So You Wrote a Book?
Many years ago, before I was a “real writer”, I envisioned a day when I would have a bookshelf filled with only books by my friends. Today, that bookshelf is about to collapse under its own weight! The So You Wrote a Book? series is my way to shine the spotlight on some of the amazing work being written and to applaud our collective mission to create art that moves us and those around us. Read interviews with:
*The series will be on hiatus over the summer while I catch up on my reading! Enjoy!
So You Wrote a Book? David S. Atkinson
David S. Atkinson’s imagination is a beast unleashed! The stories in Roses are Red, Violets are Stealing Loose Change from My Pockets While I Sleep are bizarre and hilarious, taking us into a highly peculiar landscape with scenarios that leave me wondering: Where does he come up with this stuff? Narrated with his signature intellectual deadpan (think “straight man”) and featuring labyrinthian titles that unroll all the way to near slapstick, Atkinson leads us from one outlandish situation to the next without flinching, apologizing, or justifying.
Nancy Stohlman: Finish this sentence: My book is:
David S. Atkinson: Let’s use predictive text on my phone for this one: My book is in a good time for sure but it’s just not like a lot. I think that covers it pretty well.
NS: Finish this sentence: If my book were a historical time period it would be:
DSA: A span of three minutes in which Warren Harding sneezed repeatedly just before lunch on July 27, 1921 during The Teapot Dome Scandal.
NS: Finish this sentence: If my book was a traditional cuisine it would be:
DSA: Various road food covered in Squeez-a-Snack cheese. That counts as a cuisine, right?
NS: Do you think absurdism is just silly? Or do you think the silly is getting at something deeper?
NS: When does absurdism work and when does it fail?
DSA: I don’t know if there are certain conditions either way. I always look at each completed work and make that decision whether it’s working or not. It’s a gut thing, if I can feel that it’s working then fine. If I’m even a little bit unsure, it’s not.
NS: Have you ever written realism? Do you think writers can cover the same material in each or is it cut out for something specific?
DSA: Definitely. Bones Buried in the Dirt was completely realism, the only absurdity being the absurdity inherent in human characters. I’m not sure if absurdity and realism can always cover the same things or not. They definitely have different tools and uses, but it seems like they can each approach the same things in different ways. That being said, I have switched a piece from one to the other when it wasn’t working as was. Maybe it was better suited to one approach over another, or maybe I just hadn’t found the right way to make it work in the approach I had going.
NS: You’ve published several other books, including Apocalypse All the Time, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes, and Not Quite So Stories, which won a 2017 Nebraska Book Award. How is this book different from your others?
DSA: This one is the first book where I’ve stuck with absurdist humorous flash. The others were novels or longer form fiction. It ended up both weirder and less weird, but definitely different in starting with a certain kind of flash form. I developed a certain technique that I was going to use for most of the stories, and then stuck with that. The results were pretty different from my other fiction.
NS: You credit FlashNano for some of the impetus for this material (thanks!) and I definitely notice some of the prompts like the 13-word story, which you took in your own unique direction of course! Do you usually work from prompts or is this unusual?
DSA: I almost never use prompts, other than something that gets stuck in my head and ends up germinating into a story, if you want to consider that a prompt. FlashNano is the only time I ever really went in for prompts, useful as they ended up being. I guess I just do enough prompt writing through that every year that I still don’t pick it up much outside then.
NS: Talk about your titles, such as: “If That Waitress Sprays Me with the Soda Water One More Time I’m Going to Move to Cedar Rapids and Study TV/VCR Repair with Rod Serling.” While you were always heading in this direction in your previous books I feel you took your titles to another level here.
DSA: I’m almost not sure where my approach to titles came from anymore, I’ve been mired down in it for so long and it sprung up so much on it’s own. I wanted something that mirrored the feel of the essence of the piece without retreading the same ground as the piece, and there was a bent appeal in doing longer and longer titles for deliberately short works. I wanted to kind of just run with them like I did the pieces, and have them have a certain rhythm (often what still is stuck on my head from trying to memorize the White Knight’s poem from Through the Looking Glass: I’ll tell thee everything I can:/There’s little to relate./I saw an aged aged man,/A-sitting on a gate./”Who are you, aged man?” I said,/”And how is it you live?”/And his answer trickled through my head,/Like water through a sieve…)
NS: What I like most about your stories are your endings—they are often really short (unlike your titles) and punchy and give your stories closure in an unexpected but really effective way. Talk about endings and how it happens for you?
DSA: I’m usually looking for a final strike that causes something to reverberate for me, something kind of like a punchline or one of those buddhist prayer bowls. Sometimes I have an idea where things are going, but I usually recognize the end when I happen upon it rather than planning to get there and then I see how the whole piece feels wrapped up that way. If it feels right, I stop writing. Otherwise, the actual ending may still be waiting.
NS: What is your favorite story in this book?
DSA: I’m horrible about picking favorites. It changes with my mood, presuming I could ever pick one at all. If I had to pick, I guess I’d go with the silly one.
NS: You’ve published several books with Literary Wanderlust Press. Talk about your publishing journey with this book?
DSA: Literary Wanderlust has been such a joy to work with. We’ve had such a good relationship with the previous books that they were willing to take this one on when I described it even though they weren’t completely sure what it was. They just trusted me, which is a rare thing. They worked really hard during editing too. With the kind of references I make and the kind of liberties I take, it was really hard to figure out when I’d made a mistake or when something was deliberate. It was a real challenge, but they kept at it and really helped out a lot.
NS: Advice to writers working on a book?
DSA: When you lift that flagstone in the deserted courtyard and descend the stone steps into the subterranean garden, don’t touch a single item of the treasure you see until you grab the enchanted tinderbox at the end.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
DSA: I would like to go on the record that I have never, whether at this time or in the past, supported the candidacy of John Dillinger in his campaign to become commissioner for janitors (emeritus) in lower East Lansing. Anyone who asserts to the contrary is a liar and should be brought to the attention of my attorneys immediately, presuming I ever get any attorneys. I promise to look into that when I get more time next week.
NS: David, you are the best! Thanks for playing along!
Links to book and other promo links:
So You Wrote a Book? Matt Potter
Australian writer Matt Potter’s creative and publishing endeavors are many–he’s written and published fiction, non-fiction, textbooks, curated anthologies, and always seems to be pushing himself into new territory, always willing to try something new and ask “what’s next?” In his latest solo writing project, On the Bitch, Potter again shows that he’s a man of many skills, weaving his signature snark, wit, and always clever insights across the scope of a novella. With sitcom-like humor disguising something much more profound, Potter is truly a writer “without the wank”.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words
Matt Potter: Five adults talk, eat, argue, implode.
NS: This is not your first book. You have also published Hamburgers and Berliners and Other Courses in Between, Based on True Stories, Vestal Aversion, among others. How is this book different than your other books?
MP: Well, it’s a novella (apologies for being so obvious!) and the main plot is told in a very linear way, so there is a strong through line through the whole book.
Hamburgers and Berliners is travel memoir and Based on True Stories is a collection of short stories (some flash).
Vestal Aversion is a collection of short stories, flash, and short non-fiction.
I have also published two volumes of resources for English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers: all you need is … a whiteboard, a marker and this book! Books 1 and 2 … so all these books are different.
My interests are many and varied and this is reflected in the structures and subjects and genres of all the books. I know I have answered this looking at the question in a very concrete way but I do think they’re all, even the ESL resource books, much the same in tone and feel. There is a lot of fun and humour and absurdity in all the books.
Actually, all the books can be taken apart and chapters or sections exist on their own. Writing this I realise that again, cutting and shaping and picking up and putting elsewhere and creating a new whole from disparate parts is endemic to everything I do.
This is a much deeper question than I realised when I initially read it, Nancy! I think that is a skill of yours …
NS: Can you talk about the title? I was waiting to see the phrase come up in the book and it didn’t so now I have to know: Is this Australian slang? How did you decide to go with such an in-your-face title? (P.S. I’m pretty sure all the people on the train raised their eyebrows as I was reading!)
MP: Many Australians (of certain generations) instantly get the title BUT it’s not slang.
On the Bitch is a reference to Neville Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach (published in 1957, original film released in 1959) which takes place in Australia.
The non-inclusion of the word ‘bitch’ in the book was deliberate: I had one in the book but it was so obvious I took it out. (There are plenty worse expressions used in the book anyway!)
And most of the novella is set on or near the beach at Port Elliot, a town I visit regularly and stay in once or twice a year. I had the front cover image for years – it’s a photo I took of the beach at Port Elliot – but the design was not working: the photo’s colours are muted but placing the title over the image was proving difficult. So I added a scrim over the image and experimented with the title’s font size. The excessively large font seemed to work best.
I do enjoy cover design. But that cover design took me a long time to bring together.
It never occurred to me the cover might make readers in public spaces uncomfortable (A.E. Weisgerber pointed that out to me) but the upside is, it is noticeable and sparks interest. (A.E. Weisgerber pointed that out to me, too.)
But bitch / beach also refers to Magda’s continual mangling of English, plus all the characters are not the nicest of people … ‘bitch’ could be referring to at least 4 of the 5 main characters.
But you could imagine Magda saying, “Hugh, I am just for twenty minutes going walking on the bitch. I will be taking my zapper to be zapping things.” (I had lots of fun writing Magda’s dialogue.) And you would be unsure if Magda deliberately made that mistake too.
NS: I hadn’t realized until the end that this book was started from prompts you solicited from other writers. Talk about that process. Did all the pieces included come from prompts or did it take on a life of its own at some point?
MP: I originally set myself the parameter of 500 words per chapter or story, each based on one of the prompts I was sent by other writers (and that I had asked for, to kickstart my own writing again). But those parameters started to prove limiting, especially as I realised the smaller stories could form one longer complete story. And the whole point of asking for the prompts (in 2012) was to get me back into writing.
So I abandoned the idea of 500 word limits and only using the prompts, and let the story develop. So some chapters are longer than 500 words; and some were inspired by the prompts, and some not.
It was more important to have a completed book I felt worked as a book, rather than a book that stuck to rules I had set myself, yet remained unfinished, or finished but incomplete because of some fancy, silly guideline.
NS: Do you often work from prompts? What do you see at the benefits/drawbacks of prompts?
MP: I don’t often work from prompts but I set them all the time for publishing projects.
Prompts are great! I especially love working around prompts. I have no time for writers who say, But prompts are so limiting. I don’t agree: they can be amazingly liberating. If you are a writer worth any amount of salt, a prompt can be incorporated into any story at all. Yes, any!
