“We’re Coming for You”: An Interview with Colleen Kolba

Colleen Kolba is a writer and cartoonist. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, and Entropy, among others. Currently, she is a Digital Teaching Fellow at the University of South Florida.

Her story, “Womb,” appeared in Issue Ninety-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about repetition, patriarchal masculinity, and the use of “non-normal” elements in fiction.   

Please tell us about the origins of “Womb.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Over a year ago, the image of a little boy preoccupied with building papier-mâché

wombs got stuck in my head. I wrote a few stories about him I wasn’t satisfied with, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. Then, last fall, I was invited by the Humanities Institute at USF to participate in an ekphrastic reading. It turned out the visual constraints I was given to work with for the reading were enough to finally write the first draft of “Womb” and feel like his story was being told.

I’m really interested in Elliot. At first, he just seems like a crazy kid who found out where babies come from (wombs) and now wants to experience that genesis the only way he knows how (art projects). But as the story goes on, Elliot starts to feel a bit like Anthony Fremont, the boy with godlike powers in the “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone. Is this how Elliot developed for you (from just a kid who needs a babysitter to someone or something far more powerful), or did you always plan for him to sneak up on us? And why did you decide to give Elliot, a child, the dreamlike powers he has? In other words, how do you see Elliot working in this story?

For me, Elliot became a way to grapple with concepts of “patriarchal masculinity” (to borrow bell hooks’ term). I’m fascinated by who young boys are before they’ve totally bought into the narratives our culture sends them about masculinity (which most boys get/conform to very early on). I wanted to interrogate what that turning point is (from boyhood to a more traditional masculine role) and what it means to push against the narratives we’re given so early it seems like we’re born into them. Elliot is able to escape it, at least by the end of the story, which to me seems almost like a godlike power—through his art projects he’s able to create something else, but even this space there’s still a great discomfort and the end products of his children are still this haunting masculine force that’s trying to conceptualize something different and better than what our culture offers men.

This story begins simply enough: the narrator becomes a nanny because jobs are scarce and she has to take what she can get. Even when the little boy she works with (or maybe for, as we learn in the story) says that he makes wombs, being a child, we think, “Oh, what a crazy kid.” From there, the story accretes more and more eerie, unsettling moments, but by the time they feel odd, we (the readers) are already onboard. Did you actively intend to pull the reader in by making everything seem “normal” at first, or were you pulled into the story in the same way the reader is? Why do you think the subject matter lends itself to this sort of technique?     

As a reader, I enjoy and admire writers who can include “non-normal” elements without explaining too much and get the reader to buy in. I think one technique for achieving this is exactly what you describe—things start normal enough, we get a little invested in the characters, and then slowly, we start to go, “Hmm that’s a little odd.” I hope to achieve this in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheap trick—I always start with character, so if my writing is operating how I’d like it to, the reader is invested in the characters. Everything else is just a revolving piece around the humanity in the story.

There’s a good deal of wonderful repetition in this piece (the little boy building the wombs and sending them upriver, the husband constantly saying “what,” the failed missions to Mars, the narrator’s repeated assertion that she doesn’t want a baby). Coupled with the repetition, though, is the fact that everything seems to be breaking down (the constant heat, those failed missions to Mars, the pollution). Consequently, it feels like nothing new can happen, that there will only be repetition until the world burns out. But the end feels startlingly new (what with the men birthed from the wombs and Elliot’s children). So, how do you see the repetition working in this story? And does the end signal a break from the repetition, an escape from the old failures?   

I’ve had a preoccupation with the way repetition works in storytelling and why it works or doesn’t feel boringly redundant to the reader and I think it’s because that’s how humans operate—we function within patterns, and repetition offers many of us some degree of comfort. I set up a bunch of patterns and storytelling is what happens at the movement towards, away, against, sideways of these patterns. In the context of “Womb,” the characters are operating in a world where they’re trapped in the narratives they’ve been fed and Elliot and the narrator are the ones who deviate from this, but not without some conflict. I see the end as a movement in a new direction from the repetition of gender-based narratives. It’s meant to be a hopeful ending.

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I’ve been returning to Eleanor Davis’ How to Be Happy, a collection of short comics that’s beautifully illustrated and fills me with a sad kind of hope (I don’t know if that makes sense). I’ve found myself seeking an antidote to the news I’m constantly consuming with the non-journalistic reading I do to achieve some kind of healthy stasis in my day-to-day. I’ve also been reading There is No Long Distance Now, Naomi Shihab Nye’s flash fiction collection to inspire my own work and to share with the high school writers I’m currently teaching at UVA’s Young Writers Workshop.

What are you writing these days? 

I’m currently working on a novel-in-flash-chapters and a graphic novel. Both are about the narratives of young women, which is about as generous as I can be in my descriptions of these projects. I’ve found in the past that if I talk too much about my writing while it’s still in its early phases, I lose energy towards creating it.


"Grief Was a Stone in My Gut": An Interview with Debra Di Blasi


Debra Di Blasi is the author of seven books, including, Prayers of An Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press), The Jiri Chronicles (University of Alabama Press/FC2), and Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions), which won the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award. Her newest collection of hybrid shorts, TODAY IS THE DAY THAT WILL MATTER: An Oral History of the New America: #AlternativeFictions, is forthcoming August 2018 from Black Scat Books. Selling the Farm: Descants from a Recollected Past, was a finalist in Four Way Books Larry Levis Poetry Award and semifinalist in the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Award. Her writing has appeared in Boulevard, Chelsea, The Iowa Review, Kestrel, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, New South Fiction, Notre Dame Review, Pleiades, Triquarterly, Wigleaf, Wayne Literary Review, among many others, and in notable anthologies of innovative writing. She is a former publisher, educator, and art columnist. Learn more at www.debradiblasi.com.

Her essay, "Turncoats," appears in Issue Ninety-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Debra Di Blasi talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about digressions, forgiveness, and researching comments on social media.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “Turncoats.” What inspired you to start writing the first draft?

