• 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.

  • Interview of Tiffany Gholar, Author of A Bitter Pill to Swallow

    Interviewed by Will Haryanto

    Tiffany Gholar and I met during the last day of the Chicago Writers Conference 2016. We rode on the same bus and talked about writing, specifically self-publishing. She knew what she was talking about when she published her own art books on Amazon. It was all about getting it out there and making sure people saw it as much as possible. Tiffany talked about the costs it took to publish the books and much more.

    The discussion fascinated me and we got in contact again months later. By that point, she had finally published A Bitter Pill to Swallow and attended radio shows to promote the book. When I interviewed her for the book, she told me that the book had won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for Fiction, Non-Traditionally Published.

    We like to think that once a manuscript is written, everything is done and we can leave it to the gods and stars to finish the work. But that's not always the case and certainly not in the realm of self-publishing. It takes great effort to have even one person read a self-published book. I hope this interview will shed some light on the lesser known feats of self-published writers.

     Will Haryanto: What made you write A Bitter Pill to Swallow?

     Tiffany Gholar: I was actually just fourteen years old when I wrote the short story (on pink notebook paper with purple ink) that would become A Bitter Pill to Swallow. Without giving too much away, I will say that I began with one of my plot twists in mind as I devised "what if" scenarios in my creative writing class. I was about to start high school and had spent seventh and eighth grade getting dropped off by my school bus at a library that had a large collection of books about African-American teens, but I didn't see myself in most of them. The primary struggles the characters faced in those books involved issues of racial identity or civil rights, which felt somewhat limiting to me. Of course these are important issues, but what about adventure, suspense, romance, mystery, suspense, or science fiction? I saw A Bitter Pill to Swallow as the book I wanted to read that no one else had written yet. Over time, it grew into a novel.

    WH: Are any of the characters and events based on real life? 

    TG: The situation that happened to Devante and Monica was based on something that actually happened here in Chicago in the early ’90s. I read about it in the newspaper when I was a young teen and it stayed with me.

    When I was in college, I was surrounded by Black women who were pre-med, and their experiences helped to inform Gail's character.

     WH: How much research did you do before you wrote the book? Or were you researching while writing the book?

    TG: From the time I was in high school, I took psychology classes and read books and articles in my free time. Before I began working on the latest version of the story, I committed myself to watching as many films as I could about people who were being treated for mental illnesses in institutional settings and reading over thirty books. I took a lot of notes. I also gleaned what I could from friends who opened up to me about what they had experienced during inpatient treatment. The biggest turning point in my research was when I visited the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago, a therapeutic boarding school that was the inspiration for the Harrison School in the book. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen, and was the opposite of the desolate and decrepit institutions I encountered in books and films. I also talked to a good friend of mine who is a doctor now to get insight into what Gail's experiences in medical school might have been like, as well as to my own therapist about what he enjoys about his work.

    WH: What was the hardest part about writing the story?

    TG: The process of writing A Bitter Pill to Swallow was a difficult one to begin with. I had to constantly fight against my own self-doubt. I sometimes made the mistake of showing the wrong draft to the wrong person at the wrong time, and getting feedback that made me want to give up. I worked on it throughout high school and college, where I adapted it into a screenplay for my thesis project.

     The hardest part about writing it was deciding what kind of story I wanted to tell. Initially, I had envisioned it as a suspense thriller, but as I got older I felt as though some of my plot elements were trite and unrealistic. Then, after I visited the Orthogenic School my senior year of college, I realized that was the kind of setting I wanted, an environment that was positive and healing. I had to sit with that epiphany for nearly a decade before I found a premise that would work. But once I figured it out, the process of writing became much easier. I could envision the setting and my characters more clearly than ever before. Within two years I had written an outline, the screenplay, and the novel. 

    WH:  How did you edit the story?

     TG: I sent my third draft to several beta readers, made some additional revisions over several months, then hired a professional to do line editing.

    WH:  Why did you self-publish this book? (What was the reason why you forwent traditional publishing outlets?)

    TG: I had an extremely difficult time getting an agent, and none of the small presses I contacted ever got back to me. Rather than wait indefinitely on other people, I decided to move forward with publishing my book independently. This was not my first time publishing my own book. Before A Bitter Pill to Swallow, I published three books about my artwork, so I was familiar with the process.

    WH:  What is the process of self-publishing like to you? 

