Interviews

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  • Laura Manardo on Chemistry, Fiction, and Beluga Whales

    Laura Katherine Manardo was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She attended Kalamazoo College, where she was Pre-Med, and there discovered her love of writing toward the end of her freshman year. A current graduate student at Columbia College Chicago, her book of poetry, Lemon Water in Lake Michigan, was published in April of 2018. 

    I first met Laura through the English & Creative Writing department of Columbia College Chicago in September of 2017 when we were placed in the same MFA Fiction workshop. Laura’s fiction writing immediately grabbed my attention. She had an incredibly poetic way of writing prose that stood out to me, and her focus on the sea and whales served as a beautiful backdrop to the stories she was telling. When I heard she was a poet, I was not surprised, and eager to know more about her writing. Laura, a natural-born storyteller, did not disappoint as we sat down to eat cookies in Columbia College’s 33 East Congress graduate lounge. 

     

    So, have you settled on a title?

    I haven’t run it by the editor yet, but I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be titled, “Lemon Water in Lake Michigan.” It’s the title of one of the poems in the collection and it is the one that kind of, as soon as I wrote it, realized … you know, this can actually be a whole thing, this can be a collection, because it kind of encompassed everything that I’ve been working on. 

     

    How did you get started with writing?

    Okay, so, I managed to escape out of almost all my English classes in high school because I didn’t like reading, and I took all science classes. I was obsessed with chemistry. Essentially, I just really wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a pediatrician, so I went to Kalamazoo College, because of their science program. I did pretty well—I mean, I wasn’t totally A’s, but it’s pretty hard in pre-med. So, after my first year, at the very end of my winter term I was signing up for classes and I had taken all the required classes for my first year of pre-med, so I had these three free courses. I took an Anti-Apartheid course … and it was amazing, and that was the first class that I took that I was enjoying what I was reading and writing. I also took an Intro to Creative Writing class. I had never written creatively before, except in second grade, when I wrote a short story about a woman who lived in a barn with ghosts. And, essentially, I started writing in the creative writing course and my professor kind of made a comment like, “Wow, Laura, what’s your major?” “Pre-med.” “Oh, that’s so interesting, have you ever taken any English courses?” “No, I haven’t, I wasn’t really planning on it.” “Well, you should just take a ‘Reading the World’ course.” Which was like an Intro to English course at Kalamazoo College.

    So, for the reading, he asked me if I would go first, and I got an A+ in the course and I enjoyed myself more doing that than I ever had doing anything with chemistry, so I was like, “This is kind of crazy.” So then, in the fall, I was still taking the pre-med courses, but I deferred one of the credits and took a ‘Reading the World’ course. It was about classical film and I got a B in the course, but I enjoyed myself and it was very rewarding. So, I think that freshman year of college was where I really started writing and enjoying it. 

     

    Where did the inspiration for this collection come from?

    So, in my senior year of college, I took an Advanced Poetry course, with one of my favorite writers and professors of all time, Diane Suess. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent collection and I honestly feel like I’m like her daughter, based on what she writes, if that makes sense? I read what she writes, and I feel like I am her child of writing! So, my final collection for that course was about marine life and the ocean, and my relationship to myself, and my relationship to men, and my relationship to the world that I live in as a woman. And so, I took two years off before starting grad school and in those two years I continued with that collection, I continued with that final project, and it kind of morphed into just different bodies of water and my relationships with men. So, it kind of follows my relationship with my father, my relationship with my brother, and my relationship with men in sexual and nonsexual ways. That’s kind of what inspired the collection. In the very beginning of my Advanced Poetry course, I had to pick a topic, and of course I love the ocean so much and I’m obsessed with whales so that’s kind of where it started, and it just kind of leached on beyond that and I saw it kind of unfold in front of me. 

     

    What is the first book that made you cry? If a book ever has!

    Yes, books have made me cry. I honestly think that the first—and it’s a short story, if that’s okay—the first short story that made me cry was “A Small Good Thing” by Raymond Carver. The reason that it made me cry is because I read “The Bath” by Carver as well, prior to reading “A Small Good Thing”, and felt not great about it, honestly. Like, okay, this is a good story, it was well crafted, but it wasn’t … it didn’t haunt me, it wasn’t something that left me feeling a certain way that I couldn’t describe, like so many short stories do. When I read “A Small Good Thing,” which is the revised version, essentially, it’s the same story, it made me realize what revision could do to a story. 

    I was actually working on my senior thesis at the time, and I was totally against revision, I couldn’t open up my stories again after I’d written one version. I was like, “This is crazy, it has a beginning, middle, and end, it feels complete, it feels whole, I don’t want to mess it up.” I would be afraid to mess it up, and so I wouldn’t revise. Finally, my thesis advisor, Dr. Bruce Mills, gave me both those stories and said, “Laura, take a look and tell me which story gets to you more and why?” And I just started crying after I read the second version of it. I was kind of like, “Okay, ‘A Small Good Thing’, I get it, you have to open up a story”. Because the bare bones were there in “The Bath” but once Carver finally took it away and added all those new elements and added a new role for the baker in the story it totally shifted my feelings of revision. 

     

    Does writing energize or exhaust you?

    It energizes me, for the most part. So, I think that, in general, it energizes me because once I complete something that I feel is whole or beautiful or something that sparks something in me when I reread it or rewrite it, I’m elated, I feel finally like I’m doing something that I’m supposed to be doing. But it exhausts me sometimes if I have to write a certain amount of pages for a project or classes and I don’t get to what I need to get to in those pages. 

     

    What period of your life do you find you write about most often?

    I would say fourteen to sixteen, because that’s the first time that I fell in love. I fell in love with a boy named Evan and it was deep and pretty chaotic and I find myself falling back into that moment, a lot, of falling in love and falling out of love. I write about now, and my relationship to men as it is now. 

     

    If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?

    I would work with beluga whales! I would be a marine biologist. I would for sure go into marine biology and work with beluga whales because they’re my favorite animal in the whole world. They’re the canaries of the ocean and they deserve so much attention because there are not many of them left. 

     

    What is your favorite childhood book?

    Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. When I was going through puberty, my mom was really worried about me because I wasn’t getting along with my father. He didn’t understand that I was growing into a woman and he wanted me to be this young girl forever. He didn’t understand that I needed to be treated like a woman. So, my mom gave me that book before I started my period and it helped me understand that not everything works out the way you expect it to, but it’s going to be okay. 

     

    Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind of music?

    I don’t listen to music when I write. Like, at all. But, I love going to coffee shops and listening to other people speak and have conversations. It helps me, in fiction, because I’m able to think of realistic dialogue. It also helps me in poetry because of the white noise of it.

     

    How are you feeling about this publication? 

    I’m really excited! You never forget your firsts, so I think that it’s going to be something that I look back on, hopefully. I think it’s going to be really rewarding. 

    Interview by Grace Smithwick

  • Extra, extra! Slam poets, drag queens, and the birds and the bees—an interview with Karyna McGlynn

    “Nurture your obsessions”—Poet Karyna McGlynn talks about her new book, Hothouse, where she finds her inspiration, and offers some tips and tricks for new writers.

    Karyna McGlynn is the author of Hothouse (Sarabande Books 2017), I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books 2009), and several chapbooks, including The 9-Day Queen Gets Lost on Her Way to the Execution (Willow Springs Editions 2016). Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon ReviewPloughsharesBlack Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Georgia Review,Witness, and The Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day. Karyna holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Michigan, and earned her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston where she served as Managing Editor for Gulf Coast. Her honors include the Verlaine Prize, the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, the Hopwood Award, and the Diane Middlebrook Fellowship in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin. Karyna recently taught in the Creative Writing department at Oberlin College and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature & Languages at Christian Brothers University. Find her online at www.karynamcglynn.com.

