Writing Twists And Marketing As A Traditionally Published Author With Clare Mackintosh

How can you write twists that surprise a reader? How can you market your books effectively as a traditionally published author? Clare Mackintosh talks about her creative process, and how she works with her publisher to reach more readers.

In the intro, Kate Bush is “the world’s biggest independent artist” right now and more on intellectual property rights [Music Business Worldwide]; A long-term view of IP [Kris Rusch]; Rethinking the Writing Business by Kris Rusch; 24 Assets by Daniel Priestley; Cosmopolitan uses AI-generated cover; My interview on AI and writing with Andrew Mayne, and more on AI + the future of creativity.

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Today’s show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at draft2digital.com/penn

Clare Mackintosh is the multi-award-winning author of five Sunday Times bestselling novels. Translated into 40 languages, her books have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide and have been New York Times and international bestsellers. Her latest book, The Last Party is the first in a new crime series.

Show Notes

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.

  • How being a police detective is like being a writer
  • The difference between a twist and a reveal, and how Clare plots her novels
  • Why marketing is important, even for traditionally published authors
  • Why authors need an email list, regardless of how you choose to publish
  • Using video in book marketing
  • How networking has played an important part in Clare’s publishing journey

You can find Clare Mackintosh at ClareMackintosh.com and on Twitter @claremackint0sh

Transcript of Interview with Clare Mackintosh

Joanna Penn: Clare Mackintosh is the multi-award-winning author of five Sunday Times bestselling novels. Translated into 40 languages, her books have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide and have been New York Times and international bestsellers. Her latest book, The Last Party is the first in a new crime series. Welcome, Clare.

Clare Mackintosh: Hi, thanks for having me.

Joanna Penn: I’m so excited to talk to you.

First up, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.

Clare Mackintosh: I have always been a storyteller, always written short stories, written little snippets, pen pictures of characters, always a voracious reader, but like a lot of people didn’t ever see as a child that there was a potential career here.

I enjoyed writing, but it wasn’t something I saw as a job possibility. I didn’t know anybody who worked in the arts, who produced music or poetry or anything. I just knew people who worked in jobs.

I went to university, I did French and business at university. And then in a slight plot twist, I joined the police and spent 12 years in the police. But, I say this a lot because people think that it’s such a different career being in the police to writing novels, but there are so many similarities between the two careers.

When you are a detective, you’re a storyteller.

You are having to write a witness statement for someone, a statement for someone who’s been a victim of crime. You have this immense responsibility to find exactly the right words to put across what’s happened to this person.

Victims don’t start with a beginning and then a middle and an end; they start with the end. They start by telling you they’ve been attacked or they’ve been burgled, and then you have to pull them back and work out what was their origin story and how did those events lead to where you are now.

It’s all about storytelling, pulling out the narrative that the cameras have got to tell you and the forensics and all the unreliable witnesses all over the place, and then presenting that story in a compelling way to an audience, to a court. And that’s exactly what we do now as writers. So it felt like a weirdly natural progression to go from stories that dealt with fact to stories that are fictional.

Joanna Penn: How does your background in the police weave its way into your fiction? Because, obviously, you’ve got lots of books now.

Are your stories based on your experience, or how do they weave in?

Clare Mackintosh: They’re hardly ever based on real-life, or at least not on real-life cases. I think people perhaps have an idea that ex-police officers have this huge bank of stories that they could fictionalize. And maybe some officers do.

My experience of crimes is that, for the most part, they’re really quite boring and criminals are really quite stupid. And so the idea of these criminal masterminds that we see in Bond films or in crime novels is really quite unusual. It’s quite rare.

What being a police officer taught me that I put into all my books is about people. It’s about really understanding people and coming into contact with people from all walks of life. That really meant I am able to write with a degree of authenticity about people outside my own lived experience, outside my sort of comfortable bubble that I grew up in.

What it also did was it showed me how fine that line is between a safe life and an unsafe life. How easily we can cross over from witness to victim, to offender, and back again. And that gray area is what I and lots of other thriller writers like to write about.

Joanna Penn: You chose mainly the crime thriller genre. I know you’ve written some other things like memoir, but why did you go that way?

Did you just not want to leave it behind, or do you just love crime?

Clare Mackintosh: I do love crime, and I grew up really reading crime, and my first great loves were ‘The Famous Five’ books. And although people sort of put them in a children’s book genre, they are, of course, crime novels. They’re about kids playing detective.

I grew up reading crime, but actually, when I wrote, I Let You Go, which was my debut, I didn’t know what genre it was going to be, which seems odd for anyone who’s read it because it is about a hit-and-run. And so it’s probably fairly obvious that it’s a crime, but stories can take lots of different angles.

When I first wrote that book, I was really focusing on a woman who had been through this terrible trauma. There’d been a hit-and-run in which a child had been killed. And the focus of the novel was how do we move on from that? How do you deal with trauma and grief in your past life and build a new future?

That’s a story which could spin off in lots of different directions and hit lots of different genres. And the one that it ended up in happened to be the psychological thriller genre. As you know, once you write one book in a genre, you kind of need to keep going because that’s what readers expect.

Joanna Penn: Absolutely. I Let You Go is quite famous for its twist, and no spoilers, obviously. But you do write twists and I’ve also seen your plotting methods on your various videos and blog posts and things.

How do you plot and write twists?

Clare Mackintosh: It’s really hard.

Joanna Penn: I’m glad you said that because I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness, you just seem to do them.’

Clare Mackintosh: I find it really hard. One of the things I really want to say because I think it’s really important for people listening at home who perhaps are struggling with the pressure of putting twists in their works in progress is that you do not have to have a twist. And so often when I see that a book has an incredible twist, actually, what it’s got is a really good reveal.

Understanding the difference between a twist and a reveal is quite an important thing to do. And then take the pressure off yourself because you do need to have reveals, ideally more than one, but you don’t have to have a twist.

So the first thing that I do is work out, is this a book which needs reveals, or is it a book which wants a twist? And can I think of a good one to go in it?

Sometimes the book starts with a twist. And in the case of I Let You Go in the case of, Let Me Lie, the twist is what came first. In other times, it’s the other way around, and it’s the situation.

My most recent thriller, Hostage, is set on an aeroplane, it’s set on a nonstop 20-hour flight. And there is actually a twist in it as it turns out, but it didn’t start with a twist. It started with a situation. It started with a locked room thriller in an aeroplane.

And that was a case of plotting the novel, writing the novel, and then realizing that there was an opportunity to pull the rug out from people’s feet.

So what I do is I plot my novels out and I plot them out in pretty forensic detail.

I feel like if I was an architect, I wouldn’t be able to build a house without knowing what the plans were. So that’s how I start off with my three-act structure, gradually adding more meat onto the bone. I’m just mixing my metaphors horribly now.

Joanna Penn: That’s fine.

Clare Mackintosh: Houses, bones, gardening, all sorts. So I’m adding and adding and adding until I end up with a chapter outline. And at this point, if you kind of can imagine a table or a spreadsheet, and I know that there’ll be people at home, in fact, including you probably going, ‘But you can use Scrivener for that.’ And you can, it’s just not my bag. I like a nice, old-fashioned word table once I’ve moved on from my post-it notes.

I have a column against my chapters, which is called the Reader’s Journey.

And this is where I play God. This is where I manipulate my readers, where I decide how I want them to feel and what I want them to think at every stage of this book.

That’s a really important part of my twist building because it means I can say, ‘Okay, in this chapter, you think A did it and, you know, B is really nice, and in this chapter, you now realize B isn’t nice because of what they’ve done there, but now you don’t trust C.’ I make sure that I’m giving my reader whiplash, I suppose, right the way through. Only once I’ve done all of that do I start writing.

Joanna Penn: That’s fantastic. I love that. The reader’s emotional journey there. I’m more of an intuitive writer. I don’t do any plotting. I just sit down and write and stuff happens. And if it surprises me, then I hope it surprises the reader.

But I think, we’re two extremes, I think, that we are the plotter and the pantser. So although I say discovery writer, I don’t like the pantser word.

Clare Mackintosh: No. I actually refuse to use that word because…

Joanna Penn: Always American, isn’t it?

Clare Mackintosh: Well, it’s a really flippant term for what is a professional process, whether you are writing for money, whether you write as a hobbyist, whether you are published or not. Actually, we are really serious about our writing and calling someone a pantser, yeah, I don’t like it.

Joanna Penn: I don’t. I use discovery writer. But I think that’s fantastic, the reader’s journey. We should just be clear.

You said the difference between a twist and a reveal. Could you just define those two?

Clare Mackintosh: My definition is that a reveal is the answer to a question that the reader has been asking. So an example of that is, who killed the victim?

A twist is an answer to a question that the reader hadn’t even thought to ask. So you totally change their world by presenting them with something unexpected.

Joanna Penn: I think that reveal, as you say, has to be in every book. We have to open questions and then answer questions. That’s basically what we have to do. But yeah, the twist, as you say, doesn’t have to be in everything, but you do them so well.

Let’s move into marketing, and it’s interesting you did French and business at university because having watched you now for, I don’t know, I guess, seven, eight years, you are very good at business.

And let’s talk about marketing because marketing is something that a lot of indie authors know they have to do, but I feel like traditionally published authors often just want someone else to do it.

Why do you think marketing is so important even for traditionally published authors?

Clare Mackintosh: Because marketing is important to book publishing and you can’t opt-out of that. If you want people to read your books, then they have to be marketed.

So then it comes down to, who is doing the marketing? And yes, of course, if you are with a large traditional publisher, then you will have a marketing team. But an author’s expectations can be really dashed by assuming that that marketing team is going to do everything because budgets are different and publishers have different sizes. And regardless of the size of a team, they have lots of other books to market as well.

I’m really lucky; I have an incredible in-house team and they work really, really hard on my books. But I’m not their only author, although sometimes it feels like it, and I’m in awe of how they manage to juggle all their different projects.

So, they will be focusing on my books at a particular time of the year, whereas I want to keep a year-round overview. But also the best person to market your books is yourself because you know your products, you know your books inside out. You are the one that will spot an opportunity for marketing, for advertising, for PR, and be able to leap on it really quickly.

For me, the perfect approach is a hybrid approach whereby I assume the role of CEO of my author business, and I have my mini departments within my own world, but then I’m also working with my publisher and their setup, and we all work together.

I have freelancers I work with because this year, I just reached a point…not this year, end of last year just reached a point where I just couldn’t do it all. And I don’t find it easy to let go at all. So that’s been quite a long time coming and it’s well over June.

So I have a team of freelancers and they work directly now with my in-house team. This is my kind of next step is that I get to move slightly away from it, which is a work in progress.

Joanna Penn: Wow. That’s brilliant. I definitely remember hiring those first people and just feeling like, ‘Is it going to be worth it? I could just do it better myself.’ And then going, ‘No, stop it.’

Clare Mackintosh: It’s a hard thing. I constantly repeat to myself, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to. And sometimes that’s about ability, sometimes it’s about time, sometimes it’s just not the right thing to do. You don’t have to do every project you think of. So yeah, work in progress.

Joanna Penn: You mentioned there the author’s expectations. And I feel that a lot of the most disappointed traditionally published authors are the ones who thought that the publisher would do all the marketing and then they didn’t, but it seems like you have from the very beginning sort of taken on, like, ‘Yes, I’m part of the marketing team,’ which is just a very different attitude.

You mentioned there the time of year is different, as in they might do things at launch but you have year-round.

What types of things do you split between the publisher and yourself?

Clare Mackintosh: Probably social media is one of the best examples of that because actually, that is split three ways. And I guess if you were particularly interested, you could go and look at say my Instagram feed and think, ‘I wonder, which of these posts was made by Clare herself and which was briefed by Clare but written by someone else? And which was written by Clare but scheduled by someone else?’ The upshot is it’s a real mixture.

My publishers may well lead on things like there’s an Audible deal, a countdown to release producing assets for that. My freelance team will lead on book club stuff. So I run my mailing list. Well, I run a book club instead of an author mailing list, and my freelancers will lead on that and update my social media feed with what book we’re reading and various other things.

And then I will lead on my personal life, so my personal book recommendations, my personal writing tips, my personal behind-the-scenes, what I’m doing.

That’s an approach which for me works really well. I’ve tried someone else doing everything and it doesn’t work for me because I feel out of control, but more importantly, I feel out of touch with my readers, and I just can’t do that. I don’t see the point of being on social media if I’m not able to interact and chat to readers. So the perfect balance for me is that mixture.

Joanna Penn: You mentioned email list there and you have a book club, but you do have an email list yourself, right? You email those people who are in your book club.

We actually recently did a promotion, an email list promotion. And what I’ve always been a bit surprised about, I think, is traditionally published authors who don’t have any email list, and indies as well.

There are people listening who have not still started their email list because either they don’t want to, they don’t want to manage email, or they think nobody wants to hear from them, or they think the publishers should do it.

Why is an email list so important to you, even though you are trad published?

Clare Mackintosh: Oh, I mean, how long have you got!?

Joanna Penn: The highlights.

Clare Mackintosh: It is so important. Go and start your mailing list.

Email remains the most effective form of communication. More people will open their email than they will see a social media post because you are landing in their inbox.

It’s like being invited through the front door instead of standing on their front lawn waving through the window and hoping they’ll see you.

The conversion rate is much better. The relationship that you’re building feels more one-to-one. You have complete control over your mailing list. Meta can decide to take down Facebook or Instagram. It can change algorithms so that your posts aren’t being shown to people in the same way. They can start charging. They can do myriad of things.

You don’t control that data, those people who follow you there, but you do control your mailing list, and so it remains the most valuable part of your marketing real estate.

[Note from Joanna: I use and recommend ConvertKit for email marketing.]

I’m always horrified when people don’t have mailing lists. And I’m really horrified when authors let their publishers run their mailing lists for them. And this isn’t really about workload. If your publisher wants to do your newsletter and take that work off your desk, that’s terrific, then that’s great, but the data has got to be yours.

If your publisher says, ‘Oh, hey, we’re going to start a mailing list for you. This is going to be great. You’re going to be able to talk to your readers,’ then you need to make sure that you are the one who owns that data because I hate to say it, but you might not stay with that publisher. You might get a better offer. They might ditch you. There are lots of reasons why people move on and you do not want to be leaving that data with your old publisher.

The other reason I love mailing lists is because nobody but you knows how many people are on your list, and that means you can write without feeling self-conscious. I started all of this long before I was an author. I started when I had a blog. And so what I was publicizing was my blog. There are still people on my Facebook page who came to me through my blog and have kind of grown with me and now on what is effectively an author page.

I remember having fewer than 100 people who liked my Facebook page and thinking, ‘Oh, this is such a small number of people. I feel so kind of embarrassed making announcements on this tiny, tiny platform.’ And actually, you shouldn’t ever feel embarrassed about a small platform because a small platform can be really engaged and focused.

The brilliant thing about email is that you can have five people on that list, and one of them can be your mom, but you are still writing to four people that aren’t personally connected to you. And those 4 people have no idea if they’re 1 of 5 or 1 of 5,000, which helps with the smoke and mirrors that I think authors should invoke when they’re starting out. I think let’s be kind of out and proud and bold about our marketing. And it’s easy to do that by email.

Joanna Penn: I’m so glad you say all that. We definitely agree on that.

I want to talk about video because you mentioned Hostage. I remember one of your TikToks or Instagrams or whatever, where you are dressed up as an air hostess, and I’m like, ‘Oh, Clare’s so good at this stuff.’

I hate video. We know each other and we’re not on video right now. We’re recording this audio. I just don’t like doing video. And so I wanted to get your tips on, well, first of all, why do you do video? Do you think it’s effective? And how do you do it? And are you just very good at it, or have you learned? Tips, basically.

Why do you do video marketing? Do you think it’s effective?

Clare Mackintosh: I don’t think anyone should do anything they don’t want to do, and that applies to everything from email, I suppose, reluctantly, although I would argue that you should, but certainly social media platforms. If you hate Twitter, don’t do Twitter, and the same applies to video.

If you hate it and it makes you uncomfortable, it is very likely to look uncomfortable as well, and that is going to have a negative effect and often it’s better not to do something than to do it badly.

The reason I do video is because I think it is effective. I think people do linger over video in a way that they don’t over static images and certainly in a way they don’t over just text. Static-based images are not so great for people with visual impairments, and so, hopefully, all of us are using old text to describe what’s in those images.

The beauty of video is it gives something for everyone. You can have the captions, you can have the voiceover, you can have the imagery, and it means that it’s content that can be consumed by lots of different people in lots of different ways, while they’re commuting with their headphones. I really like it. I like short-form video because it’s quite easy. I don’t have to think about it too much.

I am quite vain. I don’t do stories very often, for example, on Instagram because I think the best kind of stories that people do are very sort of off-the-cuff going about their daily business. And actually, most of the time in my daily life, if I’m not in pajamas, I’m not far off. I haven’t washed my hair. I haven’t worn any makeup on. I don’t really want to be camera-ready. I’m quite hot on brand management, and looking like a mess doesn’t really fit my brand.

So I tend to be a bit more planned, and that means that I might batch film some content perhaps, or I might do something that doesn’t require me to actually be talking to camera.

That’s one of my tips for people who are uncomfortable with video is do a video, but you don’t have to be on it. So you can use voiceover, a beautiful video of where you’ve had your dog walk, and you can tell us about your plot walk, or you can flip through a book before you show us the cover while you overlay some texts that tells us how great it is. All those things will work on Reels, will work on TikTok.

I joined TikTok really because I like to try things out. And so there are lots and lots of things. I joined Vine, I joined Rooms. What’s the audio-only one that I got quite excited about?

Joanna Penn: Clubhouse.

Clare Mackintosh: Yes, I joined Clubhouse.

Joanna Penn: Everyone did that and then disappeared a month later.

Clare Mackintosh: I like to join at the start. I think it’s important to join, to understand it, to see if that’s where your readers might be if that’s where your author network might be, to claim an account name, at the very least, so that no one else claims it, and then just see.

TikTok is something that I thought, this is clearly exploding, BookTok is exploding. It doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Although at the moment, crime and thriller and mystery are not big genres on there, there’s absolutely nothing to stop them certainly taking off.

At the moment, it’s very much about fantasy and romance, but all it takes really is for a crime book to go viral from some reader’s feed. And that could easily kickstart a big crime and thriller movement on TikTok. And if that happens, I’d like to have a presence. I want people to be able to tag me. I want to be able to take part.

And then the other reason why I do TikTok is because it allows me to, I suppose, show a bit of personality without being personal. I don’t want to give you a tour of my house. I don’t want to introduce you to my family, really. I’ve got teenagers. They certainly don’t want to be introduced to anyone. I want to build that personal connection with readers, and actually doing that through some tongue-in-cheek videos is quite a fun thing to do. I’m enjoying it.

Joanna Penn: On marketing, a lot of us as indie authors, we have almost real-time access to sales data, so we can see the immediate ROI of a lot of this stuff. But, of course, as a traditionally published author, I know there are portals and things now, but most authors don’t get access to any kind of real-time sales, right? And you mentioned like brand. Is all your marketing just all going towards brand?

How do you know what marketing is working for you when you don’t have access to sales data?

Clare Mackintosh: The bottom line is I don’t know. I don’t have that real-time ROI. It is a continual source of frustration to me and the only part of my empire that doesn’t work, which is really annoying in itself. I would love to have that data.

And not only do I not have it personally, it doesn’t exist. It’s not even like I can ask my publishers to give me that real-time data. It just can’t work like that in the traditionally published world at the moment.

So it’s really frustrating. And so what I do is I think about my return not in terms of sales, but in terms of growth, which is why I don’t advertise, for example. I wouldn’t do an advert for a book because that is not going to give me a return. Better for me would be to perhaps advertise my book club or to advertise, I don’t know, from one of my social media feeds.

Running writing tips and advertise to writing groups because if I bring people into my community, then I’ve got a system in place for creating loyalty, for engaging and creating a community who will then go on to read my books. So my return is community building rather than book sales.

Joanna Penn: I think that’s a great way to think about it. Once people come on your email list, you know they’re interested. So I think that’s a really good tip.

You mentioned the empire, which I love, and I love that you are ambitious and, obviously, again, you have that business background.

Do you have a 5-year plan, 10-year plan, ‘Clare Mackintosh takes over the world’ type of plan?

Clare Mackintosh: I do. In fact, it probably needs updating. I’m at various critical points. So I do in terms of business goals.

For example, one of my goals was to become a book-a-year author, which I haven’t been. I’m relatively slow in publishing terms. And more importantly for me, I’ve been inconsistent. So my books have come out perhaps 15 months apart or 18 months or 20. And that’s really difficult. It’s difficult for me to plan my year, so my work-life balance is harder to… I’m sort of laughing because I don’t have a work-life balance, but it’s harder to maintain.

It’s harder for retailers because they can’t hold a slot if you think about expecting perhaps the Richard Osman every autumn, for example. So it’s harder for retailers. It’s not great for readers because, again, you want to build that connection so that readers know that they can take a Clare Mackintosh on holiday with them every summer. So I decided that I would become a book-a-year author and that’s been something we’ve sort of been moving towards.

I have goals in terms of Sunday Times top 10 and how long I’d like to spend in there and where I’d like to come. Lots of goals and lots of plans to get the balance right, which I don’t have at the moment.

Joanna Penn: Oh, does anyone!?

Clare Mackintosh: It’s hard to know, isn’t it? I follow some authors that I think you have absolutely got it right. You’re nailing the business side. You are regularly hitting the top of the charts and you are also learning to, I don’t know, paint or traveling the world. So yeah, lots to work on.

Joanna Penn: But that’s partly why we do this, right? Because we like learning new things, and you clearly like learning new things and so do I.

I know we’re almost running out of time. So I do want to ask you because you have said to me that you are a staunch traditional author with no plans to go indie, which I love because so often I just meet really ambitious indie authors and not so much traditional.

And I also love you’re happy with your publishing choices because, of course, there’s a lot of people who aren’t.

Now many listeners, when I think about it sometimes, too, are interested in getting a deal with an agent and traditional publisher.

What are your recommendations for authors who want to pitch [for a traditional deal], especially if they might have already released some books as an indie?

Clare Mackintosh: You’re off to a really good start if you’ve already got a track record because so many people will be pitching to agents with no track record. We don’t know if you can finish a book even, let alone if you can publish one successfully. So if you’ve got a track record with self-publishing, then that’s huge, a great thing to lean on.

But, I didn’t pitch. This is the thing that I find slightly awkward is that I never submitted, I was introduced. And that’s an annoying story for people because it makes people think it’s all about who you know.

In order to make that connection, in order for that introduction to happen, I had done a phenomenal amount of networking within publishing, having known nobody in publishing, organizing a literary festival, volunteering at events, speaking to people.

Really, my biggest bit of advice for people who are thinking of submitting through the traditional process is to get to know people, go to literary events, and do the kind of open mic-type pitching or the pitch to agents. Meet people, listen to authors, work out who they’re published by.

Really, really do your research because it will pay off.

And actually those chance connections. I hear about again and again because ultimately, agents are interested in people, and if they’re interested in you and you’re a good writer, then you’re home and dry.

Joanna Penn: I was going to add, I’m glad you said it. You are very, very good at networking. I remember when you were doing that..it was the Chip Lit Fest, right? You used to organize that. And I was like, ‘Goodness me, I know how much…’ It’s hard work.

I’m doing an event this weekend. It’s just one day with 35 people, and you still organize this sort of massive event. And you put in far more hours, I think, preparing for those relationships than most people do in pitching for years. So it’s not like you sat around just going, ‘Oh, I’ll just meet some people.’

Clare Mackintosh: No, absolutely not. And with the literary festival, I had a big team of volunteers working with me. So I certainly didn’t do it alone. But yeah, you do have to put the graft in like writing.

If we looked at our hourly rate from writing, certainly for those of us like me who write really slowly and throw away more words than we publish, it would not be worth us doing this. It’s a ridiculous way to make a living. And the same kind of applies to networking.

If I thought, ‘Oh, actually, it took me 200 hours worth of networking in order to get a particular event,’ for example, then it wouldn’t be worth it. But if that networking has been going to parties, if it’s been having dinner with interesting people, if it’s been cocktails or a nice walk with other writers, then actually, there’s a really blurred line, isn’t there? Between networking and just getting to know people. And I think that if you enjoy getting to know people, then it’s not a chore, and then when the payoff comes, it feels like it’s come for free.

Joanna Penn: Because you weren’t expecting it. You didn’t every day you did something and go, ‘Oh, I’m expecting to get a book deal.’ You did it the right way, and I really appreciate how you’ve done things.

Clare Mackintosh: Yeah. And if you ever go into any networking opportunity with the mindset that I’m doing this in order to get this result, then it’s really not going to work. It just isn’t. You go to that party or take up that coffee invitation with the intention of just finding out about someone, having fun, enjoying an hour or more. And if something comes of it, that’s brilliant.

Networking is so important.

And I can track things back, an opportunity, perhaps an event, perhaps a trip abroad somewhere. I can track it back through sometimes years and through several different layers of people, friends of friends of friends of friends right back to the first meeting.

I’ll think back to that first meeting and think, ‘Did I envisage that what happened, in the end, was going to be the result from it?’ And I didn’t, but I did have an inkling that this would be a worthwhile use of my time.

Joanna Penn: Brilliant.

Where can people find you and your books online?

Clare Mackintosh: Well, the advantage of being called Clare Mackintosh is there aren’t actually that many of us. So you can just Google me. I’m really available online. My website is claremackintosh.com.

I’m on Twitter as @claremackint0sh, and everywhere else as @claremackwrites. You can join my book club. There’ll be a popup on my website and I’d love to see you there.

Joanna Penn: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Clare. That was great.

Clare Mackintosh: Thank you.

The post Writing Twists And Marketing As A Traditionally Published Author With Clare Mackintosh first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

Writing With Artificial Intelligence With Andrew Mayne

What is GPT-3 and how can writers use it responsibly as part of their creative process? How can we approach AI tools with curiosity, rather than fear? Thriller author Andrew Mayne talks about these aspects and more.

In the intro, I mention the discussion about whether Google’s language model, LaMDA, could be sentient [The Verge]; and the Alliance of Independent Authors Ethical Usage of AI tools.

If you’d like to know more about using AI for writing, images, marketing, voice, translation, and more, check out my course, The AI-Assisted Author.

Andrew Mayne is the multi-award-nominated and internationally best-selling author of thrillers. He’s also a magician, a magic consultant, and the author of over 50 books on magic. He invented an underwater stealth suit for shark diving, and he works with OpenAI as a science communicator. He also has books for authors, including, ‘How to Write a Novella in 24 hours,’ and a co-hosts the podcast ‘Weird Things.’

Show notes:

  • How Andrew got into AI and first used a vision model for his shark suit
  • What is GPT-3 and what is DALL-E? (You can find out more on OpenAI.com
  • How writers can use GPT-3 as an amplifier, and how to prompt it to get an effective response, as well as the different applications
  • Approaching AI with an attitude of curiosity, rather than fear
  • What is ‘AI-assisted’ and why we should label AI-generated words and art
  • Ways to address the lack of diversity and bias in AI models

You can find Andrew at www.AndrewMayne.com and his blog here which includes articles on using GPT-3. You can find GPT-3 on OpenAI.com. You can also follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewmayne

There are many tools built on top of GPT-3. Here’s my list of AI writing tools. I use and recommend Sudowrite for fiction, in particular.

Transcript of Interview with Andrew Mayne

Joanna: Andrew Mayne is the multi-award-nominated and internationally best-selling author of thrillers. He’s also a magician, a magic consultant, and author of over 50 books on magic. He invented an underwater stealth suit for shark diving, and he works with OpenAI as a science communicator. He also has books for authors, including, ‘How to Write a Novella in 24 hours,’ and a co-hosts the podcast ‘Weird Things.’ So, welcome to the show, Andrew.

Andrew: Hey, thank you for having me.

Joanna: Oh, you do so many things. But we are actually going to talk about AI today. But I wanted to first ask you:

With your background in magic, and also creativity, how did you become interested in AI?

Andrew: Well, ever since I was a little boy, I was really interested in science, and entertainment, and everything in between. And I loved robots when I was a kid. And I’d build robots from science fairs and stuff, and I would use coffee cans, and little motors and things I pulled from toys to do that.

And then when we got our first personal computer, I would try to build little chat bots and ask it questions, have it respond. And then I got kind of bit by the magic bug when I was in high school, because I lived in South Florida, and we had a lot of cruise ships there. And that seemed like a really cool way to see the world.

And that became more of just a passive hobby, with AI and artificial intelligence. But then, sometimes you keep coming back to things.

I had friends that were active in [AI]. And I knew some people were actually been to some pioneers in it that I used to sort of just pester with questions and stuff. But it was actually just a few years ago, when I got back into… I was just, realized that programming was something that I never really took seriously. Like, I always knew a little bit about programming. And I thought, ‘Why don’t I just go learn a programming language?‘ And, you know, the older you get, it’s helpful to just keep learning things.

So I started to learn to program. And then I found myself involved with doing a special for Discovery Channel for Shark Week, where I was gonna try to build a suit to make myself invisible to sharks, as you explained at the top of the show, which is dumb. But it sounded like a fun thing to do.

I had talked to shark scientists, and they’d explained to me, sharks have an incredible array of senses. And when you’re down there, you’re at a huge disadvantage, because we’re tree-climbing monkeys, in the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by apex predators. And I thought, ‘How can I help myself out?’

And I thought, one of the things I could do is try to build a system where I could see 360 all around me, and then use maybe, like, image recognition or something to tell me, ‘Hey, there’s a shark behind you.’ Because the thing I found out about Great Whites is they’re ambush hunters, and they can tell where you’re looking. And if you’re not looking at them, then they’re gonna sneak up on you. And if you’re not looking at them, and they’re sneaking up on you, you don’t see them.

There’s a lot of open source code for, like, vision systems, and creating software to recognize stuff, and there’s a lot of helpful tutorials. And I started off as just a complete novice in it, but I got fascinated by it, because as I was learning how you create something to detect an image, or train it to recognize something like a shark, I was talking to shark scientists who were explaining to me that, ‘Hey, you know, one of things that’s interesting about shark vision is that they don’t see you inside of the shark cage. They actually see the outline of the cage.’

And something clicked for me, because we talk about sharks having such incredible senses, a sense of smell, they see us better, or probably see as well or as better than we do. They have these ability to sense electrical fields, they can sense vibrations, all of this data is huge. But they have small brains relatively, compared to, let’s say, an upper primate.

And when that person said that to me, like, ‘Oh, that’s an algorithm used to reduce the complexity of the information so it can make a decision.’

And I’m like, ‘Oh, a Great White is a collection of algorithms, as we are, too.’

And that particular one they described is very similar to something I was looking at in vision research, which is dealing with, like, detection of edges.

And that was, when one thing connects between something and something else, and, I mean, that’s kind of the basis, I think that we, as writers, is we love to either make connections or find connections, and we see that connection, just something triggers in our head. And that, to me, was, ‘Oh, this is fascinating.

This is really what artificial intelligence is about — this optimization.

And so, I started getting more into artificial intelligence, learning how to build little, small neural networks, and neural networks is basically kind of like how our brain works, but it’s, like, just a simple arrangement of, we call them parameters, but that’s basically if-this-then-that kind of thing, but just in a sort of statistical way that it’s trained.

It was just fascinating, because you’d start to see results. I built a little image generator model from some code I found online. And I could, like, ‘Ah, that kind of looks like a goat. Oh, that kind of looks like something.’

And it just was just a wonderful awakening for me to realize how cool this was, and happened at this time, with artificial intelligence has just expanded so much, and that’s where the interest came from.

Joanna: Yeah, I love that. But let’s get specific around the AI tools for writers.

So, I’ve mentioned GPT-3 on this show before, but perhaps you could just give an overview from your perspective, and what other AI tools, like DALL-E from OpenAI as well, what is it like right now for writers?

Andrew: Well, it’s a very exciting period, and I was very fortunate, because two years ago, when OpenAI came out with GPT-3, I got invited as a creative to play around with this.

GPT-3 was an AI that was trained by taking a tremendous amount of text data, and they built the fifth-largest supercomputer in the world to build this. And then, when they got this, they weren’t sure, what were its capabilities?

I was invited to sort of play around and start experimenting with GPT-3, first, kind of…because they knew I was a writer. They didn’t know that I, how nerdy I was about AI. So, for me to be able to interact with the system for hours on end, to see what it could do, was exciting.

So, I helped write a lot of the examples that you’ll see if you get access to GPT-3, because then I ended up…now I work for them. But, like, I started creating examples and stuff, and exploring, because I found that as a writer, we’re very used to the world of words and how words are presented.

And that kind of was helpful, because this was a point at which AI understood a bit about structure, understood a lot about grammar, understood a lot about if you say what TL;DR means, what that means, or if you say ‘in conclusion,’ and I found that it was really, really helpful…

You could use it as an amplifier. You could start a little character description. It could help make the description a little more interesting.

For nonfiction writing, it was really helpful because you could write some things, and then it might help you continue your thought.

And then you could just write ‘in conclusion,’ and it could sum up things for you.

It actually affected the way that I write, when I write, like, nonfiction. For instance, like, I start everything with a TL;DR right now, because watching a model take a bunch of information and compress it down to the most important points made me think about, ‘Okay, when I start writing,’ and this is obvious to a lot of people…

For me, like, I really need to start from there, and then always look back to that, and not deviate. So, both for writing and learning how it worked, affected me.

Joanna: So, you mentioned a few things there. You mentioned amplifying, and expanding things, or continuing thoughts.

I’ve used it too, so I get what you mean.

But many authors who hear “AI and writing,” they think that you just click a button and out pops a novel.

You have written a blog post, ‘Will AI ever write a novel?‘ So, where are we with it right now? And I guess, how do we drive it? Because you’ve also written about prompt engineering?

Andrew: So, my personal belief is, yeah, of course, it’s going to be able to write novels, and people go, like, ‘but it won’t know human experience.’

Like, ‘No, it’ll be able to read a million biographies, and it will know human experience deeper than any of us know.

But it still comes back down to, is that doesn’t negate the value of writers. I think it actually amplifies it, because there are systems that create really good music right now.

If we take the singer Billy Eilish, she’s incredibly talented. And part of what makes her music have value to us is her story. She and her brother, composing music in their parents’ home, trying to make their own sound, not being people that were, you know, the industry would have picked to say, ‘You get to be the superstars,’ but they did it on their own. And then they became famous.

And that emotion is based in part the fact that they’re real people.

And there’s gonna be places for there’s fake, like, Japanese digital pop stars, and so there’s gonna be a place for that, but I’m always gonna want to sit down and read stories. Sometimes I might want just a computer story, but I like to know that there was a person who wrote this.

I like to know this was created by somebody, because writing is about choices, and creativity is about choices.

And these tools can give you a lot of options, but you still have to make choices, whether it’s GPT-3 is saying, ‘Do you want this character to be this? Or do you want it to be that?’ Or for you deciding where you want to take it.

And that’s what we see with DALL-E.

DALL-E is our system that generates images. And they’re incredible. Like, I have just ordered a couple to have hanging in my place here, because I just love the look of them. I can tell the difference between an artist who uses DALL-E and just somebody who just says, ‘Oh, a cool rabbit, or this.’

Artists bring more to it, and these tools really are amplifiers.

One more example to think about is, imagine in 1826 you showed a portrait artist the first photograph. They might have been frightened. ‘Oh, no. What happens to my industry?’ And it was disruptive.

But now imagine back then, 1826, trying to explain what does somebody like James Cameron do for a living? And it’s incomprehensible. But that field of art, the number of people who were able to make a living by art, increased dramatically.

The value we placed on that actually went up a lot. I’ve had friends be like, ‘Oh, well, Mozart got along fine without a commercial business.’ I’m like, ‘Mozart was supported by the royalty.’ Like, he was the one dude that got that opportunity.

We live in a world with millions of artists, and opportunities that come and go, but this technology can amplify that. If you have that creativity, don’t be scared by it. Be excited by it.

Joanna: I’m definitely with you. I’m an optimist about it. But it’s interesting there.

So, you talked about there a person wrote this or an artist created this, but we can use the tools, and it amplifies the value.

If we think about a continuum from zero to 100%, so 0% AI to 100% AI, this is the issue I see, and people argue with me about this, and so I’m wondering about what you think. So, where is the point where it becomes more AI-created, or, AI-enhanced?

Here’s a human example. Someone like James Patterson, who co-writes with so many people, and he does these outlines, right, but a lot of his co-writers do the bulk of the words. So, they get a co-written name on the book cover.

So, if an author has an idea and then uses something like GPT-3 to generate most of the words, do we have to talk about this in the publishing industry?

