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I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it.

sulak photo

Marcela Sulak was born and raised on a rice farm in South Texas.  She attended The University of Texas at Austin, where she received a BA in Psychology and Honors English.  She received an MFA and an MA at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, winning the William Mitchell Award for Best Graduate Creative Thesis. She holds an MA in Religious Studies from VillaNova University, and her Ph.D. in English is from The University of Texas at Austin with concentrations in Poetry and Poetics, American Literature, and a certificate in European Studies. She is a four-time recipient of the Academy of American Poetry Prize, and has won five FLAS prizes for the study of Czech and Yiddish. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Immigrant (Black Lawrence Press, 2010) and the chapbook Of All The Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best (Finishing Line Press). Other poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as  Guernica, The Black Warrior Review, The Cimarron Review, The Notre Dame Review, Fence, The Indiana Review, The Cortland Review, Quarterly West, Third Coast and No Tell Motel, among others.


2389082Read more by and about Marcela:

Book of Poems: Immigrant

Chapbook: Of all the things that don’t exist, I love you best

Translation: A Bouquet of Czech Folktales

Poem at Guernica: Marriage

Poem at Cortland Review: Jerusalem, a ghazal

How Marcela Sulak 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 Marcela for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I am not sure I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to become a reader. I grew up on a rice farm five miles outside of a town of 250 or so (the town was not incorporated), so I read a lot.  All the time, in fact. And when my siblings and I were outside, our immediate world was mediated through the stories my father and my maternal grandparents told about it—we grew up a mile from where my father did, and ten miles from where my mother was raised. I grew up with the expectation that everything around me contained a story.  I suppose I began to write in order to have a dialogue, to add to the family conversation with the land and with one another, and with the books I read.

The world portrayed in books never matched the world of our rice farm, though; we did not have snow or really much of a change in seasons. We had no highrise buildings or elevators—I must have been in high school before I saw either an elevator or an escalator. And since this was the end of the twentieth century, not the end of the nineteenth century, I realized later, my experience was unusual.  At any rate, after I left the farm, I found the world a pretty exotic place. It gave me the sense of a foreigner everywhere I went. Somehow, this feeling seems to be conducive to writing.

413vaBo3gmL._SX240_2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

I read a lot, everything in the public library and school library. I began to keep a journal when I was twelve and have kept it ever since. I try to free write in the journal for at least 30 minutes a day—everything from new words to recipes to names of birds to things that happened to me or things I saw. I also studied literature at university and creative writing in graduate school. But what really helped me become a writer was simply the practice of reading and writing.

Also, I immersed myself in new situations and surroundings all the time—I lived in South Bend, Indiana; Philadelphia; Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic; Rottenberg am Neckar, Germany; Caracas, Venezuela; Austin, Washington, DC, and Tel Aviv. I had a baby. All of these things make the world absolutely new—or maybe they made me new, and forced me to reinvent language and my relationship to it. They certainly forced me to renegotiate my relationship to the world. This can be exhausting, but there is nothing like the perspective it gives you.

I did my MFA straight out of undergraduate, but that was really too early for me. I needed to expand my horizons first.  I worked as an English teacher, free lance writer and university adjunct instructor for ten years, then went back to graduate school, and that’s when I started publishing poems in journals. I also translated poetry, and my first book-length translation of poetry was published before my first book of poems.  As for my poems, I just kept writing them, editing them (by which I mean throwing most of them away and cutting the others quite a bit) until one day I had enough that weren’t completely awful to start thinking about a book.

41DI6lVn0dL._SY320_3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

In sixth grade my teacher introduced me to her friend, Mrs. Mickey Huffstutler, who was a “real poet.” I think she even drove me to meet her at her house in another town the first time. Mrs. Huffstutler introduced me to prosody and received forms, and told me I needed to frame my highly subjective impressions of the world, and to write more concretely—to use nouns and verbs instead of adjectives. Also, I needed to give the reader a frame or a place to enter the poem, thereby introducing me to the idea that my poem might have a reader apart from me. She also introduced me to the concept of a writing community, by introducing me to the Poetry Society of Texas.

At the University of Notre Dame, where I received my M.F.A., I was greatly aided by John Matthias, Sonia Gernes and Jacqueline Vaught Brogan, and later, at the University of Texas, where I received a Ph.D. I was aided by studying prosody with Tom Cable, and poetry with Tom Whitbread, David Wevil and Khaled Mattawa. They were all exceedingly generous and helpful. When I was an undergraduate, Joseph Malof and Kate Frost both at the University of Texas, taught me to close read modernist poetry and Shakespeare, and that has been life-changing.  Today I am helped a lot by the writers with whom I’ve studied, and with whom I remain close, and writers whose work I’ve admired.

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

I am inspired by Veronica Franco (1546-1591) a Venetian courtesan who was one of the most eloquent writers of her period; she also was a prolific writer in many genres. By her eloquence (and perhaps her connections) she defended herself against accusations of witchcraft before the Inquisition and was acquitted. She allied herself with the most distinguished families of Venice, and all who traveled there, yet she publicly defended her fellow courtesans and spoke out against their mistreatment by men. I love how she lived by her wits; indeed, she often wrote for her life.

