Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A 1/2 Dozen with Lisa Borders

Lisa Borders joins us to talk about her love/hate relationship with the page, the pros of dating a graphic designer, binge writing (and TV-watching), as well as offering us a brilliant take-down on why a high-dose of reading experimental writers can hurt young writers, which is really a beautifully articulate defense of writing with heart. 

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

One of my favorite short stories is Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer,” and your question brings to mind this bit from the story: “Occasionally a date with a face blank as a sheet of paper asks you whether writers often become discouraged. Say that sometimes they do and sometimes they do. Say it’s a lot like having polio.”

It’s always been a love/hate thing for me, as it is for many writers I know. I don’t love the act of writing per se; sometimes it’s exhilarating, sometimes it’s painful and frustrating. But I always feel better after I’ve written. It’s probably the way I would feel about running, if I actually did that.
I think I enjoyed writing the most when I was really young and only writing for myself, not revising, not even really knowing how to revise, just trying to get my thoughts on the page. I tried to capture this feeling in my novel, The Fifty-First State, with my teenage character Josh. There’s such excitement and poignancy in that early stage of a writer’s life. I don’t regret developing as a writer, learning craft, aiming for an audience and taking the reader into account; but it’s a very different writing experience from that naïve early work.

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 was in grad school for creative writing from 1988 to 1990, in a program that heavily favored experimental works from the 60s and 70s. We were fed a diet of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and Thomas Pynchon; my all-time favorite novel back then, The Great Gatsby, was dismissed by one of my professors as “sentimental.”

I don’t mean that now, so many years out of my writing program, I believe there’s no value in the work of the writers I named, or that experiments in form can’t end in work that moves me. But I deeply loathed much of what I was forced to read at the time, and I realize now that it boiled down to four issues.

1.    A steady diet of experimental fiction encouraged some really bad writing in graduate workshops, as student writers felt they could just throw any damn thing down on the page and use, as their defense, “It’s experimental.”
2.    A lot of the experimental fiction we were reading didn’t seem to take into account the experience of the reader. The stuff I hated the most seemed designed almost exclusively to delight the writer, to prove how smart/imaginative/difficult to comprehend he could be (and I say “he” because the author was almost always a “he.”) There was often little character development, no discernible desire or yearning or plot arc. These stories had little capacity to transport this reader.
3.    So much of what we were reading had no heart. It was all intellect, no emotion. I’d been a biology major who shifted gears from science to creative writing specifically because I wanted to engage emotion as well as intellect. Sheesh, I thought – if I want cold abstractions, I could just go back to the lab.
4.    Much of what we were assigned to read was deeply sexist, in that special way that only experimental writing done by white men in the 60s and 70s can be.

My regard for story – for a narrative that, while hopefully taking some risks, could also provide a satisfying ride for the reader – was probably forged in opposition to those plotless works I was forced to read in graduate school. But I’d like to add that a few writers really changed my thinking in this regard. Nabokov’s Pale Fire was part of our grad school reading list, and it was experimental in the very best way – it had a story, and heart, but really played with form, and turned me into a lifelong Nabokov fan. Likewise, the later works of David Foster Wallace showed me that innovation in form doesn’t have to be at the expense of character.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

In a word: no. I tend to be a binge writer. When I’m still mulling an idea or starting to write something, I do it haltingly, and other aspects of my life can easily intrude. But when the work really takes hold – with novels, for me, it’s usually when I get past the 50-page mark – then I’m so obsessed that I tend to let everything else take a back seat: jobs, bills, relationships. I don’t recommend this approach, but sadly, I can’t seem to get myself to do it any other way.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

My boyfriend is a graphic designer and creative director of a small advertising agency. Writers, forget those fantasies of dating another author who line edits your work; I'm here to tell you, you want the guy or gal who can design your website and promotional materials. It's not a great deal for said partner; I often joke that I'm the worst client he's ever had, because I'm constantly asking him to change or tweak things he's designed for me, sometimes on short notice, and he's not even getting paid.

In addition to graphic design and promotion skills, emotional stability is a must-have trait a writer should look for in a partner. I'm not suggesting we writers are nuts or anything, but let's face it: we tend to be high-anxiety, high-strung folk. If you can find someone who talks you down from freaking out about the font that magazine used when it published your story online, or who doesn't flee in terror when you have an inexplicable emotional meltdown after an incredibly successful book event, well, you've struck gold. I can neither confirm nor deny whether any of the two previous scenarios has happened in my life, but I can say this: my boyfriend is way more even-tempered than I am.

