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  • Q&A with Gina DiPonio, 2011 Friedman Award winner

    Interview by Ben Kowalski

    Gina DiPonio won the David Friedman Memorial award in 2011 for her piece "Then There Were Three." She is now the program manager for University of Chicago's Writer's Studio. She also teachers in the Master of Liberal Arts program at University of Chicago and the Professional and Liberal Studies Program at Roosevelt University. Aside from Hair Trigger, DiPonio's work has been published in The Sun, Three Hawks Review, and Contrary Magazine. She has also published journalistic work on ExploreChicago.com and in Traverse: Northern Michigan's Magazine.

    Hair Trigger spoke with Gina DiPonio about working in journalism, her current novel project, and how deadlines can be a positive thing.

    Ben Kowalski: You've mostly worked in creative writing, but you've also done some journalistic work. What inspired you to do that?

    Gina DiPonio: I’ve always been drawn to writing and I wanted to try a bunch of different styles and genres. When I first started out, I was interested in literary nonfiction so I thought that writing for magazines would be the way to get there. But I often felt that writing an assignment like that—writing in a more commercial [way], often to promote a product or to meet the voice of the magazine or the newspaper—didn’t appeal to me as much, even though I still like that. I find fiction, creative nonfiction, and personal essays...can be more interesting, [and give] you more room to play.

    BK: How does the journalistic experience affect your creative writing?

    GD: One powerful lesson from journalistic writing is getting a piece done. Having that deadline forces you to give it your best shot and just get it out. That can be a struggle with creative writing if you aren’t working on a deadline and there’s no one waiting for you. Having a deadline taught me how to complete pieces.

    BK: What creative writing projects are you working on, if any?

    GD: The main thing I’m working on is a novel about three women, each traveling alone through Europe. [It’s also about] exploring the stages of a woman's life through the vehicle of these three women.

    BK: What inspired you to write that?

    GD: I mostly write personal essays and memoir, but I want to fictionalize more. [When I started writing about a] seventeen-year-old young woman traveling through Europe and [having] a bunch of adventures, I thought, “Let me try to not make it about me. Let me try to fictionalize it.” From there, I took my experience and thought about two other women of different ages, one of which is where I am now—in [her] mid- to late-thirties—and one is older. [I] take my experiences and extend them and reflect on them and play with them to see what more I [can] develop from [them]. That’s been fun, too, because it’s taken away the danger of hurting people I want to write about.

    BK: How did winning the Friedman Award affect your writing career?

    GD: It’d be so great if I could say right now, “That award was the stepping stone to everything that’s come since.” I don’t know about that—but it was very validating and meant a great deal to me, especially [as] part of a community of so many excellent writers. writers. It also told me that the memoir that I was working on was working, at least in part. It validated the specific work that I was doing and helped me feel encouraged to keep going with it.


    Ben Kowalski is a BA Nonfiction senior at Columbia College Chicago, creative nonfiction writer, copy editor and contributor at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle (2015), and music critic at Pop'stache.com (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at http://popstache.com/author/bkowalski/.

  • Q&A with Francesca Thompson, 2013 Friedman Award winner

    Interview by Ben Kowalski

    Francesca Thompson is multi-talented writer, whose work includes screenwriting, fiction, and nonfiction and won the Friedman Award in 2013. The Friedman Memorial Award was established by David Friedman's family in 2002 as a memorial to their son and is given to a story or essay published in the Hair Trigger anthology each year. Aside from Hair Trigger, Thompson's work has been published in Print Oriented Bastards, Little Room, The Citron Review, Chicago Union League Journal, The Interlochen Review, and Up Until Now.

    Hair Trigger spoke with Thompson about life after Columbia, writing in different environments, and the importance of reading.

    Ben Kowalski: What has your writing career been like since leaving Columbia?