The best prompts are simple, often one word, that can be used very generally or very specifically. Here are some from this very paragraph that should get many writers’ juices flowing: limits, liberation, salt, incorporation, best, one, juice, flow.
But remember, a prompt is a prompt: it’s not the whole story.
NS: In one scene your character refers to getting sucked into “conversational quicksand”. In a way, I think the whole book is about getting sucked into various types of relational quicksand. What do you think your book is saying about relationships?
MP: Have you ever looked at a couple (straight or gay or any part of the expanding rainbow), completely unknown to you, and thought, What on earth do you have in common? What could you possibly see in each other? That used to happen to me all the time, observing couples and thinking, I don’t get what holds you together!
I still think that sometimes, but having just celebrated my 28th anniversary with my partner (and NO ONE is more surprised than me to have been in a relationship for 28 years! How did that actually happen?!) I realise that so often what holds people together is a mystery. It’s something only those in the relationship understand (maybe), and presumably, the benefits outweigh the costs. (Laughter is a biggie for me. Does he get the joke?)
What fascinates me about relationships (intimate relationships, family relationships, friendships) is this: what deals do you do with yourself to stay in those relationships? How do you manage it? What compromises have you made? What do you get out of it? What do you put into it?
I am not that great at compromising in a work situation – I’ve had a lot of problems at day jobs for not toeing the line, for being unable to mould myself into the person management wanted, or thought they wanted – which is much the same issue.
How have you compromised to lead the life you lead?
Beyond food, water, shelter and a sense of self-worth, what else is there in life that’s really important other than relationships?
I also worked a social worker for 20 years, and a lot of that work was about relationships and relationship issues.
Ultimately, On the Bitch is about the deals we do (with ourselves and others), and what we will put up with to lead the life we do, or want. What cost do we pay?
NS: There is a theme of “rich vs regular people”. Can you talk about how this theme and how it manifests in your work?
MP: While this may sound incredibly naïve or stupid, I don’t believe people should be rich.
It enrages me that Notre Dame Cathedral can burn down and a billionaire steps forward with all the money to restore it! To have that amount of money at your disposal is manifestly unjust. (I have no qualms with the cathedral being restored, however.)
If I were a billionaire (I know, dream on, dream on) I would give most of it away. I love that idea of giving …
It’s also about money not being able to buy you taste or sense or talent.
Money, serious money, can be a great blinder. That is what happened to Otto in On the Bitch: he has become blind to his own wealthy crassness. Or rather, his money has given him the self-belief that he can be as crass as he likes, because (in his world) money talks.
The only one who really appears to have it together is Kendalynn, who for a long time comes across as the silliest of the five main characters. She married Otto twice and then had lots of plastic surgery (another sign of having too much money). She even used her inheritance to get a facelift!
I admit to being prejudiced against people with lots of money.
(And I can’t take people who’ve had plastic surgery seriously either, unless it was life-saving or corrective. You should give the money for your next facelift to the poor.)
Yet nor does my writing preach that being poor is salt-of-the-earth wonderful … that’s a falsehood, and is used as a sop to keep poor people poor. Ah, we might not have money, but we have each other …
I don’t believe that money can buy you happiness but I do believe it can buy you ease.
I will never read a Harry Potter book but love and admire the idea of J. K. Rowling giving her money away for good causes.
Ultimately, my issue is with privilege, and the perception that money buys you privilege. But I also recognise that as a white, middle class, university-educated professional male living in mainstream Australia, I am enormously privileged.
NS: Being an ex-pat is another theme that comes up a lot in your work. In this book the ex-pat has come home, so to speak. Can you talk about being an ex-pat yourself and how that influences your writing?
MP: I lived in the UK for a year in 1983, the year I turned 17, and my family and I were continually confronted with the old culture vs. new culture dilemma: we just do it this way because we’ve done it this way for hundreds of years. It’s just the way we always do things here! (It’s another side to “If your best friend jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”)
PLUS, we went from living in a city of a million people (Adelaide) to a town of 6000 people (East Yorkshire), which was perhaps a bigger shock.
(Living overseas also made me feel more at home in my own culture … but that may also be simply about growing older, and maturing.)
And then I lived in Germany for much of 2008 to 2010. As a man in his 40s, a native English-speaker with many tertiary qualifications and much experience, I was the next best thing to being a native German. BUT it was still damned hard to navigate, not being from that culture.
But, you can take the best from both worlds if you can work it that way …
Coming back to Australia is always difficult when you’ve been overseas, though that’s not unique to being Australian. Every culture has its pluses and minuses and again, it’s the deals you do with yourself that make a situation tenable or untenable. How much will I put up with before it becomes too much and I have to return home … or leave home again?
Perhaps my writing is often about trying to make sense of your world, and your place in it … which is universal for all people. Isn’t it universal for writers, too?
As an ESL teacher (as I have been), living overseas and learning another language is invaluable. You can view the world (and your world) a little differently.
CODA: Hamburgers and Berliners was published in 2015 (though written 2008 – 2009) and On the Bitch was published in 2018 (though written mostly in 2012) so while the ex-pat was alive and well in my writing when I wrote those books, the ex-pat is probably much less likely to feature in my writing now … if I was writing anything.
NS: You have a scene where the characters are going to Sunday lunch served by nuns, and this is referred to as something “Australian”—is this a real tradition?
MP: I had to look that up in the book to answer the question! … so, no, nuns are not part of the traditional Sunday lunch, that was a joke, but the roast lunch on Sunday is very much a tradition for many Australians (Anglo, mainly).
Well, for some Australians it’s a tradition and for some it’s a myth, but it’s more about gathering together with family on a Sunday, for lunch. I’m from the mainstream culture in Australia so I understand the Sunday roast is very much a mainstream tradition.
As to being served the lunch by nuns, no … now I have images in my head of Australians across the country being served a Sunday roast at home by an army of nuns! As far as I know, I’ve never had nuns serve me lunch … though I did eat a crêpe made by nuns at an amusement park in Mulhouse in France in 1983!
NS: You write both fiction and nonfiction—can you talk about truth in writing? How does fiction/nonfiction serve to tell truth and or vice-versa? Do you have a preference?
MP: I prefer writing fiction because ideas just pop up in my head, often titles or expressions or a bizarre situation that begs explanation. Though writing about my life is basically dull for me (yes, even though I wrote a travel memoir!) I much prefer reading non-fiction for my own personal reading. So I have a dichotomous relationship with fiction and non-fiction. I love just making things up but also believe that truth really is stranger than fiction.
But I acknowledge that in some ways you can tell the truth better in fiction because writers can veil themselves behind many layers (and hopefully, avoid causing offence).
In non-fiction you are bound by the truth … but I believe it has to be 100% true, otherwise it becomes ‘based on …’. Now, the interpretation of what is true – your truth or my truth? – can differ, obviously.
Though all fiction comes from some grain of truth, somewhere.
(An aside: my collection Based on True Stories is 99.9% fiction!)
NS: This book was published by Truth Serum Press, which is an imprint (I believe) of other presses that you manage—a spiderweb of publishing from down under. Has Truth Serum replaced the other imprints or does it exist alongside? Explain.
MP: In its simplest form:
Pure Slush began publishing online in 2010.
Pure Slush began publishing in print in 2011.
Pure Slush online and Pure Slush in print were run quite separately, with about .0000001% crossover, even though I managed both.
Truth Serum Press was established as an imprint in 2014. I specifically wanted an imprint where there was no expectation of online companion-publishing.
Everytime Press was established as a non-fiction imprint in 2016.
Pure Slush ceased online publishing in 2017. (Basically, I was bored with publishing online: neither my heart nor head were in it anymore.)
The differences, as they exist now are:
Pure Slush Books only publishes (multi-author) anthologies.
Truth Serum Press publishes single author books, and just a few (multi-author) one-off anthologies.
Everytime Press publishes travel, memoir, resource, and other non-fiction books.
This diversity means I get to publish a lot of different things, which makes it much more interesting for me … my 77th book as a publisher is just around the corner …
Over the next few months:
Truth Serum Press will release short story collections from Australian writers Steve Evans and Lewis Woolston, and Canadian writer Salvatore Difalco; and a poetry collection from US poet Alan Walowitz.
Everytime Press will release an armchair philosophy book by Australian writer Paul Ransom.
Pure Slush Books will release the anthology Pride 7 Deadly Sins Vol. 7.
Truth Serum Press is currently calling for prose submissions (fiction and non-fiction) for Stories My Gay Uncle Told Me: https://truthserumpress.net/submissions/anthology-submission-guidelines/stories-my-gay-uncle-told-me/
NS: What advice would you have for other writers wanting to write a book?
MP: You have to sit down and actually write. You don’t need a computer, you can use pen or pencil and paper. It might seem old-fashioned but it’s often not as daunting as a blank computer screen, and it still works.
Write what you know.
Write what you want to know.
Write about what you don’t know, but then be prepared to research or imagine.
If the work you are writing is boring for you, odds on it will be boring for readers.
There are lots of rules and some are good and some are not. Work out which rules work for you and which do not … but also be prepared to change.
Writing is organic … sometimes you just have to go on the journey. You can always come back later to a fork in that journey.
Being organised is better than not being organised.
No publisher or editor likes a disorganised writer. (And no writer likes a disorganised publisher or editor.)
Discipline is great BUT you also need to live and experience. You really do need to go out and smell the roses (and the dogshit) and not just write about them.
Most writers, when they talk about their writing, are boring. Talking around their writing is usually much more interesting for all concerned.
Verbs are a writer’s best friend: get the verbs right and 90% of your work is done!
NS: Anything else you want to add? Links or other promo?
MP: Find On the Bitch in all formats here: https://truthserumpress.net/catalogue/fiction/on-the-bitch/
Find Truth Serum Press here: https://truthserumpress.net/
Find Pure Slush Books here: https://pureslush.com/
Find Everytime Press here: https://everytimepress.com/
On the Bitch by Matt Potter
Truth Serum Press, 2018, 170 pages
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-925536-45-4
eBook ISBN: 978-1-925536-46-1
Matt Potter is the author of a travel memoir, Hamburgers and Berliners and other courses in between; two collections of short fiction and non-fiction, Vestal Aversion and Based on True Stories; the ESL teaching resources all you need is … a whiteboard, a marker and this book! Books 1 and 2; and the novella On the Bitch. A former teacher and social worker, he lives in Adelaide, South Australia where he now works in childcare, and as a publisher and editor.