    Last year you published your second book, Hothouse. What was most challenging for you while you were going through the writing/editing/production process?

    The hardest part for me is trying to figure out which poems are speaking to each other and how they might come together to form something I could plausibly call a “collection.” I often feel like my poems are too thematically or stylistically diverse to live comfortably together. I wasn’t really able to conceptualize the book or figure out what should go in it until I knew what the title was. Once I came up with the title Hothouseand started thinking of the book as a series of rooms (which I was inspired to do while reading Bill Bryson’s At Homewith Grey Gardens playing in the background), the poems pretty quickly snapped in to place—both in terms of sequence and revisions. This, by the way, is exactlywhat happened when I put together my first book. I hope I’ve learned my lesson: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing until I have a title! It’s funny that it took so long for me to figure this out since I’m always telling my students, “If you don’t have a good title, it probably means you have no idea what your thesis is.”

     

    In both Hothouse and I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl, I noticed a lot of your poems incorporate very unique formatting choices. To what extent does form follow function in your poetry, and what value do you think that adds to a particular piece?

    I’m pretty much obsessed with typography, lineation, enjambment, and white space. I would get even crazier if I thought people would like it. (As you might imagine, I aesthetically swooned when I started reading Douglas Kearney.) I’ve always loved finding ways to write poems in columns and boxes. I think it has something to do with how maximalist my style is. As a student recently told me, my poems are “very extra;” I think the formatting is a way of harnessing some of that “extra” energy and making it manageable. In terms of value it’s a mixed bag. Personally, I think there’s something interesting about forcing an “excessive” female voice inside the boundaries of a specific shape or lineation. It excites me (like a corset!), but I know it frustrates some readers, who are like, “Which way is this supposed to be read?!” And then I’m like, “Stop trying to ‘solve’ my poetry with your gender binaries!” And perhaps it’s also worth noting that I grew up in the slam poetry and drag communities in Austin. I love performing the drag of my gurlesque poetry, and I sometimes think the formatting is a way of costuming and performing on the page instead of the stage.

     

    What was most influential for you in finding your voice as a writer?

    It’s a six-way tie: Sharon Olds, drag queens, TCM, Frank Stanford, the Austin Poetry Slam in the 90s, and Robert Lowell.

     

    Where do you find the most inspiration for your poetry? Or, where do you do your best writing?

    If I’m ever feeling uninspired I go to an art museum and force myself to write a loosely ekphrastic poem in every single gallery. That usually produces some good work, or at least gets the faucet flowing again. It sounds cheesy, but my students are a big source of inspiration, as are my writer friends and stand-up comics. I spend a lot of time trying to spin embarrassments, regrets, and fears into something surreally and sonically interesting.

     

    Just for kicks, why should people writefewer poems about bees?

    Ha! Bee poems don’t bother me so much anymore, but Zach Martin and I were the editors of the literary magazine Gulf Coastat a time when there was a lot of news circulating about how bees were disappearing. While I totally agreed that this was an alarming trend (and still do), I remember getting very irritated by the huge uptick in the number of self-satisfied and baleful bee poems we received at the magazine. The more pervasive obsession for poets is birds. Too many bird poems! I’m guilty, too! At this point I just want poets to stop putting birds on their book covers.

     

    Do you have any final comments for aspiring writers?

    1) Nurture your obsessions via your writing and research (as long as you aren’t obsessed with birds).

    2) Don’t be so precious about (and protective of) your early work. Just perform it and send it out. It’s probably terrible, but so what? The practice of submitting and sharing your work publicly will make you better. Just write more stuff. Write until the gold falls out of your mouth.

    3) Find a group of writer friends who are better than you. Organize regular writing, editing, and submission sessions with them.

    4) Try to win a poetry slam! It’s very educational. I’ve seen young writers improve ten-fold after participating in a few slams. It makes you much more aware of audience, compression, refrain, internal rhyme, rhythm, organization, ambiguity, and sensory engagement. Also, it’s fun (even when it’s terrible).  

    5) Read more contemporary writers, obviously. Imitate the ones you like mercilessly. (Don’t worry; you’ll still eventually develop a “voice of your own.”)

    6) Write in a journal (with a pen) during hypnogogic states—right before bed, or right when you wake up.  

    7) Be weirder! 

    8) Don’t “aspire” to be a writer; just be one.

    Interview by Kristin Rawlings

  • The Stooge: An Interview with Sam Pink

    Sam Pink is a blunt, inimitable writer with little to no tolerance for any form of bullshit. His work, whether in prose, poetry, or play format, has been celebrated in the online and indie writing communities. Pink’s work captures the sense of modern urban malaise more accurately and with more stylistic flair than most any other current author. But above all else, he’s someone who makes anyone who reads him re-think the little things. He forces you to examine the small parts that build up your life. In this interview I ask him some pretentious questions on art, writing, and his place in the world. He responds accordingly. Pink currently lives in Florida. His next two books, The Garbage Times and White Ibisare slated for release by Soft Skull Press in May 2018.

     

    First off, introduce yourself and your work to someone who has never read your writing.

    I would say, “Hey, what’s up. I’m a writer. I write romance novels and romance poetry. You’ll probably either really like it, or be mad it exists. Either way, I’d still kill for you.”

     

    You’ve written novels, short story collections, plays, poetry, and sometimes you'll combine more than one style in one book. How do your first drafts take shape? Do you set out to write a novel, or a play, or a poem, or does the story itself shape how it will be told?

    I don’t have any creative control. The books write themselves. I’m just the stooge. The fall-guy.

     

    You’ve made it clear through your books and online presence that you’re a working artist - how do your day jobs inform your process?

    The artist is the filter or grinder, and everything else gets pushed through it.

     

    As well as being a writer you're a visual artist, but your work in that field sometimes feels like the opposite of your written work. Does one form of art inform the other? Do you see yourself gravitating towards one or another at different times?

    Everything informs everything, you just have to tune in and try to learn. Yeah, sometimes I just want to draw, and other times writing really bligs my snitzers.

     

    You have an uncanny ability to tap into base emotions without any bullshit “writerly” techniques. When you read, do you tend to seek out other writers who cut the flowery language, or do you find value in the long-winded approach?

    Most of one's approach towards writing is decided long in advance by how they choose to live and think. The process of writing extends from that, no matter who you are or what you're writing.

     

    Speaking of other writers, you recently had a cameo in Scott McClanahan’s “The Sarah Book”. You both are often kind of fucked over when it comes to genre labels - do you think there’s any point to trying to define the kind of work you do?

    Hell yeah, Scott's awesome. I love that guy. Fuck genres man. You don't call Scott's writing “neo-southern emo memoir” or something, you say, “motherfucking Scott McClanahan shit.” Predate the label. 

     

    As a person who has interacted with the so-called indie-lit world for years, what do you make of the DIY scene today, deep in the internet age?

    I think we're about to enter another really good time for online/indie/what have you, type of writing. I can feel it. It is, and always has been, a force of tension. The more tension you have, the better the artists to emerge. Greater tests, greater wagers. Big bad wounds and better healing. I also think the increasingly more boring and sterile limitations society keeps pushing on people is going to tease out the real motherfuckers. The wolf smiling in the woods listening to its crier if you will.