Veronica Franco (Image from wikimedia)

I admire those who look beyond their own difficult lives and give voice to those whom no one else defends.  To do this well, you have to use new forms in fresh and energetic ways, so as to give the reader a stake in the story. Muriel Rukeyser, C.D. Wright and Lola Ridge write the kind of documentary poetry that puts the reader in a sort of jury box.  And perhaps most of all I an inspired by Nazim Hikmet and Taha Muhammad Ali, whose writing reaffirms their deepest humanity despite the fact they were placed in the most dehumanizing of circumstances—imprisoned and evicted from their home, respectively.

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

Read as widely as you can the best books, poems, stories and essays you can. Try to be as compassionate as possible. And write every day. I learned a lot by imitating the poets I admired in order to learn their tricks. Also, only send your work to journals you yourself enjoy reading.

I don’t make Top-5 lists. Because that always means leaving out so much awesomeness. But luckily for me, this one made itself.

I call this the International Version because none of them are from the U.S. and because that gives me a chance to do a separate Top-5 U.S. Women Writers if I want to. Only one of these women writes in English, so a huge shout out to translators everywhere!

Who are your top women writers (international)? Please share in the comments. I love to discover new authors!

In alphabetical order, then, because I cannot bear to rank these woman against each other, here they are:

1. Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington, Self Portrait

Her Words: “I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse. . . . I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”

When She Lived: 1917 – 2011

Where She Lived: Fled debutante British upbringing to go to France where she was with Max Ernst until the Nazis arrived. Fled to Mexico where she thrived for over 50 years.

What She Wrote: My favorite of her stories is “The Debutante,” about a girl who doesn’t want to go to her debutante ball and sends a hyena in her place. The hyena disguises itself by using the face of the maid. In order to get the maid’s face, however, the hyena had to eat the maid. (Note the hyena in her Self Portrait above. The painting and story were written at about the same time in her life.)

More Reasons to Love Her: She was a major painter and artist, and a fiesty old lady who gives interviewers a hard time. (See video, the first few minutes tell it all.)


2. Clarice Lispector

Clarice Lispector

Her Words: “So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I shall go on writing.” – The Hour of the Star

When She Lived: 1920-1977

Where She Lived: Born to Jewish parents in the Ukraine, taken as an infant to Brazil where she lived most of her life

What She Wrote: In the short story, “Looking for Some Dignity,” Mrs. Jorge B. Xavier gets lost in Brazil’s large football (i.e., soccer) stadium and lost in the streets to her home and all of this echoes the way she is lost in the labyrinth of her aging mind and body. The story culminates in a fantasy of a love scene with a contemporary pop star. Lispector’s novella, The Hour of the Star, is similarly heady and dreamy.


3. Herta Müller

Herta Müller

Her Words: “I’ve had to learn to live by writing, not the other way round. I wanted to live by the standards I dreamt of, it’s as simple as that. And writing was a way for me to voice what I could not actually live.”

When She Lived: 1953-present (she lives!)

Where She Lived: Born and raised in an ethnic German minority in Romania, endured rule of Ceauşescu, now lives and writes in Berlin.

What She Wrote: Her story collection Nadirs has mind-bending flash fictions that play with time and space. And the lyrical, wrenching novel, The Appointment, which I wrote about here.

More Reasons to Love Her: She won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature, making her 12th woman to win in over 100 years!


4. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Her Words: “Russian literature has been a kind of religion in this country–a religion based on the moral position of writers, on their suffering. All our greatest writers have been sufferers and saints.”

When She Lived: 1938-present!

Where She Lived: Russia. Many of her relatives were rounded up during Stalin’s Great Purge.

What She Wrote: I’ve only read her collection of stories, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, and the title pretty much tells it all. These are fairy tales set in Socialist housing units.

More Reasons to Love Her: She was banned by the Soviets.

Main source: The Nation


5. Virginia Woolf

VWHer Words: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

When She Lived: 1882-1941

Where She Lived: Britain, purebred

What She Wrote: Only the best novels of the 20th century! Mrs. Dalloway! To the Lighthouse! Orlando! The Waves!

More Reasons to Love Her: Not to mention A Room of One’s Own! Her takedown of the patriarchal systems that privilege the male perspective, literary and otherwise. What if, she asks, Shakespeare had a sister? What if her name was Judith? She would have been “as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as [her super-famous brother] was. But she was not sent to school.”


Honorable Mention: Božena Němcová (1820-1862)

Božena Němcová

A Czech writer of Austrian and Bohemian parents, grew up knowing Czech and German. I’m working on a collage-biography project about her. I am as captivated by her story (her life story, full of affairs and death and disease) as for her stories (her fairy tales and famous book, The Grandmother), which are as dark as they are quaint. She’s hard to learn about without knowing Czech, so I’ve tried to learn a little. Czech, that is.

I wrote more about her here.

[Most basic source info taken from/confirmed by Wikipedia unless otherwise noted.]

Find a community. You’re in this together.
You’re in this alone.
Be patient.
It takes time to arrive at the right word, the story.
The moment of elation.

