Tuesday
May202014

"A Different Galaxy in My Creative Space": An Interview with Clark Knowles

Clark Knowles teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire. He received his M.A. in fiction writing from the University of New Hampshire, and his MFA in Writing from Bennington College. The Arts Council of the State of New Hampshire awarded him a Individual Fellowship for the year 2009. His fiction has appeared in recent issues of: Harpur Palate, Conjunctions, Limestone, Nimrod, Eclipse, and Glimmer Train Stories.

His story, "Life, After," appeared in Issue Fifty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Clark Knowles talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about subconscious decisions, mysterious creative moments, and a strange dream.

What can you tell us about the origins of the story “Life, After” (the how, when, and/or why of your beginning to write the first draft or conceiving the initial idea)?

I was in the English office at my school (University of New Hampshire) and the cover story to the Writer’s Chronicle was a piece called “The Afterlife of Henry James.” A colleague of mine (the wonderful poet Shelley Girdner) and I thought that would make a great title for a poem. She wrote a beautiful poem with that title, and I wrote the little prose piece that starts off my story, “Life, After.” Once I finished imagining the afterlife of Henry James, I thought I might try to imagine the afterlife of some other great writers. From there, I just followed the path.

How did you choose the writers whose afterlives you would give us your vision of? Are all of these dead authors especially meaningful to you in a personal way? (How have any of their works informed or affected more of your own writing?)

They are special to me and I’ve read widely from all of their works, some more than others. I’ve read almost all of Hemingway, a ton of Woolf, a boatload of the Russians, a handful of James, a good chunk of Dickinson, Joyce, Bukowski, and Wallace. I wouldn’t say I’m a scholar on any of these authors, but I know I’ll return to all of them again as a reader, because they all have something that calls my attention. I don’t know why I chose these writers over others. No Faulkner? No Morrison? No Dante? No George or T.S. Eliot? For every writer here, there are dozens left off the list. The selection process felt organic; I didn’t choose with a particular plan in mind, at least not a conscious plan. Perhaps I’ll write part two someday—or turn it into some sort of longer meditation on the writers that fill my shelves.

Describe your process of imitating the linguistic styles of some of the prose authors you chose to include. Which writer’s voice did you find most challenging to adopt? (most fun? most educational?)

Joyce was certainly the most difficult—I wanted to capture the fluidity of his voice without actually trying to copy anything directly. Much of his section came after I meditated on perhaps the most beautiful final paragraph to any short story ever written—“The Dead.” There is something about all that snow falling obliquely that just kills me. I wanted that image to be in Joyce’s section. I had the most fun writing the Dickinson and the Hemingway sections. I loved the idea of Emily Dickinson being her own instrument of creative power and I wanted her to be happy for some reason; I wanted Hemingway to be a part of one of his stories—and I wanted him to be really alive, vital, in the moment. I don’t know if Hemingway ever actually got in the ring with a bull, but I think he’d appreciate the little inviting flick of the wrist I gave him as he called the bull toward him.

The ninth and final writer in the list is, of course, you, Clark Knowles. (I assume the number nine was chosen carefully, perhaps in reference to Dante.) What made you decide to use yourself as subject of the story’s last arrival? What was it like to construct an impression of your own afterlife?

I should just agree and say, “Yes, I chose number nine carefully…because of Dante…or perhaps John Lennon…” but I can only say that I arrived at number nine and found myself at myself on the list. Perhaps I was thinking of nine subconsciously. I hope I was. It’s always been a significant number to me. Still, I can’t say that it was chosen on a conscious level and not chosen carefully at all. I teach fiction and in my classes we talk often about the act of creation and how it has to be maintained as a mysterious process to some degree. We talk about the structures of stories, about character, about how authors approach the image, about the role of imagination, about language—always language—but I tell them that part of the role of the fiction writer is to cultivate the mysterious creative moment—to explore it, certainly, but also to hold it close as one might hold close any sacred thing. I suspect that I knew all along that I was writing toward my own self in this piece, but I couldn’t tell you why. I can’t analyze it because when I think about it, it pulls me back into the creative space. As to observing myself in the afterlife; that stems from a strange dream I once had (and have written about in several different stories) in which I was in a plane crash and all went black. Gradually, it grew light again and I was standing in a large bright room—like a large library with lots of heavy wooden tables. I wandered around until I saw my wife sitting at a table. She said she was glad to see me because her and my daughter had been waiting for me. Whatever afterlife I imagined for myself, it had to include both of them.

