Monday
May022016

Sophia

Laurie Stone


 

In junior high, I would see a girl people whispered about. Her name was Sophia, a heavy, dark-haired girl whose father was a mobster, an Italian mobster, a member of the mafia, Papa Bonfiglio. She lived in a house I used to ride past on my bike, a big house in Lido Beach flanked by Lincoln Continentals that sat humming on the curved driveway like restless sharks. I wondered what went on in that house. I imagined crumbs, a suitcase, cards, and droplets of blood. Sophia had a tough, sad face, and boys made fun of her. It was a time when boys called girls cows and sluts and easy. I did not know Sophia's world, only that it was tinged the color of a dead tooth. Paulo Bonfoglio was a capo in the Lucchese crime family, involved in large-scale narcotic trafficking. Maybe Sophia knew. Does anyone really know what their fathers do? The year I entered 7th grade, my sister returned from college under mysterious circumstances. She was seeing a shrink, and it was supposed to be a secret. She had stolen a wallet from a girl in her dorm. Sophia ate lunch with greasers and punks, and I do not know if we ever spoke. She was a different kind of girl: her hair teased up high, her eyes circled with black. Soon I would look that way.

 

Monday
May022016

"Aging, Death, and Daily Routine": An Interview with Meghan Lamb

Meghan Lamb lives with her husband in St. Louis. Her novella Sacramentowas recently released on Solar Luxuriance. Her book, Silk Flowers, is forthcoming in early 2016 from Birds of Lace. Her work can also be found in Necessary Fiction, Spork, wigleaf, and other places.

Her story, "Afraid of the Rain," appeared in Issue Seventy-Nine of The Collagist.

Here, Meghan Lamb talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about lists, diurnal routines, and writing toward absences.

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

The story began as a creative discussion between myself and my husband (who is not a writer, but a filmmaker and photographer, and incidentally, I think that makes him more aesthetically simpatico with me than most writers). It started as a conversation about aging, death, and daily ritual.

This conversation emerged from a particular elder couple we encountered. We bought a sofa from them—an impeccable mid-century sofa—and when we went into their house to pick up the sofa, we were both struck by the loveliness of their living environment. Everything in their house was 40, 50, 60 years old, but it looked almost new. So many layers of time, so much accumulation. Swept and dusted from the furniture, but I couldn’t help but feel they were absorbed by something else.

I thought, they must treat their lives very delicately—very deliberately—to maintain them in such a way. They told us they were selling their belongings to move into a nursing facility, and I think we both felt a bit odd about that, imagining this quiet, fastidious couple in a world of materials that didn’t belong to them.

That was how (and why) we started imagining this story of a couple who resisted the oddness of that decision with their suicide. From the beginning, I knew I wanted this underlying story—their motivation, their dread, their anxiety, their plan itself—to be absorbed into the fabric of their day-to-day rituals.

In the process of writing this story, I realized that I couldn’t write the narrative I wanted to write if I openly addressed the couples’ plan to commit suicide. The minute the suicide was mentioned, it completely took over the action, demanding an explanation, a discussion of their intentionality. I didn’t want this to be a story about that discussion; I wanted to generate the sensation that this couple had made up their minds (about something) and were therefore shutting off their environment to any voice, any conversation that might interfere with (or deter them from) that decision.

This story contains a few lists, as well as many brief paragraphs consisting of only one or two short sentences. How did you decide this concise, somewhat choppy style was right for this story? Did this choice come about through revision, or was it present from the outset?

While some degree of that concision can just be attributed to my general style, I was especially interested in lists (particularly crossed-off lists) for the particular kind of mundanity they represent. Their opacity. Their clean decisiveness. The sensation of building toward completion generated by crossing off each individual line.

As an anxious person who makes multiple lists each day—sometimes dozens when I’m on the precipice of a major event or decision that’s generating conflicted lines of thought—this felt like a vital process to gesture toward.

A list generates a strong, visible feeling of accumulation without the obligation of performing the source (let alone the outcome) of that accumulation. A list doesn’t argue or ask questions. It simply moves toward its objective, one line at a time.

A lot is left ambiguous throughout this story—e.g., just what is the main characters relationship to John, why does the husband not want the wife to speak to John, etc. Of what remains a mystery to the reader, how much do you need to know as the author in order to create the characters and narrative, and how much is unclear even to you?

This is the most satisfying phrasing I’ve seen for what is probably an incipient (but occasionally quite frustrating) question about the story’s construction.

I try to curate my imagination of a story around the absences I’m writing toward. I don’t want to know too much beyond what feels absolutely essential to a story’s telling, namely because I don’t want that telling to feel false or inhuman (i.e. too inhumanly lucid or epiphantic, too writerly). As I write this, though, I recognize that my distanced 3rd person perspective probably generates a kind of “writerly” expectation in some people. My hope is that this framing doesn’t register as a “writerly” pose so much as an implacable observance, like the nonjudgemental gaze of a camera.

I have a strong interpretation of who John is and what his significance is, but only as it directly pertains to the story. I don’t have a very developed perception of who he might be off the page (beyond the camera’s gaze). John is John. I don’t know what he does for a living. I don’t know what he’s up to, that day or the next or the previous. I don’t know what his favorite food is. I don’t know what he looks like.

Most of the action in this story is mundane, everyday stuff: grocery shopping, paying bills, a drive around the neighborhood, and so on. And yet, theres a tension behind all of it that holds the readers attention and give the story momentum and menace. How did you pull off this palpable suspense in a narrative steeped in normalcy?

At some point in my contemplation of this suicide as a narrative problem, my husband and I watched the Chantal Akerman film Jeanne Dielman, which (similarly to my story) explores the atmosphere of a woman’s diurnal routines, allowing a slow accumulation of tension to trickle through (via small moments such as Jeanne’s polite but firm refusal of a social invitation, the split second where she almost spills the milk for her coffee). The explosion of this tension doesn’t arrive until the very ending of the film, and while it registers as a bit of a shock, it also feels inevitable (at least to me). There’s the sensation that you’ve always known (without really knowing) that it was coming, even though (and in a strange way, even because) this explosion can’t be mapped neatly onto the narrative’s progression.

