Ben Loory, Author

Photo Credit: Jennie Hettrick

Ben Loory is a good guy who writes great short stories. The end.

If it were only that easy.

Behind his smoothly carved stories, Loory revises and refines drafts sometimes for years before they’re finished. A few, he writes in one afternoon. His characters are compelling; nameless, often faceless, possibly mirrors of ourselves—even if ducks or birds. Loory sets them loose to chase and overcome whatever awaits until they suddenly surprise themselves, sometimes horrifically.

I met Ben earlier this year during Antioch University Los Angeles’s creative writing MFA residency. He read two stories, one inciting laughter, the other tearful contemplation. When the second story ended he looked out at us then smiled, and all was restored.

I got to thinking, what makes these small stories have such an effect on us? So, I went a little Loory-nutty reading every story I could find. He’s authored two collections published by Penguin Books: Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (2011) and Tales of Falling and Flying (2017). I read both. I heard him read on This American Life. They’re found on Selected Shorts too. He’s had fables and tales appear in The New Yorker and in Tin House, Electric Literature, and Fairy Tale Review. Kickstarter generated an animated version of “The Duck.” I read Loory’s stories aloud to people and occasionally to the family cat. (The cat really loved those stories, by the way.)

What emerged was a series of questions.

Loory is sharp and committed to his writing. This can be taxing, but he stays until the story tells him it’s done. With that same commitment, he patiently worked through these interview questions. I’m grateful for it, too, because he taught me in the process how one word can change the meaning of a question and how humor bolsters much of what he says. Loory’s wonderful humor permeates through his stories. So does terror, and intrigue, despair and delight.

He shared serious insight into his practices and now I’m Loory-nuttier.

I still plan to pick up his children’s picture book, The Baseball Player and Walrus (Dial Book for Young Readers, 2015) and gift to the many kids in my circle. At times, this interview looks at children. What it is to be a deeply imaginative child or to raise one. What we run to and what we’ve run from as readers and writers. I admire this author’s candid perspective.

Ben Loory lives in Los Angeles. When he’s not teaching short story writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, he’s probably writing. You can find him at www.benloory.com. If he’s not writing, he could be somewhere around his favorite bookstore, getting coffee, possibly examining light, shadowplay, and the shape of things. The corners of his mouth might lift into a smile like he’s stumbled onto hilarity or peculiarity. Either way, he’ll look as though he treasures what he’s found.

Andrea Auten: Growing up in Dover, NJ, how did your hometown setting foster your imagination?

Ben Loory: I don’t think it did, really—if there was any fostering of my imagination going on, it was being done by my parents and family. The town we lived in was a pretty conventional place; the only thing I learned from it was that I wanted to leave. On the other hand, I guess every story I write does take place in a small town—there’s always a bowling alley, a park, a movie theater, a grocery store (and a torch-bearing mob who eventually shows up).

I’d read absolutely anything that took place in space or involved some kind of ghost or demon or talking animal or magic.

But other than serving as a backdrop for my stories, I don’t think the town really influenced me. Mostly, it was the non-town things that made a big impression on me as a kid—the animals in the park across the street and in the forest; the Great Swamp nearby where my parents would take us bird watching; the movies and plays we would go see in New York City, and that weird old faux-colonial village that was situated in the hills not far away. The town itself I remember more like a negative space. But this is all just consciously; who knows the secret truth…

AA: With English professor parents turned small business owners, reading was prime entertainment at home. As a child without television—except for sneak peeks when visiting friends—books and comics occupied your mind, and you found particular fascination in fables after reading all of Aesop. What caused your hunger for myths this young? In your story subjects, how important is it to seek a lesson? What makes conquering our most terrible fears primary?

BL: I don’t believe in lessons (though I always learn from my stories as I write them). What I’m looking to create is emotional impact plus resonance. I’m looking to shake people up and then leave them thinking. But I don’t want readers to be able to condense the story to a simple lesson. Otherwise, why even tell the story? Just give ’em the lesson.

I also don’t think that conquering fears—or conquering anything, really—is primary. To me, it’s really more about learning to give up. It’s about forcing characters to accept themselves, even the parts they don’t want to accept. To allow themselves to let down the walls and become the person they are.

As for the taste for myths: As a kid, I think I was just trying to get away, to escape. And the bigger, wilder, crazier the story was, the better. I’d read absolutely anything that took place in space or involved some kind of ghost or demon or talking animal or magic. Nowadays these kinds of stories appeal to me because they use the vocabulary I know. I’m not going to write about wine-drinking lawyers in Manhattan; I don’t know anything about them. What I know are myths and fables, absurdist plays, detective and horror novels, old movies… That’s where the stuff in my brain comes from, so that’s what my stories are about.

AA: I heard it said once, our characters are waiting for us to tell their stories. Once there was a dodo… comes to mind—how that Dodo pushes its way to the front. What force drives the letters on the page? What are your thoughts on this?

BL: I don’t know. I don’t really question it. My rule is, I sit down with no ideas and make my mind a blank, and then I take the first line or image that pops into my head and write a story about that. When that first draft is done, maybe it sucks, maybe I never even look at it again, but I’m not allowed to NOT write a draft about whatever that first thing is. That’s the rule.

I think of myself as a kind of roller coaster designer, though the journey is imaginary and emotional.

So, as a result of that rule, I write a lot of weird, sometimes ill-advised stories. I mean, I write a lot of stories, period! And it’s only later that some of those stories begin to step forward and sort of reassert themselves and ask me to come back and work on them. Meanwhile, others just linger forever in some forgotten hole on my computer. I’m not sure why some haunt me and some don’t—I don’t question it. I just follow my rules and do what I do and somehow the stories get written.

AA: From hometown to Harvard, then film direction to screenplay-writing, you discovered a love of storytelling by writing quick descriptions or 2 to 3-page treatments. Your books expand these little summaries into short fables, fantasies, and tales (sometimes nightmarish). A reader can fill in images, assign place, time, even names if desired, because your stories are written to the bones. Boiling words down to their most salient combinations can be difficult crafting. Were you ever wordier? When are details worth it in writing? Your work is also stripped down and exposed. How do you experience coexisting with such open work?

BL: No, I was never wordier. I don’t intentionally strip anything down, or think about what details to put in or leave out. I just tell the stories the way I tell stories, the way that seems natural. I describe the people and things that are in motion and that seem to matter in the scene. I mostly leave the internal out, unless I absolutely can’t point to it through behavior. (And if you’re looking to write short, that right there is half the battle. Not that I’m ever looking to write short.)

Co-existing with my stories is easy: I just act like they’re not about me.

AA: I find that I love reading your stories out loud and, indulging, I set up a few parentapproved sessions and read your stories to chosen children—not that I’d catalog your books in the children’s section—these are deep thinker kids, and I wanted to evaluate their responses. Ben, each child ranging from ages 7-9 was rapt, consuming the words, and gazed until the stories ended. ‘That was great!’ each said. They seemed sustained by the mystery or maybe it was magic, but the fast-paced world they live in stilled and they listened intently. In this high-stress information age, where do you place value on storytelling? What gives your work its universality?

BL: As a reader, the value of storytelling to me is that it stills and focuses my mind. Everything goes away, all my cycling repetitive horrible thoughts, and suddenly I feel much better! (At least, unless the book is bad—then it gets even worse (and then I need another book really bad.) So basically, it’s a drug.

As a writer, it’s a little different—I’m aiming for something specific. I want to carry a reader, almost physically, through a fluid and unbreakably shaped experience. I think of myself as a kind of roller coaster designer, though the journey is imaginary and emotional. And mostly what I want is to move a reader deeply, really stir things up inside, make them think and feel and live a little more fully when they’re done.

If my work has universality, I think it’s because my characters are pure doers. They want something and they act; they fear something and they act. It’s easy to connect to them because their hearts are front and center.

AA: I call this question: Just the Facts. Earlier we talked about cutting out the details. Reading your work, there’s a perspective that brings humor and zest, with keen observation, quirk, absurd joy and despair, and then again times of complete bafflement, but there’s more going on under your stark text. How do you build these worlds that buzz and teem underneath their clean architecture?

BL: Well, again, I don’t think it’s really that I build them, so much as that I just believe they’re there, which somehow makes them real. It’s like, you can write seven paragraphs about how landspeeders work, or you can just have one character say, “Hey, can I borrow your landspeeder?” And the second will always be more convincing. What makes things feel real is when readers subconsciously fill in the blanks, when they figure out themselves how the world works without even knowing they’re doing it. They believe it because they’ve actually built the foundation.

The This American Life thing was wonderful, too—and weird, because I didn’t even know they used fiction! When they asked me if they could use my duck story, I was like… you know it’s not real, right??

Besides that, for me at least, the most important thing is to always focus on balance. When something sticks up, you look for something to hang down. When a character does something nice, you look for their mean side. Reality is a perfect sphere; things seem unreal when you see a lot of angles. So a lot of my process is going through the stories and looking for things without shadows, things that spike up and look out of place. I then fill in those shadows, provide stalactites for the stalagmites, and the world slowly comes into being in all its richness.

AA: Back in June, outside the AULA building-monolith where we hang at the squirrel table, I asked you, what you were afraid of as a child. You answered, Everything. It got me wondering about the deep and wondrous level of imagination many writers have and how in childhood this presents itself—even to parents—as obstacles. How did you cope with this level of fear? What correlation exists between imagination and fear and how might the stronger one suggest the other become?

BL: I don’t know that I was really afraid of everything, but I was certainly afraid of a lot! But at the same time, I always had a pretty high opinion of my own abilities; I always thought I could handle whatever came along—even if the world was full of ghosts and Nazis and demons and monsters, I always felt like I would be okay, like I could outsmart them. I don’t know why I thought that, but I did. So it wasn’t like I was crippled with fear, I was just, y’know, hypervigilant and terrified. Not sure if that makes sense but I feel like that’s how it was.

