Profiling Sarah Aronson 

By Emma Neslund

The first time I saw Sarah Aronson, she was holding a 12-gauge shotgun.

This was, actually, in-line with the image I already had of her. We had never met, but we were connected the moment I landed in Missoula. My first human contact, my Uber driver, raved about her. And then my first Missoulan phlebotomist, needle in hand, “You gotta meet her!”

Everyone I met was telling me about this Sarah Aronson. Also from Alaska, also a poet, also a baker. It was like entering high school in the shadow of an older sibling who had conquered the halls and graduated, a real stud with— to raise the bar even higher— her own radio talk show! High-shooting competition. I already looked up to her, and, though I knew her blood type, I didn’t even know what color hair she had. 

But, seeing her there, pumping shells out of that gun and reloading the thing, I just wanted her to be my friend. I had only ever shot nerf guns and was wide-eyed and open-armed. “Hey! Sis! How do you hold that thing? Hey, do you fly fish too? (Of course she does.) Will you take me?

Sarah— intense, playful, compassionate and badass— reminds me of home. Her favorite piece of clothing is this fake black leather jacket she got ten years ago. She actually bought two of them and hasn’t even broken into the second yet. I understand the instinct— you never know when resources will dwindle, when a storm will delay all transit and there will be a run on milk at the only Safeway in town.

If Sarah only had one last swim, it would be in a tarn, one of those freezing mountain lakes with a view of the ocean in Southeast Alaska. If she had to commit a felony, she’d chain herself to a glacier. Her go-to gas station snack is one of those cold, hard, red-delicious apples (we Alaskans aren’t snobby when it comes to produce) paired with string cheese. Sarah is the kind of person who doesn’t like it when people forget to push their chairs in. That’s rude. She doesn’t like that entitled sh*t. 

And, like I said, Sarah bakes. She is most proud of having crafted a croque-en-bouche French pastry cream-puff tower. But her favorite, go-to baked good is caramel apple pie. At the first MFA barbeque I went to, the crowd formed around this delightful green, Matcha Tea Cake. Yep. Sarah.

Sarah describes poetry as her first language, a bizarre medium that allows intimacy as well as distance. No one can pin her down. She was inspired to begin writing by an engaged elementary school teacher. Fluency came afterwards, nourished by life’s bumps. Though most at ease in poetry, nonfiction is Sarah’s more satisfying medium. Hence, her MFA a year ago in Poetry and Nonfiction.

Sarah took a trip to Juneau, Alaska last summer to research her current project, a nonfiction book about a glacier around which her childhood orbited. She compared it to Missoula’s mountainside M. Friends, family, church, education: her whole life grew around this glacier, which has now receded over a mile and a half. In the rain (because it rained the whole time she was home), Sarah touched the glacier for the first time in her life. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

Contrasting her trip home, Sarah recently traveled into the Craters of the Moon desert. She saw my face contort when she said the word, ‘desert’—you see, desert is death for Alaskans. “I know, I know,” she said, “I had to train for it.” But she had to do it. “The desert landscape allows the eyes and heart a rest,” she quoted. Sarah Aronson bleeds back to her roots while punching forward, shooting on.

Sarah Aronson writes poetry and nonfiction from Missoula, MT. Her work can be found in the High Desert Journal, Yemassee, and the Big Sky Journal among others. She is also the host and producer of the Montana Public Radio literary program, The Write Question. Sarah Aronson is the recipient of the 2018 New American Poetry Prize for her collection, And Other Bodiless Powers

Emma Neslund is a second-year in the Poetry MFA at the University of Montana.


A Conversation with Stephanie Land

by Amanda Wilgus

Stephanie Land, the first local author to read for the 2nd Wind Reading Series back in September, is a powerhouse graduate of the University of Montana. I was fortunate to become familiar with Stephanie’s work in 2014, shortly after I’d moved to Los Angeles, when Stephanie’s article, “I spent 2 years cleaning houses. What I saw makes me never want to be rich,” went viral on Vox. I recognized Stephanie’s observations from domestic work, and her articles about economic justice helped me feel seen from across the country. I believe she will bring innumerable people out from invisibility by being their beacon through her forthcoming memoir, MAID.

Stephanie’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington PostThe GuardianThe Huffington Post, SalonCosmopolitan and other publications.  Her essays include “Classism in ‘Clean’ Eating,” “Minimalism, a Movement for the Elite,” “The Class Politics of Decluttering,” “Free Range Parenting is a Privilege for the Rich and White,” “A Portrait of the Artist as a Single Mom,” “It’s Easier to Have a ‘Spirited’ Child if You’re White” and “Cultural Appropriation in Kid Costumes,” as well as articles about chronic fatigue syndrome.

Stephanie was gracious enough to agree to an interview with me, conducted over email. We in the Missoula community are eagerly anticipating MAID’s arrival from Hachette Books in January 2019. 

Amanda Wilgus: I’ve read you’ve wanted to be a writer since you were 10. What inspired you then? What inspires you now?

Stephanie Land: I had a teacher that year named Mr. Birdsall who had a constant focus on getting us to write. We wrote in journals, wrote short stories, and wrote stories for classmates' birthdays. I asked for a diary for Christmas that year, and wrote almost daily into my late 20s, then the nerve damage in my arm became so bad from scoliosis I started an online journal that I published and eventually it became more of a blog. I started it because I had so much in me to write about creatively and felt I needed to share it. I discovered this online community of people who also wrote in their darkest hours, sharing their days to feel less alone. Besides it being my nature, that's why I still write. I write to share my story so someone else out there won't feel so alone. As Hannah Gadsby brilliantly said it recently, "Because what I would have done to have heard a story like mine." 

AW: How has Missoula shaped you as a person and writer? 

SL: Coming to Missoula was a bit of a returning home to how living in Alaska felt to me—a bunch of friendly folks appreciating and loving the place they live in. It's so darn friendly and huggy here! I forget that sometimes when I find myself too caught up in work or life and don't get out as much as I should. Living in a place with such a strong writing community made me unafraid to call myself a writer. I wanted to be a writer more than anything after seeing so many on stage. 

AW: Could you tell us about your experience after your Vox article about cleaning houses went viral? 

SL: I remember walking around feeling like the sky was going to fall on me. It was my first paid article, and the first time anyone had paid any real attention to something I wrote. I received so many hateful comments and emails through my website I thought for sure the whole world hated me. My skin felt raw. I thought for sure someone was going to jump out of the bushes and call me a cockroach or a vermin or spit on me. The Internet can become a scary place very quickly. Sometimes I'm thankful I went through that at the very beginning, because I'd encounter even worse comment sections over the years. But it's never fun, or good, or something I would wish on anyone. I think in some ways it still affects me heavily.

AW: What has been the most surprising aspect of acquiring a book deal?

SL: Everything about it has been surprising. I didn't think my publisher — the folks who have edited, ushered, and supported this book — would feel like family. They all line up in the front row of any event I speak at in New York with these huge smiles on their faces, just like I'd imagine a family would, and it's the greatest feeling. 


AW: Could you see yourself writing investigative journalism outside of your personal experience or transplanting to another location? And/or do you have anything planned after the publication of MAID?

SL: I'm a freelance writer and a teacher, and I'm still doing those things. I'll always keep writing in some way or another. This is not only my dream job, it's the only one I have ever really seen myself doing. 

AW: What advice would you give aspiring writers?

SL: Write! And read. Preferably at the same time. I have an entire shelf full of journals — there must be 30 or so — and I think that daily practice of sort of puking onto the page helped me turn writing into a natural reflex and helped me find my voice. Voice is so important and is what makes us unique. I don't think you find it unless you force yourself to talk a lot.  

“I write to share my story so someone else out there won't feel so alone.”

AW: What’s a piece of advice that’s kept you going?

SL: Well, it's a quote by Ernest Hemingway that I was never able to find proof of him actually saying. Natalie Goldberg said he did, so I went as far to get it tattooed on my arm years ago after writing it on the front page of all of my journals: "Write hard and clear about what hurts." 


AW: Best writing playlist? 

SL: Hm. I had a pretty specific playlist for working on the book. It had a lot of This Will Destroy You, AltJ, and Death Cab for Cutie. It changed, depending on what songs I found myself skipping over. But most of the time I write in total silence. My kids are so loud. I relish the time I get when they're both somewhere else and I have a quiet house to think in.

AW: What public assistance initiatives should we be on the lookout for in the state of Montana and federally?

SL: The Farm Bill is incredibly important to people on SNAP (food stamps). It's also important to resist any legislation that requires people receiving assistance to work. Most people in safety net programs work if they're able-bodied, but these rhetorics only further stigmas that make people perceive them as lazy. Currently they're trying to pass work requirements for Medicaid in several states, which could be deadly for some folks. If the House's Farm Bill passes, something like 1.4 million people would be immediately cut from the SNAP program, and millions of others would fail to meet the paperwork requirements. It would mean a lot of families — and something like 1 in 4 children — going hungry.


AW: How do we talk about poverty? How do we help when we’re not in need?

SL: I think it's important to notice how people talk about the homeless or people who use food stamps. It's important to check your own judgments and look at them, because that carries over to what you say, or how you react to what other people are saying. Systemic poverty is regulated by the stigmas that surround them, and that comes from how people think and talk about those who are struggling to get by. The more universal we make their situations, and the less we separate ourselves from it ever happening to us, the more human those in need become, and hopefully the more our humanity reaches out to help.

Stephanie Land’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon, and many other outlets. She focuses on social and economic justice as a writing fellow through both the Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her memoir, MAID, is forthcoming January 2019 through editor Krishan Trotman from Hachette Books. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

Amanda Wilgus is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana, where she serves as a fiction editor for CutBank and works as a copy editor for the University Relations department.


A Conversation with Chris La Tray

by Jenny Montgomery

Chris La Tray and I met a few years ago when I visited the downtown studio he was sharing with his wife, designer Julia La Tray, for a fitting prior to her epic motorcycle-themed fashion show. He sat writing and editing photos on one side of the room while she shoehorned me into a pair of French blue leather pants behind a curtain on the other side. A creative conversation began that Chris and I have continued in many coffee shops in the years since, as our lives and writing have evolved. We have kvetched and kvelled about books, art, writing, publishing, Montana history, the soul-sucking evils of capitalism, and the possibility that we might be related (by marriage) through the Lewistown La Trays. Chris is the funniest, kindest misanthrope I know and an all-around quality dude. His long-awaited book One Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays From the World at Large was released this August from Riverfeet Press. The following distills a wide-ranging chat we enjoyed recently at the Buttercup Cafe.

Jenny Montgomery: What are your earliest memories of writing?

