Ten Questions for Zachary Pace

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Zachary Pace, whose debut book, I Sing to Use the Waiting: A Collection of Essays About the Women Singers Who’ve Made Me Who I Am, is out today from Two Dollar Radio. In these intimate and thoughtful essays, Pace offers a personal queer history, an inquiry into human expressivity, and a meditation on the formative influence of popular culture. Beginning with an exploration of the author’s own “queer voice”—and the way social norms encode gender into certain vocal sounds—the collection considers nearly a dozen female performers and how they affected Pace’s worldview, self-conception, and artistic sensibility. Pace approaches his subjects with a mix of memoir, reportage, and critical theory, including Madonna’s engagement with Jewish Kabbalah, Rihanna’s personal and musical “multiplicity,” and even the Pocahontas character from the eponymous Disney film, whose song “Colors of the Wind” enthralled a ten-year-old Pace. Poet and literary critic Wayne Koestenbaum praises I Sing to Use the Waiting: “This impeccable book sends me back, with a renewed heart, to the songs Pace masterfully covers, with a delivery as splendid, as emotionally impressive, as the lauded originals.” Zachary Pace is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. Their writing has been published in BOMB, Bookforum, Boston Review, Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

1. How long did it take you to write I Sing to Use the Waiting?
I started the first piece in 2016 and finished the last piece in 2023, then spent a year editing with the Two Dollar Radio team. Two weeks before the book went to the printer, I got a round of somewhat heavy edits that ended up bringing the whole thing home in a major way.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I’ve been worried, and I’m worried now, about having revealed too much information about myself and the people in these essays. In the intimacy of the book, I feel very vulnerable.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I take notes while walking and riding the subway. I e-mail notes to myself while I’m at work during the day, then I’ll transfer the notes to a Word document on my laptop, where I tinker at night. I have a desk in my apartment that’s meant for working on the computer, but I always end up sitting on the couch with my laptop perched on a pile of coffee-table books and my elbows propped on my knees.

4. What are you reading right now?
Why Mariah Carey Matters by Andrew Chan, On Michael Jackson by Margo Jefferson, The Krishnamurti Reader, and The Book of Life: Daily Meditations With J. Krishnamurti.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Too many to name in one place, but most crucially: Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, Richard Siken, Carl Phillips, Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum, Hilton Als, Cathy Park Hong, Greil Marcus, and Hanif Abdurraqib.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I think it’s one good way to meet friends and teachers who will encourage and inspire you. Going to readings, taking some workshops online or in person, joining a book group—these are great ways too.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio gave me the first of a few rounds of revisions, and I’m going to include a comment from that Word document here—a comment that galvanized me during the whole yearlong editorial process: “Tie this in to the broader themes of this collection as a whole…to better understand this whitewashing of history, or how music managers try to cover a singer’s identity to better align with a public persona so that it fits within a straight, white, patriarchal view of how things should be in our society. And how this affects queer children struggling to understand their own identity within this framework.” Eric understood what the book was meant to be even better than I did at this point, and I kept returning to these words to remind myself while revising.

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of I Sing to Use the Waiting?
I was surprised by how much information I ultimately let go. I’m a completist, through and through, so in the earliest drafts I compiled every detail that felt remotely relevant and tried to keep all the information totally up-to-date. I’m still surprised by how many details that once struck me as interesting and important are no longer part of the book. At some point I felt more comfortable focusing on certain events without having to recreate an exhaustive history.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Miles and miles of walking. Often when I walk away from the computer, I think of the words I was trying to find, and I have to rush back to my laptop or type them on my phone before I forget. I walk several miles a day and spend that time thinking about whatever I’m working on. And I listen to the musicians I’m writing about, while walking and otherwise, for hours and hours a day—obsessive, repetitive listening is both work and life-affirming pleasure for me.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not exactly advice, but a game-changing bit of feedback resonates with me to this day. In my first year as an MFA student, a well-known poet visited to give a guest workshop, and I brought a poem that I was especially proud of to class. The poet didn’t like my poem at all. I realize now that it relied entirely on sound and wordplay and had nothing profound to say. The poet asked me, “What is the price of music?” This question led me to appreciate the value of not only using lyrical language but telling a meaningful story.

Ten Questions for Kimberly Blaeser


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Kimberly Blaeser, whose new poetry collection, Ancient Light, is out today from the University of Arizona Press. These haunting poems illuminate the nature of loss as it is experienced on multiple levels—personal, familial, cultural, historical—and the ways in which life manages to persist in spite of it. Mixing English and Anishinaabemowin, lyrics and visual poetry, the book also explores the paradoxical power of language. It can be “a salve,” as Blaeser puts it in the book’s opening poem, “Akawe, a prelude,” enabling people to name the dead or communicate pain. But it can also serve as tool of control, regulating the ways in which people express themselves. This is particularly true in the United States, where English was forced upon Indigenous populations. Ancient Light directly confronts the nation’s violent colonial legacy, asking readers to understand “our continent, draw 1491” and how it was “reshape[d] by discovery,     displacement,” as she writes in “Poem on Disappearance.” Yet the book retains hope for a more peaceful and open-hearted future, “an abundance we make / of the broken—when burst becomes seed,” Blaeser writes in “Mazínígwaaso: Florets.” The former poet laureate of Wisconsin and the founding director of In-Na-Po, Indigenous Nations Poets, Kimberly Blaeser is the author of several poetry collections, including Copper Yearning (Holy Cow! Press, 2019). A recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, Blaeser is an Anishinaabe activist and environmentalist enrolled at White Earth Nation. She is a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and a faculty member of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ MFA program in creative writing.

1. How long did it take you to write Ancient Light?  
I wrote some of the poems in Ancient Light as early as 2016 and had two books that came out since then—Copper Yearning in 2019 and Résister en Dansant in 2020—but the poems didn’t belong to those volumes. So it would be fair to say I have been working on the poems for seven years. The book was a finalist or semifinalist for a couple competitions, so I knew it was close. The experience of the pandemic and awareness of racial injustice heightened by the murder of George Floyd led me to sharpen the premise and movements of the book. The possibility of and need for healing, different pathways, and another way to be in the world grew more urgent both in our physical spaces and in the book as it moved toward its final version.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Ordering the poems to support the movements of the collection proved the most challenging. Generous early readers and the reviewers for the press all offered advice on reordering. Each idea seemed valuable, but none agreed with the others! As an exercise, I created section titles. This illuminated the bones of the collection. It led to some rearrangement, but I also added some poems and subtracted others. Ultimately I chose to remove the section titles, not wanting to impose a single map on the reader or even on the poems—since I hope the poems will manifest intuitive connections and prove themselves wiser than their transcriber. I did add a poetic prelude, which I view as a map of sorts.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I often write in kayaks, on the ledge rock at our cabin in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), in a hammock beneath an ancient oak on our property in Wisconsin, on decks here and there, and also at my desk in my home library. In recent years, I have been blessed to travel to writing residencies—most recently in Italy, where I wrote in the foothills of the Alps and in the mountains as well as in beautiful gardens overlooking Lake Como. All that to say, I often write outdoors, by hand, when it is daylight, with the “where” of my writing often determining the content. I frequently begin my day with coffee, my journal, my camera, and a book, each of which contributes to morning writing. On mornings at BWCAW, I often paddle out with coffee in a thermos to a favorite bay and settle in there. I try to work every day, even if I only produce a few notes or the skeleton of an idea. I have drafted many poems first in my journal. When I have longer writing sessions, I mine those jottings or drafts. This I do frequently at my desk at night when the house is quiet.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I have just begun Brendan Shay Basham’s novel Swim Home to the Vanished. Brendan is both a poet and a prose writer, so his fiction is lush and suggestive like poetry as well as narratively powerful. I am also reading, partly rereading, a collection of poetry by Algerian writer Samira Negrouche, The Olive Trees’ Jazz. Samira writes mainly in French, and this collection is translated by Marilyn Hacker. Even though we live continents apart, I relate to Samira’s embodiment of the tentacles and repercussions of colonization, her understanding of the indelible mark violence leaves on people as well as places, and I appreciate the spiritual allusiveness of the poems.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
After its prelude “map,” Ancient Light begins with poems depicting the conditions and consequences of colonization—a possessive mindset that leads to exploitation of resources, of Indigenous bodies, of language itself. It moves then to suggest a turn toward potential sources of healing. Poems embody specific instances of relatedness or of lives illuminated by “ancient light” in the many ways this may be cast or manifested: modes of being embedded in Anishinaabe language for instance, traditional Indigenous knowledge, or patterns of the land itself. Certain poems or particular scenes complicate the human factor, as the book includes both grief and many kinds of loss—some of it personal. Finally the collection gestures toward alternate understandings, ways of measuring, and a different scale of value. The spilled light of tradition remains viable as pathway and tool of survivance—“an abundance we make / of the broken—when burst becomes seed,” as one poem claims.

6. How did you arrive at the title Ancient Light for this collection? 
The title actually arose from a particular encounter, which later become a visual image, now a “picto-poem” in the book with that phrase in the title, “Waaban: ancient light enters.” While canoeing with my son, I made photos of a Great Blue Heron. We came under the spell of the immense bird as it lifted off or landed with great pomp, stalked and swallowed whole yellow-bellied fish, spread its wings and stretched its legs into forever as it flew backlit by sunset sky. When I later looked at the photos, and they seemed anemic compared to the experience itself, I realized we never only see what we see—we always see what we bring to the moment. I brought my understanding of the Anishinaabe Crane Clan and stories of bineshiinyag, or bird relatives, as messengers between Earth and sky. I ultimately created the picto-poem, in which woodland beadwork symbolically becomes the sky and pieces of poetic language wrap themselves around that other way of knowing. I began to think about the ways all our experience is suffused with these ancient understandings. Because visually in that moment the spilling light helped illuminate the internal and external experience, I thought about how long and far light sometimes travels before it reaches us and we apprehend it. From that ruminating, the title arrived, and I understood it as representative of more than that single experience.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Ancient Light?
Although I have often written ekphrastic work, have been experimenting with the layers of text and image I call picto-poems, and work in concrete as well as lyric poetry, I was surprised at how readily these various creative approaches came together. I found they “play well” with one another. I have also been writing and continue to write slight poems, all entitled “The Way We Love Something Small.” I thought of them as a series of poems; but in assembling Ancient Light, I realized they are an aesthetic as much as a form.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ancient Light, what would you say?
Mainly I would say, “Don’t hurry.” I really need to repeat that as a mantra. When I feel inspired by an idea or project, I tend to expect the path to be straightforward. It seldom is and certainly wasn’t in this instance.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I am Anishinaabe, and I used quite a bit of my Indigenous language, Anishinaabemowin, in Ancient Light. Although I spent early years with grandparents for whom this was a first language, I am still a language learner. I once asked in a poem, “How can you conjugate after forty?” But because I understand the importance of the work of what I call #LanguageBack for the nonprofit I founded (Indigenous Nations Poets), I put in effort to move from “baby” Ojibwe. I incorporated the appropriate prefixes and suffixes that signal relationships, and I worked to carry the embedded language teachings into the poems (even when Anishinaabemowin might not be used itself).

Because, as I mentioned earlier, I often have both camera and pencil on nature adventures, I also upped the ante on my photo work. Photos often help inspire the poems and vice versa. Then I work through the process of bringing them together in diptychs or picto-poems. Even though only a handful of these ultimately made it into the collection, figuring out how to wed the visual and verbal involved my learning some technological razzle-dazzle.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I sometimes cling too closely to “sense.” When lamenting this in conversation with one of my writing friends, he suggested I trust my intuition and trust my reader to follow the leaps of that intuition. I remind myself of this advice often.

Kimberly Blaeser, author of Ancient Light  (Credit: John Fisher)

Ten Questions for Cynthia Zarin


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Cynthia Zarin, whose debut novel, Inverno, is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In this psychologically driven narrative, a woman named Caroline awaits a phone call from her beloved, a man named Alastair. Meanwhile the personal history of each and their passionate but difficult relationship unfolds over several decades. The passages move associatively, contemplating the changes that have taken place over the years, both in the larger world and in Caroline’s and Alastair’s singular and twined existences. Inverno is also a kind of ghost story, as present-day Caroline stands waiting for Alastair’s call in the same spot in Central Park he had roamed as a teenager. The book offers a moving meditation on space, time, and the strange crossings of paths and separations that occur over the course of a life. In the New York Times, Sigrid Nunez praises Inverno’s “elegance and incantatory prose…. The narrator has a riveting, lyrical voice and a deliberately digressive but expertly controlled style.” Cynthia Zarin is the author of five books of poetry, including Orbit (Knopf, 2017), as well as five books for children and two essay collections, including An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History (Anchor, 2013). She teaches at Yale University and lives in New York City.

1. How long did it take you to write Inverno
I began writing what would become Inverno about ten years ago. It started as a letter, and then, over a great while, it became a book.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I think finding out that it was, indeed, a book! And then, after that, to figure out the structure of the novel and how to chronicle Caroline’s experience in a way that a reader could move with her back and forth in time.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I try to write in the morning but my schedule is peripatetic, which means that I find time when I can.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Right now I’m reading a marvelous, musical book by Alan Garner called Treacle Walker, about the friendship between a boy with a lazy eye and a rag-and-bone man. Also reading The Order of Time by the Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, given to me by a student who knows these questions [about physics] interest me.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?  
That would be a very long list. I spent almost all of my childhood and adolescence simply reading, and I am sure that almost everything I’ve read has influenced my work. For Inverno in particular, Hans Christian Anderson, Ibsen, Faulkner, Montale—the list goes on. I am admirer of Natalia Ginzburg and Elizabeth Hardwick. But the list is infinite.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Inverno?
That it was a book, after all! And that many people seem to find their own experiences in Caroline’s predicament.

7. What is one thing your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
I think that, simply, my agent thought it was a novel: During the time these pages were taking shape, we drew a picture of the structure of the book on a napkin in a London restaurant.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Inverno, what would you say?
It is a mistake to think you know what you are doing.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
A portion of the book, if not all of it, occurs when Caroline is waiting for a phone call in Central Park, in the snow. I learned a good deal about the history of the telephone while writing the book, which is really a window into the history of communication.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Start with what interests you, and keep going. 

Cynthia Zarin, author of Inverno.   (Credit: Sara Barrett)

Ten Questions for Erika Howsare


This week’s Ten Questions features Erika Howsare, whose debut nonfiction book, The Age of Deer: Trouble and Kinship With Our Wild Neighbors, is out now from Catapult. In this insightful mix of history, folklore, reportage, and personal narrative, Howsare considers the lives of deer and their relationship to humans. “Deer speak to our twin American obsessions with death and its denial,” she writes in her introduction, priming the reader for a nuanced exploration of creatures that she says limn the border between flesh and spirit, nature and civilization. As game, deer have long been killed for sustenance or sport. But they also evoke the numinous and are central to various cultural mythologies that venerate them as psychopomps or heavenly messengers. Howsare explores her own encounters with the animals, as a child living in a community of deer hunters outside Pittsburgh and during recent adulthood as a homesteader in rural Virginia; she takes the reader along on her travels to view cave art and observe folk rituals in which deer are central. “They were wild, a word that comes from willed, as in self-willed: passing their own time on earth,” she writes, confronting the fundamental aliveness that people and deer share. Publishers Weekly praises The Age of Deer: “The prose is elegant…. Readers will be enthralled.” Erika Howsare is the author of the poetry collections How Is Travel a Folded Form? (Saddle Road Press, 2018) and, with Kate Schapira, FILL: A Collection (Trembling Pillow Press, 2016). She holds an MFA from Brown University, and her writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. 

1. How long did it take you to write The Age of Deer?
This book feels like it arose from a mysterious place; I don’t remember a singular moment when the idea came to me, and I’ve realized that in some ways its roots go back a long way into my life and family history. But in terms of its actual manifestation: I began to put ideas together in 2019 or so and had a proposal drafted by 2020, including several chapters. In February 2021 Catapult Books offered the book a home, and I committed to finishing the manuscript within eighteen months. After I turned it in, it became clear that I would need to make some massive cuts—and revise, of course—and that process took several months in itself. So altogether about four years, although there were some slower periods in the beginning while it was gestating, and again near the end, when it was with my editors.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I’ve practiced hybrid writing for a long time—literary blendings of poetry and prose—but this book is a different kind of hybrid: It’s definitely prose, but it combines journalistic reporting, researched material about history and science, and cultural studies, along with a bit of memoir. Some of those modes are a lot more familiar to me than others, and I had to push through some insecurity at times about tackling the less comfortable subjects. While deer would seem to be a very defined topic, they really contain multitudes, and managing the vastness of the material, making it into a collage that felt coherent, was the major (and very pleasurable) challenge.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I almost always write at home, and in the span of writing this book I graduated from working on my bed or couch to having my own tiny, perfect office: major upgrade. I work best in the morning but that preference always needs to be balanced with the realities of homeschooling two kids, ongoing house and homesteading projects, etcetera. Fortunately, for this book, there was always something needing to be done that wasn’t actual composition—planning, correspondence, etcetera—so if I wasn’t feeling inspired or only had thirty minutes, I could make at least a little progress almost every day. Near my deadline I escaped for a weekend at a rented cottage and worked like mad to polish up the chapters. 

4. What are you reading right now?
I just finished Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice and started Amit Chaudhuri’s Sojourn. Also on deck are Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, Anne Carson’s Decreation, Miranda Mellis’s The Revisionist, and the latest Brooklyn Rail. I recently loved Joanna Pocock’s Surrender: The Call of the American West and Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
I was very lucky to study with Thalia Field in grad school; during her course on deep ecology was the moment when I thought, “Oh, these are my questions, the ones I’ll be working with for the rest of my life.” Her book Personhood (as in the personhood of animals) certainly influenced The Age of Deer. Rebecca Solnit, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Merrill Gilfillan, and Cole Swensen.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
All I can say is that I’m extremely grateful I had the experience of pursuing an MFA that did not result in debt.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
All these folks have been very helpful, but one of the most key pieces of advice came from my editor in the UK, Clare Bullock, who read some early drafts and gently told me to stop writing as though the book would be read by a stern professor. This was so perceptive. In poetry I am, if anything, overconfident. But I realized that in tackling this nonfiction project I had some anxiety about getting it right, and some part of me was back in school worrying about my grades.

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Age of Deer?
As I said, the origins of the book are obscure to me. I thought I had chosen to do it because it was an interesting topic that would let me ask all these questions and make all these points. By the time I finished I actually felt that the topic had chosen me. Writing the book has led me toward certain ways of being and certain relationships to the world that I now realize I have needed for a long time. Physically and spiritually, it has opened doors of perception. Since deer have often played the role of messenger or guide in world mythologies, this has a pretty eerie resonance.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
There was definitely a ton of research, of both the reading kind (books, scientific articles, news stories) and the experiential kind (I took a number of trips and reported on things like hunting, fawn rehab, and roadkill compost systems). I always had an eye out for deer in stories and art and, of course, real life. Running and yoga and being with my people keep me anchored. I also kept writing poetry throughout the project and took a great course through Orion magazine, taught by Alison Hawthorn Deming, that allowed me to reflect on the writing process more broadly, as did a companion project: making a podcast miniseries called If You See a Deer.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in college and showed a few early poems to my dad, he told me, very simply, to keep going.

Erika Howsare, author of The Age of Deer: Trouble and Kinship With our Wild Neighbors.   (Credit: Meredith Coe)

Ten Writers on Writing Advice: 2023


For the last six years Poets & Writers Magazine has published Ten Questions, a weekly series that interviews authors of new works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The idea is to celebrate the publication of their books while sharing insights about their professional journeys, offering the magazine’s readers both inspiration and practical tools to apply to their own craft and careers. Authors reveal useful, surprising, and sometimes touching details about their writing habits, artistic influences, experience working with agents and editors, and more about their path to publishing everything from debut books to the latest title in an already expansive oeuvre. As 2023 draws to a close, we share some of our favorite responses this year to the question that speaks directly to our desire for some guidance through the often-dark labyrinth of the literary life: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?  

“To write your story because no one else can write it. Writers approach the same person or event or era of historical significance through their own unique lens. When we lean into where our hearts guide us, the words on the page reflect our style. It is important to understand craft rules and to read widely, because we see how others follow, and break, those rules. But ultimately our work should reflect our own vision and our own voice.” —Jamila Minnicks, Moon Rise Over New Jessup

“‘Risk clarity.’ —Vievee Francis” —Gabrielle Bates, author of Judas Goat

“The late poet Robert Creeley once turned to me—in light of some self-deprecating remark I had made about my most recent book and projects—and told me, ‘Be serious!’ In a world that seems to care very little about what writers get up to, I have done my best to take that to heart.” —Laird Hunt, author of The Wide Terraqueous World

“As I write in the book, frustrated after receiving a C-minus in Nikki Giovanni’s advanced poetry class in college, I scheduled an appointment with her during her office hours. She told me, ‘Kwame, I can teach you how to write poetry, but I cannot teach you how to be interesting.’ While nineteen-year-old me thought those were pretty harsh words, it turns out that I have spent my entire writerly life walking around as an eager and engaged participant so I’d have something worth writing about.” —Kwame Alexander, author of Why Fathers Cry at Night: A Memoir in Love Poems, Recipes, Letters, and Remembrances

“All rules of writing are there to be broken. Otherwise, if we just simply follow all the rules, it’s not art: It’s ChatGPT, or artificial intelligence (AI). The paradox is that while we’re still learning to write, we do have to learn the rules. Only then can we become good enough to break them and form our own rules. I wonder if that’s what would differentiate human writers from AI.” —Nathan Go, author of Forgiving Imelda Marcos

“In Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction, Carol Bly writes, ‘Literature has low enough standards. But we can avoid writing the worst literature if we make ourselves ask ourselves, every two or three sentences we write, “Is that what I really think?’’”  —Stacy Jane Grover, author of Tar Hollow Trans

“Read more than you write.” —Robyn Schiff, author of Information Desk: An Epic

“I think a lot about something Kimberly King Parsons and Chelsea Bieker taught in their class called ‘Rejection, Revision, and Renewal,’ especially as I move into promoting the collection. I even wrote it on a note card and taped it to my desk: ‘Keep your head down and shut out the noise, because nothing beats a good writing day.’” —Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, author of Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare

“Have fun. Make friends.” —Curtis Chin, author of Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant

“Marry rich! (I didn’t take that advice.) The second-best piece of advice was to start something new when I’m in a rut. We have to have a little fun, too, if we want to stay in love with what we do. After The Hurricane Book is out, you best believe I’ll be working on some sci-fi erotica for a bit.” — Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones, author of The Hurricane Book: A Lyric History

Clockwise from upper left: Jamila Minnicks, Gabrielle Bates, Laird Hunt, Kwame Alexander, Nathan Go, Stacy Jane Grover, Robyn Schiff, Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, Curtis Chin, Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones. (Credit: Minnicks: Samia Minnicks; Bates: Liesa Cole; Hunt: Eva Sikelianos Hunt; Alexander: Portia Wiggins; Go: Crest Contrata; Grover: Elizabeth Keith; Schiff: Nicole Craine; Kakimoto: Van Wishingrad; Chin: Michelle Li, Studio Plum Photography)

Ten Writers on the Books They Are Reading: 2023


During 2023, Poets & Writers Magazine’s weekly Ten Questions series interviewed fifty writers about the path to publishing their new books of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. We asked them about their writing habits, the challenges they encountered while completing their manuscripts, surprises they faced along the way, and more. In this week’s installment of Ten Questions we share ten responses writers offered this year to one of our favorite questions: What are you reading right now? If you have a little extra time this holiday season—and we hope you do—may these writers’ reading lists inspire your own: Head to your local bookstore, library, or favorite online retailer to pick up a few books to see you through these last days of the year.

1.The Biography of X by Catherine Lacey…. It’s wildly ambitious and thrilling on the sentence level.” —Maggie Millner, author of Couplets

2. “I’m reading Mott Street by Ava Chin. Chin traces the history of her family, going back decades, from coast to coast. It’s a personal history and offers insight about American history through the lens of her family.” —Victor LaValle, author of Lone Women

3. “I’m reading the novel Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman, which I knew would be an emotional and lyrical tour-de-force.” —Chaitali Sen, author of A New Race of Men From Heaven

4. “Rereading Susanne K. Langer’s Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures (well, I’m always picking the book up), my husband’s Constellation Route, and Garrett Hongo’s The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo. I just started Deena Mohamed’s graphic novel (I love graphic novels), Shubeik Lubeik, and just finished Peter Orner’s Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin and Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love. I’m in the middle of Mark Whitaker’s Saying It Loud: 1966—the Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement. I read several books at once because my attention is constantly shifting and I want to see how one text connects, or doesn’t, to another. I’m moving in and out of my colleagues’ texts; I am determined to read all of their books—and that is a lot of reading. On my desks and tables are perhaps more than twenty five books. Like any writer! Monica Youn’s From From. Clint Smith. Kyle Dargan. And on and on. And I am on pins and needles waiting to read Dee Matthews’s Bread and Circus.” —Vievee Frances, author of The Shared World

5. “Blake Butler’s memoir, Molly, out this fall. It’s bleak and beautiful. Also the writings of painter William N. Copley, Percival Everett’s Dr. No, and Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women.” —Emma Cline, author of Guest

6. “I have exceedingly broad reading interests and some rules around how I read. I tend to decompress after writing a book of poems by reading work outside of poetry for a short while. But we are in the midst of such a rich publishing year, I couldn’t resist! I just read Vievee Francis’s The Shared World and Charif Shanahan’s Trace Evidence—both marvelous. My ancestral research has led to reading, and rereading, historical slave narratives and accounts, including: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by HimselfThe History of Mary PrinceCelia, A Slave Trial; and a volume of collected works titled Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies edited by John W. Blassingame. I usually read something different at night than during the day. Recently I have been reading chapters of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment by Skye C. Cleary, Todorov’s Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, Jay Murphy’s Artaud’s Metamorphosis: From Hieroglyphs to Bodies Without Organs, and Susan A. Glenn’s Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism.” —Airea D. Matthews, author of Bread and Circus

7. “I seem to be perpetually rereading The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. I’m also rereading Angels by Denis Johnson as well as three books for a seminar I’m teaching this fall: King LearThe Age of Innocence, and Song of Solomon. I just picked up Francisco by Alison Mills Newman and To the North by Elizabeth Bowen.” —Jamel Brinkley, author of Witness

8. “I’m reading The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez.” —Myriam Gurba, author of Creep: Accusations and Confessions

9. “I’ve just recently pivoted to read the finalists for the National Book Award—in various genres—whose books I hadn’t yet read. But I am also reading Touching the Art by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Greenland by David Santos Donaldson, and some advance copies of forthcoming books: The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez and The Long Run: A Creative Inquiry by Stacey D’Erasmo, about artistic stamina, among other things.” —Justin Torres, author of Blackouts

10.The Pole, the new novel by J. M. Coetzee.” —Sigrid Nunez, author of The Vulnerables

Clockwise from upper left: Maggie Millner, Victor LaValle, Chaitali Sen, Vievee Francis, Emma Cline, Sigrid Nunez, Justin Torres, Myriam Gurba, Jamel Brinkley, and Airea D. Matthews. (Credit: Millner: Sarah Wagner Miller; LaValle: Teddy Wolff; Sen; Paige Wilks; Francis: Matthew Olzmann; Cline: DV DeVincentis; Nunez: Marion Ettlinger Higher; Gurba: Geoff Cordner; Brinkley: Daniele Molajoli;  Matthews: Ryan Collerd)

Ten Questions for Jennifer Savran Kelly


This week’s Ten Questions features Jennifer Savran Kelly, whose debut novel, Endpapers, is out now in paperback from Algonquin. In this literary mystery, Dawn, a book conservator at a New York City museum in the early aughts, finds herself in the midst of a life crisis, feeling perplexed about her gender, romantic relationship, and artistic career. Running out of time to prepare the work she is expected to show in an upcoming gallery exhibition, Dawn finds something that offers a clue to all three of her problems: a love letter written on one side of the cover of a 1950s lesbian novel, which had been torn off from the original book and stashed behind the endpapers of another. Compelled to find the letter writer, Dawn confronts a queer past that is even more oppressive than the present. This new historical knowledge inspires Dawn to take artistic action with a project challenging popular queer narratives in literature. Publishers Weekly praises Endpapers, calling it “richly imagined…. [I]t’s Dawn’s evolution as an artist and a person that gives the novel its beating heart. Readers will find lots to love.” Jennifer Savran Kelly is a bookbinder and production editor at Cornell University Press. A winner of a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation, their work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Hobart, Potomac Review, and elsewhere.

1. How long did it take you to write Endpapers
I had a vision for the story in 2014, but when I sat down at my computer, all that came out was one very long, winding sentence. I thought it was terrible, so I closed the document and didn’t open it again until two years later, when Trump was running for president and it looked like he might actually win. Suddenly, because the main themes of the book were gender fluidity and Judaism, I felt a greater sense of urgency to tell the story. I finished writing it in 2019, but after many more revisions with my agent and editor, I wrote the actual last word sometime in 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I wanted to tell a story about different instances in history, both recent and further back, of oppression of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups. But I was afraid I would end up writing a treatise instead of a novel. As I researched the Holocaust, the Lavender Scare, and post-9/11 New York City, I paid careful attention to personal accounts of what it was like during those eras—and not only about events—so that I would be able to create characters who felt alive on the page, with personal motivations and desires. As interested as I am in these histories, I didn’t want to simply report on them. I don’t mean to diminish the important role of historians; as a fiction writer, however, I wanted to create a world in which readers could envision themselves. I hope I was able to achieve that to some extent!

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I have a small, antique desk next to a glass door in the corner of my living room. I wish I could say I write there, but more often I write cozied up on my couch, usually with one or both of my cats snuggled nearby. I work full time and have a teenage kid, so I do almost all my writing in the early hours of the morning before anyone else in my house wakes up and before my workday begins. Occasionally I find time to write on weekends, or I get away for weekend retreats when I need to make more progress on something.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I have the honor of reading an advance reader’s copy of the book Cactus Country: A Boyhood Memoir by Zoë Bossiere, forthcoming from Abrams Press. I can’t wait until everyone gets the chance to read it! I’m also listening to an audiobook version of Jane Eyre, which somehow I’ve never read. I’m so happy I’ve finally made my way to it; the narrator is Anna Bentinck.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
In general, Marilynne Robinson, Jorge Luis Borges, and Miriam Toews. I first read Robinson’s Housekeeping in college, and everything about it—from the prose to the story—just floored me. If I’d dared to think of myself as a writer back then, that book would have inspired me to write a novel much earlier. Toews was a later, accidental find. I was taken by the cover of All My Puny Sorrows on a bookstore shelf, and I’m glad I trusted my instincts. It’s a great story, but I’m also really impressed with Toews’s craft. I never imagined I could laugh my way through a novel about someone’s sister wanting to commit suicide, but Toews finds many moments of humor in the grief.

While I wrote Endpapers, I reread James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and discovered Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh. Though they’re very different books, the beautiful writing and the passion in both inspired me greatly. I also reread portions of Female Masculinity by Jack Halberstam, which I’d read in college. It was the first book that made me feel like I could begin to understand my feelings about my gender.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Endpapers?
Until I found a publishing home for Endpapers, a main subplot focused on the Holocaust. The editors at Algonquin liked the story, but they thought it would serve the novel better if I replaced the Holocaust storyline with one from a less-written-about time. My first reaction was resistance. I’d already done a lot of revising, and it meant changing about a third of the book. But their reasoning made sense to me. A subplot about a Holocaust survivor can’t help but overshadow a main plot about someone trying to come to terms with their gender in the early 2000s.

A brief internet search brought my attention to the Lavender Scare, which I hadn’t known much about. During the McCarthy era, the government sowed a moral panic about homosexuality, resulting in thousands of government employees losing their jobs. The tactics used to discover people’s sexuality were kept secret and trials were held in private. People who were accused of being homosexual or even associating with homosexuals were denied access to information about their own cases. When the Lavender Scare finally ended, after decades, many of the government files were destroyed.

In my research I also discovered that the invention of the queer pulp novel had overlapped with the Lavender Scare, allowing people in the LGBTQ+ community to both see themselves in literature for the first time and to find one another. Ultimately this allowed some groups to organize. Within twenty-four hours of learning about these two things, I couldn’t wait to revise Endpapers. The new setting also gave me an opportunity to tie the subplot deeper into the main plot, by drawing a meaningful bookbinding connection between the two characters.

