Tuesday
Jul262016

"Creatures of Complication": An Interview with Kelly Dulaney

Kelly Dulaney began in the cinders of Arizona; now she lives among the red rocks of Colorado. She is the author of the novel Ash (Urban Farmhouse Press 2016) and her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Fairy Tale Review, Penny, The Best American Experimental Writing Anthology (BAX) 2015, The Collagist, Caketrain, and Abjective, among other venues. She holds and MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder and edits The Cupboard Pamphlet.

Her story, "Oil Dog," appears in Issue Seventy-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about buried family history, dogs, the quest for oil.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

Truth told, this story is not entirely fictional and so it did not begin strictly with me.

I have been working for some time to understand the way in which narratives are passed through a family line—I want to know why we repeat and deny the actions of our ancestors; I want to know how we emerge out of our forebears. In 2014, I began to interview my family members about aspects of our family history that had been deliberated buried by those long dead—particularly those buried by my grandfather, Richard Gordon Dulaney. I also began to comb through family documents that had been in storage: old letters, paper clippings and the like. I discovered a copy of a legal deposition that laid out the true timeline and concerns of my grandfather’s life—suddenly, I could see what had made him what he was and I could see how that echoed outwards through the family line.

Here is what in “Oil Dog” is true: my grandfather worked the oil fields of Saudi Arabia in the 30s, earned a degree in physics and deployed to Europe as an officer in the 40s, and planned and purchased the pipe for the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline in the late 60s; my father did survive a fiery and disfiguring car accident; my brother did deploy to Kandahar, Afghanistan; Alexander the Great did once conquer the known world, naming cities and sectors in it for himself (like Kandahar).

I had the impulse to take these truths and weave them—to see what close placement could reveal. I also had the impulse to tell a lot of lies about what I had discovered, because I feel that an invention can lead one closer to an emotional truth than can a litany of facts.

This story is admirable for the way it addresses a global problem without being preachy or prescriptive. Often we see novel writers tackling the “big issues.” Do you think short stories can address issues in a way that novels cannot?

That’s a good question! It’s not one that I’m sure I have an answer for—I hesitate to say that one form can do something that another cannot because I am almost always immediately proven wrong. That said, I do think short stories occupy a strange space in the literary landscape: it’s a form pushed within the workshop—perhaps for ease of pedagogy or tradition—but not one that usually gets the kind of acclaim or attention that the novel does. Perhaps some writers save their energy for the “big issues” until they know they have a novel’s worth of words to write; perhaps short stories that tackle these aren’t as on the radar as they ought to be. I’m not sure. I do know that I myself feel more at home in shorter, more fractured forms—in writing, I want to focus in on emotional resonance rather than explanation.

Why did you choose a dog to represent the demand for oil in this story?

Dogs are creatures of complication. They occupy the border between the human and the natural worlds. They’re uncanny and culturally loaded. They’re communicative, showing an intense interest in and responsiveness to human activity and thought. Dogs are chthonic, too. When my brother redeployed, he told me that it was difficult to see dogs through an American lens again—he had seen them be literal corpse-eaters. I can’t shake that dissonance—a dog is hearth animal kept in the home and a dog is a dangerous animal that scavenges that which has not been properly interred.

There is so much that isn’t interred; there is so much that is kept at the center of the home. I did not intend for the dog to be a representation of the demand for oil (though I really like and respond to that reading); I did intend the dog to be a representation of haunting, of border-space, and of war. Oil lends itself to these things because it is land and territory based and because humans have always found a use for it. And my grandfather remade himself in images of oil and war—whatever he was before that he tried to erase. None of his descendants have been able to properly inter those images: we are still responding to their effects. Or I am—and I keep calling people’s attention to that which they’d like to forget.

So the dog—it seemed a natural link to me.

Describe how you settled on the chronology of this story. One of the many interesting elements of “Oil Dog” is how you move us through time—from the 1930’s to the present day and to decades in between. What was it like to write a story in this way?

I struggled with chronology in my initial drafting! Some of my first attempts were too much like a weak cloud—all dissipation, no tension. Some of my first attempts were too long, too windy—a result of trying to scatter time. So I left it alone for a long while, then came back and played cut up. I preserved only the placement of the first section (necessary to me because it normalizes the presence of the oil dog) and last section (necessary for its ambiguity). From there, I allowed myself to organize in a way that slowly divested the oil dog of its ability to say a full name (moving from “Richard Gordon” to “Alan” to, simply, “Oss—”) and that allowed me deeper access to theaters of war (moving from my grandfather on the practice plains to Alexander at pause in the midst of his campaigns to, finally, my brother in Kandahar). Having those arcs in place allowed me to add the other sections as punctuative or commentary moments, without sacrificing the narrative tension that I had wanted.

What are three last books you read?

In some kind of order, these are:

1: Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which I loved for its rhythms and variances in voice, for its refusal of anything that might be easily expected in favor of rot and character.

2: Aase Berg’s With Deer (translated by Johannes Göransson)—a reread, and one that I return to often. The lemurs! The fox. Everything in it seethes. It’s so strange and so good.

3: Yu Xiang’s I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain). A former student challenged me, once—he said that my canon is too western. That’s true. I bought this book because of that and then became caught it its interest in framing, its interrogation of narration. I can’t get out of this book and I don’t want to—I want to stay behind Xiang’s door. She’s so loyal to her own eyes.

What projects are you working on now?

I am still writing about strange dogs—flint dogs, salt dogs, red dogs. I want to write a book about myself—about what made me, about my inability to name what matters most to me. I have a title—Cynocephali—and a six part structure. I’m waist-deep in that work.

And, when that’s too much, I rewrite Greek myths that are about bodies. I want to make that into some kind of collection, though I’m not there yet. One day! One day.  

Saturday
Jul232016

"Until There Are No Edges": An Interview with Natanya Ann Pulley

Natanya is an Assistant Professor at Colorado College. She teaches Creative Writing, Innovative Fiction, and Native American Literature. She's been an editor at Quarterly West and South Dakota Review, and is currently a guest editor for Black Candies. She writes fiction and nonfiction with outbreaks in poetry and collage. Her work can be found at The Toast, Drunken Boat, As/US, and Waxwing (among others). She enjoys felting wool and spending time near the Rockies with her husband JP and two dogs, Voodoo and Mojo.

Her story, "Seven Years of Cups," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about grief, lies, and the strangeness of motherhood.

What first inspired you to write this story about a family that lives inside a hospital?

I’m pretty obsessed with the idea that humans exist in many planes at once. That I can be in my own home with all of the things I know around me, but feel separate. Or that one can be outside in the open with a great sky above, but experience a physical crushing—not just emotional or internal, but a physical reaction like a panic attack. The idea that people who spend a lot of time at a hospital become a part of it isn’t an unfamiliar one, but I really wanted to push that as far as I could. I wanted to see what living years there might look like especially for someone stuck in the suspended, but ongoing loss of a father and I wanted to complicate it further by including a growing family. I think we like to believe that people pull out of dangerous grief and trauma for their family and over time and because they have to, but I wanted to see a person and his family defined by this grief for too long and in an unrealistic way. I wanted to see how long someone could hold onto holding on.

