Preston Allen: The Keys to my Apartment

I open the door to the small apartment on the top floor of the ancient, but affordable apartment building.  It’s not in the worst area of Miami, but it’s not in the best either.  Considering my tight budget, I like to think that my place is a cozy, nicely decorated space. There’s the porcelain vase I fill daily with fresh yellow roses. I love roses in all colors, but yellow is my favorite. To add interest, there are my throw pillows placed about the living room in alternating red, white, and checked patterns.  There are some homey touches, too, with my hand-sewn curtains and self-upholstered couches.  I’m my mama’s girl. Like my mama, I am good with my hands.  But this is not going to be a good night because a light is on, and I never leave the lights on.

At the edge of the carpet near the door, are Tyrone’s shoes, the heavy work boots, too highly polished to really be work boots.  He never gave back his key. I never changed the lock. I had convinced myself that he’s not like that. That he’s many things, but not that. Yet here he is now, up in my place.

Stupid. Stupid. Bounce. Bounce.

I find him in the bedroom sitting on my bed. A basket brown man with wildman naps, a thick neck and lips, and wide-spaced, long-lashed, light brown eyes that never seem to get it. All of my drawers are open, my possessions thrown about. My filing cabinet’s open, too, and the folders dumped out. The room is a mess. Tyrone holds up two photographs to his face. One is of me and Jake in fishing gear showing off the marlin we had caught. In the other, I am kissing Jake on the mouth.

Before I can begin to explain a thing I have no need to explain because, one, Jake was before Tyrone, two, Jake had nothing to do with why me and Tyrone broke up, and three, those photographs are my private property—but before I can explain all this that I have no real obligation to explain, but will as a courtesy to set an ex’s heart and mind at ease, Tyrone has sprung from the bed and boxed me a hard one on the ear.  It sends me sprawling backwards and down. Physically and emotionally.

Tyrone comes and squats his bulk over me, pushing the photographs in my face, demanding, “Who dis?”

I hold back my tears.  My fear of the dark.  “Get out of here.  Gimme back my key.”

“Who dis?”  He pushes the Polaroids against my mouth. I clamp it closed.  He tries to pull it open.  I am resisting him.  He is strong.  He pulls my mouth open with his strong hands, strong fingers and pushes one of the Polaroids inside, hard, scraping up the inside of my gums real good. I’m fighting him, gagging, trying to bite his fingers. Tyrone’s laughing.  He puts the other Polaroid in his breast pocket and gets up from over me, tapping the pocket with the picture in it.  “I’m gonna find him.  Believe dat.”

I spit the photograph out of my mouth and fire: “Get out of my house.  Gimme back my key.”

“Who is he?”

“None of your damned business. Get out of my house!”

The walls are thin. Someone will hear. Someone always hears. I am shouting. He clamps a hand over my mouth and grabs my hair, which he had always loved because it falls to my shoulders easy in white girl waves.

“Don’t be yelling at me.  You forget who I am?”

He drags me up by my hair and walks me backwards with his face pressed against mine.  His face is sweaty. Clammy. He smells bad. Despite his wildman hair (carefully groomed wildman hair), he is really a neat freak and particular about hygiene. He has always been picky about smell. Something must have really set him off to be smelling like this.

“You’re gonna tell me who he is.”

He walks me backwards, to where I remember seeing the scissors. I fight against him, but not enough to make him change his mind or his direction. We are reflected in the full-length closet mirror. The way he is holding me, the way I am clawing him, it looks like some crazy, intense dance.

“You’re gonna tell me his name. You’re gonna tell me where he live at. You’re gonna tell me how good he fuck you.”

He walks me backwards until I can’t walk anymore because I’m pressed against the wall next to the high bureau. I reach without seeing to where the scissors had been.  My fingers curl around them. They are the sturdy kind, good for cutting stubborn burlap to make interesting curtains out of.

“—you’re gonna tell me about his dick, how big it was, how good it was—.”

I plunge the scissors into the flesh of his armpit because I have read that that is a very tender area.  He jumps back howling, clutching at the wound. I lunge at him again and catch him in the thigh.  Bright red spreads over his jeans. It looks like some new crazy sort of style. He staggers backwards. Flops down on the bed. Both hands clamped around the cut leg. Groaning. I retreat to the far wall to watch him bleed.