Do we just put the author’s name on? Where do you think this continuum goes, I guess?

Andrew: Well, and understand, OpenAI, by the way, OpenAI, we’re a research organization. We’re a for-profit owned by a nonprofit, all right.

And the goal of the nonprofit is to develop benevolent artificial general intelligence, an AGI.

AGI is basically described as something that’s as capable or more capable than a human, but more efficient to do certain things. And we want to make sure that AI is helpful overall. There would be disruptions, but we want it to be a net benefit for all of humanity. And we look at how things might be disruptive.

So, right now what we do with DALL-E, with that image generator, we put a little logo on there, that’s a little color bars, to show that this was, it’s our signature.

And we tell everybody using this, ‘You need to tell people an AI made this. You need to tell everybody that an AI created this.’

Because we’re trying to set a precedent to say, like, ‘You should tell your audience when it’s AI, or maybe assisted by AI, etc., going forward.’

I mean, the danger gets into what does ‘assisted by AI’ mean now? Because if you open up Google Docs, and you start to write something, it will do completion for you.

And it uses a model, not as capable as GPT-3, but a really good model. That’s AI-assisted now.

And so, that’s sort of where it gets gray is how much.

But if you’re just turning out a thing, and if it’s substantial, the most of the work was done by an AI, probably a good idea to tell your audience. You know, I think that…because people are going to want authenticity, and sometimes it won’t matter, but sometimes it will.

Joanna: Yes, well, actually, I did a short story last year, which I self-published, and I put in the back a little, in my author’s note, I did an AI declaration. And I’m also encouraging people to do this, but I don’t think most people are doing it.

[Note from Joanna: See the Alliance of Independent Authors Ethical Author Declaration of AI usage for more details.]

And you’re indie, but also traditionally published. So, how are you tackling this? I think you mentioned on your blog that you’re using some passages from AI in your next traditionally published novel?

Andrew: Yes, I actually think I probably had the first GPT-3 content published in a book, but it’s a part of a book where it’s a computer talking.

And so, that’s what I did, is I said, ‘It’s this thing,’ and that they realize, ‘Hey, it’s a computer talking,’ like, ‘Yeah, it was, actually.’ And there was sort of a race for me, like, ‘I wanna do whole books.’ Like, ‘Well, are they gonna be good? Are they going to be good?’

And eventually, they will be. I think they’ll probably be exceptional.

But I think that as far as in the publishing industry, you know, you look at the state of it now is that they look to see, ‘What is your platform and how many Twitter followers do you have? You know, what’s your Facebook count?’ and all this.

And I think that is sad for me, because I think, I mean, I was very fortunate because I haven’t done television stuff. Those things are good for me, but I think if, like, I was trying to make a name for myself as an author today, versus where I was 10 years ago, it’s a different landscape.

I guess my point is, like, I don’t know how publishers are going to handle the AI side of things. You know, with some publishers, if they can just have a small group of writers, a stable of stuff, working with AI, do it, and just churn out a bunch of public books, maybe that’ll happen. Will the quality be there? I don’t know.

Joanna: Well, and this is why I’m very interesting, because, of course, as authors, we license our rights to publishers, and there are some imprints of some famous publishing houses that will have a lot of books that, you know, are within a genre-specific template. It’s hard not to name names. But you know what I mean.

Within certain genres, there are templates that you could use. And if you had — and many of the publishers do — a huge corpus of copyright work that they own, that they could train a model with, could they not generate these books, that do satisfy readers?

And as you know, quality is in the eye of the beholder of the reader. So what we think is quality might not be what other people do, for example.

Andrew: So, the limit is, right now, when you have GPT-3, or you have a model generate your text for you, there’s a thing called the token size.

And basically, a token is how it takes words and converts them into a numerical value. And so, it’s really, it’s all math. Same with the images, everything else. So, GPT-3 has this, it can take in about, let’s say, 3500 words, or generate 3500 words that relate to each other. If you did chapter one, and had it generate 3500 words, and then did chapter two, it’ll have no idea what was in chapter one, because that’s too many words. You could do a little summary or a little ways, a little hacky things you can try to do to get it there.

GPT-3, and other models…and GPT-3 has, like, double what everybody else has. The standard’s, like, maybe 2000 tokens, right? None of these models have ever read a book in its entirety. None of them have ever read a book and read at the top, and then read at the end, and they’re able to tell you that.

They can tell you though, you’ll say, ‘Oh no, this AI told me about this about a book.’ Like, it read somebody’s review of that book. There are models for summarization, and I built some of these, that will take it and condense it down.

You’ll still see that they struggle with, like, an example is, like, it might read ‘Harry Potter.’ And then at the beginning of ‘Harry Potter,’ you know, Harry’s told his parents died in a car accident, which we know, spoiler alert, it’s not true. Voldemort killed them. But you don’t find that out till the very end. A model that might just read things in parts would tell you, ‘Oh, yeah. His parents were killed in a car accident.’ Like, ‘No, no. That got reversed later on.’

So, right now, for the shorter-term future, an AI can’t write a whole book, because it doesn’t understand the beginning, middle, and end of a long-form novel. That will change eventually.

But I think we, as writers, can start thinking about, you know, what does the novel mean? Like, I write series. Like, I, that spin, I found that I like to do it, and the market’s really good for that.

But writing a series is challenging, because I have to remember the names of everybody and everything else like that. And I would love to be able to use AI to help me keep track of all that stuff.

And I would love to be able to write on a much bigger canvas, too. And I think that’s the thing to think about, is, like, one, it can shorten the time you write, you could increase your output, it could let you spend more time making cool choices, and less time having to do things that you don’t wanna do, revisions, etc. And then, I think overall, can make us all better writers.

Joanna: Yes, and I totally agree.

Thinking of it as a tool, rather than another writer, is the much better way.

But I just wanted to circle back on prompt engineering, because when I started to play this, so, I’m not a programmer. I did get access to the beta for GPT-3, but I now use Sudowrite, which is, like, a front end on GPT-3. And many writers listening won’t be programmers.

But what I discovered very quickly was that you have to drive it in a certain way. And I believe you actually use the term prompt engineering.

How do we drive GPT-3 in the best way, in order to get the best results?

Andrew: So, a thing that I think is interesting, and it even alludes, like, I’ll see research papers come out talking about prompt design. And I think that even… Not to be too critical, but sometimes they really miss the point of what these models really are.

There’s a base level, they’re a prediction machine, but they’re emulators. And to emulate something, they have to know what they need to do.

If you ask one of these models, like, how many fish live in a wallet? Which is an absurd question, it might give you an answer, because it’s trying to find some sort of rationale to this question, and it’ll answer something.

It’s like if I wrote that on a piece of paper and slipped it under your door, and it said, ‘How many fish live in a wallet?’ You might be like, ‘I don’t know, one? Okay, whatever.’

But if you tell the model, ‘Hey, if this question makes sense, answer it. If it’s illogical, say illogical.’ Literally say that at the top, literally tell it that, and then go, ‘Question. How many fish live in a wallet? And answer,’ it’s more likely to say, ‘Wait, this is illogical. This doesn’t make any sense.’

And then if you say, ‘If I have $5 in my wallet, how much do I have in my wallet?’ And it’s, ‘Oh, you have $5.’ And so, telling it what you need. And it’s an example of why you need to direct it.

If you want it to do a style… If you say ‘write a news article,’ and I, ‘Oh, write an article about blank.’ Well, if you were a writer who was a contract writer, you would know the publication you were writing for, right? You would know the topic, you’d know the audience, you’d know all these things.

And so, sometimes people go, like, ‘Oh, I asked GPT-3 to write an article, and it wasn’t any good.’ I’m like, ‘I guarantee you, if you just threw that out to a bunch of random people with no other information, it wouldn’t be very good either.’

But when you give it more background, to say, if you say, ‘Oh, give me a starting paragraph about this topic for “The Atlantic” magazine,’ then it’s going to know, ‘Oh, I know the style,’ it knows the narrative, and then it’s going to follow through on that in a better way.

So that’s the thing to think about.

You have to give it enough information to do what you want. It doesn’t read minds.

I did some examples where I used one of our newer models to create games, just by using text descriptions. I actually got it to make Wordle without any code, by giving it, like, five instructions.

But I had to explain the rules of the game.

And I had some people look at this, like, ‘Oh, well, you had to write all the stuff to get that game.’ I’m like, ‘Well, yeah. I knew what I wanted to get.’ If I just said ‘create a game,’ it could have give me tic tac toe.

I had to be specific about what I want, and that’s the same thing with the models. You need to direct it with…give it the same sort of input you would, you know, if somebody were eager to help, maybe, kind of, a really smart middle-schooler.

Joanna: Yes, I mean, you’ve built an app thing, haven’t you? Where you can chat with a particular type of character, as such. Are you still working on that?

Andrew: Before I went to work for OpenAI, I built a lot of demo applications, and was kind of helping them figure out, like, how do you release stuff?

I built a thing where you could email historical figures. And you would just basically, like, you know, send an email to their name, I forgot, if you send an email to their name, whatever and ask a question, and you can just…anybody, Ben Franklin, whatever, and it was fun. It was this cool demo. You’d email them, and they’d email you back.

I don’t have that up and running anymore, because now our guidelines are we want to be more protective. Because we could have written Pol Pot, you know, some awful people in history, which now, we’d probably be like, ‘We want to make sure that somebody is checking these responses first before we invite somebody to commit atrocities.’

And part of the reason we do that, too, is people go, like, ‘Well, how dangerous are these models or whatever?’

One, we don’t know.

I think that we err on the side of being a little over-cautious.

Because maybe these models really aren’t potentially that harmful or dangerous, but the later ones that are coming are going to be way more powerful, and that’s when you’ve got to be careful.

When you have, basically, the ability to type in a request to a super-intelligent person that maybe doesn’t have the same sort of ethical boundaries we do, that could have scary implications.

Like, ‘Oh, create a computer virus to mine Bitcoin on everybody I know’s, you know, computer.’ The systems are gonna be able to do that, if they’re not… I mean, that’s gonna be a thing, you know, if we’re not careful.

So, I’m like, so, I tell people, like, ‘Oh, why are you so restrictive?’ It’s like, ‘Well, we wanna get in that habit now. We’d rather be a little restrictive early than a little restrictive too late.’

Joanna: Yes. And I do urge people to go and look at OpenAI, the website, and there’s the mission there, and statements. And I really appreciate how careful it’s been. However, I would say there’s always going to be issues, technology is a double-edged sword, isn’t it?

Andrew: Yes.

Joanna: But you mentioned there, the responsibility in the output.

The models are trained on data — including out of copyright books.

But these models are trained on data. And this is one of the things I think about a lot, which is, most of the data, apparently, it’s trained on are out-of-copyright books. So, I believe they’re not trained on works in copyright, because of the issues of licensing.

But, of course, most of the books out of copyright, are written by dead old white men, in English, probably mostly of a Christian persuasion. And so I feel like,

To address diversity and issues of bias, we need to train models on works in copyright, by far more diverse writers, in the last 75 years of publishing. So, how do you think we could figure that out, and fix that?

Andrew: Well, yes, I mean, one of the solutions we do right now is we have a series of models called our Instruct models, where the original GPT-3 DaVinci was trained on a large amount of text, and then it just does what it does.

And that is the amazing part about it, too. We never trained it to be a chatbot. It just figured it out. It figured out all these things, which is awesome, and terrifying. And so, the Instruct models are ones where we said, ‘Hey, we know people wanna perform certain tasks a lot, and they want reliability,’ so we train those models to be very reliable in what they do.

When you train that, you can also say, ‘Hey, let’s amplify certain things in the dataset. Let’s minimize other things.’

And a simple solution, people say, ‘Well just take out all the bad stuff.’ Well, the problem is, if you’ve ever met a child, and you’d stand next to that child on a street, and they look at people, and they make observations, children would get cancelled very quickly, because they don’t know any better. They don’t understand what’s an appropriate question or what’s not, you know. And that’s where, if you take all that stuff out of there, you might have a model that’s extremely naïve about the world.

And then it’s going to innocently ask you something like, ‘Why are you typing so slow? Are you dumb?’ You know, and be like, ‘Well you’re not supposed to say that.’

You want to build models that have a lot of knowledge about the world, but also have good judgment.

And part of the things you can do is if you want to make things that are…like, what we did with DALL-E is when we first tested, you said, ‘Hey, create a bunch of images of scientists.’ If they were all men, that’s not good, purely just on the basis of being as not a good artistic tool, because people are gonna wanna be able to have a wider variety.

So you can make things more steerable. And you can say, ‘Hey, have it, one, try to make sure the model is more diverse in what it represents, but also gives you more control.’

You could say, ‘I want an Indonesian woman scientist working in a lab, with two other women, as they observe something,’ you make it controllable, so the person has the opportunity to get the output they want.

Joanna: But I guess that is sort of artificial, trying to fix a bias. Whereas if we actually read in, say, the works of all writers in different languages across the last 80 years, then that might provide more variety in the training data.

And also, now, I believe we can create synthetic data, so we can do different, you know, and I’m thinking text, not images, obviously, for training the text models. And then I also kind of see this as a way that potentially writers could have data licensing, potentially, like, would you like to put your book in this corpus of data that we’re training the next model on, for example? Do you think that’s just entirely ridiculous?

Andrew: No, not at all. No. I would love for us to find ways in which we can do that. And Sam Altman, who’s the CEO of OpenAI.

Sam is an incredibly thoughtful guy, and he’s talked about the point, at some date, of, like, if we start training models, is to have ways for people to contribute to it, and also benefit from it, etc. Because there’s going to be a point when you’re just going to need a lot more data.

And finding that way of making sure that people feel, one, that everybody benefits from it, but two, like, yeah, trying to figure out just how we can have it just represent a lot more points of view, in a way that just is beneficial.

Joanna: Yes. And I guess the other thing is from a selfish writer viewpoint, like yourself, I’ve been writing novels for over a decade.

And I would just love to train a model with my backlist. And of course, none of us, individually, can have a backlist big enough to train any model, right?

But I almost see it as, say, let’s say, a group of thriller writers could get together and create their own training dataset for a model, and that would give us a far more fine-tuned output. Do you think that’s possible?

Andrew: Well, actually, right now, we could take all of your books, and we could break it into, let’s say, paragraph-by-paragraph sections, and we could put it into…we could train… We can fine tune.

So, we offer a service where you can fine-tune a model, and give it data. You could do that now. It’s not going to be able to write a whole book, but if you start writing a passage and mention a character, it would probably complete things based upon what it knows. And so, for probably doing a paragraph-by-paragraph level, probably possible right now.

Joanna: Oh, okay. So, are you thinking about doing that for your books?

Andrew: I’ve thought about it. I haven’t done it. Early on, when I was a writer, they were like, ‘Oh, let’s train some data. Let’s try some stuff.’ And I did a little bit of it.

But, I mean, I’m like the car mechanic whose car’s always broken down. I’m always pursuing some other shiny new object and stuff. And so, I’ve played with it to a limited extent, to see, like, ‘Oh, how could do completion stuff,’ but that’s…and I’ve done a lot of, like, helping other people, like, train stuff, like people who work in commercial properties and stuff, that wanna use it as a writing tools, like, ‘This is how you prepare the data. This is how you do it.’

But I should probably do it as an experiment, to see. I do try to be mindful because I’m a writer, active writer, and I work in AI, of just trying to do things in a way that people feel is responsible.

Joanna: Yeah, well, I mean, I think this is fascinating. And of course, you do, you span different publishing routes. So, you are still indie as well as traditional, right? You still self-publish?

Andrew: I haven’t self-published anything in a while. Like, I do two books a year right now, Thomas & Mercer. And so, that kind of keeps me busy, because I’m full-time at OpenAI, and then that, so…

Joanna: Well, I would call you a polymath, as in you seem to do a hell of a lot of things. You know, an inventor, and magic, and OpenAI and writing. And so, how do you manage your time between?

Is it a full-time job at OpenAI, and also writing and everything?

Andrew: Yeah, I’m full-time at OpenAI. I came on board originally as a contractor, and was helping them out with the GPT-3, and like I said before, writing documentation, creating examples.

And then I went in with the, I had the title ‘Creative Applications,’ because I’d just find creative ways you could use it. And it was sort of like, you have these incredibly brilliant people who get to build things, and they’re constantly having to build them. And I’m like, ‘Can I play with them then?’ And so, I get to just sort of take advantage of everybody else’s hard work, and just play with it, and show people cool stuff.

So, I worked on that for…worked with the API team doing that, and helping kind of just get the word out about it. And then, last year, I went, and I joined up…we have a comms team, we have an incredible team that helps, like, with communications and public relations, etc.

And I asked, ‘Hey, could I work with you guys to see what this is all about too, because I really wanna get involved in helping communicate that.’ So I came on board there, and they gave me the title ‘Science Communicator.’

So, now I do a lot of stuff, like I’ll talk to…if we wanna do a piece with, let’s say, some journalists on it, on the models, and they wanna get sort of a backgrounder, I do that. I help explain the stuff, as a writer, like, how do we communicate this? How do we try to shape the messaging so people understand what we’re doing?

Joanna: Well, this is part of your communication, there are lots of people listening, and very interested. And, I mean, well, that’s another question. So, I did apply for the beta, and I do have access to that API, but as I said, I’m not a programmer. So, we’re recording this June 2022.

If people listening want to use GPT-3, how would they go about doing that?

Andrew: Well, what you can do, if you go to OpenAI, and you sign up for it, what you’ll get access to is, there’s a lot of technical stuff, documentation for if you wanted to code, but there’s a playground, and there’s a playground there.

And you’ll get a certain number of credits for free. And I don’t remember how it is. But you can go in there and type things in, and just see things, what happens. You can put a little bit of your text, see what it does, you can go look at the examples.

And so, the playground environment’s easy. You don’t have to code to do it. You’ll see knobs like ‘temperature.’ And temperature, think of that as randomness. How random do you want the response to be? Zero, not random at all. Set it higher.

I’ve got some videos on YouTube where I explain some stuff. I need to do some better quality ones, but I’ve done a lot of sessions where just explaining that, but anybody could just go there and start playing around with it.

And then if they want something more specific, there are different companies that have different writing tools that are based on top of it.

[Note from Joanna: I use and recommend Sudowrite, which is built on top of GPT-3.]

But at the basic level, you’ll see the GPT-3 model, and also our newer model. We have a model called Text DaVinci, which is, if you’re doing, like, technical, or, like, nonfiction, that’s really good at giving you concise responses.

Joanna: Definitely worth playing with. I picked up on this with GPT-2, and then GPT-3 came along. And I now kind of talk about it as ‘GPT-X,’ because surely there’s going to be some more numbers.

And obviously, you can’t talk about timings or anything. But it has been two years, really, since GPT-3, and obviously, DALL-E, the second one has come out. Can we expect, do you think, anytime soon, or in the next year or two, another iteration?

Andrew: You know, we never talk about things before they’re ready. And it just comes down to that.

In the world of AI and research, too, is that it is, DALL-E, when that got released, I think we brought people in… And we have iterations of that. That got released maybe a month after, I think, we probably the model had finished training. You know, we published a paper talking about some of the concepts early on. So, these are things, like, we just don’t know. We often just have no idea. Like, we might, ‘Oh, we wanna get this…try to do something here.’

But in that time, though, one of the things that happened, which is just a couple months ago, is we released a couple new methods…

We updated GPT-3. And actually, like, we went from the 2000 tokens to the 4000 tokens, which is kind of phenomenal.

And we also added things like edit, where you can go in there and insert stuff in between. So, you can have a passage here and a passage below it, and you can say ‘add something in between there,’ and it will work backwards and forwards from there. Which, to me, is such a phenomenal capability, when you really think about what that can do.

Because previously, you would just give it the text and say, ‘Okay, complete this.’ Now, we could go fill in there. So you could give it a passage and say, ‘Okay, add more detail here, or do this.’ So, those capabilities right there, I think we announced it, we talked about them. But it didn’t get quite the attention that I think personally those things should get because of what they can do if you’re a writer.

You can actually put text in there, and then say, ‘Okay, rewrite this in the first person point of view,’ and it will change it to the point of view.

And so, these capabilities, by themselves, are, if we had said, ‘Oh, this is some new special model, or whatever,’ people would be like, ‘Oh, my,’ and they are new models, but they’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool. It can do this now.’ It’s like, ‘Well, it can do it right now,’ so…

Joanna: Actually, that’s a good point. Because Sudowrite did introduce a new thing, and you could type in a line and then you’d say, ‘Make it more horror,’ and it would rewrite it in a more horror way, or a whatever, a sci-fi way.

Andrew: Yeah, that was based upon the edit functionality we added.

Joanna: There you go. Well, maybe it’s just because it didn’t have, like, a new number, a new release, but I guess, as you say, there’s iterative changes, and then there’s a big release, a big change.

Andrew: Yeah, and, you know, part of it is that we are a research company first. And so, that means to how we approach things is that we don’t wanna beat a drum in the way you would if it were, like, a new iPhone or something, generally speaking.

Because OpenAI, we try to be cautious about how we do stuff.

And we will do these incremental things and say, ‘Hey, look, what we’ve done. This is the capability now.’

The Instruct models that I mentioned before, that was a pretty big deal, because that helped you basically guide a model better, made it more reliable and not giving you unwanted outputs. And so, a lot of important things are gonna be these incremental developments.

Joanna: Right. We’re almost out of time, but I just had one more question.

On your blog, you wrote, ‘I think AI is going to upend everything in entertainment, and not just my little corner of publishing.’

So, since you come from TV as well, and magic, and your shows, and everything, how will it do that? How will it upend everything?

Andrew: So, I’ll give you an example. I don’t know if you watched the show, like, ‘Mandalorian,’ but, like, at the end of it, they did use CG, in, like, the first season, at the end of it, they CG’ed Mark Hamill’s younger face onto an actor, and it was not really… and everybody that works on the show works really hard, and everybody in VFX, not to be dismissive, but it wasn’t really the best effect. It wasn’t really the strongest way they could have done that.

Because AI deepfake technology had been way more advanced. But it was a thing where the entertainment industry can be slow to catch on to things.

And I’d made a joke to my wife, like, ‘Hey, you know, in two days, a YouTuber is going to upload a better version of this using an AI technology.’

And I kid you not. Two days later, a YouTuber by the name of Shamook uploaded a better version of that. And ILM, to their credit, hired him. He now works for them and helps them do, you know, that sort of stuff.

But AI, there’s a lot of incredible stuff out there right now that people don’t even realize. I have friends in VFX, who I’m like, ‘Why are you doing it this way?’ Like, ‘Well, that’s what the system does.’ I’m like, ‘There is a free code library that does this easily.’

And there’s a lot of these things where, like, removing backgrounds from images, right, you have services, you can go pay for it. It’s actually a free code you can download and run on your computer, if you just have a little bit of a technical capability, but people don’t know that, and people are paying for these things.

And so, I think, when it comes to entertainment, I think there’s a lot of things in the pipeline where, when I wrote my first novel with a publisher, I had the benefit of a wonderful editor, Hannah Wood, who was at HarperCollins at the time, and that, I learned so much from having somebody really smart go through and edit stuff.

When you think about when everybody gets that ability to collaborate, whether you’re a screenwriter that gets an AI, to not write it for you, but tell you, like, ‘Oh, I think there should be more punch here. This should be there,’ I think the stuff is going to get better. And I think that probably the pipeline is gonna shrink.

The number of people that are gonna be needed to make something, that’s going to get fewer. But then the opportunities for people to create more stuff will increase.

Joanna: So, thinking about that, then, just to leave people with a glimmer of hope in this AI future, what kind of attitude do we need to have?

Andrew: Be curious, and understand that every time there’s been a new tool, there was the fear. The word processor, people were afraid, well, great, everybody’s gonna write. What happened? Not really.

The big, disruptive sort of things that happened, like, the biggest disruptions to publishing were eBooks. And then things like, you know, I’m a big fan of the Kindle Unlimited and that marketplace there, because I think that’s, like, phenomenal. Like, like just the ability for an indie to go put there and compete with everybody else on sort of the same level.

I think that these things are, if I said I only want to do things the way I did them 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be where I was now.

And I went through being a person who worked in entertainment and cruise ships and stuff, and being able to do big illusion shows.

Then when watching the cruise lines and resorts go through recessions, and not being able to pay to bring big acts like that, to creating books and videos for magicians, then watching online piracy completely erase that.

Just transitioning from point to point, getting into publishing when print publishing was on its decline, and then working with a wonderful publisher, they understand digital.

So, we’re creatives because we like change, usually the change that we bring about, but if we embrace the change that’s around us and see opportunity, I think we’re gonna be in an incredible place.

AI needs creative people.

Like, if we just released DALL-E… And we brought in a bunch of artists to work with this, and just experiment with it. If we didn’t bring them into it, it wasn’t gonna be as exciting or neat as it is. GPT-3, they brought me in. I got to be, as a writer and go work with this.

So, everybody listening, it needs you. Like, AI is expanding, where it’s going to need creative people who look at this stuff and figure out how to use it to create new things. And it’s not gonna be as exciting without you.

Joanna: Thank you so much. So, where can people find you and your books online?

Andrew: I’m published by Thomas & Mercer, which is an Amazon company, so if you go to Amazon type, in ‘Andrew Mayne,’ easiest sort of way to see what I have there. If you go to andrewmayne.com, I usually have a list of my most recent books there.

Joanna: Brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Andrew. That was great.

Andrew: Thank you so much.

Note from Joanna: If you’d like to know more about using AI for writing, images, marketing, voice, translation, and more, check out my course, The AI-Assisted Author.

The AI Assisted Author

The post Writing With Artificial Intelligence With Andrew Mayne first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

The Summer I Turned Pretty

Watch the trailer for The Summer I Turned Pretty, an Amazon Prime Video television series based on the New York Times best-selling YA novel trilogy by Jenny Han.

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Author: jkashiwabara

Martina Evans Reads a Poem by Wisława Szymborska

Irish poet and novelist Martina Evans reads Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Could Have,” translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, in this short film directed by Matthew Thompson and produced by the Adrian Brinkerhoff Poetry Foundation for their Words We Share series.

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Author: fmarquez

Ten Questions for Maya Marshall

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Maya Marshall, whose debut poetry collection, All the Blood Involved in Love, is out today from Haymarket Books. In these searching, confessional lyrics, Marshall interrogates the choice to become a mother—or not—and what it means to parent in a troubled world. Weaving family history with meditations on desire, Black girlhood and womanhood, aging, and death, the poems grapple with rage and despair but move toward self-love and hope. Poet Patricia Smith writes of Marshall’s collection: “This work—penned as backslap for the Black woman intending to stomp into, through, and beyond the existence she is laughingly ‘allowed’—harbors the hurricane’s unrepentant muscle.” Marshall is the author of the chapbook Secondhand (Dancing Girl Press, 2016) and the cofounder of underbelly, a journal that explores the practical magic of poetic revision. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Callaloo, the Watering Hole, Community of Writers, and Cave Canem. She teaches at Emory University.   

1. How long did it take you to write All the Blood Involved in Love?
The oldest poem in the book is about ten years old.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Can I give you several answers? Dealing with family. Taking an honest look at myself. Finding space between the speaker and myself. Admitting when the music was taking a backseat to my ideas. A simpler answer: learning the craft of writing poetry.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I can typically get myself to sit down and focus for a few hours a week. It depends on what my job is that year. This year I’m a fellow at a university, so I have dedicated time to go to my office at the school. There have been years when I’ve gotten up early before work to write for thirty minutes before I had to do things for other people, and those years I’ve written in my home office. Sometimes I write on my phone while I’m at the park or sitting in my car. I sit in my car for long stretches of time, usually avoiding going home or to an engagement of some sort. During the semesters that I’m teaching, sometimes I do the in-class writing that I assign to my students. In my unstructured free time, or when I’m procrastinating editing, I schedule writing dates with friends. We’ll write for an hour, usually remotely. When I can afford to and I have enough material, I go to residencies. Most of the time, though, I’m sitting on my bed or at my desk. It’s not romantic, just practical.

4. What are you reading right now?
Today I got Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color by Lorgia García Peña in the mail, so I’ll open that soon. I’m currently reading Camille T. Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History and Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss. And I’m working my way through The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021 and The Best American Essays 2021. I am typically reading a book that has not been published yet; Quenton Baker has one called Ballast that will be out next year. I am really excited by it. Recently I finished Hayan Charara’s poetry book These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit; his collection Something Sinister is an unrelenting marvel.

5. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of All the Blood Involved in Love?
I was surprised by the central question of the book: Why don’t you parent? As I was writing the individual poems over the years, I didn’t realize how much I was thinking about childbearing and childrearing in the American context.

I was also taken aback by how much Biblical language and theory and context shaped the thinking in the final movement. Being agnostic, I was surprised that the God figure is as present as he is. And by the same turn, I’m surprised by just how much anger I had to navigate to get to a sense of peace. The book thinks through things that people should be justifiably angry about, but I was taken by surprise by how deeply attached this speaker is to God—how close faith seems and how difficult it proves to be to attain, or maintain. I think it has something to do with my difficulty with hope.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Working, daily chores, insecurity, family responsibilities.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
It was my mentor who said something that stuck with me. She said: “Do not discount the good work you have already done.” I have a tendency to see with only a critical eye, rather than with a forgiving one, when I look at my own writing. It is difficult for me to return to my pages with the eye of a curious bookstore browser—with the eye of the girl who loves reading. So it helps to have the reminder in my head that what is on the page can be altered; it does not have to be destroyed. It helps to remember the years I’ve spent learning to do this writing thing—that I’ve learned to do much of it well.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started All the Blood Involved in Love, what would you say?
Be patient. Loosen your grip. Write for discovery. Write because you want to, not to define yourself for the benefit of other people.

9. How did you know when the book was finished?
When I felt like I had a sense of the answers to the questions the book asks. When I was able to feel—with the poems in different orders—that there was an arc from the first poem to the last, I felt like I could let the book go. I felt released from the emotional terrain of that book.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Besides read broadly and keep writing? Go outside and watch plants grow.

Ten Questions for Ottessa Moshfegh

6.21.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Ottessa Moshfegh, whose novel Lapvona is out today from Penguin Press. Set in the eponymous medieval village of Moshfegh’s imagination, the story tracks the tribulations of thirteen-year-old Marek, a poor boy whose “ugly” exterior masks a pious soul, and his cruel father, Jude. Without a mother to love him, Marek has taken to cuddling up with the village’s witchy wet nurse, Ina. When an accident twists Marek’s fate, sending him to live with Lapvona’s selfish overlord, Villiam, the boy faces a crisis of faith. Now well fed and treated with less violence, Marek grows as Jude stagnates in worsening squalor in Lapvona—where few know that it is Villiam’s manipulations that keep them in such dire straits. Publishers Weekly calls Lapvona “a triumph.” In this dark tale, “Moshfegh brings her trademark fascination with the grotesque to depictions of the pandemic, inequality, and governmental corruption, making them feel both uncanny and all too familiar.” Moshfegh is the author of the novels Death in Her Hands, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and Eileen, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize. She is also the author of a story collection, Homesick for Another World, and a novella, McGlue.

1. How long did it take you to write Lapvona
It took me about a year from start to finish. I wrote the first draft at home during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The most memorable part of the process was the first revision, which I did at the Ucross Foundation residency in Wyoming. I loved it there and can’t wait to go back.

2. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Lapvona
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed writing in omniscient third-person point of view! All my other novels are in the first person, so this was a departure and a challenge. I was struck by the freedom of third person, how I could roam and jump and skip around, and cozy up to characters and then back away. It was really fun.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
I write at home in my bedroom. I don’t have any general restrictions on what time of day I write. When I am composing the first draft of a novel, I write daily. If I skip a day, I panic.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I just got this book called Wonder, Horror, Mystery: Letters on Cinema and Religion in Malick, Von Trier, and Kieślowski which is a dialogue between the film critic J. M. Tyree and the art critic Morgan Meis. I haven’t cracked it yet, but I read an excerpt online and found it very alluring.

5. What is the earliest memory that you associate with this book?
In 2018 I had an inkling of my Lapvona narrative. I imagined a story in which a boy killed another boy, and the mourning parents decided that justice would only be served if they took that killer in as their replacement son. As for the medieval setting, I wrote a short story called “Brom” in 2012, which was published in Granta in 2017. It takes place in a medieval castle. It’s not a Lapvona story, but it was the first time I imagined a fiction set in that time period.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life? 
Zoom. 

7. Outside of writing, what other forms of work were essential to the creation of Lapvona?
I did a little research. And I looked at some art. The most inspiring book was The Middle Ages in 50 Objects by Elina Gertsman and Barbara H. Rosenwein. 

8. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
I am so blessed to have an editor and an agent who appreciate the ways in which my writing is distinctive. When I first connected with Scott Moyers at Penguin Press, it was about my novel Eileen. I remember he told me, “I get it!” And I believed him. He didn’t want me to change the nature of the book like some other editors did. He understood the project, and his notes were in service of my vision. 

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why? 
I show my work to my friends Rosie Weinberg and Kristine McKenna, and to my husband Luke Goebel. They each offer insights peculiar to their tastes and personalities. Among the three of them, I can get a feel for how the work affects a reader.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? 
In 2002 I went to St. Petersburg, Russia, to take a class with novelist Padgett Powell. One day he said something very simple, and I can’t believe I had never heard it before: “Write clearly.” That was it!

Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Lapvona (Credit: Jake Belcher)

Ten Questions for Christine Kandic Torres

6.14.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Christine Kandic Torres, whose debut novel, The Girls in Queens, is out today from HarperVia. Set alternately in 1996 and early-2000s New York, the novel follows Brisma as she seeks to make sense of sexual-assault allegations against her high-school boyfriend, Brian, now a St. John’s University baseball player. On the cusp of college graduation when she learns about the accusations against him, Brisma seeks out Brian’s accuser and looks back on her own confusing memories of her romance with him. Brisma must also reckon with her friendship with Kelly, who defends Brian despite Brisma’s growing misgivings. While Brisma and Kelly supported each other growing up in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Woodside, Queens, Brisma must confront the ways in which sexism, racism, and classism have long pitted them against each other. Publishers Weekly calls The Girls in Queens “incisive and keenly observed…. Torres hits every note perfectly.” Torres has received support from Hedgebrook, Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA), the Jerome Foundation, and the Queens Council on the Arts. Her fiction has been featured in publications such as Catapult, Kweli, and Lunch Ticket.

1. How long did it take you to write The Girls in Queens?
It took me five years, more or less. The idea first came to me when the Mets made it to the 2015 World Series. I was lucky enough to win tickets to a game at Citi Field, and being in the new stadium made me nostalgic for the last time the Mets (or “Los Mets,” as Latinx fans often call the team) made it deep into the playoffs at Shea Stadium in 2006, but ultimately lost. I wanted to bring that time to life in a story, to capture what it meant for working-class kids of color to be represented by their hometown team and for that team to actually play well—historically something of an anomaly for the Mets. 

At the same time, the horrific Brock Turner sexual-assault case was beginning to get attention in the news, and my fascination with women who defend and support violent men came into focus. I had been writing short stories until that point, but I realized I actually had a novel-length story to tell, one that would marry my baseball nostalgia to my exploration of how and why some women—including survivors of sexual assault—end up protecting abusers.

The idea scared me a little, of course, and so I didn’t start writing the novel in earnest until 2017, then went through several drafts until I signed with my agent in 2020.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I knew early on that the novel would be told in the alternating timelines of 1996 and the early 2000s. But I wasn’t sure exactly how the timelines would fit into place. Figuring out the structure of the novel was a challenge. But once I created an outline on index cards of the broad strokes of each chapter, I was able to visualize the timelines and more clearly see how they connected. I also realized that the alternating timelines would serve the purpose of mirroring a trauma victim’s memory. The first half of the book reads as the narrative that Brisma, the protagonist, has told herself in order to survive; the second half exposes the seedier aspects of her experience that she’s mentally edited out. Unlocking that felt like solving a puzzle.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I’ve come to accept that I write in stolen blocks of time, and definitely not every day. I will block off long weekends when my husband can shoulder the lion’s share of childcare. If I’m heavy into revision on a project and on deadline, I will even take a few days at an Airbnb or a friend’s place where I can work undisturbed and crank out some pages.

Becoming a mom has also helped me to be as efficient as possible with the time I carve out for myself. When my infant son would sleep for long naps, I’d sometimes strap him into a baby carrier on my chest, rocking from side to side, and type on my laptop, which I’d stacked elbow-high on Buy Buy Baby boxes. Though that was hardly a regular routine: I’d do it when the brain fog and post-partum anxiety didn’t feel insurmountable that day.  

