"The Essay Becomes a Keyhole": An Interview with Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, as well as the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as AGNIBrevityColorado ReviewDIAGRAMLongreadsThe Normal SchoolThe Paris Review DailyRiver Teeth, and Slice Magazine and has been recognized by The Best American Essays. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.

Her essay, "Bottom Shelf," appeared in Issue Ninety-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Jill Talbot talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about personas, subtext, and sharing struggle.

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

I wrote “Bottom Shelf” immediately after finishing Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath.

In this essay, you look back at another essay you once wrote, quoting lines from it, analyzing and recontextualizing them. Can you tell us about what that process was like for you? Do you revisit your finished works often? Did you discover things in your own writing that you didn’t expect to find?

As I began writing about the pawn shop, I remembered I had included it in another essay, in another context. That other essay presents a persona who is a curious observer (both of the objects and the people in the shop), but avoids divulging that I was one of those people, desperate at the counter. That other essay is not about addiction, it’s about searching, about place, and as writers, we establish the persona for the questions the essay is asking. We don’t have to be all of who we are or were, rather the persona the essay requires. Yet. In rehab, the counselors often called me out on “hiding behind my writing.” I realized I had done that in those paragraphs—how those repeated mentions of glass revealed a subtext of the broken bottle and how I kept the reason why I was in the pawn shop hidden. Also, looking back at that other essay in “Bottom Shelf” contributes to the confessional mode of the piece.

In this essay you write, “I am listing these things, trying to remember all of them, trying to avoid what I pawned, more than once, to get through the month without giving up wine.” In this moment and others throughout the essay, it’s clear that you feel ashamed of actions you’ve taken, and it seems it would be easier to keep silent about them. Why is it important to you to not only write such stories but also publish them? What do you hope to achieve?

I suspect we’re all learning that there are consequences when we stay silent.

As Didion warns, “I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

When I write, I’m always thinking of two readers. One will learn about people who live such lives, and in that way, the essay becomes a keyhole through which a reader can look to glimpse a hidden life. The other reader is the one who needs to know she’s not alone in her struggle. I like the way Phillip Lopate puts it: “The trick is to realize that one is not important, except insofar as one’s example can serve to elucidate a more widespread human trait and make readers feel a little less lonely and freakish.” 

But more than anything, I wanted to show the addict whose struggle includes how to fund that struggle. In rehab, we were often reminded, “Work as hard at your sobriety as you did to get your next drink. And I had worked. Hard. Lying awake nights doing budget gymnastics. Searching the bottoms of purses and jacket pockets and kitchen drawers for coins. Those trips to the pawn shop. Lying to friends to borrow a few bucks until payday. Finding a twenty in my mother’s car and pocketing it. Selling shit online. Selling books and CDs and DVDs to used book stores. All that hustle and those excruciating moments waiting for someone to offer a dollar amount that would allow me to step into a store and buy wine. It was exhausting.

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

I’m working on a series of essays about returning to the places where my sixteen-year-old daughter and I have lived, and we’ve lived in nine states. One of those essays was recently published in The Paris Review Daily.

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

Mark Slouka, All That Is Left Is All That Matters: Stories

Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

Tyrese Coleman, How To Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays


"Facing the Daily News Cycle": An Interview with Maya Sonenberg

Maya Sonenberg is the author of the story collections Cartographies and Voices from the Blue Hotel. Her newest chapbook of prose and photographs, After the Death of Shostakovich Père, appeared in 2018. Other fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Hotel Amerika, and her writing has received grants from the Washington State Arts Commission and King County 4Culture. She is Professor of English & Creative Writing at the University of Washington—Seattle. You can find her on her website, https://mayasonenberg.com/, or on Twitter @MzzS36019.

Her essay, "The Tree. The Ash. The Ocean.," appeared in Issue Ninety-Eight of The Collagist. 

Here, Maya Sonenberg talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about climate disruption, research via Google, and Shirley Jackson.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “The Tree. The Ash. The Ocean.” What inspired you to begin writing the first draft?

I wrote this in response to a prompt called the 20 Little Essays Project and published on the Draft Journal website. It was developed by Amy Butcher and written about by Felicia Schneirderhan. As I remember I was feeling stuck in the middle of a longer and complex essay project and really needed a prompt that would get words on the page. It just took off from there.

It looks writing this essay required some significant research. Can you describe your process for selecting the cited materials and synthesizing them into a remarkably concise final product? To what extent did you know what you were seeking in your research, and to what extent did you discover your subject matter through reading (and looking at) those materials?

OK—I’ll just admit it: Google is my friend. I was drafting this in the middle of the 2017 forest fire and hurricane seasons, so “natural”[*] disasters were in the news every day. Once I knew which ones I’d be referring to in the essay, I started searching, which led me to new, more specific information and also to things I didn’t expect to find but which ended up being important to the essay, such as the aerial photos of the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma, for example, or the bit about the emerald ash borer beetle. Whenever I do research, I end up with masses of information and include all of it in a draft. Later I go back and try to figure which one or two examples are the most vivid or specific or odd and keep those. I don’t think doing the research here ended up changing any of my ideas about the subject matter (that’s certainly happened with other projects), except perhaps to expand the range of atrocities and disasters I referenced and so increase the sense of these things feeling overwhelming.

