12 Winters Blog

Interview with Grant Tracey: A Fourth Face

Posted in July 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 11, 2018

As a publisher, one of your hopes when working with an author is to facilitate their creative productivity — to not only bring out their completed work but to also establish a relationship that nurtures their imagination and their ambition. When I met Grant Tracey in 2015, over coffee in his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, he confided some frustration. He hadn’t published a book since 2009, a collection of short fiction, and he had plenty of material for a new book, but he’d come home from the most recent AWP Conference feeling overwhelmed and downtrodden. Various sessions he’d attended had implored authors to be cyber-beings, with websites and Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and in general to embrace all sorts of newfangled media.

 

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Grant, however, wasn’t interested in any of that. He was a storyteller, and he wanted to focus on his craft, not get bogged down in the world of the Net. I only knew Grant by reputation, as the longstanding fiction editor of the venerable North American Review, the longest continuously published literary journal in the country (in fact, my wife and I were in town for the magazine’s bicentennial celebration conference). I definitely wanted Grant and his work to be part of Twelve Winters Press, regardless of whether or not he had any interest in being a cyber warrior. Certainly, a vigorous Web presence can only help sales, but what matters to me most is the quality of the writing — and the quality of Grant’s writing wasn’t in question at all.

I went away from that conversation with a handshake agreement to bring out a new collection of stories (which evolved into Final Stanzas, released later that year in paperback and e-book, then, a bit later, as a unique audiobook). In the process of working on the project with Grant, I discovered he’d also written a detective novel (his first full-length novel). My curiosity piqued, I asked to see the manuscript, wherein I was introduced to Hayden Fuller, an ex-pro hockey player turned private eye, navigating the mean streets of 1960s Toronto (Grant’s true hometown).

It turned out that detective noir was Grant’s first love as a writer. We published Cheap Amusements, the debut Hayden Fuller Mystery, in 2016, and in the process unleashed a torrent of inspired prose from Grant, complex stories he’d been percolating for years apparently. Twelve Winters has just released the second Hayden Fuller Mystery, A Fourth Face (in hardcover, paperback and Kindle), and Grant has already delivered the third installment of the series, which we plan to bring out next year, while Grant is researching and writing the already outlined fourth book.

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I coaxed Grant into slowing down the composing process long enough to answer a few questions about this newest release, and what follows are his thought-provoking and entertaining responses. (See also my interviews with Grant about Cheap Amusements and Final Stanzas; in addition, we published Grant’s memoir regarding the impetus of Hayden Fuller in an e-book, Toronto, 1965: Cheap Amusements’ Beat.)

Hayden Fuller is back in A Fourth Face. Trying to avoid any spoilers, what’s your protagonist up to in this new novel?

A former teammate, Bobby Ehle, is suspected of murdering his wife and asks Hayden for his help. Bobby has a history of domestic violence, but Hayden believes in the possibility of his innocence and takes the case. From there the trail takes him into a world of dangerous and experimental psychedelic drugs (the mind altering Red 45), quack doctors with their phony cosmetics and plastic surgeries, and a terrorist organization, N’oublie jamais, bent on destroying Expo 67. Hayden also goes on an inner journey, confronting for the first time, the traumas of his own past. The pace is quick, and the violence accelerates.

The title of the novel is a call back to Cheap Amusements and that novel’s exploration of the “third face,” an idea, first expressed by writer/director Samuel Fuller. He believed that we all have private and public faces, but also a third face, ones that we don’t even know we have until faced with trauma or extreme stress, like Fuller experienced on the battle lines in World War II. The third face is the repressed primordial impulse that we all carry. In A Fourth Face, reporter Stana Younger suggests that it, the fourth side of our complex selves, represses what the third side did, denying its culpability and reality. So if, Bobby, in third-face mode, did murder his wife, the fourth face denies what the third did, saying that the third face is not a part of the “real” Bobby Ehle.

Oh, a couple of footnotes. One: this novel, in part, was inspired by the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, where Terry Lennox asks Philip Marlowe to help him out of a possible “domestic jam.” Marlowe, in the Robert Altman film version, comes to discover that Lennox did kill his wife. Two: the Red 45 subplot is something Mickey Spillane might have concocted for a Mike Hammer thriller. No doubt, Spillane’s later Mike Hammer offering, Survival Zero, was an influence on A Fourth Face. Chandler and Spillane are among my favorite writers of crime noir.

I’m sure in the writing of this new Hayden Fuller Mystery you got to know Hayden even better. What did you learn about him? Was there anything especially surprising that you didn’t know before about your protagonist?

Two things. One, there’s a big reveal in the novel that I don’t want to give away, but that plot turn totally surprised me. Hayden came to me in a dream and told me about what had happened in his past, so I just had to work that into the book. It becomes a big part of the inner journey in Neon Kiss, and I think Hayden’s trauma helps explain the violence of the first book’s ending or “execution.” I didn’t feel that I needed to explain Hayden’s actions in Cheap Amusements, but this novel helps contextualize the debut novel’s final moments.

Second, I had no idea what was going to happen to Hayden’s relationship with Stana Younger (which seemed to be over at the end of Cheap Amusements), but relationships are complicated so I allowed the two characters to surprise me with where they were at, and where they were headed as friends, and as possible rekindled lovers. People, emotions, are complicated and I allowed for that messiness, muddy quality, to grab hold of me.

There’s a sensitivity, vulnerability to Hayden that is a part of me, and I guess as I keep writing him, taking risks, I’m surprised at how much I’m willing to explore and reveal of who he is, and in turn, who I am.

It seems like you’re really in the groove now writing about Hayden. You wrote A Fourth Face pretty quickly, and you’ve already completed a draft of the third Hayden Mystery, with plans for a fourth developing. My sense, then, is that you feel really comfortable with Hayden and the world you’ve created for him. How would you describe your comfort level with the characters and their world, and would you agree that the writing of the novels is coming along fairly easily at this point?

When you first suggested to me that with Cheap Amusements we had a series here and not just a one-off, I have to admit I was both extremely elated but also scared. Did I have it in me to continue to write not just this character but plots full of surprising twists, turns, and deceptions? But once I started writing the second novel (which I drafted in just under 40 days, writing every day) things just flowed and the fear went away. Hayden’s voice was overwhelming, there from the beginning, grabbing a hold of me. It’s me, but not me. Hayden’s a smart-ass, sensitive, and like Holden Caulfield, has little patience with phonies. The voice is a good fit with my sensibilities.

My writing style, for this series, is full of allusions. For example, Top Cop Sal Lambertino now wears suits instead of policeman blues, and Hayden describes his outfit as “Sloan Wilson grays,” a reference to a great novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. That’s part of Hayden’s voice, as is the short-jabs of sentences, the quirky one-liners, and the eyes tuned to psychological subtexts.

Stana Younger is also evolving into a character I really like. She’s tough, pragmatic, and fighting to make her way in the male-dominated field of reporting. After the first novel, she may have struck some readers as a femme-fatale, but such labels are too limiting. She’s a complex person who has made some bad decisions in the past, but she’s decent, caring, and committed to empowering the underdogs and outliers. She is also a great resource, with her police connections and fact-finding skills, providing Hayden with much needed information on each case. Sal is the no-nonsense, best friend, the state-sanctioned authority figure, a top cop. And the nattily-attired gangster Babe Migano also helps out Hayden, when it serves his interests. He is an underworld figure who straddles the line between genuine charm and menace. Migano is a cross between 1960s Rod Steiger and Jackie Gleason. If you can imagine that.

Do you feel Hayden is evolving organically, or are you having to coax his character along from time to time?

I never have to coax him. He always surprises me. I’m an impulse writer, comfortable with uncertainty, never knowing what will turn up next. But I trust in the process, my instincts, choices the characters make, that the journey we take will be a meaningful one. I begin with a plot outline and of course the big so what: who killed whom and why, but once the writing begins subplots emerge, side characters elbow their way on stage, and the novel takes me on a series of detours and highways I hadn’t expected to travel. The original plot outline changes dramatically.

I do know that I want each book to have a “hey wow” finish (like Dr. No’s island blowing up at the end of a Bond film), but I don’t pre-plan the shock ending. Somewhere on the journey, maybe three-fourths through, I see it and write toward it. Spillane, by contrast, often began his novels with the shock ending and then worked his way to find how to get there.

The goal is to entertain readers with a thriller, a good whodunit, but also to give them a lead character who is real and not just solving a crime but discovering in the process of detection who he is. The inner and outer stories.

On the one hand, you know a lot about Hayden and his world from your own experiences and interests—hockey, Toronto, the 1960s, etc.—but I’m sure some research or fact-checking is needed from time to time. Can you talk about how much research has gone into the writing of the books so far?

Crime books. As I mentioned before, I read the old masters: McBain, Chandler, Spillane, Thompson. I also admire John D. Macdonald, Richard Stark, Benjamin Black, and Max Allan Collins. Together they help inform, not so much an aesthetic, but a back drop of possibilities, contexts for my own writing in terms of plotting choices.

Movies. My fashion sense grows out of 60s fare: Honey West, The Green Hornet, Route 66, and Naked City. And any film with Paul Newman. Coolest cat ever.

Hockey books about the original six era. For A Fourth Face I read and re-read Roch Carrier’s Our Life with the Rocket; Benoît Malançon’s The Rocket: A Cultural History of Maurice Richard; and Jean Béliveau’s My Life in Hockey to contextualize 1955’s “The Richard Riot,” which is an important backstory to the N’oublie jamais movement in the novel. I also read Pierre Berton’s 1967 to get a greater appreciation for that year’s Expo in Montreal.

When Cheap Amusements came out in 2016 you were able to give several readings, some in your own backyard and others in Chicago and elsewhere. How did those readings go? How did people respond to Hayden Fuller and the book?

The readings are a lot of fun. I get into it, becoming all the characters, inhabiting their spaces, and I want to give the audience the best performance I have in me that night. I want them to enjoy the energy with which I write.

Fans of mysteries are pretty knowledgeable so when they ask me about influences on my work and I mention writers I admire they know who I’m talking about and they can make those connections. I think one of the things audiences respond to in my books is the comic touches to Hayden’s voice. They like his smart-ass asides, his use of cultural allusions, and his brand of not-so-subtle understatement.

People also like the plotting. They say it’s complex (in a good way) and full of surprising turns.

Moreover, audiences seem to like that Hayden is a former hockey player (at least when I read in hockey towns like Minnesota and Chicago that was the case). That wrinkle gives the book a different flavor. In the 1950s and 60s, William Campbell Gault wrote a series of detective novels featuring Brock (“the Rock”) Callahan, a former lineman for the Los Angeles Rams, who is now a private eye in the City of Angels. My series, in part, is inspired by his earlier series.

In addition to being a writer, editor, teacher (among other things), you’re also an experienced stage actor. How does your acting inform your presentations of Hayden, etc., when you give readings?

The keys to acting are empathy and authenticity. Placing yourself in the spaces inhabited by others and fully understanding, appreciating, without judging, where each character is coming from. Acting is also about keeping it simple and true. Direct, honest. That’s what I try to do in my writing, and that’s what I try to do when I read, inhabit every space. Ron Carlson, in his great book, Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story, says that direct dialogue is a place of genuine freedom; those are the spaces where characters exist outside the modulated voice of the writer. As a writer, when you engage in dialogue, you have to take on each character’s agendas: what they want and what they are willing to do to get it. Or maybe, I should say, you have to allow the characters to take you on surprising journeys. When they speak let them lead. Don’t fit them into a pre-defined agenda. Listen to what they have to tell you. And from there the plot will shift.

I’m also a big fan of the actorly beats. Those are the moment-to-moment choices an actor makes, following the impulses of the dialogue and what’s happening in the scene with his acting partner and within the play’s given circumstances. I’m always aware of beats when I read and let them spin me with surprises.

I also use a lot of beats in my writing. Not just in terms of shifts in dialogue, but I like, as did Ernest Hemingway, using brief descriptors, to create pauses, and thus increase the tension and psychological subtext of each moment. For example, two characters are talking and character A notices character B is chewing on her shirt collar. This is a beat. A pause. And it implies something within the given circumstances of the moment.

Tell us about the Gas Station Pulp Mystery series which you’ve started editing since the last time we talked (about Cheap Amusements).

It’s an imprint series of the North American Review Press that publishes a once-a-year crime novel. I love pulp fiction and the series blends that genre with the inner-directed drive of literary fiction. So I’m seeking character-driven pulp stories, loaded with action but also psychological nuance. Our first book in the series, Black Fin by Mary Frisbee, will be forthcoming soon. I’m currently reading material for our second Gas Station Pulp book.

Neon Kiss is the third Hayden Fuller Mystery (which the Press is planning to get out in 2019). What was your inspiration for the third book?

In the early 1980s I was visiting San Francisco and someone approached me on Geary Street and asked a bunch of questions, trying to figure out my faith (at the time I was an agnostic existentialist). Anyway, I made some disparaging comments about fundamentalists and how I couldn’t get behind their concept of a conditional God: receive my love if you do these things. My idea then was, if there is a God, he loves and accepts all. The fella really dug that comment and said something about how my idea of love fit right in with his church, and the notion of surrendering ourselves over to the way, giving up worldly things, and he invited me to attend a service that afternoon.

I thought about it. The fella had charisma. But, ultimately, I didn’t go. I was a bit freaked out to be honest with you. But I often wondered what would have happened to me if I did go? Would I have wound up in a commune somewhere? I know, I know. I’m sounding a little paranoid here, but a writer has to run with those imagined probabilities. That episode on Geary Street, in part, became the inspiration for the story.

Moreover, I wanted to tell a story about control. How people with dominant personalities and charismatic charm can control those who are less outgoing. At the heart of the novel is an abusive story: one sibling controlled by a megalomaniacal older sibling, who wants to “dismantle the universe,” and thus create his own reality. Twisted relationships of power I find endlessly interesting.

I’m sure at some level Dashiell’s Hammett’s The Dain Curse had a hand in my writing of Neon Kiss as does my fascination/repulsion with cults. John Buell’s The Pyx, in terms of subject matter and structure, was also an inspiration.

When I first drafted the novel, the young runaway woman, at the center of the story, was white. She falls into the cult and becomes the key to Hayden solving the double mystery (what happened to his father and who is behind the cult’s nefarious goings on). However, after visiting and being transformed by my experiences at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in July 2017, I decided to make the young woman Métis. I was really struck with the injustices First Nations Peoples faced at the hands of the Canadian Government.

Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, if a native mom raised a child alone, there could possibly be a knock at her door and that child would be taken out of the biological mother’s home and raised by a white couple. This was so shocking to me (and don’t get me started on residential schools and natives being force to learn white laws and ways) that I was compelled to revise my novel and put a Métis presence at the center of it. Like I said, the visit to the museum was transformative. If you haven’t gone. Do so. I was inspired.

This theme of human rights injustice will be revisited in the fourth Fuller novel, Shot/Reverse-Shot.

And lastly, the novel is a continuation of what happens in A Fourth Face, and here Hayden further explores his troubled relationship with his father. That becomes the novel’s inner journey.

I know you have big plans for the fourth book—you’ve even landed a sabbatical to assist the writing of it. What can you tell us about that Hayden project?

It’s 1966. Hayden is back in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens and he has just won the Stanley Cup. An independent film producer wants to make an indie film, sort of a sappy Canadian Disney thing, and uses several Habs players as extras, filming that year’s Stanley Cup final versus Detroit for footage in his film.

Danny Davis, a minor character in Cheap Amusements will be more prominently featured this time around. Stana Younger, now living with Hayden, and working for a Montreal newspaper will also be strongly featured.

However, back to the main plot line. The indie, hockey producer used to make graphic sexploitation films, stuff in the spirit of the Defilers, and although he’s trying to go all family friendly, his sexploitation chickens come home to roost, and after one of the stars of his film is murdered, a Habs player is blamed for the killing. Hayden, an extra on the film, tries to prove his pal’s innocence.

The journey takes him into a world of sexploitation film-making, First Nations People’s Land rights, and a badass motorcycle club, the Northern Arrows. The title, Shot/Reverse-Shot is double-voiced: a film term, but also indicative of bullets flying.

I’ll be living for four weeks in Montreal, spring 2019, to both write the novel and explore the city and spot locations for the novel’s main lines of action. It’ll be a big challenge for me. I know Toronto really well, but I’ve never been to Montreal before. It has been a long-time dream, going back to my days at Trent University and hearing friends from Montreal (Ivan LeCouvie and Dave Coons), regale me with stories about fountains, bistros, and St. Urbain’s Street. I’m really excited to soak up the culture. If ever so briefly.

But, alas, I’ll always be a Leafs fan.

It would appear Hayden Fuller is taking up just about all your creative writing energy. Is that true, or are you working on some other projects, too?

I’ve started to branch out. At first Hayden was taking up all my time. I was constantly reading other crime novels, detective series, to find inspiration for future Fuller novels.

It takes a lot of energy to write a novel, but the Fuller books have given me the courage to try writing longer works, one-offs, outside the Hayden series. I just finished drafting a stand-alone crime novel, Winsome, sort of modeled on Geoffrey Homes’s Build My Gallows High and William P. McGivern’s Odds Against Tomorrow in which a 36-year-old cab driver, living in Winsome, a small upstate New York town, is confronted with the demons of his past (a prior kidnapping case) and is thus blackmailed into returning to a life of crime (a bank heist). A former radio operator in Korea, Eddie Sands is a good person who has made bad choices. He also suffers from PTSD.

The story is set in 1966, seven years after a 1959 failed kidnapping case in which Eddie’s wife, Karen, double-crossed Eddie and his pal Sy, and led the police to the boy’s location. The child didn’t press charges because Eddie and Karen treated him so well. He claimed only Sy was involved in the kidnapping. Sy, who didn’t treat the kid so well, was captured, and in true gangland code, didn’t rat the other two out. Eddie and Karen have taken on new last names and now live in relative anonymity. She’s a waitress. Together they share a home in a trailer park.

I had my good friend Mitchell D. Strauss read it (he also shoots my author photos for the Hayden Fuller series), and he gave me some really great revision strategies that I’m going to adopt over the next four months. Hopefully by Thanksgiving, I’ll have the new, improved Winsome ready to shop around.

