Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What's coming in 2015?

Happy New Year to all of you! Hope 2015 drags more joy and peace, tolerance and love (and art) into the world.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay hops in for a half-dozen questions. She is a nominee for two -- yes, two -- NAACP Image Awards, one in fiction and one in nonfiction. Below, she talks about love letters, criticism, and procrastination -- a surprise from such a brilliant and prolific writer.  

(And if you're hunting for a holiday present for your favorite feminists,
click here to take a look at Roxane's New York Times Bestseller 

Let the questions begin...

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love to write. I harbor no angst about writing. The page is where I lose myself and find myself and soothe myself and thrill myself. It's always something wonderful and I always looking forward to getting back to that place. 

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

Settle in for gorgeous and sexy love letters.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I allow myself to sulk if it's a petty criticism. I always feel the sting, truthfully but I try to learn from the criticism that points out weaknesses in my craft or thinking.  It helps me grow and it's also great to see people engaging with my work.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

I haven't. It's terrible, but I feel like I am always working. I never allow myself a moment to stop and breathe.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

I love learning new things and ways of thinking about the craft of fiction and creative nonfiction. I am always challenged and invigorated by the risks I see my students taking. 

What’s your take on touring? 

I've been lucky enough to go on book tours for both of my books this year. It has been a wonderful, gratifying experience to share my writing with enthusiastic audiences. It's also awesome to meet people who read my books and see, visibly, what my writing means to them. Touring is also exhausting but I can't wait to do it again. 

What's your worst writerly habit?

I procrastinate and take on far too many assignments that I cannot realistically complete in the allotted time. 

Roxane Gay's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK. She is also the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and Hunger, forthcoming from Harper in 2016.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Jeff VanderMeer

A glimpse into the wonderful, weird, otherwordly mind of New York Times bestselling author Jeff VanderMeer.  His SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY is now out -- in full -- so if you're the impatient binge-reader-type who refuses to start a trilogy until it's all there, proceed!

(Note: Below, flense is not a typo for cleanse.)

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I’m obsessed right now by both abstract and visceral approaches to violence—theory/philosophy and then also more immediate accounts. I’m reading Slavoj Zizek’s Violence, Bernard-Henri Levy’s War, Evil, and the End of History, and also the abridged version of William T. Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means, while hoping to acquire a copy of the unabridged version. I also just finished Kerry Howley’s creative nonfiction account of MMA fighters, Thrown, which I just loved. Such a great poetic and yet unflinching and candid book. I’m also studying a lot of fights and other violence captured in YouTube videos and then more fictionalized violence, like the continuous-take fight scene in Cronenberg’s movie Eastern Promises. I think depictions of violence still allow room for interesting interpretations—and can still shock but also illuminate. I’m working on a novel titled Borne that requires a thorough examination from all angles. Violence is always there in the scenes, even when not expressed directly.

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

Don’t let them get away with too much irresponsibility or non-responsiveness, but be aware that while writing they tend to be in two places at once and that the corporeal mess around them may seem very distant. That’s not an excuse, just an observation. And, if they’re not entertaining you and telling tales and making you laugh…maybe they should be. But, you know, writers are just people like everybody else—absurd, inconsistent weirdos made of 30% bull-crap and 70% water.

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

I was an odd mix of introvert and joker. I kept a bird-watchers journal. I also had a diary where I wrote poetry and rewrote folktales. I always had a good sense of humor, but tended to only let it out around people I knew really well. Living overseas in Fiji until middle school and also traveling around the world was a huge gift my parents gave to me and my sister. It made our worldview not be very centered on the U.S.—indeed, since Fiji was in the British Commonwealth, I came home with an English accent and more knowledge of Asterix and Tintin comics as well as Indian comics serializing Hindu and Moslem and Buddist legends and epics than anything in the States. In high school I was on the varsity soccer team and won the school racquetball tournament but wasn’t a jock. I edited the literary journal and wrote for the newspaper but wasn’t really much into geek culture or whatever either.I had a very low tolerance for bullies, but was shy enough to attract them. I remember smashing one bully’s head into his egg salad sandwich at lunch in middle school and kicking a soccer ball into the face of another bully in high school, because he was tormenting a student much more introverted than I was. These actions while probably not that civilized tended to help in terms of being left alone. As for how all of this shaped me as a writer—I’m not sure. Except that I very much distrust institutions and also, because of Fiji, missionaries, I believe very much in the importance of the individual attempt to see through societal bullshit as a step toward achieving some true sense of reality. And my novels are always on some underlying level about love, friendship, and the difficulties of connection and communication.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