In this essay, you write, “This essay is a moving target. Every time my eyes return, a new disaster to splay across these pages.” It does seem like a Sisyphean task, in 2018, to write a brief essay on how a spectator engages with large-scale disasters and atrocities around the globe. Why was it important to you to write and publish such an essay? Is writing about it a method for coping, or facing the tragedy, or both, or something else entirely?

Trying to come to terms with these things is a Sisyphean task, and I’m sorry to say that writing about them only made them seem even more overwhelming. Facing the daily news cycle is overwhelming. I think it’s important to acknowledge that and to keep reminding each other that we’re all finding this overwhelming. Reading Philip Gourevtich’s book about Rwanda, disturbing though it was, was helpful in this regard; it was helpful to follow someone else trying to process atrocities in such an honest and thoughtful way. Then it helps to find one concrete way to address just one aspect of the overwhelmingness. For example, my daughter and I phone-banked for a congressional candidate this year. I hope, in some small way, we helped her to victory.

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

I have just completed eight mini-essays about the brilliant 20th century modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham and read them as part of a celebration of the centennial of his birth at Velocity Dance Center here in Seattle, a project supported by the Merce Cunningham Trust. The essays explore his relationship to the other arts, his use of chance operations as a generative practice, and my memories of taking classes at his studio when I was a teenager. I hope to visit the Cunningham archives to do some research and write more of these. I’m also in the midst of a book-length essay project about Jewish Utopian settlements in the Dakotas and the Bronx at the turn of the 20th century, my grandmother, and my love for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s children’s novels, problematic though they may be. Occasionally I take a break to write fairy tale inflected short stories.

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

I’m in the middle of Shelley Jackson’s Riddance, which is amazing. The structure is complex, every sentence is like an arrowhead (sharp and hard and beautiful), and every image is startlingly vivid. And speaking of another Jackson—I’ve been reading all of Shirley Jackson’s novels. We all (or most of us) learned about her as the author of the short story “The Lottery” when we were in middle school or high school and now know of her as the author of The Haunting of Hill House since it’s been turned into a Netflix series, but all of her novels are deeply, surprisingly, and inventively creepy. My favorites are The Road through the Wall (1948) which is an amazing send-up of suburbia, written right when suburbia was first coming into being, and Hangsaman (1951) about a girl’s freshman year at college. WARNING: no parent should read this novel during their own child’s first semester away at college. I made that mistake!


[*] “Natural” is in quotation marks here since consensus is building that the increasing severity and frequency of these disasters is a result of human-generated climate disruption.


"Less Ending Than Opening": An Interview with Karen Brennan

Karen Brennan is the author of seven books, the most recent of which is a hybrid short fiction collection, Monsters. Her poetry, nonfiction and fiction have been included in anthologies from Norton, Penguin, Graywolf, Michigan, Georgia and others. A visual artist as well as a writer, she is currently at work on a compendium of image-word memoirs, Television. Professor Emerita at the University of Utah, she is on the faculty of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

Her essays, "C'est moi," "Shame," and "Gurus," appeared in Issue Ninety-Seven of The Collagist. 

Here, Karen Brennan talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about short forms, memory in fragments, and indelible marks.

Please tell us about the origins of these three micro-memoirs. What inspired you to start writing them?

These pieces are part of a longer project, titled Television. I’d been looking for a vehicle for memoir, other than a chronological narrative. Memory is so often fragmentary and so the stories of our lives come to us in pieces, in glimpses. The final product, book-length, is an assemblage of memories, arranged to mimic the way the mind flits haphazardly from topic to topic, era to era in the act of recollecting a life while in the midst of living this one.

Each piece consists of only about 200 words or fewer. What has drawn you to such a short form? How much of a challenge is it to write a complete work so concisely?

As a poet as well as a prose writer, I am drawn to the short form. It is a matter of compression and release or, as E.M. Forster said of plot, “a system of tension and resolution.” On the micro-level, the process is speeded up, the rhythms are especially crucial and resolution is less ending than opening.

In the third piece, “Gurus,” you describe the sort of scene that used to take place in a particular room you were once in more than you show the reader what was actually taking place while you were there. Why do you believe the history of that place pulled your attention? What’s the significance for you of that space’s legacy (or any given place’s storied past, perhaps)?

Well, it’s ironic, for one thing. The idea that the place where we worshipped a spiritual leader on a throne used to be the venue for Borscht Belt comedians is pretty hilarious. But, really, this piece is about imagination—how the narrator imagines what must have been there before and wonders about the layers of history that inhabit—and possibly affect—a particular space. I used to live in an old Victorian, circa 1996. There was writing on the inside of one of the closets left by the wife of a well-known poet in the 50s, a stove from the 1920s and an apricot tree over 100 years old. It all struck me as magical, as if I were destined to be there and to leave some kind of indelible mark.

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

Mainly the book I’m calling Television.

