Robert Lee Bailey: Monongahela Blood

Robert Lee Bailey is the author of a historical suspense novel, Monongahela Blood. His short fiction has recently appeared in The Big Adios, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Wild Violet, and Navigating the Heavens. He received his MFA from Carlow University in Pittsburgh. He provides updates about his recently published work at

Robert was interviewed by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.


MJF: I’m curious about the kind of research you conducted for Monongahela Blood. Would you tell us a little bit about that?

RLB: I approached my research from a few different angles. After I got the idea to write about Pennsylvania coal miners, I started talking to my grandfather who grew up in a company town and worked as a butcher in the company store. His father was the blacksmith at the mine, which gave me the idea to make my protagonist, Daniel Byrnes, a blacksmith. My grandfather still had a few of my great-grandfather’s tools, and I guess something about it was in the blood, because I started wanting to learn how to forge steel. If I was going to write about blacksmith, I wanted to get my hands dirty. So I started looking around, and I found an old blacksmith who was selling his forge and all his tools for $500. I bought everything and started teaching myself, took a few classes, and got a bunch of instructional books at the library.

But I still had to learn about coal mining. Fortunately, one of my father’s best friends who’s in his late eighties worked in the mines during the hand-loading era before everything was mechanized. So I sat with him and interviewed him a few times. My father also owned a rare book written about the coal town where I grew up. Our family is mentioned in the book in fact. Unfortunately, the writer, Charles Gersna, is deceased so I couldn’t talk to him, but his book From the Furrows to the Pits: Van Voohris, PA was my most valuable resource as far as texts go. I also went to the Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Department where I found a lot of other books on the region’s coal mining and poured over the newspaper microfilms to learn more about the time period. Finally, I toured a few coal mines and visited some mining museums.

MJF: Rage, paranoia, mania, hopelessness… In the novel, we follow Daniel as he endures all the forces arrayed against him. How did this character come to be?

RLB: Write what you know, right? There’s this quote I like from Cormac McCarthy: “Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” Let’s just say I wasn’t in a very healthy state of mind for about four years straight. And I was consistently obsessed with Hamlet throughout that time. I wanted the plot of Monongahela Blood to mirror the plot of Hamlet very closely at first. I wanted every character to have a parallel from the play; I wanted Daniel to have seven soliloquies. But gradually I loosened those constraints and let the story become its own thing. So, aside from my own prolonged mental shit-storm, the character Hamlet was the primary source of those negative emotions.

MJF: A writer is often “stamped” by certain books, by a certain style of writing. What are your influences, and how do you see these influences emerging in your own writing?

RLB: As I mentioned, Hamlet was first and foremost. But the most aesthetic-altering book I’ve ever read was McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Reading that changed everything about what I wanted to do as a writer, and I quickly sought out and read everything else he’d ever published. His entire oeuvre probably stamped Monongahela Blood. But whenever I got stuck somewhere, whether it was sentence-level or structural problems, I looked to two texts for answers: Hamlet and Blood Meridian. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given as a writer: when you get stuck, look to the books you love for answers.

Also, I have to at least mention David Milch’s profanity-laced HBO series Deadwood. That show was hugely influential in terms of dialogue and seedy underworld content.  Other honorable mentions would have to include King Lear, and anything by Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. I like to think my writing has its roots in the Southern Gothic tradition.

MJF: Reading about the grim world of coal mining that you describe so well in your book, I was reminded to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life, while I still can. What gives you pleasure in life?

RLB: Aside from coffee and novels? That’s a surprisingly difficult question. There’s this place Ohiopyle State Park, where I like to go to decompress, you know, just hike and camp out. I spent a summer living there out of a tent in the middle of the woods. That was my Thoreau summer. I seem to function best when I’m isolated in nature; it’s a good place to think through your ideas for stories. I should probably think about planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail or something.

MJF: You attended Florida International University’s creative writing program.  What was the importance of your time there?

RLB: I came to FIU straight out of undergrad at Pitt, where I studied both poetry and fiction. Then when I applied to FIU I decided to focus exclusively on writing poetry. But I came to realize poetry isn’t my strong suit. I remember my professor pointing out that a poem I had written was more like a short story. That’s when it became clear to me. I was not a poet.

The background of dabbling in poetry inevitably bleeds through in my prose though. Studying poetry in the MFA program helped me to pay close attention to syntax, develop an ear for rhythm, things like that. I still occasionally write and publish a poem, but my natural tendency is to tell stories. I also met Joe Clifford at FIU, and that alone was enough to make me feel like I got my money’s worth.

John Dufresne: No Regrets, Coyote

John Dufresne, who was previously featured on Sliver of Stone, is the author of two short story collections, The Way That Water Enters Stone and Johnny Too Bad, and the novels Louisiana Power & Light, Love Warps the Mind a Little, both New York Times Notable Books of the Year, Deep in the Shade of Paradise, and Requiem, Mass. His books on writing, The Lie That Tells a Truth and Is Life Like This? are used in many university writing programs. He’s the editor of the anthology Blue Christmas. His short stories have twice been named Best American Mystery Stories, in 2007 and 2010. His play Trailerville was produced at the Blue Heron Theater in New York in 2005. His Sliver of Stone story, Escape Velocity, was a 2010 Best of the Net finalist.

John, who teaches creative writing at Florida International University, was interviewed by Fabienne Josaphat about his latest novel, No Regrets, Coyote.


FJ: Who is Wylie in your mind? What made you want to create this character?

JD: Wylie is a guy who tries to take care of people even if he can’t quite take care of himself. He’s a therapist who helps his clients tell their stories so their lives make sense finally. He has the ability to pay attention and to imagine the real lives of people based on their physical aspects and behaviors, their faces and furniture, as he says. He takes care of his dad who suffers from dementia, and his sister who is a morbidly obese hysteric. And he’s a man with a vehement sense of justice.

FJ: I can see Wylie’s character reappearing in other story lines/murders to be solved. Are there future plans for Wylie in the works?

JD: Yes, I am already working on a new novel with Wylie and Bay. (And Django and Patience.) It begins in Las Vegas and moves to the Nevada desert. People go missing out there and are never heard from again. People head to Vegas for a second or third chance. People go to disappear and hide. I want to deal with the themes of randomness and chance and with the subject of human trafficking.

FJ: There’s a choice here of slowing down the plot to focus more on character development. This is unlike other thriller/suspense novels or murder mysteries where the crime and action are always at the forefront. Would you agree with that? Why did you make that choice?

JD: I’m not sure I made a choice. That’s just the way I write. I don’t think of Coyote as any different than any other novel I’ve written except that there is this crime to be solved.  So I’m still interested in examining and exploring the human condition. This is what it’s like to be a human being and this is how it feels. Wylie’s relationship with his dad was as important to me as was his solving of the crime. Finding out “who done it” is not enough to keep me reading or writing. I got to page 250 in the draft of the manuscript and had no idea who did it. And I thought, well, this is the difference between what I have written and what I’m trying to write. I do have a crime to solve. I do have to pay more attention to this plot I set in motion. And it’s too late to bring a culprit on stage now. Some one I already knew was responsible for the deaths of five people. I told this story to the poet Christopher Merrill and he told me that he’d spoken to Tony Hillerman about writing crime novels and Hillerman told him that he didn’t know who did it till the penultimate page. That made me feel better. By the way this was great fun to write.

 FJ: This is your second crime novel (Louisiana Power and Light being the first?) What was different this time around when writing this?

JD: I’ve never thought of LP&L as a crime novel. I didn’t try to solve anything there. That was the story of a family with a “curse.” Will the last surviving Fontana succumb to the curse or rise above it? That was the first novel I wrote and I wrote it, in part, to learn how to write a novel—how to sustain action and drama and suspense. This time I followed the example of crime writers I admired and had some bodies in the fist chapter and gave Wylie the task of finding out the perpetrators.

FJ: I must ask about the characters. There are many of them, each of them with interesting and funny names, and they each are unique. How did you conjure up all these people? Were they always part of the storyline initially?

JD: The only character around at the start of the novel was Wylie. I knew he lived alone, so I gave him a cat. Gave him my own cat, in fact. All I had to do to write Django was sit a my desk and watch his antics. He needed a buddy, so I found Bay. When you’re writing, a novel one of your jobs is to audition characters. They simply appear and you watch to see how they do. Some pass; some don’t. The characters are out there in the world. They’re at Publix and Home Depot. You just have to keep your eyes open. You see a person who attracts your attention for some reason and then you begin to imagine that person’s life. Where he works, who is there when she gets home. What were his childhood traumas? What are her dreams and aspirations? What is the trouble in his life? And you’re off. Many of the bad guys—the minor characters—were people I read about in newspapers. And once again, I began to imagine their values and motivations. What lead them to commit these crimes? I do think that every character in a novel is the central character in her own novel, and I try to suggest that story, even if only a little bit. As to the names, I think names should be memorable. Like Dickens did. Many of the characters were named for my father’s friends. Bay Lettique was a real childhood friend of my father’s. And I collect names, have long lists of first and surnames in a file.

FJ: I love the relationship between Wylie and his family, and the relationship he has with his patients. I especially like Venise. Which character, in your author’s mind, did you find yourself most attached to when writing this?

JD: Well, I was most attached to Wylie because I was in his head almost all of the time. So I knew him better than I knew anyone else. And I admired his sensibilities and his willingness to help people who were hurt. Really, I liked all of the characters, even the ones who were behaving badly. You have to try to understand why they do what they do, and in so doing you get to know them and maybe knowledge is affection to some degree. I would love to write more about some of them, like Carlos’s wife Inez, who is always off stage, but shares a love of books with Wylie. Not sure I’ll be able to, however.

FJ: Tell us about the research you did for this. This novel seems like a double challenge in terms of research because Wylie’s a psychotherapist who also consults in the field criminology. What were some of the challenges? And what was fun for you to learn in that process?

JD: I did too much research, read too many books about police procedure and forensics, and then I realized I had a first-person narrator—Wylie—who was not a cop and not involved in forensics except in a peripheral way. He wouldn’t know all that police procedure, so I didn’t. I did need to know more than he did, of course—his friend Carlos is a cop and would need to explain some things. Wylie is an amateur sleuth, after all, not a pro. As for his job, I chose therapist for a couple of reasons. Therapists help their clients tell life stories. Not unlike a novelist. And in an earlier life I worked as a counselor in a drug program and I was in therapy myself. I knew something about the job. I’ve read my Freud and my Carl Rogers and my Fritz Perls.

FJ: I can’t help but think of Wylie as similar to you, the author. As Wylie analyzes a crime scene and notices details, he’s replicating what you, the author, does when writing. Did your experience as a writer noticing details influence your developing Wylie’s character?

JD: You got it right. Yes the writing influenced the character of Wylie. Wylie, c’est moi!

FJ: Did you plan all along to write about a specific character? Or did you have a story in mind first, then found yourself attached to the character you developed? This is similar to question number two, so if you’ve already explained it, I’ll merge the two into one answer.

JD: I first wrote about Wylie in a short story called “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles” in Les Standiford’s anthology Miami Noir. The story was selected for Best American Mysteries 2007. When I decided to write a crime novel set in Florida I naturally chose Wylie to tell it. So I knew him already. So the novel began with thinking about Wylie’s personal life, his family, his relationships, and so on. And then I gave him a bigger and more complicated problem then he had in the story.

FJ: I have to ask about the Wylie Coyote reference. It’s fitting. Did you think of other monikers that could also apply as a character name? How did you settle on Wylie?