Recently, I’ve also tried my hand at writing short crime stories. “Sun on Prospect Street, 1938” is a 1900-word hit men story inspired by an Edward Hopper painting hanging at the Cincinnati Art Museum. The painting made me think of two people sitting in a car, looking at an empty street, preparing to do what they have to do. It’s a humdinger!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’m just grateful for the opportunity to write what has always been a passion of mine: detective stories. I began writing my first stories in high school, featuring Rick Dragon, Cleveland’s toughest private eye (I’d never been to Cleveland, but the rust-belt town appealed to my love of grime and the smell of dust and dirt). Story titles such as “Accidents Will Happen” (I was a huge Elvis Costello fan back then) and “It All Makes a Lot of Sense” tells you all you need to know. In my MA workshops, I wrote literary fiction and detective stories (as a matter of fact, mobster Babe Migano first appears in a story I wrote way back in the fall of 1984. I think it was called “Find the Girl.”).

However, in workshops, I was often made to feel that detective fiction was less than, that I should be aspiring to write a story worthy of inclusion in an O. Henry Award anthology. My work was taken to be highly stylized and labeled “parody.” What, really? Parody. Come on, now. Raymond Chandler’s not a parodic writer. Neither am I.

We’re both stylized writers, but not parodic. Chandler sought to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald of crime fiction. There are a lot of links between Farewell My Lovely and the Great Gatsby: the yearning for an irretrievable past; a man searching for his lost love; the doomed romanticism of the narrative voice. Anyway, in such a workshop environment, I shoveled my love of crime detection under smoldering leaves, but it was always there, hiding around the edges of my literary stories.

In 2008 the landscape shifted and genre hybridization became more and more apparent in the world of literary publishing, as stories borrowed from speculative camps and you saw a host of literary hyphenates. I’m not a postmodernist writer. I’m a high modernist; however, not to give away any spoilers, I do, at the end of A Fourth Face, deconstruct, or at least, gray up the binaries, of the classic Mickey Spillane ending: Mike Hammer rescuing a badly beaten and tied-up Velda from a gang of communists or degenerates or communist degenerates if you like.

Anyway, for the first time in my life, I feel like I’m really writing what I love and I thank you, Ted, and Twelve Winters for allowing me to pursue what got me into writing in the first place. As Sam Spade toasts in The Maltese Falcon: “Success. To crime!”


Grant Tracey is an English professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches film and creative writing, and has been the fiction editor of the North American Review for over seventeen years. He has published nearly fifty short stories, four collections of fiction, and articles on Samuel Fuller and James Cagney. His collections are Final Stanzas, Lovers & Strangers, Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe, and Playing Mac: A Novella in Two Acts, and Other Scenes. In 2016 Grant published his debut crime novel, Cheap Amusements, the first Hayden Fuller Mystery. Thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Grant was the recipient of an Iowa Regents Award for Faculty Excellence in 2013. In addition to his writing, editing and teaching, Grant has acted in over thirty community theater productions. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Locating Our Common Humanity through Expressive Writing

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 24, 2018

The following was the opening keynote address at the Fifth International Conference on Language, Society and Culture in Asian Contexts, “Inclusiveness and Sustainability of Asian Societies,” Hue City, Vietnam, May 25 – 26, 2018.

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When the conference committee graciously invited me to speak to you, my first response was to go to the conference’s website and read about its overarching objective, which, I discovered, has to do with breaking down cultural barriers between nations. Even though I do not regularly travel between nations, it is an idea with which I am profoundly familiar. In the United States, the election of our current president has dramatized the theory that we have within our borders two distinct cultures, two dominant ideologies, two divisive world views which threaten to tear us into two separate nations. Or perhaps a better way of contextualizing the situation is to say that the wound caused by our Civil War which nearly broke us in two 150 years ago has never actually healed—and the current administration has merely made us painfully aware of what has always been true.

One can despair when one considers the seeming hopelessness of bridging political, ideological and cultural divides. Emotions run deep, and people are quick to anger and to become defensive when their worldview, when their belief system is challenged. In my classroom, I encourage my students to engage in discussions of the issues that divide them: gun control, immigration, gay rights, reproductive rights, among many others. I daresay that little progress appears to be made in convincing either side to alter their perceptions.

However, when my students access other aspects of their lives—when they move away from issues related to ideologies—they instantly have things in common. In fact, I would assert, they have everything in common. When I ask them to access their emotions—their joys, their disappointments, their frustrations, their achievements—they speak the same language, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal, straight or gay, gun-owning or gun-controlling, gendered or gender-neutral, Pro-Life or Pro-Choice. That is to say, when they are asked to communicate expressively, students, above all else, are human.

Expressive Writing 1Which brings me at long last to my thesis: Through expressive writing, we can locate our common humanity. In other words, what divides us tends to be the product of intellect, while what unites us is our emotional responses to the world.

Allow me to take a moment to define some terms, especially to define them as I am using them in this presentation. The key term, obviously, is “expressive” writing, by which I mean writing that explores and communicates one’s emotional reaction to a given situation, generally a situation that one has experienced personally. I am adopting and somewhat adapting concepts discussed by James Britton, who identified three writing functions: transactional, expressive, and poetic. Briefly, “transactional” writing aims to inform and/or persuade the audience through the manipulation of primary- and secondary-source material (i.e. “research”), and in this transactional mode the writer’s self all but disappears. Transactional writing, in academic settings, takes the form of analyses and research-based reports, wherein personal experience, even in the form of anecdotal evidence, is frowned upon almost to the point of nonexistence, especially in the sciences but even in the humanities.

As Jeff Park remarks in his book Writing at the Edge, transactional writing is by far the dominant mode in the academy, while expressive writing “continues to be underdeveloped” (25). Returning to James Britton’s terms, the other modes besides “transactional” are “expressive” and “poetic.” Here things can become confusing. By “poetic,” Britton means something made out of language for language’s own sake but having little to do with writers’ expressing their feelings on the subject. Riddles, puns, acrostics, limericks may be examples of poetic language use in the way that Britton is defining the term.

Generally, though, poetry refers to writing that is highly personal and expressive. Therefore, when I use the phrase “expressive writing” I am using it as synonymous with what, in the U.S., we most often term “creative writing,” which includes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction (or the personal essay). Adding to the confusion is the fact that writers can certainly create stories, novels, poems, and essays that are not especially expressive of their emotions. They may be trying to entertain, to titillate, or to expound on some subject, but they are not trying to communicate a personal experience and how it affected them on an emotional level.

Here, today, I am specifically advocating expressive writing as a means to breaking down or through cultural barriers.

Educators have long advocated reading as a key to developing empathy in students, including empathy for people of other cultures. I certainly agree that reading about other sorts of people can spark interest and understanding, which can in turn lead to empathy. More often that not in the U.S., however, reading literature is the sole means of encouraging empathy in the humanities. Empathy development is not bolstered routinely with expressive writing, and that, I believe, is a mistake. We should be having our students write expressively—and, importantly, sharing their writing through some means of publication (more on this in a moment).

While literary study may be only one component of fostering empathy, it is through literary study that we can most vividly see evidence of our common humanity, which is so often obscured by our politics and competing ideologies. I do not want to get too sidetracked here, but I am referring to the concept of archetypal narratives which seem to spring from a common past that transcends geography and culture. I give as just one example, in brief, the narrative of the woebegone sailor who, driven off course, finds himself and his men trapped inside the dwelling of a man-eating giant. Through his cleverness and courage, the sailor manages to blind the giant and escape the dwelling by hiding amongst the giant’s grazing flock. Whether one recognizes this as the story of Odysseus, or of Sinbad, or of the Man with No Legs depends on whether one is familiar with a Greek, Persian, or Korean literary tradition.

In essence, then, the tale of the woebegone sailor is foundational in Western, Middle Eastern, and Eastern cultures (to use Western distinctions)—a tale so ancient no one can cite its precise origin. These parts of the world are sharply divided when it comes to religions and political ideologies, yet the tale of the woebegone sailor must speak to us all: the disorientation and frustration of being lost, the primal fear of being trapped by a predator of superior power, the exhilaration of resourcefulness, and the joy of our life-preserving escape: all peoples, everywhere, can relate to these emotional registers in the common story.

Through expressive writing—that is, writing that accesses and communicates our emotions rather than our ideologies—students from diverse backgrounds can locate their common humanity, and see there is as much that unites us as there is that divides us.

Expressive Writing 2This topic is obviously complex, and I can only begin, here, to outline some of its component parts, but I will touch on the following areas: the theories which underpin the effectiveness of expressive writing for fostering empathy; the likelihood of students engaging in traumatic writing when given the opportunity to express themselves; some of the side benefits of expressive writing; the importance of publishing, and not just creating, the results of expressive writing; and some concrete classroom practices if one is inclined to use expressive writing in their curriculum.

Theories about expressive writing & empathy

First, then, how does expressive (or creative) writing create a connection between writer and reader that goes beyond, that goes deeper than other sorts of modes of communication? To respond, I turn to the work of Marcelle Freiman, who is especially interested in the cognitive connections between creative writers and their readers. Building on the work of cognitive scientists like Gerrig, Oatley and Djikic, Freiman asserts that “human long-term memory” is not only “‘based on memory’” but also “‘actively generates meaning’” (133). Thus, the act of writing helps writers to organize their thoughts and reconstruct memories—including all the associations those memories evoke—and it creates “an extended, externalised mental model” which readers are invited to enter. A well-wrought narrative can make a reader experience the story as if they had direct involvement in it. I am referring to the phenomenon of being lost in a story, to which nearly everyone can relate.

Freiman theorizes that the phenomenon is caused by the reader in essence “‘writing’ the text (in the mind) while reading” (134). Here she quotes Hawkes directly: “[Writers] thus involve us in the dangerous, exhilarating activity of creating our worlds now, together with the author, as we go along” (135, emphasis in the original). Freiman is suggesting that the relationship between writer and reader goes beyond being complementary into the realm of genuine partnership; the writer and reader are literally working together to create meaning. This process of shared responsibility in the text is true of all writing, says Freiman, but it has an enhanced dynamic when it comes to expressive writing: “This capacity for the writing of the creative or literary text occurs, perhaps, even more vividly ‘as experience’ because now the process involves imagination, including experiential representations of referents such as perceptions and emotions, in the language that writes what is imaginatively construed, to be read by a reader” (135). I want to underscore the words perceptions and emotions as these are key elements in an act of empathy. Understanding how others perceive their world and the emotions their perceptions elicit is absolutely vital to seeing people as people and not merely avatars for the ideologies they appear to represent.Expressive Writing 3

Likelihood of students writing about trauma

Let me move on to the question, why are students likely to write about trauma when given the opportunity to write expressively? When left to choose their own subject, many students will, of course, elect to write about happy things, which is valid. Writing about successes, about favorite memories, about the love of family and friends are all legitimate responses to an open-ended task to compose; and others can relate to positive experiences. But many, many students will choose to write about a traumatic experience in their lives, and it is due to the nature of trauma. The term “trauma” is slippery, and it is used to describe a vast array of life experiences; thus, depending on how widely or how narrowly one defines what constitutes “trauma,” the number of people who are suffering from some level of traumatic stress fluctuates up and down. Various studies identify between a quarter and three-quarters of the U.S. population as having had some kind of traumatic experience.1 People who have been traumatized tend to want to write about the experience, either explicitly or implicitly. Studies in the field of neuropsychology have suggested that trauma-related language dominates the linguistic functioning of victims.2 As MacCurdy observes, “Invariably writers gravitate to their difficult stories, the ones that cause the most pain and confusion . . .” (15).Expressive Writing 4

Because the academy does not privilege expressive writing, relatively few educators are trained to facilitate it, and, consequently, to respond to students’ writing about their traumatic experiences. When students elect to write about traumatic episodes in their lives, the complexities of the writing classroom multiply exponentially. The most immediate question educators must ask themselves is “Which is more important: the student’s acquisition of writing skills, or the student’s emotional welfare, which may be improved by engaging the traumatic event?” Before responding to my own question, I should say that communicating one’s trauma is a standard practice in therapy, either through one-on-one discussions with one’s therapist, in a group-therapy setting, or through writing (or some combination of these basic approaches). Once a teacher encourages students to engage their trauma in the classroom, the distinction between teacher and therapist can become murky. MacCurdy attempts to draw a distinction when she writes, “Teachers are advisers, mentors, and role models. Listening with compassion helps to fulfill those responsibilities and creates the trust needed for the student to delve into a difficult topic. . .  . However, teachers are not therapists. While a therapist may listen and then counsel, teachers listen and, if appropriate, suggest counseling and other professional services” (6).

I find no fault with MacCurdy’s assessment other than to say that she makes it plain why teaching—and perhaps especially teaching writing—is more art than science. Knowing when and how to respond to students’ work relies almost entirely on professional judgment; there are no clear-cut guidelines to follow, as much as we may wish at times there were.3

Benefits of expressive writing

So, writing about trauma can have therapeutic benefits for students. If one looks at that aspect of trauma writing—potential emotional benefits—certain pedagogical difficulties emerge regarding the sort of work students produce (in essence, how fragmentary or how complete it may be or must be), the ways in which it should be assessed (according to traditional guidelines for written work or by some other kind of rubric), and whether or not it should be shared with others (that is, published). How one responds to each of these issues may depend in large part on the end goal. If the end goal is for students to produce something that is most definitely going to be shared with others (versus something mainly for their own experiencing of the process), then the pedagogy must shift accordingly.Expressive Writing 5

Again, we are in the realm of art more than of science. The difference between students writing something only for themselves and students writing something which will be shared with others may lie in how the teacher contextualizes the act of writing and the possible benefits of sharing highly personal experiences. Allow me to say what may be needless to say: The best writing—the best art—is generally rooted in the highly personal experience. In order to create texts that are meaningful, and emotionally and intellectually engaging for readers, writers must be willing to reveal their most personal and their most private experiences and ideas. Marguerite MacRobert recommends that writers use techniques similar to those employed by method actors (à la Stanislavski). She says, “Writers are often spoken of as observers, and many writing workshops hone observation skills, but what Stanislavski says of acting could be emphasised in writing too: openness to experience as it occurs and being able to access emotional memories are crucial writing abilities. . . .” (353).

I will add anecdotally that when I took fiction writing workshops with the novelist Kent Haruf, in the opening class session Kent would always ask us to share something personal about ourselves that we had never shared with anyone else. The point of his exercise was that to be effective fiction writers we must be willing and able to share our most personal thoughts and experiences with our readers. Holding back leads to writing that is less than it could be. This sort of openness may seem like a tall order to expect of young students, but recall that traumatized students generally want to write about their traumatic experiences. In fact, they need to write about them. The pedagogical trick is not to get them to write personally, but to be willing to share their personal writing with others: to instill them with confidence, and to teach them that their sharing can benefit others, namely their readers.Expressive Writing 6

Given our setting and the conference’s overarching mission it is vital to note that expressive writing can transcend language barriers, and in fact can benefit from them. That is, students writing in languages other than their primary language (in English for instance) can be beneficial to the expressive-writing process in several ways. Here I will turn to the work of Owens and Brien, who developed a project in which international students attending universities in Australia wrote expressively in English with the goal of producing a published journal. Too often, international students’ language skills are viewed as a weakness or an obstacle to be overcome; however, Owens and Brien, among others (I included), advocate seeing these students’ language skills as a strength and an opportunity. They write, “[P]erceptions about the English skills of [Learners of English as an Alternative (or Additional) Language] have serious implications for large numbers of students, teachers, employers and, more broadly, the higher education industry. . . . [R]ecognising these learners as linguistically complex (rather than deficient) and finding new and enhanced methods to support their language needs . . . could transform both university practices and the students’ experience of those practices” (361-362). In particular, Owens and Brien advocate the use of creative writing as a way to foster these learners’ acquisition of alternative languages and to ease their assimilation into unfamiliar environments.Expressive Writing 7

In Owens and Brien’s project, they found that international students were drawn to writing about the difficulties associated with cultural assimilation. While writing in a language other than their mother tongue did present some challenges, there were also numerous benefits. They write, “[Alternative Language speakers] have both less (English) and more (languages other than English) lexical-syntactic-semantic knowledge than monolingual English speakers. They rely on a more restricted English resource but have alternative language options available to express meaning. . . . So, whilst mother tongue speakers may use their language creatively in response to situational characteristics, Alternative Language speakers may use English more creatively . . .” (362). What is more, the way Alternative Language speakers approach language may lead to particularly poetic constructions, say Owens and Brien. As someone who has taught Alternative Language speakers in creative writing workshops (especially speakers of Asian languages and, most often, speakers of Chinese), I can attest that even beginning creative writers can compose some startlingly beautiful phrases and images in English because of their knowledge of multiple languages, not in spite of it.Expressive Writing 8

Importance of sharing & publishing

It definitely goes without saying that if expressive writing is going to help break down cultural barriers, it must be shared across borders (both geographic and ideologic), which is where publication enters the discussion. Though discussing their project in the microcosm of their university settings, Owens and Brien found that Alternative Language students writing expressively benefited both the writers themselves and their audience: “It allows readers, such as academic staff as well as other students, to gain insight into the cross-cultural experience and develop greater empathy for the cultural sojourner” (369). Moreover, “the act of authoring such texts” can be “empowering” on multiple levels: “Promoting the creative and unique English language capacities of [Alternative Language students] . . . across English speaking host-communities, can help . . . build empathy, understanding and appreciation in a language context where they are conventionally de-valued” (369). Moreover, Jess-Cooke believes that students’ producing “a completed piece of work is a significant part of building self-esteem, and therefore contributes to wellbeing” (254).Expressive Writing 9

Fortunately, we live in a time when sharing writing (or video or audio) across the globe is relatively simple. Material can be posted to the Web of course. Texts can be made available to download to various sorts of e-readers (Kindle, etc.), and print-on-demand options make physically published anthologies readily and cheaply available via outlets like Amazon among many others. Speaking as a publisher and author, the challenge is not to make students’ writing available across cultural boundaries, but rather how to help others realize it is available in the flood of material that is published, one way or another, every day. Some estimates put the number of new book titles alone released each year in the neighborhood of a million. On any given day, several thousand new titles may become available. Unfortunately I have not solved this conundrum. I would say, as with any project, the way to begin, at least, is to start small. That is, micro-target specific audiences, perhaps via university networking opportunities, as afforded via conferences like this one. Work with colleagues in other countries to produce expressive writing and share it beyond physical borders. Perhaps combine the work of students from several countries in a single anthology to be shared and distributed amongst the project participants. Students’ texts could be captured via audio recordings and video performances, adding additional contextual layers to the communicated experiences.