Somewhere along the way, sadly, I lost that sense of invulnerability. Though at the same time, I’m also not as afraid as I used to be. Guess the world just ground me down from both ends. Which I suppose is probably for the best. I do find that when I’m writing, I’m always better when I’m upset. The stories are always deeper and richer when there’s something really bad going on in my life. When everything is just peachy keen, the stories get light and fun—which, whatever, is fine (I like having both kinds)—but it is something I sometimes worry about. Not that there’s ever going to be a lack of upsetting things in anyone’s life. But I don’t want to actually want them.

AA: You wrote a story called “The Well” about a boy who jumps back into the well he’s fallen into to prove himself. What was your writing process like when you created this story? I ask because when reading it to my husband, he stopped mid task to listen. I finished the story and fumbled a bit for my bookmark before noticing he hadn’t spoken. When I looked up, I found Tom braced against the doorframe weeping. How does it affect you when you hear the impact your stories have on people?

BL: Oh, I love it! There’s nothing like making people cry—it makes me feel like I’m not alone. The way I write, I never have any intentions—I’m basically just living through a sequence of events through a character—and the end of that story really messed me up. I never saw it coming and it sorta felt like I was dying, or had always been dead and just hadn’t noticed yet. There was a bit of hyperventilation involved. It was one of those rare “one-take” stories, too, where it pretty much all comes out right in the first draft. So please tell your husband I know how he feels! And I’m glad we went through it together.

AA: For a bit of fun: Cinema trivia who wrote and directed the 90’s everyman Hero’s journey with the first line, Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job… (Don’t use Google, Ben.)

BL: Well, it’s Joe vs. the Volcano, which I love and used to own on LASERDISC, and which was written and directed by the guy who wrote Moonstruck. But I can’t remember his name. It’s three words. It’s not Bruce Joel Rubin, though—he’s the guy who did Jacob’s Ladder (which I also love and used to own on laserdisc). And it’s not Phil Alden Robinson, because he did Field of Dreams (which I did not love and never owned on laserdisc). So, I don’t remember his name! I’ve been laughing about that Brain Cloud thing for 30 years now, though.

AA: You’ve read your story “The Duck” on This American Life and now Australian animator, director Simon Cottee has mounted his short film adaptation version through a Kickstarter project. What was that like to have “The Duck” come full circle?

BL: Is that full circle? It was certainly nice, whatever it was! I really loved the short film. It especially made me laugh how all the ducks spoke with Australian accents! And the animation and the music were beautiful—I cried when they threw the rock off the cliff. I’d love to see all my stories done as cartoons.

The This American Life thing was wonderful, too—and weird, because I didn’t even know they used fiction! When they asked me if they could use my duck story, I was like… you know it’s not real, right?? Which they found kind of funny. But the reach of that show is really tremendous, and I loved being allowed to read the story myself. They’ve used a few of my other stories over the years, but it’s hard to top that first thrill.

I think full circle would be if one of the stories got made into a live action feature, maybe? Which would certainly be nice, from a money angle. And also then people would probably go and buy my books, and that, of course, would be amazing. But I don’t really care about the movies anymore. I mean, I like watching them! But I made peace a long time ago with the fact that the stories I write are short stories. They don’t want to be long; they don’t want to be features. They are what they are, and that’s okay.

AA: Thanks Ben.

BL: Thank you!

 

Andrea Auten is a Masters of Fine Arts graduate in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. At Lunch Ticket, she is an interviewer and blogger, co-lead editor for visual art and graphics, and she works with community outreach and the social media team. She lives with her husband, two sons, and her writing helpers, the family cats. andreaauten.com

Jeff Shotts, Editor

Photo by Michelle Allen Photography

On August 14th, I had the honor of interviewing Jeff Shotts, Executive Editor of Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, MN, by phone. A native of McPherson, Kansas, and graduate of Washington University’s MFA program, Shotts began his career as an editorial assistant before going on to edit poetry and nonfiction. After hearing his guest lecture during Antioch University Los Angeles’s summer residency, I was blown away, inspired, and I knew I wanted to talk more with him. During our interview, we discussed his journey through the literary world, the power of becoming a great literary citizen, how to prepare for rejection and acceptance, and the impact and necessity of international literature. Throughout our interview, I learned about the literary world from both the editing and publishing end, all from the kind, genuine, and authentic voice that is Jeff Shotts. He currently resides in Minneapolis, MN, with his family.

Barbara Fant: When did you fall in love with poetry and literature?

Jeff Shotts: Really early. I was always a reader and loved the sound and texture of words. More specifically, I must have been in middle school, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and my grandfather gave me a copy of Tennyson’s poetry. When I look back on that, it’s funny that in the swelter and oppression of central Kansas, that he would hand that sort of book to me. But there was something in it that I just loved and was ready to read, even that sort of Victorian high-power voice. There was something in its overblown majesty that spoke to me; I was taken with that. And like many, I was fortunate to have a wonderful English teacher in high school who introduced me to the history of poetry, how poetry works, what’s good and not good in a poem. That teacher, Carole Ferguson, was so wonderful to introduce us to contemporary voices; voices that sounded like us, and talked the way we were talking. Many of those voices were right there from Kansas, like William Stafford, and Langston Hughes, who grew up in the Topeka area, and Gwendolyn Brooks. So, there was an interesting Kansas strand that I could follow by the time I came to the Twin Cities. There’s such a rich literary and contemporary scene here, not just in poetry. It really helped open my eyes to the contemporary possibilities of literature. It was then that I met the local publishing scene too.

BF: How did you work your way into the publishing field?

 When I look back on that, it’s funny that in the swelter and oppression of central Kansas, that he would hand that sort of book to me… There was something in its overblown majesty that spoke to me. 

JS: I’ve been fortunate in a lot of ways, no question about that. I was always the guy who was working on the school newspaper and working on the school literary and art magazine in high school and college, and just always loved that. I always loved making something public and of course that’s the heart of publishing. So, it had always been in my stream or path and then in my senior year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I did a yearlong internship at a wonderful independent review magazine, Hungry Mind Review. They reviewed university presses, small independent nonprofit presses, as well as the larger commercial New York houses. Seeing all those catalogs coming in, everything from Random House and Simon & Schuster to the University of Minnesota, Wesleyan University Press, or Pittsburgh University Press, then of course Graywolf Press, and Coffee House Press, was a huge education for me, in terms of what publishers were doing at that time. This was obviously when people were looking more at print catalogs. You can do this much easier online now.

At that internship, I was so fortunate to do an informational interview with an editor that I really loved named Anne Czarniecki at Graywolf Press. I realized how many Graywolf books I had been reading. Like many people, I read the authors more than the publishing house. When I finally lined that up and realized, that pointed me in a direction. After graduation, I was fortunate enough to land an internship. In some ways, the rest is history. I was just in the right place at the right time. I always loved contemporary literature and poetry, and I think that’s what Graywolf was looking for at that time.

Poetry is such a significant part of our publishing landscape. I learned from being an assistant and an apprentice in 1996 with Fiona McCrae, who is still the director of Graywolf. With publishing and editing and publicity work and all the parts of publishing, you really learn by doing it. I learned by seeing the correspondence of other editors, how they operated, how they wrote rejection letters, how they edited a text, how they were sniffing out exciting new writing, and what magazines they were reading. I soaked all that in and tried to copy it as much as I could. I think it’s still very much like that, though. We say technology has changed the way we read and think about some of these things, yet I think people still respond to the line or the sentence or paragraph or whatever you’re looking at with the sense of human depth and endeavor.

BF: I’m interested in how you choose the books you choose for Graywolf.

JS: Yeah, that’s a big and ongoing question. We have evolved over forty-four years, so next year we are getting ready to celebrate Graywolf’s 45th anniversary. We’ve been on the map for awhile now. We work in a lot of different ways. There are five or six of us in the editorial department and we’re always looking; looking online, looking in print magazines, we’re meeting with magazine editors, visiting MFA programs like Antioch, and elsewhere. I’m going to Breadloaf tomorrow, going to AWP; we try to go where writers are. We try to create relationships with magazines and agents and writers. We’re inside a larger conversation, and that’s exciting.

That’s a part of acquiring work that I really love; listening to what writers are doing on the page and at readings, the way that they talk about what they’re writing about, subject matters that they’re approaching. We find our books by listening. But it’s obviously more than that. We also hope we have created a list of books that beckons to other writers, “Here’s a place for you” if you’re writing poetry or innovative novels. We want to stand as a strong example of a respectful and vibrant home for that kind of challenging writing. We want people to associate Graywolf with that and with a sense of social justice. I hope we communicate that through our books, website, catalog, one-on-one meetings with writers, talks at MFA programs, and through everything that we put out into the world that is meant to say, “Hey, this might be a home for you, keep us in mind, keep us in touch.” And I hope it challenges writers to think about things in less straightforward ways, in terms of literary artful ways of talking about the important topics of our time.

BF: What are some of similarities and differences of editing nonfiction and poetry?

JS: I love being an editor of nonfiction and I love being an editor of poetry. I love that I get to think about certain texts with the same sense of precision. What I mean by that is the nonfiction that we aspire to publish has the same challenging power of language that we associate with the poetry that we publish. And I think that in recent years, in particular, our poetry lists and our nonfiction lists are in communication with each other. I’m thinking of books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is a poetry book, but it’s also an essay book; it’s its own invented genre in a way, but it is so interestingly navigating the lyric and the sense-making that very directly confronts something like race and microaggressions and visual artwork, and all the things that are going on in Claudia’s text. So as an editor, I don’t turn off my poetry editing to edit nonfiction and I don’t turn off my nonfiction when editing poetry. In a way, that’s what Graywolf looks for with our nonfiction prize: works that come at essay writing or nonfiction writing with an innovative structure or innovative language to get at what they’re talking about. I would say this for nonfiction and I would certainly say this for poetry: the voice and style with which those genres are made are just as important as the subject. I think within these last few years, with Claudia Rankine and Eula Biss and Maggie Nelson and Leslie Jamison, there is a real audience that is hungry for that kind of challenging writing and not just a straightforward telling. It’s something that really immerses us into a kind of thoughtful experience. It’s a different way that we read and think and learn. The power of those words seeps into your bones in a different way.

 That’s a part of acquiring work that I really love; listening to what writers are doing on the page and at readings… 

BF: When I started with Lunch Ticket, I was told that working on a literary journal makes you a better reader and ultimately a better writer. How has your editing influenced your writing and vice versa?