JD: Here’s how Wylie’s name came to be. As you have suggested, and I have stated, Wylie is me. He thinks like I do. He behaves like I do. He’s as incompetent in the ways of the world as I am. But I didn’t want him having my name. There’s another famous Dufresne I knew about, a chef in New York named Wylie Dufresne. I’ve eaten at his wonderful restaurant, WD-50. So Wylie it was. And a few people, I thought might make the connection. Once I had Wylie, I thought of my favorite cartoon character—the Coyote. Wile E. And then I figured out how to work that into the narrative. For the last name another writer from Massachusetts with a  French surname, like mine.

FJ: Now that you’ve written this, what do you feel you’ve learned from Wylie? How has this novel affected you?

JD: Every novel is a struggle. That’s not to say that it’s painful. It’s quite thrilling actually, to give yourself an impossible task and then to do the impossible. But many days are frustrating. I suppose what I re-learned from Wylie was what I learn every time I write a novel—be patient, be tenacious, follow your intuition, follow the mistakes, trust in the process to get you to the end.

FJ: Of course, the final question must be: what are your regrets? Do you think writers can harness inspiration in regret?

JD: Regret eats the soul. So you’d better write about your regrets or they’ll kill you. You could also go to therapy, but that’s not as fun. In the new Wylie novel I’m working on Wylie and Bay’s current girlfriend talk about what keeps them up at night and some of what they’re identifying there are regrets. Mercedes speaks first:

 “Being alone. Feeling abandoned. Forgotten. The party’s over and everyone has gone home, and I’m alone, and I don’t even live here.” She thanked the waiter and sipped her drink. “What keeps you up at night, Wylie?”

“Everything. What I haven’t done. What I’ve done. What I have to do. What I’ve done wrong or sloppily or mindlessly. What might have been. What I can’t forget. What I can’t remember. Death. What I’ve lost. What I gave away. What I’ll find.”

John Dufresne is a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction. His new novel is No Regrets, Coyote.

Esther Martinez: Lip Service and Motherhood

Esther Martinez is the co-producer (along with Sliver of Stone contributor Andrea Askowitz) of Lip Service, a Miami-based, true-story, live-reading series.  Since its inception in 2006, Lip Service has grown into a bona fide literary happening, one which attracts several hundred people to its raucous quarterly events. Recently, Lip Service was acknowledged for its contribution to Miami’s cultural scene with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Martinez’s nonfiction has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsday, and others. She lives in Miami with her two loves—her husband Sean and their new daughter, Lilou.  We asked Esther to talk to us about how her experience with Lip Service—and motherhood—has affected her writing life.

Nicholas Garnett:  You receive more than 70 submissions for the seven reading slots available at each Lip Service.  What are some of the most common problems you see in those submissions?

Esther Martinez:  One of the most common problems is the easiest to fix: not enough people read the submission guidelines. We have three requirements for submissions:  the stories must be true, they must be personal, and they must be 1200 words or less. We also want stories that are—well –stories. We want a narrative arc; we want a character with a problem who goes through some experience (physical or emotional) that changes them in a significant way. We’re not interested in polemics, opinion pieces, stories about something that happened to someone else, or stories in which there’s no meaningful change. Plus, the stories have to work on stage. That means they have to be engaging.  And, since the stories are read to a listening audience, they can’t be too long. We often receive stories that go over our word count, which automatically disqualifies them.  So, the one bit of advice I would give to anyone submitting a piece of writing, anywhere, is make sure you follow the submission guidelines.

Esther and Andrea, Lip Service producers

Esther and Andrea, Lip Service producers

NG:   What is the difference between writing that is intended to be spoken versus writing that is intended for the page?

EM:  The thing that matters most in written stories is the same thing that matters most in spoken stories—the story has to be good. It has to be remarkable. And though the stories we feature at Lip Service are personal stories, they have to have a significance that extends beyond the storyteller’s personal life. That being said, there are some things that work beautifully on the page but not so much out loud. Subtlety is one . If your audience is reading your story, they have the opportunity to take their time, linger on the details and descriptions, and reread lines. With a live audience, you have one shot. If the listener misses something important, he might miss the whole heart of the piece. That’s why Andrea and I favor clarity over lyricism. The audience has to be able to follow along. In our collaborations with radio professionals, we learned a trick or two about what works for the listening ear: one idea per line, one adverb or adjective per verb/noun, and being more overt than you are on paper. A listening audience, especially one hearing eight stories back-to-back, is in serious danger of “listening fatigue.” The best way to avoid it is to be brief, direct, and make every line as interesting as possible. The story has to keep moving. The ear wants action more than reaction.

NG:  Has your participation in Lip Service changed your own writing style?

EM:  It definitely has. I’ve gotten really good at reading a submission and knowing right away what’s “missing.” It’s one thing to have a feeling that a piece doesn’t work; the hard part is to figure out why and how to fix it. The stories we feature in our shows are all different—different situations; different characters; different voices, and styles. But underneath all the decoration, the framework of the stories is pretty much the same, and that’s very much on purpose. So yes, having to craft stories out of our submissions has made me more self-conscious about my own writing. That’s great in some ways, but can also be stifling. I used to just write what I felt and wait for the revision process to give order to the chaos. Now, I’m really slow and deliberate.  I already have the shape of the whole piece in my mind and can’t move forward until each line is just right. I think editing other people’s writing is definitely helpful and strengthens your own writing. But switching hats between the editor and the artist is hard. I can’t turn the editor off. It’s always two lines forward, one line back.

NG:   Seven months ago you became a mother.  How do you think that has changed your writing?

EM:   I have a lot of new “material,” though I’m not sure people want to hear about breastfeeding and burping and postpartum hemorrhoids. Seriously, I don’t think being a new mom will change much of WHAT I write. Writers are an obsessive bunch. One of my obsessions is my mother. Now that I’m a mom, I do have a different perspective about my mother. I’m less angry at her, but I’m also terrified of letting my own little girl down. So I’ll probably go on writing about mothers, though now that I’m in the club, I imagine I’ll be a lot more forgiving. Motherhood really does change everything. Before, I used to worry about what my mom thought about my pieces. Now I worry about what my sweet Lilou would think. I don’t want to self-censor, but let’s be real. The stories people want to hear—the saucy, perverse, scandalous ones—are exactly the ones I wouldn’t want to share with my daughter. And she WILL hear them one day because everything ever written or spoken is one Google search away. Andrea has a nine year old who recently told her, “You’re one of those people who says inappropriate things on Youtube.” So, yeah, now I have that to think about. All of my writer friends say you can’t worry about what other people think, not even your kid. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry. Instead of censoring my writing, I’m hoping to use that concern as a way to explore other sides of my stories. I will try to see situations and people through my daughter’s eyes. That can only make me a better person, and hopefully, a better writer.

For more information on Lip Service, visit  Lip Service is always looking for good stories.  But remember, read those submission guidelines!

A Conversation Between Poets

Date:       Feb 24
From:       Dave Landsberger
To:         Yaddyra Peralta

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me


Your poems are really good. I liked them a lot. I want to talk about CHRIST STILL SWIMMING to start. Jesus swims through the poem and there’s this tremendous humanizing in that act. I mean, Jesus obviously bathed, but the pervading image is of Jesus’s miracle: walking on the water. That’s a great engine for the poem. Is that where the poem began or was it elsewhere?


Date:       Feb 25
From:       Yaddyra Peralta
To:         Dave Landsberger

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

Thanks, Dave!

The poem began with another poem which was an unconscious homage to James Tate’s GOODTIME JESUS. That poem was a silly surreal poem in which Christ wakes up in a small-town jail after a bout of public drunkenness. He’s so hungover, he has an out-of-body experience where he can kind of see the rural and mountainous Honduran terrain from above.

It was that last bit that made me want to write more Christ poems. On some level it has to do with religion and with my extended family’s encounters with American and European proselytizers and the way these waves of religion via missionaries–Roman Catholic, American Evangelical–have shaped the culture and politics in Honduras.

Personally, I am mostly interested in Christ as a literary character and he is red-hot when he is human–angry at his disciples for slacking, angry at the money changers, fearful of himself whenever he is alone. . . I think he is an interesting vehicle to use in my work as he is an outsider viewing Honduran culture and history. In some ways, he enacts my encounter with Honduras, as it is mostly the place of my parents. I literally just wanted him to walk through the country, from south to north. When he reaches the Caribbean in this poem, I wanted him to swim because the waters are just majestic there. I didn’t realize that Christ was not walking on water until I had finished the first draft of that poem.

My Christ does strange things in that series of poems. He drinks hooch, talks to toucans, goes snorkeling. . .
So, here is a question about one of your poems. As always, I found so many surprises in all three–I almost don’t know where to start.

I would love for you to talk about the cicadas in IS IT THE SHOES?

I feel like you’ve talked about cicadas before, perhaps at a reading. . . the way cicadas have become a poetic cliché. Just drop one in a poem and your work is done. (I don’t want to put words in your mouth; this is just my memory/interpretation.) Cicadas are traditionally a marker of summertime in Japanese poetry, and at times can be used to symbolize reincarnation. But the cicadas in your poem are dead, dead, dead. Please talk about your reading of cicadas in poetry, particularly Japanese poetry, if you’d like. How does that reading inform your current work?


Date:       Feb 26
From:       Dave Landsberger
To:         Yaddyra Peralta

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

What bothers me is that poetry can take this living thing, the cicada, and reduces it to one thing: it’s noise. And a poet will make that choice, over and over, to keep using it only as a noise. I understand that it’s what we associate with cicadas, but I think it’s poetry’s responsibility to make a living thing even more alive. The cicadas in the poem are dead because no one’s interacting with them.

In Japanese and Korean poetry the cicada is a symbol of purity. It lives underground off of the dew, for years and years before reproduction. It uses nothing but what comes to it. Many classical poets in these cultures were either high ranking government officials or monastic hermits. The latter lived with no one but the creatures around him, and the cicada became a roommate and an example of a lifestyle to strive towards. A Korean poet I really enjoy is Yi Kyu-bo. He gets really into the cohabitation of man and creature in a fun way. Kobayashi Issa, the Japanese haiku master, is another good roommate.

That’s actually another, albeit right in my wheelhouse, reason I loved the CHRIST STILL SWIMMING poem: getting to see Jesus with sea creatures, which is something I’ve never seen portrayed in any work of art. Jesus surrounded by jellyfish is an amazing tattoo that I hope to see in my life.

It seems then, that really all three of these poems are really ekphrastic poems. Where’s the better poem for you: in the art that you love or the art that frustrates you?


Date:       Mar 3
From:       Yaddyra Peralta
To:         Dave Landsberger

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

I’m not sure which makes the better poem. I know what makes the better process and in terms of inspiration, I guess I lean slightly more towards frustration.

As I said before, I am not a religious person. My attraction to biblical figures is complicated and something I don’t fully understand. I am not at all attracted to the Christian concept of martyrdom. As a child, however, I loved the idea of Christ and his disciples as a sort of gang. That Christ goes off to a crucifixion he has to face on his own, and that ten of the remaining twelve disciples were said to have died their own separate martydoms in far-flung places–Peter was crucified upside down in Rome and Thomas was said to have been speared to death in India–is sad and lonely in a curious way and luckily there are enough narrative gaps for me to work with as a poet.

VANGELIS OF THE CARIB COAST is a strange poem I never thought would succeed. It is from a series of poems I am working on that attempts to capture the sublimity of discovering the movies in gigantic movie theaters with gigantic screens with large sound. Cat People, Blade Runner, Mad Max, Robocop and Terminator were all films I saw in the years when my parents were also sending me away to Honduras for summer vacation. So these sense impressions–spacey synthesizers and lush highland mountains–came together in a way that still messes with my memories. Because the feelings that these movies and memories still stir in me is nothing short of sublime–at least as the term is used in art and philosophy–something that embodies both the turbulent and the beautiful in an inexplicable way, I am finding these poems to be a bit of a challenge. How do you write that?

