"Shades of My Own Experience': An Interview with Dylan Brown

Dylan Brown is a graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State. His work has appeared in Brevity, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Barrelhouse. He currently works as a bookseller on the Oregon Coast.

His essay, "Here in the Mariana Trench," appeared in Issue Eighty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Dylan Brown talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about research, scaffolding, and Nick Flynn.

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

This piece in its current form started as a response to a prompt from one of my instructors at Oregon State, Jennifer Richter, in a hybrid forms class. It was strange for me because I typically don’t enjoy prompts but Jennifer pointed out a type of scaffolding I thought I could work with. She’s a great poet who I think understands structure really well. The material itself came from things I’d been tinkering with before in a more linear way but weren’t working in that form.

This essay contains some factual information about a shipwreck, Werner Herzog, and, of course, the Mariana Trench. How does research fit into your writing process? Are you learning about these things before or during your work on the essay? How much do you depend on research for your nonfiction writing, and do you enjoy doing research?

Research cracks open the world a little bit for me, and maybe more importantly, it expands my vocabulary, helps me find the right word. It’s a process I enjoy immensely, which seems natural to me because my love of writing is rooted in my love of reading. At times, usually when I’m writing, I feel like I don’t know anything about anything, which can be kind of debilitating. Research can help alleviate that. I usually try to write as much as I can without doing any research, but in this case parts of the piece really came about from connections I was making as I was reading: the ships and the narcosis, for instance.

You write about your mother and father in this essay, at times revealing some personal information and making some vulnerable statements, such as, “Does he know that I miss him? He might suspect as much. I can’t say if he’ll ever read this. I just don’t know how to call, or what I’d say if I did.” Do you ever have any reservations about not only writing about these relationships but also publishing the work? Can you speak about the risks and rewards of writing and publishing creative nonfiction about your loved ones?

I had some reservations at first, particularly with regards to my father. This isn’t the most flattering portrait of him, but it is an honest one. He’s always been honest with me, many times to a fault, so it might run in the family. In terms of the risks and rewards, I’m reminded of Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. When I read it I kept saying to myself, “He’s describing my dad! That’s him!” Of course, it wasn’t him, but it meant so much to me to see shades of my own experience in someone else’s story. Now, I think we owe it to one another to share these things. It kills me to think of all the important stories people have taken with them to the grave. I don’t know if that’s coming from a place of selfishness or generosity.

There are a few moments in this essay when the focus turns to writing itself (e.g., “I’ll admit it: I chafe at the thought of poetry, when it becomes a show or veneer, a cloak the writer hides behind,” or, “I don’t tell the truth anymore.”). How did these “meta” moments make their way into this essay? What’s the intended effect on the reader of calling attention to the artifice of the work you’re doing?

The meta moments are apologia, in a sense. I’m a sucker for narrative and linear structure but with this material I felt those devices were letting me down. The intended effect has something to do with reminding the reader that making sense of our lives often means making sense of the linguistic tools we are using. Here I may have felt as though I was doing some hiding myself by structuring the material this way.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a longer piece of fiction. I don’t really know enough about it yet to say more than that. I’m also working on a book review and some translation work. It helps me to have several things going at once, in case I stall out somewhere.

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

A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker is a quiet novel that blew me away. Baker’s writing belies an intense curiosity about the world that I envy and I tend to enjoy novels where not much happens. For example, there’s a whole bit about the proper way to wash a dirty plate. Each section starts with what time it is in the early morning as the narrator drinks coffee by a fire he’s just built. Then it follows his thoughts and worries about the coming day, sometimes a memory, and moves out from there. It’s a great study in how relatively uneventful scenes can add up to an affecting novel.


"An Infectious Rhythm": An Interview with Mary South

Mary South is a graduate of the MFA program in fiction at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, The New Yorker’s Book Bench, NOON, VICE, and Words Without Borders.

Her story, "Vogue la Galère," appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about department stores, beautifully crafted sentences, and gathering language from the world around us.

What first inspired you to write this story?

Sometimes, as I’m going about my day—getting coffee, riding the subway, buying groceries, etc.—I’ll get snippets of language that will pop up in my head. If I like those bits and pieces enough, I’ll take a moment to write them down in my phone or a notebook so that I won’t forget them. In this case, the story started with me buying a birthday gift in a department store. I tend to feel strange in department stores. There are so many people and so much stuff, I might even wonder if I’m actually really present there at all. It’s similar to the experience of Kate Zambreno’s narrator from Green Girl, except with a lot less existential angst. The story started from that experience and grew with more written-down remembered language fragments over a period of a few months.

“Vogue la Galere” doesn’t follow a chronological movement, but instead is propelled by memory and association. What are the challenges of writing in this mode? What was your driving force while drafting this story?