This is all to say: just as it felt impossible not to focus on the suicide once it entered into the narrative, it felt impossible not to sense the build toward this culmination when I decided to delay it until the last possible moment. The suspense feels like a very natural undertone of (what I imagine to be) the reader’s process as they continually question the significance of these superficially mundane details and are continually denied an explanation.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Way too many. I had to make a list!

  • I’m in the finishing-up stages with my short novel, Silk Flowers, which is coming out this summer through Birds of Lace. It revolves around a woman’s undiagnosable (and more importantly, inarticulable) illness and the ways both she and her husband construct the story of that illness (in the absence of its explanation).
  • I’m also finishing up a short novella called All of Your Most Private Places that is pending as a book form publication (that doesn’t feel quite definite enough to announce yet). That one orbits around a desert, a couple, a call girl, an atomic museum. Darkness. Loneliness. Vast empty spaces and secret explosions.
  • I’m really close to finishing up a story collection called Significant Others. It’s about significant others.
  • In the pretty nearish future, Dancing Girl Press is publishing a chapbook that functions as a sort of “letter” to my beautiful grandmother, Theresa, who passed away last year.
  • In the realm of more long-con projects, I’m currently working on a monograph of the playwright Sarah Kane, a play (heavily Kane-inspired) called White City, a novella with a Jean Rhysesque flaneur-type character who goes to Berlin to have a bunch of sex and drink her-self to death (kind of like a feminine/Euro Leaving Las Vegas), and a novel (which may even become triptych of novels) called Failure To Thrive which revolves around families dealing with disability-related issues in a once industrial/now dead mountain town.
  • Beyond that, I’m always working on various odds and ends. Performance pieces. Book reviews. Etc. I’m currently working on a review of Black Wings Has My Angel, a weirdly beautiful noir novel by Elliot Chaze.

What have you read recently that youd like to recommend?

This is always a good question, but it’s unfortunately always the hardest question for me to answer. I read so much and I love such specific things (and by “things,” I mean moments within texts moreso than whole bodies of texts, if that makes any sense). I enjoy writing reviews because they give me an opportunity to speak to these specific things—and their thinginess—as my way of recommending (and also, possibly, deterring any readers who aren’t interested in those things).

I’ll be interning with Danielle Dutton’s Dorothy Project this fall, so I recently read and re-read my way through their catalogue. Every single book they’ve published is an absolute diamond, but I especially loved their recently released text by Marianne Fritz, The Weight of Things. You can read my (terribly inadequate) review here. I’ve also been reading a lot of Barbara Comyns lately (in part thanks to the recommendation of Kathryn Davis), and Dorothy’s collection of her stories—Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead—is my favorite.

I also highly recommend Dao Strom’s elegantly fragmented/ghostly/hybrid memoir, We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting and reading with Mark Gluth. I recommend everything he’s written, especially No Other. Everything else from Sator Press is also wonderful, of course, including Sonya Vatomsky’s Salt is For Curing.

I’m also recently read Merce Rodoreda’s Death in Spring and Josefine Klougart’s One of Us is Sleeping, both from Open Letter, both amazing…

And this is the point where my mind starts spiraling. My whole world is reading and writing. To recommend one thing I love is, in some way, to recommend everything.

Saturday
Apr302016

"I Live in a Haunted House": An Interview with Aimee Parkison

Aimee Parkison’s story collection, Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman (FC2/University of Alabama Press 2017) won the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Parkison is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma State University. She has received a Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship, a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship, a Writers at Work Fellowship, a Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize from North American Review, and a Hearst Fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary magazines, and her books are The Petals of Your Eyes (Starcherone/Dzanc 2014), The Innocent Party (BOA Editions, Ltd. 2012), and Woman with Dark Horses (Starcherone 2004). More information is available at www.aimeeparkison.com.

Her stories, "The Casting Director," and "Code Violations,' appeared in Issue Seventy-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, Aimee Parkison talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about writing fiction and the art of listening.

What can you tell us about the origins of your two short stories, “The Casting Director” and “Code Violations”? What sparked the initial idea for each?

These flash fictions come from very different places emotionally, tonally, and conceptually. Both owe a debt to the art of listening. As a fiction writer, listening is important for capturing voice. I do two types of “listening” when writing stories—one is actual listening to things people say, partly to develop my “ear” but partly to gather ideas. The other type of listening has to do with language, sounds of words, tones, and how those words become voices full of life, personality, secrets, moods, codes, and shadow stories. 

For this type of discovery, I truly have to learn to listen to the voices in my head. Those voices, although inside of me, aren’t mine. They come from language and I need to be very open to hear them, to channel them artistically. I suppose that will sound crazy to some people, especially those who aren’t creative writers, but I actually do need to listen to the voices in my head and follow these voices because they lead to good things, artistically. Listening to voices (real and imagined) brings stories, characters, ideas, discovery, and actually is very healthy for an artist to do.

I live in a haunted house where people have heard voices, but I’m not sure if that has anything to do with these two stories, both of which I got by listening in various ways inside my haunted house.

“The Casting Director” has a first-person narrator as well as a character, Catherine, who is sometimes addressed as “you.” What made you decide this story’s point of view should feature direct address to a specific character with a name (rather than a generic “you”)? As the author, how much do you know about these characters’ relationship to one another that the reader might not be privy to?

“The Casting Director” was almost purely language based in its beginning when I allowed the words to take me to Catherine through the voice of her estranged friend, the speaker. I found that voice by listening hard for the character, following the character by listening to the words on the page and the way they created a trail in my mind to the character waiting to tell her story. She wanted to tell the story to Catherine, for Catherine, not to me, so this is why the very personal direct address to Catherine, rather than a generic “you.”

