Interview with Janet McNally

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Janet McNally is the author of the novels The Looking Glass and Girls in the Moon, as well as a prizewinning collection of poems, Some Girls. She has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, and her stories and poems have been published widely in magazines. She has twice been a fiction fellow with the New York Foundation for the Arts. Janet lives in Buffalo, New York, with her husband and three little girls, in a house full of records and books, and teaches creative writing at Canisius College. (Source)


You incorporated a number of fairy tales into this book. Are these stories ones that were important to you as a child, and/or now?

They’re very important to me now, certainly. I think that I was always drawn to fairy tales, but I can’t tell you when I first read the true fairy tales. I’ve taken courses in fairy tales and now I teach courses in fairy tales, mostly in modern retellings, but we have to revisit the actual fairy tales too. My re-obsession with fairy tales happened when I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter. I have an older daughter who is seven and I have five-year-old twin daughters. When I found out that I was having a girl, I was thinking about the fact that all these stories, or many of the stories, that we tell over and over about girls and women are often about girls who are in trouble or need some kind of saving. I wanted to play with that, so I did that in poems and now I’ve done that in here, too. And, I don’t necessarily want to play with it and make every single one of [the girls] a badass who wins all the time, that’s not it, but I just wanted to give them more of a voice. It’s astounding in some of the original fairy tales how little of a voice they have. You know, I often think about Snow White who literally wakes up and the prince is like, “Gonna marry you!” and she’s like, “Okaay.” Because, you know, she really has no agency at all and that is indicative of how women were treated. They often had no agency as to whom they were going to marry or really in any other way, like the path their life would take.

When it came to writing about a ballerina did you have to do much research? Or did you write through experience? 

I was a dancer when I was younger. I didn’t dance on point because I tried it and didn’t really like it. I preferred more lyrical ballet and then also modern and hip hop and tap and all these other things. I mean, I did everything. But here I felt, I love ballet. I love watching it and I felt that I needed something that would sort of reflect the fairy tale world. The way that ballet is all about illusion and you’re supposed to believe that it’s very easy and effortless. They’re just flying around there, but Sylvie says in the book, have you ever heard what it sounds like? Just knowing what dancers feet look like, what dancing does to your body, that seemed very related to fairy tales. The harm that is done to women’s bodies in them, perhaps.

I did some research because there is no National Ballet Theater, so it’s kind of modeled on American Ballet Theater. I didn’t want it to be the exact same thing, where people would be like that’s not how it ABT works, so I wanted to have it be my own, but it has that model of school into the company, where not every kid in the school is going to go into the company. But, there’s this expectation that Sylvie will because Julia did. There’s precedent for what Julia’s doing but she’s very young to have these chances to dance these principal roles, but there are definitely dancers who have done that.

Sylvie’s relationship to ballet is not dissimilar to Julia’s initial relationship to drugs. What inspired you to draw this parallel? (There is an amount of dedication you need to have to dance and it can sometimes be a toxic relationship. Sylvie is expected to go into this and once she’s in level seven and up she can’t really find her way out. So, it’s kind of like that addiction as it takes you)

I think that that also explains why Julia’s so driven not to lose that, right? Because, at that point, that’s all she has. I think [Julia] talks about going to college or she’s thinking about going to college. But, I know that Julia is doing that in whatever world I’ve created here, so she is trying to take a different path because the original path she thought her life would take has been closed to her by her injury. But it is something, you’re right. You get into [dance] and it can be hard to see a way out and part of that is the expectation that other people have. Even Sylvie and Julia’s mother, who is a pretty decent mom in a lot of ways, she also is just kind of expecting that since it didn’t work out with Julia, it’ll be Sylvie who’s going to be able to do this. I think it’s pretty clear that Sylvie is not so sure that she wants to do that. That makes a lot of sense, that connection.

Fleetwood Mac was a major theme in the second part of the novel. How did you choose the playlist specifically for that part? 

I had this idea that Jack would have this annoying habit of listening to only one band at a time. I mean, I love music and I know a lot of music obsessives and I’m married to one, and he’s never done that, but I could see somebody doing that and just as a way to really get to know someone’s cannon, right? So, I was thinking it needed to be somebody who it would be a little playful. It couldn’t be somebody who was just strictly cool, like the example in the book where she asks about Bowie and he says “I already did that” and she’s like “Err.” It couldn’t be somebody that was that uncomplicated. I wanted it to be something that was playful and kind of funny where she can be like, “Oh, god, Fleetwood Mac,” and then actually end up really liking it.

That’s sort of my relationship with Fleetwood Mac whereas I thought they were just over the top and cheesy and just songs that I barely knew. Then when I had music fan friends who were like, “No, no really listen to this” and I was like “Okay actually, you know, they’re great.” Stevie and Christine are just very cool and the guys are fine, too, I guess  *laughs*. It just made sense because they’re over the top and kind of ridiculous, but also serious music makers and they have their own fairy tale stories within that. [Fleetwood Mac] has done a lot of talking about what it was like when they were at the height of their fame and [Stevie Nicks] has expressed regret for never having children. She’s just a really interesting, open person and so all that was sort of around the edges for me. But mostly, they also have a lot of songs that people know and it was really fun.

I had so much fun with the chapter titles in this book. My last book has numbered titles and I don’t know when’s the next time I’ll do this again, but I had a really fun time pulling out phrases that were the titles of the different chapters. And then the songs, it was fun too to think of what song could fit what chapter.

Sylvie’s subconscious thoughts sometimes appear in parenthesis, what made you choose this format? Why did you utilized it and what can it inform us about Sylvie? 

I think it was just fun for me. It’s something that just happened with her voice. Now, obviously, when you’re writing first person, it’s all internal. They’re telling the story, so this is almost like the internal of internal. I also think that Sylvie has a hard time thinking about and talking about dealing with things that happen, traumatic things that happened, especially the actual overdose or what happened afterward. So that’s a way for her to kind of put it there, but not have to touch it too closely. I think she says at some point that she’s barely told this story even to herself, what it was like that night when they found her on the couch. So, for me, it sort of evolved organically and became a thing. I do believe that characters have to become real in some way and then they kind of tell you what they want to do. So, that was something that she seemed to just want to do and I let her.

Do you consciously write for a young audience? If so, how do you tap into a younger mindset when writing a younger character? 

It’s no trouble for me to tap into a younger mindset because I feel like a perpetual teenager in some ways. And I always say “I’m a grown up?” I think most grown-ups probably feel that way: a lot of my friends seem to. I still feel very connected to my teen years. They were messy and chaotic. In some ways I enjoyed them, so it’s not an upsetting mental space for me to inhabit. I think sometimes people may want to rewrite their teen years the way they wanted it to be. For me it’s not quite like that. It’s kind of like revisiting the feelings that I had at that time, and it’s really fun.

I don’t think there’s a huge difference between writing for teens and writing for grown-ups because I think teenagers are really smart, and I’m not writing down to them, changing my vocabulary. It allows me some things like super-short chapters. It’s something you could do in adult fiction, but it’s not done as much. It’s very common in YA and I like working that way. YA also has those… you want each chapter to have an arc, to end in a place where you really want to turn that page. It’s sort of a thing that happens in YA. And it’s fun to write that way. I have students now — I teach a YA workshop — and right now they’re writing… supposedly they’re beginning novels, so we’re writing two chapters that we’re workshopping throughout the semester. It’s interesting to see them try to do that. Up to this point most of them have only written short stories, and it’s a totally different way of structuring something. But you still have that little teeny climax. YA novels are certainly shorter. And there are certainly other differences, but it’s not a dumbing down or anything along those lines.