4. What are you reading right now?
I usually have several books going across different mediums. I’m reading Victoria Buitron’s memoir, A Body Across Two Hemispheres, and Cleyvis Natera’s novel, Neruda on the Park, and I’m listening to Dave Grohl’s The Storyteller (I can’t help it, I love a celebrity memoir).

5. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Girls in Queens?
In the first draft of the manuscript, the girls were almost irredeemably mean to each other. I wanted to write female friendship in a way that felt honest to me, showing how the female characters strain against the patriarchal influences of competition and machismo but are buoyed by love and pride in each other’s survival. I was hitting the tough notes too hard. During subsequent revisions, I wrote on a piece of paper “SMALL KINDNESSES IN FRIENDSHIP” and taped it on my wall to remind myself to write toward this compassion. Making concerted efforts to fold this gentle strength and kindness into their interactions helped them become more well-rounded characters and helped ground their joy and fierce loyalty to each other in a deep, complicated love. These efforts also helped to soften me as a person a bit—a softening that was aided, I am sure, by my becoming a parent during this time.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Trying to simultaneously be a functioning parent/full-time caregiver in this world.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book stuck with you?
My editorial team was consistently supportive in maintaining my voice through revisions and copy edits of the novel. I felt like team members went out of their way to make sure I felt empowered to publish the story as I envisioned it, with all of its New York City nuance and language. I think it helped tremendously to have people on my team who understood, on some level, the world I was writing about. Despite some advances over the last few years, the demographics of the publishing industry remain wildly unbalanced, and my positive experience served to underscore for me personally how important and beneficial diverse representation can be for all.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Girls in Queens, what would you say?   
Wow. I know she had the hustle in her to finish a manuscript and shop it around to agents and editors, so I don’t think she would have needed to hear encouragement about that. What I would tell her, though, is that her voice deserves to be heard.

9. Outside of writing, what other forms of work were essential to the creation of The Girls in Queens
I had to research and rewatch old Mets games to get details correct for the games that appear in the novel. I actually misremembered the game in which Endy Chávez made his incredible catch in the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals. It was such a wonderfully miraculous moment that I thought it must have happened earlier in the series, in a game the Mets won; sadly, it hadn’t. I also reread books about the Mets like Pedro, Carlos, and Omar: The Story of a Season in the Big Apple and the Pursuit of Baseball’s Top Latino Stars by Adam Rubin and Jeff Pearlman’s The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo Chasing, and Championship Baseball With Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, the Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform—and Maybe the Best.  

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I attended a seminar taught by Victor LaValle about how to recognize and implement action in fiction, inspired by the kind of storyboards artists and writers use when creating a comic book. Mapping out the literal actions characters took in each scene helped him to see if they were moving the plot along or just sitting around yapping. I kept this in mind, especially as I revised The Girls in Queens—so much of which deals with the interiority of its characters—and I think it helped to tighten the pace and keep the plot moving forward.

Christine Kandic Torres, author of The Girls in Queens

Ten Questions for Sloane Crosley

6.7.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sloane Crosley, whose novel Cult Classic is out today from MCD. In this dark comedy that explores romantic love, friendship, and memory in post-Great Recession Manhattan, Lola finds her herself on the cusp of marriage after a host of failed relationships and a magazine career that did not survive the digital era. Her former colleagues and friends have all reinvented themselves, including Clive, who has become a celebrity wellness guru. On a night out with her old office mates, Lola steps out for a smoke only to run into her ex-boyfriend, Amos, a now-famous novelist for whom she has lingering feelings. Later, she bumps into still more exes in a series of increasingly unsettling encounters. When Lola realizes that Clive has pulled her friend Vadis into his orbit, and her love life is at the center of their cultic scheming, she struggles with whether to go along with their plans or resist—if she can resist, that is. Publishers Weekly calls the novel “witty and fantastical…. Crosley has found the perfect fictional subject for her gimlet eye.” Crosley is the author of the novel The Clasp and the essay collections I Was Told There’d Be Cake, How Did You Get This Number, and Look Alive Out There. 

1. How long did it take you to write Cult Classic?
Getting this question wrong feels like spelling your name wrong on the SATs—but I don’t really know. None of it existed before 2017. I worked on it in a very intense burst between the end of 2017 and 2018, and I handed in the first full draft to my editor in the less-than-auspicious month of March 2020. And yet there are individual images that have been lolling around in my brain for decades.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Creating a world that is based on ephemeral or cursory interactions and simultaneously trying to evoke the “correct” amount of attachment to these characters. You have your main crew of consistent characters, and they become the container through which the others pass. Because Cult Classic is so much about this slideshow of memory—that’s its raison d’etre—I had to make these men in Lola’s life feel important without creating an outsized sense of craving for them. In short, without robbing a reader. I think it’s an abuse of trust when that happens, when done intentionally by a writer.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write in my kitchen, at a little table facing a wall, which sounds punishing—but there’s a window if I turn my head. Or in bed. I write all the time as early as I can or, if it’s possible, in an evening spurt. Though I will fall out of the habit and find that I have produced nothing all day but e-mails. Or questionnaires.

4. What are you reading right now?
Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding. It’s just very funny and well done. I was hooked by the end of the first paragraph.

5. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Cult Classic?
I suppose two things: First, the genuine affection I felt for all the characters Lola lambasts. Something transformative happens when you write passage after passage like that. Have you ever seen Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour? I don’t know why I’m asking: This is a questionnaire; you’re not in a position to respond. Well, there’s this monologue in the middle that I like to think shares a border with the monologue in the middle of Cult Classic. In the film, you have the actor Ed Norton listing all the different kinds of New Yorkers he hates—“fuck you” to this group and that—and the music swells and the images bleed together, and every “fuck you” becomes a love letter to the city that made him. Second, the ending. Which is a pretty big twist. At least I think so. I didn’t have it at the beginning but, when I realized what had to happen, it was a thrill.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I love the internet. I just love it! I won’t apologize! But I think it’s a red herring as an impediment. The biggest problem is creating enough of a book that you can treat it like a plant: You can convince yourself, every day, that it’s important to water this plant, that it will grow into something beautiful if you care for it. When you’re in that in-between stage, between starting something and gathering speed, a piece of chipped nail polish is the most riveting thing in the world.

7. Outside of writing, what other forms of work were essential to the creation of Cult Classic?
I read books on cults. It was actually pretty difficult to find what I was looking for because I needed material written from the inside, and certainly not by anyone who’d been deprogrammed, which is who all cult books come from. Or from experts. Margaret Singer wrote the book, Cults in Our Midst. But Cult Classic is a comedy. The danger presented by the “cult” in Cult Classic hews closer to the danger presented by, say, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, except that it is far more ethically shaky. I just needed to filch the self-serious lingo. The most useful text was probably an anthropology dissertation on Silva Mind Control done as part of a study on “nonconventional religious groups.” The author is Analine M. Powers. There’s a “brain wave frequency chart” from 1975 that I might have physically kissed when I saw it.

8. What is the earliest memory that you associate with Cult Classic?
There’s a description of cocktails near the start, these fancy cocktails with the good cherries and sprigs of mint. That passage was written so early. When I think of how the book begins, I think “first, the cocktails,” even though this is not, in fact, how the book begins.

9.  What trait do you most value in your editor?
You have to earn a laugh and an emotional response from him. He’s on my side but not unconditionally.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Turn off the phone.

Sloane Crosley, author of Cult Classic (Credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Ten Questions for Lydia Conklin

5.31.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Lydia Conklin, whose debut story collection, Rainbow Rainbow, is out today from Catapult. In these narratives, characters find themselves in liminal spaces or on the cusp of change across multiple generations, seeking self-understanding, love, and belonging. Adolescents come of age in the real world and on the internet, where they wrestle with the difficulties and pleasures of embracing their queer identities. Adults spark relationships with surprising people in unexpected places or weigh the costs of parenthood. And travel abroad fuels revelations about the challenges faced by queer people outside the United States. Melissa Febos calls Rainbow Rainbow “a gorgeous ode to queer life in all its awkward, tragic, hilarious, erotic, and joyful forms!” Conklin is an assistant professor of fiction at Vanderbilt University. They have received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, three Pushcart prizes, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, and Hedgebrook, among other honors.

1. How long did it take you to write Rainbow Rainbow?
I started writing the oldest story in the book, “The Black Winter of New England,” in 2010, so it’s twelve years old. I finished the first draft of the newest story in the summer of 2020, in the darkest period of the pandemic. I have worked on other projects along the way, but all in all the book took twelve years—and twelve wild years at that.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
One of the hardest parts for me was learning how to inhabit characters who behave differently from me. Every character has a piece of me in them, but many of the characters behave at times in ways strikingly different from the way I would behave. The hardest character was Lisa Parsons in “Ooh the Suburbs,” who behaves in some pretty shocking ways. I was on the other side of that story as a child—aligned with Heidi, the protagonist—so it took work for me to inhabit Lisa and try to show that she has dimensionality and experiences pain like anyone else, even if she behaves in immoral ways.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write while walking, at a treadmill desk. This was the greatest innovation for me in the pandemic. I’m a very restless person, and I get ideas while in motion. So it’s helped me open up my thinking so much. The wall in front of the desk has many postcards with pictures that remind me of a broader world—pig farmers under a tangled tree, fish giving birth to other fish, walleyed kittens in baskets, a Polish Airlines sparrow. I start writing every morning and write until there’s something else I have to do—a job or familial or social obligation. If I have nothing, I try to write until two hours before sunset, when I go for a swim or a walk. But especially now, I always have something that interrupts me early.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m in the midst of so many amazing books that have just come out. I’m reading Out There by Kate Folk, a brilliant and eerie story collection, and The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, which I read in all its brilliance in manuscript form some years ago. And I just finished Second Place by Rachel Cusk which I adored every minute of. I listened to it while painting a room, and it made the job actually fun. I didn’t even get sick of the color green.

5. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Rainbow Rainbow?
I have been surprised and interested to see how careful readers spot resonances through the stories that I hadn’t noticed. Recently an interviewer mentioned that all the characters are pioneers in some way, which felt so true, and I love that someone else told me that. I didn’t notice until putting all the stories together that they all deal with transitions: not just gender transitions but other types of life transitions, like moving to cities, ending relationships, and beginning sobriety.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Technology! I am thankful for my computer and my treadmill desk but enraged by the internet and my phone. I have to lock up my phone every day—in a box designed for locking up cookies—during the hours I’m writing. Text messages ruin me.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My genius editor, Leigh Newman, helped me so much with endings. Two stories had endings that were too similar, so I had to change one. Another story had an ending that never worked, so she just cut it, and it was magic! Yet another story, “Sunny Talks,” just wasn’t getting to the emotional heart enough at the end. The original ending was about Sunny, the secondary character, but it needed to be about the narrator—what they wanted, finally, from the world. Leigh pushed me to find that and made it such a better story.        

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Rainbow Rainbow, what would you say?  
I would tell myself to take my time, that it would take a long time to write a good book and that that was okay. That people would wait, that supporters would still be there when it was ready. I had a lot of anxiety about how long it was taking me to publish my first book. Now that it’s happening I feel so much relief, but I’m also so glad I didn’t try to publish it before it was ready, though I was tempted to do so many times.

9. Outside of writing, what other forms of work were essential to the creation of Rainbow Rainbow?
Time had to pass, and the world had to change. Some of the power of the stories in this book comes from the fact that the characters are figuring themselves out in the context of such radically different cultural and political eras. The characters living during the years of Bill Clinton’s presidency have different—but no more or less severe—obstacles to their happiness than the characters who are wrestling with being queer and trans after the 2016 election or in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
The best piece of writing advice was given to me by Lan Samantha Chang, about the first story in my book, “Laramie Time.” There is a moment in which the main character is told a story by her sperm donor. In the draft Sam read, she noted that the narrator’s reaction wasn’t the most interesting emotional choice I could’ve made. That one simple sentence changed everything and broke open the story for me. I think about her words all the time. A similar and similarly resonant piece of advice was given to me—about my novel—by Elizabeth Tallent, who noted that, in certain moments, “room for thornier emotion abounds!” I loved that exclamation point and the mindset of creation and growth and expansion instead of looking at what was wrong with the manuscript as a deficit to be fixed. She allowed me to see revision as an adventure to embark on.

Lydia Conklin, author of Rainbow Rainbow  (Credit: Emily Ray Reese)

Ten Questions for Gabe Montesanti

5.24.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Gabe Montesanti, whose debut memoir, Brace for Impact, is out today from the Dial Press. The narrative follows Montesanti through her early twenties in Saint Louis, where she decides to try her luck at roller derby. Although she had been a dedicated swimmer growing up in a conservative Catholic family in Michigan, Montesanti finds herself thrillingly unprepared for the wild sport of roller derby. Readers follow Montesanti as she becomes “fresh meat,” learning to play at the dilapidated Skatium in Saint Louis’s South City. Montesanti’s body gets badly bruised in the process, but her spirit swells as she finds a place among the players and within roller derby’s queer community. As Montesanti embraces the physical pain of competition, she comes to understand the more harmful psychic damage caused by swimming, which—along with her troubled relationship with her mother—contributed to her body-image issues and lack of self-confidence when she was younger. Publishers Weekly calls Brace for Impact a “spirited coming-of-age account” that “brims with joy and resilience.” Montesanti holds an MFA from Washington University in Saint Louis. She teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas and serves as a mentor for the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program. Her work has appeared in Belt Magazine, Brevity, the Offing, and Boulevard. Her essay “The Worldwide Roller Derby Convention” was recognized as a notable essay in 2020’s The Best American Essays.  

1. How long did it take you to write Brace for Impact
I started writing Brace for Impact about six months after I joined the local roller derby team, Arch Rival Roller Derby, in Saint Louis in October 2016. The book took about five years total, from my first depiction of shakily standing up on skates as an adult to acquiring literary representation to finishing the last round of copy editing with my amazing team at the Dial Press. It started as a collection of stand-alone essays, which slowly morphed into chapters of a cohesive narrative. Once I realized I was writing a memoir—about two years into the writing process—everything started falling into place. 

2. Where, when, and how often do you write?
As a teenager, I wrote sitting up in bed in the middle of the night, but I rarely do that anymore. Now I write on an old shit-brown couch my wife and I got secondhand from my sister-in-law. When I’m in the throes of a project, my sleep schedule completely changes. In the middle of 2020 my editor wrote me a very detailed feedback letter about my manuscript, which spurred me to rewrite the entire book in about four months. Most of that work got done between 4:00 AM and 10:00 AM. I’m finding that 6:00 AM is my sweet spot these days—maybe all those years of early swim practices had more of an effect on me than I thought.  

3. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Brace for Impact?
I’ve always thought of writing as a very solitary process, but my experience of writing Brace for Impact was anything but that. Of course, there were times I sequestered myself to get work done, but I really relied on my community for feedback and guidance—my wife, my writing mentor, my roller-derby family, my MFA cohort, and my agent and editor. I love sharing my work, so much so that I have to actively remember to keep it private in the early stages, and I’m so lucky that I have a support system of people who would do anything for me.

4. What is your earliest memory associated with writing this book?
The first essay I wrote that morphed into a chapter in Brace for Impact was actually about a seedy strip club I visited in East Saint Louis. The strip club reminded me so much of the roller rink where I skated on the other side of the Mississippi River that I wrote an essay comparing the two places. George Hodgman, author of the memoir Bettyville, read my work and told me to ditch the strip club entirely. “What we need is more of this wild-ass roller rink!” He was referring to the fact that many of the skaters thought the rink doubled as a drug den. Unhoused people had taken up permanent residence in the old locker rooms. Raves were held there nearly nightly. “You have a book here,” he told me. “You know that, don’t you? You have a whole goddamn book here.” 

5. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I think the hardest thing was going back and reading old journals. I’ve been writing since I was a child, and I unearthed and relied upon a lot of my journal material when I was writing Brace for Impact. I wanted the book to be as accurate to my experience as I could possibly make it, but going back and reliving some of the hardest parts of my life was sometimes painful. It helped me develop compassion and empathy for those past versions of myself.

6. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you? 
I got an e-mail from the man who would become my agent, Markus Hoffmann, after submitting my work to a writing residency. He was one of the jury members. He contacted me out of the blue right as I was lacing up my skates to play the local Star Wars–themed team, Rebel Skate Alliance. I was in my Boy Scouts uniform, which matched my team’s theme that year. I was outside in the chilly December air as I read his e-mail offering representation. I will never forget his exuberance. It was the first time I realized that my very specific story could also become what Abby Wambach would go on to call “a universal story of healing and triumph.”  

7. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Brace for Impact, what would you say?   
I would tell myself to live as largely and boldly as possible. I would also remind myself to write everything down—even things that seemed insignificant. It’s amazing how those specific, concrete details from my early days playing derby or growing up in the rural Midwest helped the scenes in my book come alive.

8. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
Diane Seuss. She was my poetry professor in college, and we’ve remained close. She just won a goddamn Pulitzer Prize for her memoir-in-sonnets, frank: sonnets. I was asleep when it was announced. She called, waking me up, and said, “Have you heard the news? frank just won a Pulitzer.” I thought it was interesting that she said, “frank won a Pulitzer,” not “I won a Pulitzer”—as if her work was separate from herself. But that’s one of the lessons she has taught me over the years. The work is the work. When people critique the work, they’re not critiquing you. Another thing she’s always said that has stuck with me and guided me is that our stories—our experiences growing up as weirdos in rural, working-class Michigan—matter. 

9. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life? 
The internet. I have to turn off the Wi-Fi when I work, and I put my cell phone on airplane mode. I allow myself to be unavailable. When random questions or tasks spring into my head, I’ve taken to writing those down to research and complete after my writing session. Figuring this out about myself was like leveling up in a video game. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
My favorite piece of writing advice wasn’t explicitly spoken—it was modeled for me by the writers I admire most. Essentially, it’s simple: Prioritize writing. Make time for it. Plan it like you plan your grocery lists. Plant your ass in the chair and do it. I’m certainly not perfect in following this advice, but I’ve gotten better at realizing when my priorities are out of whack. When I remember how essential writing is to my health and my happiness, everything else in my life figures itself out.

Gabe Montesanti, author of Brace for Impact.   (Credit: Dena Patterson)

Ten Questions for Putsata Reang

5.17.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Putsata Reang, whose debut memoir, Ma and Me, is out today from MCD. A “bridge of story” that Reang builds to close the painful divide between her and her mother, the book doubles as a war-torn family history. Reang was an infant in 1975, when her parents fled Cambodia after the nation’s fall to the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, an event catalyzed by U.S. military intervention during the Vietnam War. Growing up in Oregon with a refugee’s sense of “debt,” Reang narrates her struggle to meet her family’s high expectations—becoming a professional success as a journalist but a disappointment, in her mother’s eyes, as a gay woman. Reang interviews her mother to understand the events that shaped her both before and after the war. She also details her own coming of age as a reporter in the United States and abroad, including in Cambodia, where the joy of connecting with her extended kin is mixed with the sorrow of minimizing her sexuality. Publishers Weekly praised Ma and Me for its “nuanced mediation on love, identity, and belonging. This story of survival radiates with resilience and hope.” Reang’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Politico, the Guardian, and elsewhere. She has won fellowships from the Alicia Patterson Foundation and Jack Straw Cultural Center and held residencies at Hedgebrook, the Mineral School, and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. She teaches memoir writing at the University of Washington School of Professional and Continuing Education.

1. How long did it take you to write Ma and Me?
Technically this was a four-year project, from the time I got my book contract to the time I turned in the last draft. But the truth is, I have been working on this story for the better part of twenty years. Or rather, I have been working around this story. I knew I wanted to write a story about my parents when I moved to Cambodia after receiving an Alicia Patterson Foundation journalism fellowship in 2005. I didn’t plan to write a book that focused on my relationship with my mother. I think that’s where stories sometimes find us, as opposed to the other way around. This story—exploring the disorienting nature of the debt and duty often felt by the children of refugees, with the added complexity of sexual identity—wanted to be told, and I was in a position to tell it.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
There is a profound emotional cost to writing memoir that no one but the memoirist knows. While writing this book, I knew I was engaging in something extremely vulnerable. But that means it was also, in some ways, the bravest thing I have ever done: to not only go backwards in my own life to know myself, my dreams, and motives—and translate that onto the page—but to ask my mother to go backwards too. My mother was often triggered by the questions I asked about her past, about how our family escaped the war in Cambodia, about her youth. When I was writing certain passages and chapters of the book, I was also triggered by being confronted with old wounds from my childhood. There is a third layer of being triggered, which is that now, after the book is done, there’s still more emotional exposure required. Now I have to talk about the book! Holding all the strands of emotion as they came up through different parts of working on the book was the biggest challenge, without a doubt. And now, giving myself the space and freedom to keep feeling those emotions is an even deeper challenge because my upbringing and my impulse has always been to control my emotions. Maybe the lesson here, for me, is to just feel. 

3. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Ma and Me?
I had always believed that one of the reasons my mother and I were always butting heads when I was growing up was that we were so different. I was hard to tame as a child. I played rough in the schoolyard and came home with torn and dirty clothes. I was a wreck, especially for a mother who had several children to raise in a new country while learning a new language. Growing up, I had her wrong. I thought she was shy and reserved and didn’t know how to have fun. But that’s not actually true. Looking back with clear eyes, I see that my mother actually loved to have a good time and laugh and joke around, a lot like me. The reason we so often come into conflict is that we are very much alike. She once had dreams of becoming a businesswoman and traveling. I never wanted to be a businesswoman, but the traveling part we absolutely have in common. She has an innate curiosity about the world, just like me. She has wanted to follow her own path without someone telling her what to do, just like me. And in that alikeness, I’ve learned to love her and accept her with a grace I lacked before writing this book.

4. Outside of writing, what other forms of work were essential to the creation of Ma and Me?
Writing was really only half the battle in wrangling the story of Ma and Me onto the page. The bigger battle had to do with interviewing my mother, which was treacherous territory. Even though my parents were open to sharing their stories with me when I set about formally interviewing them after my father’s heart attack in 2010, there was still both an enormous emotional cost and emotional labor in asking my parents to go backwards and excavate some of the most painful moments of their lives. I often felt sick to my stomach when I knew I had re-triggered my mother, and she would tell me she was too sad to tell me anything more, effectively ending the interview. Of course, there was joy, too, in their lives before the war, and I loved hearing those stories. But the grief was exceedingly deep; there was so much loss. The other part of the equation in pulling this memoir together was the research, which was frustrating as a journalist because I hit so many dead ends. Because of the war and genocide, it was a challenge finding documents and records that would either add to or support my family’s story. As a journalist, my instinct is to always find proof to match source interviews. But in this case, as in the case of many refugees’ stories, the stories live inside the survivors. That’s all we’ve got to go on. They are the only primary source available. That’s where the writer part of me had to accept that there isn’t always an official document to cross-reference for fact-checking stories when it comes to historical and personal narrative.

5. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My editor once told me: “You don’t have to put anything in this book you don’t want to.” When she said that, I felt so liberated. It felt like an enormous weight was lifted off of me because I had assumed, once I signed on the dotted line of my book contract, that I would have to eviscerate myself to succeed in this project. That’s not the case. There are plenty of hard truths in Ma and Me that were difficult to put down on the page, and then there are other truths that are mine, and mine alone, to keep. It’s a similar idea to a reference I make in the book to my mother having lost a baby when we arrived in the United States, but that is a story that belongs only to my parents. I have no right to it, not even as their daughter. Just as the reader has no right to every little thing in my life, especially if it’s not pertinent to the narrative.

6. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ma and Me, what would you say?  
I would probably ask myself a lot of questions: “Do you really want to do this? And if you do, are you prepared for the dark days that will surely come, when the pain of remembering drives you into a deep hole? Do you have the grit and guts to pull this off? Are you willing to believe in yourself rather than outsource that job to family and friends? Because you are the one who has to stay focused, stay interested and stay dedicated to the story more than anyone else. You are the one who has to show up for yourself.”

7. What are you reading right now?
I’m listening to Silvia Vasquez-Lovado’s memoir, In the Shadow of the Mountain. It is completely breaking my heart, but there are enough crumbs to follow that I think will ultimately lead me to joy in the end. I am also reading Omar el Akkad’s novel, American War, which is aggressively addictive and intense to read at this current moment in our country and in our world.

8. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I used to write every single day when I was working on the memoir, for several hours in the morning and then again later in the evening in a small but exquisitely quiet office shed my wife and I had installed in the backyard during the pandemic. But I’ve slipped on my discipline recently. I’m giving myself a small break from long-form writing. I’m still writing short personal essays, which don’t require the extreme focus of long-form writing. I scratch out words and sentences and sometimes entire parts of stories on the backs of envelopes and notepads and then try to assemble these scattershot pieces into a coherent piece of writing. It’s not a very organized way to write, but it works for me.

9. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Unfortunately, it’s teaching memoir writing, which is terrible because I love my students and I love teaching. But what happens when you are immersed in your students’ personal stories—and those stories slingshot around inside of you—is that they start to crowd out your own story and what you want to say. A friend once told me you can either write or have a life, but it’s difficult to do both at the same time. And I would amend that to say that you can either write or you can teach. I haven’t found a way to make both work at the same time. But I want to continue to teach, and at the same time I desperately want to write.

10.  What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I don’t know if I have the quote completely correct, but it was Anne Lamott who said something on the order of: “One bad page a day leads to a book.” It’s such great advice for a writer, especially a writer who dreams of being published. Books do not write themselves. And it takes a superhuman commitment to stay in the chair and do the work. And doing the work doesn’t mean sitting down and pulling out a perfect story from thin air. It’s letting yourself write terribly, and laying those awful and embarrassing pages as a foundation to keep getting better. Let yourself have those bad pages, what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” No one gets it right the first time, or second time. It took me ten drafts to get to a place of “finished enough” on my memoir. Just keep writing—the good, the bad, the ugly. All of it. One day you’ll look up from your computer and realize you’ve just finished a whole book.

Putsata Reang, author of Ma and Me.   (Credit: Kim Oanh Nguyen)

Ten Questions for Vanessa Hua

5.10.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Vanessa Hua, whose second novel, Forbidden City, is out today from Ballantine Books. In this gripping first-person narrative, the 1976 death of Mao Zedong sparks a street celebration in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood, where painful memories come flooding back to protagonist Mei, who must now reckon with her role in the Cultural Revolution. Readers track Mei’s upward trajectory from naive teenage peasant to Communist revolutionary to favorite acolyte and lover of Zedong himself. When Mei eventually becomes disillusioned amid Zedong’s lies and manipulation, she seeks a way to extract herself from the Chairman’s grasp. Publishers Weekly writes that Hua’s novel “finds a brilliant new perspective on familiar material via its story of a young woman’s brush with power.” Hua’s debut novel, A River of Stars, was released by Ballantine Books in 2019, and Willow Books published her short-fiction collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, in 2016. A National Endowment for the Arts literature fellow and winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, among other honors, Hua is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

1. How long did it take you to write Forbidden City?
I began writing it in 2007, during my MFA program at University of California in Riverside. After I graduated, the novel went out on submission and came close to selling, but did not. Though devastated, I kept writing. I published my short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, and my debut novel, A River of Stars. I couldn’t quit this novel though, and it finally sold in 2016, as part of a two-book deal. I finished final revisions last year. All told, it took about fourteen years, about a third of my life!

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Because it’s set in 1960s China, I did extensive research about Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, reading scores of books and news stories and conducting interviews. As I wrote, I sometimes got too much into the weeds about political machinations—the minutiae that muddled rather than illuminated the journey of my protagonist.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write in my home office in the East Bay, with a view of a redwood tree and hills beyond, but I also belong to the Writers Grotto, a community with offices in San Francisco. My hours of power are in the morning, when I try to do the work most important to me, but I’ll write whenever my ten-year-old twins are at school or otherwise occupied. I write weekdays and often on the weekend, too. As a journalist, novelist, and creative-writing teacher, I’m always working on a writing-related task—even when I’m away from my desk. In the pool or on a run or walk is where the ideas bubble up from the subconscious, and I consider that time a part of my writing practice, too.

4. What are you reading right now?
Melissa Chadburn’s A Tiny Upward Shove, Vauhini Vara’s The Immortal King Rao, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s Big Girl, and Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Michael Jaime-Becerra is an amazing author and essayist who writes about the people and landscape of El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I’m a mother who teaches creative writing, writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle, freelances, and is active in the Bay Area literary community. My time isn’t my own; I have a lot of responsibilities to juggle. Though I’m grateful for these opportunities, I have to remember to preserve and protect the time I spend writing fiction.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
I’m grateful to both my agent and editor, who have helped me become a better storyteller. I always look forward to my editor’s letter and line edits on my novels, carefully penciled in. She’s taught me so much about characterization and finding the heart of the story, but she’s not prescriptive. To prompt a revision, she uses the acronym “OYOW”—“or your own words”—which reflects her trust in me. With her help, I can find a way through.

I also want to give a shout out to my copy editors and cold readers, who pointed out inconsistencies and inadvertent repetition in my novel. For example, I used the verb “gaze” dozens of times. Taking another pass, I realized I could cut many or else substitute another gesture. I use the keystroke control-F to find adverbs and other potential filler to trim, and now I’ll start checking for “gaze” in the future.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Forbidden City, what would you say?
Years ago, I was talking to a writer friend, and we agreed we didn’t need a life coach—we needed a psychic! Someone who could assure us all the rejections and drafts would ultimately lead to publication. Alas, no one can predict the future. If I had known about the twists and turns beforehand, I like to think I would have kept going, but maybe it’s better not to know. I suppose I would tell younger-me—the married journalist without kids—to keep going. To remember the joy, the satisfaction of writing itself, that is separate from publishing and all else out of my control.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I can’t pick just one! My longtime critique partners include authors Yalitza Ferreras, Angie Chuang, Kirstin Chen, and my husband, who isn’t a writer but is an excellent reader. I’m also grateful to the members of various writing groups I’ve belonged to, who’ve read draft after draft.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
My mentor at the University of California in Riverside, Susan Straight, told us to “hook each other up.” To care for each other, to share opportunities, and to go to each other’s readings. To have each other’s backs. Writing is a solitary act, and having a community with whom you can commiserate and celebrate helps you persist.

Vanessa Hua, author of Forbidden City.   (Credit: Andria Lo)

Ten Questions for Marwa Helal

5.3.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Marwa Helal, whose second poetry collection, Ante body, will be published later this month by Nightboat Books. In this innovative volume, Helal meditates on how to live both inside and against systems of oppression: patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and carceral government, among others. In lines that mingle pathos with bleak humor, Helal considers what it means, and what it costs, to belong—to the world, to nations, to one another. Deploying a poetic form she invented called “The Arabic,” in which verse is read from right to left in the manner of Arabic, Helal powerfully critiques the role of English in perpetuating global injustice. Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong called Ante body “a memorable and ferocious argument for radical fugitivity.” Nightboat Books published Helal’s first full-length poetry collection, Invasive species, in 2019. The winner of a 2021 Whiting Award and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, Poets House, and Cave Canem Foundation, Helal was born in Al Mansurah, Egypt, and lives everywhere.

1. How long did it take you to write Ante body?
Approximately five years. With lots of breaks for writing and research, and to make space for the work to take shape.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The most challenging thing was finding the right overall structure, which turned out to be the most fun and rewarding part of the process. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I try to keep a steady practice of writing daily morning pages, which lends itself to feeling like I am writing all the time.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m currently rereading Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat. As a teaching artist with PEN America’s Writing as Activism fellows, I’ve been reading a lot of June Jordan’s work.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition? 
I trust these writers will eventually get their due recognition: Ana Božičević, a true genius and guide; Hayan Charara, whose latest book just dropped; as well as Zaina Alsous, Jess Rizkallah, Roberto Carlos Garcia, Kyle Carrero Lopez, Alejandro Heredia, and John Paul Infante. 

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life? 
Impediments are excuses. I don’t have the time or privilege to make those. So, most likely, alternating cycles of anxiety and depression are my impediments, which writing helps to manage. See what I mean?

7. How did you know when the book was finished? 
I knew it was finished as I was writing, “WHO REAL؟” That was the poem that made the whole thing snap together. I could see I was making a book that read both ways. 
PS: If you call it “backwards,” it’s you who’s backwards.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ante body, what would you say? 
This book has its own life force. All you have to do is allow it to come together. It’s going to take care of you and a lot of people you don’t even know you care about yet.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why? 
I’m grateful to have a few. Xan Phillips and Ricardo Maldonado are usually my first and last readers. I know I’m on the right track if Xan plays the language and wordplay back to me. Ricky helps me refine my vision and find that missing potential or extra energy for the poem. They’re both phenomenal writers, teachers, thinkers, and artists. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? 
“Don’t be so precious about it.”—Tracie Morris. Very liberating. We get it down to get to the next thing.

Marwa Helal, author of Ante body.   (Credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Ten Questions for Soon Wiley

4.26.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Soon Wiley, whose debut novel, When We Fell Apart, is out today from Dutton Books. Set in Seoul, this brooding literary thriller explores the complicated relationship between Yu-jin, a young South Korean woman from a powerful family, and Min, a biracial Korean American who feels as out of place in his mother’s birth country as he did in his native United States. Chapters alternate between Min and Yu-jin’s perspectives to weave a story about the struggle to fit in while remaining true to oneself. After Yu-jin is found dead of an apparent suicide, an incredulous Min seeks greater insight into the woman he had been seeing, only to uncover further mysteries. Kirkus Reviews describes the narrative as “fueled by deep feeling and a powerful sense of place…capturing the despair of striving individuals pushed to the margins by conformist norms.” Wiley holds an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University. His writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and earned him fellowships in Wyoming and France. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and their two cats.

1. How long did it take you to write When We Fell Apart?
From start to finish, it took me around seven years to write When We Fall Apart. After I wrote Min’s chapters, I realized that I needed to include a second point of view. While this was a pretty daunting task, it was refreshing in the sense that I felt like I was writing a completely new book. I worked solely on Yu-jin’s chapters for about a year, and only after I’d really polished them did I go about fitting them together with the preexisting chapters from Min’s perspective. In a lot of ways, it felt like I was writing two books at once. I’m not sure if this was the most effective way to go about writing the novel, but working on each point of view individually really allowed for a full immersion in each character.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
This might come as a surprise to some readers, but I found plotting the novel quite difficult, especially during the later stages of revision, when my editor and I were tweaking small things to raise the narrative tension or build suspense. Once you’re at that stage of editing, the process can feel a bit like pulling on a loose thread. Adjust one small plot point in the second half of the book, and you realize you’ve got to go back to the beginning and account for that change. When it comes to plot, the interconnectedness of every detail is immense.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Unless I’m traveling, I always write in my office at home. I do my best writing in the early morning and sometimes at night. I try to write for at least one or two hours. But depending on my work schedule, I might only be able to squeeze in thirty minutes a day. As I’ve gotten older, I tend to lean toward the philosophy of “anywhere, anytime, for however long,” when it comes to writing.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m a high school English teacher, so I’m always reading a lot of books. Right now, for work, I’m reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. For pleasure, I just finished Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, and I’m now reading The Cold Millions by Jess Walter and Middlemarch by George Eliot.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Gosh, that’s a hard question—there are so many brilliant authors who have done or are doing amazing work. I’ve always felt like Evan S. Connell should be more celebrated. How Mrs. Bridge [1959] isn’t widely recognized as a masterpiece is somewhat of a mystery to me. For a more contemporary writer, I’d have to say Don Lee is an author who is certainly deserving of more recognition. His short story collection, Yellow, is just brilliant. And if you’ll allow me to squeeze one more name in: Michael Knight. His short story “Jubilee” in his collection Eveningland will absolutely wreck you.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
While I love teaching, I’d have to say that my job is probably the biggest impediment to writing. Time is the most valuable resource a writer can have, so if you’re trying to write while also working full-time, you really need to be dedicated and structured with your writing routines. That said, I’m lucky enough to have my summers off; so then the only real distraction from writing is the warm weather. It’s really hard to sit down at a desk when it’s a beautiful summer day outside. I also think writers are highly adept at coming up with all sorts of obstacles to their writing. If it wasn’t my teaching gig, I’m sure it would be something else that I was convinced was taking time away from writing.

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
Good communication skills and honesty. Working with both an editor and agent requires a lot of trust, and those traits make trusting them with your work a lot easier. Having an editor and agent who will e-mail or call you back in a timely manner is immensely helpful, because writers are known to be a bit paranoid and frenetic—not speaking of myself, of course. After the actual writing and revising of a book, I think having a shared vision with your agent and editor is the single most important thing for a writer. Despite what we might like to think, books aren’t written by the author alone; there’s a whole team of people—editors, agents, and readers—who help shape the book into a finished product. It really takes a village. Knowing that everyone is on the same page and envisioning the same finished product makes the editing and prepublication process a lot easier.

8. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
When I first started working on what would become the novel, I was teaching high-school English at a school in Washington, D.C. I’d just moved to the city, and it was really the first time I’d had anything resembling a nine-to-five job. I was worried about how I’d get any writing done with the responsibility of a full-time gig, so I set about following a very rigorous and structured writing regimen. I was living in this great one-bedroom apartment in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and I remember getting up around 5:30 AM each day, which meant that if I was at my desk by 5:45 AM I’d have almost two hours to write before catching the 7:20 AM bus to my school. My desk at the time was this mammoth slab of wood on two sawhorses that I’d purchased from some guy in Maryland and lugged back to the city in my pickup truck. What it lacked in drawers it made up for in sheer surface area. There was enough room for a huge external monitor, keyboard, and loads of books and scrap paper. I have these vivid memories of working at that desk in my dark living room in near total silence, before the city was really awake. While I worked, the room would go from this gloomy darkness to light gray, then to bright yellows when the sun would press through the blinds. I associate those early mornings in that apartment with the beginnings of the novel. I found it easier to write before the world really got moving. It took the pressure off, knowing that I could spend this time however I wanted because everyone else was either asleep or getting ready for work. I still write at the same desk, even though it’s completely impractical to have a desk without drawers!

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I have a few friends from graduate school who I usually ask to read early drafts of my work, but really my wife is the person I trust the most. She reads fiction, but she isn’t a writer, and she never took a creative-writing class, which actually makes her the ideal reader. Writers aren’t always the best readers; we tend to get caught up in craft, and we can often see the strings being pulled. In other words, we can’t really read books like normal people. Whenever I give my wife something to read, I know she’s going to read it and critique it like someone who is looking to read a good story, and I think that’s a really valuable trait in a reader.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Two anecdotes come to mind. In Stephen King’s amazing book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I remember reading that a young writer will eventually come across a piece of fiction, read it, and think, “I can write better than this.” I’m paraphrasing, but that idea has always stayed with me. The attitude might seem a bit arrogant, but trying to write a novel is a completely crazy endeavor, and you’ve got to have that belief in yourself and in your work. I’m also a huge fan of E. L. Doctorow’s quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Writing fiction, especially a novel, is a huge leap of faith, and it’s easy to be discouraged when you look up from the page and realize how far you have to go. But if you keep your head down and chip away, page by page, chapter by chapter, you’ll find that writing a novel doesn’t feel so daunting.

Soon Wiley, author of When We Fell Apart.   (Credit: Rachel EH Photography)

Ten Questions for Dana Levin

4.19.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Dana Levin, whose fifth poetry collection, Now Do You Know Where You Are, is out today from Copper Canyon Press. Working in a variety of forms, Levin explores the disorientations of personal and political trauma through individual and collective transformation. She writes: “So many bodies a soul has to press through: personal, familial, regional, national, global, planetary, cosmic— // ‘Now do you know where you are?’” Investigating a broad emotional, political, and literary landscape, from climate devastation to the global pandemic, Trump’s tweets to Google’s memory, Levin calls on beloveds and ancestors, great thinkers and religions to piece together a map of existence. “Through the fog of doubt, Levin summons ferocious intellect and musters hard-won clairvoyance,” a critic for Publishers Weekly writes in a starred review. “This terrific book will ground readers in the art of questioning, even as the ground quakes.” Dana Levin is the author of four previous collections of poetry, most recently Banana Palace (2016). Her first book, In the Surgical Theatre, was chosen by Louise Glück for the 1999 APR/Honickman First Book Prize and went on to receive numerous honors, including the 2003 PEN/Osterweil Award. Copper Canyon Press published her second book, Wedding Day, in 2005, and her third, Sky Burial, in 2011. Levin’s fellowships and awards include those from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the Library of Congress, as well as the Rona Jaffe, Whiting, and Guggenheim Foundations. Levin currently serves as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Maryville University in Saint Louis, where she lives.

1. How long did it take you to write Now Do You Know Where You Are?
Six years, with the most intense phase being 2017 to 2020.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Oh, what wasn’t a challenge. Our collective conditions 2016-2020, my midlife crisis of creative confidence, leaving Santa Fe after nineteen years for the unknowns of Saint Louis—the whole book is this question.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I am a fitful writer: long periods of not writing followed by intense engagement. As a young writer I could only work in the early morning, but now it’s late afternoon and early evening. I write at home: I pace around, I sit on the floor of my living room, I move to the computer, I pace around, I sit on the floor, etc. I also do a lot of musing on my back porch.

4. What are you reading right now?
Paul Tran, All the Flowers Kneeling—one of the strongest debuts I’ve read in a while: The subject matter is intense and the formal chops are inventive and sharp. I also just finished reading Vapor by Sara Eliza Johnson, out this fall from Milkweed: wow. This quote! “My infidel, before the wind tears our flesh: one more photon for your tongue.”

5. Which poet, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Ted Mathys. Read his books Null Set and Gold Cure from Coffee House Press. Brainy, brilliant, grounded in the real in eccentric ways, always deep and surprising.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Distraction, impatience, and lack of discipline.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Pacing around my sublet in Saint Louis, Fall 2015, saying out loud the words “No,” “Yes,” and “Stop” over and over: to feel how they felt in my mouth, my throat, my chest.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
When I removed all the pandemic poems written during that first lockdown. I’d submitted the final manuscript to Copper Canyon in April 2021, but hadn’t felt completely right with it. Then one day, in late May, sitting out on the back porch, I had a late-breaking Aha!—to let the pandemic be a kind of foreshadowed presence, rather than actuality. Many poems were already suggesting this: Pandemic showed up in poems written before 2020, as an idea, and in a 2017 conversation recounted in the poem “Appointment.” Once I removed the lockdown poems, the book just clicked into a shape that felt right. Then in Fall 2021, I put one pandemic poem back in: “Into the Next Eden.” This poem answered a call: I’d written a poem called “No,” and one called “Maybe,” and kept attempting a “Yes” poem that could never get going. Then I realized “Into the Next Eden” was the “Yes” poem! I love how all three titles—“No,” “Maybe,” “Into the “Next Eden”—answer the question, Now Do You Know Where You Are?

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I have many initial readers, some who look at just one poem, some who engage whole manuscripts. For this book, the poet Gary Jackson was instrumental to my attempts at writing about race; Victoria Chang, to keeping the poems grounded in the strangeness of the ordinary. My sister, Caryn McCloskey, as well as Gaby Calvocoressi and Erin Belieu, offered encouragement to keep going (so crucial). G. C. Waldrep and Louise Glück are and have been primary readers for years: They are direct, they believe in my art, and they always tell me the truth, even when it stings.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
A paraphrase from Jack Kerouac: Don’t stop to think of the words, stop to see the scene better.

 

Dana Levin, author of Now Do You Know Where You Are  (Credit: B. A. Van Sise)

Ten Questions for Eloisa Amezcua

4.12.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Eloisa Amezcua, whose second poetry collection, Fighting Is Like a Wife, is out today from Coffee House Press. The formally inventive poems in Fighting Is Like a Wife reconstruct the love story and tragedy of two-time world boxing champion “Schoolboy” Bobby Chacon and his first wife, Valorie Ginn. In fierce visual poems that incorporate direct quotes from sports commentators and Bobby himself, Amezcua reveals the brutality and vulnerability of boxing, love, and poetry. “These brilliantly tactile, visceral poems excavate the relentless combinations of jabs and apologies that come from men who only know how to talk with their hands,” writes Adrian Matejka. “It takes a poet of exceptional empathy and uncanny dexterity to turn the difficult lives of Valorie Ginn and Bobby Chacon into verse as Amezcua has done.” Eloisa Amezcua’s first book, From the Inside Quietly, was published by Shelterbelt Press in 2018. A MacDowell fellow, her poems and translations have been published in the New York Times Magazine, Poetry magazine, the Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere. She is the associate director of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and serves on the faculty of Randolph College’s low-residency MFA program.

1. How long did it take you to write Fighting Is Like a Wife?
I began drafting poems about boxing in June 2016, but after Bobby Chacon passed away in September of that year, the project that would become Fighting Is Like a Wife began to take shape. I drafted and revised poems up until the summer of 2021, so all in all it was about five years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The Valorie poems were by far the most difficult to write. There’s a lot of information about Chacon and his career available in newspaper articles, interviews, and video footage, but in all of the research I did, I was only able to find two or three direct quotes from Val. I wanted to present her as a full person—someone who loved deeply, who struggled in the shadow of the men in her life.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I don’t have a regular writing practice. I take notes often in a small notebook that I carry with me or as text messages to myself and I’m constantly thinking about form—how can I say the things I want to say in a way that surprises me (and hopefully the reader). When I do sit down to put those pieces together, it’s typically in the morning or while the sun is still out. I’m useless creatively after dark.

4. What are you reading right now?
An Oresteia translated by Anne Carson! I’ve always admired Carson’s translations, the way she cuts a sentence down to its essence and builds from there. Her translation of Elektra by Sophokles is just brilliant.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
I think contemporary poets in translation (and their translators) deserve much more recognition! Lee Soho, trans. Soje; Tadeusz Dąbrowski, trans. Antonia Lloyd Jones; Ana Lúisa Amaral, trans. Margaret Jull Costa; Kim Hyesoon, trans. Don Mee Choi; and so many more!

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
To be a writer, the best thing someone can do, in my opinion, is read. Read everything. Read widely. Read and reread with an eye towards the “how” of the writing they love. How does this author build tension? How does time function in this essay? How does the poet elicit one emotional response over all others? How can I implement this into my own writing (i.e. craft!)?

If someone needs or wants to be enrolled in a formal graduate program to do this, they should. If someone can or wants to do this learning on their own, that’s great too.

7. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Fighting Is Like a Wife, what would you say?
Don’t shy away from your obsessions. Keep playing. Be kinder to yourself.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
The book was finished when the amazing team at Coffee House Press told me I had to hand in the final draft. The project and the obsession continues. That’s not to say I’ll publish another book about Chacon or boxing, but I’ve been creating pieces in different mediums that are directly related to this book.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
It’s not one person but the community of writers—faculty, staff, students—at the Randolph College MFA program (where I teach) that I trust most with my work. It’s a group of thoughtful, supportive, active listeners and readers who have my best interest at heart. What more could a girl ask for?

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Take your time.

 

Eloisa Amezcua, author of Fighting Is Like a Wife.    (Credit: Amelia Golden)

Ten Questions for Dara Barrois/Dixon

4.5.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Dara Barrois/Dixon (formerly Dara Wier), whose poetry collection Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina is out today from Wave Books. “[T]here are so many kinds of us / coming in various versions of ourselves,” she writes in the poem “Capitalism,” and it is to these various versions of ourselves that the poet applies her characteristic honesty and curiosity, reflecting on the self—as well as animals, books, skyscapes, movies, poems, other human beings—in songs of “love humor despair loving kindness love humor empathy / humor joy sympathy love kindness courage.” Dara Barrois/Dixon (formerly Dara Wier) is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including In the Still of the Night (Wave Books, 2017), You Good Thing (Wave Books, 2013), and Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2009), among others. She has received awards from the Lannan Foundation, American Poetry Review, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives and works in factory hollow in Western Massachusetts.

1. How long did it take you to write Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina?
It’s usual for me to be writing more than one book at a time; my guess is Anna’s book unfolded over the course of around five to seven years start to finish. When I write a poem I’m not necessarily thinking of it as a poem for a certain book unless I’m working in a form (e.g. Reverse Rapture’s nine-line, nine-stanza poems; in progress since 2020, something I’m calling Is a Citroen Xsara Braque even imaginable? half-sonnet, half-prose); most of things take shape as they go along, because of what’s happening in the world and in my life, in others’ lives at the time. In fact I’m afraid if I self-consciously try to write a poem to fit a certain book I’m going to fail miserably.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Oh, god. It’s all challenging. Maybe I’d saychallenge came when trying to see the book’s title. I like how titles can do so much. They can set a tone, suggest a scene, take care of a situation, jumpstart something, imply alternatives. The place they hold is a powerful place, isolated up there all by themselves.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
19551967: everywhere, all the time, second nature, main preoccupation, unconsciously; I especially liked a cedar-lined closet with a typewriter stored on its floor, and a spot on the Mississippi River I thought of as my place to be at home.

19671970: anywhere I could find to be alone, not as often as I wanted, awkward writer’s self-consciousness awakening, by hand in lined journals, on Royal tabletop gifted me by my father.

19701980: anywhere with time and privacy, by hand in lined journals, and on Royal, often in rented rooms I’d turn into a room of my own and for keeping nearby books of all kinds, with a big dictionary on a dictionary stand across the room so I’d have to walk over to it, changing my mind as I walked, finding other words than the one I stood up to go find.

19801990: in a room in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and then in a tiny place in Austin, Texas, then mainly in my room in my house in North Amherst, Massachusetts, usually between 8 AM and noon or 3 PM, when either my children or my work determined my hours, much handwriting in lined journals in between scheduled responsibilities.

19902014: often in my room at my husband James Tate’s house in Pelham, Massachusetts, anywhere from two to five or six days a week, typically from 2 PM on until what we wrote that day would be in shape enough for him to read mine to me and me to read his to him; with occasional interruptions for travel, switched to IBM Selectric then eventually to laptop, kept unabridged Merriam Webster across the room as usual, handwriting in journals especially on days when not in Pelham or on Royal desktop.

20152022: at any one of three tables and one desk in my house, I’d say about half of the day, most days, by hand in journal, on laptop, occasionally especially when not home, on phone usually in e-mails to myself.

As of March 7, 2022 I’m writing every morning for an hour or so on a long prose poem that I’ll hope to see to completion on March 7, 2023, and I’m writing the rest of any given day’s writing times on other books, poems, prose, in various stages of progress.

4. What are you reading right now?
Just as with writing I’m always reading more than one book at a time; this week those books include Herta Müller’s Father’s on the Phone With the Flies (2018) translated by Thomas Cooper, short aphoristic, surprising; Bianca Stone’s What Is Otherwise Infinite (2022), audacious, dauntless, the opposite of tame; Lewis Thomas’s Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1983), this book’s first ten pages seem written for right nowone sentence: The final worst-case for all of us has now become the destruction, by ourselves, of our species.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Just this morning I was reading in Hyperallergic an article by Naz Cuguoglu called “The Art World’s Tainted Love for ‘Discovering’ Artists: The Case of Etel Adnan,” in which she rightly claims the art world, and by extension the literary world, claims to be righting wrongs of exclusion and underrepresentation while mostly ignoring reasons why recognition and wide appreciation occur in the first place. She quotes Adnan: “To be honest, I did not expect recognition. I was happy to keep going.”

Cuguoglu calls attention to and asks us to consider words such as discovery, finally getting their turn, forgotten, overlooked, and ignored. On a planet with a population of close to 8 billion, speaking over seven thousand languages, it has to be some kind of roll of the dice that determines who’s recognized and for what, when, and why, how, and what for. I hope everyone who writes begins by recognizing their own value and the value of the very act of their having chosen to write. I hope they pass their gift on to others who will in turn pass it on beyond themselves.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
Are you with this question vesting in me the superpower I’ll need to see the one thing I’d change changed? I’ll pretend you arepoof!value not determined by money or data.

The diverse and unruly lives of artists and many of those who support artists can’t be summed up. Hundreds, thousands of independent and independent-minded people spend resources of time and money publishing others and sometimes themselves. Thousands, tens of thousands and sometimes fewer than ten writers and readers benefit. A circle of friends, a culture in common, unity from coincidental habitation in space, authentic and not institutionalized gatherings, these naturally celebrate and benefit from their close associations. Some of us are natural-born loners, in life, while addressing, in spirit, an unseen, unknown universal audience of beloved strange familiars.

The trail from private to public is complicated beyond summary. I’ve always taken heart from the story of a Barcelona-based poetry prize that awarded third place a silver violet, second place a golden rose, first place a real rose.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina?
The suddenness of its title appearing, it seemed, out of nowhere. And thank goodness.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
When the title went on it.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
Emily Pettit, my daughter, can claim that difficult role. I trust her every time. She has no problem questioning what always turns out to be questionable. I’m lucky to have her imaginative, principled, and quick understanding and her knowledge of all the ins and outs of poetry’s range. I trust her willingness to take on what has to be sometimes challenging, and I’m thankful for it.

I also trust strangers who are far away from my daily life, people I’ll never meet, never know.

And I trust a handful of friends I know it’s okay to send something new or in progressnot as often as I’d like, ha, for I don’t want to outstay my welcome. I’m not looking for advice so much as that scary electric sensation you get when you hit Send, or rarer still, drop something into a mailbox.

Knowing me, I’d like to send a lot of people a poem when I just finish it and am especially eager to have it seen by eyes other than mine, and taken in by another mind. But I resist it. I like the feeling of thinking of someone reading what I’ve sent, it tells me something. Picturing them reading what I’ve sent gives me insight into something I might want to do differently or feelings about something I’ve done being maybe okay.

And, of course, I trust every editor who’s ever published anything I’ve ever sent them!

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Ha, let me think…………

Dara Barrois/Dixon (formerly Dara Wier), author of Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina.  

Ten Questions for Maud Newton

3.29.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Maud Newton, whose first book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, is out today from Random House. “I came into being through a kind of homegrown eugenics proj­ect. My parents married not for love but because they believed they would have smart children together. This was my father’s idea, and over their brief courtship he persuaded my mom of its merits,” Newton writes early on in her debut, setting the stage for the story of her wildly unconventional Southern family, including her father, an aerospace engineer turned lawyer who extolled the virtues of slavery and obsessed over the “purity” of his family bloodline, which he traced back to the Revolutionary War. Ancestor Trouble traces Newton’s attempt to use genealogy to expose the secrets and contradictions of her own ancestors, and to argue for the transformational possibilities that reckoning with our ancestors has for all of us. “Newton takes this extraordinary journey not only for herself, but to illuminate this present moment in this country we all love,” writes Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. “‘Look,’ she tells us. ‘This is America. This is how we came to be.’” Maud Newton is a writer, critic, and former lawyer. Her writing has been published in Harper’s magazine, the New York Times Magazine, Bookforum, Narrative, the New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Granta, the Los Angeles Times, Oxford American, and elsewhere. Born in Dallas and raised in Miami, Florida, she lives in Queens, New York.

1. How long did it take you to write Ancestor Trouble?
I worked on it as a book for seven years, a little less than eight counting the months I spent writing an article about genealogy and my family for Harper’s. But if I’m honest, this is a tricky question to answer. I started writing about my genealogical research on my blog in 2007, and I’ve been writing about my family since I first learned to write.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Purely on a technical craft level, the most challenging thing was figuring out how to write about the different avenues I went down in the same voice I was sharing my family stories. The book centers on my family history but also considers genealogy; genetic genealogy; genetics, epigenetics, and ancient ideas about what we call heredity; psychoanalytic conceptions of ancestors and their importance for us; debates about intergenerational trauma; generational wealth; systemic racism; spiritual ideas of the importance of ancestors across the world and across time; and how we can use troubled family histories for the better. I knew I was asking a lot of the reader to follow me through all of this, and I did my best to write it all truthfully and without pretension.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I do most of my best writing in the middle of the night but I write at all times of day except the early morning. I’ve always been a night owl. When I was younger I wrote everywhere. The subway was a favorite venue. Nowadays I do a certain amount of writing in bed or in the rocking chair my great-grandfather made in the early 1900s that I like to sit in with my coffee in the morning. But even before the pandemic I’d worked my day job from home for many years, and between book and essay writing and holding down a job that also involves a lot of writing, for the most part I just shuttle between my writing desk and my work desk. Weekends are a break in the sense that I only need to show up at one desk. I have dogs who get me outside on walks every day, but otherwise I generally feel like I should be writing whenever I’m not.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Imani Perry’s South to America, Tanais’ In Sensorium, a story collection edited by Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan called Anonymous Sex, which is a sort of guessing game in that you don’t know which piece is written by which contributor. I’m also reading some books for my next project.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
I love the essays of Sheree L. Greer, who writes about addiction, family, and much more, and I’m looking forward to reading her stories at book-length one day, in whatever form that takes.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
Because of my other job and maybe also my general disposition, I’m a little more at a distance from writing communities and the book publishing industry than a lot of writers, so I don’t feel equipped to speak to the day-to-day, but I hope publishers will commit themselves long-term to the inclusivity they promised for BIPOC and LBGTQ+ writers in the summer of 2020. 

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
So many things, from both of them! But my editor encouraged me early on not to be afraid of what I thought of as the ghost-story aspects of the book. With a different kind of editor, this book could easily have ended up being a lot more cerebral and a lot less satisfying to me.

8. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
It was easy to feel tender toward the world, committed to making the best and truest book I could, and not invested in the outcome while I was holed up working for so long. I hope to hold on to some of that spirit as the book moves out to find its readers. I’ll also miss all of my arcane research. I had never expected to immerse myself quite so deeply in Aristotle.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
That’s a tough question. I’m grateful beyond words to my friend Elizabeth Bachner, an incredibly talented writer and a fantastic conversationalist and thinker, who read many iterations of many parts of this book and always responded with gentle enthusiasm, no matter what a mess each draft was. She very rarely offered criticism, only excitement, and only in hindsight do I realize how much I needed that as I worked.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
One bit of advice I love from James Baldwin that rings true for me is that writers inevitably write out of their own experience. “Everything,” he said, “depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maud Newton, author of Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation. 

Ten Questions for Roger Reeves

3.22.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Roger Reeves, whose second poetry collection, Best Barbarian, is out today from W. W. Norton. In vivid, haunting poems written with lyrical precision and elegiac intensity, Best Barbarian traverses the literary and social landscape to probe stories of climate change, anti-Black racism, catastrophe, love, loss, joy, and rage, transcending time and space, speaking to and through the work of writers such as Walt Whitman, James Baldwin, Sappho, and Dante. “Borrowing and turning on its head the Western canon’s repeated warnings of civilization’s fall, Roger Reeves counters that the apocalypse ran contiguously with the inception and height of Western civilization because the white man’s rise was contingent upon the destruction of Black personhood,” writes Cathy Park Hong. “From that perspective, Reeves sees America as a necropolis to which he leads us―like Virgil―down into the underworld, where we meet the shades of Emmett Till, Oya, and Ezra Pound, among others.” Roger Reeves is the author of King Me (Copper Canyon Press, 2013) and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a 2015 Whiting Award, among other honors. His work has appeared in Poetry, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Austin, Texas.

1. How long did it take you to write Best Barbarian?
That’s an odd question because I had written another book of poetry, one I’m still working on, while writing some of the poems in Best Barbarian. If am going to speak solely chronologically, Best Barbarian took nine years because King Me, my first book of poems, came out nine years ago. So let’s go with nine years for simplicity.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The most challenging thing about writing a book is thinking of “poems,” which are discrete art objects, as a book. I think of myself like a cabinet-maker. I like to make cabinets. I’m not an interior designer, which is what making a book is. When putting together a book, you must switch from making individual poems (which feel like books to me but that’s another discussion) to making something for which people will inhabit. In a book, the cabinets must fit in the kitchen. The vanity must slip into the bathroom and give you plenty of room to get to the shower. When making a book, you’re thinking about relations—how does this poem I wrote two years ago relate to a poem I wrote four years ago or two days ago?

Despite my reticence for becoming an interior designer, I enjoyed the process of putting Best Barbarian together. I structured the book more like a modal jazz tune with two very distinct solos, longer poems that were sections unto themselves—the middle of the book. The first and last sections announce the concerns, the melody and harmonics, of sorts. So when the book plays, it plays like one long song. You hear the original melody then you get these two solos, then you go back to the melody, but when you hear the melody again, it’s slightly different because the solos have changed your understanding of what the original melody was doing and could do.

What I also found difficult in writing Best Barbarian is what I find difficult in writing in general—giving up the poem, allowing it to go out into the world. I’m constantly tinkering, radically changing poems, asking it what else it has. I think this sort of process doesn’t always lend to making and publishing books quickly.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Where do I write: anywhere—at a desk, in an office, in bed, in the bathroom, on a run, in the shower, walking to the corner store, in an airplane. Though mostly, I write at a desk.

When do I write: in the mornings generally—first thing.

How often do I write: six days a week. I take off one day, sometimes two days, a week. I am often writing on several projects simultaneously, in several genres, so I do a bit of crop rotation. But if I’m honest, I’m writing everyday—changing a comma here, reworking a sentence.

4. What are you reading right now?
This morning I was reading Donald Revell’s White Campion and Dan Charnas’s Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm. Over the weekend, I had a hankering for some Elizabeth Bishop and reread Geography III (such a great book). I have also been reading Solmaz Sharif’s Customs and revisiting LOOK for an essay I’m revising. In terms of fiction, I have been rereading Morrison’s Beloved and Paradise. I’m excited to get into Gary Jackson’s book of poems Origin Story and Geoffrey Hill’s The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Lorenzo Thomas. He was poet, born in Panama, raised in New York City, and taught at the University of Houston, downtown campus. His work straddled many writing camps and collectives. A few days ago I was marveling at this wonderful poem titled “Diplomacy,” which appeared in the African American literary journal Callaloo in 1999. Thomas does such an amazing job of thinking inside a poem. The last stanza of “Diplomacy” reads: “Nothing is gained, perhaps / Except to understand / The eye-piercing cologne men wear / To transact filthy business.” More of that. I wish his work was discussed and lauded more. I wish we understood how many Black poets were writing truly transcendent, timeless poems, but we’ll never get to see them because they ran into the buzz-saw of American racism and lived in and through American apartheid.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
If I could change one thing about publishing, it would be that poets could make a living just writing poems. And do nothing else unless they chose to. And that we’d have a wider, more generous notion of excellence. And, that we—writers, editors, presses—had more funding opportunities to put on more audacious programming and collaborations. 

7. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
I will miss writing “Something About John Coltrane.” I like the soloing that happens in that poem. It was the type of poem that felt amazing to be inside of it. I will miss reading the poems in proofs and realizing that indeed it is a book, and it’s a book that I always wanted to write, a book that surprised me in its vulnerability, in its reaching toward and addressing freedom.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
When my editor at W. W. Norton, Jill Bialosky, said I couldn’t make anymore changes. But seriously, I’m always working on the manuscript up until the last moment. I want to make sure I’ve gotten the poems some place that I couldn’t see when I started them. I want the poems to journey somewhere emotionally, meditatively. I always think of the adage from Robert Frost—“no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader; no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” This adage has guided and continues to guide me

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I have several trusted readers. Solmaz Sharif, Chris Loperena, and Monica Jimenez. They are my trusted readers and listeners because they have big ears; they can hear diverse and wildly different sorts of music. They also want more for the world, for the poem in the way that I want more.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Write. Get out of the way of the writing. Don’t make it precious. Sit down and get to it.

Roger Reeves, author of Best Barbarian (Credit: Ana Schwartz)

Roger Reeves Craft Capsule: Chicago 2015

Poet Roger Reeves presents “The Work of Poetry in the Age of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston: Towards a Klepto_Poetics” as part of the Craft Capsules portion of Poets & Writers Live in Chicago on June 20, 2015.

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Ten Questions for Eloghosa Osunde

3.15.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Eloghosa Osunde, whose debut novel, Vagabonds!, is out today from Riverhead Books. A tour de force of magical realism, the novel traces a vivid array of characters in Lagos for whom life itself is a form of resistance: “a driver for a debauched politician with the power to command life and death; a legendary fashion designer who gives birth to a grown daughter; a lesbian couple whose tender relationship sheds unexpected light on their experience with underground sex work; a wife and mother who attends a secret spiritual gathering that shifts her world; a transgender woman and the groundbreaking love of her mother.” Vagabonds! takes us deep inside the hearts, minds, and bodies of a people in duress—and in triumph—in a way that only the best fiction can do. “In Vagabonds! you will discover queer people finding ways to love each other in a society that outlaws queerness, and an explosive portrait of Nigeria that will blow your mind—in prose that feels so alive it practically vibrates off the page,” writes Lidia Yuknavitch. “A masterpiece.” An alumna of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, the Caine Prize Workshop, and the New York Film Academy, Eloghosa Osunde has been published in the Paris ReviewGulf Coast, Guernica, Catapult, and other venues. Winner of the 2021 Plimpton Prize for Fiction and the recipient of a Miles Morland Scholarship, she is a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow and a 2020 MacDowell Colony Fellow.

1. How long did it take you to write Vagabonds!?
Mm, my answer could be three years, or five months. I wrote the first short story, “Night Wind,”  as a standalone in 2017. I wasn’t trying to write Vagabonds! yet. I’d been working on something else—a better-behaved novel—and that was my main focus, even as I wrote and placed other short stories in publications. A while into doing that, I started to see my work more clearly, and also just paid attention to what I respect and don’t respect in stories, and why. It hit me properly in late 2018 that a book that moves like Vagabonds! is the specific kind of novel I would 100 percent want to enter the world with, and stand by for a long time. I think of that moment as the starting point of the manuscript, the nudge that got me started on sculpting this book. That process took about five intense months and then it was done.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Putting my complete faith in my work and a sure doubt in the voices inside and outside me that wanted me to play it safe. We talk a lot about the role of faith in achieving things, but I also believe in the power of doubt, especially here. So much of the book, so much of what I dared to allow myself to imagine was a direct result of me training myself to doubt certain stories and limitations I’d believed all my life. Doubt is a useful weapon to have on you if you’re in a world that will continue to tell you terrible stories about yourself, just because. It’s good to know who to trust, I’ve been learning, but also who to doubt. Getting a hang of this took time; getting used to the sound of my own voice took time; catching up to my inherent worthiness took time; becoming brave enough to write this book took time. That was harder for me than the writing itself.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Where: I write at home, from my bed or couch, because tables are too serious and I don’t get as much done on them. Taking the pressure off, for me,  usually involves a duvet. When: at night, mostly. Or in the dark—a situation I’m able to create in my apartment regardless of what time it is outside. Usually, I’ll have some music or rain sounds playing in the background, AC’s on—always. How often: as often as feels true, which is, at this point, almost everyday.

4. What are you reading right now?
I just finished Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W Moniz. The collection finds such an impressive equilibrium between vulnerability and restraint. I was reading Warsan Shire’s Bless the Daughter Raised By a Voice in Her Head at the same time, which I’d been waiting for since I heard it was coming. I’m going into This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley now. I’m impressed already.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Arinze Ifeakandu. His stories are so particular about their pace, so sincere. There is no hurry there. Even beyond plot, I love admiring the skill it takes to collaborate with silence on storytelling, to let it know that you take it seriously enough to need it too. His book God’s Children Are Little Broken Things, out in June, displays this flawlessly. Preorder it! Logan February, whose poems affect me so personally. Pemi Aguda. Her books are coming.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
If there was something I could change about the publishing industry, it would be the abysmal pay gap that exists because of systemic racism. I think very often about the number of brilliant writers who get told no for vague reasons, who get told There is no market for this by people who begin with the conclusion that white markets are the main (or only) markets. It’s so obvious to me that there are multiple markets active at once, different demographics with purchasing power still heavily un(der)represented in print, and many readers of all sorts of stories who would reach for the books if they were actually there. Money is what allows people to (continue to) write without worry. So, because I’m so tired of hearing about how many writers I love—dead and alive—were severely underpaid for groundbreaking work, even when their names were everywhere, that’s the first thing I’d change. We need more range of experience, people of varying nationalities in positions of power, so that we can get more brilliant, textured stories out into the world. Oh also! I’d make sure people got paid their advance in less than four installments for sure. Three. Two. Whatever. Just not four. Bills are real.

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
Certainty, for sure. My agent, Jackie, met and signed me off just one short story, one essay and a proposal for a novel. I have always appreciated this, because I know it’s the industry norm to wait on the finished manuscript before taking a chance—especially with fiction. She met me and knew. Kristi, who is Jackie’s assistant, has also just made my life so much easier with her sturdiness. Jessica Bullock, my UK agent, is ever ready to do what my journey requires, and my film agent, Kristina Moore, is this way too. The trait I value the most in my editors—Hi Cal! Hi Kish!—is also the same: certainty. Both editors read the manuscript and knew they wanted it exactly as it was, then worked with me on the book from inside that assuredness. I can see what a blessing that has been.

8. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
Building the world it’s set in. I assembled this world with care, so I know how everything works inside it, even when it appears chaotic. I’ll miss fussing over the mechanics, but thankfully my next book is set there too.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I’m my most trusted reader, because I know all about the knot my interests form when joined together. I really respect my judgment, trust my taste and know I can be honest with myself in the readback about what doesn’t work. If I’m stretched by the story’s unfolding, moved by the places where all those interests overlap, then I know that the work is moving. If I’m not, it’s not. I always know the difference. My friend Joshua Segun Lean as well, who is the most attentive reader I know; my best friend Fadekemi, because she sees me and loved me for fifteen straight years, has been in my life long enough to know my truths from my lies; and my partner, who reads my work from a familiar place, with both seriousness and joy, and shares thoughtful responses that help me connect deeper with the work.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Please build heart work into your practice. Tend to your heart everyday and don’t just assume because you’re writing from the heart that you’re tending to your heart… Please please tend to your heart when creating the art our hearts need, the art that helps your family eat. We all deserve healthy hearts. Please believe. I’m trying to believe too.” —Kiese Laymon

Eloghosa Osunde, author of Vagabonds!  

Ten Questions for NoViolet Bulawayo

3.8.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features NoViolet Bulawayo, whose second novel, Glory, is out today from Viking. The novel opens onto a crowded square on Independence Day in Jidada, a fictional African country populated by animal citizens. Some animals attempt to escape the heat and leave early but are pushed back by military dogs—“violent, morbid beasts”—who later brutalize protestors who disrupt the Father of the Nation’s speech. Throughout the novel, Bulawayo expertly renders such dramatic set-pieces of dictatorship and revolution, while also zooming in on the stories of individual animals, their wounds and resilience. Both witty and harrowing, Glory is inspired by the aftermath of the 2017 removal of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, but the novel offers insight into the cruel absurdities of politics the world over. “Bulawayo keenly displays the perspectives of political players and the civilians who bear the brunt of their violence,” writes Publishers Weekly. “With satire that feels necessary and urgent, Bulawayo brings clarity to a murky political morass.” NoViolet Bulawayo is the author of We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books, 2013), which was a finalist for the Booker Prize and won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Etisalat Prize for Literature. She grew up in Zimbabwe and lives in the United States.

1. How long did it take you to write Glory?
About three and a half years of the most intense focus I’ve ever had to pull off, an experience that reminds me that sometimes we write only because of those who make it possible for us to do so. I’m especially grateful to all who supported me during that time, including the then-director of creative writing at Stanford, the late Eavan Boland, who understood my near desperate need to go to the wilderness, and sent me off with such grace, understanding, and encouragement.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Writing against an unfolding public narrative driven by forces I couldn’t control sometimes complicated the story’s focus, raised questions like how much of new storylines to include or leave out, how to reconcile unforeseen traits or actions with a character I’d framed a specific way. Still, working through these issues gave me the opportunity to really push my imagination in interesting ways.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It depends on the project, but I generally write when the draft that happens in the head is ready to come to the page. Whatever it is will normally tell me how it wants to be done; Glory demanded to be written every day, beginning in the wee hours of morning till about late evening. The first shift was the bed-shift (I insist on large, comfortable beds for this purpose); the second and the third shifts were divided between my apartment and an office. I must work in isolation because my process tends to be messy.

4. What are you reading right now?
Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, one of my favorite books to reread.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Far too many to mention. It’s strange to pick just one author when the world is full of incredible writers who aren’t recognized, but outside of the spotlight is where one finds some of the most surprising and exciting work.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
I’d get rid of the gatekeeping at every level so we not only have a fair system, but also one that reflects the real world.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Somewhere in the preliminary drafts (Glory was a monster of about 700 pages then) my editor mentioned in her comments to figure out how to maintain the steam; this really helped me keep my finger on the pulse of the story, and of course with the much-needed pairing and polishing.    

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Glory, what would you say?
I’d tell me to proper brace up; I wasn’t ready for how much this novel would demand.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
My agent and editors are my trusted dream team; for their critical but caring eyes, for being ready to say what must be said, no matter how difficult, for their generosity, and most importantly, for understanding me. What they brought to Glory, and how they handled the project especially in its infancy, thoroughly humbles me. I don’t even know how to thank them.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Figure out how you work best.” ⏤Toni Morrison

NoViolet Bulawayo, author of Glory (Credit: Nye’ Lyn Tho)

2013 First Fiction Sampler

by

Staff

7.1.13

For our thirteenth annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of debut writers. Read the July/August 2013 issue of the magazine for interviews between Paul Harding and NoViolet Bulawayo, Karen Russell and Bushra Rehman, Nathan Englander and Bill Cheng, Curtis Sittenfeld and Anton DiSclafani, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinelo Okparanta. But first, check out these exclusive excerpts from the debut novels and story collections.

