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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.

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.

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.

IMG_64Interview: Deborah Reed
by Sharon Harrigan

Deborah Reed is the author of Carry Yourself Back to Me, published originally by Amazon Encore in September 2011, then reissued by Houghton Mifflin in January 2012. She also writes suspense novels under the pen name Audrey Braun. A Small Fortune was released by Amazon
Encore in July 2011, became an immediate bestseller, and was reissued by Houghton Mifflin in February 2012. Its sequel, Fortune’s Deadly Descent, will appear in September 2012. Carry Yourself Back to Me was a Best Book of 2011 Amazon Editors’ Pick as well as a bestseller, and
Publisher’s Weekly called it “a triumph.” The Library Journal called Reed “a writer to watch,” whose “lovely, lyrical prose” is “as rare as snowfall in Florida.”

Reed and I were graduate students together in Pacific University’s low residence MFA Program in Creative Writing. We have workshopped with literary legends David Long, Mary-Helen Stefaniak, Tayari Jones, Jack Driscoll, Mike Magnuson, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Ben Percy, learning to give our verbs more muscle, our stories more heart and speed, and to line edit as if our lives depended on it. Reed’s work is distinctive for its lush settings, musical cadences, and tightly woven plots that manage to be credible yet surprising, moving yet unsentimental. Her literary work is suspenseful, fast-paced, and tightly plotted; while her suspense work is literary, with rich characters and complex family relationships. She is a rare hybrid. We discussed her unusual path to publication, her double identity working in two genres, and the journeys her characters take, across Europe, Mexico, and the United States.

Silk Road: Many writers consider publication the ultimate goal of an MFA. Since you already had book contracts while you started your MFA, what was your goal? How did the program help you reach it?

Deborah Reed: I entered Pacific University as a self-taught writer with a lot of discipline and determination but no formal education in creative writing. My undergrad degree was in Anthropology and German, so I came to writing in a patchwork way, which included a smattering of conferences and workshops and a local writing group. I could see my skills improving over the years (slowly), but there were gaps in my understanding of the craft. I couldn’t fully articulate why something did or didn’t work on the page. Gaining a critical voice has not only helped me zero in on my own failings and strengths, but also allowed me to help others. And the solutions come faster. What may have taken months of staring at a passage, knowing instinctively that something was wrong, now happens more quickly.

It’s important to note that the low residency model allowed me to work as a writer while getting my degree, unlike a traditional MFA. With low residency, you learn how to juggle a writing life against the backdrop of work and family. Another difference is working one-on-one with a mentor each semester, which is an intense and focused way to learn.

SR: Your path to publication was a bit unorthodox. I think writers worried about the state of the publishing industry can take heart from your story.

Deborah: I began through the traditional channels with an agent who was shopping around Carry Yourself Back To Me. This was in 2009, when the publishing industry was imploding and no one was willing to take on a new author. We were coming to the end of publishing house submissions after a line of very nice rejections letters and I could see that my novel was about to get put into a drawer and forgotten. I decided to secretly enter it into Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, while at the same time I wrote A Small Fortune in a nervous frenzy, as I waited to hear back from my agent. I then went on to self-publish A Small Fortune and within weeks it became an ebook bestseller on Amazon, climbing as high as #3 in the entire Kindle store. It was madness. At the same time behind the scenes, an editor from the newly developed publishing house owned by Amazon, called simply Amazon Publishing, pulled my manuscript out of the contest slush pile because he liked the title.

He started reading it and things got crazy from there. Amazon Publishing had also noticed A Small Fortune by Audrey Braun was selling like crazy and they were about to get in touch with her for a book deal. The editor finished Carry Yourself Back To Me in two days and called me, Deborah Reed, to offer me a book deal. He had no idea I was also Audrey Braun. Hilarity ensued. By the end of the phone call I was offered a three-book deal, one that included the thriller follow up to A Small Fortune, called Fortune’s Deadly Descent, which will be released in
September 2012. Not long after my first two books were published, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt approached Amazon Publishing and bought the paperback rights to them. I now have two publishers and couldn’t be happier.

SR: Your books take us on intense, sometimes exotic, voyages to landscapes that are so rich they are almost characters. In Carry Yourself Back to Me, you use the lush setting of Florida tangelo groves threatened by freakish snow to heighten emotional landscape. In A Small Fortune, you take us to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with its seductive glassy water and pristine beaches that hide danger below the surface, and then you lead us into jungles no tourist brochure ever warned against. In Fortune’s Deadly Descent, you begin in picture-postcard Switzerland, then lead us to St. Corbenay, France, a quaint Provencal village whose castles and saturated colors inspired the French Impressionists. Why did you choose these settings, and how do they inform your writing?

Deborah: Foreign places exhilarate me. I love the challenge of figuring out how to get around in a country I’ve never been to, maneuvering through a language I don’t speak, meeting people different from myself, and being surrounded by an aesthetic that inspires me. When it comes to writing, it’s a pleasure to infuse my novels with places where I’ve spent time, allowing me to go along for the ride just like the reader. With thriller writing in particular, foreign settings throw my protagonist off balance. She’s already in dire circumstances, so setting her in a place she’s never been, surrounded by a language she doesn’t speak, compromises her capabilities further, which gives the story another layer of tension. It becomes an adventure as well as a mystery.

SR: Both your literary novels (the one that published and the one in progress) are set in Florida, where you lived as a teenager. Do you think of your characters and books as Southern?

Deborah: I definitely think of my literary characters as Southern. My family on both sides comes from the South and they are great oral storytellers and musicians and have impeccable timing, which makes them funny as hell.
There is a rhythm to their speech, a lyrical cadence that I find comforting, and there is also a restraint in the content of what they say, or don’t say, and all of this is so beautiful to me, an art form really.

SR: One thing that distinguishes your suspense novels from your literary novels is setting. The former are in Florida, the latter outside America. Is this one way you keep your writing identities separate?

Deborah: It is. And I’d even go so far as to say that they make up the two sides of me. I lived in Germany for many years and love to travel. This is a large part of who I am and I take a lot of pleasure in bringing that to the page with my thriller novels. The other part of me is deeply rooted in The States, as I mentioned, my family is from the South and have been there for centuries. I grew up mostly in the Midwest but was surrounded by an enclave of Southerners, and they too are very much a part of who I am.

SR: You’ve lived in Michigan, Florida, Germany, and Oregon. How do these distinctly different locales inform your writing?

Deborah: I’ve yet to set a novel in Michigan but I’ve begun planning one in my head, so stay tuned. I feel as if I’ve lived many lives. This makes for good stories.

SR: You’ve said one of your biggest influences is Per Petterson, and especially his novel Out Stealing Horses. What is it about this book that feels so feel so at home, even though it is translated from Norwegian and set in Norway?

