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.

Review of “A Guide to Being Born” by Ramona Ausubel

In this new collection of short stories, A Guide To Being Born, Ramona Ausubel tells eye-opening tales of life with strangely fictitious compelling twists. The eleven stories are divided into four periods: Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love.

These stories face some of the most difficult aspects of life that most people choose to shy away from, from teenage pregnancy, to death, to growing old, and the concept of what happens next. Ausubel’s short stories capture your attention and leave you questioning: how you move on after each life changing experience? How do you continue to live after everything you are forced to bear that is unbearable? Each story has a unique flair that brings light to each of the real life topics in a whirlwind of tales spun with fascinating imagery. Each story brings in a variety of terrible truths that the reader can’t help but want to read on to find out what happens next.

In “Safe Passage,” from the Birth, section the reader follows the story of a grandmother named Alice who finds herself on a freighter with other grandmothers heading towards an unknown island. In this story, the reader is forced to face the concept of life after death and what happens not only to yourself, but also to the people you leave behind. Ausubel writes “The day she will not attend is laid out before her, the newspaper she will not read lands at her doorstep. The phone, the refrigerator, the cat. She holds her own hands” (18). Here Ausubel compels the reader to really question the notion of the people and life left behind when someone dies. Instead of looking at it from the point of view of family and friends who were left behind when someone they love dies, she takes us on a ride with the grandmother who has passed on effectively making the reader question what they will think back on as they move on. Reading this story, I found myself mournful at the idea that the world will continue to move on once I myself am gone and the pain of leaving behind the ones I love who will have to learn to live without me.

In “Atria,” from the Gestation section, the reader is tugged along on a young teen’s journey as she thinks of what her mother means when she says to grow up. Hazel finds herself pregnant after having sex with a random boy behind a 7-11 and then being raped behind a church of all places and refuses to see her baby as anything but a real life animal. Because Hazel has had something terrible happen to her, she sees the baby as nothing but a monster, an animal born of terrible circumstances and irreversible mistakes. Ausubel writes, “ ‘If it has four legs, I guess we can just get another pair,’ she said quietly. ‘It’s not twins – would have seen it in the pictures.’ ‘I never said it was twins’ ” (66). Here we can see how she portrays Hazel as fully believing her baby will be anything but human. This is a terrible twist that truly shows the horror of rape and mistakes made and what it can do to a person, opening the reader’s eyes to one of the many horrors of life. The reader and feels helpless as each scene plays out, knowing that there is nothing they can do to help her.

In “Catch and Release,” in the Conception section, we get the story of Buck and how she meets a war general ghost from the past who helps her to learn a little more about herself. Ausubel uses this short story to really look at the history of a name, telling us that it does and doesn’t define who we are. Our story is ours alone to write and make of it what we will, writing, “ ‘The story of Buck is just getting going’ he whispered” (121). This line really stood out to me because this is something more people need to point out. That we are the authors of our own story and no matter what has happened to us that there is always a future a new beginning just waiting for us to grab hold of it.

Finally in “Tributaries,” from the Love section, the reader is pulled into a world where if you truly love someone you will grow another arm, a love-arm. This is common in the society Ausubel creates and is used by her to allow readers to question just what she is trying to symbolize. One of my favorite lines from this story is, “ ‘My love is bigger than any limb,’ he tells her. ‘What is mine then?’ ” (190). This opens the reader’s eyes to the idea of what would happen if true love was proved by a love-arm growing. This sentence refers to a man whose love-arm is not real, but his wife’s is. This shows just how one person may love someone who thinks they love them back, but may never really know. While I did enjoy this short story it was also a little confusing. Ausubel creates this concept but never really makes sense of how it works. For example, one of the teachers has many loves so she has grown hands all over her body, but never grows a full love-arm. This poses questions of why no one else has grown hands that show their love of their family as well as a love-arm for their “soul mate” so to speak. This story makes the reader truly question just what Ausubel is trying to get at with this over all story of love-arms. By doing this she allows the reader to find a multitude of meanings behind each short story she wrote.