 JS: That’s a great question and thank you for asking it. It’s a question I don’t get very much. To get to the first part of your question, I think about my own MFA program. I had a wonderful experience at my MFA, which was at Washington University in St. Louis, and I was in the poetry program and I studied with Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips, who are just wonderful and very different teachers for me. It was hard for me to write for the workshop and to feel like I was on deadline, so to speak, and to have that work then talked about. I was the person around the workshop table who cowered a little when my poem was up for conversation, but I was also the person who loved talking about everyone else’s poem. And I think that told me a lot. I think I came out of my MFA a better editor than a better writer. It just showed me something that I needed to know about myself and that was hugely valuable. It made me realize that publishing and editing and list-building and all those things that we were talking about, is what was at my core.

Every once in a while, I will find myself jotting a little line or there’ll be something that pops up and I feel a creative urge to just fragment something, and that’s usually about where it stays. Most of the writing I’m doing now is reports on manuscripts, catalog copy, jacket copy, editorial letters to nonfiction writers and poets and translators. So for me, that editorial language comes from the same creative pool as the creation of my own poetry or essay writing. Some people are able to compartmentalize that, but I’m just not one of those people. It all comes from the same space. And the truth is, I have a family, I have two young boys, and it’s hard for me to imagine what it takes to be a writer, to look away from them and look at my own page; I can’t make that trade. So I guess I would rather be a present editor and a present parent, not necessarily in that order, rather than a present writer. So my own writing is fairly dormant, to be honest with you right now, but there’s always a porch light on.

BF: I read up on a few of your interviews and I noticed that the theme of “service” comes up often in terms of the author being in service to the book and the book being in service to the world. How do you define service? And what advice would you give some one who believes that they’re called to be in service to the literary world?

 JS: Wow, that’s a great question and I think it’s also at the heart of what writers and teachers can be and, I hope, what editors, publishers, and publicists can be. I think everyone has to answer this question for themselves in terms of what they’re in service to. And I think it’s okay if writers say, “You know, I’m in service to my own need to write.” That may sound selfish, but I really respect that and in some cases that’s what writers need to demand of themselves. It’s a very hard thing to look at your own page, to hear your own voice, and to hone it. So that said: I’m in service to the art, in service to the individual book, to the individual writer, and of course, I’m in service to Graywolf. I hope that what I am able to contribute is in service to particular people whose voices matter and can change us and can change me. And maybe that’s the selfish part of what I do. I want my imagination filled, I want to know more than I do, and I want to be changed by the writers that I’m working with or other writers that I’m reading. I want as many readers as possible to feel the same way. And I hope that also means that readers act in the world in a different way: more respectfully, more politically, more aware or astute, more able to see others for who they are and to challenge each other in those spaces.

I think that literature and art in general is such a great space for that conversation to happen. We live in a culture that needs more of that. I feel energized by serving that purpose. I don’t know if it’s a small or a large purpose, but it is what it is. I am so fortunate to be able to work with writers who share a sensibility of wanting their work to challenge people and get under their skin, and sometimes it can rise up and make a large-scale cultural shift. And I think Citizen has changed some of the ways that we have language around race, and that feels very powerful and important to me. I have learned so much from that. I think that’s where translators, for instance, are wonderful people who offer themselves to writers in various genres. They are doing such an amazing service to writers as they offer themselves to language and stories and poems that we are not hearing in this culture and in this language. That seems like a wonderful service, too. I really see small and independent presses, like Graywolf and obviously many others, that are a great enterprise in service to culture as a whole. Our main service is not a commercial one. Obviously, we want our books to do well, we want our writers to be paid and all those things, but that is not the first thing that we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about how these books can reach particular communities that need them.

 I think I came out of my MFA a better editor than a better writer. It just showed me something that I needed to know about myself and that was hugely valuable. 

BF: I know that Graywolf is devoted to diversity; what is your dream for the press and the larger literary world in the near future? How do you envision it?

JS: That is a wonderful question! One part is that I would really like to see American culture be awash in the serious literature of other cultures and languages because we’ve fallen short compared to other countries and what they’re publishing. There is very little global literature coming in or being translated. So one huge way of answering your question is more global cross-pollination and intersectionality across borders and cultures and languages. That’s one place the American publishing scene can grow and change and become more exciting. The more voices that come in, the more influence they have on English and the more they have influence on our own culture. That’s how our language literally changes. That’s exciting to me when you see the shifts in language; you see the changes in vocabulary or thinking. That feels very important. It’s one of the reasons why we try to do so many books from international writers, whether they are writing in English or not. We need more support for those books because they tend to be more expensive books to create. Sometimes those books need something extra, especially if the writers aren’t known or if there is a certain cultural resistance to their writing. Those are challenging books to do, but that’s our mission and our nonprofit status allows us to do them. It’s a thing that writers can do, too, whether it’s a shout out on social media, a review in the New Yorker that says, “Hey, pay attention to this. Here is this exciting book and wonderful book written in Mexico or Brazil, or wherever.” I think it’s a place where individual writers are often really good literary citizens. I see that a lot in author interviews, a sort of advocacy for writers who deserve a place in the literary world and are just not getting it.

BF: At Antioch you spoke about being a literary citizen and a good literary citizen. What did you mean by that?

JS: I think this is a question that everyone gets to answer for themselves. Being a good literary citizen means certainly putting your own work out there, as a writer that needs to be central. But alongside that, finding ways to amplify the voices of other people that you want to see in the world. And there’s lots of ways to do that. Whether that is something as simple as writing a blurb for a new writer, whether it’s introducing them to a magazine editor, or book editor, or agent. Whether that’s just standing as an example for young writers or new writers who need that example. You can never have enough examples. And so many writers are wonderful teachers or activists in the community. The act of writing can point us in all kinds of ways of interacting with our communities: locally, nationally, and globally. Finding ways to hold hands with one another rather than being in competition. Making time to lead each other, take each other into account, and argue with one another. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t always have to be friendly all the time, we don’t always have to agree. That means being shrewdly critical, whether it’s inside of literature or inside the publishing culture, or inside the conference culture or MFA culture. Calling those things out and being willing to have difficult conversations also feels like a citizenship and a kind of service to the art.

BF: In your lecture at Antioch you also talked about preparing to be accepted. How should one prepare to be accepted?

JS: When I talk to MFA programs or young writers, there’s such a focus on getting in the door. And I get that, because it’s hard and possibilities feel scarce. It can be easy for writers to stop there and not get to what’s on the other side. What happens when an editor says yes? Or a literary agent takes you? Or a magazine? Writers can prepare to be accepted by thinking very carefully about where they’re sending their work. The more thoughtful you are about it, or your agent is on your behalf, the more chances you have of being accepted. If you target your approach, your acceptance rate is always going to be better. That goes for magazines or online publications or book publications.

Also, writers can be surprised by the way editors and publishers talk about their writing. You’ve lived with something for a long time and sometimes very intimately and privately, but the moment it gets accepted and is inside a publishing house, that work is being talked about and promoted through catalog copy, blurbs, publisher’s websites. It can quickly feel far away from that intimate space that an author held so dear for so long. Editors and publicists have to write that copy. Those four or five sentences that are a description of your book, whether a novel or short stories, essays, or poetry, those become very, very important because they sort of follow the book around. They’re the catalog copy and that becomes the jacket copy and that becomes what’s on these online platforms and they calcify and all of a sudden they define your book. And of course, at Graywolf, we write these things alongside you. It is a space of collaboration.

But I think one thing to anticipate is that when writers start to submit work, graph your own copy. I would never say do this while you’re composing or creating your work, but when you have a sense of it: what would you want on the back of your book that would encapsulate your work in a way that would be enticing to the reader, but also very assured to your original vision? It’s very hard to do. We all have to read that marketing language that falls into a set of clichés, so how do you escape that? And I think that it’s an interesting challenge for a writer to do that, and it also prepares you to have that conversation with the publishing agency. It will always make the author feel a strong presence inside that way. No one can talk about a book as well as the author, no one. Obviously, a publisher is going to work with you in various ways to hone that and get that right, but that’s one specific thing an author can do to help anticipate a yes.

BF: The literary world seems to be getting younger, especially the poetry field. What would you say to the writer who feels that they’re too late or they haven’t taken advantage of the right opportunities to pursue their writing career?

JS: Don’t give up. Don’t think that. The life of art is long, I hope. And I’m inspired just as much by those writers who come to publishing much later in their lives, and those writers come to their second and third published books with such a different voice and experience, and I’m an editor who loves that. I’m thinking of Mary Jo Bang (my teacher) who we published at Graywolf, who had done many things in her life before she became a published and more well-respected poet. I would say the same about Diane Seuss, and her last book Four-legged Girl was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, and she came to publish much later in her life. In seeing writers like that getting strong attention, getting reviews, publicity, and spotlight, I find that very inspiring. So I think you don’t have to look very hard to find examples of those who came into their publishing lives later. That doesn’t mean that they came into their artistic lives later. They probably have been writing their whole lives or decades before they started publishing. Publishers are working hard to get these different voices, more established writers, attention. It happens, but it happens in a pathway that might not be expected. The best things that sells books is word of mouth, being out there and being a great reader and performer of your work. Being a great literary citizen in the way we’ve talked about, these are ways that all readers can participate in, and many do. Fear not.

 

Barbara Fant has been writing and performing for twelve years. She has represented Columbus, OH, in nine National Poetry Slam competitions and placed eigth out of ninety-six poets in the 2017 Women of the World Poetry Slam. She is featured in the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Columbus Makes Art Campaign and Columbus Alive named her in their 2017 People to Watch. She is a TEDx speaker, an author of three poetry collections, and has been commissioned by over ten organizations. She holds a BA in literature and a Masters in theology. Currently, she is pursuing her MFA in poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she also served as co-lead poetry editor on Lunch Ticket. She works at The Columbus Foundation and teaches poetry at Transit Arts. Barbara believes in the transformative power of art and considers poetry her ministry.

