"Dragging the Body of the Thing": An Interview with duncan b. barlow

duncan b. barlow is the author of The City, Awake (Stalking Horse 2017), Of Flesh and Fur (The Cupboard 2016), and Super Cell Anemia (2008). His novel A Dog Between Us is forthcoming on Stalking Horse Press in March of 2019. His work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, The Collagist, Banango Street, The Fanzine, Sleeping Fish, Word Riot, The Apeiron Review, Meat for Tea, Matter Pressand Masque and Spectacle. He teaches creative writing and publishing at the University of South Dakota, where he is publisher at Astrophil Press and the managing editor at South Dakota Review. For more information about his writing or music, visit:

His story, "Unintended Consequences of Utterances," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about family videos, form, and sharing your life with a cat. 

Where did this story, “Unintended Consequences of Utterances,” begin for you?

My sister had received a DVD of old family 8mm films from the 70s that we didn’t know existed. In one of the clips, I was a baby (a toddler) and I wandered to a mirror. Perhaps it wasn’t the first mirror I’d encountered, but as someone who teaches critical theory, I was captured by the idea (or fiction) that I was seeing my entry into symbolic order. The earliest footage I’d ever seen of myself before this was shot after I was sixteen so the entire experience was quite captivating and heartbreaking; on the one hand I was a happy baby, smiling and spitting, on the other hand everyone in the films beside myself and my siblings is now dead. It filled me with such strange and conflicting emotions that I turned the video off and sat down to write. At the time, I’d just started trying my hand at flash fiction, so it was one of my earlier experiments.

This story is remarkable for its brevity, for its punch. Do you start a story with a form in mind, or does the form come later?

Thank you very much, that’s very kind of you to say. I never know where my stories are going until they reach a certain mass and the shape of the thing becomes undeniable. There’s a kind of momentum that occurs from that point, where I know I’m closing in on something. Its only in revision where I go through and tidy things up. This particular story came quickly and required very little revision. I think this is one of the liberating things about brief fictions versus the longer things I write (30 pages stories and novels)—there’s a lightness to them where I’m not dragging the body of the thing thorough the dirt as I march forward to some unknown horizon.

Does your work as an editor and teacher influence your writing? How so?

It does. I’m close reading far more than the average person and constantly learning about writing. One essay that I teach and revisit regularly myself, is Lutz’s The Sentence is a Lonely Place. I’ve read it a hundred times and every time I feel it shift something inside of me. I think editing has taught me to pay far more attention to the balance, shape, and sound of language in my fiction now than did I when I published my first novel in 2008.

What projects have you been working on since the time of this story’s publication? What are you working on now?

I had three books come out and I’ve been focusing quite a bit more on short fiction and short stories. I’ve enjoyed the kind of liberation they offer me as a writer. Yesterday I finished the first draft of a story I dreamed up while having a lovely trip in Europe. Of course, things in the story will be a little grimmer than what we experience on our trip. I did recently finish up the first round of edits on my forthcoming novel, A Dog Between Us, with my editor at Stalking Horse Press, so I’ll be babysitting that for the next few months as we move toward publication. There are two texts I’ve been pecking away at as well, an autobiography of my time as a musician and an historical novel set in Kentucky Coal Country.

What is your current favorite thing? Something you’d like to recommend to readers. A book, a song, a movie, anything that you think we should all know about.

There’s so much to love which is such a luxury, isn’t it? I’ve just received an ARC of Laird Hunt’s new book In the House in the Dark of the Woods and it’s fantastic. Laird is a true wonder. And as always, my cat gives me new favorite things every day. So maybe I recommend sharing your life with a cat above all else.


"How the Creature Felt Then": An Interview with Laurie Stone

Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She wonthe Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and two grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has published numerous stories in such publications as N + 1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, Your impossible Voice, New Letters, TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. In 2005, she participated in "Novel: An Installation," writing a book and living in a house designed by architects Salazar/Davis in the Flux Factory's gallery space.  She has frequently collaborated with composer Gordon Beeferman in text/music works. The world premier of their piece “You, the Weather, a Wolf” was presented in the 2016 season of the St. Urbans concerts. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is:

Her stories, "Window," "Raincoat," and "Sophia," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist. 

Here, she talks to Dana Diehl about trusting the narrative voice, wanting to be in two places at once, and endings.

In May 2016, you had three stories published in The Collagist: “Window,” “Raincoat,” and “Sophia.” Do you feel that these stories are in conversation with each other in any way? How so?

