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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová by Kelcey Parker Ervick
is one of the least bitter, most loving books I have read in a long time,
and it’s beautifully made.

– Kate Bernheimer
author of How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales

booksnbeer

Still Life with Books and Beer

 

Today is publication day for The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová! My journeys in the Czech Republic and Slovakia took me to this book, and this book has taken me on its own journey. It’s my first book-length work of nonfiction, and it includes a series of postcards I wrote to Němcová about my travels, my Czech language class, my Slovakian family, and, well, my failing marriage. I quote from my favorite Prague-based letter-writers: Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena, Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Bohumil Hrabal’s Letters to Dubenka, and Vaclav Havel’s Letters to Olga.

What I am probably most amazed about is that this book also includes collages and paintings I made, published in beautiful full color. The first two here are images from my travels to Česká Skalice, where Božena Němcová grew up. I was lost, and these were the not very helpful signs. The third image is of a photo on a bulletin board at Shakespeare and Sons in Prague that addresses anxieties one might feel about publishing a strange hybrid beast of a book such as mine.

But you can help make the book a bestseller! It is now available for purchase from Rose Metal Press, Small Press Distribution (SPD, where it is a Handpicked selection, 20% off in November), Amazon (ugh, this will update soon!), Amazon’s Kindle (live and ready!), etc. It costs $17.95, which is pretty amazing considering the color images.

If you read and like it, please consider posting a review on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. If you’re even thinking of reading it, you can mark it as “want-to-read” on Goodreads. All this helps libraries and other potential readers know about the book, and make it an even-better-seller.

I want to end with a major thanks to Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney at Rose Metal Press. I’ll say more in a future post, but they did SO MUCH GOOD WORK  make this book the beautiful object that it is. And thanks to Heather Butterfield for her stunning design work.

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.

1. Let’s get straight to it. The number one highlight of the Southern Kentucky Book Fest was this:

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That’s right, I got to hang out with two of my favorite people and authors: Molly McCaffrey (left) and David Bell (right).

2. And I might have gotten to meet this guy:

(He’s standing next to the tall girl in red above. The tall girl makes everyone look shorter than they are. The tall girl apologizes to The Fonz.)

Seriously, Henry Winkler was super friendly and charming. He hugged my friend Molly and told her how much he loves her personality. We bonded over New York / New Jersey connections.

3. I met three overeducated country boys who brew some damn fine IPA over at Country Boy Brewing:

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(Seriously, these guys make great beer, and they majored in things like English and History. They have Master’s Degrees! Yes.)

4. I was assigned an awesome boothmate: Sharon Short

downloadSharon’s new book is My One Square Inch of Alaska, and I’m excited to read my new copy! She also agreed to participate in my interview series, so more about Sharon to come…

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5. Dinner and gossip with the amazing Eric Goodman and Lee Martin, authors of these awesome books that I just bought:

BONUS HIGHLIGHTS:

I sold some books! My attention has been on my forthcoming book, Liliane’s Balcony, due out in the fall, so it was great to talk to people about For Sale By Owner again.

As I drove home I passed a trucker who honked at me. This has not happened to me for years, so I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that he was holding up a sign in his front window that said, “M O M.” I thought, “Geez, how did you know? Is it that obvious?” But when I glanced back again, he had turned the sign over. It now said: “W O W.”
(Oh my!)

I knew dozens and dozens of actors, a few playwrights, but nobody who wrote fiction. “What do you think?” I’d say. “Um, cool,” they’d answer. “Very nice.” No one, with the exception of my husband, was able to give me feedback. So I decided I needed some lessons.
Rilla Askew, author photo
Rilla Askew received a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Askew is the author of four award-winning novels and a collection of stories. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in World Literature Today, Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and elsewhere  A PEN/Faulkner Finalist and two time recipient of the Western Heritage Award, Askew is member of the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame, has received three Oklahoma Book Awards, the Violet Crown Award from the Writers League of Texas, and the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Her latest novel, Kind of Kin, is published in January 2013 by Ecco Press.
Read more by and about Rilla:

Novel: Kind of Kin

Novel: Harpsong

Essay: Passing: The Writer’s Skin and the Authentic Self

Video Interview (link)

How Rilla Askew 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 Eric Bosse for the recommendation, and thanks to Rilla for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I didn’t set out to become a writer, I set out to become an actress, and along the way discovered that I am a writer. The process was at first a gradual awakening, and then a slow, reverberant boom that settled deep in my gut as recognition. I’d moved to New York  in my late twenties to “become” a famous actress, spent three or four years waiting tables, studying acting, scrounging for parts.  Probably it took no more than a quarter of that time, though, for me to realize that I hated the business of acting. Not the acting itself, but the business. I hated standing on a tacky tile floor in a nondescript room hearing the dispassionate “Thank you” from the casting director, hated poring over casting calls in Backstage, hated the hungriness and personal-ness of it all. More than anything, I hated that I had to have the job first before I could practice my art. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, of course, and in time a good friend, the actress Beth Broderick, and I decided we would put on our own production of Jean Genet’s The Maids—an ambition that fizzled behind the realities of how much it cost to rent Manhattan rehearsal space—but the notion of taking the pursuit of art into my own hands led me very soon to writing plays. Not long after that, I turned to fiction. Then came the boom of recognition: sitting in a theatre district restaurant one night, talking with my husband for hours, trying to let go of the dream of becoming an actress in order to allow myself to be the writer I am. At some point the release happened—I felt it viscerally, in my chest, like the firing of a distant cannon, followed by a kind of lightness, a sense of recognition, release. By closing time, the deed was done. I’ve never looked back. So it wasn’t ever a question of “wanting” to be a writer but the slow and then sudden realization, the aha experience: “Ah, so that’s it.”

books2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I never had the self-consciousness about my writing that I’d had as an actor,  I would show my stories to anyone: “Here!” I’d say, slapping the pages in front of the other waiters at the mid-town restaurant where I worked, the busboys and bartenders, Broadway actors and techies. I knew dozens and dozens of actors, a few playwrights, but nobody who wrote fiction. “What do you think?” I’d say. “Um, cool,” they’d answer. “Very nice.” No one, with the exception of my husband, was able to give me feedback. So I decided I needed some lessons. I saw an ad in the New York Review of Books: “New York’s Best Kept Literary Secret: the MFA Writing Program at Brooklyn College.” I applied, was accepted, enrolled right away. Turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I found community, validation, craft. I found good mentors in Jonathan Baumbach and Peter Spielberg and a terrific lifelong writing friend in fellow MFA student Jessica Treat. It was Jessica who taught me by example not to say “I want to be a writer” but “I am a writer,” and this was well before we were both seeing our work appear in print. It’s a vital first step, that internal affirmation. We’re writers if we’re writing—whether we’re getting published yet or not.

But yes, so, the process: I began getting stories published in literary journals, finished my thesis, a collection of short fiction, sent out stories and got them back with rejections, and sent them out again, collecting enough rejection slips to satisfy any writer’s early sad tale and just enough acceptances to keep me going. I kept revising my thesis, wrote a couple more stories to add to it, and sent out that collection, which eventually was accepted by Viking. That was my first book, Strange Business. So I came up through the usual route, I guess—or the route many hope for, the route MFA programs are designed to help apprentice writers achieve. All I can say is, in my case, it worked.

Aske3823-2103. Who helped you along the way, and how?

There are so many who have helped, including all my writing friends who’ve shared work over the years, that it would take more space than we have here to credit them all. A few of the more significant ones: RC Davis-Undiano, Executive Director of World Literature Today and a big supporter for many years, has provided literary friendship, the chance to present my work in China, a fine writer-in-residence teaching gig at the University of Oklahoma that gave me freedom to write for a few years. I completed my fourth novel Harpsong there.

My best friend Constance Squires and her husband Steve Garrison—both wonderful fiction writers, terrific teachers, outstanding critics—are my first readers, along with my husband Paul Austin. For years Paul and Connie and Steve and I have all shared our work with each other, which makes for these great literary feast nights: three of us giving detailed feedback on the fourth one’s new novel or play or poem, talking for hours with knowledge not only of craft but of the writer’s entire body of work and backstory. It’s a terrific four-way writing friendship.