Concrete classroom practices

I would like to end with a practical suggestion for a writing prompt. I have found that students respond quite effectively to what I call “A Moment of Clarity” narrative essay. I ask them to write about a time when they came to understand something about themselves or about their world due to a specific event in their lives. (I have provided the specific assignment and pre-drafting activity as an appendix to this presentation.) Some students write about positive things in their lives: learning the importance of teamwork or dedication, discovering what they want to do with their lives, embracing their spiritual selves, accepting their true sexuality, and so on. More students, though, tend to write about traumatic, life-transforming experiences: the death of a loved one, a near-death experience of their own, the separation of their parents, the crushing loss of a best friend or first girlfriend or boyfriend.

Allow me to share some brief excerpts of papers my students wrote this past year as a response to the “Moment of Clarity” prompt (the students have granted their permission, and I have obscured their identities):

Expressive Writing 10From a student whose boyfriend was driving recklessly and lost control of his car: “The convertible Mustang [car] flipped, pinning me underneath the vehicle. The only thing that kept me from getting my head smashed was the headrest that held it up just enough. I needed to stay calm. I couldn’t focus on anything else but the sound of the blood dripping on the ground. I tried to move my right arm and couldn’t.”

Expressive Writing 11From a student who struggled with the death of her grandmother after a long illness: “Now I understand that death occurs in everyone’s life and everyone is affected by it differently. She was in pain because of the cancer and all of the medicine she was taking. Seeing her in the casket was different because she looked peaceful and beautiful compared to the cancer’s effect on her. I have to let her go because I love her and she would not want me to be afraid or sad. She would want me to strive and achieve my goals and to live my life.”

Expressive Writing 12From a student who attempted suicide: “I spent my teenage years begging myself at night not to give up, not to kill myself. My first attempt at suicide was in 2015. I remember sitting in my room and the feeling rushed upon me. ‘You’re not good enough . . . you don’t deserve to live . . . just do it.’ I felt numb in that moment. I didn’t feel like a person. I got up and grabbed the bottle of pills. I begged myself to get help and go get my mother, but all I could think about was swallowing the pills and not being here anymore.”

Expressive Writing 13From a student who has given up her Christian faith: “I think how many Native Americans think. How we’re all connected and that you should put out what you want in return. I feel life is sacred, but so is the afterlife. The two worlds co-exist with one another. Death doesn’t mean the end of life, it’s just the beginning.”

These narratives were written by young people living in a small town in the heart of the United States, but I daresay they express feelings and concerns and issues that young people—that all people—face daily, no matter their culture, no matter their country, no matter their ideology.

Notes

  1. See Bessel A. Van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, editors. Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society. Guilford, 2007, p. 5.
  2.  See Jennifer J. Vasterling, and Chris R. Brewin, editors. Neuropsychology of PTSD: Biiological, Cognitive, and Clinical Perspectives, Guilford, 2005. In particular see Joseph I. Constans. “Information-Processing Biases in PTSD,” Vasterling and Brewin, pp. 105-130.
  3. See Ted Morrissey. Trauma Theory As a Method for Understanding Literary Texts: The Psychological Basis of Postmodern Hermeneutics, Edwin Mellen, 2016. In particular see Chapter 7, “Pedagogical Implications and Conclusions,” pp. 185-224.

Works Cited

Freiman, Marcelle. “A ‘Cognitive Turn’ in Creative Writing — Cognition, Body and Imagination.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 127-142.

Jess-Cooke, Carolyn. “Should Creative Writing Courses Teach Ways of Building Resilience?” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 12, no. 2, 2015, pp. 249-259.

MacCurdy, Marian Mesrodian. The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma. U of Massachusetts P, 2007.

MacRobert, Marguerite. “Exploring an Acting Method to Contain the Potential Madness of the Creative Process: Mental Health and Writing with Emotion.” International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 9, no. 3, 2012, pp. 349-360.

Owens, Alison R., and Donna L. Brien. “Writing Themselves: Using Creative Writing to Facilitate International Student Accounts of Their Intercultural Experience.” New Writing: International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, vol. 11, no. 3, 2014, pp. 359-374.

Park, Jeff. Writing at the Edge: Narrative and Writing Process Theory. Peter Lang, 2005.

Interview with Brady Harrison: The Dying Athabaskan

Posted in February 2018, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 10, 2018

I’ve long been interested in the long story and novella; that is, literary work that falls in the gray-area length between a typical (nowadays) short story and a full-length novel — let’s say, about 5,000 words and 50,000 words. That’s an awfully large gap separating what most literary journals will consider and what most agents and commercial publishers will look at for book publication. Yet this is a fairly recent development in the publishing biz. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was commonplace for national magazines to publish longer pieces (often serially) which would then be picked up by a commercial publisher for book publication.

Think Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin, and Joseph Conrad, resulting in works like A Christmas Carol, Cranford, The Cossacks, The Turn of the Screw, Ethan Frome, The Awakening, and Heart of Darkness, among many, many other great works that are powerful even though — or maybe because — they are not full-length novels.

My interest in the form led me to design a course on the long story and novella for Lindenwood University’s MFA in Writing program (online), which I’ll be teaching for the third time in summer quarter; and it led me to create the Publisher’s Long Story Prize via my literary press, Twelve Winters. The first calls went out in the summer of 2016, and the response was immediate. We appeared to strike a rich and largely untapped vein.  (See the Prizes’s page for further information.)

Dying Athabaskan - FRONT COVER 400From that initial round of submissions, we eventually culled our first winner: The Dying Athabaskan by Brady Harrison, a complex narrative about a freelance writer who embarks on discovering the inspiration for a famous sculpture, The Dying Athabaskan. We recently released our first Long Story Prize winner in paperback and digital editions, and author Brady Harrison generously agreed to be interviewed about his book, his writing process, and today’s literary landscape, especially as it pertains to these in-between-length works of fiction. Here are Brady’s unedited responses.

TM: Even though my main literary love interest is William Gass, by the transitive property of literary love I’m also a fan of James Joyce, and I seem to see a lot of Joycean influence in The Dying Athabaskan: experimenting with varying forms; alluding to other books and artwork, often within the context of working-class drinking establishments; playing with language in the service of lyricism; and even your treatment of dialogue is very Joycean, from a mechanical perspective especially. In particular I’m seeing a lot of Ulysses. Am I projecting that onto your text, or would you count Joyce among your influences?

brady harrison v2 - 150 dpiBH: Joyce: absolutely, and for all the reasons you indicate:  the restless mind, the interest in experimentation and blending different genres, the love of language and how it sounds, and the love of books, music, art. And, the love of bars, of course. In addition to Joyce, my favorite writers are the anatomists, those writers of big, all-over-the-place narratives that refuse to settle on one storytelling mode or style, but that keep experimenting, keep trying out new ideas and ways of expressing them. I’m thinking here of those great comic, yet serious writers like Melville, Sterne, Diderot, Flann O’Brien, Flaubert (in Bouvard and Pécuchet), Woolf, Stein, and Sebald, among many others.  Oh, and Gass, though I know you’re a bigger fan than I am.  For language, the same folks, and Faulkner, too.  A list of my literary heroes. (For the record, I’m also a big fan of Margaret Atwood, despite O’Keevan’s dig.)

In a relatively brief narrative you offer a variety of perspectives and forms. Is this typical of your style, or is The Dying Athabaskan a departure in some ways?

Left to my own devices, this would be my style, but over the years I’ve found it’s easier to place stories that don’t change gears so often, that don’t mix forms, but rather that rely on a consistent point of view and more straight-forward narrative strategies. And, I’m mostly ok with that: the straight-forward story imposes a kind of discipline that I need, and reminds me that I’m not just writing for myself. I remember something that was going around on the web: “Shakespeare wrote for money.” Whenever I find myself wanting to experiment, to turn a story into a play or a letter or a tale from the Arabian nights, and then turn it back and then into something else again, I usually have to reel myself back in. In the case of The Dying Athabaskan, however, I think it works because Ritu, in the process of trying to understand whether or not a thing can mean, tries out any number of forms and approaches. She’s also trying to find out about herself, about her own powers and mind.

Mainstream publishers — even mainstream literary publishers — aren’t inclined to embrace narrative experimentation. Yet you wrote a long, experimental story, perhaps doubling the difficulty of finding a publisher. Can you speak to your interest in experimentation?

After working on stories for a few years, I wanted to try something longer, and wrote a novel about a real-life French poet-explorer set in North Africa in 1930, and I wrote it in the form of an explorer’s journal. It began realistically — what would it be like to travel in the Western Sahara, about the only place in the world that’s not a country, while trying to avoid capture by Berbers and Moors? — but soon enough the journal begins to mutate into other narrative forms and the narrator begins to meet other writer-adventurers who died before he was born, or were born after he died, and at least one of his guides keeps changing shapes and sizes. The narrator, disguised as a woman, begins to turn into a woman. Of course, I thought it was great, comic yet serious, and a number of publishers asked to review the ms.: no takers, and one perhaps made plain what the others were thinking: how could we possibly market so strange a novel about a gender-shifting Frenchman to American readers? Oh, and some sections were written in French, and much of the plot turned around a letter written and mailed to the un-hero before he was born. All to say, I learned my lesson: experimentation and a sort of wildness, at least as I managed them, seem not to be suited to the contemporary marketplace.  Or, maybe it wasn’t any good.

The Dying Athabaskan is the title story of a collection you’re shopping. How would you describe the other stories and their relationship to Athabaskan?

For a long time, the working title of the collection was “Sever,” and most of the stories turn around key moments when the protagonist breaks or severs ties with others or with themselves, usually through an act of emotional or physical violence. In The Dying Athabaskan, Brion wants desperately to sever himself from Sister, Briony breaks rather violently with Neil, and O’Keevan seems to want to push almost everyone away.  In another story, a no-longer-young man has finally resolved, at his mother’s urging, to leave his parents’ failing farm; in a third, a successful engineer abandons his family while on vacation. In a one page story, two friends follow through on a long-ago promise to murder, if a certain thing ever happens, a third buddy. And, then, having severed ties, how does a person go about reconnecting, reconciling, making peace?  Some of the stories are about trying to repair the damage done, or about trying to make meaningful connections where they seem unlikely. In one way or another, they all turn around that very human problem of loss and what to do about it. But I should add:  they’re not all as grim as I might be making them sound; some of them, I hope, are funny, and I’ll call the one about the brothers-by-choice killing their buddy a black comedy.

One of your pub credits is the journal The Long Story — a journal I’ve admired for years, decades perhaps (its editor has rejected my work several times) — which suggests that Athabaskan isn’t your first piece of long narrative fiction. Is the long story/novella a length/form you find yourself especially drawn to? And if so, why? (William Gass felt that the novella was his natural medium, and he was at his best writing in that in-between length, or perhaps his most comfortable.)

If I love the long, baggy, all-over-the-place anatomies (except Pynchon: can’t stand his work, save for The Crying of Lot 49, and have no idea why he’s so celebrated), I also love, equally, the novella, and routinely teach courses on the genre. My lure to students: “If, as Randall Jarrett famously remarked, a ‘novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it,’ and if, as some readers protest, short stories simply cannot offer the richness and complexities of longer works, then what could be more perfect than the novella, that rare, gem-like form somewhere-in-between?” Really good novellas seem to achieve a degree of perfection — I’m not making that claim for myself! — that novels cannot, and seem to offer a richer tapestry than can usually be achieved in stories.

And, some writers, I think, achieve their best work in the form:  I think, for example, that Joyce Carol Oates does some of her best work in the novella, and she’s one of the few contemporary writers who works consistently in the genre. Same thing for Stephen King: while I find his novels way too long, he seems best when he self-edits yet gives plenty of character and just enough plot in works like “Stand by Me” or “The Mist.” The truly sublime novellas: there are many of course, but I would say, Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, and any short novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. In the latter case, every time I read one of her short works, I wonder, How does she do it? Oh, and many of Georges Simenon’s roman durs, outstanding.

Ok, to sort of get back to your question!  I was really lucky (and really honored) to place a story in The Long Story, a journal that, like you, I’ve admired forever. “The Guest” is a really tough thing to read:  it’s about a driver hitting a homeless person, who then sails through the front windshield, and the driver, rather than calling the police and ambulance, drives home and parks in the garage. When I first wrote the story, it was about twice as long: I wanted to honor the tradition in the novella of a frame narrative, and I told, alongside the story of the accident and its aftermath, the story of the narrator, an investigative journalist, and how and why he was dying.  Suffering a traumatic injury of his own, this will be his last work as a reporter. In the end, I cut the frame, and while the story certainly gained in intensity and focus, it also perhaps lost something, too.  All to say, I hope to keep working on the long story: call it the best of both worlds, novel and short fiction.

Long stories are so difficult to place these days, did you think about that as you were writing it? Did you consider restraining the narrative to try to keep it within a more publishable length? How difficult was it to find a publisher for Athabaskan?

I’ll be blunt: I’m damn lucky you created the Publisher’s Long Story Prize! Like most folks, I’d like to see my work into print, but at the same time I’m just perverse enough to also want to write what I want to write and the market be damned.  But you’re right:  I was taking a chance in writing that weird in-between length. At the same time, the long story or novella has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the last decade or so. I’m thinking of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series (though of course they mostly republish the “classics”) and a few literary journals have novella contests every other year or so.  There seems to be a modest market for the form, and it’s not unusual for collections by big guns like David Gates or George Saunders to include a long story.  And, as I say, Joyce Carol Oates (who’s a force of nature) routinely does her part to keep the form alive and well.

As you know, the Press publishes Grant Tracey’s Hayden Fuller Mystery Series, and Hayden is Grant’s alter ego ex-NHL star turned detective, gumshoeing his way through the mean streets of 1960s Toronto, where Grant grew up. Hockey is a major element in Athabaskan as well. Can you talk about hockey’s influence on your creative psyche growing up in Canada?

Grant 5Grant! The G-man! I love Cheap Amusements (and Parallel Lines and the Hockey Universe) in no small part because of the hockey connections. And, I remember vividly the hard-boiled short films Grant made while we were in grad school:  in the Fuller mysteries, we get two of Grant’s passions, two-fisted action on and off the ice.  More on Grant in a moment.

Hockey? I guess you could say I’m about as Canadian as they come. I still play hockey two nights a week, skate in as many pond hockey tournaments as I can, and will often hang around after our games to watch other buddies play; I still count the Montreal Canadiens as my favorite team (the arch enemies of Grant’s beloved Toronto Maple Leafs) and try to catch their games on TV. I love everything about hockey: the speed, the way skates work on ice, the team play, the sheer thrill of scoring a goal. I also love weird things about the sport: I love the sounds of the game, and I’m fascinated by the way players talk to one another in mid-play. I’m a true rink-rat, for sure, always have been.

Ok, that’s a long preamble to a question that I probably can’t answer: hockey’s always been a big part of my life, but The Dying Athabaskan is my first story to include the game. Winter: that has shaped my imagination in every way possible, and hockey is a part of my winter mind: I find in so many of my stories that the cold creeps into the action, that snow and ice and how it feels to be out in winter creeps into the characters and how they move and perhaps even think. There’s a certain caution that comes with winter, but also a genuine exhilaration. I’m rambling: I know and love winter, I can say that much.

After selecting The Dying Athabaskan for the Publisher’s Long Story Prize, we learned that you and Grant have more in common than both being from Canada and writing about hockey. You actually went to grad school together. Can you dish a favorite grad school story on Grant?

Ok, this is the question I’ve been waiting for!  Grant was such a big part of my life in those days, and we’ve remained friends over the years. Back in the day, Grant had a punk rock show on the local public radio station, and he was kind enough to invite me, on several occasions, to sit in and have some time on the mic talking about the music and the history and evolution of punk. I remember the hot, cramped little booth at WEFT, and most of all I remember Grant’s passion and encyclopedic knowledge. What a blast it was: the Clash, Patti Smith, the Ramones, MC5, Iggy, X-Ray Spex, the Pistols, real old school turned up to 11. Grant was such a great host, and the show was on late, and who knows who was out there, listening, but we had such a brilliant time. (G-man:  if you’re reading this, hit me with your ultimate Spirit of ’77 playlist: now that the smoke has cleared, what’s the one, perfect show’s worth of songs?!)

One other story: one day, we hopped in his explode-able Pinto and drove from Champaign-Urbana to Washington, D.C., to see, at the Library of Congress, an alternative ending to Kiss Me Deadly a noir starring Ralph Meeker as Mike Hammer. We were just kids, and we had the time of our lives: Grant was doing research on hard-boiled films, and I had never seen the capital, and we talked music and movies and books for hours and hours. Did the alternative ending actually exist? That’s a secret.

You’re also attracted to the poetry and essay forms. Is one your strength, would you say? What are some of your current projects?

I enjoy trying out all forms, but I’m really committed to two: one of my heroes is that great wildman of American letters, Leslie Fiedler (who wrote many of his masterpieces while at the University of Montana), and when asked if he preferred writing articles or stories, he remarked that he saw no difference between writing stories and writing about stories.  I’ve taken that as my cue (as perhaps you have!), and these days I seem to divide my time about equally between fiction and scholarly research and writing. In terms of “creative writing” — truth be told, I can never understand why scholarly writing is not considered “creative” when, to my mind, it’s absolutely as creative as writing, say, stories, poems, or personal essays — I’m interested in narrative. So, I hope to find a good home for the collection of stories I’ve put together, and if that works out, I have a couple of ideas for novels. We’ll see. In my day job, I’m currently writing a book about, of all things, quantum physics and literary interpretation. I’m really enjoying the research—quantum physics is just so damn strange, even comic, at least to me—and hope to finish the book in the next year or so. I’m also co-editing a collection of essays on teaching Western American literature in colleges and universities. I can say this: I’ve been lucky: I’ve had the opportunity to work on things that interest me.


Brady Harrison’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Cerise Press, J Journal, The Long Story, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Serving House Journal, and Wascana Review, among literary journals others.  His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and recent poetry appears in the anthology, Poems Across the Big Sky II.  He is also edited two books on Montana literature, These Living Songs:  Reading Montana Poetry and All Our Stories Are Here:  Critical Approaches to Montana Literature.  His most recent book is Punk Rock Warlord:  The Life and Music of Joe Strummer.  He lives in Missoula, Montana, and teaches at the University of Montana. (Photo credits: Brady Harrison / David Baumstark; Grant Tracey / Mitchell D. Strauss)

The myth of ‘best practices’ in education

Posted in August 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 20, 2017

Last Wednesday I began my thirty-fourth year as a schoolteacher. To be sure, teaching has changed in those years, kids have, too — although neither as much as one might think. There is one thing, however, that has been amazingly consistent: the number of people who, year upon year, insist that I and my peers adopt a method which they bill as a “best practice” — some technique that they know will improve my teaching because, well, how could it not? It’s a best practice.