I was living far, far away in Hong Kong when my father began to die of Parkinson’s, and the family farm was sold by a sibling without my knowledge. Grief was a stone in my gut, weighing me down so fiercely that I wanted to take to my bed and sleep without waking. Instead, I took to my words. “Turncoats” is part of Selling the Farm: Descants from a Recollected Past. Part lyric essay, part poetic memoir, the ‘descants’ attempt to create a four-dimensional literary cartography describing the farm where I grew up and how my family and I — and perhaps my childhood friend — were shaped by those extraordinarily beautiful acres, for better and for worse; thus, the reference to “the remembrance of farm and creek” in the essay. Recalling specific places on the farm triggered specific memories. The book would not be honest or complete without including this beloved friend who was indeed the only friend who often visited the farm when we were children, because she loved it, all of it, from creek to fields, wild to tame animals, stifling hot, overcrowded house to outhouse. And I loved her for loving it as I did. I still do. And she still does.

On my first reading, I read the essay from start to finish as presented. The second time, I skipped around, reading only the left-justified sections, then only the paragraphs in the innermost brackets, etc. Did you intend to encourage this sort of exploration when you arranged the text into unconventional spaces? How did you arrive at this piece’s form?

You read correctly, perfectly! Thank you. The structure of multiple indentations reflects digressions while recalling moments from distant or recent past, editing myself, revising my Self for all to see. Without deliberately indicting other memoirists, my view of the genre in general is that it is full of lies and omissions. For me, those initial lies and omissions often reveal a deeper truth for the writer and, one certainly hopes, the reader, about the creatures (oneself and others, bipedal and not) that we create out of language. The intent is not only to illuminate the many facets of remembering but also to reflect the process of writing and revising one’s recollections, exposing the fallibility of memory and the intrusion of self-aggrandizement. Most of the 100+ essays in the book are similarly structured.

The essay contains descriptions of friend and farm from your childhood, memories so affecting that you say that you may “choose to recall” them on your deathbed. In the end, though, you also write that you hope that your friend, who once betrayed you, has “no need to remember anything but did she leave a light on somewhere behind her.” Is this a kind wish, an indication of forgiveness, hoping that your old friend carries no lingering guilt? Or do you mean to deny her the memories that you’ve heretofore recalled in such vivid detail? Are memories such as those described in this essay something to be desired, or are they a burden? (Or both, neither?)

That light she left on behind her? It’s our friendship, what keeps the darkness away even now. And this essay, when all’s said and done, is my wish that her life now is so bursting with love, kindness and beauty that it overwhelms even the “opulence” we shared on the farm. Ours was/is one of the great friendships of my life — as childhood friendships can be for lucky people. She and I remained close friends for decades. We shared our terrible secrets. And though geographical distance may have invaded our closeness, I think of her often and miss long conversations with a person who knew me since we were four years old. By the way, Selling the Farm contains another essay about her, fondly recalling the night we camped out in a “disappearing nightscape under the gegenschein belt.” For me, as writer and reader, a worthy memoir is not about blame or revenge but rather forgiveness. About, in fact, leaving a light on behind you.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

In addition to publishing excerpts from Selling the Farm (which I consider complete and have begun submitting the manuscript to publishers), I simultaneously completed a collection of very short intentionally provocative fiction, TODAY IS THE DAY THAT WILL MATTER: An Oral History of the New American: #AlternativeFictions. Black Scat Books snatched it up pretty quickly and, because of the time-sensitive content, is bringing it out in August, before the fall 2018 US elections.

This book is in many ways the polar opposite of Selling the Farm. Selling the Farm is about grief and attempting to bring back the dead; TODAY is about rage and attempting to expose the nasty, suppurating socio-cultural-political pimples under the country’s skin. I spent two years researching comments on social media (Facebook, Twitter, CNN, Fox News, YouTube channels of Alex Jones Info Wars, Rush Limbaugh Show, comedians Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, reality TV, intimate conversations, surreptitious eavesdropping, ad nauseam). The research focused acutely on how language was used, misused, and abused; the way we lie to ourselves and each other; the out-of-control self-promotion — of which I have been and still am guilty — where we reflect not the assholes we sometimes (or often, depending on who “we” is) are at our core but rather a media-acceptable persona not much different from those projected by The Kardashians. 

To quote from the book’s Preface:

We speak shit. Be shit. See our shit selves through Selfie eyes… Culture of manufactured colors, scents, emotions, algorithms. We live here now, inside this narrowing. Dissolution of language, civility, morality and veracity. The foothold’s crumbling. Each shitty death’s on its way. So what! We shrug. What now? Now this. This is the day that will matter. This day. The only one.

The voices range from monstrous politicians based on public figures to hideous bigots to sympathetic or empathetic. There are also dialogs, a Jesus-is-a-white-woman “Cantata for Three Voices,” flickers of few words, tiny images with expansive subtext that must be dredged by the reader. Some of the stories are tender and kind, juxtapositions against those that decry the shits we’ve become. It’s interesting that most of the pretty ones occur in Portugal, where I live now. I’m meeting with theatre director Suresh Nampuri to discuss a staged public performance in Lisbon, which has a surprisingly vital theatre scene of works performed in English. (The Portuguese are remarkably fluent in English; it’s the English and Americans here who have a difficult time with Portuguese language.)

Finally, I’m working on an illustrated children’s book, Let Us Save the Only Only. I want to make children cry for all the right reasons.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

Michel Houellebecq is one of my favorite living contemporary writers. He provokes, he offends, he enlightens, he makes me laugh, and the core issues of his writing are always critical to the times we live in (or will live in, as some of his books have proved prescient). I just finished Submission, wherein the narrator is a mediocre Parisian academic (Houellebecq has never taught at university, by the way) at the moment The Muslim Brotherhood easily takes over France’s political — and therefore academic — system.  The emotional and philosophical complexity of this book thrill me; that, and the narrator’s hilarious digressive musings on food and sex at critical socio-political moments. 

I also finally started reading smart-smart Martha Gellhorn’s travel memoir-reportage, Travels With Myself and Another. (You can guess who “Another” is.) This woman who grew up in staid St. Louis, Missouri, was bleeding fearless — or rather, she may have been afraid but she moved through her fear to get to and at and sometimes in the story. She reported from all over the world, in difficult, dangerous places. She caught tropical diseases, roughed it with some strange, dubious characters, met Chiang Kai-shek and so many other important political players. As someone who has traveled much of my life, and sometimes into dangerous situations, sometimes with questionable people, the book is a breath of fresh air from the past, when webs were made of real-time/real-space humans from around the globe who continually crossed paths, in the strangest places. It’s why I now live in Portugal.


