An Interview with Joseph Scapellato

Conducted by Kathleen Grennan, Katya Horne, and Clara Howard.

Joseph Scapellato lives in Lewisburg, PA with his wife and daughter. In his most recent novel, ​The Made-Up Man (2019), he mixes humor with an alluring plot line that enthralls the curious, self-reflective mind, and reaches the heart of what it means to ‘know oneself’. Scapellato is an assistant professor of English at Bucknell University, working within the Creative Writing department. He has also written other works, including his debut novel,​ Big Lonesome (2017), and a wide variety of short stories published throughout various literary journals including ​Gulf Coast​, Green Mountains Review Online, ​Kenyon Review Online, and North American Review, and LUMINA.

I: Is Stanley’s journey in your novel The Made-Up Man in any way autobiographical?

Joseph Scapellato: Thankfully, no! I’ve never been the subject of a sinister performance art project; I’ve never KO’d an artist on the street; I’ve never dropped out of an archaeology program; my family is much, much, much kinder than Stanley’s. That said, the novel did initially emerge from my own experiences. In 2005, when I was 22, I backpacked through Europe for a month with my buddy Andrew. (His dad’s graduation gift was tickets for him and a friend to go abroad—I got to be the lucky friend who went with Andrew.) We toured cities we’d already heard of, but also decided, on a recommendation from Andrew’s dad, to go to Prague. It was a place we knew nothing about. When we arrived, we were entranced. Prague was gorgeous and strange and cheap. Andrew and I agreed that Prague would be a spectacular place to shoot a film noir. At some point, we started to co-narrate our Prague experiences in an over-the-top film

noir/detective voice. I don’t remember the specific jokes very well—things like: “That building sure is old.”/“Yeah, a little ​too ​old.” But I know for sure that we found them funny only because of how we told them: in that faux-gritty, goofily elevated, “hard-boiled” voice. As soon as I returned to Chicago from this trip, I prepared to move to Las Cruces, New Mexico; I was about to begin an MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. Larry Watson, who I’d studied with in undergrad, had said that it might be wise to start a new writing project before I moved southwest. Something to maybe use for my first workshop. With this advice in mind, I wrote a few pages of a piece based on the voicey film-noir inside joke from Prague. That was the earliest draft of what eventually became ​The Made-Up Man.​

I: What drove you to write so extensively about Performance Art, an artform which, arguably, isn’t discussed or known as much as others; have you ever experienced or done a performance art piece yourself?

JS: I’ve always been interested in performance art—I love the bravery, strangeness, transgression, and surprise that’s so prevalent in the best of it. Although Performance Art isn’t as “mainstream” as other forms of art, there are quite a lot of smart and fascinating people saying smart and fascinating things about it. It’s widely discussed in art circles. In fact, that’s something that I really enjoy about performance art; how it lends itself to discussion, how it aggressively invites a reader to make meaning out of it. I’ve never done any real performance art, myself, though I’ve gleefully participated in activities that, in a way, have some proximity to it. In high school, for example, I pulled a number of elaborate public pranks for a radio show; in college, I regularly orchestrated the same sort of thing for an improv comedy group that I was a member of and for the TV shows that I was involved with. I’m not calling any of that pranky stuff performance art—definitely not!—but it employs some of the same techniques, and it certainly goes for some of the same effects (especially the way that the audience doesn’t know that they’re the audience, at least not right away).

I: In your collection of short stories there’s a bit of a focus on American Western culture, what is the significance of that for you?

JS: I grew up watching Golden Age westerns with my mom—Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Neville Brand, Randolph Scott, Claude Akins. The good guy dudes who do no wrong, who shoot the guns out of the hands of the villains.Much later I started watching the stylistically wild and violent films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Perhaps because of that, I’ve always loved the mythology of the West. When I realized that I was writing a story collection about the west—when cowboys started showing up in my work—I started to consciously investigate and challenge that mythology.

I: How did writing and publishing the collection of short stories compare to your debut novel? How were the creative processes different for you?

JS: On the most fundamental level, the writing of the two was very similar—as a writer, I’m always trying to find the emergent intentions of the work. I want to be surprised by where it’s going, on the level of the sentence, on the level of the passage, on the level of the narrative shape. As far as publishing goes, I feel that there’s more respect and prestige for novels, in general. Not many people read story collections. Next time you’re at a family party, ask everyone when they last read a novel; then ask everyone when they last read a story collection. I can guarantee you that many people will tell you that they’ve never, ever read a story collection.

I think that story collections are harder to read than novels. As my editor once pointed out to me, with a story collection, you have to start over with every story. You get that initial period of readerly disorientation over and over again. For the record: writing a story collection and writing a novel, for me, are equally challenging, and reading them is equally rewarding.

I: Most of your stories occur in regions far from your place of origin and where you currently live, do you travel a lot in order to gain inspiration from places? If so, what part does traveling play in your writing?

JS: Most of the stories in ​Big Lonesome t​ ake place in the west/southwest, that’s true, but there are a good number of Chicago stories in there. And half (or perhaps more than half) of ​The Made-Up Man t​ akes place in Chicago/Chicagoland, where I grew up.One thing that makes sense

to me, though, is that as soon as I’m away from a place, I feel more permission to write about it.For example: I started writing ​Big Lonesome​not when I was in the southwest or Chicago, but when I moved from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. As soon as I moved, I found that every story that I was working on wanted to be set back in the southwest. I began to feel a preservative urgency, a need to get something of the experiences I’d had in the southwest into my work. I wanted to hang onto what I’d felt when there, the big feelings you get in a big landscape. Hemingway (I think?) said that you can’t really write about a place until you leave it. That’s not true in a literal sense, of course, but I do think that once you leave a place, the place becomes imaginary. When you return to that imaginary place by writing about it, you participate in the re-creation of it, and through this process, you open yourself to the possibility of being newly surprised by what the place meant to you, means to you, and might continue to mean to you.

I: In The Made-Up Man, you focus on self-discovery. In what ways have your life experiences influenced the ways in which you understand the world as a writer, and how do you go about implementing your discoveries into your writing?

JS: I think that as a writer, you can write towards yourself or you can write away from yourself. You can also do both (in the same project). What I mean by this is that you can start a story or a scene or a moment with your life experiences—a seed of something that you actually experienced—and fictionalize ​away ​from those experiences as you proceed, allowing yourself to change character, setting, occasion, theme. Or you can start a story or a scene or a moment with completely fictional situations and write ​towards ​little embedded (and slightly modified) fragments of your own life experiences. For me, this helps keep the process surprising, interesting, and true.

I: Finally, a broader question: what drew you to writing as a career and what is the most important skill or bit of wisdom you’ve gained from putting thoughts to paper?

JS: Just a quick note of clarification: writing is only indirectly my career. Being a professor is directly my career. That’s what gets me my salary. However, to be a professor of creative

writing, I need to be a published writer. So maybe it’s most accurate to say that writing is not my career, but it supports my career. But writing is also the thing that I’ve been doing for much, much longer than I’ve been teaching. What drew me to writing is unknown to me. I’ve simply always loved it. I’ve been writing since before I could write—when I was a little kid, I would draw comic books, make a big space for the words (because I knew comic books needed words, even though I couldn’t read them), and then I’d dictate to my extremely patient and kind mother what words should go there. What drew me to teaching: when I went to get my MFA, I taught classes as a graduate student. (This is how you go to grad school for free.) I’d always been interested in teaching—my dad was a gym teacher at a K-8 in Chicago—but I wasn’t sure if I’d be any good at it or enjoy it. I ended up enjoying it immediately. I realized that, just like writing, it was a life’s work—that it was worth devoting my life to learning how to do it as best as I could. The writerly wisdom that’s been most important to me is the idea of the writer’s intention vs. the work’s intention—that whenever the emergent, surprising intentions of the work are in conflict with your initial intentions for the work, you need to abandon your initial intentions and revise towards the work’s intentions, because the story is smarter than you. It’s a way of following what is most alive in the work. I am very grateful for this teaching. It continues to guide me.

An Interview with Jonathan Dee

Conducted by Adam Kearing, Hannah Langley, and Matthew Mazzella.

Jonathan Dee, a Pulitzer Prize nominated author, has written seven successful novels over the course of his career, including A Thousand Pardons and The Privileges. Originally from northwestern Connecticut, Dee moved to New York City shortly after graduating from Yale University. During his years at Yale, Dee studied fiction writing and learned from some of the best fiction-writing practitioners. Dee writes mostly fiction and he has been very successful doing so. The move to NYC influenced the rest of his career, as Dee spent most of his time working in writing and publishing as a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine andsenior editor of The Paris Review, as well as a National Magazine Award nominated literary critic for Harper’s. His novels revolve around the idea of class struggle and present the trials and tribulations upper middle-class men and women go through and how they cope with everyday problems and struggles. Dee also played a key role in creating the infamous April Fool’s joke about the imaginary baseball pitcher Sidd Finch in Sports Illustrated. He has won several awards including the St. Francis College Literary Prize, the Prix Fitzgerald. He has received several fellowships, consisting of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Dee currently resides in Syracuse, NY, where he also teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. 

Interviewers: At what point did you decide you wanted to become a writer? 

Jonathan Dee: When I was young, maybe nine or ten, I had what seems now like a foreshadowing habit: whenever I read a book I liked (at that age they were mostly books about sports), I would take one of my father’s pencils and yellow legal pads and sit down and try to re-write the book myself, from memory, as if it had been my idea in the first place. I didn’t really get serious about writing until college, particularly senior year when I took a writing workshop with the late, great John Hersey, one of the truly formative figures in my life. (I still catch myself copying his teaching style today.) But even after I knew that a writer was what I wanted to be, all my career “plans” centered around my likely failure; I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I never even tried to write a novel and get it published, so I figured I’d try, and fail, and then move on to whatever the next thing was. (The next thing would surely have been something in publishing or academia, some job that still involved spending as much time as possible around books and other people who loved them.) 

I: Knowing your previous work experience at The New York Times Magazine and The Paris Review, what made you decide you wanted to become an English professor at Syracuse University? 

JD: I’d already been teaching for many years – at Columbia, NYU, Brooklyn College – though not full-time. Basically, I just felt ready for a change. New York is great, it will always be my home, but it’s also uniquely exhausting; even the simple things there, like parking a car or sending your kid to school, are ridiculously complicated and expensive. I always say that New York is the ideal place to live if you’re either in your twenties or a millionaire, and I am neither. 

I: Did growing up in New York City inspire any of your stories? If so, what moments or characters did you base off real life experiences? 