What's your worst writerly habit?

I really love watching TV – both highbrow and lowbrow stuff. I have been known to watch a Frontline documentary and an installment of Teen Mom 2 in the same night, and I’ve seen certain episodes of Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer so often that I can pretty much just play them in my head. There’s certainly much for a novelist to learn from the writing of a show like The Sopranos or House of Cards, but it’s pretty hard for me to justify the fact that I have watched episodes of Friends repeatedly.

All of this TV watching used to make me feel like an intellectual fraud until I read that David Foster Wallace had the same problem. There was something he said that really resonated with me, about finding it very soothing to watch a narrative where a problem gets solved in a half-hour. But that may all simply be justification for the fact that I’m sometimes intellectually lazy.

Your top writing tip.

Don’t trust anyone who tells you to “never” do something. Yes, you need to learn the rules, but often the best writing comes from a writer’s ability to know when to break certain rules (see, I really did learn a thing or two from those experimental writers I was forced to read). When I hear wholesale admonitions like “never use exclamation points” or “never use adverbs,” I feel immediately suspicious. Those of us who teach writing understand why these rules are widely touted – beginning writers often use adverbs in a way that flattens the story, or they go crazy with the exclamation points in an attempt to manufacture emotion – but still, it must be taken on a case-by-case basis. It’s appropriate to tell writers that adverbs are often overused to fortify weak verbs, or that an explosion of exclamation points can trivialize the work, but when it comes to writing, I’d never say never.

Lisa Borders’ second novel, The Fifty-First State, was published by Engine Books in October, 2013, and was selected by New Jersey Monthly magazine for its Holiday Reading List in December. Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award, and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards.  Lisa's short stories have appeared in Kalliope,Washington SquareBlack Warrior ReviewPainted Bride QuarterlyNewport Review and other journals. Her essay "Enchanted Night" was published in Don't You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes. She has received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Somerville Arts Council and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and fellowships at the Millay Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hedgebrook and the Blue Mountain Center. Lisa lives in the Boston area and teaches at Grub Street.

A 1/2 Dozen with Kerry James Evans

Enjoy a glimpse into the fiery mind of Kerry James Evans. He talks here today about his debut collection, BANGALORE, and gives some wise advice on writing, patience, jealousy, and marrying a novelist. 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

When I’m not thinking about my father’s safety in Afghanistan, I’m interested in some strange and disparate ideas like Holographic universe theory, survivalist training, the syntax of W. H. Auden, the IMF, kayak fishing, and a whole host of other things, including what it means to have Bangalore in the world. I’ve never understood the luxury RV, but I wouldn’t mind owning one. I’m obsessed with work. I should have children by now, but I don’t, and that’s been weighing on me. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I think about is the poem I looked at the night before. I try not to allow things I can’t control to bring me down, but I’m awful at this. When I play basketball I drive the lane, and I will go behind the back and make a layup you never saw coming. Last year I ate a pescatarian diet, except for my graduation, when I smoked ribs. I’m no longer pescatarian. When I see people running on the sidewalk I instantly become jealous of the life I make up for them in my mind. There is kale in my fridge, but I’m not eating it. The person running on the sidewalk might, with his perfect wife, his 2.3 kids, and his bandana-wearing dog. Of course I want a six-pack and strong bone-structure. Am I obsessed with ridiculous possibilities? Only if they help me go to bed with a good line.

 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?

The poems in Bangalore arrived in various ways. As a book, it formed over a number of years, poem by poem. Versions of the manuscript were finalists at many competitions, but ultimately it took many drafts and the help of mentors and friends to arrive in its current form.

As far as inspiration goes, I try not to get too invested in my initial intentions, whether in the beginning stages of a draft, or later, in revision. I like to keep the drafting process wide open. What happens in a moment can change my entire outlook on how I approach a poem. The universe is anything but static, and when I’m writing, I allow for any and everything to be on the table.

For example, the poem “What Makes the Green Grass Grow” had been published and revised again, and for all intents and purposes, I was finished with it. I showed the manuscript to Erin Belieu, and she brought up a stagnant line in the poem, and we sat there making up ridiculous images to take the place of the weak image, and we came up with sewer grate, which is in the poem now, but it wasn’t for the first few years of that short poem’s life. 

