An Interview with Thomas Christopher Greene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Paul Tremblay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PT: I love me some ambiguity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Philip Klay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Danielle Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. What was your route to being published?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. What makes a good short story for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Ed Ochester

Ed Ochester grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He is the longtime editor of the
 Pitt Poetry Series (University of Pittsburgh Press), and the founding editor of the journal SAM. His own collections of poetry include We Like it Here (1967), Dancing on the Edge of Knives (1973), Miracle Mile (1984), Allegheny (1995), Snow White Horses: Selected Poems 1973-1988 (1988), The Land of Cockaigne (2001), Unreconstruced Poems Selected and New (2007), and Sugar Run Road (2015). Ochester is professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and is on the faculty of the Bennington College MFA Writing Seminars.

Interviewers: In the poem “Having Built the Coop,” and many others, you mention prominent postmodernist figures such as Jacques Derrida and Bernard-Henri Levy. Do you ascribe to the postmodernist philosophy and if so, why?

Ed Ocherster: Note that the “Levy” mentioned in the epigraph
is the poet D.A. Levy. I don’t ascribe to most of the views of Derrida et al, and think that the prominence of them in American English Literature departments has been a disaster—English Lit. used to be one of the largest majors in colleges of arts & sciences, but in the past couple of decades its numbers have shrunk dramatically—mainly because of the “theory” people . . . In this poem, the drone of cicadas (background noise) is derrida derrida derrida. I make a comment about “theory” in this poem from my most recent book:

Ross Gay

sent an e-mail to Ross Gay:

congratulations on the Times’ review

of Bringing the Shovel Down

though even in a good review of poetry

there’s almost always a snotty little quibble

unless the poet’s dead or English

(this reviewer hates “shimmering labia”)

“yeah” said Ross “I laughed about that too”

maybe it started when the horde

“theory” ph.d.’s rose over the horizon

and poisoned all the books they landed on– luckily then they

started to kill each other off (we can use split infinitives now) —

but around that time American poets

began to write about John Clare

the mad sweet nature poet lost

in an unjust world one of the theory people

I worked with wrote a novel (unpublished)

so bad cats and dogs might double over

which deepened her hatred of her

irrational colleagues publishing

poetry and fiction–perhaps Yogi Berra

explained it best (note that “Yogi”

like the poet we call “Homer” is growing

by incremental repetition and now

has an enormous oeuvre) Yogi said

“in theory there’s no difference

between theory and practice but

in practice there is”

I: You seem to mention Greek and Roman figures from History and Literature quite often in your work. Does this particular period of history interest you more than most others and why?

EO: I mention Greek and Roman figures often because they’re important to me (and our culture) — the founding fathers based our Constitution on what they learned from Greek and Roman experience, and that experience informs not just our literature but our science, religion, philosophy and historiography. On the other hand, I make a lot more contemporary references than classical ones.

I: In your poem “Poetry” you talk about the private life. How do you believe the meaning or value attached to the private life has changed? How does your poetry show this?

EO: “The private life” isn’t as private for most people as it used to be because of our electronic interconnectedness, and our compulsion to “share” personal experience. That’s not all bad, obviousy, but it can/does lead to a lot of blabbing. And much of what concerns us as individuals is not important to others (see the kind of gossip about TV and movie stars on the web). And people who spend all their time on trivial stuff have trivial lives. I don’t want to sound snotty about this — I love to gossip and talk baseball/ football as much as the next person — BUT many people I know are reduced to that. There’s more to life.

I: How does the area in which you live, outside Pittsburgh, inspire and influence you? What specific aspects of the place in which you live, if any, inspire you?

EO: The rural area in which my wife and I live forces us to depend more on ourselves. We like that. We’re not a-social, but we don’t enjoy the population density of cities. And we love to garden, like clean air, lots of trees, etc. etc. We have a very simple house and simple tastes in accessories — we don’t usually want “the latest” this or that. My wife, Britt, is a bird lover and has attracted well over a hundred species to our property over the years. Our main form of entertainment is reading (not movies, TV, and
so on). Lest all this seems too primitive: I spend a fair amount of time each week working on the net.

I: Along with writing, based upon your poem, “My First Teaching Job, Boston University Night School ‘Intro to Lit ’” you also spend some time in the classroom. How do you feel working as a writer influenced your effectiveness as a teacher?