So You Wrote a Book? Selah Saterstrom
If you’ve read Selah Saterstrom’s fiction you know it’s rapturous and visionary, hallucinations seen, cauterized and juxtaposed. In her latest book of non-fiction, Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, Selah takes us behind the curtain on a epistemological journey of her process: writing as an act of divination that casts the writer into relationship and revelation with their work. Using meditations, pictures, vintage texts and even 80’s pop culture, Saterstrom does what she does best: collages her experience into an artifact that is fiercely individual and yet strangely universal.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in six words
Selah Saterstrom: Works underlit by divinatory practices, partial.
NS: There are many different “pieces” in here, from meditations to screenplays, and each feels complete and self-contained. Did the collage of these many parts happen organically or did you model this structure on other books?
SS: I wrote the collection over a long period and it holds many valentine-genuflections to other books. I did not intentionally model my book’s structure on other books, though the valentine imprint is real and en-layered. Would I have structured a book this way prior to reading the work of Joan Fiset? Or, what about the Pentateuch? My book is in love with those books! Such a flirt. I’d say I modeled this book’s structure on a life spent being in love with reading.
NS: Sometimes your work feels as if you are speaking in tongues, and I will often let it wash over me rather than allow my cognitive brain try to make literal sense out of everything. Does the work come out of you that way or is there an intense refinement process?
SS: The work just comes out this way and there is an intense refinement process. Both. These two experiences are unfixed – they change places with one another, interrupt one another, wake within one another, and also vanish into one another.
In writing I often feel like I’m trying to sync form and content or that I’m trying to achieve a calibration. It’s like listening for a click-click sound. But of course there is no sound (spooky). But there is (a switch in the nervous system that knows).
I have to add…I can’t think of speaking in tongues without thinking of C.D. Wright’s Translations of the Gospel Back into Tongues, a book (and working concept) profoundly important to me.
NS: I love your inclusion of “Notes” at the end of each section—they’re more than just pragmatic, they are actually a way that you let us into your process. Talk about your choice to include these?
SS: I always thought of the “Notes” as love notes to the people, places, texts, and conditions essential to the writing. Foremost, they were places to proclaim love.
I recently led a graduate class called The Critical Imagination. My colleague Rachel Feder visited and spoke about “expanding the citation” – ways that as writers we might invite, include, and acknowledge collaborative energies vital to our processes.
Her ideas moved me and gave me a framework to think about generosity and reciprocity as sacred technologies that belongs in books. And I’d add, in classrooms, faculty meeting rooms, and in every space. In death spaces. In throw away spaces. And I want to think of spaces and books as zones (that can be) wired for this generosity/reciprocity so that we might increase the possibility for discernment and revelation to have places at our tables.
My other intention with these love notes was to share and show the process which made the work, as much as I was able, and because the processes were no less important than their creations. I wanted the act of writing to saturate all of the efficiently situated justified paragraphs.
Trying to show the process is also an invitation to write. To follow steps or (even better) to make new ones, but to write into the mystery of the overwhelmingly weird fact that we are alive inside immense passions and sufferings.
NS: In one section you talk about a failed attempt to do eco-poetics at Chernobyl, which led you to study photographs instead. Can you talk about your original intention vs the final piece here?
SS: This particular research effort was meant to be part of a chapter in a long-suffering hermeneutics book project, which is about reading devastated landscapes. My Chernobyl research effort fail has stalled out a long chapter in this book. If I’m driving county back roads and pass by an old, abandoned pick-up, rusting out in some pasture, weeds growing up through the hood, I think: there’s my book chapter. There she is.
As I note in Ideal Suggestions (the actual book where the failed text landed), during the time period I was trying to go to Prypyat, when applying for research clearance in Chernobyl, at the top of the application it was stamped: Your Application To Be Excluded. This referred to the “Exclusion Zone,” which required special permits, but was of course also amazing for all the reasons. After going through this involved and expensive process twice, both times, I couldn’t actually get into the Exclusion Zone at the last minute because of a fluke. Huge, blousy, tacky flukes! So the work ended up happening on the boundary line of the Exclusion Zone and I worked from that place, which is also part of what the essay became about.
Shifting the focus a bit, I want to encourage all of your readers to check out Svetlana Alexievich’s stunning, Voices of Chernobyl. It invokes a polyphonic chorus in one of the most powerful ways I’ve experienced yet. Also, Mariko Nagai’s Irradiated Cities – a really stunning achievement. I hope everyone will read these two books. They have an inexhaustible urgency cleverly staged in the past-tense though they are about right now.
NS: As your student at Naropa over 10 years ago, I remember a prompt to write of a “ruined landscape.” How do ruined landscapes figure in your work?
SS: Your question has me thinking of the word ruin, in all its historical iterations, how it etymologically looms in notions of collapse, which means, at root, “fall together.” Ruination as a community event. Put another way: I feel like every landscape can be a Charnel Ground site – a place we might encounter ourselves or something greater, a place where we are going to either endure in our individual and collective pain or find healing and liberation.
NS: The “brother and sister” dialogue you attribute in your notes both to a lost child and a lost twin. You allow yourself to be extremely vulnerable in revealing this (we usually get to “hide” behind the fiction label when it gets this personal), and you could have chosen to not reveal this. Talk about your choice to reveal?
SS: I keep thinking about this idea that you shared, that it is an option to hide behind the fiction label when things get personal.
I think, in general, fiction (I’d say all of writing) has never been about obscuring things for me, but about revealing things to me – even revealing me to me. So, I feel buck-ass naked in writing pretty much all the time.
I find that rather than creating distance (and therefore room and accordingly, room to hide), writing has had the effect of collapsing distances, and therefore creating intimacy. Intimacy, even if it be terrible, delightful, or whatever.
I also embrace revision and am obsessive regarding syntax. Writing is still/always a form of making. That said, for its many gifts, relief (in the form of not being seen), has not been one bestowed on this writer.
I think I don’t want to hide in writing because I don’t want to hide anywhere.
I know the suffering (and exhaustion) I’ve experienced by trying to hide myself (how I really am) through casting an image of myself I hope others will agree upon or approve of or buy into. At this point, I don’t want fancier ego strategies around constructions and projections of self, I just want to keep shifting so I can do my best work and so that I can be a really good partner, friend, teacher, mother, neighbor, community member, and so on.
NS: Your “Screenplay” section includes major references to movies such as The Blue Lagoon and Revenge of the Nerds, among others. These are quintessential 80’s movies and not particularly “literary.” How does the vulgar (in the true sense of the word) meet the holy in your work?
SS: When I was in fifth grade, my dad had HBO (a super big deal) and I have many memories of being alone at his townhouse during long weekends when he’d be at his girlfriend’s and I’d watch the hell out of HBO. It is when I first watched Revenge of the Nerds, which seemed to show constantly on HBO’s “After Dark” selection, and which I was excited to view because it supposedly featured boobs. Though when I actually watched it, it kind of scared me. I often thought about Betty. How she was deceived in the Fun House etc. It felt more like a flat, low-budget horror movie where the monsters were unfocused, sweaty white guys with crumbs stuck to their pasty faces while their bodies were pumped up with insane juvenile lust the color Peach Ne-hi. It was like a super dumb cautionary tale for boobs! Jesus! And I do mean Jesus. Because during that time in my life the other story that kept me up at night was the story of Jesus and his awful fucking death.
I don’t believe in a rigid sacred/profane division, much less that it might be one governed by the binary, and I don’t think holiness has anything to do with purity.
What can I say? I’m like a lot of women I know: I have a vagina that has a trans-generational memory of being 100% screwed over lifetime after lifetime as a result of “purity.”
Purity (and its violent after effects) is messy and complicated; a paradox considering at root it means, and all at once: “clean, clear, unmixed, unadorned, chaste, fresh, new, sifted, and undefiled.” This doesn’t have anything to do with holiness for me. I feel that holiness can be dirty, swampy, mixed, over-dressed and under-dressed, lounging in its own desire, wearing day-old make-up if it wants, and is stock full of agency, resonance, presence.
NS: What advice would you give to a writer creating their first book?
SS: I think of Anne Waldman’s charge to make a vow to writing…the importance of articulating your energetic contract to writing, the medium of language, and I hope that contract is also rooted in curiosity and a consistent willingness to see your own bullshit and surrender what you think you know about (even!) your own book. And stay with it. Tenacity is important in a world that too often forgets to give folks permission to be visionary.
NS: Anything else you want to add?
SS: Yes: thank you, Nancy! I love you and I love your work and am grateful for the ways you cast community spaces and make so much magic happen here (and elsewhere, too!).
In closing, I’d mention a couple of books because I am a believer in the book-list-share! Three visionary works I recently read/am reading and recommend completely because they are so damn good: Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry To Disrupt the Peace, Alicia Mountain’s High Ground Coward, What I knew by Eleni Sikelianos, and Myriam Gurba’s Mean.
Links to the book or other promo links
Selah Saterstrom is the author of the novels Slab, The Meat and Spirit Plan, The Pink Institution, and the collection of essays, Ideal Suggestions, which was selected for the Essay Book Prize. She teaches and lectures throughout the United States and abroad and is the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Denver.
So You Wrote a Book? Meg Pokrass
Meg Pokrass can be heartbreaking, shocking, witty, and wise in the same sentence, and her new book, Alligators at Night, is both bizarre and tragic, with turns of phrase that will take your breath away and narrators who are almost too smart for their own good. And while the work may be witty on the surface, it points to a deeper sophistication; profound insights, poignancy and sadness/hopefulness bleed through the seemingly regular occurrences of regular people looking for love, belonging, and redemption.
Nancy Stohlman: So, Meg, this is not your first book. You’ve also published other collections of flash fiction including The Dog Looks Happy Upside Down, Cellulose Pajamas, and Damn Sure Right. How is Alligators at Night different from your other books?
Meg Pokrass: This book is mostly shorter pieces, newer, mostly pieces that fall between 100 – 600 words (with a few exceptions). This is the length of stories that I love writing the most.
NS: You have stories in Alligators at Night that were published over an 8-year period, from 2017 all the way back to 2009. Would you call this book a sort of “Greatest Hits” of your work?
MP: I imported a handful of strong stories over from my first collection “Damn Sure Right” for “Alligators At Night”, but it’s definitely not a “best of” volume. Most of the pieces in AAN are brand new. But I would certainly like to have a “best of” collection published someday.
NS: Your story “Barista” appeared in Best Small Fictions and it is one of the stories (along with “Bug Man”) that ends on this lovely note of belonging and/or not belonging. I think many of your stories touch on this idea. Is this an intentional theme for you?