 Chris La Tray: I started reading voraciously as a youngster, but I don't know that the notion of writing as something one did really arrived until I was in junior high. I was a Dungeons and Dragons kid, and I would prepare a lot of the adventures my friends and I put our characters through, which involved a significant amount of writing. That effort and style of storytelling overflowed into my school work. When I graduated 8th grade, I received the award for being my class's "best" reader, the physical manifestation of which was a hardback notebook of blank pages with an inscription from my teacher saying it was to help me start writing my first fantasy novel. That—writing a fantasy novel—is a dream I still entertain on occasion, especially if I read one I really like. But I don't have time to read fantasy these days, let alone write it. 

JM: What writing communities in Missoula have most encouraged you and how are local writing ecosystems important for you?

CLT: I used to write a fair amount of crime and noir fiction. My first public readings of my work were part of that community, but never in Missoula. I read at a Noir at the Bar event in St. Louis, and another one in Portland. None of that work has any connection to Missoula, and I certainly wasn't considered for the Montana Noir book that came out a year or so ago. That work feels like a different life, frankly, though I still have many friends I admire in that community all over the country whose work I enjoy and who remain supportive of the work I do today.

Thinking about the second part of your question, I think relationships are critical, and I have some good ones. I've been very moved by the support I've gotten in the wake of my book's publication from the younger crowd who are the current crop of MFA students. That was unexpected. I've gotten very involved with the Beargrass [Writing Retreat and Workshop] writers crowd and have made great friends through that organization and what they do. I've become good friends with a number of mentor figures who have already blazed the trail I'm traversing. I've also become friends with local people who are beloved internationally, and I love that. Being around people who are on fire with creativity is invigorating.

It can never be stated enough how important being a good literacy citizen is. It boils down to being supportive of other people's work and celebrating their good fortune. And, most importantly, don't be a jackass. 

“I love silence, but the relentless hum in my ears regardless of the quiet around me is a constant reminder of how much I have been affected by my love for volume as a physical sensation too.”

JM: The world of literary publishing is small, so ideas of "success" are relative. What has constituted the most important success for you with the recent publication of your book One-Sentence Journal? How have ideas of "success" and "failure" been present for you in the past as opposed to now?

CLT: The biggest success with One-Sentence Journal was just seeing it through to completion and having it out in the world. That is a huge deal to me, and the response I've gotten has filled me with gratitude. I feel like the Grinch whose heart overflows with love and explodes out of his chest, despite a personal history of cynicism and surliness. I think working at a bookstore has tempered my expectations, because it's clear to me that no matter what anyone says about marketing, about what you should or shouldn't do as a writer, most of it is bullshit and nobody knows what it takes to be "successful" when it comes to the economics of writing. How many great books go unnoticed? How many shitty books win glory? I do my best not to get caught up in that and just do the work. Finishing something is all the reward I hope for in anything. At least that's the perspective I'm aiming for. I'd love to put a book out with any number of publishers I admire, sure, but I'm not measuring my worth against it. Or even the quality of my efforts. Some days are better than others, though.

JM: Your work strikes me as zen-like in its ability to observe the mind. Your book is arranged by season and in it we get to observe transient states of rancor and delight, desire and aversion—humor plays a part in that. In what sense has writing shaped your consciousness, mental health and/or daily experience? 

CLT: As my daily practices of observation and introspection—this whole pursuit of a slower, more spiritual, contemplative life—have evolved, my writing has evolved in its wake. But there are contradictions too. More and more I seek solitude and silence whenever I possibly can, yet one of my favorite, most cathartic practices remains plugging into a wall of amplifiers with my two band mates and just blowing the roof off places. I love silence, but the relentless hum in my ears regardless of the quiet around me is a constant reminder of how much I have been affected by my love for volume as a physical sensation too. Tinnitus sucks, but I've sure had a great time earning it.

I'm never going to be the guy shy around a microphone. I try and keep my mouth shut, but when it comes time to talk, I'm never going to be the guy who has to be urged to speak up. That's the sole mission of my writing. I want to be quiet, and then BOOM. I want to knock people on their asses with the force of my love for them and for the world. 



Chris La Tray is a writer, a walker, and a photographer. His freelance writing and/or photography has appeared in various regional and national publications. His first book, One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays From the World at Large was published in August by Riverfeet Press (Livingston, MT). Chris is Chippewa-Cree Métis, and is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He lives in Missoula, MT.

Jenny Montgomery has published poetry and essays in publications such as Barrow Street, Tar River, CALYX, Unsplendid, the New York Times, and the Cairo Times. Her poetry installations have been shown at galleries in Montana and Washington. She is at work on a graphic novel about a Robin Hood-themed cerebral palsy summer camp. She is a disability advocate with ADAPT and runs Montgomery Distillery with her husband Ryan.


A Conversation with Andrew Martin

By Jason Bacaj

Andrew Martin visited Missoula this fall and was gracious enough to let me pull him aside for a short Q&A despite the fact that I hadn’t read his book [author’s note: now I have]. Andrew earned an MFA from the University of Montana and made the pilgrimage back to town to read from his debut novel, Early Work, at the Montana Book Festival. To help quell my anxiety over conducting an interview for which I felt wildly unprepared, Andrew and I conducted the interview over Bloody Marys at the Tamarack Brewing Company.

  Andrew Martin’s  novel   Early Work   was published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on July 10, 2018.

Andrew Martin’s novel Early Work was published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on July 10, 2018.

Jason Bacaj: Let’s start with your professional bio. I saw that you were an editorial assistant at the outset?

Andrew Martin: I went to Columbia in New York as an undergrad and got a job as an intern at the New York Review of Books in my last semester. An assistant there had to leave the country very abruptly, and they desperately needed someone to fill her place. So very suddenly I was spending all my time in the New York Review office as an editorial assistant to Bob Silvers, the legendary, extremely old editor of the New York Review. He’s famous, and accurately so, for being a difficult man.


JB: Sounds like a good place to start. What all does being an editorial assistant entail?

AM: The office was tiny. There’s basically Silvers running it as a sort of dictatorship, and a couple senior editors who do more fact checking and copy editing and broad, bigger picture stuff. Then there are four editorial assistants who do a lot of the grunt work of the magazine. He would dictate emails, so you’d have to type up his emails


JB: Would you sign off ‘Dictated but not read by, Bob Silvers’?

AM: (laughs) He would read them and then line edit the emails by hand. Sometimes there’d be these long editorial memos that he’d go into every detail and you’d rewrite it like ten times over the course of the day.

The really great educational part of it was that if he thought a piece wasn’t working, he’d be like, ‘This piece doesn’t make any sense, it needs more background,’ or whatever. He’d throw the manuscript at you and you’d be charged with trying to ventriloquize what his editorial acumen would be on the piece. You’d do your edit of the piece, your marginal notes, and write a memo about it for him. Then he would heavily edit your edit and completely re-write the memo. But you’d start to see the process of putting a piece together.


JB: It sounds like a graduate degree in itself.

AM: It really was. You just learned about so many writers. The history of the Review is so caught up in mid-century American literary history, so you’re learning about Elizabeth Hardwick and James Baldwin and Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Some of them called the office. I talked to John Updike. I did edits over the phone on the last poem he ever published; it was crazy. It was very romantic and very old fashioned. And also really hard and stressful when you’re 23 and don’t know who most of these people are.


JB: And you’re having to figure it out on the fly while you have some guy yelling and dictating things.

AM: Right, exactly. Do this, do this—also did you make plans for me to go to the opera tonight?—also edit this piece, also how do you not know who Gore Vidal is, you idiot?

I was there for three years, which was about all I could do. Three and a half years. It was exhausting. Silvers also famously worked seven days a week. You’d work a lot of weekends. People would come in in shifts. There was a night shift.


JB: Damn. How’d he have so much energy?

AM: He was amazing. I mean, Silvers really was amazing. He was in his 80s. I worked there when he was 79 to 82 and he’d work like twelve-hour days. He’d go to the theatre and come back at 10 o’clock at night and work until 3 in the morning. He had a bed in the office.


JB: You went from there to the University of Montana MFA program?

AM: Yeah. It was a fairly abrupt transition.


JB: I bet grad school unfolded at a leisurely pace after that.

AM: It was like I had all the time in the world. Time just slowed to a crawl. But I had applied to programs the year before I got into any. I applied to about ten programs, didn’t get in anywhere. And then the next year, in a weird mood, I looked up some seemingly random places. Montana’s program had an interesting reputation and history and I figured why not.

“We’re all sinners before God; I hope I’m no worse than anyone else.”

JB: Yeah, I didn’t know much about it either when I applied. Funding was the main decider for me.

AM: I determined I wasn’t going to do it if I couldn’t get funding. But I’ve had friends who’ve done it who’ve paid for it. I imagine that’s still the case here at UM—some people are funded, some aren’t. And like a bunch of my friends who were really good writers didn’t get funded and, you know, a few jackasses who weren’t very diligent did get funded. 


JB: Ah, yes. The start to learning how arbitrary it all is.

AM: Right? Welcome to the literary community… I’d never really been to the Mountain West before. I’d been to California like twice and I’d been to New Mexico, but I’d never been out here at all. It was something of a culture shock for me. I’d been living in New York for almost a decade, and I grew up in Jersey, so I wasn’t exactly hugely acquainted with the byways of Montana life.

I think, maybe because it was such an extreme contrast, I found it so liberating for my work and thinking about what I wanted to write about and what was interesting to me. It was instant subject matter because it was stuff I had never encountered before.


JB: What’d you do right after the program?

AM: I got really lucky and published my first story right out of the program in the Paris Review.



AM: Could I get a side of bacon? It looks too good to not get.



JB: That’s hitting the ground running.

AM: It was extremely lucky and great. I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia because my girlfriend was in medical school there. We had done some long distance and it was, you know, hard to do. It was just time to go there. I taught community college there in Charlottesville and at a nonprofit writing workshop. I freelanced a lot and wrote a lot of fiction. Charlottesville’s pretty cheap.


JB: I had my first newspaper internship over at the Charlottesville Daily Progress, actually. Interesting city.

AM: Charlottesville has its unpleasant things, and there’s a moneyed Southern attitude there. But we lived in a tiny little house for a thousand bucks a month with a tiny little yard. I didn’t have to work full time, though. I was teaching off and on, freelancing. I basically wrote most of a story collection and most of the novel there in Charlottesville. The book is very much about Charlottesville and that whole world.


JB: I was glad for that first question at the Q&A after the reading yesterday, about how much of Early Work reflects on familiar life experiences rather than whether the main character was actually you, thinly disguised.