We Need New Names (Reagan Arthur Books, September) by NoViolet Bulawayo
Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press, August) by Bushra Rehman
Southern Cross the Dog (HarperCollins, May) by Bill Cheng
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Riverhead Books, June) by Anton DiSclafani
Happiness, Like Water (Mariner Books, August) by Chinelo Okparanta 

We Need New Names
By NoViolet Bulawayo

“Hitting Budapest”

We are on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.

Getting out of Paradise is not so hard since the mothers are busy with hair and talk, which is the only thing they ever do. They just glance at us when we file past the shacks and then look away. We don’t have to worry about the men under the jacaranda either since their eyes never lift from the draughts. It’s only the little kids who see us and try to follow, but Bastard just wallops the naked one at the front with a fist on his big head and they all turn back.

When we hit the bush we are already flying, scream-singing like the wheels in our voices will make us go faster. Sbho leads: Who discovered the way to India? and the rest of us rejoin, Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! Vasco da Gama! Bastard is at the front because he won country-game today and he thinks that makes him our president or something, and then myself and Godknows, Stina, Sbho, and finally Chipo, who used to outrun everybody in all of Paradise but not anymore because somebody made her pregnant.

After crossing Mzilikazi we cut through another bush, zip right along Hope Street for a while before we cruise past the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on, and finally we hit Budapest. We have to stop once, though, for Chipo to sit down because of her stomach; sometimes when it gets painful she has to rest it.

When is she going to have the baby anyway? Bastard says. Bastard doesn’t like it when we have to stop doing things because of Chipo’s stomach. He even tried to get us not to play with her altogether.

She’ll have it one day, I say, speaking for Chipo because she doesn’t talk anymore. She is not mute-mute; it’s just that when her stomach started showing, she stopped talking. But she still plays with us and does everything else, and if she really, really needs to say something she’ll use her hands. 

What’s one day? On Thursday? Tomorrow? Next week?

Can’t you see her stomach is still small? The baby has to grow.

A baby grows outside of the stomach, not inside. That’s the whole reason they are born. So they grow into adults.

Well, it’s not time yet. That’s why it’s still in a stomach. 

Is it a boy or girl?

It’s a boy. The first baby is supposed to be a boy.

But you’re a girl, big head, and you’re a first-born. 

I said supposed, didn’t I? 

Just shut your kaka mouth, you, it’s not even your stomach. 

I think it’s a girl. I put my hands on it all the time and I’ve never felt it kick, not even once. 

Yes, boys kick and punch and butt their heads. That’s all they are good at.

Does she want a boy?

No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. 

Where exactly does a baby come out of?

The same place it goes into the stomach.

How exactly does it get into the stomach?

First, Jesus’s mother has to put it in there.

No, not Jesus’s mother. A man has to put it in there, my cousin Musa told me. Well, she was really telling Enia, and I was there so I heard. 

Then who put it inside her?

How can we know if she won’t say?

Who put it in there, Chipo? Tell us, we won’t tell.

Chipo looks at the sky. There’s a tear in her one eye, but it’s only a small one.

Then if a man put it in there, why doesn’t he take it out?

Because it’s women who give birth, you dunderhead. That’s why they have breasts to suckle the baby and everything.

But Chipo’s breasts are small. Like stones.

It doesn’t matter. They’ll grow when the baby comes. Let’s go, can we go, Chipo? I say. Chipo doesn’t reply, she just takes off, and we run after her. When we get right to the middle of Budapest we stop. This place is not like Paradise, it’s like being in a different country altogether. A nice country where people who are not like us live. But then you don’t see anything to show there are real people living here; even the air itself is empty: no delicious food cooking, no odors, no sounds. Just nothing.

Budapest is big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat graveled yards or trimmed lawns, and the tall fences and the Dura walls and the flowers and the big trees heavy with fruit that’s waiting for us since nobody around here seems to know what to do with it. It’s the fruit that gives us courage, otherwise we wouldn’t dare be here. I keep expecting the clean streets to spit and tell us to go back where we came from. 

At first we used to steal from Stina’s uncle, who now lives in Britain, but that was not stealing-stealing because it was Stina’s uncle’s tree and not a stranger’s. There’s a difference. But then we finished all the guavas in that tree so we have moved to the other houses as well. We have stolen from so many houses I cannot even count. It was Bastard who decided that we pick a street and stay on it until we have gone through all the houses. Then we go to the next street. This is so we don’t confuse where we have been with where we are going. It’s like a pattern, and Bastard says this way we can be better thieves.

Today we are starting a new street and so we are carefully scouting around. We are passing Chimurenga Street, where we’ve already harvested every guava tree, maybe like two-three weeks ago, when we see white curtains part and a face peer from a window of the cream home with the marble statue of the urinating naked boy with wings. We are standing and staring, looking to see what the face will do, when the window opens and a small, funny voice shouts for us to stop. We remain standing, not because the voice told us to stop, but because none of us has started to run, and also because the voice doesn’t sound dangerous. Music pours out of the window onto the street; it’s not kwaito, it’s not dance-hall, it’s not house, it’s not anything we know. 

A tall, thin woman opens the door and comes out of the house. The first thing we see is that she is eating something. She waves as she walks towards us, and already we can tell from the woman’s thinness that we are not even going to run. We wait, so we can see what she is smiling for, or at. The woman stops by the gate; it’s locked, and she didn’t bring the keys to open it.

Jeez, I can’t stand this awful heat, and the hard earth, how do you guys ever do it? the woman asks in her not-dangerous voice. She smiles, takes a bite of the thing in her hand. A pink camera dangles from her neck. We all look at the woman’s feet peeking underneath her long skirt. They are clean and pretty feet, like a baby’s. She is wiggling her toes, purple from nail polish. I don’t remember my own feet ever looking like that; maybe when I was born.

Then there’s the woman’s red chewing mouth. I can tell from the cord thingies at the side of her neck and the way she smacks her big lips that whatever she is eating tastes really good. I look closely at her long hand, at the thing she is eating. It’s flat, and the outer part is crusty. The top is creamish and looks fluffy and soft, and there are coin-like things on it, a deep pink, the color of burn wounds. I also see sprinkles of red and green and yellow, and finally the brown bumps that look like pimples.

Chipo points at the thing and keeps jabbing at the air in a way that says What’s that? She rubs her stomach with her other hand; now that she is pregnant, Chipo is always playing with her stomach like maybe it’s a toy. The stomach is the size of a football, not too big. We keep our eyes on the woman’s mouth and wait to hear what she will say.

Oh, this? It’s a camera, the woman says, which we all know; even a stone can tell that a camera is a camera. The woman wipes her hand on her skirt, pats the camera, then aims what is left of the thing at the bin by the door, misses, and laughs to herself like a madman. She looks at us like maybe she wants us to laugh with her, but we are busy looking at the thing that flew in the air before hitting the ground like a dead bird. We have never ever seen anyone throw food away, even if it’s a thing. Chipo looks like she wants to run after it and pick it up. The woman’s twisted mouth finishes chewing, and swallows. I swallow with her, my throat tingling.

How old are you? the woman asks Chipo, looking at her stomach like she has never seen anybody pregnant.

She is eleven, Godknows replies for Chipo. We are ten, me and her, like twinses, Godknows says, meaning him and me. And Bastard is eleven and Sbho is nine, and Stina we don’t know because he has no birth certificate. 

Wow, the woman says. I say wow too, wow wow wow, but I do it inside my head. It’s my first time ever hearing this word. I try to think what it means but I get tired of grinding my brains so I just give up.

And how old are you? Godknows asks her. And where are you from? I’m thinking about how Godknows has a bigmouth that will get him slapped one day.

Me? Well, I’m thirty-three, and I’m from London. This is my first time visiting my dad’s country, she says, and twists the chain on her neck. The golden head on the chain is the map of Africa.

I know London. I ate some sweets from there once. They were sweet at first, and then they just changed to sour in my mouth. Uncle Vusa sent them when he first got there but that was a long time ago. Now he never sends anything, Godknows says. He looks up at the sky like maybe he wants a plane to appear with sweets from his uncle.

But you look only fifteen, like a child, Godknows says, looking at the woman now. I am expecting her to reach out and slap him on the mouth but she merely smiles like she has not just been insulted.

Thank you, I just came off the Jesus diet, she says, sounding very pleased. I look at her like What is there to thank? I’m also thinking, What is a Jesus diet, and do you mean the real Jesus, like God’s child? 

I know from everybody’s faces and silence that they think the woman is strange. She runs a hand through her hair, which is matted and looks a mess; if I lived in Budapest I would wash my whole body every day and comb my hair nicely to show I was a real person living in a real place. With her hair all wild like that, and standing on the other side of the gate with its lock and bars, the woman looks like a caged animal. I begin thinking what I would do if she actually jumped out and came after us.

Do you guys mind if I take a picture? she says. We don’t answer because we’re not used to adults asking us anything; we just look at the woman, at her fierce hair, at her skirt that sweeps the ground when she walks, at her pretty peeking feet, at her golden Africa, at her large eyes, at her smooth skin that doesn’t even have a scar to show she is a living person, at the earring in her nose, at her T-shirt that says Save Darfur. 

Great, now, stand close together, the woman says.

You, the tall one, go to the back. And you, yes, you, and you, look this way, no, I mean you, with the missing teeth, look at me, like this, she says, her hands reaching out of the bars, almost touching us.

Good, good, now say cheese, say cheese, cheese, cheeeeeeeese— the woman enthuses, and everyone says cheese. Myself, I don’t really say, because I am busy trying to remember what cheese means exactly, and I cannot remember. Yesterday Mother of Bones told us the story of Dudu the bird who learned and sang a new song whose words she did not really know the meaning of and who was then caught, killed, and cooked for dinner because in the song she was actually begging people to kill and cook her. 

The woman points at me, nods, and tells me to say cheeeeeese and I say it mostly because she is smiling like she knows me really well, like she even knows my mother. I say it slowly at first, and then I say, Cheese and cheese, and I’m saying cheese cheeeeese and everyone is saying cheese cheese cheese and we are all singing the word and the camera is clicking and clicking and clicking. Then Stina, who is quiet most of the time, just starts to walk away. The woman stops taking pictures and says, Hey, where are you going? But he doesn’t stop, doesn’t even turn to look at her. Then Chipo walks away after Stina, then the rest of us follow them.

We leave the woman standing there, taking pictures as we go. Then Bastard stops at the corner of Victoria and starts shouting insults at the woman, and I remember the thing, and that she threw it away without even asking us if we wanted it, and I begin shouting also, and everyone else joins in. We shout and we shout and we shout; we want to eat the thing she was eating, we want to hear our voices soar, we want our hunger to go away. The woman just looks at us puzzled, like she has never heard anybody shout, and then quickly hurries back into the house but we shout after her, shout till we smell blood in our tickling throats.

Excerpted from We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, published in May by Reagan Arthur Books. Copyright © 2013 by NoViolet Bulawayo. All rights reserved.

Corona 
By Bushra Rehman

“Abandoned Bread Truck”

Corona, Queens 
January 1985

Every few weeks, and really it could have been less, an abandoned car showed up outside our dining room window. The car would be left there sometime on a Saturday night, whole for just a moment before it would start to decay. Every morning after that, pieces would go missing. The tires would be the first to vanish. Then the windows would be shattered and the insides gutted. Finally, the engine lid would pop open and pieces would disappear. Then, as suddenly as the car had come, it would be gone. Its space wouldn’t be empty for long before another car would show up to take its place. 

On winter mornings, I would sit on the radiator by the window. Some days, it was the only way to stay warm. I would see the abandoned cars and imagine I was living in the desert, or the high distant plain, walking past the same dead animal, wolf, laid to rest on the sand and in the heat. I’d watch the way pieces of it would disappear, stripped by secret claws and beaks. Pieces would always disappear while I was asleep.

Then there was one day, a bitter January morning, when a bread truck delivering fresh Italian bread, stalled right outside of our house. The truck driver was a big Italian. He got out and cursed and kicked the truck. His curses made smoke in the air. He walked off to find a pay phone, but there was no working pay phone anywhere in Corona. He walked around the corner and disappeared. 

It was a snow day, and already children were coming outside to make snow angels and pretend they were skating on patches of ice. They came out in their boots and their cheap coats from Alexander’s. It was Julio and his friends who noticed the abandoned bread truck first. There was always a group of boys who moved around Julio like wobbly planets. 

I leaned against the window and watched them. They circled the truck, a child they were ready to gang up on. Julio jumped up to the cab and tried to pull open the door, but it was locked. His friends threw snowballs as if they were handballs. The white on white hit the metal and bounced off the truck. But soon even they got bored with that and wandered off to make trouble somewhere else. 

Across the street in the buildings, I began to see faces in the windows: the three old Italian ladies who always wore black, the young Dominican mothers of the kids in my school holding baby brothers and sisters on their hips. The bread truck had made the mistake of stalling on the street where all the abandoned cars were left. Everyone was watching to see what would happen. 

The old Italian ladies were the first to disappear from their windows. As if they had been given a signal, they all vanished from their different apartments. They showed up again, on the snow, like black crows on ice. I saw them creep up to the back of the truck. I ran to tell my mother. She was in the kitchen scrubbing the counters with Mr. Clean. 

“Ammi, something’s happening.” By the time my mother washed her hands and came back with me to the dining room window, there was a mob on the street. 

Julio had come back with his father and a crowbar. His father looked around for the driver, and when he saw no one, he popped open the back like he was opening a can of soda, then jumped into the truck. He was gone for a few minutes. We all waited, not knowing what to do. When he came out, his arms were full of loaves of bread. He threw an armful to Julio who ran home with it. 

Slowly, other people started coming to the back of the truck. The old Italian ladies were at the head, but behind them was the Korean grandmother, the young Dominican mothers, and other kids from my school. Some of them waited for Julio’s father to throw them bread. Others jumped in themselves and grabbed armfuls of Italian bread with or without seeds, rolls and whole loaves. They ran home hugging the fresh bread to their chests. 

I looked up at my mother, waiting for her to say something about the people in our neighborhood, but instead she said, “Put on your coat.” 

“Kya?” I said, afraid I would get in trouble if I had misheard. This was the same mother who made me walk back to the bodega on the corner to give back even five cents any time they gave me too much change. 

She said again, “Put on your coat and get some bread.”

When I got outside, it felt like someone had thrown a block party in the middle of the winter street. I had never seen my neighbors smiling at each other this way. I walked to the back of the truck, feeling cold in my thin coat. 

But the ice of January was nothing when Julio’s father put a loaf of steamy, soft bread in my arms. It was like a baby, a new baby, for us to have. The snow crunched under my feet, and I looked up to see my mother smiling down at me, her face pressed against the glass. 

Excerpted from Corona by Bushra Rehman, published in August by Sibling Rivalry Press. Copyright © 2013 by Bushra Rehman. All rights reserved.

Southern Cross the Dog
By Bill Cheng

“The Flood (1927)”

The rain kept on like a dust and it was the oldest boy G.D. who said it wasn’t nothing, crossing through the woods behind Old Man Crookhand’s. The wind swooped through, chattering the branches, and blew the grit against their faces. They put up their hands and trudged on, G.D. ahead of the others, cutting his switch into the bushes. Whack, whack. Come on, you babies, he said, and he whipped again, the vines and leaves opening around his blows.

They followed close, the boys wolfing on, whispering their jokes, trying to make the girls laugh and shiver. One at a time, they crushed across the underbrush, skimming spider vines and breaking off bits of sweetbark from the trunks to chew and spit.

The trail began to climb and G.D. bound up the hill in wide strides. At the top, he stopped and waited for the others. He could see Crookhand Grove, a cleft of cleared land that dipped below the path. At the center was the Bone Tree. It had been dead for years, its leaves rotting in a carpet around the trunk.

One by one, the others crowded around him. They gazed out into the grove and fell quiet. There’d been stories about dead Injuns and their ghosts living inside the hollows. The wind came through and the naked branches clattered. The gang looked at one another, then up at G.D. 

He spit a wad down into the grove. 

Keep moving, he said.

The mule path broke out into a clearing where the lumbermen had already come through. G.D. chose the tallest tree stump and mounted it. He splayed out his arms, waving the switch like a sword before touching the edge against his cheek—a nub of twig snagging on his tooth. It was time. His eyes drooped into lazy buttonholes, looking the others over. They fidgeted under his gaze, shifting from side to side, holding up their hands, rubbing rain into their fingers.

G.D. sized them up. Their ragged clothes, the yellow mud caked to their shins. A girl unbraided a slip of hair. Her small fingers eased through the knots. A boy dug his toes into the soil, trying not to meet G.D.’s eye. Another stood with his arms folded across his chest, shifting his weight from knee to knee. He spotted her. She was tall and willowy compared to the other girls. Her hair was brushed back and she sloped her shoulders as she tried to hide her size.

G.D. pointed with the switch.

Dora, he said.

The girl furrowed her brow.

Not me!

He moved the switch to the sharp of his smile.

Yes.

That’s not fair! I done it last time, G.D.!

You, Dora. Again.

It’s gonna rain, she said. I don’t want to get soaked.

G.D. shrugged and grinned at the others.

Best get started then.

G.D. brought the switch down against his leg. Thwack. They made a circle around her. He beat down again. Thwack. Thwack. The girl looked up but it was too late. Already the circle had tightened and they’d begun to sing.

Little Sally Water, settin’ in a saucer.

Rise Sally rise, wipe your weepin’ eyes.

The girl sighed, slumping. She hunched down on her knees and listened for the rhythm. Her backside bucked up, kicking out like a mule and swinging.

Shake it to the east, Sally.

Shake it to the west, Sally.

Shake it to the one you love the best, Sally.

Her frilled bloomers flashed out under her dress as she spun. The world swished inside her head. When the song ended, she righted herself and turned to see who she’d chosen. If it was a girl, they would have to start again, this time even faster as G.D. lashed out mercilessly with his switch.

Slowly the world glided back into place. She righted herself and saw him. He was big cheeked and wet eyed, and he was at least a good head shorter than her. The boy looked blankly at her through his long lashes. She’d seen him before. He was always so quiet, never laughed or cussed, floating behind the others like some tattered kite tail. He fidgeted now with his hands in his pockets, looking unsure of himself until G.D. nudged him forward.

Well, don’t just stand there looking dumb.

G.D. led Dora and the boy out to Crookhand Grove where the earth was cracked and split along the roots of the Bone Tree. They were alone, the three of them, caught under the storm clouds. Thunder sounded out like split wood and they looked cautiously at the little bits of sky coming through the branches.

G.D. took both their hands and grinned.

My, my, Dora. I never knew you was such a tasteful lady.

Dora slapped his arm and his eyes sparked.

I’m gonna count to a hundred. Then you come on out.

We know how it works, G.D.

G.D. winked at the boy and headed back to the clearing, arms crossed over his head. She could hear him beginning to count.

Dora smoothed down the sides of her dress. The boy was looking at a spider threaded between two branches. It sat fat and blood-filled in its web, its legs spread like fingers.

Dora could hear the other children starting in on their singing again. They had begun another round.

Well, come on then, she said.

Come on what?

Ain’t you played Sally Water before?

The boy plucked up the spider. He turned it over and watched its legs bicycle. He held it up to Dora and she made a face. Then he set it down on a trunk and watched it race up the bark.

You’re Billy Chatham’s brother, ain’t you?

The boy shrugged.

My uncle told me your brother was wild. That he loved up a white girl and he—Dora

stopped herself. The boy sat down against the trunk and started scabbing at the bark, pulling it away in chips. He put them together in a pile, counting them out in his palm.

What’s your name?, Dora asked.

Robert, he said. He seemed to think for a moment then he added, Robert Lee Chatham.

Dora looked back from where they came.

Well, let’s not take too long then. Come here, she said. Stand up against the trunk there.

He dusted the bark off and pushed his sleeves up to his elbow. They drooped back down, past his knuckles. His shirt was too large. It hadn’t been sized for him.

Now shut your eyes so you can’t see nothing.

Everything was still for a moment. Just the slow breath of the magnolias and the sound of mosquitoes making the air goosebump and tremble. He thought he could hear the other children laughing in the distance—their small twinkling voices in the breeze. Then he felt the kiss—the damp spongy pressing against his mouth, something cold skimming the underside of his tongue, warm air brushing against the slope of his upper lip. Something small and hard pressed into his hand. When he opened his eyes, the sky had split open.

Excerpted from Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng, published in May by HarperCollins. Copyright © 2013 by Bill Cheng. All rights reserved.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
By Anton DiSclafani

I was assigned to Augusta House. All of the cabins were named after the founders’ relatives—we had Mary House, Spivey House, Minerva House. Mr. Holmes led me and my father through the Square, but I trailed a foot or two behind so I didn’t have to speak. Mr. Holmes’s stride was enormous; he was tall and lanky and towered over my father, who had always been on the small side. Sam, who had shot up like a weed over the past few months, was taller than him now. Sam might be eating at the moment, or maybe dinner was done. Perhaps he was still wearing his day clothes: shorts and a button-down linen shirt, an outfit chosen to make the sun bearable. We never wore sleeves in the summer, but in Atlanta every man I’d seen had worn a full suit, despite the heat. Mr. Holmes wore a suit now, had emerged with Father from his office wearing a jacket.

My father walked quickly to keep up and wanted to leave his hands in his pockets, but kept removing them, instinctively, for balance.

I wondered if I would recognize the back of Father’s head in a crowd. Surely I would recognize Sam’s, his coarse, thick hair that Mother coaxed to lie flat every time she passed by, drawing a hand over his head by habit.

Mr. Holmes opened the door to Augusta House and walked through first, but before he did he turned and gave me a little smile; I could hear him tell the girls they had a visitor, and when my father and I walked in a moment later, five girls stood by their bunk beds, hands behind their backs, motionless. It was almost dark now, and the light from a wall sconce was the only source of illumination in the room. I thought it odd that Mr. Holmes, a grown man, had entered a cabin full of girls without knocking. But they had known he was coming. I wondered what else they knew.

“This is Theodora Atwell, she has come to us from Florida.”

The girls nodded in tandem, and a panic seized me. Did they do everything in tandem? How would I know?

“And this,” Mr. Holmes said, starting with the girl on the left, “is Elisabeth Gilliam, Gates Weeks, Mary Abbott McClellan, Victoria Harpen, and Eva Louise Crayton.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, and all of the girls inclined their heads slightly. Elisabeth, the first girl, broke her stance and broke the order, and I was so grateful. These were just girls, like me. She tucked a piece of ash-brown hair behind her ear and smiled; her smile was crooked. She seemed kindhearted. I liked her blue eyes; they were wide set, like a horse’s. She would be my Sissy.

I wondered, in that dimly lit cabin that smelled so strongly of wood, what had brought each girl there. Or who had brought them.

We each had half of a bunk bed, a tiny closet, a washstand, a desk, a vanity. Our house mistresses roomed with each other in another cabin; we girls were to be left completely alone. I took my father’s hand, which hung by his side, and hoped the other girls would not think me childish. His grip surprised me, and then I knew it was true, he meant to leave me here. I tugged my hand free of his and stepped forward.

“I’m pleased to be here.”

My father kissed my cheek and pressed me to him in a sort of clumsy half hug; now I was embarrassed instead of sad, all these girls watching. Mr. Holmes turned his head politely. Then they left, and I stood there alone in this room full of girls and felt terrified. I was accustomed to the feeling of fear—it threaded itself through my brain each time I tried a higher jump—but that fear was accompanied by a certain exhilaration.

Now I watched the unreadable faces of all these girls and they watched me and I felt frightened in a way I had never felt frightened before. There was no place to go but here, no one to take comfort in except myself. I started to cross my arms in front of my chest but then an instinct told me to stop: I didn’t want any of these girls to know I was scared.

“Theodora?” the pretty girl with the full figure asked, and I remembered her name. Eva.

“Thea,” I mumbled. But I wasn’t from a family that mumbled. I cleared my throat. “Thea. A nickname.”

“Well, that’s better,” Eva said, and grinned. “Theodora’s a mouthful.”

I hesitated—was she making fun of my name? But then she patted the bunk beside her. “This is you. You’re my bottom.”

Sissy laughed. The sound startled, then comforted me. “Have you ever slept on a bunk bed?” she asked. “I have the bottom, too. It’s the worst, but you’re here so late.”

I pointed at my trunk, which rested at the foot of my bottom bunk; pointing was bad manners, now the girls would think I had none, but poor manners were better than explaining why I had come so late.

“My trunk’s already here,” I said.

“One of the men brought it,” Mary Abbott chimed in. Her voice was fragile-sounding.

“But not the handsome one!” Eva said, and Sissy laughed.

Gates turned from her desk, where she had been writing something—a letter? I wondered to whom—and I could see she did not approve.

“Oh, Gates,” Eva said. “Don’t be so serious. It’s just chatter.” Eva turned to me, languidly; she moved about like she didn’t have a care in the world. “There are two men here who do chores. One is very handsome. And the other . . . you’ll see.” I felt my face go hot, and quickly walked to my bunk so the other girls wouldn’t see. I blushed at the drop of a hat. I busied myself with my trunk, and after a moment I noticed that everyone was changing into their nightclothes. I changed out of my clothes quickly—no other girl had ever seen me naked. Only Mother, and she was not a girl. I was careful to hide the handkerchief as I disrobed—the other girls would think me childish if they saw I’d hidden a piece of fabric from my brother beneath my clothes. Or worse than childish: odd.

Our nightgowns were all the same—mine had been laid upon the bed—soft cotton shifts with V-necklines, a mid-calf hemline, YRC embroidered over our left breasts. Over our hearts. The nightgown I had brought with me was high collared, ankle length, ruffled at the wrists. It would have given me away immediately. Mother had told me that I’d be wearing a uniform, so I didn’t need to pack much; the idea had made me furious back home. I was going to be treated like everyone else! But now I was glad. I had not known my nightgown was all wrong.

The girls left in pairs—Eva and Sissy, Gates and Victoria—until only Mary Abbott and I remained. I had no choice but to follow. I didn’t want to ask where we were going, but I did.

“The privies. I know what you’re thinking, how can we not have a toilet in our cabins?” she asked. She dropped her voice conspiratorially: “They think it’s good for us.” Her accent was very Southern. Mr. Holmes had an accent, but I couldn’t place it—he spoke in clipped tones, the opposite of how everyone in Augusta House spoke. I didn’t have an accent, not compared to these girls. “But at least there’s indoor plumbing. And running water for our baths.”

I nodded at Mary Abbott, unsure of how to respond. I’d always had indoor plumbing, and running water.

Eva and Sissy passed us on their way back to the cabin, along with pairs of other girls from other cabins. We looked like ghosts in our nightgowns, and I hated this place, hated these girls, my first clear, unconfused sentiment since I’d arrived. I wrapped my shawl tighter around my shoulders and hated my mother.

The privies were spotless—I was grateful for that. I didn’t wait for Mary Abbott, rushed back to the cabin without once meeting anyone’s eye. When we’d passed Eva and Sissy, I knew by how they smiled that Mary Abbott was not someone I wanted to align myself with. I was already in bed when Mary Abbott came in; she looked at me for a long second, wistfully, I thought, but that was unreasonable, she’d known me for an hour and then someone entered the cabin, too young to be a woman, too old to be a girl. She barely looked at any of us. When she saw me, she nodded—“Theodora Atwell. Glad to see you’ve settled in.” And then she turned off our lights.

“Good night, girls,” she called as she left the room.

“Good night, Henny,” everyone called back, in unison.

The girls said good night to each other then, in sleepy whispers; I thought they were done when Eva spoke.

“Good night, Thea,” she whispered, and all the other girls followed suit, my name whispered five times, and it seemed astonishing that I knew which voice belonged to whom; it seemed astonishing that already these girls laid claim to me.

The last girl I had known was Milly, a neighbor, and she had moved away years ago. She carried a doll with her, always. I thought she was boring, which in my family was least what you wanted to be. Other people were boring; the Atwells were interesting.

Sam liked Milly, though. She would watch him tend to his terrariums, help him carve branches of trees into a more manageable size, listen with interest as Sam explained how his huge cane toad transmitted poison from the glands behind its eyes. Only Sam was able to pick the toad up; when I tried, it puffed to twice its normal size. Sam had a carefulness about him that animals trusted. People, too.

I did not like Milly there with Sam when I returned from a ride. And so I stole Milly’s doll and buried it behind the barn. She never came back.

Sam knew what I had done. I had been cruel, and Sam hated cruelty. I think he did not understand it, the impulse to harm another living creature. It’s why he couldn’t ride. The thought of pressing a spur into a horse’s tender side, or lifting a whip against a dumb animal—well, Sam could not imagine it.

He was ashamed of me, and I was almost ashamed of myself, but Milly was quickly forgotten, ground into the dust of a child’s memory.

A girl muttered something nonsensical, talking in her sleep.

“Shh,” Gates said, “shh,” and the muttering stopped.

In Atlanta, my father and I had slept in separate rooms. We’d never traveled alone before, so I didn’t know how to interpret this, but in my great big room I’d cried, and then slapped myself for being so silly and desperate: this was nothing, I told myself, take hold of yourself. I’d fallen asleep to the noise of cars underneath my window, wondering if my father heard the same in the room across the hall, wondering if he was even awake to hear it or dead to the world.

The cars outside my window had made me feel less lonely, though that was silly—the men and women in those cars were no friends of mine.

I wondered if Sam was still awake now, listening to the Emathla crickets. I wondered what else he had heard, today, what else he had done. Mother would still be awake, reading, listening to the radio; Father would still be driving if I had to guess, twisting carefully through the mountains.

I thought of my cousin, Georgie, and wanted to weep, but I would not let myself. I had wept enough for a lifetime. Two lifetimes. Three.

Excerpted from The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani, published in June by Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2013 by Anton DiSclafani. All rights reserved.

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Happiness, Like Water
By Chinelo Okparanta

“America”

We became something—an item, Papa says—in February, months after Gloria’s visit to the school. That evening, I was hunched over, sweeping my apartment with a broom, the native kind, made from the raw and dry stems of palm leaves, tied together at the thick end with a bamboo string. I imagine it’s the kind of broom that Gloria no longer sees, the kind that Americans have probably never seen.

Gloria must have come in through the back door of the flat (she often did), through the kitchen and into the parlour. I was about to collect the dirt into the dustpan when she entered. She brought with her a cake, a small one with white icing and spirals of silver and gold. On top of it was a white-striped candle, moulded in the shape of the number thirty-four. She set it on the coffee table in the parlour and carefully lit the wick. I set the broom and dustpan down and straightened up. Gloria reached out to tuck strands of my tattered hair back into place. I’d barely blown out the flame when she dipped her finger into the cake’s icing and took a taste of it. Then she dipped her finger into the icing again and held the clump out to me.

‘Take,’ she said, almost in a whisper, smiling her shyest sort of smile.

Just then, the phone began to ring: a soft, buzzing sound. We heard the ring but neither of us turned to answer, because even as it was ringing, I was kissing the icing off Gloria’s finger.       

Mama still reminds me every once in a while that there are penalties in Nigeria for that sort of thing. And of course, she’s right. I’ve read of them in the newspapers and have heard of them on the news. Still, sometimes I want to ask her to explain to me what she means by ‘that sort of thing’, as if it is something so terrible that it does not deserve a name, as if it is so unclean that it cannot be termed ‘love’. But then I remember that evening and I cringe, because, of course, I know she can explain; she’s seen it with her eyes.

That evening, the phone rings, and if I had answered, it would have been Mama on the line. But instead, I remain with Gloria, allowing her to trace her fingers across my brows, allowing her to trace my lips with her own. My heart thumps in my chest and I feel the thumping of her heart. She runs her fingers down my belly, lifting my blouse slightly, hardly a lift at all. And then her hand is travelling lower, and I feel myself tightening, and I feel the pounding all over me. Suddenly, Mama is calling my name, calling it loudly, so that I have to look up to see if I’m not just hearing things. We have made our way to the sofa and, from there, I see Mama shaking her head, telling me how the wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed.

Mama stands where she is for just a moment longer; all the while she is staring at me with a sombre look in her eyes. ‘So, this is why you won’t take a husband?’ she asks. It is an interesting thought, but not one I’d ever really considered. Left to myself, I would have said that I’d just not found the right man. But it’s not that I’d ever been particularly interested in dating men anyway.

‘A woman and a woman cannot bear children,’ Mama says to me. ‘That’s not the way it works.’ As she stomps out of the room, she says again, ‘The wind has blown and the bottom of the fowl has been exposed.’

I lean my head on the glass window of the bus and I try to imagine how the interview will go. But every so often the bus hits a bump and jolts me out of my thoughts.

There is a woman sitting to the right of me. Her scent is strong, somewhat like the scent of fish. She wears a head scarf, which she uses to wipe the beads of sweat that form on her face. Mama used to sweat like this. Sometimes she’d call me to bring her a cup of ice. She’d chew on the blocks of ice, one after the other, and then request another cup. It was the real curse of womanhood, she said. The heart palpitations, the dizzy spells, the sweating that came with the cessation of the flow. That was the real curse. Cramps were nothing in comparison, she said.

The woman next to me wipes her sweat again. I catch a strong whiff of her putrid scent. She leans her head on the seat in front of her, and I ask her if everything is fine. ‘The baby,’ she says, lifting her head back up. She rubs her belly and mutters something under her breath. 

‘Congratulations,’ I say. And after a few seconds I add, ‘I’m sorry you’re not feeling well.’

She tells me that it comes with the territory. That it’s been two years since she and her husband married, and he was starting to think that there was some defect in her. ‘So, actually,’ she tells me, ‘this is all cause for celebration.’

She turns to the seat on her right where there are two black-and-white-striped polythene bags. She pats one of the bags and there is that strong putrid scent again. ‘Stock fish,’ she says, ‘and dried egusi and ogbono for soup.’ She tells me that she’s heading to Lagos, because that is where her in-laws live. There will be a ceremony for her there, and she is on her way to help with the preparations. Her husband is taking care of business in Port Harcourt, but he will be heading down soon, too, to join in celebrating the conception of their first child. ‘Boy or girl?’ I ask, feeling genuinely excited for her.

‘We don’t know yet,’ she says. ‘But either one will be a real blessing for my marriage. My husband has never been happier,’ she says.

I turn my head to look out the window, but then I feel her gaze on me. When I look back at her, she asks if I have a husband or children of my own.

I think of Mama and I think of Gloria. ‘No husband, no children,’ I say.

The day I confessed to him about Gloria, Papa said: ‘When a goat and yam are kept together, either the goat takes a bite ofthe yam, bit by bit, or salivates for it. That is why when two adults are always seen together, it is no surprise when the seed is planted.’

I laughed and reminded him that there could be no seed planted with Gloria and me.

‘No,’ he said, reclining on his chair, holding the newspaper that he was never reading, just always intending to read. ‘No, there can be no seed,’ he said.

It had been Mama’s idea that I tell him. He would talk some sense into me, she said. All this Gloria business was nonsense, she said. Woman was made for man. Besides, what good was it living a life in which you had to go around being afraid of being caught? Mobile policemen were always looking for that sort of thing – men with men or women with women. And the penalties were harsh. Jail time, fines, stoning or flogging, depending on where in Nigeria you were caught. And you could be sure that it would make the news. Public humiliation. What kind of life was I expecting to have, always having to turn around to check if anyone was watching? ‘Your Papamust know of it,’ she said. ‘He will talk some sense into you. You must tell him of it. If you don’t, I will.’

But Papa took it better than Mama had hoped. Like her, he warned me of the dangers. But ‘love is love’, he said.

Mama began to cry then. ‘Look at this skin,’ she said, stretching out her hands to me. She grabbed my hand and placed it on her arm. ‘Feel it,’ she said. ‘Do you know what it means?’ she asked, but did not wait for my response. ‘I’m growing old,’ she said. ‘Won’t you stop being stubborn and take a husband, give up that silly thing with that Gloria friend of yours, bear me a grandchild before I’m dead and gone?’

‘People have a way of allowing themselves to get lost in America,’ Mama said when I told her that Gloria would be going. Did I remember Chinedu Okonkwo’s daughter who went abroad to study medicine and never came back? I nodded. I did remember. And Obiageli Ojukwu’s sister who married that button-nosed American and left with him so many years ago? Did I remember that she promised to come back home to raise her children? Now the children were grown, and still no sight of them. ‘But it’s a good thing in this case,’ Mama said smugly. She was sitting on a stool in the veranda, fanning herself with a plantain leaf . Gloria and I had been together for two years by then, the two years since Mama walked in on us. In that time, Gloria had written many more articles on education policies, audacious criticisms of our government, suggesting more effective methods of standardizing the system, suggesting that those in control of government affairs needed to better educate themselves. More and more of her articles were being published in local and national newspapers, the Tribune, Punch, the National Mirror and such.

