Wednesday, May 24, 2017

1/2 Dozen for Nicola Mason, Fiction Editor of Acre Books, a Brand New Press

I was really excited when I heard that you had your eye on creating a press. Now that it's up and running, tell us about Acre Books.
Acre Books is the newly established book-publishing arm of The Cincinnati Review. We plan to fill our lists with high-caliber poetry, fiction, literary nonfiction, and hybrid forms. The brilliant Danielle Cadena Deulen is our poetry and nonfiction editor, I’m the fiction editor, and we have a designer nonpareil in Barbara Neely Bourgoyne.

What inspired you to move from managing The Cincinnati Review to creating a small press?
It seemed like a logical leap. CR has only been around since 2003, but despite its youth, we’ve developed a reputation for being a magazine that is well and truly read. Over the years, our subscription and submission numbers just kept mounting. Not only were pieces from CR’s pages getting regularly tapped for inclusion in prize anthologies, the authors of those pieces---many of them young writers with no “names” to speak of---were winning first-book prizes. Agents began subscribing to CR and asking us to put them in touch with various contributors. I started thinking that we should capitalize on our own strengths, publish not only single pieces by the wonderful writers we were discovering through our submission pool, but their books as well. In other words, that we should rely on our reputation and further develop the relationships we struck up with these undeniable talents---people the editors of Southern Review used to call (when I started out there years ago) “comers.”

Will you be soliciting manuscripts directly from writers and poets or will you be working with agents or both? 
I'll be soliciting as well as considering work that comes over the transom. Writers can query and attach sample pages on Acre’s website. Submissions are open and free.

What can we expect from Acre in its first year?
We’ve just released our premiere publication, a themed anthology titled A Very Angry Baby. The work included---from twenty contributors---runs the gamut in form, setting, tone, and angry-baby-induced trauma. Not all the babies are young, not all are small, not all are real, not all are human. But there’s an emotional center there, in the idea. An angry baby really can’t be ignored. Well, it can . . . but there are consequences. I rustled up some truly inspiring work both from writers who are well established and from those who have yet to crash the scene. All the pieces but one are unpublished, and a number of them were written specifically for the anthology. Though the volume is rather thin---130 pages---the content feels really full. Rich. Not to mention . . . fun. We even created a trailer for our YouTube channel. Check it out here.

The anthology will be Acre’s only spring offering, but we plan to bring out three or four books for the fall season. Our hope is to release one title per month starting in August.

Do you have an aesthetic that can be put into one sentence and how does A Very Angry Baby establish that aesthetic? 
I love stylish prose, muscular language, imaginative leaps. Transparent prose can be compelling, but the work I tend to enjoy most submerges me in a sensibility.

You’re an artist so can you tell us a little about the art and craft of bookmaking. Your covers, design?  What draws you in, personally? 
Barbara Bourgoyne does all our designing (she started Cincinnati Review with me back in 2003), but I hired her because we have very similar ideas about what holds visual appeal. I find a lot of overlap between writing and visual art. The things that are arresting communicate cleanly, but at a slant. When assessing an image or a manuscript, I often ask myself the same questions: what’s the goal; what’s the dominance; what’s the focal point; how are the edges handled; is there follow-through, attention to detail?

•   •   •

Nicola Mason worked for many years at The Southern Review and Louisiana State University Press before moving to Cincinnati and founding The Cincinnati Review in 2003. A fiction writer and NEA Fellow whose work has appeared in many journals as well as in the Pushcart Prize, New Stories from the South, and Million Writers Award: Best New Online Voices, she is also a visual artist.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

1/2 Dozen for Janet Benton

I met Janet Benton at a conference before news that her debut novel LILLI DE JONG was to be published. It's now out in the world and getting rave reviews. What I love about introducing her wise words of advice here is that Janet takes on private students and so I could be introducing some writers to a wonderful mentor. Read the interview, pick up a copy of her new novel, and take a look at her site.  You might well find what you've been looking for ... 