JD: I was born in New York City but didn’t really grow up there: when I was five, my family moved to a very small town in northwestern Connecticut. But I moved back to the city after I graduated from college, and stayed there more than 25 years, so it’s had a big influence on my life and my fiction. The little totems from those years that I’ve re-purposed in my novels are too many to mention: the hippo-playground in Riverside Park in the first chapter of The Locals, the incredible penthouse apartment overlooking the planetarium in The Privileges, the gala party on the deck of the Intrepid in The Privileges, etc. etc. Usually places, though, rather than people. The only characters I ever base outright on real people are minor ones, often people who just appear in a book once. In The Privileges, for instance, there’s a scene where April is shocked to discover a friend’s dad alone in his study on the top floor of his townhouse, reading the paper while a bunch of drunk teenagers trash his multi-million-dollar home below. That’s a real guy. 

I: In “The Privileges” and “A Thousand Pardons”, your characters have to make some deep ethical and moral decisions. Was there an instigating incident in your life that inspired the decisions these characters had to make? 

JD: No, there was no one big defining incident, though life is certainly a succession of smaller ethical and moral crossroads of that kind. The instinct to put characters through some kind of moral crucible is probably born more of reading, to be honest, than of living; that’s what’s thrilling, in fiction — to see characters’ mettle tested, to see their response, and to empathize with the humanity of that response whether it’s brave or not, smart or not, moral or not. 

I: Being that you grew up in New York City but now live in upstate New York, do you share anything in common with your character Helen in “A Thousand Pardons”? 

JD: Probably. It’s hard to write a few hundred pages about any character without some of you bleeding into them, and vice versa. Usually, though, the commonality between my main characters and my real life is a matter of small-scale stuff: incidents, anecdotes, lines of dialogue. I’ll give you one example: remember how Helen’s daughter starts skipping soccer to go on little city adventures, and then goes home and gives a fake account of the game? I coached my daughter’s weekend soccer team in Manhattan for years, and one year, one of her teammates did exactly that. (She got caught, though; I accidentally busted her when I emailed her mom to make sure she was okay.) As far as your question specifically about Helen: my brother and his family moved from Brooklyn to Chappaqua many years before A Thousand Pardons was written, and it’s their house I was picturing when I wrote about Helen’s. Please don’t tell him. 

I: In both “The Privileges” and “The Locals”, your characters face tough economic circumstances and decisions? Was any of this based off your own experience or the experience of your friends and family with the stock market crash and recession in 2009? If so, could you briefly explain what happened? 

JD: It’s very much based on my own experience, yes, but it goes back way further than the crash of 2007 – back to my family and the circumstances of my childhood. We were pretty well off, and then over the course of just a few years, as a result of a combination of alcoholism and mental illness, we lost everything. The great author William Maxwell was once asked what made writers become writers and he answered, “Deprivation.” (Maxwell’s own mother died in a flu epidemic when he was a child.) I wrote about this directly only once, in a personal essay called “Pre-Existing Condition” that appeared in an anthology called “Money Changes Everything.” 

I: Being a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University, what advice would you give to any college student aspiring to become a writer one day? 

JD: I don’t have to think too hard about that one, because I give advice of that kind to students practically every day: writing isn’t really even about writing, it’s about re-writing. People think it’s about sitting around waiting for the muse to gift you with a fantastic idea, and it is about that, sort of, but the gap between that moment and an actual good book, or even just a good sentence, is long and workmanlike. A lot of young writers want to give up on a project if it comes out badly the first time, but it always comes out badly the first time – you have to make yourself push through that. (Oh, and read as much of The Paris Review’s interview series, “Writers at Work,” as you can. Those books were graduate school for me.)

An Interview with Lisa See

Conducted by Emma Paxton, Molly McCarthy, and Kate Picone

Lisa See is an author of young adult novels that all incorporate the experiences of Chinese people, particularly the relationships between women within families. Although Ms. See is not completely Chinese, her grandfather was and she has felt very connected to this part of her family. This connection has inspired her to created best-selling novels such as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and many others. Although these books focus on family, Ms. See also incorporates notable time periods, such as World War II, and how those significant moments in history affect her characters to depict the ways these events affected people’s lives in real life. Before she started writing books, Ms. See was a freelance journalist whose writing has appeared in Vogue, Self, and More along with many book reviews. Ms. See was honored as National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women in 2001 for her continued efforts to represent Chinese-Americans throughout literature.

Emma Paxton, Molly McCarthy, Kate Picone: Your novels are notably set in or are about characters from China. Aside from your own heritage, what is it about China and its history that interests you so much as a writer?

Lisa See: The obvious answer is that China has 5,000 years of continuous history and culture that most people know very little about but that fascinates me.  But it’s more than that. My personal history is inexorably linked to why I’m interested in China. I’m part Chinese.  My great-great-grandfather came here to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad.  My great-grandfather was the godfather/patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown.  I don’t look at all Chinese, but I grew up in a very large Chinese-American family.  I have hundreds of relatives in Los Angeles, of which there are only about a dozen who look like me.  All writers are told to write what they know.  My family is what I know.  And what I don’t know—the women’s secret language that I wrote about in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, for example—I love to find out whatever I can and then bring my sensibility to the subject.  I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways I straddle two cultures.  I try to bring what I know from both cultures into my work.  The American side of me tries to open a window into China and things Chinese for non-Chinese, while the Chinese side of me makes sure that what I’m writing is true to the Chinese culture without making it seem too “exotic” or “foreign.”  What I want people to get from my books is that all people on the planet share common life experiences—falling in love, getting married, having children, dying—and share common emotions—love, hate, greed, jealousy. These are the universals; the differences are in the particulars of customs and culture.

EP, MM, KP: Another common theme that your novels have is that they center around relationships between women—mothers/daughters, friends, sisters, etc. How important is it to you, and perhaps to readers, that you have these kinds of relationships in your stories?

LS: There are millions of fresh ideas about women’s relationships still to be told!  Let’s remember that women writers haven’t been getting published for all that long.  Yes, there are the women writers that we all know about—the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, and some others—but really, they were few and far between.  This means that in the great body of the world’s literature most female relationships—mothers and daughters, sisters, friends—have been written by men.  I find it extremely exciting to read about women through the eyes of women, and, again, this is still a relatively recent phenomenon.  And there’s such range to that, right?  Women who shop, tough women detectives, flawed women, brave women, poor women, rich women, women from other cultures, religions, cultures, and traditions. As a writer, I’m drawn to women’s friendship because it’s unlike any other relationship we have in our lives.  I’m especially interested in the dark shadow side of female friendship. We will tell a friend something we won’t tell our mothers, our husbands or boyfriends, or our children.  This is a particular kind of intimacy, and it can leave us open to the deepest betrayals and other failures in courage. 

EP, MM, KP: Co-writing with one other author seems like a daunting enough task on its own, but what was it like cowriting Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road with not only two other authors, but your mother, Carolyn See, as well?

LS: My mother, John Espey, and I had so much fun working together as Monica Highland.  John was 21 years older than my mother, and my mother was 21 years older than me, so we had three generations working together.  I feel in many ways like those were my deep apprenticeship years.  I learned so much from the tow of them.

EP, MM, KP: Your mother is a fellow writer, how has she influenced your writing style or vice versa? What other authors have influenced you as a writer?

LS: Wallace Stegner, especially Angle of Repose. I used a couple of lines from this novel as the epigraph for my first book, On Gold Mountain. I didn’t realize when I used them that they would come to symbolize how I see myself as a writer. He wrote: “Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t completely comprehend. I’d like to live in their clothes a while.” And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in my work—live in their clothes awhile. E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.  OK, so this is one of the greatest novels ever written, but I read it for the first time when I was falling in love with my husband.  Forster so delicately, yet eloquently, addresses issues of class, nationality, and economic status.  “Only connect!” which he used as his epigraph, may be the two most quoted words in English literature, but people often ignore what comes soon after. “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”  You can see how besotted in love I was. James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential.  I love, love, love this novel.  It’s set in Los Angeles. It’s got romance, mystery, corruption, and violence. It’s got cracking great language, because Ellroy is a genius when it comes to the voices of cops, bad guys, politicos, and prostitutes.  The various plots are complicated but dazzlingly interwoven. I’d like to add that the film is one of my all-time favorites too.  I always say that the book is better than the film.  (Who doesn’t?)  But this film is a great for lovers of the novel, because, while the script can’t include all the intricacies of the novel’s various plotlines, it hints at them brilliantly. Last, Nina Revoyr’s The Age of Dreaming. This novel, which takes place in Hollywood, goes back and forth through time between the present day and the silent film era. It’s based loosely on the true story of Mary Miles Minter, a young and popular silent film star, who was involved in the still-unsolved murder case of director William Desmond Taylor.  The main character, Jun Nakayama, is based, also loosely, on Sessue Hayakawa, the first actor of Asian descent to become an internationally-known star. The mix of mystery, period details, racism, and the whole unknown—at least to me—world of the silent film era is both thoughtful and captivating.  I recommend this novel at least once a week.

EP, MM, KP: In the novel Shanghai Girls the character, Joy, runs away to China to try and find her dad. What inspired you to make this choice for the character? Were you worried that this choice was controversial?

LS: Joy is idealistic. It’s 1957, the PRC is still a very young country, and she’s very excited about what’s happening there. She has also suffered a great loss. Her father committed suicide after being targeted during the Confession Program and being accused of being a communist.  To me, it is only natural that she would want to go to the land of her blood and abandon the place that has been so cruel to her family.  But it’s one thing to be idealistic and quite another to arrive in China in 1957 as a Chinese by blood but also as a naïve girl who grew up in Los Angeles.  To me, the end of Shanghai Girls is a new beginning.  With Dreams of Joy, I had the opportunity to write about a period in China that Westerners know very little about.  I love shattering preconceived notions of what China was or is.

EP, MM, KP: In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan there are many references to ancient Chinese practices such as foot binding and matchmaking. Did you find that it was hard to make these practices authentic for the book? 

LS: There are many theories about how the practice started.  One of them is that there was a courtesan who used to wrap her feet when she danced.  Obviously she wasn’t breaking her bones or else she wouldn’t have been able to dance.  Nevertheless, it was said that she looked like she had little fox feet when she danced.  She became hugely famous for this, and all the men wanted to see her.  Pretty soon other courtesans were binding their feet.  Now all the men wanted to see them.  This resulted in a lot of wives saying the Chinese equivalent of “How am I going to get Harry to come home?”  That’s how foot binding made the jump from the courtesan culture to the culture of fine upstanding women. Foot binding wasn’t difficult to research.  What was hard was putting myself in the room with Lily, Beautiful Moon, and Third Sister as they had their feet bound.  I kept wondering how a mother could do that to her daughter.  This question stayed with me.  I wanted to look at foot binding from a mother’s point of view, which is what I did in Peony in Love.  This doesn’t explain why it lasted so long – a thousand years!  There are several reasons for that. First, it was a terrific economic status symbol for men. A man could say, “I’m so wealthy that, look, I have a wife with bound feet,” meaning she didn’t have to work. Or, “I’m so extraordinarily wealthy that even my servants have bound feet.” Now that was an extremely wealthy man.  Second, men are men, so there was a whole sexual component to bound feet. Anything you could imagine they did with those bound feet, they did, and more.  But that still doesn’t explain why it lasted so long. This was something that a mother did to her daughter. It was passed down through the centuries.  I think this is the hardest thing to understand – how a mother could inflict such terrible pain on her daughter. She did it because it was the one thing she could do to possibly give her daughter a better chance at life. If she could give her daughter a pair of perfectly bound feet, then maybe her daughter would marry into a better family and have a better life. If that was the only way you could help you daughter, wouldn’t you do it too?