But also a play and some poems.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

Murakami’s marvelous new book of short stories; Robert Musil’s Posthumous Papers of a Living Author; HHhH by Laurent Binet; Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful: a book about jazz.


"The Nomad You Always Wanted to Be": An Interview with Nicholas Bredie

Nicholas Bredie is the author of Not Constantinople (Dzanc), recognized by The Morning News as one of the best books of 2017. With Joanna Howard he is the translator of Frédéric Boyer’s Cows (Noemi Press 2014). His writing has appeared in Guernica, The Fairy Tale Review, The Believer, Electric Literature, Puerto del Sol and elsewhere. He lives with the writer Nora Lange.

His story, "The Boy in the Animal Enclosure," appeared in Issue Ninety-Eight of The Collagist. 

Here, Nicholas Bredie talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about tiny houses, Harambe the gorilla, and visiting Ojai in 2016.

Please tell us about the origins of your story “The Boy in the Animal Enclosure.” What inspired you to begin writing the first draft?

It was the Netflix documentary about tiny houses. As I watched it, I felt “I could do this” even “I should do this.” Live small, live free, be the nomad you always wanted to be, etc. But as the camera pans out on the tiny house out on the rolling chaparral hillsides it’s apparent that this is just the reheated leftovers of the American dream. Roxanne Gay wrote about this feeling at length last year.

Tiny house or no, feelings of diminished possibilities were always scurrying around the baseboards of my and my friend’s lives the past few years. Especially in Southern California. So that formed the setting and the tone for the story. For more on that subject let me plug Nora Lange’s story “The Craftsman” in the latest Denver Quarterly.

Many people are familiar with the killing of Harambe in 2016, and most will likely remember it when they read your story. Why did you decide to fictionalize such a widely reported true event? And why name the fictional gorilla after Patrice Lumumba?

Reading that news, I was pretty depressed. I felt that it was unjust that this animal who’d been forced to live as an exhibit far from home was then murdered because some potato-headed child fell into his enclosure. I realize how anti-social that sounds. But to me the whole situation seemed rooted in the high value we put on American life. It’s near limitless potential. That we all might grow up to be astronauts and presidents one day. Successful on our own terms at the least, with all the material trappings there of. And all that we seem willing to destroy to maintain it even as it’s daily shown to be hollow at the core. From there it was a short conceptual distance to the CIA’s assassination of Patrice Lumumba, at least for me.

How much did this story change from the first draft to the final one? How would you describe your revision process in this case? Was it typical or atypical for you? How so?

Revision for me is mostly chopping. I like to live in my work. In fact, it’s my favorite place to live. So I tend to overwrite and then bring things down. The first draft was probably twice the words, many on the uncertain charms of imagined life in Ojai. We had some friends who lived there who we’d had occasion to visit. They sort of lived on the fringes of this secret valley where the air was thin, it was compelling. This was all in 2016, before the Thomas Fire all but consumed the town.

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

I’m cycling through working on some stories, a novel and a dissertation. In a case of life imitating art, Nora and I were evicted from the basement apartment of the aforementioned Los Angeles craftsman home in April and have been on the road since. Right now we’re close to a research library, so I’m working on the dissertation.

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

Phil A. Neel’s Hinterland felt like putting on a new pair of glasses. Things came into focus. I’m excited to read Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Enard. I loved Zone and I love Istanbul, so I will not be disappointed. Otherwise I’ve spent a lot of my recent reading time going back over Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism for my dissertation, and my general disposition.


"Make It Formally Dynamic": An Interview with Evan Lavender-Smith

Evan Lavender-Smith’s writing has recently been published by Arts & Letters, BOMB, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Egress, Harvard Review, Hobart, New England Review, The Southern Review, The White Review and many other magazines and websites. He is the author of Avatar (Six Gallery Press, 2011) and From Old Notebooks (Dzanc Books, 2013), the founding editor of Noemi Press, and an assistant professor in the MFA program at Virginia Tech. Visit him at el-s.net.

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

Here, Evan Lavender-Smith talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about studying Spanish, alternating points of view, and writing about thinking.

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

“Last Thing” was a fairly accurate description of the beginning of a trip to Peru I took with my wife and daughter. I was convinced—as I’m often convinced when getting on an airplane—that the airplane was going to fall apart upon takeoff. I believe I started writing “Last Thing” shortly after it didn’t.

What made you want to write a story that uses Spanish almost as much as English? What was that process like for you?