Ausubel continues to create moving and reality shattering themes throughout the rest of her short stories. In a truly new and compelling way she pulls the reader into a world of reality and fantasy that will have you wondering just what happens next. Where will she go from here and how will each story end. If you truly enjoy a bit of reality mixed with fantasy on some of the darker topics of life, I would recommend sitting down and reading this book for the day. You might just find you have a new outlook on life when you finish the final page.


ramona-ausubelAbout the Author: Ramona Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of a new novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, forthcoming in June, 2016 from Riverhead Books as well as the novel No One is Here Except All of Us (2012), and a collection of short stories A Guide to Being Born (2013). Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, she has also been a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Award and the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine where she won the Glenn Schaeffer Award in Fiction and served as editor of Faultline Journal of Art & Literature.

Review of “Slade House” by David Mitchell

Slade House by David Mitchell, was a unique book unlike any other I have ever read, to say the very least. The mystery of this house is what drives this story, and makes you not want to put the book down. It starts off eerie, and with each story, your hunger grows to find out what truly happens in this house and why. There are five stories/disappearances that happen in the Slade House, and with each story the reader starts to understand a little bit more and more about the contraption of the house and what happens inside. The first starts off with a boy reluctantly with his mother on their way to a house that they were invited to. It is told from Nathan, the boy’s point of view, and at the house he meets the son of Lady Grayer, the woman who owns the house. Nathan and Jonah run around and play games at the house. During the visit Nathan think’s he is hallucinating and he ends up waking up thinking it was all just a dream. However, he is not actually dreaming that was reality and when he thinks he is awake it was really just a dream. He then is ‘woken’ up and his soul is eaten by Jonah, the boy he was playing with. This point in the story is when the reader starts to realize the book may not be consistent with reality. In the next part, we are then thrown into the life of a detective, Gordon Edmonds. He is investigating the disappearance of Nathan and his mother and stumbles into the Slade House. After some investigating, his soul is then consumed by a woman named Chloe who was actually Lady Grayer, the house master in disguise. After this second story, the readers start to recognize a pattern that is steady throughout the rest of the book. The process of entering and investigating the house continues for three more stories and with each additional story, a new piece to the puzzle is added to solve the mystery of the house. The readers found out the history of the house owners and why they consume souls. The final story is the wildest and more important, that pieces the whole story together.

In the final story of Slade House, Lady Grayer is back to luring people into the house by herself. In the fourth story, the character got away before the soul was consumed, and the ‘house’ feeds off of the energy of these souls, and thus it is growing weak. In her tactics to try to get people to come to the house, she invites a psychologist to the house who knew Fred Pink. Again, the psychologist is drawn to the attic however, she is not who she says to be either but she is immortal and cannot be consumed. They try to attack her soul but they are too weak, and she destroys them and the house collapses, and just as this is happening Lady Grayer puts her soul in a child that is still in the womb, somewhere far away.

After writing this summary of the book, I realized how crazy everything actually sounds. It was a little hard to follow at times , but the one thing that held this story together were the connections between each story. Whether it was a friend of a friend in the next story, each past story was connected with the story being told. The other connection that ran through the story was the nine year difference between each story, and by the time the story ended 36 years had passed. Lastly, I think the small connection of the pub at the beginning of each story symbolized the start of the dreamy like state people get when they enter the Slade House.

One of the main strengths of the author was the cleverness and consistency of each story. Each story gave the same eerie feel, with whole new characters and backgrounds. Yet at the same time, all of the stories started off and ended the same way. Everyone passes the “Fox and Hound Pub” in the beginning on their way to the house, and then they all run into the Slade House by accident and then all somehow ‘stumble’ into the attic to have their souls eaten. This ability to flow from five stories so smoothly was incredible. After the second transition of stories, I started to realize what was going on. This is the main weakness of the author. A lot of things had to be implied, for example after reading the first story of Nathan I had no idea his soul had been consumed and he was dead. I only then realized this after the second story and as it transitioned into the third. However, this does add the element of mystery to it, so I can understand why it was a little unclear.

