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Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake.

 

fresno-saroyan-statueDear William,

You’re everywhere and nowhere. There’s an elementary school named after you. There’s a bronze statue. A dedicated society perpetuates your name. Your signature, rendered in huge silver letters, adorns the Saroyan Theatre at the Fresno Convention Center; the stage has hosted countless concerts by the Fresno Philharmonic, the Fresno Grand Opera, the Fresno Ballet, and performers from all over the world, in every artistic genre. To the visitors passing through, your legacy in the San Joaquin Valley must seem mighty indeed.

william20saroyanYou divided your last years between Paris and Fresno. I can’t think of two more different cities, at least in how they appear in one’s imagination. A decade ago, when I felt trapped in Fresno, its heat and flatness and provincialism combining to make a prison I longed to escape, I took comfort in the idea you kept returning here from Paris. I searched for what brought you back. I needed it, whatever it was, for myself.

Now your former house sits vacant, in a neighborhood turning beige: the faded stucco, the grass, the heavy dust. It’s sad to see. Not as sad, however, as the state of Fresno’s bookshelves. Your books, those odd, funny, beautiful books, which you wrote quickly and with the rarest of literary attributes—with heartbreaking joy—where are they now? How is it possible to see your name everywhere, to grow up knowing your name, but never read the words that made you famous? I fear that if it weren’t for exhumation via the internet (thank you, AbeBooks) I might only know your name. What does that mean for writers? Especially for writers who come from the other California, the San Joaquin Valley?

What would you say, William? In the title page of My Name is Aram, you wrote:

The writer returns these pleasant memories to the world of Fresno, California, from the year 1915 to the year 1925 (from the time he was seven years old and was beginning to inhabit the world as a specific person to the time he was seventeen years old and had forsaken his native valley for some of the rest of the world), and to the members of his immediate family in that world during those years. That is to say, to the ugly little city containing the large comic world, and to the proud and angry Saroyans containing all humanity.

A little, ugly place. A proud, angry people. I think there’s something like a reason in these lines for why you’ve fallen out of print, especially in your hometown. And yet, the memories are pleasant.

I can tell you what I’d like: I’d like you to cast the same long shadow over valley writers as Faulkner casts over writers from the ethically challenged state of Mississippi. I want to arm-wrestle a literary legacy of your quality and quantity, though I would be beaten before for the contest begins. I would like the contest, in losing it, to leave my voice a little bruised, a little twisted, much as the fight with his William left Barry Hannah’s voice crooked and deranged. Every writer needs to confront the effigies built to his hometown heroes, but doing battle with a statue is a fatal mistake. One must find the words that led to the statue being made in the first place. And with you, my William, that’s not been easy.

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I suppose by now I’ve let you down. I’ve included none of the things in my letter to you that make your stories so rich. There’s been no food to eat, no trees to shade us from the warm day, no sunny rooms in which to enjoy conversation. I’ve talked, instead, about fighting and cynicism. Violence, when it appears in your stories, is seldom the bleeding knuckle kind, but rather the spiritual kind: a death in a distant war, hitting home in the form of a telegram; the pain of displacement and genocide, rendered in narrators who speak hilariously of uncles, cousins, and friends. Your characters refuse to believe that evil deeds cancel out the beauty of good people. In fact, they work to insure that it never will. It must speak to the privilege and relative peace of my time, compared to yours, that I welcome violence and cynicism in my writing, whereas you guarded strongly against it. I’ve done the unforgivable, I think: I’ve complained.

Let me try to redeem myself. It’s May 2003, and I’m in my classroom at Kerman High School, twenty miles west of Fresno. The door stands open, and that hard valley light manages to coax a shine out of the asbestos tile floors, unwaxed since last July. The students move between periods. I hear snatches of things as they walk past, talking with friends. Here only outcasts must walk to class alone.