Sometimes my Spanish is OK, sometimes I don’t seem to have much Spanish at all. I’ll spend several months working hard on my Spanish, and I’ll feel I’m real making progress toward fluency, and then I’ll stop for some reason, maybe because I have to start teaching again or because I feel I have to spend all free my time working on an essay or story or playing the piano. My Spanish was probably at its all-time best at the moment in time when “Last Thing” takes place; I’d recently come off of doing this herculean translation of an epic poem by Chilean poet Pablo de Rokha, a project that took many months to complete. I guess it just felt like Spanish was suddenly a tool I had at my disposal, even though that tool wasn’t especially sharp. But I imagine that was part of the pleasure I took in employing it, leaning on my interminable poverty with Spanish in order to cast myself as the linguistic buffoon that I sometimes am. I remember early on trying to make the Spanish in “Last Thing” really good, really perfect—there were all these Spanish-English dictionaries and grammars littered around my writing space—and then at some point thinking to myself, “Wait a minute, your Spanish totally blows, Evan, so why are you trying to make it seem like you’re so good at it?” So then I went back through and tried to capture some of the malapropisms and hiccups and inanities that occur whenever I attempt to think or speak in Spanish. The other pleasure I took in using Spanish was the way it seemed to allow me to sort of expand the formal territory of the sentence, so many translated qualifications and clauses all over the place leading to new and weird possibilities for the sentence. I think my favorite sentence in “Last Thing,” if I’m remembering it correctly, is this one: “No: no.” The first “no” is an English “no”; the second “no” is a translation into Spanish of the English “no,” which is also the word “no.” I don’t imagine I’d ever have an opportunity to write a sentence like that—that is, one that actually makes sense according to the formal rules established by the writing at hand—in any other context. That was very exciting to me.

Large portions of this story are the protagonist’s stream of consciousness, first-person pronouns sometimes taking over as he thinks to himself. Would you talk about how you represent such free association in writing? Do you attempt to write as freely as the character is thinking in order to make it seem authentic? And how much do you revise parts like these?

In “Last Thing” and a few other things I’ve written, the thinking mind seems to alternately want to inhabit the role of subject, of object, of something in between subject and object, even of some sort of subject-object whole. I can be “I,” but I can also be “you”; I can also be a person named “Evan”; I can also be all three of these things at once. When I think, often I find myself thinking about myself in the first person (e.g. “I need a drink right now”), and often I find myself thinking about myself in the second person (e.g. “You really, really need to go pour yourself a drink right now”), and often I find myself thinking in the third person (e.g. “If Evan doesn’t go pour himself a drink right now, who knows what might happen?”), and often I find myself thinking in a variable POV (“You need a drink! I should really go pour myself one right now or else Evan might lose his shit!”). In these few things I’ve written that play around with this bizarre confluence or alternation of various perspectival modes of thought, I seem to find myself drawn to the possibilities of jamming them all up against one another in order to create, as I’ll refer it when describing such a thing to my students, a “crowding effect.” We encounter such crowding effects in other guises—ones that aren’t as tied to thinking, often—in the writing of people who seem dissatisfied with that more streamlined uniformity of expression that’s most often prized in writing, as well as taught to young writers, which I think is what’s most often actually being signified when creative writing teachers say that it’s important to “Find your voice.” “Find your voice” reads to me as something more along the lines of, “Write uniformly. And don’t fuck around with a whole bunch of different modes of language, especially in the same poem/essay/story/book.” Pound said “Make it new,” and I agree that making it new is important, even all these years on; but, in the face of what I perceive to be so much internal formal consistency among all the writing that most gets read these days—even among things that might indeed feel “new”—I guess I’d be eager to amend Pound’s statement to read, “Make it new—but also make it formally dynamic.”

As far as authenticity is concerned, I’m not sure. I don’t really believe that mere language is commensurate to, or capable of somehow fully or genuinely representing, thought. My primary fidelity as a writer writing about thinking isn’t necessarily to the accurate portrayal of thought by way of words, but rather to the invention of figures for the representation of thought within the context of all the pressures associated with a uniquely sovereign and uniquely coherent aesthetic object—a specific essay, story, poem, book, etc. I don’t really believe that thought can be directly or authentically represented in art. We either have to come up with formal analogies to thought that, at best, remind us of the structures of thought, or, as most writers do, we just try to not really give much of a shit about thought and instead write mainly about “events,” about people actually out in the world doing things with their bodies, etc. The problem, as I see it, is that an appreciation of thought-as-such is so far beyond the ability of our immediate or even our sustained comprehension that it’s almost as if we have to just either give up on it entirely, or, if we’re ambitious enough to make a go at it, the best we can do is create a figure for thought, an allegory or metaphor or something. I don’t actually think the way I think in “Last Things,” just as an IRL Stephen or Bloom or Molly wouldn’t think the way Stephen or Bloom or Molly thinks in Ulysses. The point I guess I’m trying to make is that, for me, the complexity of thought seems to exceed the limit of writing’s potential complexity. So as writers intent on engaging with thought in our writing, we’re put in the position of having to act like bricoleurs, like people scrambling around working with little scraps of whatever’s within reach, working with what little is available to us in language toward the end of just barely illuminating the incomprehensibly vast complexity of the thinking mind.

And yes, I revise like a maniac. I spend most of my time writing revising.