EP, MM, KP: What is your advice to English majors and young writers?

LS: Look at writing as a job.  That means you get up and you go to work.  I don’t wait for that moment of inspiration.  By now, I do a lot of things—I write, I do a lot of speaking, and I do other fun—rather, what I consider to be fun—projects.  But the most important thing is writing, so that always comes first.  When I get up, the first thing I do is write.  My rule is one thousand words a day—just four pages—that isn’t very much.  Life is short, so be passionate about everything you do.

An Interview with Eric Bennett

Conducted by Andrea Reyes, Chris Sebastian, and Gianna Simoncelli.

Eric Bennett grew up in Michigan and attended Deep Springs College and Harvard College for his undergraduate years. He later received his MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa, subsequently receiving his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University. Bennett now lives in Providence, Rhode Island and is a novelist and an English Professor at Providence College. His areas of expertise are concentrated around 20th Century American Fiction & Poetry, Modernism, Postmodernism, and Cold War History. He is the author of new, published novel, A Big Enough Lie. His other works include, Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War, . Bennett’s work has been featured in, A Public Space, Modern Fiction Studies, and The Virginia Quarterly Review.   

Interviewers: In your first novel, A Big Enough Lie (2015), we found it very interesting that there is a novel within a novel. What was the inspiration behind this style of writing? Was it hard to distinguish between the two styles of writing (your writing vs your main character’s)?

Eric Bennett: In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey offers a compelling series of observations about the dilemma of creative artists over the course of the twentieth century. A central one is the near impossibility of reconciling disparate frames of human experience within a single text. For instance (my example, not his), a novel about divorce in Connecticut in 2010 will probably involve people whose hearts are getting broken. But presumably those brokenhearted characters wear clothing and sit on furniture and operate kitchen appliances manufactured far across planet earth by people with very different kinds of hardship in their lives: with very differently broken hearts. How on earth, Harvey asks, do you capture in art that kind of diffuse interconnection?

The convention in much American “realism” is simply to bracket and ignore the problems of the sweatshop workers in China. For the sake of a good read, this is wise. But the question matters, and some of my favorite works of contemporary American fiction find solutions to it. Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange solves the problem in one way; Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry (with that suggestive title) solves the problem in another. Much of George Saunders’s fiction similarly refuses to draw tight domestic boundaries around the sphere of action. My colleague E. C. Osondu (a student of Saunders) also masterfully modulates between cultural frames. In my case I wanted to put, within one novel, the very different ethical pangs and urgencies of creative writing workshops in the Midwest and combat in the Middle East.

Regarding your last question, I don’t think I distinguish in that way between “mine” and “my main characters.” It presupposes a kind of earnest baseline, an “authentic” voice, and that’s not my understanding of great writing. That said, I did think about differences in tone between the two halves of the narrative.

I: As part of the novel within a novel, the main character writes a memoir of his time in Iraq. What struggles did you face while writing about this topic? Is this experience based on someone you personally know? 

EB: My initial excitement for the project was based in that challenge: in writing a convincing account of combat in Iraq having never been there or served in the Army. I read everything I could about the war (which was really not that much, in 2005, when I started work) and also received help from a veteran who wished to remain anonymous.

I: A character in A Big Enough Lie  (2015) is the character of John Townley. How did you come to develop this character? Is this character based on someone in real life that added to the development of Townley?

EB: In the Poetics, Aristotle conceives of character in terms of action: we are what we do. Modern conceptions of psychology and character lay a far greater emphasis on interiority—some essential self that persists regardless of external behavior. I understand what this is and means and feel as though I and the characters I write have “personalities.” But I find fiction easier to write if the starting point for character is external action. (Also, for what it’s worth, I enjoy life more if I don’t obsess about my inner essence; and the less you obsess, the less it seems to exist). I knew there would be a character who fabricated an Iraq War memoir. That was my starting point. So how do you get such a person to tick? 

I: Workshops of Empire focuses on the careers of Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner and their creative writing at the University of Iowa and Stanford after World War II. What influences and ideas did the World War II period have on the development of Creative Writing? (Or what do you think is the most important idea was to come out of this World War II period on the development of creative writing?) 

EB: The early creative writing programs promoted above all one dimension of modernist poetics. This is the idea that the particular matters more than the universal and that the senses are virtually the only avenue into good writing. They are an avenue into good writing, but hardly the only one. The highest question for writers is or should be how individual experience relates to collective experience.

The United States in general in so many of its cultural forms encourages a trivial, sensationalistic, and bogus idea of how the individual relates to the collective. Reality shows like Survivor create situations in which libertarian or egoistic instincts cultivated in mass society are put to the test under conditions that, in any other dispensation, would encourage fellow feeling and good tribalism. We lie to ourselves that our voices are louder than they are and that we can go it alone more than we can. Social media encourages this orientation, and our current president reflects its ascent as an ideology. Ferocious selfishness is the last bastion of putative authenticity. I don’t blame this on American creative writing in particular. But its handbooks lay yet another foundation for it. People are trained to regard their sensations as important in themselves and not trained to reflect on how those sensations pertain to larger social groupings. This, of course, is a gross generalization with many exceptions. But a survey of contemporary fiction from other countries contains much more sophisticated and subtle explorations of the relationship between individual and group. Catholic texts and Marxist texts both interest me more than blogs and Instagram accounts.

I: What was the most unexpected or interesting fact that you discovered while researching for Workshops of Empire?

EB: That the CIA gave a little bit of money to the International Writing Program at Iowa in 1967.

I: Can you recall, or take us back, to the moment when you realized you wanted to be a writer? 

EB: Calling oneself a writer strikes me as similar to calling oneself a movie star. It’s in poor taste to say so even if you are one. And it’s in especially poor taste if you’re aspiring to be one and not one yet. Another way of putting it is that “writers” are people with audiences, rather as “husbands” are people with wives, and “senators” are people with constituencies. I would say that Stephen King is a writer, and Toni Morrison was. They stirred in the United States a deep hunger for their writing. But even if I had a much larger audience than I’ve had to date (and I’d love it), I’d be reluctant to call myself a writer. When I write my subservience is to the excellence of the manuscript that is coming into existence. That excellence seems to exist outside and beyond me—to have a source in language, and in the nature of reality, and in the rules of good writing. I don’t own any of that. And the part of the process that centers on “me,” well, that’s not very interesting to me. I don’t have an identity that I wish to promulgate by expressing it in words. I have a desire to talk to those who have moved me by writing beautifully. Most of those people are dead. And I can’t imagine that their angels are interested in “Eric Bennett, the writer.” I imagine that, if those angels are interested in anything, it’s in the ongoing conversation that belongs to nobody but welcomes everybody and centers on varieties of startling virtuosity. My idea of heaven would be a library containing the canon of world literature published without authorial ascription.

I: What authors have influenced your writing? For what reasons?

EB: John Updike’s Rabbit, Run encouraged me to leave my hometown and not look back. Of course, I can’t stop looking back.

I: In what ways has teaching here at Providence College affected your own writing?

EB: As a non-Catholic at a Catholic institution, and a progressive at a center-right institution, I feel like an outsider—almost entirely in a good sense, though, like an outsider graciously welcomed. Similarly, my students resemble very little the kind of undergraduates that I knew during my own college days and probably that I tried myself to be. There are relatively few artists or aspiring bohemians here, and those that exist appear visible more in contrast to their natty peers than in comparison to artists and aspiring bohemians elsewhere—and often bring with them religious habits of being that are different from my own. So, in general I feel like I’m half on Mars, half at Disney World—and, if I get a third half, half in Vatican City—and, if I get a fourth half, half in the Connecticut suburbs. Which I love. The fiction I enjoy most and that I most aspire to write captures the friction between radically different value systems and ways of being. I take very seriously the values and ways of being even of those students and colleagues I least resemble. It’s not that I regard every interaction with an anthropological mind. It’s just that there’s a kind of feeling of chronic exile being here, and the part of me that wishes to write about chronic exile (which is basically the modern condition) savors it.

I: Being a practicing writer, published author, and English professor at Providence College, what advice would you give any college student aspiring to be a writer? Do you have any tips for student writers trying to get their work out there?

EB: This feels like being asked to tell you how to prepare for nuclear war.

An Interview with Lisa Gardner

Conducted by Alia Spring, Kate Ward, and Max Waite.

Lisa Gardner is a #1 New York Times bestselling thriller and mystery writer. She has published over thirty novels including The Perfect Husband, The Killing Hour, The Third Victim and The Survivors Club. Four of her novels were transformed into TV movies including The Perfect Husband and The Survivors Club. She has made personal appearances on a couple of television channels, including TruTV and CNN. Additionally, Lisa has written several romance novels under the pseudonym, Alicia Scott. Originally from Oregon, she now lives in New Hampshire and dedicates her time to writing a new novel every year.

Interviewers: Your books are filled with specific details about police procedures and criminal activity. What kind of person were you as a child and have these topics always interested you? For example, did you watch a lot police shows on television?

Lisa Gardner: I’ve always been fascinated by puzzles and things that go bump in the night, so mysteries were a natural fit. I grew up reading everything from Nancy Drew to Erle Stanley Gardner to V.C. Andrews. So yes, the mystery/police procedural aspect of my career is organic. I can’t imagine writing a book without a gruesome crime (which I guess says something about me).

KW: Many of your books are of the mystery and thriller genre, including the FBI and detective stories. What research have you done to become more connected with these genres, in order to get more of a specialized understanding?

LG: In the beginning of my writing career, I didn’t have the confidence to reach out to law enforcement to refine my novels. When I wanted to write my first thriller, however, THE PERFECT HUSBAND, real-world research became critical. In this day and age, readers expect plausible fiction—the crime may be over the top, but the investigative procedure should be authentic. Having no police contacts, I took the plunge and cold-called my local police department. It turns out, as long as you’re a taxpayer, you have the right to ask away.  Let them know up front it’s for fiction, and everyone relaxes. In the course of my career, I’ve now spent time at the FBI Academy, visited the Body Farm, worked with cadaver dogs, toured countless prisons, and learned about fugitive tracking. Each experience started with a phone call, hey I’m a writer working on a fiction novel, can I ask you some questions. No one ever recognizes Lisa Gardner. It’s simply a matter of taking that leap of faith, being professional and proving you are willing to learn. Most experts help in the end, because they are tired of the inaccuracies they see in books and TV. So tell them you want to get things right, and doors open up.

MW: How did you come up with the individual personalities of Detective D.D. Warren, Flora Dane, and Kimberly Quincy? Perhaps from people in your own life? 