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

I’ve always felt compelled to do it, because words come to my head. I start by writing these bits by hand on scraps of paper. If there seems to be enough to work with, or if several bits cohere, I gather them into a Word file. Sometimes I think a given piece isn’t going to be so hard because it’s off to a rollicking start, but quickly I reach the limits of my foresight and encounter a mass of complications. I work and rework for hours and days (or years, if it’s a novel), until I start to figure out how I’m going to organize this thing and what I want to get across—and then I add missing pieces, trim extras, and strengthen what remains.

I find it hard to create a balance between writing and the rest of life. I always have to stop writing before a piece or a section is done, because of family and paying work and a sore body from sitting and all sorts of reasons. But those breaks give me perspective. Now, even without an outside interruption, I eventually say “uncle,” recognizing when I need to take a step back, print something out, and go get a cup of something hot, a few stories down from my office. I’m an obsessive writer. It’s not hard for me to start writing. Once I’m in, I hate to stop. I’d rather not. I prefer to be alone while working, even while taking a break, so I can keep all the juggling balls circling in my mind.

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

In many years of working as an editor, a writing teacher, and a mentor to writers, I’ve given lots of feedback and critiques. And as a member of various writers’ groups and an MFA program, I’ve been critiqued plenty. So by now I know that my point of view on someone else’s work, while well informed, is merely my point of view. I encourage people to consider it a spur for further thought, not a prescription. And I apply the same understanding to others’ views, though this proves more difficult, especially if the person is being unkind—though I can usually tell when someone’s critique is fair and when it’s motivated by dread of the subject matter, competitiveness, a drastically different value system, or some other factor that makes it less useful for me, except as information about the various ways the work can be perceived.

This hasn’t always been my way of digesting criticism. When I first started taking workshops as a graduate student, I would gather the ten or so copies of my story from classmates, pile them on my desk, and go through each one, changing my document in response to almost every suggestion and comment. Not surprisingly, my stories were a bit eviscerated by the time I was done. I learned that this didn’t make sense. But I’m still quite vulnerable to the reactions of those I trust, who have a great power to make me alter small things—rarely larger ones.

I’m also vulnerable to my own changing perspectives on any given word, sentence, paragraph, or section. While poring over iterations of the page proofs of my novel, Lilli de Jong, I worried that my manuscript needed to be protected from me. It needed a mediator. Because in my fear of having others read the manuscript and perhaps think mean things about it, I found myself interrogating every word again. When I dared to look back at a few pages, I wished I could change some things back.

Here’s the best thing I’ve learned about criticism. If someone doesn’t think a certain feature of a story is necessary and I know it is, I think, “What can I do to make a stronger case for this?” I learned this approach through my own work and always tell it to students and clients. This point of view has helped a lot when someone else’s perspective might have otherwise upset me or pushed me off track.

Current obsessions--literary or otherwise.

Trying to denormalize the diminishment of motherhood and women. My novel reveals this intention in much fuller detail.

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

What a wonderful question. My childhood made me a writer because it gave me so many occasions to take refuge in books. I grew up in a small Connecticut town, surrounded by trees. My love of books started through my mother reading to me; my first favorite book as a toddler, as far as I can recall, was Go, Dog, Go. Yes, I liked the car racing. But even more: the hat party in the tree! Even then, I felt different from others. I had such pain in my belly when a happy dog’s hat was mocked by another dog. And I reveled in the freedom the dogs took to express themselves, with their panoply of wacky hats. I began telling stories; my father wrote some of them down.

My brother was older and bigger than me. I experienced him as being like the mean dog making fun of the happy dog’s hat. He often charged in and ruined my moments of joy through physical and emotional intimidation. Out of fear, I sought a place beyond his reach and found one in my closet. I took out a portion of a shelf, put a lamp on the remaining portion, and climbed onto the shelf below. A perfect place for reading!