 

Khadijah Queen, Author, Poet

Photo Credit: Michael Teak

Khadijah Queen (to remix two very famous quotes by Walt Whitman and Lionel Blue) contains multitudes like everybody else, only more so.

In one sense, the scope of her work is so radically diverse in form and genre that it’s difficult imagining all of it coming from one author. Queen describes a literary life that involves reading through a bookstore alphabetically at an early age. It makes sense that an artist with that level of drive and curiosity would explore as many different forms as possible.

But in another sense, it also applies to her personhood and the many valences and roles that Queen lives out through her real life.

Her latest book, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On, contains a multitude of clothing outfit descriptions and the anecdotes the speaker experiences while in them. Each poem explores the internal engines hinted at by very external details and interactions. The book blooms into an outside-in interrogation of the male gaze and power dynamics at large, a focus and critique that has remained evergreen in our still-patriarchal society. Her poems are also full of humorous stories, recorded banter, and the animated energy of a flood of memory.

She is wise, as eager to laugh as to go deep into theory or historical issues, committed to justice and, with a dedicated but almost casual air, she redefines and challenges what is possible for herself and by extension all of us.

*     *     *

Jordan Nakamura: Hi! First of all, I know I speak for so many of us when I say we are so excited and honored to have you as a faculty at Antioch. Welcome back! And congratulations on your beautiful book.

Khadijah Queen: Thank you.

JN: I thought I’d ask you about I’m So Fine first. In addition to detailing these amazingly vivid and often nostalgic outfits, we get to hear what the speaker has read (Sula, The Salt Eaters, The Autobiography of Malcolm X), almost like “what I had on” includes “what I had on my mind.”

KQ: I love that! I hadn’t even thought of that, but I’ll take it!

JN: Done! It was your idea all along! So, it’s clear that books were on your mind, and I’m curious as to when your writing life started. When did you decide you wanted to be a poet?

KQ: That’s a good way to put it, “decide.” I started writing at a young age and reading at a young age. My dad taught me to read when I was like three, and would read me the newspaper. I don’t remember not reading. We always had books around, and somebody was always reading something regardless of whether or not they went to college.

My grandmother’s living room had one side with a tv and the rest of the walls were all books, and she didn’t finish high school. It was just a part of my life growing up.

So I was writing poetry in high school and I was writing in the [military] service. I still have some of those really bad poems…

JN: [laughs] I’m sure we all do.

KQ: Really bad! But I didn’t say “I want to be a writer” until I took a class called Modern Poetry in undergrad and read more contemporary work. Up until then everybody being taught was dead—I didn’t know anybody alive who was writing poetry. But then I read Lucille Clifton and Czesław Miłosz and I was just like, “Wow, this is amazing, I love this!” and I just started reading more.

There was a Barnes & Noble a block from my house, and I would go there and just start with “A.” I read everything in the bookstore and when I finished that, I went to the library and did the same thing.

Maybe six months to a year after I started writing, I’d start turning in work to be published and they’d just be like “I’m returning what you have sent me” and not even calling it a poem! But it didn’t make me feel discouraged, it made me want to do better. That was in my mid-20s.

JN: I’m So Fine feels like a very especially ‘90s era LA book, not only in that it’s mostly set in LA, but also how it presents a chronicle of life punctuated in celebrity sightings. Like you mention, you and everyone else maybe don’t see so many celebrities everywhere now, but—

KQ: Yes because there was no internet.

JN: Right.

KQ: Like, we couldn’t follow them on Instagram, we had to follow ‘em in the mall. Or at a restaurant or whatever. No online shopping, so the only place they went to get their high-end clothes was the Beverly Center.

 

There was a Barnes & Noble a block from my house, and I would go there and just start with “A.” I read everything in the bookstore and when I finished that, I went to the library and did the same thing.

 

JN: I was thinking about how the book is kind of this record of that time, and so I view it partially as an archive. Do you ever think about archival work, and if so, what are things you are driven to attempt to preserve in your work?

KQ: You know, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, so I’m glad you asked that question, but I definitely do that and am interested in that. I’m reading this book right now called The Work-Shy by Blunt Research Group, which goes through the archives of testimonies of and about people who were in this detention facility for youth where the goal was eugenics, and they were basically imprisoned and forcibly sterilized—and the book is these erasure-poems of those testimonies.

So I’m very much interested in finding things in history that have not been told, or [have been] ignored, or that have been suppressed and bringing those things out in the open. Think about a “great American novel,” for example, we don’t really think about a black girl in South Central LA. That’s not the first thing we think about… but it’s the first thing I think about, because that was me.

But we all can relate to these stories too. I mean, we all have issues with what we are wearing and strive to try to show off what we wear, maybe it’s actively trying to be nondescript or not care, but we all have an opinion about what clothes we have on. And, also, it’s just really fun!

JN: It is! Now, it seems like our country is (finally) starting to have a serious national conversation about accountability, abusers, silenced victims, and institutions. Your book addresses aspects of that conversation on an everyday level, to where it’s not just talking about only prestigious women, and it also speaks across generations. I was wondering at what point in the project did you notice that taking shape, as in, did you set out with it, or did you more realize the work was speaking to that conversation…?

KQ: Not until the revision, when I had a good number of them. I wrote them in a poem-of-the- day project called The Grind and people would respond that they’d want to hear more of them because they were funny. But as I kept recalling these circumstances, these feelings started to accumulate like, hey, wow, this is pretty… horrible. [laughs] But we were trained to laugh about it, we were trained to just move on, we were trained to say this is how it’s supposed to be. And it’s not until you were out of that environment, honestly, that you think how messed up it actually is. And plus, with what was brought up with the election, like we basically have a serial abuser as the leader of our country. But circling back to my family and the archive, in new work, I’m thinking about the legacy of sexual assault and the absence of choice. I’m going back to ancestors of mine who were kidnapped and brought here and forced to bear children for their enslavers and addressing how that has passed down across generations.

JN: You mentioned how these were written as a result of grind poems, which is such a hard thing—or at least it was for me when I’ve done it before. Do you believe in setting aside a kind of regular time, do you just kind of write when you feel “inspired,” etc.?

KQ: I mean, I believe in it generally.

JN: Haha!

KQ: [laughs] And I did it for six years. I wrote every day for six years. That’s how I got four books written! So I recommend it if you respond to it and it’s something you feel excited about and it’s not a weight or a burden. For me it was very powerful because I had gone through a period of not writing for six months, so even if it wasn’t a poem, if it was just a line or a sentence, I just wanted to write something. Then I had surgery in 2015, and I was on medication and my brain wouldn’t let me do anything. Except heal, and order takeout, and watch Basketball Wives, haha.

JN: All under the umbrella of healing!

KQ: Yep, I totally binged on Basketball Wives and Game of Thrones and I did not write, because every time I’d try to write, my brain was just not working. That was tough. That was like a mourning period for me because I had to change the way I thought about my writing practice.

But I did eventually get back to the feeling of working in a burst, and I had all this material that I’d collected from previous writing, and I just sat down and finished two books that following summer, so, like, a year or so later.

So now I think it’s a combination of both: I’ll get in a mode where I need to write every day or I’ll get into a mode where I’ll just do it as it comes. But I find that I write books better after a period of writing every day for a while and then having the time to myself to make the book happen.

 

I wrote them in a poem of the day project called The Grind and people would respond that they’d want to hear more of them because they were funny. But as I kept recalling these circumstances, these feelings started to accumulate like hey, wow, this is pretty… horrible

 

JN: Like in revision.

KQ: Yes.

JN: You’ve shared really valuable advice on literary citizenship. Could you talk a bit about what that means for you, how you practice it?

KQ: I would like to be the kind of writer who participates in making the field more inclusive, and more humane and more expansive creatively. Whatever that looks like in terms of teaching or my professional actions. I try to keep in mind the idea of further humanization and professionalization of the field, just as a general baseline.

JN: Sometimes the idea of citizenship can feel very public, but how do you protect your interior life?

KQ: Yes, I think I’m not necessarily into the whole loud or public part of being a citizen. I like to just watch what’s going on and work behind the scenes, like, “I see you, I see what you’re doing.” But I don’t mind if it comes to me being more vocal and public. I’m not afraid of it, but I want it to be on my own terms and, again, in terms of further professionalization and not anything to do with sensationalism, invasion of privacy, or disrespecting the confidence of people who have confided in me. Their trust is very important to me and that’s the number one thing, I think. I don’t want to be in a position to be asked to impugn my integrity.

JN: I find your work really models a sense of fearlessness and play. I feel like poetry is sometimes boxed in to certain emotions like sadness or frustration, but I wonder how much fun and playfulness get understated. Do you think about this in your work consciously, and how important are the aspects of play and fun in your writing?

KQ: You know, I was talking about this the other day at this place called The Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I teach in Denver, and we were talking about genre concerns. I was saying how it took me forever to write this memoir in the Navy because it was such tough shit, but I finally found the thing that made it fun. So now it’s coming, and I don’t have to stress out about it, I can just write it.

So fun for me is a way to access completeness. It can’t just be, like, a cesspool of sadness. It can’t! I’m not gon’ make it! I have to be able to enjoy my life, what I’m doing. I need joy and fun, especially when I’m dealing with rougher aspects of the content.

JN: What advice do you have for fostering fearlessness, not being worried, retaining the excitement and fun and play of writing?

KQ: I don’t know how fearless I am, I just have to do it anyway. Even when I’m scared. But I have a lot of practice. It just takes practice. When I was in the service, I was afraid of heights. And I’m also not the best swimmer, but we had to dive off a ten-foot diving board and swim across the whole pool in order to get the hell out of boot camp! I was terrified, but we had to do it anyway. It’s fine to be terrified, but have a lot of support, try to have a great community around you.

And sometimes your fear will tell you what you shouldn’t be doing. So if you really are afraid of something, and it will feel traumatic to share, then that might just be for you. I was at a workshop with Sharon Olds, and she said she has multiple books that she has not shared. Because it’s not for anyone else, it’s just for her. So it’s recognizing what your own boundaries are too.

JN: In Fearful Beloved, you write in one of the poems addressed to Fear: “I don’t want to keep looking at what I have already survived.”

