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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

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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.

petefrommephotoBy Kieslana Wing

In 2008, we featured a piece of fiction called “Concentrate” by Montana writer Pete Fromm in issue one of our third volume. “Concentrate” is the tale of a young, poverty-stricken mother who reconnects with her family in the process of trying to invent a product that will bring them prosperity. Directly after publishing this piece, Silk Road conducted an interview with Pete, which focused on his craft and the stories he was working on at the time.
Five years later, he has a total of six published works available, and has won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s Book of the Year award four times. Yes, four. In addition to all of that, two of his novels have been converted into films. “Dry Rain” is a short film adapted from the award winning collection Dry Rain Stories. More recently, the movie “As Cool As I Am” was released in June of 2013, starring Claire Danes, James Marsden, and Sarah Bolger. This book/movie is a coming-of-age story for main character Lucy Diamond. Since he seems to have been busy these last few years, we thought we’d check in with him and talk about what it’s like to have one of his stories converted into film, as well as what he’s working on now.

SR: Your book, As Cool As I Am, was recently converted into a film that was released this past June. How involved were you in the creation of the film based on your book?

Pete: Not at all.  Gin Spragg, the wife of the writer Mark Spragg, both friends of mine, asked if she could write a screenplay and try to sell it.  They’d worked together on previous screenplays of his novels, and I said, Sure.  So, she wrote it, let me read it, and I figured that would be that.  But she managed to sell it to a producer, who managed to sell it to a production company with the money, and they managed to attach the director and the actors, and, after several years, much to my surprise, it actually began filming.

SR: Has the adaptation of your book into film changed the way you approach writing at all? If so, how?

Pete: No, not at all.  Having a movie made out of a book is a lot like getting hit by lightning.  It just happens.  As Cool had been out seven or eight years when Gin asked about it.  Ten by the time filming started.  I’ve got a new novel, If Not For This, coming out next year, have worked on several other projects since as cool, am well into another novel right now.  Truthfully, I haven’t thought much about As Cool, book or movie, in a long time.  It’s always on to the next thing.

SR: What did you enjoy about the process of your book becoming a film? What was surprising about seeing your work on the screen? Would you do it again with future works?

Pete: Well, getting paid is always nice.  Always a surprise.  But the best part was Gin setting things up so my two sons, Nolan and Aidan, could be extras in the high school scenes.  I took them down to Albuquerque, where it was filmed, and we could not have been treated better by everyone on the production.  We spent a couple of days as tourists, watching the whole enterprise, then they spent a sixteen hour day being part of the filming.  It was fab.  There was a lot of separation between the book and the movie, so seeing it on screen was not particularly strange, more like watching someone else’s work, which is really what it was by then, first Gin’s take, then Max’s (Max Mayer, the director).  I would do it again, but I’d be interested in taking a shot at the screenplay, which seems like an interesting and difficult form to take on.  I’d like to try it for the challenge.

SR: What advice can you give greenhorn writers who hope to one day have their book made into a film?

Pete: Forget the film.  Just write the best book you can, then spend a few more years making it better.  If someone somehow takes an interest, all the planets align, and it makes it out of the maze and into an actual film, just take it.  Until then, just work.

SR: What projects are you working on right now? Do you have any book tours coming up?

Pete: As I said above, I’m working on a novel now, have another coming out next fall.  I’m sure I’ll be touring then, for If Not For This.  There are stories, a nonfiction book in there as well.  I write every day, whether anyone is buying or not, so the stuff builds up.

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

Pete: Just to say again, don’t be a hopeful writer, hoping to make it to the big screen.  Be a writer, working every day, day after day after day, and see what happens.  For any kind of happiness to come from writing, I think the joy’s got to come from the writing, from watching people come alive in your mind and on the page, not whatever happens to it all afterward.

Interview by Elizabeth Vandermolen

Andrea Scarpino received an MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and published in numerous journals, including The Cincinnati Review, Connecticut Review, Los Angeles Review, PANK, and Prairie Schooner. She is the author of the chapbook The Grove Behind (Finishing Line Press, 2009) and a forthcoming collection from Red Hen Press, and is a weekly contributor for the blog Planet of the Blind. In addition Silk Road Review nominated her poem “Love as Stained Glass” for a 2012 Pushcart Prize.

Read “Love as Stained Glass” and “Overheard in Lincoln, Nebraska.”

The Interview

Elizabeth Vandermolen: You had two poems in the last issue of Silk Road that varied greatly from each other in both form and subject. How would you describe your writing style?

Andrea Scarpino: I definitely tend toward the lyrical in all of my poetry, but I do like to maintain some sort of narrative thread, no matter how fine that thread may be. I also tend toward an involvement in place and the natural world, although that tendency isn’t really on display in the two poems Silk Road published. But I spend a lot of time thinking about how a particular place/scenery/landscape is altering my thinking and writing, my mood, how I understand my place in the world.

EV: Who do you feel has influenced you as an artist?

AS: There are so many people! I grew up reading Dickinson and Plath and loved both of their work for different reasons—attention to fragments and fragmented moments in Dickinson, and the ability to emotionally connect with a poem through Plath’s work. But I also love poets like Adrienne Rich and Carolyn Forche, Muriel Rukeyser and Maxine Kumin—poets who connect with the larger world around them in interesting and surprising ways.