A few years ago, I studied with Gordon Lish. He teaches a writing style called consecution. Gary Lutz best described it in a talk entitled “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” which he gave to Columbia University and that was later reprinted in The Believer. At the time of writing this story, I was also working with Diane Williams quite closely on her journal NOON and reading/editing a lot of wonderful shorter fiction. Writing shorter short stories isn’t my typical mode; I tend to veer long, on the side of 18 – 20 pages. I really love fiction in that mode, though, and sometimes try it myself, too. When I go short, the driving impulse is mostly sound: starting a sentence with a certain set of sounds and then both carrying it forward as well as subtly altering those initial sounds. There’s nothing quite like an extraordinary sentence. I think of sentences by Lutz himself, such as this one: “There is no use in hearing the term ‘apartment complex’ unless it is taken immediately to mean a syndrome, a fiesta of symptoms.” I’ll sometimes be going about my day and then, for no apparent reason, I’ll think of that sentence. It doesn’t display any obvious pyrotechnics, but it is one of the most beautifully crafted sentences I’ve ever read. If you examine how Lutz carries the “m” and “t” sounds forward through that sentence, it accumulates a kind of infectious rhythm. The m sounds are particularly effective, as they’re nasal consonants and he even manages to end the sentence on a nasal consonant with the m in the word “symptoms.”

The speaker in this story learns something about a person based on what article of clothing they’re shopping for. If this story were represented by something you could buy in the menswear, what would it be?

I’m going to go with a men’s wallet. It’s something you buy for someone because you can’t really think of what else to get him as a present. It’s also an item that a man handles with great frequency and something that rests very close to a man’s body—in his back pants pocket or in the breast pocket of a jacket. But wallets are also pretty impersonal—because of their function, it’s hard to make them distinctive the way you can make other men’s accessories distinctive, such as ties or cufflinks. When you buy them, they also come empty, of course, which I think is a good visual for how the narrator of this story feels about her grief and her day-to-day life working in the store.

What is a book you love right now?

At the end of last year, I read Affinity Konar’s Mischling and was extremely impressed by both its harrowing story (it follows two twins, Stasha and Pearl, who are among the subjects of human experimentation by Mengele in Auschwitz) as well as Konar’s language that is gorgeous and manages both to not flinch at the horrors it is describing or overly lyricize suffering.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

I’m finishing a collection of short stories. The stories share a theme in that they explore how technology affects our relationships. For example, one story is about a mother who loses a daughter tragically, then clones that daughter and tries to restage the memories they experienced together so that she can have back the same daughter she lost. Obviously, things don’t go quite according to her plan. Another story is about a woman obsessed with online stalking her rapist—so much so that she starts stalking him in real life. Another is about a summer rehabilitation camp on Martha’s Vineyard for kids who have been discovered to be particularly toxic Internet trolls. I’ve been working on the collection for at least a good five years, and I think—I hope—it’s close to being done.


"The 'D' is Silent": An Interview with Maureen Seaton

Maureen Seaton’s new and selected, Fibonacci Batman, is out from Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is the author of fifteen poetry collections, both solo and collaborative, and a memoir, Sex Talks to Girls (University of Wisconsin Press). Her awards include the Iowa Prize, Lambda Literary Award, NEA fellowship, and the Pushcart. Capricea book of collected, uncollected, and new collaborations with Denise Duhamel, is due out in 2015 from Sibling Rivalry Press. Seaton teaches poetry at the University of Miami, Florida.

Her poems, "13 Auras for a Migraine" and "When I Was an Unfinished Novel," apppeared in Issue Sixty-One of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer T.m. Lawson about stylizations of her poetry, whether or not visual aesthetics of both pieces went into consideration for submission, and inadvertent sexual innuendo in enjambment.

How did the structure for “13 Auras for a Migraine” come about? It is very unusual, but not so unfamiliar that it is jarring. Were there any particular influences for the styling?

This poem was a troublemaker. It took me years and the poem a couple dozen costume changes before it found its shape. Finally, the Talking Heads reminded me of migraines one day when I was rewatching Stop Making Sense, and David Byrne entered the piece, accidentally supplying an extra line. Then I read someplace that if you’re standing on the equator at noon your shadow falls in opposite directions, supplying the penultimate. The poem gave up and was done. Oh, and since I’ve often experienced the jigjaggy aura of a migraine, it seemed appropriate to jigjag the lines.

Your term “styling” interests me. I wonder if you thought of it because migraines remind you of hair. Basically, this poem did style itself. Unlike the other poem, “When I Was an Unfinished Novel,” which had to do what I told it to do because it’s a terza rima with a rhyme scheme and a syllabic structure (all loose, of course, but prescribed just the same).

Many poets and writers will submit their cache of work as cohesive, whether in theme or styling, to better package or market themselves to a journal/press/agent. The structural/visual difference between “13 Auras for a Migraine” and “When I Was an Unfinished Novel” is striking. The former is experimental, absolutely postmodern, while the other is a more traditional tercet. I find myself going back and forth between these two styles, and wondering, what prompted you to pair them together for The Collagist?

