” Would you say this is more of the kind of freedom she desires, not a physical freedom, but a mental freedom to learn anything she chooses?

CC: I think they both lead to each other. I think that her romancing down the road of ideas does make her physically free. I don’t know if she’s a hobo again. I don’t know if she ever jumps a freight train again. But I one-hundred-percent believe that Soupy becomes a traveler, that she roams the world at some point—or at least does as much as she can.

I do literacy read-aloud with elementary school kids. I volunteered at an elementary school. I feel like even if you’re here, you can be somewhere else when you’re reading. You can time travel. You can go to outer space. You can go twenty thousand leagues under the sea. You can go anywhere. You can be anything. You can be a princess. You can be a queen. You can be a king. A hobo. I feel like they are different sides to the same coin.

 

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

 

 

Lisa Dickey, Author & Ghostwriter

Lisa DickeyLisa Dickey is a longtime ghostwriter and author who has collaborated on seventeen nonfiction books, eight of which became New York Times bestsellers. Her clients have included celebrities such as Herbie Hancock and Patrick Swayze, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and many others with diverse backgrounds, from CIA agents to business titans.

Many of Lisa’s collaborations focus on national and international political events. She collaborated with Roberta Kaplan, the attorney for plaintiff Edie Windsor in the US Supreme Court case that brought down the Defense of Marriage Act. Their book, Then Comes Marriage, was named a top-ten book of 2015 by both the Los Angeles Times and Ms. Magazine. In The World is Bigger Now, Lisa collaborated with Euna Lee, an American film editor and mother who was arrested and detained for five months in North Korea while working on a documentary film. Lisa also worked with Susan McDougal on her memoir The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk, recounting her eighteen months of imprisonment for refusing to testify against her partners in the Whitewater real estate deal, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Lisa is the author of the 2017 nonfiction book Bears in the Streets, the story of three trips she took across Russia in 1995, 2005, and 2015. Bears in the Streets is an eye-opening and compassionate account of the lives of ordinary Russians whom Lisa interviewed on each of her journeys. Lisa captured their unique perspectives about their homeland and how they viewed economic and political changes over time.

I met Lisa Dickey in June 2017, when she was the guest “Writers at Work” speaker at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program’s summer residency. We spoke by telephone on August 8, 2017, both about her own book, Bears in the Streets, and about ghostwriting. While Lisa was careful to maintain her clients’ confidentiality, the insights she provided about the world of ghostwriting are invaluable to any writer interested in this field.

Judy Gitterman: One of your ghostwriting projects is Then Comes Marriage, which is the story of United States v. Windsor and the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the United States Supreme Court. The Court found DOMA’s definition of marriage as restricted to a union of a man and woman to be an unconstitutional violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. You cowrote this book with Roberta Kaplan, the lead litigator for the plaintiff Edie Windsor. The book begins with Kaplan’s first meeting with Edie Windsor and the story then goes back through Roberta’s life from childhood through her career as a lawyer prior to taking on the case as lead attorney. We are back in that first meeting on page 114. How do you and the subject of a book decide on the chronology of a story, and do you prepare a detailed outline prior to writing?

Lisa Dickey: I am not completely comfortable speaking about the specific book, but my preference is to have an outline, a full outline of what the book is going to be and what the chapters are going to be, before we start. That’s my preference.

JG: The legal and procedural issues involving the Windsor lawsuit are explained very clearly. I’m a lawyer, but I think the story of the lawsuit is written in a way that non-lawyers can easily understand while, importantly, the prose doesn’t sacrifice the complex legal subject matter. In other words, there is no dumbing down. How were you and Roberta able to achieve this and did it involve research on your part?

LD: Again, I can’t really speak directly to a particular book, but I will say in general, I think there is a benefit in having a person like me come into a project that gets into some kind of specific detail about a topic that the general reader might not know. I think it is helpful to have someone who serves as a layperson and can say, “I don’t think the general reader is going to understand this,” or “I think this needs to be explained more clearly.” For example, I did a book about the career of Herbie Hancock, the jazz pianist. It was the same sort of thing with him as it was with Roberta Kaplan as it was with Bob Baer (I helped him to do a book about Iran). I was able to say to them, “Look, you are experts in your field. You’re an expert in that subject, this is second nature to you, but I’m here to tell you that as a layperson, I don’t understand this, and so I think we need to explain it in a way that people who aren’t lawyers or jazz musicians or experts in international relations are going to understand.”

JG: That makes a lot of sense. That’s how you’re able to work with people over so many different areas. I’m just fascinated by it.

LD: I will say, though, that the editor for Herbie’s book said to me, “Do you know much about jazz?” I said, “No, but I think Herbie has that covered.”

JG: Roberta’s distinctive personality comes through very well in Then Comes Marriage. You’ve also ghostwritten for Euna Lee, the American journalist who was detained in North Korea for five months in 2009. Euna’s distinct voice is evident in The World is Bigger Now just as Gavin Newsom’s story about how to use technology to get people excited about and engaged in government is recounted in his own voice in Citizenville. All of these are unique voices, different from your own. Is ghostwriting something like method acting? In other words, do you need to subsume yourself in your subject’s personality and, if so, how is that done?

LD: That’s certainly the way I do it. I definitely get very immersed in the life and voice of whoever it is that I’m working with. I don’t do two books at once, because I think it would be very difficult to switch back and forth between subjects and between voices. I know there are some ghostwriters who do that, but that’s not something I’ve ever done. It is rather like acting in a way, because you just take on this voice and this person, and you kind of live it, to a certain extent.

JG: When ghostwriting, about how much time do you spend with your subject? Does it vary with each book? Do you usually do the bulk of the interviews in the beginning, or do you space them out over an extended period of time?

It is rather like acting in a way, because you just take on this voice and this person, and you kind of live it, to a certain extent.

LD: The short answer is, I take as much time as the person will give me. I always tell them, the more time they can give me, particularly in the beginning, the better the book will be. And yes, there’s definitely a lot more of that kind of thing at the beginning of each project, trying to understand how they think, and what the story is, and getting all the details of it. And then later on, when there’s the actual putting of the words onto paper, it doesn’t require quite as much face-time or phone-time or things of that nature. Definitely at the beginning, I always try to get as much time as I can with the person. It varies, of course, because all these people are very busy people and, depending on what they have going in their own lives, their work lives, their personal lives, some people are able to give me more time than other people. But I always try to get as much time as I can.

JGWhen you’re ghostwriting, do you prefer to start a manuscript with your coauthor from scratch, or do you prefer to start with the subject’s own first draft? I imagine this also may vary and depend on the person whose story you’re telling.