The most gifted student I’ve ever taught comes in carrying a purse large enough for a woman three times her age, which, I suspect, in her soul she truly is, and from my desk she picks up a copy of My Name is Aram. It’s the Laurel Edition from Dell Publishing, an economic paperback with illustrations by Don Freeman. She thumbs the pages then presses her nose into the crack, breathes deep.

“I’ve never read him,” she says.

“Borrow it,” I say. “Bring it back when you’ve read him.”

She lays the enormous purse at her feet and begins lifting out binders, textbooks, a spiral bound journal, more things than I’ve ever considered carrying around with me, and rearranging the contents so your book won’t be mangled in a landslide of bigger, meaner books. As she does this, she holds My Name is Aram in her mouth. A few days later, when she brings it back to me, I notice that the soft cover holds the semi-circular imprint of her teeth.

Since that day in my classroom I’ve been struggling to understand something important, which I’ll try to put down here. It’s good to have memories of Fresno, but it’s a hard place to live. Perhaps that’s why you chose the word forsaking to describe leaving “for some of the rest of the world,” because the same things that make the valley hard for us also tie our hearts there. I left the valley ten years ago, but I write about it every day, walking the family vineyards and the streets of Caruthers in my imagination. I also still have that cheap, chewed copy of My Name is Aram to remind me what it feels like to be bookish in a small valley town. Hungry, that is, for something to explain the conflict of loving and hating your home. Your books help me make sense of my place and my impossible feelings for it.

I hope the next daydreaming child of Fresno who reads your name on a sign won’t have to wait so long to find out the writer you really are.

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[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

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John Carr Walker’s first book, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside), was a Small Press Distribution Best of the Press pick and a featured title on Late Night Library’s Debut podcast. His writing has been appearing in literary journals since 2007 and in 2014 was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2012 he was awarded a Fishtrap Fellowship for an early draft of his novel-in-progress, “Get.” A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.

William Saroyan (1908-1982) was born and died in Fresno, California, and many of Saroyan’s stories were based on his childhood experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley, or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy and the colorful characters of his immigrant family.

 

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Fifteen years ago, a group of unpublished, aspiring writers met in McMicken Hall at the University of Cincinnati and spent the next several years drafting and discussing stories, reading and analyzing literary texts, drinking and smoking, dissertating and job-marketing. One by one we got jobs and moved away and kept writing and started publishing, and whenever we can, we get together to celebrate one another’s accomplishments (and catch up on our personal lives!).

Last night was one of those nights of celebration, in this case of Sarah Domet’s debut novel, The Guineveres, which has been featured in, oh, you know: People, Elle, O. Magazine, and, last week, in the NY Times book review, which called it “deft and lovely.”

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To which one might add, smart and magical and IMPORTANT in its emphasis on the lives of a group of girls at a transformative time of their lives. (I think of the line from Kathryn Davis’s Hell: “Two adolescent girls on a hot summer night—hardly the material of great literature, which tends to endow all male experience […] with universal radiance… Mightn’t we then permit a single summer in the lives of two bored girls to represent an essential stage in the history of the universe?”) Sarah endows her Guineveres with universal radiance, and the lives of girls is great literature indeed.

As we toasted several times last night: Cheers to The Guineveres!

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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.

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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.

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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/

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This is one stop on Zarina’s virtual book tour.
Keep up with the rest of the tour here!

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I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

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Zarina Zabrisky is the author of two short story collections IRON and A CUTE TOMBSTONE (Epic Rites Press) and a novel WE, MONSTERS (Numina Press). Zabrisky’s work appeared in over thirty literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong and Nepal. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of 2013 Acker Award. Read more about the author at zarinazabrisky.com. You can purchase A CUTE TOMBSTONE here.

IronRead more by and about Zarina:

Story: “The Twilight of Liberty

Video: Zarina reading “Pig Legs.”