MP: I do agree, and it is unintentional. I think it’s something I ponder often, and have felt for most of my life, that sense of being an outsider. Of “almost” belonging. Which stems from my unusual and stressful childhood, leaving my father in Pennsylvania when I was five and moving with my mother to perfect California where we knew nobody. I loved California but never really felt that I belonged there. If I unconsciously use this feeling in my writing, then it’s finally useful to me! But it’s not a conscious thing at all.
NS: You are particularly great at endings. Your endings just seem to stop at the right time—not too early (although sometimes shocking) but not a beat too late. What is your philosophy around endings? How do you know when the story is finished? Do they end like this on the first try or is this something you refine afterwards?
MP: I grew up as a writer reading the short fiction of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips and Bobbie Ann Mason. These writers taught me how to end stories, are masters of it. And I must have learned it long ago. I remember studying these endings, thinking Holy crap! That’s IT. It’s not a conscious thing, where a story ends as I’m writing it, but I like to end with a sense of some seemingly small yet significant character realization. A slightly new way of seeing or of understanding. Often I need to go back to a story after the first few drafts and hunt for that ending, find it through multiple re-readings. It’s often hidden. Sometimes I change the order of paragraphs and sentences, and sometimes the story structure benefits from this too.
NS: Okay, here’s the tough question: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?
MP: “Barista”. I feel it captures something mysterious, something I can’t put my own finger on, and it feels as if it wrote itself. The idea that this story came from something I wasn’t aware of thrills me. I’m also rather fond of “Probably, I’ll Marry You”. I like what the story says about love, how deeply flawed the nature of romantic love is, and also how that is exactly what makes it so wonderful. And “The Bug Man” because it is semi-memoir. My mother really was secretly smitten with our exterminator, and so was I. But he didn’t have long spidery arms, and I didn’t have a brother. And of course, our exterminator died of lung cancer. I love making something of such a sad but sweet memory.
NS: I heard you read “Imaginary Chinese Take-Out with Lydia Davis” at the Bath Flash Fiction Festival last year and you have a very funny, almost deadpan reading style that perfectly emphasizes the outrageous, weird situations of your stories. I know you have a performance background—how does that background inform your public readings?
MP: That’s so kind of you Nancy. It’s wonderful to have that reinforcement. I’m sure the acting training helped. But I admit to having awful jitters when reading my own work. I’m so glad you can’t tell.
NS: Many of these stories have been republished and anthologized. How do you feel about your older work vs your new work?
MP: I believe that about 1/6 of these stories are older, and a few have been anthologized. But most of the stories in Alligators At Night have been written in the last 3 years.
NS: You are (I believe) the first single author collection released from Ad Hoc Fiction. Congratulations! Talk about your journey with Ad Hoc Fiction.
MP: This began as a rather casual and fun conversation I had with Jude Higgins soon after I moved to England, when I was judging the Bath Flash Fiction Award and had visited Bath to take part in a reading with Jude and her writers. Jude told me that Ad Hoc was moving into publishing single author collections, and I boldly asked her, point blank, would they consider my new collection (I had a manuscript ready to go). The rest is history.
NS: Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
MP: I wouldn’t tell myself I was writing a book at all. I’d just keep making stories. That’s much less intimidating, and it’s exactly how it worked for me.
Meg Pokrass is the author of five flash fiction collections and a novella-in-flash from Rose Metal Press. A new collection “What the Dog Thinks” and a novella-in-flash, “Smog Is Invisible” are forthcoming in 2019. Her work has been anthologized in New Micro (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018), Flash Fiction International (W. W. Norton & Co., 2015), Best Small Fictions, 2018 and 2019, the Wigleaf Top 50,and numerous other international anthologies. Individual stories have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines includingElectric Lit, Tin House, McSweeney’s and Passages North, Tupelo Quarterly, Smokelong, Wigleaf, etc. Meg currently serves as Flash Challenge Editor at Mslexia Magazine, Festival Curator for Flash Fiction Festival, U.K. (Bristol) Co-Editor of Best Microfiction, 2019, and Founding/Managing Editor of New Flash Fiction Review. Alligators At Night is available from Ad Hoc Fiction’s online bookshop.Meg’s website is: www.megpokrass.com and her teaching website is here: http://flashfictionworkshops.uk/ You can follow Meg on Twitter at @megpokrass.
So You Wrote a Book? Robert Vaughan
Robert Vaughan’s latest book Funhouse is a wild ride–he starts us off in the kiddy rides and before we know it we’re doing double loops on the Scrambler and full speed on the Centrifuge, the floor dropping away and we’re spinning and stuck to the wall, hair full of static like crazy cotton candy.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words:
NS: You have authored multiple books including Addicts and Basements and Rift, which you co-authored with Kathy Fish. How is Funhousedifferent from your other books?
RV: Funhouse is a varied collection and contains four diverse sections. There is the opening flash and micro pieces. Then the two middle collaborative sections, “Hall of Mirrors” which I like to refer to as the “Kids in the Classroom”; and “Tunnel of Love” which is my nod to the numerous musical Divas. It also is my first book to contain my short stories in the fourth and last section of FUNHOUSE (unlike only flash or prose poetry in previous collections).
NS: I loved this tiny story, “Corn Maze”:
“I got lost in a corn maze this morning. I know you’re not supposed to panic, but this happened in Soho. I met a lot of other people in there. Many of them were in the arts. One girl told me she’d been in there since Labor Day. I think she said this out of shame. She was wearing white shoes.”
For me this is the perfect example of a micro—lots of implication and white space for the reader to fill in the rest of the story. How you decide what becomes a micro and what becomes a poem?
RV: First of all, thanks for liking this tiny piece. I never really know what something I write is, prose or poetry or whatever. I often like to say that categories of writing were made for libraries and bookstores! I know there are all of these defining “rules,” etc. But I do feel like I tend more toward the gray areas, or middle ground, then the “defining areas” of what others tell us are a micro or a poem. It’s probably what drove me to start Bending Genres journal and workshops/ retreats. Who knows?
NS: Your “Hall of Mirrors” section (2) is somehow both sweet and chilling at the same time, like Shel Silverstein crossed with Tim Burton. I could totally see this as a stand alone (freaky) children’s book. Talk about your inspiration for this. Would you ever consider publishing it as a stand-alone?
RV: One of my favorite book collections as a kid was a gift from my grandfather. It was The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. I was fascinated by the poem lure (it’s all Iambic pentameter), completely entrancing gore and horror. Each kid dies (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B was for Ben who was bitten by bears…”) So, my “Halls of Mirrors” is a nod to Gorey, and grandpa, but also in my own way, I decided to twist it, make it my own. And it’s a great idea to possibly make this into its own chapbook. Any takers?
NS: Loved your choice of “divas”—I approve of all of them! Explain your process: did you pick the line from their song and then break it apart or how did you use it as a starting point?
RV: This section began in 2013 when my friend Joseph Quintela started a project while at Sarah Lawrence, called The Word Poeticizer. He asked 15- 20 of his poet friends to re-assign their own definitions of words. Then you could feed anything into his Word Poeticizer and pop a new version of the lyric or poem out. Then I decided to do the nod to divas, or female singers who have meant everything to me. I chose a line, and it evolved into these prose poems. My last part was asking Eryk Wenziak to do the layout, and he laid each poem on the page so uniquely, many with much white, and symbolic space.
NS: In your “Tunnel of Love” section (3) you literally doubled your alphabet, using pretty much every symbol available on the keyboard. If I were to name this section I would have named it The Scrambler! There is a lot going on in this section and it’s definitely your most avant-garde. Talk about your inspiration here.
RV: Again, because we used the Word Poeticizer, it became quite odd, more abstraction. I wavered with editing these “too much,” and then decided to go back to the originals, which became the “Tunnel of Love.” I felt like I wanted one entire chunk of the book that left people sort of “huh?” And yet, many times, I’m told it is a reader’s favorite part of Funhouse. I also think because it was a collaborative project at the onset, asking Eryk to add his brilliant touches really made it all the more wondrously strange.
NS: You are a writer that really embraces (and promotes) the hybrid form. Gun to your head: Prose or poetry for the rest of your life—what do you choose?
RV: I’d take the bullet! HA. Actually, I have to choose poetry. It’s my go to, again and again. With all of the bullshit going on the world, poetry helps me to balance, to feel more deeply. And my mentors are all poets: Dorianne Laux, Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, Nick Flynn. But then there are all these amazing contemporary writers who effuse hybrid forms: I’m thinking Sabrina Orah Mark, Alina Stefanescu, Kaj Tanaka, Len Kuntz, Maggie Nelson, Meg Tuite, Steven Dunn, and so many more. Deep Gratitude to them all!
NS: You seem inspired by visuals—both the drawings in Hall of Mirrors (amazing artistry by Bob Schofield) and the use of white space in Tunnel of Love are very visual. How important are visuals to your creation process?
RV: Of course, I am a very visual person. And Bob did great renderings for the Hall Of Mirrors. Almost like he was in my head it is so terrific! I’d love to think I am a sensory person (all senses firing). I like to write from visual prompts, and I am also inspired by how words look on a page. How the author thinks about this (or in more cases, not). So, visuals are very important to me. And then, also, what is going on BELOW/ BENEATH/ UNDER.
NS: What is your favorite story in this book?
NS: This is your second book with Unknown Press. Talk about your publishing process.
RV: My fortune started with Gloria Mindock and Cervena Barva Press, she published “Microtones” in 2012. Joseph Quintela published “Diptychs, Triptychs, Lipsticks & Dipshits” (Deadly Chaps). My first full collection, “Addicts & Basements” was published by Civil Coping Mechanisms. Michael Seidlinger cold- called me after hearing me read and host a reading at the Boston AWP in 2013. (can you say HOLY FUCK?!!) In 2015, Bud Smith (Unknown Press) suggested Kathy Fish and I to do a collaborative book. I thought: she’s never going to do this! Turns out, Kathy was in a tough writing spot. We work-shopped that entire year (Fish, Smith, Michael Maxwell and me) online in the Night Owl Café. This made RIFT a possibility, which became a book! Bud and I also chatted about FUNHOUSE along the way. It came out almost one year later (December, 2017). Every single publisher I have worked with has been beyond my wildest dreams. So professional, beyond qualified, and brilliant.
NS: Advice to writers?
RV: Write as often as possible. PAY ATTENTION! Believe in yourself. Be curious. Meet other writers and greet your family. Make love often. Take suggestions with an open mind. Travel whenever possible. Cook with others. Read, read, read…
NS: Anything else you want to add?