I really hated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I hated that the intelligent woodland animals were so happy about replacing a dictatorship with a monarchy instead of just telling everybody else to shove the hell off. I hated that it had a Christian subtext. I could never get into Lovecraft. I didn’t like a lot of heroic fantasy rip-offs of Tolkien, although I can’t name names because some of those writers are excellent teachers of creative writing and very nice people. But it’s hard to remember the stuff I hated because mostly I tried to just figure out why it wasn’t working for me and took on that lesson, while the name of the writer faded away. I think what I mostly didn’t like was illogically happy endings and novels where the writer had as a hero someone who was almost certainly, by their actions, a sociopath…only the writer didn’t realize that’s what they’d written. Bad prose early on especially drove me nuts. I didn’t have any patience for lazy writing because I was trying to flense all laziness from my own.

What’s your take on touring? 

It’s an incredible privilege and opportunity to contribute to book culture and to meet readers. I don’t think book tours are on the way out, especially as ever more indie bookstores are getting strong and smarter and doing the things necessary to make their brick-and-mortar locations centers of that culture.
But it is a really weird thing—you live like a hermit for a year or more, writing. And you begin to talk to your cats, like long, long conversations. Then you go out among people and you’re genuinely liking the experience and interested in meeting readers. Yet there is still this strangeness of going from one extreme to the other. In my case, because of three novels out on one year, I’ve toured what amounts to five months in 2014. It does become tiring, you have peculiar lapses in energy and moments of being too manic. I still wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. I love meeting readers, I love what they tell me about their communities and their thoughts on books.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

It’s probably more that I don’t believe place or landscape exists separate from characterization, even in third-person points of view. The reader is still more or less experiencing the world through that character’s eyes, and as a writer I need to understand what this particular person will or won’t notice about the setting, from scene to scene. And how the landscape impinges or doesn’t impinge on a character based on such basic things as whether they’re rich, poor, or middle-class. We pull the elements of fiction out to teach fiction, but the less we think in terms of elements when we actually write, the closer we get to living in an immersive dream…and hopefully also the best experience for the reader.

Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy was published by FSG Originals 
in the U.S. over the course of 2014 and has now been collected in a hardcover omnibus. The novels have received wide critical acclaim and also made the New York Times bestseller list. Paramount Pictures and Scott Rudin Productions bought the movie rights with Shine and Never Let Me Go screenwriter Alex Garland set to write and direct the first movie of a projected three-film series. The trilogy chronicles the 30-year effort by a secret agency known as the Southern Reach to explore and understand Area X, a strange pristine wilderness cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible barrier. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post,,, and many others.

For more, click here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Another way we are mothers. Honoring mothers.

This is the essay that I will never read in public. The only essay my husband and I have ever written together, it's deeply personal. When you get to the end, you'll probably know why I can't say the words of it aloud. It was first published in 2006.

I've posted it here once before a couple of years ago, but wanted to repost. I was looking for it for a friend and thought sharing it might be of some use.  It's one way we are mothers -- a loss that is often kept very private. If you want to read more voices on this subject, this is the anthology: About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope. When the editor approached me to contribute, I said I could only write the essay with my husband, Dave. And here it is.

On Having Children, on Miscarriage, on Desire and Fear (and this Marriage):
A Conversation Between Husband and Wife

From Julianna to Dave:

I can hear people whispering that we’ve taken more than our share – as if children were our sustenance and we’re fattened already and still thinking about lapping the buffet for a fourth time. And on my last trip to the city to visit my lifelong girlfriends, New Yorkers for a decade now, all childless, there is a feeling of starvation, a desperation like that of the Great Depression. If I talk of our three kids, even lightly, the room churns with emotion.