LD: It definitely varies. I’ve done anything from starting from absolute scratch to the person’s having a full manuscript and presenting it to me, to work—or rework—as the case may be. There was one time when someone gave me a full manuscript, and I didn’t think it was particularly useable in the form it was in, so I would sort of pick and choose things out of it, and then we structured the book in a completely different way. So it really just depends. It often comes down to what the client’s preference is. Sometimes people really want to write it themselves and have me help out with some restructuring, and some people prefer not to do any writing at all and just are happy to hand it over.

JG: What advice do you have for a writer who is just starting out and wants to get into the field of ghostwriting?

LD: I would say the thing that’s interesting about ghostwriting is, as you say, it’s not simply that you can be a good writer and that means you will be a good ghostwriter. It really does mean subsuming your own voice to a certain extent. A lot about being a successful—and good—writer, generally, is finding the voice. In ghostwriting, you’re not doing that. You’re finding someone else’s voice. You have to be willing to subsume yourself to a certain extent in the service of doing that. So, think about whether ghostwriting is the kind of thing you’d like to do. I discovered I had a knack for it and enjoyed it really by accident. I was traveling after college, backpacking through Europe. I found that whenever I was writing letters home I would end up writing, just by chance, similar to the voice of whatever book I was reading. So, if I was reading Hemingway, I was writing these short punchy sentences in my letters. If I was reading Dostoevsky, I was writing longer more complex sentences. It struck me by chance. I thought, “Isn’t that interesting?” I didn’t even realize I was doing it; I just sort of unconsciously was doing it. That was the first time that I thought this might be an interesting tool that I have, an unusual skill that maybe I could use somehow.

JG: After ghostwriting seventeen books, earlier this year you released your first book-length piece of creative nonfiction in your own voice, Bears in the Streets. The book describes the three journeys you took across the entire expanse of Russia in 1995, 2005 and 2015. In 1995, you first met with and interviewed a diverse group of Russians in both major cities and remote villages, and in the subsequent years, you reconnected with the same people, and got their views about how their lives had changed and how the country had changed. After so many years of ghostwriting, what was different about writing Bears in the Streets in your own voice?

LD: It was a challenge for sure. Having done ghostwriting for so long and so many different books, I wasn’t really used to taking the lead on what the voice was in a particular book. I would spend time with the person and start to understand the rhythms, and then I would start to understand how the voice would unfold on the page. And so, certainly with my own, it was a process. It was very difficult in the beginning, in trying to figure out What is the rhythm here? What is the voice? I knew I was going to do this third trip in 2015 and then try to write a book about it. […] In 2013 or 2014, I’d been living in Los Angeles and I decided to take a class in stage storytelling, where you get up on stage and spend five or ten minutes telling a story. I thought it would be very interesting to do that as an exercise, to take a class and learn the basics of how you present yourself, how do people perceive you, what is your persona, what is your voice. And the class was actually extremely helpful; I started doing stage storytelling and that was very helpful. So, when I sat down to write my own book, there was definitely a little time at the very beginning where I thought, “I hope I can figure this out, I hope I can do this.” A couple times I even thought, “What if I was my own client, what would I advise myself to do? Let me see if I can write as if I’m ghostwriting my own memoir.” It was a truly weird exercise. In the end, I spent a lot of time getting that first chapter right, getting the first chapter in the voice that I thought reflected who I was and how I wanted the book to unfold. In my experience, once you get the first chapter right, the rest of it unfolds pretty naturally.

JG: In Bears in the Streets, you recounted a number of uncomfortable conversations during the 2005 and 2015 trips. Most of the people you spoke with in 2005 and 2015 loved Putin and were angered by America’s actions in the Ukraine and imposition of sanctions. One woman, Masha, was particularly hostile, and you mention in your book that you felt like throwing the remains of your sandwich across the table when she told you she had heard that the American government was behind the September 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers, because it wanted to boost the stock market. What was it like to discuss these topics with your interviewees when you were on the receiving end of such different information? Did you feel for the most part that you could speak freely? If not, when did you decide to hold back?

LD: I did for the most part feel like I could speak freely, and that the people I was speaking with understood that I was there to hear what they had to say, and to a certain extent to tell them what I thought—although I would say that my goal in going over and having these conversations with these people was not to get into contentious discussions or disagreements or arguments or anything like that. My goal was to listen. There’s not that many American writers or journalists who go over and spend a lot of time talking to ordinary Russian people, and so my message to them was: I want to hear what you have to say, I want to know what you think, and I am going to report that, and that’s what I did. The lunch with Masha was frustrating because she was very, very far over on the spectrum, feeling like, essentially, everything the United States was doing was not good, and everything that Russia was doing was better. That was frustrating for me because I didn’t want to get into an argument with her. I didn’t want to be having such a contentious discussion, but at the same time she was saying things that I felt were untrue, I felt were unfair, and so that was a tricky one. But I’ll say this too, I come from a family that has a lot of members with very different political views from me, so just because she was Russian it wasn’t all that different from sitting down at the Thanksgiving table or spending time with my family and having a contentious discussion about politics here, too. It’s very similar.

JG: I think that’s happening at a lot of family Thanksgiving dinners these days. The country is so polarized politically.

And the people who are angriest, and most upset and vehement, often are the people who feel that, ‘No one is listening to what I have to say, nobody cares about what I think, nobody cares about the situation that I find myself in.

LD: I do think one of the most important things you can do, if you disagree very strenuously with something that someone is saying—I think it’s very important rather than to simply say “That’s not true and here’s why”—to say very clearly to the person, “I hear what you’re saying and I understand why you feel that way.” Because I think to a very large degree, and I think it’s very true right now particularly in this country, people want to feel like they’re being heard. And the people who are angriest, and most upset and vehement, often are the people who feel that, “No one is listening to what I have to say, nobody cares about what I think, nobody cares about the situation that I find myself in.” And I try to always take time to say to people, “I hear you and I want you to know that I hear what you’re saying, and I am listening. And now here’s the reason why I’m not sure that that’s true, or why I feel differently.” But I always try to preface it with: “I hear what you’re saying.”

JG: That’s important, I think, or otherwise people are going to be so defensive they won’t hear what you have to say.

LD: That turns it more into a discussion than an argument. It’s very disarming to hear someone say to you, “I absolutely hear what you’re saying. Whether I agree with it or not, I’m listening.” You know, everybody wants to feel listened to and you can always see people’s body language change when you say that.

JG: Would you consider discussing, or have you discussed by email or phone, the current topic of Russian interference in the US election with your interviewees?

LD: It’s funny, I’m actually Facebook friends with most of them, more than half of the people I’ve interviewed. I could have that conversation with them, but I’ve tried not to do that just because it is really contentious. I feel pretty certain that they’re going to have different opinions than I do about what it is that’s going on. It’s not something I have sought out, to have that conversation and to essentially get into it with them.