For better or worse, I don’t think there’s much about my work that is cohesive, as you say, except that I write mostly about myself and the world in some way or other. As far as style is concerned, I’m all over the place. Prose poems, terza rima, sonnets, both rhymed and unrhymed, scanned and unscanned, collages, lyric essays, collaborations, Fibonacci sequences. Serious, funny. When I sent these two poems to The Collagist, I simply chose what I considered my strongest available pieces.

The beauty of poetry is that it is at once subjective and objective; there is so much that anyone could argue over what means what. Your choice of isolating “the D” in particular is almost a wink at the slang term for male genitalia, as if the reader was also a friend of yours. Is this your aim for your poetry—not just building the layers of meaning, but infusing your own personality and humor with your art?

I hope the reader is a friend more times than not, but I think it’s hysterical that you think I used “the D” as a slang term for penis (I just looked it up). I’m actually much too literal to wink at my reader most of the time. In this case, “the D” simply made a nice iamb. So I guess the poem did the winking.

And I actually don’t consciously build layers of meaning in my poems. But I do love humor and/or surprise in just about everything.

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

Justin Chin’s Selected Works (a posthumous collection) came out this year from Manic D Press (Uh oh! Another D!). Anyway, it’s a beautiful tribute to one of my favorite poets by his publisher and friend, Jennifer Joseph. Plus, it’s got short essays by some of Chin’s other friends too. I highly recommend.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m currently editing an anthology with poet and arts activist Neil de la Flor called Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos. It was commissioned in 2015 by Anhinga Press of Tallahassee in conjunction with the award-winning Miami grassroots organization, Reading Queer, and we had no idea, really, how necessary a volume it would be. We’re almost finished collecting really crucial work by queer-identified writers. The anthology is due to be published in early 2018. Thanks for asking!


"As If Children Are Little Machines": An Interview with Alba Machado

Alba Machado just submitted her thesis project to Columbia College Chicago. It's a satirical novel inspired by her experiences as a Chicago Public School teacher, and her last step towards earning her MFA in creative writing. So. Any day now. There's forms and fees. It's very exciting. While she waits, she's Trumpifying her writing and engaging in Facebook activism—no, really! It's more than just rant posts, you guys! Her work has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Curbside Splendor, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Gapers Block, and others.

Her story, "A Limited Time," appeared in Issue Eighty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, Alba Machado talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about teaching inner-city youths, unicycles, and satire in a 'post-truth' society.

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

It’s an idea that came up four years ago, back when I was teaching. One of my kids—my “not-son,” Joey—he started teaching himself to ride the unicycle, which is unusual for an inner-city, working class, Latinx boy. I was supportive but also kind of worried about his skull, especially since I couldn’t convince him to wear protective gear. At the same time, there were other kids facing other dangers, as well as traumatic, soul-crushing situations, and most of them, unlike Joey, were not in the gifted program and not in a position to join the academic clubs and connect with their teachers the way he could. And we did nothing for them. Nothing. Or, rather, we waited until their situations became dire enough that social workers and DCFS needed to be called in, because we were too busy jumping through ridiculous, mandated hoops designed to raise test scores. As if physical and emotional health doesn’t impact learning. As if children are little machines being calibrated for optimal performance. These are the thoughts I was grappling with when “A Limited Time” started to emerge.

This story contains only about a hundred words. Is it a challenge for you to write with such brevity, or is it natural for you to write concise pieces? How much revision and/or restraint did it require to achieve this economy of language?

Before it was a 101-word story, it was an 8,000-word story arc in my novel. So I’d been sitting with and toying with the material for quite some time. But I didn’t hack away at the longer piece. Instead, I broke it up into parts, summarized each part into just a phrase, and then—after time away—I came back to this list of summaries and used it as a prompt for something entirely new. That meant switching point of view. And emphasizing tone and style in a way that’s very much inspired by Donald Barthelme. His short story, “The School,” is one of my all-time favorites.

What makes a unicycle irresistible to one young boy after another? What would you do if you came across the unicycle lying in the grass (sans nearby dead bodies)?

Well, it's so shiny. One of my friends told me that the contrast between the unicycle and the bogo donut is what stood out to him; that the unicycle is a solitary thing and the donuts, at least “for a limited time,” are bought in pairs, and so, to him, this piece is about the tragedy of dying alone. And I’ve heard other takes that are very different: it’s about growing up and being independent; it’s about staying young and preserving a childhood sense of wonder and whimsy; it’s about making a spectacle of yourself to get much needed attention; it’s about being individual and different when, really, there’s so much sameness. And so on. As archetypes and symbols, there are a number of ways the boys and the unicycle could be read—and a number of reasons these boys might find a unicycle irresistible. I’d rather not lend any one interpretation more validity than another by divulging my authorial intent. And by that I mean I don’t want any one of my friends or family to be able to say to the others, “Aha! I got it right! Neener-neener-neener!” That said, if I personally came across a unicycle lying in the grass, I’d first try to find the owner, and, failing that, I’d sell it on eBay for $39.99.