Do you and I have a great hunger? If so, for what?

We’ve both confessed that we’re afraid of the way the world demands that we hand our children over. The more children we have the more we have to fear. Does fear work this way? Is it exponential? But, not only fear. Deciding to have a child is saying yes to more – more joy, more grief, more love, confusion, noise ...

And, the truth is, that the fear begins now. We already have four children – there’s the one we lost. I don’t tell you how he still exists. He’s a boy, tall, thin, with twisted legs. He’s five years old now. In August, I feel the emptiness of a birthday that has no birth.

From David to Julianna

Here’s where I linger: you’ve told me it’s my turn to write, so I sit with the laptop on my thighs and begin to settle in when the door opens. It’s you, my love. The great love of my life, my desire, my leg, my nourishment. What’s that? I can’t quite make it out because of your laryngitis. You look like you’re scolding me. “My god,” you whisper, “don’t put that thing on your lap. They say it causes infertility."

I love the way you protect me, and by protecting me, trying to give me more. You shake your head at our friends who’ve been snipped. The vasectomy–the great end of possibilities. What if, you say, I die, and your new wife has never had a child and wants to have children with you. See how you’re always giving to me, even in your imagined death. Death has come to us before. Your great aunts, my grandfather, who I barely knew, the neighbor girl who died in a sledding accident, and our friend, the suicide. We have loved our way through all this sadness.

And the baby...he was mine, too. As if the blackness on the ultrasound was a something that could so easily be taken away, but it wasn’t. I had to call your father and tell him. I said, “This baby didn’t make it.” And for the first time, I had failed a child. What hadn’t I done right? How could I have forgotten to help you: vitamins, exercise, vegetables. How could I have given you the wrong seed? I wish I hadn’t -- for all the pain it caused you, caused both of us. And still here I am, cocked for you. Aiming at you what has become (not to sound too melodramatic but ...) a dangerous weapon. I want more, in the face of what I know. It’s not money or stuff. It’s not the diapers or the sleeplessness or the pride in that first step. (Since I’ve been the one at home among the chaos of kids for years now, I’m not saying any of this with a blind eye to the reality.)It’s more of you that I want. One more angle, one more topic of conversation, one more knowing sigh we share in the day before we both fall asleep. You’re waving at me now, across the room, your voice only guttural and shushing. Don’t speak. Get your voice back. I want to talk to you about this next baby and the one we lost. Remember that wedding we went to, where the mother of the groom said she was meant to have more children – and she’d had six boys? We’ve wondered about that statement for years. I feel meant to have another child, I feel meant for the dizzying complexity that kid will bring.

from Julianna to David

It was a miscarriage, and I was the carriage – I imagine myself rattling over cobblestone, a wobbly thing on wooden wheels. It wasn’t your fault. I can tell you that as easily as you can tell me the same. Still, I feel sorry for you. I got to hold the child inside of me, and you never did. I don’t think it makes logical sense. I was nauseous, slack with fatigue. I wouldn’t get to feel him kick – just a few weeks shy. But still it seems like a gift to have been able to carry the baby with me, for a short time.

I am afraid. So many things wind back to this pain…. The dead bodies. Loss is loss is loss. It will find a harmony inside of memory – and pull it up more sharply. Loss resounds. It collects and magnifies. One loss calling to another and another.

From David to Julianna

Good God, the ache of it makes me stand and pace, even now. You cannot be sorry to me, sweet, sweet love. I’m only the beggar here. You’ve given me time and bodies I haven’t deserved. I’d been raised to believe that love was a resource, that it might be gulped and be gone. You’ve given me an understanding that the main property of love is that it ramifies, expands to meet need. (This is not a quality reserved for loss.)