And also in I’m So Fine, you write: “so much happened between us I could write a book about it but I’ve lost interest in pain.”

It reminds me of what some poets, in particular poets of color, are coming around to: that a lot of people want us to write about pain in order to be read or seen at all. But it can kind of turn into this re-traumatization cycle that, whether rewarded or not, is at best exhausting. It’s really refreshing to witness what feels like a radical resistance to this in the poem itself. How do you think about life-sustaining habits that support your well-being, your interests, your enthusiasms, to move beyond mere survival?

KQ: Well first of all, I know people might have issues with this but, like, go to therapy. Handle your personal shit so that you can emerge into the writing stronger with a greater sense of who you are and what you’re capable of doing. I’ve certainly did it. I still do it. It’s super helpful! It’s a health issue. It’s like getting a check-up. So that’s number one, as a life habit, if you have access. And if you don’t have access to it, maybe researching some free resources, even through your school, like from Antioch even and saying, “Look, I need some help with this issue, do you know of any free resources?”

Also, I’ll say again, having a supportive writing community, that is non-toxic and uplifting and helps you be at your most productive.

What else… Read me the question again?

JN: I mean what you said is good! Like, “art is not the same as therapy.” Amen.

KQ: It’s not! And it doesn’t mean you can’t say what’s going on with you, but in order to have a little bit of distance to sort of elevate it beyond “this horrible thing happened to me” and to make it relevant beyond your experience, I think it takes dealing with your personal shit.

JN: I’m struck and inspired by your attentiveness to everyday things often overlooked: you wrote letters to your Fear in Fearful Beloved. You wrote a play where small and strange objects take center stage. You weave an LA tapestry through a personal but also what feels like a more collective feminine consciousness through often subtle gestures in interactions and details of outfits. Do you feel any connection to the ecstatic tradition in your love, in your attentiveness? Or what voices or directions do you feel drawn to and who do think are kindred spirits also moving to where your enthusiasms travel and dwell?

KQI certainly love exuberance. Muriel Rukeyser writes about it quite a bit in her book The Life of Poetry which is the first craft book I ever read. I was still in the military and just came across it in the bookstore. And she was a single parent also, so I was really inspired by her work. And she talked about the fear of poetry and that being rooted in the fear of emotion.

And I think that’s something that as a society we are still struggling with, really deeply. Like we are afraid to talk about what we feel because we are afraid people [will] use our feelings against us. But poetry demands that we talk about those feelings, deal with them, and reflect back, you know, our life choices and our thinking around very large ideas captured in these tiny snippets.

So that’s what I love about poetry, I don’t know what else to say about that. I read a lot of Rumi when I first started. I just took a Melville class: he’s super exuberant! Even though he’s super problematic! But he was doing the best he could, I guess, in the 19th century. But he had this deep exuberance and love for writing that I appreciated very much and that I appreciate in some of the newer writers that are coming up. Like, be free. Freedom! Freedom is wonderful.

JN: Shout-out to Freedom! You mention Fred Moten in an epigraph to a poem in Fearful Beloved. Both of you have a strong interest in experimental writing. What does experimental writing mean to you? Perhaps in the sense of how you both explore liberation through the improvisational space of experiment.

KQ: Yes! I love improvisation. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz too, so it just feels natural. And also, I just like to make up stuff. I don’t like having limits on what I can do, I don’t like being told how I’m supposed to do something. Sometimes constraints are delightful; I like forms too. But my interest in experiment came from wanting to do as much as possible.

JN: A lot of people reading this interview will likely be involved in literary institutional spaces at some capacity. Clearly, the literary community has been long in desperate need for swift and serious accountability so that people can feel safe, supported, believed, and overall like they can focus on being an artist. What are some of the ways you are seeing progress in institutional accountability? What are ways you wish more people would practice to help each other along the path toward a safer, more professional, and nurturing environment in institutional (and really any) spaces?

KQ: I want to see our field be more professional. That means treating people with respect, it means listening, it means if someone says, “Hey, this behavior harms me,” correcting yourself—being willing to be corrected. Not using your power to hurt other people. Letting people go to work without interfering, like can we go to work? Let’s do that.

 

So fun for me is a way to access completeness. It can’t just be, like, a cesspool of sadness. It can’t! I’m not gon’ make it! I have to be able to enjoy my life, what I’m doing. I need joy and fun, especially when I’m dealing with rougher aspects of the content.

 

I think that’s probably the work of my life: thinking about how I can just go to work without some creep harassing me or treating me badly because of my gender, race, disability, whatever it is. Can we just make room for everybody who comes to work, to work? It’s very simple.

JN: You’ve graduated from and have taught now at multiple low-res programs. What was your draw to low-res programs as a student and now as a faculty?

KQ: Well, as a student, I was working full-time and I had a kid so I couldn’t do a full residency, it just was not going to happen. For the teaching, I only teach at two, Regis and now at Antioch. Regis just asked me, and they seemed cool, so I was like sure!

And they are, they’re amazing! And the same thing with Antioch. I just like talking about poems. If they’re going to say, “Hey, you wanna come talk about poems,” pretty much I’m going to do it if I have the time to do it.

JN: Yes, I don’t know if it was you who was saying this, but I think you mentioned there is like an advantage sometimes to the way the packets work in low-res programs because of the rigor in terms of feedback on the page—or maybe that was Carol Potter…

KQ: I think that was Carol Potter. I don’t have as much experience as Carol does. It’s definitely a challenge to manage time and give students the feedback that they deserve, so I just try to organize my schedule so I do it in a period when I have that time. And hopefully they’ll be sending their stuff in on time so it don’t mess up my flow!

JN: Haha.

KQ: I love working with students, with both manuscripts and individual poems. For a long time, I worked a regular job, so I’m kinda like a newbie at this whole jam, so I just want to help people figure out what to read that will help them do what they would like to do, and share what I know in this almost twenty years of being a writer.

JN: …So you’re not really a “newbie.”

KQ[laughs] Yes newbie to the academic side, but certainly not a newbie to poetry.

JN: It seems that you’ve had a voracious reading life. What does that look like presently, what kinds of things do you read: genres, titles, time periods, etc.?

KQ: I’m in a PhD program now, so I’m—like my brain’s going to explode, because I’m reading a lot. We had to read all of Melville’s prose…

JN: Wow.

KQ: I might have skimmed some. Such as Pierre, which was horrendous. So, yes, all of Melville. I really like the 19th Century I found out actually, because they have this interaction between race and gender and class that is very stark, but also seems to parallel like the underneath of what’s going on now. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a poet that I’ve been looking at. She wrote a poem called the “Bible Defense of Slavery”—

JN: Wow…

KQ: —which reminds me of how Sessions is trying to use the Bible to defend his actions.

JN: Yeah, what the hell?!

KQ: Ain’t nothing new under the sun, man! I love world literature. I love contemporary writers. I just bought Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen, and one of my colleagues at DU is Diana Khoi Nguyen, whose book, Ghost Of, is fucking incredible. It’s about her brother who committed suicide a few years ago and it has text with cut-outs of her brother because he cut out his picture from the family pictures before he did what he did, and so she made poems in the shape of his absence.

JN: Oh my god…

KQ: I’m saying. And I just finished reading Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and I mentioned The Work-Shy earlier… Oh, one of my favorite books I just read in the last year is Dionne Brand’s Map to the Door of No Return, which is sort of trying to reconcile ancestry that has been interrupted by the displacement of slavery, and tracing those roots across the world.

JN: Yes, Dionne Brand is awesome. In addition to your poetry, we got to hear some of the novels Or is it a memoir, or a novel, I don’t know what to call it…

KQ: Prose? It’s prose.

JN: The prose piece! So I’m not sure how much you want to talk about that since it’s in- process, but I found it refreshing to hear about what many identify as another very male-dominated space, from your perspective. You’ve explored so many different genres. What made you want to tell that story in prose? And what strengths do you find in the other forms you’ve worked in?

KQ: I felt it was too big for poetry. I needed to tell the whole story, but, like, the multiple stories. I have written a little bit about it in Fearful Beloved but, I don’t know. That voice wasn’t going away and I started writing it a really long time ago.

I haven’t seen any military literary work by black women, so I think we need that because there are a lot of us. I think that often, just with military people in general, there’s a feeling that people don’t want to know what really happened. Like, behind that whole “thank you for your service” thing, they don’t really want to know what that service really is. So I’m just being that person saying, “This is what that service is like, in all of its nuances.”

JN: What has been bringing you joy? What do you love that you love right now?

KQ: Oh, man, I love getting my nails done! Haha, they have this new thing called powder dip! Or whatever they call it, dip powder. And it, like, it lasts forever. And it’s all sparkly and it doesn’t break. It’s so awesome. What else? Sleep. Because I’m… deprived.

JN: Somebody once—I feel like somebody tweeted this, something like, “Actually, no-sleep is the cousin of death.” And I never forgot that.

KQ: [laughs] Yes! I love naps, naps are everything. I found that when I started the PhD, that, because I was taking in so much information, I really had to sleep in order to integrate it. I don’t really have, like, traditional ideas of fun. Like, I don’t go hiking, or I don’t go skiing or do any of that. I like to go to the movies. I see the movies that I like more than once.

JN: Oh, yes, repeat viewings are important.

KQ: Like, I just re-watched Black Panther.

JN: If you’ve only seen it once, have you really seen it…

KQ: You haven’t! You really need to wait until you memorize it. And then you see it again and repeat it back to the television. I like traveling. I like hanging out with my kid. And I like talking about poems.

JN: I’m going to borrow this last question from Rachel Zucker, who hosts Commonplace.

KQ: Yes, I love her!

JN: Is there any question that no one has asked you, that you’re like, “How come no one’s asked me this yet?”

KQ: Hmm.

JN: I know it’s kinda strange because I’m like, “Look for what you’ve never seen…” But you seem to be good at that, so…

KQ: Yes… Hmm. One second… “How has motherhood made you a better writer?” That’s what I wish. Instead of the other question which is, “How do you do it?” I’m so over that question. But my son and my writing were basically born at the same time. So I wouldn’t be a writer, I don’t think… or I wouldn’t be the same kind of writer if I wasn’t responsible for this other human life. Thinking about creativity in terms of the kind of world I want him to live in. What kind of intellectual space I would love to present to him to be available for him to occupy.