Not once — in all those innumerable workshops, inservices and presentations — has a purveyor of a best practice offered a shred of evidence that what they’re promoting will actually lead to better (let alone, the best) teaching. It’s always offered under the implied guise of common sense. It’s the epitome of the logical fallacy of begging the question: Dear Teacher, accept the fact that what you’ve been doing (whatever it may be) hasn’t been as effective as what I’m about to tell you to do. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

And teaching is, allegedly, an evidence-based profession. Schools claim that what they’re doing is “evidence-based,” but oftentimes, if there is something like evidence out there, it’s contrary to what’s being prescribed. On the one hand, I don’t really blame folks for not presenting the evidence to support their claims of the effectiveness of the practice they’re advocating, because (as I’ve written about before) testing in education is fraught with problems. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to generate data which can be reliably analyzed. In any given testing situation, there are simply too many variables to control, and many of them are literally beyond the control of educators. Students are not rats confined to the tiny world of a lab where researchers can effect whatever conditions they’re studying. Imagine scientists sending their rats home each night and asking them to return the next morning for continued research; and periodically the group of rats they’ve been studying are replaced by a whole new group of rats whose histories are a total mystery. (Apologies for comparing students to rats — for what it’s worth, I like rats … and students.)

All right, so I don’t blame purveyors of best practices for not presenting their (nonexistent) evidence; however, I do blame them for suggesting, implicitly, that evidence does exist. It must, right? Otherwise how could they say some technique, some approach is “best” (or at least “better”)?

The reality is, best practices are a myth. Forget good, better, best; let’s turn, instead, to effective versus ineffective (and even that paradigm is nebulous). Effectiveness must be considered on a case by case basis. That is, we want all students to benefit as a result of our efforts, but what works for Bobby versus what works for Suzie on any given day at any given moment, for any given skill or knowledge acquisition, may constitute completely opposite approaches; and tomorrow the reverse may be true. And quite honestly, whether an approach is effective or ineffective may be unknowable, in the moment and even in the long term. The learning takes place in the student’s mind, and the mind is a murky, complicated place. Hopefully the skill or knowledge is identifiable and assessible (via a quiz or test or paper or project), but it may not be, especially in the humanities, which are more concerned with creative and critical applications than in the sciences or the vocational area, where right-or-wrong, black-or-white distinctions are the rule rather than the exception.

Generally the purveyor of a best practice is able to communicate the technique in a few bullet points on a handout or a PowerPoint, but the differences — the vast differences — between grade levels, subject matters, demographics of students, backgrounds and knowledge-levels of teachers, etc., etc., etc. make such simplistic declarations ridiculous. Imagine going to an agricultural convention and telling an assembled group of farmers that you have for them a best practice, and here it is in six bullet points. You’re welcome. No matter what they’re growing, where they’re growing it, what sorts of equipment they have at their disposal, what the climate models are suggesting, how the markets are trending — This is it, brother: Just follow these six steps and your yields will be out of this world. Trust me — I’m a presenter.

The farmers would be nonplussed to put it mildly. Plug in professionals from any other arena — business owners, attorneys, medical doctors, engineers — and the ridiculousness of it (that a single set of practices will improve what they’re doing, regardless of individual situations) becomes clear. It’s so clear, in fact, I can’t imagine any presenter doing it — telling a room full of surgeons, for instance, to do this one simple procedure all the time, no matter the patient’s history, no matter their lab work, no matter how they’re responding on the table — and yet it happens to educators all the time.

Almost without fail, techniques that are presented as best practices are observable. It’s about what you say to students or what they say to you; what you write on the chalkboard; what you write in lesson plans or curricular outlines. It simplifies the process of evaluating teachers’ performances if the evaluator can look for a few concrete actions from every teacher, from kindergarten teacher to calculus teacher, from welding teacher to reading teacher; from the teacher of gifted students to the teacher of exceptional students. It makes assessment so much simpler if everyone is singing from the same hymnal.

I deliberately used the word performances in the previous paragraph because so often that’s what evaluation boils down to: a performance for the audience-of-one, the evaluator. We often hear the term “high-stakes testing” in the media (that is, standardized tests whose results have significant consequences for test-takers and their schools), but we have also entered into a time of “high-stakes evaluating” for teachers, performance assessments which impact their literal job security. Teachers quickly learn that if their evaluator claims x, y and z are best practices, they’d better demonstrate x, y and z when they’re being observed — but quite possibly only when they’re being observed because in truth they don’t believe in the validity or the practicality of x, y and z as a rule.

In such cases, teachers are not trying to be insubordinate, or mocking, or rebellious; they’re trying to teach their charges in the most effective ways they know how (based on the training of their individual disciplines and their years of experience in the classroom), and they disagree with the practices which are being thrust upon them. Teachers do no take an oath equivalent to doctors’ Hippocratic oath, but conscientious teachers have, in essence, taken a personal and professional vow to do no harm to their students; thus they find themselves in a conundrum when their judgments about what’s effective and what isn’t are in conflict with the best practices by which they’re being evaluated. For teachers who care about how well they’re teaching — and that’s just about every teacher I’ve had the privilege to know in the last thirty-four years — it’s a source of stress and anxiety and even depression. More and more teachers every year find that the only way to alleviate that stress in their lives is to leave the profession.

Again, much of the problem is derived from the need for observable behaviors. I like to think my interactions with students in the classroom are positive and effective, but, as a teacher of literature and especially as a teacher of writing, I know my most important and most valuable work is all but invisible. My greatest strengths, I believe, are in developing questions and writing prompts that navigate students’ interactions with a text, and (even more so) in responding to the students’ work. When a student hands in an essay based on a prompt I’ve given them about a text, it is essentially a diagram of how their mind worked as they read and analyzed the text (a novel, or story, or poem, or film) — a kind of CAT scan if you will — and my task is to interpret the workings of their mind (in what ways did their mind work well, and in what ways did their mind veer off the path somewhat) and then, once I’ve interpreted their mind-at-work, I have to provide them comments which explain my interpretations and (here’s the really, really hard part) also comments which will alter their mental processes so that next time they’ll write a more effective essay. In short, I’m trying to get them to think better and to express their thoughts better. (I should point out that to do all of this, I also have to possess a thorough understanding of the text under consideration — a text perhaps by Homer or Shakespeare or Keats or Joyce or Morrison.)

It’s the most important thing I do, and no one observing me in the classroom will ever see it. If my students improve in their reading and thinking and writing and speaking — largely it will be because of my skill to interact with them productively, brain to brain, on the page. The process is both invisible and essential. This is what teaching English is; this is what English teachers do. And we are not unique, by any means, in the profession. Yet our value — our very job security — is based on behaviors that are secondary or even tangential to the most profound sorts of interactions we have with our students.

I know that purveyors of best practices mean well (for-profit educational consultants aside). They are good, smart people who sincerely believe in what they’re advocating, and frequently a kernel or two of meaningful advice can be derived from the presentation, but we need to stop pretending that there’s one method that will improve all teaching, regardless of the myriad factors which come into play every time a teacher engages a group of students. It makes teaching seem simple, and teaching is many, many, many things but simple isn’t one of them.

(Image found via Google Images here.)

 

 

 

An Interview with John Paul Jaramillo: Little Mocos

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 19, 2017

I’ve known John Paul Jaramillo for several years. Shortly after my first novel, Men of Winter, came out, John Paul interviewed me for a video journal that he edited. He also had a book out, a collection of stories titled The House of Order (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011), which, I discovered, had garnered John Paul much praise and several accolades. Fast forward to, I believe, 2014. John Paul shared with me a manuscript for a book he’d spent quite a bit of time writing and revising (and revising). It was a novel of sorts, comprised of more than thirty interconnected stories and vignettes, a complex family saga that unfolded over decades and multiple generations.

John Paul’s main interest was getting my feedback on the manuscript. I had relied on John Paul’s opinion and expert eye more than once, sharing my own work with him as well as work by some of the authors I was publishing via Twelve Winters Press. I was interested in doing more than giving him feedback on his book; I very much wanted to publish it. I think he was genuinely surprised. We were having coffee at Wm. Van’s Coffee House in Springfield, Illinois. It was summertime so we both had a bit more time on our hands than we normally would during the academic year. We sat there over our coffees talking for a long while.

My sense was that John Paul had worked on the book for so long and had received so much advice, so many critiques, he wasn’t sure any longer quite what he wanted the book to be. So I asked him to take a few months, perhaps enough time to let some of that advice fade away, and figure out exactly what he wanted to publish. The book did go through some changes, including a title change, before he submitted the more or less final version of the manuscript, which I then assigned to one of the Press’s talented and dedicated editors, Pamm Collebrusco, who worked with John Paul to finalize (now) Little Mocos for publication.

I fell behind the publishing schedule I’d hoped to adhere to, but John Paul was consummately patient. We finalized a book cover this past winter; then this summer we were able, at long last, to make available to the world Little Mocos, a novel in stories, available in hardcover and digital editions.

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It’s become a tradition that when I publish an author’s work, I also give them some interview questions. What follows are John Paul’s unedited responses.

My sense is that Little Mocos had a long gestation. When you and I first discussed the manuscript it had a different title, and you talked about a few incarnations of the text. Would you talk about the writing and development of the book?

I’ve been working on this particular book Little Mocos and a grouping of stories for five years I believe. I have always known my writing process is incredibly slow and meandering. I often say it is a mis-perspective that writers have an ease with words and language, because I feel it is the opposite—writers struggle to capture the right words and structure. I have an idea and I like to give myself the time to follow that idea and see where the language or my thoughts take me. I don’t think I am the kind of writer who just sits and executes the outline, premise or story—I have to take time and find the story arc and premise and find the surprises. I have to think and re-think and find the ideas rather than drive them. Also I think I am the kind of writer that is always looking for the better angle into the story in terms of means of perception. So there are drafts on my computer in third person and first person and just different experiments to find the right way to approach the stories I want to tell. Drafts that include or exclude different characters. Fragments that fail and fragments that succeed. Writing and drafting a book is incredibly difficult, and taming that and coming to terms with that takes a long while. Also an editor friend and mentor of mine Jennifer C. Cornell has given me advice and guidance to tweak the book to the current organization. I always need help and I am always second-guessing the manuscript as well as my choices.

At one point you were calling the book “a novel” and then altered that to “a novel in stories.” As a writer I’ve been struggling a bit with those labels myself on a particular project. What do you think the difference is, and why did you ultimately decide on the latter label?

John Paul 1I feel as though I work in a way to send stories out to get feedback from editors. So my work is intentionally worked out in bite-size chunks. Also I think I am a minimalist so always trying to do more with less. And most publications or lit websites I admire are looking for short pieces—one needs to be a bit more experienced and known for a novel excerpt I believe. I usually label something a short story rather than a chapter though I believe a chapter and a short story are similar in many ways—they both have a beginning, middle and end. I also seem to float back to the same “universe” of characters and that keeps them together. I often say the material comes how it comes and I follow it. I hear stories or read stories about Colorado and just try and get them re-imagined and down into bite-size chunks for publication. I’ve always advised my students to create relationships with editors who publish similar work and I’ve tried to submit and gather feedback from Latino lit publications to help with revision and these aesthetic choices. I guess simply the label “novel-in-stories” or “composite novel” or even “novella” comes back to the writer’s decisions and style.

I mean I’ve always known I have a sort of disjointed sort of style. I have always written smaller stories following the same characters, and I’ve always felt these smaller stories as “complete and autonomous.” Interrelated enough yet at the same time creating a complete whole. Creating a story arc the way a novel would. And I’ve never liked fiction too on-the-nose. I like a rougher feel to the writing. Like punk music or something. But as it comes down to the wire on revisions and I get closer and closer to turning over the manuscript to the publisher I struggle with labeling the work a novel-in-stories, composite novel or just plain stories as well. Making decisions is difficult.

The one guiding organizational principle to the book is thematic but also follows the same characters and quite nearly stays in a similar place. The family I am writing about has a family tree that is broken and winding and shattered and so the structure should mirror that. Astillarse, one character describes in the book, or splintered.

My book features a composite structure from what Chapter 1 from The Composite Novel—a book I read once by Margaret Dunn and Ann Morris—classifies as the following: Setting—(all my work takes place in the old neighborhood); Protagonist—I follow the Ortiz family; Collective protagonist–the family and neighborhood in different time periods and perspectives; Pattern/patchwork—identical or similarly themed stories focusing on trouble, problems, work/joblessness, etc.

I know some of the elements of the book, for example the character Cornbread Vigil, are pulled directly from history, while others, I presume, are purely fictional. In your writing process how did you negotiate history and fiction, and I suppose those gray areas in between?

Cornbread Vigil is a character based on a man named Ray Baca who is pretty infamous in Colorado—his name appeared in the newspaper quite often. He was a local criminal from my old neighborhood of Pueblo, Colorado, who folks often talked about. Mostly they talked about how they were afraid of him. My Grandfather talked about him since he robbed some local places. He was a person who had multiple crimes attached to him and he was the kind of person who always seemed to get out of trouble—petty crimes and thefts. He became somewhat of a local infamous character but also a weird folk hero/character. In my mind he represents the complex place I was raised and also the moral problem young Latino males perhaps face growing up. The violent expression that is sometime nurtured. I had so few literary or teacher heroes growing up but my heroes were “around-the-way” kinds of heroes at least when I was very young.

I think in much of my writing I try to take these stories from the paper and try to imagine or re-imagine them. To try and make sense of them, especially the darker or the more senseless stories. It felt as if this Baca criminal was from the same place I was from and I always found that to be very interesting. He always represented the myths and flavor of Colorado, and I wanted to re-create and re-imagine his story and how it merged with some of my own family.

You and I have discussed some of the difficulties presented by using Spanish and Spanish slang in the text, particularly when it came to dealing with editors and finding a publisher. Could you discuss some of the issues that you encountered?

I try to create relationships with Latino lit publications—with editors more sympathetic to the use of Spanish in a manuscript. This seems to be a very American issue. I always try to write the way folks talk in Southern Colorado and they speak Spanish and I guess Spanglish would be the term. A blending of Spanish and English—incorrect Spanish and incorrect English. But I have a collection of emails and responses from editors who were pretty aggressive in wanting me to take out the Spanish or to make the stories somewhat of a caricature of how folks speak in Colorado. Perhaps it was my fault for not knowing the publication well enough. There are so few Latino publications. I guess I want to represent but not sell-out anyone from my old neighborhoods.

Also though there is a professional dimension where Latinos who speak fluent Spanish will question my decision to omit or to use italics with Spanish in the stories. One writer I admire has Spanish italicized in all of his work and yet criticized me for my decision to italicize in my last publication. The idea being the language is not foreign so one shouldn’t italicize it. Until only recently I have become confident enough to edit what I choose in my own manuscripts and fight for more of my aesthetic choices. I see the whole problem as just working with presses who are sympathetic or understanding of these representation issues or not. I’ve received complaints from some editors and emails from some readers who say I’ve captured the way folks in Colorado speak accurately. So perhaps this is also an issue of representation of place as well as representation of the Spanish language in stories.

Little Mocos covers similar territory to your first book, The House of Order. In fact, one of the stories in Little Mocos is titled “House of Order.” How do these projects connect? In what ways does Little Mocos extend or perhaps complicate some of the elements in The House of Order?

The House of Order was a collection of stories published in differing publications and collected in somewhat of a linear narrative structure though missing quite a bit of backstory to the families and relationships. Little Mocos is the fuller story. Readers of The House of Order didn’t read it as a collection of stories but read it as a novel and this book is the novel bringing in many similar stories that have been tweaked to act as a portion of a larger story rather than to just act as a standalone story. There is more time and room to explore the family and legacy only hinted at, I think, in the collection of short pieces. I wanted to tell the fuller and larger trajectory of the story here. I very much see this novel as a continuation and sequel of sorts to that earlier book.

Little Mocos is divided into six parts which vary considerably in terms of length. What was your organizing principle in determining how to fit the various stories together? Ultimately do you feel satisfied with the structure of the book, or is there anything that still nags at you in the middle of the night?

I have a hard time telling a linear story. Also like many other writers, Leslie Marmon Silko as the greatest influence on me, I wanted to tell a story that was not linear but more at liberty with the timeline. The timeline or the structure is circular almost. Later in the book the narrator is criticized for overly thinking on past events in the story and I think that is similar to me. I am drawn to family stories and family history and my mind is rarely in the moment but racing in time to backstory and I wanted that feel in the book. I like to recreate moments of simply sitting and recounting the past. I am not so much interested in linear stories, I guess, but stories that represent the complexity of past and present relationships. I feel that I carry my family with me and the movement in time from section to section is my way to recreate that in the structure. Also I am more and more interested in this idea of legacy and family spirits that mold an individual. I feel I carry my Uncle and Father who have passed away with me in my everyday decision-making as well as in the genetic similarity of appearance and personality. Family trauma is always at the heart of my stories and the stories I like to read and so again this is my way of re-creating that familial dimension to a daily life.

I do very much feel satisfied with the structure though I’m drafting new stories all the time I wish could’ve found their way into the final manuscript—drafts that fill-in certain characters’ back story. I’m always drafting and note-taking on the Bea character and the Tio Neto character though I know they won’t find their way into the fuller story because of deadlines for turning in drafts. I guess what keeps me up would be exploring more stories with these characters and including all of them in one manuscript.

I know your teaching takes up a lot of time and energy. How do you balance teaching and writing? How does teaching and working with your students inform and energize your writing?

I teach composition and literature and I keep a blog on teaching and writing, so this is something I think all writers who work in schools may struggle with—the balance of time. I teach many classes to pay the bills and also teach creative writing. And I think all of my classes represent my thinking about the written word and also books I admire. I think as a writer I am perhaps a bit more skilled to teach about form or structure of writing as well as meaning. I have an MFA in creative writing instead of an MA or PhD and so I feel I might speak differently about writing and reading than say someone who studied literary criticism theory. I often say I have a degree in writing rather than in the study of writing since I see myself as a creative writer first and foremost, rather than as a researcher, teacher, or critic. Writers rarely think about meaning or theme and yet most classes and most instructors lecture on dominant themes and dominant interpretation, and I am more interested in how the writer or the character is represented in the work. I think there is a large distinction between what a work is saying and how the work is constructed. As a writer I am rarely thinking about what I am trying to say and more and more interested in how to construct a more dynamic experience for the reader. I like the idea that perhaps I can bring a different perspective on writing as a writer than say a lit scholar.