A few years later, my parents divorced. Often alone at night on the second story of the house, I was afraid. Again, I sought shelter in books. I read and read and read. Soon I took up writing in a diary, inspired by my visual-artist mother, who kept a diary and wrote poetry, too. I started writing stories and poems; through her, I saw how art arises spontaneously from life. From then on, writing has offered a place where I can find solace, explore areas of meaning, experience deep feelings, share understandings in story form, and convey what I value most.

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

Between the ages of sixteen and 25 or so, I had lots of service jobs. I was a dishwasher, a cook, an assistant in a hotel’s accounting office, a waitress, a counter person in cafes and delis, a maid in a motel. Once I’d turned 19, in my senior year of college, I began doing office work, too. But even after that, when I was new to a city or between positions, I went door to door on the street, finding service work. I’m glad to have done so. It gave me confidence to know that I could land on my feet just about anywhere.

In some ways, not having an upper-class background or a protective family was a good thing for me as a writer. Contacts in high society and a trust fund are obviously very useful if you want to sit all day and spin webs and eventually learn to produce good work and be paid for it. But I take pride in knowing that I’ve worked incredibly hard to achieve what I’ve accomplished to date. I’m very sad not to have finished novels years ago—I have several in the wings—but I am a painstaking, exacting writer, and it took twelve years for me to pull together enough hours, apart from paying work and family, to write Lilli de Jong. And clearly I’ve had so many advantages that others don’t—a four-year college education, a chance to attend graduate school. I worked two or three jobs simultaneously through the MFA program, but I did go, and I was able to get loans to ease the burden.

Have these situations shaped me as a writer? They’ve made me very determined. The long road to finishing a novel creates a kind of pressure that might intensify the nature of what I have to say. Perhaps what I have to say will be more important to readers as a result.

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

I love to empower people to tell the stories that matter to them. I find it very moving. I taught at universities and privately over several decades, as well as doing editing and writing for hire, and now I’ve managed to build a business that’s an outgrowth of my fiction writing and teaching. I support and teach individuals as they write books. It’s deep work. I’m honored to become so close to others’ creative work, to encourage them and help them grow.​

*   *   *

Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong, is the diary of an unwed mother in 1883 Philadelphia (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, May 2017). Kirkus Reviews calls it a “monumental accomplishment.” It is an Amazon pick for Best Books of May in the Literature/Fiction category. Her writings have appeared in the New York Times Modern Love column, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Writers Digest, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She has edited and co-written award-winning TV documentaries for The Great Experiment, a series on Philadelphia history. Benton holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a B. A. in religious studies from Oberlin College. She has taught writing at four universities and has taught private workshops for two decades. Through her business, The Word Studio, she mentors writers. Visit

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Geeking on point of view...

When I'm trying to figure out whether to use first-person or third -- and I've never articulated this before -- one of the main things to consider is humor. First is always going to feel more intimate. I always want to lean into that intimacy -- sometimes voice alone will carry an entire novel for the writer because you're not writing as much as transcribing. But if it's a drama or psychological thriller or dark and you can't afford tonal shifts -- especially maybe if you're in the realm of sci-fi where it's always a harder sell -- then first person can really work against you. Or me. I should say that in first-person I always allow my characters to have a sense of humor -- if nothing else than a realistic coping mechanism and how I personally process -- and it can really high-jack a scene. I'm not saying that humor is bad in horror or thrillers or drama. The opposite. It's necessary -- for realism and, when used the right way, it's a great counterpoint and it can make the scene even darker. But it can also fight you line by line, letting the reader off the hook, letting air out of the scene. One way to ease the effect is to go more retrospective. Past-tense and widen the time gap. This allows for a little softening of the lens, nostalgia, less flattening of the scene and more control of how its being read because of meddling from the narrator who has a stronger vantage point.
The longer I've been writing the harder it is to choose point of view and tense -- well, for some projects. Some novels arrive with their point of view stitched into the DNA. This hard decision-making has come as a real surprise to me because most decisions come easier now; I can see more paths through the jungle. But this being able to see, this clarity through more experience, has also made my brain more agile and I can also see the pros and cons of points of view and tense lining up in all directions. I have some rules I've made for myself -- having learned the hard way. But I still flip around with these things, over and over.
For example, Pressia in The Pure Trilogy couldn't have a first-person point of view because the coping mechanisms for a doll-head fused to your fist were too comedic. Of course, as the novel actually took shape, it had to be third because of the breadth of characters who had their own points of view.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