RV: Have I mentioned how much I adore and revere you? Truly, I do. I’m so grateful to anyone who gives back to our writing community, and you always do in such a huge way.
NS: BLUSHING!! Thank YOU so much, Robert. I am honored to call you a friend. xoxoxo
Links to books or other promo links:
Robert Vaughan teaches workshops in hybrid writing, poetry, fiction at locations like The Clearing, Synergia Ranch, Mabel Dodge Luhan House. He leads roundtables in Milwaukee, WI. He was a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction (2013, 2014). His flash fiction, ‘A Box’ was selected for Best Small Fictions 2016 and his flash, “Six Glimpses of the Uncouth” was chosen for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Queen’s Ferry Press). He is the Editor-in-Chief at Bending Genres, LLC.
Vaughan is the author of five books: Microtones(Cervena Barva Press); Diptychs+ Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits(Deadly Chaps); Addicts & Basements(CCM), RIFT, co-authored with Kathy Fish (Unknown Press) and FUNHOUSE(Unknown Press). His blog: www.robert-vaughan.com.
So You Wrote a Book? Christopher Allen
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in 6 words.
Christopher Allen: Personal. Risky. Blue. Magic. Real. Eclectic.
NS: This is your second book—you also have a book called Conversations with S. Teri O’ Type (a satire).
CA: They are so different but maybe I could use the same six words above to describe both. Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a satire) is an episodic cartoon and absurdist play with the same recurring characters, a wildly over-the-top satirical crash course in how to be gay, a conversation set simply on a sit-com stage. Voice is everything in Conversations. Other Household Toxins has a few absurdist stories, but each story is its own world with lots of different characters dealing with their own hard questions.
NS: Your stories often straddle the line between real and surreal. One of my favorites in this regard is “Beyond the Fences”, where the story is basically realistic with an unexpected and perfect swipe of surrealism at the end. This could come off as clashing in some circumstances, but in this case it works. Can you talk about the relationship of the real to the surreal in your work?
CA: Thank you so much for this question, Nancy. In this story I was trying to describe the feeling of being outed by awful people: that moment in a boy’s playful life when everything changes and he is left exposed to the cruelty of his abusers. For this character—and for myself—it was so traumatic that nothing less than walking off the face of the earth could describe the horror of it.
I write surrealism but more in the direction of dramatic surrealism. I think this is most recognizable in “Falling Man,” “When Susan Died the First Time,” and the title story “Other Household Toxins.” These are all collisions of disparate elements I’ve used to help me make sense of death. Most of my stories that veer from realism are magic realism.
My relationship to reality is something I think and write about a lot. I grew up in the Baptist Church where my concept of “real” was (de)formed. So I guess you could say the metaphysical was not very much different from the physical. I’m sure this influenced my stories as I began to write.
NS: Many of your stories deal with the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, in multiple and nuanced combinations. Is this a theme that continues to hold energy for you?
CA: Definitely. I don’t think there’s another theme that occupies my thoughts more, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Maybe when I figure it all out I’ll stop writing stories about fathers and sons. That might be a while though: I’m a bit thick sometimes.
NS: Many writers struggle with arranging their stories into a collection. How did you decide on the order of the stories? I was particularly struck by the choice to put the story “Fred’s Massive Sorrow”, a 32-page story, in the middle of primarily 1-3 page flashes. You could have decided to put it, say, at the beginning or end. Can you talk about your organizing process?
CA: Ah, yes, Fred. He’s the big sad elephant smackdab in the middle of this flash collection. “Fred’s Massive Sorrow” is a short story in flash, or he’s here to show how writing flash has affected my longer stories, or he’s here just because I love him. “Fred’s Massive Sorrow” is a modular, multi-voiced narrative with sections all under 1000 words. I see it as the centerpiece of the collection, and of course the cover art is based on the story.
Other Household Toxins, the collection, begins with a little boy trying to figure out his place in the world and his relationship to his father. The progression of stories then follows characters as they deal with life’s difficult questions from young to old, but I don’t think I stuck to this religiously. There are a few “sections”: the Southern characters are mostly together, and the German stories are together. “Other Household Toxins,” the story, ends the collection with a teenager who still doesn’t understand his father but has found a way to deal with his past through magic realism.
NS: I love that you have so many stories set on the train! I also commute by train and actually do much of my reading (including your book) on the train. Talk about the train as a theme in your work.
CA: Thank you so much for reading my book, Nancy! We are so lucky. Public transportation is a thunderstorm of stories every day. All you have to do is sit there and sponge it up. Anything can happen, and anyone could walk into your life. I love—and hate—this aspect of the train. I rarely interact with people. I’ve lived in Germany for the last couple of decades where talking on public transportation is a sure sign of insanity. But the train brings characters into my life and into my stories. The Clown Lady in “A Clown’s Lips” is one of those characters. She ends up teaching the narrator so much about himself.
NS: I’m struck by your ambidexterity when it comes to gender—you seem to write and create empathy for characters of all genders with equal ease. I actually find this unusual for a writer—we may aspire to it but it doesn’t always hit the mark. What are your thoughts on this?
CA: Thank you. When I was in my twenties I thought about becoming a psychiatrist because I was passionate about understanding people. And I still am. I’ve always seen the lines between gender as fluid. I think I understood at a very young age that humans come in a much wider variety than just masculine and feminine.
A few years ago, I wrote a story for STRIPPED: A Collection of Anonymous Flash Fiction, a project that took bylines and thus gender away from the stories. Readers were invited to guess the gender of the authors (a field that included most well-known flash fiction writers then). I’m happy to say that I fooled everyone, even the software program that promised to spot the gender of the writer. Did I try to “write like a woman”? I don’t think so. Did I try to become the character? Yes. The story still tears me apart.
NS: Some of your stories are of course set in Germany (or overseas). How has being an ex-pat influenced your work?
CA: I think very similar to riding the train, living in different places—I’ve also lived in London and Dublin—has forced characters into my life and into my stories that would otherwise never have appeared. Being an expat has taught me so such. First of all, I am stupid. My education was awful. The guidance that I received as a child and as a teenager was bullshit. I work with people every day who speak five languages and talk about paintings, opera, and chemistry. Being an expat has taught me humility. Being an expat has also driven me to learn, which has affected my work deeply.
NS: Death and dying is a prominent theme in this book, though I wouldn’t call it a morbid book. Sometimes your exploration is tragic and other times it’s completely surreal, like the guy who is dying for a living. I remember listening to you read the “The Ground Above My Feet” at AWP, and at the time the audience cracked up laughing. On the page it felt much more serious. Where is the line between funny and serious for you?
CA: I’m thrilled when readers see the humor. I hope “The Ground Above My Feet” makes the reader laugh—until it doesn’t of course. There’s a big dark line between funny and serious in that story. My publisher, Randall Brown, describes the collection as “fiercely funny,” and I wonder if readers too will think this about a collection almost entirely about death. A few nights ago as I was writing the letter from the editor for SmokeLong while watching a documentary about Stephen Hawking, I was trying to figure out how to communicate to our readers why humor is so important. And then Stephen Hawking told me: “Humor helps people think about difficult questions.” That’s exactly how I use humor—in my work and in my life. So to answer your question, maybe there is no line? Or maybe the exchange between the two blurs the line?
When Conversations with S. Teri O’Type first came out in 2012, lots of readers asked this question since humor plays such a large role in the story. Occasionally a reader would say something like “Whoa. This is really dark. Is this supposed to be funny or serious?” My response then was “There’s nothing serious here except everything.” And I think this still rings true in Other Household Toxins.
NS: What advice would you give to a writer creating their first book?
CA: Be yourself. Do something you love. There are enough books out there written because the author and their publisher thought this is the thing people want to read. Write something you’re dying to tell the world.
NS: Thanks for hanging out, Chris!
So You Wrote a Book? Meg Tuite
Meg Tuite’s work is at times uncomfortably intimate, vulnerable but never precious. Like one of her characters who is being asked by her therapist if she has a history of mental illness, she responds: “I don’t know anyone who isn’t mentally ill.” In Meg’s latest book, Meet My Haze, she takes that signature matter-of-fact approach to otherwise dark topics, and her exploration of dysfunction is sober and pragmatic, only hinting at the drama underneath. She can conjure entire histories in an off-hand comment about father’s “pasty skin” that another writer would spend an entire book on. And that is Meg’s gift–even in the condensed world of flash fiction she has a poet’s sensitivity for brevity and density of language and meaning. She is a poet storyteller in prose skin.
Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in six words.
Meg Tuite: ‘It’s a parade of the lonely.’
NS: You have published many other books, including Domestic Apparition, Bound by Blue, and Bare Bulbs Swinging. How is this book different than your other books?
MT: Each book has been work and I’m happy to have them out there. I worked hard on all of them. Bare Bulbs Swinging is a collaborative poetry collection with Heather Fowler and Michelle Reale and we won an award for it. Bound By Blue is longer short stories. A newspaper reviewer wrote “She wouldn’t know a happy ending if she saw one.” That’s true. I wouldn’t believe it. I am drawn to those who expose their inner lives or at least have an awkward time trying to conceal it.
NS: “The blasphemy of a coat” or “three tornadoes away from sanity”–You have so many gorgeous, stand-out phrases I can’t possibly list them all. There is a wonderfully poetic sensibility to your sentences—they are dense and complex. Does your work come out this way or is language something that you spend a lot of time sculpting?
MT: I am in love with poetic prose. The rhythm of words and how they meld with each other helps when the content tends to be darker material.
NS: So…are you a poet or a prose writer at heart? Like if someone held a gun to your head and made you choose would you pick lines or sentences?
MT: Definitely poetic prose.
NS: I love the way your matter-of-fact demeanor takes the edge off some of these dark topics and you humor that is right on point. In fact, I think one of your gifts as a writer is being able to add the exact right amount of humor to otherwise intense, serious, even tragic moments. I actually laughed out loud at the description of a hospice worker tying her elderly patient back into a chair: “our movements are sluggish and dragged out like German cinema.” How important is humor in your writing? Do you think humor opens the door to these otherwise overwhelmingly heavy topics?
MT: Humor definitely cuts the edge on the intensity of the situations. Although, not all would agree. Here is the Kirkus Review I received for Meet My Haze:
“Tuite offers a series of tales that catalog the many ways in which minds and bodies can break down.