You also write poetry. What do you see is the relationship between your poetry and your fiction? Do you have a preference? 

If I had to choose one I would choose fiction because that is the one that is most important to me. But I really love being able to write poems because it feels like play because you can do whatever you want. In fiction you do have to follow some sort of narrative quality. There’s a lot more freedom in poetry, at least for me. I don’t know if every poet feels this way. And it [poetry] is a great way of using my brain in a different way.

Also, I love, with poems, that you can leave so many holes. With fiction you do have to fill in a lot of blanks. And poetry, which I do still use to tell stories, you can do it in a way that’s more loose, which appeals to me very much after having to fill in things when I’m writing a novel. It’s okay if people don’t exactly know what you’re talking about. They come to it and they can bring themselves. I mean, that happens in fiction, too where the reader is really involved in the story, where it’s going to be a different experience for every single reader of the book because you’re going to bring who you are to it and meet me halfway.  But I love both, and I feel really lucky to be able to do both because it’s nice, when I feel I’ve hit a wall in one genre, how I can hop over for a while into the other.

How did the process of writing this book differ from your first novel? 

It differed a lot because I was under contract and I had to write it faster and I had other people’s expectations, and my experiences with the first book… other people’s voices in my head. When you write your first book… Lydia Netzer, she wrote a book that was called Shine, Shine, Shine. That was her first book, which I like, and she said your first novel, it’s like your whole life up to that point you’ve been writing that book. And then your second one you’re supposed to do in a year or two and it’s much harder. So the second book was a lot harder, and there was a time when I thought there’s no way I can do this.

Young adult lit, they want you to produce pretty quickly. The schedule can be very difficult, especially when you’re somebody who has a job and has a family. My dad was dying when I was finishing this book, and that was also really hard — I wasn’t sure what I was doing or who I was or what was even happening, so it was a lot different in that way.

But what was funny was, you write this book, and you do your edits and whatever, and eventually you get what are called pass pages, which is like, they’re photocopied and all laid out and it looks like a book but they’re just 8 by 11 pages. And you have to read through that and make sure things are the way you want. You make manual changes if they’re not. And this is after the copy editor has asked you questions about, “Oh, her eyes are green here but they’re blue here,” and they’re amazing in that way (and you also kind of hate them). But they’re doing their job, and we’re lucky to have them. Anyway, when you get the pass pages… This time it was wild because I thought “oh wow it really is a book. It actually, I think, makes sense.” And I wasn’t sure when I finished it that it was ever going to be that. And so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed coming back to this book and reading pieces of it at readings because I had a difficult relationship with this book at one point. We were not getting along.

What was the easiest part of developing the sisters’ relationship? If you could add or take away an element what would it be? 

I don’t think I would add or take away anything. I’m happy with the way they are. I think their relationship is complicated enough for me. I don’t have a sister: I have a younger brother who I love a lot. I read a lot about sisters… I always wanted a sister and I have relationships with other women that are sisterly and especially I think I sought out in my life a lot of older sister figures, and now I’m the older sister figure two younger people which is pretty cool to see that from both sides. So… I love my brother; he’s awesome, and so I would not trade him. There’s one [brother] in here: Everett. Their relationship is really great. Everett’s not like my brother but that closeness and kindness, that comes from our relationship.

I’m interested in sister relationships because of the way that when you have children of the same gender they’re going to be compared to one another maybe more than if they’re not of the same gender. And I have three daughters who, to me, they look very different, but people often say “oh wow they look so much alike,” and “they have the same face.” (They don’t.) But there must be something about them that does look alike. I have twins so I know the way they’re going to be compared to one another, and of course we compare them too even if you try not to, so that’s really interesting to me.

This was a different relationship in some ways because there are seven years between Sylvie and Julia. My last book was also a sister story, and there were 2 years between them. That was more like my girls. The one thing I’m working on, the book for adults, [in that] there are 16 years between the sisters. That’s a whole different thing, where there is a kind of “oh we had another baby” situation.

I can’t stop writing about sisters, which might be a problem.

Is there one character you were very attached to creating? Could you see what that character was doing outside of the story? 

I usually can see what characters are doing outside. It’s hard to say just one. Obviously I’m very attached to Sylvia because she is, in many ways, the me figure.  I definitely look at writing as acting. I almost exclusively write in first person because I want to take on a persona because I have a lot of fun with that. And so my narrators, my main characters, are always different from me in all sorts of ways, but there’s an innate me-ness in them. I have a big soft spot for Sylvie, Jack — I also really love Tommy and Sadie. In this case I think I wrote friends it would have been great to have when I was a teenager. And they are… Tommy, definitely, their [Sylvie and Tommy’s] relationship is based on a friend of mine who I don’t talk to a lot anymore, but at one point we were so close. It’s funny because some of the affection you have for characters could be, in some cases, the affection you have for a real person, for pieces of that person, but they are definitely their own entities. They are separate. For example, I don’t know anyone exactly like Jack. And my friend that I’m thinking… There are elements of my friendship with him in Tommy and Sylvie’s relationship, but he’s very different from Tommy in notable ways.

And our last question: What genre would you consider this book? Is it magical realism, or a fairytale, or something else? 

That’s a good question… One thing is, I’m not super comfortable using the term “magical realism” because I have a writer friend (Anna-Marie McLemore) who has made a convincing case that “magical realism” is rooted in some kind of oppression, so I don’t feel comfortable taking that term on. But the quote on the cover from the Booklist review mentions magical realism. Many people use that term that way. Perhaps it’s just semantics, I tend to call it realism with a touch of magic. I’m most comfortable, I have the most fun, with magic that you’re not quite sure is magic, magic that can be explained away.

I think I would say this is a realistic contemporary novel with elements of possible magic, if I can create my own genre. But certainly a lot of people would call it magical realism, and that’s fine. But I’m not sure: is the magic magic? Is it Sylvia’s desire to see Magic, to have permission to go find her sister? I don’t know. Obviously, since the book was found and since Julia sent it to her, it’s a pretty big coincidence, but in life there are very big coincidences. The universe has sent some things my way that seem unbelievably coincidental, where I think “whoever is writing my story, this is not believable. I could not put this in a book.”


About the authors of this post: This interview was a collaboration between the Fall 2018 staff of 30 North.

Interview With Brittany Cavallaro

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Brittany Cavallaro is a poet, fiction writer, and old school Sherlockian. She is the author of the Charlotte Holmes novels, including “A Study in Charlotte,” “The Last of August” and “The Case for Jamie,” which will be released March 6, 2018. She’s also the author of the poetry collection “Girl-King” and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She earned her BA in literature from Middlebury College and her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is a creative writing instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy.


Can you tell us about the process of writing in a teenage boy mindset? Did you ever consider a different gender dynamic to Holmes and Watson? Such as two girls or two boys? 