EO: I started my academic life as a teacher of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but was one of two people to organize the MFA in writing at the Univ. of Pittsburgh and spent 20 years as the director of the program. I took early retirement from Pitt in the late 90’s and since then have been teaching at the Bennington low- res MFA. A part of my usefulness as a teacher is that I know how things are put together (I’ve also worked as the editor of the Univ. of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series for many years). I have very eclectic tastes in poetry (as evidenced by the books I publish in the Poetry Series), and that’s useful also for students: there isn’t just one-way of doing a poem. And I’m very proud of my students. The best known of them are Li-Young Lee, Terrance Hayes and Michael Chabon (you can find an essay by him online which de- scribes me and his undergraduate days at Pitt), but literally dozens of them have published books, and many more have remained poetry fans.

I: At the reading you performed at Providence College, you shared a couple pieces of political poetry. What inspired you to incorporate politics in your written work?

EO: Two of the greatest poets of the last century—Pablo Neruda and Bert Brecht—wrote many political poems. In most countries political poems are not unusual. But in the U.S., we have an old (and spurious) academic tradition that views political poems with disfavor. I think ANY human concern (including politics) is a possible subject for poetry.

I: More specifically, you read and referred to a number of poems about President Trump. We would be interested to know what effect you think the current presidency will have on the content, tone, and volume of art in the coming years, particularly written work such as poetry. President Trump has proved to be more polarizing than many administrations have been in a long time, do you think this will come through in the nature of art, either in protest or support? Do you think it will generally have a positive or negative effect on literary art and culture?

EO: Well, don’t get me started on Mr. Trump. I grew up in the same area of Queens County that he did, and most New Yorkers know that he’s a con man (but he’s a good con artist and took in many good Americans). He is “polarizing” but he’s also the most ignorant, vulgar, self-contradicting, lying person who’s ever occupied the office of the presidency. Also, a sex criminal. (What’s not to like?). There’s already a good body of writing in all genres contra Trump, including work by many prominent conservatives. It will grow.

I: Are we then to expect a change in the tone of your future publications?

EO: I’ve had fun writing a group of Trump poems. I suspect
the tone of my poems won’t change much if at all. On the other hand, who knows? I’ve always been interested in seeing what hap- pens, seeing what surprises my unconscious sends me. You plan out poems after, not before, those messages.

An Interview with Ruth Gilligan

Ruth Gillligan was born and raised in Co. Dublin, Ireland. When she was 18 years old, she moved to the UK, just one month after she had published her first novel Forget, which became a number one bestseller. She works as a full-time lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She writes regular literary reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, Guardian, LA Review of Books, and Irish Independent.

Interviewers: When do you find inspiration to write? How do you find the time to write while having to balance your time as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham?

RG: Since I work full-time as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham, I tell myself every semester that I’m going to be better at carving out a day or two a week to focus on my writing. But there is always a student who needs help; always some admin that requires attention, so I find I get very little done during term time. Thankfully, we get holidays, so I always try to make a real dent in the writing at those moments.

I: In what ways does your latest novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, differ from your first published novels other than its content? What challenges did you face while writing this historical novel?

RG: Because my three previous books were almost entirely in- spired by personal experience, writing a historical novel was a new challenge for me. I did too much research, so trying to find the balance between fact and fiction was tricky. However, I had to remind myself that although I like the idea of readers learning something new, the thing that matters most has to be the story.

I: Having studied at the University of Cambridge and Yale University, what would you say are the major differences in UK vs US university teaching and/ or grading styles, particularly in regards to English and Creative Writing?

RG: I studied English — as opposed to CW – at Cambridge and Yale, so I can only really comment on that. To be honest, the biggest difference I found is that in the Cambridge school of English, the author is essentially dead — their personality, their background, their literary or family connections are irrelevant. The work must be taken and examined and appreciated in isolation, with a particularly close attention paid to details and formal decisions via close reading. In Yale, however, context was everything — we would spend weeks on historical background; on the author’s life and connections; on the book’s wider influences and implications. Close reading was nowhere near as valued, and the whole thing took a more macro- rather than micro-level view. To be honest, I much preferred the Cambridge style — I find it far more interesting (and important) to think about why an author has chosen a certain recurring image, or to notice their unorthodox use of punctuation, rather than to have to put together an entire presentation on the fashion trends of the time, or to figure out how they might or might not have known Virginia Woolf. Who cares! But that is just personal preference, I suppose.

I: What difficulties do you find in writing a story about an experience or setting you are unfamiliar with as you do in Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan? Does it take notably more time to research/prepare?