In this dark, often morbid short story collection, the author explores the underbelly of humanity in all its decay. “A day with death is never a dead day” begins the first story, told from the perspective of a hospice worker. Various characters with mental and physical infirmities come to grips with tragic events as each story unfurls. A microwaved lava lamp explodes in a hapless father’s face in “The World Gravitates Toward the Ditch”; in “The White Witch of Ojo,” a scoliosis-afflicted witch declares that her landscaper has no soul; a woman meets Don Quixote, Socrates, and Plato on her deathbed in another tale. These stories contain plenty of blunt talk about such topics as impotency, scatological obsessions, and suicide. It seems as if nothing is too foul; one story introduces a Great Dane that eats “soiled underwear.” In one particularly violent tale, a woman deliberately injures her genitals with a lemon zester, “breaking open cells like succulent seeds in juice flooding the tile with the pinkest reds she’s ever seen.” Occasionally, though, the stories turn tender, as in “The Vastness of Love,” in which a mother overcomes her agoraphobia to take her children to the library every Saturday. Tuite is clearly a talented writer, and her descriptions are superb and visceral; for instance, she describes a man’s teeth in “A City Bound by the Corpse of the Habitual” as being as “brown as his beverage.” The stories’ first sentences are like literary whiplash, jolting the reader to attention: “Freud proved that eels have testicles and I can’t even get out of bed,” she writes at the top of “So Who Knows More about Eels?” But the shock and awe and gratuitous gore eventually grow tiresome, and many vile characters exhibit few redeeming qualities, making it difficult for the reader to sympathize with or invest in them.
A well-written but excessively gruesome collection of stories that, in the end, provide little insight about human suffering.”
It doesn’t seem that the Kirkus reader saw any of the humor in this collection.
NS: Some of your stories are so gritty and raw—I love how you just seem to unabashedly lay it out. Do you ever second guess whether a story should be published?
MT: It’s not the grittiness that stops me. If anything it’s that I’m not sure if the story is ready. I rarely send a story out that I haven’t sat on for a while. It has to read well aloud and on the page for me before I will submit it.
NS: You have an entire story, “Letter to a Dead Writer,” dedicated to Clarice Lispector. Talk about her importance to you and your work.
MT: Clarice Lispector is an inimitable writer that you either LOVE or HATE. I distinguish her as a philosopher. Reading her over and over always feels like the first time. She is brilliant and unparalleled. Her words inspire me.
NS: What is your favorite story in here and why?
MT: The World Gravitates Towards the Ditch took a long while to write. I sat on it for months and then, apparently sent it out to a few places when I was drunk. I found out it had placed with the Bristol Short Story Contest through twitter. I saw writers talking about the long list and congratulating me along with many others. I have no memory of sending it to the contest, but was elated that I did. I placed third and also the story was short-listed at Glimmer Train. I don’t send to contests very often. Unless I have the cash, the willingness, and a few drinks! Damn!
NS: We are both Big Table Publishing sisters! But you have published with many presses–talk about publishing with Big Table.
MT: Robin Stratton of Big Table Publishing is amazing! I love her and the books she publishes. And I was really excited that you had a book that was coming out of BTP, as well! Congratulations! There’s a lot of promoting to do with this press. You are amazing in that arena, and we’ve talked about the title you came up with in terms of getting the book out there once it’s been published: So You Published a Book: Who the Fuck Cares!” I totally get that! I’m not as good at promoting as you are. I love that you had a circus and did an entire performance the evening of your launch party! That is so great! Meet My Haze kind of fell through the cracks. I do love the collection, but didn’t push for reviews or interviews. I so appreciate your interviewing me now! Thank you!
NS: Your work has won or placed for many prizes. Do you approach prize submissions differently than regular publications? More or less experimental? Advice for authors wanting to venture into contests more?
MT: Try not to send out to contests when you’re drunk! It’s helpful to remember where you’ve sent the stories.
NS: Best advice ever–ha! Anything else you want to add? Advice to writers working on a book, perhaps?
MT: I have always gone the indie route. I do love indie presses. They tend to give you a lot of leeway with your cover, your title, and your format. I haven’t looked for an agent and so have nothing to add in that arena. One thing that’s important to know is that you have to do the work. You pay for the readings and set up the engagements. So be excited about your book. Let the world know that it’s out there and celebrate the work that you’ve done!
Links to buy the book:
Thank you so much, Nancy, for the insightful questions and taking the time to send them my way!
LOVE LOVE, Meg xoxo
Meg Tuite is author of four story collections and five chapbooks. She won the Twin Antlers Poetry award for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, senior editor at Connotation Press, associate editor at Narrative Magazine and fiction editor at Bending Genres. http://megtuite.com
So You Wrote a Book? Paul Beckman
Paul Beckman has a new collection of flash fiction, Kiss, Kiss! Aren’t familiar with Beckman’s work? Here’s a taste: drunk mothers at weddings, grandmas who play strip poker, “Too Many Uncles”, a man whose body parts are falling off, a man whose right hand is battling his left, and “Goodbye, Already”, where dead family members are still showing up to family functions. These and so many more make up the delightful, dark smorgasbord that is Kiss Kiss.
Nancy Stohlman: Paul, can you tell us what the book is about in exactly six words?
Paul Beckman: These are not your mother’s shorts-stories.
Nancy: This is not your first book. You have also published other collections of flash fiction including Peek and Come! Meet My Family and Other Stories. How is Kiss Kiss different from your other books?
Paul: The stories are darker in substance and in humor.
While many of your stories are tongue-in-cheek humor, you also have these intensely serious ones, like “Daddy’s Way” (a micro about a beating) or” Father Panik Village” (one of several stories set in the projects). To me it seems like the perfect balance—just when we think we have you figured out, you surprise us with something completely different. Does that happen automatically or do you have to craft that balance?
For a collection without connected stories I go through my published and unpublished stories and lay out the ones, that while not connected, still seem to have a thread of feeling while reading, that flow together by my voice.
You go back and forth between realism and surrealism almost seamlessly. And even your realism can have a touch of the absurd, from a strip poker-playing grandma all the way to a story like “TSA: Here to Serve” where the narrator finds himself in some sort of reality show after being pulled aside and waterboarded by the TSA at the airport. Many writers do one but not both well. Do you prefer realism or surrealism?
Okay, this may sound surreal but my writing is based in realism and while I’m writing I don’t consciously make a turn to surrealism–it’s only after the story is written do I realize the surrealism aspects to it. Take the TSA story: The real TSA people are constantly in the news for abusing their power and punishing people by making them miss their flights or suffer the indignities of being felt up and groped with the other passengers watching. How’s that so different from being on a TV reality show with a live audience?
Family–and all the ways family is functional/dysfunctional and unique—is a regular theme. In your books we meet wives and husbands and grandmothers and stepfathers and cousins and children and siblings and family dinners on the holidays. So…how does your real family react to all these stories of family?
Most of my family is gone now but their memories and mischegas live on. At one point when my first book was published (Come! Meet My Family) I invited cousins and an uncle to a reading and I read a story about a conflict between two aunts and a cup of black coffee. After the reading the cousins surrounded my Uncle wanting to know which of his seven sisters drank their coffee black. He said, “All of them.” which dashed their hopes of figuring out whose mother I was writing about. I can’t talk about my stories with my brother because he thinks I constantly do a hatchet job on our mother when, in reality, our memories and feelings being separated by four years in age allow me to write from a different vantage point about the mothers in my stories. We fiction writers steal behaviors, bits of dialogue, punishment, and praise overheard and incorporate these thing into our stories that are not as we’ve seen them. We adapt and get to play God. And it’s not only family–sometimes it’s friends who are sure they know other mutual friends or themselves who I’m writing about. I believe there are only dysfunctional families in the world only sometimes their dysfunctionality is out in the open and often it’s behind closed doors. What a great source of material–whether it’s my family or strangers.
Mirsky and his wife, Elaine, are two of your signature, reoccurring characters. Talk about the evolution of Mirsky and Elaine as characters in your work.
An early story that’s also in Come! Meet My Family, introduced Mirsky not knowing he would hang around me and feed me stories for all these years. In that story I think it was the only time I used his first name and later on I wanted to write a story about a character who was only known by his last name. I knew I wanted a strong two-syllable name so I drove to the cemetery where my relatives are buried and drove around looking at the headstones until I came upon a group of Mirsky headstones and that’s how Mirsky was born (or re-born). From there he and Elaine populated many of my stories through marriage, divorce, infidelities, and all things couples go through. He may or may not be my doppelganger, my foil, or my muse.
Okay, here’s the tough question: What is your favorite story in this collection and why?
“The Only Hope of the Jews” for a number of reasons: It may be the first story about growing up in the projects as a young Jewish kid, fighting the anti-Semite name-calling from kids who were only repeating words they heard from their parents or friends. The conflict between Mirsky and his mother over her not understanding what he had to endure so often and then have her blaming him for defending himself, the Jews of the world, and his family. My brother wouldn’t like this story either.
I’ve been your editor for many years so I get to see how you work behind the scenes. You always have a deluge of ideas and you’re always willing to take risks and try something new. You’re even willing to abandon ship and try again if necessary, which is sometimes how the best revisions happen. Can you talk about your process from idea to draft to revision. How does it happen for you?
Almost every story I write stars with a prompt or a word I saw or heard (I guess that’s a prompt also). Then I just start writing. I don’t know the story I’m writing and certainly not the ending. I put myself in the MC’s mind and let it rip. Sometimes it works (often times) and sometimes not and I start again. At times I know a sentence or three ahead of where I’m writing, but now always. I feel fortunate that my writing over the years has morphed into this position from when I first started and felt I had to know the whole story before I could write.
From there I wait a few days and then go back and try to tighten it up.
I’d like to say I read every story aloud to myself but there are times I don’t. When I do I catch more mistakes and that’s the best avenue for me for rewrites next to the following:
Nancy Stohlman edits the bulk of my stories. She’s smart, knows her subject, and knows me and my stories. There are times we don’t agree and she never pressures me to do it her way but she does explain her thinking. Often, the conflicts come with what and how I write a scene which Nancy picks up on and I clarify it. Neither of us want to spell everything out–the reader gets more out of a flash or micro story if they have to mentally fill in some white space.
This is your first book published by Truth Serum Press. Talk about your journey with Truth Serum and the road to publication for Kiss, Kiss.
I’d been submitting stories to Matt Potter’s Pure Slush Magazine for years and he wrote me about a story and knowing I was close to a new collection I told him he needed a book from someone like me to publish. He got right on board and between Nancy and me we came up with the stories that I put in the order I thought they should go, sent it to Nancy, reconfigured a couple and dropped a couple and she’d suggest a few I’d written that I should consider adding and then sent it to Matt. He sent me a contract and had some questions and suggestions on a couple of stories and we were off. He designed a cover and I sent him a photo I was considering for the cover and he left it up to me.
Looking at your list of acknowledgements is almost like reading a “list of places you should submit your work.” I love that you submit to a variety of journals, big and small and everything in between. What is your philosophy around publication? How do you decide where to submit? What would you tell another writer if they asked you where they should submit?
This is one of the toughest questions. I love Duotrope. It’s the best $50 a writer can spend to find markets, read editor’s reviews, and the all-important submission guidelines. If you read a story on line (and you should read as many as possible) and like the author’s writing check out the mag that published them and send them a story. I’ve gotten some of my best stories published that way–tracking other writers and in talking to them many have told me they do the same thing.
There are times I have trouble knowing where to submit certain stories and I ask fellow writers or take a shot at a new publication if I like their website and their requirements are reasonable. There are also many mags I love so I submit on a regular basis. Then there’s my “wish list” group of mags that I’m determined to get in and I keep trying. I’ve been fortunate enough to whittle down the list a bit.
Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
Write, Read, support other writers who have written books in the same genre as you. And don’t be shy about submitting your work. A manuscript with a list of publications for stories in it is a factor in getting a good publisher.
Anything else you want to add?
Take some classes in the genre you write in or want to write in to expand your reach, I’ve taken a number of classes with Nancy Stohlman and classes with Kathy Fish, Robert Vaughan, Meg Tuite, and Meg Pokrass. I’ve gotten something out of every class both in my writing and in meeting kindred souls.
Links to buy the book: Kiss Kiss–You can be reading it tonight!
http://bit.ly/KisseP e book
Paul Beckman’ new flash collection is Kiss Kiss, (Truth Serum Press). Paul had a micro story selected for the 2018 Norton Anthology New Micro Exceptionally Short Fiction. He was one of the winners in the 2016 The Best Small Fictions and his story “Mom’s Goodbye” was chosen as the winner of the 2016 Fiction Southeast Editor’s Prize. He’s widely published in the following magazines among others: Raleigh Review, Litro, Playboy, Pank, Blue Fifth Review, Matter Press, Pure Slush, Thrice Fiction, and Literary Orphans. Paul had a story nominated for the 2019 Best of Small Fiction and he hosts the monthly FBomb flash fiction series in NY at KGB’s Red Room.
So You Wrote a Book? Katherine DiBella Seluja
Katherine DiBella Seluja has just released her new book, Gather the Night, which is largely an investigation into the complex emotions around mental illness and addiction, particularly as it affects the narrator’s brother, Lou. While much literature has been devoted to the stories of people suffering with these and other illnesses, there are fewer stories that speak to the experience of the bystander, those caught in the orbit of the illnesses and getting the midnight ER phone calls. Katherine allows us to feel the full scope of how these situations ripple into the tangential and shared spaces.
Nancy: Can you tell us what the book is about in exactly six words?
Katherine: Dissecting the impact of mental illness.
These poems have a story arc—the nostalgia of childhood, the illness(es), and the aftermath. Did you write them in this order or did the order come later? How long have you been writing these poems?
I did not write them in this order. They came in all kinds of ways. I did arrange them in something of a chronologic order when I was organizing the book. The first poem was written in 2010 and the manuscript was accepted for publication in 2016.
The character of Lou is battling not only schizophrenia but also alcoholism. Is this typical?
Sadly, it is extremely typical for individuals with moderate to severe behavioral illness to also suffer alcoholism and substance addiction. The effects of these addictions then confound the person’s symptoms. It can be very difficult to know what you’re looking at, like a large plate of tangled yarn.
In the book as in life the poems extend beyond Lou’s death: our poet narrator continues to live to the end of the book and then beyond the last page. I almost see it as a book of celebration for those who live as much as a eulogy for those departed. Your thoughts?
It was important for me to have the state beyond illness and beyond loss and grief represented in the book. The writing of this book helped me to get to that place. My brother died in 2012, when the book was about 2/3 written. Completing the book definitely helped me work my grief process. Yes, the narrator lives beyond the book but Lou does as well. The last poem in the book, Luminescent, hopefully conveys that sense.
How does being a nurse affect your understanding of Lou and others like him? Did your brother’s struggles inspire your choice to go into the healthcare field?
I’m sure Lou’s condition impacted my caregiver side but the thing that I’m most aware of that influenced my decision to become a nurse is that our mother was a nurse. Listening to her stories of WW II era nursing student antics (stealing the life-sized skeleton from the anatomy class on Halloween, making blue jello in nutrition class, blue jello in the 1940s!) convinced me this career was gonna’ be a barrel of fun.
In some poems I get almost a sense of sibling (survivor) guilt—why am I okay and you’re not?—which is so relate-able to so many survivors of tragedy. How do you reconcile these feelings?
It’s hard to be the sibling, especially the younger sibling, of any chronically ill person and not think, how come I didn’t get it? Will I get it later? And I’m not sure complete reconciliation of these feelings is ever available. Writing a book about it helps.
Do you feel a sense of completion with this subject matter or do you continue to return to it in your new material?
I kept writing about Lou in the year or two I was waiting for the book to be born (can you say, obsessed?) Interestingly, since the book has been published and I’ve been doing readings, I feel a much greater sense of peace regarding this part of my life.
What would Lou say if he read Gather the Night?
I’m pretty sure he would love it, but he’d probably ask me why I didn’t have a poem dedicated to his uncanny ability to quote long stretches of dialogue from The Godfather.
This is your first published book! Congrats! Has it been like you thought it would be? Can you tell us about your journey to publication with the University of New Mexico Press?
Thank you. I think it has been pretty much the way I imagined it. A very good poet-friend went through the entire publication process with UNM Press the year before me. So I got a bit of a sneak peek on the different stages of production. My publication journey began with the incredible good luck of landing in an amazing weekend workshop with Hilda Raz, the poetry editor for the press. It was one of those moments when you know you are exactly where you are supposed to be. The people I met and the work we did in that workshop were life changing. That workshop lead to a longer manuscript class. Toward the end of that class, I began to hope that maybe the book would find a home with UNM. But that required lots of patience and many more drafts. A great thing about UNM Press is that they utilize anonymous peer review as part of the acceptance process. This process can be somewhat grueling but in the end I think it is so well worth it, as you can feel confident about your final manuscript.
Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
Be patient, take your time. We place so much pressure on ourselves to submit and publish. Honoring the process of creation and allowing the work to blossom is so important. We are not favoring a “culture of slow” these days, but it is vital to our creative process and the successful mining of deep life experiences. And if you’ve become an expert in patience while creating your book, you’ll be all prepared for the huge amount of patience generally required for production!
Anything else you want to add?
If you have something to say, say it. But be patient and work really hard. Set you standards ridiculously high. Stay true to your vision but be open to feedback from trusted sources. Don’t rush to publish. Let your work simmer. Let the flavors meld and the sauce thicken. Follow your instincts. Dig deep. And thank you, Nancy for inviting to do this interview!
My pleasure! Thank YOU!
Katherine DiBella Seluja is a poet and a nurse practitioner. She is the author of Gather the Night (UNM Press, 2018), a first poetry collection that focuses on the impact of mental illness. Winner of the Southwest Writers poetry award, her work has appeared in bosque, Broadsided Press, Claudius Speaks, Literary Orphans and Intima, among others. Her poem, “Letter to my suegra from Artesia, New Mexico” won honorable mention in the Santa Ana River Review contest, judged by then US poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. A collaborative poetry collection, We Are Meant to Carry Water, written with Tina Carlson and Stella Reed, is forthcoming from 3: A Taos Press in 2019. Katherine lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband, her daughter and a cat called Fish.
So You Wrote a Book? Steven Dunn
Steven Dunn has just released his new book, Water and Power! This book is a literary mosaic, collaging the two contradictory faces of the military: the official face of the recruiting posters and the real faces of the people, including Steven’s.
Nancy: Can you tell us what the book is about in exactly six words?
Steven: Challenging standard heroic/patriotic military narratives.
You call this book an ethnography, which is an anthropological term used when researching and then writing about a different culture. Some might argue that the military is not a culture but an organization. What are your thoughts?
I think it is both, organization and culture, like any work place has its own culture, but with the military you live and work in it. Plus it has its own laws, holidays, rituals, conventions, dress codes, behavior codes, and so on.
I see this book like a literary collage: Army codes, recruiting posters, comics and “official” language are presented as artifacts but also juxtaposed against your story and the stories of the other soldiers. Talk about your choice to go with this form as opposed to, say, a straight memoir?
I didn’t want a memoir because I was more interested in multiple truths instead of facts, so I call it a novel, plus there are some straight up speculative fiction elements. Like people argue over the facts of whether Chris Kyle (American Sniper memoir) killed 200 or 160 people. It’s an important fact, but focusing on those numbers ignores a lot of maybe more important truths about why/how this thing is celebrated and publicly worshipped, and the truth that that is a lot of killing. But mainly, I wanted to include other voices that don’t often show up in military literature, especially from women, people of color, LGBTQ voices, and voices from foreign civilian victims or our wars.
In this book you do a series of anonymous “subject interviews”. Did you find using this kind of source material made it easier to write the book or more challenging? How do you reconcile multiple visions?
Oh my god, yes, more challenging (at first), because I was trying to control it. But after a while of writing it, I knew I had to let the book be a mess, to be wild by letting these multiple visions collide and/or agree with each other, hoping to slow down the automated ways we think about the military. What helped me see this was Joyelle McSweeney’s quote in an essay on genre in Ghost Proposal: “I love when a structure is badly wired and it shorts out and sends up dazzling sparks and all kinds of fatal events.” So this book needed to be a badly wired ethnography that presents itself as one thing but shorts out and unravels into a hot mess (which is a lot of our experiences in the military) that we might or might not be able to make some sense of.
One moment that stood out for me was when one of your “subjects” says that he only joined the Army for the G.I. Bill…and so did all his friends. As a college professor I see many of these students on the other side, “cashing in” their G.I. Bills but also attempting to reconcile and write about their (often difficult) experiences in the military. Would you say this pathway into the military is typical? What would you say to a high school student considering this path for these reasons?
That answer is so complicated for me. I joined for the G.I. Bill also, but chose to go to a private university afterwards, which the G.I. Bill stopped fully funding private schools during my sophomore year in 2011. So it wasn’t completely worth it for me. But it’s been worth it for a lot of other people. So I’d tell a high school student that if that’s the only reason they’re joining, maybe consider a few other options first. But I also know that the military specifically recruits its enlisted members from below the poverty line, so sometimes that’s the only option for people.