    Francesca Thompson: I’ve been doing all sorts of things. I lived in California for a year and studied screenwriting through the Semester in LA [program]. After a while, I figured out that screenwriting wasn’t really for me, so I left Los Angeles and joined the Peace Core. I did that for two years. Now I’m in Michigan working at [Interlochen Center for the Arts], where I went to high school. I’ve been doing that for about a year. At the end of May, I’m moving to Austin, Texas to start a new job. I’ve been all over the place, but through everything I’ve been writing.

    BK: What will you be doing in Austin?

    FT: I’m working at a nature conservation for low-income families. [...] I want to work in non-profit and I’m going for my masters in Social Work. It’s a different path from fiction writing, but I still write. 

    BK: How did winning the Friedman Award affect your writing?

    FT: It encouraged me to write more than I had been. You can get in a slump where you’re like, “Why am I doing this? I’m no good. No one’s going to want to read any of this”—so to be recognized is nice.

    BK: How did writing for the screen differ from writing literary work for you?

    FT: Screenwriting is a lot faster-paced. You’re paying a lot of attention to how your scene is playing out on the page because you also have to pay attention to how it’s going to play out on a screen so really, you’re thinking about two art forms. [In] screenwriting, there [are] less words. It’s almost like poetry in that sense—you have to fit a lot into a small space. 

    BK: What’s been your favorite aspect of writing in all these different environments?

    FT: Going places and doing things is so important to inform your writing because there is a kind of base-language that we use now, through social media [and] in texting. We’re using this simple language that everyone understands and no one is surprised by, but the more you travel, the more people you meet, the more things you do, and the more things you see, your language transforms with those experiences. You can pick up different dialects and your vocab can grow. Your language expands. That’s my favorite part—watching my language expand through the different experiences that I’ve had.

    BK: Is there anything else I haven't touched on you want to add?

    FT: For me, reading is super important. Reading is as much a part of my writing as actually sitting down and writing. I know when I read certain books, that voice tends to come out in what I’m writing. It’s something that a lot of us skimp on, especially after you graduate college. No one’s making you read anything. It’s really hard to sit down and just read, but it’s super important for me. It’s a big part of my writing.


    Ben Kowalski is a BA Nonfiction senior at Columbia College Chicago, creative nonfiction writer, copy editor and contributor at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle (2015), and music critic at Pop'stache.com (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at http://popstache.com/author/bkowalski/.

  • Publishing the Undead: Scott Kenemore reveals the braiiiins behind horror writing

    Interview by Ben Kowalski

    Scott Kenemore shambled into the world of horror writing with his 2007 satire The Zen of Zombie: Better Living through the Undead. Now the author of four horror novels, five zombie-themed satires, and 2011's Zombies vs. Nazis—which is listed as an "unclassifiable found-document" on his website—Kenemore has made a name for himself in both zombie-themed and general horror writing.

    Hair Trigger had the opportunity to speak with Scott Kenemore about his literary inspirations, his view of zombies, and his creative process.

    Ben Kowalski: How did you first enter the world of horror and zombie writing?

    Scott Kenemore: I’ve always liked horror. I think the formative moment in my life was being about 10 years-old, riding my bicycle to the public library and checking out a book by H.P. Lovecraft—who is my favorite writer now. I had sort of heard about [him] in connection to things like roleplaying games and was oddly curious because I never liked scary stories. They had one of his books. I took it down at the library and I read the first two stories, which were “In the Vault” and “Pickman’s Model.” I remember putting the book down and thinking, “This might be the best thing that anyone ever did, ever. I know I’m a dumb 10-year-old—I don’t know much about the world—but I feel pretty confident this is the best thing anyone ever did ever.” I’ve largely continued to feel that way as an adult.

    BK: How has your view of zombies changed since you began writing about them?

    SK: Being someone who does something creative with zombies has given me a better sense of how elastic they can be. I have noticed that some of the works of art involving zombies that are my favorites and mean the most to me were made by people who were taking a chance and, if not breaking the rules, bending rules.