AM: I think it’s an interesting way to think about things because that question assumes that your character is not you, which people often do assume. Turns out not everybody has gone to an MFA program or gotten an English degree. Which, honestly, in my world I can forget sometimes. I surround myself with academics and writers and people in PhD programs and shit. And then you’re out at a bookstore and someone’s just like ‘This seems like you did all these bad things,’ like, ‘Did you do the things? Are you bad?’

And you say, ‘No? We’re all sinners before God; I hope I’m no worse than anyone else.’ The risk of the book [Early Work] is it very much has the appearance of being autobiographical and very deliberately courts that because it’s about…



AM: She just pulled this off the Bloody Mary stand didn’t she? ... No, it’s a little warmer.

JB: Maybe she pulled it off the bottom of the stack.

AM: My bio is similar to the guy in the book, and the guy in the book’s a total asshole. He treats his partner really badly and he treats his friends really badly. It’s sort of a self indictment, but also not an accurate portrayal, I hope, of my life. 

JB: One of the things I’m curious about with the nuts and bolts of fiction, because I’m still wrapping my mind around that… 

AM: Did you work with David Gates at all?


JB: Yeah, he helped a lot with crystallizing in my mind what my thesis was about. Mostly I was trying to be super journalistic and then turned in the first couple pieces and he was like, ‘You know, this is a coming-of-age story’ … one of those cutting and incisive comments where it’s like, ‘Ah, dammit. You’re right.’

AM: The very first story I turned in at Montana was in Gates’ workshop. The story was called “the Dream Room.” The first thing he said was *breaks into a surprisingly good Gates impression* ‘Who here thinks “the Dream Room” has to go?’

Something like that. I was like, ‘What do you mean?’

He said, ‘Well, it’s a shitty title and the scene where it takes place doesn’t really make sense.’

‘Oh. Alright David, tell me what you really think.’


JB: I read a couple old interviews where you talked about how some characters in the novel flow between that and the short stories you’ve written. I was curious about how you imagine the world in which all this takes place, where characters are almost, I don’t know, for lack of a better word, interchangeable?

AM: I think because for me fiction is so much about creating a consciousness—creating particular voices or ways of thinking—that it feels natural to me to continue to use those consciousnesses that I’ve created. Because at least so far in my work I’ve explored a pretty narrow range of people and feelings, which is people in their 20s, for the most part, who are writers or artists of some kind who are like overeducated and struggling to figure out what their life is supposed to mean.

And interchangeable feels like a dirty word or a pejorative word, but, honestly, I do feel like some of my characters are almost interchangeable. They’re from the same milieu. They’re not interchangeable because they’re all individuals. But I like the idea of following a particular consciousness across different experiences of their life and different periods of their life and seeing the way different experiences affect this particular kind of consciousness.

I realize that’s kind of an autobiographical impulse on some level because I’m an overeducated neurotic writer who’s like ended up in all kinds of interesting corners of the country, and I’ve been interested to see the way this particular way of seeing the world has filtered these places. So, I think on some level I’m always kind of writing about myself but putting different names on.


JB: My mind immediately jumps to Kilgore Trout, the sort of constant presence and all that.

AM: I love writers who do that. I know I’ve said it before, but Bolano I know was a big influence for a lot of people. Seeing the way he reuses characters and ideas across stories and novels was really exciting to me. The feeling that there’s this interconnected web of people. 


JB: And it gives characters a whole life arc, which is super interesting to get into. Seeing them change and then when they’re their own beings and you put them into a situation and they react differently. That’s the whole magic bit of fiction that I don’t understand.

I’ve gotten into arguments—just fun teasing arguments, for the most part as long as we’re not too drunk—

AM: Yeah, you think it’s fun

JB: —just about writing characters and letting them guide the story versus outlining. Coming from a journalist background I tend to fall on the more structured side. Seems like most of the fiction people kind of chuckle knowingly when I make my case.

AM: It’s funny, it swings back and forth. I’m teaching these classes at a place called Grubstreet in Boston. The students are a lot of people who aren’t looking at it from an MFA point of view, but from where they want to write a novel, some want to write more commercial kinds of novels—

JB: Oh nice, I respect that.

AM: —I respect it too, but I feel like they get frustrated because I’m of the MFA school and say ‘Follow your instincts’ and ‘Create organic character out of voice,’ and they’re like ‘Tell us how to outline a plot.’ So I go through a spiel where if you were to outline a plot it would look like this or that. But really I’m winging it because I’ve never outlined a plot in my life. I make notes and go back and look at them, but it’s not really a true conflict chart or anything.

Not to say that outlining isn’t legitimate if you’ve got a piece that relies on intricate narrative. I hope to get better at story, at driving with plot, because I think at the moment it hasn’t been a priority for me as a writer. I don’t think I’m ever going to be someone who writes purely plot-based pieces, but it’d be good to harness some of those energies.


JB: So, to be fully honest, I haven’t read your book.

AM: That occurred to me. You don’t have to read it.

JB: No, I will. I read The Marriage Plot over the summer and it reminded me in the very broad sense of yours in that it’s a love triangle… drank too much of my Bloody Mary too fast.

AM: My book is way better than that. *laughs*

JB: *laughs* Oh, I remember. Rather than having a plot forced upon the characters where they have to navigate like a rat in a maze, their reactions guide the twists.

 AM: That’s true. I don’t know. Even though I like it as a romantic idea, I’m skeptical of the ‘Oh, the characters tell me what to do’ school. At the end of the day you’re making the decision. You’re creating a range of options and the character does what seems the most natural based on what you’ve done. But I can’t help but feel the instrumentality of writer-ness where, ‘Ah, I had the option not to kill that character.’ Let’s not pretend that there’s a force beyond us guiding this process.

“My writing is really serious. The stories and the book, I mean it all with deathly seriousness. This is my life, this is everything I’ve got.”


JB: I have some process questions: Where do you work and when? Is it in the morning at a coffee shop or afternoons at home at a desk or something else entirely?

AM: I’ve tried to become someone who can be adaptive and I think part of that is like having been a professional writer for my entire adult life, like you have.

Gosh, when I lived here [in Missoula] - I’ve kind of gone off the NFL - but when I lived here the 11 am start times were dangerous. Be in Red’s at 11 pounding beers. For some reason I wanted to be with the real grubby old timers, the real morning alcoholics.

JB: The career ones.

AM: I wrote a short story about it, but I couldn’t quite make it go. It was gonna be in my collection.


JB: Those types of bars in Montana, probably just for any rural place in general, are fun because people don’t necessarily choose to be there, to live there. They just get stuck there in their own lives be it professional or personal, and they just do weird shit all the time. It’s so interesting.

AM: I certainly did weird shit all the time. Even as part of an MFA program I felt very isolated in some ways here. My routine was to get drunk Sunday mornings at this dive bar.

JB: It feels very natural to slip into. But you were saying you were trying to be adaptive?

AM: Yes, when I’m actually in the middle of a project like a novel or deep into a short story I try to write as much as possible. I try to write every day and write for a few hours a day. I’ve had this desk that’s traveled between numerous houses where it’s like, ‘If I keep this nice desk I’m going to be someone who sits at a desk all the time.’ But instead I end up at the kitchen table or on the couch or in a cafe or something and my partner Laura works at the desk. I don’t know why, I can’t be a stare-at-the-wall, sit-in-a-chair kind of person. I’m restless and move around. 

JB: Yeah, I tend to do the same when working at home. Move around to get the blood flowing, maybe play with the dog.

AM: I feel like I paradoxically have gotten a lot more work done since I got a dog, who you have to take for a walk numerous times per day.

JB: It imposes structure on your life.

AM: It really does. It forces you to be home more. I do like working in coffee shops and bars and stuff. But if I’m being honest it’s often a procrastinating technique. It’s like you can be working but also drinking coffee or beer and listening in on conversations and checking the internet. I love Bernice’s [Bakery, in Missoula] because they don’t have WiFi, that’s where I’d go a lot.


JB: I’m intrigued by this desk now. Did you haul it all the way here to Montana for the program, or acquire it down in Charlottesville?

AM: We got it down in Charlottesville and now we’ve trucked it up to Boston. I think it’ll probably come wherever we go next. It’s a nice desk. It’s got really big drawers, deep drawers. I’ve got a year’s worth of papers stashed in there. I don’t have to deal with it because there’s so much room.


JB: How do you like to conduct research? Is there much research in your rhythm of writing?

AM: I guess not that much for fiction. I’m trying to figure out how to do it better though because the story collection that’s coming out next year or early 2020 and the novel are very much like everything I already knew, stuff about places I’ve lived, people I’ve known.

Though there’s this point in the novel where they get very stoned and watch a Michael Jackson movie, so I got stoned and watched a Michael Jackson movie. A little bit of method writing, some pharmacological research.

I want my next book to be about, at least in part about, family history. A novelistic fictional accounting of it. My mother’s side of the family is Armenian. So, I know stories my grandmother told me and I know about Armenian history a little bit, but if I was to write about that I would need to do some serious research.


JB: Just from listening to the excerpt you read and in reading a few reviews and whatnot, it’s abundantly clear that you use humor really well. How much of the comedy in your writing is deliberate and how much tends to be incidental?

AM: It’s intentional. I really love stand-up and people who are really funny. A hard thing about fiction is you don’t get to test your material in the same way a stand-up does. So it’s fun to read it and see which lines actually kill and which lines don’t, and it’s sometimes really surprising. Yesterday there was a line that I thought was really funny that didn’t get a peep. Then another one I didn’t think was all that funny, maybe the way I delivered it, got a big reaction.

When we talk about writing first person or incorporating your voice into a piece, for me, the way in was humor. I seem to sort of freeze up as a first-person narrator. For me, the humor is somehow a way to cut the self-seriousness that seems inherent in first person writing. I tend to descend into melodrama if I write in first person sometimes. I think self-deprecation is necessary for me in both fiction and nonfiction, so it’s kind of a deliberate attempt to create a voice I could live with on the page.


JB: Now I’m citing an interview I read rather than reading your book… you were asked about how the characters qualify what they’re saying before going ahead and saying it regardless. Your answer was just that that was the way your friends talk. It sounds like you use humor to similar ends, offering a bit of levity to strike the right tone.

AM: Yeah, my writing is really serious. The stories and the book, I mean it all with deathly seriousness. This is my life, this is everything I’ve got. Somehow it seems important to me to ironize it, to distance it, to feel true to my sensibility, the way I think about the world. Which is serious but also inherently skeptical and satirical because it feels like it’s not serious.