     

    You’re on a reading tour in the Florida area right now - do you enjoy reading your work? How do tours impact your writing?

    I really enjoy reading my work and getting out. Tours impact writing in many ways. It helps you understand your own work better. It puts you in touch with sometimes otherwise hard to find people, and I think it really reminds you of why you do shit like that. It always makes me feel like I need to do way more and be better overall, in a way that feels positive and not self-loathing.

     

    Interview by Tom Ronningen

     

  • Robin Sloan Embraces the “Science Fictional” in his Latest Novel, SourDough

    In this interview with New York Times Best Selling Author Robin Sloan, we talk about his influences and idols, the challenges of writing a sophomore novel, and his latest book, Sourdough.

    I picked up my first Robin Sloan novel about a week before my nineteenth birthday. It was two weeks after I’d moved away for college and I was feeling particularly lost. Naturally, I’d wandered into a bookstore a couple blocks from my dorm. Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, practically jumped off the shelf and into my hands. This book had set the tone for my first year of college and I’m really glad to have read it.

    So imagine my excitement now, as a senior in college, with yet another Robin Sloan book coming out just days before my twenty-second birthday. I’d bought it without hesitation and devoured it immediately. This time around, I’ve got a lot more experience under my belt and an email interview with the author himself! What a perfect way to wrap up my college career!

                                                   *          *          *          *

    Robin Sloan is the New York Times Best Selling author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. His latest novel, Sourdough, follows the life of Silicon Valley programmer, Lois. After her favorite restaurant closes, the owners leave Lois a parting gift, the starter for their sourdough recipe. When the bread becomes a total hit at work, Lois sets her sights on getting her bread into one of the many farmers' markets happening on around the city. While she doesn’t make it into any of the mainstream markets, she does get into the mysterious Marrow Fair, an upcoming farmer’s market where Silicon Valley meets The Food Network. Throughout the story, she struggles to find a balance between life, making bread with a robotic arm, and the mystery of the Marrow Fair.

      

    You are a man of many talents in my opinion. Not many other people can boast that they write, code, and make olive oil (and I'm sure even fewer people can do them all at once). You've also worked on a literary magazine of your own creation. But to start things off, I do want to focus on your beginning. How did you get into writing? Were there any authors or stories that inspired you particularly?

     

    Robin Sloan: Like any voracious reader, there are too many to name! Some books and feelings are with you almost from the start, though. Ellen Raskin's Westing Game is one of the first books I can remember loving—I probably first read it when I was 10 or 11?—and across many years and many readings, there's just something about it—the suspense, the puzzle, the spirit. I hope some trace of that is present in all my books.

     

    With technology and society changing at a rapid pace, a lot of people have been forced to find new and innovative ways to get their creative work out there. You call yourself a media inventor. How has this influenced your writing?

     

    Robin: Like a lot of people my age—I’m 37—I feel like I grew up with the internet, and I've always had curiosity about computers and how they work. The result has been that the challenge of being a writer and writing on the internet has always felt, if not easy, exactly, then at least welcome: I've always been eager to try new formats and figure things out.

     

    I have to ask (and I'm sure you've gotten this one before) why glow-in-the-dark covers? I read in your interview with NPR that you wanted to create a physical copy worth buying, but of course, you could have chosen any number of different designs.

     

    Robin: Well, I have to give all credit to the designer of both covers, Rodrigo Corral! In my estimation, he's the best book cover designer working today. I didn't even know glow-in-the-dark ink was an OPTION! But of course, as soon as it was proposed, I said: yes. I must have it. And I've received surprised emails from readers, time-stamped 2 a.m., ever since!

     

    Are you the type of author who spends a lot of time researching information for your novels? If so, was Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore more difficult to research than Sourdough or vice versa?

     

    Robin: I definitely did more research for Sourdough. I feel like the world of Penumbra was my world; I'd been researching it, in a sense, my whole life, just by being a nerd about books and computers and typefaces and everything else. As I wrote Sourdough, I was getting deeper and deeper into the world of food, but I never felt like a native: thus, a lot more reading and research.

     

    You write fiction in a way that seems like fact. I know that in my reading of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, you could have told me that it was creative nonfiction and I might have actually believed it. The same instances happen in Sourdough, like with the existence of the Mazg or the science behind Jaina Mitra's Lembas bread. Does this kind of matter-of-fact writing come naturally to you?

     

    Robin: I think it does. The trick I love most of all is to tuck things into the gray space between the real and the fictional—to make people wonder, "is that really . . . ?” and then maybe hop over to Google to check. I think that's a fun opportunity for writers in the internet-connected 21st century—something to be embraced, not avoided!

     

    After the success of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, what was it like jumping into Sourdough? Did you find it difficult? What inspired you to write about a rather mystical sourdough starter in the first place?

     

    Robin: I knew I wanted to write a story set in the world of San Francisco Bay Area food, simply because it's so weird and interesting—it deserves to have stories told about it, and through it. I'd baked sourdough bread before, and as I started to piece this novel together, I realized it would be fun—well, a challenge, but a fun one—to try to make a supporting character out of a sourdough starter.

     

    Both Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough showcase very competent women working in the tech industry. Was this something you intended from the start?

     

    Robin: That's a good question! In Sourdough, it was at least somewhat by design. As I introduced new characters, even really minor ones, I purposefully avoided the "default male" approach that can sometimes occur if you're not paying attention. I have to say that I had a direct influence, which was the terrific science fiction novel Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I don't want to say too much and give it away, but the book has a very interesting and, I thought, inspiring approach to gender.

     

    Was Lois' ending something you had planned from the start? It was very lovely, by the way. I don't think I could have seen it go any other way.

     

    Robin: I'm glad to hear it! Endings, of course, are always tricky. I didn't have this one planned from the start, but I agree with you: I think Lois ended up in a good place. I'm glad the robot came, too. (I hope that's a little bit enticing to people who haven't read the book yet!)

     

    What do you hope the reader takes away from reading your latest novel?

     

    Robin: Oh gosh—lots of things. First and foremost, I hope they simply enjoy it. I always want my novels to deliver pleasure, at the most basic level. Beyond that, I hope they regard the microbial world with perhaps a little more awe than they did before! When I think about all the things that microbes do—for us, in us, with us—I think maybe our world is more science fictional than we realize.

     

  • Chicago Latina Playwright Tanya Saracho Turned Hollywood TV Writer

                Tanya Saracho is a Mexican TV writer and playwright. After going to college for acting at Boston University she moved to Chicago where she lived for most of her early adult life. She’s been living in LA for many years but still considers Chicago her home. Saracho has written for a number of TV shows including Looking, Girls, Devious Maids, and How to Get Away With Murder. She has written many plays and was named “Best New Playwright” by Chicago Magazine in 2010.

                Her most recent work is a play called Fade. Fade follows two young Mexican and Mexican-Americans living in Los Angeles. The first is Lucia, a Mexican born writer who moves to LA to begin her career as a TV writer. There she meets Able, a Los Angeles born janitor from an immigrant family. Saracho puts a unique twist on the story of immigration and shines a new light on the writer in Hollywood. Fade ran at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in 2017.

      

     

    Was getting into theater something you always knew you wanted to do?