    I really like, for example, [The] Return of the Living Dead, my favorite zombie film. That’s the first film [where] zombies say “Braaaiiiins.” It’s just delightful but so much of it is risk-taking. Dan O’Bannon, the writer/director [came] up with a coherent story for where zombies came from, [tied] in Night of the Living Dead to the mythology of [The] Return of the Living Dead, [came] up with zombies wanting to eat brains, why zombies want to eat brains, [and] new rules to what can and can’t kill a zombie—really interesting stuff. 

    I would say my favorite zombie short story is “What Maisie Knew” by Davis Liss. In his world, zombies can remember a little bit about their former selves when they are either in extreme pain or having sexual intercourse. The way he uses that in fiction to create a world where zombies hungering after a little slice of their own former consciousness—or consciousnesses—is awesome. I came to identify a little bit with the people who may don’t totally reinvent zombies, but bend rules in the service of being creative.

    BK: You’ve written both zombie satire and zombie horror. How do those writing processes differ for you?

    SK: Those tend to come from me personally feeling hatred and contempt for other people and thinking [things] suck. At least, that I could be doing a better job of them or that they deserve to be made fun of. If I think they deserve to be made fun of, then I will go with satire. If I think, “God, this guy f----n’ sucks, this gal f----n’ sucks,” then it becomes the motivation to do my own creative work and try to do a better job than what I’ve just read.

    BK: Your most recent novel, The Grand Hotel, is a collection of interconnected short stories and a departure from zombies. Can you tell me more about that?

    SK: I don’t only write about zombies. There is what you write and there is what gets published, and yet, readers only see what gets published. I also write horror fiction and straight-up scary stories, but that sometimes is a little bit trickier. I feel like I’m mostly a zombie guy. 

    I’ve always loved collections of short stories and loved when they were interconnected—it was this little world. I was getting dinner along Demott Avenue in Chicago, and something I do when either I’m early or other people are late, is browse the curiosity shops and book shops along Demott Avenue. There are a lot of English language books for sale in these stores that are imported from India for English-speaking Indian audiences. One of the books I came across was something totally new to me: The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie by Sivadasa, a story cycle from ancient India that was written down several hundred years ago but probably existed orally before that. I love the idea that this was something that had been updated and changed. [It] showed that interconnected story cycles were elastic and created people that played with and found certain uses for it again and again. It was really interesting and I wanted to do something with [it] in a cultural appropriation sort of way. I looked at what I thought was interesting about it and it was sort of the inspiration for The Grand Hotel. If anyone reads The Grand Hotel [and] the only thing they take from it is [that] they get curious about The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie, then I did something good.

    BK: What would you say is your favorite aspect of the horror genre and the process of writing it?

    SK: An important function—maybe the most important function—of good horror is that it makes you question what you know. As Freud identifies in his essay “The Uncanny,” [he] says that the root of all uncanny horror is that we are realizing that something we thought we knew for sure, we don’t know for sure, or [somewhere] that we thought was a safe place is not a safe place. 

    Not all horror does that—some horror is just about creating likable characters and putting them into danger—but the best horror, the horror that keeps me writing, makes us ask: “Do we really know things for sure? Do we really know—in the case of a zombie outbreak, say—how we would act during a crisis? Do we really know how other people would act during a crisis?” I can make people question things like, “What would community mean during a crisis?” or, “What would working together mean during a crisis?” For me, those are really interesting questions that keep me interested in horror.

    BK: Is there anything you’d like to add?

    SK: If younger people are reading this interview that are doing something creative, if you are interested in writing about horror [or] zombies: Come on in, the water’s warm. There’s a lot of interesting stuff still to be written. With respect to all the people who are working in the genre now, I think a lot of us feel like the great zombie novel still has yet to be written. Maybe you could be the person to do that. If you’re interested in zombies, if you’re interested in that kind of horror, absolutely go for it and do something creative. 

    Visit Scott Kenemore's site here.


