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I liked the way in writing I also felt like I was doing something magical. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I went chasing after that feeling ever since.

 

Douglas Cole has had work in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Red Rock Review, and Midwest Quarterly. He has published two poetry collections—Interstate (Night Ballet Press) and Western Dream (Finishing Line Press)—as well as a novella called Ghost with Blue Cubicle Press. He is currently on the faculty at Seattle Central College in Seattle, Washington.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is the beginngin of Douglas’s story “Wanderers” published at Talking Writing:

Out in the dark field, Ronnie was running. I was running, but my gut was too full of beer to keep it up. She came back with a few deep breaths and hands on hips. John wasn’t even trying. I love that guy, but he’s soft in the middle—a soft, Connecticut, slow-moving mescaline freak.

Read more by and about Douglas:

Story: “Wanderers” at Talking Writing

Story: “Standing In Hawaii” at Baltimore Review

Poem: “Counsel” at Eckleberg Review

Three Poems at Black Heart Magazine

How Douglas Cole Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series at Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Douglas for his answers!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was a kid in school, one of my English teachers assigned Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. It was the first book I ever read all the way through. I was hooked, you know? I couldn’t put it down and just became completely absorbed in it. It was very addictive and set me on a voracious reading journey. I think that was when I first caught a glimpse of the magic of words and stories. Later, in another English class, my teacher, Mrs. Sheridan, had us write a descriptive piece. We were sitting in class, so I decided to just describe what I saw around me in the room. I don’t remember it, except I remember that I ended it with a description of a poster on the wall of a ballet dancer and the words at the bottom of the poster: Twyla Tharp. I was just fooling around, but she liked it and ended up reading it to the class. I liked that feeling. I liked feeling good at something. And I liked the way in writing I also felt like I was doing something magical. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I went chasing after that feeling ever since.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read everything I could, everything that I thought would teach me something, even if I didn’t think I liked it at the time, like if I had heard it was an important work. If a teacher assigned a story or a poem and I liked it, I’d go find that writer’s books. I’d go to Moe’s Bookstore and in a groping way just scan other books and read the first paragraph if a title caught my eye, give it that test and see if it grabbed me. And once I started something I would never put it down without finishing it. I felt almost a moral obligation to go all the way. And if I found writers I liked, I would absorb everything I could. I’d read everything they had written, even biographies and critical stuff on them and their work. I realize I was listening like a safe-cracker. And I treated everything as somehow connected, or I’d look for a connection. Movies, for example, and how a filmmaker tells a story and sets a pace and a mood and works an image. Music, the same thing. How does a song work like a poem or a story, or what does it do differently that can be converted, and what does it do that I want to do? All my classes in college: philosophy, history, science, weight training, tennis! What could they contribute? How did they relate? What could they teach me that would work for writing? I was that conscious about it. Friends? Any moment? I always thought in terms of creating. Not to sound pretentious, but I remember reading Joyce say that he wanted to convert the bread of everyday to the holy host. I took it that seriously.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Charlie, Chris and Mike Steele. I met them when I was sixteen. Chris was going to PSR, the Pacific School of Religion, where my mother was a student. She and my mother were friends. And Chris brought her brother Charlie down to stay, there in Berkeley, right after he had finished college, and he and I became friends. On my seventeenth birthday, he gave me a copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude with a big fat joint taped to the inside cover. Then their brother Mike came down a little while later. He was an actor and a musician and a writer. They were all talented musicians and writers and scholars, just beautiful people, physically, energetically. And they had such a rich vocabulary for the world and love for art and music and literature. Charlie turned me on to Richard Hugo and Joni Mitchel and Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. They were intellectuals, poets, people who lived with passion and never said a dull thing or yawned. And I connected with them right away. They inspired me to love even more deeply what I already loved, and they helped make my love of the arts cool. They’re still my family. I love them dearly and feel I owe them a great deal in terms of finding what would be the only real community I ever wanted in connection to writing. I’ve always been pretty private about it.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Reading Douglas Day’s biography of Malcolm Lowery was almost as harrowing as reading Under the Volcano. I knew I was reading a genius, though, when I read Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce. I couldn’t finish The World as a Lie, though, the biography of James Dickey. And that’s unusual for me. I love Dickey’s work, of course, but I was going through some rough time, to be honest, and I just couldn’t handle it. I still intend to go back and read it. I think that’s one of the only times I can remember not finishing something I started. But as I get older, I’ve come to let go of that imperative a little. When you have less time, you treat it more dearly. I love biographies, though. When I’m in a good one, it’s like time travel or shape-shifting. A crazy leap into another world. Negative capability. Cold but intimate friends.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Read. Read everything you can. Study the world and write all the time in all forms and no form at all. Just write. Don’t even think about publishing or money or fame. Just write and reach for that illusive image in your mind. I love what William Faulkner said when he received the National book award. He said “I accept this on behalf of all, who like me, failed. Failed to create what we imagined in our minds, but in failing set out to get closer the next time.” Keep your crap detector on, especially with yourself. But also have compassion. We’re all struggling. So be open. Think. Look for the connections. Experiment and be joyous. Like John Gardner said, “Write what you’d like to read.” Write and write and write freely without concern for punctuation or intellectual coherence. Follow music, like Hugo said. Meaning will come. And when you revise, revise ruthlessly. But always save a holy space for the private prayer of writing with no intention for public consumption. That’s your gold. That’s your soul. Never sign anything in blood except for love. Dive into the dream and the unconscious ocean. Steal without guilt. See through the eye that’s seeing and record your vision in whatever languages you know or create. Have no fear. You’re always all right.