JN: That’s really good. Yes, I feel like motherhood is kind of an under-explored, or at least really misunderstood topic in literary spaces. That whole idea that somehow you can’t do both or—

KQ: Yes, people presume it’s interfering or whatever and it—I mean, I try to think about it differently. Like it was harder for me to write prose having a kid all by myself, but some writers can do it.

I just want to put it out there that children are not an interruption. Sometimes it can be an inspiration. And however motherhood shows up in your writing life, or not at all, because that is a choice that ought to be respected as well, we do ourselves a disservice when we presume that children are burdensome to our creative output. They can exist alongside one another in beautiful ways.

JN: That’s great. Thank you so much, this was fun.

KQ: It was a pleasure.

 

Jordan Nakamura is a poet and serves as the graphic design lead as well as co-lead editor for poetry and visual art for Lunch Ticket. He was born and raised in Hawaii and lives in Los Angeles.

David Ulin, Author, Critic, Editor

Photo Credit: UC Riverside Low Residency MFA Program

You’ve probably read David Ulin’s work in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, The Paris Review, Black Clock, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Zyzzyva, Columbia Journalism Review, The Believer, and NPR’s All Things Considered. Ulin has also been a contributor to docufilms, such as Lost LA and the upcoming Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. As a former book editor and book critic for The Los Angeles Times for ten years, Ulin has a unique perspective that takes into account the current sociological and political sphere and his place within it. In 2002, Ulin won the California Book Award for the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, on which he was an editor. He was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and most recently was awarded a 2018 Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, Texas. This year, 2018, also saw the re-release of Ulin’s 2010 book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, with a new introduction and afterword.

In addition to being a Guest Faculty member at AULA’s low-residency MFA program, Ulin is also an assistant professor of English at USC, and he also teaches in UC Riverside’s low- residency MFA in creative writing program.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with David Ulin and chat about all things writerly.

Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez: Okay. How are you this morning?

David Ulin: I’m fine and thanks for doing this in the morning, by the way. It’s always better for me to start at the beginning of the day, rather than the end so it doesn’t cut into the writing—or the non-writing—depending on what’s happening. [chuckles]

YDS: Let’s start with an easy question: What is your favorite genre to write?

DU: That’s a good question. I don’t think I have a favorite. At the moment, I primarily work in nonfiction. Although, I sort of dip in and out of other genres. It’s more of a progression. I started out as a poet. My first book was a chapbook of poems. Then, I sort of slid into fiction writing, what I thought I wanted to do. So, I did both for a long time, and then I became really interested in essay writing for a variety of reasons. I was working as a critic, and being a critic is actually being an essayist of a certain kind. The reviews I wanted to write and read most were ones that function as little essays in their own right. Then, I just became really fascinated with reading contemporary essayists and nonfiction. I wanted to play in that form. It felt like a natural move for me because the fiction I was writing was often autobiographical, and I’m very interested in personal narrative: how it is constructed, and what the relationship [of the narrative] is to actual life.

Because of the intuitive move of the essay, it reminds me of the intuitive and expressionistic flow of writing poetry. So, essay writing seems to pull in a lot of the elements that I find most exciting or attractive about fiction and poetry.

YDS: That’s interesting; I mostly write fiction and I began writing poetry when I was younger as well. But I am feeling my way into nonfiction more and more, so that really resonates with me.

The act of writing becomes an act of directed improvisation and I think the same is true when I’m writing an essay or book or a story or a poem.

DU: Yeah, you know I think we do ourselves a disservice as writers by thinking we have to do only one thing. I know plenty of writers who do one thing and do it really, really well, but there are also a lot of writers who move around [between genres], and I think sometimes the moving around can be really useful in terms of ideas that I can’t express in another way. Certain things just appear for one form, but the forms do talk to each other. It’s interesting to see how they resonate with each other.

YDS: So that transitions well into my next question: what’s your process of writing a book review versus writing a novel or story?

DU: It used to be quite different when I was starting because I felt like I had to say “this” about “this” book for “this” reason. As I continued to write reviews, though, I began to write them in much the same way I write everything else: to know as little as possible going in.

Obviously, I gather my material. If I’m writing a book review, then I’ve read the book. I’ve thought about the book, I’ve thought about my reaction to the book, and I might even have a sense of what things I might want to quote. While I’m reading, I’m taking notes or making comments in the margins or whatever, but I don’t necessarily know what the review is going to say or how I’m going to say it. The act of writing becomes an act of directed improvisation and I think the same is true when I’m writing an essay or book or a story or a poem.

In the act of writing, there’s something that triggers. Maybe it’s an incident or maybe it’s something I’ve observed. Maybe it’s something I’m thinking about or maybe it’s an issue—personal, political, or whatever—and then the writing becomes the exploration of that idea or that question. I don’t necessarily write to come up with an answer. I write to phrase a set of questions [rather than answers]. So when I started writing reviews this way was when my reviewing changed.

Going back to what I was saying earlier, I felt reviewing was about presenting a set of answers: you know, “Is this book good or bad?” “Should people buy it?” “How is this working or not?” I think those are a part of the reviewing process. If you’re reviewing for the newspapers, which is what I did for many years, you are writing an essay, but also, you’re providing a service. People are reading those reviews because they want to see what you have to say. They are also reading those reviews presumably because they’re trying to decide whether or not to put real money down and buy the book.

I think there’s something really interesting about the inquiry [of writing], so the long answer to the short question is that, at this point, the process is pretty much the same. There aren’t a bunch of things I’m thinking about. I sit down, and I just start writing to see where it takes me. Often, I’ll write a review and in the middle of it, I’ll think, “Oh, I had no idea this is where I was going to end up,” or, “I had no idea that’s what I was going to be talking about.” I’m very interested in seeing how the ideas emerge through the process of writing, rather than being predetermined beforehand.

YDS: So with this idea of process in mind, what was it like being a book editor versus being a book critic for The LA Times?

DU: It was complicated, to be honest, but I loved it. I didn’t love it all the time. I loved the work of it. I was there during a strange decade where the paper was constantly in a state of turmoil, constantly downsizing. Because I was a section editor for the first five years, I was responsible for trying to protect that section in some way. I had to figure out how to integrate [the section] into the paper at large and that came with a set of logistical challenges I hadn’t had before. Just on a pragmatic level, if they were downsizing a section, what did that mean? How much space could we get? How could I fight to keep that space? If I had half the space I used to have, how did we intend to use that space to try and have a wider range of coverage? And then, how could I use the web?

I became book editor in 2005, and web presence was pretty minimal. One of the things that I and the other editors were doing at that time was trying to build the website and build web presence. We played around with stuff, and we tried to mitigate the print space with increasing digital space, so those logistical questions were really unique to that experience and sometimes they were quite frustrating. At one point they did cut the section in half in terms of its print space so that was a difficult process. In the end, I think I was always a writing editor—I was a writer first and an editor second—so even when I was editing a section, I was writing a lot of pieces, and at a certain point, I just wanted to go back to writing. I didn’t want to be in charge anymore. I realized through that process that I don’t really love being in charge. So, when I had the opportunity to begin writing full-time as a critic it was great. I really enjoyed that, but then the other challenge of it was that the web continued to assert itself, and the paper belatedly tried to catch up on web strategy, the demand for volume. And, the amount of pieces you were supposed to write radically grew.

One reason [I left] was due to those kinds of demands. Though frankly, I felt that ten years was enough. I had done that job, and it was enough for me. I had learned what I wanted to learn from it. I think one of the important things to consider about those kinds of jobs—particularly for newspaper—is that they turn over. If you read my reviews for five years, you have a pretty good idea of who I am, where I’m coming from, and what my aesthetics are. So then, it should be somebody else’s turn, you know. That is how publications ossify, if somebody does that job for too long.

Though frankly, I felt that ten years was enough. I had done that job, and it was enough for me. I had learned what I wanted to learn from it.

YDS: So if someone were interested in becoming a book reviewer, how should they start?

DU: Well, at this point, I think I would start on the web. I think there are a lot of excellent web-based publications. I came up through alt-weekly media, like LA Reader, which doesn’t exist anymore, and LA Weekly, Village Voice. That kind of stuff. Some of those papers don’t exist anymore either. But at the time, what was great about them is that you could write, write at length, and they were always looking for stuff. You could really learn while you’re doing it, hone your chops. I would say for someone who wants to do it now, the same is available in terms of websites like The Millions or Lithub or Los Angeles Review of Books, sites like that.

Look around at those sites: see what you like, look at the outlets you like, think about what kind of stuff they’re publishing, think about whether you are doing that kind of work, and then pitch. There is a lot of opportunity on the web, there’s not a lot of money in that opportunity and that’s always the problem starting out; the paper/work ratio is, generally, pretty uneven.

In terms of getting work out and having the opportunity to learn in public, I think that’s really key because book reviewing is a kind of a public form of writing. I believe all writing is public, but book reviewing is public because nobody writes book reviews and then sits on them. I do it all the time when I write poems and stories, with no guarantee they’re going to get published. But nobody is sitting around writing book reviews for their own amusement. Well, maybe there are a few. [laughs]

YDS: It also seems like you’re more aware of your audience when you’re writing a book review than when writing for yourself.

DU: I guess we are aware that there is an audience. I mean I always tried to keep an awareness of the audience per say. Not right to the audience, but yeah, if you’re writing a review for a newspaper, you are aware that there is going to be an audience reading that review in a different way than if you’re working on a short story, or a novel, or an essay, or something like that. I mean the audience is less abstract in this case.

YDS: Does being more aware of that audience change your writing or voice in any way?

DU: You know, I don’t think so. Because once I’m in, when I’m sitting at the computer writing, I’m not aware of there being a difference at all because I’m not writing to please anybody, except hopefully myself. Again, I’m writing to kind of see what’s there and that’s the same no matter what form I’m working in.