That’s a really good question, and I’ll start by answering the second part first. Holmes and Watson are interesting figures in the history of queer studies and queer theory, and there is a really strong case to be made that Holmes and Watson have a romantic connection in addition to a platonic one. There is some evidence that Doyle, in fact, based Sherlock Holmes and John Watson off of a pair of his friends who had lived together as “confirmed bachelors” in London for a long time. I would love to see some kind of canonical adaptation of Holmes and Watson that works really closely with the original “Sherlock Holmes” stories and re-imagines it as a queer relationship. But I’m not necessarily the person to write that story, and I was also keenly aware that it is not my place to be telling a lesbian version of “Sherlock Holmes.” There are [stories where] Holmes and Watson are re-imagined as lesbians, they’re just not been picked up by mainstream publishing in the same way, or they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. The same goes with gay, male Holmes and Watson. There is, of course, a way to make them both girls or both boys and have it be a platonic relationship, but one of the most important things for me was creating a relationship that blurred the lines between friendship and romance in the way that a lot of really obsessive teenage relationships do. And in my own experience, in where I felt like I had the most right to be telling this story, I wanted them to be a boy and a girl.

In terms of writing in the voice of a teenage boy, I actually really enjoyed it. I never imagined writing in anybody else’s voice for the series – I knew I wanted Jamie Watson to be the world’s worst rugby-playing-teenage-boy-poet, and that was something I thought about quite a bit from the beginning. I think that teenage boys get the short end of the stick in a lot of ways. I feel like while we are expanding the representations of different kinds of teenage girls, we are sometimes forgetting about the complexities of teenage boys; that they evoke different kinds of gender expression in the same way that girls do. Jamie Watson is kind of a hot-headed romantic, and, in a lot of ways, he’s a lot more sensitive than Charlotte is, and in my own experience, that’s been the case as well: my male friends have felt things more deeply than I have. So, I drew Jamie a little bit from life, a little bit from my imagination, and a little bit from the original Dr. Watson and what I imagined he would’ve been like as a teenager before he evened out as an adult. That was where I started building Jamie.

How was it writing a mystery novel? How do you as a writer anticipate readers’ expectations and subvert them? 

I hope I do that! I mean, we have certain expectations of a mystery novel, particularly ones having to do with murder – that you’re going to find a body, and that then you’re going to find a second body. You’re going to have a detective who exists a little bit outside of society, and because of that, has a unique view as they look in. The most important thing to me in writing the “Charlotte” books was that I wanted the girl to be the genius, and I wanted her to be the kind of genius that was frightening, not the kind of type-A perfectionist genius we see portrayed so often – that there was something raw, jagged, and frightening to her intelligence. In a lot of ways, I think the “Charlotte” series is a character study where they solve mysteries, rather than a mystery series that has some ongoing characterization, and some of my impetus for that comes from my changing relationship to the “Sherlock Holmes” stories as I’ve gotten older. When I was a kid, I loved those stories because they were wonderful, little puzzle boxes, but now, I’m more interested in the relationship between the outsider and the person you think of as his human credential. As in, you can say, “Holmes must be an all right guy because this really wonderful person is his best friend.”

One way I wanted to subvert original the Holmes and Watson relationship is that I think Jamie is still on his way towards being a good person as much as Charlotte Holmes is. He makes a lot of mistakes, and in the original Sherlock Holmes stories I think Watson is very steadfast, loyal, and not an incredibly dynamic character. So, I wanted to give Jamie a little bit more room to have flaws.

In terms of writing a mystery novel – don’t do it. *laughs* It’s a lot of fun, but you will find yourself constantly contradicting yourself and constantly making a giant muddle of your work. I think I tweeted when I was thinking about it a few months ago, something like, “revising a mystery novel feels like you have this giant, messy ball of yarn that has a grenade inside, and the only tool you have to open it is a chainsaw.” There’s no way it’s not going to end with dismemberment and blood. I’ve had to allow myself, as a novelist, to be messy in my plotting and in my decisions in a way I’ve never really allowed myself to be in my poetry, because in order to get the novel done, I have to say things I’m going to contradict later, I have to make decisions that are wrong, and characters will die who will have to be resurrected by the final draft. There’s a lot of stuff I have to ultimately fix. I think mystery novels seem very tightly plotted and controlled, but you’re only seeing the finished product. At least in terms of the way I work, I have to clean up all my edges, constantly, and that’s been a big challenge for me. It’s gotten a little bit easier as time has gone on, but when I was first writing “A Study in Charlotte,” I was like “Oh my god, what have I done!” *laughs*

When it comes to constructing a narrative, how did it differ when writing a poetry book versus a novel? 

In terms of writing “Girl King,” originally the book wasn’t in sections: it was one long arc in terms of the poems. One thing that was really useful, actually, as I continued to revise the book, was putting it into smaller arcs and thinking about each section as a self-contained unit. Constructing a narrative of twelve poems was a lot more natural for me than constructing a narrative of, say, forty-eight poems. As I was used to constructing these smaller, tightly-constructed poems, so, I found that sections were really useful. I also was worried in the original few drafts of this book [“Girl King”] that the reader might trying to ascribe one speaker onto the “I,” to constantly return to this one conception of who is telling these stories, and that that reader would be looking for her narrative development over the course of the poems. I really think there are a number of speakers in the collection, and one thing that having it in sections de-emphasizes is the importance of having one voice in the collection. There’s this weird slippage with poetry much of the time. People really like to read autobiography into your poems, whereas nobody would read “A Study in Charlotte” and say, “I know you’re Jamie Watson,” and you reply “Yep, totally Jamie Watson!” *laughs*

But with “Girl King,” oftentimes I would put poems next to each other that very clearly had different speakers to try to trouble that idea a little bit and to break up the idea of who was talking. So, a lot of the construction of this [“Girl King”] has to do more with setting and with time-period. I like to think about those poems next to each other, speaking to each other. For example, maybe there will be a poem set in 1990’s, Illinois, next to a poem set in the nineteenth century, but I feel like the speakers are quite similar, and so we can kind of transition from one to the next in that way. Or, I will put two speakers from a similar time-place who are quite different people next to each other. I think quite a bit about creating tension in that way.

In terms of writing a novel, it’s just very different. I would think quite a bit about how the events of the novel mimic the character’s internal journeys throughout the course of the book – if my characters are moving from this emotional point to this emotional point, how can I put them through a series of emotional events that would lead them there, and how do those events, and what they are, mimic the internal struggle of these characters?

What made you choose to write about the descendants of a fictional character and making the ancestors real in the world of the novel? How true did you feel you needed to be to the source material? How do you make it fresh for a 21st century audience? 

Woof. *laughs* For the third question, I just hope I have! I guess to answer the other questions, we Sherlockians do a thing called playing the Great Game, or the Grand Game, depending on what continent you’re on. What we do, we strange group of people, is that we pretend Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real, Dr. Watson wrote the stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the literary agent, and all the inconsistencies in the stories add up in some way, or are mistakes that Dr. Watson himself had made when he was writing the stories. We do that because there are a lot of inconsistencies and mistakes. Jamie points out a few of these over the course of “A Study in Charlotte;” he breaks down “The Speckled Band” and all of the errors Doyle made while writing it.