Universities all over the country began to invite her to give lectures on public policies and education strategy. Soon she was getting invited to conferences and lectures abroad. And before long, she was offered that post in America, in that place where water formed a cold, feather-like substance called snow, which fell leisurely from the sky in winter. Pretty, like white lace.

‘I thought her goal was to make Nigeria better, to improve Nigeria’s education system,’ Papa said.

‘Of course,’ Mama replied. ‘But, like I said, America has a way of stealing all our good ones from us. When America calls, they go. And more times than not, they stay.’

Papa shook his head. I rolled my eyes.

‘Perhaps she’s only leaving to escape scandal,’ Mama said.

‘What scandal?’ I asked.

‘You know. That thing between you two.’

‘That thing is private, Mama,’ I said. ‘It is between us two, as you say. And we work hard to keep it that way.’

‘What do her parents say?’ Mama asked.

‘Nothing.’ It was true. She’d have been a fool to let them know. They were quite unlike Mama and Papa. They went to church four days out of the week. They lived the words of the Bible as literally as they could. Not like Mama and Papa, who were that rare sort of Nigerian Christian, who had a faint, shadowy sort of respect for the Bible, the kind of faith that required no works.

‘With a man and a woman, there would not be any need for so much privacy,’ Mama said that day. ‘Anyway, it all works out for the best.’ She paused to wipe with her palms the sweat that was forming on her forehead. ‘I’m not getting any younger,’ she continued. ‘And I even have the names picked out!’

‘What names?’ I asked.

‘For a boy, Arinze. For a girl, Nkechi. Pretty names.’

‘Mama!’ I said, shaking my head at her.

‘Perhaps now you’ll be more inclined to take a husband,’ she said. ‘Why waste such lovely names?’

The first year she was gone, we spoke on the phone at least once a week, but the line was filled with static and there were empty spots in the reception, blank spaces into which our voices faded. I felt the distance then.

Still Gloria continued to call, and we took turns re -constructing the dropped bits of conversation, stubbornly reinserting them into the line, stubbornly resisting the emptiness.

The end of that first year, she came back for a visit. She was still the same Gloria, but her skin had turned paler and she had put on a bit of weight.

‘You’re turning white,’ I teased.

 ‘It’s the magic of America,’ she teased back. And then she laughed. ‘It’s no magic at all,’ she said. ‘Just lack of sunlight. Lotsof sitting at the desk, writing, and planning.’

It made sense. Perhaps she was right. But it was the general consensus in Port Harcourt (and I imagine in most of Nigeria)that things were better in America. I was convinced of it. I

heard it in the way her voice was even softer than before. I saw it in the relaxed looks on the faces of the people in the pictures she brought. Pictures of beautiful landscapes, clean places, not littered at all with cans and wrappers like our roads. Snow, white and soft, like clouds having somehow descended on land. Pictures of huge department stores in which everything seemed to sparkle. Pictures in which cars and buildings shone, where even the skin of fruit glistened.

By the time her visit was over, we had decided that I would try to join her in America, that I would see about getting a visa. If not to be able to work there, then at least to study and earn an American degree. Because, though she intended eventually to come back to Nigeria, there was no telling how long she would end up staying in America. The best thing for now was that I try to join her there.

Excerpted from Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta, published in August by Mariner Books. Copyright © 2013 by Chinelo Okparanta. All rights reserved.

Ten Questions for Yanyi

3.1.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Yanyi, whose second poetry collection, Dream of the Divided Field, is out today from One World. Many of the poems in Dream of the Divided Field concern a separation of lovers, and the poet’s use of the second-person singular implicates the reader: “We get to the room and I’m dared / to agree: you’re the monster. / I neither lie nor tell the truth / for both of us.” Throughout the collection, Yanyi remains this attuned to relational dynamics, and troubles the reader’s expectations. In a Caesarean section, is it the doctor or the newborn that cuts the mother open? “My mother has a long scar from where I, or they, cut her.” Written with great tenderness and intimacy, Dream of the Divided Field reveals what we do (and do not) owe to others, and what we owe to ourselves. “Here is a book of the body, a book like no other,” writes Ilya Kaminsky. “Yanyi is a terrific poet, one who’s written for us a book to read when we wake in the middle of the night and need a voice that is filled with longing, truth, and delight of being, despite all the painful odds.” Yanyi is a writer and critic. He is the author of The Year of Blue Water, which won the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. His work has also been featured in Tin House, Granta, and A Public Space, and at the New York Public Library. The recipient of fellowships from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Poets House, he is the poetry editor of Foundry and gives creative advice at the Reading.

1. How long did it take you to write Dream of the Divided Field?
Active work on the book was between 2019 and 2021. The composting scraps, though, came mostly in 2018. For half of 2019 I plowed forward with an idea of a book without the book. Then summer came and there was a lightning moment, a moment when the cup overflowed.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
It being my second. There is a strange tension between fear and hubris. Fear of never publishing again—the Yale Younger Poets curse—and fear of running out of money and therefore running out of time. Hubris because having written one book, I thought I knew the way for another. What I wrote, how it was ordered, how I edited it—this book was completely different. I had to fumble through again. My comfort is in how that is the same.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I have an office and I like to write in the early morning. But reality rarely follows intention. I still write almost anywhere, often on my phone or a notebook, chasing dreams or the dog. But in the office I will write in a word processor. Recently, in Adobe Garamond.

4. What are you reading right now?
The Complete Adventures of the Borrowers by Mary Norton and, intermittently, a translation of the I Ching.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
A few years ago I would have said Linda Gregg, but I feel as though she has been receiving exactly that. Linda Gregg led me to Laura Ulewicz, whose work is not currently in print, a fate that comes to many deserving writers for systemic reasons. Kazim Ali, who innovates hybrid forms from book to prolific book. I also love Agha Shahid Ali, a poet whose work challenges, eludes, and inspires me in lyric and epic ways. I would also say any work in translation, which makes up only 3 percent of all publications in the United States.

6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
Sustainable instead of survivable wages for the stewards of the arts—the program coordinators, the teachers, the editors, the publicists, the booksellers, the critics, the librarians—the people who bring this work into their communities, without whom these poems would remain private words on the page.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
The first draft of this manuscript elegized a relationship. But then my editor, Nicole Counts, helped me find how it was also about homes, which helped me understand how it was about me—the book within the book. I learned that every book I write is about me, no matter what I think about it.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
When I can read it straight through without reaching for my pen. This is a fleeting window: As I change, what I want from my writing changes. So the other part of finishing is to let it finish.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I rarely show single poems to others any longer. I know they are still cooking, so why serve the cake raw in the middle? I have a small group of friends who I turn to for full manuscripts. I will name one as an example, the Canadian writer Emma Healey, whose first book of essays comes out in April. I love Emma’s heart, her matrixed and tender intellect, and that we met in high school before any of this book business.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I think often of Toni Morrison saying that racism is a distraction. Evil is determined to convince me my life cannot be mine. It applies to so much else.

Yanyi, author of Dream of the Divided Field

Ten Questions for Jane Pek

2.22.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jane Pek, whose debut novel, The Verifiers, is out today from Vintage. As an ardent fan of mystery novels, Claudia Lin is almost too invested in her work at Veracity, a company that offers discreet investigative services to people using online-dating platforms. One day a client is reported to be found dead, and while Claudia’s superiors believe this is none of Veracity’s business, she secretly begins to explore the case. Through Claudia’s perceptive and entertaining narration, The Verifiers underscores the pitfalls and absurdities of modern technology. The novel is also an intimate portrait of a young, queer Chinese American person forging her own path. “A clever and thought-provoking mystery laced with wit and insights about technology and relationships, who we are and who we pretend to be,” writes Charles Yu. “Smart, twisty fun.” Jane Pek was born and grew up in Singapore. She holds a BA from Yale, a JD from New York University, and an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. Her short fiction has appeared in the Brooklyn Review, Conjunctions, Witness, and twice in Best American Short Stories. She lives in New York City, where she works as a lawyer at a global investment company.

1. How long did it take you to write The Verifiers?
A very long time…. I came up with the original premise for the book seven or eight years ago at this point. I worked on various versions of it during my MFA, got so far as to start submitting to agents—and then realized the book wasn’t ready and spent nine months overhauling it before going out to agents again. From there it took another year of revisions before I sold the book, and then several more months of editing.

2. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I was living in Singapore for a year in between my job at a law firm in New York City and starting my MFA. While sitting on a bus and staring out the window, the thought came to me: What if there was an agency that verified people’s online-dating personas? I had recently heard a BBC Radio segment about wedding detectives in India who would be hired when a couple got engaged—typically by the parents of one or even both sides—to check up on the prospective bride/groom and their family. I thought it’d be interesting to apply that concept in the online-dating context.

3. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Tying things up. Given that I was playing with tropes of the murder mystery, it felt essential to resolve the question of how the crime was committed, by who, and why—and how my protagonist Claudia Lin figures it out—in a way that was both surprising and satisfying, while keeping within certain parameters I set. That took a lot of head banging against figurative walls.

4. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write at my desk in my room. I’m not a coffee-shop writer, mainly because I’m constantly eating as I write, so I need a kitchen close by. When my partner sees me in the kitchen, I tell her that I’m still working because I’m thinking about my writing as I prepare my food. I write best in the mornings, but I try to squeeze in a bit of work in the afternoons and evenings as well. And I write every day.

5. What are you reading right now?
I’m always halfway through a number of books. Right now: Visitors by Anita Brookner, which I picked up because I was interested to read something about aging and what it’s like to grow old; Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho, a hilarious debut rom-com by a fellow Southeast Asian writer; The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North, which does such an amazing job of pinpointing those moments when a person’s interior world changes; and The Sports Gene by David Epstein, which looks at the science behind extraordinary athletic performance.

6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Rosalie Knecht—I loved her coming-of-age spy novel Who Is Vera Kelly? and I’m so excited that it’s now a trilogy.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
They have both said many insightful things in the course of this process. To pull one out: As we moved closer to publication, my agent, Julie Barer, told me that I should think about what is important to me, in terms of what happens with this book once it is out in the world. I hold on to that because there are so many books coming out all the time, and so many different indicia of external success and validation, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed.

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Verifiers?
How long it takes to publish a book! My day job is in law, and there everyone always wants everything done ASAP—an acronym I have come to revile. It’s refreshing, if also sometimes frustrating, that writing and publishing a book, from start to finish, is typically a multiyear journey.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
My partner, Angela, because I know that if she doesn’t like something or thinks it doesn’t work, she will tell it to me straight.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Again there are so many. But one that I use as a guidepost in everything I write is that plot should follow character, versus character following plot.

Jane Pek, author of The Verifiers. (Credit: Angela Yuan)

Ten Questions for Angel Dominguez

2.15.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Angel Dominguez, whose epistolary poetry collection, Desgraciado (the collected letters), is out today from Nightboat Books. In the letters that comprise Desgraciado, Dominguez, who is of Yucatec Maya descent, speaks back to Diego de Landa, the sixteenth-century colonizer who nearly eradicated the written Maya language. It is not an easy task to conjure the dead: “It’s always this approximation that lacks a temperament,” writes Dominguez. “You lack a temperature. You lack a sense of woe. Sometimes, I fold you up into an idea. Sometimes, I let myself eat what’s left of you.” But the poet persists, and with each letter and repetition of “Dear Diego,” they refuse to let their voice go unrecognized. They challenge the dead man, but they also find their own “organs in the rubble.” They offer evidence of themselves and all the nuances of the legacy of colonialism. “Angelito’s letters to the pinche colonizer are portals, cenotes on the page that open up a profundo space in this Western void that allows our brown skin movement and luz and gives us answers to preguntas we have not been allowed to ask,” writes Josiah Luis Alderete. Angel Dominguez was born in Hollywood and raised in Van Nuys, California, by their immigrant family. They’re the author of ROSESUNWATER (Operating System, 2021) and Black Lavender Milk (Timeless Infinite Light, 2015). Angel earned a BA from the University of California in Santa Cruz and an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.

1. How long did it take you to write Desgraciado?
This project first started back in the summer of 2014 during the fabled Summer Writing Program hosted by the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. I was fortunate enough to be taking a workshop with Farid Matuk and Susan Briante. That class opened me up to a lot of things that continue to open me and my work in unexpected ways. Farid gave us a prompt that was something like, “Write a love letter to your worst enemy,” and I could not think of a worse enemy than Diego de Landa. And so that first letter was written then and there: June 6, 2014, in Boulder, Colorado. The last letters/pieces, including the first line of the book, were written when we were down to the wire with proofs and edits in fall 2021. So all things told this book took seven years and some change to get to where it is now. Between the first and the last letters lives a whole other lifetime of the project existing as a chapbook with Econo Textual Objects, and there were countless fragments, files, and even whole notebooks lost to being alive. That’s what makes this book the collected letters.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I think among the most challenging things about writing this book was reckoning with what it means to be honest, not only as a poet and writer, but what it means to be honest as a human being living in the world. Determining how to best communicate the vast interconnected experiences of the interior. How do you reconcile hundreds of years of atrocities? How do you reconcile the constant colonization or neocolonization of the mind? How do you navigate a life in opposition to and in spite of systemic racism, with poetry? I don’t know. I think in all honesty the most challenging thing about writing this book was realizing that I was fighting a fight I could not win with poetry. Decolonization is a verb. An ongoing process and not an imaginary destination.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I used to think I needed idealistic conditions—the right space, pen, notebook, and so on—in order to write, and it was really in the writing of this book that I realized writing happens all the time, it’s just a matter of capturing the thing. I write anywhere/anywhen I can. I once took this practicum with Harryette Mullen over a snowy weekend in Colorado. She said, “Give yourself permission to write,” and that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do from that day on. Writing wherever the writing occurs. I’m always listening to wherever poetry/writing comes from, trying to catch whatever rogue language it might speak/sing or otherwise bring through to me. I think it also needs to be said that time spent thinking is time spent writing. Thinking is writing. In that way I’m always writing—it’s all part of the “project” whatever that might be in the moment of thought. It’s all attending to the cultivation of one’s own craft. That all being said, I’ll write wherever the writing arrives, whether at a table, desk, or on the road. But I recommend using a voice memo or pulling over; I do not recommend scribbling the thing while driving. I’ll write with whatever’s at hand, be it a notes app, notebook, receipt. The importance lies in capturing the immediacy of the thing. These days the writing has slowed down a bit, mutated into essays—like “A Backyard Funeral Afterparty para Latinidad” published by Open Space SFMOMA last fall—and little and not so little poems, stories, and dreams of other projects.

4. What are you reading right now?
Recently I’ve been reading Blood on the Fog by Tongo Eisen-Martin, The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century by Gerald Horne, a book on the Caste War of the Yucatán by Nelson A. Reed, and Kit Schluter’s new translation of Rafael Bernal’s ecofiction His Name Was Death. I’m also really excited about Raquel Salas Rivera’s new book, antes que isla es volcán / before island is volcano, and Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta’s La Movida.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
There are far too many to name all at once. The names that immediately come to mind are: Jzl Jmz (fka Jayy Dodd), Francisco X. Alarcón, Joey De Jesus, Wanda Coleman, and one name that sticks out in my mind is Ronaldo V. Wilson, who is criminally under-celebrated/recognized for his contributions to poetry, writing, and art making at large. His two most recent works, Carmelina: Figures and Virgil Kills, are truly stunning and I hope they bring Ronaldo the flowers he deserves.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
Capitalism! Which also happens to be the biggest impediment to everyone’s life. The systems and structures of power that prop up capitalism value these imaginary notions of capital and currency above human life, and that alone is impediment enough. The “Dow Jones” doesn’t have a pulse. People do. It’s like they think we’ll forget that if only we have enough distractions.

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
I don’t have an agent at this time, so I’ll answer for what I value most in an editor: honesty, clear communication, and trust. Those three things all feel like the same thing to me, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with a number of absolutely stunning editors whose clarity and questions have helped my work grow in ways I wouldn’t have been able to make it grow myself. It has to be said: The first real editor of this work was Raquel Gutiérrez, whose editorial eye and kinship pushed Desgraciado to be a polished Obsidian Mirror and become a chapbook. In working on the final manuscript with Nightboat, I got to work with Andrea Abi-Karam, who pushed the book further toward becoming a reality, asking the tough questions and bringing in the importance of the overall energetic wavelength of the book, its shape, and flow.

8. How did you know when the book was finished?
They had to take it away from me! In all seriousness, it was when I was on a Zoom call with Kit Schluter, who designed the book and worked tirelessly with me and the Nightboat team to bring together the cover you see today. I’d worked forever on this collage that appears on the cover, and when Kit sent over the proofs of the current cover, I just knew. This is it. This is the book.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
There are a few names that immediately come to mind, each with their own reasons for being a most trusted reader. My partner, Hannah Kezema, is a brilliant artist-writer and an obsidian-sharp editor—someone whose eye and ear I trust to tell me if something is actually garbage or worth salvaging. I also keep a close circle of artist-writer friends with whom I’ll check in about new work or work that’s going to print. I’m forever indebted to my Kin: Daniel Talamantes, Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta, Raquel Salas Rivera—who wrote the brilliant foreword for Desgraciado—Erick Sáenz, Domingo Canizales III, and MJ Malpiedi for always being so generous with their time and energy when it comes to reading/reviewing my work. I would be nothing without my Kin.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
It feels really cheesy to say this, but my high school English teacher Mr. Peter Chase once told me, “Write what you know,” and I’ve been trying to ever since.

Angel Dominguez, author of Desgraciado (the collected letters). (Credit: Kit Schluter)

Ten Questions for Sarah Manguso

2.8.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sarah Manguso, whose first novel, Very Cold People, is out today from Hogarth. The setting of Very Cold People, Waitsfield, Massachusetts, is cold in both the literal and metaphorical senses. Heavy snow blankets the streets in winter, but the town is cloaked in loneliness and secrecy year-round. Coming of age in this environment, the young narrator, Ruthie, lives in a dissociated state: “I spent those days feeling half-there, not quite committed to that life.” But she is nevertheless watchful, and through her eyes the reader is introduced to the nuanced class dynamics and legacy of violence in Waitsfield, and by extension, the many towns like Waitsfield in America. “Very Cold People knocked me to my knees,” writes Lauren Groff. “So precise, so austere, so elegant, this story is devastatingly familiar to those of us who know the loneliness of growing up in a place of extreme emotional restraint.” Sarah Manguso is the author of eight books. Her previous book, 300 Arguments (Graywolf Press, 2017), was named a best book of the year by more than twenty publications. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and O, the Oprah Magazine, among other publications. She grew up in Massachusetts and lives in Los Angeles.

1. How long did it take you to write Very Cold People?
In 2015 I sent an e-mail to my agent that read, “I might be writing a novel.” I was testing myself, seeing if I could actually say that to someone. But I’d been wondering how to exorcise Massachusetts from myself for more than thirty years. Very Cold People finally did it.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Leaving aside my received ideas about what a novel was. I knew the Massachusetts book had to be a novel, but I hadn’t begun writing any of my other books with any fixed ideas about their form. And of course the novel is not a form! It is a name for a very large number of possible forms. But for a long time I was terrified that knowingly writing a novel would trick me into producing a boring novel, the average of all existing novels. I got over the fear of writing an average novel only by writing slowly through that dumb fear until the book was done. As soon as I finished it the fear dissipated, and I immediately started writing another novel.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Wherever, whenever, and as much as possible. Until recently writing was a mostly interstitial activity for me; paid work and parenting and household management and illnesses took up most of my time, and those activities didn’t leave long stretches of time to write. But I was almost always thinking about writing, and I integrated the other parts of my life, as much as I could, into the writing. And I still do that.

4. What are you reading right now?
Samantha Hunt’s forthcoming The Unwritten Book: An Investigation.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
I immediately freeze when asked to pluck a single name out of the panoply. American writers ought to read more work in translation, and Katie Kitamura has listed some excellent English-language publishers of translated work in her own Ten Questions interview. There are also plenty of English-language writers who are underrecognized. The way to find them is simple: Read small-press books. If you are able, go to independent bookstores, used-book emporia, book swaps, and library sales and browse the physical shelves. Don’t let an algorithm tell you what to read. Disobey the algorithm.

6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
At the risk of sounding coy, I’ll say that the biggest impediment to my writing life was recently removed from my life. I currently feel unimpeded.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
There are so many kinds of writers with all sorts of lives! I prefer to tailor advice to the individual, when asked. And there are so many different sorts of MFA programs now. But I don’t think an MFA is strictly necessary or sufficient.

8. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
That the anchor story, the main relationship depicted in the book, was between the narrator and her abusive mother. As soon as my editor said that, I realized it was true, and had been true all along.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
Sheila Heti, who vigorously corrects my course when I stop writing like myself and start pandering to some imagined general audience. She lives on another planet where artists don’t worry constantly about money. The name of that planet is Canada.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
This isn’t exactly advice, but during the first semester of my poetry MFA, I confessed to my teacher Jorie Graham that I’d started writing short prose pieces and couldn’t stop and wasn’t writing poems anymore. I was disappointed in myself and felt that I was letting everyone down—my teacher, the program, and the foundation that was paying for me to become a poet. Jorie said, “So?” That one-word response gave me permission to write whatever I wanted to write for the rest of my life.

Sarah Manguso, author of Very Cold People.

Ten Questions for Lan Samantha Chang

2.1.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Lan Samantha Chang, whose third novel, The Family Chao, is out today from W. W. Norton. Written as a homage to The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Family Chao is a philosophical murder mystery with richly imagined characters. At the heart of Chang’s telling are the three brothers James, Ming, and William (also known as Dagou, meaning, big dog). Each has a distinct personality and relationship to their tempestuous father, Leo, and each comes under scrutiny after their father is found dead. Set in and around the family’s Chinese restaurant in Haven, Wisconsin, the novel dramatizes the unique fault lines of immigrant family life. “Devastating and searing, laugh-out-loud funny and profound, Chang’s latest novel is infused with beautiful, evocative writing that will quicken your heart and mind,” writes Jean Kwok. “A masterpiece.” Lan Samantha Chang is the author of two previous novels, Inheritance and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost, as well as the collection Hunger. A recent Berlin Prize Fellow, she has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Chang is the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and lives in Iowa City.

1. How long did it take you to write The Family Chao?
The earliest sentences in the novel were written more than fifteen years ago, in 2005 or 2006. After one hundred pages I could tell I’d started a book with multiple perspectives. I put the project aside after I moved to Iowa. Between my job and becoming a parent, I didn’t have time to tackle anything complicated. When I took it up again around 2013, I realized that the book would be an homage to The Brothers Karamazov. I dumped almost all of the early work and started over.

2. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Here is the seed from my writing log: “The story takes place in one night: It is a huge dinner party.” The idea of a dinner party raised many questions for me. Whose party was it? What happened at the party? And what did everybody eat? It was a wonderful, loaded situation.

3. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
There were two big challenges to writing The Family Chao: First and foremost, The Brothers Karamazov is a towering masterpiece of world literature. The very idea of writing an homage to that book was daunting, and it took me more than a year to put aside my fear of attempting it. Second, it was a challenge to find time to write. During the academic year I had to carve out half an hour here, an hour there.

4. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I lived alone for the first fifteen years of my writing life. I married at thirty-nine, and at forty-two I found myself living in Iowa with a husband and daughter, working full-time running a program of almost a hundred highly gifted graduate students. I had to get away in order to dig into the novel. For six years I went to residencies twice a year. At the residencies I would write in bed, sometimes waiting long days and evenings until the real world quieted down and words came to me. My husband is a visual artist, and he understood. When I came home from one of these super-infusions of creative time, I would work for maybe an hour a day until the next residency.

5. What are you reading right now?
I’m rereading The Brothers Karamazov. While writing my novel I couldn’t look at it for five years; it would have been impossible to sit with my own frail project in the face of that masterpiece. Now that my book is coming out, I get to enjoy Dostoevsky again.

6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Hundreds of them. Every year good books fail to get attention while the world focuses on only a few. But since you asked, the late James Alan McPherson deserves many more readers. He was one of the most brilliant and least self-promoting writers I’ve ever met.

7. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
My job as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is both an inspiration and an impediment to getting my own work done. The Workshop is a very special community of highly gifted emerging writers, and it’s inspiring to read their fiction and to get to know them. I work with assistant director Aleksandra Khmelnik, and it’s our job to try to protect their time and space from a world of academic bureaucracy and financial stress, to provide support so that they can get work done. It’s hard to write when so many people are depending on you to make it possible for them to write.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Family Chao, what would you say?
“You will be very surprised at how much you will change and grow during the writing of this project. You are going to find yourself moving in directions you never thought possible. Just enjoy the process. It’s going to work out.”

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I eventually relied on a number of friends to help me with this novel. After nine drafts on my own, I sent it to two writer friends. They had entirely different reactions. What this taught me was that the ninth draft was neither one thing nor another. I had to move it in a definitive direction before it could come into itself. After two more drafts I sent it to several other friends. One helped me think about the community perspective; another brilliantly suggested ways to make the story even closer to the bone. A number of issues came up in our conversations. For example, how could I balance the different points of view? How to include perspectives of the female characters in a novel about brothers? Ultimately I had to figure out the answers myself, but I might never have defined the problems if I hadn’t shown the novel to others. For example, a former student explained to me that most young people don’t use the expression “make love” anymore. This led me to consider how fiction has evolved since I started writing. I’m beyond grateful to everyone for reading the book.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
Lately my husband and I have been watching Get Back, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour documentary reworking of the material used for the film Let It Be. The documentary follows the Beatles through a couple of weeks as they come up with new material for a performance—and the album Let It Be. There is something so inspiring about seeing this process. The members of the band come in to work every morning. They spend hours—days, weeks—messing around, playing other peoples’ songs, arguing, trying out riffs or lyrics, patiently waiting for new ideas to come to them. There’s something amazing about watching music you love being created through experimentation. Sometimes an iconic progression springs full-blown as if from nowhere, and you realize that it wouldn’t have been possible without all of the hours spent trying things out. It’s a cliché, but I suppose the best advice I’ve heard would be, “Just keep trying.”

Lan Samantha Chang, author of The Family Chao. (Credit: IfeOluwa Nihinlola)

Ten Questions for Tochi Onyebuchi

1.25.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Tochi Onyebuchi, whose latest novel, Goliath, is out today from Tordotcom. In the world of Goliath, humans are more segregated than ever. The most privileged have absconded to space colonies, while those who remain on earth suffer from the fallout of climate change and at the hands of “cyberized” police. In one scene on earth, a group of laborers look on as a friend is evicted by a “large metal sphere with arms like a spider.” Up in the colonies, a space-dweller named Jonathan convinces his lover, David, to move down to New Haven. “We’ll be like the pilgrims,” he says. With these contrasting worlds and a large cast of characters, Goliath offers a new staging of urgent issues of race and class. “Onyebuchi sets fire to the boundary between fiction and reality, and brings a crumbling city and an all too plausible future to vibrant life,” writes Leigh Bardugo. “Riveting, disturbing, and rendered in masterful detail.” Tochi Onyebuchi is also the author of the Beasts Made of Night series and War Girls series. His novella, Riot Baby, was a finalist for a Hugo, a Nebula, a Locus, an Ignyte, and an NAACP Image Award, and won the New England Book Award for Fiction and an American Library Association Alex Award. Among his degrees, he holds a BA from Yale and an MFA in screenwriting from the Tisch School for the Arts.

1. How long did it take you to write Goliath?
The short story that served as its seed was written in the summer of 2013. No one wanted to buy it, so I let it sit for some time while working on other things. But I realized that the world and the characters had more to say and do than could be captured in a single short, so around the end of 2014 I returned to it and began writing some of the scenes that would become the “SUMMER” section of the book. I worked on it periodically since then.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I knew the scope I wanted it to have. Inspired by books like Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, I knew I wanted it to be a big book, physically and emotionally, but I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t have the translation software to know what “big” would turn these characters and this setting and this narrative into. So much of the writing process was figuring that out.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Anywhere, all the time. Or, rather, whenever I’m not answering e-mails, which is an increasingly small amount of time. I used to write whenever—between classes, after finishing homework, during train commutes, and so on—back when the administrative work of “being a writer” didn’t overly intrude on the act of writing. But now I’m much more subject to the vagaries of “time-sensitive” e-mails, which means the “write when I can” has taken different shape. All of which is to say that there’s no rhythm or routine to my writing. I do it because I love it, which means I don’t need to be self-cajoled or self-bullied into doing it. I can’t avoid writing, not just because it pays my bills, but because it’s the thing I love to do more than anything in the world. It’s compulsion. It’d be easier for me to stop talking than to stop writing.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m doing some work-related reading that I can’t quite talk about, but next in my queue is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I’ve wanted to get to it ever since I first picked it up in 2016, but events conspired against me. I recently finished Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon and found myself surprised by the humanity thrumming underneath the literary pyrotechnics and the kinda math-metal post-modernism of the text. Definitely more accessible than Gravity’s Rainbow.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
John Crowley. Which is maybe weird because he’s very much a revered figure for certain few generations of science fiction and fantasy writers. To be honest I think a lot of my picks might fall prey to that dynamic of being acclaimed in SFF, but poorly known outside of it. Crowley completely demolishes what may be a lingering prejudice against SFF: that the genre prioritizes plot over prose, that you can’t find some of the most beautiful sentences in the English language there.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Ah, the MFA Question. I loved my MFA program but for reasons that were specific to the program and that make me realize my MFA experience was, in many ways, a unicorn experience and not at all what appears to be the norm. My background is prose; I’d been writing it since I was maybe eight or nine or ten. By the time I was MFA age, I knew how to write a book—a publishable book, in fact—even if I hadn’t sold one yet. But I wanted to know how to write for film. I wanted to know how to write for TV. And I didn’t want to spend a decade and a half figuring it out, so an MFA in dramatic writing was an accelerant for me. It helped, I think, that I received instruction in a thing I didn’t already know how to do—I’d written a few features and some TV stuff before, but I was like a kid kinda messing around on the piano, not able to read sheet music—as opposed to something I was pretty sure I could do at a more-than-competent level. Another component was that my class was extraordinary. I had titanically brilliant writers for classmates, writers who’ve gone on to write for shows like Vida and The Underground Railroad. One classmate, in fact, wrote the script for Halle Berry’s directorial debut, Bruised. What served as foundation for our experience was the abundant love we had for each other. It was nothing but support in those workshops. We cheered each other in class, praised each other, celebrated each other, even as we pushed each other to improve. I’ve since discovered that a lot of MFA programs are not like that, and that even our year in that program was unique. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. There’s a lot of writing stuff you can learn for free. I think the utility of a program can come from doing one in a field you’re unfamiliar with, where it can feel like you’re actually learning something new as opposed to being told what to do differently in a field you may already know. It’s easier to get pride out of the way for me that way.

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
The ability to meet the story where it lives. Folks in those positions sometimes submit to the temptation to turn a client’s story into what they think it should be. But I think part of having real vision and talent in those positions is seeing in the story the best possible version of itself and having your tuning fork ring at the same frequency as the writer’s. I don’t think it’s the writer’s job to worry about marketability or about audience or about all the externalities that can determine or thwart a book’s success. That’s the ambit of publicity and marketing departments. The goal of the editor-agent dyad, I think, is to make the author’s book its most actualized self.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Goliath, what would you say?
I don’t know that I’d say anything. Novikov self-consistency principle notwithstanding, I’m still too frightened of potentially altering that boy’s course. So I’d just watch and smile.

9. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
Working on a book at all. Returning to the distinction between writing and being a writer, there’s a period after a book is written where processes attendant to publication begin to take over. Promo work begins, maybe adaptation talk ramps up, an ecosystem grows around the thing. As lovely as all that is and as blessed as I feel being able to live in those spaces, it’s not writing. The thing I’ll miss most about working on this book is working on a book, period. I take consolation in the fact, however, that there is more writing on the horizon.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Fail brilliantly.” I think I got that from Elizabeth Bear, but I may be misattributing it. But that’s gotta be it. Felt like I was being given permission to do the dangerous thing, the weird or unconventional thing, the thing I wasn’t quite sure I could pull off. Writing at the edges of my abilities thrills and terrifies me, and it’s in those moments that I feel most connected to whatever higher state or power this writing thing puts me in communion with. The advice isn’t just to do the dangerous thing, it’s to put all of your ability, your wisdom, your knowledge of the craft, your experience, all of that into the effort. Stretch yourself as far as possible. Who cares that you didn’t get the moon if you come back with a fistful of stars?

Tochi Onyebuchi, author of Goliath. (Credit: Christina Orlando)

Ten Questions for Weike Wang

1.18.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Weike Wang, whose second novel, Joan Is Okay, is out today from Random House. By her own account, Joan is not a creative or social person. An ICU doctor in New York City, she prefers numbers and the company of machines. “Machines can tell you things that the people attached to them can’t,” she says. Then a series of changes force her to confront her life anew: Her father dies, her mother travels from China for what is intended to be a temporary visit, a new neighbor moves in on her floor, and a crisis descends on New York City. As Joan navigates new and uncertain terrain, she offers up subtle, yet startling insights on work, family, and identity. “Unflinchingly, Joan Is Okay challenges some of our fundamental views on home, belonging, family,” writes Ha Jin. “A smart, quietly engaging novel that is also warm and moving.” Weike Wang is a graduate of Harvard University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry and her doctorate in public health. She received her MFA from Boston University. Her debut novel, Chemistry (Knopf, 2017), won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and Wang was selected as a 5 Under 35 honoree of the National Book Foundation. She lives in New York City.

1. How long did it take you to write Joan Is Okay?
In total about three years. Coming up with the idea, though, took about two, which I’m not including in the total because I was writing something else during that time, a failed novel about two friends. I kept getting stuck and discouraged. Then one of the friends began to interest me more and this character went on to become Joan, while the other character slowly morphed—and was trimmed down—into Joan’s neighbor.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
There are two most challenging things to book writing in general, and Joan Is Okay was no exception.

1. Not knowing where you’re going in the middle and perpetually wondering if you should give up. Middle equals muddle—what Peter Ho Davies calls it in his fabulous book about revision, which I’ve just finished.
2. Working through the crazy inefficient process of writing and being asked, almost immediately upon bumping into someone I know and who knows I’m writing a book, “Hey, how’s that book going?”

For this book in particular, a challenging aspect was the incorporation of certain present-day events, without letting those events consume the story. But no spoilers here, so you will have to read and find out how I did it!

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write at home, at my desk, on a desktop, surrounded by cups of fluids like coffee, hot water, sparkling water, and later in the day, wine. I prefer to write in the morning before anyone else is awake and when it’s still dim outside. Then throughout the day, while I’m working/teaching, I will jot down ideas for the next morning on a small white pad that I keep next to my keyboard. During the editing process of Joan Is Okay, I got up at 6 AM for many months to write. If I’m immersed in a project, I will write every day for as long as I can. For all housekeeping matters like buying more paper towels, dog food, and so on, my husband will try to catch me before I get to my desk. He says once I’m at my desk, I tend to disappear and not acknowledge him. I don’t disagree. I can’t write with anyone else in the room. I can’t write in new, exotic locales or in public locations. Which rules out libraries, coffee shops, artist communes, writing retreats in dilapidated castles—basically any place inspired writers are supposed to write. 

4. What are you reading right now?
I was reading The Art of Revision: The Last Word by Peter Ho Davies over the holiday break. It was recommended to me by a writer-friend, Linda Feng, and now I highly recommend it to you all. Davies studied physics in college so with that STEM similarity between us, I found his analytical approach to revision both reaffirming and insightful. The book is short but packed with craft wisdom that’s worthy of close study. Before that I’d—finally—finished As I Lay Dying. The previous times I’d tried to read that book, I embarrassingly never made it past page fifty. I wasn’t sure what Faulkner was trying to do, I wasn’t sure if he was trying to be funny—he was—so I would put the book down. Once I got over myself and finished the book, I knew I would never forget it. But this semester in particular I wasn’t able to read as I would’ve liked, beyond the occasional magazine short story. Because of how adjunct teaching works—you get work when you can and when you get it you feel obligated to accept—I had a three-class load plus a handful of graduate theses to advise. In total I was reading two to three hundred pages per week of student work. That much reading of nascent writing can slow a person down, can make her want to just zone out in front of a television or any white noise producing bright light.