I am glad you mentioned Issa because I was trying to put my finger on the tonal quality of your poems. Issa’s haiku—direct, honest, at times, downright cranky–sometimes make the work of the other masters seem like pretty landscape paintings in comparison. Your poems have couches that hate, moonroofs that confuse, and yammering dumpsters. They seem to be of a different genre: the anti-pastoral. Or the urban elegy. Very little romance or white-washing here. I’ve seen this element in your work before, particularly in the work you produced when you lived in South Florida. How is your current environment influencing your work? And in general, how sensitive are you, as a poet, to your living and working environment?


Date:       Mar 15
From:       Dave Landsberger
To:         Yaddyra Peralta

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

I always tell people who aren’t from Chicago that the best thing about it is that everyone who is here wants to be here. People don’t come to Chicago to “make it” or whatever, they come here because they like it, and the winter is a blessing in disguise because it keeps a lot of posers and lazy people away. I think that’s a great environment in which to create. Everybody here is all in.

But Chicago is still this beast of a city, grazing next to Lake Michigan, and it’s stubborn and primal. I work in the Loop on the 36th floor next to the Chicago River, and there are peregrine falcons soaring and stooping outside my window everyday while I make calls, write emails, etc. Everything feels like it’s at work here, constantly. I’m sure Carl Sandburg said this more eloquently 100 years ago. Like in the opening stanza to his poem Halsted Street Car:

“Come all you cartoonists,
hang on a strap with me here
at seven o’clock in the morning
on a Halsted street car.”

It’s a small poem but it gets at what makes things move here to me. First, there’s people going to work at 7 am on that car. Second, the only people who can capture it the right way would be the cartoonists. Sometimes I feel a greater connection to cartooning than to poetry.

Most poems start with an image for me, an overwhelming percentage of them. If not, it usually begins with something I read, like a quote. I don’t really start poems with ideas or arguments or forms, it’s rare. The poem GENTRIFICATION is an example of a poem beginning with an image from my environment, even though I was just passing through a small town in Indiana where I saw the old and the new Pizza Hut next to one another. Images birth ideas in my head, not the other way around. Do you ever see something so often that you feel like you have to write a poem about it? Sometimes I write poems because I feel I owe it to the subject of it. The car wash next to my apartment has been begging for a poem for months.

GENTRIFICATION began as an image but evolved into an argument. And once all that was in place I could settle on the form, which is a haibun.

Let’s talk about how poems begin with ST. PETER IN DENIAL. You have an epigraph in the poem, John 21:18. I’m really into epigraphs at the moment and I was wondering with this poem and you other work, where does the epigraph enter the creative process for you?


Date:       Mar 23
From:       Yaddyra Peralta
To:         Dave Landsberger

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me


Epigraphs have only entered my writing practice in the last two years or so.

The manuscript I am working on includes a few poems based on historical figures. Since I do light research at times, I like to collect interesting quotes, facts or ideas that I come upon–I like finding odd things that are surprising and stir some kind of odd emotion for me. For instance, the fact that Jack Ruby left his prized dachshund in a parked car so that he could go shoot Oswald. The quote is a simple one I found on a blog: “Jack Ruby left his dog in the parked car.” Well, for me any dog in a parked car is an evocative image. Separation. Anticipation. Fidelity. Abandonment. How does one turn a poem that could topically be about the Kennedy/Oswald assassination into one that’s about the intimate dependency between two beings? One that is about the invisible moment when the cord is cut? Either by choice or circumstances beyond their control. I’ve actually not written this poem, but I imagine that if I wrote a poem inspired mostly by an epigraph, this is how my thought process would work.

For ST. PETER IN DENIAL, I had a title–Peter was the disciple who denied Christ three times–and I had the overall concept for a series. I imagined placing 10 of the disciples in parts of Honduras as they neared their martyrdom. I knew I didn’t want them to be fully narrative and I didn’t want to reference the actual method of execution. I envisioned Peter being carried out of caves located in the interior of the country where my mother is from. But because this was random placement, I had no clue as to how I was going to enter this poem. I picked up a Bible, flipped to the New Testament and found the epigraph you see at the start of the poem. I was haunted by that image of being carried where one does not want to go, and that image carried my imagination into the poem. The epigraph works because it doesn’t explain too much. It’s a bit mysterious and open-ended like the poem itself.

I guess I will end this amazing conversation with a question that seems obligatory and maybe boring, but I do really want to know: Who are you reading and why?


Date:       Mar 24
From:       Dave Landsberger
To:         Yaddyra Peralta

CC:         Marina Pruna, Me

The fact that you haven’t written that poem about Jack Ruby’s dachshund in the car is great, just so great. I feel like you illustrated even better than I could about what makes epigraphs so magical: they create their own tiny universe simply via innuendo, slight connection, or in dichotomy against the main “body” of the poem. I feel as if they are so, so, useful in that sense, if not for the finished product of the poem itself, then simply for the writing process.

Rather than tell you what I’m reading now I’ll tell you the best thing I’ve read in a long time: “The Peregrine” by J.A. Baker. The book is a daily journal of Baker following a few peregrines on his property in England from the beginning of autumn to the end of spring. It is the best nature writing I have ever read. I cannot recommend it higher.

Thank you so much, Yaddy. It has been wonderful to peek around in your brain.

Interview with Julie Wade

Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of Louisville in 2012. She is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir, Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series, Small Fires; Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, and the forthcoming Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Press, 2013), winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize. Wade is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami.


Julie was interviewed by Kacee Belcher for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Kacee Belcher: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview for Sliver of Stone. We’re honored that you would take the time out of your schedule, as well as give us a sneak peak at your new collection, Postage Due. It’s captivating and simultaneously restrained yet rebellious.

Julie Wade: Thank you, Kacee.  I am honored to be asked.

KB: What struck me at first was the balance that the adult speaker has with a younger self. It seems as if this poet, now having given herself permission to play, has broken free and is, for lack of a better word, almost exacting revenge. At the same time, this book never quite feels like a “fuck you” to the past but rather a larger, more mature, “I was never sorry.” As a poet, how did that balance arise? How can the work be so playful and yet calculating at the same time?

JW: Well, I’m glad you think there’s a balance.  This book was risky for me to write, and it was a definite departure from the way I had written poems before.  I’ve never wanted to be a “revenge writer” or to use my work to denigrate the life or work of anyone else.  The goal for me is always self-discovery and greater understanding of the various worlds I inhabit and the people who inhabit those worlds along with me.

Here’s a little background on Postage Due: All of the poems were written between 2003 and 2005, and in 2006, Postage Due served as my MFA thesis at the University of Pittsburgh.  So as you can see, there is some tremendous lag time between when I was writing these poems and the publication of Postage Due by White Pine Press in 2013.  A lot can happen in 8-10 years, and a lot has, so even the book itself is an artifact of how I confronted the past then and how I might confront it differently now.

When we first moved to Pittsburgh, I knew I wanted to write this book, and I already had the title in mind.  I had a notion that Postage Due would be a compendium of letters to the past, and I had resolved that I wanted to be more open to experimentation, to allow the poems to become significantly more “raw,” for lack of a better word, than the previous poems I had written.  I had been thinking a lot, as I still do, about the difference between art and artifact, and I think one of the main differences between them has to do with how constructed the document is—how much translating has happened between the experience itself and the representation of that experience.  When we talk about “artistic distance,” I think we mean the thing that separates an artfully made thing from the artifact it is built from or upon.  In this book, there are levels of distance.  Some poems are more sophisticated, more crafted, than others.  I tried to recreate my fan letters as artifacts more than works of art, but I wanted to balance those artifacts with more notably nuanced poems—the four poetic markers of the liturgical calendar, for instance: “Advent (Yeager),” “Pentecost,” “(Ambiva)Lent,” and “Epiphany.”

Formally, I knew I wanted to establish a different kind of relationship with the reader than I had before—a more challenging one.  If you think about the concept of “postage due,” you have this parcel that the mail carrier offers to you, but in order to take it and see what it contains, you have to be willing to pay something.  And if you’re not willing to pay, then you have to be willing to let it go.  That’s how our relationship with the past is, too—or at least that’s how I think about my relationship with the past.  When I read this statement from the feminist scholar Linda Zerilli that I use as an epigraph for one of the sections of the book, I knew she had articulated with such insight and grace what I wanted to accomplish in my book: “Because it can be neither forgotten nor changed, the past must be redeemed.”  But how do you redeem the past?  You have to pay something for it; you have to offer something in return.

I think these poems ask the reader to be open to a wide range of voices, to a kaleidoscope of stories instead of a linear narrative, to certain moments of displacement and estrangement within the text that aren’t always comfortable.  The poems don’t give you everything you want; they don’t answer all the questions they raise.  And that’s how the past is, too—how it fails to be complete even when it succeeds at being over.  I wanted to use this book to make amends with people I’m unlikely to ever see again, to break oppressive silences I was told I had to honor, and most important, to have a conversation with some of the selves I have been across time and place.  I like when you say that it seems like I am saying I was never sorry.  It’s always bothered me when people quote that line from Love Story: “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.”  And of course that’s not true.  This book contains many apologies, some overt and others subtle, but I’d like to revise that line from Love Story to read: “Love means never having to apologize for who you really are.”  That’s the part of my own story that I’m not sorry for, and I hope maybe that comes through in such a way that the book encourages others not to apologize for who they are but also, at the same time, to recognize that there are consequences for any way of being in the world.  No one is exempt from pain or confusion or self-doubt, and that includes some of the other people/figures I write about in the book—Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, Vanna White, Mr. Clean, Mick Kelly, Chester Greenwood, Judy Garland, Mary Tyler Moore, etc.  Our lives are always delivered to us with postage due.

KB: Like Denise Duhamel, you seem to have a knack for injecting pop culture into your poetry. Well done! How does pop culture influence your writing? Multiple poems in Postage Due reference cultural icons from Mr. Clean to Mary Richards to George Bailey to Judy Garland. Are these personal nods or do you pop in the culture to suit the work?

JW: Just to have my work referenced in the same sentence with Denise Duhamel is a treat, so thank you for that.  Denise and her love of popular culture have had a huge influence on my writing and on what I have been willing to let into my poetry over the years.  When I first started writing poems in high school, I had the sense that poetry was the zenith of “high art,” a place to engage with universal truths and universal questions.  I thought you had to sound like Shakespeare to do that.  I also had the impression that you had to have already done that because the only real poets I knew about were dead.  So I think the first thing that revolutionized my way of thinking about allowing popular culture into my poems was the discovery that there were real live poets making poems out of the material of their life and time—even the “lowest art,” the detritus of their time—and that there was nothing less universal about their truths and questions simply because they were framed by the zeitgeist of a particular cultural moment.  Once I found out about poets like Denise Duhamel and Barbara Hamby and Cornelius Eady and Tony Hoagland and A. Van Jordan, I started to believe anything was possible in a poem and that there was no right or proper subject, let alone a single proper form a poem should take.  In fact, I started to believe that all the so-called “timeless subjects” of love and mortality and spirituality and identity might be probed even more deeply by approaching these subjects through the lens of a particular place and time.  That’s what I love about Duhamel’s book, Kinky—how she uses Barbie as the ultimate tool for cultural analysis as well as personal reflection.  That’s also what I love about Eady’s book, Brutal Imagination—how he uses the persona of “the young black man Susan Smith claimed kidnapped her children” in order to examine the messy matrix of race, class, and gender in American society and in light of a specific, contemporary event.  But notice how, in talking about these books, I start to sound like a theory head.  The poets don’t do that.  They make politically charged and socially-conscious writing available to us through sound and image and metaphor.