From the first sentence, “Code Violations” has a lighter tone, with its “toilet in the shower in the kitchen, beside the stove.” How often do you prioritize having a sense of humor in your fiction? Is it hard work to make your writing funny, or does it happen naturally?

“Code Violations,” the idea for it, the place, was one of those lucky things that happens to writers sometimes. It has to do with the art of listening. This time I wasn’t listening to language on the page or a voice in my head but to a dear friend who suddenly remembered his old apartment in D.C. and described it to me. From that description, I started to imagine the place from the point of view of someone who is in love and living there with someone she loves, perhaps because I was in love with the person who was describing the apartment and have been for a very long time. The apartment he described, which sounded so problematic, was actually a place he remembered living very happily, although alone. I imagined us together there, or people like us, and what that place would be like for a couple in love.

Both of these stories are rather brief. “Code Violations” is particularly concise, containing fewer than 250 words. How do you maintain such an economy of language? Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to write a story in such a small space?

Brief stories are like poems, which require both incredible restraint and incredible openness to write well. Longer stories are more novelistic, requiring a different kind of restraint—a structural restraint. For me, writing flash fiction is more intuitive and poetic than writing longer fiction. I write both types of fiction—long and short. I write some language based, poetic fiction and some longer, more traditionally structured narrative. 

When it comes to negotiating longer works, especially those that are longer novels, structure is necessary. The longer the work, the more it needs a logical structure to guide it to cohesion and completion. The shorter the work, the more it needs a strong voice to guide it, to allow it to sing and create meaning through sound and tone and implied narrative flowing from voice. 

What writing projects are you working on now?

My newest story collection, which will be my fourth published book, Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, just won the 2016 FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Although the creative work for the collection is mostly finished, I’ll be doing lots of editing and proofreading and likely some revision as the book is scheduled for publication in 2017 through FC2, an imprint of University of Alabama Press. It will be an exciting process to get to work with the collective and also with a university press in seeing the book to print.

In addition, I’m always writing new stories for future collections. Some of these stories are long and some very short. I’m doing lots of journaling to capture new ideas and voices.

While working on stories, I’m finishing a longer historical novel, which is in the revision stages, a project I’ve been working on for several years. I’ve received lots of wonderful support on the project from the American Antiquarian Society, the North Carolina Arts Council, and Oklahoma State University, which granted me a sabbatical to help me finish the book this year.

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

Joy Williams—The Visiting Privilege
Clarice Lispector—The Complete Stories
Nickole Brown—Fanny Says
George Looney—Meditations before the Windows Fail
Elena Ferrante—The Days of Abandonment
Stephen Graham Jones—The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto

Wednesday
Apr272016

"Down to Its Barest Bones": An Interview with Kina M. Viola

Kina Viola is a poet currently living in Oxford, Mississippi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jellyfish, GlitterMOB, DREGINALD, and other journals. She is the managing editor for chapbooks at Big Lucks Books.

Her essay, "Skin Cells," appeared in Issue Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Kina Viola talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about how she turned a poem into a tiny essay.

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

There was no single spark that prompted it—the essay was originally a poem within a collection centered around family & home in transition, the pieces we keep and take with us. Thinking of skin as something that grows and changes with us, it just seemed to fit well. The transformation from poem to essay came from a desire to make the piece a little more centered around my Dad and his storytelling.

This brief essay contains some big, rich, sensitive topics: disease, family, and death, to name a few. So how did you manage to cover such a broad range of ideas in a relatively small space? How do you select what material to include in an essay and what to leave out?

As a poet, I think we are somewhat trained to cover a lot of emotional ground with very few words. In poems, I love making huge thematic leaps from one image / story / sound to the next, and I think this impulse might have helped in this tiny essay.

Can you take us through your revision process? In what ways did “Skin Cells” change from the first draft to the final?

It was a poem, then a slightly longer essay, then slowly shrank and shrank. I think in prose I tend to be very wordy so this essay just became my own personal challenge to shave something down to its barest bones. 

Looking at a list of your publications, I see that you write poetry as well as prose. What have you learned from poetry that informs the way that you write nonfiction, or vice versa?

I mentioned this briefly before, but being a poet interested in prose has definitely informed my work in many ways--I am drawn to hybrid genre authors like Maggie Nelson, Joyelle McSweeney, Claudia Rankine, Caren Beilin, and Ander Monson, who break down barriers of form and content and push readers to change their conception of what makes a poem or story. Poetry makes me more open to the many opportunities one has to be weird in prose; it allows me to feel comfortable breaking rules.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Not too much, but I have a little chapbook I am slowly and steadily submitting!

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

I just recently finished On Immunity by Eula Biss, and just before that, A Book So Red by Rachel Levy. Both were fantastic reads I totally recommend!

Monday
Apr252016

"Too Wigged Out": An Interview with Gregg Williard

Gregg Williard's fiction and visual art have appeared in Barge, Anemone Sidecar, dislocate, Your Impossible Voice, and Diagram, among others. He is director of refugee ESL programming at Literacy Network in Madison, Wisconsin.

His story, "The 'People in Tubes' Motif," appeared in Issue Sixty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about fiction that embraces non-fiction, Leonard Maltin, and film music.

Please tell us how this story began for you.

Perhaps 5 years ago or so I was perusing my notebooks and realized I wrote a lot about movies, TV, online culture and visual art that never became “stories.” It seemed that movies had become a repository for all kinds of free-association, childhood and dream memory and language-experiment writing. In other words, too wigged out to ever become meaningful to anyone else or make sense as narrative. At some point I decided I just had to let this stuff in and allow it to inform who my characters were and what they were doing with language and what it was doing to them. “People” is now part of a novel length work and has gained a lot of clarity and direction rather fast. But the initial elements were a long time percolating.

Your narrative is punctuated by quotations by Don DeLillo, Henry Ford, and others. Can you speak to this choice? How do you think the inclusion of outside voices affects the way we consume a story?