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

My wife is a fiction writer, and when she’s working on her novel, I leave her alone. I’ve learned not to ask her questions about the book, especially when she has spent half her day with a character who has poisoned her husband with bleach. There’s no way I’m going to leave it at that. First, I’ll want to know how you can poison someone with bleach without the victim realizing it. Why not arsenic, rat poison, or hemlock? Are those overused? What is it about fiction that I don’t understand? What exactly did her husband even do to justify this? This can go on for an afternoon.

But seriously, I’m sure he deserved it.

Truthfully, I’ve never known a writer who is happy when he or she isn’t writing. Encourage your writer to write, and know when to stay out of the way. Know that when he or she gets to that moment of satisfaction or sheer frustration, the two of you will speak again, usually about the writing.

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 many jobs, and while my military service is an important component of Bangalore, working at a law firm through undergrad (when I wasn’t guarding a gate at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri) had a great impact on shaping a good model for how I schedule my writing time. When counting up time sheets at the law firm, I noticed how lawyers balanced their cases, gathering evidence for one case while preparing questions for a deposition in another case, and so on. This is when I was starting to really take poetry seriously. I found that so long as I filled my poetry “timesheet,” whether reading, writing, revising, or sending out, I’d eventually see results. These days I don’t have a timesheet, per se, but I do to try to keep a consistent regimen, and though the writing isn’t always where I’d like for it to be, that doesn’t mean I’m not trying. The best lines never come from hard work alone; they come from patience.

What's your worst writerly habit?

It used to be working through the night, though I’m better about it now. Also, writing out loud, which—let’s be honest—is not a bad thing, but my wife hates it, because I can get loud, and I’ll argue with my corkboard for far too long about the smallest things. When I was working on “Monopoly,” the first poem of the second section in Bangalore, I made an argument for why each token suited the character. Now they’ve replaced the iron with the cat, which I understand, seeing that a player needs tweezers to carry that iron around the board; who knows how the poem would have turned out with the cat token, but maybe that’s another question for another interview.

For now, I like writing first thing in the morning for as long as I can go, which is usually about three to five hours. Most of the time I can get in a couple of hours before bed as well—maybe not on what I was working on that morning, but another draft that I may have had a few thoughts about earlier in the day, or some thoughts on revision for another poem.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who had a great impact on your writing life?

All of my teachers have been incredible. I’ve worked with David Kirby, Judy Jordan, Allison Joseph, and Marcus Cafagña, who all encouraged me in their own particular ways to keep writing, and while I don’t remember receiving a great deal of praise in any class, I do remember their encouragement to keep writing, which is the best advice any writer can receive.

I have worked very closely with Rodney Jones, Erin Belieu, and James Kimbrell—all of whom were influential in the shape of Bangalore. Rodney saw many early drafts of the manuscript and was willing to push me to keep writing and re-writing the poems, which I continued to do. I remember him finding out that an earlier version of the book was a finalist at a competition, and he hadn’t seen the manuscript, so he asked for a copy. When he read it he had a great to deal to say about how it could be improved, and I’m glad I took his advice and revised and revised and revised.

When I arrived in the Ph.D. program at Florida State University, I worked with Erin Belieu and James Kimbrell, showing up to their homes uninvited, emailing poems, leaving drafts in mailboxes, and basically being obnoxiously persistent, asking for advice on drafts whenever they could spare the time. They were and continue to be my very best readers.

Kerry James Evans earned a PhD in English from Florida State University and an MFA in creative writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His poems have been published in Agni, Beloit Poetry Journal, Narrative, New England Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals. He is the author of Bangalore(Copper Canyon Press, 2013).

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A 1/2 Dozen for Tom Williams

Tom Williams' new book DON'T START ME TALKIN' is loose in the world, and we've stolen a bit of his time to answer a dozen questions. Check out the Pep Talk below especially, the bit on marrying a writer, his tribute to some great teachers (with some great quotes), and a lack of balance between writing and life. (Well, just read it all. It'll be easier than picking through.) 

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Don't Start Me Talkin' was built on my obsession with blues. I've told others that since I can't play a musical instrument, writing this book was the best way to at least feel close to what it must be like to be able to summon sound in a meaningful way. But writing the book was more than a surrogate for me, it was a way to populate a world, continue a tradition whose health and safety I'm always worried about. Anyone remotely familiar with blues music will recognize a host of the historical and current figures in the blues world that I've brought between the book covers; people will likely have fun guessing if any of the more fictional characters have real-life counterparts. But I hope that with my obsession I've done something more than just wrote a kind of tribute. You know, like at the Academy Awards when we see those montages of the recently deceased, complete with  a triumphant orchestral score. I hope instead I've poked fun at the blues and its devotees. I hope I've been true to the players. I hope I've been honest. I hope I've honored the makers but found also a way of talking about the music that's unorthodox. But most of all, I hope I've done something as raucous and heartfelt as the best blues song, the kinds that were playing, literally, in my ears, every day I got to go to work on bringing Brother Ben and Silent Sam--the two central characters--to life.