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Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

Well, most. It’s most. The most important thing is not that you get a fancy degree or make money doing this (which is different from making a living, in my book), but that you come out of every story with more empathy for the human condition than you went in with.

 

Katie-Cortese-Headshot

Katie Cortese lives in Lubbock, TX, where she teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Sport Literate, and The Baltimore Review, as well as the upcoming Rose Metal Press anthology, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. She holds a PhD from Florida State University, an MFA from Arizona State University, and was granted a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, as well as a residency at the Arte Studio Ginestrelle near Assisi, Italy. The former editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review, she now serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review, and her flash fiction collection, GIRL POWER AND OTHER SHORT-SHORT STORIES, is slated for release by ELJ Publications in the fall of 2015. She is currently at work on a full-length story collection as well as a novel.

Web site: http://www.katiecortese.com/

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Katie’s story “Flight Plan” published at Talking Writing:

Maya’s new apartment complex had eight units, four to a side across a small courtyard. She’d rented one of them, sight unseen, against her father’s advice. The landlady, Alma, was waiting in the parking lot as promised when Maya eased Black Beauty’s powerful engine to a stop. The ’79 Corvette celebrated the end of her cross-country romp in a musical crunch of gravel. Maya tried not to stare at the woman’s sun-spotted shoulders—or the amber folds of flesh melting down her thighs—and climbed into the heat of midday, bending to stretch her legs.

Alma gestured to Maya’s car with the business end of her cigarette. “She’s a prize.”   

“Black Beauty,” Maya said. “Used to be my dad’s. She’s hell on gas.”

Read more by and about Katie:

Story: “Flight Plan” at Talking Writing

Story: “Lemonade” at Chagrin Review

Story: “Gentleman’s Game” at Sequestrum

Story: “Wakulla Springs” at Baltimore Review

How Katie Cortese Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series at Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Katie for her awesome answers!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

The short answer is I didn’t, at first. I chose which colleges to apply to based on the strength of their theatre programs and at eighteen years old I had every intention of moving to New York and auditioning my heart out after graduation. I’d always loved to read, and I’d written a little in high school (just some angsty journaling and a few cheesy revenge poems that are—hopefully—lost to the annals of history), and I recognized the need for a more practical major alongside theatre—so, of course, I chose English, because teaching, right? By my senior year of college I’d taken a few fiction workshops and fell in love with a composition process I’m too old to replicate now—writing for eight hours at a stretch through the night, usually waking halfway through the next morning to find I’d slept through Geology again. I was still fifty-fifty as to pursuing acting or writing by my senior year, but I credit my eventual choice to two excellent professors. Doug Glover, a Canadian story writer and novelist, took me aside after one class and shook a rolled up copy of a recent story revision I’d handed him. It hit all the undergraduate landmarks: a husband who mysteriously died at sea, the melodramatic disposal of his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean, and a precocious child wise beyond his years. In any case, Doug waved around the tube of my revision and told me it was the best one he’d seen. Not the best story, he clarified, but the best revision. I’ve always been a little too hungry for praise.

The second professor who gave me a significant push in this direction was Steven Millhauser, and I had no idea how lucky I was to be able to work with him at the time. He told me not to get an MFA (in so doing, he alerted me to the fact that such a thing as grad school for writing existed), but to move home and write in my parents’ basement until either I got a book published or they kicked me out. Then he walked me down the hall to the director of the New York State Summer Writer’s Institute and set me up with a small scholarship to attend it. After that summer of being surrounded by teachers and students who’d made writing their lives, I tossed my headshots and acting resume in a drawer and haven’t looked back (okay, maybe once or twice).