DONNA MISCOLTA is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, June 2011). Her story collection Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent was a finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in America’s Review, Calyx, Cha: An Asian Literary Review, Connecticut Review, Kartika Review, New Millennium Writings, Raven Chronicles, Conversations Across Borders, and others. She has been awarded residencies from Anderson Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has received numerous grants and awards, including the Bread Loaf/Rona Jaffe Scholarship for Fiction.

Web Page:

Read more by and about Donna:

Novel: When the de la Cruz Family Danced

Excerpt of novel at Cha: “A Month in the Tropics”

Short Essay: “Home Is Where the Wart Is

Story at Conversations Across Borders: “Fleeing Fat Allen” (proceeds go to VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts)

How Donna Miscolta 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 until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Donna for saying yes!

1.     Why did you want to become a writer?

The desire to be a writer went unacknowledged by me for much of my life. I had always been a reader and had a reverence for writers. Books were magical and writers were wizards. I thought that you didn’t become a writer. You simply were a writer. Anointed or ordained. Though all through school I did well when it came to writing, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never said writer. Writing was hard. Not hard in the way math was for me ─ the abstraction of it, the way numbers refused to form a language in my head. I felt comfortable with words, but choosing the right ones and arranging them in the best order – that was hard. I thought that to be a writer, writing had to come easy. So I never considered it an option to pursue.

In an almost willful defiance of logic I studied science, obtaining a degree in zoology. I followed up with a master’s degree in education and later one in public administration, trying to figure out what and who to be in life. At age 39, I was employed in the public sector, twelve years married, deeply entrenched in parenthood, and busy as hell, yet, looking for that thing to round out my life. Finally, I acknowledged it — my fascination with words and sentences and how they come together to make stories, my desire and need to play with words on my own, to knit them into narratives, to be a writer.

Trailer for When the de la Cruz Family Danced:

2.     How did you go about becoming a writer?

In July 1993, I attended a reading by Kathleen Alcalá, whom I knew from our membership in the local chapter of a national Latina organization. The reading was on the University of Washington campus, which I had recently learned offered extension classes in creative writing. Hearing Kathleen, someone I actually knew, read a story from a book she had written, inspired me to consider the possibility that I, too, might write a story.

As it turned out, I took one of the last open spots for the fall extension class. My teacher that quarter was Jack Remick. I knew nothing about how to write a story. Yet, I, along with many of my classmates, was resistant at first to the diagrams Jack would draw on the board and his requirement that our stories have an intruder. We thought he was trying to force a formula on us and we, by golly, weren’t going to be formulaic. We were going to be original! What we came to understand was that he was trying to teach us about tension and action and conflict ─ in other words, story.

The much loved and highly esteemed Rebecca Brown was my teacher for the next two quarters. I began to feel more confident about writing. From the time I started this series of classes, I developed the habit of writing every evening after my daughters were in bed. I wrote on the bus to work and during my lunch hour. I wrote while waiting for my kids to finish soccer practice or swim lessons.

As my daughters got older, it became more feasible for me to spend time away from home and I applied to writing conferences. My first was the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which exposed me to a lot of established writers and people like me wanting to be writers. Over the years, I’ve been able to experience the Napa Valley, VONA, and Bread Loaf conferences. I took Tom Jenks’ four-day intensive workshop. And I’ve attended multiple times the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, a few hours away from me on the Olympic Peninsula. Program director and poet Jordan Hartt puts together a wonderful conference.

I’ve also set aside time for intensive periods of writing at residencies. Hedgebrook, Anderson Center, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts are among the places that have generously provided time and space, and in some cases, money for me to write.

I read books and articles on craft, but mostly I’ve just continued to be a reader of the things I want to write – novels and stories. Despite my science degree, I’m not a particularly analytical person. I suppose if I had done an MFA program I would’ve developed skills at analyzing fiction. Instead I just read and enjoy and hope that at some level I absorb something of craft from the writers I admire – Antonya Nelson, Francine Prose, Lorrie Moore, Jessica Hagedorn and Ana Castillo, to name a few.

The first book I read by Nelson was Nobody’s Girl. After that I was hooked on her writing. Prose’s Blue Angel and Guided Tours of Hell are among my favorite books, Moore’s stories seldom fail with me, and Dogeaters by Hagedorn and So Far From God by Castillo electrify with their language and humor. In fact, language and humor – sly, unforced, intelligent ─ are what draws me to all these writers.

Finally, getting feedback and really listening, letting go of any need for approval or praise, has been important in my growth as a writer. I’ve been in three writing groups. Each time one dissolved I was lucky enough to find another. I have a fantastic set of readers in the members of my current writing group: Alma Garcia, Allison Green, and Jennifer D. Munro.

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

Early on I received crucial support that allowed me to believe that I was a writer. I’d been writing for a couple of years daily, diligently, and more or less in isolation when I was invited to be part of Los Norteños, a group of Latino writers that was just beginning to form. We did writing exercises, critiqued each other’s work, and organized readings. It was my first writing community. Then, and I’m not sure how I happened upon them, I found resources for artists. I applied to and was accepted for a residency at Hedgebrook, a place that nurtures the soul and opens the mind and inspires you to write like mad.