Above all, though, most important, has been the support of my husband, Paul Austin. He’s a man of the theatre, an actor, director, acting teacher, but he’s also a poet and playwright and essayist. Long ago, when I was still that aspiring young actress and he and I were newly engaged, we had a bad fight. I was afraid we were going to break up, that the relationship was finished, but I couldn’t articulate in spoken words all that I felt and thought. So I wrote him a five-page single-spaced typed letter that was essentially a short story, written in third person, about our fight (“his thick longshoreman arms” is one not-very-felicitous phrase I remember), trying to explain all that was in my heart. When I finally gave it to him, three days later, I watched his face intently as he read, thinking, Now he’ll understand me. He put the pages down, looked over at me and said, “You know, kid, you really can write.” He’s been my greatest supporter, sounding board, critic, ever since. He supported me financially while I went to school to get my MFA, continues to give me space and freedom to write; he goes with me to my public readings and gives me such helpful feedback it amounts to free acting lessons. For real. Paul believed in me before I believed in myself—long before I embraced Jessica Treat’s model phrase. It was my husband’s patience and belief in me that made all the difference that night at the restaurant years ago, when I segued from my long-held ambition about “becoming” an actress to that low, resonant boom of recognition: I am a writer.

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

Flannery O’Connor’s tenacity to write and her abiding Catholic faith in the midst of her debilitating illness (“sickness is a place,” she said, “…where nobody can follow”) have been an inspiration. Even as her lupus worsened and she became bedridden much of the time, she still worked as many hours a day as she had strength to write. I’m also inspired by the way William Faulkner remained on his “little postage stamp of native soil” and wrote about the people and the landscape around him. Faulkner’s biography is where I first came to understand that the people and the land I come from are worthy subjects for fiction.

Flannery O'Connor (photo linked from This Recording)

Flannery O’Connor (photo linked from This Recording)

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

This is adapted from a letter to an aspiring writer that I actually did write—a note to a former student, Zachary Rupp, a very talented writer who’d just completed his MFA at the University of Central Oklahoma and wrote to ask me, what next? I answered him first with one word: Write.

Later, in a second note, I expounded a bit: “My advice to simply write is all I really know to say. A writer writes. And the biggest challenge we all face is finding a way to live while we’re writing. Almost no literary writers make a living from writing. A few do, but it’s rare. This is why many of us end up in academia—teaching is a good gig, for those who like it. Biggest challenge there is to remain more writer than teacher. I’ve seen talented writers get drawn so deeply into academic careers that their writing shrinks and shrinks and finally disappears altogether.

On the other hand, there’s a certain financial security in teaching that can provide a sense of freedom to write, and with summers off and more vacation time than many professions, it works well for some. Quite a few famous and successful American writers do it this way. Other good jobs include working in the book biz, maybe as book seller or editor. Those jobs take a lot from you—but then, so does working at Burger King.

The two main things are to trust your writing, keep doing it, keep getting better, keep sending out, keep collecting rejections until they turn into acceptances, and know that this thing you love and absolutely must do probably won’t support you.”

I would add one other one-word bit of advice to an aspiring writer  (which I didn’t need to put in the note to Zach, since he’d heard me say it so many times in workshop): Persevere.

In the long haul, perseverance counts way more than talent. “Talent is long patience,” Flaubert said, “and originality an effort of will and intense observation.” “The writer is the one who stays in the room,” Ron Carlson says.

So: Write. Persevere.

Oh—and read.

Read. Read. Read. Read.

Grow a thick skin, because the “no”s will hurt. Tough shit.
But a single “yes” makes up for a hundred “no”s,
and acceptance is the best feedback of all.