What writing projects are you working on now?

So many! I have an apocalyptic/zombie novel called Apocalypse Nation that I really like that I’m doing some final edits on which I hope to interest someone in. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever written before—it actually has a plot, which I can’t say I have much experience with. It was a blast to write, although quite difficult in many ways. Last summer I wrote the draft of a new manuscript called Once in a Lifetime and during the school year, I transcribed my handwritten notes to the computer. Over the summer, I hope to heavily revise and hone that book—another book that’s very different than anything I’ve ever done. I’ve placed short stories in lots of reviews and journals, but I’ve had less luck with placing longer pieces, so I’m just having fun writing what I want to write. Hopefully, someone will see something in them worth publishing. Over the winter, I took an online workshop with Peter Markus that knocked my socks off. With a little guidance from him, I found myself writing short stories that felt like they came from a different galaxy in my creative space.

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

I loved Tim Horvath’s Understories and Elise Juska’s The Blessings. And Rachel Kuschner’s The Flamethrowers. I also recently read Beckett’s trilogy—Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnamable—so fantastic. And weird. I read Delillo’s White Noise, which is flat out great. Last year, I read all of Camus’ fiction—I’d never read The Plague before—and I can’t even imagine why it took me nearly 48 years to find that book; it ranks as one of my all time great reading experiences. This year, I’m reading all of Thornton Wilder’s novels. We have to do that, I think, just dig into authors, get them into our systems. I’m not an analytical reader—although I think I’m a relatively sophisticated reader. I’m just fueling up so that when I sit down to write, the tank is topped off.

Sunday
May182014

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Norman Lock

Norman Lock’s recent books are The Boy and His Winter and Love Among the Particles (Bellevue Literary Press), In the Time of Rat (Ravenna Press), Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions (Spuyten Duyvil Press), Three Plays (Noemi Press), and Grim Tales (Mud Luscious Press/Dzanc). The House of Correction (Broadway Play Publishing) played recently in Istanbul, Athens, and Torun, Poland. Mounting Panic was broadcast by WDR Germany, in 2013. Lock has won The Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and writing fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

An excerpt from his novel, The Boy in His Winter, appeared in Issue Fifty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"—with further excerpts from The Boy in his Winter. Enjoy!

What is writing like?

No doubt writing, like anything else, is different for every man and woman who practices it. How could it not be? For some, it may be akin to love or making love; for others, to music, or breathing, or walking through the woods at the hour when the light falls softly onto the backs of the leaves, making them shine, or, at that same hour, by the sea when water and sky seem all one pale and luminous color. For me, writing is often what a lesser god must feel during the creation of a fallen world: joy, disturbance, some fear, perhaps, and doubt as to its usefulness.

For a long time—thirty years and more—writing for me was the production of words, assembled by patience and the love of words into sentences that, in their incremental deposits, built up worlds that had little to do with what’s called real. They were games to be played, circuses, realms, paradises, killing fields—universes governed by the laws of chance, necessity (the game’s own), or the almost limitless imagination that scoffs at probability, even possibility. Not that my fictions—serious, tragic, comic, melodramatic—were without humanity; to the contrary, they were, more often than not, concerned with the most significant questions of our age: identity, the instability of things, the anxiety that comes of living, for none knows how long, in a place and at a time when we, any one of us, can vanish. In that work, I registered my guilt for being only obliquely engaged with the actual world of men and women living in time; but mostly the stories, brief fictions, poems, and plays tended to exclude them in favor of metaphysics and metafictional conceits. I came of age at a time when language was “foregrounded.” Like Borges, like Beckett, like Calvino, like all those writers with whom I have an affinity of interest, I have been in love with ideas and with words.

With the writing of The Boy in His Winter, I resolved to enter the world (just as my Huck Finn does once Hurricane Katrina has blown him out of the mythic time of American literature into time, the true meaning of which is consciousness). In this novel and in American Meteor (due from Bellevue Literary Press in 2015), I have applied my powers of imagination to social and political questions, as well as to the continuing investigation of the vexed and vexing questions of being in the world and telling stories about it.

You want to know what my point is in all this?