I remember I interviewed George Saunders when I was in college, when he published his first couple collections. He said to me, ‘I’d like to figure out how to unlock the sincerity cheat code’—I don’t think he used that metaphor—but he said he’d really love to develop that part of his repertoire, and he was like, ‘I really feel myself, as I get older, more in touch with that sincerity.’ Lo and behold, he writes Tenth of December and Lincoln in the Bardo, which are the most achingly sincere books of the decade.

I like the idea of developing one’s emotional palette, but I’m definitely still early George Saunders mode, where everything needs to be cut with three degrees of irony in order for it to feel not embarrassing to me.


JB: It seems like one of those things that only makes sense with time. I’m so intrigued by how much time and living in a thing -- it’s not quite one of those hockey stick graphs, exponential sort of things. But the way once a lesson sinks in over the course of so many years, so many other moving parts lock into place that it almost feels like an exponential leap in your understanding.

AM: I met with some of the MFA kids yesterday morning and talked to a few of them at the readings and stuff, and had these great conversations. Still everyone looks really unhappy when I say, ‘You know, it’s going to take a while. It sucks, but it is.’ A couple people are able to break through early and publish groundbreaking novels in their 20s, and I feel very jealous of them. But like five years passed between leaving the MFA and publishing my first novel. I don’t think I could’ve done it any faster. It just took that long.


JB: Is the sincerity thing something you’re focusing on with future work? Aside from the short story project you already have in the hopper, of course.

AM: I’m trying to explore that in a couple of the newer stories in the collection. Stuff that’s a little bit less reflexively, I wouldn’t say cynical, but reflexively harsh or something. I really think it’d be cool as a writer to have a wider range of emotions and experience that could be covered.

I’m trying to start thinking about a new novel and trying to figure out how to do it. I think part of it for me is going to be opening it up to take on a longer time period. Most of the main action of this novel takes place over the course of a couple months with sections of flashback, but it’s a tight window of time. It’s informed by short story writing in a number of ways. I think having a wider canvas of characters and emotion and maybe just time would be a really interesting thing to do. So that’s my very vague goal.


JB: An appropriately vague answer for a vague question. Have you dived down any bizarre rabbit holes lately?

AM: I’ve been into Proust lately. I’ve been both listening to an audiobook of Proust and reading it.


JB: How’s the audiobook? I feel like it’d be really hard to follow.

AM: It is really hard to follow but also delightful. At a certain point, I realized I’m not going to get through this thing unless I also listen to it. I walk the dog, walk into town, drive, what better way to pass the time.


JB: Picking up the spare minutes where they come.

AM: But what’s weird is I’m listening to the original English translation, then there’s this revised translation in book form, and there’s further revised translations. I’m going down a rabbit hole of reading about all the different translations and what’s different about them. And then I’ll notice weird differences between when I’m listening and reading and try to figure out why it changed. It’s a pretty silly thing to be intrigued by.

ANDREW MARTIN's stories have appeared in The Paris ReviewZyzzyva, and Tin House's Flash Fridays series, and his non-fiction has been published by The New YorkerThe New York Review of BooksThe Washington Post, and others. Early Work is his first novel.

Jason Bacaj is a writer from West Virginia and was the Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana, where he is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction. He worked as a reporter for The Seattle TimesAnniston Star, and Bozeman Daily Chronicle and is a nonfiction editor of CutBank. His writing has appeared in publications such as Outside and Powder.


A Conversation with Emily H. Freeman

By Nicole Gomez

While Air Force One descended into Missoula and locals climbed hillsides to assemble signs of dissent, I sat down for a phone conversation with nonfiction writer Emily H. Freeman about life as a transplant to Montana, getting to know your neighbors, the trope of the drunk writer and the concept of radical downtime. Emily has a degree in history, earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, and has recently moved with her family from Missoula to Dillon, Montana.

 Emily H. Freeman will read at 2nd Wind Reading Series on Sunday Oct. 27.  Click here for details.

Emily H. Freeman will read at 2nd Wind Reading Series on Sunday Oct. 27. Click here for details.

Nicole Gomez: Do you find having a background in history informs your writing?

Emily H. Freeman: I think it does. I started out in fiction at the MFA, but we had to take an out-of-genre class and it was then that I realized what my nonfiction peers were reading and this whole world of creative nonfiction that I hadn’t been exposed to. They had all these authors and titles that were so familiar and important to them that I’d never heard of, and I got really excited by it. I think it did connect to my historian brain, in both the searching for truth and the awareness that there is no such thing as truth. That the truth is very much dependent on who’s telling the story.

NG: Perhaps it’s the desire to follow the chain of events in history, and an awareness of cause and effect in how everything unfolded, that makes for such a connection between history and writing.

EHF: With scene as the through-line. It what makes history interesting, when a major world event is tied to a scene, so rather than a gigantic, encyclopedic take on World War II, it’s World War II told through the perspective of this particular group or this particular event. I think that’s what makes memoir today so interesting, in that we zoom into the smaller bits of life, versus the way it used to be done, which was with this overarching approach, like ‘this is the story of my whole life’ with all the important dates.

“You could spend your whole life reading and writing and learning about the culture and the history and the geography of Montana and it would be totally thrilling.”

NG: So, you’re from the suburbs of New York. How did you end up here in Montana?

EHF: We were living in Minneapolis, which is where I did my MFA, and then I had a baby and then I got pregnant again and we decided we wanted to be nearer to family. My husband’s family is in Missoula. We moved to Dillon this summer, but we were in Missoula for maybe six years. He did his undergrad there and so we had some roots in Missoula.

NG: After moving around a bit, how has coming to Montana affected your writing?

EHF: I think it’s affected me in that, when I moved here and I saw how obsessed everyone was with writing by Montanans and about Montana, and I remember thinking, what’s the big deal, it isn’t that interesting. And then there was a turning point after a few years when I was like, “This is the most interesting place in the whole country and you could spend your whole life reading and writing and learning about the culture and the history and the geography of Montana and it would be totally thrilling.”

NG: What makes it the most interesting place?

EHF: I taught a lot of adult education classes in Missoula, through the MOLLI Program and through the Lifelong Learning [Institute], and private workshops with largely older women who wanted to write memoir and write about their lives. And some of these stories that would come out were so fascinating to me. Maybe again it’s just that idea of pinning down history to a really small, specific story. You know, a woman in her 80s talking about being a little girl and having her mom teach her how to preserve eggs to be sent off to the war effort and watching the trains come through and waving at the soldiers. These little things that were like huge novels to me. These quiet, hidden stories that for some reason were just so evocative and interesting that stuck with me. Understated lives. Maybe it comes from being from a showier part of the country where everything is loud and big and competitive and show-offy. Sort of the amazing understated stories here.

NG: And from your perspective as a historian, how would you say that Montanans interpret their history. If there was a narrative that they tell about themselves, what is it?

EHF: I think that they imagine themselves to be tougher and more resilient and more resourceful than a lot of people, but I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I think some of it is epigenetic. Whatever pioneer ancestors were tough and resilient and resourceful enough to leave their home country or leave the east coast to come out here and homestead, I think there’s some of their genetic material that’s continuing to present in contemporary Montanans. And in a lot of parts of the state you need to grapple with the elements a lot. But even in Missoula there are a lot of retirees that would take my class and then go hiking and then go to a yoga class. I’m really impressed by how much life and energy they still have.

NG: Being new to Missoula, one of the things that really jumped out at me was how friendly the people are.

EHF: I think they really are. Especially in Dillon – if you’ve never been here, it’s this weird, wonderful little town, like a magical 1950’s time warp where my children can wander around by themselves and there’s no crime and everyone’s super friendly. It’s probably super politically mixed - I think we are in the minority with our politics down here - but people are so friendly, and I think it’s because it’s a pretty geographically isolated town. I am formulating this theory that maybe people are friendly out here because they have to be, because they have to depend on each other. You can’t really afford to dismiss people based on surface things like politics or religion because you might need them to dig your car out of the road in a snowstorm. It’s a friendliness born of geographic isolation that blurs the lines of politics and culture.

NG: It seems like something that’s lacking in our current discourse, with everyone self-segregating to their own bubble. The echo-chamber, right?

EHF: And I think in a lot of places you can afford to only hang out with people who share your views and not challenge yourself. So there’s something really lovely about out here. In another city you can afford to be friends with your left-leaning neighbor and ignore your conservative neighbor, but here you’re just going to have one neighbor, so you’ve got to get along. There’s something growth-inducing to have to make that work. To look for what you have in common, versus looking for what differentiates you from one another.

“You can’t really afford to dismiss people based on surface things like politics or religion because you might need them to dig your car out of the road in a snowstorm.”

NG: You seem to write about nature, like in your recent post in Brevity Blog, and about your family. What other themes interest you?

EHF: When I started writing nonfiction, I wrote about my childhood, which is what most people writing memoir in grad school usually go to, but I’ve noticed that as the years have gone by, the time period I write about becomes more and more recent. Instead of writing about things from twenty or thirty years ago, I’m writing about things from three days ago. I seem to write a lot about addiction, because that’s like a thematic through-line in my family stuff but also in my work. I work for the Missoula Writing Collaborative and teach as a writer in the schools. I was teaching up on the Flathead reservation, and in Missoula, but particularly the reservation schools were the ones that had the biggest impact on me. Dixon is a tiny town that is ravaged by opioids and drugs, and so working with these kids and watching how their lives were just wrecked by this thing, and then connecting it to my own family background and realizing the pervasiveness of this thing has become a major theme in my work. There’s lots of addiction in my family. The details differ, but the effect is the same on families and on kids. The piece that I’m going to read [at 2nd Wind Reading Series] is about an aunt of mine who overdosed last summer from opioids. There’s a weird thematic connection. I was doing all this writing about teaching these kids on the reservation and learning all these hard things about their lives, and meanwhile there’s a parallel story in my own world, which was a totally different demographic but prey to the same beast.

NG: Have you been at work for a while on the piece about your aunt, or is it a newer piece?

EHF: It’s newer. I have more finished pieces but this one feels like the most urgent thing, like something I need to be sharing and reading and working on. I want people to know about this stuff. It’s really easy if you’re removed from it to think that opioids happen to people with tough, working class lives in small, miserable towns, so to be up there and present this as someone who perhaps doesn’t look like the face of the opioid epidemic and say, “here’s something that impacted my entire family” feels urgent.

NG: Did you find that teaching helped your writing?