"An Attempt to Connect": An Interview with Teresa Carmody

Teresa Carmody is the author of Maison Femme: a fiction and Requiem. Recently published projects include the chapbook Hide and See (No Press) and DeLand (Container), a view-master book made in collaboration with fiber artist Madison Creech. Carmody is the Editor Emeritus of Les Figues Press and director of Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas.

Her story, "A New Writing Friend," appeared in Issue Eighty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about writing with constraints, friendships in a patriarchal society, and sentence muscles.

Where did this story begin for you?

It really began with the first sentence, which is how my stories often begin: a sentence comes to me that I want to continue exploring in fiction. In this case it was a sentence about William, who is afraid. Well, what is he afraid of? Oh, words. And that got me thinking about how some people (my younger self included) so want to be loved that they’ll say what they believe others want to hear, or even unconsciously mirror or reflect their friends’ affectations or subtle energies, in an attempt to connect. It’s sad because such behavior actually gets in the way of more genuine intimacy; it’s hard to be real with someone who’s performing the person they think you want them to be.

Why do you think it’s important to this story that all of William’s friends are women? How would it change the story if it was instead a story about William and his male friends?

Well, it would be a different story, wouldn’t it? Because in a patriarchal society, the power dynamics of mirroring another’s desire (or presenting for another) is really different for men and women. Not to grossly overgeneralize, but women are regularly expected to conform to and fulfill male desire, while female desire goes unseen, unrecognized, unbelieved. Which isn’t to say that both men and women can’t fall into the trap of saying/being for another, in an attempt to gain love or affection. But it’s another story if a male is performing for men, or a female is performing for women. And this plays out differently, too, in straight or queer communities and friendships.

William is convinced he needs to caretake these strong-willed, creative, and charismatic women in order for them to truly love him. He absents himself by literally not speaking—so to better reflect their desires! Yet at the end of the day, the story still revolves around William. He’s the main character, true, and he’s a male; in a patriarchy, the social narrative always centers (and re-centers) around men.

Does your work as an editor influence your work as a writer? If so, how?

Editing/publishing has filled and broken my heart over 5,000 times, and that’s how I feel about writing. In fact, I wrote a whole book (Maison Femme: a fiction) to explore this and the relationship between editing, publishing, and writing. Maison Femme is a roman à clef; it uses my house in Los Angeles (where we ran Les Figues for 10+ years) as its structure, so each area in the house has a section in the book. There are more constraints, too, such as bibliomancy and a sentence/body constraint. I’ve been writing using constraints for several years now, which is something I first explored through publishing/editing books like The nOulipian Analects (Viegener and Wertheim, eds.) and Cunt Norton (Dodie Bellamy). And of course, Dies: A Sentence (Vanessa Place), which was Les Figues’ first single-author title. And while we’re on the subject of sentences, I do see editing as another way to tone your sentence muscles, and I’m all about the sentence. To me, writing is a practice: a daily habit, a mode of being, and a cognitive and muscular process—which is why if you haven’t done it in a while, it can feel awkward to pick up the pen. The same is true for different modes of writing: critical writing works a different set of muscles/processes than poetry or fiction. Lynda Barry (another big influence) recommends giving yourself three days to get into a project, three days to come out, and I’ve found this to be a good guideline. It’s also the crucifixion/resurrection timeline, that creative process of transmutation by which materiality moves from one form into another into a third. How can we get to—and make space for—the third thing, whatever that is?

What is the last book you read that you absolutely loved?

Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis. It’s so sly and humorous and charming, with ample amounts of stickiness and a narrative construction that’s as pleasurable as it is rhetorically fascinating.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a few different things, but this week specifically, I’ve been writing a piece that I privately call the animal story (actual title tbd). It draws on language I collected from an audience many months ago (well, in late 2016), during a panel on interspecies communication. As part of my talk, I passed out 3x5 notecards and, after giving several instructions about receiving credit or a copy of the eventual story, I told short animal stories (from life and literature) and asked the audience a question about the animals’ message. After, I had this amazing collection of 3x5 notecards with all kinds of responses, some silly, some scolding, which I brought with me as I moved across the country to Florida, where I live now. The pile of notecards has been sitting on my desk all this time because it’s taken this long to find the story’s opening. I’m pretty sure this will be final story in a larger collection about friendship, gossip, community and writing. Coincidently, “William and His Woman Friends” was one of the first stories I wrote for this same collection. And yes, the collection has a title: A Healthy Interest in the Lives of Others


“Helium Rebels”: An Interview with Karen An-hwei Lee

Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award.  Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles, where she is also a novice harpist. Lee is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Her poems, "A Resistance Song of Zeppelins for Julio" and "Youngest Filament in the Universe," appeared in Issue Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Victoria DiMartino about how something as a small as a poem can fill something as large as the earth, the way everything and everyone is connected through poetry, and balloons.

Throughout the poem, “A Resistance Song of Zeppelins for Julio,” we follow the path of these balloons that are released into the sky. The poem seems to focus on smaller balloons, but the title hints at something much larger—Zeppelins. Was the piece inspired by the Zeppelin races, or did the creation of this poem develop out of something else?

A small thingsuch as a poemcan float over the world into people’s hearts, while such a light thing such as a scentlike the odor of duriancan seem thick and heavy as it occupies a room. By exploring zeppelins, weather balloons, and diving bells, the poem explores questions about scale and lightness.  It also indirectly asks, how much space can a poem occupy in the world?

This piece starts out focusing on a group of men and women in exile releasing what we can imagine as hundreds of balloons, all filled or connected with poetry. As the poem continues we see the way in which one by one balloons fall behind and are separated from the group, “As the balloons pop, syllables in nebulae of gas / drift over onlookers who read aloud the words / until they sail out of sight, puffing smoke-rings,” and “The balloons take poems wherever they go, / dropping at the mercy of hail or lightening.” We finally reach the end and the narrator claims their presence in the piece stating, “My name / in the light is / Soledad”. Why this sudden shift to this perspective of the narrator? Are they supposed to be understood as a balloon, or a poem released from one of the balloons?