I’m not sure. You see I am, at least, honest. But I think “all this” has to do with ideas of time and the secret confluences by which we arrive at points in our own histories. But because I do not wish to be remembered (if I will be remembered) as a self-indulgent fantasist, I’ll skip the purple patch for now, however much I wish to write it. I need to make amends for my indifference, for having turned my back on the world in favor of the beauties of the way. I’ll try to study cruelty (I regret my own) and render it in more familiar terms. But something of Mark Twain’s playfulness, his habit of fantasizing and exaggerating must have rubbed off on me. How could it be otherwise? So this account of my life must be impure: a mixture of high-minded tragedy and lowborn comedy (The Boy in His Winter, 36-7).

 

What isn’t writing like?

Writing—my writing—is not like realism. Influenced as it was and continues to be by my many years of writing poetry and an even longer time writing stage and radio plays, the work is not like most prose. Compression, lyricism, theatrical or cinematic structure aside, the stories and less definable fictions I’ve produced have their progenitors: Borges, Calvino, Barthelme, Kenneth Koch, Hildesheimer, Kafka, Vonnegut, Bruno Schulz, Landolfi, Mrozek—I would count Stephen Millhauser among them if I had not come to his marvelous fictions late in my career.

The Boy in His Winter is the beginning of something new for me: a divide—not a stylistic one, nor a structural one, nor even one of feelings to be expressed. The new novel announced to me an intention, unconscious at first, but soon enough deliberate, to acknowledge the outside world as well as the innermost one and to speak to things in the visible universe that have to do with issues that are the meat and drink of literary realism and Naturalism: inequality in all its varied guises—social, political, economic, sexual.

Storytelling is all about well-timed revelations. But I’m annoyed by writers who manipulate me, parceling out information as though they were dealing dope. To hell with narrative strategy! The moment seems right to me—now that I’ve shown how inadequate a gaff boy and deckhand I was—to reveal the reason for my being on board. The brothers used me as window dressing, in case the Coast Guard boarded us. With me leaning on a gaff, like a shepherd in a Christmas play, we were likely to be taken for a party of sportsmen instead of marijuana smugglers. For days, the brothers had been conditioning me to call them “Uncle.” (James was always James.)

The stinking meat and the dog? Edgar’s idea. He reasoned they’d throw a drug-sniffing hound off the scent. He had a subtle intelligence for a former garage mechanic, waterman, and roustabout. Edmund’s career was checkered with sojourns in reformatory and the county jail. What he did when he was at large involved—in their seasons—crab traps, a pick and shovel, supplying raw material to the proprietors of whiskey stills in the Louisiana backwoods. I don’t know what this book is about, but it feels like it might have something to do with the embarrassing notion of goodness. And its apparent scarcity.

Do I believe in it?

I’m still undecided. A boy, I did not judge people as I do now, according to a complicated Hammurabi’s code constructed of absolutes mitigated by fear, doubt, self-interest, and that “golden rule,” the quid pro quo. A boy, I judged as the sponge or oyster does the water it imbibes: by recoil and painful shock or a vague sense of well-being. Children are unconscious of good and evil and remain that way until they reach the age of self-regard. The adolescent discovers a tiny universe of the self with his first pimple and plunges headlong into a lifetime of dubious ethical transaction with the wider world (128-9).

I hope from here on in to write stories that have to do with moral problems rather than confining myself to the remote concerns of philosophers and the more precious ones of the aesthetes, though I will continue, helplessly, to write about metaphysical and aesthetic ideas, too. Ideas and words—these have always been my chief preoccupations and must continue to shape my fiction and plays even as they become more socially conscious.

… and …

(Goodness is a problem, isn’t it? How are we to be good in this world, in this age, and not seem laughable and absurd? [105])

While emerging from and grounded in nineteenth-century American history and that of its literature, The Boy in His Winter and American Meteor are neither history nor historical fiction; they use those histories, inflected by memory and the imagination, as a lens through which life in contemporary America can be observed and critiqued.