That year I also received a generous grant, a powerful vote of faith, from the Seattle Arts Commission, and I was selected to participate in the first Jack Straw Writers Program, which exposes writers’ work through audio and live readings. Support such as this went a long way in counteracting the inevitable bouts of self-doubt.

Unable to pursue an MFA, I cobbled together my own writing education through conferences and workshops. Though I spent only a short time – a few days to a couple of weeks – with each of these teachers, I adored them: Lynn Freed, Bret Lott, Chris Abani, Antonya Nelson, Tom Jenks and, most recently, Paisley Rekdal. Each taught me something about writing and being a writer. A piece of advice I refer to over and over is this Cynthia Ozick quote passed on by Tom Jenks in his class: Play what feeble notes you can and keep practicing.

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

When I think about the books I read when I was growing up, these are the authors that come to mind: Louisa May Alcott, Daphne Du Maurier, William Faulkner, Frank Norris, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen – authors worlds removed from a Filipina-Mexican-American growing up in National City, California. The only living (at the time) author that I can recall reading back then was Richard Brautigan, introduced by a student teacher in my high school English class.  Except for Fear of Flying in college, my reading repertoire would not encompass contemporary works for a few more years. It was as if I believed books existed only by long-dead writers.

So in the interim between Erica Jong and Carlos Fuentes (and the other Latin American as well as Latino and Asian and Asian-American authors whose works I would eventually seek out), I committed myself to Virginia Woolf. I was in my twenties, post-college, and missing the debate and discussion about feminism that took place in the classrooms and the commons. I wasn’t sure how one lived feminism in the world. The Voyage Out was the first of Woolf’s novel I read.

Here was a woman so removed from my life in time, place, and class, yet I connected to her words, the finely wrought sentences that paid attention to the small moments that were so ordinary and yet held such heft and meaning. I was drawn to her focus on the female consciousness, the journey from cloistered existence to intellectual freedom and independence from social strictures. I didn’t read all her works, but many of them: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Years, A Room of One’s Own, Between the Acts.

I’ve only reread a few since then. But if the details of those works have not stayed with me the feeling of them has – the way she captured time, its fleetingness. Her life and character are so well-known – her fragility and her strength. The madness. But what matters most was the art, which has inspired other art – like movies. And I will always, always prefer Eileen Atkins’s portrayal of Virginia Woolf to Nicole Kidman’s.

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

Be patient. Expect rejection.

Accept that you’ll feel envy, frustration, defeat.

Move on. Focus on your work.

Develop your characters.

Develop your character.

No one owes you publication.

When you can’t sell one story, write another.

There’s luck involved ─ good and bad.

Find a community. You’re in this together.

You’re in this alone.

Be patient.

It takes time to arrive at the right word, the story.

The moment of elation.

A review!

A gloriously long and detailed review of my book For Sale By Owner and Laynie Browne’s The Desires of Letters (Counterpath) was just posted at the awesome site/resource/lit journal, Literary Mama. Here’s an excerpt:

Thus, while the stories are in fact disturbing at times, these disturbances create layers of interest and intrigue. Parker causes the reader to reconsider the things she takes for granted (healthy children, mental well being, family connections) and asks that she appreciate these things a little more, hold them a little closer to her chest.

…Parker’s collection is at once practical and poetic, somber and funny, abstract and exact.

A question!

At the AWP Kore Press 20 Year Anniversary Poetry Reading, an audience member asked, “How can the average reader support independent publishing and women writers?”

The panelists and moderator addressed the importance of buying books, especially from the publisher, and making donations. I was just another audience member, but I chimed in with my own response: Talk about indie books, tell your friends about them, teach them in your classes, write about them on your blogs, interview the authors, link to them on Facebook. If you tweet, tweet about them.

So, in the spirit of buying and talking about books published by indie publishers…

a bag of books!

…here are the books and lit journals that I picked up at AWP:

Irlanda, Espido Freire, trans. by Toshiya Kamei (Fairy Tale Review Press)
— ooh la la, this is pretty, and the opening pages irresistible. Rilke epigraph: “How would I begin to recall you, dead as you are, you willingly, passionately dead? Was it as soothing as you imagined, or was not being alive still far from being dead?” First line: “Sagrario died in May, after much suffering.”

The Louisiana Purchase, Jim Goar (Rose Metal Press)
–stunning cover; tells how we got the moon: “President Jefferson walks off the mound. The Cardinals take the field. Ozzie Smith falls over dead. The crowd falls silent. Phil Niekro throws a ball at the sky. The ball does not return. We call it the moon. It becomes a crescent. When Jefferson holds up two fingers, the moon breaks into the dirt.”