I’m intrigued by the idea your speaker poses of a “possible un-truth” that has floated inside him for so long that it had started to seem like a truth. Are there are any “possible un-truths” you’ve experienced in your life?
When I think of a lie, I think of a vicious thing: something invented as a weapon. While there are plenty of lies in everyone’s world, I’m much more interested in the un-truth. The truth undone. Or a type of lie that exists out of defense or denial or necessity. Not a white lie, but a thing to believe in order to wake up each day. In a very ordinary sense, the lines on a road boast an un-truth. They suggest I’m safe if I stay within them, if I understand their meaning, and if others do as well. I believe in those lines so much that it doesn’t faze me how often I’m putting my life on the line by getting in a vehicle with hundreds of others, often distracted, tired, driving too fast and under weather conditions or other influences. But I do it all the time to move throughout this world. Many years of driving and these sorts of un-truths meant to build some trust in me and the world around me begin to pile up—laws, justice, that fair is fair, authority’s intentions are good, that skin color doesn’t matter. One thing I find incredibly damaging right now when considering #BLM and police brutality is the idea that anyone could ever really understand what this particular type of racism feels like for a black person or a targeted person of color. I’m half-Navajo, but don’t present as Native American to many people and so even though I do experience racism, I’ll never experience it the same way a black individual being pulled over would. We(I) tend to think with enough information and empathy and rational, we can put ourselves in another person’s shoes. It’s not just that this is untrue—it’s that the truth we’ve built up (“We’re capable of really understanding racism now that we’re in the 21st century”) is undone over and over and over. It wasn’t just a vicious lie used as a weapon by some, but it was also a sad untruth invented to comfort us into believing change is possible in an easy way—a convenient way. I think lies are cruel and painful, but untruths are heartbreaking.

There are hints in the story that the speaker has been violent in the past. Early in the story, he describes a frustrating experience with a contractor friend: “He was just trying to help out but by the time the staff caught up with us, I’d already dug a needle through to his bone.” In his retelling, the speaker is not angry. He actually relates to the contractor, understands that his friend meant well. The violence is buried in the sentence; the speaker seems detached from it. Can you speak to the narrative choice behind this moment? Why is it important that we know about his violence early in the story?

The story starts seven years into the character’s time at the hospital—after this traumatic event of both his father’s demise and the birth of his first child (within some span for him that feels very close). It felt clear to me that the character has been through various stages of grief and trauma—that anger was certainly one of them. Part of his acting out may be due to the type of story it is—this bloated world with everything over the edge, over the edge, over the edge, until there are no edges anymore. But also, I wanted it to be clear that he was not okay, even dangerous and his detachment was not safe. I’m also enamored by detachment—both its blessings and its curses. Seven years into his “life” at the hospital, I wanted his most basic reactions to be worn out, to be old news to him. Obviously, he should worry about this attack of his and possible future attacks. Obviously he should be worried about a lot of things. But detachment cares little for things obvious. And it has no need for shoulds.

The speaker describes his children by their precise age, weight, and height. He seems to know little else about them. Why do you think his children’s measurements more memorable to him than anything else?

Ha ha. This was a fun detail to include for me. First, I was thinking about how newborns are just little blobs of sensations and reactions and how it takes a little time to get to know their personalities (or rather for those personalities to develop). So we relay the strangest information about them when they are born. I am not that great with measurements, but still seem to relay the weight, length, toe count, and eye color of babies when describing them. It’s a strange desire to want to know a person when one can’t. To want to account for an unknown when little simple measurements is all one has. Second, because this character is detached from his own emotion, because he’s in some sort of denial, I think he believes these details make sense. That they relay something real or truthful about his children, when he can’t do it himself. The first child arrived when his father was dying and I think maybe the measurements were the easiest thing for him to hold onto it. And he hasn’t let go of that. Third, I played around a lot with the kind of language these characters might pick up from being in a hospital and in an earlier version of the story, the narrator used more medical terms. But I found this to be … well, cumbersome to read, but also just not fun for me. So I decided this would be the thing that he would pick up on. He was given the measurements of his children when they were as born, it’s what he hears about new life in the hospital each time a child is born, and that’s what he’s sticking to. 

Who are you reading right now?

I recently read Natural Wonders by Angela Woodward, which was such a delight—playful, funny, sentences to nest into, and also, something very sad, but strangely hopeful. And I’ve started Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary and Carmen Lau’s The Girl Wakes. I’m also casually reading Saga, which is a very fun, amazing “space opera/fantasy” comic series. And I’ve been revisiting Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I touched upon it in a class when teaching Joanna Ruocco’s Dan last Spring, but I was so struck by the idea that there is no absurd world. Rather, absurdity is something we bring with us because the world is unreasonable and our expectations of the world can be even more so. Camus says, “What is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational (world) and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” I’ve been re-positioning myself in our current reality with this idea and through this reading. The violence, the election, losing both Prince and Bowie feels very absurd to me, like we all were dumped into an alternate universe this year. But this isn’t a constructive way for me to work through it, I think. Calling the world absurd doesn’t deal with the very real things that were always in motion before this—that led us to this. My “wild longing for clarity” tends to capture me and keep me from action.

What projects are you currently working on?

Mainly my non-fiction collection which deals mostly with being biracial and different forms of trauma I’ve experienced. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toil of working through this collection, so I’m learning patience with this project. But I’m a short story writer mainly, so I’m always kicking about some little somethings here and there. I wonder sometimes if I’m a novelist, but usually I end up thinking: this is just a really long story. Or worse, a story cycle. Ha ha.

I’m also delighted to be a guest editor for the annual horror literary journal Black Candies. This next issue is the “Gross and Unlikeable Issue” with female writers only. While submissions have closed, the reading process has been eye-opening. I expected some of the same topics (pregnancy and menstruation) and we certainly wanted body horror in the mix. But, oh man, so many dead babies. Metaphoric or not. Miscarried, stillbirths, infanticide—dead, dead, dead. It’s been tough reading on my heart. At times, my response has been very poor—wishing for other topics, squirming away. And there are plenty of other story ideas, but these dead babies outweigh them. However, I always have to end my wishing and remember: here it is. This is what women think about and we are told not to. We are told to think of the potential of our bodies and the gifts we give—life, like it’s a prize. But for many women, this is what is horrific about our body’s potential or sometimes failure. Making life, ability and or the monthly reminder of life, keeping a child alive—this is dangerous, dangerous stuff. And here are the female writers that don’t want to hear the glossy and fairytale stories of it. They want to talk about the horror, the abject. So I’m reading with respect and open to the wail here—instead of wanting to shut it out. And, oh, we’ve got some really amazing ones.  Of course, there are plenty of other wonderful and super gross stories by women I’ve enjoyed reading. It’s going to be a great collection with plenty of stories about other topics as well, a girl that turns to candy, another that grows another pair of legs that fall off, and tales weird, cosmic, and disgusting.

Thursday
Jul142016

"Forever Married to the Pseudonym": An Interview with Michael Shirzadian

Michael Shirzadian lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he studies and teaches rhetoric at Ohio State University. His stories and essays have appeared in Brevity, The Collagist, theNewerYork, Identity Theory, *82 Review, and elsewhere. Before returning to Columbus, he lived in Grants, New Mexico, where he taught high school English, and Boulder, Colorado, where he earned an MFA in fiction. You can contact Michael at michael.shirzadian@gmail.com.

