Elmaz Abinader: Looking Inward

Elmaz Abinader’s books, Children of the Roojme, a Family’s Journey from Lebanon, and In the Country of my Dreams, as well as her play, Country of Origin, all illustrate personal lives negotiating hostile terrain.  

Elmaz recently performed Country of Origin at the Kennedy Center; Oregon Drama Critics cited Country of Origin for its excellence by awarding two Drammies to the play and to the composer of the music, Tony Khalife. Other awards include a PEN Award for In the Country of My Dreams and a Goldies Award for Literature. Elmaz has also been a Fulbright Senior Fellow to Egypt and a winner of several residencies.

Now a professor at Mills College, Elmaz’s primary concern is giving voice to other writers of color. Her participation in VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation) allows her the opportunity to make a difference in the growth of the cannon of literature of color.

Her upcoming work, The Water Cycle, is at memoir that draws from the author’s childhood experiences growing up in a all-white Appalachian coal mining community and her subsequent journeys around the world. Each story describes an encounter with the shaky concept of identity and cultural relationship.

In addition, Elmaz is a fitness instructor at the YMCA in Oakland CA where she lives with her husband Anthony Byers.

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

MJ: Elmaz, you write in every genre. Your first book was a memoir—Children of the Roojme—and you later published a collection of poems—The Country of my Dreams—and several plays. When did you know you had stories you wanted to tell and when did you get up the courage to tell them?

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

EA: Like many writers of color, as I was coming up, I scavenged books for an experience that matched mine. I wasn’t the typical young American girl that showed up in YA novels, or the boy learning about the world in James Joyce or Faulkner. My experience was not represented: a life of merging cultures, an identity that resisted assimilation but had to find a way to co-exist with the dominant culture. These disparities had no place in American literature yet and that absence fermented a loneliness that many can relate to. Poetry was the way I responded to this. Poetry allows the story and the emotion equal presence inside of it—I could fill a poem with the picture, pull the thread of culture and honor through it.

When I allowed myself to look inward, I recognized how I was the product of these two cultures which formed a third one that aligned me with other members of a Diaspora. The story of my life begins with the travels of my parents and when I listened to them, the history of my family–the encounters with unrest, famine, loss, civil war, and ultimately immigration–impressed me as something heroic. I realized that many people around me had similar stories—the other immigrant shopkeepers, the field workers, cab drivers—the fabric of our culture is woven with these stories. Arab-Americans had no representation in the genre in a big way.  I wanted to share the stories much like Maxine Hong Kingston did.

MJ: For the past few years, you have hosted summer writing workshops on memoir and creative non-fiction at the University of San Francisco’s Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA). The foundation is dedicated to nurturing writers of color and, when I attended the first VONA residency in Miami, my fellow residents and I discussed the struggle with being an ethnic writer—one from a distinctive culture, language, or religion—and we examined the pressure that comes from representing a specific group. Is this a struggle for you?

EA: Our people pin our hopes on the one writer or actor or artist who gets attention to be the one to tell their story. Because we are all complex and individual, we can’t possible represent the race; we can only open the door on it. The pressure is not on me to represent, it’s on me to help other Arab-American stories and the voices of other writers-of-color be present—not just one Junot Diaz or one David Mura, but the many Junots and Davids. The frustration is the industry’s satisfaction of having a small collection or a single author from an identity is enough. This was the impulse behind VONA/Voices—to push our work so hard, develop our voices so elegantly, they cannot be ignored and we can populate the shelves.

MJ: Some of my stories have been accused of not being “ethnic” enough. Evidently, it didn’t suffice that the core of my writing was about the human experiences of family, love, longing and disappointment, and individuals negotiating a life amidst the pressure of society. I felt that readers wanted me to write about specifically identifiable ethnic experiences. As far as publishing goes, do you think that a writer of color who sets himself apart from the easily recognizable cultural typecasting may find his or her work rejected or ignored because it is “not ethnic enough”?

EA: Here’s my response to this and to other worries about industry or audience: write first, write true, write with commitment and write with conscious. Don’t write to or for anyone, to be or appear to be anyone—put those thoughts away. Know that people, publishers, industry all are loaded with their own assumptions and need to the familiar. That’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to grow that image, not engender it.

MJ: You are a professor at Mills College. Do you think it is possible for creative writing pedagogy to take a colorblind approach?

EA: I don’t think pedagogy should be colorblind. When we interact with writing and the writer, all that is part of the work is present.  What really needs to happen is pedagogues need to learn to read and teach everyone in their room—not neutralize the responses. This means that your book would have the same elements as a mainstream book , but that’s impossible. Your education wasn’t the only contribution to your literary talent, so  were your songs, your food, your family culture, your spirituality, your languages, your relationships, your body’s geography—

MJ: As a writer of color, how do you fight the racialized assumptions, such as: writers of color are political and white writers focus on artistic quality; race exists only as political correctness; a writer’s ethnicity defines that writer’s audience.

EA: As a writer of color, I ignore ignorance and write as honestly as possible.

MJ: Growing up in Pennsylvania, your home life was very much rooted in Lebanese tradition. Can you talk about popular depictions of Lebanese women and girls, and where they fit in our popular imaginations, and if or how you see your work as a response to that?

EA: The connection between my work and identity as an Arab-American has less to do with Lebanese (in Lebanon) than it does with other writers of color. The Lebanese women are in a homogenous culture that has its own set of complexities which are quite different than the merged identities of immigrants, African Americans and American Indians and other native peoples. Lebanese women (Christian, mostly) are beauty icons of the Middle East.

In the US, most women of color who are in the public realm do have to respond to particular stereotypes and expectations about their behavior. I don’t find it a struggle; I find it boring and had hoped by now the exoticization might have dissipated. When Rima Fakih became Miss America in 2010, the anti-Muslim factions in the US did their usual smear campaigns. Simultaneously some Islamic communities took issue with her being in the pageant at all.

We are all in the unfortunate process of growing the perspective about our people through our work.

MJ: What are some writers who have influenced you?

EA: I am often tempted not to answer this question because I honor most of the writers I read by learning something from them. All the VONA/Voices faculty have been great influences, as are the program’s participants.  When I was young, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende, Louise Erdrich, James Baldwin,  signed their names to the permission slip that encouraged me. I am moved by poets, magic realists, modern American short story, and true stories. I write to jazz, Omar Sosa, Miles Davis, Marcus Miller, Roy Hargrove, Regina Carter, Simon Shaheen and Marcel Khalife.  I love movies. I am influenced by silence and stillness too.

MJ: Tell us a little bit about your upcoming work The Water Cycle.

EA: The Water Cycle is a collection of memoir stories that take place in my two hometowns in Pennsylvania and in various countries in the Middle East.

Dorianne Laux: Poet of Compassion

Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon.
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Oregon Book Award and The Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry, Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions. She teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

Dorianne Laux was interviewed by Marina Pruna for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Marina Pruna: I believe that whether attached to age or not, there comes a time when we see who we are and come to embrace this self.  I think that this is true for poets too.   I’m a poet who is trying to “figure out” the world.  I might become a different poet at some point in my life, but today, I have to accept that I am this kind of poet.

Have you had a similar experience in that your poetry has shown you something about yourself as a person or artist or woman that you just can’t deny?  How has your poetry defined you?

Dorianne Laux: I guess I’ve been defined by the fact that I’ve chosen to write in the narrative mode, which many see as easy or self- involved or passé.  And I’ve chosen to write as a woman, which can have its downside as well.  Men are the dominant voice in every field: art, history, politics, literature.  One’s tendency might be to lean in that direction, to develop a sort of genderless poetic landscape and voice, non-domestic, unspecific, one that could easily be mistaken for male. I guess I’ve chosen not to do that.  I could have also chosen to be more ironic, a bit tougher, darker, critical, cynical and less hopeful.   But maybe that hasn’t been a choice.  It’s just not who I am.

MP: I’m always surprised and impressed by your selection of occasion in a poem.  For example, in Facts About the Moon, the poem “Superglue” is as much about the speaker gluing her fingers together as it is a realization that she is alive in this world and in love in this world.  There’s a real sense of fear and awe in the poem.  I find that your poems often do this: talk about something huge like consciousness or love through a very tangible vehicle like superglue or elk crossing the road.  Can you speak to how you make those decisions of occasion when writing?

DL: It seems to me it’s the other way around; the occasion of the poem brings up issues deeply embedded in the subconscious, fear and awe being two overwhelming emotions that if we were to feel them all the time would crush us.  So, they make subtle appearances to give us a portal into that subliminal world.  I’m fairly unaware of the implications of a specific occasion when I choose to write about it.  The experience occurs, I have a human response in the sense that it might seem strange or funny, memorable or striking in some way, and then [I] sit down to reexamine it in a poem.  Both the poems you refer to are humorous situations, and as far as I knew, I merely wanted to capture that humor in image and language.  What arose as I wrote was metaphor, and the truer aspects of awe and fear that were hidden behind the humor, or beneath it.  It seems as we move through life, life also moves through us.  A poem is an attempt to capture and arrest those two movements in time and space, or rather allow them to collide and interpenetrate each other. 

MP: I find that image making has a lot to do with observation.  The keener the observer, the more insightful the image, it seems to me.  I’d like to go back to your first book.  In Awake, you have many poems that have a powerful image followed by an admission or realization from the speaker.  In “Quarter to Six,” for example, there’s the jump from bread to a scar: “Tearing open my bread, I see / the scar, stitches laced up the root of your arm, the flesh messy / where you grabbed at it with the broken glass of an ashtray” (17).  Or in “Bird,” the three lines at the end: “I’m alone with dead roses in a jam jar. / What do I have that she could want enough / to risk such failure, again and again?” (34).  Aside from using images to concretize a moment for the reader, how do you decide to opt for an image, instead of narration, let’s say?  What do you gain and what do you lose by making this choice?

DL: I would most often prefer to opt for an image instead of narration. It’s so clear that the image is the more powerful of the two.  On the other hand, images alone cannot tell the story, and I am nothing if not a teller of stories.  But I’m not sure I consciously “opt” for one over another as I write.  The story itself, as I mentioned earlier, often engenders metaphor quite organically and I simply follow the poem’s lead in that respect.  In revision though, if I see a lax line, I might try to make that line into an image.  This is especially true of last lines in a poem.  I’ll have the urge to sum things up in a statement which is almost always less powerful than the image that often precedes it.  I’m a great fan of lopping off the endings of poems and leaving the reader with an image, trusting it to do the work.  I guess I would say that for me, the success of a narrative poem is in the right balance of narration to image.  What that balance is varies from poem to poem.  I also don’t see the narration as merely a way of getting from one place to another.  An image can do that as well, or a cascade of images.  For me, narration is a complex web that should hold everything in a poem together with an almost invisible and tensile strength. I think of a narrative master such as Larry Levis.  Look at the opening of his poem ADOLESCENCE.

The narration begins simply enough in the first line, a narrator, a character, a setting, but by the second line, we find ourselves contemplating the inner realms of the human mystery. The third line is, again, a simple setting: character, action and place, but by the fourth, we are taken into the past, into death, mystery.  And then the trees appear, as they will in various forms throughout this poem, and we watch them become intermediary or liaison, uniting the past with the present, the heavens with the earth.  So that, when Levis leaps backwards in the next stanza to the age of fifteen, speaking of death in the same breath as the event of a carnival and its silly games of chance, of Laredo, Texas and a stranger, of the girl’s gambler father weeping as the narrator looks off into the trees and makes that absurd and unbearably tender statement, we don’t feel battered around in time and space.  Rather we feel events are “unfolding” as they should, even though we have been wrenched from one set of characters to another, one time and place to another, one way of thinking and feeling to another, and all at lightning speed.  And because of the authority of voice, the meandering style, the slow, thoughtful, intimate tone, we believe that all these oddly disparate details and images will be held together in the shimmering web of the narrative.  This is what I think all poetic narratives seek to do, create stories within stories, layer upon layer of feeling and meaning, spinning it out like a spider, weaving this delicate net that holds time and space, image and language, clarity and mystery.  

MP: I’ve been a fan of your poetry for a very long time, and in preparing for this interview, I reread all of your books in chronological order.  I found that, with your first book, your eye was mostly pointed inward toward self (like creating a personal tapestry), and with each subsequent book, the eye did a couple of things.  First, thematically, the eye seems to have shifted to point more outwardly.  But, also, when looking in, the eye seems to look further in.  In essence, I found that the voice in your work from book to book has expanded both inwardly and outwardly.  How do you sit down to a poem now?  Or does the poem come to you?  (a line? an image?)  Has this act of coming to a poem changed for you fundamentally since you started writing?

DL: I think the fundamental change for me has been in my awareness of myself as a writer, a poet.  When I first began, I was a child who understood very little of the world around me or inside of me.  That was the whole point of writing it down, so I could see it again, study it, contemplate it.  As I grew in experience and knowledge, I came to the page with more formed and formal questions, while at the same time, allowing myself much more freedom of exploration.  Also, the more I read and admired the writing of masters, the more I felt compelled to consciously imitate and experiment.  Even so, the inspired poems come to me on the wings of yes, an image, a line, a snippet of conversation, a look or gesture, a feeling.  There are so many ways into a poem and each poem has its own unique genesis.  I also think what you describe in the arc of my writing is not unique to me. All writers begin with an investigation of the self and move to an examination of the other.  Again, this could be a definition of the act of writing which is first and foremost an exploration, moving from the inner world to the outer world, and back again, each time moving deeper, reaching higher, including more, stripping it down, searching out essence and eternity, the smallest detail that can illuminate, dipping into the darkness.

MP: You did an interview a while back with Willow Springs where, in talking about authors you read habitually and who inspire you, you said, “I love poetry that feels as it thinks.”  What did you mean by that?

DL: In some ways, this is what we’ve been talking about all along, the image that says something more powerful than words, the one word that can join every image.  When that happens, feeling engenders thinking, or thinking links up with feeling, and produces something we don’t know with the mind or heart alone. 

MP: I read in several different interviews with you that your husband, Joseph Millar, is an early reader of your work.  In those same interviews, I remember reading that you have a kind of community of readers, close friends and colleagues, that also have a chance to look at and comment on your work (editing, revision, ordering) before it heads out to a publisher.  This made me wonder how you view community with respect to your writing.  What do these readers point out that you can’t see?  Of what they say, what do you listen to?  Can you write without them at the finish line?

DL: I love and cherish my readers.  They see what I might be too caught up to see.  When one writes with passion and abandon, one can say some fairly silly things or make some pretty ridiculous comparisons.  Of course I could finish a poem without them, but it might take longer.  They save me time, as I hope I save them time.  And more importantly, they ask questions I might not have asked myself, or again, that might have taken me more time to come to. I listen to everything, with gratitude.  Whatever makes sense or feels right, I use.   

MP: During revision and editing, when “tightening up” a poem, what do you do?  What do you ask yourself?  What do you ask the poem?

DL: There’s a great list by Jane Hirshfield, in The Poet’s Companion, of questions to ask of a poem in revision.  A few of my favorites are:  “Is there joy, depth, muscle in the music of its saying?”, “Does it follow its own deepest impulses, not necessarily the initial idea?”, “Does it know more than you did when you started it?”, “Is it self-satisfied, predictable?”, “Does it allow strangeness?”.  Hirshfield asks more practical questions as well, but these are, I think, some of the more important and enduring questions.  But mostly I ask the poem what it wants.  Do you really want to go down that road, I ask.  Yes, it says.  I know that road makes you uncomfortable, and it will be a bumpy ride with few stops along he way, and maybe a wrong turn or two, but yes, I want to take that road.  The poem always knows better and more than I do.

MP: Your latest book is The Book of Men.  In rereading this last book side by side with your previous work, I was particularly taken with the confidence in the writing.  Where the confidence of Awake and What We Carry seems an undercurrent with courage as the star, in this book, as well as in Facts About the Moon, I feel like you are in a groove, writing with the ease of an artist who knows her toolbox well and can just sit back and enjoy the process.  Is this observation accurate?  Are you able to sit back and let the poetry come freely and through you?  Or are there still pockets of unexpressed emotion that keep you up at night?  Or, do you do both?

DL: Writing poems is easy.  Writing good poems is difficult.  Writing a great poem is almost impossible.  This is why I try not to think about it.  If I contemplated how many actual great poems there are in the world, and how hard it is to write one, I would give up.  I just go, as Frank O’Hara says, on my nerve.   I think poets, and artists in general, have to have this combination of audacity and humbleness.  On the one hand, you have to have this grand and supreme faith in yourself that what you see, hear, touch, taste, think and feel, has importance, and will be meaningful to another human being.  On the other hand, you have to know deep down that what you are trying to do is impossible, unattainable, unfeasible, impractical, out of the question, and completely hopeless.  And then you try anyway. 

MP: In an interview with Benjamin Alire Saenz for Birds on a Wire, you said that it was your husband who, in backing up and organizing your computer, ordered and sectioned poems that became The Book of Men.  How did his vision affect the way you saw those poems?

DL: Oh, it affected me completely!  I had no real idea I had written that many poems about men, or that I was so obsessed with my various visions of men.  I would have thought, if you’d asked me, that I was writing more poems about women and family, about myself.  But when Joe brought me the manuscript as he saw it, it rearranged my idea of what I had been doing quite unconsciously.  And I was delighted!  Maybe it took a man to see that I was writing about men.  I also liked the way he put the book in two sections, with the women in the second section playing off the men in the first.  It was truly brilliant.  I’m a lucky woman.

MP: I found out that your new book was out at roughly the same time that I was given an eReader as a gift.  So, I decided to purchase The Book of Men on my eReader to see how the experience of reading poetry there differed.  With the ability to adjust font size, see only one page at a time, and make “marginal” notes as inserts, I quickly found myself really missing the paper-glue artifact and a pen.  How do you feel about poetry on eReaders?  Do they impact your writing?

DL: I love my Kindle and iPad, mostly for travel and for novels or memoir, prose.  The fact that you can choose from thousands of novels on a plane trip without having to haul them all with you is a relief, and the backlighting of the iPad is also great when you want to read and your mate is asleep.   But yes, for poetry, I prefer the paper and glue.  Poetry books are relatively cheap and easy to carry with you in almost any circumstance.   And they’ve become such beautiful works of art.  There’s absolutely no excuse these days for a poetry book cover that isn’t downright gorgeous, or for a font that isn’t exquisite, or paper that isn’t luscious.  It also goes without saying that the intimacy of poetry seems to ask for the slim delicacy of the hand held book.

MP: Of your books, do you have a favorite?  A least favorite?  Why?

DL: Not really.  After five books I have actually begun to forget poems I’ve written- not in a did-I-write-that way, but in a long ago, far away way, as in how-many-eons-have-passed-since-that-poem.

MP: Who are you reading these days that really turns on and stretches your mind?

DL: I remember really liking the unbridled energy of Richard Siken’s Crush when it came out. I always love Lucia Perillo.  Luck is Luck is a good book. But all her books are good.  She is so damn strange.  I just can’t get enough of her skewed visions and quirky way of saying a thing.   Eleanor Lerman’s Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds.  Catie Rosemurgy’s My Favorite Apocalypse.

MP: In today’s world where we’re at once over-stimulated and never fully engaged in one thing at a time, poetry asks us to stop for a minute and just breathe . . .  with our eyes, our fingers, our tongues, our ears and our emotional lungs.  Dorianne Laux, what is your job as a poet?

DL: To keep breathing as long as I can! And to keep writing.

Paul Lisicky’s Stories Are Built to Last

The titles of Paul Lisicky’s books reveal a writer concerned with the process of building and demolition—of the self. Whether he’s writing fiction, memoir, poetry, or, more recently, blurring the lines between all those genres, Lisicky explores the process and power of identity. He and his characters struggle to erect and maintain the narratives which help them define and understand their world, only to see the wrecking ball of desire and chaos bring them down. Robert Olen Butler said of Lisicky, “(he is) one of the select writers who continues to teach me about the complexities of the human heart.” Lisicky is the author of the novels Lawnboy (1999) and The Burning House (2011); the memoir, Famous Builder (2002); and the forthcoming collection of prose pieces, Unbuilt Projects; and the memoir, The Narrow Door.

His work has appeared in Tin House, Fence, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Story Quarterly, and in many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Henfield Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. Lisicky has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden.

Paul was interviewed by Nicholas Garnett for Sliver of Stone.

NG: One theme that runs strongly through your work is the mutability of identity and the ability to redefine ourselves. Reinvention seems so closely linked to the American experience and the American Dream, where upward mobility and success meant one could wipe the slate clean, often at the expense of heritage and tradition. In your memoir, Famous Builder, you describe your family’s relocation to a new suburban housing development in the 60s, and the way that new house helped define your family’s sense of identity. How do you think that reinvention and the search for identity have shaped you and your writing?

PL: I grew up with the sense that you could make up your life. If you wanted to be, say, a trumpet player, you could do it if you had some talent, but you had to want it, and terribly. A lot of the kids I grew up with ended up doing extraordinary things in the arts when they were still young. We didn’t think there was anything unusual about that. But we also knew that aspirations could be dangerous. How would we support ourselves? In that way we were different from kids who came from money, who took their privilege for granted, who had something to fall back on, as they say. They were more sophisticated than we were. They were more likely to know the limits of what they could do. So–a long way of saying that our naiveté had some use. A certain kind of naiveté about your potential isn’t always a bad thing. I don’t know if you could be good at any art without believing, at some unspoken level, that you had the capacity to do something amazing.

NG: Since Famous Builder was published back in 2002, the foundations of the American Dream have taken a hit: First, the attacks of 9/11, the targets of which were iconic structures. Then, the great recession and subsequent housing market crash, which ruined the value of people’s homes and the identity they had placed in them. These days, the world seems a far less optimistic place than the one in which you dreamed to be, literally, a famous builder. That book explored the power of reinvention in an essentially positive way—the building of self. In your forthcoming memoir, The Narrow Door, you portray a slow dismantling of self: Your friend’s death from cancer. Your mother’s dementia. How do you think your more recent writing has been shaped by changes to the American psyche?

PL: I actually think Famous Builder has a really dark current inside all its brightness. The speaker’s role models fail as much as they win. The father is hunted by the possibility of being poor again; the stylish next door neighbor thinks about suicide; Bill Levitt goes broke, loses his mansion and yacht, and on and on. I’m not sure the speaker is able to make links between these situations; he sort of assumes that their struggles are character-based, rather than about something larger. He gets it, finally, after that embarrassment in the recording studio. Achievement and failure are interdependent. Is there something American about that? Maybe.

You’re right that the world is a much less optimistic place than it was when I started that book. When was that–the late 90′s? As I was writing, I did have this gut feeling that the book was becoming an elegy for a world that was about to pass on. You could just feel it in the atmosphere: the sense of a world about to change hugely. As for my more recent work? There’s no question that a lot of it’s darker than it was. Part of that is the state of things, the state of the world. Part of that is going through life stuff–the kind of life stuff we all go through at some point. I couldn’t possibly write another Famous Builder now. Even if I were to write about the same situations, I’m sure the focus wouldn’t be self-reinvention.

All that said, I think it would be cheap and false to say that darkness is something that necessarily comes with getting older. I feel as optimistic as I feel desolate, and I feel both of those states simultaneously, all the time. I hope that that simultaneous-ness is on every page of my work.

NG: Your stories often explore the power of labels and the naming of things, yet your recent work obliterates the traditional notions of genre. Stories from the forthcoming Unbuilt Projects have been published as poetry, fiction, and memoir. Are you making a conscious effort to subvert genre?

PL: I love lists and labels in general, while I’m also really, really wary of the power of classifications. I know how they limit us, keep us in our space. An artist needs to roam, and I think my mind feels most at home when it’s in some in-between place. There’s something fertile about the edges. They’re not so tramped on. The edges haven’t already been interpreted. I get excited by the compression of poetry, the questioning that moves an essay along, the attempt to represent the inner life, which I associate with the project of fiction. I want to make something that borrows from the three worlds. I’m certainly not the first one to do that–think of Amy Hempel, who’s been doing that for years, longer than anyone was able to see it. But I do think I might be getting bolder as a hybridist.

NG: In stories such as “The Boy and His Mother Are Stuck!” you defy traditional storytelling by making us conscious of it, undermining the “vivid, continuous dream”—the fantasy world many of us are taught to create and maintain by writing teachers. Are you getting even with your instructors, or trying to make a larger point regarding the artifice of story?

PL: I think a story like that is really conscious of writing against the reader’s expectations. By that I mean, credibility, sympathy, linearity, coherence–all the characteristics we often assume make a story. I wasn’t so much getting back at my teachers or students or workshops in general (I teach workshops) but felt the need to lampoon the need for narrative. The story incorporates the ghost of a workshop experience, as if the speaker is imagining the workshopping of the story as he’s telling it. “The Boy and His Mother Are Stuck” was written at a time when I felt absolutely changed by my mother’s dementia all the way down to my cells. Linear storytelling seemed artificial to me then. Language was breaking down. Communication was gap, disjunction. Cause and effect? Meaningless. I was just trying to find a container for all that confusion, which is how Unbuilt Projects came to be.

The irony is that I’m now writing a series of mostly linear short shorts, often in the form of fables, parables, and little myths. The mind must be impatient for some kind of order again. Or at least a one-foot-in-front-of-the-next kind of order in which plot is predominant.

NG: Your writing is beautifully lyrical. It is also characterized by exactness in the language and a powerful, almost sermon-like quality to the prose. Perhaps that’s not so surprising, given two of your earliest passions were diagramming entire housing developments (right down to the street names) and singing and composing liturgical music, both of which require precision and great attention to detail. I imagine your house is spotless and meticulously organized! Seriously, is your writing process similarly structured and ordered?

PL: You’re making me laugh, because I just realized I won’t leave my apartment until everything is straightened up. I don’t like coming back to a mess. Evan in Lawnboy cleans motel rooms; Isidore in The Burning House cleans houses. I’ve been revealed, my God!

Seriously, I think I have to subvert my inclination toward neatness when I write. I used to be one of those people who sat at his desk, in his study, for a set number of hours a day. That’s not true anymore. Here’s an example. I was trying to write a few days ago; nothing was happening. I was feeling weighted so I started distracting myself with Twitter. I decided I’d feel a little less pressure if I went out to get something to eat. I went out to get something to eat. I don’t know what it was that made me take out my phone at the restaurant. I wasn’t trying to write. People were chatting to my left and right, there was music on, someone knocking into the leaves of the plant in the corner, and within a minute I was thumbing sentences into the notebook on my phone. The commas seemed to be coming at all the right places; the meaning was in sync with the sound. I did as much as I could until I could feel myself about to force the next sentence, a kind of closure to the paragraph. I stopped. I emailed the paragraph to myself. When I got home, I looked at the paragraph, copied it into an email, changed the font to 18-point so that every word mattered more than it would in another format. That night I went back to the story again. By writing it in an email, I was tricking myself into thinking I wasn’t actually working. I was having fun, playing, or hoping to. By the time the story got further along, I started working on it in the usual way, in a document on my laptop. But as you can see my way into all that was pretty sneaky. And far from orderly.

NG: Many writers struggle with how to reveal character, especially through detail and description. You have mastered that technique. In your novel, The Burning House, your narrator describes his wife’s younger sister, with whom he is falling in love: “Same sweet crooked mouth, same moist hair falling down her back, same tendency to keep her shoulders raised, as if she had to correct what her posture really wanted to do.” And, on the next page: “The corners of her mouth turned up as if she were about to smile, the kind of half-smile you learn to make when you’re used to getting news you’re not exactly able to hear.”

These descriptions are so specific and telling. How do you come up with them? Do they come naturally to you, or is this an element of craft you’ve consciously had to develop?

PL: I’m sure I learned that from studying other writers. When I was working on The Burning House, I was teaching the stories of Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro, and Lorrie Moore, who are all masters when it comes to getting their characters’ physicality on the page. They’re interested in bodies, facial reactions, gestures, and how these might reveal their characters’ inner lives. In other words, what they withhold, what they might not be able to disguise, what they might not even know about themselves. In those two quotes, it seems clear that the narrator is seeing his sister-in-law’s attempts to hold herself together in the face of disappointment. I’m always compelled by the tension between the spoken and the unspoken. Not a small percentage of our daily exchanges are dedicated to maintaining agreeableness, a kind of social equilibrium. We’re terrified of awkwardness, at least overtly. I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. What kind of world would it be if no one had a filter, if everyone spoke exactly how they felt at any given moment? As much as we might prize honesty, it would be unbearable. We wouldn’t be able to stand it! So there’s always another layer of communication that’s revealed by the body. And I try to do my best to make use of all that.

Chris Hannan, Louisiana Poet

Born and raised in New Orleans, Chris Hannan is a 2004 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts where he received a bachelor of arts in the Classics, and a 2008 graduate of the the Loyola University, New Orleans, College of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Loyola Law Review.  His poetry has appeared in the Magnolia Quarterly, The Classical Outlook, Towncreek Poetry, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and is forthcoming in The Texas Review and The Connecticut Review.  He was awarded First Prize in the 2004 Gulf Coast Writers’ Association’s annual Let’s Write contest for his poem “Pointing to the Brain,” and was the runner-up in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Poetry Competition for his poem “Epithalamion.”   Most recently, Chris won the Grand Prize in the 2012 Tennessee Williams Festival Poetry Contest for his cycle of poems entitled “The Nephilim.”

Chris is currently an attorney in the New Orleans offices of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz.  He and his wife Emily live in Mid-City, New Orleans, with their son Jack William and two cats.

Chris was interviewed by Laura Richardson for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Laura Richardson: One of your poems, “Leadbelly,” that we published in this issue is a surprising mix of American song form and Greek mythology. What inspired this poem?

Chris Hannan: Growing up in New Orleans with music loving parents, I was constantly surrounded by the rich musical heritage of the city and the region. A part of this musical culture that always intrigued me, even as a child, was the immense mythology of Louisiana music, peopled by characters such as John Henry, Stag O’Lee, and countless others. These mythic personalities stuck with me throughout my youth and into my college days when I majored in the Classics. At some point, I realized that the music I had grown up with and still listened to was the mythology of America, or at least the Deep South. All the characters whose stories were told over and over again by Leadbelly, Professor Longhair, and a myriad of other local musicians were simply reincarnations of the archetypes sung of by Homer, Pindar, and Hesiod. With this realization of the motific importance of the familiar songs of my youth, I started working on a series of poems that connect the mythic characters of Louisiana’s musical heritage with the myths of ancient Greece.

The point of connecting the ancient myths with the modern is to emphasize that, while the characters have changed their faces and names, the underlying meaning of their stories is the same. Or, if not the same, still  relevant in new and potentially unexpected ways in our modern times.

In terms of form, the poems approximate the basic meters and rhyme schemes of the original songs on which they are based. This use of song forms is meant to mimic the ancient tradition, best exemplified in the odes of Pindar, of adhering to established forms while simultaneously reinterpreting well-known myths.

LR: How do you decide on your character pairings, for example, in this poem, Leadbelly and Tanatalus? What are some of your other pairings?

CH: I try to match the songs with myths that involve similar symbols, themes, or plot elements.  For example, the song “Midnight Special” (the basis for my poem “Leadbelly”) talks in the beginning about the monotony of prison food; this evoked for me the myth of Tantalus, who was condemned in Tartarus to eternal hunger and thirst – with food and water just beyond his reach – after he tricked the gods into eating the flesh of his own son.  As another example, my poem “Junco Partner” – after the Professor Longhair song about a sort of anti-hero drunkard – incorporates aspects of the myths of Dionysus, the god of wine.  Other pairings include the myth of Jason and Medea with the song “Frankie and Johnie,” the myth of Prometheus with the song “John Henry,” and the myth of Penelope and Odysses with the song “Little Liza Jane.”

LR: You recently won the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival 2012 poetry contest. Would you talk a little about that work?

CH: I was very humbled to be selected as the grand prize winner in the Tennessee Williams contest – in particular because of the nature of the poems that won.  The winning five-poem cycle is entitled “The Nephilim” and it tells the story of the gutting of my grandmother’s house in Chalmette, Louisiana (just south and east of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish) after Hurricane Katrina, and our search for her wedding ring that she had left behind when she evacuated.  The best part of the whole experience was that my grandmother was able to attend the reading that I gave as part of the festival.  The poems are published in the current issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas (the journal of the Louisiana endowment for the humanities), which is available in print and online at http://www.leh.org/html/lcv.html.

Lynne Barrett: Magpies

Lynne Barrett is the award-winning author of  the story collections The Secret Names of Women, The Land of Go, and, most recently, Magpies, which was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press Sept. 1, 2011. She co-edited Birth: A Literary Companion and The James M. Cain Cookbook.  Her work has appeared in Delta Blues, A Dixie Christmas, Miami Noir, One Year to a Writing Life, Simply the Best Mysteries, A Hell of a Woman, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Night Train, The Southern Women’s Review, The Review Review, and many other anthologies and journals.

Lynne has received the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery story from the Mystery Writers of America, the Moondance International Film Festival award for Best Short story, and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Florida International University and edits The Florida Book Review.

Lynne was interviewed by Laura Richardson for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

LR: In your blog post “Why Magpies?,” you touch on the “two human sides to magpie acquisitiveness.” Magpies also have a reputation for chattering, and I was struck by that as I read your stories, the “talk” of humanity, from the incessant noise of the media to conversations between intimates. I wondered if that aspect seemed heightened because of the title, or did it influence your writing?

LB: I can’t say that the notion of magpies’ “chatter” influenced me. But I did think about different approaches to dialogue as I wrote and revised the stories. In “One Hippopotamus,” for a lot of the piece one character tells a story, the other at times interrupts, questions, and interprets the story being told, and the teller reacts to this, explaining himself and understanding her—both are speaking and listening to each other closely. That’s a story about two lovers, and what they reveal to each other through dialogue changes their relationship. On the other hand, in “When, He Wondered,” a story of crime and conspiracy, there is very little dialogue, and what is said aims to prompt action. The story begins with a character initiating an affair with one provocative line, and there’s a later spot where characters have a conversation they know will be kept on an answering machine, as (false) evidence of innocence. Words—and silence—are used to manipulate and deceive. In one story there’s an attempt to communicate across language differences, while in another we see unexpected consequences of the malicious speech of a gossip columnist.

Your question has made me think about how the word “chatter” has changed in the past ten years. It used to convey meaningless babble, but since 9-11 we’ve spoken of the “chatter” picked up in communications overheard among terrorists, which to me implies excitement and sinister intentions, something bad about to happen, a heightened tension and alertness. I think there’s some element of that in the stories, the tension always of wondering what others really are up to, that a line that seems light could mean more.

LR: Yes, I thought there was a question running through many of the stories of the worth not just of objects or real property, but of what others are saying, or words in general.

In “Gossip and Toad” there is an illustration of human “magpieness” when Tally, the gossip columnist, considers how she learned to “gather shreds and twigs of information from which she could shape something.” That raises the issue of words as commodities, an idea also seen in “Links” where the inflated market value of an advertising website is contrasted with a chronically broke but culturally significant literary magazine.

One of the essential tasks that confronts your characters, it seems, is determining what is valuable amidst a wide array of often baffling choices. Is it money? Is it prestige? Love? What is worth pursuing? And whichever you choose, how do you know you are getting it? These conditions make the “fear of loss” and “desire mingled with anxiety” you reference almost unavoidable. Would you agree with that assessment?

LB: Yes. I like stories where characters’ values are revealed by the actions they take. Uncertainty enhances this—it not only magnifies the tension, it forces the character to choose an idiosyncratic path rather than a generic “safe” or “reasonable” one. I like to follow the entanglements of complications as characters learn who they are and the consequences of what they do.

LR: Could you elaborate on that?

LB: Well, let me go back to “Links.” The cultural significance of the literary magazine is partly its sheer endurance, having been around (though “chronically broke” as you deftly put it) since the 1890s. It’s not clear that it contained anything so wonderful. No one seems to do more than shrug when it goes under (just before the start of the story), but it has value to the narrator, who worked there, underpaid, for years, and wouldn’t have left if it hadn’t collapsed. She knows this may be a sign of inertia or misplaced loyalty, and she’s certainly been told it was foolish when there was money to be made. After the magazine is gone, and when she and the website venture are prospering, she alone goes to visit the editor in his retirement where he is supposedly writing a history of the magazine and going through its records, which consist mainly of letters from distinguished contributors begging to be paid. It’s not that she has illusions—the magazine exploited writers, and the editor is a curmudgeon. She asks herself why she goes, why she’s a softie, but is she soft or not? She’s stubbornly committed to her attachments, and she doesn’t follow the herd. Her loyalty and endurance show up elsewhere in the story, too, and have unexpected results, as the literary and commercial marketplaces provide more twists towards the end of the story.

LR: One of the aspects of your stories I appreciate most is that they don’t suffer from conventional morality. Lies are not always wrong, criminal activity is not always punished, and even malicious acts can have beneficial outcomes. Does this reflect your worldview, or is it more in service to designing interesting plots?

LB: I suppose I see a world that has strange, and often double, outcomes, where something gained means something else lost. “Getting away with” a crime, for instance, means there’s an ongoing tension that can eat into the person’s sense of self, exposing what was hidden.

I am sure there are traits and actions I expect the reader to consider “bad.” Selfishness is one, let’s say, but selfishness so often betrays itself that it can be self-defeating—and a malicious or heedless act can produce an unexpected benefit to the intended victim. That’s fun, for me, thinking about those complexities. I wouldn’t say that I design plots, so much as I discover them, and enjoy the way a situation can turn around.

And here’s a huge advantage the short story has over the novel, these days. Agents and editors looking at novels talk about wanting a “likeable” protagonist, meaning one not going to offend some large conventional audience. But for the length of a short story, we can stand to be with someone who is not whatever likeable might mean—sympathetic, admirable, high-minded, without fault?—but who is perhaps sneaky or mean or selfish or stubborn or desperately driven to do things he or she shouldn’t, yet perhaps also witty, or honest with herself, or simply fun to watch in action.

Aristotle says the audience will be naturally disgusted to see a base person prosper. I agree, that‘s true, but he just thought it didn’t belong in tragedy at all, and missed out on what could be done with it. That revulsion is itself interesting, a kind of moral horror that, perhaps, drives us to examine our world more than would a pat ending with the bad person carried off in handcuffs. I think, for instance, of the end of Chinatown, where a base man (very base) prospers and nothing can stop him, which is a noir ending, but something similar is also felt at the end of James’ Portrait of a Lady, or Wharton’s The House of Mirth, where the very goodness of the good thwarts them.

My own sensibility is not so grim, but I do like to mix things up. I think my worldview (if I have to say something sweeping about this) is a kind of merry sadness. Or rueful joy.

LR: I read two poems linked from your website—“How to Make a Crazy Quilt, 1906-1917” and “Hatteras Bride, Knitting”—in Southern Women’s Review. As a poet I took special pleasure in the design of your poems, not just in terms of line and stanza, but in the carefully-placed revelation of events and reversals in the narrators’ lives. Of course, this reminded me of the plot class I took with you at Florida International University. You also teach plot workshops at literary conferences. I have to wonder, is plot structure so ingrained in you at this point that you look at your own days, weeks, or months and see discoveries, plot wheels, and recognitions?

LB: I would say it’s the other way round: plot is an element of real life. We notice coincidence and unexpected consequence and, especially, discoveries that shake our understanding of what we thought was going on, in our own lives and in public life. Politics is full of plot and plotters, for instance. So of course I notice when something in my life has that kind of shapeliness, and also appreciate when it is not evident, when I am simply doing things I like to do, however repetitive and inconsequential they may be. But what we ask for in what we read is for the humdrum to be removed so that we see the design more clearly. It’s more highly spiced with drama—and can be over-spiced, of course.

By the way, while I might use a plot element in a poem, I also borrow structures from poetry for fiction. The story “Cave of the Winds,” uses an abecedarian form of sorts. I decided to see if I could write the story so that each sentence would begin with the next letter of the alphabet, twenty-six sentences (and as it turned out, twenty-six one sentence paragraphs, some very long). I was ready to abandon the experiment if the form became too obtrusive or limiting, of course. I wanted it to be possible not to notice it. So perhaps I shouldn’t be mentioning it here!

I think writing poetry, which I don’t do a lot right now, but do enjoy and find challenging, helps to remind me that everything must be thought about—diction and line breaks and sound. In fiction, the length of paragraphs, the proportion of the scenes and contrast between them, these and far more are all elements of structure, even though the reader may be unaware of them.

LR: As well as a writer and teacher, you are also an editor. Would you talk a little bit about your projects?

LB: I have co-edited two books, a collection of James M. Cain’s nonfiction and an anthology of literary writing about the transformations that occur in becoming a parent (Birth: A Literary Companion). I founded Gulf Stream Magazine and edited about 20 print issues. It’s now an online journal overseen by John Dufresne and Denise Duhamel. And I am editor of The Florida Book Review, an online publication that concentrates on work with Florida subject matter.

This year I was invited to be guest editor of Tigertail’s print annual, and I suggested that the publication, which has focused on poetry, move for this 9th edition to very short forms, including prose poetry, flash fiction, and flash nonfiction, with no piece being more than 305 words, which is the original area code for South Florida. It has 54 contributors who all have some connection to Florida. Tigertail: Florida Flash is just back from the printer’s and will have a launch reading at Books and Books on Oct. 17th, and a session at Miami Book Fair International in November.

I like editing—I enjoy bringing the work of others to people’s attention. But I try to confine it to a different part of my time than my own writing. I wrote an essay last spring, “What Editors Want,” published in The Review Review. One point I make there is that much of what editors do is invisible—they give a lot of writers their first chances, new audiences, and bring devotion to the highly detailed stages of production, yet are unsung. I heard from many editors as well as writers and teachers from around the world (around the world—amazing—but that’s what online publishing can do) who appreciated the piece. It was written up in the L.A. Times book blog and was recently republished by Glimmer Train.

LR: Where will your book tour and literary conferences be taking you this year? Where can our readers find you to attend a reading or one of your workshops?

LB: As this interview appears, I am preparing for a big launch reading at Books and Books in Coral Gables, FL, my “hometown” independent bookstore, on Oct. 1. After that, I’ll be doing events in Massachusetts in October, in South Hadley and Cambridge, as well as teaching at the FIU-Books and Books International Writers Conference in Grand Cayman. November first I’ll be reading in Sarasota at Bookstore1Sarasota, and then teaching at the FGCU Sanibel Island Writers Conference. Then I’ll be at the Miami Book Fair in mid-November. Beyond that, there are visits in the planning stage to New Orleans, California, and North Carolina in Spring 2012, and in May I’ll be keynote speaker at the Florida Institute of Technology’s writers conference. Details are on the calendar on the events page of my website, http://www.lynnebarrett.com/events.html. I hope lots of people will come out, say hi, and tell me that they read this interview.

Louis Lowy: Die Laughing

Louis Lowy’s work has appeared in Coral Living Magazine, New Plains Review, The Florida Book Review, Ethereal Tales, Bête Noire, Pushing Out the Boat, and The MacGuffin Magazine, among others. His short story, “The One Cupper,” has been sent to Best American Mystery Stories for consideration.

Lowy is a recipient of the Florida Individual Artist Fellowship, and his poem “Poetry Workshop” was the second-place winner of the 2009 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Contest. He is currently working toward his MFA in Creative Writing at Florida International University, where he is on the staff of Gulf Stream Magazine. He lives in Miami Lakes, Florida, with his wife, daughter, and two cocker-terriers.

Lowy’s novel, Die Laughing, was recently released by IFWG Publishing. It is available in e-book as well as hard copy format.

Lowy was interviewed by Corey Ginsberg for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

CG: Die Laughing is a book that pushes and blurs the edges of established genres, such as sci-fi and humor, and even employs fifties pop culture references like The Steve Allen Show. Can you discuss how genre awareness plays a role in the writing of a novel, and how it informed your creative process?

LL: I set out to write a tale of someone struggling to find their sense of self-worth. Everything in between was what that person—Sam E. Lakeside—had to go through to reach his conclusion. I knew that if I wanted my tale to be entertaining it would have to be told in a manner that would keep the reader turning the pages. I purposely used a lot of elements from different genres to do that, specifically science fiction, humor, suspense, horror, mystery, and everything in between, but I never thought about one genre over the other. That’s why there is that crossover.

To answer specifically the question of genre awareness and the role it plays in writing, I would compare it to the writing of a song. There are certain pre-conceived notions when you listen to a particular type of music.

Because my novel takes place in the 1950s, I’ll use rockabilly as an example. If I were to write a rockabilly song, I would expect my beat to be fast and to have a swing feel, the drums to be based around a snare that mostly pounds out what’s called the backbeat (the 2 and 4 of the measure), a bass pattern centered around the root-third-fifth of the chord, a fairly clean, slightly country-sounding guitar, and the vocalist to be singing as opposed to rapping. As a listener, if I purchase a song labeled “rockabilly,” it better have those elements or I would feel cheated.

The same goes with writing. If you’re telling a murder-mystery, Harlequin romance, or YA story, each one of those has certain elements that encompass that category. As a writer, if you’re writing in a certain genre, the reader expects (though they may not always be specifically aware of them) those elements. You have to be aware, and utilize them to deliver the goods. And if you want to stretch the rubber band, so to speak, you can’t do it unless you’re first aware of the rules.

CG: Pulling off humor in writing is hard. In the words of Herman Wouk, “I regard the writing of humor as a supreme artistic challenge.” Many of the scenes in your novel are laugh-out-loud funny. As you wrote and revised Die Laughing, how did you anticipate what the readers would find funny? Do you have any advice you could offer to those writing books with a humorous slant?

LL: I had no idea if anyone would find the humor amusing or not. My criterion was if I thought it was funny I’d use it. I think one of the keys to story humor is not to try too hard. Don’t force it. My funniest moments came when I let my characters banter between themselves. I could feel when they were on a roll and I let them go with it. Later, I’d edit and refine. Another key is it’s always easier if you know where you’re going with the scene (or the entire story for that matter.) Of course that wasn’t always the case, but when it was I could throw out lines that I knew were going to boomerang back in an unexpected and amusing way. It gave me the ability to shape, misdirect, mold and build to the payoff.

CG: Can you speak a bit about your writing and revision process? Did you outline the book before beginning? How many drafts of Die Laughing did you write? Between drafts, did you set the novel aside or keep steadily revising?

LL: At the start, I didn’t specifically outline the book, but I had a general sense of where I was going. One rule I had in the initial draft was that if something seemed as if it was heading in a perceived direction I would turn it the opposite way. For instance, if I had a person dressed in a bathing suit running toward the beach with a surfboard in her hands, I’d try to think of another reason why she was carrying the board other than to go surfing, and have her not end up in the sea. It was a strange and sometimes difficult way to go, but it was also a lot of fun and led me to unforeseen places.

After I finished my first draft, I was introduced to Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I picked up a lot of pointers from it and drastically altered my second draft to utilize the mythological lore. A good example would be that in those types of stories, the protagonist is reluctantly called to action. I altered my second draft to fit that. That also led to my character becoming more proactive. On the flip side, it also caused me to start from scratch and write the entire story over again. It was frustrating and grueling, but I knew it was the correct decision. In the end I was glad I did because it made for a much more compelling story.

I did two more complete drafts based on the revamped version, polished it numerous times and was never long periods away from the novel, though there were a few breaks here and there when I was writing, or revamping short stories.

CG: One of my favorite parts of Die Laughing is the ending (which I will not give away here). When you wrote the book, did you know from the beginning how it would end and write toward that? Or was this something you discovered as you went along?

LL: I knew the ending about quarter way through the initial draft. That was a huge advantage because, as was the case when I was speaking about humor, I could use everything in my power to achieve maximum results from that point forward regarding the finale. An interesting note is that I changed my ending after the second draft and wrote an alternative one. Because the original ending seemed so unconventional, I was concerned about acceptance from agents and publishers. After much contemplation it hit me that the most important thing wasn’t what others might think, but that I was happy with my story. With that perspective I knew my first ending was the one that had to be in there. And again, I was glad I made that decision because it made the story more powerful.

CG: In addition to full-length novels, you also write short stories. In what ways do you find writing in the shorter form to be similar to writing a novel? How do the two differ?

LL: I’m going to use a metaphor again and compare both to a spider web. The center, or orb, is the focal point of a web. In a short story, I think you concentrate on that orb—which I equivocate to the story’s main idea or purpose—and maybe branch out to a few surrounding weaves. In a novel, you still concentrate on that central idea, but you also have the ability to branch out far beyond to the outer reaches of the weave. It allows for more thought patterns: some that interconnect, some that seem to connect but don’t, and others that appear to have little relation but when followed long enough eventually come together.

Now, this isn’t a cut-and-dry rule. A given short story can be more complicated than a given novel, but in general, that’s how I view it. I think the key in either one is to have that strong center. What was the idea or purpose behind that particular short story or novel? How well did the author convey it? Without a well-constructed core, no matter how large or small the weaves are, the more likely they are to falter.

Susan Orlean: On Writing

Susan Orlean is a writer and a journalist. She is the author of several books, including Saturday Night, Red Socks and Bluefish, The Orchid Thief, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People, My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere, Throw me a Bone, and most recently Lazy Little Loafers, a children’s book.

Orlean has been a contributor to many magazines, including Esquire, The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Spy and Vogue. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992. Orlean edited Best American Essays in 2005, as well as Best American Travel Writing in 2007. In 2003, Orlean was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She’s even been on Martha Stewart.

This interview was conducted by Corey Ginsberg on February 10, 2011, for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

CG: In the introduction of The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup, you write, “The subjects I was drawn to were often completely ordinary, but I was confident that I could find something extraordinary in their ordinariness. I really believed that anything at all was worth writing about if you cared about it enough.” I find this idea fascinating and inspiring—to find a story anywhere (like at the taxidermy championships, baby beauty pageants, or even sitting on an airplane reading Skymall). Do you generally set out to extract the extraordinary from the ordinary, or is this an inevitable part of the creative process for you?

SO: I’m not sure of the distinction you’re making. I don’t think it’s as self conscious as it sounds. I don’t think in advance to specifically look for something in order to prove a point. I think that I’m drawn to certain subjects and I don’t strategize in the sense of “Oh, good, this is ordinary; the trick will be turning this into something.” I think I’m drawn to subjects for some reason I can’t put my finger on. Even if they’re very ordinary, I feel convinced something will emerge.

CG: It strikes me as an incredibly daunting task, to transform a short piece of nonfiction into a book-length work. When you expanded “Orchid Fever” into The Orchid Thief, how did you know where to begin?

SO: This was a much more difficult task than it would seem, to go from at first thinking “This will be easy. I’m going to take the story and add onto it, like stringing beads.” But that’s not the way books end up being structured. So I really didn’t know where I was going to go with it. I started by going back down to Florida to follow up on what had happened with the specific case. Then, it started to grow into concentric circles from the story.

CG: At that time, did you have a filing system, or some way of keeping track of all the documents?

SO: I didn’t have a filing system. I mainly did notes by hand. Interviews were by hand. I didn’t have a good system. As time went on and it got bigger and bigger, it was terrifying to be faced with the rather disorganized mass of notes I was accumulating. That is one blessing of working more electronically; things can be searched. Though I still haven’t used a more modern system as well as I could. I used a pretty basic system of notes on index card, then sorted them, hoping it would begin to form some structure based on the cards. It’s a pretty primitive system. The next time I write something, I need to change that system a little bit. There are tools that allow you to make things more manageable, and I definitely want to use them.

CG: You have an active online presence, both through Facebook and Twitter. How do you think platforms such as these have changed things for writers?

SO: I feel like we’re still finding the answer to this question. One of the good things is that the Internet and all of the permutations of social media have made it much more possible for writers to develop an audience that knows them, that they can communicate with independently of whatever a publisher or magazine may do. It’s put a great deal more power in the hands of writers. It’s very difficult to build an audience, but if you can do it, you have a kind of control over your destiny. It can build interest in your work for the first time. I’m not sure there’s a downside. If you decide it’s not what you want to do, and you want to use more traditional ways of publishing, it’s not that it will hurt you, it’s just that you may not have the advantages these things would allow you to have.

CG: One of my favorite lines in The Orchid Thief is: “I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.” When tackling potentially “large” topics, does this idea help to ground your approach?

SO: Definitely. I like looking at the big topics, which range from history to society. The big, jumbo topics—like life and death. I think they’re most interestingly and most successfully looked at through a very narrow lens. Certainly as a writer, it gives me a way in, as opposed to saying “Let’s tackle the subject of the existential overwhelming nature of life.” I’m not an essayist, but I see an opportunity that interests me. These often lead to a bigger question and subject. I’m not usually interested in things if they don’t lead somewhere much bigger and more complex. I feel strongly, as a writer and a reader, that the way I can dip in is through something very focused. I like the feeling of learning of something very particular, and learning it well, then stepping back and thinking it actually taught me a lot more than was initially obvious to me. This provides a way in that’s so much more manageable. Slowly, then, it unfolds, as opposed to me taking on something overwhelming and enormous. I’m not even sure I’d begin to know how to go into something like that.

CG: Along these lines, I read that you used to write poetry. In your nonfiction, the language equity used in your pointed physical descriptions of characters feels poetic in certain ways. Do you consider this technique of rendering characters to be poetic at heart? And do you think any of the poetic techniques carried over into your prose?

SO: Definitely. First of all, I think sometimes distinguishing between genres is natural, but sometimes you just look at a writer and what they do. And it’s unified—it makes sense that one writer’s voice comes through, regardless of the specific medium. But I definitely think that most of the techniques that interested me in poetry—rhythm, word choice, and economy of description—are very much on my mind. Particularly in those descriptive sections. Everything that makes poetry wonderful is really effective in that context. This is the power of that kind of writing. In fact, the greatest compliment anyone ever paid me is that someone suggested to me that a certain section of The Orchid Thief could be pulled out and worked as a piece of poetry, without changing anything but the setting on the page. I considered that an amazing compliment. “Then, I’m doing something right,” I thought.