I also have been very influenced by visual art, by the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo, by stained glass windows in churches, by sculpture and dance. And as I said earlier, by place. When I lived in Los Angeles, I found myself writing poems with fire and drought and desert landscapes. Now that I live in Michigan, I find myself writing poems with snow and water and lush landscapes.

EV: I was very amused by your poem Overheard in Lincoln, Nebraska. My favorite line was, “As far as I can tell, the Russians/ aren’t making licorice.” How often do you find yourself inspired by conversations you overhear?

AS: Honestly, I eavesdrop more than I probably should admit. Sometimes I find myself more engaged in listening to a complete stranger’s conversation than in paying attention to my own conversation—which again is not something I should admit! But I find the language we use in everyday conversations really interesting and evocative, particularly when we come upon another’s conversation in broken fragments, overheard as we’re doing something else entirely.

EV: Writing a good love poem is a daunting task yet you captured the feeling beautifully in your poem Love as Stained Glass. The metaphor works so well in the body of the poem largely because the word “love” is only appears in the title. How important do you find titles in your work and in poetry in general?

AS: Well first, thank you, especially since I really struggle with titles. They feel so final, like they could make or totally ruin a poem, which I know isn’t entirely true. But I find that any one poem may go through multiple title revisions before I actually hit on the one that sticks. And sometimes this tells me that a poem hasn’t yet really found what it wants to say—when I can’t figure out the title, it may be that the body of the poem isn’t really working yet either, which is helpful information for me to have.

In terms of poetry in general, I really like a descriptive title, something that helps me to read the poem that follows it, that helps shape my understanding of what’s coming next. For that reason, untitled poems make me a little bit crazy—I feel like I’m walking into a blind date.

EV: What is the earliest moment you remember where you thought ‘I want to be a writer?’

AS: You know, I’m not sure if I’ve ever thought that! I have memories of speaking poems to my mother before I could write—she would type them on a typewriter for me. But I didn’t really think of myself as writing poems; I was more recording moments or feelings or images that I thought needed to be recorded. In high school, I had a wonderful poetry teacher—a rare thing for a high school student—but even then, I’m not sure I dared to imagine what it would mean to be a writer. Writing was just something I did, something I loved, something incredibly important to me. And I think that’s still the way I think about it.

EV: Okay, final questions. What are you currently reading? Or, if you had to recommend a book to read before the end of the year what would it be?

AS: Everyone should immediately read Terry Tempest Williams’ book When Women Were Birds. I just finished reading it, and it is utterly fantastic—lyrical and magical and just right-on all around. There are sections—the opening chapter for example—that take my breath away and make my heart sink into my chest at the same time. Really, it’s one of those rare books that feels like it has changed something deep inside me. And I love that.


Interview by Elizabeth Vandermolen

Barbara Price is a writer and editor living in Fresno, California. When she’s not writing, editing, hitchhiking, or having religious experiences via social media, she’s chasing her kids or driving them somewhere. Some of her poems have recently appeared in Slant, BorderSenses, and Redactions. Barbara loves to hear from other writers–look her up at http://www.editthis.biz.

Read “Winter 1979” and “I Find God on Facebook.”

The Interview

Elizabeth Vandermolen: Hi! This is Elizabeth and today I am interviewing Barbara Price. First off, thank you for taking the time for this interview. You had two poems in the last edition of the Silk Road Review and both featured an very narrative style. What attracts you to this form over, say, fiction?

Barbara Price: Thank you, Elizabeth!

Yes, some of my poems are very narrative, but of course they’re not tiny prose stories. When you’re writing — and when your goal perhaps is to pack as much meaning into as small a package as possible — poetry gives you more possibilities to make your meaning in a concise way, more ways to present your ideas from as many angles as possible. A poem, even a narrative poem, offers me more possibilities than a corresponding piece of fiction.

For example, I love crafting the rhythm and flow of a piece from beginning to end. If it doesn’t sound right to me all the way through, if the right rhythm isn’t there, it’s not done yet. Certainly there is fiction with beautiful rhythm and flow, but it’s unsustainable — and I think sometimes it gets lost, too, in the bigger context of a prose piece.

In Winter 1979, which appeared in the last edition of Silk Road Review, the somewhat choppy rhythm, along with the repetition, give readers an idea of the speaker’s uncertainty and hesitation, her ambivalence, the fear that seems to be lurking around the edges — maybe she protests too much that “it didn’t feel dangerous” or maybe the adult speaker knows something in hindsight that the hitchhiker doesn’t know.

If I were to convey all that in a short-short piece of fiction — well, I don’t think I could. It would turn out overwrought and melodramatic. In a poem, the rhythm can do that work for you.

And with fiction, too, you miss out on all the fun of line breaks and certain plays on meaning, or even certain parallel meanings. If I Find God on Facebook — the other poem that appeared — were made into a little story, I’d have missed out on the great fun of “the creator / of the Flintstones” or “God is King / of the Spam Status.”

EV: Who would you say are your poetic influences?

BP: This is such a hard question — every poet I’ve ever encountered has been an influence. Every poet I’ve read, every poet in every workshop, every poet who’s asked for or given me feedback, has been an influence. That’s true of everyone, right? And if you ask me to pick certain names, I feel that little twinge of panic that an Oscar-winner must feel, with too many people to thank, not enough time, and the certainty that she’s going to leave out someone absolutely essential. How can you even try to name names?