His essay, "Recessional," appeared in Issue Eighty-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Michael Shirzadian talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about dwelling in scene, writing about family, and whittling down the work.

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

Originally “Recessional” was a section of a longer, braided essay, but I couldn’t figure the braids out, couldn’t make it work, so I excised the section and retooled it as flash. I wouldn’t have written it otherwise; I’ve got a journal full of memories and writing ideas about my friend Ben, but every time I try my hand at one of them I end up scrapping the piece. Every time. I think “Recessional” works because it wasn’t originally a piece about Ben. I don’t think it is now, even. It’s a family piece. I started writing the first draft because I needed a scene where my parents actually worked together—I needed that scene in the longer, family essay—and the weekend when Ben died was the first scene to come to mind. It was only after my wonderful CNF workshop—led by the brilliant Lee Martin—mentioned that the braid might make for a strong flash essay that I returned to the piece with an eye on the kind of narrative/thematic closure that a standalone piece demands.

There are difficult, personal subjects in this essay: suicide, divorce, grief, and imagining your parents during a happier time. When you’re writing about these things, do you allow yourself to imagine how your family might react to reading it? How do you navigate the choppy waters of writing about family in an honest, vulnerable way?

I struggle with this all the time. Part of the reason I struggle is because I never start writing a piece thinking about this kind of reception. There’s something I want to say, maybe need to say, so I say it. It’s on the back end, just before submitting, that I’m forced to wrestle with those choppy waters. The easiest thing at that point is to roll with a pseudonym—which I do often. Too often, maybe. Honestly, “Recessional” doesn’t take on the most sensitive of my CNF obsessions, so I elected, here, to use my real name. Still, I emailed the piece to my mother for publication approval. That’s been super awkward. She gave a curt “ok” and we haven’t discussed the piece since. For me, a piece dies when I get too caught up in considering this kind of reception before the end. Maybe that means I’ll be forever married to the pseudonym. And there are some constellations of words that will never make it off my hard drive. I used to just think fuck it and submit everything and tell myself that the writing comes above all else. But I learned the hard way to take a more nuanced approach. So I’m still working on it, still improvising. I’m very much open to suggestions.

Your entire essay consists of only a little over 400 words. Is it a challenge for you to write with such concision? How do you achieve this economy of language? (Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint?)

This piece’s economy derives from its origin as a fragment, one part of a defunct whole. That’s an old, reliable trick for flash-writing: take a longer piece and whittle it down. I’m always surprised at the resonant power a piece can accumulate the more you take out, undo. That’s why I dwell in flash. I’d actually say it’s more challenging for me to write a longer piece, to sustain an essay or story beyond, say, page twelve. After that, my longer stuff’s just stringing together multiple fragments anyway.

As far as restraint goes, I’m always opening new documents while I write, copy/pasting lines or ideas that I had included in the original piece but decided ultimately to excise. One flash might produce ten of these documents. I’d be surprised if even one of these ten generates a new piece, but having them written down somewhere—knowing that they live outside my head—occludes my anxieties long enough for me to finish the original.

Your bio says that you write fiction as well as nonfiction. Have you learned any lessons from one genre that you’ve applied to the other? How does your work in nonfiction inform your fiction, or vice versa?

There’s hardly a difference in my work. I could retool a few sentences from most of my fiction and ethically call it nonfiction. As an essayist, I hate exposition; I’m so so so bad at it. So most of my nonfiction is straight narrative, rendered almost entirely in scene. When one of my essays leaves scene it’s usually for something closer to character interiority than exposition. I’m not sure I can even articulate the difference. So here’s maybe what I’ve learned by crossing genres: to dwell in scene, to move slowly through space and time even in the compressed form, to construct characters and to enter their interiorities when I’m looking for the emotional turn—that moment of recognition or tenderness or grace. Both fiction and nonfiction, for me, rely so heavily on that turn. Why not recycle strategies?

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just completed a collection of essays and stories (I wish I could just say one or the other, but the meaning—at least on the title page—would, I fear, be lost). I’ve begun sending it to contests. I’m also a rhetoric PhD, and my current project interrogates the police body camera and the state’s insistence that it adequately addresses the problem of police violence against black communities.

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

My rhetoric research occupies most of my time these days. But I’ll never pass up an opportunity to recommend Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Those are both beautiful exercises in fragmentation. I also really dig Holly Goddard Jones—both her novel, The Next Time You See Me, and her collection of stories, Girl Trouble. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Year’s End (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/12/24/years-end) is sad and lovely. And this strange little piece, 26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss was almost unanimously adored in Ohio State’s most recent graduate fiction workshop: http://www.kijjohnson.com/26_monkeys.htm. I haven’t read Kij Johnson, but after reading 26 Monkeys I’m definitely intrigued.

Monday
Jul112016

"Life on the Winning Side": An Interview with Rob Walsh

Rob Walsh has lived recently in Seattle, Providence, and Seoul. He is the author of Troublers, a collection of stories.

His story, "The Children's Book," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about bringing abandoned stories back to life, fairy tales, and Conan the Formidable.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

I wanted to write a story where someone finds a mysterious object. That was all I knew at the beginning. Before writing “The Children’s Book” I had been working on some longer projects and was getting kind of sick of those longer projects, so I wanted to step away and write something short and fast-moving and hopefully finish it in a day. Would it be helpful to any writers out there if I mention that as soon as I finished the “Children’s Book” I decided it was terrible and banished it to one of my many failed-story folders?

It was at least six months until I found it again. I had forgotten it existed. What’s this? I thought. I could barely remember writing it. Now, just like the young girl in “The Children’s Book,” I had discovered a mysterious piece of writing. And it has led me all the way to this interview. 

What was your favorite book as a child?

Hmmm. Maybe the Redwall books? Do you remember those? And then a few years went by and I moved on to the Conan franchise—not the Robert E. Howard books but the string of franchise titles that came out in the 80s and 90s, like “Conan the Formidable” and “Conan and Indomitable.” I don’t know what to say about them. Conan fights, and wins! Sometimes when you’re a lonely kid who makes a lot of mistakes, it can be nice to imagine life on the winning side.

Do you think the literature we love as kids informs who we will be as adults?

This question is asking me to reflect on the Redwall and Conan books. While Conan got into a lot of skirmishes, I’m much less of a violent force. And I can say pretty confidently that nothing I read when I was ten or eleven has become an influence on the stories I write now. I wish “The Name of the Wind” was around when I was a kid—I would have absolutely loved that book.

Looking back to my childhood, I read mainly to escape. Some might say that’s not a very useful pastime. However, others might say that we develop our capacity for imagination in early childhood.

For me this story echoed the plot of fairy tales—a lost child, a stranger supposedly luring children into his home, a mysterious book—except of course, in this story, the parents are kind and well-meaning. Instead of driving their child away, they want desperately to protect her. How do you feel “The Children’s Book” is in conversation with traditional fairy tales?

When I was considering your earlier question and trying to think of books that I “loved” as a kid, I wanted to write about the Brothers Grimm—but I didn’t know about the Brothers Grimm until I was an adult! I wish I had those stories as a kid . . . then I could give you a better answer for the previous question.