It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, Diane Williams (FC2)
–i bought this because of the novella-in-flash, and the flash stories with titles like, “Well, Well, Well, Well, Well,” and because it’s Diane Williams

Kino, Jurgen Fauth (Atticus Books, ARC)
— kinda got this as a sneak peek; it looks full of hip german madness

The Book of Portraiture, Steve Tomasula (FC2)
— steve runs the show at notre dame and lives in town; he’s not only brilliant, he’s super kind and welcoming to us iusb folks who always come to his amazing parties

Lizard Man, David James Poissant (Ropewalk Press)
— jamie is one of those people who i hope will remember me when he’s rich and famous

Three Ways of the Saw, Matt Mullins (Atticus Books)
— i interviewed matt here; his book has a beautiful design and i’m excited to read it

When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women, ed. by Andrea Hollander Budy (Autumn House)
–i wasn’t exactly planning to buy a poetry anthology, but this one looks great. i love that there are bios and photos of each poet followed by a cluster of poems (not just one), that the poets are all women, and awesome: Lia Purpura, Kim Addonizio, Sheryl St. Germain, Aimee Nezuhukuatathil, Julia Kasdorf, Juliana Baggott, Camille Dungy, Mary Ruefle…

The Desires of Letters, Laynie Browne (Counterpath)
— reviewed this week with my book at Literary Mama (link above)

Love and the Eye, Laura Newbern (Kore)
–i saw her read at the kore anniversary reading and really loved her poems; it was one of the few kore books i didn’t already have


Absinthe: New European Writing
Midwestern Gothic
The Common
Exit 7 (first issue!)

Music and writing have a lot in common.  Songs, of course, are narratives.  Some musical narratives have lyrics, some don’t.  . . . Maybe what I love about language is the cadences and rhythms and susurrations – the music of it.

Darrin Doyle’s first novel, Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story (LSU Press), was described by the NY Times Book Review as “an original tale that earns its readers’ trust, and breaks their hearts a little in the process.”  Publisher’s Weekly called his second novel The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo (St. Martin’s Press) “relentlessly inventive.”  Darrin’s stories have appeared in Puerto del Sol, The Long Story, Alaska Quarterly Review, Laurel Review, Harpur Palate and other journals.  He lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan and teaches at Central Michigan University.

Visit his web page: 

Read more by and about Darrin:

Novel: The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo
Publisher’s Page for GWAK
Novel: Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet
Publisher’s Page for Revenge
Short story: “Foot”
Short Story: “Hand”


How Darrin Doyle Became a Writer

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

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

The short answer is that I’ve always loved words.  The long answer has something to do with an artistic impulse that manifested when I was young.  I played the drums and guitar as a teenager, had a sort of awakening at age 15, stopped playing sports and began channeling my energy into The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Dead Kennedys, Camper Van Beethoven, The Flaming Lips, and lots of other bands.  I started writing originals with a friend of mine, and we formed a band with a couple other guys in high school called 42 Gehenna.  We wrote songs like “Big Bad Bart” and “The Twisted World of Malcolm Potts.”  Of course we stunk, but we managed to beat out five other bands in the Caledonia High School Battle of the Bands in 1987.  Yes!

On King Tammy: "...keeping five guys working together in close quarters, happily functioning as a group while doing constant rehearsing and traveling and eating crappy gas station food and living in bars…it’s fun, but it’s not easy." (Long-haired Darrin on left.)

Anyway, the band – which changed into a group called King Tammy – continued throughout “the college years” all the way to 1996.  We had a decent amount of success, recorded a couple albums (which, if anyone cares, can be found here: played lots of shows, opened for some bands that ended up getting famous (Everclear, 311, Urge Overkill).  Ultimately, though, King Tammy broke up.  The indie band lifestyle is difficult to sustain for a long period.  I’m not even speaking about commercial success, which is ridiculously hard to attain.  I’m referring to keeping five guys working together in close quarters, happily functioning as a group while doing constant rehearsing and traveling and eating crappy gas station food and living in bars…it’s fun, but it’s not easy.  Writing, by contrast, only requires me and a writing implement.  When King Tammy broke up, I found the writing life to be a nice change of pace, although I do miss the camaraderie of playing in a band.

But music and writing have a lot in common.  Songs, of course, are narratives.  Some musical narratives have lyrics, some don’t.  I was always better at writing melodies and chord progressions than lyrics.  I’m not sure why, and this flies in the face of my claim that “I’ve always loved words.”  Or maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe what I love about language is the cadences and rhythms and susurrations – the music of it.  I still continue to play, too, so it isn’t as if I stopped being a musician and replaced it with writing.  It’s just that writing is now my livelihood.  In fact, you can find some of the music I currently do, as well as probably the finest band photo ever taken, right here:

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I worked my ass off.  I simply wrote every day of the year, for at least two hours at a time.  I read voraciously.  I’d been a big reader my whole life, long before I ever had any aspirations to become an author, but once I began concentrating on the craft of fiction I started to pay more attention to style, narrative arc, character development, and those sorts of things in the material I was reading.

I especially tried to absorb the mojo of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Paul Auster, Nathaneal West, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, Franz Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Shirley Jackson, to name a few.  I would jot down lines from their stories in a notebook.  Sometimes it was lines that sounded pretty or memorable.  Sometimes I searched for specific things, such as the way these authors did physical descriptions – of faces, eyes, noses, mouths, hair, gestures, mannerisms, landscapes – as well as psychological descriptions of moods and motivations.  It’s very useful as a beginning writer to closely study exactly how – with what words, precisely – authors achieve certain effects, and then to imitate them.