But see how I didn’t linger. I was supposed to linger. It was dark. We had no idea if you’d be able to have another. And the technician in the imaging center handled it all so badly. I hated the way you moaned, the sob echoing from the black stain on the screen. “Is that the baby?” I asked the stupefied tech.

“Yes,” she said, extremely unsure. And then she left.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. “What is it?”

But you already knew, knew in a way that I couldn’t, knew in a way in which dread precedes devastating news, the way a phone ringing at the wrong time of night is never good.

Then there was the sterile hour I spent while you were in the D and E. I think I read about sports or some dry New Yorker short story where the characters obsessed on the dry fabric of a tablecloth and left a lip stain on their cup of green tea. I never felt further away from you. I looked around the waiting room. Old men turned inward, women my mother’s age knitting some fabric out of idle chatter. The news prattling on in high spirits. I didn’t know that what would come next would be a flood of miscarriage stories. It seemed like everyone I knew could tell at least two miscarriage stories: mothers, daughters, children, wives, teachers. The miscarriage was another secret society we’d joined by accident, by living.

From Julianna to David

And after, how you tore up the bathroom tiles, went rummaging through the house’s piping for a leak. You worked and worked, trying to make something right. (I do not want to join more secret societies. How many are there? I sense them everywhere.)

From David to Julianna

And after, how you tore into your first novel, a beautiful frenzy. You wrote and wrote. And I kept saying, “Write, write,” and I watched you at the door to your office lost in it, and I wanted to come in, and I wanted to leave you alone. Your metaphor was drowning, and I wanted to wrap you in the yellow flotation jacket and bring you back up, through the murk. But I’m certain it was clear at the bottom. So I left you to it. (The secret societies will keep coming. I’m sorry, but it’s true. There’s another society of survivors: suicide. I’ve left you alone with that as well.) I try to hold you up as much as I can. I want to take these losses away from you. I want to be a thief, with a specialty in loss, and one who refuses to give anything back, even when caught red-handed. Don’t make me give them back – even though you will want them, even though you’ll beg.

From Julianna to David

You are no thief. You would give my losses back to me, because you know that the losses are what have come to make up my constitution. One day our constitutions will be all that’s left of us. (I love your constitution.) I think our constitutions will age well together. As for today I can only whisper at you, at the kids. I’ve taught them all which clapping rhythm equals their name – one clap for Phoebe, two for Finneas, three for Theo, one slow two fast for the neighbor kid visiting. Fast, urgent clapping – by the way – that means you, that means I need you now. And when I whisper, the kids whisper back. It’s natural to forget my laryngitis and to assume for a moment that someone is sleeping somewhere nearby – a sleeping baby, a boy we refuse to forget – one that grows up alongside of the others – a baby not yet conceived.

First published in About What Was Lost: 20 Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope, 2006.

Monday, October 6, 2014

On Being the Youngest and Raising a Youngest

I'm the youngest of four children (born after a notable gap) now raising a youngest of four (born after a notable gap). We were watching old videos from before my youngest was born. The older kids were going around saying what they wanted for Christmas. I was the interviewer and cameraman (saying things like, "Huh. A Playstation. What do you think your chances of getting that are?" And "Are the chances poor because it's 5 days before Christmas and this is the first time you've mentioned it?" etc...) And the youngest is watching intently because her siblings seem foreign, seeing them so young. It's a little surreal -- a world in which her family existed but not quite wholly. I get it completely. The first child has the sense that their existence created the idea of the family, the idea that there was no family before they came along. But, for the youngest, the family existed before they existed. My own existence felt like an add-on rather than an act of creation. I told the youngest this and, finally, she got to the heart of her concern. "If I'd been there back then and you'd asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I'd have said, 'A butler.'" And I said, "Wow. Imagine how much better our lives would have been all these years with a butler." This is why the youngest is so important, people. They think of things the older ones never have

Friday, October 3, 2014

On Nick Krieger, memoirist.