EHF: I think being a teacher in the classroom with students and getting to know them makes me that much more aware of and sensitive to humanity. Especially with kids, and with kids who are struggling, you take more time to see the goodness in them. Because you have to. Otherwise you’re just writing them off. And so taking the time to force yourself to find a connection with a challenging student, there’s some magic there when you do connect with them, when you get the scowling kid to finally smile. When you’re writing characters, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you want them to be nuanced and not stock characters and teaching shows you that humans really are nuanced. These kids aren’t just good kids or bad kids, they’re infinitely complex, and then you bring that same eye to any character that you’re trying to draw on the paper.

NG: Do you exclusively do nonfiction then, or do you dabble?

EHF: I exclusively do nonfiction…. I think there’s some things you can get away with in nonfiction. I often think about how when there is an unexpected thing, a coincidental moment, that in an essay is gold, but if you read the equivalent in a short story you would think, ‘oh, that couldn’t have happened.’ But life is full of little coincidences. And I find as a reader of nonfiction, I really love nonfiction written by poets because I think there’s this real attention on a word level. I’m not a big fan of memoir that just tells a story and the sentences exist only in service to the larger story. I like writing where the sentences are carefully put-together and intentional.

NG: What advice do you have for other writers? What do you draw on for inspiration?

EHF: It’s hard. When I was in grad school, I was writing, getting things published, agents were getting in touch with me. Things were really getting going and I was really feeling like I could do this. And then I got pregnant, and then we moved, and then suddenly I was a mom of two kids who rarely slept through the night. And I got really bummed out for a while and thought I’d missed my shot. And what’s been really wonderful to realize is that there’s no one moment when you have a shot at this. This is a lifelong thing. You’re never going to stop existing as a creative person. It isn’t age-specific. So I let go of feeling that urgency, like “I have to publish a book before I’m thirty, I have to publish a book before I’m forty.” And now I’m like, fuck it, if I publish a book before I’m seventy that would be awesome. Just feeling less panic about it and getting more in touch with the idea that I am a limitless creative vessel and as long as I continue to pay attention in the world, I am gathering material, and as long as I am paying attention in my relationships, I’m learning how to craft better characters. The idea that life is research, even if you’re not really hunkering down and doing it really intentionally.

NG: You’re sort of always gathering.

EHF: Yeah. And there’s other ways you can be “writing,” in quotes. This is something I’ve often said to adult students who say, “oh, I just couldn’t write,” or “I didn’t have time to write.” To expand your scope of what you consider to be writing and to include writing-related activities. That could be going to a movie and paying close attention to how a narrative arc is presented, or it could be taking a walk and thinking about how you would describe the way the rocks on the path look. Anytime you’re engaged with an attention to detail or an attention to how something creative or literary has been assembled. There’s a lot of ways we can be in touch with our creative practice each day, even if it’s not resulting in a typed page.

“I have an utter need for authenticity in my relationships.”

NG: I’ve heard advice that says a lot of writing is done away from the computer, that a lot of the story process and thinking of what you want to say and how you want to say it, can occur while you’re out for a walk or cooking.

EHF: We had this book that had to do with parenting and brain-science around kids, and there was this chapter that was called “Radical Downtime.” It was with respect to kids, making the case that kids today are too overscheduled, that we have to let our kids learn to do nothing. But I took the advice for myself, this idea that if your brain is constantly engaged in the pursuit of a specific task or goal, something will shift in your brainwaves if you let yourself have what this author calls radical downtime. It’s the place where the ideas crystallize. It’s the same idea as why you shouldn’t work out every single day without giving your muscles time to recover. That this highly engaged thinking and doing that we as Americans do twenty-four-seven is detrimental to our creative abilities.

NG: I know for myself that if I make writing a chore on a to-do list, the feeling of pressure when I sit down at the computer gets in the way of any actual good writing. I need my walks to let ideas percolate, to let my mind quiet so I can hear them.

EHF: And our brains are different on different days. Especially as women, there are just times of the month when my cycle makes me spacier. I’m not the same creative brain every morning when I wake up. So if you are someone who does well waking up every morning at six and writing for an hour, that’s great. But if you’re someone who is writing or doing creative work in the context of a messy life for whatever reason – you’re caretaking children or a sick relative or a parent or partner - you can still get work done. Don’t be hard on yourself because you can’t get up at six in the morning every morning and write for whatever reason. Find another time. Keep a notebook in your car. I have so many folded pieces of paper in pockets of jeans because at some random moment a phrase popped into my head and I grabbed a receipt and scribbled something on it. We’re such an advice-giving society right now and we’re constantly in this pursuit of perfecting every endeavor, finding the exact way to do anything. This is how Internet America is right now. And it’s important to find the shape that your writing takes for your life and what fits for you, and to be leery of books that are like, here’s how to write.


NG: On the subject of Internet America, how do you feel about the expectation that writers have an online presence and be constantly available on social media? So many writers tend to be introspective, introverted, and I wonder about the conundrum that poses, the difficulty of trying to maintain real presence, where creative work is done, and an online presence at the same time.

EHF: It’s hard. I have an utter need for authenticity in my relationships. I have such difficulty navigating inauthentic relationships. I just don’t have those skills. I desire authenticity. It’s more than that, I need it to function. So with all of that stuff, there’s so much potential for inauthenticity and I’m not good at it. I don’t have the filters necessary to present to the world this cheery, sunshiny face if I’m not feeling it. On a personal level I sometimes wish I did, but on a societal level I think it’s very damaging this widespread, “everything’s okay” kind of thing.

NG: As a teacher, I worry about the generation that’s grown up with this expectation that everything be shared, everything be curated for presentation to the world. I find myself increasingly wanting to protect my private space and not share everything. Also, as a writer you already put so much work into sharing the words that you do choose to share, I want the rest for myself. Or I want to be quiet.

EHF: I like what you said that you choose these little moments of your life to present in your writing. I got this image in my head of one of those Easter eggs that you peer into and there’s this little world inside. An essay or a poem is like the egg, offering a little glimpse into your life presented in this small form. But if you’re offered the whole room full of decorations, like, “here’s everything!”, then why would you be interested in this little chapter I’m trying to show you? Just the way that white space on a page is so powerful. I sometimes feel like a lack of social media presence is like white space around a life, so that the interactions that do happen matter more. But I’m also really private, and maybe that comes from being a nonfiction writer. It already feels like such an exposure when I do open myself up on the page that I then need to be able to close back up very quickly. I can go be “on” when I have to and be great, but then I need to recover, then I need to come home and be quiet, and writing is a little like that. I can share my story with the world and then I need to have the world completely shut out in order to restore myself.

NG: I think that most writers and artists need that.

EHF: And that’s what I like about this town (Dillon). When we moved here, I thought, “I’m going to have more bandwidth for my creative stuff.” There’s just less to do and fewer people to talk to and there aren’t exciting things flashing in your face every moment. Obviously, cities are hubs of creative activity, so it must work for some people to be constantly surrounded by it, but I do think there’s another version of creative people who recognize that they need the down time and the quiet time. And often it’s substances that have wound up facilitating the down time, to circle back to the original conversation about addiction. Sensitive creative people have to shut things out sometimes, whether it’s by saying no to social events and having quiet time at home or through drugs. I like that we’re finally in a time when we don’t romanticize the idea of the drunk writer. I feel like we’re finally getting past that. Of course, there are still a lot of writers in MFA programs who are like, “Of course we drink while we’re workshopping!” but there are a lot of younger people who realize that’s not necessarily a part of the creative process. There’s a whole new generation of women and writers of color and generally aware people who are like, “eh, it’s not that interesting.” There are more interesting ways to disconnect.

NG: So what are you reading now?

EF: I found this tiny section at the local library of poets and essayists, so that’s where I’ve been getting books. I have a book that I’ve been reading and I’ve actually re-read it over the years, and it’s an example of a book of nonfiction written by a poet called The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere by Debra Marquart. They are essays about growing up in North Dakota, beautifully, carefully constructed essays in that way that poets write where every word is very satisfying. Now that I’m in this more rural area of Montana, I read books differently that are set against a rural backdrop because the landscape is more similar to what I’m seeing. And then I’m reading a book of Ted Kooser poems. I love them because they’re very prosy, like tiny essays, and I tend to like poems that are tiny essays. So pretty much nonfiction and poetry.

Emily H. Freeman earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota, and has taught writing at various schools, universities and nonprofits in NY, MN and MT. Emily's work has appeared in the Best New American Voices anthology, The Morning News, Lake Effect, The Spectacle, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, Brevity, and elsewhere. She lives in Dillon, MT, with her husband and two sons. 

Nicole Gomez is a writer from Texas. She worked as a reporter and columnist at the El Paso Times and is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Montana. She is a teacher with Free Verse and is co-editor of CutBank Online.


A Q&A with Visiting Hugo Writer Stacy Szymaszek

By Tommy D’Addario

Stacy Szymaszek’s most recent book, A Year from Today, exemplifies a verse record, or a poetic diary, which documents one year of the writer’s life in stunning verse. She does not shy away from imparting details in it, chronicling everything from her passing thoughts to the day-to-day activity of a life in New York City. Stacy and I met frequently in person to discuss the book and conducted the interview via email.  

Tommy D’Addario: The more I read, the deeper I become absorbed in the details of a year in your life. How does it feel knowing that readers have access to your diary of sorts? Is there a reticence, a holding back of certain details, that comes with writing journal poetry? 

Stacy Szymaszek: I haven’t kept a proper diary since I was in high school. Writing in a book with “a lock” isn’t compelling to me - in fact I think it reminds me of profoundly desperate times when I had no one to talk to or listen to me. This book was conceived of as a book, a book I knew would be published. I naturally developed an idiom to write these journal books, a sense of what types of information I share and don’t share, so the editing could happen in the brain more than on the page. But one of the risks I wanted to take in this book, and Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals, is to include as much of myself as I could tolerate – and have it work formally and melodically.

TD: The presence of religion is threaded throughout the book, sometimes as imagery, other times appearing as an influence on worldview. The speaker repeatedly seeks her “Mystical Experience,” finds herself at bookstores to “haunt the religion section,” and states, “I’ll always go mystical / St. Francis over Hitchcock.” At one point, the speaker says, “I could read martyr stories all night / what a charge // “women who gave their lives for the church” // in an everyday theology.” In what ways do you find religion influencing your poetry, and how does one find this Mystical Experience? 