Your bio says that you are finishing up a satirical novel. How does satire remain relevant in a so-called “post-truth” world where false, easily debunked news stories attract as much attention as (or more attention than) credible, accurate ones?

The day that Trump was elected president, I was on the brink of submitting a satirical novel on American education as my MFA thesis project—and it was set in a world where a man like Trump could never be president. I assumed Clinton would win. I assumed Clinton would mostly continue Obama’s education policies. So now, suddenly, my criticism of those policies seemed quaint. Aw, you thought that was bad? How cute. I joked that I should have written a Wild West zombie romance instead. But, really, the reality of Trump and our “post-truth” world is something that all writers and artists are dealing with now to varying degrees; we all have to consider the context in which our work will be received and how that will affect our meaning. Because it’s all political. Whether you mean it to be or not. Every story from the most personal to the most fantastic and otherworldly has its political implications. The Wild West zombie romance would have had them, too. In the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the book’s origin, saying, “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.” She had her chaos, and we have ours. In her chaos, the medical community believed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria—and treatment included doctors masturbating female patients to orgasm. In our chaos, the president-elect Tweets that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese—and he’ll very likely have the power to shape policy which ignores this very real threat to our survival as a planet. Oh, plus he asks, How come no nuking? And he’s getting the nuclear codes. So. Yeah. Maybe the stakes are higher now. But there’s always been chaos and there’s always been artists responding to it. Satire will still have to find a way to make its targets laughable without diminishing our concerns or downplaying the very real threats they pose. It will still have to shame the shameless. That’s nothing new. What is new is that satire now has to distinguish itself from those false, easily debunked news stories, so that readers can actually tell them apart. And maybe in some cases it won’t be able to pursue a problematic thought or policy to its logical but absurd conclusion, as it has in the past; it will now have to accept the absurd as its starting point—and where do you go from there? We’ll see.

Are you working on any other writing projects that you can tell us about (or, any that you would like to embark upon after you complete your MFA)?

Yes! It feels a bit silly to count a Facebook group as a “writing project,” but it is. Not long after the election, my friend, Jess Millman, and I started a Facebook group specifically for writers interested in activist literature, which, of course, can exist in any form, style, or genre. The group is called “CAW: Chicago Activist Writers,” although, as Jess put it, “it may be our perch, but a Chicago address is not required—just a Chicago heart.” I love working with her. Ultimately, we're hoping to publish an activist journal. And, of course, we're not the only ones. On Inauguration Day, Anna March and friends will be launching ROAR, a “magazine of intersectional feminist resistance”—which sounds amazing. And there are others. So we'll see how the dust settles after this election, what emerges, and where we'll fit in with our work and our new publication. Aside from that, I'm also in the early stages of creating a collection of short stories.

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

Christine Rice’s novel-in-stories, Swarm Theory. It was recommended to me by my thesis advisor, since it’s doing a lot of what I am trying to do in my own novel—juggle a big cast of characters, switch points of view, tell a larger story through a series of smaller ones—and Rice does all this in a way that’s both inspiring and intimidating. It’s one of those books I’ll definitely come back to again and again.


"Their Fundamental Indecision": An Interview with Ravi Mangla

Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies (Outpost19). His writing has appeared most recently in The Kenyon Review, The Nation, Cincinnati Review, The Baffler, and Puerto del Sol. He lives in Rochester, NY.

His story, "Lever," appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about the tactile qualities of language, dimmer switches, and the unfolding of details.

How did this story begin for you?

I’ll credit the story to a fascination with dimmers, which are curious in their fundamental indecision. I grew up in a house full of dimmers. (We were a dimmer family.) I have memories of rooms cast in the subterraneous glow of an opium den. At the time I was writing stories about neuroses and obsession, and the dimmer seemed a fitting vehicle. (“Face,” an older fiction in The Collagist, is a kind of companion piece.)

When we learn that the speaker and his wife are separated, the story takes on a new life. We begin to see the speaker’s aggravation with the dimmer switch as a projection of a larger problem. I’m interested in this choice to concentrate on the dimmer switch rather than on the relationship. How can examining a problem from a “slant” actually bring a story into sharper focus?

Certain authorities on writing might be critical of holding back key information in a story. (After all, it goes against Vonnegut’s rules.) I think of it less as a “slant” than an unfolding—or an efflorescence. Details budding further details and, finally, a flower.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story? How did you overcome this challenge?

Calibrating the fade so it didn’t look tacky or cheap. (It’s possible I came up short in this respect.) There was quite a bit of tinkering with the effect, figuring out where to start it and where to end it. Gabe Blackwell was cool with fine-tuning until we got it just right. Or thereabouts.

Is there a writer or artist who you would say influenced this piece?

Many. Text-based artists like Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer, and John Baldessari, folks who taught me to appreciate the physical, tactile qualities of language. Also, I should acknowledge the wonderfully unconventional essays of John Cage.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel (sort of Graham Greene-ish), though the writing keeps getting derailed by other commitments, so give it a good five to ten years.