Even if someone else’s work is not directly visible in your poems, if you’ve read their work, you’ve absorbed it, and you’re influenced in some way. No one would likely recognize the influence of Lucille Clifton in my poems — as much as I might wish it were so — and yet, the way she could pack so much beauty, pain, and power into such short poems has had a huge influence on me. These are qualities I study in her work, qualities I aspire to. Even if you can’t see her, Lucille Clifton is there.

I also admire and study poets who use humor not just to be entertaining but in service to another purpose. I resist the idea that anything funny and easily understood should be thrown into the dreaded category of “light verse” or lumped in with “There once was a girl from Nantucket.” Sometimes, if you make readers laugh, they don’t look beyond that — they figure your poem is a throwaway — and you need to work a little harder to show them, “No, I also have something to say here.” So I spend a lot of time reading poets who do the things I hope to do, like Bob Hicok, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Tony Hoagland, Thomas Lux, David Kirby, Margaret Atwood — and of course I couldn’t help but notice Billy Collins’ influence on I Find God on Facebook.

My poems tend to fall into two categories — funny or dark — and I’m always working hard to bring the two closer together, to synthesize these two halves of my poetic personality. So, certain poets, I revisit them again and again, studying them, asking myself, “How does this poet do what I want to do?” I keep going back to Kim Addonizio’s “The First Line Is the Deepest” again and again, for this reason — it’s so funny and so sad.

EV: I really enjoyed your poem I Find God on Facebook. In particular, it discusses issues of faith through the humorous metaphor of social media. What inspired this idea?

BP: Thank you! Before I wrote this poem, a lot of thoughts had been running through my head. As anyone who writes poetry knows, you’re not necessarily thinking, “Let’s write a poem about these things!” — they’re just things you think about day to day, things you keep coming back to, and eventually they’ll find their way into your work if you let them.

Social media has become a bigger presence in our daily lives — even when you meet people face-to-face, the conversation seems to work its way around to someone’s posts or pictures or news. It’s like we’re all living in the same small town now — and for better or worse, you know people’s business, even people you haven’t seen in years.

Also, Facebook has become something like the “permanent record” that every vice principal warned us about: “This will go down on your permanent record!” There are stories — whether true or apocryphal — of people losing jobs, failing to get jobs, destroying friendships, undermining a romantic relationship, all because of their Facebook activity. And so in recent years, people have put more thought into what they put out there — they work toward sanitizing their image, making it safer: safer for work, for their bosses, for their kids or elderly relatives — because in some sense we all fear judgment. On the other hand, you can’t please everyone, so this is an impossible task, right?

Meanwhile, God or religion crops up fairly regularly in my work, too — it’s another ongoing obsession — so one day when I was thinking all these thoughts about social media, this just popped into my head: “What if God were your Facebook friend?” The idea made me laugh — but it also spoke to these other thoughts and concerns. If God were your Facebook friend, you might have all these concerns about your online presence — but even more so. And so…I went with that, and discovered that my speaker was not only afraid of judgment; she also judged. It turns out that God and his buddies were annoying Facebook friends.

EV: In your poem, I Find God on Facebook, you state “The Internet is forever. Yes,/ the Mardi Gras photo of me/ flashing that redneck in Biloxi/ named BillySam or SammyBill/ will live somewhere for all eternity.” Would you say that burgeoning writers should be careful of what they post? Especially given the importance of social media in today’s publishing world?

BP: In some sense, no, I would say just the opposite. If you have a Facebook account, say, and you avoid posting anything that might be controversial, anything that might make someone squirm or judge you — and these days, some people try to do just that — you’ve got to ask yourself: What’s left? You’re not portraying a real person anymore — you’re portraying some sort of bland dilution of yourself. You’re like a homeopathic remedy: nothing’s left of the original substance. You’ve taken out everything that made you real. You might be safe, but who are you?

So my advice would be the opposite — be exactly who you are, without apology. If you’re the person who flashed that guy in Biloxi, be that person. If you like watching and discussing reality TV, be that person. If you love to post pictures of your twenty-six cats in vintage designer shoes, be that person. Don’t worry so much about your image. Don’t worry about seeming cool enough, or smart enough, or wholesome enough, or whatever it is you’re worried about.

For a while, I struggled with this, with the “image” I was putting out there. I like to post photos of my kids, and very few women artists — take a poll! I’m sure this is true — want to project an image of being “a mom who is crazy about her kids.” We’re afraid it makes us sound dull, or the opposite of glamorous or artistic or intellectual or deep. Fill in the blank. Especially if you’re a woman, there’s a sense that you’re not serious enough about your work — or you’re not interesting enough — if being a parent is also very important to you. Well, screw that. That’s who I am.

Or, take political posts — especially right now before an election, everyone complains about people who bombard their Facebook friends with political posts — and hey, I hate that too — and yet sometimes I feel strongly about an issue and will make a strongly worded, strongly felt political post. So hate me.

At first I was worried about what people would think — about my kids’ pictures, about my political posts, about my swear words or lack of tact, about my silliness or my strong opinions — but if I censored those things out, there wouldn’t be anything left but a safe persona, interchangeable with any other. Anyone who won’t give me a job because of my online image, or anyone who thinks I’m too boring, not serious enough, too political, too tactless, too impulsive, too maternal, whatever — well, I’ve made my peace with that. I don’t need to impress those people.

As artists, that’s all we have — that’s all we can bring: who we really are.

EV: Your second poem, Winter 1979, focuses on a young woman hitchhiking during the last winter Ted Bundy was at large. How often are you inspired by recent historical events such as this?