LG: To be honest, I don’t know where my characters come from. I have to work on research and plot. The people in my novels, however, they simply come to me. Yep, I’m that crazy woman who listens to voices in her head. I don’t do character charting, bios, favorite flavors of ice cream. I just listen, then write. Yeah, freakish. I know.

AS: Could you point to a particular incident that made you decide to become a writer or more specifically a mystery writer?

LG: I don’t think you become a writer. I think you are a writer. It’s just a matter of finding the courage to take the plunge. I wrote my first book at 17. I can’t tell you why. Maybe because at 17 it’s more like why not? Then it sold, so I wrote another and another. Your first few novels are for love, not money, that’s for sure. Eventually I realized I liked writing more than I liked being a Boston business consultant. So then the question became, how could I make enough money to support myself in a profession famous for poverty-level income? The solution: write something with a bigger audience, e.g., a mainstream suspense thriller. I came up with the idea of THE PERFECT HUSBAND—a serial killer who escapes from maximum security prison in Massachusetts to extract revenge on everyone who put him there, including his wife. I gritted my teeth, did the research, survived the rewrites. And the rest, as they say, is history.

KW: Do you have any favorite thriller or mystery writers of your own?

LG: Tons. Where to begin? Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen, Gregg Hurwitz, T. Jefferson Parker, John Sandford, Nora Roberts, Riley Sager, Chevy Stevens, J.T. Ellison. I read a lot. Still my favorite past time.

MW: You write a book a year, which is incredible. How do you come up with fresh ideas for plots? Is it difficult to come up with new ideas or does it come naturally?

LG: Sadly, most of my books have been inspired by true crime, and there’s no end to that kind of inspiration. My January 28, 2020 release, WHEN YOU SEE ME, has to do with the discovery of skeletal remains which connect with a serial killer’s “asterisk list.” Basically, all serial predators have the murders that have been proven, then the additional victims police believe were killed but can’t prove it, often because they never found the body. For example, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, hunting grounds of Ted Bundy. They never found all his victims. So there are families out there who’ve still never had their missing girls returned, but get to live out their days believing their daughters died at the hands of a serial predator. How awful is that? Given that, when remains are eventually discovered, even if you’re 90% sure it was the past work of so and so, the family needs/deserves closure. So, that’s where my book starts. A cold case investigation to provide closure in a fifteen-year old missing persons investigation. Needless to say, fresh murder and mayhem ensue.

AS: Following up that prior question, how do you escape burn out while writing a new book per year? It must be difficult to be on that constant grind of coming up with new ideas, plot, and characters.

LG: Once you become an established author, deadlines are real. You learn what works for you. I live in the mountains, so I often go hiking when I’m stuck. Active meditation, I believe they call it. Helps me brainstorm. Then there’s long car rides, thinking of a plot problem right before you fall asleep and waking up with the answer… At writers’ conferences we often compare notes. There’s definitely something about being on the move—car, walk, whatever—that seems to assist the creative process. Whatever the block, there is a solution. The best novelists listen to their inner voices and adapt along with them. Huh, we may be back to the freakish part. But because I’m successful, I get to use the word eccentric instead. I’m very, very…eccentric.

KW: Do you have any advice for college students who are aspiring mystery and thriller writers?

LG: What are you waiting for? I was published while in college. And I’m not alone. Age is no barrier to entry, young or old. Writing is organic. Read. Research. Write. Just do it. And yes, the first results will be crap. But then you rewrite and it gets better. You gotta log your 10,000 hours just like everyone else. Oh, and read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD and Stephen King’s ON WRITING. Then you’re ready. Go for it.

An Interview with Karen Lee Boren

Conducted by Julia Zgurzynski, Jason Welch and Caroline Wilson.

Karen Lee Boren grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a location she has kept with her in much of her writing. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a degree        in English, before getting an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University. She then returned to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in order to earn a P.H.D. in English. As she continued to write, she also began her teaching career as a professor at Rhode Island College. She’s been published in many journals, including but not limited to WomenArts Journal, The Florida Review and the Santa Fe Writers Project. She has also published the novella Girls in Peril and the collection of stories Mother Tongues. As of now, she is working on her newest novel, Secret Waltz.

Interviewers: In Girls in Peril, you begin by the story by telling the reader that Jeanne’s extra thumb was going to be severed at some point in the summer. While “spoiling” the upcoming events is not the most uncommon writing technique, why did you decide to utilize it in this novella?

Karen Lee Boren: There are a few reasons I chose to present this information at the beginning of the novel, both craft and thematic reasons. In terms of craft, planting this seed of the thumb’s severing establishes one of the novel’s dramatic questions, which hopefully drives the reader through the novel, asking, “How, why, and when will her thumb be severed?” If the reader knows of this event, first it creates suspense (rather than mere surprise), and when it finally happens, the feeling is organic to the story.

Thematically speaking, Jeanne’s thumb becomes the objective correlative for her emotional state and for the coherence of the group of girls in the story. The severing of this thumb from Jeanne’s hand marks the irrevocable rupture in the tight connection the girls have at the start of the novel. Focusing the reader’s attention on this symbol early on hopefully calls attention to this aspect of coherence and rupture in the book’s theme.

I: Girls in Peril is told in the first person plural. It feels as if there is another unnamed member of the group who narrates the story. She is never acknowledged by the other girls, and she only provides collective thoughts. Why did you choose to have this ephemeral personality narrate the story?

KLB: First, I wanted the challenge of writing in this rarely-used point of view, and it did pose challenges, especially when writing scenes. As you so rightly note, the way I managed this was to create the presence of the narrator who is both a member of the group but unnamed and shifting.

Second, adolescence is perhaps the time when people most want to be part of a group outside their family unit, and I wanted to explore this moment but also explore the process of moving beyond it, to the point where one recognizes one’s individuality too. I think of it as a sort of second psychological mirror stage, a time when young people, often unwillingly, must recognize their separateness as individuals despite their intense connections to their friends. It’s often a feeling of loss, and I wanted to explore this loss.

I: Is there any specific place in your life that the inspiration for Girls in Peril came from? For example are the characters based on real people? Do you typically draw from personal experiences in your writing or do you prefer to take on a unique perspective?

KLB: Yes, I grew up on the south side of Milwaukee, about a block away from Lake Michigan. And I grew up in a time when families were big, neighborhoods were tightly knit, and children were given an amount of freedom to roam. Some of the characters are composites of folks I have known. The violence in the book though is based on an actual incident that happened in the neighborhood in which I grew up. It was a shocking thing, this violence, of course for the families directly affected, but for those of us in the neighborhood too. One of my sisters insisted on sleeping with her back to the wall for years after it. It rocked our understanding of family and safety and community. I will say that the family who was most directly affected by the original incident has not been at all happy that I wrote about it, directly accusing me of lacking compassion. I’m extremely sorry they feel this way, I really am, but I do think that having given over a year of my life to contemplating the pain felt by all those involved gave me a great deal of compassion and empathy for them too. Writers, though, if they are to write deeply, need to be prepared for others not to be happy with their work.

More generally, I write both from my experience and far beyond it. My most recent novel, Secret Waltz, has very little to do with me personally, and is more of an exploration of a time period when life was significantly more restrictive, 1966, for men and women. In this book, history drives the narrative as well as the character’s situations and decisions. The Irish writer, William Trevor, said he hoped he was more boring in real life than his characters were in his books. I agree with him.

I: The short stories in Mother Tongue captivated my attention by offering a brief yet incredibly nuanced glimpse into each character’s troubled life and ending before positive resolution occurs. What made you want to keep the stories in Mother Tongue so concise instead of expanding one or two into a longer piece?

KLB: I love short fiction. I really do. I love to read it and write it. Short fiction can pack a punch and, in some ways, it stays with a reader in a very different way than the long-read of a novel does. So one reason I write short work is because it’s impactful, but it’s also fun. You can experiment, set yourself challenges, go a little crazy without committing 3-5 years to the work, which is what I generally invest in a novel.

However, I do want to point out that at least one story in this collection has a happy ending. I specifically wrote “Fire and Rescue” so there would be a story that my young nieces could read, and I wanted it to be uplifting.

I: In Mother Tongue, Sister Charlene hears about peoples “basest instincts” and “deepest wounds,” their raw humanity. Some of your characters have a dark side, for example, Joey with his terrible crimes of stabbing Lois and killing himself. Do you ever feel like your experience as a writer is something like Sister Charlene’s, with your characters as the visitors, exposing their darkest secrets to you?

KLB: That’s a very insightful way to put it. Yes, it is a bit like that, but it’s such an honor to have characters reveal themselves to me, I don’t see it as a burden in any way. Characters don’t always reveal themselves, and then a story falls flat. Sometimes I have to wait years for them to tell me their stories. This is the best reason I can find for showing up to write regularly, because a character may be ready on that day to speak, and if you aren’t there to listen, you may never know that character’s story.

I: What kind of work did you write in college? Did writing fiction come naturally to you as a young writer?

KLB: Oh, gosh, no, writing still doesn’t come naturally. Wondering about people and what makes them do the things they do has always come naturally, but I’ve been pretty slow to develop my craft. I was a voracious reader my whole life, but I only really started writing in college, and I was very shy about it, very insecure. I think I had a sense of character then, but I didn’t know how to tell the characters’ stories. I had to work hard to learn narrative structure, to create scenes with tension, plotting techniques, rhythm and pacing with language. I do think other writers come to these aspects more easily than I did. I had to work hard at craft. I still do. I’m still learning.

I: Your work has been published in different literary journals, for example, Florida Review and Book Forum. What was the experience like? Do you remember your first acceptance?

KLB: I remember my first publication – and every single one of them since – very well. It was actually an earlier version of one of the stories I included in Mother Tongue, and it was in Epoch, Cornell University’s literary journal. There’s no denying it’s exciting to work on a piece for publication, and it’s different if you’re writing a piece that you know will be in a certain publication than if you are writing without knowing if anyone will ever read the piece. The BookForum essay was solicited, so I had some input from the editor as I researched and wrote; they also gave me a length and a deadline. All of these can be really helpful in crafting a piece that works with their publication’s focus and tone. When you write without knowing where the piece will end up, there is a freedom, but that freedom means you have to create your own rules, have to determine how long a piece will be and when a piece is finished, all by yourself. Then you try to find a publication that matches your work.

I: You write fiction and nonfiction. How do you manage to wear both hats comfortably?

KLB: Genre has its own demands. I let those lead me, even when I’m breaking rules or pushing at the conventions, I’m aware of them. Generally, fiction demands conflict, character development, scene construction, organized time structures, a narrative arc, and so on. Generally, nonfiction demands a strong voice, but structure is much more open, so one has to figure out what is compelling about a topic for the reader, how to connect with a reader through one’s personal experience, or the subject matter, in a way that may be outside narrative. And, of course, in nonfiction you have the basic contract with the reader that you will do your best to tell the truth, even as both reader and writer acknowledge that this truth is often based on memory and feeling as well as fact.

