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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

  • Samantha Irby: blogger, essayist, realist

    Interview by Jennifer Bostrom

    Almost four years ago, Samantha Irby came to my class and we talked about vibrators. No, it wasn’t a sex ed class, Irby was visiting to enlighten prospective writers, myself included, on the pros and cons of publishing her first book, Meaty (2013), with an indie-publisher. Those familiar with the essayist and blogger’s work might think: “Yeah, totally. Why wouldn’t you talk about vibrators?” but those unfamiliar might wonder: “WTF? What do vibrators and publishing books have to do with one another?” The answer is quite simply: very little (unless maybe you’re trying to lesson the sting of editorial rejection with some Irby-approved "me time").

    Bitches Gotta Eat (henceforth reffered to as BGE) is part recipe blog (not really, but with a name like "Bitches Gotta Eat" Irby does throw in the occasional recipe post), part "Dear Diary," and part self-deprecatingly candid posts about Irby’s battle with Crohn’s disease—including the “hotsex doctor” she sees for it. BGE’s popularity, as well as Irby’s candor and personality, lead her to pen Meaty. Every bit as funny, real, and grounded as the author, Meaty is a collection of essays that bring BGE's flavor for 251 pages. Currently, Irby works full time and is writing a second book, but gave me the opportunity to distract her for a bit.

    Jennifer Bostrom: How did BGE get its start?

    Samantha Irby: I first started a blog on Myspace (omg does anyone even still know what that is) to impress this kid I wanted to be my boyfriend. The relationship went to shit and so did that blog, but a bunch of people reached out to me asking me to continue writing. Eventually, at the urging of my friend Laura, over cheeseburgers and beers, I decided to start BGE.

    JB: Your first BGE post was June 2, 2009 and it reads “welcome to the raddest spot on the interwebs.” What is the raddest thing about BGE?

    SI: Every answer that comes to mind makes me feel like an asshole, so I will just say “it’s funny.”

    JB: You’re approaching the seventh anniversary of BGE (congratulations); it’s not uncommon that once bloggers have been published—or if they have a full time job—for blogs to lose momentum. How do you consistently bring a fresh perspective to posts, even when you revisit topics like writing or dating?

    SI: I can’t believe it’s been seven years already, omg. Wellllllllllllllllll, I’m not sure that “consistently” is a word I can confidently use, since over the last handful of months I’ve only posted a handful of times. I am forever evolving, and s--t is always happening to me in new ways. And the zeitgeist is forever changing, too. So I feel like as long as my cultural references stay au courant, then I’m all good.

    JB: BGE has always been written in lowercase font, boldface, and neon colors interspersed for emphasis. How did this style develop? If you could, would you publish your books the same way? 

    SI: I’ve always written in lowercase, just as a personal style thing. The multicolored text serves two purposes. 1) Since I tend to write long-form prose, it helps to break it all up a little bit, and 2) it serves my massive ego to highlight lines I am particularly proud of. I have been discouraged from using lowercase in my books, and I’m cool with it. It distinguishes the books from the blog to have them formatted differently but—and this is the more important thing to me—the text won’t be a distraction to people who are unfamiliar with my writing. Since it really is my personal preference, and not some stylistic or political statement, I don’t want every review to focus on why I don’t capitalize my Is. I don’t want anything to get in the way of the work.

    JB: When you write things like “Compliments are the currency of womanhood,” it makes me want to quote you (and if I had a better memory I would). How would you describe your voice?

    SI: Salty and with a strong undercurrent of wit, multiple hatreds, and crushing anxiety.

    JB: On BGE you’ve written about outlining your new book. What is your typical process for writing? How, if at all, has your process changed since writing Meaty? Does anything differ when you write for your books vs. blog posts? 