All my teachers advocated some version of “write what you know,” and I always thought “I don’t know as much as I want to know.”  But then I started thinking about public figures and icons that have been a touchstone for my knowing and my not-knowing.  George Bailey was revered in my family as a wonderful husband and father, a Jesus-like figure who sacrificed his dreams for his family.  And I started to question whether George Bailey might not have gotten the short end of the stick there.  In a graduate film class, I wrote a paper called “Staying Home: George Bailey and the Atrophy of Desire.”  I told a film student that I had written about It’s a Wonderful Life, and she cringed because it was a “popular film,” and she thought it was better to write about highly regarded works in the film canon (e.g. “high art”).  It turned out my film professor, Lucy Fischer, was quite receptive to the paper, and her affirmation made me realize George Bailey was valuable to me as a way of thinking about what really makes a wonderful life.  Who else was there?  I realized I thought a lot about Judy Garland and her famous statement, “If I’m such a legend, then why am I so lonely?”  I heard resonances there with being an overachieving only child, performing a lot for other people.  What could she teach me if I brought her into the poems?  And of course, Mary Tyler Moore played those two women characters who shaped my sense of what kind of future a “good girl” might expect to have—the married life of Laura Petrie or the single life of Mary Richards.  So I brought her in.  And Mr. Clean—well, the more I thought about the absence of depictions of ordinary gay lives, especially in TV commercials and on game shows, the more I wanted to possibilize the gay life of Mr. Clean, who all kinds of suburban wives and mothers, including my own, depend on to keep their immaculate homes.  I thought it was a subversive way, and hopefully an interesting way, to talk about timeless subjects like inclusion/exclusion and our notions of a phantom “normal.”

KB: In “Letter to Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale,” you urge Dorothy toward anywhere but “home.” Can you talk about the notion of home a little bit? How has your definition of home shifted, if at all, and is home something that can even be defined?

JW: I grew up with a pretty insular notion of home, and a pretty literal one, too.  I lived in the same house my whole life.  It was a beautiful house in a safe neighborhood in West Seattle with a stunning view of the water—the kind of place that, on the surface, you would never want to leave.  But it was also a stifling kind of place where everything always had to “look right” for fear of what the neighbors would think.  When I got ready to go to college, my parents made it clear that I was only allowed to apply to in-state schools and that they really wanted me to consider living at home and commuting to the University of Washington.  Long-term, they wanted me to get married and raise a family in the same neighborhood where I had grown up.  I came to understand that they viewed the world beyond our immediate neighborhood as dangerous, but the real threat wasn’t to our physical well-being; it was a threat to convention, to conservative Christianity and traditional gender roles.  I loved my house and my neighborhood, and I loved my parents the best I could, but I came to realize I couldn’t thrive there because home wasn’t where the heart was; it was where the rules were, and those weren’t my rules.

I have two friends in Louisville, Amy Tudor and Rev Culver, who talk a lot about the Jungian concept of temenos.  The word comes from the Greek, meaning “a sacred place,” but Jung used it to talk about the idea of a deep inner space where we are honest with ourselves and at peace with who we are.  I am grateful for this word because it helps me think about home less as a place I left behind and more as a place I am always building within myself.  Since I left for college in 1997, I have lived in six different states and dozens of actual domiciles, but home is a much more flexible and multi-valent term now than it could have ever been then.  This is what I was referring to in the Judy Garland poem and also in “Advent (Yeager),” where I write that “home is a fault line that strikes the earth differently now, ruptures the pen’s smooth line like a polygraph.”  There’s the home I come from, and the home I am always striving to make within myself, and there’s the home I’ve been making with my partner Angie for the last nearly-eleven years.  Our daily life together is where I feel most “at home” in this world.  Because of that sense of home in my life with her, I find I don’t have any desire to pursue other places to write, any desire to “get away” in order to do my work.  I’ve never applied to a writer’s colony or residency because wherever Angie is, that’s where I want to be, and I think that’s also the place where I’m most likely to be my best self and produce my best work.

KB: I only noticed a few explicit places in the book. It often feels as if you’re writing around sex rather than plowing right into it. “Arthur Dimmesdale, Alone in the Closet with a Bloody Scourge,” opens, “I remember when all I wanted was to fuck:/the urge curdling every cultivated propriety.” My question is why don’t we get the sounds of the speaker’s headboard hitting the wall? Is that something readers can expect in the future or is that maybe not something you want in your writing?

JW: Ha!  There is a big split in how I approach sex the subject versus sex the experience.  I’m pretty invested in both of them of course, but I tend to focus on the former in my public work and the latter in my private life.  I completed a Master of Arts program before I started on my MFA, so my first full-length collection of poems is actually my Master’s thesis, a book called The Lunar Plexus.  That book is, in essence, a collection of lesbian love poems.  I started my MA program engaged to a man, and I left it two years later partnered with a woman, and as you can imagine, the change in my life-circumstances had a pretty profound effect on the content of my work.  I couldn’t stop writing from and about my direct and immediate experience falling in love with Angie, and that included a lot of sex poems.  But after I wrote the book in all my joy and elation at having found the person I wanted to spend my life with, some ethical questions began to arise.  Did I want to go on writing explicitly about my sex life, or was that an invasion of mine and Angie’s privacy?  Was it fair to Angie as a long-term partner to be exposed in that way?

Tom Campbell, my English professor from college and one of the most important mentors of my life, remarked once that there’s a difference between secrecy and privacy, and we have to figure out for ourselves where the dividing line is.  I think at first I conflated the two terms because I thought part of being “out” was giving up my privacy—that I had to be a kind of open book about all aspects of my life in order to be sure that I wasn’t slipping into the closet.  But Tom helped me see that all people are entitled to their privacy and that isn’t the same thing as denying any essential truths about who we are.  So since about 2003, I’ve been writing love poems to Angie that may hint at sex but are no longer so explicit about it.  One example is my ekphrastic poem in Postage Due responding to Magritte’s “The False Mirror.”  I like to give myself the challenge of making a poem sexy without depicting any actual sex.  This makes me rely more on the power of sensuous diction, on euphemism and indirection, on connotation rather than denotation.

On the flip side, when I’m not writing about sex the experience but I’m looking at sex the subject, as in the Arthur Dimmesdale poem you referenced, then I have a different sense of what’s appropriate and even what’s useful to bring to the poem.  I thought it was shocking and fascinating when I first read The Scarlet Letter in high school that the book was really all about sex, but we as readers never saw or heard or experienced any of it along with Arthur and Hester.  For such dire consequences as those two characters went through, I thought the reader at least deserved a glimpse of the deed that set it all in motion.  In light of fictional people or speculative accounts, the distinction between privacy and secrecy doesn’t seem to apply.

KB: Another device your book uses is poetry via postcard. First of all, I’m totally jealous that you’ve beaten me to this! But really, what prompted you to pump up the postcard form into the poetry book? Obviously the title gives us a hint, but as a writer, how have postcards influenced you and your work?

JW: For me, I think the postcard is an analogue to the micro-essay.  I’ve always been a long-winded person, and both my poetry and prose tend toward longer forms.  With these postcards, I wanted to challenge myself to extract the essence of an experience or situation or emotion, just as I have recently started to push myself to write more compressed creative nonfiction as well.  In the poem “As We’re Told,” Rae Armantrout makes a powerful statement that I reference often as a kind of creative mantra: “At the beginning, something must be arbitrarily excluded.”  The postcard imposes that necessary exclusion.  It rules out the possibility of more space than what a small piece of cardstock will allow.  I don’t think all exclusions are arbitrary, however, and formally speaking, I think they very rarely are.  The postcard reinforces my interest in the epistolary, which is obviously quite important to the larger structure of this book, and it also highlights the choices we have to make if we only have a postcard’s worth of space to capture somewhere we’ve been, literally or metaphorically.  And in relation to the idea of home, postcards are usually sent back to where we come from when we travel somewhere else.  These literary postcards operate across place, since the present of the book is Pittsburgh and the past of the book is the Pacific Northwest, but more important, I think, they operate across time.  They are sometimes addressed to people of the past from the perspective of the present, and sometimes to people of the future from the perspective of the past.  I find the postcard is also an exciting way for me to play with prolepsis and analepsis, my favorite, fancy way of saying to “flash forward” and “flash back.”

KB: Once, when we were discussing you participating in this interview, you told me about a teacher who asked you if you would rather be a horse, a bird, or a muffin. I still find this an intriguing question, so Julie Wade, I’d like you to let the readers know what you would pick, which kind/breed, and why.

JW: Ah, David Seal, that incomparable, provocative teacher and poser of questions!  Back in 1998 when I was a student in Dr. Seal’s “Autobiographical Writing” class—my first official foray into creative nonfiction—he did indeed ask us to describe ourselves as a horse, a bird, or a muffin.  I remember that I said I was a muffin, thinking by way of analogy that I am soft (-bodied, -hearted) and also that my brain, like the top of the muffin, is the most important and desirable part—where the real work of my life gets done and where I live most of the time.  Dr. Seal challenged me to be less cerebral, to find a balance between the intellect and the senses.  I’m still working on that, in my life and in my work, but I think my writing became more sensuous and visceral as a direct result of Dr. Seal’s class and ongoing mentorship.  At any rate, when I told him I was a muffin, he said, “Yes, but there’s some horse in you, too!”

It’s funny and fitting that you should ask me this question in relation to Postage Due because I think in many ways, it’s the work of a muffin-horse hybrid.  I didn’t realize that of course until just now.  The tender, vulnerable parts are the muffin, and those flashes of wild, rebellious energy, of a person wrestling with how to wrestle with anger and not let it win—that’s the horse in me.

KB: You write in multiple genres, especially nonfiction. How do you decide when a piece you’re working on is going to be a lyrical essay or a long poem? What’s the difference?

JW: Here I want to invoke another important teacher from my past, the poet Bruce Beasley.  I took a class in experimental poetics with Bruce during the second year of my Master’s program, and that class, combined with Brenda Miller’s concurrently offered class in the lyric essay, exploded my sense of what was possible in and beyond the genre of poetry.

One day in class Bruce pronounced, “You will only write about six things your whole life.”  It was a daunting statement, and at first, I misunderstood him to mean that we only had six good works in us—maybe books, maybe even individual poems.  But what he went on to convey is that, while much of our content is pre-determined in some sense by the events of our lives and our resident obsessions, our formal practices are free, flexible.  Formal innovation leads the way to keeping our content fresh and to keeping our explorations of our content thoughtful, bent on new discoveries and inevitably, new questions.

If you think about it, it’s the difference between redundancy (hackneyed repetition, or repetition that serves no purpose) and anaphora (deliberate repetition that exposes the multi-valence of language, the complexity of subject position, etc.).  Bruce wanted us to explore our “six things” from every possible angle, and if that meant crossing or merging genres, so be it.  Form is the varied key to content’s stolid door.

All this is a way of saying that I am following my resident obsessions where they lead.  They turn up in/as lyric essays and in/as long poems.  They turn up in/as short poems, too, both lineated free-verse and prose poems.  I tend to write from a place of uncertainty, and as I find a focus, I start to make structural decisions that move the content into what I might think of as a lyric essay or what I might think of as a poem.  But very often the thing I am making leaves my hands and is called something else by the editors who publish it.  That used to bother me quite a bit until Rebecca Brown, a multi-genre writer I’ve long admired, wrote a blurb for my memoir/collection of lyric essays/book of creative nonfiction, Small Fires.  In it, she articulated something essential to my own sense of myself as multi-genre writer: “I don’t really care whether this book will be called a memoir, a group of lyric essays, or a bunch of nonfiction prose-poems. Whatever it’s called, it is exquisitely made and cuts right to the heart.”

That’s what I want to do with everything I write, regardless of genre: make something exquisite that cuts right to the heart.

Read poems by Julie Wade here.