Yes, the narrator and the balloon merge in the same way collective awareness in grassroots movements (“occupy”) may consist of aggregated individual experiences, similar to the phenomenon of recognizing a face among faces. In doing so, we join a circle of readers who experience the same poem, each in a unique waythis is a form of communion wherein we exchange intimacies, collectively or in solitude, by participating symbolically and semantically in an imagined community.

The diction in this piece twisted the way readers of the poem saw things. You described the balloons and the world in such new and exciting ways. I saw this most in these lines, “syllables in nebulae of gas / drift over onlookers,” “Some balloons even scan dactylic hexameter,” and “When we open our windows, air molecules / wander from a malodorous, fleshy durian.” This diction added such potency to the voice of the narrator, it feels as though we can hear the narrator telling us the story of these balloons as they travel the world. Do you find that diction can add a powerful spin to the strength of the voice of the narrator?

Absolutely.  Poetry, by nature, is recognized partly through its economy of language. Our word choices can powerfully influence a poem’s valences and vehicles, including the voice of a narrator.

Have you read anything recently that you think has influenced your writing? If not what have you read recently that you think was really amazing?

I’m reading the Old and New Testaments in parallel translations, plus a range of poetry and prose:  Khairani Barokka’s Rope, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge, Ching-In Chen’s Recombinant, Linda Dove’s This Too, Camille T. Dungy’s Trophic Cascade, Luisa A. Igloria’s Haori, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, Adrian Matejka’s Map to the Stars, Paisley Rekdal’s Imaginary Vessels, Natasha Sajé’s Vivarium, Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor, Cole Swensen’s On Walking On, and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water and Salt.  I’m also reading Francine du Plessix Gray’s biography of the French philosopher, Simone Weil, whose writings on gravity, grace, and the mysticism of labor continue to fascinate me.

Do you have any new writing projects that you are dying to tell the world about?

I’d love share my collected translations of the Song Dynasty woman poet, Li Qingzhao, Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose of Li Qingzhao, now available from Singing Bone Press.  This is the first English-language translation of Li’s collected poems (ci, set to tune of popular songs in her day) and prose.  It includes her essay on war, exile, and the transitory nature of material things.  Li’s voice is unique in that she sets aside imperial formalitiesin style and contentin a lyrical, passionate voice whose immediacy appeals to contemporary readers.  


"The Omega": An Interview with Joseph Cardinale

Joseph Cardinale is the author of The Size of the Universe (FC2). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in jubilat, Denver Quarterly, New York Tyrant, and Web Conjunctions. He lives on eastern Long Island.

His story, "The Omega," appeared in Issue Ninety-Six of The Collagist.

Here, he talks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about his use of mono-mythical stories, about a common misinterpretation of spiritual and mythological texts, and about Nothingness.

Please tell us about the origins of “The Omega” (which feels like I’m saying, “Please tell us about the beginning of the end”). What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

The story is mostly excerpted from the beginning and ending sections of an unpublished novella. Initially, the goal was to write a dreamlike narrative that explicitly drew on archetypal imagery and ideas. A related goal was to use the simplest possible language. I started out with a readymade mono-mythical setup: the distant Father on the Mountaintop inviting the narrator to see him, tempting him with an inexplicable mystery. And from the beginning I conceived of the Father more as a symbol than as a singular character. I wanted to unapologetically invite and interrogate the inevitable mythic and biblical associations: the Father as God, the mountain as a site of mystical revelation. Even as I was writing the novel, though, I didn't know what exactly was going to be revealed to the narrator at the end of his journey. The idea of the Omega comes directly from a Borges story called "The Aleph." In Borges, a character claims to have discovered, in his basement, an Aleph, which he defines as a spatial point "that contains all the other points." In my story, the Father claims to have an “Omega” in his brain, and he defines the Omega in similar terms. And the mystical vision at the end of my story explicitly and syntactically echoes the vision of the Aleph in Borges. I like to think of my story as a sort of response to Borges, but maybe that's just a fancy way of saying I stole his idea.  

As I was reading the story, I was first struck by the influence of mythological and religious texts (the title seemingly connecting to the “I am the Alpha and the Omega” line from Revelations, the Father being capitalized and living on a mountain, the harrowing journey for what might be a boon), and yet your purposeful use of ambiguous words and phrases throughout undermines the certainty such texts are supposed to instill in us. So, what would you say you are doing with mythology and religion here? How have mythological and religious stories influenced you? Do you seek to undermine mythological and religious stories, or to help them evolve, or to get them to help explain the universe we live in now?

I don't know. I definitely am trying to write in a way that highlights and frames spiritual questions. And I love religious and mythological stories. So I'm not trying to undermine them, at least not insofar as undermining implies critique. I don't think that spiritual and mythological texts are designed to instill certainty, though. I think that's often how they're interpreted, and maybe, by playing up the ambiguity, I'm trying to undermine or challenge what I perceive as a misinterpretation. I think the point of mythic-religious art is to refresh our awareness of the mystery of existence. To remind us of the foundational existential questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Where did the universe come from? What are we doing here? What is the self? Where is the boundary between the inner world and the outer world? Etcetera. When I read genuinely religious and mythological stories, I never find definitive answers to these kinds of questions. I find myself, instead, cast into something like the Cloud of Unknowing that the mystics talk about. And that’s, I guess, where I’m trying to guide my readers—to a sort of surrendering awareness of what we already know we don’t know. If that makes sense.  

Continuing on with the story, however, it felt less and less mythological and more like Samuel Beckett (the obsession with nothingness, the setting as a kind of null space, the word play). Now, whereas Beckett uses Biblical references (the crucified thieves in Waiting for Godot, Job in The Unnameable), his are specific and often aid in grounding the reader. You, on the other hand, seem to be pointing more toward, say, Joseph Campbell’s ubiquitous monomyth than any particular mythological text, meaning there’s no grounding force except for a vast generality. How do you see yourself dealing with the concept of uncertainty, then? Do you feel that since Beckett, at times, uses grounding forces that he flinches in the face of nothingness? How have you advanced the idea of nothingness beyond Beckett?