I dawdled in the streets of Little Mexico, drinking cervezas or Mexican sodas on the corners with people whose faces looked as if they’d been shaped from red clay and earth. I loved them, though I suspect they merely humored me. They called me Señor Alberto, and the young women flirted because they found me comical. I did so myself. There were no rivers left for me, and I came no nearer to the ocean than the end of Santa Monica Pier, which I visited at night to be still amid a moving crowd, listening to tender words or unkind ones, or to the popular music of the time as I had, in an earlier age, to the songs of Stephen Foster or the shameful tunes of minstrelsy. I stood at the end of the pier, like Rupert at the edge of the world, and watched fishermen dream of once more lifting into the gaudy light Pacific mackerel, bonito, halibut, and thornbacks—banished sadly and forever from the animal kingdom (184).

When you do it, why?

I’m helpless not to, regardless of the toll it takes, regardless of how I might have been happier having done something else in my life. Writing is a joy and also an affliction. The voice, like the Mississippi River, which seems, throughout The Boy in His Winter, to have shaped Huck’s journey and consciousness—the voice in my head is unstaunchable and ungainsayable.

The storytelling impulse was unstoppable once it had seized and fired my brain. I’ve never identified its origin—whether the gift of some muse that might be a spirit residing in the ferment of barley and hops or else in a more radiant atmosphere such as Swedenborg or Blake imbibed (103).

… and …

Jim and I were no longer aimless, although it could be argued that we were never so, having borrowed, unconsciously, the river’s own ineluctable end: steadfastly south to the broad Delta and to the Gulf and from there to the world’s far ends in space and also in time. I think now that we had been all along at the service of time, whose perfect materialization in history was the Mississippi, the great river, the father of waters. For good or ill, like it or not, it colored our thoughts and shaped our consciousness to its own unfathomable purpose (60).

When you don’t, why?

I have always written compulsively—helpless against the irresistible voice in my head. During my working life, only the demands of work and family could stop me in what felt like a headlong pursuit of something that might have been beauty (as I see it) and, too, might have been the need to be heard in order to prove my existence and was, also and most assuredly, simple ambition. (Is ambition or vanity ever simple?) Now that I am retired, there is very little to stop me except physical and mental exhaustion.

This seems a good place to stop before lighting out for the Territory. I’ve had my say, and I’ve packed this book with life, knowing full well that life is always elsewhere.

You want to know how to finish this comedy—with what parting words.

With the same ones Mark Twain used to finish his, damn him!

THE END, YOURS TRULY, HUCK FINN.

 

Saturday
May172014

An Interview-in-Excerpts with D. Foy

D. Foy has had work published in Salon, Bomb, Frequencies, Post Road, The Literary Review, and The Georgia Review, among others, and included in the books Laundromat and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. He lives in Brooklyn. You can see a short interview with D. Foy in the trailer for Made to Break, here: https://vimeo.com/70723153

An excerpt from his novel, Made to Break, appeared in Issue Fifty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"—with further excerpts from Made to Break. Enjoy!

What is writing like?

An odor of struggle suffused the air. It was the odor of springtime, of birth.

What isn’t writing like?

“I smoke,” Basil said. “I can’t smell dick.”

“I can assure you,” Hickory said. “This is not the smell of dick.”

When you do it, why?

And it was then I saw the nature of terror, because it was then the nature of my predicament, like a toxic cloud, swallowed me utterly up. Terror, I realized, had nothing to do with time and space but with the absence of them, and with the incomprehensibility of that absence.

When you don’t, why?

What was the use. There was no use. Nothing mattered. Uselessness ruled.

Tuesday
May132014

"Everyone is Alive in Sleep": An Interview with Justin Carter

Justin Carter is an MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University & co-editor of Banango Street. His recent work appears in The Bakery, Hobart, Red Lightbulbs, & other spaces. He blogs about sports at Poets on Sports & never uses his blog.

His poem, "2003," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christinia Oddo about dialogue, the moon, and subverting expectations.

Dialogue and image work closely together in this piece. Did the dialogue aid the development of the imagery, or did the threads of images help create the dialogue? Is the relationship mutual?

I think this was one of my first attempts at using dialogue in a poem, though. I was taking a class with Kevin Prufer & was obsessed with his poem “Churches,” especially with the way the poem moves across the page & the sort-of seamless way the voices in the poem interact. I’d been writing drafts of this for awhile, mostly these single-stanza messes, & I had the images down, but they were lacking something, some final tweak that would pull the poem together. Getting more voices into the piece helped the images pop more. There’s so much emphasis in the poem about the speaker not being present that getting the nurse & the grandfather’s voices in there helped it become cohesive.