The mojo of Flannery O'Connor (© Marc Yankus)

The other component for becoming a writer was to diligently submit stories for publication.  I received a boatload of rejections before I had any sort of success, but I kept doing it and doing it and doing it, and eventually it paid off.  I used to collect the rejections and stuff them in a manila envelope, but before long the damn thing was full.  I decided it was lame to keep my rejections and dwell on them, so I unceremoniously threw them in the garbage.

I mark the beginning of my “serious” writing at 1996, although I’d been writing stories since I was pretty young.  The most important moments along the way had to do with schooling.  Going to pursue my MFA was the best decision I’ve ever made, because until that point I had no idea that a person could make a career out of writing and teaching (I know, I was clueless).  The MFA was a terrific learning experience – both humbling and encouraging, if that makes sense.  I learned I was both better and worse than what I’d previously thought.

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

So many people have helped that it’s difficult to name them all.  My wife has probably been the most crucial person to my writing career.  She and I kind of went all-in when we gave up our jobs in Kalamazoo and moved to Cincinnati so I could earn my PhD.  We went from earning two decent incomes to earning below-poverty wages from my assistantship.  Then we proceeded to have two children, and so I was really feeling some intense pressure to make something out of myself – make something out of this art that I had decided was going to be my livelihood.  To make a long story short, my wife was my rock during this time.  She never lost faith even when I wanted to chuck it all and find a different line of work.  I would’ve lost my mind without her.

Many teachers had significant impacts on my abilities and professional development.  Jaimy Gordon, Stuart Dybek, Elizabeth McCracken, Michael Griffith, and Brock Clarke were incredibly important and skilled fiction teachers, and they all gave generously of their time and energy.  A few poetry teachers such as William Olsen, Nancy Eimers, Mark Richardson, and Herb Scott were also influential.  And of course my peers in graduate school provided much-needed camaraderie and inspiration.  In some ways, these peers were the most important, since they were the backbone of the community of artists that I had been craving.

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

I honestly don’t pay attention to biographies – of anybody, but especially of writers.  I don’t know why, but peoples’ life stories don’t interest me.  Maybe it’s my own discomfort at the thought of people peering into my personal life (like this interview!).  But if your question also includes the biographies of writers I’ve known personally, then I suppose when I was struggling to get my first book published I took a good deal of solace from hearing about the long, bumpy roads numerous writers traveled when trying to get their own first books published.  My mentor Michael Griffith, for instance, spent the better part of a decade revising his first novel, trying to find a home for it.

There are thousands of stories just like his decorating the literary landscape.  I’ll admit that I actively searched for anecdotes of struggle and heartbreak as a way to make my own struggles and heartbreaks more palatable.  The truth is that the writing life involves far, far more rejection than acceptance, so I think it’s very important to find a way of dealing with it, even if that method involves the “misery loves company” adage.

5. What do you wish you’d known before you got into writing?

I wish I’d known what a grind it is.  I had this notion that the writing life was some kind of exotic, cerebral, romantic undertaking that would always be stimulating and beautiful and entertaining.  I’ve come to agree with what Gloria Steinem said: “I don’t like to write.  I like to have written.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I truly love it and have an absolute need, a compulsion, to put words on the page; but it never gets any easier.

Writing a novel (and even a short story) is like constructing a house without a plan, without even knowing what materials you’re using, or how big it’s going to be, or even where the damn thing is going up.  In the woods?  On the side of a mountain?  In a city?  In the country?  Who knows!  Just stick a board here, pound a nail there, put a bathtub in this room.  Day in, day out.  After three months you might, with any luck, start to see a shape to your house, but you have to keep the option open of demolishing large portions of what you’ve build at any given moment. And you’re constantly digging out entire tiled floors that you’ve already caulked, removing nails that you thought were fine but on second look appear to have been hammered sloppily.  It’s laborious.  It’s difficult.  It’s unromantic.

I think Nathaniel Hawthorne is credited with saying, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”  The moments of pure satisfaction are few and far between, but when they come – those “momentary stays against confusion” that Frost mentions – they make it all worthwhile.

For  me, Aimee Bender‘s fiction works a little something like this:

Salginatobel Bridge, Robert Maillart 1930

Her sentences are pristine and precise, graceful, unadorned, and apparently effortless, but they straddle expanses and hold impossible weights.

Like the Salginatobel Bridge above, which Alain de Botton describes thus: “Maillart’s bridge resembles a lithe athlete who leaps without ceremony and bows demurely to his audience before leaving the stage . . . making its achievement look effortless.” (The Architecture of Happiness, 206)

De Botton contrasts the Salginatobel bridge with a bulkier suspension bridge, which, he says, is more like “a stocky middle-aged man who hoists up his trousers . . . before making a jump between two points” (205-6):

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Isambard Brunel 1864

(Yeah, so I’ve been reading architecture books along with fiction over the break.)

Usually the contrast between the two bridges is illustrative of Aimee Bender’s prose compared with, say, Henry James’s. But when I compare Bender’s new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, to her last story collection, Willful Creatures, it is her novel that begins to look like the suspension bridge, and the delicate, sad-burdened stories that, with fewer materials, span the wider gulf.