Other than finalizing Little Mocos for publication by the press, you’ve been done with the book for quite awhile. What else have you been working on? Is writing fiction your only interest, or have you explored other modes of writing?

Little Mocos in many ways is a love letter to my father’s side of my family. The last story in the book is about my mother’s family. While Little Mocos is an entire book about my father and his relationship to his brother and father, I have a whole manuscript of material I’ve been working on that follows the relationship between my mother and her father. Again I am interested in family legacy and family trauma. This manuscript is tentatively titled Monte Stories or Mountain Stories as my mother’s side of the family is from the San Luis Valley in Colorado and that is where most of these stories take place. I am more and more obsessed with my mother’s father and his life in the San Luis Valley. Recently I’ve had a story from this manuscript featured at La Casita Grande Lounge—a website for Chicano and Latino literature.  I have a good dozen of these stories I am slowly hoping to build into another book taking place in the same Colorado universe of characters.

I have also been working on a collection of creative non-fiction essays. Most of my favorite fiction writers are also my favorite essayists. I hope to turn more of my blog post son teaching and writing and on the Colorado steel industry into essays. I am also hoping to write more memoir-styled essays. Essays that read as short stories but driven more by facts. I have always written little fragments of reviews and recounting of experiences on my blog and I hope to conduct more interviews and also gather more of these essays for a non-fiction collection. I am interested in the steel industry in Colorado and its history as well as the subject of being a Latino male in the teaching profession.


John Paul Jaramillo’s  stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Acentos ReviewPALABRA: A Magazine of Chicano and Latino Literary Art and Somos en Escrito. In 2013 his collection The House of Order was named an International Latino Book Award Finalist. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. Originally from Colorado, he lives in Springfield, Illinois, where he is a professor of English at Lincoln Land Community College. (Author photo by Polly Parsons)

 

Interview with Jim O’Loughlin: Dean Dean Dean Dean

Posted in January 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on January 19, 2017

I met Jim O’Loughlin, in person, in September 2011. My first novel Men of Winter had come out at the end of 2010, and our mutual friend Jeremy Schraffenberger (also, a colleague of Jim’s at University of Northern Iowa) helped arrange an invitation for me to read from the novel at Jim O’Loughlin’s long-running Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Jim was the consummate host, both from a literary standpoint and a personal standpoint.

Time passed (as it does), and in April 2015 I was delighted to do another reading for Jim and Final Thursday — this time a group reading of my story “The Drama of Consonants” (part of my forthcoming book Crowsong for the Stricken). It was great fun. Each paragraph in the story focuses on a specific character. I read the narrator part.  Jim pitched in and read a part, as did Jeremy Schraffenberger, as did my wife Melissa, plus some conscripted graduate students, and even Jim’s mother, who was in town for a visit.

Afterward, a group of us went to Whiskey Road in downtown Cedar Falls for refreshments and to talk shop. One of the news items we discussed was the fact that Jim’s collection of flash fiction, Dean Dean Dean Dean, had been picked up by a small press and would be out in the next year or so. I didn’t know Jim had a collection; for a brief moment I entertained the idea of trying to poach Jim’s book away from the competitor press, but it was patently unethical. (I’m blaming my wobbly ethics on the refreshments.) That summer I invited Jim to read from his forthcoming book at an event I co-hosted in Springfield, Illinois. It was a terrific reading, and Jim even got his daughter and son in on the act. The next day my wife and I had the opportunity to do one of our favorite activities: play tour guides for the O’Loughlin family as we visited various Abraham Lincoln sites in Springfield.

Time continued to pass — and the press that intended to bring out Dean Dean Dean Dean collapsed (as small presses will). I never like to see such things happen, but it afforded Twelve Winters Press the opportunity to pick up the book in its stead. In summer 2016, Jim worked with TWP editor Pamm Collebrusco to finalize the collection for publication. In the fall I stepped back into the process to create the book, working closely with Jim, who also directs Final Thursday Press in conjunction with the Reading Series.

I’m pleased to announce the publication of Dean Dean Dean Dean, a collection of flash fiction by Jim O’Loughlin, available in print and digital editions (Kindle and Nook).

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It’s become a tradition that when the Press releases a new title, I interview the author about the book and writing-related issues. The posted interviews attract a considerable amount of traffic on the Web. I sent Jim some questions, and here are his emailed responses.

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What do you find attractive about the flash form?

Here’s the thing: you will often find people who reluctantly admit that flash fiction is okay, maybe, because young people have such short attention spans now. What people? The generation that grew up reading the Harry Potter series, even the will-break-your-toe-if-you-drop-it fifth book? Readers don’t have a problem with long works. The issue is that many readers now process information quickly and have less tolerance for windy prose. Flash fiction speaks to that audience, and it is not afraid to fight for them in the arena of contemporary media.

Have you also been working on longer creative work as well?

I write both flash and traditional length stories, and I have a novel I’m currently revising, so I feel all kinds of fiction have a place.

Tell us about the Final Thursday Reading Series. How it began, how it has evolved, how you’ve been able to maintain it for so long … that kind of thing.

I started FTRS not long after I moved to Iowa. There was a local used bookstore, Bought again Books, that had just started a coffeehouse in an attached space, and they were open to new programming ideas. The monthly series started there in a room that comfortably fit a dozen people and broke fire code at about 40, and we hit both extremes over the eight years we were there. When the owner, David Crownfield, developed health issues and had to close the bookstore, the series moved to the Hearst Center for the Arts, a community arts center located in the former house of poet James Hearst. In this new location and with the support of the Hearst Center, the series has grown in popularity, attracting anywhere from 40-70 people each month. It’s in its 16th season now, and it has become an important part of the local literary culture. First, there’s coffee. Then, there’s an open mic. After that, a regional author takes the stage. Sometimes we wind up at a bar afterward. Occasionally there’s bowling or billiards. No one has gotten hurt yet.

My sense is that many of the flash pieces, if not all, were written with the open mic part of the Reading Series in mind, with your wanting to have a short piece or two you could read as time allowed or necessitated before the featured author’s reading. Is that true?

I typically start off the open mic each month, and I try to come up with a new piece each time. When the series first started, the open mic attracted some really dour poets — don’t get me wrong: I love dour poetry! I just found it was good to give the audience permission to laugh at the beginning of the night. Over time, having a humorous opening story to lead with became a conscious goal. Also, having a deadline I have to hit each month keeps me honest. It’s been good training, and the vast majority of the stories in Dean Dean Dean Dean got their start as performance pieces.

Who are some of your favorite writers of humor or satire? Do you see your work in this collection as being in the tradition of a specific author or group of authors?

I regularly teach a class on Mark Twain, Dean Dean Dean Dean riffs on Joseph Heller’s character Major Major Major Major, and I’m currently working on a critical book on Kurt Vonnegut, so those are clear influences on me. But I’m also influenced by writers like Louise Erdrich, who is a master of the short scene, and Jennifer Egan, who can create complex characters concisely (I claim the alliteration for myself).

Was it Edmund Gwenn who said “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”? Do you agree? Is humor writing especially challenging? Do you begin by trying to write a humorous piece, or does the humor work its way into the narrative organically?

Maybe Edmund Kean? Google is divided on the attribution. Humor writing, like cilantro, free jazz, and the films of Baz Luhrmann, is not for everyone. But it is something that you can get better at over time, particularly if you get to see how an audience reacts to your work.

In terms of organizing Dean Dean Dean Dean, what was your thought process in terms of which pieces should be included, which excluded, and how did you arrive at the final order?

My main goal was to have the stories in the collection not be predictable, so I tried a range of different approaches and styles. I hope that keeps readers on their toes and eager to see what’s next.

What are some other projects you’re working on?

I’m currently revising a science fiction novel called The Cord. The book is set in the future on either end of a space elevator connecting the Earth with an orbiting station. No punch line: That’s really what I’m doing. If you don’t believe me, ask me a question about apex anchors or carbon nanotubes.


Jim O’Loughlin is an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches courses in American literature, creative writing and digital humanities. He is the director of the long-running Final Thursday Reading Series and Final Thursday Press. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, with his wife and children. Dean Dean Dean Dean is his first collection. (Author photo by Carole Fishback)

Interview with Grant Tracey: Cheap Amusements

Posted in August 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on August 18, 2016

When I started Twelve Winters Press in 2012, I modeled it, spiritually at least, after the Hogarth Press, the legendary press operated by Leonard and Virginia Woolf (founded in 1917). Hogarth became known as a publisher of groundbreaking work, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1924), for example, and the Standard Edition of the translated works of Sigmund Freud, as well as Virginia Woolf’s own experimental modernist novels.What many people don’t know, however, is that the Woolfs also published detective fiction. (See Diane F. Gillespie’s essay on the subject.)

Hence I considered it not only serendipitous but a downright good omen when I discovered that Grant Tracey had written a detective novel. The Press brought out Grant’s story collection Final Stanzas in 2015, and in the biographical note he sent me he mentioned that he was writing a crime novel set in 1960s Toronto. Mindful of the Woolfs, I was intrigued, so I asked if I could read the manuscript. He promptly sent me Cheap Amusements, featuring Hayden Fuller, an ex-hockey player turned private eye. What a wild ride! I was determined that Twelve Winters would bring out this hardboiled detective novel that manages to pay homage to the classics of the genre while also bringing something fresh and very contemporary to the form.

The book was released in hardcover as well as Kindle and Nook editions on August 11. I sent Grant some interview questions, and here are his unedited responses. Grant’s lively and insightful remarks are almost as much fun to read as the novel itself. Enjoy!

Cheap Amusements Front cover 1000

You’ve had a long love affair with detective stories. Who are some of your favorite writers, and when did you first discover you had a taste for the hardboiled?

My favorite hardboiled writer is Raymond Chandler. I first discovered him in high school. I started with Hammett (The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest), but when I read Chandler I knew something special was happening with the language, a guarded romanticism tinged with sadness. His prose was poignant; his hero, Philip Marlowe, had heart, nobility, and dignity. I liked him. I wanted to be like him. He wasn’t an anti-hero. He was a decent person. And those similes: “He had a face that looked like a dried lung.” Love it. Needless to say my early forays into the hardboiled were somewhat derivative. I think I even wrote a ridiculous overripe description that went something like: “He had a past pluperfect face.” Whatever that means. The PI stories I wrote at seventeen, eighteen and nineteen were all set in Cleveland, of all places. What did I know about Cleveland? And my PI was housed at the Rosevelt Hotel. Yes, spelled with one “o”. I didn’t know anything about American history either, apparently. But those stories were a start and I had to begin somewhere.

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Can you point to any particular authors whose influence you can see in your own writing? Have you consciously adopted any technique from a beloved author or book?

Definitely Chandler in terms of plotting, and my own sense of hopeful optimism. Richard Stark in terms of lean prose and toughness. Donald Westlake for comedy and a lighter tone. Mickey Spillane for pure emotional violence. I love the energy of Spillane. In terms of appearance I see Hayden, in his 1950s crewcut, looking a bit like a Jewish Mickey Spillane. In terms of literary writers, who isn’t influenced by Hemingway? His style lends itself to the hardboiled. But two bigger influences on my voice are Steven Schwartz, especially his emphasis on interiority, narrative telling, and the inner story, and Bernard Malamud, my all-time favorite writer, with his emphasis on suffering, mourning, and the struggle to do the right thing. Like Malamud’s family, my mom’s family ran a corner Variety store and lived above it. At the risk of sounding preachy, I think of myself as a moral writer. Schwartz is a moral writer. So’s Malamud. I was born in 1960 and grew up on American television: The Defenders, Naked City, Combat, Star Trek, and The Loner. These stories presented weekly morality plays, and what I gleaned from their writers is an underlying feeling of optimism. If you treat people with respect and dignity and equality, then those people in turn will accord the same respect to others and have a stake in and contribute to society. I still have that feeling of hopeful optimism about what this country is and where it can go. I’m not big on dystopic narratives, even though most detective stories, in the American tradition are pyrrhic, the detective dies a little under the weight of the case and violent crimes he’s enmeshed in. Hayden Fuller is a fallen figure, but he empathizes with others, has a big heart, and tries to do right. He doesn’t always succeed, but who does?

Anyway, three other influences. Film Noir. I love the look and feel of the 1940s and 1950s and my PI’s name crosses tough guy actor Sterling Hayden with ultra-cool director Samuel Fuller. A lot of my painterly images are inspired by jazz album covers, the fashion of TV shows like The Green Hornet and Honey West, and the look and vibe of such masters of painting with light as directors of photography John Alton (check out The Big Combo) and Joe MacDonald (Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is essential viewing). The whole idea of the “third face” in Cheap Amusements came from Samuel Fuller, a former corporal in The Big Red One. Jazz. The novel was composed listening exclusively to hard-bop jazz of the 50s and 60s: Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the greatest drummer of them all, Art Blakey. I love that music. It resonates urban angst and urgency and when I feel jazz I see images. I don’t think about words, lyrics, or the words I’m trying to write. Instead, the sounds give me an improvisational feel and I trust my instincts. I don’t worry about plot or my plot outline; I just follow the flow and go wherever the character and the mood dictates. Like jazz musicians leaving the core of the chart for tangential free floats, I float and float in random images, and then return. Hockey. I’m a Canadian, a Toronto city kid, and hockey’s in my blood. It was the way my immigrant grandparents became Canadian and they and my parents, in turn, passed down a love of the game to me. I’m also an avid historian of the Original Six: the NHL from 1942–1967, so all of the hockey details come from imagined probabilities and stories that have been passed on from my father and mother. Recently, T. T. Monday has published two noir mysteries involving a relief pitcher, and I figured let’s have a PI who’s an ex-NHL’er. Ross Macdonald was one of the first hardboiled writers to have his hero (Lew Archer) feel fallen for being a “divorce” detective and slinking about in the dirty skinny of “cheaters.” So I gave Hayden a similar backstory, one that got him ousted from the good old, secret-handshake society of the Original Six NHL.

Obviously the mystery or detective story has a long history–many attribute the modern detective story to Edgar Allan Poe in the mid nineteenth century–so how have you tried to put your own spin on the genre in Cheap Amusements?

I guess my spin is to combine the old with the new. I want to return to those writers I love: Chandler, Spillane, Stark, Jim Thompson, but with a literary emphasis. Literary writing is all about character-to-character interaction. What do these counter points, opposites, draw out from each other? It’s not about following a plot. Detectives follow the plot string, yes, but to get the answers they need they read people and this is what most literary writers do (character over plot). Moreover, I wanted to have heightened lyrical moments, to allow the language of the story to take me places. There are a couple of such moments in Cheap Amusements. In one, Hayden slips into “pockets of silence,” zones of stillness, where he’s transported into being a kid at a fair; in another moment he slips into the transcendent contemplations that ice skating can bring.

I also, again at the risk of sounding preachy, want to distance myself from the somewhat sordid tradition of salacious sex and sexism that abounds in the hardboiled tradition. I travel in those areas (the femme fatale, pornography, sexual exploitation), but I try to place the emphasis on bad male behavior, men exploiting women, as opposed to Eve-like women asking us to join her in eating the apple. I try not to be too titillating about the sex. I try to right some of the past wrongs of the hardboiled tradition, but like Hayden I don’t always succeed.

We are billing Cheap Amusements as a literary detective novel. In your mind, what does that adjective mean in this case (ha), and how does it make your book different from, say, a more run-of-the-mill detective story?

Detective stories are often restricted to first-person or limited third point-of-views and I have both. I begin the novel with a brief, surreal limited third point of view because I wanted the past event that haunts Hayden to almost feel unreal, as if it’s not being remembered correctly. But the rest first-person, pretty traditional. However, as I said earlier, the emphasis on detective fiction needs to be on character and character-to-character interactions, what the detective observes and surmises. That’s literary. Moreover. Language. I hate invisible flat prose, the kind that abounds in bad genre writing. I want to engage readers with my language, characterizations, and plotting. I want to keep giving them the unexpected within the expected, the defamiliar within the familiar. I want the plot to take them on a journey where the answer to the central question makes sense but still surprises in some way. There’s also a lot of comedy in Cheap Amusements from the dialogue zingers to some of the situations. At least I kept cracking myself up while writing it. And I see that as investing in the absurdist, literary tradition.

Some early readers of the book have noted the main character’s similarities to you. How much of Hayden Fuller is you? How is he different from his creator?

Hayden is a 1950s cat in a 1960s world and I feel the same way. I’m a retro guy in the new millennium. My glasses, a kind of mask, are Malcolm X or Vince Lombardi inspired. I wear white socks. With everything! I just finally got a smart phone! Hayden sports a porkpie because I like them and I wear them too. Like me, he cares deeply about people, has a passion for hockey, is sexually shy, and is somewhat of a wise-ass (very confident in his comic touches that he likes to drop in any moment). He’s not me in the sense that he’s tough. I run, I mean a ten-second 100 meter dash, from conflict. And Hayden can skate! I was hopeless on skates, my weak ankles always nicking up the ice’s surface. I played two years of house league, was a defenseman, and my coach always had me playing one zone back. So let’s say the puck is in the other team’s end. My D-partner was parked at their blue line and I was parked at the checkered center line! However, I was a great road hockey player or ball hockey as we later called it. Played forward and goalie. But me and Hayden, we both believe in the goodness of people. We both aspire to be professionals and do our jobs the best we can. We want other people to succeed.

You’ve published more than fifty short stories and four collections. When did you decide to try your hand at a detective novel? Did the character of Hayden Fuller come to you fairly early in the creative process, or did it take awhile to develop him?

As I said previously, crime novels were my first love. When I sent my sister the Twelve Winters trailer for Cheap Amusements she said, “Broheem, this is what you’ve always wanted. I remember all those detective stories you wrote in high school and college. Film Noir, hot cars, and PIs.”