The grandfather asks, “Do you want to know the score” “behind a hollow cough.” This is paralleled by the following funeral; at this point, “nothing is said,” and “The moon hides behind the sky.” What symbolic significance does the moon hold for you personally, and for the narrator? 

I didn’t really think about the symbolic nature of the moon when writing this poem. The moon, in this poem, doesn’t really function much like the moon, really. Both times it shows up, it’s during an implied daylight—of course the moon is hiding at the funeral, because the funeral happens during the day. But, I suppose there’s some significance to this moon. Everything happens in cycles here—the seasons (both nature & football), the use of “then” to signify the movement of time. Everything is being pulled along by this moon &, when we see it hiding, we’ve reached a point where nothing is being pulled, when the world of the speaker quietly refuses to move. That’s one reason I used the asterisks here (which, as these little suns, are almost the moon’s opposites), because the sudden shift they represent means we never get closure on the previous scene. It’s still there, always, this funeral and this hidden moon. The second time we see the moon, well—it’s being sliced in half. In Texas, the moon shows up during the afternoon pretty often (my childhood bestfriend & I once wrote a song together with the lines I see the moon/ on a blue sky afternoon), & it’s less about the moon here than it is about the act of violence that the plane is doing. In this final moment before we return to the dream, the physical world has been physically altered, a reflection on how the speaker’s world has been altered by loss.

Everyone is alive in sleep, as in everyone has the potential to be tangible in dream. “Then we are asleep again,” and maybe the possibility exists that the grandfather may stay alive (in dream)(Dallas, in this dream, has the potential to win). The end to 2003 leaves the reader somewhat hopeful, yet there is something sad about this essence of hopefulness. What signaled the end of this piece for you?

I wanted the end of the poem to provide a little uplift, even though it’s clear from the narrative that it’s an artificial uplifting. In undergrad, I took a class with Tony Hoagland & Tony kept telling me that my poems tended toward a depressed fatalism. When I wrote this, I wanted to do something to break out of that mold. It’s easy for a poem about death to be this hopeless thing, to follow this expected trajectory of “person dies, people are sad,” but sometimes poems need to subvert expectations. Am I sad that my grandfather died? Sure, but that doesn’t mean the poem has to wallow in that sadness. Anything can happen in a dream. Back in ‘04/’05, I had a recurring one in which I’d ride home from school & find my grandfather walking down the road, disoriented but alive, & he’d sit down at our dining room table & tell us how he got tired of the pressures of being the same person for so many years & just wanted to run away for a little bit. My goal at the end was for the poem to express that same dream hope.

What are you currently reading?

I’m perma-reading Lynda Hull’s Ghost Money book. Jane Mead’s The Lord and the General Din of the World & Andrew McFadyen Ketchum’s Ghost Gear have both recently slain me, just perfect collections. I flew down to Denton recently & read Anna Journey & Benjamin Landry’s new books on the plane.  I’ve also been reading fiction lately, finally exposing myself to Michael Martone and rereading some Brock Clarke. I also just picked up a non-fiction book about fingers.

What are you currently writing?

I’m fleshing out my MFA thesis right now, trying to cut the bad & revise the mediocre & figure out what narratives are popping out & what I need to do to turn it into a cohesive project. I’m also working on two side things. The first is a series of linked prose poems called I Remember You Well In The Charlottesville Motel, essentially a novella about a couple who can’t find the home they want & have to keep moving around the country searching for it. The other is another series. I’m a huge Houston Rockets fan &, well, it’s playoff time right now, so I’m writing these poetic-reviews of each playoff game.

Tuesday
Apr222014

Episode 14: The Collagist Podcast - Mai Der Vang

Mai Der Vang reads "When the Mountains Rose Beneath Us, We Became the Valley" from Issue 51 of The Collagist. She also discusses the inspiration of her poems and recommends "What My Father Might Say, If I Let Him Speak" by Geffrey Davis from Issue 53 and the classic "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden.

Mai Der Vang’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review OnlineThe CollagistWeave Magazine, Red Branch, The Boiler,The Lantern Review, and Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora, among othersAs an editorial member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle, Mai Der served as co-editor of How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology. She is an MFA candidate in poetry at Columbia University, a Kundiman fellow, and has completed residencies at Hedgebrook.