Deborah: I’ve read this novel about six times. I finally understood that the rhythms in particular are what I’m drawn to. I read an interview with Per Petterson where he talks about rhythm being the most important quality he is trying to bring to his writing. He felt one should be able to tap a foot to the whole novel. It hit me then that this was the quality I was so drawn to in this novel. A musical cadence close to my heart. The characters are subtle, showing a lot of restraint, especially the men, and I drew the men in Annie’s family in Carry Yourself Back To Me the same way.

SR: The Sun Post Weekly says: “It isn’t very difficult to imagine Patsy Cline or June Carter Cash voicing the sentiments” in Carry Yourself Back to Me. How did music influence the plot of this book and its style? And can you elaborate on the title and epigraph?

Deborah: The Sun Post Weekly’s comments were so flattering, the best compliment I could have hoped for, and yet it’s somehow frightening, too. I idolize those women, so for someone to suggest my writing was in line with something they might sing, left me, well, I guess I felt an awful lot like Annie in the novel when she gets compared to some of the greats: “The comparisons flattered her for the first few minutes but after that and ever since she’s done nothing but worry about measuring up.”

The title of the novel is taken from Bob Dylan’s song, “Boots of Spanish Leather”:
There’s nothing you can send me my own true love, There’s nothing I wish to be ownin’ .
Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled, From across that great big ocean.

After I’d finished the novel and was trying to name it, I happened to hear this song, which I’ve heard hundreds of times over the years, but suddenly I heard it in a way that made me realize the narrative arc of my novel matched that of the song. I immediately looked at the lyrics and the instant I came across the “carry yourself back to me” line, I knew that was it.

SR: Book List magazine calls Carry Yourself Back to Me “Part whodunit, part romance, part family drama, and part childhood remembrance.” I think that’s good way to summarize the ambition and scope of the book. Did you conceive of this book as weaving those four different strands?

Deborah: This is exactly what I did. I can be a pretty melancholy person and I wanted to capture that by writing a novel about yearning, nostalgia, missed opportunities, regrets and mistakes. Romantic love and familial love embody all the categories Book List mentions, and all the themes I was going for. I structured the novel so two story lines are running nearly parallel with one another. The backstory is meant to illuminate what is happening in the present so structurally the novel weaves back and forth between past and present. The past by itself is a coming of age tale of Annie and her brother Calder. The present day follows the two over the course of two weeks. By the end of the novel past meets present and brings everything full circle.

SR: Your work is full of sensory details. What struck me the most is the way it is infused with smells, which are known for evoking emotional memory. I can’t think of any book that does this quite the way you do. Why is smell so important in your work?

Deborah: You hit it exactly: smell evokes emotional memory. This is precisely why I used it. I live in the Northwest now, but when I go back to Florida the first thing I’m struck by are the smells, whether it be from my mother’s cooking or the grass, trees, and flowers, or hot sun on the concrete after a rain. Memories come flooding through me every time.

SR: Dialogue is very tricky, and I admire the way you use it to express the subtext, or what lies below surface and is too difficult for characters to express directly.

Deborah: I find dialogue most interesting when people are saying one thing and meaning another. There is a messiness there that reveals human emotion so much more poignantly than pointing to it. The woman angry with her husband for not paying enough attention to her doesn’t say, “I’m angry at you,” she says “I’m sick of seeing your toothpaste in the sink.” When the reader knows something that perhaps the characters themselves aren’t even quite aware of yet themselves, a connection takes place between the reader and the story, a kind of insider knowledge that pulls the reader closer in.

SR: One of the things I loved about A Small Fortune is the spot-on characterization of a prickly relationship between Celia and her teenage son Oliver. Since I have a teenage son myself, I was sure you were reading my mind. How has your experience as a parent informed your writing?

Deborah: In this particular incidence, greatly. Celia’s struggles with Oliver are not unlike my own with my teenager. Those moments of pulling away are hard on everyone, done under the guise of disdain and humiliation on the teenager’s part, but really it is the natural course of bonds needing to break apart and reconfigure. And what a paradox. They hate us but they need us. I came across a book on raising teenagers called, Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall. I didn’t read it but I think I could have written it.

SR: How do you balance working in two genres–literary and suspense? Do you work in only one genre at a time? How do you prep yourself to become your pseudonym?

Deborah: The past couple of years I’ve been switching back and forth between the two genres simultaneously. I prefer not to do that but I was on a deadline and had no choice. I like to focus on one at a time for the pure reason that each genre requires something different of me. When writing literary work, I only read literary novels, and the same goes with thrillers. I’m very sensitive to influence and it’s important for me to feel in line and inspired by the work I’m reading.

I’m also far more meticulous and slow when writing literary fiction. I self-edit, perhaps too much, and I’m far more critical of myself. When I switch to Audrey Braun I write quickly and with more confidence. I discovered this about myself by accident when, as a fluke, I tried my hand at writing a thriller. I never assumed anyone would ever read it so I wrote with complete abandon and the entire first novel flushed out of me in four months, compared to the six years it took to write Carry Yourself Back To Me.

SR: How do you keep your aesthetics and persona separate for each genre? How do you deal with credibility issues for writers who stretch beyond one genre? Are there still people who don’t take “genre” work seriously?

Deborah: This is a great question. While there are still people who question the credibility of genre fiction, the lines between genres have all but disappeared these days. So many articles have been written about this lately. How, for example, does one categorize someone like Dennis Lehane? Is he a crime writer or a literary writer? What about the great Patricia Highsmith? Is The Talented Mr. Ripley a mystery or literary novel? And then there are novels like The Tiger’s Wife or The Night Circus that infuse folklore, fantasy, and magic into what are otherwise categorized as literary novels. A writer friend of mine from Russia once told me how baffled she was by all the categories we Americans put our novels in. She said in Russia they don’t have all of this.

They only good books and bad books. I love that. I can think of so many novels that could potentially fall into so many genres. Ultimately, the decision comes down to the publishers and how they want to market a book. Mystery and thriller sell much better than literary. So there’s that.

SR: Why did you decide to use a pen name?

Deborah: Initially it was because I’d never written a thriller so I decided to self publish A Small Fortune just to see what would happen. I figured if it turned out to be a flop no one would ever know it was me. It succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve since kept the pen name as a way to distinguish between my literary writing and what has now become my thriller series. The fact that I’m both Deborah Reed and Audrey Braun isn’t a secret. It just helps my readers know what they’re getting when I have a book released.

SR: Who are some other writers, besides John Banville, who write both literary and genre fiction?