"Those Mere Mentions of Memory": An Interview with Jill Talbot

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Paris Review Daily, Passages North, The Normal School, Slice Magazine and has been listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2014, 2015, and 2016. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.

Her essay, "Lonely Things—A Series," appeared in Issue Eighty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, Jill Talbot talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about lyric essays, organizing lists, and thrumming chords.

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

Okay, so I’m going to embarrass myself and show you the original list I jotted down while sitting in that Chicago café in 2013.

Lonely things:   suitcases, postcards, the ghost-like outline of paintings that have been removed from walls, shadows in photographs, fill-in-the-blank lines, the last page, the sound of coins dropping into a newspaper stand, empty chairs on front porches, folded maps, words scribbled on napkins, a piece of paper from last season in a coat pocket, the ignored ring of a payphone, a lamp on a nightstand, a closed store, shirts hanging in a closet, a sign so distant you can’t make it out, a kitchen at night, train tracks. My brother’s baseball cap. 

I saved the document as Lonely Things, but I didn’t do anything with it. I’d open it now and again, thinking how the things might be a segment in a larger conversation about loneliness. Three years later, I decided that those lonely things didn’t have to do anything but just be a list, a catalog. Here’s an excerpt from the next phase:

Water towers, the hazy outline of paintings that have been removed from walls, shadows in photographs, the clinks of coins in a soda machine, creases in maps, added numbers on a napkin with a carried one, a movie stub from last winter in a coat pocket, shirts hanging in a closet, a row of newspaper stands, the final paragraph, empty downtown buildings, train tracks, Highway 84 to Lubbock, a kitchen in the middle of the night, the snap of a stop button on a mix tape, shoes in thrift stores, an Out of Service bus, a curtainless shower on moving day, school buses lined up before the bell rings, scotch tape on the edge of an envelope’s seal, a symphony conductor’s extended bow, a stranger’s arm out a car window giving the go around signal.

I submitted this version (288 words) to a journal, but the editors wanted “a specificity of an ‘I,’ even if ‘I’ is never used.” In other words, they wanted a voice connected to the things. So the next version employed 2nd person here and there, as in “the blue sweatshirt in your closet, the one you can’t bring yourself to wear.” Yet something felt uninteresting about the block paragraph, so one day I started stretching lines and phrases this way and that like Silly Putty, sifting and sorting until I had what I considered a hybrid flash, something between an essay and a poem. Another rejection from another journal mentioned the essay’s power came from the “(apparent) autobiography,” so in the next draft I added parentheticals “(flannel-sleeved shoulder)” to push that autobiographical impulse more. 

This essay is divided into six sections, the first of which is written in verse, while the rest take the form of prose. How did you decide that the piece should make this switch from a lyrical mode to a more narrative one?

I wish I could take credit for this, but a writer I’ve been exchanging drafts with for years suggested I create a collage, pairing the verse-version “with several other short lyric flash nonfictions to create a suite of impressions.” And that’s when I added the subsequent five sections of prose to create a lyric suite. I like to think of those five sections as a legend, the keys to some of the locations on the map of the first section.

There is a character in this essay, a “him,” who is mentioned a few times without ever being named, and the reader is left to make assumptions about the nature of his role in your life, having very few specific details to go on. How do you know how much information is too much or too little when you’re keeping a pivotal part of the essay like this person mostly out of view?

I like the idea of the “mere mention” of the lyric essay, how Deborah Tall and John D’Agata describe it: 

“Given its genre mingling, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving.”

I’ve written two memoirs about “him,” and lately I’m more interested how the chords of his presence thrum in my work without being the melody. As years (fourteen) have passed since the morning I saw him getting on that elevator, my memories fragment, moments flash, so this form allows me to explore those mere mentions of memory.

Your essay’s first section contains so many images that resonated with me, one after another, many of them familiar and yet cast in a new light. I’m curious about how you compile a list of things on a theme. Do you seek them out, or do they come to you, or both? And once you have collected them, how do you arrange them? Do you have escalation in mind, or perhaps a more associative logic?

I remember writing the initial draft as a list, simply things or images that came to me, but as I continued and expanded the list and the form, I wanted associations or extensions, bridges between one and the other, and of course the sound of the thing was most important. And once I added those prose sections, I had to go in and add a couple of things to the first section, such as “the stillness of an empty swimming lane” and “a library elevator” for cohesion.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I just finished a flash hybrid, a blend of nonfiction and fiction, and I’m intrigued by that tension, how I’m engaging with memory while embedding fiction (it’s another essay with “him,” as chord rather than melody), and I’d like to do more of those, because how can I say moments from all those years ago are now anything but a mélange of story and essay?

I’m finishing up a hybrid collaborative manuscript with Justin Lawrence Daugherty that we’ve been working on for four years.

And I’m also working on a memoir that weaves my daily morning visits to the 7-11 for a Diet Dr. Pepper with the eight years I (ab)used anti-depressants, something I’ve never written about before.  It’s a very unsettling project (because of the stories and people I encounter at 7-11 and my past), but I need that to write, I need to be unsettled.

