Monday, August 11, 2014


Adapting a screenplay from a novel I've written is an act of undressing. I strip away my worst habits  -- in particular my tendency to finesse language when I don't know motivation and to prop a scene with  psychological justification when I should rely on the scene itself and my relentless need to dip back into childhood to account for the present. Now that it's bare, I see all the opportunities I left on the table. It's humbling. I've written many of my novels first as screenplays -- the larger strokes, the more essential moments of dialogue. I always end up making sweeping changes for the reader as there are things the reader demands that the viewer doesn't. But the adaptation second is the harder lesson, so brutal it might be worth writing the adaptation before I hand off the next novel, like running it through a series of durability test -- chief among them imaginative, visual, ache, gesture, moment for moment...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Screenplay V. Novel

What I find interesting about writing a screenplay versus writing a novel is that the mental energy isn't in the word count but it's in the imaginative work of a scene. Let's say you write a chapter with three scenes and it takes twenty pages, and you write three scenes in a screenplay which takes six pages. The work -- the mental, visual, imaginative drumming of pistons -- is based on the territory not the pages. It's surprising to be burnt after a two-age scene. It's not surprising to feel burnt after a six page scene at 250 words per page. In fact, the compression is actually harder on my brain. In a six page scene written in prose for a novel, the words do some of the piston work. They often carry me visually in a way that writing description in a screenplay doesn't. The characters themselves do more work in fiction too. I have access to their thoughts so they tell me what they're thinking. In a screenplay, that's all going on in my head while my fingers are still. And therefore it doesn't have the hope of writing itself, as sometimes is the case in fiction. The shared space is dialogue, of course, which sometimes pulses away -- lots of little iron lungs.
My most peaceful dreamy dreams are of field hockey. I'm on the field, stick in hand, mouth-guard tucked into the top of my sock while the ref wasn't looking. I don't know why these are peaceful dreams. They weren't peaceful games, but maybe it's because the field hockey field was a place where I could be completely aggressive in my youth, viciously so, my role was so simple, and there's some peace in that. It's this time of year when I get nervous -- I'm out of shape and pre-season still seems to be looming. As a kid, my identity was that of athlete. I was small and fast and it was where I had this unexpected power. My gym teachers always pulled my mother aside at open houses and told her that I should be a gymnast. My mother told them flatly that it would stunt my growth and, look at her, she needs all the growth she can get. Unlike many of my writer friends, I wasn't inside reading a book; I was arranging kickball, living for Capture the Flag, and -- well, this is another side of myself -- trying to arrange elaborate, seemingly impromptu song and dance numbers that we would break into -- again, seemingly as strangers -- at the 7 Eleven. I also had a best friend who was a flag twirler and learned all of her choreography in summers. And, when the marching band played in the parking lot next to the field hockey field, I could twirl my field hockey stick with precision. I also talked some of my teammates into doing a rendition of Why Do Fools Fall in Love, which we once performed at half-time while scouting another team. My coach, who terrified me in so many ways, allowed my great latitude when it came to my desire to put on show. I think of that coach often. I remember my legs shaking in a row of girls doing wall sits against the concrete of my high school. As writers, we always talk about keeping our asses in the chair -- that that's the key, just staying. I think of how she prepped me for that; at least I get a chair. At around 12, I got in trouble for slapping my friend. It was right outside of her house and, with stroke of bad luck, my mother was inside that house visiting with her mother. As it was summer, I had two punishment options -- no more Pacman for the rest of summer or staying inside for one entire day. I picked the latter. One day. How hard could that be? But I could hear people playing four-square from my window -- double-tap, no double-taps, dervish (a move my father invented when the litigator would come out to play with us after work -- his extra rules were, well, complexly layered, as one would expect). I couldn't bear staring out the window. I went downstairs and asked if I could trade my punishment for no more Pacman. My mother agreed. I was free. (I also almost didn't get to play in the state tournament b/c of an assembly in which I got hysterical laughing at a row of bishops with a friend. We had to apologize -- sincerely.) I was a very energetic kid. I would try to sit still and eat peanut butter to help me bloom into womanhood; it just never worked. I had to get up and do elaborate routines on the sofa -- handstands teetering near the bank of windows. I voluntarily took gym all four years of high school. And I'm still a pacer. Talk to me on the phone and I'm moving. I've tried to start up walking conferences with students. I think better when I pace. My husband has continued to be an athlete and I haven't. No time. I miss having something at stake -- some clear purpose. I miss, to be honest, the very specific knock of the ball against the perfectly driven field hockey stick. I miss the kinetic joy of the perfect flick. I miss the narrative braiding structure of the give and go. And sometimes point of view can only be described from one field hockey player to another -- in terms of an obstruction call. I hate working out. I miss competition and a team of girls who might have little in common but suddenly have one goal -- pure and simple, to win a game.
(It might be that I just miss girlhood.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Gratitude Project ...