JG: And they haven’t brought it up with you, either?

LD: No, they haven’t brought it up with me. We’re talking a lot about Russia in the United States right now, but we pretty much always talk about Putin and the Kremlin and what’s going on at the highest levels of government, and that includes the hacking, and all of the things going on that affected our election, and all of those various elements. What I really wanted to do with this book was talk about what is the “real” Russia, and not what’s going on between the Kremlin and the White House. A line I use when I give talks is that there’s 144 million Russians not named Vladimir Putin. Those are the ones I want to talk about. And not that their political opinions don’t matter: of course they matter. But I was more interested in, “What is your life like? What do you think about day to day?” Some people wanted to talk about politics but most people didn’t. So, it was more, “How is your life? Can you afford to do the things you want to do? Do you worry about your children?” Day-to-day things. What is it that occupies people, what do they think about? That’s what I was more interested in.

JG: In the news, there’s talk about Putin and the spymasters and Russian oligarchs, but your book really got into the roots of the Russian people themselves. That’s so important. In regard to that, I was struck by how consistently the people you met with were of the opinion that Americans did not respect them or take them seriously—for example, thinking there are bears roaming the streets in Russia. Do you have any suggestions about what actions Americans, and specifically, American writers, might take to help repair relations with the Russian people, notwithstanding this current political situation?

LD: I spoke at a conference in New York a couple of months ago and a guy came up to me afterwards and said: “I’ve been invited to go to St. Petersburg to host a roundtable discussion about such-and-such topic. But given everything that’s going on politically between our countries, I guess I probably shouldn’t do it.” And I told him, it’s the opposite. Now is exactly the time we should be going over there, accepting invitations to go to conferences, go speak, be tourists, or any of these kinds of things. I think it’s not a bad idea. The more that we are able to have connections between our people and the Russian people, the better off we’re going to be. Some people might think that’s really a Pollyanna point of view. But I can say that after spending three months in 2015, going through the country and sitting down and having dinners and talking: there’s so much connection that can be made just on a human level, and I think we have to be open to that.

JG: Have any of the people you’ve interviewed read your book, and if so, what has been their reaction?

…there’s so much connection that can be made just on a human level, and I think we have to be open to that.

LD: A few people have read the book, and I sent it out to several [others], and I’m waiting to hear what they have to say about it. The ones who have read it so far seem to be pretty pleased and okay with it. There’s a few I haven’t heard back from yet. We’ll see what they have to say. A lot of them don’t speak English and it’s not been published in Russian, so that definitely makes it more difficult for them to read and understand it, so it might take a little time.

JG: Are you planning a trip back to Russia in 2025, or do you have another personal project for a book on the horizon?

LD: I absolutely want to go back in 2025. I would love to go back and see everybody again and see how they’re doing. An interesting subtext and thread was how drastically technology has changed over this whole time period of the three trips, from this very basic crude website that we did in 1995 through being able to post to Facebook and use Facetime. So I’m also interested in that thread of it. I may well do another book before I go, on a different topic. There’s a couple of things I’m kicking around. For the moment, I’ve just gotten a new client for ghostwriting so I’m back doing that a little bit.

JG: I have to say that after reading your book I’m inspired to go to Russia myself. I had no idea about these various locations you talk about. The lake with all the scientific exploration, the Jewish homeland set up by the government. I’d never heard of those places.

LD: This is the thing. I gave a talk at a university and I said, “What do you think of when you think of Russian people?” And all of the students in the class said they think the Russian people are cold, unfriendly, and unhappy. And as you can see from having read the book, nothing could be further from the truth. There were so many fun and funny moments I had with people, and so many moments of joy. Of course, there were moments of difficulty and there were moments of pain, and there was everything: the whole gamut of the human experience. But for some reason, we just think of Russian people as these weird, cold automatons, which is just not true at all. So I’m glad to hear that it piqued your interest in going there. It’s a place that has amazing history, and there’s just so much to it. Obviously, the situation between our governments is very difficult right now. But I think that’s not a reason not to go, not a reason not to engage. I think we should definitely engage as much as we can.

JG: Thank you very much, Lisa. It’s been great speaking with you. Good luck to you on your next adventure and ghostwriting project, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your work. 

LD: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

 

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

 

 

 

Eloise Klein Healy, Poet

‘A Totally Wild Idea’: The Writing and Realms of Eloise Klein Healy  

Eloise Klein HealyOn a sunny September day in Sherman Oaks, California, a gray Portuguese water dog greeted me at the door of prolific poet and publisher Eloise Klein Healy. If it’s all right, I have some things to show you, Healy said as she led me through a Zenned-out garden to her private work studio at the back of the property.

Her office is every writer’s dream: a shaded sanctuary with paintings on the wall, volumes of Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein, wooden desks, a blue lounging couch, black-and-white photographs, and, most generously, the artworks and postcards of friends, which she has preserved in dainty boxes and picture frames. Safe to say the only tweeting that goes on here belongs to the birds outside her window.

At seventy-four, Healy has a twinkle in her eye when our conversation steers her memory toward a line in a poem, and she knows precisely the page, precisely the book. Isn’t that amazing? she exclaims, sliding her finger across the words. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and at this point my cheeks hurt from smiling. Among her treasures: poetry fortune cookies—handmade and gifted to her by a friend, a framed broadside printed by Beyond Baroque, and a first edition of The Velveteen Rabbit.

We had already spent nearly an hour together before I realized I hadn’t asked her any questions yet. In a way, I had sensed she would tell me just about everything I wanted to know before I stood a chance to ask. That’s what it’s like to spend time with Eloise—it feels cosmic, psychic. Her zest for life and abundant gratitude for her career permeates from her smile. I had intended to ask her what she believes makes a successful writer. I got my answer anyway: curiosity.

“I ask any question to anybody,” Healy told me. “What I learned about from being alive is, I think I just learned to go and see.”

Healy the Poet

Asked to name her poetry lineage, the keywords are “healthy” and “wild.”

“I like Robert Frost,” Healy said, noting the famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

That’s what it’s like to spend time with Eloise—it feels cosmic, psychic. Her zest for life and abundant gratitude for her career permeates from her smile.

“It was really about this man who was… talking about walking, and talking about trees, and talking about plants, and being in connection with others,” she said. “It’s all about him becoming a very healthy, a very happy-making person.”

“I also include over here [gesturing to a frame on the wall] Adrienne Rich, totally! I have every book, every everything that’s ever been there… Because I found her incredibly healthy,” Healy said. “In her mind, healthy. She had also decided to not be married anymore. And she continued to make herself brave. That’s at a point [in time] in which it was brave. Because instead of having a thousand things [out] there about lesbian women, there were [only] a few.”

Anyone else? I waited.  