Interviewers: You are both an author and a professor. What drove you to take up a profession in teaching and how does teaching contribute to your growth as a writer?

KLB: Teaching has helped me learn about writing because I am constantly drawn back to the basics of craft when I present them to students. For many writers, the demands of teaching are inconsistent with their own writing, but for me they are a marriage; at their best, they feed each other in productive ways. Writing keeps my teaching fresh, and teaching provides me with the financial stability to make choices about what and how to write that are artistically driven rather than financially driven. I also love the interactions with student writers. I’ve been fortunate to work with some truly extraordinary talents, and to have any part in their development, well, it’s an honor indeed.

I: What advice would you give to an aspiring college writer?

KLB: Read widely. Read outside your taste. Ask how questions of the things you read: How did the writer create tension, intimacy, a full sense of place, a memorable character? Write a lot, and be open to critique, then rewrite. Don’t give up on a piece of writing because it’s hard. Stay with it until you or it loses energy, but make sure it’s not just uncertainty or fear pushing you away from a piece of writing. Be prepared to write badly. You must want to get better, and you will sometimes write badly throughout your writing life. But also let yourself feel the exhilaration and play of creation because there’s nothing better than this sense that you’re onto something good.

An Interview with Thomas Christopher Greene

Conducted By: Charles Pandit, Natalia Mozzicato, and Julia Ogonowsky.

Thomas Christopher Greene is a highly esteemed novelist and is well versed in the arts. His work has achieved worldwide recognition and has been translated into eleven languages. He has been nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and his first novel, Mirror Lake, was labeled one of the thirty books to be rediscovered by Waterstones in the UK. Greene’s work has been respectfully described as both incandescent and poetic.

            Thomas Greene’s story humbly began in Worcester, Massachusetts, as the sixth of seven children born and raised by Richard and Dolores Greene. He attended public schools in Worcester before transferring to Suffield Academy in Suffield, CT. He furthered his education by earning a BA in English from Hobart College and an MFA in Writing from the former Vermont College. However, Greene has dabbled in a variety of fields. He has worked as an oyster shucker, on the line at a staple factory, delivering pizza, as a deputy press secretary for a presidential campaign, and as the director of public affairs for two universities. He also shared his passion and expertise for writing and literature as a professor.

            Greene has resided in central Vermont, the primary setting for his novels, since 1993. His first novel, Mirror Lake, was critically acclaimed and published in 2003. Since then, he has steadily released the novels: I’ll Never be Long Gone, Envious Moon, If I Forget You, and The Perfect Liar. His most famous book, The Headmaster’s Wife, was published in March of 2014. Amidst writing full time, Mr. Greene and Bill Kaplan impressively founded the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The Vermont College of Fine Arts is the first new college in Vermont in over thirty years. Furthermore, the college’s writing programs proudly sit at the top of the national ranks. Innovative programs have emerged in graphic design, music composition, film, writing and publishing, and an MA in art and design education. This past year on July 1st, Thomas Greene stepped down from his position as president but still resides locally.

Charles Pandit: Lancaster is based on Suffield Academy, just in Vermont rather than in Connecticut, right?

Thomas Greene: To answer your question, yeah, I did base it off Suffield Academy. I think something that a lot of writers do is that we will take real people or real places and put an imprint on them but use them as a basis that we leap forward from. Actually, the novel I just finished two days ago will probably come out in a year, returns to the Lancaster School in the 1980s; it’s the same setting and has some of the same people.

CP: Was this because of how Elizabeth described her relationship to Lancaster and how she never wanted to leave in The Headmaster’s Wife? Do you feel the same way and constantly feel drawn back to Suffield?

TG: You know it’s funny, I’ve only actually ever been back to Suffield once since I graduated. So to answer your question, no, not really. It was a pivotal point in my life to go to a boarding school. I grew up in a middle-class family and am one of seven kids, and no one had gone to a boarding school. In the case of Elizabeth, I am fascinated by the fact that some people who went back and are still at Suffield who have built a life around it. It was always something I was kind of jealous of because it seems like such a nice life. It’s a small world you live in, but it seems kind of nice having a house right there on campus, right next to the people who taught you. I am definitely interested in exploring that culture in my writing.

CP: When you were at Suffield, did you ever think that you would write a book about it? When you were at Suffield, did you know you wanted to be a writer or ever start a college?

TG: No to both; I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. I was a bookworm and was reading books all the time. I always thought I wanted to be a lawyer or politician. Being a writer didn’t even occur to me as being an option, frankly. It wasn’t until later when I went to college for a year, and I left through mutual agreement with the college where I spent two years away from college. I worked in politics for one year, and then I was delivering pizza. I was thinking about what I could do with my life, and I tried to write a novel. I was probably 20 or 21 years old, and it was awful. I went back to school and started studying creative writing, and I fell in love with it and realized I had a gift for it. Even then, I didn’t think it was possible. I published my first novel when I was 30. It took about ten years to really learn how to do this thing to get good enough at it to do it for a living.

CP: When you were at Suffield, did you ever imagine or think that you would start a college?

TG: Oh, God, no! *laughs* I was just trying to find a girlfriend, man. I was 18 years old, I was just trying to stay out of trouble… mostly. None of those things were on my mind. Starting a college was an accident of fate that happened later when I developed a skill set that I thought could make a difference and learned how to be a leader. I wasn’t a leader at Suffield. It’s funny because people develop differently, and I don’t think anybody at Suffield who taught me or knew me thought I would do much of anything, honestly. I think people knew I was smart and funny and sort of known for having this quick wit and being good with words. But I don’t know that anybody knew the things that I would do with my life. People develop at different rates, and for me, it wasn’t until later that it started to come together.

CP: How did you come up with the plot for The Headmaster’s Wife?

TG: I knew I wanted to write a story about a guy who had lost his mind, but I didn’t know exactly how I was going to structure the book until I was probably halfway through it. The twist kind of just came to me; it was like a gift. This idea I thought, “it’s so good, it’s so weird, it’s so unconventional!” because books aren’t really structured the way that one is, which is basically two different stories. Well, it’s the same story told two different ways by two different people. It just came to me that way, like when a marriage falls apart, or someone loses a child, which really is at the heart of that book. It tells the story of how people fall apart, and how they deal with it really says a lot. But I got lucky on the big plot twist. I had written most of that first section without realizing where it was fully going to go until it came to me. I didn’t expect it to quite work as well as it did, but it’s weird to have a huge plot twist halfway through a book that actually works. I stumbled upon it, and I’m grateful for it because it made that book an international bestseller basically because of the twist.

CP: Did you originally start writing Arthur’s story or Elizabeth’s story?

TG: Arthur’s story. I knew Arthur’s story wasn’t going to be true. I knew that was going to be the revelation. I was going through the process, and once it came, I decided, “Oh, I’m going to flip the page and tell Elizabeth’s story.”

Natalia Mozzicato: The characters in The Perfect Liar appear to be motivated by self-preservation, and are dedicated to concealing their past. How did you balance merging the character’s extensive backstories with their present circumstances?

TG: It was a challenge, honestly. That’s a good question because it’s always a hard thing in fiction to limit backstory, which you kind of want to do on some level. But in this case, the heart of the story was the fact that everybody in this book was kind of an imposter or had a criminal past in an interesting way; particularly, the main character was a conman, and his wife in some ways was too. The challenge was finding the structure that would work. The thing about novels is that they all hang on some kind of architecture. It’s sort of like building a building. As an architect, you don’t quite know what the building is going to look like until you start drawing it and seeing what works and seeing what will support it. The same is true in novels. In this case, I had to find a balance between telling the story thread that was happening in the current and then the story threads that had happened in the past and then how to weave them together; and eventually, they had merged, which is something that happens in a novel. So, in this case, most of the backstory is gone halfway through, and then it’s just a steady propulsion to the end.

NM: Both Susannah and Max are involved in the art-world. Where did the inspiration for their careers come from, and did you conduct research about artists?

TG: Well, so, as President of Vermont College of Fine Arts, I spend a lot of time in the New York art world. So, a lot of their experiences happen in the New York art world, including a big party scene at the beginning which is drawn from my own experience: people I’ve known, how the gallery system works. Some of it is kind of a funny critique of the art world where I’m making fun or poking fun a little bit at how seriously people take themselves, picking at the New York art world. But most of it is drawn from my own experiences. I spend a lot of time in New York, essentially raising money for a college that was focused on the arts and because of that, being able to move around at a kind of high-level, New York City art scene, which is what I spent years doing.

NM: You have spent many years living in Vermont, and you have an active role in the community as the founder and President of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. In your novel The Perfect Liar, you noticeably contrast the initial New York City setting with a small town in Vermont. How did your familiarity with Vermont influence the novel?”

TG: Yeah, so, I think the place is often a character in books, and I would say this is true of  Manhattan in that novel too and also in If I Forget You. Those are both places I’ve spent a lot of time. I’ve divided a lot of my time between Vermont and Manhattan. You know, I think both those novels reflect my knowledge. There is the old saying, “you write what you know,” which I kind of hate. But there is, actually, a power in creating a fictional dream, which is what you’re doing when you’re writing a novel, because you want people to believe it, and you want your reader to not think, “Hey, is this real?” You want to forget you’re reading; you want to see pictures and images. One of the best ways to do that is to write about things that you’re very familiar with. So, being familiar with both Vermont and New York was really helpful in writing all these novels. I don’t write about, you know, Paris so much or places I don’t know super well, like San Francisco. I tend to write about Vermont, which is a constant setting in my books. And New York City often is too because I’ve spent a fair amount of time there.

Julia Ogonowsky: Do you prefer writing in lyrical prose, as seen in If I Forget You, or do you prefer other styles?

TG: Yeah, so, If I Forget You is actually one of my favorite books. I do love the writing in that book; I love the lyricism to it. It’s not quite the thriller that either The Headmaster’s Wife or The Perfect Liar are, which are really straight-up thrillers. For me, it is sort of a beautiful book where the kind of language of it I really like in that book. It’s incantatory and kind of bounces up and down. It has a sort of poetic sensibility, which is one of the subjects of the novel; it’s really a love story. So, yeah, I actually really enjoyed writing in that style quite a bit, but I also like writing in the sort of direct, more clear approach you see in The Perfect Liar, which is a very direct book, more so than even The Headmaster’s Wife.

JO: On page 2, Henry’s mom advises him, “Henry Gold, don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t do something.” Has anyone ever told you that you can’t do something, especially with regards to writing and becoming a published author?

TG: I think rejection is such a part of being a writer; it’s a profound part of it. I mean when students used to ask me at the college where we were educating writers, “what does it take to be a writer?” I say thick skin is one of the most important things because you’re gonna experience a lot of rejection. And a lot of people are going to tell you, “you can’t do this” all the time. And I think that’s true of anything in life, I don’t think it’s true to just writers. I think if you really want something, you have to have the perseverance and vision to want to do it. And, you have to have the drive to want to ignore the haters, if you will. Who is going to tell you that you aren’t good enough? Not smart enough? There are always going to be people who are more talented than you, no matter what you do. There’s always going to be people who are better at it. It’s just a question of how hard are you willing to work, to cut through it. So, yeah, I think it’s very true and I relate deeply with Henry in that book. He’s probably the most autobiographical character that I’ve written.