Last month, a friend of mine was murdered. The month before we had messaged back and forth and he wrote about living with gratitude -- for the things he already enjoyed and the new things he stumbled upon. On the shelves above my desk, I keep boxes of note cards and envelopes, and I've had this idea that one day I would write thank you letters -- notes of gratitude -- to people who've really impacted my life over the years, especially people who would have no idea that they have meant so much to me. Last week, I started writing those little notes and sending them out. (I'm including people I knew in childhood, neighbors, relatives, libraries, teachers, writers I know well and those who are strangers to me... other artists, politicians who've done the right thing... ) These are small acts, especially in light of the violent world news and my friend's tragic death. But I feel like it's what I need to do. I want to make it more of my daily practice. The truth is that some of the people I want to thank are already gone. So it's today. Today.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Secret Love Letters to Librarians

It pubs September 2nd.
Dear Librarians, Media Specialists, Those Tenders of the Book Aviaries,

So I think I've inadvertently written you some love letters. THE FUTURE FOR CURIOUS PEOPLE is the debut novel of Gregory Sherl -- my participation in creating and writing the novel is noted in an author's note at the end of the book (where I actually like being hidden, turns out).

But here's how the love letters to you happened ... Having spent a lot of time in libraries, it was probably just a matter of time before one of my main characters was a librarian. Evelyn in THE FUTURE FOR CURIOUS PEOPLE is that character, at long last. Some of the stories in the novel are based on bits of true tales from the trenches -- my very dear friend was a librarian at a large city library for many years. So, yes, the librarian who accidentally aided and abetted a criminal, the patron who dyed her hair in the third-floor bathroom... based loosely on things that happened... But mainly I got to riff on libraries themselves... and I went off -- in a co-authorly way with Greg -- so much so that there are parts that really read like love letters complete with admiration and adoration for the work you do, for libraries, for all of you...

A few (confessional) excerpts:

"Libraries are my homeland...  As a kid, I went to the library because, in books, there were people really living lives and, unlike my parents, they talked to me about important things. My own house was austere, hushed, and dusty like a library, but once you understand that each book on the shelf has a heartbeat then you’ll want to stay. I don’t tend dead things – paper, ink, glue bindings. I tend books the way someone in an aviary tends birds."

"If some books don’t come back? Well, some books are meant to live in the wilds. There’s not much you can do about that."

"...nowadays, libraries are in many ways the last public space. Robert Frost defined home as 'the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.' Ditto public libraries. Our doors are open – to everyone. In the summer, kids are dropped off here to spend the entire day. Some really little ones manage a city bus route. They don’t have anywhere else to go. It’s sometimes overwhelmingly sad, and yet they’re here. They aren’t on the streets.
"Just this morning, I got to help an old woman trying to find a book that she’d read in her childhood. She didn’t remember the title or the author, but knew it was about a panda. When I showed her the cover on my screen, she said, “Yes, yes, that’s it! My father read it to me once and cried at the end. It was the only time I’d ever seen him cry.” Books can break a man open, even ones about a panda, maybe especially so.