I wanted to make my Holmes and Watson, Charlotte and Jamie, the descendants of Holmes and Watson for a couple of reasons. The first is, if we suppose Holmes and Watson were real, then we have all of this amazing, weird expectation placed on any descendants they might have. So, if they were real people in the world they would have been quite famous; they would have had a kind of celebrity that was really troubling for the descendants who felt they had to live up to it. In a lot of ways, I wanted to mirror the feeling you have when you’re a teenager, when you feel like there is a certain amount of expectation placed on you by your parents—whether it’s to be like them, to not be like them, or to perform in some proscribed way they’ve set up for you. So, I felt there was kind of a nice mirror there; there was a way for me to satisfy some of my Sherlockian impulses while also staying true to the spirit of Young Adult fiction.

In terms of it being new – well, it’s interesting. I think there are a lot of adaptations that focus on the ways in which a modern-day Sherlock Holmes would be a technological wizard, and I think that definitely has merit. But the thing that drew me to writing a story like this was that I love campus novels. I love boarding school novels, and there seemed something kind of strange about Charlotte having her own CSI lab in the middle of a setting like a boarding school. So, in terms of keeping it fresh or new for a modern day audience, I tried to focus on the characters themselves feeling modern rather than the trappings, or the means of deduction, feeling hyper-modern, because I’m not a technological expert. So, quite a few of things I have Charlotte focus on are spy training techniques, a lot of MI5 stuff, that doesn’t require technology. She knows how to tell if people are lying, which I now know how to do since I had to study it for “Charlotte” –  it’s weird, to be able to look at someone you don’t know and be like … *makes a telling look, laughs*

In “A Study in Charlotte,” Watson struggles with his national identity, stating, “In England, I was an American. Here it was the opposite.” As your work seems to center around Anglo topics, do you see this sense of national fluidity in yourself? 

At the time I was writing “Girl King” and “A Study in Charlotte,” I was thinking a lot about those questions. I had been living in Scotland for a while; I had plans to move back to Scotland, and, at that point, I was thinking quite a bit about what it meant to be an American abroad. I had never felt so American as I did when I was outside of America, and that was a really strange and interesting experience for me. I think that feeling of being an outsider, no matter where you are, is something you feel a lot when you’re a teenager, whether you’re trespassing on another social class, or trespassing in somebody else’s family – that you don’t belong where you are, this idea that you’re never exactly quite right. That was something I wanted to underscore with Jamie Watson. Another reason why I made Jamie this outsider was in tribute to the original Dr. Watson, who comes back from the war in Afghanistan to London where he’s friendless and alone. I wanted to think about what that would be like for a sixteen year-old boy, minus some of the trauma, which is also something Doyle doesn’t really explore. His Dr. Watson has old war wounds – although, with Doyle’s inconsistencies, sometimes the wound is in his leg and sometimes it’s in his shoulder, which is part of the reason why on page one of “A Study in Charlotte,” Jamie says he misses “London like an arm, or a leg.” *laughs* Sometimes I don’t know why anybody reads these books; I just wrote them for myself!

That was one way I thought about it; that Jamie didn’t necessarily have a home he felt he could go to, especially in America with his father nearby who he wasn’t close to –  that he would feel quite like an outsider. I really dislike the word “Anglophile,” but I suppose, in some ways, you could say I am one or someone who is really comfortable and happy in Scotland. When I was living there, I found the sense of history really fascinating. I loved the idea that I could stand somewhere and that place had existed for a long time. I had a Scottish boyfriend for a long time, and when he came to visit me in the States, he made the observation that America feels like it could blow away at any time, like a bazaar, or a county fair. I couldn’t stop thinking about that for months after he’d said it.

I’m really interested in exploring that sense of being uncomfortable where you are, and what is productive about that feeling of being uncomfortable. If you were standing just outside something, how does that change your relationship to it rather than participating in it? Some of it just comes down to being a writer, in that I watch myself watching things all the time. There’s nothing so acute as the experience of being a foreigner, and I really liked being a foreigner, which probably says strange things about me.   

In your poems, you blend together historical, mythical, and pop-culture references seamlessly. Is there a process of choosing these? And is there a worry that these references will clash with one another if you choose them? 

I really feel I have less agency about what goes into the poems than I do about what goes into the novels, in that sometimes the reference just sort of presents itself, or I get really, really stuck on a title [a poet friend like Rebecca Hazelton] has given me… In terms of this, so much of the time I think that when I’m writing a poem, I am writing it to revise something that really bothers me, and that botheration doesn’t have to be negative, necessarily, it could just be an idea that I get stuck on. As a kid, I was pretty obsessive. If I liked something I really, really liked it, and I think I learned how to channel that into writing. And so, if I watch something and I really love it, I will watch it four hundred more times, and then I will write something about it. I love the things I love to death, I guess.

What’s an example?

Sherlock Holmes, obviously. When I was a kid, the “X-Files” … but yeah, I just am sort of obsessive and sometimes I think about my poems as an encyclopedia of things that I haven’t been able to get rid of. There’s a Marie de France lai I wrote about in “Girl-King” about a woman who was accused of cheating because she is carrying twins, the idea being that, if you have two fetuses inside you, they have to be the result of parentage of two men. And I just thought about that all the time for some reason and I’m not sure why. Mostly, because I think it—we tell stories to explain the world, but sometimes the story that you choose to tell to explain the world is a shitty one, like this Marie de France story. What can we make of that? I wanted to explore it.

I was really obsessed for a really long time with Victorian magicians. There was a year… the best year of my life was the year that there were two Victorian magician movies that came out, The Prestige and The Illusionist—do you remember that? They came out at the same time! I was like, ‘I don’t know even know what’s happened here!’ I love Nicola Tesla, I love the horrible monster that was Thomas Edison, I have no idea why I love these things, but I just do. And I think a lot of the time, my poems are my way of explaining to myself why I love them or why I was bothered by them, or both. And I usually love things that have a big flaw in them that don’t let me step inside of them completely, and my writing is a way of fixing that or revising it. …Like my Berryman imitations, where John Berryman is my favorite poet, and his depiction of women and black people is just flawed, offensive, and occasionally straight-up gross…And yet, the way he works with language is so interesting to me and was so influential; I started rewriting his poems phrase by phrase, making his Henry into a woman—which I hope offends him, wherever he is—and trying to explore, at least, my feelings on gender. I don’t think I’m the person to rewrite Berryman’s poems on racial politics; that’s not something that I’m qualified to do… Tyehimba Jess has rewritten some of the Dream Songs, like in his pom “Freed Song”, which is wonderful. But yeah, so some of my work was intriguing to work out like ‘what is it with Berryman?’ and ‘why do I love him and how can I fix this’, which is not to say my poems are doing anything but satisfying some need for me to talk back to those poems.

Have you ever purposefully, or unconsciously, written poetry about your Sherlock Holmes series? Is there a process that gives the characters more depth, or tell you new things about them? 

So my second poetry collection, “Unhistorical,” has a long murder mystery about Holmes and Watson, as Holmes and Watson. That’s coming out next year… The Holmes and Watson poems I was writing were trying to speak more directly to some ideas I have about power, genius, and agency than what I think the Charlotte Holmes book are doing, and the poems—those Holmes and Watson poems I’ve written—are also in conversation with the more contemporary poems in that manuscript, in that they depict a relationship that the Holmes and Watson one. I want those to be read on top of each other as much as possible. So much of what I love is from the nineteenth century, and getting to write from a place where I can use that diction is creatively fruitful for me. I also think that those concerns from Doyle’s stories are pretty contemporary, right? Like, who has more power in the relationship and why is the question that I think we ask a lot in all of our friendships and relationships in the day to day, even if we aren’t aware we’re asking it. There is a poem in Girl-King that I think about as the precursor to the Charlotte Holmes books. It’s called “Autotheism” which is the word for the worship of oneself as a god. The poem is set in contemporary America, and while it’s not explicitly about her, I very much had a young, female, Sherlock Holmes in mind when I wrote that.