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

I’m incredibly fascinated by the meta-memoir, and I recently read and admired Mark Slouka’s Nobody’s Son: A Memoir, published in October, and Joshua Mohr’s Sirens, which will be published by Two Dollar Radio in January.


"We Shouldn't Criminalize the Victim": An Interview with Susan Neville

Susan Neville won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Richard Sullivan Prize for her collections of short fiction. She is the author of four books of creative nonfiction, including Fabrication and Sailing the Inland Sea,​ and she teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis and the Warren Wilson MFA for Writers.

Her story, "Game Night," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, Susan Neville talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about parenting, switching between genres, and needle exchange programs.

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

Several years ago I was reading the Indianapolis Star and came across an article about the HIV epidemic in Scotts County, Indiana, an epidemic triggered by the problem of opioids and cheap heroin. At the time the story seemed so impossible, almost uncanny. Meth? Oxycontin? Sure. You’ve watched Justified, right? There are similarities. But heroin in the rural Midwest was a new story, and the sheer number of addictions and the sudden rapid spread of the virus seemed from another time. It defamiliarized this place for me, a place I’ve lived in all my life. It felt like the first time I read Angels in America, like the 80s felt somehow. Anyway, while the CDC was tracking the epidemic and sounding an alarm and in most of the world alarms have been sounding for decades, Indiana’s conservative legislature and governor were opposed to needle exchange programs. That was the initial spark.

The article also quoted a long-time resident of Scottsburg who was astounded by the sight of women prostituting themselves for drugs, walking up and down the streets of a town where it’s unusual to see very many people at all. I immediately pictured the women as dolls and started writing a series of stories about the place and the epidemic through that initial uncanny vision. “Game Night” is one of the stories.

Your story’s form has a few unusual qualities that stand out right away: a title for each section, use of the second person, and the conceit that the whole text is a set of instructions for playing a game. What made you decide that this story had to be presented in this unconventional way?

Probably the story that influenced my writing more than any other is William Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” so a pastiche with titles seems more like a story to me than a straight narrative. I go back to that story over and over.

I began thinking about images of needles and the game metaphor came later in the process. I think it grew out of a sentence in fact, though I’m not sure which one. I pictured the town and a mother terrified for her child, wanting the child to simply stay alive. Perhaps, she thinks, if she approaches it ironically and makes it like a normal family thing, a game night, she won’t push the child away. I remember when my kids were young joking with other mothers about teaching  kids to drive while drunk. If you imagine the worst thing that can happen maybe you can helicopter your way in as a parent and teach them how to safely do the thing you’re terrified they’re going to do no matter what you say. Please don’t do it! you’re saying to them, but if you do do it, don’t share needles and please use this condom, and do it so it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, etc. etc. It’s perhaps not the best parenting method in the world, but this mother has seen her friend’s children die and feels out of options and angry and a bit sarcastic.

I found the section “How to Play” particularly difficult to read, as it seems like you did not pull any punches in your descriptions of needles, veins, blood, etc. Was it difficult for you to write about the gruesome details, and did you consider holding anything back? Were you ever afraid that the subject matter and your treatment of it might turn away some readers (or, conversely, that your story might give readers some pointers that they could actually put to use)? For that matter, who is your intended audience for this story?

Hmm, good question. Weirdly enough, it wasn’t hard to write this. I did some research, but in that section I was just trying really hard to imagine what it would feel like to inject heroin and all I could think of was getting blood drawn and how some phlebotomists are so much better at it than others.

The only intended audience I thought of consciously was the daughter this mother is speaking to. I was trying to channel her. I don’t know if my recipe for injecting could be followed, though. I’ve never baked that particular cake. I assume that anyone who has the drugs wouldn’t need the directions and that directions wouldn’t make you look for the drugs. I don’t know. It’s what the mother thinks, anyway, and she just wants her daughter to know where she can find needles, for instance, instead of sharing them. She wants to teach her to make the stick correctly so she won’t try doing it a second time and overdose.

If I think about it, though, the audience is people who are against needle exchanges or vote for politicians who are. I wanted to make the argument that we shouldn’t criminalize the victim. So maybe Mike Pence is my intended audience?

You are an author of both fiction and nonfiction. What lessons have you learned from one genre that you’ve been able to apply to the other?

I write a lot of short stories that work like essays written by a fictional character and a lot of essays that read like short stories. I’ve learned that the form and techniques are almost interchangeable. It’s the intent that’s usually different. The biggest thing I’ve learned from doing both, though, is that when you get stuck in one genre you can move to the other and get unstuck. I think you surprise your controlling inner editor when you do that.  The nonfiction that interests me are pieces by Susan Orlean and Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace and John McPhee and Indiana writers like Michael Martone and Scott Sanders, writers who combine journalism and poetry into a nonfiction stew. Nonfiction has been the thing that gets me out of my office and classroom and house, out into places I wouldn’t normally go. It lets me try out ideas. It’s a press pass to interesting things. Fiction lets me try out being other people. One feeds the other.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m still working on the collection of stories that “Game Night” is part of. I’ve never written a collection this intentionally. I like thinking "oh I need more dolls" so I’ve got to shift the lens in the next story or in the case of this story, "I need the actual experience of the needles." It’s like knowing a painting needs a little more red or that you’ve not paid enough attention to one angle of a sculpture.