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I got the writing bug in college, as I mentioned above, but I didn’t actually start my journey until I did the exact opposite of what I’d been advised in college. I applied to eleven MFA programs and got into two of them, one of which offered me funding. I got the news that Arizona State had offered me a place in their program while I was on a six-month work visa in London, typing a rambling eighty page novella on a Toshiba satellite roughly the size of a VCR (remember those?). I cried when my mother read my acceptance letter on the phone. After I was back in the States, I moved from my parents’ house in Massachusetts to Phoenix (by way of San Diego, but that’s another story). I’d never been further west than Pennsylvania. The heat was debilitating. I felt like a writer right up until my first workshop class, when I realized I was out of my league. Way out of my league. I didn’t actually start the process of learning to write until I realized how much I had left to learn, and how talented everyone else in my class (and beyond) was. Once I got over the feeling of not being the star pupil (which, I think, most of us in that MFA had been in college), I could finally stop trying to impress everyone and just try to be a better writer every day than the one I’d been the day before.

The short answer to how I became a writer is by writing and reading. A lot. I’d argue that’s how everyone does it, in some form or another.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Wow, this is a very long list. There are those professors back in college I mentioned above, plus the amazingly talented Greg Hrbek who was the first person to introduce me to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. My friend Jillian Schedneck lived with me in London while she was applying for MFAs in Creative Nonfiction. She ended up going to West Virginia’s program, and got her PhD in Australia where she still lives and teaches. We still read each other’s work and I think we kept each other’s spirits up as ex-pats waiting for good news from home. My MFA teachers have been my rocks, and years later I’m still bugging them for advice and letters of recommendation and favors (maybe just to make sure they don’t forget me!): Melissa Pritchard, T. M. McNally, Ron Carlson, and all the visiting writers I was fortunate to work with in brief stints during my three years at ASU.

I tell my current students to hold onto their good readers because they are a rare commodity out in the cold, hard world, and that’s advice I practice. Most of my readers are my former MFA colleagues—truly generous and brilliant human beings who are now pursuing PhDs and working in tenure-track positions and publishing books every other year, it seems like. I went to Florida State for my PhD and will be forever grateful to my professors there—Mark Winegardner, Julianna Baggott, Elizabeth Stuckey-French. My husband is my first reader and biggest cheerleader. And my parents, of course. My mother had me memorizing Shakespeare at four years old. My father read me The Hobbit at bedtime every night for a year. If one of those links in the chain had given way, I might not have kept at this pursuit. There’s a lot of rejection. I’m guessing there always will be, but now I feel that I owe all of the people mentioned above my best effort and if I falter I imagine having to explain to one of them why I quit writing. I’m accountable to them, and thank god for that.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

For a long time, I’ve hung onto the fact that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t start writing until her fifties (or at least, that’s when she published her first book). I grew up with the Little House books, and so did most of my peers and their kids, and I hope my kids will grow up with those books too. It’s amazing to me that she taught herself how to write over the course of the series (sort of like J.K. Rowling, as far as that goes), though she had the tools because she had everything a writer needs to succeed: a love for literature (she was a teacher before she married Almanzo, of course), empathy for other humans, time (once the children were raised), patience, and persistence. Now her works are an institution unto themselves. That’s so cool to me.

I’m also interested in writers that had other abiding interests and/or careers. William Carlos William and his doctoring. Barbara Kingsolver has a degree in biology, and it shows in her work. I like Stephen King’s path to becoming a writer because his is a story of persistence and perseverance, drives which developed ahead of his talent and which every writer needs in order to get past those first few (thousand) rejections. I should have mentioned King earlier, actually, because he’s another reason I wanted to become a writer. His book It. Not the monster stuff, which is cool in a “this is why clowns can never not be creepy again” way, but I fell in love with those kids he writes about and the adults they became; I admire how he grew a fictional town from the ground up and invested it with a history that speaks to real towns all over America; I envy the way his language made me forget I was reading so I actually saw the story unfold, even if I would rather not have looked at some aspects as closely as he wanted me to. The first few stories I wrote were all imitations of It in one way or another. And then The Stand. And then The Body (which became the movie Stand By Me). Heck, maybe they still are.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Dear Writer,

Persistence is all.

Well, most. It’s most. The most important thing is not that you get a fancy degree or make money doing this (which is different from making a living, in my book), but that you come out of every story with more empathy for the human condition than you went in with. That doesn’t mean forcing happy endings onto everything, but it does mean treating every character as the full human he or she would have to be in order to move us. There are no villains, especially in their own minds. In fact, tell the villain’s story. Jane Smiley did this in A Thousand Acres. Gregory Maguire in Wicked. Actually, remember that everyone has potential to be the villain in someone else’s story. Write every character this way, with shades of all that humans are capable of.