The novella from which “The Omega” is adapted is actually loaded with direct references to movies, songs, and biblical stories. So the original draft was much more realistically grounded, in that sense. And my original vision was to write a narrative that starts in the recognizably "real" world—or uses a vaguely realist aesthetic—and then gradually arcs toward something more like the Null Space in which Beckett's stories are set. More specifically, I wanted the ultimate revelation of Nothingness—the conclusion of the story—to come at the endpoint of a more conventionally grounded heroic journey, as in the Borges story, where the climactic mystical vision of the Aleph concludes a seemingly low-stakes comedy about a rivalry between two poets. And I think the occasional grounding forces in Beckett’s fiction work in an essentially similar way; they never resolve the mystery of existence, but underscore the inadequacy of language and point toward the Nothingness that words veil. In adapting “The Omega" from the novella, I was, yes, making a deliberate effort to emphasize the mono-mythic aspects of the narrative. And that meant removing any details and references that might ground the story a specific time and place. I wanted to pare down the prose to the point where all nouns in the story seem as though they are implicitly capitalized. Like: when I use the words "mountain" or "house” or “wall,” I don't want to the reader to see a specific mountain or house or wall, but to see something more like the Platonic idea of a Mountain or House or Wall, which seems more urgently real to me, really, than the tangible world.

I have to ask this question. Supposedly Donald Barthelme’s favorite writing assignment was “describe nothing.” Do you feel that your own project here is to describe nothing? Are we all always describing nothing?   

Yes! I love that prompt. I wouldn’t exactly say my project is to describe nothing, because of course I can’t, but I wanted the story to clear a space for the reader to meditate on the primordial question of why there’s something rather than nothing. And that’s also what the prompt does. It’s essentially a Zen koan. It pushes the intellect to the point where rational and linear thought is disabled and, as the narrator says in my story, “words stop working.” I think the primary imperative of all mythic-religious writing is to guide the reader, gently, to this point—and to invite us to see Nothingness, or whatever, as a sort of spiritual home, connecting everything.     

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

Most of my literary inspiration, lately, has come from non-fiction books like Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, and Tolstoy’s Confession. And I really love Stephen Mitchell’s translations of The Book of Job and the Tao Te Ching. As for contemporary fiction, my favorite book of recent years is a short novel called First, The Raven: A Preface, by Seth Rogoff (Sagging Meniscus Press 2017). That’s the kind of novel I wish I could write, starting in the recognizably “real” world and moving gradually and gracefully toward greater uncertainty and deeper un-knowing. By the end of the novel, every word starts to seem absolutely clear and absolutely confusing; it leaves the reader suspended, almost mystically, between understanding everything and understanding nothing. And it’s just a really fun read.  

What are you writing these days?

I’m revising and re-envisioning the failed mess-of-a-novella from which “The Omega” is drawn; it’s titled Out of Nothing. More generally, I’m working on cultivating a more intrinsically motivated approach to the writing process. Trying to approach writing less as a solitary professional pursuit, less as a laboriously exacting exercise of craft, pressure, and patience reluctantly undertaken with some vaguely imagined workshop-style audience of perpetually unimpressed strangers in mind, and more as a natural in-the-moment response to specific encounters and experiences. Writing only out of love and only when I feel compelled to capture the overflowing truth of a moment or insight I might otherwise forget. In this spirit, I’m working, sporadically, on a series of autobiographical sketches centered on dialogues with my five-year-old son (one of these sketches is forthcoming in jubilat). I’m working, too, on recording and transcribing stories my son tells me (or I tell him) through a question-and-answer process—and I’m finding inspiration and renewal in the unselfconscious strangeness and mythic energy that animates some of these stories. Yesterday, as I was anxiously pondering the fourth question in this interview, he suddenly announced, apropos of (apparently) nothing, “I’m going to make a story where me and you build a spaceship. And we’re going to go to space. But when we get to space, space has vanished.”   


"Birds on Tote Bags": An Interview with Catherine Carberry

Catherine Carberry is a writer and editor living in New York. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Guernica, Harvard Review, North American Review, Tin House online, and Indiana Review, and has been broadcast on National Public Radio.

Her story, "Birdkillers," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, she talks with interviewer Dana Diehl about birds as a metaphor, the spooky violence of children, and finding patterns as a way of building narrative.

What inspired this piece, “Birdkillers”?

It began as an antidote to what I saw as precious depictions of birds in literature and design. So many poems about starlings, so many silhouettes of birds on tote bags. I think of that Portlandia sketch (Put a bird on it!) and how the same people who find this appeal in birds as metaphors or decorative images are disgusted when confronted with the real thing. I was relieved of any sense of birds as cute when, as a teenager, I visited a friend who kept birds that were allowed to fly around in the house. My friend’s father came home from a shift in the ER, wearing these blood-speckled scrubs, and the birds landed on his shoulder as he ate the dinner we’d made for him (which, of course, was poultry—a horrible purple experiment involving chicken soaked in red wine). That image stayed with me—the tired doctor, the blood, the birds. I wanted to write about the sort of people who would kill a bird, and explore who they were and why they would do it. In the end, it turned out that they were all women.

The last story in this piece begins, “Insane people see patterns everywhere.” What patterns do you hope readers see in these stories, other than the obvious of the birds? Why do these stories belong together instead of apart? What thought went into the order? (Sorry, sneaking three questions into one!)

The narrator who speaks that line is more averse to pattern-building than I am! Sure, conspiracy theorists and the paranoid see connections and patterns everywhere, but finding patterns is also a way of building a narrative, ascribing meaning to chaotic events. In these stories, I wanted to get the question of a bird’s fate out of the way, to clear more space for the context and emotional trajectory of each character. The first story begins with the question of trust between a man and a woman, and the final story ends with these two versions of a song, by Robert Johnson and Joni Mitchell. In between this question of trust and what we choose to honor are these vignettes of birdkillers—cruel children, witchy daughters, women with a streak of malice—which I hope illuminate that question.