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

I’m just now completing a collection of essays, which includes “Last Thing” as part of a much longer thing called “Going to Peru”; and, after many botched attempts at trying to nail down a structure I feel OK with, I’m finally completing a collection of stories.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

I liked Matthew Vollmer’s Permanent Exhibit a lot. It’s a collection of lyric, associative meditations on a range of subjects. I interviewed him about it here. Now that the academic winter break is about to hit, I’m planning to reread a bunch of books in preparation for a class I’m teaching next semester on shorter debut novels, including Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (maybe my favorite living writer), Spurious by Lars Iyer (probably the funniest living writer I know of), Event Factory by Renee Gladman (not sure if that’s actually her first “novel,” though), Florida by Christine Schutt, Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (whose little book of essays, Sidewalks, is very good), Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera (whose book Signs Preceding the End of the World is also very good), and several other books I can’t name because I’m not using the computer on which I have my working syllabus stored and also I have internet-blocking software turned on right now. Which reminds me that Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies is surely one of the greatest works of nonfiction written in this century; I’m reminded of it because the book’s self-imposed constraint—which is actually less interesting to me than the sheer beauty of the writing—is that the author doesn’t allow himself to look at the internet or any secondary material while composing the essays. I’d also like to recommend John Keene’s recent book, Counternarratives, which to my mind is a paragon of the formally dynamic short story collection, an ideal counterexample to the collection in which “Find your voice” is a guiding principle.


"Gaining Energy through Torque": An Interview with Caryl Pagel

Caryl Pagel is the author of two collections of poetry, Twice Told (University of Akron Press), and Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press). Her poetry and prose have appeared in AGNI, Entropy, The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, and Volta, among other journals. Caryl is the co-founder and editor of Rescue Press, a poetry editor at jubilat, and the director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She is an assistant professor at Cleveland State University, where she teaches in the NEOMFA program.

Her essay, "Lost in Thought," appears in Issue Ninety-Seven of The Collagist. 

Here, Caryl Pagel talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about women's faces in public, the essay's form as tornado, and attention to sound and rhythm.

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

The essay arose from some combination of stumbling into Harry Callahan’s “Women Lost in Thought” series in the National Gallery in 2012 and the pernicious, enduring circumstances of a woman being harassed when walking down a street alone. The Callahan photos are from the 1950s but seventy years later a woman’s face in public is still an interestingly controlled (or vulnerable) space. One must manage not to smile (inviting positive attention), frown (inviting advice, i.e. “smile, honey!”), appear unkempt or ugly (inviting cruelty), or brandish beauty (inviting violence). Moving through a day this way can feel like striking a pose and holding it; becoming closed, ghost-like.

My favorite parking garage in Chicago (where this essay takes place) has a mural from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s series “Stop Telling Women to Smile.” One imagines that Thoreau, Rousseau, O’Hara, and Walser were rarely interrupted in their reverie by relentless pestering. “Lost in Thought” moves through several other subjects (Vivan Maier’s street photography, mediums as original grief counselors, and trance states, etc.), but that’s where it began.

This essay (over 4,500 words) is presented in only one paragraph, unbroken except for a few interspersed photographs. How did you decide that the essay should take this form? Was it a challenge to compose a text of this length in a single paragraph?

The engine of this essay is association; I imagined the form as a tornado, gaining energy through torque, needing a kind of pressurized formal momentum in order to create instability, to launch.

You are the author of both poetry and nonfiction. What lessons have you learned from your work in one genre that have made you a better writer in the other?

It’s tough to claim “better,” but poetry has a clear influence on my sentences: I pay attention to sound and rhythm, occasionally disregarding narrative ease. I’m interested in moving from moment to moment, step by step (as one does when accustomed to working in the unit of the line), as opposed to generating essays via scene or plot points.

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

I’ve just finished the book that this essay is a part of, currently titled Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. I think I’ll return to poetry for a while.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

Last week I attended a reading by Suzanne Buffam and Srikanth Reddy; one of the best readings I’ve been to in years. I recommend everything the two of them have written.  

Two prose books I’d recommend are Hilary Plum’s Strawberry Fields (Fence) and Caren Beilin’s Spain (Rescue Press). For a taste of their intelligence and humor, check out the interviews between the two of them at the Fence blog. 

Three other wonders I encountered this year were Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark (Dorothy), Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury), and Milk by Dorothea Laskey (Wave Books).


“The Underground Laundromat”: An Interview with Paul Albano

Paul Albano is from Milwaukee, WI. His work can be found in cream city review, Paper Darts, and Whiskey Island Magazine. He teaches English at the University of Alabama.

His story, “Nation of Cavaliers,” appeared in Issue Ninety-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about vampiric dental mutilation, the ice floe approach to short fiction writing, and unobtrusiveness.

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

It was initially written as a companion piece to another story featuring most of the same characters on another leg of their journey. I’m not sure what the catalyst for that story was, but I remember composing the initial shell of it during the many, many hours I spent waiting for, and riding on, trains and buses around the city—so my guess would be all of that stuff and boredom. 

The version of Chicago you present in your story is a combination of the real one and of a ruinous, seemingly diseased nightmare city. And yet none of the characters are bothered by the terrors that surround them. Why did you decide to portray Chicago this way? And what do you think this portrayal does for your story?

I’ve long been fascinated with depicting things as heightened versions of themselves, particularly with Chicago—which always seems to be teetering on the edge of nightmarish self-parody. For “Cavs,” the ambition is to use the setting to propel the primary emotional arc of the story—one character’s belated realization that he lives inside a nightmare—through the accumulation of madness and despair forever floating around the periphery.