Walt Whitman,” Healy replied. “We could always stick in Allan Ginsburg, because he was a totally a wild idea, and so was Elizabeth Bishop.”

Directed by Feeling

When it comes to craft, Healy’s process is innate, directed by senses, intuition and experience.

“I think there is really an ability to know what feeling is like, and how much of what I’m doing is managed and directed and how much of it is all about feeling,” Healy said. “I have a lot of emotional ability to look at things… Sometimes I feel the world is too filled with importance and information.”

On her iMac, Healy showed me neat folders containing poems for her next books, arranged by collection. Each poem file featured all the previous drafts archived below, so scrolling through the document she could observe the changes each poem had undergone in revision. I made a mental note to steal this technique.

As for her current reading list—it’s long. While she always reads Poets & Writers and Harpers, at the time of my visit she was most excited about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, a novel by Arundhati Roy, and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas.

“She’s so different in the language that she chooses,” Healy said, calling Soldier’s work one of her current favorites.

“So the teacher jumped on the desk”

We spoke about the twentieth anniversary of the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program, which she helped to establish as the founding chair in 1997. Under Healy’s leadership, it was determined that the program would operate under the low-residency model, with mentorship and collaboration at the forefront.

“I first discovered that Antioch was interested in talking to me because they knew that I was doing very well at Cal State Northridge,” Healy said. “But I was feeling like I really wanted to try another way to do things, and not just have somebody stand over here and say, ‘Do this!’”

‘I wanted to make sure that every one of us would be able to talk back and forth, which to me was very important because some people are afraid.’

Healy envisioned an academic model that privileged participation and inclusion.

“I found that I had a lot of experience with others… I wanted to make sure that every one of us would be able to talk back and forth, which to me was very important because some people are afraid,” Healy recalled. “I really wanted to make it feel like we were going to work on something.”

Healy’s career as an educator far predates AULA, and I was elated when she confirmed the story behind one of my favorite poems from The Islands Project (2007), “So the Teacher Jumped on the Desk.”

“It was true,” Healy said. “That was really a nice piece that let itself just happen.”

The poem retells an incident from her time as a student at Immaculate Heart, where she would eventually go on to join the faculty. The poem challenges the expectations of a typical “middle class Catholic girl”:

you are NOT going to make
Jell-O molds & tat doilies, you are going
to smoke a lot of dope & waste the weekends
drinking gallons of Gallo Hearty Burgundy
shirtless on the patio and you won’t be alone

“This was a big experience,” Healy said. “I can see the face of that man with his tie flying through the air as he jumped up on the desk and waving the book Howl.”

Activist in Echo Park

Healy’s identity as a feminist is at the core of her writing and activism. She shared her experience of this year’s post-inaugural Women’s March. “Literally, the whole Los Angeles downtown was packed with people,” she said excitedly. “I just took pictures of people. They weren’t my friends, they weren’t people I knew, but there they were. Not only including grown-up people, but little children, and moms and dads pushing [strollers]… People were starting to sing.”

Her advice to people who want to join?

“Just be there. Just be there. Open up to everyone,” she said. “That was a major event of not only getting information, but of creating happiness.”

“They love what they’re doing, they want to be involved. It was great. I’m still trying to do that again,” Healy said, alluding to her recovery from aphasia, a condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate. “Even though I lost my brain and my language, I am spending a lot of time trying to rebuild it with these poems… I’m happy to be alive, you know?… I feel so lucky that really good parts of me still work.”

 

Jessica Abughattas is a Palestinian American poet. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, and associate managing editor of Lunch Ticket. Her poems appear in THRUSH Poetry Journal, Stirring Lit, Heavy Feather Review, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, Roanoke Review, Rogue Agent Journal and elsewhere.

Joe Ide, Author

Joe IdeI first met Joe Ide in February 2017. I had gone to hear Joe read from his debut novel, IQ, at Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont. IQ had been assigned for me to read during my first semester in Antioch University’s MFA program in creative writing.

I arrived at Chevalier’s excited, but with a reasonable amount of skepticism. IQ was released in October 2016 and by February had a pile of accolades. The reviews suggested that Isaiah Quintabe (long for IQ) was the next great character in the storied history of detective fiction. I wanted to see for myself. Cut from the same urban cloth depicted in IQ, I would know if Joe were perpetrating a fraud.

During Joe’s reading of the first paragraph, it became clear why IQ had become a hit. The voice was sharp, genuine, and carried the same authority Joe admires in Elmore Leonard.

I met with Joe on July 17, 2017, near his home in Santa Monica. We sat on a park bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a cloudless day. It was two Elmore Leonard and Walter Mosley fans talking story. Joe gave me an autographed copy of Righteous, his second novel in the Isaiah Quintabe series, that would be released on October 17, 2017. And, he offered to read my novel when it was complete. It was damn good day.

Andre Hardy: Welcome, Joe. Why don’t we just jump right into this thing. I want to be a writer. Give me your best advice.

Joe Ide: Well, let’s see. Aspiring writers assume that because they’ve finished the book, they know how to write a book. Which couldn’t be less true. It’s multiple skillsets that you not only have to learn, you have to master while you’re leaning. It’s a really difficult process and aspiring writers, most of the ones that I’ve read, don’t understand that. They don’t understand that it’s a profession and they have to take it as seriously as a med student takes med school. There is no established writer out there who hasn’t taken years to master their craft. So, somebody hands me a novel and says, “Well, you know I worked on the weekends.” [Laughter] Keep working.

AH: That brings up an interesting question. How did you develop your skillset?

JI: I was a screenwriter before I wrote the book, so I had some grounding in writing. And screenwriting taught me to be visual and brief, succinct and to capture a scene in very few words. But when I started to write long-form prose, I discovered that I was just terrible! It was embarrassing! I had to go back to the beginning. I was reading On Writing Well and Elements of Style just to try and learn to write good, clear, straight-up prose. And it took me a year. I’m writing the book all this time, but I’m also working on working on my prose itself. It took a full year before I was confident that I could write prose. And then another two years to finish the book. And in that process, I developed my own style. It took that long.

AH: How long did you have the concept of IQ (Isaiah Quintabe) in your in your head?

JI: I grew up loving Sherlock Holmes. I’d read all fifty-six stories and four novels multiple times before I was twelve years old. And he represented power to me. I mean, I was a small kid in a big neighborhood. And I wasn’t a badass. But language just seemed like a form of power. Intelligence seemed like a form of power. To know that Sherlock Holmes could control his world with just a brain seemed amazing to me.

…language just seemed like a form of power. Intelligence seemed like a form of power.