YDS: I recently read Ear to the Ground, which you wrote with Paul Kolsby and is a really great read, by the way. I kept thinking about the process of collaboration. What was your collaboration like and how is that different than writing on your own?

DU: It’s very different than writing on your own. It’s not something I do very often, to be honest. It’s not something I love doing because I tend to be kind of solitary and I have my own sense of how things go, and I do think that writing is largely an individual process. But in this case, it worked really well. Although the book came out in 2016, it was originally published as a weekly serial novel in the Los Angeles Reader in ’95 and ’96. So, Paul and I were in our early thirties. We’d known each other since college, since we were like eighteen or nineteen, and we had collaborated in loose ways on other creative projects that were more performance oriented. He’s a playwright and we had done a radio serial drama together, like five or six years earlier. So we knew each other, we knew each other’s work. We weren’t best, best friends, but I think it’s better that we weren’t because there was less at stake in our personal relationship.

Because it was a series novel, we agreed to deliver a chapter a week for a year and it ended up running nine months because the story sort of arched in that block of time. So, this ties in with what we’ve been talking about because Paul and I had no idea where this was going to go. We had a general sense of what the arc of the story was; we knew that there was going to be the earthquake prediction and we knew how it was going to play out. We kind of mapped that out, but we didn’t know…well, we certainly didn’t know what was going to be happening in the news, and we wanted to weave that in. We didn’t necessarily know what was going to be happening with the characters and their relationships. A lot of that developed week by week. So the idea of writing a chapter a week on deadline was really daunting.

In that sense, collaboration was essential because what if I didn’t have an idea, but I still had to turn something in? With a collaborator, maybe he had an idea, or maybe I had one and he didn’t. And so the kind of interplay in the collaboration was really helpful because of the pressure of generating content at that pace. The other thing that was really useful is I’m not much of a plotter, but Paul is a great plotter. We didn’t realize this going in, but as we were working, it emerged that we kind of complimented each other. I was good on character and scene. He’s really good on big plot overview stuff. He’s funny; I’m less so. And so there was a balance that was important for the book. I think it was a really interesting and successful process.

The best evidence is that eighteen years later when we finally read it again and decided to try and publish it as a book, there were long stretches of the manuscript where I couldn’t tell who had written what. I remembered writing certain things myself. I remember certain things that Paul had written, but there were definitely stretches where both of us were like, “I don’t know, this could be either one of us.” That says to me the collaboration developed its own kind of voice, its own sensibility, which is all you can hope for. Even if there are two writers, there has to be a kind of unified voice to a narrative or else the reader doesn’t have anything to connect with. But, it was a fascinating process.

YDS: So, did you start off with one of you writing the first chapter and then the other would read that chapter and then write the next one back and forth?

DU: Yeah, the original idea was exactly that. One of us was going to be the writer every other week, right? And we would alternate, but then of course things happened. So Paul, at that time, was traveling a bunch, and I had a six month old son—my oldest—which is always, always a distraction. So there were things coming up where I couldn’t do it or he couldn’t do it, or I would direct three in a row or vice versa. So it became more fluid and flexible just because of life. The original plan, which we did sort of stick to for a while and kind of kept coming back to, was that we would alternate as a lead writer. If it was my job, then Paul would go through them. We would then get together and go over the revised version, and then do a final draft of it.

I think we probably ran through about half that way. Most chapters were 900 words long, but we did these three sort of pillar chapters that were much longer, that ran as cover stories. Those were about 3,500 words long each. We started with one of those. We had one in the middle and one at the end. That was a different process because we worked on them for a longer time, obviously, and they became a key way for us to make really big plot moves.

YDS: That’s a great example of process. I recently read an article you wrote for The LA Times back in 2009, “The Lost Art of Reading,” which seemed to be a precursor to the book.

DU: Yes, in fact, there would be no book without that article.

YDS: One of the main ideas, in the article and the book, is that the reason for the decline in reading for the average person is due to social media culture and our political climate and a sense of immediacy we increasingly desire. With that in mind and thinking of new types of storytelling—audiobooks, podcasts, etc.—do you think that these things influence or alter that type of mentality when it comes to reading?

DU: That’s a good question. I think everything that involves storytelling—with every storytelling medium or mechanism—affects the way we interact with and engage in storytelling. Just as a quick example, let’s look at Madame Bovary. In a lot of ways you could call it the first modern novel because it’s describing a modern sensibility, right? Middle-class bourgeois people. This is the first time you see this in fiction: people with a little bit too much time and money on their hands and the boredom that it provokes. It was very modern when it came out, with its morality moving away from traditional morality. Published in 1857, right? When the Bovary’s get chased out of town and move to another place, Flaubert introduces the second town with a five-page set piece, where he basically sets up the location before they ever get there. You can’t do that in a book in a novel anymore. I don’t think our attention spans are wired to put up like that. We want to cut to the chase. If that novel had been written a hundred years later, chances are he would have adapted cinematic strategy like jump cuts. We no longer expect a novelist to ease us through transitions, but we can move through these kinds of abrupt transitions because we have internalized the vernacular of film just by virtue of the society we’re living in. Even if you don’t go to movies or aren’t a big movie person, we understand how that transition works in a way that 100 years ago or 150 years ago it would have been beyond our ability to imagine.

It’s the same thing with the Impressionists when they first were shown in the late 1800s and they were attacked because people couldn’t process what they were seeing. Whereas now you look at an impressionist painting and it looks like a realist painting. I think as a species we evolved our ability to appreciate various forms of expression and narrative as those forms come up and teach us new ways of thinking. And I think audiobooks are a great example. I think film is a great example. And I think video games are a kind of narrative mechanism, of digital storytelling, multimedia. All of these kinds of things have changed the way we interact. I’m interested in all of that stuff.

When the Bovary’s get chased out of town and move to another place, Flaubert introduces the second town with a five-page set piece, where he basically sets up the location before they ever get there. You can’t do that in a book in a novel anymore.

What I was primarily trying to write about in The Lost Art, at least in that second edition with new material, was really about distraction and the fact that someone like me, who was an avid lifelong reader of hundreds and hundreds of pages a week, was now having trouble reading. This must mean that there was a kind of epidemic of having trouble reading. The reason the book grew out of that essay was because the essay got tons of response. Mostly people would write me to say, “Thanks, I thought I was the only one.” Then a publisher asked me if I would be interested in thinking about this as a book.

There’s a lot of political stuff in the book because there was a lot of political stuff going on at the time. In terms of the current crisis, it was just beginning with the tea party and Sarah Palin and all of that. Although, the roots go back much further, and we weren’t using phrases like “fake news,” but that level of lying was already part of the public discourse. One of the reasons it was working was because people were either too distracted or uninformed to know what the truth was. In that sense the political climate was sort of a subtext to the book. It was really a question about distraction and how we combat distraction. So it is a book about reading, but in a lot of ways reading becomes a metaphor for slowing down, for critical thinking, or for quieting our minds enough to be able to hear somebody else’s voice and engage with it. I really feel this is something that we have lost to our collective detriment. If we were able to actually sit and process information collectively as a culture and think about what it meant and then ask questions about it, we’d be a lot better off.

But the speed of everything and the soundbite quality of the Internet as an information source has created an environment where we are basically conditioned just to react. Just hit a button and read something and our immediate responses are like, “Yeah” or, “Fuck you”. And we’d never really get beyond that. And so I saw that happening in me, and I wanted to explore it.

YDS: I used to soak up books when I was young. Then I got into grad school and I was having the hardest time concentrating. So when I read the article and book it started to click. This sense of immediacy. I teach at a community college and I see it now with students and trying to get them to read.

DU: That’s absolutely right. I’ve noticed it more lately, and certainly since the election, as affecting writing. You know, on a big news day, I’m constantly interrupting my own writing to go see what’s going on, even though if I waited an hour, I’d be just as outraged, or weirded out or disgusted or horrified or whatever. But it feels like if I don’t know immediately, it’s like I will lose further control. And as I was saying earlier, writing is kind of about giving up control or losing control or seeing what happens when you let go.

Yet at the same time, the political environment and social environment is so chaotic and so disruptive of our impulses that we need to know everything that’s happening, so we can at least preserve the illusion that we have some control over what’s happening, even though we don’t. And so I find myself constantly caught between those two poles. Even when I’m writing, things that would’ve taken me a couple of hours—five years ago—now takes me all day, and things that would’ve taken me a day now takes me a week because I’m constantly pulling myself out of the writing and putting my head back into the real world.

YDS: That puts it into perspective. And speaking of reading, what are you currently reading?

DU: I am about to read a biography of the architect Philip Johnson, that a friend of mine wrote, which I’m curious about. I’m reading Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets from my Past and Future Assassins, which I think is completely remarkable. And I’m reading a book by Patrick Modiano, the French Nobel Prize winner, called Sleep of Memory, which is the first book he’s written since he won the Nobel. He’s a writer I’m really interested in because his work is so spare and minimal and also heavily memory-influenced. And so those are really important, at least in terms of what I do.

I’m about to start reading the last book by Canadian writer Helen Weinzweig. She’s a novelist, a short story writer. She lived into her eighties and died a number of years ago, but she wrote three books, starting when she was in her late fifties. I stumbled across the first book and I fell in love with it. I’m about to start reading her last book, A View from the Roof, a collection of shorts.

The other book I’ve been spending a lot of time with this summer is The Years by a French writer named Annie Ernaux. It’s a memoir that does not use first person singular, which I find absolutely fascinating. Basically, she’s trying to write her own story through the collective story of her generation. She uses a lot of first-person plural and she uses some third-person. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. It’s fascinating. I’m always looking for writers who are doing something that I haven’t seen or something vivid and compelling, particularly with voice because I do a lot of first-person writing and I’m curious about how to strip the “I” out of first-person writing.

YDS: You mentioned a new edition of The Lost Art of Translation is coming out soon, what else are you working on at the moment?

DU: I am working on a few things. I don’t normally talk about works in progress, but I will say the main project I’m working on, which I’m pretty well into, is a memoir that’s been kind of fascinating for all the reasons we were talking about in terms of a voice in narrative, of memory and storytelling, of the slipperiness of truth. I don’t really believe in truth. I believe in subjective truth, but I don’t really believe in our ability to comprehend objective truth. Different versions of stories—how the story can exist in different versions depending on who’s telling them—all that stuff fascinates me.