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

This particular novel was truly a pleasure to write. Even though, at the time of composition, the only certainty I had was that I wanted to finish (no agent, no interested editor), I felt as though each hour with the characters was far more lively than the hours I spent without them. But I did what I always do with a longer work: I never tried to get too far ahead. Listening to Hemingway and Dubus, I'd stop in the middle of sentences, then spend the rest of the day trying to temper my excitement. It's the joy you should have all the time, where you're almost rushing through the rest of life to get to the next morning's work, yet everything that's happening in your daily life seems like it should be imported into the book. Now that it's coming out in the world, I love looking over the pages to see not only what I did but to detect what inspired it. As someone, Julianna, who has completed a book or two, you still no doubt encounter the frustration of being at the beginning of the middle of a project and not being able to see the end; but with Don't Start Me Talkin', I always have proof that I got to the end, and that can be a little inspirational, on occasion.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I'm a writer who is married to another writer--my delightful wife of six and a half years, Carmen Edington. And I think that it's pretty obvious that if you are, as Bellow or James or Calvino is purported to say, a writer because you were a reader "driven to emulation," it's a pretty good trait to remain an encouraging reader. I love to take a look at what Carmen's working on. Your spouse is writing, you want to write. Not to say that it's a mutual admiration society--everyone who falls in love with a writer needs to learn a way to say, "This needs more work"--but it is a mutual encouragement marriage. God knows every writer needs a whole lot of that. And what better place to get some than you're own home?
Now if our son becomes a writer--that's another story.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

I will borrow one from my great mentor, Lee K. Abbott (though Lee would laugh if I used the m word around him). I was once downhearted because I was completing my dissertation, didn't have any certain job prospects, only a couple of publications, and I wrote to him--rather, I whined in a letter to him about all these obstacles and how I worried I wouldn't get the "right kind of job," and Lee responded thusly: "Stevens was an insurance man, Eliot worked in a bank, Christy Brown wrote a book with his freaking foot."
So, yeah, that. If you're putting the job before the fiction, you might need to ask how important making the fiction is to you first.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

No. I'm a husband. I'm a father. I'm a department chair. I'm a son. I'm an editor for American Book Review. I take on all sorts of projects to help out students and other department chairs. I spend way too much time on Facebook. I worry about my fitness. (At times, I actually act upon my desire to be fit.) I spend too much time obsessing about what I eat. I watch Pawn Stars too often. And American Pickers. And that awesome new show, Bad Ink. So when I get a minute, I write a page or two. Or I make a note about the page or two I want to write. Or I just hold it in.  I get encouraged by prolific writers, like Oates, who claims she just sits around and doodles all day. I'm in this for the long haul, I guess is what I'm saying. And I sometimes think that if this was it, if this book was my last one to see the light of day (picture me now frantically looking for wood to knock), I'd be comfortable. I'd have plenty of other occupations. Though gathering paradise with my narrow hands is a pretty good gig.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who had a great impact on your writing life?

Here's a list of my writing teachers: Richard Snyder, Robert McGovern, David Citino, Ernest Lockridge, Randall Silvis, Lee K. Abbott, Rosellen Brown, Jim Robison, Mary Robison, Richard Howard, Bob Phillips, Ed Hirsch. I had some outstanding literature professors too (without whom I would not be the writer I am today): Randall Stein, Russell Weaver, Walter Davis, Lawrence Hogue, Elizabeth Gregory, Elizabeth Brown-Guillory.
A pretty good list, don't you think? Some are passed on, which saddens me, but all these folk did something to my eye or ear or brain.

But of them, the one whose voice speaks loudest, still, to this day, is Lee K. Who was, really, the first teacher to have not only the right words but the right way to say them. He has a document called, "The Rules," which outlines twenty things that every fiction must do. Some of them are quotes: "Clarity is the style of all honest men," from Jim Whitehead. Others are a tad obscure: "Eschew the conventional wisdom." But they are all governed by this: "Bigger than all the rules is the story." And I was lucky enough to have that kind of creative writing wit and wisdom every day for a Spring quarter in 1990.And whenever I'm stuck or lost or messing around in a fiction, the voice that steers me away from Scylla and Charybdis is Lee's.