And so, he was always my alter ego. And then I grew up where I grew up; I grew up in South Central, LA. And you know the hood is the hood. And when it came time to write the book, all those elements sort of came together by themselves. I never considered writing any other character but a Sherlock Holmes character. And then I used my own background as the setting. And you know, I didn’t actually choose to write it; it was the only thing I could write. It was the most accessible—within my wheelhouse, it felt comfortable—so that’s what I wrote.

AH: Stephen King said that his characters are always infused with some part of him, particularly his fears—he doesn’t like spiders or snakes. What part of Isaiah is you that shows up on the page?

 JI: A lot of Isaiah is what I want to be, what I always wanted to be. Cool, under control, all kinds of competencies. You know to have that kind of presence where you don’t say much, but people know you’re in the room. So, it wasn’t so much about what parts of me are in him as much as he has things that I wanted to be. He does have elements that are similar to me. He is a loner; he doesn’t have any trouble being by himself, which fits me. I’m not, at this point in my life, as troubled as he is, but there are those things that are recognizable.

 AH: In the epigraph to your book, it says: “Saving you is the only thing that will bring me peace for all the wrong I have done. That is my truth[from TigerLily, by Jillian Peery]. How does that relate to Isaiah?

JI: Isaiah, as a young man, did a lot of terrible things. He’s done some terrible things. He’s hurt a lot of people. He’s hurt his community. And later on, when he becomes this sort of unlicensed private investigator, every case he takes is really penance for the things that he has done. He is always trying to make up for a debt that he can never really pay back. And so, [in] “saving you,” as it’s written in the forward, Isaiah is really him saving himself.

AH: Is his relationship with Flaco an extension of that concept? [Flaco’s character is wounded in gang crossfire. IQ, because he feels responsible, visits him in the hospital and is moved to become his benefactor.]

JI: Yes, very much so. Flaco was the kid that was hurt in the gang war that Isaiah felt partially responsible for starting. And so, a lot of his energy, a lot of his guilt, a lot of his compensation is directed towards Flaco.

AH: In the first chapter, Isaiah saves a young girl who’s been kidnapped, then disappears. The girl’s father wonders why Isaiah didn’t stick around to be a hero and to get his name in the paper. Do you consider Isaiah a hero?

JI: I do, but he doesn’t. He’s driven by his past. He’s not thinking about the heroic aspects. He feels as if he’s doing what he has to do for his community. He doesn’t want the adulation. He wants to rid himself of his burden of guilt.

AH: That leads me to the next question. Walter Mosley says, “I write about black heroes.” Why do you think it’s important that these kinds of stories get told?

JI: You know, I think it’s part of raising awareness about diversitythat people of color, black people, which are what mostly populates my book, are not a monolith. That they are a range of different kinds of people, as there are in in any ethnic group. And I wanted to write someone who was heroic but not by wielding a gun. He didn’t find his courage in violence.

He didn’t want to be a criminal. He’s not one of those [stereotypical] people, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote him the way he is. I wanted somebody thoughtful and quiet and watchful and who did things out of a sense of good, out of a sense of decency and serving his community. I think it’s important to have those kinds of characters of color. You rarely see that. Unfortunately, the character is either gun-wielding or in some way a criminal, and not especially heroic. There’s always collateral damage; I mean not just heroes of color but across the board with fictional heroes. So, I thought it was important to contribute a character who was a good, honest, decent man.

AH: Once you completed the novel and began the process of trying to get it published, because Isaiah was a different take on a black hero, how was it initially received?

JI: The first six publishers it was given to, passed. But not because of Isaiah’s ethnicity or even the setting. They passed because they didn’t know how to market it. It did not fall into a neat niche. It wasn’t entirely within the conventions. It wasn’t procedural, it wasn’t noir, it wasn’t a heist book. They simply said they didn’t know how to market it (although [they said] we think Joe is very talented). But Little Brown got it [Little, Brown and Company, New York]. They developed a marketing plan around the book instead of trying to fit the book into some pat publicity campaign. And God bless them.

AH: How did you secure your agent?

I wanted to write someone who was heroic but not by wielding a gun. He didn’t find his courage in violence.

JI: Man, it was absolute luck. It’s one of those stories that never happen to anybody. I finish the manuscript, and I have no connections in publishing. None. All my screenwriting connections are over and done and I just, I’m sending it out to readers. And I have this cousin, his name is Francis Fukuyama. He’s a world-class political scientist. He’s the guy who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union. He runs the Center for Democracy at Stanford. He’s on the board at Rand. The last time I talked to him, he was in Shanghai consulting with the government. [Laughter] You know he’s one of those guys where you just don’t believe you can share DNA. I asked him if he would read my manuscript. He is a very kind, generous man, and somehow he found time to read a crime novel written by his cousin. And lo and behold, he liked it. Then he asked if I had an agent. I said, “No, I’ve got to get one.” He said, “Well let me introduce you to my agent,” who turned out to be a woman named Esther Newberg. Esther has been the head of literary at ICM in New York for twenty-five years. She is arguably the top literary agent in New York. So, it’s like my entire writing life came down to what I call my Esther moment. [Laughter] It was about Esther sitting down, opening up my book, and starting to read. That was my journey to an agent. And I still don’t believe it.

AH: How long did it take you to write IQ?

JI: Three years.

AH: How many drafts?

JI: Somewhere around twenty. I knew that I would have a very narrow window with which to impress my Esther, whoever that turned out to be; I [didn’t] know at the time. These people are very busy; they have to read books for a living, and so they have no patience whatsoever. Most of the people I’ve talked to said that they will not read any more than twenty-five pages before they close the book. If they’re not happy, that’s it. I met a woman from Amazon. She is one of the people responsible for the ten best books of the month. She said she knows right away, within five, ten pages. You have to give that person reasons to keep reading. If you don’t smack them in the face right off with something, with your writing or your character or whatever: if you don’t slap them right away, they pass. It’s over that quickly. The prologue in IQ is six pages long, and I rewrote that forty times. It was all riding on that. I crafted each and every sentence. I selected each and every word. And every time I went back I asked myself, “Can this be better? Can this be more vivid? Can it be more colorful? Can it be more interesting? Is this the best anecdote I can think of?” Yeah, and over and over and over and over again. That was my window. I knew it. And looking back, I mean at the time, my wife thought I was a little insane. But yeah, it was the best decision I made.

AH: So, twenty drafts. Wow. How did the story change from draft one to draft twenty?

JI: Everything, from completely rewriting a chapter, to moving chapters around, to adding and subtracting characters, to taking out whole segments of dialogue and rewriting it, and cutting. I cut at least as much as the book itself. The book is three hundred pages; I cut three hundred pages. It was just a process of never being satisfied.

AH: What was your gauge, your beacon of what you thought would make them keep reading? How did you know?