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 time I spoke with my agent, they said one of the things they liked best about Endpapers was that Dawn, the main character, is messy and human and not a model of queer perfection. I wrote Dawn as someone who’s weathered her fair share of difficulty and who has anxiety, but I have a lot of empathy for her, and it surprised me to learn along the way that some readers think she’s a real jerk. Although I can certainly see their point, I struggled because I didn’t want to sanitize her for the sake of making a likeable character, yet I wanted readers to sympathize with her, at least to some degree. My agent’s feedback gave me the courage to move ahead with a character who doesn’t depend on having a consistently kind demeanor to demonstrate that queer people—and all people everywhere—deserve dignity.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Endpapers, what would you say?
Believe in the process. Have patience and keep an open mind. Look for the agents and editors who share your vision for the work and trust them.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a fair amount of research—first on the Holocaust, then the Lavender Scare and queer pulp fiction. I also had to remind myself of the popular culture and headlines from 2003; it’s amazing how much has changed in twenty years, especially the technology.

Less tangibly, I had to do a lot of self-reflection because, like Dawn, I didn’t have language like “nonbinary” or “genderqueer” when I began writing the book. I’m pansexual, and I’ve pretty much always questioned my own gender and played around with androgyny, but I never knew what to call that, so I wasn’t confident I had a right to be telling this story. It forced me to face a lot of thoughts and feelings I’d tried to put aside many years ago.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
There have been two, and I can’t choose between them! One is for long-form writing: Keep going, and don’t look back until you get to the end. Make notes all you want, but don’t revise until you complete the first draft. I’m sure this doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me—although I cheat from time to time when inspiration calls for it or when I know a revision will actually help me move forward. The second is to find a way to make your main character do the one thing they’re most afraid of or that goes against everything they’ve ever thought they would do.

Jennifer Savran Kelly, author of Endpapers.   (Credit: Darcy Rose)

Ten Questions for Melissa Rivero


Today’s installment of Ten Questions features Melissa Rivero, whose new novel, Flores and Miss Paula, is out today from Ecco. Three years after the death of patriarch Martín, his widow, Paula, and their adult daughter, Flores, are living together in a New York City apartment, a cramped space that magnifies their clashing personalities and old resentments. But their disputes are more a function of generational and cultural divides than real animosity: Paula, a Peruvian immigrant, wants her daughter to marry and settle down, while Flores is equally flummoxed by her mother’s approach to the opposite sex. Financial insecurity ratchets up the tension as Paula’s retail job does not offer much opportunity and Flores’s student loans have her working long hours and considering unorthodox methods for paying off her debt. Meanwhile Flores begins to question how well she knew her parents when she comes across a note from Paula to Martín that implies her mother might have been hiding secrets from him. The women must find a way to unite, however, when their landlord kicks them out of their apartment—a shared challenge that will force the duo to come to terms with each another, their shared past, and uncertain futures. Publishers Weekly praises Flores and Miss Paula: “It all hangs together nicely, setting the stage for a surprisingly moving conclusion. This is a treat.” Melissa Rivero is the author of The Affairs of the Falcóns (Ecco, 2019). Winner of the 2019 New American Voices Award and a 2020 International Latino Book Award, she is a graduate of New York University and Brooklyn Law School, where she was an editor of the Brooklyn Law Review. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.       

1. How long did it take you to write Flores and Miss Paula
About four years. It started as a short story when I was in Kweli’s Art of the Short Story Workshop, back in late 2017. I quickly realized it was not a short story. I wrote the bulk of the manuscript during COVID-19 quarantine and finished it in the fall of 2021.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I found it challenging to write about Martín, the father. My dad had cancer, and for years I did my best to avoid revisiting his illness. Then the pandemic hit. I was home, in a small apartment in Brooklyn, helping my kids with school on Zoom while simultaneously working a very intense full-time job. I didn’t see my mother or any of my family for months. Friends here in New York and family in Peru died. A lot of things came up for me. Writing kept me grounded, but it also reopened some wounds, as it often does. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It depends on what’s happening in my life. When I had a full-time job, I wrote on the subway and on the weekends. I edited the day’s work at night, once the kids were asleep. During quarantine, I wrote for thirty minutes a day—between breakfast and the start of the kids’ school day online. Now I write every weekday for about one to two hours. I can’t really go for longer stretches than that. Sometimes I write on weekends, but I try to save those days for reading, spiritual work, and long walks.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I’m reading The Essential June Jordan and listening to the novel Nuestra parte de noche (Our Share of Night) by Mariana Enríquez. I’m also a comic book fan and just finished Dark X-Men, #4.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
So many. But generally Cristina Garcia, Isabel Allende, and Gabriel García Márquez. Hernan Diaz blows my mind too. I love poetry and flip through a collection daily. I usually reach for Ada Limón, Natalie Diaz, or Patricia Smith’s work. And Jane Austen. I revisit her work regularly.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Flores and Miss Paula?
Paula surprised me! When I first started writing this book, I thought Paula would be just one of many characters in a Flores-centered novel, but she had other plans. I kept hearing this woman commenting on Flores and her life. She whispered to me like one of my tías sitting next to me on the sofa at a house party. Always with something to say! I had to give her more space 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?
My agent, Julia Kardon, reminded me that I can and will write another book, regardless of how this one does. When you publish a book, you inevitably worry about how it will be received, if it will do “well”—whatever that means to you, your publisher, etcetera. I appreciated that kind of support from her because the truth is I still have a bit of imposter syndrome, and publishing in general is a trip.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Flores and Miss Paula, what would you say?
Try to have fun! Even when the world seems like it’s falling apart and you’re feeling down, go back to the work. You’ll find joy there, or find the parts of you that you need to see and acknowledge. Both are important.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I interviewed several people, including folks with similar backgrounds and jobs as the characters in the novel. I also kept my job, even though people were quitting left and right during the pandemic. I’m not sure I could’ve finished the novel if I didn’t have a steady paycheck—so much of the world felt uncertain at the time. In the end, though, I was burnt out. But I promised myself that if I sold this book I would quit the day job, and I did. I might have to go back to a full-time job, but at least now I have a better sense of what kind of setup would work for me at this point in my life.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
“Butt in chair.” It’s what writer M. Evelina Galang told me once. The only way you’re going to write something is by actually writing. I have back issues, so I alternate between my butt in the chair and standing. But the point is that I get to my desk and write.


Melissa Rivero, author of Flores and Miss Paula.   (Credit: Bartosz Potocki)

Ten Questions for James W. Jennings


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features James W. Jennings, whose novel Wings of Red is out now from Soft Skull Press. In this autofictional tale, a substitute teacher, writer, and artist named June Papers finds himself homeless in “New City,” a version of New York City. Despite his “half-a-million-dollar education” and immense talent, socioeconomic circumstances—including a felony record that frustrates his ability to find steady work—have left him with “no real next move except walking and wishing.” Readers follow the loquacious June as he navigates New City’s streets and the characters he encounters there. Some of those characters are students and faculty at the schools where he continues to teach on a substitute basis, the truth of his dire circumstances largely invisible. All the while, June is recording his journey, jotting down his observations and reflections, offering a running, metafictional commentary that at times evokes Beat narratives like On the Road. “Living is quite the adventure, the moon’s whipping around us, we’re ripping around the sun, and we hardly feel a thing,” June writes early in the novel as he cruises through New City’s subway. June’s voyage, however, is no madcap cross-country trip but rather an exercise in survival, one that exposes the flimsiness of American ideals like meritocracy, the value of higher education, and bootstraps individualism. Kirkus praises Wings of Red: “Jennings’ distinct style can be jarring at first, but the reader will quickly sink into his rhythm and appreciate the lively nature of his present-tense verbiage and his quick syntax.” The author of the novel Strays, James W. Jennings holds an MFA from Brooklyn College in New York City and works as a high school English teacher in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.

1. How long did it take you to write Wings of Red
The core of Wings took a little less than a year to write. I’d been training to write a book a year since I was seventeen or eighteen, and Wings was my real go at it. Most of Wings was written in one long, maniacal block of time. I did not know I’d spend thirteen years molding and sculpting it.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. I have different responses. At first I thought the most difficult part about writing Wings was living through the life I had to live while writing it. This much is true and expressed in the work itself, but the more I feel through it now, and think about those last few edits, the more I’m made aware that the writing itself was also difficult. I struggled with the urge to tame my voice in order to appease America-at-large as the publication date approached, and it felt pretty nasty. There’s nothing worse to me than that feeling you have when you know you’re being fake. I try to avoid that at all costs. Writing is like running to me; I enjoy neither, really, but I need to do both every day to feel healthy and know where I stand.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write every day. Religiously. My literature isn’t too far from my journaling, stylistically, so I’m always on. I wake up, pray, write my dreams down, go running, run errands, write, create, eat, blah, blah, blah. Repeat.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I am not reading. I’m busy running and writing and trying to be nice to people while folks around me seem to be losing their minds; 2023 has been rough. To be honest, I haven’t found many books lately which speak truth to light the way Wings—or even Strays, my first novel—does for me. As arrogant as it may sound, I’d one-hundred-percent rather reread my own work. Or The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I always reread The Alchemist.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
I love Toni Morrison. Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese filmmaker, inspired me with his courage and collaborative spirit. Bob Marley. I was born the day following his death, on Mother’s Day in 1981. Lynne Tillman wriiites. Alex Garland, the English novelist and filmmaker, inspired me because he was so young and successful, and I had similar ambitions. Initially I thought he was kind of old, being published at twenty-seven. The Sun Also Rises left quite an impact on me. The Biblical character Solomon and Ecclesiastes. I love Paulo Coelho. I love Amiri Baraka for writing Blues People (now known as Black Music). I got to interview his son Mayor Ras J. Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, and he’s just as dope as his father. I’m inspired by anyone who’s putting pen to page these days. It takes a lot of courage to care enough about what you think and feel to put it down permanently and watch it have to stand the test of time.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Wings of Red?
The whole experience still feels otherworldly. I grew so used to writing Wings that Wings being published is perhaps the biggest surprise. It’s hard to remember what was surprising before it was published. Oh, I have it. What was surprising while writing Wings was how much I worried about other people’s opinions and how liberating it was to feel free to be me. The writing when I was in between leases and scraping for every penny felt oddly euphoric and grounding at the same time.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
If it’s free, sure. Why not? If not, tens of thousands of dollars in loans for a fine arts degree in a capitalistic society is not a humane recommendation. Whenever I come across a writer at that stage, I try to gauge if they can’t not write. If they’re obsessed, like most of us writers, it doesn’t matter either way. Otherwise I give them grace and space and hope they have a kid in time to sidetrack them from putting another half-hearted work of literature into the world.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Wings of Red, what would you say?
I would say, “Everything you’re ashamed of now will become your superpower in the future. Experience is your inheritance. You’re one of the richest people in the world. Everything you’re embarrassed by now will become a gem of honor once you see how powerful truth really is. You are royalty. Learn to love your story. You’re the living dream of your ancestors.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I created a nonprofit, 49th Hour Workshop, to publish Wings. I invested thousands of dollars into Wings of Red merchandise (including ethically made clothing, postcards, stickers, shades with little wings on them, and other things). I created worlds and ecosystems for Wings to exist well before I was finished with the first draft; then I had to pivot, knowing it wasn’t time for the book yet and had to find another way to execute the novel. I knew Wings had the potential to change the world because every idea that came from trying to create a safe and nurturing environment for it ended up being somewhat successful. With Wings I was initially a decade too early, but I learned invaluable lessons while working on it. And I still have a lot of the Wings merchandise—which I have a lot of fun giving away.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Ecclesiastes. All of Ecclesiastes is great advice—jaded but true. Also, one day in workshop at the conference organized by the journal Callaloo, Percival Everett told us that we were treating writing like karate or kung fu, and warned us against sticking to so many rules: “Writing is a street fight,” he said. You do what you have to do, basically.


James W. Jennings, author of Wings of Red.   (Credit: Rose Margetson)

Ten Questions for Kimberly Grey


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Kimberly Grey, whose debut essay collection, A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing, will be published on December 5 by Persea Books. In this lyrical exploration of motherhood, the parent-child relationship, and language, Grey blends memoir and critical theory to tell a personal story and investigate its meanings for the self and within the larger culture. The narrative moves back and forth in time, from the narrator’s life in the present to consider experiences from childhood through the recent past, particularly involving the author’s troubled interactions with her nuclear family. A chronicle of grief filtered through the mind of an academic and poet, the book charts an intellectual’s attempts to assuage the trauma of loss by considering what great thinkers—from Roland Barthes to C. D. Wright—have said on that and other proximal subjects. The book also functions as a metacommentary on the efficacy of writing and verbal communication, particularly in the face of obliterating sorrow: “It’s taken me thirty years to understand the rules of my mother, ” Grey writes, deploying grammar as a metaphor to understand interpersonal dynamics. “Mostly unspoken. Mostly unfollowable: be my mirror, don’t be my mirror. You are not wanted here, but you are not to leave. Verb contradictions. It’s why I so desire to understand mother as a verb.” Kimberly Grey is the author of the poetry collections Systems for the Future of Feeling (2020) and The Opposite of Light (2016), both published by Persea books. She is the recipient of Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a teaching lectureship from Stanford, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. Her work has appeared in A Public Space, Kenyon Review, Tin House, and other journals. She is currently a visiting professor of poetry at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

1. How long did it take you to write A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing?  
I became estranged from my entire family in August 2015. About six months later, in early 2016, I began writing the initial sections of the book. I was too traumatized during those early months to write anything, but that entire first year was just about creating little snippets of writing. I was a fellow at Civitella Ranieri in Italy during fall 2016, and that is when the book began in earnest. I wrote the title on my bulletin board in my studio so that I would begin recognizing it as a book and I’d pass by it every morning when I went to make my tea and toast. It became like an echo that felt more like a real sound every day. By spring 2021 the book was fully formed, though I tweaked it a bit until I had no choice but to turn in the final version to my editor. So all in all, it took about five years to complete.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
I was conditioned from an early age to never speak out against anyone in my family, to keep family secrets, to never criticize my mother or hold her accountable for anything. This was a kind of implicit, insidious grooming that started in early childhood, so the idea of writing the truth of how I was treated by my mother was terrifying, almost to the point of paralysis. I had to continually give myself permission to write about my true, lived experiences with abuse and scapegoating and how traumatizing and life-altering it has been. But I do think some small fragments of fear never went away, and so the book does employ intellectualization as a sort of protective mask. That made things a little less challenging. Or at least allowed space for the book to happen.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write in my home office mostly. I’m not really a coffee-shop writer, and I tend to not apply for residencies much, as I prefer my own familiar space. I need complete silence to really concentrate on language and form. It takes time to get into that headspace, so I don’t write as often as other writers. I try to make a point to set aside three hours a week for writing, sometimes Sunday mornings. But if I don’t feel like writing during that time, I’ll read or do something else. I’m very much a write-when-it-comes kind of writer. Which often means slower production. But I have no interest in being prolific. I’ve gone months without writing anything. I’ve also written twenty poems in one month. It’s all just dependent on the outside factors and forces of teaching and life.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I’m currently reading Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book. It’s this interesting amalgamation of literary criticism, philosophy, and cognitive psychology that explores how writers create art through the act of mental composition. She asks, “By what miracle is a writer able to incite us to bring forth mental images that resemble in their quality not our own daydreaming but our own (much more freely practiced) perceptual acts?” I’m really interested in her assertion that “our freely practiced imaginative acts bear less resemblance to our freely practiced perceptual acts than to our constrained imaginative acts occurring under authorial direction.” The book is teaching me something about perceptual agency that aligns itself with hybrid-genre work.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?  
Probably most central to all my work is Anne Carson. She is a true hybridist, creating books that are artifacts, art-objects, and amalgamations of poetry, art, opera, translation, image, etcetera. I like how many of her books aren’t even classifiable, employing so many different disciplines and modalities that the book asserts its own categorization. For me, meaning is multiplied by the sheer multitude of approaches and disciplines. Other writers that have greatly informed this book and my work in general include Renee Gladman, Roland Barthes, Etel Adnan, and Maggie Nelson.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing
I was surprised at how hybrid the book became. I started off truly wanting to write a more narrative book of essays. But the more research I did into trauma theory, the more I realized that writing about trauma requires an entirely different approach to narrative and progress. The idea of any kind of continuity or story advancement felt impossible while in the throes of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When one is traumatized they are literally stuck, so much so that many trauma therapies work on “unfreezing” stuck memories from the brain using bilateral stimulation (sometimes through eye movements, sometimes through hand buzzers). So the book became this exercise in a different kind of progress, a progression of the mind trying to process and understand trauma. Because of this I found myself moving among prose, poetry, and image; each became its own experimental improvisation toward understanding, toward eventual meaning.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I read some very early essays in this book to my friend, the wonderful poet Spencer Reece. We were both living at Civitella and walked down the backside of the castle into Umbertide to have a coffee in the center of town. We sat across from each other on these sweet, little sofas, and I read aloud to him in this public space, loud enough that other people could hear me. This was a sort of induction into the work one day becoming public. Afterward we went to this little church in the square, and Spencer, an ordained priest, held my hand and said a prayer for me to overcome my pain. That’s when I knew, for sure, I’d finish the book. No matter what complications or challenges in writing came, I had to write it.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing, what would you say? 
This is impossible for me to answer because this is a book I never thought I would have to write. I could never have imagined I’d be exiled and dislocated from my entire family. It was something completely unfathomable to me. I also think there is no “earlier me” that I could possibly access or imagine anymore. Trauma makes before-and-after versions of us, whether we like it or not. For me, my life feels like it has been split into two, and I no longer have access to my before-life or who I was before this estrangement. So the only way to answer this question is to access the me that I was immediately after the estrangement, those first six months when I couldn’t write anything. If I’m being completely honest, I think that I was hoping that this wasn’t real, that my family would want me back and there wouldn’t be a story to write. That my trauma would be corrected by them. That I would—in some magical way—be told I was actually a loved and valued daughter, sister, aunt. The book only came once I realized that was never going to happen, no matter how hard I wished it would. So I would say to that person: You are going to write the book, and it won’t feel like a relief. It won’t cure your pain. It won’t make the world alright or take away your suffering. But it will be the first time you’ve really had a voice. The first time you let yourself write something that feels necessary. And that means something.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I wrote this book while completing my PhD, and my entrance into theoretical research—including trauma, narrative, and psychoanalytic theory—were central to the book’s making. Melding research with memoir and poetry was a new challenge, but it added a sense of veracity, even authenticity to the writing. I feel like the polyvocal conversations I have with other writers, philosophers, artists, and theorists helped to authenticate my own experiences. I also feel like I became a smarter and more well-rounded creative writer by broadening my knowledge of theory and literary criticism.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
My first poetry professor, Stephen Dunn, told me that I had to learn to love lines and sentences as much as ideas. I don’t think I fully understood what he meant back then, but now I know he was instructing me to fall in love with the tension between the line and the grammatical sentence; how the unit of the line itself manifests as a unit of meaning, independent of the sentence but married to it as well: two distinct manifestations of meaning. When I was at Stanford University, the poet Eavan Boland once told me, “If you ignore your autobiography, you will never become an authentic poet.” At the time I did not believe her. I was even angered by her comment. I only realize now that she was granting me permission to write about my life and my family—something I had been conditioned since childhood not to do. I prided myself on my “fictional constructions” and asserted that I came from the Wallace Stevens school of thought, regarding poetry as “the supreme fiction.” But that’s because I did not yet have permission to write about my life. I didn’t think I could. She gave me that, and I am forever indebted to her.

Correction: An earlier version of Ten Questions incorrectly stated that Kimberly Grey’s essay collection was published on November 21. The book will be published on December 5.

Kimberly Grey, author of A Mother Is an Intellectual Thing.  

Ten Questions for Subhaga Crystal Bacon


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Subhaga Crystal Bacon, whose new poetry collection, Transitory, is out today from BOA Editions. In this searching consideration of gender that bridges the personal and political, lyric and docupoetics, Bacon elegizes forty-six trans and gender-nonconforming people who were murdered in the United States and Puerto Rico in 2020. The elegies—whose titles contain the name, age, and death date of each life—memorialize those lost and bear witness to the mounting toll of violence against people whose gender falls outside the normative binary. Bacon, who uses she/they pronouns, explores their own coming of age in the years after the 1969 Stonewall Uprising opened the door to greater openness for queer people and increased activism demanding social inclusion and equal rights. Without drawing an equivalence between the lyric “I” and the lives mourned in Transitory, Bacon nonetheless explores parallels, including experiences of discrimination and violence the speaker encounters at work as a teacher and on other fronts. Aware of the problematics in Transitory’s monumental project, Bacon incorporates metacommentary and reflection about “the need to name this, the brutality of tallying the dead,” as she puts it in “Why I’m Writing About the Murders of Trans & Gender Nonconforming People in the Year of COVID.” Diane Seuss praises Transitory, particularly its use of poetic form: “The forms provide elegance. Dignity. The details, affinity…. I could feel each loss with profundity.” Subhaga Crystal Bacon is the author of Blue Hunger (Methow Press, 2020) and Elegy With a Glass of Whiskey (BOA Editions, 2004). They live on the eastern slopes of the North Cascade mountains in Twisp, Washington.

1. How long did it take you to write Transitory?
I wrote the first poem in early July 2020 during a workshop about writing poems of protest in form. That first poem was an acrostic for the word justice, repeated twice to accommodate the twenty-one transgender people murdered since the start of the year. I knew once I’d finished that catalog that I’d have to write a poem for each of those who were murdered that year. I finished the bulk of the manuscript in December then began fleshing it out with some personal poems to provide context as to why I had written the collection.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Tracking the reports of these murders was extremely painful. I checked the Human Rights Campaign website a couple times a week. Some weeks there’d be nothing and in others a record would appear of a death that had happened earlier in the year. Or the death of a teenager, like Brayla Stone, who was only seventeen. Then I’d spend days reading everything I could find online, taking notes and thinking about the poem’s form, living with grief and loss. There were some very low days for me, when I’d be holed up in my study working and emerge at the end of the day really weighed down by what preciousness had been stolen from families and friends.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I’ve tended to alternate between my study and our kitchen table. My partner is a painter and spends most of her day in her studio, so it’s really best for me to work in my own studio space. I recently did some rearranging of books and sort of “fluffed up” the space so it’s more inviting again. It’s a nice room, and it’s good to be able to close the door and carry on if my partner comes in to eat during the day, keeping our shared space communal rather than expecting her to tiptoe around if I’m at my computer.

I retired from college teaching last June, and I love having the freedom to write every day if I want, apart from the month of April, when in the last couple of years I’ve written a poem a day. I work in an intuitive way. I have a very interior life and am frequently investigating myself, my thoughts and feelings, my memories and impressions, so I’m grateful to have the freedom to follow those impulses and see where they lead. We live on beautiful, spacious, open land, on about thirty acres in north central Washington that bump up against undeveloped land. We take turns walking our labradoodle, Lola, out there, and I often write on my phone during our walks. If I’m not writing, I’m revising or submitting new work. So I’m writing in some way most days.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m just back from the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival in Ohio, where I was on a panel with Jennifer Martelli, Jessica Cuello, and Stacy Gnall on poetry of witness. I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Jessica’s first book, Pricking. It’s an enthralling collection about medieval French history and the persecution of Cathars [a sect of Christianity], Jeanne d’Arc, and “witches,” so it feels timely and deeply connected to anti-trans violence and state-sponsored persecution. She’s one of my favorite poets.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
The book mostly organized itself as I arranged the poems chronologically in order of the deaths. The more challenging work was integrating the poems about my own queer journey and experiences with homophobia and threats of violence, my history as a queer person who’s been blessed to live to elderhood. I have a wonderful group of writing friends from my MFA cohort at Warren Wilson College, and they helped me to place those poems. The book starts with a long poem I wrote in August 2020, when there were no deaths reported. It’s a poem that situates me as the “watcher” and gives some context for what that was like. I scattered the personal poems every so many pages to provide a kind of relief from the otherwise unrelenting horror of the murders.

6. How did you arrive at the title Transitory for this collection? 
The word transitory came to me early on to resonate with transness and with all the things trans can mean as a prefix. Life is transitory— but more so for trans people, particularly people of color, for whom the life expectancy is thirty-five years. The original title was Transitory: A Catalog of Gleaned Sketches of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People Murdered in 2020. It’s unwieldy but I wanted something that would point to how little information there is about these lost lives. In the end my writing group suggested just Transitory, to let it be more evocative and less literal. They were right of course. And what Sandy Knight did with that word on the cover, conjuring both the words trans and story, is brilliant!

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Transitory?
You know, I recently read an interview with the poet Joshua Jennifer Espinoza in the anthology Subject to Change: Trans Poetry & Conversation, in which she says, “Investigating your own gender—whether you are cis or trans or anything else—allows you to experience the world in a new way, allows you to be more sensitive to the oppression faced by those whose gender is not legible within this system.” As a queer-identified person of a certain age, I came late to investigating gender identity. It was surprising to me how little I both understood and was comfortable with my own gender. Once people started talking about this more and identifying themselves and their pronouns, I went through a shift from queer and cis, to queer and nonbinary, to queer and “anything else,” something that feels quietly trans-masculine. The final poem in the collection started out titled “Cis/Sister” but is now titled “This/Sister.” I finally have the language and freedom to know myself in this way, as my true nature. It’s a deeply personal knowing that shows itself only shyly. I wish I’d remembered to edit my bio in the book to reflect my pronouns correctly as she/they.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Transitory, what would you say?
It’s okay for you to reveal more of yourself in your poetry! There’s a poem in the collection titled “I Have Room for You in Me: A Litany,” and it’s addressed as much to myself as to others.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
My true work is spiritual awakening into my true and total nature. The tradition in which I teach and practice, Trillium Awakening, is a tantric path, which means that we accept everything as it is. It’s not a transcendent path of up and out but an embodied path that accommodates and welcomes the down. Writing this book took me into the down in a big way, living briefly the lives and dying the deaths of those I elegized. Without my spiritual capacity I don’t know if I’d have had the stamina to do it, to keep tracking the deaths and bringing them into the light—to the limited extent I was able to.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
My early teacher, Larry Levis, told me that I scared myself and backed off of going where the poem wanted to go. He was right! I recently read a piece in Poetry by Kiki Petrosino that was good advice on this count, to enter “the field of language dressed as a pilgrim, not a tractor…to witness, to encounter, to love those poems onto the page. Love; this is the work.”

Subhaga Crystal Bacon, author of Transitory.   (Credit: AKR Photography)

Ten Questions for Sigrid Nunez


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sigrid Nunez, whose new novel, The Vulnerables, is out today from Riverhead Books. In this delightfully meandering narrative that reads like a long letter from a brilliant and gossipy friend, Nunez explores the surreal experience of living through the early days of the pandemic in New York City. The narrator, an author, moves into the apartment of another writer whose parrot needs care while that writer is stuck with her in-laws in California. Meanwhile the narrator offers her own apartment to a different acquaintance in need of a place to stay. Fond of macaws, the narrator is thrilled to care for the bird in the author’s swanky home—until she finds she must share the space with a surprise, human tenant. Like Nunez’s two most recent novels, The Friend (2018) and What Are You Going Through (2020), both also published by Riverhead, The Vulnerables is less about what happens than what the narrator thinks about it, the many memories and ideas sparked in the mind as it confronts the unpredictable events and personalities that chance throws in its field of perception. Some of the most engaging parts of the book are the narrator’s recollections of bygone experiences; seemingly disconnected from the pandemic “plot,” these reveries become moving—and often amusing—meditations on childhood, friendship, romantic love, and human vulnerability in a chaotic and violent world: “I want to know why I feel as though I have been mourning all my life,” says the narrator. A particular treat for the writer-reader, the novel is full of literary allusions—from Charles Baudelaire to Sylvia Plath to Colm Tóibín—and musings on the writing life. Kirkus praises The Vulnerables: “Sharp—and surprisingly tender.” Sigrid Nunez has published nine novels and Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (Atlas, 2011). A winner of the National Book Award for The Friend and many other honors, she teaches at Hunter College in New York City.

1. How long did it take you to write The Vulnerables?
About two and a half years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
With writing any book, the challenge is always the same: how to find the right words in the right order to express what I mean to say as precisely and artfully as possible. But in this case there was another challenge: how to write a novel in a world that has come to be defined by continuous disaster.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I usually write at home. I try to write every day, preferably in the morning. But when that’s not possible, I try to write at whatever time of day I can.

4. What are you reading right now?
The Pole, the new novel by J. M. Coetzee.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
That would be an endless list. Like most writers I read a lot, and I read like a writer. This means that, in one way or another, just about anything I read is likely to influence whatever I might be working on. If I’m reading something very good, I can expect to find at least one thing that the writer has done well that I’ll be able to put to my own use.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
That depends on the writer. If someone wants not only to write but to teach writing, an MFA is important, given that many schools won’t even consider a job applicant who does not have an MFA.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My agent, who was the first person to read the manuscript, assured me that, despite the book’s often dark, sad subject matter, most readers would find it funny and hopeful. Which is turning out to be true.

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Vulnerables?
Possibly that it wasn’t all as hard to write as I had feared it would be.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
One of the novel’s minor characters is a mini macaw named Eureka. I didn’t know a lot about that breed, or about parrots in general, so I had to do some research.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Never assume the reader is not as intelligent as you are. That will stop you from being too explicit, and it will spare your reader the irritation of being told what they already know or what they can imagine or deduce for themselves.


Sigrid Nunez, author of The Vulnerables.   (Credit: Marion Ettlinger Higher)

Ten Questions for Jim Redmond


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jim Redmond, whose poetry collection Because You Previously Liked or Played, is out today from Deep Vellum. In lineated verse and prose poems, Redmond digs into the troubled psyche of a nation in thrall to digital culture. The poems chart the transformation of language into tech-company jargon, relationships into social-media contacts, and politics into zero-sum propaganda campaigns. In a voice that moves from deadpan irony to melancholy and the shades between, Redmond attempts to unwind the twisted logic of the Trump administration, conspiracy theorists, internet trolls, and all manner of toxic personalities poisoning the well of human connection. “I did not look away,” says the web-scrolling speaker of Redmond’s “Feed.” How to interpret such a statement raises one of the animating questions of the collection: In this age of instant information and online “torture porn,” as Redmond puts it, how do we differentiate between bearing witness and voyeurism, between innocent bystanding and complacency? Jim Redmond is the author of the full-length poetry collection, Get Back to Work (2021). His poems have appeared in Blackbird, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, Redivider, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a PhD in creative writing from the University of North Texas.  

1. How long did it take you to write Because You Previously Liked or Played?   
Well, in a sense, the book encapsulates something of my whole poetic life span. A few of these poems were written way back in 2008, or maybe 2007. Then there are approximately a dozen others that I’ve written in the last year or so. The majority I wrote while finishing my PhD at the University of North Texas, but there’s a good number of poems from my time in Ann Arbor and just after, in Austin, Texas.  

I think all the way back to my first poetry workshop at Western Michigan University, when my professor, Gary McDowell, handed us a packet of poems he’d cobbled together from poets he was reading at the time. This was way back when people could still locate the department photocopier. And reading those poems was like, wow—this is a poem? A poem can do that? That packet of poems became a little makeshift bible of sorts, and I was born again and again. Some of the poems in this book, fifteen years later, are disciples of that moment.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?   
One of the difficulties for me was determining the shape and the scope of the book. It’s gone through so many iterations that I reached several points where uncertainty and self-doubt became more of a guiding principle than did a clear vision or center of gravity for the book. Perhaps that’s not the healthiest relationship to one’s work, but it’s not altogether unproductive either.  

The book could have been over and done with many times, as I suppose any book can be. My own redirection in artistic taste and my confrontation with the possibilities and limitations of poetry, its place and power in the public sphere, played a part, but so did the so-called pressures of the marketplace. I don’t think I ever intentionally tried to write toward whatever I perceived as the trends at any given moment, but several years of manuscript rejection certainly does give one pause. A certain unspoken social pressure begins to incubate, something more nebulous and all-consuming than the direct feedback we receive from known entities like friends or colleagues or fellow workshoppers. 

The poems did become more political and also more skittery, roaming, with a denser philosophical surface. So the challenge was deciding where a book ends and another begins. What if the heart says one thing, and the market another? But what if both remain silent? Does a fault line or clear fracture in one’s poetic life dictate that thin difference separating two book jackets on the shelf? Catalysts come and go. Things cool and harden into place before turning molten once again.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
There were times when I’ve had a writing routine. It was easier in the college days, of course. But even while on the “job,” there were times when I’d devote my hour or two a day to the practice of poetry: the process in which I would recollect and then wrestle with some idea or epiphany. Or a beautiful line comes to you, and you say, “Let’s see where this goes.” So then you push a couple of words around the page for a couple of hours. And I did arrive at some good poems because I’d exercised the right muscles, because I was ready to give shape to whatever luminous little moment I’d stumbled upon.  

But I always, always find some way to fall out of the routine. Some writers, given that daily gift of the muse or a work ethic, wonder what life would be like without the process of writing. How could one live? Well, I’m here to tell you that life does go on. And that it’s ok to have your own relationship to writing and poetry, whatever that might look like for you.  