Ground Zero: An Interview with Steven Church

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record and Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents. His essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, AGNI, and Passages North; and his piece, “Auscultation” was chosen by Edwidge Danticat for inclusion in the Best American Essays, 2011. He is a founding editor of the literary magazine The Normal School and he teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.  His latest book, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, blends essay, memoir, and fictional passages as it describes the effect the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After–a depiction of the effects of nuclear war with the Soviet Union–had on him, his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas (where the movie was filmed), and a whole generation of Americans who grew up scared.

S.Church headshot

Steven was interviewed by Nicholas Garnett for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Nicholas Garnett: How do you think your training as a fiction writer has influenced your nonfiction writing?

Steven Church: Well, I guess I feel like regardless of genre, what you learn (if you’re paying attention) is the fundamentals, just the basics of how to use language and how to structure a narrative or follow the evolution of a thought. You learn how to read, hopefully. I think this is one way my training as a fiction writer influences my nonfiction writing. But it’s also about tapping into imagination, creating characters, and exploring, or essaying, by using techniques traditionally associated with fiction. Though I’m somewhat less interested these days in overt fictionalizing, it still seems to me a valid way of essaying an idea. To be clear, I’m not advocating for doing anything that the reader isn’t clued in to; but I do believe readers, if you ask them nicely, are surprisingly generous and will let you take them down paths of imagination, fantasy or fiction, even within a fairly straightforward essay. Sometimes nonfiction writers need to venture down those paths in the name of exploring and thinking on the page.

NG: You’ve written about the effect that Capote’s work of narrative nonfiction IN COLD BLOOD had on your father and on society in general.  You dad called it, correctly I think, a game changer.  That story, published in 1966, seemed to present a new kind of terror and angst to that generation of Americans.  Do you see any connections between IN COLD BLOOD and your work, either in terms of the story or the way the story is presented?

SC: You’re talking about one of the great works of nonfiction. At least in my opinion. People don’t often realize how that book completely changed the way people thought about telling true stories. That book invented “true crime” as a genre. And sure it blurred the lines and flirted with outright fabrication, but in the end I’m not sure any of that really matters. I think, like Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, In Cold Blood is a book that transcends classification and controversy. It’s just too good to be narrowly defined. Given all that, I’m not sure I have anything in common with Capote. Perhaps one thing my work has in common with that book is the way a subject or a landscape overtakes you, how it lives and breathes like the best characters in a novel. And I suppose I share with Capote an interest in the meaning of Kansas as a place and as a setting in a larger story. I also argue that The Day After, much like the Capote crime/book/movie was a revolutionary media event, a kind of “game changer” that also featured Kansas prominently as a character.

NC: THE DAY AFTER THE DAY AFTER is structured as a kind of collage:  chapters move back in forth through time and subject matter and others contain fictionalized passages.  At what point in the process of writing that book did you decide that this was the way your story would be presented?

SC: I struggled for years with how to structure and organize this book. Oddly enough some of the first things I wrote were the fictionalized passages focused on Danny Dahlberg. These ended up operating as “inner chapters” that explored a kind of extreme reaction to the film, an experience that wasn’t my own but one that I wanted to essay because it was the kind of reaction that many people feared. These sections also work as bridges, or interludes between other sections, and they’re designed to echo the blurring between fiction and reality for which the movie was credited (or blamed). I tried to write a more linear book where the movie operated as a kind of narrative crisis point, but I found that this structure limited my ability to reflect and to include all the other threads that I wanted. It limited the scope of the book. So I finally gave myself 70 pages to establish the 3-4 main narrative threads in the book and then I tried to run each thread throughout the entire book, bringing all of them together in the final chapters. This meant I had to juggle 3-4 different present-action threads and I think this ends up making it feel like a collage.

NG: In another interview, said that you had tried to eliminate genre classifications in the prose you published The Normal School, but felt you had to revert back to classifying the work, partly because readers needed some grounding frame with which to approach it.  What are some of the expectations readers bring to nonfiction?

SC: The main reason we decided to include some subtle genre markers is because an essay I loved dearly was being read as fiction. And it could be read that way. The piece lent itself to such readings. But part of what made it an interesting essay was that it was using tropes and techniques of fiction to explore an idea. It was more interesting, more compelling when the reader understood that he was engaging in a thought experiment driven by the author’s consciousness and a kind of real-life conversation with the author. Our goal was to force readers to just read and not settle into their genre camps. But what we found was that readers did that whether we helped them or not. We sort of begrudgingly indicate genre now… But to address your question about the expectations that readers bring to nonfiction, I guess I’d say they expect everything they would expect from great poetry or fiction, but that they also expect it’s coming from the author’s actual subjective consciousness, that they’re engaging in a conversation with a writer’s mind rather than a character’s mind. I think they expect an honesty of intention. Nonfiction is art and, as such, should be afforded a certain license; but it is a license granted by a contract between reader and writer, an agreement entered into with a mutual understanding of assumed risk and reward and a shared respect for each other’s position.

NC: You’ve been editing The Normal School for five years.  Is there a new normal?  Have you noticed any change in the kinds of submissions you’ve received over time?

SC: The submissions have definitely changed, both in terms of quantity and quality. It’s not that we got bad submissions before but now we get a greater quantity of high-quality submissions from both emerging and established writers. It’s pretty exciting, actually. We can afford to be selective. For some obvious reasons some people think of us as being “quirky,” “eclectic,” or “experimental.” We publish some stuff that other magazines might not publish. But we also publish very traditional narrative forms, realistic fiction and image-driven poetry. The magazine was conceived as a conversation amongst genres, styles, and forms, and we’re still striving to keep it that way. The goal for us was never to create a magazine that only published things that fit our aesthetic but to publish a variety of pieces from a variety of aesthetics, believing that in the intersection we come close to some kind of eternal truths about literature and the larger world.

Read an essay by Steven Church here.

John McNally: Who’s on First?

John McNally is the author of three novels: After the Workshop, The Book of Ralph and America’s Report Card; and two story collections, Troublemakers and Ghosts of Chicago.  He is also author of two nonfiction books: The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist and Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction, both published the University of Iowa Press. He has edited, coedited, or guest edited seven anthologies. John’s work has appeared in over a hundred publications, including the Washington Post, The Sun, San Francisco Chronicle, and Virginia Quarterly Review. As a screenwriter, he has a script in development with the producer of Winter’s Bone. He’s an Associate Professor of English at Wake Forest University and on the Core Faculty of Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program.

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John was interviewed by Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Fabienne Sylvia Josaphat: I’d like to start with humor, as it seems to be the connective thread in your novels. Did you start writing with humor in mind? Or did that inject itself in the writing process after you started?

John McNally: I never write with humor in mind. If a story or novel ends up being funny, my hope is that it’s an organic part of the work. I tend to think that humor is part of a person’s worldview. In my case, I grew up watching and listening to anything and everything that was comic – Charlie Chaplin movies, Abbott and Costello movies, George Carlin and Steve Martin albums, cassette tapes with old vaudeville routines on them…you name it. I even owned a Bloopers album! I memorized the famous routine “Who’s on First?” I was serious about my comedy. When I started writing, it was only natural that it would seep into my work. I’d internalized that for years, but I’d internalized it because, even as a kid, I saw something in a comic’s worldview, a kind of absurdity, that matched my own.

FJ: What I also find interesting is how popular culture seems to find its way organically in your writing. You’ve said the first word you’ve ever spoken was “Batman.” How has popular culture (television especially) influenced you along the way? How do you see pop culture influencing contemporary fiction?

JM: I have a chapter about pop culture in my new book, Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction. In it, I admit that I’m a hypocrite. On the one hand, I warn my students about saturating their work with it; on the other hand, I acknowledge that you’ll find in my novels and stories Peter Frampton, Planet of the Apes, Cheap Trick, Yes’s “Roundabout,” Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and hundreds more. I grew up absorbing pop culture, but I do think it’s a tightrope walk using it in fiction. For myself, I have three criteria: 1) Does it make sense in the context of the moment, which would be a good thing, or is it there simply for the sake of being clever? 2) Where is the reference coming from – the consciousness of the character, as it should, or the author? 3) Is the reference appropriate to the tone of the story? The fear, of course, is that your story will be dated in a year or two, and I’ve seen this happen with some of my students’ work, which is why I think it’s good to choose references that have already stood the test of time.

FJ: “After the Workshop” puts your character Jack Hercules Sheahan in a string of hilarious predicaments. How did this character come to you?  How much of this is personal experience? How much is your experience as a writer with a media escort?

JM: Many of the situations grew out of actual incidents, but then I would let the scenes veer away from autobiography once I had set it in motion. The characters, in some instances, were composites of writers I’ve known, or they were inspired by individuals with strong personalities. My friends who studied with the late Frank Conroy, as I did, will recognize characteristics of him in Gordon Grimes. And yet Gordon Grimes isn’t Frank Conroy. It’s tricky, though, because I wanted those characters who were inspired by actual people to be charming and sympathetic, if flawed. As for the parallels between the book’s narrator and myself, well, he had a kind of early success that I didn’t, but twelve years after the workshop, I certainly had all kinds of doubts about what I’d chosen to do, and there were times I considered hanging it all up. The reason I didn’t was because I’d get some small sign of encouragement – a publication, an award – that would keep me in the game. Unlike the narrator of the book, I never quit writing altogether. In order for the book to work, my narrator’s situation had to be more precarious.

FJ: I usually don’t tend to ask writers about their process, but I’m very curious about your construction of this story. How was the process of plotting this story? Did you have a clear vision of how one scene would lead to the other? Or did everything happen organically?

JM: After the Workshop evolved organically. Once I had put the narrator in the situation he finds himself in, I let the story carry itself forward, day by day. At a certain point – maybe three-quarters of the way into writing it – I started to see how it might end, but until then I had no idea how it would all pull together.

FJ: What I admired about “After the Workshop” was your ability to infuse back-story into your chapters so the reader really gets to know the character. How did you manage to do this? This is another “process” related question, but is this planned out in your mind? On paper? How do you decide when and where back-story comes in?

JM: I didn’t plan any of it, and the first draft of this particular novel is pretty close to the final draft. I cut a few of the back-story scenes in the final revision because I was still introducing the narrator’s past in the last third of the book at a time when the narrative really just needed to move forward and not backward. By and large, the scenes appeared in my head when I sat down to write. The few times I’ve tried to plan a book or outline, I’ve failed miserably.

FJ: Another relationship in the book that I was drawn to was that triangle between Tate, Vince and Jack. It was authentic, real, and at times uncomfortable for readers rooting for Jack. What did you want to convey there?

JM: Jack is a deeply flawed character, but when you put him alongside Tate and Vince, you can’t help but feel bad for him. I never have an agenda. I just let the characters be. Some readers find Jack to be a “loser,” but that’s definitely not how I thought of him. I saw him as someone who didn’t come from a background of privilege, and at the point that we meet him, he’s had a twelve year streak of bad luck. But he’s trying to dig himself out of the pit that he finds himself in, and I see that as an act of courage. But that’s my own interpretation of who Jack is.

FJ: How does place affect your writing? “After the Workshop” is set in Iowa, but your other pieces take place in cities like Chicago. Do you find it challenging at all to tackle a new place with all its authenticities?

JM: Once I discovered the importance of place, other things began to click in my work, most notably voice and vision. I’m referring specifically to the stories that make up my first novel-in-stories, The Book of Ralph (a few of which appeared in my first book, Troublemakers). Place and character are inextricable because characters are products of place. And so place – very specific places, in fact – became the tunnel I crawled through in order to enter my narrator’s consciousness. What a revelation! And yet it’s so obvious. Faulkner’s novels couldn’t take place in Alaska. Louise Erdrich’s novels couldn’t take place in Manhattan. I’m always urging my students to think about place – or, more specifically, to think about neighborhoods, since there’s always a place within a place that’s even more specific, more defining. There are tens of thousands of different Chicagos, but there is only one corner of 79th and Cicero, and I know that corner well.