Yes! I think all my work is in conversation with other stories I have written. I am probably writing one giant, messy, collage thing and breaking off bits here and there to send out. Most of my stories sound narrated by the same person. The voice of this person sounds like it’s taking you by the collar or whispering in your ear, and it works in two times frames. It looks back at the creature it was in the past and tells the reader how the creature felt then. The narrator also tells the reader how the narrator feels now, looking back. Those feelings are different. That difference sometimes substitutes for plot, creating a sense of momentum free of resolution or even necessarily understanding.

All of these stories focus on a very specific subject or moment. How do you know when you’ve stumbled upon a subject that you’d like to make into a story?

I don’t know anything ahead of beginning to write how a story will go or even what a source might be. I don’t think anything is intrinsically interesting or uninteresting. Again, it’s that narrative voice, tugging at something and allowing associations to arise, that makes the thing sound like a story. I work consciously to make something ordinary seem strange or something strange seem ordinary. I am also attracted to contradictions that can’t be resolved, the feeling of wanting to be in two places at the same time. To me, that’s the make or break element in something I want to pursue. Here’s an example. One day while I was staying in London, I found a jasmine plant on a high street. I was in London for three weeks, and I was able to nurse the plant back to radiant health. The leaves were gleaming. It had a little trellis. I knew I would have to leave it. Ah, heartbreak! What to do, what to do? What happens in the story is not what happened to the plant in real life.

In terms of craft, to get started, I write a paragraph. Maybe there’s one good sentence in there that takes a surprise turn or uses language in a striking way. I pluck it out and start the piece there, thinking about how to follow it with sentence B that also needs to seduce the reader into wanting to read sentence C. I think this way of working is more like writing poetry. Occasionally, if I’m lucky, I will come up with a potential plot (the fate of the plant!), and this helps to propel things forward, too.

We often think of the end of a story as a true ending, as a way of tying up loose ends. But your stories seem to leave us on moments of opening: “Soon I would look that way.” “I wore them under the khaki raincoat and I went to see him the next day.” Your stories end with a feeling of possibility, of more to come. Can you speak to this? What is your process for ending a story?

I’m glad you think the endings are beginnings! Sometimes, to subvert the temptations of memory and chronology, I think about something that has happened and that might be the basis of a story, and I write a sketch in four paragraphs ordered this way: the end, the beginning, a moment of gratification, a moment of confusion. I’m not interested in resolution or the arc of “I used to be, and now I’m not.” I  believe we remain ambivalent in dramatic moments if we search our minds with enough energy. A story is finished maybe the way a piece of music is finished—after I’ve thought as richly as I can about each element in the contradiction. That approach may offer some sense of satisfaction for the reader. You’ve exhausted them without making them happy!

Who are some of your favorite flash fiction authors? Who inspires your work?

There are many. These writers have been important to me during the time I wrote the stories in The Collagist. I am including writers of hybrid narrative and poetry: Chris Kraus, Diane Seuss, WG Sebald, Édouard Levé, John Haskell, Lydia Davis, David Shields, Richard Rodriguez, and Diane Williams.

What projects are you working on now?

I am pleased to have three hybrid pieces in issue #32 of N + 1. I have been writing for The Women’s Review of Books, and I have a new manuscript of hybrid fiction called The Love of Strangers ready for a publisher. The new book picks up from my last book, My Life as an Animal, Stories in that some characters recur. I would say, overall, the writing here is more reliant on voice than anything else for its sense of continuity. The forms, too, are more experimental, using among other formats, lists and love letters. I try things out on Facebook, posting in four categories: micro fictions, social commentary, art criticism, and memoir. I have been “harvesting” bits here and there from social media and using them to construct texts I think of as a series of postcards. The postcards freely move between genres and incorporate them all, much the way our minds flit around and form connections. I love working this way. Give it a shot.


"The Lone Tree No One Could Name": An Interview with Ben Jackson

Ben Jackson is the director of The Writing Salon, a San Francisco Bay Area creative writing school for adults. He has taught at a wide range of colleges, schools, and retreat centers, including the University of San Francisco and the Esalen Institute. His writing has appeared in New England Review, Southern Review, Hudson Review, FIELD, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, he has won awards and fellowships from the Tor House Foundation, Warren Wilson College, Vermont Studio Center, Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, and Jentel Artist Residency Program.