Katy jumper small

Katy Darby’s work has been read on BBC Radio and published in various places including Stand, Mslexia, Slice and the Arvon and Fish anthologies. She has a BA in English from Oxford University and an MA in Creative Writing from UEA, where she received the David Higham Award. She teaches writing at City University, edited Litro magazine from 2010-12 and co-runs short story reading night Liars’ League (www.liarsleague.com). Her debut novel, a Victorian drama called The Unpierced Heart (previously The Whores’ Asylum) was published by Penguin in 2012. She lives in London, tweets at @katydarbywriter and her website is www.katydarby.com.

unpierced heart cover (small)Read more by and about Katy:

Novel: The Unpierced Heart

Novel Excerpt: The Unpierced Heart

Novel-in-progress: The Hanging of Hannah Hawking

Story: Mufti Day

How Katy Darby 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 Katy for saying yes!


1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I suspect this is an incredibly common answer, but as a kid I always had my head buried in a book. Obviously I wanted to be an astronaut and a doctor and all the other things kids want to be, but being a writer was a very early ambition. What thrills me most about writing (apart from the actual writing part – when it’s going well, anyway) is when people tell me they were moved or excited or entertained by my stuff, especially if they laughed or cried. Same goes for when someone writes a (nice) insightful review, or emails me to say they liked my novel.

I write partly to get story ideas out of my head and onto the page; but my ultimate goal is to give readers the same pleasure I get from the books I love. For me, the purpose of writing is to communicate and connect, and hitting the mark, emotionally or otherwise, is the best feeling in the world. (Well, actually, it’s a toss-up between that, and the feeling when I finish a chapter or a story, but both are pretty addictive)

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read a lot and wrote a lot. I remember writing my first “novel” on stapled exercise-paper aged seven. It was a semi-autobiographical police procedural modestly titled Katy the Great Detective and was probably about 500 words long.

After that I wrote stories in class, but I didn’t really write much fiction between the ages of 11 and 21: I was more interested in poetry. At 18 I went up to Oxford to study English at Somerville College, but I only wanted to be a poet until I got into fiction-writing via an evening class at OUDCE (the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education). It was a two-year course and each term focused on a different discipline: poetry, prose or script. Over the next few years I slowly shifted focus from poetry to fiction.

After the OUDCE course I started sending out my stories and got a few publications and prizes. I wrote my first proper novel over six months in an incredibly dull receptionist job, sent it out, got nowhere and realised I needed to work on my prose, so I applied to UEA’s MA in Creative Writing. The first time round I was rejected without an interview, but the second time I won a full scholarship. (All that changed was the story I submitted). Through UEA, I also got my first agent.

In 2007 a short story I was writing kept getting longer until I realised it was going to be a novel: this was The Whores’ Asylum (now available in Penguin paperback under the new title The Unpierced Heart). I wrote the first draft in a year, got my agent’s comments, sat on it for ages then finally redrafted it in summer 2009. After a few more tweaks and a new agent (the US-based Vicky Bijur), I got my book deal in July 2010, and the novel was published in February 2012. So getting it on the shelf took five years, beginning to end. I was lucky: plenty take longer and of course many never get picked up.

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

This is going to be a bit Oscar-speech, I warn you …

  1. My parents, who filled the house with books and allowed me unfettered access to them (not that I’m sure they always knew what I was reading). My mother’s copy of Portnoy’s Complaint certainly went right over my 13-year-old head, though I did enjoy my dad’s massive one-volume Lord of the Rings.
  2. My English teachers at Frensham Heights school, who encouraged and praised my writing (mostly poetry at that stage) and gave me a thorough grounding in the literature we were studying.
  3. Dr. Jem Poster and the other tutors on the OUDCE evening class, who expanded my horizons to include fiction and script-writing, and were also very encouraging and constructively critical.
  4. The writing group which grew out of this class: Lucie Whitehouse, John Marzillier, Jenny Stanton and Anne Bigelow are all now published or have agents, and their feedback over many years was invaluable.
  5. All the editors who’ve published (and thereby validated!) my work. What excellent taste they have …
  6. My tutors and fellow-students at UEA: I was lucky to be taught by Patricia Duncker, Michele Roberts and Andrew Cowan, all superb in their own different ways, and to be part of the very talented, supportive, and hard-drinking class of 2005-6.
  7. Both my agents: Veronique at DHA and now Vicky. Her comments are always bang-on and I really respect her opinion.
  8. My editor Juliet Annan, her assistant Sophie Missing and my publicists at Penguin, Caroline Craig and Lija Kresowaty. The first two for their literary insight and the second two for their patience with a demanding and occasionally hyperactive author. My enthusiasm can sometimes border on pestering …
  9. The authors I love to read, especially the Victorians: Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, M. R. James, Thackeray, Dickens: they made me a historical novelist as much as all those above.