    Tanya Saracho: I didn't know I wanted to do theater until I fell into it by accident, it’s kind of a long story. When I first enrolled in school I had a thick accent from living in Mexico for so long and people would point out my accent and pronunciation. So when I was in seventh grade I kept seeing “Speech and Debate” posters in the halls. I thought it would be like speech therapy and if I joined, it would get rid of my accent. The very first meeting, they had me read the poem “Cinderella” by Roald Dahl. I kept going back every week and I would do voices as I read. I thought it would help with how I talked. Then the meetings turned into these competitions every Saturday, and I didn't really know they were competitions, and I was winning with my reading of this dark Cinderella story. I thought these judges were like, speech therapists? I don't know what I thought. I just kept going and kept doing it and I made friends. When we went into high school all of the kids who did speech and debate did drama too, so then I just joined drama and I fell in love. Like a lot of things in my life it just happened. I’m so glad I didn't know what “Speech and Debate” was because I never would have done it.

      

    Do you think, later in life, having an accent and being Latina limited your creative opportunities?

     Yes and no. For a long time, I didn’t notice. When I was in university I don’t think it was limiting, or maybe it could have been, and I just didn’t have the eye to see it yet. Where I grew up in Texas I didn’t really experience racism because we were all Mexican, Mexican-American, White-American but it was on the border, so everyone just understood who was around and what it was like. Then in university I needed to do Shakespeare and all those classics and they casted us all over the place. It didn’t matter who you were for a part. We could be an old lady or a little boy or anybody and that went across racial and ethnic lines. My school kind of shielded me from what was out there, and it was lovely, and then I got to Chicago. 

                I had this classical training. I went to Oxford to study Shakespeare. I had Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw and Ben Kingsley as my amazing teachers. But in Chicago the only roles that I could get were the maids and the prostitutes. All of this was in 1998 so there was even less visibility than there is now. I couldn't understand it. I kept saying that I have classical training! I kept being told that wasn’t going to matter because I was fat and I was Mexican so the only parts were going to be a maid or a funny prostitute, those were my choices and I thought it was bullshit. 

                The reason I built my career was because I was being affected by being Latina. I was being affected by this racism, but I didn’t just sit down and take it, I made something out of it.

      

    You went to school for acting and you were dead set on being an actor, how did you come to be a playwright? Was that something you were interested in before?

     In the beginning I had no idea I was going to write plays. I just knew I needed to act so I was like: I’m going to write a play. I’m going to write a play so that I can act. So it did limit me in some ways but pushed open doors in others. It was the start of me creating an all Latina theater company, Teatro Luna. 

                At that time, I didn't know anybody in Chicago, I hadn’t even been there a year so it was just me going door-to-door asking if anyone knew of any Latina actors. I went to Hispanic community centers asking for Latina actresses and there was a guy there who kept saying, “You mean Latino,” and I just kept saying no, Latina. I spoke Spanish, I knew what I was asking. He told me that starting an all-female Latin theater company would be counter-productive to the movement, but I’m so glad I was only in my twenties and didn’t listen to him. So I just kept hanging flyers and knocking on people’s doors. It was so hard for me to wrap my head around. I was in a city as diverse as Chicago, and I couldn't find eight Latina actresses. When I finally got it going I was able to run it for ten years and it was amazing. We did all our own work and created ethnographic performances based, basically, on our own lives and as we grew, our work grew with us and I think that was one of the most magical parts of being a part of Teatro Luna.

     

    You were able to carve out your place in Chicago but how was it in LA? Were they more welcoming and accepting? 

    No. It was shitty. I was not mentally and emotionally prepared to write for television. I was doing a play and a UTA agent. (I kept calling it oota and my friends were like, “its U-T-A, dummy.”) I didn’t know shit about it. I knew about Chicago but I didn’t know anything about Hollywood. I didn’t need to know anything, and I didn’t need to be bothered with anything beyond my Teatro Luna stuff. But the agency had gotten a hold of a play I wrote called Mala Hierba, I don’t really know where they got it from, but an agent had reached out and wanted to have lunch. And in theater you never have lunch, you only have coffee. I was like, shit they wanna take me out to lunch? Yeah! This happened sometime in 2011 and I wasn’t doing that well financially, but I was super happy. None of my artist friends in Chicago are ever doing well financially but nobody knows it, they're just happy. We're all doing the work we want to do. We love our area, we love our friends. I loved my apartment, I loved my cats. It was a great life! 

                Then during the summer when I went out with that guy from UTA, he said he really thought I could write for television but that wasn’t anything I had ever even considered that was a thing you could do for a living. I watched The Sopranos and I watched True Blood, that was the only TV I watched at the time. So the guy just said that I had an eye that could work on TV and he said just go to LA and “take meetings” and just go to talk about myself. That’s exactly what I did, and it was so weird. You just have to go and basically charm them. I don't know. Then one of those meetings resulted in a job. I didn’t even know that we were on that track and then the next thing I knew I was working in a writing room but I knew nothing. I couldn't pitch, I didn’t know what an outline was, or a final draft. And in that first day they wanted me to write one act. I didn’t know what that meant because my plays were ninety-minute one acts, but they wanted five acts to fit into a one-hour TV show. 

                I was walking that first day with a coworker that I had just met and he turned to me and said, “You do know you're the diversity hire, right?” I asked him what that meant and he just says, “Oh honey.” Like, oh you poor thing.

                I called my agent later that day to ask if I was the diversity hire and he said technically yes but he didn’t want to tell me, so it wouldn't get in my head. I couldn't believe it. I was the only person of color in that room. The only Latina working on a Latina show. And it was a diversity hire. I was getting paid because of affirmative action. After that I didn’t know how to contribute. Did they only want me for the Latina suggestions, was I supposed to actually contribute at all? I didn’t know what my value was. And that was just the first day!

     

    How has your writing and writing style changed from writing plays to writing for TV?

    So a one-hour TV drama is usually five acts and the commercials are at the end of each act and it was so different. I used to write one act for an hour and I never wrote for a commercial before, I thought that was so weird. In the theater I write really long scenes but on TV a scene is only like, a page or two. That was something that was really hard to adapt to. Now though, I’m trying to go back to writing for theater and I cannot write the long scenes anymore, and it’s so bad. It’s tainted my theater writing and I don't know how to get that back. I haven’t been able to write a play in almost three years. Fadewas the last play I wrote and that was three years ago when I was still making the transition to TV but I’m still mainly a theater person. But now, I try to go back, and I don't know how to do it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. The whole point of coming to TV was so that I would have the means to do theater. 

     

    How much of the Mexican culture influences your writing beyond having Mexican characters?

    Its changed a little bit. The play I mentioned before, Mala Hierba, had a much stronger cultural influence because the setting was closer geographically to the border. Fadeis set in LA in a film studio, but I have characters with backgrounds in Mexico so they reference Mexico all the time but they're also American. They’re navigating what it means to be a first and second generation Mexican-American. Then I have another play, El Nogalar, that takes place in Mexico. So it all really just depends on the play but they're all connected to Mexico whether it be close to it or far away.

     

    Interview by Cali Lemus

  • C. S. E. Cooney talks about performance, melding politics with art, and the importance of writing and studying genre.

    C. S. E. Cooney is an audiobook narrator, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, author of World Fantasy Award-winning Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium, 2015), author of the Dark Breakers series of novels, as well as several poetry and prose anthologies such as How To Flirt in Fearieland. Cooney's work blends inspiration from fantasy and myth, while also maintaining a fresh voice and lyrical cadence well-suited to be read aloud. I had the lucky chance to talk with her about her past and future work, as well as topics such as performance, melding politics with art, and the importance of writing and studying genre. 