His poem, "Christmas Break, 1997," appeared in Issue Seventy-Six of The Collagist. 

Here, he talks with interviewer Sarah Huener about using nature as a figure for human dynamics, how images are like lava, and relishing the mystery of synthesis.

Despite being a scene from the past, there’s a real immediacy in “Christmas Break, 1997.” The many details we get, from floating ice to an unidentifiable tree, form a vivid catalogue of touchstones to memory. How did you arrive at this final collection of images?

Maybe there’s an immediacy to the poem because the memories and images are not purely past for me, particularly that scene of my sisters huddled around my mother or the image of cigarette burns on my brother’s wrist. To this day, I’m haunted by their presence, and I hoped to convey this sensation with some dramatic urgency. While I wanted to include personal, even private, images and memories in this poem, I also chose imagery that, though linked to that period of time in 1997, might both stand outside of and inform my personal life, images that would implicate the local landscape and correlate with the larger world, even a deeper history, say, the lava that makes the island. Still, it’d be a stretch to say that I arrived at these images by altogether conscious means. I’ve found that, by the time I reach the final draft of a poem, the images usually connect in some fashion, whether elementally, tonally, or sonically, but I don’t quite know how or why they’ve all come together. I relish this mystery.

Television appears a few times in this poem—first showing Discovery Channel island formation, then a cold front on the Weather Channel, then, finally, blankness. How do you see these TVs and what they display functioning within the poem as a whole?

Just as the television offers distraction and refuge from the family’s grief, it’s also an image-maker, teacher, and messenger. In stanza one, the island formation on Discovery Channel is crucial to the poem for it suggests, to some degree, the beginning of the speaker’s own maturation after the rift in his parents’ relationship. In stanza two, the imagined scene of the father watching the Weather Channel pins another layer of oppressiveness and loneliness to the Chicago winter, the father experiencing the cold front alone inside his apartment. The “imageless TV” as a “black galaxy” sets up the transition into stanza three where the speaker begins to process his grief and attach stories and wounds to those glow-in-the-dark stars on his bedroom ceiling.

I love the lines “And no snow, not when paradise/ kept changing its rules, unapproachable/ as the lone tree no one could name/ out there on the bluff.” Not only does the speaker constantly return to the weather throughout the poem, but the weather itself is almost a shadowy character of its own. Could you talk a bit about this poem’s treatment of nature and the elements?

Thank you. I’m glad you like those lines. A Chicago winter, in my experience, is “a shadowy character.” In any dramatic piece, I’m interested in the ways that an environment, including the elements, might reflect and animate the human drama that’s unfolding.

In stanza one, I wanted to create an exchange between fire and water. The mother, as if to calm the fire within her, lives on “a diet of floating ice.” During island formation, water yields to fire, the island birthed by fire. The tension between husband and wife occurs alongside this pairing of often-oppositional elements.

Throughout stanza two, I aimed to set down what Eliot might call “the still point” in nature, “but neither arrest nor movement.” The wind is “circling, circling back,” and the cold front is “stuck to the Great Lakes.” Even if the wind is circling, it’s doing so on a kind of axis, with no discernible forward progress. The weather’s near-inertia stands beside the father’s leave-taking, a moment suspended in time, the father and family “waiting.”In the final stanza, once the snow has fallen, the deer prints recorded, there’s the possibility for change, for the speaker to interpret this familial experience, just as the characters in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” when washed ashore, become “interpreters.”

Are you currently reading anything you’re particularly excited about?

I’m reading Frank Bidart’s Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016. It’s thrilling to read more than five decades of his poetry in a single collection. There’s a remarkable unity to his complete work, a sense that in his lifetime he strived for a cohesive poetry while still boldly experimenting with voicing, repetition, font types, punctuation, and subject matter. It’s striking to observe how certain aspects of his work may have either subtly evolved or didn’t evolve at all, how he arrived at an aesthetic decision and sustained it, quite nearly an aesthetic conclusion.

Do you have any current writing projects you’d like to share with us?

“Christmas Break, 1997” is part of a collection of poems that I’m currently working on, a collection that’s primarily centered around family, both the one I was born into and my growing family with my wife, daughter, and son-to-be.