Overall, this book is well written, the plot about the house was original and the development of characters in such little stories was excellent. There were many characters throughout the book but each story revealed a lot about the characters and their motives in such a little space. For example, in such a short period of time the readers were able to learn about Nathan and his parent’s divorce and how he may be addicted to pain medications. The revealing of small important snippets about the different characters makes it believable that these people are actually humans inside of a dark paranormal world. With that note, it is a silly story, as none of these things can actually happen and you are taken deep into the world of “Anchorites,” souls being consumed, and the very fine line between dreaming and reality. But if you can suspend disbelief, it does make a great ghost story. I would recommend this book to people who love mystery and ghost stories because this is a perfect combination of both.


david_mitchellAbout the Author: David Mitchell is the award-winning and bestselling author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, Ghostwritten and The Bone Clocks. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell co-translated from the Japanese the international bestselling memoir, The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.

 

Review of “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is, at first glance, a portrait of one African American’s revelations about race, identity and the world as viewed in the form of a letter to his teenage son, Samori. Coates attempts to address the nature of being black in today’s America, where unarmed African American men and their children are being killed at the hands of police officers.

The book first offers us a glimpse of Coates’ youth, growing up in Baltimore with a pervasive sense of fear ingrained into him by authority. His mother, who insisted that, while holding his hand and crossing a street, “…if I ever let go and were killed by an onrushing car, she would beat me back to life” (Coates 16). His father, too, tried to instill in him fear, fear not of his father, but of authority, of police. Once, Coates recollects, he wandered away from his grandparents at a park, who then “spent anxious minutes looking for him” (16). Upon learning of this, his father beat him, telling his mother, “‘Either I can beat him, or the police’” (16).

The police, Coates tells his son, “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body” (9). But the police are not the only thing Coates learned to fear. He also feared the streets, where “death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog” (20). He feared the crews who walked them, who “would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies” (22).

Coates juxtaposes his reality of the streets with the clichéd world of the suburbs, of “pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens” (20). Coates associates this world with what he calls “the Dream,” what he sees to be an exclusionary dream only for whites, the origin of which lies on the suppression and oppression of blacks.

Throughout this engaging narrative, there is, in some passages, a tendency to generalize. Despite the personal nature of his experiences, his take on the notion of racism and white supremacy, is impersonal – he sees these things as unyielding and faceless forces.

At one point in the novel, Coates and his young son are exiting a cinema, when a white woman impatiently pushes him. Coates writes:

There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body … I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defence (94).

To Coates, this woman is force of nature, ‘a comet’ he calls her. At this moment, Coates sees this woman as a white person attempting to lay claim on the body of his son. He tells the reader that, as he confronted the woman, “my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history” (94). While I do not claim to know the motives or underlying factors that sparked the incident, there is a chance that the woman did this act, not because of Samori’s race, but some other factor which the reader is not aware of. By making her into a ‘comet,’ she ceases to be a person, a person with free will and a responsibility for her own actions- whether they be good or bad.

It is this tendency to generalize, however that also provides the reader with the narrative, almost debate-like quality of the novel, which remains one of its strengths. Between the World and Me is, overall, a fascinating portal into one African American’s struggle with race, identity, and the world and one I would highly recommend.


ta-nehisi-coatesAbout the Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, a finalist for the National Book Award. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow, Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.” He lives in New York with his wife and son.

 

Review of “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell

With Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Karen Russell delivers a diverse set of short stories that reach deep into the realm of bizarreness. A vampire couple struggles to quench the unquenchable thirst while trying to fully realize their identities in a foreign world. A group of girls are held captive in a malicious, cutting-edge new factory that specializes in turning girls into human-silkworm hybrids and producing silk in the midst of a silkworm famine. Seagulls communicate the secrets of the universe to a troubled teenager. A family’s quest for land in a dystopian American Old West leads to unfortunate (and inexplicable) consequences.

These are just a few of the oddities to look forward to in Russell’s follow-up to her 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominated Swamplandia! which earned praise from nearly everyone across the board. Vampires is nothing short of a good collection, but it’s a mixed bag.