For some the daily writing routine is necessary, a vital part of the living process. For others perhaps it becomes too much of a job; it becomes a transactional input and output. And if the output isn’t outputting, then what? Is that it? I never want to lose my love for what a poem can do. This is something I have to be mindful of; I have to be open and let poetry give life outside the frame of professionalization.

4. What are you reading right now?
Well, there’s always some book open to its middle somewhere, or I’m a quarter of the way into this text, or have the first page of that text splayed out on the couch, the desk, the dresser. I like to start something theory-based, a little literary criticism. I like to let the excitement of the new idea take over for a couple of pages; then I usually move on before considering its plausibility, argumentation, evidence, and finer points.  

I’m in Iowa now, and there was just a huge book sale put on by Planned Parenthood at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. On the last day of the sale, the poetry section was still looking pretty ripe. I picked up a half dozen or so poetry collections from the 1980s and 1990s and a critical compilation on Wallace Stevens.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
At first I wanted to start with some of the poems that were more representative of a child’s perspective—the early indicators or antecedents of the political problems that were to come later in the book put forth on the personal level. And then I thought the second section would have a larger social reach, addressing the weight of shared history, the “we” where we’ve found ourselves—and lost our humanity. Then I guess a third section was supposed to be some return to the personal once again, with whatever gain of perspective. 

Ultimately the book ended with the childhood poems, the flowers of evil just about to bud before the close. It reminds me of what A. Van Jordan said about his second book, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A; he ended up leading the collection with the speaker MacNolia’s big spelling-bee win instead of leading up to it. His logic was to give some of the outcomes first. 

If the book starts with the end of Trump’s presidency, then we might have some sense of finality already baked into the star chart. Or some sense of relief. Then we can start asking, “How did we get here? How could these things happen?” From there some perhaps uncomfortable answers developed through the course of the book are given a clearer frame, a needed foreground.

6. How did you arrive at the title Because You Previously Liked or Played for this collection?   
I wanted the title to touch upon some kind of moral implication, a finger ready to point. But at whom? And for what? What precisely are the parameters of the problem, and what is the source or the cause? I wanted to capture some of the confusion surrounding the whole process of meaning-making in our Web 2.0 world. More specifically I wanted to incorporate something of the function of contemporary, web-based consumer culture. The way that we are continuously fed information in an increasingly targeted fashion that requires little reflection, that reinforces our confirmation bias.   

We might be a mere function of the machine at this point, but we’re still culpable, aren’t we? Within the consumer model, the rational is replaced by the emotional appeal. But what is at first emotionally striking becomes mere habit through repetition; atrocities and outrage turn into the banal. So how do we break out of that? Can poetry help us see something in a new, and suddenly clear, fashion? The book’s title speaks to some of that banality. It’s an accusation, but it’s wrapped in the verbiage of corporate nomenclature or customer-relations speak. 

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Because You Previously Liked or Played? 
I was surprised by the book’s resiliency as an organic life-form. It’s ability to take up different directions, forms, redactions, and redundancies. It made it past the X-Acto knife, the blow torch, the specter of T. S. Eliot’s pen, the tiny teeth of one thousand termites, all of those rejections from publishers—all are a part of it now.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Because You Previously Liked or Played, what would you say?  
Don’t worry about the book having to be any one thing. Write toward what you want to discover. Don’t be too protective or closed off to suggestions from anyone at any point.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to lean into my inner political junkie. I didn’t just read “news” articles, listen to talk radio, and watch the various cable news offerings of the day, but I also spelunked through message boards, comments sections, tweets. I tried to think about the differences among traditional media and “independent” journalism and Web 2.0 offerings in terms of the messaging and the medium—and how something interesting could be done with all that through poetry.  

In a sense the work came down to discourse communities, getting a sense of how different forms of communication take shape according to who is participating and in what format. The language they use to mark themselves, their interests, the world. I went into some disturbing directions with this, including using the language as a means of interrogating some of the psychology addressed in the book: alt-right circles, men’s rights, Gamergate-like online communities.    

The hope is that the book is ultimately a kind of critique of toxic masculinity. But sometimes even touching any of this subject matter can be so dark, uncomfortable, hopeless that you’re left wondering: What is the line between trying to dissect or discredit something and simply amplifying or falling prey to the poison? Poetry lets us dwell in these difficult spaces; it refuses the easy answers, enacts a pressure chamber, and, maybe, if done well, that pressure placed on our humanity somehow affords it a new, resilient shine.   

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t play it safe; keep taking risks. It’s perhaps some of the first advice we receive as writers, but often we fall into a routine and set style and so perhaps do end up playing it too safe. I guess the tension point is between experimentation and obsession. Many writers, myself included, end up writing about the same thing over and over. We keep chasing that perfect poem, or there’s some question we can never fully answer, something that keeps haunting us. There’s something admirable and beautiful about that, certainly, but perhaps there’s some balance to be struck. 


Jim Redmond, author of Because You Previously Liked or Played.   (Credit: Iqra Cheema)

Ten Questions for Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones, whose debut, The Hurricane Book: A Lyric History, is out today from Rose Metal Press. In this hybrid collection of essays, poetry, documents, and other text, Acevedo-Quiñones weaves personal narrative with the history of Puerto Rico, told through the lens of six hurricanes that have rocked the island over the last century. The book investigates the colonizing power of the United States and its effect on Puerto Ricans both on the island and in the diaspora, including the author’s own family. Mixing Spanish and English with attention to the poetic and psychological dimensions of language, Acevedo-Quiñones considers how traumatic events can reverberate through generations—on the grand scale of culture and on the smaller scale of intimate relations among parents, children, and extended kin. Jaquira Díaz, author of the memoir Ordinary Girls (Algonquin Books, 2019), calls The Hurricane Book “a multilayered, powerful book…a gift.” The author of the chapbook Bedroom Pop (Dancing Girl Press, 2021), Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones holds an MFA in creative writing and literature from Stony Brook University, where she taught poetry to undergraduate students. Her poems and fiction have appeared in the Brooklyn RailRadar Poetry, Wildness, and other publications. Originally from Puerto Rico, she lives in Brooklyn.

1. How long did it take you to write The Hurricane Book
I started thinking about it a decade ago, but most of the writing was completed over three years. When I sent the first draft to Rose Metal Press in 2020, I had been working on it for a year. The press decided to publish it on the condition that I expand and edit it significantly, so I did that between 2021 and 2023. Glad I did.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
It’s difficult to choose one thing! Most of it was challenging. I felt out of my depth in every way. I share an apartment with three roommates, so dealing with this subject matter for years in a little bedroom did a number on my mental health. I’m very mistrustful of my own memories. And I was writing about a country I left half a lifetime ago. There was this struggle between my need to show everything and my fear of it. I wasn’t working in my preferred genre. I was writing this hybrid lyric thing that was hard to fall into a rhythm with at first. But form is content and all that! I’m envious of writers for whom writing comes easily. It’s one of the most difficult things in the world for me. I can confidently say that the easiest thing about writing the book was working with the sections that dealt with irrefutable historical facts, however disturbing. It was truth I could count on when I doubted myself in other threads.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I often work multiple jobs and move apartments every couple of years, so the former impacts how, when, and where I write. If I could write in a sensory-deprivation chamber or in a tiny house by a creek every day between 7:00 AM and 10:00 AM, I would. I’m hypersensitive to all kinds of stimuli and lose my nerve exponentially as the day progresses, so I’m partial to writing as soon as I wake up—in bed on a legal pad—before most people I know wake up. There are periods in which I do this daily, and those are the times I feel most sane.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I just read Yvette Siegert’s translation of Alejandra Pizarnik’s Diana’s Tree, and I am starting to read Brutalities: A Love Story by Margo Steines. I’m attracted to stories about exile, from our bodies or known places. I’m interested in seeing how some abandonments return us to ourselves and how others boomerang. One of the things I’m looking forward to the most after my book is released is reading with impunity! I haven’t had much time to do so with the book and a full-time job.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
I wasn’t actively thinking about their influence on my writing as I worked on the book, but I reached for Puerto Rican authors I grew up reading (Julia de Burgos, Luis Palés Matos, Mayra Santos, René Marqués, Rafael Acevedo) and wove them into the text because they were such an important part of my education. Authors who’ve impacted me significantly as a writer are Alejandra Pizarnik, Melissa Febos, Mary Karr, Lydia Davis, Claire-Louise Bennett, Elizabeth Bishop, Carmen Maria Machado, Ruth Stone, Adrienne Rich, and Louise Glück. This list is all over the place! But they’re always in my head.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Hurricane Book?
I didn’t show my family the manuscript before it was released, but there are a couple of close family members I reached out to about some sad, revealing content (in general terms). I didn’t want them to be too surprised if they read it. Their response was unexpectedly gracious, considering the subject matter. They basically said, “It’s your truth!” I’d been agonizing about it. But I now think people who know me understand that this was made with care.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Only if the MFA program offers financial aid, health insurance, and/or a flexible schedule. I got a full ride and still had to work two jobs. I don’t know how single parents or caregivers do it. Yes, I learned a lot from authors I love and respect, but my MFA experience was good because of my peers. We were active in each other’s lives and gave each other consistent and constructive feedback. We had a magical bubble out in Southampton, New York, for those two years, and I’ll always be grateful for it. Those people are still my best friends. But writers don’t need to enroll in an MFA to find that community and structure. If you have/can get the money, go for it. But if you don’t, find a writing group, go to free readings and talk to the person you’re standing next to. If there are no writing groups where you live, start one. If there are no reading series, go to your local bar or coffee shop and ask if you can plan one. Put up flyers. Because there are writers looking for you, too.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you wrote The Hurricane Book, what would you say?
I’d tell her to worry less about the “why” of it. There’s a reason why you didn’t let it go, even if it’s still not clear. Get it done; do your best. Stop punishing yourself for not coming to any grand conclusions.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?  
There was a ton of research involved: I looked through ancestry and census documents to try to fill in the gaps in the family sections; sourced clips, photos, satellite images, and weather maps from newspaper archives, the Library of Congress, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, and other government agencies; went through medical and academic articles for the sections on eugenics and post-hurricane response/relief. Thankfully I received a grant that helped me pay a fact-checker. I also had to have deeply uncomfortable conversations with my mother about our shared mental-health history.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Marry rich! (I didn’t take that advice.) The second-best piece of advice was to start something new when I’m in a rut. We have to have a little fun, too, if we want to stay in love with what we do. After The Hurricane Book is out, you best believe I’ll be working on some sci-fi erotica for a bit.

Claudia Acevedo-Quiñones, author of The Hurricane Book: A Lyric History.  

Ten Questions for Curtis Chin


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Curtis Chin, whose memoir, Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant, is out today from Little, Brown. In this engaging and insightful debut, Chin looks back on his early life and young adulthood in the 1970s and 1980s as the Chinese American son of restaurateurs in Detroit. Opened by Chin’s great-grandfather in 1940, Chung’s Cantonese Cuisine fed generations of Motor City diners: “It was one of the rare places in the segregated city where everyone felt welcome.” For Chin, the restaurant is more than a place of employment, where he and his family and their staff worked up to eighty hours a week: It serves as a second home, school, and social sphere, a microcosm in which the trials and tribulations of the outside world play out in distilled form or, at times, in stark opposition. In scenes at Chung’s, as well as in his bustling house, in classrooms, and elsewhere, Chin charts his personal evolution in a Detroit marked by racial and economic tensions and within a large and loving, if frenetic, family that extends beyond blood ties to welcome friends and even a family of Vietnamese refugees. Chin grapples with being “a gay Asian kid trying to juggle multiple identities,” his call to art and literature—“poetry saved me,” he writes—and other milestones in “a well-led, and well-fed, life.” Kirkus praises Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant: “Chin is a born storyteller with an easy manner, and this memoir should earn him many readers.” A cofounder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City, Curtis Chin served as the nonprofit’s first executive director. He wrote for network television and now writes and produces social-justice documentaries; his films have screened in more than a dozen countries. He has received awards from ABC/Disney Television, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other institutions.

1. How long did it take you to write Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant?
I started writing a memoir about ten years ago, but those early drafts had a different focus and tone. While the setting and title stayed the same, it centered on my younger childhood. The stories were funnier: about my mean grandma who would boil our pets for dinner or my grandpa who ran the Chinese mafia. After COVID, the murder of George Floyd, and the rise in the reporting of anti-Asian hate crimes, I decided to get a little more serious. I shifted the age range to include stories about high school and college—when I was grappling with my racial identity at a predominantly white school—as well my coming out process and my shift from being a Republican (aka the Asian Alex P. Keaton) to being a political independent.  

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
After deciding to write about my teen years and early twenties, I had to be more introspective about the challenges I was facing. My original goal in writing this memoir was not necessarily to delve into these heavier subjects, but in the end I think they make for a more satisfying story. I also think it makes the book more relevant to what’s going on in the country these days.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I don’t have a set routine for writing. I really just go with the flow. As long as I am thinking and engaging with people, I feel like I am supporting my creative journey.

4. What are you reading right now?
As one of the cofounders of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, I have a lot of friends who write. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. Right now I am catching up on the to-be-read pile from these friends, many of whom have come out with books in the past two years.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Well, my writer friends are obviously influential for a variety of reasons, but for writers who I don’t personally know, I would have to say Frank O’Hara and Li Young Lee. My first genre was poetry, so they gave me the foundation of language. In terms of writing this memoir, I read a lot of coming-of-age books like Tara Westover’s Educated; J. R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar; Saeed Jones’s How We Fight For Our Lives; Phuc Tran’s Sigh Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In; and more.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant?
This may sound strange, but I was surprised by how much food played a role in the book. As a kid, I was the worst cook in our restaurant. Everyone else in my family was a master chef, so I was sort of banned from the kitchen. Instead I grew up working the dining room and interfacing with our customers, which is probably why I am such a social person. But the kitchen played a bigger role than I thought.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
“Stay calm.” That stuck with me, though I don’t know if that means I adhered to it. 

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant what would you say?
I might have started the book earlier, when my dad was still alive. In writing the book I talked to my mom several times a week, just to confirm details and dates. It would have been nice to also get my dad’s perspective on some of these past incidents. In some ways, that’s why my mom features a little more prominently in the book than my dad.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
My day job is making social-justice documentaries, so I spent a lot of time filming, editing, and then promoting my films. Since I was on the road so much, the book was a great project to work on in the hotel room.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Have fun. Make friends.

Curtis Chin, author of Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant.   (Credit: Michelle Li, Studio Plum Photography)

Ten Questions for Justin Torres


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Justin Torres, whose new book, Blackouts, is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In this matryoshka doll of a novel, a young man visits an older man from his past who, now on his deathbed, wishes to bequeath a trove of documents to him. The primary text he offers, Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns, is a real book published in 1941 that collects narratives of queer men and women. Along with other archival images and records, pages from Sex Variants punctuate the novel, their sentences strategically struck through with black ink in the manner of erasure poetry. Indeed, the spare, leftover language functions as verse, essentially rewriting the psychology book by centering queer subjectivity while raising questions about the nature of institutional “knowledge” and the harm it can cause, particularly to marginalized populations. Meanwhile the two men tell each other stories, filling each other in on their shared and separate histories—a process that is particularly confounding for the younger man, who suffers memory lapses, or blackouts, which he hopes his companion may be able to help him better understand. Alexander Chee praises the novel: “Blackouts gives me what I read fiction for, what I read for at all―the sense of a brilliant mind creating a puzzle in the air in front of me, all intelligence and surprises.” Justin Torres is the author of We the Animals (Mariner Books, 2012), which won the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award, was translated into fifteen languages, and was adapted into a feature film. His writing has appeared in the NewYorkerHarper’sGrantaTin House, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of California in Los Angeles.

1. How long did it take you to write Blackouts
That’s a tough question to answer. It’s been over a decade since my last book, We the Animals, came out. I like to think everything I was reading, pondering, dreaming, and writing in that decade has found its way into Blackouts. Mostly I was stretching to become a different kind of writer, and that took time.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The structure. The image permissions. Allowing myself other, more metaphorical kinds of permission. The exposure. I could go on. It’s a challenging book.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I don’t have any sacred ritual. My boyfriend and I were in a long-term, long-distance relationship, so when the teaching term ended, I would head to Oxford, England, and spend most of my summer there. Summer generally allows me to get more done. That’s also where I spent the Covid lockdown, and it was in those quiet, strange days that I finally finished the book.

4. What are you reading right now?   
I’ve just recently pivoted to read the finalists for the National Book Award—in various genres—whose books I hadn’t yet read. But I am also reading Touching the Art by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Greenland by David Santos Donaldson, and some advance copies of forthcoming books: The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez and The Long Run: A Creative Inquiry by Stacey D’Erasmo, about artistic stamina, among other things.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Blackouts is, in many ways, a book about reading—in the straightforward literary sense of that word; in the sense of reading people, situations, images, history; and in the queer sense of reading (and being read). The book directly references a number of texts and writers: Manuel Puig, Jaime Manrique, Jan and Zhenya Gay, Toni Cade Bambara, Juan Rulfo, Kathleen Collins, Heather Love, Patricia Gherovici, Jesús Colón, Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Emma Goldman, and many, many more.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Blackouts?
Finishing the book. There were so many days (most days?) when I didn’t think I would, or could.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
My editor, Jenna Johnson, was so involved in all matters spiritual and practical, I really don’t know where to begin. She’s on every page. We would have these long phone conversations when I felt I was truly lost in the woods, and she would describe to me what I was up to, what the pages were doing, and what else they might do. She was my editor for We the Animals, and we’ve become incredibly close over the years we’ve worked together—I mean, it must be something like fifteen years at this point! I could go on forever about how fortunate I feel to have her by my side; it’s one of the most important relationships in my life, no hyperbole. The only pressure I ever felt from her was to be honest to the vision I had for the book, not to concern myself with anything els­e—the possible reception, for example, or how long I was taking to finish, or whether or not I’d be able to include images or use colored ink, and on and on. Her constant refrain was, “Just do what you feel you need to do. Let me worry about the rest.” And so I did. I’m still probably allowing her to worry about much too much!

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Blackouts, what would you say?
I don’t know, this particular kind of question never makes much sense to me. My past self would not accept advice from my future self. We know us too well to trust one another.

But I know what my friends would say: Please don’t neurotically trash talk your own book to everyone you meet.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Reading. Researching. Reading more widely and more broadly. Seeking out people—like my man, my friends, mentors—who are smarter than me and generous enough to share what they’ve learned of the world. Rereading.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Believe it or not: Slow down.

Justin Torres, author of Blackouts.  

Ten Questions for Shannon Sanders


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Shannon Sanders, whose debut story collection is out today from Graywolf Press. These linked tales unfurl a panoramic narrative of a family and their social circle from the 1960s to the early twenty-first century. In a mix of third- and first-person narration, these tautly controlled stories delve into the nuances of interpersonal relations among family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, and acquaintances. An assemblage of characters—from children to older adults—receive careful attention as Sanders explores how the past informs the present in the way people respond to the situations into which they are thrown and the people with whom they are forced to contend. Personalities gel or clash, people who seemed familiar turn out to have unknown dimensions, and individuals find new vistas within their own inner landscapes. Publishers Weekly praises the “exquisite emotional acuity” of Company. “This is a winner.” Shannon Sanders received the 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, and her fiction has appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Joyland, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her family.

1. How long did it take you to write Company
Each individual story took anywhere from one day to two weeks to write, but the collection as a whole took about six years. I wrote the first few stories very quickly between 2015 and 2017, then slowed down when I started having children. I added a few more stories in 2020 before taking the book on submission. After Graywolf acquired the book, my editor urged me to add one last story, which I drafted in 2022. Not exactly a linear process, but an exciting one!

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The writing itself was, almost without exception, a total pleasure. What was extremely challenging was finding time to write! During the time I spent drafting the book, polishing it with my agent, and then taking it out on submission, I had three babies—including twins—and a global pandemic entered the equation. For more than a year, I was working a full-time job without childcare while trying to complete the book. I often thought I would never finish. But I did!

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
In a perfect world I would write at nighttime in a quiet part of my house while my kids are asleep and knock out a consistent word count each day, or most days. Sometimes I’m actually able to pull that off. Tracking my daily progress helps, as does motivating myself with small incremental rewards.

Mostly, though, what I can manage is to spend most of the week thinking about the work: mentally outlining, visualizing scenes, shuffling around the pieces in my brain. Then, with some support from my husband, I step away from home for a few hours on the weekend to get the ideas out on paper. I’ve found that with three little kids and all the household chaos that comes with them, the change of scenery is really important. It helps me fight the temptation to spend my writing time doing laundry.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Zadie Smith’s The Fraud. Everything she’s ever published I’ve consumed as soon as I can get my hands on it. I also just finished Tessa Hadley’s story collection After the Funeral and Other Stories, which was excellent, as all her stories are.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Like so many people I was raised on the work of Toni Morrison. Not just her novels but her literary criticism, her work on race, and the lore about her writing in the morning before her children woke up. As I mentioned above, I’ve been greatly inspired by Zadie Smith. And I also owe a major debt to several contemporary Black writers whose story collections came before mine: Danielle Evans (who has been a favorite writer of mine since her first book), Deesha Philyaw, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Jamel Brinkley, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and others.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Company?
I knew intuitively that the stories were linked from the time I started writing them, but it was still a fun process to discover the connections among the characters and their circumstances as I worked on them. The book’s editor, Yuka Igarashi, raised some wonderful questions during the process, which generated ideas about how I could further develop the history of the family at the center of most of the stories. Eventually pieces started coming together on their own. It surprised me that it got easier as I went along!

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
When I was a teenager I overheard a friend of my parents talking about an acquaintance whose adult sons had paid her a surprise visit from out of town to express their collective disapproval of her new boyfriend. I remember being shocked by that story—that the sons had taken the time to drive across state lines to interfere with an adult woman’s romantic life. That anecdote became the premise of “The Good, Good Men.”

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Company, what would you say?
I wish there were a way to bottle the confidence and perspective that come from a few years of sending work out and amassing rejections. If there were, I’d be tempted to pass it out to lots of new writers, including my earlier self. But actually I think that entire process—submission, rejection, lather, rinse, repeat—is an incredibly valuable part of the journey to completing and publishing a project. Learning not to take rejection too personally or seriously was one of the best things that happened to me during the process of writing this book. It helped me learn to keep my focus where it mattered. So instead of handing her that magic bottle, I think I’d tell my earlier self: Don’t worry. This won’t be linear, and it won’t be quick, but you will learn from it.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Does my day job count? I’m an attorney, and I work for a financial regulator. My day job requires lots of noncreative writing, which I find really helpful for keeping my muscles limber. The better my thoughts sync up with my typing fingers, the easier it is to get ideas out on paper.

I’m also an avid knitter. I highly recommend knitting to anyone with restless hands! If I’m stuck trying to work out a tricky plot point or dialogue sequence, I pick up my needles and it seems to unlock something.

This particular book didn’t take too much research. I felt that I knew the characters deeply after years of thinking about these stories, many of which were inspired by anecdotes I’ve heard from loved ones. But occasionally I had to reach out to an older relative to ask questions about family history, and that was always fascinating.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Worry less about the writer’s life, whatever that is, and more about the writing. Less energy toward beret-shopping, more toward doing whatever it takes to get your words onto paper.

Shannon Sanders, author of Company  (Credit: David Choy)

Ten Questions for Isle McElroy


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Isle McElroy, whose new novel, People Collide, is out today from HarperVia. In this surreal tale, a man named Eli finds that his consciousness has somehow been transferred to the body of his wife, Elizabeth. The couple had been living in Bulgaria, where Elizabeth was sent to teach through an elite fellowship program administered by the U.S. government. Living as his wife awakens Eli to the fact that perhaps he did not know Elizabeth as well as he thought he did, and he comes to see both her—and himself—in a new light during this strange interlude: “I occupied a space where neither she nor I seemed to exist, free from the expectations of our personalities,” McElroy writes in Eli’s voice. But where is Elizabeth? When a credit card transaction in Paris alerts Eli to her possible whereabouts, he embarks on an international mission to find his wife, presumably living in his skin. Along the way he must prepare for a future in which this body-swap remains permanent and for the changes that will ensue in his marriage and other relationships. Publishers Weekly calls People Collide “engrossing…. It’s an impressive twist on the familiar trope of marital ennui.” Isle McElroy is a nonbinary author based in New York. Their first novel, The Atmospherians, was named an editor’s choice by the New York Times and a book of the year by Esquire, Electric Literature, Debutiful, and other outlets.

1. How long did it take you to write People Collide
I had the idea for the book in 2015, but I didn’t begin writing it until late 2020. After all those years thinking about the novel, the draft came out fairly quickly, in only a couple of months. I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel draft as quickly as I wrote this one.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Keeping track of when to use male and female pronouns for Eli-as-Elizabeth, and when to intentionally blur those lines, was difficult on a technical level. In revision I had to make a lot of decisions and changes about how he referred to himself, but it was exciting to consider how his self-understanding changed throughout the book.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I normally write at my desk in my apartment. I’ve been living here for about three years, and I wrote most of People Collide at my current desk, gazing out the same window. I prefer to start writing early in the morning, before the sun comes up, normally for only a few hours. Though I used to write every day, I’ve settled into a five-day schedule, to preserve the weekend mornings for sleep and time with loved ones.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m finally reading Annie Ernaux! I’m in the middle of The Years and loving it.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
For this book, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation was a huge influence. And I love everything that she’s published. Catherine Lacey has been a major figure for my work overall, as have writers like Helen DeWitt, Renee Gladman, and Donald Barthelme. Something about the joy and bounce of their sentences really appeals to me, on both an aesthetic and intellectual level, and I try to bring that to my prose.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of People Collide?
I was surprised by the process of physically writing the book. Though I wrote a lot of my first novel by hand, much of it was drafted on my laptop. But I wrote the entire first draft of People Collide across four composition notebooks, and I was able to discover a process for writing I hadn’t done before—writing on the right side of the notebook, leaving the left page blank for notes. I feel like I stumbled on a process I’ll use for a long time.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I began the book at a cabin in Maine I had rented with two writer friends. One day we all split off to write, and I took a desk looking out at the woods. My current bedroom at home did not have a window, and for the first time in months I felt like I could write freely and toward something. I wrote the entire first chapter of People Collide in one sitting, often looking up into the woods. I attribute this book to that window!

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started People Collide, what would you say?
I wouldn’t tell them anything! I started writing this novel because I was supposed to be working on a memoir project I found impossible. I began People Collide to avoid writing that more difficult book. This took a ton of pressure off the writing process. I don’t want to even insinuate to my earlier you that they might stumble into a novel.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I think that I needed to spend a lot of time on my bike. I love biking in Brooklyn, and though it doesn’t look anything like writing, biking has become a perfect way to both decompress and leave the house after a long day of writing. I don’t remember having many ideas on my bike, but it frequently served as a transition outside of the writing space to a more public space, off to see friends. It served as a kind of bridge between my social life and my writing life, insulating the latter.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Celebrate the small victories! There is too much grief and disappointment in a writing career to overlook any single moment for joy. Grab drinks with friends when you publish a story. Buy yourself flowers to commemorate a great review. Text your partner the best sentence you wrote that day. Nothing is too small.

Isle McElroy, author of People Collide.   (Credit: Jih-E Peng)

Ten Questions for Cintia Santana


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Cintia Santana, whose debut poetry collection, The Disordered Alphabet, is out now from Four Way Books. This engaging and surprising book interrogates language in quite literal terms, with epistolary poems addressed to specific letters of the Roman alphabet. In free verse and more experimental forms, these poems whirl down and across the page, accumulating meaning through sonic play and free association. Densely packed and ecstatic, the lines at times call to mind the spring-loaded articulations of nineteenth century Anglican poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, particularly when read aloud: “Held / heart / holed / whole. / Harpooned. / Heart on / but hard. / Hell / in a hand. / With harps. // Hark! I said / Hear me,” Santana writes in “[H].” The letter poems are interspersed with self-portraits, elegies, and other meditations all in conversation with the collection’s overarching inquiry into the nature and efficacy of verbal expression. Ross Gay praises the collection: “The Disordered Alphabet tussles with diction, wrangles with syntax, struggles with the sentence and the line in a kind of linguistic unmaking that somehow becomes a beautiful, unsettling song.” Santana teaches fiction and poetry workshops in Spanish as well as literary translation courses at Stanford University. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon ReviewNarrativePleiades, the Threepenny Review, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by CantoMundo and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

1. How long did it take you to write The Disordered Alphabet?  
Somewhere between five and fifteen years. The idea to write a letter addressed to each letter of the Roman alphabet came to me in the spring of 2013, and I was sending out the manuscript by 2018. But the oldest poem in the book is an abecedarian about mushrooms that I wrote in 2007. And the newest is a complete rewrite of my poem to the letter M undertaken in 2022, long after I had turned in the “final” version of the manuscript.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Revisiting the grief that preceded the writing of the poems. That was hard but also necessary. Like many writers, I process the world most deeply through words. For me, giving language to something, finding a name for it, enacts a kind of metabolic process.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It depends on the season. The reading and writing I do during the academic year is primarily in support of my teaching. I generate most of my poems in the summer, at the workshops offered by Kenyon Review, Napa Valley Writers, and the Community of Writers. It turns out that I write well under overnight pressure. During the school year I revise and send out work I’ve written in the summer. But in some ways I’m always writing. I carry a notebook in which I write down images, ideas, scraps of language, phrases, even solitary words. As I tell my students, poetry is everywhere—you just have to pay attention.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I’m currently rereading a couple of things. Hugh Raffles’s poetic and encyclopedic The Book of Unconformities: Speculations on Lost Time, a book that came to my attention early in the pandemic, thanks to a beautifully written New York Times review by Parul Sehgal. I’m also rereading Translation Zone, winner of the 2022 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize. It’s a first book by a friend, Brian Cochran. His poems are these acts of emotional and linguistic magic. I’ve been his fan for a long time, and over the last few years his work has reached a level such that I’m always asking myself after reading a poem, “How did he get there?” I also just returned from CDMX, where I did some catching up on contemporary Mexican poetry—recent works by Sara Uribe, Tedi López Mills, Eva Castañeda, and Elisa Díaz Castelo.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
As you might imagine, titling my collection The Disordered Alphabet was of no help. I knew there was an emotional arc to the process of grief, but I also knew it wasn’t linear. I felt the first two sections needed to begin with the speaker’s various losses and a subsequent grief that could not easily be named nor voiced. The third and last section revealed itself more slowly; poems that reflect a wider view of lived experience, of the stunning beauty of the world that persists, that insists even, under the eaves of loss. Or is sharpened precisely because of loss.

Ordering the poems within those sections was harder. I had heard a good rule of thumb was to order poems in such a way that each one could be entered into more deeply as a result of the ones that preceded it. At a CantoMundo retreat, Andrés Cerpa gave me the best general advice that I think I’ve received: to read all the poems out loud, even record them, and listen with an ear for tone.

Eventually I covered my living room floor with all my poems and moved them around a bit every day or two. Standing over them one day, I realized that, of course, there was no one best order. Many compelling orders exist. I think that holds true for most manuscripts.   

6. How did you arrive at the title The Disordered Alphabet for this collection? 
It could be said that the title goes back to my childhood. I mostly grew up in California, but Spanish is my first language. A short while before I was to enter kindergarten, when I knew no English whatsoever, my parents sat me down in front of the TV to watch Sesame Street. They felt that I could learn some English in this way, including my ABCs. My father helped me practice because I would need to recite them soon for a teacher to decide if I was ready for kindergarten or not. No pressure for a five-year-old, right?

When the day of truth arrived, I started off quite confidently—before faltering somewhere around M or N. At that moment stumbling over the very atoms of language felt highly consequential. Somehow, nonetheless, I was allowed to begin an illustrious kindergarten career. Fast forward to reading a lot of Borges.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Disordered Alphabet?
The day the letter R wrote me a letter! In the spring of 2013, I was grieving two losses that had occurred very close in time. I was angry. I wanted to take “God” to task. So one day I wrote a poem, a letter to the letter A that began, “You are the Alpha and the asshole. The ass of the assassin. Yet I await you in the artic, anorak and all. Astound me. Anchor my ache and astound me now.” Like I said, I was angry. And I also felt in need of some kind of mercy. The A poem that’s in the book has no trace of this first draft, but that’s how I began to write my letters to the alphabet. I was trying to make sense of life’s “grammar,” a grammar filled with oddities and exceptions, that had become increasingly difficult to parse.

Epistolary writing felt like a fitting form, as it also implies someone distant or absent. In the U.S., grief is a party of one. It’s an experience that feels particularly invisible, silent, and silenced. So how can we—how do we— give voice to our grief? With whom do we speak of it? How can the unspeakable be spoken, be given form? The Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro says, “the poet is a small god.” In The Disordered Alphabet I think of the letters that the speaker addresses as major gods, divine and indeterminate. Much like language or a divine power, the Roman letters are insufficient—to be implored yet remaining distant. The epistolary form allowed me to voice questions about grief while telling it slant.