FJ: One theme I notice in “After the Workshop” is that of fear, and self-doubt. Are those normal for a writer, you think? What are your fears as a writer? What is your way of tackling those emotions that keep writers from writing?

JM: I think self-doubt is healthy as long as it’s not crippling. When I work, I keep next to me John Steinbeck’s book Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath.” His journals weren’t written to be published, so they’re brutally honest. One week before finishing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck wrote this: “I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want it to seem hurried. It must be slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing – it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.” If John Steinbeck felt that way about The Grapes of Wrath, one of the greatest American novels ever written, I think we can all, each and every one of us, afford to be more humble.

FJ: What’s next for John McNally? Are we expecting more fiction? Novels? Memoir?

JM: I just finished a long historical novel, which was the most challenging thing I’ve ever written. What’s next? Good question. I don’t know. A YA novel, maybe? New stories? Another satire? So much to choose from, it’s hard to say. Maybe I’ll spend some time catching up on TV. I’ve never seen The West Wing. I can’t tell you how appealing that sounds.

Read a deleted chapter from John’s novel here.

Denise Duhamel: “I confess that I’m a poet.”

Denise Duhamel is the author, most recently, of Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), Ka-Ching! (Pittsburgh, 2009), Two and Two (Pittsburgh, 2005), Mille et un Sentiments (Firewheel, 2005), and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001). She is the guest editor for Best American Poetry 2013. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she is a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

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Denise was interviewed by Marina Pruna for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Marina Pruna: I’d like this interview to be centered on your new book, Blowout (Release date February 17th). I am so honored and excited to be one of its first readers!  I will tell you that my experience when reading this collection of poetry was very much alike to that of reading good fiction.  I found myself forgetting about form or lines or even the words on the page.  Instead, I was swept away into the story.  The speaker in this collection is me!!  I’m not divorced or even married, but she’s me anyway.  The second-guessing, the constant self-evaluation, the lack of patience, the too-much patience, the feeling of being the last one to know, the feeling of being the one who knows something’s wrong, but can’t bring herself to do anything about it, the resentment, the rediscovering, the new love—all of it. 

Denise Duhamel:  Thank you!

MP: When reading William Archila’s book, The Art of Exile, I remember thinking, “Wow, this book is tight.” When I got your new book, Blowout, I read it cover to cover in one sitting.  I had the same feeling!  Every poem in the book is necessary.  When putting this book together, what did you leave out? How did you decide?

DD: Thank you, Marina.  I struggled with what poems to put in and what poems to leave out, what narratives would work best in light of the others.  I wanted to write about betrayal and implicate the self/the speaker, but I was also aware that a little bit of “love lost” goes a long way.  I didn’t want the reader to keep turning the page to find, “Jeeze, she’s still there depressed and alone,” or “What’s her problem?  I wish she would just get on with it…”  I wanted to pace the book in a way that showed healing and discovery faster than it can occur in “real life” but yet not seem glib or dismissive about the end of a long marriage.  I wrote many more poems about the end of love and the beginning of new love than appear in the book, so a lot of my time was spent culling.

MP: Blowout almost feels like a novel!  It tells a story, the characters seem to develop, and there’s even what I consider a turning-point moment. Section One is centered on the act – the divorce, Two is the reflection and aftermath, and Three is new love.  How did you go about ordering this book?  Do you feel that there’s an arc, and if so, was this arc intentional?

DD: I have always wanted to write successful fiction, so to hear that my book feels like a novel to you makes me happy indeed.  I was very aware of the arc and the three sections—and I also used “flashbacks” to young love to bounce the timeline a bit.

MP: So, to me, Blowout is very much a collection about leaving a marriage.  And I mean leaving as in, the husband has left the marriage, and the speaker has too.  It’s a book where the situation is divorce, but perhaps the story is abandonment. These issues are life-changing, private, and intimate.  When preparing for this interview, I found myself almost unable to formulate questions without getting too personal.  Finally, it dawned on me to ask what this was that kept me in this private space with the book.  My question to you is about the reader.  Where is the reader in this book? How did you envision her/him?

DD: In the United States, more than half of married people will divorce and almost everyone, married or not, will get her heart broken sooner or later and probably multiple times.  So while Blowout is intimate and specific in its details, I envision the reader as anyone who thought she knew someone and then didn’t.  Or anyone who thought she knew herself and then didn’t. I envision a reader who is tying to live an authentic life.  This is odd, but sometimes I envision Tony Hoagland as my reader as I wrote many of the poems in Blowout because of his knockout poem, “In Praise of Their Divorce,” which appears in his book Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Graywolf, 2010).  It first came out in American Poetry Review in early 2007, and I’ve carried that poem around with me ever since.

MP: To keep with the personal for a minute, let’s talk about breaking taboos.  In an interview you did a while back for Bomblog, you said you were interested in breaking taboos in your work.  Your writing in books like Two and Two, Ka-Ching!, and the entire Barbie series is a testament to your commitment to this endeavor.  While others breach these taboos in prose, you’ve successfully torn open these barriers with poetry, and especially with humor.  Even in your most serious poems, you seem to acknowledge a greater perspective, one that includes the absurd, the other, and even forgiveness.  This inclusionary aspect of your poetry is what I think makes these difficult subjects accessible, palatable, and effective.  When you are writing about your own pain and vulnerability, does humor help to communicate a truth or can it shield or protect from having to face it (even though I don’t think Blowout contains too many overtly funny poems)?

DD: The short answer—yes.  I think humor can simultaneously put me at a distance enough from my own difficult material to face it and also bring me closer by seeing “the big picture,” rather than my own particulars.  Mel Brooks is often misquoted as saying, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die,” suggesting that only the pain of the other is funny.  But he really said, “Tragedy is if I cut my finger—comedy is if I fall in an open sewer and die.”  In his original quote, misfortune happens only to himself and he does not laugh at the suffering of others.  What he is getting at is this—the bigger the tragedy, the more ironic and awful the mishap, the more potential the situation has for humor. Breaking taboos is a bit more acceptable with humor, but some poets have broken taboos without much humor—I’m thinking here, most recently, of Sharon Olds and Ai, who, while having some funny poems, write in a predominantly serious mode. My previous use of humor helped me write the poems in Blowout, even though the humor doesn’t appear as fully as it might have in previous volumes. The TV host Steve Allen wrote that tragedy plus time equals comedy.  This statement has always comforted me, that no matter what happens, some day in the future we will, perhaps, be able to laugh about it.

MP: One of the aspects I love most about this book is the tenderness and honesty of the speaker, though now and then, I don’t like her.  I feel that she sometimes gets what she deserves – like in the poem “Fourth Grade Boyfriend” or in “Loaded.”  In both of those poems, I think that the speaker is a little mean or even callous.  But, then I get to a poem like “A Different Story,” and I realize that I’m the one being naïve or revisionist.  “A Different Story” contains within it a sense of urgency that is pulsating. And, it’s urgency for self-reflection, as though the speaker has to show us the underbelly of the poetic beast.  I also read it as an ars poetica because it says this urgency is part of the process, as is stealing, and escaping, and facing a truth.  Why did you include this kind of poem in a collection that is so tight around a narrative?  How do you view this poem?

DD: Actually, I don’t think you are being that naïve.  I was well aware of the speaker’s own culpability in the poems you site, and I found myself leaving in work that allowed her vindictive thoughts.  I didn’t want her to be too much of a victim.  Sometimes if characters are too goody-goody, I wind up rooting for the villain.  I never thought I would quote Zsa Zsa Gabor in a literary interview, but here goes…She said, “You never really know a man until you have divorced him.”  Leave it to Zsa Zsa to be profound!  We don’t know the cruelties of which we are capable until we are pushed into severe abandonment and rejection.  Our underbellies, of shadow sides, are not particularly pretty. “A Different Story” addresses this—the speaker calls herself “cheap, / fearful, controlling, duplicitous, a dunce.”  The stories within “A Different Story” include two women who were written about by others in an unflattering way. One appears pathetic in a self-help book; another killed off by her ex, a writer of thrillers.  I see this poem (as well as “You’re Looking at the Love Interest”) as gestures to concede that the speaker in Blowout is only telling one side of a story or a very incomplete story.  I was also thinking of the phrase, “Well, now that’s a different story…”

Your observation of this poem as “ars poetica” is also quite helpful and insightful—poets often steal the experience of others, and there is an urgent negotiation between experience and getting that experience down on the page.

MP: Section Two for me is key to seeing the speaker begin to understand what’s happened, reflect, and regain her strength.  In the poem, “You’re Looking at the Love Interest,” you have a line that says: ‘I confess that I’m a poet.’  For me, that line is central to this poem and to the entire book.  At every crucial moment, I feel that we are reminded of the speaker’s dual role – as poet and confessor.  Did you feel that you had a responsibility with this book to tell your side of the story?  Or even to tell a story.

DD: I do indeed see Blowout as “confessional,” both in the Catholic sense (the telling of one’s sins) and in the confessional or post-confessional poetic tradition.  I didn’t feel so much a need to tell “my” side of a story, but I did feel the need to tell a story.  The story is nothing new—girl meets boy, girl loves boy, boy loves girl, boy and girl disappoint one another.  While these poems are extremely narrative, I also think they are like love songs—wrenching and maybe a little cornball even.  In “You’re Looking at the Love Interest,” I wanted to point out that while “real people” may inspire poems, there is also fabrication.  The Love Interest, who has become the basis of a character in a memoir, is very cool about it, even a little proud:

But, hey, no hard feelings—he says he understands

why Meghan had to make him out to be a little bit of a jerk.

No conflict, no story, right?

MP: Let’s talk titles! How in the world do you come up with titles for poems?  Do they come first?  Or does the poem?

DD: I almost always come up with my titles after the poems are written.  I am a fan of long titles and provocative titles and the occasional exclamation point.

MP: And talk about titles, though I’ll probably change my mind right after I type it (because I can’t actually choose one!), “Little Icaruses” is my favorite poem in the collection.  It represents a starting over that I want so badly for this speaker who’s been through so much.  But, this poem is also my favorite because it’s so different from the others.  In very short and tight lines, this small poem delivers quite the punch.  And in its title, we know that this speaker is armed with new knowledge, and also the awareness that there is danger in returning to that great big world.  Please tell us all about how this poem and its fantastic title came about.

DD: I hope I don’t take the magic out of this poem for you when I say that I wrote it shortly after changing an actual light bulb—one of my least favorite household activities.  The dead insects inside the globe always make me a little melancholy and, this particular day, made me extremely melancholy.  As far as placement in the book, I wanted the opening of the third section to be a reprieve from the long poems, so there are three short poems in a row.  The insects are drawn to the light that will kill them is one way to read this poem—the speaker’s throwing away of the insect bodies also allows her to shake away, at least metaphorically, her past.  The poem, of course, also acknowledges the potential danger of moving forward.

MP: In my reading of Blowout, I see “Ten Days Before We Meet, I Dream You” as the turning point in the book. It’s the poem that first introduces the “you” as new love.  Even though this particular poem is difficult to stomach because of the violence at its core, I love the way the speaker now can view this memory with a different lens.  She is older and wiser, and she is in love.  From this poem on to the end, we are in the land of love poems.  As a fellow writer, I know how hard it is to feel and write at the same time. What’s more difficult for you to write: a poem of pain when you are in pain?  Or a love poem when you are in love?  Do you need a cool middle for revision?