    TG: At times it's stressful, but the greatest reward is the creative control. In this case, I had the opportunity to use my artistic skills to create my own cover art. I spent a few months working on cover designs and ultimately decided to make four different covers, three of which single out my main characters. There are two ways I look at independent publishing: "I get to do everything!" Also, "I have to do everything!" Although, I didn't really have to do everything. I delegated the tasks I could not do myself to others who could. The print-on-demand technology we have continues to improve and makes it so much easier for authors to share their work with audiences all over the world, which makes the process much easier.

    WH: On the Amazon page, you have put the School Library Journal's review of the book. While it is positive, the reviewer is also critical about the writing. It seems you have left this review intact on the product information. What made you decide to put that in?

    TG: I actually didn't put that review there. Amazon did, unfortunately. I am trying to figure out what to do about it. On the one hand, I think that many potential readers would consider a School Library Journal review more prestigious than a review from a blogger. On the other hand, it's a mixed review. I'm torn. It frustrates me, because I feel as though the reviewer sees things that I did intentionally as a mistake that I made because this is my first novel.

    WH: Are there any future projects that you are working on? Any interest in working with a publisher?

    TG: I have recently started doing illustration work for two independent authors who are publishing children's books. One should be coming out very soon. I have really enjoyed illustrating and would love to work with a publisher. I am also planning to independently publish my next art book in 2018.

     WH: And lastly, what is some advice you’d like to give to aspiring writers?

    TG: I have several pieces of advice to share:

    • If you are publishing independently, make sure that you hire the right editor. The wrong editor can completely sabotage your creative process. Try to get as many sample edits as you can and don't work with an editor unless you feel truly comfortable with that person. It's a very important relationship.

    • If you have an idea for a story that you could see as both a movie and a book, write the screenplay first. Then when you write it as a novel, you get to add extra scenes. It is so much less stressful than trying to cut scenes out to do an adaptation.

    • Give yourself time between completing a draft and editing it. Two weeks to a month, if possible, will allow you to look at it with a new perspective.

  • Interview With Author (And Ace Fly Fisherman) John Galligan

     Interviewed by Bethany Bendtsen

    Born in the Pacific Northwest, Pushcart nominee John Galligan, now a longtime Wisconsinite, certainly hadn’t always envisioned writing and teaching as the two pillars of his professional career. As an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin-Madison, he studied Environmental Policy, before eventually going on to get a Master’s in English Literature. He worked as a cab driver, an au pair, a freezer boy at a fish cannery, and a house painter, among other odd jobs, before eventually settling into a path that makes much more sense given where he is now, first traveling and teaching English in Japan.  His first novel Red Sky, Red Dragonfly—part literary fiction, part dark mystery centered around the difficult and dangerous intersection of foreignness, sexual attraction and privilege—was influenced in part by his first-hand experiences while there. He also went on to work as an award-winning sports journalist and a feature-film screenwriter; his prose still carries an economical yet visually-evocative, cinematic quality to it.

    Following the publication of Red Sky, Red Dragonfly in 2001 and a children’s book he co-wrote and illustrated with his family, including his brother and his two young kids called Oh, Brother! said the Mother of Tony Pepperoni, Galligan was struggling with a manuscript that wasn’t going that well, despite the solid idea at its core: a traveling fly fisherman who stumbles upon a series of murders and is driven, out of circumstance, to solve them. While out fishing with a buddy on a sloppy day, Galligan—an experienced fly fisherman who considers fishing “sort of like sleep” to him—met a fellow fisherman who inspired the main character, Ned “Dog” Oglivie, of his successful three-book fly-fishing murder mystery series.

    This stranger was the antithesis of the main character whose perspective Galligan had been writing from.  Over the course of one afternoon and evening, and many, many beers, the man regaled Galligan and his friend with stories that, while wild and entertaining, made it apparent something was just a little off. By the end of the night, Galligan felt immense empathy for this man whose life, despite its Transcendental, escapistic sort of appeal, was clearly lacking in some vital quality of companionship and purpose.  In his fiction, Galligan often drew from people he knew and people he’d met, and this serendipitous encounter made him realize that a character like this man—colorful, nomadic, alcoholic, on the fringes of society—was much more interesting and compelling than the clean-cut fisherman he’d originally envisioned as narrator.

    With this new character in mind, Galligan set to work, while continuing to teach Creative Writing at Madison Area Technical College, where he remains on the faculty. Now, four years since the publication of Blood Knot, the final installment in the “Dog” fly fishing trilogy, I sat down with him to discuss writing, teaching and what’s on the horizon.

     Bethany Bendtsen: You’ve had a lot of interesting jobs before eventually becoming a novelist and professor. What was the worst job you’ve ever had?

     John Galligan: My worst job ever was jumping into the hold of a commercial fishing boat, landing in salmon up to my waist, and having to throw slippery twenty-pound kings over my head, up and out of the hold, all day long. Many days, this is what writing feels like.

    BB: What is your writing process? How do you approach rewriting?

    JG: I brainstorm, make notes, and research for quite a while. Then I outline, usually using what I’ve learned from studying screenplay writing about character, story structure, plot points, etc. The outline almost always ends up being more of a guide than a planoften I find different and better ways to tell the story as I go. My usual practice has been to revise my work in “acts.” I will draft what I call Act One until it is not perfect but rather perfectly functional in terms of carrying the conflict into Act Two. Then I draft and revise Act Two, and so on. I might revise the first 70% of the book ten times, then nail in the final 30% in just a couple drafts.

     BB: What does your typical day look like when you’re working on a book? How do you balance the demands of writing and teaching?

    JG: I write first thing, almost every day. I usually start by six a.m. I generally write for about three hours, though at times I will work for up to six hours, which seems to be my limit. I’ve been balancing teaching and writing forever, it seems, so it is no longer something I think about. I’m very organized and always know what I need to accomplish on a certain day, both writing and teaching. When I’m done writing, I switch gears, switch offices, switch computers, and do my teaching work until I’m done, whatever that takes. When push comes to shove, my teaching comes first. But I’m always thinking ahead about how to get my writing time in.

     BB: How, if at all, do you think teaching has impacted your writing? What do you get out of teaching?

    JG: Teaching has impacted my writing in numerous ways. One way that I really value is the exposure teaching has given me to so many people, and the empathy for all different kinds of people that the profession continually inspires and requires. At some point in my writing career I heard someone say “there are no assholes”—which is to say that every character has reasons for being who he or she is, my characters cannot be simply labeled and dismissed, and it is my job to understand them and feel what they feel and transfer this essential empathy to the reader. I think I would be lost at this challenge without the insights into people that my teaching has given me.

    BB: With Red Sky, Red Dragonfly and the “Dog” Fly Fishing series, it seems like place is very important in your writing. Would you say that’s true? Is it important to you to set your stories in a place that you know?

    JG: True. Authority . . . authenticity . . . an author needs to deeply know the place. This can be a challenge. In the Fly Fishing series, I worked hard to immerse myself in the Paradise Valley of Montana and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where the third and fourth books take place. I guess I did okay—no complaints anyway. But research and travel can only do so much. I feel a strong need to connect instinctively with the places I write about, and in that respect I feel most comfortable with Wisconsin at this point. The challenge then is to convince editors/readers that my place is a place they want to read about.

    BB: Other than place, what draws you to a story? Where does your inspiration come from? How do you know if you’re on the right track with something?

    JG: I’m a sucker for language . . . which can be my downfall as a writer. I will read just for strong and/or beautiful language, and that taste tends to steer me when I write too, which at least in genre fiction has gotten me into trouble with agents/editors/readers who are just not on board with anything that challenges them on this level. But sometimes, to be fair, my stories may be less than the language they are told in. I know I’m on the right track when the kind of language I like flows in the service of the story, and not the other way around.

    BB: What is your relationship like with your agent? What has your experience been like publishing your books?

    JG: I really like my agent, Joanna MacKenzie of Kristin Nelson Literary Agency in Denver. She’s supportive and patient and most of all, honest. She has really challenged my work, and that has helped me improve my writing process, especially in the planning phase, and to become a better writer. Publishing feels great . . . but only briefly. There is then marketing, and working on what’s next.

     BB: Any advice for graduating students who want to pursue a career in writing or publishing?

    JG: My best advice is to train yourself to write regularly, so that you build the strength, stamina, and skills needed to execute what your imagination produces. Also, examine, challenge, and continually improve your writing process. Obviously, read, widely and passionately. Finally, cultivate writing friends and allies. You‘re going to need connections and support.

     BB: If, for some reason, you couldn’t write and teach for a living but you could do anything else, what would you do and why?

     JG: I’d probably be a doctor. The human body fascinates me, and I know I’d be good at it.

     BB: Is there a story or a concept that you’ve always wanted to write, but have found yourself unable to?

     JG: Not yet. I have unfinished projects that are unfinished because I was unable to figure them out . . . but I’m not giving up. I have an idea for a speculative fiction novel, set in the future, that I’m not sure I have the tools for at this point, but I’m hoping to get there someday.

     BB: What are you working on now in your writing?

     JG: I have two novels at or very near the point of completion. One is in collaboration with my brother Michael, also a writer, a lighthearted whodunit featuring an ex-Seattle cop who has quit the force to be a stay-at-home dad but can’t leave his old world behind. It takes place during the transition to legal marijuana in the state of Washington and is called Last Hit for Mary Jane. We are hoping to make this a series. It’s been refreshing to write seriously about something not so serious and to work with a partner. My other novel is a dark crime story, set in the rugged hollows of Wisconsin along the Mississippi River, featuring a young woman who has transformed herself from a Dairy Queen into a tough but troubled county sheriff. It is called The Bad Axe and is also hopefully part of a series.

    When HT2.0 Managing Editor Bethany Bendtsen isn't writing “fiction” about falling in love with everyone she meets, she spends her time eating cheese fries, obsessing about her outfit, and being generally shady. Her favorite color is glitter.

  • Interview with Michael Czyzniejewski

    Interviewed by Karina Corona

    There is nothing is more human than the experience and emotions that follow a break up. In our age of disconnect, the act of breaking up is no longer a simple good bye and good day. Whether you’re the one dumping or getting dumped, when it comes to relationships—be it one of a few years, months, or even weeks—one things is certain: things are bound to get weird. 

    Michael Czyzniejewski is a master in the art of breaking up, or at least when it comes to writing about it. His book, I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life, is a collection of short stories regarding the dark and sometimes strange occurrences before, during, and after a break up. 

    Hair Trigger had to opportunity to talk with Czyzniejewski about his book and more importantly, the proper pronunciation of his last name. 

    Karina Corona: In the dedication, you dedicate this book to Karen who “didn’t inspire a single word of this book.” Who is Karen?

    Michael Czyzniejewski: Karen is my non-breakup, the one who didn't get away, the one who I truly love for the rest of my life. My first two books were dedicated to my parents, one each, and it was basically going to be her for book three. Sadly, the third book was all about sadness and the end of relationships, so I almost dedicated it to all my ex-girlfriends and was going to put their Facebook page urls so people who read my book could either congratulate them on moving on from me or tell them how foolish they were, depending on how they liked my book. But then I thought of a way to shoehorn Karen in, make it sweet, make her melt. Next two books will be my two kids, then my cat, then probably something abstract like punk rock or ennui. And if I write more books than that, I'll either have to get married again (bigamy, because again, Karen = rest of life), have more kids, or something I haven't thought of. Is Jodie Foster a cliché?

    KC: Who or what did inspire you to write break-up stories?

    MC: Stories always need conflict, and for some reason, the conflict I was always going to was the trouble that relationships were having. I guess that the "for some reason" is what you're really asking for, but that's the best I got: I wrote plots and conflicts around people's lives falling apart in that way. I realize that a lot of stories have another conflict, another plot, AND a relationship in the background, but I haven't gotten there yet. I'm working on a novel, without any love yet, and now maybe I just thought of my next forty pages.

    KC: Some of these stories sound extremely intimate, as though they were taken directly from someone’s private journal. Are any of these stories inspired from reality?

    MC: One story in particular is inspired by an ex, but only marginally. It's the Ding Dong story. While Ding Dongs, or snack cakes in general, weren't involved, the dynamic of the relationship—how I felt during it, how I see myself as being treated—was straight from., pain). But otherwise, I just made a lot of them up, imagined how and why people hurt each other. It was hard at first, but then easy, because hurting itself is pretty easy, can be accomplished in so many ways.

    KC: I understand you’re from Chicago and while reading your book, the overall feeling was very much the feeling of Chicago—shifting in mood and tone much like the shifting weather here—but the location where these stories take place is never a thing which is mentioned. Was this something intentional or is it just second nature?

    MC: Both. I've never really thought of setting in the way that someone like Rick Bass or E. Annie Prouix does. Or most writers. It's for the same reasons I tend to not describe my characters—except in the grotesque sense—or give them ages or races: I want my stories to be more universal, as if they could happen anywhere, to anyone. I think I've succeeded in that, too. Donald Barthelme is a huge influence on me and when I think about it, none of those stories have a particular place, or descriptions of the weather or geography. Would I like to be better at that? Sure. But I don't feel bad that I've left it off—you telling me that you feel like they feel Chicago makes me glad. Had you said, "Prague" or "Provo" I would have wondered what was causing that. I've never been to either. (Now I want to write a story set in Provo.)

    KC: It’s always fun to come across writing that feels new and fresh. How did you come up with “The Braxton-Carter-Vandamme-Myers-Braxton-Carter Divorce: An Outline”?

    MC: I really wanted this book to take chances, to do things I've never done, or maybe that no one's ever done, and the best way to do that is experiment with form; it wasn't like I was going to make up some new kind of suffering or heartbreak for people to endure, as you either lose someone or you don't, through your fault or theirs (or death, I guess). So I thought about stories I've read, different forms, and I remember index stories and columned stories and all kinds of epistolaries, even what Dave Eggers does with the legal pages and other front and back material in his memoir, Heartbreaking Working of Staggering Genius. But I hadn't seen anyone write a story as an outline and turn it in as the finished product (I made sure when I sent the manuscript to my editor that he knew it wasn't an in-progress piece, but what I wanted it to look like), even though, ironically, a lot of writers have that version, because they start with an outline, or get to one at some point. I wish I'd done more of that, more forms, as so many people ask me about that story.

    KC: Finally, how do you pronounce your last name?

    MC: Easy: Exactly how it's spelled.

    To purchase "I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories" visit Curbside Splendor

  • 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' (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at

  • Interview with Douglas Perry

    Interviewed by Claire Doty

    Chicago is not known for its gentle history—a devastating fire, corruption, and a wild gangster scene are just a few of the gritty scars imbedded in the city's timeline. The famous musical Chicago echoes that history with a wry and comical twist. Few know, however, that its origins came from actual events that happened in Chicago. Author Doug Perry opens the curtain to the fascinating world in the 1920s in his book The Girls of Murder City (2010), which delves into the lives of women in Chicago in the bustling time of prohibition, crime, and lust. Perry creates a historical narrative that guides us through each woman's tale, whether it be a blossoming reporter or an accused murderess. 
    Perry has a great understanding of Chicago as a city in the 21st century as well as the in the early 20th. His extensive research led him to find documentation that was overlooked and considered  ordinary, but in fact added depth to the complicated history of the women who inspired Chicago. He sheds light on the roles of females and the struggles they faced in a male-dominated world, which threads into the issues women still face today. Perry sheds new light on common plot points—that some human qualities linger decades longer than humans themselves, and that those modern humans are not so different from their predecessors. In delving into the past, the present becomes sharper.

    Claire Doty: What made you interested in the history of these particular women?

    Douglas Perry: I saw the musical Chicago on Broadway and enjoyed it immensely. Not only was it hugely entertaining, [but] it also struck me as insightful, clever and topical. The best work Kander and Ebb ever did, in my view. The playbill mentioned in passing that Maurine Watkins, the author of the original play on which the musical was based, had been inspired by actual murder trials she covered for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. This intrigued me, and I went looking for books, articles, essays—anything that had been written about the play’s source material. But I was surprised to find there was very little information available about the events that inspired the play and musical.

    CD: Where did you start your research?

    DP: I started in the Chicago Public Library, where I spent days going through its newspaper archives. There were half a dozen daily newspapers in 1920s Chicago, and newspaper coverage was a lot different—and far more entertaining—than it is now. Reporters routinely impersonated police officers to get information. They broke into and ransacked the homes of murder victims in search of diaries and photographs. Crime reporters at this time could walk freely through police stations and jails at all hours. They sat in on and participated in police interrogations. They investigated crimes themselves, trying to stay a step ahead of homicide detectives. Reporters hung out at the Cook County Jail and interviewed “the girls of Murderesses’ Row” at length, over and over, without the women’s attorneys present. While it was, in some ways, a more brutal time, it was also a more naïve time. These women who were facing murder trials were often remarkably candid when talking to reporters.

    The newspapers, of course, were only the beginning. I delved into government records, where I unearthed a lot of valuable information. Belva Gaertner’s divorce records, for example, proved to be a treasure trove. The documents walked me through her life almost year by year from about 1917 to about 1926. They included long interviews with Belva and her husband, and detailed reports from private investigators. One of the great things about historical research is that you don’t know what you’re going to find until you start looking. These divorce records were in Cook County’s archives, sitting untouched in a dusty box for 80 years. No one knew they were there. They hadn’t been digitized and put online, and they probably never will be. Such records aren’t about celebrities or world leaders, and they’re mostly commonplace documents, so they are a very low priority for archivists. But there are some fantastic stories there. Having gotten started, I began tracking down and reaching out to descendants and others who knew (or knew about) those involved in the events. One thing kept leading to another.

    CD: What inspired you to write about Chicago's crime history?

    DP: I moved to Chicago right after college and lived there for most of the 1990s. I instantly fell in love with the city. Chicago is always changing, evolving, reaching out to the future—but its history remains front and center. You can walk through the neighborhood where Maurine Watkins lived in 1924 and still get a fair sense of what it was like then. The building where Eliot Ness and the Untouchables worked looks—on the outside—almost exactly the same today as it did 80 years ago, though it’s been converted to residences. It’s not far from Columbia College, of course. I used to live just blocks from the Biograph Theatre, where John Dillinger met his end. My favorite used bookshop—now gone, sadly—was two doors down from the theater. I learned the city during my first year in Chicago by spending my weekends riding the El, getting off at random stops and walking around. If you keep your eyes open, the city’s whole history is right there for you.

    CD: What intrigues you about Chicago?

    DP: It’s the all-American city, by turns beautiful and terrifying. There’s just an excitement about Chicago, and it’s something very different from what New York offers. “Stormy, husky, brawling,” as Carl Sandburg wrote. It’s the most interesting city in the country. 

    CD: How would you categorize your book? 

    DP: The Girls of Murder City is history, but I like to think it’s more than that. It’s about unique events that took place in 1924, but like the musical Chicago, it speaks loudly and clearly to today’s celebrity culture. It’s also. . .funny. It showcases how there’s really no such thing as normal. We all want to fit in—and we’re in a conformist era right now—but people are odd, and strange things happen. Thank God for odd people and strange happenings.

    CD: In crime and gangster history, especially in Chicago, the focus is always on men. Do you think there is almost more respect for men who engaged in crime rings in the 20th century than there is for women?

    DP: Chicago’s famous gangster era was a man’s world, there’s no way around it. The early twentieth century was a time of social upheaval and transformation. Women were gaining new freedoms, and this inevitably had a dark side. But of course a lot of people still had 19th-century attitudes, and so they had a very difficult time coming to terms with the very idea of women committing crimes. Violence was widely considered an unnatural act for a woman. When it happened, there had to be extenuating circumstances: the woman had been abused by a man or tricked by a man, or—ye Gods!—was in love with a man and so had lost her mind. A woman who killed surely had been overwhelmed by alcohol or feminine emotions, or both, and so she was not responsible. Cook County juries were all male, and so women—especially good-looking women—were almost always acquitted, no matter how much evidence there was.

    CD: What is your opinion on the glamorization of certain crimes?

    DP: I’m not in favor of glamorizing crime. While researching the book, I found Belva and Beulah to be endlessly fascinating. And my heart broke for Wanda Stopa, the pioneering “girl lawyer” who ended up killing a man. She was even bigger news than Beulah and Belva. The newspapers called the public’s appetite for her story “the Wanda sensation.” But I tended to relate to Maurine Watkins, who was appalled that women murderers were being treated like celebrities. It infuriated her that Beulah and Belva were using their gender and sex appeal to manipulate the justice system. She did everything she could to help secure convictions for them.

    CD: What did you want readers to take away from your book?

    DP: The march of technology increasingly makes earlier generations seem very strange and distant to us, but people haven’t changed much down through human history. Our motivations are the same generation after generation, and so there is much we can learn by studying the past, the “small” events and people as well as the big ones. And in this era of 24/7 entertainment and 400 scripted TV series, I would like readers to realize that truth really is stranger than fiction. At book events, I heard over and over from readers that they had no idea Chicago was based on real events. They would say: These beautiful, murderous, in-your-face women—how could their stories be true? But if you study history, you know the real question is—how could they not be?

     To learn more about Perry's writing visit his website.

    1. Where Are They Now: Friedman Award Recipients


    Interview Series by Ben Kowalski

    David Friedman was a not only a writer and painter, but also a great friend to Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Department. The Friedman Memorial Award was established by David’s family in 2002 as a memorial to him, and is given each year to the author of a story or essay published in the Hair Trigger anthology.

    Recent Friedman Memorial Award winners include Stephanie Shaw (2008), Gina DiPonio (2011), and Francesca Thompson (2013). Hair Trigger 2.0 sat down with them to talk about the award, their careers after Columbia, and the world of creative writing. This audio clip previews what they had to say. For the full interviews, see Stephanie Shaw, Gina DiPonio, and Francesca Thompson.

    Interviews by Ben Kowalski, 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' (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at

  • 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 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' (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at

  • 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' (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at

  • Q&A with Stephanie Shaw, 2008 Friedman Award winner

    Interview by Ben Kowalski

    Stephanie Shaw is the author of several full-length monologues, including “Good Eatin’,” “A Proper Dragon,” and “Ductand Materia Prima.” She has also directed several productions around Chicago— many at Columbia College—and worked as a theater critic for the Chicago Reader

    Shaw won the David Friedman Memorial Award in 2008 for her piece “Afterbirth.” 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. Hair Trigger spoke to Stephanie Saw about her recent work, influential fiction, and opportunities for Chicago writers.

    Ben Kowalski: Tell me about your most recent work.

    Stephanie Shaw: About two years ago or so and [I published] a novella [called “Mademoiselle Guinol”] about the Grand Guinol, a theater in Paris just before the turn of the century which specialized in horror, splatter theater, and sensationalism. It was a work of fiction. It was historical. It wasn’t exactly horror. It was published in an anthology called [Tattered Souls 2]—so there’s that. Since then, I’ve done a lot of spoken word work around the city.

    BK: How did you come across that anthology?

    SS: I’ve always drifted toward the slightly weird. Columbia was very useful to me in that—I first learned there that it was possible to not be one genre or the other, that there was interstitial work that could be done. All of my stories that took place in natural settings always had some sort of weird twist to them that people found interesting, off-putting or confusing. I think I got it from reading a lot of Shirley Jackson when I was a little kid, and from being a big fan of the Brontes, in which supernatural stuff [happened] all the time and no one ever blinked an eye.

    BK: What got you into Shirley’s writing, originally?

    SS: When I was a little kid, we had a book of hers hanging around the house. It was called Life Among the Savages. It was about a domestic life with four children and an academic husband. I loved it. It was very episodic, it was funny, and it was based in the day-to-day life of this woman and her crazy household. I think now, looking back, there are hints of darkness in it that I didn’t see when I was younger. Shirley Jackson didn’t have the greatest time when she was living in that house that she writes so funnily about. Her husband was an academic and they lived in the countryside. Her family was a target—the townspeople were very antisemitic. She didn’t exactly fit in, eventually became agoraphobic, and died very young. There was a lot of dark tragedy behind what led her to write comedy.

    BK: Does that influence your current writing?

    SS: I do tend to gravitate that way—toward the long dark night of the soul that takes place at  two in the afternoon in a nice house in a suburb.

    BK: Are you working on any creative projects right now?

    SS: I’m trying to write what’s turning into a sequel to “Mademoiselle Guinol.” “The Rite of Spring”—that ballet that caused so much concern and caused a riot—happened in the spring of 1913. I’m sort of convinced that “The Rite of Spring”—that brutal, brutal music and that brutal, brutal ballet, which everyone hissed and booed and cheered and were so confronted by—was a harbinger of World War I. It was a messenger of death, almost, because up until that time, art had been decorative, pleasing,  and there to make you feel good.

    BK: How did winning the Friedman Award affect your career as a writer?

    SS: It helped with my self-esteem [and] it was encouraging. You can write and write and write and never get recognized. The idea of just getting recognized—especially for [a piece that] was semi-autobiographical, even though there were dragons in it—that something that came out of me that was that honest could be recognized, was a very encouraging moment. It showed me that I could keep on in that fashion and I wasn’t doomed to failure.

    BK: Is there anything I haven’t touched on that you’d like to add?

    SS: Most of my work lately has been spoken word and [in] the live lit scene around Chicago, which is a thriving, huge scene. I’d like to see more writers, more fiction writers, [and] more essayists, take advantage of things around Chicago like The Paper Machete and the Write Club. There are so many opportunities to stand up in front of a mic and read your work out-loud. It’s a huge community and very supportive.

    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' (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at