As I was finishing the manuscript, I decided the first iteration of my R poem needed a complete rewrite. And that’s when R started to write me a letter. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it was really something. Suddenly I was thrown into a different vantage point: What would a god-letter have to say back to the grieving speaker?

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Disordered Alphabet, what would you say?
Don’t be afraid of silence. Silence, which manifests at times as writer’s block, scares me. There’s a poem, “Mr. Vastness and Mr. School Answer My Letter,” in which I found my way to the line, “be not deceived, Sister of Lazarus, / by silence, spring of speech.” It’s easy for me to forget that silence is often a time of great gestation. It’s important to observe it—by which I mean not only noting it but also honoring it by giving it the space to be. It’s the urge to fill it, rather than the silence itself, that often proves excruciating.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a fair bit of research on the atomic bomb and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My husband, Hideo, is—conveniently—a physicist, and I would sometimes ask him, “Can I say this? Is this counterfactual in some way?”

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
As an undergraduate I was enrolled in a fiction workshop in which we read Ted Solotaroff’s essay “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years.” Solotaroff had discovered many young, gifted writers during his time as editor of the New American Review. But ten years later he saw that half of those promising writers had all but disappeared. Solotaroff determined that talent wasn’t the deciding factor. Instead he saw persistence as the defining difference—persistence despite the many hurdles (including economic) the work of writing entails. Solotaroff states, “For the gifted writer, durability seems to be directly connected to how one deals effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without. . . .” With that in mind, I promised myself that I would still be writing—no matter what—ten years out. Life has brought many interruptions, many distractions, and the writing years have hardly been even, but I have continued to write. Some years that’s meant little more than scratching down things in a notebook with little or no “finished” anything. But I’ve kept my promise to myself: I have continued to write ten years out—and then some.

Cintia Santana, author of The Disordered Alphabet.   (Credit: Rewa Bush)

Ten Questions for Heather Lanier


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Heather Lanier, whose debut poetry collection is out today from Monkfish Book Publishing. These contemplative lyrics interrogate the meaning of faith, attempting to square traditional Christian doctrine with the complex realities of contemporary life. At heart a quest for spiritual enlightenment, the collection blends reflection with wry humor and irony to unpack the contradictions of religious dogma and the speaker’s conflicted feelings. “Mary, did they wag their fingers no / at unpasteurized milk? Did you have to count / your protein for too little and your tuna / for too much, fretting mercury might metalize / the haloed brain of the divine?” the pregnant speaker wonders in “The Messiah Could Have Gotten Listeria.” Motherhood is a major theme of the book, which tracks the transformation of the female body and mind during gestation, childbirth, and the subsequent years of attempting to balance family, work, friendship, and life’s daily difficulties and rites of passage. Kirkus praises Psalms of Unknowing, calling it “a powerful poetic reckoning with motherhood and religion.” Heather Lanier’s essays and poems have appeared in the Atlantic, Salon, Time, and elsewhere. The author of the memoir Raising a Rare Girl (Penguin Press, July 2020), she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Rowan University in New Jersey.

1. How long did it take you to write Psalms of Unknowing
In some ways, forever. I wrote the oldest poem in the book eighteen years ago. But most of the poems were written in the last decade, maybe even the last five years. (Meanwhile, I was also writing nonfiction.) I spent about a year thinking about how the poems would become a book.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Putting it all together. I had almost two decades’ worth of poetry. I’ve assembled chapbooks before, and the chapbook length holds a single theme well. But full-length books often need multiple thematic strands interwoven. You want a book of poetry to create surprise, but not discord. You want variation without jarring interruption. And you want a conversation. It’s tricky. I tried a lot of different groupings of poems. But once I found a central throughline, feminist spiritual seeking, everything fell into place. All the other themes—pregnancy, grief, motherhood, political rage, religious questioning, etcetera—were filtered through that lens.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
It depends on the season. I shift my goals based on what’s possible. My ideal is to write five days a week, two hours a day, in the morning after my husband and I get the kids to school. That’s possible during certain periods of the semester, and not at all during the summer. When the semester gets super busy, I aim to just open a Word document (or the writing app Scrivener) every weekday and sit with it for at least thirty minutes. The summer is chaos. I have to get creative. Regardless of the season, I almost always write at home—at my desk, on a couch, or at the dining table.

4. What are you reading right now? 
A friend recommended Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and Denis O’Hare, so I’m reading that. Fascinating stuff. (I wrote a little bit about it here.) I just finished my friend James Crews’s lovely book, Kindness Will Save the World: Stories of Compassion and Connection, and on deck I’ve got Camille T. Dungy’s Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden and Carolyn Hays’s Letter to My Transgender Daughter: A Girlhood.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I mentioned that I used feminist spiritual seeking as a throughline. So the opening poem, “Pumping Milk,” sets that up, with the figure of a half-naked woman getting ready to pump milk at the office and asking questions about what it means to be human. After that the book is arranged in four sections. I didn’t want any of the sections to feel too monolithic (as in, And now the Pregnancy Poems!). Each section contains at least two threads that are a bit contradictory so that the contrasting notes speak to each other to create a third thing. For instance, the first section focuses on pregnancy and grief. By pairing poems about carrying life with poems about losing it, the first section creates a larger conversation about the risks we take in living and loving. Each of the book’s sections is subtitled with a feminist renaming of the parts of the Holy Trinity in the Christian prayer: “In the Name of the Mother…”, “And the Child…”, “And the Holy Unknowing…”, and “Amen.” So the entire book is structured around a (probably heretical) prayer that nudges female and nonbinary language into Christian tradition.

6. How did you arrive at the title Psalms of Unknowing for this collection?
The phrase “psalms of unknowing” appears in a poem called “Free Bible in Your Own Language.” I had been walking on a university mall when I spotted a booth with that phrase on a sign. And I was feeling snarky and amused by it. Like many people, I’ve felt plenty alienated by the language of the Bible, so I started riffing on what kind of language “my Bible” would contain. Curse words, 1980s pop music, and, ultimately, an ease with unknowing. That phrase, “psalms of unknowing,” pushes back against fundamentalism and makes space for a spirituality that emerges from doubt, uncertainty, and openness.

The title also echoes a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymously written text that is foundational to the contemplative Christian movement, which emphasizes receptivity to the divine. While my book is filled with lots of things—rage and silliness and sorrow—it’s guided by the spiritual practice of receptivity.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I would! Especially if you want concentrated time to study your craft. But I’m not a fan of going into debt for one. I encourage people to aim for fully funded programs, or low-residency programs where you can keep your job. I had an amazing time at Ohio State University writing for three years, teaching college students, and living on my $1,200-a-month stipend. But that was when you could rent an apartment in Columbus, Ohio, for $400 a month. (Also, my apartment had raccoons in the pantry—so, you know, tradeoffs.) With the expensive housing market, I know it’s harder to avoid loans for living expenses. But universities should be supporting their grad students with tuition waivers and fair stipends.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Psalms of Unknowing, what would you say?
I’d say, “Just keep going.” I guess what I mean by that is: Just keep listening to the work, one poem at a time. I’d also say, “Don’t fear motherhood. It will be the best thing for your writing.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I took a class on how to assemble a poetry collection, with Nancy Reddy at Blue Stoop. My graduate degree did a great job of helping me write individual poems, but we didn’t spend much time in courses learning how to shape a collection. I needed help. Nancy was great.

I also had to deconstruct my fundamentalist upbringing, spend a decade rejecting Christianity, relearn it through a Buddhist lens, and spend another decade practicing contemplative meditation. And there was that whole getting-pregnant-with-two-children-and-giving-birth-to-them thing. But more specifically, I spent a week at a monastery on a silent retreat, meditating with a group of people. That’s where the final poems in the book come from.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Isak Dinison’s quote—as passed down by my mentor, Lee Martin—the last word of which I technically misremembered. Here is my version: “Write a little every day, without hope or fear.”


Heather Lanier, author of Psalms of Uknowing.   (Credit: Justin Lanier)

Ten Questions for Myriam Gurba


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Myriam Gurba, whose new book, Creep: Accusations and Confessions, is out today from Avid Reader Press. In these trenchant essays, Gurba weaves memoir with cultural and intersectional-feminist critique to consider the many forces of violence bearing down on women, particularly queer women of color. With an unflinching gaze, Gurba considers the “creeps” among us and the ways in which their transgressions and crimes affect individuals and the collective imagination. Gurba finds the dark thread linking all manner of bad actors, both real and apocryphal: domestic abusers, serial killers, the monsters of folk tales, and literary icons, among others. Included in the collection is Gurba’s viral takedown of the novel American Dirt (Flatiron Books, 2020)—“Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca With Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature”—in which she lambasts the author for exploiting the suffering of Mexican migrants and the publishing industry for investing in culturally appropriative books. Publishers Weekly praises Creep: “Full of lean prose and biting commentary, this is as emotionally heavy as it is hard to put down.” Myriam Gurba is the author of the true-crime memoir Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017), the story collection Painting Their Portraits in Winter (Manic D Press, 2017), and Dahlia Season (Manic D Press, 2017), which includes stories and a novella. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris ReviewTime, and 4Columns.

1. How long did it take you to write Creep?  
It took me about ten years to write the book. While Creep is structurally different from my memoir, MeanCreep is Mean’s prequel and sequel. In many ways, Creep is also a book-length response to a question I’m often asked and one that never fails to irk me: Is writing about sexual violence cathartic?

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Remembering and aestheticizing my experiences of domestic violence were the most challenging aspects of writing Creep. Revisiting that period of my life was psychologically, physically, and spiritually painful. I don’t recommend it: 0 out of 5 stars. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write at home and prefer mornings. I wrote part of Creep in bed while I was recovering from COVID-19. That felt very Frida Kahlo. I write according to an irregular schedule, so it’s hard for me to measure how frequently I write. I tend to binge-write. Sometimes I’ll sequester myself in cheap motels in rural towns and spend days writing, occasionally emerging in search of food, coffee, and other mind-altering substances. 

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general? 
Tatiana de la tierra has been immensely influential. She was a brilliant, radical, beautiful, and fat friend who wrote poetry, fiction, and essays. She was also an editor, publisher, activist, librarian, pornographer, and all around magical dyke. She never shied away from using humor, and encountering the comedy in her work gave me permission to experiment with humor in my prose.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Creep
The strong presence of my ancestors took me by surprise. I hadn’t anticipated that they would play such a central role in so many of the essays, but they elbowed their way in and asserted themselves. Their presence makes Creep an intergenerational family memoir and history. 

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book? 
In Creep I describe a school field trip that I took to an egg farm. My classmates and I were greeted by the unmistakable stench of chicken shit. Rural California often smells like turds.  

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Creep, what would you say?
I would strongly advise myself not to date the guy I wrote the title essay about. 

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to heal from domestic violence. Culinary therapy helped with that. Following recipes and working with my hands soothes me. I baked a lot of pies, brewed my own corn beer, and made mountains of tortillas.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write while fully caffeinated.

Myriam Gurba, author of Creep: Accusations and Confessons  (Credit: Geoff Cordner)

Ten Questions for Megan Kamalei Kakimoto


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, whose story collection, Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare, is out today from Bloomsbury. This haunting debut confronts the physical and mythological terrain of Hawai’i, deconstructing its status as a tropical dreamscape to reveal a thornier topography shaped by the politics of colonial conquest and its aftermath. Female characters of mixed native Hawaiian and Japanese descent are at the forefront of these stories, walking the tightrope between the expectations of mainstream American culture and the specific norms and taboos of their heritage and family dynamics. The opening tale recalls Jamaica Kincaid’s famous “Girl” in its overwhelming list of directives and guilt-inducing questions from mother to daughter: “After everything that has happened to us, don’t you want to make your father so proud?” The pains of adolescence, love, sex, grief, nature, the supernatural, and metacommentary on the writing life all find their way into these narratives, equal parts sensual and cerebral. Publishers Weekly praises the book: “Marked by a wry sense of humor and an unerring touch for the surreal, Kakimoto’s stories add up to a powerful exploration of gender, class, race, colonialism, and domestic violence. This eloquent outing marks Kakimoto as a writer to watch.” Megan Kamalei Kakimoto is a Japanese and Kānaka Maoli (native Hawaiian) writer. Her fiction has been published in Granta, Conjunctions, Joyland, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature and has received support from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, where she was a fiction fellow. She lives in Honolulu.

1. How long did it take you to write Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare?
I wrote the stories in Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare over the course of four years, though the oldest story, “Temporary Dwellers,” dates to 2016. I like to think the version that emerged out of revising the collection as a whole is vastly different from its first-draft iteration, though perhaps I’m too close to the project to see this objectively.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
By far the biggest challenge of seeing Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare through to completion was pushing past the brick wall of my fears and anxieties over how these stories would be received. In the contemporary publishing landscape, there are so few native Hawaiian writers being published, so I felt an enormous responsibility to do right by not only my fellow Kānaka writers but also the Hawaiian community as a whole. The characters in Every Drop are inextricable from their Hawaiian roots, with Hawaiian mythology and superstitions permeating every story in the collection. I felt deeply overwhelmed thinking about how this book needed to speak for a particular Hawaiian experience, which is absurd, since there’s no such thing as a monolithic “Hawaiian” experience. Yet this is a consequence of writing on the periphery of a marginalized experience—it’s very hard to unburden ourselves of the expectations we imagine our communities have for us, simply because there are so few of our voices being championed in the first place.

So writing past the fear, or maybe into the fear, of an imagined readership and its criticism was a challenge I wrestled with throughout the writing, editing, and now publication process. I imagine it’s something I’ll encounter for a while longer, or at least until we see more Kānaka writers platformed and supported in the publishing industry.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I’m most content when I’m writing every morning—the last three years of my MFA had afforded me this gift of time. Now that I’ve graduated and am balancing a work schedule, I still try to carve out a consistent writing routine, waking at 6:30 AM to get in a couple hours of work, then reading and revising in the late afternoons. Consistency works for me; I feel grounded, fulfilled, and at peace when I can return to a project morning after morning. I also love the romantic ideal of writing in coffee shops, though, to save money, I’ve mostly been writing at my home desk.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m an avid rereader and am trying to make some headway with my novel in progress, so I’ve been rereading a lot of books I admired on the first read and hope to be in conversation with. These include Territory of Light by Yūko Tsushima, Motherhood by Sheila Heti, Savage Tongues by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, The Need by Helen Phillips, Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon, The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams, and America Was Hard to Find by Kathleen Alcott. An eclectic range, I know, which I imagine (and hope) will feed into a very strange book.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
This book would not have been possible without the works of Kiana Davenport, T Kira Māhealani Madden, and Kristiana Kahakauwila forging a path for Kānaka Maoli writers. On the sentence level, I’m always studying work by Toni Morrison, Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, and Amy Hempel; they make me strive to become a better writer.

I try to keep a stack of books on my desk whenever I’m working on a new project. For the collection, I kept close Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt, Tender by Sofia Samatar, Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz, Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link, Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons, and a handful of others.  

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I think if you’re clear in your intentions of what you hope to get out of an MFA, it’s worth pursuing, though by no means do I believe it to be an author’s singular path to success. For me, I was burned out working a PR job that drained all my creative energy, and I longed for a literary community in which to immerse myself. All signs pointed toward an MFA, so long as I wasn’t going into debt for it. Pursuing the MFA at the Michener Center for Writers proved to be one of the most significant and meaningful creative experiences of my life.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Both my agent, Iwalani Kim, as well as my editor, Callie Garnett, were invaluable partners in ushering this collection into the world. Their constant reassurances about my small questions and concerns, though it shouldn’t have surprised me, really put so much of my anxiety at ease throughout the often nebulous path of publishing.  

8. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare?
Moments of surprise were by far the most delightful when writing these stories, particularly when a character would do something unexpected or outlandish, something at which I would otherwise cower or maybe resist. I think that’s so much of the pleasure of writing for me, the opportunity to be fearless on the page. I’m a people pleaser by nature, which doesn’t afford a lot of room for fearlessness.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
To manage the aforementioned anxiety of writing this book, I ran constantly. I signed up for the Honolulu Marathon to give myself a goal to work toward that had nothing to do with world-building or sentence-making. Then I got injured. I took to rhythmic cycling classes, which were easier on my knees and on which I continue to lean while navigating the anxieties of bringing a book into the world.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?   
I think a lot about something Kimberly King Parsons and Chelsea Bieker taught in their class called “Rejection, Revision, and Renewal,” especially as I move into promoting the collection. I even wrote it on a note card and taped it to my desk: “Keep your head down and shut out the noise, because nothing beats a good writing day.”   


Megan Kamalei Kakimoto, author of Every Drop Is a Man’s Nightmare  (Credit: Van Wishingrad)

Ten Questions for Edgar Kunz


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Edgar Kunz, whose new poetry collection, Fixer, is out today from Ecco. At the heart of this touching group of narrative lyrics, a young man grapples with the legacy of a troubled father. In the long title poem that forms the backbone of the collection, the speaker breaks into his deceased father’s apartment, attempting to make sense of the troubled man’s life through the objects he’s left behind: “Your coat. The cash in your pockets. / The cellophane from a fresh pack. // Zippo with a carving of a whale, / proud ship in the distance.” On either side of this monumental event, the speaker finds himself navigating his own troubles and struggling to exceed the limitations of class, gender, and family history. The collection opens after the speaker has abandoned a lover and fears that this transgression has fulfilled a pattern of toxic masculinity that deserves punishment: “I wanted / to be revealed by some visible sign // a welt to ride the ledge of my cheek,” Kunz writes in “Day Moon.” But the speaker is too self-aware to fall into mere repetition compulsion, and the collection offers a window into a psyche awakening to the power of will against destiny. Attention to beauty, to love, and to art demolishes the fear and shame that cover our better natures: “Where they pry // the rotten timber away, / the brick is a brighter / shade of red beneath,” Kunz writes, narrating a neighbor’s home renovation project in “New Year.” Edgar Kunz is the author of Tap Out (Ecco, 2019). He has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. His poems have appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Poetry, and elsewhere. He lives in Baltimore and teaches at Goucher College. 

1. How long did it take you to write Fixer?  
After my first poetry collection, Tap Out, I struggled to write—a few flashes here and there, but mostly the poems were terrible! I wrote almost nothing worth saving for more than a year. Looking back, it’s obvious why: I was avoiding my subject. Just before Tap Out hit the shelves, my dad died. He was an addict in free fall, and I’d been grieving him a long time. But then he’d actually gone and died, and with him went the potential for reconciliation. I went home and buried him and cleaned out his apartment with my brothers and went back to my life. It took time to find the courage—and the required distance—to write about it. And one day I wrote a little poem about breaking into his apartment, and then another one about where I think I might have been when he died, and another one about the last time my brother saw him. I couldn’t stop. I wrote the middle section of the book, a long poem called “Fixer,” then filled in around it with love poems, weird-job poems, and poems about artificial intelligence, urban gardening, and trying to find a good therapist. I wrote most of the book in a month.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
I struggle to write well when I know the subject of the poem going in. Once the book started to show itself, it became clear it needed a bit of narrative clarity here, a bit more elaboration there. There were holes I needed to fill, threads I needed to develop. That was hard for me. The poems often felt didactic, corny. The book ended up being quite short—about seventy pages—because I cut every poem that felt willed or predictable.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I have very little discipline. Even when writing is going well, I’ll go weeks and weeks without writing a word. I have very little discipline: Barf. What I mean is, my process has, so far, been inconsistent. Bursts followed by fallow periods. I’m trying to get better about accepting that. I used to believe it was about clocking in and hammering out your drafts. I mean, it’s important to take the work seriously, but don’t trap yourself into false models of production and worth. Reading is writing is something people say, but also dinner with friends is writing. Going on long walks is writing. Laying down is writing. You can go long periods without setting down a word and still be gathering the necessary materials, storing up energy. 

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m halfway through Eula Biss’s Having and Being Had, and it’s fantastic; I’m a huge fan. I’m rereading Victoria Chang’s The Trees Witness Everything—brilliant. Books out this year I’ve read and loved include Megan Fernandes’s I Do Everything I’m Told, Alina Pleskova’s Toska, Maggie Millner’s Couplets, and Thea Brown’s Loner Forensics. Will Schutt’s translation of Fabio Pusterla’s Brief Homage to Pluto and Other Poems is excellent too.

I’m also reading The Lord of the Rings with a group of friends. We’re all trying to read the trilogy at the same pace; I think we’re set to finish in October. Our pal Danny is a de facto Tolkien scholar, and he very kindly fields our questions about wraiths and wizards and the durability of hobbits. Super fun.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I didn’t know I was working on a book until I wrote the middle poem, a series of eighteen-line sections exploring the period after my dad died. Once that was done, I had to sort out a middle and an end. I had a couple of poems on hand I liked, including “Day Moon” and “Night Heron,” the two earliest poems to make it into the book, and I knew I wanted to write more about work and labor, falling in love, building a life in a new city. Soon I had two hinge poems that led into and out of the long middle sequence, “Squatters,” which ends with the mother calling to tell the speaker about his dad’s death, and “Tuning,” an aftermath poem that follows a section featuring a piano tuner. After that, it was a matter of writing drafts and grouping them by intuition into first-section poems and third-section poems. Eventually, after much shuffling, an order revealed itself, and I stuck with it.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Sure. The MFA gives you time to write, a boost to your sense of yourself as a writer (important!), and a group of smart people who also care about writing and who hopefully want to help each other get better. Graduating with a book manuscript would be great, but the real goal, I think, is simply to improve and to lay the groundwork for a writing life. If you can find one friend in your program whom you trust and who can commit to exchanging work with you regularly after the MFA, you’re golden. And don’t go into debt for it if you can help it. If you can quit your job and move to a new city, I’d only apply to full-residency programs that offer full tuition remission and pay you enough to live on. If you can afford it and/or can’t move, low-residency programs can be a good option. Ask about scholarships.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Fixer?
I’m surprised by how rangy the poems ended up being. They’re funny and weird and hopeful and tragic. I’m proud of my first book, but it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs. I think I pulled off something more tonally complex in Fixer. It’s truer to the texture of my life. 

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Fixer, what would you say?
Read more. Drink water. Call your friends. Spend less time worrying about not writing and more time doing things that bring you joy. 

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
In the years between publishing book one and starting book two, I took on a series of escalating home-improvement projects. I don’t know if I had to do them to complete the book, but I wasn’t writing, and I still had the urge to make, fix, take apart, and rebuild. I refinished the hardwood floors in our living room, constructed a series of fences around the yard, got a speaker system for free off Craigslist and repaired it by soldering new capacitors to the board. I’m in the process of replacing all the doors in my house with old solid wood doors with cut glass knobs. Fitting things together in the physical world is so satisfying. I get tired of poetry. The drafting and drafting to get a poem even a little bit right, then undoing it the next day and starting over. I live behind a Subway, and one day one of the guys who works there came out and slapped the fence I built and said, “Nice fence.” I was so happy.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Louise Glück was my teacher during my Stegner fellowship, and she told me once that my poems “tend to achieve a premature polish.” In other words, I can make a poem seem, at first glance, finished—taut, lively, convincing. But often, in early drafts at least, I haven’t yet done the thinking and feeling the poem requires. It was a brutal assessment, but true—and useful. I’m learning to let my drafts be messier for longer, to linger in the exploration and discovery phase.

Edgar Kunz, author of Fixer.   (Credit: Ariana Mygatt)

Ten Questions for Robyn Schiff


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Robyn Schiff, whose new book, Information Desk: An Epic, is out today from Penguin Poets. In this book-length lyric, Schiff chronicles her experiences working in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City during the 1990s. A study of memory as much as of art, the verse meanders through the Met’s prodigious collections and exhibitions, narrates encounters with the public at the eponymous desk, navigates relationships with museum staff members, and explores the more current reality from which the speaker gazes back in wonder at her time inside this vast repository of human craft and creativity. Schiff orchestrates an engaging drama of consciousness that lures the reader down each page, capturing the mind’s quicksilver leaps from past to present and back again as it pings in Proustian fashion from sensory trigger to anecdote to meditation on history, science, and a panorama of other subjects treated with a mix of vulnerability and wit. Robyn Schiff is the author of three previous poetry collections: Worth (University of Iowa Press, 2002), Revolver (University of Iowa Press, 2008), and A Woman of Property (Penguin Poets, 2016), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The recipient of the 2023 Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize, she is a professor at the University of Chicago and a coediter of Canarium Books.

1. How long did it take you to write Information Desk?  
It took me about twenty years not to write it, and then another six to sit down and do it.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Limiting and defining the scope. Information Desk takes place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds over a million objects created over a span of about five thousand years. The poem derives its energy wandering the corridors there and encountering works of art. Deciding which objects to attend to was an exciting challenge.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When I’m really writing, deep in a poem, I do so seated at my desk—as often as I can for as many hours in a row as possible, at multiple intervals around the clock. But I’m much more often not writing. I’ve never been interested in writing every day, and sometimes years have passed between poems. I value these pauses as much as I value intense periods of creativity, and in a long life in poetry, these phases have come to balance out.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I was reading Henry James’s novel Roderick Hudson but had to return it to the library in a different country before I finished it, so I picked up Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. As soon as I finish that I’ll return to Roderick, a new copy of which has just arrived. For poetry, I’m reading Lynn Xu’s And Those Ashen Heaps That Cantilevered Vase of Moonlight. For nonfiction, I’m reading Black Bodies, White Gold by Anna Arabindan-Kesson.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
Information Desk: An Epic is a book-length poem in three parts divided by three invocations to wasps.

6. How did you know when the book was finished?
I’m not sure it is finished. In the course of the poem, on page 113, I ask myself how to exit the museum where the poem takes place. Ultimately I finished the poem shortly after that point because I close the museum after a workday there and lock the door; but I wonder if there might be a volume two? Ask me again in a few years.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Information Desk?
There isn’t one single surprise that stands out but a confluence of unexpected factors: I didn’t imagine that I would relocate homes as often as I did during the composition (I worked in six different houses), anticipate a pandemic, or expect a profound social and political reckoning and its backlash. It was a surprise to find these present-tense situations shaping the poem.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Information Desk, what would you say?
There’s a pandemic coming: Go visit your parents, and then make time for a big trip to the Met—it’s going to abruptly close.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to look closely, remember, grieve, research, and redirect.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Read more than you write.

Robyn Schiff, author of Information Desk: An Epic.   (Credit: Nicole Craine)

Ten Questions for Alise Alousi


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Alise Alousi, whose debut poetry collection, What to Count, is out today from Wayne State University Press. In these thoughtful free-verse lyrics, prose poems, and forms like the ghazal, the personal and political are interwoven, with explorations of family life and friendship standing alongside interrogations of national histories and mythologies. “Deadline,” for example, considers the Confederate anthem “Dixie” as an example of a white man’s appropriation of African American culture, linking it to other forms of political and interpersonal violence. The sharpness of “Deadline” contrasts with softer verse that paints touching portraits of beloved places and people, as in “Sister,” which recalls a childhood incident with the eponymous sibling whom the speaker realizes is “still tough, unnamable to this day.” Set by turns in Iraq and Michigan, the poems explore the meaning of home and the psychic dissonance that can arise from diasporic identity: “Where do things happen when they happen on a train,” the speaker of the collection’s title poem wonders. Kazim Ali praises What to Count: “This is not poetry at any distance, but one feels inside a life, across the table from the poet, hearing news from a friend. There are an array of formal approaches here, as well as Alousi’s commitment to her community and the care she has for it.” Alise Alousi is a 2019 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow and has received awards from the Knight Foundation, Mesa Refuge, and other organizations. Her work has been widely anthologized, including in Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2008). She works at InsideOut Literary Arts and has been an active part of the literary arts community in Detroit for many years.

1. How long did it take you to write What to Count
The majority of the book came together over the last few years, but there are poems that I included that were written much earlier. I really want to say a lifetime, so let’s go with that!

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The times when I had to put it aside. There were periods when work and family and life took over my days, in ways good and hard, and where I did not have a consistent connection to my own writing. My friend Dunya Mikhail once described poetry like a friend in a café waiting for her. Well, my friend Poetry was waiting there for me for a while; I am a happier, better person when I get to see her every day.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write five to six days a week, early in the morning before work and before anyone else is awake in my house. When I feel a poem begin to take shape, I steal time throughout the day and evening to look at it and make small edits. Like anything growing into itself, I love when a poem is getting there, when I can’t stop coming back to it.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I am reading Noor Hindi’s Dear God. Dear Bones. Dear Yellow. I am teaching a brilliant group of teen writers at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and this week we had a great conversation about Hindi’s poem “The World’s Loneliest Whale Sings the Loudest Song.” So much to admire. Other books I have adored are the chapbook Flower Boi by Detroit writer MARS. It’s a work of genius, and I can’t wait to see what is next for them. My favorite novel of late was definitely Kelsey Ronan’s Chevy in the Hole. And in nonfiction I recently finished Animal Joy by Nuar Alsadir. I want to go back and reread the beginning. Always a good sign!

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I think a first book, especially one that comes together over a longer period, can be harder to organize, and that was the case with What to Count. In having someone review an early version of the manuscript, the one piece of advice they had was to divide the book into sections. Once I figured out the three sections and that they could loosely thread the poems into one manuscript, that helped quite a bit.

6. How did you arrive at the title What to Count for this collection? 
The title comes from a much older poem in the book that I wrote during the economic sanctions against Iraq. I was involved in a Detroit area antisanctions group, and the poem speaks to trying to get people to pay attention to the staggering loss of life that took place as a result of items like medicine and equipment not being let into the country. The number of daily deaths grew while most of the world ignored what was happening, and that was deeply angering for me and for people who were paying attention. The last time I traveled to Iraq was during that period, and so the poem also holds that memory for me. The title also encompasses the way we move through life, especially as artists and creatives. I like that the title can be read as both heavy and childlike. The repetitive counting of things has been something I have done since I was a child, so there’s the whisper of that voice too.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of What to Count?
I always appreciate the surprise of a poem coming together. Seeing the process of the manuscript coming together felt similar and was a surprise and kind of an epiphany. The other thing that has surprised me is how excited I am to work on the next manuscript. Whether that takes shape as a chapbook initially or a full-length manuscript, it feels like it will be a different process and book than the first one.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started What to Count, what would you say?
Embrace your successes when they happen for you. Especially as women, we can have moments of regret or shame around periods when we are less productive or when things aren’t happening as quickly. And then when the success comes, we can psyche ourselves out of owning it fully. I have experienced some of that, and I am working hard to plant myself in this moment. It helps to be surrounded by people who share in your happiness, which has definitely been the case for me. I am surrounded by the best community of writers in Detroit, truly. My husband and daughter have also cheered me on and supported me every step of the way.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?  
I am not a fast writer or editor, so I was fortunate to be at Mesa Refuge for a residency for two weeks during the final editing, and that was really beneficial. I also was invested in the cover design for my book. I knew I wanted the work of a Detroit woman artist. When I saw the final design with the work of Megan Heeres’s I saw the moon and the moon saw me, it made my heart sing. The moon comes up quite a bit in the book, as do circles and eyes, so there were many connection points. I also worked with artist and poet Koss on a book trailer, which I love. Thinking about the visuals was a fun part of the process for me.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I would say the best advice is always, Do the thing, as my colleague Peter Markus once said to me. You gotta just plant yourself in the chair and write. The advice I would give is: Find someone who is a good reader of your work. I met mine, Jen Garfield, at Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, years ago. We don’t live in the same part of the country and have never been in the same room together since, but we have maintained a regular practice of writing together, sending each other work for feedback, talking about where we are submitting work, etcetera. If someone gets your voice, who you are on the page, that’s the best gift in the world. Find yourself a partner whose advice you truly trust.

Alise Alousi, author of What to Count.  

Ten Questions for Jamel Brinkley


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jamel Brinkley, whose new story collection, Witness, is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This moving group of tales explores the experience and ethics of being an observer or bystander—in the drama of one’s own life, the lives of others, and unfolding history. Characters grapple with the choice to respond or act and face the consequences, good or bad, that lie on either side of that decision. Other times action seems an impossibility in the face of overwhelming events, as in the devastating “Comfort,” which follows the grief-stricken sister of a man who has been murdered by a New York City police officer as she struggles to move beyond her rage and sorrow. Kindness is a form of volition in these stories, providing moments of grace that often go unseen or unacknowledged but nonetheless hold the world together. Kirkus praises Witness: “Brinkley’s stories carry a rich veneer worthy of such exemplars of the form as Chekhov, Eudora Welty, Alice Munro, and James Alan McPherson. … After just two collections, Brinkley may already be a grand master of the short story.” Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press, 2018), which won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the John Leonard Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. His work has appeared in the Paris ReviewA Public SpacePloughshares, and The Best American Short Stories. He was raised in the Bronx and Brooklyn and currently teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

How long did it take you to write Witness?
Thanks to a fellowship at Stanford, it took me a little over four years, including revisions and edits, although the oldest story, “Arrows,” was first drafted back in 2013. The newest story, “That Particular Sunday,” snuck into the collection in early 2022, during the editorial process with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  

What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The collection gathers characters who, in many cases, fail to perceive or fail to act. One challenge was to find ways around their perceptual limitations and deliver stories that were still vivid, sharp, true, and full of feeling. Another challenge was to make sure that any passive tendencies on the part of the characters didn’t cause the stories themselves to become inert.  

Where, when, and how often do you write?
I tend to write at home, at my desk, and I hope to write for two to three hours in the morning at least four or five days a week. This summer I’ve been putting in some afternoon sessions as well. That frequency is only possible when I’m not teaching during the academic year, however.

What are you reading right now?
I seem to be perpetually rereading The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. I’m also rereading Angels by Denis Johnson as well as three books for a seminar I’m teaching this fall: King Lear, The Age of Innocence, and Song of Solomon. I just picked up Francisco by Alison Mills Newman and To the North by Elizabeth Bowen.

Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
For Witness, James Baldwin and Gina Berriault were crucial, as were Mavis Gallant and William Trevor. More generally, I also think a lot about Edward P. Jones and my teachers Yiyun Li, Marilynne Robinson, Lan Samantha Chang, and Charles D’Ambrosio.

Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
It depends. You certainly don’t need one to be a writer. Pursuing an MFA was the right move for me personally, and I had a positive experience. There are no perfect MFA programs, and if you sift through all the lazy nonsense out there, you’ll find some specific and valid critiques of them. But a good program that is the right match for you can supply time, an engaging community, a little bit of money, and a credential that perhaps can be useful. I wouldn’t recommend the experience to egoists. If you assume you are superior to other writers, are offended by the idea of being critiqued, or get a kick out of poisoning atmospheres, do not pursue!  

What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
Simply having consistent sources of intelligent encouragement, which both my agent and editor are, has been invaluable.

What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Witness?
One of the pleasures of writing short stories for me is the surprise of an ending. The moment when I realize how and where a story is going to land—when I hear that sound, its click of completion—is so delightful and sometimes chilling. In the process of writing a collection, I get to have that experience over and over again.

What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to do research on various topics, such as deed theft, and on various kinds of workers: people who drive delivery trucks, who work in hotels or in flower shops, who stage homes that are being sold, and so on. The research was interesting and pleasurable.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?   
I’ve gotten lots of good advice, but one piece I’ll mention is to embrace the problems that emerge as you’re writing. I think of these problems as puzzles that invite the response of the writer’s unique creativity and as portals that will eventually lead you to the work’s depth and complexity. 

Jamel Brinkley, author of Witness.   (Credit: Daniele Molajoli)

Ten Questions for JoAnna Novak


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features JoAnna Novak, whose memoir, Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood, is out today from Catapult. In this mix of personal narrative and meditation on the painter Agnes Martin, Novak reckons with the transformation of her body and mind during pregnancy and what it means to be a female artist. As Novak finds herself overwhelmed by her changing physical state and lack of creative motivation, mental health problems come bubbling to the surface. When an attempt to seek medical advice results in her doctor admonishing her, she finds herself sinking into despair. Yet her engagement with Martin—particularly the painter’s struggle to make art while living with schizophrenia—opens a channel for Novak to find equilibrium and new inspiration. Seeking both communion with Martin and a new perspective, she travels to Martin’s longtime home in New Mexico and shuts herself off from the world for several weeks of introspection and writing. Kirkus praises Contradiction Days, saying “the story pulses with honesty and vulnerability, spiraling to a satisfying ending.” JoAnna Novak’s story collection, Meaningful Work (Fiction Collective 2, 2021), won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest. She is the author of three books of poetry, most recently New Life (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), and a novel, I Must Have You (Skyhorse, 2017). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and other publications.

1. How long did it take you to write Contradiction Days
I wrote the first draft in seventeen days. The subsequent drafts were rewrites. I wrote the first revision in four months. I wrote the second revision in six months. I wrote the third revision in seven months. I wrote the fourth revision in twenty-one days. This began in July 2019 and concluded in March 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
At first, writing with some degree of authority or confidence about Agnes Martin: putting that unspeakable connection—aesthetic, biographical, psychical—into words. Once I got over that hurdle, sitting with the person I’d been as the protagonist of the memoir and offering her compassion became the greater challenge.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
In a notebook, on the computer, or on my typewriter, a mint-green Hermes Media 3. At my desk, at the kitchen table, on the Amtrak, on benches in galleries, in museum bathrooms, at the library, once every few years at a bar having a glass of wine on an empty stomach, in hotel rooms.  

I go through phases of writing first thing in the morning—4:00 AM until 7:00 AM, maybe. And when I’m on a deadline, I’ll write until two or three in the morning. (Last night I pressed send on something at 2:25 AM.) In a perfect world, I’d write all day, with lots of wheel-spinning in the morning that gives way to a hyper-focused afternoon that invites some after-dinner work. This is very infrequently achievable because I have an almost-four-year-old!

4. What are you reading right now? 
Abbe Rivaux’s biography of Mother St. John Fontbonne. Caroline Knapp’s Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs. Henry Hoke’s Open Throat.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Agnes Martin’s writing was critical to my writing of this book, not only for its role in the plot but for its lessons in firmness, warmth, and clarity. I read most of John Berger as I wrote the third draft. The poems of Yi Sang. Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Natalie Goldberg. Stephen Batchelor. Shunryū Suzuki.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
Yes, if it’s paid for. Or, if it costs money: Don’t compromise your daily survival.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Contradiction Days?
How about two things? While I was working on the final rewrite, I interviewed a number of women who’d known Agnes Martin. Her friends, her colleagues, artists like Ann Martin and Lizzie Borden and Pat Steir. Their generosity astonished me. And then there’s a moment in the memoir when the narrator watches old interviews with Agnes, sees her and hears her voice in a very intimate viewing situation. The potency of that experience still shocks me.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Contradiction Days, what would you say?
You have time.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Definitely research. I started reading about Agnes a couple of months before I wrote the first draft in Taos, New Mexico, and I continued for the next three years. Conducting interviews. Taking art history courses. Looking at as much art as I could. Also: having a baby, becoming a mother, and witnessing my priorities shift.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not a neat pull quote, but my first fiction-writing professor, Barbara Tannert-Smith, was always trying to get me to work in scenes. She told me to think of scenes as boxes. Discrete boxes, with their own contents—characters, action, setting, etcetera. That analogy has only become more helpful as I’ve continued writing. The containment of a scene can be a powerful source of tension and driver of plot. And it helps me stay grounded and forward-moving, especially when I’m working in flashback or deep interiority. Thank you, Barbara! I wrote the first draft of Contradiction Days in text boxes of 6 x 6 inches.

JoAnna Novak, author of Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood.   (Credit: Falyn Huang)

Ten Questions for Caleb Azumah Nelson


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Caleb Azumah Nelson, whose new novel, Small Worlds, is out today from Grove Press. In this coming-of-age narrative, Stephen, the son of Ghanian immigrants in London, struggles to balance his creative ambitions with filial duty. Stephen’s love of music and dancing—“the one thing that can solve most of our problems,” Nelson writes—was ingrained in the boisterous church he grew up attending with his parents. Despite the familial origin of his passion, Stephen’s parents nonetheless wish their son a more conventional life as they seek to build a prosperous future in Britain. Despite efforts to acquiesce to his parents’ wishes, however, Stephen finds himself drawn to the music scene in ways that feel affirming and life-altering. In London and during visits to Accra, Ghana, the protagonist contends with his heritage and how to integrate his authentic self with his ancestry. Publishers Weekly praises Small Worlds: “Nelson’s assured writing captures the pulse of a dance party, the heat of a family’s bond, and the depth of spiritual fervor to conjure a story­ as infectious as a new favorite song.” A National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, Caleb Azumah Nelson is the author of Open Water (Grove Press, 2021), which won the Costa First Novel Award and was named a best book of the year by Literary Hub, the Millions, Time, and other publications.

1. How long did it take you to write Small Worlds?  
I wrote the novel over the course of a year or so. The first draft took three nonconsecutive months; I was writing while on tour for Open Water. The remainder was the editing process, which really cemented the shape of the book. 

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Time was the biggest challenge this time ‘round! I tend to write in quite intense periods and love the rhythm of consistency, but I found myself squeezing writing in this time ‘round.  

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When I’m working on a novel, I write Monday to Saturday. I’m up early, usually at 5:30 AM, and then I’ll exercise, grab some breakfast, and get to my writing/photography studio. I’ll be at the desk from 7:00 AM until midday, then the rest of the day is mine; I’ll usually go for a long walk or to a gallery to unwind the mind.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I’m rereading Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang, which is the best thing I’ve read all year.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general? 
This novel was heavily influenced by Toni Morrison; Jazz was the last novel I read before I started writing. I’m always reading poetry as I’m writing fiction. This time ‘round Langston Hughes, Raymond Antrobus, June Jordan, and Sarah Lasoye were poets I was reading closely as I was writing. 

6. What trait do you most value in your editor or agent?
I’m so grateful for both my editors and my agents, who are encouraging of my wandering mind and curiosities. But I’m most grateful for our editing process, in which they are less prescriptive and always asking questions for me to ask myself.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Small Worlds?
I’m always trying to leave room in my writing for surprise. I don’t plan a huge amount, instead relying on the understanding of the emotions I’m trying to express. But I didn’t anticipate writing a novel about fathers and sons and the ways in which our family histories can haunt us.

8. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
In the meeting I had with my editor in the process of selling my first novel, she asked if there was anything else I wanted to write. I described a novel about faith, family, and community, which also continued to explore how expression—specifically music—could act as a site of freedom for Black people, and that’s where Small Worlds started. There was also a short story I wrote a few years back, which is where the characters in this book first appeared; it was useful to spend time with them in this way and was the beginning of understanding the voice necessary for the novel. 

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I took a research trip back to Ghana, where I’m from, during the course of writing. It was the first time I had been back in sixteen years. As I was writing the novel it was feeling more and more necessary to make the trip. I wanted to feel the texture of the place, to feel the heat, to see the light. I took all my cameras out there with me, and the images I made ended up being really fundamental to finishing up the novel. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?  
My agent told me the first time we met that a lot of writing is fictionalising memory; I write this in all of my notebooks.

Caleb Azumah Nelson, author of Small Worlds.   (Credit: Stuart Ruel)

Ten Questions for Sarah Rose Etter


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sarah Rose Etter, whose new novel, Ripe, is out today from Scribner. In this surreal tale, Cassie, a depressed marketing writer at a Silicon Valley tech company, struggles to make it through days of cold hyperproductivity surrounded by coworkers she calls “Believers,” who are too obsessed with ascending the corporate ladder to notice the homeless population and pollution of San Francisco that preoccupy Cassie. Literally trailed by a black hole from her early childhood, in which she absorbed the capitalist logic of her father and abusive mother, Cassie is entrenched in a battle between her “true self” and “false self” when she suspects she is pregnant. With her boss bearing down on her and the air newly dangerous with wildfire smoke and a contagious virus, she must decide what she really wants from life and how to come to terms with the black hole that has remained her constant companion. Publishers Weekly praises Ripe: “A scathing look at corporate greed and its many dire consequences, this is deeply felt and cathartic.” Sarah Rose Etter is the author of The Book of X (Two Dollar Radio, 2019), winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, and the story collection Tongue Party (Caketrain, 2011). She lives in Los Angeles.

1. How long did it take you to write Ripe?
Ripe took about five years to write. I started the book in 2018, just the first twenty-five pages or so. Then I set it aside while I was touring for my first novel, The Book of X. I returned to the project shortly after my father died suddenly of a heart attack. We went into lockdown a few months after he died, and I just found myself in isolation with this grief. My father had always joked about me writing this book, and I didn’t know what else to do with what I was feeling other than write the book he wanted. The first draft took about six months. The next three and a half or four years were really spent in edits, going back and forth with my agent and then my editor at Scribner. That really helped get the book solid on the plot level and on the line level. Editing is always the longest part of the process for me.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
There were really two challenges—one emotional, one technical. Emotionally, I had to crack open my heart and allow myself to really examine my relationship to capitalism, my father, my other relationships, and love. I had to let the ugliness happen on the page. It’s really important for writers to be able to look at the weak, vulnerable, ugly, messy parts of a character. That also requires the author to examine some of their own weak, vulnerable, ugly, messy parts. That part of writing is always very intimate for me.

On a technical level, the black hole [in the book] was a huge challenge because it’s this phenomenon that we barely understand at all in the real world. So making that translate into a presence in a novel took tons of research and many, many edits. The black hole behaved differently throughout several drafts, and it took a long time to land on it being this ominous presence. Then it was a lot of work to simplify all of the research about black holes so the reader could understand the magnitude of it, both in reality and in Cassie’s life.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When I’m working on a first draft, I’m usually writing pretty manically. Typically, I’ll write for one hour a night after work during the week, then 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. That’s my schedule for five or six months until I get the first draft out. I need to spend as much time as possible in that section of my brain before it moves on to something else.

I have a desk in the corner of my apartment that I use for my full-time job and my drafting of books. One thing that helps me separate the full-time job from novel writing is music. I have a playlist for each novel, so I’ll listen to the same songs on repeat as I’m writing. I’m sure it would drive some people insane, but it really helps me tunnel back into the world of the book very quickly.

But, you know, how often I write depends on where I am in the process. Right now, since I’m in the promotion cycle, it’s less about writing and more about talking about writing. After this is over, I’ll go back into my little hole and hopefully write another draft.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Well, there is the sophisticated answer that will impress everyone and then there’s the actual truth. I read a lot, so I don’t mind sharing both. Sophisticated Answer: I’m reading a few books that I’m blurbing, one of which is The Cleaner by Brandi Wells, which I really, really loved. It reminds me of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh in a great way. I also just finished Death Valley by Melissa Broder, and I always love being in her head. I also got completely obsessed with Poor Things by Alasdair Gray, the novel the new Yorgos Lanthimos movie is based on. I believe that’s being released in the U.S. soon, and it’s so weird and innovative and great.

Actual Truth: I’ve just recently gotten into horror and mystery books, which is funny because I think most people who’ve ever read my work would think I was already interested in those. I just finished reading Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and it’s fantastic—so well done. It also feels a bit ahead of its time. About a third of the way through the book, the vampire changes gender, and the pronouns change. I’ve also been reading a lot of the books that are adapted into TV shows and movies, so The Shining Girls, The Exorcist, the Tana French books. I’ve just been examining how these books come alive on the screen because I’m a nerd.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Sylvia Plath is obviously right up at the top. I remember in eighth grade, the teacher put “metaphors” up on the projector and asked the class, “What do you think this poem is about?” and I knew immediately that Plath was pregnant, intuitively. And I was hooked on her after that.

Before I write every book, I pull together a stack of five or six books that I want to be in conversation with. For Ripe, it was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath; Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion; Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated by Vincent Kling; The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen, and Problems by Jade Sharma. I also read Hot Milk by Deborah Levy while I was writing this, and that helped me a lot on the sentence level. During editing, I tend to read a lot of poetry, so Morgan Parker, Elisa Gabbert, Tommy Pico.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Ripe?
The most surprising thing was that I ended up trying to preserve the memories I had of my father while I was writing Ripe. Suddenly the father in the book really morphed into a way to immortalize my father. His advice, his way of thinking about business and work, his love of museums—these were all things that I was really afraid I was going to forget about him. At some point, this novel became a way to make sure I didn’t forget anything about him. I was so deep in my grief when I wrote this book, I remember worrying that I would forget how my father’s voice sounded. So the book is deeply personal; it’s very complicated and very close to my heart.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Much like Cassie, I worked in Silicon Valley for a year. It made my parents very proud, and it felt like a big deal. But then I got there, and I realized it wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be. During my first week in San Francisco, I stopped in a coffee shop. The owner was working the counter and made me a coffee. We started chatting about where we were from, that kind of thing. And she mentioned that the night before, a man had set himself on fire outside of her store. She’d tried to put out the flames and was really shaken up over it, of course. Hearing that just knocked the wind out of me. I think that was the exact moment I got the sense that maybe I was living in a bad place. It was the moment the illusion of San Francisco shattered for me.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Ripe, what would you say?
This is a hard question. My only goal is to write the best book that I can at the time. I do think I did that with Ripe. I worked insanely hard on this novel. At many points, I did have this deep fear, which I think happens for all writers, that I’d written a terrible book and nobody would publish it. So I think maybe I would go back and tell her that all the work wouldn’t be for nothing.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a lot of research for this book on pomegranates and black holes. I was researching both of them extensively—learning about their histories, their role in art, all of it. I was eating pomegranates constantly. I was watching documentaries, reading papers by astrophysicists. I really was just consumed by both of these things for the entire time I wrote the book.

I also spent a lot of time with visual art. That’s huge for me. We were in lockdown for much of the drafting, so I was making sculptures and painting a bit. I did want the novel to be sculptural, and that’s a lot of the reason it took on the shape of a pomegranate.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Finish the first draft. That’s it. It’s so simple, but we make it so complicated. Even if it’s messy and ugly and wrong, just finish it. Without the first draft you have nothing; you just have an idea for a book. And everyone—I mean EVERYONE—has an idea for a book. It’s just vaporware if you don’t finish the first draft. It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking: Who’s going to publish it? What’s the cover going to look like? I want a review in the New York Times! But all of that is fantasy without a first draft. Obviously editing is important, but you have nothing to edit without a first draft. Finish the draft. Nothing else matters.

Sarah Rose Etter, author of Ripe.   (Credit: Lee Jameson)

Ten Questions for Lillian-Yvonne Bertram


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, whose new poetry collection, Negative Money, is out today from Soft Skull Press. In this mix of free verse, prose poems, and experimental forms that make poster-like visual artworks of the page, Bertram explores the meaning of value and how we measure it in dollars and cents; the way we treat one another with care, neglect, or violence; and what mass culture holds up as ideal images and narratives. The poems leap from blunt confession to musical wordplay to high-lyric elocution: “The arrow grazed the doe in the morning, / shaved bare its shoulder,” they write in “Intima.” Surprising juxtapositions characterize the collection, as in the stark contrast of the elegant doe of “Intima” and the speaker’s “cunt / made of deer meat” in the next poem, “Raise Her Dark Matter.” Publishers Weekly writes that Negative Money leaves “the reader with an increased awareness of the fragility, absurdity, and loneliness of the world…. This profound book will stir readers into necessary reflection.” Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is an associate professor of English, Africana studies, and art and design at Northeastern University. They are the author of several poetry collections, including Travesty Generator (Noemi Press, 2019), which won the 2018 Noemi Press Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and Personal Science (Tupelo Press, 2017).

1. How long did it take you to write Negative Money?  
Several years, as I didn’t set out to write exactly this book. It is a compilation of poems I’ve written over time, some a decade old or more. I was writing poems and figured that, at some point, they would coalesce into something I could call a book. My preoccupations over time remain the same, so poems several years old still spoke to more recent ones.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Once I had the poems it was challenging to think about what kind of story they could tell, what was missing, what needed to be added or amended. Things I wrote in the past I wouldn’t write today, but I also wouldn’t necessarily change them. Reconciling the different types of writer I have been proved to be more challenging than I expected.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
Anywhere I can, really, but also hardly ever! I have been working on other projects for a while, and so anything strictly “creative writing” hasn’t happened in many months. I do a lot of thinking and ideating, so hopefully that counts.

4. What are you reading right now?  
E-mail; lots and lots of e-mail. News and other sorts of content. But the most recent book I was reading was Crying in the Bathroom by Erica L. Sanchez.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I tend to organize poems in groups, so there are maybe five or six groups of poems in the book, of four to six poems each, and those groups share similar themes or ideas. I wouldn’t put all the poems in a group one after the other, so it becomes a matter of spreading them all out so that they can still speak to one another, but also to the poems that intervene so that there is interconnectedness among the phantom “sections.” It all falls together rather organically, or so it seems to me.

6. How did you arrive at the title Negative Money for this collection? 
I was thinking about how I have far more debt than capital, and how many people can be fully employed but never keep any of the money they earn. That’s most of us. I began to think of this situation, of making money but not actually owning it or being able to keep any of it, as a kind of “negative money.”

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Negative Money?
I found myself feeling deeply insecure about the work, in part because some of it was written so long ago. I had to rethink how I felt about certain things when I wrote them and consider what they could mean now that my relationship to them is different and now that the world in which they will be read is very different. 

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Negative Money, what would you say?
“Develop a consistent writing practice, and just write!”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a lot of revising—a lot—and other kinds of reading. I also spent a lot of time away from the poems, from the book, trying to spend time outside. Again, I don’t think in terms of books exactly, so I don’t write towards the book as a goal, which meant I never sat down and thought, “Okay, here are things I need to do to complete this book: A, B, and C.” The book itself is an arbitrary unit, after the fact. It is born only once there is enough writing. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The same piece of advice I give to others but never follow myself: “Just write!” That’s it. I don’t have anything profound to say about it, other than to just write and not bother with these ideas of whether you can or you should or if it’s good or whatever. Just write. 



Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, author of Negative Money.     (Credit: Adrianne Mathiowetz)

Ten Questions for Stacy Jane Grover


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Stacy Jane Grover, whose debut essay collection, Tar Hollow Trans, is out today from the University Press of Kentucky. In these complex inquiries into place and selfhood, Grover explores her upbringing and the emergence of her trans identity in Appalachian southeast Ohio. With a profound desire to be “a country woman, of the land, that place of undefined gender,” Grover nonetheless travels to the city seeking a more liberated existence, only to find a different form of “constraint” away from her beloved nature. In Grover’s research into family, regional, social, and medical history, she uncovers the many queer narratives interwoven with the people, places, and rituals of Appalachia: a great aunt who subverted gender norms and was murdered at sixteen; early-twentieth-century government interventions into the lives of rural women, seeking to “feminize” them in the name of health and hygiene; communal practices that put less pressure on the nuclear family and more on an extended network of kin. These narratives shape Grover’s understanding of her own personal experiences with friends, family members, and the various characters—both in person and online—that she confronts while resisting any certain conclusions about herself or the place where she grew up. “If there’s any hope in identity as a project, in all that we hold and practice to make sense of ourselves, whether we call it queer or transgender or Appalachian, it might be found in being bewil­dered, in forgoing knowability to bestow upon ourselves a complex interiority and wonderous possibility,” she writes. Publishers Weekly calls Tar Hollow Trans “a unique, fascinating collection.” Stacy Jane Grover is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati and holds an MA in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Tar Hollow Trans is her first book.

1. How long did it take you to write Tar Hollow Trans?  
The process of writing the book took about fourteen months, from pitching the book to my editor to turning in the completed manuscript.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
The book was a real learning process for me. I had published essays in magazines, so I wasn’t even sure if I could write something book length. I also hadn’t found a consistent daily writing schedule. I had to learn through writing the book how to discipline my creativity so that I could write whenever and wherever I needed to.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
I write every day, usually in the mornings, and also as the day allows. I write at my desk in my office or on the porch. I do write a lot on my phone—so, often, wherever I happen to be.  

4. What are you reading right now?  
I’m actually not a big reader in my free time, and it’s hard for me to read anything while I’m drafting. So I usually only read in preparation for something I’m going to write. I’m in a nice break period right now.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?  
I almost exclusively read Anne Rice when I was younger. Following her online shaped how I’ve come to understand writing as daily work, how to stick to an artistic vision while being open to change, and the need to be sincere with one’s audience.

Alison Stine and Carter Sickels have been dear friends and mentors. They’ve taught me through action how to be a writer who uplifts other writers. I’ve only had one creative writing class, and it was with Kristen Iversen. I know the essay as a form because of her teaching and generous spirit.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Tar Hollow Trans
The shape the book took surprised me the most. I proposed an entirely different book from the one I wrote. I couldn’t write the original book I had an idea for, because I hadn’t lived it. When I allowed myself to be honest and sincere on the page, the essays began to take a different shape, and the forms they took outweighed my want to stick to the original idea. So instead of a book of essays about my transgender life in Appalachia, I ended up with a collection of essays that explore the process of trying to write myself into those identities, when I am not sure they’ve ever truly fit me. That’s why I love the essay as a form, because it allows for so much flexibility and spontaneity.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
In January of 2021, I tweeted that I wanted a contract for a book on being transgender in Appalachia. Maybe a day or two later, my editor—then unknown to me—contacted me about pitching her the idea. I was actually working on a different book idea at the time.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Tar Hollow Trans, what would you say
Writing won’t ever save you. Focus on living your life.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
My work is research intensive, so I had to collect family stories, conduct archival research, and read lots of books and articles on gender theory and Appalachian studies. I read almost all of the work that I cite in the book during my MA, which I completed two years before I came up with the idea for and started writing the book.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
In Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction, Carol Bly writes, “Literature has low enough standards. But we can avoid writing the worst literature if we make ourselves ask ourselves, every two or three sentences we write, ‘Is that what I really think?’”

Stacy Jane Grover, author of Tar Hollow Trans   (Credit: Elizabeth Keith)

Ten Questions for Nathan Go


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Nathan Go, whose debut novel, Forgiving Imelda Marcos, is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In this epistolary tale that spins an alternative history of the Philippines, an aging father, Lito Macaraeg, pens a letter to his journalist son in the United States about his experience working as the chauffeur to Corazon Aquino, who became the president of the Philippines in 1986 after leading an uprising against dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Macaraeg recalls his work for Aquino, including his drive to deliver her to a clandestine meeting with Imelda Marcos, the dictator’s wife. Lito’s own life story becomes interwoven with his narrative about Aquino and Imelda Marcos, spurring him to reflect on fatherhood, grief, and the way individual lives become inextricably linked to the sociopolitical context in which they find themselves. The book also serves as a poignant reminder of the United States’ former role as colonizer of the Philippines, where the aftermath of imperialism continues to unfold: “Yes, America is a liberator. But often it’s also a liberator from the problems it created in the first place,” Lito writes to his son. Kirkus praises Forgiving Imelda Marcos: “Go’s narrative burns slowly, gracing the novel with an understated yet profound power. A tender meditation on the unseen moments that shape history and the human spirit.” A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, Nathan Go is a senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao. His fiction has appeared in PloughsharesAmerican Short FictionNinth Letter, the Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere.

1. How long did it take you to write Forgiving Imelda Marcos?
On and off, about fifteen years. I wrote the first draft as a screenplay for an undergraduate class in 2007. I forgot about it and picked it up again in 2014, when I turned it into a novella for my MFA thesis. Finally it became a novel around 2017 and underwent several more revisions.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I didn’t seek to write a political novel, but the characters in my novel happen to be political. While I was finishing the final draft, the political landscape in the Philippines kept shifting back and forth. For this reason I made a decision not to let current affairs influence my book—I stuck to seeing the story from my characters’ points-of-view as best I could. I know this novel will not make everyone happy. There will be those who want a stronger political message, and there will be those who want a less political message. I just let my characters decide where the novel would go.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
My ideal writing schedule, which I achieved only once in my life—during my David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, (for which I am eternally grateful!)—is to write as soon as I get up for about two to three hours, go to the gym, have lunch, and take a light nap. Then I would wake up and write for another two to three hours before going to the gym again and having dinner and a bath. I would read for the rest of the night before falling asleep and repeat the same routine the next day. Physical activity leads to better sleep, and better sleep leads to better dreaming, and better dreaming leads to better writing. I believe that writing is just a form of dreaming.

4. What are you reading right now?
I have a lot of catching up to do: In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow; Letters to a Writer of Color, edited by Deepa Anappara and Taymour Soomro; Brotherless Night by V. V. Ganeshananthan; and the Boxer Codex, a sixteenth century manuscript about the Philippines compiled by European imperialists for the King of Spain.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day were always on my table when I wrote the novel. In general, I am much indebted to Paul Harding and Margot Livesey, who really taught me not just how to write but how to be a generous writer.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Forgiving Imelda Marcos?
How polarizing the title became because of the Marcoses’ big comeback in the Philippines. Again, I did not seek to write a political novel. Since the first draft in 2007, when the Marcoses were pretty much on the down-low, the title has been Forgiving Imelda Marcos. That was simply the most intuitive title: It was what I imagined the character Mrs. Aquino, a devout Catholic, contemplated during the last days of her life. I was not trying to make any political statement at all with the title.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
There wasn’t one thing that my agent or editor told me that stuck with me. Rather, I was more surprised at how long the publishing process took even after I sold the book. The novel had gestated for fifteen years and underwent so many revisions that I hadn’t expected my editor to do several more rounds of revisions. But they were all very helpful, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux was very supportive. I ended up rather happy, and humbled.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Forgiving Imelda Marcos, what would you say?
Perhaps write a different novel.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I was a student, for the most part, when I wrote the different versions of the story. But when I went back to the Philippines and started helping out with my family business, I became extremely busy and forgot about the novel. It was only during the pandemic, when my family and I found ourselves stuck in Atlanta while on vacation, that I suddenly had time to revise the novel and send it to an agent.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
All rules of writing are there to be broken. Otherwise, if we just simply follow all the rules, it’s not art: It’s ChatGPT, or artificial intelligence (AI). The paradox is that while we’re still learning to write, we do have to learn the rules. Only then can we become good enough to break them and form our own rules. I wonder if that’s what would differentiate human writers from AI.

Nathan Go, author of Forgiving Imelda Marcos.    (Credit: Crest Contrata)

Ten Questions for Helen Schulman


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Helen Schulman, whose new novel, Lucky Dogs, is out today from Knopf. This propulsive narrative considers how sexual misconduct by powerful men is often aided and abetted by women whose lives and livelihoods depend on the smooth operations of the patriarchy. The bones of the plot, Schulman writes in her author’s note, was inspired by the story of Rose McGowan, whose allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein reportedly led the now-convicted sex offender to hire an Israeli spy agency to undermine the actress’s case against him. In Lucky Dogs, a version of McGowan is Meredith Montgomery, who becomes friends with a mysterious woman named Nina after a fraught encounter in Paris, where Meredith is living after her social-media rants have made her a Hollywood outcast. From there, Schulman takes readers on a tour de force through Europe, Israel, the United States, and the inner lives of Meredith and Nina, each of whom has survived a traumatic past that pits one against the other in a battle for their lives. Kirkus praises Lucky Dogs as “a barn burner of a novel,” calling it Schulman’s “finest work to date. In a word: Wow.” Helen Schulman is the author of seven novels, including Come With Me (HarperCollins, 2018). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Vanity Fair, Time, Vogue, GQ, The New York Times Book Review, and The Paris Review. She is a professor of writing at the New School.

1. How long did it take you to write Lucky Dogs?  
I guess about three years. And then my marvelous editor, Jennifer Barth, and I worked on it together some more. Maybe closer to four?

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
My last few books have been about earthquakes in the culture, through the lens of an individual, couple, or family. So I tend to surf the zeitgeist as I write. What I mean is, I write alongside history as it unfolds, creating a kind of time capsule of current events—a historical fiction of now. Ultimately, of course, it’s almost impossible to put the news of the day into a novel, so I eventually pull the plug and set an end date for my storyline. It’s a habit I’ve vowed to quit.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
I write on my bed. I don’t have a desk or an office. I have a bag full of materials that I used to drag from room to room with me, because I also liked to write on the couch in the living room of our apartment. But then the pandemic happened, and everyone in my family came home, so I lost that coveted spot. I had long-haul Covid while writing this one, which kind of cemented the write-in-bed habit. I have two sweet kittens, who curl up with me. I don’t see this changing.
I write as often and for as long as I can. I teach a lot and I am the fiction chair at the New School MFA program, so I often do not have a lot of time on my hands.

4. What are you reading right now?  
Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel. I’m on a reading jag of female writers who wrote in Yiddish, who have finally been translated into English. I am also late to the party on Claire Keegan and trying to make up for lost time. On my stack: Adrienne Brodeur’s new novel, Little Monsters; my former student John Bengan’s stories in Armor—John writes from the heart and from the Philippines—and Jennifer Grotz’s beautiful and crushingly sad new poetry collection, Still Falling.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general? 
The answer to that is the bookshelf of my life. If you have been reading as long as I have, you are constantly taking notes, especially craft ones, as you go. It all goes in the blender. 

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Lucky Dogs
That nothing can abate my anger.

7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
I love my agent, Sloan Harris, like a family member—and more so than some of my family members. But when I asked him if he thought the book was funny, because my husband thinks it’s funny, he said: “You know how much I like and admire [your hubby], but he is a very sick man.” I think the book is funny too! So this made me laugh. But it also made me wonder what’s wrong with me, marriage and book-wise. The book’s subject matter is really tough, even devastating, but there is a lot of comedy in it. I didn’t plan it; it just came out that way. I think the humor helped me live through the darkness of writing it.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Lucky Dogs, what would you say? 
This book will challenge and change you. You will never be the same.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
For much of the time I was writing this book, I was teaching and doing other forms of writing to make a living. But from 2019 to 2020 I had a Guggenheim fellowship. Time is the world’s greatest gift. That fellowship gave me time. So I am very, very grateful. I was surprised, and also weirdly horrified, by how much I could get done during that period. Those twelve-hour days! It made me realize what might be possible if I didn’t have to work quite so hard at my day job.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?  
My father always told me to drive my own car. He said, “Don’t look at the traffic. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow anyone else is going.” It was a great relief to me, to learn just to do my own thing, and that has worked for me all these many years.

Helen Schulman, author of Lucky Dogs.   (Credit: Denise Bosco)

Ten Questions for Airea D. Matthews


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Airea D. Matthews, whose new poetry collection, Bread and Circus, is out today from Scribner. In this formally inventive book, Matthews deploys a surprising mix of lyrics, prose poems, images, and docupoetic forms to consider the self as a product shaped by individual experience and systemic forces. Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations provides a frame for the collection, which blends autobiography with economic and social theory to examine the origins and far-reaching effects of capitalism and its intersections with race, gender, and class. Smith’s texts appear throughout the book, altered by Matthews to reveal a disturbing subtext about the commodification of human life. Matthews weaves personal narrative throughout the collection, offering insight into how early childhood experiences continue to reverberate into adulthood. Public history, too, repeats in this collection, and Matthews offers a moving portrait of contemporary Black motherhood in poems such as “Animalia Repeating: A Pavlovian Account in Parts,” which recounts the devastating aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin. “I genuflected at Mass, stole fleeting glances of my sons’ hands in prayer—tender, unburdened by veins or violence, unscathed. I prayed that whoever feared them would unlearn myth and threat,” she writes. Publishers Weekly praises Blood and Circus: “Full of humane wisdom, this powerful volume forces readers to acknowledge systemic inequity.” Airea D. Matthews holds a BA in economics from the University of Pennsylvania as well as an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program and an MPA from the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy, both at the University of Michigan. A fellow with the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, she is a professor and directs the poetry program at Bryn Mawr College.

1. How long did it take you to write Bread and Circus
I wrote Bread and Circus over the course of the last decade. The poems with years ascribed to them are the eldest, and some of the poems, which insinuate othering and isolation, were written during the height of the pandemic. The prose pieces were written in the “in-between” of those two time periods.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
The hardest part in writing this book was reconciling what the book wanted to be with what I wanted it to be—personally and structurally. After I wrote my first book, I hoped to write about poverty, race, and class. However, the poems I was writing at that time—none of which made it into the book—felt removed from those concerns. I let time pass to find another way inside my desires. I started reading more autoethnographic work in which the lived experience can be linked to research or cultural phenomena. That simple expansion gave me permission to use my life as evidence and to allow myself to be fully present as a participant in the system. 

Structurally, when I originally conceived of the idea of a poetry collection that intersperses economic concepts, I envisioned the extracted texts—what some call erasures—to be actual graphs that I’d honed into poems. However, as I concentrated on certain textual sections from The Wealth of Nations, I wanted to challenge myself to sit with the original text and have some way for the reader to grapple with dual meaning, as I did. To enact that, I decided on palimpsestic poems that require attention to the extracted sections as well as the original text, differing significantly from the true erasure in which the original text is illegible. Another fun fact about the extracted poems is that they are interactive. When held under light (an actual light), the authorial interpretation becomes increasingly clearer, while the legibility of the original text makes it possible for readers to hew their own interpretation.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I tend to consider pondering a form of writing. As such, I write all the time because I am an overthinker. I am constantly questioning, resisting, studying, accepting, and wondering—all of which I believe to be the hallmarks of the writer’s life. As for the physical act of writing, I jot something down every day—whether it’s a memory, an account, a feeling, or something I saw that invoked awe, wonder, or terror. I try to write by remembering through my senses what I’ve seen, tasted, felt, heard, or intuited. Notetaking—on the mundane and the supernatural—has become a practice by which I keep time and mind the turnings of my imagination. Now, do I beat myself up when I don’t write? Nope. I just take comfort in living and in a deep knowledge that whatever writing that is meant to come through me will arrive on its own terms and in its own time.

4. What are you reading right now?  
I have exceedingly broad reading interests and some rules around how I read. I tend to decompress after writing a book of poems by reading work outside of poetry for a short while. But we are in the midst of such a rich publishing year, I couldn’t resist! I just read Vievee Francis’s The Shared World and Charif Shanahan’s Trace Evidence—both marvelous. My ancestral research has led to reading, and rereading, historical slave narratives and accounts, including: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself; The History of Mary Prince; Celia, A Slave Trial; and a volume of collected works titled Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies edited by John W. Blassingame. I usually read something different at night than during the day. Recently I have been reading chapters of How to Be Authentic: Simone de Beauvoir and the Quest for Fulfillment by Skye C. Cleary, Todorov’s Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, Jay Murphy’s Artaud’s Metamorphosis: From Hieroglyphs to Bodies Without Organs, and Susan A. Glenn’s Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I believe in organic strategies, and most revelations come late in my making. I realized that the book was spanning about forty-five years [chronologically], and it seemed wise to find an organizing principle to govern the movement. Around the time when I had to structure the collection, I was also studying and listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. A friend of mine is a musicologist, and he explained how Coltrane’s structure was “through-composed.” The through-composition offers a structure in music that insists on the story moving forward and the narrative developing over the course of the piece. As with A Love Supreme, Bread and Circus has four main movements—Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm. Instead of a repetitive narratological structure, the through-composition allows for a wide variance that helps to set, develop, and show an unfolding story.

Also, a dear friend, Sham-e-Ali Nayeem, author of the poetry collection City of Pearls and composer of the electronica album Moti Ka Sheher, guided the poetry sequence by suggesting that I listen to “When Doves Cry” repeatedly. She told me Prince wrote that song in under an hour to round out the Purple Rain album. Something shifted as I listened, and the sequence of the poems clicked into place thereafter.

6. How did you arrive at the title Bread and Circus for this collection? 
My second son, a writer and poet who just graduated from college and is on his way to graduate school in Boston, is my first reader. In an elevator pitch for the draft, I shared the major themes (in my view) of the book: the loss of innocence, materialism (commodity), and spectacle. He reminded me of the quote from the Roman poet, Juvenal, “And every thing, now bridles its desires, and limits its anxious longings to two things only—bread, and the games of the circus!” The quote pretty much encapsulates an avenue of the book’s “aboutness.” After my son’s consultation, the working title of the manuscript became Bread and Circus.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Bread and Circus?
The extracted poems, as well as the poems with visual elements, were created in Adobe Illustrator. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed introducing a new technology into my writing practice. I became so much more intentional about space, visuality, and movement. I wanted the poems to simulate spatial movement and momentum by liberal use of open—free—structures and by fully observing the page as a canvas. My impulse as a writer is to economize, and technology provided a space to explore the contours of the page more extravagantly.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Bread and Circus, what would you say?
It depends on how far back in time. If I could go back to that child in 1977, who became a pawn for her troubled father trying to make ends meet, I would announce myself as a future version of her and say, “I know these words aren’t much comfort, but we survive this, and we’ll find a certain beauty in the ash of this chaos.” I’m not sure what the present results would be of that butterfly effect; but I think the younger me would appreciate the heads up.

If I am moving backwards to the writing of these poems, I would simply encourage myself to remain compassionate and hopeful and to embrace the past rather than be embarrassed by it.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?  
I reread Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. I traveled to the University of Edinburgh to dig into Smith’s letters and archives. I wanted to understand the man who was the author of the free market and capitalism as we know it—a flawed system that undergirds many societal ills and evils. To delve into the archive is to see the flaws in what the world views as a great mind. I saw the flaws in both Smith’s and Debord’s very disparate theories and added my own flaws into the mix. I wanted those moments of extraction to reflect the truth of my reality meeting the truth of their theories.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I was once advised, “Write the world as you understand it, and take space to constantly question what you understand and why.” When we write from our understanding, we lend agency to our experience. When we question what we understand and why, we make room for growing beyond what we’ve known or lived.    

Airea D. Matthews, author of Bread and Circus.   (Credit: Ryan Collerd)

Ten Questions for Kwame Alexander


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Kwame Alexander, whose new book, Why Fathers Cry at Night: A Memoir in Love Poems, Recipes, Letters, and Remembrances, is out now from Little, Brown. In this mix of poetry, prose, and directions for cooking beloved dishes—such as “Turkey Legs With Noodles”—Alexander offers “snapshots of a man learning to love.” Written in the midst of mid-life losses—including the death of his mother and the end of his marriage—Alexander reflects on the journey that has led him to this moment. Considering his parents’ marriage and influence, his time studying with the poet Nikki Giovanni, falling in love, fatherhood, and building a writing life, Alexander gives readers a window into his evolving worldview and his own personal reckoning: “You wrote this book as a nudge to yourself,” he writes. “To be single? / To be by yourself. And remind yourself that being alone is not the same as being lonely.” Publishers Weekly praises Why Fathers Cry at Night: “This candid and courageous work finds poetry in places both ordinary and extraordinary. It’s a quiet triumph.” Kwame Alexander is a poet, educator, producer, and the best-selling author of more than three dozen books, including The Crossover (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2014), which won the 2015 Newbery award for children’s literature.

1. How long did it take you to write Why Fathers Cry at Night?
I’ve really been thinking about the themes of the book, and writing occasionally, as a way to understand all the feelings I was dealing with since my mother passed on September 1, 2017. But I began the book in earnest probably in 2021.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Well, most certainly it was writing the last part of the book. I could write about my father, my marriages, my uncouplings, my daughters with a level of comfort, and therefore rhythm, that bailed on me when I began writing about my mother. I put it off, literally, until weeks before the book deadline. Her death was the thing that I had not thought about too much because it just hurt. So I waited, and it was indeed the hardest section to write. It was also the most enjoyable—the precious memories. In the end, they proved quite comforting. 

3. Where, when, and how often do you write? 
For this project, I woke up every day in my London penthouse and wrote from about 6:00 AM to 11:00 AM. And I would send some of the poems to friends, to family. I’d also go for walks in Regents Park or Hyde Park and think a lot, replay experiences and conversations from my life, listen to podcasts and audiobooks—of Neruda’s poems, memoirs, cookbooks—for inspiration. 

4. What are you reading right now?  
I’m listening to Wild Game by my friend Adrienne Brodeur. I’ve just read more than a hundred poetry books as research for an anthology of contemporary Black poets that I’m editing. And next to my bedside for “light” reading is The Trees by Percival Everett. 

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general? 
It’s always three people: my parents and Nikki Giovanni. It is these writers who have taught me most of what I know about storytelling. Pearl Cleage, Matthew McConaughey, and Pat Conroy have such uniquely powerful voices that I found their memoirs unputdownable and tremendous templates for how to tell my own story. In terms of Why Fathers Cry at Night, I found incredible inspiration and insight in conversation with several writer friends—Jacqueline Woodson, Jason Reynolds, Christine Platt, and Alice Cardini, to name a few.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Why Fathers Cry at Night
That it became a memoir. It was supposed to be a collection of love poems—romantic and familial. My hope was that readers would find it interesting and that some of the poems might resonate. As I got further into writing it, my editor commented that the book read chronologically and that perhaps I should consider writing a few prose pieces to make the narrative more concrete. Then I added a few recipes and letters, and we both saw a memoir—albeit an unconventional one—developing. Then she asked for more prose pieces. I was expecting to allude to, hint at, speak in metaphor about my love life, not put all my business out into the world. Oh, my!

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I was three years old, learning how to appreciate words. And basketball. There’s a story I tell in the book about my favorite book back then, so I won’t spoil it for you here. But I will share that my father would often take me to the playground near Columbia University, where he and my mother were in graduate school. He would shoot free-throws, and then he would give me the ball and tell me to do the same thing. Now, I’m three years old, so there’s no way my shot is going anywhere near the basket. The playground supervisor walks over with a big wrench and tells my dad that he will lower the goal so that I can make a basket. My father stops him and says, “No, he doesn’t know he can’t make it.” I ended up writing a whole book of “basketball rules” for life inspired by that moment. Never let anyone lower your goals. Always shoot for the sun, and eventually you will shine.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Why Fathers Cry at Night, what would you say? 
Writing this book forced me to deal with, and face, some parts of my personality that haven’t served me. One was my inability to open up, share, be vulnerable with dear colleagues and friends who cared about me. There are friends who gave me sound input near the completion of the book—when I was ready to hear it—that I wished I would have had the courage to talk about and listen to earlier in the writing, because I think I would have been inspired, maybe even been more courageous, to go even deeper than I did. The good thing is, there can always be another book. 

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
As I mentioned, I did a lot of walking as a way to prewrite, reflect, and just give myself the time and space to think through some of the heavy topics I was writing about. I spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, making each of the recipes at least a dozen times to ensure that the meals tasted as good as I remembered. 

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
As I write in the book, frustrated after receiving a C-minus in Nikki Giovanni’s advanced poetry class in college, I scheduled an appointment with her during her office hours. She told me, “Kwame, I can teach you how to write poetry, but I cannot teach you how to be interesting.” While nineteen-year-old me thought those were pretty harsh words, it turns out that I have spent my entire writerly life walking around as an eager and engaged participant so I’d have something worth writing about. 

Kwame Alexander, author of Why Fathers Cry at Night: A Memoir in Love Poems, Recipes, Letters, and Remembrances.   (Credit: Portia Wiggins)

Ten Questions for Emma Cline


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Emma Cline, whose new novel, The Guest, is out today from Random House. In this taut and suspenseful tale, readers follow Alex during a week leading up to Labor Day in an exclusive shore community—the Long Island Hamptons is implied, but not named—where she’s been living with the older, wealthy Simon while dodging trouble back in New York City. After Alex behaves badly at a party, and Simon asks her to leave, the protagonist must devise a way back into her host’s good graces. Evoking a cross between Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart and Anna Sorokin—the con artist arrested in 2017 for swindling a group of elite Manhattanites—Alex embarks on a bleak picaresque through the pristine beaches, waterfront manors, and troubled social lives of New York’s summering class. A parasite whose whiteness, beauty, and sociopath’s ability to spot an easy mark grant her access to rarified spaces, Alex is also deeply vulnerable—a perpetual guest who knows that her privileges may at any moment be revoked. Readers will breathlessly turn the pages, wondering whether Alex will triumph or meet an unseamly end—unsure which fate they prefer for this maddening, mysterious character. “Like watching a car crash, this is hard to look away from,” writes Publishers Weekly. Emma Cline is the author of the bestselling novel The Girls (Random House, 2017) and the story collection Daddy (Random House, 2020).

1. How long did it take you to write The Guest
I started a version of The Guest in 2016, and returned to it off and on over the next few years while I mostly wrote short stories. In late 2019, I began focusing on The Guest in a more sustained way.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
The challenge I set for myself with The Guest was to maintain the tension of a short story across the length of a novel. I also wanted to draw a character to carry the narrative without using the shorthand of backstory: Could I draw a character using negative space?

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write sitting on the floor sometimes, and then sometimes at my kitchen table. Most rarely, at a desk. How often I write really depends on where I’m at in a project. If I’m in the middle of something, I’ll write every day. If I’m not, I’ll try to at least write in a journal every couple of days, even if it’s just a sentence or two.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Blake Butler’s memoir, Molly, out this fall. It’s bleak and beautiful. Also the writings of painter William N. Copley, Percival Everett’s Dr. No, and Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women.
5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
In general, I return often to the work of Mary Gaitskill. She’s tapped into some mystic vein of our psychology, and there’s this almost paranormal shimmer to how she renders the world.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Guest?
It’s always surprising when the book clicks into being an actual book—which I find happens at the very last minute, the point at which suddenly some energy has coalesced.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
The first time I saw an East Coast beach, I was so struck by the mildness of the landscape, a long stretch of dunes and the warm water and mint grasses. It looked surreal to my California eye, and I knew I wanted to write about that landscape.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Guest, what would you say?
I don’t think I would have much to say. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I think a book is forged out of the writing of the thing and in the struggle to answer the questions you’ve set up for yourself, and that necessitates not really knowing what you are doing or where you are headed.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I spent time out on Long Island, taking notes and photos, and also wrote a good deal of the book while staying with friends there.                                                                    

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
I think the best and most simple advice about any kind of writing is always this: Finish it. You can make anything better, or work with whatever you’ve done, but first just finish the thing.

Emma Cline, author of The Guest.   (Credit: DV DeVincentis)

Ten Questions for Jennifer Lunden


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Jennifer Lunden, whose book, American Breakdown: Our Ailing Nation, My Body’s Revolt, and the Nineteenth-Century Woman Who Brought Me Back to Life, is out today from Harper Wave. Part memoir, part medical history, and part exploration of the life of American diarist Alice James, this layered narrative considers the toll chronic illness can take on individuals, particularly when their symptoms are misunderstood or ignored—a far-too-common occurrence in a healthcare system that fails to meet the needs of many, particularly women, people of color, and the poor. Lunden begins in 1989, when debilitating exhaustion stops her life in its tracks. As her despair deepens amid doctors’ inability to diagnose her, she discovers a biography of Alice James, whose struggle with poor health mirrors Lunden’s own. Dismissed by her family and the medical establishment as “hysterical,” James becomes a kind of spirit guide for Lunden as she works to understand her own illness and the larger sociopolitical and economic systems that have contributed to it. Kirkus praises American Breakdown, calling it “an alarming chronicle of catastrophic chronic illness and a passionate plea for health care reform.” Jennifer Lunden’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, DIAGRAM, Orion, River Teeth, and elsewhere. The 2016 recipient of the Bread Loaf–Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship in Nonfiction and a former therapist, she lives in Maine with her husband, the artist Frank Turek. 

1. How long did it take you to write American Breakdown
Well, the seed for American Breakdown was planted in 1994, when I read Jean Strouse’s brilliant biography of Alice James, who was a witty, brilliant, and chronically ill diarist, sister of the writer Henry James and the psychologist William James. By that time, I was twenty-six years old and had been sick for five years with what was then known as chronic fatigue syndrome, now also known as myalgic encepthalomyelitis or ME/CFS. The illness had devastated me, laying waste to the rich, fulfilling life I had envisioned for myself. While reading about Alice, it felt like I had met my soul sister. Her illness—neurasthenia—was so similar to mine. I wondered if they might be the same, separated by a little over a century.

I was studying for my bachelor’s degree in English at the time, then my master’s degree in social work, so I wasn’t able to begin my research until 2001. At the time, I found there were just a handful of scholarly papers discussing the possible connections between ME/CFS and neurasthenia. Since then, several writers with ME/CFS have explored this question. I’ve come to say that I’m ahead of the curve but behind the eight ball: I’m a really slow writer. I researched the book for six years before I felt confident enough in my knowledge and ideas to begin writing. That was in 2007. But I was working part-time and living with a disabling chronic illness. That, combined with the amount of research required for the many threads of this book, made for really slow going. I finished in 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I think the most challenging thing was just that I could never get enough time, and a book like this, with so many interwoven threads, needs uninterrupted swaths of time. I was a part-time therapist by then, trying to write the book on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. But that was untenable. My therapist at the time started taking what he called “light weeks,” once a month, in which he only saw clients in the greatest need, and I decided to follow his example and squeeze four weeks of clients into three weeks. That made for three busy, stressful workweeks for me, but then I had a whole week to just lie in bed and write. And even that was frustrating. It was like a train leaving the station. The first two or three days I spent trying to remember where I left off and regain my rhythm. Just when I’d built up a head of steam, it was time to pull the brakes again.

Finally I learned to write a note to my future self to tell me where I left off and where I’d planned to go from there. I also did some cheerleading for my future self in those notes. That helped. But still, it was such slow going. It really helped when I finally sold the book and could work on it full-time.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When I was working on the book after I got the book deal, I was able to write every day, and that was ideal because then I wasn’t so likely to lose track of the threads in my head. But then I started dreaming of having weekends, the way many people do. Real weekends to just do whatever I want, which usually means unstructured time for reading. So that’s my goal once this book gets launched. Really, I’d like to attain a four-day workweek, which is something I advocate for in the book.

In the summer, my favorite place to write is in a zero-gravity chair in our backyard. There’s a squirrel who likes to come visit me and, although we’re in the city, we still have wildlife that captures my attention: house sparrows and crows, for example. Last year a mallard duck landed in our yard; I think she was looking for a place to nest. We also keep chickens. And stuff grows back there. Or here, as that’s where I am right now as I respond to these questions. I’m amazed how good it is for my body, mind, and spirit to be back here. It’s like a built-in mindfulness practice, because whenever I hear a rustling in the leaves or a crow’s caw, I stop being in my head and start experiencing the world with my body.

My husband also built me a desk for the front porch, so when I’m feeling more social (there’s a whole neighborhood out there!) I’ll sit there.

I write in bed, but my physical therapist—and by that I mean my body—doesn’t like it. So I have a recliner in the living room that I write in. If my energy is good, I can also sit up at my desk, which overlooks the chicken pen in the backyard. So basically, I have three to five writing stations, depending on the season.

Oh, and I’m a night person, so I often don’t get started till 3:00 PM or 4:00 PM, after I’ve checked my e-mail and swum or gone to appointments. Then I try to make myself stop at 9:00 PM so I can wind down and get to sleep at a decent hour, but I often stretch it to 9:30 PM or even 10:00 PM. I try to get to sleep by midnight.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Well, I read many books at once. Many, many. But I just started reading Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, and I just want to sit back in my recliner and immerse myself in it until it’s done. The essay it’s based on, “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men,” which went viral in 2017, blew me away when I read it, and I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time. I think many of us have.

I’m also reading Chanel Miller’s memoir, Know My Name, which is about her experience as the Emily Doe who took Stanford University competitive swimmer Brock Turner to court after he was caught sexually assaulting her. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well it should have. She’s such a compelling, smart, and even funny writer and does an amazing job bringing the reader into her experience. It should be required reading for all teenage to college-age boys. It would be helpful for girls and women too, as long as it’s not too triggering.

Tricia Hersey’s Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto is helping me integrate into my body all that I have learned from my ME/CFS, and from the writing of my book, about the importance of rest in a capitalist and white supremacist culture that tells us that if we’re not stressed we’re not working hard enough.

I don’t read a lot of novels, but I love Deborah Gould’s writing. I always find it calming. The book I’m reading right now is The Eastern Book Two: Later On. She incorporates archival research into her work, so to me it reads like creative nonfiction, which is probably another reason I like it so much.

And I recently started reading Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice by Rupa Marya and Raj Patel. The title says it all, and I can’t wait to dig in.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Well, Jean Strouse, obviously, because she wrote the biography that changed my life. But if we go way back in time, my high school English teacher and writing mentor, Don Quarrie, was a big admirer of Hemingway and really trained me to “show, don’t tell” in my poetry. As a nonfiction writer I’ve since learned there is definitely a time and a place for both telling and showing, but I still love spare writing. So Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay had a big impact on me, because it’s so spare and clean and also because she successfully wrote about illness in a way that I found completely compelling.

I love Barbara Ehrenreich’s tone and point of view, and the book she cowrote with Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Expert’s Advice to Women, was influential in both content and delivery (though, of course, Ehrenreich’s voice is singular). I had already been working on American Breakdown for a year or two when I discovered Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. It was the first time I read something that combined memoir with a larger story about health and the environment, and I was just so excited to see that someone else was doing what I was trying to do.

Sarah Vowell’s writing showed me how to write about history in a way that is fascinating and compelling. And Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life showed me that it’s possible to write a really wide-ranging book that still holds together.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of American Breakdown?
I was surprised how poorly regulated the chemicals we bring into our homes and offices are. And my mouth was agape as I was reading about arsenic in nineteenth-century wallpapers, and in so many other products (including foods!) that people brought into their homes.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book ?
When I spotted the biography of Alice James on the shelf of a used bookstore, I knew that she too had suffered from a fatiguing illness. That’s why I bought the book. I had no idea how it would change my life.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started American Breakdown, what would you say?
I would say, “Right now it feels like there is no end to the suffering, and sometimes you think about suicide. But you are going to read a book that will inspire you to write a book, and even though right now there’s so much you can’t do, the writing of that book—which you can do in bed—will help you regain your sense of purpose. And this will help you live. And it will be so worth hanging in there. So hang in there, sweetheart.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Well, I didn’t realize until I taught graduate-level social work online in 2017 and 2018 how much my book was influenced by my education as a social worker. Social workers are trained to think about people and their suffering in terms of their social contexts. And that’s the perspective this book is written from—looking at my life and Alice’s, and expanding outward.

A tremendous amount of research went into the writing of this book, so that was just ongoing. I love research. Love. It. But a researched book takes a long time to write.

I did a lot of reaching out to friends with various forms of expertise, especially science stuff, to make sure I was understanding and writing things accurately. And then when the book was done I reached out to some strangers with expertise in various subjects to fact-check myself. It’s so easy how what seems like a small change of wording can make something inaccurate.

In 2015, when I still wasn’t even halfway finished, I actually let myself consider giving up the book. I was just so discouraged. I didn’t know how I would ever finish. It felt like an albatross around my neck. I just wanted to write essays. But I’d put so much time into it, and I thought what I had was good, and the message important, so I decided instead to try reaching out for support from grants and residencies. When I got my first grant—$1000 from the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund—and then my first residency acceptance, from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I felt like people were telling me my book was important and supporting me to keep at it. And so I did.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?   
I can’t remember, now, where I read or heard it, but Jean Cocteau said, “Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like—then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.”

I started out as a poet, but when I first tried to write prose in the mid- to late-1980s, I found that I had trouble telling a story with a linear narrative thread. I felt like all my stories failed because I couldn’t do that. Also, all of my “fiction” was completely true. I didn’t have the imagination to make things up.

I wasn’t able to write for a long time due to my illness and the depression that went with it, but when I returned to writing it seemed that the whole landscape had changed. For one thing, there was a whole new category of writing called creative nonfiction. And then I discovered the lyric essay and learned that I didn’t have to write linear narrative. And that freed me up so much.

Jennifer Lunden, author of American Breakdown: Our Ailing Nation, My Body’s Revolt, and the Nineteenth-Century Woman Who Brought Me Back to Life.    (Credit: Travis Widrick)

Ten Questions for Terra Trevor


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Terra Trevor, whose memoir We Who Walk the Seven Ways is out now from the University of Nebraska Press. In this personal history, Trevor considers what it has meant to navigate the world as a “mixed-blood” Native woman, whose light complexion belies her ancestors among the Cherokee, Lenape, and Seneca peoples. Born to a white mother and American Indian father in the early 1950s, Trevor delves into her relationship with her paternal grandparents and Auntie, who taught her about the heritage that felt more authentic than her white identity, as well as the elder Native women who welcomed her into their community and schooled her in the “seven ways” of being in tune with Native tradition. Moving back and forth across time, Trevor recounts the complexity of her relationships and experiences and how they were shaped by U.S. law and policies governing Native life and culture. Foreword Reviews calls We Who Walk the Seven Ways “a moving memoir about friendship and identity.” Terra Trevor is an essayist whose work has been included in more than a dozen books, including Tending the Fire: Native Voices and Portraits (University of New Mexico Press, 2017). She is the author of the memoir Pushing Up the Sky: A Mother’s Story (Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network, 2006). 

1. How long did it take you to write We Who Walk the Seven Ways
About nine years. In 2013 I was invited to contribute a chapter to Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time: Indigenous Thoughts Concerning the Universe. While working with the editor of this anthology, it soon became clear to both of us that I had a much bigger story to tell. After the book was published, I began working on the manuscript that would become We Who Walk the Seven Ways. I could feel the story emerging within me, but the writing wouldn’t come; so I worked on it off and on while working on other writing projects. Then in 2017 my story began to pour forth and flow like a fast river. This is when I began to understand that I could not write the book earlier because I hadn’t finished living the story. In 2021, I completed a solid first draft and began working with my editor on revisions.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
This book is not only about me. It’s also about the people whose lives are braided with mine, defining it and shaping me. These women—the ones with the grandmother faces, walking the seven ways—how they made me laugh and told me the truth even when it was hard for me to listen. While writing, I brought them all back, made them come alive again—the women who, for over three decades, lifted me from grief, instructed me in living, and showed me how to age from youth into beauty. I felt a great debt of responsibility to tell the story we share with integrity, honoring their lives.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I’ve been writing for more than four decades. When I was a young mother-writer I learned to write within the nooks and crannies of my life. Back in those days, I had my desk with a typewriter—in later years a computer—tucked into a corner near the kitchen and laundry room. Now my babies are all grown. I no longer sneak off to finish that one last page. I have the freedom to work on my laptop and move about. Yet I still find weaving writing into my everyday life most productive, especially for rough-draft writing. Often I explore writing topics in my journal. First, with pen and paper, I write three pages of raw, rough-draft thoughts. The purpose is to tap into my mind and see what might be lurking in my subconscious. Later I pick through my scribbles and discover a gem. Sometimes a single sentence in my journal leads to a full chapter or essay. But when I’m working to complete a project, I write and revise constantly until I’m happy with it. Then I will go a day or two without looking at the work so I can return to the piece and edit with fresh eyes and a clear mind.

4. What are you reading right now?
I read all the time. I cannot remember when I couldn’t read. Nor can my mother. Listen to her, and you’ll hear about a child in diapers with a book on her knee. Right now, I’m reading Unpapered: Writers Consider Native American Identity and Cultural Belonging. I’m a contributor to this book, and when my copy arrived I could not put the book down. Unpapered is a collection of personal narratives by Indigenous writers exploring the meaning and limits of Native American identity beyond its legal margins. Reading this book feels like I’m holding my family and my Native community in my arms. Native heritage is neither simple nor always clearly documented, and citizenship is a legal and political matter of sovereign nations determined by such criteria as blood quantum, tribal rolls, or community involvement. Given that tribal enrollment was part of a string of government programs and agreements calculated to quantify and dismiss Native populations who do not hold tribal citizenship, the book charts how current exclusionary tactics began as a response to non-Indigenous people assuming a Native identity for job benefits and for other personal gains. It has expanded to an intense patrolling of identity that divides Native communities and has resulted in attacks on peoples’ professional, spiritual, emotional, and physical states. Each contributor brings incredible urgency and healing to a most necessary conversation.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Sandra Cisneros, Gloria Anzaldúa, Toni Cade Bambara, Annie Dillard, and Joy Harjo influenced my early writing years. I read a wide variety of Native authors, and the works of contemporary and classic Native writers. My writer voice is shaped by books with a collective of Native voices, with each writer telling a single story, working together to bring forth a whole book.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of We Who Walk the Seven Ways?
Throughout the entire process of writing this book I began to shed layers and feel connected to myself in wholly new ways, comfortable in my skin while being seen—more of everything, and less concerned with what other people might expect of me. How the boundary of time collapsed around me. Long ago memories, almost forgotten, began to spill out and stuck to me like lint on a black dress. Feelings I’d blocked out began to surface—feelings that had remained untouched in my heart, in that place of perpetual remembering. Sounds and scents returned, and writing magic happened when I let go of expectations, trusted my characters, and let them take me to unexpected places the story was destined to go.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Banjo music and storytelling. After dinner the kitchen was alive with music. My grandpa played the banjo, the uncles played the fiddle and guitar, and grandma played the harmonica. She took out her teeth and dropped them into her apron pocket before she started playing. I grew up with what is now known as the mixed-blood fiddle tradition. It reflects that we are a mixed people of Native and other heritages, and the music defines who mixed-bloods are, a blend of Native and European descents.

Before bed, Grandpa and Auntie rounded up all the kids and told us what we called Indian stories. Auntie always told us creation stories—the teaching stories, the traditional ones. But Grandpa told us hair-raising, real-life stories about things that had happened to him as a young boy, as a man, and while raising seven children with Grandma. The remembering often sent Grandma outside to sit on the back porch. When the storytelling ended, I went out back and sat on the porch with Grandma. We smelled the rain or watched the stars—one by one, as they began to light the sky—and let the chill air of mother earth embrace us.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started We Who Walk the Seven Ways, what would you say?
Listen deeper. Dream bigger. Hold tight to faith and cultivate a wide variety of dreams. Be open to the unexpected, and understand that the dreams meant for me will happen.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Long walks while the story formed within me, and while writing, was my practice, meditation, and prayer, along with open spaces of stillness and solitude. I also did much research to make sure my own memories and the stories told to me matched the actual history taking place within the United States. All of this was followed by many rewrites and revisions until my story felt as comfortable as my own skin. Then I rewrote and revised more and took my story right to the edge of causing me to feel a bit uncomfortable in order to make sure I was genuine.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?   
The funniest advice I’ve received came from a friend who penned a successful column in a hunting and fishing magazine. He said to never let the facts get in the way of a good story. He was referring to his fishing tales of landing the big one. Though his daughter unintentionally misquoted her father and said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” We are still laughing.