DD: I can write in extreme states—pain, joy, anger—and that is how many of the poems in Blowout began.  I use the “cool middle” for extensive revision.  Much of “Ten Days Before We Meet, I Dream You” was in my journal (without a title, of course) before I knew what any of it meant.  I also wrote “How It Will End,” the first poem in Blowout, years before the more harrowing poems or the events that brought them about.  I think sometimes a poem knows more about its speaker than even the writer knows.  Or at least that has been true in my case.  It’s easy to manufacture details of a poem, but harder for me to manufacture emotion. “How It Will End” is about projection to a certain extent, who we think people are rather than who they truly are.   I guess in this poem, comedy plus time equals tragedy.  Yet the humane thing about extreme emotions is that it is impossible to live in these states very long as any one extreme emotion will eventually exhaust us.

MP: It might just be me, but I think that after a big project, I feel that I’m somehow different.  So, I’m curious about how you feel now that this new book is written.  What did Blowout teach you?

DD: Putting together the poems in Blowout taught me perhaps that I don’t always need to be the clown or jester, as much as I have been comfortable in that role for some time.

MP: There’s an interview you did with Cesca Waterfield a long time ago where you said something that I think is very true about poetry.  You were talking about how we must read contemporary poets if we are going to write poetry today. You said, “Poems are conversations with other poems,” and it made me wonder: Who were you in conversation with when you wrote this book? Who do you think Blowout might be in conversation with now that it’s out?

DD: When I handed in Blowout to Ed Ochester at Pittsburgh Press in the fall of 2012, I had no idea that two other contemporary poets, Sharon Dolin and Sharon Olds, were about to publish books about the ending of long marriages.  Dolin’s book Whirlwind and Olds’ Stag’s Leap are very different in tone—Dolin calls down the furies while Olds laments with an early forgiveness—so I like to think that these writers were paving the way for me without my even knowing it.  I was also always writing in response to Tony Hoagland’s wonderful ode.  Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop also were constant poetry companions—in particular Bishop’s “One Art” and O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You.”

MP: Last questions – and THANK YOU so much for taking the time to do this!  We are so lucky to have had the opportunity to really dig into this book and pick your electric brain about it! – Denise, what’s your job as a poet?

DD: My job as a poet is to say what is too hard to say in everyday conversation and to try to say it as beautifully and urgently as I can.  Kathy Griffin has written a theme song “I’ll Say It” for her new show Kathy, the lyrics of which are “I know what’s in your head, but if you turn red when you say it, well don’t you worry cuz I’ll say it, I’ll say it for you…”  Her show is pure fun and fluff and about celebrity gossip, but I think her song is saying something quite profound:

Or, to quote the beloved Muriel Rukeyser, my job is to “breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.”

Read some of Denise’s poems here.

Debra Dean: The Mirrored World

Debra Dean’s bestselling debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a #1 Booksense Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Novel, and an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. It has been published in twenty languages. Her collection of short stories, Confessions of a Falling Woman, won the Paterson Fiction Prize and a Florida Book Award. Her new novel, The Mirrored World, is a breathtaking tale of love, madness, and devotion set against the extravagance and artifice of the royal court in eighteenth-century St. Petersburg.

Debra was interviewed by Fabienne Josaphat for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Fabienne Josaphat: You must be asked this question a lot, but why historical fiction among all genres? How do you define it and what attracts you to fiction in a historical context?

Debra Dean: When the first review came out that referred to The Madonnas of Leningrad as historical fiction, I was mildly indignant. I equated the term with trashy bodice rippers. I don’t think of myself as a genre writer, but I’ve since made peace with the term and even come around to thinking of it as something of a badge of honor. There’s an extra level of difficulty in writing fiction that is set outside your own time and place. You first have to learn the period down to the small minutiae – a good lie depends on the getting the details right – and then you have to set aside all that you’ve just learned and tell the story. It’s why teachers so often counsel novice writers to write what they know.

FJ: The Mirrored World takes place in 18th Century Russia, and your first novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, speaks of the life of a Russian emigre in modern America. What draws you to that specific heritage and history?

DD: There’s no logic to why both my novels are set in Russia. I’m not Russian; I don’t read or write the language; when I wrote the first one, The Madonnas of Leningrad, I had never even set foot in the country. I came across a curious bit of history, and it happened in Russia. Who knows? It may be that part of what drew me initially was the very strangeness and unfamiliarity of the culture. The new novel, The Mirrored World, was inspired by a footnote I came across while I was researching the first novel, so I suppose there’s some logic there: my gaze was on Russia for many years.

FJ: Why choose the story of Xenia? What attracted you to this particular figure?

DD: I think there’s a good argument to be made for the notion that our stories choose us and not the other way around. Initially, I was dead set against the idea of writing another novel set in Russia, but I was simultaneously intrigued by what little was known about Saint Xenia. She was born into the minor nobility and was married to a singer in Empress Elizabeth’s court. Legend has it that they were madly in love, but he died suddenly when she was twenty-six, and she went mad with grief. She gave away everything she owned and disappeared from St. Petersburg for eight years. When she reappeared, she was living on the streets of the worst slum of the city, dressed in the rags of her husband’s military uniform and answering to his name.

She was credited with miracles, healing and foretelling the future.

But the triggering curiosity for me was the question ‘what kind of person does this?’ I wasn’t raised in the Catholic or Orthodox faith, so saints have always seemed a bit mythical, like super heroes. If we were to meet a saint today, would we write her off as crazy? I won’t claim that I’ve laid bare the mystery of Xenia – I didn’t answer my own question with this novel – but the most interesting questions never get answered definitively.

FJ: In terms of research, how challenging was it to delve into her background, especially one that stems from 18th Century Russia?

DD: One of the challenges of setting a story in 18th century Russia is that up until the very end of the century, the country was largely illiterate. Outside of the court, people weren’t writing a lot of letters or recording the kinds of minutiae that novelists need to know: how people spent their days, what they ate, what they thought about. But half the fun of writing historical fiction is the scavenger hunt.

FJ: How did you decide where to weave in the fiction when Xenia herself was real? Was there any point in the writing where “Fact vs Fiction” left you stumped?

DD: There isn’t a shred of documented fact about Xenia. We know that she lived, but everything else is up for grabs. I was faithful to the hagiography – the stories repeatedly told about her – but that still left me with a lot of room for conjecture and invention.

FJ: I was interested in how Dasha became your narrator instead of Xenia. How was Dasha born in the author’s mind? Or was she indeed THE relative in question to whom Xenia left her house?

DD: That’s an excellent question. One of the commonalities between my two novels is that the protagonist’s mental state limits her abilities as a reliable narrator. In The Madonnas of Leningrad, Marina is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; in The Mirrored World, Xenia’s mental state – whether it is madness or spiritual enlightenment – is a central question of the novel. So I decided early on that the narration should fall to her cousin and friend, Dasha, whom I invented. Dasha represents the voice of reason, the sensible, timid foil to Xenia’s wildness. Really, the novel is about each of them equally. Together they illustrate an oft-debated question in the 18th century: what is the proper balance of reason and passion? It’s also a personal question for me because, like Dasha, I sometimes let caution and fear get the better of me. We all want to live passionately, but there are inherent risks.

FJ: The details in this novel are extremely rich, from clothing to food to music, but specifically the attention brought to religious rites and prayers. Tell us a bit about your research in that aspect.

DD: Well, thank you; it was actually relatively easy because Orthodox rites and liturgy have remained largely unchanged over the centuries. Of course, I’m not Orthodox and so there’s a chance that I’ve gotten it wrong – not the liturgy or doctrine so much as the outlook of the faithful. I think there’s always a significant gap between a religion in the abstract and the ways in which it is actually practiced on the ground.

FJ: We see an early influence of religion over residents of St. Petersburg and how it affects characters in the book. Tell us about the term “holy fool?”

DD: When I was St. Petersburg back in 2005, I remember being struck by how inextricably Orthodoxy is woven into the fabric of the culture. Stalin was out of his mind thinking he could eradicate it.

The “holy fool” predated Christianity in Russia. The closest Western equivalent would be the Native American shaman, and they probably have the same roots, coming down out of Siberia. These were people our present culture would probably write off as crazy, but in their time they were credited with powers of healing and prognostication. Even the tsars feared and respected them.

So when Orthodoxy came to Russia, the Church had to make an uncomfortable truce with these popular figures, and what they came up with was this: the holy fools were ascetics who went beyond giving up their material possessions; they also voluntarily renounced their reason, so that they might more fully experience the humility of Christ.

Because the holy fools were so respected, ordinary homeless people started pretending to be mad so they could get more handouts. Eventually, the streets of St. Petersburg were thick with crazies and crazy wannabes, and it became such a public embarrassment to Catherine the Great that she tried to solve the problem by outlawing almsgiving.

This ambiguity about who is or is not rational is compelling to me as a writer.

FJ: I always wonder, in the case of historical fiction especially, how writing a piece affects the writer. How has The Mirrored World affected you as an author (learning, changing the way you see life and history and experiences)? How have Xenia and also Dasha affected you?

DD: Ooh, another great question! When I write, I inevitably end up exploring issues and questions that feel personally urgent to me. When I lived in New York in the Eighties, it was talk therapy, but now I write. The difference is that there’s no therapist to tell me what it all means. But because of Dasha and Xenia, I’ve spent a lot more time over the last several years thinking about risk versus security, about where my happiness really lay, and trying to challenge myself to stick my toes a bit further over the edge.

FJ: I’m very curious about the title. Why “The Mirrored World?” Do you see the modern world as a reflection as this ancient world somehow? Or is it much different? How so?

DD: Titles are collaborative efforts between the author and the publisher, and my publisher wasn’t crazy about my first several choices. Understandably, they wanted something that would help sell the book. I wanted something that was true to the heart of the story. We finally found The Mirrored World. It’s not on the nose, but I’m very happy with it because it comments on the culture of the Russian court, which was obsessively artificial and self-conscious. It was literally and figuratively a hall of mirrors, and all about excess; they made the court of Versailles look almost austere by comparison. In stark contrast was Xenia who gave up the material world for the spiritual. Which one is more real?

FJ: What shall we expect next from Debra Dean? Another novel in the works? Or non-fiction?

DD: It’s generally a bad idea to talk about the story while you’re still writing it; you can end up talking it all out of your system. Which is exactly what I’ve been risking, cornering whoever will listen and blathering on and on. So I’m going to practice a tardy bit of discretion and just say that it’s non-fiction, a biography of sorts. And really, really, really cool.

A native of Seattle, Debra  lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University. Follow her on Facebook.

Joe Clifford on ebooks, blogging, self-promotion, and rehab

Joe Clifford’s collection of short stories, Choice Cuts, was recently published by Snubnose Press. Joe is the producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. His work has appeared in Big Bridge, the Connecticut Review, Drunken Boat, Fringe, Opium, Shotgun HoneyThuglitWord Riot, and Underground Voices, among others.

Joe was interviewed by Kacee Belcher for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Kacee Belcher: Joe, now that you’ve popped my eBook cherry with Choice Cuts, your collection of stories published by Snubnose, who is also publishing your novel Wake the Undertaker, I’m a little shocked at how much I enjoyed reading your collection on my computer. I’ve been a print-only kind of girl until your publication. Call me old fashioned, call me a snob, hell, I’ve been called much worse—but I wonder how you feel about the different mediums of distribution for literature these days?

Joe Clifford: Yeah, I was the same way, really.  “No, I need to hold a book in my hands, be able to turn the page” and all that.  For what? So I can smell the fucking thing? I read books to read them, and this whole refusal to read work in an electronic medium, like it’s somehow disrespectful to the history of literature, started to seem rather stupid. I mean, it’s the same reason baseball is dragging its heels on using instant replay. You can’t stop progress. So until MLB wants to eschew air travel in favor of horse and buggy, the “maintaining the tradition” argument is invalid. I used to own hundreds of CDs.  Now I have an iPod.