BP: Fairly often — a sense of time can be as effective as a sense of place. Not every kid was hitchhiking in the slush in New Hampshire in 1979, but every woman of a certain age remembers Ted Bundy, remembers the news coverage, remembers how it made her feel or how it affected her view of the world.

I tend not to write about the “biggest” events — I haven’t written a 9/11 poem, for example. It’s hard for me to stake my claim there — so many other writers have already covered it so thoroughly and so well. But I’ve written about the era that followed 9/11 — about a wedding in Afghanistan that was bombed, or about a soldier with a head injury, or about Jenna Bush’s wedding. So…I don’t necessarily choose the biggest headlines, but I choose events that might speak to a reader and invite her own thoughts or reactions, or invite her in to a conversation.

EV: All right, last questions. What are you currently reading? Or name one book you insist goes on our readers’ bucket lists.

BP: Right now I’m re-reading everything by Robert Frost and Louise Bogan. Their work changed and evolved so much — it fascinates me to look at how much, and in what ways, their work changed.

And for the bucket list: One book I find myself zealously pushing on every poet I meet is “The Door” by Margaret Atwood. It’s one of those books that shifted the way I look at poetry. She blends the serious and the funny in such a genuine, graceful, powerful way. She’s so highly regarded as a fiction writer that her poems don’t always get the love and attention they deserve.

Interview by Gina Warren

R.H. Sheldon

R.H. SHELDON is a Northwest writer whose works include the novel Dancing the River Lightly as well as numerous news and feature articles for online and print publications such as Seattle Magazine and E – The Environmental Magazine. He’s also written restaurant reviews, marketing copy, legal summaries, training material, and anything else necessary to keep the creditors at bay. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. These days he often writes while traveling in his VW camper, which he blogs about at rhsheldon.com. His piece, “Birds of Paradise,” appeared in Volume 6, Number 2 of Silk Road.

Read “Birds of Paradise” here.

The Interview

Gina Warren: How did you begin writing Birds of Paradise? Was there an initial catalyst that sparked the idea?

R.H. Sheldon: I’d been traveling around the country for the better part of the year and landed in the South, which is when I started the story. In one town after the next, I saw closed-up business, abandoned buildings, and boarded up windows. The economy had hit these places hard, yet the aftermath had given the towns a timeless, almost fantastical quality, as though they could have belonged to any number of depressed eras. For many who lived in these places, there was no choice but to leave and head to wherever they could find work or a better life. For others, leaving wasn’t that easy. And even in towns that had not been as decimated, at least not apparently, there still seemed a sense of desperation and resignation among many of the people who lived there, feelings no doubt complicated by such issues as obesity, poverty, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy, issues all too common to much of rural America. So my story was born out of the desperation I sensed in these places. And I sensed too, that beneath the desperation, there simmered desires and passions that could never be fully realized, all of which pointed to the complex undercurrents that define much of rural life in this country, including the South, and overturns any simplistic stereotypes of the people in these regions. That said, there was never one inciting incident that prompted the narrative itself. Only the feelings I was left with after having visited there.

GW: There is some ambiguity in this story, questions it raises without fully answering: such as why Tulip left so rapidly for New Orleans, why Fletcher’s daddy told Tulip not to visit the garage anymore, and what started the fire that killed Fletcher’s father. How do you balance the tension between keeping the reader in suspense and telling a good story, especially in a piece this short?

RHS: I’m a big fan of ambiguity in fiction, perhaps because it seems to better approximate real life. The trick, I think, is to provide enough ambiguity to leave readers with something to consider after finishing the story, but not leave them so befuddled they revolt in frustration and anger and want to rip your story to shreds. When used effectively, ambiguity makes readers take a second look at what they’ve just read and challenges them to rethink their conclusions, perhaps to the point they want to reread the story to discover what they might have missed or to figure out a new way to assemble the pieces. At times, however, I think I tend to go too far overboard with the ambiguous. For example, originally, I had not provided any dates in the story because I was going for a certain timeless quality and felt that placing the characters in a particular era might pigeonhole them too much, but persistent editors insisted otherwise, so I succumbed. Balance is the key, I suppose. Without it, you end up with Hollywood-type writing on one end of the scale and a Naked Lunch sort of thing on the other end, in which the pieces never quite fit together. For such a story, you better be damn sure of your audience and what you’re trying to achieve.

GW: The diction of Birds of Paradise conveys a strong sense of the narrator; how did you chose this voice?

RHS: I think this ties to my response to the first question and my travels around the county. I had passed through a lot of new places and was exposed to a lot of different people. During that time, I was experimenting a great deal with different aspects of my writing, particular those aspects related to narrator and voice. In fact, playing around with narrator and voice is one of the best parts of writing fiction, at least for me. However, it can be difficult to do that if I limit myself to a small subset of people and places. I think that one of the most challenging aspects of writing that we, as a writing community, have to face is how to make time to write but not shut ourselves away from the world. So when I have the opportunity to get out there and experience what’s going on, I like to use the things I see and feel and hear and taste and smell in ways that let me occupy other voices and narrators and let me experiment with different perspectives of the world.

GW: Do you begin writing stories with an ending in mind, or do you tend to see where the narrative takes you? What about pieces that are as compact as Birds of Paradise?