But kidding aside, the best advice I’ve received came from Eudora Welty. She was talking to Natalie Goldberg and said, “It’s good they want to publish your book. But try not to think about it too much.”

Terra Trevor, author of We Who Walk the Seven Ways.   (Credit: Chris Felver)

Ten Questions for Emily Lee Luan


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Emily Lee Luan, whose debut poetry collection, 回 / Return, is out now from Nightboat Books. In this formally-daring collection, which won a 2022 Nightboat Poetry Prize, Luan takes inspiration from a form of Chinese poetry that is “reversible,” able to be read forward and backward. Similarly Luan’s reversible poems, which mingle English with Chinese characters, can be read from the top of the page to the bottom, or vice versa, with one reading informing the other. This recursiveness speaks to the collection’s larger questions about time, geography, and memory: What happens when one attempts “return” to a place or way of being in the world? The poems are dualistic, simultaneously embodying and critiquing nostalgia, mourning and welcoming loss: “That feeling when the sink begins to drain—I love it.” They also consider Asian American identity, using bleak humor to toy with stereotypes while seriously interrogating the “Double Pressure” of diaspora. Cathy Park Hong calls Luan’s poems “stunning reflections on sorrow…. 回 / Return heralds a potent new voice in poetry.” A former Margins Fellow of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Emily Lee Luan is the author of the chapbook I Watch the Boughs, selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. She lives in New York City.

1. How long did it take you to write  / Return
The oldest poem in the collection was written in 2015, but the others were written between 2017 and 2021—that is, during the two years of my MFA program at Rutgers University in Newark and the first few years after I graduated.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I searched for a while to find a conceptual thread that could run through the book. I kept writing poems in series—one series all titled with lines from Petrarch’s Rime Sparse, a series after a single poem by the Hong Kong poet XiXi, plus all of these poems in which I ruthlessly included the phrase “my sadness.”

Then I found the reversible poem, a classical Chinese poetic form that can be read forward and then in reverse. In concept, it provided the perfect scaffolding for the manuscript—its reenactment of looking back, of searching without end. In practice, emulating this form felt near-impossible at times. The first reversible poems I wrote were plodding, repetitive, absolutely devoid of the magic of the Chinese form. It took a lot of experimentation—I “reversed,” in all types of ways, many, many poems—to get to a few that I felt truly translated the form.

Trying to emulate the reversible poem made me consider why I was so wedded to creating rules in my process. Was I just completing tasks so that I could turn away from the harder emotional or thematic concerns of the collection? I still love writing in form; it’s a question I continue to ask myself.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I like to keep my writing desk near a window, with my dog sleeping nearby. I also love to write in transit—in noisy cafes, on the train, even with just the windows open and the sound of the bus going by outside. Always early in the morning, or after the sun goes down—I’m notably and consistently lethargic in the afternoon. There are times I’ve written every single day for weeks on end; as of today, I haven’t written in months.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’ve been interested in the book-length poem as well as travelogue—I just finished C.D. Wright’s One With Others and Jessica Au’s new novel, Cold Enough for Snow. I’m also slowly making my way through Taipei: City of Displacements by Joseph R. Allen, which is a fascinating look at the colonial history of Taipei through the concept of public space, city planning, architecture, film, and other media. In translation, I loved Chloe Garcia Roberts’s work with the poetry of Li Shangyin, the late-Tang-era Chinese writer.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
Because I was dealing with multiple recurring images, emotional narratives, and familial chronologies—and because my poems can look quite disparate, visually, from one another and there are some poems (like the reversible poem) that work in series or groupings—I color-coded. I gave some poems multiple sticky-note “tags”—poems written in a specific form with two recurring images and one narrative through-line, for example. I laid out the poems I knew belonged in the beginning, middle, and end. Then I placed poems within that basic structure so that poems of like “colors” didn’t appear too close to one another—almost like tiling a floor. Of course I listened for pacing and looked for “mirror” poems that would speak to one another over a longer expanse. The most startling part of the process was just how many sections I ended up with—four main sections with three longer poem interludes. But it seemed like the house the poems wanted to build.

6. How did you arrive at the title  / Return for this collection? 
The reversible poem is associated with the image of geese returning to their nesting grounds each year, their unending migration. Similarly, a reversible poem never ends—when you get to the last line, you turn around and read back up to the top of the poem. What does it mean to return? Can one return to an inherited land, to memory?

I love that the character 回 visually captures this cloistered cyclicality of homesickness and melancholy (Freud’s definition here)—that anyone can look at the character and feel this circling. It’s a circle within a circle, a hole within a hole, a mouth within a mouth. There are many openings and voids in my book.

The dual title is meant to invoke the generative space between languages and the movement between the visual and the concrete, though the title was originally meant to be just the Chinese character, left untranslated. I hope that a reader will engage with 回 first, trusting what the picture tells them, or makes them feel. 

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of  / Return?
When I was muddling through the middle, generative stages of the book, the possibilities of the book’s order, argument, and thematic emphases felt infinite. My assumption was that you could always revise or morph a manuscript into a different version of itself. This still feels true to me on a certain level. But when I came to the final form of the collection, I began to see that, even if I moved poems around or added and subtracted a few, the manuscript had a stability to it—it wouldn’t stray too far from the linguistic, imagistic, and argumentative worlds it had created. That’s exciting to me—that each project or manuscript tends toward a certain shape, and that you can write towards that stability.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started  / Return, what would you say?
At that time, it felt like all of my ideas were the best ideas I’d ever had, that each new poem was the best poem I’d ever write. Whenever I’d exhaust a particular poetic obsession, I’d feel a sense of fear and loss—like a good idea for a poem would never come to me again. I later learned, and wish I’d known then, that the process of making is cumulative, a long chain of learnings. You will always write another poem; you write one poem precisely so that you can write the next.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?  
This book wouldn’t exist in this form had I not relearned how to read and write Chinese in undergrad. It reoriented my relationship to white space, the page, image, grammar, and repopulated the sounds of childhood, when I’d last been fluent. It also allowed me an access point into the study and process of translation—to study, character by character, the mechanics of a classical poem. I’m incredibly grateful (spoiled!) to have two poetic worlds to draw from.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Mónica de la Torre once told me: Sometimes you have to write a form until it breaks. I carry this possibility of rupture every time I turn to the page.  

Emily Lee Luan, author of  / Return.   (Credit: Aslan Chalom)

Ten Questions for Vievee Francis


This week’s second installment of Ten Questions features Vievee Francis, whose new poetry collection, The Shared World, is out now from TriQuarterly Books. In these moving poems, Francis explores the dynamics of interpersonal space, the many iterations of human relationship, and how those bonds are shaped or warped by our personal and public histories, media interventions, and identities such as gender, race, and class. Black womanhood is a central point of consideration, and Francis unpacks the ways in which Black women have been particularly constrained by generations of legal, social, and cultural misapprehensions. The collection asks readers to recognize the human mind as a maker and collector of narratives—about ourselves and others—that influence the way we move through and are received by the world. “Into the bow of your ear I whispered the secret story,” Francis writes. “Now you can’t sleep either.” Vievee Francis is the author of Forest Primeval (TriQuarterly Books, 2015), winner of the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Award; Horse in the Dark (Northwestern University Press, 2012), winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize; and Blue-Tail Fly (Wayne State University Press, 2006). A recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, a Kresge Artist Fellowship, and the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, Francis has published poems in numerous print and online journals, textbooks, and anthologies, including Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry (2013), Poetry, and The Best American Poetry (Scribner, 2010, 2014, 2017, 2019).

1. How long did it take you to write The Shared World?
It took around six years. There are some poems that are much older, which I finally found a home for in this book, but I began writing in a focused way around six years ago, near the time Forest Primeval was released.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
This book feels more expansive to me even as it moves around some concerns I’ve had since my first book, Blue-Tail Fly: the natural world and urbanity, personal history inside of collective History, violence, sensuality, the right to speak without the limitations (constructed/expected) of gender or race, and of course lineage, parity, cost. The Shared World—as with the first book, which is mostly historical persona poems—takes me out of myself, but it does so not by sidestepping my personal/private world but by sharing it within the context of a world we all share. We are all connected by story, by stories it is imperative we, as humans, exchange and acknowledge. I kept losing the balance until I, at last, got as close as my skills allowed. It felt terrifying to open myself up in this particular way. To go back to the South and West that reside in my shaky memories. To at last grieve my mother’s passing. To address my observations of a world wounded by inhumanity and to question my place in such a world. To really note how much I fucking love poets in all of our vulnerability and failure and need and push. To love and hurt so much it sometimes put me into weeks of a kind of catatonia, staring at the page, staring into space day after day, even after the book was done. The challenge was emotional: keeping myself whole while writing the book and overcoming my fear of not having adequately said what I felt needed saying.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I was writing in a lovely writing studio in an old hotel that used to belong to poet and memoirist Cynthia Huntington, but the stairs are now difficult for me to manage so I am not there as often as I’d like. So I spend time, as I always have, in nearby coffeehouses. Hmmm, I may be trying to recreate the coffeehouse culture I loved in Detroit—especially in Hamtramck, Michigan, which is a tiny town entirely within the city of Detroit—like I found at Café 1923. I am constantly asking friends to write near me. The energy of poets feeds me. Unless I am physically unable, or really wrung out, I write everyday. NOT a mandate. Just what I need.

4. What are you reading right now?
Rereading Susanne K. Langer’s Problems of Art: Ten Philosophical Lectures (well, I’m always picking the book up), my husband’s Constellation Route, and Garrett Hongo’s The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo. I just started Deena Mohamed’s graphic novel (I love graphic novels), Shubeik Lubeik, and just finished Peter Orner’s Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin and Kathleen Collins’ Whatever Happened to Interracial Love. I’m in the middle of Mark Whitaker’s Saying It Loud: 1966—the Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement. I read several books at once because my attention is constantly shifting and I want to see how one text connects, or doesn’t, to another. I’m moving in and out of my colleagues’ texts; I am determined to read all of their books—and that is a lot of reading. On my desks and tables are perhaps more than twenty five books. Like any writer! Monica Youn’s From From. Clint Smith. Kyle Dargan. And on and on. And I am on pins and needles waiting to read Dee Matthews’s Bread and Circus.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
The strategy was loose. The first three poems cover many of the book’s concerns. I take words that symbolize those concerns and move them throughout the text. I revisit and iterate or shift the vantage. It is my way of interrogating myself, my questions, and the world at large.

6. How did you arrive at the title The Shared World for this collection?
The title comes from a Naomi Shihab Nye poem, “Gate A4.”

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Shared World?
Heidegger. Specifically, discovering Irene McMullin’s Time and the Shared World: Heidegger on Social Relations, which was published by my press, in its Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy series! Who knew?

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Shared World, what would you say?
This is funny because I am a great believer in talking to myself to get my head together or figure something out or to just plain comfort myself. I’d say, “Stop being so afraid of your own voice. You want to be inside of the great conversation that is poetry, so speak up.” And the way I speak is to write, then share what I’ve written. You would think after all of this time this art would come easier to me, but it does not. I have to fight for every word, then fight to let them go.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Personal work. Maintaining my physical and mental well-being. My work as a professor. I am a writer who teaches. But I privilege my student’s needs, so I paradoxically had to lean into my teaching so I could then clear a space for my own writing.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
To write where I am, meaning at whatever stage I find myself in, and to write like no one is looking.

Vievee Francis, author of The Shared World.   (Credit: Matthew Olzmann)

Ten Questions for Dean Rader


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Dean Rader, whose new book, Before the Borderless: Dialogues With the Art of Cy Twombly, will be published next week by Copper Canyon Press. In this extended exercise in ekphrasis, Rader presents lyrics, prose poems, and experimental forms that interrogate the artwork of the eponymous American painter, sculptor, and photographer. Bright images of Twombly’s creations appear throughout the collection followed by Rader’s response. The poems meditate on Twombly’s use of color and imagery and the philosophical questions raised by each piece as well as speak to Twombly himself in letters addressed to the artist. “Dear Cy, / The beginning of writing is rupture, / a shattering into letters: // what if all writing is a form of betrayal?” Rader writes. The collection considers what it means to be an artist, the connections between visual art and poetry, and the way art can function as a mirror for the audience, becoming a tool for self-reflection. Dean Rader has authored or coauthored eleven books. His debut poetry collection, Works & Days (Truman State University Press, 2010), won the T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize. A professor at the University of San Francisco, he has won fellowships from Princeton University, Harvard University, the MacDowell Foundation, and the John R. Solomon Guggenheim Foundation.

1. How long did it take you to write Before the Borderless
One answer: roughly fifty-five years! I feel like my whole life has led to this. But a more reasonable response is somewhere around five years. I wrote the first poem in 2018, a couple of months after my father died. My sister and I spent an entire weekend going through his effects, and as we unpacked photos and awards and memorabilia and plaques, I kept asking the same question: What makes a life? Not long after that, I went to a career retrospective of Cy Twombly’s drawings in New York City and, in much the same way, started thinking about his work as his “effects” and asking again: What makes a life? That evening, I left the gallery and walked the length of the High Line thinking about everything—my dad, my kids, Twombly, art, how we as humans contribute. It was a lot. That night in my hotel, I started working on what would become the first poem in the book.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I wish there was only one thing! The whole project was challenging, but rewarding. Writing poems that talk to abstract art can be really disorienting, especially when that art appears to be nothing more than scribbles. I also felt challenged to do the impossible: make the poems as engaging, awe-inspiring, beautiful, maddening, and provocative as the Twombly pieces themselves. I knew that would be fruitless, but I had an aesthetic (and an ethical?) calling to do the art justice. I did not want to copy Twombly’s art or emulate it or even explain it, but I wanted to channel its awesomeness. I set myself this task: Could I recreate Twombly’s aesthetic energy—the overall feeling of the artwork—in my poem? Could I do on the page what Twombly does on the canvas? And then, of course, there were practical matters like permissions, tracking down high-resolution files, finding the right files, convincing my press to invest in this project. I can’t thank Copper Canyon Press and the Cy Twombly Foundation enough. Both were amazing.

 3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
That sort of depends on what I’m writing. Most of Before the Borderless was written during the pandemic, at various spots in our house, sometimes at 3:30 AM, when I was freaked out about our world. If I’m writing a review or an essay or a critical article—especially one on deadline—I write every day, keeping regular hours. I love to write in my study in our house in San Francisco. I have a view of the Pacific Ocean which makes everything feel insignificant—and therefore doable.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m doing a kind of reading tag team, between Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger and Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman. I’m enjoying both for different reasons. Also, Victoria Chang and I write a regular collaborative poetry review column for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and at the moment, we are reading some wonderful books of poetry from Wesleyan University Press.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I feel like there were a lot of strategies. Let’s hope some work! The book is divided into four sections. In the first and third, each poem is in conversation with a single Twombly image. Thanks to Phil Kovacevich, the amazing designer, readers are able to experience that conversation in real time. By this I mean, when you open the book, you are looking at a Twombly image on the left-hand page and my poem on the right-hand page. You can see the interplay right in front of you. It is sort of magical.

Sections one and three begin with companion poems on really breezy topics like death, loss, and parenting, each of which talks to paintings from Twombly’s Orpheus cycle. The poems in these sections tend to be short, lyrical, and somewhat elliptical. Sometimes how the poems appear on the page mimics what Twombly is doing on his “page.”

Section two features longer poems that are inspired by entire Twombly series. For example, there is a rather long and somewhat messy poem that responds to Twombly’s Letters of Resignation, which is basically a series of experimental erasures. My poem, which is sort of experimental in form, explores a range of topics from climate change to etymology to what it means to resign to the global refugee crisis. It asks big questions about larger notions of erasure in a form that is kind of erasing itself.

On the other end of the spectrum is a pretty tight poem in ten parts that engages Twombly’s epic ten-panel cycle Fifty Days at Iliam. In this poem, the last line of one section becomes the first line of the next section. The poems are stitched together in a way that evokes the interplay of Twombly’s panels. The fourth and final section, written at the suggestion of my editor, Michael Wiegers, is a kind of epilogue that explains the project and the contexts surrounding its origin and completion.

Overall, my strategy was to do in a book what Twombly does over the course of his career by calling attention to micro gestures and macro concerns. Twombly loved the marriage of text and image. I want my book to celebrate that love.

 6. How did you arrive at the title Before the Borderless for this collection? 
Great question. That line appears toward the end of the penultimate poem in the book. Carol Edgarian, one of the editors at Narrative, had suggested that as a potential title for a group of poems the journal published. Ultimately it emerged as a favorite title for the whole collection. The runner up was “Field of Incident,” which is the term Frank O’Hara used to describe a Jackson Pollock painting. But that sounded too harsh. However, I do think I want a T-shirt with that phrase on it.

Also, there is something about standing in front of a Twombly painting, like the huge Untitled at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or Untitled (Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor) at the Menil Collection that makes you feel like you are in the presence of the infinite. The title also echoes a line and a sentiment from Rilke’s great ekphrastic poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “from all the borders of itself, / burst like a star: for here there is no place / that does not see you.” Great art expands beyond its borders.

So many of the poems in this book live in the liminal spaces of life, death, art, the endless—I mean, my father’s death was the genesis of the book, and my mother’s death last year came just as I finished it. The collection is, literally, bookended by their passing. But their lives and legacy are limitless. Borderless.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Before the Borderless?
That Twombly’s work never stopped generating inspiration and ideas. I never tired of it. I could write another book. And another. And by that time, I’d just be getting started.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Before the Borderless, what would you say?
Oh man. Maybe something like: You don’t have any idea what you are in for. But probably: Visit your parents.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?  
I read a great deal of art criticism on Twombly—reviews of exhibits, scholarly essays, aesthetic appreciations. I also passed many days of the pandemic tracking down affordable volumes of Twombly’s catalogue raisonné on eBay.  I spent hours poring over his work, tracing his career, looking for patterns and obsessions, taking a lot of notes. Big thanks to the interlibrary-loan folks at the University of San Francisco libraries for their tireless efforts on my behalf.

Also, as I suggested above, there was a great deal of archival work required. For example, the Cy Twombly Foundation granted permission for me to use all of the images, but most of the pieces are also in museums. So I had to get a secondary permission from the galleries and museums for many of the drawings and paintings.

There are a couple of pieces in the book that are not in any museum or gallery, and the foundation did not have high-resolution files of the images. So I had to put on my detective hat and track down high-resolution images. In a couple of cases, that led me to Europe. In one instance, I had to use my German to communicate with an art-storage facility. I’m still in shock it all worked out. The book is so beautiful.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I had a wonderful poetry professor in college, William Virgil Davis. I remember he told our poetry workshop that when he finished a poem, he would put it in a folder, write the date on it, and put it away where it sat for a year. A full year! When a year was up, he would go back to the poem. If he thought it was successful, then, and only then, he would send it out for publication. I don’t possess that level of discipline. But that lesson taught me to be patient, to let the poem percolate, ferment. Allowing the poem sit a while also allows me to uncouple from it emotionally—at least some—so that I can re-engage it more like an “editor” than a “creator.”

The other bit of advice I tell myself—and my students— is this: Your voice is your voice. Your voice. No one else’s. If a writer can really believe and live that, they have already succeeded.

Dean Rader, author of Before the Borderless: Dialogues With the Art of Cy Twombly.   (Credit: Jill Ramsey)

Ten Questions for Elizabeth Metzger


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Elizabeth Metzger, whose new poetry collection, Lying In, is out today from Milkweed Editions. These introspective lyrics consider the physical and psychic demands of motherhood and other forms of human relationship. Opening with a meditation on a difficult pregnancy—including a period of forced bed rest—the collection pushes back on the idea that gestation and birth are purely joyful experiences, exploring ambivalent feelings: “I curse my husband, // sometimes rant against the baby. // I hate most the sound of my own / demanding,” Metzger concedes in the title poem. “Can’t you just be gracious? Maybe every woman / has a voice that says this often.” Other poems contemplate how childrearing alters the nature of romantic love between parents, the way children can prompt us to see the world afresh, and the losses that inevitably occur alongside the emergence of new life. Kaveh Akbar calls Lying In “a book orbiting sacrifice, orbiting the way(s) one generation gives life then gives way to the next…. Elizabeth Metzger has become one of my favorite living poets.” Elizabeth Metzger is the author of The Spirit Papers (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. She writes, teaches, and edits in Los Angeles, where she is a poetry editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

1. How long did it take you to write Lying In
About five years. The first poems in Lying In were written in the spring of 2016. The last poems, the two longer poems, and many about desire were written during the pandemic after my daughter was born, so 2020–2021. I ended up leaving the manuscript for a while and then revising it rather aggressively one last time in 2022.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
The most obvious challenge was bed rest itself: I was often either too sick or too afraid to recognize or accept the risk of beginning a poem. While my first pregnancy involved a placental abruption and my second involved hyperemesis gravidarum, in both cases I felt my body as an obstacle to creativity. Another challenge, of course, was meeting the needs of an infant. When my second child was born, this was even more challenging, as there was also a toddler demanding me.

Entering the realm of the self, let alone a poem, seemed impossible. I had to fake it at first, go through my own former motions, even mourn and pine for some old self before finally a new voice woke me up from a rare postpartum sleep—it became the poem “Won Exit”—like a jealous sibling and said, Do you still want me? Once I said yes, it turned out the voice was mine.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I used to think I could only write in a silent room, alone, after the whole world was asleep. Fortunately my drive to write made my lack of time to write frustrating enough that I can now write in a car or while pushing a swing. The feeling of being hidden away remains the same and, wherever I write, I hope I am invisible.

I’ll have a couple months of silence during which maybe I force a few words here and there, but nothing takes root, and I discard all of it. Then I’ll have two weeks of writing every day, and it feels alive. I think of those intense bursts as the payoff for the silence—and, often, torture—that surrounds them. The writing phase feels simultaneously passive and like an extreme sport. As long as I pay attention: I hear a line, sometimes a wordless cadence, and that music keeps me company. Often this comes along with a level of feeling that is unsettling, obsessive, exhausting, if not unbearable. I’ll notice an object I’ve encountered every day of my adult life, and suddenly it brings me to tears, or better yet, clarity. Those are the moments I feel most human. I am not religious, but I do obey the writing rhythm superstitiously, if not spiritually. Language has a soul when you need it to.

4. What are you reading right now?  
Most recently, I was blown away by From From by Monica Youn, Meltwater by Claire Wahmanholm, and Chariot by Timothy Donnelly, which I had the pleasure of hearing in its entirety. In prose, I’m revisiting Anaïs Nin, Audre Lorde, and Marguerite Duras, and thinking about how the erotic speaks to our fear of forgetting and being forgotten.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
My isolation in bed felt so determined by biological time that I had thought, for the first and maybe last time in my life, that my book would have a natural narrative arc: pregnancy. It did not turn out that way! Much of the book takes on a point of view, a distance from the world, that somehow also intensified my absorption of experiences long before and after bed rest.

I guess the ultimate organizational strategy turned out to be cutting poems. By removing about ten poems at the eleventh hour, there was enough space to intuit an architecture. I wrote the long title poem toward the end of the writing process, and while at first it began as a totally separate project, I soon realized it was the most narrative poem and would be grounding to place up front, a sort of trust-me move.

Another important organizational choice was ending the book on the poem “Desire,” which concludes with a question. I never want my last words to feel too final: It may be doubt itself that makes me write another poem, so I like to think that doubt was a kind of momentum for arranging as well.

6. How did you arrive at the title Lying In for this collection? 
Before I knew my pregnancy was high risk, I learned that the term “lying in” refers to the first forty days after giving birth when one stays isolated from most others to bond with the infant and recover. I remember feeling grateful that there was an official term that would permit me to say no to guests at a time in my life when I felt both inhabited and very much a guest in my own body.

I was already in a cocoon of grief after my best friend’s death, and the idea of “lying in” spoke to my sense of inwardness as full of otherworldly communion. I think I have been drawn to such a concept, secretly, since childhood—but I had thought that only other species were allowed to hibernate. I hope the title captures the way isolation and intimacy had to become one and the same for me.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Lying In?
It surprised me that, on that page, making life came to be more about making more of life—my own. In Adrienne Rich’s incredible poem “Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff,” the pregnant speaker confesses: “Sometimes I feel / it is myself that kicks inside me.” This speaks to the surprise I felt finding that, in poems, I was my other creature, inside and outside myself. I was hardly offering language for my infant’s nonverbal experience, as I had imagined, but rather enacting my own revival.

In the course of writing the book, I lost two of my beloveds: the poets Max Ritvo and Lucie Brock-Broido. I felt the world shrink. What shocked me was that in their absence, they could remain catalysts for my own transformation. They offered themselves as audience for my thoughts and feelings, giving language a new, expansive purpose despite my ongoing sense of dumb devastation.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Lying In, what would you say?
I would say this to my past and present self: Some things you fear will happen, some things you fear will not, but everything you are afraid of will be surpassed by desires you cannot yet imagine.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I had to get comfortable with “wasting” time again: doing nothing, letting in the cries—not of my children, but of my own mind. One day early in the pandemic, in a desperate postpartum plea, I locked myself in my room for an hour and a half, while my husband wrestled our stir-crazy preschooler, and luckily the baby slept. When I emerged, my husband (supportive and exasperated) asked what I got done. The word “done” haunted me.

Whether I finished something or accomplished nothing, the fear that I would never find time alone again led me to spend the next six months of morning naps writing a 500-page autobiography, from childhood to the present, during which all that seemed to matter was never pausing. Once I was purged in prose, I ended up hearing poetry again and wrote many poems on my phone in a nursery glider, with the baby still latched to my body.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Bring your full human, my great mentor Lucie Brock-Broido advised in one unforgettable workshop. At first, I was confused, maybe defensive. But she used the metaphor of an old anatomy book, which layers transparencies of our different physiological systems—digestive, circulatory, endocrine. Rather than ask for more information or explanation, she helped me intuit what I had been withholding.

I had previously thought of a poem as baring the soul, some purification, but her words made me reconsider. I now think the soul includes everything about a person, so everything about a person has a place in a poem: humor, rage, awkwardness, jealousy, even speechlessness. Lucie often delivered her wisdom in metaphor. Uncovering what she meant made the advice feel more like poetry than a rule. One need not be autobiographically accurate, of course, but to me there is no more satisfying and liberating way to understand clarity than as a kind of layering of self. Someone wants more of you.

Elizabeth Metzger, author of Lying In.   (Credit: Yvette Roman)

Ten Questions for S. L. Wisenberg


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features S. L. Wisenberg’s The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of Home, out now from the University of Massachusetts Press. This winner of the Juniper Prize for Creative Nonfiction weaves together a personal history of travel: across the nation, globe, and psychological landscapes formed as much by Wisenberg’s Russian-Jewish heritage as her home state of Texas, her battle with cancer, and encounters with loved ones and strangers along the way. Haunted by the Holocaust, Wisenberg writes of her early childhood fear of Nazis and an adulthood visit to Auschwitz, where she finds herself unexpectedly emotionally vacant. She considers the ironic trajectory of her family history, with ancestors fleeing antisemitic oppression in “Mother Russia” only to settle in the “Black-white” American South, where they assimilated into whiteness: “We were willing to nod at the monuments to the Lost Cause as we stepped up to the courthouse for naturalization,” she writes. “We wanted to live. To thrive.” Wisenberg’s ability to thrive has hinged, in part, on her performance of femininity, and much of the collection considers what it means to be a woman in the world: She contemplates Sigmund Freud’s Studies in Hysteria; partaking in a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath for women; and aerobics, an endeavor she undertook at thirty because she’d begun to “mourn the condition of my body.” The Southern Review of Books praises The Wandering Womb, saying Wisenberg’s “style is expansive…. This book is at once intellectual, deeply personal, and delightful.” The author of a story collection and two other nonfiction books, Wisenberg is the editor of Another Chicago Magazine and a recipient of fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, among other honors.

1. How long did it take you to write The Wandering Womb? 
Oy. It took thirty years, give or take a few. But I was writing other things in between the essays that are here, including three other books—The Sweetheart Is In; Holocaust Girls: History, Memory & Other Obsessions; and The Adventures of Cancer Bitch—plus book reviews, articles, and a play that should probably be a series of poems.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Because I wrote the essays at various times, each had its own challenges. The difficult thing about putting the book together was twofold. Which essays do I include? And in which order? The most challenging essay in the collection was “Grandmother Russia/Selma,” because it is like a big bag stuffed with a lot of different things: personal history; Russian history; family history; travel to Selma, Alabama; Westerners’ perceptions of Russia; the poem “Babi Yar.” Once everything was in the bag, I had to make the bag shapely and aesthetically pleasing.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write at my desk in my home office on my computer. I write in coffee houses. I write internally when I’m walking by myself in Chicago. I’d love to be consistent, but I’m not—in anything. Alas. When I’m working on a project, I write and revise constantly. Other times, I’ll go a few days without writing. I have become a devotee of the London Writers’ Salon, which offers free Zoom cowriting sessions four times a day, five days a week. I’m usually at the New Zealand morning session, which is 3:00 PM in Chicago, or 4:00 PM, depending on Daylight Savings Time.

4. What are you reading right now? 
A bunch of things. Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, edited by Noah Isenberg and translated by Shelley Frisch. Debra Monroe’s essay collection, It Takes a Worried Woman; it’s a great example of telling instead of showing. The latest The Best American Essays, edited by Alexander Chee. bell hooks’ Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood; it’s made up of vignettes, which I love, and which are always more difficult to write than it looks, and difficult to put together so that they cohere. I’m listening to Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers on Audible. I just read When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Solà and translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem. It takes a bit of time to get used to it, because at times nonhumans—clouds, chanterelles, a dog—speak. It’s made up of separate stories about the same place, and it turns into a novel. Another novel I just read is Violets by Kyung-sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur; it’s very quiet, but devastating.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Grace Paley’s writing voice attaches itself to something in my voice, makes it stronger and more itself. She’s much more connected to Yiddish than I am, and her parents were immigrants, as mine were not. She grew in up the Bronx, and I grew up in Texas, but her rhythms connect to mine. It’s like she’s singing a tune that I can start singing. In my early twenties, reading the early work of Christopher Isherwood and Mary McCarthy showed me that it was okay to write about your insecurities. I can see McCarthy’s influence in one of the earlier essays in the book, “Separate Vacations.” I’ve fallen under her simile-and-metaphor spell. I love, love, love Michelle Cliff’s essay “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire.” She moves from passionate to dispassionate, the intimate to the political, all in one essay. This essay taught me that there is a place for rage in an essay, and how to present it. I admire her honesty and try to be as honest and raw as she is in the piece. Eduardo Galeano is historical and lyrical in his The Memory of Fire Trilogy: Genesis, Faces and Masks, and Century of the Wind. Susan Griffin, who is still alive, unlike the previous writers, taught me in her work that you can write in fragments and mix the personal, lyrical, and researched. Whenever there’s a mix like that now, everyone says it’s derivative of Maggie Nelson, but Griffin was doing it before she was. I’m usually slow to read what everyone else is reading.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Wandering Womb?
I was surprised how well I wrote when I was younger. I also noticed that I overwrote too.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
It’s in the essay about not sleeping. I remember when I moved from a crib to a bed, and I woke up in the middle of the night; I swear the birds on the mobile over the crib had come alive.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Wandering Womb, what would you say?
I would say it’s okay to write individual pieces, that they will come together in a book eventually. Ever since graduate school, people have been hounding me (and every other writer) to write a Whole Book, whether it’s a novel or a memoir. I’ve finally figured out, after flailing with a novel manuscript for thirty-two years, that I don’t have the kind of brain that can keep track of a novel, though at least some parts of the novel have been published. My writer’s brain picks up little pieces here and there and puts them together. That’s why I love mosaics. I took a weekend course in mosaics at the Magic Gardens in Philadelphia to mark the end of chemo in 2007.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did a lot of research, online and in libraries. I interviewed people. I traveled and took notes.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Notice everything and write it down. You think you won’t forget it, but you will unless you write it down.

S. L. Wisenberg, author of The Wandering Womb: Essays in Search of Home.   (Credit: Linc Cohen)

Ten Questions for Victor LaValle


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Victor LaValle, whose new novel, Lone Women, is out today from One World. In this gothic western, a woman named Adelaide Henry tries her luck as a Montana homesteader fifteen years after the turn of the twentieth century, accepting free land from the U.S. government as part of its westward expansion efforts. For Adelaide, Montana represents the chance for a fresh start after tragedy in California, where her parents died under horrific circumstances. But as a Black woman in a largely white community, she feels isolated and vulnerable. Struggling mightily to protect herself and keep her family secrets at bay, Adelaide carries with her a locked steamer trunk, inside of which a powerful curse threatens her every move. “A counter to the typical homesteading narrative, this moody and masterful western fires on all cylinders,” writes Publishers Weekly. “Readers are sure to be impressed.” Victor LaValle is the author of five novels, including The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau, 2017), a short story collection, and two novellas. The recipient of numerous honors, including the American Book Award and Shirley Jackson Award, he teaches at Columbia University.