Deborah: I think what is more interesting are what are being referred to as the hybrids. Many people are surprised by the fact that Tom Perrotta wrote The Leftovers, a tale of the apocalypse. Colson Whitehead wrote Zone One, a post-apocalyptic novel about zombies. Stephen King, of course, writes everything under the sun, including his most recent historic thriller, 11/22/63. As for history and horror, how about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahme-Smith? The lines have crossed and there’s no turning back.

SR: Who are some of your biggest influences? For literary fiction and for suspense fiction?

Deborah: For literary: Per Petterson, Raymond Carver, Kent Haruf, Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’ Connor, William Gay, Tom Franklin, and Barry Hannah. For thrillers: John Banville, Kate Atkinson, Harlan Coben, Lisa Unger, Patricia Highsmith, and Laura Lippman.

SR: Who are some of the literary finds you’re excited about now? Anybody you’re reading at the moment?

Deborah: Books I’ve recently read and loved are Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, We The Animals by Justin Torres, The Cove by Ron Rash, and Florida by Christine Schutt. All filled with lush original prose and masterful storytelling.

SR: I heard a rumor that your dog helps write your books.

Deborah: It’s true. My Springer Spaniel is a wonder. She lays at my feet while I write and gets emotionally involved by whatever cues I’m somehow emitting to her. When I realize I’ve hit a sweet spot in the writing she gets up and puts her face in my lap. She is so tuned in to me it’s scary.

IMG_66Interview: Valerie Laken
by Kali Eichen

Valerie Laken holds an MA in Slavic Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Her novel Dream House received the Anne Powers Award and was listed among Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2009. Her story collection, Separate Kingdoms, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and the Story Prize. She is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.

Laken crafts stories that are grounded in the physical world, exploring places that are suffused with emotional meaning. All the characters in the novel Dream House orbit around the property, each seeking to understand his or her relationship to the house and to each other. In her short story collection Separate Kingdoms, readers travel from the heart of Moscow and the surrounding villages to sanitary hospitals and dirty basements across the midwest, from the expansive space of the dream world to the internal limitations of a family unit. Her work charges into new literary frontiers by incorporating visual elements that examine and reflect the way contemporary society’s reliance on screens and visual messages has altered the reader’s relationship to the words on the page.

Silk Road: How does ‘sense of place’ inform your writing?

Valerie Laken: Place is that great quiet, mischievous character lurking around in every good story. It’s very easy to overlook that fact when you’re writing fiction. It’s easy to concentrate only on the human characters and their problems, and treat setting as a kind of painted backdrop dimly waiting in vain to be drafted into service.But the truth is, every place has an atmosphere and brings a set of unique pressures to bear on its occupants. An argument that seems mundane in a bedroom might sound riveting or explosive in a grocery store aisle. The same word can have profoundly different effects if uttered in a church or a jail cell. I believe our spaces shape us as much as we shape them. Sometimes I’ve begun stories with a very clear sense of the setting but only the weakest inkling of the main characters.

My story, “Map of the City,” is a love-letter to the city of Moscow during the turbulent first years after the fall of the Soviet Union. My story, “Scavengers,” is kind of an elegy to the city of Detroit and to every neighborhood abandoned during the housing crisis. Cities, like people, have their conflicts, their rises and falls, their mysteries and manners. What’s nice about putting a place at the heart of a story is that many readers know that space and share affection for it. Their views of it may not match up exactly with yours, but that’s OK, because places are palimpsests. We keep reinterpreting and reinventing them.

SR: The stories in your collection Separate Kingdoms deal with the interactions between people and nations, language and meaning, ability and disability, consciousness and reality. What draws you to write about these liminal spaces?

VL: For reasons I may never understand, I think was born feeling like a misfit, and I just can’t seem to shake it. Maybe I don’t want to. Wherever I am, I am always scanning the room trying to figure out how the people here behave and talk. What’s nice about liminal spaces is that everyone’s a misfit in them, an interloper. Maybe that puts me at ease. Maybe natural-born misfits have an advantage in those spaces. In any case, I like being a foreigner because by definition nobody expects you to fit in when you’re foreign. The minute you do, you have probably become a foreigner at home.

My first fiction workshop teacher, Josh Henkin, repeated the maxim, “Every story really boils down to two plots: A guy goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. And those are really just the same story told from two different perspectives.” On some level every story is about someone being drawn or pushed out of their comfort zone and into uncharted territory. Part of why I wanted to write about disabled characters was because in our culture, even today, they are the ultimate strangers who can unsettle people by their physical presence alone. That’s a powerful, fascinating phenomenon, and I hope it won’t last much longer.

SR: The eponymous story in Separate Kingdoms is told from two points of view, a father and son, in two columns, running simultaneously down each page. What inspired the unconventional format? Was the look of the story part of its original concept or something that evolved?

VL: I started by writing the story just from the father’s perspective, but when I finished the first draft I realized that I hadn’t developed the son’s character very well, so I decided to write notes in the margins about what the son was going through in each scene. I figured I’d just make these notes to learn something that I could then incorporate into a normal revision. But the son’s voice started to bloom for me. I started to have fun with it. So I started typing it up in a separate column, and once I saw the result, it seemed like exactly the right format for this story.

The characters in the story are all cramped in one small house on one night, so close to each other yet pretty clueless about what the others are going through. They not only have their separate rooms but they have different modes of escape — TV, music, video games, etc. Those technologies often encourage us to do two or three things simultaneously (and half-consciously). By putting two columns of text side by side I felt I was posing an impossible challenge for the reader: you just can’t read two things at once. You have to choose. You have to commit and concentrate.

Our real lives are a blur of simultaneous activities and distractions. I wanted to create that sense of tension and anxiety we feel when we’re trying to focus on one thing but there’s something else next to it that’s tempting us away. To me at least, that may be one of the defining sensations of our era. A lot of books ignore it, but I think that sensation is affecting the way we read and may also come to affect the ways we write.

SR: What was your editor’s reaction when you submitted paragraph after paragraph of the sound of drumming?

VL: Funny question. Every time I sent the story to anyone I braced myself for negative reactions to the two columns and the drumming, but they never came. I always felt the thrill of getting away with something. Once the story collection was sold to HarperPerennial, I kept asking my agent and editor, “But will they be able to do the two columns?” And they kept saying, “Don’t worry about it.” When it came time for Harper to do the layout and design of the book, I braced myself all over again and sent a long pre-apology to the layout designers for all the trouble this was going to cause them, but they just jumped on board very cheerfully. We had to send page proofs back and forth a lot so I could tweak the lines to make sure the columns stayed in synch, but they were great sports about it all. I’m very grateful to them.

SR: The story “Map of the City” has a strong visual component as well — the section headings that mimic the signs marking metro stations in Moscow. As you write, do you visualize the spatial aspects of your work? Do you imagine and manipulate the ‘geography of the page,’ as you call it?