I’ve taught at a K–4 grade school for the past three years, and this story made me recall two bird and kid-related experiences I’ve had in the past few months. The first: a pigeon got trapped in the lunch room, and as I and another teacher struggled to shoo it toward the door, a group of students started chanting: “Kill it! Kill it!” The second: a child strangely and spontaneously announced to me, “Next Valentine’s Day, I’m giving everyone a bird skeleton. I have a lot of birds to kill.” Why do you think children and adults alike are drawn to bird deaths? Why were you drawn to bird deaths?

Those stories are incredible! I’m fascinated by the spooky violence of children. And I find validation in your students’ instinct to kill birds, because these stories reveal what I think is a certain truth—birds are a beautiful menace. We see them pecking dead things on the side of the road, we know they carry disease, but we’re also drawn to watching them, finding meaning in their flight, using them as metaphor for freedom or confinement.  I’ve sought to learn how to externalize conflict in my stories—too often, there’s the impulse for something to happen to the character, but then the story is consumed by reaction. I like reactive stories, but in structuring each story around the act of killing an animal so loaded with metaphor, I was trying to force myself to build characters who act.

If you were a bird, what kind of bird do you think you would you be?

That is a very different question than what bird I want to be! I’d want to be a stubborn male peacock who chases tourists when they try to take photos, but I think I’d be a small and plain-looking beach bird, swooping over the cliffs or pecking at the rocks jutting out from the sea.

What is inspiring you these days? It could be a book, a movie, an album, or even a food.

I just finished Mavis Gallant’s novel, “A Fairly Good Time” and underlined almost every sentence. It was inspiring in that the writing is wry, funny, and full of these uncanny cognitive leaps, with such a distinct observational eye.

What projects are you working on currently?

 I’ve been drafting a novel based on a women-led independence movement in Puerto Rico in 1950, and the subsequent assassination attempt of President Truman by two Puerto Ricans. It began as a short story several years ago, loosely based on a family member who was a closeted gay artist in 1950s Puerto Rico. As I began to research the independence movements and political climate of the time, I became preoccupied with the notion of failed revolutions, and what independence means both politically and personally. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria only solidified what I see as an imperative to write about Puerto Rico and to reckon with the damaging consequences of the United States’ political and economic interference over the past century.


"The Force and Fluctuation of Thought": An Interview with Jennifer Wortman

Jennifer Wortman's work appears in Glimmer Train, Normal School, DIAGRAM, Hobart, Okey-Panky, New World Writing, JMWW, The Collapsar, crag, Confrontation, PANK, North American Review, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor at Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.

 Her essay, "The Orphaned Adult," appeared in Issue Ninety-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Jennifer Wortman talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about brevity, teaching writing, and nonfiction with an unreliable narrator.

Your essay, “The Orphaned Adult,” is under 200 words long. Was it a challenge for you to write so concisely? Did it require much revision to reach such brevity? How do you achieve this economy of language?

“The Orphaned Adult” was a gift of insomnia, one of those rare pieces that came to me in a flurry when I picked up my pen at 3 a.m. The size and shape of the essay unfolded naturally, so the concision posed no problem. I did, though, do a fair amount of subsequent tinkering for the sake of precision: determining the right words and the best order of words. In a work so short, language matters all the more, and I felt the pressure of that. Still, “The Orphaned Adult” was way easier to write than much of what I’ve written.

In addition to writing flash prose, I write full-length short fiction, and I generally find length harder to navigate than brevity, in part because I’m a slow writer, but also because longer forms contain more possibilities and, with that, more potential for bad moves, which then have larger ripple effects. I’m not a planner: I generally compose right on the page and find my way through trial and error. With flash, it’s easier for me to see a piece as a whole and understand what it needs.

You are a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. How has writing nonfiction made you a better fiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

I’ve been writing fiction a lot longer than nonfiction, so my nonfiction often has a strong fictional bent, in that I’m hyperaware of the constructed nature of my narrative persona. And while I don’t mess with blatant objective facts in my nonfiction, I find myself exaggerating subjective states for dramatic effect. “The Orphaned Adult” flaunts its narrator’s unreliability; the essay pretty much hinges on it. So the narrator’s insistence that her marriage isn’t over also suggests the possibility that her marriage is, in fact, over. I wrote those final lines to dramatize a grief-crazed inner conflict, while also knowing that my real-world marriage isn’t over. (Or is it? Ha ha.)

My nonfiction writing, in turn, has freed me to explore in my fiction what interests me most: the workings of human consciousness. I’m not great at plot, a deficit that sometimes frustrates me. But through writing nonfiction, I’ve been able to focus on the force and fluctuation of thought, a practice I’ve somewhat been able to transfer to my fiction. My most recent published full-length short story, “Love You. Bye,” which appears in Glimmer Train, is made up of brief, quasi-essay-like sections. While the story follows a loose plot, the narrator’s thinking drives the story in a way I don’t believe I’ve achieved before. “Love You. Bye.” feels truer to my voice and vision than other full-length stories I’ve written, and for that I credit my experience writing nonfiction.

You are also an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a literary arts center. What sorts of students have you worked with? How does teaching enrich, or otherwise affect, your work as a writer?

At Lighthouse, I teach mostly online classes, to students who range from complete beginners to published book authors and may live up the road from me in Colorado or across the country or globe. I love the variety in that. Some of my classes are designed to generate writing; others take a conventional workshop approach. In the generative classes, I focus on inspiration and encouragement. We do a lot of freewriting and try to leave our inner (and outer) critics at the door. In the workshops, we go in-depth with craft. Both kinds of classes benefit my own writing a ton. The generative classes remind me of the value of relaxing into my writing and cultivating a sense of play. The workshops force me to articulate and refine my ideas about technique; I work with some pretty sophisticated writers, which pushes my thinking to new levels. And to critique student writing is also to critique my own: their problems are often my problems, to which I’ve become more attuned. The community and intelligence and talent I see in all my classes endlessly enrich me. I can’t say enough good things about Lighthouse and how it supports me and other writers of all sorts.