RG: My first 3 novels were very autobiographical. As a young writer, I had of course been taught about the whole ‘write what you know’ approach. However, increasingly I realized how limiting that was, and also how so many of the writers I admired went directly against that, and actually wrote far outside of their own immediate experience. I think ultimately that is the beauty and power of fiction — to make imaginative leaps into other worlds — both as a writer and a reader. It is, ultimately, about empathy. That’s not to say this doesn’t present its own issues – from misappropriation and ventriloquism, to inaccuracies and misrepresentations — but I would rather take on those challenges than just churn out novel after novel about my own, rather non-interesting world.

I: Whilst marking or reviewing literary fiction, what is a common mistake or drawback you often tend to find in other people’s’ works? This can either be
a macro (e.g. having a clichéd idea) or micro (e.g. formatting/presenting their piece undesirably on the page) issue.

RG: Formatting may seem like a minor thing, but it is SO import- ant. If a student submits a piece of work that is incorrectly for- matted, it suggests two things to me — 1) they have never actually read a book in their life, and 2) they are lazy and don’t really care. Needless to say these are not good things to suggest! More broadly, I find a real tendency amongst students towards the melodramatic; the over the-top. I was the same when I started out — I wanted to force my ideas down the reader’s throat — so I used dramatic language and repetition to HAMMER. EVERYTHING. HOME. But if the ideas are strong enough they will speak for themselves, so the writing needs to ease up and not appear over- worked.

I: As someone with a MFA in Creative Writing, what advice would you offer to any student wishing to pursue creative writing as a way of making a living?

RG: Find a day job! Seriously — there are only a tiny tiny number of writers in this world who can make a living just from writing fiction. I work full-time as a lecturer; many of my writer friends work in journalism or publishing or teaching; some work in tech or media or something totally unrelated — anything that will pay the bills! But really, it is an unreliable career, so the trick is to have something stable to support it. Luckily I find my lecturing work feeds directly into my obsession with reading and writing, so it all feels part of the same process — the conversations with my students and colleagues are integral to my own development as a writer — so I’m very lucky in that regard.

I: What process do you take to find editors that will help push your work forward upon reviewing it?

RG: When I finish a book, my agent sends it out to various editors at various publishing houses. Then, depending on what they say — and how much money they offer! — I sign with one of them, and begin editing the book together. It’s always a really enjoyable process, especially when you find someone who really gets the book (and indeed someone who, often, gets certain aspects of the book even better than you do).

I: To what extent does the family of the Greenburgs, within your 2016 novel Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, resemble your upbringing as a child in Ireland?

RG: The Greenbergs lived in early 20th Century Cork, so there aren’t a lot of similarities I’m afraid! That said, Ruth Greenberg, like me, is the youngest child, and very eager to please. However, in Nine Folds, the present-day character of Aisling is much more autobiographical — like me she is from Dublin, now living in London, and has fallen in love with an English boy. She has to deal with questions of identity, homesickness, belonging, religion, familial ties, so a lot of my own experience is in there.

I: Are there any particular themes or ideas you wish were better presented in literature? (Either commercially or just generally)

RG: I think in Irish fiction there is still a real lack of diversity in terms of people of colour or minority groups being represented. This is slowly starting to improve, although only really amongst certain small presses, so the bigger houses really need to get on board with this.

I: In what ways do you believe the American and European literary markets differ?

RG: The American publishing industry is just HUGE! Which is quite intimidating for an outsider. However, luckily I found a US agent, who then found me a wonderful indie publishing house who really took Nine Folds under their wing and pushed it as much as they could, so I felt a lot more nurtured than I might have if I had been at one of the huge US publishing houses.

An Interview with Phillip B. Williams

Phillip B. Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois and earned his MFA from Washington Uni- versity, where he was a Chancellor’s Graduate fellow. He is the author of Bruised Gospels (Arts in Bloom Inc., 2011), Burn (YesYes Books, 2013), and Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His poetry has appeared in Callaloo, Kenyon Review Online, The Southern Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, West Branch, Blackbird and others.

Williams is a Cave Canem graduate and the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award and teaches at Bennington College.

Interviewers: Our group found your poem, “Witness”, in Thief in the Interior, to be interesting in terms of the content and style. We’re wondering if you might be able to speak about what you were hoping to achieve stylistically, given the variety of writing styles and forms that were used, and how you thought this complemented the content?

Phillip B. Williams: For me, I just wanted to write a poem that interrogated the space of the page, the possibilities of form, in order to get across the difficulties of relying on anything at all to communicate how I felt while looking at my life through this story. I wanted to match all of the feelings moving through me but no form seemed reliable. I didn’t have any hopes per se, just a vision, and that vision was to keep attempting a thing until exhausted, to keep moving through my fear and anger until I just couldn’t anymore. The original poem is, I believe, 20 sections. I edited it down for the book (it was also what was best for the poem).

I: In reading “He Loved Him Madly,” (Thief in the Interior), we found it to be something like a tapestry of different aspects of what we suspect to be your environment in Chicago. We were wondering if you could perhaps explain or elaborate on how you weaved the different perspectives, voices, and references together to make this work; and how you think this work should be read?

PBW: The form is something I got from Terrance Hayes. He has a few pecha kuchas in his book Lighthead, one in particular called “Arbor for Butch,” which I really enjoy. He thinks about his father in that poem and it made me think about my own and how hard it must’ve been coming up in Chicago during the crack epidemic. But in my mind there is one voice, not many, thinking about Chicago as a place that has failed its residents, particular the working class Black residents in my neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods. The work should be read straight through but one could read all the odd sections together then all the even sections together if they wanted to. I just wanted to make sure that the community had an eye on it as well as my relationship with my father.

I: The final poem in the your collection, “Birth of the Doppleganger,” we felt, to be one of most surreal of the bunch. It feels like a very dark and ominous vision of a rebirth from the body of the wolf into something else; when combined with the title we suspect that it’s describing how a new ‘you’ has come into being. We were wondering, if this work is about you, how you see this transformation: what were you before, what are you now, and what caused this change?

PBW: This poem is closely related, in my mind at least, to the opening poem “Bound,” where the question is asked “Can I be more than one thing at once?” I consider “Birth of the Doppelganger” to be an answer to this question in some way. It’s neither a yes nor a no. More like a “Well, there is always transformation, but this is not to say that this other part of you wasn’t always in you to begin with.” It’s not really about me. Most of my poems are from a speaker that is merely an aspect of me. There are a few where the I is reflective of me, such as “Eleggua and Eshu Ain’t the Same.” That is a poem absolutely pulled from my life but also with exaggerations.

I: As an editor for Vinyl and a writer yourself, what kind of things do you look for when reading other people’s submissions? How do you determine if a work should be published or not?

PBW: I look for a poet who knows what they are capable of. So many poets come to us at Vinyl without and idea as to what they are doing and how to better achieve their aesthetic goals. Every poem has an aesthetic personality, and it is often times easy to see when a poet is still figuring things out, when a poet has not been reading widely or enough, and when a poet accidentally happened upon something cool instead of intentionally working with that cool idea to create something surprising, yes, but also cohesive. I look for work that somehow proves to me that it is different than things I’ve read before. We get a lot of poems that, if names were removed, I wouldn’t be able to say they were written from different people. I also look for poems that take chances with language, think about common tropes with unique vision, and are not ashamed of being beautiful, however that may look.

I: How does your role as an editor for Vinyl compare with your role as a writer? Do you feel your role as an editor strengthens your writing or at times interferes with your creative freedom?

PBW: It’s a mix of both but mostly editing interferes. I try to get one out of my system before doing the other. If I am writing,
I will not look at poems and vice versa. Reading other people’s poems absolutely makes for a difficult writing experience. It takes me out of my creative mind. I do enjoy that I see what seems to be fads happening in poetry and can build up a resistance to them as I write my own work. Analyzing a poem to see if the writer has written something that if shared, could make people think differently about the world is different than wanting to be on the creator’s side of thing, making the work that is unfamiliar and maybe even frightening for me and hopefully for the reader as well. I cannot wear the editor hat and the writer hat simultaneously, but I do learn a lot from reading the great submissions and finding those poems that are utterly generous and thought-provoking.

I: After reading your poem “Do-rag” (Poetry Magazine) we were curious to know your inspiration behind writing it? It appears you poke fun at a modern drunken love story, but we’d love to know if there is any deeper meaning to this poem.

PBW: This poem is less about a drunken love story and more about a love story where someone who is pretty open about their sexuality navigates, tries to navigate, a romance with someone who is in the closet, who participates in toxic masculinity in order to feel some sense of false comfort in a world that does not accept them, rather it accepts a shadow of them. The speaker is willing to keep this secret, though, but not without making it clear that the world is not going anywhere; it can merely be hidden, temporarily, and regardless of what the world says or thinks, in order for the closeted lover to be with the speaker, he has to make himself vulnerable. Vulnerability comes at a price. Both the speaker and the lover pay it.