VL: When you’re foreign you spend a lot of time looking at signs and maps, trying to get your bearings. I had a lot of grand ideas originally about how maps might play a larger role in this story, visually, but none of them quite worked. The danger of incorporating graphic elements in a story is that they can distract the reader or become simply redundant.

But it seemed to me that using the graphics of the Moscow metro signs would put readers into that position of being foreign and looking at signs in an alphabet they can’t parse. In that case you stop seeing words as something to automatically read and you begin seeing them as beautiful, complicated shapes, a code you can’t yet crack. That’s what the protagonist is doing for much of the story, and I wanted to make the reader do a little bit of that too. It’s a small matter, I suppose. But yes, the spatial arrangement of my words and paragraphs, the geography of the page, is increasingly important to me. It’s not entirely clear to me why fiction can’t be as beautiful to look at as some magazines are — except that few people have figured out yet how to do it in a way that feels organic and necessary to the story. I don’t claim to know, but I want to learn.

SR: As a scholar of Slavic literature, what do contemporary American writers have to learn from the luminaries of that tradition? Are there contemporary Slavic writers that you recommend all American writers read?

VL: Oh, this is such a great but big question. I think Chekhov has probably been one of the most significant influences on contemporary American fiction writers. He put so much emphasis on honoring the complex humanity of his characters rather than setting them up as targets of judgment, and this has been a pretty strong tradition among contemporary American realist writers. Among contemporary Russian writers I’d recommend Lyudmila Petrushevskaya.

SR: Silk Road is now publishing the first chapters of novels. When you pick up a novel, what do you expect from the first chapter or prologue? What persuades you to turn the page?

VL: Hmmm. In a first chapter — even a first page — I want to feel that the author has command of the voice and the material, that s/he is willing to take chances and is using language with care and originality. I want a lack of pretension and fluff. I also want a sense that the author is consciously guiding his or her audience, revealing and concealing information not just whenever s/he feels like getting around to it, but right when the reader needs it. It’s also good if I can feel that this is unlike any book I’ve ever read before. Think about the opening lines of Catcher in the Rye:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Right away we get a distinctive, authoritative, uncompromised voice. He has something to say and something to conceal. His irreverent attitude suggests he’s capable of interesting and possibly risky exploits. He’s funny and smart and he’s decided to confide in me. I’m hooked.

IMG_63Interview: Masha Hamilton
by Kathlene Postma

Masha Hamilton has written four award-winning novels, The Camel Bookmobile (2001), The Distance Between Us (2004), Staircase of a Thousand Steps (2007), and 31 Hours (2009). Highly praised by both independent and commercial booksellers, Hamilton’s books attract readers who are in particular interested in North Africa and the Middle East, locations where Hamilton served as an Associated Press reporter for five years. Masha has also founded two world literacy projects: The Camel Bookmobile and The Afghan Women Writers Project ( These groundbreaking efforts have brought books to remote villages in Kenya and have given women in Afghanistan an international platform from which they can be heard. Masha’s achievements as an artist and activist earned her the 2010 Women’s National Book Association Award, given annually to a woman who makes her livelihood from writing and who uses her voice to improve the lives of others.

I interviewed Masha when she was a featured guest writer at Pacific University. During her visit, she shared strategies for effective fiction writing and gave talks on the relationship between the U.S. and the Middle East as well as the status of women in Afghanistan. Students and faculty alike were excited by her creative approaches to problem solving. She demonstrated that writing a novel or helping others require strikingly similar skills: The ability to imagine the reality of someone different from you, the willingness to withhold judgment, and the drive to pull seemingly disparate elements into an elegant, tangible whole.

For this interview I focused in her most recent book, 31 Hours. In the novel, a terrorist plot to blow up the New York subway system unfolds over 31 tense hours. As the story builds, the reader encounters characters who either know about the plot or who will be destroyed by it. While deeply menacing, this kind of large scale violence directed at New York would not by itself make for a compelling story, and handled by a less skillful writer could simply reaffirm assumptions about who would want to destroy America’s most prominent city and why. Masha does not take the easy route. It is 31 Hours’ central character, Jonas, the twenty-one-year-old ready to strap a bomb to his chest and kill hundreds of people, who tips the scale: He is white, born in New York, raised in an educated, middle class family, and by all accounts was a gentle, thoughtful child. With deft skill Masha crafts a character who over the course of the novel will ask us to consider what motivates someone to commit mass destruction and how religion is co-opted by or feeds the desire to destroy.

Silk Road: This book could have very easily become a polemical statement. The US has been the site of mass murders inflicted by angry young American men, and religious extremism, like mental illness, could be a believable trigger. Certainly you could have made the murderer a foreign religious extremist who comes into the country with the intent to kill. Yet you avoid either one of these options with the novel and humanize all of your characters. I was pulled into the complexity of the story, but I found myself struggling against sympathizing with Jonas as I read.

Masha Hamilton: Is it fair to ask the reader to sympathize with someone who would do this? I asked myself that as I wrote 31 Hours. Yet at the same time I could not stop myself from writing Jonas into a place of grey, and by that I mean I was purposely avoiding an easy black and white solution. I was asking myself, Who is this kid? Why would he be capable of committing this kind of act? As a mother of three children, a daughter and two sons, I know something happens when our kids reach 17 or 18. They can close down, go underground and at the same time their outbursts or actions are sometimes shocking. It’s difficult to reconcile the child you knew from this person you cannot now read and who may be capable of incomprehensible acts. As a parent you might have done everything right. Here is this boy you dealt with in his terrible twos or difficult fours. You gave him timeouts, you set limits, and while it was frustrating you were still sharing that frustration with him. In this book, I was looking at what can happen later when kids get older and can go somewhere menacing and dark, somewhere parents cannot easily follow. Jonas is caught in such a place and that makes him vulnerable to extremism.

I was also holding myself to be excruciatingly honest about the role religion can play in terrorism. This meant I could not absolve or humanize the Islamic extremism that Jonas is pulled into. One reason Jonas finds this misguided path so attractive is, ironically, because he was not raised in a spiritual tradition himself. Working as a journalist for five years in the Middle East, I saw first hand religious intolerance and what it stems from, and that includes young men being raised without a space to question their religion or its assumptions. When I started having my children I tried to find a faith I was comfortable raising them in, and I couldn’t. But I struggle with what that choice means for my children and how it may put too much responsibility on them to make their own decisions. Carol, Jonas’ mother, struggles with this as well.

SR: How did you go about researching and doing the early drafting for this book?