     

    You write across many forms of prose, poetry, and some enigmatic mixes of the two. Your work often falls into fantasy with roots in European folklore and mythology. Has your work always swayed towards the fantastic?

    Oh, you know, I was born in 1981. My childhood was Krull and The Dark Crystal and Legend and Labyrinth and Willow and Ladyhawke and Dragonslayer and Faerie Tale Theatre and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Add to that a liberal dose of musical theater blasting about the house—Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, but above all—Stephen Sondheim!—and that’s a helluva lot of fairy tales and show business. 

    I was born “swayed.” 

     

    Your full-length novels, The Breaker Queen and The Two Paupers, are parts of the Dark Breakers series. How did you go about worldbuilding for the Dark Breakers series? Is there anything more for the series?

    I started with the notion of an alternate world. Somewhere very like Earth (very like, in fact, Newport, Rhode Island, circa 1900-ish), but not Earth. I decided to stick the Dark Breakers series in the same world as some of my shorter fiction, but further up the timeline. In other words, a fantasy world that had had its industrial revolution, and its vaccine shots. 

    Seafall and Southern Leressa are both mentioned in my novella “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One,” in my collection Bone Swans. But in the Dark Breakers novellas we’ve fast-forwarded about a thousand years give or take. Whole eras have passed between the “then” of “Milkmaid” and the “now” of Dark Breakers, with great shifts in politics and technology and even mythology.

    As far as world-building for Dark Breakers, I feel like I’m continually doing research on early 20th century America, and then bending that research to my will. I want verisimilitude, but I’m not interested in unadulterated devotion to fact. That’s why I write fantasy; it’s a whole different world! And it’s MINE! That means the parallels between Earth’s history and Athe’s history don’t have to be exact. I can play with patents and fashion and invention and slang. I just want the worlds to be similar enough that Athe will feel familiar and welcoming to the Earthling reader. Then I can make the really weird stuff happen. I found the books Gilded Suffragists: the New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote and The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensics in Jazz Age New York to be particularly inspiring. 

     

    The Bone Swans of Amandale was directly inspired by the Pied Piper myth, but told with elements that you filled in yourself. How do you balance inspiration from the old with your elements of the new?

    You know, a former classmate of mine at Columbia College Chicago, Luke Herman—he took some of the same playwriting courses I did—once told me that my works were “marvelous collisions.” Leaving “marvelous” aside, I think the keyword is “collisions.” That’s where the newness occurs. In the “What if?” What if I took “The Pied Piper” and rammed it at full speed into Grimms’ “The Juniper Tree” and gave it a 1st POV named Maurice the Incomparable? What if he were a RAT? That would be funny, right? 

    That’s not so much an act of balance between old and new as an act of, I don’t know, cheeky alchemy. I don’t want to ever depend upon a reader’s familiarity with an old story to carry my new one. Myself, I’ve come to so many story origins backwards, and never lost a moment’s enjoyment because of that. 

    For instance, I saw The Sword and the Stone first, when I was little. And then I listened to (and memorized) the musical Camelot. Only in my late twenties did I even read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which was the seed of both the Disney cartoon and the Broadway musical. And I confess, I haven’t even read Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur yet, which is the seed of The Once and Future King. To take another example: I learned the musical Rent in high school. Later on in my teens, I was reading an old book of opera stories I’d picked up for a dollar at a library sale. I came upon the description of La Bohème, and went shouting through the house: “THIS SOUNDS JUST LIKE RENT! Look! There’s even a MIMI! Only she dies of CONSUMPTION, not AIDS!” And my dad said, “I think you’ve got it backwards.” 

    If someone comes to “The Bone Swans of Amandale” before they ever encounter the myth of the Pied Piper, I want my Pied Piper to leave such a lasting impression, that when they finally stumble across the Arthur Rackham illustration, or the Brothers Grimm story, or the Robert Browning poem, or even Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (which I never even READ before I wrote “The Bone Swans of Amandale”; I named MY Maurice after the illustrator Maurice Sendak, misremembering him for Mercer Mayer in my faulty brains!), they will say, “Hey! This is just like that C. S. E. Cooney story!” 

     

    Do you believe there is a performance aspect to your readings? Has your work as a singer and musician informed this?

    I so very much believe in writers learning to perform their own work well that I sometimes teach workshops about it. Seriously, it’s called “From Page to Stage.” I’ve had the advantage of intense theatre training for most of my life—both at Columbia College, where I minored in Acting—and before that at my performing arts high school, Arizona School for the Arts, where I double-majored in Theatre and Voice. And before that, from years of children’s theatre and choir, and a captive audience of younger brothers and a mother and a best friend who listened to me read aloud, and, and . . . 

    I’ve felt the double-call of vocation my whole life—as both an actor and a writer. Sometimes, I was working so many jobs, I didn’t have time to be in plays, and the only time I got to perform was my own work at open mics and fiction readings and 24 Hour Festivals. Now, I’m an audiobook narrator, so I get to read books aloud all the time—and pay off my college debt with a job in the arts. WHO KNEW SUCH THINGS WERE POSSIBLE?! I don’t get to sing in public very often anymore. Usually, I have to put on a concert as a birthday present to myself, just for the pleasure of singing my songs in front of people. Sometimes I embed songs in my text just so that I’ll get to sing them aloud at a reading. That’s sort of cheating, but that’s okay. It’s all in good fun. It’s super important to know how to read out loud well for an audience—sometimes, it’s a reader’s first impression of your work, and might inspire them to go out and pursue more of it, or recommend it to friends!

     

    Do you think it's important for all writers to study genre fiction, even if their own work may not be? Why or why not?

    I recently heard writer and National Book Award-winner Will Alexander tell an audience, “Read widely and wildly.” I love that. Let’s do that. 

    Anyway, to ignore genre is to ignore the current culture. What’s hot, what’s selling. It’s Star Trek and Star Wars and Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and Zombies and American Gods and Superheroes and Dystopias. That’s genre. Also, to ignore genre is to ignore possibility. To limit your own horizon. It’s sort of like a poet saying, “I want to write ONLY LIMERICKS. Sonnets, go sit in the corner. I don’t even want to be in the same room as those haikus. The sestinas can sleep in the barn.”  But, also, more practically: “genre” is as much a marketing term as anything else. It’s arbitrary. It changes. I studied Toni Morrison’s Beloved in one of my Fiction classes at Columbia. It’s a ghost story. It’s horror. It’s pure genre. We also read Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” in a Dreams and Fiction Class; that’s Magical Realism, a Latin American sub-genre of the Fantastic. Genre! It’s everywhere! 

     

    Where do you think the modern fantasy genre is going? Of your peers, what themes or root texts seem to be taking center stage?

    I think Modern Fantasy is at the vanguard of a larger literary movement that will be remembered as the most diverse, the most inclusive, many-voiced, many-peopled, genre-exploding, gender-bending dazzling firmament of genius and imagination that the world has yet known. I think, finally, we will begin to see literature in all genres that will reflect the world around us in all its variety, and not just the received narratives of conquerors. 

    I see the roots of it now. And the burgeoning wings. And I think the artists upholding and driving this movement will take us to places even science fiction writers cannot yet imagine. 

    Well, yeah, okay. Maybe them. They probably can. 

    Interviewed by Bec Ucich

  • Interview with Author Bryan Gruley

    Interviewed by Cody Lee, Reviews Editor

    I bartend at a little Irish bar on the north side of Chicago, and people come and go every daymostly bodies without faces or names. However, I remember first seeing this fellow sitting in the back, typing away at his computer, a stack of papers by his side, and a PBR in his glass. My manager, well aware that I consider myself somewhat of a writer, too, jumped on the opportunity to tell me that that's Bryan Gruley, a Pulitzer-winning author that lives in the neighborhood. I didn't believe him, so I googled the name, and there it was.