How do you form multi-faceted characters like Holmes, and what is that process like?  

I like to start with conflict. I like to start with people who are very conflicted internally, and are in conflict—whether it’s friendly or unfriendly—with the people around them. And then I like to see what decisions they make and what they want to say to each other. Most of my character discovery comes through dialogue. I really like having one character take offense at something the other said, and then just seeing what happens. Even if a lot of that doesn’t actually make its way into the final novel, it’s really educational for me about my characters. And in terms of poetry, and in terms of writing fiction, it’s all about voice—what would they say, why would they say it, how would they say it, would they be silent, would they stare you down until they make you speak? Those are all interesting questions for me, and I think they can tell us a lot about a person. But I’m also hyper-verbal, and so it can just be I’m drawing from my own experience.

What would be your advice for aspiring, young writers?

Don’t specialize. Take as many different classes in as many different things as you can. Study each one of them deeply. Spend a semester just writing fiction, even if you think you’re a poet. Spend a semester writing poetry, even if you think you’re a fiction writer. If something interests you, and you can fit it in your schedule and you can check off some requirement with it, do it. I really always wished I could have taken an Anthropology class in undergrad, but didn’t. When I graduated, I realized, ‘oh, I guess I’m just…never going to take an anthropology class.’ All information is useful to have. And what I draw on when I’m writing, sometimes I bring up stuff from years and years and years ago. Keep your notebooks, keep your old class notebooks. I refer to notes I took in my university Shakespeare course all the time. Give yourself occasional permission to slack on something else if it means to get your writing done. One weekend, you can be a really bad friend, or a really bad student. You can’t do it all the time, but sometimes you’re going to have to make a decision, and occasionally your writing has to win…and that was a big issue for me in my twenties when I was teaching and I was taking classes and I was trying to hang out with people and trying to live my life. It was hard to find the time to write because it’s so solitary, and you never know if it’s going to be any good, but you have to prioritize it. I think one thing that is easy to forget when people are telling you that, is that something else has to lose for a little while. So something can lose for two hours on Sunday for you to write; something can lose for you to write on Monday morning; something can lose on Friday night. Not all the time, but you need to figure out a way to put the work in.


About the authors of this post: this interview was a collaboration between the entire Winter 2018 staff of 30 North.

 

 

Want to read a previous interview with Brittany Cavallaro? Click here.

Ross White Group Interview Part 2

Becoming a publisher helped me redefine success in my own writing life. When I was starting out, editors were such mysterious creatures. I would invest a great deal of time in thinking about a journal and what its aesthetic is, agonizing over which of several poems would be the best ones to send in. I would take each rejection as a small failure– and, of course, let those failures pile up. Success seemed so far away.

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Ross White Group Interview Part 1

The press is a happy accident. I was working an office job with two friends, and we discovered blink, a tiny magazine Robert West had published for several years. Though we didn’t know it, the magazine had changed editors and gone defunct. But we were so entranced by it. We wrote to the editor and asked if we could become her staff, we sent in money for subscriptions. Several months passed. We asked again. Nothing. So we wrote to Robert and said, “We’d like to start a magazine like blink. If you’ll share your subscriber list with us, we’ll send our new magazine to them for a year.” He did.

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Interview with Joshua Robbins

robbinsJoshua Robbins is the author of Praise Nothing (University of Arkansas Press, 2013). His recognitions include the James Wright Poetry Award, the New South Prize, selection for the Best New Poets anthology, and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at University of the Incarnate Word. He lives in San Antonio. 


How did you get started writing? And did you always want to be a writer?

I suppose I started writing poems in high school, mostly imitations of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds, David Bowie lyrics, as well as some fiction/prose modeled after William S. Burroughs and Jean-Paul Sartre. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing in terms of craft, nor did I plan on “becoming a writer.” But I do think those first steps were toward a path of apprenticeship in poetry that began in earnest in college and in my MFA program. I had no sense of writing as career choice until my poetry teacher in college, Laurie Lamon, pulled me aside and told me I could “make a career of poetry.” At the time, I was excited by the notion, but had no idea what that would mean for the future and the trajectory of my life in poetry.

 How long did you have to submit before you were published in a journal? 

I started submitting work in earnest around 2001 when I discovered that my MFA peers were doing so and finding success. I placed my first poem in The Canary River Review (which became The Canary and, later, Canarium Books) in 2002.

What advice do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Wait. Be patient. Don’t submit your work until it’s ready. (You’ll know when that is.) Focus on learning the craft. Read, read, read. Read widely and deeply. I realize none of my answer so far is about actually trying to get published, but I’m reticent to give nuts and bolts advice to young authors because I’ve found that, over the last 5-10 years, undergraduates are incredibly anxious about publishing, which is astonishing to me. It’s a considerable problem with the po-biz and the focus on being a career writer. Believe me: there’ll be plenty of opportunities for worrying and publishing later. Now’s the time for reading and studying, searching your own poetics and voice, figuring it out. But, if you do need me to answer directly, I’d say look to get involved with literary publishers and literary arts organizations in your area. It’s important, I think, to get a sense of how publishing works and how other writers do it. Get involved in your school’s literary arts journal. Put together a reading series with some friends. Share your work in public. Give your poems an opportunity to interact with the community of actual people around you, then you can look to submit for print publication.

 Do you think there are any special challenges associated with getting a poetry book, such as Praise Nothing, published, compared to a novel?

I’ll be honest and tell you that the process for publishing a novel is one I cannot relate to in any way. Sure, it’s all “writing,” but the business end of fiction is wholly different from poetry, for the most part. My fiction-writer friends talk about getting agents and landing contracts, “advances,” which don’t exist in poetry. (Especially the advances.) For me, publishing Praise Nothing was the result of submitting the manuscript to contests over a two-year period. Sometimes I think people don’t realize that, for poets, getting a book published within the contest system can cost a significant sum of money, which also, I think, results in slamming doors in the faces of many writers who can’t afford to participate in the game. It’s really unfortunate.

 Do you have any writing rituals?

I used to get up at 4am every morning, make coffee, and get down to business writing. If I had any “rituals” in the past, I suppose they were more object oriented, more like talismans: a particular coffee mug, earplugs, hooded sweatshirt, a specific pen and notebook. Now that I have children (three boys: 4, 2, and 3 months), time doesn’t afford rituals. Or talismans. I jot notes on whatever’s around: receipts, envelopes, my arm. I’ve recently started making notes in Evernote on my phone and have found that, when I do have an extended period of time to just write, I can get into drafting much more quickly because I already have the raw materials at hand.

Could you explain your writing process to us?

I usually begin drafting longhand in a large notebook or on a legal pad and listening for the emerging language’s cadence and the line’s natural measure. After that, it’s long process of making pass after pass over the poem: counting syllables and scrapping the excess. In the past, I would usually work toward a three- or four- or five-beat line. Now, that’s not so much the case. For me, though, the process of revising is how I come to figure out the poem’s content, movement, figuration, etc., and what questions I want the poem to ask, what arguments I want to make.