MH: I interviewed people who joined extremist groups, including jihadist groups, and spent time on their websites. My phone was bugged because I visited those sites—I was basically doing what a potential terrorist would do, so oddly enough I was comforted when I realized I was being bugged. At heart I’m a journalist, so I had to go and see for myself. I went to recruitment sites specifically because I really wanted to understand Jonas the way I had Steven Judy, a twenty-four-year-old I had covered when I was an Associated Press journalist in the US. In 1979 Judy raped and murdered a young mother in Indiana then drowned her three young children. His actions were abhorrent, and yet I wept while attending his execution because of what I had learned about him and his family by writing his story. I’m not saying we need to forgive everything, but we don’t read novels or good journalism for black and white portrayals of people and their motivations.

In one month during a writer’s residency, I wrote the entire first draft. Masoud, the older terrorist who recruits Jonas, had many more chapters in that draft. As I rewrote, I realized I didn’t want competition between possible Masoud and Jonas sympathizers, so I cut Masoud’s presence in the book to largely one chapter. But by then I knew him better. It was the whole tip of the iceberg theory, so that piece of Masoud is rich.

SR: How does your training as a journalist, besides helping you do research, influence how you write fiction?

MH: Ego needs to be out of it. I learned as a journalist that I was the pipe that carried information. I feel the same way as a novelist. We’re trying to listen really hard to these characters, to be empathetic to their concerns—and that needs to be the same with a character like Jonas who is preparing to set off a bomb or someone like Mother Teresa. Of course our own concerns must be woven in, but fiction cannot be solely about me as a writer. I believe fiction is about writing into that other space, the ambivalent and even frightening space where there are no clear answers. If I already know the answer to the question I’m addressing, then the writing is not interesting to me.

SR: As you write, who is your audience? You write books that have characters in suspenseful places and situations, and yet your books cannot be called thrillers.

MH: It is true publishing houses usually want books that are more definitive than the ones I write. There’s this accepted idea that a book couldn’t be both a “thriller” and a “women’s book.” And what’s more women, we’re told, don’t like politics.

I try not to write to readers as a group, which sounds weird and counterintuitive, I know. What I want most of all is to make my writing better, more real, stronger, and deeper. I above all else don’t want to worry about what’s going to sell. The act of writing is so important to me that compromising to appeal solely to the reader would be betrayal of me. I have to live with the decision to go that route as a writer. I’m fine with that because if a book I write reaches the audience it’s supposed to reach, then I know I’ve been as authentic as possible, and that usually means I’ve been true to who I am and what I was trying to say. That’s the best thing all of us can do. If you love thrillers or mysteries write them. But if you don’t, the lack of authenticity will show itself. You have to ask yourself, Why am I writing? What’s my relationship to the work? What’s so important I will spend hours and days of my life on it, time I could spend hanging out with my husband or friends? What is so compelling for me I’ll be working at it so hard that I’ll be cross-eyed with exhaustion at the end of the day? Those are the questions you need ask yourself when you decide to write.

SR: The ending was tough for me as a reader. I felt my heart in my throat as I finished 31 Hours. When I reached the penultimate page, I was riddled with anxiety because I knew there wasn’t enough time in the last page for you to write a comforting resolution. It haunts me.

MH: I took three years to write that ending—I thought hard about it.

The question, one that I kept going back to, kept me from making the end simple: What would this young man do, considering all I learned about him from writing the book? I felt if he could survive to the next stage as an adult, beyond the young man we see in the book, he would be an original thinker. But I also had to look closely at the imperative of the ticking clock. I had to consider what can happen in those brief, crucial time spans when so much is at stake, those loaded hours in places around the world—not just New York–when so much rests upon the shoulders of young men like Jonas.

I write novels because they ask these kinds of questions. I guess it is personal for me in that way. I don’t have the answers myself, and I couldn’t take the easy way out in the final chapter. A book group emailed me to say they didn’t like the ending but it generated the best discussion they ever had.

Learn more about Masha Hamilton’s books and work in Afghanistan and Africa at

IMG_70Interview: Dinty W. Moore
by Katey Schultz

What do you get when you cross a zookeeper with a journalist, coming of age during the Nixon era? Between Panic and Desire, Dinty W. Moore’s 2008 memoir and winner of the Grub Street National Book Prize. “Moore forges a brisk, incisive, funny, sometimes silly, yet stealthily affecting memoir in essays and skits,” says Donna Seaman of Booklist. “Each anecdote, piece of pop-culture trivia, and frankly confessed panic and desire yields a chunk of irony and a
sliver of wisdom.”

Between teaching at Ohio University, serving on the Board of Directors of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, editing Brevity and Best Creative Nonfiction, and pursing his photography (including the images seen here), Moore spent time with Silk Road to answer a few questions about the nitty-gritty of creative nonfiction.Dinty W. Moore is the author of the memoir Between Panic and Desire (University of Nebraska). His other books include The Accidental Buddhist, Toothpick Men, The Emperor’s Virtual Clothes, and the writing guide, The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. He has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, and teaches in the creative nonfiction PhD program at Ohio University.

Silk Road: Between Panic and Desire experiments with both form and content. What insight did you gain about the relationship between form and content as you compiled these unique essays into a book-length manuscript?

Dinty W. Moore: What I learned is that pushing form–converting a conventional essay into, say, an autopsy report, or an abecedarian–recasts the existing content and inevitably suggests new content. It is the best form of art as play, as far as I’m concerned, the sort of fiddling with writing that takes the writer into places he didn’t know he was going or didn’t intend to go. Yes, it can be gimmicky, if you let it, but as any poet will tell you, as soon as you add constraints of form, you push yourself into choices and decisions that go against the normal impulse. I love playing with form.

Now to pull these odd pieces together into book form was yet another challenge, because I wanted it to read like a book–a coherent journey–not just a collection of occasional pieces. As a result, I wrote seven or so fresh essay/chapters trying to fill in the blanks and make something whole out of the parts. That was influenced by form as well; the forms that already existed, and the form of a book/memoir.

SR: In your own words, Between Panic and Desire asks, “How did phenomena such as Nixon’s dishonesty, Father Knows Best, the Vietnam War, and campus protests shape my early sense of the world, and even more, how did these events shape an entire generation?” What feedback have you received from readers of your generation responding to the memoir?

DWM: The feedback has been positive. My e-mail address is listed in the book itself, so every once in a while someone sends me a message saying, “You’ve nailed it, that’s my life exactly.” Of course, if someone reads the book and thinks, “Hmmm, that’s nothing like me,” I suppose the motivation to send an e-mail might be far less. So it is not a scientific sample. But I’m enjoying the response.

SR: How does the purpose of a narrative arc differ in short forms such as lyric essay and flash fiction, versus longer forms such as memoir and novel?

DWM: That’s a good question and one that so many of us can’t nail down an answer to.