In my story quotations cover the walls of an elective freshman class of students mostly hostile to ideas or academics. The quotes cast an ironic, mordant or even gruesome light on “history,” and assault notions of Western triumphalism or moral “progress” typical of History 101. I felt like this could generate a lot of interesting anxiety and conflict in the class, and provide an efficient way to render the teacher’s world view, (and a peek into the anguish and darkness he carries inside).  The quotes and the density of the teacher’s lectures and syllabi all speak to a teacher driven by a powerful sense of mission and aesthetic and academic seriousness, way beyond the modest requirements of his job. You might compare it to the fascinating pathos of a once famous actor, late in life, appearing in grade-Z horror or exploitation films, (and giving the role their all-out best).

You create a collage effect in this story by combining more traditional narrative with film descriptions, pieces of syllabi, notes, etc. What about this form appealed to you?

I’m very interested in reading and writing fiction that contains and embraces non-fiction:  stories that happen around, within or interpenetrated with essay-like prose, instruction manuals, how-to guides or popularized writings on physics, or mathematics, (the latter of which I am completely ignorant of and phobic about). Often when I can’t read or write the only solace I can find is reading passages from those fat little movie books by Leonard Maltin.

Do you have a favorite film motif?

Maybe it would be an aspect of film music: the passages of soft ostinato—a repeated form (think Phillip Glass or Bernard Herrmann or the many influenced by them) that says to the audience something is going on here and I have to think this out and feel this out and what it means is scary or dangerous or way bigger or more profound than I could have believed before OMG.   

Were there any writers or artists who influenced you while writing this piece?

Yes, too many to name but a few: Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire, Patrik Ourednik’s  Europeana, William Vollmann’s  Europe Central (all for their sweeping and encyclopedic yet heart-breakingly intimate vision of the 20th Century); and Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Sianne Ngai, Raymond Durgnat and James Hynes, for their peculiar, hilarious and passionate, often LGBT-informed  literary and film writings, (what you might call the languages of  “lyrical theory.”) Other "lyrical theory" writers: the poetry and prose of Ben Lerner, Rosmarie Waldrop, C.D. Wright and Ben Davis; artist/filmmakers Guy Madden and Paul McCarthy.

What projects are you working on now?

The People in Tubes Motif (the novel); a novella about a Japanese propaganda puppet theater in World War II (Zero Theater) and a graphic novel called The School for Wayward Girls.

 

Saturday
Apr232016

"Lying Within The Lie": An Interview with Leslie Pietrzyk

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of two novels, Pears on a Willow Tree and A Year and a DayThis Angel on My Chest, her collection of linked short stories, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in October 2015. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the 16 best story collections of the year. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in many publications, including Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Shenandoah, The Collagist, River Styx, Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, New England Review, Salon, Washingtonian, and the Washington Post Magazine. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Pietrzyk is a member of the core fiction faculty at the Converse low-residency MFA program and teaches in the MA Program in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Raised in Iowa, she now lives in Alexandria, Virginia. More info: www.lesliepietrzyk.com On Twitter: @lesliepwriter

Her story, "One True Thing," appeared in Issue Sixty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about writers’ conferences, “two truths and a lie,” and how point of view shapes a story.

What inspired you to write this story?

On one level, I wrote this story to fill a gap in my collection of unconventionally linked short stories, THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST. Those stories are based on my experience of losing my first husband to a heart attack when he was 37 years old. The stories are linked by incident; a young husband has died in each story. What I wanted to create when I started writing “One True Thing” was the story that would explain to the reader this linkage, and show why there was a book filled with dead husbands. But the story spiraled beyond the parameters of that initial plan, serving an entirely different purpose in the collection, suggesting to the reader the relevance of point of view when considering the ways we think of people who have died. And on a more concrete level, I wrote this story because I needed an environment where people would logically play that parlor game of “two truths and a lie.” Once I thought of a writers’ conference, I saw potential in shifting up the form into a craft lecture, and that’s when I realized I could easily work in my theories about point of view as well as indulge my fantasies about what it might be like to teach at a famous writers’ conference.

The introduction and headers in “One True Thing” call attention to the “story-ness” of the story. While reading, I felt this tension between wanting to disappear into the dream of the narrative and knowing that the segments were only examples being used to illustrate point of view. Can you speak to this narrative choice?

I wouldn’t consider the segments as “only” examples because they’re also the literal, real action of the story, being filtered through the tool of point of view. That is, we each live our lives as we do, but it’s the point of view that determines the shaped “story” of our lives. So each of those segments would have appeared very differently if told through a different point of view (or through the eyes of a different point of view character). The trick was choosing which point of view to use to advance the action most effectively, to elevate the story from being a gimmick to being the only possible way this story could be told, to ensure there were definable reasons for each point of view choice throughout the dozen or so sections. 

I love that the points of view deemed the least reliable or legitimate (first person and second person, respectively) are used to write some of the most emotionally charged scenes. Do you agree with the narrator’s misgivings toward second and first person?

Most assuredly. I love writing (and reading) second person stories, but I agree with the craft lecture here, that it’s a tricky point of view to carry off and that it’s dangerous to use that POV in an MFA workshop. (Maybe the word isn’t so much “dangerous” as it is “tedious”…because at least half the allotted workshop time will be spent talking about how two-thirds of the class despises the second person.) I love the first person as well, but I’m mindful that if third person is the standard and default choice of POV, there must be a legitimate reason for choosing the first person. For me, that reason is often unreliability. While all fiction technically is a lie, I especially love lying within that lie, it seems, making me very fond of unreliable narrators.

How did you choose which sections of the story to write in a particular point of view? Did this develop organically?