But, yes, definitely, fairy tales are a big influence on my work. How is a story like “The Children’s Book” in conversation with them? Well, I think it’s possible to talk about time and transition, how quickly the story unfolds and jumps ahead. I always appreciate fairy tales that can do a lot of work within a small space. These stories are also unafraid to twist logic, and for me these are usually the moments that feel truly magical.

I noticed, also, that you interviewed Michael J. Lee a few weeks ago. He’s the writer of one of my favorite modern fairy tales, “The New Year.” Would he like that I’m calling it a fairy tale? Maybe not! But I think if anyone is reading this right now and found my story halfway interesting, they should check out Lee’s collection “Something in My Eye.”

I don’t mean to go off-topic. Let’s talk more about “The Children’s Book.”

I appreciate the speakers’ honest attitude about parenthood. I especially love this confession: “In a few years she would be old enough to have a lock on her door, and we would have to knock before entering, so we enjoyed while we could the luxury of strolling into our daughter’s room without the fear of discovering her doing anything that we weren’t supposed to see.” Can you tell us how you found the voice of the parents? Were you inspired by anyone?

Sometimes I feel like all of my characters sound like the parents. When I’m writing, the characters have one job: keep me interested in the project. So I think that’s where the voice comes from: it’s just amusing to me, I have a soft spot for it, and so that’s what gets written. I’m trying to work on this. I don’t want to be called self-indulgent!

You mention an “honest attitude about parenthood,” and this is very important to me even if the characters are a bit silly and absurd. I think there are some truths that become easier to accept or confront when they’re packaged in the absurd. Kind of like how you sometimes need to roll a pill in butter to get the dog to swallow it?  

Who are you reading right now?

I would love to provide a short list of books that I’ve really enjoyed in the past few months:

Peacekeeping, Mischa Berlinski
The Loney, Andrew Hurley
The North Water, Ian McGuire
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Diane Williams
New Animals, Nick Francis Potter

I’m excited about Deb Olin Unferth’s new story collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance. The Internet tells me that this will be coming out early 2017.

I’m also looking forward to The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh.

One more: there’s a book coming out called The Deaths of Henry King, a collaboration between Brian Evenson and Jesse Ball. Sounds pretty good, right?

What are you working on now?

For about a decade I’ve been working on this trilogy of short novels. Sometimes I think it’s good, but then I look at it six months later and think “You Fool!” and have to tear it up and start again. My hope is that this process will lead somewhere eventually.

I have some new stories coming out, though. There’s one in the current issue of Heavy Feather Review, and two that will appear in the next issue of NOON.

Monday
Jul042016

"Sheets of Sound": An Interview with Jaydn DeWald

Jaydn DeWald is a writer, teacher, and musician. Recent poems, stories, and critical essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Best New Poets 2015, The Carolina Quarterly, Fairy Tale Review, Puerto del Sol, Writing on the Edge, and many others. He lives with his wife and two kids in Bogart, Georgia, where he’s a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. 

His two stories, "Lineage (5)" and "Lineage (6)," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about jazz, writing in the domestic sphere, and how a word compares to a musical note.

“Lineage (5)” and “Lineage (6)” are part of a larger “Lineage” series. Can you please describe this series and tell us how these two stories fit into the larger project?

The “Lineage” series is an ongoing narrative experiment triggered (in part) by Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, a study in which Russian fairy tales are broken into and analyzed as thematic and narratological chunks, which tend to be, Propp discovers, sequenced in particular ways. I won’t belabor this point; instead, I’ll simply mention that I was struck by passages like this one: “The names of the dramatic personae change (as well as the attributes of each), but neither their actions nor functions change. From this we can draw the inference that a tale often attributes identical actions to various personages.” My “Lineage” series attempts to create “versions” or “variations” of a single narrative, but rather than attribute “identical actions to various personages,” the series attributes various actions in identical (or almost identical) sentence structures—most notably the opening sentence of each “Lineage,” wherein the triad of the narrative is established: “My grandmother’s alone, more alone than I, though less alone than my grandfather…”; or, “I’m handsome—a bit handsomer, I think, than my brother—but perhaps not quite as handsome as our father…”; etc, etc. For this reason, each “Lineage” is not so much connected narratively—I don’t think of the characters as members of an extended family, for example, à la the soldiers in William March’s WWI novel-in-vignettes Company K (1933)—as connected morphologically: particular words and phrases and sentence structures, particular narrative moves and units, appear and reappear, like strands of linguistic DNA, across the series. The “Lineage” stories are, to my mind, blood relatives.

On a personal note, I find “lineage” as a subject endlessly fascinating—I’ve become a writer of the domestic sphere—“I like to get lost in my house,” as David Shapiro once wrote—and it’s linked for me to a larger life project: the intricacies of familial relations. My partner, Kali, and I have two kids, a three-year-old daughter and a two-month-old son, and though the “Lineage” stories are by no means autobiographical, writing them has been a valuable, even vital, experience whereby I reaffirm for myself the importance—as well as the difficulty—of intimacy and connection.

In “Lineage (6)” there is a moment in which the speaker addresses the reader. “[D]on’t you think?” he asks us, in reference to his handsomeness. When a narrator or speaker addresses the reader in a story, how do you think that changes our relationship with the text?

Before answering your question, I’ll mention that this address—“don’t you think?”—is one of those linguistic strands of DNA mentioned above: “Lineage (6)” followed the heels of another “Lineage” (which takes as its epigraph this line from David St. John: “Yesterday is so boring, don’t you think?”) wherein that address is repeated like a refrain or, more accurately, a conversational tic. Anyway, considering his extreme solipsism, the “handsome” protagonist of “Lineage (6)” is likelier addressing himself—his own reflection, as it were—than anybody else.

But to your question. I must admit I’m rather ambivalent about the proverbial “reader”—even though I adore those “dear reader” moments in old novels—seeing as my own readers (the people to and for whom I write) are specific people: my partner, my father, a few long-standing writer friends, a few teachers. And yet does one ever really believe that nobody else will read one’s writing? For this reason, I tend to experience readerly addresses as private, despite a text’s ability or inability to communicate widely, so that the general “reader” is in fact a voyeur, eavesdropping on a private conversation. On the whole, such an address will force me to peer deeplier into the peephole (so to speak) of the text. My unavoidable outsiderness arouses my desire to enter.

In “Lineage (5)” the speaker, like you, is a writer. What is the benefit (or what can we learn) by writing about characters who share our passions, our hobbies, or other important aspects of our personalities?

“Lineage (5)” is an aesthetic exploration, which is, of course, always already an existential exploration: Why should I be this particular way, to the inevitable and inadvertent exclusion of other ways? But I wasn’t interested in writing an aesthetics essay. I was interested in enacting—an aesthetic stance in itself, no?—the conflict(s) between generalized areas on the aesthetic-existential spectrum. In any event, for me, the benefit of writing about a writer is that I can enlarge myself: I can enter into the consciousness of a writer whose output exceeds, and whose aesthetic-existential range varies from, my own. Because the occasional battles in writing workshops tend to arise in my experience not from “problems” of execution, say, or attraction/repulsion to particular subject matter, but rather from the clashing of aesthetic sensibilities, the benefit of writing about a writer (a writer unlike oneself, anyway) is that one can become a richer and more tolerant writer, reader, teacher, peer, and maybe even person.