    Ben Kowalski is a BA Nonfiction senior at Columbia College Chicago, creative nonfiction writer, copy editor and contributor at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle (2015), and music critic at Pop'stache.com (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at http://popstache.com/author/bkowalski/.

  • Jac Jemc: Poetry-Prose writer

    Interview by Jennifer Bostrom

    She’s a novelist among poets and a poet amongst novelists: Jac Jemc is an author whose prose elegantly delivers both story and lyricism. A Chicago-based writer, Jemc has authored a chapbook, a collection of short stories, a novel, and numerous poems and nonfiction works.

    Jemc’s first novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books), was named a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and won the Paula Anderson Book Award. In addition to penning her prose, Jemc spends her time as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Notre Dame, editor to a handful of presses and journals, and an avid blogger about writing and rejection.

    Hair Trigger Online had the chance to talk to Jemc about My Only Wife, her process, and what’s coming next.

    Jennifer Bostrom: When did you first begin writing?

    Jac Jemc: I’d always written a little. As a kid, I loved writing scary stories. I wrote a handful of E.E. Cummings knock-off poems in high school. I also had an obsession with copying out passages of books, catalogue copy and lists of names longhand from childhood on. I see that now as some sort of apprenticeship I was doing—immersing myself in language without actually producing it myself—though I couldn't have identified it as such back then. I started writing fiction in college and wrote the first draft of My Only Wife as an independent study during undergrad.

    JB: My Only Wife was your first novel. How long did it take you to complete?

    JJ: I spent about three months on the first draft, which is mind-bogglingly fast compared to my pace now. I shuttled it through workshops and advising sessions irregularly for another two years of grad school and then spent another year editing it on my own afterward. It was accepted for publication in 2009, but wasn't published until 2012. So there were about seven years between starting work and the book meeting readers.

    JB: What is you writing process like? How does it differ when approaching a poem versus a short story or novel?

    JJ: It used to be nearly identical between all three forms. I'd start with language and start piecing together fragments. With poems, I was satisfied to leave space between the gluts of language and allow the force to be more intuitive. With stories, I'd try to fill in the gaps a bit more. With a novel, I strung together more of these narratives and tried to identify pattern and shape in a way that only the mass of 40,000+ words can allow you to do. Lately, I've been going into fiction with a little more of an idea of what I want to aim for than I used to. I might have an idea or a voice or a particular image that I start shaping action around. It's still very exploratory, but now I might choose a ideological location to set off from, whereas before, I'd close my eyes and drop a finger onto the map.

    JB: My Only Wife shows elements of poetry in the prose. Would you say that you identify more as a poet than fiction writer, or rather that one discipline influences the other?

    JJ: I’d say I'm definitely more a fiction writer these days, but the poetic roots still live in me, and I hope and expect that I'll return my focus to poetry again someday. I think a lot has been determined by where I've found my community. Though I've published a fair amount of poetry, I always felt a bit adrift in that world, like I never got a firm handle on what my place was in relation to other poets. With fiction, I felt like I found my way a little easier, and have a clearer idea of how my position shifts depending on the work I make. That said, I enjoy feeling a bit lost, so I'm happy the world of poetry is always there to revisit.

    JB: Having completed This Stranger She'd Invited In, a chapbook of short stories, were there challenges that arose with writing a novel that you weren't expecting?

    JJ: I actually wrote My Only Wife before the chapbook of stories, though TSSII came out first. The stories that make up the chapbook are almost more biographical character sketches, but they all live in the same world. In some ways, I saw those stories as a novella - something akin to Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood — defining a community.

    JB: Your short stories were published first and in your third book you've returned to short stories after My Only Wife, a full-length novel. Is that out of a preference for short stories or just where inspiration took you?