JI: By comparing myself to the great writers. I don’t think aspiring writers do that at all. I would read Elmore Leonard side by side with my book. And when you begin that process of comparing yourself to other writers, the discrepancy is appalling. [Laughter] And I think before you consider giving a book to somebody important, you have to be at least credible. You have to be at least not embarrassed by what you’ve writtenthat you would be comfortable giving it to Elmore Leonard. You have to be confident enough to do that. That was always really my standard. Would I be comfortable giving my book to Elmore Leonard? You know he and Walter Mosley are my guys. And that really gives you pause. If Walter Mosley was to read your book right now, would that be okay with you?

AH: You made a craft decision to write IQ in third person. In a classic sense, these stories are often told in first person. Why the creative decision to write it in third person? What advantages do you think that gave you?

JI: Well, I took it from Elmore Leonard, one of the many things I shoplifted from the way he writes. What he says is that by taking a character’s of point of view, you not only can put the expository information out there, but in doing so, you can also reveal the character.

You’re writing from that character’s point of view, and he may have a whole different take on what’s happening emotionally with the other characters, or on the situation itself. And so, as you’re revealing the scene, you’re also revealing that character—what’s happening in his head. And from his point of view, not from the outside looking in. For me it was about texture, having different points of view looking at the same events right now.

AH: The novel switches back and forth between 2013 and 2005. Talk about that choice and why you decided to structure it that way.

JI One of my pet peeve[s] in the detective genre is that many of the characters just show up fully formed. They have all these skills, and they’re just there. And they are being incredibly smart and clever. But they never tell you—well, almost never tell you: how did the guy get that way? Where did all this stuff come from? You know, and if he’s so damn smart why is he not working for NASA? And so, I wanted to write Isaiah’s backstory. The writing problem is that if you write it chronologically, you end up with the “A story” being right in the middle of the book. And you really want to start off, especially in our genre, with that A story. So, structurally, I really didn’t have a choice except to go back and forth, so I could start that A case at the beginning of the book and then go back.

AH: As opposed to doing it in flashbacks?

JI:  Yeah. The backstory is half the book. I wanted to separate it from the present story and give it its due. It is the reason why Isaiah does what he does.

AH: I just fished reading an interview with Salman Rushdie. The interviewer asked whether artists should be politically correct. What is your take?

JI: I don’t really think in those terms. I think anybody should write whatever the hell they want to write. And then we’ll all decide whether we like the book. I mean, I don’t think that there should be any restrictions on what’s written and who writes it. If David Duke wanted to write the biography of Jesse Jackson, that’s okay with me. Because it’s okay if Jesse Jackson, you know, writes the biography of David Duke. I think I have an idea which book I’d like the most. But write what you want to write. That’s how I feel about it. I just don’t put those kinds of boundaries on things. Write whatever the hell you want. I’ll read it and decide if I like it.

AH: In our world of Rachel Dolezal and political correctness, did you ever consider that IQ might be viewed as racial appropriation? 

JI: [Pause] It never occurred to me. I was writing a story that had black characters. They just happened to be black. And I had to put myself in their shoes and ask myself what would they say and how would they say it? That was the only consideration. And from my own experience, I was pretty convinced that that’s how they would say it. They would use the word “nigger” in that situation, often multiple times. If anybody has actually been on the streets, and talked to some gangsters, you’ll hear that word more than pronouns. And so, it just wasn’t a restriction. I just wrote the character, and there were no other considerations.

AH: I’m with you on that. I thought it was ridiculous that people wanted to sanitize Mark Twain.

JI: I don’t think anybody owns history. It’s a real slippery slope. I mean, if I can’t write about somebody else’s ethnic group, does that mean that a black man can’t write about a Japanese man? Or a Jewish man? Does that mean Spike Lee can’t direct a movie about white people and suburbia because he’s black and he lives in Brooklyn? That logic falls apart really fast.

AH: What was the Edgar experience like? [Each spring, Mystery Writers of America presents the Edgar Awards, widely acknowledged to be the most prestigious awards in the genre. IQ was nominated in the category of Best First Novel.]

I think anybody should write whatever the hell they want to write. And then we’ll all decide whether we like the book.

JI: First of all, you read about the Edgar Award. You see it on the book covers of all these really fantastic writers. Then somebody calls you up and says you’ve been nominated for an Edgar? [Laughter] I was completely and totally incredulous. I wrote that book in utter isolation. And so, to go from the mindset—where I’m just hoping I don’t have to self-publish, and sell copies in the doggie park—to go from that mindset to somebody talking to me about an Edgar Award… [Laughter] It’s like cooking dinner for your family and winning the James Beard award. It does not compute. They flew me to New York. I go to this big reception. I was, the whole time, incredulous. I kept thinking, What am I doing here? Why do these people want to talk to me?

AH: So you never expected any of your success?

JI: No. I had very low expectations. My highest hope was some quirky publisher would give the new guy a break. That was the biggest thing that I thought could happen to that book. So yeah, everything has been a damn surprise.

AH: I also heard you’ve sold the TV rights as well?

JI: Yeah. The book sold to Little Brown and then it was like, I don’t know, six weeks later, that it got optioned for TV. Again, I had worked as a screenwriter. And I worked a fair bit. I worked for the majors, I did rewrites, wrote pilots and all kinds of stuff. But I never got anything made. And that was one of the reasons that I wrote the novel. I mean, I was living a pretty good life. But to work that hard, and then have twelve people read it, some studio executive development people, and then it gets put in a vault. That just got to be too humiliating.

AH: What should readers expect in the sequel, Righteous?

JI: The plan from the outset was to have the characters grow from book to book; that is, there would always be a big story, the A story. There would always be backstories to enrich the characters. At the end of IQ, for example, Isaiah lays down most of his guilt. He unburdens himself of the guilt he’s been carrying around since he was a teenager. And so, in Righteous, he realizes that because he’s been bearing that cross, he’s lived an incredibly isolated life. He has no friends. He’s dated once in a blue moon. He realizes that he’s lonely.

Righteous is a lot about him trying to reach out, trying to come out of his shell and join the rest of the world. So that’s his journey from IQ to Righteous, personally. Dotson, at the end of IQ, says that he and his girlfriend are having a baby. Now Dotson is a combination of every hustler I ever knew or knew about. In book two [Righteous], there’s Dodson trying to deal with having a baby—being a father. Those are the kinds of things that are the most interesting. There are always big cases to write about. There always new bad guys to write about. But those are some of the things the reader can expect. They can expect the same kind of action but they can also expect growth from the characters.

AH: Will we learn more about his relationship with Marcus?

JI: We will. He restarts his investigation into Marcus’s death and learns it wasn’t an accident. Marcus was killed. That’s the “B story” through Righteous, Isaiah trying to hunt down the killer of his brother. To go back all those years and find evidence and piece together what actually happened to his brother Marcus.

AH: Last question. How long did it take you to write Righteous?