YDS: I look forward to reading that. Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give a working writer?

DU: Well, I’ve given this advice before, and I’ll give it again until I’m dead and can’t give advice anymore: don’t listen to anybody who tells you you can’t do it. As writers, once [you] declare yourself as a writer, everybody has advice and at least half of that is, “You’ll never be able to do this, so figure out something else to do.” And I don’t think it’s meant to be cruel. I mean, sometimes it is, but I think it’s meant to be practical. You’re going to spend your life doing this thing where there’s no money and it’s hard. So why, right?

Well, obviously, the drive is internal. So if you’re offered that advice and you listen to that advice, then you were probably not a writer to begin with. I say, “Be stubborn.” Everybody has their own sense of what good work is. It’s a completely subjective landscape. And if you believe, then don’t let somebody else convince you not to believe. There’s always going to be the opportunity to walk away. And if that’s what you want to do, by all means, you should definitely walk away. It’s hard work. But if you really feel that you’re a writer, don’t take anybody’s negative advice. Just be stubborn and keep your head down and show up to work. And work, work everyday.

All the writers I know are people who just never got up from the chair. They sit down everyday—or most days—and do their work. Maybe the work is good that day. Or maybe the work is bad that day. It doesn’t matter. They don’t get too high from the good work. They don’t get too low from the bad work. They sit down and do it again every day. It’s work. I don’t want to make it totally pragmatic: there are a whole bunch of really interesting, “soulful” things that happen when you’re creating, when you’re being creative. But also, this work, it’s actual practical hard work. You’ve got to show up to the job every day. There will always be people telling you negative stuff, and you gotta get those voices out of your head. Do whatever it takes to do that.

YDS: That’s really great advice. Thank you so much for that, and thank you for talking with Lunch Ticket.

DU: Well, I appreciate your questions and your close reading of the work. That really means a lot, so thank you for that.

 

Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez is an English and composition instructor and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University. She is also an assistant editor of fiction and guest blogger for Lunch Ticket. In addition to teaching, Yvonne likes to think she holds the following titles as well: Singer of Bedtime Stories, Maker of Dreams, Believer in the Future, Self-healer in Progress, Wearer of Heart-on-Sleeve, Organizer of Books & Toys, Imbiber of Words, and Humble Writer Whose Work is Wholly Cast from a Bronze Heart. She currently resides in the Central Valley with her husband and three daughters.

Francesca Lia Block, Author

Photo Credit: Nicolas Sage Photography

I still remember the moment I first swiped one of Francesca Lia Block’s books from my big brother’s bookshelf. Splayed out across my family’s living room floor in our downtown Los Angeles apartment, I devoured the modern fairy tales in Blood Roses with a hunger I hadn’t realized was there. Moving on to her other works, I began to see parts of my own life—the troubled-yet-loving Witch Baby from Weetzie Bat, the girl with two moms who goes searching for her long-lost father in the story “Dragons in Manhattan,” the brave girl with the fairy friend who eventually exposes her abuser in I Was a Teenage Fairy. I was a quiet, shy kid, but the fantastic worlds and characters I found in these stories gave me the inner courage I needed to start thinking about who I wanted to be. I came to realize that I wanted to be a writer, not just of entertaining stories, but of important ones—just like Francesca Lia Block. I never dared to dream that almost twenty years later, I would have the good fortune of working with Francesca as my writing mentor. Her guidance has transformed my writing and inspired me to reach further, try new things, and strive to achieve my full potential. She is a compassionate, dedicated human being, and to me, she will always be magical.

Francesca Lia Block is the author of more than twenty-five books as well as numerous stories, poems, essays, and interviews. She received the Spectrum Award, the Phoenix Award, the ALA Rainbow Award, and the 2005 Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award. Earlier this year, she announced to the delight of her fans that her award-winning debut novel, Weetzie Bat, will be adapted into a film starring Anya Taylor-Joy. Her most recent book, The Thorn Necklace, is part memoir and part craft book, detailing her own life experiences as well as her 12 Questions to guide the writing process. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she still lives and teaches.

I interviewed Francesca via instant messenger on August 13, 2018.

Adrien Kade Sdao: So, I wanted to start by saying congratulations on the Weetzie Bat movie!!! Such exciting news.

Francesca Lia Block: Thank you.

AKS: I know it’s been a long time in the making. What emotions are you feeling? What challenges still lie ahead?

FLB: A lot. We are still working out financing details, etc. I’m trying not to think about it all too much.

AKS: I can understand how it might be overwhelming.

FLB: I have waited so long so it feels like a lot is at stake. And I also feel responsible to my fans. But the cast seems really great.

I think a lot of young people read books for older people and vice versa. It seems mostly like a marketing issue. I’d have to say try to publish with your target audience in mind to avoid being trapped in a different genre. 

AKS: Yes, they certainly do. You wrote the screenplay, correct? I’m guessing maintaining creative control is very important to you.

FLB: I wrote it and then my friend, director Elgin James, did a pass. I would like some creative input but I’m learning that it’s hard to have creative control unless you are the person with the funds.

AKS: Ah, I understand. Well, I’m looking forward to hearing more about the movie and seeing it of course!

FLB: Thank you! I will keep everyone posted as soon as I know more! I really appreciate all the interest and support!

AKS: I wanted to ask you about something you mentioned in a previous interview (https://robinlmartinez.com/2016/02/13/an-interview-with-francesca-lia-block/). You said that some of your earlier work was written for adults, but marketed to teens. How has this affected your career? How does your writing differ when you’re writing intentionally for teens?

FLB: I honestly never really write for teens. I’m thinking more about the story I want to tell. A few of my books were specifically contracted for younger audiences, so I had to keep that in mind, but I still try to tell the story I feel I need to tell.

AKS: Wow, as someone who read your books from a young age, I find that very interesting. I feel like it shows how mutable the line between teen and adult literature is. What advice would you give to writers in similar situations in terms of their target audience?

FLB: Yes, I think a lot of young people read books for older people and vice versa. It seems mostly like a marketing issue. I’d have to say try to publish with your target audience in mind to avoid being trapped in a different genre. I like to write in many genres, but it is hard for audiences to understand. Branding is important though, and can be frustrating. I always just wanted to write dark fairy tales and myths for myself and my friends. I should say, “dark, literary fairy tales and myths.” That is what I love to read.

I try to be sensitive. I do my best. I make mistakes. I think it is a challenge and it’s important to be sensitive and try your best.

AKS: So you write the sort of thing you would love to read? Are there any recent books that you fell in love with?

FLB: Not always, but in general, yes. I’ve been revisiting all the classics! I’m obsessed with what we are reading for class, for instance—Virginia Woolf, Isabel Allende, Baldwin, Angelou, Morrison, Shirley Jackson. I just read this book called The Magus by John Fowles that blew my mind. The southern Gothic women—Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers. Murakami, Faulkner, Hawthorne, D.H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Colette, Angela Carter. I have to get caught up on a lot of contemporary literature, but right now I’m just delving into classics and modern classics. And you might say, those aren’t fairy tales, but actually, I’m writing a paper about the way the fairy tale and goddess mythology is hidden in a lot of literature in the canon.

AKS: Ah, yes! I was enthralled with your seminar last residency and how you related the gothic to Goddess mythology. Do you find that you appreciate these novels more for their stories or for the way they were crafted?

FLB: Thank you! Both! I think it depends on the book but I value plot and craft about equally, depending.

AKS: I suppose it takes a good balance of both for something to become a classic in the first place.

FLB: Yes! Even when a book seems not to be “plot-heavy,” like Woolf’s work, there is a lot of tension and conflict there as well.

AKS: I’m looking forward to reading To the Lighthouse. It’ll be my first Virginia Woolf!

FLB: I hope you like it! I would suggest just letting the words wash over you like waves.

AKS: That’s great advice! Thank you. I’d like to ask you about The Thorn Necklace. What made you decide to write a memoir/craft book instead of one of each? Also, as a deeply emotional person, was writing such a personal work of nonfiction more challenging than channeling that emotion into fiction?

FLB: It was harder than writing fiction because there was no scrim to hide behind. I wanted to write separate memoir and craft books but the craft book idea was a little short and my publisher suggested I combine them. It took me a while to figure out how to do it though. It felt organic in the end, which is what I wanted.

AKS: I’ve always loved how you showed a multitude of human experiences in your work, and you don’t shy away from showing the real consequences of the oppression of minority groups. As an ally, how do you navigate writing about groups you’re not part of? Like writing a trans character as a cis woman.

FLB: It’s tricky these days. I try to be sensitive. I do my best. I make mistakes. I think it is a challenge and it’s important to be sensitive and try your best.

AKS: You said, “these days.” Is it harder now than it was when you first started writing?

FLB: Yes, there is a lot more awareness and sensitivity, which is a good thing, but can feel daunting but, feeling daunted isn’t as much of a challenge as being oppressed so…

It was harder than writing fiction because there was no scrim to hide behind.

AKS: Ha, that’s a great way to put it! It certainly is an ongoing learning process.

FLB: Yes, I feel that is true.

AKS: My final question is: what was your favorite picture book to read to your kids when they were little?

FLB: Well I love Where the Wild Things Are but I think my absolute favorite is Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by my first editor Charlotte Zolotow. Have you read it?

AKS: I haven’t, but I recognize the name. I’ll have to add that to my endless “to read” list.

FLB: Right? It never ever ends.

AKS: This whole MFA thing still seems surreal–I bet yours does, too, considering you’ve been publishing for many years already!

FLB: Yes, it is weird, but it has helped my work and my teaching. I just wrote a novel in my program and I feel very excited about it. I do think that all the intensive reading and annotating really works.

AKS: That’s great. Hopefully I’ll get to read it eventually!

FLB: Thank you. It’s been lovely to chat with you.

AKS: Yes, I totally agree! You too. Thanks so much for your time.

 

Adrien Kade Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the writing for young people genre at Lunch Ticket. Their work has appeared in Lunch Ticket and Womanpause. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.