JO: Is there a parallel between Chad’s dislike for work and lack of drive with Henry’s passionate motivation and determination to rise up from poverty?

TG: Yeah, I mean I think there is. Chad is sort of representative of somebody with such a significant trust fund that they never have to work in what actually motivates them. There are people who go in different directions that way, right, I mean there are people who come from extreme wealth and work their asses off and do interesting things, like an Anderson Cooper on CNN who’s at Vanderbilt. But he built his own career and his own life, and then there are others who kind of just fall back into it. And I think for Henry, there’s just a deep, burning ambition that comes out of his desire to escape and I think people who come out of poverty and achieve great success live in fear that it’s going to be taken away from them at any time. And, so, that’s a huge motivator and I think that’s very true of Henry in that novel.

JO: You and Henry share an evident love for writing. While he is a poet and you primarily write fiction, would you ever consider writing poetry? Do you like poetry and do you ever wish to pursue it?

TG: No, the only poem I’ve ever written is in that novel. And it’s a poem I wrote for Henry and it’s awful. I think poets would think it was terrible. My friend Matthew Dickman, who is an amazing poet and a famous poet, I was telling him about the book and he was like, “you should’ve just told me, I would’ve written the poem for you!” which would’ve been amazing, because Henry’s supposed to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. The fact is that most people who read fiction aren’t going to know the difference in an extreme way. But, no, I’ve never really had the poetry bug. I’m more of a storyteller and while stories can be told through poems, and they are, my style is one that is more about telling stories in a clearer, more fictional way. So, that’s where my passion is and I don’t see myself becoming a poet.

JO: Did you base Henry off of yourself and your journey to becoming a writer? Do you see yourself in him?

TG: I do. I mean, Henry is Jewish and I was catholic. He’s poorer than I was; I was more middle-class. He’s from a poor family. He went to college to play baseball and I went to college to play basketball; that was a sort of fundamental difference between the two of us. We are both left-handed, though! He was a left-handed shortstop, and I was a left-handed basketball player. So, yeah, I drew a lot of my parallels off Henry. The college he’s at is very similar to Hobart College, where I went to school; almost like the way I used Lancaster School as Suffield. That is probably my most autobiographical novel, based on his backstory history than any of the others.

JO: If I Forget You explores numerous themes, such as enduring love, loss, marriage, and how the choices we make can change our lives forever. How much of this novel relates to your personal life and experiences, if at all?

TG: I think all novels I write, everything I write relates to my personal experiences. We can only know the world through our own eyes, and one thing we do with fiction, though, is pretending to be other people and do other things. But, at the same time, we are also exploring exactly what it is that we think and how we think. Yeah, this book, although it’s not my story, and it’s borrowed, in some cases, from other people’s stories, it has elemental truth to who I am within that book.

ALL: What do you think the best tactics are when it comes to creating suspense in your novels?

TG: I think having a sort of short chapter helps honestly with these books. You want to have a hook that keeps people reading. That’s one sort of particular technique. But you want to build suspense. People read to find out. This is why you read a novel, you want to know what happens. It’s why you listen to a story; if someone is like “the craziest thing happened to me and I’m about to tell it to you!” and you’re like “oh, what’s the craziest thing that happened to you?” So, the same techniques that are used for oral storytelling around telling somebody something are true in fiction too and it’s how you create suspense because you know something that the other person wants to find out. It’s how you kind of let out information over the course of the novel is how you make suspense work. And for me, it’s the books that I want to read. I want to read books that I’m like “I need to know what happens next,” like “I can’t stop reading it.” So I’m trying to write the kind of books that I want to read.

ALL: In If I Forget You, The Perfect Liar, and The Headmaster’s Wife, you narrate the story with multiple perspectives from different characters in the novels. What made you want to do this and how did you go about doing this?

TG: Yeah, I mean, it goes back to the question of structure and architecture in a book and how you actually decide how you’re going to make it happen. The benefit of multiple narrators or multiple points of view in a novel in some ways it’s easier to write, because you’re not relying on just one voice or one perspective throughout the whole thing. You know, there are big decisions you make when you start to write a novel, like is it going to be multiple points of view, single point of view, is it going to be first person or third person. They each have advantages; first person a lot depends on voice and what you say, but you’re also deeply limited in the first person because the only thing your narrator can know is what your narrator knows. And, so, using multiple points of view is a way to enrich a story by having multiple people weigh in on the same set of events because they see it from different points of view and they know different things. So, it’s easier. The novel I just wrote, by the way, is finished. It was all first-person, and I haven’t done that in a while and that’s a challenge. You’re limited in what that person can actually know. You can tell the full story, but they can’t know what the other person’s thinking. So doing multiple points of view allows you to have everybody know what everybody else is thinking, or at least the readers know what everybody else is thinking at the same time is important to the story.

CP: How has your role as president of the Vermont College of Fine Arts influenced you as a writer?

TG: I think I have had the chance to be around a lot of writers and a lot of other artists. I’ve drawn on that experience. In terms of The Headmaster’s Wife in particular, and although I’m certainly not Arthur, I can relate to Arthur’s experiences in running an institution and what it’s like to manage the board of trustees, the faculty, other people, and what it’s like to be a high profile person moving through your community. When your president of a college, every room you walk into people expect you to give a speech, and that’s a really weird way to live. I think when you’re the president of a college, there’s a lot of public expectations. So that actually makes for good fiction, because you learn that you actually have a public life and a private life. When you’re a public figure in any way, there are challenges, particularly in a small community, to being that that make interesting fiction. You have to be more careful than other people about what you do, or where you go, or what you drink, or how you live. All those things are challenges and I think it has definitely influenced my writing by giving me a different perspective on life that I normally wouldn’t have.

An Interview with Paul Tremblay

Conducted By: Emily Ball, Duncan Brown, Hailey Fragoso.

Paul Tremblay is primarily a horror author, with roots in detective stories as well. His career has garnered praise from other horror writers such as Stephen King, and he has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards. Tremblay went to undergrad at Providence College, and completed his Masters in Mathematics at the University of Vermont. He has since gone on to work as a high school math teacher in Massachusetts, while also working as a writer. His first short story was published in 2000, and he now has eight novels to his name, his most recent being ​Survivor Song.​

Interviewers: What kind of writer were you in college? Did you have an inkling in college that you’d become a successful writer?

PT: I wasn’t any kind of writer in college. I wish I had started then! At PC I ended up a Mathematics and Humanities double major for odd not-all-that-exciting reasons. The Humanities major consisted of a random mix of philosophy and history classes, with one English class. I took Lit 101 (or the modern-day equivalent) my second semester of senior year. Despite it being at 8 am (and I missed a few classes as graduation approached, sorry), it was a life-changing class for me. I really connected with Professor McLaughlin, who like me, was a big fan of punk music. But even in that class, we didn’t do any creative writing and I had zero inkling that I’d ever be a writer. I wanted to be a punk guitarist. I did, however, read a story in that class that helped turn me in a passionate, lifelong reader: “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates. I still remember the paper I wrote, comparing the use of violence in that story (and in “Greasy Lake” by TC Boyle) to a Jane’s Addiction song, “Ted Just Admit It.”

I: People see STEM and writing as two separate subject areas, but you walk the line between both of them. Has your experience studying Mathematics at Providence College and teaching math to students contributed to your writing in any way?

PT: While I’m certain my mathematics experience informs my writing because it informs who I am, who I became, I have a difficult time pinpointing or describing what ways the experience manifests in my writing. Because I was never a trained writer (never took any classes, never studied it in a formal setting; I was a member of a very informal writer’s group for a few years, but, honestly, it was an excuse for six of us who were friends already to meet at Trinity Brewhouse in Providence once a month and talk about our stories), I had to figure out the way that works for me on my own. That is not to say I haven’t had help along the way from many editors and writers. I am in the debt of many.

Anyway! I do think I approach writing in perhaps a more analytical manner than most. I am not a writer who can just spew out a quick, rough first draft (I wish I could). I write in small increments. I aim for 300-500 new words a day. The next day I begin by editing and tweaking what I wrote in the days before. If it’s a novel, I usually go back to the beginning of the chapter and then edit and add. I creep my way forward that way. I do no skip ahead to write future scenes. I write the book or story in the order in which I think things will happen (if that makes sense). By the time I have a full draft, I’ve already edited and re-edited most of the manuscript. Of course, I edit it again when I’m done with a draft. Maybe all of that is mathy in some way? I’m not sure.

There are more than a few of us math/writers out there. And there are plenty of science fiction writers with STEM backgrounds.

I enjoy teaching, generally. For my writing I find it’s a great daily lesson in character and voice. I’ve stolen slang from my classes and used it in two novels at least. Muhahahahaha

I: Your novel Survivor Song was published during this global pandemic and the subject is about how Rams and Natalie, specifically, experience this terrible, almost apocalyptic virus that forces the population to go into lockdown. Is this plotline a dramatization of the current situation? How does this storyline reflect your experience with the current pandemic, if at all? Did you use writing to cope with the pandemic? Did you begin writing this novel before the pandemic?

PT: I did not write the novel during the pandemic. It was published in July of 2020. Typically, with big publishers, it takes at least a year before a finished book then sees print (publishing schedule, the editing and copyedits, and marketing and PR plans, etc).

I started writing Survivor Song (featuring its outbreak of a super rabies virus in Massachusetts and a shortage of PPE and a shitty response from the federal government. Frankly, given the

nightmare currently temper tantruming in the oval office, it wasn’t difficult to predict that he wouldn’t handle a pandemic well. If anything, I way underestimated how much he’d suck.) in July of 2018 and turned in my draft to my editor, August 2019. Two months later edits were completed, and they even printed review copies of the book by late December 2019. So, I had no inkling of the coronavirus when I wrote the book. Part of why the novel feels like now, I think, was the result of research; specifically, the experience my nurse sister had during the Ebola outbreak of 2014.

I don’t think I would’ve written the novel during the pandemic. It would’ve been too on the nose. That said, anything I write now will be inflected and infected (sorry for the pun) by 2020. The novel I’m slowly working on now has nothing to do with 2020, but at the same time, it’ll still reflect my anxieties and worries experienced this year. It would be impossible for it not to seep in.

I: Your preferred genres seem to be horror and science fiction. How have you narrowed in your focus on these, and other related, genres? In a past interview, you mentioned briefly writing in the crime genre, do you have any plans to return to this?

PT: My first two novels published in 2009 and 2010 were quirky, humorous off beat crime novels featuring a narcoleptic privative detective in South Boston. My current publisher is re-releasing both in 2021. I never saw myself as a crime writer though. I just happened to have the story ideas so I wrote them. My first novel attempts were darkly humorous/satires before I wrote my first horror novel, ​A Head Full of Ghosts​ (the book that broke me out) in 2013 (published in 2015).