JI: Eight months. What happened after IQ was—once the book got all these positive reviews, and lots of people liked it—it gave me so much more confidence. I wasn’t sitting on my own shoulder second-guessing myself every sentence. I could just feel comfortable writing. This is how I write. I’m comfortable with it, and so are the readers. I could just write unimpeded. I could get out of my own way and write. And I also found that in the process of writing IQ, and in the process of writing Righteous, that I had more command over the tools of the trade. Things occurred to me faster; I could come up with that simile quicker, and I could see the images quicker. I was not in a hurry. I could just write faster. I also have the luxury of writing full-time, all day, seven days a week. And that’s a real luxury.

 

Andre Hardy is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s College of California, and was the fourth pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1984 NFL draft. Inspired by Chester Himes, Clarence Cooper Jr., and Walter Mosley, he writes hard-boiled, gumshoe stories with an urban twist. His essays and short stories have been published in Lunch Ticket and TribeLA Magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where his day job is executive director of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society.

 

Ashaki Jackson, Poet

Ashaki JacksonAshaki Jackson began her career as a social psychologist and program evaluator before focusing on the craft of poetry. Ms. Jackson was a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry activist. She also cofounded Women Who Submit, an organization that helps women with the submission of their literary work to bring about more gender balance in the publishing world. She’s been featured in CURA: A Literary Magazine of Art and Action, Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, and Prairie Schooner, among other journals and anthologies. In her work as an artist, activist, and social psychologist, Ms. Jackson’s commitment to communities and social justice has been lifelong and continuing.

Her career accomplishments include her first chapbook, Surveillance (2016). Through a philanthropic partnership with Writ Large Press, one hundred percent of the proceeds of Surveillance benefits the activist organizations Black Youth Project 100, Say Her Name, Black Lives Matter, and Native Lives Matter. Jackson’s second chapbook, Language Lesson (2016), was published by Miel. It is described in the marketing copy for its first release: “In the absence of a full grief lexicon, Language Lesson is a short study of loss, mortuary rites, and survivors’ interpretations of these processes. The chapbook was inspired by the loss of Jackson’s paternal grandmother.”

Ashaki Jackson and I conducted our interview via email in early August 2017.

Shaneka Jones Cook: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Ashaki Jackson: As a child, I burned through reams of paper to make these half-page booklets. I would fill them with incomplete, plotless, illustrated stories, which are the best kinds of stories. My parents are both educators and had stocks of office supplies. My father reminds me that I was easy to please with gifts of pens and paper reams. That still holds true. Have you seen me around a new Parker Jotter?

I’m unsure there was a moment in which I purposefully decided that I would be a writer. Even now, I haven’t truly accepted that title because it carries a good amount of responsibility, like creating and maintaining a writing practice; publishing full collections; teaching craft—all of these grownup tasks. I’m proud of myself when I produce one meaningful, promising line a day.

I socialize with many writers. And, through my writing I’ve been able to contribute to larger conversations on loss, injustice, and keeping oneself in check in morally questionable times. So, I am a writer in these ways, I think—by association and by social contribution. Yet, reaching Writer Status has been a journey to which I feel I haven’t fully arrived.

SJC: Who is your favorite author? How did this person influence you?

AJ: I live in a writing empire, so I’m enamored with a new writer each month. But, my literary heart belongs to Salvador Plascencia (fiction), Kimiko Hahn (poetry), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (everything), and Jhumpa Lahiri (fiction). In five minutes, I’ll probably rattle off another name because I am so uncomfortable with absolutes. These writers stepped into language and gave it new shape; made words move on cyclical timelines; crossed academic fields to make a point about love. There is nothing simple about their work, and yet the feeling their work evokes in me is as basic as wonder or pain. I enjoy when work gives me an opportunity to feel. Life is often so full of mechanics that to have time for emotion is rare wealth.

… through my writing I’ve been able to contribute to larger conversations on loss, injustice, and keeping oneself in check in morally questionable times.

Has it been five minutes yet? I want to mention a couple more authors. There are days when I need Douglas Kearney’s energy to break language into a big Black lyric on a square white page—to begin anywhere with a shout and see the echo bounce off the margins. There are days when I need Rachel McKibbens’s certainty of words. I’ll always remember her lines on how her bones thickened like ax handles when she gave birth to her first child. Her words made me cognizant of how my bones arrange beneath me when I sit, how high and wide they have spread over time, and the way my knees strain a little when I walk. Words bring you into your senses. That is also what my favorite writers do for me.

SJC: What advice would you give to young Black girls?

AJ: There is so much to say! I want to assure them that they are loved deeply. I want to warn them that self-care is a necessary resistance to this society and to avoid, if at all possible, becoming commoditized. Also, despite marketing, they are ten percent magic, fifty percent good home-training, and forty percent hard work and self-actualization.

As for writing: Let it be a respite—a safe place for you to experiment without editing or being edited. There is time for editing later. For now, spend some time with your voice. Write as it comes to your mind. Practice being present on paper because too often we create beautiful, complex stories in our minds then edit the life out of them; or worse, we forget them. Those stories are soil. What will grow without it?

SJC: Do you see yourself as a political activist? And if so, growing up did you think you would be a voice for so many who don’t have the strength to speak for themselves?

AJ: To be Black, a woman, well-employed, well-paid, joyful, and alive is political. This sentiment is not singular or new, which is unfortunate. My parents are activists; they battled for fair, quality education long before I was born. So, I’m no stranger to pushing for change. It is long work, meaning that it is endless. You cannot say that you have achieved justice if your sister or brother is also struggling. Justice work is life work. Think of it as a chorus: there will always be more than one voice looking for the perfect, rich harmony. Once you hear it, you shouldn’t want to stop singing. And once we see justice, we must maintain it, nurture it, make it the standard. I’m one of many voices because that’s what this society needs to avoid ruining itself. It wasn’t so much a choice or a goal of adulthood; rather, it is a necessity.

SJC: In your chapbook, Surveillance, you write about police brutality on Black men. How do you see the role of the Black male in the continuous struggle for equality? 

AJ: Surveillance reflects on the death of men, women, and children. I’m particularly interested in how social media users have promulgated the spread of these videos and how there is little hesitation to share. Whether you’ve shared that video because you’re sleuthing or just curious to see what everyone is talking about, these videos are traumatizing and intolerable; it is terrifying to see what might happen to a Black person in a myriad of circumstances, including calling the police for help during a mental health break, calling police for help following a car accident, being at an address that, by chance, is next door to a suspect’s home, selling single cigarettes, standing with friends outside of a club, leaving a bachelor party, holding a wallet, looking dangerous. As long as these killings are permitted—as long as the law allows Blacks to be treated as targets—the justice system is flawed and no one is safe. Certainly, our national system of laws was developed to suppress Black slaves in perpetuity. If you are unlucky enough to not graduate into whiteness or pass into whiteness, then you, too, are subject to surveillance and subjective protections under the law.