Remember that you never need permission to write. And never question your subject. There are no wrong stories. There is no “right” age to start, or to stop. All a writer needs to succeed is a love and appreciation for literature, to read widely and omnivorously, to have empathy for people and an abiding interest in the strange, horrifying, and often gorgeous world we occupy, and to persist. Not everyone will care if you persist, so it’s up to you to provide the momentum.

Take risks, fail, and remember that if you experience a lot of success early that you should appreciate it for a few minutes, and then get back to work. Early success is dangerous. Be suspicious of it, and always have another project in the pipeline. Unfortunately, or fortunately, your work will never be done.

And thank god for that.

I have no degrees in creative writing, journalism, literature.
It’s all been on-the-job training.

J Tinney Pic 1

Jason Tinney is an award-winning fiction writer, musician, freelance journalist, and actor. His previous books are Louise Paris and Other Waltzes (poetry/prose) and Bluebird (short stories and poems). Three of his short stories were published in the anthology Out of Tune. Tinney and artist Brian Slagle have collaborated on The Swinging Bridge, a traveling literary and visual arts project, since 2004. He performs with, and is the co-founder of, the award-winning music groups, Donegal X-Press (DXP) and The Wayfarers. As an actor, Jason Tinney has appeared in more then thirty stage productions. He has been a contributor to several magazines, among them, Baltimore, Style, Gorilla, Her Mind, Urbanite, and Maryland Life , which won the International Regional Magazine Association’s Award of Merit in the category of Culture Feature for Tinney’s article “The March,” a first-hand account of life on the front-lines with American Civil War reenactors. Ripple Meets the Deep, a new collection of short fiction, was published in October 2014 by CityLit Press, an imprint of the CityLit Project.

Ripple-Cover-OnlyRead More By and About Jason:

Story excerpt: Ripple Meets the Deep

Story excerpt: Shave ’em Dry

Story Excerpt: January

Interview: Baltimore Review Coffee & Questions

How Jason Tinney Became a Writer:

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jason for saying yes!

 

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Honestly, there came a point where I didn’t know what else to do. I had been acting and studying theatre in college; I joined a band and, of course, worked other jobs to pay the rent. But I was also writing—all the time. I just made a decision that this was where I needed to focus. The solitary nature of the work, that’s a place I felt comfortable and I didn’t have to depend on anyone else to do it.

Looking back, it may have been as simple as a need, or drive—not in a confessional way—to express something I couldn’t say verbally. So, I do buy into what Samuel Beckett said: “…you don’t do it in order to get published. You do it in order to breathe.”

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I have no degrees in creative writing, journalism, literature. It’s all been on-the-job training. First, I organized. I had poems, short prose and stories, pages of dialogue. I reshaped and rewrote that material and jumped into new pieces with a clear intent. I researched—did my homework—attended literary events and networked.

I got lucky. In 2001, a small press, Hilliard and Harris, took an interest in the work and published my first collection of poetry and prose, Louise Paris and Other Waltzes, followed by a collection of poems and short stories, Bluebird, in 2003. I began pitching non-fiction stories to magazines; one assignment turned into another. I feel very fortunate.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

There are a few folks, who early on, I owe a great debt of gratitude: Rafael Alvarez, a fiction and television writer, and long-time journalist for the Baltimore Sun; writer/editor, Angela Davids, who gave my name to Elizabeth Evitts-Dickinson. At the time, Elizabeth was the editor of a Baltimore magazine, Urbanite, and offered me one of my first assignments. Dan Patrell, publisher and editor of Maryland Life magazine, and articles editor, Holly Smith—they took a chance on a freelance writer who had no experience; Dave Sheinin, a writer for the Washington Post—we met through music connections; and Gregg Wilhelm, director of the CityLit Project/CityLit Press.

All of the people I mentioned are extraordinary at their craft… they were very generous and patient with their time and took me under their wings. They were honest with their experiences, evaluated pieces I had written, and called out all the B.S. I put down on paper. I credit them for helping me learn to write.

More importantly, I’m honored, and blessed, to call them dear friends.

Larry Brown, courtesy NYTimes, “The One That Got Away”

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Larry Brown, who passed away in 2004. He was an Oxford, Mississippi firefighter who decided he wanted to write. He didn’t have any formal training—just did it, and it took him awhile, but, before his death, he created these amazing collections of stories and novels—Facing the Music and Joe, among them—that are raw and honest, brutal and beautiful. When I read these books and learned his own personal story, it felt like I had been given a driver’s license.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Plunge in. Be confident. No one else will own your voice.