    SI: Writing my blog is a lot easier for me. Usually something dumb happens and then I’m like OH MY FUCKING GOD I GOTTA WRITE ABOUT THIS RN (RN= right now, for those not versed in social media shorthand) and then I huddle over my desk and bang it out and get the instant gratification of seeing it go live and getting reactions to it. The book is hard because I sit alone writing in a vacuum and have to wait months and months before anyone lays eyes on it, which means I have months and months to pick it apart and doubt whether or not it’s good. Having a lot of time is almost tougher than trying to write it in a few months, because I’m a master procrastinator who is terrific at making excuses. If this damn thing ever gets done, it’ll be a miracle.

    I try to write an outline for every piece, and I never start writing a thing until I know how I’m going to end it. Even if I know exactly what an essay is going to be about, I don’t feel comfortable unless I know how it’s going to wrap up. Sometimes I’ll write the last couple paragraphs before I start the first. It’s that serious.

    JB: Where do you write—home, coffee shops? What music is in your Spotify “writing playlist” right now? 

    SI: I try to write at home because I hate people and noise and sunshine and looking at things—plus I don’t have to put on shoes or a bra—but writing at home is hard because there’s a TV and a bed. It’s an actual nightmare. I wrote most of the new book at other people’s houses, which is the best of both worlds: I don’t have to worry about leaving my laptop if I have to pee, but also there’s the public shame of someone catching me doing internet crossword puzzles while pretending to be writing.

    I make a killer fucking playlist, and I keep adding songs to the one I made to help me get through working on this book. It’s got 100+ songs on it, and I would never bore you with all of them so here is a sampling:

    “Your Love is Killing Me” - Sharon Van Etten

    “Weekend” - Mac Miller feat. Miguel

    “Refuse” - Kevin Garrett

    “Caretaker” - D.R.A.M. feat. SZA

    “2000 Seasons” Talib Kweli

    “No Role Modelz” - J. Cole

    “Coming Down” - Dum Dum Girls

    “You Took Your Time” - Mount Kimbie

    “Mad Lucas” - The Breeders

    “Etc” - Francis and the Lights

    “Forgive Me for Giving Up” - Hundred Waters

    I’m also really into Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album and looped recordings of thunderstorms.

    JB: I know when it came to writing Meaty, you’ve said that it was an opportunity that presented itself. What opportunity lead to the decision to write another book?

    SI: This is going to sound like bullshit for real, but it really was another opportunity that presented itself. I didn’t have an agent for Meaty—the publishers were friends of mine. After it came out, I got an email from my current agent asking if I had one. I told him no, we talked on the phone, then BOOM he became my rep. He told me to put a few new pieces together and I did, he sent them out, and a few months later, I signed a deal. Even though it happened to me, writing it out feels like a fever dream. Crazy.

    JB: Had that initial opportunity not presented itself, do you think you would’ve still written a book? 

    SI: NEVER EVER FUCKING EVER. Finding an agent and pitching a book are difficult things to do even if you’re incredibly motivatedand I’m just not. I have a job, being active on Twitter stresses me out. I have no desire to do more than randomly post shit to make people laugh whenever the mood strikes me. I was perfectly happy just toiling away in my little corner of the internet, and my plan was to do that until life got boring or people stopped reading blogs—which is probably now, but I’m too old to have caught onto that yet.

    JB: What has been the hardest thing about writing your latest book? 

    SI: Figuring out what is interesting enough to go in it.

    JB: Meaty was marketed almost entirely through social media. Are you going to use the same approach with your new book?

    SI: Meaty came out on a small local press [Curbside Splendor] and big budget ad campaigns were totally out of the question. This new one is coming out on Vintage, a subsidiary of Knopf, and there are editors and marketing people and digital strategists and all sorts of other big time shit. I will be in charge of nothing, and that’s totally cool. 

    JB: I read in your interview with Chicago Now that Meaty took four months to write, all while watching twerking videos on Youtube and Grey’s Anatomy. What are your vices with this new book?

    SI: Makeup tutorials, holy shit. I could sit for hours watching Jaclyn Hill and Jeffree Star apply eyeshadows and highlighter. IT’S MESMERIZING.

    JB: What are the top 3 ways you procrastinate? What are the top 3 ways you push through procrastination?