My best attempt at an answer would be to say that there is the arc of the moment and the arc of the weekend and the arc of a lifetime. The arc of a year or a lifetime makes up a novel, and the arc of a weekend makes a great conventional short story. The arc of the moment is more appropriate to very short prose and the lyric essay. Now, anyone who is widely read is already contradicting me in their head with titles of wonderful novels that take place in a 24-hour period or very short works that encompass vast stretches of time. Exceptions abound. But I think understanding these different sorts of arcs, exploring them and looking for the architecture of them, is a great place to at least begin exploring the differences in form and length. If you want then to break the rules, by all means do so.

SR: Did you ever struggle with the literary validity of the lyric essay? If so, what creative barriers did you encounter along the way? If not, what’s wrong with you?

DWM: The short nonfiction form always seemed plausible, because flash fiction was so obviously plausible, but to be honest, I was very late to come to an appreciation of the lyric essay. My introduction to creative nonfiction came through the conventional memoir and standard immersion journalism, and I was schooled in the idea of scene, detail, scene, dialogue, narrative arc–the so-called “old school” where every bit of creative nonfiction sounds like a short story or novel, except the story is true. Now I’m still a big fan of basic storytelling, no doubt about it, but I’ve widened my view, and I’m thankful to those who first nudged me.

That said, even now I’m occasionally bothered some by lyric essays that seem like poems in prose form. There should be a difference (but please don’t ask me to define what that difference looks like). What is wrong with me? Plenty.

SR: Who first nudged you along? Which authors do you see paving the way in creative nonfiction in general, and with the lyric essay in particular?

DWM: Actually the nudge came from some graduates of the Ohio University PhD program. They cornered me (politely) at the Iowa Nonfiction Now conference about five years ago to ask why there was no room for the lyric essay or Montaignean essay in my journal Brevity. I was going to sputter in protest, but they were right: my nonfiction choices in Brevity tended to be 90-95% in the pure narrative camp. So I started reading more: Lia Purpura, Deborah Tall, Eula Biss. And Brevity is better for it.
Your question about who paved the way is huge. But I’ll throw out a few names: Orwell, Capote, Didion. And Lee Gutkind should be in there too, for starting the first graduate nonfiction MFA at Pitt, and for starting the first all nonfiction literary magazine.

SR: Humor never seems to escape you, from your discoveries in The Accidental Buddhist to the story of your own name. How do you determine when that humor risks going too far?

DWM: Humor. As best I can tell, we are born with it, in varying quantities. There is nothing quite so painful as someone who isn’t funny trying very hard to seem funny. Maybe people think that about me. Surely someone does. My wife, maybe. But humor, like rhythm in dance, or color sense, seems almost impossible to teach if someone doesn’t feel a natural impulse.

SR: You’ve edited Brevity, the online journal of concise literary nonfiction, for about ten years. For shorter forms, the practicality and accessibility of an online journal seems to make sense. What are your thoughts on the future of print media and also, the question of credibility in online publications?

DWM: I’ll tackle the second half of the question first. The credibility battle is being won in many ways, by pioneer online journals that have remained very selective in the work they publish, by somewhat newer ventures like McSweeney’s and Narrative and Blackbird that have the funding and staffing to act like “real” magazines and draw in the star power, and by conventional print magazines that are opening up more and more online content. I suppose there are some tenure committees that still turn up their collective egghead noses at online publications, but most writers I know, and especially if they are younger, don’t carry that prejudice any more.

The future of print? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do agree with those who suggest that what has happened to music, and especially indie music, since the onset of the MP3–the good and the bad both–will start to play out in the magazine world.

SR: When you have written your way to a new understanding of an event or experience in your life, does the writing hold more truth in it than the original memory? Are there deeper consequences of memoir writers rewriting their own lives? How does this shape a writer’s view of the past and therefore his/her future?

DWM: Yes to the first part of the question, because I work much harder at my writing and struggle much harder to understand past events when I am writing about them than I do when I am just “remembering” something for the sake of dredging up a thought. I think, ultimately, that the process of exploring and writing (and rewriting) one’s life is a healthy process. I don’t write “for therapy,” I write for an audience, and I write to discover a truth, but in the end there can be a healing quality to objectively facing the facts of one’s life. It is what the Buddhist’s try to do in meditation; they just don’t have the need to write it all down later.

SR: What book did you read recently that you really enjoyed?

DWM: First There Is a Mountain by Elizabeth Kadetsky. The author manages to explain so much about yoga that most practitioners don’t understand in a way that keeps me intrigued and surprised.

SR: Your collection of short fiction, Toothpick Men, was published in 1998. With an array of nonfiction publications that spans almost fifteen years, this stands out. What did this collection mean in the broader context of your growth as a writer? Do you still write short stories?

DWM: Actually, I began my literary career as a fiction writer and most of those stories were written and published before I started tackling nonfiction, so the order is all muddled up. But yes, I do still write fiction, but not too much of it. Frankly, I would write everything, including children’s book and dirty limericks, if the day had 48 hours and each week lasted ten days.

SR: Care to share any rituals, habits, or other off the wall things you do to keep balance between your professional, creative, and personal life?

DWM: I am superstitious about not purchasing luxury items to make me a better writer. I sit in cheap chair, in an un-remodeled room, banging away at a coffee-stained keyboard, on an old paint-covered table converted into a desk. A friend once sunk $30,000 from a book contract into building a beautiful office atop his garage, with high-end wood on the walls and floors, antique fixtures, two fireplaces, and stunning views of the surrounding mountains, and he has been blocked ever since.

I believe in writing every day, or at least sitting in the chair every day, even if I feel lousy, have no ideas, or otherwise suspect the two hours in front of my computer will be a total waste of time. You need to be in the chair.

Visit Dinty W. Moore’s website at

IMG_79Interview: Bonnie Jo Campbell
by Alissa Nielsen

Bonnie Jo Campbell grew up on a small Michigan farm with her mother and four siblings in a house her grandfather Herlihy built in the shape of an H. She learned to castrate small pigs, milk Jersey cows, and to make remarkable chocolate candy. When she left home for the University of Chicago to study philosophy, her mother rented out her room. She has since hitchhiked across the U.S. and Canada, scaled the Swiss Alps on her bicycle, and traveled with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus selling snow cones. As president of Goulash Tours Inc., she has organized and led adventure tours in Russia and the Baltics, and all the way south to Romania and Bulgaria.

Silk Road: How would you define place?

Bonnie Jo Campbell: I define place in the simplest way imaginable. It’s the space in which the drama unfolds. It could be a room, a place beside a pond, the front seat of a pickup truck, or the tiny kitchen of a river cottage. It’s any place where human beings collide.

SR: Do you think of yourself as having a regional or geographic identity?