Short Story Collection: Iron

Novel: We, Monsters

Interview:The Nervous Breakdown

How Zarina Zabrisky 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 Zarina for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I wrote my first poem at six.  My first novel at eleven. There was no “why.” But if I have to rationalize, I would love to quote Josef Brodsky: “I’ll just say that I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens.” So, I figure, if I write anything anywhere close to Dickens… at least, I can try.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

It is not becoming a writer for me. It is being a writer.
I was in Queretaro at a writing workshop last summer. I wrote a poem there:

There is a knitting shop
On the corner
And three old women are knitting,
Needles dancing.
Their faces are still, bronze,
Their eyes fixed on the wall,
Not on the knitting.
Their fingers know
How to weave.
Their hands remember everything.
Their patterns come from their hearts
Or, maybe, from the spirits that live on that big invisible mountain.

They don’t knit,
They became the knitting.
Same for me:
I don’t write–
I became the writing,
And my fingers dance blindly
Across the page.

As for becoming oneself, I am still working on it… I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

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

My father liked my writing before he passed away. He didn’t do or say anything that stuck in my memory but I remember his face softening and the expression of pride or happiness in his usually sad or withdrawn eyes. Then I became a closet writer and no one had an opportunity to help me–they did not know I needed help.  I didn’t know that myself.

I found a whole new dimension of helping each other in the creative process through literary collaboration with my writing and life partner, Simon Rogghe.  Through listening to each other, and hearing, we write and discover. Being heard is the most important–and almost impossible–type of help that a writer can use, I think.  Together, we have gone on many adventures: performing our poetry to music and even dancing it and taking it around the country–from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Seattle and Portland; writing poetry duets on an imaginary journey in Mexico and creating visual concepts for it.  This went so well that the book of collaborative poetry is forthcoming from amazing Numina Press, in November 2014.  The book is called Green Lions and in it I will debut with my illustrations–the visual concepts found together with Simon.

I was also very lucky to have my publishers, Epic Rites Press (Canada), Numina Press (SF) and Nostrovia Press (mobile and everywhere) work with me and support my books.  The independent publishers are passionate, powerful and insanely talented people, of a rare kind.

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Vaslav Nijinsky

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

So many… From Salinger who managed to run away from it all to just write, to Vaslav Nijinsky, a legendary ballet dance, whose diary was the book that impressed me the most, perhaps. Nijinsky is the dancer who became the dance.  The diary was written in Switzerland in a short spurt, and in a matter of weeks schizophrenia won over one of the most unusual and creative minds of the last century.  But before he sank into decades of mental non-being, Nijinsky pulled up the curtain of the theater which only can be called Universe.  There is no bullshit in that book.  He even says that it should be read the way he wrote it: in his rushed cursive, in French and Russian. I did that: went to the NYC Performing Arts Library and ordered the microflims.  Read them in the dark room for hours…  Also, Jim Morrison.  William Blake.  I am inspired by people who stayed true to their core and vision despite of any circumstances.

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

“You must become who you are.” Also, write and read. In particular, read Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. The only good book on writing I have found.  The book cuts into the bone marrow of language, brain work and the intangible realm called poetry. No frills and no politically correct New Agey nonsense. He can be blunt and rude, but if you read his ABC you might end up with better writing.

I’ve always loved the feeling that reading gives—like the author is letting you in on some mystery, big or small: the mystery of a huge world event or the mystery of a private individual consciousness.

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Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. She is the author, most recently of the novel in poems Robinson Alone (Gold Wake, 2012) and her debut novel O, Democracy!has just been released by Fifth Star Press. She lives in Chicago. Her latest chapbook with Elisa Gabbert is The Kind of Beauty that has Nowhere to Go (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Follow her @KathleenMRooney.

Web site: http://kathleenrooney.com/

ODemocracyCoverRead more by and about Kathleen

Novel: O Democracy!

Novel in Poems: Robinson Alone

Essay at Poetry Foundation: Based on a True Story. Or not.