    Fast forward a couple of weeks, and Bryan and I chat about books, and the processes of writing. I give him a drink or two free, and in return, he supplies me with some of the knowledge that he's picked up over the years, dealing with agents and publishers, etc. etc.

    He is the author of three mystery novels, and currently works as a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

    Cody Lee: What would you say is the difference between writing professionally and writing for fun? How would/should students entering the “real world” bridge the gap between the two?

    Bryan Gruley: I don’t make much of a distinction between writing “professionally” and writing “for fun.” I suppose by the former you mean getting paid to write, but I have as much fun writing stories for Businessweek as I do making things up (for which I also enjoy getting paid). My first piece of advice to any aspiring writer is simply this: Ass in chair. Write. Write every day, whether you’re getting paid or not, whether it’s fun or not (some days are more fun than others, if you know what I mean). If you can find a forum for your writing, be it a website or a magazine or a book publisher, all the better. The only way to find the forum, though, is to write. I have a quotation taped to my laptop, supposedly from the novelist Jack London. It says, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” 

    CL: First published novel—could you walk us through the steps it took to get there? What did the aftermath consist of?

    BG: I've wanted to write novels since I was in grade school. I took a pretty serious detour to nonfiction by way of newspapers from Kalamazoo to Washington D.C., to Chicago. In retrospect, it was also a necessary detour, because I didn't have the personal experience nor the skills to write a novel until I actually wrote one. In 2000-01, I wrote about 25,000 words of a novel that my agent did not like. There was a glimmer of hockey in it, though, and my agent said, "Why don't you write me a story about these middle-aged guys who play hockey in the middle of the night?" I had an idea that very instant.

    It took me four years to write Starvation Lake. Then I endured a year of rejections—twenty-six in all—before the Simon & Schuster imprint Touchstone offered me a three-book contract. That was an exciting day in 2007. The book wasn't published for almost two years. I wish I could tell you why, except to say that the publishing industry doesn't move quickly. Meantime, I wrote what I thought would be the second book in the series. It wasn't very good. I basically threw it out and started over. Seven months later, I turned in The Hanging Tree, much improved. In between, I enjoyed the thrill of being a first-time author. The best part was traveling around and talking with friends old and new about the town and characters I'd created. Starvation Lake sold very well for a debut, but I wasn't about to be able to quit my day job.

    CL: What, in your opinion, is missing in contemporary literature?

     BG: I can't really say. It's a little embarrassing to admit, but between writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, working on my next novel, playing hockey, and enjoying my family and friends, I don’t have the time to read as much as I'd like. I do read almost every night before going to sleep, but not widely enough to answer your question. That said, my favorite book of the last couple of years is a contemporary novel, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. It's old-fashioned in the sense that it takes its time about moving the story along and developing the characters. Great story, great writing. I looked forward to picking it up every night. 

    CL: What would be your critique of schooling, and how could teachers and programs (specifically, related to writing) better prepare their students for the writing community outside of a school system bubble? 

    BG: I honestly don't know enough about what's happening in academia to answer the first part of your question, but the answer to the second one is simple: Write. Or, as my friend the essayist and novelist Brian Doyle told me years ago: 1) Ass in chair 2) Type better than sixty WPM 3) Shut up 4) Get a job. If #4 is a job that pays your bills, all the better.

    CL: How important is understanding business as a writer, if at all? 

    BG: If you mean the importance of understanding the business of writing—selling your articles or books or poems or whatever—you certainly need to understand how things work if you're going it alone, say, as a freelancer. You can be less worried about the sausage-making if you work for a large company that focuses on that.

    CL: Quality or quantity in regards to online publications?

    BG: Maybe I'm naïve, but I think you ought to always try to do your best work. That said, sometimes you have more time or freedom or resources than you do other times. Especially when you're just getting started, you want to get your name out there, and the more it's out there, the more likely you are to attract readers, viewers, sources, hiring editors. Still, crappy work is crappy work, and won't help you regardless of how much of it is out there.

    CL: In your own words, what significance does “mystery” have as a genre?

    BG: I am fond of arguing that most novels are essentially mysteries in which the writer poses a question that the book seeks to answer. Holden Caulfield is in insane asylum. How and why did he wind up there? Salinger tells us in the rest of that book. As a genre, though, mystery attracts huge numbers of readers. Along with their close cousins, thriller, mysteries are by far the most popular books. Alas, some are formulaic, predictable, unimaginative. But the best ones are literature: Lehane, Mosely, Chandler, Hammett. Mystic River is one of the best novels I've ever read (and a lot better than some of the navel-gazing drivel that the elite "literature" reviewers love so much).

    CL: Who are the best writers out right now, and why?

     BG: Again, I don't read enough for such superlatives, but in addition to Harbach's novel, books by contemporary authors I've enjoyed in the past year or so include Frank Bills's short-story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana; Emma Cline's The Girls; and my pal Doyle's semi-autobiographical Chicago.

    CL: Why do you write?

    BG: You might as well ask why I love my wife and kids, why I get up in the morning, why I eat. It's what makes me me.

    CL: Donald Trump is our president. What is next for America? What is next for Bryan Gruley?

     BG: I won't hazard any specific guesses, except this one, which has been played out in history time and again: the party in power will overplay its hand and the political pendulum will swing back in the other direction. As for me, I'm finishing the rewrite of a novel called The Last of Danny, about the kidnapping of an autistic boy. Wish me luck persuading a publisher to take it on.


    Cody Lee has no sense of humor, and hates everyone. He’s smart, too.

     

  • Interview with Photographer Doug McGoldrick

    Interviewed by William Grant

    Doug McGoldrick is a fascinating man. I met him while attending Columbia College Chicago where he teaches photography classes part-time. When I took his class, I was in the process of creating a new photographic series that I was incredibly passionate about. Doug was one of the biggest influences for me during that time. His encouragement and insight helped push me to create some of my best work.

    When I was assigned the task of interviewing an artist for Hair Trigger 2.0, I immediately reached out to Doug. From my time working with him, I knew he would make for an interesting interview. He’s done a bit of everything and seems to always be ready for something new and compelling. In the interview below he tells me about his passion for photography, his favorite things to shoot, and how he defines his success.

    Will Grant: When did your passion for photography begin?    

    Doug McGoldrick: When I was in grade school my dad was an amateur photographer, and we would sometimes go out on weekends and take nature photos together. What sparked it? Getting photos back from the camera store and seeing my photos when I was a kid was super exciting.

    WG: You’ve done a wide variety of work ranging from weddings to industrial factories to motorcyclists and more. Is there one subject you’ve done that interests you the most or is there fun in always changing?

    DM: For me whenever I can get to see behind the scenes someplace where most people don’t get to be, I’m happiest. I think in my heart doing documentary-type work is my favorite. I think part of it is, growing up I was very shy and bringing my camera into a place to take pictures gave me a reason to talk to people.

    WG: Do you have other non-photographic hobbies and do they ever bleed into your photographic work?

    DM: I do a lot of painting and drawing and they tend to go together with my photography nicely. Also bike racing and motorcycles are things I’m into, taking photos in those communities gives me an excuse to talk to people and get more involved than I would normally be.

    WG: Is there a series/subject matter that you’d like to explore in your work that you haven’t yet?