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

So much. I read Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account a year ago and am still thinking about it. The same with Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. As is true of so many, I was obsessed with Elena Ferrante’s books last spring and Hanya Nagitahara’s People in the Trees. And I’m always re-reading Willa Cather and Iris Murdoch, endless sources of wisdom and joy.


"The Detective and All These Ghosts": An Interview with Maryse Meijer

Maryse Meijer is the author of Heartbreaker. She lives in Chicago.

Her story, "Evidence," appeared in Issue Eighty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Maryse Meijer talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about violence, death, and detective stories.

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

I think I just sat down and typed “the head, where’s the head?” and went from there. When I found out I was writing about a detective I started thinking about what that might mean, but in the beginning there was just this idea of a really messed up dead body on a kitchen floor.

This story’s protagonist is a homicide detective, seemingly detached from other people, obsessed with his murder investigations. To anyone who’s seen cop stories in movies, television, and/or other media, this feels like a familiar characterization. What do you want this story to add to the conversation created by all those hard-nosed, unstable detectives of popular fiction? What was your approach to the tropes of the genre when crafting this story?

If your job is a constant encounter with death and violence—which are not really rational things—then you’re going to go crazy. I think the detective genre understands this, and it gives us all these guys (and, increasingly, women) who are disintegrating in various ways because the real disintegration—death—is so elusive, so hard to really look at. Even as the body of a murder victim is paraded before us, it disappears. So I think we try to talk about violence and death by talking about detectives. As I was writing I was trying to focus on this dead guy, but everything kept slipping back to the detective, who also couldn’t quite focus on the dead guy. Instead he’s obsessed with this woman he’s imagined is the killer, a fantasy he ends up projecting onto a stranger, and we end up in this space where it’s just the detective and all these ghosts who become more real than everything else. How can a person metabolize the endless violence of a job solving murders without losing their mind?

What frustrates me about detectives in popular narratives is how they are glamorized or fetishized, even when they’re falling apart—they always seem to come off as badasses, like Woody Harrelson in Rampart or the guys in True Detective. They’re jerks and they’re a mess but they’re played so cool. My detective is plain sad and losing it. If I couldn’t really say anything meaningful about violence, I could at least try and get at its possible effects on this one guy’s mind.

Your story ends with the protagonist on his knees, clutching a woman’s skirt and begging her to murder him (and he seems sincere, at least in my reading). What are you experiencing when you take a story to such a bleak, morbid conclusion? Do you feel such intense emotions along with your characters, or is it more of an intellectual exercise for you as the author?

If I get emotional about something that happens on the page—and I do, often—it’s not because I feel any of it is happening to me. It’s more like I’m watching something not so great happen to a friend, someone I love but can’t help. It’s never an intellectual exercise, but it’s also not strictly personal—which, if it was, I guess I’d be on my knees freaking out every other day.

Please tell us about your revision process, using this story as an example. How much did “Evidence” change from the first draft to the final? Did you have to make any difficult decisions along the way?

I edit like crazy. I edit for years. But the general shapes of my stories don’t usually go through radical alterations—it’s mostly line editing, and a lot of cutting. Then there’s usually a period where I bloat a story back up, explaining the story to myself by adding a bunch of unnecessary stuff, and then I cut some more. The painful part is leaving stuff out that I worked hard on, that got to something I felt was true but maybe too true to keep…you have to leave room for the reader to enter into the story, and that means cutting out the bits that say too much, go too far. But those bits are often the ones that you like the most!

The trouble with this story was getting the language right—trying to reflect the detective’s distorted state of mind while still making some kind of sense.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m finishing up a second story collection and a book of poems, and revising a first novel.

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

Fox, Tooth, Heart is a story collection by John McManus that I think is brilliant. Vertigo by Joanna Walsh is making me very jealous, and I just finished Joyce Carol Oates’ first novel, With Shuddering Fall, which is completely crazy, in the best way.


"A Little Unmoored": An Interview with Jai Chakrabarti

Jai Chakrabarti is a 2015 A Public Space Emerging Writer’s Fellow. A graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA program, his work has appeared in Barrow Street, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Coffin Factory, Union Station, and A Public Space. He lives in Brooklyn with his family.

His story, "Lost Things," appeared in Issue Seventy-Four of The Collagist. 

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about the structure of time in fiction, details that slant, and revision.

Where did this story begin for you? What first inspired you to write “Lost Things”?