What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I have a short story collection making the rounds, and I’m considering giving it a major overhaul to include more of my recent flash prose. If I don’t make the overhaul, then I’ll put together a separate collection of my recent flash prose. I have amorphous plans for a novel-in-flash. I’m also working on individual flash fictions and essays, a little poetry, and some full-length short fiction. At the moment, I’m on the umpteenth draft of a short story I’ve been wrestling with for well over a decade. It’s likely an exercise in futility, but I figure, if nothing else, it primes me for the futilities that come with the writing life. And the other parts of life.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Transit, Rachel Cusk; We the Animals, Justin Torres; Philadelphia Fire, John Edgar Wideman; Something Bright, Then Holes, Maggie Nelson; The Sarah Book, Scott McClanahan.

This flash essay, “Blue Laws,” by Mike Nagel:


And this flash fiction, “Little Doves,” by Leesa Cross Smith:



"The Thin Scrim Between Dark and Dawn": An Interview with Wendy Chin-Tanner

Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of the poetry collection Turn (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014) which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards and co-author of the graphic novel American Terrorist (A Wave Blue World). Her poetry has been nominated for the Best of the Net Prize and the Pushcart Prize, and has been featured at a variety of venues including The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, Denver Quarterly, The Normal School, The Huffington Post, RHINO Poetry, and The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge. She is a founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, and staff interviewer at Lantern Review.

Her poem, "This Bed This Room," appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Wendy Chin-Tanner speaks with interviewer Jason Gray about childbirth, the universality of pain, and doing things in threes.

How did you come to write this poem?

This poem was written in the first months following the birth of my second daughter during what is commonly referred to as “the fourth trimester.” I often find inspiration in the body, specifically in the juxtaposition between the world of the mind and corporeal reality. What interests me about childbirth as a subject for literary inquiry is the twinning of the creative force with the abjectness of the body. Many of the world’s spiritual traditions, both eastern and western, explore the meaning of the body in pain and the universality of pain, how physical suffering is the common denominator of being alive. Think of the Buddhist principle that life is suffering. Think of Christ on the cross. In exploring the relevance of these venerable spiritual traditions to the suffering of the female body, specifically the maternal body, I find the postpartum space to be a fruitful poetic garden. Childbirth is a liminal space and the confinement of the immediate postpartum period allows for a lingering between one world and another, where the membrane is thin. To write from that space is to enact one of the defining characteristics of poetry: the act of verbalizing the nonverbal. To write from that space also creates a feminist counternarrative to the longstanding mainstream contention that the subject of motherhood is not one of serious literary endeavor. I beg to differ.

Why did you decide on lines of three syllables each? Are syllabics a usual form for your poems to take?

The poems in my forthcoming second collection "Anyone Will Tell You” are preoccupied with an investigation of form and its subversion as an expression of the relationships between gender and identity, parent and child, self and other, the personal and the political, humanity and the environment, and the earthly and the cosmic. Within that investigation, I started out working mostly with blank verse couplets but then, in conjunction with the birth of my second daughter, I began to write primarily on my iPhone's Notes app while pacing the halls with the baby in a sling to keep her asleep. This rhythmic movement coupled with the restriction of that tiny screen led to the development of a new form consisting of three syllables per line and three lines per stanza, which I think of as trisyllabic triplets or 3x3s. Eschewing punctuation and most capitalizations, on a technical level, I discovered that 3x3s are highly fluid with a multitude of  elisions that work with and rely on the rhythm of the English language to expand the possibilities of meaning from line to line.

How does the presence of the many instances of internal rhyme (skin/thin; moon/spoon; night/flight) in concordance with or contrast to the full rhyme that exists between the two last stanzas (rest/breast) affect the poem, in your mind?

I’m interested in general in the way that internal rhyme lends itself to a quieter, less percussive, more subtle, and fluid musicality than end rhyme, which I think works well with the elisions that the 3x3 poetic form employ, and in particular, I find that internal rhyme suits the tone and narrative content of this poem. The masculine rhyme at the end of the poem serves as a kind of sonic punctuation signaling a sense of conclusion to the ear. In thinking about the natural iambic pulse of English and how it informs the comprehension and interpretation of language, I experimented with different compositional strategies for making meaning, notating, and directing the way in which the poem might sound and be read; its beats, its rests, its cadence.

What are you reading?

Meg Wolitzer’s “The Female Persuasion” and Vanessa Angelica Villarreal’s “Beast Meridian.”

What are you writing?

A novel set in 1950s NYC and rural Louisiana.


"My Nonfiction Is Fictional": An Interview with Matthew Vollmer

Matthew Vollmer is an Associate Professor of English at Virginia Tech and is the author of Future Missionaries of America, inscriptions for headstones, and Gateway to Paradise. With David Shields, he is the co-editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Documents, and other Fraudulent Artifacts. He also edited A Book of Common Prayer, which collects the invocations of over 60 writers. His next book, Permanent Exhibit, is forthcoming.

His essay, "Sinkhole," appeared in Issue Ninety-Four of The Collagist.

Here, Matthew Vollmer talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about juxtaposition, stream-of-consciousness writing, and turning experiences into myth.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay, “Sinkhole.” What sparked the initial idea?

I wrote “Sinkhole” during a time when I had assigned myself to produce work especially of this nature—that being a “day-driven” kind of essay, in which I paid close attention to the particular and idiosyncratic motions of a mind in search of both meaning and senselessness. In other words, I wanted to capture and reproduce, as realistically as possible, the movements of consciousness as they pertained to my present dispositions. I would begin with an idea—in this case, the notion that one should not, at the beginning of the day, turn first to one’s phone—and proceed from there, shifting as instinctually and freely as possible from one association to the next, working up a kind of rhythm that hopefully led “somewhere.”

The essay consists of one paragraph, about 1,500 words long. I think it’s fair to call the work a stream of consciousness, or at least it’s presented as one. How do you revise a piece that is supposed to replicate the natural associations made by your mind? How much did this essay change from the first draft to the final?

Honestly, I can’t remember how much it changed. I feel like this essay and the book of which it’s a part required less revision than previous books I’ve written, but saying that now from a relative distance, I can’t tell how true that is. The trick for me in producing associatively-driven work is knowing when to make explicit connections and when it’s cool to place images or perceptions side-by-side and trust the reader to connect the dots. Also, it’s not fair to say that the brain’s primary mode of motion is one of “connectedness.” A chain of associations can feel “right” in terms of its fidelity to the way one’s brain-tape unfolds, but just as frequent—if not more so—are random intrusions. Therefore, juxtaposition can become a useful tool when attempting to create any kind of analogue for consciousness. That’s part of the joy of working in a collage-like mode: the unexpected image or thought can feel like a necessary subversion.