 Who or what influences your writing? Do you have literary heroes?

I think influences change over time. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, and Charles Wright, were very important to me when I first started writing. I’d put all of them on my “literary heroes” list. Most recently, I think what influences my poetry most are my readings in theology, particularly in the area of theodicy and theopoetics.

 I noticed that in a few of your poems, religion, specifically heaven, comes up. I noticed this first in “Heaven As Nothing but Distance.” Would you be willing to elaborate on how/why this topic seems to influence some of your writing?

 

I am, quite simply, obsessed with matters of faith and doubt, with what I believe is a broken connection to the transcendent. Always have been. Poetry is my means for considering and examining this struggle. And it’s really the only mode of artistic expression I’ve got. The act of writing, the process, is the means by which I can begin to approach and, maybe, understand the disorder of my day-to-day life and, perhaps, become a means to locate some order, to locate meaning in the confusion and chaos of being.

 


About the author of this post: Nicholas Drazenovic is currently a senior at North Central College and is a co-editor of 30 North. He is studying English with a concentration in Writing, as well as Computer Science. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in either technical writing or software development.

Interview with Pedro Ponce

pedro-2_0 Pedro Ponce is the author of Stories After Goya (Tree Light Books ), Alien Autopsy (Cow Heavy Books), and Superstitions of Apartment Life  (Burnside Review Press). His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares , Alaska Quarterly Review, Gigantic, PANK , Copper Nickel and other journals; his work has also been featured in the anthologies The Beacon Best of 2001  (edited by Junot Diaz) and Sudden Fiction Latino. His book reviews appear regularly in the Review of Contemporary Fiction and The Los Angeles Review. A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts fellow in creative writing, Pedro teaches courses at St. Lawrence University in fiction writing, literary research, and conspiracy theory.


How did you get started writing?

I can’t remember a specific moment when I started or decided to start. I can, however, point to a couple of signposts. When I was eleven or so, I saw a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth on TV, and I remember loving the way the characters talked to the audience from the stage. I also remember a high school English class where a teacher explained symbolism in a short story by Irwin Shaw called “The Eighty-Yard Run.” My teacher just kept pulling back layers of the story and revealing all this stuff going on under the surface. These are both moments when I was struck by what language can do, though I’m sure there are others I can’t specifically remember. Such experiences convinced me that I wanted to do something with writing.

What advice do you have for writers just starting out?

I don’t want to sound like an English professor (which I am, actually), but read. Read a lot. Read widely. Don’t just read what your teachers tell you to read, or what your friends are reading. If I had only read what my teachers told me to read, I would never have discovered as many possibilities for how to write and what to write about. Don’t get me wrong—the syllabus is a good starting point. But if you’re serious about becoming a writer, it’s only a starting point.

Could you explain your writing process for us?

I keep a notebook where I record ideas. “Ideas” is actually a generous way of describing what I jot down. What I really work from are images and bits of language. I’ll just record something and let it sit for a while—months or even years. After some time, those bits will gather other bits to them—an image will suggest a place, for instance, or a sentence fragment will hint at a narrator’s voice. That’s when I start imagining my way into a story, sentence by sentence. Sentences turn into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, scenes (eventually) into a story.

How has your work evolved over time?

After years as a short-story writer, I’m finishing my first novel. (There have been others, but this one is the first that feels complete to me.) The transition has been rough. My short stories feel easier to control; the big picture can be seen all at once. If you change something on p. 103 of a novel, it potentially affects the narrative in any number of ways, from 1-102, and from 103 onwards. I had to let go of my sentence-by-sentence process and just hammer out a draft in order to figure out the bigger structure. That first draft was a mess! But there was also another kind of pleasure that (gradually) emerged once I started hacking away—the clarity that emerged when discovering connections between different characters, settings, and ideas. Those connections wouldn’t have been revealed without thinking on a novel’s scale. I look at some of my published stories now and wonder if I cut off possibilities in them by seeing them as shorter narratives.

Your work often takes the common and makes it uncommon. Apart from Francisco Goya, the namesake of your chapbook Stories After Goya, where does this influence come from?

My favorite stories are often those that play with perception. For instance, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books don’t start off in Narnia. They start off pretty realistically, on the ordinary side of the wardrobe. I feel the same way about Ray Bradbury  (and George Saunders, and Kelly Link, and Mary Caponegro, and Angélica Gorodischer, and…). In each of these authors, there are compelling characters and plots, but more importantly, you see your own world differently, even after you put the book down. I like to think that I’m part of this tradition.

How has your skill of making strange developed over time?

Very slowly. The uncanny is often obscured by the clever, which gets a few laughs but rarely sticks with you. I’m not sure I can articulate the difference beyond rough analogies. When I read something clever (or write something clever), I can always feel the author reading over my shoulder, nudging me as I turn pages in order to ask (rhetorically), “Wasn’t that funny?” I may laugh at something uncanny, but I know I’m alone and I’m afraid to take my eyes off the page because if I do, I could find myself inside the very story I’m reading.

Your novel Dreamland is a dystopia. What was the rationale behind this?

Dystopia is hot! At least, I thought it was hot when I started Dreamland in 2012. By the time I had a handle on the story (see above), it was clear that my dystopia was not going to be hot. It was going to be cold. Very cold. Without much of a hero or a moral message. Unfortunately, this lack of hotness is what interested me most and motivated me to finish.

Now that it’s mostly said and done, I recognize important similarities between Dreamland, and my previous (unpublished) novel. That last project was supposed to be a novel in short episodes, based on Goya’s etchings. (A sequence of remnants came out as Stories After Goya.) Both of these projects have dystopian elements, and I think it’s because the line between present and disastrous imagined future seems to be thinning every day. Dystopia is reality if you follow the news. So I guess you could call Dreamland my first significant foray into documentary realism.

What is one question about your writing no one ever asks you? Could you answer it?

It’s not so much a question I never get asked, but it’s how the question is asked. My work is often considered in terms of what’s lacking rather than what it’s doing (or trying to do). The language is dense; the characters can be hard to sympathize with because they are placed at a distance from the reader; the plots aren’t exactly page-turners. So it would be nice if I were asked why I do what I do, instead of why I don’t do what I could/should do.

Funny you should ask…The worst thing a reader can say, in my opinion, is “I’ve been there before.” Don’t even get me started on being “relatable.” If something is relatable, it’s easier to set aside and forget. But maybe some stories can live on, even if only as shadows, those feelings and experiences we only think aren’t there because we haven’t been paying attention.


 

About the author of this post: Hope Kennedy is a sophomore at North Central College, where she’s studying English and Management. Likes include writing, cats, and sleeping in on rainy days. Dislikes include inaccurate movies based on good books, the sound people make when they chew ice, and that awkward smile you exchange with a stranger when you make eye contact.

Interview with Brittany Cavallaro

cavallaroBrittany Cavallaro is a poet, fiction writer, and old school Sherlockian. She is the author of the Charlotte Holmes novels from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books, including A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE and THE LAST OF AUGUST (forthcoming in February 2017). She’s also the author of the poetry collection GIRL-KING (University of Akron) and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She earned her BA in literature from Middlebury College and her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she’s a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, cat, and collection of deerstalker caps.