Russell likes (and is very good at) building worlds with her stories. These worlds are reflective of our world and most of the time Russell does a great job of emphasizing the part of society she’s commenting on by making that the bizarre part of this new world. For example, humanity’s capacity for greed and exploitation is represented through the silkworm famine in a version of Japan that still seems to cling to classical values in “Reeling for the Empire”. The ridiculous (and sometimes destructive) lengths people will go to over sports is shown through the nonsensical “foodchain games” in one of my favorites of the bunch “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”. Sometimes the meaning behind the allegory takes a couple of reads to uncover, but more times than not Russell makes it clear why the world she’s depicting is the way it is.

The characters are, however, hit and miss. Miles Zenger and Beverly in “Proving Up” and “The New Veterans” respectively are solid characters whose motives and progression are clear and strong throughout the story. Each has a unique voice that comes through in the narration and each has aspects the audience can relate to. Miles’ naivety and ambition and Beverly’s desire for attachment and fulfillment really speak to the reader. Others, like Rutherford B. Hayes in “The Barn at the End of Our Term” and Nal in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” respectively are relatively flat and don’t do much to make the readers connect with them. I’m still not sure I can recognize Hayes’ inner conflict and Nal seems like the dejected teenager that Salinger pioneered and everyone else copied.

Russell is at her best when using the bizarre elements to augment her commentary, but  when she lets the weirdness take the wheel, the stories tend not to be as strong. “Reeling for the Empire” is a great example for the weirdness overshadowing the bones of the story. The story itself follows a fairly basic template (don’t worry, no spoilers) but the layering of strange upon strange ends up distracting the reader and takes away from the impact of the climax. And because it is so weird, a story that could’ve been extremely harrowing ends up being a bit corny. Similarly, “The Barn at the End of Our Term” is another story that was hindered by its bizarreness rather than helped. Having a slew of dead presidents reincarnated as horses is a very interesting concept, but Russell doesn’t deliver on the political and situational commentary that she sets up. Instead (again, trying to avoid spoilers) the story serves as more of a love song. Which leaves me feeling that she’s being bizarre for bizarre’s sake.

Other times, Russell’s subtle use of odd elements charge the story and force you to think twice about our society. The bone trees in “Proving Up” make the audience reassess their predispositions about the romanticized American West. As I mentioned earlier, the foodchain games in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” supplement the focus of the dangerously stupid behavior of rabid sports fans in the modern age.

All the stories are well-written and are littered with strong description and varied dialogue. At times, Russell tends to drag things out a bit, but the stories are always entertaining enough to get through. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a fun, well-written and thought-provoking set of short stories with its own set of flaws. Even if every story doesn’t excite you, I have no doubt that at least one will.


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About the author: Karen Russell, a native of Miami, won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2012 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. She lives in Philadelphia.


About the author of this post: Kevin Dieber is a sophomore at North Central College.

Review of “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is a post-apocalyptic vision of the future with a twist. It’s a narrative written from the multiple perspectives of characters who exist before and after an epidemic ends modern civilization and who are all connected in some way. As the story weaves its way back and forth through the decades, it follows an actor burdened by the pressure of fame and his own poor life choices who dies on the eve of the plague; a member of a wandering band of armed actors who has lived most of her life roving in the wilderness; the actor’s second of three ex-wives who is obsessed with drawing and works on the same graphic novel for years; and the actor’s English friend who serves as the everyman thrust into a calamitous world drowning in sickness and fear. Throughout the novel, paths cross, stories are shared, and the old notions of love, fame, and desire are thrown into chaos and replaced by a single notion of survival. Yet, at the heart of the apocalypse lies togetherness and bonds that no betrayals, pains, or end-of-the-world scenarios can destroy.