    DM: Oh man, so many. I would really love to go on tour with a dance company or band and shoot everything. Also any sort of big, dirty industry.

    WG: You’re a part-time teacher at Columbia College Chicago. What is a key piece of advice you share with all your students? What is something unexpected or valuable that you’ve learned from your students?

    DM: Lately I’ve been teaching a business of photography class and I like to let all the students know that in the photo biz moreso than almost any other, competition is incredible and to make it you need to be a person who hustles harder than the rest. I’m always learning so much from the students, a lot of it is tech stuff, but to me the most exciting thing is seeing how people's way of seeing the world changes.

    WG: How do you define success and, by your definition, do you consider yourself successful?

    DM: I think if you are making your living from photography you are in a sense successful, because it’s really hard. In my head I have this picture of success where I’m not pushing myself out there for work but work is just coming to me; I don’t think I’m there and probably nobody really is. Sometimes I feel like a success, sometimes I don’t. I was talking to another photographer recently, joking about how some months you want to start driving for Lyft and some months you feel like you could buy a Tesla. It’s a strange biz but way better than going to an office every day.

    See more of Doug’s work at dougphoto.com


    William Grant is a Photography and Fiction Writing major at Columbia College Chicago. He enjoys broccoli and Anna Kendrick.

  • Interview With Amina Gautier

    Interviewed by Claire Martin

    When Amina Gautier released her third short story collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, in 2016, it was quick to gain attention in the fiction community. Gautier continues to provide a refreshing and prolific take on writing short pieces in the midst of a market that seems to be driven almost exclusively by novels. Her subject material ranges from the everyday to the unimaginable, but it is all united under a visceral, inspiring umbrella of human understanding of pain.

    Her two earlier collections, At-Risk and Now We Will Be Happy, have both received numerous awards, including the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction. As a fictional short story writer myself, I was thrilled to be able to sit down and hear about her own approach to storytelling, the modern academic writing community, and bringing her ideas to life.

    Claire Martin: Your recent collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, illustrates such a diverse range of material from kidnapping, to librarians, to the streets of Pompeii. What inspired you to bring the stories of all these people together?

    Amina Gautier: I’m inspired, simply, to write. The stories sort themselves out into collections much later. I don’t consciously write a story with the intention of placing it in a particular collection; I just write whatever is on my mind, and, later, I look at what I’ve accumulated and take note of what themes are present and which stories seem to speak to one another. That’s how my three short story collections came together. Even though my most recent collection is about loss, some of these stories predate stories in the first two collections. While writing a variety of stories, I kept returning to explorations of loss because the subject is universal—we’ve all experienced loss in some form or another—but our handling of it is unique, individual and particular. That’s what makes it so compelling a topic for me.

    CM: You’ve received an M.F.A. as well as a Ph.D. What did you find to be the greatest benefit of pursuing degrees in higher education as a writer?

    AG: Actually, I don’t have an M.F.A. degree, just a B.A., two M.A.s, and one Ph.D. I graduated from Stanford in 1999 and aspiring writers weren’t encouraged to immediately pursue M.F.A.s then. The advice I received from multiple sources was cautionary. It warned that there were only a few great M.F.A. programs, that most didn’t offer good funding, that a recent undergrad would be competing with more mature writers who had led full lives and were now returning for the M.F.A. degree, and that it would be better for a beginning writer to go and obtain life experience for a few years while writing privately on one’s own dime, to work up a few strong stories and then consider applying for the M.F.A.

    I’d always intended to be a writer, but I was a poor kid from rent-controlled housing in Brooklyn, and the path laid out in that advice would have caused me too many financial burdens. I believed pursuing a Ph.D. in literature and thus committing to six years of formal, dedicated study would in no ways harm my talent as a writer. Furthermore, I believed that it would make me a better writer by putting me in conversation with literary history and scholarship.

    Obtaining a Ph.D. in literature allowed me to not just be a voice in the literary conversation, but to understand all of the voices speaking in that conversation. It has given my work depth and subtlety, which is not always comprehended upon the first read, but which becomes more apparent with further study. For example, my first collection At-Risk makes references to Emmett Till, minstrelsy, the performance of blackness, the law of hypodescent, and Milton’s Paradise Lost and my newest collection The Loss of All Lost Things references the Trojan War, the destruction of Pompeii, marital rape, suicide, degenerative diseases, and Trayvon Martin, but the treatment is subtle and nuanced so that most of these references would only be picked up on by the most astute reader.

    CM: Your emphasis on short story writing is something I appreciate seeing in a market that’s usually driven by novels. What is it about writing short stories that speaks to you most?

    AG: When I was a child, there was a commercial for Tootsie Rolls that aired on television and its jingle went like this, “Whatever it is I think I see becomes a Tootsie Roll to me!” The commercial featured kids playing and everything they saw turned into a Tootsie Roll. That’s how I feel about short stories. The world I see looks like a short story to me. Everywhere I look, I see short stories. Short stories mirror my reality. Many novels tend to be definitive; at their conclusions they often suggest that the action has been completed and that there is no more to be said. That’s not what the world looks like to me. To me, nothing ever seems to be completely finished or all the way closed.

    People come to certain conclusions or live by certain beliefs, and then some new piece of information is presented, or some new experience is had that causes them to draw different conclusions. People are always changing, growing, shifting, and never sitting still. Human resolutions are temporary, often offering knowing that is fleeting or tied to a specific moment in time or set of events—just like the resolutions in short stories. When you write a short story, you allow the reader to drop in on characters and get to know them at that moment, but there is always an understanding that you could pop back in on them at a later date and they might be very different people.

    CM: What, if anything, do you find to be the most important aspect of making a good short story land?

    AG: Heart. I have read many short stories that were technically “good” i.e. they were mechanically clean and they featured all the necessary parts by which we come to recognize a short story—inciting incident, conflict, rising action, denouement, etc. but they fell flat because it seemed that the writers did not actually care about the characters. The characters don’t seem real; they read like types. It is as if they exist on the page only to prove a certain point and once they have done so, the story is over. Somewhere in the process of writing, you have to arrive at the point where you genuinely care about the characters. I do not mean that you have to “like” them or make them “likable.” What I am talking about is an investment of caring. Because you are a human being and your characters are based on human beings, there is a natural affinity between yourself and the characters about which you write; therefore, you should care about them. If you are going to kill off one of your characters, they should not die merely as plot fodder. You should feel their death and it should hurt you. You should grieve and mourn them.

    I am not a writer who composes bubbly stories full of rainbows and happy endings; most of my stories are dark or sad and many of my characters are in pain. I feel their pain. In my first book At-Risk, two young boys are killed in an accidental homicide (death by stray bullets); in Now We Will Be Happy, a woman is a victim of domestic abuse, and in The Loss of All Lost Things, a young boy is abducted by a sexual predator. None of these stories were easy for me to write. I did not dash them off without a care. I almost didn’t write them, believing that there was already enough violence and sadness out there in the real world. But I did write them.

    Each of those three stories took me years to complete because I cared so deeply about my characters. When writing, there were moments when I felt sick to my stomach and had to stop mid-page because I was crying too much, times when the research was too sickening and graphic and I couldn’t bear to read or watch anymore—I’d have to step away from the stories for months at a time to give my spirit a break. It’s true, they are only characters—they’re not real people, but they deserve to be written with care. You should care about who they are and what they will or will not do and how these actions might affect them for better or worse. Otherwise, why are you writing about them in the first place?