You are also a musician. Do you find any similarities between music and writing as art forms?

Absolutely. Playing music, especially jazz—and I played electric bass for the DeWald-Taylor Quintet for over a decade—one develops valuable, multidisciplinary instincts: one’s body knows more (or better) than one’s mind; twelve notes is more than enough; every instantiation of a tune is a different tune; silence, too, is music; listen and react, listen and react, listen and react . . . How can these instincts (and many others) not influence my writing? This is just to say that, for me, the useful similarities between music and writing relate principally to practice and approach.

Yet there are useful differences, too. Consider musicians like Miles or Jaco Pastorious, musicians who can wound us with a single, arrow-like note. Writing, alas, cannot compete. Even the strongest writing cannot appear (on the page, at least) in a single word, but rather requires an alchemy of words, seeing as a word in isolation cannot be written uniquely—cannot be played, so to speak—though I once dreamt that my laptop keyboard was a piano keyboard, and words were chords, and each letter could be sharped or flatted at will. On the other hand, a single word culled from a gazillion possible words—isn’t that far more precious than a single note, which is merely one of twelve? I love parsing out these differences, and I find the impossible task of obliterating them—the differences, that is—extraordinarily generative.

Do you listen to music while you write? Are there any musical artists who have inspired your writing?

Almost never. Language is its own music, just as music is its own language. Even so, while writing I’ll occasionally listen to a particular piece of music over and over again, when that music is (I mean this quite literally) the soundtrack of the poem or story or essay—as when a character listens to a song on the radio, for instance.

As for musicians who have inspired my writing, they are many and various—too many to responsibly introduce here—though the “Lineage” series is very much indebted to Coltrane. Jazz critic Ira Gitler famously described Coltrane’s solos as “sheets of sound,” and the “Lineage” stories are almost all long, single-paragraph stories, which I rather fancifully regard as Coltranian sheets of sound. Furthermore, Coltrane had a gift for extending phrases beyond their expected conclusions, for broadening or artfully complicating the improvisational units of which his solos are composed—there’s a real reluctance to pause or stop. In one well-known anecdote, Coltrane, defending the length of his solos, tells Miles, “I can’t find a way to stop,” to which Miles replies, “You might start by taking the horn out of your fucking mouth.” My “Lineage” series tries to channel the spirit of Coltrane, refusing the impulse to place periods and end paragraphs—to take the horn out of my mouth—preferring longer, more complicated compositional units.

I suspect this all sounds rather intellectual. Yet when you’ve played jazz and admired Coltrane’s virtuosity for as long as I have, it feels very personal indeed—an act of reverence and reciprocation. As Clark Terry, the great jazz trumpet, once said: “There’s nothing wrong with being a copycat, so long as you copy the right cats.”

What projects are you working on now?

I’m putting the finishing touches (I hope) on a cross-genre manuscript. I’ve also been writing new poems, stories, essays, and occasionally setting poems to music and/or soundwork. Most importantly, though, the project of raising two kids—my own lineage.

Friday
Jun242016

"Secret Subterranean Spaces": An Interview Janalyn Guo

Janalyn Guo lives in Austin, Texas and works as a grants management consultant. Her most recent short fictions have appeared in The Tusculum Review, Heavy Feather Review, Quarterly West, and other places. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University and was once artist-in-residence at Lijiang Studio in Yunnan, China.

Her story, "Heart Site," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about rapdoors, edible mushrooms, and Remedios Varo.

How did the idea of the Heart Site and its wish-fulfilling crones first come to you?

I had some old material that I’d written when I spent a summer in Yunnan, China with a Naxi family (a minority group in China with a matriarchal history). The landscape was very interesting. In Baoshan, women would go out and labor in these tiered fields, which were on very steep mountainsides. I’d watch some elderly women scale up and down this terrain to pick vegetables. They were extremely nimble. They carried sickles in one hand and moved like wind. I felt this strange sense of protection because they were everywhere. I started some stories about them and never quite finished any. When I set out to write “Heart Site,” I was attempting to revive some of those stories. At the time, I was also reading 1001 Arabian Nights. Something that really intrigued me about the tales was the repeated discovery of secret subterranean spaces: metal and wood trapdoors in the ground leading to a flight of stairs and finally to a very domesticated space, lavishly decorated with carpets and silks, and a figure waiting to be questioned. I wanted to write a story that opened up into strange underground territory.

So, that sheds a bit of light on how the story originated, though it’s morphed from my plans and there’s not much semblance to what I originally thought it’d be. One reason I enjoy writing stories is that it’s a little bit like putting together a memory capsule, and you don’t know how each thing you add is going to color everything inside. Now that I’m thinking back on how the story came to be, it’s all the stuff I mentioned above, but it could also be that during that time, a good friend of mine had a summer job cleaning statues in Central Park, a beekeeper at a coffee shop educated me on the behaviors of bees, and I was also obsessively reading a Japanese horror manga called Uzumaki, which is all about evil spirals.

The strange is often met with a lack of surprise by the characters within this story. For example, when the speaker and Elsinore encounter crones within the heart, they are undaunted. Why do you think this unflinching acceptance of magic is important, if not necessary, in fabulist literature?

I think that when they step into the heart, they’re already on this quest to find something spectacular, and when they encounter the crones, the world they inhabit turns out to be much more expansive than it seems. So maybe what they feel is more like awe and relief.

I’m often anxious when I start on something new because as I write, I’m waiting for the leap into fantasy. Sometimes, all it takes is the first sentence to feel like I’m there. But, sometimes I write stories that are only realism for the first few pages, so I put them in the metaphorical drawer and come back to them later. I don’t want to force anything. I want the magic to feel inevitable in each story I write, entirely probable within the logic of the world, but maybe initially dormant. I like having fantastical elements in my stories arrive a little bit late.

As for why this unflinching acceptance of magic is important in fabulist literature, I think it has to do with the space we are able to create. It’s evocative. There are so many more ways to tell the stories we want to tell, or maybe, for some of us, it is the only way.

I love that mushroom pickers and light saber-style canes exist side by side in this story. There’s a wonderful combination of modernity and timelessness in this piece. Why did this style appeal to you?

In Yunnan, I wandered around a pine forest with my neighbor, an expert mushroom picker, who then prepared a mushroom dish for dinner. Those edible mushrooms were some of the weirdest shaped and textured things I’ve ever put in my mouth, and I think about them from time to time. At the same time, the town where we stayed was modernizing. A highway was being constructed to connect it to the rest of China.

I think that sense of timelessness, as you described, is what it’s like to wander through a Chinese landscape, sometimes. It’s hyper modern in some ways and also very unchanged at the same time. I also think that if you look at any social landscape close enough, anywhere in the world, you’d find those layers of old and new traditions.

I admit I do like setting my stories in spaces and timeframes that are not easily identifiable. It could have happened in the past; it could be happening in the future. I feel like I’m granted more freedom to build my world.

If an old crone offered you a wish when you were a kid, what would you have asked for?