Project: Poems While You Wait

5 Poems with Elissa Gabbert: Five Poems

How Kathleen Rooney 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 Kathleen for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Mysteries. Not like mystery novels, but the mysteries of the world—supernatural, mysteries-of-the-unexplained type mysteries, the mysteries of why people act the way they do, religious mysteries, mysteries of history, especially those that involve once-popular things that have long since been forgotten. From the time I learned how to read up until the present day, I’ve always loved the feeling that reading gives—like the author is letting you in on some mystery, big or small: the mystery of a huge world event or the mystery of a private individual consciousness. Also from the time I learned how to read I wanted to do that, too—to have that sense of discovery you get when you are trying to write about something, either through research or through the act of trying to sort your ideas out on the page.

I’ve always wanted to be a detective, like a private investigator a la Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe and since that seems not to be in the offing, being a writer seems like the next best thing. Private detectives and investigators have always intrigued me, at least as they’re depicted on shows like or The Rockford Files or Murder She Wrote or Magnum P.I. Columbo, I guess, is the exception, in that he is an official—a police detective and not a private one—but he’s so unrealistically so—I mean, he’s basically an angel—that he makes the list too.The Wikipedia page for Sam Spade says that he is notable for his “detached demeanor, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice.” All three of those seem like writerly traits—the degree of removed observation necessary to understand how people act, the intention of getting the details right, and the impulse to shape a story into the form or outcome you desire.

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2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

This is not an original answer, but: I read. A lot. Everything. I still do. All genres from poetry to fiction to cereal boxes to nonfiction to comics to newspapers to magazines both high-minded and trashy. Formally, I studied creative writing from high school through grad school, and that formal education was certainly important in terms of becoming a writer, but I’m not sure it was more important than just trying to “be one of the people on whom nothing is lost” like Henry James recommended.

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

This, too, is probably not such an original answer, but I had brilliant English teachers when I was in high school: Beth van Es my freshman year, Irv Lester (RIP) my sophomore year, Jane Rice my junior year, and Linda Augustyn my senior year. They were supportive and encouraging to me at an early age—all four of them took my aspirations and my earnest dorkiness seriously and at face value and went out of their ways to help me become a better reader and writer. Essentially, they treated me like an adult and a whole human, not like someone to condescend to. The same can be said of my undergraduate teachers, especially Margaret Soltan (whose excellent blog you can find here http://www.margaretsoltan.com/) and Tara Wallace. And of my graduate teachers John Skoyles and Bill Knott (RIP), the latter of whom taught me how to be a contrarian when necessary and how to be a teacher—he was so sincere in his love of poetry and so incapable of bullshit and so determined to try to help everyone be a better reader and writer and thinker. He died earlier this year, and that was a huge loss, I think, to everyone who knew and read him.

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

The poet and writer Weldon Kees’ biography—from his Midwestern roots and early promise to his likely very sad and mysterious demise (Did he run away to Mexico? Or did he jump off the Golden Gate Bridge?) inspired me so much I wrote a book about him, Robinson Alone. In his introduction to Kees’ Collected Poems, Donald Justice writes that Kees is “one of the bitterest poets in history,” and that “the bitterness may be traced to a profound hatred for a botched civilization, Whitman’s America come to a dead end on the shores of the Pacific.” I like his bitterness, because it is also smart and sad and sharp and funny. Kees was an optimist, and his capacity for deep disappointment came from his equal capacity for deep hope. I admire that.

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

Indirectly, from Fred Leebron, “Writing is a game of attrition; don’t attrit.”

 

At 28, I was working fulltime as the PR director for an art museum and completing my thesis when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A scare like that has a way of focusing your priorities.

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Janna McMahan is the national bestselling author of the novels Anonymity, Calling Home and The Ocean Inside. She has won numerous literary awards for her short fiction including being named a finalist for the 2010 Flannery O’Connor Awards. Follow her on Twitter @JannaMc or on Facebook at Janna McMahan Fan Page. Watch the book trailer of her new novel at www.JannaMcMahan.com.