After getting my MA from K-State in English with a creative writing emphasis, I became totally committed to literary fiction, for years, publishing stories in small magazines, but I was always reading crime books. Noir, or mystery tropes figure in some of my literary stories: “Faraway Girl” and “Used and Abused” from Final Stanzas are indebted to those sensibilities. Anyway, a few years back I got hooked on the Hard Case Crime series edited by Charles Ardai and I enjoyed his mixing up of reprints with new arrivals, his retro blend of the old and new, and I thought what the fuck, I can do this, there’s a market for non-CSI crime stories. And between October–November 0f 2014, in 40 days, listening to jazz, I wrote the first draft of Cheap Amusements.

Hayden Fuller emerged very quickly. I didn’t have to think about him at all or create him. He was just there. It was so strange. The porkpie, the attitude, the passion for hockey. I could totally see him and be him. It was a perfect fit. And the voice was there. Right from day one. It was magical. Only about a quarter of all the stories I’ve written did plotting or characterization flow as easily. Usually, I have to do substantial rewrites or tweaks. With Cheap Amusements and Hayden it was a smooth ride, like I was behind the wheel of a ’63 Ford Galaxie. It was as if all the other detective stories I’d written as a kid were a warm-up for the novel I was always meant to write.

You’ve created some strong and independent female characters, which tends to run contrary to the classic detective noir. I know this was a conscious choice on your part. Why so?

Like I said before, I want to be a part of and apart from the earlier hardboiled tradition of salacious sex and sexist portrayals of women. I have three daughters. I believe in Title IX and the rights of women. Future Hayden Fuller stories will feature even stronger female characters.

Your daughter Effy is one of your closest readers, and biggest fans. How important to your process is her reading your work? Does anyone else influence your work in progress?

Effy’s writing is very bright. By that I mean her stories, characters, burn with passionate energy. They speak boldly, take risks, allow themselves to be vulnerable. They are always interesting. Her YA novels are amazing because Effy is totally committed to her story world and her characters. She cares so deeply about all of them. And I want to make sure that I’m equally committed, equally vulnerable, so I seek her guidance in making sure I’m being honest and fair. There’s a scene in the novel where Hayden cries. Is that part of the hardboiled tradition? I don’t care. It felt right and the honesty in Effy’s work encouraged me to pursue the same honesty in my own. She loved that moment, by the way. Effy also raises great plot questions and doesn’t let me skate by with nonsense. Hopefully she’ll soon find an agent for her work. It needs to be out there in the world. It’s that good. And if any agents are reading this, her name’s Effy Traicheff and she’s the real deal.

Mitchell D. Strauss, my all-around best buddy, is an avid crime noir reader (big fan of Harry Bosch) and after reading my first draft he told me I needed to toughen Hayden up a little bit. Take a little of the Grant Tracey out of Hayden Fuller. He also helped me create greater urgency in the overall narrative arc and pushed me to come up with a “splash” opening to draw readers in. Caitlin, my oldest daughter, reads all the time (fifty books this summer), and she loves all kinds of crime stories from Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels to Cheap Amusements. She helped with rewrites and replotting and honing in on Hayden’s sensibilities.

You’re frequently drawn to historical periods in your fiction, and Cheap Amusements is set in 1965. What’s the attraction of historical settings, and why the Sixties for this book?

I love the Sixties. So much optimism and a time of societal change: the Civil Rights Act, and the overall questioning of authority and patriarchal privilege. The era brought about the fight for gay rights, women rights, and war protest movements. I also just love the fashions, the look, the music (Dylan, Cash, the Stones), the TV shows.

Hockey is obviously a great love of yours. How does your passion for the game fuel your fiction?

In some ways the scaffolding for Cheap Amusements places elements of hockey into Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. My Marlowe is an ex-NHL’er. The Sterwnood sisters are the Stabulas girls, hockey fans, and Eddie Mars, the gambler, is now Babe Migano, a crime kingpin with links, gambling and otherwise, to Maple Leaf Gardens. My story takes us into a demimonde of gangsters and sports, centering around Canada’s obsessions with hockey, and how such obsessions encourage reporters to look the other way, rather than at the institution’s flaws. Some hockey players did beat up their wives in the 1960s and the media didn’t address it.

I also loved writing all the hockey stuff, the inside info about the game’s history and sensibilities, and the novel does end with a hockey metaphor.

I know you’re thinking of the next Hayden Fuller mystery. Any hints about what that story may be about?

I’ve already started working on a sequel, “A Fourth Face.” Bobby Ehle, ex Leaf rear-guard, is accused of killing his ex-wife (she was stalked by him and beaten badly, but did he kill her?). He asks Hayden to find the real killer while Bobby contemplates fleeing to Cuba. Hayden’s journey leads him to a confrontation with Lennie Cassel, a Detroit mobster, Cliff Airedale, a plastic surgeon, and a host of other mobsters and corrupt businessmen and hockey scouts. Cheap Amusements supporting characters Babe Migano, Dawn Stoukas, and Sal Lambertino make their presence felt in this new two-fisted tale.

Readers have described the cinematic quality of your writing. How does your love of film and your passion for teaching film affect your narrative style? Who are some directors and/or screenwriters that you think have influenced your storytelling techniques?

In terms of straight-ahead literary writing, John Cassavetes and many of his films: Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), and Husbands (1970) is a prime influence on my work. I like his emphasis on characterization and the shifting tonalities that occur in his scene work as conversations move from one mood to another, directing the story. He always places characters first. And in my own writing I want the dialogue to move like a Cassavetes film. In terms of Cheap Amusements, my influences are painterly: hard-bop jazz records, 1960s muscle cars, and noir visuals, the Nighthawks-like nightscapes of Alton and Macdonald and the irrational chaos of Samuel Fuller, and how you can’t trust what you see. The world is a swirl of confusion. I want my visuals to create a mood of urgency and, at times, alienation. In terms of my liberal leanings and sense of hope I’ve got to go with the TV writers: Paddy Chayefsky, Gene Roddenberry, Reginald Rose, and Rod Serling.


Grant Tracey, thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has published more than fifty short stories and four collections of his fiction, including Final Stanzas (released by Twelve Winters Press is 2015). He teaches courses in creative writing and film at the University of Northern Iowa, where he also serves as fiction editor of the prestigious North American Review. In addition to his writing, teaching and editing, Grant has performed in over twenty community theater productions. Visit Grant’s Amazon page. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss.)

Interview with Pauline Uchmanowicz: Starfish

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 28, 2016

Since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 and beginning to publish in 2013, oftentimes I’ve had to do a fair amount of detective work to find the projects I wanted to bring out. For example, I might read a writer’s work that I like very much in a journal , and their contributor’s note says they have a novel, or story collection, or poetry collection that’s looking for a home–then I go about tracking down the author and trying to get a look at their manuscript. In other instances, wonderful manuscripts have come to me out of the blue, as if handed down by the literary divinities. Such was the case with Starfish, a collection of poems by Pauline Uchmanowicz.

Last June my wife Melissa and I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and we had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Stephen Haven, the director of The Ashland Poetry Press. After the conference, Stephen and I stayed in touch about this or that poetry- or publishing-related issue. In the fall, an email arrived from Stephen with a manuscript attached to it: a collection of poetry by Pauline Uchmanowicz. Stephen admired the collection, but it wasn’t going to fit into Ashland’s publishing schedule, so he was wondering if Twelve Winters may be interested in it.

I, too, was much impressed by the work, and downright moved by many of the poems. I contacted the poet, who directs the undergraduate creative writing program at SUNY New Paltz. It turns out she was at the NAR Conference also, and she had visited Twelve Winters’ table, and picked up The Waxen Poor, a poetry collection by J. D. Schraffenberger, so she was familiar with the Press and with the quality of the work we were producing. Soon we came to an agreement to release her spellbinding collection in print and digital editions.

I asked Twelve Winters’ contributing editor John McCarthy to work with Pauline to finalize the manuscript for publication, and I’m happy to report that Starfish was released last week, available in print, Kindle and Nook editions. It’s become a tradition that I interview our authors about their books, and so what follows are Pauline’s unedited responses to a series of questions I sent her.

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You’ve been published widely, including two chapbooks of poetry, but Starfish is your first full-length collection. Would you discuss the evolution of this project, and its path to publication?

Bill Knott, with whom I studied in the 1980s, liked to boast that Stéphane Mallarmé wrote few poems in his lifetime, and “nearly all of them perfect.” Also during the 80s, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (to paraphrase remarks he made at a public reading) said it surprised him when poets proclaimed to be working on a book: “You don’t hear a painter say, ‘I’m working on a museum installation.’ A painter works on a painting; a poet works on a poem.” (The present-day art and publishing worlds might contest this dictum.) Meanwhile, Virginia Hamilton Adair—though her work appeared widely in top literary journals—published her first volume of poems, Ants on the Mellon, at the age of eighty-four.

So, for the past thirty years, always “working on a poem” until as realized as possible, I was never in a hurry to publish a full-length volume until the time to do so felt right. Now is the time.

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Stephen Haven, director of The Ashland Poetry Press, shared your manuscript with me because he was impressed by it, but budget issues were impacting his wherewithal to bring out new titles. Obviously it’s been challenging for poets to place their work with presses for a long time (forever?), but is your sense that it’s becoming more and more challenging?

Thank you for mentioning Stephen Haven, a wonderful poet to whom I owe sincere gratitude. The fact that he passed my manuscript on to you in part illustrates what follows.

In some ways, because of independent, small-press, online, and self-publishing, it’s easier than ever for poets to place their work—but in many ways much, much harder, due in large part to the proliferation of MFA programs and professionalization of Creative Writing as an academic discipline. Moreover, these days there is so much competition—and among very good writers. At the same time, the poetry world has always been somewhat insular, with established writers helping younger ones break into publishing. Poets continue to need support from the literary community and also must make themselves known within it—whether small-scale or large. For better or for worse, writers today who “network” increase their chances for publication. Of course, many talented writers (and editors) rightly promote others like themselves.

Crucially, the current wave of small presses—perhaps the lifeblood of “print” today—remains vital to keeping publishing possibilities alive, often through contests and awards with submission fees to defray costs. Also, due to the sheer volume of books that come out each year, poets have to do much more of the marketing and promotion than ever before, even if working with national or university presses.

All that said, working closely with Twelve Winters Press has been a privilege, my own input valued throughout the publishing process.

Starfish is divided into three parts. What was your thinking in terms of its structure, and the arrangement of the poems? Were there any agonizing choices, or once you figured out your modus operandi did the structure come together fairly easily?

In addition to book design (and TWP does a great job), the ordering of poems remains essential among elements in any poetry volume. While I’d like to claim a grand scheme for organizing Starfish into three sections—a trinity of mind, body, soul, for example—instead my decision was based on how poems might meaningfully unfold consecutively as well as side-by-side (verso and recto). Specific themes, motifs, and catalogs became apparent, such as a suite of poems that questions what to relinquish, what to retain, proceeding from the final lines of “Beachside Burial”: “why no one returns / for what was left / behind?” But broad categories do emerge. For example, the middle section has several seaside poems, while in contrast the final one is announced by the poem “Landlocked.” Also, after working for so many years on the manuscript, I had a fairly good idea of where to place each selection.

The poems in the collection tend to be brief, often a single stanza. Has this brevity been typical of your poetry throughout your career, or is Starfish a departure in this regard?

My preference as a reader has always been for small, well-made poems featuring suppressed subjectivity (as in the absence of “I”) and universal emblems—poems that likely will endure in terms of structural integrity and subject matter—fifty or a hundred years from now. The poetry of Ted Kooser, mid-career Louise Glück, and Jean Follain, respectively, comes to mind. So yes, “miniatures” have been a staple of my work all along. Sometimes I do aim to write beyond a page or two, but the process can feel forced (for me), so that I end up editing a poem down to its imagistic essences. With small poems, one can hone in on manifold parts, such as verb choices and rhetorical figures that underscore meaning overall.

I recently attended a program by Juan Felipe Herrera, the U.S. Poet Laureate (and a former creative writing teacher of mine); and one of the issues he discussed was the difficulty associated with writing a long poem and maintaining the intensity of the emotion from beginning to end. Would you agree that longer poems (however one may define “long”) can be challenging for a poet, especially in terms of sustaining the poem’s energy and emotional impact?

Associated with poetry writing today is the buzzword “elliptical,” meaning that beyond sustaining long form and retaining within it a unified vision a poem ought to take surprising, unexpected leaps relative to imagery, as Billy Collins’s work notably does. Such a poem might arrive at an epiphany or apocalyptic closure, circling back to early moments in its body. But I agree that it can be difficult to sustain vision overall in long form, which some poets resolve through use of numbered or titled section breaks. Also, I do see many poems published today that are long-lined and long form, confessional in tone and at times adopting diffused autobiography for “emotional impact.”

Your question also reminds me of a former newspaper editor I worked with who, on the subject of “length” and wordiness, once quipped by way of analogy, “I would have written you a short letter—if I had time.” The challenge of poetry writing in general, I believe, is to use the least amount of words possible to achieve what critic Paul Fussell calls “absolute density.”

Juan Felipe also said that for him, in revision, he often cuts the opening and ending lines of a poem, finding that its core is where the “heat” resides—and by cutting the beginning and ending lines, he can intensify the poem’s emotional impact. As a poet and as a teacher of creative writing, does his process strike a familiar chord with you? How would you describe your writing and revising process?

Juan Felipe’s revision process has resulted in good poetry for him, and in some ways resembles how I work. Like for many poets, a piece of my own may start with a line or an image that places pressure on what follows; I don’t usually cut first lines. Other times, I know where a poem will end, so the challenge becomes building to those final lines. This was the case with the allegorical poem “Death,” which ends with the eponymous figure speaking to a recently departed soul.

But I do find myself cutting not just last lines but whole stanzas. And in teaching creative writing, I sometimes do recommend that student poets cut a final line or couplet, which could serve as the opening of a “new” poem. I’m also big on recommending transpositions, so that the placement of engaging or charged material resonates at well placed moments within a poem.

Speaking of teaching . . . many writers/poets who teach find teaching rewarding but also draining, especially their creative energies. How do you balance teaching with your creative output? Do you find that teaching in some ways encourages and informs your writing and publishing?

The fresh and surprising output of young writers is always delightful to me, making it easy to devote energy to their creative endeavors over my own. Whether teaching writing or literature, I aim to be “fresh” myself in terms of readings, written assignments, and pedagogical approaches. One can spend hours reading and commenting on student work, or on preparing lecture notes and assignments. And in addition to a heavy teaching load, during any given semester I’m directing an independent study, Honors Program thesis, or editorial internship—sometimes all three at once.

Since I direct an undergraduate Creative Writing program, a huge block of my time and energy goes into programming—over a dozen events an academic year with demanding details involved, from booking writers to securing funding. We also put out an expansive student literary magazine, which I edit.

I believe all of these endeavors “encourage” my writing. But the way it gets completed is the same for how teaching and administrative tasks do: I compartmentalize. I’ve always admired writers who work every day—say by rising at 5 a.m. to squeeze in an hour before going to a job. That’s not me, though my writing notebook is always within reach beside the morning cereal bowl and coffee cup.

Which poems in Starfish were the most difficult to write? Were there any technical issues with the poems that presented particular challenges? Are there poems that you’re especially proud of?

Almost every poem in Starfish was difficult to write, some requiring a ridiculous number of drafts (Bill Knott sitting on one’s shoulder, as it were). The same technical issues attend to every selection in the book: the aim of achieving “absolute density” mentioned above. But every once in a while, a poem just “happened.” For example, flipping through a notebook one day, I came upon “Postmark” (untitled at the time), which I barely remembered even writing. So the challenge was to find the emotional center of the poem then to tinker with a few words, and also find an expressive title. A recurring technical puzzle for me in general involves line breaks. I tend to end-stop (rhythmically) lines and always want to find alternate ways of phrasing or incorporating enjambment instead.

At one point, I was proud of the meta-poem Explication de texte, which actually did come about when I was teaching a graduate seminar with close reading at its core. The poem is a single sentence, with every line commenting on itself by using the language of prosody. Usually though, the “current” poem I’m working on most enchants me.

You do other sorts of writing besides poetry (reviews, for example). For lack of a better way of asking this question—do you feel that all your writing, regardless of form or genre, comes from the same place? Or do you have to tap into different parts of your … brain … soul … psyche … to write, say, verse, as opposed to an essay or review?

No matter what one writes, there’s always a rhetorical performance involved, and many of the devices and techniques used to craft poetry influence my writing in prose, from sharpening and tightening for readability and clarity to aiming for lyricism or metaphors that suggest the subject at hand.

Does writing a book review or author profile derive from a different aspect of consciousness than writing a poem? Sure, absolutely, because one’s energy is on representing and championing other people. What does come from the “same place” though is the desire to write as exactingly or as beautifully as possible.

How important do you believe it is for younger poets to be well studied in the history and traditions of poetry? Do you believe it’s crucial to become at least proficient in fixed forms (like the sonnet or sestina) before working with less formally structured poems?

Not to lapse into clichés here, but we all know too many young people who become turned off to poetry before they even engage it fully because canonical works are not familiar to them in terms of imagery or cadences. So I tend to start with free-verse short forms (readings as well as writing assignments)—to focus on what a line is and how it operates—then introduce basic poetic units. But I do believe it’s vital and necessary for younger poets to study and understand historical traditions and also to experiment in fixed forms and accentual-syllabic meter. My tendency though is to always insert the qualifier that a poem crafted in response to an assignment (write a sonnet, write a poem in terza rima) may “modify” a fixed or traditional form.

Overall in teaching poetry writing, I take a page from Martín Espada’s pedagogy: the goal is for each person to develop a unique poetic identity in terms of language and subject matter, with focus on the image (Espada). Thus, learning to read and write poetry means understanding and appreciating poetic images.

Recently I was reading Paul Valéry’s thoughts on writing poetry, and I was particularly struck by his belief that too many young poets, of his day, put too much faith in inspiration, and therefore not enough effort into the hard work of writing and revising a poem. What role do you think inspiration plays in the process, and would you tend to agree with Valéry (as I’ve represented him here)?

I can’t speak to young poets as a whole, but while some known to me reject revision, believing “inspiration” to be an article of faith, most come to the realization that drafting, revising, and polishing are important aspects of “writing” poetry.

On this subject, when interviewing Charles Simic for a profile in Chronogram magazine, and mentioning that his sparse, elegant poems appear divinely made, I was reassured when he stated, unequivocally: “There’s no muse. I don’t take dictation. It’s really a slow process of making the poem—of endless tinkering and revising to make it sound inspired.” So, a goal is for a poem to appear inspired—as if just written down in a single sitting—even if its genesis was far different than that.