That’s a tough question. I think I would have made a terribly informed wish. I remember that I was an avoidant kid. If I could get out of doing something, I would, even if it was something I mildly enjoyed—like choir practice or line soccer. I think I would have wished for a little trapdoor to follow me wherever I went so that if I wanted to get out of a situation, I could step through it and immediately land in my bed at home.  

And of course the crone would have said no. So, I would have wished for unfrizzy hair or maybe to be less shy around adults

If you were to pair this story with another work of art (a song, a painting, etc.), what would its companion piece be?

That’s a really hard question, but I have an answer for you! So a companion painting would be anything painted by Remedios Varo. The colors she uses are what I imagine the world of the story would be: reds, yellows, and oranges—a light and dark, whimsical and mysterious. The subjects are often mysterious figures, sometimes emerging from openings in walls. As for music, I would pair this story with something like Erik Satie’s The Velvet Gentleman. When it starts out, there’s this sort of orchestral thing in a melancholy key going on. Then it transitions into something wonderfully playful and MOOG-y. And then there’s all those elements mixing together throughout. That juxtaposition of sounds seems right.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m revising a novel I started years ago, which is challenging because I am not the same person as I was then. I am also working on a short story collection, which is coming easier to me. So hopefully, more things to come from me soon!  

Thursday
Jun162016

"My Spicy Mysteries": An Interview with Michael Jeffrey Lee

Michael Jeffrey Lee first book, Something in My Eye, won the Mary McCarthy Prize and was published by Sarabande. New work has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB, DIAGRAM, and Parcel. He lives in New Orleans.

His story, "The Burned-out House," appeared in Issue Seventy of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about productive ambiguities, colorful neighbors, and the house as a metaphor.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

This story began with the rather absurd first line: I was about 35 when I moved into the burned-out house. “Right, then,” I thought, “Time to figure out who said this.” It’s interesting because the early drafts had a much more plaintive tone—the narrator seemed on the verge of tears the whole time. It droned on rather sadly and prettily for about 10 pages—the structure was more or less the same. However, during some conversations with (patient) friends, it was suggested that I might try to be a bit more violent with the voice, try making him more of a brute, someone who would put up a tougher front. And these suggestions, to use a phrase the narrator might employ, blew it wide open. It helped that around that time there was this interesting fellow in my neighborhood, who, when he wasn’t performing random acts of kindness for his neighbors, was screaming racial and homophobic slurs at the top of his lungs, usually in the middle of the night. A complex individual, to say the least. I thought about him while re-writing.      

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard claims, “[t]he house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” How do you think the speaker in this story would respond to this?

I think he’d say, “With all due respect, Doctor, it sounds to me like that guy spent most of his childhood pulling his pud in a quiet corner, counting sheep. I’ll bet good money he never spent one night in a burned-out house, not that I’d particularly recommend it.”

Mysteries are peppered throughout this story. There’s the mystery of the speaker’s history, the mystery of the previous tenants buried in the backyard. How do you choose which mysteries to resolve in a story and which to leave unanswered?

I really like the idea of the mysteries peppering the story. My spicy mysteries. But your point’s well taken. These ambiguities are always at the center of my work. I’m going to talk about my first drafts again, forgive me, but one of the ways in which they’re always lacking is in the inelegance of these ambiguities—they’re too vague in their suggestions, they open up too many interpretive possibilities, so the work feels intentionally obscure and self-indulgent and shuts the reader out. Or often the opposite is true, and I’m spending too much time explaining things better left alluded to. But to answer your question it’s usually just a process of trial and error. I’ll have a conversation with myself along the lines of, “Well if the narrator says this then it will suggest this, and this and this, and do I want that? Is that a productive ambiguity?” In the first draft, the narrator spoke of a distant family, but that did something I didn’t like to the story—it kind of steered it sentimental, so I cut it. I thought it would be better, more pleasantly vexing, as a question mark.

Why is the house “burned-out” as opposed to run down or abandoned?

Without playing my own critic too much, I’ll say it’s obviously connected to his inner state (although he’d vehemently deny it—he even tries to shoot down the house-as metaphor reading). But why “burned-out?” Well, he’s a bit charred by life, you know, a bit ashed-on, a little run down but not abandoned. But don’t count him out. He’s made some bad decisions but he’s still got that dirty smirk, don’t you worry. He’s been through the fire, and now he’s peeling right before your eyes. I also liked the way “burned-out” reflected his relationship to narrative itself, perhaps my relationship too. Exhausted, wore out, nothing but dregs, adios.             

What projects are you working on now?

I’m working on something longer, a novella probably, nothing too ambitious. I’m in the mixing stages of an album I sang on. I’m slowly attempting to become a legitimate musician—been practicing a lot of piano. Bard of the Burned-Out House, that’s what they’ll call me. Thanks for this interview. These were great questions.

Thursday
Jun092016

"Bilingual, Multicultural, and Variously-Housed-and-Homed": An Interview with Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Printer's Row, Joyland Magazine, Split Lip Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Hobart, and more. She is also the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring the work and voices of new, emerging, and struggling fiction writers. She tweets a lot: @ilanaslightly.

Her story, "In Re", appeared in Issue Eighty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Ilana Masad talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about metafiction, revising flash, and being an Israeli-American.

Although your story “In Re” is published as fiction, it reads much like nonfiction, written in first person with a sometimes anecdotal voice. Is any part of this story based on real events? How much does your work blend fiction and nonfiction?

“In Re” is one of my weirdest stories, and yes, it’s very much based on a real and inconsequential evening during which I was chatting to a friend at a real place called Re:Bar and the same man seemed to be going up (or down) the escalator nearby several times. But this was an absolute outlier for me. I rarely blend nonfiction into my fiction work, though the first “proper” short story I wrote was apparently so convincing that my creative writing teacher at the time (this was in college) thought that it was entirely autobiographical. I wasn’t sure at the time whether to be insulted or flattered, but I think I’ve decided that it was flattering. I had an editor later accuse me of the same thing, saying that it was an interesting blend of fiction and non-fiction. I had to tell the editor that it was 100% fictional, and I never heard back from him.

But back to “In Re,” the point is that it was a weird thing for me to do. But I was trying out metafiction for the first time and taking the idea quite literally, and this was the result.

This story contains a few parenthetical, observational digressions, two of which showcase wordplay. In the first of these, you write, “It would have made us look so witty, inserting puns into our conversations so casually. I don't want you to think we aren't funny girls, because we are. We just didn't think of it at the time.” Why devote these moments to the narrator’s esprit d'escalier? How much of your writing process involves play with language?

There are two questions here, and both are fascinating, but let me answer them in order. As to the first—why devote these moments etc.—it was, I think, my attempt at creating what I thought metafiction was all about. It was me trying to observe a moment from the outside, in hindsight, and create a story out of it that was also social commentary, because when it comes to the country I spent most of my life in (I’ll be able to say that until I’m in my mid-30s), it’s impossible to discuss it or anything about it without addressing the problematic nature of its whole existence, from the fact that it gets so much money from Christian fundamentalists who are waiting for the Second Coming (which I’ve always found a strangely dirty phrase) to the fact that there are occupied territories that are contested on a daily basis, to the fact that the Holocaust happened and Jews really did need a place to go and feel safe in after that. There is so much to talk about there that keeping those parentheticals as short as they are was a struggle. But I was trying to be somewhat glib and definitely concise, so that’s how I managed to address Israeli-ness and Israel-ness and Hebrew-speaking; through (parentheticals).