    JJ: The stories in A Different Bed Every Time were written over the course of the last 10 years, so there's at least one in there that was drafted even before My Only Wife and many that were written during the drafts of My Only Wife and other longer projects, too. I can't imagine ever ceasing to write short stories. I'll keep writing them as breaks from longer projects and ways to work out ideas are more suited to the shorter form, but because the stories are generally so short, it will take a while to amass enough for a collection.

    JB: What lead to the decision to leave the husband and wife unnamed in My Only Wife?

    JJ: My Only Wife is built on the repetition of "my wife." To keep up that voice, I opted not to add names into the mix. Possession and ambiguity were ideas I was interested in exploring, and that phrase sticks close to those themes.

    JB: You keep busy. How do you find time to set aside for your projects? Are you particularly rigorous about setting aside time each day, or specific goals you have to meet?

    JJ: I try to spend my entire morning on personal projects: reading and writing and editing. Afternoons and evenings are for class prep and reading/responding to student work, reading submissions, blog posting, submitting my own work and applying for residencies or teaching gigs. It's definitely busy, but I feel very grateful to get to focus on what I love.

    JB: As previously mentioned you post, most, if not all of your rejection letters on your website. Rejection isn't something most want to face but you do so very personally and publicly. Can you elaborate on why?

    JJ: I’m very invested in transparency in the writing life. I believe there's value in seeing rejection as a regular part of the writing life and admitting to the quantity of no's you hear in relation to the yesses. I don't really care to pretend to be some hero who's succeeding at everything I attempt. Failure is core to the creative process.

    JB: What's the next big project for you?

    JJ: I have two novel-length projects in the works right now: One is a haunted house story based in the present. The other, which is much younger draft-wise, is a historical fiction novel set in late 1800s Bavaria.

    To find out more about Jac Jemc, visit her website


    Jennifer Bostrom is a BA Honors Fiction Graduate from Columbia College Chicago, Academic Excellence scholarship recipient (2013-2016), Production Editor of CCC’s award-winning Hair Trigger anthology, and intern for HYPERtext MagazineJennifer's fiction can be found at The Copperfield Review and Habitat Magazine or on her website jcbostrom.com. 

    1. Bob Goldsborough: Mystery Writer at Large

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    Interviewed by Ben Kowalski

    The world of mystery writing is filled with secrets, clues, and brimmed hats, and Bob Goldsborough has seen just about every corner of it. The author of eleven Nero Wolfe novels and five Snap Malek novels, Goldsborough started as a newspaperman, working for 21 years at the Chicago Tribune and 23 years at the trade journal Advertising Age. His most recent novel, Stop the Presses (Mysterious Press), was published March 8, 2016.

    Hair Trigger had a chance to talk to Bob Goldsborough about his unlikely route into mystery writing, the creative process involved, and working in Chicago.

    Ben Kowalski: How did you first get into mystery writing?

    Bob Goldsborough: When I was a teenager, I made what seemed like a mistake—telling my mother I had nothing to do. She could have come right back saying “mow the lawn” or “wash the car,” but what she did [was] say, “Why don't you read a mystery story?” She gave me a Nero Wolfe story by Rex Stout. She loved these mysteries, partly because [they were] Who-Done-It [stories], but even more because these were not violent stories. There was not a lot of gore or a lot of sex or a lot of swearing in them. They were puzzles. Over the years, I began reading and enjoying them more and more. 

    In the 1970s, Rex Stout died at a ripe old age, in his upper 80s. My mother saw his obituary in the Chicago Tribune and said, “Now there aren’t going to be any more Nero Wolfe stories.” I got to thinking about what my mother had said and thought, “Maybe there could be one more.” Without any real purpose in mind, I started writing a Nero Wolfe novel myself, using the very same characters that Rex Stout had. I finished it in time for the next Christmas. This was just type script—type-only on one side of a page, 8.5x11—but I had this thing bound in a leather binder, and I gave it to my mother for Christmas!