Mervyn Peake (image from Wikimedia)

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

Mervyn Peake’s life ended very sadly, but he’s inspiring because he wrote exactly what he wanted to, and in so doing forged a strange and marvellous genre all his own. I first read his novels Gormenghast and Titus Groan when I was 14 or 15, and I vividly remember sitting against the radiator in our drama classroom, hoping the teacher would be late so that I could finish the amazing chase sequence in Gormenghast where the villain Steerpike is pursued through the flooded halls of the ancient castle.

Peake is a cult author in the best sense: he was an artist, illustrator and writer who created an astonishing world in Gormenghast, bizarre and idiosyncratic yet absolutely convincing, and peopled with unforgettable characters. Tragically, he died aged just 57 of degenerative brain disease: nonetheless, both his life and writing inspire me, because of the single-minded dedication and spirit of experimentation which characterised them.

Image from mervynpeake.org

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

Is 400 words short enough? I hope so …

Dear Aspiring Writer,

Don’t you hate that word, “aspiring”? It feels so unfinished and tentative; but in a way that’s useful, because you’re unlikely to ever feel that you – or your novels, stories or poems – are the finished product. That’s all part of the fun and frustration of the job.

Writing is a job, by the way, even when it’s unpaid (and that’ll probably be for a while yet, unless you’re very talented and lucky) – and treating it like one will pay dividends. A million things can and will distract you from doing this job: your actual (day) job, TV, Facebook, Twitter, friends, family, laundry, washing-up, parties, going out, etc. Don’t let them – or at least, not all the time. Have a life, but keep working too. You really can fit it around your other stuff, I promise. Even if you only spend one night a week writing, within a year you could well have a novel: I did.

Learn to edit your own work – and by edit, I mostly mean cut. There’s almost no story or chapter (certainly no unpublished one) which cannot be improved by a trim and polish. The delete button is a sweet, beautiful gift to writers (as is the “Save as Version XXX” option): cutting lets you see what’s really important. Try and shave at least 10% off the wordcount of everything you write. It’s amazing how such a small target can make such a huge difference. (I’ve edited this interview by 10%, for example, and it’s loads better for it).

Get constructive criticism from people you trust, whose work you admire. Writing groups are great, writing classes are better, as they’ll almost certainly be taught by someone in the position you want to be in (i.e. published). And if they’re not, find a class that is.

Send your work out – and (speaking as an editor here) always follow the submission guidelines. The only truly honest and impartial feedback is from people who don’t know you from Adam. Grow a thick skin, because the “no”s will hurt. Tough shit. But a single “yes” makes up for a hundred “no”s, and acceptance is the best feedback of all.

Keep writing, keep reading and never stop trying to improve, or trying new things – except, of course, incest and Morris-dancing.

Katy

I find my students and the tiny pieces I know of their lives very inspiring; I think they’re so brave, many of them, to want to become writers, and they make me want it for them, too.

Photo Credit: Drew Dalton

Erica Bernheim is the author of The Mimic Sea. She was born in New Jersey and grew up in Ohio and Italy. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since 2008, she has been an Assistant Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she teaches creative writing and directs the Honors Program.