The second part—about language—is so interesting to think about, because at the time that I first wrote this, language play was not on my radar at all. It happened here because of the literal language play—writing a story in English about an event that was transpiring in Hebrew, in a Hebrew-speaking country. The interplay of the two languages themselves were what led to the language (inter)play. See, there I go again. Language is very much in my lexicon, so to speak, nowadays. But it’s strange; some of my work has absolutely nothing to do with language and everything to do with character and attempts at plot, whereas some of my stories and one of my novels are consumed with language to the point where some people see them as “avant-garde” (this was the very obviously unflattering phrase an agent used about that novel).

Israel is discussed in two paragraphs of this story, both times as a seeming non sequitur, especially toward the beginning, when the reader has been introduced to a man holding a briefcase and two characters sitting at a nearby bar, when suddenly: “Israel reinstated itself after millennia of persecution,” a jarring transition apparently fitting into the proceedings only by virtue of the “re” in “reinstated.” How did you decide this story would follow such associative thinking rather than a more chronological approach? Why make statements about Israel and a pink, fruity drink share the stage in such a brief story?

Because as someone bilingual, multicultural, and variously-housed-and-homed, there is no way for me to think about anything that happens in Israel without thinking about what it means that it happened there. As I mentioned before, I spent most of my life in Israel, and while I lived there, I could still think about it simply, just as home, even if it was a home that did terrible things to people, even if it was a home where I feared for my father’s life when he took buses every day but also didn’t entirely fault the people blowing up those buses because of the circumstances they came from and the way violence and persecution begets more violence. I didn’t have words for all this at the time, but it was very much felt and understood.

Going to college in the United States though—well, that opened up a whole big can of worms, because suddenly I was the Israeli girl and that meant that I was either an overzealous Zionist nut-job (and the word Zionism is far more complicated than I’m making it seem here) or I was a self-hating Arab-lover. There seemed no room for nuance in the public perception of what I was. But nuance is there. Just recently, I had a dear friend call me out on language I used regarding the West Bank, and I was extremely offended and pissed off because she spent all of ten days there while I spent my life in the country that has occupied the Palestinian territories, and disregarding any nuance on either side of the conflict is impossible if there is to be any sort of understanding, ever (a prospect which I have very little belief in, by the by; I’m a bit of a nihilist when it comes to both my home countries in that sense).

SO. To answer the original question. Why bring Israel into it? Because anything that happened to me in Israel or that I wanted to write about Israel after I’d begun to see myself for the first time as a minority (an atheist Jew) and a stereotype (of one of the kinds of Israeli stereotypes above) had to include something involving the complexities and mind-bending one has to endure living there as a left-wing individual.

Plus, the point is partially that even in such a complex, nuanced place things like pink fruity drinks exist. Frivolity exists everywhere, in some ways, and especially in a country that is as Americanized as Israel is. Normal life goes on, even as atrocities and terrible things (and men with brown briefcases) keep on going in an endless loop.

Can you describe your revision process for this story and others like it? How many drafts does a story of this length go through? How much addition and subtraction must you perform from the first draft to the final?

The revision process for this story is particular and different than any other story because the revision became part of the story itself—the question I ask my friend about which word to use? That was real. I called her up while typing the story and asked her about it. So in that way, I folded revision into the very nature of this story.

In general, though… well, there isn’t an “in general,” I guess. I taught a class on Skillshare about flash fiction recently where I think I talked quite a bit about how different stories of this length come about. Some are flash fiction in the sense that they truly come out in a flash of inspiration and barely anything changes between the original draft and when I’m finished with the story. In general, though, I’m a rather impatient writer when it comes to editing my shortest stories, and I’ll often send them out before they’re ready, almost as if I need the rejections to tell me that I need to revise them. And maybe I do.

More recently I’ve become far more concerned with editing though, and so maybe now my process is a little different with such short work. I often put pieces away after I write the first draft, which I usually think is utter crap, and then open it up a week or two months or a year later and realize that there’s maybe something here, that there’s something I can work on here. And then I take the metaphorical fine-toothed comb to the sentences and tweak a word here or delete a sentence or phrase there until I feel like I’ve tinkered enough.

What writing projects are you working on now?

So, so, so many. I have a new writing group where I’m responding to prompts, which is excellent for me. But otherwise, I have one project that’s my main focus—editing a novel I wrote about five years ago—and everything else is on hold. The on hold includes a novel I need to complete, another novel I need to heavily revise, a novel/collection of interlinked short stories (not sure how to classify that quite yet) that also needs revision but very carefully because all the stories are the same exact length (including title) and I want to keep that going, and short story ideas constantly running through my head as sentences. There’s also a historical novel that I will write one day because I know who and what it’s about and they haven’t been written about yet in their own novel and they deserve to be.

Plus, I’m a freelance writer so I’m constantly working on articles, book reviews, blog posts, etc. I’m a bit of a workhorse.

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

Almost everything I’ve read recently I’d like to recommend. Sarah-Jane Stratford’s Radio Girls; Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things; Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life; Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You; Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night; Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours… The list could go on and on and on.

Sunday
Jun052016

"How Bad Habits Work": An Interview with Rochelle Hurt

Rochelle Hurt is the author of two poetry collections: In Which I Play the Runaway (2016), winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City, published in the Marie Alexander Series from White Pine Press (2014). She is the recipient of awards from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Phoebe, Poetry International, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fund, as well as fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and the Jentel Artist Residency Program. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati.

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

Here, she speaks with interviewer William Hoffacker about about flash fiction, metaphor, and feedback loops.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Blood Loop”? What inspired the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I became fascinated with the idea of a positive feedback loop, in which cause and effect (in very unscientific terms) essentially feed each other. I first read about this phenomenon in a scientific context, but I immediately started thinking about it as a metaphor: how shame works, how bad habits work, how family relationships often mimic feedback loops.

The maternal and pregnant body is endlessly fascinating to me as well. In popular culture it’s often depicted as soft and vulnerable, and mothers are depicted as sweet and selfless creatures (unless they’re being demonized). That always strikes me as false and fairly boring. The pregnant body doesn’t simply house another body; it’s part of a complex system in which two bodies respond to one another.

The entire story contains fewer than 500 words. How do you achieve such an economy of language? Does it require a lot of restraint and/or chaff-cutting to write so concisely? (Did you have to make any tough decisions during the revision process?)

I didn’t cut much—maybe a few sentences, but they were mostly extra modifiers or layered metaphors. Mostly I rearranged. Mechanically, I write flash prose in much the same way I write poems, focusing on description and metaphor. I think some of the economy is a habit developed out of writing poetry—you start to think in dramatic, condensed phrases. So it’s really just a series of figurative descriptions that move the story forward. In this mode, restraint is actually counterproductive, since it might limit those figurative descriptions.