RHS: Rarely do I know where a story is going when I start it. Writing works best for me when I share with the reader the process of discovery. If I’m not interested in where a story is heading, chances are, no one else will care. I write, in fact, to find out what’s going to happen. The unfolding of a story is an evolutionary process, one in which the process of writing itself holds the key.

Interview by Gina Warren

John Ashford

John Ashford

JOHN ASHFORD volunteered in Botswana with the Peace Corps from 1990-1993. Upon his return, he earned a Certificate in Writing and Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. He has participated in critique groups and edited several nonfiction books. In addition to newspaper pieces, his story “The Boycott” appeared in the anthology, One by One, Thirty-one years of the Peace Corps in Botswana (1997). He has returned to Botswana twice and for several years has been at work on a book about travels in the Kalahari Desert. His nonfiction piece, “Topo,” appeared in Volume 6, Number 2 of Silk Road.

Read “Topo” here.
The Interview

Gina Warren: When did you begin writing? Have you always written creative nonfiction?

John Ashford: I really began writing when I was in the Peace Corps. In the village where I lived in Africa, there weren’t many distractions and I had the time and personal space to write.I often used the time to sort out my thoughts. Some of my journal writing began to develop into a structure that felt comfortable. When I came back to the U.S., I enrolled in writing classes and, a few years ago, took a workshop on creative nonfiction led by Lee Gutkind, long time editor of the Creative Nonfiction journal. That was where I learned there was a name for some of the writing I’d done in the Peace Corps.

Before that, in college I’d written short stories, but none of them ever found a publisher. For several years, working as a teacher and librarian, my writing was technical, or for a professional purpose.

GW: Writing creative nonfiction sometimes requires a catalyst for a story, whether it’s an insight, reflection on an experience, prompt, or moment in time. What gave you the idea to write “Topo”?

JA: An excellent question. Much of my identification with Topo was a subjective experience beyond my ability to analyze. I felt a sense of empathy for him, in the recognition that here is a young man living a life with elements of tragedy, but he’s learning how to cope.

I think the catalyst you refer to can be a rather complex experience. As far as writing the story, my interest in Topo began with a mystery. Topo’s name on my class roster was Ketopoyaone, though everyone at the school used the shorter form, Topo. I asked an African teacher to translate the meaning of his name and was told it meant, ‘This is the child I requested from God’. I realized, here is a young boy, at birth he’s given this prayerful name. I asked myself, what happened during those years to create the kind of turmoil he was facing at age fifteen? I was never able to fully answer the question, but it provided a focus, and when Topo’s problems were discussed among the teachers, I paid attention and took notes that later became part of the narrative.

I should make a confession here. I’ve formed a habit over the course of a career working in schools and colleges. When I’m in a meeting, I jot notes on everything that’s being said. The habit comes from the need to keep myself awake during often boring meetings. But in this case, the subject of the meeting in the story shed light on Topo’s background and was helpful to me in understanding his story.

GW: Readers get a clear picture, not only of Topo, but of the narrator in this piece. What do you believe are some important aspects of characterizing yourself as a narrator?

JA: I am, obviously, a Western observer seeing the landscape and some of the events at the school from the point of view of a foreigner. As the observer, I filter information and describe the elements important in the story.

Readers will be aware that, although the story is mainly about Topo, there is this other character who narrates the sequence. Naturally, readers will want to know how this person finds himself wandering down a road in the Kalahari Desert reacting to the arid landscape and the misguided donkey cart. My interactions with the headmaster at the school make it clear that in some ways, I don’t quite fit in here. The ways that I am an outsider provide a certain kind of context for the narrative.

GW: What drew you to Botswana? Did any of your initial motivations, besides teaching, for going to Africa come through in this piece?

JA: Actually, the place was selected by the Peace Corps. They try to match skills and experience of volunteers with the needs of a country. So, that part was accidental from my point of view. But it was a happy accident because I love being in the desert. I live on the wet side of Washington State and I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the arid sections of the Pacific Northwest.

But another motivation was my need for change at the time. I’d worked at an administrative job for twenty years and when I started working with immigrant students, I found the experience very satisfying. Eventually, I made the decision to teach overseas and got the necessary experience and certification for teaching English as a Second Language. As it turned out, I found it very fulfilling to live in another culture with a different language, different reactions, mannerisms, way of life. It really stimulated my ability to observe. I began seeing everything around me in a new way and I’d like to think that quality comes through in the story.

GW: It seems that Topo would not have had the same respect for the teacher had he beaten him, and perhaps that Topo wouldn’t have been supported by his community if he was violent. What is the importance of not being a “whip wielder”?

JA: You’re correct to think that if Topo had been violent he would have been considered an outcast. Despite the problems in his life, I never saw Topo express anger or aggression. Actually, in the context of an African village, very seldom do people resort to violence. Villages are typically very safe in that respect. However, in schools, corporal punishment is used widely. I myself did not feel comfortable with the practice and made a decision not to use physical punishment to deal with student behavior.

In a situation where a school uses caning, one kind of misbehavior is treated the same as any other kind. I’d rather come to an understanding with students verbally. I think students gain maturity with adults in the process of talking about a problem.

Interview by Gina Warren

Jessica McCaughey

JESSICA MCCAUGHEY earned her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University in Virginia, where she also teaches undergraduate English. Her work has appeared in The Colorado Review; Hot Metal Bridge; Phoebe, and other journals. Jessica lives in Arlington, Virginia. Her piece, “Scramble,” appeared in Volume 6, Number 2 of Silk Road.