Anonymity cover 1-2Read more by and about Janna:

Novel: Anonymity

Novel: Calling Home

Novel: The Ocean Inside

How Janna McMahan 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 Janna for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I grew up in a very small town in Central Kentucky and I always had a keen curiosity about the rest of the world. I desperately wanted to travel and reading was the only way I could visit other places. I quickly grew bored with the children’s books in our school library, so I was overjoyed when we finally got a community library. I was there to volunteer the day the doors opened. I was only eleven when I started reading adult literature. As I returned books to the shelves, I would fantasize about having my name on the spine of a novel. I have friends who say they still have short stories I wrote in grammar school. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t writing. It just seems innate to my nature.

the_ocean_inside2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

At 28, I was working fulltime as the PR director for an art museum and completing my thesis when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A scare like that has a way of focusing your priorities. Once I was emotionally stable enough to look to the future again, I decided to work on that novel I had always wanted to write.

I am a type-A personality, always juggling multiple projects, which I’m sure contributed to my diagnosis. I decided to lower my stress level and concentrate only on writing. My husband was super supportive of my dream, so I finished grad school, quit my job and started to write. I attended a number of writing conferences. I took a fiction class at a community college and formed a serious writing group with some of my fellow students. Everyone brought a chapter each week and within a year, I had a respectable manuscript.

Then reality set in. How did one find representation and a publisher? I won a number of short fiction awards during that time, so it seemed I had the creative ability, but those short, pleasant rejection letters kept coming from agents. Even though I’m generally a tenacious sort, I became frustrated with the process. Thank goodness for author friends who insisted I stick with it. Like many people, I think I wanted the romanticized life of being a writer without slogging through the work it takes.

calling_home3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

I met Silas House on his first stop for his first novel. He encouraged me to come to the Appalachian Writers Workshop where he had found the support he needed to write and sell Clay’s Quilt. I’d been to a few of the larger writing conferences so I was dubious that such a small workshop would be beneficial, but when I walked into that settlement school in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky I suddenly felt at home. It was a supportive atmosphere and the instructors sincerely wanted to help the students become good, successfully published writers. I went for seven years and I formed relationships with Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Ron Rash and a number of other writers from the region. Over the years these lovely people have recommended agents, provided introductions to editors, wrote quotes for my books and lent general emotional support.

This can be a brutal industry. If it were not for the kindness and encouragement of established writers, I think I would have given up. I now feel an obligation to lend a hand to talented people I meet, but far too often eager writers ask for help before they are ready. My advice to aspiring writers is to finish that manuscript, rewrite until it is perfection, then workshop it at a conference with authors you respect. Never approach an author and ask them to read your manuscript unsolicited. It isn’t that we don’t want to be helpful, but truthfully, for legal reasons we can’t read a manuscript unless it is under contract or done through a workshop setting.

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

Ron Rash is someone I’ve always admired. Ron is a good soul. My impression is that he writes without regard to what may or may not be commercially successful. It took him a long time to become the hot writer he is now. I remember his first novel winning the Novello Literary Award, which broke him out on a national level. He is a poet first, so his language is lyrical and his stories reveal themselves like flowers opening. I admire Ron most for his level-headed approach to success. His books are now reviewed by the New York Times and his novel Serena is soon to be a major motion picture, but Ron is still the same affable, calm, lovely person. He doesn’t appear caught up in the hype. Ron just writes because he loves to write.

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

You are not as good as you think you are. Period. Talent is important, without it you’ll go nowhere, but talent is not enough. You have to study and write and read and write and go to conferences and write. Read books on writing. Join a writing group. Be open to criticism. Criticism is very important to the creative process. You don’t have to act on all criticism, but be open and really hear what others have to say. Study authors you admire and try to figure why their stories work. The most important thing is rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. A first draft should be followed by two dozen more drafts. Be hard on yourself. There is always room for improvement. Always.