From Here Banner - v1

Today is the first stop of Jen Michalski’s virtual book tour celebrating her new collection, From Here. The twelve stories in From Here explore the dislocations and intersections of people searching, running away, staying put. Their physical and emotional landscapes run the gamut, but in the end, they’re all searching for a place to call home.

Jen reading

Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, and other works listed below. She is the host of the Starts Here! reading series, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.

Read more by and about Jen:

Short Story: “Human Movements

Short Story: “Lillian in White

Interview: Talking about The Tide King

Novella Collection: Could You Be With Her Now

Fiction Collection: Close Encounters

How Jen Michalski Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jen for saying yes!

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I’m not sure it’s a question of “want.” I’ve been writing since I learned to write, and even if I never published a word again, if no one except me read another sentence that I wrote, I would continue to write. It’s as natural to me as breathing, as seeing, and definitely how I am able to organize my thoughts and understand the world. If I couldn’t write, my ability to be “Jen” would suffer as a result. It’s not about making an observation or a statement or wanting people to listen to me as some sort of authority. It’s the way I dialogue with my mind and with the outside world, a conversation.

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

It wasn’t a concerted effort, at least to writing fiction. I majored in Language and Literature at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the early 1990s, and I wrote some bad poetry during those years, but I never thought about being an “author” per se. I had always written novels, but they were more for my own enjoyment and trying to figure out who I was.

I graduated from St Mary’s thinking I would write features for magazines and newspapers, or be an editor, and I got my MS in Professional Writing from Towson University a few years later still thinking that. One of the classes I took at Towson, however, was an independent study, and I wrote another novel that someone actually read–my independent study professor, who also happened to be my advisor. She encouraged me to submit it. I sent it to a couple of places and was rejected, but I began to wonder what would happen if I wrote another novel and submitted it. Then, after I graduated, I started the literary quarterly jmww to sort of remain involved with the writing community. Over the years I got to meet other, more successful writers, and learned you could get an MFA in creative writing (seriously, I didn’t know) and all this other fun stuff. So, I started writing and sending out short stories. I guess this was about 2004, and I haven’t stopped.

  1. Who helped you along the way, and how?

My grandparents, both maternal and paternal, were very working class but voracious readers. My dad’s mother read a lot of mysteries and Ellery Queen and would give me the issues when she was finished, and my mom’s dad, who loved Westerns and historical romances, would take my brother and me to the library every Saturday morning. Coming from a family who only went to the beach, which was two hours away, one week every summer, books offered me vistas I didn’t know even existed, helped me nurture a great curiosity about people and the world.

When I graduated college, I reviewed art and books and the occasional play for The Baltimore Alternative, and my editor then, Rawley Grau, read a few of my stories and made me feel as if I had a little talent. I also was enamoured of his life as an editor and aspired to have a career in the writing arts.

These days, there are so many people–the many editors who have published my stories; Gregg Wilhelm, with whom I have worked for years to try and maintain a vibrant, fun writing community here in Baltimore; Savannah Schroll-Guz, who gave me my first break (and book) at So New Publishing; Michael Kimball, with whom I co-hosted the 510 Readings over 7 years and who has been instrumental in encouraging me to take some risks as a writer; Ed and Ann Berlin of The Ivy Bookshop, who work twice as hard as everyone else in making sure writers have a voice in Baltimore; Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett at Dzanc; Diane Goettel and Angela Leroux-Lindsey at Black Lawrence Press; Cynthia Reeser at Aqueous. Years of writing groups here in Baltimore, and happy hours. My family and friends and my partner, Phuong, for their unwavering support.

  1. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Without coming off as incredibly pretentious, I’ve always been struck by Beethoven, who began to go deaf around 26, when he was working on “Pathetique.” He wrote to his brothers about wanting to commit suicide but decided to continue living and creating art. At one point, he didn’t even know that his work reviewed a standing ovation until he turned around and saw everyone in the music hall clapping. If Beethoven didn’t throw in the towel, then how can the rest of us? And I think we should work in that vacuum as well, deaf and blind to applause, to reaction, good or bad.

  1. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

It is always about shouting the words into the wind, into the tempest, because they need to be purged, not because they need to be heard.

*Tomorrow, visit The Next Best Book Club blog to follow the tour and read an excerpt of From Here plus Jen’s insights from the passage: what she was thinking while she was writing, the funny trail of thoughts that got her there, and a whole lot more!

I was initially invited to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour by the fabulous Rebecca Meacham, whose fiction I admired even before the publication of her debut and award-winning story collection, Let’s Do. She was ahead of me by a few years in my Ph.D. program and I always admired and looked up to her – despite the fact that I think she’s a foot shorter than I am. Check out her post from last week.