You are donating 10% of the author proceeds to the International Refugee Committee. Can you tell us about this organization and why you feel passionate about it?
I’ll give the info from their website: The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is a global humanitarian aid, relief, and development nongovernmental organization. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC offers emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees and those displaced by war, persecution, or natural disaster. The IRC is currently working in over 40 countries and 27 U.S. cities where it resettles refugees and helps them become self-sufficient.
The IRC conducted operations across Iraq from April 2003 through December 2004. The organization resumed operations there in 2007, and is now expanding programs throughout the country. In addition to aiding displaced Iraqis within the country, the IRC is also providing assistance to Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, as well as to those granted refuge in the United States
I’m often guilty and ashamed of having been in the military and benefitting from it socially and economically—and contributing to that organization who destroys other economies and people. So it’s important for me to contribute to the IRC, who is doing the opposite of what the military is doing: trying to keep people alive. This doesn’t absolve me or anything, or make me feel less guilty. I don’t know. I feel dumb talking about it sometimes because I haven’t worked it out yet, and don’t know if I ever will.
This isn’t your first book. You also published Potted Meat in 2016. How is Water and Power different from Potted Meat?
Potted Meat was narrow in geographic space (confined to one small town), and more internal, and ignorant of the past and future. It was very much focused on the mess of the present tense. water & power is wider in geographic space (Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, under the pacific ocean on a submarine), more external by including voices and viewing the military from multiple critical lenses. It also brings in histories and speculates on the future.
You are currently part of a project to bring Potted Meat to film. What is that experience like? Do you have to let go and let the director’s vision take over at some points?
The experience so far has been so damn great and collaborative. The director (Cory Warner) and producer (Flora Ortega) constantly check in with me in terms of the script and the visual tone. They want to stick as close to the book as possible, so whenever I need to let go and the directors’ vision take over, I’m totally fine with it. Which the only thing so far has been some arrangements of some of the stories to work for the film. I’m learning a lot about visual storytelling, and other filmmakers/films that I never knew about. But overall, it’s been cool as hell. My cousin, Drew Lipscomb, is producing the soundtrack, as well as rapping on it too, and some of my homies I grew up with are featured on it: Deep Jackson and C.Y.N. This shit is fire too!
You have published both your books with Tarpaulin Sky Press. Can you tell us about your road to publication and/or your publishing process?
I’d been a fan of Tarpaulin Sky for years, and loved that they published books that were wild as hell, that weren’t following many rules about what I used to think “literature” was, plus I knew they made beautiful books from the layout to cover design to paper quality. Tarpaulin only publishes 2-3 books every other year, so when I saw they had an open reading period, I submitted. Luckily I was one of the books chosen. It was in the contract that Tarpaulin could have first look at my second book, and if they wanted to publish it, I could say yes or no. So I got lucky again, and said yes because I love love love TS.
You are going to be one of the challengers in November 20th, “Fbomb Heavyweight Challenge of the Century” throwdown against Jonathan “Bluebird” Montgomery who said, “I feel confident going toe to toe with anyone at the mic.” The Vegas polls are tied. Can you give us any insights into your strategies for the match and what viewers should expect?
Bluebird, or Hummingbird as I call him (to get in his head), is a super high energy performer, so I’ll let him do what he does, he can flap his wings 80 times per second in the first few rounds, but he doesn’t have stamina, and then BAM, I’ll knock him out once he’s tired. That’s all folks!
Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
Take your time, if you can afford it and aren’t dependent on books for income (not that we make money anyway). Take a musician and/or athlete approach to writing in terms of practice. And what worked for me, was to not submit it to 100 places, you know, the conventional wisdom of casting a wide net to better your chances. Tithe to the community: go to readings, write authors nice notes if you loved their books, interview people if you have a platform, review books.
Anything else you want to add?
Thank you for this interview, and all of the great questions. Oh, and I love your new book, and your performances of it.
Awww, thank you! The admiration is mutual. xoxo
Steven Dunn is the author of two novels, Potted Meat and water & power. Some of his work can be found in Granta and Best Small Fictions. He was born and raised in West Virginia.
Visit Steven’s website to learn more!
So You Wrote a Book? Jonathan Montgomery
Jonathan “Bluebird” Montgomery has just released his new book, The Reality Traveler, a pop culture allegorical/philosophical tale with Jonny “Bluebird” as its picaresque narrator and Reality Traveling tour guide! Think Don Quixote meets the Alchemist meets the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Jonny, can you tell us what the book is about in exactly six words?
Do you like old songs too?
When you say the narrator is “reality traveling”, what do you mean by that?
The narrator has a mythological sense of himself and invents all this terminology to express how the world feels to him. Other people seem so different from him he thinks of them as their own ‘Realities.’At the same time he also sees himself on a God-given mission to meet (‘Travel’ to) and relate with (‘Me&You’) as many people as possible. So Reality Traveling pretty much means transcending differences, but it doesn’t come naturally for the narrator at all.
Where did you get the idea for reality traveling?
The whole book is based on a cross country road trip I took to my friends’ wedding years ago. It was like a weeklong whirlwind back and forth from Colorado to New Jersey, visiting everyone I knew along the way. Like one moment I’d be watching TV on the couch with my mom in Ohio and the next I’d be in a bar in New York City with a college friend and the next I’d be on the road again stopping at some middle-of-nowhere gas station in Illinois with a bunch of strangers. They really felt like separate Realities, and I realized how relating with each of them required following totally different sets of rules.
What are some of your favorite realities to travel to/through?
Alone Reality, which is just when you’re by yourself. In the book The Professor, who lectures on all the lessons of Reality Travel, considers Alone Reality a problem because you can’t actually Me&You anyone else there, but I never said I was a good Reality Traveler. I do like taking road trips to far off and exciting places, recently I’ve been traveling a lot to the Southwest. I’m drawn to the Desert.
So originally the Me&You “catchphrase” in this book was MeToo!, a catchphrase you have been using in your books for over a decade, and once the #Metoo movement started you had to make a decision about whether or not to keep it. Can you talk about that?
I wrote a whole essay on it here.Letting Go of ‘MeToo’
But additional thoughts for right now… I guess I connected with the phrase ‘me too’ because it was so commonplace and simple you almost didn’t realize the true beauty of it, and I wanted to draw attention to that. But because it was so common it was also foolish to feel like I had any ownership of it. I’m a supporter of the #metoo movement, but isn’t it weird how a phrase once so common and generic now means something so specific?
This isn’t your first book. You’ve also published Taxis and Shit and Pizzas and Mermaid. How is The Reality Traveler different from your other books?
Taxis & Shit is a book of poetry and stories. Pizzas and Mermaid is a book of mainly stories. Those are collections of open mic pieces, designed for performing during a 3-5 minutes slot.
The Reality Traveler, on the other hand, is a novel. The earliest versions were started while I was still in grad school a few years before I was really hitting the mics. It’s always been sort of this ongoing secret project which was more difficult to share in public because it was too long and too much would be out of context.
I think the shorter pieces in my earlier books individually are more poetic and pack a more aggressive punch, but I’m more proud of The Reality Traveler because I was somehow able to coordinate like 150 short episodes at once, interweaving several themes into a cohesive narrative. It took 13 years and was a huge focus of my creative life.
You have published with indie presses as well as self-publishing. Tell us about the publishing process for this book?
In the past I had friends with small presses who helped me. For The Reality Traveler I made an attempt to find an agent or a publisher, but nothing came of it. But I’ve always felt like conventional publishing is really weird and try to question everything we take for granted about it. We really seem to tie our self-esteem into some stranger deciding you’re a good enough writer to sell your work to other strangers. Is that really why we make art? It feels more natural that I’m just writing for myself and people in my community who really get me. Any greater ambition just seems to lead to suffering. So I actually put up the novel on a website for free this spring, posting one episode every day for a few months, and it was a spiritual exercise in not trying to care too much how many people actually viewed it. But the problem was I didn’t feel like the blog style format was a very reader friendly experience, so I decided to put it in print. And it’s pretty easy to do these days, and I did basically everything myself. I feel like I’m putting a picture on the fridge in just a more elaborate way. I think I’m okay with whatever result comes of it.
You have what’s being called a “SuperConcert” set up for the release of this book on November 10th in Boulder. What’s a SuperConcert? What should we expect? I heard Bono might be there?
The recorded voice of Bono might be there…
But yeah, Bluebird, the main character in The Reality Traveler, is a MusicMan Traveler who Me&Yous via The Great List of Old Songs, or at least tries to. The whole book he’s trying to get people to relate to this mix he made of old radio hits, with some disappointing results. In a way it’s about the naivety that I think a lot of kids who grew up in the suburbs in the 80-90’s shared, that pop culture would be enough to bring us all together. But in another way those songs can be pretty damn Me&You-able with certain people.
One of my favorite things ever is the Live Aid Concert from 1985, in which all the superstars of the day performed together for the cause of African hunger. So I wanted to do a mini version of that, where we get as many local musicians together for the cause of my novel, ha. There are 19 songs on the Great Trip Mix and 1 song on the Anti-Mix, and various bands will be doing live covers for most of them. I’ll be singing Journey and Springsteen. There will also be DJ Davi-D handling the rest as well as adding in his own flair.
Rather than just doing a typical book reading and having it feel all literary, I want it to feel like a party, a celebration for the completion of this thing that I spent so much effort on for so long. I’ll read some, but it will mainly be about the music and people having a good time.
You are also going to be one of the challengers in November 20th, “Fbomb Heavyweight Challenge of the Century” throwdown against Steven “Fatback Freddy” Dunn. The Vegas polls are tied. Can you give us any insights into your strategies for the match and what viewers should expect?
Steven Dunn is doing awesome right now and rightfully so. He may have more publications and awards and teaching and speaking opportunities and so forth, but I feel confident going toe-to-toe with anyone at the mic.
Finally: What advice do you have for someone writing their first book?
Every day I see advice from all these writers on social media, stuff like ‘read more’ or ‘write everyday.’ There’s a phoniness to it. It seems like advice they’re giving themselves, but they act like they’re some kind of authority for others. What if we got past this idea of caring whether your writing is good or bad? No advice anymore. No rules. Just do whatever feels right for you. If publishers think you suck and don’t like it, so what?
Anything else you want to add?
As the Goddess of Faith, The Guardian Angel character from the book would say, “It’s Alright, Baby!”
Jonathan Montgomery was born in 1980 in Akron, Ohio. He’s a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. His previous books are Taxis & Shit and Pizzas and Mermaid. He teaches English at Front Range Community College and lives in Boulder, Colorado.