In spite of the Gothic horrors in “Nation of Cavaliers,” this story is hilarious. I would even say, it’s so funny we forget, at times, that almost every living thing in the piece has mutated into some sort of monster (Mugs throughout is even consciously, although only superficially transforming himself into a vampire, no matter how insanely painful that transformation may be). What role do you think humor plays in this story, then?

Well, I suppose the intent at least is for the humor to undercut the potential dramatic moments of the story—which can build an odd tension for the characters (and hopefully even the reader)—as well as magnify the Vampiric dental mutilation and other horrors by presenting them as normal, quotidian occurrences all motivated by an internal logic.  

Unlike the lavish speech Mugs quotes from multiple times (and which supplies you with the title), the prose style here is very straightforward, economical. Even the dialogue is summarized, meaning we get almost the entire story from a first person narrator who does nothing in the piece but tell us what’s happening. Why did you choose this style for “Nation of Cavaliers,” and why did you choose to have the story narrated by a character so innocuous he’s praised at one point for his “unobtrusive presence?”

It’s a style of writing I really like and try to use frequently—and I imagine it started as a clumsy parody of Hemingway’s (in)famous “iceberg” approach (though with far fewer moments of poignancy or depth, so really more of an “ice floe”). In terms of the character, I think of the protagonist as a kind of embodied third person cinematic narrator—he reports on the surrounding people and events that enthrall him, but does so with limited editorializing and virtually no sense of interiority (born from both his intense fascination with the universe and his inability to understand much of it). The aim (and connected to the previous question) is to create humor by juxtaposing the flatness of the narrative voice with the calamitous world it describes. 

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I just finished a Nero Wolfe book (Bitter End—by Rex Stout), which is my favorite of the Golden Age Detective series. There are many things I like about the books—the abundance of important newspaper headlines and drugstores that also serve corned beef sandwiches, and of course all scenes where someone takes off a hat and hands it to another character who seemingly always fails to give it back—but I’m drawn to them primarily because of the language. Stout is the best sentence-level writer I’ve encountered in the mystery genre and while his work never reaches (or reaches for) the hardboiled mythology of Chandler or Hammett (both of whom I’m also huge fans of and would highly recommend), the central conceit of the series—that Nero Wolfe refuses leaves his brownstone on business, and thereby never investigates the actual crime scene, which forces him to solve the mysteries almost purely with rhetoric—is something that I, as someone fond of both words and not going places, find grandly inspiring.

What are you writing these days?

I have a short story coming out in Entropy later this month—it’s a home invasion story about the Ghost of Christmas Present—but beyond that I’ve mostly been working on a novel that refuses to end no matter how many words I throw into it.


"And to What Kingdoms, By What Covenant?": An Interview with Robert Campbell

Robert Campbell is the author of the chapbook In the Herald of Improbable Misfortunes (Etchings Press, 2018). His poetry and criticism have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, The Collagist, Columbia Poetry Review, River Styx, Ninth Letter, Asheville Poetry Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Sundog Lit, Zone 3, The Adroit Journal, and many other journals. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, short-listed for the 2015 Black Warrior Review Poetry Contest, third place winner of the 2013 River Styx International Poetry Contest, and previous winner of the Flo Gault Poetry Prize through Sarabande Books, Robert holds an MFA in poetry from Murray State University and an MS in library science from the University of Kentucky. He lives with his partner and animals on a winding country road in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky.

His poems, "Jesus for Lobsters" and "Hero, by Which I Mean," appeared in Issue Seventy-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Courtney Flerlage about revision, voltas, and the natural world.

How did you begin writing “Lobsters for Jesus”?  

I often stumble into poems with really strange questions in hand. In this case, I wanted to peer into the idea of religion through an animal lens. They used to keep dozens of lobsters in little tanks in grocery stores when I was a kid. They were so crowded that they would be piled on top of each other, and I find that image so disgusting and ripe for metaphor.

Even as its topic seems playful upon initially reading the title, “Jesus for Lobsters” strikes a unique urgency as it describes the imagined “Lobster Jesus” who is “neither kind nor personal.” I’m caught by the poem’s voice, its confidence from the very beginning of the poem: “Say there are fifteen holy beatitudes for lobsters. / Pretend with me. Blessed are the spiny ones, / for their hearts shall be smoothest.” Here, even as the poem invites the (seemingly) playful consideration of lobster beatitudes, the syntax suggests, through its imperatives, that this imagining has a goal, an ending reward, something serious to say. And it does: by the end of the poem, the focus shifts, and the lobster becomes an image of human hunger, emphasized all the more after an empathetic and almost intimate consideration that the lobsters are left unprotected by “Lobster Jesus” who “isn’t going / to save you.” This careful shifting of playfulness and urgency makes for a compelling poem—could you share a bit about how the poem found its way into this balance?

It strikes me that the poem found its way toward a darker tone over several revisions, and I'm not exactly sure at which point I decided that it needed a little darkness. Speculative poems, for me, tend to veer off into a kind of playfulness that can be a lot of fun, but the danger is always writing something that isn't anchored to a necessary discussion. The benefit of delaying the serious voice is that you can avoid being too on-the-nose and also catch the reader off guard. But something necessary really has to be there, otherwise it's all play.