Read more by and about Erica:

Book: The Mimic Sea

Poem: Like a Face

Poem: Elegy Next to Cleanliness

Review of The Mimic Sea

Poem: 63rd and Pulaski

How Erica Bernheim 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 Erica for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where reading was encouraged. Becoming a writer seemed like a natural progression to me, something you could do after you had read enough books to have your own ideas. My father is a writer and an English professor, my mother is an editor, and books were almost always on hand; when they weren’t, creating my own stories seemed like a logical step, although I never did much with poetry until later. I also grew up in a family that travelled constantly, both overseas and for long car trips on a regular basis, and I was fortunate to be a good car reader (of books, never maps!). I learned to read quickly and would think about whatever I read for a long time afterwards, trying to remember sentences verbatim, and puzzling over whatever I had forgotten to remember, hoping I could try something like whatever I had read in a book of my own at some point. I wanted to make other people feel the way I did when I read something I loved.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I majored in English in college, but it wasn’t until I enrolled in an MFA program that I found a community of writers, many of whom I remain close with still, like Michael Dumanis, Robyn Schiff, Nick Twemlow, Suzanne Buffam, and Chicu Reddy. Being around other writers showed me how to be one, as well as how not to be one. After finishing the MFA program, I moved to Chicago and worked in publishing for a few years. For me, taking a few years off between the MFA and PhD was important. I wrote a lot during that time; I relied on writing in a way I never had before, and I realized that I wanted to be around writing all the time, that it shouldn’t be a luxury or just a special occasion.

Robert Creeley in 1972. Photo by Elsa Dorfman, courtesy Wikimedia.

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

I already mentioned my parents and their guidance and encouragement, but I’ve also had incredibly smart and generous teachers. Keith Tuma, Jim Reiss, Jorie Graham, Mark Levine, Dean Young, and Jim Galvin were tremendously supportive. Studying Faulkner at UIC with Chris Messenger taught me a lot about how to be a scholar and a professor. And of course there are so many poets whose work has helped me. The most important has always been Robert Creeley, whose poems I happened upon happily in Paul Hoover’s Norton Postmodern Anthology. After reading Creeley’s work, I switched from writing fiction to poetry and have never switched back. I also started reading John Berryman and Denis Johnson around this time. Brenda Shaughnessy and Noelle Kocot’s work has helped me find more to admire in language and scope and narrative, as do the poets I mentioned in Question #2. Working with 42 Miles Press and with David Dodd Lee has been a wonderful experience, and their support has been somewhere far beyond helpful and into the miraculous.

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

This was the hardest question for me! I am inspired by the work—rather than the lives—of many artists and writers, and yet I struggle with a semi-New Criticism impulse to separate biographies and texts. Oliver Sacks might be a good answer for me to this question; I admire people who can do practical things, like figure out how to relieve people of suffering, and I think he is a beautiful writer, someone who clearly loves sounds and language and humor and pathos. And perhaps it’s strange to say this, but I find my students and the tiny pieces I know of their lives very inspiring; I think they’re so brave, many of them, to want to become writers, and they make me want it for them, too.

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

Read a lot. Read everything. Go to other people’s readings. Find a community of writers. Get used to sending your work out. Keep track of both the rejections and the acceptances. Try other things, too, and see if writing is still the best. Listen to every conversation you can. Eavesdrop. Keep a pen and scrap of paper with you always and write everything down before you can forget to remember it.

I’ve come to embrace the idea that my choices don’t always have to make sense to everyone, or ever, to anyone, but if I’m not writing, then I’m not doing the thing
that I’m called to do.

Photo credit: Emile Hill

Joanne Hillhouse has written three books of fiction – The Boy from Willow Bend, which found its way onto the Antigua and Barbuda schools reading list; Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, for which a Moonlight Street Festival was organized in 2008; and now Oh Gad!

A University of the West Indies graduate, she has participated in the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute (University of Miami) and the Breadloaf Writers Conference (Middlebury College, Vermont), the latter as an international fellowship recipient. Other awards include a UNESCO Honour Award and the David Hough Literary Prize. JCI West Indies in 2011 recognized her as one of Ten Outstanding Young Persons in the region for her humanitarian work in Antigua and Barbuda. This includes her involvement in writing and reading programmes like the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize – which she founded in 2004.

She’s participated in showcases in the Caribbean, Canada, and America; and has published poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in local, regional and international publications. Her freelance reporting and feature writing has attracted awards (locally) for health and environmental coverage. She’s worked in television and film – including as associate producer of Antigua’s first feature length film, The Sweetest Mango, and production manager on its second, No Seed. She’s consulted on local and regional campaigns, with corporations, individuals and non profits, in addition to her participation in literary projects like book and anthology editing.