“Lost Things” began after an episode in a long struggle my partner and I undertook to conceive a child. While many of the elements of the piece are fictionalized, the emotional pull of it likely stemmed from the feelings I wrestled with after a failed treatment at a fertility clinic. We’ve since become parents to an exuberantly happy boy, but those years of trying shaped images in my work that were borne of loss and yearning.

The sentences in this story meander. They double-back on themselves and move non-chronologically. For me, one of the lovely results of this style is the sense that I’m in two or three places at once. Is the voice in this story characteristic of your writing? How did this sentence style come about?

I think I’m obsessed about the structure of time in fiction. Aren’t our memories always overlapping with our present complications, leaving even the most grounded of us, at least a little, unmoored? I would love to say that the form finds its partner in content and that the meandering sentences, the run-arounds with time, are the beck and call that drives the piece forward, but in my experience, this is harder to do in fiction than it is in poetry. So I felt this piece borrowed more from poetry in terms of its permission to move out of linear time, and in the slipperiness of the narrative voice.

The world of this story feels vivid and bright. It crackles with details such as “the girl with a tongue so long she could curl it around a glass of beet juice” and “the terrible pitch and thunder of the aging mango tree, as it leaned in the monsoon.” How do you choose your moments of detail?

Thank you. As a reader, the images that often startle me are the ones which slant our everyday, but remain honest. Even with stories which hang on the ropes of surrealism I want to feel embodied. An overly familiar image isn’t inviting, but neither is one that doesn’t connect to our corporeal (and yet, mysterious) world.

What was your revision process for this story? What happened between the first draft and the story we see today?

For a story with a traditional linear narrative with premise, conflict, climax, etcetera, the revision process is more well-defined for me. For this type of story, I give a lot of attention to the sound of the piece, to its rhythm. I read it out loud, and where the rhythm doesn't fit the feeling I am going for, I revise it multiple times. To get to know the feelings I was going for in this piece, I wrote out a map, tracing between sentences and the piece’s recurring motifs.

Are you reading any books you’d like to recommend?

“The Beautiful Possible” by Amy Gottlieb - a novel of mystical Judaism and love and loss.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished revisions on a novel, A Play for the End of the World, which follows the relationship of a Holocaust survivor and a woman from the American South. Set in Poland, India, and New York, it’s a love story, or, at least, a story of longing (or belonging).  


"Time Tends to Bend": An Interview with Sara Greenslit

Sara Greenslit's novel, As If a Bird Flew By Me, was published by FC2 for winning the Sukenick/ABR Innovative Fiction Award. Her first novel, The Blue of Her Body, won the Starcherone Innovative Fiction Award. She is a small animal veterinarian, from Madison, WI.

Her essay, "Vertigo Suite No. 1," appeared in Issue Eighty-Six of The Collagist.

Here, Sara Greenslit talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about illness narratives, brevity, and dizziness.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Vertigo Suite No. 1”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I had come down with sudden vertigo in ‘05 that appeared it wasn’t going anywhere; it got better over time, but it never vanished. I wanted to try to understand it by trying to explain it. The suite is part of a longer piece, all in short sections, about my definitions of vertigo, with snippets of how dizziness changed my veterinary career, with asides into neuroanatomy.

This suite consists of three very brief pieces, the longest of which is still under 300 words. Is it a challenge for you to write with such concision? Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to achieve this economy of language?

I have such a hard time writing longer pieces! I find myself getting giddy when I reach a couple thousand words. My MFA was in poetry, and I’m an introvert so maybe one is related to the other?

I do tend to trim and trim back to the bones the best I can. I write in bursts, collect them, then sort and edit. I love a good thesaurus, I love intermittent internal rhyme.

I noticed that much of your essay is in the present tense, even when it breeds odd phrases such as “When it begins eleven years ago,” and I was also aware of some vacillations between first and second person, a switch from “When I’m tired” to “as you succumb to gravity.” Can you speak about how you make artful decisions about matters of time, tense, point of view, etc. when writing quite lyrically about your own experience?

Because the dizziness is long-term, and when I have a more severe relapse, time tends to bend—present tense makes sense: am I always going to be dizzy? am I in the hole again, until I am not?

I have some trepidation of writing first person illness narratives; I get worried it becomes all too narrow. Second person gives me some space.

The decisions now seems made instinctually. I can’t say I made concrete decisions until closer to final edits.

Your novels blend fiction and nonfiction, and you also write poetry. Do you generally know the genre of a piece before you start writing it? How does your work in one genre inform the others?

That’s a tough question. Most of the time, things evolve as the writing goes on. I’ll come to a Q like: I can’t really seem to pull off writing 1st POV in a historical novel sense, so why don’t I jut over here and use the original historical documents transcribed online?, and then while filtering through these, a present day character arises and seems to have a connection to this older time period. A tendril from one, out of the other. That’s why I love research: it sparks things you didn’t know yet that will absorb you.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a collection of essays about illness and art and ecology. I wanted to push myself into longer form and into a newer genre for me. It’s hard work and a little scary.

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

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Conscious by Sy Montgomery.

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