I liked having this structure of a lecture on POV in place because “One True Thing” was an incredibly unwieldy story that took forever to finish, and structure calms me. Once I settled on the form, I knew I’d have to cover all the big POVs eventually, that at some point there would have to be a third person section, for example, and omniscient, and so on. Thinking about characteristics of each POV and its drawbacks and advantages (something I’ve discussed in countless writing classes!) helped me decide which part of the story’s action might be a suitable spot. The party scene cried out for omniscient whereas the wakeful moments alone in the dark night dictated internal monologue. Those two were the most challenging for me to write: being allowed to roam into anyone’s mind offered too much freedom. Originally, before turning to interior monologue, I took a stab at writing true stream of consciousness, and I’m convinced you have to be a genius to pull that off. My attempt was tiresome mush.

Are there any writers (or writers’ conferences!) that you’re really excited about right now?

Hmmm…I wish I were going to one of the big writers’ conferences this summer. But after the fabulous fun of the working residency for the Converse low-res MFA students (where I teach) it’s a stay-at-home summer, and after a year of book launch, that sounds pretty good to me. I definitely hope to use the time to catch up on my reading. Some writers I love to advocate at present are Lionel Shriver, who is relentless and brutal…try her novel, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN; Beryl Bainbridge (I recommend THE BIRTHDAY BOYS); and poet Roger Reeves (KING ME). Two of my friends are publishing books this summer and I’m thrilled to recommend these: YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER, linked stories by Paula Whyman; and HARMONY, a novel by Carolyn Parkhurst.

What projects are you working on now?

I am actually between big projects. I finished writing a novel a couple of months ago, a female bildungsroman set in 1980s Chicago during the Tylenol murders, and I’m waiting to see what the world will bring. And I have the glimmers of an idea for a new novel, but not quite the time and focus to sink into it just yet. So I’m trying to enjoy this interlude of peace and quiet—even as I’m getting terribly antsy from a lack of structure.

Wednesday
Apr132016

"To Explore Relative Contentment and Comfort": An Interview with Tom McAllister

Tom McAllister is the non-fiction editor at Barrelhouse and the co-host of the weekly Book Fight! podcast. His memoir Bury Me in My Jersey was published by Villard in 2010, and his first novel, The Young Widower's Handbook is forthcoming from Algonquin in February 2017. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University in Philly. You can follow him on Twitter @t_mcallister.

His essay, "Acknowledgments," appeared in Issue Seventy-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, Tom McAllister talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about privilege, momentum through language, and sports mascots.

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

The essay, like a lot of things I write, started as sort of a joke. I wrote the first few lines while I was on a flight home from one of those all-expenses resorts where you pay a bunch of money to get drunk near a pool all day. I think we’d had a delay or some other flight-related inconvenience, and while I was complaining about minor inconveniences, I tried to remind myself that it’s a luxury to even be able to have an annoying flight home from your tropical vacation. And I just started jotting some ideas down. Over the next week, I wrote seven or eight short Acknowledgments pieces, and I briefly considered the possibility of writing a short book in this form. I had read Matthew Vollmer’s “Inscriptions for Headstones” while I was on that trip, and was still very much under the influence of that book, so I was also just copying what he was doing. Anyway, I spent a couple weeks on it, then drifted away, and didn’t revisit those ideas until about two years later when I was digging through old notes and found them, and remembered how much fun I’d had writing them.

Most stories and essays are built on conflict. Your essay, however, reflects on many forces that have made your life not only possible but comfortable. Did you have any trepidation about writing an essay wherein all’s well for you? What did you attempt to do in order to ensure that your audience would keep reading despite the lack of conflict?

This aspect is definitely influenced by Vollmer’s book too. One thing he does in Inscriptions is he frames each chapter as a single sprawling, digressive sentence, so the language itself propels the reader forward. I didn’t want to completely rip him off, but I liked that idea, that the language, if it’s strong enough—vivid and funny and particular—can keep an essay moving, even if the “plot” of the essay is pretty thin. So I tried out lots of long sentences and hoped the relative quiet of the content was counterbalanced by the propulsive energy of the language.

I had some trepidation, in that lately I’ve been feeling like I have a pretty okay life—in that it’s better than I’d realized or ever expected—and I stupidly worry that this means I can no longer write essays, because you’re supposed to be emerging from some dark shit, or working through terrible things in your essays. But I’ve been trying  to figure out how to write from that perspective, to explore relative contentment and comfort in a way that doesn’t seem boring, braggy, or hollow.

The third paragraph describes the level of privilege that comes with certain circumstances of your birth, which some would consider a sensitive subject. Were you especially careful when writing about this topic with both tact and honesty? What is the importance of writing candidly about the privileges that you enjoy?

It seemed essential to the whole project. I don’t intend for the essay to be a big political statement, but if I’m an author acknowledging the forces that helped me to create something, then it just seems dishonest to overlook the many ways in which I’ve benefitted from my race, class, sexuality, etc. It was the natural next step in the essay, from somewhat jokey fears of things over which I have no control (planes crashing, animals attacking) to a much larger sense of the things over which I had no control: where I was born, what I look like, the way I was raised, and all that. I do sometimes think there’s an element of humility lacking in the way authors discuss their success, especially when they just don’t acknowledge the ways they’ve benefitted from being upper-middle class white people who’ve spent their whole lives in private schools, but the truth is, I didn’t have that in mind when I was drafting the essay. I just was churning through the things that scare me, and one thing that’s pretty frightening is the thought that any of my successes are just an accident of genetics and good timing, rather than skill or hard work or any of that bootstraps stuff.

You’ve published a memoir, and you have a novel forthcoming. What lessons have you learned from writing nonfiction that you have applied to your fiction, or vice versa?

When I wrote the memoir, I didn’t really know anything about nonfiction. I’d gotten an MFA in fiction and stumbled into writing a couple essays that people seemed to like. So when I wrote that book, I probably wrote it the way one would write a novel, because I didn’t know any better. In the seven years since I wrote that book, I’ve learned so much more about the genre from working as the NF editor at Barrelhouse, teaching more NF courses, and just reading a ton of great essays.