1/2 Dozen for Jay Baron Nicorvo

Today, right now, you might just need the answers to these half-dozen questions with debut novelist Jay Baron Nicorvo. He talks about inspiration and the blue-collar work of writing, about trespassing and stealing, about impeccable research and twenty-years of rejection, about the fourth novel becoming the first one to get published, about endurance and interminable effort. 

"You can't count on success," Nicorvo reminds us, "the struggle you can be damn sure of."

His novel THE STANDARD GRAND has just been published by St. Martin's Press and has been belovedly praised by the likes of Dennis Lehane, Pam Houston, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Nick Flynn. 

It's an honor to host him here today. 

Baggott: 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?

Nicorvo: I, too, think mystifying inspiration does a great disservice to writers, if not the writing. But looking back, I can point to a sparky instance that turned a slow-burning smolder into a conflagration. It came while reading a New York Times article by Jesse McKinley, “A Fight for the Homeless and Against Authority,” that ran on JAN. 11, 2010, about a California man, Dan de Vaul, housing homeless — in violation of building codes — on his 72 acre ranch. When I reimagined this scenario in the Catskills, my novel caught fire.

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

Writing for me isn’t fun. It’s work, good work. Coming from a blue-collar background, I have a blue-collar approach. I wake early. Drink coffee. Sit down everyday at my desk and start moving words around. For me it’s nearly manual labor! Even though it isn’t fun, it is the most satisfying, the most engaging, activity in my life. When I’m writing well, I feel smarter. More alive. My senses are more attuned to the world and all that occupies it. While writing, I am most myself. While not writing, I’m less sure of who I am.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

For this novel, I trespassed a lot. In ’07 my wife, Thisbe, and I sought to buy our first home, driving throughout the Hudson Valley. We looked at over 100 houses, and ultimately landed in Saugerties, three miles from Woodstock, in the foothills of the Catskills.

On weekends, we aimlessly drove every county and seasonal road within 200 miles. In the Catskills, you get the astounding union of two separate but related brands of Americana. It’s where the Borscht Belt meets the Rust Belt. All that desertion, that abandonment, speaks volumes about America. Desertion — going AWOL — is one of the most — if not the most — American of archetypes. This nation was founded — or occupied — and then filled by people who deserted their homelands or were forcibly removed from them.

When I began writing TSG, Thisbe and I stole into a number of the abandoned Catskill resorts: The Concord, The Nevele, Kutcher’s, on and on. At Grossinger’s, I gathered artifacts I still have: a bar of deodorant soap, blank checks, flyers for a Halloween party. Raised Roman Catholic, I’d married into Borscht culture. My mother-in-law is a Russian Jew, born in Yonkers, who spent time as a child at the Catskill resorts. Like I did with my sister-in-law’s military service, I wrote my way into an understanding of — a love for — this group that was now part of my family.

I was maniacal in my research, reading everything I could about the Catskills, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I read exhaustively about the homeless. I'd volunteered at a Salvation Army shelter and at a halfway house in Bed-Stuy. I immersed myself in the activities of environmental activist groups, the zoology of mountain lions, Senate committee reports, and I watched countless videos of Sammy Davis Jr. to get his voice right. I nearly drowned in monographs about Maya civilization and the Maya language. Assuming the persona of one of my characters, I wrote a faux-translation of an ancient Maya text, “The Interrogation of Lady Xoc,” which I cut from the novel after spending months on it.

Also while researching, I made one revelatory — and newsworthy — discovery. I was shocked, and heartened, to find how leniently the US military treats deserters. If you’re not a Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl deserting from a combat zone, you’re practically granted administrative amnesty. This information isn’t readily available. The Pentagon prosecutes deserters who speak out but few others. At the height of prosecutions, fewer than five percent of deserters received court martial.