    I had not written this story with a plan to have it published, but I later met a man who was involved in the Rex Stout estate. I told him I had a manuscript [for] a Nero Wolfe novel and showed it to him. Through a very complicated series of events, it ended up being published about eight years after it was written. Of course by this time, my mother had passed away. That story, Murder in E Minor, became a new Nero Wolfe novel published by Bantam Books in [April 1986]. That was the beginning.

    The people at Bantam liked the book, and this helped to revive the backlist [of Nero Wolfe books]. It was good business for them. They wouldn't publish it, though, unless I signed a contract for two books. I ended up, over a period of years, writing seven Nero Wolfe books for Bantam Books. Then I stopped. The publisher felt that these books had accomplished what they’d hoped for—not only did they sell reasonably well, but they [also] reignited the backlist. Rex Stout wrote over 30 novels and almost 40 novellas in his 40 years of writing, so they were able to put [those] back in publication.

    Then, I started writing my own series. I created a Chicago newspaperman named Steve Malek, and called him “Snap” Malek. He was a police reporter for the Tribune—my old employer—and I called him “Snap” because he always wore a snap brim hat. I set [the books] in the 1930s and ‘40s, using some real people and real Chicago events as a backdrop. That was phase two. 

    About five years ago, I got the idea to go back and do some more Nero Wolfe books. I wrote a prequel to the series Stout had done, called Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. There really wasn’t much of a backstory to how they met in Mr. Stout’s books, but he gave me a few clues and I used every one of them in putting this book together.

    BK: What is the biggest difference between your first Nero Wolfe novel, Murder in E Minor, and your most recent one, Stop the Presses?

    BG: I have gotten more comfortable with the characters. There’s an ensemble company of characters in these Nero Wolfe books—close to 20 people making continuing appearances. [In the beginning], I was very cautious about making them behave exactly like Rex Stout would’ve had them behave. I still do that, but I’ve gotten more freewheeling and given the characters more of a backstory. For instance, there is an Inspector Kramer on the New York City Homicide Squad and Rex Stout never gave him a first name... so I gave him the first name of Lionel. I’m still trying to make sure I don’t do the silly things—make the characters behave in ways that are totally out of character—but I have gotten less timid about the way I picture the characters.

    BK: How has your creative process changed since you began writing mystery novels?

    BG: Probably not very much. There are usually a five or six suspects in every one of these books and I do write thumbnail biographies—maybe 100 words or so—on each of these suspects, [including] their age, their appearance, their personality, and so on. I still do that.

    Basically, my approach has been pretty much unchanged over the years. I’m not a disciplined writer—I’d like to say I was, but I’m not. I don’t dedicate a certain time of day to writing a book, and I didn’t in the beginning. The thing that was a little different early on was that I had a full-time job at the Chicago Tribune, so I had to work on a book in off-hours. In the last eleven years.... I have [gotten] a much more flexible schedule. I could be writing right now, for instance, because I’ve got no job to go to!

    BK: How has your time working in Chicago journalism affected your mystery writing?

    BG: When you’re working on deadlines for a newspaper, you cannot sit at the type writer, or in front of the computer screen, and just agonize over what you’re going to write because you haven’t got the luxury of time. You’ve got to write fast. That really prepared me—I didn’t intend it to but it worked out that way. When I’m working on a book, I can take small chunks of time like an hour [...] and write several pages. I don’t sit in front of that computer screen and agonize. I’ve always been able to use small chunks of time to my advantage, and I think that was the newspaper training that did that for me.

    BK: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

    BG: I’m going to echo a quote from Rex Stout: “If I don’t have fun writing these stories, readers aren’t going to have fun reading them.” I feel the same way. To me, writing should not be agony—it should be fun. Sometimes I do run up against a tough spot and have to work my way around it, but by and large when I am working on a book, I’m having a good time doing it.


    Ben Kowalski is a BA Nonfiction senior at Columbia College Chicago, creative nonfiction writer, copy editor and contributor at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle (2015), and music critic at Pop'stache.com (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at http://popstache.com/author/bkowalski/.