Saturday
Apr122014

“What if Sex Is Just Sex?”: An Interview with Michelle Seaton 

Michelle Seaton’s fiction and creative nonfiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, Lake Effect and in Best American Nonrequired Reading among others. She has been a longtime contributor to the National Public Radio sports show, “Only a Game.” She is also the co-author of several books, including The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009). Michelle teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at Grub Street in Boston. She is also the lead instructor and created the curriculum for the Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston city neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced four anthologies. 

Her story, "But Are They Still Doing It?" appeared in Issue Fifty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Michelle Seaton talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about allowing your character to think your most embarrassing thoughts, galloping plots, and Rex Ryan.

I love how we get told the story through gossip. It adds such a rich layer of complexity to what could have otherwise been a sad, but somewhat typical story had the gossip not been there. Was this the format from the get-go, or did it come about through the drafting process?

The story was always a story of reported gossip, and it was always a story about a woman finding out about her husband’s affair. In a way that is the most mundane plot in the world, and yet it’s the one that these women can discuss endlessly. I’ve participated in a few of these kinds of conversations and I’ve always found that gossip is incredibly compelling, but also fills me with despair. I can’t stand the glee of the people talking and yet I can’t stop listening.

The pacing of this piece is fantastic. The topics these women discuss gradually get darker and more threatening to their own lives. Did you outline the piece before writing it, or again, was this something that came about through revisions?

Once I started writing the story, I couldn’t stop writing it until I had a complete draft, and I knew where it was going from the start. I went to a party once in which a woman showed up with her estranged husband. I knew her only slightly, and yet I knew she’d had an affair and that she’d left her husband. Everyone knew. And when they showed up together, holding hands, a surge of panic went through the room, and I knew I was going to use that here. The arc was clear and yet early drafts of the story failed because the women telling the story weren’t revealing enough about why they were obsessed with her story and her pain. The narrator didn’t have enough compassion for the characters engaging in the gossip. I think that’s always a danger in a story where the plot is moving at a gallop. It’s easy for the characters to become props.

The title of the piece is: “But Are They Still Doing It?” For many of the women in this story, sex seems to function not as something intimate and pleasurable, but rather a way of protecting their relationship. If the sex is there, so too must be the relationship. Is this a fair assessment of these characters logic?

Absolutely. I think it’s at the core of so much questionable advice women give to each other about marriage. Have more sex, and your marriage will be okay. But what if sex is just sex? And what if marriage is more of a business arrangement, an economic partnership with assets and shared goals? And what if that is essentially boring? In the story I also wanted to dwell on the financial threat to all of them. If your mortgage is under water and your job could end at any time and if you’ve got kids who require a huge, ongoing financial and emotional investment, then the stakes of divorce are unthinkable. They are unthinkable until you have to think about them.

How much fun was it to write a bunch of characters who want reassurance so very badly, but who are so unwilling to directly discuss their own issues and insecurities?

Their insecurities are my insecurities about getting older, about money, and about sex, and dwelling on my insecurities isn’t that much fun. But it is fun to give my worst and most embarrassing thoughts and traits to someone else, or in this case, to a group. In fiction, your characters can have the feelings you would never admit to, and they can say and do all the things that would get you in trouble.

The character of Jennifer seems really important. She’s the one character who both participates in the gossip and eventually finds herself the victim of gossip. Can you talk more about her story and the way you went about creating her character?

It’s great that you noticed her. The challenge of this story was to make sure you can see the women as individuals, and I think you can in several cases. They each have a style of responding to every event in the story. Yet, Jennifer was the only one for whom I imagined a detailed backstory. She has about five pages of interaction with the group that I never used about her husband’s first wife and her step-children. It informed only a few of the lines in revision, but those lines are important. Also, I knew the group would fracture at some point, that there would have to be factions and that someone would get pushed out, because someone is always pushed out of these groups.

You’re an essayist, a creative nonfiction instructor, a co-author of books covering topics from the psychological to the biological, and a fiction writer. All but poetry, it seems. Are you the type of writer who can work on several projects at once, or do prefer focusing in on one?