How did you get started writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer—I was pretty serious about it from a young age. I attended an arts boarding school and then went on to study writing through undergrad and grad school. I used to be a little concerned that I was missing out by not really exploring other paths, but I’ve come to realize that writing is less of a job and more of a practice, a way you collect and organize your thoughts and obsessions.

What advice do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Focus for as long as you can on perfecting your craft. Read everything. Everything. Try to push yourself in new directions—write formally, write in genres you’re less comfortable in, take in different kinds of art. Try to wait until at least your last semester of undergrad before you’re really pushing to get published, so that you can focus until then on honing your work in a supportive environment.

Who or what influences your writing? Do you have literary heroes?

I think I have a lot of answers to this that aren’t necessarily the ‘right’ answer. I have writers whose work I love and admire—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, obviously, and Daphne du Maurier, John Berryman, A.S. Byatt. But I also read quite a bit of mass market fantasy (Mercedes Lackey, Jacqueline Carey), play a lot of immersive video games whose stories and characters get under my skin (Mass Effect, Bioshock), pull ideas from art history and YouTube and conversations with my husband. I think it’s really important to be honest about what inspires you, to try to be as porous as you can. There’s no reason to restrict yourself to loving things that other people have vetted as ‘important.’

Who are you currently reading that you find exciting?

I’m reading quite a bit of YA right now, which is always fun. I think that Parker Peevyhouse’s Where Futures End is an incredible, George Saunders/David Mitchell-inflected novel, and I really enjoyed Emily Henry’s The Love that Split the World.

Do you have any writing rituals? What does your process look like?

There are definitely things that I like to do or have around me when I’m setting up to write, though I try to be careful not to insist on them. Ultimately, I need to be able to work in a variety of places and situations! But I enjoy writing in my room, on my bed, with a candle burning. I try to light different candles for each project, which helps trigger some kind of sense memory. I also tend to play Dustin O’Halloran’s albums when I’m working—they’re familiar enough now that they serve as a kind of white noise, but they’re also atmospheric. I also do a lot of work in coffee shops, though, in the end, I find that’s better for more administrative tasks (email, email, email).

You’ve recently published your first young adult novel – congratulations! A Study in Charlotte (March 2016, Harpercollins) reimagines the classic tale of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson through the eyes of their young descendants Charlotte and Jamie. Were you a big Doyle fan growing up, or did you discover the fandom later in life?

Definitely a big Doyle fan when I was a kid, though my current obsession with Sherlockiana happened during grad school. I discovered the Granada television adaptation of the stories, and that led me back to the stories themselves. There was so much there. I felt like I could unpack them forever.

What inspired you to retell the story of Sherlock Holmes in a modern context?

Sherlock Holmes, as a character, has been reimagined in so many different ways—adaptations of the Doyle stories are really in vogue right now (though they’ve obviously never not been popular). But even though the story has been recast so many times, I was having a hard time finding an adaptation that was willing to imagine the genius as a woman. Which is crazy to me. When I have trouble finding a particular story, I try my hand at writing it. In the Charlotte Holmes books, I wanted to recast the detective as a troubled, morally ambiguous genius who happened to be a teenage girl, and then imagine how her life would be different because of it.

What do you want young readers to take away from A Study in Charlotte?

More than anything, I want to tell a good story that’s both an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a feminist reworking of his stories. If A Study in Charlotte sends readers looking for the original Sherlock Holmes tales, I feel like I’ve done my job!


About the author of this post: Crystal Ice is a junior at North Central College where she studies English Writing, and is currently considering a program in Writing, Editing, & Publishing. A budding author, she enjoys writing in her spare time, and maintains two blogs while working on one of her many novels and poems.

Interview with Oliver de la Paz

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Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry, including Names Above HousesFurious Lullaby (SIU Press 2001, 2007), Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010), and Post Subject: A Fable (U. of Akron Press 2014), as well as the winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martìn Espada. He is the co-editor with Stacey Lynn Brown of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press 2012). He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a non-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry and serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Board.  A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, his work has appeared in journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Chattahoochee Review, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry:  The Next Generation. He is the music editor for At Length Magazine and he teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.


 

How long did you have to submit before you were published in a journal?

My first publication ever was a sestina about Filipino rooster fighting, and basically I published that poem right after college in West Wind Review. All told, it didn’t take me long to get published the first time. However, it took a few years to get published after that initial success.

Do you make your living as a writer, and if not, do you aspire to?

I make a living as a teacher and academic BECAUSE I write. I never made much money for my writing, but I certainly have crafted a life because I can do what I enjoy and because I can share what I do.

What advice do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Read. Read. Read. First way to have a good two-way conversation is to choose to be a listener. Know what the publishers want and read selections of their presses. I learned about great presses by reading great books and then tracking, via the acknowledgments page, the journals that had first published some of the work.

How do you think your writing has evolved over time?

I used to have lots of time to spend on a poem and I would do that—revising incessantly. Now, with a steady job, three kids, and lots of advocacy work and service, I have no time. So I developed shortcuts—I tend to write in sequences now more than I ever had. I use similar titles for poems as ways of getting me started quickly into the work. And I’m more patient with staying still on a tonal premise.

Is there anyone’s work you are currently reading that you find exciting?

I’ve been reading a lot of hybrid stuff—work that combines visual images and poetry/text. Among the books I recently read that do this sort of thing are Monica Ong’s Silent Anatomies, Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Philip Metres’s Sand Opera, and Matthea Harvey’s If The Tabloids are True What Are You.

How did you get starting in writing? and did you always want to be a writer?

Oh, that’s tough to answer. I was always writing as a kid because I was an only child and my family lived in the barrens of Eastern Oregon (If you watch the news, the takeover of the Oregon Wildlife Refuge happened not an hour and a half away from my home town). It was, however, mostly a hobby. I lived in my imagination to keep myself company and I had a healthy imaginative life with lots and lots of books and lots of trips to the library. I, of course, had no ambition of becoming a writer. Like all immigrant kids, I was expected to become a doctor or a lawyer, but that didn’t happen.

Is there a reason plenty of your works have a country setting?

I mentioned just above that I grew up in Eastern Oregon and that landscape codified my aesthetics. There’s a particular smell and texture of the air there that’s difficult to articulate to someone who’s not from there. And part of what I try to do to non-Eastern Oregonian readers is show what that’s like, even though I’ll ultimately fail at it.

Was there anything from your youth that inspired you as a writer?

Oh, all of it! I was a big reader, but also a kid who was outside almost every day. Ontario, Oregon had its specific rural narrative and tone. Much of that life I draw from, though sometimes other passions take hold. Right now I’m inspired by grotesque photographs, but I think part of that inspiration comes from my mother’s medical books which she had everywhere in the house. I used to gawk at all the pictures of the diseased subjects with the black bars over their eyes. Strangely, that’s my latest inspiration.


About the author of this post: Josh Soldati is a senior majoring in Media Studies with a passion for animation.

Interview with Corey Van Landingham

 

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Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote, winner of the 2012 The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. A former Wallace Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Best American Poetry 2014, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She is currently the 2015-2016 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.