For me, “condensed” prose is not necessarily the same as “economic” prose—it just means that phrases are highly concentrated. Sometimes they’re of little consequence for the plot, but they accomplish other things that are just as pleasurable and important. I remember encountering the term “muscular prose” in college and being initially offended at the thinly veiled gendering of a valued writing style. Then I realized “muscular prose” was likely something I didn’t want to write anyway.

Your story ends in a pivotal moment with both mother and daughter caught red-handed, each in the act of stealing from the other. The two characters are described as “stuck” and “blushing,” but the narrative cuts off before either of them can react in any active way. How did you decide that the story should end in this scene and go no further despite the reader’s natural curiosity about what would happen next?

The mother and daughter are stuck in a permanent feedback loop, so I felt I couldn’t allow them out of that moment. This is another reason I like to write flash: in order to focus on a metaphor or a single moment, to get inside it and make a reader understand it—but then to leave it, rather than pursue it beyond that understanding. That last scene was in my mind from the start, and the rest was really a way of climbing inside that scene and teasing out its symbolic significance through context.

In addition to writing fiction and creative nonfiction, you have published two books of poetry. How does working in multiple genres inform your writing? What lessons have you learned from poetry that you’ve applied to how you write prose, or vice versa?

In addition to the things I’ve mentioned, I think having multiple genres on the table when I get an idea helps me to hone that idea down to something artful. When I have to ask myself whether a metaphor about maternal feedback loops should be a poem, a story, or an essay, I begin to understand more precisely what it is about that idea that appeals to me, what aspect of it I really want to convey. While these categories sometimes help me at the start of a project, they always become blurry in the end, which is freeing.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a couple of nonfiction essays, along with a third book of poems that address sexuality and gender politics. I’m trying to envision this third book as a larger narrative built through individual poems and characters, so there are some fictional elements there, but for the most part, (flash) fiction is sort of my little escape on the side. If I were secretly trying to write a novel, I don’t think I’d talk about it until it was finished.

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

I recently re-read Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin, which is fantastic. To me, the writing seems somehow no-nonsense and hallucinatory at once. I was also amazed by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is genre-bending, hypnotic, eye-opening, heart-wrenching, and infuriating. Right now I’m reading poetry: Cate Marvin’s Oracle, Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl, and francine j. harris’s play dead, all great.

Thursday
Jun022016

"The Entire Experience Seemed Like an Invitation": An Interview with James M. Chesbro

James M. Chesbro’s work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Under the Gum Tree, Connecticut Review, The Huffington Post, AOL.com, The Good Men Project, Superstition Review, Pilgrim, Weston Magazine, The Connecticut Post, and Spiritus. You can follow him on Twitter @Jamie_Chesbro.

His essay, "Green Mazes," appeared in Issue Eighty of The Collagist.

Here, James M. Chesbro talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about feelingful thoughts, memory gaps, and mowing the lawn.

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

Unlike all my other roles, mowing the lawn brings me immediate satisfaction. I like drawing stripes into the yard, of cutting all the blades the same length, of bringing order to the unkempt. The results are immediate, unlike writing, teaching high school students, or freshman undergraduates, and fathering three young children.

One particular time, as I write in the essay, “the gasoline fumes and the cooing mourning dove made me think of my father,” and my childhood backyard. These thoughts and feelings wouldn’t leave me alone long after I finished the lawn. In Phillip Lopate’s “The Personal Essay and First-Person Character” he writes, “In my own essays, I try to convey thought infused with feeling—a feelingful thought as well as a thoughtful feeling. I try to merge heart and mind.” I began to give the material a try because this seemed like what I had—lots of “feelingful thought[s]” to work with. From inside, I could still hear that mourning dove, cooing, cooing, cooing, and the entire experience seemed like an invitation.

Your essay contains several phrases that imply uncertainty about certain details: e.g., “I bet when I asked him,” “he must have given me some instruction,” etc. How much leeway do you give yourself when filling in the gaps of memory? Do you have an obligation to the reader to make it clear when you’re embellishing or making an assumption about how an event probably happened?

Sure, but I think the reader intuits that I’m working with memory, rather than anything verifiable and I suppose these somewhat self-conscious asides remind them of that as I move along. I like how Tobias Wolff addresses writing about memory in his brief preface for This Boy’s Life. “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.”

That’s the goal for all literary nonfiction writers, right?—to do one’s best in telling a truthful story. We research what is researchable, look at pictures, ask family members if they remember an event (sometimes). We speculate another’s perspective, their internal workings, their motivations. 

As I mention in “Green Mazes,” my father was an artist. He completed his BFA at the University of the Arts. At night or on the weekends he often took classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, where his favorite artist, Thomas Eakins once belonged. The Sketch Club chose to display his work once (and they misspelled his name). I think his figure drawings were attempts to sketch the human body with as much honesty as his ability and skill would allow, which is what I think writers try to do in words with human experience. Your question prompts me to think about the correlations and overlapping considerations visual and literary artists have about how to approach assumptions, embellishments, and portraying the truthfulness of memory.

The second-to-last line asks, “What kind of father am I becoming, and what do the memories of my dad have to teach me as flashes of his figure walk over the lines we’ve drawn?” I’m interested in this turn because the rest of the essay hardly mentions your own children. Were you at all tempted to focus on your own family and attempt to answer this question within the essay, or was this piece always more concerned with your relationship with your father?

This essay was always about the reconciliations I never made with my father, it just took me a long time to see that larger subject. I hope “Green Mazes” causes the reader to ask themselves these questions, about their own parents, which is one reason I’m comfortable letting them linger. The essay can stand alone, as it does in The Collagist, but it also serves my linked collection well as the first essay, as a launching off point for the rest of the manuscript which is mostly about fathering and looking at my deceased father from the new vantage point of being one.

One of the essay’s more profound moments comes when you write that your father’s death “has become an extension of the reconciliations we never made.” How do you approach a topic as universal and sentimental as grief for a family member in a work of nonfiction? And why broach the subject in the context of recalling something as seemingly trivial as mowing the lawn?

Writing about mowing the lawn gives me the occasion to ponder the other matters you mention. How to avoid sentimentality when writing about grief, about family? I have several quotes nailed to the exposed stud above my computer in an unfinished section of our basement where I write. One of my favorites, and one that can address this question more eloquently than I can is from Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, when he writes: “We can write about the world only by writing about a world, and that world the one we think, at least, we really know. Journalism is made from the outside in; but writing is made from the inside out. Applicable metaphors, not all-over views, are what writers and readers trade in. The metaphors of experience each writer finds in his own backyard, or air shaft, or palace gardens, have, of necessity, different colors—some are gold and some are green and some merely gray—but in the end, the shapes we know are all the same: the arc of desire and disappointment, the rising half circle of hope, the descending crescent of aging, the scribble of the city or the oval of the park, or just the long, falling tunnel of life. Each of these shapes is to be found in any life lucky enough to have any shape at all. (The cosmic-sentimental essay is, in any case, a kind of antimemoir, a nonconfession confession, whose point is not to strip experience bare but to use experience for some other purpose: to draw a moral or construct an argument, make a case, or just tell a joke.)”

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

Of the books I picked up at AWP, the two that have been winning my attention are: B.J. Hollars’s This Is Only a Test, and Patrick Madden’s Sublime Physick: Essays.