Read “Scramble” here.
The Interview

GW: What are some of your literary influences?

Jessica McCaughey: This list is a mix of those nonfiction writers I’ve been reading for years and some newer favorites for me, but they are all folks whose work I turn to when I feel the need to immerse myself in really, really good stuff: Anne Fadiman, Susan Orlean, Sarah Vowell, Ira Sukrungruang, Kyoko Mori, David Sedaris, John McPhee, and Dave Eggers.

GW: What draws you to creative nonfiction?

JM: What’s most appealing to me about creative nonfiction is the idea of creating meaning from events and people and ideas that actually occurred. I’m definitely naturally a (too) reflective person, really, and digging through experiences in my head is, therefore, a pretty natural process for me. So, in considering these constraints of keeping things rooted in the truth sets me up, in I think a way that is different from fiction or poetry, to understand my life and the things around me better. I can’t fudge the details, and so what I can extrapolate feels more believable to me, and perhaps more legitimate. (I know there’s lots of controversy, specifically right now regarding John D’Agata, about whether or not this is, in fact, the case, but I’m pretty sure, for me at least, it is.)

GW: In Scramble you note that, “Years later, I will think back and wonder how we convinced ourselves that a day outside might cancel out years of such a strained connection, that a hike might override the sadness that seemed to sit silently between us for the duration of our relationship.” How did you decide to write Scramble after this lapse in time?

JM: Writing this essay was actually a unique experience for me, in that I wrote the first draft of it, the hike, mainly, very soon after it occurred. I felt capable, at the time, of forming something from it, and so I wrote down a lot of the details about that day and the weeks that followed, but ultimately I felt very stuck as I tried to revise. I ultimately put it away and several years later, once I had quite a bit of distance from the situation, came back to it and I knew much better, I think, what it needed.

GW: How can the passing of time and the reflective voice be valuable for creative nonfiction?

JM: For me, as I said above, the passing of time was crucial to even be able to include any real reflective voice here beyond the trite, expected considerations for this piece. And for creative nonfiction, I think that mix of storytelling and reflection is really crucial for giving a reader a full understanding, no matter how focused the actual story is in providing that specific perspective.

GW: Throughout this piece you juxtapose the narrative of climbing the mountain with the future knowledge of how the relationship between the narrator and William ends. “In that moment, as we pass the trailhead and start up the mountain, I don’t know that this will be the last weekend day we will spend alone together. That one night very soon, while watching a History Channel special about salt, I will finally admit that our relationship feels like pretending.” When writing Scramble how did you decide when to break out of the story of climbing Old Rag to reflect on different parts of the narrator’s relationship with William?

JM: The two storylines (the hike and the later reflection) were really intertwined from the beginning with this piece. I went back and forth a number of times on the breaks, where one scene switches to reflection or another scene, until it felt balanced, and until I felt like the reader had enough information to know what was going on, but didn’t know so much that it would color their reading of the hike itself throughout the piece. That felt really important to me as I was revising—that the reader knows, throughout, just a little more than the narrator in those past moments, but not quite as much as the narrator does years later.

GW: This piece is very honest; how can such intimacy be important to creative nonfiction? Do you think close scrutiny and specific details lend the narrative voice a certain credibility, does it deal with accurately defining meaning, or is it another phenomena entirely?

JM: I do think that an intimate, honest narrator and a lot of very specific details can lend credibility, but I think more important than that is striving to give a full picture, and anticipating the things one’s reader would be wondering about. Little details (the color of a pair of eyeglasses, a key piece of dialogue that gives some insight into a character’s thought process) are essential in creating meaning, and in developing this reader-writer relationship, but I think what I worry about more is enveloping the reader in whatever situation or scene I’m recreating on the page. The last thing I want is for a reader to be distracted, wondering, for instance, “I wonder why she was there” or “is this character 20 years old or 50?” In the revision stages, these questions come up a lot for me, and in workshopping this piece with other writers, they were the questions I was most intent on answering in future drafts. Ultimately, though, yes, I do think that by creating this full picture through details and reflection, I hope to give both a more meaningful account.

Interview by Gina Warren

Coleen Muir

COLEEN MUIR is finishing up her final semester in the Creative Writing Workshop at University of New Orleans and working on completing a collection of short, lyric essays that center around her family and home. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre and Silk Road Review; her essay nonfiction essay, “Home,” was included in volume 6, issue 2.
Read “Home” here.

The Interview

GW: How did you get the idea to write this story? Was it one of the images that hit you, an overarching want to capture the theme that you portray here, or something else entirely?

Coleen Muir: This essay originally wanted to be an essay about the afternoon my father had to take the barn cats to the animal shelter. Yet, as I began trying to write about the situation, I became more and more aware of the context of it – why did he have to get rid of the barn cats? This led me to begin describing the setting, and also created the destitute tone. Loss was a big element of this piece, as was desire. The desire to keep the cats, but also having to rid the barn of them. Desire, pushed up against the idea of loss, becomes the piece’s tension, though I wasn’t conscious of that while writing.

GW: The narrator steps away from being a character in this piece. Why did you choose to pull yourself out of the story?

CM: Rather than choosing to take myself out of the piece, it just never occurred to me to put myself in, at least not as a character. I approached the essay in terms of images, which made me an observer. Of course, I’m there, in the “you” form, as narrator. I appear while walking outside to observe the rain, for example, and while observing the dead bird with my sister. So I guess I’m a behind-the-scenes sort of character, but I don’t give myself a “section.” My primary role, or function, in the piece seemed to be best-suited to that of an observer.