Then, when I was just about to send a message to My Go-To Guy – the dangerously charming and talented Joseph Bates, author of the story collection Tomorrowland – inviting him to participate, I received a text from him, and he was inviting me. Like at the exact same time! Since he was up first, we decided he could tag me, and I’d tag other writers. Check out his post here, and see below for the three awesome writers who agreed to do it next week.

So anyway. Here are the questions and here are my answers.

1) What are you working on?

My personal life, mostly. It’s been a year in which I’ve felt more like a character in a novel than creator of characters. And things are never easy for characters in novels. So many internal and external conflicts! So many unexpected plot twists and cliffhangers! Obstacles! Antagonists! Only now do I feel that things are settling down enough that I can be the kind of character I prefer: Mrs. Dalloway wandering the streets of London, pausing as Big Ben rings another hour (irrevocable) and pondering the messages of aeroplanes.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I am not very generically stable. Fortunately I’ve found a publisher – Rose Metal Press – whose mission is to mix-and-match genres. I sent them the manuscript for Liliane’s Balcony, calling it a “novella-in-flash.” I’d never heard of such a thing, but they were like, yeah, sure, we love novellas-in-flash. This fall they’re publishing a collection of five novellas-in-flash.

Rose Metal Press is also going to publish my next book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, which I am calling a collage biography. It’s all found texts from books and letters and internet sites. It’s also got images – photos, collages. It may or may not also include postcards that I’ve been writing to Božena. Stuff about my aforementioned personal life.

dont feel free

3) Why do you write what you do?

I go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house on a chance trip to Ohiopyle, PA, I take a tour, I am overcome by the place, by its natural and architectural beauty, I think OMG I have to write a story set here, I listen to the tour guide who tells of the Kaufmann family who purchased the house, I remember being a kid in Pittsburgh and going to the Kaufmann department store, I think, “Same folks?” I go home and read up on the house and the Kaufmanns and I learn that the wife Liliane was beautiful and smart and tri-lingual and an art collector that her life ended in an overdose of pills in her bedroom at Fallingwater. I start writing.

Or. I go to Prague on a chance trip, I buy a book of Czech fairy tales for my daughter, I notice that there’s a picture of a woman (a woman!) on my Czech money and that her name matches the name on the fairy tale book, I do some research to learn more about her, I find conflicting info, poor translations, and outdated material, I find that someone has translated some of her letters and they are nothing like what I expected based on the research, and I take all my notes and quotes and arrange them until they tell some combination of her life and the impossibility of telling it.

4) How does your writing process work?

My favorite part is the research. I don’t think we talk enough about the importance of research, or the fun of it. You get to work on your writing project without actually writing, and research gets you excited and loaded with ideas so that you can’t help but write.

For Liliane’s Balcony, I volunteered as an Ask-Me Guide at Fallingwater, traveling to Ohiopyle, PA once a month and volunteering all weekend, talking to visitors and employees. I traveled to Cincinnati where I uncovered an archive of letters from Edgar Kaufmann to Liliane. I took photos of each letter, transcribed them at home, and incorporated excerpts into my book. I toured Wright’s other houses in Chicago. All of this informed and inspired my writing.

For my Božena Němcová project, I took a month-long Czech language class in Prague, visited her home town of České Skalice, and toured the extensive museum dedicated to her in the town. (I also got totally lost in this unpopulated village of non-English speakers.) I went to a used bookstore in Prague and bought old copies of her books to make collages. Most recently, I bought a 1968 Czech typewriter on eBay. All part of the writing process.

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A sketch I made of Bozena’s glasses, pen, notebook, and rosary displayed at her museum in Ceska Skalice.

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Here are the three writers who I have tagged for next week. And when I say ‘tag,’ I picture myself holding a magic wand that sparkles as I touch it to their shoulders.

Donna Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced. Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, and her story collection Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent was selected by Peter Ho Davies as a finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. She has received over a dozen grants and fellowships and has been awarded artist residencies at Anderson Center for the Interdisciplinary Arts, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. See her website and blog at www.donnamiscolta.com. [I also interviewed Donna for my How to Become a Writer series!]