SS: I think modes of self-discovery have influenced me even before I knew what poetry was. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic grade school. I hated its authoritarianism, and by no means did I escape the notion that I might go to hell. The pressure to conform was so extreme. And I couldn’t really pass, though I tried at times, in order to give myself a break. Very draining. I didn’t have the language to talk about my difference. It was just in the air like an open secret everyone wanted to go away. I started reading self-help books when I was a young teen - I think psychology and the experience of years of therapy are a mode, an influence too. To answer your question, poetry is religious and devotional for me. And mystical. I’m defining a mystical experience as an altered state of consciousness where you come out of it knowing something new. Often for me it is actually seeing something new. So writing poems can sometimes alter me. I’ve had some sexual experiences that have. Now, as I’m spending time in the mountains of Missoula, I can feel the potential for reaching an altered state up there. I think an abundance of time alone is beneficial, where time starts to break down. Writing poems breaks down time.  I’m inspired by Christian writers like Thomas Merton and the mystics who embody and value dignity, grace, passion, and unconditional love. As you can tell from the reading we do in class, I’m also influenced by Zen Buddhism and how it has manifested in the US in the work of poets like Kyger, Whalen, Ginsberg and Waldman. I need various paths to follow simultaneously. I’m not the convert type.

“Poetry is religious and devotional for me. And mystical. I’m defining a mystical experience as an altered state of consciousness where you come out of it knowing something new.”

TD: This project covers the span of an entire year. Why did you decide to omit dates from the journal? 

SS: That’s such a good question!  Honestly, it never occurred to me to use dates, so it wasn’t a decision to omit. I must have wanted to think of it simply in terms of 365 days. That was the only marker of time that felt relevant. 

TD: Though there aren’t exactly 365 “sections” in the book (I know, I counted). Surely some of the content of multiple days elided into a single section here and there? If that’s the case, did content from all 365 days eventually find its way into the book in one form or another? Or, were some of the days of your life left unmentioned? 

SS: Ha! How many are there? 

TD: I counted 133 sections, but I’d leave a small margin (plus or minus a few) for error. 

SS: Let me clarify that A Year From Today meant literally that. I would write for a year from the day I started. I didn’t write every day. Many days elide into one section, and many days are left unmentioned. It wasn’t that exacting. I did employ dates in Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals, but this book wanted to be a rolling cloud of time. I guess it could be any year, any day - the particulars change but I am still me, navigating the cards I was dealt.

TD: Often the speaker approaches the text as an opportunity to defend poetry’s function in our world, despite the fact that “there is nothing harder to raise money for than poetry,” and “there are always plenty who will say it’s dead.” How do you maintain hope for poetry’s continued relevance in spite of these views? 

SS: Hope can feel so passive, but I have it because I keep doing it, writing against the odds (exhaustion, lack of time, anxiety…)  and there are so many poets I admire who keep writing interesting and exciting work that challenges the status quo. I surround myself with those people. And my sense of lineage, which includes an understanding of history as well as the importance and particularity of the present, helps me feel like I have a place within it. What do you think as a young person pursuing the study of poetry?

TD: I know there are plenty who say poetry is dead, but I just don’t believe it. The fact that you and I are discussing poetry now says something. I also believe the poem propagates itself. I read your book and it inspires me to create my own poems. This poetic spirit multiplies exponentially through the world: there are always people who will connect with a poem they read and want to turn that feeling into creation; there are always people who will want to study poetry, despite the awareness that they won’t be able to financially support themselves on writing poetry alone. I also think it’s crucial to poetry’s survival that it adapts through evolution, much like a biological species. A Year from Today is a perfect example of this. Your book is unlike other books of poetry I know, as it formally challenges the conventions of the genre through its journal-in-verse approach. As long as poets continue to innovate and explore the possibilities of verse, and as long as readers find these books in their hands, the art of poetry cannot be dead. 

SS: I want to add that people also continue to read poetry.  The NEA figure on adult readers of poetry in this country is 12%, which is up from 7% in 2012.  I’ll also add that I’ve been running really successful reading series (dynamic audiences and poets) for most of the past 20 years, so I’ve had no cause to ever question the life of poetry or its relevance. I agree with what you’re saying about connection leading to creation. I’m so happy that you’re spending time with my book. I believe that my own work must evolve and adapt. Similar to running The Poetry Project - I had to make sure the organization stayed nimble enough to respond to the times, feel relevant to young people who were discovering it, as well as the elders who founded it and have supported it for decades. I abide by the idea that you have to let the language lead you, and if you do that, you end up in surprising and very lively places. 

“I feel like I am part of a lineage. To me, this means that I’m an active poet among others I feel connected to aesthetically and/or emotionally, and I am interested in the history of poetry, and what needs to be passed on through me.”

TD: You mentioned your poetic lineage, which I find fascinating. Here’s a big question: What is a poetic lineage, why might this be important, and how do you describe your own? 

SS: The way I think about poetic lineage as a concept has been greatly influenced by the poet and also former director of The Poetry Project, Anne Waldman.  And through her informal mentorship it has been more than a concept for me - I feel like I am part of a lineage. To me, this means that I’m an active poet among others I feel connected to aesthetically and/or emotionally, and I am interested in the history of poetry, and what needs to be passed on through me.It’s a mode of awareness. I think modes of awareness are important and knowing one’s history is crucial. Some really evil-headed shit capitalizes on people’s collective amnesia. Anne says in one of her essays - imagine you are not alone. It’s only this vocation that has ever provided that sense of company for me and I think many others feel this way. I don’t really describe my own lineage in a particular way, though I will say I worship at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church.  

TD: You’ve just touched on so many interesting points! I’d like to dig deeper into these modes of awareness. What, in the history of poetry, do you need to pass on? It sounds like we’re talking about a sense of responsibility that comes with writing poetry. 

SS: I carry the responsibility of poetry in a very specific way. It’s the responsibility to maintain the ability to respond, to create work and form relationships from that place. It’s a determination toward care. It doesn’t carry the pressure of being responsible for the fiscal health of an organization, but that said, I always think of something Robert Creeley wrote in “Philip Guston: A Note.” “Care, it seems, comes from several words, among them the Anglo-Saxon caru, cearu(anxiety) and the Old Saxon kara(sorrow).” I’ve been chewing on this one for many years!  In my role as cultural worker, I make space for poetry. Being an educator is part of that, and as you know from our seminar, I have a strong interest in the long poem, time-constrained writing, form/ lineation… but my interests don’t matter as much as the fact that I’m creating a supportive space for you to figure out what you think through discussing and responding to work that is new to you and is hopefully opening up new pathways in your brain for your own writing! 

TD: One of my favorite moments in the text: “my grandma says I got my talent from her [...] she just started writing poems / and says they are better than mine / because people can understand them.” What’s the story behind this one?  

SS: Ha! Well, that’s the scoop. My mother gave her one of my books to read and of course she had no way in. Like many people, she wants poems to be accessible. I adore my grandmother and I was moved that she said this. It touches the sense of lineage as ancestry. She’s mine. And I’m hers. She thinks her poems are better than mine. She’s a diva!In fact, she had a beautiful voice and wanted to study opera when she was young but was forbidden. She was also forbidden to marry the man she loved because he was Irish, and she Sicilian. She always told me to free myself. We have a very interesting relationship. She’s very Catholic and I’m very gay but she makes her peace with it because, I suspect, she sees herself in me. One of my favorite things about her is that, for the past 25 years, when I say goodbye to her, she says “this is the last time we’ll see each other.” She’s 98 and has just been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, so when she said it in August, I thought, oh she might be right this time.

TD: I’m sorry to hear about her health. She sounds like a beautiful person! It’s great that she can reconcile her faith with your sexuality since so many people find tension in that. That tension runs throughout your book, too, and it seems to conflict with others and yourself. You write, “I live a circumspect life in some ways [...] direct / effect of homophobes obscured” and “maybe it’s longevity that gives me / anxiety [...] what if I live 50 more years [...] no country / for old dykes.” Such poignant lines. And again, while getting a haircut: “I told the stylist / make it more gay / more important to distinguish / these things because let’s face / it we fall in and out / of favor [...] hatred repeats itself / a pleasure system as Sarah says / of homophobia”. What does this “pleasure system” mean? 

SS: The Sarah in the poem is Sarah Schulman and she talks about homophobia as a pleasure system in her book Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. She says “...homophobes enjoy feeling superior, rely on the pleasure of enacting their superiority, and go out of their way to resist change that would deflate their sense of supremacy.” So she proposes that it’s actually a source of enjoyment for them, not a phobia. Sick pleasure, I’d say. That moment in the poem where I want to look more gay is a refusal to assimilate and a refusal of the notion that just because gay marriage is legal, equal human rights have been achieved. That right, like any, can be taken away depending on the political reality of the time. Like many LGBTQ people, I went to NYC to experience meaningful difference between myself and other people, to find others like me, and to feel safe. The poetry world provided that for me to such an extent that when I am confronted with homophobia now I am taken aback. When I wrote “effect of homophobes obscured” I’m saying it’s not such a great thing to have obscured because we live in a homophobic society and its trash heap is always stirring the psyche. It’s a note to myself to not lose that awareness.  

“I let most of the discomfort in.”

TD: Which brings us full circle to our modes of awareness, only this is a different mode of awareness: of one’s body, of one’s safety, of our psychological, political, cultural situation. How does poetry help you explore these modes? 

SS: It was evident to me shortly after I started writing books that included documents of walking in New York City that one of the implicit challenges to me was to change my mode of awareness. My baseline awareness is like a radar monitoring how close people get to me or if anyone is moving erratically. Very lizard brain, a little dissociated, lost in my thoughts - ironically. I essentially was raised to believe that I was in danger because of my gender and sexuality. Not untrue, but it wasn’t balanced with anything positive. It was very “no future” and I really did spend my 20s living like I didn’t have a future. When I turned twenty-nine, I was like oh, this could go on longer than I thought. Then, I got my first literary nonprofit job. Genet said something about writing being what made him a person in the world. Writing gave me a positive relationship to the public, made me less internal. So when I was walking in New York - this would be ten plus years later - I had to recognize my default mode and discipline myself to notice the flowers. I also just started including whenever I felt like I was experiencing a micro-aggression or whenever I felt like I was becoming self-conscious, or whenever a memory came in - I let most of the discomfort in. I learned to make work that was emotional and outward in gesture, which felt and continues to feel important to me. 


Stacy Szymaszek is a poet and an arts administrator/organizer. She is the author of the books Emptied of All ShipsHyperglossiahart island, and Journal of Ugly Sites and Other Journals (2016), which won the Ottoline Prize from Fence Books. She is a regular teacher for Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program and mentor for Queer Art Mentorship. She was, until very recently, the Executive Director of The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. She is currently the University of Montana Creative Writing Program’s Visiting Hugo Writer. 

Tommy D'Addario was born in Detroit, Michigan, and has lived on both of the Mitten's coasts. He has worked as a barista, a university writing instructor, and a chef on a ranch in Wyoming. He's a second-year poet in the MFA program at the University of Montana. His work has appeared in Columbia Journal, Southern Indiana Review, and RHINO Poetry.