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in and terrified by horror. (I’m still a big time scaredy cat, afraid of the dark and noises in the house. Don’t judge me.) As a kid and teen, it was all movies. In my early twenties I became a reader (and I’ve read, on average, 70-80 novels a year since…many, but not all horror). I view horror as a large, amorphous genre, that encompasses many types of stories. One could argue that MacBeth is a horror story, for example (Don’t tell your professor(s)). I think horror, when done right, can get at art’s stickiest questions. If we boil down a horror story to the reveal of a terrible/horrific truth, my favorite horror narratives are the ones that ask the tough questions after the reveal: What are the characters going to do now? What decisions will they make? What are the consequences? Do they know the consequences? How do they live through this? How does anybody live through this? Those are the questions I always ask of my characters.

I have no plans to return to crime, per se, but never say never. I want to write whatever story moves me to write. That said, this new book I’m working on is a novel being presented as a faux-memoir of a kind of loser character (who is essentially me). I hope it works as a mash-up of literary humor and horror.

I: On page 22 of Survivor Song, you write that “this is not a fairytale. This is a song.” Obviously, the word “song” also appears in the title of the novel, as well. Could you elaborate on this idea, and its deeper meaning? What is this song representative of in your writing?

PT: I’m a frustrated punk wannabe musician at heart and I often get inspiration from music. Of the ten books I’ve published (some with small presses) about half the titles come from song lyrics, including my A Head Full of Ghosts (“My Head is Full of Ghosts” by Bad Religion).

When I had the idea for Survivor Song, sort of a zombie-adjacent story, I knew a few things going in: I wanted to make it a personal story, focusing in on two characters instead of a cast of thousands, and I wanted to make the story fast, tight, taking place over only 4 to 6 hours, and I wanted it to be unflinching and to tell the truth. I would describe most if not all of my favorite songs in the same manner. I wanted to write a book that makes me feel like my favorite punk/indie songs make me feel. Those songs are exciting, even menacing at times, but they also have this sweet tinge of melancholy when the last chords are done ringing. I wanted to imprint that feeling onto the book’s DNA somehow. No idea if I succeeded or not, but for me, a mindset like that is important when I’m working on a novel.

I: On page 9 of Growing Things, Merry fears that her father won’t return, and it is explained, “To Merry, their mother is a concept, not a person. Will the same dissociation happen with their father if he doesn’t come back?” – Is there anything that inspired you to write about the form of parental and familial abandonment which takes place in Growing Things? Is this also related to the ending in which Merry is left completely alone even by her sister Marjorie who dies at the end?

PT: So many of my books and stories feature children or teens, or they grapple with parenting in some way. Maybe it’s because I’ve never left the kid’s calendar: I went from high school to college then to grad school then teaching at a high school without any breaks between. Every June I’m ecstatic that school is over and every September I get totally depressed. Maybe that help keeps me in tuned to the emotional lives of kids and teens? I don’t know. But as I get older and lose memories of specific childhood events, I’ve never forgotten my inner emotional life as a child and teen. Those emotions are as easy for me to recall as what I had for lunch yesterday. Maybe everyone is like that, I don’t know, but I put it use in my fiction. Especially in horror fiction. I mean, being a kid one of the few universal experiences we all have, and what happens to us as kids molds us into who we are, so why not write about it, particularly as my perspective changes on the experience.

So yeah. I’ve written a lot about siblings or failing parents who are generally trying their best. Or parents who are struggling with an impossible situation or event beyond their control and refracting them through the eyes of their children.

I further explored that sister relationship between Merry and Marjorie in my novel A Head Full of Ghosts. They had more to say.

I: Was there any underlying meaning from Mr. Sorent desensitizing his students to violence and their impression of this as somehow okay and normal in “The Teacher,” to the power and influence which educators hold? Did your experience as a teacher influence any aspects of this story?

PT: This story is chock full of my anxieties as they relate to teaching. Mr. Sorent was inspired by another teacher I didn’t like very much as a person but was clearly a good teacher, and one who had a cult-of-personality hold on many of his students. Mr. Sorent is obviously stepping over the line with his lessons, but where exactly is that line? How much of a responsibility do we have to teach young people the worst about what has happened and continues to happen?

I: Most of your stories have vague endings which could result in more than one outcome after the story ends and leaves the reader to interpret what direction the story went. Why do you prefer this type of open-ended ending?

PT: I love me some ambiguity!

I will say that I try to make sure the ambiguity/open-endedness of a story isn’t a gimmick. It has to be part and parcel of the theme of the story. It should be the source of the horror, ultimately. Aside from families, it’s fair to say my other obsession is how our memories, identity, and even reality itself are a lot more malleable and ambiguous than we care to admit in our day to day lives. The ambiguity in my stories (hopefully) reflects that we really don’t know what our loved ones are thinking or what’s going to happen the next day, or the next year, or twenty years from, or the ultimate ambiguity, what happens when we die. We can tell ourselves and can believe whatever we want to, but we really don’t know. All of that is unsettling and frightening and thrilling and human and perfect fodder for a horror story.

I: The Cabin at the End of the World deals with a (supposedly) impending apocalypse. An apocalypse in stories can often be hard for readers to truly feel scared about; they always know that the good guys will blow up the meteorite, or stop the nuclear war, or whatever other threat there is. What were your strategies for making this larger threat still believable as a danger that the reader should care about?

PT: Similar with what I wrote about concerning Survivor Song, I started by making it personal and claustrophobic. Aside from things the characters see on a television screen, the entire novel happens at a small cabin in the woods. We meet and hopefully fall in love with a loving family: Eric, Andrew, and Wen. That they are put into an impossible, horrific situation, one in which they are also presented with an even more impossible choice, hopefully results in tension for the reader.

Also, it’s a very now novel. Apocalyptic fears are part of the zeitgeist, and question of whether or not the threat of apocalypse is real in the book hopefully resonates when we see apocalypses now whenever we turn on the TV or doomscroll on our Twitter feeds.

I: In an interview with CEMETERY DANCE you said that The Cabin at the End of the World served as a metaphor for our socio-political anxieties, and that it in part came from your thoughts of the 2016 Presidential primaries. Now that the 2020 elections are over, do you think this book would read the same if you were to write it again? Do you still see the same things that you thought were worth writing about four years ago?

PT: This isn’t to say that it’s a perfect novel, because no novel is perfect, certainly not any that I have written. But I wouldn’t change a thing in Cabin. Well, I wouldn’t change anything major. Those fears I had and wrote about in 2016/2017 have pretty much continued or come to fruition, including my mentioning that Trump cut funding to the country’s pandemic response division…cough. The book asks the following: Is the world ending or not? Are these invaders truly doing God’s work or have they succumbed to misinformation, hate, and fear? Will we, despite everything, choose to hope? Sounds like 2020 to me.

I: In The Cabin at the End of the World the four invaders are not the typical attackers in a horror story; they are polite, bumbling, and go out of their way to show that they are kind people. Was it easier or harder for you to make such “nice” characters into believable threats?

PT: Well, I’d argue that one of the four invaders was not a good person and (potentially) of a recognizable stripe. (How’s that for dancing around what I really want to say about Redmond or the men I named him after?) I found it harder to make Redmond seem more real, of the four, though. I’m much more comfortable trying to create empathic characters.

But your larger point/question is correct. I didn’t want all four invaders to be cartoon, mustache-twisting villains. I thought their experience — one of the characters in particular — was a horror as well and worth exploring. The feeling of having no choice or no say is a fear of mine, partly because the idea of loosening oneself from the burden and responsibility of choice/consequence can be intoxicating. At first blush that sounds almost blissful. But responsibility is the compact we make as members of society, and it’s the measurement of a person’s humanity.

An Interview with Philip Klay

Conducted by Alyssa Marcus, Lukas Grover, and Christin Jakub.

Phil Klay is an American author and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps from Westchester, New York. Upon graduating Dartmouth College, Klay served in Iraq during the U.S troop surge, serving 13 months in the Anbar Province of Iraq between 2007 and 2008, and he completed his MFA at Hunter College after he returned from his deployment. His debut collection of short stories, Redeployment, was published in March 2014 and his newest novel, Missionaries, was published in October 2020. Redeployment won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014 and the John Leonard Prize in 2015. Klay has also appeared in the New York Times, the Daily News, Tin House, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He is currently an associate professor of Creative Writing at Fairfield University.

Interviewers: Many of the short stories in the Redeployment collection deal with battles that soldiers fight in their own heads once they return home from combat. Was this the inspiration behind the collection’s title, as soldiers seem to have a second battle to fight even once they are away from the front lines?

Phil Klay: I picked the title because it has multiple resonances. On one level, it is simply a word used to describe a unit that has deployed somewhere being redeployed…in Iraq that normally meant being sent back home. But it seemed symbolically resonant as a word describing the veteran experience as well.

I: In Redeployment, you write a short story called Psychological Operations that begins with a quote from the Egyptian poet Ahmed Abdel Mu’ti Hijazi. What inspired you to pick this quote and how does it relate to the message of this specific short story?\

PK: The story is about a soldier who is trained in the use of language as a weapon, but who is also trying to use it to communicate honestly, and maybe even to seduce. The line from that poem struck a chord with me, especially since my narrator is an Egyptian-American.

I: One thing that stuck out to us in many of the short stories in Redeployment was that they were very honest about war time experiences and their lasting effects and did not romanticize or glorify the service or heroic acts that took place compared to other war stories. For you, why is it important to tell your stories this way and to not hold back about the darker aspects of war and the effects they have on the psyche?

PK: Because veterans have to negotiate those darker aspects of the experience, whether or not we like to talk about them. And I feel that task becomes infinitely more difficult when we choose not to talk about them.

I: In Redeployment, you wrote a short story called Prayer in the Furnace, which is written from the perspective of a priest in Iraq. You included a quote from 2nd Timothy, saying “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith”. Has your experience in the Marines during a war impacted your faith in religion or God in any way?

PK: Yes, though in complex ways. I’ve written about this in an essay for America Magazine. At first, my faith withered, though this was not in response to horror so much as in response to a sense that the war itself had proved successful, and therefore meaningful. It was over time, as grappling with what the war meant proved more challenging, that purely secular tools began to feel insufficient and I turned back toward the spiritual resources of my youth.

I: Your novel, Missionaries, just came out in October 2020. How was writing this novel different from writing Redeployment?

PK: Writing a novel is a radically different beast. You can hold the whole action of a story in your head at once. In a novel, or at least in the sort of novel I wrote, there are multiple characters with multiple story arcs and world views all influencing each other in direct and indirect ways. That said, with a novel, you don’t need to reinvent the world anew with each successive chapter.

I: What advice do you have for young and aspiring writers who are looking to get their work published in the near future?