GW: I thought that the use of second person was an interesting stylistic choice, but one made with prowess; the transition to second person was seamless and provided an intimate sense of immediacy. Why did you decide to incorporate this point of view in the way that you did?

CM: I think “you” enables the narrator to speak of a situation she has lived through without focusing on herself in the telling of it. The “I” tends to force a narrator into commenting on the images, or taking a stance, or to be an authority in the piece. Removing myself from the piece eliminates that problem, and hopefully allows the language and imagery to speak for themselves. This essay isn’t about me, but it’s about my family (and countless other families, I imagine) who have experienced “going without.” I think I was interested in creating a landscape, as well as specific images, which spoke to the experience of what it is like living without money, without options. To write this in “I” would have made this an essay about me – my story. I would prefer for readers to flip through the images and interpret what they see without wondering about how to fit my, the narrator’s, story into it.

GW: One of my favorite aspects of Home was the syntax and how it affected pacing in various parts of this narrative. Shorter sentences juxtaposed with longer ones, such as in the first section starting the piece and the ninth section about rain, slows the pace and directs focus. “We find ourselves surrounded by pasture and telephone poles. Leaves. Scraps of metal and strips of lumber piled against make-shift sheds. Everything waits to be put to use.” How did you view the relationship between syntax and pacing when you were writing this piece?

CM: Syntax is probably just as important to me as what I’m writing about. I see the two – syntax and content – as inseparable, really. I want to make striking images, but the only way you can make striking images is by creating striking sentences. So, for me, I look at writing as similar to composing. Listening to the rhythm of each sentence. I often read back through the lines, over and over, motioning my finger along to their rhythms. I also often read poetry before I write, which inspires certain rhythms.

In “Home,” the search for good language helped me discover the essay, in a sense. “Mayflies live just one day, dying to fuck,” has a nice rhythm to it (I feel), but at the same time, speaks to that element of loss and desire. At first, I only had the line, “Mayflies live just one day,” which felt incomplete to me. So, to carry out the rhythm, “dying to fuck,” I was able to incorporate more substance to the sentence and bring it to a deeper level. If I allow myself to search long enough for the right words and rhymes, images and verbs will surface, and sometimes, they lead me in directions I wouldn’t have thought to go.

GW: There is an easy movement of Home as the focus shifts from different images and individuals, such as Mother doing dishes, Father attempting to revive dead cars, Sister smoking cigarettes, the barn cats that cost sixty dollars to spay, and the rain pounding against the roof. How did you structure this flow? Was it a conscious progression of images, or did the piece seem to progress more organically as you were writing it?

CM: Sometimes, when I don’t know how to begin an essay, I begin writing sentences that aren’t connected to each other, but that try to capture an image that I’m interested in exploring. This essay grew out of a series of images I associated with my parents’ home, which started off as a blank page of random sentences, but sentences that spoke to me in such a way that made me want to further explore them. Those sentences led me into writing the small vignettes that create the essay. And since the essay lacks a specific narrative thread – one single story from start to finish – I had to rely on tone and imagery to make the readers invested in this place and these people.

GW: Authors who write creative nonfiction have an incredible ability to push specific themes and tones by the details they select. How did you choose the particular images and details which color Home so fully and specifically?

CM: Like with sentences, I try to linger on images, mentally, before I write them down. For example, I can remember exactly how that black bird looked after it hit the window that day, but, to write about it, I had to go back in my mind to that day, step out the door with my sister, and find myself standing barefoot in the yard, and looking down at the bird before I could recount the its turned head, its legs, feathers, all that. The pebbles surrounding it. I guess finding the right images is a process of meditating on the experience long enough until you find yourself back in it. Once I’m back in the situation – once I feel like I can bend down and literally feel the bird’s slick feathers beneath my fingertips – then I feel confident in rendering the scene. The details will be there, and it is just a matter of choosing which ones I decide to write down.

Steve Edwards

Interview by Gina Warren.

Steve Edwards’ story “A Writer’s Story” took first place in Silk Road’s recent Flash Fiction Contest. Edwards lives in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. His memoir, Breaking into the Backcountry, is the story of his seven months of “unparalleled solitude” as the caretaker of a wilderness homestead along the Rogue National Wild and Scenic River in southern Oregon. He is now at work on a nonfiction book about his grandfather’s appearance on the cover of Life in 1942.
Read Steve Edward’s A Writer Story, winner of Silk Road’s Flash Fiction Contest.
The Interview

GW: What was your inspiration for writing Twelve Hour Shift? Was there a particular moment or image that catalyzed the rest of the piece?

Steve Edwards: This story originated from an NPR 3-minute fiction contest writing prompt: “Begin a story with the phrase: ‘The nurse left work at five o’clock.’” And because I love short short stories that gain momentum through repetition, as well as stories that subvert traditional narratives (stories like “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid or “The School” by Donald Barthelme), I started thinking about other people who might be leaving places at specific times. The movement from hour to hour, and image to image, became the driving force of the piece. As far as a particular moment, I don’t know. I remember composing some of it—the lists of different people—in my mind as my wife and I drove to the supermarket one day. By the time we got home it was almost finished.