Anyway, I think the biggest thing I’ve been pulling from nonfiction into my fiction is a willingness to employ a more forceful narrative voice, one that is open to digressions, but also willing to explain things. In essays, you’re basically expected to explain some stuff, but in fiction, we’re all taught “show, don’t tell” from day one of our first creative writing course, but sometimes I like telling. Sometimes I think it’s the best thing a story can do.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Right now, I’m alternating between two projects. One is a novel that takes place in the aftermath of a school shooting. My story “On the Way to the Killing Spree The Shooter Stops for Pizza,” which ran in Sundog Lit, is currently the prologue of that manuscript.

The other thing I’m working on is a littler weirder, but I have so much fun with it. I’ve been writing short stories about sports mascots, in which the conceit is that the mascots are actual animals, rather than guys in suits. Hobart has published two of them. One is about a pig who doesn’t want to sell hot dogs, and the other is about a gorilla sad his best friend was traded. Right now I’m working on one about a raven who gets caught in a torrential downpour during a football game. I could talk about mascots for a long time.

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

The two most recent books I’ve really enjoyed have been Sarah Shotland’s novel Junkette, about a young woman in New Orleans trying to quit heroin, and Joseph Mitchell’s nonfiction book Joe Gould’s Secret, about an eccentric (and probably mentally ill) bohemian guy claiming to have written the longest book in the history of the world.

We discussed Junkette at length in a recent episode of Book Fight, and it’s really good, and you should go read it.

Monday
Apr112016

"It Will Be Awesome": An Interview with Nick Courtright

Nick Courtright is the author of Let There Be Light and Punchline. His writing has appeared with The Southern Review, AGNI, Boston Review, and Kenyon Review Online, among numerous others, and he is the founder of Edity Group, which specializes in publishing and editing writing of all kinds. Feel free to find him at  editygroup.com.

His poem, "What Will I Do with My X-Ray Vision," appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about the cinematic nature of 5-stanza poems, the absurdity we find in life that makes us laugh, and super powers.

What prompted a five-stanza piece?

This poem is part of a project in which I wanted to give myself some constraint—my two books are both pretty “free” in terms of form, so for the collection of which this poem is part I bound myself: each line has ten syllables, each poem is five quatrains.  So every single poem in this collection is exactly 200 syllables, and I liked this length—longer than a sonnet, so I could be a little more “talky” in approach, and see through some more complex issues, yet short enough to keep things reined in.  Plus, I think there’s just something cinematic about five stanzas—jump right in, escalate the tension, offer some climax, and even give yourself a little time for epiphany and denouement.

What role did humor play for you as the writer? What role would you like humor to play for the reader?

I used to be hesitant to include much humor, thinking that it belittled the seriousness of the art.  But now I realize that’s bullshit.  Life is hilarious, and therefore poetry has plenty of room for the comic.  I think there’s something illuminating in the way we can jab at the absurdity of our existence, such as having too much shampoo at the airport, and through that laughter come to grips with the tragedies of the world, such as mortality. For readers, I just want them to enjoy themselves: there’s no reason to be sad…you’re reading poetry!

What similarities do you share with the narrator of this piece? If you are the narrator, what experiences influenced your decision to write about this subject matter?

I think this is a hilarious question to consider, given that the narrator’s first admission is that he’d use his x-ray vision to do “all the nasty things,” which I can only imagine involves nudity. In truth, I don’t identify myself too directly with the narrator of this poem, as he’s definitely a character, some caricature-esque parody of a person, but I think his (or even her) inclinations regarding how to use these “superpowers” are pretty human, and honest. I especially am drawn to the movement in the fourth stanza, in which the narrator seeks greater understanding of the universe and existence—this, more than anything, is where this character speaks to me.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve been reading Blood Eagle, by Adam Crittenden, and Local Extinctions, by Mary Quade. Both of these books just came out on Gold Wake Press, and they kick ass, but in totally different ways. Blood Eagle is dark and funny and strange, and takes some fascinating stylistic risks. Local Extinctions is deep in the ways only a book that focuses on the miniscule can be deep—it has beautiful moments from beginning to end. I also have been working a lot with an excellent and crazy book called Winter Park, by Graham Guest, which I just published through Atmosphere Press, which I run. Everyone should check it out—its main characters are a drug-abusing paraplegic philosopher and an epileptic savant who has memorized a dictionary, and much of it takes place on a dude ranch. Haha, it sounds even better when I type it out like that.

What are you now writing?

This poem here is a part of the primary project that’s engaging me right now, which is a book called Catastrophe.  It deals with both the comic and tragic elements of what happens when “shit gets fucked up,” through apocalypses both large-scale and solely personal. It’s my third book (after Punchline and Let There Be Light), and I think it’s definitely my funniest, and, even though all of the poems are in the exact same form, I think it’s also my most diverse in terms of content.  It hasn’t been published yet, but I’ll let you know when it is!

Friday
Apr082016

"Beauty Is Bureaucratic Nomenclature": An Interview with Sarah Blackman

Sarah Blackman is the director of creative writing at the Fine Arts Center, an arts dedicated public high school in Greenville, South Carolina. She is also the co-Fiction Editor at DIAGRAM and the founding editor of Crashtest, Some of her recent prose has appeared in Conjunctions, Alaska Quarterly Review, Western Humanities Review and the anthology Meta-Writings; Towards a Theory of Nonfiction among other journals. Her story collection Mother Box was published by FC2 in 2013.

Her story, "The Virgin," appeared in Issue Sixty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Gary Garrison about aspirational topography, Gustav Klimt, and intuiting a story.

“The Virgin” has a striking, fractured feel to the characters and the places they inhabit. How did you first come to this world and what drew you to it?