"I love the smell of books, the dust motes spiraling in sun. I love shelves and order. I love the carts and metal stools on wheels. I love the quiet carrels and the study rooms. I love the strobing of copy machines, the video and audio bins. I love the Saturday morning read alouds for kids and how they try to hush when they come in; all these books can still demand a bit of awe. I love the teen reading groups, clutching books to their chests, little shields protecting them from the world’s assaults – those are my people. I even love the homeless shuffling in – it’s warm here with running water, safe -- and the couples who make out in the stacks. I don’t blame them: books are sexy, after all."

With love, admiration, fortitude, respect, perhaps some kiss-uppery, and occasional bookish gluttony,  

Julianna Baggott

Friday, June 27, 2014


I'm happy to announce that I've accepted the William H.P. Jenks Chair in Contemporary American Letters at the College of the Holy Cross. I'll start in the fall. It's a two-to-five year appointment that allows me to keep my close ties to Florida State University where I'll still be working with graduate students in the College of Motion Picture Arts.
I'm also inspired by Jenks himself. "Despite being stricken with severe polio at 19, which rendered him quadriplegic, Jenks was determined to continue his education and remain connected to the Holy Cross community. He learned to type on an electric typewriter with a clothespin between his teeth."
Jenks once said, "… A crippling disease is just one of fate's ways of undercutting muscular love. The able-bodied can be brought to truth through hurts that never show. I think it's likely I am not the most seriously wounded among us, only the most conspicuously bandaged. Sooner or later every one of us will be made to feel flawed, inadequate, powerless. And there's no defense against it … The alternative is to let yourself be loved." 

Click here for the full announcement.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Jen McClanaghan

Sometimes an interview turns into a glimpse of an entire life. This is one of those rare gems, and it's also full of wisdom, too. It's my pleasure to introduce Jen McClanaghan, whose debut collection, RIVER LEGS, has just been published. 

Here we go... 

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book? 

When I was in grad school working on my PhD, I scraped together enough money to visit a friend living in Hawaii. She took me to all the requisite attractions where I amassed all the requisite souvenirs, including a hibiscus tattoo. But in the middle of this trip—this paradise, I received a phone call from my dad, telling me he had terminal lung cancer. The frivolity and the heat, the laziness of time, the lush coast, were replaced by new images when I visited him in Rhode Island a month later: the pink slippers his wife had me wear in their house, the cigarettes he still smoked, his copy of Moby Dick on the kitchen table, a broken window in the bedroom where I slept, a cold March beach. These experiences and the sense of disjunction, led to a series of poems in River Legs, and brought me as close to that feeling of inspiration—when a poem seems to write itself—as I ever felt over a sustained period of time. These elegies found their own rhythms, line breaks and syntax. I always have that one moment when writing, the inspired moment when a poem strikes out on its own and conjures an image or epiphany seemingly by itself. But the poems about my dad also came without the usual bewilderment preceding the others: How the hell does a person write a poem?

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? 

Having married a writer, I mostly think it’s great. Especially for me because my husband is such a good editor, and his strengths are my weaknesses. For instance, he’s a fabulous cook, he tracks our finances, he’s always disciplined. He’s the type who takes photos and uploads and shares them immediately following an event. I wear hard contact lenses that are so smudgy I have to squint over the computer like a ninety-year old. I put things off beyond the stages of guilt and shame, though not laundry, which I love wrangling under control. I’m also the one who dreams up new futures for us (homesteader bloggers, bluegrass family band). So they have my blessing, so long as they possess a complementary set of neuroses and bad habits.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, anything about that process from your perspective. 

I’ll share two stories. The first is about a rejection I received from the Paris Review. They returned my poems to me and accidentally included a sticky note between editors that said, “These have some nice moments and lovely concrete images but they are also a bit predictable at times. I might be fonder of them than I usually would because the pickings are so slim today.” At The Southern Review, we always wrote on the envelope the piece came in, so our confidential notes didn’t inadvertently get mailed to the writer. But I loved the chance, as we all would, to eavesdrop on someone else reading my poems. My students get a kick out of the note when we talk about sending out work.