I don’t necessarily blame this on Bender, whose premise and sentences are just as fabulist and fabulous as always, I blame it on the novel – a bulkier, trouser-hoisting form. And I blame it on a publishing culture that celebrates novels more than stories. I am shocked (sort of) to discover, upon creating links to Bender’s two books that I just mentioned, that Lemon Cake has 196 customer reviews while Willful Creatures has only 14. I’ll have to post a review and make it a full 15.

But for now, I have to catch the opening episode of The Bachelor!

This, my post title, is not my question. I don’t think I would ask a question like that because I don’t suppose there’s an answer. But Julio Cortázar asks it in his essay, “Some Aspects of the Short Story” (taken from New Short Story Theories, ed. by Charles May), and he can ask any question he pleases, and I will follow along to see what he says.

To find the answer, he says we can look to those stories that stick with us through the years: “[T]he years pass,” he says, “and we live, and forget everything else but those little, insignificant stories, those grains of sand in the immense sea of literature are still there, throbbing, pulsating inside us.”

He says we all have our own collections of unforgettable stories. Cortázar’s list includes work by Hemingway, Poe, Borges, Dinesen, and Tolstoy (but perhaps not the ones you’d suspect). “Why do they remain in my memory?” he asks. “Think of the stories you haven’t been able to forget and you will find that they have the same characteristic.”

Before I provide Cortázar’s answer, I want to pause and think of those stories that I can’t forget, and to see if I can identify that key characteristic that they share. In fact, this makes for a nice How-to-become-a-writer exercise:

What are those unforgettable stories that continue to throb and pulsate within you?

For me, hmm…

Herta Müller’s “Black Park,” “The Street Sweepers”
Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “The Bucket Rider”
Bruno Shulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles”
Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of the Amontillado”
NOT James Joyce’s “The Dead” (I feel like everyone cites this, and I just don’t love it or remember it at all.)
Aimee Bender’s “Ironhead” and “Dearth”
Alice Munro’s “Minesetung”
Maria Luisa Bombal’s “New Islands”
Clarice Lispector’s “The Smallest Woman in the World”
Haruki Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”
Yuri Olesha’s “Lyompa”
Veronique Tadjo’s “The Magician and the Girl”
Brock Clarke’s “Plowing the Secondaries”
Miranda July’s “Majesty”
and so on…

What is the common characteristic of those stories?

They’re all some version of anti-reality: magical realism, surrealism, absurdism. Many of them have lines that get stuck in my head like the refrain of a pop song. They all have unforgettable images: potato-kids, teeny-tiny woman, dying woman on the snow, giant insect, bucket rider. These images take hold, and hold, and don’t let go. They all kind of break my heart.

Which might have something to do with Cortázar‘s answer:

“They bring together a reality which is infinitely more vast than that of the simple anecdote.” (In the passage, he is primarily interested in subject matter, and how different subjects open up a story to larger meanings. So, there’s more to it, but this is the heart of his claim.)

Again, these are not necessarily the Greatest Stories in the World, but the unforgettable ones. Cortázar even uses the word ‘insignificant.’ Would you rather write a Great Story or an unforgettable one? C’est la differance?

Here’s a review I recently posted of Darrin Doyle‘s novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo:

About midway through this smart, engaging, and utterly unique book, Audrey Mapes is accused of eating The Caboose, a restaurant in Kalamazoo. The judge of the case turns to Audrey and says, “‘If you won’t divulge how you did it, will you please tell the court why you did it?” This question — WHY Audrey ate Kalamazoo — is what this book is about, and the answer is heartbreaking, especially as it’s told by her ambivalent conspirator and sister, McKenna.

Audrey ate Kalamazoo because her father (who tells her, “‘I don’t hate you. I hate the idea of you'”) would rather spend time making Dr. Pepper shoes for his footless daughter than actually spending time with her. Audrey ate Kalamazoo because her “depressed mother…is warm to the skin but cold to the soul–a distant, distracted, touched-in-the-head mother.” Audrey ate Kalamazoo because her brother calls her a freak but obsesses on his own expanding body, and because her sister chews, regurgitates, and rechews her own food while feeding Audrey crayons and Playdoh and other nonfood. And because of Grandma Pencil. The author’s humor and the grandmother’s character are perfectly captured in this line by McKenna: “I’ve probably given you the impression that Grandma Pencil was some kind of ogre. If not, I’ve failed.”

This book dissects the contemporary American family and examines the connective tissue and (dys)function of each organ, with a focus on the broken heart. It’s hilarious, scary, uncomfortable, and all too accurate. Highly recommended.

When I was interviewed for my university job, the Vice Chancellor asked me a question I hadn’t answered since I filled out my last college application: If you could have dinner with any three people in history, who would you choose? I said the first three people that came to mind:

Virginia Woolf

1. Virginia Woolf
2. Jane Austen
3. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived 2 miles and 150 years away from me in Cincinnati

“You know,” the Vice Chancellor said, surprised, “you’re the first person I’ve met who picked all women.” (I was probably also the first person to pick all writers, but he didn’t mention that.)

This anecdote is a reminder that men remain our (women’s and men’s) default mode. For everything.