The world of the story came from two sources: the place and the character. The place is one of those places you see through as you pass through. Like looking through the window on a long road trip when you can choose to either see your own eyes, nose, lips, chin or someone’s backyard clothesline, decaying plastic playset, cat-tin lids winking in the tomato patch (to scare the squirrels), daytime bar, tennis shoes strung from the telephone wire. When I pass through places like the town Estelle’s Uncle May lives in, places with an aspirational topography but no real aspirations, I always feel the pressing choice between seeing myself in the landscape, literally (the solipsism of the road-trip cheez doodle coma), or seeing down the long, private channels I can catch only in fragments as I speed through. Not to say, I am exposing anything here that is any more “real” than the splintered fragment. Rather, I wanted to lay fragments next to each other in this story. Not to make a picture exactly, but to make—what?—a chronology of passage? Something of that nature.

The other source of this world, the character of Estelle, is equally fractured or fragmented. Having once been one, I wanted to write a teenage girl. The teenage experience in any gender is inherently, perhaps naturally, fractured since it is that boundary land between the two tectonic plates of childhood and adulthood. The myth of childhood is powerful; the myth of adulthood is pushy—there’s a lot of friction in that space. For Estelle this is compounded by the fact that her family unit is also in the process of fracturing and by the fact that she is a girl and so her selfhood, her body, what should be her very private and idiosyncratic and elliptical understanding of her sexuality is being standardized, commodified, sold back to her. There are a lot of ways teenage girls deal with this invasion, with the limitations pressed upon their identities—as many different ways as there are teenage girls. The way I dealt with it was to make the most outlandish choices I possible could—about my own appearance, about the expression of my desires—in order to make sure I was, in fact, making a choice rather than having one foisted on me by someone else’s desires. Much, much later in my life, I realized that this was reaction rather than action and so not really a choice. The anger I felt at the time was the result of living within such sudden societal limitations, battering myself against them every day. At the time, though, I didn’t know this and neither does Estelle. She doesn’t know yet that the scorn she feels for herself is someone else’s scorn. I think she’ll figure it out, but I don’t know what happens to her after this. I hope she’s ok.

There are a lot of aspects of the narrative that are never fully addressed, such as the fate of Estelle’s father, and why exactly Estelle is sent to live with her Uncle May. How did you balance these subtle ambiguities with the more concrete details in the writing process to best inform Estelle’s mental state?

When I write a story I always think about why I am intersecting with this character at this particular point in their life rather than any other. I think about all the things that have happened to them that have brought them to this juncture; all the things that haven’t happened yet; all the things that are happening simultaneously with the story but aren’t actually a part of it so don’t make it onto the page.

That’s kind of a lie.

I don’t actually THINK about those things—when I do the stories end up sprawling and long and oh-my-god-is-this-a-novel? I-don’t-have-time-to-write-a-novel-right-now—but I do kind of intuit them. Like when you are walking in a forest. If you start thinking that all the other things that are inhabiting that square foot of forest with you (fungus, ants, hornets, butterflies, squirrels, toads, single fox, hiding rabbits, mink in the riverbank, fish in the river, mica, leaf mulch, pine beetle, hawk) are regarding you as a singular entity among their plurality you can no longer inhabit that space. You are outside of it. You are a stranger (also a narcissist). If, instead, you accept that the lives that surround you touch your own only briefly, and that in an exploratory fashion, before moving on to their own concerns, you can be a part of the place you are in and, even, touch the lives that are surrounding you without making them flinch or panic. There is a reciprocity to your regard, rather than the adoration of terror or suspicion or worship or whatever it is people think the denizens of the forest are doing in reaction to their presence. This presupposes of course that you are in the forest sitting quietly, maybe eating a sandwich, and not waving a gun around or hacking at the trees or otherwise making a fool of yourself.

Anyway, all that to say, in the moments we are with Estelle we are fully with her, down to the last detail of the vegetation, the weather, her unease, the ambient noises, Uncle May’s appealing armpits. In the moments that we are not with her—the exact nature of her father’s breakdown, why she doesn’t go back to school in the fall, what her mother thinks about all this, why Uncle May and not someone more suitable, and so on—are places where the story has not intersected with the character; where the life beside your own turns away to its own business. It’s not that Estelle doesn’t know these things. The story doesn’t know these things. Me neither, actually.

The title of this piece, “The Virgin,” seems to be doing a lot of work acting as a lens through which the story is seen. How do you see the title speaking to Estelle’s experience and how did you come to it?

It’s a Gustav Klimt painting! It looks like this!

I like Klimt a lot, actually most of Art Noveau/Symbolism/Weimar Republic/Vienna Secessionism/whatever other little splinter of a frantic subgroup is painting at this time period in Europe on the eve of World War I. In this piece in particular, though there are many ways to read it, I like the way all of these women could be the same woman layered on top of each other. I liked the impartial nature of their nudity, a little peek-a-boo but, minus the one in the bottom right who is clearly saucy, not salacious, just nude. I like the suggestion of dream. I like that the title both commodifies their lack of sexual experience (Virgin, capital V, is such a fraught identity and has so much more to do with the expectations of the future lover than it does the identity of the erstwhile virgin his or herself) and, somehow, interacts with their lack of sexual expectation—which is not quite the same thing as a lack of sexual authority or sexual identity…Also, I like that it is a singular title which represents a multiplicity of women some of whom are choosing to include us with their gaze, some of whom are not. I think it is actually a very empowering painting to be named such a traditionally un-empowering name.

All that mashed together seemed to me to be like the character of the girl I was trying to write—who is not a virgin, but might be a Virgin.

When I originally started writing the piece, I thought there would be a scene with Darcy and the Blue Hawaiians in the kind of comfy, snake tangle pictured above, maybe at the party?, but it never quite worked out, so I scrapped it.

The splintered and circular nature of this narrative, which seamlessly, and artfully blurs Estelle’s past and present, gives a sense of a deep trauma. How do you see the piece’s fractured linearity informing the character of Estelle?