I’m always working on a lot of projects and helping other writers with their projects. Right now I’m helping someone write a book about cancer so I have to learn about the effects of chemotherapy on the body. I’ve been helping a writer with a project about South Sudan, so I’ve been learning about the war and poverty in that region, and about the shaky politics that plague new nations. Yesterday I was editing part of student’s memoir on fighting with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Today I owe a story about private jets to an editor. Actually, it was due last week. So, if you want to know about the Gulfstream G650, I can tell you what a new one costs ($71 million) and its cruising speed (670 mph) and I know I’m going to spend time today studying the seat configurations and the avionics. I like thinking about so many different subjects. I find that projects pollinate each other, and they inform my short stories, but when I’m really busy, like now, working on darker nonfiction, my short stories tend to contain more humor and more sex. 

Lastly, what book recommendations are you making these days?   

Oh, dear. This is where I get embarrassed because I’m no book snob. I love a narrative that moves and I want to be obsessed with the story. If you pick up Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates, or The Virgins by Pamela Erens or The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison, you’ll be up late. I promise. I’m also waiting for my husband to finish Collision Low Crossers so I can read about Rex Ryan and the Jets. I’m no fan of the NFL, but I’ve covered football and I know the culture, and Rex Ryan fascinates me. All football coaches do. I bought The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer for my son, but he hasn’t read it, so I’m stealing it from him. (He’s reading The Whisper first). As a YA title, it seems to have the perfect mix of politics and science and outsized characters, which is the sweet spot for me.

Thanks!

Friday
Mar212014

Episode 13: The Collagist Podcast - Kendra DeColo

Kendra DeColo reads "The Vocalist" and "I Heart Pussy" from Issue 42. She also discusses the inspiration of her poems and recommends "Man Hanging Upside Down" by Patrick Rosal from Issue 7.

Kendra DeColo is the author of Thieves in the Afterlife (Saturnalia Books, 2014), selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2013 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming inSouthern Indiana Review, The Collagist, CALYX, Muzzle Magazine,and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, a work-study scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and residencies from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Millay Colony. The founding poetry editor of Nashville Review and a Book Review Editor at Muzzle Magazine, she lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Thursday
Mar202014

“The Princess Isn’t Frightened”: An Interview with Rebecca Meacham 

Rebecca Meacham's short story collection, Let’s Do, was published in 2004 as the winner of UNT Press's Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” program selection. Her flash fiction collection, Morbid Curiosities, won the 2013-14 New Delta Review Chapbook prize. Her stories have appeared in Indiana Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, and other journals, and she blogs for Ploughshares. An associate professor of English, Rebecca directs the creative writing program at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She lives in the woods of Wisconsin with her family and their 100 lb. German Shepherd puppy, who enjoys chasing the deer. See more at: http://rebeccameachamwriter.com

Her story, "The Glass Piano," appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Rebecca Meacham talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about painstaking construction over revision, the power of delusion and the intersection between private anxiety and public spectacle

How did this piece come about?

I was running and listening to a podcast about Princess Alexandra of Bavaria, who, in the mid-1800s, suffered a delusion that she’s swallowed a grand glass piano. At the time, I was writing a collection of flash fiction (Morbid Curiosities), which explores the intersection between private anxiety and public spectacle. Princess Alexandra’s story seemed thematically in line: a historical public figure with a private agony, now made into a public spectacle that I could, in 2013, think about while running through my Wisconsin neighborhood.

The thing was, the podcast imagined her as a tragic figure—with sounds of moaning and heavy breathing in the audio—as someone terrified to move. But I was more attracted to the power such a delusion might seem to confer, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which ends with the narrator imagining she’s seized control of her confines. So as I was running, I literally said, out loud: “The princess isn’t frightened. She’s empowered. What does she gain from this?”

I like the Q&A structure of your story. The common form initially situates the reader, before dislocating him a bit with the more surreal aspects of the piece. Did you have the Q&A structure in mind from the very beginning?

The real Princess Alexandra was obsessed with purity; she eventually became an abbess. I was trying to figure out, to her, “What does a glass piano taste like?” And, in my reading of her situation, she has to want to consume it. Swallowing this piano, housing it within her body, has to give her some measure of distance from a family full of discord, from all the people in her household who invade her privacy and tell her what’s proper, at a fraught time in German history. The piano should taste like a kind of relief.

The story arrived exactly as you see it on the page: the first line was always the first line. I imagine she was questioned by doctors for years, both as a case and as a curiosity.

What was the revision process like for this story? You manage to convey a lot about Princess Alexandra within a very brief piece. 