5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Hard question. The writers whom I read and love are all fairly well known in the literary world. If I’m thinking fantastically, I suppose I would wish for literary fiction writers to see the same kind of wide recognition that more commercial writers do, like J.K Rowling. I only mention J.K Rowling because whenever I introduce the concept of creative writing to someone unfamiliar with it, they always ask or joke if I’m going to be the next J.K. Rowling. In the short span of a conversation, we might never move past J.K. Rowling. I’m either her or I’m not. And sometimes that can feel like an existential crisis, which I’m sure many aspiring literary fiction writers experience when faced with external confusion around their ambitions and questions like what is literary fiction and why is it important?  

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Yes, but at the right time. Don’t do it straight out of college. Don’t do it because you don’t know what else to do or as a way to tread water and escape “real life.” Do it because you’re deeply interested in pursuing a writing career, a teaching career, and can handle feedback, however critical. Do it because you’re ready to put in whatever it takes to improve as a writer and reader.  

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
During our many calls about Joan, and as we kept pushing back deadlines, my editor Robin Desser reminded me a few times, “Weike, you can only do a book once.” That’s an obvious point, but also an important one to remember. Publication is always desirable though not at the expense of quality or what’s best for the story.

8. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
I will miss thinking about Joan and her world every second of every day, even when I wasn’t writing, even when I didn’t want to think about her, even in my sleep. But I also won’t miss this so much—a character’s ability to usurp the writer’s entire mind, and to stay there for an unknown amount of time, maybe years, like an unwelcome guest who offers nothing, but also a guest I desperately wanted to please and get to know.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
My husband. He’s usually my first and last reader. How I function is anything I want him to read I paste directly into an e-mail with the subject line Please Read Now. Often, he does read it right away or within the hour because he knows I can panic and then delete too much. He is a very careful reader and helps me pinpoint what exactly I want to say. For Joan Is Okay, he’s had to read hundreds of my e-mails. Not so surprising, most of that novel was grammar-checked by Gmail, and I often found myself editing a scene I’d just sent my husband via e-mail, via another e-mail. My husband says living with a writer who has access to this type of technology is incredibly difficult. So, I try to make him look good when I can, like in this question.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
No best, just a few, collected from generous teachers I’ve had along the way:

1. Trust the process.
2. You do just have to sit down and do it.
3. Don’t be afraid to knock down your house of cards, i.e. start over.

What I like to tell my students on the first day of class: I come from a research-centric background, and writing is a lot like research. In the beginning, what you don’t know greatly surpasses what you know, and while that can be daunting, it doesn’t stop true scientists from pushing forth and testing ideas. Similarly, a writer has to be willing to take risks and be uncomfortable for a long time, tinkering, fixing, rearranging in the dark, before a story starts to take shape.

Weike Wang, author of Joan Is Okay. (Credit: Amanda Peterson)

Ten Questions for Edgar Gomez

1.11.22

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Edgar Gomez, whose debut memoir, High-Risk Homosexual, is out today from Soft Skull Press. In the first chapter of High-Risk Homosexual, Gomez recalls a trip to Nicaragua at thirteen in which their uncles attempted to curb their queerness and train them to be a man. But Gomez admits the mission was not one-sided: “What would always nag me, though, beyond anyone else’s complicity, is my own. As much as my family wanted me to be a man, I wanted it more.” Here and throughout the memoir, Gomez reckons with both the world and themselves, examining their memories and identities with unique tenderness and honesty. Back home in Florida, and later in California, they continue the difficult work of becoming. Always questioning and seeking, they model how to embrace and build a queer future. “High-Risk Homosexual is a keen and tender exploration of queer identity, masculinity, and belonging,” writes Laila Lalami. “Edgar Gomez writes with honesty and humor about the difficulty of straddling boundaries and the courage of finding oneself.” Edgar Gomez is a Florida-born writer with roots in Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. Their writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Longreads, Ploughshares, and the Rumpus. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of California in Riverside, they live in Queens, New York.

1. How long did it take you to write High-Risk Homosexual?
I worked on it off and on for around seven years, which sounds wild, but a lot of that time I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I was still trying to figure out how to tell a story. When I started I didn’t know about things like plot, or characters having motivations, or stakes, or structure, or how to manage time, or really anything. It was a learning curve. One of the reasons it took so long is because those things weren’t discussed in many of the early nonfiction creative writing classes I took, which was a real disservice to me, because those are tools that every memoirist needs to know, not just novelists. Don’t get me wrong, we did have some useful conversations about ethics, about research and stuff like that. But that was all big picture. I needed to know what a scene was first. I was totally lost during many of those years.

2. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Oh god, this is something that I used to be super embarrassed of that now makes me proud. So when I say the book took around seven years, it’s because I’m counting a few chapters that I started writing while I was an undergrad. One of them is “Boy’s Club,” which is about a night I went to a gay bathhouse when I was twenty-one. I remember that at the time I wrote that story, I needed to come up with something for this creative nonfiction workshop I was in. I really wanted to go to that bathhouse, but I was too afraid and had a lot of shame around my queerness, so I sort of used the workshop as an excuse. In my mind, I was like, “Okay, I’ll get to see what it’s like there, but I’m going to treat this like it’s journalism.” That way, I’d get to go, and I’d also be able to pretend like it was just for the assignment and maybe that way my classmates wouldn’t judge me. Even so, I wasn’t that naïve. I knew some people in my class would still probably judge me. I knew they’d see through my little act. That’s what I’m proud of. That I did it anyway.

3. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Figuring out my intended audience! Early on I wanted it to do too much for too many people. I was trying to satisfy my classmates in my workshops, all queer folk, all Nicaraguans, all Puerto Ricans, all Latinx folk, the publishing industry….There are so few queer, Central American memoirists. I felt this pressure to represent us all, and I also thought, “If this isn’t successful, when will another one of us get the chance?” Part of that is valid, but another is actually quite egotistical of me. I mean, I struggle enough representing myself. Once I realized that this book couldn’t be everything for everyone, that it was unreasonable to put the weight of the entire industry on myself, I was free.

4. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Wherever I can, whenever I can, and as often as I can. In the beginning I wrote a lot at Starbucks and cafés, because I still lived with my mom, or else in extremely loud environments and I found more peace there. That, or I was working several jobs and hardly ever home, so I treated them as little writing sanctuaries between shifts. For that reason, it bugs me when I hear people make fun of “Starbucks writers.” It’s like, okay? You have stability and a nurturing space to write? Is that not enough? Why do you have to come for people who don’t? That was where I wrote before the pandemic. Now I mostly work in my bedroom with the door closed. I need to write something, even if all I do is tweak a sentence, at least twice a week, or I start getting this itchy feeling in my brain. My ideal writing session begins at around noon and runs about five hours, which is when I start getting lightheaded because I probably haven’t eaten.

5. What are you reading right now?
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde and I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat by Christopher Gonzalez. I’m taking in Sister Outsider slowly because Audre Lorde packs so much into her writing and I don’t want to miss anything. I like to chew over her ideas for days. I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat is a collection of short stories about bisexual Puerto Rican men. Reading it a little faster, but also definitely don’t want to miss anything….

6. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Minda Honey. Her forthcoming memoir, An Anthology of Assholes, is going to be everywhere—trust. Vulnerable. Heartbreaking. Hysterical. Nuanced. Compulsively readable but never easy. What Minda does with words is magic. Know her!

7. What trait do you most value in your editor (or agent)?
Both my editor, Sarah Lyn Rogers, and my agent, Danielle Bukowski, are genuinely good people. Sarah is especially patient with me. Maybe I think that because I’ve been socialized to feel like a burden, but she always takes her time to walk me off the edge when I start panicking and is all-around reassuring. Danielle is great and so supportive. One of the first things she told me when I met her was that she’d never ask me to write about trauma. Oddly, that made me more comfortable writing about trauma. In general I’ve had a lot of anxiety around publishing because I’ve internalized the gatekeeping that’s been put in place to keep people like me out. I’ve worried about being perceived as difficult to work with for objecting to anything, or “risky” because of what I write about or trivial because I use humor in my stories. But they’ve always had my back.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started High-Risk Homosexual, what would you say?
Your writing is important, but it’s not the most important thing in the world. Make sure to prioritize other parts of your life, too, especially your friendships. Your words can only support you so much. That, and don’t stress about the rejections. In retrospect I’m grateful for nearly every story rejection I’ve gotten. Those stories weren’t ready. I write much better now.

9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
I’m grateful to be in a writers group with Minda Honey, Natassja Schiel, Asha French, Elizabeth Owuor, and Natalie Lima. They’re the only people I’m showing my early drafts to right now. There’s a lot of reasons why I trust them, but number one is that I respect their work. I love what they write. I truly enjoy their art. I don’t take that for granted. You have to be in community with people you admire.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
I can’t remember who said this or in what context, but it’s something I think about a lot, especially when I’m writing something I’m worried will never make it beyond a Word doc on my computer: “You have to make yourself undeniable.” I like that it acknowledges that not everyone will love your work, but at the same time asks you to make it so good they can’t reject it.

Edgar Gomez, author of High-Risk Homosexual. (Credit: Joseph Osborne)

Craft Capsule: Bisexuality on the Page

by

Christopher Gonzalez

11.1.21

This is no. 113 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

In a review of Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) for the Atlantic, Caleb Crain writes of the character Felix, who is identified in-text as bisexual, “I came to think of his bisexuality as a bay leaf that was said to have been added to the soup but hadn’t been.” To Crain, the matter of Felix’s bisexuality “goes largely unsubstantiated.” Fascinating! And I mean that sincerely. I do not wish to debate or analyze the role of bisexuality within Rooney’s novel specifically, but I think this nugget of criticism, the idea that queerness must be substantiated on the page, is a far more interesting discussion to have.

When I started writing the stories that became my debut collection, I wasn’t fully out yet. I began writing the oldest story, “Half Hearted,” about a man who fears his heart may devour itself, back in 2015. I was a senior in college and just figuring out that I was maybe, kinda, could be into men. In my first drafts, the protagonist, Hector, was straight, lonely, and in love with a woman, living his life in a fog of isolation. It was a mess. I tried writing it in the second-person, in the first, and in the third (which is where I landed). I tried and failed writing it as a piece of flash fiction. Nothing stuck. But later, when I was in the process of slowly coming out to myself and then friends, I decided to make Hector queer and turn his love interest into a man. Something clicked into place. I finally figured out how to finish his narrative. The story was less about loneliness and more about his fear that he might not be able to open himself up fully to another person, to the intimacy he most desired. This same fear roiled inside of me.

This is not to say that swapping out names is the key to making something queer. That switch was a first step for me, but not an end point. And the more I wrote, the more I wondered if queerness wasn’t something I needed to try so hard to make explicit; the emotions I explore and interrogate in my fiction will always be inseparable from my place in this world as a bisexual man of color. Whether any particular story of mine is about lovers of the same gender, different genders, or friendships without sexual attraction, I still feel they are layered with a humming pulse of queerness—in the portrayals of intimacy and desire, in the characters’ longing hearts, in their fierce uncertainty.

Labels can be valuable, after all, without them, there will always be a chance that a character intended as bisexual will be read as gay or straight. But how much does this matter? And if labels are included, is it an invitation for readers to test their validity? Is that a test one can truly pass? Is any of this actually the point of fiction?

I only ask questions, because I honestly don’t know.

Just as my writing has shifted and grown over the last seven years so has my relationship to my queerness. And so, it’s possible my stories about bisexual characters may feel surface-level to another reader, perhaps one that is more familiar with a wider canon of bisexual fiction, or perhaps one expecting it to look like something else entirely. What that something else is, I’d love to know.

 

Christopher Gonzalez is a queer Puerto Rican writer living in New York City. His debut story collection, I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat, is forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project in December. His writing has also appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, the Forge, Little Fiction, Lunch Ticket, the Millions, and the Nation, among other publications. He serves as a fiction editor for Barrelhouse and spends his waking hours tweeting about Oscar Isaac, book publishing, trash television, and the Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich @livesinpages.

Thumbnail: Hossein Rivandi

Craft Capsule: On Writing Fat Characters

by

Christopher Gonzalez

10.25.21

This is no. 112 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

You might consider it a bit of a cop-out that I open my short story collection I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021) with an author’s note: “Every narrator in this collection is a bisexual Puerto Rican cub with the exception of one—in that story, the narrator is gay.” And maybe it is! What started out as a joke I made on Twitter became a necessary signpost. Make no mistake, I beg, these characters are not Latinx in the vague sense; they’re Puerto Rican. They’re queer, yes, but with an experience more specifically rooted in bisexuality. All these elements are important to me, though perhaps the word with the most weight, pardon the pun, is cub. (I also considered using bear. In any case, situating their body sizes and type within a queer framework was vital to the project.) I have consumed so much queer media focused on bodies that were white and slim, or muscular and white, or tall and white, and I wanted my fat bisexual characters of color to exist in all their realities without an ounce of doubt from the reader.

You could say I’m unnecessarily defensive. I am. It was hammered into me as a young writer that the cruel default in fiction is characters who are white and straight and cisgender unless marked as some kind of “other.” What, then, becomes the presumed default for the body?

Writing the body is absolutely a matter of craft. How much should we foreground physical description, particularly when it comes to the narrator? I’ll admit I’m quite lazy on this front. I prefer to keep my details lean. First-person narrators don’t need to weigh themselves or stare in the mirror and describe the shape of their gut, unless, of course, they must. Jeans may fit snuggly, or a jacket may not close, or a zipper may break. I think there are times when such incidents work, but can our fat characters exist without the body becoming a playground for everyday violences? The fat body can be greatly loved as well, and the language for describing it can be lush, velvety, and serve the narrative—in which case, yes, bring it on. I’ll gulp up every word! But what if that’s not the project either?

With my own book, I wondered if I could write characters for whom fatness was not always an immediate concern. Could such a point be highlighted in fifteen stories side by side? I chose to create my own baseline and, on the matter of when and when not to include descriptions, I ultimately landed on: It just depends. I’m most hyperaware of my own body in specific situations—during sex, while eating among friends, or while trying on clothes, to name a few. Where does it feel most natural for a character to take a beat to consider their own body? And what is illuminated when you do mention it?

These questions were also on my mind while reading Jaime Cortez’s phenomenal and hilarious debut story collection Gordo (Black Cat, 2021). The main character’s nickname “Gordo” does a lot of the heavy lifting (again, sorry, sorry) in establishing his physique, and his size is mentioned by other characters offhandedly or more pointedly in arguments, but I was primed and much more interested to look at the observations made by Gordo himself. In “Ofelia’s Last Ride,” the final story in the collection, Gordo reflects on his body during a visit to Mexico: “Normally, I don’t like it when people tell me I’m fat…I better get used to it, because here in the barrio everybody and their dog are going to remind me I’m fat. People who don’t even know me call me Gordo.” Later, he describes how the only outfit he has to wear to a funeral doesn’t quite fit over his stomach. This scene feels so perfectly placed: Life and death, the end of childhood. A familiar frustration against a new loss. The comedy of a too-small shirt. The moment also serves as a continuation of his earlier thought, that his fatness is always there, a fact of his existence. I then revisited Gordo in the stories where his body wasn’t directly acknowledged. I considered how he moved through the narratives, always visible whether he was a passive observer or active participant. The full picture we get is this tenderhearted kid who is overwhelmingly kind and sincere, and alive with laughter.

After reading Gordo, I felt more confident in my decision to prompt readers of my book. I want them to have a similar kind of understanding from the jump. These characters grappling with loneliness and heartache and anxiety, who fuck and love and contain anger, who are frustrated by their own inability to takes risks, who, yes, love or at the very least feel passionately about food, are all fat. Their fatness is neither an obstacle to overcome nor portrayed in an overly positive light. Their fatness, like mine, just is.

 

Christopher Gonzalez is a queer Puerto Rican writer living in New York City. His debut story collection, I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat, is forthcoming from Santa Fe Writers Project in December. His writing has also appeared in Catapult, Cosmonauts Avenue, the Forge, Little Fiction, Lunch Ticket, the Millions, and the Nation, among other publications. He serves as a fiction editor for Barrelhouse and spends his waking hours tweeting about Oscar Isaac, book publishing, trash television, and the Popeyes spicy chicken sandwich @livesinpages.

Thumbnail: Bruno Dias

Craft Capsule: Body in the Mirror

by

Susan Stinson

3.22.21

This is no. 92 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was an undergraduate, I saw a call for writing about fatness for the anthology Shadow on a Tightrope: Writing by Women on Fat Oppression (Aunt Lute Books, 1983), which became a feminist classic, still in print decades later. I was a young writer who very much wanted to be published. I had been fat all my life. I knew that the shape of my body had been central in defining the shape of my life, but I had no language for how to write or even think about that. The cultural tropes for fat women were virulently dismissive. I knew that they did not represent who I was. The hate language that was regularly shouted at me on the street didn’t either, but I didn’t know how to start to say anything else.

Soon after I graduated, I moved from Colorado to Boston. I got a job at a drugstore and started figuring out how to be a writer. I gave myself the simple assignment to look in the mirror and try to describe myself accurately and, to the best of my ability, without judgment. I chose to do this naked, but the exercise can be equally powerful if the writer is wearing clothes.

It proved to be enormously difficult, both emotionally and because I found that I had extremely limited options for language with which to describe my body. I have said elsewhere that it took participation in grassroots feminism and reading great poets (for me, Gertrude Stein and Walt Whitman) before I could find my belly with my hands and write that it was soft to the touch. Eventually, though, I got there. This is from a lyric essay in my chapbook of poetry and essays, Belly Songs: In Celebration of Fat Women:

My belly pours, hangs, moves, grows hair, shines in marks that fall like fingers curing up around its sides. I am loose, I hang. There are not enough names for the places where my fat gathers on me; there is belly, thigh, hip, chin, but no simple way to say soft-mound-between-breast-and-arms, or low-full-folds-that-are-sides.

I didn’t just observe my body. I also touched it.

I take my belly in my hands. It’s warm. My fingers feel cool, but quickly warm, too. It has a good weight, is soft. I sit very still, and feel the pulse in my thumbs, then find the pulse in the place of my thickest fat. It’s delicate and regular, there, yes, there, yes, there. It comes from the underside where my palms are resting, from the left half and the right half, from veins that curve out the with rest of me. This is not dead lard. It’s my body. It’s my living fat.

Writing Belly Songs opened a vein of literary exploration that eventually resulted in three novels. It changed the way I move through the world too. Having language for fatness—for that aspect of my body I had once understood to be too shameful to speak of—allowed me to begin to know, say, and be more fully who I am. All of that anguished silence was distracting. Living with less of it makes me more present for every other aspect of life. I’ve written about other things, but I know that I’m not done with this topic.

This exercise is useful for any writer. The body is the vessel for all sensory knowledge. Describing one’s physical self with accurate, nuanced attention is like plugging into an electrical socket. There’s a charge. If a writer runs into obstacles to finding language for his, her, or their specific body, then the strategies that arise from grappling with that, or even just touching it lightly, can be revelatory. It has been for me.

 

Susan Stinson is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the author of four novels, including Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Martha Moody (Spinsters Ink Books, 1995; Small Beer Press, 2020). Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Curve, Lambda Literary Review, Seneca Review, and Kenyon Review Online. She is also a recipient of the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize from Lambda Literary. Born in Texas and raised in Colorado, she lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Thumbnail: Oscar Blair

Craft Capsule: Queer Characters Who Behave Badly

by

Peter Kispert

2.15.21

This is no. 88 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

It did not occur to me, while drafting the stories in my debut collection, I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), that they might ever become a book. I had not considered anyone would ever read or judge or enjoy or review my writing, beyond some appearances in literary magazines. After a few years of writing stale straight characters, I had finally begun to write queer stories featuring queer people, who to my great relief felt alive on the page. Late at night on my bed, a dim bulb flickering in the kitchen, screen light white on my face, I conjured it all up, and let my heart lead. In my fiction, I tried to articulate the truth.

But the “truth” felt slippery, uneasy. My queer characters, as I found them, were often a mess of wiring: self-sabotage, deception, jealousy, rage—crackling in ways that risked flame. In various ways, in different stories, I can still recall the experience of channeling these things as I wrote. Underneath the elation of finishing a story, I wondered: Why am I writing this? I sometimes feared my rendering of queer characters who behaved badly would be confused as an endorsement of that bad behavior, but nonetheless the work consumed me.

While revising I returned to the question of why my queer characters were behaving badly. I held my ear to each scene to see if I could hear a human sound inside. I didn’t want to presuppose that these characters were liars, but many shared a painful compulsion for self-betrayal. It did make me wonder: Does a writer make decisions on the goodness or badness of their characters, and why? How?

One reflex I noticed in drafting was to complicate a one-dimensional character by working away from either direction. This character is “bad” and so should have “good” characteristics. This character is “good” and so we must find a flaw. But I found this approach yielded rote shattered vases, reminiscent of my two-dimensional straight characters, and tended to render in a kind of permanent sketch. A more holistic, embodied approach—without judgment—transported me into their lives, which rang with a conditional joy I found exquisitely rich. I had to let them breathe.

Many of the stories in my book feature a protagonist or narrator whose deceptions serve a great self-betrayal. They must be masculine enough, or successful enough, or have friends because they don’t, or even merely have histories that suggest these things, in order to be or feel deserving of the love they chase. Often the lies become the stuff of these characters’ undoing. They mean the best but fail in their pursuit.

It is sometimes suggested that we write to free ourselves, but this has never interested me. The great freedom of the page was that I did not have to run from what I felt, or once had. Acknowledgment of complexity felt like a kiss. Fiction, stories, had been where I went to be honest, through queer characters who had begun to habituate, at times compulsively, their desires to betray themselves. Imposing a sense of goodness on a character flattened them, suffocating a tenderness and kindness that I found my characters do often possess too. In the middle of Indiana, in the middle of the night, I trained my gaze on only what felt true. From that feeling, eventually, the book emerged.

 

Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), which was selected as a Best Book of the Year by Elle and a Best LGBTQ Book of the Year by O, the Oprah Magazine. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in GQ, Esquire, them, Playboy, and other publications. He is finishing work on his first novel.

Thumbnail: Evie S.

Craft Capsule: Creating a Seasonal Writing Practice

by

Khadijah Queen

1.4.21

This is no. 84 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The pandemic, social uprisings, and a volatile political climate—superimposed upon family and work responsibilities, as well as health challenges—has made a regular writing practice impossible over the past ten months. Essays I pitched early in the year didn’t materialize, and only a handful of terribly sad poems arrived in usable condition. The one longform piece I did finish—a zuihitsu that appeared in Harper’s—was about the pandemic, written in April and May as I worried terribly about the health and safety of family members who were sick, and some who are still frontline workers. As a relatively prolific writer, with six published books since 2008 and four more currently in various stages of completion, I’m trying to see my current lack of time and energy to write as a side effect of all that’s happening in the world, but I don’t want to give up on a regular writing practice. To that end, I want to reenvision possibilities for that practice while taking into account the new reality. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to adapt to complicated circumstances; I’ve tried many different kinds of writing practices over the past two decades. My early years of writing consisted of recording lines on my lunch breaks and during lulls at my day jobs, and a few minutes in my car before entering the house in the evening. When my son got older, I somehow managed six years of a daily writing practice, usually a half hour at 5:30 AM with a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin. When I had an emergency appendectomy in 2015, my writing routine tanked as I recovered. Slowly I built back up to weekend flurries, and that lasted long enough for me to complete my fifth book. Then I wrote during intensely concentrated weeks and months for three and a half years of doctoral study, resulting in one book of poetry, the first draft of a memoir and a 270-page critical dissertation by the end of 2019. After all that writing, all I wanted was a break, so I took a couple of months. Then the pandemic happened, and the writing—didn’t. As a person who really needs an intentional writing routine, I felt at a loss. 

How, with mounting caregiving, health issues and work responsibilities, would I fit in regular writing time? I struggled for months, until I hit upon the one thing I hadn’t tried yet—seasons. Thinking in terms of seasons avoids the specificity (and requisite pressure) of calendar dates and days of the week. A seasonal practice could preserve writing goals more gently and flexibly. It might include thematic prompts—write about lightness and travel in summer, or perhaps reflect on freedom; focus on renewal and revisit the pastoral or the aubade in spring; delve into darkness, list modes of comfort, and maybe address grief in winter; autumn writing might spotlight transformation and beauty. Autumn is my favorite season. I love wearing knee boots and turtleneck sweaters and leather gloves, love the early October riot of color in the trees. You can of course define for yourself what each season means. Collect keywords over the year that can provide lasting inspiration. 

Let’s also pause here and define “writing goals.” For me that’s mostly meant books, and that hasn’t changed. But I’ve had to think smaller when it comes to productivity even as I continue to envision larger projects. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, maybe I’ll choose a single element to work on, such as order, or beginnings and endings. For a seasonal practice, choosing writing goals that can be adjusted as needed, and granting yourself the easement of non-specified time to work, seems more than reasonable right now.  

If you have an impending deadline in early February, maybe you’ll work only on the coldest days, when outside pursuits aren’t accessible. In summer, if you enjoy writing outside like I do, choose the sunniest days to work on a patio, or at a socially distant café. If you have a deadline that isn’t urgent, try softening it. Make one date—or date range!—for a first draft, another for draft two, another for draft three. After each draft, especially if it’s spring, buy yourself fresh flowers. Get as much done as you can, then reward yourself with an evening walk or morning drive, weather permitting. These are just a few basic suggestions, and you can adjust goals (and rewards) as you go along. I happen to like dark chocolate, so that’s my default treat. Make a list of yours and have it ready along with those seasonal keywords. I firmly believe we need as many reminders as possible that part of the work of writing is allowing for mental space, for infusions of beauty, for intentional nourishment—physical and otherwise. During these incredibly challenging times, I would wager that flexibility rules the day. Don’t abuse grace, of course; communicate clearly and continue to commit to due dates with integrity, but also make use of kindness—given, and received.

 

Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including Anodyne (Tin House, 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. Holding a PhD in English from the University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.

Thumbnail: Oliver Hihn

Craft Capsule: Writing Hot

by

Jordan Kisner

11.30.20

This is no. 80 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was a writing student, a professor once commented to me that my writing was a little intense. I don’t remember exactly what he said, and he wasn’t unkind, but it was something like “Your writing is always at eleven,” or “Your writing is always just so hot-blooded.” 

This comment elicited a mixed reaction at the time. I wasn’t proud. I didn’t sense that this was a compliment. He was giving me a note: Learn to tone it down sometimes. It felt respectful in its way, as if he were saying, “Okay, you can write like your hair is on fire, but make sure that’s not the only thing you can do.” Which is a good and teacherly thing to do, to discourage a student from leaning too heavily on the thing that feels good, to point out tics and habits. But as a young writer—a female writer, a queer writer—to hear an older male professor note that your work is unrelentingly intense can set off a clamor of questions, insecurities, suspicions, irritations, doubts, shames. This is maybe especially the case when the young writer is writing (as I was) about her own life and self, the source of this overmuchness. 

So I was a little embarrassed, concerned that “intense” was code for melodramatic, maudlin, tacky, purple. Childish. Overfeminine. Hysterical. But also, I wanted to be an intense writer. What was the point of writing if it wasn’t vivid and compelling, if it wasn’t transporting, if it didn’t make you rock back in your seat? I wrote then, and write now, I suppose, to express an intensity to the condition of being, an aliveness that feels full and bewildering. 

After that, though, I spent several years trying to write in a way that was hot-blooded, or full of feeling, but also somehow cool. Writing that was fierce and ardent while being unimpeachably in control of itself. I’ve tried a few ways to do this over the years. The first, maybe, we’ll call The Didion method: Bury feeling in a near-hysterical radiance of detail or texture when describing absolutely mundane things like sock brands; directly reference imminent emotional breakdown (or past breakdown) in prose so deadpan and commanding it seems like possibly a complex joke. Then there is what we might call The Nelson: Go straight to eleven, get poetic and hot about sex, love, heartbreak, pain, and then stave off accusations of mawkishness with theory and academically rigorous discussions of the sex. 

I love both these methods—and Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson—but lately I’ve been thinking about what you lose when you insist on cooling down your prose. Early this summer I had a conversation with Ocean Vuong on my Thresholds podcast during which he spoke about his reclamation of prose that some might dismiss as purple. “I am interested in using a style that a lot of men have deemed too prissy for them to use in the present,” he told me. “It feels like drag to me—to be extra! There’s too much glitter because we want to be blindingly present and seen.” He was speaking about the historical moment when emotional and beautiful writing was deemed feminine and therefore less worthy, and the way that as a [queer] man he might begin to excavate and subvert that. He reminded me, also, that you can find fun and even joy in just going ahead and writing at eleven, writing hot, writing like your hair is on fire—to be blindingly present and seen.  

 

Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardian, n+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas. 

Thumbnail: Dmitry Bayer

Craft Capsule: On Becoming a Pop Star, I Mean, a Poet

by

Chen Chen

11.2.20

This is no. 77 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1. I started to write poetry because of a secret that I had trouble sharing even with myself.

2. I continue to write poetry because, in the fifth grade, my short story about a pregnant witch living in Venice received the following peer critique: “You do know it takes nine months for the baby to grow inside the mom, not two?” I write poetry because I wish I’d responded, “You do know this is a witch baby???” 

3. I knew I would always be a poet after a barely audible “goodbye” in the doorway of a tenth-floor apartment. How there was no elevator and it was the middle of summer and I had to walk down and down those stairs. 

4. I wake up craving poetry because Sawako Nakayasu once said, “I work mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor nonfiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it.”1 

5. Poetry because French class, Russian class. Because Mandarin and English and Hokkien at home. Because English. Because I learn and learn, then forget so much Mandarin. Because I forgot all my Hokkien2 by age seven. Poetry because my first-year advisor in college, a professor of Russian Studies, asked me why all my three-page Tolstoy responses were so late. “Go on,” she said, “give us your narrative.” Poems because I loved how her prompt was a comment on the expected form of my response. Poet because I said, “Time management’s an issue,” which really meant I wanted every paper to be about everything and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character in Chungking Express and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro and was rewatching the film over and over and Googling stills. 

6. In eighth grade I began writing poetry outside of school assignments because I couldn’t keep imitating Robert Frost. I kept writing poetry because it seemed no one else with a secret like this looked like me.

7. Poet because I am a failed musician. Failed painter. Failed scientist obsessed with the moon.3 Failed gymnast, though once I was very, very good at cartwheeling. Poetry because my favorite scenes in Power Rangers were when, instead of running, they all backflipped and backflipped to where the fighting would take place.

8. The violence of the state. The silence of the h in French words, like homme. How violent, many homes. To ask, “Where is home?” as if it’s ever a simple question. To say, “I have a home” as if it’s an unremarkable statement. To say “I have” in Russian, you use a genitive construction that translates to the awkward English, “At me there is.” At home the adults asked, “Why did you get an A-?” in three different languages; there were no questions about whether I would ever start hating myself for what and whom I loved.   

9. I continue to read poetry because it seems every poem has a big secret at its core and I always want to know if it’s a big gay secret. Because Anna Akhmatova wrote, “Sunset in the ethereal waves: / I cannot tell if the day / is ending, or the world, or if / the secret of secrets is inside me again”4 and that seems pretty gay to me. Because Denise Levertov wrote, “Two girls discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry”5 and that sounds definitely gay. 

Because for years I had to settle for subtext and total projection. 

Because when I found Justin Chin’s Bite Hard in a college library, I glanced at just one poem then added the book to my stack to check out. Because I moved it to the middle of the stack, as if hiding it from both the sky and the ground. Because I was so moved to see both “Chinese New Year” and “ex-boyfriends” in one poem. Because was it hide or protect, and do I know the difference now? 

10. In English, I still have trouble with lie versus lay, which I always feel ashamed to admit, though I know English is a troublesome, troubling language that makes one want to lay down, to lie one’s body on its side till all one’s lies have tumbled out from one’s head and belly, and are lain out like one single shadow-body of a liar on the grass. 

11. I started off as a fiction writer. 

12.  I started as a reader of fantastical literature, a writer of both fantasy and science fiction. I started on the playground, telling friends that the jungle gym was a spaceship and we’d better hurry onboard before it took off: “Danny, you’re new to the cause, like me. Amanda, you’re the chosen one, our only hope.” I couldn’t get enough of the galactic, magic, any-kind-of-epic mission; the dueling-with-lasers-or-wands journey. I acted them out, wrote them down. 

Moments of poetry occurred in my stories when I stayed too long in the pocket dimension of an emotion; when I strayed too far into the magic of an image; when I mismanaged the time and leapt through the wormhole/plot-hole back to my implausible Venice and its witch baby. Poetry erupted when I couldn’t keep performing the narrative I was supposed to—that of a boy who liked Amandas, not Dannys. 

13. Looking back, dueling with lasers or wands sounds definitely phallic. 

14. I became a poet after my friends no longer wanted to play the games we made up. After they decided to only play games that would help them grow up. But growing up, for me, meant no longer just playing at, dancing around what I desired. And some days I wanted to grow up. And some days I wanted to die. 

15. I had to Google “coming out.” I had to Google “lie vs. lay.” I had to Google “gay and Asian” and found mainly what white men had to say about bodies like mine. I had to Google “gay Asian American literature.” I had to Google “queer.” I had to Google “fag.” I had to search for one sentence with “I” that eventually I could say out loud. 

16. Poems became my favorite way of telling stories because poems can tell a secret and talk about telling that secret and along the way become another secret.

17. Of course, all this can and does happen in other genres too. And when I write poems I’m drawing on aspects of fantastical fiction, autobiography, realist fiction, standup comedy, Tolstoy as much as Takeshi Kaneshiro, TV shows that got way too many seasons, and elements I don’t want to be able to name. In recent years, lots of prose poems and lyric essay–esque pieces have been showing their blocky faces to me. And very recently, a teensy spoonful of fiction. To call myself poet just makes the most sense, personally, creatively. Poet is where I feel freest to do this and that and wtf.

18. Some nights I just want to be an international sex symbol/pop star with Grammy-worthy vocal chops but still a ton of totally relatable habits, like eating bread. I envy the pop song that can end simply6 by repeating its chorus over and over, slowly fading out yet also burrowing itself into your ear. 

19. A barely audible “hey” in the collapsed year. The violence of state-sanctioned language. My own unbroken, snowy silences. To ask “Where is home?” as if there is one answer. To write home in a poem, like a poem could be a home—is this happy or sad? Strange yet not uncommon, to weep with and into joy. A form of power, a kind of language: to weep and disobey silence. My favorite silence is a space for thought, is spaciousness. A wormhole named Maybe. A parallel galaxy called Another Way. 

20. I continue to poet because now I have all these poet friends who’ll text me to ask what poems I’m writing and I have to start writing again so they’ll stop bugging me and I never want them to stop. 

I continue to poet because I’m not satisfied with the definitions behind, the narratives around “coming out,” “lie vs. lay,” “gay and Asian,” “gay Asian American literature,” “queer,” “fag.” I am always trying to say the everything I’ve lived, am living, but I never want to feel like I’ve said it all. 

For years I believed poetry was the only place where I could be all my selves, any self. I wrote, trying to answer the question, “How can a poem hold the myriad me’s and realms and loves and ferocities and shards and velocities—this whole multiverse that the life cannot, yet?” But can a poem do this? A book of poems? Is poetry a place? 

I am a poet because I ask poetry to do too much, and then it does it. 

 

ENDNOTES

1. From a working note that prefaced a set of Nakayasu’s poems published in How2
2. Except what my parents call each other. 
3. What joy! Poets! Not caring one bit how annoying we are when we go on and on about the moon!
4. “A land not mine,” translated by Jane Kenyon in
From Room to Room (Alice James Books, 1978). 
5. “The Secret” in
O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964). 
6. With the best pop music, this is no simple feat; the chorus has to be excellent.

 

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Publishing Triangle Thom Gunn Award. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and the 2015 and 2019 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence. 

Thumbnail: Romain Gille

Craft Capsule: We Are All Translators

by

Jenny Bhatt

9.21.20

This is no. 73 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Literary translation is about being a close reader in the source language and a skilled writer in the target language. Of course, a language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, diction, and syntax. Languages contain entire cultures within them, entire ways of thinking and being, too. Those of us who translate other writers’ works do so because we want to dive deep and fully immerse ourselves in another world—to pay attention to more than the literal content and preserve the emotions, cultural nuances, and humor from the source to target language.  

This is not unlike how, as readers and writers, we seek to inhabit the worlds of fictional characters. We are all translators. The process of reading involves translating and interpreting the writer’s meaning and intent. The process of writing involves interpreting and giving voice to our own thoughts, which are guided by the things we have read, seen, heard, and experienced. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously wrote, “No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the nonverbal world and secondly, since every sign and every phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase.”