You are a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. How has writing nonfiction made you a better fiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

The longer I work and the more I write, the so-called line between my fiction and nonfiction becomes less and less distinct. Perhaps that’s because my own experience—which has always informed and guided whatever I write—has become the dominant subject matter of my writing, and because writing about that experience feels both true and false. I am trying to write what I’ve lived, to catalog the significant idiosyncrasies of that life, and I’m using language to do that, and because words are merely representational and fail to capture the radiant fullness of experience, and because I am an unreliable narrator whose memory can’t be trusted, it feels to me as if I’m working in the realm of myth. In other words, my nonfiction is fictional.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

I recently finished the final edits on a book of essays—Permanent Exhibit, to be published by BOA Editions, Ltd in September of 2018—that are, like “Sinkhole,” collage-like in nature—each one a single paragraph unspooling. I’ve since returned to the book I was working on when those essays began to arrive: an accounting of having grown up in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina, in a loving family who counted themselves as members of a little-known American denomination whose tenants were central to our lives and gave shape—for better and worse—to my childhood.

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Catherine Lacey’s The Answers. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn and Winter. Otessa Moshfegh’s

Eileen and Homesick for Another World. Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts. Tara Wesotver’s Educated: A Memoir. Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories. Valerie Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd.


"Worms Turning and Obligation Souring": An Interview with Jaclyn Watterson

Jaclyn Watterson's first book, Ventriloquisms, won the 2016 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and was published by Willow Springs Books in October 2017. She is currently at work on her second book, a collection of nonfiction from which portions have appeared in The Spectacle, New Delta Review, Split Lip, and The Collagist.

Her essay, "Our Deportment," appeared in Issue Ninety-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Jaclyn Watterson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about etiquette, struggling with plot, and the transformation of memories into narrative.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay, “Our Deportment”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

With this particular essay, the title actually came first. I was reading a nineteenth century book meant to instruct readers on proper etiquette for various tricky situations. There is, for example, a section on how to comport oneself at a funeral, and another on how young ladies should behave if left alone with men whom they don’t wish to marry. The book is called Our Deportment, a title which implies, to me, culpability and reciprocity. I knew I wanted to reappropriate it to explore my fraught relationship with my mother—and the habits of mind and practices I have and have not learned from her.

While I admire the position that if we behave properly and have good manners our experiences will always remain controlled and manageable—that if we just learn the rules everything will be all right—I also know this position is a beautiful, false dream. Good manners cannot, ultimately, save us from pain and disgrace, and what horrors are exposed when our behavior exceeds the confines of mannered relations?

The essay begins with one italicized paragraph, which seems to have a different speaker than what follows, as it lacks both “I” and “you” in its more lyrical language. What purpose is this unique introduction meant to serve? How do you want it to orient (or disorient) the reader?

That introduction is in keeping with the instructions or advice on etiquette, but of course rather than present foolproof advice guaranteed to create a smooth and comfortable experience for the two people in question here (my mother and myself), it acknowledges pain and ugliness, which manners so often are meant to conceal. Here, history and past interactions cannot provide a template for clean future relations, for the history is not one of good manners and social successes, but of worms turning and obligation souring. This, I think, is not so uncommon in families. The introduction orients the reader to a place and a peace beyond the trauma that follows, spelling out the inevitable ending, while suggesting that there might yet be some dignity—and even redemption—in looking squarely at that history.

In this essay, you write: “This is the way, of course, with the true stories of youth, our memories—they bloom and die and smell, and we cannot keep them. Put another way: mildew and various other deaths accumulate.” If this is true for everyone, I’m wondering how you think it may be different for a writer, if at all. If we channel such stories into writing, how might that affect the process you’re describing here? What does writing do to the blooming, dying memories: preserve them? empower them? transform them?

I think it’s right that as writers we transform and empower memories. Of course all people narrativize their experience, but writers obsessively revise and record this narrative. I have attempted, through this essay, to show my readers the bathroom where I showered in my youth. Who are my readers? People who are interested in language and narrative. For the most part, they probably do not share my particular preoccupation with lavatories. But now I have recorded that bathroom in words, which it was never made of before, and begged you all to bear witness. However you do this, the bathroom, and my own positionality and my mother’s, have been transformed and empowered—no longer merely memory, they bloom and die and accumulate with the power of words.

Although we’ve been discussing an example of your nonfiction, you are primarily a writer of fiction, according to your publication history. How has writing fiction made you a better nonfiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

Yes, I trained as a fiction writer and have studied and published much more extensively in that genre. From fiction, I learned a certain openness of possibility, and a careful attention to the way sentences reflect, maintain, or close that possibility. In fiction anything can happen, but I always struggled with plot. I would ask myself, What happened?, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about that more than the sentences or the mood or the structure of a piece, and people would tell me, This isn’t a story because it has no plot. I enjoy writing nonfiction because there are certain events that have happened, certain plots that have inserted themselves into my experience. But those plots are not immediately apparent to me when I begin writing. I think, How was I culpable, what part of that wall of mold was mine?, and in answering these questions, I am able to tell the story.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

This essay is part of a larger memoir in essays, tentatively titled Other Dogs Haunted Other Recesses, which evokes the shame and elation of intimacy with other beings, both human and animal. Each piece begins with a singular image or incident—a blood-soaked sponge in sunlight, or walking through my childhood home alongside bidders on the morning of its foreclosure auction. I am exploring interpolations of the sublime and the abject, and many of the pieces, like “Our Deportment,” explore that most private of spaces in the crowded family home, the bathroom.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I just read an as-yet unpublished manuscript by the Buffalo-based poet Robin Lee Jordan which blew my socks off. I can’t wait for it to come into the world.

And I’m in love with Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. I’ve also been visiting and revisiting Elizabeth Gaskell and Daphne du Maurier, who both have so much to teach about transformation, empowerment, and looking squarely at history.