    SI: 1) HBO

    2) Napping

    3) Carbohydrates

    1) Threats

    2) Disappointed emails from my agent

    3) Daydreaming about all the dumb shit I can waste money on when the book starts selling

    JB: Like you, I attended Nichols Middle School and Evanston Township High School, take my pets to Bramer Animal Hospital (where Irby maintains a full-time job), and eat at Lady Gregory’s and the Cozy Noodle on Davis—basically, I think I may be geographically stalking you (sorry!)—but you and I have very different writing style. What would you attribute your style to?

    SI: Omg, I am now wracked with anxiety that I might have been inexplicably rude to you at my job. (Just FYI, reader, Sam has never been rude to me at her job.) People always tell me that my voice is very distinctive, but I don’t know what to attribute it to. It’s just the voice I hear in my head, stream of consciousness rambling run-on sentences, sprayed on paper. I really do just write things to make myself laugh, and when it makes other people laugh, too, that’s butter on the toast.

    JB: I remember when you came to my class you championed LELOs (ahem, vibrators). You’re candid with every topic you write and talk about. As a writer, I often stray from uncomfortable topics, whether it’s from a place of my own self-censorship or an external factor. Do you struggle with any censorship? How do you think you grew to be so comfortable with candor? 

    SI: I suppose it’s been easy because I’ve had very few negative consequences? Lately, I have been trying not to swear so bleeping much, but other than that I don’t really censor myself. There are topics I avoid—politics, religion, etcetra—because 1) they aren’t that funny and 2) I don’t feel learned enough to write about them and sound like I know what I’m talking about, and others I shy away from because no one should ever be totally transparent. (Also: Go get a LELO if you haven’t yet—they’re magical.)

    JB: In Meaty, we learn that your parents died when you were very young. My condolences. Did that loss contribute to introspection and lead to becoming a writer?

    SI: I’m not sure that I ever wanted to become a writer. In high school, I wrote a lot of fiction based on fantasies of the lives I would’ve created for myself if life was something I could be in charge of rather than a game of cosmic roulette. Those stories were an escape from the horrors of my real life. I don’t know that writing is something I would’ve pursued if I had people around telling me how disappointed they were in my decision to put my life out in public. I never got to know my parents well enough to know how they’d respond to my work. I hope this doesn’t sound callous, it’s definitely an advantage to not have them around.

    JB: How much of your free time is dedicated to writing?

    SI: I usually write my blog on my lunch breaks at work. I have never wanted it to feel like a chore, so I don’t write it on the weekends or my days off. When I have book stuff to work on, I try to write whenever I’m not working, but that usually ends up being 70% Hulu and 30% staring at my Macbook waiting for the words to present themselves to my fingers. But I don’t really like writing in a vacuum, so even on the days I dedicate to writing, I try to break it up a little bit: stretch my legs, watch some trashy TV, whatever I can do to give my brain a little breather.

    JB: The first paragraph of Meaty has the line “I have a ‘job’ and not a ‘career.’” Has a job working in an animal hospital hindered or helped you as a writer? Would you consider writing your career? 

    SI: I’m not sure if anything other than the flexibility and lack of any sort of punitive moral code of conduct has helped my writing, but I guess those are pretty important things. It’s pretty amazing not to have to worry about being fired for something I’ve written on the internet. I’m not really sure I want writing to be my career, because what if the ideas stop? What if I stop being as interesting, or as funny? I’m not sure I would enjoy writing as much if my livelihood depended on it.

    JB: Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring essayists?

    SI: Get a job. It doesn’t have to be a career, but you definitely need a regular paycheck for things like food and cocktails and lightning fast internet or whatever. Not having the pressure of hustling for money, or writing shit I don’t care about just to collect a check for it, has been incredibly freeing. I’m free to write about my butthole and falling asleep in nightclubs because, even if no one wants to pay to read about it, because walking dogs or selling doughnuts has already covered my rent.

    To read more of Irby's words, go to Bitches Gotta Eat or find Meaty online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.


    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.