Tom Williams is the author of two books of fiction, Don't Start Me Talkin' (forthcoming in February from Curbside Splendor) and The Mimic's Own Voice, a novella. His short fiction is forthcoming in South Carolina Review, Florida Review, and the anthology, Four Fathers. The Chair of English at Morehead State University, he lives in Kentucky with his wife, Carmen Edington, and their son.For more information about Tom's new book, go here.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A 1/2 Dozen for Dan Jones

Daniel Jones, editor of the New York Times Modern Love column -- as well as a novelist and essayist in his own right -- has a new book on love, LOVE ILLUMINATED. He's popped in to answer questions about the column, his new book, good and bad writerly habits, the future of publishing, writing about love ....

Tell us about editing the Modern Love column. What sets the submissions you choose apart from the masses of submissions you receive? Anything that might surprise us about the process? 

Modern Love receives about 5000 submissions a year, which works out to roughly one in a hundred published. One common mistake for essayists is they summarize a really big story in 1500 words. Another mistake is to sound like you're blowing off steam, blaming your problems on a bad boyfriend or bad girlfriend, as if the essay is a way to justify some decision you made. And finally, a writer needs to learn something. Like in a fictional short story, there should be some movement from point A to point B, and what the person has gone through changes his or her understanding. Often the tone of a good personal essay is humble and curious. And like any good writing it helps to have concrete details, scenes and dialogue - all that good stuff. 

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick. 

You have to write badly before you write well. This doesn't change much after you've published books. If you're truly exploring something difficult, something you have to figure out, you're going to write badly. Writer's block, in my view, is not having the patience to write badly and feeling like if you can't write well right away, then forget it - you're not going to sit there any longer and maybe it's better to come back later when you can write well. Keep sitting there. However long you originally intended to devote to writing that day - 3 hours? 4? - then sit in that chair for that long. Don't give up and leave early just because you're feeling frustrated. Feeling frustrated is what will lead you to the good stuff. But not if you leave.

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

The most exciting moment in my writing life was when I got an agent for my first novel. I know it sounds weird to say it, but getting an agent felt, to me, like the first endorsement of my writing from someone who had no connection to me and whose interest had nothing to do with being polite or anything else. An agent has to love your work and be confident she can sell it. No agent will take you on out of kindness or pity or for any other reason. They have love your work and be able to sell it, and passing that test with anyone - being considered a writer who a businessperson is willing to pull under her wing out of financial incentive - is a good feeling. 

What’s your take on touring? 

Touring is great - if a publisher is willing to pay to send you places, go, but a good rule of thumb is to expect fewer people to show up than you expect, not more. I subscribe to the Grateful Dead philosophy of book selling: You have to build a fan base, and you don't do that by instantly being a star (at least most people don't). They read to a handful of people here and there. They give away their writing if they have to. They aren't all pinched and cramped about "owning" their writing - they say "Yes" to almost every offer. And if you do this long enough and hard enough and write well enough, you'll build a following. 

What's your worst writerly habit?

I have a lot of trouble moving forward in an article or a book until I feel like I've perfected what came before. The writer Terry McMillan once told me about her process of just getting the whole book down in almost "Dick and Jane" language - but get it down, whatever it takes. Then go back and clean it up later; rewrite it twenty times. I simply cannot write like that. I think it would be nice if I could, but I can't.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

People are writing for publication more than ever. There's more great writing being published, for free, on blogs than there used to be published in all the top magazines. Writing is more in demand than ever and will continue to be. More people, by millions, read the New York Times than ever before. But the big change? The average writer's income is dropping, and dropping a lot. The way the publishing market has been leveled means many more people writing for the same pot of money, or maybe a smaller pot. But I'm optimistic about books and newspapers and especially storytelling. Best way to learn how to live and always will be. 

Daniel Jones, author of “Love Illuminated: Exploring Life's Most Mystifying Subject (with the Help of 50,000 Strangers),” has edited the Modern Love column in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times since its inception in October 2004. His other books include two essay anthologies, “Modern Love” and “The Bastard on the Couch,” and a novel, “After Lucy,” which was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, Parade, Real Simple, Harper’s Bazaar, and elsewhere. He lives in Northampton, MA, with his wife, writer Cathi Hanauer, and their two children.