An Interview with Jane Lunin Perel

Professor emerita Jane Lunin Perel ’15 Hon. arrived to teach English and creative writing at Providence College in 1971. She has stretched students’ creative capacities ever since. She also led the initiative to establish the College’s Women’s Studies Program in 1994, serving as its first director, and was devoted to it and the Department of English until her retirement in 2014. She is the author of five books of poetry: Red Radio Heart: Prose Poems, The Lone Ranger and the Neo American Church, The Fishes: A Graphic Poetic Essay with Artist James Baker, Blowing Kisses to the Sharks, and The Sea is Not Full.

Interviewers: The PC community is eternally grateful to you for all the amazing changes you helped usher in during your time at Providence College, be it the development of the Creative Writing Program, Women’s Studies Program, the Poetry and Fiction Series, etc. What changes would you like to see going forward as the college enters its second century?

Jane Lunin Perel: I would like to see the Humanities revived and more emphasis placed on interdisciplinarity. It’s like cross-pollination when you, David, major in Poli Sci, but take Dr. Ye’s Literary Journalism. You have the ability to apply your creative instincts with what you are studying in Poli Sci. More panels, more papers, more poems integrating your knowledge and creativity enrich the individual student and the entire college. Poetry is for everyone, not just poets. It encourages diversity
of taste and curiosity about all subjects in the curriculum. It integrates the spiritual with the literal. This means I would like to see less segregation of disciplines and more interplay within interdisciplinarity that will encourage not just diversity of thought but also of social networking within the college.

I: Providence College is fortunate to have such a long-standing literary journal, The Alembic, to which you were the faculty advisor for a number of years. How do you think The Alembic contributes to fostering a literary- minded student body?

JLP: Obviously, The Alembic fosters a “literary-mined student body” only when it’s read and appreciated. I would like to see the work in it read and evaluated not just in Creative Writing courses, but also in Intro to Lit. courses, other English courses in which the subjects of the poems are pertinent, in the American Studies, Black Studies, and Women’s Studies programs, Global Studies, Political Science, Education, Religious Studies, Sociology, and even DWC. We need to sweep the net wider in not having the editors only create the journal, but also personally direct works
in it to departments, programs, and organizations that would appreciate the subject matter and style of said work. This could be achieved by having a reading with these aims in mind. It has to be an on-going intensification of sharing the work with the whole PC Community. It’s a wonderful journal, but it needs far more exposure and use on campus.

I: Some of the poems in your book, Blowing Kisses to the Sharks, reveal the tension between men and women. How does this tension manifest in poems such as “Mozart’s Sister” and “Breakfast”?

JLP: In “Breakfast,” the speaker has a frightening, surreal dream in which she says, “I beat/my breasts, which became huge/white eggs/and yolk flowed/everywhere.” The other in the poem is “already up, organizing/your correspondences.” The dream life of the speaker centers on her “breasts” and “bleeding yolk.”  It’s obvious she is terrified by her own body parts and some aspect
of her sexuality. This symbolizes the fear of her unknowable capacities and perhaps the huge emphasis placed on breasts by women and men. It is mysterious that “she bleeds yolk.” She fears perhaps she is an anomaly and her body form is an anomaly. So, while the speaker is horrified and afraid “alone, bleeding yolk,” her partner lives in a world or order, “organizing correspondences, eating breakfast alone.” Their worlds are separate, and there is no sharing of her psychic pain, except the poem itselfIt sounds like alienation to me.

“Mozart’s Sister,” on the other hand finds a female speaker fascinated with Mozart’s literal sister and the lack of appreciation and recognition of her talent during her lifetime, and now the speaker gives us her name “Nannerl.” Also, the poem is a series
of juxtapositions from my own life. I was reading about Nannerl Mozart and considering how restrictive gender roles of her life made it impossible for her to study and become famous despite her musical talent. I imagined her dreams and massive frustration, “Jesus with her brother’s face.” I imagined Nannerl and I fighting against Nazis, the ultimate patriarchal destroyers and oppressors. Then, I juxtaposed that thought stream to my real life, in which
I had to bring my car to a male mechanic whose garage was on Admiral Street. I then compare the “lifting up of the car” during its exam to a gynecological exam on a woman by a male doctor. Many women are extremely anxious about these examinations, and they in a way return to the insecurity of Nannerl. My car at that point symbolizes me being invaded by the mechanic so, of course, it is the symbol of my body. And I bring in Freud whose theory
of penis envy has always seemed totally absurd and ridiculously male centered to me. Then, I have Mozart’s Sister return and comment on my imagining how she couldn’t even “touch herself.” I then state, “her quiet death makes me speak out.” And I ask my readers to invoke her name in the face of oppressive and sexist behavior and to “speak out,” which is what I literally did. I told the mechanic that his fee was ridiculous, “Go rip off somebody else.” And he literally came down on his price because I stood
up to him. I then end on a positive note that, “though things are weird, they are getting better.” We have taken for granted so often the limitation of learned gendered behavior, the assumption that
a woman should be polite and accept whatever male authority expects of her. So, my small victory of not paying a high price pleased me, and the poem also asks that we honor the silent, talented, disadvantaged women who have been oppressed
by patriarchal dominance. If we honor them, we also honor ourselves. Men, Women, and Trans are aspiring to experience self- expression and justice. But, the poem is not an essay. I think in its way it’s droll and sardonic, and I still consider myself forty years later, “Mozart’s Sister.”

I: The form of “Lorenzo” from Blowing Kisses to the Sharks is quite eye-catching. When the poem displays the motion of the “diver,” why are the words formatted in a zig-zag pattern? What is the significance of this form?

JLP: This question makes me think of the wonderful essay by
the poet Charles Olson, named “Projected/Projective Verse,”
in which he states that “form is the extension of content.” So since these poems are in free verse, and this one describes, enacts Lorenzo, a real cliff diver in Acapulco, Mexico while he is diving, I endeavor to use this form to emulate the act of diving and in the next stanza his rising back up and breaking the water’s surface. And also, I wish to project how startling he was. I guess looking back I found him quite attractive. Please do read the Olson essay and experiment!

I: “There Will Be a Poem You Can Lie Down In” and “Making a Poem” seem to describe some intense feelings when creating a poem. The poems show that it can be a long, difficult process, but it is somehow worth it in the end. How do these poems reveal your feelings towards developing?

JLP: I am not sure how to answer this question. “There Will Be a Poem You Can Lie Down In” is a metaphor comparing dying to writing a poem. My feelings about imagery best describe my feeling toward developing poetry. Each image that amazes us, such as “you waterfall, you cleft of rock,” has the capacity to
be all there is for a moment. I am imagining this is what we’ve become and in doing so find, as the poet William Baker states, “eternity is a grain of sand.” This brings up spirituality, the belief in the intensity of beauty in nature as a gift of the Creator: “The glove of the moon/writes the poem and you lie/down for the
last time.” Imagining your own death not as torture or slaughter, but as an extension of nature gives wonder and respect for the dazzling imagery we experience on Earth. I think this is where poetry comes from, not from personality or intellect, but from how we know what a gift life is, and how the world is Holy, even though so much of how so many treat it is destructive. I have always been fascinated by the ocean. It assures me that the God who created all wonders and creatures is generous beyond wonder and part of the human soul.

So, this poem is an homage, a song, to that generosity and to our realizing we are gifted with wonder which will continue for those who are grateful for life, even after they die. Now, “Making a Poem” again uses the metaphor of comparing “making the poem” to mining with all the physical arduousness of mining.
It is a metaphor for the creative process which requires fierce concentration and an actual digging at the core of language to find that imagery the equates with the ferocity of a poem’s own core. It is difficult to find, to hone, language. It is a lonely process and frustrating. But again, it is the gift of discovery and song. Frankly, those who live with poets, but are not poets, have little understanding to why “it took so long to offer it.” Yet, despite the tremendous energy required to write and revise heavily a poem one is satisfied with, there is always a terrible fear the poet will lose the gift and no more poems will come.

I: “Carnelia Doesn’t Get Relief from Acupuncture but She Gets This List:” certainly breaks the form of the prose poems that surrounds it. Is this meant to draw attention to the poem among the collection or merely is it an anomaly among the collection?

JLP: The form of “Carnelia Doesn’t Get Relief from Acupuncture but She Gets This List:” is exactly how the
poem with its mythic equations came to me one by one on the acupuncturist’s table with the needles hanging out of me. So, in complete contrast to “Making a Poem,” here I was given this poem as a gift, although I did not get any relief from the back pain. Also, I did tinker a bit with what was given to me. I created an echo to each line which imbued it with certain morbidity. An example of this, each of the last words of each line of the first four lines ends in a morbid word and image, but the last words of the last line, “let go,” suggest a demand for freedom. So, you may start with what literally comes to you, but you may also play with it and change it completely. That is my justification for the form, that these words came to me as lists whose changes I made only on the last word of every line.