David Dodd Lee is the author of eight full-length books of poems and a chapbook, including Downsides of Fish Culture (New Issues Press, 1997), Arrow Pointing North (Four Way Books, 2002), Abrupt Rural (New Issues Press, 2004), The Nervous Filaments (Four Way Books, 2010) Orphan, Indiana (University of Akron Press, 2010), Sky Booths in the Breath Somewhere, the Ashbery Erasure Poems (BlaxeVox, 2010), and The Coldest Winter On Earth (Marick Press, 2012). His newest book, Animalities, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in October, 2014. [He also makes gorgeous collages! Visit: http://seventeenfingeredpoetrybird.blogspot.com/]

Margaret Patton Chapman is the author of the novella-in-flash, Bell and Bargain, forthcoming in My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form (Rose Metal Press 2014). http://margaretpattonchapman.com/

Publishing is just like dating.
Just because one editor doesn’t like it, or even hates it,
doesn’t mean another won’t fall in love with it.

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Jessica Tyner, born and raised in Oregon, is a member of the Cherokee Nation, a Pushcart Prize nominee and a graduate of the Ooligan Press program. She received her master’s degree in Writing from Portland State University, having completed the second year of the program as an intern with the Fulbright Commission in London, England. An extensive traveler, she has lived in England, South Korea and Costa Rica and has had her poetry published around the world. She’s the founder of The Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund, an annual gift for graduate students with a Native American connection who are pursuing an advanced degree in writing or a related field.

Read more by and about Jessica:

Book of Poems: The Last Exotic Petting Zoo

Poems: “The Carving Station” and “Bronco Bustling”

Poem: “Love You More”

Poems: “Two Days Prior to the Burial” and “How to Oil an Indian Man’s Hair”

How Jessica Tyner Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jessica for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

Writing has always come naturally to me, but I grew up in the era where those with an English degree could “only” be teachers. This was right before the boom of SEO, web content writing, monetized blogging and other potentially lucrative writing careers. I pursued an undergrad degree in English followed by a master’s in writing based on pure passion. Throughout my academic career, I worked for non-profits writing grant proposals and marketing materials—always publishing my own poetry on the side. However, it took my department being shut down and a fluke of a segue into freelancing to discover that writing really can be a “real” career. The simple answer is “always,” though. I’ve always known I’m a writer, but I don’t think it’s something you become. You can definitely, constantly improve your writing skills, but I think for most writers it’s something we’re born with.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I got into the non-profit field via a work-study position. My university placed me with Oregon Literacy, a local non-profit, simply because they thought the words “English major” and “Literacy” went hand in hand. I had a knack for grant writing, and it was the first time I was paid for writing so I stuck with this industry probably longer than I should. Honestly, my first freelance gig came about when I was perusing Craigslist after my department got laid off. One ad was for a writer for a short-term project, and was rich with arrogance and elitism. I just had to write to the poster to let him know my thoughts on such a haughty ad. He ended up being my first project manager—we worked together for years.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

In terms of becoming a successful professional writer, that Craigslist poster was the biggest boost. From a poetic standpoint, my undergraduate poetry professor, Michele Glazer, was hugely inspirational. I’m sending her a copy of my book with a note of thanks. I still remember the best (I think) piece of advice she gave us: “You should memorize poems because if you’re ever put into solitary confinement, you need beautiful words besides your own in your head.” I actually wrote a poem about that advice, and still remember many of the poems I memorized for her classes, particularly Kim Addonizio’s “What Do Women Want?”.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I’m a big fan of Li-Young Lee. He was born into a family that was literally exiled, and into a country that wasn’t his own. His history is steeped in political strife, yet his work centers on the self and love, much like my own. He also married into a different culture. I greatly admire what he’s achieved, and even after years of reading and re-reading his work, he continues to have the ability to manipulate my emotions with ease.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Grow a tough, thick skin and don’t let anyone tell you that a creative degree is useless—but don’t be passive either. As a writer, you need to forge your own path and work much harder than many in other industries. I had an editor of a journal write a nasty personal letter to me once calling a particular poem clichéd. That same poem was nominated for a Pushcart. Publishing is just like dating. Just because one editor doesn’t like it, or even hates it, doesn’t mean another won’t fall in love with it. Believe in yourself and your work, but write every single day (even when it hurts) and look for new publishing opportunities relentlessly. Unfortunately, many writers fall into the stereotype of being flaky and missing deadlines. I know because I’ve hired quite a few. Be the exception, blend business savviness with your writing skills, and you’ll have an edge.

In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.

Andrew Lam is the author of Birds of Paradise Lost, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, which won the 2006 PEN Open Book Award, and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. He’s an editor and cofounder of New America Media, an association of over two thousand ethnic media outlets. He’s been a regular NPR commentator, and his essays have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and many other journals.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers. Here is an excerpt of Andrew’s story “Grandma’s Tales,” published at Talking Writing:

The day after Mama and Papa took off to Las Vegas, Grandma died. Lea and me, we didn’t know what to do. Vietnamese traditional funerals with incense sticks and chanting Buddhist monks were not our thing.