How did you get started writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I always worry that this story sounds a little precious, but it’s true: one day, when I was about five, I walked into the kitchen and told my mother that I was going to write a poem. Of course, I couldn’t write it down, so I dictated it to her, and she transcribed it into this tiny notebook with multicolored teddy bears across the cover. It’s still lurking along with other sentimentals, somewhere… But, this didn’t come out of nowhere, as my mother read me all kinds of poetry when I was younger, like Silver Pennies, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, etc. Looking back on that first poem I “wrote,” I knew what a poem should sound like—I had some sense of a rhythm in my head—but that was also the sing-songy procession of poetry written by people long since dead. It wasn’t until college, really, that I started reading contemporary poetry. And one can’t really say that they’re a writer in all seriousness until they know the world they’re writing into, I don’t think. Though writing sometimes took a backseat, I always thought of myself as a poet (for better or for worse). After changing my major to English my freshman year (I went with International Relations in mind, but, after the first English course I took—The History of Lyric Poetry—I knew I was in the wrong world), the writing track stuck.

How long did you have to submit before you first got published in a journal? If you could do it again, what would you do differently, if anything?

Like most writers, I probably submitted too early, and too often. But that isn’t to imply that I would change anything. It’s a necessary—and ecstatic—moment, thinking that your work is finished, that it’s worthy. It was probably two years, between when I submitted by first poem and when I had one accepted. I sent garbage, mostly, though I didn’t know it at the time. Through this process, however, I got used to rejection. It helped me to view my poems more objectively, less like precious gems. Yes, they were flawed. I could come to see that, after a poem was rejected over and over again. That said, it also bolstered some of my style, my voice. There were things I would never change, no matter how many journals rejected it. That was important, developing my poetic backbone, in a way.

Do you have any writing rituals? What is your process?

I have had many rituals, ones that I sometimes return to, dip back into, ones that morph, ones I shed. Hopefully I’ll have many more down the line. As for process, I think: do what works. For some people that will always look the same. For me, it changes, just as I change, my location changes, my circumstances, moods, relationships, jobs change. In college I would write to music (whatever indie band I thought I should like at the moment). In graduate school, I went to the same coffee shop and sat at the same window seat and ordered the same thing. For many years I had to leave my house to write; there was something about not contaminating the poems with my mundane existence, where I slept and ate and swept dead ladybugs into the trash. Too, whatever I was writing in public had to be really good, I thought then. Someone might peer over and think, she’s spent three hours on that?! For years I would do elaborate word clusters—filling up pages of my journals with words from whatever I was currently reading, sometime copying down the syntax of a poem or two that I liked—before I could begin a poem. Now that I don’t have as much time to write, I get going a bit faster. I keep notes on my phone for poem ideas, for lines, so that when I have a day free to write, most of what I need is already available. Necessity for writing always: a hot beverage of some sort.

Who or what do you think is the main influence on your writing? Do you have any literary heroes, and if so, what do you love about their writing?

Just as I change, as a writer, so does my influence. It used to be poets whose language was lush and surreal, poets whose words were strange and luxurious and beautiful. Something I’ve always been drawn to, however—now more than ever—is poetic statement, moments when lyric imagism is ruptured by some rhetorical force. Jorie Graham has been quite influential, for a long time, for this, as well as Joanna Klink, and, more recently, Linda Gregerson, who I would name as a literary hero. I’m enamored with the performative rhetoric of her poems, how she interweaves narratives while constantly resisting narrative’s tyranny. She is smart as hell, and I’m constantly learning from her poetry. Not just from her elaborate, winding syntax, her trenchant eye and ear, and her keen sense of drama, but from what populates the poems: history, myth, art, science, politics. This layering of the reading experience—the sheer pleasure of the language, the deftness of craft, the insightful statements—is what I’m always looking for in poems; work that sustains after multiple readings.

What have you read recently that made you excited?

While I haven’t read the actual book yet, as it comes out in March, I’m excited to read Kimberly Grey’s The Opposite of Light. Her attention to how language is constructed, to how it constructs us, is fascinating. And the poems are just breathtaking. Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval, Rickey LaurentiisBoy with Thorn, Casey Thayer’s Self-Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur, and Phillip WilliamsThief in the Interior are all newer books filled with inventive, and important, work.

Tell us about your recent poem, “Epithalamium” and the story behind it. Do you remember when you first heard the story in the news? What prompted you to write about it?

I don’t remember exactly when I heard about the story in the news, but I remember how it seemed so episodic. Though this was the first time, I believe, that a drone strike killed civilians at a wedding, it’s something that’s happened for years across the Middle East. “Before any strike is taken,” said President Obama in 2013, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Utilizing the drone to set our highest standard terrifies me, for many reasons, but I also, of course, realize that the terror I feel is utterly removed from any real sense of personal threat or danger. How I, how many of us here in the United States, receive the news is always in some form of abstraction. Watching the news in the gym, say, from the treadmill, seeing death tolls scroll across the bottom of the screen, how language becomes a kind of ticker-tape—it mediates understanding, empathy. Empathy requires distance. So does poetry. So does the drone. I’m trying to figure out how these all relate, while being aware of my own distant position. The inability to fully understand or relate to the killing of civilians during a wedding in Yemen is part of the poem’s “problem”—it tries to latch onto the wedding as a common experience, and, ultimately, fails.

Your book Antidote has been described as emotive, dark, and even haunted. Can you explain some of the inspiration that drove the works it contains?

Well, the major inspirations were the death of my father and breaking up with my fiancé. The minor inspirations, however, are weirder and wider—my mother’s microscopes (she was a microbiologist), my father’s cameras (he was, among many things, a photographer), Indiana and its bizarro weather, Alain Resnais, the landscape of the small, mountain-valley town where I grew up in Southern Oregon, Isadora Duncan, Surrealism and surrealism, and a lot (a lot) of alone time in a creaky, old attic apartment in a house the town rumored to be haunted by one of its earliest residents.

Antidote is composed of over 40 works of poetry. This was clearly no easy feat. How long did it take you to put together such an extensive collection, and what did that process look like?

To be honest, most of it came quickly. Most of Antidote was written during the last year of my MFA at Purdue, when I had enough space from my father’s death to begin to write elegies and when I was in the white-hot heat of a breakup. That combination—the distance and the immediacy—propelled the book forward. I wrote at least three poems a week at that time, a period of production I doubt I’ll ever be able to reproduce. Of course, the poems have been revised and revised and revised, after, but the material seemed ever-present at the time.

What is the one question you wish people would ask you about your work? Will you answer it for us?

I wish people would ask about my fears for my work, about what I worry about most when writing, revising, etc. I’m always interested in hearing this from other poets, as more than anything it seems humanizing, something often more specific and relatable. We can talk in such grandiose, abstract ways about what we want our poetry to do, but talking about what we don’t want it to do might be more tangible.

As an answer, I fear that my older work is willfully strange, at times. That wild language can obfuscate meaning. That it relies too much on the insistence of anaphora and imperative. In my newer work, I am constantly worrying about responsibility. Why can I write/say anything important about the drone? With my reliance on statement, am I too didactic? Is there enough mystery? Do I aestheticize the suffering of others in an unthinking manner? I hope not, but that fear is ever-present.


About the author of this post: Crystal Ice is a sophomore at North Central College where she studies English Writing, and is currently considering a program in Writing, Editing, & Publishing. A budding author, she enjoys writing in her spare time, and maintains two blogs while working on one of her many novels and poems.