BJC: Sure, I do think of myself as a Michigan gal, born of the great lakes and our hills and flatlands, our farms, factories, most of which are closed now, and our strip malls and our back yards. Just as Faulkner wrote about his Yoknapatawpha county, I write about a fictionalized version of Kalamazoo County. I’ve got nothing against the rest of the world, but I find that every kind of human animal shows its face in my county; every sort of human interaction gets expressed in places like my place, and so I haven’t had a good reason to be chased out of here. I did write one story about Transylvania a few years back, just to prove to myself I could venture out if I wanted to, but I expect that I could find even the vampires here in Kalamazoo if I looked hard enough.

And yet, I get nice letters from folks in West Virginia and Alabama and Southern Illinois saying that, in my stories, I have captured the essence of their home towns. I think it’s the case that if you focus on the particular, and depict the particular honestly and intensely, you recreate the universal. I don’t know how that works, but I’m grateful that it does.

SR: I was wondering if you could talk more about place within context of “Women and Other Animals.” The setting is Michigan, but the circus provides a backdrop as well. Is there special significance to the circus theme? I know you traveled with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Baily circus, how did that influence these stories?

BJC: I guess I just liked the circus backdrop for some of the psychological dramas of the stories. In “Circus Matinee” the story has three sites of action (like a circus with three rings), which are 1.) Big Joanie; 2.) the sales manager and his girlfriend; 3.) the tiger. The circus is a place where everything is a show, where things are being shown and made to seem bigger than life and more important, more extreme.

SR: How does the landscape change when you travel between fiction and nonfiction?

BJC: Oh, Lordy, fiction and nonfiction are so different for me. Often it’s the same landscape, but the work of reaching the reader is so different. For me, nonfiction is the easy stuff. Tell the truth as best I can and make it interesting. Folks respect it because it’s connected to something that actually happened. Fiction, though, that’s the hard part. I’ve got to write a thing that stands all on its own, disconnected from the actual world, and I’ve got to try to get folks to care about folks that don’t actually exist, who have never existed, folks created from my imagination. It seems a miracle when I create a successful piece of fiction. It’s like standing on water or in mid-air on a tightrope. Look, no hands!

Visit Bonnie Jo Campbell’s website at

Interview: Pete Fromm
by John Walker

petefrommephotoPete Fromm’s latest novel, As Cool As I Am (2004), earned him an unprecedented fourth Pacific Northwest Booksellers Literary Award. Earlier winners were his novel How All This Started 2001), a story collection, Dry Rain (1997), and a memoir Indian Creek Chronicles (1993). Hailed as one of “America’s best-kept literary secrets,” he has published four other story collections, as well as more than a hundred stories in magazines. See his story “Concentrate” in Vol. 3 of Silk
Road. He lives with his family in Great Falls, Montana.

Silk Road sits down with award winning, northwest author Pete Fromm to talk about his work, the trials of being a writer, and lessons learned from teaching others the craft of storytelling.

Silk Road: [We are] one of almost countless college literary journals, a notoriously harsh environment for a fiction writer. We’re kind and loving, of course, but how have you handled the process of submission and rejection, particularly earlier in your career?

Pete Fromm: I guess I’ve handled it with a pretty much unconsidered self-confidence, the idea that some editors weren’t quite getting it. I’ve got well over a thousand rejections, to about 150 acceptances. So, those nerve endings are pretty well worn down. When I was sending out stories a lot, I always knew where I’d send it next, after it came back. It was more a mailroom process than a slit your wrist by the p.o. box kind of affair. And I always kept writing, never let myself sit and wait for the letter. That, I think, is huge.

SR: Montana Magazine published an essay called “Alone Again,” chronicling your solitary trip to the Bob Marshall Wilderness a few springs ago. The title is, of course, a nod to your memoir Indian Creek Chronicle: A Winter Alone in the Wilderness. Do you do this kind of stuff often? Is there another book-length non-fiction manuscript in the works?

PF: Wow. Nice research. Yes, I spent a couple of springs in the Bob Marshall, helping on a grayling introduction project. I try to get out like that as often as I can, but the opportunities to spend a month out alone are pretty uncommon. I’ve toyed around with another nonfiction book, a return to Indian Creek kind of thing, but, I don’t know. There’s a loss of privacy I’m not eager for, and, really, I find myself much less interesting than the people in my fiction.

SR: What do you mean, “Loss of privacy?” Is it something connected directly to writing non-fiction?

PF: Well, it’s a story of a guy alone. One character. Me. In order for it to be real, and interesting, I have to show what I’m thinking, what’s important to me, and that means mostly family. We’re a pretty private group. Our lives mean more to us than fodder for a story to entertain others. And, truthfully, I think fiction really is more interesting. I much prefer the form.

SR: You’ve published five story collections. Are you writing many short stories these days? Do you feel constricted by the smaller form now that you’ve written several novels?

PF: I still write stories, though not nearly so many. I still love stories. The book I’m working on now is really a series of stories, told chronologically, through a couple’s life together, from meeting to marriage, her developing MS, kids, life, death. I’ve never felt constricted by stories, just felt the incidents in those lives took less time to tell. Novels are more intimidating, starting out into the unknown, knowing only that you’re going to be there for a long time, years. But, once it gets working, it’s fun to spend so much time with the people, rather than having them dart so quickly out of your life the way they do with a short story.

SR: If you’re following the lives of your characters, it sounds like you’re not following an outline, or for that matter, any preconceived idea of what the novel will be. Is this a fair interpretation of your approach? Does it indicate, perhaps, something about what draws you to writing, that discovery of what lies around the next bend?

PF: Totally fair interpretation, on all counts. Starting out I have no idea where I’m going, and as things get humming along, I rarely get more than a vague idea. Pretty much sums up my life. But, yes, it is what draws me to writing. I get excited to get downstairs every morning to see what’s going to happen, to find out what these people are up to today.

SR: The book you’re working on that’s told in stories: did the characters guide you to the form in this instance? Is there a point when you as a writer say, “this is the form I’m working in,” and stick with it, even as the work wanders into unlit places?

PF: I suppose. I’d written a story ten years ago about a couple getting married beside a river in Wyoming, then setting off in a raft. Then, they were back, after all that time, five years into their marriage, and I knew she was going to be just finding out she had MS. Turns out she was finding out she was pregnant too, that her husband was in Mongolia guiding fisherman. They both became far more real to me than they had in the original story. And within a month I was starting into other stories about them. I’m not sure about the second part of your question, since my work is always wandering into unlit places. I was planning on working on stories for a while, then thought maybe these two would have a few stories about them, then, after they’d had four or five or six, I realized, shit, they’re going to show me their whole lives this way. Which excited me, because I really like these two. Despite all that happens to them, they’re pretty rock solid. It’s a love story. Not something I ever thought I’d be writing.