If every soldier knew the Pentagon’s policy on desertion, more soldiers would desert. This disclosure has gotten little media attention, overshadowed as it is by the extremes of the Bergdahl case. I want my novel to function as something of a dramatic exposé. This information needs to be made public. The people choosing to fight our wars for us have a right to know what happens to them if they change their minds. Anything less is coercion. In this way, and by this revelation, my novel just might serve some small public good.

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

I was a little liar. The shame I felt — at being a poor kid at a Catholic school in Jersey, and then the indignity of being a poor kid at a public middle-school in Florida, where we indigent stood in line every Monday to get our free-lunch tickets — was painfully acute.

So I told lies to the belittling middle-class kids. When my mom dropped me off in her rundown Plymouth Valiant, and the other kids laughed and made fun of me, my mom, and the car, I’d say that the woman driving was my aunt. That was her car. My mom’s car was much nicer. You wouldn’t believe how fancy. I don’t think I fooled anyone, but my stories distracted them long enough that they turned their attention momentarily elsewhere.

My formative years were spent in protracted fraudulence — I was a hoodlum — that lasted till I turned 18. Then, as a legal adult, I had a brush with the law that, very literally, scared me honest. Shortly thereafter, I decided I wanted to be a writer. The transition from liar to writer is easy in some respects, impossible in others.

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

When I was thirteen, my mom made me get a job. She needed help with bills, and every little bit mattered. She forced me to call the numbers in job ads, and I landed one for phone solicitors, a position so lowly that they resorted to child labor. I vividly recall that first time my mom drove me to work after school. It seemed outrageously unfair. At 13, to have to go from a seven-hour school day to a five hour stint cold-calling names off a list? On that first drive to work, I was in grave mourning for my childhood. I think I still am.

Although, as phone solicitation goes, it could’ve been worse. I could’ve been selling sinkhole insurance or some such. As it was, I made calls asking for donations to the Florida Police Athletic League. I had a script I read from, and I’m sure its seared somewhere in my memory. On my death bed, it’ll surely come to me. My final words will end up being the desperate plea of a teenage telemarketer.

It was spirit-crushing, and I was terrible at it. I lasted a week before I couldn’t take it anymore, and with my mom’s help, I got another job bagging groceries at Winn Dixie, ultimately reaching the rank of stockboy, where my aisle was toilet paper.

Eventually, after stints helping my stepfather install bathrooms and a neighbor with his lawn-care business, I ended up in the service industry, waiting tables for The Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant. I was a server at restaurants until I was 30, all through community college, college, grad school and beyond. Being a good server is all about anticipation. I was a very good anticipator — I think because I’m anxious — and I was a very good waiter.

There’s no difference between waiting tables and writing novels. Ok, maybe some little difference. But at heart, novel writing is the practiced art of anticipation.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

Poetry always came easier to me. I won poetry contests pretty early on. I started publishing poems toward the beginning of my apprenticeship. My first book, ten years in the making, was a collection of poems. But I was writing fiction all the while and facing nothing but rejection for twenty years, till now.

Here I am, having finally published a novel — the first one published is the fourth one I’ve finished — and I can move on. Of late, I’m writing nonfiction. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. In life and love, I like to tuck in, stay settled. But in my writing, I’m a nomad. I seem to want the thing I don’t have, whatever comes hardest, and then — after interminable effort, after an avalanche rejection — maybe I get it, and maybe because the getting was so fraught, I don’t care to go through it again? But I don’t think that’s it. I think I need the struggle. I must be a masochist. You can't count on success; the struggle you can be damn sure of.

•   •   •   •

Jay Baron Nicorvo is the author of a novel, The Standard Grand (St. Martin’s Press, 2017), and a poetry collection, Deadbeat (Four Way Books, 2012). He lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek, Michigan, with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, and a couple dozen vulnerable chickens. Find Jay at