“You stabbed me,” he says.  “I’m gonna whup yo ass.”

I hold up the scissors in warning.

“Look whachu did my leg.”

“Gimme my key back.”

He’s bleeding all over the bedspread I sewed with my own hands. “Get me something to clean this up.  Ow.  Ow.  Help me clean dis.  Lookit dis mess.”

It is a mess.

“Then you gotta leave.  You gotta leave my house and give my key back.”

In the chaos on the floor, I rescue a beach towel and toss it to him.  I back into the bathroom, keeping an eye on him, and dig through the cabinet until I find the peroxide bottle, which I fling at him. Then I fling the alcohol bottle at him, too. He pulls off his shirt and splashes the alcohol on the sliced flesh under his arm. He looks up, and I am amazed.  There is a grin on his face.  “You gotta help me with dis.”  Wincing.  Grinning.  “Come here.”

“You’re gonna try to grab me.”

“Come here and help me.  I can’t do it by myself.”

“You hit me.”

“You used to love me.”  He’s getting up. Grinning.

“I swear to god, Tyrone, I’ll kill you—!”  I back up to the wall and hold the scissors out in front of me.  “Stay away from me!”

“Okay.  Okay.”  His eyes.  They don’t get it. He has no shirt on his hairless barrel chest.  He has a bloody towel wadded under his arm. His jeans have a scarlet leg. This is love?  Doesn’t he get it?  I go in the living room and open the door and kick his pretty boots out the door. Eventually, he limps out of the bedroom.  I give him a wide berth to pass through the open front door. Gone is the grin. But his eyes. He just doesn’t get it.  He shakes his head sadly as he passes.  Dragging himself through the door. I slam it shut after him.  Turn off the lights.  Sink down to the floor.  Release the tears.  About fifteen minutes later, there is a knock at the door.

“Cindique!”  One voice.

“Cindique!  Cindique!”  Another voice.

The walls are thin. Somebody has heard. Somebody always hears. Somebody always comes. Somebody always comes too late. It is the neighbors. The Puerto Rican lesbian who said she would help with the rent if I let her eat me.  Rose, Rosa, Rosita, Rosie? And her roommate, Nicole, Nikki, Nike, Nikita, who might not be gay because she has never hit on me. Plus, I think she has a baby. Then again, you never know.

“Cindique, you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

Through the door.  “We heard sounds.”

“I’m fine.  He’s gone.”

“We didn’t hear him leave.”

“He left quietly.”

“We could go get the landlord’s key and come in and check, you know?”

“He’s gone, I promise you.”

“You want us call somebody for you?  Your mom?”

“Hell no.”

“Ay pobrecita!  Cindique, we’re here for you.  We don’t see no lights on in there.  Is he holding you hostage?”

“Look down on the ground.  See the blood?  That’s his blood.”

“Oh snap.  Look at the blood,” one says.

“She got his ass good.”

“Oh snap.  Good for you, Cindique.  Good for you.”

“Yeah.  Go home.  I’m fine.”

Gossiping bitches.  Now they have something to gossip about.  She got his ass good. Yeah. And he still has my key. I sit in the dark with my back against the door and the scissors in my hand facing my handiwork. (My curtains look good framing a window full of stars.)  Now I have something else to add to tomorrow’s crowded itinerary, pay my late cable bill, get my oil changed, change the lock on my door, get my phone turned back on.



Preston L. Allen is a recipient of a State of Florida Individual Artist Fellowship and a winner of the Sonja H. Stone Prize in Fiction for his collection of stories CHURCHBOYS AND OTHER SINNERS.  His work has been anthologized in Las Vegas Noir, Miami Noir, Brown Sugar, and numerous literary journals, including the Seattle Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Black Renaissance Noire.  His novels ALL OR NOTHING and JESUS BOY have received rave reviews from the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Kirkus, Library Journal, Feminist Review, AALBC, and Florida Book Review.

He teaches writing in South Florida.  You can find him on Facebook or on his blog,

Books by Preston L. Allen:
Jesus Boy
(Akashic 2010)
All or Nothing
(Akashic 2007)
Churchboys and Other Sinners
(Carolina Wren Press 2003)

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, 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.