SJC: What prompted or inspired you to donate 100% of the proceeds of Surveillance to the Black Youth Project 100, Say Her Name, Black Lives Matter, and Native Lives Matter organizations?

AJ: I submitted the manuscript to five presses. Within about one week, Chiwan Choi of Writ Large Press reached out with a plan—to release one poem daily in Cultural Weekly up to the chapbook’s release, [and] then to make it widely available at a flat rate of ten dollars. I shared my vision that the chapbook fund justice efforts in perpetuity; we might not make millions off the book, but we could support nonprofits that had good traction and strategic plans to pay their staff, keep the websites running, put gas in their vans, publish their research, and the like. Chiwan said yes. Surveillance has generated over $4,000 to date, and we continue making deposits to organizations. To be clear, we’ve kept nothing. I pay my bills with a job I work fifty to sixty hours per week, which is a privilege that makes this possible. Surveillance will never be a money-making endeavor.

SJC: As a Black woman, I was recently pulled over by a Black female police officer with my children in the car. Without thinking I immediately raised my hands and began reciting to the officer my every movement while trying to obtain my driver’s license out of my purse and saying, “I am not trying to become Sandra Bland.” You’ve written a lot about the impact of police brutality on the Black community. Could you say something about how you experience this on a personal level? Do you also feel fearful of being pulled over?”

AJ: That is a horrible and horrifying thing to know your life is at risk. Your automaticity is impressive. I haven’t thought of my safety plan in any great detail.

To be Black, a woman, well-employed, well-paid, joyful, and alive is political.

When I was twelve or thirteen, my family moved into an upper-middle-class neighborhood in California’s Central Valley. The house was directly across the street from one classmate, catty-corner from another classmate’s home, and within four houses in either direction of two other classmates’ homes. It was rumored that a second Black family was somewhere nearby, so I felt safe.

My father was tidying the front yard when an officer pulled up in his cruiser. He exited the car and asked my father what he was doing, as if pulling weeds while bent over at the waist wasn’t evident. My father told me this part of the story, but I can’t remember if he responded to the officer verbally or not. I do know that my father told the officer to follow him. My father walked this person through our long living room and the kitchen, then called my name. I came from the back wing of the house. When I rounded the corner, my father looked at me impatiently, and a tall, thin, white officer stood behind him with his hand on the gun in his holster. I responded, “Yes, Daddy?” In hindsight, this was a performance. My father’s answer to the officer’s question was, I live here. My daughter lives here. My wife lives here. You are on our property, in our home. You are out of place. Remembering that the officer was prepared to remove his gun while with my father—while in our home—is infuriating. I don’t recall a patrol before or after that incident. Who called that officer?

Los Angeles is a different beast. The rate of police presence in my neighborhood has declined after complaints that there was proportionally more targeting of immigrant residents in our corner of the city than, say, two blocks north in South Pasadena or two blocks east in Alhambra. That doesn’t mean that my guard is down, but I do wonder what narrative the public will create if something happens to me at the hands of law enforcement. Who will come to my aid?

SJC: Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

AJ: I recently co-led a writing workshop on where healing takes place during the writing process. With regard to Surveillance, the healing happened during my reading the work aloud to audiences. It brought me peace to know that people—strangers—would sit through the tough meat of this work and not abandon its content or its immeasurable sadness. When writing my first chapbook, Language Lesson, the healing happened as I generated the work. The manuscript was a way to honor my late paternal grandmother. I had gone silent after her death for an extended period, maybe two years. Writing was restorative; two different experiences, two opportunities in which I experienced wholeness after ache.

SJC: In Language Lesson, you brilliantly and painfully described how death affects the body after your grandmother’s passing. I, too, lost my grandmother to breast cancer, and she also had a mastectomy. I went through a period of not wanting to feel any type of emotion. Do you believe your pain was a rebirth process?

It brought me peace to know that people—strangers—would sit through the tough meat of this work and not abandon its content or its immeasurable sadness.

AJ: Thank you for sharing that experience with me. I think it’s wholly unfair that we lose our grandparents. What a crushing, unforgettable moment for me. My period of silence was all I could do not to cry uncontrollably. All sound was a trigger, so I avoided conversations and didn’t answer my phone much. I would send and respond to text messages, maybe emails. But voices, radio, television, any audio beyond the wind was a cue for tears. I might have been punishing myself for not being present to say goodbye or simply unable to handle reality. I’m still unsure. The grief was a driver of the work, however. I was able to cry when I wrote, and the pattern of my collection reflects my type of choke-crying. The grief drove the writing and its shape, which drove the healing.

SJC: You are the cofounder of Women Who Submit. Tell me how that idea came about and how it eventually became a reality?

AJ: Alyss Dixson and I met at a writers’ co-working space in Santa Monica called The Writers Junction. We wrote weeknights from the afternoons into the evenings. This was the space in which I wrote Language Lesson, actually. One evening, Alyss called me into the partner writing rooms in which she usually camped out, and explained her role in an organization called Women in Literary Arts (WILA, which later became VIDA). She showed me a summary of how often women (feminine names) appeared in a set of top-tier literary publications. She was irate because the percentages were so low. The conversation was quick; she said that the answer could be to create submission sessions for women. These would not be for generating work or workshopping. The sessions would focus solely on getting the work out, bombarding editors’ slush piles, and creating a submission practice that would elevate women’s likelihoods of earning publication, and, subsequently, a more substantial readership who could potentially purchase women’s collections. Alyss asked me to help her think through the design.

Part of the process was getting the word to a network of women writers throughout Los Angeles County. Alyss wanted to enlist someone with fairly far-reaching and positive ties with local women writers, and I proposed Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo who graduated from the AULA MFA program about three or four years after me.

The three of us piloted a submission party, four dedicated hours each month to sit with peers, discuss submission opportunities and personal goals for the day, polish cover letters, stuff envelopes and/or hit the submit button. The party has grown to include an orientation on submitting and guest speakers on topics including literary citizenship, budgeting for first book prize submissions, residencies, and other topics of interest requested by Women Who Submit members. Women and nonbinary writers come to submission parties with their best writing or even to submit residency, fellowship, and grant applications. There are over twenty chapters across the nation. Xochitl-Julisa is currently at the helm of all local operations and has been integral to expanding supports provided by Women Who Submit. Thus far, Women Who Submit has been well-received and a noted asset to resources available to women writers venturing into publishing. I now serve as a VIDA board member, and it has been helpful and promising to see a proactive response like Women Who Submit’s submission parties to the VIDA Count [an annual survey of women writers].

 

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