Station Eleven paints a picture of a world that would be recognizable to readers, even if it is distorted by the crash of modern civilization. The events of the novel could, in all likelihood, happen today, in our society, in our world. Mandel cleverly crafts a world that the reader can identify with. Her settings are real places, her characters have real struggles, and her situations are based on real conflicts with emotion and survival. Placing the novel about twenty years into the future, she strikes the world with an unknown but realistic infection that reflects our modern society’s fear of outbreak. She topples our culture and plays with memory; in her America, our everyday comforts and joys are practically non-existent and are only remembered as distant pleasures of a better time. Our electronic devices, for example, are only artifacts that end up on the shelves of a makeshift museum in an airport, curiously examined by children with no memory of these things. Mandel’s world runs two ways: For those alive at the time of the epidemic, this is not a world anyone is prepared to face when the calamity strikes, and they have fond memories of the previous world and do what they can to keep parts of it alive. For those born in the post-apocalyptic America, this is only world they know, and all they can do is imagine what the old world was like. This is not an America anyone would choose to live in, and the pain of watching her characters struggle to survive is real because they have no choice.

Not only does Mandel reflect our society and culture well, she also weaves in her own brand of pop culture. The novel’s title refers to a series of graphic novels written by one of her protagonists, the actor’s ex-wife Miranda. These stories are read by other characters, such as the actor, Arthur, and the wandering girl, Kirsten. Throughout the course of the book, the Station Eleven stories pop up to connect characters across stretches of time. These connections, perhaps, serve as Mandel’s greatest strength in her writing: Mandel is capable of using objects, themes, and characters to plot out a chronology over the decades that gets revealed, piece by piece, as the story moves ever closer to its culmination. What makes Mandel’s story unique is that her connections are subtle. She doesn’t hit readers over the head with references to objects, themes, and characters that exist in both the old world and the new world. She lets these connections wander, alongside her Traveling Symphony, allowing the reader to pick them up at his or her own leisure, letting them have moments of epiphany as puzzle pieces slide together. Even the use of a Traveling Symphony, wandering actors who perform Shakespeare to whomever will watch, is interesting because Mandel utilizes them to connect the cultures of the old and new worlds. The line “Because survival is insufficient” is the Symphony’s motto, and Mandel uses this line to present a group of people who want to do more than just survive. They have these old plays by Shakespeare, and they’re doing what they can to keep this part of their past culture alive, for both themselves and for others. Because survival is insufficient. Because simply languishing in the wasteland America has become is to admit defeat, and defeat is not what the human spirit needs to fix itself.

Unfortunately, though Mandel masterfully connects past to present and character to character, there are moments where elements become jumbled. A variety of characters—typically those with the Traveling Symphony Kirsten is associated with—are not given names, referred to instead by whatever instrument they play, such as “the first flute” and “the third violin.” This causes many of these characters to not be as fleshed out as well as they could be and makes them roam in obscurity for the majority of the novel. Also, while the connections between the time periods are interesting and help bring the novel together, jumping between four or five different stories has the drawback of not allowing enough pages for each story to be fully experienced. Thus, at times the pacing can feel rather rushed and plotlines can be forgotten if they are not returned to quickly. Each story is told poetically, but there’s the sense that some characters don’t accomplish as much as others and that certain characters aren’t as important to like or to follow. However, the important characters are allowed room to grow, even if that growth sometimes feels forced.

Overall, Mandel has created an America that is thrown into a cesspool of destruction and misery, a world that could be our own. In our pop culture, as obsessed as we are with doomsday scenarios at the hands of aliens and zombies, Mandel offers a novel that could be real, where the events could happen at any moment. There’s some action, a lot of drama, and a ton of struggle. Though it sometimes feels like the puzzle takes a while to be put together, all the pieces are still there and get placed, one at a time. Reading Station Eleven requires thought and concentration to it, and those who give it the proper amount are rewarded with an inquisitive, if not haunting, tale that many readers can undeniably relate to on certain levels and hope they will never have to on others.


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Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels, most recently Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award. A previous novel, The Singer’s Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

 


About the author of this post:  Nathan Kiehn is a junior at North Central College and has wanted to be a novelist since the fourth grade. Though he is currently the New York Times Bestselling Author of nothing, he continues to plug away at fantasy and superhero novels, hoping someone important will finally see one of his $2.99 ebooks on Amazon and pay him enough money to get through college. When he isn’t writing or working, he can be found saving the world in video games and with LEGOs.

 

 

 

 

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.