Craft and Career: a Q&A with William Finnegan

By Jason Bacaj

I talked with William Finnegan during the heart of the Atlantic hurricane season. The surf was pumping around New York City, he told me, and it took a couple tries before we connected over the phone. Finnegan, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was scheduled to appear in Missoula, at the University of Montana, to receive a Distinguished Alumni award and give a craft lecture. The award stems in part from his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.  He earned a creative writing MFA in 1978 at UM. CutBank was founded and is still operated by UM’s Creative Writing Program, so I used the opportunity to talk with Finnegan about his time in the program and his career as an author and magazine writer.

JASON BACAJ: Why did you decide to do your MFA at the University of Montana?

WILLIAM FINNEGAN: I finished undergrad in California and didn’t have any graduate school plans. I’d never taken a creative writing course in college, I don’t think. But my close friend Bryan DiSalvatore lived in panhandle Idaho driving trucks after college, and he’d gotten interested in the MFA program at UM and enrolled. I visited him and his college friends who’d all collected in Missoula; a couple of them went to law school there. I spent time in Missoula and it looked fun, it looked worth doing. It wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise, I must admit. I worked on the railroad at that time in California, as a brakeman.

JB: Did you keep working for the railroad during your MFA?

WF: I had a lot of jobs. I worked at the cemetery, Missoula City Cemetery. I worked for the city parks department. I had a job in the winters up at a ski area that’s probably not open anymore called Marshall up in Marshall Canyon. It was a really neat little place, I worked there as a lift operator. I had all kinds of funny jobs, but I had to be on call to the railroad back in California. So, sometimes I could be there for the fall term, sometimes I skipped out on the spring term. I was really patching it together, so it took me three years instead of two.

JB: What was your biggest takeaway from grad school?

WF: I was churning out fiction, short stories; churned out three unpublished novels. But I wasn’t sending it out, trying to get published. I was shy, really terrified of rejection. The workshops were just a revelation. I had to deal with readers. People who’d say, ‘I don’t understand this paragraph, this scene.’

It pushed me in the direction of thinking about writing as communication as opposed to pure self-expression.

I had a terrible attitude, I was really arrogant. I’d say, ‘That’s because you’re stupid,’ and that kinda thing. So, I came off like I had a really bad attitude, but the truth was that I heard that all the time. I wrote fairly avant-garde fiction and it was incomprehensible for a lot of people. Workshops made me start worrying about readers for the first time. I had just been showing my writing to just an inner circle of people who were sympathetic to what I was doing, or forced to be interested because they were friends. Then, suddenly, in these workshops I was presenting to classmates who were nice, generally, but who also were critical.

While I seemed never to take any of this criticism constructively, it affected me at least subconsciously and I started thinking more and more about readers in the third of those novels, which was about people working on the railroad. I tried more to write with the thought, ‘What would it be like to read this?’ and tried to make it fun to read. That one I did try to get published. Almost succeeded.

It pushed me in the direction of thinking about writing as communication as opposed to pure self-expression. It was more a fundamental shift in perspective, and was very much due to the MFA program.

JB: What led you to switch from fiction to nonfiction?

WF: Actually I think the first substantial piece of nonfiction I reported was in, I want to say in the student paper at the University of Montana or some paper in Missoula.

I started to push in that direction when I was overseas after the MFA. I started doing some travel writing, and other forms of nonfiction. Then I got more interested in politics and started doing political essays. The experience of living in Cape Town and teaching high school in the township there outside Cape Town—during the bad old days of apartheid—turned me toward political journalism. It was such an intense political year. I was finishing up that third novel, that railroad novel, but I was just losing interest in the kind of fiction I was doing.

I just really wanted to write about politics and power. I had all these day jobs, like teaching school for years, while writing on the side. It was after that high school gig I decided that’s it— I’m now going to write for a living. I started freelancing, really trying to sell stuff, from, say, 1980-1981. So, of course I went totally broke.

I’d saved some money teaching, but just was broke. I got back to the U.S. and moved in with my parents in California, slowly making my way. It was that experience of teaching that set me on the track of being a professional writer. I started selling more stuff, started selling to The New Yorker, then finally finished that book in ’86. And by that time I’d moved to New York and was kind of all in.

JB: I quit a newspaper job in 2014 to freelance and immediately went broke as well.

WF: It’s a good way to learn humility.

JB: Anyway, with your first book, Crossing the Line, how was the initial process of finding an agent and publisher?

WF: I’d actually found an agent for the railroad novel, which I did finish while living in Cape Town. I sent some chapters to New York and some agents were interested. I signed up with one of them. They were trying to sell that railroad novel, and I was freelancing along in the early 80s, and got the idea to write a book. I had written a magazine piece about teaching in South Africa and was dissatisfied with the 6,000 words I had to write the story. I felt like I didn’t do anybody justice at all in that short a space, so I wanted to write a book.

At first there was no interest, and the agent said she couldn’t sell it. She was getting offers from my magazine work about this and that—book ideas that weren’t mine. I didn’t take any of those, and then did a proposal and I sent it to her and she said nobody cares about South Africa.

It went to 20 publishers, I want to say, who turned it down. Number 21 offered me a tiny advance and a kind of begrudged contract. Nobody was very excited about the book except me. During the couple years it took to write it, South Africa kind of blew up and was all over the news. Suddenly the publisher was keen. I was being asked to speak here and there, because I’d written a bit about it and I’d lived there, so there was more interest by the time I finally turned the book in.

It was very standard, just chapters of a book to an agent, get an agent, proposal, circulate the proposal, get a contract, somehow live for several years on $10,000 and then turn it in.

JB: Simple as that.

WF: Yeah, pretty straightforward. I was living in San Francisco when I wrote that book and was out of my parents’ house. I managed to freelance enough to get my own place.

JB: Think you’ll ever take a stab at fiction again or are you too far gone?

WF: It’s a funny thing, that railroad novel was considered by a publisher, the same publisher who ended up publishing my first book. The editor said, ‘You know, if you could just open this up a little bit, dial back some of the railroad jargon,’—because it was about people working on the railroad and they have their own language, so I was describing the work and that world in that language—he said, ‘You know, it’s just a little impenetrable for your ordinary reader.’ I said I wouldn’t change a word, the arrogance of youth, and the work language was the whole point, the poetry that emerged from work. They didn’t publish it.

But recently I was encouraged to have another look at it, that it was perhaps still publishable with a little tinkering. I dug out that manuscript, been in a drawer for decades, tried to read it and I couldn’t understand it. From page 1, I could not understand anything; which way was the train going? What is this? I had written it but I couldn’t understand it. So, I was a little discouraged.

I did write a sort of novella some years ago. But I thought it was so bad that I decided not to show it to people. That move, from fiction to non—especially once you’ve learned how to write nonfiction and use the power that fact gives to prose—to just relinquish that and attempt this magic trick, to invent a world and characters and cause readers to suspend disbelief and enter into that world, that magic trick seems daunting and I fear I can’t perform it where I once believed I could.

JB: On that note, with the jargon, Barbarian Days brought rather detailed surfing terms and knowledge to laypeople. How’d you settle on the ways to define words and phrases unique to surfing?

WF: It was one of the main challenges of writing the book. I had my wife and a couple particular people who didn’t have any interest in surfing, but especially her, read chapters and flag any surfing terms they didn’t understand. Then I’d go back and try and make it transparent, make it understandable. It was quite frustrating. My wife would say, ‘Channel? What’s this here? I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’ I’d say, ‘You know, channel. That’s not even a surfing term, what are you talking about? It’s like deep water where ships go? Where no waves break?’ Then, ‘Nope, I don’t understand it.’ And, ‘Alright, channel, deep water where…’ and I’d stick in these things to explain each term of art whenever it didn’t seem too lame or slow things down too much.

Channel’s a bad example, but there are plenty of words unique to surfing or are used in a particular way in surfing. I noticed that some of the translations, like the French translation includes a glossary because there’s the language difference, but then all getting these English surf terms into French. So they provide a glossary of surfing terminology. That was a threat with this book, but I thought no, I’m not going to do that.

Each time I think a term really needs to be explained I tried to quickly explain it and bury it in the narrative so it’s moving and doesn’t bore surfers, and not insult their intelligence at every turn. Then I would assume that once I had defined a term I didn’t need to do it again. I’d give the readers that benefit of the doubt: you’ve heard it, you’ve got it. By a surfing scene in the middle of the book, there are no explanations and it’s just as I would tell it to somebody who speaks the dialect.

Actually, plenty of people who didn’t know surfing and read the book said that they liked being introduced to this tribal language, being able to understand it and picture things and understand a surfing scene—what’s at stake, where we are at any given moment or what’s going on. It was hard to do. For other surfers, it’s easy. But everybody else you have to keep oriented and up on what’s going on. It’s a challenge.

I had done a piece, a profile of a surfer for The New Yorker back in the ‘90s. I’d been through this process, had editors saying, ‘What does this mean what does this mean,’ and having to explain everything. I adapted that piece into one of the chapters of Barbarian Days. That was a bear of a job. It was the hardest chapter to write, strangely enough, even though it was the one chapter I’d already written. Adapting it from the magazine was really hard.

It was a magazine profile and that was not what I wanted the chapter to be, at all. The profile subject figured large in that chapter, but it shouldn’t have any magazine-profile feeling to it. I still don’t think I got all that material, that feeling, out of it. I worked at it for a couple years but I still look at it sometimes and wince.

But anyway, I’d gone through this with editors saying, ‘Define this, define this,’ and that whole profile seemed really corny as I re-read it. I was happy to do a version of that story and of those scenes that satisfied me more. But the chapter is pretty deep in the book. It’s the San Francisco chapter, and I had the advantage that readers who got this far know a bunch of surf terms by now, so I didn’t have to do any of the really lame explanations.

JB: I can see unexpected issues popping up in the process of translating a magazine article into the larger context of a book.

WF: Some of my books have appeared in a different form in The New Yorker. There used to be a sort of cottage publishing industry in magazines and with The New Yorker, when it published very long pieces, multi-part pieces. When I first started working there in the ‘80s they were still doing that, maybe into the ‘90s. Some of the books seemed to come out virtually exactly the same.

JB: That’s kind of how the Mozambique book came about, right?

WF: Yeah, more than half of that came out in a different version in the magazine, you’re right. Or maybe half of it, roughly. But there was this sort of cottage industry in publishing running up through about that time in The New Yorker, longer New Yorker pieces that would come out later as books.