“We have a big freezer,” Lea said. “Why don’t we freeze Grandma? Really, why bother Mama and Papa—what’s another day or two for Grandma now anyway?”

Since Lea’s older than me and since I didn’t have any better idea, we iced Grandma.

 [Read the rest here at Talking Writing.]

Read more by and about Andrew:

Story: “Grandma’s Tales” at Talking Writing

Audio of Andrew reading “Grandma’s Tales”: American Public Media

Book of Stories: Birds of Paradise Lost

Book of Essays: East Meets West

Book of Essays: Perfume Dreams

NPR Commentaries: All Things Considered

How Andrew Lam Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Talking Writing for sharing their writers, and thanks to Andrew for saying yes!

 

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

In my freshman year at Berkeley I fell hopelessly in love; in the year after I graduated my heart shattered. While working at the cancer research laboratory on campus while planning to become a doctor, I took to writing, in part, in order to grieve. Daytime and I bombarded the mammary tissues of mice with various carcinogens to see how they grew; nights and I gave myself to memories, to heartbreak. I typed and typed. I got good at writing, bored with science, with studying for the MCAT, and so I dropped the test tube and kept the proverbial pen. 

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?
I took courses at UC extension. One of the teachers said, “Andrew, you are not going to medical school. You are going to creative writing school. And I already sent your stories to the San Francisco State University. They say for you to fill out the application, and you are in.” I said, “My mom is going to kill me.” I applied. Got it. And my first semester in my autobiography class I read my first essay out loud. The assignment was, “Why Did you want to become a Writer.” I talked about the Vietnam war, I talked about childhood memories, the falling bombs, the bravery of men and women. My parents’ struggles and fears. My own sadness. My longing to return to those bomb craters filled up with monsoon rain where children, who survived the battles, laughed and swam. “After all these years, I want to dive into that water,” I wrote. when I finished reading, there was this strange silence. The entire class looked at me in awe. The professor wept. The piece somehow reached the writer Richard Rodriguez and the editor Pacific News Service, Sandy Close. They took me to tea. They more or less offered me a job as an op-ed writer. I started to travel the world, started to write about my past, my history, and the Vietnamese Diaspora. And it resulted in “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” which won a Pen award. In any case, it was all unexpected. And it started from a heartbreak.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Many people helped me. My first English teacher in 7th grade was instrumental in providing a fun and safe environment – his classroom turns into a fun lunchroom and full of books; he gave us books to read in the summer – and I fell in love with the  English language as I was going through puberty, a literal transformation along with a new literary life. Richard Rodriguez became a mentor of sort, turning my gaze toward literary non-fiction whereas before my only passion was for the short stories and the novel. He gave me Joan Didion, James Baldwin, VS Naipaul, Truman Capote and a whole lot of the literary giants to read. My boss, Sandy Close, who won a MacArthur Genius award, who gave me opportunities to travel the world the years after  the cold war ended, and professor Franz Schurmann, of UCBerkeley, who made me think deeper and more seriously than I had before. My sister, who bought me EB White and William Strunk’s classic “The Elements of Styles,” because I didn’t have any writing confidence, English being my 3rd language after Vietnamese and French.

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

James Baldwin comes to mind. His is a voice of grace. He wrote at a time when he is – a gay black man – is marginalized twice over, at a time of segregation. yet he wrote from that margin knowing full well that his voice mattered, that in time the margin reaches and changes the center, and integrates into collective consciousness of this country. He wrote with a generosity of vision and confidence that in time, his story belongs to America, to all Americans. It encouraged me, a refugee boy who comes from a defeated country that was encouraged to fight then abandoned by the United States, to write with that hope – that mine too, in time, become an American story.


5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Be willing to live with disappointment,  with heartbreaks and difficult questions when you have no readily made answers. For as certain as the rain,  disappointments will come. And you will have to live with them and embrace them. And work through them. I myself lost a country. I’ve been homeless,  and stateless. I lost friends and relatives due to war and the subsequent exodus. I had my heart broken. And yet I write to you today feeling profoundly grateful and blessed. Why? In my struggle to overcome grief and confusion, I found my self. And when I spoke up for those that couldn’t, I found my tongue. And when I told stories of those oppressed and suffering in obscurity, I found my voice, and my direction in life.

You are writing today at a challenging time in which being a citizen of the world is just as important as finding voice. So you must find the balance between the I and the we, between following your own conviction and finding a way to contribute to the greater good. But move forward, always. Don’t be afraid of failure. Or rather, move forward, despite of the failures and self doubts. And keep on writing.