    CM: After teaching at institutions like DePaul University and University of Miami, have you found that being an educator has helped your own writing in any way?

    AG: Absolutely. Teaching helps keep me engaged and tuned in. I’ve been writing seriously for quite some time now—about seventeen years. As a result, much of my formal training has been forgotten or become second nature to me. When I first started writing, I used to think of stories in terms of their parts and components and I used to revise with attention to certain craft aspects and details i.e. I’d look at the dialogue, and then the setting, etc. But now, writing is second nature to me. I’ve arrived at that stage where I know what I know without knowing how I know it. Since teaching creative writing makes it necessary for me to deconstruct stories, to explain and discuss them one craft element at a time, it helps me to articulate that which I otherwise wouldn’t.

    My students also inspire me. I talk to them about what they are reading, why they like certain stories, and in doing so I am sometimes introduced to literature of which I was previously unaware. One student expressed an interest in Japanese literature and culture, which inspired me to supplement the syllabus with short stories by Hisaye Yamamoto and Yukio Mishima. One student introduced me to Lucia Berlin’s story "Friendship" last year, which I greatly enjoyed. As a result of that, I bought Berlin’s collected works and have been working my way through it. I am definitely the richer for these stories making their way into my life.

    CM: How do you balance teaching and still managing to write? What does your process look like?

    AG: I am learning that this is an ever-evolving process. Teaching creative writing is both an inspiring and time-consuming process. What’s inspiring about it is that you get to discuss writing and literature in an animated and impassioned way with people who care as deeply as you do about the subject matter. A creative writing workshop is a room full of people who “get it”—who get that writing is important, affirming, and sustaining, who understand that writing takes time, effort, revision, and care. For those who often have to defend their avocation, it’s exciting and inspiring to have the ability to convey your passion, joy, and insight to people who actually want to receive it. So, the teaching of creative writing—the discussions and the re-reading of published stories, and novellas I admire—gets me gung-ho to come home and write until my fingers throb and the letters on my keyboard fade to smudges.

    However, there’s also the time-consuming part i.e. the amount of time and care that goes into preparing each individual critique for workshop. Once the workshop portion of the course begins, it is a dizzying whirl of reading, responding, and critiquing, which often leaves little to no time to work on one’s own writing. This varies from writer to writer. Many writers work best by carving out an hour or two per day to devote to their own writing, but that doesn’t actually work for me. I prefer large blocks of uninterrupted time for writing and I consider the first two hours of my writing day to be more like sloughing or exfoliating—a chance to write poorly, adverbially even, to rid myself of whatever bad habits or clichés reside in me—to get rid of obvious sentences or details so that I can get to the good stuff underneath, to write my way into a sweet spot where I can remain ensconced for a few hours or days until my brain needs a break and I return to the mundane world while my mind replenishes its creativity.

    This has become harder and harder to do because of both my teaching and book touring schedule, so for the past two years what I have done is build my stories during the semesters i.e. write snippets of them in notebooks, etc. and let them simmer, and then I gift myself with writing residencies during the summer breaks, where I can write and revise without interruption and bring my ideas to fruition. During the semester, I give my students their time and during the breaks I give my writing its time. Finding balance is an ongoing enterprise, but what I’ve described is the current method that presently works for me.

    CM: Are you involved in any writing communities, and if so, have you found collaborating with other writers to be beneficial?

    AG: I have participated in many writing conferences and residencies, such as Breadloaf, Callaloo, Hurston/Wright, MacDowell, Ragdale, and Ucross and I still consider myself to be a part of those communities. Additionally, I am a member of Kimbilio, and a Staff Member for the Sewanee Writers Conference, both of which are very important to me and in which I am deeply invested.

    For writers who don’t have the luxury to go away for weeks or months to attend the conferences and residencies above, there is also that literary mecca—AWP. Some writers find AWP to be overwhelming because the conference has grown to such large proportions, but attending AWP is one of the highlights of my year. I look forward to going with the same type of fervor someone else might save for a rock concert. It’s a gathering of the tribe—a four-day respite from a world in which your words have to be translated, a chance to be in a place where everyone speaks your language. AWP is loud and raucous. It’s big; it’s unwieldy, yet it soothes me.

    The idea that there is a conference for writers that draws 15,000-20,000 people does not intimidate or overwhelm me; it makes me proud and super happy that there are that many of us out there and that we have a place where we can come together and find each other, and that in that place and during that time, our interactions with one another can give us the strength to sustain ourselves as writers for the rest of the year and until we meet again.

    While I don’t collaborate in the sense of engaging in a joint publishing venture with other writers, I do commune with other writers and that is of great benefit to me. I find it to be not only beneficial, but necessary to my sanity.

    CM: All of the characters in The Loss of All Lost Things are animated with such relatable, real motives. In writing these people, were there any that you found yourself sympathizing with more than others?

    AG: If I am going to write about a character, I have to be able to sympathize with him or her. I have to be able to sympathize with and understand all of the characters in any given story I am writing. I do not have to like any of them or condone their actions, but I do have to know from where they are coming. Although the reader may do so, I cannot sympathize with one character more than another because if I am doing so, that is a signal that my work is not yet done and the story is not yet complete, and I will have to continue revising toward a better understanding of all of the characters.

    CM: What would be the best piece of advice that you could have received when you finished your undergraduate degree and entered the writing world?

    AG: From Peter Rock and Samantha Chang, respectively, I received two of the best pieces of advice when I finished my undergraduate degree and was preparing to enter the writing world. First, I was told to write ten publishable stories before I submitted the first one for publication. Second, I was told to collect rejections i.e. to make a game out of getting them. Those two pieces of advice have been worth their weight in gold.

    They prevented me from falling into the “write one, send one” trap into which I’ve seen so many writers fall. These writers get so engrossed in following the progress of the story they’ve completed that it gets in the way of them producing more work or different work. They wait for an acceptance or a rejection on that story before they complete another. Receiving a rejection letter sends them into a funk and they don’t write anything else for a long time, or if they do have something else completed, they become so scared of rejection that they won’t send it out. Or, conversely, their story gets accepted and they use that as a form of positive reinforcement to keep writing slightly different versions of the same story in the hopes that they will garner more acceptances, thus limiting their growth as a writer and restricting the breadth and depth of their talent. The advice I received taught me to sidestep that trap. I don’t care about rejections. I mean, I am human and rejections do bother me, but they don’t set me back or change my course. I get annoyed for about fifteen to thirty minutes when one comes my way, and then I get back to work.


    Amina Gautier is the author of three award-winning short story collections: At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy and The Loss of All Lost Things. At-Risk was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award, The First Horizon Award, and the Eric Hoffer Legacy Fiction Award. Now We Will Be Happy was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, the International Latino Book Award, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President's Book Award, a National Silver Medal IPPY Award, and was a Finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. The Loss of All Lost Things was awarded the Elixir Press Award in Fiction, the Royal Palm Literary Award, and the Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award. More than ninety of her stories have been published, appearing in Agni, Callaloo, Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, and Quarterly West. Gautier has won the Crazyhorse Prize, Danahy Fiction Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the William Richey Prize, the Schlafly Microfiction Award, and the Lamar York Prize in Fiction and received fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Dora Maar, Disquiet International, Hawthornden, MacDowell Colony, the Ragdale Foundation, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Ucross Foundation, and Vermont Studio Center. She is a graduate of Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania.

    Claire Martin is studying Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago.  You can find her working on creative essays, wandering through Printer’s Row after hours, and becoming fully nocturnal.