Due to the accretions of traditions and culture over centuries, it is not possible to seamlessly transpose two languages when translating. Similarly, due to our conditioning and subjectivity, it is not possible for two readers to read the same text entirely the same way. And it is not possible for two writers to create entirely the same story. A single piece of writing can have multiple acceptable readings and translations due to the flexibility of language, suppleness of imagination, and versatility of craft techniques. 

I was a writer before I became a translator. But I learned to appreciate linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural diversity more profoundly because of translation work. There are ten key practices of the discipline that pull me in each time:

1. Reading a work closely and repetitively to know it, sometimes even better than the original writer.

2. Listening to the tonalities, textures, rhythms, cadences, and diction in both languages to capture the writer’s voice as fully as possible.

3. Learning nuanced meanings of words and phrases in the target language by seeing them used with different specificity and significance in the source language.

4. Hunting for le mot juste that honors the complexities of both languages.

5. Discovering aesthetic reinterpretations of an original work to suit a new readership or audience linguistically, intellectually, and intuitively. 

6. Deliberating over the subtexts, cultural implications, and stylistic choices made by the original writer in the source language to recreate them in the target language without losing any literary merit.

7. Interrogating the politics of the writer, their text, and the source and target languages.

8. Meditating on the original writer’s themes to convey them with the proper intentions and emotions.

9. Deepening my understanding of the world, past and present, by transforming something foreign into something familiar.

10. Negotiating with what remains untranslatable.

With only one book of translation and a handful of shorter works completed, I am still developing these practices into technical proficiencies. However, as each translation project helps me hone and refine my skills, I am also leveraging these lessons more frequently in my reading and writing. Literary translation is, in the end, about actively co-creating a text with its original writer by adding more shape, context, nuance, and texture to it. Aren’t we all better off as readers if we learn to do the same? And aren’t we stronger writers when we draw from, build onto, and expand upon the world of literature that has come before us?

 

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.

Thumbnail: Patrick Tomasso

Craft Capsule: Doors vs. Corridors

by

Will Harris

8.17.20

This is no. 68 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

During the pandemic, with so many doors locked and shuttered, I lived in the corridors of my house. Thom Gunn describes the corridor as a “separate place between the thought and felt”—a place of uncertainty, where thoughts are unformed and feelings suppressed. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the few poems I managed to eke out were meandering, confused, and muffled.

As the architecture of my house extended into what I wrote, I started looking for poems about houses—either set indoors or using the “house” as a metaphor for the craft of poetry. I was trying to work out what kind of house poetry should be, and how much confusion that house might be able to contain. Soon enough I turned to Emily Dickinson: 

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

I always read this stanza with the ironic hint of the estate agent in her tone (“Superior—for Doors” is particularly funny), which seems to mock the idea you could ever really compare poetry to a house. Though it can feel like using a conceit means committing to it entirely, here the analogy is loosely held, self-consciously tenuous: “If you look to your right, you’ll see some windows. How many? Numerous. And if you look down there, yup, superior doors. You won’t get that with Prose.” The lightness of tone is part of the image she projects about poetry. 

But I read it with another, darker Dickinson poem in the back of my head, this one taking the house less as a metaphor for poetry than for the poet’s interior life:

One need not be a Chamber – to be haunted – 
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing 
Material Place

These lines suggest that when you forgo “Material Place” and build your house in “Possibility” you open yourself up to a particular danger: being haunted. Where the other poem began with a confident assertion of habitation—“I dwell”—here the speaker expresses horror at the idea of being dwelt in: “The Brain has Corridors.” The tone is repetitious, fevered, as though the speaker has been running up and down their internal corridors for hours. The effect of this is compounded by the use of the impersonal pronoun “One” and that definite article before “Brain”—not my brain but the brain—which suggests a traumatic detachment from the body; and “surpassing,” hanging at the end of the line makes it feel like those brain corridors are only getting bigger, longer, more labyrinthine. 

What’s missing from the second poem is a door of the kind Dickinson thought made poetry so superior—and without one, there’s no means of escape. Door and corridor may sound related but there’s no etymological link between them. The word door comes from the Old English duru and has always meant the same thing. Corridor is from the Italian corridoio, referring to a “running-place.” They represent two forms of possibility, each reliant on the other: The door is a portal, signifying insight, while the corridor is an in-between place, signifying uncertainty and confusion. 

An important way to understand the corridor might be via the horror film in which a shadowy figure always seems to be lurking at the other end, or the protagonist is trapped, running down an endless dark passage full of locked doors. Where the corridor represents terror, the door is freedom.

*

During lockdown I also turned to Bhanu Kapil’s book How to Wash a Heart and stopped at this section:

When what you perform 
At the threshold
Is at odds 
With what happens
When the front door is closed,
Then you are burning
The toast 
And you are letting the butter
Fester.

The front door is where the internal becomes public, even if briefly. But in order for an act to be meaningful, what you “perform” at the threshold must have some relationship to what happens behind it. Kapil’s lines make me think of those people in expensive houses who voted to privatize Britain’s National Health Service last December and then stepped out onto their doorsteps this spring to clap enthusiastically in support of nurses and carers. They make me think of what the threshold can conceal. The door only has meaning in relation to the corridor.

In early July, Bhanu and I did a reading together on Zoom. She began hers by lighting a small candle. She had some shallots next to her that she’d picked from Wittgenstein’s garden in Cambridge. The effect of these gestures wasn’t just to welcome the listener in. It was to create an open space into which the poem could emerge, where we could meet it. In trying to harmonize inner and outer, in letting out what festers, the distance between our two screens fell away.

After the reading, I thought back to Dickinson’s haunted house poem. It’s driven by a claustrophobic fear of the internal. Even the “External Ghost” or hidden “Assassin” (other threats that feature in Dickinson’s poem) are less terrifying than the prospect of “self encounter.” The self is a more ambiguous, volatile element. It could stay hidden forever: “Ourself, behind ourself concealed,” reads one line in the poem. You might think you’ve turned a corner, the front door in sight, only to find yourself lost down another passageway. 

But this is only a nightmare if you’re looking for a door. The beauty of Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart lies in its openness: “I want to be split / Into two parts / Or a thousand pieces.” The self that’s been split into a thousand pieces has nothing to lose. What’s not whole cannot be broken. Likewise, the poem doesn’t have to form a coherent whole—a portal to insight. It doesn’t have to involve finding the right door and standing outside of it proudly. It can also mean walking the corridors, afraid and confused.

 

Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Kilarov Zaneit

Craft Capsule: The Authority of Black Childhood

by

Joy Priest

7.6.20

This is no. 64 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Outside / its case, the mind is a beehive / fallen in the wild grasses / of an abandoned playground.

— from “Ars Poetica” by Joy Priest

It’s January 2, 2020. I’m traveling by car with a painter back to the artists’ compound that I’m staying at for a seven-month residency—a blip-stage between the MFA I finished in May 2019 and the PhD I will start in August 2020, a deliberate detour in the longer academic-poet road on which I find myself. About it, slightly in mourning. Alone in study, but wholeheartedly wanting to be closer to the people in this poetry thing.

The painter has found a way to subsist outside the university engine, working in the residency office, leading Zumba classes in the morning, painting in her studio at night. We’re talking about what academia does to artists, and, as we’re riding—from Wellfleet back to Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape, isolated at the end of the land—she says, “I really do feel like this chapter for me has been about unlearning.”

*

“Sometimes a moment of liberation is suspended by the tight grip of contradiction,” my friend Bernardo says, which captures this moment I have in the car with the painter, as well as the larger social context we’re sailing through like a tiny, mobile dot on the periphery of the U.S. map. I was liberated by the painter’s articulation but jealous that I hadn’t pulled it out of my subconscious first: unlearning. This had been my project for the first three months of the fellowship, but I’d thought I was wasting time because that project had not yet been named. Wasting time—a feeling shaped by the values of academia, a microcosm of our larger society and its ailing imagination, which burdens artists and writers with paradigms of productivity and surplus contributions to an inaccessible archive. I had been unlearning that.

*

Usually, when stuck in a vehicle, poetry-talk is boring at worst, frustrating at best. A Lyft driver or seatmate on a plane will inevitably ask, “When did you start writing poetry?” I find this frustrating because I haven’t yet crafted a creative approach to the question, but, more importantly, because such a question precludes the true answer.

*

I was a better poet when I was a child.

During the nineties in Kentucky, I was a child in solitude. There was a lack of artificial stimuli, my technology limited to a Sega Genesis that I spent more time blowing dust from than playing. My single mother was at work. The only other person in the house was my grandfather, a man in his seventies, who—I didn’t know at the time—was white. He defined our relationship with board games, puzzles, basketball, or boxing on a box TV set—the technology of his time. With his racist perspectives, he attempted to define my identity, which I didn’t yet understand, but felt, intuitively. 

In place of understanding, in place of the internet, I cultivated a practice in noticing. This is how I developed my approach to the page, before I had an awareness of “craft.” Poetry wasn’t what I did or what I started doing in a single moment from the past onward, it was the way I thought, who I had to be in my grandfather’s household, the way my mind worked to make sense of something.

There isn’t a single event that led to me becoming a poet. There isn’t a beginning to me writing poetry—there is only the beginner’s mind. This is what I find myself trying to get back to in my unlearning: the authority of a child’s imagination—what we possess before we are fully indoctrinated into adulthood and the accepted ways of making sense of things. 

*

I spent a lot of time outside of my grandfather’s house, in the backyard. My mind was a beehive. A chaotic, intuitive knot of thought-impulses that I needed to wrest apart, investigate, ruminate on, understand. I found myself watching the ants at ground-level, making a daily visit to the carpenter bees and their perfectly round holes in the rotting wood. 

When I was inside, I noticed the difference between my grandfather’s skin and mine. I knew my hair was more like the hair of darker people, who he was always saying bad things about. I knew that he didn’t want me to be like them, but I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand why, but I could notice. I kept a record of these little noticings as a substitute for clarity around what I was noticing. This conversation with myself as a Black child supplemented what I learned, or what adults sought to teach me (what a white child learns or is taught by white adults). This practice of noticing, or overhearing, was my seminal craft approach. 

*

Pulling away the scaffolding of craft “knowledge,” which I’ve accumulated as an adult poet, has led me to this—notebooks full of little noticings and meditations, overhearings and mishearings, notions that haunt me, lines that keep coming up. Writing a poem this way becomes less strained: that accumulation of craft had become a cheesecloth through which I struggled to write. 

These little noticings are the only way I wish to start a poem, or any conversation about craft. It is how I get closer to an understanding of what something or someone—my imaginary friend, my ancestors, my intuition, the flora and fauna—is trying to tell me, and I embrace this as a spiritual craft as well as a technical one. It is my resistance to the limits of the U.S. popular imagination, which condescends to the childhood imagination in tropes and shorthand, which does not know, can no longer remember, what the child knows.

 

Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.

Thumbnail: Dustin Humes

Craft Capsule: Notes From the Cutting Room Floor

by

Sejal Shah

5.18.20

This is no. 60 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

An essay collection consists of more than several pieces between two covers. There is always the ghost manuscript: what is cut, what has been moved, shaped, revised. In my first book, This Is One Way to Dance, there are notes at the end of the text—they are narrative, include sources for quoted material, acknowledge readers and editors, and are not numbered. This essay is another kind of commentary. Each piece rewrites what came before. In a way, I am still rewriting my book and its notes—notes to oneself, to one’s reader, you; they are a conversation. 

I wrote the first draft of this essay in longhand; later, I typed it. At some point, I began numbering my thoughts as a way of keeping track. When I cut and pasted different sections of the text, I preserved the original numbers to trace the movement of information. In doing so, I attempt to show my writing process in the tradition of visible mending.

1. In Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, there are footnotes. There are three epigraphs at the beginning, each on a different page (I love this, the space). Many of the footnotes lead to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. The chapters are short, sometimes only a page, and the footnotes don’t feel like an interruption, but pleasurable, recursive reading. There is an overture disavowing prologues. After the overture is a gorgeous prologue: “The memoir is at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists…manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.” If I had read In the Dreamhouse while working on my book, I might have written a different prologue. So many beats to a book, architecture, a tonal range, a key. All of these elements are questions that ask: Who is your audience? To whom and how do I wish to explain myself?1 

3. Are prologues and codas forms of notes? Is an introduction?

20. Here is a ghost note, something I cut from the introduction of my book: “I grew up seeing and later studying with Garth Fagan Dance. A noted choreographer, Fagan is associated with the Black Arts Movement. Fagan technique draws from ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance. I learned: You could invent your own language. You didn’t have to fit yourself into someone else’s forms. You didn’t have to explain yourself.”

4. I wanted my notes to go before the acknowledgments, to be part of the body of This Is One Way to Dance. In the published copy, my notes follow the acknowledgments, per the press’s house style, which is The Chicago Manual of Style. I realize I don’t believe in style manuals.

17. Somewhere in a book (an introduction) or outside it (an interview), you will have to explain why you wrote your book. At each stage of the publishing process you use a different form: a proposal, a press sheet, a preface, a prologue, an afterward, a Q&A. Sometimes I still stumble. From the preface of Sonja Livingston’s memoir, Ghostbread: “I wrote this book because the pain and power and beauty of childhood inspire me. I wrote it selfishly, to make sense of chaos. I wrote it unselfishly, to bear witness. For houses and gardens and children most of us never see.” 

Part of me wants to never explain anything. Part of me worries I have explained too much and still missed what is most important. The settling and unsettling of the self. Navigating, meditating, mediating. Not identity, but movement. A book, through architecture or by words, must instruct the reader in how to read it. Both are important.

2. For a book review, I remember finding out, after already reading far into the text, that a glossary and notes existed at the back. This changed my reading of the book. With no table of contents and no superscript numbers, how would you know to look for notes and a glossary? Do you flip to the back of the book to see what happens, in case you die before you finish reading,2 in order to know what something means?

4. (a) My book ends with the last sentence of the notes: “And there are many reasons to dance.” 

5. I am talking to my friend Prageeta Sharma, a poet, about notes. She mentions Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which begins with a section called “[A Note].” Blanchfield writes, “At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called ‘Correction.’ It sets right much—almost certainly not all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs to twenty-one pages. It may still be running.” This feels true to me about writing a book. Trying to right it, but in the end, it’s a series of notations and corrections, assertions and deletions. Traces.

6. The poet Rick Barot told me his second book had notes. Not his first and third. And not his fourth, the most recent, The Galleons. He says he is anti-notes now.3 I get that.

28. Are notes like parentheses? (Say it clearly or not at all.) 

7. The writer Michael Martone wrote a book called Michael Martone, and the chapters are written in the style of “Contributors’ Notes” and his contributors’ notes are stories. Contributors’ notes are stories we tell about ourselves; they are fictions. 

10. How are notes different than sources? I wrote notes for many of my essays, but not all of them. Notes were sometimes meant to be a place to credit sources, but they also became their own commentary. They sprawled. I credit writing prompts, editors, readers, and books. Some of that could have been folded into acknowledgments. I credited sources for titles and images. I wrote about the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage during the time and day of our ceremony and why this mattered to me. Actually, that was a kind of afterward.

13. I am writing for the kind of people who read notes. Those are my readers, my people. 

16. (a) In my book there is a coda titled “Voice Texting With My Mother.” I did not title it a coda. At some point I lost track of what needed a classification or title and what could exist as part of the invisible architecture of the book.

18. In her short “A Note from the Author,” Tyrese Coleman writes: “How to Sit [a Memoir in Stories and Essays] challenges the concept that a distinction needs to be made when the work is memory-based, because memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.” 

9. This winter I read Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays, Minor Feelings. I realized, when I reached the end of the book, I had been expecting notes. Her essays are muscular, theoretical, personal, and include history, cultural commentary, friendships, family, and literature—a whole essay on the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her cross-genre memoir, Dictée. It surprised me to learn I liked the lack of notes in her book. It meant theorists and sources were often foregrounded in the essays themselves. In Hong’s work I saw a different model—the essay as a “coalitional form.” A model that foregrounds voices and perspectives beyond the essayist’s own—one that she credits writers in the tradition of Hilton Als, James Baldwin, and Maggie Nelson. 

19. An introduction is like a toast at a wedding. No, I cannot satisfactorily address so many audiences—pivot—who is an introduction for? Why not just begin? Whose job is it to host?

27. I read the acknowledgments and the notes in most books. I want to know how a book came together.

22. Sometimes I skim the notes.

14. I have to be honest: I am intrigued by the idea of no notes. Maybe for the next book.

 

ENDNOTES

1. After I turned in my proofs last December, I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Hong writes about Myung Mi Kim, “the first poet who said I [Hong] didn’t need to sound like a white poet nor did I have to ‘translate’ my experiences so that they sounded accessible to a white audience…Illegibility was a political act.” Yes. I believe this.
2. What Harry does in
When Harry Met Sally.
3. [E-mail from Rick] “When I say I’m now ‘anti-notes,’ this mostly refers to my last book, 
The Galleons. There’s a lot of background research in the book, but I didn’t want a notes section to make the book seem like a ‘project’ book.  After all, my research for the book was driven by lyrical sentiment and opportunity—it wasn’t systematic…”

 

Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Judith Browne

Craft Capsule: Reading Backwards

by

Carter Sickels

3.30.20

This is no. 54 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA many years ago, a member of the workshop passed on a piece of advice he’d once heard: Read your manuscript backwards. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention (he was a bit of a know-it-all), but the advice stuck with me, clanging around in my brain, and I’ve since turned to it when line editing and hammering out bigger structural issues.

Reading backwards doesn’t mean you read from right to left, or from the bottom of the page to the top. What I do is print out the manuscript, start with the top of the last page, and work my way back to page one. This exercise works differently for me depending on where I am in the process. When I have a final draft, reading backwards helps with line editing. When I read backwards, I use my brain in a different way, and it slows down my reading. I focus on the words, not the story, and spot repetition and unnecessary words.

Reading backwards has also helped me resolve structural issues and build narrative tension. I was struggling with a short story I’d been trying to write for months. It wasn’t working but I couldn’t figure out why. I let the manuscript sit and cool, like a hot potato; when I returned to it after a few more months, I tried the backwards reading trick. The ending of the story worked, but how did I get there? There were holes in the plot, and too much exposition that glossed over important information. The first-person narrator, so focused on his lover, never stepped up or revealed any insight into his own interior. I hadn’t written any scenes with him alone or with other characters. These backwards-reading discoveries helped me restructure and revise the story; I cut exposition, wrote new scenes, and rearranged the scenes I already had to amplify the tension. 

When I’m stuck I’ll try looking at the story from a fresh angle—whether reading backwards, changing the font, hanging pages on the wall or spreading them out on the floor. I read the entire manuscript aloud. I retype. These are all ways to trick myself into approaching the novel from a different place. Sometimes it works. And when it does, it’s like seeing the project with a new pair of eyes—catching what I missed, or discovering a hidden door that leads me to the true story. 

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Amie LeeKing

Craft Capsule: Consulting the Tarot

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

2.24.20

This is no. 50 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was raised in a house of reason where there was no God, no witchcraft, no science fiction, no astrology, and certainly no tarot. These things were for the weak, and we were not weak. But I’ll never forget when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dawned on me why Tom prayed so much: He was just trying to get through the day. I was weak, I knew. To make it from dawn to dusk, I too needed all the help I could get. 

Tarot came into my life through the friend, the friend I lost, and it is the thing she gave me more than any other for which I offer her my supreme gratitude. To be fair, I acquired the deck itself—The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans—much earlier; I bought it on impulse late one night on the gushing recommendation of someone I’d met at a party. You are not supposed to buy a tarot deck for yourself, I learned later, perhaps because without the blessing of someone you love to imbue the paper and images with power, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

I cannot now separate tarot from the friend, and I cannot separate tarot from writing. She and I became friends during the period when the card of the moon, which according to my deck “encompasses the idea of the Wild Unknown,” was my near constant companion. She taught me how to do the simplest spread—past, present, future—and led me to Michelle Tea’s book on tarot, life, and writing, Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards. Past, present, future; beginning, middle, and end. My friend and I began to draw a single card to set the mood for our writing sessions together, held at a ramshackle coworking space in the neighborhood where we lived.

What I like about drawing a single card before writing is that it allows me a single place to put my feelings about that day’s words—all my fear that the words won’t come and all my fear that they will. Drawing a single card, the mother of pentacles, for instance, which offers an image of a deer and her fawn, gives me a door at which to knock when I can’t see any of that paragraph’s architecture. She excels in the home, the card says: Perhaps I’ll turn my scent diffuser on, or I’ll have a character bake a scone, or I’ll think about why some person in my book moved around so much from place to place. It’s not so much a place to start writing but rather a way to give the day’s writing a particular mood or scent or inflection. Draw the death card, which in The Wild Unknown simply means that “something in your life needs to end…something is trying to find closure,” and the idea of ending and closure will start bonking around in my brain until it hits something in my writing that needed either to finish or to begin. Each card is like a prompt I suppose, except instead of being wacky and contrived, it feels like a prompt I gave myself from the darkest recesses of my unconscious, a shortcut to the place I was trying to go. 

I drew a card every day while writing The Third Rainbow Girl, which explores a mysterious act of violence in Pocahontas County, West Virginia in 1980, the Appalachian community where it transpired, and my own time in the place as a national service worker. For nearly the entirety of the fifteen months when I was most actively engaged, sentence by sentence, in writing the book, I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night. Then every morning I went to the deck and chose a card. I am not exaggerating when I say that I chose the moon card almost every time, no matter how well I shuffled. The card’s overall theme: vivid dreams and fears. I read the card’s description so many times I can recite it by heart:

[The moon] is the shadow realm, the place where dreams, fears, and mysteries are born. Much darkness can linger here, and if you aren’t careful, this can lead to periods of anxiety and self-doubt almost as if you’ve lost your way in a house of mirrors. Many great artists have roamed this inner landscape. It’s where imagination and creativity drift freely upon the midnight air.

That about summed it up. Fuck the fucking moon, I began to say aloud each time I drew it. Fuck this fucking book.

But the moon would not be fucked and neither would the book I was writing; they would not go away until they went away and maybe not even then. Eventually, I finished the book and I lost the friend. I’m drawing new cards these days—a lot of pentacles, the suit of home and hearth. I hope I drift less and dig more in the next book, but of course, it’s not up to me. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Altınay Dinç

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: The End

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.30.19

This is no. 45 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When do you stop revising? How do you know when a poem is done? The short answer is that I consider a poem done once I have committed it to memory. I learned this from a revision exercise I borrowed from Danez Smith who, in turn, borrowed it from Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. The exercise begins: Open to a blank notebook page or Word document and rewrite the poem you are working on from memory. Following this initial rewrite, Van Clief-Stefanon’s exercise contains a series of prompts intended to clarify what is important to the poem, what it needs more of, and what is extraneous. Even without the prompts, rewriting from memory can, on its own, provide such information; what you remember will usually turn out to be what is essential to the poem, whether that is an image, a narrative, a line-length, a sound. If you remember the whole thing, it stands to reason that the whole thing is essential. 

Poets often analogize the writing of poems to other artistic practices: sculpture, pottery, the making of boats. Embedded in each of these analogies is a different perspective on when to let a poem go. Has a particular affecting figure been etched from the raw material of language? Is the poem both beautiful and functional? Has it carried you—or will it carry your reader—somewhere new? But I tend to think of writing poetry as being less like art making and more like a biological process, like life making. Poetry is a place where I develop, a skin I make in order to make myself. Once I have outgrown it, I can examine the poem from all angles. I can learn new things about it and about who I became inside of it. I can polish its exterior, but there is no way for me to get back inside.

This account of poetry can seem like a rather dismal proposition, especially for those of us who give readings, who return again and again to poems that have already taken shape. It sounds like I am saying that the poem and I were briefly alive together and then, once it has been put down, the poem is no longer living. A reading, in this account, is nothing more than a display of dead language. But here is how I think about it: In the third episode of BBC’s Life Story, there is a vignette about hermit crabs’ elaborate, communal ritual of changing shells. Once a hermit crab has outgrown its shell, it does not simply discard it and move on to the next. Rather, it waits for a critical mass of its fellow travelers to gather and arrange themselves into a line by size order, so that they can transfer shells, one to another. The biggest crab moves into an empty shell on the beach, the next in line takes the big crab’s newly abandoned shell, and on and on down the line until everyone’s soft interior, hopefully, has new room in which to grow. 

What I like about using memorization as a diagnostic is that it says nothing about the “quality” of a poem, so it discourages thinking about revision as “fixing.” Instead, what determines whether a poem is finished is the relationship between us, the poem and I. This perspective on poetry helps me to grow, helps me remember that I can be done with something and that it can be imperfect—it can be a shell with a hole in it—but that it might be precisely what someone else is looking for. 

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Thumbnail: Maximilian Paradiz 

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Oblique Strategies

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.15.19

This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.

The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.

When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”) 

The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that’s exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: “Unlikable” Characters

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.25.18

This is no. 36 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

As writers we all have specific goals when creating our fictional worlds. Some writers value plot, others value humor. Some prioritize beautiful sentences or abstract ruminations about the state of society. When I write, my goal is to construct characters full of depth and complexity. I don’t need readers to agree with my characters, but to understand the why behind their actions. 

When I created Haemi Lee, the female protagonist of my novel, If You Leave Me, I focused on developing this complexity so that my readers would know her intimately. At the beginning of the novel, Haemi is a sixteen-year-old refugee during the Korean War, and by the last pages she is a thirty-two-year-old mother in 1967. By covering a wide swath of time, I want readers to watch Haemi survive, mature, fall in love, make mistakes, become a mother, and grapple with the difficulties of life in post-war South Korea. I want Haemi to feel as real as possible, which meant that she would have to be imperfect, flawed. As I wrote, I considered how she would behave as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and lover. I considered her temperament. Growing up without means in a conservative time, there would be strict social and gendered guidelines placed on Haemi. I wanted her to bristle against those rules. The problem, I discovered, was that an imperfect female protagonist is often labeled unlikable. 

The first time I heard Haemi described this way was in workshop. I was surprised. It was a gendered remark, and I hadn’t been expecting it at the graduate school level. When did we ever question the likability of male characters? Complicating matters further, when did we question the likability of female characters when they were written by male writers? I simmered in silence as my classmates discussed Haemi Lee. (As the student being workshopped, I wasn’t allowed to speak.) Jisoo and Kyunghwan, my two male protagonists, were not always likable and yet the focus remained on Haemi. Why did she need to be likable when her male counterparts were not? Why were we concerned with the likability of women anyway? Who among us are always likable?

This conversation led me to consider the trope of the “unlikable female character.” I prickled at the phrase, the silly term that asserts female characters are valued for their docility and amiability. I decided that I couldn’t let other readers’ apprehensions about Haemi’s likability soften her. Haemi pushes against the social expectations of her time by not hiding her feelings, by wanting an education, and by speaking freely of the difficulties of motherhood. Haemi is giving and selfish, kind and callous. She is concerned with the welfare of everyone around her while also deeply concerned with her own happiness. If I succeeded in my writing goals, my readers will not always like Haemi, but they will feel deeply for her. They will want to guide her, argue with her, and root for her. 

When writing, our concern should not be a character’s likability, regardless of gender. As the writer, our focus should be on making the character feel true. When my students hesitate at revealing their character’s flaws, I encourage them to dig into the messy, ugly parts. Flaws are what make fiction interesting and realistic. Though we may not love our flaws, they are crucial for characters. When a student worries about the likability of their female characters in particular, this is what I tell them: We need more unlikable female protagonists to deepen the way we consider women in our society. Literature teaches us. Literature makes us question and broaden our understanding of the world. If “unlikable female” means a realistic, imperfect, complex woman, then we need to write as many of these characters as we can.

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Multiple Narrators

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.18.18

This is no. 35 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Before I became a writer, I was first an insatiable reader. From Curious George to Little Women to The Lover, I can mark the trajectory of my development as a writer against my reading choices. A particularly memorable turning point happened when I was eight years old. While at the library, I came across a chapter book called Morning Girl. The cover showed a young girl with dark brown hair and bare shoulders swimming in the open sea, and I picked it up because of the striking image. As I began reading, I fell for Morning Girl’s lush, bright voice as she described her fondness for waking early and searching the beach for seashells. I felt keenly for Morning Girl when her parents favored her younger brother. I had a younger sister, and I understood the mean yellow streaks of jealousy. 

The shock came when I turned to the next chapter. At the top of the page was the name Star Boy. This chapter, I realized as I read, was narrated not by the titular girl, but her younger brother. I remember the confusion I felt and how quickly it was replaced with giddy wonder. Up until that moment, I hadn’t known that a book could have multiple narrators. Morning Girl tore writing open for me: For the first time I recognized that writers were in control of how the story was told and that the possibilities were endless.

I’ve gravitated toward novels with multiple narrators ever since, so when I started writing If You Leave Me, I knew I wanted to try this format. However, I needed to make sure having multiple perspectives would serve my goals. My central character was Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee in Busan at the start of my novel. Did I really need the voices of her best friend Kyunghwan, her suitor Jisoo, her younger brother Hyunki, and eventually, her eldest daughter Solee? Thankfully, yes. After some examination, I realized that having multiple narrators allowed me to show the secrets characters were hiding not only from each other, but also from themselves. By alternating these voices, I was able to investigate how one event could be interpreted in various ways, depending on the character’s temperament and circumstance. For example, Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo all hungered in Busan during the Korean War, and yet their resulting traumas are each unique due to differences in class, gender, and family expectations. 

If You Leave Me spans sixteen years, from 1951 to 1967. Multiple perspectives also gave me the best means of capturing the landscape of Korea during this tumultuous time. Through my five alternating narrators, I was able to write about an ROK soldier in the Korean War; a college student in Seoul in the years afterward, when dictators ruled the nation; a factory worker forced to meet with a matchmaker; a mother yearning to escape her rural community; and a young daughter growing up in post-war Korea, when the vestiges of violence took on new forms.   

When my students say they want to write a novel with multiple perspectives, I’m secretly elated. However, I always remind them of the potential pitfalls. More voices may make your story feel fragmented, which can lead to readers preferring one character over another. In order to avoid this, it’s important to value each perspective equally. If you as the writer dislike one of your characters, the reader will feel that animosity in your words. The solution? Know your characters deeply on and off the page—know their desires, tics, fears, sexual preferences, favorite foods, secret dreams, worst habits. Develop them until you know them as intimately as a friend, in all of their complexities. In the end, I hope having multiple narrators in If You Leave Me enriches the reading experience. Haemi Lee’s voice is the center, but the four characters around her provide a lens not only into the larger history of Korea, but into Haemi’s complex, difficult temperament.

In my final Craft Capsule next week, I will talk more about Haemi and the necessity of “unlikable” female protagonists. 

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Tao Te Ching

by

Simon Van Booy

6.13.18

This is no. 30 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The biggest little book in China is called the Tao Te Ching. One of its most famous sayings is Wu Wei, 無爲, literally, doing nothing or non-doing.

Whereas some people have used this to imbue passivity or laziness with spiritual significance, I think it has something to do with wholeheartedness.

The child at play does not stop to ask herself, “Am I playing?” She is not aware of time, nor constrained by it. Imagine you get so deep into writing, that you forget you are writing. The story just flows from you, through you, and out into the world.

How can you get to that place? Where the act of writing is so much of part of you, it’s effortless. A process of instinct rather than thought—

The first step is to give up the idea you will ever fail, or ever succeed. Prepare to serve only the needs of the story. Then move your hands, breathe.  

Have faith.  

Laugh.  

Cry.

Sleep.

Dream.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Metaphor

by

Sandra Beasley

4.4.17

This is the seventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

A friend of mine, a poet, was trying to figure out what bothered him about a draft of my poem. “A poem should be like a wall,” he told me. “You build it brick by brick.” He pointed out that, in his opinion, key bricks were missing.

I didn’t share his vision, but I admired that he had one. I’ve come to value developing a metaphorical model for your genre. A model can help you identify your goals, name your struggles, and proceed toward success.

Perhaps you follow the lead of “stanza,” the Italian word for “room.” You come to think of each poem as a house. How do the rooms differ in function, size, and occupancy? Where does your central drama take place? What comprises your roof?

Perhaps you come to think of your essay as a harp. Each researched fact glimmers, an available string in a golden frame. But you can’t play them all at once. Only in choosing which notes to highlight, and how to sequence them, can you create music.

Personally, I always think of memoir as an egg. I’m protective of the inspiring memory, smooth and undisturbed in its surface. But I have to be prepared to break the egg. I have to make the idea messy before I can make a satisfying meal.

Perhaps your novel is a shark. Perhaps your villanelle is a waltz. Perhaps your short story is a baseball game. Don’t adopt my metaphors. Find one of your own.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Egg in My Pocket

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.21.17

This is the first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

As a project for school, my thirteen-year-old son, Will, spent several days carrying an egg around. His task was simple: Keep the egg from breaking.

The experiment was intended to show what it’s like to have a baby, to approximate the feeling of constant vigilance that never leaves you once you have a child. Ultimately, of course, it was supposed to make hormone-addled adolescents think twice before doing something stupid.

As a mother of three, though, I wasn’t convinced. A baby is nothing like an egg, unless it’s an egg that cries, wets itself, sucks on you constantly, and wakes you up four times a night. But as my son described the feeling of carrying his egg—he named it “Pablito”—I realized that it did remind me of something. “It’s always there,” Will said. “You can’t forget it or take it for granted. You feel protective and anxious all the time.”

Carrying an egg around is like writing a novel. No matter what else you’re doing, the fact of the novel is in the back of your mind. If you go too long without attending to it, you get nervous. It is always with you, a weight solid and yet fragile, in constant danger of being crushed. Like the egg, the weight of a book-in-progress is both literal and metaphorical. Within the accumulating pages, as inside the delicate eggshell, are the raw ingredients for something greater. Keeping it intact requires patience, time, attention—and, most of all, commitment. This concept applies to any stage of the process: The egg is both the idea that you nurture long before you begin to write, and the writing itself, which must be fostered and sustained.

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

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Author: jdegregorio

Feeling Musical

In the introduction to the anthology This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music (Hachette, 2022) edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson, which is featured in “The Anthologist” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, composer and guitarist Heather Leigh writes about how the authors of each essay acknowledge that “music somehow remains intangible” and how “we can try to explain and to rationalize it, but we’re seduced back by the song.” What music seduces and captures you? Using this question as a guide, write an essay that centers around the impact a certain song or musician has had on your life. Use tangible memories and details to add texture to the composition of your essay.

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Author: Writing Prompter

Bill Gates’s Summer Reading 2022

In this video, Bill Gates recommends five books for his annual summer reading list, which include the historical novel The Lincoln Highway (Viking, 2021) by Amor Towles and the speculative novel The Power (Little, Brown, 2017) by Naomi Alderman.

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Author: jkashiwabara

Sweltering

According to Merriam-Webster, the “dog days” are “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere.” As the month of July begins this week, many may begin to experience extreme heat and the stress that arrives along with it. Write a story set during the dog days of summer. Perhaps your character is faced with a big decision on the hottest day of the year or is on an exciting summer trip. How can the harsh weather add pressure to your character’s behavior?

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Author: Writing Prompter

Hilary Mantel on Learning to Talk

“An unhappy childhood is a treasure for a writer,” says Hilary Mantel in this CBS Saturday Morning interview about her story collection Learning to Talk, which was first published in England in 2003 and published in the U.S. for the first time by Henry Holt this month. The stories feature young characters growing up in mid-twentieth-century England and are inspired by Mantel’s childhood.

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Author: jkashiwabara

Paint a Portrait

“Today we’re going to get to work on the details / of your expression. And believe it or not, / the only colors we’re going to use will be / blacker than most blacks,” writes Terrance Hayes in his poem “Bob Ross Paints Your Portrait,” published in Paris Review’s Summer 2022 issue. In the poem, Hayes writes in the voice of American painter and television host Bob Ross, whose show The Joy of Painting aired on PBS in the 1980s and 1990s, as he delivers instructions on how to paint a portrait of the poet. This week, inspired by Hayes, write a poem in the form of a self-portrait. Try using instructional language to describe yourself, allowing any emotions that arise to make their way into the poem.

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Author: Writing Prompter

Lucille Clifton on Poetry

“For me, poetry is a way of living in the world.” In this vintage video from the Poetry Breaks series, Lucille Clifton reflects on what poetry means to her and how it is not about answers, but rather questions. The Academy of American Poets has partnered with Leita Luchetti, who produced and directed the series in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to bring back these videos.

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Author: jkashiwabara

Wo Chan and CAConrad at the Poetry Project

In this livestreamed event, poet and drag performer Wo Chan, author of Togetherness, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in September, and poet CAConrad, author most recently of AMANDA PARADISE: Resurrect Extinct Vibration (Wave Books, 2021), read from their works at the Poetry Project in New York City.

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Author: fmarquez