Nearly every poet I know enjoys public recitation of their work, and many seem to feel that public performance is the truest way for an audience to receive their work. What are your feelings? Do you enjoy sharing your work via your voice, and do you feel you’re able to represent your poetry more completely than when it is merely read on the page?

Nationally and internationally celebrated poets I’ve heard speak on page-versus-stage poetry have maintained that a poem should read easily on the page and also be easily comprehended—for its lyricism as well as its meaning—when read aloud. I believe if a poem has integrity it will be well received in print or performance. As far as reading one’s work aloud, for me, that takes practice as well. I’m especially struck by what Richard Blanco says on this subject in his brief memoir, For All of Us, One Today, about how he prepared to read his occasional poem for President Obama’s second inaugural. If you watch the video of Blanco’s performance it appears seamless and effortless—but hours and hours of rehearsal went into his four minutes or so on the podium.

Who are some poets, past and present, that you especially admire, and why? Would you point to any poet or two who have been particularly instructive or inspiring?

My list is long and lengthy. I like all kinds of poets and poems from various eras, mainly beginning with the British Romantics (John Keats and William Blake, especially) and moving forward. I like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman from the nineteenth-century American canon. Poets I read over and over again in translation include Jean Follain and Wisława Szymborska. I like dozens and dozens of American poets (some already named but worth repeating here): Lucille Clifton, Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Martin Espada, Linda Gregg, Carl Dennis, and often whomever I happen to be reading or teaching at the moment. I also seek out books by poets whose works I’ve enjoyed reading in literary journals, or who may have won a distinguished prize, like Ansel Elkins for Blue Yodel (Yale Younger Poets Award, 2014). It’s always good to check out what young writers are up to today.

What new projects are currently underway?

I’m “working on a poem” (and another, and another). My notebook is stuffed with nonfiction essays in progress and I’ve recently written a number of short fiction pieces. My next deadline (about one week from now) is for four book reviews.


 

Pauline Uchmanowicz is the author of two poetry chapbooks and has received residency grants at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A freelance writer in the Hudson Valley, her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Ploughshares, Provincetown Arts Journal, Radcliffe Quarterly, Woodstock Times, Z Magazine, and elsewhere. She is associate professor of English and director of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz. (Author photo by Franco Vogt)

Interview with Lynette D’Amico: Road Trip

Posted in June 2015 by Ted Morrissey on June 30, 2015

Twelve Winters Press doesn’t solicit submissions as a general rule. Sometimes we’ll have a call for submissions for a special project, but otherwise, as a publisher, I see myself as more of a hunter-gatherer. That is, I keep my eyes and ears open for interesting projects, and when I pick up a scent, I track it down to see if it pans out.  I believe it was in the summer of 2014 that I received the Quarterly West newsletter which included an announcement of the winner and finalists of its annual novella contest. One of the finalists was “Road Trip” by Lynette D’Amico. There were several finalists, and I’m not sure why that one stood out to me. I’m a big fan of the road trip motif — I’ve taught Homer’s Odyssey many, many times, as I have tales from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and I’m a fan of Kerouac’s On the Road, and McCarthy’s The Road . . . and so on. So maybe it’s as simple as that.

Road Trip - front cover for DIGITAL

I went about tracking down this Lynette D’Amico person on the Web (which took a little doing), and introduced myself and Twelve Winters via email. She responded, and come to find out, her novella had been three times a bridesmaid. Prior to the Quarterly West finalist finish, her little book also had been a finalist for the Paris Literary Prize and, as part of a collection, for the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She had some other impressive writing credentials, including placing a piece with The Gettysburg Review, “Ashes, Ashes,” that had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She said in her email that being contacted by a publisher took some of the sting out of her third close-but-not-quite finish, and she agreed to send me the manuscript.

I was blown away by her novella — its complexity, its intricate structure, its mixing of genres, its main characters who are thoroughly lovable in spite of their glaring flaws, and its offbeat humor. I very much wanted to bring this strange little book into the world. We began our negotiations. I entertained the idea of bringing “Road Trip” out as part of a collection, but ultimately we agreed that it should stand on its own as a novella. The story is highly intertextual, so I liked the idea of perhaps mixing in yet another mode of communication in the form of illustrations of some sort (at least, I think it was my idea — maybe Lynette suggested it first . . . I could easily be persuaded she did). Ultimately, Lynette found some photographs from the Wisconsin Historical Society and from a book titled Death of the Dream that she wanted to include in the book. The odd and often haunting photographs definitely added another layer to her already multi-layered novella.

I enlisted the aid of a couple of the Press’s loyal editors to read the manuscript and work with Lynette to finalize it for publication; then beginning in about March of this year I re-entered the process, and Lynette and I went about creating Road Trip in its final form, in print and digital editions. (Lynette is at work on an audio version of Road Trip as well.) On June 22, 2015, the novella entered the world. I sent Lynette some interview questions about her book and her process, and what follows are her unedited responses. SPOILER ALERT: At times the interview drifts into details of the novella you may not want to know before reading it (I wouldn’t have).

Lynette-6

The travel narrative obviously has a rich history. The Bible is filled with travel stories. There’s Homer’s Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, with your own book perhaps being more closely related to Kerouac’s On the Road. Why do you think the travel narrative has been so attractive to storytellers, and what specifically attracted you to it for Road Trip?

Isn’t it a version of the travel narrative that we all see ourselves as coming from somewhere on our way to somewhere else? Well, maybe that’s a version of the travel narrative written by white men of a particular social class. When I was 21 or 22, I tried to wrangle a posse of girlfriends to drive from a first-ring suburb of St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. My friends wanted to bake on a beach, so I wrote to chambers of commerce, collected maps, a sleeping bag, and hit the road alone. I made it as far as Taos before I exhausted my credit limit and my own capacity for adventure—sleeping and not sleeping in my car with all the doors locked at state parks.

The notion of the road trip immediately inspires a sense of the unknown; it has its own engine—we’re heading out from Point A to Point B, or to points unknown. I needed a trajectory for Road Trip, something that would propel the story forward, and place the characters of Myra and Pinkie in time and space, and a literal road trip does the trick.

There’s a line in a story by Paul Yoon, “So That They Do Not Hear Us,” that I get caught on, “. . . there was a time she had departed and was now wishing to return to.” This nostalgia for returning is also a part of the mythology of a road trip: we want to go back to where we started, and the inherent sadness of the road trip for Myra and Pinkie is that even if they get back to where they started, even if they return, nothing will ever be the same again.

Some of the travel narratives I mentioned have a significant supernatural element in them—as does your novella. What do you think the connection is between travel and the supernatural?

Travel removes us from the familiar. In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she says that “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” The expectation of the travel narrative is exploration of the unknown; to turn a corner or come into a clearing, where “I have never seen this place before” and the unexpected becomes possible.

Flimic references that inform Road Trip include David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, the Cohen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Wizard of Oz, and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. And by “inform,” I mean I paid attention that if you’re on a road trip, something’s gotta happen along the way, and I like it when the something that happens along the way is a little weird, or incorporates unreal elements.

A few years back my spouse and I were staying in a cabin in the Adirondacks. We woke up early the morning we were due to leave and rather than go back to sleep, we packed the car and got on the road before dawn. There were no cars on the road, no lights; it was foggy and misty, and all of a sudden we saw a one-armed figure in the middle of the road. Polly was driving. We both screamed and Polly, who has the reflexes of an athlete, swerved and braked hard. We looked around and there was no one on the road. We kept driving. Did we really see a one-armed man on a foggy road? And where did he go? In writing, and perhaps in life, anything is possible on the road—one-armed hitchhikers, or red-headed hitchhikers in one-piece bathing suits and flip-flops pulling doughnuts and mini-bottles of vodka out of a bottomless purse.

The structure of Road Trip is decidedly nonlinear. You have several characters embarking on various storylines, and the reader constantly shifts between these storylines, as well as back and forth temporally. How did this rather frenetic structure come about? Was it planned early on in the composition, or did it develop more organically while you were writing Road Trip?

Nothing was planned! I so rarely work with any kind of intentionality unless I’m writing an essay, but even then I leave plenty of space for discovery. Road Trip started as one straight-line short story called “No Brakes”—the story of Myra and Pinkie—more or less. It was a big sprawling mess, but from the one draft I had the last words, “no brakes,” and in subsequent drafts I wrote towards that line. It was always fragmented, but I had sections in it about Ed Gein, the Plainfield, Wisconsin, killer who is the model for Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, which didn’t make the cut and sections called “What Does My Mother Have to Do with This” that were kind of funny stories about my mother talking about death, but their destiny was foretold by their heading. Then my first semester in grad school I worked with the brilliant Kevin (Mc) McIlvoy, who taught me one simple thing about braiding story chords (I don’t mean that he told me one thing; he told me a million things, but I actually managed to hold onto this one right thing): He referred to the turns in the long version of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos: “You thought we were entering a pond? No. You thought we were entering a lake? No. Here: the ocean. The ocean: hear.” His comment translated into some kind of circular, touch-and-go movement in the story. Mc encouraged me to think about fragmentation­—breaking blocks of text into small islands to introduce a rhythmic discontinuity and dynamic disjunction into the narrative. To my surprise, as I broke the main narrative down and split the secondary narrative into discrete modules, I was able to see the shape of the story. In pulling everything apart, the story came together for me.

Myra Stark (the narrator) and Pinkie have a complex relationship. What do you think is at the core of their friendship? Are you basing this complex friendship on any real-life models?

In all the conversations and discussions I’ve had about this book, I’ve never tried to explain the relationship between Myra and Pinkie, except maybe to myself.  Early feedback I got on the story was that Myra was so mean to Pinkie wasn’t I worried that readers wouldn’t like her? I also heard that Pinkie was beyond believable infuriating. Beyond believable in a story with ghosts and an animated butter and cheese doll? Well, it doesn’t hurt my feelings if readers don’t like Myra or Pinkie. My interest is in creating complex, difficult characters that readers want to argue with or talk to on a long road trip. My interest is that readers keep reading.

I had in mind a complicated relationship between two women, a relationship if not as clear-cut as lovers, then maybe a friendship betrayed, or a friendship of history and habit and conflicted feelings. In my own life, I’ve had friendships that blew up, I’ve disappointed and been disappointed by friends. I wrote pages and pages, which is my way of thinking, trying to discover a relationship that existed beyond estrangement and death. What I discovered in the process was that I wasn’t really interested in Myra and Pinkie making peace. Theirs was a relationship that would extend in its contentiousness beyond death. One of my models for Myra and Pinkie’s relationship was Sula Peace and Nel Wright from Toni Morrison’s Sula. Sula is a devastating novel about the relationship between two black women from the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. The story follows Sula and Nel from the 1920s as young girls, then young women; their falling apart, and through the death of the title character, which corresponds with the slow decline of the black community they come from. When Sula is ill and alone, Nel visits her and asks her a question she had been struggling with since the friends had ceased being friends after Sula slept with Nel’s husband:

“I was good to you, Sula, why don’t that matter?” Sula turned her head away from the boarded window. . . . “It matters, Nel, but only to you. Not to anybody else. Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.”

“Being good to somebody is just like being mean to something. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.” That line is at the heart of the relationship between Myra and Pinkie.

Road Trip was originally part of a collection (which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2012). How is Road Trip similar to and different from other pieces in that collection?

Other stories in the collection, although not all the stories, use similar nonreal elements as appear in Road Trip, such as ghosts, and a couple of the stories try to be funny. I think a problem with the collection is that Road Trip was in it. The other stories are about families: mothers and daughters, sisters, and the relationships you are born into versus the relationships you choose. Road Trip might have been too much of its own animal to work with the collection.

For a long time the novella, as a form, was “persona non grata” in the publishing world—too long to be published as a story, and too short to be taken as seriously as a novel. But the novella’s status seems to have improved in recent years. Major houses are publishing them, and some have even fared well in national contests competing right alongside full-length novels. How do you personally feel about the novella form, compared to story and novel writing?

I love the novella form. I went around for a while pitching a book that was going to be comprised of three novellas! That plan fell by the wayside due to lack of interest—not on my part but on the part of every publishing venue that I approached—but I like to keep a novella percolating on the back burner, something to dip into from time to time. I’m still new to novel writing. I’m writing a novel, but I am a little shy about saying that I’ve written a novel yet. Time will tell. The only form that I feel sure about before I write it is the short story. Sure, in that I usually know if a short story is going to be a short story when I start writing, although I’m open to surprises too.

The most obvious way to differentiate novellas from stories and novels is, of course, by word count, which is typically in the 20,000 to 40,000 word range—but word count is only one indicator of what a novella is and it doesn’t address form. Author Debra Spark, who I had the great fortune to work with at Warren Wilson, has an essay about the novella in her book on the craft of writing called Strange Attractions. She refers to Howard Nemerov’s essay “Composition and Fate in the Short Novel,” and says that novellas “must represent not simply a compression but a corresponding rhythmic intensification, and not just for plot—which we expect from most fiction—but for design.” Rhythmic intensification to me means exerting pressure on every element: language, sentences, paragraphs, which is compounded by and propelled by tone. It’s a process of distillation. The best way I can think of to illustrate what I’m talking about is with these few novellas and short novels that are particularly important to me:

The Body Artist, Don DeLillo.

I am a freak for DeLillo and then I go through periods where I can’t read another word of his. The Body Artist is a drifty, dreamy book with the thinnest of plots and the first fifty pages or so is this excruciating chapter of a domestic scene that is written kind of like in real time. The book is like a dream. I love The Falling Man by DeLillo too.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I reread or listen to Gatsby two or three times a year. I would like to write a collection of essays from lines from Gatsby. Every line opens a world.

Tinkers, Paul Harding

Another drifty, dreamy novella, and the first chapter in which the main character tells his own death in the context of the house he built falling down around him is brilliant.

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

The main character of Train Dreams is opaque and unreflective, but Johnson evokes a whole way of life and period of history through the character Grainier—of logging and the woods and labor and heartbreak in Idaho in the early part of the twentieth century. I love this book as an example of how to tell a story through characterization.

So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell

I like my fiction a little slapdash and hard-edged, language-driven or image-driven or just voice-y—funny, snappy voice-y. So Long, See You Tomorrow isn’t that kind of book. It’s such a quiet, meditative book, but I read it, then listened to the audio file of the author William Maxwell reading it, which is an extraordinary experience, then I read it again. And maybe a few more times. I’ve heard the book referred to as a nonfiction novel because the first half of the book is written like a memoir in which the author William Maxwell is the central character. He tells an account of a murder on a tenant farm outside of Lincoln, Illinois, the small Midwestern town where Maxwell was born and lived until he started high school. The second half of the book is a fictionalized account of the murder from a third-person omniscient perspective. I love that this book tells the same story many different ways.

Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje

The subject of the novella is a fictionalized account of the life of New Orleans jazz trumpet player Buddy Bolden. The novel incorporates point of view jump cuts, lists, lyrics, descriptions of photographs, and invented and historical interviews in an attempt to enter the character and historical figure of Buddy Bolden. The presentation is disjointed and imagistic and opens up whole worlds.

Why Did I Ever, Mary Robison

Funny as hell. And sad. Written in 536 little sections. Not an extra word.

Road Trip must have had a fairly long and adventurous trip of its own before being published. Could you talk about your efforts to get it into print, and what kind of a journey that was for you as a writer, including emotionally.

Over the past several years, Road Trip was a finalist in a few well-considered contests—always a bridesmaid, as they say. Every time I got on one of those close-but-no-cigar lists, an agent or two would contact me and ask “what else you got?” Nobody was interested in a novella, or in the novella as part of a collection of short fiction. I think Road Trip didn’t really work in a collection. If the collection had won some prize, that might have made a difference, but generally, what I heard from agents was that they wanted a novel, and there’s nothing like the attention of a few publishing professionals to completely derail my writing practice and sidetrack me from the work, which is ultimately what matters. So, I tried to keep my head down and just keep focused on the page.

I had stopped submitting Road Trip to journals—the few that are open to considering novella-length work—but I’d gear up and send it around to the couple of novella contests that come around every year. After an appearance on the finalist list for the 2014 Quarterly West Novella contest (which I lost to Nathan Poole, a fellow Warren Wilson alum, which by the way, if you’re a fan of the novella or just gorgeous writing, read his winning novella Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost or his collection of short fiction from Sarabande, Father, Brother, Keeper), you contacted me. As I think I said to you in my initial response, nothing takes the sting out of losing like a query from a publisher. I was impressed with Twelve Winters’ dedication to independent publishing, your commitment to publishing literary titles that might be a little off the beaten track, as well as your plans to expand the press’s fiction list. Let me just say, too, that I have a lot of writer friends who operate like literary hoarders. Playwrights who are holding out and holding out—they don’t want their work to be produced at a small local theater in case Steppenwolf or The Public wants to consider their play, writers who have their marketing plans in place before they finish a first draft. The upshot is an unproduced play (or an unpublished book) sitting in a drawer or on a computer file. I started writing later in life, and besides feeling the pressure of age in a youthful field, I want my work to be in the world. I liked that Twelve Winters is an entrepreneurial endeavor. I liked that you are a reasonable guy who is interested in working with his authors to make the best books possible. I liked that you were willing to take a chance on my weird, sad-funny novella. I think it’s worked out.

How did a Midwesterner with “a prairie eye” end up in Boston? Does your writing tend to focus on the Midwest, or do you sometimes find your East Coast environment an appropriate setting for your fiction?

I lived a lifetime in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Then my spouse, who works in theatre, got a job offer in Chicago. While she was in Chicago interviewing, my mother died. We sold our house, I quit my job, and we moved three months later.

After kicking me around for a year or so, Chicago became my best friend. I came to think of Chicago as my place. And then we moved again. To Boston, following Polly’s career again. We’ve been here now for three years. Boston has been a culture shock, more so even than the traffic in Chicago, where I drove for three years without ever making a left turn. There’s the cost of housing in Boston and the contrast with all the hardscrabble Massachusetts hill towns and then all these tiny, tight New England states. I can drive for twenty minutes and cross three state lines. I miss having an uninterrupted view. I miss driving for hours and hours and the unchanging landscape. I miss parking. To find my place here, I’m considering the ocean, which is right across the street from where we live in South Boston. I’ve lived with Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, both beloved to me, but the ocean requires a different relationship. I haven’t written anything yet about the East Coast, beyond ranting emails, but I likely will.

Could you talk about your writing process? Are you someone who consistently follows a routine, or do you write more in fits and starts as ideas and inspiration come to you?

I try to write everyday, which some days is more aspirational than realistic.

I think of it as exercise—another aspirational pursuit. If I don’t have a couple hours to write during the day, then I at least try to engage my current project in some way—through research, which can include reading, watching movies, listening to podcasts, music, eating whole boxes of dry cereal and bags of chips—I’ll use anything. Of course having an open-ended definition of research sometimes means that I lose days on the internet reading about how to frame a door, or birds of the prairie, or just googling writer bios in publications that have rejected me and comparing their lives to my own.

What are your current writing/creative projects?

I’m presently finishing a novel called The Third Twin, which is about renditions of home, how to make a home, homesickness, homelessness. It might be a reaction to moving around so much. Myra Stark appears in The Third Twin too. I also have a collection of short fiction called Below the Surface.

You’re a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. There’s been a lot of discussion of late about the escalating number of MFA programs, and whether or not they actually help someone to become a better writer and establish a career as a writer, etc. What are your thoughts on the “MFA question”? How did Warren Wilson and its instructors nurture (or hinder) you as a writer?

I spent years trying to write over weekends, or in one-week or two-week increments—my allotted vacation time—or early in the morning or late at night, between working full-time. When I met Polly, I was introduced to the work of some of the best theater artists in the country—Lisa D’Amour, Deborah Stein, Kirk Lynn, Dominic Orlando, Sherry Kramer. My proximity to the world of theater and playwriting allowed me a fuller understanding of what it means to be an artist and the odds against gaining any kind of recognition or audience for your work. It was the example of many of these theater artists that pushed me to consider what I was doing with my own writing and what it meant to pursue a career as a writer. I saw the value of formal training in my chosen field, the necessity of credentials, and the importance of being connected to an academic institution or a professional organization. I decided to pursue an MFA. Writer friends, who had gone back to school later in life, recommended low-residency MFA programs.

My MFA program was a great gift to myself. Since I had been making my living as a writer in advertising and marketing communications, I came into the program thinking that I really didn’t have much to learn. It took one residency to disabuse me of that particular delusion. I listened to James Longenbach deliver a lecture on the excess of poetry to show how excess can be used to heighten a poem’s meaning, citing examples from Ezra Pound’s Canto 74, Emily Dickinson’s “The vastest earthly day,” John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and my head blew off. I realized I didn’t know anything. But I knew the difference between inspiration, a first draft, and material that was ready for an audience. I didn’t take rejection personally. I trusted my skills and I was prepared to start over every day. With the help of brilliant mentors and an intentionality that considers the arc of a student’s development as a writer throughout the program, I cultivated a craft lens to consider what I’m doing in my work and how to look at the work of other writers. I came out of the program a better writer, reader, and editor, and I’d also say, a better cultural citizen as part of a community of Warren Wilson alumni that extends after graduation.

So to get back to the question, earning an MFA changed me as a writer and a person, and it allowed me entrance to a supportive and far-reaching community of faculty and alumni.

I don’t pay much attention to the pervasive rhetoric that circles around every season or so, calling out that MFA programs in creative writing are mass producing mediocre writers who support the uninspired and uninspiring literary journals and elite publishing venues that publish work by the same crew of insiders from insider MFA programs. I am mostly indifferent to the ongoing MFA controversy. Where I’d shed blood is over the line that creative writing can’t be taught. Teaching is complicated, writing students are varied, and my life is forever changed by the dedication and generosity of my teachers.

Who are some writers or works of literature that have been especially important to you? What have you learned from them, either about writing or about living?  

In addition to the list of books above, I’ll add a few others: Lewis Nordan, author of (among other titles) Wolf Whistle, Music of the Swamp, and Lightning Song. Some time ago, I heard Lewis Nordan read in Minneapolis with Dorothy Allison. I was at the reading for Dorothy Allison, but what I remember was Lewis Nordan reading an extended scene from Wolf Whistle, which is a fictional account of the murder of Emmett Till. The scene Nordan read was from the point of view of Bobo’s—the murdered child’s—“demon eye,” the eye that is knocked out by the killer’s bullet. Nordan gives Bobo a voice in death that was not available to him in life. Not only does the dead boy’s vision expand to see past his own death into the lives of characters he hadn’t encountered previously, he also sees into the future and the significance of his murder, “worlds invisible to him before death.” The scene is devastating and out of place and so audacious. I read Nordan to model how to tell a sad story funny. Ditto with Lorrie Moore, Mary Robison, Sherman Alexie, and—Samuel Beckett? I saw a production of Endgame at Steppenwolf Theatre when we lived in Chicago. There was an Eastern European woman sitting next to me with her grandson, I presumed, who looked to be about 11 or 12. Before the show started, she leaned over to her young companion and said, “To understand everything, you must first understand the Nothingness. This is the Nothingness.” I think the Nothingness is pretty funny.

It wasn’t until I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, for grad school that I was anywhere south, but I read so many Southern writers, like Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Tennessee Williams to understand the use of voice, language, tone, velocity, and relationship to place.

An author that I turn to often is Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping is my version of a perfect book. I like imperfection in novels, sideroads, an authorial breakdown or two. If a work is shorter, I have higher expectations. Perfection is realized in Housekeeping. It’s just a book that I love so much. I love those sad sisters, I love the elegant, image-dense sentences, I love the lake, I love the name of the town—Fingerbone! When I was writing many of the stories in my collection Below the Surface, I looked at Housekeeping for a view of another version of family, and on the first page of my novel, The Third Twin I have this quote from Housekeeping, “Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.”

Books that I’m living with at the moment, and by living with, I mean literally, the books I have piled on every surface in my apartment:

Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon. This is a beautiful novel where the pressure on the language drives the story. Not much happens. Almost no dialogue. Close third POV. A North Korean war refugee is relocated to Brazil. On a sentence by sentence level, an exquisite book.

Citizen, Claudia Rankine. My particular interest is in how Rankine incorporates visual art into her poetry. She and her husband, the videographer John Lucas, made a series of video “Situations” that are referred to in Citizen. The book is a living document, or art installation.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. I’m not a theory head. I like to read bits and pieces of theory to sort of launch off of, but mostly it’s not my thing. My thing is story. I write creative nonfiction too, so when I’m reading The Argonauts, I’m considering the story first, then form and structure, POV, language, and then somewhere down the line, if I get around to it, I’ll think about the ideas. Nelson’s subjects—falling in love, making family, motherhood, change and transition inherent in any relationship and the queering of those constructs—are reflected in the form of the text which are short little paragraphs.

What compelled you to use historic photos in the novella? What do you hope they add to the novella as part of the reading experience? How’d you go about finding them?

For me, the photos are all about entering the story. I visited the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin, this past spring to do photo research.

A book of photographs by William G. Gabler of abandoned Midwestern farmplaces was one of the inspirations for Road Trip. The book is The Death of the Dream and two of the photographs from that book appear in Road Trip. When I came across Gabler’s book I was living in Western Wisconsin on 20 acres in an L-shaped farmhouse. I had grown up living in new houses, built to order. Living in a rural area in a house that was built at the turn of the century, on land that had been cleared and cultivated and then gone back to woods, excited my imagination. From Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, “…the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

In that farmhouse I dreamed and those dreams enter everything I write.

I came across another book, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, which is a collection of photographs by the nineteenth century photographer Charles Van Schaik taken in the city of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The photographs are paired with news reports of suicides and murder, infant death, crime, mental illness, and business failure. The images cast a spell. The first time I looked at Wisconsin Death Trip, I kept the book in my car. I didn’t want the book in the house, I didn’t want it in the place where I ate breakfast and slept; the book is at odds with the idea of shelter.

When I started thinking of Road Trip, I used Death of the Dream and Wisconsin Death Trip to set the scene, so to speak, for the story. Then I became fixated on a photo of threshing from the Wisconsin Historical Society. This photo evoked Road Trip for me, which is kind of funny because it’s not an image of a wagon train or any other kind of a road trip—it’s a photo of threshing with horse-drawn wagons in the early 20th century. The photo ultimately didn’t make it into the book, but it was an early contender for the cover image and it was my screen saver while I was writing Road Trip. Then I saw the image of the mannequin in the window of a hat shop in Black River Falls. I wrote the scene of Carmella shaping a butterhead girl/man with a mustache based on this image. The photos in the book are not necessarily specific to the time period of the Starks’ story line, but I was more interested in conveying atmosphere rather than hyperrealism. So in some instances, the photos informed the story and in others, the story is enhanced I hope by the photos.

Lynette D’Amico worked in publishing and advertising for a decade. Today, she is a former ad writer and graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Ocean State Review and at Brevity and Slag Glass City. She is the content editor for the online performance journal HowlRound. Born in Buffalo, New York, she has lived in St. Louis, Minneapolis and Chicago. She makes her home in Boston with her love Polly Carl.

(Author photo by Meg Taintor)

When Not to Edit

Posted in May 2015 by Ted Morrissey on May 18, 2015

I’ve been writing for publication since high school (I graduated, ahem, in 1980), and I’ve been editing publications since then, including scholastic publications and the literary journals A Summer’s Reading and Quiddity. In 2012 I founded Twelve Winters Press, and I’ve had a hand in editing each of the books we’ve published (we’ll be releasing our ninth title next month). Editing a book is different, of course, from editing a piece for a journal — but no matter the context, I’ve come to believe that there’s a right time to edit someone’s work, and there’s most definitely a wrong time.

It’s the latter that has prompted me to write this post, and in particular an encounter with the editor-in-chief of a well-respected literary journal which ended in her withdrawing my piece due to “Author unwilling to cooperate with editorial process.” About two years earlier I had a similar encounter with a literary press — but in that case I had signed a contract allowing the press editorial control of the piece, never imagining how far its editor-in-chief would take liberties.

I’m not going to identify the publications and their editors.  Even though I disagree with their approaches, I respect that they’re doing important and largely thankless work.  I have no interest in blackening their eyes, but there are a lot of editors at work — what with online journals and print-on-demand publishers springing up daily — so I think it’s worth discussing when the right and wrong times to edit are.

I had very similar experiences with the journal and the publisher, so I’m going to focus on the more recent experience with the journal.  Last week I received in the mail the issue that my short story “Erebus” was supposed to appear in (I generally try to support the journals that publish my work by buying subscriptions).  It’s an attractive little journal, which no doubt contains some very good pieces.  It would have been a nice feather in my CV cap.

The problem, as I see it, is one of timing.  The story was accepted for publication with no caveats whatsoever on November 29, 2014.  Months went by, during which time I supported the journal by including the forthcoming publication on my website and in my bio to other journals — some free publicity if you will.  Then I received the following email with my edited story attached:

[March 21 — 7:16 p.m.]

Dear Ted,

I’m sending out copy edits for the upcoming issue, and have attached yours to this message.

My edits are made using the track changes feature, and comments/questions/suggestions are included in comment balloons in the document. Please make any changes within the document with track changes turned on. Please do not accept any of my changes or delete comments, as I will need those to remain in place as references. If everything looks okay to you, please let me know by e-mail (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes).

Thank you and I look forward to including your work in the upcoming issue! Just let me know if you have any questions.

It was obviously a generic email sent to all contributors (which is understandable) because when I opened the document I found there were numerous changes and requests for changes — so “[i]f everything looks okay to you, please let me know by email (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes)” didn’t even apply because there were places here and there where the editor (or another editor) wanted me to replace a word or revise a section to make some other aspect of the story plainer — things to that effect.  Also, someone must have read Stephen King’s On Writing and really taken his disdain for adverbs to heart because every adverb in the 3,300-word story was deleted, regardless of how it impacted the meaning of the sentence.  Moreover, I’ve developed a style for my literary work that uses punctuation (or doesn’t use it) in nonstandard ways; and the editor had standardized my punctuation throughout.

I was flummoxed.  Here are our verbatim exchanges over the next few weeks:

[March 21 — 8:31 p.m.]

Hi, [Editor]. While I can see some improvements here and there, in general the editing is too heavy-handed, for example, the addition of quotation marks and tinkering with italics.  I’m well aware of conventional rules, and I’m breaking them.  I’m not sure why journal editors accept pieces for publication, then find so much fault with them before publication.  I’m ok with considering a wording change or two, but I’m not comfortable with this amount of editing.

If you didn’t care for the story in its original form, you should have rejected it.  I’m not sure where that leaves us.  Thank you for the time and thought you’ve put into my story, but I disagree with much of what is suggested here.  Not angry, just disappointed and a little frustrated.

Ted

* * *

[April 1 — 12:09 p.m.]

Hi Ted,

While I’m aware that you were intentionally breaking stylistic conventions, I added things like quotation marks because they were needed for clarity, i.e., to separate narrative from dialogue. There were some sections where the distinction wasn’t clear without them. Many of the other changes I implemented were for our house style. However, those edits are minor in light of many of the other edits that are suggested, notably in the comments. I edit every piece before publication…that’s what editors do. So, that is to say that the edits aren’t personal, and in my experience, that is the reaction of many new writers, to take edits personally somehow. So the bottom line is that if you’re not comfortable making any changes to your work, then I’ll withdraw it from the issue and you’re free to shop it elsewhere.

Let me know.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:42 p.m.]

Edit “Erebus” however you see fit, [Editor]. Thank you for including it in the journal.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:50 p.m.]

There are editorial suggestions in the comments that require your feedback. I have attached the piece again. Below are the instructions for editing in track changes:

Edits are made using the Track Changes feature in Word. Please look over the edits and changes I have made, and let me know if you accept these or have any questions. Of course, if there is anything you disagree with, please let me know and we can discuss it to try to reach a mutually agreeable solution. If you make any further changes, please make sure that you do so with Track Changes toggled on, so that I can be sure that your work makes it into the final copy; otherwise, I may not see it.

Please have edits back to me by 4/5, if possible

* * *

[April 1 — 2:09 p.m.]

Gosh, [Editor]. You guys seem to be making this as difficult as you can.  I don’t agree with any of the editorial suggestions/questions, so it’s difficult for me to find a better way of saying things.  I did all that work before I sent it to you, so now we’re into potay-to/potah-to, and I don’t know how to say things the way you want to hear them.  I looked at your comments again to see if I could get into the spirit of things.  I’ve been publishing my writing (fiction, poetry, academic writing, essays, reviews) for thirty-five years, and I’ve been editing and publishing other people’s work for nearly that length of time, and I’ve never experienced a process like this one before.  I disagree with your comments on the story, but I’ve given you free rein to edit it however you like.  If you feel like you can make the story better, please do so.  I’m generously putting my faith in your editorial skills.  I don’t know what more I can do than that.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:10 p.m.]

You can consider “Erebus” withdrawn from the issue.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:40 p.m.]

Thank you.  That’s been my inclination too.

All the best,

t

In offering her carte blanche, I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass (ok, maybe a tiny bit).  After all, her original email said I didn’t need to return the edited document.  But, truly, I didn’t see the point of attempting to guess what wording would make her happy, like trying to sell shoes to someone — “Something with a heel perhaps?  No, a loafer?  Maybe a half-boot?”  There were two aspects of the exchange that I found particularly baffling (and they parallel the experience I had with the literary publisher a couple of years earlier).

One thing I’m baffled by is her surprise (and irritation, I think) that I would take the edits personally. She characterizes it as a shortcoming of “many new writers” (rather condescendingly, I feel).  Well, I ain’t no new writer, so that’s not the problem. I think all writers and poets of literary work take their diction, syntax, and punctuation choices seriously, so why wouldn’t they be emotionally invested in those choices?  And having those choices edited to conform to “house style” is especially irksome, which brings me to the second thing I’m baffled by:  house style?!?

Why in the world would a literary journal have a house style that applies to the actual content of its stories and poems?  Of course they would have a style when it comes to things like the font they use for titles and authors’ names, and they should be consistent in placing a translator’s name at the head or foot of a published piece — things like that.  But a style for the content of the literary work itself?  It’s, well, ridiculous.  “Dear Mr. McCarthy, please insert quotation marks in your dialogue … and Mr. Joyce, no more dashes in your dialogue … and Mr. Shakespeare, stop making up words! — if it’s not in the dictionary, we won’t publish it … Sorry, our hands are tied, house style and all.”

The publisher I had a run-in with two years ago insisted on editing my literary book according to the Chicago Manual of Style.  The CMS, really?

All right, so I disagree with editors imposing arbitrary styles on literary work, but that’s their prerogative, I suppose.  What I find downright unethical is accepting a piece for publication without any reservations, waiting several months, then making significant edits that the author is supposed to accept or else (the publisher flexed her contract language and forced CMS on my work, while the lit journal editor-in-chief withdrew my story, in something of a snit I think).

A better approach, I believe, is the one we use at Twelve Winters Press.  Our editors and readers offer authors feedback — food for thought, as I call it — but the decisions when it comes to the final presentation of the work rest with the writers and poets.  If there are reservations about some aspect of the work, those should be ironed out before it’s formally accepted.  There should be no surprises and heavy-handed editing months and months later.  When our contributing editor John McCarthy was reading submissions for his Extinguished & Extinct anthology, he had some suggestions for authors in a few instances, but they were made up front, before offering publication.  Obviously there are many editors and publishers who operate this way, and as a writer I’ve had the good fortune to work with several of them.

What is more, in the case of the literary journal editor, she took my story out of circulation during the peak reading months of the year, from November to April.  Most lit journals, due to their being affiliated with universities, follow an academic calendar and many begin folding their tents for the year in April or May.  It seems odd to me, also, that the editor felt I was over-reacting to changes that were, in her view, minor — yet she couldn’t see fit to letting the story run in its original form when I expressed my strong preference to leave the story be.  Pulling the story after five months due to a disagreement over minor edits could be seen as an over-reaction too.

It’s my impression that with both the literary publisher and the editor-in-chief, the problem arose in part because another editor had acquired or accepted the work; then someone else took charge of it before it was published.  If so, then the problem is in-house.  If the readers and editors acquiring and accepting work have different artistic sensibilities from the top-dogs on the masthead, it’s going to create problems for the authors they’re publishing.  Ultimately, though, I’d like to see all editors respect their authors and their authors’ work enough to give them the benefit of artistic doubt.  In the commercial, mass market world of publishing, I can see where publishers and editors may feel the need to pull rank since capitalism drives their decisions.  They may well know better than the author what phrasing, what title or what cover image may enhance sales.

But literary publishing isn’t about sales — and don’t I know it!  It’s about being true to the work and respecting the author’s artistic vision . . . or at least it ought to be.