The sonnet form of “Hero, By Which I Mean” accomplishes what voice does for “Jesus for Lobsters”—it generates a sense of momentum even as the poem shifts focus. The poem starts with describing a familiar hero, the “Most handsome person in the room, who laughs / the loudest at lame jokes.” By the end of the poem, however, the harsher side to “hero” is revealed: “Most choked by pills. Most thrown / down stairs.” The repetition of “Most” at the beginning of each sentence (“Most crass” and “Most bar-hopped, most cruised, most stopped”) as the sonnet drives the poem forward through rhyme opens increasingly intimate portraits of the “hero.” Did the poem always exist as a sonnet?

I guess I always intended the poem for the sonnet form (it was written as part of a series of "hero" sonnets), but you know how things go: an early draft usually doesn't fit the form very well, so you begin to whittle and play around with it until it does. The volta was an important part of this poem for me, and that emerged pretty early on when drafting the poem. I like poems that pivot. When I wrote this, I was very interested in the idea of celebrity and the voice of the outsider, so I really wanted a voice to challenge the hero and somehow address how our love of celebrity is often closely paired with our love of destruction-as-spectacle.

What are you reading right now?

Prose poems! Robert Duncan has some really cool ones in A Book of Resemblances. He's such a lovable weirdo. I recently bought The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry, which features poems and essays addressing the form. It's really lovely, and I highly recommend it.

What project(s) are you working on? 

My chapbook, In the Herald of Improbable Misfortunes, just came out this year from Etchings Press at the University of Indianapolis, so I've been doing a few readings and trying to help promote it. My new work is coming along very slowly and is very grounded in the natural world. My husband and I have lived on a small farm for the past two years. You see some wild stuff out in the country: strange weather, animal guests, lots of death and renewal. Some of these poems are quite a bit darker than what I usually write. I always seem to be reaching for the voice of the outsider in my work, and the natural world is kind of the ultimate Other, in a way.


"Between Improvisation and Intention": An Interview with Kristine Langley Mahler

Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review and has been recently published in The Normal School, New Delta Review, Quarter After Eight, Fugue, Gigantic Sequins, and The Rumpus, among others. Visit her at kristinelangleymahler.com.

Her essay, "Lanes," appeared in Issue Ninety-Six of The Collagist. 

Here, Kristine Langley Mahler talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about erasures, our impressions of the truth, and the rules of being a teenage girl.

What can you say about the origins of your erasure piece “Lanes”? How did you first encounter the original text? What inspired you to create this erasure?

“Lanes” is an erasure essay from a book-length erasure project I’m (still) in the process of completing, which started with an old thrift store copy of The Seventeen Book of Etiquette and Entertaining from 1963. I’d always loved the pomp and circumstance of social behavior from the decades before my casual youth in the 90s, and as I read through the guide, I kept encountering so many directives to the reader which offended my sensibilities. I didn’t want to ruin the book—a document of a foregone era—but I had to do something, so I made a photocopy of the book and started removing parts of the text to make the chapters read like what I believed I was really being instructed to do; how I had interpreted the rules of being a teenage girl.

In the process of erasing the chapters, I’m creating a narrative where the sentences are pushing back and illuminating my experience, not agreeing with the “any girl can get a date if you just do _____” bullshit promises of the guide (and the magazines of that era)—those weren’t representative of my adolescence.

Please describe the process of how you composed this erasure. Did you work by hand, or on a computer, or both? Was there a specific intention behind the choices of what language to erase, or was it more improvisational?

I generally erase by hand, but I circle the words/letters I want to keep rather than blacking out the parts I am not using because when it comes to revision, I’m always grateful when I can still see what I removed. I learned this the hard way on a few chapters! Once the chapter is complete, I type it up and begin to edit, though I usually have a pretty light hand—just looking for clarity—because I’ve already removed so much.

For me, creating an erasure is a delicate balance between improvisation and intention. It’s probably important to note that, somewhere along the line, I switched toward using less of the direct text and, instead, creating new words from the text. The word creation still follows the rules of erasure (must remain in original order with nothing added), but has allowed a new lyricism to filter through.

It’s a somewhat mystical process—I can’t describe how I know what words I want to keep and which to remove. I read through a chapter once or twice before beginning the erasure, and sometimes I erase the title first, which helps dictate what I plan to look for in the piece. But mostly, I go with my gut and keep the phrases or words that jump out at me.

Your bio states you are “a memoirist experimenting with the truth.” Can you elaborate on that—how you experiment with the truth and what that means to you? (Is erasure a form of experiment that you practice often? If so, would you tell us a little about why you are drawn to erasure?)

Nonfiction is constantly maligned over readers’ skepticism that its authors cannot possibly be telling The Truth. There’s a presumption that a single, unvarnished, empirical truth exists, and I’m not stepping on any Alternative Facts when I say that in the subgenre of memoir, feelings and emotions can color our impressions of the truth. I can take a relationship from my past and describe it as I knew it at the time; I can take that same relationship and describe it with the knowledge I have now; I can take that relationship a third time and describe it as I wanted it to be; I can take that relationship again and describe it the way my best friend tells me she remembers it, and on and on into infinity. All of those impressions illuminate different facets of the unalterable facts.