PK: Patience. Getting published is a matter of luck as well as skill. I happened to be very lucky, and put work out at a time when people were especially interested in war fiction. Focus on your craft, first and foremost, and don’t take rejections to heart.

I: What were your most important takeaways from the experiences of attempting to get your first works published and more recently in having your first novel published?

PK: Simply what I said before, that one shouldn’t take rejections to heart, and that when you do find someone who sees what you’re trying to do and is interested in helping you share it with readers, that is an occasion for deep gratitude.

An Interview with Danielle Evans

Conducted By: Sienna Strickland, Tess Varley, and Talia Rueda.

Daniella Evans is a young and successful author who is currently coming out with her second novel, ​The Office of Historical Corrections​. Throughout her career she has written pieces highlighting the themes of race, class, gender, and self-actualization. Her first story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self​ was published roughly a decade ago in 2010, receiving an immense amount of positive recognition. This collection of short stories earned her a spot on the National Book Foundation’s “Five Under 35” list. A successful writer in her own right, she moved on to teaching others the craft. She has taught creative writing at American University & University of Wisconsin Madison, and teaches now in The Writing Seminars at John Hopkins University. Danielle Evans with her uplifting voice, keeps short stories alive as she pulls younger readers in.

Her stories have been published in endless magazines, some of which being ​The Paris Review​, ​A Public Space,​ and in ​American Short Fiction.​ She has been featured in ​The Best American Short Stories​ for four years. Evans’ success has been documented through interviews with ​The New York Times,​ ​Esquire,​ ​Poets & Writers​, and many more. Lastly, Evan’s writing has earned her numerous awards: the PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize, the Hurston-Wright award for fiction, the Paterson Prize for Fiction, and others.

1. How did you get into writing? What influences informed this choice?

I think, like a lot of writers, writing felt for me like a natural extension of reading. I loved stories, so I wanted to tell my own. I felt pulled by books into other people worlds and lives and I wanted to share worlds I made.

2. Did you start writing as an undergrad? What was your writing like when you started out?

I had always written, but I started writing fiction more seriously and thinking about what it would mean to be a writer as a profession in college after taking creative writing courses. Two of the stories in my first book were initially in my undergraduate thesis, so clearly some of my interests and obsessions started early. But the rest of that work felt like practice—I was still trying to figure out how to structure a short story, instead of just producing the right number of pages of writing.

3. Do you think schooling made your writing better or would you attribute improvement to personal experience?

I definitely think my education helped me be a better writer, though certainly there are aspects of that process people can replicate outside of school—school was just where I happened to do it. And there is no process, really, that makes the blank page less intimidating—all of our craft talk is about revision, but that’s where most of the work gets done. Workshop is essentially an editorial process, where you learn to hear and filter feedback, and better articulate your own vision for your work, so that helped me better form a sense of my own aesthetics and gave me a more clear vocabulary for thinking about my intentions. And, going to a funded MFA program gave me two years of time to primarily be a writer, without having to publish or sell anything before it was ready, or divide my time and work at something else to support myself, so that was certainly useful.

4. When you were a child did you ever see yourself becoming a writer one day? Were you a reader as a child? What other interests did you have?

I don’t know that I understood “writer” to be an actual job, but I certainly always wrote and wanted to write books. I also wanted to be an actress and a lawyer and a politician, but writing was the thing that came most naturally to me.

5. What was your route to being published?

I met my agent in graduate school. At the time I had a draft of my short story collection, so I told her I would work until I had both a story collection and a novel, because the conventional advice then was that you needed a novel in order to sell a story collection to a major publisher—they were more likely to buy both than just a collection. But, then I spent the first year out of school continuing to work on the stories—writing some new work that rounded out the collection, and revising a lot of what I’d already written and sending a few stories out to magazines—and by the end of that year I thought I didn’t know when I might write a novel but the stories were ready to go out. Happily, my agent, and then eventually my publisher, agreed.

6. What do you enjoy writing about? What kind of stories do you enjoy telling?

I don’t know that there’s any particular plot I’m most drawn to. I tend to gravitate toward realism, though not exclusively. I think the most recurring narrative obsession in my work is the difference between our interior lives and our exterior lives, and what happens when people by choice or because some external structure requires it, begin to perform a version of themselves that is vastly different than who they want to be.

7. Is your most famous work, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Selfyour favorite? If not, what is and why?

Well, for another week at least, this is still my only published work, so I don’t know how much longer it will be my most famous! Every book is in some ways a record of the writer you were when you wrote it, so I remain really proud of that book on its own terms, but, having spent years working on a new project, I now feel closer to the questions of that work, because I’m closer to being the person who wrote it. Post-publication is a weird process though, and I expect I’ll quickly go from being happy and eager to talk about the new book to feeling exposed or like I have nothing to offer to a conversation about the book that I didn’t offer in the book itself. It’s possible that process will be disorienting enough to make me feel closer to the first book, the book no one was waiting for, but I suspect that, just as publicity for a book tends to be temporary, my feelings about it will also pass.

  1. What is the significance of the title, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self,and what does it mean to you? The title comes from the poem in the epigraph of the collection, Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem”. The poem is about navigating and negotiating situations where the speaker is at the center of everything but still an outsider—as a Black woman, as an artist, as a daughter—about being treated like a bridge between or for other people and learning to be a bridge to her own honest self instead. It seems to speak to the work of the stories in the collection, most of which involve characters involved in similar negotiations.
  2. The characters of the short story “Virgins” and the situations they find themselves as burgeoning young women feel very real to the maturing experience. What inspired the premise of this story? How much of real life was infused into this work?

One of my favorite writers, Tayari Jones, says this thing “If you know how it feels to be trapped in an elevator, you can write about being trapped in a spaceship.” Our work as fiction writers is to create a context and raise the stakes and find a way to make the feeling of the story still ring true. So, certainly I know what it feels like to be an adolescent and be confused about whether other people’s desire for you is something that gives you power or something that gives them control, how it feels to wonder where your agency is or make a choice because you think the other options will be worse, how it feels to be in a fraught friendship or feel like you betrayed a friend but the alternative was to betray yourself. Most of us who’ve lived through adolescence know all of those feelings! And I tend to set stories in places I’m at least partially familiar with, so that I don’t have to wholly invent a landscape. But the specific characters and plot are all invented, since that’s my job.

10. One of our favorite parts about “Virgins” was the presence of the protagonists’ voice throughout. Is this something that lends itself to the first person POV of the story, or is it a universal tool in your writing toolkit?

I think it was really important to me that “Virgins” be in first person, because part of what I wanted in that story was to make sure that Erica didn’t get reduced to some more cliché narrative of a girl who made a bad decision. I wanted her inner life to be complex and her way of seeing the world to be interesting and often clear-eyed. A first person narrative is always part of the story—it’s part of the after of the story, the who was this person then and who are they now, and it makes the structure part of the characterization—how does this person tell this story? It was a way to leave in place some of the story’s thematic questions.

11. What does Erica, the main character in “Virgins,” mean to you?

I don’t know that I think of the character in those terms—I hope, at least, that she’s layered enough to feel like a complete person, which hopefully makes it harder for her to be assigned any purely symbolic weight.

12. ​How do you come up with the storyline for your stories?

Usually for me a story comes into focus when I start to see a connection between two things that would seem unrelated, and I feel like I can write my way into that unexpected connection. A story might start with a voice or setting or character or image or thematic question, and it starts to turn into a story when I figure out what second thing it’s in conversation with.

13. What makes a good short story for you?

I talk to my students about stories in terms of operating questions. I think a story has an immediate or active or narrative question that it offers toward the beginning and promises to answer toward the end, and a larger question, or set of questions, that it promises to leave for the reader. Many of my favorite short stories also make use of time in a compelling way. Because the story form is compressed, the active part of the story is often zoomed in on one pressure point, or one moment that feels like it’s some kind of dividing line between before and after. I think the stories that stay with me, or move me the most tend to move through time, so you have that moment, but you also get glimpses of the past and the future that magnify its place in the character’s lives.

14. What is writing to you? An escape? Spiritual practice? Work? All of the above, maybe? Plus also a compulsion and an offering.

15. What are you most excited for readers to learn from your new book, The Office of Historical Corrections?

I don’t really think of fiction in terms of learning—if I had clear information or instruction I wanted to impart, I’d put it in one of the forms of nonfiction that exists for that. Part of why fiction is an act of faith is that you’re trusting the reader to have a substantial part of the conversation. I think the thematic questions of the book are perhaps more consistent than the

stories in my first book—they circle apology, correction, history, the value of correcting the record and what it costs to do so—but the work in the book is more divergent in style and tone.

16. What was your inspiration for The Office of Historical Correctionsand when did you begin working on it?

As is often the case with short story collections, I was working on it before I knew that I was working on it. So, I’ve been writing stories for this new book since my first book was published in 2010—in one case even before that. When I had enough stories to see the book come together, I realized that to me, in addition to the thematic questions I mentioned in the previous response, it’s emotional territory was about grief, anxiety, and about the terrible tension between joy and hope during a period of crisis—the way a nihilistic joy can arrive in times when hope feels like impossible work, but it’s that joy of letting go that brings us back to the desire to survive and build something better, to the space of hope which feels in some ways harder than joy because it involves so much hard work and unearned faith in the future.

17. In “Nobody’s Gonna Sleep Here Honey,” you write about a futuristic society that seemed like a heightened version of the past America, was this your vision when writing it?

I actually wrote that story out of a profound fear for the future after the 2016 election and the general rise of open white supremacy that in my view led to it. My parents were born in this country in the late 1950’s—a country where they didn’t universally have the right to vote and open discrimination was legal. The recognition of the basic civil rights of Black people in the U.S. is relatively new, and clearly not at all sacred to most people. I worried that within my lifetime I was potentially looking at living in a country without those rights again—I saw the end of the Voting Rights act, open appeals to armed poll watchers in diverse neighborhoods, the attempts to normalize gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, and threats against anyone left wing, the legal and police protection of the right of assembly for violent white supremacist groups while arresting, teargassing, and shooting with rubber bullets crowds protesting for due process for Black Americans. I was and am terrified of the future, and of how quickly I felt like we could find ourselves back in the kind of fascist white supremacism that existed for most of this country’s history and never fully went away. The story was a way to write into that fear on a more extreme timeline. But, it didn’t fit in my new collection in part because it was so much shorter than everything else and in part because it was written out of a very specific period of anxiety, and as time passed, I felt like some parts of the future were already worse than my story imagined and some of them were less dystopian, and it was both too late and too soon to try to commit to print something that tried to speak directly to the present moment, when so much is in flux.

18. Did your own personal story of getting your first ears pierced relate to the story told in “A Natural History of My Earlobes?”

That is one of the few pieces of nonfiction I’ve ever written. If I had published it today, I would have called it an essay. But, in 2008 when I wrote it, I had never written creative nonfiction, and I didn’t know if you could write an essay in the second person and I didn’t know who to ask!