1. How long did it take you to write Lone Women
Lone Women began as a long story for an anthology called Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which was published in 2014. I wrote the story, thought I was done, but couldn’t stop thinking about the women in the tale. After letting it rest while I wrote another novel called The Changeling, I got back to Lone Women around 2018 and finished in 2022. So it either took me four years or nine, depending on how you count.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Two choices: Writing a convincing cast of women, or writing a convincing portrayal of Montana. I’m a guy from Queens who usually writes about men from New York City. I had to not only transform into different people and places, but to also find myself within both of those.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
After the pandemic, we moved into a house in the Bronx. Big change from the two-bedroom apartment where we were living with our two kids. Three bedrooms, what a difference! And enough space that I’ve got an office of my own now. I work there four or five days a week. I write for two hours each day, no more than that. The quality of my writing, and thinking, drops off a cliff if I work for any longer.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m reading Mott Street by Ava Chin. Chin traces the history of her family, going back decades, from coast to coast. It’s a personal history and offers insight about American history through the lens of her family.

Our eleven-year-old is also ready to try Stephen King, so I’ve bought us two copies of his first collection, Night Shift. We’ll read the stories together. 

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Stephen King feels pretty formative, as are Shirley Jackson and Clive Barker. I love Graham Greene’s novels, his “entertainments” even more than his supposedly serious ones. Ishmael Reed is foundational for his grasp of politics and history blended into narratives that become weirder and wilder in service of some very serious ideas.

6. What trait do you most value in your editor or agent?
I have the incredible good fortune of working with the same agent for my whole career so far—Gloria Loomis, twenty-five years and counting—and the same editor for all but two of my books: Chris Jackson, for twenty years or so. What this means is that they’ve seen me grow, shrink, stagnate, and change. But no matter how long it’s been, and no matter what place I’m in, I’ve always believed they wanted to help me write the best version of my book that I can. They might disagree with certain plans I have, or ways I’ve tried to execute those plans, but they never try to make me a different writer than I am. That’s as close to unconditional love as I can imagine in a professional relationship like ours. I am endlessly grateful for it.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Lone Women?
The existence of “lone women” as a part of the homesteading experience in Montana was my first and biggest surprise. It’s what spawned this entire novel. I just hadn’t learned there were women who went out to the territories truly alone and settled in. The idea went against so much of the bias I had based on popular entertainment and my idea of the West. In a way, this whole novel was an attempt to dispel those biases.

8. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Standing in the campus bookstore at the University of Montana and finding a book, Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own by Sarah Carter. I plucked it off the bookshelf because of the subject matter, and the Virginia Woolf allusion. What good luck for me that this was the book that pulled me in.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I did lots of research. Maybe the most fun part of that was reading the archives of the Bear Paw Mountaineer, the local paper for the county where my novel is set. It was published on a weekly basis, and I spent months reading (or at least scanning) every issue that ran from 1911 to 1916. There was no better way to get a feel for the life of the town than this. I loved it, even though it could get tedious as hell at times.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Once, while I was a student in an MFA program, one of the other students turned in a piece with a handful of literary references woven into the text, the kind of things we really should’ve known as graduate students. More than half of us didn’t know the references, and our professor (who I won’t name) yelled at us for five minutes straight about our lack of deep reading. How can you be writers who don’t read? he demanded. Even in the moment I knew he was right. So that’s the best writing advice I ever received. If you’re going to be a writer, you better damn well be a reader.

Victor LaValle, author of Lone Women.   (Credit: Teddy Wolff)

Ten Questions for Laird Hunt


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Laird Hunt, whose essay collection, This Wide Terraqueous World: Essays in Fiction, is out today from Coffee House Press. Part autobiography, part meditation on the writing life, the novelist’s debut nonfiction collection takes readers along on a lifetime of travel, from an early childhood in Singapore, to a young adulthood working for the United Nations, to more recent adventures with his wife and daughter in North Africa, Europe, and stateside. Literature accompanies Hunt wherever he roams, as a literal volume carried with him or as a lens through with he views the scene: Jane Bowles in Palermo, Virginia Woolf in London, Jorge Luis Borges in Marrakech, and everywhere his own writing. One of the pleasures of the book is its window into the life of a contemporary literary family: Hunt is married to the poet Eleni Sikelianos, presumably the “Eleni” who appears throughout the collection. Readers witness the couple and their daughter, Eva, attend readings, visit museums, or savor life closer to home. A notes section at the back of the book offers photographs to accompany the essays. Kirkus calls This Wide Terraqueous World “a slim, elegant attempt to describe the curious alchemy of fiction writing,” praising Hunt’s “poetic sensibility.” Laird Hunt is the author of eight novels, including the 2021 National Book Award finalist Zorrie. He is the winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction, the Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine, and the Bridge Prize.

1. How long did it take you to write This Wide Terraqueous World
The pieces in the book were written over a period of twenty years, with the most recent one completed a couple of years ago.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
This is my first-ever collection of essays, so it’s uncharted territory for me—novels being where I’ve spent the majority of my writing time—and just about everything was challenging. I gave myself the added hurdle of deliberately allowing fiction into the mix, so getting the balance between fiction and nonfiction was very important and not so easy.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
My green desk is on the second floor of our house and looks out onto a Callery pear tree and a sugar maple. I’m often to be found up there in the morning. No set schedule: just a tendency in recent years to be matinal.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Antony Beevor’s Crete 1941: The Battle and the Resistance and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Michel de Montaigne’s genre-opening essays were one of my first great literary loves and are never too far from me. Clarice Lispector’s crônicas—recently available in their entirety in Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson’s translation from New Directions in Too Much of Life: The Complete Crônicas—have been hugely important. And more recently Selah Saterstrom’s marvelous Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics has been a touchstone.

6.  What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of This Wide Terraqueous World?
I have been very surprised to discover that the project of writing these essays in fiction would continue to feel fresh even as quite a few years went by. The present selection represents a little under half the pieces in this vein that I’ve written and, curiously, I plan to write more.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Many years ago in Holland, I went out on a snowy evening with a small, green-handled hammer, which a neighbor boy and I took to flinging back and forth at each other. Not so much a game of catch as a game of dodge the hard flying object. It was dumb (because dangerous) and entrancing (because dangerous and outrageous) and has seemed, at different times, to serve as an apt metaphor for events in the world and in my life.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started This Wide Terraqueous World, what would you say?
Read more! Listen more! See more! Feel more! Take better notes!

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Two things. 1. Much of the observing and thinking that went into the book was done while I walked, for hours and hours at a time, in both urban and nonurban locales. 2. The majority of the pieces in the book were inspired by my long-term, though still totally amateur, practice of taking snapshots with an Olympus PEN micro-four-thirds camera, which I have deployed locally, around town, and wherever I have had the good fortune to travel.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?   
The late poet Robert Creeley once turned to me—in light of some self-deprecating remark I had made about my most recent book and projects—and told me, “Be serious!” In a world that seems to care very little about what writers get up to, I have done my best to take that to heart.

Laird Hunt, author of This Wide Terraqueous World.   (Credit: Eva Sikelianos Hunt)

Ten Questions for Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai


Today’s installment of Ten Questions features Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, whose new novel, Dust Child, is out today from Algonquin. This multigenerational saga takes readers through time, from the late 1960s to 2019. In the recent present, Phong is on a quest to locate his parents, which he hopes will clear a path for him move with his wife and children from Vietnam to the United States. Born in the war-torn nation to a Black U.S. soldier and a Vietnamese woman, Phong has lived as an outcast among his neighbors, derided by the epithet “dust of life” because of his mixed-race parentage. Meanwhile, a U.S. veteran returns to Vietnam, hoping to reconnect with the Vietnamese woman and child he’d fathered with her during the war—something his American wife knows nothing about. Readers also follow sisters Trang and Quỳnh in 1969 Saigon, where they are simultaneously thrilled by the exciting change of pace from their rural village and terrified as combat encroaches. Working at a bar among a clientele of U.S. military men, Trang finds herself falling for an American helicopter pilot who will have a lasting effect on her life. Publishers Weekly praises the novel’s exploration of its protagonists’ inner worlds, saying “Nguyễn is at her best when the characters directly address their need for absolution and acceptance, which Nguyễn stages in dramatic scenes and with a cinematic clarity.” Born and raised in Vietnam, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is the author of twelve books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in Vietnamese and English, including the international bestseller The Mountains Sing (Algonquin, 2020), winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award, a 2021 International Book Award, the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and a 2020 fiction fellowship from the Lannan Foundation.

1. How long did it take you to write Dust Child
Seven years! I wrote it as part of my PhD thesis and then spent several years editing/polishing it. I wanted every sentence to deserve the reader’s time.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Writing in the points of view of people whose life experiences are very different than mine. One of my main characters, for example, is a traumatized American veteran, Dan, who was a helicopter pilot during the Việt Nam War. I am a Vietnamese woman who writes in English as her second language, so at first I thought it would be impossible. But I did careful research, and my real-life experiences helped: Since 2009, I have been translating literary works written by American writers who once fought in Việt Nam, facilitating literary exchanges between them and Vietnamese writers. On many occasions, I worked as a volunteer and accompanied American veterans during their visits to their former battlefields and translated for them. I cried with them and felt their pain. I wouldn’t have been able to write my character Dan without these tears.

I think when you put your mind and heart into something and give it your best effort, nothing is impossible. In this case, the larger mission of my work—to heal, to reconcile, to bring people together—compelled me and gave me an incredible amount of energy.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I used to write in the morning and read in the afternoon. But these days, I have learned that I need to be ready to write at any time, anywhere, as long as I have my laptop or my notebook. In a way, writing is home for me, so I look forward to returning home.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Books by the Vietnamese Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh, since they help me to stay calm and focused. I am about to embark on a busy book tour that will take me to seventeen cities in the United States as well as many cities in Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia. From March 8, I will be traveling for an entire three months on my international book tour.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Writers who write in multiple languages and writers who bravely decolonize literature in English about their cultures are inspirational to me. I have learned from the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, for example, about asserting my position as a writer of color. And I believe that as a writer of color, I should not write to serve the majority; I should write to challenge the white readers’ privileges and assumptions. I shouldn’t translate myself to serve; I need to be authentic to my culture and invite readers to embrace the Vietnamese culture through my work.

6.  What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Dust Child?
How the writing magic happened when I let go of expectations, of deadlines, of structures. I learned that when I trust my characters, they will take me to unexpected places that they are destined to go.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
I grew up in a small town in southern Việt Nam. Several children in my neighborhood were “Amerasians”—children born from relationships between American soldiers and Vietnamese women. They were bullied and looked down upon because they had been abandoned by their parents and considered remnants of the war. In this novel, I present Phong, my Black Amerasian character as someone who survives all odds and has the agency to bring joy and love to other people. He is not a victim and deserves respect.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Dust Child, what would you say?
The research materials you are going to get for this project are going to be tremendous. But don’t panic, because you will grow a tree on a garden fertile thanks to your hard work. You will build the trunk and branches and leaves for your tree using your creative techniques and emotions. Your reader is generous, and their interaction [with the book] will make your tree grow and flower.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
This book is about searching and is a result of my years assisting people in uniting with their missing family members. I don’t think I would have been able to write it without my real-life experiences, because they helped me to understand the vulnerabilities, complicated ethical issues, and complex emotions involved.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that—but you are the only you.” —Neil Gaiman

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, author of Dust Child.   (Credit: Tapu Javeri)

Ten Questions for Aurora Mattia


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Aurora Mattia, whose debut novel, The Fifth Wound, is out now from Nightboat Books. In this surreal autofictional tale, readers encounter multiple narratives: a fraught romantic friendship between Aurora and Ezekiel, a harrowing recollection of transphobic abuse and trauma, and a wild interior landscape of dreams and fantasies. The book also offers a critique of the literary industry, as narrator Aurora struggles to gain acceptance for her thematically and stylistically radical writing. Text-message conversations, photographs, and quotations are interspersed with prose that swerves between diaristic confession and more traditional narrative embedded with footnote-like asides. “This is a book of doors. This is a book of tunnels. This is a switchboard. It is for passing through. For conjuring dimensions,” Mattia writes. Publishers Weekly calls The Fifth Wound “a fierce debut…. Lovers of experimental fiction will find what they’re looking for.” Aurora Mattia was born in Hong Kong and lives in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story, the Renaissance Society’s exhibition Nine Lives, and in RISD Museum’s exhibition any distance between us, on view last year.

1. How long did it take you to write The Fifth Wound
I wrote it as I lived it. So I wrote for a month then didn’t write for two months, then again for three months and then not for eight months, then again for four more months, and then it was done. I wrote and lived, wrote and lived, like inhaling and exhaling.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Realizing that the book was, in its first draft—insofar as my romance with Ezekiel was concerned—recapitulating the form of the victim and the criminal, of which form I was writing the book, on a structural scale, as a refusal. A refusal that was the elaboration of my refusal of the police report the cops attempted to extract from me, minutes after I was knifed in the face on the subway. I wanted the book to be the elaboration of that refusal.

What began as a personal howl became an interpersonal prayer. I realized, as I kept writing, as I chased after whatever felt most intense—whatever made me feel embodied, or at least whatever could replace embodiment—I mean as the consequences of my recklessness, my impulsiveness, my implosive impulse to live “for the story of it,” began to emerge and recontextualize the past, how my premises, the rules by which I lived, were harming the people who loved me and cared for me most, I mean how I was harming those people by living my life as an open door. Dreams passed through that door, and also the traumas I was refusing to face, turning my head aside as they passed through me, reaching for the people I loved.

As I began to live not for an abstracted ideal of paradisal relation, but to take responsibility for the immense responsibility of love, which is a lifelong labor but a labor always for the present, I began to write with more awareness of the holiness of the people in my life, how much I was taking for granted the constancy of Noel and Velvet’s exertions of love, and the entangled and painful spirals—moments of intense nearness, arcs and curves of distance—of the double helix by which Ezekiel and I expressed our relationship, not as victim and villain, but as two fairies grasping in the dark, through time, two fairies enclosed in the terrible envelopes of our own reverberating halos, sacred and burning. The only ways we knew how to love one another were also ways of hurting each other. Realizing that I was capable of hurting Ezekiel destabilized my understanding of the story of my life—and destabilized the story of the book. Comprehending the ways I had hurt Noel and Velvet and Ezekiel—in addition to all the implications that had in my personal life, how I live my everyday, how I love, I also had to integrate that reality into my fantasies, the fantasies by which I try to create something other than the world as it is.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
When a phrase comes to me, I text it to myself. Otherwise I write when the world is quiet, usually early in the morning. Sometimes by hand in a big, flat notebook, my soulstorm on the left and my sentences on the right; other times I write on a laptop, bent over like a nun with her prayer book. I write when I want to say something to someone in particular—but can’t. So I spill across the pages, like pearls falling in a field of snow.

4. What are you reading right now? 
Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays and Democracy. Fanny Howe, Holy Smoke and Night Philosophy. Camonghne Felix, Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation. Judith Schalansky, An Inventory of Losses. Magda Cârneci, FEM.

5.  What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of The Fifth Wound?
As I rewrote older passages, the primordial layer of lamentation was, like a sand castle, softened by waves of reflection, from which the ruin of an interpersonal epoch emerged, in nearer resemblance to nature: more formless and somehow more vulnerable; but more mysterious, too, like accidentally seeing the soul of something; and reaching, as ruins do, for the wings of angels.

6. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
After two years of silence, Ezekiel followed me on Instagram. I messaged him asking why. We exchanged a few more messages and agreed to have a phone call. He called three months later. In the time between the message and the call, I began writing. Because I was thinking about him again, in my bed, recovering from the knifing and from having my tits done. The first line I wrote:

“I worry who will read these pages, because I am no longer the author of private letters for one man…”

The first epigraphs I collected:

“Come on baby, come on darling—
Let me steal this moment from you now:
Come on angel,
come on come on darling—
Let’s exchange the experience.”

—Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill”

“The wolf howled under the leaves
And spit out the prettiest feathers
Of his meal of fowl:
Like him I consume myself.”

—Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell

“…for she sits in a green field
and warbles you to death with the sweetness of her song.”

—Homer, The Odyssey

And in the middle of the text:

“The woman wondered, absorbed, whether there might not be a thousand other things that had happened to her, and which she had simply not learned about yet. She wondered, with the gravity of a discovery, whether she had not really chosen to live off a few past facts, when she could live off others … Here was the past revealing itself to be as full of possibilities as the future. Because the past has the richness of what has already happened.” —Clarice Lispector, The Apple in the Dark

None of these became epigraphs in the end, but they give glimpses, like a dense seed of topaz, of the “pre-existence” of the book.

7. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Fifth Wound, what would you say?
Live for the people you love, and for your and their own inviolable mysteries. Forget the story, find the instant. Avoid psych wards at all costs.

8. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Make and sell porn, study Middle English, translate Classical Chinese, fall in and out of love.

9. Which artists have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
Clarice Lispector was first and foremost. I read Água Viva on my nineteenth birthday in Shanghai, realizing, again, with a repercussive shock, that I was a woman and a writer, and that, for me, those two facts were inseparable. I would write myself into womanhood. I would perfume the pages. I read every one of her novels and stories.

But, thinking chronologically, my mother, my older sibling CJ, Avril Lavigne, Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, Emmylou Harris, Santigold, Beach House, Hole, Lucinda Williams, FKA Twigs, Gillian Welch, Bong Joon Ho (The Host and Okja), Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation), Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together), Brit Marling & Zal Batmanglij (The OA), The Cave, Final Destination, The Matrix, Buddha Mountain, Sunshine, Y Tu Mamá También, Amores Perros, Interstellar, Arrival, Point Break, Vanilla Sky, It Follows, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Jennifer’s Body, The Thing, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Antichrist, Contact, Cy Twombly, Antoni Gaudí (La Sagrada Familia), Hugh Steers, Toni Morrison (Sula), the Gospel of John, Liu Xiyi (代悲白头翁), Jorge Luis Borges (Collected Fictions), Fernando Pessoa (The Book of Disquiet), Virginia Woolf (The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway, Jacob’s Room, and To The Lighthouse), Donald Barthelme (Forty Stories), Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (Dictée and Temps Morts), Laszlo Krasznahorkai (War & War), Hilda Hilst (The Obscene Madame D), Evelyn Waugh (A Handful of Dust), Susan Howe (Souls of the Labadie Tract), Machado De Assis (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas), Nikolai Gogol (“Diary of a Madman”), Thomas Bernhard (Concrete and The Loser), Fyodor Dostoevsky (Notes from Underground, Crime & Punishment), Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Cao Xueqin (Dream of the Red Chamber, Vol. 1), William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury), Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), Sei Shōnagon (The Pillow Book), José Donoso (The Obscene Bird of Night and Hell Has No Limits), Severo Sarduy (Cobra and From Cuba With a Song), certain passages in the first two volumes of Proust, Manuel Puig (Kiss of the Spider Woman), the first hundred pages of Ulysses, (which is as much as I’ve read at this point), John Keene (Counternarratives), Édouard Glissant (Poetics of Relation), Rachel Rabbit White (Porn Carnival), Emily Dickinson (Collected Poems), James Baldwin (Another Country), Chelsey Minnis (Bad Bad), Maurice Blanchot (The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays), Juliana Huxtable (Mucus in My Pineal Gland), and Fanny Howe (Dump Gull).

When I was thirteen, after reading The Giver, I wrote an email to Lois Lowry, telling her I was gay and lonely and loved her book. And she wrote me back.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
“I write on the line between truth and bad taste. And it is a thin line.” That’s from one of Clarice Lispector’s crônicas.

Aurora Mattia, author of The Fifth Wound.   (Credit: Elle Pérez)

Ten Questions for Priya Guns


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Priya Guns, whose debut novel, Your Driver Is Waiting, is out today from Doubleday. In this satirical take on gig culture and its intersection with race, class, and gender, thirty-year-old protagonist Damani Krishanthan has recently lost her father—who died at the fast-food restaurant where he worked—and is struggling to support herself and her mother while driving for an Uber-like company called RideShare. When she encounters a wealthy, white, and supposedly woke passenger named Jolene, Damani—who is Tamil—thinks her prospects for love and happiness may be looking up. But when Jolene reveals herself to be far less than the perfect progressive she purports to be, Damani finds herself disillusioned and in the midst of ensuing havoc. Kristen Arnett calls Your Driver Is Waiting “a perfect gut punch of a novel. This is my favorite kind of writing, full of love and real friendship and frustrations boiled over and the urge to burn everything down.” Priya Guns is an actor and writer who has published in short story anthologies, gal-dem, Spring magazine, and anonymously in the Guardian.  

1. How long did it take you to write Your Driver Is Waiting
One month to write my first draft—the one I’d play with. Four months to send that polished draft to my editor Bobby Mostyn-Owen. Four months going back and forth with changes. About two months of working on suggestions with my editor Margo Shickmanter. From start to signing off, a year and three months, including breaks, I reckon.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Getting it “right” and being comfortable with how it may be “wrong.”

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write almost every day. Depending on what that is, the location and time varies. I am definitely channelling and expressing my creative juices every day, or I would malfunction and punch someone in the face—I think. I say that, but I’d probably just scream out the window—maybe.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I am struggling to finish a lot of books right now, not because of the books but because—life. I’m reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone and Michael Pollan’s This Is Your Mind on Plants.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
A. Sivanandan in general, and particularly for my debut.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Your Driver Is Waiting?
That throughout this entire process I would feel more like my goddamn self. Feel more connected to myself, more seen, more of everything, after years of feeling like I wouldn’t be given the chance to be read—which really does something to a person who is actively trying. This book has taken three unpublished manuscripts and a whole load of other bits to be.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
Hmm. When my brother came home and told me what an author was, and I said I want to be one. I was in the first grade, and I thought books simply existed as things, not as pieces of art someone poured themselves into.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Your Driver Is Waiting, what would you say?
It is going to happen. I fucking promise you, you are not completely mad.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Finding ways to work out at home: lifting more, training more. Learning to drive stick. I literally was Damani throughout writing—somehow I became her. I had to learn, also, how to shut her off—that was the most difficult thing to do.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Push it.

Priya Guns, author of Your Driver Is Waiting.   (Credit: Doubleday)

Ten Questions for Colin Winnette


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Colin Winnette, whose new book, Users, is out today from Soft Skull. In this surreal dystopian novel, a troubled technology designer named Miles receives death threats after distressing content surfaces in the “Ghost Lover,” a popular virtual-reality program he created to simulate the experience of being haunted by a romantic interest. The growing unrest among users sets off a crisis at his Chicago company, threatening his job. Navigating minefields at work as well as at home, with his unhappy wife and children, Miles comes up with a new concept that he hopes will be his salvation: the Egg, a pod-like chamber in which users can immerse themselves in the ultimate virtual-reality experience. All the while, Miles remains haunted by the death threats whose origin he may at last uncover. Kirkus calls Users “a disquieting cautionary tale for an age of virtual spaces.” Colin Winnette is the author of The Job of the Wasp (Soft Skull, 2018), Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio, 2015), and Coyote (Les Figues Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including the Believer, Bomb, McSweeney’s, Playboy, and others.

1. How long did it take you to write Users
The straight answer would be that it took around four years. But it can be hard to say where exactly a piece of writing begins. The moment I sit down and start typing is often preceded by long stretches of worry, hyper-connectivity, and a kind of subterranean emotional tugging, like a fish nibbling at a hook. I used to call all of this “thinking.” Now I’m starting to think it’s more accurate to call the writing “thinking” and to compare those early feelings to a kind of emotional and psychological exorcism. It’s a kind of processing I seem to have to do before I can approach a piece of storytelling from a place that’s more than one of pure reaction. For Users, those early, restless feelings date back to when I first started doing contract writing for tech companies, which was close to eight years ago now.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
Users was different from my other books because it was the first time that I felt certain specific details of a character’s day job were critical to the larger story being told. While realism wasn’t the book’s primary concern, there was the issue of plausibility. The industry Miles works in exists, so there was artistic opportunity in engaging with specificity. In my experience, the most impactful surrealism and satire have a foundation in the known or observable. I gravitate toward distortions with some foundation in the familiar. Getting that balance right in Users was a challenge, and it led me to read more articles about virtual reality and simulation theory and Web3 than I’d ever thought I would. I also spoke with people working in the industry and got feedback from them on the manuscript, and I watched hours of launch footage from various tech conferences. On its own, none of that is very interesting to me. But it is interesting to me when I think of it as a means to arriving at this weird little made-up thing called the Egg.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
At any given time, my specific answer to this question will be different, because the long-term goal is to keep myself engaged in writing by any means necessary. It’s different for every writer, but for me, specific traditions lead to anxiety about interruption, and preciousness around ritual leads me to feel I’ve squandered opportunities. When I was a younger writer, I had strict notions about maintaining a rigorous routine of 1,500 words each morning, written at my desk, before I would allow myself to do anything else that day. But toward the end of grad school, I was working as a teaching assistant and auditing classes on top of my regular course load, and I was so busy that the only uninterrupted time I had to work on my novel-of-the-moment was during my thirty-minute train ride to downtown Chicago. It was loud, often crowded, and pregnant with the possibility of me missing my stop, which would cause me to be late to my job. Still, I felt a tremendous relief when I started forcing myself to use that time to write, knowing there were limitations, but that, if I kept it up, it would still get me where I wanted to go. Since then, I’ve held myself only to the pursuit of living a life that puts writing near the center. At the moment, that means waking up an hour and a half earlier than I need to for work (which I go to in my kitchen), turning my “work” chair around so it faces the center of the room instead of the corner, and writing until it’s time to shower and turn the chair around.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I’m reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which I’m completely enamored with, along with the latest issue of Drift, featuring great new work by Percival Everett (a personal favorite), Garielle Lutz, and Tomaž Šalamun, among many others. I’m also working on a backlog of Texas Monthly magazines, which have been accumulating on my desk over the last three months.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
It’s a little odd to say it, because the books are so different, but one of the primary influences on Users when I was setting out to write it was Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. It’s a fantastic novel, and one that walks that razor’s edge of real/surreal, serious/satire with delightful, enviable skill.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Users?
The most surprising thing was when the book suddenly became about work, and about the tech industry. Despite the feelings I described earlier, I genuinely did not see it coming. My conscious brain initially set out to write a novel about this oddly dysfunctional family, but the moment I’d set them up, they went to work, and all this other stuff came pouring out of me. It was really wonderful, and a little scary, to feel it happening.

7. What is the earliest memory that you associate with the book?
One of my earliest memories of the crystallization of this book came after I encountered Jack Dorsey’s tweets about his ten-day no talking, no eye contact, no screens meditation retreat in Myanmar. There was something so striking to me about the then-leading personality behind one of the noisiest places to exist online making such a dogged pursuit of silence. Something clicked into place for me around that time, and I knew the shape the book needed to take.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Users, what would you say?
I would tell him to try and enjoy his strange mind. I would tell him that, someday, he will surprise himself by turning all the things he is worried about and scared of into something that makes him very proud.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I am an avid runner. That’s where the emotional and psychological Tetris happens, and all my broken pieces find some way of sliding (momentarily) into place. So I ran a lot, and I did the aforementioned research on the industry I was writing about. I also swam regularly in the bay, the coldness of which gives one’s consciousness a kind of temporary bleaching. I also did a bit of what my friend Lydia Kiesling calls “making arrangements,” which I take to mean working with the people and institutions that rely on you to carve out reliable periods of time in your schedule during which you can chase down a creative impulse uninterrupted, or give it the space it needs to grow into an idea.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
I had a teacher once who told me that one of the most important parts of living a creative life is realizing that you will never get rid of the self-critical voice in your head, the voice telling you whatever your particular self-critical voice tells you: Who are you kidding? You should pack it all in now. No one cares what you think. You’ll never be as good as Percival Everett. You are a failure. You weren’t meant for this kind of work. There is nothing new under the sun. Your father will never laugh at your jokes. My teacher went on to say that, rather than wasting one’s energy trying to figure out some way of getting rid of that voice, the real trick is to simply move it to the back seat. That way, it can talk all it wants, but it’s not the one driving the car.

Coline Winnette, author of Users.   (Credit: Jennifer Yin)

Ten Questions for Maggie Millner


This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Maggie Millner, whose debut poetry collection, Couplets: A Love Story, is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In this formally virtuosic book that reads like a novel-in-verse, a woman in her late twenties ends a long and steady relationship with a man for a thrilling but destabilizing affair with a woman. Millner evokes the excitement of new love and budding queer sexuality in a masterful merger of form and content: The titular two-line stanzas that construct the bulk of the volume—interspersed with prose poems, each of which ends on a slant-rhymed couplet—offer a study of duality as much as of romance. Couplets considers how coupledom offers an encounter with the uncanny, as the beloved and the self become intertwined, one ever threatening to subsume the other. Millner enthralls as she takes readers through the tortured psychology of attachment, lust, betrayals, jealousy, and the struggle to locate and maintain an authentic sense of identity. “Sexuality is, // after all, a formal concern: / finding for one’s time on earth // a shape that feels more native than imposed,” she writes. Garth Greenwell calls Couplets “an endlessly inventive, wise, exhilarating book.” A senior editor at the Yale Review, Millner teaches writing at Yale University. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Poetry.

1. How long did it take you to write Couplets?
I wrote the book concertedly for a year and a half. But I ended up recycling a couple older poems, so there’s a distance of about four years between the oldest and the newest sections in the book.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
I think the hardest part was finding an ending, specifically working against my own desire for neat resolution. I felt myself wanting to close every section on a totalizing insight, and to close the book on some lasting epiphany or summative happily-ever-after gesture. But the story I was telling wasn’t so simple; it wasn’t ultimately about discovering some durable new relationship or self-concept, but rather about renouncing the expectation that truth is something you arrive at conclusively.

This felt especially tricky because I was writing in a form—the rhyming couplet—that both dramatically performs closure and also builds propulsively upon itself. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, in the couplets chapter of her great book Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End, sums the problem up this way: “How can formal continuity be maintained in a poem that is generated by a principle which tends to produce closure every two lines? And what can provide the sense of final closure at its conclusion?” That push-pull between conclusion and continuation, and between resolution and openness, made it really difficult for me to know how and where to end the book.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
During the semester, I write about twice a week, at my kitchen table. There’s a lot of black tea involved. I try to write more during the summer and winter, but it doesn’t always work.

4. What are you reading right now?
The Biography of X by Catherine Lacey, which will come out officially in March. It’s wildly ambitious and thrilling on the sentence level.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
“Collection” is maybe a misnomer here; the book comprises one long poem, broken into numbered cantos. On the other hand, it might not be a misnomer at all, since I wrote the sections one at a time, out of sequence. Because the poem is narrative, I knew I had to tell the first half of the story in largely chronological order, though after the book’s midpoint, things become less linear, with more flashbacks and lyric detours. The second half was much harder to organize—mostly I just tried to make each section flow associatively into the next, and to strike a balance between chin-stroking and scene-writing.

6. How did you arrive at the the title Couplets for this collection? 
I’ve never been a confident titler of individual poems, let alone of manuscripts! Before I had a working title, I tended to refer to this project in conversation as “my couplets” or “the couplets.” After suffering through countless conversations about it, the poet Noah Baldino suggested that maybe “the couplets” was simply the book’s title—and then another friend, the poet Jessica Laser, told me emphatically to drop the article.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Couplets?
It amazed me to feel patterns of rhyme and meter insinuating themselves into my everyday speech. I would often talk in accidentally rhyming sentences during the time I was writing this book (which my friends and students got a real kick out of). It’s always a thrill to remember that the brain—much like language—is this physical, elastic material that can be coaxed to behave in new ways.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Couplets, what would you say?
Maybe: “Read more noncontemporary books. And publish less. And cultivate an aesthetics based on what you love, rather than what you think is likable.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
Lots of conversations with friends and family. Lots of reading and therapy. And running—I ran almost daily during the composition of this book.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was in college, the now-late poet C.D. Wright gave me the assignment to write poetry without using any figurative language or grammatical contractions like “can’t” or “I’d.” Of course, I eventually found my way back to these habits, but the exercise taught me something unforgettable about my own stylistic tendencies as a writer. It also showed me that really transformative pedagogy doesn’t give students answers, but rather leads them toward strange new habits of mind.

Maggie Millner, author of Couplets.   (Credit: Sarah Wagner Miller)

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  • January 22, 2024