Last night, I had the great pleasure of introducing Nick Krieger who wrote a piece for my blog years ago and, in it, he gave this advice, which I printed and posted above my writing desk -- it was advice for raising children but also for my own humanity: "I wish someone had told me, not that my life would be hard, but that it would be phenomenally rich. I wish someone had told me that through my own self-inquiry and my own unique experience, my empathy would deepen, my compassion would expand, my gratitude for being alive would be huge."
And in my introduction, I talked about memoir -- that in telling one's story, each writer is lighting a path through the dark woods. Each of us has our own path to light. But what I love about memoir – especially those as thoughtful, as rich and keenly insightful, as generous and clear-eyed as Krieger's – is that when we face the forest or find ourselves deep within it at night, we see those other lights bobbing in the distance, small globes that dip in the trees – what I think of as our collective human experience sending out a glow – and our paths are lit here and there along the way, by the thoughts and words and shared experiences of others.
I'm so thankful for Nick Krieger. He read from his memoir NINA HERE NOR THERE -- -- posting in case you don't know his work or the work at Beacon Press.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Those Otherly-Minded Undergrad Creative Writers -- What to do?

Anyone teaching undergrad creative writing, I'd love to talk to you about the students who shows up in your classes, bent on veering the conversation to WALKING DEAD or SNL or Oscar picks, the student who might be interested in writing for film/tv. This is a different kind of student than you might normally send onto MFA programs in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction. In fact, this might be the student who drives you a little crazy. The student might be hyper-visual, but not language-driven. They might want to write comedic dialogue and have little interest in setting or the tone of exposition. They might keep asking permission to write a zombie story even though you've given the elegant warnings against it. This is the beginning of my third year teaching at Florida State's Film School, and I'm getting a feel for the screenwriting students we're looking for. Seriously, I'm happy to talk to you about our program or the interested students themselves. 

The program is intense, year-round for two years. They spend a semester in London, studying film and theater. They do one semester of production with the production students. They create a lot of work, screenplays, pilots, spec scripts, one-acts, stories. Last year, we had a pilot program for the graduating class that took them to LA for a week of meetings with pros in the industry -- producers, directors, writers, agents... -- a program we hope continues. 

Here's the link:

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Jarkmen, another word for novelists ...

Signing copies of THE EVER BREATH for Mt. Aviat Academy and glanced at the cast of characters: Ickbee, Artwhip, Cragmeal (Former King of the Jarkmen), Dobbler, Praddle, Grossbeak, Coldwidder, Otwell Prim (the Ogre of the Webbly Wood), Erswat, Mr. Ostwiser, Swelda, plus some locales: Idgits Inkhorn and Plume Shop, The Office of Official Affairs, and Edwell's Hops and Chops House. The leads are Truman and Camille, but, to be honest, one of the characters I most enjoyed writing in my life was Binder Bigby of the Elite Bigbys -- a mouse puffed up with a lot of fear and ego who does the right thing. 

Side note: Jarkmen -- a real word. It means a vagabond counterfeiter of documents (as licenses, passes, certificates) -- or, to my mind, a novelist.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

1/2 Dozen for Benjamin Whitmer

When people talk about the elitist shift to writers who grew up with money, disconnected from the real world, and then were shuttled away to MFA programs where they wrote about growing up with money, disconnected from the real world, I wonder who these people are talking about. Sure, yes. There are a number of writers -- including some brilliant ones -- who grew up well-tended to and affirmed and even encouraged to write. (In fact, I grew up well-tended and affirmed and encouraged to write. I was the youngest and my parents -- whose childhoods were turbulent and unsettled in ways I never had to live -- had given up on making career suggestions and just let me do what I seemed to need to do, which was to write.) 

But when I'm with other writers, the well-tended, much less the well-appointed childhood, is rare. I find real writers who lived hard lives. Those students I've taught in MFA programs are often no stranger to tough inner cities with high murder rates and impoverished rural settings, lots of siblings and little food... The conversation among the authors who collect at writing conferences are often stunned that their lives have turned out this way. (My own grandfather couldn't read or write. I often imagine him at these little authorial gatherings and wonder what he'd make of it all.) The thing about writing is that it's one of the arts that requires little by way of start-up costs. And although the odds are stacked against everyone who wants to build a writing career, the door can be found wedged open by library books; people can still shove a boot in and some even kick the door straight down.