Geoffrey Philp: Erzulie’s Daughter

It began with the usual insults
about her nose and hips,
and the belief that her true-true mother
lived on a coral island protected
by sunken galleys and man-o-wars.

These fantasies,
her therapists said, were drawing her
toward a different future
than her parents had wished for
when they punished her
for not reading the books they’d studied,
and sent her away on Easter egg hunts
dressed in starched, pink dresses, white bonnets,
and blue bows in each braid of her stubborn hair.

And when she began cutting her wrists,
arms, legs, and belly, her parents
agreed with the psychiatrists
to the prescriptions of pills, potions,
and poisons to keep her grounded in this life.

But then, the scabs became scars became scales,
her hair grew wild and untamed,
and a garden of yellows, blues, and reds sprouted
on her arms, legs, and back –
her ears and lips studded with gold –
and almost overnight she changed into something
she had always resembled in her own dreams,
in the mirror of her mother –
something beautiful and fearsome.


Geoffrey Philp, author of Marcus and the Amazons and Dub Wise, teaches English and creative writing at Miami Dade College. Geoffrey publishes regularly on his blog (Geoffrey Philp’s Blog), and has begun an online petition for the exoneration of Marcus Garvey.

Read also Beyond Mountain View and A Poem for the Innocents

Lori Jakiela: All of Them Would Hurt Someone, I Think

The woman who calls herself my sister is Blonde4eva. This is her e-mail address.

I find this upsetting, even though I’m 41 and dye my hair blonde. “I’ve always been a natural blonde,” I say, meaning I dye my hair to match my baby pictures.

“What do you think it means?” I ask my husband, who rolls his eyes. My husband says I shouldn’t judge people by their e-mail addresses.

Fluffykitty1000. Poetgrrrl. Flyguy. Blonde4eva.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” my husband says.

The Catholic Charities counselor in charge of my adoption search has promised to be in touch. She wants to contact the birth family. “I have to advise you to not continue this correspondence until we speak with the family,” the counselor says.  “Until then, we can neither confirm nor deny that this woman is or is not who she says she is.”

“Just like a politician,” I say.

“What?” she says.

“Thank you,” I say, “I will.”

I save Blonde4eva’s e-mail messages. I read  them over and over. They’re a puzzle, blue and white pieces of sky that don’t seem to fit. I’ve loved words so deeply and for so long I thought it was genetic. But Blonde4eva struggles with grammar, syntax.

“I’m not judging,” I tell my husband, though  of course I am.

It’s a shitty thing to do.

*   *   *

I don’t come from a family of readers. Growing up, I kept a Webster’s dictionary in the bathroom to read.  The cover was denim blue, designed to look like the back pocket of a pair of jeans, an everyday thing.  I hid it behind stacks of toilet paper. My mother didn’t approve of bathroom reading.

“Shit or get off the pot,” she’d say.

“The mouth on that one,” my father, the mill worker, would say when they fought. “Just like her mother.”

I read and memorized dictionary pages. I liked finding smug new words and using them in sentences at dinner.

Words I liked: Flibbertigibbet. Oxymoron.  Loquacious.

I could wipe my ass with what you know about love, my father liked to say.

I was not my parents’ child.

*   *   *

My father once bought a set of encyclopedias from a man who was selling them door to door. My father never opened the door for strangers, but this time he did. I don’t know why. The set was The World Book of Knowledge. The books looked like bibles, egg-shell colored covers, gold spines, gold-tipped pages with strings sewn into the binding to use as bookmarks.

“She’s smart,” my father would say to explain why I’d hole up for hours reading A-C when my mother thought I should be outside playing.

“She’ll ruin her eyes,” my mother said. “She’ll get ideas.”

My father bought a bookshelf, the only one in the house, a low two-shelved number he put together himself just for the encyclopedias. The bookshelf had a glass door that slid open and closed to keep the books safe from dust.  A display.  My mother dusted the bookshelf with a pink feather duster. As far as I knew, she never opened any of the books.

*   *   *

My friend Patience says an encyclopedia salesman came to her house, too. Patience was eight, in Albion, Pennsylvania—farm country, tornado country, the 1970s, the kind of place where people name their children after virtues or deserts or saints. There were a lot of girls named Hope and Mary in Patience’s school, and one girl named Sahara, but people called her Sara instead.

The day of the encyclopedia, the doorbell rang. Patience’s mother, expecting hair brushes or vacuum cleaners or a new kind of floor soap, opened the door, and this man, dressed for the city, said, “Might I borrow a few moments of your time, miss?”

Patience’s mother looked more than her age. She looked like a woman with housecoats and three children and a life in Albion, Pennsylvania. She looked like a woman who’d welcome the opportunity to purchase a new kind of floor soap and she knew it.

The man held up a big white book. The words Wonderland of Knowledge were embossed in gold on the cover and there was a picture of a globe, shiny blue for water, more gold for the land.

Patience peeked from behind her mother.

The man bent down. “Hello there, honey,” he said. “Do you like to read? I know I do.”

Patience liked to read. Patience liked globes, too.

The man stood up and smiled. He made a one-handed flourish, a magic trick he’d been taught. He tried to present the book to Patience’s mother, who kept both hands tight on the doorframe.

“You’ll be giving your beautiful daughter here a head start,” he said. “She’ll have such an advantage over the other kids.”

Patience grew up to be a librarian.

She took care of both her parents until they died.

She lives alone in a small apartment with a cat and many books, and says she doesn’t like people though both of us know it’s not true.

Patience’s car is filled with books on tape. When she drives, she turns up the volume and likes the feel of the stories, all those worlds building up and spinning around inside her.

Back then, in Patience’s house in Albion, there was only the bible and copies of Highlights for Children lifted from the dentist’s office. There was The Farmer’s Almanac. There was TV Guide.

The salesman held his magic book like a lantern. Patience watched her mother do a once-over—first at his shined shoes, his tweed pants, then at his smooth hands, then up into his eyes.

“Now why,” she said, the words slow, clicking like deadbolts, “would my daughter deserve an advantage over anyone?”

Then she shut the door hard.

*   *   *

Blonde4eva writes: “My mother was born of two Irish imagrants. And I suppose no I know that things were no good. We have 3 other siblings.”

It wasn’t just the grammar. It was the implied sense of drama—“And I suppose no I know.”

“What do you think it means?” my husband asks back, and I don’t answer.

*   *   *

When my friend Jan first found her birth mother, her birth mother sent a lot of letters. The letters were written on stationery, parchment-ish paper with butterflies skittering around the scalloped edges. This bothered Jan a lot. Jan dyes her hair white blonde and keeps it shorn a half inch all around. She wears black biker jackets. She wears serious black glasses. She writes poems about Jim Morrison pissing onstage.

“This cannot be my mother,” she’d say and wave the letters in the air like surrender.

The writing on the letters was off, too. Big loopy script. Bubble-dotted i’s. Lots of talk about God and how much Jan’s mother relied on him at times like these.

Praise God. God willing. God forgive me. God forgive you.

“I’ll pray for you,” my own birth mother will write to me very soon.

It will be the most awful thing she does until she does something worse.

*   *   *

Blonde4eva  says she found out about me two years ago. “One of my cousins dropped the bomb on me,” she writes.

She says her mother denied it, then admitted it. She gave few details.

“Were you born with a club foot?” Blonde4eva wants to know, and I want to tell her no, two.

*   *   *

I wonder if the story, the one my parents told me and the one I helped invent, has been wrong from the start.

“You are probably as weary as I, to determine the truth so that nobody gets hurt,” Blonde4eva writes.

There are so many versions of the truth.

All of them would hurt someone, I think.

*   *   *

Blonde4eva writes: “If it turns out that you are not the same child you are definitely close to finding out who is.”

“Do you want a sandwich?” my husband asks from the kitchen. I can see him in there, eating cheese from the bag, a stack of buns on the cutting board.

I know he wants me to come in and help, fry some lunch meat in a pan.

“Eat something,” he says, like he’s my mother.

*   *   *

It’s 5 a.m. Last night, I fell asleep on the couch and stayed there. Now Locklin’s awake. He pries my fingers open, latches on a gate.

I sleep fetal, hands balled into fists. My fingers are sore from the strain, like I’ve been punching someone.

Locklin’s face is inches from mine. His breath smells like chocolate milk and sleep. I squint awake as he presses a doll into my hand.

“Be him,” my son orders.

The lines of light from the window blinds make my son’s face look caged. It’s what I feel, too.

Somehow, Locklin’s dragged the plastic toy bin across the room. He’s dumped everything onto the floor, and my first thought is I’ll have to clean it up. I’ll have to get off this couch and clean and how could I possibly be expected do this now.

Over on the table, the computer screen is blinking. It’s an Apple computer, shiny and sports-car red. It looks like a toy. I wonder about Blonde4eva, her e-mail, so intimate and impersonal all at once.

“We can neither confirm nor deny,” the Catholic Charities counselor said.

I close my eyes again.

My son’s hard little finger pokes my cheek, like he’s testing a cake to see if it’s done.

“Be him,” Locklin says.

The last time my husband fell asleep on the couch like this and tried to brush Locklin off, Locklin crumbled Cocoa Pebbles cereal and sprinkled it on my husband’s face until he woke up, furious, choking, chocolatey rice flakes in his nose, in his eyelashes. It was 5 a.m. then, too.

“Done sleeping,” Locklin said, to explain things.

“Who does something like that?” my husband asked our son, who looked confused.

Now Locklin tries to grab my eyelashes and pull one of my eyes open.

“Puppets,” Locklin says, which is what he calls this game, one of his favorites.

This early in the morning, I dread it.

Toppled from the toy bin, there’s a huge collection of stuffed animals, action figures and dolls. Locklin calls all of them puppets. When he says “be him,” he means method acting. He means “once again, with feeling.”

Some puppets are easier than others. Like Elmo—that helium squeal, the ratcheted maniacal giggling. But this doll in my hands is another thing.  He’s anonymous, non-descript. He looks like a prince, maybe, or a good pirate. I don’t recognize him from any movie. His jaw is sharp enough to clean my nails. His eyes are very blue. He’s blonde, which is what my son calls him. Blondie.


It will take me a while to see this and appreciate the irony.

“Be Blondie,” Locklin commands, and I try, but I always fail.

My son has invented an entire life for Blondie, but no one knows what that life is because Locklin won’t explain. There’s no way to know what he thinks Blondie should sound like. There’s no way to guess the role he’s mapped out for Blondie in his mind. Locklin just shakes his head and says again, “Be him,” but I don’t know the lines. I don’t know the gestures. I’m supposed to understand—through osmosis, maybe—Blondie’s life story channeling through his tan plastic skin into mine.

*   *   *

Growing up, I had fantasies about a sister. She’d show up on the porch, drooping blonde pig-tails, banged-up suitcase, a note from the adoption agency. We’d be best and instant friends. We’d do each other’s hair. We’d side against my parents, who’d become our parents, who’d become strangers who could never understand us.

Two castaways. Two lost princesses. Two beautiful lonely girls, one pink, one blue, like the two girls in the kitschy paintings my mother bought at Woolworth’s and hung over the couch. Two sad-eyed moppets with mandolins at their feet, waiting for something.

We’d stay up late, reading, flashlights under our covers, our matching shadows showing through the sheets.

My sister would be kind, like the mother who’d given us both up, even though we knew she didn’t want to, even though she loved us very much, even though one day she’d come back.

“Hope to hear from you,” Blonde4eva writes.

*   *   *

“Be him,” my son says now about Blondie.

I try a generic Disney swagger, a low-voiced “hi there.”

“No,” my son says, and he looks like he might cry, he’s that disappointed, distressed. He takes Blondie out of my hand and dances him against my cheek. “BE him.”

But I don’t know how.

I don’t know who he could possibly be.


Lori Jakiela is the author of a memoir, Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette 2006), and three poetry chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist!, will be published in April 2012. Her essays and poems have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, 5 AM and elsewhere. She lives outside of Pittsburgh, directs the writing program at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg, and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Chatham University.

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

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.

Who’s Kristin Meyers?

For Kristin Meyers, being an artist was never a choice or a decision; it ‘s what she’s always done and therefore who she is. One of her earliest memories of her sculptural interests: dismantling her own highchair using the back of a spoon. 

“My mother was horrified as she walked in to see the metal pieces organized on the floor, ready for reassembly,” Meyers recalls. “I was also obsessed with stacking; building towers from unlikely objects to see how many and how high I could precariously balance objects.”

As a child, Kristin was fortunate to be encouraged artistically and given sumi ink and a brush of her own very early. She would sit at the kitchen table for hours copying Japanese ink works from a myriad of Asian Art books her family owned.

For her the deal was sealed early on.

SOS: Who’s Kristin Meyers? How do you define yourself as an artist?

KM: I am a cultural producer interested in ideas regarding transformation of spirit in the human experience. I work intuitively exploring Ritual Practice in all its forms. I find that my first-generation immigrant experience is a continuing presence in all my explorations. I suppose it lies somewhere between my experiences of alienation here in the U.S. as an immigrant child and time spent in my mother country, Italy, where I was also seen as a foreigner. It seems there is a tradition in all immigrant experiences of rich storytelling, which informs my narrative voice. I find that there is that journey which unifies us. It is in all my work, be it seen or unseen. My practice is mostly installation-based, often integrating sculptural elements or assemblage with drawing. I often repurpose found objects to convey my message and believe in the idea that energies can be contained and infused in them. My classic understanding of human form through my figure work is a continuing interest in my pursuit to understand humanity.

My work is an investigation of Humanity and the Spirit Inside. My commitment to spiritual systems is an ongoing exploration in my life. It began early for me through my many explorations into the ritual practices of many cultures. I engaged in this practice from when I became aware of the spirit. My craft incorporates my knowledge of ritual practice into principles of energy transference through ritual techniques such as binding, capturing, and encapsulating.  I seek reflection through a contemporary lens on spirit systems departing from the African Diaspora and the many derivations borne from that journey.

SOS: What are some of your influences? 

KM: I am influenced by my environment and explorations into the world around me. My work is continually fed by my interest in the African Diaspora and all the cultural traditions of Africa, Haiti, Latin America, and other island cultures. From my perspective, the branches of the Diaspora are the root of life’s essence. I am influenced by the concept of spirit and explore ritual practice, which melds into my process in different ways. The mystery and poetry in nature is a constant fascination. As far as inspirational people, there are many: I studied with Marilyn Houlberg, who opened my eyes to the Diaspora; Rivka Harris, the renowned Egyptologist; I have read just about everything of Maya Daren, Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, and Edwidge Danticat, whose writing continually motivates me; I listen to Celia Cruz and Nina Simone to stir my soul. In the realm of visual artists, George Liataud, Olowe of Ise, and Hector Hyppolite immediately evoke the spirit in their imagery. Figure-based artists such as Egon Schiele and Kathe Kollwitz have always been core inspirations. I admire the content and integrity in the work of Edouard Duval Carrie, Maria Magdalena Campos Pons and Carrie Mae Weems.

Many years ago I saw an exhibit of Edouard Duval Carrie at the Bass Museum. I sat in front of that installation feeling the energies of the Lwa and felt a transmission that my creative explorations were on track in a contemporary context. I knew someday I would cross his path and I have. He has been extremely encouraging about my practice and I am fortunate to have my work included in his private collection. The piece he chose was a part of an installation for the Lwa, titled ‘Something Peculiar: Idols & Fetishes.’ I was in the midst of creating this work for inclusion in a group show in NYC, when the earthquake struck Haiti. Due to the coincidental timing of this installation’s context, I was very wary of the reception it might receive in the aftermath of the tragedy. I discussed this with Edouard and he agreed I might be the recipient of misplaced anger, but he seemed to understand my intentions were to celebrate the culture and that gave me tremendous strength. I felt if he supported my efforts, I could take whatever might come. I did receive some negative comments during the exhibition, but generally not from the Haitian community. By the time the exhibition concluded, I felt I was able to communicate my intent for good. 

SOS: What mediums do you work from?

KM: In drawing, Japanese ink is a staple of my materials as is soft 6b lead pencil. In sculpture and assemblage I will use literally anything. I am a vehement collector, believing in repurposing materials. I am preoccupied with transforming and re-contextualizing what is thought of as junk. I haunt scrap yards and “junk” stores for my treasures, hunting and gathering to suit my installations. My material choices often fall into the Arte Povera classification, with the exception being that I am a stickler for good paper.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback? What has been the biggest challenge in the work you create?
My greatest success is connected to and follows my biggest setback. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the majority of my artwork. In the immediate aftermath, I was understandably consumed with finding friends and family while confronted by the overwhelming loss of humanity and history. The impact of losing my body of work didn’t hit me until much later. It was like losing my entire life’s history, yet for me nothing compared to the loss of lives we were forced to witness. I pushed the loss deep into the recesses of my mind until I began having a recurring dream of a man driving an old pickup truck with one of my drowned life-sized copper figures strapped on the roof. It was oddly comforting, yet I began to feel disheartened in beginning my creative process anew. Nonetheless, I continue to be resolute in my faith in New Orleans. I rebuilt my house and saved another one, which I transformed into my New Orleans studio. A previous collector let me know that he rescued Niobe; a life-sized figure bought several years prior, from his apartment. I realized the works sent off on their own journey to new owners were likely still safe. Since evacuating to South Florida, I now live in both cities, which has opened me to a new world. It is from this vantage point that I find my biggest success: coming to terms with my true fortune. Not only had I survived, but in time I realized that the thousands of drowned works of art still reside inside, and that can never be taken away. 

My biggest challenge in the work I create comes from being an artist interested in themes that seem to tread a delicate balance. For example, exploring spiritual systems seems to be a type of work, which is not easily contextualized, as are some other contemporary practices. My interest in a myriad of cultures (which I am often not a part of) can lead to my point of reference being questioned in ways that undermine my message, and my intent. Ultimately, I ask that people be open to accepting the beauty of what makes us different and see more clearly the connections that are not immediately apparent.

SOS: What are you working on?

KM: I am currently working on an installation inspired by the Marassa and the Ibeji, which examines the energy of twin deities and the connection in that journey.  The work looks at twin ritualization in conjunction with the concept of preserving ritual in our contemporary world. It is born from a series of nine sets of twins created from found objects and repurposed materials bound and embellished to build into figural representation, a large shrine, and a series of drawings acting as a “map” or a “key” to understanding the connections across perceived cultural boundaries.

Concurrent to the twins installation, I am working on a series of drawings which are well outside my normal comfort zone. As a departure point I began thinking about memory and historical reflections. The idea of selective memory and the idea of a misinformed romanticism.

I would like the viewer to reflect on the work and at times for it to quietly disturb them, possibly re-framing the preconceived notions of our differences and awaken the senses to our unified collective unconscious. I would like my work to be thought of as substantive. Sometimes I fantasize about giving someone goose bumps in the same way certain vocalists, writers, and artists have done to me.  I would like to be remembered for following my own vision and creating dangerously, to borrow from Edwidge Danticat’s book.

I enjoy the freedom and luxury to express myself in a larger contemporary context. Recent events have shown how much censorship pervades the art world, from institutions and museum directors. I continue to create without fear of being persecuted for my choices.

SOS: What are your favorite pieces of work that you have done and why?

KM: One of my favorite pieces of work is one that survived Katrina. It is a shrine for Ellegua, built back in my days at the Art Institute in Chicago. It’s an early example of my interest in ritual work and stands the test of time. Another favorite is a large installation I have not yet shown, which was built in Miami right after Katrina. It’s titled ‘Sacred Essence.’ For me, it is seminal in its exploration of the African Diaspora and the journey of the spirit. I feel very strongly about it 
and hope it will eventually find a wide audience.

SOS: What did you like and dislike about your art education?

KM: I was fortunate to have amazing teachers at Parsons in NYC and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Karl Uretsky of Parsons nurtured my passion for figure and took me to explore behind the scenes at the Met and other institutions. He was dreaded as an instructor due to his strict teaching style, but he taught me the valuable skill of truly seeing what I was looking at. Marilyn Houlberg, from SAIC was instrumental in exposing me to ritual and the Diaspora. The Museum was the best education for me, looking at and absorbing the diverse collection of ancient and modern works. I was lucky enough to study advanced figure later at Lorenzo de Medici in Florence where classes were held in a church. The light filtered through the stained glass and fell upon the live figure models while tumbling on the sarcophagi buried in the well-worn marble floors. More recently, I attended a residency in Vallauris, France where the Madoura pottery studios of Picasso fame are located. There I met many artists who worked for and with Picasso. I worked in ceramics both independently and collaboratively and found it extremely intriguing. I truly cherish my time and the people I met there. What I didn’t like about my education was actually being in school. I was not a traditional student in the normal sense as I found the classroom to be distracting and confusing. So, whenever possible, I opted for independent study. In that I thrived, holding my own figure sessions with fellow artists, hiring a live model and inviting artists and even teachers to join in. I brought my work in for critiques and made it through that way.

SOS: What would you say is the most important lesson you have learned in your life as a graphic designer, and how do you apply it to your art?

KM: My mother went from harvesting silk from silk worms in mulberry trees in Italy to building a successful design business in Chicago. Even before her success, she always provided my sister and me with a beautiful environment. I obtained a measure of understanding of design early through some form of genetic osmosis. I worked for her, in design, at times over the years. In the past I kept my design sensibilities separate from my thoughts on art production, but as I developed my practice, I accepted that all my work is informed by my artistic sensibilities. My art making informs all my production.

SOS: If you could go back in time and tell your old self one bit of advice concerning design what would you say and why?

KM: If I could go back in time I would say to myself to appreciate your knowledge of design, which was in the past framed as a strike against you as a fine artist. Those lines have now blurred to the point of being almost non-exisistent. Many contemporary artists are exploring combined avenues of design, architecture, music, multi-media, and translating through them through their own art practice.

Visit Kristin online. She participates in the open figure groups at both Bakehouse and South Florida Art Center. She also enjoys the lectures given at both MOCA and the Bass Art Museum. She’s also exploring other programs in South Florida Museums and looking forward to developing relationships within that engagement. She’s been accepted into several online groups such as the Armory Show, Contemporary Art News, Art Exhibition Group, SAIC alumni, Contemporary Sculptors and Mutual Art, among others.

Kristin was recently honored to be selected for the ‘Sin’ exhibition at the Bakehouse Art Complex in Wynwood. This was a group show comprised of Miami-based and international artists, curated by some of Miami’s top curators. Two of her pieces were selected for the show: ‘Gluttony’ selected by Bonnie Clearwater of MOCA and ‘Greed’ curated by Silvia Karman Cubina of the Bass Museum. Kristin is included in several independent curators’ proposals for exhibitions and she’s preparing to propose several new projects as well. She’s always interested in opening her New Orleans studio to curators and collectors and will do the same once her Miami studio is up and running.

Adam Simon: Grey Babies

Adam Simon is a painter living and working in Brooklyn, New York. He is also known for projects relating to art distribution and reception, most notably Four Walls and the Fine Art Adoption Network.

“For the last 20 years or so the artist Adam Simon and I have been having a wide-ranging conversation that has occasionally taken the form of collaborative art-and-writing projects. This is one of three stories I wrote last year in response to some of Adam’s recent paintings. This painting, Grey Babies, first appeared along with the story in BOMB magazine, summer 2009.”
—Matthew Sharpe

Read the story.

Irene Zion: Margot’s Voice Burned Away in the Fire

My daughter Margot died at birth. 
Her identical twin survived.
Margot comes to me in my dreams,
growing older along with her sister.

Margot’s Voice Burned Away in the Fire
Oil on Canvas


Irene Zion has had no formal training in painting. She has been in a show of Outsiders at the University of Southern Illinois, entitled: Visions Not Far From Normal, in 1997.  In November and December 2010, she was featured at Barrister’s Gallery in New Orleans, as part of an exhibit entitled: Like A Prayer: Reflections of a Twenty-first Century Feminine.

Irene Zion’s paintings are all oil on canvas.  She makes her own wooden frames in various ways, wood burning figures on them, painting them, taking a blowtorch to them, using found objects and paint together; each frame is an integral part of the finished painting and different from any other.  Irene paints people and animals exclusively.