I didn’t do that. I had to read those Mozambique pieces and then the book A Complicated War—this is true for a couple of my other books, too—the magazine pieces just didn’t translate. Having a date on the cover, as you do in a magazine, puts it in a certain tense, a sort of continuous present tense. Ok, September 27, that’s where we are as we speak. And then the book you’re writing for the long haul, for posterity one hopes, so a lot of stuff goes into the past tense. And it’s like every sentence has to be re-tuned, I found, to publish it as a book. I found a lot of work where maybe some other writers didn’t think it needed it. But nothing quite as tricky as that damn San Francisco chapter.

JB: Was there much of a difference between writing the reporting-based books versus Barbarian Days?

WF: If you’re a journalist it’s nerve-wracking to do a memoir and have to keep reminding yourself the subject is me. Me, me, me, me. Yes, you’re describing friends and friendships and all kinds of relationships with other people. But the main thread is yourself. So, for example, that chapter had to be completely redone. The main subject was not some other guy I knew. I wasn’t a reporter in the situation, I was the protagonist. It’s really a fundamental shift, which as I said, I didn’t feel like I was successfully making even after two years of scratching at it.

The kind of journalism I do is not at all like news. You have to come up with a structure; it’s narrative nonfiction. Even profiles should have a storyline
william-finnegan 2.jpg

JB: That’s one thing I was curious about. How do you go about parsing through all the wealth information of a lived experience, what all to include or cut, before you sit down and start writing?

WF: That’s a problem for longform nonfiction generally, like the kind of writing I typically do, going out reporting for weeks or months. I have many, many notebooks full and a 100,000-word piece is not wanted. So, you gotta pick and choose.

In the case of this memoir, I settled as surfing as the leitmotif, as the sensible subject and through-line, whether people were interested in surfing or not. So, I had to make it interesting and not just tell surf stories the way you would with other surfers. I scrabbled a lot trying to decide how to do it, where to start, what to include, as you say.

I started on the memoir maybe 10 years ago. I’d been working on it for a while, the book took forever to write. I’d been thinking about it and making false starts, when I got in the mail, unexpectedly, a big box full of letters that I’d written as a kid. I grew up in California, but when I was 13 my dad got a job in Hawaii and we moved there. I’d been surfing for a few years by then so it was very exciting, and I’d written a huge number of letters back to my best friend in L.A. And he’d saved them. He’d run across them in his mother’s garage and just thought I might be interested, sent them to me and suddenly there they were.

I didn’t remember writing them, and there were hundreds of pages of handwritten letters. Like every night in 1956-1957—I was 13, 14—I’d sit down and write many pages to my friend. Every wave, every girl, everything in school. And the writing the was absolutely terrible. Every wave was bitchin’, every girl was bitchin’, everything was bitchin’. But it was really evocative for me. The detail was just so dense. Mainly about where I went to school in Honolulu, and I thought, ‘Wow this is where this book starts right here.’ I quote from those letters in the first paragraph and many paragraphs thereafter. I was just really lucky. I mean, he’s not the sort of person who would keep your letters and yet his mother had and he had the good grace to put them into a box and send them to me.

It was just an instinct: the book begins here. I’ve heard plenty of people say, ‘Oh, I know why your book begins there. It’s because you worked all your life as a foreign correspondent and this was like a foreign-correspondent-in-training at age 13.’

I don’t know about that, but it felt like the right place to start. It was a world that the readers wouldn’t know about almost surely. It had a kind of roughness to it and was in strong contrast to the surf, which was my hiding place from all this crap on land. It wasn’t chronologically the beginning. In fact, I had an editor who wanted to switch the first two chapters. Because the second chapter, you know, I was born, I was raised, I started surfing, etc. I said no because I thought Honolulu was the right start.

Then telling your life story through this narrow, strange theme of surfing, was a little perverse in places. There were plenty of people who read it and said, ‘What the hell, you worked at The New Yorker for 30 years and you don’t say a single thing about it?’ The people who just know me through my work expect to read about the story behind the story about Mozambique or whatever. But that’s not what I was doing.

It’s an odd attitude you end up taking, deciding where to brush over—like, ‘Oh, I got married without explaining, but the important thing was I found a new surf spot.’ I know that’s sort of backward and perverse but it’s one way to organize a memoir.

JB: Yeah, I feel like a memoir has to be pretty tightly wound around a specific subject or interpretation of a portion of someone’s life.

WF: I think so, otherwise you could just go on forever.

JB: Sometimes it seems like there are fits and starts with writing until you can find a beginning or ending to latch onto. How does your writing process go with beginning a magazine piece versus a book?

WF: This book was a special case in that it was memoir. The reporting is just your life. All the rest of my work, virtually, is reported and there comes a point where you know as much as you’re going to know about a subject or as much as you need to write and your deadline’s bearing down on you and it’s time to organize the material into a narrative. The kind of journalism I do is not at all like news. You have to come up with a structure; it’s narrative nonfiction. Even profiles should have a storyline.

It’s not always hard and fast that you stop reporting and start writing, because you have to often keep reporting while you’re writing. For me, more than half of my work for the New Yorker over the years has been either international or far from where I live. So I have to go stay somewhere and live for a while. There’s the reporting in the field and then coming home to write.

If you’re doing it for a living, there’s always a clock ticking. When you’re working at a magazine you don’t really have the leisure to say, ‘Oh, my creative process isn’t quite complete yet.’ I mean, you gotta write it.

And yet, you also have to, as you say, find a beginning. If you’re writing long, you have to write opening scenes that pertain to the whole and suck people into the story, that makes them care about what happens, and that are solid enough as foundations to support the weight of everything that’s going to follow, whether it’s 10,000 words or 20 or 30,000. It’s an intuitive process. If you have a strong hunch go with it, and if the foundation starts to shake go back and look again because you might’ve been wrong.

I’ve had that plenty of times where I made a good run but felt I hadn’t established my authority over this material. I remember once I was trying to get a piece going—it ended up being a two-parter, a very long piece about this family in Connecticut. I made all these runs at it and I’d get thousands of words into it and before deciding it didn’t work.

Finally, a friend whom I’d been confiding in—complaining to, I should say—said, ‘Well, you told me…’ and he recited some of the basics of their neighborhood and their situation. He said that he’d never heard anything like that, so why don’t I just give the basic history to start. I tried writing a boring history lead. By the time I was a couple thousand words into it I felt like I was established as a person who can tell this story. And away I went. So, he was right. Sometimes it opens in an exciting scene, other times it’s a boring piece of potted history.

JB: One technique question, going back to memoir. From a journalism background, if it’s in quotes it’s verbatim and pristine but going back and re-creating it, how did you go about reconciling with the fact that a quote probably isn’t precise?

WF: Mostly by having very little dialogue. Because I just wasn’t sure. I had journals with some stuff in it. Then there’s the occasional just unforgettable ineffable ‘this is what she said to me I’ll never forget it’ kind of thing. But usually I didn’t feel confident about what was said, so I just summarized and paraphrased rather than quote.

In my reporting work, I’ve got notebooks and recordings and can prove to my fact checkers this is exactly word-for-word what was said. But with memoir it’s different. Beyond quotes, there’s the fact that nothing was on the record—this was private life. I’m used to going around and giving people my card, we’re talking we’re on the record and everybody understands that, I think, usually. Whereas with this, I’m just arrogating for myself the right to tell this story about things that happened with friends and loved ones where none of it was on the record.

It’s a big thing to do and ethically dubious and you have to check your facts with your old friends and decide what to include and what not to include and a lot more questions than simply did it happen.

JB: What was that fact-checking process like?

WF: I got into plenty of crazy negotiations with old friends over stuff where I thought for sure they’d say no you can’t put that in, they’d surprise me and say go ahead. And other times they’d say no absolutely not and I couldn’t understand why.

One example, I’d gone over this one scene with the other person who was there over and over all the details—she’s in California, I’m in New York. She had all these little fixes and changes and different recollections. I just kept accommodating her and put it the way she remembered it, and finally had it done, I thought. Then I get an email from her—"Oh, one last thing: you weren’t there.”

And I just… what do you mean I wasn’t there? We’ve been discussing for weeks. She says I wasn’t there, that I must’ve come at another time.

It’s a scene in the memoir where we’d been looking for years for her father and we find him. I was there. But this is a big event in her life, obviously, and she had the rights to it, so to speak. She had written a lot about it, poems and stories, and had erased me from the scene because I wasn’t crucial to the scene. I wasn’t a witness; I was the driver.

I thought the scene was would lose its impact. But I thought, ‘You know what? It’s a huge moment in her life and I was just a witness.’ It was important to me, but I was just a bystander so I just fudged it the way you do, and didn’t say ‘And this was the first time…’ Just made it ‘they’ and didn’t claim to have been there.

There’s different kinds of rights to material, right? You’re describing something important to somebody you’ve got to take seriously their own version of it and what they want published and what they don’t.

JB: When working on something that’s not for publication in a specific magazine like the New Yorker, do you send drafts to set readers you trust?

WF: I used to, I don’t anymore. I’ve gotten a lot lazier. I don’t even keep a journal these days. I don’t write anything that’s not already commissioned and doesn’t have an editor and a deadline and a paycheck attached to it.

Sometimes I will go over things with someone in a piece, it just depends. For instance, I just recently published a long profile of a federal prosecutor who specializes in extra-territorial terrorism cases, where she has to extradite somebody to the US for prosecution. It was full of sensitive material and national security stuff and personal security stuff. The subject of the profile had allowed me a lot of access, had really trusted me, so I allowed her an unusual amount of foreknowledge of what we were publishing. People pretty much know everything that’s going into a magazine piece, anyway, because the fact checker goes over it with them.

But I was going over stuff with her; I never showed her any of the piece. But I discussed every little detail in a way I wouldn’t normally, just because of the nature of her work and our agreement.

In 2016, William Finnegan won the Pulitzer Prize in Autobiography for Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Penguin). His book Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country (Random House) was selected as a Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction of 1998 and honored by the New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year. Another award-winning book, Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid (Harper & Row), was selected by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 best nonfiction books of 1986. Finnegan is also the author of A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique (University of California Press, 1998) and Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters (Harper & Row, 1995). Having served as a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1987, he has garnered numerous journalism awards including two Overseas Press Club Awards since 2008.

Jason Bacaj is a writer from West Virginia and the current Truman Capote Fellow at the University of Montana, where he is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction. He worked as a reporter for The Seattle Times, Anniston Star, and Bozeman Daily Chronicle and is a nonfiction editor of CutBank. His writing has appeared in publications such as Outside and Powder, and won several journalism awards including for Public Service Journalism in 2013 and Non-Deadline Reporting in 2012.