GW: There is a sense of circularity to Twelve Hour Shift, which begins and ends with a nurse and her son. To get to that point this piece shifts through various other characters (the mayor, the Kawasaki workers, the rabbi, the writer stopping time). How did you choose to define and select these other characters?

SE: Once I had the idea for the piece, the only thing I really knew was that each character had to be different from the last, and that the story would have to be packed to the gills with images, emotional tones, banal things, wondrous things, tiny details and broad generalizations. The circularity you mention—I think that a story like this one benefits from some kind of simple structural integrity. If I’m going to skip around from person to person, image to image, then I’m at least going to give a reader something to hang on to. For this story, that meant going through the hours. Five o’clock. Six o’clock. Seven o’clock. Until finally we arrived back where it had all started, with the nurse. Ultimately I think I was looking to achieve a kind of a balance, and a kind of fullness, and a sense that the story mimicked the strangeness and randomness of daily life.

GW: What authors do you read? How has the literature you expose yourself to affected your own writing?

SE: I can point to two main sources of inspiration for my short short stories. As an undergrad, I used to love to read surrealist poems, especially those of James Tate and Charles Simic. I loved the way they played with language. I loved the way they twisted meaning and made me see the world differently. And I spent a lot of time—back when I first began to write seriously—studying how they used images to create tonal shifts, those subtle shifts in emotion that when taken together added up to something much larger, something revelatory.

The other source I should probably mention is teaching. When I first started teaching, I used to like to read students short short stories from the Sudden Fiction series. I wanted students to really hear the stories, their pacing and voices, their rhythms. As the years went by, after reading the stories out loud so many times, I began to internalize all that. So by the time I saw down to write stories like “Twelve Hour Shift” and “A Writer’s Story,” all I really had to do was sit before my computer and listen to the story suggest itself.

GW: In A Writer’s Story the narrator admits that he would write down every word of a memory that threatened to slip away, “not to remember but to imagine how it might have been different if words could have helped us.” Where does the capacity of words to “help us” begin and end? Can words be a reprieve?

SE: This is a wonderful question, and I want to be careful with my response. I think what that line gets at is that though the events of the past cannot be changed, how we think about and understand the past is always changing. Memory evolves, perspectives shift. Something could happen today or tomorrow that completely revises how you think about yesterday. For the narrator of this story, his past might be painful and he can’t escape that. He can’t escape the fact that, as a writer, even his fictions are informed by his personal pain. But through the honest contemplation of his characters and their lives—and through the meaning he makes between their lives and his own—he is somehow able to transcend the stories of his past in order to tell a new story. In that respect, words are very much a reprieve. They can lead to forgiveness, understanding, compassion. At the same time, however, no matter how enlightened he becomes he still can’t go back and change the things that hurt him. He can’t fix the past. So there are limits to what words can do to help, and of course words can also do great harm (despite the claims of the old nursery rhyme about sticks and stones). I think this narrator, in the end, is trying to figure out how to be hopeful in the face of this dynamic. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that this narrator, because by his nature he can’t help but be hopeful, is trying to figure out how to respond to the very question you have posed. Where does the capacity for words to “help us” begin and end? Sometimes what helps and what hurts can feel so similar.

GW: A Writer’s Story intertwines the stories of a mother, a daughter, and a father with the narrator’s own mother and father, then ends addressing the reader. “Perhaps this is why in all the stories I write—and maybe in all of yours—there is a mother and a father, and pain, silence, and yet also a word or two that makes a difference, an unlikely tenderness of heart, because despite every hurt you or I endure, some part of us holds out hope.” How did you decide to bring in these multiple narratives of the mother, daughter, father, of the narrator’s family, and of the audience that endures hurt? What is the importance of all the stories we tell ourselves and others?

SE: Like a lot of my stories, “A Writer’s Story” began with that first simple sentence: “In this story there is a mother and a father.” I heard it in my head over breakfast, and I returned to it later that afternoon when I sat down to write. I had no idea where it was going to take me, if anywhere, but I liked its quiet authority and the way the present tense worked to create a sense of something happening in the moment. And as I wrote along, I just kept listening and writing things down. Not that it was easy, of course. I think it’s taken me years of struggle and failure—years of writing sentences and scratching them out—to learn how to be receptive to my own voice, to trust it.

The whole story came together in a little over two hours, and by the end I was completely surprised by its shape, and by the turns it took. I secretly suspect that much of what I write, like the writer in the story, is an attempt to somehow fix the past, or to comfort myself through trying to understand the random things that have hurt me. Like the struggle I had with math in middle school. Like the young girl my wife and I met a few years back, whose father had died in a helicopter crash in California. I mean, what do you do with details that have for some reason lodged themselves into your memory? What do you do with unresolved pain? And I guess I wanted to really invite the reader into the depths of those questions, so toward the end of the story I leaned a little on the second-person. After all, it’s not just writers who tell stories. We all do. And those stories we tell—that’s who we are. We live those stories. We’re at their mercy.

GW: How vital do you think this “part of us [that] holds out hope” is to people as human beings? What about to individuals as writers?

SE: I think Faulkner speaks to what I want to say better than I could ever hope to. So here’s a slightly edited excerpt from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

“I believe that [humanity] will not merely endure: [we] will prevail. [We are] immortal, not because [we] alone among creatures [have] an inexhaustible voice, but because [we have] a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is [our] privilege to help [humanity] endure by lifting [its] heart, by reminding [it] of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of [its] past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of [humanity], it can be one of the props, the pillars to help [us] endure and prevail.”

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