It’s funny. I recently got an autographed copy of Hilary Davidson’s Next One to Fall (Davidson is as good a mystery writer as there is going, and I am in love with her Lily Moore series).  But a quarter of the way in, I just downloaded the e-version. It’s too fucking convenient. Plus, I read like six, seven books at once (not that I read quickly; I am an extremely slow reader). My Kindle keeps track of every place I stop. I can make notes. I do a lot of reviews, so that’s awesome. I mean, I still have friends who refuse to get on Facebook, who don’t have e-mail. And that’s OK. I don’t see much of them anymore. We live in a digital world. That’s not going to change. Last year e-versions outsold hardcover. Look for that trend to continue.

KB: On the blog, I loved reading a past post that said, “Well I hate to be a dick tease. But I have a pretty big announcement coming out this week.”  We then are left wet and waiting only to hear that not only have you made a deal with Snubnose, you’ve also signed with Vagabondage Press and Junkie Love is slated for release in 2013. My question in this is: are you in any way superstitious about your work? Are you ever afraid to jinx your work or do you think that superstition is bullshit?

JC: First, glad to hear that I still have that effect on women. Am I superstitious? Um. Yeah.  Plus, I have really bad OCD. If I enter a room through one door, I have to leave via the same door, that kind of shit. I used to fight it. But it’s easier to just go back out the same door. So, yes, I was very worried about jinxing. Plus, with this particular book, which chronicles the ten years I spent as a junkie in SF in the ’90s, we’d come so close, so many times. I’d landed an agent for that book, and we had several editors express real interest; it seemed like a deal was a foregone conclusion. Then nothing. Like overnight. Just dried up. Part of the problem I think was that James Frey had just been exposed as a fraud so folks were leery of the drug memoir (note: Junkie Love is being published as fiction, not memoir).  It’s also a pretty gritty book, which scared some folks off.  (One agent wrote in turning it down, “It’s just too gritty.  And I like gritty.”  Which I take a compliment, really). I’d sent out plenty of hopeful texts prior to Vagabondage’s accepting it. I’d get e-mails from my agent at the time, and I’d send out these texts that it looked like we had a publisher… Only to have to explain the next time I talked to someone that the deal had fallen through. I didn’t want to go through that again. This particular book has a special place in my heart. All books you write do, of course, but this one even more so. I’m grateful to Vagabondage for taking it on.

KB: Blogs—some say they’re crucial, others don’t seem to think they’re a make or break deal. After reading yours (which can be found at you write that it was, “designed to jumpstart an existing [career]. And to that end I have to say that it worked marvelously.” How much do you believe that your blog had to do with getting your work picked up? Obviously, writers have to write, but for those readers who haven’t scoured your blog, how much of a writer’s job is self-promo?

JC: The blog was instrumental. When I didn’t re-sign with my agent, who had been targeting primarily the bigger houses, the Harpers, et al, I decided to take a DIY approach, soliciting smaller, indie houses, and getting my name out there however possible. One of the problems is I write as slowly as I read. If it’s going to take a couple years to write a novel, you really want to get the most bang for your buck.  Except this is writing, and nobody is getting paid.  At least not out of the gate.  It’s a process. Rather than sit back and wait—which was killing me—I wanted to stay as busy as possible until the next novel presented itself. I wasn’t going through writer’s block necessarily, but I didn’t have an idea for the next novel. Writing the blog loosened up my brain. I wrote the blog daily as an exercise. Get 1,000 words out a day, no matter what. And Candy and Cigarettes (the blog) got me fans, presented several professional opportunities, editing, anthologies, etc.  A lot of fan mail. Not as much now, but when we were going well we had several hundred a day reading it, consistently, so people liked it, I think, and that opens up doors. Now I’m too busy with the magazine (Flash Fiction Offensive), reading series (Lip Service West), and my own work to get more than a post a week up. But I feel like if nothing else the blog kept me sane until my books were published.

The second half of your question (about self-promotion) is the important part.  And the answer is very. It’s also fucking annoying. It hit me one day as I was posting whatever link on Facebook just how many blogs and websites are out there. I’d been pushing pretty hard, trying to get people to read my blog, and it was working.  Like I said, I’d get four, five hundred readers a day.  But I posted this one day, and it just hit me. Like, holy fuck. How the hell can I keep asking people to read my random thoughts on Kate Upton and cheese? Everyone has a goddamn blog. There are writers I love and I never read their blog. Or books. There is just so much shit out there. So it’s a fine line. You need to promote. But you don’t want to be a raging douche about it. I try to treat social media, well, socially. If all I am doing is posting links to my work it’s obnoxious. That said, I don’t see how one can be a writer these days without a Facebook account. I call it The Office. Damn near every good thing that has happened to me (in terms of my writing) has been somehow linked to Facebook, or at least electronic media. Hell, my best friends and advocates, guys like Todd Robinson (of Thuglit) and Ron Earl Phillips (Shotgun Honey), Court Merrigan (another editor at Out of the Gutter), I’ve never met these guys in person. But they are as good of friends as I have, and I like it better this way. No one’s borrowing my shit or trying to fuck my wife. Plus, being a writer, I’m a social retard. Most writers are.  That’s why we write. Alone. Away from people. If I had to network like they did in the 1950s, I’d still be drinking. That’s probably why they all drank so much in the first place.

KB: Not that I think your work is exactly the dime store novel but I get this Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick, feel while reading the stories in Choice Cuts. The American dream thing, rags to riches, gutter to ground, infested to cleansed, etc. Basically the underdog generally comes out not only alive but also on top—even if the underdog was set to be the villain, which I love. You mention other works, such as Junkie Love originally being a memoir but making the choice to go novel as much of the work has become highly fictionalized. Do you see yourself, as a human being, in this manner and if so, or not, could you elaborate?

JC: I’m sad to say I’ve never read Alger.  Nor have I read Moby Dick or seen Apocalypse Now.  So much great art, such severe ADD.  What was the question?  Oh, yeah.  The American Dream.  One of my favorite quotes re: the American Dream comes from Noam Chomsky.  And I’ll paraphrase because I am too lazy to Google it.  Something like, “The capitalistic ethic treats freedom as a commodity.  It is available in principle.  You can have whatever you can afford to buy.” I’m glad you picked up on that, because the American Dream, or rather its perversion, is a reoccurring theme in most of my stories. It’s the ultimate carrot on the string, this idea that you can be anything you want to be if you just try hard enough. It’s a bedtime story we tell kids. Economics and Reality weigh more than dreams. Of course, the irony is… I am now living the American Dream.  But I’m not pounding my chest with claims that “I built it” on my own. I was extremely fortunate and blessed. I work hard. I’m also very lucky.

My milieu is the dime store novel, and a lot of my heroes take their moral cues from them. Here’s another quote: “The tragedy of life is not that the beautiful things die young. It’s that they grow old and mean.” Raymond Chandler. So these wants, even if they originate from somewhere earnest and good, often get perverted. Basically, Breaking Bad. Fuck, I should’ve written that show.

My ex-wife (the one I loved, not the other one) used to say she considered her life a work of art. That sounds terribly pretentious but if you knew her, you’d know that’s just how she was. At the time, I thought it was pretentious. But I get what she meant now. Everything is a projection. Everybody. Everything. How you want the world to see you. My whole thing is to be utterly candid, as honest as possible (while not being a dick. I mean, if you ask a question, and the truth is going to hurt you, I’ll probably lie). Holden was right. The world is filled with goddamn phonies. At the same time, you need social graces. Do I contradict myself? Very well. I contradict myself. I contain multitudes. I think that’s the Whitman line, no?

KB: In your writing, on your blog, and in recent segments with the Huffington Post, you’ve been very open about your previous drug use. You’ve been to eighteen treatment centers (correct me if I’m wrong) and on your blog say that you didn’t go the traditional AA route. Without giving away too much of your forthcoming novel, Junkie Love, can you tell us a little more about your route toward sobriety?

JC: For a long time I really hated AA. In rehabs that shit is shoved down your throat. I remember a counselor (in a residential treatment) slipping me a copy of Rational Recovery and telling me not to let anyone else see it, and walking around with the book literally inside a magazine. Back then, it was all AA, all the time. It’s changed now, I hear, less of a “one size fits all approach.” And that’s good. One size fits all seldom works for hats; it works even less for sobriety. When I was getting straight, though, it was 12 Steps or nothing, and if you failed repeatedly, as I did, the answer for why was obvious. “Because you’re not working your steps!” I couldn’t do AA. I’m too headstrong, too stubborn. And you know what? It just made my road harder. The truth is AA can be a terrific tool. Just wasn’t for me. As I get older, I find myself quoting their sayings more, practicing their principles more. I think it’s just the group mentality that got to me. I’m not big on submitting to collectives. How did I do it? Willpower. Banging my head against the wall until something got through my thick skull. In the end, you know what the most successful method for getting out of the drug lifestyle? It isn’t AA. Or Rational Recovery. Or Moderation Management or any of that. It’s maturing out of it. You just grow up. There’s a lot of misnomers about drugs and that world, which I try on the blog (and elsewhere) to dispel. One is that your using buddies aren’t your real friends. Which is a load of shit. Some of the best friends I have today were guys I met using. I met Tom Pitts (my co-editor at Flash Fiction Offensive, and who also has a book coming out with Snubnose) at a shooting gallery called Hepatitis Heights. Of course he got sober. You can’t get straight and still be friends with people using, that’s true, but just because someone used drugs doesn’t make them a bad person or unworthy. You use drugs, at least most people, to escape the pain. Until, to quote Craig Finn (of the Hold Steady) “some nights the painkillers make the pain even worse…”  When you’re living in a shooting gallery, injecting mice feces, it’s time to go.

KB: With so many “feathers in your pimp hat” as you would say, what’s next? What can readers look forward to in the literary life of Joe Clifford?

JC: I just wrapped up a mystery novel I hope will deliver me some mainstream success. I don’t consider “commercial” a dirty word. Back in the ’90s, all my friends made fun of me for liking Springsteen. They all loved Fugazi. I fucking hate Fugazi. I’d rather play the Super Bowl, y’know? So you won’t do an interview in any publication that features advertisements? Great. You and your integrity have fun playing in Ed Pudding’s living room. I think one of the hardest things to do is a write a mainstream novel. I’m not talking about wanting to be Dan Brown, and even if it came with all her money, I’d rather go back to be being homeless than be associated with that 50 Shades horseshit. I mean good writing. A well-written, mainstream novel. But where shit happens and people aren’t just hanging around a tennis court. This new book, Far from Here (working title), is a rural mystery about two brothers and a computer hard drive, drawing on the recent Jerry Sandusky case.  But it’s got all the usual Joe tropes—drugs, hookers, seedy motels, more drugs. I’m really high (pun intended) on it. And I have another YA novel about a couple of teenagers from Humboldt fleeing to Hollywood. It’s a love story, thriller called Skunk Train. Very cool. I also have a draft of a sequel to Wake the Undertaker (which Snubnose Press is publishing in December) called The Payback.  If Wake the Undertaker does well, I’ll probably finish that up.  I love the world of Wake, and it’s fun to revisit old characters.  Plus, I have Lip Service West and Flash Fiction Offensive. I recently finished editing an old W.R. Burnett novel for Gutter Books, where I work as an editor. I love editing, and I hope to do more of that.  And I’ll keep at the short stories, of course, especially now that Thuglit is back in business (and paying!). It’s the best e-zine out there (including my own). And I’m hoping to get into publishing other authors. We’re talking right now, Matt Louis (Gutter Books Editor), Court, Tom, and I about putting out an anthology. Which will be fun. I can honestly say I get as much of a bang out of promoting other authors.

I’m very fortunate in that I get to treat writing like a full time job.