CG: When you wrote Lazy Little Loafers, did writing for a different audience (children) change your creative process?

SO: The piece was originally written for adults for The New Yorker. As I wrote it, never in a million years did I picture it as a children’s book. If anything, it was extremely insulting to children. When it was suggested to me that it would make a good children’s book, my first thought was, “That’s crazy.” Then the editor I worked with did the initial trimming to bring it into the form that would be more appropriate for children. Ultimately, it required little alteration.

It’s definitely different writing for kids. But good writing is good writing. Some kids writing that I’ve read to my son is crummy. Writing in a way kids understand doesn’t mean making it poorly written. You have to keep a lot in mind, such as what makes sense to a kid. More than anything, with an illustrated book, the idea of working with visuals was brand new to me. This was almost more dramatic and difficult than the writing. After we edited the manuscript, the illustrator got the pages and illustrated. He also made some changes in where pages were broken.

CG: Re-reading your travel stories and profiles, the first lines of many immediately jump out and pull me in. (“One characteristic of the Skymall customer seems to be an excess of body hair.” ~“Skymalling” “If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale.” ~ “Show Dog” “Of all the guys who are standing around bus shelters in Manhattan dressed in nothing but their underpants, Marky Mark is undeniably the most polite.” ~ “Short People”). Do you usually begin the writing process with these first lines first, or do they tend to come later on, after revision?

SO: I start with them, for better or worse. I find it very difficult to write without my first sentence. Not even just my first sentence; I write from the first word through to the last word. I certainly do lots of revisions and drafts, but it tends to be chronologically worked through. Even when I’ve wished for it, I’ve never been able to write a piece without starting from the beginning. Even if I’d wish desperately to drop the beginning and go on. A lot of times you know very definitely you are going to be writing a bunch of scenes, and you know exactly what you want to say. But I can’t start them without the beginning of the piece because it grows very organically for me. I write as if I were telling a story to real people. It would be really hard to tell a story by jumping in in the middle.

CG: I’d like to ask you about titles. When do they generally come to you, and how often do you tinker with them before arriving with the final version?

SO: I don’t write a lot of the titles. I write a few of them. Most magazines have an editor whose job it is to write headlines. There are usually space issues, and they need “X” number of characters. I don’t think I’m especially good at writing titles, and there are some people who are really good at it. I’ve suggested some, and with my blog, I do all the titles, but those are just little names.

CG: It seems that both writers and readers of nonfiction never tire of discussing the “ethics” of the genre. As the popularity and accessibility of nonfiction grows, the debate rages on. As a nonfiction writer, how do you define “truth,” and what contract do you have with readers to deliver it?

SO: I think this is a very easy question. I don’t see any gray area. Truth is the things that happen. A story can be extremely subjective and still be true. Your obligation as a writer is to indicate very plainly where the subjectivity comes from. I don’t see any confusion there. I don’t think composites are true. I don’t think conversations you are making up or imagining to be the way they were, are true. If you indicate that you’re approximating something you think might have happened, and the reader knows it, it’s fine. The reader is extremely generous as long as they know what it is you’re asking them to understand. But I just don’t see there being any king of gray area. It kinda drives me crazy, actually. What is true is what’s true. I’m often puzzled that there’s any confusion about this. I just don’t get the fact that this is debatable.

Visit Susan Orlean online at http://www.susanorlean.com.

Mark Vonnegut: On Art and Creativity

Mark Vonnegut is a memoirist and a pediatrician. He is the author of The Eden Express, which was published in 1975. It chronicles the time in his life after graduating from Swarthmore, when he moved to British Columbia with his friends to set up a commune, and his initial experiences with mental illness. His most recent memoir, Just Like Someone with Mental Illness, Only More So, was published in 2010. It contains a painfully honest description of Vonnegut’s subsequent experience with bipolar disorder, and the sharp contrast he has experienced between bouts of illness and periods of “normalcy.” Vonnegut studied medicine at Harvard Medical School, and currently works as a pediatrician in Massachusetts, where he was named “No. 1 Pediatrician” by Boston Magazine.

He was interviewed by Corey Ginsberg for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

CG: One of the most compelling aspects of Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness, Only More So is your discussion of the importance of art and creativity in your own life, as well as in the lives of those in your family. In the first chapter, you say, “Without art you’re stuck with yourself as you are and life as you think life is.” Later, you mention, “All the arts are a way to start a dialogue with yourself about what you’ve done, what you could have done differently, and whether or not you might try again.” Can you speak a bit about what forms this dialogue takes in your life, and how writing has informed your thinking?

MV: I’ve spent a lot of time stuck where nothing matters and there’s no way to get away. If you can make yourself try to paint a bird or rewrite something that’s not quite right, whether it’s a novel or letter to a friend, you then get to reflect on yourself as someone who can or can’t get that job done, and it can be like throwing sand under your tires to get traction. In and of themselves, the painting or the letter don’t matter as much as the process and what you have to say about it to yourself. I frequently tell kids with headaches or belly aches without a clear organic cause to keep a diary of their symptoms, what they were doing, and what made the symptoms better or worse, and the symptoms often go away.

CG: Along these lines, you write: “An artist is someone who isn’t put off by how terrible his first tries are, who finds himself talking back and notices that he changes and grows when he makes art.” What was the first draft of this book like, and how do you approach the revision process?

MV: My writing is often brilliant as I do it, but is utter crap a few hours later. Then I spend a month or so trying to get back to being half as good as I thought it was at first. With both books I was surprised that publishers and editors couldn’t see where I was going and how easily I could make it publishable.

CG: In chapter five, you say: “Writing is very hard mostly because until you try to write something down, it’s easy to fool yourself into believing you understand things. Writing is terrible for vanity and self-delusion. It wasn’t therapy as much as trying to tell a story that took me by surprise. . .” How does your writing process help to make sense of your life? Do you find ever that you understand things differently once you write about them?

MV: It’s not fair for me to call something ineffable until I’ve tried to ef it. All the time I figure new things out. The biggie in my last book was figuring out that creativity was a positive part of surviving mental illness, not just an odd side effect. Why do crazy people write and paint? I’ve been wrestling with that for forty-plus years.

CG: You mention on page 65 that one of the rejections you received for your first memoir, The Eden Express, said, “This book is good but with your last name it would have to be better.” You also write, “Having a famous parent is a leg up to nowhere.” How do you think being the son of Kurt Vonnegut affects how people see you as a writer?

MV: Mostly people don’t think of “son of” as a positive. How cute and pathetic that he should try. Even as a pediatrician there’s a sense that “son of” is what I really am, and that I sort of write and sort of take care of sick kids, too.

CG: One of my favorite lines in Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness is, “The reason creativity and craziness go together is that if you’re just plain crazy without being able to sing or dance or write good poems, no one is going to have babies with you. Your genes will fall by the wayside. Who but a brazen crazy person would go on-on-one with a blank paper or canvas armed with nothing but ideas?” This is a fascinating idea. Can you speak a bit about how art can be both a lifeline and a form of insanity?

MV: I don’t have an answer that adds much to your question. Yes. Art is a lifeline and a form of insanity.

CG: In The Eden Express, there is a great line: “I think most of us were fed to the teeth with the brand of rationality that had made up so much of our education . . . We wanted to be free from our rational brain space to make room for other ways of being.” Is this still a concept that holds true for you, or do you think that the direction your life has gone in has changed how you feel about “rationality”?

MV: I still think reaching beyond what you know is absolutely necessary. And what you usually find is that you’re better and stronger than you thought you were, and that some of the things you thought were true were silly.

CG: Being both a doctor and a writer strikes me as two seemingly unrelated endeavors. Do you find that they complement one another, or require different types of energy and focus?

MV: A doctor is always trying to create a narrative about how the present came to be and facilitate a resolution. The problem is how little time you have to do it. The nice thing about going to work is that I don’t have to make stuff up or worry about getting a publisher.

Les Standiford: On Bringing Adam Home

Les Standiford is the author of the critically acclaimed Last Train to Paradise, Meet You in Hell, Washington Burning, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, as well as ten novels. His latest book, Bringing Adam Home, will be on sale March 1, 2011. About Bringing Adam Home, Scott Turow wrote that “This tale of the most significant missing child case since the Lindbergh’s—that of TV host John Walsh’s son Adam and the 25 year search for his killer—is truly terrific. A taut, compelling and often touching book about a long march to justice.” Recipient of the Frank O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Les Standiford is director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University in Miami, where he lives with his wife and children.

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

MJF: Why did you choose to write this particular book?

LS: Det. Sgt. Joe Matthews accomplished something that hundreds of cops, including those from several police jurisdictions, the FBI, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, before him could not: he solved the kidnapping case that changed the world. In the aftermath of  six-year old Adam Walsh’s abduction and slaying in 1981, everything about the nation’s regard and response to missing children changed.  The shock of the crime and the inability of law enforcement to find Adam’s killer put an end to innocence and altered our very perception of childhood itself—gone forever are the days when children could run outside  with a casual promise to be home by dark.  And, due in large part to the efforts of Adam’s parents, John and Reve’ Walsh, the entire mechanism of law enforcement has transformed itself in an effort to protect our children.  Before Adam went missing, there were no children’s faces on milk cartons and billboards, no Amber Alerts, no national Center for Missing and Abused Children, no national databases for crimes against children, no registration of pedophiles—in fact, it was easier to mobilize the FBI to search for a stolen car or missing horse than for a kidnapped child. 

All that is sad testimony to the weariness of our modern world, but there is also an uplifting aspect to the story—the 27 years of undaunted effort by decorated Miami Beach Homicide Detective Matthews to track down Adam’s killer and bring justice to bear at long last.  I wanted to tell the story—the good, the bad, and the ugly—of what it took for one cop to accomplish what an entire system of law enforcement could not.  Matthew’s achievement is a stirring one, reminding us that such concepts as hard work, dedication, and love survive, and that goodness can prevail.

MJF: Tell us about your writing process for Bringing Adam Home and about the research involved.

LS: I had access to several hundred pages of case notes that Joe Matthews had compiled in going through the more than 10,000 pages of reports in police files about the matter.   My central concern was with transforming those investigative notes into a narrative that a general audience could appreciate.

Beyond what Joe had already unearthed, I needed to create a societal context for the case and its significance to the world at large.  My model for this was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  And the sources were wide-ranging, everything from interviews with cops of the day to digging through news archives at libraries and museums to watching old television shows and listening to music of the day.

MJF: I’m assuming that you met with the Walsh family at some point. How did they feel about the project? How cooperative were they?

LS: The story naturally references the Walshes, but it is really the tale of how a good cop managed the seemingly impossible.  Of course the Walshes feel greatly indebted to Joe Matthews for giving them some measure of justice at last.  As they point out, nothing could have brought Adam back, but at least, “the not knowing is over.”  Both John and Reve’ (Ruh-VAYE) were and continue to be extremely helpful with this project.

MJF: As a parent yourself, tell us about the emotional toll of writing this book.

LS: My own eighteen year old son Alexander died as I was finishing up work on this manuscript.  I was already emotionally exhausted by the work on Bringing Adam Home, but after my wife and I had weathered this new emotional storm, the first thing I did was to go back and check the manuscript of Bringing Adam Home to be sure I had paid the proper respect to the Walshes and their irreplaceable loss.  This is a club that no parent wants to join.

MJF: How do you know when a piece of your writing is done?

LS: When the story has been told.  Of course you are tempted to nip and tuck at things forever.  But once I realized that what a writer really does is tell a story—beginning, middle, and end—it was a great liberation for me.  I have a destination from the outset, and while that destination may change in mid-journey, I still am aiming at something all along.  Once the destination’s been reached, all that remains is the inevitable pinching and patting, and I rely on friends and editors to tell me when enough of that is enough.

MJF: What else do you have in the works?

LS: I’m working on a book about the seeds of the American Revolution, Desperate Sons, due to the publisher late this year.  And I have a memoir, Seven Dogs to Enlightenment, about how my dogs have trained me, ready to go right after that.  Scribble, scribble, scribble!

Dan Wakefield: Creating from the Spirit

Dan Wakefield is a novelist, journalist and screenwriter whose best-selling novels Going All The Way and Starting Over were produced as feature films; he created the NBC prime time TV series “James at 15.” A documentary film has been produced of his memoir New York in the Fifties. His non-fiction books on spirituality include Returning: A Spiritual Journey, Creating from the SpiritThe Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography, Expect a Miracle, and How Do We Know When It’s God?: A Spiritual Memoir.

Dan Wakefield was interviewed in August 2010 by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

MJF: What basic philosophy do you try to express in Creating from the Spirit?

DW: The idea of the book is to try to see creativity in your daily life, in everything you do, not just limit it to writing, music, painting and “the arts.” I interviewed people from all different fields to ask how they used creativity in their own work—a yoga teacher, a businessman, a chef, a scientist, a singer, an architect, as well as writers and artists.

The other idea I wanted to express was that the mythology of alcohol and drugs being stimulants to creativity is just that—mythology. When you look behind all the “glamorous” stories of writers being inspired by booze and drugs you find that they weren’t actually doing their creative work while under the influence—they wrote about it afterwards. I have a whole chapter about this with specific experiences that we’ve heard myths about. The main way that alcohol influenced writers was to end their lives early—Dylan Thomas at 39, Scott Fitzgerald at 44, Jack Kerouac at 46.

MJF: Please discuss the ways that words and spirit intersect in your work, especially in regards to healing the wounds of the past through creativity.

DW: My experience has been that by writing about a painful experience, you can come to term with that experience. You incorporate it into your own consciousness and it’s a way of conquering the experience. Psychologists have found there’s a great difference between telling your story—speaking it out loud—and writing the story. We can become very glib if we keep telling our story. We probably told it so many times that we can tell it while thinking about what we’ll have for dinner. Whereas when you write a story,  you really have to deal with it and it’s a much deeper experience. Pulitzer prize poet Mark Van Doren once said that whenever you write honestly about your most horrible experience, that’s when you really reach people, that’s when you’re able to move people with your writing.

MJF: What most changed for you in the writing and completing of this book?

DW: When I started writing and thinking of the book, I imagined it would all be about the mythology of drugs and alcohol, and an editor told me I was only telling about what did NOT work—so what DOES work in stimulating creativity and how can one get access to that? My greatest answer to that was found in Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes For The Archbishop in which she gave the best definition of miracles I have ever encountered: “Miracles… seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices coming to us from afar of, but from our senses being made finer, so that our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.” This led me to the realization that the senses can be openings to creativity, to stories, images, and ideas. In my workshops, I give specific exercises in looking, hearing, touching, smelling, seeing, that open up this kind of creative experience.

MJF: So this wasn’t stream-of-consciousness writing?

DW: No. I made an outline before I started writing. I think it’s very difficult to use stream-of-consciousness when you’re writing nonfiction, unless you’re writing memoir and tap into some experience that way.

MJF: What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

DW: A deadline is the most powerful motivator.  But there are other things. When I get stuck, I listen to music, I read passages from books I love, and I use the senses to bring things to mind. As I was editing Creating from the Spirit, I started thinking about the five senses as keys to creativity and I realized that many writers have been stimulated by some sense memory. Proust, for example, ate madeleines (cookies from his childhood) to bring forth the writing of Remembering of Things Past. When I was writing my own memoir, New York in the Fifties,  I played Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. Spain had nothing to do with what I was writing, but that piece of music, which I listened to in the 50s, brought back that period of my life and helped me remember people and places and events of those days.

I developed a workshop named after Creating from the Spirit, and in which I use (among other things) sense exercises that use the five senses to evoke stories. In Flint, Michigan, one man read a beautiful piece that came out of his remembering the smell of bacon frying. He said that when he was a boy, that smell in the morning let him know that it would be a good day—it meant his parents didn’t have hang-overs. If he couldn’t smell the bacon frying, he knew that his parents had gotten drunk the night before—there would be no breakfast, and they’d be in a bad mood all day. That’s one example of how, by just thinking about a sense, you can improve your writing.

MJF: How would you categorize your books?

DW: My books are hard to categorize because I’ve written four novels and four memoirs and about four books of nonfiction. Some people think there are two different authors named Dan Wakefield—one who writes the novels, and one who writes the spiritual books. I want to reassure everybody: it’s the same guy.

MJF: Which book was the hardest book to write?

DW: The hardest book to write—because it took so much time to get it started—was my first novel, Going All the Way. I started out making a living doing journalism for magazines, and my first three books were journalistic.  Since college, however, I had always wanted to write a novel. I made three or four false starts, and one great publisher, Houghton Mifflin, told me that I was not a novelist—that I was a fine, young journalist. This made me very mad that  somebody would try to categorize me in that way. They could have said, “We don’t want this beginning of a novel,” instead of saying, “You’re not a novelist.” Going All the Way became a best-seller and was later made into a movie. I was very happy to send a copy to the publishers who had said I wasn’t a novelist.

MJF: Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

DW: Yes! And I follow the advice of sociologist C. Wright Mills, who said that when you’re having writer’s block, you should write a letter to a friend. Writing a letter, the old-fashion way, putting it out on paper, putting it in that envelope, putting a stamp on it, putting it in the mailbox—it is to me a great and reassuring enterprise.

I think the greatest inspiration comes from reading books you love.  I’m rereading The brothers Karamazov. When I was in college, everybody—all my fellow students, the other English majors—read Russian writers, particularly Dostoevsky. I find that his insights about people are as good today as they were 200 years ago. I’ve also read The Great Gasby again and again, and I’m always thrilled by it. My favorite memoir is Name All the Animals by Allison Smith, who said that writing that book was the hardest thing she’d ever done. It took 16 drafts and 7 years. I really admire her for saying that because I think that some people get the idea that writing is supposed to be easy. It’s never easy. I think nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

MJF: A piece of advice to emerging writers?

DW: I will quote writer Scott Turow, who has written many successful novels, including Presumed Innocent, which became a big movie and best-seller. At a conference at Florida International University, Turow was asked by a student, “Mr. Turow, how does a young writer get a book published today?” And without hesitation, Turow said,  “Same old three things. Number one: you’ve got to have talent.  Number two: you have to be lucky. And number three: you have to be able to take rejection after rejection.”

Visit Dan Wakefield online at http://www.danwakefield.com/index.html.