Well, see above: teenagers, tectonic plates, suspicious forest creatures, road trips. Also, I think any experience of the world is fracturing and even the happiest, smoothest, most loving childhood is traumatic. I’m not saying this to be dire or caustic or to reassure my teenage self that her choice to wear black lipstick around her cozy suburban neighborhood was somehow existentially justified. I have two little girls. At night I lie awake in bed and try to project a protective and soothing mental energy field around them as they sleep down the hall, but I also know that the depths of their feelings about the world are, at this advanced stage in my adulthood, far beyond my ability to do anything but dimly remember. Their griefs are real and keen; their joys are transcendent. It is traumatic to be a human in the world, even if the world is not actively hurting you. Also joyful even when the world is not actively tickling you or blowing raspberries on your stomach.

I don’t know. I’m not the possessor of any advanced knowledge of the universe, but I’ve dipped my toes in Nietzsche I think eternal reoccurrence feels about right to me. I think Nietzsche is much less of a downer than people generally suppose, but his particular melancholy on this concept might have something to do with the fact that he was a 19th century man (no offense 19th century men!) and so kind of bound up with the idea of a march toward progress, even if in this case it is the progress of the eternally cyclical reoccurrence of the human experience as an incrementally perfecting one. For a woman, circular time doesn’t seem that unusual. Women kind of are circles, and I don’t mean in an essentialist reproductive way, but rather in our experience of pain as a cyclical reoccurrence, in our more primary roles as caretakers and nurturers of the very young and very old, even in the shapes our bodies tend to make. I have a lot of crackpot theories about entropy and linear time and phallic symbols and Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse which I won’t expose to ridicule here, but I will say: I write female characters who experience their lives simultaneously. They are not trapped in their pasts, per say. Their traumas occur in continuity with their joys. I think that is the way the world is—I cannot say from the male experience because I haven’t ever been a male, but from the female experience, yes, I think so.

What are you reading at the moment?

I just finished Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox which has one of the best last lines I have ever read, anywhere. Now I’m in research mode for a new longer project so I am kind of simultaneously reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander Von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce. From that list, it’s anybody’s guess what this book will be about. I sure don’t know.

What new projects are you currently working on?

Aside from confusing myself with the above reading list and drawing multi-colored diagrams in my journal, I’m working on a collection of ekphrastic short fictions, of which “The Virgin” is a part. After both my children were born, but particularly my oldest, I had a very hard time with post-partum depression in which the fact that I wasn’t writing played a large part. It felt like the energy I was putting into keeping the babies fed and warm and not enraged and alive was the same energy I formerly had put into writing. Not like I was too tired or too frazzled or too leaky, though that was part of it, but like the creative energy of writing was the same as the mother energy of caring for the baby and I was not prepared to, and still am not willing to, sacrifice one for the other.

So, I started spending time looking at pieces of art I responded to, titling a blank word document the name of the piece of art, then writing whatever came to mind afterward. Some of the pieces reflect the art directly, or include the actual piece of art in the plot; some of them are more ambiguous or gestural. The key was I didn’t have to find a starting point. I jumped off someone else’s starting point—Klimt’s or Debuffet’s or Hesse’s or Frankenthaler’s—and that was a good place to re-enter and has been a productive place to linger for the past four or so years. Some day it will be a collection, but right now it’s a project and a happy one.

Thanks for talking to me here! I’m glad you liked “The Virgin”—the first of this new venture to be published by the way—and I’m delighted it found a home with The Collagist. I can’t imagine a better confluence of editors and readers for Estelle to have landed among.

Monday
Mar142016

"If There Is Anything to Show You": An Interview with Matthew Wimberley

Matthew Wimberley grew up in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. His chapbook, Snake Mountain Almanac, was selected by Eduardo C. Corral as the winner of the 2014 Rane Arroyo Chapbook Contest from Seven Kitchens Press. Winner of the 2015 William Matthews Prize from the Asheville Review, and a finalist for the 2012 Narrative 30 Below Contest, his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in: The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, Narrative, Orion, The Paris-American, Poet Lore, Puerto Del Sol, Rattle, and Verse Daily. Wimberley received his MFA from NYU where he worked with children at St. Mary's Hospital as a Starworks Fellow.

His poem, "Elegy Where the Snow Speaks Its Own Name," appeared in Issue Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about about poetry as a tool for empathy, using the image to navigate through time, and stream-of-consciousness.

What pushed you to a one-stanza piece?

I tend to write all my poems like this. There are times the poem will lead me to play with the arrangement on the page (beyond the line breaks), but I try to listen for what the poem wants to be. Because poetry feels like it lives orally, I tend to shy away from arrangements I don’t feel I can duplicate off the page when reading aloud.

For you, what connects these images, and what role did stream-of-conscious style play in this piece, if any?

For me images are how I navigate time. In a poem this might seem apparent, but I think being able to move around a geography and recreate a landscape through image (not just sight, but sound, smell, taste…) is what I’m most attracted to in a poem. I don’t think my ear for music in a line is as strong on its own so I rely heavily on images to guide me to the music of language.
Stream-of-conscious is something that’s often at work in my poems unintentionally, so I guess that means naturally. I take note of so many images when I’m out walking or driving, and I think this act of being on the go is worked onto the page as stream-of-conscious.

The question presented towards the bottom of the stanza creates a small shift in the            flow of the piece. How does the question affect how images are presented in the last eight lines?

I think the shift addresses the unknown. It’s a shift to something simple, that the world is always existing beyond us, that other people have experiences which give them different perspectives. That might sound like a platitude, but I’m interested in poetry as a tool for empathy, and I think this person who may or may not exist at all in the poem is speaking to that. It allows the speaker to not only step away from the self, but to appreciate it a little more.

What are you currently reading?

Right now The Darkening Trapeze by Larry Levis, and The White Album by Joan Didion, and What You and the Devil Do to Stay Warm by Tyree Daye.

What are you currently writing?

I’m working on my first collection of poetry All the Great Territories.