Which is, in part, what the writer Leah Stewart addresses in her excellent guest post on literary sexism for Caroline Leavitt’s blog. Stewart argues that there remains the false perception that women write only about relationships and men write about Other Important Things. A reason for this, she says, is that “it’s easier for the culture at large to believe that things matter if they happened to men, or are related by men.” Stewart says that the fact is, plenty of stories by and about men are ultimately about relationships, “but because they’re told via a masculine archetype—the heroic journey from boy to man—they’re not automatically dismissed.”

I got my Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati, and I finished the year Leah Stewart was hired, so I’ve never met her, which is a huge bummer because she’s dealing with the same things I dealt with and deal with and am sure to deal with times 1000 when my book of stories about suburban women comes out next year.

One of the ways I dealt with this issue as I worked on my dissertation was to write an article about Kathryn Davis’s amazing novel Hell, in which I argue that Davis reworks the Gothic women’s literary tradition to high literary and political ends. Davis’s narrator reads obsessively and reflects on her reading, especially of Wuthering Heights (“Nothing saves you from the grave, Cathy Earnshaw”). In my article, which is available online here at MP Journal, I explore the scholarship of women as readers, of women writers as readers, and of the female version of the “anxiety of influence”, and I move to an examination of how Davis positions the 1950s American suburb as a site of Gothic terror.

Along the way, I take on one of my esteemed professors who wrote a scathing review of the book in the Washington Post and who also happened to be on my dissertation committee (until he ended up out of the country during my defense). He criticized the book for being too self-consciously postmodern and for not taking on more important subject matter, like refugees. He admitted he might be “sensitive-adolescent challenged.”


I feel like I’m just getting warmed up, but the beauty of a blog (I’m starting to appreciate this strange form…) is that you can come back topics, elaborate, clarify, backtrack, and maybe get something right. So I’ll leave this post with a quote from Hell, which sums up Leah Stewart’s post perfectly:

Two adolescent girls on a hot summer night—hardly the material of great literature, which tends to endow all male experience . . . with universal radiance. Faithless sons, wars and typhoons, fields of blood, greed and knives: our literature’s full of such stories. And yet suppose for an instant that it wasn’t the complacent father but his bored daughter who was the Prime Mover . . . . 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?

After two weeks in Prague, it was time to head to Berlin, which meant I needed some new reading material! I visited in Prague’s Big Ben Bookshop, where I bought a copy of Herta Müller’s The Appointment. I’d never read Müller, who is originally from Romania but has been living in Berlin for over 20 years, but ever since she became only the twelfth woman since 1901 to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, I’ve wanted to learn more. I’m so glad I finally got around to it. Although I agree with Francine Prose from her Harper’s article years ago that the “scent of a woman’s ink” is a notion that is preposterous and misogynist, I must confess that after reading three books by (and about) Czech men, it felt, to read this book by (and about) a woman, like home.

The Appointment is lovely, dark and deep. Like Mrs. Dalloway — one day, swirling memories — but set within a socialist regime. And instead of buying flowers for a party, the main character is headed on a tram towards a “summons.” I adored especially the language: the lyrical, repeating and morphing images of colors and dreams and objects (the leaning apartment building, the woman with the braid, the motorcycle, the red poppies) and the ever-present dead (best friend, father, playmate, shoemaker).

Throughout, the book, the narrator asks big questions about how to live in a world that tries to make you mad:

I was wondering about the games that life plays, and on my way back from the shoemaker I went through all the possible ways of getting fed up with the world. The first and the best: don’t get summoned and don’t go mad, like most people. The second possibility: don’t get summoned, but do lose your mind, like the shoemaker’s wife and Frau Micu who lives downstairs by the main entrance. The third: do get summoned and do go mad, like the two women in the mental home. Or else the fourth: get summoned but don’t go mad like Paul and myself. Not particularly good, but in our case the best option. A squashed plum was lying on the pavement, the wasps were eating their fill, the newly hatched ones as well as the older wasps. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum. The sun was being pulled out of the city into the fields. At first glance its makeup looked a little too garish, especially for the hour; at second glance it appeared to have been shot—red as a bed of poppies, Lilli’s officer had said. Yes, that’s the fifth possibility: to be very young, and unbelievably beautiful, and not insane, but dead. You don’t have to be named Lilli to be dead.

What a beautiful passage. I love how it moves through the four options and seems to settle more or less comfortably on the fourth. Then there’s the image of the plum on which an entire wasp family feeds. Then there’s the sun, being “pulled out of the city into the fields.” The sun looks, “at first glance…too garish” for so early in the day. At second glance, though, it “appeared to have been shot–red as a bed of poppies,” and now the narrator is thinking of the death of her best friend Lilli, and she comes to a haunting fifth possibility. Such delicate, poetic transitions from ideas to images and back.

Interestingly, although the narrator asks big and small questions (and big questions disguised as small ones) throughout the book, there are no question marks. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum. This style (which reminded me of Gertrude Stein) conveys the futility of asking questions in a world where you can lose your job or your life for expressing disagreement or discontent with the authorities, where you can be framed by coworkers who hold petty grudges. You can ask the question so long as you accept that there is no answer, or that the answer is not available to you and couldn’t help you if it were. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum.

Check out this link at Red Pepper for more on her life and work.

And this link to her Nobel acceptance speech.