From the start, I intended this story to be about 500 words long. And the first question led effortlessly to the first full answer. Then, for weeks, I got stuck. What would be the next question? The next answer? When the next question did arrive (“But your delicate throat! How did you consume it?”), I got stuck again. I realized maybe she didn’t know, or couldn’t articulate, the answer, because of her aversion to the human body and its processes. She could have been attacked, or she could have started menstruating; either event would have been shocking beyond words to this character, enough to distort her sense of reality.

So the piece wasn’t so much revised as painstakingly constructed. This is my pattern for any length of story: a dazzling first section blazes in, and then it’s slow, ugly pecking until I figure out the rest.

Do you find it difficult to balance teaching and writing?

Yes. I’m possibly the worst balancer of these two things. Plus, I have little kids and husband and a German Shepherd puppy and a fat cat who like my attention, too. But after an eight-year break from fiction writing (go ahead, gasp, it’s shocking), I realized I was channeling all of my writerly curiosity into new course preparations, which were engaging and taught me a lot, but didn’t allow room for my own fiction. I went on a sabbatical in 2012-13, and vowed, when I returned: no new course preps! Which I’ve totally violated already. But now, at least my course preps, are directly related to what I’m writing, or hope to write. And I’m training myself to write during the school year.

What are you currently working on?

I just published a collection of flash fiction, Morbid Curiosities, and while that project is done, there are some new flash pieces hatching in my head—all, oddly, about animals. I’m also working on another traditional-length short story collection and a novel about the 1871 Peshtigo, Wisconsin fire.

What book are you recommending friends read?  

I’m teaching a Major Authors class on Toni Morrison, so I always recommend Beloved, because it’s one of the best books of all time. More recently, I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and loved its scope, from sea voyages around the world to the microscopic growth of mosses.

Tuesday
Mar182014

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Joseph Riippi

Joseph Riippi is author of the books Because, A Cloth House, and The Orange Suitcase, as well as the chapbooks Puyallup, Washington (an interrogation) and Treesisters. His next novel, Research (A Novel for Performance) will be published in fall 2014.

An excerpt from his novel, Because, appeared in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from Because. Enjoy!

What is writing like?

Like reliving. (p18)

Like it’s about to snow. (p162)

Like a great actor on a bare stage. (p15)

Like waves. (p19)

Like leaves falling up. (p33)

Like a toyshop. (p34)

Like under a blanket in childhood. (p24)

What isn’t writing like?

Like shit. (p22)

Like swimming. (p32)

Like football players (p35)

Like the heaven where my grandfather lives. (p57)

Like what our prayers might sound like to God. (p57)

When you do it, why?

Because I want, if nothing else, for you to understand how much we love. (p162)

Because I honestly don’t remember and I don’t want to look it up. (p104)

Because of her. (p109)

When you don’t, why?

Because I don’t know, not exactly, what I’m trying to say. (p17)

Because even imagined spiders can scare the life out of you. (p92)

Because then I will sweat less. (p113)

Thursday
Mar062014

An Interview-in-Excerpts with Lance Olsen

Image Credit: Andi OlsenLance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing practices, including, most recently, the novel Theories of Forgetting (FC2, 2014), the collection How to Unfeel the Dead: New & Selected Fictions (Teksteditions, 2014), and the critifictional meditation [[ there. ]], of which the piece in this issue of The Collagist is an excerpt.  He teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.

An excerpt from his book, [[ there. ]], appears in Issue Fifty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"--with further excerpts from [[ there. ]]  Enjoy!

What is writing like?

A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.

            Reflected Rebecca Solnit.

What isn’t writing like?

I am only one, only one, only one. Only one being, one at the same time.  Not two, not three, only one. Only one life to live, only sixty minutes in one hour. Only one pair of eyes. Only one brain. Only one being. Being only one, having only one pair of eyes, having only one time, having only one life, I cannot read your M.S. three or four times. Not even one time. Only one look, only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one. Many thanks. I am returning the M.S. by registered post. Only one M.S. by one post.

            Wrote another editor when rejecting a manuscript submitted by Gertrude Stein.

When you do it, why?

Assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.  That is, after all, the case. What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

            Queried Annie Dillard.

When you don’t, why?

Consciousness’s continuous harassment by the flesh.