To experiment with the truth is to allow experience to constantly re-filter information which had once seemed static. Erasure essays, for me, are performances of those re-filtered truths. I’m drawn to uncertainty and recalibration, both in my erasures and my essays, as evidence of our capacity for growth.

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

I’m still completing the full book-length erasure of the Seventeen guide, though the end is in sight. I’m also sorting through research I’ve gathered towards a project on the privilege of home, examining immigration and my family’s four-hundred-year occupation on native land. I’ve pored through both revisionist and traditional accounts of Canadian history; traveled to Québec, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to understand the places my ancestors have called home; and spent a year transcribing eighteen years of my great-grandfather’s diaries into 500+ pages of primary source documents. I expect I’ll be confronting the specter of “home” and all its promises for quite some time.

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

Two recent essay collections which blew me away were Jessie van Eerden’s The Long Weeping and Erica Trabold’s forthcoming Five Plots, which I was fortunate to receive as an ARC. Their circuitous routes around memory, home, and truth are fascinating and inspiring.


“Pygmy Elephants and Cowboy Presidents”: An Interview with Travis Price

Travis Price received his MFA in fiction from North Carolina State University. His work has appeared in pioneertown. He is from Philadelphia and currently lives in Montevideo, Uruguay.

His story, “Molly's Boyfriend,” appeared in Issue Ninety-Eight of The Collagist.

 Here, he speaks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about polyamory, the value of that which is fictional, and “millennial” stories.   

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

Polyamory was a trending topic among some friends when I was living in North Carolina. I got to thinking about an unwilling participant in a tri-amorous relationship who does his best to convince himself he’s on board with it.

I have heard people say that they don’t read fiction because “it’s not real” or “it’s just something someone made up.” And yet, we make things up all the time and convince ourselves that they are real (even though they exist only in our minds). How do you see “Molly’s Boyfriend” playing with this split between our generally suspicious natures and our tendency to believe our own imaginations?

I agree that we can be suspicious, though I think we are often selectively suspicious, and other times quite credulous. We just need someone to give us a reason to set aside our disbelief. I think Molly does that for the narrator, at least for most of the story. And I think, in general, readers believe that fictional worlds have meaning and relevance because the writer has done something meaningful along the way to earn their trust.  

But it can be very difficult to accept the value of something that is fictional if you believed it was real all along. This, for me, is what troubles the narrator at the end of “Molly’s Boyfriend.”

There is a truly fantastic metafictional conceit at play in this story. After we meet the three characters (Molly, Molly’s boyfriend, and the narrator), and after we start to accept the idea of their budding tri-amorous relationship, the narrator then wonders if Molly’s boyfriend actually exists (since the narrator has never seen or talked to him). When the narrator decides Molly’s boyfriend might not be real, he wonders: “How can I miss someone I’ve never met?” while still feeling pain for his loss – almost as if Molly’s boyfriend had died. Remarkably, I’d argue, the reader feels the same pain. And yet, not a single one of these characters was ever truly alive. Missing one of them is as absurd as missing any of them. Is the idea here that our imaginary worlds are just as important as the real world and losing anything in that imaginary world is just as difficult? Or, is it that everyone ultimately disappears into their own contradictions (the twin impulses of wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out inherent in the tri-amorous relationship)? Perhaps something else is going on here?

This question reminds me of T.C. Boyle’s “Chicxulub,” in which he plays with this same idea—the ambiguous loss of a fictional character—more intentionally, I think, than I did. We’ve all had the experience of reaching the end of a book, and then not wanting it to be over, of feeling sad that we can’t spend any more time in that world, with the characters we’ve come to know. In “Molly’s Boyfriend,” we can commiserate with the narrator on this front before he too disappears on us.

But if literature (or any form of storytelling) lives on with us after the book/film/play has reached its end, if our internal worlds have changed as a result, then dismissing fiction as merely imaginary fails to acknowledge its power. And if “imagination” is the discrepancy between the events and stimuli of the “real world” and our mind’s way of processing them, then that’s where all the good stuff is.

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I keep coming across Stuart Dybek stories I wish I’d written, like “Pet Milk” and “Paper Lantern.” And as a fan of short-story collections in general, I always like going back to Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer and Bobcat by Rebecca Lee.

More than novels, which are constrained by the forward momentum of one, overarching plot, I think short-story collections give insight into the obsessions of an author. I have a much better sense of “knowing” a writer after having read a short-story collection than after having read a novel.

What are you writing these days?

Lately I’ve found myself attempting to write what I think of as “millennial” stories. I don’t always identify all that strongly with my generation, but I’ve also come to recognize that the experience of millennials is relatively uncharted territory in the long history of literature, and that it’s a topic I feel qualified to speak on. What does it mean to be a member of this generation, alive at the beginning of the decline of the Western world? Why might we respond to existential threats with apathy? Why have we overcome some of the prejudices of previous generations but not others? Am I overusing the dog filter on Snapchat, or am I not using it enough? These are the some of the questions propelling me at the moment when I sit down to write.