"What Makes the Dream a Nightmare": An Interview with Martha Grover


Martha Grover is an author, poet, artist and writing coach living in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of One More for the People (Perfect Day Publishing) and The End of My Career (Perfect Day Publishing). The End of My Career was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards in creative nonfiction in 2017. Her work has also appeared in The Collagist, Vol.1 Brooklyn, and The Portland Mercury, among others. She has been publishing her zine, Somnambulist, since 2003. Martha is currently at work on a book of prose poems and essays about Catastrophe, Myth, and being a sick person in the 21st century. When she is not writing, Martha is making zines, coaching her writing clients, making art, and selling Real Estate.

Her essay, "The Math Class," appeared in Issue Ninety-Five of The Collagist.

 Here, Martha Grover talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about recurring dreams, recalling high school, and creating zines. 

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

I had been having some version of the dream described in the essay for years and years. Several years ago, I thought I had “won” the dream, meaning I’d confronted the situation in the dream and I stopped having it. I didn’t have the nightmare for over a year and then it came back again. When I had the dream again, I started thinking: what does this dream represent? Why do I keep having it over and over?

Part of what makes the dream a nightmare is the fact that, not only am I forced to go back to high school, but I have to go back to take a math class. Math has always been a very challenging subject for me. In comparison, everything else is a breeze. I’m lucky in that getting good grades has always been incredibly easy for me, except when it came to math.

Your essay describes a recurring dream that you must have been dreaming for many years now. Have you done any journaling of your dreams prior to writing this essay? Did you rely on any such documentation when composing this piece, or did you work from memory of the dreaming? More generally, what has been the relationship between your dreams and your creative work?

I have always been interested in dreams, in what they mean, how they relate to our waking lives. Once, I was taking a prescription drug that gave me very vivid dreams and I actually made a little dream journal zine during that period and gave it to friends. But when I wrote this piece, I had been having this particular dream for so long that I didn’t have to refer to any old writing. Also, embarrassingly, I’d seen status updates referring to the dream come up in my “Facebook Memories” around the same time that I started having the dream again. So in a way, Facebook memories acted like a dream journal to jog my memory.

Another dream I often have, always involves some very particular harm or disfigurement/ dismemberment to my body. I should probably write a sister piece to “The Math Class” to explore that recurring dream. I think it’s fascinating how our brains return to the same scenario, with slightly different details, over and over. It’s like a riddle our unconscious is trying to solve.

Amid the narrative of this dream, you recall many details that evoke your experience of high school, one after the other, some in sentence fragments, like a catalog of images. Can you describe the process of selecting and arranging these particular details? Of course there must be so much more to that setting that had to be left out of this picture, so how did you choose what to include? Are all of these details somehow associated with iterations of the dream, or do they fit some other criteria or goal that you had in mind?

One of the things I had to ask myself in the course of writing this essay, is why would it be not only awful to return to high school as an adult, but why would it be awful to return to my particular high school? To answer this question I obviously focused on the more negative details of my high school years and the environment there—in rural Oregon. Of course, I have many positive memories of high school but that wasn’t the point I was trying to get across. And those positive memories are mostly surrounding having fun with my friends. When you are out of public school for a while, at least this has been my experience, you get a better perspective on the institution as a whole. You see the drudgery, the pettiness, the lack of professionalism and going back there, especially for a math class, begins to look more and more dreadful. I really wanted to convey the feeling of dread and hopelessness that came along with the dream.

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

Right now I am slowly writing my third book, which is a collection of traditional essays. I’m also simultaneously writing a fourth book of essays that are a bit more like “The Math Class” – shorter, more lyrical, more experimental. (I’m looking for an agent!)

I’m also in the beginning of turning part of my first book into a play. In 2008, I was forced to move back in with my parents. At that time, there were several other siblings living with them. Every Sunday morning my parents forced us to have a family meeting. So I took the “minutes” and posted them on my blog, and then eventually compiled them into a zine. And then those eventually got published in my first book. And now I am working with a playwright to translate “The Grover Family Meeting Minutes” into a play. It’s very exciting!

In addition to being a writer, I’m also an illustrator and fund my work through my Patreon page. This keeps me busy producing podcasts, artwork and zines. You can look me up at:

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

I really loved Emil Ferris’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. I’m also reading Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot and it’s breathtaking.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

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

What are you writing these days? 

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To quote from the book’s Preface:

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

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

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

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

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

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


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

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

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

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

Where did this story begin for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What projects are you working on now?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"The Omega": An Interview with Joseph Cardinale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

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

What are you writing these days?

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


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

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

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

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

What inspired this piece, “Birdkillers”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What projects are you working on currently?

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