An Interview with Ukamaka Olisakwe

Conducted by: Madeline Morkin, Tully Mahoney, and Zeibeth Martinez

Ukamaka Olisakwe is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of Isele Magazine a literary journal focused on dynamic writers who hold a mirror to society, challenge conventions and those who decide them through poetry, essays, fiction, interviews and book reviews. Born in Kano, Nigeria, she is a UNESCO-World Book Capital “Africa 39” Honoree, a fellow of University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and winner of the VCFA Emerging Writer Scholarship and the Prince Claus Fund Grant. Her work has appeared in TheNew York Times, Granta, Longreads, The Rumpus, Catapult, Rattle, Waxwing, Jalada, Hunger Mountain, Sampsonia Way, and more. She is now in the process of pursuing her PhD in English at the University of South Dakota-Vermillion. 

Q: Is there one aspect of a story that would make you immediately reject it? 

Ukamaka: We reject works that condone child abuse, stories riddled with misognyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism; stories that target certain communities and demographics. If a writer describes violence in detail, we want to know why and what purpose that violence serves; if it advances the plot or if it is simply there for shock value.

Q: What distinguishes every story you accept from those you do not accept?

Ukamaka: The language. The pacing. The quality of the dialogues. The balance between interiority and exposition. We always look out for stories that show us how the character’s mind works, not necessarily the plot. Plot is secondary, because what carries a good story through in many cases is the language and the character’s mind. We want to know why the character made certain decisions and how they rationalize the consequences of those decisions. A story that answers that “why” question, rather than drag you through a complex plot, is often the strongest.

Q: Could there possibly be any circumstances that might allow weak grammar and poor editing by the author not to turn you immediately away from a story? 

Ukamaka: We have had instances like that: the stories were great but the grammar needed some editing. Our editors Tracy Haught and Rebecca Jamieson often accept great stories that need some help with grammar and punctuation. I am so grateful to belong with these incredible editors who are patient with our contributors. They go back and forth with the writers to sharpen their work, and although editing takes a bit of time, we are always glad we give these stories a home. But we reject stories when we notice that the writer does not care at all about grammar and punctuations.

Q: How do poetry, CNF, and fiction differ when it comes to how you edit and look at each piece? What might you focus more on while editing these different genres?

Ukamaka: For poetry, we pay attention to the various frames through which the poem is told and if they work well, if they need a bit of editing to make them stronger. By frames, I mean the structure of the poem (the lines, the stanzas, line breaks, etc); musicality of the poem; the themes we see and the feeling they convey. We also pay attention to the situation of the poem, and by this I mean the literal atmosphere and images described in the poem. We also look at the context, the title, and so on. Our poetry editor, Megan Ross, is an amazing poet. She always works with our writers to produce the best version of the poems we publish.

For prose, we focus on the language, the structure, the interiority, if the dialogues need a bit of sharpening, if certain parts need to be fleshed out or moved around; if the narrative is too linear, because delineations sometimes increase urgency and make the narrative less predictable. Sometimes, too, we notice that the length is too long, so we suggest cutting out parts that bog down the narrative in unnecessary details.

Editing Isele has been such a joy and I am glad I am working with an amazing team that goes all out for every writer whose work we accept for publication.

Q: Are there any metaphors or other figures of speech you really dislike seeing in a poetry submission?

Ukamaka: None, really. Our writers have a way of reinventing overused figurative languages in such a way that they appear new.

Q: What initially made you interested in and what has kept you interested in working with literary journals as opposed to working in editing and publishing books?

Ukamaka: I do look forward to editing books. I think, though, that working with a literary journal is the first step to that larger project. And I have had the honor of reading diverse submissions from writers around the world. We have received submissions from writers in South Korea, for example. We have received submissions from India, Mexico, Palestine, United Arab Emirates, and many other countries in the South West Asian and North African regions. And it has been great, pairing diverse texts with works by writers on the African continent. I see this as a sort of conversation among diverse people with different realities, but who address similar social, political, and cultural concerns.

Q: What qualities should a literary editor have? Can these qualities be learned or are they innate? 

Ukamaka: I think a good editor is a great critic and analyst. With Isele Magazine, I don’t just read for pleasure. Rather, I pay close attention to what each work is doing on a structural level, on thematic level, on contextual level, etc; if the work is grounded in theory. I focus on how every aspect of a story, for example, is working together to drive the narrative forward, and if they fail at this. I had to learn how to read and how to criticize and analyze a literary text; I do not know if these qualities are innate. Some of the texts that helped me include Joanne Wolfe and Laura Wilder’s Digging Into Literature, Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Ron Carlson,’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and many others.

Q: How many submissions are normally published and what percent is that of the initial submission quantity?

Ukamaka: We run two cycles: the general submissions and the quarterly submissions. We publish the general entries every other month. The quarterly magazine focuses on a specific theme; the next issue, which publishes next month, is The Woman Issue.

Q: Are there any overlapping characteristics of some of your more successful publications in your opinion?

Ukamaka: The overlapping characteristic would be the quality of the prose and poetry and familiar themes that contribute to social, political, or cultural discourses, like feminism, the category woman, sex and sexuality, e.t.c.

Q: Your first issue was released in July 2020. What kind of difficulties had you faced in producing a magazine during COVID-19?

Ukamaka: The economic impact of the pandemic nearly grounded our inaugural issue. We are committed to paying our contributors, and with our first issue, we ran into financial difficulties and had to reach out to individuals for support. But then, our inaugural writers decided to give back the token to the magazine, and it was such a relief. I am eternally grateful to them. We are still struggling financially, but we are in a better place.

An Interview with Thea Prieto

Conducted by: Bella Faggiano, Lauren Hickey, and Grace Higgins

Thea Prieto is the author of From the Caves (2021), which won the Red Hen Novella Award. She is a recipient of the Laurels Award Fellowship, as well as a finalist for the international Edwin L. Stockton, Jr. Award and Glimmer Train‘s Short Story Award for New Writers. She writes and edits for Poets & Writers and The Gravity of the Thing, and her work has also appeared at Longreads, The Kenyon Review, New Orleans Review, Entropy, The Masters Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon where she teaches creative writing at Portland State University and Portland Community College.

THE ALEMBIC: What was it that sparked your interest in editing and publishing when you were in college?

THEA: I can easily point to one specific moment: I was in an undergraduate creative writing class, and we had just finished workshopping a handful of my flash fiction stories. One of my classmates, who edited a student-run journal on campus, suggested I submit my work because he thought one of the pieces would work well in their upcoming issue.

That moment, reinforced by the joy I felt months later when my story was published, was my first experience with publishing, and it taught a few things. For one, I was happy to learn that sharing my work with a broader audience was not only possible, but that I was welcome to participate in the process. It also taught me [that] publication opportunities aren’t handed down from above, as though from some unseen god, but more like a compliment extended by a fellow lover of stories—a conversation. I discovered I enjoyed the conversation and in turn realized I could be on both ends of it. I joined the team of the Berkeley Fiction Review the following term, which was my first experience as an editor.

THE ALEMBIC: It is evident that you have had major success in both publishing your own works such as your novel From the Caves and also editing others’ works such as in the literary journal The Gravity of the Thing. Do you find editing/publishing or writing to be more enjoyable? What do you believe has brought you more satisfaction in your career?

THEA: Thank you for your warm words—it’s difficult to say which role gives me more satisfaction. There’s certainly overlap, though the work and the enjoyment can feel very different. I believe the overlap has much to do with the dialogues I build with others—while workshopping my writing, through author interviews, while developing writing for publication and publicizing the work of others—but there’s also a solitary aspect to each role that’s unique. I suppose another way to describe it, it’s that each role holds its own space in my work life and personal life. Editing and my seasonal agricultural work feel similar in that way. In the vineyards, when I’m lifting vines or pruning water suckers—to allow more sunlight or preserve the plant’s energy—it can feel like editing, but instead of working row by row I work sentence by sentence, helping a story grow where it’s already growing. Writing, though—I have what feels like a strong friendship with my fiction writing. I’ve been writing since I was a child, and like any warm, long-term friendship, it doesn’t seem to matter how much time has passed; I can return to fiction writing and we pick things back up naturally, like no time has passed at all.

THE ALEMBIC: When editing a work, what do you find to be the most challenging aspect or part that you experience before the work is ready to be printed?

THEA: I think the most challenging part is all the way at the beginning, when deciding what to publish. Once the editorial team has decided what pieces we’re going to publish and I’m in conversation with the author, that part I love—when the author and I drop into the flow. Editing creative writing can be as meditative as ag work, just like formatting can be as pleasurable as puzzle-solving, and sharing edited drafts back and forth with the author pre-publication always sheds light on writing I enjoy and shows me new artistic practices and preferences.

Over the years, though, I’ve discovered the more I engage with authors of diverse creative processes and backgrounds, the more difficult it is for me to determine what gets accepted for publication and what does not—perhaps because it has become increasingly easy to see the wonderful creative potential in many different kinds of works-in-progress. Luckily, The Gravity of the Thing’s team is filled with thoughtful, insightful writers and editors, and so deciding what gets published each issue is a communal effort.

THE ALEMBIC: Can you explain The Gravity of the Thing‘s central theme of defamiliarization? How does this interest you as a reader and writer, and how is this theme reflected in all the works that you publish?

THEA: Defamiliarization is a literary technique that presents the familiar in unfamiliar ways, to make strange what might have grown commonplace in literature, craft, art, life. I first learned the concept in Leni Zumas’s defamiliarization seminar at Portland State University, and Viktor Schklovsky, who coined the term in his article “Art as Technique,” said something that will

always stick with me, that habit will eventually “devour work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life.” So defamiliarization aims to break up the habitual, to see, as though for the first time again, that which has been taken for granted.

In Leni’s class, I realized defamiliarization—without even knowing what it was—had been pulling me along for years, as a reader and writer, and learning more helped me build an awareness around my own creative interests and practices. The editors of The Gravity of the Thing share those interests in different ways, which means defamiliarization might enter the works we publish at any number of levels: at the word level, by creating new words or unique word combinations; at the sentence or line level, by experimenting with unexpected or refreshing rhythms or grammar; at the craft level, by bending or breaking expectations in favor of new effects; or at the thematic or media level, by turning familiar content around and inside out.

THE ALEMBIC: Other than this central concept, are there any other specific themes, writing styles, or types of authors from which TGOTT seeks to publish?

THEA: We often experiment with themed issues, some that are geared towards specific elements of defamiliarization like our Multimedia: Duets issue, which pairs writing with music. It’s also our goal to promote creative writing by emerging writers, as well as publish work by writers historically underrepresented in literary publishing, including (but certainly not limited to) writers from the BIPOC communities, as women and nonbinary writers, writers with disabilities, and writers from the LGBTQIA2S+ communities. By creating opportunities for emerging and marginalized writers to submit their work, and by regularly evolving our publishing practices with accessibility and representation in mind, I hope The Gravity of the Thing offers the same opportunity my fellow classmate extended me years ago, when he suggested I submit my work for publication. There are many ways a person can find themselves in publishing—a friendly offer was my way in—and the publishing world needs new, diverse voices.

THE ALEMBIC: What do you typically find to be the most intriguing aspect of a literary work? On the other hand, are there any aspects of a literary work that will cause you to reject the work?

THEA: The Gravity of the Thing publishes short works, primarily because we enjoy short works, but also because the journal is run by volunteers, and reducing the editor’s time commitments helps us avoid fees for our writers and readers. It means we sometimes publish extremely short works, and lately I’ve found myself focusing on endings and beginnings, and in that order. Once I know where a piece ends up, and I return to the beginning for a second read, the conversation

between the ending and beginning can reveal a very telling kind of story movement or a very fascinating lack of movement. It can also reveal, though, whether I’m reading an incomplete piece of writing, or whether the piece is only its final sentence. All of our readers and editors approach submissions differently, and lately—perhaps because of where I’m currently at in my writing practice, having just published my first book From the Caves during the pandemic—I’m currently interested in exploring the ways language starts and ends, departs and arrives.

THE ALEMBIC: Do you prefer writing or editing? How do you compartmentalize the two processes when you are so heavily involved in both?

THEA: In the fall I teach a course called Literary Magazines at Portland State University, where my students and I study the path of a creative writing submission on its way to publication. We begin the course by reviewing the craft of creative writing, then we move along to reading submissions for Portland Review, so students gain vocational experience with a literary journal, and at the end of the course we write essays about ethical practices in publishing. Since students are introduced to many different processes and roles in the publishing industry, I often find it important to note that in my own writing practice, I think of my roles as different hats, and I try not to wear more than one hat at a time. For example, when I sit down to draft my fiction, I cannot also be an editor and publisher and publicist—I would never get a word down. Likewise, when I’m editing, I don’t think it would be fair to the author if I were also trying to be a writer and a publisher and a publicist at the same time. Of course there’s overlap and I’m always learning, but I find this “hats” metaphor helps me remain focused.

THE ALEMBIC: We see on your website that you also teach creative writing at Portland State University and Portland Community College. What advice do you offer your students that helps them become better writers in general, and what tips do you offer aspiring authors to help make their writing stand out?

THEA: In my creative writing classes, I often think of myself as a guide and an individual example, as students build an awareness of their writing preferences and strengthen their writing practices, and as I share aspects of my own writing practice and experiences with publishing. In terms of becoming a better writer, I believe an awareness of practice helps a writer determine for themselves how and when they’ve become better, so we can recognize and celebrate milestones more regularly, to find the motivation to keep writing more often, beyond the sporadic positive reinforcement that formal publication provides.

In terms of tips for aspiring writers, I’m often transparent with my students about what’s worked for me, and also transparent about my mistakes. Rejection letters are a normal part of the submission process, but they can also take a toll on the writer, and when I first began submitting my unsolicited writing broadly, I quickly accumulated a lot of discouraging rejections. It wasn’t

until much later that I realized I was submitting my work incorrectly—I was sending my work to publishers whose work I was unfamiliar with and whose preferences and submission guidelines I barely understood. I thought I had been throwing a handful of darts at a dart board, hoping I would accidentally strike a bullseye, but it turned out I wasn’t even throwing the darts at the right wall. So I learned the importance of researching publishers and their publications prior to submitting my work, because more often than not, I learned the writing will stand out if it’s sent to the right publisher.

THE ALEMBIC: What has been your proudest moment of your literary publishing and editing career thus far?

THEA: The first thing that comes to mind is The Gravity of the Thing’s New Writers Issue, which we rolled out in 2020 despite the pandemic. Since it’s one of our goals to support emerging writers, the editors and I wanted to provide a dedicated space for those new to publishing, so the issue would only include work by writers who had never published their writing outside of a personal blog or a journal based at their school. It meant all the submissions we received that summer rang with a special kind of bravery—every writer was venturing into a conversation that was new to them. Our volunteer readers, who were also emerging writers, would carry the experiences they gained into editorial positions and creative writing programs. Many of the writers we declined continue to submit to us, with our encouragement, and the writers we did publish were extremely grateful and asked thoughtful questions during the editing process. In all these ways, our first New Writers Issue felt, to me, like a creative springboard for everyone involved. Our editors look forward to running another New Writers Issue in the years ahead.

THE ALEMBIC: Where would you like to see your career go in the next year, 5 years, and long-term?

THEA: Great question—I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what the future might hold. Usually, I end up convinced that I should live more presently rather than guess at my long-term plans, ha; but I foresee myself continuing to maintain a diversity of occupations that reflect my interests and energy. I currently teach in the fall, winter, and spring, which is largely a sedentary job, and I engage in more active ag work in the spring and summer. This means I focus on deskbound writing and editing projects during the school year, and during the spring and summer, my family gets to travel, and my sister and I get into her screen-printing workshop to work on print projects. The balance has worked well these last few years, and it provides inspiration in all aspects of my life.

THE ALEMBIC: Where do you see the future of TGOTT going? How do you plan on keeping a journal new and exciting for loyal readers?

THEA: I see The Gravity of the Thing continuing to publish seasonal online issues, and in this way provide an ongoing and reliable space for exciting, defamiliarized writing. We will also continue to offer unique publication opportunities through our Baring the Device column and special annual issues, such as our Multimedia: Duets issue, our New Writers Issue, and we have especially exciting plans for 2022. We were recently awarded a grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council to fund our first print anthology, Stranged Writing: A Literary Taxonomy. As the editors of The Gravity of the Thing aim to support defamiliarized writing, so will we design our upcoming anthology with defamiliarization in mind. The contents of the collection will be curated according to biological taxonomy (species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, domain) using word count, and the final form of the collection will be a cloth hardcover with a screen-printed dust jacket. Each dust jacket will fold into a unique literary organism or book sculpture, the goal being a dimensional and tactile reading experience during these largely digital times. I look forward to holding the anthology in my hands, and to other creative projects in the future.

THE ALEMBIC: Is there anything or anyone specific that has impacted your writing, editing, and creativity?

THEA: Leni Zumas has been an amazing inspiration in my writing and editing practices. Her guidance and her writing helped my new book From the Caves come to be, and The Gravity of the Thing would simply not exist had she not taught her defamiliarization seminar at Portland State University. Matthew Robinson, who founded The Gravity of the Thing, brought me onto the journal when we discovered how much we enjoyed each other’s writing, and seeing as Matt and I are married now, it’s a partnership that’s deepened more than my creative writing. There are many other artists I could name here, and collectively I know my community has impacted and propelled my creativity in ways that I’m still learning.

An Interview with Gail Rudd Entrekin

Conducted by: Kerry Sheridan, Grace Sawka, Emma Snelgrove

Gail Rudd Entrekin is a poet, editor, publisher, teacher, quilt maker and hiker originally from Cleveland, Ohio. Entrekin earned a Masters degree in English literature from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to the Bay Area in 1978. Books of her poems include The Art of Healing (with Charles Entrekin) (2016), Rearrangement of the Invisible(2012), Change (Will Do You Good) (2005), which was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, You Notice the Body (1998) and John Danced(1988). Her poems have been widely published in poetry magazines and anthologies. She is co-publisher and Poetry Editor of Hip Pocket Press, where she served as Editor of the 2002 anthology Sierra Songs & Descants: Poetry & Prose of the Sierra and the 2007 anthology, Yuba Flows. She is Editor of the on-line literary magazine of the environment, Canary, founded in 2007. She has taught English and Creative Writing in California community colleges for 25 years, most recently at Sierra College in Grass Valley, and for many years she has taught poetry to kids through California Poets in the Schools. She currently serves as Director of the Entrekin Foundation, a funder of non-profit programs for the endangered environment, children, and the arts.

Can you briefly summarize your editing process? What’s your approach to editing? Are you light or heavy?

I occasionally edit a piece that I’d like to use because it’s on a theme I’ve been wanting to address, or I really like the author’s sensibility or style, and I feel it only needs a small bit of tweaking. If there’s too much to fix, I rarely take the time to get into it.

What sets certain submissions apart when deciding what goes into an issue? Is there anything that you immediately accept or reject based on the first page? What makes a piece jump out at you?

I can usually move on quickly when a piece uses cliches or is intended to be a poem but fails to use any poetic devices like images, metaphors, fresh language, etc. But I always give a read to all pieces in a person’s submissions because sometimes a beginning writer almost stumbles onto one good poem. I even glance through a submission when I see that the writer hasn’t bothered to look at our magazine or read our submissions page and is not writing on our theme. Now and then someone has accidentally included a piece that hits on environmentalism/nature etc.

Is it usual for you to provide feedback when you reject a submission?

No, but if I feel someone is almost there, I often say that and ask them to submit again in the future. I sometimes tell a writer who is really pretty good what I like and how I felt the poem fell short.

How much impact does having a specialized journal about environmental issues help the environmental cause? Have you seen any published works in the Canary make a change?

No, I fear that we have very little direct impact on the crisis at hand. I think most of our readership is already well aware of the loss of habitat and species that we are experiencing. I know that people circulate Canary to friends and fellow writers though, and my hope is that someone becomes more aware of what is happening and is able to have some small impact in their own world.

When editing a submission, how much is appropriate to change? How do you respect authorial integrity while changing necessary parts?

I never change anything larger than a comma or a spelling error without letting the author know what I am doing. If I do more than that, I send them my edited version for their approval. Poets are especially interested in the formatting etc. of their poems, and they don’t take well to unauthorized changes.

Based on your experience as an editor, what have you learned about writing?

I’ve been employed as an editor in one way or another, on and off, for about 40 years. I learned proofreading advertising copy in my 20s, and that was a very rigorous course of training as mistakes cost large amounts of money. Later and in-between I taught English for 25 years, so I endlessly edited student papers.

I also run poetry critiquing workshops, and an important aspect of critiquing is noticing how line breaks, word choices, etc. contribute to the success or failure of a poet’s ability to reach their

desired goal for the poem. At this point the only things I learn are new ways the language is changing: new pronoun usage, use of back slashes within lines, etc. But editing is definitely a great training in organizing your thoughts and being able to present yourself coherently. And this, in turn, makes you THINK more coherently.

What advice would you give writers trying to publish with your magazine?

I guess it’s the same advice any editor would give: read the magazine before you submit, so you understand what kind of work we publish. Be sure to read our mission statement on our home page so you understand what we are trying to accomplish.

What have been some of the high points of running a literary magazine?

Canary is free and we try to obtain enough private funding to pay our webmaster and to maintain our website. There are three of us doing it, and none of us is paid. So we sure don’t do it for the money. Nobody does. Don’t even think about it.

But I love, love, love the opportunity to read work by so many talented and passionate, mostly-unknown writers that I would not have read otherwise – people leading their own quiet campaigns in their neighborhoods to save the small piece of the planet on their watch. It’s very heartening that so MANY people are unobtrusively trying to live sustainably and without damaging the other occupants of the planet, who so many people view as their family.

What would be the one piece of advice you would give to a young aspiring editor looking to work for a literary journal or start their own literary journal?

Ask yourself why you are doing it. Do you want to have some say in what stands as good work in the culture? Do you love reading poems and short prose about the natural world, or whatever theme you plan to pursue? Don’t do it for the power. Don’t do it for the prestige. Turns out there IS a tiny bit of both, but to get to it your life becomes a shit show of self-promotion and marketing. (Well, that’s just me. I guess some people somewhere like that part of it. But no one that I know does.) But mainly you’re sitting in an office at a computer reading and writing responses. It’s the best job in the world if you love that part. If you don’t, don’t do it.

What do you look for in an applicant when selecting intern positions?

We have only ever had two interns and both of them came to my attention when they were my students when I was teaching college English. They were both super bright, had a really good sensibility about poetry – what was working and what was not – and both were very reliable hard workers. (Also, as it happened, both were chosen by me for all those reasons in addition to the


fact that they seemed lost and about to head down roads that were beneath their skills. But don’t try that as a ploy for getting a job. Pretty unlikely to work, I’m guessing, and instead you might end up down that bad road.)

Was there anything in your college years that prepared you for the role of this editorial position?

I have an M.A. in English Lit/Creative Writing. That certainly was the main qualifier. I worked on the school lit magazine both in high school and in college.

What made you want to pursue a career in editing?

At the risk of repeating what I’ve said above, I love the work. I started a local online publication for women first, the idea being to showcase and discuss work in progress. It was wildly popular, and I expanded it into a local reading series in Nevada City, CA, up in the Sierra, where I was living at the time. For the series, once you had had something published at the site (Women’s Writing Salon), you were eligible to read at the local monthly readings. People read works in progress, and I think it was really helpful for beginning women writers in the community to get a view into what others were working on, to see where they seemed to be going awry, to see them, over the months, improve. We didn’t critique, but I think presenting your work aloud often causes you to realize what’s not working as you suddenly feel embarrassed to be reading it, or you notice that something is cliched or not making sense. You suddenly hear it “for the first time” and, if you’re willing to be honest with yourself, you notice what’s not working.

When we moved back to the SF Bay Area, I wanted to publish a higher quality of really finished work. I had been working with many of the women who submitted to the Salon page, and that was highly gratifying, but I felt burnt out on that and wanted to read and publish really good work.

I backslide now and then and work with someone to help them get a publishable poem (which is still also highly satisfying), but mostly I just marvel at all the people out there in obscurity writing lovely work.

What inspired you to create a niche literary journal about the environment?

I don’t know. It was the thing that was on my mind all the time. Our area of the world had been gold mined back in the day and there was mercury in many areas that was damaging the soil and the water supply. We were fighting the powers that be not to dam the beautiful and scenic Yuba River, and the air quality was heading down due to the pollution rising up to us on our mountain from Sacramento down below. There was a lot going wrong, and I became aware of how we

were a microcosm of the larger world. The more I learned, the more upsetting it was. It wasn’t a widespread understanding as it, thank god, is today. I am not political enough to enjoy going that route.

So it seemed to me that what I could do to help was small, but perhaps it would help some people to wake up. And if nothing else, it might serve as a reminder of all the beauty, the connection with the natural world, that we were betraying and stood to lose. Worst case scenario, it might stand as a reminder for those to come of how things once were; of how sad we were as it was disappearing; of how helpless we often felt in the face of the obliviousness of those only interested in the money and power they could reap.

I hope you three women go into the world and teach peace and oneness with the natural world, however you do it. You have that power, and will have that power when you graduate. Make your voices heard. Keep a record. Demand change. Mother has spoken. (Not me: the planet)

An Interview with Matt Borondy

Conducted by Brian Conway, Maura Campbell, Alyssa Caieiro and Meg Brodeur

Matt Borondy is the founder, publisher, and Editor-In-Chief of the online literary magazine Identity Theory. A University of Florida alum, he has edited the publication for over two decades. Borondy currently resides in Henderson, Nevada. In addition to his work on Identity Theory, Borondy works as a writer and web developer.

Editor Interview

I: What led you to choose a career in editing/writing?

Matt Borondy: I have several different careers outside of editing/writing that are more technical and competitive in nature, so the writing and editing work provides a level of satisfaction that other professional pursuits do not, mostly because it gives me a sense of contributing to a community of writers and artists and pushing forward the general conversation of what it means to be human.

I: We are currently in a literary editing and publishing class––would you say there is anything that you studied as an undergrad that made your career in editing possible?

Matt Borondy: I was an undergrad in the late ‘90s when the internet was experiencing what was likely its finest hour in terms of raw creativity. In addition to traditional English courses, I took classes in cultural theory and new media and film. Several classes combined literary and cultural theory with experimental work in hypertext. This is what led me to start a literary website in 2000: a curiosity about ways to blend literature and arts with new media.

I: What are some low or high points in your career?

Matt Borondy: The high points come when I hear about our contributors experiencing additional success, whether it involves their getting noticed by an agent or getting a job in editing or optioning film rights based on a piece we’ve published or publishing a new book. The low points come when the negative feedback outweighs the positive and it feels like the work is not valued. I’m also always a little disappointed when a piece I really like doesn’t get as much traction as I think it should.

I: What is one quality that every piece of work you accept usually has?

Matt Borondy: Honesty, even if it is in the form of lying. Novelty, even (and especially) if it is grounded in tradition. If a piece feels like it opens a crack and lets the light in, to vaguely paraphrase Leonard Cohen, then I’m usually attracted to it, assuming it’s reasonably well written.

I: How would you describe your editing style; soft or harsh?

Matt Borondy: Soft! Everyone on the staff is a volunteer, and we want the work of the writers to shine. We try to hit a sweet spot of offering feedback without dictating the terms of their stories.

I: You often blog on your website and engage with followers on Instagram; how does this impact your relationship with writers and fans of Identity Theory?

Matt Borondy: We’ve been on Instagram for a few months now, and I’m still learning how to best experience that network. Most of our interaction with writers and readers takes place on Twitter. Twitter helps bring in submissions and other contributions to the site, but it does have some drawbacks: the risk of making an offhand comment that may offend or otherwise hurt someone, the sadness that comes with having to reject a piece from a writer I enjoy interacting with on social media, and so on. Since we started the site before social media existed, it was nice to add that extra dimension of feedback, though the corporatization of that realm ultimately dampened the initial sincerity of that platform. I still greatly enjoy interacting with readers on social media, though.

I: Is it your online platform that allows you to cover such a wide variety of stories in all different genres? Does this impact the quantity or quality of accepted work?

Matt Borondy: The benefit of the online format is that it enables us to publish more words without the physical limitations of print. But the drawback is that people are less likely to engage as deeply with a longer piece published online. The online format enables us to publish a wide variety of content at any length we choose, but I don’t think people read the web like they would a bound magazine. I don’t expect people are intensely browsing all the content like they would a print magazine; I expect they click a link from social media or Google and read what they came to read and maybe hop to one more article to skim. The web is more a la carte than all-in-one, and the variety of our site reflects that.

I: What challenges have you experienced as a result of having a fully online journal?

Matt Borondy: One issue is, we have to keep up with technology, and sometimes the technology we use goes defunct or changes in a way that forces us to rework features of the site. Sometimes we publish pieces that writers later want to remove for professional or personal reasons, and we comply with that because, ultimately, we’re here to help writers thrive and build careers. One tricky spot that comes up: writers naturally improve over time and sometimes they want to change stories we’ve already published because they are just online and feel more malleable because of that. I won’t do that, but I certainly will make minor copy edits on age-old pieces if I spot them.

I: In the poetry section, how do you choose what lines from the poem are included with the image, title, and author?

Matt Borondy: Just vibes, as the kids say.

I: Identity Theory literary journal publishes a wide range of genres. What do you look for in someone who wants to be involved in the publishing process that meets the standards of your diverse journal?

Matt Borondy: I think part of the function of literary journals is to help young people break into publishing and to help mid-to-late-career people stay involved in the literary community. So, our staff tends to include people in their early 20s who show a high degree of enthusiasm and talent as well as people who are in different stages and more experienced in publishing and want to interact with other writers and grow. I’m a big believer in constant improvement and in providing a space for that growth to happen.

I: Would you say it is harder or easier to publish so many different genres of writing? If you could choose, would you change your literary journal so that there were fewer genres?

Matt Borondy: I think it is easier for me personally because I’ve never been good at niches. I prefer an open field. In fact, I’m hoping we can add more genres soon, such as hybrid work. We even have some cartoons in the pipeline.

I: How would you describe your role in Identity Theory to someone who is looking to pursue a career in literary editing and publishing?

Matt Borondy: Are there any downsides to your career that people don’t realize when working in this field? My role in Identity Theory consists of different capacities: web development, social media management, editing, writing, HR, and more. It’s more of a hobby or craft than a career, in the sense that it’s not done with any strict intention of making money. Which I suppose would be its biggest drawback. My personality is such that the “traditional” path of undergrad to MFA to writing to academia never appealed to me enough to pursue it, and I think the most interesting way to be involved in the literary world is to have only one foot in it, with another doing something completely different. But on the other hand, a fully funded MFA leading to a stable job probably would have been a sweet life as well. There is no one path, and probably the big theme of our site is that all roads can lead to literature.

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.