Author page: http://jhohadli.wordpress.com/
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse
Wadadli Pen: http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com/

Read more by and about Joanne:

Book: Oh Gad!

Book: The Boy from Willow Bend

Book: Dancing Nude in the Moonlight

Interview at Unheard Words

How Joanne Hillhouse 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 Joanne for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I am a writer; there was no choosing that. The choice I had to make was choosing to embrace it. That is, I’d always had a vivid imagination and a love of reading, writing had become my instinctive way of working through things, engaging with the world; but the idea that this was something I could do, make a living at, took time especially coming from a small island (Antigua) in the Caribbean. It just kind of seemed an impossible, impractical dream and I hedged by earning a Communications degree and working as a journalist, my dream of telling stories, writing books being something I was a little afraid to believe in and worked on quietly, if not in secret. In time, I’ve come to embrace the idea that my choices don’t always have to make sense to everyone, or ever, to anyone, but if I’m not writing, then I’m not doing the thing that I’m called to do. If we’re all given gifts, if there’s such a thing as your spirit calling you to certain things, then writing is it for me; it’s the only thing I want to be doing and the one thing that I can do.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

Well, there was no blue print that’s for sure. For me it’s involved lots of self-doubt, long nights, soul searching, vacillating, redrafting, revising, seeking feedback, submitting, getting rejected, getting blocked, submitting again, and again and again, finding acceptance, stumbling and falling through publishing, getting up, pushing through; never quite feeling like you’re on stable ground but somehow not knowing how to give up either. Recently, I heard it said that having an MFA is, if not necessary, makes the process easier. Well, I don’t have an MFA. And it has not been easy, but then I don’t think it’s easy even for those who do. Fact is you could be the most talented in the room and still go unnoticed. But what I did and still do is continue to imagine, read, write, research, network, and grow, and most of all, write. And, when time and resources allow, I take up the opportunity to put myself in environments where all of the above is possible such as the Callaloo Writers Workshop at Brown University, the Breadloaf  Writers Conference at Midway College, and the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami.

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

All the writers I grew up reading, mostly. Plus the people who, along the way, read my tentative offerings and helped nudge me in the write direction; family, friends…my English teacher at the Antigua State College comes to mind as does my mentor at the University of the West Indies who then recommended me for the writing programme at University of Miami where I started working on my first book. But there are others who in ways big and small helped me believe and provided valuable feedback. Calling names can be problematic for the names you forget to call, so I think I’ll leave it at that.


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

I’ll mention three. Jamaica Kincaid because like me she’s an Antiguan writer and because after reading Annie John, I knew that I had a lot of work to do but becoming a writer wasn’t as improbable as it seemed. Edwidge Dandicat whose writing I admired and whose geographic landscape (she was also from the Caribbean and only a few years older than me) made me see possibilities. Zora Neale Hurston because I like both her writing and her spirit and, like her, I’m committed to rendering my world in its full-bodied authentic self.

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

I’ll say some of the things I wish I’d known to say to myself.

“You’re going places you wouldn’t have imagined; so don’t waste time doubting. Easier said than done, I know but, Believe. Yes, keep writing. Keep building your network. Keep reading and imagining and growing. But most of all, believe. Oh, and by the way, publishing isn’t the end game you think it is. It comes with a lot of hassles a writer is not equipped to deal with. You’ll just want to write, and I’m still trying to figure my way through it so I may have to get back to you on that. But just know that like writing itself, no part of this journey is easy and publishing least of all…in the moments when you just want to exhale and celebrate, even more will be expected of you…and you’ll give it because you’re not the giving up sort, and seeing your book is rewarding in a way I can’t describe, if not always financially so. But (and perhaps this is as much to me now as me then), believe and don’t give up. Look how far you’ve already come. Remember to be in the moment, this particular moment won’t swing by again. And never lose the joy of reading and writing, the love of a good story, that’s what got you here after all and continue to make being here, wherever here is, worth it.”