SR: Never distributed? Ouch. Was it another case of dulled nerves?

PF: It was kind of frustrating at the time. My editor switched divisions or something just before the galleys went out, so the galleys never went out. No reviews, no nothing. But, I’d kept writing, had other projects smoking along, projects I was quite a bit more in love with, and losing a young adult novel was the least painful way this could have happened.

SR: What’s next for you?

PF: It’s been several years since my last novel came out. I recently finished a novel, which is with my agent, and I have a short story collection about ready, the stories I’ve done since my last collection. And, while I’ve been waiting for that part of the game, there’s this new book, told in stories, about the couple and MS, which has been coming out faster than anything I’ve ever done. Must be the teaching. Finally getting smart.

SR: A lot of literary writers work in academia as writing teachers. Until recently, you wrote full time. Now that you teach in Pacific University’s Low-Residency MFA program, have you had to adjust the time you spend on your writing? How do you balance the two lives, or do they compliment each well enough that it doesn’t feel like a high-wire act? Does teaching aspiring writers make you look at your own work differently?

PF: I have, luckily, all day to write. But, yes, the teaching digs into that. About a week a month gets taken up by responding to student work. Even then, though, if what I’m working on calls, I work on it first thing, 4-7a.m. say, then, after getting the boys fed, off to school, come back to work on the students’ stuff. It’s not so much of a high-wire act. There’ve been times, after going through a group of packets, that I’ll look at my own work, and catch myself doing exactly what I’ve been telling someone else not to do. Maybe it sharpens my eye.

SR: Legend has it you’re a completely self-taught writer. Can you shed some light on this? Describe your experiences learning how to write alone.

PF: Yeah, legend. I’ve found most legends about writers are made up by the writer’s themselves. I did learn alone, but, in truth, I think this is pretty much how most writers have to learn. They can get a few short cuts, a few pointers, in MFA programs or conferences, even writing groups maybe, but really it boils down to reading the work of others, and taking it apart, tinkering with it, seeing how they work, how they pulled off what worked, how they messed up what didn’t. Then you steal what you like, avoid the stuff you don’t, and go and tell your own story.

SR: Writers are dreamers-they wouldn’t be writers if the weren’t. What’s the ultimate dream, personal or literary, for Pete Fromm?

PF: My ultimate dream? That one’s pretty much my own. Sorry.

SR: Darn. How about sharing a shining moment in your writing career?

PF: A shining moment in my career? My what? When asked a similar question, I said, “Career? I don’t have a career, I have a bad habit.” I suppose the shining moments are all about watching a character take off, watching them really come to life, start to do the unexpected, say things I never could have predicted. This morning, I started a new story in the new book, one of the last stories, I think, and I knew that the two of them were going to be in bed, talking about having a second child, but how the whole discussion is tinged with fear by her progressing MS. It started, unexpectedly, with a line of dialogue. “We always said there’d be two, at least.” And though I’m the boss, the guy in charge, the whole god complex, as soon as the words were out in the darkness between them, I realized I wasn’t sure who had said them, him, or her. God, I love that. It’s all about the writing. The rest of it is just business.

SR: Is it different sending out book length manuscripts? Is there a deeper connection to work that’s been with you longer?

PF: Not really. I mean, the stakes are higher, you have a few years of work riding on the rejection, not a month or two, and you’re hoping to make actual money for that time. You know, ten, fifteen cents an hour once you break it all down. But, no, it’s not like giving away your children. No matter what some overwrought writers might tell you, it is, really, only a job.

SR: Your fiction’s set mostly in the West-tall trees, broad vistas, big rivers, small towns. Did the Indian Creek experience influence you toward those places?

PF: Of course. But so did running rivers for six years in the Tetons and down in Big Bend, Texas. So did just mucking about in the west for the last thirty years, taking months long hitchhiking trips from Montana to Texas in the winters, tooling about the boonies, avoiding interstates, chain restaurants, box stores. It’s kind of all about keeping eyes and ears open, no matter where you are. I’ve just happened to be in the west, mostly outside.

SR: Your novels How All This Started and As Cool As I Am began as stories in your collection, Night Swimming. What led these stories into the larger form? Can you describe some of the advantages and pitfalls to expanding compact short stories into novels? Besides the obvious elements of time frame and pacing and plot, what changes?

PF: The characters led to the stories expanding. They wouldn’t leave me alone. Just hung out down here in my basement, waiting to see what would happen to the rest of their lives. The advantage to working this way is that you already know the characters, can jump straight into their lives. Other than that, I pretty much tend to forget about what’s happened in the story, don’t strain to keep that scene or action in the novel, just let the people go and follow along. The other day my son asked me about the ending of the short story How All This Started, which his English teacher had just read to his class. I had no recollection whatsoever of how the story ended. I explained that the novel overran the story, that I knew how the novel ended, but he just rolled his eyes, couldn’t wait to go tell the English teacher, “Never mind, my dad, complete flake, you know?”

SR: You wrote a novel, Monkey Tag, that was published by Scholastic and marketed as an adolescent/young adult novel. Was Monkey Tag conceived as a novel for younger readers, or was this a function of the publishing house? Have you done different things as a result of this novel, such as speak in schools or visit classrooms? I’d think that the questions you’d get from, say, sixth graders, would be entirely different from adults, particularly if the adults want to be writers.

PF: Monkey Tag was one of the first things I ever wrote, the first thing to go at all long. It wasn’t conceived of as a young adult book, I think that’s just more an indication of my maturity at the time, maybe still today. Definitely of the maturity of the writing. The novel was never distributed, so, no, it never caused any change at all. I do speak to a lot of school kids, teaching writing in my boys’ classes every week, and, yes, the questions are different, but not as different as you might hope. They still want to know how much money you make, how to get published, what fame is like.

SR: So, reading the work of others. Who did you read early that taught you, in bits and pieces, how to write? What was it about those writers’ works that you were able to draw from?

PF: Jaysus. That’s a handful. Early guys? After Indian Creek I used to spend a lot of time out in the mountains, particularly in the fall, and I remember curling around campfires reading a lot of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Twain. Kind of the usual suspects. Hemingway told me to keep it simple. “Nick liked to open cans.” I still remember that sentence. Steinbeck to have something to say. I still remember the horror I felt over the shotgun blast in In Dubious Battle, or how I laughed all by myself in the hills, over Cannery Row, how real he made that motley crew. Twain to not be afraid to let the characters tell the stories themselves, that they’re far, far more important than the writer. Huck. Hello? I also remember, as a river ranger, loving his Life on the Mississippi which showed me not to be afraid to write about things I know very well, and not be afraid to show that I love these things.

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