My second story really belongs to my uncle Eddie. He has lived in the same building in Manhattan for twenty years. One Sunday he struck up a conversation with someone in the elevator who introduced himself as Paul. At some point Paul said that he was a poet and my uncle started rattling on about his niece who had recently had a poem in The New Yorker. “Really,” Paul said, “I’m the Poetry Editor of The New Yorker.” The man, of course, was Paul Muldoon. I remember that when he accepted my poem for the magazine he signed his email, “Warmly, Paul.” And for months I’d just walk around repeating the word warmly.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

Until I was about six years old, I had this really glorious middle-class, suburban childhood. I lived with my parents and three uncles, the world’s finest dog, and loads of benign trouble. My uncles—who were living with us because their mother, my grandmother, had died—were teenagers and took great care of me. One had a Good Humor truck from which he sold doobie, a word I remember loving as a kid. I would raid the truck for Charleston Chews and ice cream sandwiches. We lived in a large house in the valley of a steep driveway. My great grandfather would come out from Manhattan on Easter to trim the rhododendrons. Milk was delivered to our backdoor. Elvis was on TV and everyone drove wood-paneled station wagons. It was so middle class and so perfect, but only for a brief time.

And then the bank foreclosed, the drinking became alcoholism, the dog was hit by a car, my parents divorced, my uncles scattered, and Elvis was two years dead.  Until I graduated high school, my mom and I lived in an apartment next to a dentist’s office and upstairs from a psychiatrist’s. Our front yard had a sign that said, “Biofeedback Services,” which haunted me as a kid. My bedroom desk looked into the neighboring dentist’s office. I’d do my homework while watching teeth cleanings. I was an only child and alone quite a lot. I often write from that solitude.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer? 

I had a best friend who worked at a Gulf gas station. One day she left the nozzle in a BMW and when the car drove away, there was a great mess. She quit on the spot, just ran from the station to my house on the other side of town. A few weeks later I was hired in her position. I was in high school, smoking cigarettes and pumping gas. I was na├»ve and trying to act much older than I was. When I write, I find that sometimes I’ve daydreamed myself right back to that dirty counter and all those Snapple lemonades. There were many stories there, but it’s frozen time as in a diorama. I have other such places that I find myself in when writing or when reading stories—not jobs, per se. I am forever walking through the museum of my life and writing from very specific locations—odd places that have lodged in me—a childhood friend’s living room where her parents drank White Russians, a neighbor’s kitchen with her half-dozen poodles, my grandparents’ lawn, dotted with rabbits.  Sometimes I find myself standing in these images so completely that it takes me a minute to realize I’ve daydreamed them up again. Back to the gas station: After my family’s economic collapse, I was the outsider—a poor kid in a very affluent town. I embraced the role and looked for jobs and minor rebellions to support that image, including the choice to go to Antioch College for a creative writing degree. My mom never pressured me about school or career—she was often absent and by default consenting—but also remembering, I’m sure, how her mother forced her into secretarial school, preparing her for a career she despised.  She swore she’d cut off my fingers if I became a secretary, though I imagine I spend more time typing than she ever did.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process? 

I am not religious, but now I’m teaching at a Catholic University and I was raised Catholic, though we really just attended the high holy days at St. Aloysius. I do have great faith in the writing process—the fact that if I keep at it, a benevolent spirit beyond me will give me my lines. Also in the transformative power of literature—reading it, of course, but also how spiritual it feels to have articulated something exactly right. Now that I’m at Salve Regina, I want to write about the Sisters of Mercy who founded the school (they had loads of faith and patience), and in particular about the freedom offered by obedience. I’ve written about the great acts of disobedience from the women in my family—my great grandmother (her father’s favorite) climbing out her bedroom window and eloping, my grandmother moving to Las Vegas in the late forties to obtain a divorce. Even though I had my minor acts of rebellion, I was sensitive, easily frightened, and flooded with guilt for even small transgressions. I came by my own obedience very differently, and it didn’t give me the same freedom or the same backbone—though it did give me my poetry.

For more of Jen's words and work, click here to buy her book! 

Jen McClanaghan’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Poetry 2013, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, and New England ReviewRiver Legs was selected by Nikky Finney for Kore Press’s First Book Award for Poetry. She is an assistant professor and writer in residence at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, where she lives with her husband and son. For more information, go to her website: