Jack_Driscoll1An Interview by Sharon Harrigan from Issue 12

Author of four novels, four poetry collections, and the AWP Short Fiction Award winner Wanting Only to Be Heard, Jack Driscoll has also received the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the PEN/Nelson Algren Fiction Award, the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award, Pushcart Prizes, PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards, and Best American Short Story citations. He currently teaches in Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program in Oregon, where I first met and studied with him. It is not hyperbole to say that as a teacher, he is a legend. Working under his tutelage is a transformative experience, as we gain not just technique but a finer appreciation for the music of words and greater empathy for our characters.
This conversation was conducted long distance. I e-mailed my questions to Jack in northern Michigan from Paris, where I was living for a year. He mailed the responses back by postal mail (yes, snail mail) when I returned to Virginia. On the front page he had photocopied a beautiful picture of three dozen whimsical houses, a touch that is so typical of Jack’s humor, friendliness, generosity, and meticulous attention to the beauty in every exchange. With Jack, nothing is dashed off or unimportant, whether it’s an e-mail, a craft talk, a cover letter, a critique, or a story. We finished the interview by phone.

Silk Road: The New York Times recently ran an article claiming that the short story is no longer “the read-headed stepchild” of the literary world. George Saunders’ collection has become a bestseller, and many other best-selling authors are turning or returning to the form, including Tom Perotta, Jess Walter, and Junot Diaz. According to the article, the form is a perfect fit for e-readers and for the short attention span of our age. Edgar Allan Poe considered the short story superior to the novel and thought the ideal art form could be finished in one sitting. You have published poetry collections and novels, but you are perhaps best known and most beloved for your short stories. Pam Houston told me that “Wanting Only to Be Heard” is one of the best stories she’s ever read and urged me to read your stories as a way to learn how to write my own. Brady Udall said you have “long been one of this country’s best short story writers.” The World of a Few Minutes Ago is your second collection. Why did you return to this form and why now? Do you see a resurgence in short story reading?

Jack Driscoll: It’s buoying to see recent short story collections, both by George Saunders and Alice Munro, as bestsellers. Whether or not that signals a larger readership for short fiction in general? Of course I’d like to believe so, though I wouldn’t wager much on what appears to me a fairly shaky optimism. And this was underscored not long ago when a reputable New York agency, having read a story of mine in The Georgia Review, e-mailed and then followed up with a phone call to inquire whether I might be interested in representation.

I was just finishing up the final revisions for The World of a Few Minutes Ago and so the timing seemed perfect, uncanny really, a propitious sign or omen, I imagined. But when I mentioned that I had a story collection just about ready to go, she paused for maybe a thirty second count and said, “Oh. Well, we were hoping that you might have a novel available.” To which I answered, “But didn’t you get in touch with me because of a story of mine you read?” And she said, “Yes, which we loved, but we don’t represent short story writers.”
But as you say, it is the form that I’ve returned to, and the form that I love best for its compression, intensity, and distillation of language. Plus I like beginnings and endings and the prospect of moving on to that next story.

SR: I was fascinated to read in an interview that you write very slowly because you give the impression that beautiful phrases come as easily to you as breathing. Even your correspondence, craft talks, and story critiques are full of gorgeous lines, profound and fitting quotes, and rhythms that sing.
How do you do it? Can you tell me about your writing routine? If the words really do come slowly, what are the tricks you’ve learned over the years? Do you write at the same time every day? In the same place, for instance?

Jack: I once heard a writer friend of mine named Michael Delp refer to me during a Q&A—and as the antithesis of his process—as the slowest writer in the universe. He said, “Jack Driscoll moves at the pace of an ice age.”
And, sadly, getting slower all the time. Horace said that “the art is to conceal the art,” to make it appear as if what’s said could only ever have been said that way, effortlessly. That’s the great illusion, that somehow this labor-intensive passion we serve comes, as you say, as easily as breathing. It’s certainly the effect we’re after. But again, that’s the result of working, word by word, sentence by sentence, to get, as Donald hall says, “The worked-on quality out of it.”

I wonder sometimes if I’ve ever written even a single sentence in a story that wasn’t, if only in some minor way, revised, and I think not. And one way in which I revise is to listen, to think of the ear as an eye, believing that the ability to hear more clearly assists in our ability to see more clearly. Jim Harrison points out that “music came before words,” and I find myself more often than not being guided by melodies and sentence rhythms rather than by cognitive thinking or drafting. No doubt this comes, at least in part, from having written poems and only poems for the first thirty years of my writing life. And perhaps why I was introduced not too long ago as a “poet masquerading as a novelist,” which I liked a lot.

I try to write in the mornings. And, other than for note taking, I always work at home, in what I refer to—after John Muir—as my crow’s nest, a room that’s attached to the house and overlooks the Little Betsie River, and surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of acres of wetlands. It’s private and quiet and gorgeous, home to otters and beavers and muskrats. Bobcats, the occasional black bear, blue herons and kingfishers, mallards and wood ducks and mergansers, loons that nest a few hundred yards above in Bridge Lake. For the past two years, an endangered red-shouldered hawk, and deer that cross the river daily.

As for the tricks I’ve learned over the years? Just one: “to remain at rest in a room,” as Blaise Pascal says. To keep my posterior in the chair and whack away at the keyboard, no matter what. Or, to say it another way: What I know is that talent alone won’t get the story written, but to discover talent’s equivalent in a hard-core work ethic just might, and that seems to me the more important part of the equation. And, over time, even if you’re as slow moving as I am something eventually gets done.

SR: You seem to have an endless supply of perfect literary quotes for any occasion. Do you keep a notebook of them? A database? Where do they come from?

Jack: I haven’t awakened to daylight in over twenty years, my normal rising time about 4:00 AM. At which hour I brew a pot of coffee and read by the window until sunrise. It’s a ritual I love and anticipate, and perhaps it’s also a stay against loneliness, which is how I’d no doubt feel if I neglected to begin my day this way.

I keep a pen and paper nearby and underline or jot down margin notes or sentences that compel, that animate my imagination or curiosity. For example, yesterday morning I was reading a Time magazine interview with the South African artist William Kentridge who, in response to a question about anxiety, said, “The crow of anxiety always find some branch to land on.” I liked that. I jotted it down. But no, I don’t have a database. I don’t even really know what that is, and it’s doubtful that I could ever be that organized anyway. My friend Pete Fromm says I have a Rolodex for a brain, and I do tend to remember quotes that matter to me, and they often become part of my day to day. It’s also a way of “waving back,” of acknowledging those who’ve preceded us as well as our contemporaries, and in that way enlarging the conversation.

SR: Your opening lines are like microcosms. Sometimes whole stories even. Here’s one of my favorites, the first sentence of “Saint Ours”: “Here’s what the guy I don’t live with anymore said: “Charlene, if you could only imagine yourself as a feral, teeth-baring timber wolf bitch in heat, then you and me—we’d be a whole lot better suited.” You gave a craft talk once about how to write a killer first sentence, dividing the strategies into five categories. Can you divulge some of your secrets, for those of us trying to jump-start a story?

Jack: If I were asked what’s at stake, or what might be determined in that first sentence, or those first few sentences, I’d say, and without hyperbole, “everything.” Steven Millhauser says, “In that single grain of sand lies the beach that contains the grain of sand. That is, everything that the story will eventually reveal—or the way in which the story bodies forth—lies latent in those opening sentences. Character, setting, action, conflict, distance, point of view and, naturally, an unresolved tension or dissonance which already, right there, tends toward its necessary resolution. As in a piece of music, everything already in place and the tenor created by their arrangement.

When I was still writing poems I always believed that if I could write an opening line interesting enough to propel me forward then I could, and without a clue as to where I was headed, eventually get that poem written. I write stories exactly the same way, without an inkling as to where I’m headed, and unable to move on to sentence number two until that announcing first impression reveals to me what next move might be possible.

That’s how I jump-start a story, by getting out of the gate with as much traction and momentum as possible, and then seeing what happens from there.

SR: One of the things you’ve been most praised for is your authorial empathy. A review in Fiction Writers Review, for instance, says, “I can feel that these people genuinely matter” to you. I’ve heard you talk about your “kind God theory” of writing. Can you explain what this means and why it’s important?

Jack: The theory is simple: To humanize through empathy. To love and care for and treat with respect each and every one of our fictive inventions. And the way to divine complex, three-dimensional flesh and blood characters is to open every door into the deep reaches of their psyches and hearts as a way to reveal everything that they’re thinking and feeling. Their secrets and fears, as well as—and perhaps more importantly—what they desire, what Freud calls the drives, and what John Irving insists, forms character, and more often than not sets them in action, instigates the trouble which then sets the story in motion.
Not types or outlines. Not representative or herd-like characters, not personages but rather persons, individuals, people, as Hemingway says.

“At first there was the word.” As well as the biblical edict to “forgive seventy times seven,” though I’ve always felt more comfortable with redemption, which seems to me a willingness on the writer’s part to understand why a character does what he or she does, its source or motivation. Not that we necessarily will understand, but the effort to do just that nonetheless defines our compassion, our willingness to treat our characters fairly and honestly, and that signals hope, and perhaps all the more so in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

SR: Your stories have been compared to those of Lee K. Abbott, especially in their use of humor in the service of serious emotions. Here’s an example, from “Saint Ours”: “Listen to me, Miss Cum Laude. Forget the I.V. Leagues, okay?”
Besides Abbott, who are some of the other writers who make us laugh and cry at the same time? What are your tips for writers trying to pull off this balancing act?

Jack: The French word chantepleure, to sing and cry simultaneously, doesn’t so much resolve the apparent paradox of emotion, as it does complicate and enlarge it, which I like a lot, given that emotions seem to me rarely singular.
Humor helps us to relax; it provides a counter-harmony that allows for easier access into those darker realms, and into what otherwise might be unbearable. Not humor signed to the ha-ha, the easy laugh, the punch line, but humor working, as you say, in the service of the story’s more serious concerns.

Writers who come immediately to mind include Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Lorrie Moore, Pam Houston, David Sedaris, Billy Collins, Roddy Doyle, Russell Edson, Mark Twain, and Flannery O’Connor, to name a few.
I unfortunately have no tips on how “to pull off this balancing act,” given that I’m not sure it’s possible to teach un-humorous minds how to be playful or funny, how to relax, loosen up, lighten the load. I’m guessing that you’re either born toward such a leaning or you’re not.

SR: In “Saint Ours” (my favorite story in the new collection), your main character says, “Grove claims that there are only three seasons in northern Michigan: July, August, and winter.” How has this harsh climate (it’s where you live and where you write about) influenced your work?

Jack: I often quote Ortega y Gasset, who says, “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.” Which is to say that the portrait of a region’s inhabitants is defined in large part by the place itself. And there’s no question that if I lived elsewhere my stories would reflect that particular geographic region, its seasons, its topography, its politics and language patterns, psychology, etc.

Winter up here in the north country can, and oftentimes does, feel interminable, isolated, beautiful but unforgiving. If you fight it you lose, though my characters, bored senseless by the sameness of the days and the nights for months on end, do fight it. And that’s what gets them in trouble and makes for story. They drink. They fantasize another life and they risk making those fantasies a reality.

What has always interested me is the tension created by what a place/community provides and what it can’t possibly deliver. It’s that old goldfish metaphor: you can grow only as large as your surroundings, and what happens when those enclosures begin to squeeze you dry? It creates what Jim Harrison calls a “panic hold,” and all you can think to do is flee, to leap outward, get away. Not only, but in particular the kids in my stories who so badly imagine a different life, even if they can’t quite conceive what that other life might be.

In other words, place is not merely a backdrop against which the action occurs, a piece of topicality. It defines behavior and it is, in essence, a character itself, as London is for Dickens, for example, or as Dublin is for Joyce. And I find this place from which I write as literary as anywhere else. It doesn’t, I hope, pigeonhole me as a Michigan writer. It simply happens to be where I live and write, and have since 1975.

SR: Not all great writers are great teachers, but you are one of the best and most beloved. At Pacific, you’ve achieved a cult status, with students huddling together and sharing strategies about how to get to work with you. You began a workshop by telling your students that you have a shelf of books by writers you have taught over the years and that mentoring is one of your proudest achievements. Who are some of the writers you’ve taught whose books are on that shelf? Has teaching interfered with or contributed to your writing, and in what ways? You taught five days a week for many years at Interlochen and now teach in a low-residency MFA program. Does that allow you more time for your own writing?

Jack: The answer to the last part of your question is an emphatic yes—I do have more time to write now. As to whether teaching has interfered with or contributed to my own writing, I think the honest response is, finally, neither. I say this because at some point the writing and the teaching fused, became inextricable. And I’d have to discover—or maybe invent—another self to live by if I were to imagine my life differently than what it is, what it has been: a teacher and a writer and I embrace both.
And yes, I am proud of my students’ achievements, their publications, and more so than I am of my own. Nothing buoys my spirits more than to receive a novel or memoir or story or poetry collection by a former student and I do indeed have a shelf—my favorite shelf—that’s reserved for them and them only.

To name a few: Doug Stanton, Marya Hornbacher, David Bowan, Faith Shearin, Mohammed Naseehu Ali, Mary Atwell, Jonathan Johnson, Judith Shulevitz, Deborah Reed, Julia Leiblich, Karen Gottshall, Katey Schultz, as well as Vince Gilligan, the creator and lead writer of “Breaking Bad.” I mean, what’s not to like and applaud?

SR: Jeremiah Chamberlain, in Fiction Writers Review, quotes from The World of a Few Minutes Ago and says that the rhythms are so poetic they are practically scannable. I agree, and I’d go further and say that sometimes your stories contain single sentences that are so complete and evocative they are like poems themselves. For instance, from “This Season of Mercy”:

“On the dinner table, his portion of the pork chops congealed
in their white fat, and a single corn muffin off to the side, and
my dad silent and hungry for nothing but an honest paycheck
for an honest day’s work slicing muscles and tendons, and
now, that gone, his appetite piqued only by revenge.”

Which leads to these questions: Are you going to write another book of poetry? Which poets are you reading now or which ones influence your fiction, your rhythms? Song writers? How can prose writers enrich their work with poetry? Who should they read? What should they study?

Jack: I haven’t written a poem in probably twenty-five years, and until recently I was quite certain that I wouldn’t in the future. Now I’m not so sure, though there’s no question that I’ll stay with short stories until I finish a collection that I’ve been working on since The World of a Few Minutes Ago. I’m about halfway there, meaning, at my pace, at least another couple years.

But yes, I read as much poetry now as I ever did and a lifetime of doing so has helped me to hear and shape my sentences, to become a more attuned listener of my own work. I’m speaking about the difference, I suppose, between tin-eared and bell-quality. As Walter Pater said, and to which I fully subscribe, “all art conspires to the condition of music.” Perhaps it’s what Robert Bly meant, during a visit to Interlochen decades ago, when he said that the eye reports to the brain but the ear reports to the heart. And perhaps that’s the thing that musicians can do that writers can’t quite. It’s what Kathleen Hill underscores when she says, “Debussy permitted us to hear the sound of moonlight.” Georgia O’Keeffe talked about her paintings in the context of music. And, Jim Harrison again: “Why does the mind compose this music well before the words occur?” Because clarity is as much a matter of hearing as it is seeing, as evidenced in this sentence by Cormac McCarthy in Child of God: “All patched up out of parts and low slung and bumping over the ruts.” It’s a fun sentence to say aloud, the lips dancing around every syllable.

To “read with a listening ear,” as Robert Frost suggests, and poetry—language most purely distilled—has assisted me when it comes to composing sentence rhythms.

The list of poets who have assisted me over the years is long and ongoing, but names that spring immediately to mind include Chaucer, Hopkins, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Galway Kinnell, Sylvia Plath, Stephen Dunn, and Emily Dickinson.

As for song writers? Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. And whether or not Patsy Cline ever wrote anything I could listen to her forever. I have a CD with seventeen different covers of “Danny Boy.” And almost as many covers of “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

SR: Publisher’s Weekly, in a review of Wanting Only To Be Heard, says the stories exude a “Hemingwayesque machismo.” The Chicago Tribune says that the stories in The World of a Few Minutes Ago are “masculine in the best sense of the word.” BookSlut compares you to Raymond Carver, one of the most masculine of our short story writers. It’s not just the subject matter—fathers and sons, hunting and risk taking—but the literary muscle, the emotion delivered in a disciplined way, “nothing gooey or sentimental,” according to the Chicago Tribune, and I agree.

But I would add that my favorite story, “Saint Ours,” is narrated by a woman, and your female voice is just as convincing. And your novel, Lucky Man, Lucky Woman, has been described in the San Francisco Chronicle as “the great American fertility novel,” certainly a subject Hemingway would not have dreamed of.
Can you talk about the masculine/feminine in your work? Or is this even a useful way to talk about literature today?

Jack: My most recent story is called “All the Time in the World,” and is spoken from the point of view of a troubled fifteen-year-old girl. For a long time I avoided female narrators, in much the same way I avoided dialogue when I first turned from poetry to prose. A fear, really, of misrepresenting voice and sensibility and experience. But I also heard myself say in an interview that the impulse to write comes from the impulse to love: people, place, language, story, etc. To inhabit another life, another mind and heart, which was right around the time that an editor at W.W. Norton who was interested in Wanting Only To Be Heard pointed out that most of the stories—and there are seventeen—were narrated by young boys. A not so subtle hint that the manuscript needed more range, greater variation in voice, and that’s when I first risked a story told from a middle-aged woman’s point of view. It was a huge breakthrough, initiated as a practical maneuver for the sake of tenor and balance, but ending up, I think, making me a better writer on all fronts.

SR: Many of the stories in your first collection featured young people on the verge of adulthood, that crucial crux in time. In the latest book, the characters are often in their middle years. But, to me, one of the most moving is the title story, which includes two people of retirement age. I’m curious whether you intend to pursue this last age in your next work.

Jack: Wells Tower says in a story, “You are eleven years old, the age when your essences begin revealing themselves” and eleven is exactly when it happened to me. And no doubt why I live a protracted adolescence and why I find myself returning to that time, that intensely confusing emotional place. the danger, however, is self-imitation, variations on the same story. “A comfortable place,” as Tony Hoagland says, “you finally had to leave if you hoped to get anywhere.”

The narrator in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” by William Gass, says, “I am all my ages.” But somehow I seemed locked in to being a kid and so, in much the same way that I risked writing from a female point of view, I did likewise by telling the title story from the point of view of a seventy-seven-year-old retired AP photographer.

Self-appraisal is often so errant that I hesitate to even say this, but I think of the title story as my most lyrical, and it’s the story in the collection that I’m happiest to have written, it being in so many ways unlike anything I’d gotten to previously. And that’s the best feeling of all.

As to more older characters going forward? Updike certainly did in his “farewell” story collection My Father’s Tears, and maybe time will dictate in that direction. But subtract eleven, which I am perpetually, from seventy-seven (my oldest protagonist to date) and you come up with sixty-eight, my actual age. And somewhere in that tricky math lies the next story.

Call for Submissions Silk Road Review will be producing a special issue entitled ASIA.  We are interested in fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction presenting an Asian or Asian-American perspective or work that explores an aspect of locations within Asia.  Writers of all backgrounds are welcome to contribute as long as the submission fits under the umbrella of ASIA.

Deadline to submit for the special issue: August 15, 2014

Prose can be no longer than 20 double-spaced pages in length.  No more than five poems per submission. Please write the word Asia in the comments box.

Submit here:
http://www.silkroadreview.org/submissions/

More about Silk Road Review here:
http://silkroad.pacificu.edu

by Kelly Chastain

AWP 2014 Silk Road Review

Our Co-Editors in Chief ready to take on AWP.

We sat around our big conference table and debated on how we would tell you about our amazing experiences at AWP, and we decided the only way to do it justice was to give it to you by the numbers. If you’ve not gone to an AWP Annual Conference and Bookfair, put it on the bucket list. Next year’s event will be held in Minneapolis, April 8-11. It’s not too early to start planning. Really. We mean it. The sheer number of attendees, vendors, panels, and readings will knock your socks off. Here’s what we did over the course of four days in Seattle.

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The staggering number of panels to choose from.

We loaded 1 van
with 2 Co-Editors in Chief
and 6 staffers
and drove 198.8 miles to AWP.
Boxes of books: 12
Booth Props: 22
Number of Panels attended: 70
Number of Panels given:3
Autographs procured: 8
Autographs given: 3
Hours of sleep we missed: 80 (8 people x 2.5 hours x 4 days. Phew! Michele Ford, our super cool managing editor, is a math minor.)

Postcard Project

Participants in the postcard project

Postcard Project cards mailed: 185
Book launch parties attended: 1
Author readings: 9
Vendors: 500+ (really.)
Number of cocktails we wished we had consumed: 39
Authors we met: 7
And because we’re shameless name droppers who love to promote writers: Ursula Le Guin, Danika Dinsmore, Molly Gloss, Marianna Wiggins, Rolf Potts, Christina Baker Kline, and Abi Curtis.

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Our Super Staffers. They’re so awesome they should have capes!

Number of books purchased: 23
Subway sandwiches ingested: 19
Contributors who popped by the booth: 4
Drawings entered: 17
Drawings won: 1
Inspiring people met: countless

One of the biggest take-aways from AWP was how much the event motivated us to do our best work every day. We left with a reminder of how powerful literature is, why it’s important to keep creating art, and that even though writing can feel like a solitary endeavor that we are not alone. We heard words written by the brave women who risk their lives to participate in the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. To read their stories to a rapt audience and to participate in their writing journey was humbling and inspiring.

Keya, weighing in on her panel.

Keya, weighing in on her panel.

The highlights were numerous. One of our staffers, Rebecca Allen, presented the first page of a paper she wrote to Urusla LeGuin for an autograph. Once she explained that the paper was on the craft conventions used by LeGuin and Tolkien to create their fantastical worlds, and that it was accepted at a conference, Ursula asked Rebecca to send her a copy. Then she signed it. We managed to make it out of the booth before falling over, giddy with glee.

We listened to panel discussions by authors we love on how to infuse research into historical fiction without making your novel sound like a Wikipedia entry. With Hedgebrook we shared how and why we support under represented writers. We wrote pieces of flash fiction, learned how to teach travel writing, and how to apply for an NEA grant. And, of course, the readings. Oh, that long list of powerfully beautiful readings.

AWP 2014 Ursula LeGuin

Rebecca and Ursula LeGuin chatting about literature.

At AWP, we connected with hundreds of writers from all over the world, and shared with them what we love most about Silk Road: the collision of cultures, where place is a defining influence, and where stories are prized more than gold. We encouraged them to submit their work and to send an anonymous note of encouragement to a fellow writer via the Postcard Project. At booth 622, Silk Road Review, we watched complete strangers create a community. We wished it would never end.

By Kayla Cardeiro

We’re so excited it’s February. Why, you ask? Because in Seattle from February 26 to March 1, we will be attending the AWP conference for the first time. We are psyched! For those who haven’t heard, AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is the largest literary conference in North America with over 12,000 writers and readers attending its conference in 2013, according to AWP’s website. AWP is also famous for its book fair, which attracted more than 650 exhibitors last year, and which we are absolutely stoked to be a part of.

The reason we’re so excited to attend is that this conference is big. AWP has been around since its foundation in 1967, when it was created in order to advocate for new creative writing programs in higher education and to provide more publishing opportunities for young writers. As its influence and prestige grew, AWP began hosting national conferences, the first of which took place in 1974 at the Library of Congress. Since then, AWP has held its conferences in a different city each year and has developed its own writing contest, the AWP Award Series, with cash prizes up to $5,500.

Since AWP is coming to our very own West Coast this year, Silk Road Review has the amazing opportunity to get to know our local readership in our own backyard. And did we mention the guest list? In attendance will be such award-winning authors and poets as Ursula K. Leguin, Sherman Alexie, Robert Hauss, Chang-rae Lee, Sharon Olds, and many, many others. If that wasn’t great already the celebrated Annie Proulx, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, is the keynote speaker. We can hardly imagine so much talent in one place!

Silk Road is also delighted to announce that it will be bringing the Postcard Project to AWP after its spectacular success at Wordstock 2013. Thousands of writers and readers from across the nation will be in attendance so we’re setting the bar high. Five-hundred postcards, perhaps? A thousand?

We can’t wait to see you there!

Interview by Kathleen Rohde

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Read “All You Really Need is a Light Jacket”

The Interview

KR: How does the animal kingdom inspire you and your writing?

MT: I’ve always been drawn to the animal kingdom. I love learning about different animals, and I stockpile the information that I find most compelling, knowing I might use it in the future. I’ve been known to drag my husband to festivals for pollination. The brochures available at these types of events are a great way to gather lingo. Knowledge like that, so focused, can make a piece of writing informed and poetic. I just read about opossums, commonly misunderstood animals, and learned they cannot carry rabies since their body temperature is too low to support the virus. I like a piece of information such as that, at once boring yet (to me) important, especially since many people don’t think very highly of opossums. I guess you could say I’m most drawn to the animal that have never been favored, though all facts are interesting to me, whether it concerns a kitten or a muskrat. I also find factual information very musical: Squids have three hearts, horseshoe crabs have blue blood. I love that kind of stuff, and am always looking for ways to incorporate it into my writing. It can provide you with a bright image or a really solid metaphor. Even the names of animals are enticing: Nurse shark, pistol shrimp, Weimaraner.

KR: What is your goal with this piece?

MT: In one of the classes I took in college, we had a discussion about recycling. Someone said he didn’t recycle because he didn’t feel like it. He didn’t want to have to think about it. While I admired his honesty, I also kind of wanted to punch him. I don’t expect anyone to finish reading my piece and then sign up for a class on making your own rain barrel, but I would like for people to examine the outside world closely, if they don’t already. We share a lot of similarities with marine iguanas and naked mole rats, amongst others, and I think that is something we can take comfort in.

KR: What did you learn about yourself by writing this piece?

MT: I learned how easily impacted I am by place. I didn’t know anyone when I moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, the city that inspired this piece, so I would just go on mindless walks or drives, paying attention to the details that make a city unique. I liked living in Missouri because it was in the middle of the country; I felt like I could drive anywhere. Some days I would wake up and drive to Omaha, just because I could. It is important for me that I am able to explore. I know that now.

KR: How does organization and style affect your story? A story?

MT: I am so organized I annoy myself. I like to print out my piece and place each page on the floor then stare at if for awhile. This helps me organize it better, since I can see things more clearly this way. I can pick out rhythms and errors. In the beginning stages, though, I have no sense of organization. I write blindly, shirking responsibility, making my job much harder in the end. The writing is stronger this way. It takes a long time, but eventually a piece emerges from the muck of rambling documents I have stored (neatly) away. In school, when we had to write outlines for essays, I wrote the essay first and then the outline, but that’s because I don’t know how to pay attention to structure when an idea first forms in my mind. I am easily distracted, which is a strength and a weakness. While I am always planning my next project, I also have to keep the doors to every room in my apartment closed when I pace around, thinking, or else I wander into them and start doing something else, like organizing my closet.

My background in poetry is clear in my love for white space, images, meditations. I have to hold myself back from over-describing. Purposeful description, my first love. I admire it more than anything else when I read. I’ll never forget a striking image, ever.

KR: How does travel affect your works?

MT: Just as I am drawn to the underdogs of the natural world, I am also most likely to visit landscapes that are unpopular, stereotypically ugly, or perhaps a touch desolate. Every forgotten township, rock quarry, and tundra has something to offer, and I like giving them voices when I write. When I was dwelling in a bit of dry spell, writing-wise, I drove through Oklahoma and just like that I was back writing again. Actually, whenever I get stuck writing, I think about Oklahoma. The landscape is so isolating at times, if forces me to think differently. Really this is all a reaction to my growing up in a small town, on a farm, in the type of place that gets dismissed. That said, I love Osaka and Berlin. I lived in Seoul for a year and savored the drama and gleam that comes with city life. There is nothing like dropping in on a culture different from your own and trying to figure it out: how to open a checking account, where to take an old mattress. Everyone should do it, if possible. For the way I write, it’s non-negotiable. I need to feel at odds with myself every once in awhile so I don’t rewrite the same ideas, again and again. I am in the midst of writing a series of essays based on South Korea. My next destination: Mongolia.

KR: What do you practice when you write?

MT: Patience. That’s number one. I used to lack this, but that’s because I didn’t know what I was doing. It takes a long time to develop your own set of rules of writing, rules that make sense and work for you. In order for me to be most successful, I have to keep several dozen projects going. I don’t fret about finishing them, knowing that I will eventually, or I won’t. Whatever. I know now not to rush or force something that isn’t there. That doesn’t mean I don’t push myself, or try to dig down deep for what I might be hiding, because I do, just not every time I sit down to revise. Simply put, I listen to my gut.

All You Really Need is a Light Jacket

Silk Road Review Postcard ProjectThis year, as the special projects team gathered around our big conference table, it became clear that we all wanted to do something fun, inspiring, and new. We wanted to give back, to find a way to involve more writers with our magazine, to create a community of encouragement for our fellow writers, and do something nice all around. With those goals in mind we stared into our supply closet and the bulging boxes of postcards hoping for inspiration. It showed up like a flash and the postcard project was born. We officially launched it at Portland’s Wordstock Festival in October to great success.

Here’s how it works: Attendees chose a postcard, and on the left side they wrote an anonymous love note to a fellow writer. The festival-goers filled that side of the postcard with words of encouragement, praise for work they had never read but hoped to in the near future, and offered poems and insights to keep each other going. Sometimes they wrote the things they most needed to hear themselves. We don’t have a lot of rules for the project, only that you have to address the note to “my favorite author” and you have to sign it from “your biggest fan.”

Participants placed their mailing address on a sticky note on the right side and dropped them into the Silk Road caravan trunk. Wordstock buzzed with enthusiasm over our project. Afterward, we gathered around the table and dumped out the notes, swapped the addresses and mailed them out knowing the right words would reach the person who needed to hear them most. We were excited, and a little teary as we read some of the amazing things writers had to say to each other, and within a few weeks we started getting feedback:

Dear Silk Road,
I just wanted to let the Silk Road staff know that I recently received one of the postcards from your Postcard Project, and it really made my day. I’d been having a tough week, and the inspiring message written by “My Biggest Fan” helped pull me through. Thank you for running this project, I hope I can contribute again in the future!
Sincerely,
A Silk Road Fan

And this one.

Dear Silk Road,
Today, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an inspiring postcard in the mail that told me to “drive through the writer’s block and keep my chin up.” I must admit I have been struggling the last couple of weeks with my writing and this little message from a fellow author warmed my heart beyond words.
Thank you so much for doing the Post Card Project! I can’t wait to take part in it at AWP.
With love,
A Portland Writer

You can imagine how thrilled we were! From boxes of beautiful blank postcards to helping our fellow writers through the slump, we’re realizing the goals we set for ourselves in the beginning of the year. It’s been a wonderful community building experience and because we had so much fun, we hosted another event on campus for fellow students to encourage each other through their upcoming finals. Our response was overwhelming.

The Portland Writer is correct, we will be at AWP in Seattle this February, and you can count on seeing the Postcard Project there. Please stop by, drop a note in the trunk, and say hi. We’d love to meet you and send your postcard from the Silk Road.

HiRes_Kretchmer__0435_3The Interview

Interviewed by Kathleen Rohde

KR: How does the theme of nature push you forward as a writer?

GK: The easy answer to that question is this: nature pushes me forward as a person. Since I was a young girl, where I grew up in the flatlands of the Midwest, I have been awestruck by mountains and rivers and oceans, by all sorts of flora and fauna, by everything natural from big skies to tiny seashells. Nature, in all its power and glory, triggers emotion for me, and emotion triggers creative thought and deeper understanding.

In literature, I’m particularly drawn to the way nature influences character. One of my favorite examples is Ivan Doig’s short story, “Winter of ’19.”As the story opens, Angus is portrayed as a sensible (if stubborn) and generally likeable family man who is now facing a brutal snowstorm. His sheep are freezing and starving, and he must embark on a dangerous journey with his brother-in-law, a man with whom he’s shared a conflicted past, to purchase more feed. In the bowels of the storm, with visibility reduced to near-zero and survival seeming unlikely, Angus imagines his brother-in-law vanishing. “The poisoned time that had come between us […] would at last be ended.” It’s the natural landscape that permits, or even forces, Angus to acknowledge his darker, shadow self, which ultimately is what made him such a compelling character.

It took me several drafts of my essay, “Crossing Glaciers,” to achieve that level of self-understanding, wherein I ultimately concluded the glacier evoked, for me, an uncomfortable medley of melancholy, honesty, and vulnerability.

KR: What are the benefits you get from writing nonfiction?

GK: Writing nonfiction forces me to be more mindful. It’s easy to bumble along day-by-day, not paying much attention to the meaning of it all. But the truth is we all have stories cluttering our minds that are just waiting to be dusted off and examined, and when I sit down to write about an experience, that’s exactly what I feel like I’m doing: wiping off all those sticky cobwebs to get to the artifact. And more likely than not this act involves a new discovery for me, the same as when I used to explore the dusty old attic of my childhood home, where I’d find old relics of books and trinkets from the Great Depression. In writing the stories of my life, the discoveries are usually glimmers of something I had glossed over when I was in the heat of the initial moment that now, much later, reveal more about the characters–the real people–in my life than I’d ever anticipated.

KR: How do you prepare to write about the positives and negatives of paradise? What’s your whole writing process?

GK: That’s an interesting combination of questions.

Of course, in my essay, “Crossing Glaciers,” I was writing about a place that’s literally called Paradise, which certainly has positives and negatives. I think true paradise is a place that can only be imagined, and in my mind that place would only have favorable characteristics.

As for writing about paradise–whatever that really means–I think the preparation is the same whether I’m writing about a real or an imagined place.  If I’m writing nonfiction, I start with the memory of an experience and let it unfold however it chooses to, trying to recall not only the characters and the conflict and their actions but also the setting. I let my initial emotions take control of my fingers and let the words fly. If it’s fiction, I usually have an imagined half-scene that gets me started. Either way, I don’t start with a sense of positives or negatives; I just allow my mind–my right brain–the freedom to go whatever direction it needs to, which invariably will be skewed one way or the other.

Then, in revision, I open up the left side of my brain and begin to ask myself questions. Was that how it really happened? Were those the only emotions? Is the description clear to an objective reader, or is there a better way to say it? I look at credibility (because fact and credibility are not necessarily the same). And, perhaps most importantly, I ask myself: what’s the point of it all? It’s during the revision process that the positives and negatives of any character or place or experience become clearer and, if appropriate, more balanced or nuanced. And of course I often rely on my writer friends to help me ferret out what it is I’ve been trying to say all along.

KR: How does a glacier compare to writing?

GK: That’s funny. To quote from my essay, glaciers “surge forward, they retreat…they flow smoothly but crack suddenly….they can be slippery and full of surprises. They can easily throw us off balance.”

I think that pretty much sums it up.

KR: Many say nature is therapeutic, but you also teach a therapeutic writing workshop, how is writing therapeutic to you?

GK: I don’t write for catharsis per se, but writing is therapeutic for me in three key ways. First and foremost–and this is true whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction–it helps me understand the world I live in, which is what good therapy does as well. Second, when I’m in the writing zone, I can block out all the normal irritants and stresses of life. And, finally, writing allows me to be someone else when I’m inside another character–even if it’s just a former version of me–which means I get a break from my present, everyday perspective and can have good fun imagining, remembering, and pretending. I guess it’s like play therapy for my shadow self.

KR: How does your family influence your writing?

GK: My husband and kids support my efforts immensely. They’ve bought me craft books, written inspiring little notes about my work, and granted me a great deal of time and space to write. And they’re smart: they don’t offer critique or advice unless I request it from them, which is almost never.

They also periodically show up in my fiction with a physical feature, a personality trait, or even a life experience. I’ve even had my characters quote them now and then. And of course they show up in my nonfiction all the time. They just don’t know it yet because much of my nonfiction is still unpublished.

You can read Gail’s piece “Crossing Glaciers” here. Gail has also recently published an article in New York Times about her time on a Heavy Metal cruise with her son.

Cliffs of Moher

Silk Road’s assistant fiction editor, Amber Patton, studied in Ireland for a year. She came back with a mountain of stories and insights for us all. Here’s what she has to share about the history of Irish literature, and some of her favorite Irish Authors.

When I had the chance to study in Ireland for a year, I jumped at the opportunity to immerse myself a whole new world of literature. During my year abroad I took five literature courses at the University of Limerick, including a full semester on William B. Yeats. I had no idea how much I would learn about Ireland’s history in the process.

At the start of the 20th century, during “The Gaelic Revival,” Ireland blossomed with writers, artists and musicians. Irish authors began writing works in their native language and soon Ireland found a new identity through voice and writing.  For the duration of my Contemporary Irish Literature course I read, in-depth, on James Joyce’s narrative technique, the stream of consciousness, in his work Ulysses. I discovered  a common style among some Irish authors, which some might view as insensitive and blunt, but instead it’s quite clever. They like to weave humor into harsh and depressing passages in order to lighten the mood. While I cried at accounts of murder, betrayal, and suicide, I also laughed unconsciously at the back-handed jokes and sly come backs. I found their work heart-breakingly funny.

As more Irish history emerged, I realized  this style developed over the years of struggle in the Irish community and was likely a coping mechanism for horrible situations. No matter how hard or difficult these stories are to digest, they reflect an important part of Irish history and culture. After months of reading creative works, I’d soon discover that writing became an outlet the Irish need for exposing the truth. A truth that was silenced for over 72 years.

After gaining succession from Great Britain in 1922, and just as the Irish people began to thrive in the arts, the Irish Free State Committee established the “Censorship of Publication Act” in 1926. A ban was placed on books that contained too much crime, sexual passages, and indecent scenes. Over five thousand books were banned from Ireland. American author Aldous Huxely’s novel Brave New World and J.D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye were both banned from Ireland  because of this act. The censorship also affected many Irish authors as well. The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien was banned for its content. Famous Irish author George Bernard Shaw fought for most of his career to get his books published in Ireland and was only successful with a few. The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God was eventually published in 1934. Even James Joyce’s work was burned in the late 1940’s in Ireland.

The Censorship of Publication Act forced many Irish authors to go abroad to write their stunning masterpieces. If a citizen was found possessing a prohibited publication they were fined €63 or six months imprisonment. Oscar Wilde, born in Dublin, spent most of his years in France, writing and publishing his works. Though he was Irish born, and made regular commentary on the class system impacting Irish citizens, his voice remained silent for his fellow countrymen for years. As the years past, the Committee made changes and revisions to the act, which began to encompass magazines.

In 1939, during World War II, the Irish State enforced The Emergency Powers Act, which censored newspapers and periodicals. It wasn’t until 1998, seventy-two years after the act was first created, that the book ban was partially lifted.  This allowed previously banned books to be published and welcomed in Ireland. When the act was revised, Ireland exploded with contemporary literature. After years of suppression by the government, the Roman Catholic Church, and England, Ireland’s writing community responded by publishing raw memoirs, fiction, and non-fiction.

As a student in Ireland I had the opportunity to study modern authors like Anne Enright, whose memoir-based fiction The Gathering is a creative retelling of the uncontrolled child-abuse happening in Ireland during the 20th century. As I read and analyzed this piece of fiction I was enthralled and heart-broken that this story was based on real accounts of Irish history. I wonder what it would have been like if Enright had tried to publish this book during the high point of Censorship of Publication Act. It would have most definitely have been banned for its implied violence and sexual innuendos. Also, I don’t believe the Irish community would have been ready to hear the horrors happening to children at the time. Today, even with new rules and regulations, there is still censorship in Ireland, mostly pertaining to magazines.

If you haven’t read a lot of Irish Literature, I highly recommend it. While I was there I studied a wide variety of authors including, Joseph O’Connor, Mogue Doyle, and Christopher Nolan. As I read these novels, I realized just how important it is to have a voice and to be able to write. If we had had a book ban in the United States during the 20th century, what would we have done? How many authors would have been silenced? I appreciate that Americans have not had our writing banned, nor faced a decline of great literature.

My time in Ireland also improved my own writing and changed the way I view literature. I have a new outlook on the importance of non-fiction stories and how impactful they can be to an audience. I’ve taken on new techniques like using humor in my own creative non-fiction pieces and I appreciate my heritage and culture. There is still so much Ireland has to offer us, they are a country full of rich history and literature that is worth digging into.

If you are interested in finding more contemporary Irish literature, check out these websites for further reading:
Top 10 Contemporary books and their Reviews

Contemporary Fiction

Top Ten 20th Century Authors

eleanorleonneBennettAn interview by Kelly Chastain in Vol. 11

Eleanor Leonne Bennett’s photography has graced two of Silk Road’s covers (#10 and #11). A 16 year old international award winning photographer, her achievements include first place prizes by National Geographic, The World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, The Woodland Trust and Postal Heritage. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph, The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. Her art has exhibited in London, Paris, Indonesia, Scotland,Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and the U.S. She was also the only person from the UK to have her work displayed in the National Geographic and Airbus run See The Bigger Picture global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.

SR: While looking through your online collection I was struck by how many of your images employ high contrast lighting techniques and how doing so helps you achieve otherworldly atmosphere in your images. I was immediately reminded of Pol Úbeda Hervàs, Eliott Erwitt, and Steve McCurry. Whose work and which styles have influenced you most?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I am a fan of Steve’s wonderful work. It would be a dream to be in the leagues of the artists you have mentioned. I relate to Erwitt’s work, but I have a far way to go to achieve that effect. I’ve really enjoyed browsing his work this past day. He does create an otherworldly sense but found in this dimension. I enjoy it a lot. Pol Úbeda Hervàs I have heard of recently and found his work striking. I have had connections with shadows in my own work before.

SR: How has your age factored in your success thus far? Has it been an obstacle, or something you have been able to use to your advantage?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: It has been an obstacle at times and sometimes something I wish to hide. I think despite my many accolades it can put employers off. These days I often let my awards speak for themselves before saying I am young/emerging artist. It is working a lot better for me and it is nice to surprise people. For my services as a cover artist I’ve had nothing but glowing reviews. My age isn’t something I would try to use to my advantage. It is nice to be the youngest published, exhibited, or featured, but I think what matters above all is the power of my message.

SR: What specific artistic challenges do you set for yourself when starting a photography project?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I normally can’t put my finger on what it is exactly that I desire from an image but I know when I have it. It has to do with composition and something that shouldn’t be changed in post processing. I may change everything to do with color and contrast but at the heart of the image, and whether it works or not is all to do with composition.

SR: Among your photographs, which one is your favorite?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I have private unpublished images which are very heartfelt to me and mean an awful lot. My favourite published images are more intricate and possess more detail. I’m a big fan of creating my own dimension in which the photo is difficult to unravel. I like my ice series of images for that reason.

SR: Color vs. black and white?  Why one over the other, and is the photographic process different for you? Do you handle black and white post production or in camera?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I know how to switch my camera to black and white, to color, to every lighting tint imaginable. As a rule though I always shoot in color. Not to say the unedited image is colored as I do like to get a natural composition which is virtually black and white or sepia in itself. I also like to drain color out of things by decreased saturation. I enjoy having the best of both worlds.

SR: Can you walk us through the process that you use to set up a photograph? How much planning goes into your photos?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: My earlier shoots could take a couple of hours to set up with makeup and clothes, etc. These days I take a more spontaneous approach. That is not to say I won’t revisit portraiture, I’m just in the process of writing down ideas and how to envision them. I have a lot of potential material tying into feminism and modern culture. My biggest obsessions are the society of respect and rights and how people behave when not observed and are free to hurt or help anyone at all. In the future, that is something I can see dedicating whole photography books to. I’m not a saint, but I think too much. It shows in my images. I can take 500 images in a single shoot. If they don’t get to where I want them to be,then they are all useless in my eyes. I do have OCD. It has its downsides, but it has brought me to where I am today. With me things have to be as perfect as possible. It can be a curse, but it becomes a blessing when I consider the good reception my art has received.

SR: How did you get into cover art? Was it something you always wanted to do, or was it something that came your way serendipitously?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: Ever since I was first published there was a stress within me: “Am I good enough to be the first thing people see? Do I deserve the starring role in this magazine/book?” Becoming a cover artist answered that question. I love doing cover art. You have to step up to your game and realise you are selling this book. Nobody will pick it up unless you catch their eye on the other side of the store. I really love it. I see other book cover art and I don’t think there are many artists like me. If you look at many of my covers they are  used for independent publishing, mainly poetry books. then look at the normal fiction, romance and young adult books. My covers look quite strange among them. I keep true to my style, and it is getting me fans. I see the same photographers on those commercial book covers all the time. Very conventionally pretty, very polished.  That can exclude a lot of audiences that want to see themselves represented more widely. I don’t have the opportunity to work with models, and may not do so for a long while yet, but I will say this: I most enjoy letting objects, abstracts and silhouettes speak for the cover and the person’s story. Those covers capture my admiration more.

SR: Who/What inspires you?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I love dynamic art, museums, the latest crazes, vintage items from yesteryear. Pretty much anything can spark the inspiration bug within me. Museums are heaven to me for photography. As I never travel alone, the single most worthy place, in which the most photos can be taken, is a museum. I adore it. For me that is like being a kid in a sweet shoppe. The only problem is when I look back on my photos. This and that angle probably would have looked sweet. When I go to a location with so many memorable potential images to be taken, it is always a case of unfinished business.
SR: Some of your photography awards are from very well established and prestigious organizations such as National Geographic and The World Photography Organization. How does it feel to be recognized by these giants and has it changed the way you view your own work?

Eleanor Leonne Bennett: I feel so blessed. It has taught me one thing: Often, if the very best people regard you of note, it is a wonderful experience. There is always someone in the department who can talk to you, arrange everything, help with directions to whichever location the awards are at. When I see much smaller art magazines with no personal contact information, no staff contact address, no way for feedback to be left, I hate it. They could be excluding some amazing artists that needs a lift or to be discovered. National Geographic has an open submission policy. If you or I had a good idea or a poignant photo story we could just go ahead and submit. Isn’t it wonderful? It makes me happy. I worked with Life Force magazine recently who are fabulous people. They were reviewed by National Geographic to be a modern equivalent of Life Magazine.

In previous eras, if you wanted to hear live poetry in your home, you had to get to know local poets. They would invariably drink too much, or more embarrassingly not at all, and the servants would count the silverware when they left. Welcome to the twenty-first century, where rather than duels and drawing rooms, Google settles our arguments and finishes our sentences. The search giant has also made something else possible: live poetry readings that anyone in the world with a computer can attend.

10coverhomepageTwo such live readings will feature poets from the British poetry special feature in Silk Road Review Issue 10. The poets hail from all across the United Kingdom, and will meet up virtually using Google+ Hangouts on Air. Anyone with an internet connection who can watch YouTube video will be able to tune in to hear poets with a wide range of British accents and dialects reading their own poems. You no longer have to be in the UK to attend great British poetry readings.

Academy of American Poets Chancellor Jane Hirshfield says, “This entirely innovative series builds community among UK and American poets, who do want to know more of each others’ work. Plus it’s good for the planet: no airplanes.” Treat yourself to a virtual journey to the British Isles to hear some of the most exciting poets writing in the UK today. Mark your calendars now:

Sunday, October 13th at 8PM BST / 3PM EDT / noon PDT
Featuring Isabel Galleymore, Chris McCabe, Andrew Philip, and Paul Stephenson

Saturday, October 19th at 8PM BST / 3PM EDT / noon PDT
Featuring Fiona Benson, Mark Burnhope, Abi Curtis, Helen Ivory, Ira Lightman, Rob A. Mackenzie, and Esther Morgan

Here is where the poets come from.

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