What I'm getting at is that Benjamin Whitmer is such a writer -- he kicks the door straight down. And once there, he keeps kicking down door after door, showing us lives and worlds and characters that exist and have voices only because he's given them breath. 
Without further rambling, Whitmer. Enjoy. And, if you got something from this by the end, go buy his new book CRY FATHER.  (It's how writers are allowed to keep bringing us worlds.) 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
Well, I’m teaching a class on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian this summer, so most of my obsessions have been scalp-hunting and the metaphysics of Indian hating. But I’ve also been mixing in a healthy dose of 1940s and 1950s prison-break movies because of a new project I’m working on. And I've been trying out a lot of edible plants of Colorado. I’ve been thinking about those a lot so that I don’t think about writing when I take walks. I’ve even been keeping one of those edible plant guidebooks in my back pocket. And I’m still alive and haven’t been to the ER once. Which I count as a very successful obsession. I tend to consider any obsession that doesn’t send me to the ER to be a successful one.

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?
Kind of. For me it was just looking at my children and being scared to death. Parenthood is always on my mind. I’m a single father, and it’s the most important thing in my life. Which doesn’t make me any better at it, of course, it just means I worry about it all the time. What could I have protected them from that I didn’t? What more could I have done for them? Where did I screw up? Parenthood is the best way to come face to face with your failures as a person. And fatherhood, in particular, is a great way to drive your head straight into all those tropes of masculinity that most of us’d probably be better off without. Cry Father came out of wrestling with those. I don’t think I learned anything from it, except maybe that I’m no good at writing positive examples, but that’s where it kicked off.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
Most of my pep talking would go to finding what moves you. I think we’ve gotten way too interested in books that are market-driven or technically flawless. I want my heart broken. Once you’ve put everything you’ve got on the page hopefully you’ll find a great editor or agent to help you hone it. But until that time, don’t even worry about anything but what moves you. In his Nobel speech, Faulkner said that the human heart in conflict with itself is that alone which can make good writing. Everybody’s got an example of that story. Show me yours.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?
I try not to worry about it. My books are about subjects which are bound to attract a certain amount of criticism. Luckily I get some good reviews as well as some bad ones, but you have to take both with a grain of salt. The only thing I can say about Cry Father for sure is that it’s the best second novel I could write. It’s not perfect, and there’s lots of room for criticism, but it’s not my job to worry about that. It was my job to write the best second novel I could write, and I did that. That doesn’t mean the bad reviews don’t sting, but if I wanted to remain immune from criticism I wouldn’t publish.
What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 
I had the perfect childhood, I think. I was raised by a single mother in a series of very rural areas, so I grew up with the kind of freedom that would get most parents arrested these days. We didn’t have electricity or running water much of the time, but we always had books and woods to walk in. It was a good lesson at the beginning of my life to know how little you actually need to live. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. (Nor would I ever willingly live it again. I’m a sucker for hot showers and WiFi.)

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
 I’ve had a bunch of jobs. Everything from food service to factory work to technical writing. Even sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. I’ve always had a dayjob and I write the kind of books that mean I always will. All of them inform what I do. If nothing else, just in the realization that most people have to spend the greatest part of their waking lives doing things that’re inherently useless. There’s a crushing desperation in that. In every job I’ve ever worked, everybody hated what they did. That’s a fact. It’s a necessary evil, something you do to feed your family, but you know you’re burning up the best part of your life just to survive. It’s terrifying if you think about it, and it seems like it gets completely bypassed in most books.

Benjamin Whitmer is the author of Pike, which was nominated for the 2013 Grand Prix de Littérature Policier, and coauthor (with Charlie Louvin) of Satan is Real, a New York Times’ Critics’ Choice book. His second novel, Cry Father, will be released on from Gallery Books. 
For more info, go to Benjamin Whitmer's website.

Monday, September 1, 2014

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

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 naïve 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: